Published on December 3, 1966
In the early daylight, Mrs. Margaret Bradley — divorcee, social worker — ignores small fears and makes her way through breakfast with competence. Her son must find a cleaner shirt; her daughter must hang up her nightgown, she may not wear high heels to school, she must try to look less sullen at the table. The eggs cook three minutes, the toaster clicks before it pops, the chrome coffeepot perks.
Mrs. Bradley is a tall woman whose face is open, kind-hearted, and discouraged. A good social worker, she now mulls dutifully over her pre-dawn dream. Was she the looming figure in the dark robe? Or was she the prisoner? Yes, the prisoner. That was Sandra Antonelli threatening her with the gavel, then breaking into laughter. That child, a mother … The toast pops up and Mrs. Bradley butters it. She herself is a mother. Is she doing a good job? One daughter in the State University (my God, I’m forty-five years old!); a thirteen-year-old girl, fascinated by high heels and cosmetics; a boy of eleven, now reading the cereal box. There is another child here. Herself. Margaret Marie Hunt — roller-skating through a summer dusk; at Epworth League, accepting a green pickle from a blue-and-white dish; alone before a closed door and afraid. Of what? Of whom? The hidden fears of childhood; we all have them. She claps eggshells into the garbage. “Hey, you kids, get going!” They go.
In her office that morning, for two hours, Mrs. Bradley complied with forms and regulations, drafted memos, dictated, conferred with her supervisor, and otherwise did her best. All the while, she was filled with concern, with a foreboding about the call she would make when the office work was done. At 11:15 she was on her way.
The car had county seals on the doors, so she parked a block away from the house. It was an orderly neighborhood of middle-class homes; Sandra’s brother’s bungalow was stucco like the rest. The bell sounded; the door swung open; there stood Sandra Antonelli, Ward of the Court.
After a moment, Sandra let her small smile vanish. She was a slight girl, with high shoulders and a flat chest. The scar tissue on the left side of her throat and cheek was still noticeable, even after three years.
“Did you get my note, Sandra?” Mrs. Bradley asked. The girl nodded.
“I have some things to talk over with you. May I come in?”
She followed Sandra through the living room. There were screaming abstract oils on the walls, rumpled bedclothes on the divan, an Army sleeping bag on the floor, high-fi components in orange crates, books, a sculpture of rusty iron, a Teddy bear, cigarette butts, dirty coffee cups, a vaporizer. Passing through the dining room, Mrs. Bradley noted a motion-picture film-splicing machine, loops and coils of film, metal canisters, a child’s stroller, more coffee cups, a pile of cinema quarterlies, alphabet blocks, a broken cuckoo clock, a clothes-drying rack.
In the kitchen, she sat down at a table covered with red-and-white oilcloth. Sandra stood at the sink. “Want coffee or anything?”
Mrs. Bradley asked for tea. Neither of them spoke as Sandra filled the kettle and placed it over a blue flame. The twang and thump of radio rock-and-roll came from the back porch, but Sandra seemed unaware of the noise. Staring at the kettle, the girl said, “Is there something wrong?”
“Continuation School reports that you haven’t been there for eight days —
“Is that all?”
“Well, your phone has been disconnected, and I’ve learned that your brother has been flagged by the Retail Credit Bureau. I — ”
“You snoop everywhere, don’t you?”
“Sandra, it’s the court’s responsibility to keep an eye on you, to help you.”
“Help I don’t need.”
“You’ve been getting it.”
“Money? That goes to Leonard. See Leonard about that.”
“I was hoping Leonard would be here. Did you show him my note?”
Sandra shrugged. She placed two cups on the table, dropped tea bags in them, and poured bubbling water over the bags.
“Sandra, we’re simply making sure that you’re getting along. After the car accident you begged not to be sent back to your aunt and uncle. So we put you in the Group Home.” Mrs. Bradley raised her eyebrows.
“You’re the only one who has ever thrown my baby in my face!” said Sandra with quiet ferocity. “The only one.”
