More Short Stories

Linda Rome

One Day

It was the summer between eighth grade and ninth. My best friend, Linda, and I liked the same boy, Wiley. It was awkward, liking the same boy, but we managed. He walked her home one day; he walked me home the next.

He was a dangerous boy, Wiley was. And we were good girls, good students, obedient girls, girls who didn't get into trouble. We passed notes about him in class and then, the last day of school, he chose to walk me home.

I'd hung around, casually missing the bus, so I'd have to walk home. I'd engineered waiting to say good-bye to Mrs. Kaji, my favorite teacher. I emptied my locker slowly. I ran into him in the hallway and Linda was already gone.

I'd promised to call her when I got home. He offered to carry my books. He didn't need to check with his parents to walk me home; no one was there. "It's okay," he said.

I liked being near him. I admired his slouch, the blonde burr, the shape of his body already thickening into the shape of the man he would be. I was attracted to his otherness: it seemed he knew things I didn't. What, I wasn't sure, but his sleepy blue eyes always seemed amused with an inner knowledge. I know things, they promised, things you don't know.

I knew that would be the last day I would see him until September and I didn't want the walk home to ever end. We walked in the warm June air down the main street of our little town, past the drugstore, the cafe, the storefront library. We stopped at Cooper's jewelry store and looked at engagement rings in the window, at a pair of pearl earrings, and a diamond pin I couldn't imagine anyone but a grandmother wearing.

We turned the corner at the gas station and as I thought of the narrow sidewalk across the bridge my heart fluttered. Wiley let me step up onto the weathered concrete first and for an instant I thought he would walk behind me like Linda did when she walked home with me. But he stepped up beside me on the traffic side, his shoulder bumping mine, his free hand brushing my leg. No apology. No conversation. We walked the distance of the bridge in silence, squinting into the sun, the air between us charged like lightning.

"Let's walk down by the river," I said. "I know a back way."

We turned at the end of the bridge and made our way along a steep path that stumbled its way down to the water. I reached out and rippled the cool green water with my fingers. "We could take our shoes off," I invited him. That was a summer pleasure for me, one I took when I walked into town on days there was nothing else to do. In summertime the river was lazy, only ankle deep, meandering along people's backyards, falling in a quiet murmur at the dam.

He shook his head no. His eyes were wary, an expression I hadn't seen before. I wondered what I'd said to cause that, but it seemed the river itself made him uncomfortable. I stood up and found the narrow path by the bluffs, no more than weeds tramped down for passage, the water a few inches to our right.

Wiley stopped behind me. "We can't get through here," he said.

"Yes, we can." I turned back toward him.

He came close to me, my books and papers balanced on his hip. I could feel his heat, like a warm room on an autumn day. "Not today," he said, as if he had other things to do, other places to be, but he waited until I shrugged as if it didn't matter. We climbed up past the bridge pilings. At the top I slipped on the gravel and Wiley reached out to catch me. His hand was calloused and firm.

"Let's walk through the school," I suggested. The grounds of a girls' private boarding school lay between where we stood and my house. The brick dormitories were empty, shadowed by benevolent oaks and maples. We walked up the sidewalk and I took him behind the tennis courts and onto the dirt road that cut through the vegetable gardens and the stables.

Again he looked uncomfortable. He kept glancing over his shoulder as if he heard someone coming, but there wasn't anyone. I liked walking next to him. There was something feline about the way he moved, dust puffing up with each step, his shoulders swinging opposite the smooth glide of his hips.

"You come here often?" he asked.

"Sometimes. Mostly to play tennis. Do you play tennis?"

His face crinkled, bemused. "No."

"It's fun. And it's not hard. Would you like to play sometime?"

"Maybe."

I glanced over my shoulder at a rumbling sound behind me. A groundsman was maneuvering a riding mower down the dirt road, blowing up a cloud of dust. We moved to the side to let it pass. The driver glared at Wiley as if memorizing his face for future reference and I realized boys were probably suspect on the grounds of a girls' school. I laughed nervously.

"Maybe he thinks you'll be back to steal the silver." It was a joke, but Wiley didn't smile. Instead his face darkened and he said, "I know him, that's all."

"You do?" I asked, incredulous.

"Yes." He shrugged. "I help out with the horses here sometimes."

I felt foolish. Of course this wasn't new and exciting to him. It was old hat and I was boring him. I walked faster so he wouldn't see the sudden flush on my cheeks. He lengthened his stride to match mine, then put a hand out to slow me down.

"Want to see the horses?"

I did, but I was too embarrassed to say anything. He took my silence for assent. We were nearing the stables, three huge white barns at the end of the dirt lane. The doors were usually padlocked and today was no exception, but Wiley led me to the right to a straw covered drive that opened onto what looked like a corral.

