Authors: Thomas Williams
He had reached out for the doorknob with his hurt hand, which was still half numb, and it didn't do what he had commanded it to doâturn the big brass knob and push open the door. But his body still moved into the opening it believed would be there, and when he struck the door it felt as though someone had with vicious force slammed it against his face. His knees buckled for an instant, and then he caught himself and stood dazed, his hands flat in protest against the door panels.
Then he heard Wood's exclamation: “Oh, God!”
And heard in it, with the terrible precision of understanding he was always capable of, resignation and disgust that this had happened so often and so predictably. Disgust. He scrabbled at the doorknob and got the door open, then ran down the hall to his room. As he entered the dark room and fell on the bed, the black shapes washed backwards in the force of his emotion, back into the closets, under the desk and into the odd shadows on the paneling. But they were not really dismayed; they would wait, and later, when they saw him get up to turn on the light, they would come out again.
Henrietta Whipple was forty years old. How old she looked, she had no idea. She had a son eighteen years old, two sons who were having growing pains and a daughter who had begun to menstruateâthese seemed more a measure of her age than forty. Her life had been broken up into such different parts. First was her childhood on the farm at Switches Corners, which ended with the death of her grandfather, when everything fell apart in her family and her mother brought her into town. They lived here and thereâin a tenement room, over a store. Her mother was sometimes a carder in the woolen mill, sometimes a waitress, and then, finally, housekeeper for a man she slept in bed with but wasn't married to. That was while Henrietta was in high school. Her father she could barely remember as a man who sat in the overheated kitchen at the farm in Switches Corners, who smelled bad because he had bandages, and couldn't heal. He'd fallen drunk into the pigpen and was partly eaten by the pigs. Part of an arm, part of a leg. When he died she was a stranger at his funeral, and only years later did she begin to remember little things about him, things he'd done for her when she was four and five years old. He made her a go-devil out of a wooden box and a sled runner, and she ran it down the crust through the buried kitchen garden, through the yellow stalks that stuck up through little round holes in the ice. Once he'd made her a willow whistle that blew like to pierce her eardrums, and a week later it was all dried up and split down past the hole.
Another part of her life began when she quit high school at sixteen and went to work in order to get out of the house her mother lived in. She didn't want to quit high school, but she had to get out of that house, and she would always do what she had to do. It was an awful time. Because she wanted to stay in high school so badly she would put up with nearly anything.
They had lived with Harry Pedigree in his farmhouse on Back Hill, two miles out of town. He was always losing his cows when the TB inspector came, and the house was unpainted, nail-sprung, damp all the way through. It leaned. Harry Pedigree never changed his clothes, never paid his bills until the sheriff made him come to Petty Claims, where his foul mouth and shouting got him fined and talked about time and time again. His land was posted for taxes every year before he got around to redeeming it. He treated her mother like a breechy cowâlike an animal that needed to be shown he was a man. Henrietta could still see his yellow teeth as he struck her mother; he seemed to want to hear the flat spank of his hand against her flesh.
Her mother seemed so old, such an old woman then, with her hair going gray and her belly sticking out as much in front as her behind did in back. Once Henrietta came home around ten at night and found them on the cot in the room off the kitchen, all their clothes on, her mother's black shoes with the straps, rolled blue stockings, legs blue-white like skim milk on each side of the cot, and his suspenders around his legs, his cracked ankle-high shoes with hay stuck between the heels and soles. Going it, his white hind end pumping on her mother, who just lay there with her dress up, taking it, rolling like a bladder under him.
She knew they did it, but knowing and seeing were different.
Sometimes her mother would agree with Henrietta that they should go away from there. But finally it became too obvious that her mother would never go away, and so she quit high school and went to work at Milledge & Cunningham, running a sewing machine. She lived at her father's cousin's house in Leah, and had her own room that she paid for. That was another time in her life, and lasted three years, until she was laid off when the orders didn't come in fast enough. She was nineteen.
