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Authors: Stephen Birmingham

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BOOK: Those Harper Women
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“Oh! Why don't you let John drive you? He's right here.”

Laughing, scooping all the cosmetics off the lowboy into her purse, Leona says, “
was taught that it was rude for a houseguest to use her hostess' chauffeur.”

“Well, tell the taxi to put it on my bill.”

“Oh, Granny! See you later.” She starts toward the door.

“Will you be home for dinner?” Edith calls.

Leona calls back an answer that is either yes or no, and is gone.

“Don't be too late!” Edith calls after her, and immediately regrets it. After all, one doesn't tell a grown woman not to be late.

Outside, Leona runs across the veranda and down the stone steps into the walk. Halfway down the walk, she hears her grandmother's voice, and stops. “What?” she calls. She hesitates a moment, wondering whether to go back to see what Granny wants. Poor Granny—she has such a surfeit of love, such a residue, that sometimes it seems to pour out around Leona's feet, wherever she walks, like a thick glue, tripping her up. “Good night, Granny!” she calls, and then continues on through the twilight garden to the gate where her taxi waits.

“Good evening, Miss Harper!”

“Good evening.” The driver touches his cap and opens the door for her. As they start down Government Hill, she opens her purse and, with jumping hands, fishes for a cigarette.

Edith Blakewell moves up the stairs. The house is quiet. Nellie's vacuuming is finished. In the distance, the Customs House clock begins to strike the hour, as usual a little off, and, as he sometimes does when Edith is alone, her husband joins her in the upstairs hall and accompanies her the little distance to her room.

“This house echoes, Edie,” he says.

“A new house always echoes, Charles. It will stop once we've lived in it a while.”

The clock dies on the seventh stroke, and Charles with it, and Edith Harper Blakewell lets herself into her room, feeling all at once that it has been an unsatisfactory day. Everything about the day seems unfinished, unresolved, full of unanswered questions, and now, apparently, she must dine alone. Then she remembers that it is Wednesday, Alan Osborn's day to call, and that he will be arriving at any minute. So the day may not be a total loss after all.


Meredith Harper, Edith's father, had a grand design for all of them, based on the phenomenon of generations. They were to be links of a chain, human beings in a relay race through time. Each of them was to run a little distance, his arm outstretched, carrying the torch to the next one who was waiting to seize it and run on with it. Whenever Edith sees a full moon in a muzzy tropic sky, a moon silvering the sea with an endless avenue of light, she is reminded somehow of that vision of her father's, and the fire they were supposed to carry. Her father was no fool. “I assume you detest me,” he once said, “but at least you'll never forget me.” Leona ought to understand these things, Edith thinks, because so much of what Leona is can only be explained by her great-grandfather, and what he was, and what he made of all of them. But Edith has been a poor torchbearer. Her torch should by rights have been handed to her daughter, Diana (Goddess of the Hunt!). But somehow, along the line, one of them stumbled and dropped the torch, and it went out, and it is hard to kindle it again for Leona who does not know it ever existed and, in the meantime, is running fast in another direction.

One of the troubles is that Edith has no more idea of the norm of youth in Leona's generation than she had of her own. Or of Diana's, for that matter. (Did Diana represent that norm? Or did her first husband, Jack Ware—Leona's father? Or Diana's second husband, Perry Gardiner? Perhaps; Edith doesn't know.) Sometimes, when Leona is at the beach, Edith sits on the veranda and tries to pick her out with her father's binoculars—an excellent pair, prewar Bausch & Lomb, a gift, in fact, of Kaiser Wilhelm himself to Meredith Harper, a memento of the days when he thought Germany should win the war. Edith prowls the beach with the glasses, and she sees the young men: crew-cut, wearing their wispy Lastex loincloths, hopping across the bay like kingfishers on water skis. Then she finds Leona. And she sees one of the young men wander over to her, and begin to talk to her. Others gather, and their faces are laughing, and all at once a pair of the crew-cuts seizes Leona, one by the armpits and one by the ankles, and they begin to run with her down the beach toward the water. But then, plans changed, the young men set Leona down, and the group disperses, and Edith sees Leona seat herself opposite a blond young Titan who is sitting on his heels, holding a native steel drum between his bare knees. Leona's hands clap rhythm. Edith tries to picture these young men clothed, and cannot. She tries to ascribe to them parents, addresses, occupations, and cannot. They are originless people. Passing through, passing through. She has no idea of what they long to achieve or of what they have cast aside—no more than she has of what they are saying, or singing, to Leona. Watching them, their mystery deepens, and their inaccessibility becomes more complete. At every turn of Edith's life, youth has evaded her.

