William Frank Bellais
As she holds a cigarette in the fingers of her right hand, the young woman poses for her boyfriend, a dapper and suave man who is up on all the latest gadgets and fads. The young woman is, in the currency of the time a flapper. She wears a costume that begins with lacey and figureless dress, her stockings rolled to her knees and low black patent leather pumps on her feet. On her head is a cloche hat. She smiles and flirts with the camera while leaning provocatively against a tree. Her slightly bent right leg and her black patent leather shod right foot raised lightly off the ground pushing against the tree provides balance and allure.
The attractive sixteen-year-old girl likes to dress in the chic fashions of the time and she likes people who are stylish and up to date. Her boyfriend and photographer is an older man, twenty-one years old, a real man. The debonair man wears two-tone saddle wing-tip shoes; a plaid vest accents his double-breasted wool serge suit. He likes to sport a hand-painted tie with a gold stickpin. On his head, he wears a sporty fedora with a small feather in the headband. This man meets all the Flapper’s juvenile requirements.
The man’s smile charms everyone who meets him or even sees him from a distance. He specializes in the vernacular of the day and all the year’s newest fads; the word irresistible characterizes him best. Only a few years into the prohibition of alcohol the suave man’s interests, besides seducing under age young women, center on being a scofflaw, drinking bathtub gin, and selling bootleg booze.
The Flapper falls in love almost as soon as she sees him. How can she not? All the girls love him and fantasize about him. She swoons when talking of this suave and debonair man; she falls under the spell of infatuation. The man knows the power of his attractiveness, and he takes advantage of it. He coyly argues that the girls take advantage of him knowing that his plan always includes seduction.
Seduced she is. The Flapper girl is thrilled when taken to a hideaway gin-joint for homemade booze. Flattered by the attention this slick and handsome and older man gives her, she is open to seduction. He takes the advantage and late into her seventeenth year, the Flapper suspects she had allowed him to go too far.
She is pregnant. In those days pregnant is a word, however, that is rarely uttered in polite circles. The Flapper believes that even among her sisters the word, or the possibility of the word, does not form in their mouths; always feared but never spoken. Denial of the condition does not change the reality of the word. Of course, she considers alternatives to pregnancy. Also, rarely uttered (at least at the same time), the words “pregnant” and “abortion” remain un-spoken by the Flapper and her sisters. The suave and debonair man, the father of the fetus gestating in the Flapper’s womb, insists that the Flapper get rid of the “creature” (that is what he calls it). He does not care how she does it.
“No,” she says.
Willing to marry and offering to live with him as his wife she is prepared to make whatever sacrifices are necessary; after all, she loves the suave and debonair man who has impregnated her.
Marriage and fatherhood do not suit him. Those conditions are a threat to his independence. However, the Flapper’s plan to expose the dapper older man as the father of her child and informing the girls all she knows about him seems more threatening. Further, she would list him on the birth certificate as the child’s father. He reluctantly agrees to marry her. After all, having a woman around to bed when others are notavailable is a good thing.
The baby came out on time and healthy.
The Flapper now loves them both, father and son. However, the father cares little for the Flapper or the son.
With the birth of a child, the life of most couples changes but even more dramatically for this couple. The Flapper and her suave husband change. Preoccupied by the infant’s care the Flapper overlooks the suave and debonair man’s own predilection for women and drinking bathtub gin. The Flapper has no time for drink or party. Caring for a newborn takes all her energy and fills her days. She does not think of the infant as a burden; she loves the baby boy.
Coming home intoxicated late most every night from his work (she never truly knows what he does to earn money), her suave and debonair husband often argues loudly that he needs her attention. He says with a growl, “I need attention more than the bawling brat that keeps me awake all night.”
The suave and debonair man wants what they had before—happy times, party times, and sexy bedtime. She responds to him that she has used up all her strength keeping their apartment clean, caring for the child, and making certain that she properly clothes her husband, the father of her child, for the work she does not know about.
