The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  “Should have been,” said Chuck.

  “I read it in a New York newspaper,” said Towney; “so it’s bound to be true.”

  Chuck and Miranda laughed so loudly at this that Bill stood up and glared at them. “Towney still reads the newspapers,” explained Chuck.

  “Well, what’s funny about that?” asked Bill, sitting down again and frowning into the clutter before him.

  “It was a noncombatant saw that cloud,” said Miranda.

  “Naturally,” said Towney.

  “Member of the Lusk Committee, maybe,” said Miranda.

  “The Angel of Mons,” said Chuck, “or a dollar-a-year man.”

  Miranda wished to stop hearing, and talking, she wished to think for just five minutes of her own about Adam, really to think about him, but there was no time. She had seen him first ten days ago, and since then they had been crossing streets together, darting between trucks and limousines and pushcarts and farm wagons; he had waited for her in doorways and in little restaurants that smelled of stale frying fat; they had eaten and danced to the urgent whine and bray of jazz orchestras, they had sat in dull theaters because Miranda was there to write a piece about the play. Once they had gone to the mountains and, leaving the car, had climbed a stony trail, and had come out on a ledge upon a flat stone, where they sat and watched the lights change on a valley landscape that was, no doubt, Miranda said, quite apocryphal—“We need not believe it, but it is fine poetry,” she told him; they had leaned their shoulders together there, and had sat quite still, watching. On two Sundays they had gone to the geological museum, and had pored in shared fascination over bits of meteors, rock formations, fossilized tusks and trees, Indian arrows, grottoes from the silver and gold lodes. “Think of those old miners washing out their fortunes in little pans beside the streams,” said Adam, “and inside the earth there was this—” and he had told her he liked better those things that took long to make; he loved airplanes too, all sorts of machinery, things carved out of wood or stone. He knew nothing much about them, but he recognized them when he saw them. He had confessed that he simply could not get through a book, any kind of book except textbooks on engineering; reading bored him to crumbs; he regretted now he hadn’t brought his roadster, but he hadn’t thought he would need a car; he loved driving, he wouldn’t expect her to believe how many hundreds of miles he could get over in a day. . . he had showed her snapshots of himself at the wheel of his roadster; of himself sailing a boat, looking very free and windblown, all angles, hauling on the ropes; he would have joined the air force, but his mother had hysterics every time he mentioned it. She didn’t seem to realize that dog fighting in the air was a good deal safer than sapping parties on the ground at night. But he hadn’t argued, because of course she did not realize about sapping parties. And here he was, stuck, on a plateau a mile high with no water for a boat and his car at home, otherwise they could really have had a good time. Miranda knew he was trying to tell her what kind of person he was when he had his machinery with him. She felt she knew pretty well what kind of person he was, and would have liked to tell him that if he thought he had left himself at home in a boat or an automobile, he was much mistaken. The telephones were ringing, Bill was shouting at somebody who kept saying, “Well, but listen, well, but listen—” but nobody was going to listen, of course, nobody. Old man Gibbons bellowed in despair, “Jarge, Jarge—”

  “Just the same,” Towney was saying in her most complacent patriotic voice. “Hut Service is a fine idea, and we should all volunteer even if they don’t want us.” Towney does well at this, thought Miranda, look at her; remembering the rose-colored sweater and the tight rebellious face in the cloakroom. Towney was now all open-faced glory and goodness, willing to sacrifice herself for her country. “After all,” said Towney, “I can sing and dance well enough for the Little Theater, and I could write their letters for them, and at a pinch I might drive an ambulance. I have driven a Ford for years.”

  Miranda joined in: “Well, I can sing and dance too, but who’s going to do the bed-making and the scrubbing up? Those huts are hard to keep, and it would be a dirty job and we’d be perfectly miserable; and as I’ve got a hard dirty job and am perfectly miserable, I’m going to stay at home.”

  “I think the women should keep out of it,” said Chuck Rouncivale. “They just add skirts to the horrors of war.” Chuck had bad lungs and fretted a good deal about missing the show. “I could have been there and back with a leg off by now; it would have served the old man right. Then he’d either have to buy his own hooch or sober up.”

