Authors: E.L. Konigsburg
Amedeo picked up his backpack and started walking with William.
“Do you live here?” Amedeo asked.
“Then why did you get off at my stop?”
William's smile faded. “I didn't know it was your stop. I thought it was a bus stop.”
“I meant that I live here. So it's my stop.”
“I'm not gonna take it away from you,” William replied, and his smile disappeared.
They had reached the edge of Mrs. Zender's property. Without a whistle or a wave, William headed down the driveway.
Amedeo stopped to watch.
William lifted the back hatch of a station wagon that was parked at the bottom of Mrs. Zender's driveway. No one who lived on Mandarin Road owned a station wagon. Mrs. Zender drove a pink Thunderbird convertible: stick shift, whitewall tires, and a car horn that pealed out the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.
Amedeo watched as William removed a large brown paper bag from the back. It was not a Bloomingdale's Big Brown Bag, but a no-handles, flat-bottom brown bag from a grocery store. He could tell from the way William lifted it that the bag was definitely not empty. He carried
the bag up to Mrs. Zender's front door and walked right in without ringing or knocking. He knew that he was being watched, but he did not once look back.
Amedeo waited until William closed the door behind him before he walked down the driveway himself.
Amedeo had been inside Mrs. Zender's house once. Two days after moving to St. Malo, they still didn't have a phone, and his mother had sent him next door to ask the lady of the house permission to use her phone to “light a fire” under them.
being the phone enemy.
Amedeo's mother was an executive with Infinitel, an independent long-distance telephone company that was a competitor to Teletron, St. Malo's communications provider. To his mother, the telephone was as vital a connection as the muscle that connected her hand to her arm. If St. Malo already had had access to cell phones, she wouldn't be in this predicament, but then if St. Malo already had access to cell phones, they wouldn't be in St. Malo at all. The only thing neutralizing her indignation about not having a working phone was the embarrassment the local company was suffering at not being able to properly service one of their own. But on this morning there was also the pool man (whom she secretly believed to be the one who had cut the line) to
deal with. She chose to wait for the pool man herself and to send Amedeo next door to deal with the phone. Amedeo had been happy to go.
A wide threshold of broken flagstones led to the front door of Mrs. Zender's house. There were no torn papers and dried leaves blowing up against a ripped screen door as in the opening credits of a horror movie. Her grounds were not littered with papers but with pinecones and needles, fallen Spanish moss, and big leathery sycamore leaves. Her lawn was cut but not manicured; her shrubs were not pruned, and except for the holes through the branches that the electric company made to protect the wires, her trees were wild. The paint on her front door was peeling. Her place looked shabby. Shabby in a genteel way, as if the people who lived there didn't have to keep up with the Joneses because they themselves
Amedeo wiped a moustache of sweat from his upper lip with the sleeve of his T-shirt. Like a performer ready to go on stage, he stood on the threshold and took a long sip of the hot, moist gaseous matter that St. Malo called air. He lifted his hand to ring the bell.
The door swung wide, and the entire opening filled, top to bottom, with a sleeve. The sleeve of a silk kimono. “Yes?” the woman said, smiling. Her smile engaged her
whole face. Her mouth opened high and wide; her nostrils flared, and her eyebrows lifted to meet a narrow margin of blond hair. Just beyond the hairline, her head was covered by a long, gauzy silk scarfâpurpleâthat was tied in an elaborate knot below her left ear but was still long enough to hang to her waist. She wore three shades of eye shadowâone of which was purpleâand heavy black mascara. Her lips were painted a bright crimson, which feathered above and below the line of her lips and left red runes on three of her front teeth.
It was nine o'clock in the morning.
Amedeo had never seen anyone dressed like that except when he was in an audience.
“Hello,” he said. “My name is Amedeo Kaplan, and I would like permission to use your phone.”
Mrs. Zender introduced herself and commented, “Amedeo. Lovely name.”
