Ike and Margaret’s efficiency apartment. Chicago, January 5, 1939.
Things are not going smoothly.
A half-dozen Handmaidens are at the apartment when Margaret arrives home from the hospital, but to her dismay, none of them will touch the new baby. Their failure to appear at the hospital had concerned Margaret, but she had held out hope that the women would assume child care duties once St. Phil was at home.
It is now apparent to Margaret that she will need to master the motherly arts of breastfeeding, diapering, bathing, and comforting an infant. She is exhausted from childbirth and chilled throughout by the January cold. Tears of defeat do not fall, but they cloud her vision as she places St. Phil in his bassinet, leaving him zipped up in a pastel blanket of a baby coat and smoothing an additional blanket over him.
Taking care of the new baby will seriously delay Margaret’s plans for joining Ike and his brothers as a featured singer in their act. After all, she is already nineteen, and she wants to get on with the life she has dreamed about since she first caught Ike’s eye. A tear finally falls as she steps softly away from the sleeping infant.
Five minutes pass, and an argument breaks out between the brothers. Margaret is so preoccupied with her problems that she does not comprehend the opening verbal exchange between her sons. Suddenly, she is aware of her newborn telling his older brother to “shut up,” and she rushes over to intervene.
So now she is holding St. Phil, rocking him gently in a vain attempt to soothe him. He complains vociferously because no one warned him that his brother was already established in the household. “My understanding was that I was to be the older brother. It’s in my contract somewhere. Who messed up? It certainly couldn’t have been me.”
Within the his little bunny suit, St. Phil’s tiny legs and arms flail about. His mouth moves incessantly. “I don’t like him at all. Make him go away! Where is my robe? Where are my sandals and my halo?”
The two Handmaidens who had remained in the apartment after Margaret came home are sitting on the floor, tickling Devil Don’s belly and sending him into paroxysms of laughter. One of the Handmaidens stretches an arm up to the kitchen table to retrieve a small package, which she hands to her partner, who in turn hands it to Margaret.
“We thought it was our little sweetheart’s first Halloween costume because it’s so small. It must be what that baby wants.”
“His name is St. Phil,” Margaret curtly reminds the Handmaiden.
“Yeah, we know,” respond the Handmaidens in unison.
Margaret purses her lips. She believes the Handmaidens should refer to her sons by their formal names, although she long ago gave up on trying to enforce that custom in respect to her first son. Even Ike called Damian “Donnie.”
Margaret views the Handmaidens as hired help, although she doesn’t actually hire them and she certainly doesn’t pay them. She realizes that she must contain her anger with them: It would be utter Hell to take care of two little boys at once. Where else could she find an unending supply of free nannies who aren’t the least disturbed by children who speak and sing from the day they are born? Children who interact and argue as though they are grown? The Handmaidens keep the family secrets, tend to the older boy’s every need, and work for nothing. If only they would look after St. Phil, as she had expected!
Margaret hates them and deeply resents having to be civil to them.
Now Margaret holds St. Phil in the crook of one arm and paws through the bundle with her free hand. “This teething ring is awfully big,” she notes.
“He won’t have teeth for some time,” a Handmaiden instructs Margaret, who is clearly a neophyte at childcare. “You may want to put that away for a while.”
St. Phil snatches the halo from his mother’s hand. “I want to wear my robe, Mama.”
Margaret slips the garment over St. Phil’s head. It’s brightly colored vertical stripes appear to please the infant. There are tiny booties included in the bundle, but the gown has a drawstring at the bottom, so she ignores the footwear. She smiles at her baby and says, “Your little tootsies will be warm enough without those.”
St. Phil is firm. “I want my sandals.”
For the first time, Margaret notices that each bootie has the outline of a sandal knitted into it. She obeys her son’s command, placing the booties on his feet as she addresses the Handmaidens. “Did one of you girls knit these booties?”
The Handmaidens wrinkle their noses and roll their eyes. True, one of them had unraveled Margaret’s favorite cardigan to transform the wool into a sweater, two pairs of socks, and mittens for Devil Don, but really . . .
One Handmaiden is now kissing Devil Don’s toes. The other is arranging his curls. They stop listening to Margaret, who places St. Phil in his bassinet and tries to remove the circular object from his tiny hand. St. Phil won’t release it, so Margaret covers him with a receiving blanket and tiptoes back to her rocking chair.
“Would one of you ladies make us some tea?” Margaret asks as politely as she can manage. Margaret prefers coffee, but tea is cheaper and money is scarce. She is still struggling in her attempt to get the Handmaidens to do her will, and she hopes making nice with them might be the leverage she needs. She realizes that she is getting desperate.
“Little Donnie doesn’t drink tea,” one of the Handmaidens observes.
Devil Don speaks up. “That’s true, but Mama’s tired. Make tea for her and yourselves. I need to take my nap.” Devil Don never resists naptime. He likes to sing his own lullabies.
Without any discussion, one Handmaiden puts on the water for tea and the other assembles a nap space at one end of the sofa, helping Devil Don onto one small blanket and covering him with another. He begins to sing.
Margaret cannot place the melody, and she suspects her son is making up the words as he goes along. The voice is undeniably beautiful, but soon there is a conflicting high-pitched hum coming from the bassinet. Devil Don stops singing and protests to the baby: “You are supposed to sing the harmony.”
Immediately, the rejoinder comes back from the baby bed. “How the hell do I know what to sing? You’re making the damn thing up.”
Margaret is exasperated. “The words ‘hell’ and ‘damn’ are adult words, and neither of you has permission to use them.”
Devil Don protests, “But I didn’t say those words. He said them.”
