Boston Adventure, page 4
But Miss Pride, to my astonishment, did not appear annoyed. With a grace which obviated the need for a transition, she said, “If I am pleased with my shoes, I shall want you to make more for me. I shall be anxious to put you in the way of further commissions. Surely you won’t refuse.”
“No,” he said, but there was neither gratitude nor excitement in his voice. “If I am nothing else, I am a workman who does his work.”
She stood up. “Now when the shoes are finished, you may mail them to me at this address.” Taking a leather case from her handbag, she extracted a card from it. “I must say there is something about your shop I like. It strikes me as what I spoke of before: the real thing. Nothing is so close to my heart as that, sir: the real thing. And if you had known my father, you would see I came by my passion honestly.”
“I hope you will be satisfied with the shoes,” said my father. “But you must not expect too much. My hands are not as clever as they used to be. I am, you see, no longer a shoemaker, I am a shoe-fixer.”
Miss Pride gave him her hand. “It’s time you changed. Good-by.”
He stood stupidly in the center of the room and did not open the door for her, did not, indeed, bid her good-by. When she had gone and the motor of her car started up, he sat down on the stool she had just occupied and putting his hands over his face, the fingers so tightly interlocked that their knuckles whitened, he groaned with some profound, enigmatic misery, and I stepped softly away from the window, perplexed that she who could cause me only happiness had caused him only pain. As I went toward the house, I was gradually infected by his terrible sorrow and felt my face grow feverish, recalling his words last night: the child should never have been born.
In the kitchen, I ran my fingers over the cold stove. My mother was sitting in a chair beside the sink and she drew me down to kiss me. “Who do you love, little Sonie girl?” she said, gazing at me with her great black eyes. And while I answered her as she desired me to, my mind was telling me the truth: “Miss Pride, not you, Mamma.”
* * *
DURING THE two years that my father supplied Miss Pride, her niece, and a couple of her friends with shoes, there were frequent conferences on the advisability of buying me a bed. But because the plans were always projected when my parents were drinking a bottle of whiskey and the morning found them oblivious of everything but their malaise, I continued to sleep on my pallet, made a little longer now to accommodate my increased height. Our prosperity was manifested in very little beyond a regular Saturday night pint of liquor. We did have a cerise rayon bedspread, a piebald linoleum for the kitchen floor, an eccentric shower-bath crowded into the minute closet we called the “bathroom,” and I had a red coat with an astrakhan collar. But my mother had none of the things she longed for, and if my father, when he was drinking, offered to buy her a yellow dress, she refused, saying sadly that she did not want pretty clothes unless she had an estate with a lake where, on its island, she would be hostess at summer picnics. My father would commend her good sense and tell her, in a foxy whisper, as if for the first time, that he was “laying away a little something” and in a few years his savings would accomplish everything her heart desired.
When there was no whiskey to provide a recess in their old war, they sang two different tunes. My father cried that he was enslaved to Miss Pride whom he had come to detest, for he believed that her patronage of him was an alms-deed. “Four pairs of shoes in one winter for an ugly old woman!” he exploded. “Maybe she sells them at a profit. She can’t wear out my shoes so quick!” He was displeased, too, that all his transactions with her were conducted by mail, as if she counted herself too good to come to his shop. When she ordered a new pair of shoes for her niece, she sent a careful drawing of the girl’s feet together with the height of the arches. And when the sandals or the moccasins or dancing pumps were delivered, he received a curt note of thanks which was folded around the check. Time and again he declared, “I will make no more for them.” But he could never resist new, costly leather and he always took the work.
My mother, on the other hand, deplored his failure to exploit his Boston customers and said, with considerable truth, that if we moved across the bay to the city and opened up a shop there, we would really become rich. Then I could have as many pairs of shoes as Hopestill Mather and she could be driven about in a black car like Miss Pride’s. But nothing could avail against my father’s indolent pessimism, and he went on living in our poor little village precariously, like someone who, being exposed to the cold, finally quits the struggle to keep awake and sinks into what he knows is his last sleep.
