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THE BALLOON MAN

Charlotte Armstrong

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1

Sherry was scouring the skillet in which she had scrambled her breakfast eggs. Under her apron she was dressed for the day. She intended to dash over to the market as soon as Ward got up, or maybe she’d take Johnny along and go sooner, taking advantage of the energy in the morning coffee. Maybe, later, she would go hunting that salesgirl’s job and talk to the day care place, because (let’s face it … She had faced it) what good was Johnny’s mother to him when she was practically walking in her sleep all the time?

She couldn’t get home to bed from her present job any earlier than midnight, whereas Johnny bounced out of his healthy three-and-a-half-year-old sleep at 6 A.M. The trouble was she had to put him down so early, but the rush hour for cocktail drinkers was before their dinners. The tips were good, though. Still the day care camp wouldn’t cost much more than the babysitter’s evenings came to. Her mind was going lazily around a familiar track when she heard a stirring elsewhere in the house.

Ward was getting up now? This early? Johnny was still sitting on his high stool at the dinette table, contentedly munching away on some toast. Sherry had time to decide that she would take the child with her to market as soon as it opened, in case Ward was feeling low and not up to minding his little son so early in the day.

Then her husband, wearing only his pajama bottoms, came through the door. His mouth was open in a strange way. The jaws were tense, but the lips were somehow sloppy and moist. Out of his throat came a soft roaring sound, just sound, wordless.

“What’s the matter?” Sherry cried at once.

His eyes were not right. He saw her, but he didn’t see her. He didn’t seem to know her. There was red around the rims of those strange eyes. There was a lot of black hair on his forearms. He came toward her on his bare feet, and his right arm was raised. “Hey! Hey!” said Sherry. “Just a darned minute!”

Did he think he was going to hit her?

She sprang toward him and put both her hands on the raised wrist. “What’s the matter?” she cried again, straining and holding.

He growled. It was the only word for the sound he made, as he jerked sideways and shook her off. Now his left arm came swinging up. For all the reckless power of his movements, they seemed slow. Sherry ducked the blow and yelled at him: “Ward, will you please tell me what’s wrong with you? Don’t do that! Listen … Listen …”

But he caught her by both shoulders and began to shake her. She thought: He’s out of his mind this time. Hey, this isn’t so funny! Ward was no pygmy. She was only a female. So she screamed as loud as she could. Somebody had better come.

At the noise she made, Ward let her go and stepped back and put his hands to his ears. His jaw was moving as if he were trying to make it go in a circle. She thought he might be tensing to come at her again. But she said, in as calm and authoritative a voice as she could produce, “Sit down, Ward. You just sit down and relax, and you tell me.”

But now the startled child had come out of a momentary paralysis. The little boy slid off the stool, plop upon his two square little feet. “Mommy!” he shrieked.

“No, honey,” cried Sherry. It was too late. The child was running toward the only comfort that he knew. But he didn’t quite make the distance to her skirt. His father lurched and swung with a scooping motion, and the child went flying, his small light body like a volleyball. He crashed softly into the corner of the cupboard and floor and was still.

Sherry felt her whole inside burst with light. Brain and heart, she blazed. She whirled and picked up the heavy skillet with both hands. The animal was growling; it was groping for her now. She swung the weapon with all her might and hit the top of his right shoulder a fearful crack. He reeled, stumbled, fell—and lay still.

Sherry didn’t stop to think about the wreck of all her life so far. She ran, crouching, to the child and sensed his breathing. She knew she ought not to touch him or shift his limbs, but she also knew that she must. Gently, very gently, she slipped her arms underneath to hold him and lift him. Her back was young and strong. She picked up her child and slid her feet on the vinyl almost in a dance step as she went gliding to the back door. Midway there she found a way to bend and grasp in her left hand the handle of her purse, which had been lying ready on the counter.

She got the door open. She crept outside into the light of morning, into the outer peace of the shabby, respectable neighborhood, where people were going to work, where the world was sane. She stepped slowly, carefully down the three steps to the narrow walk, trying not to shift or twist the little body in her arms. She saw the neighbor woman’s head in her window. But there was no gap in the hedge, so Sherry walked down her own driveway. As she did so, the neighbor’s car, pacing her, came backing out of the parallel driveway.

“Mr. Ivy, please! Mr. Ivy, please?”

“What’s the trouble, Mrs. Reynard?” He stopped the car.

“Will you call a hospital? No, will you take me? Johnny’s hurt. And will you call the police, too? Something’s wrong with Ward.”

The woman was on the front stoop now. “What’s the trouble?” she called shrilly.

“I don’t know,” said Sherry. “He’s knocked out, now. He might get up—”

“Henry!” the woman cried in rising terror.

Henry Ivy, aged forty-two, got ponderously out of his car. He said decisively, “You drive her, Mildred. I’ll call. I don’t want you staying here alone. Never mind your bag. Try St. Anthony’s. And you stay there. That way you’ll be safe.”

