Chapter Sixteen

As Rose and Gina neared Rose's apartment they found John and Cora out in front of the building. John was scowling as he threw a rubber ball against the stoop, while Cora was slumped on the top step with her head down in the crook of her arm.

"What's wrong, Cora?" Rose asked.

Cora looked up at her, eyes rimmed in red.

"We can't go to the park," she said between sniffles.

"Why not?"

"Cause Mama's sick and Papa has to stay and care for her," John barked as he rocketed the ball against the bricks with all his might.

"Let me go see her," Rose offered, and she walked up the steps with Gina trailing close behind.

Mrs. O'Reilly was in the kitchen sitting half-hidden under a blanket, sipping hot tea. She smiled weakly at their entrance.

"Rose, so sorry. I'm just not feelin up to it today, tis all. The children are mightily disappointed, I know."

Me, too, Rose thought. She waited as the woman suffered another coughing spell.

"Mrs. O'Reilly, if it's all right with you and Mr. O'Reilly, I'll take John and Cora to the park."

"Oh, no, Rose, the two of them might be too much for ya ta handle, but thanks for offerin, then."

Rose was inclined to debate the point but before she could Gina stepped forward.

"Mrs. O'Reilly, my name is Gina and I work with Rose. I'd like to go along with her today so I think between the two of us we could watch over your children. They seem very mindful."

Both Rose and Mrs. O'Reilly considered Gina's offer. Rose was pleasantly surprised that Gina had the desire to go to the park after the raw emotions of their morning. Mrs. O'Reilly was obviously assessing her, and she seemed to finally conclude that she could put her faith in Rose's choice of friends.

"Well, if you two don't mind, then," the woman answered.

"Great!" Rose replied, and Gina echoed her response.

Rose tapped on the window and beckoned the children inside. They trudged into the apartment on heavy feet, a matched pair of long faces.

"Well, you two….my friend Gina and I are going to take you to the park. That is, if it's all right with you," Rose said, winking at Gina and their mother.

Both youngsters cheered, their somber moods gone and forgotten in a flash, replaced by shining smiles.

As Cora and John gathered their belongings, Rose tried to further allay Mrs. O'Reilly's motherly concerns by detailing their likely agenda for the day.


The four picnickers spent the afternoon relishing Central Park. They strolled under cool canopies of elm, watched a pick-up baseball game, and waded knee-deep into the lake while envying the boaters rowing out to deeper water. After a filling lunch they lounged in a shady nook as Cora taught Gina to play checkers while Rose and John coached. The laughter flowed easily, and Rose felt as if she was eight again.

In the late afternoon, after the edge of the heat had been taken off the day, they tried their luck in foot races that were staged in an open field. Cora and John valiantly competed in solo races, though neither was victorious, and then the four paired up to vie in the three-legged races.

Gina and John worked like a well-oiled machine and actually triumphed in their heat, while Cora and Rose were never quite able to find their rhythm and they collapsed in a giggling heap halfway down the course.

As the sun dropped behind the trees along the western edge of the park they made their way, amidst a steady stream of others, to the great meadow.

The grassy expanse was splashed with blankets of summery colors and designs as territories were staked out around the giant bandstand. Along the southern rim of the park a row of vendor's stands trumpeted their wares with bold, brightly-lettered signs; the air splashed with the mouth-watering aromas of their treats. Up on the stage instruments stood quietly in their stands, awaiting the orchestra members who would coax from them the holiday's musical fare. And on every strut and support of the arching stage roof, on every available pole and every large tree trunk, American flags were proudly displayed, shouting patriotically as their bright colors rippled in the welcome evening breeze.

The lea was soon filled with people all relaxing, reclining and awaiting the promised spectacular. In the lull before the festivities began John spotted a pink lemonade stand and asked to have one. They all agreed a cold drink sounded wonderful and Gina volunteered to get lemonade for them all, appointing John as her helper. The two left for the drink stand, zig-zagging their way between the blankets full of people.

Rose and Cora lay on their backs and stretched their imaginations up to the pink-fringed clouds drifting on the winds high above them.

"Look, that one looks like a man's head," Rose called out, pointing.

"Yeah, I see it. Hey, that one looks like a horse."

Rose couldn't see the resemblance no matter how she turned her head. Cora only giggled at her contortions, and Rose knew she'd been conned.

As they were letting their fancies run wild in the sky they heard a voice calling across the meadow.


Rose thought that perhaps Gina and John had gotten lost on their way back, but the voice didn't sound like either of them.

"Cora! John!"

They sat upright and looked out over the crowd, searching. The call rang out once again.

