The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  The little boy went out into the garden and sat on a green bench dangling his legs. He was clean. His hair was wet and his blue woolly pull-over made his nose itch. His face felt stiff from the soap. He saw Marjory going past a window with the black tray. The curtains were still closed at the window he knew opened into Mama’s room. Papa’s room. Mommanpoppasroom, the word was pleasant, it made a mumbling snapping noise between his lips; it ran in his mind while his eyes wandered about looking for something to do, something to play with.

  Mommanpoppas’ voices kept attracting his attention. Mama was being cross with Papa again. He could tell by the sound. That was what Marjory always said when their voices rose and fell and shot up to a point and crashed and rolled like the two tomcats who fought at night. Papa was being cross, too, much crosser than Mama this time. He grew cold and disturbed and sat very still, wanting to go to the bathroom, but it was just next to Mommanpoppasroom; he didn’t dare think of it. As the voices grew louder he could hardly hear them any more, he wanted so badly to go to the bathroom. The kitchen door opened suddenly and Marjory ran out, making the motion with her hand that meant he was to come to her. He didn’t move. She came to him, her face still red and frowning, but she was not angry; she was scared just as he was. She said, “Come on, honey, we’ve got to go to your gran’ma’s again.” She took his hand and pulled him. “Come on quick, your gran’ma is waiting for you.” He slid off the bench. His mother’s voice rose in a terrible scream, screaming something he could not understand, but she was furious; he had seen her clenching her fists and stamping in one spot, screaming with her eyes shut; he knew how she looked. She was screaming in a tantrum, just as he remembered having heard himself. He stood still, doubled over, and all his body seemed to dissolve, sickly, from the pit of his stomach.

  “Oh, my God,” said Marjory. “Oh, my God. Now look at you. Oh, my God. I can’t stop to clean you up.”

  He did not know how he got to his grandma’s house, but he was there at last, wet and soiled, being handled with disgust in the big bathtub. His grandma was there in long black skirts saying, “Maybe he’s sick; maybe we should send for the doctor.”

  “I don’t think so, m’am,” said Marjory. “He hasn’t et anything; he’s just scared.”

  The little boy couldn’t raise his eyes, he was so heavy with shame. “Take this note to his mother,” said Grandma.

  She sat in a wide chair and ran her hands over his head, combing his hair with her fingers; she lifted his chin and kissed him. “Poor little fellow,” she said. “Never you mind. You always have a good time at your grandma’s, don’t you? You’re going to have a nice little visit, just like the last time.”

  The little boy leaned against the stiff, dry-smelling clothes and felt horribly grieved about something. He began to whimper and said, “I’m hungry. I want something to eat.” This reminded him. He began to bellow at the top of his voice; he threw himself upon the carpet and rubbed his nose in a dusty woolly bouquet of roses. “I want my peanuts,” he howled. “Somebody took my peanuts.”

  His grandma knelt beside him and gathered him up so tightly he could hardly move. She called in a calm voice above his howls to Old Janet in the doorway, “Bring me some bread and butter with strawberry jam.”

  “I want peanuts,” yelled the little boy desperately.

  “No, you don’t, darling,” said his grandma. “You don’t want horrid old peanuts to make you sick. You’re going to have some of grandma’s nice fresh bread with good strawberries on it. That’s what you’re going to have.” He sat afterward very quietly and ate and ate. His grandma sat near him and Old Janet stood by, near a tray with a loaf and a glass bowl of jam upon the table at the window. Outside there was a trellis with tube-shaped red flowers clinging all over it, and brown bees singing.

  “I hardly know what to do,” said Grandma, “it’s very. . .”

  “Yes, m’am,” said Old Janet, “it certainly is. . .”

  Grandma said, “I can’t possibly see the end of it. It’s a terrible. . .”

  “It certainly is bad,” said Old Janet, “all this upset all the time and him such a baby.”

