The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
ON the third day after they moved to the country he came walking back from the village carrying a basket of groceries and a twenty-four-yard coil of rope. She came out to meet him, wiping her hands on her green smock. Her hair was tumbled, her nose was scarlet with sunburn; he told her that already she looked like a born country woman. His gray flannel shirt stuck to him, his heavy shoes were dusty. She assured him he looked like a rural character in a play.
Had he brought the coffee? She had been waiting all day long for coffee. They had forgot it when they ordered at the store the first day.
Gosh, no, he hadn’t. Lord, now he’d have to go back. Yes, he would if it killed him. He thought, though, he had everything else. She reminded him it was only because he didn’t drink coffee himself. If he did he would remember it quick enough. Suppose they ran out of cigarettes? Then she saw the rope. What was that for? Well, he thought it might do to hang clothes on, or something. Naturally she asked him if he thought they were going to run a laundry? They already had a fifty-foot line hanging right before his eyes? Why, hadn’t he noticed it, really? It was a blot on the landscape to her.
He thought there were a lot of things a rope might come in handy for. She wanted to know what, for instance. He thought a few seconds, but nothing occurred. They could wait and see, couldn’t they? You need all sorts of strange odds and ends around a place in the country. She said, yes, that was so; but she thought just at that time when every penny counted, it seemed funny to buy more rope. That was all. She hadn’t meant anything else. She hadn’t just seen, not at first, why he felt it was necessary.
Well, thunder, he had bought it because he wanted to, and that was all there was to it. She thought that was reason enough, and couldn’t understand why he hadn’t said so, at first. Undoubtedly it would be useful, twenty-four yards of rope, there were hundreds of things, she couldn’t think of any at the moment, but it would come in. Of course. As he had said, things always did in the country.
But she was a little disappointed about the coffee, and oh, look, look, look at the eggs! Oh, my, they’re all running! What had he put on top of them? Hadn’t he known eggs mustn’t be squeezed? Squeezed, who had squeezed them, he wanted to know. What a silly thing to say. He had simply brought them along in the basket with the other things. If they got broke it was the grocer’s fault. He should know better than to put heavy things on top of eggs.
She believed it was the rope. That was the heaviest thing in the pack, she saw him plainly when he came in from the road, the rope was a big package on top of everything. He desired the whole wide world to witness that this was not a fact. He had carried the rope in one hand and the basket in the other, and what was the use of her having eyes if that was the best they could do for her?
Well, anyhow, she could see one thing plain: no eggs for breakfast. They’d have to scramble them now, for supper. It was too damned bad. She had planned to have steak for supper. No ice, meat wouldn’t keep. He wanted to know why she couldn’t finish breaking the eggs in a bowl and set them in a cool place.
Cool place! if he could find one for her, she’d be glad to set them there. Well, then, it seemed to him they might very well cook the meat at the same time they cooked the eggs and then warm up the meat for tomorrow. The idea simply choked her. Warmed-over meat, when they might as well have had it fresh. Second best and scraps and makeshifts, even to the meat! He rubbed her shoulder a little. It doesn’t really matter so much, does it, darling? Sometimes when they were playful, he would rub her shoulder and she would arch and purr. This time she hissed and almost clawed. He was getting ready to say that they could surely manage somehow when she turned on him and said, if he told her they could manage somehow she would certainly slap his face.
He swallowed the words red hot, his face burned. He picked up the rope and started to put it on the top shelf. She would not have it on the top shelf, the jars and tins belonged there; positively she would not have the top shelf cluttered up with a lot of rope. She had borne all the clutter she meant to bear in the flat in town, there was space here at least and she meant to keep things in order.
Well, in that case, he wanted to know what the hammer and nails were doing up there? And why had she put them there when she knew very well he needed that hammer and those nails upstairs to fix the window sashes? She simply slowed down everything and made double work on the place with her insane habit of changing things around and hiding them.
She was sure she begged his pardon, and if she had had any reason to believe he was going to fix the sashes this summer she would have left the hammer and nails right where he put them; in the middle of the bedroom floor where they could step on them in the dark. And now if he didn’t clear the whole mess out of there she would throw them down the well.
Oh, all right, all right—could he put them in the closet? Naturally not, there were brooms and mops and dustpans in the closet, and why couldn’t he find a place for his rope outside her kitchen? Had he stopped to consider there were seven God-forsaken rooms in the house, and only one kitchen?
He wanted to know what of it? And did she realize she was making a complete fool of herself? And what did she take him for, a three-year-old idiot? The whole trouble with her was she needed something weaker than she was to heckle and tyrannize over. He wished to God now they had a couple of children she could take it out on. Maybe he’d get some rest.
Her face changed at this, she reminded him he had forgot the coffee and had bought a worthless piece of rope. And when she thought of all the things they actually needed to make the place even decently fit to live in, well, she could cry, that was all. She looked so forlorn, so lost and despairing he couldn’t believe it was only a piece of rope that was causing all the racket. What was the matter, for God’s sake?
