The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  One Saturday they were sent down to wait in the visitors’ parlor, and there was their father. He had come all the way from Texas to see them. They leaped at sight of him, and then stopped short, suspiciously. Was he going to take them to the races? If so, they were happy to see him.

  “Hello,” said father, kissing their cheeks. “Have you been good girls? Your Uncle Gabriel is running a mare at the Crescent City today, so we’ll all go and bet on her. Would you like that?”

  Maria put on her hat without a word, but Miranda stood and addressed her father sternly. She had suffered many doubts about this day. “Why didn’t you send word yesterday? I could have been looking forward all this time.”

  “We didn’t know,” said father, in his easiest paternal manner, “that you were going to deserve it. Remember Saturday before last?”

  Miranda hung her head and put on her hat, with the round elastic under the chin. She remembered too well. She had, in midweek, given way to despair over her arithmetic and had fallen flat on her face on the classroom floor, refusing to rise until she was carried out. The rest of the week had been a series of novel deprivations, and Saturday a day of mourning; secret mourning, for if one mourned too noisily, it simply meant another bad mark against deportment.

  “Never mind,” said father, as if it were the smallest possible matter, “today you’re going. Come along now. We’ve barely time.”

  These expeditions were all joy, every time, from the moment they stepped into a closed one-horse cab, a treat in itself with its dark, thick upholstery, soaked with strange perfumes and tobacco smoke, until the thrilling moment when they walked into a restaurant under big lights and were given dinner with things to eat they never had at home, much less at the convent. They felt worldly and grown up, each with her glass of water colored pink with claret.

  The great crowd was always exciting as if they had never seen it before, with the beautiful, incredibly dressed ladies, all plumes and flowers and paint, and the elegant gentlemen with yellow gloves. The bands played in turn with thundering drums and brasses, and now and then a wild beautiful horse would career around the track with a tiny, monkey-shaped boy on his back, limbering up for his race.

  Miranda had a secret personal interest in all this which she knew better than to confide to anyone, even Maria. Least of all to Maria. In ten minutes the whole family would have known. She had lately decided to be a jockey when she grew up. Her father had said one day that she was going to be a little thing all her life, she would never be tall; and this meant, of course, that she would never be a beauty like Aunt Amy, or Cousin Isabel. Her hope of being a beauty died hard, until the notion of being a jockey came suddenly and filled all her thoughts. Quietly, blissfully, at night before she slept, and too often in the daytime when she should have been studying, she planned her career as a jockey. It was dim in detail, but brilliant at the right distance. It seemed too silly to be worried about arithmetic at all, when what she needed for her future was to ride better—much better. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” said father, after watching her gallop full tilt down the lane at the farm, on Trixie, the mustang mare. “I can see the sun, moon and stars between you and the saddle every jump.” Spanish style meant that one sat close to the saddle, and did all kinds of things with the knees and reins. Jockeys bounced lightly, their knees almost level with the horse’s back, rising and falling like a rubber ball. Miranda felt she could do that easily. Yes, she would be a jockey, like Tod Sloan, winning every other race at least. Meantime, while she was training, she would keep it a secret, and one day she would ride out, bouncing lightly, with the other jockeys, and win a great race, and surprise everybody, her family most of all.

  On that particular Saturday, her idol, the great Tod Sloan, was riding, and he won two races. Miranda longed to bet her dollar on Tod Sloan, but father said, “Not now, honey. Today you must bet on Uncle Gabriel’s horse. Save your dollar for the fourth race, and put it on Miss Lucy. You’ve got a hundred to one shot. Think if she wins.”

  Miranda knew well enough that a hundred to one shot was no bet at all. She sulked, the crumpled dollar in her hand grew damp and warm. She could have won three dollars already on Tod Sloan. Maria said virtuously, “It wouldn’t be nice not to bet on Uncle Gabriel. That way, we keep the money in the family.” Miranda put out her under lip at her sister. Maria was too prissy for words. She wrinkled her nose back at Miranda.

