Voices of a Summer Day (6 page)

BOOK: Voices of a Summer Day
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He felt a hot blush of shame well up from his collar and flood his face. He would have liked to kill the girl on the spot. Instead, he counted the glasses the bartender put on his tray and made his way through the crowd toward the table he was serving.

The laughter from the bar made him tremble. He nearly spilled a drink, and a man at the table looked up at him and said sharply, “Watch what the hell you’re doing, stupid.”

As he went about his duties he knew he hated everybody there that night. Although he didn’t want to
be
like them, he wanted, hopelessly, to
seem
like them, to feel that much at ease, that confident of blind, undeserved homage from the rest of the world.

From time to time he saw Dyer and his father as they patrolled the rooms. Now not only the Dyer of the campus, friendly and pleasant, had disappeared, but also the imperious and brusque Dyer of the kitchen. Now the Dyers, father and son, were permanently smiling, permanently bowing, obsequious, slavelike. They both gave the impression that nothing would give them deeper satisfaction than to be able to get down on their knees and kiss every polished patent-leather pump, the toe of every high-heeled satin slipper in the club that night.

At dinner, Benjamin had three tables of ten people apiece to serve. The clumsiness of inexperience was complicated for him by his inability to keep from observing a regal-looking beautiful blond girl in a white décolleté who sat at one of his tables. She couldn’t have been any older than himself, but she seemed to move in a serene aura all her own, untouched by the noise and confusion around her as she filled her glass again and again throughout the meal with bootleg bourbon from one of the four bottles on the table. After the third glass, every sip she took sent a thrill of anxiety through him. You’re too beautiful, he wanted to say, you’re too good, you mustn’t get drunk, please, for my sake, don’t get drunk.

The lights in the room were dimmed for midnight, and 1932 arrived in western Pennsylvania amid the blaring of horns, drunken shouts, indiscriminate long kisses in the dark, the throwing of confetti and paper streamers, the infantilism of paper hats. Benjamin had a moment free to stand against a wall and think of himself. The entire party stood up and sang “Auld Lang Syne.” Benjamin didn’t sing. He thought of Pat lying in her bed, her ears stuffed with cotton against the midnight bells. He wished he had some cotton to stuff in his ears, too—and not only against church bells.

When the lights went up, the blond girl, now with her lipstick smeared, stood up and walked with perfect control past Benjamin and up the grandiose flight of steps that curved to the floor above. She disappeared, and Benjamin thought that she probably had gone to the ladies’ room to repair her face. He hoped, anxiously, that she was not going to be sick. He couldn’t bear the thought of that lovely face strained over a toilet bowl, that petaled soft mouth stretched by vomit. She had been gone two minutes when Benjamin saw the man who had sat next to her during dinner and who had kept filling her glass, get up and walk up the steps, too.

They were both gone thirty minutes. Then the man came down alone. He was slight, sandy-haired, about twenty years old. Benjamin had listened to scraps of his conversation during the meal and had overheard that he was a junior at Dartmouth. As the Dartmouth man passed Benjamin on his way down the steps, Benjamin saw that his bow tie, which had been a perfect black butterfly during dinner, had been clumsily retied.

Two minutes later, still regal and steady, every hair in place, the glorious white dress still unruffled, the blond girl slowly and deliberately came down the steps, in full view of the entire dining room. As she walked past the people who were now dancing in the middle of the room, Benjamin heard, or perhaps imagined he heard, a kind of rustle throughout the room, a sigh, a nervous hush between one beat of the music and the next. The girl came back to the table, sat down and nodded agreeably at the Dartmouth junior as he poured another drink for her.

Thirty minutes later, the girl stood up again and once more, with her head high and straight, made the dazzling voyage across the room and the deliberate, graceful ascent of the wide staircase. Agonized, pushing his way through the crowd of celebrants with his tray loaded with ice and cups and pots of coffee, Benjamin kept his eyes on the Dartmouth junior. The Dartmouth man didn’t budge. Two minutes after the girl had disappeared up the staircase, a dark-haired man of about thirty, who had been sitting almost back to back to the girl at the adjoining table, got up from his place and mounted the stairs.

Neither the man nor the girl reappeared for almost an hour. A good many of the guests had gone home, but there were still enough people left for Benjamin to feel the rustle, the curious nervous hush, this time more intense, as the couple, now disdainfully and publicly arm in arm, descended the staircase and went onto the dance floor.