Sherry wiggled herself into the front seat, juggling the little body as if it were a plate of soup that must not tip, no matter what the supporting pedestal that was Sherry’s body had to do. Mrs. Ivy came jittering into the driver’s seat.

“Oh, what happened? I heard you screaming—”

“I’ll tell you when we get there,” Sherry said quietly. “I want you to drive. Please?”

“All right.” The woman took hold of her forty-year-old nerves and reminded herself that she’d be safe in the hospital.

Mr. Ivy went into his house and called the police. Then he sneaked softly down the side of the neighboring house to the back door. He crept up to look in, saw the naked torso, the long limp legs in the striped cotton, cautiously opened the door, and approached to see the blood on the shoulder, where the rim of the iron skillet had cut the flesh.

But dead the man was not, and Mr. Ivy sighed in relief. Who wants to get mixed up in a murder?

Johnny had a fractured left leg and a crack in his skull. The young men in the hospital emergency room were calm and quick and showed no emotion. Neither did Sherry. When the examination was over, they told her they’d take Johnny up to a bed soon. He’d be fine. Would she sign him in? She’d have to go to the office.

In the midst of answering some questions there, as she fumbled blindly in her purse to find her collection of identifications where she kept her hospital insurance card and number, Sherry began to shake violently.

They were very understanding. Somebody brought her something to take. They insisted that it would help her. They had asked the doctor, they said. So Sherry swallowed it. When all the questions had been answered, they told her that two police officers were waiting for her in the lobby.

The men were in plain clothes. One of them said to her, rather severely, that he understood why she had left the scene, but now would Mrs. Reynard kindly tell them exactly what had happened?

“I don’t know.” Her voice trembled. Although she was a fair-sized girl, she felt very small, very fragile and tiny. She felt like crying out, “Let me alone, a little minute, please. Let me alone to be me a minute. I have to get my own feet under me. Don’t you know that?”

But she did not cry out. “My husband just came roaring out of the bedroom and started in to beat me,” she said flatly and sat down, hard.

“What was his reason?” one of the men asked mildly, as he seated himself beside her. The severe one remained standing.

“I don’t know. There wasn’t any reason.” Even as her teeth chattered on the words, Sherry wondered if the words were true. It seemed as near the truth as she could get in the moment. (Oh, please, let me alone!)

“What did he say, Mrs. Reynard?” the mild one persisted.

“He didn’t say a word. He made … noises.” Sherry made a gesture that seemed too flip. She sensed that. She was a natural blonde, and her eyes were large and beautiful. She couldn’t help it if there was a going image, an assumption that any big-eyed well-shaped blond female was in the world for fun, alone. But she shouldn’t make flip gestures. She knew that, although she didn’t know why not, really.

“You say he started in to beat you?” Severe was severe.

“He sure tried.” Now the scratching on her nerves that had made her arm move so abruptly as to seem flip, that sense of being very close to screams and howls, was beginning to recede, under the influence of whatever drug she had just been given. Sherry said calmly, “Look and see.” She pulled her dress away from one shoulder and showed them the mark of Ward’s cruel fingers.

“And what did you do, Mrs. Reynard?” the severe one asked coldly.

All right, her flesh was fair, but he needn’t think she was trying allure. Sherry conquered a sense of injustice.

“First, I tried to make him sit down to talk to me.” But she could hardly remember. She didn’t want to remember. That kitchen was going into mists, far away. Her eyelids were feeling heavy.

“And then you struck him with the heavy iron frying pan?”

“No, no. Johnny was there, you see,” she said. “The whole thing scared him. He’s only three and a half. He started to run to me, and that’s when Ward threw him … just threw him across the room.” Her voice was strange in her own ears. How could such things be?

“Is the little boy hurt badly, ma’am?” The mild one was sympathetic.

She repeated what the doctors had said in much the same way the doctors had said it. Their dry detachment wasn’t natural in her mouth.

“Then it was after the child had been hurt that you hit the man?” said Severe.

“Of course,” she said wonderingly. But she seemed to know that her story needed some element that wasn’t there. She couldn’t think what. Stronger passions?

Severe asked whether she and her husband had had marital difficulties. Quarreled often, did they?

“No, I wouldn’t say so,” she answered in a dreamy manner.

“What kind of work does your husband do, Mrs. Reynard?”

“He’s a writer. That is, he hopes to be. It takes time to get started.”

“Then he doesn’t have a job?”

“That is a job,” she said patiently. “He’s self-employed, I guess you’d say.”

“You go to work, do you, ma’am?”

“Yes. Until he begins to sell his stuff, somebody—” She couldn’t explain any further. Her tongue wouldn’t lift in her mouth. Didn’t they understand?

“You resented being the breadwinner, did you?” Severe said with a sudden smile.

