The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  Mr. Helton’s silence, the pallor of his eyebrows and hair, his long, glum jaw and eyes that refused to see anything, even the work under his hands, had grown perfectly familiar to the Thompsons. At first, Mrs. Thompson complained a little. “It’s like sitting down at the table with a disembodied spirit,” she said. “You’d think he’d find something to say, sooner or later.”

  “Let him alone,” said Mr. Thompson. “When he gets ready to talk, he’ll talk.”

  The years passed, and Mr. Helton never got ready to talk. After his work was finished for the day, he would come up from the barn or the milk house or the chicken house, swinging his lantern, his big shoes clumping like pony hoofs on the hard path. They, sitting in the kitchen in the winter, or on the back porch in summer, would hear him drag out his wooden chair, hear the creak of it tilted back, and then for a little while he would play his single tune on one or another of his harmonicas. The harmonicas were in different keys, some lower and sweeter than the others, but the same changeless tune went on, a strange tune, with sudden turns in it, night after night, and sometimes even in the afternoons when Mr. Helton sat down to catch his breath. At first the Thompsons liked it very much, and always stopped to listen. Later there came a time when they were fairly sick of it, and began to wish to each other that he would learn a new one. At last they did not hear it any more, it was as natural as the sound of the wind rising in the evenings, or the cows lowing, or their own voices.

  Mrs. Thompson pondered now and then over Mr. Helton’s soul. He didn’t seem to be a church-goer, and worked straight through Sunday as if it were any common day of the week. “I think we ought to invite him to go to hear Dr. Martin,” she told Mr. Thompson. “It isn’t very Christian of us not to ask him. He’s not a forward kind of man. He’d wait to be asked.”

  “Let him alone,” said Mr. Thompson. “The way I look at it, his religion is every man’s own business. Besides, he ain’t got any Sunday clothes. He wouldn’t want to go to church in them jeans and jumpers of his. I don’t know what he does with his money. He certainly don’t spend it foolishly.”

  Still, once the notion got into her head, Mrs. Thompson could not rest until she invited Mr. Helton to go to church with the family next Sunday. He was pitching hay into neat little piles in the field back of the orchard. Mrs. Thompson put on smoked glasses and a sunbonnet and walked all the way down there to speak to him. He stopped and leaned on his pitchfork, listening, and for a moment Mrs. Thompson was almost frightened at his face. The pale eyes seemed to glare past her, the eyebrows frowned, the long jaw hardened. “I got work,” he said bluntly, and lifting his pitchfork he turned from her and began to toss the hay. Mrs. Thompson, her feelings hurt, walked back thinking that by now she should be used to Mr. Helton’s ways, but it did seem like a man, even a foreigner, could be just a little polite when you gave him a Christian invitation. “He’s not polite, that’s the only thing I’ve got against him,” she said to Mr. Thompson. “He just can’t seem to behave like other people. You’d think he had a grudge against the world,” she said, “I sometimes don’t know what to make of it.”

  In the second year something had happened that made Mrs. Thompson uneasy, the kind of thing she could not put into words, hardly into thoughts, and if she had tried to explain to Mr. Thompson it would have sounded worse than it was, or not bad enough. It was that kind of queer thing that seems to be giving a warning, and yet, nearly always nothing comes of it. It was on a hot, still spring day, and Mrs. Thompson had been down to the garden patch to pull some new carrots and green onions and string beans for dinner. As she worked, sunbonnet low over her eyes, putting each kind of vegetable in a pile by itself in her basket, she noticed how neatly Mr. Helton weeded, and how rich the soil was. He had spread it all over with manure from the barns, and worked it in, in the fall, and the vegetables were coming up fine and full. She walked back under the nubbly little fig trees where the unpruned branches leaned almost to the ground, and the thick leaves made a cool screen. Mrs. Thompson was always looking for shade to save her eyes. So she, looking idly about, saw through the screen a sight that struck her as very strange. If it had been a noisy spectacle, it would have been quite natural. It was the silence that struck her. Mr. Helton was shaking Arthur by the shoulders, ferociously, his face most terribly fixed and pale. Arthur’s head snapped back and forth and he had not stiffened in resistance, as he did when Mrs. Thompson tried to shake him. His eyes were rather frightened, but surprised, too, probably more surprised than anything else. Herbert stood by meekly, watching. Mr. Helton dropped Arthur, and seized Herbert, and shook him with the same methodical ferocity, the same face of hatred. Herbert’s mouth crumpled as if he would cry, but he made no sound. Mr. Helton let him go, turned and strode into the shack, and the little boys ran, as if for their lives, without a word. They disappeared around the corner to the front of the house.

