Her mostly happy life is disrupted, however, when Tito, a former boyfriend from fifteen years earlier, reappears. Something has impeded his passage into adulthood. His mother calls him an Unfinished Man. He still carries a torch for Clara; and she harbors a secret from their past. Their reacquaintance sets in motion an unraveling of both of their lives and reveals what the cost of assimilation—or the absence of it—has meant for each of them.
This immensely entertaining novel—filled with wit and compassion—marks the debut of a fine writer.
Release date: March 8, 2011
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Print pages: 352
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When Tito Loved Clara
It was nine-thirty, still a little early for her late-sleeping sister and niece, but they’d have to lump it. The traffic on Broadway budged forward indifferently, the rush hour coming to an end. Clara turned left on 204 and found a spot near the corner of Cooper Street. She locked the Odyssey and walked around the corner, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. She never knew who she’d run into when she came back to the neighborhood and she always feared the worst. The first doorway on Cooper was the entrance to the apartment building where Yunis and Deysei lived with Yunis’s ex-con boyfriend, Raúl. Raúl was about to become Yunis’s ex-ex-con boyfriend, Clara thought. Yunis was moving to the Dominican Republic to live with their mother, who had retired to a rum-softened dotage in a suburb of Santo Domingo. Deysei, who was to be a junior in high school that year, was going to live with Clara and Thomas in New Jersey and finish her secondary education at Millwood High—a prelude, everyone hoped, to college. Clara had no idea what Raúl planned to do now that he was going to be without a girlfriend and a place of residence, and she hadn’t lost much sleep over it. Things had been bad between Yunis and Raúl for so long that she was no longer able to recall a time when things were good between them.
In the building’s vestibule, she rang the bell and waited for the buzzer. The proportions of the small cement alcove that led from the street to the vestibule corresponded to some sort of golden mean for the capture of stray breezes and the corralling of litter. Sheets of newsprint, candy wrappers, and plastic grocery bags circled the center of the alcove as if riding an invisible carousel. No matter the season or the time of day, the lethargic cyclone spun before the door. In the corner, a Snapple bottle rolled back and forth in the turbulence, as if trying to build up the momentum to join the other garbage in its swirling dance.
Long ago, Clara had dubbed her sister’s apartment (and, by extension, her sister’s life) the Yuniverse. The Yuniverse was a queendom rife with drama, anxiety, and endless scamming. Its entrance was a brown door on the building’s third floor decorated with a bumper sticker that read, VIRGINIA IS FOR LOVERS. A former boyfriend, an ex-navy man turned gunrunner from Newport News, had put it there. (Clara liked to joke that Yunis wouldn’t give you the time of day unless you’d seen the inside of a penal institution. The only boyfriend she’d had who wasn’t a convict was Deysei’s father, and he was an illegal immigrant now living under a false name in Florida.) It had not always been this way. Her sister had once been a sweet, goofy teenager. It had been her good looks, poor grades, and inept use of contraception that led her to the place where she was now.
Raúl answered the door. “Yo,” he said, swinging his arms with primate restlessness. Raúl never seemed to know how to act around her—whether to kiss or fist-bump her. There was something of the beaten animal about him this morning and Clara gave him a quick peck on his cheek, which made him smile. Raúl, tall, muscular, strange, moody. He and Yunis were combustible, Clara thought. One a lit match, the other a can of kerosene.
The apartment, like many in New York, was too hot in the winter and too cold in the summer, but today, for once, the place was at a comfortable temperature and, beyond the faint sour whiff of dust, odor free. A hygienic breeze drifted over Clara as she entered. Raúl led her past the kitchen, where a half-eaten pernil or lasagna usually sat in a dented tinfoil baking sheet on the table. But the kitchen was clean—spotless. Everything had been put away. The metal basin of the sink had been emptied and recently scoured with a Brillo pad. Most bizarre of all was the rubber drainboard without dishes. Not even a teaspoon in the utensil cup. How odd. Clara wanted to stop and admire it, but she sensed that there were more sights to see up ahead. She wasn’t disappointed. In the middle of the living room floor, which had formerly been the home of a Formica coffee table heaped with refuse, suitcases were stacked up. The windows were open. For the first time in the years that she had been coming here, Clara could imagine living in these rooms. She pictured a rental agent saying the word potential. Yunis had been trying to sublet the place before clearing out. She aimed to live in the Dominican Republic without working, to exist on a small inheritance she had come into as well as the rental income from illegally subletting the apartment. Keeping the lease in her name, Clara knew, was also a hedge in case things didn’t work out as well as she hoped. If nothing else, Yunis had learned from experience to prepare for reversals.
