Authors: Lee Hays
The dresses were on hangers and she swept them all out, leaving a clear plastic bag, the kind that dry-cleaning establishments use to cover freshly laundered items, hanging empty and rather forlorn in the large closet.
Carefully she packed the dresses, folding them neatly on the hangers provided in the suitcase. Suddenly she stopped, straightened up, listening. There was a puzzled look on her face. She turned and looked at the closet. There was a low, moaning sound coming from inside it, a strange, disturbing noise that she could not quite fathom.
As she walked toward it she said, “Who’s that? Is that you, Claude? Now, I don’t want you to get locked in the closet or Mrs. Mac will never find you. Come out of there.”
As she edged closer the sound grew. There was light in the room but the closet door cut it off. She reached up and turned on a single lamp on her dresser so that some of that light filtered into the recesses of the closet. As the moaning grew louder she peered in saying softly, “Claude. Come out of there. You’re bad.”
The moaning stopped and Clare leaned forward, not sure of what it was she thought she saw through the plastic bag. Pulling the bag to the side her face contorted in horror. Before she could scream a hand came forward and swept the bag across her face. Struggling, she tried to scream but the hand held her in a death-grip. For a moment she could hear the crinkling of the bag mixed with the sound of the girls downstairs who all seemed to be talking at once at the top of their voices.
There was a squeal from Mrs. Mac as she pulled the ribbon free and opened the fancy blue box, tore aside the tissue paper and held up the rather daring nightgown that was the box’s contents.
“Oh, girls, it’s lovely.” She held it up in front of herself, pirouetting around the room as a high-fashion model might. When she reached the far corner, she said so that she couldn’t be heard, “I’ve got about as much use for this as I’ve got for a chastity belt.” Then she flounced back, swaying her hips and rolling her eyes.
They had heard her words but they pretended that they hadn’t, suppressing as best they could their laughter.
Barbara began to chant and the others quickly joined in, “Put it on! Put it on!”
“Well, that’s better than hearing ‘Take it off! Take it off!’ ” Mrs. Mac took off her hat and carefully slipped the gown on over her dress. Then she pranced around again, grotesquely mock-sexy.
Jess said, “Do the opening for us, Mrs. Mac.”
“Oh, no! I couldn’t.”
“Oh, go ahead,” Barbara said, winking at the others. “It’s really a treat for us. After all, we’ve heard about vaudeville, but we’ve never seen it. Go on.”
The entreaties continued. Phyl said, “Come on, Mrs. Mac. You haven’t done it for months.”
It was clear that the old lady liked to be coaxed into doing the introduction to the act she and her sister Myrtle had presented so many years before. And the girls were used to doing the coaxing.
“No! No! No!” she said. “I’m too tired. I’m an old lady.”
“No you’re not, Mrs. Mac,” Jess said. “You’re only as old as you feel and act. Come on, do it for us.”
“Please,” Phyllis said.
“Yeah, please,” came from Barbara who was already mixing herself another drink.
Finally she consented and went to one of the windows where she half-hid herself behind one of the draperies. The girls, once she was out of sight, began to applaud, giving her a cue to make her entrance.
First a chubby leg came sliding out from behind the curtain and after it wriggled and received more applause, Mrs. Mac herself appeared, sasshaying in a ludicrous parody of what must have been something of a parody long before.
She broke into a soft-shoe routine as the girls clapped rhythmically until she finished with a flourish, her arm outstretched.
A little breathless she began the patter of the old routine.
Hi there, America. We’re here to give you the facts.
I’m Myrtle, I’m Maude. We’re known as the Macs.
We sing, we dance, we set a lovely pace;
A joke, a grind, an occasional funny face.
Barbara sprawled out on the couch. It was obvious that she was already quite drunk. Sotto voce, and to no one in particular she said, referring to Mrs. Mac, “Now I know what killed vaudeville.”
Jessica, who was standing near her and heard what she said, replied, “It must have died in agony.”
They tried once more to contain their laughter as Mrs. Mac continued with her performance, bumping and grinding across the room while upstairs, Clare’s body was bumping, too, as it was dragged across the bedroom floor toward the hall.
