It’s Not Polite To Ask Questions, But Who Says You Can’t Think Them?

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My parents were invited to the Cunninghams' once a year. When I was 9 they dared bring me along. "Don't ask too many questions," my mother instructed.

"How many is too many?"

"One."

None! No questions at all; my parents would insist on Good Behavior. Their own behavior would be Extremely Good. They would not be recognizable as the couple who brushed their teeth side by side, amiably spitting across each other's arc.

Dr. and Mrs. Cunningham lived in a brownstone in the oldest part of our New England city. On the ground floor were two professional offices — Dr. Cunningham's and my father's. The men were ophthalmologists. I was the only person in my class who could spell that word, though every one of my irritated classmates now knew what it meant.

The Cunninghams received us in a red parlor. A fire burned in the hearth, underneath the portrait of an Ancestor. The Ancestor wore a white scarf instead of a tie. He had a mouth with no lips.

Mrs. Cunningham sat on a wing chair to the left of the fireplace. Dr. Cunningham came forward to shake hands with my mother, whom he had last seen 52 weeks earlier, and with my father, whom he had last seen yesterday. He shook hands with me, too. His hand was dry and warm.

Mrs. Cunningham merely gazed at me long and hard. I returned the inspection, taking in the pewter bangs, the brown eyes behind glasses, and the dress with its print of tiny flowers. She blinked first (I was class champion at holding stares). "My daughter had curls like yours when she was small," she said.

Does she shave her head now that she's big? Was she an only child? How many questions was she allowed? "Curly hair sometimes gets straight later," I explained to my hostess.

"We have two sons and a daughter, all with straight hair," offered Dr. Cunningham. "They live in other places."

In Fall River? In Kathmandu? Do they look like the Ancestor? What are their names? "My favorite name happens to be Frederique."

My father cleared his throat.

"Our children are called Hartley and Fuller and Hale," said Dr. Cunningham. "Hale is the girl."

Hartley and Fuller were avenues in our city. Hale Park was home to the arboretum and the zoo. Had the Cunningham children been named from a street map? Had Mrs. Cunningham's dress come out of her own attic, or somebody else's?

"Perhaps it seems odd to you that we don't live on our first floor," said Mrs. Cunningham.

"Oh, no. Uncle Barney and Aunt Celia live over the hardware shop. They sleep in the dining room so that the kids — four boys and a girl — can have the bedrooms. Their bed is right where the dining table should be." Where is your bed? Where is your dining room?

"I'm sure you'd like to explore," Dr. Cunningham said. "There are lots of books in the study down the hall. I can tell that you're a reader."

I was indeed a reader; but as soon as I slipped into the study I ignored the books in favor of the three framed photographs on the desk. The Cunningham children! Hale's wedding gown had a high neckline. She wore a Good Behavior smile. Hartley — or perhaps Fuller — looked solemn, and so did his horse. Only Fuller — or perhaps Hartley — seemed cheerful. He stood on a lakefront dock, barefoot, his tuxedo jacket open, his black tie half off. His grin invited me to join him on the wet boards. I put him down, and with my sleeve wiped the glass free of fingerprints.

In the bathroom, white tiles ran up the walls. There was no box of loose powder for the unfortunate guest who'd left her compact at home. The reading matter was The History of Byzantine Civilization. I pulled out the bookmark and inserted it in a later chapter.

The kitchen was unmodern. The housemaid was reading a newspaper. On the table rested a silver tray: Would she soon fill it with giant brownies?

I visited the dining room last. The table had a lace runner, with fringe. I felt positive that there were bedrooms on the third floor. I felt pretty sure that my hosts slept in them. But I couldn't help imagining them asleep here, on the dining table. Their long forms would be covered with the lace cloth.

We stood up to leave ten minutes after the last cucumber sandwich. My parents thanked the Cunninghams with enthusiasm that sounded like relief. In the car they giggled a lot at nothing in particular. I read street signs. Adams. Hartley. Washington. Fuller. . . Suddenly I remembered that streets honored great men, and that three of those great men were the forebears of the Cunningham children. Hartley, Fuller and Hale hadn't been named after streets — it was the other way around! I laughed out loud.

Perhaps the Cunninghams were relaxing by now, too. Mrs. Cunningham would take off her laced shoes. Dr. Cunningham would discard his own Oxfords. They'd move their chairs close together. His feet would rub hers in front of the fire. And maybe later they'd cut pages out of The History of Byzantine Civilization (surely it was just for show) and make paper airplanes to throw at the Ancestor.

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