A Remember WENN story
by Linda M. Young
The porte-cochere was empty! Good, then Dad wasn't home.
He came striding importantly up the gradual curve of the oyster-shell driveway, stamping his feet with emphasis to make the shells grate and scrape. He swung his schoolbooks on their leather strap, then tossed them up into the air, catching them expertly. What a day he'd hadcouldn't wait to tell his dad.
Instead of entering by the side door at the porte-cochere, he slung the books over the decorative picket fence, then swung himself across easily. He landed on his backside, leaving a big grass stain on the side of his knickers and on his stockings. He shrugged as he picked himself up, brushed the worst of the dirt off, and snatched up his books again. The clothes were old Draper's problem, not his.
What he planned to do was stash his booty in the bootbox in the front hall until after dinner. When Dad sat down to read his paper, he'd spring the news on him. It came with a great story and-
The door to the front room was open.
The leather strap slipped from his fingers, the books making a hollow clunk on the wide-paneled boards as he halted under the arch of the front door. It was late afternoonhe'd stayed after school fleecing a couple of fifth graders in an impromptu poker game by the eerie orange light in the furnace roomand the hall was so dark it was hard to tell that the dark paneled door was actually ajar.
But he knew it was. The room was haunted and he could feel the ghosts.
Then he set his lower lip. What would Dad think if he ever said that? Besides, he knew there were no such things as ghosts. They existed in all the same places as the rest of the dumb kid stuff
like Santa Claus.
He'd ended up playing cards with those fifth grade stiffs because he couldn't stand listening to his own classmates any more. Imagine being that old and believing in a chump like Santa. What dope would give away free toys to kids?
He pushed the button that turned on the electricity in the front hall and the flickering light from the overhead fixture drove some of the shadows away. They'd had the electric put in to please his mother, who had been afraid of kerosene lamps and the gas, but his dad didn't believe in wasting it, either.
Guess Momma didn't have to be afraid of fire anymore.
The open door made him uneasy. They rarely used the front room anyway, but the last time he'd been there-
It had happened so fast. At least it seemed fast, even though Momma hadn't been well for a long time, since before the baby was born. Funny he still always thought of her as "the baby." Her name had been Edith, after the former President's wife. Momma'd been a big fan of the Roosevelts
she used to read him the newspaper tales of wild Alice and the other children in the White House. Edith had been born just after Christmas last year. She cried constantly and never seemed to get fat, like the baby brothers and sisters of the neighbors' children. Momma wasn't well after she was born, and, in the words of the doctor, both "failed to thrive."
Aunt Agatha had put it more bluntly. "The child was never destined to live. Pity she took her mother with her."
When most of the family came down with diphtheria during the summer, what little strength Edith had failed. In August she died. At the end of September, Momma passed away as well, her spirits as well as her energy gone with her youngest.
The house wasn't that much different, except they could raise their voices again. Momma had been sick for so long that he could barely remember when he didn't have to be quiet around the house.
The last time he'd been in the front room was at Momma's funeral. A few of the neighbor ladies had been kind and come to help Aunt Agatha lay her out and she'd stayed in the front room while people paid their respects. Like his dad, he'd distanced himself from the still, waxy figure in the coffin, remaining with the men as they patted his father on the back and told feeble stories to drive the lost look from his eyes. That wax figure wasn't Momma anyway. Momma was memories of her being in the kitchen making cupcakes, reading him the newspaper or sometimes a book. But before Edith was born, she'd been confined to bed much of the time, listlessly drinking the "tonics" Dr. Sims prescribed. Being sick took her breath away; there was no more reading.
He couldn't help remembering as he left his books where they fell and walked to peer in the open doorway.
It looked as always: the big brick fireplace, the stiff horsehair sofa and straight-back armchairs draped with hand-crocheted antimacassars, side tables covered with heavy lamps and decorative bric-a-brac, the triple-front windows covered with white lace curtains. A big red-and-gold Persian rug covered the dark hardwood floor. It was a room that should have been friendly but wasn't.
Already he could tell something had changed. The last time he'd been inside, the room had smelled of old wax and the remnants of the sickroom and so many gardenias he still hated them. When the funeral was over, the dead flowers had been tossed but the scent remained. Dad had shut the door against the memories and the family had retreated to the back room. Now the memories were free again.
