Boston Adventure, page 6
“Well?” shouted my father. “Well, where is my supper?”
“You said not to expect you, Papa. You said you weren’t coming home.”
“I did not.” He spouted like a child and stamped his foot.
My mother did not come out, and my father was angry with me for cutting his bread too thin and burning the bacon, and when I asked him what I should put the coffee into now that the pot was broken, he pounded the table with both his fists so that the cutlery bounced, and then he put his head down until his forehead was in his greasy plate and shouted, “Confiteor Deo omnipotenti, Beatae Mariae, semper Virgini . . .” but he could not go on. He rolled over until his face was pointed upward to the ceiling and he wailed, “Gott! Gott! Warum hast du mir verlassen?”
“Papa, do you want some cheese?”
“Cheese? Yes, that’s the remedy! Give your father a spoonful of cheese and that will get him out of hell!” He took me by both arms and shook me until my dizzied eyes began to hurt. “We’re fit for nothing!” His eyes, afire and yet still as cold as ice, looked upon me with such hatred and so terrible a threat that I commenced to cry. My chin lifted and my eyes narrowed and when he shook me again, the tears fell out. I could not stop and though, when he released me, I covered my mouth with my hand, the sound escaped me and the warm tears welled up as freely as water from a drinking fountain. He let me go and stepped back, aghast. Cruelly, yet out of the necessity to justify myself, I sobbed, “I don’t care! You cried last night!”
Twice he told me to be quiet and when I could not, being now at the mercy of my gulping, he drove me into a corner of the room, out of the circle of the lamplight and there, beside the dark blue sink, I huddled against the wall, bawling softly as my stopped-up nose bubbled and a faint interior disturbance in my skull made me think my brains were rattling.
He pushed back the dishes and settled down at the table to read, still so distracted that by mistake, he opened Frances and the Irrepressibles and for some moments stared stupidly at the pictures of little girls in hair ribbons and white party dresses and high button shoes before he realized, with an outburst of wounded dignity, that this was not Riders of the Purple Sage.
Just as he had thought I deliberately broke his pipe, now he thought I had mischievously substituted my book for his, not only to insult him with its childishness but to remind him that he could not read English well and that I could. He strode across the room and plucked me to my feet. “I’ve had enough of your monkey business.” He turned me around and hit me four or five times on the backside. I did not cry out but my tears continued to fall and I felt giddy as the blows stung me through my thin skirt. The action satisfied him and he drew his chair to the fire and began to read. I collapsed once more into my corner, pondering how I could avenge myself.
Probably from his frequent readings of this book, my father longed to see the west and one time, some years before, when he had made a little extra money carrying trunks at the Hotel, he bought a fine yellow hide and made a pair of cowboy boots which he sometimes wore on Sunday. As he read, I could tell by the pleasure that illuminated his face and caused him now and then to chuckle deeply in his throat, that he was far away from me and that the world in which he rode a pinto cow-pony or a roan mare contained no blubbering, angry child nor any sullen, pregnant woman. Once he paused and swung an invisible lariat over his head, leaned forward on his horse’s neck as to its flanks he pressed spurs with tied rowels. A little later, he whipped a revolver from his holster and aimed at the empty caviar can. Then, conscious once more of where he was, he kicked the stove in vexation and scratched his head.
As I crouched in my corner, I felt thin drafts of bitter air coming through the cracks in the wall and I thought of the hard, dirty snow outside and of the wind that came across the bay whipping granules of sand into the faces and onto the legs of walkers. I thought of my mother, when she was about my age, being cast out into the brutal night, and it came to me with a shock that that incredible man who dandled the German milliner on his knee was my own grandfather. I tried to imagine him and succeeded only in calling up an image of my father as he might be when he was old. This person I brought into the room and allowed to approach me and to send me away as he had sent away my mother and my aunts and uncles, and I tried to imagine what it would feel like to be exiled from one’s own house. I was intent upon my painful fancy; I had closed my eyes and the cold from the window seemed more acute. The vision of my father-grandfather seemed actually to take on flesh and spirit.
A harsh and sudden voice spoke out: “Sonie, get to bed.”
I had thought my father had forgotten that I was still in the room; his unexpected command, though its intention was disciplinary rather than unkind, thrilled me as if it were the completion of the scene behind my closed eyelids. For a moment I was not sure whether I had heard him say, “Get to bed,” and not what I had expected the grandfather to say, “Get out.” Whether it was the confusion in my mind or merely the shock of hearing words after so intense a silence, I do not know, but I burst into fresh tears, so stormily this time it was as though I had been storing them up and had only waited for a trifle to start the avalanche. My baffled father stood up and peered at me in my dark corner. He came towards me uncertainly, but I could not tell whether he was angry or remorseful. “Now, Sonie, now, girl. Come out of your corner.” I did not stir.