“Wow,” said Clara.
“You should have seen the shit we threw out of here,” said Raúl, gesturing with his hands as if tossing a medicine ball. “We found newspapers from like four years ago. Busted cell phones, chopsticks, candy with hair stuck to it. Videocassettes. All this stuff, just sitting in here waiting to be thrown away.”
“It piles up,” said Clara and, for an instant, she had the image of her son, Guillermo, in forty or fifty years, going through her possessions after she and Thomas had died, wondering where it had all come from and why his parents ever kept such things.
“Yeah, man. It does,” said Raúl, nodding, as if they’d unveiled some profound truth. The two of them had never found enough common ground for even the simplest conversations. Raúl, despite his time behind bars, his muscled frame, and his homeboy manner, had always struck Clara as oddly touchy and vulnerable. He was likely to overreact to the smallest thing.
Nearby, Yunis’s bags were stacked like a vinyl Stonehenge: three collapsible columns of varying size along with a shapeless hold-all made of a multicolored substance that looked like nylon wicker. Next to them were Deysei’s two smaller rolling suitcases and a hard plastic case that looked like something you’d use for carrying bait or tools. In the corner rested a green duffel and two black garbage bags that were, doubtless, the vessels for Raúl’s possessions. No-where to be seen was the array of gray-market contraband that Raúl brought home through his mysterious sources: bootleg DVDs of movies that hadn’t even been released, handheld gaming systems, watches, clothes, and jewelry. Raúl worked as a mover and Clara suspected that at least some of it came from the homes of the people he’d helped relocate. A couple of years before, he had even brought home a karaoke machine for Deysei. Clara wondered again what Raúl was going to do with himself now that Yunis was taking her love of convicted men to another country. No doubt there were other women in Washington Heights who would not let a little jail time stand between them and Raúl’s affections.
“Why you wearing that? You’re going to be too hot. It’s summer, remember? Sum-mer! Summer is hot. You don’t have to cover yourself up like a fucking nun.”
This was Yunis’s voice and her comments were addressed to her daughter. Clara could not see either of them, though the door into the apartment’s lone bedroom was open.
Raúl gave her an oh, shit look. “Been like this all morning,” he said. “Something’s going down. I don’t know what, but she’s been on Deysei’s ass since she woke up.”
“Change is hard,” said Clara.
“I hear that,” said Raúl.
They were interrupted by Yunis’s arrival in the room. “Hey, Sis! What’s cracking?” she said. Yunis was at her ghetto-fabulous finest this morning in black jeans, pointy-toed shoes, and a pink Baby Phat T-shirt stretched across her breasts, the rounded tops of which were revealed by the scoop neck. Her hair, in ringlets, was a glistening autumnal mélange—russet with strands of yellow and gold and a layer of her natural black underneath. She wore huge rockstar sunglasses, the ones that made her head look like a bug’s. Her ability to concoct a powerful sexual magnetism from her genetic gifts and these accessories was a large portion of her livelihood. Yunis had never had a fulltime job. Her income was an eternally fluctuating balancing act among state and city subsidies, pocket money from the current beau, whatever loose change she could cajole out of her family members (Clara and Thomas included), and wages from the occasional receptionist or babysitting gig, which never lasted more than a few weeks before Yunis got into a spat with her employer and quit in a state of indignation.
“Everything ready?” Clara asked.
“Everything except my daughter,” said Yunis, almost yelling the last word. “You coming?” she bellowed at the bedroom door.
“Give her a minute,” said Raúl.
“She’s had all fucking morning,” said Yunis.
Deysei emerged from the bedroom wearing baggy denim overalls with frayed cuffs and a black hooded sweatshirt—the usual self-conscious teenage getup, like the vestments of an order. What was different was her hair. Normally worn in braids, it had been styled in cornrows that left the upper portion of her head looking like a crop circle. Somehow, the 'do had changed her face. It made her seem older.
“Your hair looks great,” said Clara.
