Issue 8, Spring 1955
At first Ernestine was completely overwhelmed with the wonder of the nieces and nephews. As she remembered it, she had been like a dancer, moving gracefully from one side of the stage to the other, turning her well-shaped head, as if in search, trying to decide on which of the children to kneel beside. But honestly, and it was very important to be honest now that everything had turned out as happily as a fairy story, honestly she had not known that Lucy would be one.
Three years ago, at the Christmas family dining, one of Martha Nell’s awkward little girls had twisted up her skinny face and asked, “Aunt Tina, why you be old maid?” Everyone around the table, even Lucy, had laughed as if the child were really clever.
Ernestine allowed the laughter to settle before she answered quite clearly, “I need to take care of my nieces and nephews—you’re all my children.” Some of the family had laughed again, but Lucy touched her arm and smiled. The candlelight caught the ugly class ring on the child’s hand, the ring was wrapped with a bulge of adhesive: “Of course, Auntie,” Lucy said. Ernestine touched the ring, twisting it a little so that the dirty adhesive showed more plainly. Lucy giggled and batted her eyes and whispered that the ring belonged to Mister Joseph Botts. “Not Mrs. Botts’s son—at the Bakery?” Ernestine asked, and Lucy nodded and twisted her shoulders. “Nice,” Ernestine said, for it was all she could do to keep from crying.
She should have known then that Lucy was the one, but she had not known.
Ernestine Graham was willing to admit when she was wrong: Pappa always said it was a sign of wisdom. She had admitted, oh, time and again she had admitted to herself how wrong she had been about this person or that: the young men who used to call, for instance, with their weak mouths and common backgrounds; the nieces and nephews who wrote curt little notes at Easter and Memorial Day and Thanksgiving to explain their absence from the family gatherings. For a long time, just to show how mistaken a person could be, she had suspected that Martha Nell would be the other part of herself. It would have been real pleasure to possess Martha Nell, what with the child’s mother glaring at everyone and insisting that she wanted to live in a house of her own. “You’re welcome here, Pappa would want you here,” Ernestine said. When they finally moved away, Martha Nell had leaned against her auntie and cried as if her little heart would break. Ernestine kissed the child until they were both out of breath. “Any time you’re welcome,” she called to the broad back of her sister-in-law; above Martha Nell’s weeping her voice, kind and charming, rang so clear that even the neighbors heard.
She had known that morning, with a quiet infinite wisdom, that they would have to send Martha Nell’s mother away. It had been a mistake, perhaps, for in no time at all Martha Nell was married to the little farmer up the road who smelled of the stable. Martha Nell was no better than the others: she fondled her awkward children and she missed a family dining whenever her little husband wanted to visit his folks in some god forsaken part of the state. It was all one could do to keep on being gracious and charming, for there was only Brother Albert’s Lucy left, and Lucy had seemed the silliest of them all.
Six times Ernestine Graham had leaned over the cradle which her own Pappa had been rocked in. Six times she had wept helplessly at the birth of her brother’s children. Six times she had stood in front of the college chapel across the street, holding the new baby for its first picture, almost bursting with the joy of the moment. The pictures hung now around her mirror where she could see them every morning as she opened her eyes: Ernestine Graham dressed in ever changing styles for ever changing seasons, but ever young, stood at noon and smiled at the older waking Ernestine; the moments of the pictures crowded around her to bless the day, and she could hear Brother Albert and Brother Ed, their voices younger, speaking to her, “Smile,” they said and “Good, that’s really good.” After the picture-making she had led the way into the house for dinner, where Albert and Ed fought over who should seat her. They always had to wait the blessing for the sisters-in-law; the women would come red-faced and apologetic, pulling at their slip straps and smoothing back their dung-colored hair. After Pappa passed away, Ernestine herself, at the head of the table, smiled at the awkward women just as Pappa had smiled. “We wouldn’t dream of going on without you,” she always said, lifting a silver dish cover to make sure the food was not cold yet.
But even in the moments of triumph—when the boys quarrelled with their stupid wives, or when they came to borrow money, looking away from her eyes as if they weere angry that Pappa had loved her best of all, even then, she had felt her throat contract with the hard breathing of the chase. Almost mystically she had known that some day she would grasp the other part of herself which, even in triumph, ran like a rabbit from the hound.
