A PLACE FOR CHILDREN
HERE where the sands curved, white and unending, mile upon mile on either side, there was only quiet and the golden sun. Before Herbert Marsh the blue green waf er stretched in soft desertion to the horizon. There was no sail in sight, no ship. Pipers skittered along t he surf edge where the yellow sand froth piled in masses and broke off to roll away before the gentle breeze like fairy tumbleweed.
It was beautiful, contenting, yet without Elly there would have been something missing like a painting without a focal point to lend meaning to the composition; to draw everything together and give it life.
She was there, to Herbert Marsh’s left. A little figure in a yellow garment of some sort. A skimpy covering that left her chubby golden brown legs and torso for the sun to gild like a Florentine figurine.
She was gathering sea shells cast up by the tide. White shells and amber shells and brown spotted ones. Conchlike shells with delicate pink lips and thin black shells with iridescent mother-of-pearl insides.
Elly straightened. She turned and held up something in one small hand to show him. She called but she was too far away for Herbert to hear. He gestured, to show her he was aware and he heard her laugh, joyously, before she bent and continued up the beach in a series of lit tle hops and runs. He saw the way she tossed back her hair, and he was aware of a sadness that gripped at his chest and throat.
There was no reason for it. Everything was so lovely, BO truly beautiful. Without Elly it would have been incomplete, for this was a place for children. Without her it would have been flat, savorless, like food without salt . Sunlight and sand and Elly dancing, elfin, making it right and proper.
Herbert Marsh drew a deep breath and blinked at his brown and white shoes as he sat relaxed in the chair. That sadness was still upon him. He could not account for it. His eyes sought Elly’s figure again and he knew he had done the right thing so many years ago.
The sun was curving in April fullness toward the horizon. In a little while Ellen would come back from shopping; the big limousine would come across the flame-studded green of the causeway. It would turn, stop a bare five feet from where he sat. The chauffeur would get out and open fhe door and Filen would l>eckon, smiling. They would drive to the wliite, picture-windowed house deep in the green lawns.
Herbert turned his head the least bit and
anxiously looked to see that Elly had not strayed too far away. She was still there, choosing and discarding shells.
HE HAD done the right thing, he and Ellen, all those years ago. Things had been pretty tough after the war. He had come back and found a job with Randolph Construction. A good job. A job with a future. And he had found Ellen.
He had met her on a date when he was living at home once again, as if there had been no four years of war for him. He was back in his room in the little house, with his father and mother and Jill and Daise, his kid sisters.
Fred Marik, who had played back on the team at High that Herbert had captained, had invited him on the double date. Fred was taking a girl named Eloise Frawley and Eloise had promised to bring a friend.
He and Fred had driven the twenty-odd miles in Fred’s battered coupe. It was a ’34 as Herbert remembered. It had cost Fred as much to buy when he got out of the Navy as a new car would have cost when the car itself was new.
Eloise lived in a white clapboard house on Crescent Road. When Fred honked the horn Eloise came out onto the porch and the other girl came behind her.
’Eloise was small and petite, with a freckled nose and red hair and a waist so tiny that Fred proudly proclaimed he could touch thumbs and second fingers about it. But then, Fred had big hands. He’d been their best ball passer.
Fred had said, “Hi,” and Eloise waved and came dancing down the wooden steps and the other girl followed, more sedately. Herbert did not expect too much. Not more than that his blind date would be passable.
He saw a tall girl and he liked that. He was tall himself. A good six-one and big besides and he hadn’t a big man’s usual liking for small women.
This girl whom Eloise was introducing, had fair hair and deep grey eyes under soft-etched brows. She walked as if she were proud of her height. She
carried her body like a dancer, easily, erect. A square-cut neckline showed the golden color of her skin. She looked at Herbert and smiled, then got into the back seat with him. She said, “Hello,” and Herbert said, “You were taking a big chance.”
Her smile deepened as Fred pulled the coupe away from the curb in the soft light of the dying day. “We both were.”
They looked at each other, leaning back against the frayed leather cushions. They both said, “I’m glad I did,” at exactly the same time.
THE dance was at a road house called Beachman’s.
There were a few fellows Herbert knew, but not many. He had got out of touch in the years he had been away. He did not think of that as he sat at the t able with Fred and Eloise and this tall girl who was his date. Fred and Eloise got up to dance and Herbert drank his Coke and relaxed. He looked at his date and found her grey eyes on him. He hoped she liked what she saw. The jet hair that refused to stay flat, the blue eyes that were the heritage from some Irish ancestor.
