Chapter One of “Third Floor,” A Novel-In-Progress

CHAPTER ONE – JOSEPH

April 18, 1953

THE GREEN GLOW of Joseph Singer’s Big Ben alarm clock showed five minutes past two. Father had taken down the storm windows early, and their big old house felt like a fortress against the peals of thunder, the barbs of lightning, the wind rattling and rain pounding his window. To ward it off, he had already pulled his woolen blanket up to his chin. Now he listened for the sounds coming through his door from his parents’ bedroom across the hallway.

Against them he could make a canopy of his covers with his head and feet stretching them tight, but this time he wasn’t going to try something that hardly made a difference. Rachel was always telling him to grit his teeth and close his eyes when their parents fought. Keep your eyes open, she said, so your mind won’t make up bad pictures. When you shut them you can pretend you are seeing us in our tree house in the sycamore. You know how you love our tree house, Joseph, she would say.

He tried to think only about the storm. Just listen to it. Rachel said that was another way. Sometimes she would remind him how much fun it would be inside the tree house together during a storm, especially a snowstorm. She might be right about snow, he thought. That would be pretty neat, but he hated thunderstorms. To have one on a night when his parents were yelling and crying – well, Mother, anyway – was going to be too much if it didn’t stop pretty soon. He found some comfort in knowing that his twin sister was in her bed right on the other side of the wall, but the combination was just too much. He tried to wince back the tears, and he succeeded. With his sister’s help he had taught himself not to cry out. They didn’t want their parents to hear. Rachel said they must have a lot on their minds or they wouldn’t fight like that. He knew she was right, and that it was mostly about them, but he also knew she didn’t like it anymore than he did. It was just that she never seemed as scared.

Soon, he knew, he’d be tapping their signal against the wall, and Rachel would come into his room even though they both knew how terrible it would be for their mother to find her there. Father would understand, but never their mother. Rachel always knew the exact best moment to leave so they wouldn’t get caught, though with Father it was never a problem. Rachel said that they shouldn’t get him in trouble either.

He remembered the January thunderstorm that rattled the windows something terrible and lit up the sky with big bolts of lightning even worse than this one. They were on the couch in the den cuddling up under Father’s big arms while he read from one of the Hardy Boys mysteries. When the thunder and lightning grew closer, Father stopped to squeeze them harder and explain that for it to happen like that in the middle of winter was a big surprise. They snuggled in closer to him, but he knew that to Rachel it was only a game. Then Rachel pushed him on an old subject.

“Father,” she asked, “Will you PLEASE push our beds up against the wall between our rooms? PLEASE.” Joseph knew she was doing it for him.

“Unfortunately, kids, that’s just not going to be.”

“Says Mother,” Rachel answered.

He remembered Father sighing, nothing unusual because Father sighed a lot. “Let’s not spoil our goodnight story,” Father said.

“But we’re twins!” Rachel said. “We’re twins! We should be in the same room.”     “Someday you will understand.”

“I want to understand now,” she answered.

“Mother needs guaranteed quiet at night, and you are always tapping on the wall and going back and forth with your shenanigans.”

“We don’t always. It’s mostly when you guys…you know.”

Even at seven, Joseph knew it couldn’t be a mood every time, that a mood was not a reason, and that “someday you will understand” meant that Father still believed they were too young for real ones. Rachel believed they were old enough right now.

The thunder rolled even closer, the flashes of lightning brighter. He thought about all those weeks of pestering Father to move their beds from the far ends of their rooms to the shared wall, about how he finally gave in. Practically headboard-to-headboard, Joseph was certain he would be less frightened, and on the next storms, the ones outside and the inside ones, he almost was. He had Rachel nearly right there, close enough so that he didn’t have to get out of bed to tap the signal.

Now the wind drove the rain hard against his window, and the giant leaves of the sycamore scratched at it like so many angry fingers. The rumble of thunder was really close now. He thought a big crash was coming, gave in, and pulled the covers over his head. Instead, the storm stilled with a suddenness that surprised him, as if rain had been turned off like a faucet and the wind had been sucked back. The quiet was even scarier. When Father had told them all about how hurricanes, Joseph thanked his lucky stars hurricanes never made it to St. Louis. A hurricane, Father said, had a quiet eye that passed over a city, and then the next part came in just as strong or stronger. Maybe this was like the eye of a hurricane. Then another crash of thunder came, the biggest, and his room lit up like Mother had come in and thrown on the ceiling light. Then his nightlight went off and the hum of the furnace through the floor vents growled to a stop.

