|◄ Knoxville: Summer 1915|| A Death in the Family
written by James Agee
|PART II ►|
|Prentice-Hall of India 1974 (reprint 1957 The James Agee Trust) (pages 11-111)|
At supper that night, as many times before, his father said, “Well, spose we go to the picture show.”
“Oh, Jay!” his mother said. “That horrid little man!”
“What’s wrong with him?” his father asked, not because he didn’t know what she would say, but so she would say it.
“He’s so nasty!” she said, as she always did. “So vulgar! With his nasty little cane; hooking up skirts and things, and that nasty little walk!”
His father laughed, as he always did, and Rufus felt that it had become rather an empty joke; but as always the laughter also cheered him; he felt that the laughter enclosed him with his father.
They walked downtown in the light of mother-of-pearl, to the Majestic, and found their way to seats by the light of the screen, in the exhilarating smell of stale tobacco, rank sweat, perfume and dirty drawers, while the piano played fast music and galloping horses raised a grandiose flag of dust. And there was William S. Hart with both guns blazing and his long, horse face and his long, hard lip, and the great country rode away behind him as wide as the world. Then he made a bashful face at a girl and his horse raised its upper lip and everybody laughed, and then the screen was filled with a city and with the sidewalk of a side street of a city, a long line of palms and there was Charlie; everyone laughed the minute they saw him squattily walking with his toes out and his knees wide apart, as if he were chafed; Rufus’father laughed, and Rufus laughed too. This time Charlie stole a whole bag of eggs and when a cop came along he hid them in the seat of his pants. Then he caught sight of a pretty woman and he began to squat and twirl his cane and make silly faces. She tossed her head and walked away with her chin up high and her dark mouth as small as she could make it and he followed her very busily, doing all sorts of things with his cane that made everybody laugh, but she paid no attention. Finally she stopped at a corner to wait for a streetcar, turning her back to him, and pretending he wasn’t even there, and after trying to get her attention for a while, and not succeeding, he looked out at the audience, shrugged his shoulders, and acted as if she wasn’t there. But after tapping his foot for a little, pretending he didn’t care, he became interested again, and with a charming smile, tipped his derby; but she only stiffened, and tossed her head again, and everybody laughed. Then he walked back and forth behind her, looking at her and squatting a little while he walked very quietly, and everybody laughed again; then he flicked hold of the straight end of his cane and, with the crooked end, hooked up her skirt to the knee, in exactly the way that disgusted Mama, looking very eagerly at her legs, and everybody laughed very loudly; but she pretended she had not noticed. Then he twirled his cane and suddenly squatted, bending the cane and hitching up his pants, and again hooked up her skirt so that you could see the panties she wore, ruffled almost like the edges of curtains, and everybody whooped with laughter, and she suddenly turned in rage and gave him a shove in the chest, and he sat down straight-legged, hard enough to hurt, and everybody whooped again; and she walked haughtily away up the street, forgetting about the streetcar, “mad as a hornet!” as his father exclaimed in delight; and there was Charlie, flat on his bottom on the sidewalk, and the way he looked, kind of sickly and disgusted, you could see that he suddenly remembered those eggs, and suddenly you remembered them too. The way his face looked, with the lip wrinkled off the teeth and the sickly little smile, it made you feel just the way those broken eggs must feel against your seat, as queer and awful as that time in the white pekay suit, when it ran down out of the pants-legs and showed all over your stockings and you had to walk home that way with people looking; and Rufus’father nearly tore his head off laughing and so did everybody else, and Rufus was sorry for Charlie, having been so recently in a similar predicament, but the contagion of laughter was too much for him, and he laughed too. And then it was even funnier when Charlie very carefully got himself up from the sidewalk, with that sickly look even worse on his face, and put his cane under one arm, and began to pick at his pants, front and back, very carefully, with his little fingers crooked, as if it were too dirty to touch, picking the sticky cloth away from his skin. Then he reached behind him and took out the wet bag of broken eggs and opened it and peered in; and took out a broken egg and pulled the shell disgustedly apart, letting the elastic yolk slump from one half shell into the other, and dropped it, shuddering. Then he peered in again and fished out a whole egg, all slimy with broken yolk, and polished it off carefully on his sleeve, and looked at it, and wrapped it in his dirty handkerchief, and put it carefully into the vest pocket of his little coat. Then he whipped out his cane from under his armpit and took command of it again, and with a final look at everybody, still sickly but at the same time cheerful, shrugged his shoulders and turned his back and scraped backward with his big shoes at the broken shells and the slimy bag, just like a dog, and looked back at the mess (everybody laughed again at that) and started to walk away, bending his cane deep with every shuffle, and squatting deeper, with his knees wider apart, than ever before, constantly picking at the seat of his pants with his left hand, and shaking one foot, then the other, and once gouging deep into his seat and then pausing and shaking his whole body, like a wet dog, and then walking on; while the screen shut over his small image a sudden circle of darkness: then the player-piano changed its tune, and the ads came in motionless color. They sat on into the William S. Hart feature to make sure why he had killed the man with the fancy vest-it was as they had expected by her frightened, pleased face after the killing; he had insulted a girl and cheated her father as well-and Rufus’father said, “Well, reckon this is where we came in,” but they watched him kill the man all over again; then they walked out.
It was full dark now, but still early; Gay Street was full of absorbed faces; many of the store windows were still alight. Plaster people, in ennobled postures, stiffly wore untouchably new clothes; there was even a little boy, with short, straight pants, bare knees and high socks, obviously a sissy: but he wore a cap, all the same, not a hat like a baby. Rufus’whole insides lifted and sank as he looked at the cap and he looked up at his father; but his father did not notice; his face was wrapped in good humor, the memory of Charlie. Remembering his rebuff of a year ago, even though it had been his mother, Rufus was afraid to speak of it. His father wouldn’t mind, but she wouldn’t want him to have a cap, yet. If he asked his father now, his father would say no, Charlie Chaplin was enough. He watched the absorbed faces pushing past each other and the great bright letters of the signs: “Sterchi’s.”
“George’s.” I can read them now, he reflected. I even know how to say “Sturkeys.” But he thought it best not to say so; he remembered how his father had said, “Don’t you brag,” and he had been puzzled and rather stupid in school for several days, because of the stern tone in his voice.
What was bragging? It was bad.
They turned aside into a darker street, where the fewer faces looked more secret, and came into the odd, shaky light of Market Square. It was almost empty at this hour, but here and there, along the pavement streaked with horse urine, a wagon stayed still, and low firelight shone through the white cloth shell stretched tightly on its hickory hoops. A dark-faced man leaned against the white brick wall, gnawing a turnip; he looked at them low, with sad, pale eyes. When Rufus’father raised his hand in silent greeting, he raised his hand, but less, and Rufus, turning, saw how he looked sorrowfully, somehow dangerously, after them. They passed a wagon in which a lantern burned low orange; there lay a whole family, large and small, silent, asleep. In the tail of one wagon a woman sat, her face narrow beneath her flare of sunbonnet, her dark eyes in its shade, like smudges of soot. Rufus’father averted his eyes and touched his straw hat lightly; and Rufus, looking back, saw how her dead eyes kept looking gently ahead of her.
“Well,” his father said, “reckon I’ll hoist me a couple.”
They turned through the swinging doors into a blast of odor and sound. There was no music: only the density of bodies and of the smell of a market bar, of beer, whiskey and country bodies, salt and leather; no clamor; only the thick quietude of crumpled talk. Rufus stood looking at the light on a damp spittoon and he heard his father ask for whiskey, and knew he was looking up and down the bar for men he might know. But they seldom come from so far away as the Powell River Valley; and Rufus soon realized that his father had found, tonight, no one he knew. He looked up his father’s length and watched him bend backwards tossing one off in one jolt in a lordly manner, and a moment later heard him say to the man next him, “That’s my boy”; and felt a warmth of love. Next moment he felt his father’s hands under his armpits, and he was lifted, high, and seated on the bar, looking into a long row of huge bristling and bearded red faces. The eyes of the men nearest him were interested, and kind; some of them smiled; further away, the eyes were impersonal and questioning, but now even some of these began to smile. Somewhat timidly, but feeling assured that his father was proud of him and that he was liked, and liked these men, he smiled back; and suddenly many of the men laughed. He was disconcerted by their laughter and lost his smile a moment; then, realizing it was friendly, smiled again; and again they laughed. His father smiled at him. “That’s my boy,” he said warmly. “Six years old, and he can already read like I couldn’t read when I was twice his age.”
Rufus felt a sudden hollowness in his voice, and all along the bar, and in his own heart. But how does he fight, he thought. You don’t brag about smartness if your son is brave. He felt the anguish of shame, but his father did not seem to notice, except that as suddenly as he had lifted him up to the bar, he gently lifted him down again. “Reckon I’ll have another,” he said, and drank it more slowly; then, with a few good nights, they went out.
His father proffered a Life Saver, courteously, man to man; he took it with a special sense of courtesy. It sealed their contract. Only once had his father felt it necessary to say to him, “I wouldn’t tell your mama, if I were you”; he had known, from then on, that he could trust Rufus; and Rufus had felt gratitude in this silent trust. They walked away from Market Square, along a dark and nearly empty street, sucking their Life Savers; and Rufus’father reflected, without particular concern, that Life Savers were not quite life saver enough; he had better play very tired tonight, and turn away the minute they got in bed.
The deaf and dumb asylum was deaf and dumb, his father observed very quietly, as if he were careful not to wake it, as he always did on these evenings; its windows showed black in its pale brick, as the nursing woman’s eyes, and it stood deep and silent among the light shadows of its trees. Ahead, Asylum Avenue lay bleak beneath its lamps. Latticed in pawnshop iron, an old saber caught the glint of a street lamp, a mandolin’s belly glowed. In a closed drug store stood Venus de Milo, her golden body laced in elastic straps. The stained glass of the L amp;N Depot smoldered like an exhausted butterfly, and at the middle of the viaduct they paused to inhale the burst of smoke from a switch engine which passed under; Rufus, lifted, the cinders stinging his face, was grateful no longer to feel fear at this suspension over the tracks and the powerful locomotives. Far down the yard, a red light flicked to green; a moment later, they heard the thrilling click. It was ten-seven by the depot clock. They went on, more idly than before.
If I could fight, thought Rufus. If I were brave; he would never brag how I could read: Brag. Of course. “Don’t you brag.” That was it. What it meant. Don’t brag you’re smart if you’re not brave. You’ve got nothing to brag about. Don’t you brag.
The young leaves of Forest Avenue wavered against street lamps and they approached their corner.
It was a vacant lot, part rubbed bare clay, part over-grown with weeds, rising a little from the sidewalk. A few feet in from the sidewalk there was a medium-sized tree and, near enough to be within its shade in daytime, an outcrop of limestone like a great bundle of dirty laundry. If you sat on a certain part of it the trunk of the tree shut off the weak street lamp a block away, and it seemed very dark. Whenever they walked downtown and walked back home, in the evenings, they always began to walk more slowly, from about the middle of the viaduct, and as they came near this corner they walked more slowly still, but with purpose; and paused a moment, at the edge of the sidewalk; then, without speaking. stepped into the dark lot and sat down on the rock, looking out over the steep face of the hill and at the lights of North Knoxville. Deep in the valley an engine coughed and browsed; couplings settled their long chains, and the empty cars sounded like broken drums. A man came up the far side of the street, walking neither slow nor fast, not turning his head, as he paused, and quite surely not noticing them; they watched him until he was out of sight, and Rufus felt, and was sure that his father felt, that though there was no harm in the man and he had as good a right as they did to be there, minding his own business, their journey was interrupted from the moment they first saw him until they saw him out of sight. Once he was out of sight they realized more pleasure in their privacy than before; they really relaxed in it. They looked across the darkness at the lights of North Knoxville. They were aware of the quiet leaves above them, and looked into them and through them. They looked between the leaves into the stars. Usually on these evening waits, or a few minutes before going on home, Rufus’father smoked a cigarette through, and when it was finished, it was time to get up and go on home. But this time he did not smoke. Up to recently he had always said something about Rufus’being tired, when they were still about a block away from the corner; but lately he had not done so and Rufus realized that his father stopped as much because he wanted to, as on Rufus’account. He was just not in a hurry to get home, Rufus realized; and, far more important, it was clear that he liked to spend these few minutes with Rufus. Rufus had come recently to feel a quiet kind of anticipation of the corner, from the moment they finished crossing the viaduct; and, during the ten to twenty minutes they sat on the rock, a particular kind of contentment, unlike any other that he knew. He did not know what this was, in words or ideas, or what the reason was; it was simply all that he saw and felt. It was, mainly, knowing that his father, too, felt a particular kind of contentment, here, unlike any other, and that their kinds of contentment were much alike, and depended on each other. Rufus seldom had at all sharply the feeling that he and his father were estranged, yet they must have been, and he must have felt it, for always during these quiet moments on the rock a part of his sense of complete contentment lay in the feeling that they were reconciled, that there was really no division, no estrangement, or none so strong, anyhow, that it could mean much, by comparison with the unity that was so firm and assured, here. He felt that although his father loved their home and loved all of them, he was more lonely than the contentment of this family love could help; that it even increased his loneliness, or made it hard for him not to be lonely. He felt that sitting out here, he was not lonely; or if he was, that he felt on good terms with the loneliness; that he was a homesick man, and that here on the rock, though he might be more homesick than ever, he was well. He knew that a very important part of his well-being came of staying a few minutes away from home, very quietly, in the dark, listening to the leaves if they moved, and looking at the stars; and that his own, Rufus’own presence, was fully as indispensable to this well-being. He knew that each of them knew of the other’s well-being, and of the reasons for it, and knew how each depended on the other, how each meant more to the other, in this most important of all ways, than anyone or anything else in the world; and that the best of this wellbeing lay in this mutual knowledge, which was neither concealed nor revealed. He knew these things very distinctly, but not, of course, in any such way as we have of suggesting them in words. There were no words, or even ideas, or formed emotions, of the kind that have been suggested here, no more in the man than in the boy child. These realizations moved clearly through the senses, the memory, the feelings, the mere feeling of the place they paused at, about a quarter of a mile from home, on a rock under a stray tree that had grown in the city, their feet on undomesticated clay, facing north through the night over the Southern Railway tracks and over North Knoxville, towards the deeply folded small mountains and the Powell River Valley, and above them, the trembling lanterns of the universe, seeming so near, so intimate, that when air stirred the leaves and their hair, it seemed to be the breathing, the whispering of the stars. Sometimes on these evenings his father would hum a little and the humming would break open into a word or two, but he never finished even a part of a tune, for silence was even more pleasurable, and sometimes he would say a few words, of very little consequence, but would never seek to say much, or to finish what he was saying, or to listen for a reply; for silence again was even more pleasurable. Sometimes, Rufus had noticed, he would stroke the wrinkled rock and press his hand firmly against it; and sometimes he would put out his cigarette and tear and scatter it before it was half finished. But this time he was much quieter than ordinarily. They slackened their walking a little sooner than usual and walked a little more slowly, without a word, to the corner; and hesitated, before stepping off the sidewalk into the clay, purely for the luxury of hesitation; and took their place on the rock without breaking silence. As always, Rufus’father took off his hat and put it over the front of his bent knee, and as always, Rufus imitated him, but this time his father did not roll a cigarette. They waited while the man came by, intruding on their privacy, and disappeared, as someone nearly always did, and then relaxed sharply into the pleasure of their privacy; but this time Rufus’father did not hum, nor did he say anything, nor even touch the rock with his hand, but sat with his hands hung between his knees and looked out over North Knoxville, hearing the restive assemblage of the train; and after there had been silence for a while, raised his head and looked up into the leaves and between the leaves into the broad stars, not smiling, but with his eyes more calm and grave and his mouth strong and more quiet, than Rufus had ever seen his eyes and his mouth; and as he watched his father’s face, Rufus felt his father’s hand settle, without groping or clumsiness, on the top of his bare head; it took his forehead and smoothed it, and pushed the hair backward from his forehead, and held the back of his head while Rufus pressed his head backward against the firm hand, and, in reply to that pressure, clasped over his right ear and cheek, over the whole side of the head, and drew Rufus’head quietly and strongly against the sharp cloth that covered his father’s body, through which Rufus could feel the breathing ribs; then relinquished him, and Rufus sat upright, while the hand lay strongly on his shoulder, and he saw that his father’s eyes had become still more clear and grave and that the deep lines around his mouth were satisfied; and looked up at what his father was so steadily looking at, at the leaves which silently breathed and at the stars which beat like hearts. He heard a long, deep sigh break from his father, and then his father’s abrupt voice: “Well…” and the hand lifted from him and they both stood up. The rest of the way home they did not speak, or put on their hats. When he was nearly asleep Rufus heard once more the crumpling of freight cars, and deep in the night he heard the crumpling of subdued voices and the words, “Naw: I’ll probly be back before they’re asleep”; then quick feet creaking quietly downstairs. But by the time he heard the creaking and departure of the Ford, he was already so deeply asleep that it seemed only a part of a dream, and by next morning, when his mother explained to them why his father was not at breakfast, he had so forgotten the words and the noises that years later, when he remembered them, he could never be sure that he was not making them up.
