They were a couple with no children, living poor in a two-story frame building that had gone without fresh paint since 1929. This caused talk; Doc Hawkins was a dentist with his own office above the State Bank Building and should have been doing better. But Doc, as everyone called him, was a man in his fifties, balding and coarse, who always appeared in the same dark suit, and rarely changed his shirt, and yes, there were whispers of whiskey on his breath, during working hours at that. “I wouldn’t want his hand in my mouth,” the ladies would say, and those who could afford Doctor Kraft or Doctor Menlo, or Doctor Fitzgerald, saw to it that this never happened.
It was Doc’s wife who interested the ladies. Miss Francine, as they called her, stood off to herself, and by her own choosing. She’d grown up in a suburb north of Chicago and met Doc in some mysterious way no one ever got straight. He must have seemed a good catch, as people used to say in those days. They were a match, but no one got close enough to see what made them tick, not the ladies, not Doc’s patients, and not the mothers of Miss Francine’s piano students. Danny Price’s mother said it all had to do with the sister upstairs. There was something wrong with that sister who was never seen in public, and who never even came down the steps. The piano students could hear her well enough. She made strange tragic cries and paced the upper hallway, and only occasionally flashed a livid face over the banister. That sister was a madwoman, the ladies decided, just like in the movies, and she was Miss Francine’s secret.
There were other piano teachers in town, better ones than Miss Francine; like her husband, she was considered the choice of last resort. Miss Virginia on High Street, and Miss Beatrice on Maple Avenue were members of elite families, wed to successful business men, and they both had studied at the Conservatory which everyone said was the best place to learn music. These ladies held recitals that were major social events in the Masonic Temple, and they saw to it that their brightest students played actual pieces by Classical composers.
In hindsight, everyone should have known that someday the sister with the livid face and tragic cries would escape. Miss Francine had always feared the worst, and taken care never to leave her alone. For a long time there’d been a colored woman she relied upon, but when it was discovered that the colored woman actually had a room in the house and was not going back to Rawlings every evening as colored people were supposed to do, a delegation of the ladies and their husbands had shown up on Miss Francine’s front porch. “If you need someone to help,” Mrs. Snider told her, “you could always hire one of the Ryan girls.” That was the end of Ruby, whose only wages had been a bed to sleep in, a place at the dinner table, and some old clothes that had been cast down.
Miss Francine was not a fortunate woman. She was tall and had a very long face. She wore dark, musty dresses with long sleeves that actually looked better on poor Ruby. Without Ruby, she was trapped in her own house, not that she cared very much to walk the streets of what she called “this miserable town,” but a woman could not sit indoors forever, and how were errands to be done? Hire a girl? The nation itself was barely solvent. Even should all her students pay promptly, she would still not have enough to hire a girl.
Nor was Doc willing to raise her allowance. He would say, “She’s your sister. Isn’t it enough that I feed and board her?” His patients were so purse- tight they did without Novocain to save money, even during extractions.
A few days after Ruby’s departure, a solution offered itself in the form of Helen Price, then in seventh grade, always an attentive pupil rattling through her scales with mechanical dexterity. The day was warm and the windows were open. From time to time a passing train joined the music, but this never once threw Helen off stride. Bronze busts of Beethoven and Mozart stood atop the piano, mute. The sister upstairs paced, but was otherwise silent. When the lesson was finished, Helen stood up, opened the tiny change purse she carried around her neck on a string, and extracted a single Liberty Quarter. Miss Francine could see that the girl took great pleasure in doing this.
“My mother,” Helen said in her precise way, “would like to talk to you.”
“You could have her call me, if she wishes,” Miss Francine replied, fear- ing she was about to lose another student.
“No, no,” Helen said quite brightly. “She will be here in a minute.”
Not even a minute. The doorbell rang, and Miss Francine knew that Helen’s mother had been standing on the porch all this time, waiting for the music to stop.
Miss Francine brought her into the music room where she might see Beethoven and Mozart and another bust, that of Wagner, set up on its own little pedestal. There was a wooden chair with a satin seat for her; Miss Francine chose to sit on the piano bench, and this left Helen standing with her arms politely folded. She was wearing her school uniform. For some reason Miss Francine remembered this for many years, how innocent these schoolgirls looked in their tidy blue and white uniforms, more innocent than any child Helen’s age was likely to be.
