The Complete Stories
The Comforts of Home
THOMAS withdrew to the side of the window and with his head between the wall and the curtain he looked down on the driveway where the car had stopped. His mother and the little slut were getting out of it. His mother emerged slowly, stolid and awkward, and then the little slut’s long slightly bowed legs slid out, the dress pulled above the knees. With a shriek of laughter she ran to meet the dog, who bounded, overjoyed, shaking with pleasure, to welcome her. Rage gathered throughout Thomas’s large frame with a silent ominous intensity, like a mob assembling.
It was now up to him to pack a suitcase, go to the hotel, and stay there until the house should be cleared.
He did not know where a suitcase was, he disliked to pack, he needed his books, his typewriter was not portable, he was used to an electric blanket, he could not bear to eat in restaurants. His mother, with her daredevil charity, was about to wreck the peace of the house.
The back door slammed and the girl’s laugh shot up from the kitchen, through the back hall, up the stairwell and into his room, making for him like a bolt of electricity. He jumped to the side and stood glaring about him. His words of the morning had been unequivocal: “If you bring that girl back into this house, I leave. You can choose—her or me.”
She had made her choice. An intense pain gripped his throat. It was the first time in his thirty-five years … He felt a sudden burning moisture behind his eyes. Then he steadied himself, overcome by rage. On the contrary: she had not made any choice. She was counting on his attachment to his electric blanket. She would have to be shown.
The girl’s laughter rang upward a second time and Thomas winced. He saw again her look of the night before. She had invaded his room. He had waked to find his door open and her in it. There was enough light from the hall to make her visible as she turned toward him. The face was like a comedienne’s in a musical comedy—a pointed chin, wide apple cheeks and feline empty eyes. He had sprung out of his bed and snatched a straight chair and then he had backed her out the door, holding the chair in front of him like an animal trainer driving out a dangerous cat. He had driven her silently down the hall, pausing when he reached it to beat on his mother’s door. The girl, with a gasp, turned and fled into the guest room.
In a moment his mother had opened her door and peered out apprehensively. Her face, greasy with whatever she put on it at night, was framed in pink rubber curlers. She looked down the hall where the girl had disappeared. Thomas stood before her, the chair still lifted in front of him as if he were about to quell another beast. “She tried to get in my room,” he hissed, pushing in. “I woke up and she was trying to get in my room.” He closed the door behind him and his voice rose in outrage. “I won’t put up with this! I won’t put up with it another day!”
His mother, backed by him to her bed, sat down on the edge of it. She had a heavy body on which sat a thin, mysteriously gaunt and incongruous head.
“I’m telling you for the last time,” Thomas said, “I won’t put up with this another day.” There was an observable tendency in all of her actions. This was, with the best intentions in the world, to make a mockery of virtue, to pursue it with such a mindless intensity that everyone involved was made a fool of and virtue itself became ridiculous. “Not another day,” he repeated.
His mother shook her head emphatically, her eyes still on the door.
Thomas put the chair on the floor in front of her and sat down on it. He leaned forward as if he were about to explain something to a defective child.
“That’s just another way she’s unfortunate,” his mother said. “So awful, so awful. She told me the name of it but I forget what it is but it’s something she can’t help. Something she was born with. Thomas,” she said and put her hand to her jaw, “suppose it were you?”
Exasperation blocked his windpipe. “Can’t I make you see,” he croaked, “that if she can’t help herself you can’t help her?”
His mother’s eyes, intimate but untouchable, were the blue of great distances after sunset. “Nimpermaniac,” she murmured.
“Nymphomaniac,” he said fiercely. “She doesn’t need to supply you with any fancy names. She’s a moral moron. That’s all you need to know. Born without the moral faculty—like somebody else would be born without a kidney or a leg. Do you understand?”
“I keep thinking it might be you,” she said, her hand still on her jaw. “If it were you, how do you think I’d feel if nobody took you in? What if you were a nimpermaniac and not a brilliant smart person and you did what you couldn’t help and…”
Thomas felt a deep unbearable loathing for himself as if he were turning slowly into the girl.
“What did she have on?” she asked abruptly, her eyes narrowing.
“Nothing!” he roared. “Now will you get her out of here!”
“How can I turn her out in the cold?” she said. “This morning she was threatening to kill herself again.”
“Send her back to jail,” Thomas said.
“I would not send you back to jail, Thomas,” she said.
He got up and snatched the chair and fled the room while he was still able to control himself.
Thomas loved his mother. He loved her because it was his nature to do so, but there were times when he could not endure her love for him. There were times when it became nothing but pure idiot mystery and he sensed about him forces, invisible currents entirely out of his control. She proceeded always from the tritest of considerations—it was the nice thing to do—into the most foolhardy engagements with the devil, whom, of course, she never recognized.