“No. Lots of wives send their husbands through graduate school,” Sherry said, repeating mechanically what she had so often said. “No, I didn’t mind too much. Except sometimes … I suppose—” She could have slept where she sat. Who cared?

“You work as a cocktail waitress? At—” Mild named the Club.

“Yes.” But Sherry was sensing a shift of the wind, and she lifted her head. Surely, they were not going to assume, as her mother-in-law had always assumed, that to be a cocktail waitress was to be the servant of the Fiend. “I don’t have any office skills,” she said dully. “I never went to business school. So I do what I can do.”

“Night work?” the mild one said gently.

“Well, that’s because I wanted to raise my baby myself.” Sherry roused. “I thought it was important. But I have clerked. I can clerk in a store. Now, I guess—” She stopped because she didn’t know what now.

“I get the impression,” said Severe, a touch of human curiosity creeping into his voice, “that your husband’s people are, er, well-to-do?”

“Yes.”

“But his father doesn’t contribute?”

“No. Oh, no.”

They spoke no question, but the question was there. “See, Ward took out on his own a long time ago,” she said, to answer the question. “Ward’s folks didn’t like that. And then, of course, they never did like it that he married me.”

“Why was that, Mrs. Reynard?”

“I don’t know,” said Sherry. “I didn’t care. We were in love.” But her voice was dreary, and there was something wrong with this whole interview—something, for instance, that she had forgotten. She grasped for it. “How is Ward?” she asked, much too late—much too late.

“His condition is satisfactory,” droned Severe.

To whom? Sherry wondered. It struck her funny. She realized that she might even be smiling. She had an impish smile. It was the way her face folded.

“Where is he?” she asked, but without enough interest. Or else too cheerily. Because it didn’t really matter anymore where Ward was, except that he must never again be too near.

“I believe his father had him taken to his home. The parents’ home, that is.”

“I see,” she said numbly. Oh, she saw! These men had been talking to Edward Reynard. Well, she ought to have guessed that. “How did he get into the—” She didn’t finish her question.

“I believe your neighbor phoned the father,” said Mild, having finished her question on his own.

Sherry said nothing.

“Now, you say that your husband came into the kitchen and attacked you without any warning and without any cause.” Severe’s voice made no judgment.

“I suppose there must have been a cause,” she said wearily. “I don’t know what it was.”

“If what you say is true, you may have legal grounds—”

“For divorce?” she said. “I know.”

They both reacted with a blinking that told her she hadn’t quite taken the meaning.

“Are you bringing charges, Mrs. Reynard?” Severe asked patiently. They might be wanting to know what they were to do with the testimony they were collecting.

But Sherry said, staring beyond them, “I can’t let Ward anywhere near Johnny again. How can I?” Couldn’t they understand?

“Might you put it this way, Mrs. Reynard?” the mild one asked smoothly. “The child came between you and your husband, as you two were physically fighting. So that his injuries were, in effect, a kind of accident?”

“You could put it that way,” she said slowly, knowing who had, “but it wouldn’t be right.”

“How is that, ma’am?”

“Because how could he throw Johnny? How could he do that? Johnny wasn’t doing anything he shouldn’t. All Johnny wanted was for somebody to comfort him. How could Ward not know that?” There should have been passion in what she had just said. Sherry was glad to feel tears start, and she thought, with a peculiar detachment: And about time, too.

“The child was frightened by the violence?”

“By the noise, I think. You see, I screamed. I was scared, if you want to know.” She wiped her hand across her face. “The only thing I can think of is that Ward was out of his mind. He didn’t seem to know me. Or Johnny either. Or even know that Johnny was just a baby. Well, then Ward wasn’t in his own mind, that’s all.” She couldn’t go on. It wasn’t any use to go on.

“Temporary insanity,” Severe said with a faint distaste.

“What does Ward say?” she droned.

“We haven’t been able to talk to him as yet,” Mild said in an apologetic manner.

“It doesn’t matter,” she murmured.

After a bit of silent gazing at her, some signal went between them, and they left her.

Now Mrs. Ivy, aflutter, drew closer. She must have listened to a good portion of the interview. She had also already found out how Johnny was. So she sat down and told Sherry chattily that she had just phoned Mr. Ivy at home. The neighborhood was quiet again. The police had come. (But, of course, Sherry knew that.) And there had been an ambulance, but Ward Reynard had not been too badly hurt, or so it was thought. Mr. Reynard’s father had come and kind of taken over. Well, see, Mr. Ivy said that when Ward Reynard had come to a little bit, he’d been asking for his mama. But everything was under control now. Mr. Ivy was coming here, and the Ivys would be very glad to drive poor Mrs. Reynard back to her home.

“I can’t go,” said Sherry. “Oh, I want to thank you both for everything. But I can’t leave here. I have to be here when Johnny wakes up and wants me. I have to be here to try to put things back together for him, if I ever can.” She bent double. Something’s wrong with me, she was thinking.

