The Sweet Spot: A Novel

The Sweet Spot: A Novel

by Amy Poeppel
The Sweet Spot: A Novel

The Sweet Spot: A Novel

by Amy Poeppel


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Notes From Your Bookseller

The ever-delightful Amy Poeppel is back with a cast of quirky characters caught in a messy situation. When three women find a baby on their doorstep, they resolve to put their differences aside to find his parents. What comes next is a journey of forgiveness, family, and friendship.

Amy Poeppel brings her signature “big-hearted, charming” (The Washington Post) style to this wise and joyful novel that celebrates love, hate, and all of the glorious absurdity in between.

In the heart of Greenwich Village, three women form an accidental sorority when a baby—belonging to exactly none of them—lands on their collective doorstep.

Lauren and her family—lucky bastards—have been granted the use of a spectacular brownstone, teeming with history and dizzyingly unattractive 70s wallpaper. Adding to the home’s bohemian, grungy splendor is the bar occupying the basement, a (mostly) beloved dive called The Sweet Spot. Within days of moving in, Lauren discovers that she has already made an enemy in the neighborhood by inadvertently sparking the divorce of a couple she has never actually met.

Melinda’s husband of thirty years has dumped her for a young celebrity entrepreneur named Felicity, and, to Melinda’s horror, the lovebirds are soon to become parents. In her incandescent rage, Melinda wreaks havoc wherever she can, including in Felicity’s Soho boutique, where she has a fit of epic proportions, which happens to be caught on film.​

Olivia—the industrious twenty-something behind the counter, who has big dreams and bigger debt—gets caught in the crossfire. In an effort to diffuse Melinda’s temper, Olivia has a tantrum of her own and gets unceremoniously canned, thanks to TikTok.

When Melinda’s ex follows his lover across the country, leaving their squalling baby behind, the three women rise to the occasion in order to forgive, to forget, to Ferberize, and to track down the wayward parents. But can their little village find a way toward the happily ever afters they all desire? Welcome to The Sweet Spot.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781982176457
Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books
Publication date: 01/31/2023
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 89,532
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Amy Poeppel is the award-winning author of the novels The Sweet Spot, Musical Chairs, Limelight, and Small Admissions. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Rumpus, Literary Hub, and Working Mother. She and her husband have three sons and split their time between New York City, Germany, and Connecticut. She would love to hear from you on Twitter or Instagram: @AmyPoeppel or at

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1 What Lauren remembered most about their first summer in Greenwich Village was her absence. She spent those hot, sticky days—away from her children and Leo—back in her Brooklyn studio, where she shaped pieces and then painted them with ferns, rabbit skulls, and quail bones. Petals, herbs, grasses, and leaves. Ants, worms, millipedes, maggots, spiders, and flies. Molted cicada shells and snake skins, cobwebs and beehives. She had several moments of panic in June when she grasped the full scale of the order that Felicity had placed and thought she’d never be able to finish by summer’s end. And she had several spells of elation in July when she’d completed all the footed cake plates and serving platters. She’d screamed bloody murder in August when she dropped a tray of coffee mugs on the floor, just as she was taking them out of the kiln. Over the sound of a fan blowing by the window, she played pop music and allowed herself to feel the joy she’d experienced back in art school when she’d first worked with porcelain—volatile, yes, but silky and delicate. She thought of her kids and Leo settling into the brownstone without her, taking the train to Coney Island, going to the Museum of Natural History, and she worked even harder, knowing she was getting closer with every passing day to meeting Felicity’s high and fabulous expectations.

Over the course of the summer, Lauren created something out of nothing, a collection of pieces she loved. Felicity, meanwhile, faded into the background, no longer checking in to give support or encouragement as she had at the outset of their collaboration. Rather, to Lauren’s disappointment, she was put in touch with an executive at the company named Courtney who would call to discuss—in a breathy voice full of anticipation and possibility—deadlines and quantities, packing supplies and couriers. Courtney could talk about Bubble Wrap in a way that made it sound sexy.