Deep in the night they experienced the sensation, in their sleep, of being prodded at, as if by some persistent insect. Their souls turned and flicked out impatient hands, but the tormentor would not be driven off. They both awoke at the same instant. In the dark and empty hall, by itself, the telephone was shrilling fiercely, forlorn as an abandoned baby and even more peremptory to be quieted. They heard it ring once and did not stir, crystallizing their senses into annoyance, defiance and acceptance of defeat. It rang again: at the same moment she exclaimed, “Jay! The children!” and he, grunting, “Lie still,” swung his feet thumping to the floor. The phone rang again. He hurried out in the dark, barefooted, tiptoe, cursing under his breath. Hard as he tried to beat it, it rang again just as he got to it. He cut it off in the middle of its cry and listened with savage satisfaction to its death rattle. Then he put the receiver to his ear.
“Yeah?” he said, forbiddingly. “Hello.”
“Is this the residence of, uh…”
“Hello, who is it?”
“Is this the residence of Jay Follet?”
Another voice said, “That’s him, Central, let me talk to um, that’s…” It was Ralph.
“Hello,” he said. “Ralph?”
“One moment please, your party is not connec…”
“Ralph? Yeah. Hello. What’s trouble?” For there was something wrong with his voice. Drunk, I reckon, he thought.
“Jay? Can you hear me all right? I said,’Can you hear me all right,’Jay?”
Crying too, sounds like. “Sure, I can hear you. What’s the matter?” Paw, he thought suddenly. I bet it’s Paw; and he thought of his father and his mother and was filled with cold sad darkness.
“Hit’s Paw, Jay,” said Ralph, his voice going so rotten with tears that his brother pulled the receiver a little away, his mouth contracting with disgust. “I know I got no business aringin y’up this hour night but I know too you’d never a forgive me if…”
“Quit it, Ralph,” he said sharply. “Cut that out and tell me about it.”
“Hit’s only my duty, Jay, God Almighty I…”
“All right, Ralph,” he said, “I preciate your callin. Now tell me about Paw.”
“I just got back fer this, Jay, this minute, hurried home specially to ring you up… Course I’m agoan right back, you…”
“Listen, Ralph. Listen here. Can you hear me?” Ralph was silent. “Is he dead or alive?”
Jay started to say, “Yeah, Paw,” in tight rage, but he heard Ralph begin again. He can’t help it, he thought, and waited.
“Why, naw, he ain’t dead,” Ralph said, deflated. The darkness lifted considerably from Jay: coldly, he listened to Ralph whickering up his feelings again. Finally, his voice shaking satisfactorily, he said, “But O Lord God, hit looks like the end Jay!”
I should come up, huh?" He began to wonder whether Ralph was sober enough to be trusted; Ralph heard, and misunderstood the doubt in his voice.
His own voice became dignified. “Course that’s entirely up to you, Jay. I know Paw n all of us would feel it was mighty strange if his oldest boy, the one he always thought the most of…”
This new voice and this new tack bewildered Jay for a moment. Then he understood what Ralph was driving at, and had misunderstood, and assumed about him, and was glad that he was not where he could hit him. He cut in.
“Hold on, Ralph, you hold on there. If Paw’s that bad you know damn well I’m comin so don’t give me none a that…” But he realized, with self-dislike, how unimportant it was to argue this matter with Ralph and said, “Listen here, Ralph, now don’t think I’m jumping on you, just listen. Do you hear me?” His feet and legs were getting chilly. He warmed one foot beneath the other. “Hear me?”
“I can hear you, Jay.”
“Ralph, get it straight I’m not trying to jump on you, but sounds to me like you’ve had a few. Now…”
“Now hold on. I don’t give a damn if you’re drunk or sober, far’s you’re concerned: point is this, Ralph. Anyone that’s drunk, I know it myself, they’re likely to exaggerate…”
“You think I’m a lyin to you? You…”
“Shut up, Ralph. Course you’re not. But if you’re drunk you can get an exaggerated idea how serious a thing is. Now you think a minute. Just think it over. And remember nobody’s goin to think bad of you if you change your mind, or for calling either. Just how sick is he really, Ralph?”
“Course if you don’t want to take my word for…”
“Think, Goddamn it!” Ralph was silent. Jay changed his feet around. He suddenly realized how foolish he had been to try to get anything level-headed out of Ralph. “Listen, Ralph,” he said. “I know you wouldn’t a phoned if you didn’t think it was serious. Is Sally there?”
“Why yeah, she…”
“Let me talk to her a minute, will you?”
“Why I just told you she’s out home.”
“Course Mother’s out there.”
“Why, Jay, she wouldn’t never leave his side. Mother…”
“Doctor’s been out, of course.”
“He’s with him still. Was when I left.”
“What’s he say?”
Ralph hesitated. He did not want to spoil his story. “He says he has a chance, Jay.”
By the way Ralph said it, Jay suspected the doctor had said, a good chance.
He was at the edge of asking whether it was a good chance or just a chance when he was suddenly overcome by even more disgust for himself, for haggling about it, than for Ralph. Besides, his feet were so chilly they were beginning to itch.
“Look here, Ralph,” he said, in a different voice. “I’m talking too much. I…”
“Yeah, reckon our time must be about up, but what’s a few…”
“Listen here. I’m starting right on up. I ought to be there by-what time is it, do you know?”
“Hit’s two-thirty-seven, Jay. I knowed you’d…”
“I ought to be there by daylight, Ralph, you tell Mother I’m coming right on up just quicks I can get there. Ralph. Is he conscious?”
“Awf an’on, Jay. He’s been speakin yore name, Jay, hit like to break muh heart. He’ll sure thank his stars that his oldest boy, the one he always thought the most of, that you thought it was worth yer while to…”
“Cut it out, Ralph. What the hell you think I am? If he gets conscious just let him know I’m comin’. And Ralph…”
But now he did not want to say it. He said it anyway. “I know I got no room to talk, but-try not to drink so much that Mother will notice it. Drink some coffee fore you go back. Huh? Drink it black.”
“Sure, Jay, and don’t think I take offense so easy. I wouldn’t add a mite to her troubles, not at this time, not for this world, Jay. You know that. So Jay, I thank you. I thank you for calling it to my tention. I don’t take offense. I thank you, Jay. I thank you.”
“That’s all right, Ralph. Don’t mention it,” he added, feeling hypercritical and a little disgusted again. “Now I’ll be right along. So good-bye.”
“You tell Mary how it is, Jay. Don’t want her thinking bad of me, ringing…”
“That’s all right. She’ll understand. Good-bye, Ralph.”
“I wouldn’t a rung you up, Jay if…”
“That’s all right. Thanks for calling. Good-bye.”
Ralph’s voice was unsatisfied. “Well, good-bye,” he said.
Wants babying, Jay realized. Not appreciated enough. He listened. The line was still open. The hell I will, he thought, and hung up. Of all the crybabies, he thought, and went on back to the bedroom.
“Gracious sake,” said Mary, under her breath. “I thought he’d talk forever!”
“Oh, well,” Jay said, “reckon he can’t help it.” He sat on the bed and felt for his socks.
“It is your father, Jay?”
“Yup,” he said, pulling on one sock.
“Oh, you’re going up,” she said, suddenly realizing what he was doing. She put her hand on him. “Then it’s very grave, Jay,” she said very gently.
He fastened his garter and put his hand over hers. “Lord knows,” he said. “I can’t be sure enough of anything with Ralph, but I can’t afford to take the risk.”
“Of course not.” Her hand moved to pat him; his hand moved on hers. “Has the doctor seen him?” she asked cautiously.
“He says he has a chance, Ralph says.”
“That could mean so many things. It might be all right if you waited till morning. You might hear he was better, then. Not that I mean to…”
Because, to his shame, he had done the same kinds of wondering himself, he was now exasperated afresh. The thought even flashed across his mind, That’s easy for you to say. He’s not your father, and besides you’ve always looked down at him. But he drove this thought so well away that he thought ill of himself for having believed it, and said, “Sweetheart, I’d rather wait and see what we hear in the morning, just as much as you would. It may all be a false alarm. I know Ralph goes off his trolley easy. But we just can’t afford to take that chance.”
“Of course not, Jay.” There was a loud stirring as she got from bed.
“What you up to?”
“Why, your breakfast,” she said, switching on the light. “Sakes alive!” she said, seeing the clock.
“Oh, Mary. Get on back to bed. I can pick up something downtown.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said, hurrying into her bathrobe.
“Honest, it would be just as easy,” he said. He liked night lunchrooms, and had not been in one since Rufus was born. He was very faintly disappointed. But still more, he was warmed by the simplicity with which she got up for him, thoroughly awake.
“Why, Jay, that is out of the question!” she said, knotting the bathrobe girdle. She got into her slippers and shuffled quickly to the door. She looked back and said, in a stage whisper, “Bring your shoes-to the kitchen.”
He watched her disappear, wondering what in hell she meant by that, and was suddenly taken with a snort of silent amusement. She had looked so deadly serious, about the shoes. God, the ten thousand little things every day that a woman kept thinking of, on account of children. Hardly even thinking, he thought to himself, as he pulled on his other sock. Practically automatic. Like breathing.
And most of the time, he thought, as he stripped, they’re dead right. Course they’re so much in the habit of it (he stepped into his drawers) that sometimes they overdo it. But most of the time if you think even a second before you get annoyed (he buttoned his undershirt), there is good common sense behind it.
He shook out his trousers. His moment of reflection and light-heartedness was overtaken by shadow, and he felt a little foolish, for he couldn’t be sure there was anything to worry about yet, much less feel solemn about. That Ralph, he thought, hoisting the trousers and buttoning the top button. And he stood a moment looking at the window, polished with light, a deep blue-black beyond. The hour and the beauty of the night moved in him; he heard the flickering of the clock, and it sounded alien and mysterious as a rat in a wall. He felt a deep sense of solemn adventure, whether or not there was anything to feel solemn about. He sighed, and thought of his father as he could first remember him: beak-nosed, handsome, with a great, proud scowl of black mustache. He had known from away back that his father was sort of useless without ever meaning to be; the amount of burden he left to Jay’s mother used to drive him to fury, even when he was a boy. And yet he couldn’t get around it: he was so naturally gay and so deeply kind-hearted that you couldn’t help loving him. And he never meant her any harm. He meant so well. That thought used particularly to enrage Jay, and even now it occurred to him with a certain sourness. But now he reflected also: well, but damn it, he did. He may have traded on it, but he never tried to, never knew it gained him anything. He meant the best in the world. And for a moment as he looked at the window he had no mental image of his father nor any thought of him, nor did he hear the clock. He only saw the window, tenderly alight within, and the infinite dark leaning like water against its outer surface, and even the window was not a window, but only something extraordinarily vivid and senseless which for the moment occupied the universe. A sense of enormous distance stole over him, and changed into a moment of insupportable wonder and sadness.
Well, he thought: we’ve all got to go sometime.
Then life came back into focus.
Clean shirt, he thought.
He unbuttoned the top buttons of his trousers and spread his knees, squatting slightly, to hold them up. Fool thing to do, he reflected. Do it every time. (He tucked in the deep tails and settled them; the tails of this shirt were particularly long, and this always, for some reason, still made him feel particularly masculine.) If I put on the shirt first, wouldn’t have to do that fool squat. (He finished buttoning his fly.) Well (he braced his right shoulder) there’s habit for you (he braced his left shoulder and slightly squatted again, readjusting).
He sat on the bed and reached for one shoe.
He took his shoes, a tie, a collar and collar buttons, and started from the room. He saw the rumpled bed. Well, he thought, I can do something for her. He put his things on the floor, smoothed the sheets, and punched the pillows. The sheets were still warm on her side. He drew the covers up to keep the warmth, then laid them open a few inches, so it would look inviting to get into. She’ll be glad of that, he thought, very well pleased with the looks of it. He gathered up his shoes, collar, tie and buttons, and made for the kitchen, taking special care as he passed the children’s door, which was slightly ajar.
She was just turning the eggs. “Ready in a second,” he told her, and dodged into the bathroom. Ought to get this upstairs, he reflected for perhaps the five hundredth time.
He thrust his chin at the mirror. Not so bad, he thought, and decided just to wash. Then he reflected: after all, why had he worn a clean shirt? He could hope to God not, all he liked, but the chances were this was going to be a very solemn occasion. I’d do it for a funeral, wouldn’t I? he reflected, annoyed at his laziness. He got out his razor and stropped it rapidly.
Mary heard this lavish noise of leather, and with a small spasm of impatience shoved the eggs to the back of the stove.
Ordinarily he took a good deal of time shaving, not because he enjoyed it (he loathed it) but because if it had to be done he wanted to do it well, and because he hated to cut himself. This time, because he was in a hurry, he gave a special cold glance at the lump of chin before he leaned forward and got to work. But to his surprise, everything worked like a charm; he even had less trouble than usu al at the roots of his nostrils, and with his chin, and there were no patches left. He felt so well gratified that he dabbed each cheekbone with lather and took off the little half-moons of fuzz. Still no complaints. He cleaned up the basin and flushed the lathery, hairy bits of toilet paper down the water closet. Do I? he wondered, as the water closet gargled. Nope. He reached for the collar buttons.
When Mary came to the door he was flinging over and noosing the four-in-hand, his chin stretched and tilted as it always was during this operation, with the look of an impatient horse.
“Jay,” she said softly, a little quelled by this impatient look, “I don’t mean to hurry you, but things’ll get cold.”
“I’ll be right out.” He set the knot carefully above the button, glaring into his reflected eyes, made an unusually scrupulous part in his hair, and hurried to the kitchen table.
“Aw, darling!” There were the bacon and eggs and the coffee, all ready, and she was making pancakes as well.
“Well you got to eat, Jay. It’ll still be chilly for hours.” She spoke as if in a church or library, because of the sleeping children, unconsciously, because of the time of night.
“Sweetheart.” He caught her shoulders where she stood at the stove. She turned, her eyes hard with wakefulness, and smiled. He kissed her.
“Eat your eggs,” she said. “They’re getting cold.”
He sat down and started eating. She turned the pancakes. “How many can you eat?” she asked.
“Gee, I don’t know,” he said, getting the egg down (don’t talk with your mouth full) before he answered. He was not yet quite awake enough to be very hungry, but he was touched, and determined to eat a big breakfast. “Better hold it after the first two, three.”
She covered the Pancake to keep it hot and poured another.
He noticed that she had peppered the eggs more heavily than usual. “Good eggs,” he said.
She was pleased. Not more than half consciously, she had done this because within a few hours he would doubtless eat again, at home. For the same reason she had made the coffee unusually strong. And for the same reason she felt pleasure in standing at the stove while he ate, as mountain women did.
“Good coffee,” he said. “Now that’s more like it.” She turned the pancake. She supposed she really ought to make two pots always, one that she could stand to drink and one the way he liked it, new water and a few fresh grounds put in, without ever throwing out the old ones until the pot was choked full of old grounds. But she couldn’t stand it; she would as soon watch him drink so much sulfuric acid.
“Don’t you worry,” she smiled at him. “You won’t get any from me that’s all the way like it!”
He frowned at her.
“Come on sit down, sweetheart,” he said.
“In a minute…”
“Come on. I imagine two are gonna be enough.”
“You think so?”
“If it won’t I’ll make the third one.” He took her hand and drew her towards her chair. “You’ll sit here.” She sat down. “How about you?”
“I couldn’t sleep.”
“I know what.” He got up and went to the icebox.
“What are you-oh. No, Jay. Well. Thanks.”
For before she could prevent him he had poured milk into a saucepan, and now that he put it on the stove she knew she would like it.
“Want some toast?”
“No, thank you, darling. The milk, just by itself, will be just perfect.”
He finished off the eggs. She got half out of her chair. He pressed down on her shoulder as he got up. He brought back the pancakes.
“They’ll be soggy by now. Let me…” She started up again; again he put a hand on her shoulder. “You stay put,” he said in a mockery of sternness. “They’re fine. Couldn’t be better.”
He plastered on butter, poured on molasses, sliced the pancakes in parallels, gave them a twist with knife and fork and sliced them crosswise.
“There’s plenty more butter,” she said.
“Got a plenty,” he said, spearing four fragments of pancake and putting them in his mouth. “Thanks.” He chewed them up, swallowed them, and speared four more. “I bet your milk’s warm.” he said, putting down his fork.