“Thanks, Tía,” said Deysei.
“We were up late doing that,” said Yunis. “It’s my farewell gift to her. I know you won’t be making her any cornrows.” This sounded defensive, and Clara let it go. There was an edge to her sister this morning and she didn’t want to provoke her. Likewise, Deysei seemed even more resigned and subdued than normal. Yunis could do that to you. Eventually, everyone she associated with had the same hangdog air of defeatism about them. She’d worn down everyone in Inwood and now she was off to the Dominican Republic to wear down the unsuspecting inhabitants of Santo Domingo and its suburbs. Clara wondered if she might meet her match there.
“Did you get someone to rent the place?” she asked.
“Yeah. Idelcy’s cousin, Carmen. I didn’t want to rent it to no man. They’d just fuck the place up.” This appeared to be aimed at Raúl, who had gone into the bedroom but was still well within earshot. Departures are fraught with anxiety, Clara thought. Best to get this one over with. “Shall we?” she said.
CLARA, YUNIS, AND Deysei had loaded the suitcases into the back of the Odyssey and were just about to get in when Raúl appeared, carrying the karaoke machine on his shoulder. “Yo!” he called. “You forgot this!”
“We didn’t forget nothing,” said Yunis.
“This belongs to Deysei,” said Raúl. “I gave it to her.”
“She hasn’t played with it in a year,” said Yunis.
“Thing cost me two hundred bucks,” said Raúl.
Clara opened the side door of the van. “Here, lay it across the backseat. We can put it in the basement.”
“You want it?” Raúl said to Deysei. She had her hood over her head now, the white wires of her iPod running from the marsupial pouch. Without taking her hands out of the pocket, she shrugged.
“If she wanted it she would have packed it, wouldn’t she?” said Yunis.
“What the fuck am I going to do with it?”
“You could sell it,” said Yunis. “And put some money in those empty pockets of yours.”
And then Raúl looked at Yunis with a yearning that, for Clara, was easy to read and painful to see. The message on his face said: Please take this. Don’t tell me I didn’t mean anything to you or your daughter. This is precisely what Clara had wanted to avoid, a scene between Yunis and Raúl. She often wondered how Deysei put up with it, living in a one-bedroom apartment with her mother and her mother’s lover, sleeping on the foldout in the living room while Raúl and Yunis shared the bed next door, listening to them fight, listening to them fuck, inhaling their secondhand smoke, answering the door to their idiotic friends all night, kicking their empty forties across the floor on her way to the bathroom. But, then, Clara reminded herself, hadn’t she survived even worse? This empathy for her niece, coupled with her desire for a second child, was the reason she had agreed to take Deysei in.
Staring at Yunis, Raúl set the karaoke machine down on the sidewalk. Clara picked it up and stowed it in the back of the van.
“Come on, baby, say goodbye to Raúl,” Yunis prompted her daughter, not breaking the staring contest.
“You be good. Don’t let those thugs in Jersey touch you,” said Raúl, looking away from Yunis.
“Bye Raúl,” said Deysei, and gave him an awkward hug.
“Awright,” said Raúl. He swung his arms and watched Deysei climb into the van’s side door. Clara kissed him again on the cheek. “Good luck,” she said.
“I make my own luck,” said Raúl. “Look after her, OK?”
“I will,” said Clara. She slid the door closed and walked around to the driver’s side to let Raúl and Yunis have some privacy. She started the engine and, unable to help herself, looked in the passenger-side rearview mirror. Reflected there was Yunis’s triumph. Clara wasn’t sure, but it looked like Raúl was crying. His head was bent, his hand was covering his eyes, and he was saying something. She suspected that Raúl was weeping more for his own plight than any heartbreak he felt over Yunis departing his life, but the sight of him—muscles, tattoo, pinpoint beard, and all—was moving nonetheless. She took a quick glance over her shoulder at Deysei, who had her hood on, her face darkened, like a penitent, her headphones securely in place.
The passenger door opened and Yunis got in beside her. “Let’s go, Sis,” she said, and slapped the dashboard.
Clara pulled out of the parking spot and advanced only a hundred feet or so before stopping at the light on Broadway. The silence in the van was explosive. She turned on the radio: NPR headlines, just winding down. Quickly, she hit the button for the FM dial. Yunis and Clara’s cousin Manny borrowed the van from time to time and always changed the presets on the FM dial to hip-hop and R&B stations. It irked Clara, even though she rarely listened to the FM dial. She lived on AM in the car—NPR and 1010 WINS.
