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Authors: Alice Mattison

Hilda and Pearl (8 page)

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She turned on the radio and then the television, but was unable to find a program she liked. Finally she took out her homework and began to work at the kitchen table. It didn't take long, even though she did it slowly.

For lunch she made herself a sandwich. She found some tuna fish salad in the refrigerator and toasted the bread, but she burned it and had to scrape off the black parts. She was confused. She thought she'd done it just the way her mother did, on Medium Dark, but it was burned. She found herself crying as she scraped the bread with a knife, getting black crumbs all over the tablecloth. It was bad that she could cry over burning the bread but not about Simon. She didn't like toast that had been burned. The sandwich didn't taste good, even though she scraped for a long time.

After lunch, time went even more slowly. She cleaned up the kitchen to give herself something to do and to keep her parents from knowing that she'd burned the toast. She had a glass of milk and some cookies. After a while she sat in the living room, but she had finished her library book and she didn't know what to read. It was the last of the books she'd taken out that week.

She went into her room, then into her parents' bedroom, and lay down on their bed. She was cold, so she pulled the bedspread around her on both sides like a blanket. She knew she should take off her shoes, but she didn't; she just held her feet upright so the soles didn't touch the bed. She thought that Simon could have spent Saturday in a library, but that libraries were closed on Sunday. It was not raining. He could be outdoors somewhere, but she didn't know where he could have gone at night. She wondered whether you could sneak into a department store and sleep in the beds at night. Maybe they had night watchmen who would discover you and have you arrested. Probably they did. Frances was thinking about that when she heard voices and she saw her father and Uncle Mike standing near the bed looking down at her. She realized that she had fallen asleep, because now she remembered dreaming that she was at school. Someone—the teacher or the principal—told her that her mother had come for her, and Frances had searched the school in increasing anxiety, looking for her mother. Finally she saw her mother through a glass panel in a classroom door. It was the kindergarten room, and some small kindergarten chairs had been arranged in a row for several mothers, who sat and watched the children. The children held hands and walked in a circle. It was like Open School Week, but Frances's mother was watching the kindergarten children. Frances was unable to get her mother's attention through the glass, and the door was locked. She knocked on the glass, but the teacher just looked up and frowned at her, and shook her head no.

Her father and Uncle Mike were standing near the bed and looking at her, and they were both smiling just a little. She had never noticed how alike their smiles were. Both their mouths stretched sideways when they smiled, but did not turn up. “Did you find Simon?” she said.

“No,” said her father, and he looked sad again. Uncle Mike shook his head. Yet she felt that they had found something. They had found her, and that seemed to please them, but only a little—their smiles were tiny smiles. It was not that they had stopped caring about Simon. They reminded her of her mother and Aunt Pearl, and so she knew that they had not been fighting. She imagined them walking the streets, over and over again, searching, growing tired, falling against each other and leaning on each other's shoulders.

They were standing close together, that was it. And now her father put his hand on his brother's shoulder. Then the phone rang. Frances got off the bed. The dark pink bedspread, quilted satin, was rumpled, and she tried to straighten it. Her father and uncle had gone to the phone, and she heard her father's voice say, “Hello?” and then, “He is? He's there? Mike, he's there. Thank God, thank God. Is he all right? You're sure? Here, Pearl, talk to Michael,” and when she hurried into the living room, her father was sobbing and he took both her hands in his. “He's all right, baby,” he said.

“A friend?” Uncle Mike was saying. “Sammy? He never mentioned a Sammy. Who knew there was a Sammy? This Sammy, did he talk him into this? No, no, don't worry.” He was shaking his head, denying what Pearl was saying. “I'm not going to do a thing, Pearlie, of course I wouldn't hurt him. I just got him back. You think I'm going to do something to him? I'll be right there. I'll be home right away.”

He hung up the phone and turned to Frances and her father, who were standing together. Nathan had his arm around Frances's shoulders. “I can't believe this,” Mike said. Frances thought he was going to give her father a hug and a kiss, because he stepped forward and raised his arms. But he just touched the sides of their heads, both at the same time, her father's and hers. He hadn't taken his coat off. It hung open as he touched their hair, just above their ears, and Frances felt his fingers shake. Buttoning his coat awkwardly—Frances thought he might have buttoned it wrong—Mike turned and let himself out of the apartment.

3

P
EARL
S
UTTER TOOK A SUMMER JOB AT A DILAPIDATED HOTEL
in the Adirondacks where a cousin used to work. Her cousin said she'd have to answer the phone and take reservations. Pearl was also supposed to keep track of the band that played on weekends and communicate with the cab service that brought guests from the bus station. Pearl knew nothing of the hotel business. Twice she forgot to arrange for guests to be picked up, but it didn't matter. It was 1935 and there were few guests at all. She knew she was incompetent, and she didn't complain when the manager, red-faced, told her that business was so poor he'd have to cut her pay.

Pearl didn't mind the hotel, which was simple and quiet, on the edge of a lake in pine woods. Her cousin and the cousin's new husband had driven her there in June and she didn't know where she was. She liked being on her own. Up to now she'd lived at home and worked in her father's candy store, part-time when she was a girl, full-time after she dropped out of Hunter College in her sophomore year. Now her younger brother was working in the store, and he'd taken to it as Pearl never had, rearranging the candy counter and ordering more magazines. Her father didn't need her, and Pearl, who tried not to think about the end of the summer, preferred being incompetent in the hotel to being incompetent in the store. Other than not knowing what she'd do in September, her main problem was hairpins. She'd forgotten to bring any.

