The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  “And look at him now,” said Mr. Pendleton, sadly.

  Dennis felt pretty hot around the ears. He stood forward at the corner of the house, listening. He had never weighed more than one hundred thirty pounds at his most, a tall thin man he had been always, a little proud of his elegant shape, and not since he left school in Bristol had he lifted his hand in anger against a creature, brute or human. “He was a fine man a woman could rely on, Mr. Pendleton,” said Rosaleen, “and quick as a tiger with his fists.”

  “I might be dead and moldering away to dust the way she talks,” thought Dennis, “and there she is throwing away the money as if she was already a gay widow woman.” He tottered out bent on speaking his mind and putting a stop to such foolishness. The salesman turned a floppy smile and shrewd little eyes upon him. “Hello, Mr. O’Toole,” he said, with the manly cordiality he used for husbands. “I’m just leaving you a little birthday present with the Missis here.”

  “It’s not my birthday,” said Dennis, sour as a lemon.

  “That’s just a manner of speaking!” interrupted Rosaleen, merrily. “And now many thanks to ye, Mr. Pendleton.”

  “Many thanks to you, Miz O’Toole,” answered the salesman, folding away nine dollars of good green money. No more was said except good day, and Rosaleen stood shading her eyes to watch the Ford walloping off down the hummocky lane. “That’s a nice, decent family man,” she told Dennis, as if rebuking his evil thoughts. “He travels out of New York, and he always has the latest thing and the best. He’s full of admiration for ye, too, Dennis. He said he couldn’t call to mind another man of your age as sound as you are.”

  “I heard him,” said Dennis. “I know all he said.”

  “Well, then,” said Rosaleen, serenely, “there’s no good saying it over.” She hurried to wash potatoes to cook in the pot that made the hair curl.


  The winter piled in upon them, and the snow was shot through with blizzards. Dennis couldn’t bear a breath of cold, and all but sat in the oven, rheumy and grunty, with his muffler on. Rosaleen began to feel as if she couldn’t bear her clothes on her in the hot kitchen, and when she did the barn work she had one chill after another. She complained that her hands were gnawed to the bone with the cold. Did Dennis realize that now, or was he going to sit like a log all winter, and where was the lad he had promised her to help with the outside work?

  Dennis sat wordless under her unreasonableness, thinking she had very little work for a strong-bodied woman, and the truth was she was blaming him for something he couldn’t help. Still she said nothing he could take hold of, only nipping his head off when the kettle dried up or the fire went low. There would come a day when she would say outright, “It’s no life here, I won’t stay here any longer,” and she would drag him back to a flat in New York, or even leave him, maybe. Would she? Would she do such a thing? Such a thought had never occurred to him before. He peered at her as if he watched her through a keyhole. He tried to think of something to ease her mind, but no plan came. She would look at some harmless thing around the house, say—the calendar, and suddenly tear it off the wall and stuff it in the fire. “I hate the very sight of it,” she would explain, and she was always hating the very sight of one thing or another, even the cow; almost, but not quite, the cats.

  One morning she sat up very tired and forlorn, and began almost before Dennis could get an eye open: “I had a dream in the night that my sister Honora was sick and dying in her bed, and was calling for me.” She bowed her head on her hands and breathed brokenly to her very toes, and said, “It’s only natural I must go to Boston to find out for myself how it is, isn’t it?”

  Dennis, pulling on his chest protector she had knitted him for Christmas, said, “I suppose so. It looks that way.”

  Over the coffee pot she began making her plans. “I could go if only I had a coat. It should be a fur one against this weather. A coat is what I’ve needed all these years. If I had a coat I’d go this very day.”

  “You’ve a greatcoat with fur on it,” said Dennis.

  “A rag of a coat!” cried Rosaleen. “And I won’t have Honora see me in it. She was jealous always, Dennis, she’d be glad to see me without a coat.”

  “If she’s sick and dying maybe she won’t notice,” said Dennis.

  Rosaleen agreed. “And maybe it will be better to buy one there, or in New York—something in the new style.”

