Beth Staas
Beth Staas
Poet & Writer
 

Audience of One

by Beth Staas

 
 

The Story so Far

Beginning at the age of nine, Heather Silverman aspires to be a concert pianist. But her father, Hal, has re-married after a number of years of widowhood and Heather is having difficulty adjusting to her stepmother, Paula, especially since her father seems to be taking sides against her.

Chapter 2

“Your dad will be out of town all this week.” Paula had just come home and was still wearing her vanilla cashmere coat that made her skin look even more pale. “I just took him to the airport.”

Heather looked up from her desk where she sat absorbed with writing a book report. She gestured absently. “Come in, Paula.”

Paula remained in the doorway, glancing around the room as though mentally shifting the furniture around. “He has a trial downstate. I told him we’d be fine staying without him.”

Heather swung around in her chair. “I usually sleep at Dodie’s when Dad’s away. We have an arrangement...”

Paula shook her head. “That’s okay. There are so many things I want to do with the house. This will give me a chance to make changes without bothering him.”

Heather eyed Paula suspiciously. “I thought you liked this house.”

“Oh, I do! It’s just that old houses require a lot of attention and care. It takes more than just replacing the wiring and plumbing. But with a little effort, the right furnishings, draperies, pictures...”

“I like it the way it is.”

“But wouldn’t you like to have a music room?” Paula was baiting her. “We could open up that unused front room and line the walls with bookcases for your music. You could practice there to your heart’s content and no one would bother you.”

“You mean I wouldn’t bother you.”

“That’s not fair, Heather,” Paula declared, flushing angrily. “I appreciate music just as much as you. Maybe even more.”

Heather remained unmoved. “Opening that room would raise our heating bills. That’s the reason we closed it in the first place. Anyhow, we don’t have the money to remodel.” She returned to her desk as though dismissing a clerk.

“I think we do.” Heather looked as Paula continued. “I have a little money of my own.”

“Then why talk to me about it? It’s between you and Dad. Just don’t touch my room.”

“But don’t you like the idea? I thought you’d be pleased.”

“I don’t care one way or the other. Suit yourself.”

Paula stared at her, then reached for the door. “Dinner will be ready in a half-hour. Please don’t wait to be called.”

Heather crossed the room locking the door then flung herself on the bed, her face buried in the bedspread. For years after her mother died, she’d walked around with a hollow feeling inside, eased only slightly when her father was around. After a long time, things got comfortable again, easy, trusting, relaxed, self-sufficient. Now this. “Maybe the remodeling will keep her busy enough to stay off my back,” she muttered as she came up for air. And smoothing her clothes, she went down to dinner.

The workmen were there the following morning. “She sure doesn’t lose time getting what she wants,” sniffed Heather as she squeezed past sawhorses and lumber piled in the front hall. “I’ll be late coming home,” she called over her shoulder, not caring whether Paula heard her or not.

At school she relayed this latest turn of events to Dodie, then once unburdened, promptly forgot about it. There was an after school meeting of all the junior class officer candidates and their managers, so it was close to five o’clock when Heather got home.

As she walked up the drive, she heard the sound of the buzz saw and remembered Paula’s project. “At least we’ll skip the candlelight scene at dinnertime. I’ll just have a bite, then call Dodie tonight,” she muttered to herself.

Opening the door, she smelled the cloying sweetness of fresh lumber and sawdust. In the living room, her beloved piano was covered in a canvas tarp, the top dusted with a fine layer of yellow grit. The room was cluttered with odds and ends usually stored in the front bedroom, misshapen ghosts draped in dusty sheets. She sneezed twice and turned toward the kitchen.

“How am I supposed to practice?” she demanded of Paula’s back.

Paula turned from the cabinet. “Oh – I guess you’ll have to lift the canvas,” she replied cheerfully. “I don’t think the men will mind. Uncover just the keyboard and be sure to drop it back down when you’re finished.”  She clasped her hands in front of her. “Don’t you just love the smell of fresh lumber? It reminds me of vacations in the piney woods...”

