Boston Adventure, page 7
I lay still after she had left the room, listening to her shaking down the ashes and drawing water for the tea. I remembered, as from a dim former life, that some time in the night I had staggered, bloated with sleep, upon my mother’s arm into the bedroom and I had flung out protesting arms and had muttered, “Leave me be,” as she took off my middy blouse and undid the waist from my skirt.
I had never dreamed that the bed was so soft. The blankets and pillows were like loving, hugging arms, and I closed my eyes again, wishing that now I had it all to myself I might stay in it the whole morning. Directly I heard the Hendersons joining the Kadish children on the road to school. “Where’s Sonie?” said one of them, and when there was no answer I was certain that they were whispering amongst themselves. Probably the Kadishes had heard the quarrel last night, for our houses were only a few yards apart. But I was not yet wide awake enough to be conscious of shame, and careless of all but this snug bed, I burrowed deeper into the blankets like a hibernating animal and thought of how, presently, I would break my boiled egg over a piece of bread and salt and pepper it while a cup of tea at the side of my plate steamed into my face.
* * *
MY FATHER had taken nothing with him: no clothes but those he wore, no tools, not even an extra pipe. Through the years of his absence, I used sometimes to wonder, as I looked at the kitchen shelves or at the traps in his shop, if he had not had time to collect his things together, if he had wanted to be on his way before the violence of his decision capitulated and left him still obliged to go but to go now without the desire; or if he had taken nothing in the intention of beginning anew, as unencumbered as possible, free both of the nuisance of carrying his belongings and of the reminders implicit in them of the life he had left behind.
His empty-handedness struck both my mother and me as evidence that he would come back, for he had a strong sense of possession, obvious from the clutter in his shop. He had brought from Germany four great boxes besides numerous small ones. These had never been opened because, being a poor man and unable to make new acquisitions, he did not want to wear out what he had. He saved everything for a “rainy day” but even when he was deluged with bursting clouds, he never so much as considered unlocking his treasures.
After we had had our breakfast, my mother, explaining to me that she was now in the fourth month of her pregnancy (sensing my disapproval she implored me, “Ah, good Christ, Sonia, you be nice to your poor mother!”), sent me to fetch Mrs. Henderson. She was feeling unwell and thought that the neighbor woman would prescribe something soothing to help her over the shock. She did look ill and weary and I was glad to shift the responsibility for her to someone else. Actually, I suppose, she was not in much discomfort, for as soon as Mrs. Henderson came, she brightened up and began to talk and eagerly to drink the tea into which had been poured a little rum. Mrs. Henderson was a large, good-natured woman, prematurely gray. Because of her hair and because she wore bifocal spectacles, I thought she was old, and at first had believed that she was the grandmother, not the mother of the children with whom I played. Plainly, she did not want to hear my mother’s account of last evening, the preface to which greeted her the moment she stepped across the threshold. She asked me a great many questions about school, whether I was looking forward to the Christmas pageant, and if I liked Civics this year and if I did not agree that Miss Pickens, my teacher, was the sweetest woman on earth. My mother, who had no interest in my education, nodded her head now and then in bored courtesy until she could bear it no longer and wrested the conversation from us. She began to talk in a passionless monotone of what she called her “condition,” and as she spoke of my father’s disappearance only in relation to it, I could learn nothing new about what had happened after I fell asleep on the floor. Blushing, I went out to the shop.
For some time, I sat on the work bench gazing about me at the tools and the bottles of dye and polish and the hides hung along the walls. I intended to open my father’s boxes, and it was as though I expected a new world to rise in primeval mist when I had lifted up their lids. For, knowing nothing but charm of Germany, I assumed that their contents would be charming. From my father, I had learned that castles were a natural part of the landscape of his country, that a faëry life as old as the earth whispered and flirted in the enchanted forests, that all families were large, rich and congenial and every Sunday afternoon went walking through the hills until they came to an inn tucked away in the chestnut trees. The father would point his stick and cry, “Listen, what do you say to a piece of cake, you, Hermann, you, Friedrich?” And they would all go in to drink some coffee or perhaps some red wine with a cherry torte or a plate of lebkuchen. I knew, moreover, that on the façade of my father’s house in Würzburg, there were bas-reliefs of kings’ heads, bunches of grapes, lyres, and goblets, and that within the house there was a big tile stove and all the sheets were pure linen.
Nearby the nail where the key of rings to the trunks hung, there was another nail from which dangled a black rosary with golden gauds, a present, he had told me, from his Aunt Therese, on the day of his confirmation. As the sheen of the beads caught my eye, I wondered if perhaps this afternoon, wherever he might be, he would go to confession. What would the father in the cubbyhole say to him? Would he tell him to come back to us? I was not sure yet that I wanted him to return. I had no feeling of loss thus far, and I could think only with joy that there would be no more quarrels at night. Perhaps now that he was gone, my mother would change, would emerge from her slovenly wrapper and her lazy ways, and would no longer spend all her time staring at the sea. (It happened that my father, from his windows, and I from Miss Pride’s, looked toward Boston, but my mother, looking out the windows of our kitchen, could see only a long white stretch of sand and a few crags far off, and then the endless sea itself. It was an arresting landscape but one whose eternal monotony became maddening in time. But towards the sameness of her prospect, she was altogether indifferent.)
