The Falling Shackles
By Margery S. Stewart
Synopsis: The Tobler family, who are members of the Church from Europe, arrive in Salt Lake City, and, through the help of Mamma Tobler’s cousin Frederick, find a home. Papa Tobler, who has been a doctor, finds employment in a factory. Mamma Tobler quickly makes the old-fashioned house into a home, and Karen, the younger daughter, starts to school, where she finds many problems of adjustment. Phillip, the young son, in exploring the neighborhood, becomes lost, and Maria, the seventeen-year-old daughter, finds her brother in a drugstore. There Maria becomes acquainted with Timothy Allred, whose sick father owns the store. Maria is given work by Timothy in the store.
Something was very wrong with Papa. For three nights now he had refused to eat. For three nights Maria had heard him going downstairs and then the sound of his pacing feet going back and forth in the dining room below.
This afternoon Maria heard Mamma ask him what was wrong.
Papa laughed. “Wrong? Nothing is wrong. All is well. It is a little new still, the big plant. There are so many men.”
“But the work?” Mamma persisted. “Do you like it?”
Maria saw the tightening of her father’s mouth, the sharp lines that sprang suddenly above his eyes. “Is good work … it pays fairly well. I told Karen she could buy her guitar today.”
So that was why Karen was not yet home from school. Maria hurried through the pressing of her uniform. She liked to keep them spotless and crisp. She liked the swift approval in Timothy’s eyes.
Mamma was peeling apples for strudel. She would not leave Papa alone. “But I worry, Chris. There is something very wrong with you. How is it you cannot sleep?”
Papa winked at Maria. “All this sleeping every night. It gets so monotonous. Now I like my life to have a little flavor.”
“Oh … oh ..,.!” Mamma rose in disgust and went to her cupboards. “I wish I did have someone to talk to besides you. You are so unsatisfactory.”
“The neighbors?” ventured Maria.
Her mother shrugged. “They all say ‘how do you do.’ But not yet do they come in to tell me of themselves.”
Papa looked over his glasses. “You mean you have only your own problems to worry you? What tragedy!”
But Maria saw that for all his teasing he was anxious about Mamma. Maria knew he was remembering all the people who had been in Mamma’s life in the old country. All those who had huddled against her in the bitter days, taking comfort from her undaunted spirit, fire from her deep faith.
Maria hurried faster with her ironing. “Walk part way with me, will you, Papa?”
“Well, now,” said Papa, twinkling in pleasure, “that is a wonderful invitation, to be asked to walk with a young pretty girl. Mamma, you won’t be jealous?”
Mamma looked up from the floured board. Maria squirmed under her searching, dark eyes. “No, I will not be jealous. I think you have few times more to walk with Maria. I think, soon, someone else will walk with her.”
“Mamma!” cried Maria.
“Why are you so astonished, Maria? Is like flowers coming out on the trees.” Mamma’s hands gestured for words … “Is like Phillip coming down with measles.”
“Is inevitable she means,” said Papa. He looked at Maria thoughtfully, but the twinkle came back to his eyes. “It will be Henry, the grocer, perhaps. He is a nice, fat, prosperous looking man. Maybe he will give us wholesale on round steak.”
“Oh, Papa!” But Maria could not help laughing at the thought of the bald, good-natured Mr. Henry coming to walk with her.
But when they started the walk to the drugstore, Papa fell into one of the deep silences. Maria, watching him out of the corner of her eye, saw the muscle twitching in his cheek, the tense narrowing of his eyes. He walked with his head bent and his hands locked behind him.
“I wish you would tell me, Papa. Maybe I could help.”
“No … No.”
A terrible thought smote Maria. It stopped her short on the street. She felt suffocated. “Papa?”
She touched his sleeve timidly. “You are sick. You are very sick. I know that is it. It is! It is!” She began to cry, like a very small child, sobs that shook her. The salt poured into her mouth.
“Oh, no, no, no,” cried Papa. He put his arms about her. “My dearest child, you must not believe such a thing. Is not a sickness of my body … Believe me, Maria. It is … Oh, Maria, Felix Dracken is here … where I work. He is here in America.”
“Felix Dracken!” whispered Maria. She looked into her father’s eyes. She felt as if they were standing on a far corner, the shattered buildings showing sky through holes gaping like wounds. The whispering of terror within her roared up to a great wind of torment. “Papa … Papa …”
Her father nodded. “I work beside him … every day. I watch his hands. I see his shoes when I look down, so close he is to me. I smell him, and it is to me like the smell of death.”
“Does he speak? Does he dare to speak to you, Papa?”
