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A room away from the wol.., p.5

A Room Away From the Wolves, page 5

 

A Room Away From the Wolves
 


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  Lacey’s father bowed his head. I wasn’t sure what he would do: shout at me, or push me away, or grab me harder this time.

  I backtracked. “I didn’t know her, I told you. I only got here today.”

  There was noise on the stairs, and he stepped away and crossed the room. Lacey’s mother and sisters came down with a suitcase and a few boxes. “That’s the last of it,” her mother said. Her face was cool and composed, but her eyes held something heavier and tangled.

  “Let me at least help with these,” the man said.

  “We’ve got it. Didn’t I say stay in the car?” With that, they all left through the front exit. I watched the door seal shut. The room relaxed without them in it.

  “That took long enough,” a sharp voice called from the stairs. A tiny, bony woman descended to the bottom. “They’re always so emotional. It’s exhausting.” A smile crept onto her face. “Please forgive me for keeping you waiting. You can come in now.”

  She lifted her arm to indicate the door beside the stairs. I’d noticed it was closed before, but here it was, open. Who’d opened it? “Aren’t you here about the room?” she said. “That is what you came for, isn’t it?”

  I nodded.

  “Call me Ms. Ballantine, I prefer it.”

  I hadn’t called her anything at all.

  She was small yet commanding, standing with marked intensity on the golden carpet. It was a wonder how much space she took up in the room though she was shorter even than me. Tight skirt, shiny. Blouse with ruffles, satiny. Jewelry of all shapes and metals and protrusions, around her neck and wrists and fingers, on her earlobes and pinned to her shirt, all gleaming. Her hair—an artificial golden yellow that mimicked the rug—was pulled back into a severe bun at the base of her skull. She could have been forty or one hundred years old. She was, I’d soon understand, the landlady and manager of the house, though not the owner. Catherine House was controlled by a trust, because its human owner was long dead.

  “I’m Sabina,” I said. “Bina, I mean. You can just call me Bina. My mother, she rented a room here a long time ago, and I know it’s weird, but I thought . . .”

  She was assessing me without any movement. Not a breath escaped her mouth. Even her eyes were still, unblinking. It was unsettling. Finally she shifted, sliding her fingers together, making the rings knock.

  I started talking again. I didn’t know what else to do. “I’m, uh . . . You said bring cash?”

  “Don’t be daft,” she said, and most unsettling of all was how wide she was now smiling. “I know who you are, Miss Tremper, not that I’ve told the others yet. You still have to sign the paperwork. This here is my office. Come in.”

  It was only as I was walking inside, ushered in ahead of her, that the thought came to me: When we’d spoken on the phone, she’d assured me there was a vacancy. She’d said bring cash. Then she’d ended the call before ever asking my name.

  The Vow

  I’d already explained that I wanted my mother’s room, Room 10, and after that I couldn’t seem to stop talking. “Do you remember my mother?” I asked Ms. Ballantine. “She was going by Dawn Tremper then? It was before she got married?” I hated that my mother had changed her name, matching herself to the man she was with—it meant she no longer matched with me. “Were you here then, when she was?”

  The details didn’t help. Many girls had stayed here over the decades. Many wanted to act in movies or have their eager selves circled in a bright-hot spotlight on a red-curtained stage. More than a few went back to bad boyfriends and former abusers, or came to rent a room with welts on their arms, flinching when touched, saying they needed someplace to stay. A hundred girls might fit that description. If Ms. Ballantine remembered, wouldn’t she tell me?

  Instead she leaned forward and said, “Are we going to stop this charade now?”

  “Stop what?”

  “I was hoping you would call sooner, but I told her we had to be patient, that the day would come. And here you are.”

  A ripple of surprise ran through me.

  “My mother called?” She must have known for a while that she’d send me away—since the Toyota in the tree, or longer? Since I turned fifteen, the first worst year of my life, followed by the next two? I thought she’d wanted me to stay with those friends from his church, but all along she’d known I’d end up here, as she had. My heart warmed for a second.

