June 23rd, 2003

bazille_summer scene

But Everyone Knew Her as Nancy

I've been wondering what ever became of Nancy. Nancy wasn't actually her name -- I think it was Carol, but I can't remember for sure -- but for the few months she lived with us, she was always Nancy. I think I was twelve years old at the time, or turned twelve while she was there, and I was in seventh grade. Nancy said she was nineteen, and she was from a town in northern California. It was my older brother who brought her home. He had a habit of bringing home strays. Just the year before, he had brought home one of his navy buddies, a guy named Jerry who had very small feet for his age, and who had a habit of stealing my socks. I didn't much like a guy who would steal an eleven year old kid's socks, especially since the guy's small feet had a very large and unpleasant smell. I was glad when he went back to Missouri.

In fact, I wasn't fond of any of my brother's strays, except Nancy. He had met her while she was selling tickets at one of the big movie theaters on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. She was staying in one of the seedy transient hotels there, and my brother decided that this was no place for a young girl and that she should come stay with us until she could find more appropriate lodgings. He must have painted a vivid picture of the horrors of downtown, because she agreed. I don't think my parents were particularly pleased, but they were accustomed to unexpected house guests by then, and this one insisted on paying for room and board, so they, too, agreed. I've always wondered how my brother got so good at talking people into things. He talked Nancy into leaving the job at the movie theater and looking for work closer by. She found a job as a sales clerk in a Jewelry shop in the nearby business district of Alhambra.

She must have made a decent wage at the jewelry shop. Not only did she pay room and board, but she began buying some nice clothes for herself, and would frequently bring back little gifts for various members of the family. At least once a week she would bring home a pound of See's chocolates from their shop next door to the jeweler's. She would sometimes send me to fetch something for her from the neighborhood grocery store, and would always give me a dime (not much now, I know, but then it would buy a soft drink, or a package of Twinkies, or two candy bars.) She also enjoyed playing board games and cards. Since we had no television set yet, the two of us spent many evenings playing games. Although she was only a bit younger than my brother and a bit older than my sister, she spent much more time with me than with them. I think she went out with my brother a couple of times, but that didn't last. She may have gone to a couple of parties with my sister, but never developed any interest in her group of friends. So, most evenings, she and I would be in the den at the back of the house, listening to the radio and playing Monopoly or Parcheesi or some card game, while my brother and sister were out with friends and my parents were in the living room reading or talking. If I had homework, she would make sure that I did that first, and would help me out with it, but would never do it for me. In those few months, I probably spent more time with Nancy than I had with my siblings in my entire life.

The thing that got me thinking about Nancy was the mention of Jane Eyre on my friends page a few days ago. While that dark gothic romance is not typical reading for a twelve year old boy, I did read it then. After I went to bed each night, Nancy would stay up for a while, reading. She had gotten a card at the Alhambra library, and would pick up books on her lunch hour. She was a great reader, and would finish two or three novels a week. It happened that at this time, I had to make a book report for my English class, and, always the procrastinator, had failed to read anything. It was on a Friday evening, and the book report was due the following Monday. There were few books of fiction in our house, so Nancy brought out the copy of Jane Eyre which she had just checked out of the library. She said that she had read it before, and it was one of her favorite books. Since it was the only thing available which I had not already used for a book report, I read it over that weekend, even though I had misgivings about reading what I thought of as a "girl's book."

To my surprise, I found myself caught up in the story of the young governess living in the isolated house with the mysterious master and the terrible secret hidden in the attic. I'm sure that I missed the more subtle meanings of the story, but I found that Ms. Bronte was a very good spinner of yarns. My English teacher was surprised by my choice of literature, and might have wondered if I had in fact read the book and not just watched the movie, were it not for the fact that some of the things I spoke of in the book report had been left out of the film. I don't remember what grade I got, though.

I never read any of the other books Nancy brought home, but she seemed to be fond of the Bronte sisters and the other writers of nineteenth century England. I remember seeing a copy of Wuthering Heights among her selections, and I chuckled at the name of Anthony Trollope. Nancy had one of the two bedrooms in the house, both of which opened off of the former dining room which we used as a living room, since my parents had converted the actual living room into their own bedroom. I slept on a divan in the dining-living room, and each night as I drifted off to sleep, I would see the light spilling under the door from Nancy's room, gleaming on the wooden floor, and could sometimes hear the pages turning in whatever book she was reading. Aside from the occasional creaking of the wood, and my own breathing, it was the only audible sound in the house, unless the breeze happened to flap the shade on the window next to the divan. I found it comforting that someone was awake, breathing in the next room as the night crowded around and the moon cast the shadows of the eucalyptus across the windows.