The devil for Thomas was only a manner of speaking, but it was a manner appropriate to the situations his mother got into. Had she been in any degree intellectual, he could have proved to her from early Christian history that no excess of virtue is justified, that a moderation of good produces likewise a moderation in evil, that if Antony of Egypt had stayed at home and attended to his sister, no devils would have plagued him.
Thomas was not cynical and so far from being opposed to virtue, he saw it as the principle of order and the only thing that makes life bearable. His own life was made bearable by the fruits of his mother’s saner virtues—by the well-regulated house she kept and the excellent meals she served. But when virtue got out of hand with her, as now, a sense of devils grew upon him, and these were not mental quirks in himself or the old lady, they were denizens with personalities, present though not visible, who might any moment be expected to shriek or rattle a pot.
The girl had landed in the county jail a month ago on a bad check charge and his mother had seen her picture in the paper. At the breakfast table she had gazed at it for a long time and then had passed it over the coffee pot to him. “Imagine,” she said, “only nineteen years old and in that filthy jail. And she doesn’t look like a bad girl.”
Thomas glanced at the picture. It showed the face of a shrewd ragamuffin. He observed that the average age for criminality was steadily lowering.
“She looks like a wholesome girl,” his mother said.
“Wholesome people don’t pass bad checks,” Thomas said.
“You don’t know what you’d do in a pinch.”
“I wouldn’t pass a bad check,” Thomas said.
“I think,” his mother said, “I’ll take her a little box of candy.”
If then and there he had put his foot down, nothing else would have happened. His father, had he been living, would have put his foot down at that point. Taking a box of candy was her favorite nice thing to do. When anyone within her social station moved to town, she called and took a box of candy; when any of her friend’s children had babies or won a scholarship, she called and took a box of candy; when an old person broke his hip, she was at his bedside with a box of candy. He had been amused at the idea of her taking a box of candy to the jail.
He stood now in his room with the girl’s laugh rocketing away in his head and cursed his amusement.
When his mother returned from the visit to the jail, she had burst into his study without knocking and had collapsed full-length on his couch, lifting her small swollen feet up on the arm of it. After a moment, she recovered herself enough to sit up and put a newspaper under them. Then she fell back again. “We don’t know how the other half lives,” she said.
Thomas knew that though her conversation moved from cliché to cliché there were real experiences behind them. He was less sorry for the girl’s being in jail than for his mother having to see her there. He would have spared her all unpleasant sights. “Well,” he said and put away his journal, “you had better forget it now. The girl has ample reason to be in jail.”
“You can’t imagine what all she’s been through,” she said, sitting up again, “listen.” The poor girl, Star, had been brought up by a stepmother with three children of her own, one an almost grown boy who had taken advantage of her in such dreadful ways that she had been forced to run away and find her real mother. Once found, her real mother had sent her to various boarding schools to get rid of her. At each of these she had been forced to run away by the presence of perverts and sadists so monstrous that their acts defied description. Thomas could tell that his mother had not been spared the details that she was sparing him. Now and again when she spoke vaguely, her voice shook and he could tell that she was remembering some horror that had been put to her graphically. He had hoped that in a few days the memory of all this would wear off, but it did not. The next day she returned to the jail with Kleenex and cold-cream and a few days later, she announced that she had consulted a lawyer.
It was at these times that Thomas truly mourned the death of his father though he had not been able to endure him in life. The old man would have had none of this foolishness. Untouched by useless compassion, he would (behind her back) have pulled the necessary strings with his crony, the sheriff, and the girl would have been packed off to the state penitentiary to serve her time. He had always been engaged in some enraged action until one morning when (with an angry glance at his wife as if she alone were responsible) he had dropped dead at the breakfast table. Thomas had inherited his father’s reason without his ruthlessness and his mother’s love of good without her tendency to pursue it. His plan for all practical action was to wait and see what developed.
The lawyer found that the story of the repeated atrocities was for the most part untrue, but when he explained to her that the girl was a psychopathic personality, not insane enough for the asylum, not criminal enough for the jail, not stable enough for society, Thomas’s mother was more deeply affected than ever. The girl readily admitted that her story was untrue on account of her being a congenital liar; she lied, she said, because she was insecure. She had passed through the hands of several psychiatrists who had put the finishing touches to her education. She knew there was no hope for her. In the presence of such an affliction as this, his mother seemed bowed down by some painful mystery that nothing would make endurable but a redoubling of effort. To his annoyance, she appeared to look on him with compassion, as if her hazy charity no longer made distinctions.
A few days later she burst in and said that the lawyer had got the girl paroled—to her.
Thomas rose from his Morris chair, dropping the review he had been reading. His large bland face contracted in anticipated pain. “You are not,” he said, “going to bring that girl here!”
