The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
“Looks like a penguin,” said Adam. They moved, smiled at each other, Miranda reclaimed her hand, Adam folded his together and they prepared to wear their way again through the same old moldy speech with the same old dusty backdrop. Miranda tried not to listen, but she heard. These vile Huns—glorious Belleau Wood—our keyword is Sacrifice—Martyred Belgium—give till it hurts—our noble boys Over There—Big Berthas—the death of civilization—the Boche—
“My head aches,” whispered Miranda. “Oh, why won’t he hush?”
“He won’t,” whispered Adam. “I’ll get you some aspirin.”
“In Flanders Field the poppies grow, Between the crosses row on row”—“He’s getting into the home stretch,” whispered Adam—atrocities, innocent babes hoisted on Boche bayonets—your child and my child—if our children are spared these things, then let us say with all reverence that these dead have not died in vain—the war, the war, the WAR to end WAR, war for Democracy, for humanity, a safe world forever and ever—and to prove our faith in Democracy to each other, and to the world, let everybody get together and buy Liberty Bonds and do without sugar and wool socks—was that it? Miranda asked herself, Say that over, I didn’t catch the last line. Did you mention Adam? If you didn’t I’m not interested. What about Adam, you little pig? And what are we going to sing this time, “Tipperary” or “There’s a Long, Long Trail”? Oh, please do let the show go on and get over with. I must write a piece about it before I can go dancing with Adam and we have no time. Coal, oil, iron, gold, international finance, why don’t you tell us about them, you little liar?
The audience rose and sang, “There’s a Long, Long Trail A-winding,” their opened mouths black and faces pallid in the reflected footlights; some of the faces grimaced and wept and had shining streaks like snail’s tracks on them. Adam and Miranda joined in at the tops of their voices, grinning shamefacedly at each other once or twice.
In the street, they lit their cigarettes and walked slowly as always. “Just another nasty old man who would like to see the young ones killed,” said Miranda in a low voice; “the tom-cats try to eat the little tom-kittens, you know. They don’t fool you really, do they, Adam?”
The young people were talking like that about the business by then. They felt they were seeing pretty clearly through that game. She went on, “I hate these potbellied baldheads, too fat, too old, too cowardly, to go to war themselves, they know they’re safe; it’s you they are sending instead—”
Adam turned eyes of genuine surprise upon her. “Oh, that one,” he said. “Now what could the poor sap do if they did take him? It’s not his fault,” he explained “he can’t do anything but talk.” His pride in his youth, his forbearance and tolerance and contempt for that unlucky being breathed out of his very pores as he strolled, straight and relaxed in his strength. “What could you expect of him, Miranda?”
She spoke his name often, and he spoke hers rarely. The little shock of pleasure the sound of her name in his mouth gave her stopped her answer. For a moment she hesitated, and began at another point of attack. “Adam,” she said, “the worst of war is the fear and suspicion and the awful expression in all the eyes you meet. . . as if they had pulled down the shutters over their minds and their hearts and were peering out at you, ready to leap if you make one gesture or say one word they do not understand instantly. It frightens me; I live in fear too, and no one should have to live in fear. It’s the skulking about, and the lying. It’s what war does to the mind and the heart, Adam, and you can’t separate these two—what it does to them is worse than what it can do to the body.”
Adam said soberly, after a moment, “Oh, yes, but suppose one comes back whole? The mind and the heart sometimes get another chance, but if anything happens to the poor old human frame, why, it’s just out of luck, that’s all.”
“Oh, yes,” mimicked Miranda. “It’s just out of luck, that’s all.”
“If I didn’t go,” said Adam, in a matter-of-fact voice, “I couldn’t look myself in the face.”
So that’s all settled. With her fingers flattened on his arm, Miranda was silent, thinking about Adam. No, there was no resentment or revolt in him. Pure, she thought, all the way through, flawless, complete, as the sacrificial lamb must be. The sacrificial lamb strode along casually, accommodating his long pace to hers, keeping her on the inside of the walk in the good American style, helping her across street corners as if she were a cripple—“I hope we don’t come to a mud puddle, he’ll carry me over it”—giving off whiffs of tobacco smoke, a manly smell of scentless soap, freshly cleaned leather and freshly washed skin, breathing through his nose and carrying his chest easily. He threw back his head and smiled into the sky which still misted, promising rain. “Oh, boy,” he said, “what a night. Can’t you hurry that review of yours so we can get started?”
He waited for her before a cup of coffee in the restaurant next to the pressroom, nicknamed The Greasy Spoon. When she came down at last, freshly washed and combed and powdered, she saw Adam first, sitting near the dingy big window, face turned to the street, but looking down. It was an extraordinary face, smooth and fine and golden in the shabby light, but now set in a blind melancholy, a look of pained suspense and disillusion. For just one split second she got a glimpse of Adam when he would have been older, the face of the man he would not live to be. He saw her then, rose, and the bright glow was there.
Adam pulled their chairs together at their table; they drank hot tea and listened to the orchestra jazzing “Pack Up Your Troubles.”
