For all of us who have, and are, brothers and sisters
Phineas Hall rode full speed along the brick sidewalk and then stopped dead at his sister’s feet. He let the momentum of braking lift the rear wheel up while he swung it behind him; at the same time, in a parallel motion, he swung his right leg up and over, to dismount.
Althea clapped her hands sarcastically, clap, clap, clap.
Phineas wheeled the bike over to the rack in front of the three-story brick library. His was the only bike in the rack. The campus was pretty empty during the week before the college opened for summer classes. He didn’t bother putting the lock on. He hadn’t locked his bike once since they had arrived in Maine, five days ago. Althea had given up nagging him about it.
He went to sit beside her on the bottom step. She already had ner nose back in her book, but she lifted it out again. “You’re on time.”
He didn’t know why she bothered saying that. “I always am,” he said, and didn’t know why he bothered.
“You don’t even wear a watch.”
“Why should I? I don’t need one. I just know—like ESP,” he said. “Woo-oo-ooo,” he made Twilight Zone sounds, and waggled his fingers at her.
“Come off it, Phineas. You looked at one of the outdoor clocks—or asked somebody.”
“Come off it, Althea,” he mimicked her prissy tone. He was irritating her and he didn’t mind, even though she was his only company until school started in the fall, and it was only the end of June. She sighed an irritated sigh and got back to her book.
His father said Phineas should wait until Althea finished growing up before he wrote the final page on her, but that was because like any grown-up, his father’s idea of heaven was sitting around talking. Worse, his father wanted to sit around talking about what somebody meant who said it three thousand years ago, and wasn’t around to be asked what he’d meant. After three thousand years, who cared?
“Be along in a minute.” She didn’t look up from the page. Phineas knew what Althea thought of him. She thought he was a dumb jock, immature, and a wiseass. She liked him all right, she just didn’t think much of him.
And that just showed how much she knew. Phineas was no jock. He liked sports, but you had to be a lot better than Phineas was to be counted a jock. Phineas was enthusiastic and a good athlete: That was all he was. Like most people, he wasn’t a star at anything. It didn’t do any good to get bent out of shape about that, did it? So he didn’t. Besides, what was so wrong with being ordinary, an ordinary twelve-year-old kid? Nothing, that was what.
“What’s that you’re reading?” he asked.
“History.” She turned a page. “Ancient Greece.” She read on. Phineas thought about needling her a little—he knew some ways—but he heard the big wooden library doors swing open, and turned his head to see his father trying to shove through them with an armload of books. Althea ran up the steps to get the door.
Phineas watched the two of them come down the steps. Althea had an armful of books and his father had an armful. You could tell just by looking at them that they were related. Two square sturdy bodies, except Althea was shorter, two heads of frizzy red hair, except Dad’s was thinning at the top and Althea’s was in short pony tails, two people dressed basically alike in the sweatshirt-jeans-and-sneakers style, if you could call that style. Phineas grinned. The only real difference was the lines on his father’s face, mostly laugh lines around the eyes and mouth. Lines made a difference, and so did Althea’s heavy eyebrows, so dark and thick they looked like they’d been drawn on her face with india ink.
Phineas stood up to get going, but a voice called out. “Just one minute, Mister Hall.” It was a woman’s voice but deep for a woman, almost like a man’s. All three of the Halls turned to look at the woman who stood at the top of the steps.
She made them wait while she took a big ring of keys out of her purse, and locked the door. She was a tall, thin woman, in a brown seersucker suit; a narrow woman with no hips to fill out her skirt, and no shoulders to speak of. Her hair was pale, maybe brown, maybe gray. Her face, when she turned around to look at where they were waiting, was long, thin, and pale.
She came down the steps, her purse clutched in front of her. “If you think, Mister Hall,” she said, looming over Phineas’s father.
Or started to say, because Phineas’s father interrupted. “I don’t believe you’ve met my family, Lucille. My daughter Althea, and my son Phineas.”
She barely looked at them. She was busy being angry.
“Kids, this is Mrs. Batchelor, the college librarian.”
“Hello,” Althea said, and stuck out her hand.
Mrs. Batchelor didn’t want to take it, but she had to.
Phineas held out his hand. “How do you do.”
She shook his hand too, but before she even let it out of her fingers she had turned back to their father.
“If you think I’m going to take this lying down,” she said, looming over him.
“Take what?” Mr. Hall asked.
“A library,” she announced, “is for books. The purpose of a library, and it is a great purpose, is to contain books, and the knowledge books hold. A library is not synonymous with—and must not be turned into—a shop window.” The woman practically spat the last two words out of her mouth, as if they were some seriously nasty bug that had flown into it. She waited about one second in case anyone wanted to say something, then went on, drawing herself up tall. “I wouldn’t be much of a librarian if I allowed anything, or anybody, to degrade a library that was in my care. Now would I.” It was not a question.
“I’m sorry, Lucille,” Mr. Hall said. “I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. Is there a problem I can help with?”
