Chapter 4: Luck Arrives in a Letter

Summary: The family moves into a fishing shack temporarily, and a letter arrives from Vitagraph for Aggie. The family moves to a boarding house in Brooklyn, and Mama and Aggie go out looking for jobs.

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“You see? God takes care of us,” Mama said. “ And I’ve found a place where we can spend the summer—one of the fishing shacks on Long Beach. And they’ll let us have the use of their rowboat.” Long Beach was a long thin peninsula that projected into the Stony Brook Bay. People had built these shacks to keep their boats and fishing tackle in and often spent the night or even a week there.

A tide came in and went out every twelve hours through a narrow inlet, forming a creek. At high tide and low tide the waters were quiet, but then the creek ran faster and faster until at half tide it was a rapid stream. You had to have a boat to cross it or else drive a horse and buggy or automobile several miles to where the peninsula started. As we didn’t have either, the rowboat was a special piece of luck—or a sign from God, as Mama said.

There were two bedrooms in our shack. Mama took one and Izzy and I the other. The walls were thin and I realized that, although Mama never said anything about Papa to me, she had him on her mind continually. Almost every night I could hear Mama sobbing, and often in her sleep she would mutter his name over and over.

Predictably, we didn’t budget our money very well. We had to pay taxes and the interest on Mama’s loan from the bank. At first we ate rather well, although we rarely ate meat. We dug clams and fished for our meals. However, in August Mama said we had better cut down all we could if we were going to make our money last. One day, she got her monthly statement and hurriedly opened the envelope. “I’m overdrawn again,” she groaned.

I took the statement from her hands, and said, “Oh Mama, you’ve added instead of subtracted again.” We looked at each other. Now we were in a real panic. Where would we get money to cover the overdraft and charges? Who would loan us anything? What would we do?

We were startled by someone calling from the other side of the creek. It was Mr. Sammis, who usually brought our mail from the post office. I walked toward shore dejectedly. All we could expect were more bills. I got into the rowboat and started across. Mr. Sammis held up a letter.

“There’s a letter for you, Agnes, from the Vitagraph Company, “ he called from his car window. What could they be writing me for? I tugged at the oars to get across quickly at the same time shouting to Mama and Izzy.

“What’s the matter?” called Mama.

“A letter! A letter from the Vitagraph Company,” I shouted. Mama started toward the water as if she wanted to start swimming across. Mr. Sammis got out of his car and hurried toward the creek.

“Throw it to me!” I shrieked. “I can catch it!” I stood up, hands ready, and he tossed the envelope to me. I tore it open to find a typewritten letter and—I could hardly believe my eyes—a check for forty dollars. The letter said they were sorry “Tried for his Own Murder” had not won a prize, but if I would find forty dollars acceptable, they would buy the story. I stood up in the rowboat and yelled to everyone, “I’ve sold my scenario! They asked if I would accept this check for forty dollars!” I held the check up for Mama to see.

“Look out,” Mama called. “You’re losing your oars.” I looked and I saw the oars slip out of the oarlocks. I made a grab for them, but it was too late. The swift tide was taking me out to the open sea.

“I can jump in and swim but I’d get the letter wet,” I shouted. It never occurred to me to let that precious letter out of my hand.

“Don’t worry,” said Mr. Sammis, laughing. “I’ll get my boat and come after you.” His boat, beached on the sand nearby, was heavier than mine and he rowed vigorously toward me, threw a rope, and towed me to our side of the creek. Mama and Izzy were at the water’s edge. I stood up to throw the letter to Mama, shouting to her that Vitagraph wanted to buy “Tried for His own Murder.”

She screamed at me. “Stop! You never throw straight. If that check falls into the water it’ll be ruined. And Vitagraph might change their minds….” By this time, she had waded right into the water, shoes and all. She snatched the letter and check from me and looked at them, saying it must be a mistake. “It’s true,” she finally said. “Forty dollars for your scenario, Aggie!” She looked at me sternly.

“I should have told you about my scenario, Mama,” I said, sheepishly. “I was afraid you wouldn’t approve of my writing about a murder. And competing with you—I’m sorry.”

Mama hugged me. “Don’t talk like that, dear. I’m proud of you. You’re the writer in the family now. “

Of course, the forty dollars wasn’t enough to let us live in Brooklyn and pay our tuition to Packer. But the three schoolteachers had come to Stony Brook to start school, and would soon be paying rent. Mama walked all the way to the station to be on the platform when their train came in. It was a hot day, so she invited them down to our shack for a swim. They had to see the principal of the school first, they told her, and then they would be grateful to have a refreshing dip in the salt water. When the teachers arrived with their bathing suits, they looked rather nervous and the reason soon came out. The principal had told them that the mothers of their pupils didn’t like the idea of three unmarried girls living in a house without a chaperone, so he had arranged for each one to board in a private home. They were very apologetic, saying they would miss living by themselves in beautiful Holly Tree House.

This was a jolt to us, but the good news about my scenario quickly got around the village. When Mama asked Mr. Powell to renew our loan, he said he’d considerate it a privilege, which gave Mama the courage to ask for an additional three hundred dollars.

At supper that night, Mama told us she was going to get a job on a newspaper. “Before I married your father,” she said, “I was considered the best woman reporter in New York. My old editor on the Hearst paper has retired, but I’m sure the new one remembers my name. And salaries are higher now. I should make plenty to send you girls to Packer again.”

“Oh please, Mama,” I said, “Let me get a job too.” Mama considered this for a few minutes, and then said, “Well, you should be able to get on a woman’s magazine. All you’d have to do would be to show your letter from Vitagraph. With both of us earning money, we’d get along just fine.”

We closed up Holly Tree House and went to Brooklyn. The first thing we did was to register Izzy at Packer. Mama explained to the principal she would have to wait a while to pay Izzy’s tuition. He dismissed this with an airy wave of his hand, saying Izzy was such a good student, Mama could take her time paying.

Mama thought once we found work we’d be able to afford a better apartment than last year’s dump. So we went to a rooming house in the very heart of the slums, run by Mrs. Epstein. She looked us over and said she wanted “our kind of people,” but she had only a single room vacant and it was on the fourth floor. Mama said it would do until a larger place was vacant. We lugged our valises up four flights of stairs, gasping for breath. When we opened the door, we were appalled. I couldn’t believe there could be a room so small. And it only had one single bed, a washstand with one drawer, and a Morris chair with a broken arm held together with a piece of rope.

Mama assured us we could manage for a few days. And she was glad it was high up because we would have a view. She went and pulled up a tattered blind, revealing only the blank wall of the building next door. Mama looked as if she were going to cry. Instead, she made herself laugh at the so-called view, which made Izzy and I laugh, too.

We went out to a cheap restaurant Mrs. Epstein told us about, and that night we drew straws for who had to sleep in the Morris chair. I pulled the shortest piece of paper. The chair wasn’t comfortable, but I didn’t pay attention. I was going over in my mind the speech I was going to give prospective employers about what a great writer I could be.

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