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Authors: Alice Mattison

Hilda and Pearl (4 page)

BOOK: Hilda and Pearl

Uncle Mike was a court stenographer. He would have preferred to play the saxophone all day, but he worked in the court, wearing a brown suit. Frances had seen him coming home; he always changed his clothes before he'd been in the house for ten minutes. In court he took down what was said on a stenotype machine, and a couple of times he'd let Frances fool with it and type on it. It was frustrating—it made letters, not words. The letters came down in groups. It was in code, he explained. No wonder people had thought he was a spy.

Her mother put the tray of frozen french fries into the oven. Frances opened a package of hamburger buns. Aunt Pearl came in. “Did you see him?” said Mike.


“He'll come back.”

She came into the kitchen. She was flushed from hurrying in the heat. “I don't know what to do, Hilda,” she said.

“He probably just went for a walk by the lake,” said Hilda.

“But he's upset.”

“He'll calm down,” Hilda said. “He'll come in while we're eating. It's better than making a fuss.”

“I don't know how to get him to stop,” Pearl said in a low voice. She moved one shoulder and Frances knew she meant Uncle Mike. Her mother looked quickly toward the living room. “I know,” she said quietly, then, in a louder voice, “It's hot in here.”

“Stuffy,” said Nathan, coming in.

They ate quickly. Simon didn't come in. Mike talked about the slingshot. He thought it might work better with small blocks of wood.

“You need width,” he said. “Pebbles wouldn't work. The bugs have to be squashed.”

“Mike, forget it, we'll take our quinine and not worry about the insects,” Nathan said.

“Mosquitoes cause malaria,” said Frances. “Anopheles mosquitoes. These insects are wasps.”

“Now you sound like
kid,” said Mike, but he said it with some warmth, as if being like his kid was not the worst possible thing.

“I don't know if wasps cause diseases,” Frances said.

“Well, you wouldn't want to find out,” said Aunt Pearl. She stood up to help Hilda clear.

“Frances will do it,” said Hilda. Frances was not finished eating. She wanted more potatoes, but there were only a few in the bowl, thin dark brown ones, almost burned. They had not left any for Simon. She began carrying the plates to the sink. When she got there she turned on the cold water and splashed her face.

While she was washing she thought of something. “Daddy,” she said, “does McCarthy know about you personally? I mean, does he
want you to lose your job?” She knew McCarthy was a senator, and her father worked for the city of New York, not for the federal government.

“No,” said her father.

Her mother turned around. “Frances,” she said.

“No,” said her father, “I don't believe that the senator from Wisconsin has anything against me personally.”

“Well, that's
,” Frances said. It did seem good. Her mother turned around again.

Uncle Mike said, “He doesn't need to think about the small fry like your daddy. He's got loyal followers to do that.”

“Now, Mike,” said Nathan. “Let's not get started again.”

“Get started? Me?

Nathan began to carry the juice and the butter to the refrigerator. “What I cannot believe,” he said after a while, first talking quietly, as if to himself, and then more loudly, “what I cannot believe is some of my fellow teachers. One of them purged himself in Jansen's office. This I cannot believe. And the paper goes on about how they can't decide whether it
. The man
in the superintendent's office—I'm sorry, ladies, that's what I always picture. The man throws up his guts in the superintendent's office, and then, at the hearing, they bicker about whether that's
. Whether he has to do it

“I know, it's hideous,” said Hilda.

“I know, I know.”

Mike started to stand up. “You can't think that way,” he said, talking fast again. “You can't just—You have to think about survival. It's like a man in a grocery store, and his wife and kids are starving—”

Hilda was wrapping the leftover hamburgers in waxed paper. “Mike, that's enough,” she said suddenly.

“I'm not—”

“I know,” she said. “I know. But that's enough. I want you to go into the other room and read a book. I've got a book you might like—one of Edna Ferber's books. It's probably on the little table, under my knitting.”

Mike, like a boy, watched her for a moment and went into the other room. Nathan looked at Hilda. “He doesn't understand,” he said.

“I know,” said Hilda.

“I know how you feel, Nathan,” Pearl said.

“I remember some of those first meetings,” he said. “How I felt then. I felt as if things were actually going to be different—that someone had thought of a way to end suffering. It's like the first girl who turns your head—you may decide later you don't care for her, even that she's not a nice girl, after all. But you don't forget—and when they come to throw stones, you don't pick up a stone.”

“Very nice, Nathan,” called Mike from the other room. “Very pretty.”

“Michael,” cried Pearl, but she was laughing. “Michael, you will
never learn

“I think I'd better go look for Simon,” said Frances. She wasn't sure anyone heard her. She stepped out of the cabin. It was getting dark.

Frances walked down the road she had taken before, but now she was wearing her sneakers. She walked all the way to the lake. There was no one on the beach. The Adirondack chairs were dark spaces against the sand. She sat down and looked out at the lake. Simon might have drowned himself, and she tried to think how he'd manage to do that. She started to smile at the thought of Simon, who would not even take off his shoes and wade, drowning himself. She was pretty sure he could swim. He had gone to camp when he was younger. It wouldn't work for him just to walk into the water. Besides, she thought that even people who couldn't swim couldn't drown themselves that way. The body resisted it. She had heard that you couldn't help thrashing about and trying to save yourself.

