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Authors: Alice Mattison

Hilda and Pearl (23 page)

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When we reached the park, Pearl looked around as if she wasn't sure where she was. We walked along a path near the lake. There were benches, but it was windy and the benches were exposed. Finally we came to one that was set back, with more trees around it. I stopped and patted the bench and Pearl sat down. She took off her scarf. I put down my soup greens and took out the scissors.

I didn't know much about cutting hair. I just held the clumps of blond hair in my hand and tried to even them. I had to bend over and my back ached. I'd taken off my gloves to work and my hands were cold. Pearl must have been freezing in that light jacket but she didn't complain.

At last, her head still bent, she said, “I'm sorry I love Nathan.”

“I don't know why you love him,” I said, though in a sense I loved him too. I thought of jabbing the sharp point of the scissors into Pearl's neck—not that I wanted to, exactly, I just found myself worried that I might. I might even do it by mistake. I didn't know how to cut hair safely any more than I knew how to cut it attractively.

“Look, if we can just make you look decent,” I said.

“I'm not decent, why should I look decent?”

“I think you're proud of yourself.”

“In a way I am,” she said. “I really love him. I guess I'd do it again. I'm sorry, Hilda. You must hate me for saying that.”

I didn't hate her for saying it. “No,” I said, “it seems more sensible than what you said before. I can't stand all the apologizing.”

“I don't feel apologetic,” she said. “I just love him. And I'm so upset that he doesn't love me, and doesn't love this baby. I'm going to have Nathan's baby, if you and Mike don't kill me.”

“I won't kill you, and I don't think Mike will.”

“I'm not so sure,” she said.

And then I suddenly—wildly—couldn't bear what had happened. Maybe it was because I had just promised not to kill her. I'd let her know I was going to keep on being nice to her, of all things! Maybe I did want to kill her.

I left Pearl sitting there, her head still bent, her neck bare, and I walked to the lake, just below our bench and the path we'd walked on. I stood on the granite rim around the lake. There was a police sawhorse with a sign on it,
No Skating
, and it was half in the lake and half leaning on the bank.

I flung the scissors into the lake, underhand, not knowing I was going to do it—so they didn't go far—and when they fell, I could see them wavering under the water at the bottom of the lake. I'd thrown like a girl, and suddenly I felt like a girl, not a strong woman, not a peasant. I remembered that I was a young mother whose husband had been unfaithful. My throat tensed with knowledge and misery, and I thought I'd feel bad forever. And the only person present was the one least likely to help me, the woman with whom he'd done it. But I had no mother, I'd never made friends easily, and I couldn't think who else I wanted.

I walked back to Pearl and said, “I'm not feeling well. I have to get home to the baby.”

“Do you want me to carry the groceries?” I was reaching for them but she took them. She didn't comment on what I'd done with the scissors. Her hair looked a little better. She didn't put the scarf back on but tied it around her neck and tucked the ends into her jacket. I looked up at her as we walked. Her hair blew back and she looked like a boy, an old-fashioned boy with hair down to his neck, a page boy or the king's messenger. Her eyes looked blue; indoors they were darker. If Nathan wanted her—if he wanted someone tall and blond … but even then I knew enough not to be worried. Nathan couldn't have Pearl, I thought. And then I thought something that startled me: I needed her for myself.

On the way home I began thinking about Mike. I could believe he'd hit. Nathan would never do that, but Mike could. In his rage, he would hit hard with his eyes closed, not knowing what he was doing. “Will Mike be home when you get there?” I said.

“Probably.”

“Are you afraid of him?”

“Sometimes.”

“Do you keep fighting?”

“He doesn't talk.”

“He hasn't talked at all?” I said.

“Not since that night. I came home. I was crying a lot. He saw my head. He couldn't figure out what was going on. Maybe he thought I'd gone crazy. Then I told him—about the baby, too—and he hit me. He slapped me. No, he ran at me with his arm swinging. It wasn't really a slap. I fell back. He ran out of the room and he ran in and did it again. He kept running, as if he were in the park. As if he were outside.”

“And then what?”

“Nothing. He goes in and goes out. He hasn't said anything.”

“We have to talk to him,” I said. I don't know who I meant by
we
. I felt alone—but there were things I had to do. It was as if there had been a train wreck and I was lying in the wreckage, in pain, and then I saw that I was the only one in the car who could still crawl. I had to drag these stupid people out of the wreckage. Mike, for example, had to be made to forgive his brother. Now there was a job. I guess I'm just bossy, because I thought it was
my
job.

I had been out for a long time, and as I walked home at last with my soup greens, I thought guiltily of Racket. But Nathan knew how to take care of her, and sometimes he could calm her better than I could. He was walking her when I came in. He had a regular route he'd take through the apartment, from the window at the back of the bedroom through the hall into the living room, through the living room and into the kitchen. Then he'd turn around and start back toward that same bedroom window. He'd always glance out of it when he got there.

Now I wondered whether he thought of Pearl whenever he looked out the window, which faced her house, a couple of blocks away, though of course he couldn't see her building. Our bedroom looked out at the back of the apartment house, and the block behind ours had one-family houses with yards, so there was green to look at, back yards behind a fence.

Nathan always looked sorrowful, like a monk humbly making a pilgrimage, as he made this trek, with Racket propped against his shoulder, wrapped in one of her quickly fading receiving blankets. Now, though, he looked even sadder, or I couldn't help thinking he did. He seemed to be marking the stages of a journey, working out a kind of penance. I hoped Racket had cried a lot while I was gone, not just to make him suffer, but to make him feel he'd been punished, so we could start to get on with things. But no crying in the world was going to make him feel that.