  Miranda had seen Chuck on pay day giving the old man money for hooch. He was a good-humored ingratiating old scoundrel, too, that was the worst of him. He slapped his son on the back and beamed upon him with the bleared eye of paternal affection while he took his last nickel.

  “It was Florence Nightingale ruined wars,” Chuck went on. “What’s the idea of petting soldiers and binding up their wounds and soothing their fevered brows? That’s not war. Let ’em perish where they fall. That’s what they’re there for.”

  “You can talk,” said Towney, with a slantwise glint at him.

  “What’s the idea?” asked Chuck, flushing and hunching his shoulders. “You know I’ve got this lung, or maybe half of it anyway by now.”

  “You’re much too sensitive,” said Towney. “I didn’t mean a thing.”

  Bill had been raging about, chewing his half-smoked cigar, his hair standing up in a brush, his eyes soft and lambent but wild, like a stag’s. He would never, thought Miranda, be more than fourteen years old if he lived for a century, which he would not, at the rate he was going. He behaved exactly like city editors in the moving pictures, even to the chewed cigar. Had he formed his style on the films, or had scenario writers seized once for all on the type Bill in its inarguable purity? Bill was shouting to Chuck: “And if he comes back here take him up the alley and saw his head off by hand!”

  Chuck said, “He’ll be back, don’t worry.” Bill said mildly, already off on another track, “Well, saw him off.” Towney went to her own desk, but Chuck sat waiting amiably to be taken to the new vaudeville show. Miranda, with two tickets, always invited one of the reporters to go with her on Monday. Chuck was lavishly hardboiled and professional in his sports writing, but he had told Miranda that he didn’t give a damn about sports, really; the job kept him out in the open, and paid him enough to buy the old man’s hooch. He preferred shows and didn’t see why women always had the job.

  “Who does Bill want sawed today?” asked Miranda.

  “That hoofer you panned in this morning’s,” said Chuck. “He was up here bright and early asking for the guy that writes up show business. He said he was going to take the goof who wrote that piece up the alley and bop him in the nose. He said. . .”

  “I hope he’s gone,” said Miranda; “I do hope he had to catch a train.”

  Chuck stood up and arranged his maroon-colored turtlenecked sweater, glanced down at the peasoup tweed plus fours and the hobnailed tan boots which he hoped would help to disguise the fact that he had a bad lung and didn’t care for sports, and said, “He’s long gone by now, don’t worry. Let’s get going; you’re late as usual.”

  Miranda, facing about, almost stepped on the toes of a little drab man in a derby hat. He might have been a pretty fellow once, but now his mouth drooped where he had lost his side teeth, and his sad red-rimmed eyes had given up coquetry. A thin brown wave of hair was combed out with brilliantine and curled against the rim of the derby. He didn’t move his feet, but stood planted with a kind of inert resistance, and asked Miranda: “Are you the so-called dramatic critic on this hick newspaper?”

  “I’m afraid I am,” said Miranda.

  “Well,” said the little man, “I’m just asking for one minute of your valuable time.” His underlip shot out, he began with shaking hands to fish about in his waistcoat pocket. “I just hate to let you get away with it, that’s all.” He riffled through a collection
of shabby newspaper clippings. “Just give these the once-over, will you? And then let me ask you if you think I’m gonna stand for being knocked by a tanktown critic,” he said, in a toneless voice; “look here, here’s Buffalo, Chicago, Saint Looey, Philadelphia, Frisco, besides New York. Here’s the best publications in the business, Variety, the Billboard, they all broke down and admitted that Danny Dickerson knows his stuff. So you don’t think so, hey? That’s all I wanta ask you.”

  “No, I don’t,” said Miranda, as bluntly as she could, “and I can’t stop to talk about it.”

  The little man leaned nearer, his voice shook as if he had been nervous for a long time. “Look here, what was there you didn’t like about me? Tell me that.”

  Miranda said, “You shouldn’t pay any attention at all. What does it matter what I think?”

  “I don’t care what you think, it ain’t that,” said the little man, “but these things get round and booking agencies back East don’t know how it is out here. We get panned in the sticks and they think it’s the same as getting panned in Chicago, see? They don’t know the difference. They don’t know that the more high class an act is the more the hick critics pan it. But I’ve been called the best in the business by the best in the business and I wanta know what you think is wrong with me.”