But this time she was up before he could prevent her. “You eat,” she said. She poured the white, softly steaming milk into a thick white cup and sat down with it, warming both hands on the cup, and watching him eat. Because of the strangeness of the hour, and the abrupt destruction of sleep, the necessity for action and its interruptive minutiae, the gravity of his errand, and a kind of weary exhilaration, both of them found it peculiarly hard to talk, though both particularly wanted to. He realized that she was watching him, and watched back, his eyes serious yet smiling, his jaws busy. He was glutted, but he thought to himself, I’ll finish up those pancakes if it’s the last thing I do.
“Don’t stuff, Jay,” she said after a silence.
“Don’t eat more than you’ve appetite for.”
He had thought his imitation of good appetite was successful. “Don’t worry,” he said, spearing some more.
There wasn’t much to finish. She looked at him tenderly when he glanced down to see, and said nothing more about it.
“Mnh,” he said, leaning back.
Now there was nothing to take their eyes from each other; and still, for some reason, they had nothing to say. They were not disturbed by this, but both felt almost the shyness of courtship. Each continued to look into the other’s tired eyes, and their tired eyes sparkled, but not with realizations which reached their hearts very distinctly.
“What would you like to do for your birthday?” he asked.
“Why, Jay.” She was taken very much by surprise. “Why you nice thing! Why-why…”
“You think it over,” he said. “Whatever you’d like best-within reason, of course,” he joked. “I’ll see we manage it. The children, I mean.” They both remembered at the same time. He said, “That is, of course, if everything goes the way we hope it will, up home.”
“Of course, Jay.” Her eyes lost focus for a moment. “Let’s hope it will,” she said, in a peculiarly abstracted voice.
He watched her. That occasional loss of focus always mystified him and faintly disturbed him. Women, he guessed.
She came back into this world and again they looked at each other. Of course, in a way, they both reflected, there isn’t anything to say, or need for us to say it, anyhow.
He took a slow, deep breath and let it out as slowly.
“Well, Mary,” he said in his gentlest voice. He took her hand. They smiled very seriously, thinking of his father and of each other, and both knew in their hearts, as they had known in their minds, that there was no need to say anything.
They got up.
Now where-ahh, " he said in deep annoyance.
“Coat n vest,” he said, starting for the stairs.
“You wait,” she said, passing him swiftly. “Fraid you’d wake the children,” she whispered over her shoulder.
While she was gone he went into the sitting room, turned on one light, and picked up his pipe and tobacco. In the single quiet light in the enormous quietude of the night, all the little objects in the room looked golden brown and curiously gentle. He was touched, without knowing why.
He snapped off the light.
She was a little slow coming down; seeing if they’re covered, he thought. He stood by the stove, idly watching the flexions of the dark and light squares in the linoleum. He was glad he’d gotten it down, at last. And Mary had been right. The plain black and white did look better than colors and fancy patterns.
He heard her on the stairs. Sure enough, first thing she said when she came in was, “You know, I was almost tempted to wake them. I suppose I’m silly but they’re so used to-I’m afraid they’re going to be very disappointed you didn’t tell them good-bye.”
“Good night! Really?” He hardly knew whether he was pleased or displeased. Were they getting spoilt maybe?
“I may be mistaken, of course.”
“Be silly to wake em up. You might not get to sleep rest of the night.”
He buttoned his vest.
“I wouldn’t think of it, except: well” (she was reluctant to remind him), “if worst comes to worst, Jay, you might be gone longer than we hope.”
“That’s perfectly true,” he said, gravely. This whole sudden errand was so uncertain, so ambiguous that it was hard for either of them to hold a focused state of mind about it. He thought again of his father.
“You think praps I should?”
“Let me think.”
“N-no,” he said slowly; “I don’t reckon. No. You see, even, well even at the worst I’d be coming back to take you-all up. Funeral I mean. And these heart things, they’re generally decided pretty fast. Chances are very good, either way, I’ll be back tomorrow night. That’s tonight, I mean.”
“Yes, I see. Yes.”
“Tell you what. Tell them, don’t promise them or anything of course, but tell them I’m practicly sure to be back before they’re asleep. Tell them I’ll do my best.” He got into his coat.
“All right, Jay.”
“Yes. That’s sensible.” She reached so suddenly at his heart that by reflex he backed away; the eyes of both were startled and disturbed. With a frowning smile she teased him: “Don’t be frightened, little Timid Soul; it’s only a clean handkerchief and couldn’t possibly hurt you.”
“I’m sorry,” he laughed, “I just didn’t know what you were up to.” He pulled in his chin, frowning slightly, as he watched her take out the crumpled handkerchief and arrange the fresh one. Being fussed over embarrassed him; he was still more sharply embarrassed by the discreet white corner his wife took care to leave peeping from the pocket. His hand moved instinctively; he caught himself in time and put his hand in his pocket.
“There. You look very nice,” she said, studying him earnestly, as if he were her son. He felt rather foolish, tender towards her innocence of this motherliness, and quite flattered. He felt for a moment rather vainly sure that he did indeed look very nice, to her anyhow, and that was all he cared about.
“Well,” he said, taking out his watch. “Good Lord a mercy!” He showed her. Three-forty-one. “I didn’t think it was hardly three.”
“Oh yes. It’s very late.”
“Well, no more dawdling.” He put an arm around her shoulder and they walked to the back door. “All right, Mary. I hate to go, but-can’t be avoided.”
She opened the door and led him through, to the back porch. “You’ll catch cold,” he said. She shook her head. “No. It feels milder outside than in.”
They walked to the edge of the porch. The moistures of May drowned all save the most ardent stars, and gave back to the earth the sublimated light of the prostrate city. Deep in the end of the back yard, the blossoming peach tree shone like a celestial sentinel. The fecund air lavished upon their faces the tenderness of lovers’adoring hands, the dissolving fragrance of the opened world, which slept against the sky.
“What a heavenly night, Jay,” she said in the voice which was dearest to him. “I almost wish I could come with you”-she remembered more clearly “-in whatever happens.”
“I wish you could, dear,” he said, though his mind had not been on such a possibility; frankly, he had suddenly looked forward to the solitary drive. But now the peculiar quality of her voice reached him and he said, with love, “I wish you could.”
They stood bemused by the darkness.
“Well, Jay,” she said abruptly, “I mustn’t keep you.”
He was silent a moment. “hope,” he said, a curious, weary sadness in his voice. “Time to go.”
He took her in his arms, leaning back to look at her. It was not really anything of a separation, yet he was surprised to find that it seemed to him a grave one, perhaps because his business was grave, or because of the solemn hour. He saw this in her face as well, and almost wished they had waked the children after all.
“Good-bye, Mary,” he said.
They kissed, and her head settled for a moment against him. He stroked her hair. “I’ll let you know,” he said, “quick as I can, if it’s serious.”
“I pray it won’t be, Jay.”
“Well, we can only hope.” The moment of full tenderness between them was dissolved in their thought, but he continued gently to stroke the round back of her head.
“Give all my love to your mother. Tell her they’re both in my thoughts and wishes-constantly. And your father, of course, if he’s-well enough to talk to.”
“And take care of yourself.”
He patted her back and they parted.
“Then I’ll hear from you-see you-very soon.”
“All right, Jay.” She squeezed his arm. He kissed her, just beneath the eye, and realized her disappointed lips; they smiled, and he kissed her heartily on the mouth. In a glimmer of gaiety, both were on the verge of parting with their customary morning farewell, she singing, “Good-bye John, don’t stay long,” he singing back, “I’ll be back in a week or two,” but both thought better of it.
“All right, dear. Good-bye.”
“Good-bye, my dear.”
He turned abruptly at the bottom of the steps. “Hey,” he whispered. “How’s your money?”
She thought rapidly. “All right, thank you.”
“Tell the children good-bye for me. Tell them I’ll see them tonight.”
“I better not promise that, had I?”
“No, but probably. And Mary: I hope I can make supper, but don’t wait it.”
“Good night.” He walked back towards the bam. In the middle of the yard he turned and whispered loudly, “And you think it over about your birthday.”
“Thank you, Jay. All right. Thank you.”
She could hear him walking as quietly as possible on the cinders. He silently lifted and set aside the bar of the door, and opened the door, taking care to be quiet. The first leaf squealed; the second, which was usually worse, was perfectly still. Stepping to the left of the car, and assuming the serious position of stealth which the narrowness of the garage made necessary, he disappeared into the absolute darkness.
She knew he would try not to wake the neighbors and the children; and that it was impossible to start the auto quietly. She waited with sympathy and amusement, and with habituated dread of his fury and of the profanity she was sure would ensue, spoken or unspoken.
Uhgh-hy uh yu hy why uhy uh: wheek-uh-wheek-uh: Ughh-hy wh yuh: wheek: (now the nearly noiseless, desperate adjustments of spark and throttle and choke)
Ughgh-hyuh yuhyuh wheek yuh yuh wheek wheek wheek yuh yuhyuh: wheek: (which she never understood and, from where she stayed now, could predict so well)
Ughgh-Ughgh-yuhyuhUgh wheek yuh yuh Ughgh yuh wheek wheek yuhyuh: wheek wheek: uh: (like a hideous, horribly constipated great brute of a beast: like a lunatic sobbing: like a mouse being tortured): Ughgh-Ughgh-Ughgh (Poor thing, he must be simply furious) Ughgh-wheek-Whughughyuh-Ughwheekyuhuughgyughyuhyuhy a a a a a a a h h h h h h R h R h R H R H R H (oh, stop it!) R H R H (a window went up) R H R H R H R H R H R yuhyhhRRHRHRHRHRHRHRHRHRHRH (the door smacked to in rage and triumph) RhRhRh – — – — – — – — (the window went down) RHRHRHRHRH (the machine backed out; crackling on the cinders). RHRH – — – — – (he wrenched it rudely but adroitly in a backward curve, almost to the chicken wire; from between the houses, light from the street caught its black side) rhrh – — – — (and swung as rudely round the corner of the barn and, by opposite turn, into the alley, facing eastward, where it stood) rhrh – — – — – — – — (obedient, conquered, malicious as a mule, while he briefly reappeared, faced towards the house, saw her, waved one hand-she waved, but he did not see her-and drew the gate shut, disappearing beyond it) rhrhrhrhrhrhrhRHRHRHRHRHRHR H R H R H rh rh rh rh rh rh rh rh rh rh rh rh C utta wawwwwk: Craaawwrk?
Craarrawwk. rwrwrk? yrk. rk: She released a long breath, very slowly, and went into. the house.
There was her milk, untouched, forgotten, b arely tepid. She drank it down, without pleasure; all its whiteness, draining from the stringing wet whiteness of the empty cup, was singularly repugnant. She decided to leave things until morning, ran water over the dishes, and left them in the sink.
If the children had heard so much as a sound, they didn’t show it now. Catherine, as always, was absolutely drowned in sleep, and both of them, as always, were absolutely drowned.
Really, they are too big for that, she thought. Rufus certainly. She carefully readjusted their covers, against catching cold. They scarcely stirred.
I ought to ask a doctor.
She saw the freshened bed. Why, the dear, she thought, smiling, and got in. She was never to realize his intention of holding the warmth in for her; for that had sometime since departed from the bed.
He imagined that by about now she would about be getting back and finding the bed. He smiled to think of her finding it.
He drove down Forest, across the viaduct, past the smoldering depot, and cut sharply left beneath the asylum and steeply downhill. The L amp;N yards lay along his left, faint skeins of steel, blocked shadows, little spumes of steam; he saw and heard the flickering shift of a signal, but he could no longer remember what that one meant. Along his right were dark vacant lots, pale billboards, the darker blocks of small sleeping buildings, an occasional light. He would have eaten in one of these places, small, weakly lighted holes-in-the-wall, opaque with the smoke of overheated lard, some for Negroes, some for whites, which served railroad men and the unexplainable nighthawks you found in any fair-sized town. You never saw a woman there, except sometimes behind a counter or sweating over a stove. He never used to talk when he went to them, but he enjoyed the feeling of conspiracy, and the sound of voices. If you went to the right ones, and if you were known, or looked like you could be trusted, you could get a shot or two of liquor, any hour of the night.
He ran his tongue over his teeth, tasting the last of the molasses and coffee and bacon and eggs.
Before long the city thinned out into the darkened evidences of that kind of flea-bitten semi-rurality which always peculiarly depressed him: mean little homes, and others inexplicably new and substantial, set too close together for any satisfying rural privacy or use, too far, too shapelessly apart to have adherence as any kind of community; mean little pieces of ill-cultivated land behind them, and alongside the road, between them, trash and slash and broken sheds and rained-out billboards: he passed a late, late streetcar, no passengers aboard, far out near the end of its run.
Within two more minutes he had seen the last of this sort of thing. The darkness became at once more intimate and more hollow; the engine sounded different, a smooth, easy drone; budding limbs swelled up and swept with sudden speed through the last of the vivid light; the auto bored through the center of the darkness of the universe; its poring shafts of light, like an insect’s antennae, feeling into distinctness every relevant small obstacle and ease of passage, and very little else. He unbuttoned his vest and the top button of his trousers and settled back. After a few moments he wondered about taking off his coat; but the rhythm and momentum of night driving were too strongly persuasive to wish to break. He settled still more deeply, his eyes shifting gear constantly between the farthest reach of his lights and the nearest, and gave himself over entirely to the pleasures of the journey, and to its still undetermined but essentially grave significance.
It was just nearing daybreak when he came to the river; he had to rap several times on the window of the little shanty before the ferryman awoke.
“Have to double the charge, mister, cross at night,” he said, intent on lighting his lantern.
“That’s all right.”
At the voice, he looked up, well awake for the first time. “Oh, howdy thur,” he said.
“You generally always come o’Sundays, yer womurn, couple o’young-uns.”
He walked away, to the edge of the water, and holding his lantern low, examined the fit of his flatboat against the shore. Then he raised the lantern and swung it, as a railroad man would; Jay, who had left his engine running, braked it carefully down the steep, thickly tracked clay, and carefully aboard. He shut off his engine; the sudden silence was magical. He got out and helped the man block the wheels. “All ready here,” he said, straightening; but the man said nothing; he was already casting off. They both watched the brown water widen under the lantern light, apparently with equal appreciation. Must be a nice job, Jay reflected, as he nearly always did; except of course winter.
“Run all winter?”
“Eah,” said the man, warping his line.
“Tain’t so bad,” he added after a moment, “only for sleet. I do mislike them sleety nights.”
Both were silent. Jay filled his pipe. As he struck a match he felt a difference in motion, a kind of dilation; the ferry was now warped into the bias of the current, which carried it, and the ferryman worked no more; he merely kept one hand on his line. The flat craft rode against the water like a hand on a breast. The water mumbled a little; during this part of the crossing, that was always the only sound. And by now, the surface of the river gave back light which could not as yet be as clearly discerned in the sky, and along both banks the trees which crowded the water like drinking cattle began to take on distinctness one from another. Far back through the country along both sides of the river, roosters screamed. The violet sky shone gray; and now for the first time both men saw, on the opposite shore, a covered wagon, and a little figure motionless beside it.
“I God,” said the ferryman. “Reckon how long they ben awaitin!” Suddenly he became very busy with his line; he had to build sufficient momentum in cross-power to carry it past the middle of the stream, where the broadside current, at full strength, could lock both line and craft. Jay hurried to help. “Tsch right,” the man called him off, too busy for courtesy. Jay quit. After a moment the man’s hauling became more casual. He turned, enough to meet Jay’s eye. “F’wrn’t man enough to hanl that alone, wouldn’t be man enough to hanl the job,” he explained.
Jay nodded, and watched the expanding light.
“Hope tain’t no trouble, brung ya up hyer sich an hour,” the ferryman said.
Jay had realized his curiosity, and respected his silence, at the first, and so, although the question slightly altered this respect, he answered, somehow pleased to be able to communicate it to an agent at once so near his sympathies, and so impersonal: “My Paw. Took at the heart. Don’t know yet how bad tis.”
The man clacked his tongue like an old woman, shaking his head, and looking into the water. “That’s a mean way,” he said. Suddenly he looked Jay in the eyes: his own were strangely shy. Then he looked again into the brown water, and continued to haul at the line.
“Well, good luck,” he said. “Much obliged,” said Jay.
The wagon grew larger and larger, and now the dark, deeply lined faces of the man and woman became distinct: the sad, deeply lined faces of the profound country which seemed ancient even in early maturity and which always gave Jay a sense of peace. The woman sat high above the mule; the flare of her deep bonnet had the shape of the flare of the wagon’s canopy. The man stood beside his wagon, one clayed boot cocked on the clayed hub. They gazed gravely into the eyes of the men on the ferry, and neither of them moved, or made any sign of salutation, until the craft was made fast.
