I recognized Heidi from the stamp-sized photograph in the obituary despite the years, and even though her last name was different. How could I not? I’d sketched that face so many times, not only while we were together but for many years after. My surprise was that she’d returned to Pittsburgh.
Often, I’d seen her face in a mall or a restaurant, only to be mistaken. Now, I wondered if at least once it had been her. Seventy years young, died of cancer, survived by two children and an aquarium of fish. I hoped she hadn’t suffered. I’d met her when she was sixteen and I was fourteen.
It was on a chilly April morning after I had delivered my papers, in the spring of 1966. I climbed the steps to my house on the hilly side of Church Avenue. Something dashed—I’d seen a flicker—into the storage shelter under the porch. I stooped at the entrance, peering inside. A whiff of musty newspapers, stored in cardboard boxes reached my nostrils but I could see nothing in the dark. A shiver ran through me. Wind whipped a tree branch against the house, but all else was quiet so I wrote it off as my imagination.
On my way to school, I played the incident back in my head. That’s when I remembered leaving my Roberto Clemente signature baseball glove under the porch. My parents bought it for me the previous year when I made the junior high school team. I’d be really pissed if it was stolen.
I never thought twice about leaving stuff under the porch, even though the entrance had no door. Our house was up and away from the street. The porch ran the entire length of the house and the space underneath was secure from the elements, paved in concrete, and had a door to the basement that we kept locked from the inside. Most of the area was three-foot high, but there was a higher, six-foot high rectangular section where the door was, about nine-foot long by four-foot wide.
I thought of “Under the Porch” as my space. Mom and Dad stored things there, old papers for pick-up, outdoor tools for gardening and grass cutting, but it was special to me, the place where I went to be alone. I did most of my drawing on the concrete wall there, the wide, high section where I could make life-scale images. I felt vaguely violated because someone had intruded there. That flicker I saw was a face.
I worried about my mitt all day except during art class where I concentrated on drawing. The previous day I had oiled my mitt. Mom told me to do it in the basement, but I took it under the porch. I finished the job and then pounded a ball into the glove while I studied my latest colored-chalk wall drawing. When I tired of one drawing, I washed it off and started another. Wash-away art, I called it. It didn’t matter that no one else saw it. I saved my favorites with a Polaroid. This drawing depicted Roberto in full motion, throwing the baseball from right field to home plate, catching a runner trying to tag. The ball had just left the tips of his fingers. He had a singular sense of purpose and a confident gleam in his eye. I saw that I hadn’t gotten the motion right, that precise, efficient movement that belonged uniquely to him. I set my glove down, made some erasures, and set back to work on the drawing.
“Vance, it’s time for dinner,” my mother called some time later. I put the chalk down and went upstairs, forgetting the glove. And now I had to wait until school let out to see if it was still there.
When the last bell rang, I ran all the way home, flew up the steps from the street to the house and ducked under the porch. The glove sat there on the ledge where I’d left it. I noticed then that several boxes of newspapers had been displaced. That was unusual. My parents liked things tidy. I climbed behind and looked around.
Everything appeared to be in order, except one stack of newspaper that lay on the concrete amongst the garden tools. The stack creased in at the center, as if someone placed a weight upon it, almost like an un-fluffed pillow after a night’s sleep.
Two mornings later, returning once again from my paper route, I saw someone for sure, in the dawn light—a girl with brown hair cascading about her face. She scurried down the front steps. She wasn’t anybody I’d seen before. Once she reached the sidewalk, she broke into a run.
“Hey! Wait,” I called, but she kept running. “What do you want?” My voice faded as I realized she would not answer. I considered chasing her, but I didn’t. I could easily have caught her. She was only a girl, and she carried a knapsack on her back. Nothing was missing or out of order, but someone had stacked the papers back inside the box.
I listened to the Pirates home opener that evening. Roberto was two for four, and he threw a runner out at third. But we lost. Between innings, I thought about the girl. I never knew what to say to girls, so I tried to impress them in other ways such as playing baseball, hoping they would notice me by my play.
On the playground guys talked about girls, about feeling them up and other things. I listened with a mixture of awe and skepticism. I didn’t know anything. Not the real kind of know, a one-hour sex education class notwithstanding.
This girl looked weary and heavy-lidded, reminding me of the way I felt getting up to deliver papers. She looked soft and hard at the same time, cautious yet brash—both qualities showing through her eyes. But what color were her eyes? I hadn’t noticed.
She wore blue jeans, and a light windbreaker zipped to the top of her chin. Her hair, uncombed and ratty, fell limply to her hunched shoulders. Why had she been skulking around my house? Apparently, she wasn’t a thief, or she didn’t find anything worth stealing. Why would she want a baseball mitt, a lawnmower, or hedge clippers? I didn’t recognize her from school. Where did she live?
The next morning I brought a flashlight and looked for her before I delivered the papers. I shined the light beyond the boxes, but she wasn’t there. I’d probably scared her off for good.
That evening I washed away the Roberto Clemente drawing. In its place, I drew her, from a combination of memory and imagination, her hair neatened so she looked prettier. I let my fingers choose eye colors at random, without concern for authenticity, mixing and blending the chalks by impulse.
Other than the eyes, I had created a faithful image. Discomfort spread across her lips. Her jacket zipped tightly into her chin, exactly the way I’d seen her. The knapsack lay at her feet, her fingers extending to it, as if she had just dropped it, with the intention to stay. When I studied the face, her eyes focused on me, as if wanting to tell me her secrets; for if there was one thing her eyes told me it was that she had secrets. I stared at her image for a long time before I dragged myself into the house and up to bed. I had missed the game but I didn’t care.
The next morning I was up and ready early. I climbed under the porch with a flashlight to see if she’d been there. We nearly collided at the entrance. Her eyes darted about, looking for an escape route, but the quarters were tight, and my position blocked her exit.
She changed tactics, nodded to the drawing and asked, “Did you draw this?”
A hot, tingling sensation swept up the back of my neck and flushed my face. I never showed my drawings. Especially not to strangers, and especially when the stranger was the subject.
“Yes,” I admitted.
Her eyes bounced from me to the drawing and back again. “Maybe it’s too dark, but I don’t think you have my eyes right.”
I shined the flashlight onto the drawing.
“Whoa!” she said. “Those are some weird eyes.”
I lowered my head. “I only saw you for a moment. “
She took the flashlight from my hand, held it waist high and shined it up to her face revealing freckles on her cheeks, a scar above her eyebrow. Her eyes were deep blue.
“Why did you run?” I asked.
She returned the flashlight and crossed her arms over her chest. “It felt wrong.”
It wasn’t as if I was going to call the cops. “What are you doing here?”
She glanced back to the storage area, beyond the row of boxes filled with newspaper, and then she looked back to me and suddenly jerked backwards.
