Green Hills Literary Lantern

Gull

 

When Pru went out to get the mail, the vestibule was cold with the stiff wind off the sea.  Through the glass panes, she could see gulls balancing against the wind, buffeted.  One tipped, dropped something on the rocks, a crab or mussel, blew sideways, righted itself, and dove for the meat.  In the mail basket a Saturday Evening Post curled around a bill beneath an unexpectedly thick white envelope shot through with threads of green, addressed to her, Miss Prudence Wright.  Robert!  The only letter she’d ever gotten from a boy.  Pru took it up to the cold summer sleeping porch and slipped under the quilt, its purple faded almost to gray.  The eaves sang with the October wind. 

Robert lived with his father in New Jersey.  In the summers his mother came over from Europe, and they stayed here at the Point, in his grandfather’s house next door.  All summer it was swimming and sailing, games in and out of neighbors’ houses, picnics with the cousins, marshmallow bonfires on the beach.  In the game called Sardines, one person hid.  If you found them, you got in quietly beside them and disappeared.  Last summer Pru had found Robert in the dark between corn rows and slipped in beside him among rustling leaves and warm mounds of earth, and for half an hour nobody found them, pressed together in a necessary stillness.

Didn’t we have a great time this summer? Robert’s huge handwriting scrawled over four pages, front and back.  We’re doing The Merchant of Venice at school.  I’m playing Antonio.  I know.  Sounds unlikely, me and Shakespeare.  But please come.  I’d love to show you New York.

“You’re so lucky,” she’d told Robert last summer, sitting on the rocks, watching the lobster boats trailed by screaming gulls.  “You can go to New York whenever you want to.”

“You’re the lucky one,” he’d said.  “You get to live all year at the Point.”  He loved the clapboard houses with their big porches, their views of the beach and Boston across the sparkling sound. 

“Things never change at the Point,” Pru said. 

Robert juggled a pile of pebbles in his palm.  “You have a real family.  A mother and father in one house.” 

Robert’s mother, Mrs. Morgan, lived in Italy.  She wore sweeping skirts and spoke with long a’s, as though she were foreign.  She piled her black hair in gleaming cables, anchored with silver pins.  She was terrific at charades.

“My mother can’t stand jazz,” Robert said.  “Music has to be classical.  It’s 1959, for God’s sake.  Jazz is classical.  My father let me get a set of drums, and she practically had a kitten.  They never agree about anything.  If it weren’t for my stepmother, I’d give up.”    

“What’s so great about agreement?” Pru said.  “If they agree, they all gang up on you.  My grandmother wants me to be a stupid debutante.  They’re all scared she’s going to have another heart attack, so we have to go along with everything she says.”    

The last page of Robert’s letter promised a cast party at his father’s house.  He would set up his drums and sit in with the band.  I can’t wait to see you.  P.S.  Remember the cornfield 

A wave swept upward from the warm hollow between Pru’s legs, brushing her nipples.  She could feel the warm stones of the seawall under her thighs, see the summer starshine under thick-leaved trees, smell the moonstruck, slick, salt sea.  She sank down in the quilts.

 

*   *   *

Pru’s mother uncorked a tube of lipstick.  She leaned in toward the mirror and stretched her upper lip across her teeth.  The room filled with a fresh red smell. 

“Robert’s going to be in a play,” Prudence said.

“I didn’t know he was an actor.” 

“He’s not.  He’s probably pretty bad.” 

“Just as well.”  Her mother turned her profile this way and that.  “Best not have too many distractions.” 

“Why not?  You let me act in plays.”  

“You’re a girl.  If you’re a little artsy it’s not a problem, so long as you’re not serious.  Robert will have to find a career.”  

“What if I am serious?”

“Better not be.  Your husband might not like the theatre.”

“Maybe he’d be proud of me anyway.”

Her mother laughed.  “You’re so naïve.  Here,” she said, wielding the lipstick again, “this is a good color for you.  I’m going to Filene’s.  Want to come along?  We could get you some shoes.”   She came at Pru with the stick of bright grease. 

“Don’t,” said Pru, ducking. 

