The enchanted isle, p.8
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       The Enchanted Isle, p.8
 

          
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  “You mean you haven’t eaten all day?”

  “Or drunk anything either. I feel kind of funny.”

  “Well, there’s eggs out there, of course, and bacon and stuff, but you’re not fixing yourself anything. You’re going out, and I’m taking you. That Bladensburg place is still open.”

  So we went to the place in Bladensburg, which is a bar that also serves food, and he ordered me steak, fried potatoes, and slaw, with pie a la mode for dessert, and had the same himself, as he hadn’t eaten either. So everything was good, and right away I commenced feeling better. But it was cool and I’d put on the coat, and he kept staring at it. At last he asked, “Mandy, is that the coat? That Vernick called about?”

  “Oh? She told you about that, then?”

  “I was half the night calming her down.”

  “She was still kind of upset, talking to me.”

  “Where did you get it, Mandy?”

  “Is that any business of yours?”

  “I hope to tell you it is. Because if a guy gave it to you, I know what he got in return. I ask you once more, where did you get that coat?”

  He got the same wild look in his eye he always used to get when he took down my panties and beat me, and I took out the knife once more. I snapped it open and held it in front of me. I said, “Suppose a guy did? Suppose he did give it to me? Suppose he got what you think? What then?”

  He clasped his hands together, and I could see the knuckles whiten. Then he closed his eyes. Then after a long time: “OK, I take back what I asked. It’s none of my business where you got the coat.”

  “You’re not taking my panties down?”

  “Well, not here, I hope.”

  He laughed but right away caught a sob before it came out, kind of gulped it back, in a way that left me shook. I mean all of a sudden he didn’t look like a bull, or even like a frog, but a guy with a round face, a nice guy that I liked very much. I felt warm toward him and reached out my hand, first putting the knife away. I patted his hand and told him, “No guy gave it to me.”

  “For that piece of news, thanks.”

  “I did run off with one, that much is true, that I met at the bus stop, and I meant to do something with him, I can’t pretend I did not, to get even with you for beating me up, and a little bit at Mother for letting you. I would have, but he couldn’t.”

  “What do you mean he couldn’t?”

  “He was scared.”

  “What of?”

  “Everything. Me, maybe. The cops.”

  “Why them?”

  “We helped out on a holdup.”

  “You helped out on a...what did you say?”

  “Holdup. Of a bank.”

  “What bank?”

  “Chesapeake Banking and Trust. In Baltimore.”

  But if it had been in the Washington papers, he hadn’t paid any attention and hadn’t caught it on TV. I mean he’d never heard of our holdup, and I had to tell him about it, which I did, beginning with how we’d been propositioned, Rick and I, by that pair there at the bus stop, what happened inside the bank, how I drove the getaway car, and how we went from one place to the other. Then I told how we got to Savannah and how Rick had sent me out to call Mother. Then I told about coming back, only to find I’d been given a stand-up so he could skip with the money. By then it was boiling out of me, and I was so mad I could hardly see. I said, “Steve, if it’s murder they charge Rick with, on account of that guard being killed, and if he gets the gas chamber, that’s perfectly all right with me. I want him caught and given the works! That money’s half mine! Do you hear? It’s half mine! It’s...”

  But he jumped up and put his hand on my mouth, as people were turning around and commencing to stare. He said, “You done, Mandy? You finished with your supper? Come on, we’re going home!”

  So he paid and tipped real quick, and we went out and got in his car. But going home I kept it up, getting slightly wild and always coming back to it: “That money is half mine! How dare he do that to me?” When we got home I was still hooking it up, but soon as we were inside he put his arms around me, kissed me, and patted me quiet, then said, “Mandy! It’s not even a little bit yours! It belongs to the bank. Can’t you understand that? The bank and the bank’s depositors!”

  “But nobody knows it was us!”

  “Mandy, it’s not what they know; it’s what’s right! And what the law is! And what’s going to happen once the truth begins to come out.”

  “OK, but I want him caught!”

  “Sit down, let me think.”

  So we sat on the sofa, he holding on to my hand while he tried to figure out what he was going to do. Pretty soon he said, “I have to call your mother.”