“That’s my jam!” said Yunis, as one of the hip-hop stations tuned in. “Sis, I didn’t know you liked this shit.”
The song that was pouring from the Odyssey’s system was a current hit. The rapper was promising all the ladies listening that there was more than enough of him to go around. Yunis appeared willing to wait. She did a chair dance, wiggling her shoulders and shaking her head. Better by far than the silence of a moment ago, Clara thought, as she headed for the parkway and the bridge.
THE TRIP BACK to New Jersey was an uneventful one. Deysei sat with her arms across her chest, looking out the window and listening to her iPod. Yunis, meanwhile, had spent most of the drive talking on her cell to her cohorts in a mixture of Spanish and English, planning some kind of party when she got to Santo Domingo that evening.
Thomas was waiting for them, sitting on the front steps of the house, sipping from a can of Coke. He had been laid off six months before and Clara wasn’t sure exactly how he spent his days aside from putting Guillermo on the bus in the morning, meeting him off the bus in the afternoon, watching baseball games on TV, and cooking dinner. He still had a substantial amount of his severance money socked away but money wasn’t yet the issue. He had loved his job and had been gutted when they let him go. The company he’d worked for, BiblioFile, had hired him right out of library school—where he and Clara had met—and she remembered how the job had transformed him from a self-effacing and introverted cataloging specialist into a collegial, confident, professional man. They had been dating about a year and a half at that point. Clara always associated Thomas’s job with the marriage proposal that came a few months later when he was awarded a small bonus for his contributions to the first project he worked on—a bonus he used to buy her engagement ring.
Thomas had served on a team that digitized paper resources, turning card catalogs, vertical files, and corporate archives into databases searchable through Web interfaces. His team worked for insurance brokerages, law firms, and newspapers on large-scale projects, involving the scanning of hundreds of thousands of pages and the assembly of complex relational databases. Clara, who managed the library at a medium-sized law firm in Newark, occasionally peeked at the work Thomas brought home with the same bemusement she felt when happening upon a piece of twelve-tone music on the radio or a chemical formula on the Internet. She sometimes felt that her rather traditional library career was lacking by comparison, a Victorian scrivener next to Thomas’s twenty-first-century cyberman—at least, she did until her husband was laid off.
Losing his job, he seemed to lose his confidence. She feared that he had been too much defined by his career and not enough by his family, that one day, when he took off his shirt, she would discover that he was made of binary code. It was her hope that having Deysei in the house would somehow galvanize him. He’d been withdrawn of late, but he was, for the most part, a good father to Guillermo, and having a second child to parent might coax further engagement from him.
Clara waved at him as she pulled into the driveway. Thomas waved back. Yunis looked over at her and, in a voice not loud enough to be heard by Deysei, said, “Sis, we got to talk.”
“Right now?” said Clara.
“Right now,” said Yunis.
Thomas had come around the side of the house. He opened the back of the van. “How’d it go?” he asked.
“Fine,” said Clara. “Deysei, why don’t you help your tío take your things into the house?”
Thomas appeared to get the subtext. “Yeah, I’ll show you your new room,” he said with stagy enthusiasm.
“OK, Tío,” Deysei said, pulling the white buds from her ears and getting out of the van. She looked warily back at her mother.
Clara and Yunis watched them go into the house through the back door. Clara had wanted to be the one to show Deysei her new room, the room that had, until a month ago, been set up as a nursery for the baby she and Thomas had lost the previous year. It was now an impersonal space, with no trace of its former intended use—a queen-sized bed, a chest of drawers in which they’d stored linens, and a closet where Thomas had kept his suits back when he had a job. It was the only room in the house without something on the walls. Deysei would have a clean slate.
“What is it?” Clara asked her sister once Thomas and Deysei were inside.
“You ain’t gonna believe this,” said Yunis. “But my daughter is pregnant.”
