Boston Adventure, page 8
Now it was still winter when my father left, and in the desolation of the beach, I felt the desolation that would fall upon our house. The thought came to me that perhaps he would never walk along this road again and that he was therefore, in a sense, no longer alive, just as on foggy days when I could not see the State House dome, it was as though there were no Boston but that the city had dematerialized in the mist. A little wind, cold and wet with salt water, blew freshly into my face. I stooped to tighten the lace of my boot and as I did so, I felt that I had done this same thing before, but although I troubled my memory, I could not recall the other time. Afterwards and for many years, whenever I thought of my father, I saw him as though I were kneeling in the sand looking up at him on a gray winter day, our hair curling in the wind. Because my hands were cold and the lace was damp, the knot was not easy to tie. As I bent over, the smell of wetted leather came to me. When the odors, as distinct as on the day he left, came back at certain, sudden times throughout the years, with them always came the evasive feeling that every gesture I made and every particular in the landscape had been copied from some earlier day.
The fear that I might be taunted for my father’s desertion rose to make me walk more slowly. I hoped to arrive after the others had already gone into the building. But immediately afterward, I quickened my pace at the thought of being stared at if I were tardy. I could hear the cries of children playing in the yard, mingled with the thud of balls being caught by the big boys of the eighth grade, and with the whizz and whine of swings where the younger children were pumping up. Then, when I had reached the gate and poked my head about one of the big cement columns which advertised the name, “Chichester Public School,” and the date of erection of the building, and saw my boisterous schoolmates, I was urged forward by the desire to be hailed by them and was held back by the fear that I would not be and that my deficiencies, so mysterious to me and so apparent to them, would be more laughable today than ever. (I was always or nearly always the last to be chosen on a team, and I was convinced that the snub was directed against something less fundamental than simply my awkwardness in catching a ball or my inability to run without falling down on my face.) I expected to be greeted with a volley of catcalls which would proclaim my poor father’s delinquency and would not spare my hair-cut. But my advance to the front door, although it was observed, did not disrupt the games.
Betty Brunson, who rarely addressed me, was embracing a young elm tree near the door and swinging round it, her head appearing now on one side, now on another. “Hi, Sonie Marburg, whatcha going to do this aft?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I stammered.
“It so happens,” she said, “that I happen to be going to New York. My father happens to be buying a car in New York City, New York.”
A week ago, or yesterday, her voice would have been supercilious, for she would have been poking fun at me for being poor. But today, through a wonder of wonders to which I had no clue, she was including me as if her news and even her father’s car were to be shared with me in the casual, communistic spirit that inspires the friendship of children. Heretofore, she had found space in the circle of her father’s reflected glory for only two others, Esther and Ruby Beeler who were, strangely enough, even more impoverished than I. They, who had been pale, insipid waifs, bloomed under the patronage, became hearty extroverts with bold grins on their pinched little faces and roses in their cheeks which came, not from an amplified diet, but from happiness at being chosen. My first thought today was that they had offended Betty and that she was replacing them with the first person to come along. Her round face, with bright blue eyes and an obtuse nose, was framed by yellow, marcelled hair and the waves were held in place by tortoise-shell barrettes studded with rubies. She wore a coat of lambskin and a hat to match and from her pocket protruded fur-lined capeskin gloves. Without preamble, she began to relate the events of a “keen” Sunday she had recently spent with her highfaluting relatives in Boston. In the midst of her account, the Beelers came up. The three entwined their arms about one another and swayed round the elm tree with solemn faces as Betty listed the vegetables in the salad and the different designs on the coffee spoons. When she had finished, she said, turning to Ruby first and then to Esther, “We know a secret, don’t we, Beelers?”
Her protegées said chorally, “We sure do.”
Their solemnity reassured me. It was very likely no secret that my father had run away, for the Hendersons and the Kadishes would have conferred and brought the tale to school. There was, in the manner of the three girls and in the circumstances of the encounter, evidence that the secret bore a relation to myself and was not in the same category as the new automobile. I assumed that it was something from which I would make either a social or a material gain: I saw myself riding in Dr. Brunson’s new car, going to a Valentine party at the Brunsons’ house, receiving a box of candy, a charm bracelet, a round comb or a bottle of perfume from Betty, and, finally, achieving the summit of the improbable whose ascent is so easy when we are lifted up by the wings of our dreams, I imagined going to a “slumber party” at the house of Betty’s surgeon uncle in Boston. Betty and Betty’s life became the Alpha and Omega. I aspired to her small, snobbish sorority that fed on Tootsie Rolls and licorice wands, and whose insignia, provided by her father, was a Roi-Tan cigar label worn on the middle finger of the left hand.
