My Mother Takes a Tumble
Chapter 1: The Correspondence of Dudley Beaker and Eliza Foote
YOU CAN READ THE FIRST HALF
BEAKER LIVED ALONE in a stucco house next door to Gumma and Guppa, my mother’s
parents, on No Bridge Road. There was, as a sign on the corner cautioned,
no bridge at the end of No Bridge Road, though one had once been planned,
and rumors persisted that construction would begin soon.
All the houses on No Bridge Road were stucco. Beside each house, on the right as you faced it, was a clamshell driveway that led to a stucco garage. Guppa, a salesman at Babbington Studebaker who never took “no” for an answer, had seen to it that in each garage was a Studebaker.
Under the right conditions, on a winter morning, when snow covered their roofs and glistened in the morning light, the houses looked like the chocolate cakes for which my mother was, within her circle, noted: dark, rich, two-layer cakes covered with shiny white frosting that she pulled into peaks with the back of a spoon.
My mother and father were living in Gumma and Guppa’s house then. Gumma taught my mother how to pull the icing into peaks, and Mr. Beaker ate his share of those cakes at Sunday dinners. I first saw one on the day that my mother and I came home from the hospital in South Hargrove. My father swung Guppa’s Studebaker into the driveway, crunching clamshells under the wheels. Gumma and Guppa ran from the house, with Mr. Beaker right behind them. My father slid from behind the wheel and dashed to the rear door. Gumma and Guppa ran right up to the car, but Mr. Beaker held back a bit. My father opened the door with a flourish and held out his hand in a gesture usually accompanied by “Voila!”
“Voila!” burst from Mr. Beaker. My father scowled at the driveway.
Gumma and Guppa poked their heads into the car to get their first look at me in natural light. Beyond them, Mr. Beaker was bending this way and that, trying to get a glimpse between them. He was holding his hands behind him and wearing a grin of the sort that usually made Gumma, and later my mother, say, “You look like the cat that swallowed the canary.”
At last Gumma and Guppa moved aside, and my father reached into the car to take me off my mother’s hands. Seeing an opening, Mr. Beaker stepped up and produced from behind his back, with a flourish, one of the famous chocolate cakes, baked under Gumma’s guidance as a birthday cake for me.
“Voila,” muttered my father, twisting his foot in the shells.
My mother blushed. “Isn’t that nice?” she asked me. “Your first birthday cake.”
My father carried me, very carefully, into the house. Mr. Beaker helped my mother from the car.
Mr. Beaker was said to have a college degree, and he may have had one, for (a) he smoked a pipe; (b) on weekends he wore loafers and a cardigan sweater with suede patches on the elbows; and (c) at about the time that I learned to stand up in my crib, he began making a tidy living in a line of work that my father called, shaking his head in grudging admiration, “a swindle that only a college man could have dreamed up”: writing letters, as “Mary Strong,” to lonely men who from time to time could be persuaded to send the unfortunate Miss Strong some money.
Mr. Beaker drummed up business by running advertisements in the personals columns of small-town newspapers. He ran his first ad in the Hargrove Daily News, just to test the waters:
Lonely Man Lovely young woman in unfortunate circumstances wishes to correspond with lonely man. Mary Strong, Post Office Box 98, Babbington, New York.At that time, Eliza Foote was living in Hargrove and working as a typist at Hackett & Belder, Insurance, the premier firm of its type in Babbington. Guppa recommended them so highly to purchasers of Studebakers that all the homes, lives, and automobiles on No Bridge Road were insured through them, and Mr. Hackett saw to it that Guppa had a steady supply of liquor and turkeys.
