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Cautionary Verses for Children


ISSUE:  Spring 1991

Just because Vera was now mostly deaf didn’t mean she’d stopped talking. She talked even more. At least finally she had broken down and gotten a hearing aid. A mixed blessing. For her sister, Elspeth, still hoarse from all the shouting, needed to get used to something else. The trouble was, the hearing device made not just speech but everything louder for Vera. Elspeth said in her old-fashioned way that it must be like learning to listen anew. Vera said she wasn’t aware of having learned to listen the first time. It was just that everything sounded different, including her own voice. Meanwhile, Elspeth had to train herself to speak in a tone that most people used only for saying, “I love you.”

“You know, the police were raiding that brown triple-decker sup the street,” said Elspeth, home from her walk for the paper. She directed her modulated words toward the furl of the better of Vera’s ears. “With rifles.”

“Did they use them?” Vera asked from her favorite chair by the griffin-legged cardtable. “They should have.”

“One of them said, ‘A little problem here with the natives, all taken care of,’ and escorted me past the place.”

“I’ll bet he was pleased with himself.”

“Should we start thinking about elderly housing, Vera?”

“In what sense? You mean, for ourselves? Absolutely not. Not only do I not think we should move, I think we should have the house painted again. Have you inspected it lately?”

Elspeth knew what she meant. The house was a big clapboard, the color of newborn babies’ eyes, that eerie deep purple-blue, but the paint was peeling and cracked like the shell of a soft-boiled egg hit all over with the back of a spoon.

“Get me my address book, and I’ll give you the number of the Methuen man who did it last time,” said Vera. Even with the hearing device, she still had difficulty using the phone and now always would. And Elspeth was fairly used to her new task of doing all the necessary calling; because of the older sister’s hearing loss, the younger sister was getting bolder.

That evening she called Mr. Digby. He had died two years ago, she was told by the bland-voiced woman who answered.

“But he wasn’t old, was he?” Vera asked Elspeth after this news had been conveyed.

“Maybe he was older than he looked.”

“Well, that’s not going to stop us. Why don’t you call Reverend What’s-His-Noodle? He’s such a Know-It-All, see if he knows a decent housepainter.”

The young, brash Reverend Nadelmann told Elspeth he would “pop over” one afternoon that week and speak to them. He was shouting because he always got the two sisters mixed up. He’d been told but had obviously forgotten about the new hearing device.

“Why all the suspense?” Vera asked Elspeth. “Does he know somebody or doesn’t he?”

“I guess we’ll have to wait and see.”

Every morning for the next three both sisters dressed up. Vera passed the time reading with her usual addict’s desperation. Since the hearing loss, her eyes seemed to have sharpened. They were a silvery-blue, the color of the skim milk carton Elspeth had tipped into the creamer for their tea. Her lips, as thin as almond slivers, took only two stingy sips from her favorite cup before it got cold. On the griffin table beside her was The Idiot—what she considered appropriate reading matter for a graduate of Mount Holyoke (‘24), who had traveled back and forth from vacations on the train. But The Idiot would wait for yet another Dorothy Sayers. Meanwhile, Elspeth tended her rose geraniums and mended the jacket of a suit well-made in the first place, of wool and silk; such a good seamstress, she let things out so expertly it was as if nothing really changed.

On Thursday, Monday’s lemon loaf, baked by Elspeth, had thoroughly dried out. She had to make a fresh cake and a bread pudding out of the stale one. These were just coming out of the oven when the Reverend finally arrived.

Elspeth met him out in the driveway, a horseshoe which ended at the noisy street. The Reverend had parked in front of the house and was walking around his car, frowning. Some boys had thrown rocks at it, he told her. He was dressed as if for sport—golf or a picnic—in a white polo shirt, and khaki pants, well-creased. He looked like the young father and husband he was, who didn’t live in shabby Lawrence, though his church was here.

Elspeth led him into the house, into the living room to greet Vera. His straight blonde hair, combed neatly, was parted down the middle as if with the point of a knife. He folded his hands and sighed. He wore a thin gold bracelet that looked as if it could not be removed without breakage of the links. Men had not worn jewelry when Vera and Elspeth were young. Elspeth noted the quality of his shave. Still boyish. There were several places where whiskers didn’t grow.

