The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
“Don’t know the old Hatch family,” cried the man in deep concern. He seemed to be pitying Mr. Thompson’s ignorance. “Why, we came over from Georgia fifty years ago. Been here long yourself?”
“Just all my whole life,” said Mr. Thompson, beginning to feel peevish. “And my pa and my grampap before me. Yes, sir, we’ve been right here all along. Anybody wants to find a Thompson knows where to look for him. My grampap immigrated in 1836.”
“From Ireland, I reckon?” said the stranger.
“From Pennsylvania,” said Mr. Thompson. “Now what makes you think we came from Ireland?”
The stranger opened his mouth and began to shout with merriment, and he shook hands with himself as if he hadn’t met himself for a long time. “Well, what I always says is, a feller’s got to come from somewhere, ain’t he?”
While they were talking, Mr. Thompson kept glancing at the face near him. He certainly did remind Mr. Thompson of somebody, or maybe he really had seen the man himself somewhere. He couldn’t just place the features. Mr. Thompson finally decided it was just that all rabbit-teethed men looked alike.
“That’s right,” acknowledged Mr. Thompson, rather sourly, “but what I always say is, Thompsons have been settled here for so long it don’t make much difference any more where they come from. Now a course, this is the slack season, and we’re all just laying round a little, but nevertheless we’ve all got our chores to do, and I don’t want to hurry you, and so if you’ve come to see me on business maybe we’d better get down to it.”
“As I said, it’s not in a way, and again in a way it is,” said the fat man. “Now I’m looking for a man named Helton, Mr. Olaf Eric Helton, from North Dakota, and I was told up around the country a ways that I might find him here, and I wouldn’t mind having a little talk with him. No, siree, I sure wouldn’t mind, if it’s all the same to you.”
“I never knew his middle name,” said Mr. Thompson, “but Mr. Helton is right here, and been here now for going on nine years. He’s a mighty steady man, and you can tell anybody I said so.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” said Mr. Homer T. Hatch. “I like to hear of a feller mending his ways and settling down. Now when I knew Mr. Helton he was pretty wild, yes, sir, wild is what he was, he didn’t know his own mind atall. Well, now, it’s going to be a great pleasure to me to meet up with an old friend and find him all settled down and doing well by hisself.”
“We’ve all got to be young once,” said Mr. Thompson. “It’s like the measles, it breaks out all over you, and you’re a nuisance to yourself and everybody else, but it don’t last, and it usually don’t leave no ill effects.” He was so pleased with this notion he forgot and broke into a guffaw. The stranger folded his arms over his stomach and went into a kind of fit, roaring until he had tears in his eyes. Mr. Thompson stopped shouting and eyed the stranger uneasily. Now he liked a good laugh as well as any man, but there ought to be a little moderation. Now this feller laughed like a perfect lunatic, that was a fact. And he wasn’t laughing because he really thought things were funny, either. He was laughing for reasons of his own. Mr. Thompson fell into a moody silence, and waited until Mr. Hatch settled down a little.
Mr. Hatch got out a very dirty blue cotton bandanna and wiped his eyes. “That joke just about caught me where I live,” he said, almost apologetically. “Now I wish I could think up things as funny as that to say. It’s a gift. It’s. . .”
“If you want to speak to Mr. Helton, I’ll go and round him up,” said Mr. Thompson, making motions as if he might get up. “He may be in the milk house and he may be setting in his shack this time of day.” It was drawing towards five o’clock. “It’s right around the corner,” he said.
“Oh, well, there ain’t no special hurry,” said Mr. Hatch. “I’ve been wanting to speak to him for a good long spell now and I guess a few minutes more won’t make no difference. I just more wanted to locate him, like. That’s all.”
Mr. Thompson stopped beginning to stand up, and unbuttoned one more button of his shirt, and said, “Well, he’s here, and he’s this kind of man, that if he had any business with you he’d like to get it over. He don’t dawdle, that’s one thing you can say for him.”
Mr. Hatch appeared to sulk a little at these words. He wiped his face with the bandanna and opened his mouth to speak, when round the house there came the music of Mr. Helton’s harmonica. Mr. Thompson raised a finger. “There he is,” said Mr. Thompson. “Now’s your time.”
