The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
His head bobbed, leaned, came to rest on Mama’s knee, eyes closed. Mama drew him closer and slowed down, driving with one hand.
A Day’s Work
THE dull scrambling like a giant rat in the wall meant the dumb-waiter was on its way up, the janitress below hauling on the cable. Mrs. Halloran paused, thumped her iron on the board, and said, “There it is. Late. You could have put on your shoes and gone around the corner and brought the things an hour ago. I can’t do everything.”
Mr. Halloran pulled himself out of the chair, clutching the arms and heaving to his feet slowly, looking around as if he hoped to find crutches standing near. “Wearing out your socks, too,” added Mrs. Halloran. “You ought either go barefoot outright or wear your shoes over your socks as God intended,” she said. “Sock feet. What’s the good of it, I’d like to know? Neither one thing nor the other.”
She unrolled a salmon-colored chiffon nightgown with cream-colored lace and broad ribbons on it, gave it a light flirt in the air, and spread it on the board. “God’s mercy, look at that indecent thing,” she said. She thumped the iron again and pushed it back and forth over the rumpled cloth. “You might just set the things in the cupboard,” she said, “and not leave them around on the floor. You might just.”
Mr. Halloran took a sack of potatoes from the dumb-waiter and started for the cupboard in the corner next the icebox. “You might as well take a load,” said Mrs. Halloran. “There’s no need on earth making a half-dozen trips back and forth. I’d think the poorest sort of man could well carry more than five pounds of potatoes at one time. But maybe not.”
Her voice tapped on Mr. Halloran’s ears like wood on wood. “Mind your business, will you?” he asked, not speaking to her directly. He carried on the argument with himself. “Oh, I couldn’t do that, Mister Honey,” he answered in a dull falsetto. “Don’t ever ask me to think of such a thing, even. It wouldn’t be right,” he said, standing still with his knees bent, glaring bitterly over the potato sack at the scrawny strange woman he had never liked, that one standing there ironing clothes with a dirty look on her whole face like a suffering saint. “I may not be much good any more,” he told her in his own voice, “but I still have got wits enough to take groceries off a dumb-waiter, mind you.”
“That’s a miracle,” said Mrs. Halloran. “I’m thankful for that much.”
“There’s the telephone,” said Mr. Halloran, sitting in the armchair again and taking his pipe out of his shirt pocket.
“I heard it as well,” said Mrs. Halloran, sliding the iron up and down over the salmon-colored chiffon.
“It’s for you, I’ve no further business in this world,” said Mr. Halloran. His little greenish eyes glittered; he exposed his two sharp dogteeth in a grin.
“You could answer it. It could be the wrong number again or for somebody downstairs,” said Mrs. Halloran, her flat voice going flatter, even.
“Let it go in any case,” decided Mr. Halloran, “for my own part, that is.” He struck a match on the arm of his chair, touched off his pipe, and drew in his first puff while the telephone went on with its nagging.
“It might be Maggie again,” said Mrs. Halloran.
“Let her ring, then,” said Mr. Halloran, settling back and crossing his legs.
“God help a man who won’t answer the telephone when his own daughter calls up for a word,” commented Mrs. Halloran to the ceiling. “And she in deep trouble, too, with her husband treating her like a dog about the money, and sitting out late nights in saloons with that crowd from the Little Tammany Association. He’s getting into politics now with the McCorkery gang. No good will come of it, and I told her as much.”
“She’s no troubles at all, her man’s a sharp fellow who will get ahead if she’ll let him alone,” said Mr. Halloran. “She’s nothing to complain of, I could tell her. But what’s a father?” Mr. Halloran cocked his head toward the window that opened on the brick-paved areaway and crowed like a rooster, “What’s a father these days and who would heed his advice?”
“You needn’t tell the neighbors, there’s disgrace enough already,” said Mrs. Halloran. She set the iron back on the gas ring and stepped out to the telephone on the first stair landing. Mr. Halloran leaned forward, his thin, red-haired hands hanging loosely between his knees, his warm pipe sending up its good decent smell right into his nose. The woman hated the pipe and the smell; she was a woman born to make any man miserable. Before the depression, while he still had a good job and prospects of a raise, before he went on relief, before she took in fancy washing and ironing, in the Good Days Before, God’s pity, she didn’t exactly keep her mouth shut, there wasn’t a word known to man she couldn’t find an answer for, but she knew which side her bread was buttered on, and put up with it. Now she was, you might say, buttering her own bread and she never forgot it for a minute. And it’s her own fault we’re not riding round today in a limousine with ash trays and a speaking tube and a cut-glass vase for flowers in it. It’s what a man gets for marrying one of these holy women. Gerald McCorkery had told him as much, in the beginning.