“What kind of actress doesn’t like makeup?”

Pru was halfway out the door.   “He invited me for the weekend,” she said. 

“Wonderful.  You’re fifteen.  It’s time you had a beau.  I only hope your sister doesn’t feel left out.”  

*  *  *

Pru had forgotten about Abby.  It was Abby who waited with her through the long winters after the summer people left the Point, after Robert went back to school in New Jersey.  It was Abby who shared with her Robert’s cosmopolitan gripes and exotic discontents.  It was Abby, only thirteen, who had found Pru and Robert in the cornfield and squeezed in beside them, never guessing she was interrupting anything.  Abby would not feel good at being left out.      

Pru found her reading and suggested a walk on the beach.  They kicked at the bright pebbles and teetered along splintered planks washed up by the tide.  The wind had blown the green scum off the pool in the rocks where insects water-skated in the summer.

“You’ll get to hear him play the drums,” said Abby sadly.  “You’ll get to meet his stepmother.”    

“He probably could only invite one person,” Pru said.  This was so thin, so transparent, that she turned her shoulder blades to the wind and walked backward.  At the far end of the beach, something flapped and hopped.  A seagull.  “What’s the matter with it?” 

“It’s trying to fly,” said Abby.  “It probably has a broken wing.  We’d better catch it.”

It waddled away as they approached and huddled between rocks.  A brown gull.  Pru sidled close, ducking her head away.  She reached in between the rocks, sharp with barnacles and slippery with weed, and grabbed the gull.  It snapped, and she dropped it.  It fought her off, flapping, and staggered away, wings beating out of rhythm, wingspan wide as her own.  She seized a leg.  It turned and hammered at her with its beak, stabbing her hand. 

“Damn,” she said.  “Goddamn it.”   

“We’ve got to get it,” Abby said.  “It’s hurt.”

Pain blew clarity across Pru’s face, blew the world clean.  It wasn’t her fault she was the one Robert wanted.  She pinned the gull’s wings to its body and gripped it under her arm while Abby held the bill together, black and hard and as long as her fingers.  They carried it to the back yard, out of the worst of the wind.  They would have to feed it.  But what if it escaped before it could heal?  What if a cat got it?    

“We need a cage,” Abby said. 

The barn next door, Robert’s grandfather’s barn, had everything.  It probably had a cage.  They trapped the gull under a laundry basket and went over and rang the bell.  He had a maid, but he came to the door himself, a tall old man with thin, white hair who wore a suit, even on Saturday.  

“There might be a cage,” he said.  “If so, you’re welcome to it.  You’ll have a terrible time finding anything in there.” 

“We’ll bring it back.”

“Please don’t.  I ought to get rid of all that stuff.  That barn is a disgrace.”

The door scraped open to a resinous smell.  The tin floor snapped and crackled underfoot.  Pru and Abby edged between sofas, around chairs piled almost to the ceiling, heaps of trunks, tangles of iron beds, clusters of umbrella stands, washstands, chamber pots, painted bureaus, dressers with glass tops and marble tops, kitchen cabinets, ice boxes, trunks, aquariums.  The old horse stalls were choked with easy chairs, andiron sets and crates and pails.  Iron grills that had once held hay bristled with croquet sets, skis, golf clubs and fishing rods.  A cobwebbed window looked out through the lilac hedge at their own house, unfamiliar from this angle. 

“What if we weren’t ourselves,” Abby said, “but strangers, looking in?”  

Between the prongs of a rocking chair hung upside-down on a huge mirror they spotted a parrot cage.  The gull would fit in, but would hardly be able to move.  Behind a barricade of bookcases they dug out a rusted canary cage, even smaller.  A potting stand held bowling balls and spatulas and glass jars, and underneath at last appeared a huge rectangular green cage with a large door.  Just the thing.  It took both of them to carry it down to the yard. 

Their father was smoking his Saturday pipe and putting up storm windows.  He knew about birds.  He had a set of records with bird songs and could whistle some of them.

“It must have been blown against the rocks and hurt,” he said.  “If you can get it to eat, it might recover.”