Then, one day I came home from school and Nancy was gone. My mother told me the story. She had always been a bit suspicious of Nancy's sketchy tale about her background, and of the fact that she seemed to prefer spending time playing games rather than going out with people her own age, and of the fact that she seemed to have no contact with her family. One day, a letter had arrived for Nancy. It was a bit lumpy, and it was postmarked in Alhambra. My mother didn't think anything of it at the time, but a few weeks later she asked Nancy if she had heard from her mother lately, Nancy told her that the letter she had received was from a relative, and that it said that her mother had recently died. The lumps in the envelope, she said, were her mother's rings. Since Nancy had said that she was from a town in northern California, and the letter had been postmarked in Alhambra, three miles from our house, my mother knew that this could not be true. She made some calls to see if anyone had reported a girl of Nancy's description missing, and the next afternoon, a social worker from the child welfare service arrived at the house. It was one of the days when Nancy got off work early in the afternoon, and the social worker was waiting when she arrived home.

Nancy was indeed from a small town in the Bay Area, but her mother was not dead, and had in fact been looking for her missing daughter for months. And her name was not Nancy, and she was not nineteen years old. She had only just turned fourteen when she left home. She admitted to having bought the rings that arrived in the letter and mailing it to herself.The child welfare agent took her away, to be held somewhere until she could be returned to her family. Later that night, when the rest of the family was told what had happened, they were all quite surprised that a fourteen year old girl had fooled everyone for so long. I was disappointed, and annoyed with my mother's meddling, and wished that she had just let things be. I was also a bit miffed with Nancy. How could she have been so foolish as to have sent that letter to herself from Alhambra? It was such a poorly thought out way to make an excuse for her lack of contact with her family. She had been doing so well up till then.

My parents decided that they liked using the living room as a bedroom, so a few days later my sister was moved from the smaller bedroom into Nancy's room, which had formerly been my parent's bedroom, and I moved into the small bedroom. It was the first time I'd ever had my own room -- but I didn't think it was a fair trade. I missed Nancy. My evenings were once again spent alone, listening to the radio, reading, looking at the maps in the world atlas, imagining being in other places, wishing I had someone to play a game with. I would go to sleep in my new room with no light shining under the door.

I have no idea why Nancy ran away from home and created a new name and new identity for herself. She was always a cheerful and good-natured person who showed no signs that she had ever been abused in any way. She was carefree, and affectionate, and always ready to laugh. I think that she saw herself as a romantic heroine, making her way in the world like Jane Eyre. Perhaps she was so slow to leave our house and find her own place because she was enjoying playing governess, with me as her charge. Maybe she just liked having somebody to play games with. I have no idea what became of Nancy after she was returned to her family. I belive there was one letter, to my mother, apologizing for her deceit. Then nothing. A few years later, we moved from that house, and it was demolished, and many of the old neighbors moved away, too, so we would have been difficult to trace had Nancy decided to come back to see us.

Every once in a while, something will remind me of Nancy. When it does, I sometimes imagine that she became a teacher. She probably would have been very good at it. Whatever she did after those days when she lived with us, I doubt that it was dull. She was one of those people who refuse to let life bore them, and she had little patience for those who let themselves be bored. I suspect that she left her home because it was simply not a place where any sort of excitement was allowed. But the entire time she lived with us, I don't recall ever being at a loss for something to do. Wherever she is now, I can't help but be a bit envious of whoever is lucky enough to share it with her. If they're not having a good time, they probably have no capacity for joy.
caillebotte_man at his window

Just Passing Through

The afternoon sky was home to dozens of isolated clumps of puffy white clouds, drifting through blue serenity, the embodiment of daydreams. Dense gray hovered in the northeast. I sat in my room with the headphones on, so I didn't hear the rising breeze, but I felt the cooling and saw the curtains billow in from the window. The day swiftly turned gray as the wind drew the denser clouds over the ridge, and I saw the darkened leaves of the mulberry tree waving wildly. For the first time in days, I couldn't smell the scent of jasmine. Instead, there was the unmistakable smell of wet pavement. I took off the headphones and heard the furious rustling of leaves and the rushing of wind and the spattering of raindrops. In the west, patches of blue lined with silver and white remained, but here everything had darkened. I went out and listened to the wind in the pines, which was like a sustained crashing of surf on the beach. Dislodged pine cones clattered down the slick, black street, and shredded leaves spiraled through the chilled air. It was quite splendid. I expected thunder and lightning, but none came.

After about an hour, the blue patches in the west began to expand, the wind died down and the rain ceased. The late sun emerged and all the oak trees became explosions of bright green against the crowding slate of the eastern sky. The storm rushed away, shadows rolling across the rumpled mountains. The last light picked out bright raindrops clinging to the shiny needles at the tops of the pines. In the dusk, a few evening birds sang, but the waterlogged crickets remained silent. The dark lawn was littered with fallen rose petals. Now, in the moonless night, if I listen carefully I can make out the croaking of happy frogs along the replenished streams, and the quiet trickle from the downspout. The scent of jasmine has now been replaced with the sharp odor of wet pine. The recent heat is forgotten. For a few hours, at least, it was spring again, passing through the early summer day.