After the Christmas of the bandaged ring, after they sent Martha Nell’s mother away and Ed had come back home to live, Ernestine Graham made arrangements to buy the Whalen place for Brother Albert. Ernestine Graham was fair; even the tradesmen said to her very face, “You’re fair and square, and that’s a fact.” But she was tired. It was like—it was as if she raced to read ahead to see how the story ended—that was exactly what it was like. She had sent Albert and his tribe packing, trying to see the end of the story. She called to them, “You’re welcome any time,” but she was so relieved when she closed the door after them she could have lain down on the parquet floor. She did not even think about the ring on Lucy’s finger.
For the first time in three generations the Graham house was quiet. Only Brother Ed, no trouble to anybody, poor thing, moved with her through the quietness—he was clumsy sometimes against the furniture or the stair rail, weak with the drink in him, his breath smelling up the place, but he was beautifully quiet and Ernestine was grateful, for she was very tired. Even the family dinners were a drain on her, but nobody bothered to sense it, of course. The candlelight shone on the faces around the table and the faces moved as if under water; she was cold and afraid because a person couldn’t really see ahead to know how a story would turn out; somebody kept adding more pages to the book: Lucy kept adding more pages.
Ernestine tried not to look at the child’s face. She tried to tell herself she had lost all of them and it didn’t matter. But Lucy seemed to shout, “Catch me. Kneel beside me, Aunt Tina.” Ernestine did not mean to allow her eyes to creep toward the girl, but the life in Lucy shimmered, like heat on the horizon; she moved her hands and her body, catching the light of attention; one could not look away for long.
Lucy said, “Yesterday at the Easter service, I had the most beautiful compliment, Alec said I looked like you.” Lucy said, “I could die over missing the Memorial Day dinner, I hadn’t realized, I could die.” Lucy said, “Sweetheart, let me look at you, how stunning you are,” and Joseph Botts was followed by somebody named Brian, then twins from Virginia, and worst of all, the Tom something who came for Thanksgiving dinner and admired himself in the pier glass mirror. The bandaged ring was replaced by a silver basketball, a fraternity pin, and then another ring, diamond this time.
Then no ring shone. Suddenly no ring shone.
It was Christmas again. As usual one of them said they all had a lot to be thankful for, and somebody spoke of war, and Albert said he was grateful to have all his folks in the good old U.S.A. He said it was a mighty sad time for people like Mrs. Botts. Albert’s wife, her mouth full, turned to her daughter. “Joseph’s picture’s in the morning paper, Lucy. They brought his body home to bury—clear across the ocean.” Albert’s wife said, “Lucy was kind of sweet on him once.”
“It’s not as if you were still going with Joe Botts, or anything, is it?” Martha Nell asked.
Lucy shook her head. Albert’s wife said, “She’s been looking peaked for a couple of days. I figure it’s that Tom.” Albert’s wife laughed, and the food in her mouth was like dough.
“Do you remember the time when Pappa took us all to the State Fair?” Ernestine began. She could tell the story without thinking and Albert would interrupt when she got to the part about the ferris wheel. She turned her well-shaped head from one side of the table to the other, and Lucy smiled.
After dinner was over (Lucy’s stupid mother was enough to drive a person crazy; she kept picking at the candy pudding when everyone else was through), Ernestine led the way into the parlor. Beside her was Lucy. “I want to talk to you,” Lucy whispered, and Ernestine pretended not to hear, for she could not speak above the joy in her throat. “I’ll wait upstairs. I want to talk to you,” Lucy said.
Ernestine knew the child would be in the blue room, but she opened the other bedroom doors first, stopping to look at the pictures around her own mirror—the picture with Lucy was the loveliest of them all, she should have known that Lucy was the one. The girl lay on the bed where she had slept when they all lived together. The other Lucy lay on the bed. Ernestine frowned: it was difficult to separate the child crying in the blue room from the child in the picture but Lucy was one person. “Lucy, Lucy, Lucy,” Ernestine sang, and the child was in her arms. “Child, child,” Ernestine whispered and after a while the crying stopped.
