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Read an Excerpt
By James S. Dorr
She came in on the New England Trailways, trusted that far, although she noticed the driver kept an eye on her every time the big bus stopped. She came in at night, to the Park Square station across from the huge green they called the Boston Common. That much she knew--at the School they had told her a few things she should know in case she got lost. But she would not get lost, they said. She would be met there.
She waited until the last passenger got off, then reached to the rack above her seat and took down her single suitcase. She saw the driver was openly staring at her now, so she smiled as she passed him.
A modest smile only, though.
That they said also, at the West Haven School: Maria, they said, you should always smile when strangers take an interest in you. Show them your pretty teeth. But always be sure to keep your eyes cast down, because you don't want people to think you forward.
They said many things, Maria thought as she pushed past the driver and down the steps to the concrete platform. She went in the terminal, seeing the driver reflected behind her in the plate glass door, nodding to someone who waited inside. She glanced around her--the entrance door to the street outside so near--the newspaper kiosk with headlines displayed about President Eisenhower; Nikita Khrushchev replacing Bulganin, or anyway trying; riots in London and Nottingham, England; more trouble in Little Rock some place down south; a musical show still playing in New York called West Side Story --she thought she was hungry, and looked for a hot dog stand before remembering they hadn't given her any money--and then, the man,large, that the driver had nodded to, dressed in a dark and too-tight uniform, striding toward her.
He glanced at the clipboard he held in his hand. "You Sanchez?" he said.
"Si. Maria Sanchez," she answered with a small curtsey. Always curtsey, Maria, they told her--and always speak English . "Yes," she corrected. "I'm here from Connecticut, from the West Haven School for Young Women."
The large man glanced down again. "From the reform school, you mean," he grunted. He reached toward her suitcase, as if to take it, then seemingly changed his mind. "You're lucky, Sanchez," he said, "Someone like you. Getting a job at all. With the recession, not even Americans can get jobs that easy."
He motioned to her to follow him out to the parking area behind the station, then opened the back door of a large sedan. Maria bristled, but scrambled inside, pulling her suitcase in behind her. Americans indeed! she thought. As if people "like her" were not American citizens too. And yet, she was lucky, she knew that as well--at nineteen years old, going on twenty, so they had told her, soon enough she would have to be leaving the School in any case, and without this job they had set up for her, it would be to prison.
And for what? For stealing? A piece of fake jewelry she'd seen in a dime store? When she was just fifteen ?
But at least they trained her, and, Puerto Rican or not she would show them how well she could work for this...now she herself took out a paper and studied its writing...for this Mr. Vlesco who needed a servant.
She tried to relax as the burly man climbed in the seat in front, to enjoy the ride to wherever it was she was to end up going. It was like a limousine she was in, she thought, which explained the driver's uniform. He was a servant too, though not Vlesco's. She knew that as well, from something she'd learned not from the School's teachers but some of the other girls who were there with her, on how to read a car's license plate numbers to tell it was rented.
She was just as happy. She saw how he looked at her in the car's mirror, glancing from time to time to where she sat, alone, in the back seat. Just like the bus driver.
She shrugged. She smiled. She flashed her teeth at him. She looked out the windows at the lights of downtown Boston. So bright. So many. She breathed in the air and smelled the ocean, reveling in the still warm night breeze. Why not enjoy it?
For winter, as they would say at the School, would come soon in its cycle.
So why not enjoy it? She thought of the School, its endless routine, work after breakfast, cleaning and sewing, repairing uniforms--always the uniforms--work after lunch too, then classes and "moral training" for three hours after dinner. She marveled at the width of the river, the salt-and-pepper-shaker-like towers on the bridge's main span as they crossed the Charles into Cambridge. She shuddered then as the lights grew dimmer, still in a city but now a part gone to seed, of tenements and factory buildings. But then soon enough the buildings grew nicer, as houses appeared, big houses with narrow lawns separating them one from another, yet still extremely old and some in ill repair.
Here the car slowed down.
And then--she held on as they turned a sharp corner, pulling into an overgrown driveway. They came to a stop, in front of a house surrounded with hedges, the kind of house the local Bostonians called a "three-decker," the light of--it looked like the light of candles--shining fitfully through a front window. She watched the door open as the rent-a-driver opened her own door and motioned her outside.
She heard him shout something she couldn't quite make out, and then a reply from the front of the house in words that she also could not understand, as if in some kind of a foreign language. And then the car started and she was alone.
