The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  Mr. Helton stood up rather suddenly, the chair clattered under him, his knees straightened though his shoulders did not, and he looked at the floor as if he were listening carefully. “You know how little boys are,” said Mrs. Thompson. “You’d better set them harmonicas on a high shelf or they’ll be after them. They’re great hands for getting into things. I try to learn ’em, but it don’t do much good.”

  Mr. Helton, in one wide gesture of his long arms, swept his harmonicas up against his chest, and from there transferred them in a row to the ledge where the roof joined to the wall. He pushed them back almost out of sight.

  “That’ll do, maybe,” said Mrs. Thompson. “Now I wonder,” she said, turning and closing her eyes helplessly against the stronger western light, “I wonder what became of them little tads. I can’t keep up with them.” She had a way of speaking about her children as if they were rather troublesome nephews on a prolonged visit.

  “Down by the creek,” said Mr. Helton, in his hollow voice. Mrs. Thompson, pausing confusedly, decided he had answered her question. He stood in silent patience, not exactly waiting for her to go, perhaps, but pretty plainly not waiting for anything else. Mrs. Thompson was perfectly accustomed to all kinds of men full of all kinds of cranky ways. The point was, to find out just how Mr. Helton’s crankiness was different from any other man’s, and then get used to it, and let him feel at home. Her father had been cranky, her brothers and uncles had all been set in their ways and none of them alike; and every hired man she’d ever seen had quirks and crotchets of his own. Now here was Mr. Helton, who was a Swede, who wouldn’t talk, and who played the harmonica besides.

  “They’ll be needing something to eat,” said Mrs. Thompson in a vague friendly way, “pretty soon. Now I wonder what I ought to be thinking about for supper? Now what do you like to eat, Mr. Helton? We always have plenty of good butter and milk and cream, that’s a blessing. Mr. Thompson says we ought to sell all of it, but I say my family comes first.” Her little face went all out of shape in a pained blind smile.

  “I eat anything,” said Mr. Helton, his words wandering up and down.

  He can’t talk, for one thing, thought Mrs. Thompson; it’s a shame to keep at him when he don’t know the language good. She took a slow step away from the shack, looking back over her shoulder. “We usually have cornbread except on Sundays,” she told him. “I suppose in your part of the country you don’t get much good cornbread.”

  Not a word from Mr. Helton. She saw from her eye-corner that he had sat down again, looking at his harmonica, chair tilted. She hoped he would remember it was getting near milking time. As she moved away, he started playing again, the same tune.

  Milking time came and went. Mrs. Thompson saw Mr. Helton going back and forth between the cow barn and the milk house. He swung along in an easy lope, shoulders bent, head hanging, the big buckets balancing like a pair of scales at the ends of his bony arms. Mr. Thompson rode in from town sitting straighter than usual, chin in, a towsack full of supplies swung behind the saddle. After a trip to the barn, he came into the kitchen full of good will, and gave Mrs. Thompson a hearty smack on the cheek after dusting her face off with his tough whiskers. He had been to the hotel, that was plain. “Took a look around the premises, Ellie,” he shouted. “That Swede sure is grinding out the labor. But he is the closest mouthed feller I ever met up with in all my days. Looks like he’s scared he’ll crack his jaw if he opens his front teeth.”

  Mrs. Thompson was stirring up a big bowl of buttermilk cornbread. “You smell like a toper, Mr. Thompson,” she said with perfect dignity. “I wish you’d get one of the little boys to bring me in an extra load of firewood. I’m thinking about baking a batch of cookies tomorrow.”

  Mr. Thompson, all at once smelling the liquor on his own breath, sneaked out, justly rebuked, and brought in the firewood himself. Arthur and Herbert, grubby from thatched head to toes, from skin to shirt, came stamping in yelling for supper. “Go wash your faces and comb your hair,” said Mrs. Thompson, automatically. They retired to the porch. Each one put his hand under the pump and wet his forelock, combed it down with his fingers, and returned at once to the kitchen, where all the fair prospects of life were centered. Mrs. Thompson set an extra plate and commanded Arthur, the eldest, eight years old, to call Mr. Helton for supper.

