Authors: Alice Mattison
“What are we having for supper?” she said.
“Hamburgers,” said her mother. “I have some frozen french fries.”
Uncle Mike killed the baby wasp he'd been shooting at. “I think you should be ashamed of yourself,” said Simon. He was still sitting on the daybed, his finger keeping his place in his book.
“Ashamed of myself!” Mike had gone into the kitchen for the dustpan and broom, and was sweeping the dead wasp into it. He didn't like to touch them with his hands. He opened the screen door and dumped the wasp outside. He let the door slam.
“I don't care for killing,” said Simon.
How about all those spiders you made me kill for you? You wouldn't go to sleep until I'd killed all the spiders.”
“Dad, I was six years old,” Simon said. “I don't mind spiders now.”
“I haven't asked you to kill a spider in about ten years.”
“So you want me to leave these things to sting everybody?”
“I don't think they sting. I don't think they're baby wasps at all. That's purely hypothetical, that they sting.”
“Your cousin Frances dislikes the thought that they might brush up against her,” said Nathan. This was true. Frances had screamed and batted wildly at the air the first night when one of the strange, slow, long-legged creatures had floated past her.
“You don't have to kill them,” she said. “If you could just make them go outside.”
Uncle Mike turned his sharp face toward her. “You want me to give them an engraved invitation?”
She laughed, but she wasn't being teased, she thought; she was being criticized.
“A couple of pacifists we have here,” Uncle Mike said to her father.
“It's a time-honored position,” his brother said.
“You and your time-honored positions,” said Uncle Mike. “Sounds like your buddies or some other fringe group. If you kids remembered Pearl Harbor â¦” His voice became sarcastic. “Pacifists were a
help. You would deal with Adolf Hitler without killing? Huh?” He was getting angry quickly.
“I remember Pearl Harbor,” said Simon. “I thought someone was trying to hurt Mom, because her name is Pearl. I remember wondering what a harbor was. I remember how upset everyone wasâa lot of shouting. When I read about it later, I already knew how people felt.”
Frances went into the kitchen to help her mother fix supper. Aunt Pearl had come out of the shower and was getting dressed.
“So, Uncle Nathan,” Simon went on, “speaking of current events. Or historical events.” Frances thought that Simon liked what he had said about Pearl Harbor, liked saying something like that. Nobody had answered him, but nobody had yelled either. “I've been wanting to ask you. Dad talks all the time about your job. Is there really any danger? I mean, you aren't really a Communist, are you? I know you're notâI'm just asking.”
Simon sat down opposite her father. There was more newspaper near him and he put a piece into his book for a bookmark and began to make wads of paper for shooting the wasps, as if he felt that he owed that much to his father. He spread out his knees and looked forward. His father had gone out to the porch and was smoking a cigarette. He stood in the doorway. “Hold it,” Mike said. “I never said anything like that. Find out what you're talking about before you start quoting me, son.”
Nathan was looking at Frances. She was scraping a carrot but she'd stopped and carried it to the kitchen doorway where she could watch Simon and her father. Now she took it back into the kitchen, where her mother had put a piece of newspaper on the table to catch the peel, and scraped it some more. But she could still hear. Her mother was standing at the stove, patting the chopped meat into hamburgers, patting them back and forth from one hand to the other.
“There's no reason to be concerned about my job,” Nathan said. He spoke in a low, urgent whisper. “A few crazy people making everyone act crazy. It can't keep up like this.”
“So is anybody after you, exactly, or what?” said Simon.
Frances knew her father had been troubled and that it had to do with his job. He had had to go to the Board of Ed for an interview. She didn't understand, and her mother wouldn't tell her what it had to do with. Simon probably understood better than she did.
“Well, the bastards made me come in and go through the mill, they certainly did that,” her father said. “A lot of people have lost their jobs. But I can't believe they're that stupid. I can't believe Jansen is that stupid.” Dr. Jansen was the Superintendent of Schools. “It's only a matter of timeâMcCarthy's fooling a lot of people, but I tell my kids every year, Lincoln said you can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time....”
“Nathan, don't give me that crap,” said Uncle Mike.
“What crap exactly do you object to?”
“Lincoln is dead,” said Mike. “Lincoln is a goddamned dead man. You think he's going to rise up out of the ground and save you, because you think he was such a great guy, but my dear brother, he is
“April 14, 1865,” said Nathan. “I know Lincoln is dead. John Wilkes Booth shot him.”
“Some people think Lincoln didn't say that,” said Simon. “Some people think P. T. Barnum said it. But I don't understand what Lincoln has to do with it.” Frances understood. Her father believed that because he was a good person, like Lincoln, Dr. Jansen would stop bothering him. Dr. Jansen was investigating Communists in the school system. Dr. Jansen apparently thought her father was a Communist, and that must be why he had summoned him for an interview. McCarthy was the senator who talked about Communists. She didn't think McCarthy actually knew her father, or personally thought he was a Communist.
She wanted to ask why her father didn't simply explain. Perhaps someone else had the same name. She had known all along that Dr. Jansen was investigating Communists. Now she couldn't remember what it was she hadn't known a moment ago.
“McCarthy is not even fooling all of the people,” said Nathan. “He is fooling only some of the people. And he can't fool them all the time.”
“McCarthy is an interesting phenomenon,” Simon said. “I read a long article the other day.” Simon read a lot. “He's going about this improperly, but don't you think it's important, at least his basic goals? I mean, we can't have Communists in sensitive jobs. My history teacher was talking about that one dayâ”
“Now, Simon, my boy, there are things it's hard for you to understandâ” Nathan began, but Uncle Mike interrupted.