“I’m not throwing the baby in your face, Sandra. You’ve said yourself, many times, that the baby was an accident, a mistake. If we had checked on you more carefully at the Group Home, we might have helped you to avoid that mistake.”
The girl was looking out the window. “You sure conned me out of the baby,” she said slowly. “I’m still thinking about that. Maybe you did me a bad wrong there.”
In silence they sipped tea. At last Mrs. Bradley said, “Sandra, do you remember at the hospital, how you begged to be allowed to live here with your brother’s family?” Sandra stared at her. “Do you realize I went out on a limb for you with my supervisor? That I entered an appeal with the Case Review Board?”
A scowl froze the girl’s plain face, making the scar-tissue seem ugly. Mrs. Bradley stopped herself. “Never mind all that. I gathered you people might be having trouble, so I came out to see if I could help. That’s all.”
“The only trouble we’ve got is you coming around to bug us,” Sandra muttered. She cracked a queer, one-sided smile.
“So? Why have you been out of school?”
“Aw, that’s nothing.” Sandra glanced at the alarm clock on the sill above the sink. “Hey listen! It’s quarter to twelve. I’ve got to go up and cross Caitlin at the boulevard.”
“My niece. One of Leonard and Fay’s kids.”
“Oh yes, of course. May I wait here?”
“Sure.” Sandra tucked the tail of her man’s shirt into her jeans. making herself look thinner and more boyish than ever. “Heat up more tea water if you want.” She walked straight out of the house.
Mrs. Bradley went through the rooms swiftly, her professional eye penetrating the disorder. Two small children sharing the back bedroom; a larger bedroom turned into a cluttered film workshop-and-storeroom filled with complicated-looking equipment; more film stuff in the dining room; Sandra’s brother and his wife sleeping in the living room; Sandra sleeping on the flimsy rear porch, her cot jammed against the laundry tubs. Mrs. Bradley noted the improvised clothes rod, the cheap mirror, the snapshot of a youth on an enormous motorcycle, the plastic radio, the opaque poster paint — orange, blue, green — on the windows instead of curtains. She estimated the square feet of living area, minus the space required for tubs and washing machine — about half the state minimum. And no heat. She looked into the refrigerator, nodding at grapes, carrots, frozen orange juice, frowning at frozen dinners and a bowl of leftover spaghetti. She saw two baskets crammed with unfolded laundry and sniffed them. The things were clean. A moment later, an open, twenty-five-pound sack of dried milk provoked her to say “Good” aloud.
When footsteps sounded on the front porch, Mrs. Bradley was at the kitchen table, pouring hot water over her tea bag. Sandra entered, followed by a five-year-old girl with large, unblinking eyes and a fistful of brightly colored papers. “Say hello to Mrs. Bradley,” Sandra commanded.
The child stared at Mrs. Bradley, at the same time allowing her fist to lay the kindergarten trophies slowly on the kitchen table.
“I expected Leonard home by now,” Sandra said. “You want some lunch?” Mrs. Bradley hesitated, and the girl opened a cupboard. “I’ll just make an extra can of vegetable — ”
Having calculated that she was building rapport with Sandra, that she should watch Sandra in action with her niece, that it would be wise to remain and see Leonard, Mrs. Bradley said casually, “I’d enjoy a little soup.”
At the stove, her back turned, Sandra said, “I’m not missing anything at that school anyway. They’re a bunch of apes over there.” Mrs. Bradley’s heart sank.
Four years earlier it had been simple truancy that started Sandra down a darkening road. Orphaned at thirteen when a highway accident killed her parents, she had been sent to live with a great-aunt and great-uncle, devout evangelicals, in an unimpeachably middle-class suburb. Three months later she was picked up in a stolen car with four boys, truants from a different school. Fishing for understanding, Mrs. Bradley — then recently divorced, recently trained, desperately earnest about this early case — got from the sullen girl only that her great-aunt was a “phony,” that school had always “bugged” her, and that she’d met the four boys “hangin’ around the Laundromat.” Soon after that, another joy ride in another stolen car ended against a telephone pole, and Sandra acquired scars she would never lose. Placed in a welfare agency’s “Group Home” (her great-aunt had declared her absolutely unmanageable), she again dropped out of school, and went farther down the dark road, this time with an older man — there had been a baby that she could not keep.