The scents were different, at least. Now the odor of wax was fresh, mingled with the sharp scent of furniture polish and a spicy odor he couldn't identify.
What was that on the mantelpiece?
He reached around the sash and pressed the button for more light. The converted gas chandelier blossomed, revealing pine roping dotted with red velvet bows draped from the corners, and two clear bowls of gilt pomander balls seated between the candlesticks and photographic cases.
He pushed the door open. There in the corner was a Christmas tree, almost fully decorated with glittering Woolworth's blown glass, lace-trimmed velvet cornucopias filled with candy, hand-twisted candy canes, paper angels, beaded ornaments made by his mother in years gone by...
The tree had been placed where the coffin had been.
He turned. Elaine was standing behind him, her cupped hands filled with the candle holders she had found to put on the tree. She was still in her uniform from Miss Boniface's Finishing School, the long-sleeved white blouse, straight black skirt, her watch pinned properly over her left breast, long dark hair pulled back at the nape of her neck with a dark satin bow.
His mouth was dry.
She cocked her head at him questioningly, then went on, "I expected you home hours ago. I could have used some help with this
Randy just laughed when I asked him, the big lug. Dad had Barron bring it in at noon, Mrs. Draper said." She winked at him playfully, then strolled over to the tree, tumbling the candle clips into a nearby chair, and gave one of the soft, dark red cornucopias, trimmed with silver cord, a flick so it tipped and he could see the interior. "Look your favorite, Turkish taffy. He remembered for a change or probably Aunt Aggie reminded him. Peppermint drops for me, and lemon for Randy...Scotty?"
He guessed later he'd looked odd, just staring at the tree. It was where the Sherwoods always had their Christmas tree, but this year it looked wrong, out of place.
"I thought we might not have one this year," he finally said.
"Because of Momma?" Her voice softened. "She always loved Christmas. She would have been disappointed if we didn't do anything-"
Just the tone of her voice brought him back. He snorted, "Geez, Laney, all you need is a street violinist playing in the background. I'm a Sherwood, too, not one of those calf-eyed boys that tag after you. You don't have to snow me." He scuffed at the delicate fringe of the rug, adding matter-of-factly, "Dad just wants his usual party, doesn't he? Christmas makes a nice stage for his stories..."
What did he think? That everything would have stopped because Momma died? He was turning into such a sissypants.
Elaine tossed her head a little angrily. "He's doing it for me, if you want to know. He'll be announcing my engagement at the party." He tried not to react, but her hurried explanation indicated otherwise. "I know. I know he insisted we'd have to wait until I was eighteen, but I talked and talked to him, and yesterday Fred asked his permission to marry me, and Dad said yes."
"Talked." What she meant was wheedled and batted her eyelashes. "Guess you weren't planning to tell me," he retorted. No wonder she'd been swishing around in her best dress, the pale violet one because the family was still in mourning. And Fred had worn a boutonniere and brought a box of chocolates with him when he came calling on Sunday as usual. He'd kept offering Scott strawberry creams. Scott hadn't thought anything of it then.
"I would have in a few minutes if you hadn't flown off the handle so." She smiled again, a ridiculously sweet smile, he thought, and took a few dance steps, twirling about. "Dad said we could get married in the summer once I'm sixteen. I'll be a June bride, Scotty, married under the rose pergola in the Hendersons' garden...and finally out of this crazy family. A dream come true."
Afterwards he couldn't explain what had happened. It must have been the tree, sparkling and winking there in the coffin's place.
Without thinking, he said what he really felt: "Swell. Someone else to leave me."
First believing in ghosts and now leaving himself open. Elaine's wide eyes swam before him, then he bolted. He could hear her calling after him as he dashed down the hall, through the kitchen, and out the back door, coatless, and then the shrill squawk of the housekeeper in echo: "Scott Arthur Sherwood, get back here right now! I'm serving dinner in five minutes!"
He kept running and Mrs. Draper's voice carried after him. "See if I keep it warm for you!"
Her food stank anyway. Momma...momma had...