“Ben here long?” the ferryman asked.
The woman looked at him; after a moment the man, without moving his eyes, nodded.
“Didn’t hear yer holler.”
After a moment the man said, “I hollered.”
The ferryman put out his lantern. He turned to Jay. “Twarn’t rightly a dark crossing, mister. I can’t charge ye but the daytime toll.”
“All right,” Jay said, giving him fifteen cents. “And much obliged to you.” He put out his headlights and stooped to crank the car.
“Hold awn, bud,” the wagoner called. Jay looked up; the man took two quick strides and took control of the mule’s head. The wagoner nodded.
The engine was warm, and started easily; and though with every wrench of the crank a spasm of anguish wrenched the mule, once the engine leveled out the mule stood quietly, merely trembling. Jay put it violently into low to get up the steep mud bank, giving the mule and wagon as wide a berth as possible, nodding his regret of the racket and his friendliness as he passed; their heads turned, the eyes which followed him could not forgive him his noise. At the top he filled his pipe and watched while the mule and wagon descended, the mule held at the head, his hocks sprung uneasily, hoofs prodding and finding base in the treacherous clay, rump bunched high, the wagon tilting, the block-brakes screeching on the broad iron rim.
Poor damn devils, he thought. He was sure they were bound for the Knoxville market. They had probably waited for the ferry as much as a couple of hours. They would be hopelessly late.
He waited out the lovely sight of the water gaping. The ferry took on its peculiar squareness, its look of exquisite silence. He looked at his watch. Not so bad. He lighted his pipe and settled down to drive. He always felt different once he was across the river. This was the real, old, deep country, now. Home country. The cabins looked different to him, a little older and poorer and simpler, a little more homelike; the trees and rocks seemed to come differently out of the ground; the air smelled different. Before long now, he would know the worst; if it was the worst. Quite unconsciously he felt much more deeply at leisure as he watched the flowing, freshly lighted country; and quite unconsciously he drove a little faster than before.
During the rest of the night, Mary lay in a “white” sleep. She felt as odd, alone in the bed, as if a jaw-tooth had just been pulled, and the whole house seemed larger than it really was, hollow and resonant. The coming of daylight did not bring things back to normal, as she had hoped; the bed and the house in this silence and pallor, seemed even emptier. She would doze a little, wake and listen to the dry silence, doze, wake again sharply, to the thing that troubled her. She thought of her husband, driving down on one of the most solemn errands of his life, and of his father, lying fatally sick, perhaps dying, perhaps dead at this moment (she crossed herself), and she could not bring herself to feel as deeply about it as she felt that she should, for her husband’s sake. She realized that if the situation were reversed, and it was her own father who was dying, Jay would feel much as she felt now and that she could not blame either him or herself, but that did her no good. For she knew that at the bottom of it the trouble was, simply, that she had never really liked the old man.
She was sure that she didn’t look down on him, as many of Jay’s relatives all but said to her face and as she feared that Jay himself occasionally believed; certainly not; but she could not like him, as almost everyone else liked him. She knew that if it was Jay’s mother who lay dying, there would be no question of her grief, or inadequacy to her husband; and that was a fair measure of how little she really cared for his father. She wondered why she liked him so little (for to say that she actually disliked him, she earnestly assured herself, would be putting it falsely). She realized that it was mainly because everyone forgave him so much. and liked him so well in spite of his shortcomings, and because he accepted their forgiveness and liking so casually, as if this were his natural due or, worse, as if he didn’t even realize anything about it. And the worst of this, the thing she resented with enduring anger and distaste, was the burden he had constantly imposed on his wife, and her perfect patience with him, as if she didn’t even know it was a burden or that he was taking advantage. It was this unconsciousness in both of them that she could not abide, and if only once Jay’s mother had shown one spark of anger, of realization, Mary felt she might have begun to be able to like him. But this brought her into a resentment, almost a dislike, of Jay’s mother, which she knew was both unjust and untrue to her actual feelings, and which made her uncomfortable; she was shocked also to realize that she was lying awake in the hour which might well be his last, to think ill of him. Shame on you, she said to herself, and thought earnestly of all that she knew was good about him.
He was generous for one thing. Generous to a fault. And she remembered how, time and again, he had given away, “loaned,” to the first person who asked him the favor, money or food or things which were desperately needed home to keep body and soul together. Fault, indeed. Yet it was a good fault. It was no wonder people loved him-or pretended to-and took every possible advantage of him. And he was very genuinely kind-hearted. A wonderful virtue. And tolerant. She had never heard him say an unkind or a bitter word of anybody, not even of people who had outrageously abused his generosity-he could not, she realized, bear to believe that they really meant to; and he had never once, of that she was sure, joined with most of the others in their envious, hostile, contemptuous talking about her.
On the other hand she could be equally sure that he had never really stood up for her strongly and bravely, and angrily, against everyone, as his wife had, for he disliked arguments as much as he did unkindness; but she put that out of her mind. He had never, so far as she knew, complained, about his sickness or pain, or his poverty, and chronically, insanely, as he made excuses for others, he had never made excuses for himself. And certainly he had precious little right to complain, or make excuses; but that too she hastened to put out of her mind. She reproached herself by remembering how thoroughly nice and friendly he had always been to her; and if she had to realize that that was not at all for herself but purely because she was “Jay’s woman,” as he’d probably say, she certainly couldn’t hold that against him; her own best feelings towards him came out of her recognition of him as Jay’s father. You couldn’t like anyone more than you happened to like them; you simply couldn’t. And you couldn’t feel more about them than that amount of liking made possible to you. There was a special kind of basic weakness about him; that was what she could not like, or respect, or even forgive, or resign herself to accepting, for it was a kind of weakness which took advantage, and heaped disadvantage and burden on others, and it was not even ashamed for itself, not even aware. And worse, at the bottom of it all, maybe, Jay’s father was the one barrier between them, the one stubborn, unresolved, avoided thing, in their complete mutual understanding of Jay’s people, his “background.” Even now she could not really like him much, or feel deep concern. Her thoughts for him were grave and sad, but only as they would be for any old, tired, suffering human being who had lived long and whose end, it appeared, had come. And even while she thought of him her real mind was on his son’s grief and her inadequacy to it. She had not even until this moment, she realized with dismay, given Jay’s mother a thought; she had been absorbed wholly in Jay. I must write her, she thought. But of course, perhaps, I’ll see her soon.
And yet, clearly as she felt that she realized what the bereavement would mean to Jay’s mother, and wrong as she was even to entertain such an idea, she could not help feeling that even more, his death would mean great relief and release. And, it occurred to her. he’ll no longer stand between me and Jay.
At this, her soul stopped in utter coldness. God forgive me, she thought, amazed; I almost wished for his death!
She clasped her hands and stared at a stain on the ceiling.
O Lord, she prayed; forgive me my unspeakable sinful thought. Lord, cleanse my soul of such abominations. Lord, if it be Thy will, spare him long that I may learn to understand and care for him more, with Thy merciful help. Spare him not for me but for himself, Lord.
She closed her eyes.
Lord, open my heart that I may be worthy in realization of this sorrowful thing, if it must happen, and worthy and of use and comfort to others in their sorrow. Lord God, Lord Jesus, melt away my coldness and apathy of heart, descend and fill my emptiness of heart. And Lord, if it be Thy will, preserve him yet a while, and let me learn to bear my burden more lightly, or to know this burden is a blessing. And if he must be taken, if he is already with Thee now (she crossed herself), may he rest in Thy peace (again she crossed herself).
And Lord, if it be Thy will, that this sorrow must come upon my husband, then I most humbly beseech Thee in Thy mercy that through this tribulation Thou openest my husband’s heart, and awake his dear soul, that he may find comfort in Thee that the world cannot give, and see Thee more clearly, and come to Thee. For there, Lord, as Thou knowest, and not in his poor father or my unworthy feelings, is the true, widening gulf between us.
Lord, in Thy mercy, Who can do all things, close this gulf. Make us one in Thee as we are one in earthly wedlock. For Jesus’sake, Amen.
She lay somewhat comforted, but more profoundly disturbed than comforted. For she had never before so clearly put into words, into visible recognition, their religious difference, or the importance of the difference to her. And how important is it to him, she wondered. And haven’t I terribly exaggerated my feeling of it? A “gulf”? And “widening”? Was it really? Certainly he never said anything that justified her in such a feeling; nor did she feel anything of that largeness. It really was only that both of them said so very little, as if both took care to say very little. But that was just it. That a thing which meant so much to her, so much more, all the time, should be a thing that they could not share, or could not be open about. Where her only close, true intimate was Aunt Hannah, and her chief love and hope had to rest in the children. That was it. That was the way it seemed bound to widen (she folded her hands, and shook her head, frowning): it was the children. She felt sure that he felt none of Andrew’s anger and contempt, and none of her father’s irony, but it was very clear by his special quietness, when instances of it came up, that he was very far away from it and from her, that he did not like it. He kept his distance, that was it. His distance, and some kind of dignity, which she respected in him, much as it hurt her, by this silence and withdrawal. And it would widen, oh, inevitably, because quiet and gentle as she would certainly try to be about it, they were going to be brought up as she knew she must bring them up, as Christian, Catholic children. And this was bound to come into the home, quite as much as in church. It was bound in some ways, unless he changed; it was bound in some important ways, try as hard and be as good about it as she was sure they both would, to set his children apart from him, to set his own wife apart from him. And not by any action or wish of his, but by her own deliberate will. Lord God, she prayed, in anguish. Am I wrong? Show me if I am wrong, I beseech Thee. Show me what I am to do.
But God showed her only what she knew already: that come what might she must, as a Christian woman, as a Catholic, bring up her children thoroughly and devoutly in the Faith, and that it was also her task, more than her husband’s, that the family remain one, that the gulf be closed.
But if I do this, nothing else that I can do will close it, she reflected. Nothing, nothing will avail.
But I must.
I must just: trust in God, she said, almost aloud. Just: do His will, and put all my trust in Him.
A streetcar passed; Catherine cried.
“Daddy had to go up to see Grandfather Follet,” their mother explained. “He says to kiss both of you for him and he’ll probably see you before you’re asleep tonight.”
“When?” Rufus asked.
“Way, early this morning, before it was light.”
“Grampa Follet is very sick. Uncle Ralph phoned up very late last night, when all of us were asleep. Grampa has had one of his attacks.”
“Eat your cereal, Catherine. Rufus, eat yours. His heart. Like the one he had that time last fall. Only worse, Uncle Ralph says. He wanted very much to see Daddy, just as quick as Daddy could come.”
“Because he loves Daddy and if… Eat, wicker, or it’ll all be nasty and cold, and then you know how you hate to eat it. Because if Daddy didn’t see him soon, Grampa might not get to see Daddy again.”
“Because Grampa is getting old, and when you get old, you can be sick and not get well again. And if you can’t get well again, then God lets you go to sleep and you can’t see people any more.”
“Don’t you ever wake up again?”
“You wake up right away, in heaven, but people on earth can’t see you any more, and you can’t see them.”
“Eat,” their mother whispered, making a big, nodding mouth and chewing vigorously on air. They ate.
“Mama,” Rufus said, “when Oliver went to sleep did he wake up in heaven too?”
“I don’t know. I imagine he woke up in a part of heaven God keeps specially for cats.”
“Did the rabbits wake up?”
“I’m sure they did if Oliver did.”
“All bloody like they were?”
“No, Rufus, that was only their poor little bodies. God wouldn’t let them wake up all hurt and bloody, poor things.”
“Why did God let the dogs get in?”
“We don’t know, Rufus, but it must be a part of His plan we will understand someday.”
“What good would it do Him?”
“Children, don’t dawdle. It’s almost school time.”
“What good would it do Him, Mama, to let the dogs in?”
“I don’t know, but someday we’ll understand, Rufus, if we’re very patient. We mustn’t trouble ourselves with these things we can’t understand. We just have to be sure that God knows best.”
“I bet they sneaked in when He wasn’t looking,” Rufus said eagerly. “Cause He sure wouldn’t have let them if He’d been there. Didn’t they, Mama? Didn’t they?”
Their mother hesitated, and then said carefully, “No, Rufus, we believe that God is everywhere and knows everything and nothing can happen without His knowing. But the Devil is everywhere too-everywhere except heaven, that is-and he is always tempting us. When we do what he tempts us to do, then God lets us do it.”
“Tempt is, well, the Devil tempts us when there is something we want to do, but we know it is bad.”
“Why does God let us do bad things?”
“Because He wants us to make up our own minds.”
“Even to do bad things, right under His nose?”
“He doesn’t want us to do bad things, but to know good from bad and be good of our own free choice.”
“Because He loves us and wants us to love Him, but if He just made us be good, we couldn’t really love Him enough. You can’t love to do what you are made to do, and you couldn’t love God if He made you.”
“But if God can do anything, why can’t He do that?”
“Because He doesn’t want to,” their mother said, rather impatiently.
“Why doesn’t He want to?” Rufus said. “It would be so much easier for Him.”
“God-doesn’t-believe-in-the-easy-way,” she said, with a certain triumph, spacing the words and giving them full emphasis. “Not for us, not for anything or anybody, not even for Himself. God wants us to come to Him, to find Him, the best we can.”
“Like hide-and-go-seek,” said Catherine.
“What was that?” their mother asked rather anxiously.
“Aw, it isn’t a bit like hide-and-seek, is it, Mama?” Rufus cut in. “Hidenseek’s just a game, just a game. God doesn’t fool around playing games, does He, Mama! Does He! Does He!”
“Shame on you, Rufus,” his mother said warmly, and not without relief. “Why, shame on you!” For Catherine’s face had swollen and her mouth had bunched tight, and she glared from her brother to her mother and back again with scalding hot eyes.
“Well He doesn’t,” Rufus insisted, angry and bewildered at the turn the discussion had taken.
“That’s enough, Rufus,” his mother whipped out sternly, and leaned across and patted Catherine’s hand, which made Catherine’s chin tremble and her tears overflow. “That’s all right, little wicker! That’s all right! He doesn’t play games. Rufus is right about that, but it is, someways it is like hide-and-seek. You’re ab-so-lootly right!”
But with this, Catherine was dissolved, and Rufus sat aghast, less at her crying, which made him angry and jealous, than at his sudden solitude. But her crying was so miserable that, angry and jealous as he was, he became ashamed, then sorry for her, and was trying, helplessly, to find a way of showing that he was sorry when his mother glanced up at him fiercely and said, “Now you march and get ready for school. I ought to tell Daddy, you’re a bad boy!”
At the door, a few minutes later, when she leaned to kiss him good-bye and saw his face, she mistook the cause of it and said, more gently but very earnestly: “Rufus, I can see you’re sorry, but you mustn’t be mean to Catherine. She’s just a little girl, your little sister, and you mustn’t ever be unkind to her and hurt her feelings. Do you understand? Do you, Rufus?”
He nodded, and felt terribly sorry for his sister and for himself because of the gentleness in his mother’s voice.
“Now you come back and tell her how sorry you are, and hurry, or you’ll be late for school.”
He came in shyly with his mother and came up to Catherine; her face was swollen and red and she looked at him bleakly.
“Rufus wants to tell you how sorry he is, Catherine, he hurt your feelings,” their mother said.
Catherine looked at him, brutally and doubtfully.
“I am sorry, Catherine,” he said. “Honest to goodness I am. Because you’re a little, little girl, and…”
But with this Catherine exploded into a roar of angry tears, and brought both fists down into her plate, and Rufus, dumfounded, was hustled brusquely off to school.
When Jay found how things were at the farm, he was angry at having been so grieved and alarmed; before long, he felt it had all happened very much as he had suspected. Ralph had just lost his head, as usual. Now he was very much ashamed of himself, though still very defensive, and everyone, including Jay, tried to assure him that he had done the right thing. Jay could imagine how much Ralph had needed to feel useful, to take charge. He couldn’t think very well of him, but he was sorry for him. He felt he understood very well how it had happened.
Actually, he understood only a little about it, and Ralph understood very little more.
