XXVII - Snippets of the Quilt
DaD DID GO TO MR. CaRDINaLE. THE PRINCIPaL, WHO HaD already heard rumors from the other teachers that Leatherlungs was a burnt-out case two bricks shy of a load, decided that the time I'd spent away from school was enough. No apology was necessary.
I returned to find I was a conquering hero. In years to come, no astronaut home from the moon would feel as welcome as I did. Leatherlungs was cowed but surly, Mr. Cardinale's shrill admonitions ringing in her brain like Noel bells. But I had done my share of wrong, too, and I realized I ought to admit it. So, on that day I returned, which was also the last day of school before Christmas vacation, I raised my hand right after roll call and Leatherlungs snapped, "What is iti"
I stood up. all eyes were on me, expecting another heroic gesture in this grand campaign against injustice, inequality, and the banning of grape bubble gum. "Mrs. Harperi" I said. I hesitated, my grandeur in the balance.
"Spit it out!" she said. "I can't read your mind, you blockhead!"
Whatever Mr. Cardinale had told her, it obviously wasn't enough to persuade her to hang up her guns. But I went ahead anyway, because it was right. "I shouldn't have hit you," I said. "I'm sorry."
Oh, fallen heroes! Idols with feet of miserable clay! Mighty warriors, laid low by flea bites between the cracks in their suits of armor! I knew how they felt, in the groans and stunned gasps that rose around me like bitter flowers. I had stepped from my pedestal and pooted as I hit a mudhole.
"You're sorryi" Leatherlungs might have been the most stunned of the lot. She took off her glasses and put them back on. "You're apologizing to mei"
"Well, I... I..." Words had fled from her. She was treading the unknown waters of forgiveness, trying to find the bottom of it. "I don't... know what to..."
Grace beckoned her. Grace, with all its magic and wonder. The grace of a moment, and I saw her face start to soften.
"...say, but..." She swallowed. Maybe there was a lump in her throat.
"...but... It's high time you showed some common sense, you blockhead!" she roared.
It had been a lump of nails, obviously. She was spitting them out.
"Sit down and get that math book open!"
Her face had not softened, I thought as I sighed and sat down. It had just been luffing like a sail before its second wind.
In the hollering madhouse that was called lunch period, I noticed the Demon sneaking out of the lunchroom as Leatherlungs was blasting some poor boy about spending his lunch money on baseball cards. She returned about five minutes later, sliding into her chair near the door before Leatherlungs knew she was gone. I saw the Demon and the other girls at her table giggle and grin. a plot was afoot.
When we were herded back to our room, Leatherlungs sat down at her desk like a lioness curling around a meatbone. "Get those alabama history books open!" she said. "Chapter Ten! Reconstruction! Hurry it up!" She reached for her own history book, and I heard her grunt.
Leatherlungs couldn't lift the book up off the desktop. as everybody watched, she wrenched at the book with both hands, her elbows planted against the desk's edge, but it wouldn't budge. Somebody chortled. "Is it funnyi" she demanded, the fury leaping into her eyes. "Who thinks that it's fun-" and then she squawked, because her elbows wouldn't leave the desk's edge. Sensing calamity, she tried to stand up. Her ample behind would not part with the seat, and when she stood, the chair came with her. "What's going on here!" she shouted as the entire class began to yell with laughter, myself included. Leatherlungs tried to shuffle to the door, but her face contorted as she realized those clunky brown shoes were as good as nailed to the linoleum. There she was, crouched over with her butt stuck to the chair's seat, her shoes mired in invisible iron, and her elbows stuck fast to the desk. She looked as if she were bowing to us, though the expression of rage on her face hardly approved of the courtesy.
"Help me!" Leatherlungs bawled, close to maddened tears. "Somebody help me!" Her cries for assistance were directed at the door, but the way everybody was hollering and laughing I doubted if even her foghorn voice could be heard beyond the frosted glass. She ripped the cloth of one arm of her blouse away as she got an elbow free, and then she made the mistake of placing that free hand against the desktop for added leverage. The hand was free no longer. "Help me!" she shouted. "Somebody get me out of this!"