In the silence of the eye the not-so-muffled shouts from behind his parents’ closed door across hallway became clear enough to make out some of the words. Rachel always said not to try to make out the words. That was the hardest thing of all, but if he could do it alone, she would be proud of him.

He pushed his fingers against the lobes of his ears, but still he could hear their shouts, their bathroom door slamming shut, the crash of something against a wall. He was sure that soon his mother would run out into the hallway, and Father would have to drag her back into their room. It was time to tap the signal. One and a pause, then two real fast, then another pause, then one more. Rachel would be alert for him, but if she didn’t tap back right away, this time he might not wait for her to sneak into his room. He would sneak into hers, climb into her bed, and stay there until the storm passed. The storms always passed, even the ones across the hallway. After a while he would sneak back into his room. He would want to be as brave as she was.

He tapped again. No answer. Again, louder. No answer. Again. Still no answer. Rachel always answered his signal.

He tried to shut out the cuss words and threats, tried to hear Father’s lower, calming voice. But in the stillness outside the words coming across the hallway took on clearer shapes, shapes he didn’t want to know. Words about him, about Rachel, about how she should not protect him, about how they were too close and should be kept apart unless well supervised, about Father not doing his part to monitor them. Monitor. A word Rachel had looked up in Father’s giant dictionary on the pedestal in the downstairs hallway. The pedestal was so sturdy they could climb on it when their mother wasn’t around. He figured that monitor meant keeping an eye on them to see what trouble they would get into next. Mother always kept an eye on them, but now they kept an eye on her, too.

He thought of all things he had heard other times, not just at night but when he and Rachel sat at the top of the back stairs to the kitchen, their favorite place to gather intelligence. That’s what Rachel started calling it after watching a couple of episodes of “The Phil Silver Show” where Sergeant Bilko would spy on the lieutenant. Gathering intelligence. Hearing things like they shouldn’t wrestle like that, they’re too old to play in the tub, they shouldn’t cuddle, they should go outside and make friends, they shouldn’t do this, they shouldn’t do that. What are you going to do about it, Walter, their mother would ask. And when Father started to disagree, Mother’s voice got loud and it went on and on until Father calmed her down.

To Joseph’s surprise, his fear had almost vanished, and he realized something important. If Rachel wasn’t answering, he knew where she was. He found himself wishing for the thunder and lightning to return. It would give him the cover he needed to look for Rachel in the only place she could be. His wish was answered right away, like the magic she believed in. A big gust of wind came and right behind it more hard rain against the window and a big clap of thunder. He slipped from bed. Tiptoeing across the floor and into the hallway, he thanked Father for letting him tighten the screws and oil the hinges. He had not done as much of that sort of thing as Rachel had. He opened the door to the third floor stairs very slowly because its hinges still creaked, and mounted the pitch-dark stairs to the forbidden zone of the third floor, amazed that his heart was not beating like the Plymouth’s revved up engine when Father stopped the idle with the first surge of gas as he backed it out of the garage.

In the windowless landing at the top of the stairs, Joseph saw the dim light beneath the only door not shut tight. When he opened it he saw two flickering Menorah candles Rachel must have stolen from the kitchen pantry. Thin as one of their mother’s cigarettes, the candles stood perfectly straight on a dish from the kitchen cupboard. Beside it lay a few more and a packet of matches. The light was enough to show Rachel on the foam pad they had often brought down from leaning against the wall to bounce on when Mother was off on one of her trips and Amanda Spitzer was there being the sitter who ignored them. Rachel was under the comforter with the giant daffodils all over it. She had taken it from one of the two cedar chests his parents kept in there and had tucked it around the foam pad. The lid on the cedar chest stood open against the wall behind the bed. It was close enough for him to smell the veins of red that swirled through its lighter shades and almost went over to it to put his nose inside. Sheets that could only have come from the hall closet next to their parents’ bedroom door showed at the top of the comforter. Rachel’s head lay on a pillow. She was grinning at him. Beside it another, all puffed up, waited. She had even put on pillowcases, which meant she had taken a chair from the kitchen to reach the top shelf.

