Find a Stranger, Say Goodbye

Page 15


"Could you spell Glen Severn, please?"

The woman spelled it for her. Natalie thanked her, and said goodbye.

The telephone company had no record of a Jeffries in Glen Severn, Pennsylvania.

MISS SHERIDAN'S, she had written. In Connecticut. She had no idea where it was in Connecticut. Or whether anyone would be there in July. Natalie called the Branford Public Library; they checked their reference books, and located Miss Sheridan's for her, in Westgarden, Connecticut. Information gave her the number.

She poured another Coke, took off her shoes, stretched her feet, and dialed Miss Sheridan's with the fingers on her other hand crossed.

"Miss Sheridan's School, hello." Funny, the change in inflections, Natalie thought. Miss Sheridan's must be a classy place. The woman put three syllables into "hello."

She went through the lies again. Looking for a cousin she'd lost track of. Julie Jeffries. Would have graduated in, oh, probably 1962.

The woman was cheerful and friendly. "Well," she said, "you've called the right person. I'm the alumnae secretary. Just a moment, please. I'll check."

A long moment. Natalie sipped her Coke and drew faces on her paper, girls' faces with long dark hair and straight bangs.

"Hello there." Three syllables again. "Yes, I have it here. Julie Jeffries. I got out the 1962 yearbook, too, so that I could look her up. She did graduate that year. Goodness, wasn't she a pretty thing? It says under her picture that her ambition was to be a model."

The woman chuckled. "That's unusual, for girls from Miss Sheridan's. I wonder if she succeeded.

"I'm terribly sorry, though, that we have no current address for her. She simply hasn't responded to any of our alumnae mailings. Some girls just don't, you know. They marry, or take a job, and lose interest—"

"What's the last address you have?"

"Let me see. That would be Glen Severn, Pennsylvania. Perhaps her family still lives there, and you could call them?"

Natalie sighed, thanked her, and hung up.

She sat by the telephone for a long time, idly filling in spaces on the paper with circles and lines. You get almost there, she thought, frustrated, and then you're not there at all, like one of those dreams where you're running after something that keeps getting farther and farther away.

I should just give up. I don't know what else to try. She doesn't want to be found.

Dumb, Paul had said. You should have tried the church.

Well, thought Natalie, when in doubt or trouble, turn to the church. She called information again, in Glen Severn, Pennsylvania, and got the number of the town's only Episcopal church.

"Saint Bartholomew's," came the pleasant greeting. (Need a prayer? thought Natalie. Or a hymn? Short sermon, perhaps? How about a mother, long lost?)

She launched into her playscript of lies. Their name was Jeffries. I'm not even positive they were Episcopalians, but I thought perhaps—

The woman interrupted her suddenly. "Oh, you're talking about Margaret! Goodness, I got a card from her the other day! What a coincidence! Let's see, it's right here on my desk—Do you want her address, or her phone number, or both?"

Natalie gulped. "Let me make sure it's the right person, please. This is Mrs. Clement Jeffries—"

"Yes, I know, dear. We've been friends for a long time. Oh, I hated to see her move away. Goodness, Julie was married in this church. But you know, when Clement died, Margaret just—"

"Oh, wait. I'm sorry to interrupt you. But actually, it's Julie that I'm looking for. Do you by any chance—"

"Oh, I'm sorry. I don't have Julie's address. But here, I'll tell you how to reach Margaret, and then she can tell you how to get in touch with Julie."

"Thank you." Natalie picked up her pen again, and wrote it down carefully as the woman spoke. Margaret Jeffries was back in Detroit. Back where she had lived before they came to Simmons' Mills. Before they had brought Julie to Simmons' Mills to live. Before Julie...

She wrote it down, drew a box around it, drew arrows pointing to the box, thanked the woman, hung up, looked at the name Margaret Jeffries, realized it was her own grandmother, burst into tears, and couldn't pick up the telephone again.

24

THE PHONE RANG in the kitchen while they were at dinner, and Dr. Armstrong sighed. "I'm not on call this weekend. I'm going to watch television tonight. It can't be for me."

"Not for me," said Nancy, with her mouth full. "Steve's mad at me, and I just talked to Debbie, and—"

"I'll get it," said Kay Armstrong, putting down her fork. "And whoever it's for owes me a big favor."

They could hear her soft voice in the kitchen, talking for a long time. Then the resolute click of the receiver being replaced. Then silence.

"Mom?" called Natalie. "You coming back?"

Her mother returned to the dining room, pale, walking as a blind person does, carefully, through familiar places, without seeing. She sat back down.

"It's Tallie," she said, in a voice small as a child's. "I don't know, I never thought—"

She took a deep breath. "It's such a surprise. I just always thought of Tallie as—oh, Alden, she's very ill. That was a doctor in Bar Harbor.

"Let me try to remember exactly what he said. It was such a shock. Tallie.

"The doctor's name was Baldwin. Stan Baldwin. He says he knows you, Alden."

Dr. Armstrong nodded. "He's a good man. What did he say about Tallie?"