  They had just turned their dollar over to the bookmaker for the fourth race when a vast bulging man with a red face and immense tan ragged mustaches fading into gray hailed them from a lower level of the grandstand, over the heads of the crowd, “Hey, there, Harry?” Father said, “Bless my soul, there’s Gabriel.” He motioned to the man, who came pushing his way heavily up the shallow steps. Maria and Miranda stared, first at him, then at each other. “Can that be our Uncle Gabriel?” their eyes asked. “Is that Aunt Amy’s handsome romantic beau? Is that the man who wrote the poem about our Aunt Amy?” Oh, what did grown-up people mean when they talked, anyway?

  He was a shabby fat man with bloodshot blue eyes, sad beaten eyes, and a big melancholy laugh, like a groan. He towered over them shouting to their father, “Well, for God’s sake, Harry, it’s been a coon’s age. You ought to come out and look ’em over. You look just like yourself, Harry, how are you?”

  The band struck up “Over the River” and Uncle Gabriel shouted louder. “Come on, let’s get out of this. What are you doing up here with the pikers?”

  “Can’t,” shouted Father. “Brought my little girls. Here they are.”

  Uncle Gabriel’s bleared eyes beamed blindly upon them. “Fine looking set, Harry,” he bellowed, “pretty as pictures, how old are they?”

  “Ten and fourteen now,” said Father; “awkward ages. Nest of vipers,” he boasted, “perfect batch of serpent’s teeth. Can’t do a thing with ’em.” He fluffed up Miranda’s hair, pretending to tousle it.

  “Pretty as pictures,” bawled Uncle Gabriel, “but rolled into one they don’t come up to Amy, do they?”

  “No, they don’t,” admitted their father at the top of his voice, “but they’re only half-baked.” Over the river, over the river, moaned the band, my sweetheart’s waiting for me.

  “I’ve got to get back now,” yelled Uncle Gabriel. The little girls felt quite deaf and confused. “Got the God-damnedest jockey in the world, Harry, just my luck. Ought to tie him on. Fell off Fiddler yesterday, just plain fell off on his tail—Remember Amy’s mare, Miss Lucy? Well, this is her namesake, Miss Lucy IV. None of ’em ever came up to the first one, though. Stay right where you are, I’ll be back.”

  Maria spoke up boldly. “Uncle Gabriel, tell Miss Lucy we’re betting on her.” Uncle Gabriel bent down and it looked as if there were tears in his swollen eyes. “God bless your sweet heart,” he bellowed, “I’ll tell her.” He plunged down through the crowd again, his fat back bowed slightly in his loose clothes, his thick neck rolling over his collar.

  Miranda and Maria, disheartened by the odds, by their first sight of their romantic Uncle Gabriel, whose language was so coarse, sat listlessly without watching, their chances missed, their dollars gone, their hearts sore. They didn’t even move until their father leaned over and hauled them up. “Watch your horse,” he said, in a quick warning voice, “watch Miss Lucy come home.”

  They stood up, scrambled to their feet on the bench, every vein in them suddenly beating so violently they could hardly focus their eyes, and saw a thin little mahogany-colored streak flash by the judges’ stand, only a neck ahead, but their Miss Lucy, oh, their darling, their lovely—oh, Miss Lucy, their Uncle Gabriel’s Miss Lucy, had won, had won. They leaped up and down screaming and clapping their hands, their hats falling back on their shoulders, their hair flying wild. Whoa, you heifer, squalled the band with snorting brasses, and the crowd broke into a long roar like the falling of the walls of Jericho.

  The little girls sat down, feeling quite dizzy, while their father tried to pull t
heir hats straight, and taking out his handkerchief held it to Miranda’s face, saying very gently, “Here, blow your nose,” and he dried her eyes while he was about it. He stood up then and shook them out of their daze. He was smiling with deep laughing wrinkles around his eyes, and spoke to them as if they were grown young ladies he was squiring around.

  “Let’s go out and pay our respects to Miss Lucy,” he said. “She’s the star of the day.”