“She’s doing quite well,” Miss Francine said. “You can be proud of her, Mrs. Price.”
“Please call me Mae,” Mrs. Price replied. She was wearing a summer dress that must have been stylish when it was new; now it looked like something out of the flapper era. Miss Francine had seen her in it several times, and sup- posed this was the best she had. She’s going to quit the lessons, Miss Francine thought, but the opposite was true. Mae Price was thinking of starting her son, Helen’s little brother Danny.
First she had a proposal.
“We heard what happened with . . . your girl.” The word “girl,” said that way, suggested an adjective that almost certainly would have been “colored.” When Miss Francine refused to blink, Mae went on. She knew, she said, all about the sister upstairs (who even now was pacing, pacing) and understood how difficult it would be to leave someone like that alone, and she had a suggestion.
Miss Francine immediately thought, bitterly, I will not hire you to watch my sister, but this turned out not to be the proposal. The proposal was her daughter, Helen.
“But what use would that be?” Miss Francine cried. “She’s in school all day.”
“Sister Bertram will excuse her three afternoons a week. She is so ad- vanced, you know. And all we would ask is the lessons.” By this Mae Price meant lessons for both her children.
Miss Francine thought this over several days, wary of entangling herself with this family, and with good reason, she would someday learn. She was not at all fond of Mae Price who was very far from being one of the ladies but still managed to have her own set of pretensions, possibly because she’d once worked as a maid for a wealthy North Shore family and learned things it would be better for a woman like her not to know. Teaching Helen, an incorrigible chatterbox and story teller, Miss Francine had come to know more about this woman’s life than she had a right to. The apartment above the tobacco shop with all its rats and roaches, she knew about it. The husband who no longer put on a good white shirt, not even for Sunday mass, she knew about him. The quarrels over money, she’d been given their details. There would not have been an instrument for these children to practice upon had not their paternal grandmother given them an upright player piano that came with several piano rolls, and cost only the trouble it took to move it up the stairs.
In the end she saw no other choice. As little as she cared for this mis- erable town, she was mighty fond of strolling through the dime store and Walgreens, and stopping to gaze into the show windows at Betty Mason’s Dress Shop. Helen Price may have been a chatterbox but she clearly was a competent little person who followed instructions, and instructions could be given. As for Danny, Helen had already given her version of the boy; Miss Francine thought she would wait to see.
Helen insisted her brother was “not a normal person.” He had strange thoughts in his head, thoughts he rarely shared, and others could only imagine. He was very interested in dead things. There had been a cat dead in the alley and he had visited it every day for a month, and still occasionally visited the spot where it had finally dissolved into the cinders. If a bird were dead in the gutter, he would insist on walking by it, even if he had to cross the street. He collected discarded cigarette packages from which he removed the tinfoil lining and spent ever so much time flattening out on the kitchen table. He was saving them, he said, but he never said for what. Something unpleasant, Helen predicted. You will never teach him a thing.
When Danny showed up for his first lesson, Miss Francine was pleased to see nothing more disturbing than a dreamy little boy with gold rimmed eyeglasses she immediately took from him and polished; a moment later they were smudged again. At the piano he had difficulty finding middle C, even after several lessons, and only seemed interested in those busts of Beethoven and Mozart, especially when Miss Francine told him that these gentlemen had lived long ago and were now dead. A half hour a week with this curious boy did not seem a bad bargain after all.
Helen’s chatter she addressed immediately. What ailed Miss Francine’s sister was precisely what Miss Francine was determined to keep to herself. No one need know that her sister had gone off to a convent, only to be sent back in the condition she was in. “Not strong enough for God.” Firmly and frequently, Miss Francine warned Helen Price that the sister upstairs must be kept upstairs at all costs, and never ever be spoken to, and no stories must ever ever be told, and a doctor had ordered as much. To make sure things went as they were supposed to go, she sneaked back into the house several times when she supposedly was out shopping, and listened quietly from the kitchen. Several times the sister made an attempt on the stairs, only to be stopped by Helen’s stern order: “Back! Back!”
