The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs
In the presence of extraordinary actuality, consciousness takes the place of imagination.
I am a young woman now, but when I was seven years old something unexpected happened that changed my life forever. It was Easter Sunday when a dramatic manifestation of the Rumbaugh curse was revealed to me. I found Abner and Adolph Rumbaugh's dead motherfor the first timeand it left the greatest impression.
Abner and Adolph were identical twins, and they grew more and more alike as they got older. There was no simple way to tell them apart, and after years of trying people gave up. Even when one brother was alone shopping along Main Street in our small western Pennsylvania town, people greeted him as "the Twins."
"How are the Twins?" a shopkeeper might ask the one who entered his store.
"We are fine," the single Twin would reply, perfectly comfortable to be both himself and his brother.
They were already old when I was born, and for as long as I remember I had thought they were living pieces of history, like the smoky, bug-specked photographs of Civil War soldiers lining the halls in the Westmoreland County Courthouse.
Everything about the Twins aged in a singular way, so that they stood out among other men as if they were an idiosyncratic variation within a breed, like cats with extra toes, or albino birds with see-through feathers. The Twins' waxy white hair was horsetail thick and glazed with the dirty gold color of old teeth and tobacco, and their thin, nearly transparent skin looked like milk spilled over a road map of blue and red veins. They were pharmacists, and I've never seen hands as clean as theirs, which they hygienically scrubbed to a ruddy glow at the beginning and end of each workday with a strong boar's hair nailbrush dipped in a shallow dish of coarse salt. When I asked if it hurt to scrub his hands, Ab (or it could have been Dolph) replied as if his words were a medical college oath he had pledged to uphold, "Good health is built on the foundation of a sanitary science." He held his hands erect before him as if he were drying two white-hot flames.
Nothing they did ever seemed accidental or whimsical, and pain or difficulty never stopped them from being thorough. You could always find some sense of purpose in their fixed eyes, which were as blue as the Dresden blue porcelain drawer pulls their mother had bought them for a gift after they graduated from pharmacy school in 1944. Once they returned home to Mount Pleasant from the University of Pittsburgh, they establishedtheir own business and worked diligently to keep up with the steady flow of Frick Hospital prescriptions and local clientele. It was only imprecision brought on by exhaustion that sent them down into their basement workshop to relax. Like many men in fish-and-game towns, they practiced taxidermy as a hobby. The Twins competed in contests at the Westmoreland County Fair and as far east as the county fairs in York and Lancaster and north up to Beaver Falls and Erie.
It was with great pride that within the pharmacy they displayed their winning entries in dust-proof glass-and-oak cases set on top of the tall shelves. In order that their handiwork be viewed more clearly, Ab and Dolph shimmed the back legs of the cases so they tilted downward for everyone to see. There was a set of squirrel pharmacists grinding medications with a mortar and pestle. There were conjoined pigs dressed in black suits, which they titled CHANG AND ENG after the famous Siamese twins. Another pair of Siamese twinskittens this timewere titled THE HILTON SISTERS after Daisy and Violet Hilton. One kitten wore a blond wig, the other a brunette, and they were posed in tiny wedding gowns after a scene from the movie poster advertising their biographical film, Chained for Life. In another case a white mink slept on a little tufted bed while a black mink hovered above him. Below the scene was written: "I could not love except where Death was mingling his with Beauty's breath.E. A. Poe."
There were dozens more, many decorated with blue and red prize ribbons and some with brassy shoulder braids like on anarmy general. I especially liked the long case that was labeled in gold script across the bottom of the frame THE RUMBAUGH BROODFITTER FAMILY CONTEST WINNER. In it was a father mink, a mother mink, and a dozen mink children in descending stair-step order, with all of them standing straight up in healthy muscleman poses except for the mother. She was cradling twin mink babies in her arms. Beneath each mink was a name, but I always skipped over them and read just the Twins' names, ADOLPH AND ABNER (PERFECT TWINS), because it made me smile warmly to think of them as cute little minks. Across the top of the frame was printed EUGENIC HEALTH EXHIBITWESTMORELAND COUNTY FAIR, 1921. Hanging from the corner was a gold medal kept in full shine with the image of parents reaching for a plump, smiling child, who in turn was reaching for them. Circling the family were the words "Yea, I Have a Goodly Heritage."