Mrs. Ivy was nibbling on her lips. She felt nervous. She had already been as much of a heroine as she could bear in one day or perhaps in a lifetime. It wouldn’t do to get too deeply involved with these young and, after all, mere neighbors.

“Do you know a lawyer?” Sherry asked. “A divorce lawyer?”

“Oh, now, do you think,” said her neighbor, who felt that everything ought to slow down, “you should make drastic decisions when you’re so upset and all?”

What decision? Sherry thought.

But she was listening to her own blood, how it was coursing. She thought: No, I’m not upset enough. Whatever they gave me has made everything too meaningless. It’s changed me. She looked up at her neighbor and thought: She could be right. I shouldn’t talk. I shouldn’t act. Not until I am thoroughly me … what I am—whatever that is.

“I wish I could thank you,” she mumbled.

“I’m so terribly sorry for your trouble,” said Mrs. Ivy. (And my stint is over, isn’t it? her tone implied.) “He certainly never seemed to me to be that kind of young man.”

And he wasn’t, thought Sherry. He isn’t. Something put him out of himself, something with the power to change him. That’s what I think, but I can’t prove it. What does proof matter? I’ve been afraid it might happen, and it has happened, and who can trust it not to happen again? So there is nothing to decide.

I remember when it was decided. This morning, and I was myself then. Oh, Ward, there it went, down the drain, all of it. And I can’t help it. Can’t help you. Can’t forgive you. Well, I could, probably, but I haven’t got the right to take the risk when there’s Johnny. So good-bye.

2

“Try not to cry anymore, Emily, will you? Please?” The man spoke softly. The big house was still. Edward Reynard and his wife, Emily, were standing in the upstairs hall, where they could see, through the half-opened door of the darkened bedroom, the long body of their grown-up only son lying quietly in his own bed.

“He’s all right, you know. Oh, it was a vicious blow, and he’s going to be mighty stiff and sore for a while. But he’s all right. And he’s home.” Edward Reynard took some restless steps on the deep blue carpet. “I’ll stay till the nurse comes,” he said, although he was fuming with energy.

He was a short man, a head shorter than his son, with the very straight back that short men often develop in an effort to stand higher. He was a gray man; he ran to gray clothing. His hair was gray, and his face had little color. His eyes, however, were a bright brown.

His wife, Emily, a woman who was slim at the hips but top-heavy, trailed after him on her tiny feet. “He could have been killed,” she wailed.

“Violence.” Her husband’s lips twisted. “She may come of a class where this sort of thing goes on.”

“That the baby was hurt!” Emily was crying again.

“His doctor says that John will be all right. This time,” he added grimly.

“Oh, Edward, what can we do?”

“Sssh.” The man moved farther from the open door. “Plenty,” he said. “Plenty. It’s time we stepped in and simply did what we ought to have done long ago.”

“I can’t understand it,” Emily wailed. “I can’t understand how this could have happened.”

“They fought,” he said. “They actually physically fought—like animals. Well, there’s just so much a man can take. What did she care that her child was in the room?”

“Poor little fellow! A helpless child! Such a terrible thing!”

“Oh, you bet it is,” said her husband. His bright eyes focused on her. “Ward’s had a bad shock. You realize that, don’t you?”

“Oh, his heart must just be breaking,” sniffled Ward’s mother.

“At least it’s over,” snapped Reynard.

“Ward must agree this time.”

“He will, don’t worry. She has to be got rid of. Just simply got rid of. I told him, years ago, that he had better cut his losses.”

“What about little John?” said Mrs. Reynard. Her eyes were a mild blue, and they were peering at him fearfully now, over her handkerchief.

“We’ll take care of John. I’ll see to that.” He stood in his righteous resolution, nine feet tall. “I’ll go call Murchison.” Murchison was a lawyer. The phone was not in the upper hall.

“Edward, will it all have to come out?” she quavered, reaching for him. “It seems so impossibly sordid. I just can’t—” She began to weep afresh. “Don’t leave me yet.”

“Ssssh. Ssssh. All right, Emily.” He held her with an arm around her shoulders, and she responded by vigorously wiping away her tears and trying to hold her head up.

So they stood there, in the upper hall of the big silent house, near the open door to the room where their grown-up son was lying quietly, and did not ask themselves, or each other, exactly why the woman did not want to be left standing there alone.

At noon Sherry was drooping in a chair by Johnny’s bed. He had come to himself, whimpering pitifully, not quite remembering (she thanked God for that), yet knowing all the same that something very terrible had happened to him. Sherry had pumped up comfort and good cheer. She had told him that Daddy was very sick, and it was too bad; but doctors were taking care of him. Somewhere else. But Mommy was here, and doctors were certainly taking care of Johnny, weren’t they? Look at him, tied up in a kind of swing. They wouldn’t let him hurt very much. Not now. There were nurses all around, and they wouldn’t either. See, the ladies dressed in white? They all were trying not to let anybody hurt and to make children feel better. See all the other children in the other beds?