Helen Price turned out to be a better sitter than Ruby had ever been, more stern, more decisive, to be honest, a little tyrant. With her in charge, Miss Francine could stroll uptown with confidence, and even slip in the first half of a double feature at the Palace.
Months went by, and more months until they added up to at least a year. For those who follow such things, war drew closer in Europe, and became bloodier in Asia. New weapons were developed, old nations absorbed, people driven into exile, and further villainy was planned. Across the globe snow and rain fell, flood waters rose and receded, the sun burned hot and parched the naked earth: the rich died rich, the poor died poor, and life went as well as it could.
It must have been right around Labor Day that Helen delivered the bad news, news the little chatterbox had kept to herself all summer long.
“I won a scholarship at Our Lady’s Academy,” she said, snapping her purse shut for the last time. She’d graduated St. Bernard’s with honors upon honors, and was now quite the young lady with a new haircut and new shoes with very modest heels. “The nuns at Our Lady’s won’t give anyone an af- ternoon off, and they insist I study piano with them.”
The end. Miss Francine was not only losing a student, she would no longer have her free afternoons. “But I thought you would be going to Community High,” she cried. At Community High, and she had been counting on it, there would be no problems with the afternoons.
“It’s a very valuable scholarship,” Helen said, visibly swelling with pride.
“But the carfare!” Our Lady’s Academy was thirty miles up the Rock Island line in the south side of Chicago. “ How will your family afford the carfare?”
“Mom has a job,” Helen said. “She’s working at Catland’s.”
Miss Francine gasped. She and Doc often talked about Catland’s Cannery, a notorious sweatshop where workers were forced to compete with each other through some kind of a piece-work scheme. “The harder they work, the less they get,” Doc insisted. “And the damn fools can’t be talked out of it.” As a young man, Doc had been a socialist of sorts; now he said people got what they deserved and to hell with them.
“Your mother has a job?” Miss Francine repeated. “What does your father say about that?”
“He says a woman’s place is in the home,” Helen said.
That night Miss Francine had Mae Price on the phone. “Mae,” she said, it
being Mae and Francine now even though she secretly detested the intimacy. “Mae. Do you think that the nuns would, if you spoke to them . . .”
Mae Price had a much different suggestion. Danny. Danny? He was such a sweet boy, but too too young.
Yes, if one went by his looks, but looks could be deceptive. Danny was very bright. He was progressing in his lessons, and even learning a little piece based upon Haydn’s Surprise Symphony, reduced to one note at a time in the right hand.
The next day, under the watchful eyes of Mozart, Beethoven, and Wag- ner, Danny Price was made to understand his new duties. Never downstairs, the sister must never come downstairs. “Back! Back!” Never to speak to the sister. She was a poor woman and must not have her head confused. Yes, he nodded, without actually mouthing the word.
Miss Francine kept her three afternoons. Exactly how Mae Price managed the business with the nuns and Danny’s hours at school was never explained, and never questioned. And the boy turned out to be every bit as strong and determined as his sister, but in his own private way. She quickly saw how the sister upstairs would grow quiet when he was at his lesson, his fingers wandering over the wrong notes, his attention focused upon something very far away and very secret. It was almost as if he were communicating with the spirits. Animals were said to have powers like that: horses, dogs, possibly even cats. With someone like that watching her house, she would be free to wend her way through Walgreens and Woolworths with a light and guiltless heart.
There was a great shortage of light and guiltless hearts that year. Over- seas, the war everyone had been expecting had finally taken shape. Nations, continents, civilizations went mad and drenched the earth with blood; innocent civilians were marched into the cold dark forests and murdered. Bombs shrieked down upon helpless cities, children screamed naked in the rubble, starvation and disease followed, and it was on the radio every night, in the newsreels after every movie, and in the Chicago Tribune where John Q. Public constantly urged Uncle Sam not to “pull England’s chestnuts out of the fire,” not this time, and none of it interested some people as much as Miss Francine’s private affairs.