Ernestine moistened her lips with her tongue. She spoke softly, “I remember the first time you showed me his ring. It was a dining, just like today. The ring was too big and the candlelight...”
“No, Aunt Tina, not Joseph Botts.” The girl moved her mouth against Ernestine’s shoulder. Ernestine trembled, for she felt the words more than she heard them. “Tom, Aunt Tina, Tom. He asked me for his ring. I don’t think I can stand it.”
“Surely, sweet. Sweet, Lucy.” Ernestine began to rock, back and forth, swaying the child and her words in the blue room which needed airing. “Yes, yes,” she said, hardly hearing the little details of the story about Tom and a sorority sister, and the letter which somebody wrote somebody. “We’re not given more than we can bear, honey,” Ernestine said, and she thought of the dead soldier and his large hand which once wore a high school class ring. Perhaps, even then, she thought passionately of Mister Joseph Botts. “Yes, Lucy, baby, yes.”
“And downstairs, all the family—it’s so humiliating.” Lucy cleared her throat in the quiet room. “They’re bound to start asking questions.”
Ernestine stopped rocking. She pressed her fingers against the child’s soft shoulders. “Look at me.”
The tears had washed Lucy’s eyes bright. “I’m listening, Aunt Tina.” She was no older than her first picture.
“We’ll go down together, that’s what we’ll do. We’ll work it out, Lucy, you and I. It’s going to be all right. You’re my girl, Lucy.”
The child held up her face to be kissed. She said, “You’re good, Aunt Tina. You’re so good to all of us.”
“No, Lucy, it’s not goodness,” Ernestine said, just as she had always said to Pappa. She closed here eyes. At the last, Pappa’s smile was twisted by paralysis. “You’re my flesh and blood,” Ernestine said again, and she wished she would never have to turn the page of the moment.
Holding the child’s hand Ernestine told them all: “Lucy’s given Tom back his ring. She decided he wasn’t good enough to marry a Graham.”
“What’s this?” Albert said, and Albert’s wife, wallowing in Pappa’s chair, began, “Now, Lucy, I’ve told you...”
“Lucy has been very brave,” Ernestine said. “You’re not to bother her with a lot of foolish questions. This is important.”
“Well, honestly, I’m sure,” Albert’s wife said.
“We’ll have more coffee now. Martha Nell, please pass the napkins.” Ernestine felt the hard pressure of Lucy’s young hand. She wished the hand wore a dead ring to bite into their flesh.
But there was no need of a token between them. Lucy herself said, “I’ll see you tomorrow. I’ll drop in tomorrow morning.” It was always Lucy who made the arrangements for their meeting, right to the last. “I’ll see you tomorrow, “Lucy said. Nobody could say that Ernestine had pursued the child.
Tom and the sorority sister (Ernestine could never remember her name) were married on the day after college reopened. Snow covered the earth. “We’ll go up to my room,” Ernestine said when she saw Lucy’s face. “Ed’s not feeling so well this afternoon.” The child did not answer, and Ernestine said, “We’ll have tea in my room. It will be cozy against the snow.”
Lucy sat in the flowered chintz chair by the west window. She said, “The cookies are good. Did you get them at Mrs. Botts’s?” She said, “Thank you, no more.” Then, suddenly, she said, “Talk to me, Aunt Tina. Please, talk.”
“Of course, sweet.” Ernestine moved her rocker so that the child’s head was framed by the window. “Let me see... Did I ever tell you about the time...” It was important to tell the stories well, of Pappa’s being elected mayor, and Ed’s eighty yard run against Louisville, and the celebration when Albert came home from his war. Even if Lucy were not listening she would remember the stories with pride, as sleepers on winter nights remember the words whispered by lovers.
“Really, I’ve never heard that part,” Lucy said as if she were listening. The sky behind her head was lemon and mauve and gray. The college chapel across the street slipped slowly from its squareness.
“Tom got married this morning.” Lucy did not move her head. Ernestine was conscious of the presence of color behind the paper-thin chapel, but she could not name the color. “Aunt Tina, did anything like this happen to you?”