Clara drew a breath and nodded her head. The news did not completely surprise her. It wasn’t that she’d somehow anticipated her sixteen-year-old niece entering her household knocked up; it wasn’t that she thought of her as promiscuous or careless; it wasn’t that she believed Deysei was doomed to repeat her mother’s mistakes (Yunis had given birth to Deysei when she was seventeen). It was merely that, lately, she had come to expect such news—the unpleasant, the inexplicable, the complicating. Every day, she readied herself for the latest in what seemed to be a widening circle of troubling developments—job loss, miscarriage, now teenage pregnancy.
She realized that Yunis was trying to read her reaction, waiting for her to say something. “Let’s go get some lunch,” Clara finally said.
“Lunch?” said Yunis.
“Yes. Wasn’t that the plan?” she asked, deadpanning. “Lunch and then the airport.”
Yunis shook her head. “You bugging, Sis. This is serious.”
“I know it’s serious,” said Clara, “but she’s not having the baby today is she? And anyway, shouldn’t we include her in this discussion? Isn’t she the one who’s pregnant?”
Yunis looked at her with complete bafflement. “All right. You want to have lunch? Let’s go have lunch.”
Clara was buying a little time, time to think about what this meant. They would go to Church’s, a soul food restaurant on a bleak stretch of Springfield Avenue near the on ramp to 1-78, with quick access to the airport. It was her favorite place in Millwood to go when she needed comforting. Church’s was where they’d gone after Thomas lost his job and Church’s is what Clara had wanted after the latest miscarriage. It was the only food in town that made her feel like her mother’s cooking did, a menu featuring fatty hunks of pork, crisp fried chicken, heavy starches, and vegetables boiled to mush. She called Thomas and Deysei downstairs and told them what the plan was. On their way out the door, she took her husband into the mud room and gave him the news.
“Is she going to keep it?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess we’re going to talk about it at lunch.”
“My God,” he said. “Well, it’s ironic, isn’t it?”
“All the trouble we’ve been having . . .”
“Yeah, watch me die laughing,” she said, and they went out to the Odyssey, where Deysei and Yunis were waiting.
It was a short, tense trip to the restaurant. Thomas drove. Clara was in the passenger seat, looking out the window, woolgathering; Yunis in the first row behind them, sullen; and Deysei all the way in the back, the most animated of the three women. She had her hood down, but the iPod buds were in her ears, her chin jutting ever so slightly to the beat. Thomas left the radio off and cheerily asked Yunis a series of questions to which Clara was sure he already knew the answers: What time is the flight? (4:05.) Who’s meeting you in the D.R.? (Tío Modesto.) Do you need to get anything before you leave? (Of course.) This effectively passed the time until they got to the restaurant.
Inside, Church’s looked as unprepossessing as the street scene outside. Most of the business was takeout; the interior was dominated by a long red counter. There were four plastic patio tables with red-and-white checkered tablecloths and beach umbrellas—garden furniture brought indoors. To add to the effect, strings of fake ivy climbed the walls near the tables. On either side of the counter were cork boards with photographs of Mr. and Mrs. Church and their daughter, Rose Mary, along with newspaper reviews of the restaurant, including one with the headline BEST RIBS IN ESSEX COUNTY. It was barely noon, and though they were the first customers, the place smelled like food—like grease and barbecue sauce and boiling cobs of corn. Behind the counter was Mrs. Church herself, a slow-moving, good-humored woman who was given, Clara had noticed, to narrating her own actions.
“Got some customers,” she said as they entered. She handed each of them a folded paper takeout menu. “Have a look,” she said. “Tell me what Edwin and I can make for you today.”
They perused the offerings but there was no doubt what their order would be: chicken and ribs, rice and beans, corn and collard greens.
“I’m not hungry,” Deysei said, pulling out her earphones and winding the cord around her pink iPod. She put her menu back on the counter.
“The food is great here,” said Thomas.
“You’ve got to eat,” said Yunis.
“I’m not hungry, Mami,” said Deysei again and went to sit at the nearest table.
“ Dios mío,” said Yunis. “You’re not in Washington Heights now, baby. You can’t just walk to the corner and get a slice whenever you feel like it.”
“I know, Mami. I’m. Not. Hungry.”
“Ayuda me,” hissed Yunis, looking at Clara.
They gave their orders to Mrs. Church, who shouted each item to her husband before going back to help him in the kitchen. Then they joined Deysei at the table. As soon as they were seated, Clara spoke up. “Your mom told us, Deysei. Is it true? When was your last period?”