“Come, Mädchen,” he wheedled and I knew, because he used that tender word, that he was not cross. Perhaps he regretted his harshness and had realized my innocence. Still, I did not move, and he continued to come closer. He crouched down on the floor beside me. “There. There.” He followed the dirty meanders of the tears on my cheeks with his forefinger. “Maybe they’ll freeze there like icicles, ni’t? The kids at school will call you a cry baby girl.” Grieved at his mistake and not trying to make up for it by caresses, as my mother would have done, he had a dignity which I was bound to admire, and at last I smiled at him. “Jawohl!” he cried in genuine pleasure and then, in imitation of the friendly rancher of the Saturday night movies, he awkwardly offered me his hand and said, “Put ’er there, pardner!”
The cold from the windows laid metallic ribbons across my back. I was sickened to think of my aunts and uncles trudging, whimpering, in the Russian night, and in a glow of relief at my better fortune, I grasped the extended hand. In a meditative way, with his head bowed, my father began to finger my hand, pressing the ball of his into the hollow of my palm, lacing our fingers together, feeling the knuckles.
“Sonie,” he said after a time. “What is it you want to do when you grow up?”
I could not tell him that my only ambition was to live with Miss Pride, for I did not want him to know that I preferred her to himself. But I said, “I guess I want to live in Boston.”
“Boston? Is that all you want to do? Why, I thought you wanted to be a school teacher at least.”
“I guess I haven’t done anything right. You should want to be a school teacher, I think. How far are you in your Latin now?”
“We don’t start Latin till the eighth grade,” I told him and then, because I saw how curiously he looked at me, I added, “I’m in the seventh now.”
“It would be a comfort for a man to know what he used to know,” he mused. Then, to include me he said with a spurt of good spirits, “I’ll tell you what we’ll do, Sonie, we’ll go west some day to Cheyenne, Wyoming. Wouldn’t you like to ride a little wild horse?”
I said I would in much sincerity, but because I was unschooled in both the scenery and the customs of the west, I did not immediately seat myself astride a horse or envisage Cheyenne, but instead, heard Miss Pride say to a friend, as I entered the drawing room, “Here is our cow girl. You know she and her father own several thousand wild roan stallions.”
“I could make us some boots.” He said that undoubtedly there was a place for a man like him who could ma
I returned him from his rapture. He looked down at me through the sad gloom. “Well, now, Mädchen, when will you be ready to go?”
“Now!” It did not occur to me that we could not go the moment we had agreed on our destination, for, being altogether unacquainted with travel, I was not aware that it cost anything. I supposed, moreover, that if we needed money for our dinner on the train (I already saw myself eating a pork chop and as many bananas as I wanted) he, like Betty Brunson’s father, the dentist, could “sell a bond.” For this, I believed was the prerogative of a father. Whenever anyone said, “I wish I had a ukulele,” or “I wish I had a solid gold barrette,” Betty would reply, “Why don’t you ask your father to sell a bond? Daddy always does.” I had always had the vague idea that my father’s bonds would be German and therefore less easily disposed of but that in an emergency he could market them.
“I am thinking,” he said with a sigh, “that it might be better if I went on first and got things lined up, you might say, and then sent for you. By that time I would have the corral built and have you a nice little palomino horse. It’s a long way out there. You would get sleepy.”
“Maybe as far as two thousand miles. I expect it’s five days or so on the train. A long, long way, Sonie girl.”
“I want to go with you, Papa. Now.”
He stiffened and stood up. My mother was standing in the doorway of the bedroom, her shadow so long it fell the length of the room and, making a right angle turn at the juncture, continued up the wall. She was pale and her staring eyes seemed uncommonly large. It seemed to me that they were never so beautiful as when she was angry. The whites of them were immaculate, not marked, as most eyes are, with shabby red tendrils, and the iris was so dark the pupil was nearly invisible, but in the sun or in the lamplight as tonight, an amber ray appeared intermittently in the iris, ending in the profound depths of that rich center. When my parents drank together, my father would gaze into her face and murmur, “Die wunderschöne Augen! Die magische Augen!” Tonight, in her sickness or in her despair or her fury, whatever it was that had driven her out to us, these eyes seemed, because of their wonderful and awful size, to be holding back their lids with effort.
Her black hair, pouched with white combs into a pompadour, hung to her waist and swung heavily with the movement of her body; it shone like a blue-jay’s feathers. She stroked one hand with the other and in the hush we could hear the muted hissing of the skin being rubbed. On her tight forearm, I saw that there was a long scratch that had been painted with iodine.
My parents stood as if entranced, each waiting for the other to speak. If only they would now be merciful, embrace, speak softly! How could my mother, so beautiful a woman, create so much unhappiness for us all? For she was beautiful and her beauty was as holy a kind as that of the statue in the church before which Gonzales had been praying. Her rosiness, her clear skin, the sheen of her hair, her calm eyes, made the old ladies at the Hotel Barstow say of her, “She is the image of a saint.” The line of the hair on her high forehead was almost straight as though a child, drawing a picture and unable to trace in it the actual irregularities of his model, had simplified, had tidied up. The planes of the face were clean and the silken flesh shrank shallowly beneath the cheekbone and became pallid or golden as the light struck it. She was a tall woman, with a graceful, lethargic carriage. Her hands were her only blemish, for they were always red and scaly with the cleaning powders she used in the summer to clean the bathtubs, and in the winter they were chapped. Her fingers were torn with cracks in the tips or hangnails or cuts from knives or gouges from bedsprings. They were always cold as though too much blood had flowed out of their rents, and I supposed that was why she continually rubbed them.
