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Miss Stilvey

ISSUE:  Summer 1975

THERE was towards the center of the larger room a small almost cleared area where Miss Stilvey often sat in the constant dusk. Opposite her chair, which was high-backed and covered with damask, its arms immense and ornate, was the child’s chair of shadowy white tufted satin dotted with a pale pattern of roses. Surrounding, quite crowding both of the chairs and covered with heights of sheeting and lengths of materials, were bureaus and tables and lamps and cabinets, jammed in edge to edge. There were stacks of newspapers, shoulder high, and rugs rolled and piled one on top of another haphazardly, and there were cartons and boxes and barrels and crates. The room was overwarm, the windows, a panel of them, were closed, the shades drawn as always against the season, against the hour, against the very minute.

Miss Stilvey leaned forward towards the child.

“Aren’t you going to talk to me?” she asked, her moist old eyes half closed, her hair shadowy-white (like the satin) and looped carelessly, wispily, into a tortoise-fastened tuft above the waxy length of her face. The child, a girl, did not look at her. She sat on her child’s chair swinging her feet slowly, slowly back, and forth, her stubby hands sunburned and firm and dirty against the long-waisted dress barely covering her knees.

Miss Stilvey sat back reconciled once again to merely looking at the girl, once again glad that she had come and especially that she had come to her chair. Sometimes she sat on top of the filing drawers or on the books or under the sewing machine which wasn’t nearly so nice. And several times Miss Stilvey had found her sitting in mid-air over in the corner just above the chifferobe Daddy had brought from France. Those times Miss Stilvey had tried to get her to come closer by offering her a soda cracker, not of course that she would have let her have it, but it had done no good.

“Darling,” Miss Stilvey had called out to her. “Come see what I have for you.” The child had stayed where she was. She never spoke. Sometimes she hummed, her voice off-key and grating.

This was only the third time that the child had sat in her chair, and therefore only the third time that Miss Stilvey (who had been her hostess again and again over the years, years she had at first refused and at last forgotten to count) had been able to see her at all clearly. She was in fact so close that had Miss Stilvey so much as reached out she could have touched the dress, the hands, could have maybe turned the runny nosed face to hers, perhaps have fingered the width of lacy scalloped collar.

But Miss Stilvey was careful not to move except slowly and was careful to keep the distance between them. Once she had tried to reach out to her and the child had left. It had happened a long while ago, when she had first started coming, and she had never tried again. Anyway, Miss Stilvey knew that the child too lived in these rooms. Which one she couldn’t tell but one of them or maybe both.

“Darling, aren’t you going to tell me your name?” Miss Stilvey asked, knowing that she would receive no answer. She rested her head against the high back of her chair, the exact spot of damask soiled and smudged, and as she watched the child, the swinging feet, she idly moved her hands slowly forward and slowly back again along the grooved oversized carvings of doves and scepters and snakes that twined and intertwined along the chair’s arms culminating in gargoyle heads that smiled.

“I’m sure it must be a very pretty name,” said Miss Stilvey, speaking out of habit. “Very pretty.”

Miss Stilvey watched the child but even as she watched she did not see the snubby profile turn, the little eyes meet hers. Only suddenly in that minute the child, yes, suddenly acknowledged her and for the first time it had as if it hadn’t happened at last occurred. And Miss Stilvey as suddenly was frightened and aware. Her hands that instant wet and cold stopped moving along the arms of the chair.

The child went on swinging her feet.

“I’m Gloria,” she said. “Miss Beautiful.”



“Oh.” Miss Stilvey, who almost within her memory had known no emotion other than anger at attempted intrusions, now mingled with fright at having the child’s eyes focus on hers, tiny eyes, tiny eyes, felt even an unwelcome gratitude at the sound of her voice, but as well an irritation at its raspiness, such a flatness.

“Gloria. B.” the child said. She looked away from Miss Stilvey, about the room, and back to Miss Stilvey. “Would you like to see my toys?” she asked and began taking small figures one by one, how they wriggled, from her pocket.

“Why all right, yes,” said Miss Stilvey. “I guess so. Why not.”

The child toppled the figures into her lap and chose one, a small man, pinching him, with black hair and a black mustache.

“This is my favorite,” she said.

Miss Stilvey could scarcely see him: his dark fitted jacket, yes, and his narrow trousers as well. She even saw the shoes, almost. High buttoned weren’t they? But she couldn’t quite see the doll’s face.