“No, no,” she said, “calm yourself, Thomas.” She had managed with difficulty to get the girl a job in a pet shop in town and a place to board with a crotchety old lady of her acquaintance. People were not kind. They did not put themselves in the place of someone like Star who had everything against her.
Thomas sat down again and retrieved his review. He seemed just to have escaped some danger which he did not care to make clear to himself. “Nobody can tell you anything,” he said, “but in a few days that girl will have left town, having got what she could out of you. You’ll never hear from her again.”
Two nights later he came home and opened the parlor door and was speared by a shrill depthless laugh. His mother and the girl sat close to the fireplace where the gas logs were lit. The girl gave the immediate impression of being physically crooked. Her hair was cut like a dog’s or an elf’s and she was dressed in the latest fashion. She was training on him a long familiar sparkling stare that turned after a second into an intimate grin.
“Thomas!” his mother said, her voice firm with the injunction not to bolt, “this is Star you’ve heard so much about. Star is going to have supper with us.”
The girl called herself Star Drake. The lawyer had found that her real name was Sarah Ham.
Thomas neither moved nor spoke but hung in the door in what seemed a savage perplexity. Finally he said, “How do you do, Sarah,” in a tone of such loathing that he was shocked at the sound of it. He reddened, feeling it beneath him to show contempt for any creature so pathetic. He advanced into the room, determined at least on a decent politeness and sat down heavily in a straight chair.
“Thomas writes history,” his mother said with a threatening look at him. “He’s president of the local Historical Society this year.”
The girl leaned forward and gave Thomas an even more pointed attention. “Fabulous!” she said in a throaty voice.
“Right now Thomas is writing about the first settlers in this county,” his mother said.
“Fabulous!” the girl repeated.
Thomas by an effort of will managed to look as if he were alone in the room.
“Say, you know who he looks like?” Star asked, her head on one side, taking him in at an angle.
“Oh, someone very distinguished!” his mother said archly.
“This cop I saw in the movie I went to last night,” Star said.
“Star,” his mother said, “I think you ought to be careful about the kind of movies you go to. I think you ought to see only the best ones. I don’t think crime stories would be good for you.”
“Oh this was a crime-does-not-pay,” Star said, “and I swear this cop looked exactly like him. They were always putting something over on the guy. He would look like he couldn’t stand it a minute longer or he would blow up. He was a riot. And not bad looking,” she added with an appreciative leer at Thomas.
“Star,” his mother said, “I think it would be grand if you developed a taste for music.”
Thomas sighed. His mother rattled on and the girl, paying no attention to her, let her eyes play over him. The quality of her look was such that it might have been her hands, resting now on his knees, now on his neck. Her eyes had a mocking glitter and he knew that she was well aware he could not stand the sight of her. He needed nothing to tell him he was in the presence of the very stuff of corruption, but blameless corruption because there was no responsible faculty behind it. He was looking at the most unendurable form of innocence. Absently he asked himself what the attitude of God was to this, meaning if possible to adopt it.
His mother’s behavior throughout the meal was so idiotic that he could barely stand to look at her and since he could less stand to look at Sarah Ham, he fixed on the sideboard across the room a continuous gaze of disapproval and disgust. Every remark of the girl’s his mother met as if it deserved serious attention. She advanced several plans for the wholesome use of Star’s spare time. Sarah Ham paid no more attention to this advice than if it came from a parrot. Once when Thomas inadvertently looked in her direction, she winked. As soon as he had swallowed the last spoonful of dessert, he rose and muttered, “I have to go, I have a meeting.”
“Thomas,” his mother said, “I want you to take Star home on your way. I don’t want her riding in taxis by herself at night.”
For a moment Thomas remained furiously silent. Then he turned and left the room. Presently he came back with a look of obscure determination on his face. The girl was ready, meekly waiting at the parlor door. She cast up at him a great look of admiration and confidence. Thomas did not offer his arm but she took it anyway and moved out of the house and down the steps, attached to what might have been a miraculously moving monument.
“Be good!” his mother called.
Sarah Ham snickered and poked him in the ribs.
While getting his coat he had decided that this would be his opportunity to tell the girl that unless she ceased to be a parasite on his mother, he would see to it, personally, that she was returned to jail. He would let her know that he understood what she was up to, that he was not an innocent and that there were certain things he would not put up with. At his desk, pen in hand, none was more articulate than Thomas. As soon as he found himself shut into the car with Sarah Ham, terror seized his tongue.
She curled her feet up under her and said, “Alone at last,” and giggled.
Thomas swerved the car away from the house and drove fast toward the gate. Once on the highway, he shot forward as if he were being pursued.
“Jesus!” Sarah Ham said, swinging her feet off the seat, “where’s the fire?”
