|Chagrin River Review||
Walking Along the Rough
Well, Steven, you found me. For the second time in fifty years, I heard your voice. And I hope there’ll be at least a second time to see you. But no hurry. Read this before you fly down here to San Diego. Then decide. I’m not going anywhere this time. Promise.
I won’t apologize for not keeping you—it was the ’50s. Nobody kept babies then. You asked around; went to someone in another town. If it was too late, you were hustled away and your parents boasted how well you were doing at the new school. At a logical time in the year, you slipped into town sans baby and were put back into the auction. But you were damaged goods; nobody was fooled.
So much for that. What it really comes down to is that starting you off was the one thing I’ve done that’s mattered. You could say we launched each other, you and I. And we both have the Howes to thank.
You see, my friend, that July when I found I was pregnant, your blue-eyed father (are yours still blue?) located a doctor for me in a town not far from the college, before he flew off for his junior year in Cologne. The plan was for me to see that man on my way back to school in late August. Perfect timing. I’d get away with it. One of the fortunate ones.
In the middle of that month, your grandparents made their annual trip to New York, and my friend Paula came to visit. After doing up our pin curls, we’d sit in my shell-pink bedroom, talking late into the night about the party we’d been to or sorority rush in the fall; me, with you always in mind but never, of course, mentioning you, things being the way they were back then.
Mornings, Paula slept in. I’d get up early, run to the tennis court across the fairway to practice my serve. When I came back at noon, we’d go out on the patio overlooking the fifteenth hole, and while Paula lazed in the sun, I jumped rope. “Great for the hips,” I’d say, thinking I’d get rid of you without that trip to the doctor. God, you must be strong! Maybe the jumping helped.
After a smoke, we’d hunch down behind the fir branches on our side of the fairway and muddle the game. The annual tournament was on, and when some gray-haired foursome pitched toward the flag, we’d send one of my father’s balls rolling toward the green and watch the confusion.
On the Saturday Paula left, we fixed an early breakfast, mainly coffee laced with brandy I took from your grandfather’s desk drawer, and carried it outside. We were probably on our second cup, heads buzzing in the morning sun, when we heard a rhythmic grunt like an overloaded camel slogging through wet sand. I froze over my cup, but Paula ran to peer through the branches. She waved for me to come, and I did, but I knew what she must be seeing.
Two women were walking along the rough. The older one was tall, thin in a pale blue dress that flared at each step. She was wearing a white straw hat banded in black and carried a cane. The younger woman had a black-bound hat on too, but below the hat, in her yellow dress, she was pigeon-breasted and slab-hipped. Mouth open, grayish curls swinging around her face, she was staring ahead, and each time her left foot hit the ground, she pumped her arms and let out a grunt.
“What is that?” Paula asked.
I backed away from the branches. “Oh, just Nellie Howe and her mother.” I managed a smile. “They’re harmless.”
While we were juggling dishes in from the patio, I asked Paula if she could stay on a few more days, but she had to get back to Lansing for a cousin’s wedding. I leaned against the fluted drainpipe at the corner of the garage, watching her pull away. Didn’t go in for a while—hosed the driveway, swept geranium petals from the patio, deadheaded some daisies—things like that. Then there wasn’t anything else to do but go inside and deal with the shudder that went through me when I saw the Howes go by. I pulled a chair up to the table in the empty kitchen and looked out at the trees between me and the fairway.
The firs had been there when we moved in, and then birches and wild plums had volunteered in the gaps. They were all so much larger than when I used to sit in that same chair with my spelling lists. And, naturally, during most of the school months, the trees were bare, or just about, so I could see the fairway directly then. The Howes, in their fedoras and fur-collared coats, were my morning clock. When they walked by each morning about eight o’clock from their house near the seventh green, I grabbed my lunch box and took off. If I happened to miss them, your grandfather, or sometimes your grandmother, would shout, “Here come the Howes, Marty!” I didn’t think much about them unless I saw them, and I hardly ever thought about Nellie, any more than I thought about the two Afghan hounds that accompanied them. But I did sometimes think about Mrs. Howe, because she looked like a picture I’d once seen of old Queen Mary. Her face said “Keep back.”
* * *
She wasn’t from Kalscott; Mr. Howe had discovered her somewhere East. She had dark hair coiled at the base of her neck, and was said to wear floor-length dresses and pearl ropes for the dinner parties they gave before Nellie was born. I heard that Mrs. Howe played her violin after dinner, before card tables were set up, and that Charlie Fenton, the Lincoln dealer, used to take bets beforehand on whether her bow would catch in the pearls and send them scattering across the parquet floor.
Sometimes while your grandmother’s friends were still lingering after their book club session when I’d come in the back door from school, I’d listen from the dining room while I helped myself to petit fours and ribbon sandwiches. Not that I was much interested in what they said. It was the way they batted “Did you hear—?” and “Really!” around the room so snidely after he, she, and they that caught my attention. Such cold hearts. Sometimes I heard Mrs. Howe’s name, but none of the women said she’d been seen with so-and-so or done this or that. Those women described Mrs. Howe by what she didn’t do.