Well into the six month of the child’s life the man, husband and father, comes home very late (after mid-night) as usual. He wakes the Flapper and disturbs the infant. The child begins to whimper and then bawls. The infant does not like rude awakenings. The man picks up the child and screams at it, “Shut up, you little bastard!”
He holds the bawling boy in the air and begins to shake it. The Flapper steps in, grabs the child from the man’s hands, and races into the kitchen to hide. Following behind her and preventing her from closing the door he barrels in and grabs her free arm. Raising his hand as he prepares to slap her, he says, “Now it is time to get things straight between us.”
She says, “You hit me or the baby and I will kill you and walk out of here.” A hollow threat; she has no immediate way of killing him and certainly no means to care for herself and no place to go. There is family nearby (those sisters who did not use words like pregnant or abortion), but she believes they would not be happy to see her. She cowers in fear and tries to get out of the reach of the man’s hand. He drops it and says, “No, you won’t! You can hardly kill a fly and you won’t leave before I do. Then he clenches his teeth and snarls, “I am out of here right now!”
She gasps not fully understanding what those words mean. He glares at her, drags her into their bedroom as she clutches the baby and throws her on their bed. All that alluring suaveness she believed would make her a happy woman finally disappears. She sees a drunken monster dressed in fancy clothes. Cringing in fear, she expects the monster to beat and rape her. However, the man pulls back and laughs, “You’re damaged goods now. Don’t worry, you won’t see me again.” He rises, stands as straight as a drunken man can, turns around, and walks to the door of their apartment. He turns, glares, and says, “Keep that bastard quiet, you’ll disturb the neighbors.” He opens the door, walks out into the hall, and pulls the door and closing it with a bang he shouts, “Freedom!” The Flapper will see him again only one more time. She does not know that when the suave and debonair man slams the apartment door closed and shouts, “Freedom.” In fact, she fully expects him to return before nightfall later that day.
Lying on the bed, she clings to the baby and weeps silently. She cries until sunrise. Still sobbing she feeds the baby and then returns to bed. Every day for a week, she weeps, feeds the child, and waits. Initially she is not concerned she must pay the rent at the end of the week; she believes her monster husband will certainly return. She hopes beyond hope that he will not abandon them. He does not return at the end of the week. Still alone with the baby, she now knows by experience the definition of abandoned. As the days pass, she panics. The Flapper has no food, no money, and no way of buying food or making money. Further, she has no ice to keep milk cold, even if she had milk in the icebox.
Thursday night came. The Flapper fears the landlord will be at the door the next morning wanting the ten dollars in rent. As she thinks about that eventuality, she makes a plan. She will leave the apartment by stealth early Friday morning. Although she is not certain of a welcome, she plans to find one of her sisters.
The Flapper dreads the thought of leaving in darkness. She knows she cannot go out the front door of the apartment building. The landlord lives on the first floor right at the building’s main entrance. Off the kitchen is a wooden porch with steps leading down three flights to the ground. The steps pass by the landlord’s kitchen but not his bedroom and she believes she can sneak by without detection. She will leave by the back steps at midnight.
The hour comes to leave. She puts on an overcoat. The weather is mild but the night is cool; besides, she will need the overcoat later when winter comes. Bundling the infant she grasps him and holds him tight to her bosom and walks on to the porch outside the kitchen. She holds the baby in her right arm close to her. Using her left hand, she steadies herself while descending the steps.
As she reaches the second floor landing, music and people singing in drunken slurs infiltrates the night air. She recognizes the voice of her suave and debonair husband and the high shrill laughter of a woman who is enjoying his song. The Flapper wants to burst in and confront the monster. The wiggle of the baby in her right arm distracts her. Deciding it is simply better to get away, the Flapper moves on.
The baby’s wiggling makes her nervous. Fearful he might cry out, she decides to hold the boy tighter in both arms. Descending the steps safely in the early morning darkness becomes her primary concern. The Flapper cannot feel secure without holding on to the rail but she cannot do that and simultaneously hold the boy securely. The solution, sit down and slide down each step one-by-one. She does until she reaches the ground.
