I'm writing this all down, see, but I'm not showing it to anybody for about twenty years. By 1965 it will just be another snip of history, like the story we just read in our Heroes Young and Old book about a girl who helped her mother hide the family livestock from the British in the Revolutionary War.
Only this story isn't about heroes. In fact, nobody in this story is even innocent. Nobody. I mean we could have told my parents the very first time it happened, but we didn't. To tell the truth, I don't think any of us even thought about telling them, except maybe Roxy. But if she had, it wouldn't have been to get anybody in trouble. I know I would never have told mine, especially since it happened on our porch.
On our back porch, actually. It has a swing and a grass rug and bamboo shades that come down and shut the summer sun out in the late afternoon because it faces west and gets really hot. There are two big maple trees between it and the house downhill from us, but those trees are more toward the North, which means the sun comes in right smack over the Arbrides' house from about two o'clock until just after supper time.
My mother usually drops the blinds by about four, when she and Tata sit out there swinging a little to stir up a breeze while they snap beans or shell peas. Stuff like that. Or sometimes Tata just sits there alone, watching people go up and down the back alley and through our arbor to get out to Market Street. It's her "window on the world," she says - it and the Arthur Godfrey Show, which is the only thing more interesting to her than watching who comes back from town with a brown sack the shape of a liquor bottle.
It was also where my friends and I ended up on summer evenings after the dinner dishes were done. My parents would sit out on the front porch then, chatting with anybody who stopped by on their way downtown. They'd spend a whole evening out there, talking about ailments and the war and where you might be able to get Ivory Flakes this week. What my friends and I talked about was mostly boys we liked and girls we thought were stuck up or spoiled or headed for trouble.
Anyway, there was usually just Judy and me, but the first night it happened there was also my cousin Lucy. She had come in from the "big city" for her annual visit the week her parents took their vacation, and we had been swimming at the city pool all afternoon. That is, I had been. She had been busy splashing this boy named Edward Fowkes, a cruddy high school kid. I mean he was tall and skinny and freckle-faced and nobody a regular high school girl would even look at. On the other hand, Lucy goes to a special high school for musically talented kids, so it's not all her fault she couldn't tell who was worth splashing and who wasn't. She could have figured it out, though, by just watching to see who all the other girls her age were chasing. I had just finished seventh grade at the time, and I could have told her even then!
Well, Lucy and I had been in the living room playing the piano for the benefit of the evening visitors on the front porch. Mama never missed a chance to show us off, even though it always backfired on her because Lucy was about fifty books ahead of me in lessons. She was way up to Rachmoninov and Debussy, while I was still practicing the left hand fingering for little one-flat pieces like Schubert's "Serenade." I still get mad when I think of all the looks Mama used to give me while Lucy was putting in her two hours of "vacation practice" every day and the lectures I got once she went home. I'm not planning to be a concert pianist (as I once pointed out and got a sent to bed without supper for it).
So I was getting tired of Lucy smashing out those hard-to-reach chords and tinkling all up and down the keyboard like a prodigy that night. "Let's go sit on the back porch and listen for the ice cream pony," I whispered as she came near the end of the first part of Paderewski's "Menuet." When her eyes darted away from the sheet music, I knew I had come up with just the right ticket. Lucy loved ice cream, you know. She shouldn't have. She should have been eating apples or something instead because she was plumping up all over, if you know what I mean. In fact, I thought she should have finished plumping the summer before. But who was I to say? Mama still couldn't understand why I was pestering her for a training bra.
"We're going out on the back porch," I called to the folks through the front screen door.
"Okay," my father called back. "Let me know if you need some money." He's always like that. If any other kids came by, he had nickels handy. Summer nights our back porch was a popular place. Even if little kids from down the alley came by, my father was ready for them. "They need a treat, too," he used to say - and still does if any show up. My father is a really good person.
"Who's that?" Lucy asked as we let the screen door slam behind us. She had noticed a man sitting down in our arbor. We could look right down there until we went over and sat down in the swing, where the bamboo shades were let down to cut off the sun. He'd been there a couple of evenings before that, but she hadn't noticed him, I guess.
"Mr. Arbride's son," I said.
"Why is he in pajamas?"
