Two weeks after his fiftieth birthday, Rollin Price stood outside the kitchen doorway and listened to his family contemplating his origins over breakfast.
"I think Dad could be Native American," his daughter, Zoe, said. "With those cheekbones, and the olive skin—don't you think he looks Cherokee?"
"No way," his wife, Angie, said. "The big ears and dark eyes? Eastern European."
"Maybe Dad's Japanese," his son, Jake, said. "Now that he's bald he looks kind of like a Sumo wrestler."
From the hallway, Rollin observed them in their morning routine. Seventeen-year-old Jake, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, stood by the dining table eating cereal, never willing to commit to a seated family meal. Angie, wearing a fitted suit, rummaged through the fridge, probably looking for a container of yogurt. And 15-year-old Zoe, in her white oxford shirt and plaid skirt, sat at the table and pierced a slice of cantaloupe with her fork.
"Good morning," Rollin said. "Or should I say Konnichi wa? Or Shalom?"
"Bon Giorno," Angie said. Then she lowered her voice, chastising him. "You can't blame them for wanting to know about their heritage."
Angie's grandparents had emigrated from Italy, and she liked to play it up, pretending she was hot-tempered, bragging about how much she loved to eat. Yet no one would guess her origins by her appearance alone. She was blonde, blue-eyed, and faintly freckled—looks that she had passed on to their kids, both of whom desired to be something more interesting than "just white."
Zoe looked up from her fruit and turned to her father. "Did you register yet?" she asked.
"Haven't had time," he answered.
For as long as he could remember, Rollin knew that he was adopted. For years, his kids had nagged him about finding his biological parents. "Maybe when I'm fifty," he said, incredulous that he would one day find himself at half a century. Now Zoe was pressuring him to enter his name into a national registry that matched adopted people with biological parents who were searching for them.
"Your mother could have had an abortion," Zoe said. "She could have abandoned you on the highway. But she carried you around for nine long months—"
"I know, I know," Rollin said. "It's five to eight." He tapped his watch.
Zoe grabbed her bulky backpack and slung it over her shoulder. She followed him outside to the new roadster he'd bought himself as a fiftieth birthday gift.
He loved walking out of the house every morning and seeing it on his driveway, with its long, sleek nose and kidney-shaped grill. The engine was nearly 200 horsepower, with 24 valves, 6 cylinders, and something called "variable valve timing."
He was giddy about it, like a kid with a pony. In fact, he secretly called it Blaze, the name of his neighbor's horse that he'd coveted as a kid. He still hadn't opened it up on a straightaway and tested the zero-to-sixty in five seconds claim. Like it or not, his age had not only mellowed him, it had made him more cautious, more fearful.
They climbed in and cruised through the suburban Maryland neighborhood, past the homes of their neighbors, highly paid lobbyists and CEO's, each of their driveways adorned with a high-performance car like his. Finally Rollin had convinced Angie to let him splurge—not because the family coffers runneth over, but because he knew that they would soon feel the strain of Jake's college expenses, and then Zoe's. Wait another few years, he thought, and rationality would rear its head. By the time he bought the car, he might be too old and decrepit to use the clutch, let alone see the road ten feet in front of him.
"I can't believe you're dropping me off at school in this car," Zoe complained. "It's excessive."
"Every other car that pulls up at your school looks like this," he said.
Zoe attended an international school a few miles away in Washington, DC. She had a taste for Latin music, Middle Eastern foods, and all but American culture. By 10th grade, she had memorized a long list of unethical decisions that the U.S. government had made during the last hundred years. She preferred to befriend students from other nations.
The white-pillared school was set back away from a tree-lined street among the embassies in downtown Washington. As Rollin drove up, students wearing pleated blue skirts and white button-downs stepped out of SUVs and luxury sedans.
"Aren't you even curious about your biological parents?" she asked.
"Not particularly," he said.
Zoe shook her head. "I think you'd really benefit from facing some of your issues."
Rollin believed he had the fewest issues out of all Zoe's friends' parents. Indira's mother had been hospitalized after snorting Ritalin. Manuel's father had been indicted for tax fraud. Rollin was an average guy with flat feet and a gut that he tried to suck in whenever he thought about it. He had never been arrested, addicted to drugs, or even been a candidate for therapy.
"I don't have issues," he said. "I have a kid who's too smart for her own good."
A smile flickered briefly on Zoe's lips. Then she composed herself and stated, "Adopted children often spend their whole lives with feelings of abandonment."
"I am not an adopted child," Rollin said. "I'm an adult."
