Find a Stranger, Say Goodbye

Page 16


25

MANAGING THE HOUSE, Natalie found, was not as easy as her mother had already made it seem. Nancy helped; or Nancy promised cheerfully to help, and announced, just as cheerfully, when Natalie arrived home from work to find the breakfast dishes unwashed and the meat for dinner still frozen solid in the freezer, "I forgot."

"How can you forget that we have to eat dinner?" Natalie asked angrily.

"Well, I was babysitting at the Kimballs," Nancy replied airily. "I'm not used to being a domestic servant."

Natalie's feet hurt from standing most of the day in the office lab. "Well, you might as well get used to it," she said. "I'm not going to do everything myself."

We're both spoiled rotten, she realized, watching Nancy load the dishwasher halfheartedly. Mom always made everything seem easy and fun. And it isn't. All those dirty clothes in the hamper every morning. I didn't even realize that Nancy and I owned so many clothes. And Dad. He's worse than either of us. I never noticed before that he leaves his pajamas on the bedroom floor every morning. How does Mom stand it?

"Is everything running smoothly there?" asked Kay Armstrong on the telephone and didn't wait for an answer. "Tallie and I are having such fun together. We went out this morning and picked berries, and then I made pies while she rested this afternoon. Tonight we're going to have blueberry pie and tea while we listen to the symphony."

"We're all fine, Mom," said Natalie. "I don't know what we'll be doing tonight—" (Yes, I do. Last night's dishes, and yesterday's laundry) "but we'll be thinking of you. Give Tallie a hug from me."

"I will. Is Nancy there?"

"No, she went to the library with Steve." (And if she doesn't get home by nine, to help fold the clean laundry, I'll wring her neck.)

"Well, I'm glad things are going well. I think I'll be here a couple more weeks. You'll call if you have problems, won't you, Nat?"

"Sure, Mom. Just enjoy yourself, and take care of Tallie."

On Thursday afternoon, Natalie made a list and hung it on the kitchen wall.

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN

Will each of you please put your breakfast dishes in the dishwasher every morning?

And fold your pajamas when you get up, and make your bed?

And put milk back in the refrigerator when you're finished with it.

And be on time to meals or else call.

Good grief, she thought suddenly. I'm turning into a compulsive, list-making grouch. One of the things I always appreciated most about Mom when we were kids was that there was never a list in our house, with "Chores" written at the top. We never had to make a check mark after we cleared the table, the way my friends did.

(Of course, we never cleared the table much, either.)

Funny, because, knowing Tallie, I know there were never lists in her house, marked "Chores," either. Probably Mom never cleared the table very often when she was a kid. And now we don't. We pass our flaws and failings along from one generation to the next. Thank God we pass the good things along, too, she thought, recalling with satisfaction the spontaneity and cheer that had always been part of their home: the legacy that had been Tallie's to her daughter and that was Kay Armstrong's gift to their family now.

I wonder what Julie's mother was like, Natalie thought suddenly.

And went to the phone to call Margaret Jeffries.

26

THE VOICE FROM Michigan was clear through the telephone, all the way to Maine: clear, pleasant, and surprised, as Natalie embarked on a new sequence of explanations and lies.

"Mrs. Jeffries, you don't know me, but I was an old friend of Julie's when she was a student at Miss Sheridan's. I'd like to get in touch with her, if you could give me her address."

"Goodness; you haven't seen her in all these years?"

"No," said Natalie, hoping that her voice sounded mature. Sometimes her father's patients were surprised, when they realized she was only seventeen, after they had talked to her on the office telephone. They said she sounded older. "We just lost touch, after we graduated."

Mrs. Jeffries laughed. "Well, you have seen her, of course."

"No," said Natalie again, puzzled.

"I mean in magazines," said Mrs. Jeffries.

Natalie was silent for a moment. "I don't understand. Do you mean that she did become a model? I remember that she wanted to."

"Oh, my, yes. I'm amazed that you don't know that. She was so well known for a while. Goodness, there was a time when I couldn't pass a newsstand without seeing Julie's face."

"No," said Natalie slowly. "I didn't know that. I guess I just never saw her picture. Or never noticed."

"Oh, you must have seen it and not noticed. She was in—let's see—Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, on the cover of Mademoiselle twice, I think it was, and—"

Natalie sat down on the floor beside the telephone table and half-listened as Mrs. Jeffries went on and on, recalling Julie's professional triumphs. When I was a child, Natalie thought, I may have seen my own mother's face. She may have been on the cover of a magazine that lay on our coffee table, or in Dad's waiting room. And I never knew. She was right there, in my own life, and I didn't know.

"—and I was always so glad, you know, that she chose not to accept any jobs for those, you know, those magazines for men. She could have. They offered her a lot of money, some of them, if she would—well—"

"Yes," said Natalie, smiling. "I know."

"She still models occasionally. But of course now she's so busy with the children."

"The children?"

