Boston Adventure, page 13
All the way home from the party, my mother and father drowned the sound of the waves with Russian and German songs, interrupting one another and seeming to me, who rested half asleep against my father’s shoulder, more talented than birds, for their repertoire was endless and their voices were the loudest I had ever heard. I could scarcely keep my eyes open, but I refused to be tucked into my pallet and sat in the kitchen while they drank spiced wine that simmered on the stove, giving off a fragrant steam from cloves and sticks of cinnamon. A slice of lemon floated in their glasses. My mother blew on her glass to cool it and my father suddenly seized her hand. “I wish we were on the boat again, don’t you?” My mother laughed and flirted at him with her black eyes. “Go on!” she said. My father mouthed at her the words “I love you,” and then they looked at me and smiled. “The sandman’s got a certain party,” said Mamma. I stumbled, dizzy with sleep, into the bedroom and swayed as my mother took off my clothes. When I was buried under the comforters and coats, they both knelt down beside me, their arms entwined. The sweet odor of the mulled wine was heavy on their breath. The last thing I recalled was my father turning to kiss my mother on the mouth as though their love had been refreshed by the songs, by the wine, and by the sight of me, their child, going to sleep.
My brother would never have so pleasing a recollection as this. I had tried to amuse him with the games my father played with me, but he was bored with Esel von Hexensee, and he detested Fritzie. If I read him a story, he would stamp his foot suddenly, stick his fingers in his ears and scream, “Shut up! I hate Black Beauty!” On rare occasions, if I brought him a stick of chewing gum or a jaw-breaker, he rewarded me with a pinched, reluctant smile, but an hour later, for no reason, would slip up behind me and give my hair a savage pull. He was so horrid and perverse and unresponsive that I think I should have lost my patience and whipped him if I had not known from experience and from Mrs. Henderson’s tactful advice, that if I allowed my mother to see that he tormented me, her hatred would be dangerously magnified. Consequently, I suffered him to pinch and bite and scratch me, laughing if I could.
As I felt my mother’s warm hand in mine, I was perplexed by the change that had come over her in the years since that happy Christmas Eve. Tonight, I found her lovable as she had been then, and as I had not found her for a long time. Each time I made a resolve to dedicate myself to loving her and making her happy, I was at once disheartened by the apathy in which I found her or, instead, by the senseless, fussy affection in which she buried me. These wards of mine were incorrigible. In both of them, the rare moments of joy and sanguine temper which I so greatly wished to protract forever, were accidental, and no matter what new order I introduced into our life, it would still be some short-lived genius of disorder that would galvanize them. Thus, for a week together, I might bring a new toy or sack of goodies each day to Ivan, sent by Maudie or Mrs. Brunson, and he would hate them all. Yet he would discover in my coat pocket a Luden’s cough drop, fuzzy with lint. His eyes would dance with pleasure as he held it up to the light. “Let me have it, Sonie!” he would plead.
We were approaching the Hotel and my mother quickened her pace until she was nearly running. Reaching the porch, she went up the stairs two at a time. Then she held out her hands to me. “Why, they’re not here, Sonie!” she cried. “Not one of them!”
“What aren’t here?”
“The chairs, darling, all the dirty wicker chairs!”
“They’re inside, in the lobby. They aren’t left out during the winter, Mamma, you goose. Why, the rain and snow would ruin them.”
“I suppose,” she said sadly. “And I had looked forward so much . . .” She was peering through a crack in the boarding of the main door. “I can’t see a thing,” she said. “I don’t believe they’re in there.” But another survey of the veranda convinced her that they were not outside. “Well, then,” she went on, “the only thing to do is go in. A pretty pickle of fish.”
I was about to object. My mother’s absurd business might, if it were found out, cost me my job. How could we force a way into the Hotel without leaving traces? And would it not be guessed immediately that only crazy Mrs. Marburg would do such a thing, in the dead of winter, when even the most naïve burglar would realize that there would be slim pickings there? But I did not object, because I was curious about the way the Hotel looked, and had many times thought of doing just this myself, in those nights when my father was still with us, and most particularly the night he left. There was in my mother such a buoyancy, even after her first disappointment, that I was affected by it. We set about to find some entrance and at the back discovered a window with loose boards that yielded easily, and when we had rattled the frame awhile, we pushed it up and climbed inside the outer kitchen.
