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Authors: Alice Mattison

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BOOK: Hilda and Pearl
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Uncle Mike made Frances test him whenever she was at his house. Simon wouldn't do it. Frances would read a paragraph aloud from a book or a newspaper, and Uncle Mike would write it down, pausing when she paused, touching several keys at once with his fingertips for each sound. This time, a couple of days before the banquet, when her mother had sent her over with a pair of shoes to ask Aunt Pearl whether they would do, Frances recited, “By the shores of Gitche Gumee....” He could write down “Hiawatha” too.

Some of the stenotype writers believed in using “short forms,” Uncle Mike often said, but he did not, and Frances had heard him shout at Nathan about it, as if Nathan, who said he didn't care whether Mike used short forms or not, was in league with the people who favored them. As far as Frances could tell, short forms were abbreviations. Someone had figured out a code within the code, a greater secret. Frances thought this sounded exciting. A whole phrase, Uncle Mike had explained, would be written not with just a few strokes—but
one
stroke.

“‘By the shores of Gitche Gumee'?” she asked now.

“No, nothing like that. Something like ‘by order of the court' or ‘the State of New York.'”

“I think it would be nice to say something so long with just one little—” she demonstrated “—
poosh
.” She thrust out several fingers as her uncle did.

“For crying out loud!” Uncle Mike said, hitting the table. “Is that what you think is the way to do things—shortcuts?” He didn't shout quite the way he did at Simon, but he looked at her as if he was deciding he disapproved of her. “You want everything made easy for you?”

“I don't take shortcuts,” Frances said.

The banquet was in October, a few months after Simon had run away at the lake. He had
not
run away, he had said, when she finally asked him about it.

“You stayed out all night.”

“I did not.” It was true: Simon had been on his cot on the porch, in his clothes, in the morning. Nobody had said anything.

“But where were you all that time?”

“In the woods,” he had said, “thinking.”

“Weren't you hungry?”

“No.”

“Your mother cried,” she had said. After she was in bed that night, after the other couples had returned to their cottages, she'd heard Aunt Pearl crying.

“She loves me too much,” said Simon.

The night of the banquet Frances's mother wore a rust-colored dress that made noise when she walked. The neckline was square and there was ruching at the neck, Hilda said. The cloth was bunched there, and gave off a different sheen from that of the rest of the dress. Her shoes were almost the same color as her dress. Frances's dress was wool and didn't shine. Her father wore a suit. They met Uncle Mike and Aunt Pearl and Simon outside their apartment house, a few blocks from where Frances and her parents lived, so they could travel together on the subway.

Aunt Pearl, wearing a blue dress with her coat open over it, came to meet them and threaded her arm under Frances's mother's arm, around her back and out the other side, so Aunt Pearl's fingers reached Hilda's other arm. Frances moved close to Aunt Pearl to see if she'd do the same thing to Frances with her other arm, but Aunt Pearl put her other hand into her pocket—and then the first hand, too; she'd held on to Hilda for only a moment. They walked in a group toward the subway station. Frances ran her finger down the sleeve of Aunt Pearl's coat, but lightly, so her aunt didn't notice.

Her mother was urging everyone along, trying to get them to walk a little faster. Uncle Mike was walking ahead. It was Hilda's hand, moving as if through water in the air behind Pearl's back, that made her the leader. She seemed to encourage Pearl as much as to hurry her. Aunt Pearl walked with a long stride, in low heels. She always wore low heels because of her height. Her hands pulled at her pockets.

Simon walked by himself, wearing a suit like his father's. Simon's hair was dark. He wore glasses and he never spoke in a loud voice. Frances knew he was smart, and she always expected to hear that he had the highest marks in his school, but Aunt Pearl said he was a sloppy student. Just before they reached the subway, her father began to walk with Simon, asking him questions about school. Uncle Mike put his arm around Aunt Pearl, and Hilda moved over to Frances and brushed her fingers over Frances's hair as if there were specks on her.

In the subway Simon sat by himself. Hilda's dress puffed up through the opening in her coat when she sat down. It might have been nice, Frances thought, to rest her head on her mother's satiny dress and to smell her perfume. She had brought a book, and she read all the way into New York.

When they came out of the subway it was drizzling, and the cars driving by sounded unhappy, their tailfins large and rain-spattered, looking indeed like something from the sea. But the banquet was in a hotel close by, and they hardly got wet.

They hung up their coats in the hotel cloakroom and went into the ballroom, where round white-covered tables were set for ten, and there was a lectern at the front of the room for speeches. The outgoing president, Ellie Potter, a woman in a black silk suit, came to greet them. She laughed like a man. “You brought the whole crowd, I see,” she said, shaking hands with Uncle Mike and patting his shoulder at the same time. And when Frances looked around, she saw only one other child, a girl a little older than she was. Hilda and Pearl talked to each other, as usual, and Frances stood near them. Simon backed away and stood by himself, watching his father, who was shaking hands and greeting people, introducing his family to some of them. “My brother,” he'd say, and Nathan would shake hands with the person. Then he'd gesture in their direction. “My wife. My brother's wife.”

Then Uncle Mike got into an argument with another man. Uncle Mike chopped at the air with the side of his hand again and again, as if what the man thought was a piece of meat and Mike was chopping it with a big knife into smaller and smaller pieces. They were arguing about short forms. The man said, “But it's so easy. It's so fast. You can't imagine—”

It was time to sit down. The man and his wife were seated at their table. The meal began with fruit cup, and Simon didn't eat his. He reached into the center of the table and took a roll from the plate there. “Don't fill up on bread,” his father said. Aunt Pearl and Frances's mother didn't notice. They were talking with the
wife
of the short forms man. Frances ate her fruit cup.