At the end of Labor Day weekend—in the nick of time—Lauren sent off all the promised dessert plates, fruit bowls, teacups and saucers, mugs, sugar pots, and creamers that would grace the shelves of Felicity, a store Lauren admired but couldn’t herself afford. Her hands were stiff, her eyes were strained, and her neck and shoulders ached. There wasn’t enough moisturizer in the world to heal the deep cracks in her fingertips. She left her studio that day, feeling like her entire body was surrounded by a plume of clay dust. She was looking forward to shifting gears now, to settling into the house, spending time with the kids, cooking, and walking the dog.

On the afternoon before the kids’ first day at their new school, Lauren was cleaning out the refrigerator when Courtney called to congratulate her: the pieces exceeded their expectations. Lauren took her phone outside and put her feet up on the back deck where she and Felicity had sipped champagne together on that warm day last spring. If she’d known then how much was going to be expected over the next several months, Lauren would have been in a state of panic that day rather than one of naive enthusiasm.

“We’re obsessed with you and your whole aesthetic,” Courtney said in her sultry voice. “So what we’re thinking now is that we want you to round out the collection.”

“I’m sorry, what?” Lauren sat up and put her feet back on the ground. “What does that mean,” she said, “‘round out’? Round out how?”

Bumper darted outside, carrying something in his mouth.

“Felicity has a new vision for your work. She doesn’t want anything outside your sphere. Just a few additional decorative pieces to take you beyond kitchen slash tabletop. She wants you to create bookends, for example. Flower vases. Desk accessories, like paperweights, pencil cups, and handles for letter openers. Lamp bases.”

“Sorry?” Lauren tried to open the dog’s mouth to remove whatever he was chomping on, but he was too fast.

“Lamp. Bases,” Courtney said more slowly, as though she were describing a hot man’s body parts. “We’ll provide you with measurements and specifications for the linen shades we have in mind. We also want large frames for mirrors and small ones for photographs. Knobs for furniture. I’ll email a full list.”

Lauren couldn’t decide if she should whoop with excitement or burst into tears. What Courtney was describing would require hundreds of hours of work. “That’s... amazing,” she said, trying to stay calm. “And you would need these pieces... when exactly?” Please say December, she prayed. Please say next year.

“Before the end of October. So what do you say?” Courtney said, as if they were planning to run away together. “Doesn’t that sound like fun?”

“Wow,” Lauren said. “Just wow. Holy sh— Thanks so much.”

As soon as they hung up, Lauren put her head between her knees. Bumper dropped Charles’s retainer at her feet and licked her ear.

“Whatcha doing?” Leo asked, coming out to the porch. “Is that yoga? Doodlebug pose?” He patted her on the back.

“I didn’t know you were home,” she said, picking up the retainer, which was slobbery but unbroken, and sitting up. “I don’t suppose you’d like to take a sabbatical? Spend some more quality time with the kids?”

“Sure would,” he said, “and I’m due for one in about... three years.”

Well, that wouldn’t help. “Houston,” she said, “we have a problem.”

That night Lauren could hear the boys shouting upstairs over a game while she was rinsing Leo’s late mother’s plates in the deep cast-iron sink. Bumper was leaning into the open dishwasher, wagging his tail as he licked the remaining ketchup and salad dressing off the knives and forks Lauren dropped into the silverware basket. Leo and Waverly were sitting at the dinette table, working on a jigsaw puzzle they’d started weeks before. Lauren had insisted earlier that day that they finish the puzzle that night, not because she minded family meals on the back deck but because the kitchen would be the best place for the kids to do homework. But who would be overseeing the homework now?

“Is there any way you could work from home a few afternoons a week?” Lauren said.

“Not this semester,” Leo said, studying the puzzle. “I teach a graduate seminar Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday; I have faculty and committee meetings Thursdays, and lab meeting every Friday.”

“I wish it stayed summer all year long,” Waverly said. “I like it better.”

“Not me,” said Leo. “I love the start of the school year. I get new students to replace the ones who flew the nest. New pencils, new whiteboard markers. It’s a fresh start every fall.”