Johnny had seemed soothed and reassured, but she knew she couldn’t have accomplished this deeply enough so quickly. She may have made a start, but there was far to go.

Now that he had dozed off, she felt exhausted. The hospital was tolerant of mothers. Johnny was in a ward, but Sherry had been permitted to stay all morning. Still, she couldn’t stay here twenty-four hours a day. She didn’t know what to do with herself. In a moment her wits would begin to work, and she would figure out something. Through her exhaustion now came little sharp twinklings of nervousness, although she was not going to scream or howl. That was past. The sedative or tranquilizer was wearing away, but she was able to feel grateful, now, for the duration of the drug’s cushioning.

She heard him coming, turned her head, saw who was walking toward her, and felt a reserve of energy suddenly begin to flow. Edward Reynard had no word for her, nor did he make even a sign of greeting. He came near enough to look down at the child’s sleeping face. Only then did he nod sharply and make an imperious gesture to summon Sherry out of there.

She left her apron over the back of the chair. With it, she left the past. Very well. All the world was different now. She had better face him. He was her enemy, and he always had been, although she had never understood why. But everything was different now. There was no compulsion to try to please him, in any way to concern herself with trying to get along with him. There was a relief in this so great as to seem almost a joy.

In the corridor he said, “I’ve talked to John’s doctor.”

She said nothing. He wasn’t after news then.

Edward Reynard was taking strides too long for his height toward a small waiting room down at the end. Sherry followed at her own pace. She would not hurry. Reynard, having been forced to wait, took this for insolence and faced her with fury in his eye.

“I’ll have him moved to a private room,” he said.

“No, you won’t,” she said at once. “He needs people around.”

“He’ll have nurses around the clock,” he said contemptuously.

“No, he won’t. They’re expensive and not necessary. He’s better off in there with other children.”

“I’m paying the bills.”

“No, you’re not,” she said, following a deep instinct. “I have insurance. I’ll take care of my son.”

“Ward’s son,” he said severely. “Although this marriage is over.”

“Yes, it is,” said Sherry. “As soon as I can see a lawyer—”

“We’ll see about lawyers,” he said angrily. “If you know no better than to get into a violent fight, in the presence of a small child—”

“Believe me,” Sherry said firmly, “Ward will never get near enough again to hurt Johnny. Or attack me.”

“You’re a liar,” he said. “Who attacked Ward? Who hurt him?

“Oh, I did that,” she said almost cheerfully. She thought to herself that she hadn’t the strength to waste trying to change the notions in this head.

“While I doubt that Ward will want to make public any such behavior on the part of a woman supposedly a loving wife and mother,” Reynard said cuttingly, “any more patience with this marriage is impossible.”

“That’s right.” She watched his face with something like pure curiosity. She had never understood him, and now she didn’t have to try; but why did he take every word she said as some kind of insolence? Maybe it is, she thought, and smiled.

“Since you ask,” he snarled, infuriated by the smile, “Ward is at home where he can be properly looked after. I came to warn you that he’ll never go back to that house. I intend to notify your landlord that Ward is no longer responsible for the rent.”

Sherry laughed. She couldn’t help it.

She saw the need his hand had to come up and strike her. She also saw his strength that controlled it. She thought to herself: I shouldn’t have laughed. No, I shouldn’t have laughed.

She said gravely, “I suppose the lawyers can fix some property settlement. Half the car. Half the furniture.” She shook her head sadly, and her mouth went wry.

“You’re welcome to all that,” he snapped. “You’re welcome to a settlement in money, if that’s what you want.”

“Whatever is legally mine,” she said, “I’ll certainly take,” and saw this count for insolence.

“Emily and I will, of course, see to the well-being of our grandchild,” he said pompously.

“No, you won’t,” she said, dragging out the words.

“You don’t imagine that you can?”

“Why not,” she cried, suddenly furious, “when I’ve supported both a child and a husband for quite a long time now and been, by the way, responsible for the groceries, as well as for the rent?”

“Your choice, wasn’t it?” he said coldly. His lip curled. “Will you go on being a cocktail waitress, or do you plan to go back to being a show girl?”

Sherry didn’t answer. In the midst of rage, she pitied this man his ignorance. He didn’t seem to know that she had only tried show business long enough to find out she couldn’t make it. He didn’t seem to know that she was not only inexperienced, but too old at twenty-six and, furthermore, a bit out of shape. He didn’t even know it wasn’t easy to be what he called a show girl. He thought this was a sensual indulgence of some kind. Ha, not of my senses, she thought sullenly.

He was saying something about “no life for a child.”

“As soon as Johnny is well,” she interrupted, the decision making itself in her mind as she spoke, “as soon as possible, I’ll take him back East, where my folks came from.”