For myself, I was torn between gratitude to Miss Pride for noticing us at all, for affixing her signature to letters to my father—letters bearing her address on Pinckney Street—and the knowledge that her relationship with us would never be anything but commercial. Nevertheless, my reveries of life in Boston persisted, became, indeed, as my experience widened, more specific and in a sense more real than my existence in Chichester. In the wintertime at school, I was known as a daydreamer and often my teacher would hustle me out of Miss Pride’s house with a mocking rebuke that made the whole class laugh: “Tell us what is so interesting that you can’t remember the capital of Rhode Island, Sonie.” At home, depending on the tempers of my parents, I was called “bright” or “stupid” or “silly” or “older than my age.” Confined during the day by school-room walls where hung Sir Galahad and “The Stag at Eve,” George Washington and President Wilson and Kipling’s “If,” plied by unanswerable questions, required to sing “I am a little blue bird” in reply to the teacher’s full, contralto query, “Who is a little blue bird?”, I would gradually float away, leaving my body behind, still sitting at the stained red desk. As I vanished, I would see the teacher jump to attention, gather her forces and in a moment overtake me, but not before I had slipped into Miss Pride’s drawing-room, wearing a brown velvet dress and a yellow bone round-comb in my hair.
At night, bound by the narrow walls of our kitchen, I was not always absorbed in my book about girls at boarding school whose clever mothers had sewed for months before their departure, making silk dresses and dark wool jumpers, warm wrappers, innumerable muslin guimpes, had crocheted fascinators and had bought blue merino stockings. Although I envied the fortunate creatures, my own life which I plotted in a variety of patterns was richer. My hair became blond; my name was Antoinette de la Mar. “Soon after Antoinette or Toni, as her chums called her, went to live in the Pride mansion on Pinckney Street, a handsome Harvard student named Andrew Eliot Cabot Lodge fell passionately in love with her. But as she had already decided not to marry anybody, she spurned him with a few kind but firm words. That night he shot himself, but he did not die and she nursed him back to health. She had many suitors but she lived only for Miss Pride who adored her and often had her do a toe-dance for her visitors who were often foreign kings and queens. They would say, ‘I say, Antoinette de la Mar has it all over Denishawn. Why, Denishawn could never whirl on one toe that long.’ ”
My mother, who spent nearly every winter evening playing Patience (she always cheated, to my indignation, and as other disrespectful children in a fury curse their mothers, I would howl at mine, “You cheat at cards!”), would notice that for an hour I had not turned a page in my book. “Are you asleep, booby?” she would scold. “Are you asleep sitting up like a little cow?”
If my father raised his eyes from Riders of the Purple Sage, quaintly called Das Gesetz der Mormonen, to join our quarrel, perhaps to accuse me harshly of thinking of boys, my mother would instantly come to my defense and would commence to belabor him with vituperation. When they had finished the skirmish, my father would lift the red felt cozy off the white china coffee-pot and drink from a thick cup. He would then return to his book and my mother to her cards as she remarked, “He gets the fine pot for his coffee but Shura Korf has to keep her tea in a tin can.” Perhaps he would igno
If she were in the mood for it, my mother would burst into tears and weep, “I hate you, ah, God, I hate you!” The real battle would then begin. They would threaten to kill each other or to kill themselves; they would wish damnation to each other’s immortal souls; and each would blame the other for behaving badly in front of me. “Lieber Gott!” my father would groan, pressing the knuckles of his big red hands into his eyes. “What will become of my baby girl?”
My mother, clasping her hands together as if in prayer, would return, “She is safe with me! I will kill you if you hurt one single hair of her precious head!”
