“Help!” A voice called.
“Coming, Pa!” His feet were like lead. He couldn’t get started. Grief gripped him.
Louie sat bolt upright, his body in a cold sweat. That dream. It kept returning, night after night. The ringing stopped and he opened his eyes. Over the iron bedposts he saw his mother rummaging through her opened trunk. He lay back down, catching the sob in his throat, then he pulled the quilt over his head.
“That’s the last breakfast bell.”
He heard Ma’s muffled voice through the quilt. She pulled the quilt back and shook him gently.
“This is our big day.”
He opened one eye to watch her. She placed his trousers, suspenders, shirt, and jacket at the foot of his bed and then disappeared down the hall with her clothes over her arm.
They were staying at the Backbay Boarding House in town up the road from the office of the U.S.Lighthouse Service Board. Louie, still tired from the long train ride the day before, rubbed the sleep from his eyes. He missed Pa.
He pulled up the trousers. This time they reached only to below his knees. He must have grown six inches since he’d worn them at the funeral. Even then they were too short. Ma had told him they couldn’t afford to buy new ones. He would have to wear them until she could find a job.
A job. Ma never had to worry about a job before when his pa and grandpa were alive. They were a family then. Now they had to help each other, just the two of them.
“Can’t I wear my overalls, Ma?” he pleaded when she returned from the washroom, “These make me look stupid!”
“You’ll feel better once we’ve had breakfast and the interview is over.”
He sighed and followed her down the stairs. As soon as he smelled the fresh blueberry muffins and steaming oatmeal, he forgot about everything except filling his stomach.
An hour later Louie stood behind his mother as she knocked on the door of the Lighthouse Service Board office. He heard the rustling of papers and the scrape of a chair. The door opened and a mustached man in a dark blue jacket ushered them in. Rays of bright morning sunlight streaming from a nearby window bounced off his bald head. The supervisor pointed to two chairs in front of his desk.
“Good morning, Mr. McAllister--”
“Please -- take a seat.”
Louie wasn’t sure who had spoken first, his mother or the supervisor.
Louie waited until Ma sat down; then, following her lead, he sat on the chair beside her. He folded and unfolded his hands and shuffled his feet under the chair.
Mr. McAllister scratched his head, then his nose. “Ah-Ah-Ah-Choo.”
“Get that feather away from my nose!” He reached into his shirt pocket for a handkerchief.
Louie’s mother took off her feathered hat and put it in her lap. Louie had told her she looked like a peacock in that hat and tried to talk her out of wearing it but she put it on anyway.
Mr. McAllister sneezed again.
Louie bent over, took the hat from his mother’s lap and held it with one hand behind his chair.
She stiffened and balanced on the edge of her chair.
"My name is Molly Hollander. I've come to apply for the job as the lighthouse keeper on Two Tree Island in Windlass Bay. This is my son, Louie."
Louie moved the hat from one hand to another as Mr. McAllister swiveled back in his chair. He watched the superintendent’s eyes as they moved from his mother’s high-necked collar to her red cape down to her high-heeled boots. Next, Louie felt those eyes boring through him. Taking his free hand he combed his unruly dark brown hair with his fingers away from his own hazel eyes. He tried to fold up his lanky frame. His feet would not stop shuffling.
"No!" Mr. McAllister stroked his bald spot. "Lighthouse tending is hard, dangerous work and we don't hire women unless they come along with a strong man."
“That hat and that cape,” he shook his head, ”the first wind will blow it off and that red cape will nevah keep you warm and dry on stormy days.”
"Why? I'm used to working around lighthouses-- ” Louie’s mother replied. Louie looked up as the officer interrupted.
"It takes one or two strong men to tend the lighthouses along this coast."
Louie’s mother rested her hand on Louie’s shoulder.
"My son will work alongside me. He's very strong. He helped my husband and me tend the lighthouse on Swanton Point.”
Unable to fold up Louie slouched down in his chair. He kept his eyes on the floor.
No one spoke for what seemed like hours. Mr. McAllister sat back in his chair, drummed his fingers on the oak desk, then stroked his head and his mustache.
“Well . . . I need someone to take over tending Two Tree Island Light. The keeper brought his family but his wife didn't like the loneliness of living on that island. His kids complained because they had no othah children to play with them. They have moved to the mainland but the keeper has had to stay on the island until we find his replacement.”
Mr. McAllister leaned over the desk and asked
Louie, "How old are you, boy?"
Louie stopped shuffling his feet. He felt the pink move up from his neck to his checks. He sat up tall.
"I'm thirteen, going on fourteen and my name is Louie, Sir."
Louie spoke with more confidence than he felt. He really just had his thirteenth birthday. But going on fourteen sounded better than thirteen now that he was supposed to be the man of the family.
“My pa was a lighthouse keeper. So was my grandpa. I know all about lighthouse tending.”
“He has many talents,” Ma added.
“We work together just as we did with his pa and my pa.” She reached over to hold Louie’s hand.
“Do you know how to warn ships when they are close to the rocks? Can you tend the lamps in stormy weather?" Mr. McAllister asked Louie’s mother.
Louie squirmed in his chair.
Here she goes again. He sighed.
Louie’s mother sat back in her chair.
“I’ve lived in lighthouses since I was a little girl. During one winter storm the waves broke over our whole island, flooded our house, and broke all the windows. My pa moved us to the lighthouse tower so that we could still keep the lamps blazing during the storm. When he left us to rescue some of our household goods, he was washed out to sea.”
“We stayed in the lighthouse tower and kept the lamps lit all night, even when the waves kept lashing the tower. We saved two ships from crashing against our rocks in that bad storm.”
Louie had heard her tell the story many times.
She continued, “Now will you hire us?”
“Well. . . .” Mr. McAllister again sat back in his chair. He scratched his bald spot and then stroked his mustache.
“I really need to send someone out to tend that light,” he said.
“Just give us a chance,” Ma pleaded.
Louie nodded. She continued.
“My husband died five months ago and we need the money.”
She took out her lace handkerchief and held it up to her eyes. Louie squeezed the hat and clenched his other hand into a fist.
Louie mumbled to himself, would this man ever make up his mind?
Mr. McAllister replied as if he heard.
“All right.” He sighed.
“You’ll have to do until I can hire a regulah man.”
Louie slumped in his chair and looked down at the floor again.