Read Duet for Three Hands Online
Authors: Tess Thompson
out that afternoon as long as he could, drawing under the shade of an oak at the cemetery. He liked it in this quiet place, amongst the dead, although he didn’t walk about, looking at tombstones, imagining the stories of the lives represented there as Jeselle might have. Instead, during his frequent visits, he chose a spot he found beautiful and then either worked on a drawing he’d already started or simply sketched what was around him: a branch swaying, a ladybug resting on a rose bush, the groundskeeper stooping over his work. Now, the sun had settled lower in the sky, and Whitmore knew he must get home for supper or his mother and Cassie would be upset with him. He hated to have Cassie cross with him, and his mother, well, he would do anything to keep her from disappointment or pain if it was at all possible.
He packed his things in his art bag and slung it over his shoulder as he walked out of the cemetery and down the street toward home. He took the long way so that he could stop at the candy shop, which smelled of cooked sugar. The owner—an older gentleman with a handlebar moustache wrapped into circles like cinnamon rolls, which gave him a comical expression no matter his mood—greeted him with a wave of his hand. Without asking Whitmore what he wanted, he reached into the case and pulled out the largest of the caramels.
Whit paid and said a hearty thank you before heading back out, sticking the caramel into his bag between his charcoals and drawing pad, hoping it wouldn’t melt given the warmth of the evening. When he returned home, he entered the back gate and made his way across the garden to the one-room cottage Jeselle and Cassie shared at the back of the Bellmont property. It was necessary to hide the treat under Jeselle’s pillow, otherwise his sister would find it in his bag, then devour it like a greedy cat with a bowl of cream.
He didn’t bother to knock, knowing Cassie and Jeselle would be in the big house putting the final touches on supper. The cottage was compact but tidy, with both of the twin beds neatly made, the small fireplace clean of ashes, and a basket of knitting waiting near the rocking chair. Jeselle slept on the right side of the room, near one of the small windows. He set the caramel under her pillow, knowing she would look there when she came to bed.
He entered a silent house through the kitchen door. An empty kitchen? Where were Cassie and Jeselle? The room smelled of beef roasting in the oven; the platter waited empty on the table. He hesitated at the door, listening, and detected his mother’s voice from the upstairs hallway calling out to his father. Often, on a Saturday, his father smoked cigars and drank whiskey with friends in the drawing room while his mother and Cassie talked in the kitchen and his sister sneaked out her bedroom window. Where she went on these Saturday nights he couldn’t imagine, and didn’t want to. But today, apparently, everyone was home. He sighed.
Whitmore walked up the stairs to look for his mother in her study, stopping in the doorway. Hundreds of books lined shelves covering two walls. Jeselle, standing on a footstool, dusted the top shelf. She wore a thin cotton dress, her braids skimming the collar. Petite, unlike her tall, strong mother, she appeared even smaller next to the masses of books.
“I’ve returned,” he said to her back.
“And what’s it matter to me?” She twisted to look at him, holding onto the shelf with one hand, and shook the dust rag at him as if he were a pest with the other. Smiling, dimples appeared on each side of her mouth. All his life he’d wanted to put his fingers inside them. “Did you bring me a sweet?”
He rubbed his forehead as if he’d forgotten. This was their game. “Darned if it didn’t slip my mind.”
She laughed and turned back to her work. Open windows brought the scent of honeysuckle. White curtains fluttered in the breeze made by a ceiling fan. This room held all the best memories of his life, he thought. Unless his father was home, his mother taught them here, and the room on those days practically pulsated with the energy of their secret learning. That his mother taught Jeselle right alongside him must be kept a secret, always. After she presented their lessons, they studied at the small round table near the window that looked out into the yard while his mother wrote letters at her desk, delicate head bent over the page.
A door slammed from down the hall. Jeselle jumped and turned to look at him. They both froze, eyes locked, listening. He knew it was his parents’ door, not Frances having a tantrum. Her door had a tinnier sound than their parents’ heavy oak door.
The slamming door always came first, as if his father thought it would keep them all from knowing what was about to happen inside. His father shouted, something incomprehensible except in its tone. Then came a thud. Whitmore’s chest tightened. The walls seemed suddenly close. The dust from Jeselle’s rag, unnoticed until now, floated through the warm, dense air and seemed to reach him. He gulped the air, feeling as if he might choke. Sure enough, a dry and raspy cough that always accompanied the twitch on the side of one eye began. Tears came to his eyes as he hunched over, trying to catch his breath.
Jeselle, beside him now, touched his shoulder. “It’s all right, Whit. She’ll get through it. She always does.” At the sound of her voice, his coughing stopped. She handed him a glass of water. How had she gotten down from the stool, crossed the room, and poured water from the pitcher without him knowing? She was like a deer. “Drink this.”