Being the donor of a wing to the St. Thomas hospital entitles Edith Blakewell to a few privileges. For instance, the hospital's head physician calls on Edith at her house once a week. Alan Osborn is a short little bantam rooster of a man, but a good doctor, very proud of his circumflex mustache, of his full head of hair, and famous for his supply of spicy island news. He is a few years younger than Edith, but she has known him for many years. Many of her friends and certain of her relatives express horror at the thought of her being treated by a doctor who is a bachelor. (“You surely don't let him examine you
” Barbara Harper said.) But every Wednesday evening, like clockwork, he comes to her house.

And so, after Leona's departure, Edith busies herself getting ready for him, taking off her dress and putting on her nightgown and robe. At a quarter past seven, there is a tap on her bedroom door and Nellie ushers Alan in. Edith gives him a little wave. “Well, well,” he says in his chirp-chirp of a voice, “how're we today?”

“Alan,” she says, “some day I wish you would stop addressing me in the first person plural. Despite appearances, there is only one of me.”

“Hmm,” he says, opening his bag. “Shall we assume the position?”

Edith assumes the position on the bed, and he begins the ritual of poking and patting and prying at her with his little instruments, humming under his breath as he moves from one part of her to another. “This will be no more than reasonably uncomfortable,” he says, making a delicate invasion of her anatomy. And then, “No pain?”

“Not much.”

“How are the pills holding out?”

“I take one whenever I think of it.”

He pokes and pats and pries some more. “Well,” he says finally, “I'd say we were holding our own.”

“Holding our own?” she laughs. “What does that mean?” But then, suddenly, his exploring fingers touch her in a place where it does hurt, and she cries out.

“A little tender there? Sorry, dear.”

“You pinched me,” she says, biting her lip.

“In a few days I want you to come down to the office,” he says. “I want to take some more pictures. I'll have Susan set up an appointment for you. Meanwhile, please keep taking the capsules.”

“Your pictures are so unflattering,” Edith says. She pushes herself up on her elbows in bed and arranges her nightclothes. It still hurts, and deeply, where he touched her and, sitting up, she loses her breath for a moment, and gasps. She says, “Dear Alan—I always feel when we sit here alone in my bedroom that we should be lovers.” Then a curious and unexplained thing happens because she suddenly reaches out to him and puts her hands on his shoulders, and begins to cry.

“There, there,” the little doctor says, patting the back of Edith's neck. “It
a temptation, isn't it? There, there.”

“Why didn't we, Alan, when we had a chance?”

“We knew each other too well, my dear. We shared too many little secrets.”

The tears are over as quickly as they began, and Edith puts her feet heavily over the side of the bed. “Sorry,” she says. “I don't know what's the matter with me. Come—let's have our brandy.”

They punctuate each visit this way. Edith gets up, goes to the decanter on the dresser, and fills two glasses. Handing him his, she says, “Here's mud in your eye.”

He smiles at her. “And here's mud in yours, my love.”

They sit on opposite corners of the big bed and Alan touches her hand.

“Any more thoughts about your house?” he asks her after a minute.

She shakes her head.

“I'm sure you know about the tax advantages you'd have, or rather your estate would have, if you deeded the house to the hospital. You'd have lifetime tenancy, of course—”

“Which you'd all be praying would be a matter of months!”

“If the house itself had to go eventually, you know how valuable to us it would be to have the pool. For water therapy, polio patients—”

“I've heard all those arguments before. That hospital's got my skin, and now they want my guts! Tell them Leona's come back for a while, and I can't make any decisions now.” Thoughtfully, he twirls the brandy in his glass. “I've been thinking I might do over the east end of the house as an apartment for her,” Edith says. “For her to have permanently—or whenever she wants to use it. You see, as things stand now, this house and everything goes to Leona under my will—everything but some odds and ends. Whenever she's been in trouble—like now, after this divorce—she's come home here, to me. Ever since she was a little girl, Alan, it's been so. I think some day she may want this house for her own.”