How? Benjamin thought. How can there be people like that? Where is her mother, her father, her priest, her lover? If only he hadn’t been wearing the white coat of a servant, if only he hadn’t felt the inhuman lack of a bridge between them, he himself would have taken the responsibility that none else would accept and would have gone over to her, spoken to her. There wasn’t even a person in the entire room who would tell him her name or where she lived, so that, hidden by anonymity, emboldened by distance, he could have sat down, once safely back in school, and written her a letter imploring her to save herself.

But he did nothing. There was nothing to be done. The girl danced for a while with different men. Benjamin went into the kitchen. When he came out she was gone. A few couples still danced languidly to the music. Then the band played “Good Night, Ladies” and the night was over. The musicians packed their instruments, fled. Two boys carried a drunk covered with vomit out of the men’s room. Neither Dyer nor his father was to be seen. Their last bow bowed, their last yassuh-boss smile smiled, they had driven off to their well-earned rest. The waiters straggled wearily into the kitchen. The old Irishwoman was there, locking food into the giant icebox and whiskey bottles into a small side room. There was tepid coffee out on a table for the waiters and chipped mugs and stale rolls, many of them already broken open, from the baskets on the tables. There still was no butter.

“Is this all there is to eat?” Benjamin asked the Irishwoman.

“That’s all, my lad,” she said. She smelled heavily of alcohol and she had a faint drunken smile on her lips. “Good nourishing bread.”

“But there must be tons of turkey left over,” Benjamin said.

“Tons,” the old lady said.

“Why let it go to waste?” Benjamin asked. “We’re starving.”

“The help don’t regale themselves with turkey in my kitchen,” said the old lady. “Everything is fitting and proper in my kitchen.”

“Why don’t you stuff your turkey in a fitting and proper place in your kitchen, lady?” somebody said.

“I take that from where it comes,” the old lady said contemptuously. “I don’t pay any heed to the insults of servants. And that’s what you are, lads. Servants. I don’t care if you think you’re college boys and gentlemen. I know the school you go to, I know young Dyer, with his fancy airs. He doesn’t fool me any more than you boys do. Those young people out there tonight,
they’re
ladies and gentlemen. Born and bred. And there isn’t a one of you who’ll ever be invited to the home of a single lady or gentleman who was here tonight. I’m telling you this for your own good, lads. Know your place. You’ll save yourself a lifetime of grieving if you listen to an old woman who has been around quality all her life.”

“Go to bed, old lady,” Benjamin said wearily.

None of the other boys seemed to be listening to her as she rambled on. Numb from fatigue, they drank their coffee and mechanically ate their rolls or sat with their heads in their hands, too tired to move. “Go to bed,” Benjamin said. “Or back to Ireland. Happy New Year and good night.”

“Ah, you’re a fresh one, aren’t you?” the old lady said, still with that faint drunken smile on her lips. “I’ll be interested to see where you’re to be found thirty years from now. I’ll go to bed, never you fear, this happy New Year. But first, I have a pleasant duty to perform. Mr. Dyer won’t be in tomorrow and I’ll be sleeping the good day long and I don’t want to be disturbed by the likes of you. Mr. Dyer has commissioned me to give you your wages.” She took a bundle of bills from the large pocket of her apron. She began to count them into piles. “Ten dollars apiece for each of you and…”

“Ten?” Benjamin said. “We were promised fifteen, plus tips.”

“Oh, my good lad,” the old lady said, “I know what you were promised. But that lad there”—she pointed at a boy called Cunningham, who was sitting with his head in his hands—“he had the grand misfortune to pour a bowl of soup on a lady’s fine, expensive gown, and it’s ruined forever, the lady says, and it cost five hundred dollars in a great shop in the city of Paris and who’s to pay for the loss? Ten it is, lads, and you should be thankful it isn’t less, due to the kindness of Mr. Dyer’s good heart.”

“Cunningham,” Benjamin asked, “did you ruin a lady’s dress?”

“I dropped a few gobs of soup on some old bag’s tits. Yeah.” Cunningham didn’t even bother to look up. He was a frail boy, they had all been up almost twenty-four hours without any time to rest, and he sat at the table like a prizefighter who has just been knocked out and has not quite yet come around. “Five hundred dollars,” he said. “My mother buys better dresses than that in Bamberger’s Newark for twenty-five ninety-five.”

“There you are, lads,” the Irishwoman said, gesturing to fourteen neat piles on the table. “Come and get it and stop your complaining. Eleven-fifty apiece.”

“What’s the one-fifty for?” one of the other boys asked.

“That’s each boy’s share of the tips,” the old lady said.