"You won't get in trouble, will you?" I asked.

He chuckled. "No more than you."

I looked around for the man riding the power mower and I saw the pouf of dust way down the dirt road.

"He's going to the dorms on the south side of the campus to mow," Wiley said. "He won't be back for a couple hours."

"Is he your boss?" I asked.

"Nah, he's just a hired hand. The big boss is away for a few days." We stood on the threshold of an open barn. Inside I could see high wooden stalls and tails swishing, some plaited, some flowing free like a woman's tresses.

"Do you want to pet one?" he asked.

I nodded yes, but I was a little scared. He sidled up to the nearest stall, murmuring softly. "Peggy Sue," he said, then reaching over the stall door, he patted her rump. "How you doing today, girl?"

The horse was huge. The top of her back was as high as my head. She rustled, her heavy hooves making a scraping thump of a sound and as Wiley patted her she swung her blazed head around to see him. I jumped with each stamp of her feet.

"She's real gentle," Wiley said, motioning me toward him. The sweet, thick smell of manure was strong and I wasn't sure I could stand it. I reached out and touched the short chestnut hair. It was smooth and dense and didn't feel soft, but kind of hard and shiny.

"Do you want to ride her?"

"I don't know," I said. "She's so big. Have you ever ridden her?"

"Sure."

"Where'd you learn to ride?" I asked.

"In Kentucky. We're from down there." He leaned back against the stall door, his hand still on Peggy Sue. "You ever ridden before?"

"No." And seeing the amused, superior look on his face, I defended myself, "Well, a pony at the county fair, but I've always wanted to ride a real horse."

"Now's your chance. What do you say?"

His eyes were daring me.

"Sure," I said. "Why not?" I tossed my head like one of the horses brandishing its mane.

In that lazy way of his, Wiley ambled to the end of the barn into the tackroom, and brought back a saddle, blanket and bridle. He slung the gear over the stall door as if it were a hook on a wall, then opened the door and slid into the stall.

"Whoa, Peggy Sue," he said. "It's just me. We're going for a ride, girl." He fitted the bridle over her head. She didn't resist him. Pushing the stall door open, he backed her out of the narrow space, her feet doing a little backward dance like a woman on a ballroom floor. I stepped to the side, feeling the sheer power of her size. Her hooves were larger than my hand and clad in steel shoes. I didn't want her to step on me.

Wiley settled the blanket over her broad back, swung the saddle over, one stirrup flying to the opposite side, and then, reached underneath the mammoth rib cage, cinching the saddle snugly.

"Up you go," he said to me, and he showed me how to slip my left foot into the stirrup and told me to swing my right leg over while I kind of pulled myself up and over. He held Peggy Sue steady. I had to try three times before I got on and I could feel the muscles in my thighs straining as the unexpected breadth of the horse's back pulled them wide. I felt so high up, I was afraid I'd fall. I scouched around until my foot found the right stirrup.

"There's no place to hold on," I said.

"That's because it's an English saddle. No horn for tying up the little doggies. Just hold on with your legs."

I steadied myself with my right hand, then my left, clutching part of the horse's mane, as Wiley turned her head and led us out of the barn.

"Where are you going?"

"To the corral. You can walk around there, while I saddle up Jake. Then we'll go for a little ride."

He swung open the wide corral gate, walked to the center of the open space, and handed me the reins of the bridle.

"I'll be right back," he said, heading back toward the barn.

I felt marooned and foolish. Peggy Sue did not move. Instead she arched her neck back toward me as if she were trying to get a good look at who was on her back. The look in her eye was contemptuous. I wondered if I knew what I was doing. I remembered long rides on imaginary steeds frozen in motion on the carousel at Euclid Beach. I always chose the black stallion with the silver and gold bridle and tassels woven around his neck. We went on my father's company picnic day and I would ride the carousel over and over, bracing myself against the gleaming wooden horses, pretending to ride across an open meadow, the feel of wind in my hair, the sun at my back. I imagined the power of the horse beneath me and would lean over its straining neck with soft murmurs of praise. In my imagination the horse and I became one, a mind meld of girl and horse.

But Peggy Sue, on this early summer day, terrified and fascinated me at the same time. I pet the coarse hair of her mane. It wasn't what I expected.

"Good girl, Peggy Sue," I said, keeping my voice low and soothing. "Good girl."

She shifted her weight and I tensed, tightening my legs around her belly. She started to walk around the corral, moving to the right, skittering a little, like someone shying away from a spider.