  The horses were coming in, looking as if their hides had been drenched and rubbed with soap, their ribs heaving, their nostrils flaring and closing. The jockeys sat bowed and relaxed, their faces calm, moving a little at the waist with the movement of their horses. Miranda noted this for future use; that was the way you came in from a race, easy and quiet, whether you had won or lost. Miss Lucy came last, and a little handful of winners applauded her and cheered the jockey. He smiled and lifted his whip, his eyes and shriveled brown face perfectly serene. Miss Lucy was bleeding at the nose, two thick red rivulets were stiffening her tender mouth and chin, the round velvet chin that Miranda thought the nicest kind of chin in the world. Her eyes were wild and her knees were trembling, and she snored when she drew her breath.

  Miranda stood staring. That was winning, too. Her heart clinched tight; that was winning, for Miss Lucy. So instantly and completely did her heart reject that victory, she did not know when it happened, but she hated it, and was ashamed that she had screamed and shed tears for joy when Miss Lucy, with her bloodied nose and bursting heart had gone past the judges’ stand a neck ahead. She felt empty and sick and held to her father’s hand so hard that he shook her off a little impatiently and said, “What is the matter with you? Don’t be so fidgety.”

  Uncle Gabriel was standing there waiting, and he was completely drunk. He watched the mare go in, then leaned against the fence with its white-washed posts and sobbed openly. “She’s got the nosebleed, Harry,” he said. “Had it since yesterday. We thought we had her all fixed up. But she did it, all right. She’s got a heart like a lion. I’m going to breed her, Harry. Her heart’s worth a million dollars, by itself, God bless her.” Tears ran over his brick-colored face and into his straggling mustaches. “If anything happens to her now I’ll blow my brains out. She’s my last hope. She saved my life. I’ve had a run,” he said, groaning into a large handkerchief and mopping his face all over, “I’ve had a run of luck that would break a brass billy goat. God, Harry, let’s go somewhere and have a drink.”

  “I must get the children back to school first, Gabriel,” said their father, taking each by a hand.

  “No, no, don’t go yet,” said Uncle Gabriel desperately. “Wait here a minute, I want to see the vet and take a look at Miss Lucy, and I’ll be right back. Don’t go, Harry, for God’s sake. I want to talk to you a few minutes.”

  Maria and Miranda, watching Uncle Gabriel’s lumbering, unsteady back, were thinking that this was the first time they had ever seen a man that they knew to be drunk. They had seen pictures and read descriptions, and had heard descriptions, so they recognized the symptoms at once. Miranda felt it was an important moment in a great many ways.

  “Uncle Gabriel’s a drunkard, isn’t he?” she asked her father, rather proudly.

  “Hush, don’t say such things,” said father, with a heavy frown, “or I’ll never bring you here again.” He looked worried and unhappy, and, above all, undecided. The little girls stood stiff with resentment against such obvious injustice. They loosed their hands from his and moved away coldly, standing together in silence. Their father did not notice, watching the place where Uncle Gabriel had disappeared. In a few minutes he came back, still wiping his face, as if there were cobwebs on it, carrying his big black hat. He waved at them from a short distance, calling out in a cheerful way, “She’s going to be all right, Harry. It’s stopped now. Lord, this will be good news for Miss Honey. Come on, Harry, let’s all go home and tell Miss Honey. She deserves some good news.”

  Father said, “I’d better take the children back to school first, then we’ll go.”

  “No, no,” said Uncle Gabriel, fondly. “I want her to see the girls. She’ll be tickled pink to see them, Harry. Bring ’em along.”

  “Is it another race horse we’re going to see?” whispered Miranda in her sister’s ear.

  “Don’t be silly,” said Maria. “It’s Uncle Gabriel’s second wife.”

  “Let’s find a cab, Harry,” said Uncle Gabriel, “and take your little girls out to cheer up Miss Honey. Both of ’em rolled into one look a lot like Amy, I swear they do. I want Miss Honey to see them. She’s always liked our family, Harry, though of course she’s not what you’d call an expansive kind of woman.”

  Maria and Miranda sat facing the driver, and Uncle Gabriel squeezed himself in facing them beside their father. The air became at once bitter and sour with his breathing. He looked sad and poor. His necktie was on crooked and his shirt was rumpled. Father said, “You’re going to see Uncle Gabriel’s second wife, children,” exactly as if they had not heard everything; and to Gabriel, “How is your wife nowadays? It must be twenty years since I saw her last.”