Her father rubbed his face as though something soft and repulsive had brushed against it. “Yes, he speaks. He tries to speak. He is sick, he says, his heart. I can well believe it. He looks a very sick man. Angina, I think.”
Anger flamed in Maria. “How dare he speak to you? How dare he, after what he did? It was his lies that sent you to the prison camp. He said you were a traitor to them. He spied on us day and night. He is the one who brought it all about. Remember his wife and his daughter, Katrina? They were so proud and safe, not hunted like we were, not afraid. They were in … with the high ups.”
“I know,” he said. His face had gone very white in the darkness. “That is the thing I fight against all day long, the hate, the terrible hate that burns me until I cannot stand myself. But if I go away from the plant, he shall have injured me one more time, and that I will not endure.”
She clung to his arm. “How can you help hating him? I do.”
Her father said slowly, “Yes, I have known hatred, and it may be that I have fostered it these years, because now it is like a beast within me. I had not thought I could hold such bitterness, such rage.” He spoke sadly.
“Oh, Papa,” Maria held him close. “I thought it was finished when we left there. I thought here, where there was no boundary line or sentries, or ruined streets, that it would all be over.”
Papa patted her back. “As did I,” he said wearily. “But now I wonder. I have not had such an emotion before. I have seen its effects in other men. I think day and night of ways to injure him … get him to go. After all, why should I suffer more?”
Maria scrubbed her eyes. She felt weak and ill. “But even in the camp Mamma would not let us hate. ‘Pity them, pity them,’ she always said.”
He turned away. “Yes, yes, I know. But how does a man cast a lion out of his breast?” He held Maria again in his arms, kissed her. “I go home now. We do not tell Mamma.”
“No … I will not say a word. Good night.” She went wearily on to the store. All the brightness was gone out of her. The shadows of the barbed wire seemed to stretch over her again.
Timothy Allred looked up anxiously from the fountain. “Thank goodness, you’re here. I thought you were never coming. I’ve been dishing up banana splits until the sight of them makes me green. It looks like every boy in the neighborhood has a new girl.” He stopped short. “Hey, what’s up? You’ve been crying.”
Maria became very brisk. “It was the wind. It blew against my eyes. You know I cry then.”
Timothy went to the door and opened it. “Hmm.”
Maria blushed. “It was an eyelash, then.”
“An eyelash?” he clucked his tongue. “They can be fatal. I know many a good man that has been downed by an eyelash. Come, let me look.”
Maria hastened behind the counter and tied on her pink apron. “All these dishes!”
“Gosh, I forgot.” He was clumsily contrite. “Peter was away, and I got a hurry call for drugs for Mrs. McKensie, she’s very ill, you know. Flu. By the way, did you see Skinny Ellis on your way here? I sent for him to deliver the stuff. Jimmy is away.”
“You mean Mrs. McKensie is ill? The one across the street from my house? The one who dislikes cats.”
“Don’t know about the cats. She really has a heart of gold, Mrs. McKensie has, she’s just hard to know. Understand she’s pretty sick.”
Maria held out her hand. “Would you let me deliver it? It would only take a moment. I have a special reason for asking.”
“But that isn’t your work.”
“This is special,” Maria pleaded. whipping off her apron. “I shall be only a few moments.”
Maria hurried back along the lilac-scented streets. She found Mamma sitting disconsolately upon the front porch rocker. “Papa took Phillip for an ice cream cone, Karen is upstairs with her guitar. Nothing for me to do.”
Maria held out the little blue wrapped package. “Is for Mrs. McKensie,” she nodded toward the house across the street. “Mr. Allred says she’s very sick. I … I hate to deliver this, because I just can’t afford to get the flu.”
Mamma’s disapproval was immediate and vocal. “Afraid of a germ! Tish! Here, give it to me. I am not afraid of a poor, sick woman.”
Maria held her breath while her mother marched across the street, knocked upon the door. It opened almost at once and Mamma went firmly in. Maria laughed softly and sped back to the drugstore. It was a spoon of Mamma’s own tonic. “If your troubles are too big,” she was fond of saying, “help your neighbor for a while. When you go back to your own problem it will be half the size.”
The drugstore was glittering when Maria returned, with a slim, beautiful girl who sat at the counter beside the dazzled and desperate-eyed Timothy. The girl was dark, with close-cropped hair, Mediterranean blue eyes, and a gray suit whose simple, expensive lines made Maria feel suddenly three inches shorter and twenty pounds heavier. She hesitated.