The girls, or, as I now thought of them, “my friends” would not tell me, but continued to repeat in singsong, “We know a secret and we sure won’t tell,” until finally Betty, using her father’s language nonchalantly, remarked, “Oh, by the by, old girl, I almost forgot. Pickens wants a word with you.” Ruby, who was dazzled by her friend’s recherché speech, but not too dazzled to follow with what, in her social stratum she believed was as debonair, said, “Ain’t it the truth.” Betty gave me a push, “Well, ta-ta till after school,” she said and they retreated, walking backwards, their smiles giving way to brief glares of consternation as they almost lost their balance.
So Pickens (I dropped the “Miss” in my private thoughts, out of respect to Betty Brunson), I surmised, was in on the secret. This I did not relish, for it was to her that my mother had insisted I appeal for help. “Just tell her that your rascal papa left you and your mamma is in a condition. You beg her, Sonie, there’s a good girl. You cry and say, ‘Oh, Miss Whatyoumaycallit, I am so hungry, and we haven’t no money, no food, nor fire and not a thing.’ ” Of course no child could say anything of the kind. I had made up my mind to speak to Miss Pickens about customers for my sporting-goods shop, to make it clearly understood that I was launched already on a commercial enterprise of which the mechanism needed only the turn of a switch—the turn she would execute—to start producing a livelihood for me. In my determined independence, I thought of offering her a commission “per head” for any customer she brought me, a trick of business I had heard of through friends of my mother who paid taxi-drivers for touting rooms which they wished to let in the summer. My offer would demote Miss Pickens automatically from any position of benefactress. She was not a warm-hearted person but she was very sentimental and she viewed all successes as well as all misfortunes through tears which misted her spectacles but seldom acquired enough body to fall.
Miss Pickens was young but she already bore the marks of spinsterhood. Her fine chestnut hair was sparse at the temples and she vainly tried to hide her baldness with an absurd pompadour, bolstered up with a transformation, or, as we preferred, in our beastly way, to call it, a “rat” which sometimes became dislodged and hung spiritlessly down her cheek until she could repair herself in the teachers’ rest-room. In her choice of clothes, she seemed to aim deliberately for the most unbecoming; she was perversely fond of chartreuse, mauve, and tan, which influenced and increased her sallowness. And so great was her belief in the ensemble that she wore everything to match exactly, including her stockings and gloves, even if she had to dye them, with the result that she resemb
The building was empty save for a few teachers clustered about the radiator far down the corridor. As I opened the heavy storm doors and my nostrils were greeted by the familiar but always new odors of school—varnish, floor oil, felt erasers full of chalk—I experienced the feelings of light-headedness and pleasure I always did after I had been ill and then was well enough to go outdoors again. For it seemed ages ago, not yesterday, that I had entered here. I advanced, hunting signs of change, and found them everywhere: the old freckles on the drinking fountain I had never seen before, the ancient chains on the cloudy transoms, a green, crazed flower-pot which must have stood for fifteen years in the corner of a window sill above the stairs. And there was added to the heavy atmosphere a smell that was new to me, yet one I must have smelled daily for seven years: the smell of wet paper towels that filled the wastebasket beside the drinking fountain. It was so strong that the varnish, oil, and erasers were all but obliterated.
Miss Pickens, who had been humming “Comin’ through the Rye” and supplying the percussion by tapping the gauge of the radiator with her long foot encased in a “health shoe,” broke off her song and detached herself from the group of teachers to come toward me, her arms extended. I halted, suddenly trembling, like a person armed to defend himself against wild animals, but on meeting one face to face is immediately turned to stone. I quickly went into the seventh-grade room and scurried to my seat, laying my head on the desk, my arms folded on top, with the ostrich’s belief that I was perfectly concealed, even though I could see her through an aperture of my intertwined arms, swaying through the aisle, the frolicsome tails of her beige chiffon scarf floating above the inkwells. She sat down in Rosalie Kadish’s seat opposite me where there always hung an aura of onions which combined now with the teacher’s smell of yeast, sachet, and a slight mildew.
“I understand,” she said in her clear, uplifted voice, “that your father literally flew the coop. It was a naughty and intolerable thing to do. But every cloud has a . . . ?”
“Silver lining,” I promptly supplied.
“Exactly, For one thing we won’t ever drink beer at noon again and be sleepy in our sewing lesson, will we?”