The warmth enclosed them. The room was hushed by brocade draperies and Oriental rugs and the stuffing of the wing chairs they sat in. And the dour, stiff-winged griffins scowled, looking ready to pounce at the first improper word. Elspeth and the Reverend chatted while Vera looked from head to head, watching intently, as if her eyes could hear, but she was unable to contribute to the conversation, and Elspeth knew her sister had her own old anxiety—fear of saying the inappropriate thing.

Finally Reverend Nadelmann got down to business. “Ladies. You ladies—you two ladies should be thinking about moving out of this place, not painting it. It tears me up to think of you both rattling around in here.”

“Rattling around?” asked Elspeth.

“You’re by yourselves, and soon there’ll be just one of you. Alone. You’ve got to look ahead.” He was encouraging them to get their names on the waiting list for the elderly housing as soon as possible.

“We’re both in perfect health.”

“Hearing loss can signal the beginnings of other problems, you know.”

“Our doctor says we’re both doing just fine for our ages.”

He shrugged. “I’m a realist.”

“Well, you know the old joke about the optimist and the pessimist.”

“Yes, I do.”

“You’re both frowning,” Vera put in. “What’s the matter? Maybe we should have served something stronger to drink.”

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“But what about the name of a painter?” Elspeth called after him. He either didn’t or was pretending not to hear as he shut the front door behind him.

“He just wants us to leave the house to the church, the vulture,” said Vera after Elspeth told her what had been said. “He knows we don’t have anybody else. Where does he get his nerve?” And reaching back behind her ear she switched her device from “Microphone” to “Off,” and returned to her mystery.

Vera took the hearing aid off completely at night so she slept more soundly than Elspeth. It was Elspeth who lay awake, listening, a cobwebby net over her curlers. They slept in separate rooms, in their childhood beds, but that night Elspeth was awakened by music and loud-voiced people having a party on her own front lawn. When she heard the crashing of bottles, one of them against the house, she crept out of bed and called the police, then crossed the hall to her sister’s room and squeezed in beside her. “What is it?” Vera asked, but couldn’t hear the answer, of course. The sisters just held each other close. They’d done this as children but not recently. Half an hour passed, the police didn’t come. And finally the intruders went away.

The next morning Vera said, “We’ll move into Father’s room, together, for extra security.” And putting the sheets on the big double bed in there, Elspeth felt some small relief.

That afternoon, she took her usual walk to the paper store where Jake, the man behind the counter, had hit a would-be robber over the head with a space heater recently. The heater had been warming Jake’s toes since winter, not yet put away since the arrival of spring. Vera had said, “The fool!” Elspeth had defended him: “He’s not a fool. He proved he could save his own life.” “He didn’t think. He acted impulsively.” “He stood up for himself. That makes him a hero in my book.” “So he packs a heater. Ha-ha.” But Elspeth knew she was right.

She wore a hat, smallish, like a man’s, the kind you crush up and put in your pocket after the rain has stopped. She wore it three seasons out of four. In summer she wore a straw, brimmed hat. Her hair was thinning; she liked to hide it. Besides, a covering for her head made her feel all around protected even as cars rocketed past, music thumping from their radios. She was tall, big-boned, and walked up the street, looking like she owned it. In fact, once her grandfather had owned all the land down to the river. In 1883 he sold a large chunk of it to a man who then sold it to another man who built a smelly old paper mill in the middle of it. Now the mill was closed, after a fire, though its ruin remained.

“How’s your sister doing today?” Jake asked. He was so short, he should have stood on a crate. His wrinkled skin was grayish, seen through a cloud of smoke. He had prematurely aged himself with his bad habits.

“She hates to go out now, because the car and truck noises hurt her ears so. Everything is so loud.”

“If it’s not six of one thing, it’s half a dozen of another,” said Jake. “At least it’s not like my wife and I. We’re like doctor and patient, then we change places. Why didn’t they tell us all this Oleo stuff before? The trouble is, you never know what’s going to be good or bad for you.”

“And my housepainter died.”

Jake said, “You think all those people will live forever. See? You miss him. He’s missed. He’d never expect you to miss him, but you do. He didn’t even know he made a difference in your life and he did.”

“That doesn’t get my house painted.”

“I’ll tell you, there’s a painter, who comes over here for sodas. Give him a little business. He’s doing a beautiful job on the house at Prospect and Grove, did you see it? Pure white. Some wiseasses graffitteed “Mr. Cool” on the side of it the other night, but he painted right over it. I’ll give those kids a “Mr. Cool” right between the eyes. Look at that house on your walk home, he’s almost finished, you’ll see.”

