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Short Story: Too Close to the Wind

 

 

Too Close to the Wind 

Until yesterday, I hadn’t seen Seraphina since the day of my father’s funeral. Suddenly there she was, walking toward me through the sluggish current of late afternoon shoppers. The shock of her changed appearance struck me with such impact that I halted abruptly, causing the man behind to carom off my shoulder.

In the brief instant our eyes met, Seraphina’s stiffened shoulders signaled recognition. Did her lips shape the name “Miss Emily ” as I imagined? If so, the words were aborted, and we passed without speaking.

I fought an insane impulse to run after her and apologize. For what? My father, perhaps, but he is dead and the dead do not need forgiveness.

After the girls had been tucked into bed that evening, I wandered into the study, touched a match to the logs in the grate, and picked up my library book. But images of my encounter with Seraphina defeated the words on the page. I lay the book aside, turned down the reading lamp, and sat watching the embers fade to salmon gray as they dropped away from the flames.

So many lonely evenings Father had spent in this very room. Even after all these years the faint, sweet scent of his pipe tobacco seemed to linger, trapped, I suppose, in the fibers of the wool rug or absorbed into the leather of his chair, the binding of his books.

I rose and wandered over to the shelves that still held Father’s record collection. From the farthest corner of the bottom shelf I pulled out a particular album, its cover, once printed in brilliant reds, greens, and yellows, now faded to neutral tones of taupe and gray. I removed one of the old 78-rpms from its age-stiffened envelope and placed it on the machine. The strains of “Blue Tango” spilled out into the dimly lit room, the same notes that had filtered upward through this house on those nights long ago when Father was down here alone.

*****

The winter I turned nine, Daddy and I shared a secret, one I hoarded like a bright talisman against the somber sameness of school, lessons, and home. We were going to Heron Cove for the summer, Daddy promised, not just for a visit of week or two as we’d done when Grandmother Lawrence was alive, but for the entire three months. “We’ll tell Mother when the time is right,” Daddy said. “Just for now it will be our secret.”

Evenings, after Mother had disappeared upstairs, I would carry my schoolbooks into the den, Daddy would put down his paper or his notes, and we would review all our delicious summer plans—we’d caulk the dory, plant bright red geraniums in the flower boxes on the wide front porch, he’d teach me to sail the Penguin sailboat stored in Grammy’s garage, the one he and his father had built when Daddy was still a boy. “You keep your eye on the edge of the sail nearest to the mast,” Daddy would say. “When it begins to luff you’re sailing too close to the wind.”

Even the usually cheerless ritual of our evening meal was made bearable by our guarded secret. Dinner. The three of us clinging to that raft of propriety, an evening meal properly served at a properly set table. If it were one of Mother’s bad nights, Daddy and I watched the level of wine in her glass, a barometer that could forecast either calm or disaster. Our words would be carefully weighed, neutral, uncompromising accounts of our day’s activities. Our cook, Rutha, was also expert in gauging the emotional weather in the dining room. She served Mother only tiny portions on those nights, so it wouldn’t be obvious that the food went largely untouched and obtrusively shift a glass when Mother’s uncoordinated gestures threatened to overturn it.

“Why is she like that? Why can’t she just be like other mothers?” I once tearfully demanded of Rutha after a dinner that started out so graciously ended with Mother hurling a plate of food across the table at Daddy.

“Now don’ you go judgin’ too harsh of your Mama, Miss Em’ly,” Rutha admonished, hugging me close to her warm body. “Miz Claire wasn’t always like this. In her day, she was somethin’, she was, the prettiest, classiest young lady this ol’ town has seen in many a year. Had more beaux than you could shake a stick at, an’ she go flying in and out of this house, one party right on top of the other. But then, after she done had her comin’ out and got engaged and married and all, the parties was done. She had you and the doctor say that’s the last of it far’s children goes, and now she looks at herself in the mirror and sees that pretty face gettin’ older every day and what’s left? She a Wentworth—ain’ like she was a poor woman what had to go out in the world and make somethin’ of herself.”