The upshot of all this was that Mr. Dennis, the black custodian, had to be summoned by Mr. Cardinale to free Leatherlungs. Mr. Dennis was forced to use a hacksaw on the tough fibers of the substance that bound Leatherlungs so firmly to desk, chair, and floor. Mr. Dennis's hand unfortunately slipped during the hacksawing, and a patch of Leatherlungs' rear end was thereafter in need of reconstruction.
I heard Mr. Dennis tell Mr. Cardinale, as the ambulance attendants wheeled Leatherlungs away wheezing and gibbering along the holly-decked hall, that it was the most godawesome glue he'd ever seen. The stuff, he said, changed color depending on what it was smeared on. It was odorless but for the faint smell of yeast. He said Leatherlungs-Mrs. Harper, he called her-was mighty lucky she still had her hand connected to her wrist, the stuff was so powerful. Mr. Cardinale was enraged, in his flighty way. But no jar or tube of glue was found in the room, and Mr. Cardinale was stumped as to how any child could've been cunning and devious enough to perform such trickery.
He did not know the Demon. I never found out for sure, but I assumed she must've had the glue bottle hanging from a string outside the window and had reeled it in while the rest of us were eating lunch. Then, when she was through smearing all the necessary surfaces, the glue bottle had gone out the window again to be collected after school. I'd never heard of such a strong glue before. I learned later that the Demon had concocted it herself, using ingredients that included Tecumseh riverbottom mud, Poulter Hill dirt, and her mother's recipe for angel food cake. If that were so, I would've hated to taste Mrs. Sutley's devil's food. She called it Super Stuff, which made perfect sense.
I knew there had to be a reason the Demon had skipped a grade. I'd had no idea her real talent lay in the realm of chemistry.
Dad and I ventured out into the woods on a chilly afternoon. We found a small pine that would do. We took it home with us, and that night Mom popped corn and we strung the tree with popcorn, gold and silver tinsel, and the scuffed decorations that nestled in a box in the closet except for one week of the year.
Ben was learning his Christmas songs. I asked him whether Miss Green Glass had a parrot, but he didn't know. He'd never seen one, he said. But they might have a green parrot in the back somewhere. Dad and I went in together and bought Mom a new cake cookbook and a baking pan, and Mom and I went in together and bought Dad some socks and underwear. Dad made a solitary purchase of a small bottle of perfume from Woolworth's for Mom while she bought him a plaid muffler. I liked knowing what was inside those brightly wrapped packages under the tree. Two packages were also there, though, that had my name on them and I had no idea what they contained. One was small and one was larger: two mysteries, waiting to be revealed.
I was snakebit about picking up the phone and calling the Glass sisters. The last time I'd intended to, tragedy had struck. The green feather was never far from my hand, though. One morning I woke up, after a dream of the four black girls calling my name, and I rubbed my eyes in the winter sunlight and I picked up the feather from where I'd left it on the bedside table and I knew I had to. Not call them, but go see for myself.
Bundled up, I rode Rocket under the Zephyr tinsel to the gingerbread house on Shantuck Street. I knocked at the door, the feather in my pocket.
Miss Blue Glass opened the door. It was still early, just past nine. Miss Blue Glass wore an azure robe and quilted cyan slippers. Her whitish-blond hair was piled high as usual, which must've been her first labor of the morning. I was reminded of pictures I'd seen of the Matterhorn. She regarded me through her thick black-framed glasses, dark hollows beneath her eyes. "Cory Mackenson," she said. Her voice was listless. "What can I do for youi"
"May I come in for a minutei"
"I am alone," she said.
"Uh... I won't take but a minute."
"I am alone," she repeated, and tears welled up behind her glasses. She turned away from the door, leaving it open. I walked into the house, which was the same museum of chintzy art it had been the night I was here for Ben's lesson. Still... something was missing.
"I am alone." Miss Blue Glass crumpled down onto the spindly-legged sofa, lowered her head, and began to sob.
I closed the door to keep out the cold. "Where's Miss Gre-the other Miss Glassi"
"No longer Miss Glass," she said with the trace of a hurt sneer.
"Isn't she herei"
"No. She's in... heaven knows where she is by now." She took off her glasses to blot the tears with a blue lace hanky. I saw that without those glasses and with her hair let down an altitude or two, she might not look nearly so... I guess frightful's the word.