Whitmore took a sip of the lukewarm water. Then, rage roared through him like the rush of a stormy sea. How he hated him. Whit slammed the glass on the desk, hard, pretending it was his father’s fat face—red, bloated, with ugly veins on his bulbous nose. He knew from an old photograph that Frank Bellmont had once been handsome, but drink and gluttony had changed all that. The glass broke. Water puddled on the surface of the desk and then spread until it reached a letter his mother had written but not yet signed—an invitation for dinner to someone named Nathaniel Fye. Water smeared the ink where this Nathaniel’s address was written in his mother’s loopy handwriting, making the shape of an asymmetrical star cut in half. He gripped the side of the desk with both hands, watching the spilled water drip onto the floor. “Jessie. I can’t. This. I can’t stand it.” His voice cracked.
But he did not stop to listen. He strode toward the door, not knowing what he would do but just that he must somehow take her place. It was time. He was large enough to take his father’s beating, the one intended for his fragile mother.
Just a few feet from the bedroom door, he heard his mother cry out. He halted. What should he do? Burst through the door? He imagined coming between his mother and father, taking the fists with his own body.
, he thought.
You must have courage.
But just then Jeselle reached him and grabbed his hand, forcing him to stop and look at her.
She pushed him against the wall, splaying her hands on his chest and whispering, “Please, Whit, no. There’s nothing you can do.”
A series of crashes came next: breaking glass, a loud boom, and then splintering wood, and finally, a thud like a body thrown against the wall. Mother cried out, like a scared, hurt animal. “Please, Frank, stop. Please.”
“Have you learned your lesson?” shouted his father.
“Yes, Frank. I’m sorry.”
“Get out of my sight.”
Whit wept without sound, looking down at the floor, his chest heaving with the effort to keep quiet as they listened to the click of his mother’s shoes on the hardwood floor. The door opened just wide enough for her to slip out. She shut it gingerly and then jumped at the sight of them. The normally upswept bun at the back of her neck hung loose around her shoulders and made her face seem wan and young. Red welts were scattered on her neck and chest. But it was her eyes, flat, like those in a photograph of a dead person Whitmore had recently seen in a magazine, that hurt him the most.
Mother put her finger to her lips and motioned for them to follow. She moved slowly, walking on the balls of her feet and feeling the back of her head with her fingertips. In the kitchen, she went to the door and opened it, as if she might go out into the garden but then looked back, shaking like she’d come in from the cold in the dead of winter. Jeselle took her arm, leading her to one of the kitchen chairs. “Mrs. Bellmont, sit.”
“Mother, are you terribly hurt?” Whit knelt at her side.
Mrs. Bellmont touched the back of her head again gingerly. “I’m fine.”
“I’ll get you some ice.” Whit’s voice wobbled.
As he rose to his feet, Cassie bustled through the door, carrying several packages. She came to an abrupt halt when she saw Mother. “Oh, no, Miz Bellmont,” she muttered under her breath as she set the packages on the table. She knelt in the same spot Whit had just vacated. “Are you all right?”
“It’s just a bump on the back of my head. He stayed away from my face,” said Mother. “There’s the Winslow party tomorrow night, you know.”
Cassie felt the bump with her capable fingers. “What set him off?”
“I took him the wrong drink.”
Cassie turned to Jeselle. “Baby girl, fetch me Miz Bellmont’s hairbrush and my sewing kit. Then fix some tea.”
Mother reached for Cassie’s hand. “Don’t fuss over me, Cassie. I’m fine. I know the children are probably hungry.”
Cassie’s gaze turned to the red marks on Mother’s chest. “Those’ll bruise.”
“I have the green dress with the high collar. I’ll wear that to the Winslows’.”
Cassie nodded, smoothing loose tendrils of hair back from Mother’s face. “I’ll make an ointment for you to rub on them.”
Mother’s eyes filled with tears before she brought her hands to her face. “I’m so tired. So very tired.”
Whitmore went to the window. The setting sun had turned the sky red.
uring his time away
, when not practicing or performing, Nathaniel thought of Frances. He sent several letters but heard no replies. She wouldn’t know where to send them, he reassured himself, what with a new city every week. The day before they left California he mailed her a postcard of the beach to let her know he would return to New York in a week’s time. He would call her when he got back. He hoped she still wanted him to.
He and Walt arrived in New York late on a Monday night, and he fell into a deep sleep, thankful for his own bed, excited but nervous to call Frances in the morning.
He woke refreshed and went out for a paper and a loaf of bread from the bakery on the corner around midmorning. Upon returning from his errand, there, standing outside his apartment building, was Frances. Startled, and then unsure it was actually Frances, he stopped mid-stride and froze. She was here, now? Were his eyes deceiving him? But no, it was his beautiful Frances in front of his building. He gaped at her, blinking his eyes in rapid succession. His mouth suddenly dry, he walked toward her. “Frances? Is it really you?”