  “Why do you?”

  “To head her off from going away. And to try and get Wilmer in—put the bite on him if I can. He’s a big shot, Mandy, and that’s what this needs, first of all.”

  “Where is Mother? Where are they?”

  “At his home, I would assume.”

  “You mean where the distillery is?”

  “That’s right. Rocky Ridge, in Frederick County.”

  He told a little more about what had happened that morning: Mother’s call to Mr. Wilmer, after she talked to me, and her letting him have it straight: put up or shut up, now that I was out of the way. So he put up, quick. But, as Steve went on to say, “He must have been caught by surprise, with stuff hanging fire up there, so he’d have to go back for a while, at least for one night it would seem, before taking off tomorrow for the Riviera, like she said they were going to do in that call she put in from Dover. To me, I mean. She called to say it was done, that they were married, so good-bye, good luck, and God bless.”

  “Then, they must be up there.”

  So he sat down by the phone in the hall, got the number from information, and called. Then: “Sal?” But even from where I sat I could hear how furious she was from the way she yelped. I couldn’t hear what was said but the sound of her voice came through, and it was just like glass—glass screeching on glass. He let her run down, then said, “Yes, Sal, I know what night it is, but you don’t, I’m sorry to say. At least not the other half of the night, which is what I’m calling about. To you it’s your wedding night. To me it’s the night Mandy came home, and that means you’re not going away tomorrow. You’re not going anywhere, Sal. She’s in terrible trouble, and you have to stand by. Do you hear me? You have to—until it’s cleared up, if it’s ever cleared up.” All that got was more screaming, but he cut her off quick. He asked, “Is Mr. Wilmer there? Will you let me speak to him?”

  Then: “Mr. Wilmer?”

  Things quieted down then, as two guys talked to each other, deciding what should be done. Turned out Mr. Wilmer knew about the holdup from reading the Baltimore Sun instead of the Washington papers, and took an even more serious view of it than Steve did, if that was possible. Finally Steve wound up, “OK, then, Mr. Wilmer, I’ll hold everything till you get here. I’m sorry, I hated to call, this night of nights, but I had to. I didn’t have any choice. Because, frankly, I’m not sure I could swing it myself, what has to be done about Mandy. And you being in with all kinds of big wheels, especially lawyers. OK, I’ll knock it off till you get here...Yes, she’s here.”

  I took the phone then, calling him “Mr. Wilmer,” and he was awful nice. He said, “Mandy, I’m your new father.”

  “Steve is my father now.”

  “OK, then, I’m your mother’s new husband.”

  “Then, pleased to meet you.”

  “Mandy, all I want to say is, you have a friend.”

  “Thank you, Mr. Wilmer.”

  “But who is this ‘Mr. Wilmer’?”

  “I try to show respect.”

  “Your mother wants to talk to you.”

  So then Mother came on, and I don’t put in what she said, as this is no time to repeat it. I mean she was bitter, bawling me out for cutting her out of her trip to Europe, “which I’ve looked forward to all m
y life and now have to give up.” But as Steve said, when at last she hung up, “That’s your mother all over. All she thinks about, all she ever thought about, is having a good time. Where’s the Riviera? This place she was going to?”

  “Somewhere in France, I think.”

  “Swinger’s heaven, wherever it is.”

  When we were back on the sofa in the living room, Steve said they’d be down in the morning, as soon as they could make it. He said, “The main thing is Mr. Wilmer has a lawyer, a big wheel in Baltimore, who doesn’t take this kind of case as a general rule but when he does is the best in the business.”

  I said, “But what’s all the excitement about? If I turn Rick in, which I’m certainly going to do, I get munity, don’t I?”

  “Immunity.”

  “Immunity, then.”

  “You do if you do.”

  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

  “There’s no certainty to it. That’s what scared him so. Mr. Wilmer, I mean. In Baltimore, on account of that guard being dead and the papers blasting off that something has to be done, he’s not sure about anything—whether immunity will be granted or clemency consented to or any of the things that in some other case, with no death being involved, might be possible.”