“Oh, Christ,” somebody said. “Are you sure this poor white trash here tonight can afford it? Why, they may have to go without their caviar for two or three hours next year if they throw their money around like that.”

“There’ll be no blasphemy here in my kitchen, young man,” the old lady said, “and certainly not from the likes of you.” She sailed out of the kitchen into a small office near the back door and hung up her apron on a hook, closed the door, then locked it, fumbling with the key.

Cunningham began to sing “The Wearing of the Green” and was joined by some of the others.
“It’s the most peculiar country that you have ever seen,”
the boys sang, their voices hollow and mocking in the cold, echoing kitchen,
“For they’re hanging men and women, for the wearing of the green—”

“Not enough,” Cunningham said.

Angrily the old lady turned around. She staggered a little as she came up to Cunningham and shook her finger at him. “I’ll have no slurs on the Irish either, lad, I warn you.”

“He’s Irish, lady,” somebody said.

“I know what kind of Irish,” said the old lady. “Scum.” She lurched out, and they heard her walking unevenly down the hall to her bedroom.

“Well,” Benjamin said, standing up, “I never had more fun in my life. I’m going to bed.”

They decided they’d all leave by eleven in the morning and climbed the three flights heavily to the servants’ rooms under the roof.

When Benjamin got to his door, it was locked. Sleepily, he tried to figure out how that could have happened. He knew he had left the key in the door when he went down before dinner, because there was nothing in the room that anybody could possibly have wanted to steal. But there was no doubt about it now. It definitely was locked. He tried to throw his weight against the door, but it held. He went into the next room where Cunningham, too tired to undress, lay sprawled, with the light on, across his cot.

Benjamin told Cunningham about the door and opened the window of the room to see if there was some way he could get to his own window three feet away. A polar wind howled in through the open window and Cunningham moaned. There was a rain gutter that looked secure along the edge of the sloping roof and the roof itself had wooden shingles on it that would give good purchase for fingers and Benjamin stepped out gingerly, testing the gutter. “Well,” he said to Cunningham, “tell the boys I died game.”

Cunningham heaved himself up from the cot with what seemed to be the last ounce of energy left in his body and leaned out the window to watch as Benjamin inched his way along, trying not to look down at the ground forty feet below him. “Hurry up, for Christ’s sake,” Cunningham said. “I’m freezing.”

Benjamin reached his window and tried to open it. It was locked. The wind whistled through his thin shirt (they had left their white jackets and bow ties in the kitchen). The shade was down, although he was sure he hadn’t drawn it in the few minutes he had spent in his room before the night’s work began. “The hell with it,” he said to Cunningham. He took out his handkerchief, wrapped it around his fist, and broke the top pane of glass, then reached in, turned the lock mechanism, lifted the bottom half of the window, ran up the shade, and crawled in. Safely inside, he leaned out and said to Cunningham, “Ok, go to sleep.”

Cunningham closed his window. Benjamin went to the door and flicked on the light. Then he turned and surveyed the room, which was shaking now with the wind that roared in through the broken pane. The bed had been used. The one blanket was in a heap on the floor, the sheet was crumpled, half on the bed, half on the floor. There were lipstick stains all over the sheet and pillowcase.

The blond girl, Benjamin thought. The drunken blond whore. Maybe she was hunting a third lay and that’s why she locked the door and took the key. For future use. His comb and brush were on the floor. He picked them up. There were two or three fine pale hairs in his comb. No wonder she looked so neat when she came down the stairs. For a moment, he considered wrapping himself in his overcoat and sleeping on the floor. No, he thought, fighting an insane and impotent rage. I won’t give the bitch the satisfaction. He hung his coat as best as he could over the broken window. It kept out some of the wind, but not much. It must have been at least ten below zero outside. Shivering, he picked up the sheet and made the bed. The lipstick stains were in some strange places, he noted, and there was the stain of semen and its distinctive odor, faint but probing. He put out the light and lay down in his clothes, after taking his shoes off. He pulled the thin blanket over him. As his body warmed the sheets the odor of the bed, the musty odor of the straw mattress, the fragrance of perfume, the womb and vagina and semen smell of sex, rose to his nostrils. Exhausted as he was he couldn’t sleep. As he lay there, trying to breathe through his mouth so as not to smell the disturbing mixture of odors, trying not to recreate in his mind what must have happened in this bed while he was downstairs, he realized that, with all his loathing, he wanted the girl who had used his bed in which to make love with two men that night and that if she came through the door he would take her in his arms if she would have him.

BOOK: Voices of a Summer Day
10.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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