The Real Impact of Imaginary Friends

"Such Common Life, Part 1: Protein" from WEDNESDAY'S CHILD by Yiyun Li, recommended by Elizabeth McCracken

Introduction by Elizabeth McCracken

The primary obstacle to writing about Yiyun Li’s work is not being Yiyun Li. It shouldn’t take a genius to write about a genius—that is what Li is, equally brilliant at short stories, novels, and non-fiction—but what Li does in her fiction feels curiously indescribable to me. Her characters are instantly, entirely present, with their idiosyncrasies and dreams and petty preoccupations, but when I read her work I feel that I also understand the human condition in a way I don’t on my own. How people fight to live, or stop fighting. How they protect themselves or fail to. This extraordinary sense of understanding my own plight as a human animal never comes at the expense of knowing her characters; it never seems to have been included as instruction, or philosophy. It is simply all around me as I read, like weather. I suppose that’s called literature.

“Protein”—the first section of Li’s three-part novella, “Such Common Life,” forthcoming in the collection Wednesday’s Child and originally serialized in Zoetrope All-Story—is about imaginary friends. Perhaps all fiction is. Dr. Ditmas, an octogenarian entomologist, had three as a child; Ida, her Chinese-born aide and companion, says she “did not know” she was supposed to have even one. Two of Dr. Ditmas’s imaginary friends, Cottage Cheese and Tom Thumb-Thumb are irritating lovebirds whose memory irritates Dr. Ditmas still; she was in love with Georgie Porgie, who, though imaginary, could not be willed to her side. She had to wait for him to agree to visit her. When Dr. Ditmas and Ida talk about Dr. Ditmas’s friends, it is with the certainty that they are as real as non-imaginary people, not made up by Dr. Ditmas, just creatures that lived alongside her a while, who live somewhere else now. I suppose that’s called fiction.

Conversation is one of Li’s great topics. She writes dialogue in such a way that it is like a cross-section of a massive ship in a children’s book, from boiler room to crow’s nest, which allows you to see everything. Much of the plot of “Protein” is conversation. Not mere conversation, because this is the work of Yiyun Li, where there is no such thing: what people say to each other, and what they don’t, matters more than anything. That tension, the said and the unsaid, provocations, confessions, jokes, accommodations, diffidence, secrets, is at the heart of Li’s writing. The articulated and the ineffably felt; the way each character’s soul makes them talk in a different way.

 At one point Dr. Ditmas tries to puzzle out why Georgie Porgie was so named. But there is no answer: he is himself, that is his name, just as we know Dr. Ditmas’s first name—Edwina—though the third person narrator never uses it. When I read Yiyun Li’s fiction, I never wonder why things are as they are in the world of the story or novel, why we learn about Dr. Ditmas’s ice skating, for instance, why a child would have imaginary friends she disliked. Things are included because they are so. They are true. There’s no arguing about life, and that is my experience of reading the work: it is always surprising, and it could never be any other way.

– Elizabeth McCracken
Author of The Hero of This Book

The Real Impact of Imaginary Friends

Such Common Life by Yiyun Li

1. Protein

“I thought all children had imaginary friends,” Dr. Ditmus said. Ida, upon being queried a moment earlier, had admitted that she had not had one when young.

“Do you mean all American children?” Ida asked. Her Chinese name was Xiangquan, but when she arrived in America seventeen years before, she had quickly discovered that the name was nearly impossible for English speakers. She had renamed herself, and had not faced the need to explain her decision until she had begun to work for Dr. Ditmus. Did she like the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, Dr. Ditmus had asked, and Ida, who had not heard of the fairy tale featuring an Ida, had replied no. Why Ida, Dr. Ditmus wanted to know, and Ida said she had only wanted a short name. There are other short names, Dr. Ditmus had pondered aloud, such as Jo or May or Ann. Ida had not been able to explain why she was not one of those other women, but she had learned since then that it was Dr. Ditmus’s scientist’s habit to ask questions until Ida admitted that she did not have an answer. These days she never acknowledged it right away; rather, she parried Dr. Ditmus’s questions with her own, and she could see that Dr. Ditmus enjoyed it as much as she did. A dead end arrived at too soon would be boring for them both.

“Not only American children. For instance, I believe  Oscar Wilde wrote something featuring an imaginary friend,” Dr. Ditmus said.

Ida nodded. She had never read Wilde.

“So you’ve never had an imaginary friend?”

