The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
Another girl came out looking very tired and climbed in beside her. After a short silence, the girl said in a puzzled way, “I don’t know what good it does, really. Some of them wouldn’t take anything at all. I don’t like this, do you?”
“I hate it,” said Miranda.
“I suppose it’s all right, though,” said the girl, cautiously.
“Perhaps,” said Miranda, turning cautious also.
That was for yesterday. At this point Miranda decided there was no good in thinking of yesterday, except for the hour after midnight she had spent dancing with Adam. He was in her mind so much, she hardly knew when she was thinking about him directly. His image was simply always present in more or less degree, he was sometimes nearer the surface of her thoughts, the pleasantest, the only really pleasant thought she had. She examined her face in the mirror between the windows and decided that her uneasiness was not all imagination. For three days at least she had felt odd and her expression was unfamiliar. She would have to raise that fifty dollars somehow, she supposed, or who knows what can happen? She was hardened to stories of personal disaster, of outrageous accusations and extraordinarily bitter penalties that had grown monstrously out of incidents very little more important than her failure—her refusal—to buy a Bond. No, she did not find herself a pleasing sight, flushed and shiny, and even her hair felt as if it had decided to grow in the other direction. I must do something about this, I can’t let Adam see me like this, she told herself, knowing that even now at that moment he was listening for the turn of her door knob, and he would be in the hallway, or on the porch when she came out, as if by sheerest coincidence. The noon sunlight cast cold slanting shadows in the room where, she said, I suppose I live, and this day is beginning badly, but they all do now, for one reason or another. In a drowse, she sprayed perfume on her hair, put on her moleskin cap and jacket, now in their second winter, but still good, still nice to wear, again being glad she had paid a frightening price for them. She had enjoyed them all this time, and in no case would she have had the money now. Maybe she could manage for that Bond. She could not find the lock without leaning to search for it, then stood undecided a moment possessed by the notion that she had forgotten something she would miss seriously later on.
Adam was in the hallway, a step outside his own door; he swung about as if quite startled to see her, and said, “Hello. I don’t have to go back to camp today after all—isn’t that luck?”
Miranda smiled at him gaily because she was always delighted at the sight of him. He was wearing his new uniform, and he was all olive and tan and tawny, hay colored and sand colored from hair to boots. She half noticed again that he always began by smiling at her; that his smile faded gradually; that his eyes became fixed and thoughtful as if he were reading in a poor light.
They walked out together into the fine fall day, scuffling bright ragged leaves under their feet, turning their faces up to a generous sky really blue and spotless. At the first corner they waited for a funeral to pass, the mourners seated straight and firm as if proud in their sorrow.
“I imagine I’m late,” said Miranda, “as usual. What time is it?”
“Nearly half past one,” he said, slipping back his sleeve with an exaggerated thrust of his arm upward. The young soldiers were still self-conscious about their wrist watches. Such of them as Miranda knew were boys from southern and southwestern towns, far off the Atlantic seaboard, and they had always believed that only sissies wore wrist watches. “I’ll slap you on the wrist watch,” one vaudeville comedian would simper to another, and it was always a good joke, never stale.
“I think it’s a most sensible way to carry a watch,” said Miranda. “You needn’t blush.”
“I’m nearly used to it,” said Adam, who was from Texas. “We’ve been told time and again how all the he-manly regular army men wear them. It’s the horrors of war,” he said; “are we downhearted? I’ll say we are.”
It was the kind of patter going the rounds. “You look it,” said Miranda.
He was tall and heavily muscled in the shoulders, narrow in the waist and flanks, and he was infinitely buttoned, strapped, harnessed into a uniform as tough and unyielding in cut as a straitjacket, though the cloth was fine and supple. He had his uniforms made by the best tailor he could find, he confided to Miranda one day when she told him how squish he was looking in his new soldier suit. “Hard enough to make anything of the outfit, anyhow,” he told her. “It’s the least I can do for my beloved country, not to go around looking like a tramp.” He was twenty-four years old and a Second Lieutenant in an Engineers Corps, on leave because his outfit expected to be sent over shortly. “Came in to make my will,” he told Miranda, “and get a supply of toothbrushes and razor blades. By what gorgeous luck do you suppose,” he asked her, “I happened to pick on your rooming house? How did I know you were there?”
Strolling, keeping step, his stout polished well-made boots setting themselves down firmly beside her thin-soled black suede, they put off as long as they could the end of their moment together, and kept up as well as they could their small talk that flew back and forth over little grooves worn in the thin upper surface of the brain, things you could say and hear clink reassuringly at once without disturbing the radiance which played and darted about the simple and lovely miracle of being two persons named Adam and Miranda, twenty-four years old each, alive and on the earth at the same moment: “Are you in the mood for dancing, Miranda?” and “I’m always in the mood for dancing, Adam!” but there were things in the way, the day that ended with dancing was a long way to go.