She puffed and snorted. “Don’t expect me to be pacified by your boyish charm. The final word has not been spoken. I am not as helpless as I might seem to you. No, don’t even try to protest—that’s all I’m prepared to say right now,” she said; and, as good as her word, she turned her back on all three of them and marched off.
“What was that about?” Althea asked.
“I have no idea,” Mr. Hall said. “Not the faintest glimmer.”
“She’s scary,” Althea said.
“Not scary,” Phineas said, “weird. Seriously weird.”
Mr. Hall changed the subject. “Anybody else want a bite?”
“Me,” Phineas said.
“Do we walk or take our bikes?” Mr. Hall asked.
“Bikes,” Phineas said.
“Walk,” Althea decided.
“Ice cream?” Phineas asked.
“Pastries,” Althea said.
“We’ll walk into town and get ice cream,” their father told them.
* * *
They sat in a booth, with Phineas getting a side to himself. Since they’d arrived in Maine, and started settling in, they’d gone downtown at about the same time each day for what his father called a bite. The bite kept them going until they went into town for pizza, at about eight. Phineas guessed that when they finished un
“Hot fudge, two scoops of vanilla, and nothing else, please,” Phineas ordered, as usual.
“You want a glass of water with that?” the girl asked, sort of twinkling her eyes at him.
“Yeah, thanks.” He wouldn’t look at her, although he could feel her twinkling away above him. He studied his menu, as if he cared about what was on it. The trouble with looking older than you were was that girls decided you were cute enough to flirt with, girls who if they knew you were twelve wouldn’t look twice at you. But he couldn’t just blurt out, “I’m only twelve, leave me alone.” That would be seriously dumb. He kept his eyes on the menu and waited for her to go away.
Althea asked for a piece of blueberry pie with chocolate ice cream. “And a glass of water, please.”
Mr. Hall smiled up at the waitress. “Water for me too, and two scoops of pistachio, with marshmallow sauce on it, I think, and whipped cream, and some wet nuts, and a maraschino cherry.” Phineas lowered the menu.
“How was—?” Mr. Hall tried to ask.
“You shouldn’t, Dad,” Althea interrupted.
“I like maraschinos,” he said, not needing her to explain shouldn’t what.
“Think about what they put in to get them that color.”
“No,” Mr. Hall said, “I don’t think I will, and I don’t want to hear any more about it, Althea. I’ve got enough to worry about. My classes start Monday, I have only half my books unpacked, too many nations are developing nuclear weapons, waste disposal is reaching a crisis. . . . I think I’ll go ahead and have a maraschino cherry on my sundae.”
“That’s no way to get problems solved,” Althea insisted.
Mr. Hall turned to Phineas. “How was your afternoon?”
“Fine. It was okay. I rode around,” he told his father, before his father had to ask him.
“I think we’re going to like it here,” Mr. Hall said. “It’s the air that gets me, because it tastes good. It just—knocks me out, the air does. Gives me energy.”
“That’s a contradiction in terms,” Althea said.
“Who says only women get to be contradictory? What do you think, equality is a one-way street?” Mr. Hall asked. “How are the Greeks?”
“The Greeks are fine, it’s their verbs I’m having trouble with,” she said. “Where’d you ride, Fin?”
“Just around. There are tennis courts, in the park downtown. Clay courts,” he said. They knew he wasn’t asking them to give him a game. They were the unathletic members of the family.
“Are you sure you don’t want to find a day camp to enroll in?” his father asked.
“I’m too old.”
“It’s going to be a long summer.”
“I’ll be okay.”
“Maybe,” Althea suggested, “you should go hang around those courts, with your racket in your hand, looking pitiful. Or looking eager and aggressive, maybe that would be better.”
“Maybe you should go fly a kite,” Phineas answered.
“Speaking of kites,” Mr. Hall said, before either of them could get started on a quarrel, “there’s a park in South Portland where people do fly kites on weekends. Home design kites, and trick kites”—he leaned back, so the waitress could put his sundae down in front of him—“it’s supposed to be fun on Sunday afternoons, Howie was telling me.”
For a few bites, nobody said anything. Things were pretty desperate if watching people fly kites was something interesting to do. Then, “Who’s Howie?” Phineas asked, not that he cared. He cared about enjoying his sundae in peace, if anyone was interested, which they weren’t. The trick with hot fudge was to space out the sauce, so you didn’t run out of sauce before you ran out of ice cream.
“Howie Unnold. Math. His wife is computers.” Mr. Hall spoke between spoonfuls of green ice cream topped with thick white syrup topped with mounded white whipped cream topped with brown nuts. “Sandy. Howie and Sandy Unnold. They’ve been here three or four years, they’ve got an older house in the city. They’re fixing it up. And three kids. All young, the oldest is eight, I think. Can I give them your name for baby-sitting, Althea?”
“I’ll be fine, Dad,” Althea said. “You don’t have to find things for me to do. I’m doing fine.”
He didn’t look like he believed her.
“We’re not the ones being chased down the library steps by angry women,” she pointed out. “What did you do to get her so angry?”
“Nothing. Cross my heart. I didn’t do anything.”
“Maybe she doesn’t like short guys with frizzy hair,” Phineas suggested.