  Chuck said, “Come on, Miranda, curtain’s going up.” Miranda handed the little man his clippings, they were mostly ten years old, and tried to edge past him. He stepped before her again and said without much conviction, “If you was a man I’d knock your block off.” Chuck got up at that and lounged over, taking his hands out of his pockets, and said, “Now you’ve done your song and dance you’d better get out. Get the hell out now before I throw you downstairs.”

  The little man pulled at the top of his tie, a small blue tie with red polka dots, slightly frayed at the knot. He pulled it straight and repeated as if he had rehearsed it, “Come out in the alley.” The tears filled his thickened red lids. Chuck said, “Ah, shut up,” and followed Miranda, who was running towards the stairs. He overtook her on the sidewalk. “I left him sniveling and shuffling his publicity trying to find the joker,” said Chuck, “the poor old heel.”

  Miranda said, “There’s too much of everything in this world just now. I’d like to sit down here on the curb, Chuck, and die, and never again see—I wish I could lose my memory and forget my own name. . . I wish—”

  Chuck said, “Tough up, Miranda. This is no time to cave in. Forget that fellow. For every hundred people in show business, there are ninety-nine like him. But you don’t manage right, anyway. You bring it on yourself. All you have to do is play up the headliners, and you needn’t even mention the also-rans. Try to keep in mind that Rypinsky has got show business cornered in this town; please Rypinsky and you’ll please the advertising department, please them and you’ll get a raise. Hand-in-glove, my poor dumb child, will you never learn?”

  “I seem to keep learning all the wrong things,” said Miranda, hopelessly.

  “You do for a fact,” Chuck told her cheerfully. “You are as good at it as I ever saw. Now do you feel better?”

  “This is a rotten show you’ve invited me to,” said Chuck. “Now what are you going to do about it? If I were writing it up, I’d—”

  “Do write it up,” said Miranda. “You write it up this time. I’m getting ready to leave, anyway, but don’t tell anybody yet.”

  “You mean it? All my life,” said Chuck, “I’ve yearned to be a so-called dramatic critic on a hick newspaper, and this is positively my first chance.”

  “Better take it,” Miranda told him. “It may be your last.” She thought, This is the beginning of the end of something. Something terrible is going to happen to me. I shan’t need bread and butter where I’m going. I’ll will it to Chuck, he has a venerable father to buy hooch for. I hope they let him have it. Oh, Adam, I hope I see you once more before I go under with whatever is the matter with me. “I wish the war were over,” she said to Chuck, as if they had been talking about that. “I wish it were over and I wish it had never begun.”

  Chuck had got out his pad and pencil and was already writing his review. What she had said seemed safe enough but how would he take it? “I don’t care how it started or when it ends,” said Chuck, scribbling away, “I’m not going to be there.”

  All the rejected men talked like that, thought Miranda. War was the one thing they wanted, now they couldn’t have it. Maybe they had wanted badly to go, some of them. All of them had a sidelong eye for the women they talked with about it, a guarded resentment which said, “Don’t pin a white feather on me, you bloodthirsty female. I’ve offered my meat to the crows and they won’t have it.” The worst thing about war for the stay-at-homes is there isn’t anyone to talk to any more. The Lusk Committee will get you if you don’t watch out. Bread will win the war. Work will win, sugar will win, peach pits will win the war. Nonsense. Not nonsense, I tell you, there’s some kind of valuable high explosive to be got out of peach pits. So all the happy housewives hurry during the canning season to lay their baskets of peach pits on the altar of their country. It keeps them busy and makes them feel useful, and all these women running wild with the men away are dangerous, if they aren’t given something to keep their little minds out of mischief. So rows of young girls, the intact cradles of the future, with their pure serious faces framed becomingly in Red Cross wimples, roll cock-eyed bandages that will never reach a base hospital, and knit sweaters that will never warm a manly chest, their minds dwelling lovingly on all the blood and mud and the next dance at the Acanthus Club for the officers of the flying corps. Keeping still and quiet will win the war.

  “I’m simply not going to be there,” said Chuck, absorbed in his review. No, Adam will be there, thought Miranda. She slipped down in the chair and leaned her head against the dusty plush, closed her eyes and faced for one instant that was a lifetime the certain, the overwhelming and awful knowledge that there was nothing at all ahead for Adam and for her. Nothing. She opened her eyes and held her hands together palms up, gazing at them and trying to understand oblivion.