I didn’t understand Rutha’s explanation any more than I understood why Mother insisted we keep up the pretense of family dinner, even on nights when she could barely stagger to the table. I only knew I hated every moment of it, imprisoned there in that huge, formal room, dismal with time-darkened portraits of Wentworth ancestors, scraping my food from the second-best Wentworth china, the everyday Wentworth silver cold and heavy in my fingers. Only knowing that Daddy and I were Lawrences, not obligated to bear the overwhelming weight of Wentworth ancestry, made it possible to survive the nights when Mother’s speech went thick and slurred, and her eyes wavered like candle flames.

Winter crept past and April began raining itself away, but the time was never exactly right for Daddy to inform Mother of our summer plans, and yet the atmosphere of our dinner table crackled with a sense of impending conflict. “Brent,” Mother began, “I’ve been talking to Sally Rae and some of the other women about summer camps. She says Emily would adore the one her daughters went to last year.”

Daddy leaned his head to one side as if thinking about that. “Let’s not go packing Emily off just yet. She’s only nine. Time enough for summer camps later on.”

Mother shoved away her plate and reached for her wine glass. “I certainly hope you aren’t expecting me to entertain her for three entire months.”

“Oh, come on, Claire. Plenty of time to talk about this later.”

Finally, though, there came one of Mother’s better nights, a night when she was herself. Dinner started off well with Mother complimenting Rutha on the delicacy of the Hollandaise sauce she served with the fresh asparagus. Daddy told about a client of his who’d pleaded guilty to stealing a suit from a downtown clothing shop then changed his plea in mid-case because the pants didn’t fit right.

Mother stared up at him, her head tilted, her hands clasped beneath her chin, her huge, violet eyes sparkling with delight. “Oh, Brent! – he didn’t—”

When I saw her looking at him like that—saw Daddy looking back at her the same way, something passing between the two of them that excluded me—an ugly feeling twisted inside my chest. “Miss Caslin said my story about Benjamin Franklin as the best one turned in,” I blurted. “She said it might even be good enough for the Sundial.”

Mother twisted her head in my direction, eyebrows arched in surprise. “Old Cazzy? Why she used to say the same thing about those little pieces I wrote. Heavens, I thought she was dead or something by now.”

“Come on, Claire,” Daddy objected, his eyes smiling. “It wasn’t all that long ago you were in her class . . . only a little over twenty years.”

“Twenty years?” Mother looked as if she’d been dashed with ice water.

Daddy quickly filled the gap by telling us about a peculiar thing he’d read in the evening paper, a woman who kept getting her twin children confused and decided to call both by the same name.

Mother laughed again at that. Then she told us about her lunch downtown that day. “Afterwards Dede and Tookie and I went shopping,” she said, “only it’s scarcely any pleasure any more, not at all like when my mother could walk into Walther’s and the manager himself would come scurrying to wait on her.”

Daddy agreed with her that nothing was the same as it used to be.

It was a happy time. I wasn’t surprised when, as we were having dessert, Daddy straightened in his chair, cleared his throat and announced to Mother that he’d been thinking over plans for the coming summer. “This year we’re going to have a real vacation. We’ll move into the house at Heron Cove for the whole summer,” he said.

As swiftly as a candlesnuffer deadens a flame, the atmosphere in the dining room went dark. Mother declared she’d just as soon be dead as to spend the entire summer where there was nothing and nobody and that she’d suspected all along that Daddy was plotting some devious scheme without considering in the least how she’d feel about it. “It’s all very well for you, Brent. You’ll skip off to the city every morning and there I’ll be, marooned in that wilderness, a dilapidated house to cope with, the constant care of a nine-year-old child, and no one at all to talk to.”