When Eliza came home from work each evening, she read the Daily News straight through while she sipped bourbon from a juice glass. Sometimes she read aloud, so that her room would not seem so empty. Mr. Beaker’s ad caught her eye just as she was swallowing the last little sip. She choked, gasped, and choked and gasped again. For a moment, she saw Mary plainly, somewhere across town, maybe in one of the rooms at the River Sound Hotel, sitting at a table, sipping from a glass of bourbon, reading and rereading her ad, hoping that someone else was reading it too. Eliza began rummaging in her pocketbook for a pen. After a few minutes she remembered that Mr. Hackett had borrowed her pen to print his name on the stub of a raffle ticket he had bought from a pushy high school girl who just wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, and rarely gave it either, if Eliza didn’t miss her guess. In a kitchen drawer she found a pencil, which she sharpened with a paring knife. She sat at her table and began to write, but she hated the way the pencil lead looked on the nice stationery her sister had sent her for Christmas, so she went next door to Mrs. Mitchell, who had to repair typewriters in her spare time to make ends meet, because Mr. Mitchell had not given much thought to death when he was alive, and had left her ill-provided-for when he died, though God knows he had sent enough money to that brother of his. Mrs. Mitchell was happy to lend her a typewriter after Eliza had given satisfactory answers to a few probing questions.
Eliza wasn’t the only person to answer Mr. Beaker’s ad, but she was the first. She signed her letter “John Simpson,” approximating the name of Dan Hanson, the only unattached salesman at Hackett & Belder, a fellow who cut a dashing figure in his fedora and checked jacket and set Eliza’s heart aflutter whenever he walked past her desk.
|ON THE MORNING that Mr. Beaker found Eliza’s letter in his post office
box, snow still covered Gumma and Guppa’s lawn.
I was sitting in a high chair in the kitchen, gumming a piece of toast, when Mr. Beaker let himself in through the back door, ending the conversation my mother and Gumma were having about the way I ate my toast.
“You see,” my mother was saying, “he doesn’t like the dry part of the toast much—I think because it hurts his pink little gums and the roof of his little mouth. But he doesn’t like the slobbered part much either—I think because it’s revolting. So what he does is turn the toast as he eats it. See that? Dudley says that—” My mother chewed on her lower lip a moment while she tried to remember just what it was that Mr. Beaker had said about the way I ate my toast. While she was ruminating, Mr. Beaker burst into the room.
“Dudley!” exclaimed my mother, breaking out in a smile. “I was just talking about you and what you said about the way Peter eats his toast. How does that go again?”
Mr. Beaker was holding an envelope in front of him, at arm’s length, dangling it between two fingers as a boy might dangle a small fish, a killifish or mummichog, say, that he had caught with an old hook and a piece of bacon, sitting on the bulkhead somewhere along the estuarial stretch of the Bolotomy River. He was wearing the same grin that he had worn when he had stood at the end of the driveway with a chocolate cake behind his back.
“It’s something about nibbling at the elusive, ever-receding twilight line of this moment, ahead of which lies an abrasive future, and behind which we leave a messy past, isn’t it?” my mother asked.
“Yes, yes, something like that,” Mr. Beaker answered impatiently. He waggled the envelope and cleared his throat. Gumma poured him a cup of coffee.
“Why, Dudley,” said my mother, her mouth falling open and her eyebrows rising, “why aren’t you at work? Are you playing hooky?”
“Ladies,” Mr. Beaker said, flapping the envelope with great vigor, “I have caught one. I have here a letter written by a shy insurance salesman in response to Mary Strong’s advertisement. My new career is launched, and so is—” He pulled the letter from the envelope, unfolded it, and read the signature. “—John Simpson’s. He doesn’t know it yet, but he is going to become the first of Mary Strong’s epistolary sugar daddies. I have quit my job—”
Gumma’s face fell. “You quit your job?” she asked.
“Yes, indeed.” He adopted a conspiratorial tone and put his arm around Gumma’s shoulders. “To tell the truth, I never liked that job. Every morning I would sit at my desk and ask myself, ‘Dudley, is writing advertisements for clams suitable work for an educated man, a man with imagination and taste, a man who can be struck dumb by a sunrise, transfixed by a hawthorn abloom in the spring, choked up by Venus gleaming beside the moon on a winter night?’”