On reaching the ground, the Flapper and the baby pass by the landlord’s kitchen and she is alarmed to see the kitchen fully illuminated. She sees the obese landlord in the kitchen in his underwear and poking his head in the icebox. Trying to keep the baby still, the Flapper freezes, not moving a muscle, she expects discovery. Despite struggling against her hold, the child does not cry or whimper. The landlord pulls his head out of icebox along with sliced meat and a jar of something (she thinks, mustard). He moves to the kitchen table and begins to make a sandwich. His attention solely on the sandwich he does not look up.
The Flapper moves quietly away and then through a narrow alley where in the darkness she trips over garbage cans. The cans make a clatter. She stands still expecting at any moment the landlord will burst out of his kitchen and find her in the alley; she emotionally prepares for the worse. The Flapper hears nothing except the muffled sound of music and singing on the floor above. The Flapper cautiously walks in the alley darkness until she finds the street; the poorly lighted street does not ease her fears. She has to deal with darkness and a fear that someone hiding in the shadows will assault her.
She walks for three hours without incident. Fatigue and a restless infant are now the currents of life. Trying to imagine her future as she walks in the darkness, she can-not. The Flapper has no idea of what is in her future. She inwardly argues, “Who knows what the future is. I never thought this was to be my future.”
Turning gray, the sky gives the first indication of the coming sunrise. The baby boy, no longer quiet, begins to squirm and whimper; he needs feeding. There has been no food for over a day. He sucked on stale bread before they departed. Other than a bottle of water, she has nothing to offer. Mentally calculating, she believes she will have to walk another hour to find her sister. Daylight makes the walk easier, especially when she treks on the country lane leading to the sister’s house.
The Flapper expects a lecture from her sister, but instead the Flapper is welcomed. The sister takes the child to feed it and instructs the Flapper to get into the bed and sleep.
Later the Flapper’s other sister joins them and they commiserate. The sister who joined them also has a child fathered by a man who had raped her and then disap-peared from her life. That child, a girl, had been born a year earlier. Together the sisters work out a plan to care for the children. They need jobs and money. The Flapper’s sisters have work to care for themselves. The Flapper and her child add an unforeseen economic burden, but if the Flapper can find work, they will have a healthy living arrangement. She does and enjoys the feeling of independence.
The cost of carfare and the long trolley ride to and from work and the sister’s rural home prompts the three young women to set up a communal home and to move back into the city. They find a house in a nice working class neighborhood. The sisters pool their incomes and decide to hire a woman for the children.
Besides caring for the children, the woman also keeps the house clean and prepares the evening meal for the sisters. Managing a house for three young women and two small children requires the woman to organize her time carefully. Being an experienced domestic, the woman knows her business.
For the next year and half, maybe two years, nothing much happens. The Flapper goes to work every morning. She returns to the communal house every evening. When she returns from work, she takes over caring for the children. The evening meal, readied by the woman, graces the kitchen table. When the sisters return from work, only minutes apart, they put the children on piles of books in chairs at the kitchen table and they have their communal meal cheerfully chatting about their day’s activities.
One sister has a man friend who visits regularly. The other sister often goes out at night to meet friends. Frequently, the two have a number of friends over for a good time. Totally committed to her child, the Flapper does not have a man friend and cares for the children as her sisters have their parties.
In the winter months the closed up and radiator warmed house makes the boy’s room snug; the boy is contented playing with blocks of wood and lead soldiers. During the late spring and summer months, the house opens up to overcome the heat and humidity. A quiet back yard where the children can play eases the stress.
Because the woman also takes care of the house, she sometimes loses track of the children. The boy often leaves the house and wanders to the front sidewalk. This activity rarely alarms the woman. However, when a quiet calm lasts too long she worries, and then says, “Where are the children?” Then going to the yard, assured they are playing safely, she returns to her household chores.
Often she does not think of them for over an hour. When she does, again she races out to the backyard; she usually finds them playing in the dirt, but sometimes not. When found not playing safely in the yard she panics. Racing back into the house she searches bedrooms, other second floor rooms, then the attic, then goes back to the first floor, searching all the rooms there, and then cautiously goes down into the dungeon-like basement.
