Parlor Games A Novel
Author:Maryka Biaggio



By the tender age of fifteen, I had set my sights on Chicago: What youngster didn’t dream of strolling its modern streets, shopping at the crossroads of America, and gazing upon the sparkling new buildings that had risen after the Great Fire? But Menominee was as good a place as any in 1884 to acquire an introduction to commerce and society. It had over a dozen lumber mills roaring away and possibly the busiest port on all the northern lakes. Maman had a cousin here then, an ox of a man who supervised at Spies Lumber Company. We stayed with his family for a few months, until we took a home of our own on Ludington Avenue.

I finished high school in Menominee and found the teachers much better than the ones I’d had in Muskegon. One of my teachers, Miss Apple, taught me how to manipulate numbers so I could do calculations in my head. I can illustrate. To determine if a number is divisible by 3, add the digits. If the sum is a multiple of 3, then it is divisible. Or, to add 148 and 302, take 2 away from 302, add it to 148 to make 150, and you quickly arrive at 450. I’ve had innumerable occasions to thank Miss Apple for all those little tricks.

I never did develop any affection for Menominee, though I admit I partook of my share of gaiety in town. Any young girl with a sense of adventure would have found her way into the vaudeville shows and the stores selling fine fabrics, table damask, and hammered-brass lamps. It was in Menominee that I acquired my taste for elegance and lovely things. In fact, before I graduated from high school, Maman had introduced me to the society ladies in town by making certain I was in the parlor whenever they came to order or pick up a dress from her. I reveled in their proper speech, with its oh-so-carefully enunciated words, and their proud, erect carriage, which I practiced in the privacy of my bedroom.

When I started seeing the son of one of the town’s lumber barons, Robby Jacobsen, Maman was so pleased: “Oh, May”—as I’d begun insisting everyone call me—“you’ve landed a real prize in that young man.” What she didn’t know was that this prize behaved like a gentleman only in the presence of adults.

One spring evening, Robby escorted me to dinner at the Stephenson Hotel and for dancing afterward in their ballroom. I remember the dress I wore that night, though I wouldn’t show up at a country fair in it now—a baby-blue cotton thing with puffy sleeves and a high collar. Fit for a child, but not a grown woman, which I’d become as I approached eighteen. Two dances into the evening, Robby walked me back to our table, clapped his hand over mine, and said, “I’ve got a surprise for you at my house. Do you want to see it?”

Now, I always enjoyed visiting Robby’s house. Or should I say “mansion”? It was without a doubt one of the finest homes in all of Menominee—a solid two-story wood building with turrets on the two front corners and a wraparound veranda. Everything about it—the translucent globe lamps, elaborately carved handrails, and Haviland china—declared: We are wealthy and know high style. Still, so as not to show too much eagerness, I said, “After one more dance.”

It was early April, and we’d had a long string of nice weather. The snow was nearly all melted, but mud puddles still dotted the streets. Whenever we came upon a mucky stretch, Robby swept me into his arms—he was a strapping five eleven and I a blossoming five six—and gallantly carried me over the puddles. Oh, we did enjoy each other, laughing like youngsters on a lark, both of us playful and without a care in the world. We pulled off some clever high jinks together—once even switching a bottle of cheap champagne for the best in the house at his uncle’s hotel.

That night, as we walked up the front steps of his house, Robby looked up and down the dark street, apparently checking for any nosy neighbors, and then lifted me into his arms and carried me over the threshold, as if he were welcoming a bride home.

Setting me down in the entranceway, he hollered, “Hello. Surprise.”

His voice echoed into the spacious parlor and down the first-floor hall. No one answered. I was well acquainted with Robby’s rapscallion side, so suspicion overtook me. “I see there’s no one here.”

He dropped to a knee and grasped my hand. “Marry me, May, and together we’ll scandalize the town.”

“Why, Robert Jacobsen, I had no idea,” I exclaimed, for I had no intention of marrying Robby: I wished to try my hand at Chicago’s extravagantly wealthy bachelors.

Rising, he scooped me into his arms and bounded up the stairs. Forcing the partly closed door of his bedroom open with his foot, he whisked me into the room and plopped me on his bed, then dropped on top of me and smothered my neck and cheeks with kisses. “Ah, my little bride,” he said, massaging my breasts.

“Robby,” I cried, bracing my palms against his shoulders and pushing with all my might, “you mustn’t.”

He budged not one bit. “Please, my beauty.”

My breasts tingled, not unpleasantly, beneath his touch, but I persisted in my attempts to push him off me. “I … I don’t want to get pregnant.”

He bounced up on his knees and smiled devilishly at me. “But I’ve got a sheath.”

“A sheath?”

“An English riding coat, a love glove.”

