Beth Staas
Beth Staas
Poet & Writer
 

Audience of One

by Beth Staas

 
 

The Story so Far

Beginning at the age of nine, teenage Heather has aspired to be a concert pianist. But a major distraction is her father’s re-marriage after a long widowhood.  Paula’s well-meaning attempt at step-motherhood is resented by Heather, so she decides to run away. These plans face one disaster after another, and after the theft of her purse with all her savings, she decides to call her beloved Uncle Phil, for she is stranded at the airport with nowhere to go .

Chapter 4

The drive from the airport was made in darkening silence. By the time they arrived it was almost eight o’clock. Philip Marshall steered the car into the parking area under the high-rise on the Near North Side. Armed with Heather’s book bag and empty purse, they walked through hallways, past a bank of storage lockers and the steaming laundry room to the elevator that whisked them to the twenty-fifth floor and apartment 2535.

The door was flung open by Joanna, standing with a cup of steaming coffee in her hand. Putting the mug on the hall table, she gave Heather a quick peck on the cheek, exchanging glances with Phil as she did so. Then seemingly satisfied, she gestured toward the den. “You can spend the night on the hide-a-bed, Heather. I’ve talked with Paula and she’s calming down now that she knows you’re safe. Want something to eat? There’s cold chicken in the fridge or I can heat up some spaghetti.”

Heather shook her head. “What did Paula say?”

“She was frantic.” Joanna paused. “Whatever your unhappiness, this cruelty was uncalled for. Paula doesn’t deserve this.”

Heather sucked in her breath. “She’s turning my house into a jail,” she mumbled. “All of a sudden we have all these new rules. She sits over me like a vulture. Next she’ll want me preserved in bronze like a pair of baby shoes.”

Joanna put her arm around Heather, leading her to the couch. “She’s doing her job as she sees it. Her idea of how a fifteen-year old should behave is not the same as yours.”

“That’s for sure! Why couldn’t Dad have married Rachel or Samantha...”

“He wasn’t in love with them, or with Cindy or Rosemary,” declared Phil from his position at the doorway.

Heather whirled around angrily. “So she’s got him. But I don’t come with the package.”

“True enough. But a fifteen-year old isn’t exactly a throwaway kid. And leaving home is not the answer.” Phil’s face was serious, despite the lightness of his tone. “So I think you’re stuck with the situation until you’re of age.”

“Phil, I can’t stay there,” Heather cried. “Do you know that we have dinner every night with the sterling silver from Glencoe and candlelight? Every friggin’ night we chew up two whole hours with the dumbest conversation in the world. Paula wants to know who my friends are and which I like the best. She thinks Alan is a boyfriend and wants to be let in on all my secrets...”

“Do you think a glass of milk will settle you down?”

Heather paused, suddenly aware that her voice had become shrill. “You’re right. I’m upset.”

Walking into the kitchen, Phil came back with two glasses of wine and a tall glass of milk for Heather. “We need to defuse this situation,” he said firmly. “Let’s talk about it. Got any ideas?”

Heather shook her head. “My one idea was pretty expensive and it didn’t work.”

“Then consider this. Since school is almost out for the summer, how would you like to stay here until fall?” He held up his hand to ward off her ecstatic embrace. “It won’t be a vacation. You’ll be expected to carry your own weight. You can work in the gallery answering the phone and being a gofer. It pays minimum wage and we’ll deduct half of that for room and board. But it’ll leave you some change to jingle in your pockets. Fair enough?”

The eager smile faded from Heather’s face. “Which is it? If I’m a kid, then Dad should be supporting me. If I’m not a kid, I should be allowed to live my own life. You’re trying to have it both ways.”

“No, you’re the one wanting it both ways. Room and board comes free in Winnetka. It does not come free in Chicago. Living here is expensive. I challenge you to find an apartment with this location at a better price. Joanna and I have talked it over and think we’re being reasonable.”

“And what about Dad?”

“I think he needs a reprieve as much as you. But I want you to talk to Paula and part as friends. That’s one of our conditions.”

Heather took a long swallow of milk and held out the glass for more. “I could slash my wrists. We haven’t discussed that option.”

“Don’t even joke about that.”

“Okay. It wasn’t funny.” She turned to Joanna. “Could I use your piano?”

“Sure. You might even want to come down and use the Steinway at the university. I’m assuming lessons with Michakoff will continue over the summer. Your father might even be persuaded to pay for them.”

