The Willoughbys

Page 6


"What's that noise?" Barnaby B said suddenly. "I hear something banging!"

"It's at the front of the house," Jane said, listening. "Someone is hammering."

After a moment the noise ceased. They all went to look. More words had been added to the sign that was tacked to the window box.

"Reduced? Cheaper? This house is never going to be sold," Tim murmured.

"I can't imagine why not," said Nanny, smiling in an Aphrodite-like way.

11. An Astonishing acquisition

Commander Melanoff opened the door and peered into the basket in astonishment. He looked up and down the street to see if a delivery man had left this ... this ... this thing on his doorstep by mistake.

But no. The street was quite empty. Finally, in confusion because it kept smiling at him and no one had smiled at him in a very long time, he leaned down and lifted it out of its basket. Holding it at arm's length because its lower half was damp, Commander Melanoff carried the stubbly-haired baby into his mansion.

He looked around for a suitable place to set it down. The velvet couch in the drawing room had holes in it that mice had made, and gray wads of stuffing were protruding from the holes. There was a table nearby, but an old, opened pizza box with some greenish pizza crusts inside had been on the table for weeks. Ants were crawling on it.

Finally he carried the creature into the kitchen and laid it carefully on the drain board beside the sink. From his half-forgotten past, thinking back sadly to his own lost child, he vaguely remembered the procedure about diapers. In a nearby drawer, reaching with one arm while he kept the other firmly upon the wriggling infant, he located a folded dishtowel. He had not washed dishes in several years. He had thrown some away after they had been used, and others he had reused, simply heaping his takeout Chinese food or pizza slices onto the remains of the last meal. So there was still a drawer filled with laundered dishtowels, left over from the days when there had been cooks and servants in the large kitchen, the days when his wife had organized things like dish-towels by color and size and date of purchase. He fashioned one into a sort of diaper and tied it awkwardly around the bottom half of the baby. Then, holding the baby in one arm, he opened the large refrigerator and peered inside.

Once, long ago, this refrigerator had been filled with juices and jams, casseroles and chickens, cheeses and pastries, salad greens and truffles and endives and olives. It had always been a little distressing to him that his meticulous wife had insisted on alphabetical arrangements. It meant that ascots were next to argyle socks in his dresser, and his underwear was tucked away with the umbrellas. Even here, in the kitchen, one had had to locate the anchovies in order to find the apricots. Still, he thought wistfully, it had been pleasing to have the refrigerator filled with food.

Now it was completely empty except for a small bowl with something green and furry on the bottom and a stack of test candy bars for his factory. He had been, before his tragedy, working on a new bar filled with caramel and nuts in various combinations and coated with rich chocolate. He had thought, then, that it would be his masterpiece. Now the test bars, turning gray with age, lay in uneven stacks on a refrigerator shelf. He groaned slightly when he saw them and closed the heavy door.

He reached for the telephone, balanced it on his shoulder, and dialed the number of the local grocery store and pizza parlor.

"This is Commander Melanoff," he said when the grocer answered. "Deliver milk immediately, and, ah..." —he glanced at the baby, — "oatmeal, I think. Yes, oatmeal. Maybe applesauce.

"And things to wrap around the bottom of an infant. Not dishtowels."

"Pampers?" asked the grocer.

"I am an old-fashioned gentleman."

"Diapers, then?" suggested the grocer. "Or, if you are truly old-fashioned, they would be called nappies."

"Yes, those."

"Anything else, sir?"

"Oh, dear." Commander Melanoff whimpered a bit. "I don't know."

"Have you acquired an infant, sir?"

The commander sighed. "Yes," he acknowledged.

"What size, sir?"

The melancholy tycoon looked down at it. He remembered holiday celebrations of the past. "The size of a small turkey," he said.

"That would be about fourteen to sixteen pounds, I'd say. Does it have teeth, sir?"

Cradling the telephone again on his shoulder, Commander Melanoff gingerly used his free hand to pry open the small mouth so that he could look inside. "A few," he said. "Three, I think. And very stubbly hair."

"Does it appear capable of chewing, sir?"

At that moment the baby bit down on Commander Melanoff's finger.

"Ouch! Yes, it does," he said into the telephone.

"Very good, sir. Our delivery boy will be there shortly with everything you need. And shall we send tonight's pizza at the same time?"

Gloomily Commander Melanoff looked around the kitchen. The remains of at least twenty-three pizzas—old crusts dotted with decaying pepperoni slices—and their torn-open, stained boxes were stacked on countertops and tables everywhere. Then he looked at the infant still in his arms. She smiled up at him.

"No," he told the grocer with a sigh. "Send a salad and some vitamins. I think I'm going to have to rein-vigorate myself.

"Send soap as well," he added reluctantly, before he hung up. "I am going to need soap." Then he replaced the telephone receiver. He stared down again at the thing in his arms. The placid baby stared back, then reached up and tugged gently at his mustache.