"Oh, yes," said Mrs. Jeffries proudly. "I have two grandsons. Gareth is six, and Cameron just had his fourth birthday last month. I made him a sweater, and then of course I sent some toys, too. Little boys don't like to get clothes for their birthday. So I—"

I have brothers, Natalie thought, as the woman talked on. Brothers. What would they be, half-brothers? Unless we have the same father. Unless Julie married the boy who was my father.

"Mrs. Jeffries," she interrupted, "could you tell me her married name, please, and her address?"

"Oh, of course," said Mrs. Jeffries. "Goodness, I was getting carried away, wasn't I? Her name is Julie Hutchinson, now. Are you writing this down? It's Mrs. E. Phillips Hutchinson. There's an s at the end of Phillips. It's a family name. Julie calls him Phil, of course."

"Of course." Natalie had written the name down, and drawn a circle around it. Her small notebook was filled, now, with hastily written names, phone numbers, addresses, and designs drawn in frustration in the margins. Clues. Dead ends. And now, the name Mrs. E. Phillips Hutchinson. She drew another circle and two exclamation points.

Mrs. Jeffries gave her the address, on East 79th Street, in New York, and Natalie wrote that carefully, below the name.

New York. It was a long way from Simmons' Mills.

"I'd love to talk longer, dear, but I'm going to be late for a bridge game. Give Julie my love when you see her, won't you? I'm so glad you called."

So am I, thought Natalie, after she had hung up the phone. She looked for a long time at the name in her notebook. In her mind, the picture she had had of the frightened, dark-haired fifteen-year-old-girl had changed to that of a mature, self-assured, beautiful woman. A mother. (Again. Still.)

The back door banged, and Nancy came into the kitchen, carrying a tennis racquet. Her hair damp and curly, the freckles across her nose dark against her tan.

"I beat Steve," she announced, grinning. "Two sets. He's furious. Why are you sitting on the floor looking silly?"

"Nancy," said Natalie, grinning back. "Old buddy. This weekend, you are going to do the cooking. The dishes. The laundry. All that neat stuff."

Nancy shrugged. "Okay. Big deal. How come?"

Natalie took a deep breath. "Because 7," she said, "am going to New York."

27

NEW YORK WAS new to Natalie. She had never been there before. Early August heat rose from the sidewalks in shimmers; taxis were honking yellow clusters at every corner; pedestrians were perspiring and quick-tempered.

Thank God, thought Natalie, as she stood holding her suitcase on the street corner where the cab from the airport had dropped her, that I didn't try to drive here. I would never have made it. I would have had a nervous breakdown. I would simply have stopped my car somewhere, in the middle of one of these streets, and cried.

Near her, waiting for a light, holding tightly to her mother's hand, a small girl in a flowered dress was crying. "You're making me miss all my prooograms," she wailed.

"Hush," said her mother shortly. "You'll love the museum."

"I hate museums," the child whimpered. As the light changed, taxis came to abrupt and squealing halts, and her mother shook her loose from her determined stance and started across the street.

Natalie looked up. Around her, the tall buildings coalesced in distorted, dizzying perspective against the sky and reflected the heat from their acres of glass windows. No one else was looking up at all. The crowds surged past, looking straight ahead. Three men in business suits were speaking what seemed to be Russian. A tall black woman, her head completely shaved, moved by Natalie languidly, walking a small dog on the end of a leash.

On the other side of Fifth Avenue, the southern end of Central Park was a green and gold interruption in the steel and concrete city, as if a smile had appeared unexpectedly on the countenance of a statue. The park was busy on this hot Friday; from where she stood, in front of the hotel, Natalie could hear the shrieks of exuberant children, the whispered whir of bicycles, the short barks of small, leashed dogs, and the measured clop of the straw-hatted horses who pulled hansom cabs of tourists slowly along the street, oblivious to the taxis, buses, and crowds.

"Miss?" The uniformed doorman was reaching for her suitcase with a questioning smile.

"Thank you," said Natalie, and followed him into the hotel.

She had chosen it from the New York directory in Branford's library, which had told her that it was close to Julie Hutchinson's apartment. It had not told her the price. Now she winced inwardly, realizing she had reserved a room in one of Manhattan's finest old hotels, and that it was not going to be, as Anna Talbot's had been, seven dollars for the night. "And that includes breakfast, dear."

Here, she would be lucky to get the breakfast, alone, for seven dollars.

Natalie felt a surge of gratitude for her father's generosity, for the checking account he had provided to finance a project he didn't understand.

She followed the doorman up the short, carpeted stairs.

Past the small fountain surrounded by flowering plants.

Under the crystal chandeliers that dangled like diamond earrings from the high, carved ceiling.

Past the two women speaking in French to a petulant poodle.

Into the cool, impersonal hush. Here, in contrast to the heat and vibrant life of the park, things were subdued, efficient, elegant, and layered with a dim chill.

This is a long way, thought Natalie, from Branford. An even longer way from Simmons' Mills.

After she had unpacked her small suitcase in the spacious room, and watched for a moment the unceasing activity in the park from her window, she took the elevator down, again, to the lobby, and approached the registration desk and the brisk, tastefully dressed woman who had checked her in.

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