Oh, would he please hush and go away, and stay away, if he could, for five minutes? By all means, yes, he would. He’d stay away indefinitely if she wished. Lord, yes, there was nothing he’d like better than to clear out and never come back. She couldn’t for the life of her see what was holding him, then. It was a swell time. Here she was, stuck, miles from a railroad, with a half-empty house on her hands, and not a penny in her pocket, and everything on earth to do; it seemed the God-sent moment for him to get out from under. She was surprised he hadn’t stayed in town as it was until she had come out and done the work and got things straightened out. It was his usual trick.
It appeared to him that this was going a little far. Just a touch out of bounds, if she didn’t mind his saying so. Why the hell had he stayed in town the summer before? To do a half-dozen extra jobs to get the money he had sent her. That was it. She knew perfectly well they couldn’t have done it otherwise. She had agreed with him at the time. And that was the only time so help him he had ever left her to do anything by herself.
Oh, he could tell that to his great-grandmother. She had her notion of what had kept him in town. Considerably more than a notion, if he wanted to know. So, she was going to bring all that up again, was she? Well, she could just think what she pleased. He was tired of explaining. It may have looked funny but he had simply got hooked in, and what could he do? It was impossible to believe that she was going to take it seriously. Yes, yes, she knew how it was with a man: if he was left by himself a minute, some woman was certain to kidnap him. And naturally he couldn’t hurt her feelings by refusing!
Well, what was she raving about? Did she forget she had told him those two weeks alone in the country were the happiest she had known for four years? And how long had they been married when she said that? All right, shut up! If she thought that hadn’t stuck in his craw.
She hadn’t meant she was happy because she was away from him. She meant she was happy getting the devilish house nice and ready for him. That was what she had meant, and now look! Bringing up something she had said a year ago simply to justify himself for forgetting her coffee and breaking the eggs and buying a wretched piece of rope they couldn’t afford. She really thoug
He looked out at the dark blue afternoon sweltering on the slopes, and mopped his forehead and sighed heavily and said, if only she could wait a minute for anything, he was going back. He had said so, hadn’t he, the very instant they found he had overlooked it?
Oh, yes, well. . . run along. She was going to wash windows. The country was so beautiful! She doubted they’d have a moment to enjoy it. He meant to go, but he could not until he had said that if she wasn’t such a hopeless melancholiac she might see that this was only for a few days. Couldn’t she remember anything pleasant about the other summers? Hadn’t they ever had any fun? She hadn’t time to talk about it, and now would he please not leave that rope lying around for her to trip on? He picked it up, somehow it had toppled off the table, and walked out with it under his arm.
Was he going this minute? He certainly was. She thought so. Sometimes it seemed to her he had second sight about the precisely perfect moment to leave her ditched. She had meant to put the mattresses out to sun, if they put them out this minute they would get at least three hours, he must have heard her say that morning she meant to put them out. So of course he would walk off and leave her to it. She supposed he thought the exercise would do her good.
Well, he was merely going to get her coffee. A four-mile walk for two pounds of coffee was ridiculous, but he was perfectly willing to do it. The habit was making a wreck of her, but if she wanted to wreck herself there was nothing he could do about it. If he thought it was coffee that was making a wreck of her, she congratulated him: he must have a damned easy conscience.
Conscience or no conscience, he didn’t see why the mattresses couldn’t very well wait until tomorrow. And anyhow, for God’s sake, were they living in the house, or were they going to let the house ride them to death? She paled at this, her face grew livid about the mouth, she looked quite dangerous, and reminded him that housekeeping was no more her work than it was his: she had other work to do as well, and when did he think she was going to find time to do it at this rate?
Was she going to start on that again? She knew as well as he did that his work brought in the regular money, hers was only occasional, if they depended on what she made—and she might as well get straight on this question once for all!
That was positively not the point. The question was, when both of them were working on their own time, was there going to be a division of the housework, or wasn’t there? She merely wanted to know, she had to make her plans. Why, he thought that was all arranged. It was understood that he was to help. Hadn’t he always, in summers?
Hadn’t he, though? Oh, just hadn’t he? And when, and where, and doing what? Lord, what an uproarious joke!
It was such a very uproarious joke that her face turned slightly purple, and she screamed with laughter. She laughed so hard she had to sit down, and finally a rush of tears spurted from her eyes and poured down into the lifted corners of her mouth. He dashed towards her and dragged her up to her feet and tried to pour water on her head. The dipper hung by a string on a nail and he broke it loose. Then he tried to pump water with one hand while she struggled in the other. So he gave it up and shook her instead.
She wrenched away, crying out for him to take his rope and go to hell, she had simply given him up: and ran. He heard her high-heeled bedroom slippers clattering and stumbling on the stairs.