  Arthur, without moving from the spot, bawled like a bull calf, “Saaaaaay, Hellllllton, suuuuuupper’s ready!” and added in a lower voice, “You big Swede!”

  “Listen to me,” said Mrs. Thompson, “that’s no way to act. Now you go out there and ask him decent, or I’ll get your daddy to give you a good licking.”

  Mr. Helton loomed, long and gloomy, in the doorway. “Sit right there,” boomed Mr. Thompson, waving his arm. Mr. Helton swung his square shoes across the kitchen in two steps, slumped onto the bench and sat. Mr. Thompson occupied his chair at the head of the table, the two boys scrambled into place opposite Mr. Helton, and Mrs. Thompson sat at the end nearest the stove. Mrs. Thompson clasped her hands, bowed her head and said aloud hastily, “Lord, for all these and Thy other blessings we thank Thee in Jesus’ name, amen,” trying to finish before Herbert’s rusty little paw reached the nearest dish. Otherwise she would be duty-bound to send him way from the table, and growing children need their meals. Mr. Thompson and Arthur always waited, but Herbert, aged six, was too young to take training yet.

  Mr. and Mrs. Thompson tried to engage Mr. Helton in conversation, but it was a failure. They tried first the weather, and then the crops, and then the cows, but Mr. Helton simply did not reply. Mr. Thompson then told something funny he had seen in town. It was about some of the other old grangers at the hotel, friends of his, giving beer to a goat, and the goat’s subsequent behavior. Mr. Helton did not seem to hear. Mrs. Thompson laughed dutifully, but she didn’t think it was very funny. She had heard it often before, though Mr. Thompson, each time he told it, pretended it had happened that self-same day. It must have happened years ago if it ever happened at all, and it had never been a story that Mrs. Thompson thought suitable for mixed company. The whole thing came of Mr. Thompson’s weakness for a dram too much now and then, though he voted for local option at every election. She passed the food to Mr. Helton, who took a helping of everything, but not much, not enough to keep him up to his full powers if he expected to go on working the way he had started.

  At last, he took a fair-sized piece of cornbread, wiped his plate up as clean as if it had been licked by a hound dog, stuffed his mouth full, and, still chewing, slid off the bench and started for the door.

  “Good night, Mr. Helton,” said Mrs. Thompson, and the other Thompsons took it up in a scattered chorus. “Good night, Mr. Helton!”

  “Good night,” said Mr. Helton’s wavering voice grudgingly from the darkness.

  “Gude not,” said Arthur, imitating Mr. Helton.

  “Gude not,” said Herbert, the copy-cat.

  “You don’t do it right,” said Arthur. “Now listen to me. Guuuuuude naht,” and he ran a hollow scale in a luxury of successful impersonation. Herbert almost went into a fit with joy.

  “Now you stop that,” said Mrs. Thompson. “He can’t help the way he talks. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves, both of you, making fun of a poor stranger like that. How’d you like to be a stranger in a strange land?”

  “I’d like it,” said Arthur. “I think it would be fun.”

  “They’re both regular heathens, Ellie,” said Mr. Thompson. “Just plain ignoramuses.” He turned the face of awful fatherhood upon his young. “You’re both going to get sent to school next year, and that’ll knock some sense into you.”

  “I’m going to git sent to the ’formatory when I’m old enough,” piped up Herbert. “That’s where I’m goin’.”

  “Oh, you are, are you?” asked Mr. Thompson. “Who says so?”

  “The Sunday School Supintendant,” said Herbert, a bright boy showing off.

  “You see?” said Mr. Thompson, staring at his wife. ??
?What did I tell you?” He became a hurricane of wrath. “Get to bed, you two,” he roared until his Adam’s apple shuddered. “Get now before I take the hide off you!” They got, and shortly from their attic bedroom the sounds of scuffling and snorting and giggling and growling filled the house and shook the kitchen ceiling.

  Mrs. Thompson held her head and said in a small uncertain voice, “It’s no use picking on them when they’re so young and tender. I can’t stand it.”

  “My goodness, Ellie,” said Mr. Thompson, “we’ve got to raise ’em. We can’t just let ’em grow up hog wild.”

  She went on in another tone. “That Mr. Helton seems all right, even if he can’t be made to talk. Wonder how he comes to be so far from home.”

