FICTION

Engagement Bicycle

The story of Judy and Jim and Sylvia, and how they discovered that actually it is very nice to be a family

MARGARET LEE RUNBECK March 1 1945
FICTION

Engagement Bicycle

The story of Judy and Jim and Sylvia, and how they discovered that actually it is very nice to be a family

MARGARET LEE RUNBECK March 1 1945

Engagement Bicycle

The story of Judy and Jim and Sylvia, and how they discovered that actually it is very nice to be a family

MARGARET LEE RUNBECK

AFTERWARD Judy couldn’t quite remember how she had come to take the money. It didn’t seem like her. Miss Wainright said it wasn’t as if she were a child who needed anything. Miss Wainright had no way of knowing that Judy did need something. Something tall and noisy and nice-smelling. Jim, in fact, for a father.

Sylvia, who was Judy’s mother, had sent her to school early that morning, so the car would be free for whatever wonderful thing might develop. Judy, sunk in her worry, had wandered around the house where Miss Wainright’s Day School was held, hearing the janitor whistling downstairs, and feeling terribly lonely and sick.

“I suppose this means I can’t be engaged to him any more,” she said to herself, and that was hitting the very bottom of the depths. The two of them were engaged, but that wasn’t enough for the marriage, of course, which was going to include all three of them, Sylvia and Jim and Judy herself.

Judy had got engaged to him last Christmas. “Nonsense,” Sylvia had said, her cheeks very pink, when Judy brought home the engagement bicycle Jim had given her so she could get to school under her own power, now that they couldn’t drive her in the car. “That’s just one of his ways of taking ’vantage of things—showing his influence with ration boards and people.”

“But I am engaged to him,” she said earnestly. “I’m engaged to be his little girl. Whenever you get around to marrying him.”

But it looked now . . . after last night ... as if Sylvia wasn’t ever going to get around to it.

“So I won’t be engaged any more,” Judy thought, with dreary reasonableness, “and I suppose I’ll have to give back my bicycle . . .”

If only Sylvia could have something like the bicycle that would give her an idea of how grand Jim was . . . if only he had thought to get Sylvia some kind of present . . . maybe it still wasn’t too late, even after last night.

Just then she had been passing the principal’s office and had happened to look in, and there, under a paperweight on the desk, was some money. Several green bills, brought in from the tickets for the War Relief Benefit the school was giving.

Judy wasn’t sure how much it was. It was just money, that strange, powerful paper that changes everything. She looked at it, then she tiptoed in and picked it up, and folded it into a square. Her heart was beating; it seemed so much like an answer, almost. Magic, kind of.

She had never seen much money in her life; even at Christmas. Sylvia let her use the charge account then, and you could tell she had told Crump just what to let Judy buy. Weeks went past without anybody seeing money, yet people were always talking about it. It was something like your insides probably. Nobody ever sees them, but they got to be right. If people are sick in their money, nothing else can be perfect.

She put the bills deliberately into her pocket, and downstairs in the basement she heard the janitor whistling merrily. She tiptoed across the hall, and out the front door, a thin little girl in the uniform of a fashionable school.

Her heart was thumping so violently she could scarcely see. She walked softly along the pavement and nobody glanced at her. She held the money in her pocket and tried to think what would happen. Nobody at home would ask her where the money came from. Everyone would assume someone else had given it to her, just as people thought other people had given her a good-night kiss, or a bedtime story. There were so many people who might give her things that quite often, in the turmoil, nobody did.

She would buy the engagement gift for Sylvia, and that would show her how much Jim loved her and

wanted her to come and live with him somewhere in a little house. And have Judy there for their child. And have a dog, and the dog would have a cat, and the cat would have a rubber mouse, and everybody would belong to somebody.

OF ALL the people she had ever known, Jim was the only one she had ever wanted for a father. He looked like a father; much more like one than Judy’s own father, who had died in a motor boat crash just after Judy was born. Jim had father talent; anybody could see that. He could wriggle his ears, and he kept surprises in his pocket usually, and he had big strong fingers for hanging onto at a parade. He wasn’t silly, and if you were silly he didn’t seem to notice it, and pretty soon you pulled yourself out of it.

