From the journal Material For Thought, issue number 8

Far West Editions

 

The Playmate

 

Only the slow clop-clop of the milkman’s horse came through the open windows of the basement dining room on the quiet Brooklyn street that late spring morning. No sound of motor in street or sky had ever been heard through those windows, and, except for the city smell of sun-warmed stone, the air was fresh and clean as country air.

From the kitchen the appetizing odor of fried bacon blended with the faint smell of the leather-upholstered furniture in the dining room—leather covered chairs and leather couch by the window. Also from the kitchen, snatches of German songs—half sung, half hummed by Johanna, the cook—floated pleasantly in to Lilian eating breakfast with Papa.

They were the daily odors, sights, and sounds she was used to, each detail having a shining life of its own for her to delight in: the brown smooth leather, so cool to touch, the clean white linen tablecloth and napkins, the bright silver, the fragile china cups and dishes, the crunch and flavor of the bacon between her teeth, the warm magic of the German melodies, beams of sunlight filled with little dots of dust whirling round and round. She recognized each one in turn intimately and joyously. They were all hers, without thoughts and almost with­out memories. She was six years old.

As she finished the last bite of pancake and bacon, she remembered a question she wanted to ask Papa. But looking at Papa sitting king-like and dignified—even with his napkin tucked under his chin into his high, stiff collar—a shadow passed over her face. He looked like Old King Cole in the nursery rhyme book, only not so jolly. Papa was king of the house. She preferred not to speak to Papa unless he spoke to her first. He could be so stern and cruel with Mama, pretty, young Mama with her big, loving brown eyes—too sick today to come downstairs for breakfast.

She well remembered the one time she had defied Papa, when he was making Mama cry at the dinner table. She had stood up and screamed at him, “Don’t you talk to Mama like that and make her cry!”

He had dashed at her in a wild fury and thrown her into the dark closet in the basement hall and slammed the door shut. She had lain there a long time sobbing and rubbing the knee she had bruised against the floor before Mama dared come to her.

This morning she could tell Papa was not thinking about her. As usual at breakfast he was looking at nothing in particular. Drinking the last drops of coffee in his big mustache cup, he took off his napkin and wiped his grey mustache and short, neatly trimmed beard carefully with a kind of flourish. What Papa did with his hands always looked important. She saw him pull on the gold chain hanging over his wide stomach, and, taking his watch out of his vest pocket, press the top open to look at the time. She knew it was too late now to ask questions. So she watched in silence while he pushed back his chair, letting out a long puffing breath over his full underlip, folded his napkin, put it into the round silver napkin holder, and leaned heavily on the table to get on his feet.

“Goodbye Bubchen. Johanna will tell you what my plans are for you today.”

He stooped over and gave her a glancing kiss on the top of her head and walked heavily to the door. She ran to the leather couch by the window and watched him as he slammed the basement gate and pulled himself up the three steps to the sidewalk, turning to wave at her in a preoccupied way as he fitted his broad, felt hat at a sidewise tilt over his thin white hair, and disappeared down the street to take the streetcar to his cigar factory.

Still thinking of the question she wanted so much to ask, she ran in to Johanna in the kitchen.

Johanna, a lean young woman with dark hair pulled to a careless bun at the back of her head, was standing in front of the tin-lined sink scouring a big iron pot, splashing soapy water over the edge of the sink so that her blue-checked apron was all soaked over her stomach.

Lilian pulled over a wooden kitchen chair to the end of the drain-board and stood up on it.

“Johanna, do you know anything about baby brothers and sisters?” Johanna turned her sallow, tired face around and looked at Lilian.

She brushed a long strand of straggling hair from in front of her left eye with a red, wet hand. Then she put down the pot she was scouring into the sink and leaned with her two hands on its wooden frame. She heaved a deep sigh and looked out through the window at the sky. Finally, she almost whispered, “I should, Fräulein. I left two brothers and three sisters in Germany when I came to America.”

“She’s hiding behind her face just like Papa does,” Lilian thought. “She’s not thinking of me at all. She’s forgotten I’m here.”

Johanna’s body gave a sudden jerk. She picked up the pot she had been washing and began scouring again as before, only faster. But Lilian was silent again now, the silence she always fell into when people made her feel lonely. With Mama sick in bed there was no one who seemed to want to talk about the baby that the stork was going to bring. She knew it would be no use asking Grandma if the stork were coming soon, because Grandma never really answered her questions. She just smiled pleasantly and talked about something else.

