Beth Staas
Beth Staas
Poet & Writer
 

Audience of One

by Beth Staas

 
 

Chapter I

The halls were noisy as returning students called out to one another after Easter break. Heather Silverman stood at her locker, re‑arranging her hair. She was early, having driven in with her father instead of riding the bus. She applied two shades of eye shadow, squinting into the mirror, trying to imagine what her face would look like when it had wrinkles. She puckered her lips, heavy with slicker. A long chiffon scarf would hide a lined neck, she decided. She would fling it around her shoulder in a dramatic gesture, a lady of character and style.

Suddenly there was a flurry of activity as two busses from the west side of Winnetka dropped students at the entrance only a few feet from Heather’s locker. Looking up, she saw best friend Dodie squeezing past the others, in a rush to talk.

“Well, how was it?” Dodie asked in her soft breathy voice. “Your dad’s honeymoon got you a week in the big city with your aunt and uncle. So how did it go?”

Heather turned back to the mirror, examining her pores. “It was okay. We had dinner at La Francais afterward.”

Dodie viewed Heather back in exasperation. “I know. But what about the wedding? Did everyone like your dress? How did Paula look? Imagine, a beige wedding gown!”

Heather looked down at her books, her blue eye shadow in the dim light. “She looked just fine. She was a bride. What’s to expect?”

“But you said she was dullsville, washed out, pale, skinny...”

Heather dropped her comb into her purse, scooped her books from the floor and slammed her locker shut with a clang. “Okay. So I don’t like her. But I didn’t get to vote. If Dad wants to spend the rest of his life with her, that’s his business.” And with a toss of her head, Heather marched off to her first class.

By noon, Heather had ducked questions from a dozen of her friends, some curious, some really interested in her handsome father and the shy daughter of a respected judge, a marriage with almost fifteen years difference, presenting Heather with a stepmother only nine years older than herself.

She arrived at the lunchroom ignoring the glances of her friends. Then seated at the table with Dodie, Alan and Scott, pals from way back in grade school, she did a mood turnaround, putting sugar in the salt shaker, flicking bits of bread at the others, distracted by goofiness. And with this shift, Heather managed to get through the rest of the day.

After school they gathered in the hall outside Heather’s locker and then walked to Dodie’s house, for they were in the middle of making plans for the upcoming junior class election.

Entering the front hall, Dodie dropped her books on the table, tossing the house keys on top where they would stay until the following Monday. She motioned the others into the living room while she went into the kitchen. The note on the fridge said that her mother would be late from work. She shrugged and continued to the cabinet to get a tray of Cokes.

Back in the living room, Heather slid onto the rickety piano bench and ran her fingers across the keyboard in a rippling arpeggio. “Let’s make up some music for the campaign. We can sing it over the P/A in the morning.” She was now all business. “Let’s see...” She counted on her fingers. “We have eight syllables for the first line. How about “It’s Al and Scott we advertise..?”

It was two hours before they paused. Dodie rose to flip on the lights in the darkening room. “Do you realize it’s six o’clock?”

Heather’s face was momentarily expressionless. Then she remembered. “Omigosh! I was supposed to call home.” Running into the kitchen, there was a tremor in her voice, then a long silence while Dodie sympathetically buried her face in the couch cushions. “I’m sorry. I really am...” More silence. “I’ll be home in fifteen minutes.”

“Well, I just blew it,” she muttered, walking back into the living room. “I was supposed to go shopping with Paula and I forgot.” The look on her face showed expectation of disaster. “Well, I might as well go and face the music.”

She walked the half‑mile as fast as she could. As she entered the house that was no longer just her house, she heard the whir of the mixer in the kitchen.

Poking her head around the doorway, Heather swallowed hard and then cheerfully called out, “I’m home.”

Not getting a reply, she went upstairs and splashed water on her face, rinsing off the last of the blue eye shadow, then casually into the kitchen, clearing her throat to announce herself.

“Hi. Sorry I’m late. I’m not used to checking in.”

Paula turned and smiled. “That’s okay, Heather. It’s just that I always had to let my parents know where I was.”

Heather winced. “I’ll try to remember. This is still so new...”

A sudden rush of cool air under the door leading to the garage announced her father’s arrival. He came in like a boy, wrapping his arms around Paula while Heather stood and stared. “My two favorite women,” he murmured, reaching to kiss Heather lightly on the forehead. “My God, what work was waiting when I got back! Trial law – frantic and wonderful.” He smiled at Paula. “Your father was right. It’s where I belong. Still, I’ll have to come home earlier, now that I have a family...”

Heather lifted her chin indignantly. “And what was I – a stray?”

Her father laughed, his moustache stretched wide. He was looking down at Paula and ignoring her.

“Well, I’ll leave you to smooch while I go and practice.”

“Hey, don’t go away mad!” cried her father over his shoulder.

But Heather was already out of the room and didn’t hear him. Now in the living room, she settled in front of the baby grand they had bought just the year before, running her fingers absently over the keys. Why couldn’t he have married someone she knew? There had been so many she had liked. She sighed. Well, she would just go on being a free spirit, leaving them to their own private romance.

But in the days to follow, Heather found that almost impossible. She’d miss the bus and walk, coming home from school a half-hour later to be faced with a worried and pacing Paula. Not that Paula said anything. But the look was enough. In addition, there was the matter of keeping her room Paula-clean rather than the organized chaos that was so much more comfortable.