  “Don’t they want their money back?”

  “That’s our big chance.”

  So then it was time to go to bed, and I wasn’t at all sure how Steve was going to act, our first night alone in the house. I went to my room, undressed, brushed my teeth, did my hair, put my pajamas on, and went to bed. I had my own bathroom, so that much presented no problem. But then, when my light was turned out, here came the tap on my door. I thought to myself, “This is it. Now I’ll find out where I’m at.” I tried to tell myself I wasn’t going to mind, that there had to be a first time and it might as well be with Steve. Just the same, I felt pretty sick as I called, “Come in.”

  He came.

  He bent over and kissed me on the forehead. Then he whispered, “Good night, little Mandy.”

  “Good night, Steve.”

  “You see, I keep my promises.”

  “For that I thank you, Steve.”

  He sat on the bed and went on, “Mandy, there’s something I want to explain...why I paddy-whacked you.”

  “Steve, you beat me up.”

  “OK, call it that.”

  “I call it what it was.”

  “It was not for the reason you said, the one that you screamed at me more than once while I held you across my knee. To feel your bottom, you said. It wasn’t that at all. It was because I thought you were stepping out with that bunch Amy Schultz runs around with, and it almost set me crazy. Mandy, I couldn’t take it. Talking with her, after you left, trying to get on your trail, your mother found out that you weren’t...for that, and this other thing that you told me, that nothing went on on this trip between you and that boy you ran off with. I can stand all the rest and not mind. I can even glory in you, the nerve that you showed that day to hold steady there at the wheel of the car they put you to drive and get out of there with the money and the boy. Mandy, you couldn’t do wrong for me. It’s what I’ve been wanting to say.”

  He got up then and kissed me once more on the forehead, but I pulled him to me, held him close, and kissed him on the mouth. I said, “Steve, now I know you’re my father. I love you.”

  “Little Mandy, good night.”

  Then he tiptoed to the door, and as he went out we waved to each other and laughed.

  12

  WE WERE BOTH UP early, and I put on the blue dress, the one I’d left home in, and combed out my hair, and put a blue ribbon around it. Soon as I’d made us some breakfast we began straightening up to kind of get things in order. Then I put on an apron to go out front and sweep off, as we had two cedar trees and that time of year they shed, so brown fuzz was all over the place, ’specially the walk. So then Mrs. Minot was there, the woman who lived next door. She wanted to know where I’d been, and I said, “Oh, I come and go. First I’m here, and then I’m not here.” Then she asked where Mother was, and I said she’d be here directly. She said, “She left yesterday with a man, in a car, and three bags that he carried out. Has she gone away again?” So, of course, what she really meant was, not only about Mother but about me, had I spent the night alone in the house with Steve? I looked at her straight and asked, “Mrs. Minot, do you know what curiosity did to the cat?” And when she didn’t answer I said, “It killed her, that’s what. And I really and truly hope it does not do the same to you.” So on that there was nothing much she could do but go in her house again, which she did.

  “What was that about?” asked Steve when I went in again.

  “Woman sticking her nose in our business and getting it cut off is all.”

  “She’s done nothing but try to find out about you.”

  “What she found out wouldn’t choke a gnat.”

  I got out the vac, but he said, “Mandy, put it back and put that broom away. The house is OK like it is. Your mother’s seen it worse. We’re in for one God-awful day, so let’s not throw it away working for Mr. Hoover. Let’s take it easy till they get here.”

  So I put the things away and we sat in the living room, trying to take it easy. We did, I guess, for ten minutes, just sitting and not saying much. But then I had to talk. I said, “This Vernick now? Why did he say what he did, that I wasn’t his child?”

  “I don’t exactly know.”

  “‘Don’t exactly’ means you do. So, why?”

  “Mandy, it’s none of my business.”

  “But it’s my business, Steve. That means it better be yours, ’less you want me to leave you again.”

