The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  “It is written that we must be rained upon tonight,” said Camilo, “so let it be together.”

  At the foot of the platform stairway she staggered slightly—they were both nicely set up on Thora’s cocktails—and said: “At least, Camilo, do me the favor not to climb these stairs in your present state, since for you it is only a matter of coming down again at once, and you’ll certainly break your neck.”

  He made three quick bows, he was Spanish, and leaped off through the rainy darkness. She stood watching him, for he was a very graceful young man, thinking that tomorrow morning he would gaze soberly at his spoiled hat and soggy shoes and possibly associate her with his misery. As she watched, he stopped at the far corner and took off his hat and hid it under his overcoat. She felt she had betrayed him by seeing, because he would have been humiliated if he thought she even suspected him of trying to save his hat.

  Roger’s voice sounded over her shoulder above the clang of the rain falling on the stairway shed, wanting to know what she was doing out in the rain at this time of night, and did she take herself for a duck? His long, imperturbable face was streaming with water, and he tapped a bulging spot on the breast of his buttoned-up overcoat: “Hat,” he said. “Come on, let’s take a taxi.”

  She settled back against Roger’s arm which he laid around her shoulders, and with the gesture they exchanged a glance full of long amiable associations, then she looked through the window at the rain changing the shapes of everything, and the colors. The taxi dodged in and out between the pillars of the Elevated, skidding slightly on every curve, and she said: “The more it skids the calmer I feel, so I really must be drunk.”

  “You must be,” said Roger. “This bird is a homicidal maniac, and I could do with a cocktail myself this minute.”

  They waited on the traffic at Fortieth Street and Sixth Avenue, and three boys walked before the nose of the taxi. Under the globes of light they were cheerful scarecrows, all very thin and all wearing very seedy snappy-cut suits and gay neckties. They were not very sober either, and they stood for a moment wobbling in front of the car, and there was an argument going on among them. They leaned toward each other as if they were getting ready to sing, and the first one said: “When I get married it won’t be jus’ for getting married, I’m gonna marry for love, see?” and the second one said, “Aw, gwan and tell that stuff to her, why n’t yuh?” and the third one gave a kind of hoot, and said, “Hell, dis guy? Wot the hell’s he got?” and the first one said: “Aaah, shurrup yuh mush, I got plenty.” Then they all squealed and scrambled across the street beating the first one on the back and pushing him around.

  “Nuts,” commented Roger, “pure nuts.”

  Two girls went skittering by in short transparent raincoats, one green, one red, their heads tucked against the drive of the rain. One of them was saying to the other, “Yes, I know all about that. But what about me? You’re always so sorry for him. . .” and they ran on with their little pelican legs flashing back and forth.

  The taxi backed up suddenly and leaped forward again, and after a while Roger said: “I had a letter from Stella today, and she’ll be home on the twenty-sixth, so I suppose she’s made up her mind and it’s all settled.”

  “I had a sort of letter today too,” she said, “making up my mind for me. I think it is time for you and Stella to do something definite.”

  When the taxi stopped on the corner of West Fifty-third Street, Roger said, “I’ve just enough if you’ll add ten cents,” so she opened her purse and gave him a dime, and he said, “That’s beautiful, that purse.”

  “It’s a birthday present,” she told him, “and I like it. How’s your show coming?”

  “Oh, still hanging on, I guess. I don’t go near the place. Nothing sold yet. I mean to keep right on the way I’m going and they can take it or leave it. I’m through with the argument.”

  “It’s absolutely a matter of holding out, isn’t it?”

  “Holding out’s the tough part.”

  “Good night, Roger.”

  “Good night, you should take aspirin and push yourself into a tub of hot water, you look as though you’re catching cold.”

  “I will.”

  With the purse under her arm she went upstairs, and on the first landing Bill heard her step and poked his head out with his hair tumbled and his eyes red, and he said: “For Christ’s sake, come in and have a drink with me. I’ve had some bad news.”

  “You’re perfectly sopping,” said Bill, looking at her drenched feet. They had two drinks, while Bill told how the director had thrown his play out after the cast had been picked over twice, and had gone through three rehearsals. “I said to him, ‘I didn’t say it was a masterpiece, I said it would make a good show.’ And he said, ‘It just doesn’t play, do you see? It needs a doctor.’ So I’m stuck, absolutely stuck,” said Bill, on the edge of weeping again. “I’ve been crying,” he told her, “in my cups.” And he went on to ask her if she realized his wife was ruining him with her extravagance. “I send her ten dollars every week of my unhappy life, and I don’t really have to. She threatens to jail me if I don’t, but she can’t do it. God, let her try it after the way she treated me! She’s no right to alimony and she knows it. She keeps on saying she’s got to have it for the baby and I keep on sending it because I can’t bear to see anybody suffer. So I’m way behind on the piano and the victrola, both—”

  “Well, this is a pretty rug, anyhow,” she said.

