The Falling Shackles
By Margery S. Stewart
Synopsis: The Tobler family, Maria, seventeen years old, the parents, and Phillip and Karen, members of the Church from Europe, arrive in Salt Lake city and are met at the station by Mrs. Tobler’s cousin Frederick, who has found a home for them. The house is old-fashioned and in need of repair, but Mamma Tobler is delighted and immediately begins to make the house into a home.
Early rising was not a neighborhood characteristic Maria discovered, when she watched at the front window for neighbors to come shivering out to pick up their morning papers. Karen came to watch, too, and Papa took his turn.
“Is spying,” said Mamma, and tried to hurry them away.
“No, no, Mamma, is interest,” Papa smiled, tying his tie. It was a long wait, but, at seven, the first one came out, the woman who lived across the street. “Now,” said Papa, “let us see how clever you are. What kind of a lady would you say she is?”
Maria looked at the tall, gray-haired woman bending with such dignity to retrieve her paper, at the immaculate little garden, the carefully locked gate, the “No peddlers” sign upon the fence. “I think she will be hard to know.”
But Karen clapped her hands in delight. “A girl just looked out of the upstairs window. She’s my age, I know it. I say they are wonderful people who will love us on sight.”
But Papa turned to Maria. “I think you are the one more nearly right. We shall see. But I think she will be a friend well worth the waiting.”
Mamma called from the kitchen, “The eggs are done. You will be late, and Frederick will be cross. Remember, he must find Karen’s school for her, also.”
Maria followed after Karen. She sensed her sister’s unhappiness. “You may wear my gold locket if you like.”
Karen shook her head. “Nothing else on me is right. I do not want any more.”
At breakfast she ate scarcely anything. “I think,” she said at last, “I would rather stay home. I think I should wait a week or two before going to school.”
No one was at all deceived.
“You are afraid,” said Phillip gravely.
Mamma turned anxiously from the stove. “But you must start, you have so much time to make up. You better go this morning.”
Maria watched anxiety furrow Karen’s forehead. “I have no sweater,” she said. “I have only the blue dress and the black dress and the white blouse and green skirt. They will laugh at me. They will laugh at my shoes.”
“They will not laugh,” Mamma said, “when you are clean and neat, when you have such pretty hair, curly by itself and pure gold.”
Karen hung her head. “When I talk they will laugh hardest of all.”
“Laugh before they do,” Mamma said, “and you will soon be laughing together.”
“I am ugly,” said Karen, “and the nearer I get to school, the uglier I will grow. When I go in the rooms my nose will be a foot long.”
Papa patted her shoulder. “I will give you three pretty pills,” he said. “Hold out your hand.”
Karen obediently opened her palm.
Papa took three pink pills from his pocket and closed her fingers over them. “When you cannot bear your ugliness another moment, take one pill, and like magic you will be pretty again. You will look just like the girl in the mirror upstairs.”
Maria laughed at the old, childish game, and, after a moment, Karen laughed, too.
“Today,” said Maria grandly, “I will get a job and then you shall have your sweater.”
Everyone looked at her wonderingly. “How do you know?”
Maria tossed her bright hair. “This is America. Have you forgotten? Everything wonderful happens here.”
Cousin Frederick rang the doorbell and burst in before they could run to open the door. “A boy!” he shouted. “Can you imagine such luck? Four girls we have and then, at last, a boy! I thought the boys were all gone, but no, there was one for me after all.”
Everyone cried out with delight, even Phillip, who wanted to go at once and bring the baby to the house for a playmate.
“We go to see Hilda, tonight,” Mamma decided.
Cousin Frederick slapped Papa on the back. “Your first day on the job. It is going to be fine … just fine. We have several men there from our country. One, I think, was in the last city you stayed before your arrest. You will have much to talk about.”
They went away, Frederick and Papa and Karen. Maria worked side by side with Mamma all morning.
Mamma was true to her word. They mounted step by step, leaving a shining basement behind them, advancing on a soon-to-be gleaming main floor. At noon they stopped for a sandwich of leftover goose and a piece of the apple cake. Maria made the sandwiches while Mamma went out to call Phillip. She heard her mother’s voice rising in crescendo as the moments wore away without an answering voice. She stepped to the back door.
Mamma turned from the back fence. “He is not here. Where could he be? Last time when I called he was playing with some little boys.”