  “Now look at this,” said Chuck, for the lights had come on and the audience was rustling and talking again. “I’ve got it all done, even before the headliner comes on. It’s old Stella Mayhew, and she’s always good, she’s been good for forty years, and she’s going to sing ‘O the blues ain’t nothin’ but the easygoing heart disease.’ That’s all you need to know about her. Now just glance over this. Would you be willing to sign it?”

  Miranda took the pages and stared at them conscientiously, turning them over, she hoped, at the right moment, and gave them back. “Yes, Chuck, yes, I’d sign that. But I won’t. We must tell Bill you wrote it, because it’s your start, maybe.”

  “You don’t half appreciate it,” said Chuck. “You read it too fast. Here, listen to this—” and he began to mutter excitedly. While he was reading she watched his face. It was a pleasant face with some kind of spark of life in it, and a good severity in the modeling of the brow above the nose. For the first time since she had known him she wondered what Chuck was thinking about. He looked preoccupied and unhappy, he wasn’t so frivolous as he sounded. The people were crowding into the aisle, bringing out their cigarette cases ready to strike a match the instant they reached the lobby; women with waved hair clutched at their wraps, men stretched their chins to ease them of their stiff collars, and Chuck said, “We might as well go now.” Miranda, buttoning her jacket, stepped into the moving crowd, thinking, What did I ever know about them? There must be a great many of them here who think as I do, and we dare not say a word to each other of our desperation, we are speechless animals letting ourselves be destroyed, and why? Does anybody here believe the things we say to each other?

  Stretched in unease on the ridge of the wicker couch in the cloakroom, Miranda waited for time to pass and leave Adam with her. Time seemed to proceed with more than usual eccentricity, leaving twilight gaps in her mind for thirty minutes
which seemed like a second, and then hard flashes of light that shone clearly on her watch proving that three minutes is an intolerable stretch of waiting, as if she were hanging by her thumbs. At last it was reasonable to imagine Adam stepping out of the house in the early darkness into the blue mist that might soon be rain, he would be on the way, and there was nothing to think about him, after all. There was only the wish to see him and the fear, the present threat, of not seeing him again; for every step they took towards each other seemed perilous, drawing them apart instead of together, as a swimmer in spite of his most determined strokes is yet drawn slowly backward by the tide. “I don’t want to love,” she would think in spite of herself, “not Adam, there is no time and we are not ready for it and yet this is all we have—”

  And there he was on the sidewalk, with his foot on the first step, and Miranda almost ran down to meet him. Adam, holding her hands, asked, “Do you feel well now? Are you hungry? Are you tired? Will you feel like dancing after the show?”

  “Yes to everything,” said Miranda, “yes, yes. . . .” Her head was like a feather, and she steadied herself on his arm. The mist was still mist that might be rain later, and though the air was sharp and clean in her mouth, it did not, she decided, make breathing any easier. “I hope the show is good, or at least funny,” she told him, “but I promise nothing.”

  It was a long, dreary play, but Adam and Miranda sat very quietly together waiting patiently for it to be over. Adam carefully and seriously pulled off her glove and held her hand as if he were accustomed to holding her hand in theaters. Once they turned and their eyes met, but only once, and the two pairs of eyes were equally steady and noncommittal. A deep tremor set up in Miranda, and she set about resisting herself methodically as if she were closing windows and doors and fastening down curtains against a rising storm. Adam sat watching the monotonous play with a strange shining excitement, his face quite fixed and still.

  When the curtain rose for the third act, the third act did not take place at once. There was instead disclosed a backdrop almost covered with an American flag improperly and disrespectfully exposed, nailed at each upper corner, gathered in the middle and nailed again, sagging dustily. Before it posed a local dollar-a-year man, now doing his bit as a Liberty Bond salesman. He was an ordinary man past middle life, with a neat little melon buttoned into his trousers and waistcoat, an opinionated tight mouth, a face and figure in which nothing could be read save the inept sensual record of fifty years. But for once in his life he was an important fellow in an impressive situation, and he reveled, rolling his words in an actorish tone.

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