  He got up, went to the window, and stood looking out. He stood there a long time, and I knew he was hoping they’d come. But it was only a quarter to ten, and they didn’t. I repeated it one more time: why did Vernick say what he did? And then at last he said, “OK, if you insist, I’ll tell you what I heard, what I’ve picked up from time to time, what may be true or may not be. Did you hear what I said? It may be true or may not be. But this much I’ll guarantee: when I’ve told it you’ll wish I hadn’t. Because I loved your mother once and think I understand her. I can defend what she did, take the side of a fourteen-year-old, a pretty teenage girl who liked a good time, who lived for a good time then, later, and now. It’s OK with me what she did. I’m not so sure it will be with you.”

  “Listen, I have to know!”

  “Then: she was playing around with Vernick.”

  “That I can’t understand! It’s weird!”

  “But not like robbing a bank.”

  “OK, OK.”

  “She was fourteen years old. Teenagers are weird.”

  “I said OK. She was playing around with Vernick.”

  “And then kind of ran into trouble.”

  “You mean she came up pregnant?”

  “Yes, except she wasn’t quite sure yet. She was just a kid and kept hoping and hoping and hoping...and waiting. She was afraid to tell her mother. And then at last she’d waited too long. She had to go in a home and have the child, have you. Then she put the bite on Vernick, and his father backed her up, made him marry her. That was a week before you arrived, and his father, still wanting to do the right thing, went to her father, your grandfather Gorsuch, to pay what the home had cost. But he said, Mr. Gorsuch did, that he hadn’t yet got the bill, but whatever it was there was no hurry about it. But Vernick’s father wanted to lean over backwards and, instead of waiting, went himself to the home to give them a check so no bill would be sent Mr. Gorsuch. But the woman couldn’t say, or wouldn’t say, how much the bill would be, and he thought it was pretty funny. He asked her to please find out. And when she stepped in the next office, he tiptoed over to listen. And what he heard stood his world on its head, and his son’s world, and your mother’s world, and your world.”

  “What did he hear?”

  “‘But that’s all been taken care of.’


  “Taken care of? By whom?”

  “That’s what stood all those worlds on their heads.”

  “Steve, I asked you, by whom?”

  “I don’t know by whom!”

  After a long time I asked, “Does Mother know?”

  “I can’t say what she knows.” And then: “Mandy, she was a teenage girl, a kid that liked a good time. Who knows what she knows?”

  “But if she doesn’t know, I don’t!”

  “I said, if I tell it you’ll wish I hadn’t.”

  “And I don’t have any father.”

  “You have me...if you want me.”

  “Want you? Want you? Steve, I want you as I’ve never wanted anything! Steve, be my father! Be my father always. I’ve...I’ve been hit by too many trucks. I can’t take any more!”

  By that time I was crying, and he came over and patted me, taking me in his arms and kneeling beside my chair. He said, “Mandy, I knew it would hurt. I warned you it was going to. I begged you not to make me tell it. But a deal is a deal, and if that’s what you wanted I had to go through. I want to be your father, and I promise never to take advantage. Well? I proved that I wouldn’t, didn’t I? Last night?”

  “Yes, Steve, and I was so happy.”

  “There’s one other thing, little Mandy.”

  “Yes, Steve? What is it?”

  “You can count on me, all the way.”

  He knelt there some little time, patting me, kissing me, and calming me down. Then we got to laughing, when he got his handkerchief out and let me blow my nose. He said I sounded “like the B&O freight every night blowing for College Park.” Laughing was what I needed, I guess, and I began to feel a lot better. And then when I looked there was Mother, skipping up on the porch in that graceful way she had. Steve jumped up and scrambled out in the hall, opening the door for her. Then she was in, pulling his ear and kissing him, I guess from habit, or maybe forgetting who she was married to. She was all smiles for him but hadn’t any for me. I mean she had hazel eyes, which took up the green she always wore, to contrast with her hair, which was a beautiful dark red. And they could be warm and friendly and gay, and in fact usually were, ’specially for a man. They flashed that way for Steve, but when she saw me they got hard, and when they were hard they were hard. I mean like a couple of marbles. Then she started in letting me have it, taking up right where she left off on the phone the night before. She ran over it, what a pest I had been since the day I was born. She was ’specially bitter about Vernick, about my going to him.

 
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