“I already have seen it. You’re right. It’s beautiful.” Elspeth left her phone number on a candy wrapper.

The painter called that evening. Elspeth detected a slight Maine accent. Or New Hampshire. And his voice was young. And healthy. He said he would come over next week and give them an estimate. And he had admired her house, he told her, one of the few left on the street that hadn’t been cut up into apartments.

“Well, we’ll ask the boy for references,” Vera said.

“He sounded very intelligent on the phone.”

“Appearances deceive.”

“We haven’t even seen him yet!”

“You sound angry. Why are you shouting?”

“I’m not shouting. Turn your hearing aid down!”

While Vera snoozed over The Idiot, Elspeth heard his truck arrive in the driveway—a new shiny black pick-up. An aluminum extension ladder was hooked to the side of it, a red flag flying from its tail end.

He didn’t talk much as he circled the house, scribbling notes on a legal pad. He looked very serious, squinting. The red hair made him look vulnerable, newborn. Like the Reverend had been the other day, he was dressed in sports clothes, including a dark green Dartmouth T-shirt which contrasted nicely with his hair.

“Don’t you think it’s in very good shape for its age?” asked Elspeth. “It was built for my father’s father, who married a child bride, as they say. But aren’t all brides children? They always seem that way to me.” She found herself smiling, cheeks crinkled, head tilted, looking bashful but not feeling that way. All her movements had become exaggerated since Vera’s hearing loss. In previous months she had used these gestures to convey her words when sound failed. And she’d carried these movements into conversations with people whose hearing was unimpaired. Now she couldn’t shake these habits, and didn’t try. But her theatricality this afternoon was due to something else. Talking to the young painter, she felt what she recognized only too well from the distant past as being “smitten.”

What did she find so appealing in Lenny? He was quiet. He was a gentleman. She pegged him at once as a younger brother, or a young husband with a brash wife. She didn’t quiz him about those details now, though; she’d get to personal questions later.

As for Lenny, he seemed uninterested in anything but the house. So she gave him every detail she could think of. He didn’t smile. Too serious. He was too polite. Afraid of her? No. Just trying to be business-like. The time would soon come when he would have to say a number.

When he did, it sounded far too reasonable.

“I’m not exactly professional. That’s why I’m inexpensive.”

“What are you if not professional?”

“I’m new at this, but I’m careful.”

“I trust you.”

He asked and she wrote him a check for the paint and other supplies. And was there a place for him to store his tools and paints and ladders? She pointed to the barn. “But it’s falling down. I wouldn’t want you to get hurt. Nobody’s been inside there in years. Not for legal purposes anyway.” Instead she gave him a key to the basement. “There’s a sink with running water. And a commode down there, too,” she coughed.

They shook hands. And she held on for perhaps a second longer than she should have.

“References?” Vera said when Elspeth returned to the house.

Elspeth clasped her throat. “I completely forgot.”

“Hmph,” said Vera.

Lenny asked Elspeth to close all the windows, then began the work by hosing off the house. From inside it sounded like a storm, but looked like a sunshower—gold glitter falling against the sunny panes of glass. She watched from behind a curtain, his khaki shorts, heavy boots, fuzzy blonde legs, more freckled than tanned. She’d forgotten to close one window, however. She tried to mop up without Vera noticing but didn’t succeed.

“He should have seen it was open,” Vera said.

But Elspeth took all the blame.

Heat descended as Lenny scraped and sanded. Elspeth could tell he was going to do a beautiful job. The sanding alone was taking him hours—days. The buzzing against the side of the house drove Vera crazy; she said it sounded like she had a headful of bees.

Every night after he finished he carefully swept up the paint chips.

He was dropped off every morning by someone who drove the truck away quickly. It wasn’t early—it was rather a late start, something like 10:30. Elspeth never got a good look at the person who drove the truck, but did get an impression of blondeness and bigness. She assumed it was a man, but maybe not.

When the scraping and sanding was over, Lenny applied chalk-white primer in a haphazard pattern of spots.

“It looks diseased,” Elspeth said, coming out with an iced drink for him on a silver tray. Lenny’s face grew full of alarm. Why would this be so? “Watch out,” he said. But it was too late. She had brushed the sleeve of her blouse against one of the patches of wet primer. “That’s all right. I don’t mind. It’s an old blouse.” She raised the tray. “Tonic?”

