The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  Mr. Halloran suddenly felt calm, collected; he would take Maginnis up and show him just what had happened. “I’m not on relief any more, and if you want any trouble, just call on my friend, McCorkery. He’ll tell you who I am.”

  “McCorkery can’t tell me anything about you I don’t know already,” said Maginnis. “Stand up there now.” For Halloran wanted to go up again on his hands and knees.

  “Let a man be,” said Mr. Halloran, trying to sit on the cop’s feet. “I killed Lacey Mahaffy at last, you’ll be pleased to hear,” he said, looking up into the cop’s face. “It was high time and past. But I did not steal the money.”

  “Well, ain’t that just too bad,” said the cop, hauling him up under the arms. “Chees, why’n’t you make a good job while you had the chance? Stand up now. Ah, hell with it, stand up or I’ll sock you one.”

  Mr. Halloran said, “Well, you don’t believe it so wait and see.”

  At that moment they both glanced upward and saw Mrs. Halloran coming downstairs. She was holding to the rail, and even in the speckled hall-light they could see a great lumpy clout of flesh standing out on her forehead, all colors. She stopped, and seemed not at all surprised.

  “So there you are, Officer Maginnis,” she said. “Bring him up.”

  “That’s a fine welt you’ve got over your eye this time, Mrs. Halloran,” commented Officer Maginnis, politely.

  “I fell and hit my head on the ironing board,” said Mrs. Halloran. “It comes of overwork and worry, day and night. A dead faint, Officer Maginnis. Watch your big feet there, you thriving, natural fool,” she added to Mr. Halloran. “He’s got a job now, you mightn’t believe it, Officer Maginnis, but it’s true. Bring him on up, and thank you.”

  She went ahead of them, opened the door, and led the way to the bedroom through the kitchen, turned back the covers, and Officer Maginnis dumped Mr. Halloran among the quilts and pillows. Mr. Halloran rolled over with a deep groan and shut his eyes.

  “Many thanks to you, Officer Maginnis,” said Mrs Halloran.

  “Don’t mention it, Mrs. Halloran,” said Officer Maginnis.

  When the door was shut and locked, Mrs. Halloran went and dipped a large bath towel under the kitchen tap. She wrung it out and tied several good hard knots in one end and tried it out with a whack on the edge of the table. She walked in and stood over the bed and brought the knotted towel down in Mr. Halloran’s face with all her might. He stirred and muttered, ill at ease. “That’s for the flatiron, Halloran,” she told him, in a cautious voice as if she were talking to herself, and whack, down came the towel again. “That’s for the half-dollar,” she said, and whack, “that’s for your drunkenness—” Her arm swung around regularly, ending with a heavy thud on the face that was beginning to squirm, gasp, lift itself from the pillow and fall back again, in a puzzled kind of torment. “For your sock feet,” Mrs. Halloran told him, whack, “and your laziness, and this is for missing Mass and”—here she swung half a dozen times—“that is for your daughter and your part in her. . . .”

  She stood back breathless, the lump on her forehead burning in its furious colors. When Mr. Halloran attempted to rise, shielding his head with his arms, she gave him a push and he fell back again. “Stay there and don’t give me a word,” said Mrs. Halloran. He pulled the pillow over his face and subsided again, this time for good.

  Mrs. Halloran moved about very deliberately. She tied the wet towel around her head, the knotted end hanging over her shoulder. Her hand ran into her apron pocket and came out again with the money. There was a five-dollar bill with three one-dollar bills rolled in it, and the half-dollar she had thought spent long since. “A poor start, but something,” she said, and opened the cupboard door with a long key. Reaching in, she pulled a loosely fitted board out of the wall, and removed a black-painted metal box. She unlocked this, took out one five-cent piece from a welter of notes and coins. She then placed the new money in the box, locked it, put it away, replaced the board, shut the cupboard door and locked that. She went out to the telephone, dropped the nickel in the slot, asked for a number, and waited.