“Lucy, dear.” Ernestine rose, gracefully without touching her hands to the arms of the chair, and moved around the room; she lowered the blinds, blotting out the memory of color in the south, and the presence of color behind tree branches and the college buildings. “There were always young men around the house,” she said slowly; then, with a rush of words, “Pappa and Albert and Ed—they were always so careful.”
To Martha Nell she would have said, “No, nothing like this ever happened to me.” She would have told Martha Nell that she hadn’t minded at all when the unworthy young men left the house and climbed into their fancy buggies, never to come back. A girl didn’t have to be in love, just to be was enough, Ernestine always said, and the boys and Pappa had complimented her on her good sense. “The house was always exciting, full of company; and, then later, it was good to take care of Pappa. “Ernestine’s hands trembled as she turned the buttons of the vanity lamps, for Pappa had loved her best of all.
But Martha Nell had never said, “Please tell me, Aunt Tina, did somebody like Tom happen to you?” Martha Nell had never called for help. “Please.” Lucy tramped the word in the snow, for Lucy needed to hear of pain. “Help me,” Lucy called.
“I’ve never mentioned it to anyone before.” Ernestine closed her eyes. “There was somebody. Don’t ask me his name.”
“Was it like Tom, Aunt Tina?”
Ernestine heard the child move as brightly as fire in the dark room.
She was in the dream; it was her turn to recite, but she could not remember a single word of the reading; backstage the elocution teacher had lost the book and the audience moved restlessly and one man rose to go. Ernestine Graham ran back and forth in her mind like a dancer; she could no more see the faces of the young men who wore stiff collars and flowing ties than she could outline the face of an idea, like love or even death. “He wore a stiff collar and a flowing tie,” she said. She could see only Pappa’s face, a young Pappa on the horse they had shown at the State Fair.
Ernestine described Pappa’s face against her closed eyelids, for the child stood beside her and her young breath was warm. “He was tall and thin. His hair was black and soft and curled,” she said, and she opened her eyes. Tears stood in Lucy’s eyes. “His hands were especially beautiful.”
“He was taken away, and I loved him.” Ernestine spoke very softly, praying that Lucy would not hear the words if they were wrong.
This time she had remembered the recital piece and she had spoken beautifully, for there was the sound of applause and the man who had started to leave called, “Huzzah,” and stood in tribute. Lucy pressed her face against Ernestine and called her name.
In the triumph Ernestine dared to say, “I loved him, Lucy—the way you loved Joseph Potts.
The color of the world outside pressed against the closed blinds. Ernestine Graham fingered the top button of her blouse. The man who called “Huzzah” wore the dotted newspaper face of Joseph Potts whose body had been flown across the ocean.
“Whatever do you mean?” Lucy drew back, but the kaleidoscope with its colored fragments of the dream did not move, and the plane mirrors still reflected the image of Joseph Botts.
“That day, downstairs, at the dining table, you said... you said, ‘This ring belongs to Mister Joseph Botts.’ Your eyes were very bright, and you were happier than I’ve ever seen you, Lucy, honestly you were.”
“Aunt Tina. That was such a long time ago.”
“Three years, only three years, Lucy. As sure as faith I knew Joseph Botts was the one. I knew it, Lucy.” Ernestine placed her hands on the child’s arm, for beneath Lucy’s voice and behind her face lay laughter. Ernestine held tightly. It was very important to heap words and bury the laughter which tried to rise even in her own throat. “I said to you that day, ‘Nice,’ I said, and it was all I could do to keep from crying, because I knew he was the one. But he was taken away, Lucy. And your Tom knew. Tom knew you never really loved him, not the way you did Joseph.”
“Aunt Ernestine, you’re hurting me, you’re hurting my arm.”
“You can get over losing a boy to somebody else—that isn’t losing. But you can’t get over really losing a boy, to death—I mean, the way we’ve lost. You don’t lose a person when he goes on living. But when he’s dead...” Ernestine let loose of the child’s arm, as if she threw down a book or a shovel or even her own body after a race. She breathed heavily, but she was able to say, “You’ve been crying, for a month you’ve been crying for Joseph Botts.”
The child’s eyes were wide, her mouth was open. Her small fingers lifted to her mouth, as if to feel Ernestine’s words on her own lips.