He really did look, Miranda thought, like a fine healthy apple this morning. One time or another in their talking, he had boasted that he had never had a pain in his life that he could remember. Instead of being horrified at this monster, she approved his monstrous uniqueness. As for herself, she had had too many pains to mention, so she did not mention them. After working for three years on a morning newspaper she had an illusion of maturity and experience; but it was fatigue merely, she decided, from keeping what she had been brought up to believe were unnatural hours, eating casually at dirty little restaurants, drinking bad coffee all night, and smoking too much. When she said something of her way of living to Adam, he studied her face a few seconds as if he had never seen it before, and said in a forthright way, “Why, it hasn’t hurt you a bit, I think you’re beautiful,” and left her dangling there, wondering if he had thought she wished to be praised. She did wish to be praised, but not at that moment. Adam kept unwholesome hours too, or had in the ten days they had known each other, staying awake until one o’clock to take her out for supper; he smoked also continually, though if she did not stop him he was apt to explain to her exactly what smoking did to the lungs. “But,” he said, “does it matter so much if you’re going to war, anyway?”
“No,” said Miranda, “and it matters even less if you’re staying at home knitting socks. Give me a cigarette, will you?” They paused at another corner, under a half-foliaged maple, and hardly glanced at a funeral procession approaching. His eyes were pale tan with orange flecks in them, and his hair was the color of a haystack when you turn the weathered top back to the clear straw beneath. He fished out his cigarette case and snapped his silver lighter at her, snapped it several times in his own face, and they moved on, smoking.
“I can see you knitting socks,” he said. “That would be just your speed. You know perfectly well you can’t knit.”
“I do worse,” she said, soberly; “I write pieces advising other young women to knit and roll bandages and do without sugar and help win the war.”
“Oh, well,” said Adam, with the easy masculine morals in such questions, “that’s merely your job, that doesn’t count.”
“I wonder,” said Miranda. “How did you manage to get an extension of leave?”
“They just gave it,” said Adam, “for no reason. The men are dying like flies out there, anyway. This funny new disease. Simply knocks you into a cocked
“It seems to be a plague,” said Miranda, “something out of the Middle Ages. Did you ever see so many funerals, ever?”
“Never did. Well, let’s be strong minded and not have any of it. I’ve got four days more straight from the blue and not a blade of grass must grow under our feet. What about tonight?”
“Same thing,” she told him, “but make it about half past one. I’ve got a special job beside my usual run of the mill.”
“What a job you’ve got,” said Adam, “nothing to do but run from one dizzy amusement to another and then write a piece about it.”
“Yes, it’s too dizzy for words,” said Miranda. They stood while a funeral passed, and this time they watched it in silence. Miranda pulled her cap to an angle and winked in the sunlight, her head swimming slowly “like goldfish,” she told Adam, “my head swims. I’m only half awake, I must have some coffee.”
They lounged on their elbows over the counter of a drug store. “No more cream for the stay-at-homes,” she said, “and only one lump of sugar. I’ll have two or none; that’s the kind of martyr I’m being. I mean to live on boiled cabbage and wear shoddy from now on and get in good shape for the next round. No war is going to sneak up on me again.”
“Oh, there won’t be any more wars, don’t you read the newspapers?” asked Adam. “We’re going to mop ’em up this time, and they’re going to stay mopped, and this is going to be all.”
“So they told me,” said Miranda, tasting her bitter lukewarm brew and making a rueful face. Their smiles approved of each other, they felt they had got the right tone, they were taking the war properly. Above all, thought Miranda, no tooth-gnashing, no hair-tearing, it’s noisy and unbecoming and it doesn’t get you anywhere.
“Swill,” said Adam rudely, pushing back his cup. “Is that all you’re having for breakfast?”
“It’s more than I want,” said Miranda.
“I had buckwheat cakes, with sausage and maple syrup, and two bananas, and two cups of coffee, at eight o’clock, and right now, again, I feel like a famished orphan left in the ashcan. I’m all set,” said Adam, “for broiled steak and fried potatoes and—”
“Don’t go on with it,” said Miranda, “it sounds delirious to me. Do all that after I’m gone.” She slipped from the high seat, leaned against it slightly, glanced at her face in her round mirror, rubbed rouge on her lips and decided that she was past praying for.
“There’s something terribly wrong,” she told Adam. “I feel too rotten. It can’t just be the weather, and the war.”
“The weather is perfect,” said Adam, “and the war is simply too good to be true. But since when? You were all right yesterday.”
