Among the Daughters/Chapter 5
"A THING OF BEAUTY"
On Twelfth Street, in the moonless starlight, giant elms lining curbs reached arms across the road to form a long black tunnel of love. An outraged sparrow, awakened, cheeped accusingly, agitating the still, black leaves of its perch. Calls of "Run, my good sheep, run, run—" faded into the night as small boys, ready to trap Indians, were nagged to bed.
Good night, good night, neighbors called.
Men knocked ashes from pipes, screen doors creaked, doors clicked. Lights went on in bedroom windows as Sears Roebuck chairs on front porches rocked themselves to sleep. Down the block a lamppost stood sentinel, imprisoned in its own greenish light.
The street was still and waiting. Every night now it waited. It had been like this, the night waiting, for weeks now. Before there had been nothing to wait for except individual waitings for births or deaths. But now it was as if all waiting had been reduced to one agonized thirst of the flesh. Small grey wooden houses stood in the resolute sobriety of a Reform Choir, peaked roofs reaching upward like hands in prayer. A Choir whose members admitted only over back fences in avidly whispered tsk-tskings their gnawing preoccupation, day and night, especially night. The small grey houses had settled into the routine of the street before the first coat of paint had dried; asylums whose swinging screen doors never before had fanned thoughts of escape from imprisonments of the flesh in the order within. Then, suddenly, No. 42, a member of the Choir, was revealed as a Pandora's box from which bloomed a foreign flower, aphrodisiac to the senses of Twelfth Street.
No exotic bloom had place here. Someone once had planted a magnolia brought by a visiting cousin from the South, but even careful wrapping against winter cold could not shield it from shriveling in the flat prairie heat. Inside the small grey wooden houses rubber plants thrived in the jungle green darkness of shade-drawn parlors, as if fertilized by hidden fierce desires. Outside neat flower beds wreathed the feet of the Choir to provide sparse bouquets for Aunt Ilma's birthday or Grandfather's grave.
Only one night-blooming jasmine uneased with thoughts of the flesh the dwellers of Twelfth Street. A haunting scent to stir revolt between pulsations of desire and fright in the hearts of their daughters. But the fright, making them hate their involuntary liberator, and flight to safety behind parental admonition, did not last long. Every night the remembered perfume, the night-blooming jasmine that was Lucy Claudel, made them thirsty for love.
But to one daughter it was as incense to the nostrils of an ardent young nun, inspiring thirst to serve and, in serving, to learn the secret.
Vida Bertrand sat on her home's front steps at No. 40 Twelfth Street. It was ten o'clock but she could not bear to go in without a glimpse of Lucy. Sometimes Lucy came home as early as this, after everybody had gone in. It was getting cool but Vida didn't care. She hugged her knees. A misguided ant mistook her thigh for the path home. Vida wriggled and pulled her red print dress between her knees. She had walked to the corner and back twice, never stepping on a crack to make her wish come true. A shooting star lanced the sky. She wished again. She wished Lucy Claudel would be her best friend and some night instead of going with a boy, Lucy would take a long, long walk with her. They would put their arms around each other's waists and tell each other secrets. It wasn't that she had secrets to tell but you have to tell secrets to be told secrets, and she so wanted to hear from Lucy the story of her life. A life of thirteen years of more excitement than had happened to all of Twelfth Street forever.
It had happened this way. Two months ago, Miss Welland next door told Vida's mother that her sister Mae was coming back home to live, bringing her sick child. The poor things were starving in Denver.
"Serves her right," had said Mr. Bertrand sourly, washing at the kitchen sink. The sagged curve of his wet mouth matched his shapeless grey pants. A fourteen-year resentment spurted anew at Mae Welland who had turned him down and up and married a traveling salesman from New Orleans. A foreigner! If she'd of married someone with money you could of understood it. But a traveling salesman yet, a pipsqueak who sold embroideries. The bristles of a four-day beard scrubbed his stubby fingers. He rinsed the soap, snorting and blowing water over the clean drainboard and floor. He pulled the roller towel to cleaner territory, wiped his face vindictively as though it was the reason Mae had refused him. Lint clung to his beard, aging him with white fuzz. He scraped his scalp with a comb which hung from a chain under a small mirror next to the backyard door. Mr. Bertrand looked at himself as he combed, twisting his face into a misshapen glower.