She walked to the house, her suitcase in hand, feeling pressed down by the structure's enormousness, three stories high and a peaked roof above that , and, save for the candlelight, all in darkness. She climbed to the front porch, then suddenly blinked as a light--an electric light--turned on in the hall, flooding out through the still open front door. Blinking again, she now noticed the man who stood holding it open, unlike the driver stretching his hand out to take her suitcase.
She saw that the hand was huge. That was the first thing. Then she looked up and saw he was huge as well, larger than even the limousine driver, but old, his hair white and in disheveled tufts. He motioned her inside.
She smiled and she curtsied, a little, pert curtsy, just the way she'd been taught to in the School. She started to speak, to introduce herself as she'd been told to, but the man cut her off.
"You are the new domestic," he said. He didn't ask her, just stated it factually in a voice so thickly accented that she nearly laughed, thinking of the limo-man's comment about Americans. As if, because of her accent, she was not. But she only nodded.
"Good," he said--she tried to place the accent, but couldn't. He motioned her past him once again, then closed the heavy front door behind them.
"Good," he said again, shifting the suitcase to his left hand, then holding the other out for her to shake it. This time she did speak:
"M-my name is Maria...."
"Yes," he said. "I am Oleg Vlesco."
In the days that followed, Maria got used to the house. The living room, dining room, pantry, and kitchen, and then off the kitchen the small sitting room and bedroom and bathroom that made up her quarters.
Then the stairs down and doubling back toward the front of the house and the cellar room with its gas water heater where she did the laundry.
Then up to the second floor, reached by stairs both in back and in front--the back stairs were the ones she was supposed to use--and the rooms Vlesco lived in: A larger bathroom, a bedroom, a library, a front sitting room with a narrow balcony over the porch, that was often lit at night with candles, just like the living room had been that first night.
She wondered somewhat about the candles, but, at the School, they had always taught her to mind her own business. Vlesco himself didn't speak much to her, preferring to leave her notes every Monday on the kitchen table, telling her what was to be served for meals that week and where to buy it--she rarely used money, but just told the storekeepers that she was Oleg Vlesco's maid and they'd write something down, then give her a copy to take back with her along with the groceries--but one day he did send her out for more candles and, when she must have looked curious to him, mentioned that strong lighting bothered his eyes.
She herself thought he was just being cheap, not wanting to spend money for electricity, though he did give her a small allowance to use for herself. But then out of that, she had had to buy her uniforms too, pearl gray mid-length dresses with white, cross-strapped aprons, black patent leather shoes and cotton stockings, which she thought were ugly. But then at least she didn't have to make them.
Small blessings, she thought. At the School they told her: Maria, always be thankful for small blessings. Never mind big ones. She got in trouble once, going up her back stairs to the third floor, meaning to dust there. She found a long hallway, with doors locked on either side, until at last, at the very front, she found one that was open. She took her dust cloth, her dustpan and broom, and went slowly inside.
There she found shelves, not well-made like bookcases, but rough, utility shelves like the ones in her basement laundry. They lined the whole room, from floor to ceiling, except for gaps where the windows were, and the door behind her. And on the shelves she saw rows of bottles, big ones and small ones, but most of them jug-like, of quart size or thereabouts, much like the bottles one bought with cheap vino .
She looked more closely and saw some were corked--the larger part really--while others were empty, and all were dust-covered. She picked up a corked one and held it up to one of the windows, seeing inside just a patch of red dust, a stain of something, a swirl when she shook it, but otherwise just as seemingly empty as those that stood open.
She turned, intending to put it back, one hand on its neck and one on its bottom, when a sudden voice startled her.
"Maria! No! "
She nearly dropped it as Vlesco rushed to her, grabbing the bottle out of her hands, then carefully placing it back on its shelf. His face was ashen. As white as his hair. She heard his breathing, fitfully, deeply, while he, too, stood there, as frozen as she did. Then, slowly, he turned to her.
"Maria, no," he said again. "When I showed you your duties, I thought it understood that there were none that you had on this floor. Just the rooms on the first and the second floors, do you understand?"
She nodded. Yes. She was grateful, in fact--another small blessing--in that it was not one of her duties to dust all these bottles. Vlesco went on, though.
"Do you understand me?" he said once again. "You are never to come to this floor unless I specifically ask you up here."