  Their voices ran on soothingly. The little boy ate and forgot to listen. He did not know these women, except by name. He could not understand what they were talking about; their hands and their clothes and their voices were dry and far away; they examined him with crinkled eyes without any expression that he could see. He sat there waiting for whatever they would do next with him. He hoped they would let him go out and play in the yard. The room was full of flowers and dark red curtains and big soft chairs, and the windows were open, but it was still dark in there somehow; dark, and a place he did not know, or trust.

  “Now drink your milk,” said Old Janet, holding out a silver cup.

  “I don’t want any milk,” he said, turning his head away.

  “Very well, Janet, he doesn’t have to drink it,” said Grandma quickly. “Now run out in the garden and play, darling. Janet, get his hoop.”

  A big strange man came home in the evenings who treated the little boy very confusingly. “Say ‘please,’ and ‘thank you,’ young man,” he would roar, terrifyingly, when he gave any smallest object to the little boy. “Well, fellow, are you ready for a fight?” he would say, again, doubling up huge, hairy fists and making passes at him. “Come on now, you must learn to box.” After the first few times this was fun.

  “Don’t teach him to be rough,” said Grandma. “Time enough for all that.”

  “Now, Mother, we don’t want him to be a sissy,” said the big man. “He’s got to toughen up early. Come on now, fellow, put up your mitts.” The little boy liked this new word for hands. He learned to throw himself upon the strange big man, whose name was Uncle David, and hit him on the chest as hard as he could; the big man would laugh and hit him back with his huge, loose fists. Sometimes, but not often, Uncle David came home in the middle of the day. The little boy missed him on the other days, and would hang on the gate looking down the street for him. One evening he brought a large square package under his arm.

  “Come over here, fellow, and see what I’ve got,” he said, pulling off quantities of green paper and string from the box which was full of flat, folded colors. He put something in the little boy’s hand. It was limp and silky and bright green with a tube on the end. “Thank you,” said the little boy nicely, but not knowing what to do with it.

  “Balloons,” said Uncle David in triumph. “Now just put your mouth here and blow hard.” The little boy blew hard and the green thing began to grow round and thin and silvery.

  “Good for your chest,” said Uncle David. “Blow some more.” The little boy went on blowing and the balloon swelled steadily.

  “Stop,” said Uncle David, “that’s enough.” He twisted the tube to keep the air in. “That’s the way,” he said. “Now I’ll blow one, and you blow one, and let’s see who can blow up a big balloon the fastest.”

  They blew and blew, especially Uncle David. He puffed and panted and blew with all his might, but the little boy won. His balloon was perfectly round before Uncle David could even get started. The little boy was so proud he began to dance and shout, “I beat, I beat,” and blew in his balloon again. It burst in his face and frightened him so he felt sick. “Ha ha, ho ho ho,” whooped Uncle David. “That’s the boy. I bet I can’t do that. Now let’s see.” He blew until the beautiful bubble grew and wavered and burst into thin air, and there was only a small colored rag in his hand. This was a fine game. They went on with it until Grandma came in and said, “Time for supper now. No, you can’t blow balloons at the table. Tomorrow maybe.” And it was all over.

  The next day, instead of being given balloons, he was hustled out of bed early, bathed in warm soapy water and given a big breakfast of soft-boiled eggs with toast and jam and milk. His grandma came in to kiss him good morning. “And I hope you’ll be a good boy and obey your teacher,” she told him.

  “What’s teacher?” asked the
little boy.

  “Teacher is at school,” said Grandma. “She’ll tell you all sorts of things and you must do as she says.”

  Mama and Papa had talked a great deal about School, and how they must send him there. They had told him it was a fine place with all kinds of toys and other children to play with. He felt he knew about School. “I didn’t know it was time, Grandma,” he said. “Is it today?”

  “It’s this very minute,” said Grandma. “I told you a week ago.”

  Old Janet came in with her bonnet on. It was a prickly looking bundle held with a black rubber band under her back hair. “Come on,” she said. “This is my busy day.” She wore a dead cat slung around her neck, its sharp ears bent over under her baggy chin.