  Mrs. Thompson took time to set her basket on the kitchen table, to push her sunbonnet back on her head and draw it forward again, to look in the stove and make certain the fire was going, before she followed the boys. They were sitting huddled together under a clump of chinaberry trees in plain sight of her bedroom window, as if it were a safe place they had discovered.

  “What are you doing?” asked Mrs. Thompson.

  They looked hang-dog from under their foreheads and Arthur mumbled, “Nothin’.”

  “Nothing now, you mean,” said Mrs. Thompson, severely. “Well, I have plenty for you to do. Come right in here this minute and help me fix vegetables. This minute.”

  They scrambled up very eagerly and followed her close. Mrs. Thompson tried to imagine what they had been up to; she did not like the notion of Mr. Helton taking it on himself to correct her little boys, but she was afraid to ask them for reasons. They might tell her a lie, and she would have to overtake them in it, and whip them. Or she would have to pretend to believe them, and they would get in the habit of lying. Or they might tell her the truth, and it would be something she would have to whip them for. The very thought of it gave her a headache. She supposed she might ask Mr. Helton, but it was not her place to ask. She would wait and tell Mr. Thompson, and let him get at the bottom of it. While her mind ran on, she kept the little boys hopping. “Cut those carrot tops closer, Herbert, you’re just being careless. Arthur, stop breaking up the beans so little. They’re little enough already. Herbert, you go get an armload of wood. Arthur, you take these onions and wash them under the pump. Herbert, as soon as you’re done here, you get a broom and sweep out this kitchen. Arthur, you get a shovel and take up the ashes. Stop picking your nose, Herbert. How often must I tell you? Arthur, you go look in the top drawer of my bureau, left-hand side, and bring me the vaseline for Herbert’s nose. Herbert, come here to me. . . .”

  They galloped through their chores, their animal spirits rose with activity, and shortly they were out in the front yard again, engaged in a wrestling match. They sprawled and fought, scrambled, clutched, rose and fell shouting, as aimlessly, noisily, monotonously as two puppies. They imitated various animals, not a human sound from them, and their dirty faces were streaked with sweat. Mrs. Thompson, sitting at her window, watched them with baffled pride and tenderness, they were so sturdy and healthy and growing so fast; but uneasily, too, with her pained little smile and the tears rolling from her eyelids that clinched themselves against the sunlight. They were so idle and careless, as if they had no future in this world, and no immortal souls to save, and oh, what had they been up to that Mr. Helton had shaken them, with his face positively dangerous?

  In the evening before supper, without a word to Mr. Thompson of the curious fear the sight had caused her, she told him that Mr. Helton had shaken the little boys for some reason. He stepped out to the shack and spoke to Mr. Helton. In five minutes he was back, glaring at his young. “He says them brats been fooling with his harmonicas, Ellie, blowing in them and getting them all dirty and full of spit and they don’t play good.”

  “Did he say all
that?” asked Mrs. Thompson. “It doesn’t seem possible.”

  “Well, that’s what he meant, anyhow,” said Mr. Thompson. “He didn’t say it just that way. But he acted pretty worked up about it.”

  “That’s a shame,” said Mrs. Thompson, “a perfect shame. Now we’ve got to do something so they’ll remember they mustn’t go into Mr. Helton’s things.”

  “I’ll tan their hides for them,” said Mr. Thompson. “I’ll take a calf rope to them if they don’t look out.”

  “Maybe you’d better leave the whipping to me,” said Mrs. Thompson. “You haven’t got a light enough hand for children.”

  “That’s just what’s the matter with them now,” shouted Mr. Thompson, “rotten spoiled and they’ll wind up in the penitentiary. You don’t half whip ’em. Just little love taps. My pa used to knock me down with a stick of stove wood or anything else that came handy.”