  But if that was true, how did she know I’d take the card and make the phone call myself ?

  “Oh no,” Ms. Ballantine said, correcting me. “No, no. Your mother hasn’t contacted us in years. We do like our former tenants to keep in touch. If they’re able.”

  “So she didn’t call.”

  “No,” she said, “you did.”

  Something inside me sank. I didn’t admit that my mother had no idea I was here, that I’d swiped the number, along with some money from unguarded wallets. My mother surely hated me right now and was maybe investigating the legalities of getting a daughter disowned, and changing the locks, and pressing charges for grand larceny (how much did it have to be to turn “grand”?). I’d been talking about her as if we were close, two pinkies entwined and cycles synced, even today.

  Still, Ms. Ballantine hadn’t said she remembered. Decades of girls coming and going, room keys traded from hand to hand, a pile of names. I wanted my mother to be the most memorable, a shining face in the crowd, but nothing indicated she was.

  I could even be mistaken about the name. My mother started going by Dawn the day she moved into this house. That was her middle name and her stage name, and now it was her ordinary name out in the world. I could see her in this room, her hair that rotated through a half dozen colors in a single summer, her unwieldy dreams, her overstuffed suitcase bursting with shoes. Now I’d get to see this place for myself, and I’d know her. I’d know her in a way I never did before.

  Her last name then and mine all my life, Tremper, wasn’t technically my mother’s, either. She liked it better than our family name, which sounded too “ethnic” for her future in Hollywood, she said, where so many people recast themselves with smooth, bland new selves and pretended not to be what they were. Her invented name was borrowed from the place where she was from, Mount Tremper in Ulster County. She put it on her glossies. She answered to it at every cattle call. She changed it legally, at the courthouse. When I was born, she passed it along to me.

  I was about to ask Ms. Ballantine again when we were interrupted. The door was partly open, and a girl’s head peeked in. Dark hair in a halo of static. Wide, searching eyes that landed on me.

  “Yes, we have a new tenant,” Ms. Ballantine said. “You’ll meet her later.”

  The girl stared. I felt naked in the chair, peeled open.

  Ms. Ballantine waved her hand, a shooing gesture, and the head vanished.

  “I apologize,” she said. “But I have bad news.” She explained I couldn’t have Room 10; it was occupied. But this was such good news that all the rooms were occupied, didn’t I think so? Even if I had to have Room 14?

  I pictured the mysterious Lacey, all her belongings carted out and piled on the curb. Was I getting her room? What happened to her here? No matter. I said I’d take the room. It wasn’t my mother’s, but it was close enough.

  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw another girl drift past the open doorway, slowing. Blond head this time, smoothed hair that flipped upward at the ends. Small pursed lips and not a word, either.

  After her was a girl in purple, and another, a splash of red hair and red lipstick.

  “Don’t mind them,” Ms. Ballantine said, so studiously unbothered it made me wonder if I should be concerned. My back was to the door, and anyone could have walked by.

  I turned again. Across the way I had a view of the grand parlor, gold velvet on any object that could be encased in gold velvet, crowded with artifacts from places un
known, swimming with dust, and crowned with the portrait of the serious young woman in the gilt frame. The tenants weren’t watching me anymore—they’d scattered. The photograph on the wall—it was watching.

  “Is there a problem?” Ms. Ballantine said.

  The portrait. Were its lips moving, creating a faint blur beneath glass? Was the frame crooked on the wall now, as if it had skittered to the left? Did the glass in front of her face contain a strange, swirling mist?

  “Could we, um—” I didn’t want to put words to what I was seeing. “Could we close the door?”

  Ms. Ballantine stood from behind her giant desk. She stalked across the room—it wasn’t a large room and was crammed with filing cabinets, but I heard every clack and smack of her jewelry, and she wore a tremendous amount—and pulled the door shut. It wasn’t until she was back behind the desk again, bulbous rings glistening, that she spoke the name.

