The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  “I could feel like dancing itself this night, Dennis,” she told him. “Do you remember the first time we met in Sligo Hall with the band playing?” She gave him another glass of brandy and took one herself and leaned over with her eyes shining as if she was telling him something he had never heard before.

  “I remember a boy in Ireland was a great step-dancer, the best, and he was wild about me and I was a devil to him. Now what makes a girl like that, Dennis? He was a fine match, too, all the girls were glad of a chance with him, but I wasn’t. He said to me a thousand times, ‘Rosaleen, why won’t ye dance with me just once?’ And I’d say, ‘Ye’ve plenty to dance with ye without my wasting my time.’ And so it went for the summer long with him not dancing at all and everybody plaguing the living life out of him, till in the end I danced with him. Afterwards he walked home with me and a crowd of them, and there was a heaven full of stars and the dogs barking far off. Then I promised to keep steady with him, and was sorry for it the minute I promised. I was like that. We used to be the whole day getting ready for the dances, washing our hair and curling it and trying on our dresses and trimming them, laughing fit to kill about the boys and making up things to say to them. When my sister Honora was married they took me for the bride, Dennis, with my white dress ruffled to the heels and my hair with a wreath. Everybody drank my health for the belle of the ball, and said I would surely be the next bride. Honora said for me to save my blushes or I’d have none left for my own wedding. She was always jealous, Dennis, she’s jealous of me to this day, you know that.”

  “Maybe so,” said Dennis.

  “There’s no maybe about it,” said Rosaleen. “But we had grand times together when we was little. I mind the time when my great-grandfather was ninety years old on his deathbed. We watched by turns the night—”

  “And he was a weary time on it,” said Dennis, to show his interest. He was so sleepy he could hardly hold up his head.

  “He was,” said Rosaleen, “so this night Honora and me was watching, and we was yawning our hearts out of us, for there had been a great ball the night before. Our mother told us, ‘Feel his feet from time to time, and when you feel the chill rising, you’ll know he’s near the end. He can’t last out the night,’ she said, ‘but stay by him.’ So there we was drinking tea and laughing together in whispers to keep awake, and the old man lying there with his chin propped on the quilt. ‘Wait a minute,’ says Honora, and she felt his feet. ‘They’re getting cold,’ she says, and went on telling me what she had said to Shane at the ball, how he was jealous of Terence and asks her can he trust her out of his sight. And Honora says to Shane, ‘No, you cannot,’ and oh, but he was roaring mad with anger! Then Honora stuffs her fist in her mouth to keep down the giggles. I felt great-grandfather’s feet and legs and they was like clay to the knees, and I says, ‘Maybe we’d better call somebody’; but Honora says, ‘Oh, there’s a power of him left to get cold yet!’ So we poured out tea and began to comb and braid each other’s hair, and fell to whispering our secrets and laughing more. Then Honora put her hand under the quilt and said, ‘Rosaleen, his stomach’s cold, it’s gone he must be by now.’ Then great-grandfather opened the one eye full of rage and says, ‘It’s nothing of the kind, and to hell with ye!’ We let out a great scream, and the others came flying in, and Honora cried out, ‘Oh, he’s dead and gone surely, God rest him!’ And would you believe it, it was so. He was gone. And while the old women were washing him Honora and me sat down laughing and crying in the one breath. . . and it was six months later to the very day great-grandfather came to me in the dream, the way I told you, and he was still after Honora and me for laughing in the watch. ‘I’ve a great mind to thrash ye within an inch of your life,’ he told me, ‘only I’m wailing in Purgatory this minute for them last words to ye. Go and have an extra Mass said for the repose of me soul because it’s by your misconduct I’m here at all,’ he says to me. ‘Get a move on now,’ he said. ‘And be damned to ye!’”

  “And you woke up in a sweat,” said Dennis, “and was off to Mass before daybreak.”

  Rosaleen nodded her head. “Ah, Dennis, if I’d set my heart on that boy I need never have left Ireland. And when I think how it all came out with him. With me so far away, him struck on the head and left for dead in a ditch.”

  “You dreamed that,” said Dennis.