“In an old kit bag, and smoil, smoil, smoil,” shouted half a dozen boys under the draft age, gathered around a table near the orchestra. They yelled incoherently, laughed in great hysterical bursts of something that appeared to be merriment, and passed around under the tablecloth flat bottles containing a clear liquid—for in this western city founded and built by roaring drunken miners, no one was allowed to take his alcohol openly—splashed it into their tumblers of ginger ale, and went on singing, “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.” When the tune changed to “Madelon,” Adam said, “Let’s dance.” It was a tawdry little place, crowded and hot and full of smoke, but there was nothing better. The music was gay; and life is completely crazy anyway, thought Miranda, so what does it matter? This is what we have, Adam and I, this is all we’re going to get, this is the way it is with us. She wanted to say, “Adam, come out of your dream and listen to me. I have pains in my chest and my head and my heart and they’re real. I am in pain all over, and you are in such danger as I can’t bear to think about, and why can we not save each other?” When her hand tightened on his shoulder his arm tightened about her waist instantly, and stayed there, holding firmly. They said nothing but smiled continually at each other, odd changing smiles as though they had found a new language. Miranda, her face near Adam’s shoulder, noticed a dark young pair sitting at a corner table, each with an arm around the waist of the other, their heads together, their eyes staring at the same thing, whatever it was, that hovered in space before them. Her right hand lay on the table, his hand over it, and her face was a blur with weeping. Now and then he raised her hand and kissed it, and set it down and held it, and her eyes would fill again. They were not shameless, they had merely forgotten where they were, or they had no other place to go, perhaps. They said not a word, and the small pantomime repeated itself, like a melancholy short film running monotonously over and over again. Miranda envied them. She envied that girl. At least she can weep if that helps, and he does not even have to ask, What is the matter? Tell me. They had cups of coffee before them, and after a long while—Miranda and Adam had danced and sat down again twice—when the coffee was quite cold, they drank it suddenly, then embraced as before, without a word and scarcely a glance at each other. Something was done and settled between them, at least; it was enviable, enviable, that they could sit quietly together and have the same expression on their faces while they looked into the hell they shared, no matter what kind of hell, it was theirs, they w
At the table nearest Adam and Miranda a young woman was leaning on her elbow, telling her young man a story. “And I don’t like him because he’s too fresh. He kept on asking me to take a drink and I kept telling him, I don’t drink and he said, Now look here, I want a drink the worst way and I think it’s mean of you not to drink with me, I can’t sit up here and drink by myself, he said. I told him, You’re not by yourself in the first place; I like that, I said, and if you want a drink go ahead and have it, I told him, why drag me in? So he called the waiter and ordered ginger ale and two glasses and I drank straight ginger ale like I always do but he poured a shot of hooch in his. He was awfully proud of that hooch, said he made it himself out of potatoes. Nice homemade likker, warm from the pipe, he told me, three drops of this and your ginger ale will taste like Mumm’s Extry. But I said, No, and I mean no, can’t you get that through your bean? He took another drink and said, Ah, come on, honey, don’t be so stubborn, this’ll make your shimmy shake. So I just got tired of the argument, and I said, I don’t need to drink, to shake my shimmy, I can strut my stuff on tea, I said. Well, why don’t you then, he wanted to know, and I just told him—”
She knew she had been asleep for a long time when all at once without even a warning footstep or creak of the door hinge, Adam was in the room turning on the light, and she knew it was he, though at first she was blinded and turned her head away. He came over at once and sat on the side of the bed and began to talk as if he were going on with something they had been talking about before. He crumpled a square of paper and tossed it in the fireplace.
“You didn’t get my note,” he said. “I left it under the door. I was called back suddenly to camp for a lot of inoculations. They kept me longer than I expected, I was late. I called the office and they told me you were not coming in today. I called Miss Hobbe here and she said you were in bed and couldn’t come to the telephone. Did she give you my message?”
“No,” said Miranda drowsily, “but I think I have been asleep all day. Oh, I do remember. There was a doctor here. Bill sent him. I was at the telephone once, for Bill told me he would send an ambulance and have me taken to the hospital. The doctor tapped my chest and left a prescription and said he would be back, but he hasn’t come.”
“Where is it, the prescription?” asked Adam.
“I don’t know. He left it, though, I saw him.”
Adam moved about searching the tables and the mantelpiece. “Here it is,” he said. “I’ll be back in a few minutes. I must look for an all-night drug store. It’s after one o’clock. Good-by.”
Good-by, good-by. Miranda watched the door where he had disappeared for quite a while, then closed her eyes, and thought, When I am not here I cannot remember anything about this room where I have lived for nearly a year, except that the curtains are too thin and there was never any way of shutting out the morning light. Miss Hobbe had promised heavier curtains, but they had never appeared. When Miranda in her dressing gown had been at the telephone that morning, Miss Hobbe had passed through, carrying a tray. She was a little red-haired nervously friendly creature, and her manner said all too plainly that the place was not paying and she was on the ragged edge.
“My dear child,” she said sharply, with a glance at Miranda’s attire, “what is the matter?”
Miranda, with the receiver to her ear, said, “Influenza, I think.”