  The little boy was excited and wanted to run ahead. “Hold to my hand like I told you,” said Old Janet. “Don’t go running off like that and get yourself killed.”

  “I’m going to get killed, I’m going to get killed,” sang the little boy, making a tune of his own.

  “Don’t say that, you give me the creeps,” said Old Janet. “Hold to my hand now.” She bent over and looked at him, not at his face but at something on his clothes. His eyes followed hers.

  “I declare,” said Old Janet, “I did forget. I was going to sew it up. I might have known. I told your grandma it would be that way from now on.”

  “What?” asked the little boy.

  “Just look at yourself,” said Old Janet crossly. He looked at himself. There was a little end of him showing through the slit in his short blue flannel trousers. The trousers came halfway to his knees above, and his socks came halfway to his knees below, and all winter long his knees were cold. He remembered now how cold his knees were in cold weather. And how sometimes he would have to put the part of him that came through the slit back again, because he was cold there too. He saw at once what was wrong, and tried to arrange himself, but his mittens got in the way. Janet said, “Stop that, you bad boy,” and with a firm thumb she set him in order, at the same time reaching under his belt to pull down and fold his knit undershirt over his front.

  “There now,” she said, “try not to disgrace yourself today.” He felt guilty and red all over, because he had something that showed when he was dressed that was not supposed to show then. The different women who bathed him always wrapped him quickly in towels and hurried him into his clothes, because they saw something about him he could not see for himself. They hurried him so he never had a chance to see whatever it was they saw, and though he looked at himself when his clothes were off, he could not find out what was wrong with him. Outside, in his clothes, he knew he looked like everybody else, but inside his clothes there was something bad the matter with him. It worried him and confused him and he wondered about it. The only people who never seemed to notice there was something wrong with him were Mommanpoppa. They never called him a bad boy, and all summer long they had taken all his clothes off and let him run in the sand beside a big ocean.

  “Look at him, isn’t he a love?” Mama would say and Papa would look, and say, “He’s got a back like a prize fighter.” Uncle David was a prize fighter when he doubled up his mitts and said, “Come on, fellow.”

  Old Janet held him firmly and took long steps under her big rustling skirts. He did not like Old Janet’s smell. It made him a little quivery in the stomach; it was just like wet chicken feathers.

  School was easy. Teacher was a square-shaped woman with square short hair and short skirts. She got in the way sometimes, but not often. The people around him were his size; he didn’t have always to be stretching his neck up to faces bent over him, and he could sit on the chairs without having to climb. All the children had names, like Frances and Evelyn and Agatha and Edward and Martin, and his own name was Stephen. He was not Mama’s “Baby,” nor Papa’s “Old Man”; he was not Uncle David’s “Fellow,” or Grandma’s “Darling,” or even Old Janet’s “Bad Boy.” He was Stephen. He was learning to read, and to sing a tune to some strange-looking letters or marks written in chalk on a blackboard. You talked one kind of lettering, and you sang another. All the children talked and sang in turn, and then all together. Stephen thought it a fine game. He felt awake and happy. They had soft clay and paper and wires and squares of colors in tin boxes to play with, colored blocks to build houses with. Afterward they all danced in a big ring, and then they danced in pairs, boys with girls. Stephen danced with Frances, and Frances kept saying, “Now you just follow me.” She was a little taller than he was, and her hair stood up in short, shiny curls, the color of an ash tray on Papa’s desk. She would say, “You can’t dance.” “I can dance too,” said Stephen, jumping around holding her hands, “I can, too, dance.” He was certain of it. “You can’t dance,” he told Frances, “you can’t dance at all.”

  Then they had to change partners, and when they came round again, Frances said, “I don’t like the way you dance.” This was different. He felt uneasy about it. He didn’t jump quite so high when the phonograph record started going dumdiddy dumdiddy again. “Go ahead, Stephen, you’re doing fine,” said Teacher, waving her hands together very fast. The dance ended, and they all played “relaxing” for five minutes. They relaxed by swinging their arms back and forth, then rolling their heads round and round. When Old Janet came for him he didn’t want to go home. At lunch his grandma told him twice to keep his face out of his plate. “Is that what they teach you at school?” she asked. Uncle David was at home. “Here you are, fellow,” he said and gave Stephen two balloons. “Thank you,” said Stephen. He put the balloons in his pocket and forgot about them. “I told you that boy could learn something,” said Uncle David to Grandma. “Hear him say ‘thank you’?”