Not a bad-looking feller, he thought. She would of done better to take me.
He could see her, a small gentle tan dove with a soft light-brown pompadour and a peekaboo shirtwaist with a belt almost as small as the collar around her slender neck. His streaked watery eyes bulged as they stared into the past to see the small corseted fig-shaped hips. What did she look like now? He held out his coarse hands and inspected his nails. Choosing a small blade from his tool-chest of a knife he scraped and dug, pulling in flat lips against moss-green teeth.
Mrs. Bertrand watched him sullenly. The mess he made every night irritated her even more tonight than usual. She forgot it was at her insistence that he used the sink instead of soiling the bathroom upstairs. Why couldn't he wash at the factory? It was no secret Bert had wanted that Mae Welland. Stuck-up Mae Welland who made herself dresses like the rich customers of Bittner Sisters for whom she had sewed. A righteous gleam cricketed across her beetle eyes. She might not be such a swell dresser but she had held on to her man.
A sudden wave of disquiet made her dizzy. Kitchen must be too hot. Flat vapor from a pallid veal stew steamed as Mrs. Bertrand lifted the lid to drop in dumplings.
Mr. Bertrand looked up from his nail excavations and eyed the steaming pot. His forty-year-old figure already had the bent-knee droop of old age, a droop accelerated by truckling to employers at the factory where he was foreman. When he reached home, fortified by two glasses of beer, he had mustered a leaden mold of arrogance suitable to the head of a family.
His hank of a wife however knew how to hold him at bay with her needling remarks, for Mae Welland was a splinter in his memory—and hers. She opened the white oven door of the black gas stove and tested an Indian pudding with a straw pulled from the broom. The kitchen was noisy with the clatter of kettles and brooding silence between Mr. and Mrs. Bertrand.
Mr. Bertrand jerked up his pants. "What's the matter," he grumbled, "can't you ever make anything dainty?"
"Dainty!" muttered Mrs. Bertrand as she walked to the hall door. "I guess Mae Welland has learned her lesson, all right."
A spot of six o'clock sunlight reddened her long pointed nose. Her complaining voice shrilled—"V-i-d-a, you come right down here and set the table."
Vida sat crosslegged on the grass rug in her bedroom, a blue and white bowl of cherry pits and stems beside her. She clasped her hands behind her head and leaned back against the white bedspread and stared at the silvery cream papered ceiling. Her nose planed straight down from a broad forehead as though leveled by a sculptor's tool. A full lower lip and round chin gave her a pouting but not unattractive expression. Her eyes were deep-set and brown and looked at objects as though photographing them in her memory. Her coppery arms and face glowed in the late afternoon topaz and, though daydreaming, she radiated adolescent intensity. Her straight brown hair, parted on the side, had been rolled neatly back over her ears into a long braid, but sprouting new hairs in a fertile scalp escaped to frame with tendrils the curve of her cheeks.
Cherry juice stained the white spot where her heart had been struck by Keats' shafts from the shining pages of the library book in her lap.
A thing of beauty is a joy forever
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness …
The green stripes on her white percale dress bunched like grasses around her round budding body.
Microscopic apricot bloom on her skin sent electric messages of teeming cell life into the world. Her throat swelled with confined love. Love even for her parents for whom it was a constant struggle to feel affection. Her flesh crawled at the thought of the obbligato of belching, spitting, nail scraping, and beery sweat of her father. Her mother was a blanket of graham cracker dust erupting orders of chores and conduct.
Summer vacation had been a period of waiting. Waiting for the beginning of graduation year—and Mr. Carson. Mr. Carson who loved Keats too and put on the senior class play.
Then, for the first time in her life, the outside world penetrated Twelfth Street. A bad woman and her sick child were'coming to live next door. A delicious prickle tingled her all over. She envisioned Mae Welland with that foreign married name now—Claudel—enveloped in a shabby black shawl, leading a threadbare child to shelter. The Orphans of the Storm—like a Lilian Gish movie. She was debating which dress she would donate to poor little Lucy Claudel when her mother's strident call shattered the daydream.