“No. I didn’t know you were supposed to have one,” Ida said and then added, “I had siblings.”

“Yes, I know, five. Did any of them have imaginary friends?”

“No.” You don’t know that, Ida could hear her own self-admonishing.

“How about your childhood friends? Did any one of them have imaginary friends?”

“No,” Ida said again. Though, how could she know what had been on their minds back then? She had not even known her own mind.

“You sound very certain,” Dr. Ditmus said. “They might’ve had one without telling you.”

“My friends and I shared everything.”

“Everything? Really?”

Ida knew from experience that saying “everything” was a misstep. Generalizations like that would never do for Dr. Ditmus. Ida might as well have said that all men were frogs or all women willow trees. “Did you have an imaginary friend when you were young, Dr. Ditmus?”

“Indeed I did. I had three.”

“Three! I thought you were supposed to have only one. Isn’t that the point?”

“There’s no set law regulating the number of a child’s imaginary friends,” Dr. Ditmus said. She raised her arms to allow Ida to wrap a bath towel around her torso and drape a hooded bathrobe over her. Dr. Ditmus was eighty-eight. Until three years before, she still had maintained her regular slot at the ice rink, between six thirty and seven thirty in the morning, seven days a week. The only concession she had made with the management was that she would not go onto the ice unaccompanied. She did not need a teacher or a coach—she had skated all her life—but she paid for an hour of lesson time every day. Of the three young people who had rotated for the early morning shift, Tony was her favorite. He was attuned to her body’s intentions, and skated along with one hand raised forward and the other hovering over the small of her back, never touching or giving her any uncalled-for assistance, his role that of the sepals to her blossom. The skating, however, had come to an end after she fell on the steps of the biology building on an autumn evening—the rain and the wet leaves and the fallen dusk had joined forces that day. She fractured her right hip, both knees, and her right wrist. It was about time, she could hear people who knew her agree among themselves. The fractured bones healed, but her body, which had functioned reliably until then, began to deteriorate, as though the imperfections, the malfunctions, the illnesses, having bided their time behind a starting gate, were now in full racing mode. She’d had to reduce her hours at her lab, then give it up altogether, and the two people working for her, along with the lab, were taken over by an entomologist forty years younger. It was a natural progression to the next step, a caretaker, and Dr. Ditmus had seen little point in resisting. She had a realistic view of how much she could do for herself, which parts of her life could no longer be kept private. She was lucky not to have lost the clarity of her mind—chances were, her body would fail first. She was lucky, too, to hire Ida, who had been recommended to her by Dr. Fassler’s widow and the daughters of the late Dr. Kinsey. At the tender age of sixty-three, Ida was enviably young to Dr. Ditmus.

Ida helped Dr. Ditmus settle into the high-backed armchair, then slathered lotion on her legs, pressing down firmly at a few pressure points that Dr. Ditmus had begun to know by their names: zu-san-li, fu-tu, yin-ling-quan, yang-ling-quan. In her previous life, Ida had trained as a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, which Dr. Ditmus had thought of as no better than quackery. But one night, when Dr. Ditmus was kept awake by an upset stomach, Ida had wasted no time in finding a few acu-points on her legs, which had produced instant relief. The things one learns even after a lifelong career in science, Dr. Ditmus had marveled.

“Tell me about your three friends,” Ida said.

“Well, there was Cottage Cheese. She had two pigtails, and she was quite plain. And her best friend, Tom Thumb- Thumb, who was in love with her. They lived with me. Then there was this bad boy, Georgie Porgie, who lived in the woods. You see, we had a bit of land around our house. Twenty acres. Georgie Porgie lived in the woods behind the pond. He came over sometimes, always causing havoc. I don’t think Cottage Cheese and Tom Thumb-Thumb liked Georgie Porgie that much. They were a young couple, quite domesticated.”

“Were you in love with Georgie Porgie?”

“Of course. Why else did I have Georgie Porgie when there were already two friends living with me?”

“Did you see him every day?”

“Not every day. He came over when he felt like it. He had a life out there. We didn’t get to know much about it.”

“Was he in love with you?”

“He never said so.”

“But he was?”

“It was understood to be the case. He ignored Cottage Cheese.”

“Did he like Tom Thumb-Thumb?”

“Of course not. That boy was like an appendix to Cottage Cheese.”

“How long did your love affair with Georgie Porgie last?”