  “It’s long out of your way by New York,” said Dennis. “There’s shorter ways to Boston than that.”

  “It’s by New York I’m going, because the trains are better,” said Rosaleen, “and I want to go that way.” There was a look on her face as if you could put her on the rack and she wouldn’t yield. Dennis kept silence.

  When the postman passed she asked him to leave word with the native family up the hill to send their lad down for a few days to help with the chores, at the same pay as before. And tomorrow morning, if it was all the same to him, she’d be driving in with him to the train. All day long, with her hair in curl papers, she worked getting her things together in the lazy old canvas bag. She put a ham on to bake and set bread and filled the closet off the kitchen with firewood. “Maybe there’ll come a message saying Honora’s better and I sha’n’t have to go,” she said several times, but her eyes were excited and she walked about so briskly the floor shook.

  Late in the afternoon Guy Richards knocked, and floundered in stamping his big boots. He was almost sober, but he wasn’t going to be for long. Rosaleen said, “I’ve sad news about my sister, she’s on her deathbed maybe and I’m going to Boston.”

  “I hope it’s nothing serious, Missis O’Toole,” said Richards. “Let’s drink her health in this,” and he took out a bottle half full of desperate-looking drink. Dennis said he didn’t mind. Richards said, “Will the lady join us?” and his eyes had the devil in them if Rosaleen had ever seen it.

  “I will not,” she said. “I’ve something better to do.”

  While they drank she sat fixing the hem of her dress, and began to tell again about the persons without number she’d known who came back from the dead to bring word about themselves, and Dennis himself would back her up in it. She told again the story of the Billy-cat, her voice warm and broken with the threat of tears.

  Dennis swallowed his drink, leaned over and began to fumble with his shoelace, his face sunken to a handful of wrinkles, and thought right out plainly to himself: “There’s not a word of truth in it, not a word. And she’ll go on telling it to the world’s end for God’s truth.” He felt helpless, as if he were involved in some disgraceful fraud. He wanted to speak up once for all and say, “It’s a lie, Rosaleen, it’s something you’ve made up, and now let’s hear no more about it.” But Richards, sitting there with his ears lengthened, stopped the words in Dennis’s throat. The moment passed. Rosaleen said solemnly, “My dreams never renege on me, Mr. Richards. They’re all I have to go by.” “It never happened at all,” said Dennis inside himself, stubbornly. “Only the Billy-cat got caught in a trap and I buried him.” Could this really have been all? He had a nightmarish feeling that somewhere just out of his reach lay the truth about it, he couldn’t swear for certain, yet he was almost willing to swear that this had been all. Richards got up saying he had to be getting on to a shindig at Winston. “I’ll take you to the train tomorrow, Missis O’Toole,” he said. “I love doing a good turn for the ladies.”

  Rosaleen said very stiffly, “I’ll be going in with the letter-carrier, and many thanks just the same.”

  She tucked Dennis into bed with great tenderness and sat by him a few minutes, putting cold cream on her face. “It won’t be for long,” she told him, “and you’re well taken care of the whole time. Maybe by the grace of God I’ll find her recovered.”

  “Maybe she’s not sick at all,” Dennis wanted to say, and said instead, “I hope so.” It was nothing to him. Everything else aside, it seemed a great fuss to be making over Honora, who might die when she liked for all
Dennis would turn a hair.

  Dennis hoped until the last minute that Rosaleen would come to her senses and give up the trip, but at the last minute there she was with her hat and the rag of a coat, a streak of pink powder on her chin, pulling on her tan gloves that smelt of naphtha, flourishing a handkerchief that smelt of Azurea, and going every minute to the window, looking for the postman. “In this snow maybe he’ll be late,” she said in a trembling voice. “What if he didn’t come at all?” She took a last glimpse at herself in the mirror. “One thing I must remember, Dennis,” she said in another tone. “And that is, to bring back a looking-glass that won’t make my face look like a monster’s.”

  “It’s a good enough glass,” said Dennis, “without throwing away money.”