Now, because things had seemed finally to be working out, Sandra’s absence from school, her sarcasm about it, filled Mrs. Bradley with concern.
“Did I tell you what I’m planning to do?” Sandra asked. “I’m going to be a beautician.”
The girl’s off-center smile commanded a smile in return. Then Mrs. Bradley looked down and moved her cup on the red-and-white squares. “That’s an interesting idea. It might make a splendid long-term project.”
“Long-term nothing,” Sandra snapped. “I start in two weeks. I’m going to Mademoiselle Beauty College out on Listeri, do you know how much a beauty operator can make?”
“A trained, successful beauty operator can earn a good living, I’m sure, but — ”
“You’re against it, aren’t you? Kee-riced. I might have guessed.” The girl pushed her chair back from the table and flung out her thin legs. The child, Caitlin, lowered her eyes to her bowl, as if in modesty, and continued carefully to spoon her soup.
“I’m not against it. Sandra. But you haven’t finished high school. Beauty colleges require a high-school diploma.”
“I’ll go to beauty college in the daytime, see? And night school at night. Before the beauty college is over, I’ll have my diploma, so that’ll be all right.”
“Sandra, you’ll need the diploma before they’ll admit you to beauty college.”
“They’ve already admitted me. The manager is a girl that Leonard used to go with. Clarice. She had a part in one of his films. I’m in, all right.”
Mrs. Bradley covered her eyes with her left hand. She knew about beauty colleges; they figured often in the fantasies of girls with whom she worked. She looked up to find Sandra studying her.
“I get it,” Sandra said. “You think I wouldn’t be any good. You think all beauticians have to be beautiful.”
“I don’t think that.”
“It’s personality that counts. And skill. Mainly skill. I know I can do that work. Anyway, I asked Clarice about my face, whether it would hold me back. She says not if I’m a good technician. Who knows? It might even help in some spooky way.”
“How much is the tuition, Sandra?”
“Three hundred dollars. Leonard’s going to loan it to me.”
Caitlin said, “I want dessert now,” and Sandra told her to get some grapes. The child climbed down from her chair and went to the refrigerator.
“Does Leonard have three hundred dollars?” Mrs. Bradley asked.
“There’s such a thing as credit, you know.”
“Where’s your sister-in-law? You haven’t mentioned her.”
“Fay’s out looking for a job.”
“Is that why you dropped out of school? To take care of the children?”
“Why didn’t you tell the principal?”
“I’ll tell him when I go back.”
“But Sandra, if you’d made some arrangements, the principal wouldn’t have called me. Your teachers could have given you work to do at home.”
Sandra looked away. “Make arrangements, get permission. That’s too funky. Anyway, I thought I’d only be out a couple days. ‘
“You make things hard for yourself, Sandra. This idea about beauty college — it doesn’t help simply to drop out of school without a word.”
“Then you’re not against that beauty-college scene?”
Mrs. Bradley met the girl’s intent scrutiny. “Some beauty colleges are rackets, Sandra,” she said finally. “I wonder whether they’re being honest with you about your chances. Then there’s the tuition. Is Leonard working now?”
“On his films.”
Mrs. Bradley’s heart sank again. She had once attended a program of experimental films that included one by Leonard Antonelli. His, like the others, had struck her as beautiful, boring, and repulsive by turns. And disturbing. It was as if her own dreams and nightmares had been spliced into the dreams and nightmares of the people with whom she worked — the delinquent girls, the bureaucrats, the pot smokers, the policemen, school nurses, priests.
Mrs. Bradley remembered now that the admission receipts that night could hardly have paid the rental of the hall, let alone reimbursed the filmmakers. “Sandra, doesn’t Leonard spend more money on his films than he earns from them?” she asked.
“Now, sure. But he’s thinking about the future. He’s — ”
“Is he thinking about the future, Sandra? Leonard is the head of a family. Let’s forget art and the future, and talk about reality now.”
