Authors: Patricia Highsmith
Carter went back to his bed and from his night table got his pen and the letter he had begun to Hazel yesterday. He added below what he had written:
Sunday 4:25 p.m.
My darling Hazel,
Was very impressed by Magran as you said I would be. I am so sorry I was gloomy today. Can you forgive me? You were right my thumbs were hurting (I hadn’t taken any shot for them before I saw you) and it is sort of like a toothache that keeps on and on at you till it gets on your nerves. Things are much better now.
G. Gawill came bringing good news: Drexel has decided to pay me $100 of weekly salary retroactive and for the duration of contract. G. also said you were going away Easter with David S. A good idea no doubt.
Bless you, my darling. I love you and miss you. No more room here. P.
There was so little room, his initial was tiny. He twisted around on the bed and lay down with his face buried in the pillow, exhausted with the effort of writing, exhausted, too, by what he recognized as self-pity. He felt heroic in having said he was glad she was going away with Sullivan, and yet quite obviously he was not heroic. He was quite the opposite of heroic. What was heroic about doing a favor for Hanky, and for the purpose for which he had done it, to be on a slightly more friendly footing with a slob? Mightn’t he have suspected that Hanky had some trick up his sleeve? It was simply stupid of him that he hadn’t suspected. And to go a little farther back, didn’t any idiot know enough not to sign something that he hadn’t read or checked on, such as the receipts for the Triumph Corporation? The prices could as well have been upped when he signed them. He wouldn’t have known the difference. And to go still farther back, to sheer carelessness, he had answered only two questions out of three on his final examination at Cornell, because he had not read the instructions thoroughly, or had not turned the page. He had graduated with quite a good rating, though not what he would have had if he had answered all three questions. One of his professors had written a complimentary statement about him which he said Carter might find of use in getting a job, but Carter had had a job arranged before he graduated. It had all been so easy for him. All his life he had simply fallen into lucky, comfortable spots—until now. His parents had died, first his mother shortly after his birth and then his father when Carter was five, but there had been his affectionate, childless, and well-to-do Uncle John to take him in in New York. John’s wife Edna had been even more indulgent than a mother, Carter felt, because she had no children of her own and because he was a handsome, bright little boy related to her husband. The money of his parents had been put into a fund for him, and had been more than enough to see him through school, to provide him with plenty of clothes, a car when he was eighteen, money for dates. He had never had to work during summers. There had been many girls, once he was out of school and had his own apartment in Manhattan, affairs which now seemed very juvenile to him and which he realized had done nothing to him but feed his vanity. Then he had met Hazel Olcott, who had been engaged then to someone called Dan, an exporter with a plantation in Brazil. Carter had met her at a party given by a friend in New York, he had immediately noticed her and asked his host about her and learned about the exporter named Dan, who in fact was at the party, a very self-confident fellow of about thirty. Then Hazel the same evening had asked him if he would like to come to a surprise birthday party that she was giving for her mother, and Carter with his usual good cheer had accepted, thinking the fiancé was going to be there, too, the mother, too, and that it was the most unpromising of invitations. But the fiancé had not been there, and Carter had got along very well with Hazel and her mother and her mother’s middle-aged friends. One meeting had led to another, because her fiancé always seemed to have business engagements, though they were supposed to be married in August and it was then July. And though Carter felt that Hazel was giving him some encouragement, he had been afraid to tell her that he was in love with her, because for the first time in his life he felt he was going to be unlucky. And Hazel, he thought, would have considered such a declaration in poor taste, since he knew she was engaged. Then as July came to an end, and Carter thought he had nothing to lose, he had stammered out that he was in love with her, and Hazel, not at all surprised, had said, “Yes, I know, but don’t worry, because I broke it off with Dan three weeks ago.” The incredible ease of it, the miracle! Carter had begun to be really happy for the first time in his life. His happiness had lasted exactly seven years and two months, until the month Wallace Palmer had fallen off the scaffold.
Carter and his Aunt Edna wrote to each other only about twice a year now. Since Uncle John died, Aunt Edna had lived with a sister in California. He had not written to her since before the trial had begun. For one thing, he had thought the nightmare would pass, would be straightened out somehow, and he had not wanted to burden and confuse Edna with it. She was now in her seventies. But the nightmare was not blowing over. Carter supposed he ought to write to her. There were several New York friends who had seen small items in the paper and written him friendly notes that he should have answered, but hadn’t. The prospect of writing them now was dreary indeed. And yet not to write, he felt, was like an admission of guilt.
Carter awakened from a dream, tense with anxiety. He half raised himself in bed and looked at the clock over the door. 10:20. He lay down again. A light sweat covered his face, and he was breathing rapidly. He swallowed, twisted to reach his water glass and found it empty.