Late in the evening before, their father had suffered a much more severe and painful attack than any up to then. After no more than a few minutes, his wife had realized its terrible gravity, and had woken Thomas Oaks. Thomas had hurried across the hill and roused up Jessie and George Bailey and, without waiting for them, had hurried back, saddled the horse, and whipped it as fast as it would go, into LaFollette. The doctor was out on a call; he left a message, and hurried on to Ralph’s. Ralph was in a virtual panic of aroused responsibility the instant he heard the news. He asked if the doctor was there yet. Thomas told him; Ralph realized that his mother had told Thomas to rush out the doctor even before he called her son to her side. He put it aside as an ungenerous and mean-spirited thought, yet it stayed, hurting him like a burr. He felt it was no time for resentments, though; not only he, but Sally as well, must come to their help, must be there (Sally’d never forgive me if she wasn’t) if Paw was to die (she’d be the only wife there, of the only son; his mother would never forget that). He rushed back and told her what was happening as he hurried into his clothes, hurried two doors away, banged loudly on the Felts’s door, and apologized for the banging by explaining (his voice was already damp) that his Paw was at death’s door if not already passed on, and he wouldn’t have roused them only he knew they would be only too willing to help out so Sally could go too. They were very kind to him; Mrs. Felts arrived before Sally had finished fixing her hair. While she was doing so, Ralph sped across the street to his office, unlocked his desk, and took two choking swallows of whiskey in the dark. He rammed the bottle into his pocket and hurried down to start his car. They had been so quick that they overtook Thomas on his horse when he had scarcely passed the edge of town, going, as Ralph said to himself, his eyes low and cold above the steering wheel, “like sixty,” or anyhow as fast as it was safe to travel on these awful roads, perhaps a little faster, thinking of Barney Oldfield, in the Chalmers he had chosen because it was a better class of auto and a more expensive one than his brother’s, a machine people made no smart jokes about. His first impulse, when he saw the horse and rider ahead, was to honk, both in self-advertisement, warning and greeting, but he remembered in time the seriousness of the occasion and did not do so, reflecting, after it was too late, that Thomas might feel he was snubbed, as if he had passed him in the street without speaking, and he was angry with Thomas for possibly having any such feeling about such petty matters, at such a time.
There were nearly two hours of helpless anguish and fright before the doctor arrived. During that time it is possible that Ralph suffered more acutely than anyone else. For besides suffering, or believing that he suffered, all the pains that his father must be experiencing, and all of his mother’s grief and anxiety, and all of the smaller emotions of all the smaller people who were present, he suffered deep humiliation. When he rushed in and swept his mother into his arms he felt that his voice and his whole manner were all that they ought to be; that he showed himself to be a man who, despite his own boundless grief, was capable also of boundless strength to sustain others in their grief, and to take complete charge of all that needed to be done. But even in that first embrace he could see that his mother was only by an effort concealing her desire to draw away from him. He came near her over and over again, hugging her, sobbing over her, fondling her, telling her that she must be brave, telling her she must not try to be brave, to lean on him, and cry her heart out, for naturally at such a time she would want to feel her sons close around her; but every time, he felt that same patient stiffening and her voice perplexed him. Everyone in the room, even Ralph in the long run, knew that he was only making things harder for her; only his mother realized that he was beseeching comfort rather than bringing it. She was not in the least angry with him; she was sorry for him and wished that she could be of more help to him, but her mind was not on him, her heart was not with him, and his sobs and the stench of his breath made her a little sick at her stomach. What perplexed him in her voice was its remoteness. He began to realize that he was bringing her no comfort, that she was not leaning on him, that just as he had always feared, she did not really love him. He redoubled his efforts to soothe her and to be strong for her. The harder he tried, the more remote her voice became. At the end of a half hour her face was no less desperate than it had been when he first saw her. And he began to feel that everyone else was watching him, and knew he was no use, and that his mother did not love him. The women watched him one way, the men watched him another. He felt that his wife was thinking ill of him, that she was not even sorry for him; he felt slobbering and fat, the way she looked at him and suddenly with terrible hatred was sure that she would prefer to sleep with flat-bellied men-what man? Any man, so long as his belly don’t get in the way. As for Jessie, he knew she had always hated him, as much as he hated her. And George Bailey just sitting there looking serious and barrel-chested and always being careful to look away when their eyes met: George thought he was twice the man that Ralph was and twice as good right at this time, better with his in-laws than Ralph could be with his own flesh and blood; and they all knew that George was twice the man and were just trying not to say it or think it even, or let Ralph know they thought it. And even Thomas Oaks, an ignorant hand, who couldn’t even read or write, just setting there with his ropy hands hung between his knees, staring down at a knot in the floor with those washed-out blue eyes, even Tom was more of a man and more good use too. When Tom got up and said if there wasn’t nothing he could do he reckoned he would get on up to the loft, but if there was anything, they would just let him know, Ralph understood it. He knew Tom might be ignorant but he wasn’t so ignorant but he knew when it was best to leave a family to itself; and when Ralph’s mother said, “All right, Tom,” Ralph heard more life and kindness, and more gratefulness in her voice, than in every word she’d said to him, the whole night; and as he watched Tom climb the ladder, heavily and quietly, rung by rung, he thought: there goes more of a man than I am, he knows how to take himself out of the way, and he thought: he’s doing a power more good by going than I can by staying, and he thought: every soul in this room wishes it was me that was going, instead of him, and he called, in a voice which sounded unfriendly, though he had meant to make it sound friendly to everyone except Tom, “That’s right, Tom, get ye some sleep”; and Tom pulled his head back through the ceiling and looked down at him with those empty blue eyes and said, “That’s all right, Mr. Ralph,” and suddenly Ralph realized that he had no intention of sleeping and would be there alone, not sleeping a wink, just ready in case he was needed; and that Tom had seen his malice, his desire to belittle him, and had belittled him instead, before his mother and his wife and his dying father. “That’s all right, Mr. Ralph.” What’s all right? What’s all right? He wanted to yell it at him, “What’s all right, you poor-white-trash son-of-a-bitch?” but he restrained himself.
Every time he felt their eyes on him especially strongly he went over to his mother again and hugged her, and held her head tightly against him, and tried to say things that would make her cry, and every time, her voice was a little bit further away from him and her face looked a little older and dryer, and every time, he was still more acutely aware of their eyes on him and of the thoughts behind their eyes, and every time, he would swing away from his mother as if he could bear to leave her uncomforted for a moment only because there were still more important things to do, matters of life and death, which he and only he, the son, the man of the family, now that poor Paw lay there so near to death, could handle. And every time, there was nothing whatever to do except wait for the doctor. They had already given the medicine the doctor had given them to give, and they had already given him so much of the ginseng tea the doctor had said wouldn’t anyhow do any harm, that Ralph’s mother decided they shouldn’t give any more of it. His head was low; his feet were braced against hot stones wrapped in flannel, and Mother kept everyone except herself at the far, lighted end of the room, except for short visits. There was nothing to do, nothing to take charge of, and every time Ralph swung about from his mother with an air of heroic authority and rediscovered this fact, he felt as if a chair had been pulled out from under him, in front of everybody, and he began to think that he would burn up and die if he didn’t have another drink. He said, “Scuse me,” once in the choked and modest tone which should signify to the women that he had to empty his bladder, and he got a good, hard swig that time, and found when he came back in that he didn’t care whether they were looking at him or not, or guessed what he really went out for; for two cents he’d take out the bottle and wave it at them. Sooner than it was possible to use that excuse again, he became even more thirsty than before. At the same time he first realized that he was drunk. He was bitterly ashamed of himself, drunk at this time, at his father’s very deathbed, when his mother needed him so bad as never before, and when he knew, for he had learned by now to take people’s word for it, that he was really good for nothing when he was drunk. And then to feel so thirsty on top of that. He braced himself with all the sternness and strength he was capable of. By God, he told himself, you’ll pull yourself together. By God, or… By God, you will. You will. And he got up abruptly and walked straight through them into the dark, and splashed his face and neck with water. He realized then that he could take another, now. Just a little one. To brace him. He cursed himself and splashed his face again, and dried carefully with his handkerchief before he came back in. He realized that to everyone else in the room, those two silences meant two more drinks. He made a cynical grimace. By God, he knew better! He felt as if he had great physical strength, and in his feeling of strength his thirst was merely like the bite under a punch bar, a pleasure to feel and to brace against. But within a short while the thirst returned even more fiercely as irresistible pain. No, by God, he said again to himself. But he began to wonder. If they thought he’d had one anyhow-two in fact-why in a way he owed himself a couple. Three, for that matter: a third, because he knew they mistook that cynical face he had made for a drunken shamelessness. After all, it wasn’t he who didn’t want to be drunk. He was being careful for their sake. And by God, if he was going to get blamed for it anyhow, what was the good of that. Besides, when he really took care he knew he could hold his liquor good as the next man. He’d show them. But it wasn’t so easy, figuring how to get out. Can’t go out to pee so soon. Nor dipper of water. He felt a sudden terrible excess of shame. No, by God, he wouldn’t sit there scheming himself a shot over his own dying father, and his mother looking on at him, knowing his mind, not saying a word. By God, he wouldn’t! He set himself to put everything out of his mind except his father, not as he had ever feared him, or wished he approved of him, or wished he was dead, but as he lay there now, old and broken, cast aside near the end of the trail, yes sir, the embers fading; and within a short while he was sobbing, and talking of his father through his sobs, and within a short while more he began to realize that he had found his way out. His struggles against this temptation, his iterations of “I’m no good,” and, “I’m the son he set least store by, but I’m the one that cares for him the most,” and the voices of the women, soothing him, trying to quiet him, only added to his tears, the richness of his emotions, and his verbosity, and before long he had realized that this too was useful, and was using it. Toward the end all genuine emotion left him and he had to scrape, tickle and torture himself into sufficient feeling and sufficient evidence of an impending breakdown he would inflict on nobody, but at length he felt he had achieved the proper moment, and rushed headlong from the room, all but upsetting his wife in her rocking chair. The instant he was outside he felt nothing in the world except the ferocity of his thirst. He leaned against the cabin wall, uncorked the bottle, wrapped his mouth over its mouth as ravenously as a famished baby takes the nipple, and tilted straight up.
NNHhhh; with a sobbing groan he struck his temple against the side of the house so violently that he could scarcely keep his feet, flung the bottle as far from him as he was able. “Oh, God! God! God! God!” he moaned, the tears itching on his cheeks. Fool! Fool! Fool! Why hadn’t he made sure before he left the office? There couldn’t have been more than a half a dram left.
He dabbed at his head with his handkerchief and stole leaning into the path of the lamplight. Blood, all right. He felt sick at his stomach. He dabbed again. Not much. He dabbed again; again. Not running, anyhow. He took a deep breath and went back into the room.
“Stumbled,” he said. “Tain’t nothin.”
But even so, Sally came over, and his mother came over, and they both looked carefully, pretending that it was perfectly natural to stumble in a flat clay dooryard, and when they agreed that it was a mean lump but needed no further attention, he felt, suddenly, sad, and as little as a child, and he wished he were.
His rage and despair and the shock of the blow had so quieted and sobered him that now he was beyond even self-hatred. He felt gentle and clear. The sadness grew and became all but insupportable, and for the first time that evening, one of the few times id his life, he began to see things more or less as they were. Yes, over on that bed beyond the carefully shaded lamp, moaning occasionally, his breathing so shaken and irregular that it was as if sorrow disordered it rather than death, his father, his own father, was indeed coming near his last hour; and his mother, his own mother, sat there as quiet and patient, and so strong. There was not likely anyone in the world enough stronger that she could find comforting him. And he? Yes, he was here, for what little good that was, and he was the only son who was here. But there was no special virtue in that; he was the only son who lived near enough at hand. And he lived so near at hand because he had no courage, no intelligence, no energy, no independence. That was really it: no independence. He always needed to be near. He always needed to feel their support, their company, very near him. He always lived almost from day to day in the hope that by staying near, by always being on hand if he was needed, by always showing how much he loved them, he might at last be sure he had won their approval, their respect. He did not believe, he couldn’t remember, one sober breath he had ever drawn, that he had drawn as if in his own right, feeling, I don’t care what anybody thinks of me, this is myself and this is how I do it. Everything he did, every tone his voice took, was controlled by his idea of what would make the best impression on others. He was worse a slave to that, to his dread for other people’s opinion of him, than any nigger had ever been a slave. And his meanness and recklessness when he was drunk enough, he knew that was no good, no good at all. It wasn’t even real. It was just the way he wished he was, and it wasn’t even that, for what he wished was not to be reckless, but brave, a very different thing, and not to be mean but proud, a different thing too. And what was the worst of it? Why, the worst of it was, that once in a great while he could see himself for what he really was, and almost believe that now that he saw himself so clearly, he could change, all it took was clearness of head, and patience, and courage; and at the same time he had to know that nothing that was in him to do about it could ever be done; that he would never change, except for the worse; that he had no kind of clearness of head, or patience, or courage, that would last beyond the little it took (and even that was enough to make him shiver all over), to just be able, once in ever so long a time, to sit and look at himself for what he really was. He was just weak: he saw that, clear enough. Just no good. He saw that. Just incomplete some way, like a chicken that comes out of the shell with a wry neck and grows on up like that. Like his own poor little Jim-Wilson, that already showed the weakness, with his poor little washed-out eyes, his clinging to Sally, his terror of his father when his father was drunk or even teased him, his readiness to cry. I ought not ever to have fathered children, Ralph thought. I ought not ever to have been born.
And looking at himself now, he neither despised himself nor felt pity for himself, nor blamed others for whatever they might feel about him. He knew that they probably didn’t think the incredibly mean, contemptuous things of him that he was apt to imagine they did. He knew that he couldn’t ever really know what they thought, that his extreme quickness to think that he knew was just another of his dreams. He was sure, though, that whatever they might think, it couldn’t be very good, because there wasn’t any very good thing to think of. But he felt that whatever they thought, they were just, as he was almost never just. He knew he was wrong about his mother. He had no doubt whatever, just now, that she really did love him, had never stopped loving him, and never would. He knew even that she was especially gentle to him, that she loved him in a way she loved nobody else. And he knew why he so often felt that she did not really love him. It was because she was so sorry for him, and because she had never had and never possibly could have, any respect for him. And it was respect he needed, infinitely more than love. Just not to haft to worry about whether people respect you. Not ever to have to feel that people are being nice to you because they are sorry for you, or afraid of you. He looked at Sally. Poor girl. Afraid of me. That’s Sally. And it is all my own fault. Every bit mine. And I hate her for wanting other men, when I know that unfaithfulness never once came into her head, and when I’m the worst tail-chaser in LaFollette and half of the town knows it, and Sally knows it too, and is too gentle-hearted and too scared ever to reproach me with it. And sure I ought to be able to do something about that, at least about that. Any man could. Only I’m no man. So how can I expect that people can ever look up to me, or at least not look down on me? People are fair to me and more than fair. More than fair, if ever they knew me for what I really am.
And here tonight it comes like a test, like a trial, one of the times in a man’s life when he is needed, and can be some good, just by being a man. But I’m not a man. I’m a baby. Ralph is the baby. Ralph is the baby.
Hannah Lynch decided, that day, that she would go shopping and that if Rufus wanted to go, she would like to take him with her. She telephoned Rufus’mother to ask whether she had other plans for Rufus that would interfere, and Mary said no; she asked whether so far as Mary knew, Rufus had planned to do anything else, and Mary, a little surprised, said no, not as far as she knew, and whether he had or not, she was sure he would be glad to go shopping with her. Hannah, in a flicker of anger, was tempted to tell her not to make up children’s minds for them, but held onto herself and said, instead, well, we’ll see, and that she would be up by the time he came back from school. Mary urgently replied that she mustn’t come up-much as she would like to see her, of course-but that Rufus would make the trip instead. Hannah, deciding not to make an issue of it, said very well, she would be waiting, but he wasn’t to come unless he really wanted to. Mary said warmly that of course he would want to and Hannah again replied, more coolly, “ We’ll see; it’s no matter”; and, getting off the subject, asked, “Have you had any message from Jay?”
For Mary had telephoned her father, that morning, to explain why Jay could not be at the office. “No,” Mary said, with slight defensiveness, for she felt somehow that criticism might be involved; and hadn’t expected to unless, of course…
“Of course,” Hannah replied quickly (for she had intended no criticism), “so no doubt we needn’t worry.”
“No, I’m sure he would have called if his father had-even if there was any grave danger,” Mary said.
“Of course he would,” Hannah replied. Was there anything she could bring Mary? Let’s see, Mary said a little vaguely; why; aah; and she realized that Catherine could well use a new underwaist and that-and-but suddenly recalled, also, that it was sometimes difficult to persuade her aunt to accept money, or even to render account, for things she bought this way; and lied, with some embarrassment, why, no, thank you so much, it’s very stupid of me but I just can’t think of a thing. All right, Hannah said, honoring her embarrassment, and resolved to take care to embarrass her less often (but after all, little gifts should be possible from time to time without this silly pride); all right; I’ll be waiting, till three, and if Rufus has other things to do, just let me know. All right, Aunt Hannah, and it’s so nice of you to think of him. Not a bit of it, I like to take him shopping. Well that’s very nice and I’m sure he likes it. Perhaps so. Why certainly so, Aunt Hannah. All right. All right; good-bye. You’ll let us know if you do hear from Jay? Of course. Right away. But by now I don’t really expect to. He’ll very likely be back by supper time, or a little after. He was sure he could-if-everything was, well, relatively all right. All right. All right; good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye, Mary’s voice trailed, gently.