“Have you been sleeping back there?” I asked with an air of incredibility.
“Just for the last few nights,” she replied as if it was not a big deal.
“Don’t you have a place to live?”
“Not really.” She lifted her eyes upward.
Impossible, I thought. She’s barely older than me. I’d seen bums downtown that didn’t have a place to live but they were old men.
She raised her eyebrows and smiled. “Are you going to rat me out?”
“No.” I suddenly felt like a co-conspirator and I liked the feeling even if she was manipulating me.
“Don’t you get cold?” I asked.
“It’s not bad. The days are getting warmer. Just don’t tell your parents. Don’t tell anyone, not even your friends.” She squinted at me like a kitten.
“I can get blankets.”
She shook her head. “I’ll be gone in a few days.”
My heart sank. I wanted her to stay. She’d be my secret. I had a thousand more questions but I was already late. “I’ve got to deliver papers,” I told her.
She nodded and turned her gaze back to the picture as I left. She was gone when I returned. I didn’t even know her name. I wondered where she went each morning. I thought about her the entire school day.
She turned out to be a lousy weather predictor. I shivered that evening in a heavy coat, as I sat on the front porch steps and listened to the game on my transistor. I felt her presence underneath me, but I was afraid to go down there. My bravery from the morning had disappeared in the cold dark night.
By ten o’clock, the cold drove me inside with the game in the eighth inning. Bucs up, 3 -1 against the Reds. Vernon Law had pitched a great game. One more inning and he would give way to Roy Face.
I lay on my bed with my clothes on, half listening to the game. We won. Face retired them, one-two-three, striking out the last batter with a forkball that bounced in the dirt. Bob Prince, the iconic Pirate announcer said, “We had’em all the way.” I clicked off the radio and closed my eyes, but they flapped back open of their own accord. She must be shivering down there, lying on cold concrete. She couldn’t have packed anything warm enough in her pint-sized backpack.
My parents thumped up the stairs for bed so slowly that night I thought they would never arrive at the landing. I waited and listened, hearing their sounds of undressing, whispering and coughing, until at last, silence prevailed.
When they snored, each in their own rhythm, I gathered blankets from my closet. Downstairs, I boiled water, poured it into a coffee mug, and spooned in Ovaltine. I flicked the light on in the basement and pushed open the door that led under the porch.
She startled me when I opened the basement door, standing only a foot away with a claw-like garden digger cocked back in her hand. I jerked backwards, gasping, Ovaltine splashing my jacket.
“Oh, it’s you,” she said, relaxing, but still holding the digger in striking position.
It took long seconds until I recovered enough to speak. Wiping the chocolate from my jacket with my hand, I said, “I thought you might be cold.” I rocked back on my heels. This was my home but I felt like the intruder.
“Outta sight,” she said, putting down the digger. She warmed her hands on the cup and breathed in the steam before she took a sip. Her eyes glowed. “It’s good, real good.”
My hand gently grazed her shoulder as I draped a blanket over her back. She wrapped it tightly around her and sat on the wall, letting her feet dangle. Her powder-blue sneakers had laces that frayed where the plastic sheathes had broken off. One lace had been broken, and the two pieces were tied together. I sat down beside her. My laces had a tied-together knot too.
We sat in silence while she finished the Ovaltine. I handed her the second blanket. “Maybe you should lay one blanket on the concrete,” I said.
Instead, she wrapped both blankets around her, like a cocoon, and lay with only her head exposed and resting on a stack of papers, her hair falling about her cheeks. We said goodnight and I returned to the guilt of my warm bed.
The next night the wind howled through the trees and the temperature dipped even lower. I brought her another Ovaltine and a sandwich of chipped ham on an English muffin that I’d toasted for her. She ate slowly, her eyes barely blinking, refusing to betray what I imagined to be ravenous hunger. Hooking my thumbs inside my belt, I leaned against the wall and watched her until she finished.
She looked at me the way a batter sizes up a pitcher, then cocked her head to one side and lifted her chin. “Come here.”
I stepped close to her and she hugged me. “Make me warm. I’m so cold.”
We stood holding each other and she pressed her face to mine, warming her cheek. My legs were tired, but I would not have moved if the earth quaked. She said, “Come lie down with me, but no making out. You’re too young.”
I nodded. We crawled behind the boxes. She unzipped my jacket, then hers, and she snuggled in close, wrapping her arms around me. We lay straight on our sides, creating as much body contact as possible, her thighs against mine, her breasts pressing into my chest, warming and exciting me, her cold nose nuzzled into my neck. I smelled the fragrance of her hair, somehow washed, since our previous evening. It tickled my face, but I lay perfectly still. My penis swelled, pounding incessantly, threatening to burst through my zipper. I worried what she must think, afraid I would gross her out, for she must surely have felt it, pulsating against her. Maybe she was too cold to care. I pressed her closer, pushing one hand into the small of her back, the other pulling her in about the shoulders, trying to compress our two bodies into the space of one. I felt acutely aware of her with all of my senses, as if we existed within a bubble of existence that included only us.
Remote perceptions made me dimly aware that time passed: a train horn in the distance, the buzz of a propeller plane overhead. Her respirations became regular and I realized she had fallen asleep. The rhythm of her breath soothed me. I fought sleep like a one-year-old, but I must have conked out because I woke up cold with someone pushing at me.
“You’d better go,” she said, in a matter-of-fact voice, but a betraying smile. “It’s time to deliver your papers.”
Shaking out the cobwebs, I said, “Okay.” I felt hazy and confused at waking on cold concrete. I wondered if she felt that way every night. I jumped off the wall as she packed her knapsack. I knew she would be gone when I returned from my paper route. “Where are you going?” I asked.
“I’ve got things to do,” she said, as if nothing had happened between us.
But something had happened. I felt as if I had done something adult. I opened the basement door to go inside, turned back and asked her, “What’s your name?”
She looked up, considered me for a moment and said, “Heidi Hammond.”
The next night the top of the Gulf Building flashed orange, forecasting an overcast but warmer night. Raindrops pattered on my window. I brought her another sandwich, as though it were the price of admission for the privilege of keeping her company.
I grabbed a couple Cokes from inside the basement and pulled a bottle opener from my pocket. We sat, once again, on the wall.
“You came well prepared,” she said. Her hair fell down the side of her face. She brushed it back with an exaggerated flip of the wrist and looked away before I could answer.
We became a two-person shyness convention until the unexpected effect of carbonation rescued us. She burped, and we both laughed.
“Why did you draw me?” she asked, staring at the drawing on the wall.
“I didn’t mean for you to see it. I can wash it off.”
“Oh no, I like it.” She stood up and moved close to the picture. It was almost impossible to see it in the dark.
“I’ll fix the eyes tomorrow after school.”
“Leave them,” she said. “With those eyes I think of it as her, and not as me.”
