The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
The Cracked Looking-Glass
DENNIS heard Rosaleen talking in the kitchen and a man’s voice answering. He sat with his hands dangling over his knees, and thought for the hundredth time that sometimes Rosaleen’s voice was company to him, and other days he wished all day long she didn’t have so much to say about everything. More and more the years put a quietus on a man; there was no earthly sense in saying the same things over and over. Even thinking the same thoughts grew tiresome after a while. But Rosaleen was full of talk as ever. If not to him, to whatever passer-by stopped for a minute, and if nobody stopped, she talked to the cats and to herself. If Dennis came near she merely raised her voice and went on with whatever she was saying, so it was nothing for her to shout suddenly, “Come out of that, now—how often have I told ye to keep off the table?” and the cats would scatter in all directions with guilty faces. “It’s enough to make a man lep out of his shoes,” Dennis would complain. “It’s not meant for you, darlin’,” Rosaleen would say, as if that cured everything, and if he didn’t go away at once, she would start some kind of story. But today she kept shooing him out of the place and hadn’t a kind word in her mouth, and Dennis in exile felt that everything and everybody was welcome in the place but himself. For the twentieth time he approached on tiptoe and listened at the parlor keyhole.
Rosaleen was saying: “Maybe his front legs might look a little stuffed for a living cat, but in the picture it’s no great matter. I said to Kevin, ‘You’ll never paint that cat alive,’ but Kevin did it, with house paint mixed in a saucer, and a small brush the way he could put in all them fine lines. His legs look like that because I wanted him pictured on the table, but it wasn’t so, he was on my lap the whole time. He was a wonder after the mice, a born hunter bringing them in from morning till night—”
Dennis sat on the sofa in the parlor and thought: “There it is. There she goes telling it again.” He wondered who the man was, a strange voice, but a loud and ready gabbler as if maybe he was trying to sell something. “It’s a fine painting, Miz O’Toole,” he said, “and who did you say the artist was?”
“A lad named Kevin, like my own brother he was, who went away to make his fortune,” answered Rosaleen. “A house painter by trade.”
“The spittin’ image of a cat!” roared the voice.
“It is so,” said Rosaleen. “The Billy-cat to the life. The Nelly-cat here is own sister to him, and the Jimmy-cat and the Annie-cat and the Mickey-cat is nephews and nieces, and there’s a great family look between all of them. It was the strangest thing happened to the Billy-cat, Mr. Pendleton. He sometimes didn’t come in for his supper till after dark, he was so taken up with the hunting, and then one night he didn’t come at all, nor the next day neither, nor the next, and me with him on my mind so I didn’t get a wink of sleep. Then at midnight on the third night I did go to sleep, and the Billy-cat came into my room and lep upon my pillow and said: ‘Up beyond the north field there’s a maple tree with a great scar where the branch was taken away by the storm, and near to it is a flat stone, and there you’ll find me. I was caught in a trap,’ he says; ‘wasn’t set for me,’ he says, ‘but it got me all the same. And now be easy in your mind about me,’ he says, ‘for it’s all over.’ Then he went away, giving me a look over his shoulder like a human creature, and I woke up Dennis and told him. Surely as we live, Mr. Pendleton, it was all true. So Dennis went beyond the north field and brought him home and we buried him in the garden and cried over him.” Her voice broke and lowered and Dennis shuddered for fear she was going to shed tears before this stranger.
“For God’s sake, Miz O’Toole,” said the loud-mouthed man, “you can’t get around that now, can you? Why, that’s the most remarkable thing I ever heard!”
Dennis rose, creaking a little, and hobbled around to the east side of the house in time to see a round man with a flabby red face climbing into a rusty old car with a sign painted on the door. “Always something, now,” he commented, putting his head in at the kitchen door. “Always telling a tall tale!”
“Well,” said Rosaleen, without the least shame, “he wanted a story so I gave him a good one. That’s the Irish in me.”
“Always making a thing more than it is,” said Dennis. “That’s the way it goes.”
Rosaleen turned a little edgy. “Out with ye!” she cried, and the cats never budged a whisker. “The kitchen’s no place for a man! How often must I tell ye?”
“Well, hand me my hat, will you?” said Dennis, for his hat hung on a nail over the calendar and had hung there within easy reach ever since they had lived in the farmhouse. A few minutes later he wanted his pipe, lying on the lamp shelf where he always kept it. Next he had to have his barn boots at once, though he hadn’t seen them for a month. At last he thought of something to say, and opened the door a few inches.
“Wherever have I been sitting unmolested for the past ten years?” he asked, looking at his easy chair with the pillow freshly plumped, sideways to the big table. “And today it’s no place for me?”
“If ye grumble ye’ll be sorry,” said Rosaleen gayly, “and now clear out before I hurl something at ye!”