“Nate.” She ran toward him and threw her arms around his neck, the bread in his arms a pillow between them. “I’m so glad to see you. I was afraid I had the wrong building.”
“What’s happened? Why are you here?” He searched her face. Her complexion was odd, almost yellow tinged. She seemed subdued, cowed even. Was she ill? “Frances, are you all right?”
“I had to see you right away.” She paused. “I have some rather frightful news. I’m going to have a baby.”
It might have been that someone hit him, that’s where he felt the blow, right in the middle of his chest. “A baby?”
“It’s yours, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
He shook his head, confused. Why had she said that? “I wasn’t wondering. Not at all, in fact.”
She started to cry and pulled a lace handkerchief from her purse. “There’s only one thing to do.”
“We’ll have to get married.”
What had she said? Married? He floated there for a moment, watching the girl in front of him, who was both a stranger and yet achingly familiar. How often he’d imagined her smooth skin, the way she’d sighed when he kissed her neck. And then, out of his mouth as if they’d been perched against his teeth all the time, came the words, “Yes, right. We’ll get married.” He smiled and took her hands. “Frances Bellmont, will you marry me?”
“Oh, Nate, I’m so relieved. I’m horrified at what’s happened, and I was afraid you might not want me.”
He cleared his throat, looking at her hands in his, trying to order his jumbled and confused thoughts into something coherent. “Does your mother know?”
“Yes, she’s waiting at the hotel. She gave me no choice but to tell her. It was the only way I could persuade her to bring me here to see you. She thought it inappropriate to call on you, of course.”
He felt sick, thinking of the kind Mrs. Bellmont he’d met at the party and how disappointed this must have made her.
“Mother was upset, or shocked might be a better word. She wants you to come to supper tonight at the hotel so you two can discuss the details. This is the way, you see, Nate. A young, southern lady decides nothing for herself.” She went on without taking a breath. “The main concern is scandal. Daddy can’t have it getting out. So we’ll have to hurry everything along.”
“I’ll arrange everything with your mother.”
“Everything arranged. That sounds so final.” Her eyes went flat, and she looked suddenly young and vulnerable. “I wanted so many things for my life. I’m not ready to be a mother.”
“Frances, this doesn’t have to be the end of your life. I’ll be a good husband, I promise. We’ll have help for the baby. Whatever you need. Don’t worry. There are many interesting people here that you’ll enjoy and parties every night if we want to go. I never do, of course, but I could.” He paused, searching her face. “If you wanted to, I would. If it pleased you.”
She smiled, tilting her face upward and gazing into his eyes. He felt a flutter in his chest and was filled with the possibility of things, of this new start to his life as a family man. “We’ll live here in the city, right, Nate?”
“Yes, of course, and you can travel with me if you want. We’ll go all over the world together. Would you like that?”
She sighed, smiling again. “Well, that sounds wonderful.”
“And there’ll be a baby.” His chest expanded further. “I’ve longed to be a father, Frances, for many years now. We’ll be happy, the three of us.”
She began to cry. “I’m awfully frightened. You won’t let anyone talk you out of this, will you?”
“Absolutely not.” He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed her wet cheeks. “And don’t be frightened. I’ll take good care of you.” Picking up her small white hands between his own, he brought them to his mouth, brushing them with his lips. Gardenias. Frances would be his wife. Could it all have happened, or was it a dream? “I’ll go out this afternoon and find you a ring. Something beautiful for your beautiful hand.”
Her eyes widened, and she smiled wide, her perfect teeth white against her red lipstick. “It wouldn’t sadden me to have something large and sparkly.”
“I think I can manage that.” He laughed, feeling ridiculously happy that he could do this thing for her. “May I kiss you?”
“I suppose it’s only appropriate since we’re engaged.” Her voice was husky, almost breathless.
He leaned toward her, determined to give her a kiss she’d never forget, to make her forget her fear or uncertainty. Capturing her mouth in his, he gently pressed into her. She put her arms around his neck and sighed into him.
After a moment, he drew back, scrutinizing her face. “Could you ever love me?”
She giggled and placed her fingertips on his mouth. “Nate, I loved you the first time I set my eyes on you.”
Soaring happiness like the perfect crescendo in a musical movement. To love and be loved in return? Was there anything finer?
“I will be a good husband and father, no matter what comes our way, Frances Bellmont.”
“I know you will.”
fter Frances left
, Nate sat at the piano in his front room for a moment, staring at the keys. He would have to call his mother. His dear mother. Her discipline and rigidity, brought about from her strict religious upbringing, remained intact despite the changing world. She spent her days caring for the sick or poor in her little town, never tiring, it seemed, no matter how long the day. She walked everywhere in her comfortable shoes with her Bible tucked against her side, in case there was a soul that needed saving before they went on to the next world.