A movement in the corner of the room caught his eye. Dr. Cassini stood up from a straight chair and came toward him, smiling, his dark eyes distorted and enlarged by his glasses.
“No, I don’t need another shot,” Carter said.
“Oh, I didn’t say you did,” said Dr. Cassini. “Had a bad dream?”
“Um-m.” Carter got out of bed to get a glass of water. He carried it back in a cat’s cradle of his two little fingers and his forefingers. His method of carrying glasses had ceased to be amusing to him or to anyone else. The most difficult task for him was fastening the buttons of his shirt and trousers.
Dr. Cassini was still standing by his bed. “I was thinking you could go back to the cell block tomorrow, if you’d prefer it.”
Carter sensed a challenge in his words. Dr. Cassini evidently thought he was well enough. Carter’s head was ringing from morphine.
“Or you could stay on here, if you’d like to help out. You can see we need people, even if they haven’t got their thumbs.” Dr. Cassini looked at him with his dark head cocked, as if he were saying something of importance about which Carter might have to make an earthshaking decision. “In the cell block—well, I don’t know what kind of work they could give you, farm work, shoemaking, carpentry, everything I can think of is out because of those thumbs. Then in about a week, we could make some more X-rays. The inflammation should be going down. It might be just as well that you’re up here.”
he saying? Carter had a moment of nausea. The smell of disinfectant, the memory of bedpans, pile cases, bed sores, hernias, came all at once—plus a fear of becoming dependent on the morphine, just because it was easy to get here.
“You can’t get your morphine so easily, you know,” said Dr. Cassini crisply.
“I know. You said you could give me something else.”
“It won’t be as good.” Dr. Cassini folded his arms and smiled.
Carter thought that Dr. Cassini might be a morphine addict himself. It had crossed his mind before, but he wasn’t sure and he really didn’t care, but it seemed that Dr. Cassini was urging him to stay on it, to get himself hooked as Dr. Cassini was hooked—maybe. “I can still try them,” Carter said, and sat down on his bed.
“All right. I’ll give you the pills tomorrow morning and you can go down to the zoo, if you like.” He turned away, then looked back. “If you run into trouble with the work they give you, just let me know. I can do something about it.”
he next morning, with a dozen pills in his pocket, his possessions tied up in a shirt, and a pass, Carter went down to A-block. Dr. Cassini had bandaged his thumbs for protection. It was around 9 o’clock. The inmates were at their jobs. The guard looked at his pass, glanced at his thumbs, then took Carter to his old cell, number nine, and unlocked it for him. The guard was a new one to Carter. The cell was occupied by two men now, Carter saw from the two shingles with numbers hanging over the door, and from the two towels and washcloths on the rod on the rear wall. Hanky was still here: he remembered Hanky’s color photograph of a blonde propped up on the table.
“Maybe have to put a cot in here,” said the guard.
Carter knew that many cells had three men in them, though the cells were originally built to hold only one man. He dreaded being back with Hanky plus still another man, each bumping into the others if he moved at all. “Isn’t there any other cell—”
“If it says number nine, it’s number nine,” said the guard, waving Carter’s pass. “Wait here.” He went off toward the cage.
Carter knew it would be a long wait. He crossed the corridor and sank down on a wooden bench. He waited nearly forty-five minutes, and then the guard came back. Carter stood up.
“They’ll bring a cot up in a couple of minutes, so go on in,” he said.
Carter went back into number nine. Without even a cot as an object of his own, he did not know where to put his things. He dropped the shirt bundle on the floor in a front corner, then lay down gently on the lower bunk and let his feet hang over the side.
The cot arrived, carried by an inmate Carter had never seen before. Carter tried to help him put the cot up, but it was hopeless, with bandaged thumbs.
“S’okay, never mind.” The inmate got the cot up quickly, as if he had done it many times before. He was a young, dark-haired fellow who might have been an Italian. “They string you up by the thumbs?” he asked in a low voice.
The young man glanced quickly at the half-open cell door. “Nice of the shits to bandage it. Well, I hope you got one nice guy in here who’ll help you with the cot.”
“Thanks. Thanks a lot.”
“My name’s Joe. C-zoo.”
The boy left.
Carter put a pill in his mouth and bent down to the water tap in the basin, sucking the water up from his cupped fingers. He lay back on the cot and waited for the pill to take effect. After ten minutes, Carter noticed no change at all in the pain. He suspected that Dr. Cassini had tricked him, given him some other kind of pills, or placebos. Carter cursed him in silence. It was 11:05 by his wristwatch. In another ten minutes, the men would come pouring back from the workshops for the fifteen-minute interval before lunch. Dr. Cassini had said, “If you think you need a shot, just tell a screw to give you a pass up to the ward.” But Carter hadn’t that on paper. He took another pill, for whatever it might be worth, then went out of the cell.