She nodded again. She curtsied. She smiled. What else could she do?
She said, "Yes, Mr. Vlesco."
She settled into the household routine as summer gave way to September and autumn. Monday was market day, taking her out on the streets of Cambridge, wearing her maid's clothes--always her uniform, but she learned quickly that somehow it made her nearly invisible, unlike her street clothes which, the one time she tried putting them on for her free afternoon, got her whistles and rude remarks from the rich college boys around Harvard Square. Tuesday was laundry day, cleaning and ironing, while Wednesday was vacuuming and dusting, both upstairs and downstairs, though not on the third floor. She had learned that lesson well enough by now, not on the third floor, nor on Friday either which was set aside for polishing and more general cleaning. Then Saturday, yard work, weather permitting, and Sunday mornings she had a few hours free for Mass at Saint Paul's Church a block below Harvard, at Mount Auburn Street and Massachusetts.
She got to know Cambridge, Harvard Yard where people like her weren't supposed to enter--as if she would want to. She got to know Brattle Square, just west of Harvard, and Brattle Street that curved on past Radcliffe, as well as the seedier parts of the city east and south down toward Kendall Square. Thursdays were her afternoons off when she could stay out in the evening as well and she got to know the Brattle Theatre where they showed old, inexpensive movies. She went to the movies almost every Thursday night she could, weather permitting.
She got in trouble again with Vlesco, though, and, once again, it was her nosy habits. She had already become convinced that Vlesco was Russian. Thursdays she knew, from the few times she'd stayed in, that Vlesco had friends of his in his front downstairs room. Wearing her uniform, sometimes she brought them wine--Vlesco permitted that--but instead of going right back to her kitchen afterward, sometimes she listened outside in the front hall.
They spoke with accents, some of them anyway--thick, strange accents, just like Mr. Vlesco's, and sometimes one or another would even say something foreign, just like the driver had who had brought her here. Harsh and guttural. Sometimes they spoke of the riots in London, black people against whites, or down south in America, discussing how it was always overseas agents that caused them. They spoke of people like Andrei Gromyko and others like Molotov and Malenkov, and Krushchev again whose name she had seen in that newspaper headline, and who they thought had the real power in Russia. And even, sometimes, they discussed Puerto Rico.
But there she was careful. She made no noise--even if, sometimes, she felt like shouting . She was no Russian, no Communist agent. But then, why should she care? She tried to convince herself. It wasn't her business, even if she was an American. Even if....
And she didn't get caught, even if, later, Mr. Vlesco told her she must always leave the house on Thursday evenings. Rather it was on a Wednesday afternoon when she was upstairs in Vlesco's library when she got curious. One of the books had fallen out of place and she was straightening it on its shelf when she saw its title: Witchcraft in Old and New England , by George Lyman Kittridge.
She nearly left the room then and there. A Communist, sure. She knew about Communists. But was this Vlesco--this man she worked for--also a brujo ?
She shook her head. Nonsense. Bad enough, Communists, but there were no witches, not in the year 1958. She looked at the titles around it, however: Aleister Crowley's Magick in Theory and Practice ; Montague Summers, The Vampire: His Kith and Kin ; Ernest M. Jones, On the Nightmare ; Cotton Mather, The Wonders of the Invisible World ; and even one she had heard of before, Dracula , by Bram Stoker.
She was leafing through this last one, beginning to read it in spite of herself, when Vlesco came in behind her. "Maria," he said. "What are you doing?"
"Just, uh, putting this back on its shelf, sir," she answered, turning quickly. "I was dusting--I knocked it off. I-I'm sorry."
Vlesco was angry. His face turned red as he took the book from her and glanced at its title. "I don't pay you to read my books, young lady," he said loudly, nearly shouting. "You understand that. I could send you back to your school. You know that, don't you?"
Maria turned red too. "Y-yes sir," she said, looking down at the floor. But then he relented.
"You understand, don't you," he said more gently, "it's just that these books aren't appropriate for a young woman like you. You should read romances. Ladies' books like that. I'll tell you what, next Monday I'll add an extra dollar to your spending money. There are plenty of bookstores around here. Perhaps, if you wish to read, you can buy something."
She nodded and thanked him and, the next Monday while she was shopping, she made sure to stop off and buy several books of the sort Mr. Vlesco might think were proper. She even tried to read one of them that night, but couldn't get into it. All of the women were whiter than white, more English than English, not Spanish like she was, even though one of them had on its jacket a picture of pirates, and said it was about "lust and adventure on the Spanish Main."