“Is it a he or a she?” Pru asked. 

“It’s a juvenile.  There’s no way to tell.”

“Let’s call it I.T.,” Abby said, “for It.  Eyetee.”

“See if you can borrow some of your mother’s hamburger,” their father said.   

The gull snapped at them when they opened the cage door but took no notice of the meat.  They tried tuna fish, scalloped potato, lettuce.  They tried cracked mussels from the beach.  Everything  sat on the bottom of the cage, untouched.    

“It has to eat,” Abby said. 

Pru hunted through the winter chest for an old glove.  She put it on, opened the cage door, and stuck in a finger.  When I.T. bit her, she clamped her thumb down on top of its beak and pulled the bird out the door into the crook of her arm.  She pried the beak apart, and Abby stuffed in some hamburger, past the sharp, forked tongue, down the gullet. 

I.T. gulped.

*   *   *

 

Pru had been to New York, to the Statue of Liberty.  She had seen the Chrysler Building and the dashing yellow cabs.  She wanted to go to Greenwich Village, to a smoky café, a jazz place, an artists’ hangout.  She’d heard that bums lay in doorways on the Bowery.  She was curious about that.  She had a good coat and a white blouse with tiny embroidered flowers, very trim.  

“Don’t you want to wear a party dress?” her mother said.   

“It isn’t formal.”

“Better be underdressed than over, I admit.  And that blouse suits you.  By the way, what's happening to my hamburger?”

Pru went to the store and bought two pounds of meat with her own money.  After each feeding, she and Abby let the gull out to exercise.  It flapped a little and waddled into the woods, but was easy to catch again.  Pru crooned to it, hoping it would realize that Abby and she were friends, but it continued vicious and bit them every chance it got.  Always they had to force its beak apart to make it eat.  It covered the floor of the cage with gluey poop.  But when she had the beak in the vise of her fingers, the live body clamped to her own, Prudence rubbed her cheek on the wild brown feathers.

Excited you’re coming, Robert wrote.  Can’t wait to show you New York. Pru couldn’t wait either.   It turns out my mother’s coming over from Europe.  Hope that’s okay.  What about showing me New York? Prudence wondered.  She couldn’t imagine Mrs. Morgan wanting to see the Bowery.  But of course she replied that it was okay.  That evening she noticed an irritation underneath her chin, an itchy place that got worse when she scratched it. 

“Looks like poison ivy,” her mother said.  “How did you get that so late in the season?”

Pru slathered the rash with calamine lotion.  She wrapped a scarf around her neck.  When the rash got hot, she tore the scarf away and dug her nails in deep, peeling the dried calamine off in flakes.  The gull went into the woods, and she nuzzled the gull.  That must be it.  She washed and scrubbed her skin, reapplied calamine, and rewound the scarf.  She was going to New York.

“Why the scarf?” her mother said, ladling out oatmeal for breakfast.    

“I like it.”

“How’s the poison ivy?”

“Fine.” 

“What we go through for our men,” her mother laughed.

“It isn’t that!” 

“You can call it off.  He’ll understand.”

“Mom!”

The gull stood up straight and yawped when Abby and Pru approached the cage.  It seemed more buoyant on its walk now, lifting into the air a little.  Abby had perfected a method of feeding single-handed, squeezing the gull under one elbow, prying the beak open.  

“You have to tell me everything,” she said, “about the drums and the stepmother and New York and everything.  Don’t worry, I’ll take care of I.T.  If she flies away, it means she’s all right.”

 

*   *   *

 

Pru’s father drove her to the station and advised her to sit on the left hand side of the train to get the views of the water.  The line of clacketing cars sped by the backs of houses, past old brick factories, along the beaches in Connecticut.  When the rash burned, Pru walked to the end of the coach, ran water into a paper cup, and patted it on, wondering what Robert would be like in the city.  Would he be handsome?  Sophisticated?  Would he wear a long, dark coat?

“Ever since I heard Dave Brubeck,” he’d said last summer up under the big-leaved maple trees after supper, “all I want to do is play jazz.  It’s okay with my dad, so long as I get good grades.  Needless to say, my mother is horrified.  She wants me to be a great man, an artiste, and jazz is not her idea of culture.”       