Then they began having a ritual dinner in the dining room, complete with tablecloth, folded napkins and water goblets filled with tinkling ice. “Dad and I have always had our big meal at noon,” protested Heather.

“But Paula doesn’t,” was her father’s reply. And that was that, despite Heather’s sensible suggestion that Paula could fuss all she wanted for herself if that’s what she preferred.

It was bad enough that Heather had to spend evenings sitting at the dinner table making small talk. It was worse when she was assigned the job of cleaning up after dinner while her father and Paula went upstairs to do whatever. Yet Heather swallowed her comments, bit her tongue and said nothing.

But after a month of trying to adjust, Heather exploded when Paula suggested that she might enjoy learning to be a gourmet cook.

“My God, why?”

“Because it’s fun. Because it has survival value when you’re on your own. Because it will give us a chance to get to know one another...”

“What makes you think I want to know you? So far all you’ve done is mess up my life.” They were in the kitchen, Heather having just come home from school – late again.

“I was hoping we could be friends,” Paula stammered, her face reddening. “I never had a sister...”

“Neither have I. And I never wanted one. I liked coming home to an empty house where there was peace and quiet. I’m not used to all this commotion. Dad and I had each other and that was enough.”

“But not enough for me.” Her father had come up quietly behind her, his lips so close she could feel the warm breath as he exhaled the words.

“So put me up for adoption! I’m not asking for anything. Why can’t you both leave me alone?”

“Paula’s just trying to help. You’ve been running wild long enough...”

“Dad, you have no idea what wild is if you think I...”

“That’s enough, Heather. I don’t intend to get into an argument. I just want you to listen to Paula. She can make a real lady out of you...”

Heather drew herself up to her full five-feet six. “That’s an insult. I’ve never given you any reason to be ashamed of me. I’ve been a good student and well-adjusted – until now. You can’t turn the clock back and make Paula my mother. And anyway, I won’t let you.”

Hal Silverman looked distractedly at the two standing in front of him. “Jesus! I just want you two to get along!”

“Fine! Then stop shoving her down my throat!”

“Heather, I want us to be a real family unit. Until it comes to you naturally, I expect you to make a good effort and at least go through the motions. That means cooperating with Paula and giving her a chance. You’re intelligent. I don’t have to draw you a picture.” There was a note of finality in his voice.

Heather glanced at Paula standing quietly at the table. Was there a triumphant flick of her head? She couldn’t tell. “What’s the trade-off?”

“You’ll be permitted to keep your allowance instead of having it taken away for being so rude,” he replied, his voice rising.

So there it was. Fairy tales were true. A stepmother was real bad news. No more trying to say it wasn’t awful. She couldn’t wait until she told Dodie.

The next day was Saturday. But instead of taking the train to Evanston for her piano lesson, Heather allowed Paula to drive her. She would go through the motions as required.

They arrived at the entrance to Mr. Michakoff’s studio on Main Street just as the clock on the bank building was striking one. It had been an uncomfortable drive marked by awkward starts and stops in conversation. She waved as Paula pulled away from the curb, relieved that the ordeal was over. After her lesson, she would go to the bookstore and later meet Dodie at the coffee shop, free until Paula picked her up at four-thirty.

As she rang the bell at Michakoff’s studio, she anticipated Dodie’s sympathy once she’d learned the latest. Even when no one understood, she could count on Dodie.

Mrs. Michakoff, a pudgy, sour-faced matron in a faded housedress answered the door. With only a brief nod, she stepped aside, allowing Heather into the vestibule.

When she first began studying with Mr. Michakoff two years before, Heather saw this woman as a barrier, like the lions guarding the Art Institute in Chicago, and was afraid of her. But then she learned Mrs. Michakoff spoke no English, and Heather’s fear turned to pity.

She tapped gently on the inner studio door, and opened it upon hearing Mr. Michakoff’s cheerful “Come in!”

He was sitting on the piano bench notating fingering for a Mozart Concerto she was to receive today. He was a little man, thin and shriveled with a bent back, his ill-fitting clothes snagged on his shrunken frame like a scarecrow. His wiry gray hair was like a dusty halo around his head. He seemed swallowed up in this barn-like room that was cluttered with grand piano, spinet, Celeste and harpsichord. Yet the picture changed when he spoke, for his voice was youthful, strong and firm. He had been the official pianist for the Chicago Symphony but retired to devote more time to his students and to his beloved stamp collection. Heather considered being accepted as his student an unbelievable stroke of luck. Michakoff’s students competed all over the country. She’d been playing since third grade.

“You are going to love this,” he declared between piano chords and penciled notes. “Mozart, the messenger of God, is that not so?”

Heather nodded, looking over Mr. Michakoff’s shoulder as he pedaled experimentally. Then as Mr. Michakoff played it through on the grand piano, she forgot the events of the past weeks, forgot her father and even Dodie. For one hour she allowed the music to swallow her up as it always did, transporting her beyond herself. In this un-lovely studio, all moodiness and temperament vanished and she knew, she KNEW where she was going. Here she communed with the muse who had beckoned her since before she could even remember. In this room she’d discovered her calling, as firm and sure as any high priestess. She’d accepted her mission as The Chosen One, gliding through uncomplicated passion for music where surely the angels did sing.

And so renewed, she was later able to talk to Dodie, telling her of the confrontation with Paula, explaining her determined cheerfulness that would certainly make things work out.

Yet it takes more than good intentions to make a relationship, as Heather was soon to find out.

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.