“That poor demented woman,” they whispered. “She’s leaving her in the care of a retarded child.”
Miss Francine heard these whispers. She blocked them out until she could no longer block them out, which took weeks, maybe months, and then she sneaked into the house one afternoon, just as she had done before, and stood behind the kitchen door listening.
She heard voices. At first she thought, the radio? That would mean Doc was home, who else would turn on the radio, but Doc would not be home at this hour, ever. She was hearing the voices of two human beings, one a child, the other a woman, one a child, the other a woman! She felt her scalp contract. How long had this been going on?
She could not make out a word, not even when she crept through the doorway and crouched down behind the dining room table with its great white cloth hanging to the floor. The boy was standing at the foot of the staircase, the sister above leaning over the rail, and there was no doubt they were having a conversation, and the more she strained to hear what they were saying the less audible it became. Were they even speaking actual words? It was tantaliz- ing, agonizing, she was on the verge of leaping to her feet, but something that felt very much like fear held her back and she crept into the kitchen, suddenly shaking with rage. She had trusted this boy, trusted him, and oh what now ran through her head! What could that boy be carrying back to that mother of his, that scheming mother, and what of his chatterbox sister, what might she carry all over town, oh, with his smooth calm face, how he had fooled her, worse, how she had fooled herself, he would have to go, instantly go, this must be the very last day, she would no longer even give him lessons, let that mother of his reach into her tight little purse and pay someone like Miss Virginia, or Miss Beatrice, let them see what they could get out of him! She was out of the house and halfway up the street before she realized she was on her way to her husband’s office. She would hire a girl, yes, she would, someone she could trust, and this time he was going to reach into his sacred pockets. People were working now with this war in Europe, she’d heard the talk about town, and he was not going to get out of it this time.
Her heart was pounding when she reached the State Bank building, its red brick construction disguised by white stone facing, a few loafers smok- ing cigars on the corner, oblivious to the cold wind. This was the same bank where Helen Price claimed her father had once worked, a story Miss Francine had never believed; she remembered no such person. And what if he had? It wasn’t much of a bank, occupying only the first floor of the building, the second given to apartments and offices, the third to the Odd Fellows and a lot of empty space. The stairway to these floors was on the Vermont Street side of the building, through a little vestibule where the air was always bad. She rarely came here, and counted herself lucky she had little reason to. What she would do if she ever needed serious dental care, she hardly wanted to think about, but always did whenever she climbed these stairs.
On the second floor, the hallway was even dimmer than usual. A light must have been burned out. Probably it would be left that way until someone fell and injured herself. There was a smell of boiled meat clinging to every- thing, probably from one of the apartments. These people boiled everything. An old woman had just come out of the podiatrist’s office and was working furiously to get her purse back in order. All else was silence and gloom. Doc must not have been drilling at this moment. When he did you could hear his drill, almost industrial in its fury, all the way to the foot of the stairs. He worked without an assistant or an office girl, and relied upon a little bell he had hooked to the top of his door to tell him when a new patient entered. When Miss Francine saw that he was in the back room, she gave the door several furious shakes, rattling the bell as much as it could be rattled.
Three shapeless women, waiting on those hard yellow chairs of his, looked up. The most shapeless of them, a gray-haired termagant with glittering eyes, the kind of a woman Miss Francine believed would be buried in one of those shabby house dresses they sold at Klein’s for a dollar and a half, said: “He won’t be taking you for hours. We’ve been waiting all afternoon.”
Miss Francine gave the bell several more furious shakes, and finally heard her husband call out in his gruff voice: “Be with you in a minute.”
To take a seat would be folly. The woman in the house dress was almost surely right about the all-afternoon wait. Boldly, she opened the door to his operating room, as he called it, and stepped in. Doc did all his work here in a single cubicle large enough to hold the chair, his drill, a cabinet full of instruments, and a sink to spit blood into. He had a white-faced woman in the chair and apparently was extracting several of her teeth. His cigar had gone out on the window sill which was marred and burned in so many places it probably could be damaged no further. “I said wait,” he growled. Then he looked up and saw who had dared disobey his orders. He pulled down his mask. “This is not a good time for you to be here.” Sweat was standing on his face. The poor woman in the chair was moaning. There was blood on the grayish bib he had tied around her neck. “You’ll have to wait until I finish this patient,” he said, gesturing with his bloody pliers, and savagely turning back to the woman in the chair. “Hold still,” he commanded. “I can’t work with you squirming around!”