While from the outside, the building appeared impenetrable to light or air, within, drafts and moonlight, admitted through cracks, were everywhere. The old coal range, mammoth under a silvery hood, was lighted with a lackluster glow and it seemed, from the broken pane of its isinglass window and from the rim of its lids and its half-open damper, to expel cold air like needle-fine projectiles as we passed by. In the dining-room, the faithful birds stood obscurely behind their moonlit glass, waiting patiently through the long winter for the diners who, slowly through the years, had come to resemble them. Here was the owl that hung above the table where sat Mrs. Thompson, an obese, bedizened woman who had, in recent summers, abandoned her lorgnette as being both troublesome and ineffectual since she was half blind and vanity could hold out no longer. Now, upon her raptorial nose, she wore tremendous tortoise-shell glasses which, combined with the feathery, touched-up curls that beset her cheeks and the boned neck-piece of tawny lace that upheld her jowls, made her so like the staring owl above her that it would not have seemed altogether odd to hear a duet of solemn hoots proceeding from that corner of the room. And no less like her bird was Mrs. Holman whose table was beneath a blue heron, for she was lengthy and slim and she dressed in faded blue or gray; she swooped her graceful wings downward for the salt cellar or upward to arrest a slipping hairpin, as though she were always about to alight or about to fly off. Mrs. Prather, whose minute head, untidy as a nest, was an impudent joke upon her spreading, pyramidal body, was as ludicrous as her benumbed ptarmigan. Providentially, Miss Pride’s table was in the center of the room and there was no feathered cartoon of her above her head.
There in the lobby crouched the chairs, their laps obliterated by diaphanous shouds of muslin. The covers of the round tables hung to the floor like skirts; I knew that the square humps atop the tables were the photograph albums and the paper weights in whose glass interiors were embedded pictures of a Sequoia redwood through which a man could walk, or a photogenic waterfall beneath an emerald sky, or a burro whose mouth released a balloon to hold the words: “Hee-haw! Howdy, Folks! You’re looking at a Rocky Mountain Canary.”
Our candles gave a gelid animation to the unshifting moonlight. The glass eyes of an antelope glinted darkly at us from above the desk and the shadow of the newel post on the main stairway swelled upon the wall like a jinn. My mother at once set to work. She uncovered a chair and set two candles on a cherry-wood milking stool, making stands of drippings. Her tools were a paring knife, a hairpin, and an awl from the shop. She was as intent as a surgeon. I watched her for a few minutes until she complained that I made her nervous and as the light was poor enough anyhow, she did not want my shadow interfering. “Run and play, sweetheart,” she said. “You’ve made my hairpin slip through and now it’s caught in a crack. Go away, do.”
I glanced around, wondering if there had ever been a child who could obey her command, “Run and play” with any joy and frolic through this chilly company of ghosts without a backward glance. I lighted the third candle and proceeded to the stairway. My mother did not look up; she was humming faintly an old tune she had used to sing to me long ago.
Miss Pride’s room was utterly bare. Even the mat
Now, in her appalling summer room, my old longing to live with Miss Pride was revived in so weakening a way that I sank to my knees before the wooden barriers, feeling my face grow warm in spite of the cold and my eyes swell with tears that did not fall but clung to my lids. And when this first pain had gone—like the pain of a lover who visits an old rendezvous without his beloved—I dully recovered myself. The only gain there could possibly have been in this bizarre trip to the Hotel was a return of the joyous feelings I had had in the summer when I looked out these windows. And I had, without fully realizing it, expected an altogether novel sensation in seeing the dark, moon-tracked water from this hiding-place. For, although the years had brought me new and sometimes strong infatuations, knowledge had not abused the dream of my childhood. My perspective of all else might have changed, but Miss Pride and Miss Pride’s room had remained unaltered, so that even now, when I was no longer a child, I had often in the summertime been healed of my anxieties over Ivan and Mamma the moment I stepped across the threshold of the room.
But tonight, in this cold nakedness, I was cheated out of my solace for I could not, with my eyes, burn a way to her in Boston. The uproar in me was brought on partly by the discrepancy between the placid vagary that was holding my mother’s attention downstairs and my own tempestuous one upstairs, for, although they were equally profitless, mine had a kind of direction, and it seemed consistent with my bad luck that she was happy while I was so miserable, that she could sustain herself indefinitely on follies and unreal pageants and old woes. And my suffering was augmented when I reminded myself that I was nearly eighteen years old and in my last year of high-school and that the unplanned future was like a jumping-off place which I rapidly approached. My classmates talked confidently of college or business school or marriage and in all their talk, there was an implication that whatever they did, they would do it away from Chichester. The farther distant they set their next year’s residence, the more unshakeable seemed their resolve so that I believed they would all be in Alabama or Oregon or New York and I alone would remain.
In truth, though, I had an indisposition towards all these careers. When I fumbled in my adolescent semi-sleep for what our teachers called “a way of life,” there would come to me the image of Nathan Kadish who, of all the people I had ever known (excepting, of course, Miss Pride), commanded of me a profound respect. I had been in love with him for five years and all that time had carried with me a sharp recollection of the exact moment I had fallen in love, so that whenever I saw him, I could feel myself, a child, rise on tiptoe to look through the lighted window at his birthmark.
He had become, in his graceful, small-boned body and in his right profile, a coldly handsome boy. But because from one side he was beautiful, from the other, with its brilliant smear, he was more hideous even than he had been as a little boy. He had won a scholarship to Boston University where he was studying literature, but he came home for the week-ends and for holidays. Occasionally he came to call on me, late at night after my mother had gone to bed, and he talked to me with a grave, impersonal grandeur of his intellectual accomplishments.