This rushed marriage—she would not approve. She would know straightaway why. He sighed, bracing himself. The truth must be told.
His mother didn’t have a telephone, and there was only one phone available in her small Maine town for public use, located at the dry-goods store. He called the owner, Lou, who offered to send his boy over on foot to ask Nate’s mother to be at the phone at three o’clock.
“Ma,” he said when she answered, immediately falling into the way he used to talk.
“Son? Is that you?” She always talked too loudly into the phone, not understanding that one didn’t have to shout to be heard through the wires. He imagined her long neck stretched like an ostrich’s, eyes fixated at the mouthpiece while pressing the earpiece into her poor ear hard enough to make a dent.
Lou’s store was probably packed with locals, playing checkers, talking about the day’s catch, sipping bootleg booze from coffee cups. Everyone listening. He cringed as he spoke. “Ma, I’m going to tell you something, and I don’t want you to repeat it. In case there’s anyone listening.”
She didn’t say anything, but he knew she was probably bobbing her head in agreement, one arm crossed over her spare chest.
“I’m getting married.”
“You’re doing what?”
“I’m getting married. To a girl from Georgia. Her name’s Frances Bellmont.”
The line crackled.
“Are you there, Ma?”
“Yep, I’m here. When?”
“In a couple of weeks,” Nathaniel said.
Silence for a moment. “How long have you known her?” She no longer shouted. He knew what she looked like: mouth clenched, the little muscle below her cheek flexed, her eyes unblinking. She’d given him the same look when he’d been caught at the back of school smoking a cigarette with Billy Bradshaw, or the time he’d lost one of his schoolbooks on the way home. During the entire week he’d been home to bury his father, she had never once loosened her face to betray her grief. The woman could hold her emotions inside better than anyone he’d ever met. Who knew what storms raged within? Her face was like ice covering a lake in deep winter. One knew many things lurked underneath the glittering surface, revealed when spring came in a rush of life. For his mother, spring never came.
“Couple of months.” This was true, he thought, if you counted the time he was away in California. He didn’t share the fact that he’d spent only part of a day and a night with her. Some things could not be told to one’s mother, especially his.
Silence for another moment, and when she spoke again, her voice sounded hollow with disappointment. “Only one reason you’d be rushing into a marriage.”
He leaned his forehead against the phone’s bell-shaped receiver. “Ma, she comes from a good family. They’re part of Atlanta society. It’s a good marriage.”
“You’ll have to make your peace with God, not me.”
He let that sit for a moment, feeling the familiar blackness of guilt and shame, like a hole he couldn’t escape from. “Ma, maybe you could come down for the wedding? I’ll send money for a train.” Even as he said it he knew it was impossible. Not only did he know she would refuse on her principles, there was no way she could get there in time, given how quickly everything must be done.
“Impossible to make that kind of trip without your father.”
“I’ll bring her to see you. Later.” He almost said,
after the baby comes
, but he held back, some part of him hopeful that she didn’t know the truth.
“Write to me, son, and let me know how you’re doing.” The line went silent.
he hotel restaurant
bustled with life. Well-dressed patrons ate and drank and toasted one another. Ladies in short dresses of every color wore cloche hats, some beaded, some with ribbons, perched deftly over bobbed hair. Men wore gray, brown, or black suits and striped ties in shades of wheat, their hair slicked back with pomade. Optimism, he thought, a sense that life could and should go on like this forever. Silver and glasses clinked above the low hum of laughter and voices. Servers moved about efficiently in black pants and crisp white shirts as the scent of baking bread, cigarettes, coffee, and roasted meat mingled. Nathaniel spotted Mrs. Bellmont at a table toward the back. She sat alone, tracing a circle with her finger on the white tablecloth. As he wove his way between tables he felt like a young performer before a concert, nauseous and sweaty. What could he say to this intelligent and trusting woman that might make her forgive him and maybe someday like him once again? There was nothing. That was the bitter truth. He had betrayed her trust. Would there ever be a way back?
Please, God, let it be so
, he prayed silently.
When he arrived at the table, Mrs. Bellmont looked up, smiling in a way that didn’t reach her eyes. She was dressed tastefully, a gray gown with a modest scoop neckline falling at her collarbones and ash-blonde hair arranged perfectly around her pretty face were in direct contradiction to her red and puffy eyes. He’d made her cry. It was almost too much to bear.
The waiter pulled out his chair, and Nathaniel sat. His throat tightened. Could he speak? But right away something came out of his mouth. “Mrs. Bellmont, I’m sorry we have to meet under these circumstances.”
“Yes.” She sounded tired, like she hadn’t slept for nights. “It diminishes our last delightful encounter somewhat.”
“I know.” He looked at his hands. “I’m ashamed and can only say in my defense that I fell in love with her at first sight. I’m powerless to resist her.”