"Because he has TB."
"Shhhh! Yeah, TB. He came back from Germany with it. He and his wife and little boy came to live with his parents because he's too sick to work."
"Oh good Lord!" she gasped, and I could hear her mother talking. Lucy looks just like her, too. "That's communicable!"
"So who's gonna get it?" I asked. "He never comes near us or anything."
"But his wife and son! And his parents! He should be in a sanitarium!"
"Well, nobody else has caught it. And he goes back to the veterans' hospital every month or so for a check up."
"Is he so sick he can't even get dressed properly?" She was bending way down now, looking through the crack between the bamboo shades and the banister.
"Does he have to slither around like that in pajamas?"
I scrunched down to see what she was talking about just in time to see him sort of glide up the flagstone steps and into the side door of his house.
"Yep." I thought it was time to drop the subject, so I gave her a one-word answer and jumped to something interesting, like what she saw in Eddie Fowkes.
A second later, though, we heard his door open again. We both scooted down in the swing to see through the four-or-five-inch slot. He was there on the stoop that led into the Arbrides' dining room, which he uses now as a bedroom because he can't climb stairs. He had something with him, carrying it on his right side as he slumped toward the arbor.
We didn't have to squint much longer, though. A slower and slightly squeaky rendition of the Paderewski's "Menuet" came drifting up through the rock garden.
"Oh, oh!" Lucy crooned. "He plays the violin! He's musical too!"
What that "too" meant was he was musical like her, of course. Which also meant that I wasn't because she's "musical" from her mother's side. Blood-wise, I didn't get any talent at all. That's what she was saying.
She had settled back in the swing now and came out with something she learned at her school for talented people, no doubt.
"Chopin had tuberculosis too."
I just kept quiet. That was the only way to avoid a lecture on the subject, as if having to learn the fingering for my simplified version of his "Polonaise" wasn't already enough of Fredrick C. But as we listened I couldn't help comparing how he played "Nola" with Lucy's rendition. The happy bounce was all out of it, and it seemed sort of sad. We both sat there like statues with ears.
And we soon found out we weren't the only ones listening. My father suddenly opened the screen door and stepped out onto the back porch.
"Do you hear that?" he asked in a low voice. "Now that's music, girls. I'm going down to talk to him. I never realized Alfred's son was so talented. He's been away so long. What a pity! What a pity!" His voice trailed off, and we dipped down and watched him step through the stones of the rock garden to the arbor and lean there until the last note faded away.
Then we saw Daddy's legs move toward the pajama legs, and we strained to hear their voices. "Feeling stronger now, are you? daughter plays, you know yes no, that was her cousin .yes .yes watch your step here no, no sit here all day if you like yes, another hot one tomorrow .we'll have to do that oh, that would be wonderful yes yes ."
I could see Lucy's eyes screaming, "Quarantine!" as my father came back up to our porch with the news that he had invited Corporal Arbride to come up and accompany us on the violin. We could even do it twice if he felt up to it. First for practice, then for a little musicale when Lucy's parents came back to pick her up.
"But he has TB!" Lucy exploded like the little knob on Mama's pressure cooker.
"Oh, he's recovering. The doctors have given him permission to come home. They wouldn't have done that unless they knew he was no longer contagious."
Lucy scrunched her eyebrows down and puffed out her lips the way she does when she's about to come out with her usual end-of-our-week-together threat: "I'll tell Mother what you did when she gets here!"
I ignored her until Daddy had gone to tell Mama and Tata and everybody else who was on the front porch by now all about his trip down to see Corporal Arbride. Then I said, "Oh well, he'll never come up here to play. I'll bet he's forgotten all about it already."
"I hope you're right," Lucy huffed and plunked onto the swing, "My mother would have a fit if somebody with TB came into our house." I let that go and started pumping the swing just enough to get a little breeze on us. It was dark by then, but August nights stay hot forever.
"Look," I said. "He's going in already. That wore him out." He had turned the light on in his bedroom, and I pulled her down a bit to watch him lay his violin on a chair and then lie down on his bed. It was next to the double window, and both of them were open with screens stretched across their lower halves. You could see him lying there, sort of cut in half horizontally by the tops of the expandable screens.