He looks at her steadily. “Just don't try to trap her, Edie,” he says.

“Trap her? How could I trap her?”

“With this house. With the kind of life you've had here.”

Edith Blakewell is silent.

“It's taken you all these years to be even tolerated here,” he says. “It will take her just as long.”

“‘Edie, Edie, fat and greedy, how does your garden grow?' Remember that, Alan? That's what you're talking about, isn't it?”

“You may think this island has forgotten your father. They haven't forgotten. Everywhere she goes, they say, ‘There's Leona Ware. Her great-grandfather was Meredith Harper.'”

He takes a final swallow from his brandy glass and puts it down. He removes his large watch from his vest pocket, snaps open the case, purses his lips, and snaps it closed again and returns it to the pocket. Steepling his fingers in his best professional manner, he says, “I must be on my way. Susan will call you about an appointment for the pictures.” Then he reaches out and gently tweaks Edith's nose. “Good night, my sweet.” He rises and picks up his bag.

Edith follows him to the door. “I just want her to be happy, Alan,” she says. “She's had so much, but still she isn't happy.”

He stands in the open doorway. “The only trouble with Leona is she's just like her grandmother. A little spitfire.” He takes her hand and squeezes it. “One of these days we'll become lovers, wait and see.”

“But first I'll have to give my house to your hospital. Correct? Come here a minute,” she says. He steps forward. “Want to hear something dirty in Danish?” she asks him.

He tips his little head forward eagerly. “Yes? What is it?”

She whispers the naughty words to him.

“Very interesting. What's it mean?”

“Fire up your behind!” she says, and laughs loudly. “Now listen, Alan. There's a dark-haired young man named Edward Winslow staying at the Virgin Isle. Do some snooping for me. Find out all you can about him, what his background is, what his qualifications are—you know what I mean.”

“His qualifications as a suitor for Leona, dear? Or for you?” He pats her bottom.

“Shoo!” she says. “You're a nasty old man with a nasty mind. Now run along.” Still laughing, she closes the door on him.

She continues laughing noisily to herself, moving slowly about the room, undressing again, getting ready for dinner. She takes her blue crepe off its hanger, struggles into it, leaving the zipper undone for Nellie to do up when she comes downstairs. But she is not really in a humorous frame of mind and when she sits down at her dressing table she spills face powder all over the glass top. It floats up in a cloud in front of the mirror and in its reflection she looks as though she were being dissolved—
—by a conjurer's trick, and powder settles all over the backs of her hairbrushes, over silver picture frames, into an open jar of cold cream, and across the front of her dress. She tries to brush the powder away, but the powder clings and smears, and she thinks for a moment that she is about to cry again, and it is not like Edith to cry without reason. She starts to stand up, but there is a deep and painful stitch in her left side, and so she sits where she is. Bitter and old, withered and dry. She wants to ring for Nellie, but the electric bell is on the other side of her room. Trapped, beyond calling for help in a houseful of servants, her situation strikes her as absurd. She is thinking of what Alan said. Why hadn't she asked Alan to dine with her? He always made a great fuss about it being time to leave, checking that enormous turnip of a watch, clicking his tongue, but Edith knows that he never has any place to go, except back to his little rooms in Krystal Gade and his mystery magazines. His dinner is a sandwich and tea with Ellery Queen. Lovers indeed! Though once, in an older, more naïve, almost-forgotten time, someone (yes, it was Alan) at a masquerade ball (how romantic it sounds!) lifted his mask and kissed her behind a stiff little palm tree in a dark garden. It was another Alan and another Edith then, but she remembers the look on his face, poor thing: terror! From having kissed Meredith Harper's daughter. Outside, through the open windows, the sun is setting, the garden is taking its dim colors of evening, and is being peopled with its night sounds—the voices of dead populations in the old trees. “Edie, Edie, fat and greedy—”

BOOK: Those Harper Women
13.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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