And then, the next Thursday, she met Emanuel.
No pirate he, Emanuel drove a '53 Chevy and worked for Necco--the New England Candy Company--at their Cambridge factory pressing sugar into wafers. He was older than her, perhaps twenty-five, and she met him outside the Brattle Theatre where she had just seen a movie starring Bela Lugosi.
She thought he was Russian, Lugosi that is--the movie was Dracula , one of a horror retrospective the theatre was showing a month before Hallowe'en, and the accent the vampire spoke in was just like Vlesco's! She came out frightened, she didn't know why--it was just a movie. And anyway she knew that there were no vampires, not in real life. No more than witches. And yet, still, the accent....
She'd turned from the theatre, walking toward Boylston Street, thinking of the books in Vlesco's library when she bumped into him.
"Oh! I'm sorry," she muttered, not looking up, fearing the young man might be a rich blancito , a boy from Harvard. A boy she might have to slap if he now tried to pinch or grab at her.
"Oh, no. It is I who am sorry," the young man said, stepping back too and now, when she looked, he smiled. She saw his face was tanned like hers--a Puerto Rican. She smiled back and curtsied.
"Oh, no," he said again. "You needn't do that. I see you're someone's maid, but here, out on the street, we're equals."
She nodded. She asked his name, giving him hers, and accepted his invitation for coffee, not at one of the college places where they read poetry and sometimes played music, but at the Nedick's.
They talked for a long time before she finally allowed him to drive her home in his car. Before she knew it, she had even told him about the School, how she had been sent here to be a house servant, but he hadn't been shocked. He'd only nodded.
Then Sunday they met each other at Mass even though Saint Paul's wasn't Emanuel's regular church, and he took her back to the Nedick's for pancakes.
They made a date there for the following Thursday before he drove her home, letting her off a block from the house, as he had the last time, since they had both agreed that her boss probably would disapprove of him. And then, that Thursday, she told him about what had startled her so, about Lugosi's accent, that had sent her walking into him in such a way without even looking.
"But wait a minute," Emanuel said. "You say that that's Russian. But Bela Lugosi isn't Russian--I've seen the picture too. I think he's supposed to be a Hungarian or something."
Maria shook her head. "I'm sure it's a Russian accent. It's just like my boss's, Oleg Vlesco's, and he's a Communist . I've seen his--what do you call it?--his 'cell' meetings, right in his own house. With other men, some who talk just like him. And then his books, about vampires and things--un-American things like in the movie...."
She stopped then. She saw that he was laughing. "You don't believe me?"
He shook his head. "No. I believe you, Maria. About the meetings. But tell me, do you know who Oleg Vlesco is?"
"What do you mean?" she said.
"Do you know who the Minutemen are? The John Birch Society?"
She nodded this time. "The Minutemen, yes. You mean like 1776. The Battle of Bunker Hill. Sure," she said. "We learned all about history in the School. Citizenship also."
"Yes," Emanuel said. "But these are different. These are Minutemen today--at least that's the name they give to themselves. It's a sort of militia, a private army, and Oleg Vlesco is one of their leaders. Everyone knows that."
"He--I don't understand what you mean, Emanuel."
"Look," he explained. "What I mean is that this Vlesco's not a Communist. Quite the opposite. He, and men like him, are people who are so afraid of the Russians, maybe in some cases with reason too, that they start imagining things about them. Like that they've taken over the government--here in America. Right here, Maria. That they're the ones who cause any kind of trouble that happens, as if we don't have problems of our own. To cause our own troubles. But anyhow, these Minutemen people collect guns and things, and have meetings just like you say, just like the Communists are supposed to, except that instead of taking over they claim that once they have enough weapons they want to take the government back ."
Maria shook her head slowly. "I'm frightened, Emanuel," she said. "Upstairs, on the third floor, I'm not allowed--but once I was up there and saw rooms with locked doors. Is that where they hide the guns?"
Emanuel took her hand in his. "Maybe," he said. "But you shouldn't worry. Most of these men, they are pretendientes . Old men who want to pretend they are heroes, soldiers against the 'Communist menace.' But all they do is play at soldiers--and keep having meetings."