Simon would have to take a boat out to the deep part and weight his pants pockets with stones and then jump in. She counted the boats. Six. She thought maybe there were supposed to be seven, but she wasn't sure. In truth, she had never counted them. They bumped softly against one another in the dark, near the swimming area, straining a little on their ropes. She thought she could check to see whether there were footprints near the boats, but instead of standing up she continued to sit in the Adirondack chair, looking at the lake. A mountain just across it was a dark, curved shape, but the sky around it was still gray, not black. The lake was very dark. She liked the sound it made. It might wash up Simon's body, slowly, first his arm and then more of him, until she could make out his entire, somewhat pathetic shape. She'd have to tell. She wasn't sure whether she'd wait while the lake brought up Simon's body or whether, as soon as she saw any of it, she'd go to tell her family. It would be too late for artificial respiration. She could drag the body onto the sand, but she didn't think she'd want to touch it.

When she pictured Simon's body lying on the sand, his mouth in the sand, tiny waves touching it and pulling away, his shoes soaked—for it seemed he had drowned himself fully dressed, as he had been since he'd come—she remembered her new knowledge that she herself would die someday. It was oddly pleasant to move straight to that certainty. It had passed through her mind before, too, when Uncle Mike mentioned the Rosenbergs. It scared her to think about the Rosenbergs. She didn't understand what they had done. Two years before, a girl in Frances's class was named Rosenberg. Probably she was not related to the Rosenbergs who died in the electric chair, but maybe. Even if Nathan was a Communist, he was not a spy, she was sure about that. But Frances and her family were Jewish. Frances was almost like Ethel Rosenberg, except that Ethel Rosenberg, who had looked a little like Hilda, was grown up. Ethel Rosenberg also knew she was going to die, but she knew as she was walking to the electric chair.

Then Frances thought that something else was dead, and she remembered her mother's miscarriage. If her mother had already been fat, Frances thought she must have been almost ready to have the baby. Frances was surprised that her mother didn't see that what she had said was illogical. She shouldn't have expected Frances to accept her explanation.

Frances went to examine the sand near the boats. It was quite dark now, and even though she squatted, she couldn't tell whether there were any footprints. Sometimes the manager of the cottages raked the beach. If it had just been raked, Frances would have been able to see any new footprints near the boats.

She walked back to the cottage, and when she reached it she could hear that the other couples had arrived. There was laughter, and she heard her mother's company voice, pitched a little lower and louder than usual. Her mother would be serving the chocolate pudding pie and the peach cobbler. Frances could hear the voice of a woman who was staying in a cottage in the back row, a thin, nervous woman who had a little boy. She was saying, “… care about us, or anything like that.”

Frances thought she was talking about whether anyone had cared about her when she came to stay at the cottages that summer, but she heard her mother say, “That's the way it is these days. That's the way it is,” and her mother sounded so sad, she couldn't mean summer at the lake.

“Harry, take out your instrument,” she heard her father say. Harry was the woman's husband, and he played the banjo. It took him a long time to be persuaded to take it out and tune it up. Frances sat on the steps and listened, slapping at mosquitoes. Nobody seemed to hear her, or to wonder where she and Simon were. At last Harry began to sing. He sang “Joe Hill,” a song Frances had known all her life. She knew it was a union song. He sang it distinctly and with interesting pauses, as if he was pretending that his hearers didn't know the words and would be surprised and pleased by them. Her parents joined in. “Says I, ‘But Joe, you're ten years dead,'” they sang, and then, after a second of hush for the surprise, “‘I never died,' says he. ‘I never died,' says he.”


was an old woman, a pen writer, but Uncle Mike was about to become the new president, and he used a stenotype machine. Whoever was the secretary became the treasurer the following year, the vice-president the year after that, and the president next, so Uncle Mike had known for a while that one day he would be president. He would be the first who was not a pen writer. He was to be inducted at a banquet, and all of them were going.

Uncle Mike had started out writing with a pen when he first learned shorthand during the Depression. He had taken down speeches at meetings and lectures and if it was crowded he'd stood and leaned on the wall. Frances's mother had said he'd gone wherever someone might be talking. He was proud that he could take down long, strange words.

Later he'd gotten hold of a stenotype machine, and now most of the younger stenographers used them. Uncle Mike could write as fast as people could speak. Once he recited back to Frances a conversation she'd just had with Aunt Pearl about Simon, when Frances hadn't even known he was in the apartment. He'd been in the next room with his machine, taking everything down.

Frances found it somewhat disturbing to watch Uncle Mike using the machine. It was like a small, narrow typewriter on a tripod. It was low, and he pulled it close to his knees. When she'd once walked in on him as he took down a speech on the radio—his hands poised, fingers descending over and over, but with a restraint that seemed unlike him—she'd backed away as if she'd walked in on him in the bedroom or the bathroom.

The machine's touch was soft, and it made hardly any sound, only a swish as dense fabric cushioned the blow of the keys. Sometimes more than one key went down at a time. The keys were not marked. There were not many keys, and they were not all the same size or shape. Quickly, they caused a narrow strip of paper to fill with scattered letters. Though paper moved steadily through the machine and dropped back in folds to resettle as a thick, narrow packet (fold upon fold sinking into a box at the machine's back) there was nothing to read, for Frances didn't know the code. Stenotypy recorded what was said, Uncle Mike told her, syllable by syllable, one at a time. The groups of letters stood for different syllables.

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