“You see?” he said, and it was Nathan he turned on, his eyes flashing. “You see? You expect justice. You goddamned
. You think they're going to
to you, to
”âhis voice was heavy with sarcasmâ”that they made a little mistake! Here they've gotten even the high school kids talking about it, informing, probablyâ”
“I think common sense wins in the end,” said Nathan calmly. “Yes, I think they will realize they made a little mistake.”
“You've always been such a goddamned
,” said Uncle Mike, and his voice was high, like a woman's. “Nothing you did ten, fifteen years ago made senseâI told you at the time.”
“You certainly did.”
“You've never learned to look after yourself, Nathan. You have some responsibility. You have a wife, a child.”
“This I know.”
“You stick your Jewish nose out, you get punched. Look what happened to the Rosenbergs. You stick with your name. You stick with your crazy ideas, your loyalty long after it makes senseâ”
“I'm not sure I understand,” said Simon.
“My loyalty,” said Nathan, reaching out to pat his nephew's knee. “Let's not start on this. The Rosenbergsâ”
But Mike didn't stop. “Now it's perfectly clear what you have to do. You have to stop expecting the world to change. Tell these people what they want to hear and get on with your work.”
“Tell them what they want to hear?” Nathan stood up and walked across the room and looked out the window as if Dr. Jansen were waiting on the lawn. “Michael, are you telling me I should
myself, as they put it?”
Frances had scraped three carrots while she listened. Her mother put the hamburgers aside. Aunt Pearl came in. “Do you want me to make dessert?” she said. Frances thought she was talking loudly on purpose.
“I thought I'd make chocolate pudding pie,” said Hilda. Chocolate pudding pie was the only fancy dessert Hilda knew. She would put graham crackers into a dish, slice a banana on top, and make chocolate pudding, which she'd pour on top of the banana.
“It might not set in time,” said Pearl. “I'll make a peach cobbler. We bought Reddi Wip.”
“I don't have any flour.”
“We'll use Bisquick.”
In the other room, there was silence and moving around. She knew her father was angry. Her mother got out the package of chocolate pudding, even if it wasn't going to set in time, and opened it into a saucepan. Frances finished the carrots and slipped back into the living room. Her father looked quickly at her. His face was dark. His hair was pale gray, a little wavy, and it was strange for his face to be darker than his hair. His eyebrows were raised as if he expected her to say something that would upset him too.
When he spoke, his voice was choked. “You might as well face it, Mike. I'm not going down to Livingston Street and telling Dr. Jansen I was a Communist and I'm sorry. I can't think of anything worse than that.”
“So you'll lose your job, is that what you want?” said Mike.
“But you weren't a Communist,” Simon said. “Were you? Why should you have to tell Dr. Jansen you were a Communist when you weren't?”
Nathan sat back in his chair. Mike picked up the slingshot and a wad of newspaper and shot at something out on the porch. “What is a Communist, Simon?” said Nathan, as if he were in class, Frances thought, as if he were teaching. “What is a Communist? Do you know what a Communist is?”
“Well, I don't know a lot about it,” said Simon quickly, “but I know it's someone who advocates the overthrow of the government by force and violence.”
“Force and violence,” said Nathan, as if he'd never heard the words before. “Force and violence.”
But now Mike walked back into the living room. He had the slingshot in his hand, and his arm was taut, as if he were holding himself back. “You snotty kid,” he said, his eyes flashing more than ever. “You goddamn snotty kid!”
“Mike!” said Nathan, standing, his voice full of pain. “Leave the boy alone, Mike!” But Simon had rushed from the cabin. Frances could hear his feet pounding as he ran down the road. Her mother and Aunt Pearl came in from the kitchen.
“What is it, Mike?” her mother said.
Uncle Mike shook his head. “Nathan, I've never agreed with you,” he said, “but I didn't teach him this stuff. I don't know where he gets this stuff.”
“What does he know? It doesn't matter. I'll explain to him.” Nathan ran his hands over his face, as if to wipe away the dark color.
“I'm making supper,” said Hilda. “Is Simon coming back?”
“Oh, he'll come back,” Mike said. “He gets hungry too, even if he's too good for the rest of us. Even
needs to eat.”
Aunt Pearl looked at Uncle Mike and then hurried to the porch. “Simon!” she called sharply. “Simon!” Then she said, “I don't see him, Hilda. I'm going to look for him,” and left the cabin.
Hilda took off the apron she always wore for cooking, even in the country. Both men were standing up, looking at her. But then she put her apron back on. “Frances, set the table,” she said.
Frances set the table in the kitchen. There wasn't really enough room in there for six people, but she didn't want to ask her father and uncle to pull the table out to the porch.
The frying pan was sizzling. Hilda stood at the stove, her back to Frances, cooking the hamburgers.
“Do you think Daddy is going to lose his job?” Frances said.
Hilda looked over her shoulder and then back at the stove. “No,” she said.
“Well, if he has to go and answer questions â¦” said Frances uncertainly. She still didn't know exactly what her father had to do.
“He already answered questions,” said her mother.
“So is it all over?”
“Look, honey,” Hilda said, “if there's something you have to know, I'll tell you. I wish Mike could put it out of his mind.”
“Why does it make Mike angry?” said Frances.
“Oh, he never liked the Teachers Union, or any of your father's friends from the old days,” her mother said. Now she seemed more willing to talk. “Mike thought meetings were boring. He'd go to some of them to take down the speeches when he was learning stenography. Your father's friends thought he was some kind of spy. It was silly.”