The outburst would be followed by a lamentation on my father’s part as my mother sank into a brooding silence. He would draw me close to him and run his fingers through my hair and tell me he was sorry that he had neglected me. Sometimes he apologized because he had not reared me as a Catholic and he would go out to the shop, bringing back a catechism. But we made no progress. Our minds wandered from the questions, mine to Boston or to the last movie I had seen, and his to his boyhood. He would talk for a long time, but to himself. “Sonie, my patron is Bonaventure, but how I have forgotten him like all the other saints! It is the irony that he should be my saint because he hated idleness. Brother Sebastian, one of the friars who taught us, brought my brother up short and myself a few years later. For we did not like to be shoemakers like our father and our grandfather and our great grandfather. Friedrich would have nothing to do with the trade. He would go to Paris, to the Sorbonne, to study literature, he said, and philosophy. And I, I would go to Berlin to study the law. But Brother Sebastian knew it wasn’t in us. He made us not ashamed of shoe-making. He would quote Saint Bonaventure: ‘You, Friedrich, and you, Hermann, are amongst those to whom the Lord has given the grace to labor.’ I would pray to my saint night and morning, to cure my sloth! It was a monstrous state. Monstruosum quemdam statum inter contemplativam et activam. See! It comes back.”
In his excitement, he would take both my hands in his and cry, “My Latin is not gone, Sonie! I will teach you. Have we a book? A grammar? Well, then, tomorrow we must buy one.”
But by the next day he would have forgotten. The catechism went back to the shop where for the next month it would lie untouched. Saint Bonaventure, Brother Sebastian, and indeed God, would be shelved like the little book. My father’s face would resume its mask. While I, glad that I had escaped his instructions, happily pursued Miss de la Mar’s career.
In my twelfth year, hardly a night passed from September until November that I was not unhinged from my sleep by my parents’ voices. Something, I knew not what, had brewed between them a hotter rancor than ever before. I was propelled by their curses into consciousness and seemed driven into a socket in the dark from which there was no outlet. My bounded brain was as unalterable as a ball and it could neither veer in flight nor proceed to understanding: solid and of one material, terror, it lay in a minute cavern whose walls were fashioned from the rhetoric and the darkness. The daylight, freeing the sounds of boats and trains, the voices of fishermen and children, discovering the diverse landscape and the harmless countenances of my sleeping parents, repealed the fast laws that had held me to a rapt and aboriginal response and gave me the relief of wild tears. As soon as I had dressed, I would run to the porch of the Hotel Barstow as to a shrine and there, all alone and out of earshot of anyone, I cried until I could cry no more and until the reason for my grief had become obscured by the cold and my hunger. Often at this hour, the fog lay on Boston; I would be unable to see the State House dome and unable to visualize Pinckney Street. At last I would get up and start towards school, slowly at first because my legs were cramped, then faster until I was running through the mist. I usually arrived out of breath, a little late. Among the teachers it was a great joke that when I was asked why I had been crying, I would reply, “Oh, no, I wasn’t crying. I didn’t sleep well last night.” They would say, “How imitative children are at this age! Don’t you know exactly what has happened? One of her parents often says at breakfast, ‘I didn’t get a wink of sleep last night’ and the child has picked it up.”
On a morning in November, when the snow had fallen, I was crouched in a corner of the steps of the veranda, my face muffled in the harsh curls of my astrakhan collar. Today it was not foggy, but my view gave me no pleasure for the sky was leaden and the angry bay was deserted by all the boats. Last night my father had laughed, it must have been for half an hour and then, as if something had broken in him, shattered like a glass, he had begun to sob. I could hear his heavy body trembling on the creaking bed, and the weeping claw at his throat. And because each morning that was the way I cried, I knew his stomach ached and his nose was full. Not a sound came from my mother. In the intervals between the plunges of his agony, I could hear him whisper, “Verzeihung!” How far away he seemed! As I peered upward through the darkness at the dim white block which was the bed, I could not feel that the person weeping, as no man should do, was my father. Rather, it was the figure of a nightmare which crudely represented him. And yet I knew I was awake, for nothing was distorted as in a dream. Quaking upon the clattering springs, the figure was like a caged beast that had broken down in its futile struggle to escape. Downwards it plummeted into some unknown and pitch-black chasm of despair, but rose again in a brief respite to breathe that one word, “Verzeihung!” Twice, thinking I could stand it no longer, I started up to go to him and to lay my hand on his arm. But I thought then of how I was enraged at such a gesture when I was crying, and I lay back, mouthing the words, “Please don’t cry, dear Papa.” Why did my mother not comfort him? Once I heard her sigh and thought perhaps that was the prelude to some speech. But she said nothing and my father wept on, for hours it seemed to me.