The Twins' father, Peter Rumbaugh, who was a mink farmer and taxidermist, had made the display for the Westmoreland Chapter of the Eugenics Research Association after the Rumbaugh family was awarded the Fitter Family Medal. He practiced taxidermy on minks from his mink farm, and the Twins, before he signed them over for adoption to the Eugenics Research Association, must have watched him. He even made them baby toys of stuffed animals on wheelsalso on displaylittle minks and squirrels and chickens with metal loops through their noses and beaks to which leather pull cords were attached. Many years later he sent the Twins the pull toys and family mink exhibit in an attempt to reconciletheir ruined relationshipwhich I will explain later. But no gesture could assuage their feeling that he had betrayed them. Besides, their mother, Mrs. Rumbaugh, with whom the Twins lived, steadfastly forbade the mention of his name.
As a child I stood on a step stool for hours and studied the various displays and creatures, admiring their fixed postures and expressions, the meticulously painted backgrounds, and especially their tiny clothes which the Twins had sewn with the help of their mother. She was good with her hands and made extra money by braiding elaborate mourning jewelry from the long hairs of the dead.
Despite their peculiar activities, the Twins always presented themselves very earnestly to the world. They wore identical black boiled-wool three-piece suits, each with a collarless white shirt which was fastened at the top with a single copper stud the size of a tack head. They wore the same shirts all week, so that circles of green oxidation edged the white buttonholes where the studs pressed just below their Adam's apples. On Sundays they wore the same suits, with freshly laundered and starched collared shirts and black ribbon bow ties. They were thin necked"pencil necked" my mother called thembut because of their age both had identical wattles of ruddy chicken skin gathered over the collars of their shirts. When they spoke they pecked at the air as if the words were grains of corn, and their wattles flopped about like deflated balloons.
For some inexplicable reason, unknown to me when I was young, I was born deeply in love with the Twins. I adoredthem so much it hurt to see their physical flaws because I wanted them to be perfect in the way you wish a drawing to appear on paper as precisely as you saw it in your mind. I wished I could have taken a small scissors and snipped off the extra folds of skin and finely sewn the necks back together and smoothed the scars with lanolin. I knew even then it could not have been difficult to do so.
On that astonishing Easter morning, my mother and I had worn matching yellow dresses with wide white patent-leather belts pulled tightly round our waists. We wore identical yellow satin headbands with our black hair pushed back behind our ears and our bangs combed forward to just above our dark eyebrows. She wore red lipstick, and after she kissed me on the lips we examined ourselves in the mirror and I was very pleased to see that my lips were red, too. "Mom and mini-Mom" we called ourselves as we left the Kelly Hotel and walked in our black patent-leather shoes down Diamond Street toward the Transfiguration Polish Catholic Church. It was a warm sunny day and I was very happy.
Easter Mass is always a festive service at T.P.C.C., with potted lilies lining the central aisle at every oak pew. Their white blossoms were pointed toward the altar, where the glowing monstrance stood like a golden lighthouse. The sacred body of Christ beamed out through that glass eye as mysteriously as a holy Cyclops. Along the walls polite arrangements of carnations graced the feet of the apostles and saints. But an earlyspring garden of vibrant flowers framed the stained-glass window that pictured a trapped coal miner kneeling in prayer before the image of the Virgin Mary. The older ladies in black dresses may have lost husbands, brothers, and sons in the local coal mines, yet they never lost hope that the buried would someday emerge from the ground like Lazarus, a miracle to behold. Once, a coal tunnel dug by mistake under the edge of town caved in. Above it, buildings staggered, then toppled. Trees slipped down holes like vanishing scarves in a magic trick. The older ladies gathered on the banks of the open trench, calling out names, hoping their lost men might be alive like the French troops who had been trapped in their elaborate tunnels during World War II, only to surface years later, blinking and pale as grubs.
