She knew Mom was promiscuous, so did everyone else, but she never dreamed her mother would seduce her husband.
Dateline: May 1970
Beth’s father (who is separated from her mother) likes to think of Mom as “overflowing with love.” Beth feels a mixture of anger, pity and, occasionally, love – she is her mother after all. As newlyweds, Beth and Les are struggling financially, so they leap at Mom’s offer to hire Les to remodel her home. Unfortunately, close proximity leads to the inevitable (at least with this woman!) Could anyone but a saint forgive this mother and husband???
Beth also wonders if her nagging drove Les into Mom’s arms. She’s being way too hard on herself! Beth’s father encourages tolerance and forgiveness, reminding her that no one is perfect.
I don’t know just when I first realized the kind of woman my mother was. I do know that when I was sixteen, and Ann and Dorothea took me aside, ever so kindly, and told me that I should tell Mom to stop messing around with the captain of the Easton High football team, what I felt was plain and simple anger. It never occurred to me to doubt their word. It was only too possible that they were right. A lot of people in Easton thought that Daddy left Mom because of her “cheating ways.” It was the other way around. It wasn’t that Daddy was angry or jealous, exactly. He just loved Mom very much and was terribly hurt that she wasn’t spending more time with him. His sorrowful, patient ways were more than Mom could bear.
She was a big, unaffected woman who laughed when she was happy and cried when she was sad, and didn’t mind a good fight now and then to clear the air. She could be sarcastic, but she never lied. And now that I’m older, I see that in her way, she loved Daddy. He was the one great love of her life. But she loved other men, too. (She needed a lot of male companionship, if you know what I mean, and Daddy couldn’t always give that to her.) She loved bright lights and parties and New Year’s Eve. Daddy was like me, shy, uncomfortable with more than one or two people, not a good mixer. I guess she married him because she felt sorry for him, and thought she could cheer him up.
It didn’t work, and Mom started developing “friendships,” which Daddy didn’t like, but didn’t object to, because Mom was the one great love of his life. I found out most of this years later. The first thing I knew about it was when 1 was eight, and Mom met me at school one day with the car full of luggage, announcing that we weren’t going to live with Daddy any more. We drove to a city I forget and spent two weeks in a two-room hotel suite. We slept late every morning, and went to the movies a lot. And every night one of Mom’s “friends” would take us out to a glorious restaurant for dinner. I grew fat and spoiled, and had a nice time, but I missed my quiet daddy and his neat accountant’s hands.
Then one day we drove back home to our house in Easton, hung all our clothes back in the closets. and Mom wrote an excuse for me to take to my teacher. The only thing that was different was that Daddy had moved into a rooming house on the other side of town. They never did get a divorce.
I understand now that Mom was a rare and wonderful woman in her way, simply overflowing with love for everybody. The trouble was that she was not always very wise about whom she loved and how she loved them.
A month or so after we moved back into the house, she decided it would be a nice idea to run a nursery during the day, It was a big, old-fashioned house with a huge yard, ideal for children. So she ran an ad in the Easton Chronicle, saying she’d be delighted to care for children by the day. The phone immediately began to ring, and the house began to resound to the noises of little girls and boys. Mom had just naturally assumed that the nursery ought to be free, since she loved kids so much, had so much time on her hands, and that big house. So every harassed housewife and working mother in town obliged by sending their kids.
There were thirty kids the first day, all running up and down stairs, skinning their knees, falling out of trees, spilling paint, and having the time of their lives because Mom never scolded anybody. To cut the numbers down after that, and she started charging, though I’m sure she never felt quite right about it.
Her men, what I know about them, were something like those kids. They, too, needed love, and a good time, and the knowledge that they wouldn’t be scolded. She kept me pretty much in the dark about her “friends,” though of course I could sense something was going on.
I remember that Mr. Ferguson, the druggist, came to dinner once a week for a couple of months after his wife died, and on those nights I had to go to bed early. I remember when Doug Davis, the judge’s son, came back from the war with a strange new face that a land mine and plastic surgery had created for him, and Mom had him come over twice a week to give her lessons on the guitar. There were nights I’d wake up, in my little room way to the back of the big house, thinking I heard a man’s voice in Mom’s bedroom.
By the time I was a teenager, I was certain that Mom wasn’t leading an ordinary sort of life. Yet neither Daddy nor anybody else in the town had an unkind word to say about her. The mothers continued to send their kids to Mom’s day nursery.
And the only time a policeman ever came to our house was with a small boy who had run away from home, asking Mom politely if the child could stay with the nursery school kids until his mother could be found. In her way, Mom was a respected citizen of Easton. And Daddy probably respected her more than anyone.