“It is no use, Shura,” my father said at last. His voice was even and formal.
At his words, she bent her head down on her breast. The hair tumbled about her like a veil and at the base of her skull, the scalp was visible between cords of the hair heavily tossed forward. She moaned, “But you must not take Sonia away from me!” She flung back her head again and I saw that not even now was her face distorted by her feelings. Not even her mouth, filter of anger, bitterness, sorrow, became less charming, and the sweetness of its shape, the texture of its dark red flesh seemed to abate her passion, making it something strapped and aimless.
“If I go, I will take nothing but my body and my soul.”
“Soul!” She spat on the floor before her bare feet. “Does a man have a soul that cuts his wife?” She held out her scratched arm. “Sonia, look! What do you think of a father like that, eh?”
“Why do you lie before the girl? She knows I never laid my hands on you. Tell her that you broke my china coffee pot and nagged me until I was crazy!”
“I hate you. Ah, I would hate any man that cried tears like a woman.”
“And I hate you, Shura, with all my heart. You’ve ruined everything for me and I’ve had enough.”
For the briefest moment, alarm showed in my mother’s face, but then she smiled. “And so have I. If it weren’t for Sonia . . .”
“Even for Sonie I’ve had enough now. From the beginning it is all wrong.”
My mother’s insistence flagged before the determination in his voice and she could not accuse him of any specific thing, but only said, complacently, “Thank God, she’s a little girl. And by the grace of the Holy Ghost, there will be another little girl. I’ll call her little Luibka.”
“So, Luibka!” He laughed like a lunatic. “So we will call the witch’s daughter after the old hell-cat. But what if the little whore in your belly turns out to be little Ivan instead? Little, little, little Russian woman, little God damn you to a little tiny Russian hell!”
“Hush! Before the child!”
His raging voice did not alter in pitch as, wheeling upon me, he commanded, “Pray for yourself, Sonie! Sonie . . .” He faltered and then, calmed, he took my mother’s arm. “Put on your shoes, Shura, and come to the shop.”
My jaws were sour and my mouth was full of saliva which escaped and wavered on my lips. When they had gone out, I moaned, and still, while my misery did not lessen, I saw myself slipping out of the house and running up the road to the Hotel. I would go through the basement and creep up the dark stairs and through the kitchen, the dining room, the lobby, up the staircase and through the corridor until I came to the door of Miss Pride’s room. I would lie on the window seat with her afghan over me and my head in the plump pillows and there I would go to sleep. Perhaps I would find the furniture covered with ghost-clothes as I had once seen them so dressed in the lobby when I peered through the cracks of the boarding at the window. I would be delighted if the hat-pin holder were covered with a dust-shroud, and if the cherubs were dressed for winter. But I remembered, sadly, that there would be nothing in the room, for before she went away, Miss Pride always locked her belongings in the closet and handed the key to the manager. Well, then, what I must do was go to Mr. Henderson next door and ask him to take me across the bay in his boat. If I came to her, late at night, without a coat, she could not refuse to let me in. “I was expecting you,” said Miss Pride to Antoinette de la Mar as the latter sank down on the green velour davenport in the elegant drawing-room, “and so I have some sandwiches and a big pot of cocoa ready for you. Will you take one marshmallow or two?”
I was awakening for a long time, climbing the waves of my sleep and relapsing, dreaming and knowing that I dreamed. A cat had laid five hen’s eggs which
“Sonia?” she inquired again.
The room was dark so that I was not sure it was day until through the thin walls I heard Mr. Henderson’s voice. “Sarah!” he called. “Oh, Sarah! Bring me the gaff like a good girl,” and I knew that he was going out to his lobster pots. Immediately afterward, the bells of the Catholic church rang eight o’clock and my mother sat up, as though the sound had alarmed her. She tested the temperature of the room by exhaling her breath in little puffs and saw, by the vapor issuing from her mouth, that it was keenly cold. Before she got out of bed, she shivered into her blue wrapper and drew on her stockings. I opened my eyes and asked, “Why am I in the bed, Mamma?”
She smiled. “Because your father went off somewhere last night. We are all alone, darling.”
“Did he go in the storm?”
She nodded, but her thoughts were not on him. “You lie there till the fire is going,” she said. “Maybe you won’t go to school today? I’ll make you a boiled egg for breakfast!” The prospect of so unusual a festivity brought a dancing light into her eyes, and with a liveliness I had never seen in her before, she moved about the room, stroking the velvety leaves of the geraniums which still stood on the bureau.
“He said he was going to put them into the stove because his pot got broken,” she said as she took the flowers down. “But I hid them in time.”