. – . – .
Thanksgiving evening, 1930 offered more questions than answers. The morning after offered even less resolution, but I’m getting ahead of myself. After Thanksgiving dinner, I managed to calm most of the fears of the Mr. McHale, as he preferred to be called.
It turns out that Mrs. McHale preferred Helen. Evelyn chose to be known, for the rest of her life, as she put it, by what I had guessed her name to be: The Most Beautiful.
Mr. McHale was not exactly comfortable with the idea, but Helen and The Most Beautiful had convinced him to accept my offer of free room and board for the rest of their weekend in New York City.
I think it came down to a money issue, as many things do. Mr. McHale had moved Helen and Evelyn east using family savings. He would start his new job on Monday, but would not receive his first paycheck for almost three weeks.
Regarding Mr. McHale’s persistent question about how I knew who they were, I told him that my name-guessing trick was merely a new advertising gimmick by the Governor Clinton Hotel Restaurant.
I told him that his family had been chosen at random to take part in a holiday promotion, and of course, being a new US government employee meant that his personal information had now become part of public record.
Most convincing of all, especially to The Most Beautiful, was that clowns just know things, like the names of strangers. The three of them spent the night at my place. Helen and Mr. McHale slept in the master bedroom, I slept on a cot in the small storage room next door, and The Most Beautiful had the sofa.
I fell asleep to a mix of random dream-state thoughts and whispers from the other side of the wall. I thought I heard words like, “worry,” and, “money,” and, “I’m sorry,” and, “lost,” and “confused,” and either, “love” or “don’t love,” who can be sure when you are in this state of mind, and the walls between us are only so thick?
Early the next morning, Friday, November 28, 1930, I went to the kitchen to make coffee and start breakfast. I tiptoed by The Most Beautiful, who, I could see from the morning rays slicing through the curtain, was on her back, feet crossed, one arm above her head.
In her other hand, The Most Beautiful gripped a carnival necklace she had caught or had been given as the parade passed. I picked up the blanket that had fallen on the floor. It had a pattern of leaves, and lots of red and blue birds. I covered her up. A grown man shouldn’t see such things.
I went into the kitchen and saw Helen sitting at the kitchen table, fully dressed, her large brown purse in her lap.
“Helen, are you feeling OK?”
She sat erect, knees together, hands folded across the purse. She wore a lace hat. Helen’s head was tilted slightly to the left, reminding me of an inflatable Thanksgiving Day float that had lost mooring on one side.
Helen pretended to be concerned about a stain on my olive-colored rug. She scooted her foot over the stain and smudged it in with the toe of her shoe.
“Do you want coffee? Something to eat,” I asked. I made coffee as if she had said yes. Helen was silent, and for the most part, motionless. The coffee began to perk, creating a background noise. This is my chance, I thought. I sat down across the kitchen table from Helen, and chose my words carefully.
“Depression is nothing to be ashamed of.” There is no easy way to bring up the subject of depression in a casual conversation, but I felt that this was not a casual conversation.
“We all have trouble adjusting at times. You need to just stick with it.” My words sounded good in my head, but came out hollow, almost patronizing. I felt rushed. I thought I heard The Most Beautiful stirring.
“Listen to me. It will work out. Stay with your family. You need them now, maybe more than ever. They need you.”
Helen’s stare was fixed on the rug. She twisted her shoe from side to side, working her toe deeper into the stain, and the stain deeper into the fibers.
“Listen, we don’t have much time. Please talk to me. Help me understand.” I felt like I was examining the brush strokes of a life-sized painting, instead of having a conversation with a living person.
The coffee pot churned. “Helen, there are therapists, people who are trained in whatever you’re struggling with. There’s medication. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help.”
Helen lifted her hands from her purse and turned them over. I wasn’t sure if she wanted to show me her open palms, or if she needed to see them for herself. I reached across the table and slid my fingers across her palm.
Her hand closed on mine. Her grip was tight. Only then did she look up at me. Helen opened her lips to speak but didn’t. The coffee pot stopped making noise. The morning coffee was ready.
“It’s OK,” I said. “You can talk to me. I’m here. I want to help. Tell me what’s wrong. What is your secret?”
“Vincent,” Helen said in a voice so loud that it startled me. Then she screamed her husband’s name over and over. I don’t mean she spoke it in a loud voice.
Helen screamed her husband’s name in the most visceral and horrific way, so much so that I have no recollection of standing or moving away from the kitchen table, or of letting go of her hand.
I found myself crouched in the corner next to the stove, as if an intruder had broken into my home and attacked me. Mr. McHale ran into the room, as pale as yesterday’s clown suit. As soon as Helen saw her husband, her voice returned to normal. Helen’s countenance changed back to her normal pleasant expression.
In a literal instant, Helen had gone from expressionless to horrified. She was terrified of me, or something I represented, or something I had said. Then just as quickly, she had become Mrs. McHale again.
“Vincent, I want you to know that this man has upset me,” she said without emotion. “He, he, touched me. I will be leaving now. You and the girl may go or stay. Your choice.”
I looked past Mr. McHale to the small ball of humanity on the sofa behind him. I fully expected The Most Beautiful to be in the fetal position, rocking back and forth, as terrified as I was. Instead, she was fully awake but laying as she had been when I covered her body. Eyes open, fingers gripping the parade necklace.
How much had The Most Beautiful heard? I don’t mean our private kitchen conversation, or her mom’s outburst. I mean throughout her young life. I wondered about things like that.
I left my place without looking back, afraid of what I would see or not see. I spent the rest of my time in 1930 walking almost aimlessly in the cold. That is, until I came upon a marvelous merge of engineering and manual labor, the best combination of both.
1930 would be an unforgettable year of progress and of hope for the city.
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