“A year, maybe? He disappeared when I started kindergarten. But Cottage Cheese and Tom Thumb-Thumb stayed for a while. They had their plates at my table, and they shared a daybed in my nursery. When we went out, they sat next to each other, and I sat on the far side of the back seat. Daddy had a big car. A Buick.”

Ida was the oldest of six siblings. They had had one brick bed, which could accommodate the six children and their parents only when they all lay in the correct orientation. Poor Edwina—for that was Dr. Ditmus’s given name, even though Ida had never heard anyone use it. She thought of the little girl Edwina, the only child in a giant house surrounded by twenty acres, a little pea rattling in daddy’s big car. All that space, enough for a platoon of imaginary friends: some loneliness comes with a price tag.

“What did Georgie Porgie eat?” Ida asked.

“I never asked him. There were plenty of berries in the woods, I suppose.”

“What about protein?” Ida was helplessly curious when it came to what people ate, but she forgave herself: no one lives on air and dew. She had been eleven when the three- year famine began, and had kept a close watch over her two youngest brothers, for fear that someone would steal them. In a famine anything could happen. A neighbor, an old man who had been the only librarian in the whole county, had once quoted to Ida from a book written around 300 BC, saying that when no food could be found, the youngest children of families were exchanged, to be cooked and eaten by strangers. No parents could bear to do that to their own, the old man had explained.

“Protein? He must get it somewhere.”

“Like where? And what did he eat? Birds’ eggs, birds, frogs, snakes?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t know. That’s the beauty of imaginary friends. You don’t have to worry about their dietary or toilet needs.”

“Maybe he caught cicadas and roasted them for supper.”

“Very amusing,” Dr. Ditmus said. She had dedicated her professional life to the research of insect hormones, especially in cicadas. The house was filled with posters and models of cicadas of every description.

Ida wanted to point out that, from her experience, cicadas, katydids, even crickets would make good sources of protein, but she reminded herself that civilization sometimes called for tamed sensitivity. A few days earlier, Ida’s daughter had told her on the phone that she had read Charlotte’s Web to the twins, and they were both sobbing by the end of the book. Ida had not heard of the story and had asked Dr. Ditmus about it. It’s a famous children’s book, Dr. Ditmus explained, about a pig who escapes being slaughtered with the help of a spider. She then added, perhaps for fear of the wrong connection Ida might make, that a spider was not an insect. I’m not as ignorant as that, Ida had wanted to protest, but let it drop. She thought, with tender incredulity, of her granddaughters weeping. That, she thought, was civilization: tears shed for a fictional spider and a fictional pig, rather than for a child who nearly got slaughtered like a pig.

Late that night, Dr. Ditmus tried to remember how the conversation about the imaginary friends had begun. What a random topic, but her conversations these days tended to be unsystematic, which proved a challenge when she, as habit dictated, went over the day in her head before bedtime. She used to take pride in the clarity of her life, built as DNA and proteins: mappable, readable, predictable, and, of course, variable enough. But these days she couldn’t even call one moment or another moment a random mutation. When things happened without a discernible logic—more often in her head than in the real physical world, which was slowly closing its door to her—there had to be a new system built on the havoc. “Havoc,” hadn’t she used that word earlier today with Ida? Dr. Ditmus couldn’t decide, but if nothing was random in science, then nothing should be in life, either. If she started somewhere—anywhere—she was bound to arrive at another place.

That woodland outlaw, Georgie Porgie—she had not thought of him for ages; indeed had never done so after he exited her life. Where had his name come from? There were no uncles or cousins named George in the family. There was Miss Georgina, whose relationship to the family had never been clear to Edwina, but Miss Georgina had departed before the arrival of Georgie Porgie. Gone where, though—to Heaven, to the graveyard, or to a relative back east?

If Georgie Porgie was not named after Miss Georgina, how had she come up with his name? Tom Thumb-Thumb was not a mystery, unless she wanted to question the repetition—wouldn’t Tom Thumb be good enough? Cottage Cheese was beyond forgivable. Dr. Ditmus could wage a feminist war against her younger self for the poor girl’s bland, shapeless name. Diminishing, truly, and yet she remembered the contempt she had held toward Cottage Cheese, that fussy girl who had a paler complexion than Edwina’s, a voice thinner and whinier, and a habit of commenting on everything Edwina had been thinking about like an adult, though the words were accompanied by a girlish giggle: “I daresay,” or, “Heavens,” or, “If you say so, Edwina.”