Mr. Hatch cocked an ear towards the east side of the house and listened for a few seconds, a very strange expression on his face.
“I know that tune like I know the palm of my own hand,” said Mr. Thompson, “but I never heard Mr. Helton say what it was.”
“That’s a kind of Scandahoovian song,” said Mr. Hatch. “Where I come from they sing it a lot. In North Dakota, they sing it. It says something about starting out in the morning feeling so good you can’t hardly stand it, so you drink up all your likker before noon. All the likker, y’ understand, that you was saving for the noon lay-off. The words ain’t much, but it’s a pretty tune. It’s a kind of drinking song.” He sat there drooping a little, and Mr. Thompson didn’t like his expression. It was a satisfied expression, but it was more like the cat that et the canary.
“So far as I know,” said Mr. Thompson, “he ain’t touched a drop since he’s been on the place, and that’s nine years this coming September. Yes, sir, nine years, so far as I know, he ain’t wetted his whistle once. And that’s more than I can say for myself,” he said, meekly proud.
“Yes, that’s a drinking song,” said Mr. Hatch. “I used to play ‘Little Brown Jug’ on the fiddle when I was younger than I am now,” he went on, “but this Helton, he just keeps it up. He just sits and plays it by himself.”
“He’s been playing it off and on for nine years right here on the place,” said Mr. Thompson, feeling a little proprietary.
“And he was certainly singing it as well, fifteen years before that, in North Dakota,” said Mr. Hatch. “He used to sit up in a straitjacket, practically, when he was in the asylum—”
“What’s that you say?” said Mr. Thompson. “What’s that?”
“Shucks, I didn’t mean to tell you,” said Mr. Hatch, a faint leer of regret in his drooping eyelids. “Shucks, that just slipped out. Funny, now I’d made up my mind I wouldn’ say a word, because it would just make a lot of excitement, and what I say is, if a man has lived harmless and quiet for nine years it don’t matter if he is loony, does it? So long’s he keeps quiet and don’t do nobody harm.”
“You mean they had him in a straitjacket?” asked Mr. Thompson, uneasily. “In a lunatic asylum?”
“They sure did,” said Mr. Hatch. “That’s right where they had him, from time to time.”
“They put my Aunt Ida in one of them things in the State asylum,” said Mr. Thompson. “She got vi’lent, and they put her in one of these jackets with long sleeves and tied her to an iron ring in the wall and Aunt Ida got so wild she broke a blood vessel and when they went to look after her she was dead. I’d think one of them things was dangerous.”
“Mr. Helton used to sing his drinking song when he was in a straitjacket,” said Mr. Hatch. “Nothing ever bothered him, except if you tried to make him talk. That bothered him, and he’d get vi’lent, like your Aunt Ida. He’d get vi’lent and then they’d put him in the jacket and go off and leave him, and he’d lay there perfickly contented, so fars you could see, singing his song. Then one night he just disappeared. Left, you might say, just went, and nobody ever saw hide or hair of him again. And then I come along and find him here,” said Mr. Hatch, “all settled down and playing the same song.”
“He never acted crazy to me,” said Mr. Thompson. “He always acted like a sensible man, to me. He never got married, for one thing, and he works like a horse, and I bet he’s got the first cent I paid him when he landed here, and he don’t drink, and he never says a word, much less swear, and he don??
“Haw, ha,” said Mr. Hatch, “heh, he, that’s good! Ha, ha, ha, I hadn’t thought of it jes like that. Yeah, that’s right! Let’s all go crazy and get rid of our wives and save our money, hey?” He smiled unpleasantly, showing his little rabbit teeth.
Mr. Thompson felt he was being misunderstood. He turned around and motioned toward the open window back of the honeysuckle trellis. “Let’s move off down here a little,” he said. “I oughta thought of that before.” His visitor bothered Mr. Thompson. He had a way of taking the words out of Mr. Thompson’s mouth, turning them around and mixing them up until Mr. Thompson didn’t know himself what he had said. “My wife’s not very strong,” said Mr. Thompson. “She’s been kind of invalid now goin’ on fourteen years. It’s mighty tough on a poor man, havin’ sickness in the family. She had four operations,” he said proudly, “one right after the other, but they didn’t do any good. For five years hand-runnin’, I just turned every nickel I made over to the doctors. Upshot is, she’s a mighty delicate woman.”