“There’s a girl will spend her time holding you down,” Gerald had told him. “You’re putting your head in a noose will strangle the life out of you. Heed the advice of one who wishes you well,” said Gerald McCorkery. This was after he had barely set eyes on Lacey Mahaffy one Sunday morning in Coney Island. It was like McCorkery to see that in a flash, born judge of human nature that he was. He could look a man over, size him up, and there was an end to it. And if the man didn’t pass muster, McCorkery could ease him out in a way that man would never know how it happened. It was the secret of McCorkery’s success in the world.
“This is Rosie, herself,” said Gerald that Sunday in Coney Island. “Meet the future Mrs. Gerald J. McCorkery.” Lacey Mahaffy’s narrow face had gone sour as whey under her big straw hat. She barely nodded to Rosie, who gave Mr. Halloran a look that fairly undressed him right there. Mr. Halloran had thought, too, that McCorkery was picking a strange one; she was good-looking all right, but she had the smell of a regular little Fourteenth Street hustler if Halloran knew anything about women. “Come on,” said McCorkery, his arm around Rosie’s waist, “let’s all go on the roller coaster.” But Lacey would not. She said, “No, thank you. We didn’t plan to stay, and we must go now.” On the way home Mr. Halloran said, “Lacey, you judge too harshly. Maybe that’s a nice girl at heart; hasn’t had your opportunities.” Lacey had turned upon him a face ugly as an angry cat’s, and said, “She’s a loose, low woman, and ’twas an insult to introduce her to me.” It was a good while before the pretty fresh face that Mr. Halloran had fallen in love with returned to her.
Next day in Billy’s Place, after three drinks each, McCorkery said, “Watch your step, Halloran; think of your future. There’s a straight good girl I don’t doubt, but she’s no sort of mixer. A man getting into politics needs a wife who can meet all kinds. A man needs a woman knows how to loosen her corsets and sit easy.”
Mrs. Halloran’s voice was going on in the hall, a steady dry rattle like old newspapers blowing on a park bench. “I told you before it’s no good coming to me with your troubles now. I warned you in time but you wouldn’t listen. . . . I told you just how it would be, I tried my best. . . . No, you couldn’t listen, you always knew better than your mother. . . . So now all you’ve got to do is stand by your married vows and make the best of it. . . . Now listen to me, if you want himself to do right you have to do right first. The woman has to do right first, and then if the man won’t do right in turn it’s no fault of hers. You do right whether he does wrong or no, just because he does wrong is no excuse for you.”
“Ah, will you hear that?” Mr. Halloran asked the areaway in an awed voice. “There’s a holy terror of a saint for you.”
“. . . the woman has to do right first, I’m telling you,” said Mrs. Halloran into the telephone, “and then if he’s a devil in spite of it, why she has to do right without any help from him.” Her voi
“A little fresh air never hurt anybody,” commented Mr. Halloran loudly through the open window. “It’s the gas gets a man down.”
“Now listen to me, Maggie, that’s not the way to talk over the public wires. Now you stop that crying and go and do your duty and don’t be worrying me any more. And stop saying you’re going to leave your husband, because where will you go, for one thing? Do you want to walk the streets or set up a laundry in your kitchen? You can’t come back here, you’ll stay with your husband where you belong. Don’t be a fool, Maggie. You’ve got your living, and that’s more than many a woman better than you has got. Yes, your father’s all right. No, he’s just sitting here, the same. God knows what’s to become of us. But you know how he is, little he cares. . . . Now remember this, Maggie, if anything goes wrong with your married life it’s your own fault and you needn’t come here for sympathy. . . . I can’t waste any more time on it. Goodby.”