Oh, what a disagreeable little girl to have invited into one’s life. What an impossible little boy Tom Thumb-Thumb had been, his chubby legs not strong enough to carry him away from Cottage Cheese, that bossy bore. What an idiot Edwina must have been, to have this pair of friends—whom she didn’t even like—to sit at her table, sleep in her bedroom, and ride in daddy’s big car to town, to the county fair, and even to the doctor’s office when Edwina’s tonsils were taken out. No doubt they had both peered into her wide-open mouth and exchanged words of horror between themselves.

It surprised Dr. Ditmus that the little girl Edwina had never thought of eloping with Georgie Porgie. Not even of going off to the woods to visit him for a few hours. Always sitting around with her two friends who were enraptured with each other—her love affair with Georgie Porgie seemed to be mostly long empty afternoons of waiting for him to appear. Well, perhaps she should feel rather grateful for that. With discipline, nothing was beyond endurable, and it was discipline that had stood her in good stead: she was known for her long and stellar career.

With discipline, nothing was beyond endurable.

A girl running wild with Georgie Porgie would have had an altogether different life. There might have been a marriage or more than one marriage; children, certainly; a house full of objects, not all of them entomological. When that life wound down, she might have ended up in a nursing home. Or perhaps she would still have someone like Ida to come in, taking care of her as someone’s widow, mother, and grandmother, but not as Dr. Ditmus. She would have albums of baby pictures to share with that carer, instead of random tales of three imaginary children. Dr. Ditmus was determined not to feel nostalgic for what she had not lived through. The events in that life were negatives that never got developed. No, they were film never used, fogged by time, long past the expiration date.

One’s way of living determines one’s way of dying. If she was proud of her life lived with discipline, purpose, and principle, there was no reason to allow doubt and regret to creep in. An old body like hers might have impaired immunity to illness and decay, but an old mind like hers should be able to boast precisely the opposite.

Ida settled on the sofa next to her bed and turned on her iPad. “Change your perception of life: treat it as a game,” read the Chinese subject line of the first of her unopened emails. What kind of game: on a chess board, at a bridge table, or a tug-of-war on the spring grass? She wished she could question her husband, the sender of such an inspiring message. Ida could not imagine a game that could engage a person throughout a long life. Anyone following that new practice would have to constantly ask: What game am I playing today? She deleted the email without opening it, and scrolled down to the next. A few photos from her daughter, of the twins making cookies. A brief message from her son, not saying much, but reporting that all was well with him and hoping the same for her. And then there were six more emails from her husband—not a surprise, as he, having returned to China permanently, spent much of his retirement reading through a long list of Chinese websites. Whatever he deemed important, or interesting, or thought- provoking, he would forward to Ida; nearly all were inspirational articles, the Chinese version of Chicken Soup for the Soul, though Ida preferred to think of them as spiritual opium for the disappointed. It was no surprise that such nonsense would proliferate on the internet, but it had taken her some time to accept that her husband was susceptible to it.

Ida’s husband had been a professor in the pathology department in a medical college in China, and in 1989 was a visiting scholar at a university in Illinois. When his visa expired, he had decided to stay, and eventually was able to get Ida and the two children to join him in America. He worked on the night shift at a warehouse; she did caretaking jobs for the very young, the very old, and the very ill. They had raised children who had won scholarships and prospered in America: Lulu with her own dental clinic in Milwaukee, Hao at a finance firm in Chicago. The same old story for many immigrants, so neither Ida nor her husband took undue pride in their accomplishment. A year ago, after doing the math multiple times, he had decided to retire and settle in China. Ida could have stopped him, but decided not to. She liked to imagine him back in his hometown, Professor Tan again to his friends and acquaintances. She promised to join him when one day she was tired of working.

That day would take years to arrive. Ida remembered the teaching from her youth: any job you end up doing, love it with a summerlike passion. The ruthless optimism in that slogan was one of Ida’s few lifelong beliefs. There was something hopeful about making money through toil, though Ida never shared this conviction with anyone. In America, people talked about “work-life balance,” but Ida was lucky that she never felt the need to search for such a balance: for her, life was work.

Before bedtime Ida walked around the house and made sure that the stove and the oven were off, no faucet was dripping, and the windows and doors were all secured. She even went down to the basement, to make sure that there was no water leak or suspicious droppings on the floor—she welcomed any opportunity to keep her body mobile.