“Aw, you always end up spouting reality.”
“Surely you’re aware of the court’s reluctance to remand you to Leonard’s custody. This is a probationary arrangement
“That fink judge in Small-Claims Court wouldn’t listen. Just because Leonard wouldn’t — ”
Sandra nodded toward the front room. “Here he is. Talk to him.”
Leonard was short and slightly pudgy. A scraggly arc of reddish whiskers looped around his chin, and he wore a scarf inside his open collar. He had come into the kitchen with a three-year-old boy in short pants. The boy’s cheeks were flushed and his eyes looked feverish. Sandra nodded toward Mrs. Bradley and mumbled her name. “Hi.” Leonard said. To Sandra he said, “Infection in both ears. They gave him a shot of penicillin. It hurt, huh, John?”
The child’s mouth began to work, and when Sandra said, “Come here, John,” he rushed to her and pressed his face into her stomach. His sister, Caitlin, moved close, peering to see if he was crying. “Offer him a grape,” Sandra said. When the boy ignored the grape, Caitlin went to the back door and opened it. The radio on the porch blared loudly.
The noise, the sick child, the kindergarten pictures smeared with margarine. the alphabet noodles stranded in her soup bowl. Leonard’s soiled scarf — it all filled Mrs. Bradley with a sudden panic. She pressed her eyelids with her fingertips again.
Sandra warmed up soup for Leonard, they agreed that John should have only broth and crackers, and then Leonard began to berate himself for spending one of Sandra’s welfare checks to buy a better editing device. “I’ve kept track, though,” he whined, thinking it was this that Mrs. Bradley had come to discuss.
It was to this man, Mrs. Bradley thought, that she had implored the judge to award custody of Sandra. She had known that Leonard had been divorced at twenty-one, was suspected of a suicide attempt at twenty-two, had spent years in and out of colleges, had been jailed for an anti-war demonstration; she knew that he went on occasional drinking sprees, that he had been booked recently for brawling with a sculptor over whether a certain obscure poet had fascist tendencies. Now, watching him crush an aspirin with a spoon and mix it into the sick child’s applesauce, watching him lead his son to the bedroom for a nap. Mrs. Bradley remembered that there had been no other place to send Sandra except the detention home.
“Sandra, go and see your principal,” she said. “Right now. Get some assignments from your teachers. No matter what you want to do — beauty college or anything else — you can’t afford to lose this whole semester.”
Sandra changed into a skirt and went off cheerfully, taking Caitlin with her. Leonard, who had returned to the kitchen, sagged into a chair and demanded of Mrs. Bradley, “Remember that old tune When My Baby Smiles at Me?” He whistled several bars. “Well, old John smiled at me just now. The penicillin reached him. Man, we had a rough time around here last night. Fay and I must have gotten up with him about five times.”
“Leonard, I notice the phone’s been disconnected,” Mrs. Bradley said.
“Yeah. We have to go down to the gas station now. Try directing a film sometime without a telephone.”
“Sandra says you’ve been in Small-Claims Court.”
Leonard looked at her in momentary surprise, then concentrated on the soup and leftover bread on the table before him.
“What’s going on, Leonard?”
“It’s simple. We’re broke.” He stood up suddenly, went out to the back porch, and snapped off Sandra’s radio. Returning to the kitchen, he said, “I’ve got to audition a tape. Wait a minute.”
In the living room, he threaded a tape recorder. and a conglomeration of sounds followed him as he rejoined Mrs. Bradley — rising and falling whistles, clanks, rumblings, bells, humming.
“That’s an automated machine shop down on Seventh Street,” Leonard said. “Machines running other machines, correcting their own mistakes.”
“Weird,” said Mrs. Bradley.
Leonard looked pleased.
“Leonard, I do have some things to talk over with you.”
“That’s okay. I can talk and listen at the same time.” He ignored Mrs. Bradley’s wince. “If you want to know something, we’re worse than broke. We’re in the hole. That judgment was nothing. We’ve got a mess of other bills.”