The guard on duty now—there was nobody else in the corridor—was Cherniver, and he looked at Carter in wide-eyed surprise, perhaps at seeing someone come out of a cell he had thought empty, perhaps because Carter was to him like a figure emerging from a tomb.
“I’d like to get a pass to the hospital ward,” Carter said.
“What’s the matter?”
“I’m in pain. Dr. Cassini said I could have shots when I needed them.”
Cherniver’s lean face wrinkled up in a grimace of distaste or disbelief. “So you’re back in the zoo again.”
“Yes, sir, but I’m allowed to go to the ward if I have to.”
Cherniver bared his teeth impatiently, and walked off to the cage. He strolled through the cage, was passed by the second cage guard, and disappeared behind the blur of the double bars.
Carter waited. He was standing about midway in the cell block. He might have gone to the end of the block and rung for the elevator, but he had no guarantee that the operator would take him to the ward without a pass, even if he appeared to be in distress. Carter waited until the men started streaming back from the workshops, until there were so many in the corridor, he could not have seen if Cherniver was on his way back or not, or if Hanky and the other man had gone into number nine. Carter feared for his possessions there. Hanky wouldn’t bother finding out whose they were, and, seeing the cot and resenting a newcomer, might just toss his bundle out in the corridor, where his books and letters and Hazel’s photograph might become anybody’s property. With his pain and his faintness, Carter lost all hope of a pass. Cherniver was probably drinking coffee by the slot machine in the waiting room now.
“Hi, Cart!” somebody said in a cheerful tone, but by the time Carter looked in that direction, he saw only the backs of bobbing heads. Carter looked around for another guard. He grabbed at the bars of a cell door that was standing open, had a glimpse of the surprised face of a Negro in the cell saying something to him that he couldn’t hear, and then he passed out.
He came to on the cot. Hanky was looking down at him, his fat fists on his round waist. A slender Negro inmate, his eyes so wide the whites showed brightly, stood at the foot of the cot, also staring at him. Carter’s forehead and hair were wet, either with sweat or from water they had thrown at him.
“You back here?” Hanky asked him.
Carter heard the words Hanky said, but was unable to attach a meaning to them. He managed to stand up. “I’ve got to go to the hospital ward!” He managed a couple of steps toward the door, and the Negro stepped back and so did another inmate who was standing and watching just beyond. Carter walked on, staggering, into the corridor. He turned in the direction of the elevator. There was a general flow now toward him, because the men were on their way to the mess hall, and the passage to it was to the left of the cage. Men bumped into him, or he into them. Hard shoulders sent him reeling backward, and caromed him into other people. There were angry shouts at him.
“Hey, are you drunk?”
“Where’d he get it?”
“You’re goin’ the wrong way!”
It was only another few yards, he thought, to the elevators. He would demand that Dr. Cassini come down, if he couldn’t go up.
, there!” That was a louder voice, a guard’s.
Then a nightstick cracked against Carter’s head and his head rang like a bell. As he sank down, something slammed into his stomach. Then he saw black. He heard a vast roaring, like a huge sea round him. A siren sounded. They were stepping on his thumbs. They were stepping all over him, though nothing really hurt except his thumbs. Now he was being dragged backward by the arms. They dropped him against bars, and he sagged to the floor.
A whistle blew three times. Guards shouted in the sudden silence. Through half-opened eyes, in a sidewise vision, Carter saw the flesh-colored inmates slow down and separate, then there was only the hiss of shoe soles on the stone floor. A guard lay in the corridor only about twenty feet from Carter. He was bleeding from the face. His cap lay not far from his head. Two guards with drawn pistols approached the guard on the floor, looking all around them at the inmates who were still falling back. One of the guards stood up on his toes and yelled:
“Who did this? Who touched this guy?”
The hundreds of inmates stood where they were, so silent they seemed not to breathe.
“Back to your cells, all of you! All of you, you hear?”
There was a moan, grumbling in the background, unidentifiable, invisible, and then a laugh, high and loud, almost feminine. The flesh-colored masses slowly stirred to life and dragged their feet in a sibilant crescendo as they started back to the cells. One of the guards looked with a wild face at Carter, then stooped with the other guard who was on his knees by the fallen man. Now Carter saw that the guard on the floor was Cherniver.
The cage door clanged and four new guards came in, trotting past a few of the inmates who were still straggling back to their cells. The four guards had pistols in their hands. Their shoes rang on the stone.
“Cherny?” one said.
“Who did it?”
“Ah, the lot of ’em! All of ’em. The block was full of ’em.”
“Yeah, and it shoulda been
!” roared a voice from somewhere down the row of cells, and the cry was bolstered by laughter, cheers. “Throw him where you throw the rest of your shit!”
The four new guards ran up and down the block, brandishing their pistols, shouting at the men in the cells.
“Shut up!— Shut up, you wise guys, or you’ll get bullets right through the bars!”