The woman rarely thinks to look out the front door of the house first. She always conducts a thorough back yard and inside search. When she thinks of the front of the house, the woman begins her search on the front porch. If the children have wandered to the front of the house, the girl is usually safely on the porch. This briefly, but falsely, assures the woman. The boy, more curious than his older cousin, usually heads for the street. When the woman does not find the boy on the front porch, she walks to the sidewalk frequently finding him standing on the curb throwing pebbles into a puddle of rainwater.
The woman scolds the boy, picks him up, and then confines him to his room to play. During the hot and sticky summer days, this punishment does not last long. The bedroom, on the second floor of the house, suffocates the boy and he comes down the steps crying, “Hot, nanny; hot.” She lets him play in the back yard with the admonition not go to the street. The boy obeys.
Late in the summer of the boy’s fourth year, on an extremely hot day, the boy and his cousin play half-naked in the back yard. The woman, who has been scrubbing the kitchen floor, sits down at the kitchen table. She lays her head on the table and falls asleep. The boy, noticing the unusual quiet, goes to the kitchen door and says, “Nanny.” No answer. Again he asks, “Nanny?” No answer. The boy returns to his play.
Because the heat of the day oppresses everyone, silence prevails; birds do not sing, dogs do not bark, and the leaves of the trees do not rustle. The tyranny of the sun’s heat holds everyone and everything hostage. His cousin, asleep on the back stoop adds to the quiet. The boy seeks relief. He returns to the kitchen door and cries, “Nanny!” She does not respond. He attempts to open the screen door, but because she scrubbed the floor and does not want the boy to track his dirty bare feet across her handiwork, the woman latched the screen door.
The boy sits on the back stoop; he needs to use the toilet and he needs to get out of the heat. The boy rises from the stoop and walks to the side of the house. There is some shade there. In the privacy of the passageway between the yard fence and the house, he urinates against the house. In the shade of the house, he sits in the dirt, but his discomfort continues. He cries not knowing what to do. Leaning his little head against the house, he finally falls asleep.
A few minutes later, a fly buzzes across his nose. He awakes and notices that the gate on that side of the house is open. He stands, walks out the gate to the street and looks for the water puddle he played in before. The heat has evaporated the water, a concept beyond his understanding. He decides to look between the parked cars at the curb; still no puddle. He sees the heat waves coming off the street’s surface and he walks toward what he believes is water.
The woman, still sleeping with her head on the kitchen table, awakens to a noise of some sort. She cannot tell immediately what it is, but it was enough noise to wake her. Then she hears people speaking and a commotion that frightens her. She bolts from her chair, runs to the screen door, unlatches it, sees the girl still asleep, and then runs into the back yard; no sign of the boy. Then she hears the commotion more clearly.
A man shouts, “Hey, is there anyone in the house; is there anyone here?”
The woman says, “I am here. What’s the matter?”
“There’s a child out here that’s been injured.”
The woman screams, “Oh, God!”
She races to the front of the house and sees a large truck and the boy lying in the street. She weeps, “Oh, God, oh, God almighty, what has happened?”
A neighbor woman grabs her to hold her back. A man lifts the boy to lay him on the sidewalk; he says, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry; he just walked out in front of me and I hit him.”
The woman asks, “Can someone go get his momma?”
A motorcyclist who witnessed the accident says he will. The woman tells him where she works. The motorcyclist takes only five minutes. He races into the Flapper’s work place tells someone what happened. Summoned, the Flapper learns of the accident. Mounting the back of the motorcycle she and motorcyclist race to the scene. When she arrives, her baby boy is lying on the sidewalk, the woman is hysterical, and others are trying to calm her. The motorcyclist tells the Flapper that he will take them to the hospital. The Flapper raises the child into her arms, straddles the motorcycle and prays.
The boy is dead. The Flapper does not believe it when the doctor at the hospital says, “Sorry, ma’am, the boy is dead.” She screams in the agony of profound grief. The doctor gives her a sedative; she collapses.
