The big overstuffed chair with the blue slipcover went on the other side of the settee, making a solid base at the front corner, while along the short side of the room, you lined up as many of the dining room chairs as you could get away with, the minimum being three, tilted back against the windowseat over the radiators. The entrance had to be Father’s chair, standing upright and turned sideways, so that the straight back and the chair arms formed a sort of portico. Then you covered the whole thing with every blanket, spread, and comforter in the house, stretching them between the furniture and walls and holding them in place with scotch tape. There. A tunnel that extended around two sides of the dining room, the perfect hiding place for an 8-year-old boy, and, occasionally, Gabriel the cat.
I lay there in the darkness of my tunnel. Behind me the radiators ticked softly inside the shelter of blankets and furniture. It was early in the winter morning. Outside it was still dark, and there was the threat of snow later in the day. Every light was on in the downstairs of the house, as lit up as though it were evening. But it was dark inside the tunnel, and warm from the heat of the radiators. I was lost in the smell of old wool. It was probably a bit suffocating too, but I didn’t seem to mind.
I looked out at the world, my cheek resting on the rug, through the bars at the base of the settee. My father’s shoes appeared at the bottom of the stairs. They were expensive shoes, he told us: Florsheims, a businessman’s shoes. He had close to a dozen pairs, and he stopped every morning in the lobby of his office building in Pittsburgh to have the pair he was wearing that day shined. The shoes hesitated for a moment, then came toward me across the hall rug, the bare floor of the doorway, and into the dining room. They stopped in front of the settee, a few feet from my nose.
Mother’s shoes came from the kitchen and stood beside the Florsheims. They were an old pair of open-toed wedgies, a faded green suede, with a torn strap on one and a buckle missing on the other — house shoes. Her big toe waved at me.
“How long is he going to have the house torn up like this?” Father didn’t sound angry, just inquisitive.
“Shh. He’s in there.”
“He’s in there now? It’s so early. Well, I didn’t say anything wrong. I was only wondering.”
Mother’s shoes turned around and went to the table. “I thought I’d keep him home the rest of the week. He’s still not very strong.”
“What did the doctor say?”
“I didn’t ask him. But I’m sure he’d think it was a good idea.”
Father’s shoes paced up and down in front of the settee.
“If this isn’t the darnedest thing….”
“Sit down and have your coffee. We’ll miss your train.”
“How can I sit down? He’s got my chair somewhere in this thing.”
I thought if I used that tone of voice, Mother would say I was whining. Mother’s voice was soft and matter-of-fact.
“You can sit on one of the others this time. It won’t hurt you. I let him use yours because you haven’t been home for supper the last couple of nights.”
Father didn’t have anything to say to that. The shoes went over to the table and he sat down. He crossed his legs and the left shoe dangled in the air in front of his right leg, the toe pointed downward. With his pant leg carefully pulled up so he wouldn’t lose his crease, I could see his white silk stockings — he insisted on a particular brand that he bought by the box at Kaufmanns — and the buckles of his garters. I thought of crawling out to see him, but decided to stay where I was.
There was a flurry of activity on the stairs, and Nanki Poo, the black Pekingese, came bounding into the hall after helping to wake my older sisters upstairs. He shuffled across the room and pressed his face against the wicker bars to say hello. I touched his tongue with my fingertips. Then he went to Father’s chair, his tail wagging so violently that he could hardly stand up.
“Helen, you better bring some bacon for Nanki.”
“He already had his breakfast a little bit ago.”
Father’s hand appeared and ruffled the dog’s ears.
“I know, fella. I know. We’re working on it.”
To press the point, Nanki sat up on his hindquarters, a furry upright log, and begged, his front paws pressed together and waving in the air. He glanced over at me to see how he was doing.
Mother’s shoes appeared from the kitchen.
“You spoil him terribly.”
“He’s such a good fella.”
Her shoes took their place at the table. Bits of bacon began to drop from Father’s place at the table. Nanki Poo lapped them up from the hair-covered rug.
There were different kinds of darkness in the tunnel, and different kinds of light. The light shone in between the bars of the settee, between the edges of the tables and chairs, and the gaps in the cloth. Overhead, the blankets and comforters glowed blue and green and red. My favorite was the white tufted spread, stretched across the opening behind the settee— a soft, gentle white that shone above me like the nave of a chapel. When the late afternoon sunlight came through the back window, the tan and gold coverlet spread over the serving cart became as radiant as a treasure room.
There were also dozens of nooks and crannies in which to hide things — under the bases of the chairs, in the folds of the blankets, beneath the settee. I crawled backward on my hands and knees to the corner behind the overstuffed chair, where there was a space big enough to turn around in, and headed back toward the entrance. Hidden in the rungs of one of the upturned chairs was a box of animal crackers. I sat up, my head touching my ceiling of blankets, and munched a lion and two bears, washing them down with sips of dayold water from my Cub Scout canteen.
They must have heard me stirring about.
“Don’t you want some breakfast?” Mother called.
I debated with my self whether to answer or not. “I’ve got some crackers.”
“Doesn’t he want some bacon?” Father said.