I bounced the back of my heels, back and forth, in rhythm, against the wall. “Why don’t you want it to be a picture of you? The eyes are a mistake.”
She leaned over and placed her hands on my shoulders. “They’re the best part of the picture.” Her face loomed inches from mine; her real eyes boring into my own.
My mind processed nothing, except the feel of her hands and the thought that because they aren’t her eyes, then they could not possibly be good. I felt lightheaded and discovered that I had stopped breathing.
I gasped, sucking in gulps of air. She stared at me with narrow eyes.
“Don’t mind me, I forgot to breathe,” I said, wheezing.
She pushed me with the palm of her hand. “How can anyone do that?”
“I don’t know. Forget about it. Okay?” I’d become embarrassed and didn’t want to talk about it. I looked at my feet, avoiding her stare.
We were quiet for a long time, like strangers again. A scratching sound, like a mouse trapped in a box, made me look up. Heidi was scraping her fingernails across the wall. They were tomboy nails, short and unmanicured. Her nostrils flared, her face flushed red, and her eyes squinted, hard and tight. She said, “If you’re not going to talk to me, why don’t you go back inside to your cozy bed?”
That was the last thing in the world I wanted to do. I wanted to lie down with her again. I wanted to talk to her and find out all about her, but it felt as if I were trying to pump words out of an empty well. Nothing came out but dry air.
“Okay,” I said, at last. I tried to swallow, but it got stuck in the back of my throat. I slid off the wall. She scrambled into the back with her blankets as I closed the door behind me.
In bed, I cried out, “Idiot.” I pounded my head into my pillow, a surrogate brick wall, certain that Heidi would never talk to me again. The next morning I passed by the porch without even looking underneath. I knew she wouldn’t be there.
I had a ballgame after school. We were losing and I had no hits in three tries. Kenny sat on the bench next to me. It was our last at bat. I wanted to tell him about Heidi. He turned fifteen last month, and he already had a steady girlfriend. Maybe he could tell me what to say. I wouldn’t turn fifteen until October. I never even kissed a girl except at my cousin Ginny’s party on her birthday when we played spin the bottle. When my spin fell upon one of Ginny’s friends, we kissed without privacy. It was a circus, people oohing and awing, watching us, two kids, acting for an audience, performing in the face of peer pressure, rehearsing for real life. Later, the girl flashed shy, hopeful glances at me, while couples danced, but I looked away and talked baseball with the guys.
I had promised Heidi I wouldn’t tell anyone about her. In my whole life, I had never broken a promise, but I needed to tell someone real bad. I thought I could trust Kenny not to say anything. I turned towards him, but before I could speak, I noticed him staring at me. He said, “Vance, you’re on deck. Aren’t you paying attention?”
In the on-deck circle, I reoriented myself to the game. We had two on and two out. If Bobby, in front of me got a hit, and I did too, then Kenny would be the tying run at the plate. Maybe we still had a chance. Sure enough, Bobby got a single up the middle and John scored from third.
I had never gone hitless in a game. Teammates encouraged me from the bench. “Come on, Vance. You can do it.”
“Blast it, Vance. Blast it,” someone said.
I knew better. No point swinging for the fence. We would still be a run behind with a home run. Our chances were better if I just tried to put the ball in play.
I pulled the first pitch down the right field line. Foul by ten feet. Way out in front. Calm down.
The next pitch sailed low and away. The third flew in tight. Now I had the count in my favor.
I felt confident. I dug in. The pitcher kicked at the dirt and maneuvered the ball inside his glove. At last, he wound up and threw. I saw the ball rotating from the moment the ball left his hand. It was a queer-looking pitch. The seams spun faster and faster, the ball growing incongruously large. It grazed my cheek as I turned my head and collapsed in a heap. I tasted dirt as I lay on the ground, relieved that I had not been killed. I wanted to spit. Then everything went blank until I felt an annoying trembling sensation. “Vance. Vance,” an insistent voice called, echo-like, in the distance.
I opened my eyes. Coach Davis stared at me from above, shaking me by the shoulders, wrinkles of concern lining his face between the whiskers of his unshaven face. Teammates gathered around.
“I’m okay. I’m okay,” I said.
Kenny helped me to my feet. I started to first base, but the umpire called me back. He said I hadn’t been hit. Coach Davis burst into a tirade. I was about to join the argument, when I noticed Heidi in the stands, watching me. She wore a Pirate’s baseball cap with a ponytail pulled through the back. I nodded to her. She smiled slowly, and waved, a delicate acknowledgement, and unless I misread the gesture, one of relief.
Coach had his say with the umpire. I stepped into the batter’s box. Swung and missed the next pitch.
“Strike three,” barked the umpire. He sounded happy about it.
The game was over.
I dabbled at homework until dark that evening and then made a sandwich, wrapping it in waxed paper and stuffing it into my jacket pocket as I slipped out the back door. The night greeted me with a chill, but no rain, despite the Gulf Building’s blinking prediction. Stars peeked between the clouds. I tiptoed past the living room. The television spat out erratic flashes as I ducked under the open window.
Under the porch, Heidi appeared, shadowlike, from behind the boxes, and although I expected to see her, I flinched at her first movement. I reached for the flashlight, but she touched my arm and said, “Wait.”
She retrieved a candle from her backpack and lit it. Her ponytail gave her face an angular look that accentuated her lips, and a mouth of tantalizing perfection. Something about her had changed. I wanted to draw her again, a new picture, not a correction. How many different ways could a person look? I wanted to draw each nuance of her, thousands of drawings, each with subtle differences, a kaleidoscope of images, to arrive at the comprehensive, all-inclusive Heidi.
“There,” she said, snuffing out the match, “that’s better.” Her chin tilted upwards as she asked, “Did you get hurt? By the ball, I mean.”
“It grazed me,” I said, somewhat leery, afraid she might still be angry. “I was surprised to see you at the game. I thought you were mad at me.”
She shrugged. “I don’t know many people here, and most of those I’ve come across have not been nice. I shouldn’t be mean to those that are.” She stared down at her feet and then looked back at me in a contrived bashful manner. She was pretending but I didn’t know why.
“I guess you’ve run away,” I said, letting the words hang there, hoping she would explain her situation. Instead, she looked down at her shoes again, almost like someone praying.
I mentally ran through a list of terrible things that might have happened to her. She read my expression. I’d never been good at hiding things.
“It wasn’t anything horrible.” She laughed, but her eyes grayed over with a faraway look about them.
“It must have been bad if you ran away from home. Are you going to hide forever?”
“I’ll go, if you don’t want me here,” she bristled. Her back stiffened, and the corners of her mouth turned down into a frown. No acting from her now. For all her toughness, she could sure be sensitive.