He went out around the house and into the lane; he suddenly realized he had a blister on his heel and his shirt felt as if it were on fire. Things broke so suddenly you didn’t know where you were. She could work herself into a fury about simply nothing. She was terrible, damn it: not an ounce of reason. You might as well talk to a sieve as that woman when she got going. Damned if he’d spend his life humoring her! Well, what to do now? He would take back the rope and exchange it for something else. Things accumulated, things were mountainous, you couldn’t move them or sort them out or get rid of them. They just lay and rotted around. He’d take it back. Hell, why should he? He wanted it. What was it anyhow? A piece of rope. Imagine anybody caring more about a piece of rope than about a man’s feelings. What earthly right had she to say a word about it? He remembered all the useless, meaningless things she bought for herself: Why? because I wanted it, that’s why! He stopped and selected a large stone by the road. He would put the rope behind it. He would put it in the tool-box when he got back. He’d heard enough about it to last him a life-time.
When he came back she was leaning against the post box beside the road waiting. It was pretty late, the smell of broiled steak floated nose high in the cooling air. Her face was young and smooth and fresh-looking. Her unmanageable funny black hair was all on end. She waved to him from a distance, and he speeded up. She called out that supper was ready and waiting, was he starved?
You bet he was starved. Here was the coffee. He waved it at her. She looked at his other hand. What was that he had there?
Well, it was the rope again. He stopped short. He had meant to exchange it but forgot. She wanted to know why he should exchange it, if it was something he really wanted. Wasn’t the air sweet now, and wasn’t it fine to be here?
She walked beside him with one hand hooked into his leather belt. She pulled and jostled him a little as he walked, and leaned against him. He put his arm clear around her and patted her stomach. They exchanged wary smiles. Coffee, coffee for the Ootsum-Wootsums! He felt as if he were bringing her a beautiful present.
He was a love, she firmly believed, and if she had had her coffee in the morning, she wouldn’t have behaved so funny. . . There was a whippoorwill still coming back, imagine, clear out of season, sitting in the crab-apple tree calling all by himself. Maybe his girl stood him up. Maybe she did. She hoped to hear him once more, she loved whippoorwills. . . He knew how she was, didn’t he?
Sure, he knew how she was.
LIFE was very hard for the Whipples. It was hard to feed all the hungry mouths, it was hard to keep the children in flannels during the winter, short as it was: “God knows what would become of us if we lived north,” they would say: keeping them decently clean was hard. “It looks like our luck won’t never let up on us,” said Mr. Whipple, but Mrs. Whipple was all for taking what was sent and calling it good, anyhow when the neighbors were in earshot. “Don’t ever let a soul hear us complain,” she kept saying to her husband. She couldn’t stand to be pitied. “No, not if it comes to it that we have to live in a wagon and pick cotton around the country,” she said, “nobody’s going to get a chance to look down on us.”
Mrs. Whipple loved her second son, the simple-minded one, better than she loved the other two children put together. She was forever saying so, and when she talked with certain of her neighbors, she would even throw in her husband and her mother for good measure.
“You needn’t keep on saying it around,” said Mr. Whipple, “you’ll make people think nobody else has any feelings about Him but you.”
“It’s natural for a mother,” Mrs. Whipple would remind him. “You know yourself it’s more natural for a mother to be that way. People don’t expect so much of fathers, some way.” This didn’t keep the neighbors from talking plainly among themselves. “A Lord’s pure mercy if He should die,” they said. “It’s the sins of the fathers,” they agreed among themselves. “There’s bad blood and bad doings somewhere, you can bet on that.” This behind the Whipples’ backs. To their faces everybody said, “He’s not so bad off. He’ll be all right yet. Look how He grows!”
Mrs. Whipple hated to talk about it, she tried to keep her mind off it, but every time anybody set foot in the house, the subject always came up, and she had to talk a
He did grow and He never got hurt. A plank blew off the chicken house and struck Him on the head and He never seemed to know it. He had learned a few words, and after this He forgot them. He didn’t whine for food as the other children did, but waited until it was given Him; He ate squatting in the corner, smacking and mumbling. Rolls of fat covered Him like an overcoat, and He could carry twice as much wood and water as Adna. Emly had a cold in the head most of the time—“she takes that after me,” said Mrs. Whipple—so in bad weather they gave her the extra blanket off His cot. He never seemed to mind the cold.
Just the same, Mrs. Whipple’s life was a torment for fear something might happen to Him. He climbed the peach trees much better than Adna and went skittering along the branches like a monkey, just a regular monkey. “Oh, Mrs. Whipple, you hadn’t ought to let Him do that. He’ll lose His balance sometime. He can’t rightly know what He’s doing.”
Mrs. Whipple almost screamed out at the neighbor. “He does know what He’s doing! He’s as able as any other child! Come down out of there, you!” When He finally reached the ground she could hardly keep her hands off Him for acting like that before people, a grin all over His face and her worried sick about Him all the time.