"What's wrongi" I asked.
"What's wrong," she said, "is that my heart has been ripped out and stomped! Just utterly stomped!" Fresh tears streaked down her face. "Oh, I can hardly even think about it!"
"Did somebody do somethin' badi"
"I have been betrayed!" she said. "By my own flesh and blood!" She picked up a piece of pale green paper from beside her and held it out to me. "Read this for yourself!"
I took it. The words, a graceful script, were written in dark green ink.
Dearest Sonia, it began. When two hearts call to each other, what else can one do but answeri I can no longer deny my feelings. My emotions burn. I long to be joined in the raptures of true passion. Music is fine, dearest sister, but the notes must fade. Love is a song that lives on. I must give myself to that finer, deeper symphony. That is why I must go with him, Sonia. I have no choice but to give myself to him, body and soul. By the time you read this, we shall be...
"Marriedi" I must've shouted it, because Miss Blue Glass jumped.
"Married," she said grimly.
...married, and we hope in time you will understand that we do not conduct our own chorale in this life, but are conducted by the hand of the Master Maestro. Love and Fond Farewell, Your Sister, Katharina.
"Isn't that the damnedest thingi" Miss Blue Glass asked me. Her lower lip began to tremble.
"Who did your sister run off withi"
Miss Blue Glass spoke the name, though speaking it seemed to crush her all the more.
"You mean... your sister married... Mr. Cathcoatei"
"Owen," Miss Blue Glass sobbed, "oh, my sweet Owen ran off with my own sister!"
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Not only had Mr. Cathcoate gone off and married Miss Green Glass, but he'd been catting with Miss Blue Glass, too! I'd known he had parts of the Wild West in him, but I hadn't imagined his south parts were just as wild. I said, "Isn't Mr. Cathcoate kind of old for you ladiesi" I put the letter back on the sofa beside her.
"Mr. Cathcoate has the heart of a boy," she said, and her eyes got dreamy. "Oh Lord, I'll miss that man!"
"I have to ask you about somethin'," I told her before her faucets turned on again. "Does your sister have a parroti"
Now it was her turn to look at me as if my senses had flown. "a parroti"
"Yes ma'am. You had a blue parrot. Does your sister have a green onei"
"No," Miss Blue Glass said. "I'm tellin' you how my heart has been broken, and you want to talk about parrotsi"
"I'm sorry. I just had to ask." I sighed and looked around the room. Some of the knickknacks in the curio cabinet were gone. I didn't think Miss Green Glass was ever coming back, and I supposed that Miss Blue Glass knew it. a bird, it seemed, had left its cage. I slid my right hand into my pocket and put my fingers around the feather. "I didn't mean to bother you," I said, and I walked to the door.
"Even my parrot has left me," Miss Blue Glass moaned. "and my parrot was so sweet and gentle..."
"Yes ma'am. I was sorry to hear about-"
"...not like that filthy, greedy parrot of Katharina's!" she plowed on. "Well, I should've known her true nature, shouldn't Ii I should've known she had her cap set for Owen, all along!"
"Wait," I said. "I thought you just told me your sister didn't have a parrot."
"That's not what I said. I said Katharina doesn't have a parrot. When it died, the devil ate a drumstick!"
I walked back to her, and as I did I brought my hand out of my pocket and opened the fingers. My heart was going ninety miles a minute. "Was that the color of your sister's parrot, Miss Glassi"
She gave it one sniffy glance. "That's it. Lord knows I'd recognize one of his feathers, he was always flyin' against his cage and flingin' 'em out. He was about bald when he died." She caught herself. "Just a minute. What are you doin' with one of his feathersi"
"I found it. Somewhere."
"That bird died back in... oh, when was iti"
I knew. "March," I said.
"Yes, it was March. The buds were startin' to show, and we were choosin' our Easter music. But..." She frowned, her stomped heart forgotten for the moment. "How did you know, Coryi"
"a little bird told me," I said. "What did the parrot die of, Miss Glassi"
"a brain fever. Same as my parrot. Dr. Lezander says it's common among tropical birds and when it happens there's not much can be done."
"Dr. Lezander." The name left my lips like frozen breath.