"Adopted adults often feel they're still being treated as children," she said.
"Have a good day, Zoe," he said.
She climbed out of the car and joined a crowd of her plaid-clothed schoolmates.
Just before he drove off, Rollin heard her call, "For the price of this car you could feed a whole village in Africa!"
In the men's room at the office, he studied his face in the mirror. Zoe had told him it was a common for a child given up for adoption to bear a strong resemblance to his birth parents—even more than other children the birth parents had borne and raised themselves. Maybe he looked like his biological parents, whoever they were.
His nose was in fact a bit large. It shaded his bottom lip like an umbrella.
Rollin Blumenthal, he whispered. Rollin Silverberg.
The overhead lights reflected off his bald head. He narrowed his eyes. Jake was right—his belly was expanding absurdly, and he looked like he belonged in a wrestling ring wearing a giant cloth diaper.
Rollin Watanabe. Rollin Yamamoto
In the hallway, he passed a fleet of staff members dispatched on a new proposal. He closed his door to muffle the sound of office activity and looked through the packet of materials that Zoe had compiled for him.
"You're Never Too Old" was the story of a man in his thirties, a successful attorney who had found a father and two siblings struggling to get by in an inner city.
Rollin was an only child. His parents had modest means, but they'd given him everything they could. Whoever his biological parents were, they either didn't have the interest of the means to keep him, and he was confident that he'd wound up better off. Maybe had brothers and sisters rattling around in some little house with asbestos-filled ceilings and lead paint peeling off walls. It made him feel privileged in comparison.
In the next story, a middle-aged woman explored the ups and downs of a relationship with her biological mother, or "Bio-Mom," as she called her. The term made him think of a sci-fi flick in which a giant mother with a petri dish for a head and test tubes for fingers wreaked havoc on a suburban neighborhood like Rollin's, stomping on Jacuzzis and overturning minivans. Bio-Mom Returns would be followed by Rollin vs. Bio-Mom, in which he would go head to head with the vengeful mother. She would rise from the dead in Revenge of Bio-Mom, never to be stopped.
On the corner of his desk stood a portrait of his family, taken outside his parents' home on Maryland's Eastern shore. You could just make out the modest ranch of Rollin's childhood behind Angie's gleaming face. Zoe, in pig tails, stood with her chin pointed upwards, looking vaguely judgmental. Jake, too young to claim his separateness, clung to his mother's waist. Rollin looked directly into the camera and held the shoulders of his mother and father on either side. They were all dressed in shorts and T-shirts, ready for an afternoon crab feast on a picnic table by the bay. Rollin's father would teach Jake and Zoe how to eat crabs, just as he had taught Rollin, carefully separating the meat from the shell and then sucking on the legs for the last bits of tender white flesh.
Was it betrayal for him to search for his biological parents now that his real parents were gone? He thought of the pinched expression on his mother face in the seconds before she began to cry. His father grew quiet when upset or disappointed, holding it all in.
The phone rang. Within moments, he would be sucked into another proposal—probably his three hundredth one by now. Years ago, he was in this business for the win. He kept a list of agencies and departments by their acronyms—DOE, EPA, HHS—and crossed them off one by one as his company won their contracts. There was little enjoyment in it now.
He should have been an entrepreneur and opened up a bistro to serve up Angie's cooking, freeing them from lives behind office desks. He should have invented something—an automatic crab cracking machine, maybe—that would make them wealthy enough to abandon the nine-to-five world. But he no longer had the energy, or the gumption to take the risks.
He ignored the phone call and took out the form for the search registry. I'm just doing this for you guys, he said silently to his kids, and began to fill it in.
The letter arrived two months later from a P.O. Box in West Virginia:
When I was 16 years old, I gave birth to a beautiful son. He was 22 inches long, 8 pounds, 4 ounces, and all around perfect. Six months before, I had been sent to live with my aunt in another state because my parents did not want anyone to know about the baby. I wanted to keep him and raise him myself. I thought about running off just the two of us to the woods of Canada and living off the land. But I was not strong enough. I was told by my mother and all of them that he would be better off without me.
They let me hold him at first, but then the nurse took him away. It cut like a knife, the separation of momma and baby. After that, I only got to see him in the maternity ward through the glass. Then the doctor said that I shouldn't look anymore.
I named him Percival. To this day, I do not know what became of him. I now realize that I was strong because I agreed to give him away. I tried to give him a better life. I still remember that perfect baby boy, and I celebrate his birthday every year with a pineapple upside down cake. I imagine that this is his favorite. I want to make sure that he was given to a good family and that he is doing good. I hope that he will search for me someday, and that we will be able to reunite.