“What we need,” Lauren said, scraping hamburger crud off a pan, “is a sitter who can pick up after school and stay until one of us gets home from work.” Lauren pictured a wonderful, young freelancer, someone who loved algebra and baking and needed a stable weekly income.

“What if I don’t make any new friends?” Waverly said.

“Of course you’ll make friends,” Leo said. They’d almost finished the puzzle but were still missing two shiny green beetles that looked enough alike in the picture that they were presenting a challenge. “Second grade is going to be great. Ah, I wonder what you’ll learn this year. I hope you study photosynthesis. And paleontology. And Mesopotamia. Did you know the Mesopotamian number system was sexagesimal?”

“What?” said Waverly.

“A starving artist maybe,” Lauren said. “Someone energetic and responsible.”

“Sexagesimal,” said Leo. “It means based on sixty. Babylonian astronomers figured out how to predict eclipses. Isn’t that cool?”

Lauren felt Leo should be focusing on the problem at hand, but paying attention was not one of Leo’s strengths. “I wish we had someone who could start... tomorrow,” she said, and then she laughed because it was so utterly preposterous.

“Not tomorrow,” said Waverly. “I want you to come get me.”

“Of course,” said Lauren, rinsing a coffee cup under the water. “I wouldn’t miss pickup on your first day at your new school.” Private school, and the price tag attached to it, had never been part of Leo and Lauren’s plan. But when Phillip, Leo’s biological father, invited them to Christmas at the brownstone the year before, he offered them a whole new life in Greenwich Village.

“Charley never wanted me to do anything for you,” he’d said to Leo, as the kids made garlands out of ancient wrapping paper Phillip had found in the coat closet. “She told me I was not allowed to take on the traditional patriarchal role”—then he laughed—“as if I would. But your mother isn’t here to lecture me anymore, and you’re the only family I have.” And then he offered them use of the brownstone—“I’m taking a new opportunity with an auction house in Berlin; I’ll be away for a couple of years or so, popping back to New York very rarely”—and cash for tuition—“What else am I going to do with my money? The little scamps should have it.” Phillip packed his bags that spring and handed over the keys, and Lauren and Leo, thrilled at their good fortune—a house! a yard!—adopted Bumper.

Lauren studied the cup in her hand before putting it in the top rack of the dishwasher, wondering how it was any different from a pencil cup. Desk accessories really weren’t her thing.

The boys ran into the kitchen then, just as Leo was saying, “Leave it to me. I can find a babysitter in no time.”

“I don’t need a babysitter,” Charles said.

“I do,” said Harrell.

“It might take a week or so,” Leo said, “but I can find someone who can do homework with you guys while Mommy and I are at work.”

His confidence in the face of something so complicated irked Lauren. Some Mary Poppins, trained in CPR and crazy about kids, wasn’t going to appear out of the blue.

“Who?” said Charles.

Indeed, who? thought Lauren. Leo was brilliant, but he wasn’t always connected to the realities of life on earth.

Leo cleared his throat. “Put up an ad on the university list serve, I will, hmmm?” he said, doing his Yoda impression. “Easy, it is.”

Harrell laughed.

“A student?” Lauren gently nudged Bumper’s head out of the way to load a greasy plate. Her knuckles, so dried out from working with clay, were starting to sting from the water. “That’s actually a great idea,” she said. “But it’s going to take time.”

Her worry seemed to finally get through to Leo, and he looked up at the ceiling, thinking. Then he straightened his back and said brightly, “Evelyn!”

At the very mention of her mother, Lauren adjusted her posture as well. “What?”

Leo looked back at the puzzle and clicked two green pieces together, victorious. “Evelyn,” he said, even more enthusiastically this time. “We could invite her to stay with us while we find someone.” He switched back to Yoda’s voice, saying, “Buy us time, it would.”

Lauren dried her hands on the embroidered tea towel she’d tucked into the waist of her overalls and faced her husband. “You want my mother to come?”

Leo shrugged. “Why not? For the first time ever, we’ve got room for her. She can have the whole third floor to herself. And it would be nice to have her around.”