When he finished running he was almost out at the beach, in sight of a familiar blue clapboard house that paralleled the rock-and- mortar sea wall. Only a faint orange-red line left by the sun was behind him, the remainder of the sky blue-black, and the kerosene lanterns of the fishermen's cottages just back from the distant docks winked and flashed. He was cold but would not admit it; when he had finished wheezing and caught his breath enough to move, he simply thrust his hands deeper in the pockets of his woolen knickers and trudged the rest of the way to the sea wall.
The tide was coming in, the surf making a rhythmical swish and splash on the shingle below. The foam showed up as a lighter grey against the charcoal color of the water. If he looked off to the north, he could see the faint sketch of twinkling lights that outlined the steady stream of freighters and steamships heading for Boston harbor twenty-five miles away. He wondered if they still took cabin boys. What a great thing that would be, sailing away, seeing the world. His geography teacher had read the class the big news today, that the Norwegian explorer, Amundsen, had reached the South Pole.
He supposed he wasn't old enough to explore the South Pole yet; even now the cold drove him back to the house as he continued to berate himself with every step. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
He skirted the back of the big house, where he could hear Martha the Irish cook and his cousin Millicent taking turns singing a long, rollicking song through a pantry window left half-open to help keep the kitchen cool. Martha used the songs and ballads she had memorized as a girl in County Antrim to time her sauces, Milly told him once. He was glad this was a funny one
most of the ballads were long, sad stories of losing your sweetheart and he stopped a moment to listen to a couple of the verses.
The person he was looking for, he knew, wouldn't be in the kitchen. Since Milly got old enough, his aunt didn't spend much time there any longer. A good thing, because her talents didn't run to cooking anyhow. He knew where he could find her most nights of the week, in the comfortable back parlor reading all the Boston newspapers, seated in the big brown Chesterfield under the electric reading lamp.
He smiled to himself a little as he mounted the stone front steps, prepared to creep in, tiptoe behind her as she concentrated on her paper, and tell her he'd come to keep her company while Uncle Milt was on business in New York. One of the boys he went to school with said his father didn't "allow" his mother or sisters to read newspapers
that it was unladylike of women to read such things. He could imagine Aunt Agatha being married to Willie's dad and getting a piece of her mind!
For the second time that day he was surprised in a hallway, for as he stealthily pushed the heavy front door open, his aunt was just hanging up the receiver of the hall telephone and her eyes rose to meet the figure of a small boy, his thick black hair windswept around his red, chilled face, inadequately dressed in a long- sleeved white shirt and tie, dark grey knickers, black stockings and shoes.
"Your sister said you might be coming this way," Aunt Agatha said dryly as he closed the door behind him. "You might have taken your coat, Scubby. The weather forecast is for snow tonight."
"Yes, Aunty," he said soberly. No one was sure where his nickname had come from; she was the only one who used it.
She wasn't a tall woman, but every inch of her had always commanded respect. She wore dark, simple skirts and shirtwaists, sensible shoes, kept her reddish-brown hair neatly coiled and pinned, held with the imitation brass combs he had bought her last year for Christmas out of the money he had won playing at marbles all summer. She looked like a schoolteacher.
Well, until she smiled, the conspiratorial grin that made him relax. "You may as well come in and get warm. I told Elaine you'd probably stay to supper. Martha's made pot roast with potatoes on the side and Milly is concocting something for dessert that has nearly emptied the sugar canister. Heaven help Alexander when they are finally married; he'll have a bay window before the year is out."
"Yes'm," he answered, relieved, trotting forward and opening the door into the back parlor for her. It was a cozy place with a fire from the moment the chill came on in autumn to the last crisp days of spring. He usually scooted to check out Uncle Milt's chair, where copies of the Police Gazette were tucked away between more proper copies of Harper's, but tonight Aunt Agatha's voice arrested him before he could pull the first batch from the rack next to the overstuffed armchair.
"Did something happen to you at school?" she asked curiously, with just enough emphasis behind it for him to know she expected to be answered.
"Something- Oh." He realized that Laney had probably told her that he'd been upset. He wondered if she had peached about the other thing, but he knew Aunt Agatha wouldn't hold that against him.