  “She’s pretty gloomy, and that’s a fact,” said Uncle Gabriel. “She’s been pretty gloomy for years now, and nothing seems to shake her out of it. She never did care for horses, Harry, if you remember; she hasn’t been near the track three times since we were married. When I think how Amy wouldn’t have missed a race for anything. . . She’s very different from Amy, Harry, a very different kind of woman. As fine a woman as ever lived in her own way, but she hates change and moving around, and she just lives in the boy.”

  “Where is Gabe now?” asked father.

  “Finishing college,” said Uncle Gabriel; “a smart boy, but awfully like his mother. Awfully like,” he said, in a melancholy way. “She hates being away from him. Just wants to sit down in the same town and wait for him to get through with his education. Well, I’m sorry it can’t be done if that’s what she wants, but God Almighty— And this last run of luck has about got her down. I hope you’ll be able to cheer her up a little, Harry, she needs it.”

  The little girls sat watching the streets grow duller and dingier and narrower, and at last the shabbier and shabbier white people gave way to dressed-up Negroes, and then to shabby Negroes, and after a long way the cab stopped before a desolate-looking little hotel in Elysian Fields. Their father helped Maria and Miranda out, told the cabman to wait, and they followed Uncle Gabriel through a dirty damp-smelling patio, down a long gas-lighted hall full of a terrible smell, Miranda couldn’t decide what it was made of but it had a bitter taste even, and up a long staircase with a ragged carpet. Uncle Gabriel pushed open a door without warning, saying, “Come in, here we are.”

  A tall pale-faced woman with faded straw-colored hair and pink-rimmed eyelids rose suddenly from a squeaking rocking chair. She wore a stiff blue-and-white-striped shirtwaist and a stiff black skirt of some hard shiny material. Her large knuckled hands rose to her round, neat pompadour at sight of her visitors.

  “Honey,” said Uncle Gabriel, with large false heartiness, “you’ll never guess who’s come to see you.” He gave her a clumsy hug. Her face did not change and her eyes rested steadily on the three strangers. “Amy’s brother Harry, Honey, you remember, don’t you?”

  “Of course,” said Miss Honey, putting out her hand straight as a paddle, “of course I remember you, Harry.” She did not smile.

  “And Amy’s two little nieces,” went on Uncle Gabriel, bringing them forward. They put out their hands limply, and Miss Honey gave each one a slight flip and dropped it. “And we’ve got good news for you,” went on Uncle Gabriel, trying to bolster up the painful situation. “Miss Lucy stepped out and showed ’em today, Honey. We’re rich again, old girl, cheer up.”

  Miss Honey turned her long, despairing face towards her visitors. “Sit down,” she said with a heavy sigh, seating herself and motioning towards various rickety chairs. There was a big lumpy bed, with a grayish-white
counterpane on it, a marble-topped washstand, grayish coarse lace curtains on strings at the two small windows, a small closed fireplace with a hole in it for a stovepipe, and two trunks, standing at odds as if somebody were just moving in, or just moving out. Everything was dingy and soiled and neat and bare; not a pin out of place.

  “We’ll move to the St. Charles tomorrow,” said Uncle Gabriel, as much to Harry as to his wife. “Get your best dresses together, Honey, the long dry spell is over.”

  Miss Honey’s nostrils pinched together and she rocked slightly, with her arms folded. “I’ve lived in the St. Charles before, and I’ve lived here before,” she said, in a tight deliberate voice, “and this time I’ll just stay where I am, thank you. I prefer it to moving back here in three months. I’m settled now, I feel at home here,” she told him, glancing at Harry, her pale eyes kindling with blue fire, a stiff white line around her mouth.

  The little girls sat trying not to stare, miserably ill at ease. Their grandmother had pronounced Harry’s children to be the most unteachable she had ever seen in her long experience with the young; but they had learned by indirection one thing well—nice people did not carry on quarrels before outsiders. Family quarrels were sacred, to be waged privately in fierce hissing whispers, low choked mutters and growls. If they did yell and stamp, it must be behind closed doors and windows. Uncle Gabriel’s second wife was hopping mad and she looked ready to fly out at Uncle Gabriel any second, with him sitting there like a hound when someone shakes a whip at him.

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