"Vintage Children Playing" by Bnspyrd.
© Please do not reproduce without artist's permission.
by Jenny Wales Steele
The children – a boy of twelve and his sister, eleven – traipsed after their parents on the wet, flat, hard beach. As they went along, they schemed. There was vengeance in their young hearts. There were ghastly fancies. But this was all in silence. You see, they had been naughty and silence was their punishment.
“Twenty-four hours of not a peep,” said the father as he cornered them within the throng and clangor of yesterday evening’s hoopla. “Starting now,” he added with a languid tap-a-tap-a-tap of his wristwatch. “Nine eighteen p.m.” It was the worst kind of punishment because these children were chatterboxes; they jabbered ceaselessly, gab, gab, gab.
“And what had we to say in those days?”
“But oh, the fun we had!”
“A screwball comedy.”
“We were cuckoo bonkers.”
“Nutty as fruitcakes.”
“Father and Mother red with rage.”
“And then we were orphans.”
“Whisked away to boarding school.”
“Pitiable orphans. And now we are here, pitiable ancients, bones a-creakin’.”
“Shall we sit in the garden? The promise of jonquils and hummingbirds and sunshine.”
“Yes. Need a push?”
“Please. Wheel me out.”
The boy and the girl were both cohorts and enemies. Love and hate and love and hate and love and hate were the glurgs and swishes of their heartbeats. They were cohorts today because they were in mutual trouble. Trouble because yesterday they had an acute case of the meanies. The girl had tattled on her brother; she had found his crude sketch of a woman, naked, a trapezoidal body with stick limbs, the breasts capital U’s with dots as nipples, a triangle of pubic squig gles, and on top, floating, no neck, an oval with electric-shock hair, a comma as nose, a dash as mouth. It was funny and raunchy and it delighted the girl; she came upon it during her routine ransack of her brother’s room and, all smug mirth, she skipped with it (during the cocktail party!) to the parents who were mortified and (zip!) peeved aplenty. But the girl too was in a pickle. She (during the cocktail party!) had tested the limits of sass, had mocked the mother’s vexed snit, mimicked the pout and wrist on bony hip. And so, talking was banned during the tick-tock-tick of a full day. It wasn’t the first time. Or the second or third. They were not good children. It was a matter of pride.
“Rotten to the core.”
“To the quick.”
“What we got away with.”
“And the butler, cook, and chambermaid…”
“…were in on it.”
“We danced a shimmy-shimmy pavane.”
“Until the treacherous deed…”
“How the people wept! How they wailed.”
“And Pa and Ma got boxed up and shipped back to the U.S. of A.”
“And that dull uncle, that lout with halitosis, came to shepherd us home.”
“That sniveling blob.”
“Kith and kin with buckets of sympathy.”
“They hoped to get a scrap of the scads.”
“But they got zilch. Too bad, so sad.”
“It was ours, Ours, OURS!”
The children followed the father and the mother who were also wordless. They had nothing to say to one another, at least not yet, not until the booze-soaked synapses of their brains perked up and twig ged who, what, where. They were kindred souls, but not of the heart; their union was not one of love, but rather a pact. It was about identity. Who was he without her? She without him? They were coupled. And there were the children to consider, the little beasts, their beastly spawn.
The boy and the girl were precious and precocious and this was why their classmates razzed them so, made them the objects of jeers and jests. But they were not hurt; they were tough kid-a-roos and they scoffed at the inanities, the jealousy. Example: as when the girl trounced the high school chess champion (knight pesters queen, bishop nails king in a nifty checkmate); as when the boy won the statewide spelling bee (‘the word is ‘poignant,’ ‘use it in a sentence, if you please,’ ‘the epistle was poignant,’ ‘poignant, p-o-i-g-n-a-n-t’). Merely two examples out of a hell of a lot of others. They were also despised because their parents were rich, stinkingly, filthily so. The classmates’ parents had money too, but there was money, Money, and MONEY. The lower-case money meant a camping trip in a national park. (In a tent? Barbaric. Never mind if it was catered). Money with a capital M meant a month in Manhattan. (Glamorous, sure, with loges in the theater and limousines, but only a paltry month? Puh-leez). MONEY, all caps, meant the summer holiday was spent in a fancy villa on the shore of a turquoise sea, within a colony of eccentric Americans, with any whim met. Ha ha, the children thought, ha, ha, and ha!
“Spoiled were we.”
“Were we to blame?”
“And yet no hablo français.”
“The local yokels bent to our tongue.”
“We taught the butler.”
“Howdy and toodle-oo.”
“See ya later, alligator.”
“It was wonderful.”
“Total silence,” said the mother as the butler buckled the children’s sandals. “Mind your father. The yappity-yap is verboten. Capeesh?” The edict against talking had tick-tock-ticked only half way, was yet in effect during this morning’s stroll, and so, as the butler with his quaint lilt said, “After a while, crocodile,” the boy and the girl hardened: battle attitude. But under their armor was a tenderness; as they tag ged along behind the parents, their hands inadvertently touched and for a moment they hooked pinkies. You see, they were two peas in a pod. They were partners in crime and punishment. And it was all fine and dandy with them.
“It was wonderful, wasn’t it?”
“Because we were wonders.”
“Trotted out night after night in our smart finery, me with bouncy curls, you coiffed as well.”
“We were beautiful children.”
“That’s a fact.”
“The hush when we entered a room.”
They came to the end of the beach, to a rocky jut, rocks black and jag ged, snag ging a toss of sea. The father and the mother stopped, pivoted on their heels, and the boy and the girl did the same; it was now the parents who followed the children.