Mrs. Bradley watched him quietly. Was he about to face facts?
“It’ll work out,” Leonard went on. “I’m finishing up a three-thousand-dollar commercial job this week, a sales- training film for Wentworth Pump. It’s finished now, only I’m not satisfied with the pace.”
“Will that clear up your bills?”
“Yeah, sure.” Leonard looked troubled. “Well, not exactly. See, I’m finishing up Part Three of Femur, and there’ve been a lot of processing charges. I promised it to the Association of Film Societies for showings in February. Did you see Parts One and Two of Femur?”
“I’m afraid I haven’t heard of Femur.”
Leonard sighed and stood up. “Let me show you something.”
In the bedroom that was also workshop, storeroom, and office, he showed her racks of prints of his films, booking schedules, and accounts that included back royalties of more than a thousand dollars due from film societies and cinema clubs. “I’ll never collect those,” he said, “but at least the films were seen.” When Mrs Bradley expressed gratification that he seemed organized in a fairly businesslike way, he said, “That’s Fay. She slaves at this stuff.” He showed her clippings and reviews, and she learned that Leonard’s films had won prizes at three film festivals, that he was one of a “handful of outstanding young producers, operating on a shoestring,” and that “foundations are interested in his work.” She asked Leonard about the foundations and he said nothing had happened. They returned to the kitchen.
“I do understand you better now,” Mrs. Bradley said. “Still, my responsibility is Sandra. Sandra has dropped out of school, and the real reason is your money troubles.”
Leonard took off his scarf. His neck looked very scrawny suddenly, and Mrs. Bradley saw in his flat eyes, his slackened facial muscles, his uncertain chin, a very deep fatigue. Nonetheless, she insisted that they lay out his situation in columns of arithmetic. After an hour, taking everything into account, they found that his indebtedness was seventeen hundred dollars. A final payment of four hundred dollars was due from Wentworth Pump, but that had already been attached. In the next two weeks his only certain receipts would be thirty-five dollars from a cinema club and Sandra’s eighty-six-dollar monthly welfare check. Even if Leonard’s wife, Fay, should get a job, most of her salary would have to go to a housekeeper. “Frankly, Leonard, it looks hopeless,” Mrs. Bradley said.
“What’s that? Is that any way for a social worker to talk?” Leonard grinned. “Hell, we’ve been in worse pickles than this. Anyway, let’s get fundamental. You’ve talked to Sandra. Is she sick? Is she underfed?”
Mrs. Bradley didn’t answer.
“Hell no, she isn’t. Sure, we’ve used her welfare check, but is she complaining? Is she?”
“Old Sandra’s making it, that’s why. She’s a real existential chick.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean that was a mess of chaos she was in. But she kind of — well, made herself, right in the middle of those bad scenes. Now she really is.”
A knock sounded at the front door, and Leonard shouted, “Come in!” A youth in boots, jeans, and a leather jacket strode through the living room into the kitchen, a white cyclist’s helmet under his arm. He had a handsome, thin face and a troubled brow. “Sandra here?”
“Back in a while,” Leonard said.
“The machine’s fixed,” the young man said. He turned and left. From out front came the roar of a motorcycle starting up, then the blats of its violent departure.
Sandra returned, and Leonard excused himself to take a nap. Her teachers and the principal had been okay, Sandra said. They had told her that if she completed enough homework assignments she might yet receive her credits, even if she had to take care of Caitlin and John for the rest of the semester. Encouraged, Mrs. Bradley said she’d try to arrange a transfer to night school next semester. They were about to discuss the beauty college when the youth with the leather jacket and motorcycle helmet returned. His anxious brow seemed to smooth when he saw Sandra. “I got the sprocket.” he said.
“Too much, man,” Sandra said. Standing with her arms crossed before her, she looked down at Mrs. Bradley as if to announce that the interview was over.
Mrs. Bradley introduced herself, and the young man said, “I’m Mike. Pleased-ta-meetcha.”
“I have business to finish with Sandra, Mike. I’d appreciate it very much if you’d leave us in privacy for a few more minutes.”