My heart pounded. “That’s not what I meant. Stay as long as you like.” I remembered the sandwich still stuffed in my pocket. I held it out to her.
She took the sandwich and relaxed, her emotions riding a string like a yoyo. “You make the best sandwiches. You should be a chef.”
I laughed, a little chuckle-snort, an acerbic sounding noise. “No chance. I’m going to be a baseball player.”
“Baseball is dumb, but you could be a great artist.”
I shrugged. “I signed up for an academic course load.”
“Good. Tell them you want to go to college. That should keep them off your back but take the art classes no matter what.”
I wanted to go to college to play baseball. Drawing and painting, although I loved it, was only a diversion, a way to clear my mind. I didn’t mention this to Heidi, though. “Where’d you come from originally?”
“The place with the groundhog?”
“We’re groundhog experts in Punxsutawney,” she said with an artificial, puffed-up pride. “Groundhogs are excellent burrowers. That’s what I’m doing here, burrowing, keeping out of sight. Under your porch is the perfect place.” She chuckled at her cleverness.
“Aren’t your parents looking for you?” I asked.
She winced. Her face grew dark. Oh God. Maybe her parents are dead.
“My mother couldn’t care less, and my stepfather hates me. My father will be looking for me, but I don’t want to live with him either. I’m sure the school wants to know where I am. I bet Principle Hammond had the police put out an APB, Stubborn, ungrateful, little bitch, Heidi Hammond, missing since January 15th, unarmed but nevertheless presumed dangerous.”
“The principle is your father?”
“Punxsutawney is a small town,” she said with finality, not answering the question.
I knew she hadn’t told me the whole story, making light of it, but I let it go. I didn’t want her to go off on me again. “Hey, it’s still early. Do you want to go to Islay’s for a Sundae?”
Her eyes lit up for a moment, but then she said, “I don’t have money for ice cream.”
“That’s okay, my treat.”
I made sure the coast was clear. Then we strode side by side along the sidewalk, discussing ice cream flavors. My favorite was fresh peach, but they only had that in August. Hers was chocolate, anytime, anywhere.
She stopped to look at the help wanted sign Islay’s had hanging in the window. We stayed until the store closed, the only ones sitting at one of a few small Formica tables tucked away behind the bread shelving. I don’t remember much about what we talked about. She missed her aquarium and the wide variety of fishes she kept in Punxsutawney. “I hope Mom’s feeding them,” she said, doubtfully.
Back under the porch, she gave me a light kiss on the lips, placing her hand on my chest to maintain a safe distance. “You better go,” she said.
We took walks together each evening. I met her on Brownsville Road, at the big mailbox by Schaeffer’s Drug store. We wandered past bakeries, bars and butcher shops, making comments about each establishment, noting the delicious aroma of the bakery and a musty smell emanating from the Trolleystop Bar & Grill as a drunk steelworker stumbled out, unleashing an old-world polka tune from within. We laughed, half at the steelworker, half at the polka.
Sometimes we walked along the cemetery road, or into the adjacent woods. If I brought my pad and pencils I would sketch her sitting on a rock, near a stream of water, surrounded by newly green trees, and budding plant life.
She spent most of her time in the library. “I want to go to college one day,” she said. “I’m not going to be a street person forever.”
“Of course not,” I said. As much as I wanted her, I sometimes forgot about sex. We questioned each other about little things like “What’s your favorite candy?” But about big things too, learning about each other and how we felt about life and the world.
One day she didn’t show up at the corner. I sat, waiting for an hour on the mailbox, kicking it absentmindedly with the backs of my heels. I watched the line of traffic pass, car after car, streetcars dropping off passengers, men returning from a day’s work, a mother and her children returning from a shopping excursion, commuting college students returning from Carnegie Tech or The University of Pittsburgh while a knot grew to the size of a fist in my stomach. Perhaps the authorities had found her and took her back to Punxsutawney. Back home, I checked under the porch. She had taken to leaving her backpack there during the day, but it was gone. I stared at the spot where it should be like a dog that lost his master. I stood there, for who knows how long before I stumbled into the house.
“Hey stranger,” my father said.
“Nice to have you home for a change,” Mom chimed in.
I smiled weakly, “I’ve got homework to do,” I said, escaping to my room. I opened my math book to equations but couldn’t concentrate. Instead, I imagined Heidi, in the back seat of a police car, handcuffed, on her way back to Groundhogville.
I turned on the radio. The Bucs were losing five to nothing. Bob Prince told stories while barely bothering to announce the game. I clicked him off and picked up my reading assignment, Silas Marner, a book written by someone named George Eliot, who was really a woman. That brought me around to Heidi once again. Who was she, really? I supposed I’d never find out. Silas Marner was depressing. Silas, the hero, falsely accused of theft, is set up by his friend. When Silas’s girlfriend dumps him for the best friend, he leaves town with a broken heart. I got that from the Cliff’s Notes. There was a happy ending, but for me, it didn’t ring true.
I put Silas Marner down, but I couldn’t sleep on that long ago, lonesome night. At midnight, I plodded to the basement stairs and out under the porch. I didn’t expect to find her. My flashlight shimmered with barely a glimmer. The batteries needed replacing. Peeking around the boxes, I aimed the light into the depths and found Heidi lying in her blankets. When she saw me, she got up and wrapped a blanket around her.
I flushed with anger. “Where the hell were you? I waited for forever.”
Defiance flashed across her eyes. “Why should I explain myself to you?" she asked, but then, she did. “I applied for a job at Islay’s and since I don’t have a telephone I ask every day at the store. Yesterday they wanted me to start right away. I didn’t get done until ten o’clock.”
“I thought the police found you and took you back to Punxsutawney.”
She put her finger on my lips and whispered, “I’m still here.”
I leaned against the wall, tears welling up behind my eyelids. She took me in her arms, petting my head, comforting me as if I were a baby.
From then on Heidi worked most evenings. I’d sneak out of the house at night to walk her home. We’d talk for hours. She’d left home several months before we met, but she wouldn’t tell me where she had stayed before meeting me. “I don’t want to think about it,” she said.
The money she brought from home had dwindled, but since she started working, she planned to replenish her emergency fund, as she called it. It seemed to me that her entire life was an emergency, but I kept that thought to myself. Each morning she cleaned up in the Sunoco wash room on Brownsville Road, washed out her under things, and bought something to eat at the Village Dairy on her way to the library.
“I keep up with all my subjects,” she told me, “and I read. Silas Marner isn’t bad, once you get into it.”
“I think its lame.”
One Friday we took a special trip. She wanted to go downtown. She flipped on her Pirate’s cap, pulling her pony tail out the back. I liked how she looked. Pittsburgh still had streetcars then. We took the 53 Carrick, Heidi delighting in the clickity-clack of the wheels on the track and the clanging of the trolley bell. We sat near the back, side by side, noting landmarks that she recognized: the Village Dairy, Saint Basil’s Church, and the Carrick Branch of the Carnegie Library. She elbowed me in the ribs and joked, “That’s my new school.”
