The morning I turned twenty-two I put twenty-two dollars in cash into an envelope addressed to Mr Frank Novak and mailed it to Mia’s address in Worcester. It was the sum total of the money I stole plus interest. Mia was to mail the envelope to a friend she had in New York, who’d drop it into the rat-catcher’s letter box and make him wonder if I was around. I didn’t enclose a note, though there were a few things I’d have liked to say. Restraint is classier.
Over at the bookstore, Mrs Fletcher asked me if I thought it was shaping up to be a good year for me. It was the closest thing to ‘Happy birthday’ I was going to get from her, so I took it with a neutral smile. We were sitting in her office, dealing with her correspondence. She went through a folder of letters I’d already opened for her, scrawled responses at the top or in the margins, and I turned those responses into letters.
Thirteen-year-old Phoebe was crying next door, because she was reading Les Misérables – a trial for all of us, since it was such a long book, and she was liable to cry all the way through it. Sidonie was jeering at Phoebe for crying. ‘And just why are you weeping over a bunch of French people from eighteen hundred and whenever?’
‘It’s too sad,’ Phoebe sobbed. ‘I mean, it was only a loaf of bread.’
‘What’s the matter with you? Are you stupid? It’d be less phoney if you cried for every man who’s been lynched in Tennessee or Alabama or South Carolina since eighteen hundred and whenever.’
‘Don’t tell me who to cry for and who not to cry for, Sidonie Fairfax. Dark girl like you talking as though you’re the top. You’ve got a face like a bowl of goddamned treacle. Did you know that, Know-It-All?’
‘Treacle is sweet, treacle is sweet,’ Sidonie chanted.
‘Uh . . . where’s Kazim?’ I asked Mrs Fletcher, preferring to ask that question rather than reminding her that people were less likely to enter the store if they saw two coloured schoolgirls fighting out front. I already knew how she responded to reminders of that kind: ‘Hm . . . I don’t care.’ Besides, Kazim was my favourite of the bookstore gang – fourteen and tall for his age, his gaze vague behind the thick lenses of his eyeglasses. He drew comic strips about a boy called Mizak, and his card tricks went just a little bit beyond sleight of hand. He’d snap his fingers over a spread pack, say, ‘Joker, fly,’ and the joker sprang up into his hand. It had to be something to do with magnets. Still, we all exchanged glances. Because, what if it wasn’t?
‘I suppose I’ll have to be the peacekeeper today,’ Mrs Fletcher said, and she went out front yelling even louder than Sidonie and Phoebe. I looked over the letters I had yet to answer. I still didn’t know Mrs Fletcher’s first name. It was beginning to look as if nobody did. Every letter came in addressed to Mrs A. Fletcher.
Having sent Sidonie out to buy RC Cola, Mrs Fletcher returned and asked what she should bring to my dinner party that evening.
‘Oh, thanks, but I can handle this.’
She dealt with three letters in rapid succession, writing No at the top of one, A thousand times no at the top of another, and OK in the margin of a third. ‘I’m not asking to be helpful,’ she said. ‘I’m asking so as to make sure there’s something there I’ll want to eat.’
I handed her the menu I’d been working on for weeks.
‘Pear spread and crackers,’ Mrs Fletcher read aloud. ‘Anchovy ham rolls. Stuffed tomatoes ravigote. Potato salad. Chicken à la King. Banana chiffon cake. Peach pie. Post-dinner cocktail: Rye Lane . . . a stupendous blend of whiskey, curaçao, orange squash and crème de noyaux, stirred, not shaken, as recommended by the International Association of Bartenders.’
She leaned back in her chair. ‘Why on earth are you putting yourself through all this on your own birthday, Boy Novak? And what’s pear spread? Life has changed a lot, you know. You didn’t used to get all this food inside food when I was a girl. The other day I was eating a mushroom and found it had been stuffed with prawns. I’ve got so many misgivings over this craze, Boy. It’s flying in the face of nature. A mushroom is a woodland fungus and a prawn comes from the sea. People have got no business stuffing one inside the other. Are the Whitmans treating you well?’
‘What?’ My mind was on the pear spread. I’d already made it the night before, over at Arturo’s. It was sitting in a bowl in his refrigerator, looking radioactive.
‘The Whitmans. Arturo Whitman’s family. Are they treating you well?’
‘Oh. Yes. Gerald keeps issuing orders to Arturo not to let me get away and Viv’s very sisterly and Olivia’s very motherly and – it’s nice.’
She nodded. ‘Olivia Whitman looks so young, doesn’t she?’
I typed: I hope this finds you well, which was pretty high up on the list of phrases Mrs Fletcher would never include in a letter if she was writing it herself.
She lifted a lock of her hair with a pencil and gave it a baleful stare. This was the first gesture of concern about her appearance that I’d seen from her. She cut her own hair carelessly, with regular kitchen scissors, and it showed. The ends looked like a bar graph. The hair itself was fine, though – rich brown streaked with grey. ‘I’m about the same age as her,’ she said. ‘I just don’t know how she does it.’
Olivia made Mrs Fletcher nervous. That was difficult to process. Maybe it worked both ways? I’d recently come across a proverb about not speaking unless you’d thought of something that was better than silence. So I kept typing.