After Father Baumann led us in prayer, he pointed out how the trumpet-shaped lily blossoms announced the good news of salvation. Then he transfixed me with the story of how Jesus had been fitted with the crown of thorns, nailed to the rugged cross He had been savagely beaten to carry, then pierced with a spear and left to bleed to death. He was laid to rest in the cool stone tomb and later came back from the dead and wandered about, convincing Doubting Thomas and performing various miracles, before ascending on a gilded cloud toward the blue curtain of the sky, where God and the Holy Spirit and a chorus of angels in shimmering robes reached out to greet Him.
This all created a beautifully staged pageant in my mind andhad me thinking about coming back from the dead and what that might mean. Could you come back all healed? Would you remember who you were? Would you remember where you had been while dead? Or was there no coming back for us regular people? Was death for us just a stone hole of lonely black air where there was no difference between keeping your eyes open and keeping them closed?
I had turned toward my mother to whisper these questions in her ear when I saw she was crying. Her open eyes were like shards of ice melting. Suddenly a strong feeling flooded my heart with as much power and clarity as any thought which had ever entered my mind. I knew she was feeling what Mary had felt. While everyone in Jerusalem was looking up to heaven and praising God, Mary was weeping inside her child's empty tomb. How could Jesus endure leaving her behind, I wondered, when just the thought of leaving my mother for a moment was unbearable? He preferred the glory of heaven above, but I preferred my beautiful mother, who was heaven on earth.
I slid my hand across the pew and held hers, which was always as warm and soft as the inside of fresh bread. I waited until we were outside before I asked the question on my mind. "If you die first, would you come back from the dead if you could?"
"Ivy Spirco, if I could look halfway decent and not moldy like Lazarus, who was more of a zombie, I will. Otherwise," she said without melancholy, "I'll just stretch out on a nice cumulus cloud and wait for you."
"And what if I die first?" I asked.
She waved off the question. "God forbid," she said, then before I could hang on her coat sleeve and tug more talk out of her, Ab and Dolph swung forward and blocked our path like a set of identical doors.
They belonged to the German Lutheran church up on Main Street. My mother had told me that the difference between the Catholics and the Lutherans was that when Catholics got out of church they were more relieved than when they entered, and when Lutherans got out of church they were more worried. Neither seemed right to me. I always wanted to stay in church and imagine my mother and me in heaven, dressed as tiny brides and living side by side in towering wedding-cake houses.
"Excuse me," one of the Twins said, snapping to attention.
"Would you care to retire to the pharmacy for some Easter refreshments?" the other enunciated, speaking precisely, as if he were adding up numbers rather than asking a simple question.
They were very odd talkers, because when they spoke in public their thoughts lashed out like military announcements, and when they spoke in private conversation, they only whispered like conspirators hatching a plot. But I was used to them because every day I spent a few hours at the pharmacy between when I got out of school and when Mom's bus pulled in from Greensburg, where she worked as a courtroom stenographer.
"Let's go," I said to Mom, and squeezed her hand as ifspurring a horse. We had plans to have Easter lunch at the Kelly Hotel dining room, but we still had time for refreshments. Besides, the Twins kept cold drinks and tubs of ice cream behind their gray marble and pleated chrome soda counter, and I had given up ice cream for Lent and was eager for a bowlful.
Mom glanced at her watch. "We'd love to," she replied, then reached out to brush something that looked like sawdust off Ab's or Dolph's coat sleeve. "Termites?" she asked playfully.
He looked horrified and awkwardly jerked away from her, then slapped at his sleeve as if it were on fire. "It's nothing," he said nervously. "Nothing at all."
It was something, but I was too fixated on ice cream at the time to care about a little sawdust. "Let's go," I said, and hauled Mom forward. As she passed the Twins she gripped Ab's or Dolph's hand and he grabbed his brother's. They were slow walkers when they had to follow, and they were speed walkers when they led.
"Come on, Ab," she said as if coaxing a donkey. "Pick it up, Dolph."
I could never tell one from the other so seldom chanced any name and stuck with pronouns, but Mom never cared if she had gotten their names right. When I was younger I thought she possessed psychic powers for telling them apart, but as I grew older I realized the Twins simply adjusted to whichever name she gave them. They were as interchangeable to each other as they were to us. They told me that themselves.