A guard with a deeper voice said, “Close your doors! All doors closed! Close those
Clang! Clang-clang! Clang!
from above and below.
Now they were all closed, but the closing did not lock them. They had to be locked by brakes at the front of the block by the cage.
The guards strode up and down, scowling defiance at the cells. There was a humming sound now, like the approach of a horde of bees, or like a wind. Looking at the row of cells opposite him, Carter could see that each man standing behind the barred doors was closemouthed and calm-faced, yet a steady and quite loud hum came from the entire cell block.
“Cut out the humming!” one of the guards yelled. “Cut out that humming or you’ll all go to the Hole one by one!”
The humming only grew louder. A couple of brakes closed with a long groan and a jolt.
!” But the voice had no effect whatsoever.
Two guards were now carrying Cherniver’s limp body away, toward the cage. One guard stumbled and nearly fell. Somebody laughed insanely at this.
A few cell doors rattled. Other doors took it up. Suddenly it was a din, a metallic clatter like a tremendous machine gone awry. More guards burst into the block and ran up and down, shouting with their mouths wide open, though their voices could not be heard at all. A gun went off. Carter did not know which guard had fired, but suddenly they all fired, up at the ceiling, anywhere. Their pistols smoked. A silence fell, such a silence that Carter could now hear the guards’ gasping breaths. Their mouths were open, their eyes wide as they glanced around everywhere to see if any inmate dared make a move. More brakes closed above.
Two guards, Moonan and somebody else, walked slowly on opposite sides of the block, their guns still drawn, and, seeing that all was quiet now, they trotted toward the cage at the end of the block. There was another hum, a collective groan of complaint. The men behind the bars knew that they were going to miss lunch.
“Who’s this guy?” asked one of the guards as he approached Carter. “Who’re you?”
“Carter. Three seven seven six five.”
“What’s the matter with you?”
The guard’s restless feet seemed about to kick him, so Carter made an effort to get up. He held to the door of the cell nearest him, and felt the helping hand of an inmate who reached through the bars to lift him by the forearm. It was a black hand. “I’m supposed to get to the hospital ward.”
“Where’s your pass?” asked the guard.
Carter wiped a trickle from his cheek and was surprised to see that it was blood. “I was on my way to get a pass. I got knocked down.”
“Where you belong?” asked the guard.
“A-block, number nine,” Carter answered automatically. “The doctor told me I could have a shot when I needed it.” He raised one hand slightly.
“Come on,” said the guard, and walked off in the direction of the cage.
Carter made it, supporting himself now and then, pushing himself on by the bars of the cells he passed. He heard words of encouragement whispered from several cells, curses at the screws. The guard went into the cage, and Carter clung to the bars of the first cell and waited. The guard came out with a pass and beckoned to him. Carter started toward him and fell to the floor. The guard shouted:
“Eddie! Frank! Gimme a hand here!”
They took him by the arms and hustled him toward the other end of the block, which now looked ten miles long. By the time they got to the elevator, the guards mumbled to each other about Cherny getting killed because of
, because of this guy’s thumbs. “What a life, and look what they pay us . . .” “Sons of bitches . . .” “And if we accidentally killed one of
— Ha!” The elevator door slid open.
Pete came up with a surprised look on his face, his one eye open wide.
“He got a little beat up,” one of the guards said to Pete.
Helped by Pete, Carter reached his old bed, protecting his thumbs to the last until he was lying on his back and could let his hands drop to his sides. Pete was busy with the needle.
“What happened?” Pete asked. “Jesus, you got a knot over your eye like a baseball. Wait a second.” He went away.
The morphine had not yet begun to fight. He imagined it coursing vigorously through his veins, looking to right and left for pain, finding it and then—attack! Quick as a pouncing tiger. Pete was swabbing his forehead with alcohol.
“What happened? I heard there was nearly a riot. We could hear it way up here. One of the guards got hurt? The doc got called down— They beat you up again? The screws beat you up?” There was no sympathy in his voice, only curiosity.
“Cherny got killed,” Carter said.
“Wasted,” Pete was saying. “Well, well, well. Who did it? Could you see?”
“All of ’em,” Carter answered drowsily. “Pete, I’ve got to get my stuff from number nine.”
“Okay, I’ll go down now.” Pete went.
Then Carter was alone with the dreams in his head. He saw Hazel in a blue and white bathing suit with a white cap on, as she had looked one summer in— Where? What summer? He saw a long, sunny beach, and they were going to take a run in a moment with Timmy along the sand at the water’s edge. The sky stretched endlessly blue above them. Afterward, they went to a restaurant on the shore and had broiled bass and especially good french fried potatoes, then they drove back to the cottage they had rented. Hazel took her bandana off and let the wind blow her hair. Carter remembered: that was in New Hampshire, two summers ago.