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Authors: Alice Mattison

Hilda and Pearl (6 page)

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Hilda pulled on Nathan's sleeve. “Mike's worried, go with him,” she said, but Frances's father was talking to someone and it took him a moment to understand. By that time Uncle Mike had rushed out of the room again. Hilda explained once more, and Nathan followed Mike.

Time passed and the ballroom began to empty. Ellie Potter, looking worried, came over to talk to Frances's mother. A man came in and spoke to both of them. Frances heard him say he was the hotel manager. Uncle Mike had gone into the kitchens and had a fight with a cook. Hilda left the room with the manager. Now nobody was in the ballroom but Aunt Pearl—who said they should wait in case Simon came back—Frances, and Ellie Potter. Aunt Pearl held Frances's hand as if Frances were three years old, or as if the room were dark and they might lose each other. The room did seem larger than it had before, and their feet made loud sounds on the wooden floor when they moved. “My husband doesn't realize—” Aunt Pearl said to Ellie Potter.

“Of course not,” said Miss Potter, but Frances could tell that she didn't know what Aunt Pearl was talking about. She thought of telling Miss Potter that Simon had run away at the lake and no harm had come to him. She could remind her aunt that this had happened. But there, they'd been in a little town of identical cabins, where if you went anywhere among them, or in the scraps of woods surrounding them, you were in your own yard, you had not
left
. This ballroom was not theirs, and the hotel was even less theirs. She didn't like to think that Simon might be outside in the city.

Finally they left the ballroom. Ellie Potter seemed to want to go home, but she went with them as far as the lobby and stood with them some more. They put on their coats. At last the manager came to the lobby with Hilda, Mike, and Nathan. The manager was reassuring Hilda, and she was impatient with him. “You certainly
don't
know he's all right,” she was saying. Nathan looked so sad Frances wanted to put her arms around him. She wondered whether he had somehow learned bad news and was trying to think how to break it to them. The manager had called the police, and now a detective arrived and began to talk to the adults. Frances hoped he would talk to her but he didn't. Finally the detective urged them to go home. The police would search. He was pretty sure Simon was not in the hotel. “Why should he hang around here?” the detective said. “Kid wants to run away, he runs
away
.”

At last Ellie Potter went off to the subway, and then Frances and Aunt Pearl and Hilda left too. The men had persuaded them to go. Nathan and Mike were going to keep looking. Frances wanted to stay and help them, but of course no one would listen to her. It was very late. Aunt Pearl took Frances's hand again as they left the building. Frances pulled it away, but although Aunt Pearl didn't look down or say anything, she kept closing her hand on air like someone looking for a light-pull in the dark, and so Frances held her hand out and her aunt took it again.

Frances fell asleep on the subway. When she woke up, the rough material on the subway seat was pressing into her cheek. She remembered her book, a library book, and she was afraid she had left it in the cloakroom of the hotel, but her mother had it on her lap. Now her mother was holding Aunt Pearl by the hand, and both of them were crying.

The next day was Saturday and Frances slept late. When she woke up she remembered that there was something she'd rather not think about, then what it was. If Simon never came back she would have to make them all happy, her parents and her aunt and uncle. She would certainly fail, and that would be the end of all of them.

The apartment was quiet. She wondered if her parents had left her alone, but her mother was in the living room with a magazine in her lap, wearing her bathrobe as if she were sick. She looked up at Frances and her face seemed flattened, stretched out, with large white areas around her eyes.

“Is Daddy here?” Frances said.

“He came home and slept, then he went out again. He left early this morning.”

“What time is it?”

“About ten. Go eat breakfast.”

Frances ate a bowl of Rice Krispies. She ate quickly. Then she went to her room and got dressed and made her bed. After that she didn't know what to do. On Saturday mornings her mother sometimes did the shopping, and Frances went along. Sometimes they went shopping for clothes. She thought it would be all right to read, and she went back to the living room to see what her mother was doing. Her mother had gone into the bathroom. The bathroom door was closed and Frances heard the sound of the shower.

Frances went into her parents' bedroom, looking for her library book. Her mother had had it on her lap in the subway, and she must have brought it home. Maybe she carried it into her bedroom and put it down on her dresser. The bed was unmade, and on the chair were her mother's clothes from the night before, the dress and slip and underwear. Her mother's dress-up shoes were near the chair. Frances didn't see the book. She could still hear the shower. She opened the door of the closet, though there was no reason for her mother to have put the library book into the closet. On the closet floor were shoes. Her father's black shoes had not been put back on their shoe trees. The shoe trees were on the floor of the closet, but his shoes were not. He'd worn his black shoes the night before, and they were on the bedroom floor. He must have put on his brown shoes this morning.

Probably it would be all right if Frances put her father's shoes back on the shoe trees. She liked the shoe trees, which had heavy, solid wooden feet—half feet. Once they were inside the shoes, a shiny steel bar slid satisfyingly into place. After she'd put the shoes away, she thought her mother might mind her being in the bedroom, so she took them out again and put them back where they had been.

She opened the top drawer of her mother's dresser. The drawer was heavy but moved more easily than her own drawers, which stuck. She felt the pile of underwear in the drawer, as if the book might be under it. Then she closed this drawer and opened the bottom one, which was filled with old things, old sweaters and blouses. The drawer might contain some clue her mother had forgotten. She would take the clue out and show it to her mother, and her mother would suddenly understand where Simon would go when he was upset.

Under the sweaters, in the back, was an old white paper bag that was too big for what was inside it and was rolled around it. Frances thought she had better take it to her own room. Her mother was coming out of the bathroom when Frances passed with the bag in her hand, and she held it close to her body, on the side away from her mother, as they passed in the hall. They looked at each other but didn't speak. Frances almost said hello.