“I’m sure there are plenty of people you’d enjoy in Heron Cove. It’s not like we’ll be in outer Siberia,” Daddy assured her, then winked ever so slightly to let me know it was still going to be all right. “My mother had any number of interesting friends who’ll be delighted to welcome you.”

Mother tossed her head. “Interesting? Ancient fuddy-duddies whose only topics of conversation are their septic systems and their digestion. Most times it’s difficult to tell which is which.”

For every positive Daddy offered, Mother raised another objection. Perhaps in some convoluted way she reasoned that she was still in control so long as we remained under the roof of the house that had been her father’s, here where she could recite the litany of possessions handed down through generations of Wentworths—Aunt Mirabelle’s sideboard that had traveled from England in the hold of a sailing ship…the silver coffee service presented to Great-grandfather Wentworth upon his retirement from the Senate…the portrait of General Henry Wentworth, stiff-lipped and proud in Confederate gray. Here she gained reassurance from silver-framed photographs of her debut at the Bachelor’s Cotillion and her wedding at Saint James chapel with ten bridesmaids and two flower girls bracketing her own veiled splendor. Or perhaps it was just easier for her to battle her private demons on familiar territory. All I knew was that her bitter opposition threatened to destroy my dream of spending the summer at Heron Cove.

“And there’s Rutha,” Mother continued her arguments, “it’s too much to expect at her age, packing up everything to move out there then packing it all up again in three months. She’s been complaining of her rheumatism lately. The dampness out there certainly won’t do that any good.”

If Daddy had stopped then—if he hadn’t collapsed her argument by mentioning that he’d already had a little talk with Rutha and that she was perfectly agreeable to the move provided one of the village girls came in to help with the housework—if he’d left it there, dinner might not have ended so badly

“So you have decided all this…even talked it over with a…a servant…before you so much as mention it to me!” Mother slammed down the glass she was holding. The fragile stem snapped under the impact and before any of us could move there was bright red blood pouring from the gash in Mother’s hand, the stain seeping into the tablecloth’s linen fibers.

The next few moments were filled with pandemonium, Daddy seizing a napkin to stanch the flow of blood, Rutha hurrying from the kitchen, Daddy leading Mother off upstairs. All the while I sat there, sick with the vinegary smell of spilled wine, sick with the certainty that any hopes for a summer at Heron Cove had been shattered.

After Dr. Mills had come and gone, Daddy stayed upstairs a long time. I was in his den at work on my lessons when he came down, his mouth set in a grim line that kept me silent. He went directly to his desk, opened his briefcase, and began working on some papers. Neither of us mentioned what had happened at the dinner table, but as I was preparing to go upstairs, he reached out and pulled me onto his lap. “We are going to Heron Cove for the summer, Emmie. I promised, and we are going.”

*****

The girl who came in to help Rutha was Celia Lopez, a girl from one of the Mexican families that occupied what was known as Little Mexico, a small cluster of fishermen’s shacks at the south end of town. The same street—Sycamore—that was flanked at one end of town by large, gracious Victorian homes, dwindled at the other end into a rundown area where laundry flapped on clotheslines and the lawn grass as worn through from children playing tag and kicking around soccer balls.

Rutha, had her doubts about hiring one of the Lopez girls—rumors in the black community had it that even others in the Mexicans community found the Lopez girls a mite too high and mighty for ordinary folks. But by the time Celia completed her first week, Rutha acknowledged that she had turned out to be a good worker.