  “Surely I dreamed it, and it is so. When I was crying and crying over him—” Rosaleen was proud of her crying—“I didn’t know then what good luck I would find here.”

  Dennis couldn’t think what good luck she was talking about.

  “Let it pass, then,” said Rosaleen. She went to the corner shelves again. “The man today was selling pipes,” she said, “and I bought the finest he had.” It was an imitation meerschaum pipe carved with a crested lion glaring out of a jungle and it was as big as a man’s fist.

  Dennis said, “You must have paid a pretty penny for that.”

  “It doesn’t concern ye,” said Rosaleen. “I wanted to give ye a pipe.”

  Dennis said, “It’s grand carving, I wonder if it’ll draw at all.” He filled it and lit it and said there wasn’t much taste on a new one, for he was tired holding it up.

  “It is such a pipe as my father had once,” Rosaleen said to encourage him. “And in no time it was fit to knock ye off your feet, he said. So it will be a fine pipe some day.”

  “And some day I’ll be in my tomb,” thought Dennis, bitterly, “and she’ll find a man can keep her quiet.”

  When they were in bed Rosaleen took his head on her shoulder. “Dennis, I could cry for the wink of an eyelash. When I think how happy we were that wedding day.”

  “From the way you carried on,” said Dennis, feeling very sly all of a sudden on that brandy, “I thought different.”

  “Go to sleep,” said Rosaleen, prudishly. “That’s no way to talk.”

  Dennis’s head fell back like a bag of sand on the pillow. Rosaleen could not sleep, and lay thinking about marriage: not about her own, for once you’ve given your word there’s nothing to think about in it, but all other kinds of marriages, unhappy ones: where the husband drinks, or won’t work, or mistreats his wife and the children. Where the wife runs away from home, or spoils the children or neglects them, or turns a perfect strumpet and flirts with other men: where a woman marries a man too young for her, and he feels cheated and strays after other women till it’s just a disgrace: or take when a young girl marries an old man, even if he has money she’s bound to be disappointed in some way. If Dennis hadn’t been such a good man, God knows what might have come out of it. She was lucky. It would break your heart to dwell on it. Her black mood closed down on her and she wanted to walk the floor holding her head and remembering every unhappy thing in the world. She had had nothing but disasters, one after another, and she couldn’t get over them, no matter how long ago they happened. Once she had let entirely the wrong man kiss her, she had almost got into bad trouble with him, and even now her heart stopped on her when she thought how near she’d come to being a girl with no character. There was the Billy-cat and his good heart and his sad death, and it was mixed up with the time her father had been knocked down, by a runaway horse, when the drink was in him, and the time when she had to wear mended stockings to a big ball because that sneaky Honora had stolen the only good ones.

  She wished now she’d had a dozen children instead of the one that died in two days. This half-forgotten child suddenly lived again in her, she began to weep for him with all the freshness of her first agony; now he would be a fine grown man and the dear love of her heart. The image of him floated before her eyes plain as day, and became Kevin, painting the barn and the pig sty all colors of the rainbow, the brush swinging in his hand like a bell. He would work like a wild man for days and then lie for days under the trees, idle as a tramp. The darling, the darling lad like her own son. A painter by trade was a nice living, but she couldn’t bear the thought of him boarding around the country with the heathen Roosha
ns and Polacks and Wops with their liquor stills and their outlandish lingo. She said as much to Kevin.

  “It’s not a Christian way to live, and you a good County Sligo boy.”

  So Kevin started to make jokes at her like any other Sligo boy. “I said to myself, that’s a County Mayo woman if ever I clapped eyes on one.”

  “Hold your tongue,” said Rosaleen softly as a dove. “You’re talking to a Sligo woman as if you didn’t know it!”

  “Is it so?” said Kevin in great astonishment. “Well, I’m glad of the mistake. The Mayo people are too proud for me.”

  “And for me, too,” said Rosaleen. “They beat the world for holding up their chins about nothing.”

  “They do so,” said Kevin, “but the Sligo people have a right to be proud.”

  “And you’ve a right to live in a good Irish house,” said Rosaleen, “so you’d best come with us.”