“She doesn’t like... New York.” Lauren had almost said She doesn’t like me, but didn’t want to say such a thing in front of her kids.

“That’s because she never stays long enough to get comfortable,” said Leo.

Lauren disagreed; a longer visit would likely make things worse, not better. “I’m not ready to have her come here,” Lauren said. “We’re not at our best.”

The faucet dripped behind her, and the yellow wall clock, which did not keep time accurately, ticked loudly.

“What do you mean?” Leo said.

The children were looking at Leo with the same expression as Lauren: as though they too were having a hard time imagining their strict grandmother in this rather scruffy setting.

Bumper pushed past Lauren to get to the other side of the open dishwasher, working another angle. The boys were eating ice cream out of the container and started sword fighting each other with their spoons.

“Hate this house, she will,” Waverly said, doing her own version of Yoda.

Lauren did not disagree.

But Leo looked hurt. “How could anyone hate this house? My childhood home? Come on, it’s a swell idea. The kids should spend some quality time with their only living grandmother. And we can reconnect with her, show her our life. It’ll be fun, and, bonus, it won’t cost us anything.”

“Not monetarily maybe,” said Lauren. She moved Bumper’s head and closed the dishwasher. “I don’t know how much help she would be. And she’s not going to approve of”—Lauren looked through the kitchen and into the living room, where carpet frayed and the wallpaper peeled—“Phillip’s decor.”

There was a mangy, taxidermied hawk on the top of the bookshelf next to a broken lamp and a slide projector. There were board games and puzzles on the window seat and dog-eared anthologies of poetry and plays stacked under the coffee table. There was a sketch of a nude man, Phillip, by the look of him, although that had yet to be confirmed, over the fireplace. There were ashtrays—why were there ashtrays? No one here smoked—that still smelled of stale cigarettes, and there were framed pictures of strangers perched on every surface. The house was a time capsule from the 1970s, and even though they were living there for the time being, they didn’t feel permitted to make changes.

“Evelyn is the perfect stopgap measure,” Leo was saying.

“What’s stopgap?” Harrell asked.

“A temporary solution, like using a generator in a power outage,” Leo said.

Lauren’s eyes settled on the broken table lamp in the living room. She got up and walked over to it: it was made with a celadon glaze, and there was a fine spiderweb connecting the shade to its very pleasing base. She put her hands on the cool, curved surface; she could try replicating its classic vase shape in her studio, if only she could get herself there.

“Teamwork,” Leo called out. “We had a problem, and we came up with a solution, as a family.” He was smiling, holding up his phone. “I sent her a text message.”

“Wait,” said Lauren, turning back to Leo in the kitchen. “No—”

“What?” said Leo.

“Too many emojis,” said Charles, shaking his head at Leo’s screen.

He’d already done it, but she supposed it didn’t really matter; her mother would never accept his invitation.

The Aston-Shaws woke up the next morning as rain pelted against the windows. After breakfast, Lauren gathered the kids in the living room and took a picture to commemorate the first day of the school year, posting it on the family chat for her mom to see. They put on raincoats and headed out together in the storm.

At the corner of Waverly and Sixth, they split off. Leo, wearing a clear plastic poncho over his cargo shorts, took the subway uptown to the university, while Lauren, Bumper, and the kids walked a few blocks south to Perkins Academy.

Lauren was nervous. The school was housed in a lovely stone building tucked between long rows of town houses. It was known for its celebrity parents, its rooftop greenhouse, and its pedagogical resistance to grades of any kind. They’d chosen Perkins because of the science program (which Leo liked), the art program (which impressed Lauren), the gerbils in most classrooms (which appealed to the kids), and the proximity to Waverly Place (a bonus for Bumper).

It poured the whole way to school that first morning. In spite of their hoods, Lauren and her kids all arrived with wet, stringy hair. Their sneakers squelched as they walked through the Perkins lobby, past a crowd of noisy children with backpacks and confident mothers with sleek umbrellas. It was mayhem, and Lauren pulled Bumper close, hoping her kids would make friends there and be happy, once they adjusted. She held Waverly’s hand, gathered the boys, and approached a man who was hunched over a computer at the imposing front desk.