She didn’t belong to any of the clubs your grandmother did. I doubt she belonged to any clubs at all, not even the garden club. She didn’t go to Eastern Star, the housekeeper did the shopping, and your grandmother’s circle didn’t take walks on the fairway unless they were playing a round. The only place anyone said they saw her was at community concerts. She probably didn’t even drive, as Mr. Howe always dropped her off and was waiting in their Mercedes with Nellie when the concert let out. No one else was ever with her, and she didn’t stay for refreshments after.
You should know about their house. It wasn’t Colonial or Tudor like the others around the course. It looked like a tile-topped Mediterranean prison with grillwork over the windows and along the balconies. It backed on a steep wooded slope that dropped down to the stream that wandered through the course, and there was an iron stairway that spiraled from the foundation to a second-floor terrace. Once when some of us were playing hide-and-seek, I saw Mrs. Howe going up that stairway with her hands full of violets from the slope.
Not long after that, we were all out in the woods near the sixth tee or thereabouts. It was still twilight but rather late—summer evenings are long in the north, you know. I’d slipped between some large rocks near the stream just below the Howe’s, and no one had come close to finding me. I was about to leave, when I heard music floating down the hill. Invisible between those rocks, I listened to the sound of a piano and an answering violin glide above the rush of water beside me while my eyes explored inlets of dark, island-shaped clouds merging across the sky into a deep-blue canopy that stretched across a brilliant world barely showing through the openings we call stars and constellations. Cassiopeia lay in her chair right over me.
By the time I realized my friends’ voices had disappeared, the full moon was high, and so bright I could see rocks below the water’s surface. I meant to follow a narrow trail back to a crossing near our house, but when I got to the other side of the stream, I looked up and saw the Howe’s stairway, with light from a room off the terrace falling part way down it. I put one foot on the steps, then the other. At the top, I saw a wide screen door with two glass doors open behind it. I edged over and looked in.
Let me tell you, that room was dazzling—double-armed wall sconces lighting bookcases that lined the white walls, lion-footed lamps burning on tables by each chair. At the far end of the room, a lamp with a rose tulip shade stood next to a piano on a rug so full of flowers they seemed to spill over onto the floor.
That’s where the Howes were, he at the piano and she standing in the curve of the piano playing her violin. Nellie, well into her thirties by then and wearing a pink flannel nightgown, was sitting on the floor at the junction of two white couches opposite them, and the Afghans were lying on each side of her. Her fingers were weaving lacy patterns in front of her eyes while she hummed and rocked in time to the music. Whenever her hands stopped twisting, both dogs looked up until she stroked their heads. Once they’d closed their eyes, she began to rock and twirl her fingers again.
I leaned over to see her better, and one of the Afghans looked up. Nellie stopped rocking. She put her hand on the dog’s neck and pushed it down. Then she frowned, swung her face toward me, and she and both dogs stared at the screen door.
The music stopped. “Nellie?” I heard. Mrs. Howe had turned away from her husband, and they were both watching her. Mrs. Howe set down the violin and started walking toward her, looking as if she were trying to lip-read through a dark window.
Nellie was still staring right toward me. Right at me. I’m sure. She’d lifted her arm and was pointing toward the door. Her frown changed into a smile as she opened her hand. And with it she beckoned twice before swinging her head away from me, lowering it, and putting both hands in front of her face. Then she opened her fingers and began to twist them again, smiling this time toward her mother.
Mrs. Howe was in front of her by then, the question gone from her face. She knelt and patted Nellie before returning to the piano. Behind her back, as she walked across that parquet maze, Nellie stroked the dogs. I felt my way down the steps and followed the trail home, wondering what I’d seen.
That’s what I considered at the kitchen table after Paula left, and there was no escaping it. What I’d come upon that night was a fortress, not a prison. And the architect was Nellie. She’d sighted out through her lacing fingers and ordered with her smile, and somehow transformed her prison and theirs into a stronghold. No other way to think about it. If she, spinning out from her strange world, had the power to make something like that—and secretly call me in—what even grander mystery might be lost if I did away with the new person in me.
I tossed out my lighter, hung up my jump rope, and went to the cupboard to take out a glass for milk. That’s it. That’s what I want you to know.
If you want to hear more—there isn’t that much—I’ll be here. If you want to.
Molly Gillcrist Bio
Childhood, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
B. A. Duke, M. A. University of Virginia
Employment: Worcester Massachusetts Easter Seal Society; Kennedy Memorial Hospital, Brighton, Massachusetts.
Language Teaching Institute, Seoul.
Graduate fellowship at Child Development and Rehabilitation Center, Oregon Health Sciences University, Portland
North Clackamas School District (Oregon): set up services for speech/hearing handicapped students in junior and senior high schools; set up and taught in English as a Second Language programs for Southeast Asian refugees and other immigrants.
Conducted statewide workshops for teachers on how to accommodate English as a Second Language students in regular classrooms.
Volunteer activities: Court Appointed Special Advocate, Start Making a Reader Today
Beloved avocation for twenty-five years: writing stories.