We continued along the cobblestone center lanes of Brownsville Road, through Mount Oliver, and down the crazy-sharp turns of Eighteenth Street, cars passing by us freely on our right as the conductor navigated each bend in the road, slowly, so we didn’t jump the track.
On the South Side, the old steelworkers’ neighborhood showed the effects of pollution with storefronts and homes tarnished by years of smog. Pittsburgh had been the Smoky City in the old days, but the air was much cleaner now.
We continued over the Monongahela, across the Smithfield Street Bridge and got off near Market Square. We bought monster fish sandwiches at the Original Oyster House and sat on a bench to eat. Heidi fed the pigeons bits of bread from her bun. We bummed the streets, aimlessly. I showed her the Gulf Building and explained the system for broadcasting upcoming weather conditions. We window shopped at Horne’s, Gimbel’s and Kaufmann’s. “Oh, I like that,” Heidi said, pointing at a silver bracelet with a series of small shiny stones. Diamonds, I figured.
After we caught sight of the Greyhound Bus Station at Penn Avenue and Eleventh Street, Heidi said she wanted to turn back. The afternoon had waned and our legs were weary. We rode in silence on the return trip, allowing the rhythm of the trolley wheels to lull us to sleep. I woke just ahead of our stop.
I nudged her gently. She opened her eyes, confused, looking at me strangely. I saw a touch of fear in her eyes before she put on a face of indifference, the one she used against the masses, demoting me to one of the unknown. Ignoring the look, I took her hand, saying “Time to get off.” We trotted across the street in front of the trolley, the conductor waiting patiently until we cleared the tracks. The walk home was quiet, Heidi looking down slightly. I took her hand, but let it fall, wondering where her warmth had gone.
One Saturday morning, my parents had gone out and I didn’t expect them home until evening. I let Heidi inside the basement. She tossed all the clothes she owned into the washing machine, two pair of jeans, a couple of sweatshirts, tees, under things, and even her tennis shoes, using a blanket to cover up, cocooned on the basement stairs and reading one of her books.
I hovered upstairs in the living room, craving to be inside that blanket with her, like on that first night, but she had never let me that close again. As a distraction, I pulled my sketch pad onto my lap to draw, but I kept jumping to the front window, making sure my parents didn’t come home early. Finally, I moved my chair to the window where I could see the street.
At last I was ready to draw. A familiar energy tiptoed like tiny cartoon-mice feet, through me, down my arm and fingertips, and into my pencil as I scratched an outline of a streetcar. The stillness of the house distracted me. Sounds I’m usually deaf to reverberated in my mind.
The washing machine clicked through cycles as I filled in the streetcar with a washed-out red, stopping briefly, imagining each click to be a code, holding a secret meaning. Rinse water rushed into the retainer sink, and then the machine sucked it back to repeat another round. Meanwhile, I labored with the cobblestone street, taking care to define each block with dark lines of varying definition, before splashing each stone with gray.
The washer whirled through a spin dry finish as I drew overhead electric lines, then Heidi lifted the lid, and opened the dryer. Her feet padded softly on the basement floor. I imagined the cool concrete as if on my own bare feet, although my tootsies were snuggled, squishy-like, inside sweaty sneakers. In those days, life felt like an endless series of anticipations, of being stuck in neutral, waiting for the next stage of life to begin.
Kenny came by and I made an excuse not to go to a pickup baseball game, a game I normally would have killed to play in. But Heidi was downstairs, in nothing but a blanket and we would have the whole day to ourselves, once her clothes dried.
Minutes after Kenny left, our ‘59 Oldsmobile pulled into my father’s prime spot, at our front steps. My parents looked like figurines inside the fishbowl cab of the Olds.
What the hell were they doing home? I jumped up to warn Heidi and my pad and pencils fell from my lap, scattering about the floor. I spied Heidi, at the bottom of the stairs, in the midst of a cat stretch, lacing her fingers behind her head. Her blanket had loosened, exposing soft shoulders. She heard me close the door, above her. Tilting her head back on the step, she eyeballed me, her head upside down, and then jerked upright, clutching her blanket tightly.
The dryer squealed with each rotation. “Shut that off. My parents are home.”
She rose so quickly that her blanket fell away, exposing her body. I took everything in; hair falling about her shoulders; arms reaching downward for the fallen cover and a back that arched seamlessly to the curve of her buttocks. She stared at me with dagger eyes. After retrieving the blanket, she killed the squealing dryer. The tennis shoes dropped with a thud inside the cylinder. Everything went suddenly silent.
Feet flashed outside the hopper window as Heidi gathered her clothes.
“They’re almost dry,” she mouthed, making her way back under the porch.
I ran up the stairs, closing the basement door behind me, as the back door swung open and my parents filed in.
I met them in the kitchen, trusting that Heidi was safe from sight. I visualized hideouts and passageways in old mansions, secret doorways in castles, and ghostlike goings on, imagining my parents in the role of wicked antagonists who, without regard to my own peril, I must not allow to discover Heidi. I took a deep breath and hoped I sounded normal. “You’re home early.”
Mother’s eyes narrowed and she shook her head. “It’s your father’s stomach again. I swear that every time we plan a shopping trip his stomach acts up. He was supposed to take me to dinner.” She grabbed a can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup and stabbed it open. “Next week we’re getting a new sofa no matter how bad his stomach hurts.”
With a sheepish expression, Dad reached into a kitchen cabinet for a Maalox tablet. I left them to their bickering. Even in their angry voices I detected the overtones of true affection. They would nip but never bite, and I found it impossible to imagine them as wicked for very long. Still, I had no desire for them to find my secret fugitive.
I excused myself and left via the back door, but my father called me back. “Vance! Get in here, now.”
My knees stiffened as I came to a halt. What did I miss? Did Heidi drop her panties or something? Oh god. How could I get out of this? I’d never been able to look my Dad in the eye and tell him a lie. Something in my face always gave me away.
I wanted to run. I wanted to pretend I didn’t hear him, but there was no getting away. My father’s face transformed into a Frankenstein. I braced myself for the worst. “You left pencils all over the floor. How many times do I have to tell you?”
I bowed my head to hide a smile. “Sorry, Dad.”
I stowed my stuff and left. Under the porch, I seized Heidi by the hand. “Let’s get out of here,” I said. She smelled fresh, and she flashed an exuberant smile. We glided more than walked along the cemetery road, hand in hand. Inside my heart, she was my girlfriend.
We stopped at the creek and tossed stones, laughing, enjoying the late springtime green, a soft breeze, and the sweet fragrance of wildflowers. We were lying on the grass, near the creek, her head resting on my chest.