I tried holding my toast by two fingers, as Mr. Beaker had held his letter, and flapping it with great vigor, but it got away from me and fell to the floor. Mr. Beaker picked it up and put it on my tray. I looked at it. Some cat hairs and a little fluff ball were stuck to it. I tried to push it disdainfully just to one side of the tray, but in those days there wasn’t much subtlety in my vocabulary of gestures; the toast flew off the tray and fell to the floor again.
Mr. Beaker picked the toast up and threw it into the trash. “Do not play with your food , Peter,” he said.
“I’ve always thought your ads were wonderful,” my mother said. She was dunking one end of half a slice of toast into her coffee; glistening discs of melted butter drifted and merged on the surface. She stared at a spot about midway between her and me, where her memory projected a retrospective show of Mr. Beaker’s advertisements for the Babbington Clam Council, each of which my mother had placed in an album that my father had given her, intending that she would use it for photographs of me. “They’re real clever,” she pronounced, the show complete.
“Really,” offered Mr. Beaker.
“Oh, yes, Dudley. I wouldn’t lie to you,” asserted my mother. “If I thought they weren’t any good, I’d tell you. That’s the way I am. I just have to say what I think, even when I shouldn’t.”
“She’s always been that way,” said Gumma. She laughed a little and settled into her chair. She dunked her toast, and a reminiscent glaze formed over her eyes. “I’ll never forget the time when Billy Whozit’s father—oh, what was his name, Ella, that Billy What’s-his-name?”
“Not the one we called Billy Lardbottom, the fat boy whose father was a butcher?”
“No, no, no. I mean that Billy Whatchamacallit. I think his father was a handyman or a painter. He was very handsome, I remember—the father, I mean. Well, anyway, one day this Billy Somebody-or-other’s father was talking about something—what was it?—he always talked as if he knew everything—and Ella suddenly said something like—”
“I’ll have to hear it another time,” said Mr. Beaker. He gave Gumma a kiss on her forehead. “I have a great deal to do.” He gave my mother a kiss just to the side of her mouth.
When Mr. Beaker got home, he dashed to the room that he had outfitted for work, a room on the second floor, facing my grandparents’ house, directly across from the room I shared with my mother and father, where I slept in the crib my mother once used.
He read and reread John Simpson’s letter, until he could begin to hear John Simpson reading it to himself to see how it would sound to the lovely unfortunate. He wrote draft after draft, trying again and again to strike just the right note in his reply. He relished this work as he never had any other, and he labored at it long and hard, working on into the night, until he began to feel the distance between him and John Simpson shrink, and began to develop the trait that would make him so successful in this line of work: an uncanny knack for echoing, in Mary Strong’s replies to her many correspondents, the tone, style, and yearnings of each of the men who wrote to her. The light from his desk lamp threw shadows of the branches of a young oak across my crib, across my parents’ bed, and onto the opposite wall. Later, Mr. Beaker would become quite facile—“a virtuoso of the heartstrings, especially adept at pizzicato,” he liked to say—but his correspondence with Eliza Foote was difficult from start to finish.
Babbington Clam Council
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Little Follies is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, dialogues, settings, and businesses portrayed in it are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.
“My Mother Takes a Tumble,” “Do Clams Bite?,” “Life on the Bolotomy,” “The Static of the Spheres,” “The Fox and the Clam,” “The Girl with the White Fur Muff,” “Take the Long Way Home,” and “Call Me Larry” were originally published in paperback by Apple-Wood Books.
Little Follies was first published in hardcover by Crown Publishers, Inc., 201 East 50th Street, New York, New York 10022. Member of the Crown Publishing Group.
For information about publication rights outside the U. S. A., audio rights, serial rights, screen rights, and so on, e-mail the author’s imaginary agent, Alec “Nick” Rafter.
The illustration at the top of the page is an adaptation of an illustration by Stewart Rouse that first appeared on the cover of the August 1931 issue of Modern Mechanics and Inventions. The boy at the controls of the aerocycle doesn’t particularly resemble Peter Leroy—except, perhaps, for the smile.