I pulled on the reins to stop her. I felt too foolish to say whoa. I thought maybe only people in books said that. Then Wiley reappeared on another chestnut colored horse, this one with a white blaze down its face.

"Come on," he said, reaching down to pull open the gate. "Just follow me."

But at the sight of the other horse, Peggy Sue stopped dead in her tracks. She wouldn't budge.

"Give her a nudge," Wiley said, indicating I should poke her with my knees. I did, but she didn't move.

"Harder."

I clapped my legs against her ribs hard enough to make a flapping sound. She swung her head around like she was going to nip me. I yanked on the reins and she glared at me.

"You have to show her who's boss," Wiley said.

"She is."

He sighed. He dismounted, wrapped his reins around a fence post, and grasping Peggy Sue's bridle, he led her out of the corral.

"Go on ahead," he said. "She'll be happier if she's in the lead."

"But I don't know where I'm going."

"She does. Just head up the road there toward the woods. There's a path that loops around through the trees and around the nursery fields. I'll be right behind you."

He gave Peggy Sue a sharp slap on her rump and she started down the road. I hung on, afraid any moment I would bounce off.

The dirt road dusted up around Peggy Sue's hooves. My tailbone hurt and my legs strained to keep their grip.

Wiley trotted up beside us.

"You're a natural," he said.

I shook my head no, but I was pleased. Maybe I was, I thought, he would know. We entered the woods. It was cooler and the air seemed greener. I shivered a little, more from excitement than cold. We didn't talk. I didn't know what to say and Wiley never seemed to be much for words. The clump of hooves was muffled by a thick layer of pine needles and rotting leaves. Suddenly Wiley's horse shied away from something on the path, feinting sidewards and back into Peggy Sue. Peggy Sue reared back. The two horses jostled and bumped. I heard Wiley saying, "Steady, Jake, steady," when Peggy Sue bolted forward. It seemed her legs went flying in every direction like some sort of cartoon horse and then I was hanging on, yanking on the reins, yelling whoa, to no avail. We were barreling through the woods like thunder. Branches slashed at my legs, whipped across my face, I couldn't do anything. I threw myself onto her neck, her mane bunched in my fists. Suddenly she balked, twisting around like a pretzel, then straightening herself out in a quick, fluid motion that sent me sailing over her head like a kite. My body somersaulted in mid-air like an Olympic gymnast, but instead of a perfect ten landing, I landed flat on my back like an inverted belly flop. I could see patches of blue sky through the leafy canopy of the trees and I thought, at least I'm not dead. I didn't know if I could move, though, and I was afraid to try. I took a kind of mental inventory and when nothing seemed to be causing an inordinate amount of pain, I sat up.

Peggy Sue was long gone. Wiley wasn't anywhere to be seen, either. I tried to think where he could have gone and decided he must be trying to catch Peggy Sue. I was a little miffed that he hadn't stopped to see if I was all right, but since I was, maybe that wasn't as important as I thought. My glasses had gone flying, too, and everything had a blurred, surreal quality to it. I crawled around on my hands and knees looking for them, but I couldn't find them. They were just a month old and I had to find them. I sat back and tried to figure what direction they might have gone, but it was no use, I couldn't tell. Just then I heard a motor coming up the path from behind me. As best I could tell, it was like a golf cart with a trailer hitched behind it. The trailer was empty and a girl not much older than me was driving.

"What happened to you?" she asked. "Are you all right?"

"I think so," I said. "But I can't find my glasses."

She turned the engine off and came over to where I was still sitting on the ground.

"I got thrown off one of the horses," I volunteered.

"Which one?" she asked, looking around.

"Peggy Sue."

"You're lucky you didn't crack your head open. She's probably back in the barn by now." She walked about ten yards away, then reaching down, picked something out of the leaves. "Where do you live? I don't think I've ever seen you before."

"I live over on Kirtland Road." I realized she thought I was a townie.

"Here are your glasses." She held them out to me. The frames were askew and the nose piece was pushed in. When I put them on, they sat lopsided on my face and everything I looked at seemed distorted like in a carnival mirror.

"You want a ride back to the barns?" she asked.

I nodded yes, almost afraid to speak, then climbed on the cart, balancing in a space behind where the girl sat.

"Do you work here?" I asked.

"Nah," she said. "My father does and I help him out sometimes. Specially in the summer." She gave me a curious look. "Do you need to go to the infirmary? I think the nurse might still be there."

I shook my head. "No, I'll just go home." It was still a fifteen minute walk home and I couldn't imagine how I'd make it. My legs felt wobbly and my head was starting to throb. The dirt road was rutted and bumpy. She'd gone through the woods in the same direction where Peggy Sue disappeared, and now we were making a long loop back toward the barns. I didn't see Wiley or either of the horses up ahead of us. I wondered where he was.