"Good grief," said Lucy. "Why'd he turn on the lights if he was going to go to bed?"
"He's not going to bed. He's just lying down. He has to rest a lot."
"So where is his wife?" she asked.
"I don't know." I was getting tired of explaining all this. "She's probably upstairs putting the kid to bed." That kept her quiet for a while, and I was just about to say, "You know that boy at the pool today?" when she scrunched down for another look.
"Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!" she gasped. "He took his pajamas off!"
I bobbed down before I even knew I was doing it. We both planted our feet on the rug to stop the swing.
"No, he didn't," I argued, bringing my head back up. "What're you talking about?"
"Look again!" she demanded and actually put her hand on my head and shoved it down. "See?" she shrieked. "See?"
What I saw was really upsetting for two reasons. First, because she was right, or half right to be exact. Second, because I had just gotten a glimpse of a man naked from the waist down. His top was still on as he lay there flat on his back in front of the window, with nothing between the bottom half of him and the whole wide world except the sliding screens in the double window. That and the bamboo shades we had to peek under.
"Sit up!" I shrieked. "Don't look!"
She did, and we both sat there for a second looking at each other. Then we squirmed down and started looking again.
"Hi! Whatcha doin'?" came a voice we both knew, but it scared us right up out of the swing. The thing jangled on its chain and swooped back down, hitting us on the backs of our legs.
"Geewillikers, Judith May!" I shouted. "Don't sneak up like that! You scared us to death!"
Judy stood there looking half hurt, half astonished. "I'm sorry, but -" she started to say.
That's when I went to the edge of the porch and yanked her on over behind the let-down blinds. "Get over here," I whispered, dragging her by her arm. "Stay outta sight."
Lucy gave me a look and, as if that wasn't enough, nudged me and hissed, "Ixnay!" Of course, that tipped Judy off right away that she wanted me to hide something from her. Lucy treated my friends highhanded like that all the time, and we talked about her for it after she went home every summer. But I had to show Judy where my heart was, and so I said, "Sit down. We're going to show you something. Shhhhh! Bend down and look through the opening at the neighbors' window. Tell us what you see."
All the time Judy was looking Lucy was shaking her head and pressing her lips together.
"Nothing," said Judy, coming back up. "What should I see?"
"In the window! In the window!"
She bent down again, squinting, and took enough time to see two movies. Suddenly she threw herself backwards onto the swing and yelled, "Oh my God!"
We put fingers to our lips, but she kept on until Lucy smacked her hand right over Judy's mouth and ordered her to shut up.
"We just happened to glance down there," I began and told her the whole long story.
Lucy topped it off with, "And he's got TB, too. And I am never going to perform with that man."
Can you believe that? In the middle of all this, she was still thinking about "performing." That's just how sure she was that she would be some female Paderwerski.
"Wow!" was all Judy said. Then she squirmed down for another look.
Lucy-pukey was all upset now because I had let Judy in on this, and she rocked up out of the swing and announced she was not looking anymore.
"Too bad," teased Judy. "You'll never know what he's doing now."
Lucy dropped back down onto the swing, and we all fell into our squirm-and-squint positions. It was Judy who defined it for us. She knows a lot more than we do because all we know is what we've read about "Reproduction" in Volume 14 of The Encyclopedia Britannica.
"See?" she said. "Wha'd I tell you?"
I thought my cousin was going to faint. But she didn't get up and act like she was too good to watch anymore. We all bent down with our eyes glued on that left window, but boy did we jerk up when we saw a door open and the bottom half of a flowered dress come into the bedroom! The last thing we saw was him rolling over toward the window.
"Ha! He got caught!" Judy squealed. "Just like my brother!'
"Your brother!" Lucy's hands flew up over her cheeks.
"Yeah. My brother. I'm not supposed to know why he gets sent out to cut grass or shovel snow, but that's the kind of stuff he's got to do every time. I make sure I never go near the bathroom when he's in there, believe me. I don't want to see him and throw up or something."
Lucy couldn't seem to make up her mind whether she wanted to sit back down or just stand there with her face all out of control.