Judy tried to be fair about him. “Of course I know you only like me because you like Sylvia,” she said honestly to him.

He had looked at her a long moment. “Matter of fact, that’s not true. Of course, since you belong to Sylvia I would try to like you, even if you were a cactus-tongued brat,” he said, “but it so happens . . . well, it occurs to me sometimes that one reason 1 like Sylvia is because she’s your mother.”

But Judy knew that wasn’t it really. When ybu saw him watching Sylvia while she sang, his eyes were like a letter which you had no right to be reading. Yet he was always teasing her and making fun of her, and

saying how z¿6surd she was. All the time his eyes were looking as if they loved her. But Sylvia couldn’t see that. She was too busy with her Voice and her Kreer.

“Certainly I’ll wait, my u6surd genius,” Jim said. “I’ll wait until you get quite through with your nonsense. But wouldn’t it be better for you to marry me, and then tell everybody how you gave up a lovely Kreer for me?”

“Other people don’t think my Kreer is nonsense,” Sylvia said. “You’re jealous, that’s all. And if you’re jealous now . . . how would it be later?”

“That’s a fact,” Jim said, “it would get uósurber and i¿6surber.”

Judy had tried to find “ubsurd” in a dictionary, to see why it annoyed Sylvia so much. But it wasn’t in an ordinary dictionary ; probably it was a technical term Jim got out of his engineering.

They all could have been so happy if Sylvia hadn’t had that terrible Kreer always on her mind. It hung over them like a catastrophe, always about to happen. It brought funny people to their apartment, and photographers and agents. It kept Sylvia working on her appearance, having to go to bed early, not being able to eat this or that, always restless and nervous.

“Well, go ahead and sing then,” Jim said in that sensible, maddening way of his. “I’ll build you a house with a special place in it to keep your Voice in, and

Judy and I will tiptoe in and listen to it whenever you invite us. Only come, darling. For Pete’s sake come, even if you have to bring the Voice with you.”

Always when Jim said something nearly right, he added something that spoiled it. Even Judy, who thought he was perfect, had to admit that.

“You don’t understand,” Sylvia said. “You’ve never understood.”

“No,” he agreed bitterly. “If I understood I’d probably not be hanging around all this time ruining my life ... I should have taken that commission, so you could get romantic about me. But I’m the homefront type. I stay home and do my unglamorous duty running a war plant.”

Judy knew it wasn’t just singing Sylvia wanted. It was singing for people. Not just two people, who already loved her, but thousands of strangers wedged in rows, forgetting their damp umbrellas, forgetting their troubles, and their sad little lives. That’s what Sylvia said.

THE real trouble had started only a few weeks ago, when Christopher Tiffin came to town. Christopher was a poet, and usually poets don’t upset other people’s love affairs. But Christopher wasdifferent. Christopher was all you could ask for in a uniform. On account of his talent, and limited service eyes, he was a public

relations officer. With the CWACS. (“Funny they didn’t make him wear a CWAC uniform,” Jim had

said nastily.)

And besides all this he had what everybody called money to burn. (“A very rare kind of money nowadays,” Jim said.) The combination of his songs and his money to burn was what made the trouble. That and the fact that Christopher was terribly good looking in his uniform.

He wanted the world to hear his songs. He wanted that so much that he was willing to pay a great deal of “money to burn” to make it possible.

“He’s so generous,” Sylvia said, telling Jim about it the first time. “He’s going to pay all the expenses, and all the benefit goes to the Red Cross.”

Jim didn’t say anything much. “Wouldn’t it save everybody’s time if he just gave the money himself, and didn’t make the audience earn it?”

“Earn it?”

“By listening to his terrible songs.”

Sylvia was furious. “You’ve insulted my voice,” she said. “One of these days you’re going to insult it once too often.”

