"I was still finding four-leaf clovers, but I had stopped picking them up."
That summer, I found four-leaf clovers everywhere. When I was out on a run, something would catch my eye—symmetry or perhaps the lack of it. Bending down, searching the grasses, more often than not, I found what I was looking for. I took it as a sign that good luck was headed my way. Even the heavy, humid air felt pregnant with it.
When I came home from my run with a fistful of four-leaf clovers, Justin shook his head in disbelief.
“Becky, do you know how anal retentive you have to be to spot those while you’re jogging?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, as if I was proud of it.
I put the four-leaf clovers in a glass jar that I kept on our coffee table that summer. Justin said their rotting stunk but they dried too fast to give off an odor. I sniffed the jar several times to prove my point, but Justin said I shouldn’t assume that I knew what another person smelt.
We were living in the three-bedroom, one-bathroom house I’d bought after saving for over ten years. When I met Justin, he was playing trombone in a blues/funk band from Toronto that was doing gigs in Detroit. I loved the way the instrument seemed to be an extension of his body. Going back-stage with friends, I found Justin wiping down his instrument. When he moved in with me, weeks later, he told me a joke: “How do you know a musician is in a relationship? Answer: He has housing.” I laughed at the time.
Justin’s trombone sat in the corner of our living room gathering dust. He said he was no longer willing to play just so rich people could flip pennies into his hat. I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I didn’t disagree. Living together for seven years, we’d fallen into a rhythm that more or less suited us both. I worked full-time at a digital arts shop that made signs, decals, event announcements, and an occasional billboard if we were lucky. On the side, we produced paper goods for weddings and showers which was our real bread and butter. The owner hired me when I was nineteen with no experience. I figured I owed him something although, after twenty years in the job, I’d probably paid that debt.
Justin was working on a novel that summer and freelancing although more free than lance. He posted on his own blog and other people’s, but in terms of paid work, he rarely brought in more than a hundred dollars a month. He said he was an artist and I wouldn’t understand. That one hurt because I’d always dreamed of becoming a painter. When I was younger, I was good at art, even very good at it. I got my best grades in the subject. My high school art teacher told me I could have a future as an artist if I played my cards right and got incredibly lucky.
“Look,” she’d said, her expression as serious as if she were a judge imposing a sentence, “I’ve had hundreds of students. I’ve never said this to anyone before.”
I came home from school that day bursting with pride. When I relayed my teacher’s comment to my parents, it had been singing through my brain all day. My father said artists rarely made any real money in their lifetime; look at Van Gogh. My mother said she wished I spent as much time and energy on my other studies. Only my younger sister, Essie, was excited. She said that it was great and asked if would I make her a set of paper dolls, which I did.
My parents’ reaction shouldn’t have surprised me. They belonged to The Fellowship of Man, which frowned upon any form of frivolity including dancing, non-hymn singing, games of chance, fiction, and what my mother called my doodling. After naming me and my sister after women in the Old Testament, Rebecca and Ester, they expected us to behave like one. We were not allowed to have outside jobs but, instead, had to devote all of our free time to The Fellowship. Performing “womanly tasks” like making Rice Krispie treats for Bible Study, preparing for and cleaning up after Men’s Night, and laundering the Elders’ smelly, stained clothing, we never got paid a dime. The Fellowship was based in rural Kansas where it could operate without interference from federal and state taxing authorities. Although our parents were fully immersed in the faith, you’d never meet two bigger hypocrites in your life.
My father fell out of favor with The Fellowship when he was its Treasurer and there was a suspicion, never proven, that he was cooking the books. The new Cadillac and the Bayliner power boat he purchased probably didn’t help. He was removed from his position with no hard feelings on either side, his good name restored. He promptly jeopardized it when he became too cozy with The Fellowship’s new bookkeeper June. The Elders accepted my father’s explanation that he was only extending June a warm welcome. He agreed to back off, nothing more was said, and he continued to see June in private. I only knew these things because I eavesdropped on my mother’s conversations with her best friend, Lydia, who also belonged to The Fellowship.
To my mind, my father’s infractions were financially motivated. My mother seemed to approve of them because she hardly kicked up a fuss about June, which was not like her at all. She was a world-class fussbudget as my father frequently pointed out. Lest you feel sorry for her, rest assured that she was no less a hypocrite than my father. She was a firm adherent to the prosperity gospel and when Fellowship members questioned her expensive clothes and jewelry, she would lower her gaze modestly and say in a pious whisper: “We’ve been blessed.” Meanwhile, she was telling me and Essie to find the most popular and richest girls in our schools and befriend them. If they didn’t want to be our friends, we should keep trying and keep her posted on our efforts. This strategy, which she drilled into us, made us question our friendships, not knowing if we really liked these people or were drawn to them with ulterior motives.
