The Silent Boy Page 2

As we jiggled along, Father and I, in the crisp blue afternoon, behind the horses, I read the names on the mailboxes.

"Look for Stoltz," Father told me, and spelled it.

Butafterawhile,heandIbothlaughed.There were too many named Stoltz. A prosperous farm with a huge red barn and low white fencing around the cornfields had Stoltz on the mailbox; but so did another, closer to the road, that needed paint and a new roof.

"All cousins, I imagine," Father said. "The farm we want is up around the next bend, beyond that little grove of pine trees." He tapped the buggy whip gently on Jed's back so that the horses would continue along the dirt road. They slyly, lazily slowed their trot to a plod if we weren't paying attention.

I thought what it would be like to have cousins nearby. My own cousins lived in Cincinnati and I had never met them, only heard about them in letters that my mother read aloud. Maybe someday, Mother said, they could come to visit us by train.

But Peggy Stoltz, the girl we were coming to collect, had grown up here, where she could run through the pine grove and then—I pictured her, barefoot, in summer, with a dog scampering back and forth beside her—she could spend the afternoon playing with her cousins, probably wading in the stream that Father and I had just crossed, the horses' hooves thumping on the bridge. Maybe they went fishing, or caught butterflies. Maybe they went into the hen house and slipped their hands under the fat, steamy bellies of hens to find the warm, hidden eggs.

But when we rounded the bend and I saw Peggy Stoltz's home, I knew that her summers were not carefree ones. It was tidy but stark. It was poor.

It was why, at not quite fifteen years old, Peggy Stoltz was leaving school and becoming a hired girl. There was nothing for her here. My seven-year-old perception saw in an instant the contrast between our house and the one Peggy would be leaving.

The horses turned into the dooryard at Father's direction. Then they slowed, stopped, shook their heads, and snorted. "Mrs. Stoltz," Father said, and tipped his hat.

Peggy's mother had been standing in the yard, probably watching for our buggy. She smiled slightly and nodded. "Doctor Thatcher," she said in reply. Then she pointed with a smile to a toddler, made chubby with coat, standing wide-eyed beside her."This is the one that caused us such worry. Look at her now."

Father secured the reins, set the buggy whip upright in its slot, and climbed down. He lifted me to the ground and then he leaned down toward the small girl, buttoned into a thick coat, who was frowning suspiciously at both him and me.

"Anna, is it? Do I remember it correctly?" Father asked Mrs. Stoltz, as he stood, and I saw the little one look up curiously at the sound of her own name.

"She had diphtheria last winter," Father told me. "I spent some long nights at this farm. But look at her rosy cheeks now!"

"She's very well, and into no end of mischief," Mrs. Stoltz said. "We have you to thank. Not for the mischief, though," she added, smiling.

"This is Katy," my father said. He nodded toward me. I held out my hand the way I'd been taught, and she shook it.

"Come inside. our Peggy's just getting her things together. I can give you coffee, and milk for your girl."

But at that moment, Peggy Stoltz pushed open the screen door and appeared on the porch, holding a bag. "Thank you," Father said, "but we'll go on. It's four miles back, and if I let the horses rest they'll not want to start up again."

I knew it wasn't true. The horses were obedient and strong. But I could tell, also, that Father didn't want to go into the woman's house, to drink her coffee, to prolong her goodbye to her daughter. He didn't want to shame or sadden her. He took the bag from Peggy and hoisted it into the back of the buggy next to the medical bag that he always carried there.

"She's a hard worker," her mother said, "and a good girl." She picked up Anna, and the toddler wrapped her legs around her mother's hip as if to ride.

"We'll be good to your daughter, Mrs. Stoltz," Father said, "and my wife will be grateful for her help."

Peggy hadn't said anything at all. She simply stood, like someone accustomed to waiting. She had, I thought, a pretty face, with cheeks as pink as her little sister's; you could see a strength in it, too, and that one day she would look like her mother, proud and loving. Her brown hair was pulled up and back but the breeze pulled it away and it flew in wisps around her face.

Father lifted me to the buggy seat and as he did, Peggy went to her mother and hugged her,wrapping her arms around the little one, too, who began to wail. "Want my Peg," the little girl cried, holding out her arms, but by then Father was helping Peggy up into the seat beside me. Mrs. Stoltz said, "Be sure to give Nellie our love." Then she hushed the little girl and turned away. At a window of the house, I saw a curtain move aside, and a face appeared; then a hand, pressed against the glass. I thought Peggy ought to know. I nudged her and pointed to the window.

"That's Jacob," Peggy explained to me, the first words I heard her say. She waved to the face in the window, and after a moment the curtain dropped back and the boy disappeared behind it.

There was a Jacob in my school, a fourth-grader, and I wondered if it was the same boy. Farm children came into town for school, some of them, until they left to work the farms or, as Peggy, to hire out.

"How old is he? Does he go to school?" I asked, as the horses started up and Father clucked at them and turned them into the road. I felt shy with Peggy; she was new to me.