As she stood watching the glistening swish of the water coming out of the faucet while Johanna rinsed the pot, she had a sudden urge to feel the bright water splashing over her hands too. Jumping down from the chair, and pushing against Johanna, she thrust her hands under the faucet. The water ran over her hands, up her wrists, and over the cuffs of her dress.

“Stop it, you bad girl,” Johanna almost shouted, shutting off the faucet abruptly. “Now you have wet your sleeves and you will have to have your dress changed before you go to spend the day with Grandma.” Snatching a dish towel from the rack over the sink, she wiped Lilian’s hands roughly.

Lilian did not mind Johanna’s anger. She was glad she was paying attention to her at last and not thinking of something else. Her soft blue eyes shone triumphantly as Johanna straightened the black velvet bow at the end of one of her blond braids with an angry tug, and grabbing her hand, lead her up the carpeted stairs past the back parlor where Papa kept his books in big bookcases, past the front parlor with its gold-framed, damask upholstered furniture, up the second flight of stairs to the bedroom floor.

II

The next afternoon Lilian sat on the floor in the little alcove, inside the long lace curtains at the front-parlor window, looking through tear-blurred eyes at the rain-soaked street, listening to the patter of the rain against the windows echoing hollowly through the silent house. Her face was swollen and blotchy from crying. Mama’s nurse in her starched white uniform passed the open door carrying a tray up from the kitchen without seeing her.

Thoughts tumbled through her mind like the wind-scattered raindrops against the windowpane. “Why had the stork dropped the baby on the stone pavement of the back courtyard while he was knocking on the window? Why had they not been watching at the window? They all knew the stork was coming soon with the baby! Why had Papa sent her to Grandma’s just on the day they were expecting the stork?” She would have made sure the window was open for the stork. She would have been watching every minute, because she had been waiting a long, long time for a little playmate.

Last night’s scene with Papa flashed back vividly into her memory. She had frantically clutched the open pocket of his coat when he began walking away from her urgent questions. With a stinging slap on her hand he had shouted: “Stop this nonsense! Go to bed!”

She did not care any more now about asking questions. She would never try again, because there was no use in trying. Her wanting to ask questions only pushed them further away behind their faces—even poor, sick, tender-hearted Mama.

She rose slowly to her feet, lifted the lace curtain, stepped out into the room, and walked wearily over the rose-patterned carpet to the lace-and-ribbon-trimmed wicker cradle standing in the curve of the grand piano—to look at Baby Brother. A little strand of silky black hair curled out from under his lacy cap. Long eyelashes rested on his pale cheeks. A sweet quietness almost like a smile shone around his mouth. There was no mark on his face to show where the stork had dropped him. In the soft, long, lace-trimmed dress she had watched Mama make, stitch by stitch, he looked like a beautiful live baby.

She reached over with motherly concern and patted the small lace-edged pillow under his head, straightened the folds of his long dress. Gently and tenderly she placed her hands on each side of the lace cap over his ears, holding his head between her hands and gazing at his closed eyes. His terrible coldness, penetrating the lace cap, began spreading through her hands and made her lift them away.

His eyes were closed forever! He would never open them to look at her! He was dead without ever having seen her.

She threw herself miserably down on the floor, her face buried in her crossed arms.

III

Someone had taken Baby Brother out of the wicker cradle and put him in a little white box with a tight cover. The little white box was on the seat facing her and Papa in the closed carriage. They were taking him to the cemetery where Mama said they must give him to the angels.

Lilian sat huddled in her corner not looking at Papa. The carriage began moving down the street behind the clop-clop of the horse’s slow trot. It was a bright, sunny morning again. Only a few puddles in the gutters and holes in the sidewalk remained after yesterday’s rain. Then Papa spoke.

“Are you all right, Bubchen?”

His voice sounded so far away and strange—as though cracked in pieces—that Lilian turned to look at him. What she saw made her crawl over into his lap. He was not hiding behind his face anymore. His pale blue eyes were gazing pitifully at her with the look of a poor little boy who was lost, a very old poor little boy. She reached up tenderly and tried to smooth off the deep pouches under his eyes. With a great sob that shook them both, he clasped her tightly in his arms, and all the way to the cemetery they kissed and cried softly together.