Although I was finding a lot of four-leaf clovers that summer, I was also finding a lot of five-leaf ones, which made me worried about climate change or GMOs or whatever was diverting the clovers from their normal growth. I plucked off the extra leaf and told myself I was making my own luck but I didn’t put the fabricated four-leaf clovers in my jar. I didn’t want to taint its purity.
When Essie graduated from the strait-laced, boring high school we were forced to attend, our parents announced they were getting a divorce. Essie and I kept our expressions blank during our parents’ tearful announcement—we’d gotten good at that—but afterwards we exploded in laughter in the bedroom we shared.
“Beck, can you believe it?” Essie giggled.
“I know,” I said. “After all that bullshit about the sanctity of the marriage.”
“I bet they get kicked out of The Fellowship,” Essie predicted.
“They probably don’t care,” I replied. “They’ve got everything they wanted out of it.”
“Maybe they’ll go easier on us now,” Essie said hopefully.
“I doubt it,” I replied.
My instinct turned out to be right. Only a month after the divorce announcement and a couple months after the end of my first year at the University of Illinois at Urbana, which I was attending on an art scholarship with my parents’ hearty disapproval, I discovered I was pregnant. The boy who impregnated me was visiting a friend on campus. I never saw him again. I didn’t even know his last name.
My parents insisted I have the baby. They packed me off to a home for unwed mothers in downtown Detroit called Blessed Be which had some affiliation with The Fellowship. I was required to stay there until the baby was born and give it up for adoption. The place was like a jail, dirty and poorly maintained, and nobody wanted to be there. I was their oldest client at the time. Some of the youngest girls snickered and called me “granny” but I could tell they looked up to me, which was sad. Most of them grew up the way I did. Now that they were away from home, they were smoking, drinking, and sneaking their boyfriends into the dorm at night. Blessed Be looked the other way. It was our babies they wanted.
At the time and probably to this day, Michigan law prohibited the signing over of a child before birth. After the birth, the mother had to certify under the penalties of perjury that she didn’t know who the father was (otherwise he had to sign off as well) and that this was an act of the mother’s own free will without coercion, threats, or misrepresentations. Because Blessed Be had to tread lightly to get that all-important sign-off, the staff didn’t stop the young mothers from cussing, fighting, and refusing to read Scripture. I didn’t do anything the whole time I was there except sit on my bed reading Jane Austen. Someone, I often wondered who, left behind an anthology of everything she’d ever written including lesser-known works like Lady Susan, The Watsons, and The History of England. I plowed through that collection, laughing out loud at times. It was my only joy. Since that awful time, every summer I picked one Austen novel to read.
When it came time for the births, Blessed Be took us to a hospital, but they tried to make sure we didn’t see the child or know its gender. After only three hours of labor, I was still alert enough to see that it was a boy they were lifting from my body and carrying away. After I signed over my son to a couple who were reportedly thrilled to get him, Blessed Be said they needed my bed for another young, pregnant, and unwed girl. In less than a week, I left with the twenty-eight-year-old boyfriend of one of the other mothers there. In between puffs of a cigarette, she told me I could have him, which should have been a red flag but wasn’t. He had a job at an auto parts store and a filthy studio apartment. That was enough.
I had no money, no skills other than domestic ones, and a limited education. My parents said I couldn’t come home and told me to stay away from Essie as well. After the divorce, my father married June and got a job at a casino. My mother and her friend Lydia moved to coastal Maine where they ran a thrift store. Once my parents learned I was living with a man to whom I wasn’t married, they lost all interest in my life. By the summer of the four-leaf clovers, I hadn’t talked to them in years, although Essie kept me apprised of their shenanigans. She had married a good guy who was stationed at Norfolk Naval Base and had three boys of her own. They were her pride and joy and mine as well. A couple of times a year, I traveled to Virginia to visit them. I loved the cheerful chaos of their household but Justin complained about the expense and inconvenience.
“Why can’ t your sister come here?” he whined. “They could stay in a hotel and visit you. I wouldn’t be left to fend for myself. You spend a bundle every time you go down there. It takes us months to recover.”
I didn’t respond. I was well past trying to convince him of anything.