Brains aired and lucid, the parents let words loose. As small waves scalloped the beach and slid back, shy, the children could catch only snippets:…if that rat fink…dumbest thing I…fuck, it’s the dickens…trust in…gardenia, wasn’t it? The children filled in the blanks, to themselves, you understand, because of the ban on chat.
In another minute or so, they climbed the sandy steps to the villa’s terrace, all slate and ferns and chill. There, the butler was trundling out the little coffee trolley. “Merci, Pierre,” said the father to Pierre whose name was actually Gustav who then blinked and slunk away.
Coffee! The children were addicted. They had a silver pot of it; they had tiny cups and saucers of bone china, a tiny pitcher of cream, a tiny bowl with sugar cubes and dainty silver tongs. They sat away from the parents, at a table they had scooted to a corner, a table of wrought-iron, its surface a chaotic mosaic of glass chips. Within their imposed silence, they listened, observed, extra keenly, to the father and the mother: the verbal barbs, the caustic swipes. It was huge amusement and they tallied points scored or lost. If it swelled into a brouhaha, they would clap with glee.
“And how did we spend that hushed day?”
“We played dominos.”
“The click and clack and…”
“…click of the tiles.”
“…trotted out again.”
All summer, at the nightly cocktail parties, the mother trotted out the children. They enchanted; they gobsmacked the eye. Strawberry blond, skin the palest porcelain, irises glacial blue. Ordered to dress after dinner, then inspected: the boy in a dove-gray suit with a sky-blue ascot (dapper but not too), the girl in a frock of buttercup crêpe de chine (lovely but not too).
A boozy chorus: “The darlings! Oh, aren’t they darling.”
The darlings were tasked with shuttling, on silver salvers, a gin-and-tonic to so-and-so, a bourbon-and-soda to another so-and-so, dipping and darting to avoid pats on the head. (Parenthetically, the servants had their duties: the half-wit cook skulked around with hors-d’oeuvres, the chambermaid became barmaid, the butler was told to look butlerish). To the children, this was all a total bore. These people! These dumb, glum adults trying so hard to chisel a witticism, to whet a bon mot. The boy and the girl inwardly snickered and caught one another’s glance. Clocks were ticking in their brains; the ban on talking would end in an hour, in half an hour, in a quarter of an hour. Finally, their father tipsily and militarily saluted them – a signal that meant go, vamoose, am-scray – and out they went to the ivy-licked bower, their private realm.
“It was nine fifteen.”
“And that final minute…”
“…that itsy-bitsy minute an eternity…”
“…and until exactly nine eighteen…”
“Because if we had let slip one word…”
“…they would have heard.”
“They had the ears of owls.”
“That had the ears of jackals.”
“…it was nine eighteen!”
“And yet we whispered.”
“And what, What, WHAT did we scheme?”
“Murder très foul.”
“Patricide and matricide.”
“We needed accomplices, but that was easy-breezy.”
“Comment dit-on finagled?”
“The plot thickens.”
Even if the boy and the girl taunted and teased the servants, they were all, nonetheless, allies. Though a novice at rakishness, the boy, with a cocked eyebrow, had coaxed the chambermaid, m’zelle, into flashing her titties; the girl had sweetly wheedled m’zelle into teaching her slightly sluttish cosmetics. It was m’zelle they first approached the following morning, and though they lacked words, they were able to convey, with pantomime, the scheme. The haughty, sulky m’zelle, who had eluded monsieur’s clumsy gropes, understood, in an instant, that she was to dumbfound him, with cutesy moue and ample cleavage, as the butler, cajoled with oodles of sous, was sent to buy a can of ratsbane at the apothecary. The cook, even if a dolt, caught on and leered gap-toothedly as the children burlesqued the stirring of the poison into the vichyssoise.
They frolicked and laughed and chattered all the livelong day until the butler summoned them to dinner. “Y’all git yer grub now, ya hear,” said Gustav as the children had coached him, though he never got a good twang around his patois. “Hoo-ee, vittles ain’t gonna et itselves.”
“Blabber away, you cheeky monkeys,” said the father as they gathered around the dining room table. “Squawk all you want.” It was meant to seem benevolent in a stupidly kingly way. The mother added, “Shoot the bull and nothing but the bull.”
This sup at dusk, this hour before the nightly cocktail shindig, was labeled ‘family time’ (the mother had read an article about this while under the dryer in the beauty salon, while inhaling chemicals), but it became a drag, a smirk-fest – ‘family time’ ensconced in sarcastic quote marks. Tonight was especially shrill and rowdy as the children goofed extra goofily, as they hooted and hollered; it was their ploy as the parents dipped spoons into their bowls of cold soup.
“And…toot the horn…ta da! Thunk…”
“The situation was p-o-i-g-n-a-n-t.”
“As the usual guests arrived…”
“…the cads and shrews…”
“…we, the boy and the girl, bawled and boo-hoo-hoo-ed…”
“…and m’zelle and butler and cook did a terrific slapstick lamentation…”
“…as Father and Mother…”
“…face first in their soup!”
“Here come our keepers.”
“Our noon chow.”
“Our noon slop.”
“And drool not, brother dear, on your plastic bib, or a nursie-nurse will have to wipe your chinnie-chin.”
“And you, sister love, don’t tremble so, it’s uncouth.”
“Don’t fret, I have my flask of hooch. Now, shall we…”
“…start at the start?”
“Let’s! It’s wonderful.”
“The children, a boy of twelve…”
“…and his sister, eleven, traipsed after their parents…”
“…on the wet, flat, hard beach."
Jenny Wales Steele's fiction has been published in The Ampersand Review, Sou'wester, Cleaver Magazine, Juked, Quay, Verdad Magazine, The First Line, Salt Hill, as well as in many others, and she has been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize. A native Arizonian, she lives in Tucson. Visit her: jennywalessteele.weebly.com.