The girl stopped the cart close to the barn. "I'd better see if Peggy Sue made it back," she said, climbing down. "I wonder what spooked her."

I shrugged. "I don't know." I was afraid to mention Wiley, even though he said he worked here. I wasn't sure how she'd feel about us riding the horses without permission. She went into the barn. I was tempted to leave right then before she caught me out, but my legs were too unsteady. I edged my way off the cart and stood up, holding on to the back of the seat for support.

"She's fine," the girl said, coming back outside. "Jake is in there, too, all saddled up. Were you riding with someone?"

"No," I lied.

"Well, both of them are all sweated up. I guess I'll rub them down. You don't look up to it."

"Thank you," I said. "I do want to go home."

"Do you want to call your mom?"

"She doesn't drive."

"My dad can take you home."

"I'm fine, really," I said. "I'll just walk."

She gave me a kind of to-each-his-own look and went back into the barn.

I'd left my notebook and the stuff I'd cleaned out of my locker in the corner of the barn and I followed her. She was at the far end of the stable, getting what she needed to rub down the horses. I picked up my stuff outside Peggy Sue's stall. Wiley's stuff was already gone.

I slipped back outside and started walking. I wanted to get out of sight of the barns, but I was so lightheaded I had to sit down before I got too far. I sat on a big round rock at the edge of the road and when I looked up, the man on the tractor was coming my way. I looked away as he passed. He stared at me for a moment like he was going to say something, but he didn't. I wondered if he was the girl's father. I forced myself to get up and walk further.

The half mile home seemed to take forever. The summer day seemed drained of color, and when I got home, I went straight to my room. I laid down, and for some reason, I started to cry. A while later my mother knocked on my door and told me Linda was on the phone, did I want to talk to her?

"I'll call her later," I said, blowing my nose.

"Are you all right?" she asked.

"Yes," I said. "I just have a headache."

She brought me some aspirin and I slept the rest of the afternoon. Wiley didn't call.

In fact, I didn't see him the rest of the summer and when Linda told me he'd called her a couple of times and come over to her house, I changed the subject.

She thought I was mad at her, but I wasn't. I didn't care if he liked her better, I told her. I really didn't.

 

Still Life

In the morning Maria rose early. Long before her husband and child awoke, she stood looking out the window by the kitchen sink. The maple leaves were a rich, heavy summer green. The sunlight was still a thin gray with streaks of yellow promise on the rise. A train rumbled past, shaking the breakfast dishes Maria took out of the cupboard. The engineer blew the warning whistle as he entered the crossing. For Maria the high pitched squeal was commonplace. She moved around the kitchen, wiping up the thin film of soot that had fallen like rain during the night. The house was quiet, like a sanctuary, and Maria enjoyed its peacefulness. Everything was in its place. In the living room the throw over the secondhand couch was tucked and smooth. Two new red pillows adorned each corner of the couch proclaiming a sense of style and under the nightly dusting of soot the heavy wooden dining table gleamed with polish. Quickly Maria wiped off the night's dust with her dish towel, and pulled back the curtains she had sewn for the front window. It would be a sunny day.

In the kitchen she poured the boiling water into the drip percolator and the heady fragrance of coffee filled the air. She took two eggs from the refrigerator along with butter for toast and milk for her daughter's bottle. She cracked the eggs in a pan of boiling water, the whites exploding like streamers in the frothing water.

"Joseph," she called upstairs, "it's time to get up.

She turned the toast and checked the coffee. The grounds scudded on the brewing water. With a slotted spoon Maria scooped Out the eggs and let them drain while she buttered the toast.

She wore her mother's wedding band and made eggs in the same fashion. It was, she thought, so little to have brought with her from her homeland. Die Mutterland, she thought bitterly. She had left it without regret. To start over, with a new husband, an American husband. A new life, she told her mother when she said good-bye, we will have a new life together. In the pictures she sent home they were always smiling.

Maria fingered her wedding band, her last gift from her mother, and looked out the window again. The sun was up.

Her husband came in and kissed the back of her neck, his arms around her waist. He nuzzled her ear with his stubbly face. "Sleep well?" he asked.

She nodded. "And you?"

"Yes." He turned her around and kissed her properly. She put her head on his chest and let herself be held. After a moment she put the eggs on the toast and poured two cups of coffee.

She sat across from him with her cup of coffee.

"You should eat," he said.

"I'm not hungry," she said, then, "I'll eat later - with the baby."

"You have to eat," he said.

"I know. I will."

"Don't forget your iron pill." She shook her head.

Upstairs the baby stirred. "I will check on her," Maria said.