Heather sneezed again. “I think I’m allergic. Maybe I should stay at Dodie’s until this is finished.”

“Just keep your bedroom door closed.” She turned back to the cabinet and took down two plates. “We’ll have steak and salad tonight for dinner. That’s fast. Okay? It’s been such a busy day.”

“How about peanut butter and jelly? I’d be perfectly happy...”

“No, steak is easy. And the dining room is untouched. It’ll be ready in a half-hour.”

Heather looked at the raw meat speckled with seasoning on the sideboard. It would be ready in a half-hour, barring anything short of nuclear war. She sighed and walked back into the living room, stepping around a stack of books, her feet leaving footprints on the rug. Gingerly seated at the piano, she folded the canvas neatly back from the keyboard. Flexing her fingers, she began to play. But the arpeggio sounded muffled and flat and even simple scales had a dead sound.

She returned to the kitchen. “I can’t practice with the canvas covering the sounding board. It’s giving me a headache.”

Paula looked up from the stove. “I’ll help you take it off after we eat. Go and wash up. Dinner’s about ready.”

Upstairs the smell of raw wood permeated the air. There was a fine cloud of dust over everything – baseboards, door frames and even the handrail. She washed her face, then sneezing twice more, going back down to dinner.

The dining room table was set as usual and the silver gleamed satin-like under the flickering candles. “I thought this was going to be fast and easy,” protested Heather. “I would have settled for a hamburger.”

“But this is so cozy, just the two of us. It’s good to relax at the end of the day.”

“This isn’t exactly the end of the day. I still have homework and practicing.”

“All the more reason to take a break. ‘Between the dark and the daylight...’ That’s Longfellow, you know. So now tell me, what did you do in school today?”

Heather laid the napkin carefully in her lap. “Well, I picked up my books and then I walked out the door, then I went to the corner, then I got on the bus, then I sat on my seat, then I got off the bus, then I went in the door, then I walked to my locker, then I...”

“When you get to the part about the class officers, slow down.”

Heather’s face relaxed. School was safe and impersonal. “Elections are next week. That’ll give them time for one good meeting before being out for the summer. Alan and Scott are in solid. But we’re not letting over-confidence slow us down. Dodie and I are putting posters up all over school...”

“Is Alan your boyfriend?”

The sudden shift caught Heather off guard. “He’s a boy and he’s a friend,” she mumbled.

“But he likes you,” Paula persisted. “He’s always hanging around...”

“So’s Scott and Dodie.”

“But Alan’s special?”

“Oh honestly, Paula. People don’t talk that way any more.” She looked up from her plate. “Alan is like a brother.” They had practically grown up together, playing hide-and-seek on warm summer nights, learned to dance in Dodie’s family room, played kissing games so they’d be cool when kissing really mattered. “Anyway, I’m going to be a concert pianist. I don’t have time for anything else.” She lifted her napkin. “Is it okay if I blow my nose? This dust is making me juicy.”

“You’re supposed to blow your nose in a handkerchief and absolutely not at the table.”

Heather brought the napkin to her mouth, hiding the tug of a smile. “Well then, may I be excused? I gotta blow.”

Once in the bathroom, she lingered as long as she dared. Then pasting a smile back on her face, she returned.

Paula had already finished her steak. “Let’s do the dishes together,” she said, looking up. “Then we can go and uncover the piano.”

“That’s okay. I can do the clean up.”

“Oh, c’mon, Heather.” Paula’s voice was coaxing. But Heather only sat down and stared at her.

Finally Paula sighed in resignation. “Okay. We can uncover the piano now. I’ll do the dishes alone.”

So Heather won her extra time after all, minus the hour used for negotiation.

She awoke the next morning after a night of restless sleep. Either she was coming down with a bad cold or else she was really allergic. It took a dozen tissues to get off to school, although once she left the house her head began to clear.

“Have you ever heard of being allergic to sawdust?” she asked as she arrived at her locker.

Dodie studied her swollen eyes. “You sure seem to have something wrong with you. Why don’t you stay at my house tonight? Mom is out of town so you can have her room.”

But when Heather got home – on time for once – Paula would have none of it.