All my love and blessings,
Katherine (Kat) Rogers
Rollin rubbed the paper between his fingers and studied the looping cursive as if he might somehow recognize it. There was nothing familiar or resonant about her story—she could have been anyone's Bio-Mom. It saddened him to think of her lighting a candle on a cake for him once a year. He didn't even like cooked pineapples.
His family stood reading the letter over his shoulders.
"It's beautiful," Angie said.
"If you like clichés," Jake said.
"Katherine Rogers," Zoe repeated, contemplative. "So we're just white? From West Virginia?"
"She doesn't mention Rollin's father," Angie said. "You never know."
Zoe's eyes glistened. "So when do we meet her?"
At the train station, Rollin saw a tall, buxom woman step onto the platform and look one way, then another. She wore a white tunic and black cropped pants. In her arms, she cradled a casserole dish wrapped in a receiving blanket.
Her leather sandals exposed large, thick feet with coral-painted toe nails. Rollin wondered if she, too, had fallen arches and had to wear extra-wide shoes.
She smiled, revealing chipped and crooked teeth. Her mouth resembled a graveyard after an earthquake, little tombstones unearthed and overlapping one another.
Her short dark hair fell in a sharp line above her chin. Thick strands of silver flanked her face. She wore long feather earrings that blew behind her as she rushed towards him. A tote bag printed with large pink blossoms swung from her shoulder.
She surprised him with a bold hug. Her hair smelled like the floral arrangement Angie had placed on the dining table in preparation for tonight's dinner.
"I've made a 50th birthday surprise for my boy," she said, hoisting the tray up toward Rollin's nose. "A little belated."
He smiled politely and tried not to wince at the smell of cooked fruit.
He unlocked the roadster and the parking lights flashed briefly. It looked as if old Blaze was blinking her eyes, waking from a nap.
"Lord bless you, Sweetness," she said. "You must be very successful."
In the car, Kat stroked the seat belt as if it were an exotic fur. Her nails were short and ragged. Another nail biter, he thought. He still remembered his mother dipping his fingers in horrible potions—anything to stop him from the habit.
Kat caressed the leather trim along the door and asked, "So where are your other parents, Sugar-bear?"
"Passed away," he said.
"Well, you'll be glad to know that the people in our family live forever," she said. "You've got a great aunt who's a hundred-and-one. Lives over in Manassas. She'd love it if you'd pay her a visit."
"Let's just take things one step at a time," he said.
When they arrived at home, the members of his family quickly assembled in the entranceway. Jake wore a collared shirt, surely enforced by his mother. Zoe wore a colorful skirt in contrast to the all-black she typically wore outside of school. She approached first.
"Nice to meet you, Katherine," Zoe said.
"No need to be so formal, Princess," Kat said. "Call me Nana."
Wide-eyed, Kat gazed around the house. "Sunshine," she said to Angie, "you've got quite a place here. Right out of Better Homes and Gardens."
Angie, proud of the eclectic décor, immediately commenced a tour of the house. The dining room, she explained, was French country-style, with delicately carved furniture and rough stained walls. The living room featured a Moroccan theme, with low, firm couches and bright, beaded pillows. They headed upstairs so that Angie could show her the master bedroom, where she had placed a large canopy bed draped with netting, inspired by their African safari.
While Rollin and the kids finished setting the table, he heard Kat's exclamations:
"Is that real silk?"
"That chair must have cost an arm and a leg."
"This place is so big you could get lost in it."
As they sat down to dinner, Kat said to Rollin, "Babydoll, I'd love to see pictures of your wedding. I'll bet you had a big extravaganza."
"Actually it was modest," he said. "A backyard party at my parents' house."
Angie brought out the first course—tomato and fresh mozzarella, drizzled with basil pesto.
"So fancy," Kat said. "Would you mind if I say grace?"
"Organized religion is the biggest cause of murder and destruction in the history of mankind." Zoe said.
"Of course you may say grace," Angie said.
Kat closed her eyes and clasped her hands on the table. "Lord, thank you for giving me back my baby boy, and for giving me this new family that I love so much."
Her lips quivered as if she were about to cry. Angie smiled and touched Kat's wrist.
Kat reminded Rollin of a bad date, confessing love too early in the evening.
In between bites, she told them that she was one of eight children, all of whose names sounded like hers—Kate, Kim, Karl . . .
"Isn't it wild to just be learning about your aunts and uncles now, Buttercup?" she asked.