Oh, God, what have I done? They made me do it. No, I had to punish her for calling me bad. It isn’t so. I’m not bad, not nasty. She shouldn’t have said those things. They’re the ones who are bad. All of them. I’m going to be sick. Maybe if I can use the phone. Have to take her away first. Keep her with me up there. She’ll be all right. She’ll wake up and she’ll be all right and she’ll be sorry she said what she did. My name’s not Claude. Why did she call me that? Why did she call me bad. I can’t help it. But I didn’t do that. I didn’t!
“Get the hook,” Phyllis said as Mrs. Mac finished up her number. The girls whooped and hollered and began to applaud again.
“Are you kidding,” Barbara said woozily. “You need a bulldozer to get her off. And three strong men besides. Come to think of it, I could use three strong men myself.”
Finally the number was finished and the girls applauded extravagantly once more as Mrs. Mac took her bows and blustered about pretending that it didn’t matter to her, moving among the girls, patting them and wishing them a happy holiday.
At last she said, “Okay, party’s over. Let’s get this place cleaned up a little. If the dean saw this, I’d be back in vaudeville.”
Under her breath, Barbara said, “C’mon, Dean!”
“What was that, dear?”
“Uh, I said, ‘How is the dean?’ ”
“Oh, I’m sure he’s fine, dear. But I’m not sure . . . However, up we go. Time for beddy-bye for all of us.”
She reached down and helped Barbara to her feet, steered her toward the door that led to the hall. When she looked around she realized that Jess and Phyl had taken the glasses and dishes to the kitchen, leaving her temporarily alone in the living room. She watched Barbara weave down the hall toward the stairs and when she was sure the girl was out of sight she turned back, checked the door to the kitchen once more, then went quickly to the bookshelf, pulled out some books, reached behind some others and removed a half-finished bottle of sherry. She took a quick glug, then called out cheerily to the kitchen as she replaced the top and put the bottle and books back, “Oh, Jess, you girls are too good to me. It really is such a lovely present. You’re too good to me.”
Jess came back into the room and said, “Nonsense, Mrs. Mac. I’m glad you like it, that’s all. It’s you who have been good to us.”
The telephone rang and Jess paused expectantly. A long moment passed and it rang again. Phyllis walked into the room, looked at Jess, then hesitantly answered it.
“Hello?” she said, her voice quavering slightly.
“Hello. Is Jess there, please?”
Relieved, Phyllis answered. “Yes, she is, Peter.” She called into the parlor. “It’s for you, Jess. It’s Peter.”
Jess, too, was momentarily relieved. Even Mrs. Mac who had been watching the two girls, sensed that the tension she had felt before was gone.
Jessica went across the room and took the receiver from Phyl, thanking her. Then she went into the hall and said quietly, “Hello, Peter?”
“Hi. How was the party?”
“Okay. No, it was
Sorry you couldn’t make it.”
“Yeah, so am I. But I had to practice. Four straight days is a little much but it will all be over soon.”
“I know. But I’ve got to see you. You’ve got to find some time so we can talk.”
Phyllis and Mrs. Mac moved past her and started up the stairs wishing her a good night. Mrs. Mac turned back and said, “Turn out the lights, dear.”
Jess nodded as she listened to Peter.
“You sound funny,” he said. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing’s the matter. I just . . . want to talk to you.”
“Well, you sound funny.”
that. I don’t feel funny. I just feel tired.”
“Me too. Look, why don’t you tell me now?”
“Because I want to
you. I want to talk to you face to face. I hate telephones. They’re so damned impersonal.”
“Jess, honey, I haven’t been to bed in three nights. I’m not in the mood to be playing guessing games.”
“Don’t guess. We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”
“Oh, Christ! All right. I’ll be in Room Thirty all day. Practicing. Come by whenever you can.”
“I can make it at two. Around then. After the party. That okay with you?”
“I said anytime, didn’t I?” He paused and then apologized. “Look, I didn’t mean to sound short. I guess I’m just sort of exhausted.”
“Yeah. All of us are. It’s the season to be exhausted. It’s okay.”
“Good. I love you.”
“I know you do. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yeah, swell. Tomorrow. Good night.”
He banged down the receiver and she leaned back against the wall, a look of distress on her face.