"There!" Cora said, pointing. "It's Thomas!"

"Thomas!" she yelled, and was off in a sprint towards her brother, barely paying mind to the boundaries of the blankets separating them.

Thomas heard her answering call and trotted towards his sister, catching her as she jumped into his arms and lifting her onto his shoulders. Rose stood to await their arrival, brushing and straightening her dress.

"Rosie, Thomas came after all!" Cora yelled happily as her brother set her back down to earth.

"So I see! Hello, Thomas."

"Good day, Rose."

Cora spotted Gina and John on their way back with the drinks and took off on another mad dash.

"Cora, be careful!" Rose shouted after her in vain. Thomas watched his sister and then turned to Rose.

"I hope I'm not intruding. When I returned home this afternoon and found my parents still there they explained what had happened and told me where you'd be. I thought I might join you all, if I could find you, and then escort you home."

"We would have been quite all right."

"Yes, yes, I know. Mother tells me you are very capable and like a sister to Cora. It's just that, well, New York is a big city and I'd feel better accompanying you all back."

Rose had a sharp reply ready but bit her tongue. Thomas seemed sincere in his concern.

"Thank you, Thomas. That is considerate of you."

When they first met in the dim lighting of the saloon Rose hadn't had much of a chance to look closely at Thomas, so she took the opportunity to do so. His brunette hair and light brown eyes must have skipped his parents' generation and come to him directly from a grandparent. A squared jaw anchored a sharply angled face that somehow still came together gently. His hair was scholarly short and neat, face clean-shaven, his build medium and solid, but lacking the muscles that hard physical labor would put on a man.

I think he's always been somewhat of a bookworm, Rose thought.

Gina and the children had arrived, and Rose introduced her friend to Thomas. It seemed to Rose that Thomas flinched slightly when she informed him that she and Gina were co-workers at the factory.

He's sensitive about that now, Rose thought. Well, good, he should be.

John and Cora seemed to have finally depleted their energy reserves and they sat sipping their drinks quietly, John engrossed with his prized baseball cards and Cora reading a Buster Brown cartoon book.

Gina asked Thomas about his background and was impressed that he was attending such a prestigious school.

"Oh, don't be, Gina. I never would be able to attend if my father hadn't set aside money for my schooling, and if one of his boyhood friends hadn't vouched for me with the dean. I'm the black sheep of my class, I assure you."

"I doubt that. You know, Rose could have gone to university, I think," Gina offered. "She's a real whiz at figures. You should see how Mr. Souster raves over her bookkeeping."

Thomas flashed Rose a look of mild surprise.

"A university education doesn't make one a better person," Rose said, head tilted back slightly.

"Sometimes more the opposite," Thomas agreed, looking levelly at her. She was surprised at his response, and was a bit suspicious that he might be making light of her remark.

Their attention was suddenly captured by an approaching group of men dressed in Revolutionary War garb, trailed by about a dozen young boys. The leader stopped, saluted, and leaned down to address John.

"Young man, how would you like to join our troop and carry the American flag in tonight's opening ceremonies?"

John's eyes lit up at the prospect and he shot a pleading look at Rose. She considered her responsibilities and deemed it safe enough.

"Well, go ahead if you want to!" she said to the boy.

"Yeah!" John yelled, leaping to his feet. The second in command of the makeshift troop produced a three-pointed Revolutionary War hat and placed it upon John's head. It was a trifle big, but John peered up from underneath the brim with pride. His enlistment set, the troop set off in search of further volunteers.

Rose found she was a bit uneasy about John being off on his own. She was about to go with him when Thomas jumped to his feet and started off after the boys.

"I'll just tag along to be sure he doesn't get lost on his way back," Thomas said as he took up position at the rear of the group.

By this time the sun had dropped low to the horizon, basking the verdant leaves of the trees in the deep orange glow particular to summer sunsets. Lights around the perimeter of the meadow began to flicker on and the stage was illuminated brightly as dusk advanced across the New York sky.

"Oh look, they're starting," Gina said, gesturing to the stage.

Several dozen musicians had taken their places on the stage and were busily tuning their instruments.

When they were satisfied with their harmony a rotund man strode to the center of the platform and, one hand held high above his head, he stood in front of a large, red-white-and-blue megaphone while the band's percussionist banged his cymbal to call the audience to attention.

"Ladies and gentleman and all you wonderful children….Welcome!" his deep voice boomed out over the crowd. "I present….the colors of these United States of America!"

The drummer started a marching cadence and the volunteer troop of boys filed on stage, each toting a flag on a long pole.