“Thank you. People usually call me Deo.”
“I won't,” she said. “
is Italian for
which means âlove of God.' It was Mozart's middle name.”
“It was my grandfather's first name. I'm named for him.”
“Lovely,” she said, “lovely name, but how did you get here, Amedeo?”
“You walked? From where?”
“From next door.”
“Oh,” Mrs. Zender replied. “I didn't know there was a child.”
“There definitely was.
“I didn't know.”
“I was at camp.”
“Music camp?” Mrs. Zender asked.
She smiled expectantly, waiting for an explanation. Fascinated, Amedeo watched her upper lip squeegee away one of the red runes. When he didn't answer, she told Amedeo to follow her, and with a sweep of sleeve, she pointed the way. The underarm seam of her kimono was split. Mrs. Zender was not a natural blonde.
As they traveled the distance of a long center hall, they passed two or three rooms so dark it was hard to tell where one ended and another began. Every window was covered with heavy drapes, which dropped from padded valances. The word
Gone With the Wind
came to mind.
In several windows, the drapes had been shortened to accommodate a bulky window air conditioner that was noisily waging war with the heat and humidity. And losing. They passed a dining room large enough to be a ballroom. In the semilight, Amedeo could make out a
Phantom of the Opera
chandelier hanging over a table that
looked long enough to seat the guest list at Buckingham Palace. Opposite the dining room was a room with a baby grand piano; its open lid reflected the few slits of light that pierced the parting of the drapes. The darkness and the drawn drapes added a dimension to the heat. It was August. It was St. Malo. It was hot. Hot, hot, hot.
But the thickness of the air carried the sound of musicâoperaâout of the rooms and transformed the hallway into a concert hall. Amedeo slowed down and cocked his head to listen.
Mrs. Zender said, “So you like my sound system.”
“One of a kind,” she said, “Karl Eisenhuth himself installed it.”
“Karl Eisenhuth? I'm sorry, I don't know him.”
“Then I shall tell you. Karl Eisenhuth was the world's greatest acoustician. He had never before installed a sound system in a private home. He had done opera houses in Brno and Vienna and a symphony hall in Amsterdam. Mr. Zender, my late husband, contacted him and requested that he install a sound system here. Karl Eisenhuth asked Mr. Zender why he should bother with a private home in St. Malo, Florida, and Mr. Zender replied with three words:
Aida Lily Tull.
was my professional name. Those three words,
Aida Lily Tull,
were reason enough.”
Amedeo said, “I'm impressed.” He was.
Mrs. Zender said, “I'm pleased that you are.”
And for reasons he did not yet understand, Amedeo was pleased to have pleased.
Mrs. Zender swept her arm in the direction of the back of the house. The hallway was wide enough to allow them to walk side by side, but Mrs. Zender walked ahead. She was tall, and she was zaftig. Definitely zaftig. She was also majestic. She moved forward like a queen vessel plowing still waters. Her kimono corrugated as she moved. There was a thin stripe of purple that winked as it appeared and then disappeared in a fold of fabric at her waist.
Amedeo was wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt and shorts, but the air inside the house was as thick as motor oil, and perspiration soon coated his arms and legs and made his clothes stick like cuticle. Mrs. Zender seemed not to be sweating. Maybe she followed the dress code of the desert and insulated herself with layers of clothing. Arabs and motor oil had been in the news a lot lately.
The combination of heat, music, and the mesmerizing rock-and-roll of Mrs. Zender's hips made Amedeo worry about falling unconscious before reaching the door at the end of the hall. What were the names of clothes that desert
BurnooseÂ .Â .Â . chadorÂ .Â .Â . chador.
His mother did not approve of chadors.
The rock-and-roll stopped when Mrs. Zender arrived at the door at the end of the hall. She waited for Amedeo to catch up, and then with a flutter of sleeve and a swirl of pattern, she lifted her right arm and pushed the door open. For a minute, she stood against the door, her arm stretched out like a semaphore, beckoning Amedeo to pass in front of her.