“But why? Dodie is my best friend and we’ve stayed together tons of times. I told you, we’ve got an arrangement.”

“Her mother is not home and I don’t think fifteen-year old girls should be alone at night.”

Heather dropped her books on the table and put her hands on her hips. “For your information, I’ve been alone at night with Dodie since I was thirteen because her mother travels a lot just the way Dad does. And I haven’t had a baby sitter since I was ten. I’ve never gotten into trouble. Not once.” Her voice was rising. “Just because you think I wasn’t raised right doesn’t mean you can take me back to square one and do it over. You’re not my mother, you know.”

“That’s not the point, Heather. I’m responsible for you while your father is gone and I have to do what I think is right.”

Heather could barely hear Paula’s soft voice through the workmen’s commotion, but she picked up on her father’s name as the ultimate authority. This she could deal with. “Then call Dad and ask him. He’ll tell you we’ve always done it this way.”

But when they tried, Hal Silverman couldn’t be reached. Paula left a message with the clerk and hung up, her face communicating the fact.

“Well, I’m going over to Dodie’s until dinnertime. I can’t think or breathe with all this noise and dust. We can try to call Dad at his hotel later.” And Heather turned and slammed out the door.

But despite repeated tries, Heather’s father was somehow lost to the world until the following morning when he returned the call.

The message came via Paula who tapped on Heather’s bedroom door as she was making her bed.

“I just talked to your father,” she began, facing the sullen Heather through the door slit that was all Heather would allow.

“...and he said I could stay with Dodie,” finished Heather triumphantly.

“Not exactly. We arrived at a compromise. You and I will stay at my father’s house in Glencoe. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it myself. I can have my old room and you can take the guest room.”

“But I’d have to get up at the crack of dawn to get to school on time,” Heather cried. She had been to Paula’s house twice and each time felt awkward and uncomfortable in the stolid hermitage filled with ancient paintings and funereal draperies, even though Judge Jefferson tried to make her feel at home.

“That’s the choice, Heather,” Paula said firmly. “Either we stay here or we sleep at the house in Glencoe. Frankly, I’d rather stay here but it’s up to you.” She waited.

“But what’s wrong with Dodie’s?”

“Nothing, I suppose. But I would feel better if her mother were there. And since she’s not...”

“Okay! We’ll stay here!” And Heather flung the door wide and brushing past Paula, charged angrily down the stairs just as the workmen entered the front door. In the hall, she threw on her jacket, grabbed her books and stormed down the driveway without bothering to shut the door. She didn’t even think of the draft that would swirl dust into the crevices of the piano because she had more important things on her mind. She was going to run away.

She tossed most of the night, fighting the stopped-up nose and the tightness in her chest, alternating between anger, frustration and gloom. But the idea remained the same. She was being forced out of the home where she’d lived since third grade.

There was no one to take her side. Dodie’s mom was obviously not acceptable, at least according to Paula. Uncle Phil and Aunt Joanna, two people as close as anyone, had made it clear from the very beginning that they were going to stay out of her father’s personal life. Anyway, Chicago was too far away.

Heather’s thoughts shifted to that awful day when her mother Susie died in the car crash. Then it had been Heather and Hal, devastated with grief, comforting one another. Though still a little girl, she knew she’d have to grow up in a hurry. Now Paula wanted her to go back and do childhood over. Well, too bad for her.

She leaned on her elbow and flipped on the light. It was two o’clock. For a fleeting moment she considered trying to call her father and speak to him herself, but decided that would only make him angry.

She looked around the room, at her rickety desk that had been her father’s when he was doing store-front law for the poor, the chest of drawers they’d picked up at the second-hand store and refinished together, the curtains she’d made herself. Maybe she should stay and try to get along with Paula... But three more years of being monitored, controlled and re-shaped was too awful to consider.

She closed her eyes and after tossing a while longer, finally drifted off to sleep, fitfully dreaming of trains, planes and Mr. Michakoff coming to bring her back home riding on the top of her baby grand.