On a June morning that summer, I came back from a walk in the woods with four-leaf clovers for the jar. I found Justin sitting on the living room couch with a worried look on his face. He asked me about the hike, where I had gone, what I had seen, and whether I’d enjoyed it. This level of questioning about my activities was unusual for him. Even when he was asking me to marry him in the early days of our relationship, and I was rejecting each proposal in the gentlest possible way, he never seemed too interested in what I was doing with my time. He said Canadians weren’t nosy or jealous and he had enough going on in his own life.
As that day wore on, Justin hovered close to me. He even held my hand once for no reason. We were getting ready to watch some television, which had become our primary relationship activity. Before we sat down, I asked him what was up.
“I’m glad you asked me that,” he replied with undisguised relief. “I have something to tell you. You’re not going to like it.”
“How intriguing,” I said sarcastically. “I’m all ears.”
“Don’t be like that, Becky.” He took my hand again. “I’m serious.”
His brow creased and there was a flat line to his mouth when he wasn’t speaking that I’d never seen before. Beads of perspiration made his reddish goatee glisten.
“I got a girl pregnant,” he blurted out as he dropped my hand. “She needs a place to stay until the baby comes. I told her she could stay here.”
“Why?” I asked, horrified.
“It was stupid. Just a short fling. I never planned to see her again.”
“No, not that part,” I said. “Why did you tell her she could stay here? In my house?”
“Our house,” he corrected me. “She has nowhere else to go.”
I sat down on the couch, covering my face with my hands. Justin was talking to me but I couldn’t force myself to listen. It wasn’t important anyway. I didn’t care if he had cheated on me. I knew then I didn’t love him. I had suspected it years ago, but didn’t let myself dwell on it. We were settled, I had settled, and there was no reason to rock the boat. My second thought was of the girl. It all came flooding back like an unexpected wave over a sea wall—the terrible uncertainty, the feeling of being alone in the world, and the dreadful sensation that it was only going to get worse. When I took my hands from my face, Justin was no longer in the room.
In the days that followed, we avoided each other, speaking only when we had to, and trying not to eat or watch television at the same time. I moved down the hall to one of the guest rooms, leaving Justin the biggest bedroom to himself. I was gone as much as possible, often just out walking or running to kill time before I went home where he always was. I was still finding four-leaf clovers, but I had stopped picking them up. The jar on the coffee table made my stomach turn.
Justin’s hangdog expression faded and twisted into something angry and bitter. He started muttering about how he couldn’t work on his novel, how I never asked him about it, and how he couldn’t wait forever for my decision. That last bit caught me for a loop. I had no idea there was a decision to make.
“What are you talking about?” I asked him.
“That girl, Susan, she goes by Suze, she’s bugging me about what I’m going to do.”
“What are you going to do?”
“No, I need to know what you’re going to do. Are you going to let her stay here or not?”
“And then what?” I asked.
“I don’t know. We’ll figure it out. I might as well tell you that she wants to keep the baby, but I think I can change her mind.”
“How noble of you.”
“Don’t be like that,” he said.
Suze showed up the following morning with a large ratty backpack containing everything she owned. She was heavily tattooed and pierced. Skinny as a rail except for the sizable baby bump peeking out from under her black tank top, she looked about seventeen. Her blond and black pixie-cut hair made her look even more waifish. The first thing she asked was whether she could sit down. I told her to go ahead. I told Justin I wanted to speak to him in the kitchen. When we got there, I laid into him.
“Did you know she was coming today?” I demanded angrily.
“You can’t avoid meeting her forever. It’s unkind of you. I thought you were supposed to be religious.”
I hadn’t prepared for this angle. It knocked me off kilter. I wondered how long he had planned this ambush and with what level of care.
“That’s not what this is about,” I said, although the quaver in my voice gave me away.
“That’s exactly what this is about,” he replied with more confidence than I could ever muster.
We returned to the living room where Suze was asleep on the couch. She must have nodded off as soon as we left the room because she was out like a light. I told Justin to let her sleep. He took that as an invitation to take his laptop to a coffee shop he liked to frequent.
When Suze awoke, I was sitting in a chair across from her reading with my feet up on the coffee table. I put my book down and tried to smile at her. She stretched and rubbed her eyes before regarding me appraisingly.
“You’re a lot prettier than I expected,” she said. “How’d Justin get someone like you?”
“I ask myself that all the time,” I said with a laugh.
“Yeah, Justin, man,” she sighed. “He’s really something.”
She didn’t say it in a flattering tone but I didn’t press her for more information. I offered to make her something to eat and she readily accepted. A few minutes later, I brought a chicken salad sandwich and a large glass of milk to her. She tucked into the food greedily. When she was done, I asked her how long she and Justin had known each other. She said she’d met him a few years ago when she was playing tambourine in a band that he liked.