  “Well, that’s not saying it’s right,” said Mrs. Thompson. “I don’t hold with that way of raising children. It makes them run away from home. I’ve seen too much of it.”

  “I’ll break every bone in ’em,” said Mr. Thompson, simmering down, “if they don’t mind you better and stop being so bullheaded.”

  “Leave the table and wash your face and hands,” Mrs. Thompson commanded the boys, suddenly. They slunk out and dabbled at the pump and slunk in again, trying to make themselves small. They had learned long ago that their mother always made them wash when there was trouble ahead. They looked at their plates. Mr. Thompson opened up on them.

  “Well, now, what you got to say for yourselves about going into Mr. Helton’s shack and ruining his harmonicas?”

  The two little boys wilted, their faces drooped into the grieved hopeless lines of children’s faces when they are brought to the terrible bar of blind adult justice; their eyes telegraphed each other in panic, “Now we’re really going to catch a licking”; in despair, they dropped their buttered cornbread on their plates, their hands lagged on the edge of the table.

  “I ought to break your ribs,” said Mr. Thompson, “and I’m a good mind to do it.”

  “Yes, sir,” whispered Arthur, faintly.

  “Yes, sir,” said Herbert, his lip trembling.

  “Now, papa,” said Mrs. Thompson in a warning tone. The children did not glance at her. They had no faith in her good will. She had betrayed them in the first place. There was no trusting her. Now she might save them and she might not. No use depending on her.

  “Well, you ought to get a good thrashing. You deserve it, don’t you, Arthur?”

  Arthur hung his head. “Yes, sir.”

  “And the next time I catch either of you hanging around Mr. Helton’s shack, I’m going to take the hide off both of you, you hear me, Herbert?”

  Herbert mumbled and choked, scattering his cornbread. “Yes, sir.”

  “Well, now sit up and eat your supper and not another word out of you,” said Mr. Thompson, beginning on his own food. The little boys perked up somewhat and started chewing, but every time they looked around they met their parents’ eyes, regarding them steadily. There was no telling when they would think of something new. The boys ate warily, trying not to be seen or heard, the cornbread sticking, the buttermilk gurgling, as it went down their gullets.

  “And something else, Mr. Thompson,” said Mrs. Thompson after a pause. “Tell Mr. Helton he’s to come straight to us when they bother him, and not to trouble shaking them himself. Tell him we’ll look after that.”

  “They’re so mean,” answered Mr. Thompson, staring at them. “It’s a wonder he don’t just kill ’em off and be done with it.” But there was something in the tone that told Arthur and Herbert that nothing more worth worrying about was going to happen this time. Heaving deep sighs, they sat up, reaching for the food nearest them.

  “Listen,” said Mrs. Thompson, suddenly. The little boys stopped eating. “Mr. Helton hasn’t come for his supper. Arthur, go and tell Mr. Helton he’s late for supper. Tell him nice, now.”

  Arthur, miserably depressed, slid out of his place and made for the door, without a word.

  There were no miracles of fortune to be brought to pass on a small dairy farm. The Thompsons did not grow rich, but they kept out of the poor house, as Mr. Thompson was fond of saying, meaning he had got a little foothold in spite of Ellie’s poor health, and unexpected weather, and strange declines in market prices, and his own mysterious handicaps which weighed him down. Mr. Helton was the hope and the prop of the family, and all the Thompsons became fond of him, or at any rate they ceased to regard him as in any way peculiar, and looked upon him, from a distance they did not know how to bridge, as a good man and a good friend. Mr. Helton went his way, worked, played his tune. Nine years passed. The boys grew up and learned to work. They could not remember the time when Ole Helton hadn’t been there: a grouchy cuss, Brother Bones; Mr. Helton, the dairymaid; that Big Swede. If he had heard them, he might have been annoyed at some of the names they called him. But he did not hear them, and besides they meant no harm—or at least such harm as existed was all there, in the names; the boys referred to their father as the Old Man, or the Old Geezer, but not to his face. They lived through by main strength all the grimy, secret, oblique phases of growing up and got past the crisis safely if anyone does. Their parents could see they were good solid boys with hearts of gold in spite of their rough ways. Mr. Thompson was relieved to find that, without knowing how he had done it, he had succeeded in raising a set of boys who were not trifling whittlers. They were such good boys Mr. Thompson began to believe they were born that way, and that he had never spoken a harsh word to them in their lives, much less thrashed them. Herbert and Arthur never disputed his word.


