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Authors: Stephen Birmingham

Those Harper Women (10 page)

BOOK: Those Harper Women
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“I'm for real. And please,” she said, “can't you help me?”

He looked at her for a long time. “Look, there's nothing I can do. But I can let you talk to the traffic manager if you'd like.” And he opened his little gate and took her to the traffic manager's desk.

“What's your grandmother's name?” he asked her.

“Mrs. Charles Blakewell.”

“Blakewell? Isn't that some relation to the Harper family down there?”

“My great-grandfather was Meredith Harper.”

Late that afternoon there was a telephone call from the St. Thomas airport. “This is a little unusual, Mrs. Blakewell,” the man said, “but your granddaughter Miss Ware is here, and she seems to have arrived on an unpaid ticket. You might say she came collect.”

Meeting Leona with her car, Edith had been quite provoked, thinking of all the telephone calls that now had to be made, to Leona's mother, to the school, to her father, to everyone else who might be wondering where she was. “And don't forget. I expect to be reimbursed for this, Leona,” she said. “And not by your mother or father, but by you.”

They sat in the back seat in silence while Edith's chauffeur drove. Leona began rummaging in her purse. Leona took out a piece of paper, folded it carefully so that only the lower edge showed, and said, “Granny, will you sign this please?”

“What is it?”

“Just something I want you to sign. Sign it here—at the bottom.”

“I never affix my signature to anything unless I know what it is.”

“Well … read it then,” and she unfolded it.

It was written in Leona's round, progressive-school printing.

RUN AWAY LICENSE

I, the undersigned, do hereby grant and permit my granddaughter, Leona Harper Ware, to run away from where ever she may be at the moment when the conditions (in the place where she is at the aforesaid moment) become so intolerable and hateful that they become a threat to her sanity and reason.

(signed) ________________, Grandmother

Edith had taken the document and looked at it for a minute or two. Then, taking a pen, and bracing the paper against her knee as the car bounced along, wrote, “With the specific proviso that whenever said granddaughter runs away she runs to me,” and signed it.

Leona took the paper. “Thank you, Granny,” she said.

“And the price of the ticket you may consider my birthday present.”

She had squeezed Edith's hand and, looking straight ahead, her eyes opened and closed rapidly.

“Don't ever tell your mother I did this,” Edith said.

When they got to the house Edith said, “Here are two keys. One is for my gate, and one is for my front door. Keep them with the license, Leona.”

Barely two years later, after Leona's divorce from Jimmy Breed, when Leona arrived with her suitcases in St. Thomas again, she had looked so dispirited that any thought Edith had had of reproving her had vanished. She simply put her arms around the child and said, “Well, you stuck to the terms of our contract, didn't you, dear? You came home to me.” And she was touched to see that Leona still carried the two keys on a velvet ribbon.

Thinking of this now, Edith realizes with a start that she has allowed a perfectly awful thing to happen. This is one of the worst things she has ever done. For today—or rather yesterday, since it is now past midnight—was the birthday of Poo, Diana's very small son by Perry. Poo is four. No, five years old. Poo is what Diana calls “my menopause baby,” and also says was “the result of too much brandy one night in Burgenstoch.” Poo, though his true Christian name is Harper, is called Poo because
Poo
was his first word, addressed to one of the poodles. One hopes that name will not adhere to him through life. But even more awful than forgetting Poo's birthday, or being uncertain of his present age, is that Edith cannot for the life of her think of what to send him. She usually sends him an outfit, but she can never, at any given time, be sure of his size. And, worst of all, it has been months since she heard from Diana, and she really has no idea at the moment where Poo, or Diana, or Perry, or any of them are. She thinks to herself, then says it aloud to the empty room, “You're a terrible grandmother … a terrible grandmother.”

“Say, you're a real
nervous
girl, aren't you?” he says. “Look how your hand shakes lighting that cigarette.”

Leona blows out the match and makes a wry face at him. “Are you always so
personal
, Mr. Purdy?” she asks him. “Is this always your approach to women you've just met? The direct question?”