Judy and I started watching again, though, and she finally sat down and joined us. The hands that went with the dress put a basin on the bed, then dipped a cloth in the basin and wrung it out. Then they wound his pajama top off. Her face appeared from behind a light brown pageboy as she bent over the bed and wiped down his back and one arm.
"Geez Marie," said Judy. "She's pretty."
Then he rolled over and let her wash his chest. Last of all, she wiped his face.
"You'd think she'd do his face first," whispered Lucy.
"Uh-huh," we echoed as we watched her wring the cloth and lay it on his head.
"What's that for?"
I spoke up. I've had lots of experience in the fever field. "That's a cold compress. She wasn't washing him at all. She was just cooling him off. His temperature is probably up again."
"That means he's contagious!"
Lucy wasn't going to give up on the idea that he was a danger to the world.
"Boy!" was all Judy could say as we sat up to rest our backs.
Just then the light in his room went off. We listened for his wife to close the door behind her, but we couldn't hear it.
"Are they both crazy?" Judy asked. "Surely they know people outside can look in if the lights are on."
We both shrugged.
"Think he'll do it again tomorrow night?"
I could almost tell what she was planning. "No! And we're not telling anybody else, are we, Lucy?"
"Good heavens no!" my cousin exclaimed, just like her mother, with her hand spread out over her chest. "Don't even think of it! What if somebody knew we had watched?"
We mulled that over about thirty seconds and then decided to let Roxy Foster in on it, mostly because her mom's a nurse and her dad's a doctor, a chiropractor actually, which means she knows all about everything. She hasn't had to read The Encyclopedia Britannica either. She's just kept her eyes and ears open around her house because she's going to be a doctor some day, and she's smart enough, too.
We cornered her at the pool the next day and invited her to come home with us after swimming. What for, we wouldn't say. Then we speculated secretly the rest of the afternoon. Would he do it again or not? Lucy thought it was outrageous to even think he would. Judy bet he wouldn't. I bet he would.
"Would what?" Roxy kept asking. We wouldn't tell. We kept the future Dr. Roxanne Foster in the dark all afternoon, and then we kept her guessing all through supper, too, because we didn't want her to ask any questions that would tip my parents off that something was going on.
Even then we almost lost control of our plan when my father, out of the blue, brought up the subject of Corporal Arbride. He asked Lucy and me if we had seen him during the day. First I choked on my meat loaf, but seeing that the prodigy had suddenly gone deaf and dumb, I stammered out that, no, we hadn't. Silently, I thanked God that it was Friday and we had only tomorrow left. Sunday would be too late, since the Silent One's parents called to say they'd be coming to get her by noon. Great! No musicales would ever take place in our house during church time or Sunday dinner hour!
"What would we have done?" Lucy's voice returned once we got away from the table. She even dug her tough little prodigy fingers into my arm. "What if your father had gone down there and -"
"Well, he didn't," I said, "and you're hurting me." I could see Roxy was getting real curious with all this secret stuff going on. "So let's take a walk downtown and tell Roxy the whole story before Judy comes. It's still too light out anyway."
By eight-thirty we were on the swing, Roxy knew what all had happened the night before, Judy had made her regular, seven-thirty appearance, and there was nothing going on in the crack between the blinds and banister. We were starting to apologize for the lack of entertainment.
"Honest, Rox. He was right inside those windows down there. And he even turned the lights on."
"Yeah, and his crazy wife left them on while she gave him a bath!" Judy added.
"She didn't know anybody was up here looking down, did she?" asked Roxy.
"Uh, no, but -"
"But people walk past those windows all the time!" Lucy put in. "They cut through from the alley and walk right past there."
Roxy got up and slid along the wall to where there were no blinds so she could have a clearer look at the situation.
"Those people couldn't see in," she said, quietly squeezing down onto the swing again. "The windows are too high. She'd know that. The only reason you can see in is because you live uphill here. And they know you have these blinds."
We all sat there like dummies. I told you Roxy was smart.
"So shame on us!" sighed Judy. "We need to have our minds washed out."
"Let's not go confessing to a crime or anything," I said. "We were just sitting here minding our business when he took those pajamas off."
"Not right," argued St. Lucille. "We could have dropped the blinds clear down the minute we saw him. We could have not looked one more second after -"
She hushed. We sat bolt upright. A light had flashed in the space between the blinds and banister.