Vera noticed the blouse and said loudly, “This is going to cost us more than the paint and labor.” Elspeth put a finger to her lips, pleading with Vera to keep her voice down, but she wouldn’t. Elspeth took the bridge score pad from a drawer of the griffin table and furiously wrote her words down like a schoolgirl passing notes: “PLEASE don’t SHOUT!” Vera took a breath and asked as loudly as she pleased why she should care whether or not a housepainter could hear what she had to say. Elspeth tore the blouse off herself and threw it on the rug. Then it was Vera’s turn to be speechless.

Elspeth tried to time her visits outdoors to coincide with the times Lenny stepped down off the ladder. It required her to do a fair amount of spying. As he downed pitchers of lemonade and ice tea, Elspeth learned that he had been laid off from his computer job a year ago, and at the same time his mother had died, and “some other things, too.” And he’d decided he needed to take time off before looking for another, real job. He wasn’t married and never had been; he lived with a roommate, he said.

“But can you make enough painting houses?”

“As long as good weather holds out. And the roommate.”

“It’s generous of your roommate to help support you.”

“He doesn’t really have any choice.”

“I suppose not, if you’re both responsible for the rent.”

“I’ll pay him back. He knows that.”

The day that gray rain kept Lenny away, Elspeth busied herself in the attic to hide her glum mood from Vera. The rain beat a steady tattoo as she went through a great many dusty trunks and came upon some old black dresses that startled her. She must have known they were here, but she had no recollection. Old clothes of her ancestors, they were the soberest looking garments, blackest black. She spread them out on the attic floor to get a better look, and shuddered to think of the persons all melted out of them.

At lunch Elspeth tried to force cheeriness, but failed. Vera chided her. “I believe you have a crush.”

“He’s a nice boy, but that’s not it at all. It’s just that I saw something up in the attic.”

“A ghost?”

“More than one.” She brought the dresses down to show her sister, and the two stared at the garments laid out side-by-side on the living-room floor, both feeling a mixture of fascination and dread.

Up on his silver ladder Lenny looked like a performer. For a while, Elspeth watched from outside, then after she went back inside, listened to him walking across the creaking shingles of the porch roof. Later he pulled his ladder up on the porch roof with him and climbed it to reach the shingles on the attic level.

When he came down for a break, Elspeth asked, “Lenny, what’s it like up there?”

“Beautiful. All the street noise is far away. There’s a little breeze. But you can feel things shake when trucks go by.”

“Be careful.”

“I’m careful.”

Does he have health insurance? Elspeth worried.

“Can he sue us if he falls?” Vera wanted to know.

He didn’t get hurt on the extension ladder, however; it happened on the wooden step ladder while he was scraping the ceiling of the porch. After he came down, he looked like a harlequin clown, with glittery paint chips glued to his eyelids. He said: “I will never scrape another porch ceiling again as long as I live.” He went down to the basement to wash his eyes out, but only made things worse. He asked Elspeth to drive him to the emergency room. The hospital was only a mile down the street.

“But I don’t have a car anymore. Damn!” Elspeth cursed her doctor who had advised her to give up driving. And cursed the Reverend Nadelmann’s nephew, who had bought the car in a deal after which Elspeth felt she had been swindled. “Damn! I’m sorry.”

So Lenny called Stuart, his roommate, and told him to come over and drive him to the emergency room. Lenny seemed to be angry at Stu, as if his predicament were somehow Stu’s fault. Listening to Lenny’s end of the conversation, Elspeth guessed that Stu wasn’t taking Lenny’s complaint seriously. Lenny ended up hanging up on him.

“Is he coming by? Elspeth asked.

“We’ll see,” said Lenny, who finally got fed up waiting and walked to the hospital, a hand over his eye.

When Stu arrived, Elspeth went outside to meet him. A well-fed guy with odd-looking hair—ash blonde, possibly dyed—he didn’t look as if he had ever done manual labor. He was leaning back, looking up at the house, then finally noticed Elspeth standing on the porch. “Where’s the patient?” he asked.

“He walked to the hospital.”

“Why didn’t he do that in the first place?”

“I don’t think he’s too happy.”

“That’s nothing new.”

He leaned back to look at the house again. “He’s a good detail man, I’ll hand him that.” He climbed the porch steps to look at the half-sanded ceiling, then he looked in the window of the house. “Who’s that inside?”

“My sister.”

“You’ve got some beautiful antiques.”

“Some people call anything an antique these days.”