"Look! There's John!" Cora cried in delight.

The boys followed the impromptu directions of their troop leader and formed a ragged semi-circle around the speaker. Another youngster of perhaps seven strode proudly to the center stage.

"Please stand for the Pledge of Allegiance," the emcee requested and the huge crowd came to its feet like a wave rippling out through the meadow. The megaphone was lowered for the boy and in his strongest voice, right hand over heart, he recited the pledge, not erring on even a single word.

The crowd saluted him with loud, warm applause, and as the ovation died away the orchestra played "The Star Spangled Banner" followed by a patriotic march by John Philip Sousa. The throng settled back down to enjoy the show.

Midway through the next song Thomas and John found their way back, the latter sporting an ear-to-ear grin.

"They let me keep the hat!" John exclaimed, holding his new prized possession out for all to admire.

"Can I try it on?" Cora asked.

"No, it's mine!" John retorted, holding the hat behind his back, away from his sister.

"John, that's not polite," Rose scolded. "You should share."

"But…it's mine."

"I'm sure she'll give it back," Thomas interjected, his voice strong but not demanding. "John, remember the toy car from last Christmas?"

Rose concluded that that must have been quite an incident as John's face immediately tightened with guilt and he reluctantly offered his treasure to Cora. As the girl placed it on it engulfed her head down to her earlobes, completely covering her eyes, and the group couldn't help bursting out in laughter at the sight.

Thomas leaned over to whisper privately to John, but Rose was able to overhear his words.

"That was very grown-up of you, John."

Gina next tried on the hat, then Rose in turn, and both of the women saluted each other in mock military protocol. Rose returned the hat to John who was about to put it back on his own head when he noticed an odd expression on Thomas' face.

His big brother wore the sad, drooping face of an old hound dog and, with exaggerated motions, was wiping an imaginary flood of tears from his eyes. John's giggle blossomed into a full-fledged laugh and he placed the hat on Thomas' head. Backwards, but on.

Thomas left it as it was and lay back with a loud, contented sigh. Everyone laughed and then they turned their attention to sounds from the stage.

Rose had watched the interplay between Thomas and his siblings and she liked the quiet way he had with them.

Makes me wish again that I had had a brother or sister, she thought. I think I missed out on a lot.

She turned to look across the blanket and noticed Thomas leaning towards Gina, pointing at something on the stage and speaking close to her ear in order to be understood over the orchestra. Gina was smiling at his remark.

Looks as if they like one another, Rose mused. I wouldn't have thought Thomas would go for a working girl. Maybe I misjudged him a little.

By the time darkness had taken complete possession of the city the crowd was antsy in anticipation of the main event. Finally, as the band embraced a stirring rendition of "The Stars and Stripes Forever," the first few rockets took off from behind the bandstand and, arcing high overhead, exploded into thousands of sparks.

The music continued as the fireworks escalated, to the appreciative cries of the crowd. John and Cora reacted to every explosion with delight, and Rose saw her own childhood mirrored in the girl's wide eyes. She laid back and tunneled her world until all that existed were the stars and the beautiful aerial display, letting her mind time-travel as it pleased.

Too soon, the show ended, and the orchestra left on a break with a promise to return to play dance tunes for those wishing to carry on the celebration.

Rose looked over her two charges and noted that the tiring effects of all their activities had finally won the battle over the excitement of the night.

"Time to head home. I promised your mother I'd have you back at a decent hour," she told them.

"Oh, Rosie!" the children moaned in unison.

"Oh, Rosie!" Gina sing-songed, and Rose shot her a 'you're not helping!' look. Gina giggled.

"Rose is right; gather everything, time to go," Thomas agreed.

The children grudgingly assembled their belongings, and the five picked their way through the crowd to the El station at the southern edge of the park. Their train arrived almost immediately and they filed on board, fortunate to find two empty benches across the aisle from one another.

Cora and John seated themselves on either side of Gina on one bench, with Rose and Thomas sharing the other. The children leaned their heads on Gina's shoulders and, at almost the second that their eyes closed, they fell fast asleep. Gina smiled and shut her own eyes, nodding off as well.

Rose and Thomas rode in silence, listening to the engine and rhythmic clacking of the train wheels on the tracks. Rose found the silence between them uncomfortable and was relieved when Thomas spoke.

"Rose…I want to apologize for my comments at the saloon that night. I think some things I said were inappropriate, and easily mistook. I've wanted to say this for some time but I was sure you held me in low regard."

"Not everyone can live the carefree, indifferent life of the university student, Thomas. Even there, though, there must be SOME sensitivity to the troubles of the real world."