On Twelfth Street visiting relatives arrived in full daylight amid a hubbub of greetings and preparations for a gala meal. From the beginning, however, there was a tantalizing intangibility about Mae and Lucy Claudel. Twelfth Street was kept on tenterhooks five days beyond the date of the scheduled arrival. Each time an auto was heard women sailed to the front window, washtub-blued house dresses billowing, to see what they could see. Still the performers did not appear, housework became disorganized, and there were snippy conjectures over backyard fences. Ashamed to return probably. Shame was a constant on Twelfth Street. Shame for an undusted parlor, a showing petticoat, or tom kitchen curtains. Shame for a fallen cake, unscrubbed floor, uncut lawn. Ashamed of this, ashamed of that, ashamed of thoughts that filled the brain like a scourge of ants.
Then one morning Mrs. Bertrand from her kitchen window saw a slender young woman with short curly brown hair hanging up silk stockings and pink silk combinations, a foreign shameful sight on Twelfth Street, in Mabel Welland's yard.
The curve of the edge of the pink silk drawers was a giant peony petal. Mrs. Bertrand tugged at her slit-seat union suit sagging in her crotch. Her jaw receded into her scrawny neck as her eyes needle-pointed to place the stranger's identity. Though it was only nine in the morning, the young woman wore a navy blue dotted and draped silk dress with a white ruching around a V neck, and high-heeled black patent leather slippers! Mrs. Bertrand peered around a corner of the starched scrim curtain. For heaven's sake, she thought, I had no idea Mae's girl was so big.
She calculated. It was Mae Welland herself! All dolled up as usual. A desolating hatred enveloped Mrs. Bertrand. An old wheezing fox terrier yapped at her felt-slippered feet. "Quiet, Tina," she snapped.
This was a different Mae from the defeated penitent over whom she had been waiting to gloat. With that brazen bobbed hair Mae looked younger than when she left fourteen years ago. Mabel had said Mae and her child were starving and to Mrs. Betrand this meant a bedraggled cringing appearance, not shameless flaunting of bobbed hair and silk underwear.
Mrs. Bertrand felt she could not wait another minute to see what Mae looked like face to face. She knew now that her hope of an abject Mae greeting her first was unlikely. For the first time since marriage she thought of her own appearance. Not in terms of neatness but of looks. During her sudden and short engagement after Mae had left with Charles Claudel, on those evenings when Bert came to call, she had curled with an iron her short wiry hair. This had continued until the two-day honeymoon at Lake Ogasakee. Since then the flowered china dresser-set wedding present had been barren of cosmetics. But at the moment of seeing Mae she did an unusual thing. She looked at herself in the mirror and, spitting on her fingers, ruffed the straight hairs on her forehead into a matted mass. Then she took off her apron, rubbed her cheeks, and bit a sign of life into her colorless lips. Still she hesitated, bridling at giving Mae Welland the satisfaction of going to greet her. If only there were some excuse to go out into the yard. Tina whined.
Mrs. Bertrand told herself she had no interest in Mae, put her feet on Tina's tail and, as the dog ran yelping into the yard, followed her, calling "Tina, Tina, you come back here."
She stopped short at the fence and Mae glanced up. "Why Mae Welland, when did you get back?"
Mae brushed a lock from her forehead and smiled. Alma Bertrand, nee Beck, was as nosy as ever.
"Oh," she said in her girlish high voice, "we got in late last night." Alma's long thin nose still was as red around the nostrils as ever, as though just blown. Probably, thought Mae, from sticking it in others' affairs.
Mrs. Bertrand planted long elbows on the fence as if to nail Mae who started to leave. "Well, well, well, it's a long time, about fifteen years, isn't it?" adding another year to Mae's age since her own did not matter. "And how," she went on, teeth protruding from her upper lip ready to gnaw at the news, "is Mr. Claudel?"
A faint sigh escaped Mae, unnoticed by Mrs. Bertrand. The scraping and pinching poverty of the years since Charles disappeared bloomed into a life of adventure in contrast to the changeless cicada hum of existence on Twelfth Street. In Denver, when Lucy lay ill and undernourished, remembrance of the good kitchens in her home town of Congress made her forget the dry existence. Seeing Alma Bertrand she felt panic at having brought Lucy into the strangulating presence of Mabel from whom heavens only knew how long it would take to escape. Her grey eyes expressionless, she noted the avid glitter in Alma's slits. It would take more than Alma Bertrand to get her down.