Grinning at her he says, “Only with some women, I guess. Women with nervous hands.” He reaches out with his index finger and touches her wrist. “Calm down,” he says. She withdraws the wrist.

“Perhaps your questions make me nervous,” she says. “Besides, doesn't a gentleman usually offer to light a lady's cigarette?”

“Oh-oh,” he says, still grinning. “Huffy.”

No, she thinks, not huffy. Just all at once trapped-feeling, and wondering why am I here. Oh, but you know why, she tells herself. It's because you're a girl who likes attention, and knows how to get it, and along came a man, and here you are. Even Doctor Hardman hadn't been able to discover that simple, dreary little truth. “Leona Ware tilted her chin coquettishly, and the man became putty in her hands.” With a rueful smile she glances at Mr. Purdy, Mr. Putty, who is still smiling at her, and then she looks down at her nearly empty drink, a drink she didn't need, and she twirls her swizzle stick in its remains. The bar at the Club Contant is beginning to fill with after-dinner drinkers, and the air is moist and heavy with smoke, and a native steel band has just started to play.

“I know what you're thinking,” she hears him say over the music. “You're asking yourself: What's a nice girl like me doing out with this mutt?”

“Oh, Arch!” she laughs. “Really!”

“Well, the answer to that question is that I happened to come along and rescue you from a very awkward situation with Ed Winslow. Am I right?”

“Well, partly.”

“You see? I'm a smart boy. I did well at school. And I've gotten you to call me Arch.” He signals the waiter for another round of drinks. “Now tell me one more thing,” he says. “What is it that you want?”


Not
another drink. Honestly.”

“But the night's so young,” he says. “And you're so beautiful. What is it you want—besides your art gallery?”

Looking at him she says, “Actually, the art gallery is the
only
thing I want at the moment. I want that very much. And besides—”

“Besides what?”

“And besides, I'm
going
to have it!” She exhales a sharp stream of smoke and cuts through the smoke with her hand. “And until my gallery opens, nothing—literally
nothing
else is going to involve me in any way. Did I tell you I'd selected a location, on—”

“On Fifty-Ninth, just east of Madison, a floor-through in a brownstone.”

“Oh. Well, then you know how serious I am.”

“A good address is always important,” he drawls. “When'd you get bitten by the art bug, anyway?”

“At—at Bennington,” she says defiantly.

“Uh-huh. Two months at Bennington and you'd learned all about art there was to know.”

“I was there a whole term!” she says, and then feels her cheeks redden, seeing his eyes mock her. “Why are you giving me such a hard time?” she demands. “I've always been—”

“Just one thing puzzles me,” he says easily, “and that is: What's a girl who's all fired up to start an art gallery in New York doing spending a few weeks of sun and fun in the Virgin Islands?”

“I'm only here for a few
days!
Besides—”

“Besides what?”

“Besides, my building won't be available until May, and besides that—”

“And besides that, what?”

“And besides, none of this is any of your damn business!” She feels her eyes beginning to fill with tears, and she blinks them back. “I just don't understand you!” she says. “You told me you thought the gallery was a good idea, you said it was a wonderful idea—and now you're—”

“Sure, I think it's a good idea,” he says. “A good idea for somebody. Like a girl who's got plenty of money, and wants to work off her frustrations.”

The waiter arrives at that moment and sets down a trayful of drinks on their table—otherwise she would push the table aside and get up and leave him. His hand is on her wrist again. “Rum's your favorite drink, I see,” he says. “Miss Harper.”

“Oh, that's such a tired and stupid joke! Everybody's called me Miss Harper here for years. Where did you pick it up?”

“I told you, I'm smart. I have a retentive mind. And I notice details.”

“Well, would you take care of one detail for me? Would you ask for the check and take me home? Or shall I call a taxi? And
please
let go of my arm. You're hurting—”

“Listen,” he says in a new, more gentle voice. “I only meant—”


I
heard what you said.”

“I only meant that to open an art gallery like the one you're talking about takes money. And obviously you're a girl with money.”

“Oh, I'm so sick of being called a rum heiress! Because I'm not! I'm not any kind of heiress.”