"You heard her," Dolph snapped at Ab. "Don't be slow-footed."
"Don't you be, neither," Ab said curtly, and clenched his jaw.
"Now, boys," Mom said, and she yanked again on Dolph's hand and in turn he yanked on Ab's and we tacked down the brick sidewalk all leaning forward as if battling headwinds.
They were seventy-one years old.
I broke my Lenten fast with three scoops of chocolate ice cream in a white glass sundae dish that was the shape of an eyewash cup. I ate quickly because I had something else on my mind. Something thrilling. In the basement I had my special after-school play area, which I called the Rabbit's Hideaway because the floor was matted with different colors of shredded cellophane like Easter basket grass. The cellophane had been used as packing for the drug shipments, and the Twins saved it for me and made a quaint peaceable kingdom of small taxidermed black-and-white rabbits and kittens and foxes for me to play with.
They also set aside the oversize display products they never bothered to use in their windows. I had an aspirin box the size of a refrigerator, which I called my cottage. Inside it I had two giant Ivory soap bars, which had been carved out of dense foam. They were my guest chairs. I had an inflatable thermometer the size of a baseball bat and a giant Dr. Scholl's foot pad, which I rolled out and used as a carpet. In my kitchen corner I had a six-pack of inflatable Coke bottles, a large boxof Arm & Hammer baking soda, and a colorful assortment of empty pillboxes and medicine bottles donated by the Twins. Along the edge of my cottage property, tall black plastic tubes of pointy lipstick stood in a fence row. This was my private play world where I spent most of my time after school, and I loved it.
Ab and Dolph would regularly scratch down the stone stairs in their broad leather wingtips and check up on me, or bring me ice cream bars and lemonade. They also had a drug room down there that was a strong walk-in wire cage, where they stored all the expensive drugs and the drugs that would most likely be stolen by addicts. They had it built after a burglar broke into the upstairs drug closet. Often, one of them was in the basement sorting through boxes and keeping me silent company while I played.
On that Easter Sunday, after I finished my ice cream, it got into my mind that the Twins may have set up an Easter egg hunt in my hideaway. It was like them to do sweet little things for me.
"May I go to the bathroom?" I asked Ab, fishing for the excuse I needed to go downstairs. By then Mom had gotten tired of saying boys and had taken a marker and drawn a big A on Ab's hand and a D on Dolph's.
"No," Mom quickly said before Ab could get his mouth in motion. "Not now, we'll be leaving in a minute."
Then she abruptly pointed up at the sky. "Look," she cried to the Twins as she pointed out the window, "you can makeout a blue highway in the sky. It's a zonal jet stream cutting though a layer of heavy air." The Twins squinted so intensely they were cross-eyed from trying to locate some distant artery of blueness beyond the tip of her finger.
I looked out the window, toobut not at the weather. Across the street was the red brick and white trim of the Kelly Hotel, where we lived. On the ground floor was the Kelly Tavern, and on the sidewalk hulking, round-shouldered men, old coal miners and farmers mostly, in baggy dark suits and white shirts, had lined up outside the tavern side door like a row of empty bottles. The coal miners squinted and blinked under the bright sun. The farmers paced back and forth as if plowing rows. The tavern, by tradition, only served once the church bells stopped, and Father Baumann, who was animated with the Easter spirit, was ringing our Transfiguration Church bells as if he were attempting to wake the dead.
"Look at how they are celebrating the end of Lent," Adolph commented disapprovingly toward the men who shifted impatiently from foot to foot.
"Every day is the end of Lent for them that drinks," Ab pronounced as he rubbed his eyes.
"Now, now," my mother said. "The Kellys are a nice family. They just serve a different medicine than you do."
"Better off drinking formaldehyde," Ab said without mercy.
"Be embalmed before they die," added Dolph.
"Well, if you worked in the mines or fields," my mother ventured, "you'd need something to fortify your wits."
"'When the wine is in, the wit is out,'" Dolph quoted, wagging a long, disapproving finger toward the men.