And maybe that is why I went to Daddy the two times in my life when it seemed that Mom’s unconventional ways had made life unbearable for me. The first time was after Ann and Dorothea, two of the prettiest, most popular girls in the school, had told me in ugly Anglo-Saxon terms what my mother was. I don’t know what malice prompted them, Maybe they just felt like being mean. It was after archery practice, on a sunny late-spring afternoon. It only took a few moments for them to smash my world as the three of us walked across the field to the girls’ locker room. By the time we got to the locker room, I was too upset even to button a button, so I just grabbed my raincoat, threw it over my gym suit, and ran all the way to Daddy’s boarding house. His landlady let me wait in the downstairs living room till Daddy got back from work.
“Your mother isn’t a bad woman, Beth,” my father told me. “She’s just so full of life, and full of love, that she can’t give herself to just one person.”
“How can you say that, Daddy, after what she did to you? And to me?”
It sickened me to hear him defend her, as he sat on the bed in his dingy boarding house room. It was on account of her that Daddy had to live in this place, not much better than a slum. It was thanks to my mother and her incorrigible ways that we weren’t a family any longer. How could a man stick up for a wife like that?
“I know, baby doll, I know,” he said, soothingly. “I know how terribly she’s hurt you. She hurt me, too, remember. When she left me, I just didn’t want to live any more. Walking through that house, knowing she was gone, it took all the light out of my life. Oh, that hurt me, her leaving like that.”
“A woman like Mom ought to be—”
“Hush, Beth,” said Daddy with a harshness I had never heard in his voice before. I looked at him, hard, and I saw that there were tears glistening in his faded blue eyes. Wildly, I said the first thing that came into my head.
“You—you still love her!”
Daddy nodded slowly, and bit his lip. “I never loved any woman, before or since, the way I love your mother.”
“But Daddy, she’s no good. Everybody in town knows that. She doesn’t have the morals of an alley cat. She—”
He slapped me. It didn’t hurt, but the shock of it stunned me. It was the only time I’d ever known my weak, ineffective, lovable daddy to stand up to anyone for any reason. He stood up, with something akin to anger in his face, and he started to talk. I didn’t dare interrupt.
“Now you just listen, Miss Beth. You’re young, and you think you know enough about life to sit in judgment about your mother. Well, let me tell you, there isn’t anybody in this world that has a right to say what’s right or what’s wrong for somebody else. What’s right for you isn’t right for her. Every person is a special case. Just so long’s they don’t hurt anybody else, what a person does with their own life is their business.”
“But she has hurt somebody else,” I protested quietly. “That’s why I came to you.”
“She didn’t hurt you, Beth, it was those kids with their gossiping tongues,” he insisted. “If you hadn’t been told, you wouldn’t have found out. You were happy up till then—it was the kids’ fault, don’t you see?”
“I haven’t been happy since you and Mom split up,” I said miserably.
He was silent a long moment, then sat down again. “That—that couldn’t be helped, Beth,” he sighed. “I just wasn’t—man enough, for her. It was better this way. Believe me.”
“I don’t believe that, Daddy,” I told him. “I know how badly it hurt you when she left.”
“The truth hurts,” he said firmly. He was trying as much to convince himself as he was me. It was for the best.”
“Weren’t you even angry?” I demanded, wanted him to be angry at her.
“No, not angry,” he said, shaking his head resignedly. “Sad, yes. Sad that it didn’t work out. She’s a wonderful woman. Those were the happiest years of my life. I hated to see them end. But your mother wasn’t happy with me. She wanted more out of life than I could give and she had more to give than I could take. I could see that. So when the time came, and I knew it was going to come, sooner or later, I just let it happen.”
“You didn’t even try to stop her?”
“What would have been the use? I didn’t want to punish her. Wouldn’t have done any good. She couldn’t do any different.”
“You just sat there and took it,” I said, trying to keep my voice under control, “and then you forgave her!”
“That’s right. Why make bad feelings?”
“Bad feelings!” I exploded. “Your wife walks out on you, breaks up your home, carries on with every man in town, and you don’t want to make bad feelings—” by now I was as angry at my weak-willed father as I was at my sinful, headstrong mother.
“Ah, now, honey, don’t you get mad at me,” said Daddy, almost whining. “I never was much of a fighter I accepted what was going to happen. I let her do what she had to do. It’s better that way—we’re still friends.” Then he added slyly, “Even at my age, a man’s got to have a lady friend.”
I felt another piece of my world crumble away. I didn’t want to believe it. “Do you mean you still see each other—that way?” I gasped.
Daddy must have realized that he’d gone too far, for he suddenly stood up and snapped,
“That’s none of your business. Now I think it’s time you got along home. Get your coat on and I’ll walk you back.”