Dennis put his hat on the parlor table and his boots under the sofa, and sat on the front steps and lit his pipe. It would soon be cold weather, and he wished he had his old leather jacket off the hook on the kitchen door. Whatever was Rosaleen up to now? He decided that Rosaleen was always doing the Irish a great wrong by putting her own faults off on them. To be Irish, he felt, was to be like him, a sober, practical, thinking man, a lover of truth. Rosaleen couldn’t see it at all. “It’s just your head is like a stone!” she said to him once, pretending she was joking, but she meant it. She had never appreciated him, that was it. And neither had his first wife. Whatever he gave them, they always wanted something else. When he was young and poor his first wife wanted money. And when he was a steady man with money in the bank, his second wife wanted a young man full of life. “They’re all born ingrates one way or another,” he decided, and felt better at once, as if at last he had something solid to stand on. In September a man could get his death sitting on the steps like this, and little she cared! He clacked his teeth together and felt how they didn’t fit any more, and his feet and hands seemed tied on him with strings.
All the while Rosaleen didn’t look to be a year older. She might almost be doing it to spite him, except that she wasn’t the spiteful kind. He’d be bound to say that for her. But she couldn’t forget that her girlhood had been a great triumph in Ireland, and she was forever telling him tales about it, and telling them again. This youth of hers was clearer in his mind than his own. He couldn’t remember one thing over another that had happened to him. His past lay like a great lump within him; there it was, he knew it all at once, when he thought of it, like a chest a man has packed away, knowing all that is in it without troubling to name or count the objects. All in a lump it had not been an easy life being named Dennis O’Toole in Bristol, England, where he was brought up and worked sooner than he was able at the first jobs he could find. And his English wife had never forgiven him for pulling her up by the roots and bringing her to New York, where his brothers and sisters were, and a better job. All the long years he had been first a waiter and then head waiter in a New York hotel had telescoped in his mind, somehow. It wasn’t the best of hotels, to be sure, but still he was head waiter and there was good money in it, enough to buy this farm in Connecticut and have a little steady money coming in, and what more could Rosaleen ask?
He was not unhappy over his first wife’s death a few years after they left England, because they had never really liked each other, and it seemed to him now that even before she was dead he had made up his mind, if she did die, never to marry again. He had held out on this until he was nearly fifty, when he met Rosaleen at a dance in the County Sligo hall far over on East 86th Street. She was a great tall rosy girl, a prize dancer, and the boys were fairly fighting over her. She led him a dance then for two years befor
It wasn’t long after they were married Dennis began almost to wish sometimes he had let one of those strong-armed boys have her, but he had been fond of her, she was a fine good girl, and after she cooled down a little, he knew he could have never done better. The only thing was, he wished it had been Rosaleen he had married that first time in Bristol, and now they’d be settled together, nearer an age. Thirty years was too much difference altogether. But he never said any such thing to Rosaleen. A man owes something to himself. He knocked out his pipe on the foot scraper and felt a real need to go in the kitchen and find a pipe cleaner.
Rosaleen said, “Come in and welcome!” He stood peering around wondering what she had been making. She warned him: “I’m off to milk now, and mind ye keep your eyes in your pocket. The cow now—the creature! Pretty soon she’ll be jumping the stone walls after the apples, and running wild through the fields roaring, and it’s all for another calf only, the poor deceived thing!” Dennis said, “I don’t see what deceit there is in that.” “Oh, don’t you now?” said Rosaleen, and gathered up her milk pails.
The kitchen was warm and Dennis felt at home again. The kettle was simmering for tea, the cats lay curled or sprawled as they chose, and Dennis sat within himself smiling a sunken smile, cleaning his pipe. In the barn Rosaleen looped up her purple gingham skirts and sat with her forehead pressed against the warm, calm side of the cow, drawing two thick streams of milk into the pail. She said to the cow: “It’s no life, no life at all. A man of his years is no comfort to a woman,” and went on with a slow murmur that was not complaining about the things of her life.