Timothy looked up and saw her and smiled in welcome. “Come over and meet the girl I’m going to marry one of these days.” He put his arm around the girl. “This is Maria Tobler, and this is Lisa Ballantine.”
“How do you do,” murmured Maria, wondering at the sudden grayness of the atmosphere.
“How do you do,” said Lisa with emphasis. “I’ve been dying to meet you. In fact, you’re the reason I’m here. All Tim talks of these days is your influence on his customers.”
“Don’t tell her,” Timothy warned. “She will ask for a raise.” He waved his arm. “Does the place bear any resemblance to the dusty emporium of a month ago?”
“It does not,” Lisa agreed, taking his arm.
Timothy nodded his head toward Maria. “Every day since she came she’s thought up a new angle for a display, or a new arrangement for stock, or a new angle on the counter. It’s kept us all hopping.”
Maria went behind the counter and began to wash dishes with leaden hands. She had never noticed before how young Timothy Allred was for all his twenty-three years. He needs someone to help him, she thought, and looked at Lisa Ballantine. Could she help him through the fires that forged a personality into character?
“When does your father plan to come back?” Lisa was asking.
“Another month, the doctor says. Dad insists it will be sooner.”
Lisa sipped angrily on her straw. “It certainly is taking him forever and a day. Oh, darling,” she cried, as Timothy drew away, “I don’t mean to sound pettish, but here it is, the beginning of the last quarter, and you are no nearer to school than the first. How long will it all drag on?”
Maria saw Timothy’s frown. He pushed back the stubborn hair from his forehead. “Oh, come now, Lisa. It hasn’t been so long. After all, the world isn’t going to arrange itself for our benefit. We’ll just have to fit into its plans.” He pulled her ear. “Unless you’d consent to be married to an old drug-store keeper, in which case …”
She pushed his hand away. “No. If I can’t have it the way I want it, there won’t be any wedding at all.” She turned to him. “Darling, we’re quarreling.”
“I know,” Timothy said. “We always do when we get on the subject of our future.”
“But you want to be a lawyer, don’t you? Just look at the fields that would be opened to you. What is there here for you, this grimy store on this grimy street?”
He put his fingers over her lips. “Just in case you were intending to say, ‘these grimy people.’ They’re wonderful. I like them better every day.” Maria saw the muscles ridge along his jaw.
Lisa caught his hand. “You big, stubborn goon! If I didn’t love you so much … if I didn’t see our future so clearly, I’d never see you again. But, darling, I do see it, and there isn’t a thing on this street that has a part in it.” She stood up. “Come along, darling, take me home.”
They went away and Maria hurried to straighten the counters before the new crowds should come. She had grown accustomed to the laughter, now, of the young people, to their teasing and their horseplay. But when the young boys asked to take her home, she shrank away, too shy and unsure of herself to risk their company.
They mistook her diffidence for disdain. “I’m not a child,” protested one, indignantly. “I’m the same age as you, seventeen. You don’t have to put on airs with me.”
“But I am an old seventeen,” Maria said, half in jest, half in earnest. She smiled at his dark, blunt young face. I should be happy, she thought, that they think me pretty. That they want to go out with me. But I do not care at all. She saw the popular girls come in surrounded by their swains and felt no slightest envy. I think I would rather have one that I truly liked and no others at all. She could not understand Karen’s obsession with popularity, how she rated girls and boys by how many of the opposite sex grouped around them. Maria thought it seemed much work for little pleasure.
“I have Dad’s new car,” the boy said. “I’ll run you home.”
“It is too late,” Maria said quickly. “It will be ten o’clock.”
The young man finished his malt gloomily. “And besides, everybody knows you’re in love with Tim.”
Maria’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh, no! How could they? He is almost married.”
Glad that his shot had found so instant and tender a mark, the boy rose. “Look in the mirror, sometime, Maria, when you are looking at him. You’ll see.”
“That will be thirty cents,” said Maria briskly. She would not lift her eyes to look at him. Efficiently she set about clearing the little tables in the lull that crept through the store. “In love, indeed!” she kept saying indignantly to herself, “Why, he is old enough to be my … uncle …” she finished lamely, finding suddenly how small a space six years covered.
When Timothy came slamming back, calling to her to get her coat so he could run her home, when he began to turn off the lights and hurry the closing of the store, Maria knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that it was true. She did love him. When he came in, the store became an exciting, important place; when he went away, it was a rather musty funereal place, with no charm at all.
