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CHAPTER 1

APRIL 1926

I pull my hand from our mailbox, the letter bent in my fingers, my mind reeling. An official letter for Daddy from a doctor. A bud of panic starts to grow in me.

My father is sick.

I drift up our endless front walk, turn a slow circle on the porch before I open the front door. Up and down our street is empty and deathly still, like my heart.

I slide the letter under the mail-order catalogs on his desk and sit on the edge of the divan. He went to a doctor in another town to protect me from the bad news, to avoid the Atchison party line, the gossip. The gaping black hole of our fireplace stares at me. I stare right back.

My worst fear, that I am going to lose him the way I did Mama, is sealed in that envelope. I picture his coffin in the parlor, just like hers almost ten years ago. I squeeze my eyes shut to crush the scene and try to breathe.

A family of wrens chatters in our lilac bush, unaware that my family of two is about to become one. In a moment I’m standing at his desk. I retrieve the envelope and hold it to the light, but I can’t see through. I reach for the letter opener. With one simple slice I could know the truth.

No, not yet. Not by myself.

I sit in the desk chair, my head down, and listen to Mama and Daddy’s old anniversary clock on the mantel chop the silence to bits.

“Leroy,” I whisper into the empty room. “I need to talk to you.”

I fumble out the front door, trip over my books still piled by the mailbox. I stop halfway to Leroy’s house. He won’t be home from work yet. He’s still delivering groceries.

God…

I stand—a scarecrow lost in the middle of the street.

Maybe I’ll go see Daddy at work, just peek at him through the window doing his normal things—talking up customers, ringing the cash register with a flashy grin, waltzing ladies and their pocketbooks around the shoe displays.

I turn toward town. Or maybe I’ll go in the store and say, You got mail today from Wellsford, Missouri. Or Do you know a doctor named Avery Nesbitt? He sent you a letter.

Or maybe I won’t.

I stop outside the store—my reflection mixed with the arrangement of two-tone spectator dress shoes and fancy spring pumps inside. Daddy stands alone at the open cash register, counting the day’s profits. His back definitely looks different—thinner and more stooped than when I left for school this morning. I step back from the glass. If I don’t move, keep glued to this moment, to this spot on the sidewalk, time will stop and there will be no future to lose him in.

He turns suddenly, squints through the window. He knows he’s being watched. I have no choice. I grab the handle and push the door open. The perfume of leather and glue and vinegar glass cleaner makes my eyes water.

“Hello.” I sound croaky, cautious.

He nods as he anchors a stack of receipts with a green glass paperweight. He does not ask what I’m doing here.

“How are you today?”

He looks up sharply. “Fine!”

I twist my hair, helpless for what to say next. The backroom curtain hangs open. Daddy’s shoe repairman, Carl, has left for the day. “Do you… uh, need help with anything?”

“Nope.”

“How are the new Kansas City store plans coming along?” I wince. The question is so out of the blue, so idiotic and phony-sounding.

He shrugs, which could mean Okay or Can’t you see I’m busy or Get lost, Iris.

I turn, bump the counter. Shoeboxes clatter to the floor. “Oh, I’m sorry, I just…” I straighten the mess, swipe my eyes. “I’ll see you soon—around five, then.”

He glances at the clock and says not one word when I walk out the door.

“Bye, Daddy.”

On the way home I plan how I’ll move the letter to the top of the mail stack so he can’t miss it. I’ll be right there to help him when he reads it.

I shudder. A long-ago scene pops into my mind. At Mama’s funeral he said “I’m sorry” to her doctor. I thought it was strange, even then, him apologizing for her not getting well. That’s why he got rid of most all her belongings except the secretary desk, as though her hatpins and stockings had tuberculosis too. To him, illness is weakness. He still stiffens when I sneeze, scowls at every cough.

My hands turn icy. I cannot imagine how he will ever admit that being sick could happen to him.

But now he will finally need me for something… to help him get well.

My eyes fill with tears. He has got to get well.

My father sorts the mail, gives me a glance when he spots the letter, but doesn’t open it. All through dinner—round steak and beets that I cannot eat—I long for him to ask me his usual string of tired questions: How is piano coming along, Iris? I don’t take piano anymore. How are your marks in ancient history? That was last quarter. But he just chews, dabs his whiskers with the napkin, and reads the classified ads neatly folded by his plate.

It’s maddening. But tonight, if he’d only ask, I’d answer his questions ten times in detail. I’d act interested in anything—used cars, the latest reverse-leather boot styles, profit projections, even his gaudy girlfriend, Celeste.

When the dishes are done, while I pretend to do my Latin homework, he sits at his desk studying the shoe section of a Sears and Roebuck catalog, complaining about “cheap mail-order shoes that don’t hold up to the elements.” Finally he slices the envelope with his brass knife. I cross my arms and wait. He reads the letter twice, moving his head ever so slightly back and forth as the news pulls him along. Daddy clears his throat and rubs his whiskers, his face flushed. He slides the medical report in his drawer, drums his fingers. “I’m going by Celeste’s,” he remarks without looking up. “I’ll be later than usual.” He scrapes his chair back and walks out.

The engine revs. The car door slams.

I burst into tears on the porch swing, my heart a knot.