Heather’s eyes widened but she refused the bait. “Do we sign a lease?”

Phil laughed. “I think a handshake will be enough. But first, go and call Paula.”

Heather stared at the phone for a full five minutes before she finally picked it up. It rang only once.

“Hello – Hal?”

“No, it’s Heather. I’m at Phil and Joanna’s. I didn’t get very far...” She took a breath and plunged ahead. “Paula, I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to...” the words stuck in her throat. She did mean to. She tried again. “Paula, Phil and Joanna have asked me to spend the summer with them. Would that be all right?”

“We thought something terrible had happened. How could you frighten us so?”

“Maybe it was the sawdust,” she replied, resenting that she should made to feel guilty, angry with Paula for expecting her feel that way.

“Are you at Phil’s now? Can your father reach you there?”

“Yes.” Heather nodded into the living room. “And Paula? Please don’t be angry. I won’t do it again.”

“Good. When you come back home we can start over.”

“Sure.” She forced her voice to sound cheerful.

A click on the line interrupted their halting conversation. “There’s a call coming in. It’s probably Dad.”

“Okay. I’ll talk to you when you come back for some clothes.”

Heather pressed the button. “Hello?”

Hal’s voice bristled with anger. “Heather, it’s a damned good thing you’re there and I’m here, or so help me, you’d be taken over my knee for some old-fashioned justice. What the hell’s gotten into you? We were five minutes from calling the police when Phil reached us. That’s how close you came to being classified as a runaway. The daughter of an attorney should understand what that means...”

“Dad, I’m really sorry...”

“No you’re not. You knew exactly what you were doing – trying to hurt. And you succeeded.” There was a long silence and Heather thought he had hung up. “All right, let me talk to Phil.”

She jumped, startled. “He’s in the other room,” she muttered, going to the kitchen to give him the message. Then returning to the den, she emptied her backpack, cramming her clothes into the end-table drawer next to the couch.

Fifteen minutes later, Phil poked his head into the room to tell her that everything was settled. But his face was grim, far different from the funny uncle she adored. She looked up, her eyes filled with tears. “Phil, please don’t...” Then as he strode across the room to wrap his arms around her, she buried her head on his shoulder and was finally comforted.

She slept late on Saturday morning, nestled in the pillows, trying to block out the insistent noise of traffic from the street below. Finally she got up to sit at the table in the empty kitchen with another glass of milk, looking out the window at people walking dogs or strolling in twos and threes along the path in Lincoln Park. Joanna had gone out shopping and Phil was at the gallery. She was to meet them both at the Art Institute for lunch. Everything was going to be all right. But somehow she felt stupefied and depressed.

At lunch she was less than cheerful. Phil’s unending supply of jokes suddenly fell flat. She even had to strain to see the connections within his stories. Finally Joanna reached over and felt her forehead. “I don’t like the way you look, Heather. Are you sick?”

Heather lifted her shoulders. “I don’t know.”

But by evening there was no mistaking it. Her face flushed with fever, she lay on the couch while Phil brought the car around to take her to the clinic a mile away. There the doctor clucked in sympathy as she opened her mouth to reveal gray rivulets fingering the swollen red sacs on either side of her throat.

“You should have had those tonsils out long ago,” the doctor murmured. He turned to Phil, speaking in muted tones, writing out two prescriptions. Almost unaware, Heather found herself being transported back to the apartment.

Back on the hide-a-bed, she tossed and turned all night, swathed in pain, only vaguely aware of sweat-drenched sheets and persistent bone-racking chills. Phil and Joanna would peer in anxiously, coaxing liquids down her fiery throat, bathing her forehead and back with alcohol. She heard them call her father and thought it was a dream. Finally in the early morning hours, the fever broke.

Monday morning she arose just as Phil and Joanna were leaving for work. Her instructions were simple but specific. Stay inside for the rest of the day and call if feeling worse. It was a promise easily kept as she lay on the living room couch drifting in and out of sleep as though the preceding day and night had offered no rest at all.

For the remainder of the week she struggled to regain strength, putting on a cheerful front for Joanna and Phil when they came home, then going back to bed to sleep fitfully through the night. Meanwhile, the elections at school had come and gone with Alan and Scott winning class office as predicted, all without her help.

By herself, she worried about her report card, about her new job, and about falling behind with the piano. Still weak and irritable, she dreaded facing Mr. Michakoff. Worse, she dreaded facing Paula and her father when she went back to pick up her clothes.