“Well, just let him sing the lead. He is too young to understand the concept of harmony. He’s only two days old.”
Devil Don grudgingly acquiesces, and in less than ten minutes, both of the boys go to sleep as Margaret and the Handmaidens sip their tea. Margaret looks into her cup, wondering if there really are people who can “read tea leaves,” and the Handmaidens quietly discuss plans for Devil Don’s upcoming birthday.
Without warning, St. Phil ascends from the bassinet and flies four feet to the sofa, executing a pinpoint landing on Devil Don’s stomach. St. Phil then assaults his still sleeping brother with a tiny fist that lands so ineffectually on Devil Don’s mouth that his brother does not awaken.
Margaret rushes to her sons and pulls St. Phil away from his brother. The baby’s halo has slipped down his forehead to cover his eyes. Fortunately, his ears stick out enough to stop the halo’s descent. He is kicking and snarling. “Didn’t you hear that, Mama? He went right back to singing the lead.”
“He did not,” Margaret assures the infant. “You must have dreamt that. You were both asleep.”
The Handmaidens smooth out Devil Don’s covers, and each kisses him several times. He still does not wake up, but the Handmaidens position themselves defensively.
“Don’t look so surprised, Mama. I told you I can fly,” St. Phil explains to his bewildered mother.
Margaret puts the infant at the end of the sofa opposite his brother and begins removing St. Phil’s booties. “We are getting rid of these clothes. Right now.” Margaret changes St. Phil’s nightgown and booties, but St. Phil retains possession of his halo.
And so there is a little peace. The Handmaidens even agree to watch over both boys while Margaret walks the bundle of baby clothes out to the trash receptacles on the street by the apartment building. The January day is a very bitter one, and soon she spots a large rusty iron drum that contains a wood fire.
“Do you mind?” she asks the two men who are talking and warming their hands. They look at each other and shrug, and Margaret puts the baby clothes in the flames.
She feels some guilt. Times are hard, and the clothes were serviceable, but she could not take a chance with her new son. He had said he could fly, and he had demonstrated that he could, but he had insisted on the clothing. Surely disposing of the costume would bring this dangerous activity to an end?
Back at the apartment, Margaret puts her key in the lock and enters as quietly as she can, hoping both boys are asleep. St. Phil slumbers, but Devil Don is on the lap of a Handmaiden who is sitting at the kitchen table. Eight Crayolas are lined up within Devil Don’s reach, and he draws bunnies, one in each color, on the blank back of a used envelope.
Devil Don looks at his mother and asks matter-of-factly, “Can you take him to the hospital and get your money back?”
Margaret blinks back her tears. “No, Donnie, we didn’t buy him. He’s your brother.” Oh, God. Now I’m calling him Donnie, too.
Devil Don thinks about this for a moment, then asks, “Can you take him back and trade him for a girl? I think I would like to have a sister instead.”
“Girls just seem nicer. I like girls.”
“Listen, Donnie, your father and I are the parents here. We love your new brother just as we love you. You and your brother will obey us because we are your parents, and the two of you will learn to treat each other nicely.”
Margaret looks at the crayons on the table and then continues. “You and your brother will share everything as you grow up. Like those crayons. You think of them as your crayons now, but you have to learn to share them with your brother.”
Devil Don thinks this over and begins negotiating. “So I should let him use the crayons sometimes?”
“No, Donnie, you must understand that the crayons and all the things you think of as your own are really half his.” Margaret feels that she has expressed this rather eloquently.
Devil Don hesitates at first, but then he divides the crayons into two allotments of four each. The black, orange, violet, and green are in one collection, and the brown, blue, red, and yellow comprise the other group, which he draws closer to himself. He already knows he can make green by coloring over the blue with yellow. His gut tells him to hold the other primary colors as well.
In an instant, there is a whooshing sound, and St. Phil lands in the center of the table, halo askew. “I want the red, blue, violet, and green ones.”
Devil Don frowns and turns to look into his mother’s tortured face. “But what if I need one of his colors for a picture I want to make?”
St. Phil snatches up the red crayon and puts one end of it in the left corner of his mouth.
Margaret groans. She is not yet capable of moving on to the crayon problem. She looks at St. Phil and asks in a small voice, “You don’t need special clothes to fly?”
“Obviously not, Mama,” St. Phil mumbles around the crayon in his mouth. There is something incongruous yet familiar about the appearance of the crayon lodged within the tiny features of his face. “It’s just an image thing.”
Margaret is disappointed and very, very tired, but she pulls the crayon from St. Phil’s mouth, draws up her shoulders, and speaks in the no-nonsense tone she uses to keep her husband in check.
“LISTEN UP, YOU TWO. SHARING MEANS THAT ALL OF THE CRAYONS BELONG TO BOTH OF YOU. Now it is time to bathe and go to sleep.”
“No, it isn’t,” St. Phil states emphatically before singing his next phrase: “It’s dinner-time!”
The Handmaidens wash Devil Don’s face and hands and begin making oatmeal for his dinner. Margaret frowns but dutifully picks up St.Phil and slowly heads for the rocking chair. Her legs hurt. Her arms ache. She worries that she may fall asleep and drop the infant. Everything she lifts is heavy. Every thought she forms feels heavy as well.
But ten minutes pass, and she gradually gives up trying to force her thoughts into order. As she looks down at the tiny face, she is surprised to find that the breastfeeding experience is not all that bad. Soon, the vision she once had, the vision of the twins with one set of vocal cords, comes to mind.
As St. Phil stops feeding and falls asleep, Margaret finds herself mysteriously relaxed and rejuvenated. As she once again places St. Phil in the bassinet, she begins to contemplate the future she wants for her sons and how she will bond them together.