“I’ll get him some milk.” I leaned over and watched Mother’s shoes disappear into the kitchen.
“Are you feeling better?” Father said.
“I’m all right.”
“Don’t you want to come out and see your poor old father? Your dear old dad?”
I was glad I didn’t have to answer him, the way I would have had to answer him if I was looking at him. In a moment, Mother’s shoes came back into the room and a glass of milk descended in front of the opening.
“Can you get this OK? Don’t spill it.”
I crawled forward and found I could just reach it with my outstretched hand. Father laughed a little, trying to be jovial.
“Seems like a strange way to raise the boy.”
“At least I know where he is. And he rests a lot in there.”
“You know what’s best.”
I hadn’t felt sick at all that first Monday morning, three weeks earlier, even though I told Mother I did. Maybe a little tired, but mostly I simply didn’t want to go to school that day. So I whined a little and put on my sick face and generally acted pitiful, and she let me lie on the couch all day and listen to the radio. By that night, however, I really was sick. And getting sicker. Vomiting, diarrhea, fever and chills. The doctor came and officially proclaimed me ill, though no one ever came up with a good reason why. Lacking anything better, they said it was some kind of flu. I was better now, of course, and actually could have gone back to school a week earlier. But every time Mother asked me how I was feeling I talked in a small voice and said I still felt woozy and she kept me in. If I played it right, I was sure I could stretch it out for the entire month.
“We have to go!”
Chairs were pushed back from the table, shoes began to move. Nanki Poo got out of the way. I finished my milk, put away the crackers, and crawled on hands and knees down the tunnel and around the corner behind the settee. Lying once again with my face against the rug I could see Father standing in the hallway, running his hands over his hair to make sure it stayed flat. He adjusted his tie, pulled his suit coat down; he put on his heavy blue topcoat, and his gray hat with the tall crown. His briefcase was tucked under his arm. Mother took her coat from the banister, patted her pockets to make sure she had Kleenex, and called up the steps.
“It’s almost seven-thirty. I’m taking Father to the train.”
My older sisters yelled something from far away. Mother turned in my direction though I was sure she couldn’t see me. “I’ll be right back.”
She led the way out the door. Father stood there for a moment, looking helpless at the settee. Then he ducked his head and followed Mother to the car. Once the front door was closed, Nanki ran around the downstairs, whimpering, making sure they were actually gone. Then he ran upstairs to find my sisters.
I knew I didn’t have much time; Mother only had to drive Father to the station at the bottom of the hill. I crawled back down the tunnel, collected my dirty glass and canteen, and climbed out into the room. For a moment the light hurt my eyes and I was a little stiff. The knees and elbows of my pajamas were about worn through. I picked at the remains of bacon on Father’s plate, then wandered out to the kitchen and found some whole strips on the stove. I filled my canteen in the sink and grabbed a couple handfuls of vanilla wafers and Ritz crackers. After dumping my day’s provisions inside the entrance to the tunnel, I went to the foot of the stairs and listened for sounds of my sisters.
Someone was in the big bathroom; someone else was on the third floor. That left the smaller bathroom free. I crept up the stairs on all fours, keeping close to the side of the staircase, and looked around the newel post at the top. The coast was clear, the door to the smaller bathroom at the end of the hall was open. Still on hands and knees, I scurried down the hall, standing up only when I was in the bathroom, and closed the door.
It was Shirley in the bathroom next door, I could hear her singing to herself. I peed along the side of the bowl so I wouldn’t make any noise. The water didn’t look yellow, I didn’t have to flush. I turned the knob quietly and tiptoed back down the hall. I just made it to the top of the stairs when the door to big bathroom opened and Shirley came out. I dropped down and pressed against the side of the banister until she went up the stairs to her room on the third floor. Then I hurried back downstairs. Mother was just pulling up in front of the house. I dropped to the floor and was safely inside the tunnel before she came in the door.
I popped a vanilla wafer in my mouth and crawled along, rounded the corner and came face-to-face with Gabriel. To make sure I stopped, he placed a paw without needles on my nose. I lay down and he carefully stepped over me, jumping up on the arm of the overstuffed chair where he fit nicely under the folds of the blanket. Mother, still in her overcoat, stood at the foot of the stairs.
“You’re going to be late for school, Shirley!”
“No I’m not,” came the faraway reply.
Mother frowned; she took off her coat, draped it over the banister, and came into the room. Her shoes moved to the dining room table, then pointed my direction.
“Can I get you anything?”
“No. I’m okay.”
“Are you sure you’re warm enough?”
The shoes continued to aim my direction for a few moments, then turned away. I looked up in the darkness. Gabriel’s eyes blinked at me sleepily.
Then the eyes widened as Shirley came galloping down the stairs. Her saddle shoes and bobby sox danced across the floor to the table.
“You’re going to be late for school,” Mother repeated.
“No I’m not. I’m ready.”
Shirley’s shoes were pointed at Mother’s, but Mother’s were pointed away.
“Is Barbara up?”
“Yeah.” Shirley was chewing something. “I think she’s going to be sick again.”
“That’s not a nice thing to say.”