Her name was Ellen Craig. She lived, Herbert found, in Clearwater as well, worked there for an insurance company. She’d gone to the High but long after Herbert had left. She was, she told him, going to be twenty. She wouldn’t tell him the date, but that made her five years younger than he.
They danced and Ellen was like a feather in his arms and he didn’t have to hold her away from him so that he could see her face. He was glad that she lived in Clearwater, for it meant she would still be with him after they had dropped Eloise at her house.
They sat together in the back seat after Fred had come from saying “good night” to Eloise. The night air blew Ellen’s hair. They didn’t neck but Herbert put. his arm about her and Ellen leaned against him as Fred drove homeward, singing with the radio.
Ellen lived east of the postoffice. Fred sat with the radio turned down while Herbert took Ellen to the vine-covered porch. She put her cool, longfingered hand in his. Her husky voice said, sincerely, “I had a lovely time, Bert.”
“I’m glad,” Herbert told her. He wanted to say more but what he said was, “I’ll see you again soon, won’t I? We could go to the movies.”
“I’d like to,” Ellen said. “I’m home before six. We’re in the phone book.”
Fred had looked around as Herbert got into the car and slammed shut the defective door. “Pretty quick,” Fred said, stepping on the starter. “How’d you like her?” Continued on page 60
Continued from page 22
Herbert remembered, over all these years, how he’d said, "1 her a lot. She’s a fine girl.”
SHE was. As the days went by and Herbert saw still more of Ellen, he realized how fine she was. Perhaps it was only in his own eyes, his own estimation. Rut that was what made it important. Herbert had known a lot of girls, before and during the war, but he had never known one he had considered in the light of marriage, a girl he would spend the rest of his days with—rise to see over the breakfast table mornings and find waiting for him when he came home at night.
It was something that Herbert knew instinctively to be as startling to other men as to himself. The first time he thought of it, walking home from Ellen’s house after a date at the movies, her kiss still warm on his lips, he had felt a great unease—a fear. Almost a sense of being trapped.
He hadn’t called her for almost a week. Then he called her and there was nothing in her voice but gladness. They went bowling and walked down to the bridge.
They sat looking at the water. They didn’t speak. Herbert knew he loved Ellen. He knew he wanted to see her over the breakfast table and find her waiting for him when he came home from work. He took her hand in bis and Ellen’s fingers curled about his palm.
He thought of her family—of her mother and father and her brother Ted who was in his first year at High. He thought of his own family. Mom who was thin and quiet and Dad who was burly and greying and always worried.
Herbert thought of a lot of things. Reside him Ellen sighed. Over their shoulders the moon shone on the still waters and Herbert turned to Ellen and said breathlessly, “1 love you. You know that, honey, don’t you?”
All Ellen said was, “I hoped you did,” but their hands caught and clung. There was no need to say more.
A WEEK before Herbert bought the ring, which was in November of ’46, he told his mother and father. Ellen was going to tell her folks that night as well.
Mom came to Herbert and kissed him and left the living room. Dad stood, frowning. Dad said, “She’s a fine girl, that Ellen. A fine girl, Bert, but—”
He pulled at his gi'ey mustache. He said, “It’s hard. These days—”
“We’ll get along,” Herbert said cheerfully, happy that he had broken the news.
Dad shot him a glance from darkling eyes. “Aye, you’ll be a millionaire some day. 1 hope you will, Bert. I hope you’ll have it easier than me.”
“It’ll work out,” Herbert said and Dad’s mouth twisted under the mustache. “Aye,” he said again. “You’re in love and you’re twenty.” “I’m twenty-five,” Herbert said, looking squarely at Dad. “I’ve found the only girl I'll ever want. I’m not a kid. I’m a man, Dad.”
“You are,” Dad said and there was something in his voice and in his face, a sort, of regret, even a sort of selfaccusation that made Herbert go to him and put his hands on his father’s shoulders. He was almost a head taller than his father. He looked down at Dad. “Don’t you worry. I’ll make out. I’ll go places. Quicker and better with Ellen to help me. And Dad, thanks for everything—”
“Everything," Dad said. They went
out onto the little porch. Herbert could hear his mother working inside. He coidd hear Jill and Daise in their room at the back. He thought, Ins heart swelling, “I’ll get something better than this for Ellen. She’ll have a better time than Mom has had.”