The last of the sun dazzle reached up under the trees.  The vibration of Robert’s voice set up a humming around Pru.

“How come your parents got divorced?” Abby said.   

“They can’t stand each other.  And my mother thinks it’s cool to live in Europe.”

“It is cool,” Pru said.

“No it isn’t.  She’s made herself over into some crazy Italian.  I have to call her Mamina.  I’m seventeen years old, for God’s sake.  She doesn’t want me to let anyone call me Bob.  How do you think that goes over in an American high school?” 

The seagulls were folding their wings and hunkering down on the rocks. 

“You’re lucky, though, going to Europe,” Abby said.

“It’s actually kind of boring.  Museums, castles, cathedrals.  They all look the same after a while.” 

“Our father doesn’t make enough money for us to go to Europe, Abby said.  “We’ll have to get scholarships to college.”

“That’s okay.  You’re smart,” Robert said.  His face glowed in the sunset.

“So are you,” Pru said.

“Are you kidding?  Do you know how close I came to failing algebra?  My father just about shat a cow.  All he wants me to do is be successful and make money.  Meanwhile, my  mother thought it was so enriching, me spending a year at a boarding school in Switzerland.  She made me wear lederhosen.  Mamina is one of those women who have you by the balls, excuse my French.”

“I hate my mother too,” Prudence said 

“You do not.”

“I never tell her stuff.   All she wants is for me to wear lipstick and get married.” 

“At least she’s an ordinary mother.  Can you imagine Mamina standing around a kitchen making a peanut butter sandwich?” 

“Our mother and father stand around the kitchen every night,” Abby said, “having cocktails.  They tell you things that don’t come true in the morning.”

The tide was coming in, foaming around the buffalo-shaped rock, shaggy with seaweed. 

“Actually,” Robert said, “there was a scandal I’m not supposed to talk about concerning my parents.  Mamina was a housewife, taking acting lessons in New York, when she fell in love with some big director and ran away with him to London.  He was going to put her on the stage.  I guess my father was pretty boring.  He still is.  I don’t remember it.  I was only three.”   

Beneath the roots of the big trees, Pru felt the spine of the Point surge seaward in the dark.  Things happened.  Big things.  Even to people from the Point. 

“So she married the director?” said Abby.

“She was going to, but he up and died on her.  She was left high and dry.”   

“Couldn’t she come home?”

“You know how these families are.  They ganged up and made her stay in Europe.  Or no trust fund.  My father got custody of me.”

“Did she ever go on the stage?” Pru said.

“No.  Never.  She reads for the blind.”        

The dew was falling, and Pru shivered.  It was as if Robert’s mother had swum out to sea and drowned.   

“They’d let her come back now,” Robert said, “but it’s cheaper over there.  Plus, she’s still sore.  She’s not exactly a flexible person.” 

“Our mother wanted to be a singer,” Abby said.   

“These women are bored,” said Robert.  “Mamina should have been an impressario.  She knows the whole arts scene in Europe.  It’s all she talks about, in Italian of course, except running my life.”  He ripped the flowers off a stalk of chicory and tossed them down the slope.  There was just enough light still to see the blue.   “Wouldn’t you love to be a seagull and fly wherever you wanted?  Wouldn’t you like to be happy once in your life?”

*   *   *

 

Pru felt the excitement of the city gathering around her as the train plunged down the tunnel and her coach slowed into the lights of Grand Central Station.  She collected her things and looked for Robert.  She knew no one else in New York.  She sought him among the watchers as the stream of travelers swept her toward the concourse, looking for someone in a long, dark coat, wondering whether she would see him first, or whether he had already picked her out of the crowd.  But at the barrier she was astonished to see his mother, Mrs. Morgan, swathed in a foamy green scarf, her black hair in gleaming coils. 

“I thought it was foolish for Robert to come all the way in to the city when I could have the pleasure of meeting you.”  She leaned her bright mouth toward Pru.  “Are you terribly disappointed?”