How long had she loved him? Maria thought back, ever since the day he had whipped out the pad and written the ice-cream prescription for Phillip! Ever since the day he had come over and leaned his elbows on the counter and said, “I’d rather talk to you than to Blackstone.” Or was it the moment he had stood at the swinging doors and said, “Sometimes I feel that just staying here and making something of this store and neighborhood is the most terrifically important job I could do.”
Maybe it was none of these things, maybe it was only the way he moved and smiled and the slow quiet mirth that lived in him.
Timothy helped her on with her coat. “I am seven kinds of a heel. You look beat, and I’ve been off playing hooky, leaving you to cope with the mob.”
Maria bent her head. “Sometimes we have to get away from things for a while.”
He helped her into his battered car and went around and slid under the wheel. “Peace, it’s wonderful. Not another problem until tomorrow morning.”
She was silent, content to be close to him for the moment, pushing away all the obstacles. She felt his eyes searching her.
“How come, Maria, you never take advantage of the dates the boys press on you?”
Maria shrugged. “Ten o’clock is too late to start on a date, Mamma says.”
“You make me sound like Simon Legree. I’ll let you off at seven-thirty any night you say.”
She smoothed her skirt. “I cannot be like they are, so bright and gay and happy. I cannot be a child any more.”
He put his hand over hers. “Maria, was there ever a chance for you to be a child?”
Maria trembled under his touch. “Long, long ago I remember Mamma dressing me so beautifully for a walk in the park and Papa so proud of Karen and me … the puppet shows, the swans on the lake, and cream cakes in a little café.” She shivered. “But it was over so quickly. Then it was only the planes and the armies and the running here and there away from it all, with Papa gone and Mamma trying to take care of us … food impossible to find.”
They turned into the little street. The porch light was on, Maria saw; then Mamma was still away. She looked over to McKensies’ house and saw Mamma’s broad shadow crossing in an upstairs window.
“You just painted your fence, didn’t you?”
“Yes, Papa painted it yesterday.”
“And the porch, too?”
“It looks nice, yes?”
Timothy rubbed his chin. “Can’t get over the place. It really looks regal. I never dreamed anybody could do anything with that pile of bricks.”
“It was fun,” Maria said. “We do it all together and we enjoy it.” she opened the door. “I think pretty soon it looks better than Mrs. McKensie’s and we even let cats in our yard, and you know how she is.”
Timothy threw back his head and roared. “Maria, you’re terrific! There isn’t a girl that can touch you.” He was abruptly silent.
Maria climbed out of the car. “Thank you, Mr. Allred. Don’t forget to order more cream for tomorrow for the special.”
Timothy looked from her to the house and back again. He leaned his arms on the wheel. “I’ll bet you go to church every Sunday, Maria.”
She looked at him, perplexed. “To church? Of course, we all do.”
“I’ll bet you believe everything.”
Maria shrank a little from the tone of his voice. It was flat, almost accusing. “With all my heart.”
“I thought so.” He nodded. “I’ll bet you believe that America is the land of hope and freedom, and every man can be President?”
“But, yes, I know it …” She came closer to the car. “What are you trying to say, Mr. Allred?”
He bit his thumb. His eyes were still straight ahead, as if he saw something infinitely interesting just beyond. “I’ll bet you believe that a person doesn’t have to have his eye out for the main chance. I’ll bet you believe that if a person does the best he can, right where he’s standing, that the chance will come to him.”
She put her hands on the car door. “I … I do believe. Do … you think it is foolish of me to believe?”
He looked at her quietly, all mirth gone. “I’m just beginning to realize what believing really is … a sort of ingredient.”
“I do not understand.”
“Well, if you believe that America is the finest country in the world, the land of the free, the land of opportunity, all the time-worn phrases, you’re going to do something about it. Your believing is a sort of jet propulsion. If you believe in your Church with all your soul, you won’t go, as I’ve been going, like a zombie, all ears and senses closed. You’ll be excited about it. You’ll start searching for things. Do you know what I’m trying to explain?”
She shook her head. “No … I do not understand at all.”
He laughed. “I guess I do sound a little mixed up. But it’s this. I’ve been like a man who owned forty acres that his father’s left him. But I’ve never planted on my acres, or built a factory, or raised beef … I’ve simply owned them. Now do you see?” He got out and came around to her. “And none of these thoughts had entered my head until the day you walked into my store and brushed down cobwebs.”
Maria was shaken by the joy of his nearness and the words he said and the deeper meaning beyond them. “But my coming was such a little thing …”
He lifted her chin, “As little as the landing of the Pilgrim fathers … at least to me. Goodnight, little Puritan, don’t let any wild probings keep you awake.”
“Goodnight,” she whispered, and moved on clouds to the house.