My Mother Takes a Tumble
The Correspondence of Dudley Beaker and Eliza
BEAKER LIVED ALONE in a stucco house next door to Gumma and Guppa, my mother’s
parents, on No Bridge Road. There was, as a sign on the corner cautioned,
no bridge at the end of No Bridge Road, though one had once been planned,
and rumors persisted that construction would begin soon.
All the houses on No Bridge Road were stucco.
Beside each house, on the right as you faced it, was a clamshell driveway
that led to a stucco garage. Guppa, a salesman at Babbington Studebaker
who never took “no” for an answer, had seen to it that in each garage was
Under the right conditions, on a winter morning,
when snow covered their roofs and glistened in the morning light, the houses
looked like the chocolate cakes for which my mother was, within her circle,
noted: dark, rich, two-layer cakes covered with shiny white frosting that
she pulled into peaks with the back of a spoon.
My mother and father were living in Gumma and Guppa’s
house then. Gumma taught my mother how to pull the icing into peaks,
and Mr. Beaker ate his share of those cakes at Sunday dinners. I
first saw one on the day that my mother and I came home from the hospital
in South Hargrove. My father swung Guppa’s Studebaker into the driveway,
crunching clamshells under the wheels. Gumma and Guppa ran from the
house, with Mr. Beaker right behind them. My father slid from behind
the wheel and dashed to the rear door. Gumma and Guppa ran right
up to the car, but Mr. Beaker held back a bit. My father opened the
door with a flourish and held out his hand in a gesture usually accompanied
“Voila!” burst from Mr. Beaker. My father
scowled at the driveway.
Gumma and Guppa poked their heads into the car to
get their first look at me in natural light. Beyond them, Mr. Beaker
was bending this way and that, trying to get a glimpse between them.
He was holding his hands behind him and wearing a grin of the sort that
usually made Gumma, and later my mother, say, “You look like the cat that
swallowed the canary.”
At last Gumma and Guppa moved aside, and my father
reached into the car to take me off my mother’s hands. Seeing an
opening, Mr. Beaker stepped up and produced from behind his back, with
a flourish, one of the famous chocolate cakes, baked under Gumma’s guidance
as a birthday cake for me.
“Voila,” muttered my father, twisting his foot in
My mother blushed. “Isn’t that nice?” she
asked me. “Your first birthday cake.”
My father carried me, very carefully, into the house.
Mr. Beaker helped my mother from the car.
Mr. Beaker was said to have a college degree, and
he may have had one, for (a) he smoked a pipe; (b) on weekends he wore
loafers and a cardigan sweater with suede patches on the elbows; and (c)
at about the time that I learned to stand up in my crib, he began making
a tidy living in a line of work that my father called, shaking his head
in grudging admiration, “a swindle that only a college man could have dreamed
up”: writing letters, as “Mary Strong,” to lonely men who from time to
time could be persuaded to send the unfortunate Miss Strong some money.
Mr. Beaker drummed up business by running advertisements
in the personals columns of small-town newspapers. He ran his first
ad in the Hargrove Daily News, just to test the waters:
Lonely Man Lovely young woman in unfortunate circumstances
wishes to correspond with lonely man. Mary Strong, Post Office Box
98, Babbington, New York.
At that time, Eliza Foote was living in Hargrove and
working as a typist at Hackett & Belder, Insurance, the premier firm
of its type in Babbington. Guppa recommended them so highly to purchasers
of Studebakers that all the homes, lives, and automobiles on No Bridge
Road were insured through them, and Mr. Hackett saw to it that Guppa had
a steady supply of liquor and turkeys.
When Eliza came home from work each evening, she
read the Daily News straight through while she sipped bourbon from a juice
glass. Sometimes she read aloud, so that her room would not seem
so empty. Mr. Beaker’s ad caught her eye just as she was swallowing
the last little sip. She choked, gasped, and choked and gasped again.
For a moment, she saw Mary plainly, somewhere across town, maybe in one
of the rooms at the River Sound Hotel, sitting at a table, sipping from
a glass of bourbon, reading and rereading her ad, hoping that someone else
was reading it too. Eliza began rummaging in her pocketbook for a
pen. After a few minutes she remembered that Mr. Hackett had borrowed
her pen to print his name on the stub of a raffle ticket he had bought
from a pushy high school girl who just wouldn’t take “no” for an answer,
and rarely gave it either, if Eliza didn’t miss her guess. In a kitchen
drawer she found a pencil, which she sharpened with a paring knife.
She sat at her table and began to write, but she hated the way the pencil
lead looked on the nice stationery her sister had sent her for Christmas,
so she went next door to Mrs. Mitchell, who had to repair typewriters in
her spare time to make ends meet, because Mr. Mitchell had not given much
thought to death when he was alive, and had left her ill-provided-for when
he died, though God knows he had sent enough money to that brother of his.
Mrs. Mitchell was happy to lend her a typewriter after Eliza had given
satisfactory answers to a few probing questions.
Eliza wasn’t the only person to answer Mr. Beaker’s
ad, but she was the first. She signed her letter “John Simpson,”
approximating the name of Dan Hanson, the only unattached salesman at Hackett
& Belder, a fellow who cut a dashing figure in his fedora and checked
jacket and set Eliza’s heart aflutter whenever he walked past her desk.