“He is in another boy’s garden, then,” Maria comforted her, but she untied her apron. “I will comb my hair and then I will look for him.”
She ran swiftly up and down the neighboring streets. But Phillip was nowhere to be seen. In gathering panic, Maria fled down a larger thoroughfare calling his name.
Breathless, she paused on the second corner before a drugstore window. Miserably frightened, she stared unseeingly at the dusty, fly-specked windows, the advertisements of toothpaste. She straightened. Someone in the drugstore might have seen or heard of him. They would remember a little boy so blonde, so broken in his speech.
Timidly she pushed open the swinging doors. She took a deep breath of the unfamiliar odor. How delicious it was, drugs mingling with perfumes and perfumes with some aromatic foods being kept at even heat. But Maria shook her head disapprovingly when she saw the finger-smudged glass cases, the dusty mirror behind the fountain.
No one came forward. She took a few steps toward the fountain. “Hello?” she said hesitantly.
There was the sound of falling boxes, the scrape of a chair. A dark masculine head poked itself from behind a floor display of face creams. “You looking for something, Ma’am?”
Maria stared at him in astonishment. This was not what she had heard of American ways. Where were the furious tempo, the swift courtesy, the efficient flourish?
She swallowed. “I … I came to look …”
“Oh,” the thin, dark face flashed a white smile in her direction. “Go right ahead and look. I’ll just duck back for a little session with Blackstone while you’re making up your mind.” He disappeared again.
Maria tiptoed forward. “It is for a little boy I look.”
The head came back again, interest warmed the dark eyes. “A little boy, you say … about so high?” A long, thin hand shot out from the display. “Blonde? On his way back to the ship?”
Maria leaned against the counter, weak with relief. “You have seen him, then? Phillip? Where is he?”
“In the back. Asleep. Come along if you want to.”
Now the whole man made his appearance, tall and lean, cavernously young, he towered above her. His face was tanned and pleasantly homely. A lock of brown hair inched across his forehead every time he pushed it away. “Phillip tells me it was better where you came from, everyone understood everyone there. He didn’t have to tell them a simple thing over and over.”
“Oh,” said Maria, not knowing whether to smile or not. The words had mirth in them, but the young man did not smile.
She followed his example and tiptoed through the swinging half door to the apothecary part of the store. The shelves were filled with jars and bottles and boxes of all sizes and colors. On a cot under the window, Phillip slept, a green all-day sucker clutched in his hand.
“It was cheaper than a sleeping pill,” the young man explained gravely, “and twice as efficacious.” He studied Maria frankly. “His sister?”
She nodded. “And thank you for keeping him here.”
He grinned widely, his teeth sparkled. “That’s all right. I had to get my good deed in before six-thirty tonight.” He shot out his hand. “My name is Timothy Allred.”
There was a little silence.
“Yours?” he prodded.
Maria blushed hotly at her clumsiness. “Mine is Maria … Tobler. We came last night.”
“So he told me.” Timothy nodded his head toward the cot. “Took one look around and said, no. It seems he wants to go back to the ship and start all over.”
“There were no Indians,” Maria explained. “We had promised him Indians.”
“I see.” He rubbed his chin. “I know an honest-to-goodness chief, but he’s down in Arizona, two days away.” He looked again at Phillip. “It isn’t just the Indians, the kids around here have been giving your brother a bad time.”
Maria bent over Phillip, gathered him into her arms, whispered him awake.
Timothy Allred watched her carefully. “I just remembered an extra fine prescription for small boy societies.” He reached in his pocket for a pad and wrote hurriedly on six or seven pages. He ripped them off and handed them to Phillip. “That will do it, I’m pretty sure.”
Phillip held them up to Maria. “What does it read?”
Maria deciphered the sprawling hand. “Pay to the bearer, one ice-cream cone, when bearer is accompanied by Phillip Tobler.” She bent her head to hide the quick, grateful tears. “You are kind.”
“Nope … just getting business for my Dad’s store.”
Maria looked about her questioningly.
Timothy Allred shook his head. “No, Dad isn’t here. He’s very ill. I came back from school to sort of run things until he’s back on his feet.”
“I am so sorry.” Marie looked about her. “But such a beautiful store. It must make you happy to take care of it.”