Thomas did not answer. In a few seconds he could feel her edging closer. She stretched, eased nearer, and finally hung her hand limply over his shoulder. “Tomsee doesn’t like me,” she said, “but I think he’s fabulously cute.”
Thomas covered the three and a half miles into town in a little over four minutes. The light at the first intersection was red but he ignored it. The old woman lived three blocks beyond. When the car screeched to a halt at the place, he jumped out and ran around to the girl’s door and opened it. She did not move from the car and Thomas was obliged to wait. After a moment one leg emerged, then her small white crooked face appeared and stared up at him. There was something about the look of it that suggested blindness but it was the blindness of those who don’t know that they cannot see. Thomas was curiously sickened. The empty eyes moved over him. “Nobody likes me,” she said in a sullen tone. “What if you were me and I couldn’t stand to ride you three miles?”
“My mother likes you,” he muttered.
“Her!” the girl said. “She’s just about seventy-five years behind the times!”
Breathlessly Thomas said, “If I find you bothering her again, I’ll have you put back in jail.” There was a dull force behind his voice though it came out barely above a whisper.
“You and who else?” she said and drew back in the car as if now she did not intend to get out at all. Thomas reached into it, blindly grasped the front of her coat, pulled her out by it and released her. Then he lunged back to the car and sped off. The other door was still hanging open and her laugh, bodiless but real, bounded up the street as if it were about to jump in the open side of the car and ride away with him. He reached over and slammed the door and then drove toward home, too angry to attend his meeting. He intended to make his mother well-aware of his displeasure. He intended to leave no doubt in her mind. The voice of his father rasped in his head.
Numbskull, the old man said, put your foot down now. Show her who’s boss before she shows you.
But when Thomas reached home, his mother, wisely, had gone to bed.
* * *
The next morning he appeared at the breakfast table, his brow lowered and the thrust of his jaw indicating that he was in a dangerous humor. When he intended to be determined, Thomas began like a bull that, before charging, backs with his head lowered and paws the ground. “All right now listen,” he began, yanking out his chair and sitting down, “I have something to say to you about that girl and I don’t intend to say it but once.” He drew breath. “She’s nothing but a little slut. She makes fun of you behind your back. She means to get everything she can out of you and you are nothing to her.”
His mother looked as if she too had spent a restless night. She did not dress in the morning but wore her bathrobe and a gray turban around her head, which gave her face a disconcerting omniscient look. He might have been breakfasting with a sibyl.
“You’ll have to use canned cream this morning,” she said, pouring his coffee. “I forgot the other.”
“All right, did you hear me?” Thomas growled.
“I’m not deaf,” his mother said and put the pot back on the trivet. “I know I’m nothing but an old bag of wind to her.”
“Then why do you persist in this foolhardy…”
“Thomas,” she said, and put her hand to the side of her face, “it might be…”
“It is not me!” Thomas said, grasping the table leg at his knee.
She continued to hold her face, shaking her head slightly. “Think of all you have,” she began. “All the comforts of home. And morals, Thomas. No bad inclinations, nothing bad you were born with.”
Thomas began to breathe like someone who feels the onset of asthma. “You are not logical,” he said in a limp voice. “He would have put his foot down.”
The old lady stiffened. “You,” she said, “are not like him.”
Thomas opened his mouth silently.
“However,” his mother said, in a tone of such subtle accusation that she might have been taking back the compliment, “I won’t invite her back again since you’re so dead set against her.”
“I am not set against her,” Thomas said. “I am set against your making a fool of yourself.”
As soon as he left the table and closed the door of his study on himself, his father took up a squatting position in his mind. The old man had had the countryman’s ability to converse squatting, though he was no countryman but had been born and brought up in the city and only moved to a smaller place later to exploit his talents. With steady skill he had made them think him one of them. In the midst of a conversation on the courthouse lawn, he would squat and his two or three companions would squat with him with no break in the surface of the talk. By gesture he had lived his lie; he had never deigned to tell one.
Let her run over you, he said. You ain’t like me. Not enough to be a man.
Thomas began vigorously to read and presently the image faded. The girl had caused a disturbance in the depths of his being, somewhere out of the reach of his power of analysis. He felt as if he had seen a tornado pass a hundred yards away and had an intimation that it would turn again and head directly for him. He did not get his mind firmly on his work until mid-morning.
Two nights later, his mother and he were sitting in the den after their supper, each reading a section of the evening paper, when the telephone began to ring with the brassy intensity of a fire alarm. Thomas reached for it. As soon as the receiver was in his hand, a shrill female voice screamed into the room, “Come get this girl! Come get her! Drunk! Drunk in my parlor and I won’t have it! Lost her job and come back here drunk! I won’t have it!”
His mother leapt up and snatched the receiver.