“No, you won’t,” he said, dragging out his words now. “I doubt very much you’ll do that. You have no right. You’ve done your best to wreck my son. But you won’t wreck my son’s son.”

His face had turned white. He wrenched his body into motion and left her abruptly.

Sherry thought again: No, I guess I shouldn’t have laughed.

She went directly down to the main lobby and spoke to people in the office. By no means was Edward Reynard to be allowed to make any changes whatsoever in the conditions or the cost of John Edward Reynard’s care here. He hadn’t the right, she said.

Then she sat down in a corner to sort out her affairs. She was trying not to feel frightened. She had better call the lawyer whose name Mrs. Ivy had given her.

She wouldn’t have asked any of Ward’s friends to recommend a lawyer. They were, in the first place, none of them the kind to know a respectable lawyer. In the second place, they were not and never had been friends of hers. Ward never had liked any potential friends of hers around. It was just that he was the peacock. He had to be the attraction. Sherry had been too busy, really, to mind that so very much. Or at least she had put up no firm fight in the matter since they had moved West. Her friends, around here, consisted of people on the job, whom she had scarcely ever seen anywhere else. Face it. She had no friends of her own in this part of the world.

Well, then. Call, make an appointment, and go see the lawyer, she supposed. But not this afternoon. She was too beat, too exhausted, and she mustn’t be too far from Johnny, not today.

Then she couldn’t go back to stay in that house either. (So the meat would spoil and the milk sour. Those crumpled sheets would mold. She would never lie in that bed again.) All right. (Gates clanged shut.) The fact was, the house was too far away. She didn’t have the car. Nor would she have it, because the old vehicle was in a garage for repairs at the moment, and she realized that she did not dare pay away the money it would cost to get it out of hock. She did not, in fact, have very much money, either on hand or in prospect.

She opened her purse. She’d had some cash, and her last night’s tips were still in there. Lots of silver, many one-dollar bills. She counted. Sixty-seven dollars and seventy-five cents. Hey, not bad!

She also had the bankbook for their joint savings account. Nine hundred twenty-seven dollars and fifteen cents. But she wasn’t sure she could draw on that legally. She’d have to ask the lawyer. She had a hunch she had better not do one slightest thing that wasn’t absolutely correct, legally speaking.

Probably she couldn’t sell the furniture yet. Half the value of the furniture wasn’t going to be a fortune in any event. And how could she keep her job? The Club was even farther away. How could she afford the time to bus all that distance, let alone the strength?

All that distance from where? From here? But she couldn’t live in the hospital lobby, not for the weeks they’d be keeping Johnny. Well, then, the first thing … All right.

She got up and went to the information desk. “Do you know,” she asked the woman sitting there, “of any place nearby where I could rent a room? A single room for myself? But not expensive?”

“Well, I really—” The woman looked at her sharply.

“You see,” said Sherry, reeling, “I can’t go home. I need a place. I’ve had a kind of bad day. All I want—”

“Yes, well … Could you wait a minute? I’ve just thought—” The woman picked up her phone.

Sherry’s senses had begun to whirl. She hung onto the edge of the desk. She didn’t want to fall or faint. She hung her head. Okay, things were a little tough. Okay, so they’d get better. They couldn’t for sure, she thought, get much worse.

Just as she might have fallen, a young man in a white tunic caught her with one arm. “Hold it. Hold it. Okay, lady? What’s all this, Myra?”

“She says she needs a room to rent nearby,” said the woman behind the desk. “That’s why I thought of you, Doctor.”

“Looks to me,” said the man, “as if she sure ought to lie down someplace. Right, lady?”

“But I have no place,” said Sherry. “So that’s the first thing. Anyplace, but not too far. And not expensive.”

“Right. Right,” the man said amiably. “I see what you mean.”

Sherry couldn’t help leaning against him.

“I know a place,” he continued cheerily. “It’s just a rooming house, but you don’t care, right? I’m pretty sure Mrs. Peabody’s got a vacancy.”

“Where is it, please?”

“Right across the street.”

“Oh, show me! Point me there!”

“You’re sure, now? It’s a pretty crummy old joint. But convenient, as I should know.”

“I hoped you would, Doctor,” said the woman at the desk, beaming to think that she had been clever. “I happened to remember—”

“Tell you,” said the young man. “Why don’t I walk you over there, Miss, uh—”

“Mrs. Reynard,” the woman supplied.

“And by the way, I’m Dr. Bianchi, boy-intern. If I live there myself, believe me it’s cheap. Also convenient. Right? Come on. See what we can do.”

His hard young arm was guiding Sherry toward the exit doors, and she leaned on it.

“Course I’m stowed away on the second floor,” he went on merrily. “This landlady, she’s got old-fashioned ideas. Males upstairs. Females on the ground floor. How unrealistic can you get, right? Come on now. Left foot. Right foot. That’s the girl.”