Mrs Fletcher wanted to know if she could ask me a personal question. I gave her an ‘Mmm-hmmm’ that Snow would’ve been proud of.
‘Do you know what it is you want from Arturo?’
An impressive U-turn, but I didn’t look up from my work. ‘You guessed right, Mrs Fletcher. I’m a gold-digger. If you know anyone richer and more gullible, let me at him.’
The bell above the shop door jangled – Sidonie or a customer. There was a quiet exchange of words in the next room, followed by the sound of caps falling off soda bottles. Sidonie, then.
‘Nobody’s calling you a gold-digger,’ Mrs Fletcher said. ‘Let me explain myself.’
‘You don’t have to.’
She reached over and took my hand, patted it. ‘But if I don’t you’ll poison me tonight, won’t you? I want to be able to enjoy my cocktail, just as the International Association of Bartenders recommends. Listen – I’m not a Flax Hill original, either. I’m from a market town in the south of England.’
‘So that’s why you talk like that!’
‘Well, what did you think?’
‘I thought you just went to one of those . . . schools.’
‘Oh, good grief. I’m not in the mood for this. Don’t interrupt me any more. My husband died nine years ago, and I came here looking for some trace of him. He was my right-hand man for twenty-three years. No children; we married late, liked books and liked each other and that was all. His heart was dodgy – anatomically speaking, I mean – and it killed him. I was all undone. That man. The first time we met, he called me cookie. I said, “I beg your pardon?” and he said, “You heard. When are we having dinner?” so I said “We might as well have it now.” Then a week later he agreed to marry me –’
‘You asked him?’
‘I don’t mess about.’
‘And he never brought you here while he was alive?’
‘No. He told me he was a misfit in his home town. But it wasn’t true. I barged into people’s homes and found him in their photo albums, being carried around on people’s shoulders. Homecoming King! People here are nice to me just because I’m his wife – was his wife, I mean. When I opened this store, so many people came by and bought books. Not to read them, I don’t think. Well, Joe Webster might read The Canterbury Tales one day . . . Anyway, it was a gesture, to help me set up. I’d never seen anything like it.’
I squeezed her hand. From where I was sitting I could see the chess set on her window seat. It was always there; once I asked her if she liked chess and she just sort of hissed and left it at that. The black army faced the white army across their field of chequered squares; the kings and queens seemed resigned, companionable. There was never any change in their configuration. But no dust, either. No neglect.
‘I’m only going to say this once, so don’t fly off the handle,’ she said. ‘Flax Hill is home to me because I loved Leonard Fletcher. Not the other way around. Now get back to work; here are customers, and you’re behind.’
That day I walked Phoebe and Sidonie all the way home instead of just three quarters of the way. As usual I walked on the outside of our trio, taking the position of a gentleman protecting ladies from roadside traffic. As usual Phoebe’s siblings were waiting for us outside the elementary school; three rowdy little girls of indeterminate age and the shortest of short-term memories. Every school day they asked if they could play with my hair, and I let them. Every school day they squealed: ‘It’s just like sunshine!’ and I wished they’d find a new sensation. Ordinarily I stopped when we reached the corner of Tubman and Jefferson – less because there was a tangible change in the neighbourhood and more because that was when we started seeing groups of coloured boys leaning against walls with their arms folded, not talking or doing anything else but leaning. I figured they were the Neighbourhood Watch, and left them to it. So did the white boys who followed us along Jefferson calling out Sidonie’s name. We got to Tubman Street and the catcallers evaporated. But that day I kept going because I wanted Sidonie to come to dinner. Phoebe had already excused herself on account of having to watch her sisters while her mother was at work. But Sidonie was an only child, and hesitated. ‘Ma probably needs me to help her tonight,’ she said. ‘But maybe if you came and asked her yourself . . .’
I wavered, needing time to get everything on the menu wrong and then get it right. Sidonie said, ‘Hey, you’ve got a lot to do before dinner time, right? Save me a slice of that chiffon cake; it’s going to be in my dreams tonight.’
Phoebe said, ‘Me too!’ and her sisters joined in. I told them it’d be Sidonie that brought them the cake, and passed the Tubman Street Neighbourhood Watch without incident. Further along Tubman, a mixed group was crammed into a motor car; girls sat on boys’ laps, waving transistor radios in time to the music that poured out of them. These kids looked a little older than Sidonie, and ignored us completely. The houses were smaller and newer and better cared for than in Arturo’s part of town. The doors were pastel-painted, the front yards were meticulously well swept, and the windows sparkled in the way that only the truly house-proud seem able to achieve. We passed other groups. Boys and girls, singing, wisecracking. Lone, dutiful daughters and sons laden with groceries. One boy with a buzz cut was carrying what looked like a week’s supplies for an old lady who called him ‘Tortoise’ and ‘Useless’. His friends pulled faces at him when the old lady wasn’t looking, and he grinned good-humouredly. ‘That’s Sam,’ Phoebe said. ‘He’s my boyfriend. He just doesn’t know it yet.’ And she and Sidonie giggled.
Then I saw Kazim. He was part of a bunch of boys gathered around an open window, trampling some poor gardener’s petunias. There was a green parakeet in a cage inside the living room, and the boys were trying to teach it a new phrase. This is what they were trying to teach it to say: Fuck Whitey.
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