Then came another time in her life, when Harvey Whipple was always after her. All he wanted to do was lay her, but she wouldn't, and then he began to take her to the Country Club, and he took her home with him, and he took her to the Winter Carnival at his college. Finally he had to have her, so he asked her to marry him. That's when she surprised him: she told him straight out she'd marry him if he let her finish high school. By then his tongue was hanging so far out he'd have said yes to anything. She finished high school in one year, and that was a good thing, because by graduation time she was so big with Wood they wouldn't let her attend classes.
Henrietta laughed out loud, startling her husband. He had rolled his chair into the dining room to his place at the round table, and sat there reading his paper.
“What's so funny?” he said, looking around the paper at her. “If anything's funny around here, for Christ's sake tell me all about it.”
“I was just thinking how big I was at high-school graduation. If it hadn't been for the robe, they wouldn't have let me go to it at all.”
“You can tell Wood he graduated from high school twice,” he said. She looked at him quickly, hoping to see some of his old humor in his face, but he grimaced as though he were embarrassed to be caught.
“Where in hell's Kate?” he said.
“I sent Horace up to tell her.”
“You ought to be nicer to him.” As she spoke she watched Harvey carefully, expecting him to try to pump himself up into a rage. She didn't care if he did, and sometimes she caught herself deliberately goading him. Like poking a snake. But this time, in spite of his guilt, he merely looked sad and thoughtful, and said nothing. It made her sad to see him without even enough energy to yell; she knew what it meant to him to be a crippleâor part of it, anywayâbecause he used to be a man nobody could beat. He had to win whatever game he played, and win it fair, even giving away points. He'd been captain of the town baseball team, and co-captain of the Old Timers basketball team. When he got the ball he always did the right thing with it, smooth and quick. He'd taught her to play tennis and golf. Now he could hardly walk ten yards on crutches, and his body he'd been so proud of was getting whiter and softer. She had admired him for wanting to win, even if it did sometimes get awfully harsh before the end of the game, because she liked to win too. But he couldn't seem to win against his ruined leg.
He'd made good money, although he always said he didn't. Whatever money he made always sounded like a fortune to her, though, because she'd been brought up where there wasn't much cash money around at all, where a quarter seemed as big as a saucer. Right after they were married he sold siding, and then he bought into the insurance agency. Even after that he made a lot of money refereeing basketball and hockey games all over the state and sometimes out of it. Now he went down to his office no more than once a week, and took only his rare commissions and interest as salary. What he couldn't do best he hardly tried at all to do. He had to sit all day at home, and yell up a storm.
Kate appeared in the kitchen doorway, a bundle of silverware wrapped in a dishtowel swinging from her hands.
She hasn't been
through what I've been through,
Henrietta thought. Kate was impervious to what could hurt Horace, to what could turn David silent and Wood cold with disdain. She was spoiled by her advantages. Yet with this thought came tenderness. When, and how, did you admit that your daughter was out of the ordinary? Like those mothers who could raise a deaf child and never quite know it was deaf, she had raised this almost too beautiful child without being able, most of the time, at least, to recognize its difference. Once she had heard a woman say that Kate Whipple was too pretty. There was an awe of Kate she was afraid might hurt her in some way, and it came from boys, from teachers, from mothers, from everybody. It might hurt her character. In a way it seemed monstrous that her father's rages made no impression upon Kate, that Kate felt her power too easily. She reminded Henrietta of the little bird called a water ouzel, that could hippity hop right under water in a brook and peck at its food with the white water pouring all over it, then hop out again dry as it hopped in. There were animals like that she'd read aboutâfish that lived among the poisonous stings of anemones and never got hurt, mosquitoes that were born and lived right in the throats of pitcher plants, and never got eaten.
“Hi, Hank. Hi, Whip,” Kate said, letting the dishtowel unroll upon the table with a crash. She didn't care if this might make her father yell, just went about the setting of the table with the calm, professional look of a waitress. He didn't yell this time, but Kate wouldn't have cared at all if he did.