  “Is that you, Maggie? Well, are things any better with you now? I’m glad to hear it. It’s late to be calling, but there’s news about your father. No, no, nothing of that kind, he’s got a job. I said a job. Yes, at last, after all my urging him onward. . . . I’ve got him bedded down to sleep it off so he’ll be ready for work tomorrow. . . . Yes, it’s political work, toward the election time, with Gerald McCorkery. But that’s no harm, getting votes and all, he’ll be in the open air and it doesn’t mean I’ll have to associate with low people, now or ever. It’s clean enough work, with good pay; if it’s not just what I prayed for, still it beats nothing, Maggie. After all my trying. . . it’s like a miracle. You see what can be done with patience and doing your duty, Maggie. Now mind you do as well by your own husband.”


  AT that time I was too young for some of the troubles I was having, and I had not yet learned what to do with them. It no longer can matter what kind of troubles they were, or what finally became of them. It seemed to me then there was nothing to do but run away from them, though all my tradition, background, and training had taught me unanswerably that no one except a coward ever runs away from anything. What nonsense! They should have taught me the difference between courage and foolhardiness, instead of leaving me to find it out for myself. I learned finally that if I still had the sense I was born with, I would take off like a deer at the first warning of certain dangers. But this story I am about to tell you happened before this great truth impressed itself upon me—that we do not run from the troubles and dangers that are truly ours, and it is better to learn what they are earlier than later, and if we don’t run from the others, we are fools.

  I confided to my friend Louise, a former schoolmate about my own age, not my troubles but my little problem: I wanted to go somewhere for a spring holiday, by myself, to the country, and it should be very simple and nice and, of course, not expensive, and she was not to tell anyone where I had gone; but if she liked, I would send her word now and then, if anything interesting was happening. She said she loved getting letters but hated answering them; and she knew the very place for me, and she would not tell anybody anything. Louise had then—she has it still—something near to genius for making improbable persons, places, and situations sound attractive. She told amusing stories that did not turn grim on you until a little while later, when by chance you saw and heard for yourself. So with this story. Everything was just as Louise had said, if you like, and everything was, at the same time, quite different.

  “I know the very place,” said Louise, “a family of real old-fashioned German peasants, in the deep blackland Texas farm country, a household in real patriarchal style—the kind of thing you’d hate to live with but is very nice to visit. Old father, God Almighty himself, with whiskers and all; old mother, matriarch in men’s shoes; endless daughters and sons and sons-in-law and fat babies falling about the place; and fat puppies—my favourite was a darling little black thing named Kuno—cows, calves, and sheep and lambs and goats and turkeys and guineas roaming up and down the shallow green hills, ducks and geese on the ponds. I was there in the summer when the peaches and watermelons were in——”

  “This is the end of March,” I said, doubtfully.

  “Spring comes early there,” said Louise. “I’ll write to the Müllers about you, you just get ready to go.”

  “Just where is this paradise?”

  “Not far from the Louisiana line,” said Louise. “I’ll ask them to give you my attic—oh, that was a sweet place! It’s a big room, with the roof sloping to the floor on each side, and the roof leaks a little when it rains, so the shingles are all stained in beautiful streaks, all black and grey and mossy green, and in one corner there used to be a stack of dime novels, The Duchess, Ouida, Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth, Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s poems—one summer they had a lady boarder who was a great reader, and she we
nt off and left her library. I loved it! And everybody was so healthy and good-hearted, and the weather was perfect. . . . How long do you want to stay?”

  I hadn’t thought of this, so I said at random, “About a month.”

  A few days later I found myself tossed off like an express package from a dirty little crawling train onto the sodden platform of a country station, where the stationmaster emerged and locked up the waiting room before the train had got round the bend. As he clumped by me he shifted his wad of tobacco to his cheek and asked, “Where you goin’?”

  “To the Müller farm,” I said, standing beside my small trunk and suitcase with the bitter wind cutting through my thin coat.