"Besides, we entertained mining," Ab said. "We had a summer of it before going to the university."
"Mother didn't approve," Dolph whispered. "Said it was too dangerous. Would walk us to the shaft over at Mutual and be there when the lift brung us up. Said her days above the ground waiting for us were darker than our days under it."
My mother nodded. She didn't have much to say when Mrs. Rumbaugh's name came up. Mom belonged to the school of manners where you didn't say anything if you didn't have anything good to say, and she had known Mrs. Rumbaugh and so kept her mind to herself. Even at such a young age I knew some of the reasons why she held her tongue.
When Mom was fifteen, Mrs. Rumbaugh hired her to work in the pharmacy. Part of her job was to stock and manage the section dedicated to women's sanitary products. Mrs. Rumbaugh, who worked the register, had wanted to hire an older woman for the position, knowing that it was easier for women to take advice regarding intimate issues from a more matronly lady. But there was no self-respecting older lady in Mount Pleasant who would take the job, and Mrs. Rumbaugh was uncomfortable doing it herself. A woman's personal needs were just too delicate a subject to be associated with in such a small, talkative town. Until my mother was hired, the only women's sanitary products were located in the back corner of the store. The Twins just kept an open box of Tampax and Kotex and discreet little waxed brown paper bags on a shelf,and women could take what they needed without having to pay. The boys never charged for this convenience and averted their eyes whenever a woman drifted toward the dimly lit corner. But after the new Rexall drugstore aggressively moved in up the street, Mrs. Rumbaugh knew they were losing customers and money by not promoting a full range of sanitary and birth-control items. She hired Mom to help customers with their most personal needs. Mom had a quick way of putting people at their ease, which helped because some of the women were squeamish, and with the men she could use her sense of humor.
Years later, when I was old enough to understand, Mom impishly told me, "When a man asked me for prophylactics, I'd always ask him what size he needed. The stumped look that froze their faces liked to kill me. It's one of the few joys I took from the job."
Even though Mrs. Rumbaugh hired Mom and must have seen what a valuable employee she turned out to be, she was not pleasant toward her.
"Their mother wasn't nice to anyone unless she was steering them to do something for her," Mom said on more than one of her anti-Rumbaugh rants. "She was like all the other Rumbaughs, always driven by purpose. Never pleasure. For her, being nice was a tool to get what she wanted. I could look into her eyes on the few times she was being decent to me, and I could tell that she was not feeling nice inside. She was always scheming. And those boys couldn't make a move without her breathing down their necks. She wouldn't let them talk to me.No wonder they never married. Not allowed to look at a woman. No fun allowed. Never went to the movies, or out to dinner. They never went to a ball game in Pittsburgh or played pool or bowled or were allowed to do anything that she or their church didn't sanction. The more overbearing she was the more obedient they were. If I wasn't such a good girl I would've found a way to spoil her grip."
Mom also took over the cosmetics buying, updating and expanding the selection. This addition to the store became popular with schoolgirls, and before long Mom was responsible for a rich stream of store revenue.
"The more successful I was the more she resented me," Mom said. "If it hadn't been for the boys, I never would have stayed. They treated me sweetly when she wasn't around. A kind word to them and they'd blush for hours. One kiss and they'd eat out of my hands. They were stunted, like emotional dwarves. I see a lot of their type in court. Eventually they snap, and look out when they do."
By the time Mom did find a way to warm up the Twins, Mrs. Rumbaugh was dead, but her grip wasn't entirely loosened. Their mother had more influence over them than even she knew.
After we had spent a long time looking out the pharmacy window and watching the Lent-breaking men eagerly rush into the tavern, I needed the bathroom.
"But I have to go," I said in a whiny voice. "I'll be fast."
"Just as far as the bathroom," Ab said, fidgeting about with his raw hands.
"No farther," echoed Dolph. "No playing in your cottage today. The light's out back there."
But I didn't listen to them. I knew they had something hidden down there for me. Their warning only seemed to be part of a game, so I stood up, opened the basement door, and inched carefully down the dark, granite stairs.