He said again because lie had to, “It’ll work out, Dad.”
In the dark he heard Dad’s sigh. Dad said, “You’ve got to be sensible about it, son.” His hand lifted, dropped. “Maybe it’s asking a lot but there are things you’ve got to stop and consider. First of all, where you going to live?”
Herbert hadn’t thought of that, yet it came to him then that it was a problem that confronted nine out of ten young people like himself and Ellen.
Dad said, “You can’t get an apartment. You can’t get a tourist cottage. There’s more money in overnight tourists. And you know better than to buy or build.”
Herbert did. Working with Randolph Construction he knew that a decent, properly built house was out of his reach and he knew, too, that the older houses one could buy were priced beyond reason; far beyond value.
He did not know what to say and so he said nothing. It was Dad who rumbled, “And then, what about children?”
Herbert frowned. He said, “We don’t have to have children.”
This time it was Dad who stood silent for a long moment before he shook his head and went inside.
WHEN Herbert saw Filien the next night he was feeling rather low, but once they were out in the street with the sky dark and star-studded ab»)ve them and the air sweet and cool on their faces he felt better. He felt at peace as he always did with Ellen.
He told her what Dad had said about a place to live. Filien said, “I know. My folks are bothered, too. They like you, Bert, but I guess it’s the money I pay at home and—well—the way things are.”
Herbert had only nodded, holding to her hand as they walked toward the park at the water’s edge. He said finally, “We’ve got to think of it, though. We’ve got to think about where we’ll live. We’ve got to have a place and frankly I don’t know of any.” He felt her fingers tighten, reassuringly. “I’ve thought of it. I don’t think we could afford the sort of place we want and we haven’t much chance of getting anything we can afford.” Herbert felt a little touch of panic. “Well, then, what—?”
Ellen said quietly, “There’s my room at home. “It’s big enough and we can use the kitchen to cook and have our meals.”
“But your people,” Herbert stammered.
“They know. I told them. I told them what we could pay, too. We’ll get our own food and we’ll both be away all day at work.”
Flerbert stopped, looking at Filien in the dark. He saw the nebulous blur of her face, turned up to his. It wasn’t necessary for him to speak. Filien said, “I know, darling. It isn’t what we want. But maybe it won’t be for long.
I pray it won’t.”
Herbert remembered how her voice had shook. Her hands had trembled against bis arm. “What else can we do? The way I feel—loving you so—” He had broken across her words, roughly, “The way we feel.” He had put his arm about her shoulders and drawn her to him. “It’s swell of your people, Ellen. It’ll work out. And it won’t be for long. We ll have a place of our own.”
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Even as he had spoken he had remembered what Dad had said the night before and he had frowned, his brows drawing together. Ellen said as if his thoughts even impelled her own, “Mother’s all for it , but Dad said if we had children there—there wouldn’t be room.’’ She looked up at him. “Darling, you you won’t mind if we wait?’’ “We’ll wait,” he told her, deep from his chest. “It’ll give us time to put away everything we can. I’ll work my fool head off. I’ll get places and we’ll have our own home and then you’ll see, Ellen . . .”
HERBERT couldn’t remember the years that had passed. He only recalled the things that had been. They’d been married at Thanksgiving and gone for their week’s honeymoon.
They’d come hack and settled down in Ellen’s room at the Craigs’ and it hadn’t been good. It wasn’t the Craigs themselves. It was everything. Ellen’s mother was a chubby little woman with a kindly disposition, hut she was always talking. You couldn’t get away from her. There was no place they could go but their room and that made them feel choked. Gave them claustrophobia.
Father Craig was lean and dour. He was set in his ways. He didn’t like his paper touched or the radio tuned to any station but those he was used to listening to. And Ted and his noise and (he conflict over meals. And the arguments that inevitably came up.
SITTING here now, staring at the brown and white shoes at the ends of his long legs, Herbert shuddered to remember. But it was that, hewassure, that had made him work as he had.
I lad made him look to the future.
He’d had some money and Ellen had a little. He’d bought those lots on t he Beach, toward Dunedin. They’d been too costly to consider as a site for his and Ellen’s home, but he’d known he could build small, two-bedroom houses of white cemented concrete block that the older, wealthy people would buy for summer residences.