“What time is it?” she asked raising her head.
“Five thirty,” I told her.
“Damn, I need to get to work.” She rose to her feet. “The boss said there’s something wrong with my paperwork, and he wanted to see me about it.”
That ended a great day. We’d shared an adventure and the intimacy of a secret, living on the brink of catastrophe. I would do anything for her, to be with her at every twist and turn, to adjust to each spin of her vagabond life. If she let me.
At Islay’s, Heidi was known as Susan Kratronski, by virtue of stolen documents that belonged to a senior at her high school in Punxsutawney. Kratronski was eighteen, permitting Heidi to work forty hours a week and until closing each night. Although she earned only minimum wage, she soon replenished everything she had spent since leaving home, and then some.
Each evening I walked her home. But one night she wasn’t there. Instead, Bobby, a co-worker, a college student who had graduated Carrick High the year before, acknowledged me with a disgusted look. I’d seen him, before, flirting with Heidi at work. Thinking Heidi was eighteen, he must have wondered why she hung out with some punk fourteen-year-old.
“She’s not here,” Bobby smirked. “The boss fired her. Something about trouble with her paperwork at payroll.”
I couldn’t believe it. The asshole must be putting me on. I barreled out of the store and punched the mailbox on the street corner, the one where I used to wait for Heidi, the pain in my hand serving as homage to my frustration. Had Heidi’s false identity been traced back to her? What might she do?
I found her under the porch scuffling with her backpack. She jumped at the sound of me. I asked her what happened, but she ignored me, concentrating on her packing.
All the trust I had built up with her dissipated into thin air. It wasn’t fair. I had adopted her viewpoint and believed that being on her own was right for her. But, whereas, I thought her risk of staying was small (no one knew she lived here), she sensed danger. She had her backpack packed and zipped, ready to fly.
To go back out into the world, to start over, when she had me here; I couldn’t understand it. She only had to stay away from Islay’s. They wouldn’t find her here. I would not allow it.
“You can still stay here,” I said.
“Leave me alone!” Her face turned red and she bared her teeth like a rabid dog.
“Why are you taking this out on me?”
She stood with her feet apart and with a hand on her hip. “The police will come looking for me and they know about you.”
“I’ll never tell them anything,” I said. I watched her face, her movements, desperately looking for any trace that she would miss me. I needed something to hold on to, but she was eager to get away, as if this shelter suddenly imprisoned rather than protected her.
Then her shoulders slumped. “I know,” she muttered. She squeezed her eyes shut. “I should have been more careful with that ID thing.”
Why weren’t you? I wanted to scream it at her. But I didn’t. My fate was in her hands. But because it was her fate too; I made no argument on my behalf. She would bear the consequences if she was caught, so she had to make the decision. I could not have that on my conscience.
She forced a smile. “I can stay for one more night.”
I remember that moment in slow motion: the movement of her lips, each word she spoke and the modulation in her voice in harmony with my desire.
“Yes!” I said before she could change her mind. I grabbed her, crushing her into me. Her body shuddered against me. She sobbed into my shoulder until I held her back from me. She bowed her head, but then looked at me with wet eyes, touching her fingertips to her throat. “Come later tonight. Don’t forget,” she said.
Forget? As if, I could. Tonight would be the night of my dreams.
I went upstairs and changed into a fresh shirt. Ten minutes later, I sat on the sofa with the lights off, catching the last of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” My mother had already gone up to bed, but I had to outwait my father.
Tonight I needed to be as smooth as they were on television. I envisioned Heidi and me lying under the porch. I played out the scene in my mind. She would be eager, undoing her bra in a deliberate way as I watched. Suddenly, a pounding on the front door interrupted my musing.
“Who could that be at this time of night?” Father said, rising from his recliner, tramping through the den to the front porch and flipping on the porch light.
I peeked around Dad as he opened the door, revealing two men, one in a police uniform.
The man without a uniform, showed a badge. “I’m Detective Sergeant Stafford. Is this the Tyler residence? We have a few questions to ask your son, Vance Tyler.”
The detective stood like a Marine fresh from boot camp, although he must have been at least thirty. I ducked back into the TV room and sunk into the overstuffed chair, staring blankly at the screen, pretending to watch, my stomach twisted like a wet towel wrung tightly.
“Are you sure? What’s this about officer?” My father’s voice sounded unnaturally gravelly.
“He’s not in trouble, sir. He may have information about a missing person.”
“Hm…well…okay then. Missing person you say?”
My father exhaled a loud breath and called out in that rasping voice that didn’t sound his own,“Vance, come here.”
He sounded uncertain as if he had been accused of a wrongdoing. I was in no hurry to respond. My body shook from the inside out, and the room grew suddenly small. I asked God not to make me go, to let me stay here, shaking, forever, rather than face whatever lay in wait in the next room. It seemed a fair tradeoff.
“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” took on unexpected importance, as I sat motionlessly staring.
My father called again. I forced myself from the chair despite the anchor lodged inside my gut. I stopped at the television and pushed the knob until it snapped off, cutting out Kuryakin in midsentence, sending his image into the depths of oblivion, into a single white dot, as silence echoed throughout the darkness.
I dragged myself into the next room.
Dad held his face expressionless. “Vance, this is Detective Stafford. He’s here to ask you a few questions.”
“About what?” I knew, of course. They were after Heidi, and because of me, she was still here, waiting for our last night together. I wished that I had come back too late, that she had already packed and gone. I would have been miserable, but Heidi would be free. I had to find a way to throw them off.
The detective stepped forward. “Do you know a girl by the name of Susan Krautronski?”
He spoke with an absence of inflection. Deadpan. Was this a Dragnet rerun?
“No,” I said. Technically true.
“Sixteen, brown hair, blue eyes. Medium height,” the detective declared. “You’ve been reported being seen with a girl of this description.”
My father’s eyes bore into me, waiting to pounce on any hint of fiction, any whish of a lie. A fever swelled up through my neck and boiled my face. I pretended to think the question over, as if I had a mental catalog of a hundred girls to go through before arriving at a fully considered answer.
“Never heard of her,” I said at last, hoping to sound candid. Father shifted his weight from one foot to another. I didn’t dare look at him for fear of giving myself away. I forced my eyes to meet the intent gaze of the detective.
“How about a girl by the name of Heidi Hammond?”
Maybe saying as little as possible would work. I shifted my feet, subconsciously mimicking my father. “No.”
“That’s not what Robert Meely, an employee at Islay’s, told me.”
“I’ve talked with a girl at Islay’s. I don’t even know her name. My eyelid twitched—a betrayal certain to give me away. I turned my head to hide the spasm. “Which one is she, Susan or Heidi?”
“They’re one and the same. Mr. Meely said you’ve talked to her on several occasions and that sometimes you left with her.”