Miss Francine fled into the waiting room. “I told you so,” the woman in the house dress said in a very satisfied tone. “All afternoon. He probably won’t take you at all today.”
A woman like that, Miss Francine thought. One could only hope she would get everything that the woman in the chair was getting, and more. Rather than endure another instant of her company, Miss Francine stepped back into the hallway. There, heart pounding, she belatedly realized pupils would very soon be at her house with no one save Danny Price to let them in. To think, only this morning she had trusted that little criminal, had even imagined him as someone who deserved love, and that was what you got for trying to do good in this world. This whole trip had been a waste of time. Flecks of snow were swirling on Western Avenue now. Miss Francine buttoned up her long, dark woolen coat, wishing it were warmer, and walked back to her house as briskly as she could. Gretchen Angstrom was already on the piano bench, not running over her lesson, but picking out a popular tune with one finger. The children of this town were all alike: you might teach them the minuet, but all they cared about was the Hit Parade.
Danny Price was in the music room too, sitting on the chair with the satin seat, his hands folded in his lap. “You may go home now,” she told him in a hoarse voice. “Tell your mother I won’t be needing you again.”
He showed no emotion, simply arose and put on his little plaid jacket. A moment later he was out the door. “Never again,” she said aloud, and Gretchen Angstrom looked up from the keyboard. “Yes? Ma’am?”
“Never mind,” Miss Francine said, squeezing onto the piano bench next to her. “Now where is your lesson? Open the book.”
The next day, the sister upstairs disappeared. “Escaped,” the ladies said, by which they meant Miss Francine should have had her sister committed, long ago, to an institution where no escape was possible. They all agreed that Miss Francine had been off on some selfish errand and had left the poor de- mented creature alone and unguarded, and what else could she have expected?
What they did not know, and could never know, was that after supper – Doc Hawkins always came home at seven, just as his wife was finishing up her lessons – Miss Francine had prepared a tray for her sister and taken it upstairs in a somewhat different frame of mind than she had experienced four hours earlier. Her anger toward Danny Price had cooled, while her anger toward her sister had become even more heated. From the day this sister had taken up residence in her house, gibbering like a chimpanzee, Miss Francine had not heard a single intelligible word from her, not one. She may as well have been speaking in tongues, and the conversation with Danny Price had sounded nothing like that. Miss Francine was determined to get to the bottom of this.
On the tray was the usual fare. Miss Francine was no cook, and Doc cared less for what was on his plate than what was in his glass. Consequently, she would put together large Irish stews and keep them going day after day simply by adding new ingredients. This was what she brought her sister, a plate of soggy vegetables, the crust of a loaf of Wonderbread, and a tepid glass of water.
The sister’s room was the smallest of the three bedrooms on the floor, and the only one with a slanted ceiling. A single window, painted shut many times over, looked out toward the alley, the view mostly obscured by a giant half-dead tree-of-heaven even birds avoided. The sister slept on an ancient iron cot with a threadbare mattress and a peculiar odor too faint to be identi- fied. There was a small chest of drawers shoved into the most slanted portion of the room, a tiny table, no mirror, and two yellow chairs exactly like those in Doc’s office. What few garments the sister had were on hooks attached directly to the walls, and it is worth pointing out that a coat and hat were not among them.
The sister was on a chair, cuddling a rag doll Miss Francine had contemp- tuously named “Eleanor.” The sight of this doll in her sister’s arms angered her all the more since it had come with the sister from the convent and re- minded her of all the stories her own mother had told her of various senile relatives who had spent their declining years cuddling such dolls. Surely she, the sister, could have found something more original to do with her hands.