“My old woman,” said Mr. Homer T. Hatch, “had a back like a mule, yes, sir. That woman could have moved the barn with her bare hands if she’d ever took the notion. I used to say, it was a good thing she didn’t know her own stren’th. She’s dead now, though. That kind wear out quicker than the puny ones. I never had much use for a woman always complainin’. I’d get rid of her mighty quick, yes, sir, mighty quick. It’s just as you say: a dead loss, keepin’ one of ’em up.”
This was not at all what Mr. Thompson had heard himself say; he had been trying to explain that a wife as expensive as his was a credit to a man. “She’s a mighty reasonable woman,” said Mr. Thompson, feeling baffled, “but I wouldn’t answer for what she’d say or do if she found out we’d had a lunatic on the place all this time.” They had moved away from the window; Mr. Thompson took Mr. Hatch the front way, because if he went the back way they would have to pass Mr. Helton’s shack. For some reason he didn’t want the stranger to see or talk to Mr. Helton. It was strange, but that was the way Mr. Thompson felt.
Mr. Thompson sat down again, on the chopping log, offering his guest another tree stump. “Now, I mighta got upset myself at such a thing, once,” said Mr. Thompson, “but now I deefy anything to get me lathered up.” He cut himself an enormous plug of tobacco with his horn-handled pocket-knife, and offered it to Mr. Hatch, who then produced his own plug and, opening a huge bowie knife with a long blade sharply whetted, cut off a large wad and put it in his mouth. They then compared plugs and both of them were astonished to see how different men’s ideas of good chewing tobacco were.
“Now, for instance,” said Mr. Hatch, “mine is lighter colored. That’s because, for one thing, there ain’t any sweetenin’ in this plug. I like it dry, natural leaf, medium strong.”
“A little sweetenin’ don’t do no harm so far as I’m concerned,” said Mr. Thompson, “but it’s got to be mighty little. But with me, now, I want a strong leaf, I want it heavy-cured, as the feller says. There’s a man near here, named Williams, Mr. John Morgan Williams, who chews a plug—well, sir, it’s black as your hat and soft as melted tar. It fairly drips with molasses, jus’ plain molasses, and it chews like licorice. Now, I don’t call that a good chew.”
“One man’s meat,” said Mr. Hatch, “is another man’s poison. Now, such a chew would simply gag me. I couldn’t begin to put it in my mouth.”
“Well,” said Mr. Thompson, a tinge of apology in his voice, “I jus’ barely tasted it myself, you might say. Just took a little piece in my mouth and spit it out again.”
“I’m dead sure I couldn’t even get that far,” said Mr. Hatch. “I like a dry natural chew without any artificial flavorin’ of any kind.”
Mr. Thompson began to feel that Mr. Hatch was trying to make out he had the best judgment in tobacco, and was going to keep up the argument until he proved it. He began to feel seriously annoyed with the fat man. After all, who was he and where did he come from? Who was he to go around telling other people what kind of tobacco to chew?
“Artificial flavorin’,” Mr. Hatch went on, doggedly, “is jes put in to cover up a cheap leaf and make a man think he’s gettin’ somethin’ more than he is gettin’. Even a little sweetenin’ is a sign of a cheap leaf, you can mark my words.”
“I’ve always paid a fair price for my plug,” said Mr. Thompson, stiffly. “I’m not a rich man and I don’t go round settin’ myself up for one, but I’ll say this, when it comes to such things as tobacco, I buy the best on the market.”
“Sweetenin’, even a little,” began Mr. Hatch, shifting his plug and squirting tobacco juice at a dry-looking little rose bush that was having a hard enough time as it was, standing all day in the blazing sun, its roots clenched in the baked earth, “is the sign of—”
“About this Mr. Helton, now,” said Mr. Thompson, determinedly, “I don’t see no reason to hold it against a man because he went loony once or twice in his lifetime and so I don’t expect to take no steps about it. Not a step. I’ve got nothin’ against the man, he’s always treated me fair. They’s things and people,” he went on, “’nough to drive any man loony. The wonder to me is, more men don’t wind up in straitjackets, the way things are going these days and times.”
