Herbert Rowbarge

Natalie Babbitt

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Tuesday, May 20, 1952
Much has been made of the fact that there have never, in ten times ten thousand winters, been two snowflakes exactly alike. This is considered one of Nature’s miracles, and even so much as a single identical pair discovered in even so remote and therefore pointless a place as Igloolik or Murmansk would ruin the whole thing. Yet here, in northwestern Ohio, for everyone with half an eye to see, are Babe and Louisa Rowbarge, sitting face to face at a table in the President McKinley Tea Room, and they are exactly alike down to the last tooth and zipper, and nothing at all is ruined thereby.
And yet there is a marvel here, if not a miracle. All that can be seen with half an eye is two figures dressed alike, plainly unwed, unbedded, undiscovered at nearly forty-five, plumped on the tea room’s little chairs like pillows on a sofa. Too much physical ease, too many buttered rolls, have feathered them into a soft and boneless-looking middle age: in height neither short nor tall, their hips wide, their shoulders round, their carton-colored hair sheared and seared monthly into rigid curls around the corner at Miriam’s House of Beauty. They are so dime-a-dozen that, instead of exclaiming on their twin-ship, it seems more logical to wonder idly where the other ten might be—still in the box, perhaps, under a counter, not yet priced and ready for display.
So that’s not the marvel, what’s available to half an eye. The marvel takes more study and, after a period, will begin to reveal itself: their faces, their expressions, are different from other people’s. Elsewhere—in the tea room, outside in Mussel Point, abroad in the go-to-hell world—are faces young and old, wrinkled up or stretched or drooping with the effort to be understood, and loved in spite of it. Not so with the faces of these two. Their eyes are calm as puddles, their cheeks and foreheads are smooth. For no matter what one of them does or says, the other always knows the reason and approves.
Nobody else cares a fig about them—not their father, Herbert Rowbarge; not their dead mother’s sister, Aunt Opal Loose; not Walter Loose, their cousin—and this is sometimes a misery, but not as bad as it might have been otherwise.
There’s more, not a marvel, maybe, but almost as potent: their father is the owner and creator of the Rowbarge Pleasure Dome. This is not to be sneezed at, and the waitress at the President McKinley Tea Room knows it. She has given them extra butter for their muffins and made quite sure the knives to spread it with are free of flotsam. For without Herbert Rowbarge, there would be no Pleasure Dome, no crowds in the summers, no tea room, nothing—just an untouched, quiet lake the way it was before, and Mussel Point a town of no importance. There would also, of course, be no Babe and Louisa.
Babe stirs sugar into her tea and says, “How’s Daddy today?”
“Well,” says Louisa, “it seemed to me this morning he was acting kind of funny.”
“Funny how?”
“That’s just it,” says Louisa. “I’ve been thinking about it and I can’t quite put my finger on it.”
They do not live together any more, haven’t lived together for the last five years. One stays at home with their father and sees to his needs, while the other stays with Aunt Opal and sees to hers. And on the first of every month they change places. Living apart is terrible for them, but everyone else is delighted, especially their father, Herbert Rowbarge.
“He was all right in April,” says Babe.
“Most of this month, too,” says Louisa, “but this morning he was—I don’t know. Like I say, I just can’t put my finger on it.”
“You worry about him too much,” says Babe, patting her sister’s hand.
“I suppose so,” says Louisa. They smile at each other, and for a while they sip their tea in silence.
Outside—beyond the tea room’s concrete path laid out between two truck tires painted white and planted neatly to petunias—beyond the sidewalk—across the quiet road—the public gates to the Rowbarge Pleasure Dome are shut and locked. But the work gate far around the fence is open and the bustle inside is intense. Brooms scratch the back of the boardwalk end to end. Paint, like an ointment, soothes away a winter’s worth of parching. Fresh oil and grease are lavished on cams, gears, axles, levers—everything that moves; and everything does move at the Rowbarge Pleasure Dome. It is the best small amusement park in the state, and always getting better: at the farthest end a new ride, a Tunnel of Love, is in its final stages and will open with the park on Memorial Day, just ten days off.
While Babe and Louisa have their tea, their cousin and Aunt Opal’s son, Walter Loose, who is manager of the park and someday to be owner, is busy overseeing the installment of ten little swan boats which will cruise the twisting dark of the Tunnel of Love past dim-lit dioramas where cupids, pink and chubby, lean down—hang down, on wires—from wooden moons to draw their bows; neutered babies all, with gauze around their groins. For as such things go, or could go, this ride is rather tame. The little boats will trace their route a short four yards apart, eliminating privacy. And the tour will only take five minutes—too short a time for serious arousal of the blood. Still, it is titillating in its way, and Walter likes it. Walter is forty-two and, like his cousins, unmarried, but, unlike them, no virgin. If it weren’t for the fact that he is son to his now-dead father, Dr. Stuart Loose, and nephew to his uncle, Herbert Rowbarge—in other words, if Walter weren’t as rich as he is and due to get richer—the town would long ago have written him off for a wolf, and worse. But things being what they are, he is instead admired and indulged, especially by his mother and the waitress at the President McKinley Tea Room.
“Everything all right?” says the waitress to Babe and Louisa.
“Oh, yes,” they say. “Just lovely.”
“Anyway, Babe,” says Louisa, “we’d better get cracking on some birthday plans. It’s only three weeks off.”
“I know,” says Babe. “Poor Daddy. He always hates his birthdays.”
“But if we didn’t do something, don’t you think he’d be hurt?”
“Well, yes, I do think so, probably. But let’s do something different this year. A surprise party, maybe. You know—get everyone together and have a nice dinner at the Inn.”
“But, Babe,” Louisa reminds her, “the park’ll be open by then and the Inn’ll be jammed.”
“Oh, shoot,” says Babe, “I forgot about that. Well, maybe Aunt Opal could do it.”
“That would be better, if you can talk her into it. But whatever we do, it ought to be simple, and quiet, I think. I really am kind of worried about him.”
Babe looks skeptical. “It doesn’t sound to me as if you’ve got much reason,” she says.
Louisa dampens a fingertip and thoughtfully attempts to capture the final crumbs from the napkin flopped open in the muffin basket. “It’s just—well, for one thing, he was so crabby this morning,” she says at last.
“He’s always crabby,” says Babe.
“Yes, but he seemed really tired, too. I mean, all pale and exhausted. And then he kept squinting with one eye.”
“Well,” says Babe, “it’s probably nothing. After all, he’s not a young man any more. Did he go down to the park?”
“Of course. He was there all morning. And he brought Walter back for lunch so they could talk business. I wish he’d slow down, really retire. But he won’t.”
“Not till he drops,” says Babe.
Louisa peers into her cup, sees a last sweet bead of tea, and tips it to her lips. But the bead—like Herbert Rowbarge, perhaps—is too stubborn to let go. It clings to the bottom, bulging, and refuses to slide. She gives up the effort with a sigh and returns the cup to its saucer. “Poor Daddy,” she says. “He’s always been so alone.”
“Nonsense,” says Babe. “He’s always had us.”
“No, but you know what I mean,” says Louisa.
They talk about it often, their father’s parents’ death in a train wreck, his adoption by a wealthy Cincinnati aunt, her death and his inheriting all her money, all this long before they were born. They never can decide whether it’s a sad story or a lucky one. It doesn’t occur to them that it might be neither of these but, rather, a genuine story—a tissue, a passel, a whole wide tapestry of lies.
The waitress says, “Can I get you ladies anything else?”
Louisa shakes her head. “We’re fine,” she says.
They lie, themselves, a little, from time to time.
Copyright © 1982 by Natalie Babbitt