Maria tried to smile. "Maybe," she said. "But still, right where I live! And even pretend soldiers, if they have real guns...."
Emanuel smiled back. "Look. Think of this. At least you have been accepted, even if just as a maid, in Vlesco's house. It could protect you if anything happened. But nothing will. Or if anything did, men like these ones would need more than just guns."
Maria felt better after that Thursday. At least she no longer had to worry about telling somebody--like, if her employer had really been a Russian, now that she thought of it, couldn't she get arrested too for not reporting it to the FBI or something? But who would believe her in any event, a Puerto Rican? And one from the West Haven School for Young Women?
Maria, they always had said at the School, when there are things that do not concern you, don't worry about them. And don't go tattling. It's none of your business. But still....
But now, even if they were just pretendientes , at least what they did was breaking no law. Oh, they could be dangerous--Emanuel warned her. He told her that she should keep out of Oleg Vlesco's way as best she was able. "Maria," he told her, "it happens sometimes that men like this become madmen, you understand? Paranoicos. You watch yourself, okay?" And so she was glad when Vlesco ordered her out of the house every Thursday evening, even when weather did not permit it, and, later, when, for no reason at all, he told her that she should no longer vacuum and dust in the library even when he, as he had ever since she had read his books that time, came in the room with her to keep an eye on her.
Small favors, she thought. And less dusting too, as if, in one sense, the house was getting smaller. But now she began to notice other strange things as well. The bird feathers, for instance.
On Saturday morning when she was raking leaves--it had been frosty the last few nights, early for fall even in Massachusetts--she came across, under a pile she had just raked, a large heap of feathers.
Spotted with blood, just like in the movie she'd seen the evening she'd met Emanuel--like in the cell of Renfield's madhouse.
Of course, she told herself, with the sudden cold, some of the birds were late in their migrations. And cats roamed the alleys behind the houses. But then the mirrors--she'd noticed that early, when she had first come here, that there were no mirrors in Vlesco's house except in the bathrooms. And hadn't she heard, as a girl perhaps if not from the movie, in tales about vampires, that vampires and spirits did not like mirrors? That that was why, at funerals for instance, they covered them over?
And of course the candles and how, even in the daytime, the house seemed so dark and, not only that, she now remembered--the night with the sausage. Two weeks after she'd started working, she had discovered a Spanish grocery. Her duties included cooking for Vlesco, but she didn't eat with him, rather preparing her own meals to have by herself in the kitchen. She cooked from his menus, left out with the lists he gave her for shopping, bland, New England food, overcooked mostly. Food that she hated.
But now, with her own money, she had bought a Spanish sausage, filled with garlic and hot, fiery spices. She thought she might serve him a small piece too, as something that might be extra special, served by the side of course, in its own plate, so if he didn't care for it he could still have his regular dinner.
But before she could even bring it out to the dining room he apparently smelled it. "Maria," he screamed. "What is this, Maria?" She came out. She curtsied. Empty handed. "Are you cooking garlic ?"
"Si ," she answered, then caught herself. "Yes." She was nearly angry. She made an excuse. "It's just for my own supper."
"I see," he said. He looked at her closely, then muttered something about "her people." "Maria," he said, "I want you to understand when you cook for me that you are to stick exactly to the menus I give you. As for what you eat, if you insist on using such spices--spices that smell so--you are not to cook with them until I've finished and gone back to the front of the house. Do you understand? And when you've used them, be sure to scrub your pots thoroughly afterward."
"Yes," she had answered then, thinking nothing except that an old man--perhaps his doctor had forbidden him spices. But why such a big fuss? She made a point then, when cooking for herself, of keeping tight lids on the pots and pans as they boiled on the kitchen stove's four gas burners, then, as he had ordered, washing them afterwards with such a thoroughness that they sparkled.
But now she wondered. The following Thursday she asked Emanuel, "Do you believe in vampires?"
Emanuel laughed. "Of course not, Maria." But then he paused. "I do have a friend, though, Raoul, who works at the factory. His mother's from Mexico, I think. And there they have all kinds of superstitions."
She nodded. "Yes. Of course there are no vampires." And she didn't tell him about the small cross she had found in a jewelry store early that afternoon, before she met him, nor did she say afterwards how the next Sunday she paused after Mass, to wait for the priest, and when the priest came out she asked him to give the cross she now wore at her neck his blessing.
Copyright ©2004 Edited by Megan Powell