“That’s right,” said Mr. Hatch, promptly, entirely too promptly, as if he were turning Mr. Thompson’s meaning back on him. “You took the words right out of my mouth. There ain’t every man in a straitjacket that ought to be there. Ha, ha, you’re right all right. You got the idea.”
Mr. Thompson sat silent and chewed steadily and stared at a spot on the ground about six feet away and felt a slow muffled resentment climbing from somewhere deep down in him, climbing and spreading all through him. What was this fellow driving at? What was he trying to say? It wasn’t so much his words, but his looks and his way of talking: that droopy look in the eye, that tone of voice, as if he was trying to mortify Mr. Thompson about something. Mr. Thompson didn’t like it, but he couldn’t get hold of it either. He wanted to turn around and shove the fellow off the stump, but it wouldn’t look reasonable. Suppose something happened to the fellow when he fell off the stump, just for instance, if he fell on the ax and cut himself, and then someone should ask Mr. Thompson why he shoved him, and what could a man say? It would look mighty funny, it would sound mighty strange to say, Well him and me fell out over a plug of tobacco. He might just shove him anyhow and then tell people he was a fat man not used to the heat and while he was talking he got dizzy and fell off by himself, or something like that, and it wouldn’t be the truth either, because it wasn’t the heat and it wasn’t the tobacco. Mr. Thompson made up his mind to get the fellow off the place pretty quick, without seeming to be anxious, and watch him sharp till he was out of sight. It doesn’t pay to be friendly with strangers from another part of the country. They’re always up to something, or they’d stay at home where they belong.
“And they’s some people,” said Mr. Hatch, “would jus’ as soon have a loonatic around their house as not, they can’t see no difference between them and anybody else. I always say, if that’s the way a man feels, don’t care who he associates with, why, why, that’s his business, not mine. I don’t wanta have a thing to do with it. Now back home in North Dakota, we don’t feel that way. I’d like to a seen anybody hiring a loonatic there, aspecially after what he done.”
“I didn’t understand your home was North Dakota,” said Mr. Thompson. “I thought you said Georgia.”
“I’ve got a married sister in North Dakota,” said Mr. Hatch, “married a Swede, but a white man if ever I saw one. So I say we because we got into a little business together out that way. And it seems like home, kind of.”
“What did he do?” asked Mr. Thompson, feeling very uneasy again.
“Oh, nothin’ to speak of,” said Mr. Hatch, jovially, “jus’ went loony
“Well,” said Mr. Thompson, “I don’t deny that’s news. Yes, sir, news. But I still say somethin’ must have drove him to it. Some men make you feel like giving ’em a good killing just by lookin’ at you. His brother may a been a mean ornery cuss.”
“Brother was going to get married,” said Mr. Hatch; “used to go courtin’ his girl nights. Borrowed Mr. Helton’s harmonica to give her a serenade one evenin’, and lost it. Brand new harmonica.”
“He thinks a heap of his harmonicas,” said Mr. Thompson. “Only money he ever spends, now and then he buys hisself a new one. Must have a dozen in that shack, all kinds and sizes.”
“Brother wouldn’t buy him a new one,” said Mr. Hatch, “so Mr. Helton just ups, as I says, and runs his pitchfork through his brother. Now you know he musta been crazy to get all worked up over a little thing like that.”
“Sounds like it,” said Mr. Thompson, reluctant to agree in anything with this intrusive and disagreeable fellow. He kept thinking he couldn’t remember when he had taken such a dislike to a man on first sight.
“Seems to me you’d get pretty sick of hearin’ the same tune year in, year out,” said Mr. Hatch.
“Well, sometimes I think it wouldn’t do no harm if he learned a new one,” said Mr. Thompson, “but he don’t, so there’s nothin’ to be done about it. It’s a pretty good tune, though.”
“One of the Scandahoovians told me what it meant, that’s how I come to know,” said Mr. Hatch. “Especially that part about getting so gay you jus’ go ahead and drink up all the likker you got on hand before noon. It seems like up in them Swede countries a man carries a bottle of wine around with him as a matter of course, at least that’s the way I understood it. Those fellers will tell you anything, though—” He broke off and spat.