"I don't know," she replied lightly, and went into the house.
Mrs. Bertrand, beaten, stared after her. A shameless woman, unashamed that her husband had abandoned her.
For the following two days there was no sign of Mae's daughter.
Vida found countless reasons for going in and out of her home by the back way so as to walk between the two houses and peek in the Welland windows. Once she heard a high little laugh and she tiptoed to see but saw nothing. Then one day when she felt she could not bear the suspense another second, Mrs. Claudel came out and fixed two porch chairs like a bed, piling these with cushions and quilts. Vida pretended to be digging dandelions.
Then it happened. She looked up and saw the most beautiful girl in the world. Thin and pale and with enormous slanting blue eyes and golden curls as neat and smooth as new wood shavings, she held wrapped around her a pale blue flannel dressing gown tied at the neck with a big blue satin bow. On her feet were white marabou slippers. A girl one dreamed a movie star would be like if one could see her close by. Vida, transfixed, watched Lucy snuggling into the chairs. Mrs. Claudel said something in a low voice and went into the house.
Lucy eyed the girl in the plaid gingham dress. She was pretty, and her brown hair would be easy to curl because it had a slight natural wave. It was so quiet on this street. Maybe the girl would come and talk with her. Lucy knew she would have to speak first. Boys always spoke first to her but girls always waited until she said hello. She didn't mind. What difference did it make who said hello first? She waited until Vida looked up.
A common word exchanged mechanically a hundred times a day arrived at its destination to confuse the senses. A sweet candid la in music. Vida could not believe that the heavenly vision floating on the pillowed cloud could mean her. She gaped and saw it was true. She was speechless. Shall I go up there and sit on her steps or should I just say hello, she thought for a desperate moment, seeing, as she delayed, Lucy's big blue eyes observing her. With a strangled, barely audible "hello" she then rushed, burning, into the house.
If her mother ever said another bad thing about Lucy Claudel she would kill her.
Since that day it was torture to be away from sight of 42 for fear of missing a chance to be with Lucy.
The trouble is, she thought peering anxiously down the dark street, I can't think of anything to say to her. I bet she thinks I'm stupid. I guess I am. I've never been anywhere like she has. When I ask or tell her something, 1 see her thinking what a small town Congress is. She never smiles. She laughs or she's serious, one thing or the other. I'm not going to smile any more either, it looks silly, grinning. I'll laugh, or I won't. Imagine, light blue crepe de Chine for an everyday dress. I haven't even got that for a party. Not a single wrinkle or spot. I don't see how she keeps that way. She looks just like an angel.
The image of Lucy as an angel floating about in the sky had one ecclesiastical shadow. The Saturday after their first greeting Vida had asked if she was going to church the next morning.
Lucy looked at her in amazement. "Church! What for?"
Brought up to carry her share of the burden of Methodist sin, Vida quaked an instant for fear of seeing Lucy smote down. It is wonderful, was now her opinion, how brave Lucy is. It must be the enlightening effect of travel.
The first thing I'm going to do is travel, even if it means a fight with Dad. It sounds better to say my dad than my papa. Dad doesn't realize girls are like boys now. He's crazy if he thinks he can keep me locked up all my life. I'd sell my soul if Mama would let me dress as Lucy does … Luce, Luce, wherefore art thou Luce!
A blank interval after this exhaustive soliloquy cleared her mind for a new train of thought. That was the funniest thing how Harry Burden came up and talked to me when I took Lucy to Miller's for a soda. He never said hello to me before. I didn't hear him ask her to go but the next night he called for her in his auto. She hasn't been here two months and she's going out with boys. What do I care? I don't like boys anyway, especially Harry Burden. He thinks he's so smart because he's rich and has an auto.
"Vida—V-i-da!" screamed Mrs. Bertrand from the upstairs bedroom window. "You come right in, it's after ten o'clock."
There is no reason to scream so, I'm on the steps only a few feet away. Ma always screamed as though she thought no one could hear.
Mr. Bertrand thumped the pillow on his side of the bed. "Tell that girl to get in or I'll hide her."
Mrs. Bertrand closed the window against the sensuous night air as she saw Vida rise.
"I'm coming," said Vida sadly. She walked very slowly into the house after a lingering surveyal of the street.