“I shouldn’t give you this,” Miss Francine said, giving the tray a little shake as if to call attention to it, but the sister sat motionless with her hands folded over the doll. “Don’t pretend you can’t hear me! Don’t pretend you can’t understand me, don’t pretend you can’t answer me, I’m tired of it. I heard you today with that boy. Oh, you talk with him, do you, and with someone who is responsible for the roof over your head you can’t, you won’t? Why should I give you this?” She rattled the tray so violently tepid water spilled over the crust of Wonderbread.
The sister made no move, gave no sign of recognition. She was a younger woman than Miss Francine, by far, her hair dark, her eyes bright, but downcast. She was barefoot and wearing a faded house dress even poor Ruby had turned down.
“Look at me!” Miss Francine cried. “Don’t pretend I am not here.” All the anger she had felt for Danny Price now settled on a more appropriate target. “Very well!” She stepped out of the room and returned a moment later without the tray. “How do you like that? Now you get no supper!”
The sister remained quite still, that exasperating rag doll limp in her hands. “You could die,” Miss Francine suggested. “You could hang yourself dead on one of those coat hooks. Do you think I’d mind?” In her fury she snatched the doll from her sister and held it aloft. “Say goodbye to Eleanor. It’s the furnace for her this time.”
This too brought no response. As so often before, the sister did not raise her eyes. Defeated, Miss Francine slammed out of the room, slammed the door as hard as she could.
After this day she would never see her sister again.
Once there had been a good life, now every thought was about money. When the family had moved into the little flat above the tobacco shop, Mae Price promised herself it would not be long. It was not right that a man like her Dan should be coming home to a place like this. He was turning gray; it was in his family, his sisters graying in their thirties. Mae would not have his sisters in this flat, and would not have her own friends either. She would not have anyone until they were out and into something better.
The flat had just four rooms, all heated with a little coal stove. Just two bedrooms for a family of five, and no yard, not on Western Avenue, just a roof behind the kitchen door and old Bauer sure to be storming up the stairs at the first suggestion a child had walked out on it. “I can’t have leaks! Who will buy a cigar that has been leaked on?” Beneath that tarpaper roof was his storeroom, and Mae did not believe there was a thing of value in it. That was how people were, mean just to be mean, and especially to children.
It was not right to have three children in one bedroom, not when the oldest was becoming a young woman, already in high school. Helen could share with her little sister, but Danny was getting too old, and where would she put him if they stayed here? His bed would be too big to hide behind a curtain in the living room. A folding bed might do, she would have to see how much one would cost. Everything was about money, everything temporary, the second hand furniture, the hot water heater in the bathroom that you lit with a match, the dishes from the Salvation Army, but at least they’d been spared the ultimate shame, they’d never taken a dime worth of relief, and now that Dan was steady again, if only at the coal yard, and she was getting work at the cannery, the day was coming when they could say goodbye to Mr. Bauer and his tobacco shop. There was even a car that Dan was buying from the Grove Street boys for a couple dollars a month, and if there was no yard for her son to play in, there at least was the public library a few blocks away.
Danny had surprised all of them by suddenly becoming a reader of books. When Mae Price talked to the nuns, they insisted they’d always said he was bright, and only need stop all that dreaming. She knew better than to question a nun. On this afternoon Danny was home because Miss Francine had sent him home yesterday with instructions not to return. Was it just today she did not want him, or was it for always? Lately, she’d been thinking it was time, perhaps, to put an end to this arrangement. Lessons for Danny were a waste of time; he would never play the piano, and Helen could teach her little sister when the time came, so what was actually being gained?
That was Mae Price’s thinking. She sat in the living room, watching large lazy white snowflakes drift over Western Avenue. Danny was absorbed in his library book, The Shaman’s Revenge.
There being no doorbell to the apartment, visitors had to knock. When Miss Francine arrived, she not only knocked, she may have pounded. For a moment Mae thought the building might be on fire. Then she opened up and saw her son’s piano teacher in an obvious state of agitation, her hair wild and glistening with snow. Before Mae could mouth a single word, the woman had charged right in and confronted the boy in a most unsettling way.
“Is she here!”
“No.” Danny turned a page of his book.
“Who here?” Mae cried.
“Her! Her! She!” Miss Francine stabbed her finger at the boy. “He knows!” “Danny?” Mae kept her voice calm, firm, and deliberate. “What is this all about?”