  “Like I said, he isn’t no whamper-jaw,” said Mr. Thompson, “but he sure knows how to lay out the work. I guess that’s the main thing around here. Country’s full of fellers trampin’ round looking for work.”

  Mrs. Thompson was gathering up the dishes. She now gathered up Mr. Thompson’s plate from under his chin. “To tell you the honest truth,” she remarked, “I think it’s a mighty good change to have a man round the place who knows how to work and keep his mouth shut. Means he’ll keep out of our business. Not that we’ve got anything to hide, but it’s convenient.”

  “That’s a fact,” said Mr. Thompson. “Haw, haw,” he shouted suddenly. “Means you can do all the talking, huh?”

  “The only thing,” went on Mrs. Thompson, “is this: he don’t eat hearty enough to suit me. I like to see a man set down and relish a good meal. My granma used to say it was no use putting dependence on a man who won’t set down and make out his dinner. I hope it won’t be that way this time.”

  “Tell you the truth, Ellie,” said Mr. Thompson, picking his teeth with a fork and leaning back in the best of good humors, “I always thought your granma was a ter’ble ole fool. She’d just say the first thing that popped into her head and call it God’s wisdom.”

  “My granma wasn’t anybody’s fool. Nine times out of ten she knew what she was talking about. I always say, the first thing you think is the best thing you can say.”

  “Well,” said Mr. Thompson, going into another shout, “you’re so reefined about that goat story, you just try speaking out in mixed comp’ny sometime! You just try it. S’pose you happened to be thinking about a hen and a rooster, hey? I reckon you’d shock the Babtist preacher!” He gave her a good pinch on her thin little rump. “No more meat on you than a rabbit,” he said, fondly. “Now I like ’em cornfed.”

  Mrs. Thompson looked at him open-eyed and blushed. She could see better by lamplight. “Why, Mr. Thompson, sometimes I think you’re the evilest-minded man that ever lived.” She took a handful of hair on the crown of his head and gave it a good, slow pull. “That’s to show you how it feels, pinching so hard when you’re supposed to be playing,” she said, gently.

  In spite of his situation in life, Mr. Thompson had never been able to outgrow his deep conviction that running a dairy and chasing after chickens was woman’s work. He was fond of saying that he could plow a furrow, cut sorghum, shuck corn, handle a team, build a corn crib, as well as any man. Buying and selling, too, were man’s work. Twice a week he drove the spring wagon to market with the fresh butter, a few eggs, fruits in their proper season, sold them, pocketed the change, and spent it as seemed best, being careful not to dig into Mrs. Thompson’s pin money.

  But from the first the cows worried him, coming up regularly twice a day to be milked, standing there reproaching him with their smug female faces. Calves worried him, fighting the rope and strangling themselves until their eyes bulged, trying to get at the teat. Wrestling with a calf unmanned him, like having to change a baby’s diaper. Milk worried him, coming bitter sometimes, drying up, turning sour. Hens worried him, cackling, clucking, hatching out when you least expected it and leading their broods into the barnyard where the horses could step on them; dying of roup and wryneck and getting plagues of chicken lice; laying eggs all over God’s creation so that half of them were spoiled before a man could find them, in spite of a rack of nests Mrs. Thompson had set out for them in the feed room. Hens were a blasted nuisance.

  Slopping hogs was hired man’s work, in Mr. Thompson’s opinion. Killing hogs was a job for the boss, but scraping them and cutting them up was for the hired man again; and again woman’s proper work was dressing meat, smoking, pickling, and making lard and sausage. All his carefully limited fields of activity were related somehow to Mr. Thompson’s feeling for the appearance of things, his own appearance in the sight of God and man. “It don’t look right,” was his final reason for not doing anything he did not wish to do.