Afer we settled in at Heron Cove, Mother and her dependency on the bottles she squirreled away in her upstairs room no longer affected either Daddy or me with quite the same intensity. Daddy kept his promise and taught me to sail the Penguin. I remembered his warning about the sails luffing made sure I brought her about in time. Even when he was gone, I reveled in the fun and freedom Heron Cove offered. Most days, from the time the sun whisked the morning mists off the cove until Rutha stood on the porch, calling me in from the firefly-excited darkness, I was off playing the other children in our neighborhood

On bad weather days, I stayed in the house. Unlike Rutha who always seemed to move under the weight of some unseen burden, Celia Lopez was young and cheerful and she didn’t mind stopping work to play Hearts or Spit with me. As she ironed Daddy’s shirts or washed windows, Celia would tell me stories about her family and the boys she dated and the Saturday night dances held in the pavilion of the rundown park at the far ned of Sycamore. Most of all, I liked the stories she told aobut her sister, Seraphina, and what a wonderful dancer Seraphine was and how all the men wanted to dance with Seraphina. “Even those soldiers that come over form the camp sometimes, it’s Seraphina they always want to dance with.”

“Is Seraphina beautiful?” I asked.

Celia snorted. “Beautiful’s not the beginning of it. She’s only seventeen and already they’s half a dozen or more have asked her to marry them. But Seraphina just tells them no,” Celia added proudly. “Mama tells her, ‘Girl, you put too high a price on yourself nobody will be able to afford you.’ But Seraphina says she’s not looking to spend the rest of her life in a fisherman’s shack with a fellow whose clothes stink like fish all the time, or fall for some soldier that’s only looking for one thing,”

I didn’t quite understand what the thing was that soldier’s looked for, but I loved hearing about the dances and pictured the way on Saturday nights the bandstand was strung with Christmas lights and all the girls had on their brightest colored dresses. Celia said that even the old people came to sit on the benches and watch the dancing. I was ecstatic when Celia offered to take me with her one Saturday night.

“She’ll be all right, Mister Brent,” Celia assured Daddy when he seemed dubious about my going. “I’ll keep a good eye on her. Miss Emmie can park herself on one of the benches alongside the pavilion. She’ll be all right there.”

“I don’t know what your mother would say, Emmie….”

He was using that as an excuse. Daddy knew as well as I did that long before Celia left the house on Saturday evening Mother would be locked in her room, just as she was every evening. “Oh, Daddy, please. Just for an hour or so. Can’t I go?”

“Well…” he said at last. Even with that one syllable I knew we’d won. It was arranged that I would sit quietly in the sidelines to watch the dancing for an hour or so, and that at ten o’clock Daddy would come to fetch me home.

When Celia and I left the house on Saturday night the velvety summer snell of new-mown grass and the whispered scent of jasmine transfromed the familiar daytime world. Overhead the sky was crusted with stars, and a three-quarter moon traced out a silver roadway across the cove. We passed the schoolyard, the swings and slides reduced to ghostly shapes in the darkness. In the village square, streetlights created a little universe of brightness, and blank-eyed mannequins stared wonderingly at us through the darkened windows of Mathers Variety and DryGoods Store. Minutes later we crossed the invisible border into Little Mexico where a strangely familiar muskiness seeped upward from earthen yards and unpaved streets.

As we approached the park, I could feel the bone-tingling thrum of distant music, drums and basses burdening the thick night air with their rhythm. Finally we were close enough to see the lights of the pavilion, green, red and yellow strands, their smoldering radiance transforming the rickety structure. The girls in their brightly colored dresses were already whirling recklessly with their partners around the circular dance floor.

Celia pointed out Seraphina who was dancing with one of the soldiers, then settled me onto an empty bench just outside the periphery of lights before running to join her partner, Raoul Garcia from the grocery market..

Time has not changed the magic of that night. Caught up in the wail and throb of the music, I was at once two different people – one a pale onlooker, a stranger-child in a white dress left sitting outside the circle of enchantment, the other, a part of the splendor, one of those flashing-eyed girls, swooping and twirling in a gay, bright dress, tossed out at arm’s length by a partner, then spinning back, only to be flung out again.

I felt a special thrill each time the beautiful Seraphina came flying past. I could pick her out easily—she soared like a flame-colored moth, her red silk dress molded to her body, the wide-gored skirt dipping and swaying about her slender calves. Just as the dilapidated pavilion and the bare, unlovely little park seemed transformed on that night, so, too, was Seraphina changed into something other than merely the sister of Celia Lopez who came to help out at our house. Each time the music ended and the men crowded about, begging Seraphina for the next dance, I was entranced, wondering which she would choose.