Deysei looked first at Clara and then at Thomas. She was not used to having a man present during such discussions—Clara had almost asked Thomas not to come. But if he was going to be a kind of stepfather to Deysei, he needed to be a part of this discussion.
“Six weeks,” she said.
“Have you taken a pregnancy test?” Thomas asked. That was her husband, thought Clara, always seeking the empirical.
“Yes, Tío,” she said, and glanced at her mother.
“I made her,” said Yunis. “Last night. She didn’t want to. But I knew something was going on. It had been too long since she took one of my pads.”
“So, you haven’t been to a doctor yet?” said Clara.
Deysei shook her head.
“OK,” said Clara. “We’re going to get you to a doctor this week. I have a good OB.”
Deysei nodded, not saying anything. She looked like a framed corporal facing a military tribunal—frightened but hopeful of exoneration.
“Does the father know?” said Clara.
Yunis interjected. “She won’t tell me who the damn father is. It’s probably that fool Eduardo. That moron has been following her around for months. ‘Hey, baby. Hey, baby.’ I told you to stay away from him.”
Hidden beneath her overalls and her hoodie, Deysei had the kind of rounded, big-boned, heavy-bottomed body most Dominican men loved. Clara, who was skinny by comparison, could tell it was a burden for her niece and, surely, a big reason for her choice of attire. “Does the father know?” she asked again, ignoring her sister’s outburst.
Deysei’s face contorted as she tried to keep the tears back. She shook her head.
“It’s all right,” said Clara, and put her hand on her niece’s cheek. “It’s OK.”
“God damn it. It’s not all right,” said Yunis. “How can I leave now? How can I go to D.R. now, like this? I can’t leave her with you.” And Clara saw that this relatively minor inconvenience—missing her flight, delaying her escape—not the larger issue of her daughter’s pregnancy, was irking Yunis.
“Let’s all try to stay calm,” said Thomas, to which Yunis rolled her eyes.
“Do you want to tell us who the father is?” Clara asked. She put her hand on Deysei’s and squeezed.
Deysei shook her head.
“Sis, you’re being way too nice. You can’t ask her. She’s got to tell us. You’ve got to demand.”
“Now isn’t the time,” said Clara. She looked over at Thomas. He in turn was looking at Deysei intently—as if he were the father and about to be blamed for all of this.
Clara continued: “Deysei, sweetheart. You don’t have to tell us the father’s name, but there are two questions you’re going to have to answer before too much longer. The first is, are you going to tell him? The second is, do you want to keep the baby?”
Deysei appeared overcome by the magnitude of these questions. She covered her face and began to weep.
“Why you crying?” said Yunis. “This ain’t nobody’s fault but yours. If you hadn’t been screwing around there wouldn’t be anything to cry about.” Clara now regretted suggesting they go out to lunch. Her hope had been that a public venue would keep the tone of the discussion civil. She hadn’t expected the place to be so empty. It was August. Everyone was somewhere else.
“Yunis!” said Clara. “Don’t be so hard on her. It’s too late for that now. You did the same thing when you were her age.”
“Yeah, like I was the only teenage mother in New York,” said Yunis.
“All right, all right,” said Clara, holding up her hands, wanting to get off that subject. “Look, there’s no reason you can’t go to Mami’s today, as long as Deysei is OK with that. There’s still a couple of weeks before school starts. We don’t have to decide anything right now, except whether you’re going to get on the plane this afternoon. And if you don’t get on the plane, Mami’s going to wonder what’s going on.”
“I’ve got to tell her.”
“That’s up to you,” said Clara.
“Please don’t tell Abuela,” said Deysei, wiping her nose on a paper napkin. “Please don’t tell her, Mami.”
“Wow. She’s going to be a great-grandmother,” said Thomas. “And she’s not even sixty yet, is she?”
“No,” said Clara. She hated the fact, hated every stereotype it conformed to, but it was true.
“My mother was almost sixty when Guillermo was born,” said Thomas.
“OK,” said Clara.
“Shit,” said Yunis. “Mami’s going to flip. All right. I ain’t gonna tell her until we decide what we’re going to do.”
“You mean until Deysei decides,” said Clara.
Yunis looked at her daughter. “Yeah, I guess so.”
Mrs. Church emerged from the kitchen door with a basket of
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