“The lady,” said Danny. “Because I talked with the lady.”
“You see!” Miss Francine turned fiercely. “He knows I listened! How does he know? Ask him that!”
“Danny?” Mae was not sure exactly what she was asking of him. “How do you know?”
“I saw her. She was hiding behind the table cloth.”
It was like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. She kept at it and finally the story became as clear as it ever would be. From time to time she offered Miss Francine a chair, a cup of coffee, a lemon lifesaver, but the piano teacher would not have any of this. Feeling her patience ebb, Mae finally cried out: “Francine! He’s been here all afternoon. He came home straight from school!”
“He knows! She never says a word to me, her own sister, not to me. Not a word in eight years. Woooo, woooo, that’s what I get out of her, and she talks to him!”
Mae Price thought it wise to step between her visitor and her son. “Let’s not be alarmed,” she said, although she was not far from being alarmed herself. “Think now, Francine. How long has your sister been missing? She can’t have gone far, could she?” Something warned Mae not to use the word “escape.” She was not dealing with a well-balanced person, that was becoming clear, although you had to give the situation its due. A demented sister wandering about in the snow was something anyone should take seriously. “Have you looked anywhere at all yet?”
“I walked all over,” Miss Francine moaned. “What else could I do, except come here? I tell you, he knows, he knows.”
“Oh, come now, he’s just a little boy, he can’t know as much as you think. Why don’t we go looking for her? I can take the car and we will surely find her somewhere.”
“You have a car?” Miss Francine said in astonishment. Once she had known every detail of this family’s existence. Now they had a car?
The car was parked in an empty lot on George Street. It was a balky ma- chine even Dan had difficulty starting; Mae had to coax it into life, several times, before it settled into a steady chatter. She directed Miss Francine to the front passenger seat, and ordered Danny into the back. “Be sure you keep those doors shut,” she warned. “I don’t want you falling out again.”
“A car!” Miss Francine said.
“It’s a very inexpensive car,” Mae said. “It barely runs.” A moment later they were rumbling down Western Avenue, past Walgreens, past the dime store, past Betty Mason’s Dress Shop. “Keep an eye out,” Mae said. “I have to watch the road.”
The Western Avenue business district went on less than ten city blocks, two stop-and-go’s to be exact. They drove past the bank, the pool room, the Palace Theater, and Klein’s Department Store. When they drove over the Sanitary Canal where so many people drowned themselves, Mae Price held her breath. The snow was fresh and she saw no footprints along the banks. Then they were in the southside and going by the cannery which was shut down until March. There was a gypsy camp just beyond the city limits, and Mae was all for asking the gypsies if they had seen the sister, but Miss Fran- cine would have none of it.
They drove down Wireton Road and all the way out to Rawlings where the colored people lived. Some of them were out and about and Mae would have asked them too, but again Miss Francine would have none of it. They made a huge circle and came back into town on Grove Street, passing over the same Rock Island crossing where Mr. and Mrs. Gentile and their brand new Packard had been crushed several years ago.
They went up and down Maple Avenue, and High Street, and Ann Street, and drove past the Community High School where Danny someday would not excel. They drove by the softball field where the ticket office was boarded up for winter, they checked the empty carnival grounds, and finally pulled up where they had started, the old flivver gasping and spouting steam.
“Francine?” Mae Price asked. “Have you gone to the police?”
“I should say not,” Miss Francine snapped. “It’s none of their business.” The snow was falling gently, but steadily. A demented woman ought not be out in it.
Mae shook her head. “I don’t know what to say. We’ve looked everywhere.”
They had completely forgotten Danny, riding silently in the back seat. Now he spoke: “She’s not here.” Both women turned.
“Then where is she?” Miss Francine cried. Something Mae had never seen before flickered across her son’s passionless face.
“Where she wants to be,” he said, and nothing either woman said or did, then or later, ever got a better answer out of him.