  It was his dignity and his reputation that he cared about, and there were only a few kinds of work manly enough for Mr. Thompson to undertake with his own hands. Mrs. Thompson, to whom so many forms of work would have been becoming, had simply gone down on him early. He saw, after a while, how short-sighted it had been of him to expect much from Mrs. Thompson; he had fallen in love with her delicate waist and lace-trimmed petticoats and big blue eyes, and, though all those charms had disappeared, she had in the meantime become Ellie to him, not at all the same person as Miss Ellen Bridges, popular Sunday School teacher in the Mountain City First Baptist Church, but his dear wife, Ellie, who was not strong. Deprived as he was, however, of the main support in life which a man might expect in marriage, he had almost without knowing it resigned himself to failure. Head erect, a prompt payer of taxes, yearly subscriber to the preacher’s salary, land owner and father of a family, employer, a hearty good fellow among men, Mr. Thompson knew, without putting it into words, that he had been going steadily down hill. God amighty, it did look like somebody around the place might take a rake in hand now and then and clear up the clutter around the barn and the kitchen steps. The wagon shed was so full of broken-down machinery and ragged harness and old wagon wheels and battered milk pails and rotting lumber you could hardly drive in there any more. Not a soul on the place would raise a hand to it, and as for him, he had all he could do with his regular work. He would sometimes in the slack season sit for hours worrying about it, squirting tobacco on the ragweeds growing in a thicket against the wood pile, wondering what a fellow could do, handicapped as he was. He looked forward to the boys growing up soon; he was going to put them through the mill just as his own father had done with him when he was a boy; they were going to learn how to take hold and run the place right. He wasn’t going to overdo it, but those two boys were going to earn their salt, or he’d know why. Great big lubbers sitting around whittling! Mr. Thompson sometimes grew quite enraged with them, when imagining their possible future, big lubbers sitting around whittling or thinking about fishing trips. Well, he’d put a stop to that, mighty damn quick.

  As the seasons passed, and Mr. Helton took hold more and more, Mr. Thompson began to relax in his mind a little. There seemed to be nothing the fellow couldn’t do, all in the day’s work and as a matter of course. He got up at five o’clock in the morning, boiled his own coffee and fried his own bacon and was out in the cow lot before Mr. Thompson had even begun to yawn, stretch, groan, roar and thump around looking for his jeans. He milked the cows, kept the milk house, and churned the butter; rounded the hens up and somehow persuaded them to lay in the nests, not under the house and behind the haystacks; he fed them regularly and they hatched out until you couldn’t set a foot down for them. Little by little the piles of trash around the barns and house disappeared. He carried buttermilk and corn to the hogs, and curried cockleburs out of the horses’ manes. He was gentle with the calves, if a little grim with the cows and hens; judging by his conduct, Mr. Helton had never heard of the difference between man’s and woman’s work on a farm.

  In the second year, he showed Mr. Thompson the picture of a cheese press in a mail order catalogue, and said, “This is a good thing. You buy this, I make cheese.” The press was bought and Mr. Helton did make cheese, and it was sold, along with the
increased butter and the crates of eggs. Sometimes Mr. Thompson felt a little contemptuous of Mr. Helton’s ways. It did seem kind of picayune for a man to go around picking up half a dozen ears of corn that had fallen off the wagon on the way from the field, gathering up fallen fruit to feed to the pigs, storing up old nails and stray parts of machinery, spending good time stamping a fancy pattern on the butter before it went to market. Mr. Thompson, sitting up high on the spring-wagon seat, with the decorated butter in a five-gallon lard can wrapped in wet towsack, driving to town, chirruping to the horses and snapping the reins over their backs, sometimes thought that Mr. Helton was a pretty meeching sort of fellow; but he never gave way to these feelings, he knew a good thing when he had it. It was a fact the hogs were in better shape and sold for more money. It was a fact that Mr. Thompson stopped buying feed, Mr. Helton managed the crops so well. When beef- and hog-slaughtering time came, Mr. Helton knew how to save the scraps that Mr. Thompson had thrown away, and wasn’t above scraping guts and filling them with sausages that he made by his own methods. In all, Mr. Thompson had no grounds for complaint. In the third year, he raised Mr. Helton’s wages, though Mr. Helton had not asked for a raise. The fourth year, when Mr. Thompson was not only out of debt but had a little cash in the bank, he raised Mr. Helton’s wages again, two dollars and a half a month each time.

  “The man’s worth it, Ellie,” said Mr. Thompson, in a glow of self-justification for his extravagance. “He’s made this place pay, and I want him to know I appreciate it.”

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