Jim was contrite. “I’m not insulting your voice,” he said, “I love your voice, darling. I’m insulting his lousy songs.”

Continued on page 34

Continued from page 9

“That’s very petty of you,” she said. “It’s pretty obvious, too, what’s the matter with you.”

“Sure,” Jim said cheerfully. “I’ve never tried to hide it. I’m in love with you and I’d like to get you married and settled down.”

“You’re jealous,” Sylvia said.

“Not of Christopher surely,” Jim said. “When I get really jealous, my pet, it won’t be of some poet.”

“No. It’ll be of my voice. Just what it’s always been.”

But Jim tried his best to be nice about the recital. He tried to help. He bought a lot of tickets, and listened to Sylvia practice the Tiffin songs. Hour after hour he listened painfully but with his eyes looking full of love.

“And now couldn’t we have a little lullaby . . . maybe by Brahms,” he’d say sometimes after a long while. And sometimes Sylvia would sing a little skipping rope of melody, a little cradlerocking breeze that would make you think that a room with a singing mother in it was the most beautiful place on earth. It would have been such a dear possession, that voice, to keep in the house for just the three of them.

But, of course, it couldn’t be like that. It had to be heard, by the right people. Agents and managers and particularly music critics.

“That’s where you could help, if you really wanted to,” Sylvia said to Jim. “You could sort of cultivate that music critic on our newspaper. Of course a suburban critic doesn’t amount to much, but he’s a start anyway. If he says nice things about the concert we can quote him in the ads for the next concert in a larger city.”

“The next concert . . .” Jim cried in horror. “You mean this thing is going to go on and on?”

“Certainly,” Sylvia said. “If it’s successful. Christopher says we’ll go from city to city, giving concerts and raising money for various good causes.”

“I see,” Jim said stiffly. “I guess I actually do see. At last.”

Loving them both, Judy became them both in suffering. She sat between them and her heart bounced back and forth like a tennis ball. Wise and woeful and seven, she knew all about it, yet she could not stop them from going farther and farther apart, because she was only a helpless child.

Well, the recital had been last night, and Judy knew now that nothing was going to save them from success. Sylvia had let Crump, their housekeeper, take Judy; they could stay through the first group of songs, then Crump must bring her home, Sylvia said briskly. Her mind was a stage these days, with no room for a trivial thought like Judy lingering long on it.

Judy couldn’t hear the music very well; maybe she was too excited. And then, of course, Sylvia had had them sit inconspicuously out of sight, way upstairs.

Coming home in the taxi, Crump said, looking very grim under the Cossack velvet hat she always wore off duty:

“Well, she’s had her recital now. That ought to satisfy her for a while.” But Judy knew it wouldn’t. It would only spur her on. The moment she had seen Sylvia there in the centre of the stage, looking like a silver angel embraced in the elbow of the grand piano, Judy had known dismally that the recital was a success. Everything was lost now. Sylvia would go travelling all over the country; probably Jim

vvould marry someone else, and Judy would have to go away to school.

After she had gone to bed she heard them come in, about midnight. There were a lot of people, but above them all you could hear Christopher Tiffin being tickled to death about everything. You could hear Sylvia’s lacy laughter fluttering upstairs, and once Judy even heard Jim’s voice, deep and unhappy, and full of jokes. Jim laughing quite recklessly, in that unhappy way he did with Sylvia’s artistic friends.

So she knew the recital was a success, and nothing could stop the Kreer, and she was just sick about it.

JUST before breakfast Jim came past, to see if Sylvia wanted anything of him. But of course she wasn’t awake, and couldn’t be disturbed.

“I heard her,” Judy said gloomily. “She was pretty wonderful, I guess.” They looked at each other disconsolately.

“I suppose you’re jealous too,” Jim said. “Maybe she would be better off without us.”

“We got spoiled,” Judy said. “We had her, and now we haven’t. She never keeps her mind on us any more.” Jim said, “I’m in disgrace. 1 took the town’s only music critic out during the concert. We told each other our troubles, and wept into our beer. Just when he should have been thinking about his music, and I should have been thinking up some way to deal with Christopher Tiffin.”