If on that Easter Sunday I had found one of the Twins dead in the basement of their Rumbaugh Pharmacy, I would have been startled but not puzzled. Even at the age of seven I knew it was the nature of things to grow old and die. I accepted that without question in the way farmers around here anticipate the life and death of their crops, or the way miners trade their wages for half a life. However, their mother had been dead for eight years and should have been deep in the grave and not deep in the basement, where I found her standing stiffly in front of me, one arm by her side and the other reaching out with a dark, waxy little hand, like a monkey paw.
I had used the toilet and was smoothing out the full skirt on my Easter dress as I carefully stepped toward my cottage in the dark back corner. The lights down there were dim but not out, as the Twins had warned, and when I first saw the mother I thought it was an old dressmaker's mannequin, like the kind I had seen in secondhand shops. As I got closer, it seemed to be more of a large doll because it had a head. I looked at the face, which was the color of a paper bag. It was crumpled up a bit from dryness, and if I had known it was their mother I would have screamed. But because I thought it was a doll I looked at it more carefully, as though I'd found a treasure among thebasement clutter of old Bavarian furniture and moldy leather trunks and crates from when the first Rumbaughs immigrated to western Pennsylvania from Germany before the Civil War.
The doll was wearing a long black satin dress with an elaborately knotted shawl, like a thick black spider's web draped around her shoulders. I noticed a gold wedding band on one of her fingers and when I reached out and touched it, she rolled back a bit, and I saw she was mounted on an oval piece of wood painted to look like a little braided hearth rug. There was something familiar and kindhearted about the painted rug which made me feel at ease. I knelt down and peeked under the wood and saw four small hard plastic wheels, like the kind you find on the legs of a sofa that swivels about. That's when I saw her shoes. She was a fancy doll, I supposed, and I became even more curious as I still collected and played with dolls, gave them names, and slipped eagerly into their busy worlds. The shoes were tiny, cramped-looking black lace-up half boots, just like the ones all the old European ladies wore to church. I reached out and touched the toe of one shoe and ran my fingertips up the metal eyelets as if practicing scales on a flute.
That's when I noticed there was a small space between the frayed hem of the dress and the top rim of the shoe, just above the knotted lace. I lifted the hem. The stale air trapped beneath the dress smelled like mothballs. I shivered and turned my head away for a breath of fresh air. I knew I shouldn't go any farther, but I couldn't stop myself. I turned back andraised the dress even higher. Her thick legs were covered with black cotton stockings, but the seam on one of the stockings was ripped along the side.
I moved just a little closer and with both hands pulled open the seam so I could examine the leg. It was made out of leather, I thought, and was dark brown and split open like a puffy old baseball glove. With my finger I poked at the tear in the tanned leather and a small piece cracked off. A spoonful of sawdust spilled out and gathered in a tiny mound around her heel. I jerked my hand away.
I was aware that a lot of time had passed, so I stood up and backed away, and as I did I looked up at her face again. Her lips were the color of tarnished pennies. They were sealed tightly, and stitched up at the corners to give her a bit of a smile. It was impossible to know what she was smiling about because her large brown eyes were fixed in a glassy, straightforward way that I had seen only in stuffed deer heads. Those eyes were empty of life yet full of little sparks of trapped light, like a candlewick still glowing once the flame has been blown out.
My mother had always said that when you look straight into the eyes of a person you should be able to see directly into their soul, and if you see nothing, be wary. I still didn't know what I was looking at, but something inside me said to backs away, to listen to my mother, and to be very, very careful. As I retreated, the basement shadows draped over her, yet through them I could still see those dead eyes glowing. Goose bumpsflared up and down my legs. I kept stepping back, all along staring intently at her ridged face and at that waxy little monkey paw, which I expected to uncoil and snatch me by the chin.
Then, at the moment my heart began to race from fear, I realized I had seen that taut, determined face before. I was certain. Suddenly it came over me that she was Ab and Dolph's mother, because she looked exactly like the large sepia-toned photograph they had of her in their upstairs office. It was the same dress, and same creepy shawl, and same "secret" smile. This was all churning roughly in my mind, and I turned away as if looking in another direction might erase what I had discovered. And then some impulse jerked me back around and I looked at her again. I had to be sure of what I saw before I said anything upstairs. At that moment one of the little wheels shifted, and she abruptly tipped forward.