“Have you ever been to this house before?” I asked, suddenly alarmed.
“It wasn’t that kind of relationship,” she said with a shrug.
I tried to conceal my relief.
Suze looked around the room at the bookcases filled with books and the copy of Sense and Sensibility lying face-down on the coffee table like a collapsed tent. She rolled her eyes.
“Dang Justin,” she said. “He’s such a freakin’ liar.”
“Yes!” I exclaimed louder than I intended.
She picked up the jar on the coffee table and shook it.
“Is this what I think it is?” she asked with a sly smile.
“You mean pot?”
Her snorting laughter filled the room. I had to admit, it was adorable.
“Do you honestly think I don’t know what pot looks like?” she asked incredulously. “You got a whole freakin’ jar of four-leaf clovers. Are you incredibly lucky or something?”
“I’m not too sure about that,” I replied.
After that, we started talking more comfortably. She told me she’d been on her own since she was fourteen, escaping from her home in Cleveland when her mom’s boyfriend became too interested in her. Nobody would look for her in Detroit and, besides, there was a good music scene so she could always find work in a band if she needed drugs and a place to stay. She was a good cook so she worked in restaurant kitchens around the city if she needed money. She said she liked living on the streets because it made her free.
Suze asked my age, where and how I grew up, how many siblings I had, and what I did for fun. She was especially interested in The Fellowship and seemed amused by its cultish ways which she asked about in great detail. I realized that nobody had asked me questions about myself in a long time.
When Justin came home from the coffee shop with the same sour look on his face, I made the three of us dinner which we ate in silence. Suze went to right up to bed in the other guest room while I went to mine to read. I had gotten to the part in Sense and Sensibility where Willoughby writes Marianne a letter telling her she mistook his friendliness for something more and he regarded her as a mere acquaintance. Marianne had been expecting a marriage proposal from him any day. Overcome with sorrow, she passes the letter to her sister, Elinor, who reads it indignantly but who also sees “not as a loss to her [sister] of any possible good but as an escape from the worst and most irremediable of evils, a connection, for life, with an unprincipled man, as a deliverance the most real, a blessing the most important.” As I was reading this passage over again, Justin appeared in my doorway.
“You and our guest seemed to be getting along fine,” he said in an aggrieved tone.
I didn’t respond. I knew anything I said could be used against me. I raised my book in front of my face so I could no longer see him and he eventually slunk away.
Over the next couple of weeks, it was clear there was no love lost between Justin and Suze. He was bothered by her presence in the house and complained about her frequently. One morning, after Suze and I had just returned from a walk on the trails behind our house, Justin followed me into the bathroom so that he could talk about her in private.
“Why is she always here, lurking about?” he asked querulously. “I can’t write. She whistles.”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “Maybe because you invited her here?”
“That’s not helpful,” he snarled.
I picked up my toothbrush, squeezed a line of toothpaste on it, and held it up to my mouth even though I had already brushed my teeth that morning. When I saw he wasn’t going to leave, I told him that when I came home after work, the laundry was done and put away, the lawn was mowed, Suze had taken the bus to get us groceries, and a delicious dinner was on the table.
“What’s there to complain about?” I asked him.
“She’s just sucking up to you,” he assured me.
“Well, somebody sure should.”
Justin looked at me as if he couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“That’s the last straw,” he said. “I’m moving in with my friend Kiley until this ridiculous situation is over.”
I wasn’t aware he had a friend named Kiley. I nodded, keeping my expression blank. I hadn’t thought it would be this easy.
When Suze heard that Justin was moving out, she didn’t think it was her fault or take responsibility for his behavior. I admired her for that. I wanted to be more like her.
Kiley turned out to be a middle-aged woman with long graying hair and a tie-dyed dress. She came by to help Justin move. She told me she knew Justin from the coffee shop and that she was a poet who was editing his novel. They could work more efficiently if they were living together. She said this apologetically as if she were taking something from me and felt bad about it.
“No give-backs!” Suze said gleefully before erupting into her signature snorting laughter.
Kiley looked at her as if she were insane. When she turned to me, I said, “Ditto.”
It was peaceful with Justin gone. Suze continued to help around the house. She found a midwife who was willing to take her on late in her pregnancy and who calculated a due date at the end of the summer. On our morning walks, Suze had found one or two four-leaf clovers but she had to keep her gaze trained on the ground to do it.
“Be careful,” I told her. “You need to watch where you’re going.”
In the evenings, we read before going to bed early. I moved back into the biggest bedroom, which provided a luxurious amount of space without Justin in it. One night I asked Suze if she wanted to start buying things for the baby. I offered to help.