“She didn’t seem to like you any better,” his father argued.
“Maybe she doesn’t like men,” Althea suggested.
“She’s married,” Mr. Hall argued.
“Maybe she doesn’t like her husband,” Phineas continued—and didn’t need the look Althea shot at him to be sorry.
“Then maybe her husband wanted the job you got,” Althea said.
“He can’t want my job, he works for the art museum.”
“Were you assigned her office?” Phineas asked. “Or her parking place? Did you use her coffee mug?”
“No, no, and no,” his father said. “No, it’s got to be a mistake of some kind. It makes no sense. She was angry.”
“And at you, personally,” Althea added.
“When I find out what it was, I’ll exercise my famous boyish charm,” Mr. Hall said, and they all started laughing. “But I hope it gets cleared up quickly,” he said. “This is the first job in fifteen years that I’m not overqualified for, and I plan to enjoy it, and I’d hate to find that I’ve made an enemy of Lucille Batchelor without even knowing how.”
“I dunno,” Phineas said, “it might be fun. Exciting. She looked like a piece of spaghetti, didn’t she?”
“A piece of angry spaghetti,” Phineas said.
Both of them were grinning at him now, just waiting.
“A piece of angry, whole wheat, health food spaghetti,” he said. He was enjoying himself. They were all three enjoying themselves. They were fine, just the three of them.
Home, at Vandemark College, was one of five little houses that lined up tidily along a gravel roadway. Each house sat on a square of grass. Each square of grass was enclosed by a knee-high picket fence. When Vandemark College was the Vandemark Estate, servants lived in these houses. Now the college used them for faculty housing. Because the Halls’ house in Westchester hadn’t sold yet, they were in no position to buy a house in Portland. Because Mr. Hall was on a one-year contract, and it might not be renewed, he was glad to rent one of the small gable-roofed houses. Even if the rooms were dark and the furniture massive, the house was a five-minute walk from the center of campus, a ten- or fifteen-minute walk from downtown.
That afternoon when they arrived home, Althea pulled the mail out of the letter box, and they all went into the kitchen. Althea sorted the mail. Phineas didn’t pay any attention. He never got letters. He didn’t write any. If he moved back to Westchester, they’d pick up where they left off, he figured. If he never moved back, what did they have to say to him, Bobby and Phil, Davy, Jason K. and Jason P. and Jason A., Josh, Gerry, Mark? He didn’t have anything to say to them. You couldn’t exactly play D&D or tennis in a letter, or go for a skate, or do anything worth doing in a letter.
“Letter for you, Fin,” Althea said. “From Mom.”
The letter was addressed to Phineas Ciamburri-Hall with a return address from Anne-Marie Ciamburri-Hall in Portland, Oregon. She knew he was going to drop the double-barreled name up here; he’d told her. It was a pain, with people never knowing how to pronounce Ciamburri, and having to spell it out all the time. She was ignoring that, he guessed. He held the letter in his hand, without opening it.
“One for me too, and a thick one for you, Dad,” Althea said.
sp; They all three stood looking at their envelopes. “I never got a letter from your mother before,” Mr. Hall said. His was a brown manila envelope, addressed to Sam Hall, Vandemark College, Portland, Maine. “It is thick,” he said. He opened it carefully. “Pictures,” he said, and unfolded the piece of paper, to read.
Althea and Phineas read theirs. Nobody sat down. “Hey kiddo,” Phineas’s mother wrote, “how are things in Vacationland? Things here are rainy and I start work tomorrow.” She told him about the apartment, and the swimming pool and tennis courts that came with it, about what movies were playing and where she’d seen kids and what they were doing. It wasn’t a very long letter. At the end she said, “I admit it, I almost miss the mess, and the smell of old feet. You wouldn’t consider sending me one of your previously owned socks, would you? I could hang it up in the spare bedroom.” Phineas grinned. He’d been wondering what he’d say when he wrote her back, because he was going to have to write her back, and he thought it would be pretty funny to really send her a sock. First he’d wear it for a few days, until it got seriously smelly.
“She sounds okay,” Althea reported. “Lots of museums and concerts, libraries.”
“She gets cable TV with the apartment,” Phineas reported.
They looked at their father. He spread the photographs around the table, so they could all look at them. “It looks like a pretty typical apartment complex, don’t you think? Not swinging singles.”
“How can you tell that from pictures?” Phineas asked.
“The parking lot. I figure swinging singles have smaller, newer cars. There’s a nice mix of station wagons here, and big old sedans.”
“I don’t think Mom will like it,” Phineas said. “It looks like a giant motel.”
“She likes the job,” Althea reminded them.
“The job’s why she’s there,” Mr. Hall reminded them. “A job she couldn’t turn down. It’s the congressman who worries me.”
“Really?” Phineas asked.
“Yeah, really. He’s much too good-looking, and much too unmarried, and your mother is—a heart-stopper.”
Phineas didn’t have any idea what to say about that. Luckily, Althea did. She not only looked like their father, she thought like him too. Phineas looked and thought like his mother, mostly.