I couldn’t bear to spend another minute with him. I grabbed my coat, muttered a quick good night, and dashed down the stairs. I didn’t hear him following me, but I ran the first couple of blocks anyway. It helped me work off some of my sense of anger and outrage.
Not all of it, though. I was still fuming by the time I got home. Mom was sitting in the living room, alone, watching television as she painted some new building blocks for the nursery. I made a big point of slamming the door as I came in, and standing there rigid with anger. I was all set for a showdown. But she didn’t even look up.
“There are some brownies in the breadbox,” she said. “you can have a couple before going to bed, if you like.”
“No, thank you,” I said, but she didn’t notice the coldness in my voice.
“All right. Sweet dreams,” She turned and smiled, making a good-night kiss in the air as I started up the stairs. I didn’t return the kiss or the good night, but she overlooked that, too. She just went on spreading the paint on the blocks, setting them carefully, dry side down, on the newspaper-covered floor. It was still early, but I felt an overwhelming exhaustion. The day had been just too much. I showered quickly, brushed my hair, and flopped into bed, waiting for sleep to come over me like a cleansing flood to wash away all the ugliness of the day.But sleep wouldn’t come, and it wasn’t just because the clock said nine-thirty. I had a lot of left-over anger in me with no way to let it out. Daddy was partly right, of course. I was angry at Dorothea and Ann for shattering the last little fragments of happiness that were left to me. It was the cruelest thing I’d ever experienced, in a way, because it was kids that had done it and somehow I expected my own generation to be more understanding. I had already learned that grown-ups are cruel. Now I’d learned that kids are, too.
But I was angry at Mom, more than ever. I had hated her, I realized, ever since she left Daddy. She left him. Our broken home was her doing. She’d taken my father away from me. And she had done it in order to indulge her own lustful appetites. It made me sick to think of it.
She hadn’t even been discreet about it. She didn’t care what people said about her. She must have known that stories would get back to me, sooner or later. She could have tried to protect me, at least, even if she didn’t care about her own reputation. She didn’t love me, obviously. She never had. What a fool I was not to realize it until now!
And what a fool I’d been to think that Daddy could be any help. After all these years of separation, she still had him brainwashed. He still loved her. He knew all about her, and he still needed her. I had always thought of Daddy as a gentle, innocent victim of circumstances. Now I saw that he had invited his own downfall, and had perhaps even welcomed it. He was a fool and a weakling and I felt my jaw tighten with hatred when I thought of him.
And he was, still and all, my father, and I loved him. And I cried. It seemed as if this torment went on for hours. And yet, when my mother knocked softly and opened the door, I saw that my clock said it was only about ten-thirty.
“Beth, there’s someone to see you downstairs,” she told me.
“Who is it?” I asked, keeping my face toward the wall so she couldn’t see my tears. “It’s Les Black.”
I sat bolt upright in bed. “Les!’
Then Mom saw that I’d been crying. “Why, what’s the matter, dear?”
I groped in my mind for a plausible explanation. ‘The—the kids at school gave me a hard time today,” I stammered. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Do you want me to tell Les to come back some other time?”
“No!” I practically leaped out of bed, ran to the bathroom to put some cold water on my face, dressed in a flash and, pausing at the top of the stairs to catch my breath, went slowly down to the living room.
When I met Les, he lived in Mercersberg, about ten miles away from us, and went to Mercersberg High School. He was one of the outstanding boys in his school, sports editor of the newspaper, member of just about every honorary society in the school, and a star in its debating team. That was how I met him.
At that time I was trying desperately to overcome my feelings of shyness and inferiority. Some friendly teacher had suggested that I join the debating club. I was petrified at the thought of getting up to speak about anything at all in front of any kind of audience, and the very idea of having to present a case arguing in favor of something scared me beyond words. I knew I never could, and yet I knew I had to try. There had to be some way out of my cage of self-consciousness.
When, after only two or three meetings, Mr. Hendrickson, the faculty adviser of the debating club, told me that I was to go along with the three seniors who were to debate the Mercersberg team, I thought it was a miracle. Later on, bitterly, I realized that he was only trying to be kind.
“I couldn’t, Mr. Hendrickson,” I protested. “I don’t know enough about it.”
“Don’t worry about it, Beth,” he reassured me. “There are three very experienced kids doing this debate with you. You won’t be alone. But it’ll be good experience for you, and I believe you’ll do well. Give it a chance.”
I wonder, now, how things would have turned out, if I had listened to my inner panicky fear, if I had stayed home from the Mercersberg debate. I thought of it—I even tried to fake a sore throat the morning of the debate so that I could stay home from school. But Mom, with her incessant energy and good cheer, bustled me out of the house without even listening to my complaints.