Chapter 3

Careful to participate in the usual small talk around the lockers, then going to homeroom as usual, no one could guess that Heather’s book bag was crammed with clothes packed the night before. After announcements were over, she hurried out the double doors, brushing past tardy students, then down the road to the small bank where she withdrew three hundred dollars from her personal savings account, money saved from gifts and babysitting, leaving a small balance.

The train station was a mile away and she arrived there breathless. Waiting, she began to make plans. It should be easy enough to find work. Fast-food places would hire her in a minute, and that would take care of eating costs as well. She’d go to Los Angeles. She’d heard the low fares promoted on TV. In a few days she’d call home and ask her father to stop and see her on his next trip west – without Paula. She’d have to turn off her phone, knowing they could trace her once a call was made.

Slouched on the empty train, she recalled her one visit to California when her mother was still alive, remembering it as sun-drenched and warm enough to sleep on the beach caressed by the breeze – or was the caress from her mother’s arms? No matter. As for the rest, school could come later. And the piano...

She sat up straight, pushing that thought from her mind. She’d been brought up to be tough, and tough she’d be.

The conductor took her ticket from the little holder on the edge of the seat. Averting her eyes, she adjusted herself on the seat, studiously ignoring him. After a moment, he continued down the aisle. The first crisis had been averted.

It was ten o’clock when the train lumbered into Northwestern station in downtown Chicago. Heather’s footsteps echoed on the marble floor as she walked past florist stands and mahogany ticket cages, then up the stairs to blink in the bright spring sun. Crossing the river, she passed dirty warehouses and offices, walking under one set of elevated tracks and then another, arriving at the broad expanse of Michigan Avenue a half-hour later. It had been risky to come this close to Uncle Phil’s art gallery but this was where all the travel agencies were. She glanced to her left, half-expecting him to be at her side, a towering rumpled artist turned businessman, his features naked and unfamiliar without the beard. Spooked, she ducked through the agency door.

“Can I help you, Miss?”  The receptionist was only a few years older than she.

“I’d like to see the schedule to Los Angles.”

“TWA, Continental, United..?”

“The cheapest.”

The receptionist flipped the page, then punched some numbers into the computer. “The next flight is at 4:23 but it’s full. There’s another at 7:30 arriving at 10:33 local time.” Her voice was a question mark.

“Nothing earlier?” She’d never find a place to stay short of an expensive motel near the airport, taxi fare being out of sight. “I have an early appointment tomorrow – a job interview.” She almost choked on the lie.

“Friday’s are usually filled. You can try standby. Or I could put your name on a wait list for the 4:23. I can call your office if there’s an opening...”

“No, that’s okay. I’ll come back after lunch.”

Once outside, Heather challenged eight lanes of traffic on Michigan Avenue to cross over to Grant Park. She’d spent summer days here, exploring museums and galleries, watching sailboats on the lake, meeting Phil and Joanna for dinner, staying overnight or even for the weekend. It was as familiar as home.

She might go into the Art Institute to kill time, but someone might ask questions. The university where Joanna taught was only a block away and Phil’s gallery less than a mile. Instead, she headed south, walking along Lake Shore Drive, watching two joggers on the path, wondering whether they were jobless and alone with nothing left to do except run.

At the band shell, there were workmen scraping and cleaning, preparing for the upcoming concert season. Heather sat on one of the benches facing the empty stage, allowing her thoughts to drift back to the times she had sat here between her mother’s kid brother and Joanna as they drifted comfortably from friendship into marriage. Heather had assumed it would be the same with her father, but that was before Paula. Now she rarely saw Phil and Joanna. As for her father, he might as well not be around.

Chimes from a distant church pealed the noon hour and the workmen picked up lunch boxes and sat on the lawn below. One of the men waved at her. “Hi girlie! You want some?”  The breeze sent out the scent of salami. We got good stuff here,” the man urged. “Nice grass!”  He patted a spot on the ground and the others went “Yuk! Yuk!” as though sharing a private joke.

Heather smiled and waved back. “That’s okay. I don’t need any.” She hiked up her bag with a shift of her hips as they hooted their flirtation, then circled around, moving toward the open space.