The snow had begun to fall in the night and by morning it was thick on the ground. My father’s face, in a deep sleep, was ashen and his eyelids were distended, the golden lashes stuck together. An arm was curled about his head. The woman who lay beside him, as motionless as he, appeared the soul of innocence as the gray light, filtering through the holes in the green blinds, exposed her white skin and her red lips and the black hair, unpinned and spread like a fan upon the pillow. She lay straight, her arms at her sides, as if she were dead.
This morning I did not and I could not cry. It was as though my father had done all the crying that could be done. Against my will, I continued to review his terrible collapse. What could it mean, I wondered, in a grown man? And would it happen again? Once he had broken the rules of a man’s behavior, would he cry as often as I did?
I was startled at the sound of someone’s boots on the gravel path at the side of the Hotel and before I could get to my feet, Gonzales, the gardener, was standing before me. He had always frightened me, for no reason that I could discover. He had the mildest of pink mouths under a thin, romantic mustache, and large bovine eyes beneath a low, protuberant brow. I disliked the way in the kitchen, in the summer time, he would steal up on me in his sneakers and put a soft finger on the back of my neck so suddenly that goose-flesh covered me and my heart pranced in surprise.
“What do I see?” he said, laughing, showing his teeth which were so small that the gum was visible above them. “What is the matter with Señorita Marburg? You tell Gonzales your troubles, honey.”
He sat down on the step and put his arm around me. There was a strong assorted odor about him of something oily and something acrid, of garlic and of bootleg beer. He put his lips close to my ear, lifting up the edge of my tarn. “Tell, Gonzales, honey.”
Too frightened to move or to cry out, I trembled in his embrace as he continued his unwelcome consolations. “There, there. If you don’t watch out your face will freeze that way, sweetheart. Don’t you want to tell your Uncle Jesus what’s the trouble?”
“Is your name Jesus?” I asked him, my admiration fo
He said “Yes,” softly, like a lover, and hugged me closer to him. “If I was my own master like your daddy, I would make a lot of Novenas. But me, Jesus, I don’t have the time.”
In the summer, he always greeted me with some such pious announcement. He would remind me that my father was in a state of mortal sin because he had not been to confession or mass for seven or eight years, and he would ask me if I did not long to be baptized. He himself, with his eight children, received the Blessed Sacrament every morning at the six o’clock service and on Sundays entertained the priest, Father Mulcahy, at breakfast after the eleven o’clock mass. Once he had come to my father’s shop, beseeching him to deliver himself up to the mercy of God. His big brown eyes had been full of tears. But my father had only confounded him by saying, “I know my own mind. I am no boy.”
I said nothing in reply. He released me, lowered his head, and dangling his hands between his outspread knees, murmured, “Always remember, Señorita, that you and your poor father are in my prayers.”
“Thank you, Mr. Gonzales,” I said and slipped over on the step. “I’ve got to go to school now.”
“Yes!” he cried, slapping his knee. “And I to work must go. I’m afraid to look in the pit. I’m as sure as my name is Jesus Francisco Gonzales that the hydrangeas were frozen last night.” He stood up and started down the path, but pausing at the corner of the porch he faced me once more. “How is your mother, sweetheart?” I answered that she was well enough, only a little tired, for I was remembering how soundly she slept when I left the house.
The Mexican winked at me. “Tired of carrying the little one?”
“I mean your little brother or sister or whichever it is Our Savior intends it to be.”