“I don’t know,” she said slowly, her voice sounding small and thin. They stopped as always at the open door before the flight of littered steps leading up to the newspaper loft. Miranda listened for a moment to the rattle of typewriters above, the steady rumble of presses below. “I wish we were going to spend the whole afternoon on a park bench,” she said, “or drive to the mountains.”
“I do too,” he said; “let’s do that tomorrow.”
“Yes, tomorrow, unless something else happens. I’d like to run away,” she told him; “let’s both.”
“Me?” said Adam. “Where I’m going there’s no running to speak of. You mostly crawl about on your stomach here and there among the debris. You know, barbed wire and such stuff. It’s going to be the kind of thing that happens once in a lifetime.” He reflected a moment, and went on, “I don’t know a darned thing about it, really, but they make it sound awfully messy. I’ve heard so much about it I feel as if I had been there and back. It’s going to be an anticlimax,” he said, “like seeing the pictures of a place so often you can’t see it at all when you actually get there. Seems to me I’ve been in the army all my life.”
Six months, he meant. Eternity. He looked so clear and fresh, and he had never had a pain in his life. She had seen them when they had been there and back and they never looked like this again. “Already the returned hero,” she said, “and don’t I wish you were.”
“When I learned the use of the bayonet in my first training camp,” said Adam, “I gouged the vitals out of more sandbags and sacks of hay than I could keep track of. They kept bawling at us, ‘Get him, get that Boche, stick him before he sticks you’—and we’d go for those sandbags like wildfire, and honestly, sometimes I felt a perfect fool for getting so worked up when I saw the sand trickling out. I used to wake up in the night sometimes feeling silly about it.”
“I can imagine,” said Miranda. “It’s perfect nonsense.” They lingered, unwilling to say good-by. After a little pause, Adam, as if keeping up the conversation, asked, “Do you know what the average life expectation of a sapping party is after it hits the job?”
“Something speedy, I suppose.”
“Just nine minutes,” said Adam; “I read that in your own newspaper not a week ago.”
“Make it ten and I’ll come along,” said Miranda.
“Not another second,” said Adam, “exactly nine minutes, take it or leave it.”
“Stop bragging,” said Miranda. “Who figured that out?”
“A noncombatant,” said Adam, “a fellow with rickets.”
This seemed very comic, they laughed and leaned towards each other and Miranda heard herself being a little shrill. She wiped the tears from her eyes. “My, it’s a funny war,” she said; “isn’t it? I laugh every time I think about it.”
Adam took her hand in both of his and pulled a little at the tips of her gloves and sniffed them. “What nice perfume you have,” he said, “and such a lot of it, too. I like a lot of perfume on gloves and hair,” he said, sniffing again.
“I’ve got probably too much,” she said. “I can’t smell or see or hear today. I must have a fearful cold.”
“Don’t catch cold,” said Adam; “my leave is nearly up and it will be the last, the very last.” She moved her fingers in her gloves as he pulled at the fingers and turned her hands as if they were something new and curious and of great value, and she turned shy and quiet. She liked him, she liked him, and there was more than this but it was no good even imagining, because he was not for her nor for any woman, being beyond experience already, committed without any knowledge or act of his own to death. She took back her hands. “Good-by,” she said finally, “until tonight.”
She ran upstairs and looked back from the top. He was still watching her, and raised his hand without smiling. Miranda hardly ever saw anyone look back after he had said good-by. She could not help turning sometimes for one glimpse more of the person she had been talking with, as if that would save too rude and too sudden a snapping of even the lightest bond. But people hurried away, their faces already changed, fixed, in their straining towards their next stopping place, already absorbed in planning their next act or encounter. Adam was waiting as if he expected her to turn, and under his brows fixed in a strained frown, his eyes were very black.
At her desk she sat without taking off jacket or cap, slitting envelopes and pretending to read the letters. Only Chuck Rouncivale, the sports reporter, and Ye Towne Gossyp were sitting on her desk today, and them she liked having there. She sat on theirs when she pleased. Towney and Chuck were talking and they went on with it.
“They say,” said Towney, “that it is really caused by germs brought by a German ship to Boston, a camouflaged ship, naturally, it didn’t come in under its own colors. Isn’t that ridiculous?”
“Maybe it was a submarine,” said Chuck, “sneaking in from the bottom of the sea in the dead of night. Now that sounds better.”
“Yes, it does,” said Towney; “they always slip up somewhere in these details. . . and they think the germs were sprayed over the city—it started in Boston, you know—and somebody reported seeing a strange, thick, greasy-looking cloud float up out of Boston Harbor and spread slowly all over that end of town. I think it was an old woman who saw it.”