“He will do anything I say,” the child announced. She held him upright in her left hand. Miss Stilvey saw its face.

“Jump!” commanded the child. The little figure, its heels close together, flailed its arms. And jumped. He landed in the child’s right hand. “Again!” cried the child. And he jumped back to her left hand. “He will do anything I tell him,” the child repeated. She held him while she sorted through the other figures on her lap, and chose another figure, larger than the first and younger and wearing a khaki uniform. The uniform, the doll’s hair, all of it head to toe, was wet. There was a tangle of seaweed around its waist. “Wet,” thought Miss Stilvey rheumy eyed, her lips slack, “he’s wet all over. And that’s seaweed,”

“He too,” said the child, “always does as I say. And this one too and this one.” She went on picking up two more figures, one wearing a blazer jacket and a cap and the other a tuxedo. Miss Stilvey couldn’t see any of the dolls’ faces, that’s what they were, dolls, but she didn’t need to. They each in a younger and less handsome way, oh you had to admit it, resembled the doll with the black hair and black mustache. And anyway somewhere in a box or a drawer somewhere, some place, where, there was a photograph of them and of her in their garden, it was so lovely, violets and mimosa, camellias, with the collie, what was its name, and the nurse, some nurse or other, really dreadful.

“But this one,” said the child picking up the last of the dolls, “this one I don’t like at all. In fact, if you want to know I hate her, always have.” The doll was dressed of course in a long skirt and a pale beige blouse. Miss Stilvey remembered the blouse. “Oh you are a rotten little girl,” she thought rheumily eying the child, then leaning forward to see the blouse better, to see if the hair as she knew it would be was brushed up in a pompadour.

“Can’t you see them, old lady? Old. Old. Old,” asked the child. Rising, holding all the dolls in one hand and coming over to Miss Stilvey. As she came close, Miss Stilvey’s old eyes went wide. “You-keep-away-from-me,” she said. Whispered, that is.

But the child moved carefully, deliberately, for a moment merely stood at Miss Stilvey’s side. And then sighing, she climbed heavily up on her lap. Miss Stilvey sat rigidly. The child snuggled, settled down. She snuffled. She held up the figures, a fistful.

“Aren’t they wonderfull she said. “All but this one. I don’t know why I keep this one. Do you? I’m not actually asking you, you know. Why should I?”

“Now darling,” said Miss Stilvey.

The child sighed again. She leaned her head against Miss Stilvey, and her eyes closed. Miss Stilvey looked down at the child. Runny nosed! Horrid! She looked at the haphazard struggling figures. The eyes in their tiny faces were frantic. So. So they were frantic. Miss Stilvey’s hands began sliding slowly along the arms of the chair to the end and over the gargoyles’ smiles. The child seemed to be sleeping. Indeed. She snored in quick little grunts.

Tentatively Miss Stilvey reached over to touch the child’s hair. The child’s? That was no child. Miss Stilvey held an old white swan the size of a child, its long neck curved across her old breasts, the figures clutching into the old white down of its neck, hanging along its length. What old now unblinking eyes it had, its body slack, slippery against hers, its feet, its beak the palest orange, so rubbery. One of the figures, which one, which, was dropping under its great slack wing, the hollow there the color of old snow. Non-chalantly the swan’s head arched, quickly darting. It swallowed the figure. The swan then looked again blandly up into Miss Stilvey’s tiny eyes looking down. “Oh. Oh, my face has fallen apart!” Miss Stilvey cried stiffly aloud to the room. “Oh, fallen!” Gracefully the swan seemed to rearrange itself. It snuggled.

Miss Stilvey did not hesitate. She brought her hands together and choked the swan to death. There was no sound, no resistance, until the child’s hand opened and the figures fell to the floor. Miss Stilvey shook the child, she stood up to shake the child by the neck holding her away from her, the rosy-cheeked face firm and cold hitting against her wrist. Below the child’s dress the legs hung limply, her scuffed shoes pointing downwards.

“He is my favorite,” Miss Stilvey remarked not unpleasantly. “Mine. Not yours.” She threw the child’s body over to the white tufted satin child’s chair. “And if you think this is something you know, well let me tell you. You don’t know.”