“She likes baseball. So do I. That’s all.”
Dad interrupted. “Vance, why didn’t your mother and I know about this? Is she your girlfriend?”
“It’s no big deal, Dad. We talked a few times. She likes baseball. I didn’t even know her name was Susan.”
The detective balked. “This is a big deal. One of your neighbors said she’s seen a young girl skulking about your house. Is she here now?”
I leaned backwards, supporting myself against the credenza, trying to appear casual, but actually I needed the support because my legs were shaking. What if that meddlesome bitch next door, Mrs. Guzay, saw Heidi stealing in and out from under the porch? After all, I saw Heidi, right off, on that first day. She wasn’t exactly invisible. Maybe this detective already knew Heidi’s whereabouts. Maybe he intended to make a fool out of me in front of my father. What time was it? It seemed as if he had been questioning me for hours. I glanced at my father. If they found her, I was really in for it.
“Of course not,” I said. This time I could not raise my eyes. My head stayed down, my eyes staring at my knot-ridden shoelaces.
Detective Stafford sighed and shook his head, speaking pointedly to my father. “Mind if we take a peek under that porch of yours, and check your basement?”
I choked back a gasp and looked at my father once again, willing him to refuse.
“We lock the basement door, but underneath the porch is wide open. We don’t keep much of value under there,” my father said. Turning his gaze at me, he said, “Sure. Look. I’m sure you won’t find a girl there.” But his words held a second meaning; a meaning intended for me—that she better not be there.
Dad led the way, single file, through the house. The detective followed, with me, and the policeman in succession. Surprisingly, I did not panic. Instead, I formed a makeshift plan. I could try to catch Heidi’s attention by stomping down the stairs and starting a conversation with the detective. Heidi would hear the unfamiliar voice and make her escape before we reached her. She had her stuff packed so chances were good she wouldn’t leave any evidence behind. Or so I hoped.
My spirits rose. I could count on Heidi to act fast. She was quick on the uptake. But then, before my father could even reach the basement steps, Detective Stafford called out, “Mr. Tyler, hold on a moment.”
Dad stopped dead in his tracks.
To the policeman, Detective Stafford said, “Bob, go around the front and wait at the entrance. If she’s in there, we don’t want her running off.” My heart sank. We were goners.
The policeman left and the detective signaled my father to go ahead. I followed behind. The detective’s head bobbed as he descended the stairs. I had a devil’s desire to push him. That would be utter foolishness, of course. To this day, I remember the inclination as a sharp vibrant red color I’ve used in paintings. Every time, it evokes the memory of my desire to do harm.
He had a buzz cut, and on the back of his head, a large blue mole. I raised my hand to my face to shield myself, as if it were an extrasensory third eye from which he could detect my malicious intent.
Each step measured a countdown in the descent to certain catastrophe. Heidi was bound to be caught. They would send her back to Punxsutawney and maybe even to jail. I couldn’t bear the thought of it. I screamed at the top of my lungs, “Heidi! Run! Get out of there.”
I’ll never forget how my father glared at me, his eyes steaming.
When the detective burst through the door, Heidi was gone. One piece of evidence remained—my chalk drawing of her, faded, but still on the wall. Dad recognized my style, as incriminating as a signature.
I confessed, telling them everything that had happened. There was no point in denying it; I could do Heidi no further harm. I endured an endless grilling about her whereabouts. As I saw it, if Heidi hadn’t flown the coop entirely, the only place she might be is down by the creek, at the rock where I’d sketched her. I managed to keep that sliver of privacy to myself, otherwise I felt totally crushed.
The disgust on my father’s face devastated me. “Pick your head up and look at me,” he demanded.
I complied, but couldn’t bear it more than a moment, before staring at my shoelaces again. He banished me to my room, promising further consequences in the morning. I pulled my cap down low and dragged myself away.
It was past midnight. I had no possibility of sleep, so I wandered onto the upstairs balcony, another porch, actually, identical to the one on the first floor. Stars twinkled, a crescent moon shimmered, and the Gulf Building shone a steady blue. Somewhere, out there, was Heidi.
My thoughts bowed inward, curving around my troubles. Darkness screamed with the sound of insects. The night wheezed a hot breeze from the south.
I chalked a drawing on the brick of the house: Heidi as a goddess in a storm, defenseless in a dark forest. The mortar between the bricks broke my lines, giving the picture an eerie cast. It felt like a fairytale or nursery rhyme, one of those cautionary types, but without a softened ending. Humpty Dumpty. Hansel and Gretel. Vance and Heidi.
Swirls of images flashed through my mind: the first day I saw Heidi, the night of drinking hot chocolate at Islay’s, the streetcar trip, walking about downtown. Most of all I replayed seeing her for the last time, Sergeant Stafford confronting me, and then, my dreadful betrayal that stung like a whip.
How had Heidi managed to get away? Did footsteps on the porch above tip her off? Or, had she planned to leave all along, leaving me flat.
As dawn neared, an idea came to me, if you can call a feeling without language an idea. First, I had to get out of the house.
No one should have been awake, but my father just might be angry enough to wait downstairs, on the chance that I would do something as foolish as trying to leave, so I crept over the top porch handrail and lowered myself. Hanging onto the flooring by my fingers, my feet probed for the railing of the lower porch. But I couldn’t reach. My legs thrashed futilely. With my pulse pounding, I started to hyperventilate, making myself so dizzy that I thought I would lose consciousness. My fingers ached and slipped until I hung by only the tips. I hung in midair, imagining the milkman finding me lying dead on the ground, my brains splattered on concrete.
Stop thinking that way. I have to find Heidi. I willed my legs to grow, stretching them to the max. Finally, one toe touched, but I was still at risk of plunging awkwardly to the walkway if I could not gather my balance. Both feet were on the railing when my fingers finally lost their grip. I wobbled, my body thrusting outward, toward the concrete below. I wavered then, back and forth like a tightrope walker with my arms out for balance. Slowly, I steadied myself, then, with a breath of relief and my heart beating wildly, I climbed down to the walkway and laughed at the devil. Rejuvenated, filled with hope and aflame with desire, I brushed my hair back and set off to find Heidi.
For several blocks, I looked over my shoulder, half expecting to spot the detective. Some distance from the house, at last convinced I was alone, I broke into a run straight for the creek. It had dried to a soft mush. In the light of early dawn, I found the rock where Heidi had posed for me. But she wasn’t there.
With one last place to try, I shuffled restlessly, waiting for the streetcar, along with a few early shift steelworkers, all sleepy-eyed and looking unhappy to be going to work on a Saturday morning. I noticed a neighbor, a friend of my father, from down the street. If he took note of me, he didn’t let on.
Onboard, the streetcar stuttered ahead, picking up workers at every stop. The ride felt tortuous, like a slow-pitched softball with a ten-foot arc. When the men got off on Carson Street, near the mill entrance, I sighed, happy to be alone.