  Bill stared at it and blew his nose. “I got it at Ricci’s for ninety-five dollars,” he said. “Ricci told me it once belonged to Marie Dressler, and cost fifteen hundred dollars, but there’s a burnt place on it, under the divan. Can you beat that?”

  “No,” she said. She was thinking about her empty purse and that she could not possibly expect a check for her latest review for another three days, and her arrangement with the basement restaurant could not last much longer if she did not pay something on account. “It’s no time to speak of it,” she said, “but I’ve been hoping you would have by now that fifty dollars you promised for my scene in the third act. Even if it doesn’t play. You were to pay me for the work anyhow out of your advance.”

  “Weeping Jesus,” said Bill, “you, too?” He gave a loud sob, or hiccough, in his moist handkerchief. “Your stuff was no better than mine, after all. Think of that.”

  “But you got something for it,” she said. “Seven hundred dollars.”

  Bill said, “Do me a favor, will you? Have another drink and forget about it. I can’t, you know I can’t, I would if I could, but you know the fix I’m in.”

  “Let it go, then,” she found herself saying almost in spite of herself. She had meant to be quite firm about it. They drank again without speaking, and she went to her apartment on the floor above.

  There, she now remembered distinctly, she had taken the letter out of the purse before she spread the purse out to dry.

  She had sat down and read the letter over again: but there were phrases that insisted on being read many times, they had a life of their own separate from the others, and when she tried to read past and around them, they moved with the movement of her eyes, and she could not escape them. . . “thinking about you more than I mean to. . . yes, I even talk about you. . . why were you so anxious to destroy. . . even if I could see you now I would not. . . not worth all this abominable. . . the end. . .”

  Carefully she tore the letter into narrow strips and touched a lighted match to them in the coal grate.

  Early the next morning she was in the bathtub when the janitress knocked and then came in, calling out that she wished to examine the radiators before she started the furnace going for the winter. After moving about the room for a few minutes, the janitress went out, closing the door very sharply.

  She came out of the bathroom to get a cigarette from the package in the purse. The purse was gone. She dressed and made coffee, and sat by the window while she drank it. Certainly the janitress had taken the purse, and ce
rtainly it would be impossible to get it back without a great deal of ridiculous excitement. Then let it go. With this decision of her mind, there rose coincidentally in her blood a deep almost murderous anger. She set the cup carefully in the center of the table, and walked steadily downstairs, three long flights and a short hall and a steep short flight into the basement, where the janitress, her face streaked with coal dust, was shaking up the furnace. “Will you please give me back my purse? There isn’t any money in it. It was a present, and I don’t want to lose it.”

  The janitress turned without straightening up and peered at her with hot flickering eyes, a red light from the furnace reflected in them. “What do you mean, your purse?”

  “The gold cloth purse you took from the wooden bench in my room,” she said. “I must have it back.”

  “Before God I never laid eyes on your purse, and that’s the holy truth,” said the janitress.

  “Oh, well then, keep it,” she said, but in a very bitter voice; “keep it if you want it so much.” And she walked away.

  She remembered how she had never locked a door in her life, on some principle of rejection in her that made her uncomfortable in the ownership of things, and her paradoxical boast before the warnings of her friends, that she had never lost a penny by theft; and she had been pleased with the bleak humility of this concrete example designed to illustrate and justify a certain fixed, otherwise baseless and general faith which ordered the movements of her life without regard to her will in the matter.

  In this moment she felt that she had been robbed of an enormous number of valuable things, whether material or intangible: things lost or broken by her own fault, things she had forgotten and left in houses when she moved: books borrowed from her and not returned, journeys she had planned and had not made, words she had waited to hear spoken to her and had not heard, and the words she had meant to answer with; bitter alternatives and intolerable substitutes worse than nothing, and yet inescapable: the long patient suffering of dying friendships and the dark inexplicable death of love—all that she had had, and all that she had missed, were lost together, and were twice lost in this landslide of remembered losses.

  The janitress was following her upstairs with the purse in her hand and the same deep red fire flickering in her eyes. The janitress thrust the purse towards her while they were still a half dozen steps apart, and said: “Don’t never tell on me. I musta been crazy. I get crazy in the head sometimes, I swear I do. My son can tell you.”

  She took the purse after a moment, and the janitress went on: “I got a niece who is going on seventeen, and she’s a nice girl and I thought I’d give it to her. She needs a pretty purse. I musta been crazy; I thought maybe you wouldn’t mind, you leave things around and don’t seem to notice much.”

  She said: “I missed this because it was a present to me from someone. . .”

  The janitress said: “He’d get you another if you lost this one. My niece is young and needs pretty things, we oughta give the young ones a chance. She’s got young men after her maybe will want to marry her. She oughta have nice things. She needs them bad right now. You’re a grown woman, you’ve had your chance, you ought to know how it is!”

  She held the purse out to the janitress saying: “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Here, take it, I’ve changed my mind. I really don’t want it.”

  The janitress looked up at her with hatred and said: “I don’t want it either now. My niece is young and pretty, she don’t need fixin’ up to be pretty, she’s young and pretty anyhow! I guess you need it worse than she does!”