The woman disappeared, never seen or heard from again. The motorcyclist wished he could have done more. The truck driver, shaken so much by the event, never fully regains confidence in his driving skill. The sisters cry until they are exhausted. At the funeral, held without a pastor, the boy’s father does not attend. He never makes contact or indicates that he either knows or cares.
The Flapper, months later, finds the photograph taken by the man who left her bereft and lonely. Not so long ago she felt carefree and hopeful. Then she took the hand tinted studio portrait of the boy, her baby boy, from its frame and holding it in front of her and she wept. Now, no longer carefree, no longer a mother destroyed by grief, the Flapper believes there is no life left for her.
He discovers a photograph among other photographs in an antique cigar box buried deep in a dresser drawer. The fading sepia photograph, until this moment, has been hidden and unappreciated for at least five decades. Hiding these pictures away like this is a mystery. Nothing in the picture indicates scandal or shame. Nevertheless, not until the girl in the photograph died of old age has any of her children held it, looked at it, and spoken of it; at least as far as he knows. Maybe the girl in the picture has. He just does not know what motivated her to hide the photo away in a cigar box in the back of an old bedroom set of dresser drawers.
The photograph lay under other family pictures. Last in the pile of photographs, most being black and grey, is a hand-tinted studio portrait of a child, a boy, with no identifying information. In fact, all the photographs are unidentified. No one wrote on the back of pictures. They are of women in the dress of the late nineteenth century, young people in their school uniforms, and men with handlebar moustaches; all those people are long gone and unknown. The photos reflect a family history remembered vaguely, if at all, and are a pictorial genealogy of a now disappeared family past. The flapper, the young woman in the photograph of her leaning against a tree, and all those people had lives worth remembering.
No current family member expresses interest in owning the pictures. Children ask, “Who are they?” Shrugging ignorance, they return the box of family photographs to the man who places the photos in the drawer of the dresser designated to be a part of the estate sale.
In the room where the set of dresser drawers stands against the wall, the man of fifty-five, says, “No. No photographs in the sale.” He takes the box out of the drawer and shuffles the pictures until he finds the Flapper. He holds it up to get a better view of the forgotten image. He does not know the girl posing so beautifully against the tree, (the joyful or gleeful look on her face intrigues him) but he recognizes her as the woman she became, his mother.
He asks, “What had been her life?” Leaning against a tree dressed as a 1920s Flapper, she has no way of imagining the challenges before her; everything was new, a lark, and full of promise. He knew her as his mother, a good and loving one at that. Does he know her as an individual who had an identity beyond mother? What had been her life before and after the photographer clicked the shutter? He knows of her birthplace and something about her childhood, nevertheless she is a mystery; she has a story he does not know. Possibly the other photos would give a clue. Scanning them again, the mystery remains unresolved.
Recalling his mother as sometimes being cautious and on edge yet he does not remember her as sad. Nonetheless, there is sadness in the pile of family snapshots and portraits. Except for the hand tinted studio picture of a boy, a small boy possibly three or maybe four years old, he has no clue to who they are. He does know all had lived in difficult times. They had experienced wealth, poverty, peace, and war.
Holding the two photographs at arm’s length the man wonders how she overcame the tragedy represented in the two photographs. He does not know the scope of the tragedy or even if his imagination of what may have happened correctly catches it. His mother never spoke of a child other than the family he knew. Divorce being a scandal, only once told her son that she had been married before and divorced.
Never has the man seen these photographs and while they are a mystery to him, he does know that whatever happened she found a new life with a husband that lasted for over sixty years. She died knowing she had a family that loved her and a family she loved. Nevertheless, the sadness of that lost time lay as a background there somewhere.
Staring at the photos, the man recalls that the nurse at the hospital reported his mother, as she died, spoke. She said, “My baby.” She smiled and closed her eyes.
The man lifted the box from the drawer, held it close to his chest, and then put the photos back into the cigar box.
No longer a forgotten photographs in a cigar box stored in the back of a dresser drawer in a piece of furniture no one wants, they are pictures of an attractive teenage Flapper and a boy she loved whose spirits live again; a mother of a beautiful and angelic boy.