“Oh, no,” Prudence lied.

“We’ll have an early supper and go out to the play.  I couldn’t resist seeing Robert in a play.” 

The streets were huge and busy, gray and cold.  Pru gripped the calamine bottle in her pocket. 

“This is such fun,” said Robert’s mother, taking Pru’s arm as they crossed 5th Avenue. “I want to take you to my very favorite place in New York, and you must call me Aunt Julia.  We know each other far too well for Mrs. Morgan.”

They had supper in a tea place that served little sandwiches with the crusts cut off.  Pru had had lunch on the train and wasn’t hungry.

“Do have all you want,” Robert’s mother insisted, “and you simply must call me Aunt Julia, because we’re going to be such friends.”  She stirred her fluffy Brandy Alexander and licked her cocktail stick with a broad, pink tongue.  “Robert isn’t a scholar, I’m afraid, so any success at school is a triumph for him.  Now you do well academically, I hear, and you act in all the plays.  Tell me how you do it.  I want to be proud of Robert, and I am proud of him, but I wish he had more interests.”     

“He plays the drums.”

“Yes, exactly.  What is this jazz thing?”

“He likes Dave Brubeck.”

“Imagine being inspired by that, with all the advantages he’s had.”  Aunt Julia fingered a thin little sandwich.  “I don’t approve of jazz.  Do you?”

“I don’t really get it,” Pru admitted.

“Aren’t you wonderful.  Neither do I.”

The cold air in the street relieved Pru’s itch.  Aunt Julia raised her braceleted arm to hail a cab, and they caught a train to New Jersey and another cab to Robert’s school.  Aunt Julia asked the driver to come back at ten o’clock, passing him a folded twenty-dollar bill between two lacquered nails.  It was a modern high school with painted cinderblocks and a low acoustic tile ceiling.  Aunt Julia strode past the steel lockers with the seam running straight up the backs of her stockings, chose a place near the front of the auditorium, and sat very straight, reading her program, never turning her head, as if she might catch sight of the wrong thing by accident.

The lights went down.  Robert came out in crimson tights, playing Antonio.  He looked uncomfortable, shoulders collapsed, an embarrassing lump at his crotch.  He said Antonio’s lines.  Prudence shook the bottle of calamine and patted some on in the dark.    

Aunt Julia punched her lightly on the arm.  “Look at those tights!” she whispered.  “Isn’t that killing?” 

At the intermission Pru bought a Hershey bar and wished Abby were there to share it.  Already it had been a very long day. 

“I won’t be going on to the party, of course,” Aunt Julia said. 

“That’s too bad,” said Pru. 

“No, darling.  I didn’t expect to be invited.”

When the play was over, everyone hooted enthusiastically, there were several curtain calls, and the actors came out among the audience.  Robert winked at Pru and kissed his mother on both cheeks. 

“Well, you’re quite the thing, aren’t you,” Mrs. Morgan laughed. 

“The principal nixed codpieces,” Robert said.  “But this dance belt.”  He rolled his eyes at Pru.  “You  have no idea.”  

“Darling, I’m so proud of you,” his mother said, “but I do think your posture could be improved.”  She surveyed the crowd.  “There they are,” she said.  “I must fly.  You young people go along and have a good time.”

A couple of ordinary looking parents in trench coats approached from the back of the auditorium.  

“Come to the house, Mamina,” Robert said suddenly. “You’re invited.” 

“Oh no, darling.”

“We talked it over.  They want you to come.”

“Back to that house?”  Aunt Julia slung her scarf around her shoulders and seized her gloves and bag.  “Never.”   

“Please,” Robert said.  “You don’t have to stay long.”

The father stopped a few rows away and bowed.  The stepmother came forward and touched Robert’s shoulder.  She smiled at his mother.    

“Hello, Julia,” she said, offering her hand.

Julia stiffened.  “Is it warm in here?” she said, staring at Robert, blank, deliberate.  “Call me in the morning, darling.  I’ve barely seen you.”  She turned on her heel without the slightest hesitation, and was gone, leaving only her perfume.