The snow kept falling, steadily falling, and by the next morning it was deep enough to bury a full grown human being. Mae Price thought this, and Miss Francine thought it too. Helplessly, she paced the upstairs hallway just as her sister had done, muttering to herself. She ought not have threatened to burn that miserable doll, although it was still not too late to do it, and a part of her frankly wished to see it in the flames. Last night, after Mae Price had driven her home, she’d had words with Doc, and he’d stomped off to the police station in spite of her protests, and returned with two officers who took her report. They were big slovenly relatives of the mayor, probably cousins, who smoked while they worked, dropped ashes on her carpet, and assured her that her sister was at least “100 miles away” by now, meaning, of course, that there would be no point in them going out into the snow to look for her.
And now, everyone in town, and most especially the ladies, would be saying exactly what you would expect them to say.
What the ladies soon were saying, and Miss Francine must surely have heard it, since she was a woman with unusually sensitive ears, was this: “If you ask us, she’s glad to be rid of that sister.”
After the first week went by and the sister was not found, Miss Francine did find herself relaxing and enjoying life as much as someone in her situa- tion possibly could. She dreaded spring when the melting snows might reveal a skeleton likely to be related to herself, but once the snow melted and no skeleton appeared, the town again saw her shuffling up the Avenue, wander- ing through Walgreen’s and Woolworths, peering into shop windows, and buying tickets for a matinee at the Palace. She lost some students, including Danny Price who never sat down before a keyboard again. She simply went on, and the world went on, and the worlds’ Great War went on and everyone forgot about missing sisters.
It may have been a year later, at a time when Gold Stars were going up in windows along Canal Street, and on Maple Avenue, and Ann Street, and Grove, and even in the town of Rawlings, when Doc Hawkins, who had never been steady on his feet, stumbled crossing the Ann Street tracks and was found later dismembered by a passing train. He was drunk, the ladies insisted. It was only a freight, and moving slowly at that.
Mae Price was one of the few who attended the funeral. She left her children at home with their father, put on her black hat and her new black dress. With the war had come something resembling prosperity, the family had moved away from that wretched flat above the tobacco shop. It seemed a shame that so much suffering had to take place in order to alleviate her own, and it would be wrong to say she did not feel this. She prayed for peace and hoped it came before her Danny reached military age.
In the sparse funeral gathering, she saw Miss Francine whom she had not spoken to since the day when the woman had so recklessly accused her son of aiding her sister’s escape. Mae now believed the sister had made off unharmed, and refused to think otherwise. She decided she would speak to Miss Francine if spoken to. If not, she would simply sign the book.
The mass was short. Father Hansen, dentures flashing, delivered a homily that might have fit anyone in the parish, even to the single phrase Mae Price thought stood out from all else. Doc Hawkins, Father said, was “one of our own.”
After the service, Miss Francine waited on the church steps and spoke to everyone, even the ladies. “How are the children,” she asked, taking her black gloved hand. “How is Danny? Is he keeping up with his piano?”
It was as if the entire episode with the sister had never happened. And if I were to ask her, Mae said to herself, she would say as much. She’s washed it right out of her mind.
The end of this story is the part the ladies never knew, nor Mae Price either, for only Miss Francine knew it, and she kept it as her secret, even to the grave.
There was a day some years after her husband died. She was alone in the house, living comfortably on his insurance and the money the railroad had settled on her, his widow. She had just finished up with the last of her students, a promising little girl named Ella who was doing very well with that same little Haydn piece Danny Price had played. There were words to the piece that the publisher had provided to help children remember the tune. Danny had never sung them, but little Ella did, and quite nicely in a child’s pure high voice.
“Papa Haydn’s dead and gone, But his memory lingers on.” After the lesson, Miss Francine was warming up a cup of tea, and that is when the telephone rang. There was a woman on the line, a voice she did not recognize.
“Francine,” the voice said.
“Who is this?” she replied, and suddenly she knew.
“I thought I should do this much,” the voice said. “Let you know I’m alive.” “Where are you?” Miss Francine whispered.
“Somewhere you will never be,” the voice said. “ I’m very fine. I’m doing well. I’m even happy.” “But why . . .”
“I thought I should do this much. You can forget about me now.”
The line went silent. It was as if the woman on the other end had pressed down on the hook, as softly, as gently, and as firmly as she could.