  The postman came only a few minutes late. Dennis kissed Rosaleen good-by and shut the kitchen door so he could not see her climbing into the car, but he heard her laughing.

  “It’s just a born liar she is,” Dennis said to himself, sitting by the stove, and at once he felt he had leaped head-first into a very dark pit. His better self tried to argue it out with him. “Have you no shame,” said Dennis’s better self, “thinking such thoughts about your own wife?” The baser Dennis persisted. “It’s not half she deserves,” he answered sternly, “leaving me here by my lone, and for what?” That was the great question. Certainly not to run after Honora, living or dying or dead. Where then? For what on earth? Here he stopped thinking altogether. There wasn’t a spark in his mind. He had a lump on his chest that could surely be pneumonia if he had a cold, which he hadn’t, specially. His feet ached until you’d swear it was rheumatism, only he never had it. Still, he wasn’t thinking. He stayed in this condition for two days, and the under-witted lad from the native farm above did all the work, even to washing the dishes. Dennis ate pretty well, considering the grief he was under.

  Rosaleen settled back in the plush seat and thought how she had always been a great traveler. A train was like home to her, with all the other people sitting near, and the smell of newspapers and some kind of nice-smelling furniture polish and the perfume from fur collars, and the train dust and something over and above she couldn’t place, but it was the smell of travel: fruit, maybe, or was it machinery? She bought chocolate bars, though she wasn’t hungry, and a magazine of love stories, though she was never one for reading. She only wished to prove to herself she was once more on a train going somewhere.

  She watched the people coming on or leaving at the stations, greeting, or kissing good-by, and it seemed a lucky sign she did not see a sad face anywhere. There was a cold sweet sunshine on the snow, and the city people didn’t look all frozen and bundled up. Their faces looked smooth after the gnarled raw frost-bitten country faces. The Grand Central hadn’t changed at all, with all the crowds whirling in every direction, and a noise that almost had a tune in it, it was so steady. She held on to her bag the colored men were trying to get away from her, and stood on the sidewalk trying to remember which direction was Broadway where the moving pictures were. She hadn’t seen one for five years, it was high time now! She wished she had an hour to visit her old flat in 164th Street—just a turn around the block would be enough, but there wasn’t time. An old resentment rose against Honora, who was a born spoil-sport and would spoil this trip for her if she could. She walked on, getting her directions, brooding a little because she had been such a city girl once, thinking only of dress and a good time, and now she hardly knew one street from another. She went into the first moving-picture theater she saw because she liked the name of it. “The Prince of Love,” she said to herself. It was about two beautiful young things, a boy with black wavy hair and a girl with curly golden hair, who loved each other and had great troubles, but it all came well in the end, and all the time it was just one fine ballroom or garden after another, and such beautiful clothes! She sniffled a little in the Azurea-smelling handkerchief, and ate her chocolates, and reminded herself these two were really alive and looked just like that, but it was hard to believe living beings could be so beautiful.

  After the dancing warm lights of the screen the street was cold and dark and ugly, with the slush and the roar and the millions of people all going somewhere in a great rush, but not one face she knew. She decided to go to Boston by boat the way she used in the old days when she visited Honora. She gazed into the shop windows thinking how the styles in underthings had changed till she could hardly believe her eyes, wondering what Dennis would say if she bought the green glove silk slip with the tea-colored lace. Ah, was he eating his ham now as she told him, and did the boy come to help as he had promised?

  She ate ice cream with strawberry preserves on it, and bought a powder puff and decided there was time for another moving picture. It was called “The Lover King,” and it was about a king in a disguise, a lovely young man with black wavy hair and eyes would melt in his head, who married a poor country girl who was more beautiful than all the princesses and ladies in the land. Music came out of the screen, and voices talking, and Rosaleen cried, for the love songs went to her heart like a dagger.