He'd just started to tell her about the poker game
it would be just as good to tell her as Dad, except he didn't have the trophy of his winnings, but no matter; what he won was always secondary to the "thrill of the chase" when he considered his action. Aunt Agatha was always urging him to do something nice. She'd signed him up for a dance class, one he managed to "cut" every other week, so he'd learn deportment as well as the finer points of the waltz. Once she'd caught him pitching pennies and winning with the older boys and had diverted him to a local Sunday School picnic.
All that was funny because she was almost as good at cons as his dad, sometimes better. He loved listening to her stories. But if that's what she wanted, he would supply it. No one was going to catch him short again.
"I stopped to help someone," he said earnestly.
She cocked her head at him, arching her left eyebrow. "Indeed?"
Inspired, he said virtuously, "One of the girls in my class was being teased. Some of the older boys were making fun of her because she said she still believed in Santa Claus." He added, "I didn't fight, though, Aunty. I don't want to be thrown out of school
She nodded approvingly as she returned to her seat on the sofa. "Good boy."
Relieved, he began to rummage through the magazines and found a new issue of the Gazette, preparing to take it into the window seat to read. He thought his aunt had picked up her newspaper again, but when she spoke, he noticed she was still regarding him intently. "Which girl, Scubby?"
He had to think fast, remembering the little knot of children he'd stood apart from this afternoon, listening to them chatter on about Santa. "Dora
Dorothy Armitage." Secretly he liked her a little. She was a little shy and sometimes he felt like protecting her.
She gave him such an odd smile that he wondered if Laney had squealed on him, then picked up her paper. "Just like the Armitages. The child should have more backbone. Stand up for herself."
"Oh, she does, aunty, really...I just wanted to help her."
"That was very chivalrous of you, Scubby."
"Thank you, ma'am."
"So what do you think of Elaine's engagement?" she continued as he settled in Uncle Milt's chair instead of the window seat.
Now that he had time to think, he guessed it wasn't so bad. "Fred's okay." He stuck out his feet in front of him, pointing his toes together, tapping the steel tips. "He's...kinda dull."
To his surprise, his aunt laughed aloud. "He is rather workaday, isn't he? Not up to Sherwood standards. But Elaine's always been a quiet young lady, not like us, eh, Scott? Quiet and circumspect."
She placed so much emphasis on the final word that he glanced up from his shoes to meet her eyes, watching him from over her reading glasses. It was the expression on her face in combination with the words that assured him that Elaine had been asked not to tell his father what had happened. He smiled at her, but she continued as if her little remark had no other meaning. "Frederick must truly love her to marry her after tasting her cooking. She's nearly as inept in the kitchen as I am. Ah, well, with him selling all those Edison machines, I'm sure he can spring for a cook after eating her meals for a few months."
And with that she picked up the Boston American and continued reading. Scott propped his own magazine on his knees, paging to a juicy murder investigation story, usually his favorite, but his mind wandered, back to the cold front room, the misplaced Christmas tree, the ghosts...he shivered, then covered the movement, dragging his eyes resolutely back to the story.
The dinner bell ringing was the most welcoming sound he'd ever heard.
Aunt Agatha primly folded her newspaper and laid it on the expanse of seat next to her, and he closed both magazines and tucked them back into the rack. He remembered what he was going to tell his aunt when he first came into the house and jumped from the chair, quickly slicking down his hair with a swipe or two of his hands. "May I escort you to the dining room, Aunty?"
Her eyes were twinkling. "Nice to know those deportment lessons you keep skipping aren't totally wasted." When he looked abashed, she added briskly, "I'm glad you showed up, Scubby. It gets very lonesome here when your uncle is away and I appreciate your company."
The cold that had been around him earlier lessened. He knew she would not say the words outright, that this was her way of telling him she knew he was lonesome, too, and that he was welcome any time.
He straightened, lifting his chin, gave her the jaunty Sherwood grin. "Thanks, Aunt Agatha." He held out his hand. "Dinner?"
She laughed and offered him the crook of her arm. "I would be honored, Master Scott."
Scott in his school clothes? (Drawing from St. Nicholas)
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