  “You’re curious about our Catherine.” When I didn’t respond, she clarified. “Catherine de Barra. Our namesake and the owner of this townhome, before her tragic end. As I’m sure your mother told you. That portrait was taken when Catherine was a mere eighteen years old. The year she lost her father. He was her last living relative. After his death, she was all alone. Imagine.”

  Ms. Ballantine had called me curious, but curious was not the word I’d use. I’d say unsettled. Something caged inside that frame bothered me.

  I found some empty words and said them. “It’s a beautiful photograph.”

  Ms. Ballantine let silence sit between us, as if to call my bluff. The photograph was substandard, in fact—once you got close enough, the soft blur became clear. It seemed an optical illusion, with only the eyes and the mouth sharp. Everything else was clouded. I’d noticed that in the parlor.

  “I mean, the girl in the picture—Catherine—she was beautiful.”

  Ms. Ballantine’s eyes narrowed. Did I see the picture? Did I even look?

  I did. I thought anger was very beautiful on a girl, so long as it wasn’t directed at me.

  “Catherine was not known for her beauty,” Ms. Ballantine said. As she spoke, she went to a filing cabinet. “There are other ways for a woman to be remembered. I tell all our girls that—for their sakes.”

  She drew a stack of papers from one of the file drawers. “In Catherine’s case, what beckoned all the suitors was her inheritance. Charles de Barra, her father, was quite protective before he died. Some say too protective. Some say . . . unhealthily attached.” She shrugged, as if she wasn’t one of those who would say that. “But after his death, word got out, as it does, and suitors crowded the rooms out front. They came bearing gifts. They came for weeks on end, but no one was chosen before the incident that took her life. It turned out she left the house to all of us. Somehow she knew we would need it.”

  The incident. I held on that word.

  Us. As if I were already one of them.

  Ms. Ballantine gazed with reverence at the dingy curtains and the low ceiling, cobwebs clinging to the corners. Then she turned and looked me straight in the face. Did she see an angry, unsteady mess of a girl? Did she recognize the true person I was?

  No. She was only assessing my face. Only concerned with my outside parts and my surface. The bruises, the swollen spots, the banged-up lip, did make me appear desperate. That was what she seemed to be searching for—it was all she saw, all she needed to know.

  “Catherine said you would come,” she said. She’d raised her voice, as if she hoped someone just outside the room might hear.

  I sat up very straight in my chair.

  “Caring for this house all these years”—how many years? I wondered; something about the milky film over Ms. Ballantine’s eyes made me suspect a great many—“being here for each and every young woman who finds her way to these doors, I often think of the tragedy of it all. I’m grateful to your mother for sending you, Miss Tremper. It’s been almost twenty years since all our rooms were filled in the precise way we were hoping. When Catherine told me you’d called, I felt this little flicker. I couldn’t think of the word to call it until this moment. Hope. She felt it as well, when you spoke.”

  She touched a ringed finger to a fat black phone on the desk. It had a wire plugged into the wall. One by one, in quick succession, these thoughts struck me:

  She thinks my mother sent me here on purpose.

  She thinks I talked to a dead woman on the phone.

  Get up. Get out of the chair.

  Walk to the door. Get your suitcase. Go.

  But my body didn’t move. Only my mouth did.

  “I’m sorry?” I said. “Aren’t you who I spoke to on the phone?”

  She shook her head. She was saying what I thought she was saying. Behind the film covering her eyes—as if just on the other side of a thin white curtain—a light was shining. A bright, bobbing light.

  There was a knock on the door, and another girl popped her head in. I tried to meet her eyes—but she avoided my gaze. “Excuse me . . .” She hesitated. “May I ask about the ice?”

  “Yes?” Ms. Ballantine said.

  “We wondered . . . might we need some?” She spoke so formally, her freckles darkening on her cheeks as she spoke, as if this were a bold question.

  Ms. Ballantine leaned forward. “Yes, Miss Tedesco, thank you for checking first. We do. We absolutely do.”