I thought back to the joyful day riding this streetcar with Heidi. Now I was on a mission to get her back with a brittle trust in my heart and a ghost of a hope. I jumped off at Market Square and found my way to Penn Avenue and sprinted to the Greyhound Bus Terminal. Darting against the traffic at Eleven Avenue, I ignored the blast of a horn and the tirade of an irate driver, slowing to a trot at the terminal entrance.
My eyes swept about the station seeking out any figure that looked remotely like Heidi. I saw a girl with long brownish hair, her face hidden from view. But the clothes were wrong: a carroty-orange top, miniskirt and calf-high brown boots. I could see that her build was not right, too large and gangly. I tapped her on the shoulder, still hoping, but when she turned my heart sank. I stared at her, willing this all wrong girl—small eyes, puck nose, and red cheeks– to morph into Heidi.
The girl looked at me as if I were crazy. I turned to go but she called, “Hey you. What’s your name?” She squeaked, more than spoke.
I gave her a blank stare.
“Are…are you Vance?”
My forehead wrinkled. I nodded.
“A girl named Heidi left this for you.” She pulled a Pirates baseball cap from her bag. “Here.” I took the cap and examined it, reading a faded ‘Heidi Hammond’ on the sweat band.
I looked around the terminal, my head on a swivel. “Is she still here?”
“Gone, ten minutes ago.”
The girl shrugged. “I don’t know.”
My shoulders slumped. Checking the terminal had been a long shot. Sometimes hunches are right but being right means nothing if you are too late.
“Are you okay?” the girl asked.
I ignored her and found my way through the exit. A Greyhound pulled away from the terminal. Passenger’s faces flashed by me in strobe-like fashion. Then I saw Heidi and the flashing stopped. We made momentary eye contact and then she was gone as the bus roared away.
It rained on the night of the viewing but that didn’t keep people away. I had to park in the secondary lot. Inside, I shook the rain from my coat and stood in line to view the body. I planned to be unobtrusive, to get in and out quickly, but judging by the length of the line that wasn’t going to happen. I didn’t know any of these people, but apparently Heidi was well liked. Flowers filled the viewing room. Grief enveloped the space like smog. Down-faced people loitered, waiting for the emptiness in their stomachs to settle. They wiped their noses, straightened their drooping shoulders and looked around helplessly for acquaintances to ease their grief. A pocket of laughter swelled in the crowd and then died quickly.
As the line progressed, I came to a table set up with dozens of photographs, pictures of Heidi at varying ages, in her twenties with her husband, in her thirties with a little girl, and in her fifties and sixties with more babies. Then husband appeared again, much older, along with the older Heidi—the Heidi I’d recognized in the obit. How little of her life I’d inhabited. I should have been the man in the photographs, the man who shared her life. Instead, I was a fourteen-year-old child, a memory who may have come to mind sometimes on the edge of consciousness. All of the pictures were arranged around the centered attraction —a pencil drawing in an ornate frame—a sketch of Heidi as a girl. I recognized my sketch immediately, the drawing I’d made of her down along the cemetery road, by the stream, on the rock. I knew, then, that I hadn’t been completely forgotten.
I stared for a long time at the Heidi in the picture, the one I carried with me in my heart for all these years. We’d brushed each other’s lives and moved on. Or at least, she moved on. Oh, I’ve had public success and artistic satisfaction, but my private life, the one deep inside, not so much.
The line moved forward. I allowed others to move ahead of me. Heidi’s young eyes held me fast, as I recalled the last time I saw her.
Once her bus disappeared around the corner, I ran inside and checked the board that showed a recent Cleveland departure. That made sense, out of Pennsylvania jurisdiction, and a fresh start for Heidi, but without me, for how could I follow her. I’d have tried if not for the look I’d seen in her eyes. It told me no.
The trolley ride home was a series of jerking motions and accelerations. Too soon, I was home. The household slumbered in the bright, young morning. My father’s wrath and punishment would come, but it hardly mattered. I fell into bed and into an exhausted sleep.
Dad watched me like a hawk for an entire year. I don’t know what he thought I’d do, but he needn’t have worried. I spent the winter drawing Heidi in gothic shadows, her eyes blazed in scorn.
Young hearts are resilient. In spring I came out of my gloom. I renounced all things Heidi, even my art, vowing never to paint her again. She said baseball is dumb. I set out to prove her wrong. I poured every ounce of my heart into the game. I played well in college despite curveballs like I’d never seen before, and I managed to get drafted, but my baseball dream died when I was cut after one season with the Appalachian, Graytown Tigers. But I’d met a girl named Janie in Graytown, and she agreed to come with me to Pittsburgh, despite her being a homegrown Graytown girl. We planned to be married.
My father, by then a widower in poor health, still lived in my childhood home, but he died on the very day we arrived, never having the chance to meet Janie. I felt guilty, having been too wrapped up in my own life to realize his fragile condition.
We moved into my old home, where Janie discovered the Heidi paintings my father had stored in the attic.
“You never painted me,” she said. I hadn’t realized Janie’s jealous nature. No amount of explaining consoled her. “It’s me or the paintings,” she said. “One of us has to go.”
So Janie returned to Graytown, and I never came close to marriage again. I began painting again, at first in quest of self-consolation but then, with hope of making a career. Having the house and a small inheritance gave me a cushion, but by summer my nest egg had run out and I hadn’t sold a painting.
I apprenticed with a self-employed stone mason, a short Italian man from the old country, the father of a high school friend. He taught me the beauty of stone by touch as well as sight. I enjoyed the sun on my back and the ache in my muscles. Evenings and winters, I did little but paint. It took years, but I got a showing with a local art dealer and gradually made my reputation. I became known as the stone mason painter because I kept my workman’s job long after the financial need had ended.
I looked one last time at the drawing I’d made so long ago and moved forward in line. I greeted Heidi’s daughter and offered condolences, passing myself off as a friend from long ago. And then, came the moment I dreaded, seeing the woman I loved, so full of spirit when I knew her, reduced to a lifeless shell. Her eyes were closed, of course. It was wrong that I couldn’t have one last look into her eyes.
I wanted to tell her a million things, to let her know that I’d become a respected painter, if not a wealthy one, and that I’d grown up to be a good person. Oh, but I needed a million hours alone with her, alive. I needed for our lives to have turned out differently. We were never meant to part.
“I’m sorry,” I said. Sorry for not being old enough, sorry for not following her, for not spending my life searching for her. It’s what I should have done, no matter what the result. Yes, she looked away from me as I stood watching her on the bus. But if she didn’t want me, I should have made her say it. I hadn’t expected to be so affected, but there was nothing I could do. I patted her hand, and after a moment, I signed the book and left.