  In the afternoon at school Teacher handed out big wads of clay and told the children to make something out of it. Anything they liked. Stephen decided to make a cat, like Mama’s Meeow at home. He did not like Meeow, but he thought it would be easy to make a cat. He could not get the clay to work at all. It simply fell into one lump after another. So he stopped, wiped his hands on his pull-over, remembered his balloons and began blowing one.

  “Look at Stephen’s horse,” said Frances. “Just look at it.”

  “It’s not a horse, it’s a cat,” said Stephen. The other children gathered around. “It looks like a horse, a little,” said Martin.

  “It is a cat,” said Stephen, stamping his foot, feeling his face turning hot. The other children all laughed and exclaimed over Stephen’s cat that looked like a horse. Teacher came down among them. She sat usually at the top of the room before a big table covered with papers and playthings. She picked up Stephen’s lump of clay and turned it round and examined it with her kind eyes. “Now, children,” she said, “everybody has the right to make anything the way he pleases. If Stephen says this is a cat, it is a cat. Maybe you were thinking about a horse, Stephen?”

  “It’s a cat,” said Stephen. He was aching all over. He knew then he should have said at first, “Yes, it’s a horse.” Then they would have let him alone. They would never have known he was trying to make a cat. “It’s Meeow,” he said in a trembling voice, “but I forgot how she looks.”

  His balloon was perfectly flat. He started blowing it up again, trying not to cry. Then it was time to go home, and Old Janet came looking for him. While Teacher was talking to other grown-up people who came to take other children home, Frances said, “Give me your balloon; I haven’t got a balloon.” Stephen handed it to her. He was happy to give it. He reached in his pocket and took out the other. Happily, he gave her that one too. Frances took it, then handed it back. “Now you blow up one and I’ll blow up the other, and let’s have a race,” she said. When their balloons were only half filled Old Janet took Stephen by the arm and said, “Come on here, this is my busy day.”

  Frances ran after them, calling, “Stephen, you give me back my balloon,” and snatched it away. Stephen did not know whether he was surprised to find himself going away with Frances’ balloon, or whether he was s
urprised to see her snatching it as if it really belonged to her. He was badly mixed up in his mind, and Old Janet was hauling him along. One thing he knew, he liked Frances, he was going to see her again tomorrow, and he was going to bring her more balloons.

  That evening Stephen boxed awhile with his uncle David, and Uncle David gave him a beautiful orange. “Eat that,” he said, “it’s good for your health.”

  “Uncle David, may I have some more balloons?” asked Stephen.

  “Well, what do you say first?” asked Uncle David, reaching for the box on the top bookshelf.

  “Please,” said Stephen.

  “That’s the word,” said Uncle David. He brought out two balloons, a red and a yellow one. Stephen noticed for the first time they had letters on them, very small letters that grew taller and wider as the balloon grew rounder. “Now that’s all, fellow,” said Uncle David. “Don’t ask for any more because that’s all.” He put the box back on the bookshelf, but not before Stephen had seen that the box was almost full of balloons. He didn’t say a word, but went on blowing, and Uncle David blew also. Stephen thought it was the nicest game he had ever known.

  He had only one left, the next day, but he took it to school and gave it to Frances. “There are a lot,” he said, feeling very proud and warm; “I’ll bring you a lot of them.”

  Frances blew it up until it made a beautiful bubble, and said, “Look, I want to show you something.” She took a sharp-pointed stick they used in working the clay; she poked the balloon, and it exploded. “Look at that,” she said.

  “That’s nothing,” said Stephen, “I’ll bring you some more.”

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via OnlineBooks