“I’d love to see them up close. I have what you’d call an interest.”

Elspeth hesitated. The young man was forward, things were happening much too fast. “What about Lenny? Don’t you want to go to the hospital?”

“He’ll be hours.”

“Aren’t you his friend? Don’t you care?”

“Let’s just say we’re stuck with each other. Uh, let me make a phone call and ask how is he.”

“Come inside,” said Elspeth, but instead of following her to the phone, he went at once to the griffin table and got down on all fours to look under it and ooohed. Vera in her chair beside it just stared. Next he went to the federal mahogany sideboard. “I trust you know that the brasses aren’t original, and that the feet, all six, have been reduced by approximately one-half inch,” he said to Vera, who looked helplessly up at Elspeth in the doorway. The Serab corridor carpet, from North Persia, had moth damage and reknotted pile. Pieces had been added for strength to the. . . . Minor restoration to one drawer face on the. . . . But the griffin table. He patted it. That was special.

“I’m a dealer,” Stu offered.

“Car dealer?”

“No! Antiques. And I’d get you good prices if you wanted to sell any.”

“But I don’t need the money.”

“Everybody needs money. Eventually.”

“Eventually. But not now.”

“Of course. Forgive me. But when the time comes, remember Stu.”

Lenny came to work wearing yellow-tinted safety goggles that made him look froggish the following day. Plus, he had to stop frequently and blink drops into his eyes. He was washing brushes in the basement when Stu arrived to pick him up. Stu knocked on the door and Elspeth answered: “So how’s Lenny doing? You been mothering him all right today? Poor Lenny—his mother was the kind who saved the pit from the peach he ate the day he went into the Army. He lasted all of two weeks. Then they sent him home. But his mother kept that pit and brought it out in its napkin every now and then, to show everybody how much she loved her son. No wonder he misses her.”

“And your mother?”

“Oh, she’s very much alive.”

“And does she love you just as much?”

“She thinks she does.”

“And where did you meet Lenny?”

“We’ve been living together for a year now. The rest of his family blames their mother’s heart attack on his moving in with me.”

“Oh?” said Elspeth.

Lenny turned the corner of the porch, having emerged from the basement bulkhead. The way his face looked, Elspeth thought something was very wrong, but it wasn’t.

“Come in the house,” said Elspeth, “both of you. I have something to show Stu.”

On the floor in the living room she had again spread the black dresses from the attic. “I’d like to sell them,” she said.

Vera nodded at him. Stu spoke too loudly; everything was distorted. But Elspeth said her sister was in agreement with her: the dresses should be sold.

“We want the morbid things out of the house.”

“Are you sure?” Lenny asked.

“Of course they are,” said Stu on his knees, gathering them up. “What are they going to do with them? Wear them?”

Stuart brought them something in a large brown paper shopping bag the next evening. Elspeth looked inside. Two live lobsters, claws banded, antennae waving.

“Why are you doing this?”

“If you don’t want them, we’ll eat them.” He snatched at the bag.

No, she wanted them all right. How had he guessed it was one of their favorite foods? Her cheeks pulsed with hot color as she felt the movement inside the bag. The blood pumped into her scalp. She laughed and her eyes crinkled up into halfmoons.

After the sisters had enjoyed their feast, Vera asked, “Who are these boys?”

It was actually Vera’s idea to “reciprocate.”

“They probably won’t come anyway,” said Elspeth of the plan to invite them for dinner. To her surprise and nervous delight, she was wrong.

They set a date after the housepainting was complete. Both sisters did the inspecting and both agreed that Lenny had done a magnificent job. The final payment was made.

So here they were sitting together, the two sisters and the boys.

Elspeth’s cheeks were inflamed by the preprandial sherry. Now she was sipping the wine the boys had brought for dinner. She could see that Vera was having a good time, herself. She didn’t want to miss out on any of this conversation. The hearing aid was turned up full. The boys weren’t dull, like the church members. Nor would there be any need for Elspeth to recap tediously the evening’s conversation. Stuart made sure she heard every word; he shouted, then whispered and gestured. He even wrote words down when he needed to. “One more time,” Vera said over and over. And the boys spoke in the right pitch the key phrases at her again.