Our arms stiffened against each other. We each held a finger to our lips. We signaled wildly for nobody to bend down, then for only one person to do it. Three fingers pointed at Roxy. You'd have thought she'd been scared, but she wasn't. She turned toward the blinds, bent, stared, and came back up to face us.
"He knows you're watching," she said just as calmly as a doctor would say "Your gall bladder's got to come out."
We jerked around trying to organize ourselves so that we'd each get a turn and not clank the swing around. Three fingers pointed to Lucy.
She ducked down and came back up with her hand over her mouth. Judy didn't wait. Neither did I. We all dived down together and saw it all. The TB patient was walking around stark naked and, right in front of us, he crawled onto the bed that way.
"Oh my God," breathed Judy from her bent over position. We had to pull her back up.
"I wouldn't go down in your rock garden anymore," said Roxy. "If he's got TB you shouldn't even get that close to his house."
We were so impressed with how professional she sounded that we all shook our heads and agreed not to look down there even one more time. We got up, managed to keep the swing from jangling because he might hear it, and slid into the darkened kitchen silent as mosquitoes.
On the way through the house, we regrouped. "Don't go near that piano," I warned everybody. "We don't want my father to even think about it."
Then I called through the screen door to my parents and Tata, "We're gonna walk Roxy and Judy down the alley to Sumpter Street. They phoned their moms to come out and meet them. You won't have to take them home."
"Oh, leaving already?" my mother called back, and even through the screen door I could see her smiling about one and half times as broadly as she would have if it had been just Judy. And, of course, they wouldn't take Judy home anyway. She walks home all the time without her mom having a conniption because she might get kidnapped or something.
"Yes, ma'am," answered Roxy, sticking her head up beside me at the screen. "I have to be home by nine-thirty. Thank you for dinner, Mrs. Colson. It was very good."
I wondered what my mom would feel like if she knew how quick Rox had made that lie up. She didn't need to be home by nine-thirty. She had seen what we brought her to see, and that was it. No use hanging around after she had given her diagnosis.
"Well, do drop by next week, Roxanne - and Judy, of course. Our little girl's going to feel a bit let down after Lucille goes home Sunday. They've had such a grand time together this week."
"You're a good talker, Rox." I said, going out through the kitchen. "You got us by all that without any questions."
We walked through the alley in the opposite direction from downtown then said good-bye to both of them at the corner of Sumpter. From there, Roxy only had a block to go to her house, with its doctor's office in a little wing on the side. Judy had to go another three blocks.
All through the night, Lucy and I made guesses as to why the man did what he did. We believed Roxy when she said he knew we were watching, and we turned that over and over in our minds.
"Do you think he'd tell on us?" she finally asked. I knew all along that's what was worrying her.
"Tell on us? Are you nuts! Do you think he's gonna tell somebody he's been walking around naked in front of twelve- and fourteen-year-old girls?"
"I guess not." She didn't sound convinced, though.
"I guess not! He'd go to jail, I guess. And he knows it."
"I hope you're right."
"Oh, I'm right, all right." I said. But it was like she had put a worm in my brain, and the darn thing crawled around in it all night.
Saturday morning came. Last full day for Lucille. I was thankful as a pilgrim in November. Mama might think she's great company and all, but if she lived here and was in my own grade, I don't know whether I'd pick her as a friend or not. I mean, she's okay, but well, that's beside the point. The point came right after Tata went back to her room to listen to her Saturday morning programs and my father was getting ready to mow the yard.
"Say," he said, emptying his cup of coffee. "It doesn't matter if Lucy's folks won't have time to hear the girls play with a violinist. I'm going down to see young Arbride. We could have him come up tonight, couldn't we, Elizabeth? And maybe you could whip up a cake so all the Arbrides can come. And I'll go get ice cream. What do you say?"
"Why, I guess so. I haven't got enough butter to make much of a cake, but I could go get one at the bakery."
Lucy and I stood there like two of Mama's crystal goblets ready to shatter on the linoleum.
"Good! I'll go see him right now. This will be an evening to remember!" And he went through the screen door like a man on a mission.
We darted glances at the door and at each other.