“Just some butterflies before the performance, Bethie,” she chuckled. “You’ll be fine. Now, good luck.” She kissed me lightly on the forehead. “And Mr. Hendrickson will drive you home about six, right dear?”
I nodded dumbly and obediently hastened off to school. I felt those butterflies orbiting in my stomach all through classes, and by the time school was over and it was time for the four students to pile into Mr. Hendrickson’s car for the drive to Mercersberg, I was a silent, shaking mass of nerves.
It didn’t help any that the first person I saw as we entered the auditorium of Mercersberg High was a tall, dark young man with an open, boyish face that looked like all my schoolgirl dreams of Sir Galahad. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. But when he noticed me staring at him and smiled a greeting, I felt my face flush with embarrassment and turned away.
As I remember, the debate had to do with whether theUnited Statesshould abolish the electoral college and elect the president directly—and it went much, much better than I could have hoped. Mr. Hendrickson had prepared us carefully. As the Mercersberg team brought up their arguments, we were ready to meet them. It was almost as if the two teams were reading from the same script.
Three speakers from my school, and three from Mercersberg squared off against each other, and with growing anxiety I realized that I would have to answer the dark-haired Galahad who I’d been staring at earlier. I didn’t know how I could. As he rose to speak, I sank deeper in my chair, and I don’t believe I heard a word he said.
Then it was my turn. Consumed with nervousness, I stood and walked to the speaker’s stand without looking at anyone. I began speaking and noticed my voice was several tones higher and thinner than usual. But I couldn’t do anything about it. I recited my well-rehearsed facts and figures, almost as if in a hypnotic trance. Somehow, I got back to my seat.
When the results were announced, I nearly fainted. We’d won! And the judges commended our side for its excellent preparation and clear presentation!
“That’s you, honey,” said the sleek blonde senior girl who sat beside me. “We couldn’t have made it without you. And the fact that that gorgeous Les Black of theirs obviously hadn’t studied up on the topic.”
So that was his name. And my teammate knew him. “Who is he?” I asked.
“Oh, he’s been on their debating team a couple of years,” she answered with a little smile that may have been condescending. “They made it to the state semi-finals last year. Les used to be their boy wonder, but it looks like he’s running out of gas.”
Afterward, in the cafeteria, the audience and the two teams gathered for cokes and cookies. I stuck close to Mr. Hendrickson, feeling closer to him than even my own schoolmates. I was terrified that Les Black would recognize me and speak to me. At least I thought I was terrified. Maybe I was hoping that he would. But he wasn’t there, and as Mr. Hendrickson drove us home, I wasn’t sure whether I was disappointed or relieved.
The next month. Mercersberg visited our school for a return match. I begged Mr. Hendrickson not to schedule me to debate them.
“But that doesn’t make sense, Beth,” he protested. “You balance the rest of our team. You’re careful with facts and you organize them well, better than some of the seniors. We need you.”
“I’m sorry, I just can’t,” I mumbled.
Mr. Hendrickson patted my hand and said in a quiet, fatherly voice, “It’s all right, Beth. I understand. Shyness isn’t something you can overcome all at once. I won’t force you. But I would like you at least to come, and sit in the audience. Will you do that for me?”
How could I refuse? I went to the debate, I sat in the audience, and this time I listened while Les Black spoke. He was better prepared this time, and this time Mercersberg won. Afterward, he came up to me.
“Why weren’t you debating today?” he asked. “Actually, I’m glad you weren’t up there,” he grinned. “You gave me a hard time last month. Remember?”
“I didn’t mean to,” I insisted truthfully.
“Well, it was my own fault. I didn’t know what the opposition would be like, and I got lazy. This time, I was all set, loaded for bear, and the bear was sitting in the audience.”
I laughed. “Nobody ever called me a bear before,” I told him.
And that was how we met. Somehow, it was easy to be with Les from the very beginning. Maybe it was because he wasn’t from Easton, didn’t know the Beth Newman that the kids at school knew, didn’t know about Mom. To him, I guess, she was just a nice, normal mother, who greeted him at the door the evenings he came over from Mercersberg to take me to the movies.
I don’t want you to think that Les and I had a great flaming affair at this point. We actually didn’t see much of each other, because it was hard for him to borrow his parents’ car on weekends, and during the week, he kept close to his books. It was his senior year, and he was looking forward to college.
But yes, he did take me out sometimes. We’d drive downtown to the movies, have a pizza or an ice cream, and come back. When the weather got warmer, we’d sit on the front porch and talk. Les would tell me about his ambitions, about the great plans he had for himself.
