Miracle in the rain, part 1.
The rain was beginning to leak through her thin coat, and her stockings were wet to the knees. As she moved in the rain she tried not to think of her mother. But there was nothing else of enough importance in her life to think about. She knew the names and faces of a few people in the office. When they talked in the office, they seemed sharply, almost painfully, familiar, but when she left the office at six o'clock these people disappeared. She tried to imagine where they went and what they did and what sort of evenings waited for them behind the doors of their apartments.
The girl in the rain stopped wondering dark with a growing roar. The girl turned into a building for shelter and stood dripping behind glass doors. She was more worried over her bundles than herself. They held cold meats, potato salad, pickles, a loaf of rye bread, a pound of butter and a can of coffee. She had bought these things in the large department store near her office because everything there was a little cheaper than in the stores in her neighborhood.
Now you could see the girl's face in the dim vestibuel light. It was a face that might have been pretty if it had not looked so empty and patient. There was no light in its brown eyes and no expression to its full mouth. It was young without youth--an unused face.
A tall young man stopped on his way out of the building and stood beside the girl. He was a soldier and wore a raincoat. After a minute, the young soldier spoke in a voice full of good cheer.
"Look at her go," he said, his eyes admiringly on the bubbling pavement. "Like a pack of horses coming down the homestretch. You know, a night like this makes this town look almost human." He laughed and went on talking. "There's nothing so good as a real rain," he said, "unless it's a blizzard. Listen to her." He pointed happily at the night. "Like firecrackers." His voice grew thoughtful. "I'd be out walking in it right now if I had any place to go. Maybe that's the best time to walk in the rain--when you got nowhere to go."
The girl had glanced at him as he was talking. She was unused to noticing men, and her glance gave her no more than the impression of a young, dark-haired soldier who was full of good cheer.
"It's all in the point of view." The rain admirer smiled at the girl. "If you want to, you can figure you're cast away on a jungle island with nothing and nobody around you but rain. Think how surprised you would be if you were cast away on a jungle island in the rain for ten weeks and you suddenly saw a girl standing beside you." And the soldier laughed again. "I smell potatoes," he said, "and something like pickles." He was looking at her bundles. "That rain won't let up for hours," he went on. "What do you say we just walk out and let her soak? I'll put your bundles under my coat and they won't get wet. Here, gimme."
He reached out his hands and the girl looked at him and frowned. He had smoky gray eyes and a lean jaw, and his nose looked a little crooked. She wondered how he could talk so friendly to someone he didn't know at all. She continued to frown, but the soldier seemed not to notice this. His face suddenly seemed to her not at all strange. It was full of liking for her. An impulse not of her mind made her hand him the bundles. He tucked them under his raincoat and opened the door. The rain came bouncing at them.
"All right!" the soldier cried. "Out we go! Come on now! Lickety-split!"
He took her arm and they ran together into the rain.
"Are we going right?" he demanded. She said nothing and they kept on running. "There's a bus coming," he announced in her ear. "Do you want to catch it?"
"Yes," said the girl, and felt frightened because she had spoken to a stranger.
"Allez oop!" said the soldier, and pulled her forward at a faster clip. "We can just flag it!"
"Well," said the solider, sharing a pool of water with her on the bus seat, "we're off the jungle island now and afloat on a raft which I have knocked together with some homemade nails. Have you any idea where we're going?"
"I'm going home," said the girl.
"That's what I figured." The soldier nodded. He looked at her disordered hair sticking to her wet face. "You got a ma or pa or something?" he asked vaguely.
"My mother is home," said the girl in a voice that the soldier could barely hear.
"That's wonderful," he said. "Let's get down to brass tacks. My name is Art Hugenon. I'm from Tennessee, only I don't speak it. I've been in town for two days and have to an extent exhausted most of its points of interest, including all the famous street corners, the top of the Empire State Building and the zoo. What's your name?" he asked suddenly.
"Ruth Wood," the girl said.
"Ruthie, I can see by looking at you," Private Hugenon continued, "that you are a girl a man can trust. You know, a fella has to be pretty careful in a town like this--particularly a soldier."