  “It wasn’t really yours in the first place,” she said, turning away. “You mustn’t talk as if I had stolen it from you.”

  “It’s not from me, it’s from her you’re stealing it,” said the janitress, and went back downstairs.

  She laid the purse on the table and sat down with the cup of chilled coffee, and thought: I was right not to be afraid of any thief but myself, who will end by leaving me nothing.

  That Tree

  HE had really wanted to be a cheerful bum lying under a tree in a good climate, writing poetry. He wrote bushel basketsful of poetry and it was all no good and he knew it, even while he was writing it. Knowing his poetry was no good did not take away much from his pleasure in it. He would have enjoyed just that kind of life: no respectability, no responsibility, no money to speak of, wearing worn-out sandals and a becoming, if probably ragged, blue shirt, lying under a tree writing poetry. That was why he had come to Mexico in the first place. He had felt in his bones that it was the country for him. Long after he had become quite an important journalist, an authority on Latin-American revolutions and a best seller, he confessed to any friends and acquaintances who would listen to him—he enjoyed this confession, it gave him a chance to talk about the thing he believed he loved best, the idle free romantic life of a poet—that the day Miriam kicked him out was the luckiest day of his life. She had left him, really, packing up suddenly in a cold quiet fury, stabbing him with her elbows when he tried to get his arms around her, now and again cutting him to the bone with a short sentence expelled through her clenched teeth; but he felt that he had been, as he always explained, kicked out. She had kicked him out and it had served him right.

  The shock had brought him to himself as if he had been surprised out of a long sleep. He had sat quite benumbed in the bare clean room, among the straw mats and the painted Indian chairs Miriam hated, in the sudden cold silence, his head in his hands, nearly all night. It hadn’t even occurred to him to lie down. It must have been almost daylight when he got up stiff in every joint from sitting still so long, and though he could not say he had been thinking yet he had formed a new resolution. He had started out, you might almost say that very day, to make a career for himself in journalism. He couldn’t say why he had hit on that, except that the word would impress his wife, the work was just intellectual enough to save his self-respect, such as it was, and even to him it seemed a suitable occupation for a man such as he had suddenly become, bent on getting on in the world of affairs. Nothing ever happens suddenly to anyone, he observed, as if the thought had just occurred to him; it had been coming on probably for a long time, sneaking up on him when he wasn’t looking. His wife had called him “Parasite!” She had said “Ne’er-do-well!” and as she repeated these things for what proved to be the last time, it struck him she had said them often before, when he had not listened to her with the ear of his mind. He translated these relatively harmless epithets instantly into their proper synonyms of Loafer! and Bum! Miriam had been a schoolteacher, and no matter what her disappointments and provocations may have been, you could not expect her easily to forget such discipline. She had got into a professional habit of primness; besides, she was a properly brought-up girl, not a prissy bore, not at all, but a—well, there you are, a nicely brought-up Middle-Western girl, who took life seriously. And what can you do about that? She was sweet and gay and full of little crazy notions, but she never gave way to them honestly, or at least never at the moment when they might have meant something. She was never able to see the amusing side of a threatening situation which, taken solemnly, would ruin everything. No, her sense of humor never worked for salvation. It was just an extra frill on what would have been a good time anyhow.

  He wondered if anybody had ever thought—oh, well, of course everybody else had, he was always making marvelous discoveries that other people had known all along—how impossible it is to explain or to make other eyes see the special qualities in the person you love. There was such a special kind of beauty in Miriam. In certain lights and moods he simply got a clutch in the pit of his stomach when he looked at her. It was something that could happen at any hour of the day, in the midst of the most ordinary occupations. He thought there was something to be said for living with one person day and night the year round. It brings out the worst, but it brings out the best, too, and Miriam’s best was pretty damn swell. He couldn’t describe it. It was easy to talk
about her faults. He remembered all of them, he could add them up against her like rows of figures in a vast unpaid debt. He had lived with her for four years, and even now sometimes he woke out of a sound sleep in a sweating rage with himself, asking himself again why he had ever wasted a minute on her. She wasn’t beautiful in his style. He confessed to a weakness for the kind that knocks your eye out. Her notion of daytime dress was a tailored suit with a round-collared blouse and a little felt hat like a bent shovel pulled down over her eyes. In the evening she put on a black dinner dress, positively disappeared into it. But she did her hair well and had the most becoming nightgowns he ever saw. You could have put her mind in a peanut shell. She hadn’t temperament of the kind he had got used to in the Mexican girls. She did not approve of his use of the word temperament, either. She thought it was a kind of occupational disease among artists, or a trick they practiced to make themselves interesting. In any case, she distrusted artists and she distrusted temperament. But there was something about her. In cold blood he could size her up to himself, but it made him furious if anyone even hinted a criticism against her. His second wife had made a point of being catty about Miriam. In the end he could almost be willing to say this had led to his second divorce. He could not bear hearing Miriam called a mousy little nit-wit—at least not by that woman. . .

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