“Jay?” Andrew called over the banisters.
“No, just talking to Mary,” Hannah said. “I guess it can’t be so very serious, after all.”
“Let’s hope not,” said Andrew, and went back to his painting.
Hannah made herself ready for town. When Rufus arrived, all out of breath, he found her on a hard little couch in the living room, sitting carefully, not to rumple her long white-speckled black dress, and poring gravely through an issue of The Nation which she held a finger length before her thick glasses.
“Well,” she smiled, putting the magazine immediately aside. “You’re very prompt” (he was not; his mother had required him to wash and change his clothes) “and” (peering at him closely as he hurried up) “you look very nice. But you’re all out of breath. Would you really like to come?”
“Oh, yes,” he said, with a trace of falseness, for he had been warned to convince her; “I’m very glad to come, Aunt Hannah, and thank you very much for thinking of me.”
“Huh…” she said, for she knew direct quotation when she heard it, but she was also convinced that in spite of the false words, he really meant it. “That’s very nice,” she said. “Very well; let’s be on our way.” She took her hard, plain black straw hat from its place on the sofa beside her and Rufus followed her to the mirror in the dark hallway and watched her careful planting of the hat pin. “Dark as the inside of a cow,” she muttered, almost nosing the somber mirror, “as your grandfather would say.” Rufus tried to imagine what it would be like, inside a cow. It would certainly be dark, but then it would be dark inside anybody or anything, so why a cow? Grandma came prowling dim-sightedly up the hallway from the dining room, smiling fixedly, even though she fancied she was alone, and the little boy and his great-aunt drew quickly aside, but even so, she collided, and gasped.
“Hello, Grandma, it’s me,” Rufus shrilled, and his aunt Hannah leaned close across her to her good ear at the same moment and said loudly, “Catherine, hello; it’s only Rufus and I”; and as they spoke each laid a reassuring hand on her; and upstairs Rufus heard Andrew bite out, “Oh, G-godd”; but his grandmother, used to such frights, quickly recovered, laughed her tinkling ladylike laugh (which was beginning faintly to crack) very sportingly, and cried, “Goodness gracious, how you startled me!” and laughed again. “And there’s little Rufus!” she smiled, leaning deeply towards him with damaged, merry eyes and playfully patting his cheek.
“So you’re ready to go!” she said brightly to Hannah.
Hannah nodded conspicuously and leaning again close across her to get at her good ear, cried, “Yes; all ready!”
“Have a nice time,” Grandma said, “and give Grandma a good hug,” and she hugged him close, saying “Mum-mum; nice little boy,” and vigorously slapping his back.
“Good-bye,” they shouted.
“Good-bye,” she beamed, following them to the door. They took the streetcar and got out at Gay Street. There was no flurry and no dawdling as there would have been with any other woman Rufus knew; none of the ceremony that held his grandmother’s shopping habits in a kind of stiff embroidery; none of the hurrying, sheepish refusal to be judicious in which men shopped. Hannah steered her way through the vigorous sidewalk traffic and along the dense, numerous aisles of the stores with quiet exhilaration. Shopping had never lost its charm for her. She prepared her mind and her disposition for it as carefully as she dressed for it, and Rufus had seldom seen her forced to consult a shopping list, even if she were doing intricate errands for others. Her personal tastes were almost as frugal as her needs; hooks and eyes, lengths of black tape and white tape, snappers so tiny it was difficult to handle them, narrow lace, a few yards, sometimes, of black or white cotton cloth, and now and then two pairs of black cotton stockings. But she loved to do more luxurious errands for others, and even when there were no such errands, she would examine a rich variety of merchandise she had no intention of buying, always skillful, in these examinations, never to disturb a clerk, and never to leave disturbed anything that she touched, imposing her weak eyes as intently as a jeweler with his glass and emitting little expletives of irony or admiration. Whenever she did have a purchase to make, she got hold of a clerk and conducted the whole transaction with a graceful efficiency which had already inspired in Rufus a certain contempt for every other woman he had seen shopping. Rufus, meanwhile, paid relatively little attention to what she was saying or buying; words passed above him, merely decorating the world he stared at with as much fascination as his aunt’s; and best of all were the clashing, banging wire baskets which hastened along on little trolleys, high over them all, bearing to and fro wrapped and unwrapped merchandise, and hard leather cylinders full of money. Taken shopping with anyone else, Rufus suffered extreme boredom, but Hannah shopped much as a real lover of painting visits a gallery; and her pleasure clarified Rufus’eyes and held the whole merchant world in a clean focus of delight. If his mother or his grandmother was shopping, the tape which hung around the saleswoman’s neck and the carbon pad in which she recorded purchases seemed twitchy and clumsy to Rufus; but in his great-aunt’s company, the tape and pad were instruments of fascination and skill, and the housewives who ordinarily made the air of the stores heavy with fret and foolishness were like a challenging sea, instead, which his aunt navigated most deftly. She did not talk to him too much, nor did she worry over him, nor was Rufus disposed to wander beyond the range of her weak sight, for he enjoyed her company, and of all grown people she was the most considerate. She would remember, every ten minutes or so, to inquire courteously whether he was tired, but he was seldom tired in her company; with her, he never felt embarrassment in saying if he had to go to the bathroom, for she never seemed annoyed, but in consequence he seldom found it necessary to go when they came together on these downtown trips. Today Hannah bought a few of the simplest of things for herself and several more elaborate things for her sister-in-law and a beautifully transparent, flowered scarf for Mary’s birthday, taking Rufus into this surprise; then, in the art store, she inquired whether the Grammar of Ornament had arrived. But when they showed her the enormous and magnificently colored volume, she exclaimed with laughter, “Mercy, that is no grammar; it’s a whole encyclopedia,” and the clerk laughed politely, and she said she was afraid it was larger than she could carry; she would like to have it delivered. She must be sure, though, that it was delivered personally to her, no later than May twenty-first, that’s three days, can I be sure of that? No, she interrupted herself, in one of her rare confusions or changes of decision, that won’t do. She explained to Rufus, parenthetically, “Suppose there was an accident, and your Uncle Andrew saw it too soon!” She paused. “Do you think you can help me with a few more of these bundles?” she asked him. He replied proudly that of course he could. “Then we’ll take it now,” his aunt told the clerk, and after careful testing and distribution of the various bundles, they came back into the street. And there his Aunt Hannah made a proposal which astounded Rufus with gratitude. She turned to him and said, “And now if you’d like it, I’d like to give you a cap.”
He was tongue-tied; he felt himself blush. His aunt could not quite see the blush but his silence disconcerted her, for she had believed that this would make him really happy. Annoyed with herself, she nevertheless could not help feeling a little hurt.
“Or is there something else you’d rather have?” she asked, her voice a little too gentle.
He felt a great dilation in his chest. “Oh, no!” he exclaimed with passion. “Oh, no!”
“Very well then, let’s see what we can do about it,” she said, more than reassured; and suddenly she suspected in something like its full magnitude the long, careless denial, and the importance of the cap to the child. She wondered whether he would speak of it-would try, in any cowardly or goody-goody way, to be “truthful” about his mother’s distaste for the idea (though she supposed he ought to be-truthful, that is); or, better, whether he could imagine, and try to warn her that in buying it for him, she risked displeasing his mother; and realized, then, that she must take care not to set him against his mother. She waited with some curiosity for what he might say, and when he found no words, said, “Don’t worry about Mar-about your mother. I’m sure if she knew you really wanted it, you would have had it long ago.”
He just made a polite, embarrassed little noise and she realized, with regret, that she did not know how to manage it properly. But she was certainly not going, on that account, to deny what she had offered; she compressed her lips and, by unaccountable brilliance of intuition went straight past Miller’s, a profoundly matronly store in which Rufus’mother always bought the best clothes which were always, at best, his own second choice, and steered round to Market Street and into Harbison’s, which sold clothing exclusively for men and boys, and was regarded by his mother, Rufus had overheard, as “tough” and “sporty” and “vulgar.” And it was indeed a world most alien to women; not very pleasant men turned to stare at this spinster with the radiant, appalled little boy in tow; but she was too blind to understand their glances and, sailing up to the nearest man who seemed to be a clerk (he wore no hat) asked briskly, without embarrassment, “Where do I go, please, to find a cap for my nephew?” And the man, abashed into courtesy, found a clerk for her, and the clerk conducted them to the dark rear of the store. “Well, just see what you like,” said Aunt Hannah; and still again, the child was astonished. He submitted so painfully conservative a choice, the first time, that she smelled the fear and hypocrisy behind it, and said carefully, “That is very nice, but suppose we look at some more, first.” She saw the genteel dark serge, with the all but invisible visor, which she was sure would please Mary most, but she doubted whether she would speak of it; and once Rufus felt that she really meant not to interfere, his tastes surprised her. He tried still to be careful, more out of courtesy, she felt, than meeching, but it was clear to her that his heart was set on a thunderous fleecy check in jade green, canary yellow, black and white, which stuck out inches to either side above his ears and had a great scoop of visor beneath which his face was all but lost. It was a cap, she reflected; which even a colored sport might think a little loud, and she was painfully tempted to interfere. Mary would have conniption fits; Jay wouldn’t mind, but she was afraid for Rufus’sake that he would laugh; even the boys in the block, she was afraid, might easily sneer at it rather than admire it-all the more, she realized sourly, if they did admire it. It was going to cause no end of trouble, and the poor child might soon be sorry about it himself. But she was switched if she was going to boss him! “That’s very nice,” she said as little drily as she could manage. “But think about it, Rufus. You’ll be wearing it a long time, you know, with all sorts of clothes.” But it was impossible for him to think about anything except the cap; he could even imagine how tough it was going to look after it had been kicked around a little. “You’re very sure you like it,” Aunt Hannah said.
“Oh, yes,” said Rufus.
“Better than this one?” Hannah indicated the discreet serge.
“Oh, yes,” said Rufus, scarcely hearing her.
“Or this one?” she said, holding up a sharp little checkerboard.
“I think I like it best of all,” Rufus said.
“Very well, you shall have it,” said Aunt Hannah, turning to the cool clerk.
Waking in darkness, he saw the window. Curtains, a tall, cloven wave, towered almost to the floor. Transparent, manifold, scalloped along their inward edges like the valves of a sea creature, they moved delectably on the air of the open window.
Where they were touched by the carbon light of the street lamp, they were as white as sugar. The extravagant foliage which had been wrought into them by machinery showed even more sharply white where the light touched, and elsewhere was black in the limp cloth.
The light put the shadows of moving leaves against the curtains, which moved with the moving curtains and upon the bare glass between the curtains.
Where the light touched the leaves they seemed to burn, a bitter green. Elsewhere they were darkest gray and darker. Beneath each of these thousands of closely assembled leaves dwelt either no natural light or richest darkness. Without touching each other these leaves were stirred as, silently, the whole tree moved in its sleep.
Directly opposite his window was another. Behind this open window, too, were curtains which moved and against them moved the scattered shadows of other leaves. Beyond these curtains and beyond the bare glass between, the room was as dark as his own.
He heard the summer night.
All the air vibrated like a fading bell with the latest exhausted screaming of locusts. Couplings clashed and conjoined; a switch engine breathed heavily. An auto engine bore beyond the edge of audibility the furious expletives of its incompetence. Hooves broached, along the hollow street, the lackadaisical rhythms of the weariest of clog dancers, and endless in circles, narrow iron tires grinced continuously after. Along the sidewalks, with incisive heels and leathery shuffle, young men and women advanced, retreated.
A rocking chair betrayed reiterant strain, as of a defective lung; like a single note from a stupendous jew’s-harp, the chain of a porch swing twanged.
Somewhere very near, intimate to some damp inch of the grass between these homes, a cricket peeped, and was answered as if by his echo.
Humbled beneath the triumphant cries of children, which tore the whole darkness like streams of fire, the voices of men and women on their porches rubbed cheerfully against each other, and in the room next his own, like the laboring upward of laden windlasses and the mildest pouring out of fresh water, he heard the voices of men and women who were familiar to him. They groaned, rewarded; lifted, and spilled out: and watching the windows, listening at the heart of the proud bell of darkness, he lay in perfect peace.
Gentle, gentle dark.
My darkness. Do you listen? Oh, are you hollowed, all one taking ear?
My darkness. Do you watch me? Oh, are you rounded, all one guardian eye?
Oh gentlest dark. Gentlest, gentlest night. My darkness. My dear darkness.
Under your shelter all things come and go.
Children are violent and valiant, they run and they shout like the winners of impossible victories, but before long now, even like me, they will be brought into their sleep.
Those who are grown great talk with confidence and are at all times skillful to serve and to protect, but before long now they too, before long, even like me, will be taken in and put to bed.
Soon come those hours when no one wakes. Even the locusts, even the crickets, silent shall be, as frozen brooks In your great sheltering.
I hear my father; I need never fear.
I hear my mother, I shall never be lonely, or want for love.
When I am hungry it is they who provide for me; when I am in dismay, it is they who fill me with comfort.
When I am astonished or bewildered, it is they who make the weak ground firm beneath my soul: it is in them that I put my trust.
When I am sick it is they who send for the doctor; when I am well and happy, it is in their eyes that I know best that I am loved; and it is towards the shining of their smiles that I lift up my heart and in their laughter that I know my best delight.
I hear my father and my mother and they are my giants, my king and my queen, beside whom there are no others so wise or worthy or honorable or brave or beautiful in this world. I need never fear: nor ever shall I lack for loving-kindness.
And those also who talk with them in that room beneath whose door the light lies like a guardian slave, a bar of gold, my witty uncle, and my girlish aunt: I have yet to know them well, but they and my father and my mother are all fond of each other, and I like them, and I know that they like me.
I hear the easy chiming of their talk and their laughter.
But before long now they too will leave and the house will become almost silent and before long the darkness, for all its leniency, will take my father and my mother and will bring them, even as I have been brought, to bed and to sleep.
You come to us once each day and never a day rises into brightness but you stand behind it; you are upon us, you overwhelm us, all of each night. It is you who release from work, who bring parted families and friends together, and people for a little while are calm and free, and all at ease together; but before long, before long, all are brought down silent and motionless Under your sheltering, your great sheltering, darkness.
And all through that silence you walk as if none but you had ever breathed, had ever dreamed, had ever been.
My darkness, are you lonely?
Only listen, and I will listen to you.
Only watch me, and I will watch into your eyes.
Only know that I am awake and aware of you, only be my friend, and I will be your friend.
You need not ever fear; or ever be lonely; or want for love.
Tell me your secrets; you can trust me.
Come near. Come very near.
Darkness indeed came near. It buried its eye against the eye of the child’s own soul, saying: Had ever breathed, had ever dreamed, had ever been.
And somewhat as in blind night, on a mild sea, a sailor may be made aware of an iceberg, fanged and mortal, bearing invisibly near, by the unwarned charm of its breath, nothingness now revealed itself: that permanent night upon which the stars in their expiring generations are less than the glinting of gnats, and nebulae, more trivial than winter breath; that darkness in which eternity lies bent and pale, a dead snake in a jar, and infinity is the sparkling of a wren blown out to sea; that inconceivable chasm of invulnerable silence in which cataclysms of galaxies rave mute as amber.
Darkness said: When is this meeting, child, where are we, who are you, child, who are you, do you know who you are, do you know who you are, child; are you?
He knew that he would never know, though memory, almost captured, unrecapturable, unbearably tormented him. That this little boy whom he inhabited was only the cruelest of deceits. That he was but the nothingness of nothingness, condemned by some betrayal, condemned to be aware of nothingness. That yet in that desolation, he was not without companions. For featureless on the abyss, invincible, moved monstrous intuitions. And from the depth and wide throat of eternity burned the cold, delirious chuckle of rare monsters beyond rare monsters, cruelty beyond cruelty.
Darkness said: Under my sheltering: in my great sheltering.
In the corner, not quite possible to detach from the darkness, a creature increased, which watched him.
Darkness said: You hear the man you call your father: how can you ever fear?
Under the washstand, carefully, something moved.
You hear the woman who thinks you are her child.
Beneath his prostrate head, eternity opened.
Hear how he laughs at you; in what amusement she agrees.
The curtain sighed as powers unspeakable passed through it.
Darkness purred with delight and said: What is this change your eye betrays?
Only a moment ago, I was your friend, or so you claimed; why this sudden loss of love?
Only a moment ago you were all eagerness to know my secrets; where is your hunger now?
Only be steadfast: for now, my dear, my darling, the moment comes when hunger and love will be forever satisfied.
And darkness, smiling, leaned ever more intimately inward upon him, laid open the huge, ragged mouth— Ahhhhh…!
Child, child, why do you betray me so?
Come near. Come very near.