Pearl was a blonde, and she hadn't bobbed her hair but wore it in a thick braid which she twisted into a crown at the back of her head. It had given her a certain distinction in college, where everyone else was determined to be modern. Pearl liked feeling queenly, though she knew it put people off. Here at the hotel, she didn't make friends with the girls who cleaned the rooms and waited on tables, though they were about her age and her sort. She didn't think she was better than they were, but she knew she looked as if she thought that.

It took twenty gold-colored hairpins to secure the braid properly, and Pearl had learned to do it swiftly—her left hand supporting the braid while her right hand poked pins around it at even intervals—generally working by feel because she couldn't see the back of her head unless she had two mirrors. Of course, occasionally a hairpin fell out and got lost. At home she had a good supply, but when she'd come to the hotel, she'd forgotten her little tin box, and had only the twenty hairpins she wore the day of the trip. One must have been lost in her cousin's car: even the next morning, there were only nineteen. She'd written to her mother, but no hairpins had arrived.

Now, after three and a half weeks, having taken meticulous care, Pearl had fifteen hairpins. She didn't see how she could get through the summer this way. She had Thursday afternoons off, and she could have bought more, but she had no way to get to town. Sometimes the chambermaids got rides with friends, but she didn't know any of them well and hated to ask. One afternoon she walked to a store at a crossroads, but couldn't find hairpins in the small stock, mostly bread and milk.

Now she was at the hotel desk on a hot Wednesday afternoon when nobody was likely to come through and need anything. She was reading aloud from a newspaper that was several days old to Mike Lewis, the saxophonist in the band. She was reading an account of a baseball game and Mike was taking down what she said in shorthand, writing rapidly in a notebook. He said he needed all the practice he could get because he was hoping to qualify for a job as a shorthand reporter for the Manhattan district attorney's office. At present he worked in a music store when he wasn't here and wasn't taking college courses at night.

“What made you take up shorthand?” Pearl asked.

“I can't make a living playing the saxophone, can I?” said Mike. The band was now playing for room and board. They were students at City College, glad to be out of the city for the summer. Mike's father was dead and he lived with his mother, and Pearl thought maybe he didn't get along with her.

“You're good at shorthand,” she said, looking at his notes, which were unintelligible to her but looked impressive.

“No, I'm not good yet.”

The small lobby with its knotty pine walls was hot, and Pearl went out from behind the desk to open the door. She propped it open with a rock that was kept just outside for this purpose. She could smell the pine trees when the door was open.

“You dropped something,” said Mike.

Pearl felt herself blush and looked where he pointed. Of course it was a hairpin. She bent down for it, wiped it on a scrap of paper, and stuck it back into her hair. The trouble was that fifteen hairpins weren't enough to hold the weight of the braid, and as it pulled away from her head, it loosened them.

“They must not pay you much,” said Mike, “if you have to scrape those things off the floor.”

“They
don't
pay me much,” said Pearl. She thought that was rude of him, although she didn't mind. But of course she could afford hairpins. “There's no place to buy them,” she said.

“I thought girls were born with a lifetime supply.”

“At home I have an oak chest with forty thousand,” said Pearl, “but I forgot it. I could buy some, but I never get to town.”

“I go to town,” said Mike. “Come with me. When's your day off?”

“Tomorrow,” said Pearl. She thought she'd like to go to town with Mike. He was good-looking—young, slouchy, always with a cigarette in his fingers or something else: his pencil for taking down shorthand, a leaf, a twig. His hair fell into his eyes and he had a habit of blowing hard upward, as if he thought that would be the same as combing it. She'd been aware of him. He looked like the least friendly of the band members, but he was the only one who talked to her. He was abrupt, that was all. The other two stood if she entered a room—Mike didn't—but they had nothing to say. “I didn't know you had a car,” she said.

“I don't. We'll hitchhike.” She was a little alarmed but tried to act nonchalant, and then one of the guests came in wanting the canoe paddles, which were kept behind the desk. Mike stood to the side while she handed them over, and she found herself glancing to see if he noticed when she ran her hand over her hair, checking, after she bent down. He was looking at her, not smiling, and she couldn't tell what he was thinking.

The next afternoon Mike said it would be easier to get a ride if the drivers didn't know he was there. “A girl alone,” he said. He waited behind a bush, and with some embarrassment she stuck her thumb out. The first car slowed for her, and Mike jumped out from behind the bush and got into the back seat. “Well, I didn't see
you
, young man,” said the driver, an older man, but Pearl thought he'd probably have stopped no matter who was waiting. He talked all the way into town. He was the owner of a dry goods store in Glens Falls. “Now, that's a nice piece of goods, that skirt you're wearing,” he said to Pearl. “I can see quality.” It was a narrow gored skirt in dark green and Pearl wondered whether Mike had noticed it.

The man dropped them off at a drugstore in town (“My girl has to pick up some hairpins,” said Mike), but it carried hairpins only in black. “They'd look like ants in my hair, going around my braid,” Pearl said. Mike laughed at her but accompanied her down Main Street until they found a second drugstore, and there hairpins came in gold as well as black. “Fourteen carat,” said Mike. “No doubt about it.”

She liked being teased. “I'll buy you an ice cream cone,” he said then, and they walked back to the first drugstore, which had a fountain. He paid for the cones and then, without talking about whether they were going to do it, they walked all the way back to the hotel, scuffing their feet in the brown pine needles at the edge of the road, or walking on the road itself when the brush came right down to it. A few cars passed them, but they didn't try to flag them down. After his cone was gone, Mike smoked, or he broke off a twig and peeled it as he walked.

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