Short Story December 2004

Harbinger Hall

A section of the bookcase slowly swung out into the room—a secret door, straight from a monster movie

Bobby Mullendore was sick of fifth grade, especially without his best friend, Jack B., plus it was spring. Painstakingly, key by key, jabbing hard with each of his index fingers, he typed a missive in the exact language of a certain carbon copy Jack had given him as a good-bye treasure just this past fall.

Dear Mrs. Applegate:
Due to a career emergency we are moving as of 15 April, 1963. Robert will attend his last class this Friday, April 12. He will start school in North Carolina a week hence. Please accept my apologies for this short notice. It could not be helped, and we regret it.

After twenty focused, difficult minutes, after typing the "Sincerely yours" one letter at a time, Bobby pulled the curled paper from the Royal Standard, flattened it carefully, and signed his mother's name.

That afternoon, at two-fifteen, moving against the tide of the other kids leaving class, Bobby made his way to Mrs. Applegate's desk. She was searching through a low drawer, sat up straight when he made a noise, looked surprised. And just started talking, as she could do: "Robert! Well. Your homework is better the last few weeks. Your hands are much cleaner too!"

Bobby made no response, merely presented the letter.

"Oh, my!" Mrs. Applegate said.

"Yip," Bobby said.

The next day, Good Friday, Mrs. Applegate sprang a surprise, just as she had for Jack's departure: "Bobby Mullendore," she announced, "is moving."

On Monday Bobby wore the same old clothes, but with the addition of one Sears Roebuck watch, a reviled Christmas present, strapped self-consciously to his wrist. Mom saw it and smiled inwardly but still visibly, knowing in her Mom way not to say anything. Bobby walked to the bus stop clutching his lunch, stood there a minute in case Mom should look down the road, and then leaped into the woods. Ancient Mr. Green stopped the old yellow beast, maybe even would have honked (he didn't like to miss a kid), but a couple of Bobby's former classmates yelled out, "Moved! Moved!"

Bobby could hear Mr. Green croak, "Bobby moved?"

"Moved!" the kids cried.

Mr. Green said a merry "Well, okay, then," and the bus roared off. It wouldn't stop here again.

Bobby crossed Wahackme Road, trotted to Dogwood Lane, ducked past Mrs. Smith's, trotted past the private lane sign, remembered to breathe, trotted along the high stone wall in front of the Schraeders' house and into the pine forest along the needle-soft path that would take him to the old stone stable where he and Jack B. had found wondrous things: cigarette butts, beer bottles, a big girl's bra, a pair of tighty-whities with Brent Lovelace's camp tag sewn in.

All this was on the D'Arcy estate, the centerpiece of which was a stone mansion five full minutes on foot from the stable through well-kept forest on a wide bridle path. "From another era," as Bobby's dad phrased it. Jack B. and Bobby had often slipped up to the house at dusk to look in the windows; they'd seen only a maid in uniform once and, another time, a small party—old people having dinner on the great stone patio. Jack B. had had the tuff idea of blowing squeals through long blades of grass, which they did. On the patio the old people went silent in the night, and then they rose. "Now, what's that?" one said. Another said, "That's some sort of crane," and another, "Rare, I should think." Pretty soon they'd left their desserts and come tottering across the lawn to investigate.

Bobby and Jack B. giggled their way back into the woods, blowing parting calls all the way down the bridle path and luring the old folks on. Then silent: the birds had flown. "Scared them off," the first voice said. "Quite sure those are cranes," the second said. Nine or ten old folks huddled in a little knot there in the woods, where any ogre might get them. "A harbinger, I should think," the third voice said.

For months and months Bobby and Jack B. whispered those phrases under Mrs. Applegate's nose: "Rare, I should think!" Har har har! "A harbinger, I should think!" Gales of laughter. The "I should think" became part of the comedy repertoire of the whole fifth grade: "Sloppy Joes for lunch, I should think!" The boys didn't know what a harbinger was, and didn't look it up, but Jack B. used the word to name the estate.

Bobby spent his first day of freedom in the abandoned stables of Harbinger Hall, inspecting every corner of the place, looking out every bubbled window, finding things to discuss in a possible letter to Jack B.: six old horseshoes, a 1903 penny, a pair of girl's underpants with two curled red hairs more or less pasted inside (Lovelace's girl, Jenny Oswest, had red hair), rotting tack, the skeleton of a cat. He ate his lunch at 12:15 exactly on a desklike shelf in the groom's quarters, under no awful pressure to trade his Ring Dings for egg salad.

"Funniest thing," his mom said at dinner (fish sticks and tartar sauce). "I saw Mrs. Crawford at the A&P, and she said she'd heard we'd moved!"

"Empty-headed woman," Bobby's dad said.

Bobby hadn't thought till now that his plan had a possible flaw. But the train of conversation chugged quickly away from Mrs. Crawford to a "communication" problem at Dad's company in New York, and then to a similar problem at Mom's garden club. Bobby felt the safety of his plan settle in around him.

Presented by

Bill Roorbach holds the Jenks Chair in Contemporary American Letters at the College of the Holy Cross. His newest book is Temple Stream, to be published in the spring.

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