The ghost of Thomas’s father rose before him. Call the sheriff, the old man prompted. “Call the sheriff,” Thomas said in a loud voice. “Call the sheriff to go there and pick her up.”
“We’ll be right there,” his mother was saying. “We’ll come and get her right away. Tell her to get her things together.”
“She ain’t in no condition to get nothing together,” the voice screamed. “You shouldn’t have put something like her off on me! My house is respectable!”
“Tell her to call the sheriff,” Thomas shouted.
His mother put the receiver down and looked at him. “I wouldn’t turn a dog over to that man,” she said.
Thomas sat in the chair with his arms folded and looked fixedly at the wall.
“Think of the poor girl, Thomas,” his mother said, “with nothing. Nothing. And we have everything.”
When they arrived, Sarah Ham was slumped spraddle-legged against the banister on the boarding house front-steps. Her tam was down on her forehead where the old woman had slammed it and her clothes were bulging out of her suitcase where the old woman had thrown them in. She was carrying on a drunken conversation with herself in a low personal tone. A steak of lipstick ran up one side of her face. She allowed herself to be guided by his mother to the car and put in the back seat without seeming to know who the rescuer was. “Nothing to talk to all day but a pack of goddamned parakeets,” she said in a furious whisper.
Thomas, who had not got out of the car at all, or looked at her after the first revolted glance, said, “I’m telling you, once and for all, the place to take her is the jail.
His mother, sitting on the back seat, holding the girl’s hand, did not answer.
“All right, take her to the hotel,” he said.
“I cannot take a drunk girl to a hotel, Thomas,” she said. “You know that.”
“Then take her to a hospital.”
“She doesn’t need a jail or a hotel or a hospital,” his mother said, “she needs a home.”
“She does not need mine,” Thomas said.
“Only for tonight, Thomas,” the old lady sighed. “Only for tonight.”
Since then eight days had passed. The little slut was established in the guest room. Every day his mother set out to find her a job and a place to board, and failed, for the old woman had broadcast a warning. Thomas kept to his room or the den. His home was to him home, workshop, church, as personal as the shell of a turtle and as necessary. He could not believe that it could be violated in this way. His flushed face had a constant look of stunned outrage.
As soon as the girl was up in the morning, her voice throbbed out in a blues song that would rise and waver, then plunge low with insinuations of passion about to be satisfied and Thomas, at his desk, would lunge up and begin frantically stuffling his ears with Kleenex. Each time he started from one room to another, one floor to another, she would be certain to appear. Each time he was halfway up or down the stairs, she would either meet him and pass, cringing coyly, or go up or down behind him, breathing small tragic spearmint-flavored sighs. She appeared to adore Thomas’s repugnance to her and to draw it out of him every chance she got as if it added delectably to her martyrdom.
The old man—small, wasp-like, in his yellowed panama hat, his seersucker suit, his pink carefully-soiled shirt, his small string tie—appeared to have taken up his station in Thomas’s mind and from there, usually squatting, he shot out the same rasping suggestion every time the boy paused from his forced studies. Put your foot down. Go to see the sheriff.
The sheriff was another edition of Thomas’s father except that he wore a checkered shirt and a Texas type hat and was ten years younger. He was as easily dishonest, and he had genuinely admired the old man. Thomas, like his mother, would have gone far out of his way to avoid his glassy pale blue gaze. He kept hoping for another solution, for a miracle.
With Sarah Ham in the house, meals were unbearable.
“Tomsee doesn’t like me,” she said the third or fourth night at the supper table and cast her pouting gaze across at the large rigid figure of Thomas, whose face was set with the look of a man trapped by insufferable odors. “He doesn’t want me here. Nobody wants me anywhere.”
“Thomas’s name is Thomas,” his mother interrupted. “Not Tomsee.”
“I made Tomsee up,” she said. “I think it’s cute. He hates me.”
“Thomas does not hate you,” his mother said. “We are not the kind of people who hate,” she added, as if this were an imperfection that had been bred out of them generations ago.
“Oh, I know when I’m not wanted,” Sarah Ham continued. “They didn’t even want me in jail. If I killed myself I wonder would God want me?”
“Try it and see,” Thomas muttered.
The girl screamed with laughter. Then she stopped abruptly, her face puckered and she began to shake. “The best thing to do,” she said, her teeth clattering, “is to kill myself. Then I’ll be out of everybody’s way. I’ll go to hell and be out of God’s way. And even the devil won’t want me. He’ll kick me out of hell, not even in hell…” she wailed.
Thomas rose, picked up his plate and knife and fork and carried them to the den to finish his supper. After that, he had not eaten another meal at the table but had had his mother serve him at his desk. At these meals, the old man was intensely present to him. He appeared to be tipping backwards in his chair, his thumbs beneath his galluses, while he said such things as, She never ran me away from my own table.