***

And so life began anew for the melancholy tycoon and the affable infant. He called her Ruth, since he had eventually unfolded and read the note that had been pinned to her clothing. "Her name is Ruth" the note had said. He ordered clothes for her, since it would have made him too sad to go to the attic and open the trunks and boxes that contained small clothing that had been his own child's.

And, too, his own lost child had been a son. This one was a girl. So he bought small, elegant velvet dresses and pinafores with lace. He bought hair ribbons, though the baby's hair was oddly stubbly and short and there was nothing to tie a ribbon to; he hoped it would grow.

On the advice of an elderly saleslady at the expensive store at which he had placed his order, he also bought more serviceable clothing: overalls and jump suits with small pockets and appliquéd giraffes. "A baby needs to play," the woman had told him. "The little dresses are fine for birthday parties and Christmas photographs. But she will need to crawl on the floor and explore. Let me recommend these very fine play clothes. Shall I add them to your bill?" And he had said yes.

"We could monogram everything," she added. "A monogram is a very fine thing"

Commander Melanoff knew what a monogram was. In the days when he had gone each morning to his factory, he had worn shirts with his initials hand-embroidered on the pocket.

"I don't know her initials," he explained sadly to the saleslady.

"Oh, dear. Do you know her name?"

"Ruth."

"Lovely. Why don't we embroider 'Ruth' on all her clothes, then? A short name suits that purpose so well. If her name were, say, Clementina, then we would have to rethink, wouldn't we? Monograms are charged by the letter. Clementina would be very costly."

"Money is of no importance. I want the best," he replied.

And so all of her clothing was adorned with her name.

He cleaned the house on behalf of Ruth's well-being. He carried all the pizza boxes to the trash and washed the mouse droppings from the countertops and the floors. But when she crawled across the newly cleaned living room floor and grabbed the edge of the elegant draperies, swirls of dust arose and moths that had been living in the deep folds of fabric were dislodged and flew in confusion around the room. Ruth laughed at the sight of the fluttering insects, but Commander Melanoff took down the heavy draperies and added them to the pile of trash, on top of the pizza boxes. He called in fumigators to rid the house of moths; then he washed the windows, which had become so caked with grime that the neighborhood was blurred.

The only thing he did not clean or dislodge as he went about his work with brooms and sweepers and buckets and brushes was the towering stack of unopened mail from Switzerland, the six years of messages and telegrams and letters that were still piled against the wall of the front hall.

Ruth, who was still acquiring teeth, occasionally pulled a bit of paper from the lower portion of the stack and chewed on it. One morning Commander Melanoff, who had prepared the baby's morning oatmeal in the kitchen, picked her up from where she was happily crawling on the hall floor. She spat a scrap of yellowing paper into his hand.

He looked at the torn words and phrases and groaned, remembering those early days when he had still had hope.

***

Carefully he tied a bib around her neck to protect her pink hand-smocked monogrammed jump suit. "There you are, Baby Ruth," he said, and sat her in the highchair he had ordered from a costly catalog. Spooning the oatmeal into her mouth, he thought about the stack of mail. He decided that he must throw it all away. But time passed, and he could not bring himself to do it.

Often the baby played in the hall, and sometimes she grabbed at the letters. In her first weeks with Commander Melanoff, she could reach only the earliest mail. But when she began to pull herself up and stand on wobbly legs, she reached higher. Once she withdrew a sealed envelope with a Swiss stamp from the middle of the stack. She tore the envelope open, removed a folded letter, and chewed on it briefly. Then she crumpled the damp paper into a ball and rolled it across the floor for the cat to chase.

The cat could not read, for it was a cat. Ruth could not read, for she was a baby. Commander Melanoff, who was a grown man with several college degrees, could read extremely well but never noticed the wad of paper that eventually wedged itself under a radiator. So no one knew that a letter mailed four years earlier had announced, "THEY ARE FOUND ALIVE!"

12. Another Cryptic Communication

"They survived the crocodiles," Tim announced glumly, entering the kitchen and holding up another postcard.

"Let's see! What does it say?" Jane and the twins wiped their hands quickly and rushed over to see. They had all been helping Nanny bake some cookies, a very old-fashioned thing to do.

Tim held it out and began to read it aloud.

"'Dear ones,'" he read.

"I wonder why they call us dear ones when they're trying to sell us," Barnaby A said, looking puzzled.

Nanny added raisins to the bowl of dough. "It's a nicety," she explained, stirring.

"They're just pretending, aren't they, Nanny?" asked Jane.

"Yes, dear. Hand me those chopped nuts, please."

Jane passed the measuring cup filled with chopped pecans to Nanny. "They don't really like us, do they, Nanny?" she asked.

"No, dear. They told me that when they hired me."

"What did they say? Did they call us terrible names?" Barnaby B asked with interest.

Nanny paused in her stirring. "Let me think. It seems so long ago, I've almost forgotten. They called you—oh, what was it?"

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