"Would you girls clear the table?" Mama asked and was on her way upstairs before we got one syllable out. "I've got to get dressed if I'm going to the bakery. Dear, dear. I thought I had my shopping all done yesterday," she mumbled away.
We waited to hear her slippers muffle up to the top step. Then I screamed, "What are we gonna do?" and punched Lucy on the shoulder the way I used to before I got punished one year for ungracious behavior toward a guest. Some guest. She was in this as deep as I was. Then I wished I hadn't. She started to cry.
"Oh for Pete's sake!" I said. "Get a grip on yourself! Let's think! Think! You're older than me! Think!"
But she kept on sniffling, and I was afraid she was going to break down and blab her way out of it, leaving me and Judy and Roxy in a mess, of course. So I got my nerve up and said stuff I didn't half believe myself just to shut her up before Mama came back down.
"Okay, I'll do the thinking for us. We'll just go along as if nothing ever happened. The man'll do the same thing. You don't think he's gonna come out and say, 'Hey, Mr. and Mrs. Colson, guess what I've been doin' to entertain your little girls?' do you? Of course, not! He won't say a word. We won't say a word. Just keep your nerve up, Lucille Verona, and keep your mouth shut. Okay?"
It's an awful responsibility taking care of a scaredy-cat cousin that everybody else thinks is a young adult and a prodigy, too. But I was pleased with myself for what I came up with and how I got her calmed down real quick.
Meanwhile, Daddy came banging back into the kitchen all smiles, and we knew the musicale was on.
"Seven o'clock," he said. "Get in there and practice, girls. The whole family's coming, too. The little boy, the senior Arbrides, his wife, everybody. It'll be a wonderful evening. How proud we are of you girls! Well, don't just stand there! Finish those dishes, and get some practice in before swimming today!"
We did as we were told, mainly to keep our minds off the problem. I even did a ton of arpeggios as a sort of prayer. Anyway, I figured the less we talked about it the better. Lucy was a ticking sniffle bomb. And I had to prop her up all afternoon at the pool, too. I nixed her idea of asking Judy or Roxy what we ought to do. The less they remembered about the thing the better, I figured. And if Judy happened to come over the way she usually does, well, we'd just make sure she kept her eyes off Corporal Arbride and kept her lips sealed. Judy's good at that. She's had practice.
Anyway, Mama had supper at six, as usual. We had our hair all dried by then and went upstairs to get good dresses on as soon as we'd cleared the table. She had everything all perfect, with the cake and plates and forks and napkins laid out on the dining room table, and Daddy was cleaned up and busy collecting chairs from all over the house to put in the living room. He was as nervous as my piano teacher just before a recital.
He had hardly said, "Get the music out you were playing a couple of nights ago, girls. Especially that one you played, Lucille. He knows that one, so it'll be a good way to go into a duet," when I glanced over at Lucy and wished I hadn't. The dress she had on made her look sixteen, but the look on her face was definitely kindergarten. I had to prop her up again, so I shot her a look that would put steel in a snake's spine. It said, "Keep your eyes on me, Lucille Verona Sellers. Everything's going to be just fine." And she seemed to buck up a little. I was so encouraged by her change that I went to the door and said, "Good evening," to the whole flock of Arbrides as they trooped in off the front porch.
The corporal came in last. I almost lost my grip for a minute when I saw he was all spiffed up in his uniform. My eyes cut over to Lucy. She must have noticed it, too, but I couldn't tell if it was affecting her or not.
"Good evening," my father went all around, greeting each member of the family and swelling the little boy's chest out by telling him how much he had grown since they'd first moved here and promising him we'd have cake and ice cream when the music was over. And everyone had to meet Tata, of course. And then Daddy sounded like Major Bowes introducing talent show contestants all the time the corporal was stroking his violin into tune, saying, "Would you please give me an 'A'? A middle 'A'."
Lucy was at the piano, tapping an "A" and looking at the piano keys, and I was there on her right to turn pages, but I couldn't keep from glancing at him, with five or six medals on his chest and his head tilted, so seriously tuning his violin, so boldly close to both of us.
"And now," Daddy began, "Corporal William Arbride will accompany Miss Lucille Sellers as she plays -" and he bent over Lucy's shoulder on my side and read, "Paderewski's 'Menuet'.'"