A few nights later, Sarah Ham slashed her wrists with a paring knife and had hysterics. From the den where he was closeted after supper, Thomas heard a shriek, then a series of screams, then his mother’s scurrying footsteps through the house. He did not move. His first instant of hope that the girl had cut her throat faded as he realized she could not have done it and continue to scream the way she was doing. He returned to his journal and presently the screams subsided. In a moment his mother burst in with his coat and hat. “We have to take her to the hospital,” she said. “She tried to do away with herself. I have a tourniquet on her arm. Oh Lord, Thomas,” she said, “imagine being so low you’d do a thing like that!”
Thomas rose woodenly and put on his hat and coat. “We will take her to the hospital,” he said, “and we will leave her there.”
“And drive her to despair again?” the old lady cried. “Thomas!”
Standing in the center of his room now, realizing that he had reached the point where action was inevitable, that he must pack, that he must leave, that he must go, Thomas remained immovable.
His fury was directed not at the little slut but at his mother. Even though the doctor had found that she had barely damaged herself and had raised the girl’s wrath by laughing at the tourniquet and putting only a streak of iodine on the cut, his mother could not get over the incident. Some new weight of sorrow seemed to have been thrown across her shoulders, and not only Thomas, but Sarah Ham was infuriated by this, for it appeared to be a general sorrow that would have found another object no matter what good fortune came to either of them. The experience of Sarah Ham had plunged the old lady into mourning for the world.
The morning after the attempted suicide, she had gone through the house and collected all the knives and scissors and locked them in a drawer. She emptied a bottle of rat poison down the toilet and took up the roach tablets from the kitchen floor. Then she came to Thomas’s study and said in a whisper, “Where is that gun of his? I want you to lock it up.”
“The gun is in my drawer,” Thomas roared, “and I will not lock it up. If she shoots herself, so much the better!”
“Thomas,” his mother said, “she’ll hear you!”
“Let her hear me!” Thomas yelled. “Don’t you know she has no intention of killing herself? Don’t you know her kind never kill themselves? Don’t you…”
His mother slipped out the door and closed it to silence him and Sarah Ham’s laugh, quite close in the hall, came rattling into his room. “Tomsee’ll find out. I’ll kill myself and then he’ll be sorry he wasn’t nice to me. I’ll use his own lil gun, his own lil ol’ pearl-handled revol-lervuh!” she shouted and let out a loud tormented-sounding laugh in imitation of a movie monster.
Thomas ground his teeth. He pulled out his desk drawer and felt for the pistol. It was an inheritance from the old man, whose opinion it had been that every house should contain a loaded gun. He had discharged two bullets one night into the side of a prowler, but Thomas had never shot anything. He had no fear that the girl would use the gun on herself and he closed the drawer. Her kind clung tenaciously to life and were able to wrest some histrionic advantage from every moment.
Several ideas for getting rid of her had entered his head but each of these had been suggestions whose moral tone indicated that they had come from a mind akin to his father’s, and Thomas had rejected them. He could not get the girl locked up again until she did something illegal. The old man would have been able with no qualms at all to get her drunk and send her out on the highway in his car, meanwhile notifying the highway patrol of her presence on the road, but Thomas considered this below his moral stature. Suggestions continued to come to him, each more outrageous than the last.
He had not the vaguest hope that the girl would get the gun and shoot herself, but that afternoon when he looked in the drawer, the gun was gone. His study locked from the inside, not the out. He cared nothing about the gun, but the thought of Sarah Ham’s hands sliding among his papers infuriated him. Now even his study was contaminated. The only place left untouched by her was his bedroom.
That night she entered it.
In the morning at breakfast, he did not eat and did not sit down. He stood beside his chair and delivered his ultimatum while his mother sipped her coffee as if she were both alone in the room and in great pain. “I have stood this,” he said, “for as long as I am able. Since I see plainly that you care nothing about me, about my peace or comfort or working conditions, I am about to take the only step open to me. I will give you one more day. If you bring the girl back into this house this afternoon, I leave. You can choose—her or me.” He had more to say but at that point his voice cracked and he left.
At ten o’clock his mother and Sarah Ham left the house.
At four he heard the car wheels on the gravel and rushed to the window. As the car stopped, the dog stood up, alert, shaking.
He seemed unable to take the first step that would set him walking to the closet in the hall to look for the suitcase. He was like a man handed a knife and told to operate on himself if he wished to live. His huge hands clenched helplessly. His expression was a turmoil of indecision and outrage. His pale blue eyes seemed to sweat in his broiling face. He closed them for a moment and on the back of his lids, his father’s image leered at him. Idiot! the old man hissed, idiot! The criminal slut stole your gun! See the sheriff! See the sheriff!