“Oh,” I said, comprehension dawning on me. It had certainly behooved me, a young woman with men flocking about her, to acquire some understanding about the prevention of pregnancy. So I had educated myself through medical pamphlets.

I don’t imagine I need to spell out the rest of the evening. I hadn’t planned on entering womanhood that night, but curiosity and the pleasant sensations Robby aroused in me overtook the ill-formed fears conjured by schoolgirl whisperings. For years it’d been clear to me that I had a certain power over the male sex—that is, if Maman’s warning to keep my admirers at a distance was any indication. Still, I knew little of the allure of the bedroom. Robby was as good a teacher as any, old enough to have had some experience, not terribly unpleasing in appearance, and a spirited sort. So I allowed the galoot to school me in the ways of love.

By the time I graduated from high school, a few months later, I had completed my preliminary education in the mysteries of the bedroom. But poor Robby, once the deed was done, always fretted about the complications a pregnancy would force upon us.

It wasn’t a happy day when I broke the news, over my graduation dinner in the Erdlitz dining room, that his fears had been realized. Once I’d urged him to ingest the only reliable antidote to his unflappable verve—three after-dinner Cognacs—I whispered, “Robby, we have to talk. I’m afraid I’m with child.”

Robby scooted his chair toward mine, bumping the table and nearly upending our candle. His broad nose and plump lips, which always gave his face the impression of looming too near, pressed close to mine. “But I thought, that, uh …”

“I know, I thought so, too.” I glanced around nervously. It was Saturday night, and the town’s bankers and lumber barons, accompanied by wives in fresh spring fashions, huddled around dimly lit tables, abuzz with cozy conversation. Blinking my eyes, I said, “I don’t know what to do.”

“We’ll get married right away. I’ll tell my parents tomorrow.”

I clamped my hands together and widened my eyes. “No, I can’t ruin your and my reputation. The baby will be born in under nine months.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Who cares what anybody in Menominee thinks?”

“Consider your family, Robby. And my poor mother.”

“We can leave, go to Green Bay. You know I’m itching to get out of this place.”

“Oh, Robby, you’re a real gentleman, that’s what you are. But I don’t want to start like that—running away like we’ve got something to hide.”

“I don’t see what else we can do.”

Fearing his urgent whisper had carried to the next table, I glanced in that direction to alert him. I tapped a finger to my lips, trying to think of a solution. “What if I went away to have the baby? Found a nice couple to give it to? You could join me later. We could get a proper start.”

“I don’t want you to go away without me. And I don’t want to give up our baby.”

“Robby, you can’t just think about today, or the next nine months. You have to think about the rest of our lives.”

“I am thinking about our future. And your mother, too. When we’re married, she won’t have to take in boarders and sweat over that sewing machine all day.”

“Elsie is not a boarder. She’s an employee. And Maman is an excellent dressmaker, which your mother and every other nicely attired lady in town knows only too well.”

Robby winced. “Fine, your mother can do whatever she likes. I’m just saying I can provide for you. And your family, too, if you want.”

“And if your father disowns you for running off, what will you have then? How will you support me and our children?”

“Damn it, May, I can manage on my own. You think I need my father’s money?”

“I only know you’d be a fool to spurn your family and their good fortune.”

“You’re the last person I’d expect to hear that from. Don’t you have any faith in me?”

“Of course I do. I just don’t want you to do anything rash.”

“I intend to design furniture. You know I’ve got a knack for it.” Robby smoothed his hand over the fine-grained dining table, as if that proved his point. “I want a business of my own. And you alongside me.”

“But it takes time to establish a business.” I glanced about, at the wall-mounted kerosene lamps flickering over the diners’ animated expressions and tingeing the air with smoky scents. I lowered my voice. “And I have to plan for two now.”

He glared at me. “I’m trying to plan for three.”

“Please, Robby.” I cupped my hand over his. “I have to do it my way. Please understand.”

“We’ll talk about this later,” Robby said, extracting his hand and pushing back in his chair.

I slapped my hand on the table. “No, I will not bring scandal on me, you, or some innocent child. I simply won’t do it.”

Robby flared his nostrils. “I hate it when you dig your heels in, May Dugas. You’re worse than an old mule.”

I sat up straight and folded my hands on my lap. “That’s not a very nice thing to say.”

He clamped his lips together and shook his head. “Damn it, sometimes I wish I weren’t so taken with you. You’re impossible, that’s what you are.”

In the end, Robby gave me the money to travel to Chicago. A mere four hours into my journey, as the train lurched out of the Manitowoc, Wisconsin, station, I felt the familiar trickle of my monthly visitor. I guess I had jumped the gun—I wasn’t pregnant after all. But it was too late to turn back.