She shook her head. "Just turned thirteen," she said. "He don't go to school. He never could. He's touched."

Touched in the head, she meant. I had heard the phrase before, had never known exactly what it meant, but it didn't feel polite to ask anything more. As we moved at a trot down the road and the Stoltz house disappeared behind us, I thought of the boy's face through the window, and the way he had slowly raised his hand to say goodbye to his big sister.

I liked Peggy, liked feeling her beside me as we jiggled together in the buggy behind the horses eager for home and oats; she was solid and warm and she smelled good, like soap and garden earth. I saw her hands in her lap and could see that they were shaped and hardened by work. There was a new scratch, pink and ragged, across the back of her right hand, and I touched it, without thinking.

She smiled. "Kitten," she said. "It meant no harm."

Many of the families in our neighborhood had hired girls. They came in from the farms, leaving their large families behind with one less mouth to feed, usually in fall after helping with the harvest. They moved into attic rooms, doing the housework and laundry, helping mothers with new babies. They were accustomed to cold bedrooms and hard work. Indoor plumbing was new to many of the hired girls.

Some of them didn't stay long. They met town boys and married, or saved their money for secretarial school and went off to better themselves.

Peggy's sister Nell lived next door, in the Bishops' attic. I saw her every day in the yard, hanging up the laundry to dry. She helped Mrs. Bishop take care of Laura Paisley, who was lively and curious and into everything, now that she was two. When I went to play with Austin, Nell pushed the mop through our toys, pretending she was going to mop us up. She was strong and pretty, with a great halo of bright red hair, and Austin said she made them all laugh. But I heard Mrs. Bishop tell Mother that she was afraid Nell would leave them. She had just turned sixteen but she had ambitions, Mrs. Bishop said, as if ambitions meant measles, something we should try not to catch.

Peggy seemed quieter, more serious, and even her hair was a subdued brown, with none of the flamboyance of her sister's. Mother greeted her and showed her around the house; I followed behind, not wanting to be left out. I had already helped Mother tidy the little bedroom Peggy would have on the third floor, and I watched to see if she would appreciate the quilt I had chosen for her bed, a pink and white one that matched the colors in the flowered curtains. I could see that Peggy liked her room. Mother went downstairs, but I stayed and watched while she opened her bag and put her things away. She didn't have a lot. She hung two dresses in the old wardrobe and put a Bible and a hairbrush on the dresser.

"Look through the window," I told her. "See over there? The next house?"

She looked where I was pointing.

"That's the Bishops' house. And your sister's room is there, through the maple tree. When the leaves are gone you'll be able to see Nell's window."

"Really? I'll see Nellie's window?" Peggy smiled at the thought. "My sister and me, we had a room together at home, till she left."

"Did you miss her when she went?"

Peggy nodded. "But she was wild to go. She wanted desperately to be in town. She wanted to go to the pictures."

"The pictures!" I started to giggle. "Have you ever been?"

Peggy said no. "But Nell did. A fellow took her once. She saw Mary Pickford. She tried to fix her hair like that. She rolled it up in rags and it made curls, but they didn't last. My mother said she was foolish."

I thought of Nell's hair, thick and flame-bright, always pinned back as she did the housework but somehow untidy still.

"She uses rouge sometimes," Peggy confided. "And she plans to change her name to Evangeline Emerson. You need a fancy name for moving pictures. She wants to be in pictures someday."

"Do you?"

"Oh my, no! I never! I'll save my money and help my parents, and someday I'll find a nice steady fellow and get married."

"Maybe someday we'll go to the pictures and see Nellie," I told her. "She'll be famous! She'll have lots of beaus."

Peggy smiled. She peered into the looking glass over the dresser and smoothed her hair. I noticed the scratch on her hand again.

"Will you miss your kitten?" I asked her. "Even if it scratched?"

She smiled and said no. "We have a barn full of kittens," she said. "There are always new ones."

"Oh,IwishIcouldhaveone.Mothersaysadog is enough. Did you meet our dog when you came in? He won't come up here because he's very old and his hips hurt."

"He greeted me at the door, remember?" Peggy said. "What was his name?"

"Pepper. My favorite book right now is called The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. It's about a family whose father is dead, and they live in a little brown house and it is so hard for them to pay the rent; they are always worried. And guess what they eat for breakfast!"

Peggy, arranging things in a drawer, thought for moment. "Oatmeal," she suggested.

"No, you'll never guess. Cold potatoes.Isn tit awful? But it's all they have, poor things. They are so needy! But always cheerful. Mother is reading me a chapter each night. Do you have a favorite book?"

Peggy glanced at the Bible on the table but then shook her head. "I've never had books," she said.

"Now you will! We have a whole bookcase full, and you can read whatever you want! We can go to the library, too."

"What's in there?" Peggy asked, and she pointed to the door across the hall from her bedroom as we started down the stairs.

"The attic! Want to see? It's scary. There are mice."

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