He wanted to be an architect, and had been accepted at a good college. He knew it would be tough, and long, not very rewarding, financially, at first. But he had great ideas about buildings he wanted to design, not just individual buildings or houses, but whole complicated groups of them. Communities—acres of houses, clustered around shopping facilities, churches, schools. Roads and sidewalks planned so that children could walk to school without once crossing a street. Factories built underground.
I realize now that Les was not much of an original thinker, that these ideas which sounded so startling and exciting were already commonplace among professionals, even five years ago. But to me they sounded as advanced as a moon walk. I was really impressed by Les’ notions. And by Les himself.
He needed money for college, and took a summer job as a paste-up artist in a small advertising agency in Mercersberg. It didn’t pay as much as he needed, so he took a second job, assisting the printer of the Mercersberg Herald at night. I didn’t see much of him that summer. In the fall, after school had started for me, Les came over once or twice before leaving for college, but his mind was only half on me. He was preoccupied with his plans.
“It’ll take me five years to get my degree,” he told me. “Then there’s a sort of apprenticeship period before an architect is certified. And I thought it’d be fun to go to Europe, and study. I can probably get a fellowship.’”
“I’ve always wanted to go to Europe,” I said, more to myself than to him.
But it brought him back to earth, momentarily. “Ah, Bethie, you’re a good kid,” he said ruffling my hair. “If I was going to stay in this nothing part of the country—” he didn’t finish. Then, a moment later, he turned to me and said, “I’ve got a future, don’t you see? I can’t even think about getting serious about any girl for years.”
We said good night and for the first time, he kissed me, chastely, on the cheek. So I was pleasantly surprised when he began to write me from college. Not regularly, of course—why are men such awful letter-writers?—but then, l hadn’t expected him to write at all. The first letter, about a month after he left for college, was full of new slang I didn’t understand, great enthusiasm about college life, and nothing at all about what it was like to be finally studying to become what he ‘wanted to be.
The second letter came in the middle of December. He said he’d call when he was home on vacation. He did call, to invite me to a party in Mercersberg, but he couldn’t borrow his family’s car to pick me up, and I had no way of getting there.
I heard from him again in February, a long unhappy letter saying that it was impossible to learn about building a building in a classroom, the professors didn’t dig a creative student, the courses were too rigid, and he was seriously considering not becoming an architect. I answered his letters in a friendly way and then more or less forgot Les Black.
Les hadn’t changed much. The hair was a bit longer, and that was all. Outside of that. he was still the Les I’d known last year; he was even wearing clothes that I recalled.
“Hello, Beth,” he said with that knockout smile of his. “I should’ve called, but I didn’t get the car till the last minute, and I didn’t want to waste time. Want to go for a pizza?’
At that moment, pizza was the last thing I wanted. But I did want to be with Les.
“How late do you think you’ll be?” asked Mom. For the first time, I grasped the significance of that question. She wanted to know how long she’d have the house to herself.
“Oh, don’t wait up for me, Morn,” I said airily. “We’ll probably bring the morning home with us. We have a lot to talk about, don’t we, Les?”
Les laughed, and Mom laughed, and I felt my face freeze into a tight smile.
We decided against the pizza almost immediately. We drove, instead, to a quiet, high-class cafe down by the river, where they had tiny tables with softly glowing candles.
I expected him to tell me more about his dreams of designing great buildings, of planning cities, but instead he talked about the educational system, and how it seemed almost set up to drive the really creative students out. Les went on and on about this, with an edge of self-pity that I almost disliked. Still, I sat and listened, spellbound.
“So you can see I’m really glad to be back, Beth. I’m inclined to work myself too hard at school. I can use the relaxation.”
I thought you were Mr. Go-Getter back in high school,” I teased gently. An unexpected flash of resentment shot across his face, and I tried hastily to cover my blunder. “Anyway, it’s awfully nice that you’re back.”
Then he smiled, and that made everything all right. Calm down, girl, I told myself, you’re too nervous.
And afterward, we drove up along the river road. I had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen. And I wanted very much for it to happen.
He stopped the car on a dark turn-off, and drew me close to him. For the first time, we kissed like grownups. I felt his strong arms around me, his long hands caressing me, his body close to mine, and a powerful tide of passion rose up in me. When Les reached into the back seat and took out a blanket, when he opened the door of the car and led me to a grassy clearing surrounded by sheltering trees, I was not a bit hesitant. My body and my emotions had taken over and they knew what to do.
He spread the blanket on the ground, tenderly and carefully. Then he reached out his hand and I took it. We stood there silently for a moment, looking into each others eyes. Les’ look was like a lost little boy who had finally come home, and at the same time like a proud and passionate young prince who had come to claim his own. Then Les looked straight into my eyes and said quietly, “I love you, Beth.” My heart was pounding wildly, the blood was roaring in my ears. We melted together, into the fire, into the rush and thrust of love. When finally we lay back I felt tears streaming down my cheeks, but they were tears of fulfillment and joy.