I was too frightened to scream as I clambered up the stone stairs. Halfway up, my feet slipped out beneath me and I pitched forward onto my hands and knees. I continued to scramble upward on all fours, mute with fear until I reached the last step and pushed the heavy basement door, which opened directly into the store. I hopped up and let out an animal wail that froze my mother and the Twins, and then the three of them leapt toward me.
"What is it?" my mother asked, and hoisted me up into her arms. As she did so, she glanced crossly at Ab and Dolph for a fraction of a second before turning back toward me. At thetime I gave no thought to her flashing, stern expression, but when I think back on it I realize she knew immediately what I had seen and she was angry with them for being so careless.
"The bear," Dolph said nervously toward his brother, and marched past me to latch the door.
Ab cleared his throat. "Bear," he repeated, then turned toward my mother. "An old stuffed bear," he said stiffly. "It's being sent out for repair."
"That's not a bear," I said, heaving myself out of a sob. "It was your mother."
"Honey," Mom said, "you must have imagined it."
"No," I insisted, still crying between the gushes of words. From where my mother was holding me and fussing with my knees and hands I looked across the store and saw Mrs. Rumbaugh's portrait hanging in the back of the pharmacy. "It's her!" I wailed, pointing and boosting myself up over my mother's shoulder. "She's in the basement."
They all spun around and stared intently toward the portrait.
"Bear," Dolph said, nervously plucking at his neck skin. "It was the bear. It fell over and cracked its leg."
"It's dark down there," Ab said. "The light's puzzling."
"It's no bear," I persisted from fear and now fury. "It's wearing a dress and shoes!"
After I said that, an abrupt cushion of time seemed to smother us, and we all stood there as if unable to breathe. Cars passed. The phone rang. The wind blew and a doorslammed in the distance, followed by the screech of a stuck window opening. Steam buckled a radiator. Early spring wasps tapped against the glass picture window. A lone cloud drifted in front of the sun like an eye patch. The stained-glass poppies in the transom window dimmed from bright yellow to dull gold, flickered, then brightened as the cloud moved on. A Greyhound bus pulled up to the sidewalk bench in front of the store, and the sudden hydraulic hiss of the brakes and folded doors slapping open brought us around.
"I think we better leave," Mom said through the still air. I had my legs clamped around her waist and chin dug into her neck as she turned, grabbed her purse, and staggered on her first step toward the door.
I was too much for her to carry, but there was nowhere else I wanted to be except wrapped around her and I knew she understood. I stared into Ab's and Dolph's fretful eyes and looked into their souls as Mom taught me, and I saw they were terrified. Dolph was slowly rubbing his hands over his face as if carefully wiping away cobwebs. Ab's head burrowed into his hunched shoulders, and he looked as grim and mold-stained as a weathered tree stump. It was their mother. And because I knew I was right, I had a surge of bravery.
"Do you want to see it?" I whispered in Mom's ear. "So you know I'm not lying."
"I know you aren't lying," she whispered back. And then, just to put Ab and Dolph at ease, she straightened her smile, turned back toward them, and said in a charming, reassuringvoice, "Don't worry, boys. She's just a little tired, is all." She tucked a black curl behind her ear, and we left them standing as mute and helpless as the stuffed little minks in their mink mother's arms.
Now, twelve years later, as I sit in the Kelly Hotel, looking out our window and recalling that day, I see it was extraordinary in many ways. I found in that basement a certain symmetry of emotionsa balance between what is alluring and what is repulsive, and this pair of responses seemed to bookend the range of all my future emotions, especially my twin responses to Ab and Dolph, whom I could love dearly and hate passionately.
But even more significantly, it was a day in which who I truly was on the inside began to steer how I behaved on the outside. Without a sound, the Rumbaugh blood coursing through my veins was already charting my destiny, and I was just at the beginning of a journey dominated by a curse that would double back to capture me.
THE LOVE CURSE OF THE RUMBAUGHS. Copyright © 2006 by Jack Gantos. All rights reserved.