The boy cringed as if expecting to be struck, a mocking gesture, and then he looked at Sandra, who nodded toward the front door. He clomped out.
“Why do you hate him?” Sandra raged as the door closed. “What’s he done to you?”
Mrs. Bradley stared in amazement.
“He’s not a punk, y’hear? He’s a warehouseman, a union warehouseman. He makes a hundred and eight dollars a week. You can’t tell me who to go out with! I’ll go out with anybody I damn please!”
“Sandra! Of course! I have nothing against that boy.”
How did I provoke that? Mrs. Bradley asked herself as the girl glared. It was true that Sandra’s baby had been fathered by a married, thirty-year-old motorcycle mechanic. (He had made her drunk, but she had insisted that the responsibility was hers.) Well, Sandra obviously didn’t blame it all on motorcycles, as Mrs. Bradley now realized she had done.
“Perhaps I do have a prejudice,” she said. “Motorcycles frighten me. The riders don’t seem interested in control.”
“You ever been on a motorcycle?”
Sandra shrugged. There was a long silence, then the girl sat down at the table again.
“Sandra, do you see a lot of Mike?”
“Enough. He wants to get married.”
What’s she got? thought Mrs. Bradley. Skinny, young, plain. And disfigured besides.
“Do you want to marry him?”
Sandra shook her head.
Sandra looked out the kitchen window, from which Caitlin could be seen playing hopscotch in the driveway next door. “Did you watch Leonard with the kids?” she said. “Those kids have changed him. He used to be a mess, a real kook. Now he works like crazy. You know what he told me? He said, ‘The main thing is, Fay and I wanted Caitlin and John, we tried to have them. So now we realize we’ve got to take care of them, and doing everything for kids makes you automatically sort of love ’em. And when you realize you love your kids, then you begin to like yourself more.’ It’s like church, Leonard says. If there’s anything at all in going to church, it’s because you spend a whole hour in there, and they set it up so you think good thoughts most of the time, and then you’re amazed you could do it, even just that long, and you feel better about everything.”
Mrs. Bradley, moved, was blinking away tears, but Sandra hadn’t noticed.
“It happens to me, even,” the girl said, “just puttering around the house here with those kids.”
Mrs. Bradley was silent for a moment, and then she smiled. “I think I know what your brother means,” she said. “But from what you’ve just told me, I should think you’d want to get married.”
Sandra shrugged. “Mike’s just a friend. We do things together, that’s all, and I like riding the bike. But I don’t want to get married, not until some guy really made me feel like rinsing diapers and all that.”
She stood up. “Fay’ll be home soon, all pooped out,” she said, and began carrying dirty dishes to the sink.
Mrs. Bradley opened the car door and sat for a moment on the end of the front seat, her feet on the pavement. Then she lifted her feet inside the car, and slammed the door. She sat quite still, conscious of the county seals on the car doors, of the official state license plates. I ought to feel secure, she thought, and tried to consider what she would report. The angry snarl of a motorcycle distracted her, and in the mirror she saw the machine slant from around the corner behind her. Accelerating smartly, it whipped past her and on down the block. Sandra, riding sidesaddle, clung to the goggled and helmeted rider. At the intersection, the motorcycle’s brake light glowed red for a few seconds; then the bike banked around the corner and was gone.
Automatically, Mrs. Bradley analyzed the depression that swept over her. She felt old and square, of course, and perhaps she feared secretly that her own children might never be as mature as Sandra Antonelli was right now. She sighed, remembering that she must report to her supervisor what she had seen and heard, what she had concluded. What had she concluded? An existential chick? Brother way out? Yes. And both of them quick to bug.
How did it happen? How did a child emerge so strong from so much ugliness? Stress toughens, Mrs. Bradley told herself. And, of course, E.H.E. Her supervisor was always talking about E.H.E. — Early Home Environment, the first five years. She tried to recall what she had learned about Sandra’s parents, but all she could remember was that the mother had been obese, that the father had been a compulsive golfer and a salesman of some kind.
Featured image: Illustration by Joe Cleary, ©SEPS
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now