Upstairs the house mother, Mrs. MacHenry was brushing her teeth. She still wore the Christmas present-nightgown and she had jammed her hat back on her head slightly askew. She stared mournfully into the mirror at her mouthful of toothpaste. For a moment the gleam from her mouth reminded her of the spotlights from so many years before, her days in the limelight.
Softly she repeated almost as a litany her favorite words.
“Hi, there, America,
We’re here to give you the facts.
I’m Myrtle. I’m Maude.
We’re known as the Macs.”
After looking at herself for a long moment, her rheumy eyes began to break out of the reverie. She made a face at herself, rinsed out her mouth, put the toothbrush away and reached into the medicine chest where another bottle of sherry was conveniently waiting. She tipped it up and washed away the taste of the toothpaste, rolling it around in her mouth before swallowing it. Then she put it back and stared down at the frilly, youthful-looking negligee.
“Jesus, I wouldn’t wear this to have my liver out. Ah, the hell with it.”
Her hand went back into the medicine chest and removed the sherry again. For good measure she took another quick drink, a “dividend” she told herself, a nightcap.
“And so to bed.”
Switching off the light she went to her bedroom and slowly undressed.
Just above her, Clare Harrison’s body, its head swathed in the clear, plastic bag, was being moved slowly and silently across the attic floor.
The bag itself was sucked hideously into her mouth and nostrils, testimony of how desperately she had tried to get one more breath of air. Her eyes bulged out, staring vacantly at the grim room.
The body seemed to be rocking slightly as though it were cradled in someone’s arms and a child’s voice was murmuring softly to it.
Outside the light snow continued, pristine, white, and gentle, symbolic of the season, of gentleness and purity.
It was still snowing the next day. Whitley College, if seen from a distance or the vantage point of the old mansion high on the hill, resembled a Currier and Ives print. It was almost too pretty, too perfect. There was activity on the streets as the denizens of the community went about their respective business while children of all ages and sizes moved about in galoshes, on skis or sleds, frolicking and playing games.
Near one of the campus buildings a distinguished-looking man in a tight grey coat and a hat paced nervously, stopping from time to time to glance at his watch. He looked up when a bus full of screaming children went by on the street near where he stood. Then he examined his watch again and resumed his pacing. From out of nowhere a snowball hurtled through the air and hit the side of his head, knocking off both his hat and glasses.
For a few seconds he didn’t move although the impact, in truth, had not really stunned him. Then he leaned forward, stared at the ground and groped for his glasses. A group of children across the street ran towards one of the houses but he didn’t notice them. A young man put his hand down, picked up the glasses and handed them to the gentleman.
“Thank you very much.” The man adjusted the glasses, then searched out his hat.
“That’s okay. I’m sorry. It was one of the kids. They were having a snowball fight and their aim isn’t all that good. I’m sorry. I should have been keeping a better watch on them.”
The man peered through the glasses at the youthful stranger. “Yes, I should think so.”
“Yeah. Well, I said I was sorry.”
The young man started back across the street where the last of the children were being shepherded into the house. Recovering himself, the older man called out. “Excuse me. I know it wasn’t your fault. I wonder . . . have you got a second?”
Coming back the young man asked, “Yes?”
“I hate to bother you. I can see that you’re busy, but I wonder if you could help me.”
“Sure, if I can.”
“You see, I was supposed to meet my daughter here at one o’clock. My name is Harrison, by the way. And it’s half past one now and she’s still not here. I wonder if you know her? Her name’s Clare Harrison.”
“Clare Harrison? Yeah, I think so. But I haven’t seen her.”
“Yes. Well, she lives in a sorority house. I think it’s called Kappa Gamma.”
“Right. Sure. Kappa’s our sister sorority. Some of the girls are over here today. But I haven’t seen Clare. We’re having a party, sort of. But like I said, she isn’t here.”
“Well, I suppose that’s why I was to meet her here. She was coming right from the party. You’re sure?”
“Oh, yeah, I’m positive. The Kappa house isn’t far from here, though. I can show you how to get there. Maybe she wasn’t feeling well or something. If you just go down this street to the next corner and turn left, there’s a hill and it’s at the top of the hill. The only house. You can’t miss it.”