In his Freshman year, in the first flush of rebellion against everything he had heretofore known or longed for, he had been a member of the Communist Party and had always carried with him his membership card with the alias, Stanley Finn. He made it clear to me each time he came to call that he would not have come if he had had anything better to do; our economic system was such that he had no money, he said, to go to Marblehead to get drunk; obviously he could not endure the atmosphere of his house where all aspirations were bent towards the impedimenta of a bourgeois life, the Philco radio sets, the Frigidaires, the upholstered parlor suites. There was nothing in his conversation or in the complete indifference of his countenance to indicate that he in the least enjoyed my companionship. I listened patiently to him, understanding almost nothing of what he said. As he talked, he concealed his birthmark with his long hand. But presently he would forget. His fingers would reach for a cigarette in the pocket of his sporty checked jacket and I could see the exciting monstrosity of his left profile. Feeling that I could no longer listen to his monologue, I would suggest that we drink some coffee, and as I busied myself with the stove and the water, he would continue, unperturbed, to analyze the villainies of liberals, but I would pay no attention. Instead, I would nurse the thrilling, secret glimpse I had had of his peeled cheek. He would be saying, “I’ll tell you what. If you ever come to Boston, I’ll take you to a meeting of the Party. You may be our type, as a matter of fact, though I can’t be sure. The most sensible laborer often turns out to be a solid individualist. Some members of the Party used to be rich; they know that bath tubs and evening clothes are decadent. The rest of us have to take it on faith, and of course we do. But witness the perversity of human nature: here I am, a crusader of the Revolution, and do you know that even I sometimes would like to get dressed up in tails and go to the Ritz roof? Of course if that ever did happen, I’d snap out of it in pretty short order. I imagine I wouldn’t be able to take their guff and would flash my C.P. card and land up in jail.”
In this year, Nathan had withdrawn from the Party although he repeatedly told me that he still upheld its principles and had only stopped going to meetings because he had other things to do. Now he fancied himself not as revolutionist but as a literary person of Paris. His resolve had been made shortly after an evening we had spent together in my father’s shop. He had asked if he might look at the books there, remembering from his boyhood that some handsome volumes had stood on the shelf above the door. He took down two, bound in red leather and heavily engraved with gold, and he said, “These are what he used to talk about. Your old man, I mean.” They were Wilhelm Meister and Werthers Leiden. After that, whenever he came to see me, his manner was strangely gallant, his voice was softer, and he often used German words, uttering them with surpassing tenderness. He would go to the window and say, “Ach, der Abendstern!” Or he would fall into long, melancholy silences and occasionally would leave the house without a word.
Only the last Sunday he had brought me a book to read. It was called Confessions of a Young Man. I had not read much of it yet, but its effect on me was already marked, and I was anxious for the next week-end to come so that I might tell Nathan that I understood why it was he wanted to go to Paris. Shivering in the icy room, I thought of the book and wished that I were a young man, queer enough to keep a tame python, clever enough to educate myself at the Nouvelle Athènes where the painters and poets gathered nightly as a learned and bibulous academy. I thought how simple my actions would be if I were a great, confident pagan egoist like George Moore. Would I not, if I were a young man, leave Chichester and my foolish mother? But I was not fitted for such a life, not only because I was a girl, but because I was an ignoramus. I nearly cried aloud thinking of the sloth of all these past years that had prevented me from reading less than a tenth of what Nathan had read. Here, only two years older than I, he was a storehouse full of books. Even at my own game, he surpassed me, for he spoke and read German with twice my facility. To be educated was the privilege of our class, he had told me. That was the weapon whereby we could conquer the bourgeoisie. I did not know precisely what he meant. Whenever I dwelt upon his words, I
All plans were as cold as my quaking shoulder-blades. I stood up and stamped awake a sleeping foot. Opening the door, I heard my mother caroling happily at her excavations. I called, “We’ve got to go now, Mamma. I’m nearly frozen.”
“Why, we just got here, silly. I’ve only begun. Flap your arms.”
When I went down, I found that she had finished one chair and was beginning on a magazine rack. She said, “If you’ll help me, we’ll get through faster. But it’s not easy work and you’re not used to it, so perhaps you’d better just sit there quiet and watch Mamma.” She had, for years, spoken to me as if I were still ten years old. I watched her for a while. She had stopped singing and her lips were parted in concentration. Her eyes sparkled in the candlelight and when she withdrew a long, matted strand of lint she laughed for joy and cried, “Goody!” At last I could hold out no longer and begged for a hairpin. It was good fun and when I, too, extracted a rope of lint, I felt the same brief glow of achievement that I did when I won a game of Patience. But my enthusiasm for the business quickly died and I grumbled that I would leave Mamma alone there if she did not come home at once.