Her daughter was still asleep, her face clear and peaceful. Maria watched the even rise and fall of her breath, then quietly covered her where she'd flung off her blanket.

A new life. Maria smiled at her daughter. Someday your grandmother will see you, she thought, and she will know I was right. I was right to leave. Die Mutterland, the beloved motherland. . . it had become a prison, a land of death, like an animal gone mad it devoured even its young.

Another train rattled past, the whistle shrieking like an air raid siren. It pierced Maria's reverie with its alarm, and like a frightened rabbit, she ran across the hall into the shelter of her bedroom. In the middle of the room she stood transfixed, listening for the screeching fall of the bombs. In the sudden quiet she heard her heart pounding.

Birdsong twittered through the open window.

Slowly Maria came to herself. No more bombs. The war was over. This was America. She was safe.

Uncertainly she opened the closet door and took Out a tidy housedress, its very commonness a reassurance. Slipping off her faded bathrobe, she pulled the dress over her head.

The dresser mirror reflected a young woman, slender, tall, with a narrow waist and high bosom, her eyes older than her face. With a practiced motion she pinned her hair back and tied around a scarf. The scoop neck of the dress revealed a long neck, almost gawky, nearly elegant. Carefully she traced the heart-shaped outline of her lips with the latest ruby color, marveling in the expensive taste of her one luxury. Youth gave her face a sensuous, expectant look, marred only by a hidden shadow of fear, like the stained and broken teeth she revealed when she smiled.

She patted the chenille bedspread smooth with nervous hands. The sun was stronger now. It would be hot today.

Maria liked the sun. In the sunlight she felt clean and safe, cleansed of the dark memories of the air raid shelters and the rubble of broken bodies and buildings littering her walk to school. And other memories. She wondered again where Margot was. when she'd gone to her house the next morning Margot had vanished into the emptiness. Perhaps she escaped. Maria remembered especially the white lace curtains blowing into the empty parlor. In the summer wind the curtains billowed like clouds in a painting. But no one was there. Margot wasn't a Jew. Sometimes Maria's Jewish friends fled in the night. The sirens would start and they would flee. To France or Belgium Maria thought. But Margot wasn't a Jew. The apartment looked as if they had just stepped out for a minute, perhaps gone up the street to purchase breakfast rolls at the corner bakery. But Maria never saw Margot or her sister Gretel, or the two boys or Frau Hansig again. No bodies were ever found. The next morning and the next Maria stopped on her way to school. She would knock and then quietly push the door open, calling Margot's name softly. She walked into the still bedroom with the girls' beds piled with summer blankets and stuffed animals and two porcelain dolls in white lace dresses. She left a note on Margot's table. "Please let me know you're all right," it read. "I'm worried about you and your family." In her schoolgirlish scrawl, she wrote, "Your friend, Maria." Somehow she was afraid to sign her name, but she did anyway. A week later when she checked the note was gone. She didn't go back. And now five years later the image of Margot's thin sallow face fills Maria's mind. How they laughed together! And still played with dolls when they thought they were alone, although they knew they were too old for such foolishness. One doll would

he the bride and the other the Queen of Heaven. And the Queen would always bless the bride and promise to show her the way to untold riches of peace and beauty and love. Always love. The promise of love filled their hearts while the sky burned with bombs and they spent their nights with the rats hiding underground waiting for the building to collapse and become their tomb.

Mama ...Ma...Ma." Her daughter's voice called her back. She went in to her, and put down the side of the crib.

Good morning, Annette," she crooned, holding the little girl close. "It will be a pretty day. The sun is shining."

Annette snuggled in her arms a moment, then struggled to get down. Maria let her go, cautioning, "Go down on your bottom." And they bumped down the steep steps like beach balls bouncing down to the sea.

In the kitchen Annette climbed into her father's lap.

"And how is my little girl?" he asked, hugging her, then tickling her until she laughed with delight.

Maria started to warm the bottle again.

"She's old enough to drink from a cup," Joseph said.

"She is still little. She will grow up soon enough."

Joseph put his daughter in her high chair. "I need to go." He kissed them both,

Outside the bustle of the day was starting up. The buzz of traffic drowned the bird song. Another train rumbled past. The heavy chunk-chunk of the machinery in the tool and die factory next door fell into a rhythm of its own. Across the street the morning shift of workers had already taken up their places. In the little row of houses forgotten along the edge of the industrial district, Maria's was the last, nearest

the railroad tracks, and already most of her neighbors had left for work. Mrs. Earl next door worked for the railroad company. She left earlier than Joseph and when she came home she usually took a nap and then made supper. She had a daughter Maria's age and two older sons, and of course, her husband, Mr. Earl, who did odd jobs. In the apartment house one door over lived Mr. Boardman and his five year old son, Skippy. Maria didn't know who lived in the big gray house and she had only met Mrs. Lacey who lived in the little clapboard house with the iris once on her way to the store. Her son, who lived with her, had lost his hand in the war when his platoon had stormed a German hunker.