It was a moment before Thomas opened his eyes. He seemed newly stunned. He stood where he was for at least three minutes, then he turned slowly like a large vessel reversing its direction and faced the door. He stood there a moment longer, then he left, his face set to see the ordeal through.
He did not know where he would find the sheriff. The man made his own rules and kept his own hours. Thomas stopped first at the jail where his office was, but he was not in it. He went to the courthouse and was told by a clerk that the sheriff had gone to barber shop across the street. “Yonder’s the deppity,” the clerk said and pointed out the window to the large figure of a man in a checkered shirt, who was leaning against the side of a police car, looking into space.
“It has to be the sheriff,” Thomas said and left for the barber shop. As little as he wanted anything to do with the sheriff, he realized that the man was at least intelligent and not simply a mound of sweating flesh.
The barber said the sheriff had just left. Thomas started back to the courthouse and as he stepped on to the sidewalk from the street, he saw a lean, slightly stooped figure gesticulating angrily at the deputy.
Thomas approached with an aggressiveness brought on by nervous agitation. He stopped abruptly three feet away and said in an over-loud voice, “Can I have a word with you?” without adding the sheriff’s name, which was Farebrother.
Farebrother turned his sharp creased face just enough to take Thomas in, and the deputy did likewise, but neither spoke. The sheriff removed a very small piece of cigarette from his lip and dropped it at his feet. “I told you what to do,” he said to the deputy. Then he moved off with a slight nod that indicated Thomas could follow him if he wanted to see him. The deputy slunk around the front of the police car and got inside.
Farebrother, with Thomas following, headed across the courthouse square and stopped beneath a tree that shaded a quarter of the front lawn. He waited, leaning slightly forward, and lit another cigarette.
Thomas began to blurt out his business. As he had not had time to prepare his words, he was barely coherent. By repeating the same thing over several times, he managed at length to get out what he wanted to say. When he finished, the sheriff was still leaning slightly forward, at an angle to him, his eyes on nothing in particular. He remained that way without speaking.
Thomas began again, slower and in a lamer voice, and Farebrother let him continue for some time before he said, “We had her oncet.” He then allowed himself a slow, creased, all-knowing, quarter smile.
“I had nothing to do with that,” Thomas said. “That was my mother.”
“She was trying to help the girl,” Thomas said. “She didn’t know she couldn’t be helped.”
“Bit off more than she could chew, I reckon,” the voice below him mused.
“She has nothing to do with this,” Thomas said. “She doesn’t know I’m here. The girl is dangerous with that gun.”
“He,” the sheriff said, “never let anything grow under his feet. Particularly nothing a woman planted.”
“She might kill somebody with that gun,” Thomas said weakly, looking down at the round top of the Texas type hat.
There was a long time of silence.
“Where’s she got it?” Farebrother asked.
“I don’t know. She sleeps in the guest room. It must be in there, in her suitcase probably,” Thomas said.
Farebrother lapsed into silence again.
“You could come search the guest room,” Thomas said in a strained voice. “I can go home and leave the latch off the front door and you can come in quietly and go upstairs and search her room.”
Farebrother turned his head so that his eyes looked boldly at Thomas’s knees. “You seem to know how it ought to be done,” he said. “Want to swap jobs?”
Thomas said nothing because he could not think of anything to say, but he waited doggedly. Farebrother removed the cigarette butt from his lips and dropped it on the grass. Beyond him on the courthouse porch a group of loiterers who had been leaning at the left of the door moved over to the right where a patch of sunlight had settled. From one of the upper windows a crumpled piece of paper blew out and drifted down.
“I’ll come along about six,” Farebrother said. “Leave the latch off the door and keep out of my way—yourself and them two women too.”
Thomas let out a rasping sound of relief meant to be “Thanks,” and struck off across the grass like someone released. The phrase, “them two women,” stuck like a burr in his brain—the subtlety of the insult to his mother hurting him more than any of Farebrother’s references to his own incompetence. As he got into his car, his face suddenly flushed. Had he delivered his mother over to the sheriff—to be a butt for the man’s tongue? Was he betraying her to get rid of the little slut? He saw at once that this was not the case. He was doing what he was doing for her own good, to rid her of a parasite that would ruin their peace. He started his car and drove quickly home but once he had turned in the driveway, he decided it would be better to park some distance from the house and go quietly in by the back door. He parked on the grass and on the grass walked in a circle toward the rear of the house. The sky was lined with mustard-colored streaks. The dog was asleep on the back doormat. At the approach of his master’s step, he opened one yellow eye, took him in, and closed it again.