Ruth knew he was laughing at her, but when she turned angrily to look at him, she saw a pair of serious eyes regarding her, eyes so full of good will and understanding that she smiled.
"I tell you what," Private Hugenon proceeded. "I'm inviting you and your ma to have dinner with me. Those pickles will keep till tomorrow."
"My mother doesn't go out," said Ruth.
"And you have to go home to her every night for dinner," Private Hugenon said.
"Yes," said Ruth.
"Well, then," the soldier said, "there's nothing left to do but dine at your house."
"You mean you?" said Ruth.
"Look at that rain now," said Private Hugenon, pointing out of the bus window. "It's turning somersaults. Woosh-bang?" And he began to laugh as if the rain had suddenly tickled his funny bone.
The girl lay in her narrow bed near the window, unable to sleep. The rain had stopped. A spring moon made a blue flicker in the deep night. The alarm clock said it was almost three, and she must get up at seven, but she wanted to think some more and to remember things. She began the story again for herself at the point where she was opening the apartment door with Mr. Hugenon beside her, skipping the time in the grocery when he bought the chicken and the bottles of beer, because she had been very nervous then. She had worried about his seeing her mother for the first time. But when she had opened the door, he had said, "Good evening, Mrs. Wood." And when her mother didn't answer or even look around, he paid no attention to that. He acted as if it were natural.
"You fix everything up," he said. "I'm going to take a shower and get shaved. When you see me again I will be looking very pretty."
Ruth smiled at her pillow and skipped again to the supper. It was hard to remember his talk. It was about people he knew. Why should he be so interested in telling her all those things about strangers? And about his aunt too? That was the funniest person she had ever heard of. His aunt must have been really crazy, making him wear long curls and a derby hat when he was only four years old. Ruth frowned into the moonlit room. She should have said something about his mother and father when he said he didn't have any. But he kept talking and laughing so much you couldn't very well say that.
The girl fidgeted in the narrow bed. She had wanted, all through the evening, to tell him about her mother, so he wouldn't misunderstand her silence and her faraway look and feel insulted. She explained it all to him now in the moonlit room as she lay remembering. My mother is very ill, Mr. Hugenon. When I was a little girl, my father left her. And my mother grew sick. She hasn't spoken for almost ten years. She just sits and stares and cries sometimes, and I take care of her. There's nothing can be done except for me to be with her. She gets frightened when she's alone at night.
He had not even asked how they happened to have such an expensive piano in the apartment when everything else was so different.
We've moved so many times, she explaned to a remembered Mr. Hugenon, and each time we've taken the piano with us, although nobody has ever played it. It belonged to my father. He used to play t all the time, and I can remember that when I was a little girl I used to sit in my mother's lap and we would listen to him composing music and playing it over and over.
She remembered Mr. Hugenon going to the piano and how her mother had stared as he sat down.
It must be terribly late, the girl thought, looking out of the window at the deep night, but she wanted to see Mr. Hugenon at the piano again, banging away despite its being so out of tune and singing much better than most of the singers you hear on the radio. She remembered herself sitting stiffly in the chair and not saying anything or trying to join in the singing. She wished desperately now that she had smiled or laughed and talked back to him, instead of sitting like a stick. But she had felt so excited, so happy, that he must have known it. She smiled now at the dark, remembering him again at the piano, playing and singing and loving them--her and her mother.
Loving her and her mother--the words made her blush. "But he did," the girl said softly to herself, and that was why everything had been so wonderful. It was as if she and her poor mother who never smiled were part of something belonging to Mr. Hugenon, and he wanted them to be as happy as he was himself.
What a remarkable thing to have happen, she dreamed--that there should be so much fun in her house, that a tall, young soldier should stand laughing on its worn carpet and recite poetry while he drank beer. He was a crazy one. The girl's mind grew dim. A smile covered her face as if a light were shining on it. And under this light she fell asleep.