Annette pushed her bowl of cereal over the edge of her high chair and laughed gleefully as the oatmeal splatted on the floor.

"Annette!" Maria jumped up. "Naughty! Now what will you eat? Do you think I will make another bowl of cereal for you to throw on the floor?" She wiped up the floor and then the baby's hands and mouth.

"Come. You need a bath." Annette followed her mother into the tiny bathroom. Maria marveled at the luxury of hot running water. At home her mother would heat the water on the stove and fill a big washtub with the steaming water. When everyone had taken a bath Maria and her brothers would empty the tub with pails, then scrub it out, and store it in the closet. While Annette splashed in the warm water, Maria polished the sink and wiped up the floor.

Tenderly she soaped Annette's sturdy little body. She drew a flower on her soapy back, then a letter A. "A is for Annette," she said. "You are like a little flower." She smiled into her daughter's blue eyes. She rinsed her off and dried her with a scratchy white towel that smelled of the sun. She carried Annette upstairs to her bedroom and dressed her.

"Outside we will go," Maria said. "I must sweep the walk and the porch. You can play in the grass.

She swept down the back steps and hurried after Annette as the little girl scampered out of sight along the side of the house.

"Stay out of the drive," Maria called. "Here. Stay here in the

grass." It was only a small patch of grass bordered by two driveways and

a sidewalk, but Maria was proud of her home. It was a real house, with

a real yard. The house had a fine front porch with spindle railings and

a big front window. It's true, they rented it. It was not their own.

And it needed repair. The porch sagged a bit, and inside the wallpaper

was worn and the kitchen linoleum was cracked, but Joseph and Maria had

plans. They would fix it up. It was their first home.

Passersby looked at Maria curiously as she swept the sidewalk out to the street. Joseph told her she didn't need to. That here in America people did not do that. But she did anyway. It was her home.

She sat in the grass with Annette. "Here comes a train!" she cried, pointing out the engine racing by to her daughter. Black clouds of soot puffed up from the engine darkening the blue sky. Like black snow the sooty dust fell. "One, two, three, four, five . . . ." Maria counted the cars going by. "One hundred and twenty three. It was a long one."

Annette clapped her hands. "T'ain, t'ain . . . ." she chanted.

"Let's go to the store," her mother said.

Maria found her wallet and checked the tiny refrigerator. In the bathroom she brushed her hair, then Annette's.

"S'ore?' Annette asked, as she stood still for her mother while barrettes were clipped on.

"Yes."

" 'andy?"

"We'll see," her mother said.

Maria locked the doors carefully. On the front sidewalk she held her daughter's hand. A truck driver wolf whistled as he drove past. Maria looked away.

They admired the furry green caterpillar making its way across Mrs. Earl's walk. This was their daily excursion and Annette had favorite stopping places along the way. At the driveway of the brown house she pick up pretty stones. At the next driveway she clung to her mother's skirt, afraid of the dog barking behind the screen door. Mrs. Lacey was on her knees pulling weeds in her front flower bed.

"Good morning," Maria said.

Mrs. Lacey looked up silently. She forced herself to nod, her eyes falling away from the effort.

Maria's hand tightened on her daughter's.

She lifted her chin, walking straight ahead, seeing for a moment the face of her oldest brother, Karl, as she ran to open the door for him when he returned to their mother's house after the war. At twenty- three, with his eye missing, it was the face of a stranger.

Annette tugged on her hand. "0000w," she said, then pointing,

Maria let her go and Annette ran into the schoolyard grass, laughing as the birds fluttered upward like leaves on the wind. The little girl ran on, scattering them, again and again, until Maria called her back.

They went into the grocery store from the back. The smell of fresh meat rose from behind the glass cases of the butcher. The butcher stood

in his white apron splashed with blood expertly chopping apart a side of beef with his cleaver.

As Maria stopped before the glass case of the meat counter, she saw the butcher glance at her, then turn away, and go into the meat locker. She busied herself looking at the selection of luncheon meats. Annette walked in circles around and around her feet.

"'andy, Mama," Annette pulled at her hand.

"After we get our meat," Maria promised.

"Now!" Annette pulled harder.

No. In a moment, Annette. Be a good girl," Maria cautioned. "Here is the butcher now." Maria looked into his forbidding face as Annette pulled free of her hand and toddled toward the candy aisle.