“The critic will say lovely things ahout her,” Judy said. “Everybody always does.”

Crump then came to the head of the stairs and called down that Mrs. Amable was awake and wanted to speak to Judy.

“How about me?” Jim said wistfully. “She didn’t mention you, Mr. Tracey,” Crump said tactlessly.

“I’ll bet she didn’t.” Somewhat grimly he dotted a kiss over Judy’s eye and then closed the door softly behind him.

Sylvia was lying in a sea foam of telegrams and flowers, trying to control herself and be quiet so she wouldn’t be exhausted by all the excitement. She looked like a singer this morning. Very young, in a white bed jacket like whipped cream, and a wide blue satin ribbon tying up her Christmas-candy curls. You’d never think she could have such a homely child, Judy thought . . .

“Darling, come in. Everyone’s told me how I was, except my daughter.” “You were lovely,” Judy said flatly. Sylvia laughed deliciously. “Come here, you quaint little thing.” She put her arm around Judy and looked at them in the mirror, and you could see her wondering if that might make a good press photograph . . .

“Darling,” she said dreamily, “you’ll remember this morning when you’re a big grown-up woman.”

“I know. It’s a very important morning.”

“It’s the beginning,” Sylvia said. “I’ll probably go on and on.”

“But we won’t have you any more.” Sylvia smiled into the mirror. “That’s sweet of you to say,” she murmured, as if to her public.

NOW, with a start, Judy realized she had walked a long distance from school. They would he wondering about her. They would be expecting to tell her how wonderful their mothers had said her mother was last night.

Then she remembered the money, coming back to it from a long way off. She saw now how impossible had been her hope that she could make some difference with it. Now that she had thought everything over she saw how hopeless and large her trouble was. 1 he comfort which had seemed possible in

the money had gone quite limp now. She had thought she could buy something . . . that would show Sylvia how much Jim loved her. But if Sylvia couldn’t see without any gift, then she never could see.

It was like a word Judy couldn’t quite pronounce, that thought. She knew it, but she just couldn’t say it. Just out of reach of her knowing was the wisdom that the untaking and ungiving lay in Sylvia herself, and the man and the child who loved her could only stumble in the darkness of it, until she found it for herself.

Suddenly the roof of her mouth was gritty with fear. She had stolen something! By now everyone would know it. By now they would have telephoned to tell her mother. People would he saying that, of course, Sylvia Amable couldn’t have a Kreer, because her child was a thief.

She must run back and put the money where she had found it. But it was late now, nearly noon. Perhaps she could explain that she had seen it blowing in the breeze, and had taken it only for safekeeping. After all, she hadn’t spent it yet.

But the moment she came into the school she knew that it was too late. Everyone was trying to act normal, but there was an air of calamity hanging over the place. Miss Wainright looked as if she had been crying, but she was cheerfully reading about Best Beloved and the Elephant’s Child. Every little girl in the room had guilt in her posture. Shame lay over everything, like dust.

“Why, Judy,” Miss Wainright said, “we thought you weren’t coming to school today.” Her voice, trying so hard to be cheerful and normal, went on saying nice things. But to Judy they were only a strong loud wind, tormenting her ears.

She thought, “I can’t tell them I took the money. If people ever found out it would disgrace my mother. It would ruin her Kreer.”

At the end of the class, Miss Wainright said: “Judy, dear, will you wait and speak to me a moment?”

What she said, she said very gently, and Judy stood there with her eyes hard and frightened, trying not to hear. Better to be a thief and a liar, than a disgrace to Sylvia. Afterward . . . after Sylvia was away . . . she’d take care of it somehow. Maybe Jim would help her. She would explain, and give back the money. But now she only shook her head stubbornly.

“No, Miss Wainright, I’m sure I don’t know anything about it.” She remembered, as she said them, that those were the very words Sylvia’s last-year’s maid had used when she had taken the old fur coat in the guest room closet.