By the time Les brought me home, the eastern sky was turning blue. I had no idea what time it was and I didn’t care. It was three weeks till the end of school, and I could afford to miss a day. Last night was worth it. He kissed me lightly on the tip of my nose. “I’ll call this afternoon,” he promised, and I tiptoed inside the house.
I remember thinking that it didn’t matter so much now, whatever Mom had been doing while I was gone. But even so, I was startled and disgusted to see a stale cigar butt in an ashtray.
Mom tried to wake me for school, but it was hopeless. I slept all morning, the sound of the children’s laughter downstairs mingling with my dreams. By lunchtime, I was up and around, but still floating on air. I wandered into the kitchen while Mom was serving sandwiches to the kids. It was a beautiful day.
“Good evening, Beth,” said Mom. The kids giggled.
I reached for one of the sandwiches.
“Those are for the kids,” she said, pushing my hand away. “You’re a big girl, you can make your own.”
“Is Bethie just getting up?” piped a small voice. “It’s way late. It’s afternoon.”
“Bethie was out late last night, Peter,” said Mom. “She needed to sleep.”
“I couldn’t tell whether she put a knowing emphasis on those words or not. I held my peace, and poured myself a glass of milk.
“Where did you go last night, Bethie?” persisted Peter.
“None of your business,” I snapped. “Gladys, use your napkin,” said my mother, drawing attention away from me.
“Bethie isn’t using a napkin,” protested Gladys.
“Bethie is a grownup,” Mom said, giving me a peculiar look. “Bethie, why don’t you have your lunch in the living room,” she went on. “Things are getting a little hectic here.” Obligingly, I went into the living room. I noticed that the cigar butt was gone. A few minutes later, I went into the kitchen to make another sandwich. I was ravenously hungry this morning. The kids were settling down for their nap in the nursery, while Mom was clearing up.
“Is there any more tuna fish?” I asked.
“No, there isn’t. I didn’t plan on your being here. You’ll have to have something else.”
“Okay,” I said, as agreeably as I could.
“And you better do your own dishes, miss, I haven’t got time to wash up after two sittings,” she snarled. “I don’t care what you do at night, but you’re not going to come in here and disrupt my nursery kids.”
She was spoiling for a fight, and I resolved not to give her that satisfaction.
“Okay, Mom,” I said. Les came over right after dinner that night, and we stayed out until almost one. The next night was the same. I didn’t miss any more school that week, but by Friday, my history teacher remarked that I’d better quit studying till all hours and get some sleep. But since Les came back, it seemed that nothing else mattered much. School didn’t matter, the kids didn’t matter, Mom didn’t matter. Nothing mattered except Les and me and the little world we made when we were together. My grades took a nose dive at the end of the term, but that didn’t matter either. Because Les and I were married that summer.
He had taken a job as a draughtsman in a firm of architects in Mercersberg, making good money for a summer job. After a week or two he told me, “College is a waste of time. It took me a year to find that out, and one week on this job. This is the best preparation for what I want to do.”
So we found a good apartment in Mercersberg, bought some Salvation Army furniture, and one Saturday drove to the Justice of the Peace and were married. Afterward, we went to his parents and told them. They were surprised but not unhappy. I thought I saw a look of relief on Mrs. Black’s face. Then we called Daddy and Mom.
The summer passed in a golden blur. Les worked, I kept house, and we both lived for the moment we’d be together at the end of the day. We never even went to the movies. Our greatest form of entertainment was being with each other. Occasionally, we’d see some of Les’ old classmates, home from college on summer vacation themselves. They seemed to like me for myself, and, of course, they had never heard the stories about my mother.
At the end of the summer, Les’ old friends started going back to college. I was surprised when Les began to get moody and depressed, and I asked him about it.
“I guess it hurts to see them going back.”
“But you could have gone back, and you decided not to,” I reminded him.
“I decided to marry you,” he said.
“Oh, Les, you didn’t have to choose between me and college—we could have worked something out!”
“No, we couldn’t, and I don’t want to hear any more about it!”
It was weeks before I learned the truth—not from Les, but from his mother. Les, it seemed, had not decided to leave college. The college had decided that Les’ grades weren’t good enough for him to stay. It bothered me that he’d begun our marriage with a lie.
A little later in the fall, we found that Les’ salary wasn’t enough for us to do all the things we wanted to do, so I got a job as assistant to the society editor of the Mercersberg Herald. It didn’t pay much, but it was fun, and it was the only job I could find that didn’t require a high school diploma.
Then came that horrible day when I arrived home from work with a bundle of groceries to find Les waiting for me. The look on his face meant bad news.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“I’ve been fired,” Les told me.