She went into her room and sat down on the bed. She heard her mother go into her own bedroom. Someone had written on the white bag in pencil—it was her mother's writing. It was hard to read. “Racket.” It looked like the word
racket
. Inside was a pair of baby's shoes.

The shoes were white. They must have been her own. They would have come up on her ankles. They had white shoelaces. Frances turned the shoes over and over again. She didn't see how the shoes could help find Simon, and she didn't think she ought to ask her mother about them. She put the shoes back into the bag. They would be one of Frances's treasures. She didn't have other treasures that she could recall, but there were probably some things. She put the bag under her pillow. She felt as if a great deal of time had passed, but when she went back to the living room, it was only twenty to eleven. She saw her library book on the sofa along with her mother's coat. Of course that was where her mother would leave it. She could take the book and read. Maybe she should offer to go to the store for her mother. Her mother hardly ever sent her to the store. It seemed like something someone in a book might do, someone who had had a tragedy.

She sat down and began to read. When her mother came out of the bedroom, she did offer to go to the store and her mother accepted. “I don't want to go out in case of the phone,” her mother said.

She asked Frances to get a few things—bread and canned soup—and gave her the money. Frances took her coat and went down to the street. It was drizzling. She had a kerchief in her pocket and she tied it over her head. On the way to the store, she looked at everyone she passed, looking for Simon or for her father coming home with news. She wondered whether people passing knew about Simon. Maybe this was important news that had been on the radio or in the newspaper.

She didn't know why Simon had run away, if that was what had happened—if he had not been murdered in the men's room, for example. She didn't know exactly why, that is, but she thought running away would be cool and fresh and delicious, and as she walked, she raised both arms, her hand closed around the money, as if a breeze might lift her up. It would be a relief to run away. That was why Simon had done it. If a reporter asked, that was what she'd say. When she reached the candy store at the corner she looked at the papers, but of course none of the headlines was about Simon.

At home her mother had washed the breakfast dishes. There seemed to be nothing to do. Frances couldn't remember what she or her mother ordinarily did on Saturdays if they didn't go shopping. She could do her homework, but she usually waited until Sunday afternoon.

“I want to go look for Simon,” she said.

“I don't think that's a good idea,” said her mother.

She did some of her homework and asked her mother if she could go over to her friend Lydia's house, and her mother, who sounded tired, said that would be fine. It might be interesting to show the baby shoes to Lydia, and she went to her room, took them out of the paper bag, wrapped them in her kerchief, and put them into her coat pocket. On her way out of the building she saw that there was mail in their box in the lobby, and she returned to their apartment for the mailbox key. It felt useful to bring in the mail, even though there couldn't be anything about Simon's disappearance. The other day when she had brought the mail up for her mother, there had been a letter to her father from the Board of Education. Her mother had said, “I hope this isn't what I think.”

“What do you think?” Frances said. Her father often got letters from the Board of Education.

Her mother had opened it. “Yes,” she said.

“What is it?”

Her mother didn't answer and turned away, then turned back and said, “They've set a date for—well, it's like a hearing.”

“What kind of hearing?”

“You remember,” said her mother. “I told you.” Frances didn't remember, and then she did.

“Well, he'll just explain to them, won't he?” she said.

“I suppose so,” said her mother.

Today the mail was of no interest. Frances remained standing in her coat while her mother opened the letters, and then she finally did leave, walking down the steps and through the lobby. The banisters became larger on the way down to the first floor. At the bottom of the stairs, the banister was quite large and made of marble, with a big marble newel post. Frances always ran her hand over the banister and then up the newel post.

The lobby floor was tiled in a pattern. Sometimes, to leave the building, Frances walked entirely on dark tiles, first diagonally, then straight, then diagonally again, ending near the mat in front of the door, but today she just crossed the floor and went out.

Lydia lived three blocks away. “She's in her room,” Lydia's mother said. She didn't say hello. Frances's mother, who didn't like Lydia's family, would have greeted a visiting child.

Lydia was sitting on her bedroom floor in front of her dresser. The bottom drawer was open and everything she owned seemed to have been dumped out. She looked up. She was sitting cross-legged and she looked to Frances like a pixie. She was skinny, and all she needed was a pointed cap.

“What are you doing?” Frances asked.

“Greetings, noble friend,” said Lydia. Her voice always squeaked a little. She made Frances feel large. Frances took off her coat and sat down on the floor. “I'm folding these things. Everything is a mess.”

“Can I help?”

“If you want.” Lydia was making piles. Some of her clothes no longer fit, but she wanted to keep them. Her mother wanted her to clean out her drawers, which were so full it was impossible to find anything. “She threatened me,” Lydia said solemnly. But everything Lydia said was a bit of a joke.

When Frances talked to Lydia she found that she too talked in small jokes. She wasn't sure how it happened. “There's been a disappearance,” she said now, thinking that she would regret her tone if Simon turned out to be dead.

“A mystery. Speak.”

“My beloved cousin,” said Frances.

“Simon the Great. Not again,” Lydia said. She had heard about Simon's night out during the summer. She had speculated on where he had gone and what he might have done. Lydia thought Simon had probably been conducting a black mass, sacrificing animals he caught in the woods. “Was there a full moon?” she'd asked.

Now Frances told her about Simon's disappearance from Uncle Mike's banquet, and Lydia was so interested she forgot to fold underwear. She lay down on her back on top of her clothes. Frances lay down next to her. She was lying on sweaters and underpants, with socks mixed in, looking at the ceiling.

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