A wall of heat struck Pru, like a flash of mushroom cloud, lifting her from her roots, roiling her in space.  A lady, she knew, is never rude by accident. 

The stepmother fell back to her husband and gripped his arm above the elbow.  “I’m so sorry, Rob,” she told her stepson.  “Will you introduce your friend?”

Robert introduced Prudence, and they all shook hands.

“See you at the house,” Robert called, grabbing Pru’s elbow and steering her toward the parking lot at a run.  “Whew,” he shouted to the New Jersey night.  “One too many parents!”

Pru’s heart raced.  Robert was himself again.

 

*   *   *

 

People were already at the party when they drove up to the house.  Music filled the rooms, strong and smoky.  A  heap of coats draped the banister. 

“Andy flushed his dance belt down the toilet,” somebody yelled, “and everything came back up, cigarette butts, turds.” 

Robert grabbed Pru around the waist and danced her through to the living room, where the rugs had been rolled up.  

“Good job,” somebody shouted.

“You too,” Robert yelled.  He pulled Pru to him till her chin rested against his shoulder, calling over her head, “You were terrific.  Wasn’t Shylock terrific, Pru?”  He leaned his cheek on hers. 

The rash flared up.  Pru strained her neck trying to hold it away from him.      

“Why do you make Shylock turn Christian in the end?” she said.

“What?”

“I mean why does Antonio make him?”   

“I don’t know.  Better to be a Christian than a Jew?”

“Shylock pays too steep a price, don’t you think?”

They danced a while in silence, his leg pushing between her thighs. 

“No idea, man,” he told her.  “I just say the lines.” 

The band took a break, and Robert played the drums, hunched over the cymbals, stamping a pedal, working his wrists.   The slithering whisks stroked the drum heads, brushed the brass.  They spoke of dives, of steamy darkness, of the loosening of restraints.

“Want to try?” Robert called.  He handed Pru the whisks, heavy and vibrant.  She was clumsy.  He held her wrists to show her how.  Her flesh leapt at his touch. 

“Relax,” he said.  “What’s the matter with your face?”

“Poison ivy.  We found a hurt seagull.  It’s learning to fly."

“No kidding.”   He took the whisks back.  “Listen, Pru, here’s a riff from Time Out.”

He made the whisks leap and sing.  She didn’t know what a “riff” was.  She had never heard of Time Out.  She excused herself and went to the bathroom, passing in the hall a blonde girl dressed in crimson satin.  She knew her blouse was too country, too New England.  Nothing would happen tonight.  Facing the mirror, she scratched deep and long, digging her nails into the deep, red itch, not caring how much she spread the poison.  Her skin wept and oozed.  She ran cold water and patted her neck with wet toilet paper, drenching herself again and again, and dried herself and reapplied calamine and rewound the scarf.  Tomorrow they would go in to New York.  There would be plenty of time before her train left at four.  But nothing would happen tonight.  Eventually she would be allowed to lie down by herself in a quiet room, and she couldn’t wait.

 

*   *   *

 

“It’s an insult to you.  She goes on like this year after year, and I resent it,” Robert’s father was saying when Pru came down to breakfast.  “If anyone needs to practice forgiveness, it’s Julia.”  It was too late for Pru to back out and retreat upstairs.  Robert’s father mumbled a greeting and resumed reading the Times.  The stepmother asked after Pru’s parents and made scrambled eggs.

“Don’t you want to change, dear?” she said to her husband.  “You don’t want to sit around in your bathrobe.”

“How do you know what I want?  It’s my house.  I can sit around in my bathrobe if I like.” 

Pru wanted Robert.  She wanted to get out and see New York with him.  But by the time he appeared, it was almost ten-thirty. 

“Thanks for the party,” he said to his parents.  “It was great.”

“It went on late enough,” his father said.  “I didn’t get to sleep till three.”

Robert told Pru they’d have brunch in the city.  He put on a long, dark coat, looking handsome and sophisticated, and they set off for New York, on their own at last.  But on the train to Manhattan, he became oddly didactic, providing continuous information about the station stops, as if charged with teaching Pru the entire New York transportation system. 