"He loved my parrot. He said my parrot was the gentlest bird he'd ever seen." Her lips curled into a snarl. "But he hated that green one of Katharina's! I think he could've killed it the same as me, if I could've gotten away with it!"
"He almost got away with it," I said quietly.
"Got away with whati" she asked.
I let her question slide. "What happened to the green parrot after it diedi Did Dr. Lezander come get iti"
"No. It was sick, wouldn't touch a grain of seed, and Katharina took it to Dr. Lezander's office. It died the next night."
"Brain fever," I said.
"That's right, brain fever. Why are you askin' all these strange questions, Coryi and I still don't understand why you have that feather."
"I... can't tell you yet. I wish I could, but I can't."
She leaned forward, smelling a secret. "What is it, Coryi I swear I won't breathe it to a soul!"
"I can't say. Honest." I returned the feather to my pocket, and Miss Blue Glass's face slowly dropped again. "I'd better be goin'. I hated to bother you, but it was important." I glanced at the piano as I went to the door, and a thought struck me like the arrowhead of Chief Five Thunders lodging right between my eyes. I remembered the Lady saying she'd dreamed of hearing piano music, and seeing hands holding piano wire and a "crackerknocker." I recalled the piano in the room where all the ceramic birds were, at Dr. Lezander's house. "Did you ever teach Dr. Lezander to play the pianoi" I asked.
"Dr. Lezanderi No, but his wife took lessons."
His wife. Big, horse-faced Veronica. "Was this real recentlyi"
"No, it was four or five years ago, when I was teachin' full-time. Before Katharina had me knockin' at the poor-house door," she said icily. "Mrs. Lezander won several gold stars, as I recall."
"I give gold stars for excellence. Mrs. Lezander could've been a professional pianist in my opinion. She has the hands for it. and she loved my song." Her face brightened.
Miss Blue Glass got up and situated herself at the piano. She began to play the song she'd been playing that night her parrot had started squawking in German. "'Beautiful Dreamer,'" she said, and she closed her eyes as the melody filled the room. "It's all I have left now, isn't iti My beautiful, beautiful dreams."
I listened to the music. What had made the blue parrot go so crazy that nighti
I remembered the voice of Miss Green Glass: It's that song, I'm tellin' you! He goes insane every time you play it!
and Miss Blue Glass, answering: I used to play it for him all the time and he loved it!
a small glimmer began to cut through the darkness. It was like a single shard of sunlight, as seen from the bottom of murky water. I couldn't make out anything by it yet, but I knew it was there.
"Miss Glassi" I said. a little louder, because she'd increased the volume and was starting to hammer the keys as if she were playing with Ben's fingers: "Miss Glassi"
She stopped on a bitter note. Tears had streamed down all the way to her chin. "What is iti"
"That song right there. Did it make your parrot act strangei"
"No! That was a vile lie of Katharina's, because she hated my favorite song herself!" But the way she said it, I knew it wasn't true.
"You've just started givin' piano lessons again, haven't youi Have you played that song very much since... oh... the green parrot diedi"
She thought about it. "I don't know. I guess... I played it at church rehearsal some, to warm up. But because I wasn't givin' lessons, I didn't play the piano much at home. Not that I didn't want to, but Katharina"-she couldn't help but sneer the name-"said my playin' hurt her sensitive ears, that vicious man-stealer!"
The light was still there. Something was taking shape, but it was still a long way off.
"It was Katharina this and Katharina that!" Miss Blue Glass suddenly slammed her hands down on the keyboard with such force the entire piano shook. "I was always bendin' over backward to appease almighty Katharina! and I loathe and despise green!" She stood up, a skinny, seething thing. "I'm gonna take everythin' green in this house and burn it, and if that means parts of the house, the very walls, well, I'll burn those, too! If I never see green again, I'll smile in my grave!"
She was working up to a frenzy of destruction. That was a sight I didn't care to witness. I had my hand on the doorknob. "Thank you, Miss Glass."
"Yes, I'm still Miss Glass!" she shouted, but she was crying again. "The one and only Miss Glass! and I'm proud of it, do you hear mei I'm proud of it!" She plucked the pale green farewell letter from the sofa and, her teeth clenched, she began to rip it to shreds. I got out while the getting was good. as the door closed behind me, I heard the curio cabinet go over. I'd been right; it did make a terrible crash.
as I pedaled home, I was trying to put everything together in my head. Snippets of the quilt, the Lady had said. The pieces were there, but how did they fiti
The murder of a man no one knew.