Lucy never looked up from the keyboard. Never let the violinist know she was going to begin. Never paused for him to join her. Never bothered to put either foot near the pedals. I, the page-turner, stood there horrified to hear her bang out the jaunty opening notes of "Nola." I thought for a moment I might have put the wrong music out, but there was the piece that Daddy had bent down and announced! And she was already at the end of the first part of "Nola" and starting the higher repetition of it when Corporal Arbride started to take things into his own hands. He bent over her left shoulder and bowed a note or two that sort of blended with the tune, but she was ripping along so fast he didn't seem to realize yet that the music in front of her was not what she was playing at all.
By the time she started the familiar opening theme for the third time, his head was so close to hers that Lucy must have felt his breath or something. Her head whipped to the left, and her face suddenly brushed right up against his. I was on the other side and couldn't see the look on it, but if he saw it, it wasn't for long. The fingers of her right hand were peeling right down over all those sharps to that low A before the snappy ending when her head swooped right down with them, scraping along on the keys as she crumbled.
"Lucy!" Mama cried, and Daddy leaped from his chair to catch her. She was already slipping down between the bench and the bottom front of the piano.
The guests "oooohed" and cried, "Poor dear child!" and "Gracious, what's the matter?" and all kinds of stuff like that. Only Tata kept her head. She said, "Go get the smelling salts, Charles. The girl's fainted." Then, to Mama, she whispered in her deaf person's way, "It's not her time, is it, Elizabeth?" And my mother about died, hushing her, and declaring Lucy had simply had too much excitement this week - swimming and movies and talking all night long. That's when she gave me a look as if to say I was the one who had caused it all.
Well, Lucy revived, of course, after Daddy half dragged her and half carried her over to the sofa, where Mama alternately waved the smelling salts under her nose and patted her hands. Meanwhile, Daddy made me play every darn piece I'd ever learned to keep the musicale from being a complete disaster. Corporal Arbride tried to play with me a couple of times but couldn't seem to find where I was at, so in the end he skipped through my book and found "Humoresque," which he played very beautifully and received a round of applause from everyone except Sleeping Beauty.
After cake and ice cream, which I had to carry to each guest, including the corporal, everyone declared it had been a wonderful evening and the little boy had behaved beautifully and we should do it again some time. Meanwhile, my prayers were answered. The wind started blowing outside, and the neighbors excused themselves early to get home and put their windows down before the storm.
Mama helped Lucy upstairs to bed, hovering over her and bringing her a hot water bottle filled with icy water to help her keep cool because once the thunder and lightning were over the air coming in through the screens was hot and humid as ever. She'd check on her one minute to see if she was clammy and to see if she was flushed the next. I finally got to bed after stacking all the plates and taking a couple of extra licks of the wonderful almond flavored icing on the bakery cake.
Lucy didn't talk as I came in and took my nightie to the bathroom to undress and brush my teeth. And she didn't talk as I came back and crawled into bed. And she didn't say a word as I squirmed over onto about one eighth of the bed to get off of the places she had already heated up all over the mattress.
Next morning she didn't talk either. Not even to say good morning to Tata. And since she was excused from going to Sunday school and church, with Mama staying home to be her personal Florence Nightingale, we didn't have a minute alone again. My aunt and uncle were there already with the usual vacation souvenirs for us when Daddy and I walked in with our Bibles in hand.
I kissed my cousin good-bye because I didn't want to be questioned about anything once she was gone, but I can tell you this. Three summers have gone by now, and she's always had somewhere else to go while her parents took their vacation. Which means we'll probably never talk about it ever again, and that's fine with me, except she'll never know that Corporal Arbride's TB did come back and he died in the veterans' hospital. I went to the funeral home with my parents and looked right at him in his casket. I don't think he was such a bad person. Roxy doesn't either, but Judy won't sit on our back porch any more.
So, when this is all history, who knows how we'll feel about it? As for me, I think we were all guilty, but I think we were all sort of innocent, too. The only people who were really hurt were his family. His wife and son moved away, and his parents now live in their big, old, dark, empty house that doesn't even have a gold star in the window.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, W.S. Bell. All rights reserved.