  The girl’s tense face relaxed.

  “It looks like we’ll be having the party,” Ms. Ballantine said. She nodded. The girl nodded. The door closed. I’d not gotten out of my chair or made a run for it. I’d not moved a muscle. It was funny that they were talking about ice, because my fingers felt so cold as I gripped the arms of the chair. The mist I’d caught sight of in the portrait wasn’t behind a layer of glass in the next room anymore. It was at my feet, creeping upward in a faint shroud over my legs. It felt like the lower half of my body was crouched in a tight freezer, but the upper half was still free.

  Then gone. Any thought of mist or cold or the foreboding sense I should walk to the door and leave was over. All of it gone but the ordinary drifting dust inside the dim, cramped room. I could see my legs again. Ms. Ballantine was seated behind her desk as before.

  I touched the tender spots on my face, my head.

  That felt more real than any of this. But maybe I wasn’t quite myself yet.

  “Are you ready?” Ms. Ballantine said, a crinkle of concern on her brow.

  “What do you mean? Ready for what?”

  She touched the back of her head, base of the skull, left side, exactly where my own hand was. “You said your head was hurting and you needed a minute. Did the episode pass?”

  My head was oddly clear. I nodded. The episode—whatever it had been—must have ended, and so swiftly I didn’t remember it.

  “Let’s continue with the paperwork,” Ms. Ballantine said.

  Paperwork. That was what we were doing. I had a page in front of me on the desk.

  There was the short-term rental agreement for me to review—I could afford only the month of July, but I knew I had a whole month to come up with a way to pay for August—then items for me to initial and sign. Ms. Ballantine offered a ballpoint pen, encrusted in dust. She’d have to abbreviate the orientation tour, she explained, because she had to supervise setup for tonight.

  “The party is tonight?” I prompted.

  “Yes, that’s what Miss Tedesco was asking about. She’s tasked with running to the corner market for ice. With this heat, we’ll certainly want it for the drinks.”

  I nodded again. I remembered some talk of ice, and my feet and legs and hands were warming again, feeling the summer humidity clogging the room.

  “Did you bring anything you might wear?” she asked. “Cocktail attire is preferred.”

  “I’m invited?” I said.

  She almost laughed. “Of cou
rse. Do you think you might have a suitable dress?”

  That would depend on what was inside my suitcase. Before I’d even snuck out for the night, when I was in the shower, my mother had let herself into my room. She was the one who’d packed the suitcase and left it for me on the end of my bed, zipped and tagged with my name over hers, crossed out. She’d tried to fix the broken wheel with duct tape, but it didn’t work. She probably thought she was being helpful to me, loving. She didn’t realize she was being cruel.

  My face was still stinging from the last party, not a day ago, which featured me drunk in the dirt, wishing I could dig down into the tree roots and bury myself in the warm black earth.

  “Eight o’clock,” Ms. Ballantine said. “Perhaps ask one of the other girls to lend you something.”

  We moved on once more. I turned over the cash for a single month’s rent, more than I could afford. I tried not to think about how I had $94.59 after train ticket and subway fare, and no job and no prospects.

  “One more thing before I retrieve the keys,” Ms. Ballantine said, pushing a sheet toward me. “The vow.”

  She was serious. This sheet of paper began with a place for the date and the words “I do agree that I”—a wide gap where I was to write my name—“as a resident of Catherine House, a refuge for young women that has opened its doors to me as I promise to open myself to it, vow today the following . . .” It went on with a series of rules. Quiet hours were from ten to five. Breakfast was served between seven and eight thirty. A house refrigerator for our other food items could be found in the back hallway, but we were not allowed to use the oven or the stove. Curfew was ten o’clock on weeknights, midnight on weekends. Other rules included no smoking, no illicit substances of any kind, no high heels on the hardwood floors (this was because heels made scuffs; I made no comment about Ms. Ballantine’s own heels), no pets, no hot plates in the rooms, no candles of any kind, no incense, nothing that burned or could start a fire.

 
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