The house was dark but for a few insect-shaped night-lights. The night-lights were among the gifts Dr. Ditmus had received over the years that had remained unopened until Ida’s arrival. She had got rid of the calendars, some more than a decade old, with too-vivid photographs of insects that made them look like aliens, though Ida suspected that anything, seen at such magnification, would possess the power to unsettle. Anyone who had peered into a baby’s mouth at an inflamed tonsil could attest to that, and Ida, long before her American life, had had her share of looking at things that could have, but had not, unsettled her. Ida had been trained in traditional Chinese medicine, and between the ages of twenty-four and forty, she had worked in rural Huaiyin, where she had been the only doctor for three villages. They had called her the barefoot doctor at first, but later she had simply become the Doctor. The only specialty she was not capable of performing was major surgery, for which she would dispatch her patients to the county hospital, but she had treated third-degree burns, amputated gangrenous limbs, and performed C-sections. She had saved plenty of lives, young and old, though she suspected that they would have survived in any case, with or without her. She had lost patients, too, for which she could blame only the rural conditions. If an earthquake leveled a town, a bricklayer would not go back to the collapsed buildings to identify which brick he had improperly laid, which wall he could have made stronger.

Dr. Ditmus had let Ida plug in the night-lights anywhere she wanted, though not in the guest bedroom downstairs, which had become Dr. Ditmus’s bedroom. Ida counted the ladybugs and dragonflies and katydids. Whoever had given Dr. Ditmus the night-lights must have not known her at all. Well, at least Ida could enjoy them; her appreciation, unknown to either giver or recipient, allowed her a pleasure akin to that of sniffing a rose or honeysuckle hanging over someone else’s fence.

Unopened presents made Ida feel closer to their givers. The year before, she had paid two dollars at a garage sale for an  ice-cream maker in the shape of a soccer ball. “Brand-new, in the original packaging!” the sign had advertised. She had sent it to the twins for their birthday, and her daughter had called later, saying that the ice-cream maker was good enough for the four-year-olds, but there was really no need for the money. What money, Ida wondered; it took her some ingenious questioning to establish that the ice-cream maker, though indeed brand-new, had been opened once, and a hundred-dollar bill in a small unsigned envelope was tucked inside the ball. A two-dollar investment, with a hundred-dollar return. Ida would have relished the gain if not for her imagination that the ice-cream maker had been a present from another grandmother to her grandchildren. Perhaps that woman had wondered why the thank-you note to her had mentioned only the ice-cream maker, not the generosity it enclosed.

Giving presents was like loving people: a gamble, though this would not prevent Ida from doing either. In Ida’s mind, many things in life were gambles, but she sustained herself by two reliable, relatively risk-free activities: by working as much as she can, and by using her brain regularly to keep it sharp. Before she turned in, she recited a poem to herself—it was the last thing she did every night. The poems she had memorized back in her school days now served as the perfect lubricant for that machine in her head. That night she had chosen a poem written in the Han dynasty, which ended with a couplet that had kept Ida on her mental toes all her life: If one does not strive enough when young, / one is bound to feel the sadness in his old age.

“What do you think Georgie Porgie is like these days?” Ida asked Dr. Ditmus at breakfast. They each had a bowl of egg soufflé in front of them, minimally seasoned because Dr. Ditmus had an unimaginative palate. Other than that, Dr. Ditmus was the least demanding customer when it came to food. If Ida did not insist on variety, Dr. Ditmus would eat cereal and yogurt at every meal.

“Why, you’re still thinking about him,” Dr. Ditmus said. “Have you already forgotten him?”

“No, but I’m sure he’s as old as I am. Who knows. He may be dead by now.”

“Do imaginary friends die?”

The question, Dr. Ditmus thought, should rather be: Do imaginary friends live on when their creators discard them for the real world? Cliché-minded people would perhaps see those imaginary friends, poor abandoned children, as insects frozen in amber, but Dr. Ditmus wondered if they should more aptly be compared to extinct caddis flies or dragonflies, which one could only read about in textbooks. Or might those imaginary beings simply have moved on, their origin stories irrelevant in the end? Cottage Cheese, no doubt, would end up with a detailed obituary in the local press, with grandchildren and great-grandchildren too numerous to be named, her contribution to her family and community proudly cataloged. Tom Thumb-Thumb might have grown up to be a pillar of society, or a man in clown’s makeup, riding a unicycle at every fair, known to generations of townies. What might Georgie Porgie have become? Dr. Ditmus’s imagination, unfortunately, turned foggy in his case: the passion she had once felt for him did not give her any vision. All she could say was that she had once patiently waited for the boy, whose appearance could not be willed by her love. If he lived on, other girls and women might have also suffered from his absence. “Let’s stop concerning ourselves with nonexistent beings,” Dr. Ditmus said.