“That’s nice of you, Beck,” she said with a faint smile, “but I doubt I’ll keep it.”
“Don’t give the baby up,” I begged her, the words coming out too fast to stop them.
Patting her belly, she said she was a wanderer and that wouldn’t be good for a baby. A guy friend was willing to buy her a plane ticket if she agreed to hitch-hike around South America with him. He figured he’d get more rides with a young girl.
“You could leave the baby with me,” I told her.
I spoke without premeditation, the words tumbling over the carefully constructed dam that held them back. She turned to face me, aiming her big belly right at me so that my eyes were drawn to it.
“That’s crazy,” she said. “What’s in it for you?”
“A lot,” I said.
Without preamble, I told my sordid pregnancy tale. I was talking so quickly that some of what I was saying was gibberish. At first, I couldn’t get through the part where they took the baby away. I didn’t even tell Essie that part because I knew she would never forgive our parents. Although I interrupted myself with sobbing, I managed to get it out. Wiping the snot and tears from my face with the backs of my hands, I was shuddering by the time I was finished.
Suze, who had been listening attentively, reached out and squeezed my hand.
“That must have been hard for you,” she said.
The next morning, we went on our walk as if nothing had happened. I found a four-leaf clover almost as soon as we were out the door and handed it to Suze. She handed it back to me.
“You and the baby are going to need it,” she said. “I didn’t want to say anything last night because I didn’t want you to think I was doing it just because I felt sorry for you.”
“I don’t understand.” I stopped in my tracks.
“Somebody’s going to get this baby. It ain’t me and it ain’t Justin. You’re the only person who wants it.”
I hadn’t thought of Justin. My elation turned to fear. Suze must have seen it on my face.
“Freakin’ Justin, the last thing on earth he wants is a baby. I’m not putting him on the birth certificate. He’ll be happy. No child support.”
I thought about everything I knew about Justin and some of my fear abated.
Nonetheless, as the due date approached, guilt rose up inside of me until it reached my fill line. I went to the coffee shop to look for Justin but didn’t see him there. I asked the baristas, but they said they hadn’t seen him either. I wondered if they were lying to me the way bartenders lie to the family members of drunks. I had lived that life too. I saw Kiley sitting at a table in the corner sipping an espresso and scribbling in a notebook. I walked over and stood over her table. She looked up at me, squinting, trying to place me.
“I’m Justin’s ex,” I reminded her. “Rebecca.”
Her face lost some of its color.
“Justin,” she said shaking her head. “Wow.”
“Do you know where I can find him?”
She paused to scribble something in her notebook and then shut it with a weary sigh.
“He left for Quebec. He took all his stuff with him except for his trombone. Do you want it?” she asked me.
“Hell, no,” I said, recoiling. “Did he say anything about the baby?”
It took all my courage to ask her. She hesitated, as if wondering how much to tell me.
“He said it wasn’t his. He said nobody could get child support from him in Canada.”
“Charming,” I replied.
“I know, right?” Kiley said, shaking her head. “He’s so unprincipled.”
It came back to me then, the rogue wave crashing over the sea wall, soaking me with blessings, with good luck. I had escaped from the worst and most irremediable of all evils, a connection for life with an unprincipled man.
When the baby came, we named him Tristian. This was a compromise. I wanted to call him Christian and Suze wanted to call him Trust. Other than his name, she wasn’t too interested in him. The only pleasure she took in him was seeing my pleasure in him.
I insisted on a guardianship instead of an adoption to give Suze a chance to change her mind.
“I might not be coming back here,” she warned me.
“I’m no saint, Suze,” I confessed.
“You don’t have to be. I mean really,” she said, pointing to herself.
I took a deep breath and said something that had been eating at me ever since she’d returned that four-leaf clover to me.
“You may want to place your baby with someone more suitable, a couple, or someone who has a family for him.”
I looked at her, my soul in my eyes.
She laughed, throwing her head back and snorting like a tickled pig.
“Are you kidding me?” she asked. “Are you freakin’ kidding me?”
Christina Reiss is a fiction writer concentrating in short stories. She was the first-runner up in the 2023 Writers District Prize. She has been a finalist or semi-finalist in the Scribes Publishing, Howard Frank Mosher, Able Muse, Tiferet, Kallisto Gaia Press/San Fedele Press’s American Writers in Review, Tucson Book Festival, and Great Midwest Writing short story contests and was an honorable mention for the Hal Prize. She has published short stories in Scribes Anthology, Fail Better, Watershed, Midway Journal, Rumen, San Fedele Press and other journals. She lives and works in Vermont.