He barely glanced up and yet scowled at the sight of Bumper. “Is that a therapy animal?”

Bumper shook then, sending a spray of water three feet in all directions, and rolled over to dry his back on the lobby carpet.

“Not exactly,” Lauren said as Harrell leaned over to pat Bumper’s damp belly. “Funny story, actually: the shelter told us he was three already, but our vet says he’s not even one.”

The man did not appear to find her story funny at all.

“We’re new here,” Lauren said. “As in brand-new. It’s our first day.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m Lauren Shaw, and this is Charles Aston, Harrell Aston, and Waverly Aston,” she said, placing a hand on the top of each child’s wet head in turn. “Grade six, grade four, and grade two.”

He sorted through a box and handed her a fat envelope, just as there was a clap of thunder.

“Is this the bill?” she joked.

“Grade six goes to the fifth floor, grade four to the sixth, and grade two to the fourth. You have a required parent information session starting in fifteen minutes in the auditorium.”

“Oh,” said Lauren, looking around the lobby, noticing that the horde of parents was making no move to head back out into the rain. “Do you know how long the program will go?”

He didn’t answer, but Lauren knew that the lamp base she’d been imagining in her head overnight would not be thrown on the wheel today.

She sat in the back row of auditorium flip seats, listening to presentations about the school’s recycling program, field trip opportunities, and fundraising expectations, as Bumper grew restless and gnawed on her hand. At ten o’clock, she tugged him up two flights of stairs to attend the PTA breakfast, during which he ate an entire croissant right off the buffet when her back was turned and knocked over a teacher’s full cup of coffee on the carpet. Lauren apologized profusely and offered to pay for the cleaning, solidly regretting her decision to bring him along. She rushed him home and returned an hour later, just in time for story circle in Waverly’s class, which was followed by a middle school discussion with a psychologist who instructed the parents on how to combat drug and alcohol abuse, how to recognize signs of anxiety and depression, and how to advise kids against jumping off a cliff even when all their friends were lining up to do so.

At three o’clock, the program was over, and Lauren was flat-out exhausted. The kids came down to the lobby, and they walked home together on wet sidewalks under clear skies, the kids chattering about their first day.

Frances called that evening, just as Lauren was dumping a full box of pasta into a pot of boiling water.

“I think it’s sweet you and Leo invited Evelyn for a visit,” she said.

That her sister-in-law already knew about the invitation was unsurprising; she and Lauren’s mother were, indeed, exactly that close. They saw each other several times a week and spoke on the phone—much to Lauren’s annoyance—every single day.

“I think this is the longest I’ve ever gone without seeing her,” Lauren said.

Bumper was pushing his empty food bowl around the kitchen, trying to get his dinner to appear.

“If she decides to come,” Frances said, “maybe she could give you some advice on how to whip that house into shape.”

“Oh, the house is fine,” Lauren said, stirring the spaghetti with a wooden spoon. The range was an ancient Viking, permanently encrusted with decades of grease. The condition of the house was not something she wanted to discuss with Frances, who lived with Lauren’s brother, William, the only son and undisputed favorite, in a fully updated four-thousand-square-foot home on Beacon Hill.

“I disagree,” Frances said. “That picture you texted of the kids this morning? I noticed a lot of clutter in the background.”

Lauren rubbed her forehead, wishing she’d cropped the picture more tightly.

“I’m just saying your mom is a good organizer,” Frances said.

Frances, whose own mother had died young, had latched on to Evelyn from the day they met. The pair had a running joke about the necessity of talking to each other before going anywhere together because too many times, they exclaimed with a laugh, they’d shown up in the same shift dress and pearls. The chances of Lauren and Evelyn appearing anywhere in matching outfits were exactly zero.

Her mother was impressed by Frances’s social circle, but even more so by her upper-crust, philanthropic, Kennedy-esque family. They had inborn political ambitions, which had rubbed off on William; he was actually talking about a potential run for political office. Evelyn would mention it to Lauren in hushed tones and coded language, as though the press had tapped her phone.