It seemed only minutes had passed when I felt a hand touch my hair and glanced up to see Daddy standing there in the shadows behind my bench. “Well, Emmie? Enough for one night?”

“Oh, Daddy, no!” I grabbed his hand and pulled him around to me. “Let’s stay just a little longer. Please, Daddy?”

He hesitated. “Well. A minute or so perhaps.” He sat down beside me on the bench, stretched out his long legs in their slightly wrinkled chinos and exhaled a sigh. “Ahh… A beautiful night, Emmie. I forget sometimes how pleasant summer evenings can be.” He drew in a deep breath of the night air and held it for a moment.

The band, which had been taking a break, started up again. Whatever was in the bottles the musicians slipped back into their pockets as they returned to the bandstand seemed to have inspired them to fresh frenzies, a meteor shower of improvisation that threatened to lift the pavilion roof. Ever faster, ever wilder, musicians, dancers, and instruments challenged each other to the far reaches of intensity.

I pointed out Seraphina as she and her partner whipped past. “Daddy, look!” I told him. “That’s Celia’s sister. The one in the red dress, dancing with that soldier.”

Daddy leaned forward and I saw his expression change. “My God!” I heard him whisper, more to himself than to me. “Those girls are like flying horses!”

I understood at once what he meant—it was as if the pavilion were a carousel, the dancers gaily-cavorting horses circling its perimeters, leaping and flying to the music.

When the set ended, Daddy sat back, the lights from the pavilion tinting the thin film of perspiration that coated his flushed face.

Celia came looking for me. She waved and started down the steps toward the bench where Father and I sat.

“Daddy, isn’t Celia wonderful? Isn’t she a beautiful dancer?”

“Oh, Miss Emily, I’m not that good.”

“No…no…” Daddy interrupted. “Emmie’s right, Celia. You really were spectacular up there. And that other girl, the one Emmie tells me is your sister, why she’s absolutely fantastic!”

“Isn’t she just, Mister Brent? When Seraphina’s on the dance floor everybody’s eyes light on her. Wait and I’ll bring her over here so you can meet her.”

Celia hurried off and in a minute returned with Seraphina. “ Mister Brent…Miss Em’ly – this is my sister, Seraphina.”

Daddy stood up. For a minute I thought he was about to offer his hand, but then he just nodded. “I’m very pleased to meet you, Seraphina. I’ve just been complimenting Celia on how remarkably well you dance.”

Celia tossed her head. “Oh, you haven’t seen anything ‘til you’ve seen Seraphina tango like one of the soldiers taught her. That’s a show all in itself.” Pride floated high in Celia’s voice. “Why don’t you stay a bit, Mister Brent? I’ll ask them to play a tango so you can see it.”

“Oh, Daddy, could we? Please? Just a little longer….”

“Well. Perhaps a few minutes more.” Father responded as if to Celia and me, but it was Seraphina he was staring at. She stood quietly in the shadows, the colored lights gleaming on her café-aul-lait skin, still moist from her exertions.

Celia hurried back to Dale Jones who stood beckoning to her from the edge of the platform and the corporal with whom Seraphina had danced most often claimed her again. Celia stopped to whisper something to the bandleader before moving out onto the floor. After a moment’s pause, from behind the bandstand one of the musicians produced an accordion, the equivalent of the bandoneon traditional to tango. Another band member picked up a guitar. With the piano leading the melody, the saxophone and bass melded into the tantalizingly articulated notes of a tango.

Seraphina, moving regally, allowed herself to be seduced out onto the floor then swung with her tan-uniformed partner into the first slow, trance-like movement of the sinuous dance. As the tempo intensified and its rhythm became more insistent, Seraphin’s gold-strapped sandals glided only a deft fraction of an inch from the polished black of military oxfords. The other dancers, their faces reflecting delight at the performance they were witnessing, moved back to allow them the floor. Beside me, I heard Father’s breath catch in his throat.