“Happy!” Timothy stared at her as if she were a new species of fish. “Selling pills to Mrs. Curtis and eyelash curlers to all the Junior High kids should make me happy? Aaak.”
“You don’t like it?” Maria was incredulous.
“I want to be a lawyer,” Timothy said, “a nice business-like profession. I want to help people. I want to be something.”
Maria backed away from his intensity. She took Phillip’s hand. “I do thank you so much, Mr. Allred.”
“Everybody calls me Timothy.”
“Mr. Allred,” repeated Maria firmly. But she hesitated at the door, her eyes caught once more by the smudged counter. “Mr. Allred, for your kindness would you let me come in this afternoon and … and dust a little for you. I do not like to be beholden.” She felt the furious color sweep her face under Timothy Allred’s quizzical glance.
He bowed very formally. “I accept your offer with deep appreciation, Miss Tobler. I, too, am a great avoider of beholdingness.”
They could scarcely believe at dinner that Maria had a job. It was like all the stories they had heard of life in America. Karen leaned toward Maria, breathless with interest, her dinner forgotten. “Tell me again. You went back and scrubbed the ice-cream counter and then he said …?”
Maria clasped her hands in delight at the mere memory. “He came over to the counter and he said, very gruffly,” she made her voice deep, “‘Who taught you to scrub like that?’ and I said, ‘My mother.’”
Everyone looked at Mamma, who beamed and nodded her head.
Maria took a deep breath. “‘I’ve been losing customers steadily since I came,’ he said, ‘and a very quiet and peaceful atmosphere it is, without a lot of people cluttering up the place, but unfortunately, Maria, the cash register is alarmingly silent.’ So then,” Maria said, “he leaned back and looked at me again and he said, ‘Yes, I think I would like even a bowl of stew if you served it. That’s my criterion, Miss Tobler.’”
Maria hugged herself in delight. “So there was my beautiful job. All the time I was fearful about what I could do in America, when I knew so little. But you see, already the doors swing wide, and I know …” she looked from one to another. “Now I know it is true. Now I know that here, you can be whatever you want to be.”
“But, Maria,” Papa said gently, “is it always to be the drugstore?”
She turned to him at once. “It is like a school, Papa. You understand? In the drugstore I will learn to know America, her speech, and her dress and her feelings, then it will be time for the next step.”
Papa cleared his throat. “Did you hear her, Mamma? Is good.”
“Is good,” said Mamma softly and leaned over to kiss Maria’s cheek. “We have all taken a big step today, but I think Maria, she has taken the biggest.”
Maria turned to Karen. “All my talk about myself. We haven’t heard a word about you. How was the school?”
Karen mashed butter into her baked potato. “There is nothing to tell. The school is very large, and there are many boys and girls, and I am just one more bean in the sack.”
“Oh, no,” cried Maria. “There must be more to it than that. They must have noticed you.”
Karen said slowly, “They are so kind here in America that you could weep just to hear it. They are kind to everyone. It is ‘excuse me’ and ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘Hi, there,’” she explained to Mamma. “Hi, there! is like ‘hello to you.’ That is what it means.” She bit her thumbnail. “But with all their politeness I am still just one more bean.”
Mamma helped herself to more bread. Maria saw that it was more a need to be doing something than hunger. Maria saw that Mamma was troubled. “There are many takers,” Mamma said casually, as if she were talking to herself, “and so few givers. That is why the takers are always hungry and the givers so much in demand.”
Karen lifted her head sharply. “Now, Mamma, just come right out and say it. You mean I take?”
“Sometimes we must sit and think about that, because it is so easy to always think well of ourselves.”
Karen flounced up angrily, her gold curls bouncing. “You know very well, Mamma, that I do not have a penny. I have not one thing to give or I would.”
Mamma’s voice grew softer still. “The pretty Madame Renee, on the ship, the one who played the piano so beautifully, she gave me a great deal of pleasure.”
“Or,” said Papa, remembering, “the little girl, Celia, who was teaching all the children the new games. She seemed to give quite a little happiness.”
Karen hesitated by the door, and Maria sensed that she was half of a mind to flounce up the stairs and yet was just afraid she might miss something of value.
“Little Mrs. Henie,” reminded Mamma enthusiastically, “she could make pancakes like no one else in the world.”
Karen giggled. “Remember the time I ate so many and you were so ashamed of me. But I couldn’t stop. Never have I tasted pancakes more delicious.”