Rollin realized that had imagined Katharine Rogers as a singular entity rather than a real human being with a family of her own. It was overwhelming enough to take on a new mother, let alone her kin.
"One step at a time," he said.
Angie proudly served up vegetable soup with lentils, mushroom risotto, and braised veil shanks. Kat listened attentively to her lecture on the various towns and provinces in northern Italy, each of which was famous for its own cooking style.
Zoe, an admirer of ethnic jewelry, complimented Kat's feather earrings. "Are you a Native American?" she asked.
"Why, yes, Angel," Kat said. "I'm a Navajo. Even lived on a reservation for a while."
Jake said, "I thought you said you grew up in, like, Virginia."
"Born and raised," she said.
"But Navajos live, you know, out West."
"Oh, Cutie-pie, we're everywhere," she said.
She had run off for a brief stint with the circus, Kat explained, and worked as an animal trainer: "I wore a red leotard," she said, and slapped her fleshy thigh. "That was just a few pounds ago."
After that, she said, she had volunteered with the Peace Corps in the Congo.
Zoe leaned in, fascinated. "The Belgian Congo?" she asked.
"Yes," Kat said. "And I brought back the most delicious Belgian chocolates."
Her life was never the same, she said, after giving up little Percy, but it had not been uneventful. She had hiked through the Swiss Alps while drinking cocoa, scaled the Great Wall of China, and vacationed in Madagascar, where she stayed at one of the island's many five-star Hilton hotels.
Rollin fidgeted as something on the menu began to repeat on him. He had a fleeting idea that he was having a heart attack, or at least angina. He would wind up in the ER, a doctor inflating a tiny balloon in one of his major arteries. It would be a slightly more comfortable experience than this dinner with Kat.
For dessert, Angie served a caramel pudding that she called panacotta, along with Kat's special dish—the pineapple upside-down cake, which Angie placed on one of her Tuscan serving platters.
Rollin stared, daunted, at the layer of gold gelatin atop the cake. Four stringy pineapple rings mocked him with their Maraschino eyeballs.
"So what about our grandfather?" Jake asked Kat.
As Rollin took a dutiful forkful of cake, a swell of nausea rose within him. It wasn't just the cake; it was the fact that Jake had used the word "grandfather" in reference to someone other than Rollin's dad.
Kat placed her dessert spoon carefully on her plate. "Peaches, your grandfather's name was Leo Pinsky. Is, I mean. Lives out on the West coast."
"Is that so?" Rollin asked, unconvinced.
"He loved cars," Kat said, "just like Roland. We used to drag race in his Ford Thunderbird."
She retrieved a small photo album from her floral tote and handed it to Rollin. "I used to call him 'Cowboy,'" she said, making Rollin blush.
Seizing the opportunity to forego his slice of pineapple upside-down cake, he began to thumb through the pages. He stopped at a black and white photo of a man who looked familiar: narrow eyes, long nose, shaggy hair. The image could have passed for Rollin as a teen, had the man not been leaning on a vintage car.
The next few pages were pasted with newspaper clippings, crisp and yellowed with age. In one, a thirty-something Pinsky accepted a plaque for helping disabled children. In another, his hair slightly grayed, Pinsky was being honored for donating a wing to a local hospital. In each photograph, he wore a dark suit and the rigid smile of a public official. Rollin noticed one thing in particular: despite his age, that bastard Pinsky still had a full head of hair.
Zoe and Jake abandoned their dessert and peered at the photos over Rollin's shoulder. They glanced back and forth, comparing the two men's features.
It appeared that Pinsky had made his money in real estate. He hadn't lived his life corralled in an office park or adrift in an alphabet soup of government agencies.
"So he was an entrepreneur," Rollin said.
"He inherited everything from his father," Kat corrected him. "Such a cold man. Leo hated him. Didn't have any trouble taking his money, though."
Another photo featured Pinsky standing next to a pale, dark-haired woman and three small children. Each child's skin was a slightly different tone, each pair of eyes uniquely shaped. None of them resembled their mother or father.
"He took in some kids from around the world," Kat said. "Russia, Korea . . . "
"How compassionate," Zoe said, and touched the photo endearingly.
Rollin stared at the children and imagined their faces morphing into his own, each one a little Rollin Chan or Rollin Silverberg. His biological siblings were hardly inhaling asbestos and suffering from lead poisoning—these kids were feasting on filet mignon and caviar.
"Doodle-bug, you're just like him in some ways," Kat said. "Same brains. Same ambition."