“The F train goes to Brooklyn.  Unfortunately it runs through the Lower East Side.” 

“What’s wrong with that?”

“There’s a reason we call it Jew York.”

“Don’t say that.”    

“Don’t pee in your pants.  It’s a joke.”

If they could just get somewhere and talk, Pru thought, maybe they would be all right, but as they came up out of the subway into the bright, cold air, among the angled, dramatic shapes, the tall, clean surfaces of glass and stone, there beside the polished granite of a bank, stood Aunt Julia.   

“Mamina!” Robert called. 

“Fancy meeting you here,” his mother laughed, her heavy hair in a net snood. 

It seemed so comical, there on the corner, but as Robert and his mother kissed each other on both cheeks, Prudence saw it had all been planned.   She turned away to a store window, staring intently at a chair upholstered in crewelwork and a distressed antique table with a little ceramic freckle-faced gardener holding a rake, who reminded her somehow of Abby.  Robert leaned in between Pru and the window, handsome in his dark coat.  Charming.  Thrilling, even. 

“I’m sorry,” he said.  “She doesn’t get over here very often.  Are you all right?”

Pru’s eyes stung.  But the words to say were written on the inside of her head.  All she had to do was read them off.         

“Of course.  I’m fine.  She’s your mother.”    

The three of them had brunch.  His mother, whose lipstick had seeped into the wrinkles at the corners of her lips, did most of the talking, pointing out distinguished-looking  people on the street and urging Robert to do well in school, like Pru.  They walked over and looked at the Seagram building, copper and black.  Robert’s mother pointed out the clean lines, while Prudence hated Robert with a bleak intensity. 

Under the starry ceiling at Grand Central, Mrs. Morgan stopped.  “I’m going to do a bit of shopping,” she said, “and let Robert put you on the train.”  She kissed Pru on both cheeks.  “Now don’t you dare think of me as anything but Aunt Julia.”   

Prudence seemed to have been robbed of the power of speech.  Robert was mute also.  He shrugged at her, the square shoulders of his long, dark coat rising and falling. 

“Take care of that poison ivy,” he said finally.

She stepped into the silver space between cars, said something polite, and the train slid away, leaving Robert surrounded by gray concrete, and clicked north, the telephone poles beside the tracks vanishing behind.  They might as well have been the same pole over and over, snatched away again and again.  No matter how fast the train went, Pru was going nowhere.  Nothing had happened.  She hadn’t been anywhere at all.  The only good part was, she could tell Abby everything.  She didn’t have to leave anything out.

But Abby had the real news, jumping up and down with it in the Back Bay Station. 

“I.T. flew away!”

“What?  I missed it?”

“When I let her out this morning, she flapped and floated a few feet and came back to the cage, and then this afternoon she kind of fluffed herself up and flew across the yard and looked at me and croaked and took off toward the beach.” 

“I wish I’d been here.” 

“What’s the matter, Pru?” her mother said.  “Didn’t you have a good time?”

“It was fine.”

“No stardust?”

“Mom!”

In the morning, Pru and Abby cleaned the empty cage.  As they were dragging it into the sun to dry, they heard a hoarse yawp.  A gull stood on the porch roof.  A brown gull.  Seagulls never lighted on the house, but still it stood there, seeming to watch them.  Stood there still.   

“I.T.,” Abby cried, starting toward it.

But the seagull flew away.

They had never imagined it would actually work, the rescue.  They had been prepared for disappointment.  Instead, success.  Exactly what they wanted.  They were desolate.

 

 

Catherine Bell has published fiction in Peregrine, Red Wheelbarrow, Inkwell, Coal City Review, Midway Journal, and Saranac Review, among other journals.  Her novel, Rush of Shadows, was a finalist in the 2012 Whidbey Writers Association first novel contest.  Her story “Witness” was anthologized in Amazing Graces, a 2012 collection edited by Richard Peabody.  “House on the Rocks” received honorable mention in a recent New Millennium Writings competition.  “Incident at Cohasset” is forthcoming in South Carolina Review.  She teaches literature and writing at Washington International School.