The Silent Boy Page 15

"You know," Father said, "it occurs to me that's why his father bought the motorcar: to take their mind off things. Mmmmm. I smell soup."

Father hung his coat in the front hall and we went in to supper. Following him to the table, I wondered what he meant by things.

14. SEPTEMBER 1911

Gram had gone back to Cincinnati when summer ended, as she did each year, though this time she said it was harder to go because of Mary. The baby had two teeth in the bottom of her mouth now, and a big, frequent smile. The day before she left, Mr. Bishop set up his camera once again to take a picture of Gram holding Mary. It was next to impossible to make the baby sit still, and at the last minute Laura Paisley insisted on climbing up as well, so that Gram's lap and arms were filled with babies. She said the weight was nothing compared to the joy of it.

School began in September, and my teacher was gray-haired Miss Moody, who sang in the choir at the Presbyterian church so that I saw her on Sundays as well, which seemed strange. Even stranger, Miss Moody had been my mother's third-grade teacher, twenty-five years before! On our very first day of school, Miss Moody looked at me and said, "You are Caro MacPherson's little girl, aren't you?" and for a moment I did not know what she meant. Then I remembered that my mother, though now she was Caroline Thatcher, had once been Caro MacPherson. So I said, "Yes, ma am" to Miss Moody, and she directed me to what had once been my mother's desk! Imagine, that she had remembered all those years! Even my mother was amazed, when I told her.

Austin, Jessie, and I were all in third grade now. We walked together each morning until we reached the corner where the school was; then Austin went off to be with the boys and to go in the boys door. Jessie and I walked around to the girls'. The three of us would not be friends again until the end of the day, back in our own neighborhood.

The Bishops had a new hired girl, a sister of Levi's named Flora. She was shy and nervous, not at all playful, which was a disappointment. Nellie had teased a lot and made us all laugh, but Flora did the housework silently, with her head down, and barely spoke. She was good with Laura Paisley, though, taking her for walks, and I saw them sometimes, hand in hand, and saw that Flora talked then, as if she felt comfortable with someone three years old in a way that she otherwise did not.

I remembered Flora from my school. She had been in sixth grade when I was in first, and I remembered that she had friends then, and gossiped with the other big giggling girls on the playground while we little ones played our recess games of tag and hide-and-seek.

But now Flora had left school to go to work and help her fatherless family.

And someone else had left school as well. Austin's brother, Paul, should have been in his last year of high school this year, but he had gone away. He hadn't wanted to. It was what the shouting, the noisy arguments with his father that I had overheard, had been about. When September came, Paul's things were packed into trunks and then the trunks were lifted into the Ford motorcar and Mr. Bishop drove him to the train station. Their faces were both like stone and they did not speak to each other. On their porch, Mrs. Bishop cried, and Austin waved goodbye. Then Paul went off by train to a boarding school in Connecticut.

"It's a very fine school, Katy," Mother said, when I asked her why Paul had been made to go so far away. "It will prepare him to go to Princeton like his father, and to become a lawyer eventually. Many boys go off to boarding school if their families have the means."

It was a school, she said, only for boys, and I wondered how Paul would feel about that, because he was quite the flirt. I knew he and Nellie had been sweet on each other, but Paul had taken another girl, one from the high school, to the spring cotillion in June, and bought her a camellia corsage. Austin had told me that Paul and the girl won the prize for the Turkey Trot, and Nellie had been very angry when she heard of it, but Paul had laughed at her.

It was the most popular dance. Jessie and I had been practicing it in my room, and we made so much noise that Mother said she was afraid the parlor ceiling would fall down. I thought it served Paul Bishop right to be at a school where there would be no Turkey Trot. Now there would be no girl for him to dance it with, and no Nellie, either, to kiss in the barn and sneer at after.

I wanted a birthday party. Last year, on my eighth birthday, I had been in bed with chicken pox and had opened my gifts in my bedroom, stopping now and then to scratch even though Father kept telling me not to.

Now, about to be nine, looking through the things stored in the attic, I found our pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey game, the donkey printed on a big oilcloth and punctured with pinholes from other parties. I brought it downstairs and showed Peggy. She had never seen one before.

"You pin it to the wall," I explained, "and then each child has a blindfold on, one after another, and they are spun around in a circle, and then they go to the donkey all blinded, holding a tail, and try to pin it in the right place."

Peggy looked dubiously at the faded donkey I had laid out on the dining room table.

"See how there are pinholes in wrong places? Look! There's a hole in his ear! Jessie Wood did that at my seventh birthday. Then she cried because she didn't win the prize."

"What prize?"

It was surprising to me that Peg knew so little about birthday parties. "The one who gets closest to the tail place gets a prize. At my last party, the one before the chicken pox, the prizes were handkerchiefs for the boys and thimbles for the girls.

"And we do a spider web! Mother will wind string all around, one for each child, and it's like a spider web. You follow your string and at the end you find a surprise! Usually it's just a sweet."

"My land. What else?"