Miss Wainright said, “You must have had some kind of reason, Judy. It isn’t as if you were a child who needed anything.”

“No,” Judy said in a crisp paper voice, “I didn’t take it. I came late to school because my mother wanted to talk to me. She’s . . . she’s going away.”

Miss Wainright’s face was very pink. “I could reach in your pocket and take out the money. I know it’s there, dear. But I want you to do it yourself. I want you to think about it, and bring it back and tell me about it.”

Somehow she got through the rest of the day. The other girls said the janitor had probably stolen the money. He looked like a Nazi spy anyway. And if their parents found out! Only this morning they saw him arguing with a policeman !

“So he’s told the police,” Judy said to herself, desperately. “They’ll probably bring a big black automobile and get me tonight. God, please let it

be after Sylvia has gone away.” She squeezed her eyes tight together and prayed. All she wanted was a dark quiet little hole to hide in, where even Jim would forget about her.

THE moment she was inside the front door at home she saw that the calamity had got home ahead of her. Crump, drinking cold tea in the pantry, had been crying.

“It’s in the newspaper . . . right where everybody can read it. Your mother’s practically ill about it.”

“Oh— oh, Crump, I . . .” She knew that crimes got printed in newspapers, but somehow she had forgotten that, worrying about everything else.

“We’ll never hold up our heads again,” Crump said. “It’s a shame we’ll never live down. You’d better keep out of sight, Miss Judy.”

“I’d better go up to her room,” Judy said. “I’d better try to explain. I only wanted . . .”

“You’d better stay out’ of the way.” Suddenly Judy’s own misery wasn’t important. What mattered was helping Sylvia. She went upstairs, trying not to think about herself at all. Whatever policemen did to thieves . . . that was all right. But her mother ought to have a right to go on singing.

Sylvia was lying on her bed, face downward. And Jim was there in the room. There was no blue satin ribbon in this scene, nor any whipped cream bed jacket. The newspaper, in an angry twist, was on the floor where Sylvia had flung it. Jim, not saying anything, and almost frightened-looking himself, was uncomfortably large in the little striped chair beside Sylvia’s bed. And the sound that was coming from the bed was sobbing.

“I wanted to tell you how it happened,” Judy said in a strangled kind of voice.

“Go away, honey,” Jim muttered. “We’ll talk about it later. Just now Sylvia has about all she can take.”

“But I’d like to tell her,” she insisted. “I’m not making any excuses. I just want to explain. I took the money because I wanted to buy her a sort of ... of present.”

“Money?” Jim said dully.

“I thought, if she understood how we felt, she wouldn’t want to go away. . .” She saw, with helpless humiliation, how feeble were her words, like trying to write when a pencil has no point. And grownups never seem able to see beyond a person’s words.

Sylvia lifted her head, and her eyes, very dark and tearful, didn’t look like a singer’s dazzling eyes.

“You took some money? What do you mean, darling?”

“I stole it. I saw it lying there, and I thought maybe it would help. It’s in the paper . . . isn’t it?”

Sylvia sat up in bed and looked at her for a long moment. There was love in those undazzling eyes that was more wonderful than anything Judy had ever seen there before. “I wouldn’t know what was in the paper,” Sylvia said. “I was looking for only one thing in the paper. There was war and sorrow and death in it . . . but I was looking for only one thing.”

She got up and went over and picked up the angry twist of the paper. She stood there, not looking at it at all, but looking at her small daughter. For once she had forgotten herself; for once she was seeing Judy as a little person, not just an ornament for her vanity.

“So you took some money,” she said thoughtfully. “And what was it you were going to buy me with it?”

“A bicycle.”

“But, darling. I don’t think I could ride a bicycle,” Sylvia said.

“But this . . . this is an engage-

Continued on page 38

Continued from page 36

ment bicycle,” Judy said in a whisper, “like the one Jim gave me.” Sylvia kept on looking at her, and she spoke as if Jim weren’t even in the room.