  “I’d be proud of that as if I came from Mayo,” said Kevin, and he went on slapping paint on Rosaleen’s front gate. They stood there smiling at each other, feeling they had agreed enough, it was time to think of how to get the best of each other in the talk from now on. For more than a year they had tried to get the best of each other in the talk, and sometimes it was one and sometimes another, but a gay easy time and such a bubble of joy like a kettle singing. “You’ve been a sister to me, Rosaleen, I’ll not forget ye while I have breath,” he had said that the last night.

  Dennis muttered and snored a little. Rosaleen wanted to mourn about everything at the top of her voice, but it wouldn’t do to wake Dennis. He was sleeping like the dead after all that goose.

  Rosaleen said, “Dennis, I dreamed about Kevin in the night. There was a grave, an old one, but with fresh flowers on it, and a name on the headstone cut very clear but as if it was in another language and I couldn’t make it out some way. You came up then and I said, ‘Dennis, what grave is this?’ and you answered me, ‘That’s Kevin’s grave, don’t you remember? And you put those flowers there yourself.’ Then I said, ‘Well, a grave it is then, and let’s not think of it any more.’ Now isn’t it strange to think Kevin’s been dead all this time and I didn’t know it?”

  Dennis said, “He’s not fit to mention, going off as he did after all our kindness to him, and not a word from him.”

  “It was because he hadn’t the power any more,” said Rosaleen. “And ye mustn’t be down on him now. I was wrong to put my judgment on him the way I did. Ah, but to think! Kevin dead and gone, and all these natives and foreigners living on, with the paint still on their barns and houses where Kevin put it! It’s very bitter.”

  Grieving for Kevin, she drifted into thinking of the natives and foreigners who owned farms all around her. She was afraid for her life of them, she said, the way they looked at you out of their heathen faces, the foreigners bold as brass, the natives sly and mean. “The way they do be selling the drink to all, and burning each other in their beds and splitting each other’s heads with axes,” she complained. “The decent people aren’t safe in their houses.”

  Yesterday she had seen that native Guy Richards going by wild-drunk again, fit to do any crime. He was a great offense to Rosaleen, with his shaggy mustaches and his shirt in rags till the brawny skin showed through; a shame to the world, staring around with his sneering eyes; living by himself in a shack and having his cronies in for drink until you could hear them shouting at all hours and careering round the countryside like the devils from hell. He would pass by the house driving his bony gray horse at top speed, standing up in the rackety buggy singing in a voice like a power of scrap-iron falling, drunk as a lord before breakfast. Once when Rosaleen was standing in her doorway, wearing a green checkerboard dress, he yelled at her: “Hey, Rosie, want to come for a ride?”

  “The bold stump!” said Rosaleen to Dennis. “If ever he lays a finger on me I’ll shoot him dead.”

  “If you mind your business by day,” said Dennis in a shriveled voice, “and bar the doors well by night, there’ll be no call to shoot anybody.”

  “Little you know!” said Rosaleen. She had a series of visions of Richards laying a finger on her and herself shooting him dead in his tracks. “Whatever would I do without ye, Dennis?” she asked him that night, as they sat on the steps in a soft darkness full of fireflies and the sound of crickets. “When I think of all the kinds of men there are in the world. That Richards!”

  “When a man is young he likes his fun,” said Dennis, amiably, beginning to yawn.

  “Young, is it?” said Rosaleen, warm with anger. “The old crow! Fit to have children grown he is, the same as myself, and I’m a settled woman over her nonsense!”

  Dennis almost said, “I’ll never call you old,” but all at once he was irritable too. “Will you stop your gossiping?” he asked censoriously.

  Rosaleen sat silent, without rancor, but there was no denying the old man was getting old, old. He got up as if he gathered his bones in his arms, and carried himself in the house. Somewhere inside of him there must be Dennis, but where? “The world is a wilderness,” she informed the crickets and frogs and fireflies.