Mike had to lean across the table to argue now. “
My
notes—” he said, his mouth full, and then paused to swallow. “Anybody who can read stenotype can read my notes. I get hit by a truck tomorrow, you can read the transcript. You with your abbreviations—everyone has a private system.”

“None of us sticks to the book exactly,” said the man.

“Well, I don't know about you,” said Mike, “but
I
stick to the book.”

“I guess I don't expect to be run over by a truck,” the man said. He was smiling.

“I have nothing to hide,” Uncle Mike said again. “Anybody who wants to see my notes is welcome.”

“How about the pen writers?” said the man. “What sense would they make of your notes? How about Ellie Potter?”

Uncle Mike waved his hand. “Those people are living in the Stone Age. But that's different. This business of hiding things—secrets—”

Waiters took away the empty bowls and Simon's full bowl, and brought plates of roast beef, potatoes, and peas. “Well, the Stone Age!” said the man. “Artie over there was saying
we're
living in the Stone Age, using stenotype machines, not getting ready to switch to tape recorders. That's the future, he says. People won't need to use stenotype machines at all. They'll just record everything by pushing a button.”

Now Uncle Mike became extremely angry. He could not keep his voice down as he explained to the man what would be wrong with tape recorders—how they could not distinguish between street noise and the noise of voices, how they could not signal the judge to stop the proceedings if something was inaudible. “Chaos, you're talking about. That's what you want?”

At this point Simon spoke for the first time since they had sat down. “I don't know,” he said slowly, and both Uncle Mike and the man turned to listen to him. Even the women turned. “I bet they could make a tape recorder work. And with what they'd save on your salaries, there could be two or three of them. If one didn't pick up the words, the other would.”

“That's ridiculous!” said Mike. “Utterly infantile.” At that point, though, Ellie Potter got up at the lectern to speak, and the conversation was interrupted.

The presentation and induction of officers took some time and was not interesting. Frances played with the remaining food on her plate. After a while it was carried away and cake with white icing was brought. When it was Uncle Mike's turn to be inducted, they all clapped, and then Ellie Potter gestured in their direction and said, “Mike Lewis's proud family” and Pearl and her mother, and then her father, stood up while the whole room applauded. Frances started to get up but it took her a moment to understand, and by that time almost everyone else was ready to sit down. Simon didn't stand up.

After the inductions came the introduction of the keynote speaker, a judge, by Uncle Mike. This was the reason he had wanted everyone to come. He had to make a real speech, Hilda had explained. Frances had thought he would just stand up and say the judge's name, but her mother said that was not the way it was done.

Uncle Mike talked about how much this judge had done for court reporters, how he had always understood that his reporters were human beings, how he had been willing to take a break if the reporter was tired. “You may think this simply proves that Judge Akers is a nice guy,” he said. “You may think this has nothing to do with justice. But if you do—you're mistaken!” And Uncle Mike glared around the banquet hall.

He had a card with notes on it, and every now and then he looked at it, but Frances could see that on the whole he was making up what he said as he talked, and he was talking very much the way he did when he came to their house and talked to her father on Sundays.

“Why, it's the essence of justice,” he said, sounding angry, though he was praising Judge Akers. “It's justice not only to the poor wretch who's taking down verbatim what's being said at maybe two hundred words a minute when people get mad and talk fast”—here there was a little laughter—“but it's justice to the plaintiff and the defendant as well. Because Judge Akers knows that if the transcript isn't accurate, there may not
be
much justice, and he knows we're human. And you know what?” he said, and here he looked carefully around the room. “Being human may mean needing a break every now and then. It may mean having to go to the John every now and then.” More laughter. “Which, I admit, is not true of these tape recorders some people want to replace us with.” He looked around shrewdly. “I have never heard of a tape recorder that needed to visit the john.”

Frances thought it was taking him awfully long, and the audience looked uncomfortable, too. “You have to realize,” Uncle Mike was saying, “that it takes a human being to get things right. A machine doesn't know—” and here his voice, which had softened slightly, got louder and harsher, even sarcastic, and he seemed to be looking at Simon. “A machine doesn't know when someone is mumbling. A machine doesn't know when to call in an interpreter, because the witness has just lapsed into a foreign language. There's a lot a machine doesn't know—but people around here, who should know better—why, even members of my own family—you'd think your own family could comprehend—”

The sentence got lost. He couldn't seem to remember how it had begun, and it ended with a mumble. Frances was embarrassed and looked at her plate. In a moment something happened—some gesture, and then Judge Akers was advancing to the microphone, flushed and nodding in many directions—a small, dapper man—as if
nothing
had happened, and perhaps nothing had happened, maybe only Frances thought something had happened.

Simon stood up and walked out of the room. She supposed he was going to the bathroom, and she thought that if she had had to go, no matter how badly, she would have waited, rather than stand up just as the judge was being introduced, and rather than go to the bathroom just after Uncle Mike had said all that about going to the bathroom, which Frances wished he had skipped anyway. She didn't listen to the judge's speech. She was restless. Next to her, Uncle Mike, who had come back to their table as Simon walked away, looked hot and red.

Simon did not come back. By the time the judge finished talking, Aunt Pearl was whispering to Hilda, and then she sent Uncle Mike to look in the men's room. Uncle Mike left, looking irritated, but he came running back a few minutes later. Now people were drinking coffee or moving around and talking. Music was playing and a few couples were dancing. Miss Potter was talking heartily to Judge Akers. They both glanced at Uncle Mike when he came running, but he ignored them. “He's not there,” he said to Aunt Pearl. Aunt Pearl said, “Did you really check?”

But Mike just said, “I'm going to look around the building.”

BOOK: Hilda and Pearl
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