“What for? What did you do?”
“What do you mean, what did I do? Why does it always have to be my fault? I was fired.” “Well, they don’t just fire people for no reason. Didn’t they say why you were fired?”
“Well, in case you haven’t noticed, there’s a slight slump in the building business in this part of the state. The firm just doesn’t have enough work for me to do. They gave me two weeks’ severance pay, so I guess that should prove it wasn’t my fault.”
I fell into his arms, covering him with kisses, telling him it was going to be all right.
It turned out that the “slight slump” in the building business wasn’t slight at all. It was a major recession. Les couldn’t find a job of any sort. We bickered about money constantly, I’m ashamed to say. We could have borrowed from our parents, but it was a matter of pride for both of us. One Sunday, we drove to Easton to have Sunday dinner at Mom’s. I hadn’t seen her very often since we were married, which was fine with me. But I wanted to keep up appearances so Les’ family wouldn’t start asking questions I’d be embarrassed to answer.
Mom greeted us at the door with smiles, hugs, and kisses. Good smells emanated from the kitchen. She’d gone all out to make it a festive occasion. And I must admit that it was good to see her again.
“How’s the nursery going?” Les asked her.
“Oh, I can’t complain,” said Mom. “I have twenty kids now, and an assistant—really too many for the space I’ve got, but it seems there are so many working mothers now. I’ve been thinking that I really ought to go at this thing seriously, now that Bethie is settled in a home of her own.”
“What do you mean, seriously?”
“Well, this house is built as a home, not as a nursery school. I have more rooms than I need, and not enough for the kids. All I really need is an upstairs, and then I can turn the whole downstairs into a nursery school.”
“It’d be easy,” said Les enthusiastically. “Look, you can knock this wall right down, open up that wall with a big picture window, overlooking the garden—”
“Maybe make some bunk beds in the dining room so the kids won’t have to sleep on the floor?”
I watched the two of them moving about the house, interrupting each other with ideas, and for the first time in months I saw Les’ eyes sparkle with excitement.
“Isn’t that great?” Les exclaimed to me, and I realized I’d been lost in my own thoughts. “Your Mom wants me to redesign the downstairs of the house—and do the remodeling!”
“That’s wonderful, Les,” I said. Mom was willing to pay him regular architect’s fees, plus expenses. The nursery school, apparently, had been doing very well indeed. We could certainly use the money, and even more important, I was happy that Les would be working at something instead of moping around the apartment while I worked.
Les drove over the next evening with measuring equipment, pads of paper, and a sheaf of bright, newly sharpened pencils. He returned about eleven, and sat at the dining table until the wee hours, ruling lines and writing numbers. I finally went to bed alone, a bit frustrated, but happy nonetheless.
At breakfast, he was annoyed with himself. “I had this idea, Bethie, to build a little sort of art room in the corner of the kitchen, but I have to know whether that’s a supporting wall there or not. I should have found that out last night.” So he spent that evening at Mom’s, and the next.
He couldn’t do his preliminary work there during the day because of the children of course. I wondered what his presence was doing to Mom’s evening “social life.”
It turned out that our dining table was inadequate to use for anything but the most crude sketches, and we couldn’t afford to buy a professional drawing board. So Les had to spend Saturday and Sunday at the home of an artist friend in Mercersberg, using his drawing board to prepare the plans for Mom’s remodeling job. I’m afraid I nagged him incessantly about it when he was around.
“Maybe it’s a good thing I never got to be an architect, if this is the way you treat me when I’m working on an important assignment,” he said sulkily. It was so childish of him, so pompous and silly, that I laughed out loud. He stormed out of the house and I saw the car zoom past the window. I cried myself to sleep that night and vowed that I’d control my tongue. Les came home late. He kissed me softly on the forehead.
“Shhh, Bethie,” he said, “Go back to sleep.”
The next day, the society editor of the Herald went on vacation, which meant that I inherited, temporarily, her responsibilities, her long hours, and the use of her car. It seemed like perfect timing, for Les was finally ready to begin work on remodeling Mom’s house.
For the next two weeks, we hardly saw each other. Every minute the kids were not at Mom’s, Les was there working on the project. It went slowly, because after each night’s work everything had to be put away completely. So Les left our house before I got home, and I was usually so exhausted from my own work at the paper that I was sound asleep by the time he returned. On weekends, when the kids were out of the nursery for two days, Les spent eighteen hours a day working at Mom’s.
We had become almost strangers. We saw so little of each other during this time that I’m really not surprised, looking back, that I didn’t tell him I’d be in Easton for the countywide P.T.A. fashion show on Friday. I had it all worked out in my mind. Why not meet somewhere in Easton at four-thirty or five, and have an early dinner together? It would be our first dinner together in ages. It was one of those days. The fashion show ran beyond schedule, and by the time I phoned Les, he had already left.