  Afterward there was just time to ride in a taxi to Christopher Street and catch the boat. She felt happier the minute she set foot on board, how she always loved a ship! She ate her supper thinking, “That boy didn’t have much style to his waiting. Dennis would never have kept him on in the hotel”; and afterward sat in the lounge and listened to the radio until she almost fell asleep there before everybody. She stretched out in her narrow bunk and felt the engine pounding under her, and the grand steady beat shook the very marrow of her bones. The fog horn howled and bellowed through the darkness over the rush of water, and Rosaleen turned on her side. “Howl for me, that’s the way I could cry in the nighttime in that lost heathen place,” for Connecticut seemed a thousand miles and a hundred years away by now. She fell asleep and had no dreams at all.

  In the morning she felt this was a lucky sign. At Providence she took the train again, and as the meeting with Honora came nearer, she grew sunken and tired. “Always Honora making trouble,” she thought, standing outside the station holding her bag and thinking it strange she hadn’t remembered what a dreary ugly place Boston was; she couldn’t remember any good times there. Taxicab drivers were yelling in her face. Maybe it would be a good thing to go to a church and light a candle for Honora. The taxi scampered through winding streets to the nearest church, with Rosaleen thinking, what she wouldn’t give to be able to ride around all day, and never walk at all!

  She knelt near the high altar, and something surged up in her heart and pushed the tears out of her eyes. Prayers began to tumble over each other on her lips. How long it had been since she had seen the church as it should be, dressed for a feast with candles and flowers, smelling of incense and wax. The little doleful church in Winston, now who could really pray in it? “Have mercy on us,” said Rosaleen, calling on fifty saints at once; “I confess. . .” she struck her breast three times, then got up suddenly, carrying her bag, and peered into the confessionals hoping she might find a priest in one of them. “It’s too early, or it’s not the day, but I’ll come back,” she promised herself with tenderness. She lit the candle for Honora and went away feeling warm and quiet. She was blind and confused, too, and could not make up her mind what to do next. Where ever should she turn? It was a burning sin to spend money on taxicabs when there was always the hungry poor in the world, but she hailed one anyhow, and gave Honora’s house number. Yes, there it was, just like in old times.

  She read all the names pasted on slips above the bells, all the floors front and back, but Honora’s name was not among them. The janitor had never heard of Mrs. Terence Gogarty, nor Mrs. Honora Gogarty, neither. Maybe it would be in the telephone book. There were many Gogartys but no Terence nor Honora. Rosaleen smothered down the impulse to tell the janitor, a good Irishman, how her dream had gone back on her. “Thank ye kindly, it’s no great matter,” she said, and stepped out into the street again. The wind hacked at her shoulders
through the rag of a coat, the bag was too heavy altogether. Now what kind of nature was in Honora not to drop a line and say she had moved?

  Walking about with her mind in a whirl, she came to a small dingy square with iron benches and some naked trees in it. Sitting, she began to shed tears again. When one handkerchief was wet she took out another, and the fresh perfume put new heart in her. She glanced around when a shadow fell on the corner of her eye, and there hunched on the other end of the bench was a scrap of a lad with freckles, his collar turned about his ears, his red hair wilted on his forehead under his bulging cap. He slanted his gooseberry eyes at her and said, “We’ve all something to cry for in this world, isn’t it so?”

  Rosaleen said, “I’m crying because I’ve come a long way for nothing.”

  The boy said, “I knew you was a County Sligo woman the minute I clapped eyes on ye.”

  “God bless ye for that,” said Rosaleen, “for I am.”

  “I’m County Sligo myself, long ago, and curse the day I ever thought of leaving it,” said the boy, with such anger Rosaleen dried her eyes once for all and turned to have a good look at him.

  “Whatever makes ye say that now?” she asked him. “It’s a good country, this. There’s opportunity for all here.”

  “So I’ve heard tell many’s the countless times,” said the boy. “There’s all the opportunity in the wide world to shrivel with the hunger and walk the soles off your boots hunting the work, and there’s a great chance of dying in the gutter at last. God forgive me the first thought I had of coming here.”

  “Ye haven’t been out long?” asked Rosaleen.

  “Eleven months and five days the day,” said the boy. He plunged his hands into his pockets and stared at the freezing mud clotted around his luckless shoes.

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