  Richards never had offered to lay a finger on Rosaleen, but now and again he pulled up at the gate when he was not quite drunk, and sat with them afternoons on the doorstep, and there were signs in him of a nice-behaved man before the drink got him down. He would tell them stories of his life, and what a desperate wild fellow he had been, all in all. Not when he was a boy, though. As long as his mother lived he had never done a thing to hurt her feelings. She wasn’t what you might call a rugged woman, the least thing made her sick, and she was so religious she prayed all day long under her breath at her work, and even while she ate. He had belonged to a society called The Sons of Temperance, with all the boys in the countryside banded together under a vow never to touch strong drink in any form: “Not even for medicinal purposes,” he would quote, raising his right arm and staring solemnly before him. Quite often he would burst into a rousing march tune which he remembered from the weekly singings they had held: “With flags of temperance flying, With banners white as snow,” and he could still repeat almost word for word the favorite poem he had been called upon to recite at every meeting: “At midnight, in his guarded tent, The Turk lay dreaming of the hour—”

  Rosaleen wanted to interrupt sometimes and tell him that had been no sort of life, he should have been young in Ireland. But she wouldn’t say it. She sat stiffly beside Dennis and looked at Richards severely out of the corner of her eye, wondering if he remembered that time he had yelled “Hey, Rosie!” at her. It was enough to make a woman wild not to find a word in her mouth for such boldness. The cheek of him, pretending nothing had happened. One day she was racking her mind for some saying that would put him in his place, while he was telling about the clambakes his gang was always having down by the creek behind the rock pile, with a keg of home-brew beer; and the dances the Railroad Street outfit gave every Saturday night in Winston. “We’re always up to some devilment,” he said, looking straight at Rosaleen, and before she could say scat, the hellion had winked his near eye at her. She turned away with her mouth down at the corners; after a long minute, she said, “Good day to ye, Mr. Richards,” cold as ice, and went in the house. She took down the looking-glass to see what kind of look she had on her, but the wavy place made her eyes broad and blurred as the palm of her hands, and she couldn’t tell her nose from her mouth in the cracked seam. . . .

  The pipe salesman came back next month and brought a patent cooking pot that cooked vegetables perfectly without any water in them. “It’s a lot healthier way of cooking, Miz O’Toole,” Dennis heard his mouthy voice going thirteen to the dozen. “I’m telling you as a friend because you’re a good customer of mine.”

  “Is it so?” thought Dennis, and his gall stirred within him.

  “You’ll find it’s going to be a perfect godsend for your husband’s health. Old folks need to be mighty careful what they eat, and you know better than I do, Miz
O’Toole, that health begins or ends right in the kitchen. Now your husband don’t look as stout as he might. It’s because, tasty as your cooking is, you’ve been pouring all the good vitamins, the sunlit life-giving elements, right down the sink. . . . Right down the sink, Miz O’Toole, is where you’re pouring your husband’s health and your own. And I say it’s a shame, a good-looking woman like you wasting your time and strength standing over a cook-stove when all you’ve got to do from now on is just fill this scientific little contrivance with whatever you’ve planned for dinner and then go away and read a good book in your parlor while it’s cooking—or curl your hair.”

  “My hair curls by nature,” said Rosaleen. Dennis almost groaned aloud from his hiding-place.

  “For the love of—why, Miz O’Toole, you don’t mean to tell me that! When I first saw that hair, I said to myself, why, it’s so perfect it looks to be artificial! I was just getting ready to ask you how you did it so I could tell my wife. Well, if your hair curls like that, without any vitamins at all, I want to come back and have a look at it after you’ve been cooking in this little pot for two weeks.”

  Rosaleen said, “Well, it’s not my looks I’m thinking about. But my husband isn’t up to himself, and that’s the truth, Mr. Pendleton. Ah, it would have done your heart good to see that man in his younger days! Strong as an ox he was, the way no man dared to rouse his anger. I’ve seen my husband, many’s the time, swing on a man with his fist and send him sprawling twenty feet, and that for the least thing, mind you! But Dennis could never hold his grudge for long, and the next instant you’d see him picking the man up and dusting him off like a brother and saying, ‘Now think no more of that.’ He was too forgiving always. It was his great fault.”

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