"Oh, games, of course. London Bridge, and Farmer in the Dell. We can do those out in the backyard. And Naomi will make a cake, and there will be ice cream."

Peggy folded the donkey oilcloth carefully and put it in the bottom drawer of the buffet, where the tablecloths were. "It's time to fetch Mary down from her nap," she said.



"I want to invite Jacob to my birthday party."

She looked at me, astonished. "Jacob?"

At that moment my kitten—full-grown now, a good-sized, good-natured cat—hopped down from the chair where he'd been sleeping. He strolled through the room and rubbed himself against my shoe. "He gave Goldy to me," I reminded Peggy.

"Jacob don't go to parties," Peggy said. "He never."

I picked up Goldy, and he hung dangling in my arms like a doll with floppy arms and legs. I listened to his purr. I knew Peggy was right, that it wouldn't do, that Jacob wouldn't understand a party, that the other children would be uneasy if he came.

I told him, though, that I had wanted him to come.

"I'm going to have a birthday party next week, Jacob," I said, when I saw him next. "I wanted to invite you, but Mother said it had to be just children from my class at school.

"I'll be nine," I added.

I wasn't sure that he was even listening, or, if he was listening, whether he understood. He was holding Goldy on his lap, and he stroked the cat's neck with one finger and imitated the purr. We sat side by side on stacked hay in the stable.

"Anyway, I wanted to give you these." I reached into my pocket and pulled out the two big cat's-eye marbles I had brought him. They were both deep brown, flecked with gold and black. I had chosen them from the bag of marbles that Mother had bought at Whittaker's Dry Goods for party prizes and favors. Jacob took them from me and they clicked together in his hand.

He imitated the click with his tongue against his teeth, and smiled in that odd way he had, with his eyes looking someplace else. The horses shifted in their stalls. Goldy yawned and stretched. Outside, a wind came up, and I could hear dead leaves whisper as they broke loose and fell from the branches of the big ash tree in the yard. Our back door opened, and from the kitchen Peggy called me to come in. Jacob looked up at the sound of her voice, and his knees jiggled, but he stayed silent.

15. OCTOBER 1911

I had a new white lawn dress and a huge hair ribbon, and Naomi had made me a cake with buttercream frosting. It was warm enough that Saturday afternoon that Father moved the kitchen table to the backyard and we took the chairs outdoors, too, and set them around the table. Then Mother tied a pink bow on the back of my chair, for my birthday. She laid the table with a yellow cloth and we used my favorite plates, white ones with pink flowers.

I helped to wrap the prizes and watched while Father nailed the oilcloth donkey to the side of the stable. The sun was shining and there were still some chrysanthemums in bloom. Only one thing was wrong. Peggy wasn't there.

Peggy had lived with us now for more than a year, and it felt as if she was part of the family. Mother joked that when Mary began to talk, she would probably call Peggy "Mama."

But today, on my birthday, it was Mother and Naomi who tended Mary, as they had for the past two days. Peggy had been called home for an emergency. Our telephone had rung late two nights before, when I was already in bed, and I heard Father go up to the third floor to get Peggy. Then, after a quick flurry of gathering her things, Father hitched up the horses and took her home.

"She'll be back soon," Mother had reassured me in the morning as I ate my breakfast. The house seemed subdued without Peggy there; she usually bustled about, entertaining Mary, helping me get my things for school, talking to Mother about the plans for the day.

"Will she be here for my party?"

Mother frowned. "I don't think so, Katy. I expect she'll be gone about a week. There's illness in her family, and you know it always takes awhile to heal."

I remembered my own chicken pox and agreed. It takes forever.

"Who is ill?"

"I don't know," my mother said.

I guessed that it was Peg's mother who was ill, and I worried for their family because the little girl, Anna, needed a mother. Even with Nellie there, and Peggy, Anna would be frightened if her mother was ill.

I didn't believe it could be Mr. Stoltz, that big strong man who seemed as if nothing could fell him. And I knew it wasn't Jacob. I had seen Jacob just the night before, in our usual place.

He had shown me, pulling them from his pocket, that he carried the two marbles with him. It was odd how Jacob never looked at me—his eyes were always to the side, or his face turned away, and he couldn't, or didn't, ever speak—but he communicated in his own ways. Looking sideways toward the horses, he held out his hand and showed me the marbles; he made the small clicking sound again and nodded his head a little.

"Tomorrow is my birthday party," I told him, "and the boys who come—Austin and Norman and Kenneth—will get marbles. But yours are the best. I chose them out of all the ones we had."

Click. Click. Click.

"The girls—Jessie and Anne are the ones who are coming—will get hair ribbons as favors. I'll get all sorts of gifts, because I'll be the birthday girl," I told him with satisfaction.

Click. Click.

"Peggy's at home, isn't she? And Nellie. I hope things get better there soon. Is it your mother who is ill?"

He returned the marbles to the pocket of his overalls. He was silent now but began to sway slightly, back and forth. His fingers tapped rhythmically on his own knee.

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