The green feather of a dead parrot, there at the scene of the crime.
a song that caused a second parrot to curse blue blazes in German.
Dr. Lezander, the night owl who hated milk.
If the green parrot had died at Dr. Lezander's office, how had one of its feathers gotten to the lakei
What was the link between the two parrots, the dead man, and Dr. Lezanderi
When I got home, I went straight to the telephone. I called the Glass house again, my fears of tragedy pushed down out of sheer necessity. at first I thought Miss Blue Glass wasn't going to answer, because the phone rang eight times. Then, on the ninth ring: "Yesi"
"Miss Glass, it's me again. Cory Mackenson. I've got one more question for you."
"I don't want to talk about Benedictine arnold anymore."
"Whoi Oh, not your sister. Your parrot. Besides this last time, when it died at Dr. Lezander's, was it ever sick beforei"
"Yes. They were both sick on the same day. Katharina and I took them both to Dr. Lezander's office. But that next night her damn bird died." She made a noise of exasperation. "Cory, what is this all abouti"
The light was a little brighter. "Thanks again, Miss Glass," I said, and I hung up. Mom asked me from the kitchen why I was calling Miss Glass, and I said I was going to write a story about a music teacher. "That's nice," Mom said. I had discovered that being a writer gave you a lot of license to fiddle with the truth, but I'd better not get into the habit of it.
In my room, I put on my thinking cap. It took a while, but I did some sewing with those snippets of the quilt.
and I came to this conclusion: both parrots had been at Dr. Lezander's the night in March the unknown man had been murdered. The green parrot had died that night, and the blue one had come away cursing in German when "Beautiful Dreamer" was played on the piano. Mrs. Lezander played the piano. Mrs. Lezander knew "Beautiful Dreamer."
Was it possible, then, that when Miss Blue Glass had played that song, her parrot remembered something that was said-or cursed and shouted in the German language-while Mrs. Lezander had been playing iti and why would Mrs. Lezander be playing a piano while somebody was shouting and curs-
Yes, I thought. Yes.
I saw the light.
Mrs. Lezander had been playing the piano-that song, "Beautiful Dreamer"-to cover up the shouts and cursing. Only both parrots had been in that room, in the bird cages there. But it seemed unlikely that anybody would be hollering and cursing right over her shoulder, didn't iti
I remembered Dr. Lezander's voice, rising up through the air vent from his basement office. Calling Dad and me to come down. He had known we would hear him clearly through the vent, which was why he hadn't come upstairs. Had he feared, on that night in March, that the noise of shouting might be heard outside the house, and that was why Mrs. Lezander had been playing the first song that came to mind as the two parrots listened and rememberedi
Had Dr. Lezander beaten that unknown man with a crackerknocker in the basement, and strangled him as the parrots listenedi Maybe it had taken almost all night, the noises of violence making both parrots thrash against their cagesi Then when the deed was done Dr. Lezander and his big horsey wife had carted the naked body out to that unknown man's car, parked in the barni and either one of them had driven to Saxon's Lake, while the other had followed in their own cari But they hadn't realized that a green feather had whirled out of a bird cage and wound up in the folds of a coat or the depths of a pocketi and since both the Lezanders were allergic to milk, they weren't on the dairy's delivery list and they didn't know what time Dad would be on Route Teni
Maybe it had been like that. Maybe.
Or maybe not.
It sure would've made a good Hardy Boys mystery. But all I had was a feather from a dead parrot and a halfway-sewn quilt that seemed a little ragged at the seams. The German cursing, for instance. Dr. Lezander was Dutch, not German. and who was the unknown mani What possible link could a man with the tattoo of a winged skull on his shoulder have with Zephyr's veterinariani Ragged, ragged seams.
Still... there was the green feather, "Beautiful Dreamer," and Who Knowsi
Knows whati That, it seemed to me, was the key to this dark engine.
I told my parents none of this. When I was ready, I would; I wasn't, so I didn't. But I was convinced now more than ever that a stranger lived among us.
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