“Meet me, Leroy, please,” I whisper into the phone minutes later. “Our spot.”

And he does.

A breeze lifts wisps of his messy red hair. He picks chips of dusty green paint off the picnic table we always sit on while I spill my story. “He just left to tell Celeste… first.” I bury my face.

“Who’s she?”

“You know… his latest lady friend.”

Leroy leans back on his elbows, studies the dusky sky. “You’re saying he just rushed out the door to tell his girlfriend that he is going to die?”

“Yes.”

“Uh… Iris?” Leroy bumps my arm. “How do you know it’s a medical report? Did you read it? I mean, you’ve already turned him into a memory!”

My insides feel wild. We sit silent a miserably long time. “You’ve got this all blown up. It could be something else.” He puts his handkerchief in my hand, swallows hard. “This death stuff you always dream up… you’re kinda morbid.”

The word settles over me. Something shifts inside. I swipe my cheeks. “Did I hear you call me morbid?”

“Yeah.”

“So just one stupid word explains me?” I take a sharp breath, wave my hands. “My father is dying, but oh… never mind, Iris is just being her old morbid self again!”

Leroy doesn’t move.

My words crackle between us. “Shut up about stuff you don’t know, Leroy. Maybe you forgot that I only have one person left to make a family with. Not like you.” I count on my fingers. “Let’s see—two parents, three sisters, dogs, rabbits, and God knows what else. So, of course, you wouldn’t get it. But in my family, everybody’s dead except Daddy. I have to care about him. He’s it!”

“Iris?” Leroy looks at me, amazed, and with something else… awe? “How’d you do it?”

I lash the word. “What?”

“Change so fast from morbid… to mad?”

“Shut up, Leroy.”

“Wow. I mean it. Mad’s good. Don’t you shut up, Iris. Stay mad. It beats morbid any day.”

We sit there staring at each other, but for some reason this silence between us feels strong and full and worth listening to.

“You’ve gotta read it,” Leroy says finally. “Maybe he’s a doctor of something else, like a reverend, and your dad’s getting married, or…”

A crow hops by pecking the new grass. It looks up at me with a beady eye, cocks its head—Iris Baldwin, go read that letter.

Leroy slides off the table, grabs my arm. “Let’s go!”

“Reading someone’s mail is a crime,” I whisper as we rush across my front porch.

“I know that.”

“So’s breaking into somebody’s desk,” I say, holding the front door open for Leroy.

He smiles down at me and says in a singsong voice, “Let’s do please shut up.”

It feels like a little crime just having him in the parlor. He has never stepped foot inside when nobody else is home. He seems taller in here than outside. His eyes sweep the room, rest on Daddy’s desk.

I pull the drawer handle. Without stopping to think, I open the envelope. A photograph of me flutters to the floor. I turn to Leroy. “Oh, my God, it’s not Daddy who’s dying, it’s me! The doctor could tell just from my picture.”

Leroy’s eyes are saucers. “Iris! You’re nuts.” He holds the picture to the light. “You don’t look sick, you look…” His neck turns pink, he points to the paper. “Just read it out loud.”

I take a deep breath.

April 21, 1926

Dear Mr. Charles Baldwin,

Thank you for your response to my inquiry in the Atchison Daily Globe. As stated, the position includes housekeeping duties, daily nursing care, and companionship for my elderly mother, who is ill and confined to a wheelchair…

My ears ring. I can’t hear the words. I turn the page over, certain I am reading the wrong side.

room and board will be provided …

My voice wavers. Leroy touches my elbow.

Enclosed is the rail schedule to Wellsford and the photograph of Iris you sent.

Employment will begin June 1 and continue through Labor Day.

Cordially,

Avery Nesbitt, M.D.

I hear Leroy’s breath quicken, feel him watch me fold the letter and scrape the drawer shut. The words punch through the haunted fog in my mind. Daddy’s not sick. He’s not dying. He’s fine. He’s launched this secret plan so he and Celeste can go to Kansas City for the summer and open the new store without me.

In a flash I am outside and halfway down the block.

Leroy is right behind me, but I do not turn around. One sorry look, one wrong remark from him, and I’ll shatter. I dread that he’s going to try and cheer me up, gloss over the fact that my perfectly healthy father has mistaken me for a piece of furniture that doesn’t fit in his house, his life, anymore. If Leroy says one tiny nice thing about Daddy, I swear I will explode.

“Iris, slow down.”

I don’t. I could march straight across the Missouri River right now and not get wet.

“Iris. Hold up for a second.”

I stomp to the end of another block. Then stop with my back to him. I plant my feet—one, two.

“WHAT?”

He walks a few steps ahead and turns back to me. He opens his mouth, but I speak before he can make things worse. “Don’t tell me this isn’t pathetic. Don’t you dare. I’ve just committed a crime to find out that that sneak has been planning to get rid of me, for God’s sake. It’s not fine… it’s… he’s…”

Leroy’s face is dead serious. He clenches his fists, then levels his dark eyes on mine. “This is the way he always treats you. You’ve said it yourself a thousand times. I’ll tell you what I think you should do.”

I cover my ears. Here it comes.

Leroy growls the words, “Tell him no.”

© 2010 Barbara Stuber

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