“I’m mixed up,” Lucy said. “I’m all mixed up. I don’t know anything.”
“Baby sweet, you’re trembling. You’re my girl. We’ll have fresh tea. We’ll talk about Joseph together. We’re together. We have each other, don’t we, Lucy?”
The child lifted her wet face to Ernestine and the child almost smiled. Outside the bedroom door Ed stumbled in the hall, but the house was quiet.
Ernestine kneeled beside the child’s chair. “Sweet, sweet.”
“Joe... that’s what I really called him.” Lucy spoke as if she too moved in the dream. “And we really did have a lot of fun together, Joe and I. I hadn’t remembered. We had so much fun.”
“Tell me. Tell me, Lucy.”
Lucy lifted her head quickly. Her eyes were afraid. “Wouldn’t it be awful if he was the one?”
“We’re not given more than we can bear, honey.”
“I’m scared, Aunt Tina.”
Ernestine’s body ached with kneeling, but she did not move to touch the child.
“I didn’t even bother to go to his funeral. And all this time...”
“We’ll make it up, some way, honey. We’ll take flowers, that’s what we’ll do.” Lucy began to move her head from side to side, as if she searched for a hiding place, and Ernestine had to sharpen her voice to pierce the girl’s consciousness. “What flowers did he like? What flowers did he like best, Lucy?”
“He always made jokes, and he laughed a lot.”
“My young man liked roses,” Ernestine recalled. “Red roses, he liked, Lucy, did Joseph Botts like red roses?”
“I’m trying to remember. Can’t you see I’m trying to remember?”
“The picture in the paper—he looked like the kind of a boy who would admire roses.”
“Maybe he did, maybe. I’m almost sure.”
“I’m almost sure.” Lucy pressed her hands against her temples. She seemed to be looking past the room. “There was a song.” Lucy began to hum, but her song held no more melody than the car which passed on the street beyond the blinds. “He couldn’t sing very well, but I’m sure it was about roses. I think it was.” She hummed again, and no car passed. “I can’t remember.”
“We’ll take roses, Lucy, that’s what we’ll do.”
“He was crazy about Betty Grable. I know that for sure. We went to see one of her pictures two different times.” The words dropped from Lucy’s mouth slowly, as if they were pebbles dropped into the water of a dream. “And he liked red. He liked a red dress of mine.”
“My young man favored red, too. It’s almost funny, isn’t it?”
“The second time we went to that show, he called real late. I slipped out and I wore the dress. I guess it was awful to slip out that way.”
“It wasn’t awful at all.” Ernestine laughed as she thrust the pebbles quickly into the pocket of her mind before they ever touched the water. “Pappa and the boys would have skinned me alive, but it wasn’t awful at all.”
“And he liked to dance.”
“Really, Lucy. It’s too much of a coincidence, really. I know he was graceful, too, wasn’t he?”
But Lucy did not go on to remember dancing. Suddenly, the child’s face crumpled like a sponge, and Ernestine rose, as if from prayer, to call comfort into the room with, “There, there,” and “Lucy, Lucy,” knowing she had found the other part of herself. “Things work out, child. All things work together for good.”
It was no time before the child was saying, “Do you know what I’m thinking about?”
“Yes, yes.” Ernestine looked steadily at the girl’s face, allowing her eyes to rest on the lines which would deepen, the mole, the faint moustache. She wished Lucy would say, “We’re the same age, aren’t we, Aunt Tina? Exactly the same age!” She had thought for a moment that the child was going to take the words out of her mind.
Lucy said, “Joe must be somewhere watching us.”
“Of course he is, of course.” Ernestine turned the child in a half circle toward the bed. She did not want the child to be frightened. Joseph Botts stood beside the vanity dresser which would hold the first jonquils, pale and handsome as winter sunlight.
“I feel better. I always feel better with you,” Lucy said. “We must get out more, you and I. We’ll go to the movies together, and tomorrow and the next day and the next—we’ll do all sorts of pleasant things.”
“We will hurry before the magic breaks,” Ernestine said to herself. She was sure she had spoken to herself, for the child did not turn to the vanity dresser. Despite her charm, Lucy was the silliest of them all.