“You know, I remembered one childhood friend who might’ve had her own Cottage Cheese and Tom Thumb-Thumb,” Ida said. “She gave her hands names, and let them play with each other.”

“Interesting. What were the names?”

“Big Sea and Little Thistle. Her right hand was the boy, her left hand was the girl, and she always said they were brother and sister, but between you and me”—Ida lowered her voice; she was not a habitual gossip, but had learned all the manners of a good gossip from her years of caring for people with secrets—“I always thought they were too close to be brother and sister.”

“How close were the two hands?”

Ida intertwined and twisted her fingers, and then placed them on the table like a pair of dancers with coordinated steps. “That close.”

“Your friend, how old was she when she had Big Sea and Little Thistle?”

“Ten, eleven?” Ida wasn’t entirely certain of her age when her two hands, often looking foreign to herself, had had their own lives, which, in retrospect, had felt erotic, too indecent for a child’s mind.

“It could’ve been an incestuous relationship,” Dr. Ditmus said.

“Ho-ho-ho.” Ida was glad that she had fabricated a friend to take responsibility for her own hands, which had been overly affectionate toward each other.

“Where did you get that habit?” Dr. Ditmus asked. She had noticed that Ida would laugh like a department-store Santa when she found a conversation awkward or embarrassing.

“What habit?”

“Making that fake laughing sound.”

“It sounds better than ha-ha or hee-hee, don’t you think?”

“It’s better if you don’t make any of those sounds.”

Lol,” Ida said. “That’s what my son would say.”

Ida’s nature, too consistently sunny, made Dr. Ditmus suspicious. Things were never as they appeared to be—such was her belief, in science and in life. “Have you always been this happy person?”

Things were never as they appeared to be—such was her belief, in science and in life.

“Happy?” Ida said. “I’ve never said I’m a happy person. But if you mean positive, optimistic, cheerful, yes, I suppose I have all those qualities.”

“Were your parents positive, optimistic, cheerful people?

And your siblings and your children?”

“Are you asking, are those qualities hereditary?” Ida said.

“One supposes they are, to some extent.”

“If you ask me, they are like your imaginary friends. If you decide Georgie Porgie is there, there he is. If I decide I have optimism, there I have it.”

Dr. Ditmus studied Ida, who gazed back with an unreadable candor, then clapped once and began to clear away the breakfast dishes. “Shall we plan to take our walk a little early today? The forecast says rain at eleven o’clock.”

Dr. Ditmus consented, though with some grudge against the weather. She liked to spend a few hours after breakfast reading research papers. The morning window, which allowed her mind a clarity closer to that experienced in her younger years, was narrowing, and unread science journals had been accumulating on her desk. But she did not grumble about this to Ida. It was not anyone’s fault that the weather was not always cooperative.

Dr. Ditmus missed the skating rink, its year-round artificial reliability. She missed being not this old.

A few steps away from the garden gate, Ida supporting Dr. Ditmus with one arm, they saw a youth walking toward them, an instrument case casually thrown over his shoulder, swinging a little with his bouncy steps. He looked like a peasant or a miner striding out of those propaganda posters from her childhood, Ida thought, a shovel or a pickax carried effortlessly, a toothy smile, a healthy complexion the alluring color of a ripe peach. Dr. Ditmus, planting her cane solidly on the sidewalk, studied the face underneath the floppy hair. He smiled as though the trees, the hedges, and the suburban houses were all his audience; what unrestrained and predictable confidence radiated from his entire being, what disappointment the world would be for him one day.

The youth stopped. His greeting, with a lyrical quality, was equally dramatic. Ida thought he must be one of those actors who rehearsed his lines while walking down the street; Dr. Ditmus returned his greeting with a nod.

He introduced himself as Luke, the visiting grandnephew of some neighbors. Dr. Ditmus had not heard of the names of his relatives; Ida missed their names altogether—they rolled off Luke’s tongue too fast. He drew a pad from his pocket. He explained that he was raising money to attend a music camp, and his goal was a thousand dollars. Ida accepted the proffered pad and squinted at it. She could see a few addresses and signatures, with ten or twenty-five dollars pledged.