I shrugged, cursed my own stupidity in not arranging things better, and decided to drive over to Mom’s to meet him there. It’d be better than nothing. Sure enough, his car was in the driveway. The house was oddly silent. I was struck, momentarily, by the vast amount of work that hadn’t been done.
Then I heard a noise upstairs, and in a flash, I understood why.
It was one of those ghastly moments when you wish your life would end, just stop, then and there. From Mom’s room, I heard a man’s voice—muffled, but unmistakably Les’—and then I heard Morn call out, “Who’s there?” I couldn’t answer. She called, “Who’s there?” again, and I tiptoed toward the door. I drove to Daddy’s rooming house and waited in the car until I saw him walking toward me down the sidewalk. He recognized me and came immediately to the car window.
“What’s the matter, honey?” The love and concern on his face made me feel better.
“It’s too terrible,” I said.
Come on inside and we’ll talk about it.”
“No, you come inside the car, I don’t want anyone to hear this. It’s too terrible,” I said, and he got in. I broke down completely—I must have cried for ten minutes straight without uttering a word. Daddy, bless his kind soul, just held me tight, patted me on the back, and said, “There, there.” Finally, I told him the whole sordid little story.
Daddy shook his head when I finished. He asked no questions, he gave no advice. Just shook his head. That made me angry—he could at least say it was too bad.
“Well, don’t you have anything to say?” I demanded through my tears.
“I don’t have anything to say, no, I’m sorry,” he said, sadly. “It won’t do any good.”
“What should I do, Daddy? I never want to see him again in my life!”
“If that’s what you want, then you shouldn’t.”
It was exasperating. I was beginning to transfer some of my anger to Daddy. After all, in a sense, he was an injured party, too.
“Beth, I wish I could help you, but there’s nothing I can do. I haven’t lived with your mother for eight years. I hardly know Les. I haven’t seen you but once or twice since you moved to Mercersberg. I don’t know whose fault it is.”
“Whose fault!” I exclaimed. “Why, it was hers! She seduced my husband!”
“I’m sure she didn’t hold a gun to his head,” said Daddy mildly. “Why do you suppose a man would want to do a thing like that?”
“No, I mean it. Your mother’s a fine figure of a woman, but you’re a lot prettier. Seems a funny thing for a young fellow like Les.”
Daddy looked at me soberly and I realized I’d known about Mom and her ways. But I deliberately ignored the risks so that Les would have something to do.
“Maybe he just needed comforting, Beth,” said Daddy. It seemed like a strange thing to say until I thought about it for a while. Les did need comforting. And he went to my mother for the comfort I wasn’t providing.
And it was all so useless and foolish, because, underneath the mingled misery, shame, disgust, anger, and all the other mixed-up emotions I was going through, I still felt a glow of love for Les. Maybe he was immature —after all, he was only nineteen. Maybe he was weak, and foolish, and even lazy. There are worse flaws a man can have. And Les was my man, and I loved him.
“Daddy, I’m going to try to work it out with Les,” I said. “I don’t know if it’s possible—but I don’t believe this has got to be the end of the world—even though it feels like it is.”
“That’s the most grown-up thing I’ve ever heard you say,” said Daddy. He got out of the car, and I drove back past Mom’s house. All the lights were on. Les’ car was no longer in the driveway. I didn’t stop, but drove straight back to Mercersberg and our apartment. Les was waiting. He took me in his arms, and I could feel wetness on his cheek. At that moment, Daddy called on the phone. “Just checking to see you got back all right.”
“Yes, thanks, Daddy,” I said. “I think it’s going to be okay.”
“Good,” said Daddy. “Well, I think it’s time I went to see your mother. I think I’m going to move back in.”
Thank heavens it all happened on a Friday. Les and I stayed home together for the entire weekend, which was the best thing we ever did for our marriage. We didn’t even go outside to get the paper. On Monday, two things happened. While I was at work, Les received a check from my mother in payment for the work he had done on the house. There was also a brief note, saying that she wouldn’t need him any more because Daddy had moved back into the house and was planning to finish the job himself. While Les was at home reading the letter, I was telling the society editor I had to quit my job immediately.
Within a week, we’d packed up the few things that we cared about, gave the furniture back to the Salvation Army, and set out in the car for a brief vacation of our own. After that, Les is going back to college, and I’m going to help out by working part-time. Les’ parents are lending us the money we’ll need.
Someday, I can’t say when, we will see my parents again. We just aren’t ready to, and won’t be for a while. They have some things to work out themselves.
Copyright © 1970, 2012 by BroadLit