Finally after a week, she seated herself at Joanna’s piano to prepare for her return. Fortified with two cups of strong coffee, she played loud and crashingly in the deserted apartment until her fingers and arms refused to submit to further abuse. In despair, she kicked at the piano bench, then sat down and cried over her stubbed toe. Finally armed with an empty suitcase, she limped to the bus that took to the Northwestern train station and Mr. Michakoff’s studio in Evanston.

Mr. Michakoff welcomed her warmly, but then frowned more and more as she stumbled through passages that had been played well only two weeks before. Finally after she had missed a phrase three times, he sat back from the piano and folded his arms. “What have you been doing, my girl? Five hundred push-ups? Your fingers are like arthritis.”

Heather blinked in frustration. “I’m staying in Chicago with Phil and Joanna because Paula’s remodeling the house. My piano was covered with canvas and I couldn’t practice. Then I got sick...”

“Ah! A vacation in the big city with the big social whirl. So you are a lucky girl.”

“Yes. It’s wonderful,” she replied miserably.

“Good! So while you’re there you can still work hard practicing. Tell Joanna I said she should work with you. She’s a good coach. And next Saturday the lesson will be magnificent, yes?”

Heather nodded, shamed by his gently reproach. “I’ll practice double time,” she promised humbly.

“No, not double. Only serious, with full concentration. That makes it worth double.” He patted her arm. “So now go home and soak in a hot tub. You need to baby your hands after beating them up.” His head bobbed up and down knowingly. “You think I can’t tell when a student tries to practice a week’s worth in one hour before coming to me? How long have I been teaching? Since before you were born. Students try to slip one over on Mr. Michakoff, but I know. I did it myself. It’s good students who get caught. Because they are ones expected to have good lessons always, like professionals.”

Heather’s chin quivered. “I have so much to catch up...” She stopped herself. So what if she didn’t begin until third grade? If she were really talented, it wouldn’t matter when she started. “I’ll tell Joanna what you said. And next week will make up for today.”

Outside, Hal Silverman was waiting in his car dozing. Taking the steps two at a time, Heather bounded down to the car, her face masked in studied cheerfulness. “Hi, Dad. Been waiting long?”  She tossed the suitcase in the back, then slammed the door, bouncing onto the front passenger seat.

He squinted at her. “Well, you look considerably better.”

She opened her mouth wide and stuck out her tongue. “See? All gone. You didn’t have to drive all the way into Chicago to check on me.”

“I see your experience in the big city hasn’t deflated your youthful exuberance.”

“It must have something to do with the way I was brought up. Did you know that I dodged a City Hall flasher and a potential drug fix in Grant Park?”

“You were damned lucky.”

“If my eyes had been open, I’d have given that purse snatcher a knuckle sandwich too,” she declared. “Instead, a nap cost me my life savings. So there goes Christmas.”

“A valuable learning experience,” he agreed.

She shifted in her seat, looking at him directly. “Dad, you’re not still mad, are you?”

He pulled the car into traffic, giving the road his full attention. “No,” he replied at last. “But I do think everyone needs to cool off. I just wish there were a better way...”

“It’s going to be all right,” she insisted. “I’ve always been able to take care of myself, even in the city.” She paused. “Remember when I was a little girl and Phil said he wanted to adopt me?”

He caught his breath. “I can see where this argument is going and you can forget it. Don’t even start.” He jerked the wheel and brought the car to a stop along the side of the road as cars continued whizzing by. Setting the brake, he turned toward her. “If I’d been interested in getting rid of you, I’d have done it when you were a lot younger and a real pain in the ass. Then I had to do things like choose between kiddy-land and eating a steak. It was when I worried myself sick because you were alone. It was wrong. But I had to earn a living.”

“But I’m a good girl. You used to say that I earned your trust.”

“Of course you have. But I want the best for you – for us. And Paula has a lot to offer, if you’d only give her a chance. She’s sweet and gentle...”

They were back to the old script. “Dad, I know about being in love. And I’d be happy with Phil and Joanna. Visiting can go both ways, you know.”

He shook his head. “This fall you will come home – unless you are ready to come home now.” He looked at her questioningly.

The barrier was back in place. “No – not yet. Not now.”

So silently, they drove to the torn-up house in Winnetka, then back to Chicago with Paula in tow, pretending once more that everything was all right.