"Whaddya want?" he asked, wiping his hands on his bloodstained apron.

"Annette!" Maria called at her daughter's back, then, "A pound of ground beef, please."

Maria heard her thick German accent echo in the butcher's deliberate movements as he silently wrapped the bloody meat in white paper. He had lost two brothers in the war. Annette turned the corner at the candy aisle. Maria took her package of meat and followed her.

Two ladies were visiting at the coffee aisle, their carts blocking the way. Maria went around them, murmuring "excuse me", past the canned goods and around the corner to help Annette pick Out her candy.

Annette was not there.

Surprised, Maria walked to the end of the aisle, and looked down the length of the next aisle. "Annette!" she called.

It was a small store. A neighborhood mom and pop store. The next aisle faced the cashier.

"Have you seen my daughter? "Maria asked the cashier. "Did she come this way?" The woman shook her head no and the young bagger looked blank.

Hurriedly Maria retraced her steps, looking down each aisle, calling her daughter's name.

"Annette, Annette!" She pushed down a rising sense of panic, a bitter taste in her mouth. Quickly she walked up and down each aisle, pushing past the women still talking in the coffee aisle. The few shoppers in the store stared at her.

She stopped at the cashier's again. "Are you sure you did not see her?"

"She's so little, I wouldn'ta seen her." The woman looked at Maria's white face. "Maybe she went into the bakery."

The bakery. Maria rushed up the adjoining ramp, past the display of pre-packaged bread, and shoved open the doors that opened onto the smells of baking breads and cookies. Surely Annette had slipped through the doors held open by some kindly customer. Annette loved the bakery and would spend long minutes picking out her treat when her mother allowed it.

Annette was not there. The sales clerk had not seen her.

Dazed, Maria walked out to the street. The cars passed back and forth. The noon sun glinted on their hoods.

Annette. Mona formed the word, but no sound came out. Her mind was spinning with a blind, unreasoning panic.

"You want I should call the police?" The thin birdlike cashier from the grocery store appeared at Maria's elbow.

The police! Did the police have her? Maria thought wildly. No, no! It could not be. This was America. The war was over. She started to shake.

"I must find her," she said. "She is just a baby...."

The cashier clucked sympathetically. "Best to call the police. She's not in the store. She must have wandered out. . .What was she wearing?"

But at the sound of a siren in the distance, Maria stared at the gray haired cashier in horror.

"You have called them," she gasped, backing away, her eyes terror- stricken. "They already know. I have lost my daughter," she wailed.

Maria ran to the corner, looking frantically in every direction, while the clerk looked after her, puzzled and shaking her head. "I'd better call," she said to the bagger who had followed her out of the store, "but I don't even know where she lives."

Maria ran down the street, past the parking lot, into the alley by the bar. She stood in the dust of the driveway, nearly blinded by terror. "Annette, Annette," she shrieked, the sound of her voice reverberating in the sunlight. A big green car blew its horn at her and she stumbled out of its way. Two men came out of the bar. "You all right, lady?" they asked her. Maria dropped her hands and nodded mutely. Her hair was awry, her chest heaving.

I will find her, she said to herself, in a sudden, dangerous calm. She cannot have gone far.

The noon whistle blew.

Now she ran under the shade of the big maples in front of the school. School children were coining out to sit under the trees and eat their lunch. Maria walked up and down the sidewalks, looking intently for a small figure in blue.

Have you seen a little girl go by here alone? she asked group after group of children sitting on the lawn.

But they only looked at her strangely and shook their heads or said nothing at all.

Suddenly Maria couldn't remember if she'd spoken English or German to them, or whether she had spoken at all. Her head was pounding with the effort to keep moving. She sat down in the grass, away from the students, who had started to trickle back into the building.

She would not cry. She pushed the burning scream in her throat down until she could see again, and then she got up, and walked down the stony driveway to the playground where the elementary children were playing. She walked carefully, holding her self-composure and frail hope like a precious flame in the darkness.

Carefully she looked at the faces of each of the children playing, and then she approached the teacher on duty and asked whether she had seen a lost little girl. "My daughter," Maria said. "Annette. She is only three."

She asked so quietly the teacher didn't know whether to believe her. "No," the teacher answered, and before she could ask any questions, Maria walked away, her gait stiff and uneven, climbing the big hill along the driveway up to the street.

At the top of the hill she turned toward home.

Maybe Annette had simply walked home. No one noticing her. Just toddling on home the way she came.

Maria quickened her step. She had just passed Mrs. Lacy's front flower bed when the police found her.

Could we speak with you a minute, ma'am?" An officer in a blue uniform stepped out of a squad car pulled up at the curb.