He tried but he couldn’t recall just which year it was when he’d built the first and sold it profitably, cut away from Randolph and gone in on his own. He’d built dozens of them, bought farther down, and made money, a great deal of money.
That was many years ago. He couldn’t say how many but he felt t hose years heavy on his shoulders. And somewhere there had been Elly . . .
HERBERT MARSH lifted his head
and looked to his left. The beach shimmered in t he sun. He couldn’t see Elly. There was no sign of her chubby figure. He turned his head quickly to the right. There was only emptiness there.
He half started up, then sat back again as a shadow fell across him. He looked around and saw Fred Marik beside him.
Fred was heavy now, his hair grizzled and sparse. Herbert tried to remember if Fred had ever married Eloise Frawley. It bothered him that he couldn’t. He wondered if he looked as old as Fred. They were the same age.
Fred said, “Nice.” He gestured. “It always was. Been pretty good to us, Bert.”
Herbert made a sound of impatient agreement. He leaned forward, the better to see past Fred. There was a tugging, fearful anger in his breast. Elly %vas only a child but she should know better than to wander out of sight.
Hesaid, “You don't see her, do you?” Fred asked, “Who?”
The old fool. Herbert thought, but he said as calmly as he could. “Elly, of course.”
“Elly. My daughter.” Herbert could not keep from shouting.
The shadow moved. He saw Fred bend to look at him. Fred asked, “You feel all right, Bert?”
“Of course I feel all right,” Herbert snapped but as he looked up into Fred’s face he felt a premonition of what was to come.
Fred’s voice said, slowly, “You've no daughter, Bert. You never had any children. You sure you’re all right?” The sadness welled then, gripping at Herbert’s chest and throat and he knew it for what it was. He stared at the empty beach and there was a great desolation upon him. He thought, shrinking within himself, What good is it then? All I’ve got, all I’ve done? The desolation spread. It seemed to take in the smiling, empty beach that cried for little figures with brown, healthy bodies and flying hair. It made his heart swell. Made him cry, “No. No.
11 can’t be-—” But he knew it was.
His chest ached. He cried again, “No. No.” He tried to throw off the hand that was holding his arm. A soft voice, husky, said, “Bert—” and he turned his head and saw Ellen beside him.
SHE was smiling at him, the fair hair caught back from her tanned face with a brown ribbon, as she kneeled beside him in the sand. She said, “I hated to wake you, but you weredreaming, darling, and it’stime we got the bus and went home. Fred and Eloise will be coming soon. We’re going out to dinner with them—or have you forgotten?”
Herbert stared at her. He looked to right and left. There was nothing but the empty beach and tiny cars parked far up where the other Sunday swimmers were reluctantly leaving the
water, headed homewards.
He looked at his bare feet, the strongly muscled legs, at his brown hands.
It came to him then. This was April of ’49 and when they left the beach and the only quiet and privacy that ever belonged to them they would go back to the house off Crescent and the Craigs and the hundred and one little irritants that bedeviled them all. It was April of’49 and he was twenty-six and it was still all before him.
But that did not matter. Herbert knew now what mattered.
He got up and Ellen rose with him, rounded and shapely. She gathered up the beach towel and the cigarettes and the half-dozen shells she had garnered for her collection. She smiled at him, her eyes dark. She said, “Poor darling. 1 know how you hate to go back. But someday—soon, I hope—” She broke off to look at the water where the fiery sun was fast sinking. At the beach where the sandpipers skittered. She said, “It’s lovely—”
That was when Herbert spoke. His voice broke from his throat. It hurt him to speak. He said, violently, “No. It’s not. It can’t be without them.” Her grey eyes widened as she looked at him. Herbert gestured. “It’s a place for children. It’s no good without
them. Not this alone, but everything. The world, our life—”
He put his hands on the bare warm satin of her shoulders. “Ellen, I want our child, our children. I won’t wait. I don’t care where we have to live. In a trailer or a shack or just one room. If we wait it may he too long—it may be too late. I want our Elly.”
He stared down at her, his mouth contorted. He saw her grave eyes looking up into his own. He heard the gentle exhalation of her breath and
then, as her red lips parted, the quiet, comforting, reassuring sound of her voice, “I hoped you’d say that, Bert. I do, too.” -k