  “Anybody meet you?” he asked, not pausing.

  “They said so.”

  “All right,” he said, and got into his little ragged buckboard with a sway-backed horse and drove away.

  I turned my trunk on its side and sat on it facing the wind and the desolate mud-colored shapeless scene and began making up my first letter to Louise. First I was going to tell her that unless she was to be a novelist, there was no excuse for her having so much imagination. In daily life, I was going to tell her, there are also such useful things as the plain facts that should be stuck to, through thick and thin. Anything else led to confusion like this. I was beginning to enjoy my letter to Louise when a sturdy boy about twelve years old crossed the platform. As he neared me, he took off his rough cap and bunched it in his thick hand, dirt-stained at the knuckles. His round cheeks, his round nose, his round chin were a cool, healthy red. In the globe of his face, as neatly circular as if drawn in bright crayon, his narrow, long, tip-tilted eyes, clear as pale-blue water, seemed out of place, as if two incompatible strains had collided in making him. They were beautiful eyes, and the rest of the face was not to be taken seriously. A blue woollen blouse buttoned up to his chin ended abruptly at his waist as if he would outgrow it in another half hour, and his blue drill breeches flapped about his ankles. His old clodhopper shoes were several sizes too big for him. Altogether, it was plain he was not the first one to wear his clothes. He was a cheerful, detached, self-possessed apparition against the tumbled brown earth and ragged dark sky, and I smiled at him as well as I could with a face that felt like wet clay.

  He smiled back slightly without meeting my eye, motioning for me to take up my suitcase. He swung my trunk to his head and tottered across the uneven platform, down the steps slippery with mud where I expected to see him crushed beneath his burden like an ant under a stone. He heaved the trunk into the back of his wagon with a fine smash, took my suitcase and tossed it after, then climbed up over one front wheel while I scrambled my way up over the other.

  The pony, shaggy as a wintering bear, eased himself into a grudging trot, while the boy, bowed over with his cap pulled down over his ears and eyebrows, held the reins slack and fell into a brown study. I studied the harness, a real mystery. It met and clung in all sorts of unexpected places; it parted company in what appeared to be strategic seats of jointure. It was mended sketchily in risky places with bits of hairy rope. Other seemingly unimportant parts were bound together irrevocably with wire. The bridle was too long for the pony’s stocky head, so he had shaken the bit out of his mouth at the start, apparently, and went his own way at his own pace.

  Our vehicle was an exhausted specimen of something called a spring wagon, who knows why? There were no springs, and the shallow enclosed platform at the back, suitable for carrying various plunder, was worn away until it barely reached midway of the back wheels, one side of it steadily scraping the iron tire. The wheels themselves spun not dully around and around in the way of common wheels, but elliptically, being loosened at the hubs, so that we proceeded with a drunken, hilarious swagger, like the rolling motion of a small boat on a choppy sea.

  The soaked brown fields fell away on either side of the lane, all rough with winter-worn stubble ready to sink and become earth again. The scanty leafless woods ran along an edge of the field nearby. There was nothing beautiful in those woods now except the promise of spring, for I detested bleakness, but it gave me pleasure to think that beyond this there might be something else beautiful in its own being, a river shaped and contained by its banks, or a field stripped down to its true meaning, ploughed and ready for the seed. The road turned abruptly and was almost hidden for a moment, and we were going through the woods. Closer sight of the crooked branches assured me that spring was beginning, if sparely, reluctantly: the leaves were budding in tiny cones of watery green besprinkling all the new shoots; a thin sedate rain began again to fall, not so opaque as a fog, but a mist that merely deepened overhead, and lowered, until the clouds became rain in one swathing, delicate grey.