“How old are you, Luke?” Dr. Ditmus asked.


“How long have you played that?” Dr. Ditmus pointed to the case, which he’d set up right next to himself, a perfect sidekick. “What is it, a cello?”

“Yes, a cello. I’ve played for years.”

For years, Dr. Ditmus thought. A kid this young should not be allowed to use that phrase.

“Would you play something for us?” Ida asked. In Dr. Ditmus’s living room there was a baby grand piano, though she no longer played.

Luke grinned and opened the case. It was empty but for a few pages of loose sheet music. “I didn’t bring the cello. I expected to walk around all day, and I didn’t want to carry it with me.”

“So that people won’t steal your cello?” Ida asked. A few weeks earlier, her daughter had told Ida that the twins’ music teacher, who was a flautist, had left her flute on the New York subway when she was visiting a friend there. A man called the contact information affixed to the case and demanded a ransom for its return. How much, Ida asked, holding her breath for a preposterous sum, and Ida’s daughter said the man had asked for two hundred dollars. The flautist agreed to meet the man, and when he handed her the case, she quickly checked to make sure the flute was inside, and then took off running at top speed. Ida broke out laughing on the phone, full of admiration for the intrepid young woman.

Luke smiled, showing all his teeth like someone in a TV commercial. “No, ma’am. I just thought my cello should be spared trudging around with me all day.”

“And saving your energy by carrying a lighter load,”

Dr. Ditmus said. “How much money have you raised so far?”

“Let’s see . . .  twenty, ten, ten, twenty-five, twenty- five . . .  about a hundred and twenty now.”

“All from this morning?”

“Oh, no, I was in the Pretty Brook neighborhood yesterday.”

Dr. Ditmus calculated in her head. Luke brought out a stack of notecards from a pocket inside the cello case. “For anyone who donates a hundred dollars or more, I’ll provide a card with my autograph,” he said, handing one over to the two women. Ida took it. His full name, Luke Robson- Stancer, was embossed in gold at the top, surrounded by a few birdlike musical notes, fluttering in different directions. “One day I’ll be famous,” Lukesaid. “And my autograph will be worth some money.”

“Anyone who has made the investment so far?” Dr. Ditmus asked.

“I’ve had a couple backers,” Luke said and added that he had not included their names on the donation sheet, which she was examining closely.

The backers would be his parents, most probably, or his granduncle, Dr. Ditmus thought. “It may take you some time to raise a thousand dollars,” she said. “Why don’t you get a job?”

“A job? I’m a musician. That’s my job.”

“Do you make money with your music?”

“One day I will,” Luke said. “When I’m famous—”

Dr. Ditmus cut him off. “You’re not famous yet. There’re a couple of farms near here, if your granduncle hasn’t told you. They’re always looking for some extra help around this time. If you work there for a week or two, you can easily make enough money for your camp.”

“A farm?”

“Or mow some lawns. Move some furniture. There’re plenty of odd jobs you could do for a week or two. Wouldn’t that be better than walking around . . . begging?”

“He’s a musician,” Ida whispered to Dr. Ditmus. “He needs to take care of his hands.”

Dr. Ditmus shook her head. She could see Ida was taken by Luke, and she was embarrassed on Ida’s behalf.

“You don’t understand, ma’am,” Luke said. “This isn’t begging. I’m an artist. I’m asking people to invest in the future of art.”

His smile, with its mocking indolence, annoyed Dr. Ditmus.

In her younger years she had known that smile, from someone in her chemistry lab, where too many people seemed surprised that she, among the first cohort of girls allowed to go to the Ivy League university, would not major in one of those Romance languages or art history. In her long career, she had known men for whom science served as a stage for their egos, as music did for Luke. “I’m sorry, but we’re only taking a walk. We don’t carry a purse,” she said and indicated to Ida that they should resume their walk.

“I understand,” Luke said. “Where’s your house? I can stop by when you’re back from your walk. Say, in an hour?”

“Sixty-four Myrtle Lane,” Ida replied, pointing to the white cottage with the red door, before Dr. Ditmus could stop her.