“What I’m actually hoping,” Lauren said, “is that she’ll hang out with my kids in the afternoons so I can work.”

“You still haven’t finished that order for Felicity?” Frances sounded alarmed, as though Lauren’s delinquency would somehow reflect poorly on the entire family.

“No, I finished,” Lauren said, “but they want more now. They’re asking for pieces I’ve never even made before.”

“Wonderful, Lauren. But can I be honest? Evelyn’s not up to handling all three of your children by herself.”

That comment struck Lauren as fundamentally unfair. “She helped out with your kids all the time when they were little.”

“Sure, but that was years ago,” Frances said, “and she had your dad to help then. You haven’t spent time with her lately. Her sciatica alone would make babysitting a challenge, especially given how energetic your kids are.”

William and Frances’s kids were in high school already. Christopher was a senior at Andover, probably headed to Harvard, and Anne was a sophomore at Buckingham Browne and Nichols. Evelyn loved to brag about them.

“How are your kids doing?” Lauren said.

“Great,” she said. “We’re in the thick of college applications, so that’s going to be our whole fall. Andover handles the process pretty well, but we’ve hired our own counselor, just to be sure.”

“Sure of what?” Lauren said. An Ivy League acceptance was the likeliest answer.

“The essays, for one thing. Christopher is writing about your dad, did I tell you? It’s all about how he wants to be a doctor like him and how deeply impacted he was by his death. I’ll send it to you when it’s done.”

“Wow, really?” Lauren was jaded enough to believe that they were using her dad’s death to write a moving essay. But then the alternative—that Christopher truly felt that close to his grandfather—made her feel even worse. Her own kids would never have such a deep bond to a grandparent. “Has my mom read it?”

“I’m sure she’ll tell you all about it when she comes. It brought her to tears.”

“I don’t actually think she’s going to come,” Lauren said, wishing for the first time that she would. “We’ll go to Wellesley soon enough anyway. Maybe for Thanksgiving.”

“She told me she’s on the fence,” Frances said, “but don’t take it personally. You know how many commitments she has here. Between her charities and her bridge club, it’s hard for her to get away.”

“She’s with you guys all the time.”

“Well, yes, but she’s only half an hour away, and we don’t ask anything of her. If you want her to come for a social visit, that’s one thing. But as for the kids, you really should hire someone.”

Bumper had nudged his bowl all the way over to Lauren’s feet. She picked it up and filled it with a scoop of kibble. “We’re working on it. Leo’s going to find a college student.”

“A student is not the way to go,” Frances said. “What you need is a proper nanny. Or an au pair. I’ll send you the names of some services that do background checks and screenings. You can’t be too careful when it comes to your kids. You have a spare room now, right?”

Lauren knew the kinds of services her sister-in-law would recommend charged exorbitant finder fees. And the spare rooms they had were not the kind of accommodations Frances was probably imagining. The brownstone only had two and a half bathrooms.

“We don’t need live-in help,” she said, putting Frances on speaker so she could dump the pot of cooked pasta into a colander. The steam made her face damp, and she wiped her forehead on a crocheted pot holder.

“I disagree,” said Frances. “With your kids, your career, and that house, not only do you need professional childcare, but you should hire an assistant, someone who can help you organize and throw out some of those stacks of magazines and books I saw behind your coffee table.”

Why had she texted that picture? “We can’t do that,” Lauren said, looking at the orange vinyl dinette chairs, three of which were repaired with duct tape. They were vintage to be sure, but did Lauren love them? No, she did not. “Nothing here belongs to us. Not really, or not yet anyway.”

“Then box it all up and store it. Did you have the place inspected for lead paint? Because I know this woman who moved into an old, un-renovated house like yours, and all her kids got permanent brain damage.”

Lauren eyed the windowsills suspiciously. “Leo grew up here, and he doesn’t have brain damage.”

“Well, may-be not,” Frances said, as though she were considering whether Leo’s social eccentricities might have been caused by toxins.