"Just a minute of your time." The officer blocked the sidewalk as Maria started to walk around him. "Your name, ma'am?"

"Maria," she told him softly, her voice defeated. "Maria Wilkins."

"Do you have any identification, Miss Wilkins?" the officer asked.

Maria looked at him uncomprehendingly.

"A driver's license," he prompted. "Or something like that."

"No, she said, "I don't drive." She saw Mrs. Lacy looking Out from behind her curtains.

Do you live around here?"

"Yes," Maria said. "Just up the street." Then suddenly she tried to push her way past him, shouting, "Why are you asking me all these questions?! I have done nothing wrong! This is America! Don't you understand? I have to look for Annette!"

Firmly the officer took Maria by the arm and opened the back door of the squad car. "I think you'd better come with us."

"What are you doing?" Maria shrieked. "I have to find Annette! Where are you taking me?"

"We're going to take you over to the station and find out how we can help you," the officer said. "You seem very distraught."

Again Maria was suddenly afraid. Had she spoken in German or English? She could not be sure, and as the officer put her in the car and closed the door, she sat silent, her arms at her sides, her eyes still. The wire grating between the front seat and the back flashed in the sun-light. They drove down the street, past the school yard, now empty of

children, past the bar to the corner, then right, past the grocery store, over the little bridge to Fisher Street. Maria saw a mother walking with a little girl. They stopped to throw stones into the stream below the bridge. It was not Annette.

At the station the officer helped her out of the car. Maria shook off his hand on her arm as they walked inside.

"I will not run away," she said, and I am Mrs. Wilkins."

The officer glanced at his partner and rolled his eyes.

"Mrs. Wilkins," he said formally, "I'm Officer Fowler and this is Officer Marcum. You've been acting mighty strange this morning. We've gotten a couple of calls. Concerned about the safety of the children over at the school. So why don't you tell us what you're doing out this morning?"

He seated Maria at the side of a large wooden desk. She looked at him across a litter of papers on the desktop.

"I am Out this morning to do my grocery shopping," she whispered. "I go grocery shopping every morning. Annette and I."

"Who is Annette?" Officer Fowler interrupted.

"She is my daughter," Maria said. "She is only three."

"And where is she?"

"I don't know," Maria said softly. "She's lost." She looked at him sharply. "Maybe you have her!"

Startled, Officer Fowler shook his head. "Are you reporting a lost child?"

"Don't you see? I must go home. Perhaps she's waiting for me there." Maria stood up.

"Mrs. Wilkins, where's your husband?"

"At work. He's a painter."

Officer Fowler looked at his partner and shrugged. Why don't you show us where you live."

Without a word Maria walked out to the patrol car. Officer Fowler opened the back door again and Maria stepped in. There was a coldness in her face that made her seem like stone as she sat with her hands folded in her lap. She told them her address. It seemed to her that her voice came from a distant place, from somewhere far away from her. The sunlight flickered on the gunmetal grating and Maria marveled at the buildings along the way, all still standing, when so many should be in ruins. It was like that so often. But somehow she had not expected it here. She must remember to tell Joseph when he came home.

While they waited at the stoplight, she saw the church. A grubby, blackened stone church with a heavy wooden door. Above its square steeple was an iron cross. Planted in the grass by its entrance stood another cross. An empty cross, Maria thought, with empty promises. Mother of Cod, where is your Son now? Or is He with my daughter?

She turned her face away.

"Can you not hurry?" she asked.

And then they were there.

The police car pulled into the driveway. Maria tried to push open the door, but it was locked. Officer Fowler came around and opened

it. The house stood like a sentinel in the sunlight. Maria ran around the front of the car, her heart pounding.

On the front porch step lay Annette. Her golden hair shone like a halo. Her sleeping face was peace itself.

And like a resurrection Maria gently gathered her up.

"Mrs. Wilkins?" Officer Fowler started.

But Maria had already walked up the steps out of sight. Holding Annette on her shoulder so as not to wake her, she fumbled open the door with the key stashed in her pocket.

From the inside she pushed the door shut with her foot, then leaned against it. Annette started to whimper herself awake.

"Shh. . shh. . ." Maria rocked her. "It is time for your lunch." The afternoon sun shone in the stillness of the house.

Maria took her daughter into the kitchen and put her in the highchair. She cut up an apple and poured a glass of milk.

"Here," she said, "is a glass of milk. Your father is right. You are old enough for a glass."

Maria's hands were shaking, but Annette held the cup firmly. The sound of the train whistle echoed like a distant memory.

"This afternoon," Maria whispered, "I must dust."

Copyright © 2001 by Linda L. Rome


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