My sister married Leo Brady because he was a merchant seaman and made good wages, and because he was gone most of the time. She and her five-year-old boy had been living on the sales of her cable-car etchings that tourists to San Francisco picked over in the little art galleries and book stores, and on the sporadic sales of her oil paintings. They were married a few days after he came from sea, and a week later his ship sailed again for the Orient. In the six weeks he was away, the steamship company sent her, at his request, all his wages. But the day that he returned was unrewarding for Leo.
Clara had her studio in an old building on Columbus street. The first floor was occupied by the Garibaldi Club, whose members assembled every evening for cards; above her, on the top floor, lived two young men, a bank clerk and a window dresser. But she knew Leo’s step on the bottom stair and, lifting her head from the pillow, she said, “Why couldn’t his ship have cracked in two? All the others did.”
I was kneeling to help Mark, her boy, undress for bed, and I paused with my hands at his waist and lifted my head to hear her above his prattling. “Did you want anything?” She had been lying in a fever all day.
“Listen, listen!” she admonished me.
And I listened and heard the steps.
Swinging the boy lightly up, I sat him down on his bed. That day I had crew-cut his hair because he had wanted to imitate me, and his shorn skull sparked the tiny, blue confetti eyes that were like mine, like Clara’s, and gave a malapert air to my red-striped T-shirt that I’d been wearing under my sweater and had slipped over him to sleep in; but it wasn’t the moment, after Clara’s belated curse upon her approaching husband, to carry the boy out for her to admire. Wrapping him in under a couple of army blankets and a Mexican serape, I stepped out from behind the screen just as Leo set down his suitcase outside the door.
“Tell him I ate poisoned pigs-feet!” she cried in a desperate whisper. “It’s called botulism. Tell him I died, Eddie,” she begged. “I’ll pull the sheet over my head and he’ll go away.”
Leo knocked shyly at the door as he opened it. When he entered, his bigness and his suitcase lent him a proprietary aura that he didn’t want. Up went his hand to remove his old black fedora and beamingly, deferentially, stood forth his young bald head.
“Clara’s sick,” I told him, when we had shaken hands.
Leo’s brown eyes swelled sharply and his hands at once hung limply, unable to administer, in the artful way he felt necessary, the sympathy they held. With the contempt she had implanted in me, I thought: Why did he include himself in their marriage? If he really loved her then he would sacrificially send her his wages and never appear in person.
“She catch something?” he asked, his voice low and longing.
“The flu, I guess. She got me out of art school this morning.”
“Did you call a doctor?”
“She doesn’t want one.”