“Oh,” she said, suddenly rushed, “your mom’s beeping in. I’ll try to talk her into visiting you, but, Lauren, just don’t expect too much of her.”

Lauren didn’t remind her that Evelyn was her mother, after all, and that she knew exactly what she could and could not expect.

The heavy rain had cooled the air, but it still felt like summer. After dinner, Lauren, Leo, and the kids headed out to take a walk. There was a small crowd on the sidewalk directly at the bottom of their stairs, customers of the bar in the basement. Lauren was annoyed to see three young women actually sitting across their bottom step, smoking cigarettes.

“Excuse me,” Lauren said as nicely as she could.

The women stood up and let them pass, fawning over Bumper as he went by.

“Looks like NYU is officially in session,” Leo said. “The law school kids are historically the most loyal bar patrons, but I’ve been told Stern students tip the best.”

“Whoever they are,” Lauren said, “I hope they keep it down tonight.”

They crossed the street and were passing under the arch in Washington Square Park when Lauren’s phone pinged:

Lauren dear, Taking Amtrak early Thursday. I can stay through the weekend and that is all. This is your mother.

“Uh-oh,” Lauren said, showing Leo her phone.

“Outstanding,” he said.

Lauren wished she had as much confidence.

“In other good news,” Leo said, “I already have two potential babysitters stopping by my office tomorrow to interview.”

“Who are they?”

“Don’t even worry. I’ll prescreen them, and then bring home the best of the best.”

As the boys took off for the fountain, Leo, Lauren, and Waverly stopped to watch three young guys playing jazz.

Leo walked up to them, reaching in his pocket for change, which he dropped in their open guitar case.

“How’d they get a piano out here?” Waverly said.

“Good question,” Lauren said. “I actually have no idea.” Waverly leaned against her, while Bumper sat on her foot.

Leo came back and put his arm across Lauren’s shoulder. Rooted to the ground from all sides, Lauren looked over to see Harrell sitting on the fountain’s edge while Charles was dipping his hands in the water.

“I think Evelyn will like our little corner of New York,” Leo said, tapping his feet to the music, completely off the rhythm. “It’s not fancy like Beacon Hill, but she might appreciate the vibe.”

Lauren, too, felt a flicker of hope at the idea of her mother’s visit. But right then a big group of skateboarders clattered past them, way too close for comfort, with a plume of pot smoke following them.

“I wouldn’t bet on it,” Lauren said.

“I have homework,” said Waverly, “and I have to buy folders and notebooks and markers and colored pencils.”

Lauren yanked her foot out from under Bumper’s rear end. “By tomorrow?”

Waverly nodded.

Lauren turned to check on the boys again, only to see that Harrell had taken off his shoes and socks and was wading in the fountain.

“Let’s go to Inkwell on Eighth,” Leo said. “That’s where your grandmother used to take me for school supplies.”

“Grammy knew you when you were little?”

“No, I mean Charley,” said Leo, “your other grandmother, my mother.”

“And Phillip?” Waverly asked. “Did he take you too?”

“No, Phillip was just my biological father, meaning he donated—”

“We can explain all that later,” Lauren said, concerned to see that Charles was splashing Harrell now with both hands.

“Charles,” she called out, “that’s enough.”

“He likes it,” said Charles with a shrug.

Harrell emerged from the fountain in a fit of laughter, water dripping down his bare legs onto the concrete.

He stopped laughing as soon as he discovered that his shoes were nowhere to be found.

Leo squatted down so Harrell could climb up on his back, and Lauren saw him wince slightly when he tried to stand up.

“Easy does it,” she said, offering him her hands to pull on.

“Do you think Evelyn would like to take a tour of my lab?” Leo said, as they walked toward the west side of the park—past families, chess players, and weed dealers—and back to their house. Harrell’s bare feet were swinging by Leo’s hips. “I could show her our facilities and introduce her to my crickets.” He looked at her, his glasses slipping down his nose.

“That’s really sweet, Leo,” Lauren said. “I mean it.” She tried to imagine Evelyn taking any interest in Leo’s research. “But no, definitely not.”

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