  As we emerged from the woods, the boy roused himself and pointed forward, in silence. We were approaching the farm along the skirts of a fine peach orchard, now faintly colored with young bud, but there was nothing to disguise the gaunt and aching ugliness of the farmhouse itself. In this Texas valley, so gently modulated with small crests and shallows, “rolling country” as the farmers say, the house was set on the peak of the barest rise of ground, as if the most infertile spot had been thriftily chosen for building a shelter. It stood there staring and naked, an intruding stranger, strange even beside the barns ranged generously along the back, low-eaved and weathered to the color of stone.

  The narrow windows and the steeply sloping roof oppressed me; I wished to turn away and go back. I had come a long way to be so disappointed, I thought, and yet I must go on, for there could be nothing here for me more painful than what I had left. But as we drew near the house, now hardly visible except for the yellow lamplight in the back, perhaps in the kitchen, my feelings changed again toward warmth and tenderness, or perhaps just an apprehension that I could feel so, maybe, again.

  The wagon drew up before the porch, and I started climbing down. No sooner had my foot touched ground than an enormous black dog of the detestable German shepherd breed leaped silently at me, and as silently I covered my face with my arms and leaped back. “Kuno, down!” shouted the boy, lunging at him. The front door flew open and a young girl with yellow hair ran down the steps and seized the ugly beast by the scruff. “He does not mean anything,” she said seriously in English. “He is only a dog.”

  Just Louise’s darling little puppy Kuno, I thought, a year or so older. Kuno whined, apologized by bowing and scraping one front paw on the ground, and the girl holding his scruff said, shyly and proudly, “I teach him that. He has always such bad manners, but I teach him!”

  I had arrived, it seemed, at the moment when the evening chores were about to begin. The entire Müller household streamed out of the door, each man and woman going about the affairs of the moment. The young girl walked with me up the porch and said, “This is my brother Hans,” and a young man paused to shake hands and passed by. “This is my brother Fritz,” she said, and Fritz took my hand and dropped it as he went. “My sister Annetje,” said the young girl, and a quiet young woman with a baby draped loosely like a scarf over her shoulder smiled and held out her hand. Hand after hand went by, their palms variously younger or older, broad or small, male or female, but all thick hard decent peasant hands, warm and strong. And in every face I saw again the pale, tilted eyes, on every head that taffy-colored hair, as though they might all be brothers and sisters, though Annetje’s husband and still another daughter’s husband had gone by after greeting me. In the wide hall with a door at front and back, full of cloudy light and the smell of soap, the old mother, also on her way out, stopped to offer her hand. She was a tall strong-looking woman wearing a three-cornered black wool shawl on her head, her skirts looped up over a brown flannel petticoat. Not from her did the young ones get those water-clear eyes. Hers were black and shrewd and searching, a band of hair showed black streaked with grey, her seamed dry face was brown as seasoned bark, and she walked in her rubber boots with the stride of a man. She shook my hand briefly and said in German English that I was w
elcome, smiling and showing her blackened teeth.

  “This is my girl Hatsy,” she told me, “and she will show you to your room.” Hatsy took my hand as if I were a child needing a guide. I followed her up a flight of steps steep as a ladder, and there we were, in Louise’s attic room, with the sloping roof. Yes, the shingles were stained all the colors she had said. There were the dime novels heaped in the corner. For once, Louise had got it straight, and it was homely and familiar, as if I had seen it before. “My mother says we could give you a better place on the downstairs,” said Hatsy, in her soft blurred English, “but she said in her letter you would like it so.” I told her indeed I did like it so. She went down the steep stairs then, and her brother came up as if he were climbing a tree, with the trunk on his head and the suitcase in his right hand, and I could not see what kept the trunk from crashing back to the bottom, as he used the left hand to climb with. I wished to offer help but feared to insult him, having noted well the tremendous ease and style with which he had hurled the luggage around before, a strong man doing his turn before a weakling audience. He put his burden down and straightened up, wriggling his shoulders and panting only a little. I thanked him and he pushed his cap back and pulled it forward again, which I took for some sort of polite response, and clattered out hugely. Looking out of my window a few minutes later, I saw him setting off across the fields carrying a lighted lantern and a large steel trap.

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