Mr. Halloran, his ears standing up for fear of missing a word, thought how Gerald J. McCorkery had gone straight on up the ladder with Rosie; and for every step the McCorkerys took upward, he, Michael Halloran, had taken a step downward with Lacey Mahaffy. They had started as greenhorns with the same chances at the same time and the same friends, but McCorkery had seized all his opportunities as they came, getting in steadily with the Big Shots in ward politics, one good thing leading to another. Rosie had known how to back him up and push him onward. The McCorkerys for years had invited him and Lacey to come over to the house and be sociable with the crowd, but Lacey would not.
“You can’t run with that fast set and drink and stay out nights and hold your job,” said Lacey, “and you should know better than to ask your wife to associate with that woman.” Mr. Halloran had got into the habit of dropping around by himself, now and again, for McCorkery still liked him, was still willing to give him a foothold in the right places, still asked him for favors at election time. There was always a good lively crowd at the McCorkerys, wherever they were; for they moved ever so often to a better place, with more furniture. Rosie helped hand around the drinks, taking a few herself with a good word for everybody. The player piano or the victrola would be going full blast, with everybody dancing, all looking like ready money and a bright future. He would get home late these evenings, back to the same little cold-water walk-up flat, because Lacey would not spend a dollar for show. It must all go into savings against old age, she said. He would be full of good food and drink, and find Lacey, in a bungalow apron, warming up the fried potatoes once more, cross and bitterly silent, hanging her head and frowning at the smell of liquor on his breath. “You might at least eat the potatoes when I’ve fried them and waited all this time,” she would say. “Ah, eat them yourself, they’re none of mine,” he would snarl in his disappointment with her, and with the life she was leading him.
He had believed with all his heart for years that he would one day be manager of one of the G. and I. chain grocery stores he worked for, and when that hope gave out there was still his pension when they retired him. But two years before it was due they fired him, on account of the depression, they said. Overnight he was on the sidewalk, with no place to go with the news but home. “Jesus,” said Mr. Halloran, still remembering that day after nearly seven years of idleness.
The depression hadn’t touched McCorkery. He went on and on up the ladder, giving beefsteaks and beanfests and beer parties for the boys in Billy’s Place, standing in with the right men and never missing a trick. At last the Gerald J. McCorkery Club chartered a whole boat for a big excursion up the river. It was a great day, with Lacey sitting at home sulking. After election Rosie had her picture in the papers, smiling at McCorkery; not fat exactly, just a fine figure of a woman with flowers pinned on her spotted fur coat, her teeth as good as ever. Oh, God, there was a girl for any man’s money. Mr. Halloran saw out of his eye-corner the bony stooped back of Lacey Mahaffy, standing on one foot to rest the other like a tired old horse, leaning on her hands waiting for the iron to heat.
“That was Maggie, with her woes,” she said.
“I hope you gave her some good advice,” said Mr. Halloran. “I hope you told her to take up her hat and walk out on him.”
Mrs. Halloran suspended the iron over a pair of pink satin panties. “I told her to do right and leave wrong-doing to the men,” she said, in her voice like a phonograph record running down. “I told her to bear with the trouble God sends as her mother did before her.”
Mr. Halloran gave a loud groan and knocked out his pipe on the chair arm. “You would ruin the world, woman, if you could, with your wicked soul, treating a new-married girl as if she had no home and no parents to come to. But she’s no daughter of mine if she sits there peeling potatoes, letting a man run over her. No daughter of mine and I’ll tell her so if she—”
“You know well she’s your daughter, so hold your tongue,” said Mrs. Halloran, “and if she heeded you she’d be walking the streets this minute. I brought her up an honest girl, and an honest woman she’s going to be or I’ll take her over my knee as I did when she was little. So there you are, Halloran.”
Mr. Halloran leaned far back in his chair and felt along the shelf above his head until his fingers touched a half-dollar he had noticed there. His hand closed over it, he got up instantly and looked about for his hat.
“Keep your daughter, Lacey Mahaffy,” he said, “she’s none of mine but the fruits of your long sinning with the Holy Ghost. And now I’m off for a little round and a couple of beers to keep my mind from dissolving entirely.”
“You can’t have that dollar you just now sneaked off the shelf,” said Mrs. Halloran. “So you think I’m blind besides? Put it back where you found it. That’s for our daily bread.”
“I’m sick of bread daily,” said Mr. Halloran, “I need beer. It was not a dollar, but a half-dollar as you know well.”