Unless they were very great actors, the boys were having a good time, too. They dug into their stuffed chicken breasts, boned by the Italian grocer’s butcher and cooked to perfection by Elspeth in spite of her nerves. Stu objected to the pureed peas, however. “We’ve still got teeth, you know,” he said. “Well, one of us does. Lenny lost his two front teeth— they got knocked out and nearly swallowed when he was 13. He’s got false ones. And when we go on a bender, have a party, whatever, I’ve got to crawl around on the floor and help him look for them the next morning. Feeling around on the rug for somebody’s false teeth? What you hope like hell is that you don’t find them? Right, Lenny?” He touched his arm. “Oops, sorry. I hope neither of you ladies wears dentures!”

Elspeth and Vera both laughed so hard saying no, no they didn’t, they had to dab away tears.

“But you’ve got to tell us one thing,” Stu said. “Why neither of you ever got married.”

And eventually the sisters were reminiscing about the young men they once knew—suitors who stumbled down the cobblestoned hill to catch the late train back to Boston. “But then Mother died and Father needed taking care of.”

“He didn’t need both of you, did he?”

The sisters shrugged. “He was a hard man to say no to,” said Vera.

“Well, anyway,” said Elspeth, “nobody cares about those old-fashioned times anymore, the tea dances, the lawn parties, nobody believes those times ever even happened. Not even me.”

Stu left the house with more “things” that evening. Smaller items: a pocketwatch. A handwoven basket. The sisters hadn’t received payment yet for the dresses, but Stu said he was working on finding the right buyer among his regulars.

“Surely they are the most interesting and funniest people we have talked to in years,” said Vera.

Stu brought Elspeth a check the following week. The dresses had been sold to a couple in Salem. He was so impressed with their possessions that Elspeth over the next few months gave him even more to dispose of—larger pieces that he and Lenny both had to carry out of the house after yet another pleasant meal. These weren’t the most valuable items the sisters owned—they were things they’d had stored in the attic and basement. But one fall evening, Stu suggested he take the griffin table, too, not to sell, but to “sturdy up,” and he put a fist on it to show how it wobbled.

Was he getting them good prices for their things? Vera wondered aloud occasionally, but didn’t pursue it. It didn’t matter, because both women were so happy with the boys’ company.

Only half-heartedly and only once Vera voiced this question: Should they invite some nice young women from church to meet the boys the next time they came over? Elspeth decided not.

Around Christmas time: the boys stood on the sisters’ doorstep, grinning, red-and-white stocking caps on their heads and a tree standing between them. They also had a carton of eggnog and a fifth of rum underneath their jackets. Elspeth found a nutmeg, but couldn’t find the grater. Stu scratched shavings off with a nail file Elspeth fetched for him.

Elspeth and Stu went up to the attic to get the decorations. “There hasn’t been a tree decorated in this house in 30 years. Not since Father died.”

When the boys discovered that the sisters had no plans for Christmas Day, they invited them over to their apartment.

The sisters said yes. Usually on Christmas they were assigned to a church family with children. They were supposed to be the honorary grandmothers. Elspeth was thrilled to be able to report this Yuletide engagement to Reverend Nadelmann, whose great curiosity he was unable to contain. “What kind of “boys”?” he asked.

Christmas morning: Elspeth rang the boys’ phone number; they had said they’d call for them at 9:30. It was already an hour or more past.

“We’re still opening presents,” Stu said. “There are so many we had to take a rest. My mother really knows how to do it up.”

“Oh, is your mother joining us?”

“You bet your life.”

Elspeth heard strain in his voice. “Tell your mother I’m looking forward to meeting her.”

Stuart arrived in his mother’s Lincoln. His mother had come along for the ride, and to see Lenny’s paint job, she said. She took up well over half the front seat, a big, gaudy, blonde—hair the same color as her son’s, so perhaps it wasn’t dyed. Then again. . . . “I’m the only one they’ve got,” she said as the silent Stu drove, sullen as a cabby. “Lenny’s mother’s dead, and neither of their fathers would come see them.”

“Brothers and sisters?” Elspeth asked.

“I only had the one child, and Lenny’s got so many siblings he can’t even remember all their names. Honey, he just doesn’t bother. Why should he? The way they treated him.”

“They’re nice boys,” Vera said, holding her ears.

“That’s what you think!” said Stuart’s mother.

The apartment was crowded with antiques, naturally. The griffin table was there, too. “I’m still working on it,” Stuart said sharply. “It’s not quite ready yet.”

Both boys were irritable, the apartment full of tension. The day ended badly when, after long hours of cooking and eating too much, and strained conversation with Stuart’s mother, who appeared to have a drinking problem, Lenny dropped the coffee pot and Stuart started screaming at him.