Her sweetness curdled at the allusion. It was true. Whenever my father had the money, he brought home several bottles of beer from an old man who lived behind the Presbyterian church and carried on a paltry bootlegging business. I always begged for a glass, but my father, more through greed than prudence, refused me more than a cupful which he poured into my soup. However, this was enough, having it as I did in the middle of the day when I was already drowsy from the morning in school and the long walk home, and having it in combination with heavy food, to make me thick-witted and often Miss Pickens found me “literally asleep,” a state at any time deplorable, but in my case magnified enormously since its cause was immoral, barbarous, and illegal. “To spoil good soup!” she fretted. Once, after I had committed some monstrous blunder in buttonholing, she called on my father and charged him with rearing me to be a drunkard. My father shrugged his shoulders and pretended not to understand her: “Bitte, sprechen Sie Deutsch, gnädiges Fräulein?” he said with a troubled face. She left, defeated and unfriendly, and had thereafter a chillness towards me which accounted, as much as my dreaminess, for my low grade in Deportment.
I said I supposed I would not drink beer again and the prospect saddened me. My teacher then laid a damp hand on mine and said, “There, there, it’s hard, poor child, but we mustn’t cry,” and though she was not, of course, referring to the beer, I decided that my life would be unendurable without it. “We” had had until now no urge to cry, but her words, so mushy and stale and yet so tender and personal, started up a torrent of tears, and each time my inquisitive tongue received a drop, I was reminded, bitterly, of the way my father had put salt in his beer. I suffered her to lay her moist fingers on my head and arms and to come quite close to me in an embrace in which all the unhealthy odors she dispensed rose and eddied about me at the slightest movement on the part of either one of us.
“We must be brave and not be a burden to Mother who is bringing a baby into the world just for us,” and then, to distract me, she said, in a fun-loving way, “I’ll tell you what: I’ll bet you a dollar to a doughnut it’s a boy.” When I agreed with a sobbing “Okay,” she went on to tell me that as luck would have it, Betty Brunson’s mother was also expecting the stork very soon, and she had been saying only the other day how much she would like to find a girl to help with the housework, and Miss Pickens had said to herself, “Why, I know just the girl. My Sonie Marburg is very capable and works at the Hotel in the summer so she must know how things are done, dishes and so on. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if she wouldn’t love to work in that nice shiny new house where her chum Betty lives.”
I lifted panic-stricken eyes to my teacher and dropped them at once. The shock had stopped my tears. I could not become a servant in Betty’s house when she was about to admit me into her circle! Such a job, possible anywhere else and even attractive (for, in spite of my intention to refuse, I saw what I might gain in the way of petit larceny of sugar lumps and birthday candles and other staples which would never be missed), would cancel all those social engagements which had practically been proposed to me on the school ground just a few minutes ago. It was only after my stammered reply that my mother needed me at home, when Miss Pickens said, “Why, Betty thought it would be lovely. She’ll be so disappointed,” that I realized this was the secret. Everything had been ill-timed, and I, in my uncircumspect cockiness, had been caught in a trap.
Miss Pickens was stubborn and set before me arguments that I could not refute. I saw that the sooner I resigned myself the better, for my commercial pipe-dream could avail me nothing now that the teacher, essential to its working out, was set upon the new plan which, in her surpassing conventionality, she regarded as great good luck for me. She, being comfortably off herself, had no patience with pride in the poor as she often told us, apropos of tales she had read in the newspapers. Nevertheless, urged by desperation, I told her what I had intended to do.
Her befogged eyeglasses glared at me. “I’m surprised at you, Sonia. I didn’t think you were a silly girl. You’ve been reading silly books instead of good books, suitable for your age group.” (“Age group” was the sort of expression that had once fascinated me. She had learned her “Education” well and had not for
She obviously doubted the quality of my father’s paraphernalia, and I said, “They’re very expensive.”
“Well, we’ll see about that part of it. Don’t you worry. I’ll do my bit for you if you’ll be sensible and go work for Mrs. Brunson.”
I was gradually persuaded; rather, one self, already installed in the Brunson kitchen and reaching out a hand toward the sugar canister, was persuaded. Miss Pickens was pleased with my change of heart. “And now,” she said, rising and plucking me by the shoulder, “now we must get rid of our tears, isn’t that right? Hurry along, the bell’s about to ring.” And she hustled me down the corridor toward the teachers’ rest-room. There was a recrudescence of my disappointment and I felt that I could not face Betty again today. I told Miss Pickens I felt a little sick and had a headache, couldn’t I please go home?
“Certainly not,” she said severely, but then, seeing how woebegone I was, she relented and in a burst of kindliness, even suggested that I wait in the lavatory until the other children had assembled in the classrooms so that I might leave the building without being seen. I was surprised that the teachers’ rest-room smelled like ours and had the same gray enameled doors to the toilets. Only on great occasions of illness or accidents were children admitted to the room. Once, in the year before, some privileged little girl told us that as she was recovering from a nose-bleed, she had seen a cigarette butt on the floor, stained with lipstick. We tried to detect signs of guilt in all the teachers’ faces, and could not, but the worldly Beelers said, “Oh, piffle, you dumb-bells. They all do it, but they flush them down the toilet.”