“Whatever it was,” said Mrs. Halloran, “it stands instead of a dollar to me. So just drop it.”
“You’ve got tomorrow’s potatoes sewed up in your pocket this minute, and God knows what sums in that black box wherever you hide it, besides the life savings,” said Mr. Halloran. “I earned this half-dollar on relief, and it’s going to be spent properly. And I’ll not be back for supper, so you’ll save on that, too. So long, Lacey Mahaffy, I’m off.”
“If you never come back, it will be all the same,” said Mrs. Halloran, not looking up.
“If I came back with a pocket full of money, you’d be glad to see me,” said Mr. Halloran.
“It would want to be a great sum,” said Mrs. Halloran.
Mr. Halloran shut the door behind him with a fine slam.
He strolled out into the clear fall weather, a late afternoon sun warming his neck and brightening the old red-brick, high-stooped houses of Perry Street. He would go after all these years to Billy’s Place, he might find some luck there. He took his time, though, speaking to the neighbors as he went. “Good afternoon, Mr. Halloran.” “Good afternoon to you, Missis Caffery.”. . . “It’s fine weather for the time of year, Mr. Gogarty.” “It is indeed, Mr. Halloran.” Mr. Halloran thrived on these civilities, he loved to flourish his hat and give a hearty good day like a man who has nothing on his mind. Ah, there was the young man from the G. and I. store around the corner. He knew what kind of job Mr. Halloran once held there. “Good day, Mr. Halloran.” “Good day to you, Mr. McInerny, how’s business holding up with you?” “Good for the times, Mr. Halloran, that’s the best I can say.” “Things are not
Soothed by this acknowledgment of man’s common misfortune Mr. Halloran greeted the young cop at the corner. The cop, with his quick eyesight, was snatching a read from a newspaper on the stand across the sidewalk. “How do you do, Young O’Fallon,” asked Mr. Halloran, “is your business lively these days?”
“Quiet as the tomb itself on this block,” said Young O’Fallon. “But that’s a sad thing about Connolly, now.” His eyes motioned toward the newspaper.
“Is he dead?” asked Mr. Halloran; “I haven’t been out until now, I didn’t see the papers.”
“Ah, not yet,” said Young O’Fallon, “but the G-men are after him, it looks they’ll get him surely this time.”
“Connolly in bad with the G-men? Holy Jesus,” said Mr. Halloran, “who will they go after next? The meddlers.”
“It’s that numbers racket,” said the cop. “What’s the harm, I’d like to know? A man must get his money from somewhere when he’s in politics. They oughta give him a chance.”
“Connolly’s a great fellow, God bless him, I hope he gives them the slip,” said Mr. Halloran, “I hope he goes right through their hands like a greased pig.”
“He’s smart,” said the cop. “That Connolly’s a smooth one. He’ll come out of it.”
Ah, will he though? Mr. Halloran asked himself. Who is safe if Connolly goes under? Wait till I give Lacey Mahaffy the news about Connolly, I’ll like seeing her face the first time in twenty years. Lacey kept saying, “A man is a downright fool must be a crook to get rich. Plenty of the best people get rich and do no harm by it. Look at the Connollys now, good practical Catholics with nine children and more to come if God sends them, and Mass every day, and they’re rolling in wealth richer than your McCorkerys with all their wickedness.” So there you are, Lacey Mahaffy, wrong again, and welcome to your pious Connollys. Still and all it was Connolly who had given Gerald McCorkery his start in the world; McCorkery had been publicity man and then campaign manager for Connolly, in the days when Connolly had Tammany in the palm of his hand and the sky was the limit. And McCorkery had begun at the beginning, God knows. He was running a little basement place first, rent almost nothing, where the boys of the Connolly Club and the Little Tammany Association, just the mere fringe of the district, you might say, could drop in for quiet evenings for a game and a drink along with the talk. Nothing low, nothing but what was customary, with the house taking a cut on the winnings and a fine profit on the liquor, and holding the crowd together. Many was the big plan hatched there came out well for everybody. For everybody but myself, and why was that? And when McCorkery says to me, “You can take over now and run the place for the McCorkery Club,” ah, there was my chance and Lacey Mahaffy wouldn’t hear of it, and with Maggie coming on just then it wouldn’t do to excite her.