Henrietta looked for something of herself in Kate, her only daughter, and did find somethingâthis self-confidence that bothered her because she couldn't find much that was similar in their experiences. And so she felt Kate's to be a little fraudulent, or at least mysterious. And how could one explain that perfection of skin and flesh? Clear and taut, stretched to its most youthful tenderness across her cheeks and hollows, every place on Kate was supple almost to breaking. Her hair was light brown like her father's, though so fine it gleamed gold. Her small hands were so clean and natural, so negligently, unconsciously graceful they could startle a person into that memory of a time when the human race did seem more beautiful than any other thing in creation. That ridiculous young belief came back again for a moment as she looked at Kate.
Henrietta knew she herself hadn't been bad-looking when she was a girlâwasn't now, for that matter, except for some iron in her dark hair, and the thick glasses that made her eyes seem as big as cows' eyes. In fact, she'd been called pretty too, but it was a more human and imperfect kind of good looks she'd had. Harvey Whipple had
chase her, and in the end had to have her, but she never scared him the way she'd seen young boys scared right out of words by Kate.
Now he was yelling again. Kate had touched him with her arm as she bent over to put his silver in order upon his napkin. Henrietta barely listened to the words. “Clumsy!” she heard, but it wasn't really a definition; Kate was anything but clumsy. It was as if, in the force of Kate's indifference, Harvey couldn't think of anything apt to say.
“Does it hurt to touch you anywhere?” Kate asked calmly, and this put out his rage entirely, for the moment.
“Just be careful, will you?” he said. His eyes were shiny things like mouses' eyes, but down in dark hollows, seeming to have lost all the little indicatorsâwrinkles, movements of his eyebrowsâthat used to let Henrietta understand him. Now there was only darkness there, and pale smooth skin everywhere else that spread smooth and white up underneath his brown hair.
He watched, or seemed to watch, intently as Kate finished setting the table, but when Wood appeared in the archway he said immediately, as though he'd been thinking of this all the time, “Have you looked at the furnace lately? I mean within the last day or two?”
“The fire's all right,” Wood said. “It's a cold night.”
“Well, let's not have it a cold night
“There's coal on it. Did you open the damper?” Wood went over to the two little chains just inside the archway and ran them up over their pulleys. From below came a dim clang. Then he ran them back again, and from below came a slightly different clang.
“It's open. You want me to build a fire in here?” Wood motioned with his headâleaned his head over in a rather haughty way toward the dining-room fireplace.
First was the pause, while Harvey's anger grew into his face, then into his voice. “God damn it! Don't you pull that superior business with me! I pay for the goddam coal and the goddam food and wood and everything else that gets burned around here, and if I'm cold I'm going to ask why!”
“Where's Horace?” Kate asked immediately, as though her father's shouting were something as loud, but harmless, as the sound of a train's passing, and now that it had passed one could resume a normal voice.
“Well!” Kate said, raising her eyebrows in mock indignation.
Wood had turned his back on his father even while he spoke, and had started into the living room.
“Come back here!”
Wood turned, half ignoring this command, and said in answer to Kate, “He went to his room.”
“Was he upset?” Henrietta asked.
“When isn't he?” Kate said, but Henrietta noticed some worry in Kate. What had Kate done to him?
David had slipped into the room sometime during the shoutingâmaterialized as easily as he could disappear if he wantedâand he looked somewhat guilty too.
“Let's eat supper!” Harvey said.
“You cursed him, of course,” Wood said.
“That's enough out of you!”
“When he went out in this storm to get you your aspirin.”
What storm? A little snow? And I don't want any more sass from you! If I didn't have this leg you'd be over my knee right now, eighteen years old or not! You may think you're pretty big, but I'll tell you what you are! You're wet behind the ears! You're just a goddam pup, and don't forget it!”