Thomas let himself into the kitchen. It was empty and the house was quiet enough for him to be aware of the loud ticking of the kitchen clock. It was a quarter to six. He tiptoed hurriedly through the hall to the front door and took the latch off it. Then he stood for a moment listening. From behind the closed parlor door, he heard his mother snoring softly and presumed that she had gone to sleep while reading. On the other side of the hall, not three feet from his study, the little slut’s black coat and red pocketbook were slung on a chair. He heard water running upstairs and decided she was taking a bath.
He went into his study and sat down at his desk to wait, noting with distaste that every few moments a tremor ran through him. He sat for a minute or two doing nothing. Then he picked up a pen and began to draw squares on the back of an envelope that lay before him. He looked at his watch. It was eleven minutes to six. After a moment he idly drew the center drawer of the desk out over his lap. For a moment he stared at the gun without recognition. Then he gave a yelp and leaped up. She had put it back!
Idiot! his father hissed, idiot! Go plant it in her pocketbook. Don’t just stand there. Go plant it in her pocketbook!
Thomas stood staring at the drawer.
Moron! the old man fumed. Quick while there’s time! Go plant it in her pocketbook.
Thomas did not move.
Imbecile! his father cried.
Thomas picked up the gun.
Make haste, the old man ordered.
Thomas started forward, holding the gun away from him. He opened the door and looked at the chair. The black coat and red pocketbook were lying on it almost within reach.
Hurry up, you fool, his father said.
From behind the parlor door the almost inaudible snores of his mother rose and fell. They seemed to mark an order of time that had nothing to do with the instants left to Thomas. There was no other sound.
Quick, you imbecile, before she wakes up, the old man said.
The snores stopped and Thomas heard the sofa springs groan. He grabbed the red pocketbook. It had a skin-like feel to his touch and as it opened, he caught an unmistakable odor of the girl. Wincing, he thrust in the gun and then drew back. His face burned an ugly dull red.
“What is Tomsee putting in my purse?” she called and her pleased laugh bounced down the staircase. Thomas whirled.
She was at the top of the stair, coming down in the manner of a fashion model, one bare leg and then the other thrusting out the front of her kimona in a definite rhythm. “Tomsee is being naughty,” she said in a throaty voice. She reached the bottom and cast a possessive leer at Thomas whose face was now more gray than red. She reached out, pulled the bag open with her finger and peered at the gun.
His mother opened the parlor door and looked out.
“Tomsee put his pistol in my bag!” the girl shrieked.
“Ridiculous,” his mother said, yawning. “What would Thomas want to put his pistol in your bag for?”
Thomas stood slightly hunched, his hands hanging helplessly at the wrists as if he had just pulled them up out of a pool of blood.
“I don’t know what for,” the girl said, “but he sure did it,” and she proceeded to walk around Thomas, her hands on her hips, her neck thrust forward and her intimate grin fixed on him fiercely. All at once her expression seemed to open as the purse had opened when Thomas touched it. She stood with her head cocked on one side in an attitude of disbelief. “Oh boy,” she said slowly, “is he a case.”
At that instant Thomas damned not only the girl but the entire order of the universe that made her possible.
“Thomas wouldn’t put a gun in your bag,” his mother said. “Thomas is a gentleman.”
The girl made a chortling noise. “You can see it in there,” she said and pointed to the open purse.
You found it in her bag, you dimwit! the old man hissed.
“I found it in her bag!” Thomas shouted. “The dirty criminal slut stole my gun!”
His mother gasped at the sound of the other presence in his voice. The old lady’s sybil-like face turned pale.
“Found it my eye!” Sarah Ham shrieked and started for the pocketbook, but Thomas, as if his arm were guided by his father, caught it first and snatched the gun. The girl in a frenzy lunged at Thomas’s throat and would actually have caught him around the neck had not his mother thrown herself forward to protect her.
Fire! the old man yelled.
Thomas fired. The blast was like a sound meant to bring an end to evil in the world. Thomas heard it as a sound that would shatter the laughter of sluts until all shrieks were stilled and nothing was left to disturb the peace of perfect order.
The echo died away in waves. Before the last one had faded, Farebrother opened the door and put his head inside the hall. His nose wrinkled. His expression for some few seconds was that of a man unwilling to admit surprise. His eyes were clear as glass, reflecting the scene. The old lady lay on the floor between the girl and Thomas.
The sheriff’s brain worked instantly like a calculating machine. He saw the facts as if they were already in print: the fellow had intended all along to kill his mother and pin it on the girl. But Farebrother had been too quick for him. They were not yet aware of his head in the door. As he scrutinized the scene, further insights were flashed to him. Over her body, the killer and the slut were about to collapse into each other’s arms. The sheriff knew a nasty bit when he saw it. He was accustomed to enter upon scenes that were not as bad as he had hoped to find them, but this one met his expectations.
His words of the morning had been unequivocal: “If you bring that girl back into this house, I leave. You can choose—her or me.”