Must you be naughty? It would grieve me terribly to have to force you.
You know that you can never get away: you don’t even want to get away.
But with that, the child was torn into two creatures, of whom one cried out for his father.
The shadows lay where they belonged, and he lay shaken in his tears. He saw the windo w; waited.
Still the cricket struck his chisel; the voices persisted, placid as bran.
But behind his head, in that tall shadow which his eyes could never reach, who could dare dream what abode its moment?
The voices chafed, untroubled: grumble and babble.
He cried out again more fiercely for his father.
There seemed a hollowing in the voices, as if they crossed a high trestle.
Serenely the curtain dilated, serenely failed.
The shadows lay where they belonged, but strain as he might, he could not descry what lay in the darkest of them.
The voices relaxed into their original heartlessness.
He swiftly turned his head and stared through the bars at the head of the crib. He could not see what stood there. He swiftly turned again. Whatever it might be had dodged, yet more swiftly: stood once more, still, forever, beyond and behind his hope of seeing.
He saw the basin and that it was only itself; but its eye was wicked ice.
Even the sugar curtains were evil, a senselessly fumbling mouth; and the leaves, wavering, stifled their tree like an infestation.
Near the window, a stain on the wallpaper, pale brown, a serpent shape.
Deadly, the opposite window returned his staring.
The cricket cherished what avaricious secret: patiently sculptured what effigy of dread?
The voices buzzed, pleased and oblivious as locusts. They cared nothing for him.
He screamed for his father.
And now the voices changed. He heard his father draw a deep breath and lock it against his palate, then let it out harshly against the bones of his nose in a long snort of annoyance. He heard the Morris chair creak as his father stood up and he heard sounds from his mother which meant that she was disturbed by his annoyance and that she would see to him, Jay; his uncle and his aunt made quick, small, attendant noises and took no further part in the discussion and his father’s voice, somewhat less unkind than the snort and the way he had gotten from his chair but still annoyed, saying, “No, he hollered for me, I’ll see to him”; and heard his mastering, tired approach. He was afraid, for he was no longer deeply frightened, he was grateful for the evidence of tears.
The room opened full of gold, his father stooped through the door and closed it quietly; came quietly to the crib. His face was kind.
“Wuzza matter?” he asked, teasing gently, his voice at its deepest.
“Daddy,” the child said thinly. He sucked the phlegm from his nose and swallowed it.
His voice raised a little. “Why, what’s the trouble with my little boy,” he said and fumbled and got out his handkerchief. “What’s the trouble! What’s he crine about!” The harsh cloth smelt of tobacco; with his fingertips, his father removed crumbs of tobacco from the child’s damp face.
“Blow,” he said. “You know your mamma don’t like you to swallah that stuff.” He felt the hand strong beneath his head and a sob overtook him as he blew.
“Why, what’s wrong?” his father exclaimed; and now his voice was entirely kind. He lifted the child’s head a little more, knelt and looked carefully into his eyes; the child felt the strength of the other hand, covering his chest, patting gently. He endeavored to make a little more of his sobbing than came out, but the moment had departed.
He shook his head, no.
“Then what’s the trouble?”
He looked at his father.
“Feared a-fraid of the dark?”
He nodded; he felt tears on his eyes.
“Nooooooooo,” his father said, pronouncing it like do. “You’re a big boy now. Big boys don’t get skeered of a little dark. Big boys don’t cry. Where’s the dark that skeered you? Is it over here?” With his head he indicated the darkest corner. The child nodded. He strode over, struck a match on the seat of his pants.
“Nothing there that oughtn’t to be… Under here?” He indicated the bureau. The child nodded, and began to suck at his lower lip. He struck another match, and held it under the bureau, then under the washstand.
Nothing there. There either.
“Nothing there but an old piece a baby-soap. See?” He held the soap close where the child could smell it; it made him feel much younger. He nodded. “Any place else?”
The child turned and looked through the head of the crib; his father struck a match. “Why, there’s poor ole Jackie” he said. And sure enough, there he was, deep in the corner.
He blew dust from the cloth dog and offered it to the child. “You want Jackie?”
He shook his head.
“You don’t want poor little ole Jackie? So lonesome? Alayin back there in the corner all this time?”
He shook his head.
“Gettin too big for Jackie?”
He nodded, uncertain that his father would believe him.
“Then you’re gettin too big to cry.”
Poor ole Jackie.
“Pore ole Jackie.”
“Pore little ole Jackie, so lonesome.”
He reached up for him and took him, and faintly recalled, as he gave him comfort, a multitude of fire-tipped candles (and bristling needles) and a strong green smell, a dog more gaily colored and much larger, over which he puzzled, and his father’s huge face, smiling, saying, “It’s a dog.” His father too remembered how he had picked out the dog with great pleasure and had given it too soon, and here it was now too late. Comforting gave him comfort and a deep yawn, taking him by surprise, was half out of him before he could try to hide it. He glanced anxiously at his father.
“Gettin sleepy, uh?” his father said; it was hardly even a question.
He shook his head.
“Time you did. Time we all got to sleep.”
He shook his head.
“You’re not skeered any more are you?”
He considered lying, and shook his head.
“Boogee man, all gone, scared away, huh?”
“Now go on to sleep then, son,” his father said. He saw that the child very badly did not want him to go away, and realized suddenly that he might have lied about being scared, and he was touched, and put his hand on his son’s forehead. “You just don’t want to be lonesome,” he said tenderly; “just like little ole Jackie. You just don’t want to be left alone.” The child lay still.
“Tell you what I’ll do,” his father said, “I’ll sing you one song, and then you be a good boy and go on to sleep. Will you do that?” The child pressed his forehead upward against the strong warm hand and nodded.
“What’ll we sing?” his father asked.
“Froggy would a wooin go,” said the child; it was the longest.
“At’s a long one,” his father said, “at’s a long old song. You won’t ever be awake that long, will you?”
“Ah right,” said his father; and the child took a fresh hold on Jackie and settled back looking up at him. He sang very low and very quietly: Frog he would a wooin’go uh-hooooo!, Frog he would go wooin’go uh-hooooo, uh-hoooooo, and all about the courting-clothes the frog wore, and about the difficulties and ultimate success of the courtship and what several of the neighbors said and who the preacher would be and what he said about the match, uhhoooo, and finally, what will the weddin supper be uhooooo, catfish balls and sassafras tea uhhoooo, while he gazed at the wall and the child gazed up into his eyes which did not look at him and into the singing face in the dark. Every couple of verses or so the father glanced down, but the child’s eyes were as darkly and steadfastly open at the end of the long song as at the beginning, though it was beginning to be an effort for him.
He was amused and pleased. Once he got started singing, he always loved to sing. There were ever so many of the old songs that he knew, which he liked best, and also some of the popular songs; and although he would have been embarrassed if he had been made conscious of it, he also enjoyed the sound of his own voice. “Ain’t you asleep yet?” he said, but even the child felt there was no danger of his leaving, and shook his head quite frankly.
“Sing gallon,” he said, for he liked the amusement he knew would come into his father’s face, though he did not understand it. It came, and he struck up the song, still more quietly because it was a fast, sassy tune that would be likely to wake you up. He was amused because his son had always mistaken the words “gal and” for “gallon,” and because his wife and to a less extent her relatives were not entirely amused by his amusement. They felt, he knew, that he was not a man to take the word “gallon” so purely as a joke; not that the drinking had been any sort of problem, for a long time now. He sang.
I got a gallon an a sugarbabe too, my honey, my baby, I got a gallon an a sugarbabe too, my honey, my sweet thing.
I got a gallon an a sugarbabe too, Gal don’t love me but my sugarbabe do This mornin, This evenin, So soon.
When they kill a chicken, she saves me the wing, my honey, my baby, When they kill a chicken, she saves me the wing, my honey, my sweet thing, When they kill a chicken, she saves me the wing, my honey Think I’m aworkin ain’t adoin a thing This mornin, This evenin, So soon.
Every night about a half past eight, my honey, my baby, Every night about a half past eight, my honey, my sweet thing Every night about a half past eight, my honey Ya find me awaitin at the white folks’gate This mornin, This evenin, So soon.
The child still stared up at him; because there was so little light or perhaps because he was so sleepy, his eyes seemed very dark, although the father knew they were nearly as light as his own. He took his hand away and blew the moisture dry on the child’s forehead, smoothed his hair away, and put his hand back: What in the world you doin, Google Eyes? he sang, very slowly, while he and the child looked at each other, What in the world you doin, Google Eyes?
What in the world you doin, Google Eyes?
What in the world you doin, Google Eyes?
His eyes slowly closed, sprang open, almost in alarm, closed again.
Where did you get them great big Google Eyes?
Where did you get them great big Google Eyes?
You’re the best there is and I need you in my biz, Where in the world did you get them Google Eyes?
He waited. He took his hand away. The child’s eyes opened and he felt as if he had been caught at something. He touched the forehead again, more lightly. “Go to sleep, honey,” he said. “Go on to sleep now.” The child continued to look up at him and a tune came unexpectedly into his head, and lifting his voice almost to tenor he sang, almost inaudibly: Oh, I hear them train car wheels arumblin, Ann, they’re mighty near at hand, I hear that train come arumblin, Come arumblin through the land.
Git on board, little children, Git on board, little children, Git on board, little children, There’s room for many and more.
To the child it looked as if his father were gazing oft into a great distance and, looking up into these eyes which looked so far away, he too looked far away: Oh, I look a way down yonder, Ann, uh what dyou reckon I see, A band of shinin angels, A comin’after me.
Git on board, little children, Git on board, little children, Git on board, little children, There’s room for many and more.
He did not look down but looked straight on into the wall in silence for a good while, and sang: Oh, every time the sun goes down, There’s a dollar saved for Betsy Brown, Sugar Babe.
He looked down. He was almost certain now that the child was asleep. So much more quietly that he could scarcely hear himself, and that the sound stole upon the child’s near sleep like a band of shining angels, he went on: There’s a good old sayin, as you all know, That you can’t track a rabbit when there ain’t no snow Sugar Babe.
Here again he waited, his hand listening against the child, for he was so fond of the last verse that he always hated to have to come to it and end it; but it came into his mind and became so desirable to sing that he could resist it no longer: Oh, tain’t agoin to rain on, tain’t agoin to snow: He felt a strange coldness on his spine, and saw the glistening as a great cedar moved and tears came into his eyes: But the sun’s agoin to shine, and the wind’s agoin to blow Sugar Babe.
A great cedar, and the colors of limestone and of clay; the smell of wood smoke and, in the deep orange light of the lamp, the silent logs of the walls, his mother’s face, her ridged hand mild on his forehead: Don’t you fret, Jay, don’t you fret. And before his time, before even he was dreamed of in this world, she must have lain under the hand of her mother or her father and they in their childhood under other hands, away on back through the mountains, away on back through the years, it took you right on back as far as you could ever imagine, right on back to Adam, only no one did it for him; or maybe did God?
How far we all come. How far we all come away from ourselves. So far, so much between, you can never go home again. You can go home, it’s good to go home, but you never really get all the way home again in your life. And what’s it all for? All I tried to be, all I ever wanted and went away for, what’s it all for?
Just one way, you do get back home. You have a boy or a girl of your own and now and then you remember, and you know how they feel, and it’s almost the same as if you were your own self again, as young as you could remember.
And God knows he was lucky, so many ways, and God knows he was thankful. Everything was good and better than he could have hoped for, better than he ever deserved; only, whatever it was and however good it was, it wasn’t what you once had been, and had lost, and could never have again, and once in a while, once in a long time, you remembered, and knew how far you were away, and it hit you hard enough, that little while it lasted, to break your heart.
He felt thirsty, and images of stealthiness and deceit, of openness, anger and pride, immediately possessed him, and immediately he fought them off. If ever I get drunk again, he told himself proudly, I’ll kill myself. And there are plenty good reasons why I won’t kill myself. So I won’t even get drunk again.
He felt consciously strong, competent both for himself and against himself, and this pleasurable sense of firmness contended against the perfect and limpid remembrance he had for a moment experienced, and he tried sadly, vainly, to recapture it. But now all that he remembered, clear as it was to him, and dear to him, no longer moved his heart, and he was in this sadness, almost without thought, staring at the wall, when the door opened softly behind him and he was caught by a spasm of rage and alarm, then of shame for these emotions.
“Jay,” his wife called softly. “Isn’t he asleep yet?”
“Yeah, he’s asleep,” he said, getting up and dusting his knees. “Reckon it’s later than I knew.”
“Andrew and Amelia had to go,” she whispered, coming over. She leaned past him and straightened the sheet. “They said tell you good night.” She lifted the child’s head with one hand, while her husband, frowning, vigorously shook his head; “It’s all right, Jay, he’s sound asleep;” she smoothed the pillow, and drew away: “They were afraid if they disturbed you they might wake Rufus.”
“Gee. I’m sorry not to see them. Is it so late?”
“You must have been in here nearly an hour! What was the matter with him?”
“Bad dream, I reckon; fraid of the dark.”
“He’s all right? Before he went to sleep, I mean?”
“Sure, he’s all right.” He pointed at the dog. “Look what I found.”
“Goodness sake, where was it?”
“Back in the corner, under the crib.”
“Well shame on me! But Jay, it must be awfully dirty!”
“Naww; I dusted it off.”
She said, shyly, “I’ll be glad when I can stoop again.”
He put his hand on her shoulder. “So will I.”
“Jay,” she drew away, really offended.
“Honey!” he said, amused and flabbergasted. He put his arm around her. “I only meant the baby! I’ll be glad when the baby’s here!”
She looked at him intently (she did not yet realize that she was near-sighted), understood him, and smiled and then laughed softly in her embarrassment. He put his finger to her lips, jerking his head towards the crib. They turned and looked down at their son.
“So will I, Jay darling,” she whispered. “So will I.”
His mother sang to him too. Her voice was soft and shining gray like her dear gray eyes. She sang, “Sleep baby sleep, Thy father watches the sheep,” and he could see his father sitting on a hillside looking at a lot of white sheep in the darkness but why; “thy mother shakes the dreamland tree and down fall little dreams on thee,” and he could see the little dreams floating down easily like huge flakes of snow at night and covering him in the darkness like babes in the wood with wide quiet leaves of softly shining light. She sang, “Go tell Aunt Rhoda,” three times over, and then, “The old gray goose is dead,” and then “She’s worth the saving,” three times over, and then “To make a featherbed,” and then again. Three times over. Go tell Aunt Rhoda; and then again the old gray goose is dead. He did not know what “she’s worth the saving” meant, and it was one of the things he always took care not to ask, because although it sounded so gentle he was also sure that somewhere inside it there was something terrible to be afraid of exactly because it sounded so gently, and he would become very much afraid instead of only a little afraid if he asked and learned what it meant. All the more, because when his mother sang this song he could always see Aunt Rhoda, and she wasn’t at all like anybody else, she was like her name, mysterious and gray. She was very tall, as tall even as his father. She stood near a well on a big flat open place of hard bare ground, quite a way from where he saw her from, and even so he could see how very tall she was. Far back behind her there were dark trees without any leaves. She just stood there very quiet and straight as if she were waiting to be gone and told that the old gray goose is dead. She wore a long gray dress with a skirt that touched the ground and her hands were hidden in the great falling folds of the skirt. He could never see her face because it was too darkly within the shadow of the sunbonnet she wore, but from within that shadow he could always just discern the shining of her eyes, and they were looking straight at him, not angrily, and not kindly either, just looking and waiting. She is worth the saving.
She sang, “Swing low, sweet cherryut,” and that was the best song of all. “Comin for to care me home.” So glad and willing and peaceful. A cherryut was a sort of a beautiful wagon because home was too far to walk, a long, long way, but of course it was like a cherry, too, only he could not understand how a beautiful wagon and a cherry could be like each other, but they were. Home was a long, long way. Much too far to walk and you can only come home when God sends the cherryut for you. And it would care him home. He did not even try to imagine what home was like except of course it was even nicer than home where he lived, but he always knew it was home. He always especially knew how happy he was in his own home when he heard about the other home because then he always felt he knew exactly where he was and that made it good to be exactly there. His father loved to sing this song too and sometimes in the dark, on the porch, or lying out all together on a quilt in the back yard, they would sing it together. They would not be talking, just listening to the little sounds, and looking up at the stars, and feeling ever so quiet and happy and sad at the same time, and all of a sudden in a very quiet voice his father sang out, almost as if he were singing to himself, “Swing low,” and by the time he got to “cherryut” his mother was singing too, just as softly, and then their voices went up higher, singing “comin for to carry me home,” and looking up between their heads from where he lay he looked right into the stars, so near and friendly, with a great drift of dust like flour across the tip of the sky. His father sang it differently from his mother. When she sang the second “Swing” she just sang “swing low,” on two notes, in a simple, clear voice, but he sang “swing” on two notes, sliding from the note above to the one she sang, and blurring his voice and making it more forceful on the first note, and springing it, dark and blurry, off the “l” in “low,” with a rhythm that made his son’s body stir. And when he came to “Tell all my friends I’m comin too,” he started four full notes above her, and slowed up a little, and sort of dreamed his way down among several extra notes she didn’t sing, and some of these notes were a kind of blur, like hitting a black note and the next white one at the same time on Grandma’s piano, and he didn’t sing “I’m comin’” but “I’m uh-comin,” and there too, and all through his singing, there was that excitement of rhythm that often made him close his eyes and move his head in contentment. But his mother sang the same thing clear and true in a sweet, calm voice, fewer and simpler notes. Sometimes she would try to sing it his way and he would try to sing it hers, but they always went back pretty soon to their own way, though he always felt they each liked the other’s way very much. He liked both ways very much and best of all when they sang together and he was there with them, touching them on both sides, and even better, from when they sang “I look over Jordan what do I see,” for then it was so good to look up into the stars, and then they sang “A band of angels comin after me” and it seemed as if all the stars came at him like a great shining brass band so far away you weren’t quite sure you could even hear the music but so near he could almost see their faces and they all but leaned down deep enough to pick him up in their arms. Come for to care me home.
