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by dan leo
illustrations by konrad kraus and rhoda penmarq
part four of four
Tommy went back to the telephone.
“May I make another suggestion, though?” he said. He held his drink in his left hand, and with his right hand he draped the telephone cord over his left wrist.
“Of course,” said Mrs. Biddle.
With his right hand Tommy picked up the telephone and brought it over to us.
“Let her stay at her little friend's house for a few hours. At least until they take the -- until they take Jimmy away.”
“Of course,” she said. “I wouldn’t have thought of that. Thank you, Tommy. You’re a brick.”
He laid his drink down on the table, and, still standing, he dialed a number on the white telephone.
“You’re a brick, too, Arnold,” said Mrs. Biddle, patting my hand. “I want to thank you so much.”
“For what?” I said.
Tommy, cradling the receiver to his ear, reached down with his left hand to take a cigarette from the box.
“Just for everything,” Mrs. Biddle said.
Tommy, waiting for someone to answer on the other end, picked up the fat smiling Buddha and gave himself a light.
After a moment Tommy said a few words to someone on the telephone, and then he said to Mrs. Biddle:
“They’re getting April now. Are you sure you want to tell her? I could break it to her gently.”
Mrs. Biddle hesitated, chewing one side of her lower lip, then said, simply, “Give me the phone.”
I felt awkward. It seemed that Mrs. Biddle should have some privacy while telling her daughter that Jimmy had suddenly died.
But then it occurred to me that perhaps my presence -- baleful as it often seemed to me, condemned as I was for life to put up with it -- even so might make this difficult moment somehow easier for her. Besides, I learned a long time ago that I wasn’t put on this earth for the purpose of not feeling awkward. Far from it, I have felt awkward for approximately 95% of my waking life, and for a not insignificant percentage of my sleeping life.
But still I thought perhaps the thing to do would be at least to get up from the couch, perhaps to go and stand at a window, gazing out at that crashing rain relentlessly attacking the outside world like an army of angry monkeys wielding stout bamboo sticks. And indeed I started to get up, but Mrs. Biddle -- who had taken the phone from Jimmy and was sitting very upright, holding the receiver to her ear with her right hand while holding a cigarette in the other -- whispered:
“Don’t get up. Stay.”
So I stayed.
“Hello,” she said, finally. “April -- what? No, you don’t have to come home yet. What? Well, yes of course you can stay over there tonight if you like. Of course. Yes. Oh, you won at canasta? That’s marvelous, darling. Eight dollars, wow. Yes, dear, of course you can buy anything you want with it. Yes. Nancy Drew books? Yes, lovely. But listen, April, the reason I’m calling --”
She paused, and then put her hand over the mouthpiece.
“How do I tell her?” she asked, looking from Tommy (who was still standing there) to me.
Tommy didn’t say anything.
She said to me again, “How do I tell her, Arnold?”
I could hear a young girl’s voice coming from the phone, saying, “Mother, are you there?”
“Just tell her,” I said. “There’s no easy way.”
Suddenly she handed the receiver to me, and then put her hand over her mouth.
I put the phone to my ear.
“Hello?” I said.
“Who’s this?” said the girl’s voice.
“I’m a friend of your mother’s. Arnold Schnabel.”
“Just call me Arnold.”
“Okay. I’m April.”
“I know. Listen, April, I have some bad news. Your mother wants me to tell you because she’s --”
“Upset,” whispered Mrs. Biddle through her fingers.
“She’s upset,” I said.
“What is it?”
“I’m afraid your father has had an accident.”
“An accident? Is he dead?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so.”
“Did he crash his car?”
“No, no, he, uh -- he fell off the veranda on the second floor.”
“Was he drunk? He must have been drunk.”
“I think he’d been drinking, yes,” I said.
“You’re sure he’s dead.”
“Did you take his pulse?”
“No, no, I didn’t, but -- Tommy --”
“Tommy said he was dead?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, he must be dead then.”
“Yes,” I said.
There was a pause here, but for some reason it didn’t feel awkward.
I realised that both Tommy and Mrs. Biddle were staring intently at me.
Then April spoke again:
“Can I talk to my mother now? Do you think she’s able to talk?”
“Let me ask,” I said.
“Only if you think you should,” said the girl.
“Okay,” I said.
I turned to Mrs. Biddle.
“April wants to know if you’re able to talk now.”
Mrs. Biddle hesitated, then reached out and put her hand over the mouthpiece again.
“How is she taking it?” she asked.
“Not too badly,” I said.
She hesitated again, chewing her lip, then took the receiver out of my hand.
“Hello, darling,” she said.
This time I did get up, taking my drink.
I shrugged at Tommy, he shrugged at me.
I walked over to one of the large front windows and looked out through the torrent. I could see the white blob of Jimmy’s body out there, being pummeled by thousands of gallons of rain, lying in the mud as if it were floating in a dirty lake.
Mrs. Biddle’s voice spoke softly behind me, murmuring to her daughter.
I turned away from the window. Mrs. Biddle still sat very upright on the couch, her head inclined to the telephone receiver, one long bare arm reaching out to tap her cigarette into the big glass ashtray.
Tommy had sat down in a leather easy chair, and, with a cigarette between his thin lips, he was cutting the pages of a book with a knife.