“Jim doesn’t want to give me an engagement bicycle, darling,” she said gently. Then she unfolded the paper, and looked at that smug half column on an inside page. She read it out loud in a soft impersonal voice.

First there was a paragraph about the Maplewood Music Club that had sponsored the concert. The officers’ full names. Then there were three paragraphs about the distinguished citizens in the audience. What each had worn . . . Mrs. Jan Pendleton Whitney in red velvet; Mrs. Wallace Islington in lamé anti mink. Then there were words about Christopher Tiffin’s songs, and a list of the titles. And at the end there was one tolerant sentence which said:

“Sylvia Amable rendered the program in a pleasant little voice. Mrs. Amable, whose efforts were generously applauded by her friends, was radiantly gowned in silver lace.”

Sylvia said bravely, “That’s what it says about me, darling. I have a pleasant little voice. My friends generously applauded, and I wore silver lace.”

She put up her hands and brushed away her tears, and even Judy could see she was trying’ to find something smoot h to say to show it didn t matter. Then Jim came over and put his hands on her shoulders, and looked into her quivering face.

“I’ve got to tell you something,” he said. “Judy says she stole something for you, Sylvia.”

“Judy didn’t steal ... it was the Voice that stole,” Sylvia said. “It made a thief out of my child, and a fool out of me.”

“It made something out of me too,” Jim said humbly. “It made a liar out of me, Sylvia. A jealous, underhand liar out of me.” They both had forgotten Judy now.

He went on huskily, “It’s about the pleasant little voice. I did that. I managed it. Two Harvard-Yale football tickets, a case of champagne and a hard-luck personal story to Pete Barnes, the music critic. I’ve been working on him for weeks, Sylvia.

“You couldn’t do that.”

“1 could. ‘Pete,’ I said, ‘I’m going to lose the woman I love. I’m nearly out of my mind.’ Pete said, ‘Another man? And I said, ‘Nope, that voice of hers . . . that sweet little voice.’ Pete knew just what I meant. His wife writes stories. She reads ’em to people. They say they’re swell, and Pete tries to tell her the truth. Then they quarrel. Ruined his home, Pete says . . .”

Sylvia’s face was locked so you couldn’t see into it. It was the death struggle of her pride sure enough. “Yes?” she said, and the word was made of ice.

“So we hatched up that story,” Jim went on. “ ‘Nothing so damning as calling a talent a pleasant little thing,’ Pete said.” Then Jim’s voice got all mixed up with his own shame. “I feel like a heel, Sylvia,” he said. “I probably have lost, you now, and I wouldn’t blame you much.”

She looked at him a long time, and then she said, slowly, “No, I wanted you to be proud of me, Jim. You know so much . . . you’re so brilliant, and I’m . . . well, I’m nobody very important. Just a widow with a little girl. I wanted you to admire me for something.”

“But why should I admire you?” he cried in amazement, “loving you as I do, Sylvia.”

“Oh, darling,” Sylvia said, “I thought you . . . well, you laugh at me. You call me absurd.”

“Of course. You are uftsurd. I laugh at you because I love you and you’re so darned cute. But you really can sing, Sylvia. Last night showed me that. That’s why I got Pete Barnes out of that hall before he found it out.” “Oh, Jim, she said tremulously, “you really do love me.”

“I’ll back the New York debut, if you want it. Only let’s be married first.”

Sylvia looked at him a long time, and then she reached up and took his face in her hands. And she laughed at herself . . . the first time in all her life. “No,” she said. “I’d rather tell

people I gave up a lovely Kreer to marry you.”

Judy was afraid to move for feai they’d notice her and stop talking. She picked up the newspaper and looked at the column, saying to herself, “I knew they’d say how beautiful she looked and everything.”

She must get Crump to buy her a newspaper so she could cut it out and save it. If she ever got out of jail, and had children of her own, she’d like them to know what kind of a beautiful grandmother they had had. And all about the wonderful Kreer she gave up just to marry their grandfather.