They sang it a little slower towards the end as if they hated to come to the finish of it and then they didn’t talk at all, and after a minute their hands took each other across their child, and things were even quieter, so that all the little noises of the city night raised up again in the quietness, locusts, crickets, footsteps, hoofs, faint voices, the shufflings of a switch engine, and after awhile, while they all looked into the sky, his father, in a strange and distant, sighing voice, said “Well…” and after a little his mother answered, with a quiet and strange happy sadness, “Yes…” and they waited a good little bit longer, not saying anything, and then his father took him up into his arms and his mother rolled up the quilt and they went in and he was put to bed.
He came right up to her hip bone, not so high on his father.
She wore dresses, his father wore pants. Pants were what he wore too, but they were short and soft. His father’s were hard and rough and went right down to his shoes. The cloths of his mother’s clothes were soft like his.
His father wore hard coats too and a hard celluloid collar and sometimes a vest with hard buttons. Mostly his clothes were scratchy except the striped shirts and the shirts with little dots or diamonds on them. But not as scratchy as his cheeks.
His cheeks were warm and cool at the same time and they scratched a little even when he had just shaved. It always tickled, on his cheek or still more on his neck, and sometimes hurt a little, too, but it was always fun because he was so strong.
He smelled like dry grass, leather and tobacco, and sometimes a different smell, full of great energy and a fierce kind of fun, but also a feeling that things might go wrong. He knew what that was because he overheard them arguing. Whiskey.
For awhile he had a big mustache and then he took it off and his mother said, “Oh lay, you look just worlds nicer, you have such a nice mouth, it’s a shame to hide it.” After awhile he grew the mustache again. It made him look much older, taller and stronger, and when he frowned the mustache frowned too and it was very frightening. Then he took it off again and she was pleased all over again and after that he kept it off.
She called it mustásh. He called it must’ash and sometimes mush’tash but then he was joking, talkin like a darky. He liked to talk darky talk and the way he sang was like a darky too, only when he sang he wasn’t joking.
His neck was dark tan and there were deep crisscross cracks all over the back of it.
His hands were so big he could cover him from the chin to his bath-thing. There were big blue strings under the skin on the backs of them. Veins, those were. Black hair even on the backs of the fingers and ever so much hair on the wrists, big veins in his arms, like ropes.
For some time now his mother had seemed different. Almost always when she spoke to him it was as if she had something else very much on her mind, and so was making a special effort to be gentle and attentive to him. And it was as if whatever it was that was on her mind was very momentous. Sometimes she looked at him in such a way that he felt that she was very much amused about something. He did not know how to ask her what she was amused by and as he watched her, wondering what it was, and she watched his puzzlement, she sometimes looked more amused than ever, and once when she looked particularly amused, and he looked particularly bewildered, her smile became shaky and turned into laughter and, quickly taking his face between her hands, she exclaimed, “I’m not laughing at you, darling!” and for the first time he felt that perhaps she was.
There were other times when she seemed to have almost no interest in him, but only to be doing things for him because they had to be done. He felt subtly lonely and watched her carefully. He saw that his father’s manner had changed towards her ever so little; he treated her as if she were very valuable and he seemed to be conscious of the tones of his voice. Sometimes in the mornings Grandma would come in and if he was around he was told to go away for a little while. Grandma did not hear well and carried a black ear trumpet which was sticky and sour on the end that she put in her ear, but try as he would they talked so quietly that he could hear very little, and none of it enlightened him. There were special words which were said with a special kind of hesitancy or shyness, such as “pregnancy” and “kicking” and “discharge,” but others, which seemed fully as strange, such as “layette” and “basinette” and “bellyband,” seemed to inspire no such fear. Grandma also treated him as if something strange was going on, but whatever it was, it was evidently not dangerous, for she was always quite merry with him. His father and his Uncle Andrew and Grandpa seemed to treat him as they always had, though there seemed to be some hidden kind of strain in Uncle Andrew’s feeling for his mother. And Aunt Hannah was the same as ever with him, except that she paid more attention to his mother, now. Aunt Amelia looked at his mother a good deal when she thought nobody else was watching, and once when she saw him watching her she looked quickly away and turned red.
Everyone seemed either to look at his mother with ill-concealed curiosity or to be taking special pains not to look anywhere except, rather fixedly and cheerfully, into her eyes. For now she was swollen up like a vase, and there was a peculiar lethargic lightness in her face and in her voice. He had a distinct feeling that he should not ask what was happening to her. At last he asked Uncle Andrew, “Uncle Andrew, why is Mama so fat?” and his uncle replied, with such apparent anger or alarm that he was frightened, “Why, don’t you know?” and abruptly walked out of the room.
Next day his mother told him that soon he was going to have a very wonderful surprise. When he asked what a surprise was she said it was like being given things for Christmas only ever so much nicer. When he asked what he was going to be given she said that she did not mean it was a present, specially for him, or for him to have, or keep, but something for everybody, and especially for them. When he asked what it was, she said that if she told him it wouldn’t be a surprise any more, would it? When he said that he wanted to know anyway, she said that she would tell him, only it would be so hard for him to imagine what it was before it came that she thought it was better for him to see it first. When he asked when it was coming she said that she didn’t know exactly but very soon now, in only a week or two, perhaps sooner, and she promised him that he would know right away when it did come.
He was aflame with curiosity. He had been too young, the Christmas before, to think of looking for hidden presents, but now he looked everywhere that he could imagine to look until his mother understood what he was doing and told him there was no use looking for it because the surprise wouldn’t be here until exactly when it came. He asked where was it, then, and heard his father’s sudden laugh; his mother looked panicky and cried, “Jay!” all at once, and quickly informed him, “In heaven; still up in heaven.”
He looked quickly to his father for corroboration and his father, who appeared to be embarrassed, did not look at him. He knew about heaven because that was where Our Father was, but that was all he knew about it, and he was not satisfied. Again, however, he had a feeling that he would be unwise to ask more.
“Why don’t you tell him, Mary?” his father said.
“Oh, Jay,” she said in alarm; then said, by moving her lips, “Don’t talk of it in front of him!”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” and he, too, said with his lips-only a whisper leaked around the silence, “but what’s the good? Why not get it over with?”
She decided that it was best to speak openly. “As you know, Jay, I’ve told Rufus about our surprise that’s coming. I told him I’d be glad to tell him what it was, except that it would be so very hard for him to imagine it and such a lovely surprise when he first sees it. Besides, I just have a feeling he might m-make see-oh-en-en-ee-see-tee-eye-oh-eness, between-between one thing and another.”
“Going to make them, going to make em anyhow,” his father said.
“But Jay, there’s no use simply forcing it on his att-eigh-ten-ten, his attention, now, is there? Is there, Jay!”
She seemed really quite agitated, he could not understand why.
“You’re right, Mary, and don’t you get excited about it. I was all wrong about it. Of course I was.” And he got up and came over to her and took her in his arms, and patted her on the back.
“I’m probably just silly about it,” she said.
“No, you’re not one bit silly. Besides, if you’re silly about that, so am I, some way. That just sort of caught me off my guard, that about heaven, that’s all.”
“Well, what can you say?”
“I’m Godd-I can’t imagine, sweetheart, and I better just keep my mouth shut.”
She frowned, smiled, laughed through her nose and urgently shook her head at him, all at once.
And then one day without warning the biggest woman he had ever seen, shining deep black and all in magnificent white with bright gold spectacles and a strong smile like that of his Aunt Hannah, entered the house and embraced his mother and swept down on him crying with delight, “Lawd, chile, how mah baby has growed!”, and for a moment he thought that this must be the surprise and looked inquiringly at his mother past the onslaught of embraces, and his mother said, “Victoria; Victoria, Rufus!”; and Victoria cried, “Now bless his little heart, how would he remembuh,” and all of a sudden as he looked into the vast shining planes of her smiling face and at the gold spectacles which perched there as gaily as a dragonfly, there was something that he did remember, a glisten of gold and a warm movement of affection, and before he knew it he had flung his arms around her neck and she whooped with astonished joy, “Why God bless him, why chile, chile,” and she held him away from her and her face was the happiest thing he had ever seen, “ah believe you do remembuh! Ah sweah ah believe you do! Do you?” She shook him in her happiness. “Do you remembuh y’old Victoria?” She shook him again. “Do you, honey?” And realizing at last that he was specifically being asked, he nodded shyly, and again she embraced him. She smelled so good that he could almost have leaned his head against her and gone to sleep then and there.
“Mama,” he said later, when she was out shopping, “ Victoria smells awful good.”
“Hush, Rufus,” his mother said. “Now you listen very carefully to me, do you hear? Say yes if you hear.”
“Now you be very careful that you never say anything about how she smells where Victoria can hear you. Will you? Say yes if you will.”
“Because even though you like the way she smells, you might hurt her feelings terribly if you said any such thing, and you wouldn’ t want to hurt dear old Victoria’s feelings, I know. Would you, would you, Rufus?”
“Because Victoria is-is colored, Rufus. That’s why her skin is so dark, and colored people are very sensitive about the way they smell. Do you know what sensitive means?”
He nodded cautiously.
“It means there are things that hurt your feelings so badly, things you can’t help, that you feel like crying, and nice colored people feel that way about the way they smell. So you be very careful. Will you? Say yes if you will?”
“Now tell me what I’ve asked you to be careful about, Rufus.”
“Don’t tell Victoria she smells.”
“Or say anything about it where she can hear.”
“Or say anything about it where she can hear.”
“Because she might cry.”
“That’s right. And, Rufus, Victoria is very very clean. Absolutely spic and span.”
Spic an span.
Victoria would not allow his mother to get dinner and after they had eaten she also took entire charge of packing some of his clothes into a box, asking advice, however, on each thing that she took out of the drawer. Then Victoria bathed him and dressed him in clean clothes from the skin out, much to his mystification, and once he was ready, his mother called him to her and told him that Victoria was going to take him on a little visit to stay a few days with Granpa and Granma and Uncle Andrew and Aunt Amelia, and he must be a very good boy and do his very best not to wet the bed because when he came back, very soon now, in only a few more days, the surprise would be there and he would know what it was. He said that if the surprise was coming so soon he wanted to stay and see it, and she replied that that was just why he was going away to Granma’s, so the surprise could come all by itself. He asked why it couldn’t come if he was there and she said because he might frighten it away because it would still be very tiny and very much afraid, so if he really wanted the surprise to come, he could help more than anything else by being a good boy and going right along to Granma’s. Victoria would come and bring him home again just as soon as the surprise was ready for him; “Won’t you, Victoria?” And Victoria, who throughout this conversation had appeared to be tremendously amused about something, giving tight little cackles of swallowed laughter and murmuring, “Bless his heart,” whenever he spoke, said that indeed she most certainly would.
“And say your prayers,” his mother said, looking at him suddenly with so much love that he was bewildered. “You’re a big boy now, and you can say them by yourself; can’t you?” He nodded. She took him by the shoulders and looked at him almost as if she were threading a needle. As she looked at him, some kind of astonishment and some kind of fear grew in her face. Her face began to shine; she smiled; her mouth twitched and trembled. She took him close to her and her cheek was wet. “God bless my dear little boy,” she whispered, “for ever and ever! Amen,” and again she held him away; her face looked as if she were moving through space at extraordinary speed. “Good-bye, my darling; oh, good-bye!”
“Now you keep aholt a my hand,” Victoria told him, the sun flashing her lenses as she looked both ways from the curb. Arching his neck and his forelegs, a bright brown horse drew a buggy crisply but sedately past; in the washed black spokes, sunlight twittered. Far down the sunlight, like a bumblebee, a yellow streetcar buzzed. The trees moved. They did not wait.
“ Victoria,” he said.
“Wait, chile,” said Victoria, breathing hard. “You wait till we’re safe across.”
“Now what is it, honey?” she asked, once they had attained the other curb.
“Why is your skin so dark?”
He saw her bright little eyes thrust into him through the little lenses and he felt a strong current of pain or danger. He knew that something was wrong. She did not answer him immediately but peered down at him sharply. Then the current passed and she looked away from him, readjusting her fingers so that she took his hand. Her face looked very far away, and resolute. “Just because, chile,” she said in a stern and gentle voice. “Just because that was the way God made me.”
“Is that why you’re colored, Victoria?”
He felt a change in her hand when he said the word “colored.” Again she did not answer immediately, nor would she look at him. “Yes,” she said at length, “that’s why I’m colored.”
He felt deeply sad as they walked along, but he did not know why. She seemed to have no more to say, and he had a feeling that it was not proper for him to say anything either. He watched her great, sad face beneath its brilliant cap, but she did not seem to know that he was watching her or even that he was there. But then he felt the pressure of her hand, and squeezed her hand, and he felt that whatever had been wrong was all right again.
After quite a little while Victoria said, “ Chile, I want to tell you sumpn.” He waited: they walked. “ Victoria don’t pay it no mind, because she knows you. She knows you wouldn’t say a mean thing to nobody, not for this world. But dey is lots of other colored folks dat don’t know you, honey. And if you say that, you know, about their skins, about their coloh, they goan think you’re trying to be mean to em. They goan to feel awful bad and maybe they be mad at you too, when Victoria knows you doan mean nuthin by it, cause they don’t know you like Victoria do. Do you understand me, chile?” He looked earnestly up at her. “Don’t say nuthin bout skins, or coloh, wheah colored people can heah you. Cause they goana think you’re mean to em. So you be careful.” And again she squeezed his hand.
He thought about Victoria while they walked and he wished that she was happy, and he felt that it was because of him that she was not happy. “ Victoria,” he said.
“What is it, honey?”
“I didn’t want to be mean to you.”
She stopped abruptly and with creaking and difficulty squatted down in the middle of the sidewalk so that a man who was passing stepped suddenly aside and looked coldly down as he went by. She put both hands on his shoulders and her large, kind face and her kind smell were close to him. “Lord bless you, baby, Victoria knows you didn’t! Victoria knows you is de goodest little boy in all dis world! She just had to tell you, you see. Cause colored folks has a hard time in dis world and she knows you wouldn’t want to make em feel bad, not even if you didn’t mean to.”
“I didn’t want to make you feel bad.”
“Bless your little heart. I don’t feel bad, not one bit. You make me feel happy, and your mama makes me feel happy, and there’s not one thing in the world I wouldn’t do for de bole of you, honey, and dat you know. Dat you know,” she said again, rocking her head and smiling and patting both his shoulders. “I missed you terrible, honey,” she said, but somehow he felt that she was not talking exactly to him. “I couldn’t hardly love you more if you was my own baby.” A silence opened around them in which he felt at once great space, the space almost of darkness itself, and great peace and comfort; and the whole of this immensity was pervaded by her vague face and by the waving light of leaves. “Now let’s git along,” she said, creaking upright and smoothing her starched garments. “We don’t want to keep your granmaw waitin.”
And there was the dusty ivy on the wall, the small glasshouse in front, and on the porch, Aunt Amelia and his grandma. Even when they were still across the street he saw his Aunt Amelia wave and Victoria waved gaily back, chuckling and croaking, “Hello,” and he waved too; and Amelia leaned towards his grandmother who sought out and tilted her little trumpet and Amelia leaned close to it and then they both turned to look and Grandma got up and he could hear her high, “Hello,” and they were at the front steps, and Grandma came cautiously down the steps from the porch, and they all met on the brick walk in the shade of the magnolia, while Aunt Amelia came up smiling from behind her mother. And soon Victoria left; she disappeared around a corner, a few blocks up the street, handsomely and gradually as a sailboat.