"She has pneumonia. Fortunately she had enough sense to call for help—I'm so glad we made her put that phone in, Alden. Just imagine, if—" She shuddered. "Well, anyway, Sonny went to the island and brought her over to Bar Harbor, to the hospital. Dr. Baldwin said they've done X-rays, and blood tests, and that she has lobar pneumonia, in both lungs. How bad is that, Alden?"

"It can be very serious, Kay. But she's in a good hospital, with a good doctor. What else did he say?"

"Not much. Her temperature is down, some, from what it was. They've started fluids intravenously, and penicillin. She asked, of course, that he not bother us. But I told him I'd come."

"I'll take you, Mom," said Natalie quickly.

Kay Armstrong looked around uncertainly. "Nancy, can you and Dad manage? Oh, that's silly. Of course you can. Thank you, Nat. We can leave first thing in the morning and be there by noon."

"How did she seem, when you saw her last month, Natalie?" asked her father.

Natalie smiled. "She was great, Dad. Very well, and strong. We went swimming, even, in that icy water. She said that any year now she'll be a glamorous old lady. But she sure didn't seem like an old lady when I was there."

Now, in the hospital bed, Tallie did look old. And small. There is something about hospital beds, thought Natalie, that shrinks people. It isn't fair, to diminish them like that.

But chagrin expanded Tallie. "I feel so foolish," she said weakly, taking their hands in hers. "And I hate it that you had to come all this way to see me like this. But I confess that I'm glad you came. I feel better already, just seeing the two of you."

"Don't talk, Tallie," said Kay, smoothing her mother's hair. "Just rest. I'm going to find Dr. Baldwin, and talk to him. Nat, you stay here and keep her company, but don't let her talk, okay?" She left the room.

"How's it going, Natalie?" asked Tallie when they were alone. "I've been so curious. I was hoping you'd write."

"Shhhh," said Natalie. "Mom said not to talk."

"Oh, hell," said Tallie. "I'm beginning to feel better already, now that I have something to interest me. You can't imagine how boring a hospital is. And tacky. Will you look, Natalie, at these hideous green walls? Now tell me what's going on with you?"

Natalie sat down. "Well, it's been strange, Tallie. I made this very long trip, to the town where I was born. And I found out lots of things—about the town, about my mother. Her name was Julie."

Tallie raised an eyebrow. "Not bad, for a name. Bet she was beautiful, too."

Natalie smiled. "I saw pictures of her, Tallie. She looked like me, but she was different. She was very beautiful—I don't mean to sound conceited, after saying she looked like me."

Tallie laughed. "Don't be silly. How was she different?"

Natalie pondered. "It's hard to say. I haven't figured it out myself. But there was something about her that didn't fit into the small town. She was smiling, in most of the pictures, but something was wrong."

"She was pregnant." Tallie chuckled. "Of course something was wrong."

"No." Natalie shook her head slowly. "Before that. I could see it in the pictures. She wasn't like the other girls, the ones she went to school with, the ones who lived in the town. Even before she became pregnant."

"Where is she now?" Tallie's eyes were bright with interest.

Natalie sighed. "I don't know. She left, after I was born. Her whole family moved away. I can find out where she is, I think, just by making a phone call, but I haven't been able to bring myself to make it. I'm not sure why. Suddenly I'm not sure that I want to intrude on her life."

Tallie rested, thinking. "You know, Nat," she said finally, "if you don't do it now, after getting this far, you'll regret it."

"I know that. But it's as if—well, I've grown to like her, Tallie."

"Surely you're not afraid that you'll like her better than your own parents?"

Natalie laughed. "No, it's not that. To be honest, I don't even think of her as my mother. I think of her as—this is really strange, Tallie—"

"You think of her as yourself. That's not strange at all. But you don't want to be disappointed."

"Yes. I guess that's really it."

"Natalie, go find her. Even if you're disappointed, you won't be sorry. I, Tallie Chandler, guarantee it."

Natalie sat quietly for a minute, and then nodded. "Okay. And you, Tallie, you take care of yourself. You're going to be all better soon. I, Natalie Armstrong, guarantee that."

They grinned at each other.

Natalie and her mother stayed four days in Bar Harbor. Tallie grew increasingly stronger; Dr. Baldwin said on the fourth day that her lungs were completely clear, and that she'd been afebrile for twenty-four hours.

"What does that mean?" asked Natalie.

"It means she has no fever. That she's well," said Dr. Baldwin. "She's a tough lady. But she's going to be very weak for a while. She can't go back alone to that island. Could you take her home with you, to Branford, for a while?"

"She wouldn't go," Natalie and her mother said, in unison.

"I know it." Dr. Baldwin laughed. "I thought I'd suggest it anyway. But she's done nothing for two days except talk about how soon she can get back to the island. Seems the blueberries are almost ready for picking."

"Well," said Kay Armstrong slowly, "I haven't picked blueberries for years. I'll go with her, and stay for a while. What do you think, Nat? You girls can manage at home, can't you? Keep Dad fed?"

Natalie nodded.

When she had settled her mother and grandmother together in the island house, with promises from them both that they would call if there were any problems, she drove back to Branford alone.

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