Retracing her steps across the Loop, she was jostled by lunchtime crowds darting in and out of chrome-front restaurants. Continuing, she went past arcades and saloons emitting the smell of stale whiskey, spewing out men dressed in sagging polyester who leered and winked as she walked by.

Near the courthouse, she went into McDonald’s and ordered a hamburger, fries and Coke, then walked across the street to sit in a quiet corner on the courthouse lawn away from the crowd. She tried to imagine herself having a full work day/week/year, forever at McDonald’s. Back at school, Dodie would be looking for her, wondering what happened. Maybe she’d call Dodie from California and invite her to visit. Palm trees, hibiscus, surfers... Dodie had never seen any of that.

Swallowing the last of her drink, she was tempted to stretch out for a nap when she caught a glimpse of a man on the bench opposite her, his eyes staring, his lips curled into a smirk. She looked quickly away. It was time to leave, to get lost in the crowd.

When she looked up again, he was standing over her, reeking of after-shave, his tan raincoat tossed casually over his arm. “What’s a cute kid like you doing down here on a school day?”

Heather looked across the esplanade at the people going in and out of the courthouse, then back at the man. Was he an attendance officer? Policeman? Pervert?  “My mother told me never to talk to strangers,” she murmured, bunching up her trash and squirming to stand up, her eyes searching for an escape.

“What do you suppose I’ve got under my raincoat?” he persisted. “Do you suppose it might be a badge?”

“Sure. You’re the FBI.” Heather was now on her feet, walking deliberately toward the courthouse some hundred feet away, fighting the urge to run.

“It could be a gun.” His voice was soft and oily.

She kept walking, careful not to challenge him with a show of panic, cursing herself for having chosen a spot so far away from the building. He was two steps behind her now and out of the corner of her eye she could see the raincoat flapping against his thighs.

“Wouldn’t you like to see what I’ve got?” he asked again. “I can guarantee you’ve never seen anything like it.”

Heather gritted her teeth, choking down a scream. If he as much as touched her... Oh let him just be a flasher, a harmless sickie...

She reached the courthouse and now broke into a full trot up the stairs, pushing the doors open. Along the bank of elevators stood an armed security guard and Heather walked rapidly in the direction, pretending to study the directory posted on the wall, eyeing the names and numbers – Adams, Jacobs... There were two Johnsons on the same floor. She wondered idiotically whether they were related. Maybe if all the Johnsons could be summoned, they’d come and help.

Moments passed as she stood gazing at the directory, feeling a chill of fear each time someone brushed against her, half expecting his voice in her ear, his hand on her body, grasping, cloying, sliding... Paralyzed by fear, she wouldn’t have been able to run, even if she had to. Finally calling forth all her strength, she looked over her shoulder. There was no one except for the clerk stationed at the candy counter. Crisis number two had been averted. City Hall had protected her.

With her heart still racing, she moved to the door at the opposite end of the building and walked outside, body tensed for flight, eyes darting from face to face, searching for the lecherous look, the twisted grin. But evidently the man with the raincoat had his own fears and sensibly went searching elsewhere. She was free to go – until the next time.

Maybe she should go back home. Paula at least wasn’t dangerous. For all anyone knew, she was simply staying after school, working on the campaign. Then she lifted her head defiantly. There was something she needed to prove, not to Paula but to herself.

Back at the travel agency, the receptionist shrugged and shook her head in response to Heather’s questions about reserving a seat. “Airlines always overbook. If I were you, I’d buy a ticket for the later flight and then go to the airport and wait. First name on stand-by is sure to get on.”

“But you said...” protested Heather. Then she sighed. Waiting was waiting.

Verifying that the ticket was still in her purse, she walked a block over to the Holiday Inn where the sign said there was a limousine service to the airport. It was almost two o’clock. School would be out at three and Paula would begin looking for her. She tapped her fingers impatiently, as though her hands knew it was time for practice, then got in the back seat of a standing limousine.

“Where are you going?” asked the driver, breaking into her thoughts.

She looked up startled. “Los Angeles. It’s a job transfer.”