Ruth stood on the corner of 45th Street and watched the people swarm by till her eyes ached. It was Saturday afternoon and the April day glowed as if it had come to Broadway from a meadow. Beside Ruth stood a middle-aged woman who, despte the sun, looked a little frostbitten. This was because the tip of her nose was red and her eyes watery and squinting. She was Miss Ullman, Ruth's immediate superior in the office, having full charge of the Atlantic Novelty Company's ledgers. A skimpy fur was around her shoulders and a sort of three-decker hat sat on her gray hair. A lopsided coat hung from her shoulders. "I don't see what you want me along for," said Miss Ullman. "He certainly didn't ask to have me along."
"I don't happen to know him," said Ruth. "I mean I've never been out with him."
"Or anybody else," said Miss Ullman, with a sniff. "It's really unbelievable, such idocy. I could have been home fixing up things." Miss Ullman lived in a room that looked out on a brick wall. She had sat in it so long that she felt remiss when she was away from it. She looked slyly at the flushed face of her assistant. "No use breaking your neck rubbering," she said. "He won't be along for some time. We're early."
A great change came over the swarm of people moving toward the waiting girl. They became friendly people, full of meaning, for walking among them was Private Hugenon. His coat was unbuttoned and he was making faces, cocking his head from side to side, so that you almost had to laugh, looking at him. Then Ruth saw that he wasn't makng faces, but whistling. As he came nearer a fear smote her that he would be angry at the presence of Miss Ullman, and she wished with all her heart that she had not been such a fool as to invite her.
"Ahoy," said Private Hugenon. "I got lost. That's why I'm not here ahead of time."
"I want you to meet Miss Ullman," Ruth said. ". . . This is Mr. Hugenon, Miss Ullman."
"How do you do," Miss Ullman said in a squeaky voice. "Well, I guess I'd better run along now."
"Nothing doing." Mr. Hugenon took her arm. "I've reserved a table for three."
"But you didn't know," Ruth said. But Mr. Hugenon looked at her owlishly down his slightly crooked nose and winked.
"I know everything," he said, and swept on with his guests. Ruth saw Miss Ullman looking sideways at him as they walked through the crowd, and she began to worry that Mr. Hugenon would not be so clever as he had been in her home. She wished Miss Ullman had heard him the night before.
But Ruth's worries were unwarranted. At the table in the restaurant Mr. Hugenon was even more remarkable than he had been the night before. Miss Ullman laughed at almost everything he said. Her squinty little eyes became invisible, and her gray head kept bobbing with mirth. Ruth laughed, too, and when she did, Mr. Hugenon beamed and leaned toward her as if he were going to put his arm around her. But he didn't touch her at all. Instead, he embraced Miss Ullman and said, "I have three tickets to the theater. I insist on your coming."
"For heaven's sake," said Miss Ullman, "that's really not necessary. No, you children run along and have fun."
"Nothing doing," said Mr. Huenon. "If you leave, a blight will descend on me. I will get the hiccups and bump into my platoon leader."
Ruth thought he couldn't have three tickets, but it pleased her that he should lie about it. They had some difficulty finding the particular theater Mr. Hugenon had in mind, but finally they all ended up safely in the third row. Here the afternoon disappeared in a haze of music and bright lights shining on dnacers, acrobats and comedians. Miss Ullman sat spellbound and ruth stared at the stage with her mouth opened in a continuous smile of delight.
It was twilight when the came into the street. The day had grown chill and unfriendly. Everything seemed noisy and scattered, and the faces crowing by seemed part of some sudden disillusion.
"I've got to go home and get supper," said Ruth.
"Of course," said Mr. Hugenon, and kept staring into the street. "This town certainly gives you the willies. Look, it's full of blind people. It's a wonder they don't bump into each other or all get run over." He turned to Ruth and smiled. "We're all going home with you and pick up some things on the way, so stop worrying.... How do you feel about some cavier for dinner tonight, Miss Ullman?"
"Oh, for heaven's sakes," the little bookkeeper squeaked and hung on to her three-decker hat. "Oh, my, I've never had any. I'm sure that it's awaful."
"A very sensible attitude," said Mr. Hugenon, and they joined the blind people in the street. They came to an open store in which a crow was standing. An auctioneer was intoning information at them.