Sometimes Seraphina would take a small step backwards, cajoling, flirting with her partner, before floating back into his arms. At times her movements were compliant, unresisting, and she acquiesced to the corporal’s lead, but her dark eyes flashed haughtily and it was she who commanded.

I looked over at Daddy to see if he was enjoying the performance. In his face there was a total unawareness of my presence, unconsciousness of time or place or of anything except Seraphina Lopez spinning in a cloud of red silk beneath the colored lights. I knew that in that fragment of time I had ceased to exist for him, just as that silent house at the other end of Sycamorewith its locked bedroom door had also vanished from reality.

The July night went cold around me and I sat numbly through the dance’s final figure. The musicians stretched and tortured the last few notes and the couple swirled into a prolonged spin. As the music faded, Seraphina sank almost to the floor, one arm outflung, head bowed, a pool of red silk staining the floor around her. Spectators on all sides began clapping and cheering, the volume of their applause rising like night insects seeking the lights.

Even before the applause tapered away, the band swung into a slow dance, as if to allow the excitement generated by the tango to float away into the darkness. I saw Seraphina’s partner tug at her, but she shook her head and walked away from him. She crossed the dance floor and came slowly down the pavilion steps to where Father and I were sitting. Father rose from the bench as she approached. Seraphina stopped before him and stood there as if waiting for something.

“You…you’re a fantastic dancer, Miss…ah….Miss….”

“Seraphina.”

“I…we…Emmie and I enjoyed that tremendously.”

“Don’t you ever dance, Mr. Brent?” Her words hung like smoke on the night air.

Father, obviously startled, blinked and stammered, “Dance? Oh…well… I used to, you know. But it’s been a while….”

“Would you like to dance with me?”

Even in the dim light I could see Father color with embarrassment. “Oh, now, Miss…Seraphina…I don’t think….”

“We don’t have to go up there.” She tossed her head to indicate the pavilion. “We could dance right here.”

Something in me cried out silently, wordlessly, begging Father to refuse th challenge in Seraphina’s husky voice. But the look on his face told me that even if I had shouted the words aloud he would not have heard me. As if in a trance, he reached for the hand she extended to him, and they moved together into the shadows of the tree-lined path leading from the park.

Her red dress—now almost black—melted into the pale blur of Daddy’s shirt front as they swayed to the music. They did not look at each other. Seraphina stared over his shoulder. Daddy’s eyes were fixed on some point off in the darkness. At first they danced in carefully measured time, marionette figures responding to the music’s tug. But slowly the rhythm of their bodies began to flow together and their separateness dissolved into an easy, gliding movement.

There was a tender grace to them, as if they had danced together many times before. A breeze sprung up just then and set the red blossoms of the crepe myrtles above them trembling, a few crimson petals drifting down around them. The breeze lifted Seraphina’s flaring skirt and swirled it along the dark shadows on the walk. Then they moved farther away from me and the darkness swallowed them.

The music ended. Ended, it seemed, almost abruptly. Ended with a discordant tympanic clash. Suddenly Father was standing beside me and Seraphina was hurrying away from us, running back to the brightly lighted pavilion, fleeing toward the red and green and yellow lights, the burnished instruments in which the lights struck amber fires, returning to the dark young corporal who waited scowling to reclaim her.

Father eyes seemed strangely hollow and empty as he watched her run up those steps. I rose from the bench and stood beside him, desperately wanting his face to become again the face of the father I knew. “Daddy. Daddy, I’m ready to go now….”

He looked down at me. Stared at me as the woman in the newspaper story must have stared at her unidentifiable twins. Then, slowly, that alienating brightness crumbled from his features and he was once more the tired, familiar father I had always known…would always know.

 

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