The sky was heavy with clouds. The rain would arrive as forecast. Dr. Ditmus sat down in her study. Ida was making tea in the kitchen, and Dr. Ditmus suspected that she was also looking out the window at the front gate. The invitation, issued to Luke without Dr. Ditmus’s permission, nagged her, but she reminded herself that it was a small thing. Ida was a caring person, and allowance must be given that she might err on the side of credulity. Of Ida’s past Dr. Ditmus knew little, but once, Ida had let it slip that the first time she had taken care of a patient with a terminal illness, a Dr. Knight, she had become friends with the old man in his last few months, and Dr. Knight’s daughter, also a Dr. Knight, had not approved. What happened next, Ida had not elaborated. Her employment had been terminated the moment the coroner arrived, she said; she had not been invited to the funeral.

When Ida came in with the tea, Dr. Ditmus said, “That boy may not come. It’s going to rain soon.”

“It was wise of him not to carry his cello with him.”

“I don’t think you should give him money,” Dr. Ditmus said. “However, that’s only my opinion. You don’t have to listen to me.”

Ida knew that Dr. Ditmus disapproved of Luke because he was not toiling on a farm to support his art. But did it not require courage to walk from house to house, asking strangers for money? “If he stops by, I’ll make a donation,” Ida said.

“Don’t buy his autograph.”

“Would it be a bad investment?” Ida asked. She did not know if Luke was a good musician, but what if one day her granddaughters could boast about having the autograph of the cellist who had become the next Yo-Yo Ma? Yes, our grandmother met him long before he was famous, and she knew then that he would be a big deal—Ida imagined the girls telling people the story.

“Are you thinking of become one of his, what did he call them, backers?” Dr. Ditmus asked.

“A hundred dollars,” Ida said, with an ambiguity that could mean either only a hundred dollars or can you believe that, a hundred dollars!

“If you have the money to spare, I would recommend that you give it to me and I’ll donate it to a trustworthy charity on your behalf.”

“A trustworthy charity” was for people like Dr. Ditmus and Ida, who did not treat life as a game. But what if, Ida thought, she was in the mood for a game just for the day? A gamble for a lifelong nongambler—there was no law against that, was there? “You don’t like the boy, Dr. Ditmus.”

“He reminds me of Georgie Porgie.”

“Aha! That’s why you set your heart against him!”

“It was okay to fall for a boy like that when we were young. At this age, we’d better have discretion.”

“I’m not falling for him,” Ida said. “I don’t have a habit of falling for anyone, but don’t you think it’s a pretty thing to support someone who’ll be an artist one day?”

“You don’t know if he’s lying. For all we know, he may be walking around looking for an opportunity to break into a house or two.”

“Luke? No! He’s no burglar!”

“We don’t know. In any case, if you want to support someone, support people who are truly in need.”

Ida shook her head. It was different, but she could not find the right words to explain it to Dr. Ditmus. Years ago, after she had first arrived in America, she and her husband used to go to a nearby lake every weekend to fish. It had not been recreation for either of them; rather, it had been like a weekend job for which they punched in faithfully—the fish they caught was a vital source of protein for their family. You could always tell who was fishing for food: a Mexican family who befriended Ida and her husband, and sometimes when one or the other family was not lucky enough, they would share their catches; a single mother with a young son, who sat most of the times on top of her car, playing games on a handheld device that could occupy him all afternoon; a few quiet men, tension written on their faces. And then there were those who fished because it was their preferred way to spend the weekends; often they came in boats, looking relaxed because they did not have to worry about the protein in their diet. Once a man came over to examine the bucket next to Ida’s foot: white bass, crappies, catfish, carp. Had they heard of catch and release, he asked them, and then explained the beauty of the concept, and the humanity of the practice. Kill only the carp, he told them; the other fish—catch and release!

It was a beautiful concept, Ida thought now, as money could be a hopeful thing, civilization an idea akin to a dream. It was for those things that she and her husband had worked, she loving with resolution every job she’d taken, he finding his life purposeful, though disappointing. They had raised their children so that concept of catch and release, like fresh oysters and organic berries, could find its way into their lives, so that their grandchildren could weep for fictional animals, and had enough space if they wanted imaginary friends to live with them.

Do refrain from commenting further, Dr. Ditmus reminded herself when Ida returned to the kitchen. There, she might be keeping her watch for Luke, and later she might tell Dr. Ditmus that she’d written a check for twenty-five dollars to help the young cellist. Even if Ida gave him a hundred dollars for his autograph, Dr. Ditmus thought, she should not voice any disapproval. It was time for her to return to the unread papers, where species—older than she and Ida, and much older than that boy carrying an empty cello case—presented more than enough mysteries to be understood for her remaining days.

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