Perhaps, if they had gone straight to Mrs. Botts’s rooms over the bakery, Lucy would have waited a little longer to lose the good part of herself. But Ernestine had not really expected her to last longer than spring, and a few days, one way or the other, didn’t really matter. It was Pappa’s phrase: “A few days, one way or the other.” At the last he had said it, and he tried to smile, right at the very last, ever so grateful to her for easing his misery.
She had sensed the end in the beginning, but with Lucy she did not hurry the end. A quiet pleasure promenaded through the waiting. Mister Joseph Botts grew in favor and in stature. He smiled in the church and the post office and the book store and the college auditorium. Ernestine Graham, lying on her bed, smiled at the first jonquils on the vanity dresser. The whole world was decorated with the youth and love of Joseph Botts.
Ernestine had told Lucy so, the last day. “The whole town seems to have been redecorated—seeing it as you and Joseph saw it, I mean.” Lucy had reached across the carved wood of the Sweet Shoppe table and touched her hand. It was a Judas kiss, of course, for in the very next breath she told of Nat somebody and his invitation to a dance. “I’m going. I’m going with him, Aunt Ernestine. It’s all right, isn’t it?”
Ernestine looked down at the table with its crude hearts and arrows and waving initials. She was quite sure she could find her own initials if she cared to look. She was not angry. She had planned with the utmost care not to be angry.
She said, she only said, “I’ve been promising Mrs. Botts we would call on her. If you are willing, of course.”
But it was too late for the visit to do any good. Lucy looked angry, her eyes big and stupid, as if she would be glad to shoot a bullet into the heart of Joseph Botts. Lucy would have murdered Pappa, even if he hadn’t been sick. Lucy would have enjoyed handing him the extra tablets to make him sleep into eternity. Lucy’s confused anger was almost amusing.
Mrs. Botts, gray with flour, hovered over Lucy, handing her letters and snapshots and asking if she were quite comfortable, but it was all too late. At least the child had the decency to contain herself until they were back in Ernestine’s room. One should be thankful for the child’s veneer of refinement, one should not even bother to remember the child’s loud voice, or her flaming cheeks. “That was awful. It was just awful to go there,” she shouted as soon as they were home. “I don’t ever want to go again, not ever.
“Mrs. Botts is Joseph’s mother.” Ernestine’s voice was beautifully calm.
“I don’t care. You can’t keep on going around with dead people. You just can’t.”
“You’ve been talking to your mother, haven’t you, Lucy? I thought you decided Joseph was to be our secret.”
The child looked positively absurd, backing her way out of the bedroom, feeling her away against the wall, like a criminal, almost a murderer, slowly moving to the stairway, ready to turn and run as soon as her thin little hands reached the stair-rail. “My mother said taking the roses was all right, she guessed, but...”
“What else did your mother say?”
“I don’t remember. Honestly, I don’t. Aunt Tina! It’s not I don’t appreciate all you’ve done for me.”
“Today is the day for the roses, Lucy. Today is the day.”
“You’re mad at me, aren’t you? About going to the dance with Nat, that’s it, isn’t it? But don’t be mad. I just don’t want to go to the cemetery any more.”
“I’ve never told a soul about the roses. I’ve kept our secret, Lucy.”
“You can have Joseph all by yourself.”
Actually, the child said, “You can have Joseph all by yourself.” Before she turned and raced down the stairway, she said the words, as if Joseph were hers to give. The stair-rail, running under Ernestine’s fingers was as smooth as silk, lifting her up, almost as if she flew to the door to call after Lucy. “Come back soon. You’re welcome. Any time,” she called with genuine cordiality. One could only pity the child. It was almost embarrassing to look at her thin little figure, knowing one had taken Lucy away from Lucy: the child’s glittering youth had come off like a cloak in one’s hands. It was sad for the child to be left with only the silly part of herself.
Ernestine brushed past Ed in the upstairs hall, and closed the door of her room. She unfastened her blouse quickly, tearing the top button in her haste. She did not bother to lift her eyes to make sure Mister Joseph Botts, no longer wearing either his stiff collar or his flowing tie, waited for her.