“Zat so? My aunt lives in Santa Monica. She’s in real estate. Will you be staying anywhere around there?” He shifted in his seat and turned more directly, examining her with his eyes. “Why don’t you come up front so we can talk? It’s a long drive to the airport.”

“No thanks.” A group of men were leaving the hotel and heading toward them. She looked at her reflection in the tinted window, wondering at her sudden appeal to strangers. Maybe it was the moon...

The driver hopped out and opened the back hatch for the men and the oncoming luggage, poking his head toward Heather. “Don’t you want to move? It’s roomier up front.”

“No, that’s okay. I’m comfortable back here.” She turned her face toward the window.

Finally the men were settled and the driver eased the limousine onto Lake Shore Drive. Traffic was heavy by the time they reached the airport and then bumper to bumper on the ramp, competing with taxicabs, busses and cars. Creeping to the entrance, the limousine stopped.

There was a line at the information desk and a longer line through security. The waiting area at the gate was crowded with passengers and families there to see them off.

“Have you any cancellations?” Surely, surely there would be one seat left.

“Not yet.” The attendant reached for Heather’s ticket. “I’ll put your name on the wait list.”

Stretching forward, Heather watched the name being copied onto the middle of the page. There were six ahead of hers.

Now apprehensive, she looked for a place to sit down, but all the seats were taken. She leaned against the pillar next to the window between banks of suitcases. Her feet were beginning to hurt and she craved a drink, but didn’t dare leave for fear of missing the call. At last when it seemed the area would burst with shifting humanity, the boarding announcement penetrated the din. Her name had not been called.

Helplessly she watched as people walked through the entrance, first class, children, non-smokers... Then the voice on the loudspeaker called for volunteers to take the next flight. Not only wait-listed but over-booked... 

Now the reception area was empty and Heather watched as the jet-way folded back like an accordion, watched as the attendant closed and locked the hatch. Lumbering like a gooney bird, the plane turned toward the runway. She would have to take the next plane out and take her chances with sleeping in the L.A. airport until morning.

Her thirst forgotten, she sat down facing the window, staring at the flight deck. Below, carts and forklifts darting round like so many toys, manipulated by men in blue coveralls and orange earmuffs. Ahead of her was a three-hour wait. She felt a chill run up her back. The longer she stayed in Chicago, the greater the chance of being found. But there was nowhere else to go.

The setting sun gleamed on the chrome of distant planes as Heather punched her canvas bag to use as a pillow. Hugging her purse, she felt the setting sun warm on her face as her eyelids drooped. Then frustration and agitation fell away and she drifted toward sleep, dreaming of Grant Park, concert goers, joggers...

Suddenly a jolt hurled her to the floor. It took a moment for her eyes to focus, for her mind to remember where she was. Then looking toward the gate, she saw a flash of movement. “Hey! Come back here! Oh God, my purse!”

There was no one nearby to hear her cry out. Grabbing her canvas bag, she raced in the direction of the sound. “Help! Purse snatcher!” Catching a glimpse of someone in the distance, she increased her speed, darting past curious onlookers who paused momentarily to stare. “He’s got my purse!” she shrieked.

It was useless. Arriving at the main terminal, she saw her purse jammed into a waste can, the strap dangling down the side as though to announce its whereabouts. Instinctively she knew it would be empty, except for crumpled tissues and a pencil stub.

A passing skycap looked at her sympathetically. “I just saw someone run by here, but he’s gone. Got your purse, huh? Was there much in it?”

Heather bit her lip. “Everything. Even the ticket...”

“Gee, that’s too bad. Anything I can do?”

Heather shook her head. “Just tell me where I can find a phone. I’ll have to make a collect call.” And turning away, she dabbed at her face with the used Kleenex, then threw it in the trash.

She was directed to the Traveler’s Aid desk. Dropping her belongings at her feet, she leaned against the ledge, then offered their phone, called the operator. She repeated the numbers collect, then waited.

Finally, a familiar “Hello” at the other end.

Her voice shook. “Uncle Phil? It’s Heather...”