“Too much Christmas cheer,” Vera said unhelpfully.

“Oh, what the hell do you know about it, anyway?” Stuart’s mother asked. “What the hell do you know about anything?” She went off crying into the boys’ bedroom. “Not a damn thing.”

The sisters didn’t hear from them. They waited. Elspeth called on New Year’s Day. She rang many times. Too early even at 2 p.m.? She hung up when the croaking voice of Stuart said, “Happy fucking New Year.”

With difficulty Elspeth was able to drag the tree outside for the trash men, herself. The rest of January, then February passed, and the sisters still did not hear from the boys. “We laughed and laughed and had such good times,” said Vera. “If we hadn’t, the neglect would be more understandable. Let’s call them and tell them you’ll make them another nice dinner.”

“Oh for God’s sake. They’re better cooks than we are!”

Then late one night, outside the open doors of the basement bulkhead, Elspeth was using a stiff spray from the hose on the white-fly infestation of her geraniums. It was a midnight in March and the pests had attacked the plants ferociously. Anyway Elspeth couldn’t sleep. Suddenly a truck came up the driveway right past the open doors, very fast. She went a few steps down into the bulkhead, but didn’t close the doors behind her. She waited to see what would happen next. She heard fast clipped steps coming down the drive, someone wearing boots. She waited to see who would pass. She stuck her head out and looked up the drive. She saw the figure of a man who knew her name, “Hello, Elspeth.” Of course she knew the voice. “Lenny? I heard a vehicle, footsteps—” He began to reprimand her: “What are you doing? I could have been anybody.” He had a muffler around his throat, his aviator jacket on, like a World War I pilot’s, and tight blue jeans. “I’ve just put my truck up by your garage to hide it from Stuart. I don’t want him to wreck it. I never want to see him again. He’s crazy . . . Uh, can I stay here tonight? I was going to stay in the basement. I still have a key.” He opened his palm to show her.

“You’ll stay in the spare bedroom or nowhere. And don’t you dare refuse.”

“Could I have a glass of water?”

She led him through the basement, upstairs, into the living room.

“I can’t stay here. I’ll just sit here until I think it’s safe to go home. You go to bed.”

“I’m not tired. That’s why I’m up.”

She gave him some Scotch. She gave him the bottle with a glass of ice. She turned on the little floor lamp beside him. He was sitting in Vera’s chair.

It was strange to see how changed he was.

“You know, Stu’s not really getting you the prices you should be getting on those things he’s selling for you.”

“I don’t care about them. I only care about the two of you.” With that, Elspeth got up and kissed Lenny on the forehead. She sighed: “All my life I’ve been too cautious.”

Lenny laughed bitterly, “And I haven’t been cautious enough!”

The next morning, with Vera still sleeping, loudly snoring beside her, Elspeth heard Lenny’s boots outside her window. He was walking away quickly, his steps sharp and hard.

When Elspeth finally called the boys’ number again, she got the news that Lenny had moved to San Francisco. And Stuart was obviously drunk and despondent, and perhaps had been so for days. She told him to come over—they could talk about it. He mumbled okay, made a date, but she knew he wouldn’t keep it, and he didn’t. Then, without warning, he stopped by in his mother’s Lincoln. Actually it was his car now, he said. He also said he was “up,” and announced that he was taking “you girls” to a place that served fried clams and looked out on the water. Elspeth helped Vera get dressed. She hadn’t been feeling well. But she wanted to go. Some air might do her good.

At the fish-and-chips place in Gloucester they were not the only fools rushing the season. There were a couple of other parties—several with children: it was a weekday, but must have been spring vacation time. And the children were having fun feeding the seagulls that swooped and strutted and begged. But Stuart said that seagulls carried diseases and he tried to get everybody to shoo them away. He was acting strangely, he was unshaven, he downed several beers. The sisters in silence feared for their lives while he drove them home.

In the driveway Elspeth said: “Stu, Lenny was your friend. Why don’t you call him?”

“Friend?” said Stuart, who then told her not to worry about her furniture and the other items he still had. There was some trouble getting payments from customers. He’d been threatening them with phone calls; he’d call them again.

Later in the week Elspeth called him—to thank him for the lunch, she told herself; though what she really wanted to do was find out how he was. But the phone had been disconnected, all she got was a recording. In retrospect, she realized Stu had taken them out for a farewell lunch.