“Horrors,” said Miss Hobbe, in a whisper, and the tray wavered in her hands. “Go back to bed at once. . . go at once!”
“I must talk to Bill first,” Miranda had told her, and Miss Hobbe had hurried on and had not returned. Bill had shouted directions at her, promising everything, doctor, nurse, ambulance, hospital, her check every week as usual, everything, but she was to get back to bed and stay there. She dropped into bed, thinking that Bill was the only person she had ever seen who actually tore his own hair when he was excited enough. . . I suppose I should ask to be sent home, she thought, it’s a respectable old custom to inflict your death on the family if you can manage it. No, I’ll stay here, this is my business, but not in this room, I hope. . . l wish I were in the cold mountains in the snow, that’s what I should like best; and all about her rose the measured ranges of the Rockies wearing their perpetual snow, their majestic blue laurels of cloud, chilling her to the bone with their sharp breath. Oh, no, I must have warmth—and her memory turned and roved after another place she had known first and loved best, that now she could see only in drifting fragments of palm and cedar, dark shadows and a sky that warmed without dazzling, as this strange sky had dazzled without warming her; there was the long slow wavering of gray moss in the drowsy oak shade, the spacious hovering of buzzards overhead, the smell of crushed water herbs along a bank, and without warning a broad tranquil river into which flowed all the rivers she had known. The walls shelved away in one deliberate silent movement on either side, and a tall sailing ship was moored near by, with a gangplank weathered to blackness touching the foot of her bed. Back of the ship was jungle, and even as it appeared before her, she knew it was all she had ever read or had been told or felt or thought about jungles; a writhing terribly alive and secret place of death, creeping with tangles of spotted serpents, rainbow-colored birds with malign eyes, leopards with humanly wise faces and extravagantly crested lions; screaming long-armed monkeys tumbling among broad fleshy leaves that glowed with sulphur-colored light and exuded the ichor of death, and rotting trunks of unfamiliar trees sprawled in crawling slime. Without surprise, watching from her pillow, she saw herself run swiftly down this gangplank to the slanting deck, and standing there, she leaned on the rail and waved gaily to herself in bed, and the slender ship spread its wings and sailed away into the jungle. The air trembled with the shattering scream and the hoarse bellow of voices all crying together, rolling and colliding above her like ragged storm-clouds, and the words became two words only rising and falling and clamoring about her head. Danger, danger, danger, the voices said, and War, war, war. There was her door half open, Adam standing with his hand on the knob, and Miss Hobbe with her face all out of shape with terror was crying shrilly, “I tell you, they must come for her now, or I’ll put her on the sidewalk. . . I tell you, this is a plague, a plague, my God, and I’ve got a houseful of people to think about!”
Adam said, “I know that. They’ll come for her tomorrow morning.”
“Tomorrow morning, my God, they’d better come now!”
“They can’t get an ambulance,” said Adam, “and there aren’t any beds. And we can’t find a doctor or a nurse. They’re all busy. That’s all there is to it. You stay out of the room, and I’ll look after her.”
“Yes, you’ll look after her, I can see that,” said Miss Hobbe, in a particularly unpleasant tone.
“Yes, that’s what I said,” answered Adam, drily, “and you keep out.”
He closed the door carefully. He was carrying an assortment of misshapen packages, and his face was astonishingly impassive.
“Did you hear that?” be asked, leaning over and speaking very quietly.
“Most of it,” said Miranda, “it’s a nice prospect, isn’t it?”
“I’ve got your medicine,” said Adam, “and you’re to begin with it this minute. She can’t put you out.”
“So it’s really as bad as that,” said Miranda.
“It’s as bad as anything can be,” said Adam, “all the theaters and nearly all the shops and restaurants are closed, and the streets have been full of funerals all day and ambulances all night—”
“But not one for me,” said Miranda, feeling hilarious and lightheaded. She sat up and beat her pillow into shape and reached for her robe. “I’m glad you’re here, I’ve been having a nightmare. Give me a cigarette, will you, and light one for yourself and open all the windows and sit near one of them. You’re running a risk,” she told him, “don’t you know that? Why do you do it?”
“Never mind,” said Adam, “take your medicine,” and offered her two large cherr
“There are two more kinds yet,” said Adam, pulling her hands from her face and lifting her chin. “You’ve hardly begun. And I’ve got other things, like orange juice and ice cream—they told me to feed you ice cream—and coffee in a thermos bottle, and a thermometer. You have to work through the whole lot so you’d better take it easy.”
“This time last night we were dancing,” said Miranda, and drank something from a spoon. Her eyes followed him about the room, as he did things for her with an absent-minded face, like a man alone; now and again he would come back, and slipping his hand under her head, would hold a cup or a tumbler to her mouth, and she drank, and followed him with her eyes again, without a clear notion of what was happening.
“Adam,” she said, “I’ve just thought of something. Maybe they forgot St. Luke’s Hospital. Call the sisters there and ask them not to be so selfish with their silly old rooms. Tell them I only want a very small dark ugly one for three days, or less. Do try them, Adam.”