Into my life, moreover, my father’s escape introduced a theme of mystery. Already he was, in my mind, an almost mythical figure, belonging to no category I had hitherto known outside the pages of books, for he was not merely a fugitive, he was also particularly my father whom, after a while when I was grown up, I might seek my whole life through, as I had seen daughters do at the Bijou, missing by a few minutes a reunion in a South American cabaret, a Peking tea house, an English garden party, our gondolas passing one another on the Grand Canal just as the moon was darkened by a cloud.
There were moments, to be sure, when I rebuked him for leaving us stranded with nothing but twenty-four dollars, which my high principled mother had tried, this morning, to put into the stove. But my prayers for our better fortune were today not directed towards him but towards some unknown benefactor. And when, as the day wore on, I began to miss him, I did not wish he were here with us, but wished that I were with him, as he walked along a road, smiling, his fair hair blowing, unconscious of everything but his freedom and the strength of his body.
I took the keys from their nail, pushed aside some cartons and heaps of kindling in front of one of the trunks, found the proper key and opened it. The lid resisted and the hinges faintly screeched. The odor of camphor balls rose strongly. Each article was wrapped separately in heavy brown paper. Everything was unused, but some of the cloth had rotted at the folds from lying there so long, and the paper of the brochures of cobblers’ tools was brittle; the Lederhosen and the ski boots were stiff. I found cleated shoes, woolen underdrawers, skis, ski poles, ice skates, embroidered suspenders, hunting knives, and a rucksack. His clothes showed that he was not only a sportsman, but a gentleman as well, for amongst them were a dinner-jacket, a white silk ascot, a top hat, and a walking stick with a gold snake’s head.
There were pictures of my grandparents taken at various times in their lives, tinted and contained in heavy gilt frames. Did these old people with their stern eyes and kindl
My shoes, and nothing else, had always set me apart from other children, for they were of the finest leather and were most elegantly embellished. As I saw this morning how shabby my boots were, touched the thin spots on the soles that would soon be worn quite through, and remembered that I could no longer wear my summer sandals for my feet had grown too large, I was sorry that Papa had gone away. For if the other children had been surprised at this incongruous note in my raggedness, they had admired it. Even Betty Brunson, the wealthy dentist’s daughter, had begged her mother for shoes like mine. And the band of horrid boys who, when I had pigtails, teased me for them and teased me even more when they were cut off and my ugly “bob” was fashioned to the uncompromising lines of a cereal bowl: they, too, had looked with envy on my red-brown boots of this year, laced with rough yellow thongs and equipped on the outside with pockets in which I carried a small, dull hunting knife, salvaged from the kitchen shelves, and an eight-inch celluloid ruler.
I looked again through Papa’s effects, in the hope of finding some bauble that I had overlooked which would distinguish me as much as my shoes had done. There was nothing but the rosary, and although I was tempted to slip it around my neck, superstition checked me. In my ignorance, I thought its magic properties might operate to my destruction.
The sun was high and the piled snow was melting. I heard the Henderson children coming home for dinner, and I knew it was time for me to leave the shop which I already thought of as my own. I looked back one more time for a treasure, and now, not amongst the things spilled over the sides of the boxes, but on the work table, I saw a pair of slippers my father had made for Hopestill Mather. They were sandals with a strap up the center, through which passed another strap, fastened at the side with a gold buckle, and they had been dyed green, the color of the first leaves in the spring. One was unfinished: the sole had not been trimmed and jagged spears of thick leather stood out on all sides. But the sole of the other was so smooth and polished that it felt like satin to my cheek. I supposed she would have a green dress, made of taffeta or chiffon, and that in her hair she would wear a green ribbon like the one she had worn at luncheon that day with her aunt. I could see these little slippers dancing across a ballroom and I could smell the child who wore them: she would smell of Miss Pride’s soap and of the sharp lily-of-the-valley cologne in the cut-glass bottle. I could see no one else at the party and even her partner was no more than a black mist. But the girl, with her yellow eyes and her white skin, her head flung back so that the bright hair fell far down, was as real as the soft sandals I held in my hands, and I hated her. I took off my boots and my lisle stockings and sat down to try on the finished shoe. It did not fit. My foot was too long and so broad that it would not even go into the vamp although I struggled and pulled until I was sweating. Angrily, I flung it into a corner of the room where, in the smudged shadows, it gleamed like a wet leaf. Her hands would be small too! Half the width, half the length of mine, white as her face, smooth as the sole of the slipper, her hands would be covered with rings and bracelets, set with green jewels. And her room in her aunt’s house on Pinckney Street would have a green carpet and pale green walls and a green satin counterpane for the little green bed.