He seemed kind—young, breezy, brash, but kind. Sherry, in the moment, loved him.

He took her across the street, keeping between the white lines drawn for pedestrians. Then they turned, to go a few yards to the right and come to an old frame house, gray with discouragement, which stood muffled untidily in ancient shrubbery.

There was a big bay window in the sitting room; it came bowing out of the front of the house. A round table was embraced within its curve inside, and at the table, on three velvet-seated old chairs, there sat three ladies who had been inhabitants of the house for many, many years and were accustomed to watch how the world went, from this, their lookout.

3

“Doesn’t happen often, you know,” said Sam Murchison, lolling and letting his chair swing in a short arc. “Goes against the tide. How old is the child?”

“John is between three and four.”

“Then he doesn’t get asked his preference. In the case of a child under twelve the normal thing is for the child to go with the mother.”

“What have I said to make you think this is the normal thing?” barked his visitor. “What I want to know is this. In the eyes of the law, what constitutes being unfit?”

“Unfit mother, eh? It’ll be in the eyes of some individual judge, most probably. Well, it has to be pretty drastic, I can say that. And pretty clearly demonstrated.”

“For instance?”

“For instance, insanity. And not just borderline, mind you.”

“What else?”

“Criminality, I suppose. Of a crime convicted. Or an addiction. Acute alcoholism? Possibly. Incurable disease, serious physical disability.”

“Immorality?” snapped Reynard. “Promiscuousness?”

“Depends. If it’s flagrant enough, I guess so. And current, by the way. For much is forgiven.” Murchison swiveled gently. “Depends, of course, on the judge’s degree of sophistication.” The lawyer was calm and slightly amused.

“Vulgarity? Ignorance?” Edward Reynard had set his pale jaw.

“Nuh-uh.”

“Inability to support the child in any decent comfort?”

“Don’t fool with that,” the lawyer said promptly. “It may occur to a judge that if Edward Reynard is really concerned that money be spent on this child, why doesn’t Edward Reynard simply supply the money? In your son’s behalf, of course. As a matter of fact, your son is responsible for the child’s support.”

He has no money.”

“He may find he’ll have to hustle—” the lawyer began. Then he read the look on his client’s face and said, “I’m no good to you if I don’t warn you what you’re up against. You want this divorce? You don’t want the wife to raise the child? Your son feels the same, does he?”

“Of course he does.”

“He didn’t, er, come along this afternoon?”

“He happens to be flat on his back in bed, from physical injuries inflicted on him by this woman. Why can’t that in itself be used to show she’s unfit?”

The lawyer scratched his nose. “Is your son puny? Is she an Amazon? Was there no provocation? Any witnesses to swear it could not possibly have been in fear of bodily harm? Is she pretty, by the way? I’m sorry, but I must say this. Such an argument strikes me as setting up a fairly ludicrous scene.”

“The child was injured in the melee,” Reynard said grimly.

“Oh-oh,” said Murchison, “and it takes two to tango.” He played with his penholder. “Child beating, wife beating—or husband beating, for that matter—those things are unlawful. Of course, the law’s not going to start anything.” He looked up.

Reynard wasn’t paying attention. “Suppose I brought you evidence?” he barked.

“Of what?”

“Of the truth,” Reynard said fiercely. “There has to be some justice. She can’t ruin the best years of my son’s life and then just walk away with his child. I tell you, that boy is a nervous wreck.”

Murchison, who was taking note of the voice, the sudden color in the face, the light in the eyes, felt surprise. He had dealt with Reynard for a long time; he had thought the man to be tough-minded, bull-headed, one who rammed through the world with so little understanding of human emotions that he did not even know how ruthlessly he behaved.

But there the lawyer seemed to be recognizing the signs of passion. The eyes were hot; the voice was coming from a throat constricted with feeling. The feeling seemed to be an almost senseless fury.

“I wouldn’t make a point of your son’s emotional collapse,” he said gently.

“You mean to say that everything is weighted on the side of the woman? That I cannot win?”

(You, eh? thought Murchison. I thought so. But what did this poor girl ever do to you?)

“I said it doesn’t happen often,” he told the client. “That is, if there is conflict. Now in the event that she really doesn’t want the child—can’t be bothered, you know, doesn’t like the responsibility, or, for instance, is involved with another man and wants to be free to remarry, and is willing to come before a judge and present herself as an unloving mother and whine about the nuisance of it all—well, that might be different.”

“She can voluntarily give the child up?”

“No. No. The judge makes the decision. But such an attitude well might influence him, don’t you see?”

“I see. Can she take the child out of the state?” Reynard demanded.

(Ho, thought the lawyer. So she does want the child.)

“As soon as she has custody, she can,” he said. “Of course, she could simply take off, illegally, at any time. No barbed wire at the border.”

“If she does that—” Reynard did not go on, but his face threatened ugly reprisal.