"You're right, of course. Sometimes it's easy to forget such things in the environment of school. As I told Gina, I'm really the last one to belong to the coterie at Harvard. I spend most of my energies there trying to adjust, to fit in, and then I come home and find maybe I don't fit in the everyday world now."

Rose had been gazing out the train window as Thomas spoke, but she now turned to face him.

"Oh, you fit in with your family, that I can plainly see."

"Yes, at home I'm just 'Thomas', no need to act the scholar nor the doctor-in-training."

The silence between them returned as the train pulled into a station and passengers shuffled on and off. Rose wondered if Thomas was merely trying to smooth things over; just telling her what he thought she wanted to hear.

"Rose, can I ask you something?"

"That depends, I suppose. Seeing as how our initial conversation was derailed by your questions, I think I'll have to hear this one first."

Thomas nodded in understanding and then stood up suddenly, moving out into the aisle of the train. Several fellow travelers eyed him curiously but none had the energy to muster much interest.

"You're right, Rose. We did start out wrong; totally my fault. I shouldn't have surprised you at the saloon like I did. I would like to rectify that mistake."

"Thomas, you don't…," Rose replied, but he had already walked a few paces down the aisle, spun around quickly on one heel, and walked back. He stood before her and bowed deeply.

"Good evening, mademoiselle. I don't believe I've had the pleasure. My name is…"

"Thomas!" Rose implored, motioning him to sit back down. Several people around them had taken note of his actions and she felt self-conscious at their interest.

"So, you already know my name!" Thomas continued.

He lifted her close hand and pretended to kiss it, stopping a few polite inches short of her flesh.

"They taught me that at finishing school," he said as he plopped back down in his seat.

The familiar tone in his voice made a shiver run down Rose's spine.

"All right, all right," Rose said, smiling slightly. "You've re-written your entrance. Go ahead, ask your question."

"Gina told me about your working as bookkeeper at the factory. Why didn't you correct me that night when I thought you were a seamstress?"

"Because it shouldn't matter, should it?" Rose answered, a bit defiantly.

"No, no, you're right, it shouldn't. And it doesn't matter to me, please believe that. I was just….surprised, as I'm often surprised to see where people's lives have led them, for better or worse…"


"And I wondered what your reasons might be for not beginning our first conversation in complete honesty."

Rose felt her face redden, and she was thankful for the dim illumination on the train. She almost snapped out a reply about one minding one's own business, but she realized that, at the core of it, Thomas was right.

"Mea culpa," she responded softly, and Thomas' eyebrows lifted slightly.

"Now it's MY turn," Rose continued. "Would it have made any difference to you if I WAS a bookkeeper or scholar or doctor instead of a seamstress?"


Rose was startled by his immediate reply.

"So you admit it!"

"Yes, I'll admit to that. If we had spoken at greater length that night, I'm sure I would have soon enough realized your intelligence. And if I had found a woman of intelligence who, by choice, was wasting it in an unchallenging existence, I'd wonder if she even cared about her life."

Rose sat back quickly, surprised by the depth of his answer.

He has quite a perceptive nature, she thought. Quite.

"But you still admit to being a bit of a snob?" she asked, regaining her composure and trying to hide a smile.

"You don't give up, do you? Yes, I guess I will admit to that, too," he answered, and they both laughed. Rose noticed that he had a slightly crooked grin; a nice, friendly smile.

Thomas turned to look across the aisle at the sleeping trio.

"Gina seems exceedingly nice," he offered. "Is she engaged?"

"No, though she has a steady boyfriend of many years," Rose replied.

Why did I tell him that?

Almost as if her ears were burning in her sleep, Gina's eyes fluttered open and she straightened in her seat. She noticed their attention and smiled inquisitively, a bit self-conscious under their stares.

Their station neared, so the children were roused to a near-waking state and paraded like zombies to the train door. Rose, John and Cora said their thanks and farewells to Gina, and then Thomas saw Rose and the children out onto the platform once the train had screeched to a halt.

"You only have a block to walk, Rose, I'm sure you'll be all right. I'm going to ride downtown with Gina, to be sure she gets home safely."

Before she could respond the warning whistle sounded, and Thomas hopped back into the car as it lurched forward. Rose saw Thomas sit down next to Gina, and as she herded her charges down the steps to the avenue Rose found herself thinking about the two still together on the train.

Gina's an adult; she could get home safely by herself. Why did Thomas have to escort her? She should have told him she was okay and let him get off with us.

As the sound of their footsteps echoed along the quiet street Rose shook her head at the strangeness of her own thoughts.


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