  Mr. Helton, his hair wet with sweat, plastered to his dripping forehead, his jumper streaked dark and light blue and clinging to his ribs, was chopping a little firewood. He chopped slowly, struck the ax into the end of the chopping log, and piled the wood up neatly. He then disappeared round the house into his shack, which shared with the wood pile a good shade from a row of mulberry trees. Mr. Thompson was lolling in a swing chair on the front porch, a place he had never liked. The chair was new, and Mrs. Thompson had wanted it on the front porch, though the side porch was the place for it, being cooler; and Mr. Thompson wanted to sit in the chair, so there he was. As soon as the new wore off of it, and Ellie’s pride in it was exhausted, he would move it round to the side porch. Meantime the August heat was almost unbearable, the air so thick you could poke a hole in it. The dust was inches thick on everything, though Mr. Helton sprinkled the whole yard regularly every night. He even shot the hose upward and washed the tree tops and the roof of the house. They had laid waterpipes to the kitchen and an outside faucet. Mr. Thompson must have dozed, for he opened his eyes and shut his mouth just in time to save his face before a stranger who had driven up to the front gate. Mr. Thompson stood up, put on his hat, pulled up his jeans, and watched while the stranger tied his team, attached to a light spring wagon, to the hitching post. Mr. Thompson recognized the team and wagon. They were from a livery stable in Buda. While the stranger was opening the gate, a strong gate that Mr. Helton had built and set firmly on its hinges several years back, Mr. Thompson strolled down the path to greet him and find out what in God’s world a man’s business might be that would bring him out at this time of day, in all this dust and welter.

  He wasn’t exactly a fat man. He was more like a man who had been fat recently. His skin was baggy and his clothes were too big for him, and he somehow looked like a man who should be fat, ordinarily, but who might have just got over a spell of sickness. Mr. Thompson didn’t take to his looks at all, he couldn’t say why.

  The stranger took off his hat. He said in a loud hearty voice, “Is this Mr. Thompson, Mr. Royal Earle Thompson?”

  “That’s my name,” said Mr. Thompson, almost quietly, he was so taken aback by the free manner of the stranger.

  “My name is Hatch,” said the stra
nger, “Mr. Homer T. Hatch, and I’ve come to see you about buying a horse.”

  “I expect you’ve been misdirected,” said Mr. Thompson. “I haven’t got a horse for sale. Usually if I’ve got anything like that to sell,” he said, “I tell the neighbors and tack up a little sign on the gate.”

  The fat man opened his mouth and roared with joy, showing rabbit teeth brown as shoeleather. Mr. Thompson saw nothing to laugh at, for once. The stranger shouted, “That’s just an old joke of mine.” He caught one of his hands in the other and shook hands with himself heartily. “I always say something like that when I’m calling on a stranger, because I’ve noticed that when a feller says he’s come to buy something nobody takes him for a suspicious character. You see? Haw, haw, haw.”

  His joviality made Mr. Thompson nervous, because the expression in the man’s eyes didn’t match the sounds he was making. “Haw, haw,” laughed Mr. Thompson obligingly, still not seeing the joke. “Well, that’s all wasted on me because I never take any man for a suspicious character ’til he shows hisself to be one. Says or does something,” he explained. “Until that happens, one man’s as good as another, so far’s I’m concerned.”

  “Well,” said the stranger, suddenly very sober and sensible, “I ain’t come neither to buy nor sell. Fact is, I want to see you about something that’s of interest to us both. Yes, sir, I’d like to have a little talk with you, and it won’t cost you a cent.”

  “I guess that’s fair enough,” said Mr. Thompson, reluctantly. “Come on around the house where there’s a little shade.”

  They went round and seated themselves on two stumps under a chinaberry tree.

  “Yes, sir, Homer T. Hatch is my name and America is my nation,” said the stranger. “I reckon you must know the name? I used to have a cousin named Jameson Hatch lived up the country a ways.”

  “Don’t think I know the name,” said Mr. Thompson. “There’s some Hatchers settled somewhere around Mountain City.”

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