“Then what'll happen if you lose your shirt?”

“I won't!”

“Or will it be somebody else's shirt? Have you got an angel? I might be interested in being your angel. Or, let's say you could make me be interested—”

“Then you can come and buy some of my pictures. Which, for you, I'll make very expensive!”

“You get mad,” he says, “in the most delightful way.”

“And you're the most—impossible man I've ever met!” She jumps to her feet, pushing aside the table, and then, all at once, she thinks she is going to fall, and she steadies herself, bracing her hands hard against the tabletop, gripping the edge while the room goes in and out of focus before her eyes. “Oh,” she says, “Oh, I think I—”

Instantly he is standing beside her, supporting her arm with his hand. “Are you all right? Are you a little tight, buddy?”

“No,” she says. But she knows she is, yes.

“Sit down a minute.”

She feels herself sinking back into the plastic cushions of the banquette. Bending forward, she hugs her elbows against her sides and presses her fingertips against her forehead, which has suddenly begun to throb.

“Take a deep breath,” he says.

“Not tight,” she says, trying to suppress a surprising and totally involuntary urge to giggle. “I can say
She sells seashells by the seashore
. I can say
Try tying twigs to tree twine
. I can say
Toy boat, toy boat, toy boat, toy boat.…
” And then she says, “My mother.”

“What about your mother?”

“She's my—my angel. Didn't you ask me who my angel was? My darling mother is putting up all the money for my gallery, my mother, the rum heiress. Oh—”

“I don't get it. What is this—Hate Mommy Day? What's the matter with this grandmother of yours? How come you don't let her?”

“Ha!” Leona says. “No. I don't want
Granny
to lose her shirt! No, let Mother lose her shirt—” and she suddenly waves her hand. “She can
afford
to!”

“Oh-oh. It
is
Hate Mommy Day.”

“No, but I don't even know where she
is!
Where
is
she? Oh, look—I am tight. That's the sign. Whenever I begin to talk about my mother. Next comes—crash bang. Something spectacular. Take me home.”

“You know you hardly even touched your dinner? We'll get you some coffee, and then—”

“Please!”

“Listen, buddy,” he says. “You're here, I'm here. Where have we got to go? Is there really anyplace? Is there a single blessed place on God's green earth where you and I have got to go?”

“Home,” she says. Then, hopelessly, horribly, the tears do come.

Beside her he says, “You've been hurt; I've been hurt. But that doesn't mean we have to hurt each other, does it, buddy? Go ahead. Cry a little, nobody's watching you. Then we'll go out and get a breath of fresh air.”

“Toy boat,” she repeats. “Toy boat.”

Edith's bedside clock says half past two, and she knows that she cannot any longer reasonably sit up waiting for Leona. Leona, at this point, coming in and seeing the light on, would know that Edith has been sitting up waiting for her, and this might annoy Leona. She places her book on the table beside her bed, and snaps off the light. In the darkness now, the headlights of cars on the hill trace across her windowpanes, false comets, and she waits for one of the cars to be the one delivering Leona.

Now a long pain begins and settles on her body, stretching familiarly like an old and practiced lover. Then, abruptly tightening, it snaps Edith's body together, knees to chin, under the bedclothes. The pills are there, the carafe of water, but she refuses to take them. Why is she so stupid about pain? Why does she prefer to endure it, suffer through it, rather than take one little Demerol which will, in the course of a few minutes, make the pain go away? There is surely something perverse in this—masochistic Leona would probably call it. Masochistic and without meaning because it exists beyond all other human experience, a battle of self with self, Edith versus Edith, and it does not matter which side wins. Though it brings tears to her eyes she remains, curled like a small fist in the pain's grip, with a terrible kind of joy. Then she begins an experiment: forcing herself upward, away from the pain, separating herself from her body and moving upward, out of the bed, out of the house, up into cool air and into a landscape of mountains and snow and, above the snowcaps, into a sky where the pain, earthbound below her, grows smaller and smaller until, in the farthest distance, it is a small, wriggling object, a dot, as small as the pill she has not taken.

BOOK: Those Harper Women
5.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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