Delighted by a recent discovery, Reverend Nadelmann paid the sisters an unannounced call in his collar. “I have seen something, ladies,” he said.

“A revelation?” Elspeth asked facetiously; he caught it; his eyes darkened. “Something of yours,” he intoned.

“Of mine or of Vera’s and mine?”

“The table held up by those lions with the wings?”

“They’re griffins. Fabulous beasts.”

“At a so-called antique shop on South Broadway.”

She stopped him with a lie. “I know all about it.”

“You know?”

“We’ve sold the things to that gentleman, and he’s paid in full. I know all about it. Some tea?”

“But the prices he’s asking. You’ve been swindled.”

“We’ll see about that.”

She looked in the phone book for a taxi company. Some boasted air-conditioning and other luxuries; she picked the company who’d run the biggest ad.

The dispatcher told her to be waiting outside. She got ready and headed for the door.

“Where are you going? Vera asked.

“Just up the street for the paper.”

“In a cab?”

“I’m too tired to walk.”

“Elspeth, I know where you’re going—”

But the cab had arrived.

The driver was a disinterested, middle-aged Hispanic, hunched over a clipboard, busily writing. She got in. Down and around the rabbit warren that was Lawrence he took her. The cab was hot. She turned the window crank, but it didn’t roll down. She felt around for a seat belt, and couldn’t find one. Traffic was thick, reckless, violent. The dispatcher kept talking to the driver in Spanish. The driver spoke back, exasperated, threatening, as he got deeper and deeper into the maze of streets. Elspeth wished she could jump out, but where would she have gone? What would she have done? Hailed a cab?

She would never take another taxi as long as she lived.

When they passed the shop, she shouted for the driver to stop and circle back. For sale out on the sidewalk was Lenny’s aluminum ladder.

The man in the shop wore a black woolen cap on the very back of his head. She saw the table at once, without having to ask him where it was.

“Isn’t that a beauty? Good price.”

“This table is mine.”

“Yours for the asking. Delivered?”

“I’ll tell you something. We have a problem here. This is stolen property. I gave this to a young man to fix for me, and he apparently sold it to you.”

“He didn’t sell it exactly. He owed me some money. This is what he showed up with.”

“Well, anyway it’s mine and I can prove it. There are old family photos in the drawer—of my sister and me. At least if he hasn’t taken them away.”

“Open, says me.”

The photos were still there.

“See?”

“That’s you?”

“Fifty years ago.”

“I’m gonna to have to take your word for it.”

“Thanks. I’ll pay you to deliver the table back to my home.”

“Now wait a minute. There’s forms to fill out. Warrants. You want your friend to be arrested, don’t you?”

“Of course not. He’s a poor soul—in trouble. There’s something wrong in his life. He moved because his best friend in all the world moved.”

“That guy doesn’t have friends—”

“Well, anyway. I don’t want to press charges. Here. I’ll buy the table from you.” She opened her purse and took out her checkbook and the man told her the amount to fill in.

Several weeks later a letter arrived:

Hi girls! We’re here because we’re here because. . . . And we wish you were here with us.

Lenny has a nice job.

I’m convalescing. That’s why you haven’t heard from me.

We’re into veggie food. And an occasional duck. No bloody meat. The idea of it makes me feel faint. We’ve resigned ourselves to each other, and we’re happy, quite happy, we really are.

And I didn’t mean for the griffins to be included in the stuff I sold to the junk shop. I told him part of the deal was that he deliver the table back to you. I know I should have done it myself. But I got sloppy. It was getting late. I had to get out to S.F. Lenny needed me, I needed him. It may sound like a soap opera, but it’s true. . ..

“Trouble finds him,” Vera shrugged as Elspeth climbed into their bed that evening. And, Elspeth said—to herself of course, because the hearing aid was already on the nightstand—that she didn’t suppose she should suspect him of lying.

Under the sheets the smells of flatulence and violets combined. They lay together, side by side, in the bed in which they had been born and their parents had died.

Elspeth couldn’t sleep; she turned on the light and started writing.

“You can’t just fire back a reply,” Vera said. “You can’t have them feeling like they need to answer right away. Letters have got to be spaced.”

“I suppose you’re right.” She put down her pen, but didn’t turn out the light. One of Vera’s mysteries lay on the nightstand along with the hearing aid. Elspeth read several chapters before she finally dropped off.

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