He walked into the kitchen, and Mrs. Zender quickly closed the door behind her.
The music stopped.
An air conditioner was propped into the kitchen window and was loudly battling the throbbing pulse of heat that bore into the room. Like his house, Mrs. Zender's faced east. By August, the afternoon sun was too high to make a direct hit on the kitchen windows, but was still strong enough to bounce off the river and push yellow bands of heat through each of the slats of the Venetian blinds.
The kitchen itself was a time capsule. The counters were edged in ribbed chrome and topped with pink patterned Formica that was peeling at the seams. Near the sink sat a set of metal cylinders labeled
FLOUR, SUGAR, COFFEE.
There was a toaster oven, but no microwave. The stove was the width of two regular stoves, eight burners,
two regular ovens, and a warming oven. It was gleaming bright, clean, and obviously had not been used in a very long time. It would take courage to turn it on. Cold cereal and vichyssoise would be better menu choices.
On the countertop in the corner of the kitchen near the dining alcove, there was a small telephone. Turquoise. Rotary dial. Not touch-tone. Amedeo had seen people in the movies use a rotary phone, and he knew the phrase “dial a number,” but he had never done it.
Mrs. Zender said, “That's a princess phone.”
“Does it work?”
“Of course it works. Except for my cleaning service, which is not here today, everything in this house works.”
Amedeo lifted the receiver. The part of the phone he held to his ear had yellowed from turquoise to a shade of institutional green.
Mrs. Zender sat at the kitchen table. Amedeo felt he was being watched. He turned to face the wall of cabinets.
The cabinets reached to the ceiling. It would take a ladder to reach the top shelves. The cabinet doors were glass, and Amedeo could see stacks and stacks of dishes and matching cups hanging from hooks. Behind other glass doors there were platoons of canned soupsâmostly tomatoâand a regiment of cereal boxesâmostly bran. Everything was orderly, but the dishes on the topmost
shelves were dusty, and the stemware was cloudy, settled in rows like stalagmites.
Finally, he heard, “Your call may be monitored for quality assurance,” and was told to listen carefully “to the following options.” He realized that he could not exercise any of the “following options.” He could hardly press one or two when there were no buttons to press. He held his hand over the mouthpiece and whispered, “I'm supposed to push one for English.”
Mrs. Zender smiled wide. The last of the red runes had been washed away. “Do nothing,” she said. “Just hang on. When you have a dial phone, they have to do the work for you.” She threw her head back and laughed.
Amedeo didn't turn his back on her again.
As soon as the call was finished, they returned to the long, dark hall, where the heat and the music swallowed them. Mrs. Zender paused to say, “I suppose you put central air-conditioning into your place.”
Amedeo hesitated. Until that moment, he had never thought of central air-conditioning as something a person put in. He thought it came with the walls and roof. “I suppose so,” he said.
“Sissies,” Mrs. Zender said. Then she laughed again. She had a musical laugh. “I chose a sound system over air-conditioning.”
“But,” Amedeo replied, “I think you're allowed to have both.”
“No,” she said crisply. “Karl Eisenhuth is as dead as my husband.”
“Oh, I'm sorry.”
“Yes, a pity. There never will be another sound system like this one.”
Reluctantly, Amedeo left Mrs. Zender, her veils, her house.
Now, Amedeo watched William walk through that peeling, painted front door without stopping or knocking and enter Mrs. Zender's world of sound and shadow.
ANDERWAAL WAS STAYING LATE
at the office. He was hoping to get a great deal accomplished in this uninterrupted time after hours. He was clearing his desk to start preparing for an important exhibition that was coming to the Sheboygan Art Center. The show was scheduled for the first weekend in November, and it was already the second Friday in September. School had started and museum activity always picked up with the start of the school year. There was a lot of routine museum business he wanted to get out of the way.