"Wait a minute." Mr. Hugenon stopped in the doorway. "What's going on here?"
"It's one of those actions," said the wordly Miss Ullman. "I wouldn't got near them."
They stood listening to the actioneer, and Mr. Hugenon edged this guests inside. The autioneer was talking through his nose.
"We have next this genuine Roman coin," he was saying into a small microphone, "a priceless antique dug up from the tomb of the Caesars. Examine it, please. A genuine Roman coin, such as would make any collector's mouth water. Think of what this piece of gold has seenb If it could only talk, it would tell you the story of the Roman emperors--all of them! I am offering you this musuem piece at your own price. What am I bid for this bit of fabled metal?"
"Oh, I want to buy it," Ruth whispered suddenly. She looked, shining eyed, at Mr. Hugenon and raised her voice. "Two dollars!" she called out.
"Two dollars!" epeated the auctioneer angrily. "I am bid two dollars for this priceless antique! Think of it! Do I hear three? Three? Do I hear three?"
He heard nothing of the sort, and then, fearful the bird in the hand might fly through the door, he announced, "Sold! Sold for two dollars! Ir should I say given away? ... This way, lady!"
Mr. Hugenon examined the genuine Roman coin as they rode toward 85th Street in the bus.
"It looks quite antique," said Miss Ullman, her head bent over it. "That says 'The Era of Vespasian.' He was a Roman emperor, all right. I wonder if that hole belong in it or if somebody made it recently. You can't tell about Roman coins." She look up at Ruth and added, "Whatever made you buy it?"
"I don't really know," said Ruth. "I just had to have it.... It's for you," she added shyly, looking at Mr. Hugenon.
"I'm going to wear it around my neck for luck," he said with a smile. He added in a dramatic voice:
"Around his neck he wore The Maid Ultralda's charm, The little silver crucifix That keeps a man for harm."
Miss Ullman nodded in wonder. And Ruth tried to keep the tears from showing in her eyes. She thought she would never sleep again, but lie awake night after night remembering everything.
The office people were much impressed by the transformation of Miss Ullman's assistant. She sat at her desk and glowed, and her voice saying "Good morning" was so full of happiness that two of the filing clerks felt themselves definitely smitten. Even Mr. Jalonick, the red-faced manager, gave her a curious look and said, "How are you?"
Ruth beamed at him and her heart, which was full, overflowed in a smile. But she spoke neither to the all-powerful Mr. Halonick nor to the two ogling clerks, nor to anyone. She found it even difficult to speak to herself, for so much had happened that you didn't know where to begin remembering it. There had been parties in her home and the piano had sounded every night. There had also been singing, and Miss Ullman had given imitations of the people in the office that were wonderful. And last night Art had turned on the radio and danced with her in the kitchen and recited poetry.
But there were more important things. For instance, Art sending her mother flowers, and how her mother had sat staring at them all evening and finally smiled. She had seen the smile, although it was almost too faint to notice, and her heart had almost burst with happiness.
The days passed swiftly and this was already Friday noon. All the days and nights were so joined together in a single glow of excitement that Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday were almost here again. She realized this with a catch at her heart as if someone had knocked the breath out of her. When she stood up to go to lunch, her legs were unsteady.
She came out of the dark building and felt bewildered by the sun for a moment. Above the neighborhood smells of coffee, gasoline and old buildings, a fresh, exciting odor lay in the air, as if the sky were a garden. Ruth took a deep breath and started to walk, when she heard and started to walk, when she heard someone behind her. She turned and saw Art. He took her arm.
"I'm glad I caught you," he said. "Do you mind just standing here and talking, because I've only got about ten minutes? I'm leaving, you see. They just told me a half hour ago and I'm supposed to be on my way to the boat. I can say I got lost for a few minutes."
"You're leaving?" said Ruth. "For where?"
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|Title Annotation:||short story|
|Publication:||Saturday Evening Post|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1984|
|Previous Article:||Calling on Avon.|
|Next Article:||At home with John Forsythe.|
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