I ruined the slipper with the crude sole. Both straps I cut in two with a pair of heavy shears and I dipped my thumb in machine oil to deface the surface of the kid. I pulled off the buckle with a pair of pliers and I drove a long nail through the heel and into the wood of the work table so that it was pinned there. And then, leaving the contents of my father’s boxes in disorder on the floor, I went out, glancing backwards once at Hopestill Mather’s absurd shoe.
Mrs. Henderson had prepared a meal for us: a cabbage soup, made according to my mother’s instructions, was simmering on the stove and beans were heating in the oven. She had brought a loaf of fresh brown bread, a glass of apple jelly, and a nicely colored pat of margarine. My mother had been asleep and she looked rosy and rested. When I helped her into the kitchen—for she said with entreaty in her eyes, “My condition makes me feel funny”—and put pillows at her back, brought the table near so that she would not have to stir about, I felt a momentary affection and kissed her lightly on the forehead. I told her that I thought we might sell my father’s clothes and his ski equipment. Since they were foreign, I believed they would fetch a high price, and I fancied a sign which I would put up over the door of the shop: “Miss Sonia Marburg’s Sports Goods Shoppe.”
“Sell them? My God, you are talking crazy! He would kill you if you sold any of his trash. Kill you till there’d be nothing left of you.”
“But perhaps he’s not coming back,” I said.
“I’ll take another plate of pokhlyobka. Mrs. H. is a saint from head to toe.” As she dawdled with the spoon, she went on, “He’ll come back, you’ll see, darling. I won’t say when, not knowing where he went, but he’ll come back and I know that. And if he finds his wool drawers sold, there’s no telling what kind of way he’ll kill us. I was saying to Mrs. Henderson that what I think he did was go to Boston to get a gun. For us, you know, sweetheart. And so tonight I am going to keep a lamp on and if they see it go out they’ll hurry over to save us.”
This transformation of my father into a murderer made me laugh aloud and when I covered up my giggle with a cough, she remembered that he had, she had always suspected, “sores on his lungs” because he coughed so much, and a pity it was he couldn’t have kept his hands off me. Though my cough was purely voluntary and though I had never known my father to be ill, the remark distressed me and it was not for years after that that I was completely free of the notion that I had or might develop tuberculosis. She spoke of it from time to time, occasionally giving me garish accounts of his hemorrhages when his face turned blue and his eyes all but dropped from their sockets and blood spilled out from his lips as freely as wine from a bottle.
In vain I tried to convince her that it was only right we should sell the things in the shop. I said he would want us to, that, granted he was a bad man, he was not so bad as to want us to starve. After she had several times repeated in agitated whispers that he would be back that night to shoot us, she fell into her old, familiar placid grief, believed he would never return, and that I, poor, thin child, must make our living. “And the Hotel not open until summer time,” she mourned, turning her eyes to the sand, the crags, and the ocean. “And Luibka coming. You must go to your teacher, darling, and tell her what a fix we’re in.” I asked her if I might have one of the dollars my father had left so that I could buy something at the store for our supper. She did not answer. Her elbow rested on the edge of the blue sink and she stared through the leaves of the geraniums, restored to their proper place.
On my way to school for the afternoon session, I thought considerably of my father. If he had left us at a different time of year, I think perhaps I would have been more casual. If it had been spring, the illimitable activities which the warm weather provided would have allowed me to set the catastrophe aside to think about when nothing appealed more strongly to me. For once April had come and my summer sandals were on my feet and my heavy sweater had been laid away with bags of tobacco to keep off the moths, I became a furious engine, liking to pursue, with an i
One spring, a disaster had befallen me. I had a pitiful little cat of which I was fond. It was ridden with fleas that it hunted with its sharp teeth, seizing bits of its hide ferociously enough to draw blood. And its ears were bald with mange which had also thinned the hair of its neck so that pink skin showed through. In its misery, it never purred, but under my petting turned up milky, half-shut eyes in a sort of stupid gratitude. It had been a charming kitten, though, and I hoped through some benevolence of nature it would be restored to its original state. And then, it was killed by Gonzales’ bulldog when it still ailed. I saw the dreadful slaughter: the dog’s eyes popping as he rent and strangled the creature, spittle mingling with blood, and I heard the cat’s single wail of entreaty. Yet, although as a witness I was nauseated, once the cat was underground in a shoe box filled with petunias from Mrs. Henderson’s flower boxes, my tears dried, my faintness passed and all that evening, as though nothing had happened, I exuberantly played Kick-the-Can. But then, months later, after the summer was over and the early evenings were too dark and cold for outdoor games, I felt my loss and besought my father to kill the bulldog and, for good measure, Gonzales too. He replied that it was “good riddance.” Not only was my only companion for these winter nights gone from me forever, but my bereavement was mocked. My mother, hearing my lamentation, added to my sorrow such a weight of depressing generalizations on death and cruelty that the cat assumed a tragic stature and I thought I should never forget to mourn.