He didn't comment on how long I'd been gone or how for all the length of my outing I had nothing to show for it but soup greens. I took off my coat and got my soup pot out from the cabinet and washed the chicken and cut it up. Nathan followed me into the kitchen. Racket was just falling asleep. She'd drooled all over his shirt. He looked worn out.

“We're going to have to get Mike over here,” I said. Now it seems nonsensical that I talked like this. I should have gone to bed and cried for a week, getting up only to polish my nails.

Nathan winced. “Mike,” he said.

“I'm going to call them and tell them to come here.”

“They won't come.”

“I'll make them come. He's been hitting her.”

“You saw Pearl?”

“Yes. Mike hit her.”

Nathan carried the baby out of the room, and I heard him take her into the bedroom. I thought he was putting her to sleep in her bassinet, but when I got the soup going and went to see, he was lying on our bed with her curled next to him. He was facing her, his knees drawn up, and she was in the curve formed by his body. They were both asleep.

When I wasn't making a plan or giving orders, that week, my insides hurt. It felt as if a tight, rough piece of twine were cutting into me and tying off some part of me deep inside. I couldn't reach it no matter how I might try. So I kept planning. As long as I was organizing something—figuring out when to call Pearl and Mike's house, something like that—the twine loosened a little.

Once I woke in the night and felt like a forsaken wife, someone whose sexual beauty had been denied, as though Nathan had preferred the smell of Pearl's vaginal secretions to mine, or preferred the shape of her breasts. I was devastated. I hadn't known I cared about anything like that. I've always thought my body was all right, wished I were thinner, but you know how it is. I wouldn't have thought I'd mind if Nathan or anyone else preferred the shape of different breasts. But I did mind. I sobbed silently next to him for a long time, feeling big tears slide one by one down my cheeks and nose. Nathan hadn't made love to me for a long time—not since he'd made love to Pearl, apparently. We'd had sex only once since Racket was born, right after the doctor said it was all right. But I wasn't interested. I was so tired from taking care of Racket, I didn't want to be touched by anyone, and I was angry with everybody then—with Nathan, too.

Now, lying there crying, I wanted him to make love to me. I thought that if I cried louder he might wake up and soothe me, or at least touch me, but he didn't, and after a while Racket woke and I shuffled into the kitchen and began warming the bottle, holding her instead of my husband.

But that was the only time. By morning I didn't want him. I didn't want him to find me beautiful or sexy or attractive, didn't want to
be
beautiful or sexy, simply wanted to make things happen. I read the newspaper—about the battles in Spain—and wondered whether my lust to take action was like what people in those battles felt, or whether they really were fighting for reasons. If I'd been a general there would have been a battle, and hundreds dead.

On Wednesday morning, after Nathan left for school I called Mike. I knew Pearl would be at work, and I knew he stayed home Wednesday mornings because he worked late on Wednesdays. “Hello,” he said.

“Mike, it's Hilda.”

“How are you?” he said—without feeling, as if it were a business call.

“Fine, thank you. How are you?”

“Fine.”

“Mike,” I said, “I want you and Pearl to come here on Sunday afternoon.”

“I don't think that's a good idea, Hilda. Nothing personal.”

“I don't expect you to think it's a good idea. I think if we don't sit down and have a conversation—all four of us—someday we'll wish we had.”

There was a long silence. “I have to deal with this myself. I'm sorry.”

“You'll never forgive either of them,” I said, though I'd yelled at Pearl for talking about forgiveness.

“And you?” he said, and suddenly he was furious. “You can forget it? Maybe that's easy for you, sister, but not for me.”

“It's not easy for me, Mike,” I said.

“There's no point in talking about it.”

“Mike,” I said. I was cheating but it was the only thing I could think of. “What if we can prove it's your baby?”

“There's no way to prove it,” he said coldly.

“Maybe that's not true,” I said. “Come over Sunday. Anyway, you and Nathan—look, you're brothers.”

“Not all brothers get along, Hilda,” said Mike.

“What about your mother?” I said, trying everything. “Someday she'll die—we're going to go to the funeral and not speak to one another?”

“Now, nobody needs to say anything about this to Mom,” he said, as if it fit with what I was saying. “Pearl and I can solve our problems without her.”

“For God's sake, I'm not going to tell her,” I said, “but sooner or later she'll wonder. She's always asking Nathan how you are.”

He was silent for a while.

“What time Sunday?” he said.

“Two o'clock,” I said. “Will you tell Pearl?”

“Of course I'll tell Pearl.” I hung up. Racket had been crying for a while. I picked her up from her bassinet and lay down on the couch with her, rocking her in my arms and crying over her, then just holding her on my stomach. I lay back and stared at her skinny face with its big dark eyes. “You do look like a monkey,” I said. She had no hair then—she'd lost the hair she was born with and had just a dark fuzz on her head. She lay on my stomach clutching the placket of my blouse. As usual, she was damp. Then she smiled. I pulled myself up and began making faces to get her to smile some more. “I'm glad you can't talk,” I said to her. “You have a nice idea of the world.”

On Sunday I wasn't sure they'd come, but they did. They managed to look as if they had arrived separately, even though of course they came through the door one after the other. I suppose people who are together are usually one step apart and maybe Mike and Pearl were two steps apart, something tiny that you don't see but sense. I had put out a candy dish and a bowl of fruit the way I did whenever company came. I took their coats and carried them into the bedroom. Pearl had had her hair trimmed. She didn't look at Nathan and he had barely spoken when they came in, but stood humble and eager, like an innkeeper welcoming guests when business has been poor.

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