"Are you gonna search for Leo Pinsky?" Jake asked Rollin.
He contemplated going to work in the morning as the son of Leo Pinsky, rather than the same old Rollin Price. Maybe he would reorganize his division, or take the company in a whole new direction. In between meetings, he would go into the men's room and see traces of Pinsky's eyes and nose in the mirror. Slowly, hair would begin to sprout anew atop his head.
"Looks like Pinsky's already got a full house," Rollin said.
Why bother getting to know the real man? The bio-dad in Kat's album could never disappoint, never suffer the ailments of a real human being. He would live forever, or as long as Rollin wanted any father to live.
Kat slouched in her chair, looking forlorn, lamenting her long lost love. If in fact Pinsky was his father, one thing was clear: he wasn't searching for either of them.
On the way to the train station, he and Kat sat in silence, the sound of the high-performance engine barely perceptible. The family had given Kat a warm good-bye, almost congratulatory, as if she'd been hired as entertainment for the evening. Zoe had even hugged her and called her "Honey-pie."
He contemplated how to end this date. He could give her a vague, "I'll call you," knowing he wouldn't. But that seemed unfair, particularly since she'd gone to the trouble of giving birth to him.
After about ten minutes, the road opened to a broad, empty stretch lined with tall, full trees.
Kat flashed a mischievous smile. She looked youthful, her cheeks flushed.
"I'll bet you can really open this baby up," she said.
"That's what the salesman said."
"You haven't tried it yet?"
He scanned a mental ledger of the last few weeks. "I'm usually in the car with Angie, or the kids . . . "
"Try it now, Killer" she said, "your mother's not going to punish you."
He considered the likelihood of police radar and the inconvenience of a speeding ticket. Planted next to Kat, his bio-mom, he wasn't just Rollin Price anymore. He was an entirely new man—maybe the son of Leo Pinsky, maybe the inventor of the world's best crab cracking machine.
"Hang on," he said.
He pressed the accelerator to the floor. The car sped forward. By the time he counted to eight, the needle of the speedometer reached 120mph and trembled there.
Go, Blaze. Go.
The car held perfectly still. Giant trees streaked by the windows. The steering wheel didn't even quiver. He figured it must have been the variable valve timing.
He and Kat broke into laughter. It was as if they were encapsulated in their own time and space. Next to him, she was wide-eyed and giddy as the girl she must have been fifty years ago, drag racing in Leo Pinsky's car.
At the train station, Kat batted her eyes and smiled, skin still flushed from the joyride.
"Will I see you again, Handsome?" she asked.
He gripped the steering wheel and stared out over the long, stealth nose of the car.
"It's a busy time for us. Proposal season at work," he said. "And we'll need to start taking Jake to look at colleges."
Her smile looked strained now, as if to mask disappointment. "I understand," she said. She took his hands in hers. "Gorgeous, it's for the best. I'm not as high-class as your family. I'm sure your parents were very sophisticated. They raised you well."
"Kat," he said, "your stories are entertaining, but frankly, I don't believe a word of them."
"Well, Cupcake, if you want the truth," she said, "no one calls me Kat." She dabbed her eyes as if she were crying, but Rollin didn't see any evidence of tears. "It's Katherine, Kathy. I just thought 'Kat' was more interesting. When I talked to you on the phone, you sounded so stiff. Government contracting . . . I wanted to give you a taste of something a little different. How often do you get to spend an evening with a crazy old lady like me?"
He tried to imagine the home that Kat was returning to. Perhaps she lived down a series of narrow and poorly lit roads lined with salt box houses, 4x4s arranged outside. Maybe she went to sleep to the steady song of crickets, drawing in deep breaths of sweet country air.
He felt the urge to comfort her. After all, they had both been abandoned by someone. Maybe she wasn't who she claimed to be, but she was here, and she was searching for a son.
"Look," he said, "maybe we could take it slow. See how things progress."
Kat sniffled and nodded.
"It's tough for the kids," he said. "They lost their grandparents not long ago."
"Of course," she said.
"And Angie—she was very attached to my mom."
"One step at a time," Kat said.
As she walked to the platform, he recalled his family contemplating his origins over breakfast.
"By the way," he called, "What kind of name is Pinsky?"
"Oh, Heinz 57," she giggled. "You're a little bit of everything, Sunny."
He took a deep breath and watched Kat board the train. The indigestion was lifting.
He would head home, taking it slow until he got to the empty stretch of highway. Then he would pat Blaze on the dashboard, roll down the windows, and open her up.