The Guest Book
by Sarah Blake
THE FALL HAD TURNED to winter and then back again without conviction, November's chill taken up and dropped like a woman never wearing the right coat until finally December laughed and took hold. Then the ice on the black pathways through the park fixed an unreflecting gaze upward month after month, the cold unwavering through what should have been spring, so that even in April, in the Bowery in New York City, the braziers still glowed on street corners, and a man trying to warm his hands could watch the firelight picked up and carried in the windows above his head and imagine the glow traveling all the way along the avenues, square by square above the streets, all the way uptown and into the warm apartments of those who, pausing on the threshold to turn off the light, left their rooms and descended in woolens and furs, grumbling about the cold—good god, when will it end?—until it turned without fanfare one morning in May, and spring let loose at last. All over the city, children were released from their winter coats and out into the greening arms of Central Park. So here we all are again, thought Kitty Milton, stepping into the taxicab on the way to meet her mother at the Philharmonic.
It was 1935.
She wore a soft cloche hat that belled below her ears, casting her eyes into shadow and making more pronounced the soft white of her chin tipped forward a little upon her long neck. Her coat swung easily around her knees, her upright figure swathed in a foamy green silk dress, the woolen coat just a shade darker.
The taxi pulled away from the curb toward Central Park, and through the window spring unfurled above her head in the elm trees, and down along the walkways the forsythia shouted its yellow news. She leaned her head upon the leather.
Life is wide, girls, Miss Scrivener had bid them all, years ago. Cross it with your arms open. And standing before the schoolgirls ranged in rows, all six feet of her—an old maid, her fiancé killed in the Great War—their teacher had thrown out her arms.
And Kitty hadn't known whether to laugh or cry.
Well, wide it was, Kitty thought now, spring begun and nothing ahead but possibility. Ogden would be home soon from abroad; the ground had been broken on their house in Oyster Bay. She was thirty. It was '35. Neddy was five, Moss was three, and baby Joan had just turned one. Her head filled with the delicious math of life—the word flushed up onto her cheeks and into her eyes, broadening into a smile as the taxi moved up Fifth Avenue.
She caught the driver's eye in the mirror and knew she ought to turn her head away so he didn't see her, smiling like an idiot, but she held his gaze instead. He winked. She smiled back and slid down on the seat, closing her eyes as the taxi plunged into the tunnel moving east to west, underneath the playgrounds in the park where her children were playing with a concentrated fury against the end of the morning, the arrival of lunchtime, crawling around the great bronze statue of a beloved Scottish poet, perching like little sparrows on the giant knee, climbing (if they were lucky, if their nurse wasn't watching) all the way up to his massive sloping shoulder.
But the Milton boys were not lucky that way; the Milton boys' nurse told them to get down, right now, get down immediately and come here.
Moss, the younger, who did not like when grown-ups looked at him with that distant, frowning attention that signaled more attention coming after, coming closer, slid off the statue, too quickly, and landed on one bare knee. "Ow," he mouthed, and lowered his cheek to the hot, scuffed skin. "Ouch."
But his brother had paid no attention to Nurse below him, their baby sister, Joan, on her big hip; Neddy kept climbing, creeping to the top of the statue's head, and was—what was he doing?
"Edward." Nurse moved quickly forward. "Edward! Get down. This instant."
The boy was going to fall.
He had planted both feet, one on either side of the great head, the shaggy bronze hair covering the two ears, a foot on either shoulder, and was carefully, slowly, pushing himself up to stand, aloft.
The boy was going to break his neck.
"Edward," Nurse said, very quietly now.
The other children stopped their crawling, frozen where they were on the statue, watching the boy above them who had climbed so high. Now he was the only thing moving upon the bronze.
Slowly, carefully, Neddy raised himself, pushing off the poet's head, wavering just an instant, then catching steady, and stood all the way up. Steady and up so high. Compact, perfect, he stood on the statue's shoulders, a small being in short pants and a cardigan, now regarding the world of upturned, worried faces below him.
"Moss," he squawked. "Lookit."
And Moss tilted his head and saw up through the folds of the statue's jacket, the great thick hands, up past another boy clinging to the open page of that enormous book, Neddy far above, standing, grinning, and crowing.
If he'd held out his hand and said Come, fly! Moss would have flown. For when your brother calls come, you step forward, you take his hand and go. How can you not? It was always him in the front, going first.
His head tipped, his cheek still on his knee, Moss grinned up at his brother.
Neddy nodded and lightly, easily, bent again and slid from the top of the bronze lump, clambering all the way down, arriving with a little bounce as he dropped to the pebbled ground.
"Your father," Nurse promised, "will hear of this. This is going on the list."
She unlocked the brake on the pram and pushed the boy's shoulder roughly. "The list, Edward. You hear me?"
Neddy nodded. And started marching forward.
Moss stole his hand into his brother's. Both boys kept step, ahead of the pram, their little backs straight as soldiers. Smiling.
There would be no list, they knew. It was only Mother at home. Father was in Berlin.
Excerpted from The Guest Book by Sarah Blake. Copyright © 2019 by Sarah Blake. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
How do I print part of this page, not all of it?
- Point your cursor at the start of the content you're interested in.
- Click and drag until you have highlighted the content you want. Then take your finger off the mouse button!
- The area you want to print should now be highlighted in blue.
- Click 'Print This Page' at the top or bottom of this document.
- The Print Screen should now open. Under 'Page Range' choose 'Selection'.
- Then click print.