“She’s starting to breathe heavy again.”
“That doesn’t mean she’s going to be sick. It will help her if you don’t always talk about her like that.”
“All I said was that she was breathing heavy.”
“And don’t take that tone of voice with me.”
“Aw Mom! What did I do?” Her shoes shifted uneasily. Mother’s shoes remained solid and pointed away. It was a full minute before Mother spoke again.
“You know very well what I mean.”
“What?” Shirley whined, a downward curve. I smiled to myself. Shirley moaned a little and walked into the hall, the spring gone from her step. I watched her pretty, soft legs between her sox and the edge of her poodle skirt as she put on her coat. Mother’s shoes didn’t move, hadn’t shifted. Shirley was ready to go. I could see her shoes in the doorway, looking to Mother.
“Is there anything I should get at the store on the way home?”
Mother’s reply was barely audible, and her shoes gave no indication that she said anything at all. Shirley’s shoes continued to wait in the doorway several minutes. I heard her give another little moan, almost a cry, as she turned and left the house.
Mother remained where she was. I could hear her turning the pages of a magazine. In a few moments she began humming to herself. Then she began whistling softly, not a whistle really, just dry air between her lips in a little tune. “When I Grow Too Old to Dream.” The shoes turned and went into the kitchen.
There was the sound of scurrying down the steps, and Nanki Poo leapt once more into the downstairs, turning around to make sure that Barbara was still following him. Barbara’s footsteps were slow and labored on the stairs. At the sound of all this activity, Gabriel jumped down from his perch and stepped through the rungs of a chair to see what was going on. Barbara’s shoes were high heels, shiny brown and white leather, almost new. Nanki Poo danced around her ankles, then bounded ahead to tell the good news of Barbara’s arrival. Gabriel swatted him on the head, able to see for himself.
Barbara’s shoes came across the room and stood at the table for a moment. Her hands appeared and caressed the dog’s face as she told him he was a good boy. Gabriel walked passed the two, as if he didn’t care for such emotional displays, but when Barbara stroked his back he arced to her touch. Then she sat down wearily in the same chair Father had used, her ankles crossed. I could hear her breath as it whistled through her lungs. Gabriel sniffed at the pointed toes of her shoes, then headed for the kitchen, giving only a passing glance at Mother’s wedgies as they came into the room.
“There you are!” Mother said cheerfully. “Ready for some breakfast?”
“I don’t think so…. Maybe just… some coffee.”
Mother’s shoes stood beside my sister’s chair. For a moment no one spoke as the three of us listened to my sister struggle for her breath.
“You shouldn’t try to go to the office if you’re not feeling well.” Mother’s voice was suddenly sad, grave.
“Oh, I can’t let Father down again. I’ve missed so much….”
“He’d want you to stay home if you’re sick. You know that.”
The shiny shoes pulled together back under the chair as Barbara leaned forward to put her head on the table. Her ankles were still crossed, as if they were tied together. I wondered if she was crying. Mother’s old house shoes remained beside her.
“You know you could never let your father down. You know he loves you.”
“That’s the good thing about working for your Father. He understands these things. He wouldn’t want you to do anything that you weren’t able to do.”
Barbara was crying. Nanki sat up and rested a paw on her leg. Barbara’s hand dropped to pet him but remained motionless on his fur.
“You know we only want whatever will make you happy.”
Mother’s shoes stood a long time beside Barbara’s chair. I raised up and looked through a small hole in the blankets. Barbara’s head was bowed on her arms. Mother rubbed the back of her older daughter’s neck, her hand working slowly and methodically under the rim of black curls. But Mother was gazing out the back window, staring at something or nothing at all, her face calm and almost smiling, her thoughts far away. Then she looked down at the girl, the young woman. She began to sing softly: “Bye-lo-bye, bye-lo-bye, bye-lobaby– bye….” Then she broke off suddenly from the massage and went out to the kitchen. Barbara raised up slightly, dazed as though someone had hit her.
Barbara had her coffee and a half slice of toast and got ready to leave. Mother chirped around her, straightening her collar, fluffing her hair, smoothing out the wrinkles of her dress. Nanki, Gabriel, and I kept watch from the floor. When Mother finally had her dressed and out the door, she sighed heavily. Her old green shoes crisscrossed the room a couple of times, redding up, then she plopped down in the overstuffed chair at the corner of my tunnel. The blankets trembled, the walls shook.
“I’m sorry. I hope I didn’t disturb anything.”
“No, it’s OK.”
“Can I get you anything?”
“I’m all right.”
Her shoes rested, tilted on their heels. Her ankles were thick, without definition, and rolled slightly over the straps of the shoes. The shoes rocked back and forth for a few minutes, then grew still. Across the room, Nanki lay with his chin on the floor; Gabriel curled on the chair Father and Barbara had used under the edge of the tablecloth, his head hanging over the edge like a furry gargoyle. Mother’s breath grew deeper and slower; soon she was snoring lightly. I lay behind her on the floor, in the shadows of my tunnel, face turned toward the dark wood of the baseboard. Glad that everyone had gone and we were alone in the house again.