He was impressed, even in awe of Rachel’s courage. He ran across the floor and got in beside her, straining to absorb the details of her face, the grin, the fearlessness, the pride. They nearly snuffled his remaining fear.

“Did you shut the door real tight?” Rachel asked.

“I did.”

“Up here we can maybe sleep.”

“You couldn’t sleep either?”

“Of course not, Joseph. You think you’re the only one?”

“You stole stuff.”

“I took it for our room. It’s not stealing. Everything is supposed to be ours, too. Well, mostly.”

“Why didn’t you come get me?”

“I knew you’d come when I didn’t answer your signal.” She smiled in a weird way, like she shouldn’t. “I thought we would make too much noise.”

“You mean I would make too much noise.”

“I guess so. Did you tiptoe?”

“I did.”

“Good.”

“They’ll find us in the morning,” Joseph said.

“I’ve got my Big Ben. We’ll set it for early.”

“The alarm is way too loud. They’ll hear it even from down there.”

“I guess we don’t need the alarm,” she said. “The numbers glow. Let’s promise to wake up early so we can sneak back down. All we have to do is promise.”

“But what if?” he asked.

“Then Father will find us. Tomorrow is Saturday. Remember? She sleeps in. Father’s in charge on Saturdays. He’ll keep our secret.”

“Maybe not. Parents don’t keep secrets from each other. They’re like us and we don’t. We tell lies.”

“They are not like us, Joseph. Besides, he’s kind of on our side.”

“What if he goes to work?”

“He goes in late so she can sleep in. Let’s try not to worry.”

“You’re right. But you can never tell.”

“We have to try,” she said. “Let’s promise, okay?”

“Promise what?”

“To get awake before it’s light. We can do it.”

Joseph looked harder at her face, into her eyes. He believed her. “Okay,” he said. “I’m glad there’s a bathroom up here.”

“Promise not to flush the toilet?”

“I promise.”

“No matter what?”

“Geez.”

“One of us can sneak up later to flush. Do you promise?”

“Well okay,” he said again. “I guess.”

“What time?” Rachel asked. That surprised him. Sometimes she asked him things like that, but not very often. “Let’s put a time in our heads and promise,” she said. “That’s when we’ll get up and sneak back down.”

“Six o’clock,” he said.

“That sounds good.”

She turned away, reached for her Big Ben at the top of the bed, then rolled to her stomach and placed it above them, in the middle where both could see it, right between the candles. The glow was too bright and couldn’t be dimmed, but with the power out Joseph liked it.

Rachel turned onto her back. A blast of wind pummeled raindrops against the window over the backyard, but only for an instant. Joseph could tell that the drops were only from gathered water on the sycamore leaves. They were the leaf puddles that Father said the giant leaves could hold because their stems were so strong the water couldn’t bend them down. The storm was winding down.

“Their room’s on the front side,” Rachel said. “You don’t need to worry so much.”

“I’m not.”

“That’s good.”

“Well a little.” Joseph got up on one elbow to listen for sounds from below.

“I think we should just stay down and listen to the outside. Only the outside.”

He listened for sounds from below. None. All he could hear was the wind, the pelts of rain, the scratches of the sycamore’s leaves against the window.

They loved their backyard sycamore and not just for its leaves. He tried to concentrate on how they loved the peeling scabs of bark that dangled on its trunk until the wind tore them off and scattered them on the ground. Their mother hated leaves and would rake at the leaves of the front yard’s oak in a fury, then pile them in the curb where the neighbor kids would pay for it when they rode through them before pickup. Father would shake his head, thinking, Joseph was certain, of the times their mother was gone and he would have them scatter the piles with their bikes and in his enthusiasm forget to rake them back into a neat pile. He would tell their mother it was probably kids down the street. She would slam the front door, and he would get them to help him rake them back.

“We’ve got to make the piles really neat,” Father had said the first time they scattered them.

“Why?” Joseph asked. “That’s hard.”

“Because she wants it that way,” Rachel answered.