Phillip rubbed his stomach. “I remember Grandma Henie.”
“And what of Timothy Allred?” Maria asked softly. “Didn’t he give Phillip all the friends in the neighborhood, and it only cost him seven free ice-cream cones.”
“Yes,” cried Phillip ecstatically, “seven new friends have I, and Mr. Allred has promised me an Indian chief … only …” He looked about him with vast scorn, “Only he means it, because he knows right where they live.”
Karen stamped her foot. “You are so subtle all of you. You think I am still a child. But I will give you one free job of dishwashing, just as soon as I have run to the store for a pencil. Now I will see how your theory really works.”
Maria helped Mamma clear the table. She scraped leftovers onto wax paper. “Mamma,” she said slowly, “how can you really know you have helped Karen with what you said, about giving? Maybe it will not do anything at all.”
Mamma smiled. “It is one of the certain things, Maria. You will see. Karen will search around inside herself and find something she never knew before.”
“But look at the artists and other people who never get very famous or very wealthy.”
Mamma poured soap powder into the pan. “It is a question of degree, my little one, one does not have to have thousands of people shouting his praises to be a most successful person.”
Maria wakened from a sound and heavy sleep. She lay wide-eyed in the darkness trying to think what had awakened her. Someone was singing. That was it. Someone singing a ballad from home, in her own tongue. She sat up.
Karen was sitting on the window ledge, her face etched in light from the moon. She was singing the old, familiar song. But it was no casual or careless singing. Maria listened in amazement as her sister carefully rehearsed one phrase over and over until, with a sigh, she left it and went on to the next.
“Karen, you will wake the house.”
Karen turned. she looked very angelic, Maria thought, in her white flannel nightgown and her moon-touched shining hair. “Listen, Maria. I think I have it just the way I want it.” She sang again.
Maria listened critically. Karen’s voice was pretty, gay and tender, and pleasing to the ear. Though not great in any way, it did possess a warm, contagious charm.
“I like it,” Maria whispered. “But even the birds are asleep. You will wake the house.”
Karen came back to bed and put her arms around Maria. “Tomorrow I shall look for a job after school, baby sitting, or something like that. Then I shall buy me a guitar and I shall practice my songs and never stop until I really have them the way I want them.”
Maria hugged her. “I shall be so proud. Think of it, my own sister Karen, singing before crowds and crowds of people.”
“I always wanted to sing,” Karen whispered. “But I never really thought I could do it until tonight, when Mamma talked about giving. Maria, I’ve been thinking and she is right about this.”
Maria stifled the impulse to giggle at the astonishment in Karen’s voice at her discovery.
“Maybe it is not very practical to want to do, like making hotcakes, or embroidery …” Karen explained.
“I’ll make the hotcakes,” Maria said. “”We need people to sing to us, to keep reminding us of … of the wonderful things there are in the world.”
Karen stretched out beside her. “It’s this country,” she said. “It won’t let you stand still. Everywhere you look, there is something wonderful to do or see or be.”
Maria thought of the drugstore and the tall, strange young man who ran it. “Then how is it some of them are content to drift and dream and let all the years run out of their hands like water?”
Karen shivered. “If they could see what we have seen and hear what we have heard, they wouldn’t stop to eat or sleep for joy of being able to do what you want to do.” She kissed Maria. “Don’t tell Mamma,” she whispered, “but even the girl across the street will not be friends with me. I am the strange one.”
Maria put her arms around Karen. “It is only for a little while. Remember at home … It takes time for these things, a smile today, a word tomorrow … a little walk together the day after …”
“Of course,” said Karen. “It will be all right.” But there was no conviction in her voice. After a while she fell asleep.
Maria could not close her eyes. She yearned over Karen and Mamma, over Papa and little Phillip. Oh, it was true what Mamma often said, “Old problems solved open the doors for new ones to enter.” Maria smiled wryly to herself. She had thought every trouble would automatically be righted the moment their feet touched the golden shore. Beautiful America, she thought, forgive me. I am like so many, demanding you do everything for me, at once. Now this is foolishness, as Mamma says, you only hold the salve, we have to rub it on the sore place ourselves.
Karen turned over with a protesting flop. “What are you doing, Maria, mumbling like that? How can a person ever get her sleep?”