“Custody,” said the lawyer, “is normally decided at the time of the hearing for the interlocutory. Of course, if there is a custody fight, the fight can go on and on, a long miserable,” he cautioned, “and pretty soul-destroying process.”

“I see. And when is this hearing?”

“Who can say?” The lawyer shrugged. “Fairly soon.”

“You would agree it’s just as well if she is prevented from taking the child out of the state before this hearing?”

Murchison said, “Prevented?”

“I don’t see how she can drag him around the country,” Reynard said bitterly, “until he’s over his injuries. She certainly hasn’t the money to hire ambulance planes and all that sort of—What about their property?”

“A settlement should be arranged between them,” said Murchison, watching him closely.

“I don’t want them to meet. She’ll have a lawyer. Can’t you—”

“Counsel might discuss it. What is your son’s position on the property?”

But Reynard asked another question. “Can she take possession of whatever cash there may be?”

“She can, as soon as the settlement is agreed upon.”

“Then it won’t be agreed upon.”

“Just a minute, Mr. Reynard.” The lawyer straightened.

“My son is an injured party. Whatever property there is, he will claim it all.” Reynard leaned back.

“He won’t get it,” the lawyer said sharply.

“Take a judge to say so, I presume?”

The lawyer stared at him for a moment. Then he said, “That’s your idea of preventing her from taking the child anywhere? Aren’t you being unduly suspicious? You risk putting a judge’s back up, believe me, under the circumstances. Don’t do this, Mr. Reynard. Why are you so afraid she’ll try to run away with the little boy?”

“She told me so,” snapped Reynard.

“You’re sure? You didn’t misunderstand?”

“I understand this,” said Reynard. “The sooner the whole thing is legally decided and Emily and I can begin to take some decent care of that child, the better. I don’t want delay. I don’t want any long miserable process. And I don’t want to have to send people chasing after her either. I intend to see about this proof—”

Murchison said sternly, “Let me advise you. Don’t throw your money around and set dogs on her, Mr. Reynard. Evidence of hostility won’t help you one bit. Obviously you are hostile. Hold that down, will you? The judge is obliged to be on the child’s side, but you can put him on the mother’s side if you don’t watch it. There may be evidence already that you and your wife never willingly accepted her. I take it there is evidence that you have not been generous in the last year or two. I strongly advise you to remember that there can be a prejudice against money.”

“Thank you for your advice,” Reynard said coldly.

“Will you look what the cat’s dragging in?” said Mrs. Moran. “Here comes Dr. Bianchi, with a babe.”

“What’s this? What’s this?” said Mrs. Kimberly. “He wouldn’t dare!”

“What will the Madame say?” said Mrs. Link, and all three rocked and hooted softly.

They were playing their endless game of cards, which they interrupted with the ease of long custom whenever there was anything to be seen in the street, or across the street at the hospital entrance, or especially along the short driveway to the emergency section, into which, from time to time, would screech an ambulance.

Some blithe and literate soul, who had once paused briefly in one of the upstairs rooms, had given them a title that had been passed along. The three ladies were known in the house, and in what part of the street was aware of them, as the Norns.

Dr. Joseph Bianchi (who knew them and their ways) guided Sherry Reynard (who did not) up the walk and between the tall stalks of timber that held a high signboard. It crested above the porch roof and read: Site of St. Anthony’s New $2.5 Million Out-Clinic. Sherry didn’t even notice that there was a sign.

The young man rang the doorbell. “You’ll have to talk to the Madame,” he said. “Excuse me, I mean Mrs. Peabody, the landlady. Might as well ring, right?”

But the female who opened the door was too young to be a landlady. She was an odd-looking girl, perhaps fourteen, perhaps fifteen years old, with an outsized head and heavy, but somehow extremely bland, features. She was short and too well developed for her childish blue cotton dress.

“Hi, Elsie,” said the young man. “Go get your mama. That’s the girl.”

The girl gazed at him without expression.

“Go get your mama. That’s the girl,” the young doctor repeated, and this time the message was received. The girl looked very pleased to have received it. She nodded and went ambling away.

“What you call mentally retarded,” Dr. Bianchi said into Sherry’s ear. “Nothing to bother anybody.”

They had come through the wide old-fashioned house door into an almost square entrance space, paved with worn parquet. At the left was a staircase, six steps to a landing, from which another flight went up at a right angle. There was much varnish. The risers, the treads, the banisters, the rail, all the yellowish brown wood wore a high gloss.

Under the landing there was the usual mirror on the wall, the usual semicircle of tabletop bearing some scattered pieces of mail. The wall to the right was papered in a dizzy geometrical pink and yellow, and there was a pay phone affixed there. Directly ahead of them there was no partition, but the sense of a large dim room beyond that was full of furniture.

Around from some region on the staircase side came a willowy woman in a tan dress.

“Mrs. Peabody,” said the young man, “here’s somebody who was asking at the hospital about a room.”