“It won’t take long if we do it together,” Father said. It was what he always said when they were doing some chore their mother insisted on coming first, before they played.

In the stillness, with his sister beside him, Joseph began to relax. “They’re quiet now,” he said.

“So just listen to the splats. I love the splats.”

“The what?”

“The splats. Big drops of rain the wind blows on the windows. From the story Father read the other night.”

“Oh yeah, the splats.”

“And the wind,” Rachel went on. “Father said that’s the most frequent voice of nature and the freest because it can go anywhere. I think he’s right, except maybe for birds. Let’s just listen to nature.”

He turned his head and saw that she was on her side looking right at him. He rolled to face her. When she closed her eyes he mimicked her and listened to the thunder quiet to a distant rumble. Then he opened his eyes and saw, over her shoulder, the lightning dim to dull sheets through the only window. We’re like the squirrels and rabbits, he thought. They listen for threats, too, and they hide. He closed his eyes again because he figured that was what Rachel wanted. In that quiet, talking sounds drifted up the stairwell.

“Did you close that door at the bottom?” Rachel asked.

He opened his eyes and saw her staring. He smiled.

“Did you?”

“Yeah. I did.”

“Good. I feel better now.”

That she felt better meant that she must have been scared, too, and that made him feel better, too. They said not another word, as if they knew that talking about the truth would chase away this feeling that they had made everything all right just by making this third story room their own. When the sound of their parents’ voices stopped, the quiet deepened. Joseph began to notice that the pelts of rain had become soft thuds. Snow, he thought. Maybe the rain has turned to snow.

Rachel rolled over toward the window, and Joseph looked over her shoulder. It took him a few moments to be sure that the rain had become snow. The milky haze of a street lamp on the next street, visible between two houses across the alley, was enough to make him sure. The flakes looked like they could wrap around an apple.

Rachel rolled back to face him.

“It’s snowing giant flakes,” Joseph whispered.

“It’s a blessing,” she whispered back. They had heard those words just a few days before in a story their mother read from the sofa across the expanse of rug as they sat facing each other in the cushiony fireplace chairs. He loved it when Mother read a story, too, and wished it happened more often.

“What’s a blessing?” he remembered asking his mother.

She pursed her lips. “A sign of something, I suppose.”

“A sign of what?” Joseph asked.

“That everything is all right,” Rachel answered. “Isn’t that right, Mother?”

“Yes, it is. Sometimes everything can really be all right.” She sighed like Father always does.

Now, lying in the quiet, Joseph still wasn’t sure about what a blessing was.

“I don’t get it,” he said.

“Sure you do,” Rachel said.

“A blessing is that this is okay?”

“Even better.” She scrunched up her face as if she were questioning herself.

“What?” he asked.

“Well, maybe it’s a blessing that we have our own room now.”

Rachel stretched to blow out the Menorah candles.

“Look at the candles,” she said. “They’re like pools of light around a little stub. They’re dying.”

Joseph tilted his head back, and the watched the flames get smaller and smaller and the pools of wax get shiny. “Aren’t there more in the pantry? We can hide them in one of the cedar chests.”

“Father comes up here for stuff. I think behind it is a better place. No, under it and behind. There’s little arches on the bottom.”

“Yeah.”

“And we shouldn’t come up here unless they’re fighting or we’ll run out of candles and then what do we do? Besides, if we come up here too often, we’ll get caught.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Let’s not worry about it now.”

“Yeah.”

“Good night, Joseph,” Rachel said. She turned away from him.

“Good night, Rachel. I’ll wake up in time.”

He lay awake wondering whether he should have insisted they turn on her Big Ben’s alarm, but he knew Rachel did not respond well to insistence. When their mother said, “I insist,” which was all the time, he could see Rachel pressing her lips and shutting her jaw. She didn’t dish out insistence either. But he thought about saying that muffling the Big Ben under the comforter would be a good idea. It was easy to hit the button that turned it off. But the sweetness of lying there with her stopped him. He hadn’t thought about it before, but now it felt like this was what they always wanted. He didn’t want to lose it by saying more or even by worrying.

“Rachel,” he said.

She didn’t answer. He couldn’t believe how fast she had fallen asleep. Listening for the giant flakes of snow plopping against the window, he thought about blessings. Then he was asleep.