Then Miss Stilvey reached down for a toy figure that was sprawled by the edge of a sheet. “Oh, it’s you,” she said. She looked at the pompadour, felt the figure trying to move as she held it, heard its little high voice. Who cared what it said. “You,” Miss Stilvey said again. Before she threw it out of sight, into the débris of the room, she pushed at its head, poking at it until the pompadour was unpinned and the doll’s brown hair fell loose. “What do you think of that,” she said. Miss Stilvey then got to her hands and knees groping to find the other figures, finding first the one in the blazer jacket and then the one in khaki, he had goggles, he was an aviator wasn’t he, still wet to the touch, and then, there he was, the man with the black hair and the black mustache. When she found him she no longer looked for the figure in the tuxedo and she put the two other figures carelessly, although they were tinily screaming up towards her, into an old crate filled with excelsior. They seemed to sink into it. Miss Stilvey carried the little man close to her face and went along the dark corridor formed by furniture and boxes that led to the smaller room in which surrounded by crates and shelvings was a cot with a mattress made of pillows. Miss Stilvey lay down, cupping the figure, holding him near her ear.

She smiled. She listened as he talked. “Oh yes,” she said. “I told you, yes.” She sighed. “Why them?” she said. “All right. All right.” She put the figure carefully on a pillow, punching in an indentation so he couldn’t climb out although at once he began trying. “You stop that,” she said. She touched a kiss to her finger and pressed it against the figure’s forehead. He was yelling at her. She flicked her finger at him and he fell over. “It will be so wonderful for all of us to be together,” she said. She hurried back to the other room to the crate filled with excelsior. “But it’s just the two of us, the two of us.” she said. She did not look for the figure in the tuxedo. She rummaged in the crate and finding the two figures, who cared, who cared at all, glanced towards the white satin chair. The child was gone.

Miss Stilvey went back to the cot.

“Here they are! The best most handsome brothers, oh, just aren’t they!” she said, punching in another indentation and dropping them in. They fell in a heap into the pillow, into its material, the pillow nearly flat with age.

“Oh,” said Miss Stilvey looking down, now at the one figure, now at the two figures, her eyes shiny, the old lids oozing tears, “I have missed all of you so.” The figure with the black mustache was shouting. She bent towards him.

“Oh, and Mama too. Mama, of course. But it’s all so different now. And so dreadful. You would not believe this, but I am by myself now. It’s true. There wasn’t anything any one of you could do about it. But leaving me with all this—this junk. I kept it for you, you know. I’m talking about your odds and ends and everything having a story. Well, it was too much for me. I even have the letter from Belgium, can you imagine!” Miss Stilvey suddenly straightening, stopped. She looked across the room. An envelope was slipped under the door. “Well, I get letters too,” she said. Miss Stilvey waited, then she went to the door, unbolted it, and pulled in the bag of groceries, looking only for an instant at the deep nap of the carpeted hallway, the mellow lights reflected in mirrors, smiling that no one was in sight. Wasn’t that a part of the bargain. “That was a part of the bargain,” she said positively.

Closing the door, bolting it, she took the groceries out of the bag. She folded the paper bag and put it with the other paper bags, a stack of them. She carefully took the labels off of all the cans and stacked the cans. The labels she put in an old box. She sat down on the cot. She took off her slippers and cleaned her toenails. She filled an old bucket and soaked her feet. She soaked her old hands. She looked at the figures. How they struggled in the old chintz, against old worn patterns, so old, so stained they could hardly be made out : the pillows scarcely had a color to them. They were that old, that used. The figures blossomed. They were life-size. They dominated the room. “Why Daddy,” she said. “Why Donnie, you are so wet !” She ignored the man in the blazer. “You men,” she sighed. “Oh. I have tried to tell you. It was just junk, trifles and you didn’t even mention it. You went your ways.”

The figures, life-size, stood conversing, the one standing in a puddle. The man with the black mustache drank brandy in a glistening glass. The woman with the pompadour ran in. She hugged him. She had sparkling eyes. And bracelets on her slender arm. The man with the blazer bounced a ball. He whacked the air with a tennis racket. The man with the tuxedo walked in, and out, his top hat doffed to one, to all.

Miss Stilvey went back to the larger of the rooms and sat again in her high-backed chair. She looked about the room again and she saw the child sitting on the top of the book-case. She had never sat there before.

“Darling,” said Miss Stilvey. “Come sit in your chair. Why don’t you come sit in your chair.” The child did not look at her and did not answer.

“Come see what I have for you, darling,” said Miss Stilvey. But the child never spoke. Sometimes she hummed. Miss Silvey wished the child would come and sit in the white satin chair. Just once. Just once, so she could see her more clearly, and maybe find out her name.


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