She wished sometimes they had never come to Connecticut where there was nobody to talk to but Rooshans and Polacks and Wops no better than Black Protestants when you come right down to it. And the natives were worse even. A picture of her neighbors up the hill came into her mind: a starved-looking woman in a blackish gray dress, and a jaundiced man with red-rimmed eyes, and their mizzle-witted boy. On Sundays they shambled by in their sad old shoes, walking to the meeting-house, but that was all the religion they had, thought Rosaleen, contemptuously. On week days they beat the poor boy and the animals, and fought between themselves. Never a feast-day, nor a bit of bright color in their clothes, nor a Christian look out of their eyes for a living soul. “It’s just living in mortal sin from one day to the next,” said Rosaleen. But it was Dennis getting old that took the heart out of her. And him with the grandest head of hair she had ever seen on a man. A fine man, oh, a fine man Dennis was in those days! Dennis rose before her eyes in his black suit and white gloves, a knowledgeable man who could tell the richest people the right things to order for a good dinner, such a gentleman in his stiff white shirt front, managing the waiters on the one hand and the customers on the other, and making good money at it. And now. No, she couldn’t believe it was Dennis any more. Where was Dennis now? and where was Kevin? She was sorry now she had spited Kevin about his girl. It had been all in fun, really, no harm meant. It was strange if you couldn’t speak your heart out to a good friend. Kevin had showed her the picture of his girl, like a clap of thunder it came one day when Rosaleen hadn’t even heard there was one. She was a waitress in New York, and if ever Rosaleen had laid eyes on a brassy, bold-faced hussy, the kind the boys make jokes about at home, the kind that comes out to New York and goes wrong, this was the one. “You’re never never keeping steady with her, are you?” Rosaleen had cried out and the tears came into her eyes. “And why not?” asked Kevin, his chin square as a box. “We’ve been great now for three years. Who says a word against her says it against me.” And there they were, not exactly quarreling, but not friends for the moment, certainly, with Kevin putting the picture back in his pocket, saying: “There’s the last of it between us. I was greatly wrong to tell ye!”
That night he was packing up his clothes before he went to bed, but came down and sat on the steps with them awhile, and they made it up by saying nothing, as if nothing had happened. “A man must do something with his life,” Kevin explained. “There’s always a place to be made in the world, and I’m off to New York, or Boston, maybe.” Rosaleen said, “Write me a letter, don’t forget, I’ll be waiting.” “The very day I know where I’ll be,” he promised her. They had parted with false wide smiles on their faces, arms around each other to the very gate. There had come a postcard from New York of the Woolworth building, with a word on it: “This is my hotel. Kevin.” And never another word for these five years. The wretch, the stump! After he had disappeared down the road with his suitcase strapped on his shoulders, Rosaleen had gone back in the house and had looked at herself in the square looking-glass beside the kitchen window. There was a ripple in the glass and a crack across the middle, and it was like seeing your face in water. “Before God I don’t look like that,” she said, hanging it on the nail again. “If I did, it’s no wonder he was leaving. But I don’t.” She knew in her heart no good would come of him running off after that common-looking girl; but it was likely he’d find her out soon, and come back, for Kevin was nobody’s fool. She waited and watched for Kevin to come back and confess she had been right, and he would say, “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings over somebody not fit to look at you!” But now it was five years. She hung a drapery of crochet lace over the frame on the Billy-cat’s picture, and propped it up on a small table in the kitchen, and sometimes it gave her an excuse to mention Kevin’s name again, though the sound of it was a crack on the eardrums to Dennis. “Don’t speak of him,” said Dennis, more than once. “He owed it to send us word. It’s ingratitude I can’t stand.” Whatever was she going to do with Dennis now, she wondered, and sighed heavily into the flank of the cow. It wasn’t being a wife at all to wrap a man in flannels like a baby and put hot water bottles to him. She got up sighing and kicked back the stool. “There you are now,” she said to the cow.
She couldn’t help feeling happy all at once at the sight of the lamp and the fire making everything cozy, and the smell of vanilla reminded her of perfume. She set the table with a white-fringed cloth while Dennis strained the milk.
“Now, Dennis, today’s a big day, and we’re having a feast for it.”
“Is it All-Saints?” asked Dennis, who never looked at a calendar any more. What’s a day, more or less?
“It is not,” said Rosaleen; “draw up your chair now.”
Dennis made another guess it was Christmas, and Rosaleen said it was a better day than Christmas, even.
“I can’t think what,” said Dennis, looking at the glossy baked goose. “It’s nobody’s birthday that I mind.”
Rosaleen lifted the cake like a mound of new snow blooming with candles. “Count them and see what day is this, will you?” she urged him.
Dennis counted them with a waggling forefinger. “So it is, Rosaleen, so it is.”
They went on bandying words. It had slipped his mind entirely. Rosaleen wanted to know when hadn’t it slipped his mind? For all he ever thought of it, they might never have had a wedding day at all. “That’s not so,” said Dennis. “I mind well I married you. It’s the date that slips me.”
“You might as well be English,” said Rosaleen, “you might just as well.”
Rosaleen felt sure her cake wouldn’t upset the stomach of a nursing child. Dennis knew better, any kind of cake sat on him like a stone. While the argument went on, they ate nearly all the goose which fairly melted on the tongue, and finished with wedges of cake and floods of tea, and Dennis had to admit he hadn’t felt better in years. He looked at her sitting across the table from him and thought she was a very fine woman, noticed again her red hair and yellow eyelashes and big arms and strong big teeth, and wondered what she thought of him now he was no human good to her. Here he was, all gone, and he had been so for years, and he felt guilt sometimes before Rosaleen, who couldn’t always understand how there comes a time when a man is finished, and there is no more to be done that way. Rosaleen poured out two small glasses of homemade cherry brandy.