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"Those girls," people said, "think they can do anything and get away with it."
That was because of the sense of security they felt in their father. He was a living fortress. Most people hew the battlements of life from compromise, erecting their impregnable keeps from judicious submissions, fabricating their philosophical drawbridges from emotional retractions and scalding marauders in the boiling oil of sour grapes. Judge Beggs entrenched himself in his integrity when he was still a young man; his towers and chapels were builded of intellectual conceptions. So far as any of his intimates knew he left no sloping path near his castle open either to the friendly goatherd or the menacing baron. That inapproachability was the flaw in his brilliance which kept him from having become, perhaps, a figure in national politics. The fact that the state looked indulgently upon his superiority absolved his children from the early social efforts necessary in life to construct strongholds for themselves. One lord of the living cycle of generations to lift their experiences above calamity and disease is enough for a survival of his progeny.
One strong man may bear for many, selecting for his breed such expedient subscriptions to natural philosophy as to lend his family the semblance of a purpose. By the time the Beggs children had learned to meet the changing exigencies of their times, the devil was already upon their necks. Crippled, they clung long to the feudal donjons of their fathers, hoarding their spiritualinheritanceswhich might have been more had they prepared a fitting repository.
One of Millie Beggs' school friends said that she had never seen a more troublesome brood in her life than those children when they were little. If they cried for something, it was supplied by Millie within her powers or the doctor was called to subjugate the inexorabilities of a world which made, surely, but poor provision for such exceptional babies. Inadequately equipped by his own father, Austin Beggs worked night and day in his cerebral laboratory to better provide for those who were his. Millie, perforce and unreluctantly, took her children out of bed at three o'clock in the morning and shook their rattles and quietly sang to them to keep the origins of the Napoleonic Code from being howled out of her husband's head. He used to say, without humor, "I will build me some ramparts surrounded by wild beasts and barbed wire on the top of a crag and escape this hoodlum."
Austin loved Millie's children with that detached tenderness and introspection peculiar to important men when confronting some relic of their youth, some memory of the days before they elected to be the instruments of their experience and not its result. You will feel what is meant in hearing the kindness of Beethoven's "Springtime" Sonata. Austin might have borne a closer relation to his family had he not lost his only boy in infancy. The Judge turned savagely to worry fleeing from his disappointment. The financial worry being the only one which men and women can equally share, this was the trouble he took to Millie. Flinging the bill for the boy's funeral into her lap, he cried heartbreakingly, "How in God's name do you expect me to pay for that?"
Millie, who had never had a very strong sense of reality, was unable to reconcile that cruelty of the man with what she knew was a just and noble character. She was never again able to form a judgment of people, shifting her actualities to conform to their inconsistencies till by a fixation of loyalty she achieved in her life a saintlike harmony.
"If my children are bad," she answered her friend, "I have never seen it."
The sum of her excursions into the irreconcilabilities of the human temperament taught her also a trick of transference that tided her over the birth of the last child. When Austin, roused to a fury by the stagnations of civilization, scattered his disillusions and waning hope for mankind together with his money difficulties about her patient head, she switched her instinctive resentment to the fever in Joan or Dixie's twisted ankle, moving through the sorrows of life with the beatific mournfulness of a Greek chorus. Confronted with the realism of poverty, she steeped her personality in a stoic and unalterable optimism and made herself impervious to the special sorrows pursuing her to the end.
Incubated in the mystic pungence of Negro mammies, the family hatched into girls. From the personification of an extra penny, a streetcar ride to whitewashed picnic grounds, a pocketful of peppermints, the Judge became, with their matured perceptions, a retributory organ, an inexorable fate, the force of law, order, and established discipline. Youth and age: a hydraulic funicular, and age, having less of the waters of conviction in its carriage, insistent on equalizing the ballast of youth. The girls, then, grew into the attributes of femininity, seeking respite in their mother from the exposition of their young-lady years as they would have haunted a shady protective grove to escape a blinding glare.
The swing creaks on Austin's porch, a luminous beetle swings ferociously over the clematis, insects swarm to the golden holocaust of the hall light. Shadows brush the Southern night like heavy, impregnated mops soaking its oblivion back to the black heat whence it evolved. Melancholic moonvines trail dark, absorbent pads over the string trellises.
"Tell me about myself when I was little," the youngest girl insists. She presses against her mother in an effort to realize some proper relationship.
"You were a good baby."
The girl had been filled with no interpretation of herself, having been born so late in the life of her parents that humanity had already disassociated itself from their intimate consciousness and childhood become more of a concept than the child. She wants to be told what she is like, being too young to know that she is like nothing at all and will fill out her skeleton with what she gives off, as a general might reconstruct a battle following the advances and recessions of his forces with bright-colored pins. She does not know that what effort she makes will become herself. It was much later that the child, Alabama, came to realize that the bones of her father could indicate only her limitations.
"And did I cry at night and raise hell so you and Daddy wished I was dead?"
"What an idea! All my children were sweet children."
"And Grandma's, too?"
"I suppose so."
"Then why did she run Uncle Cal away when he came home from the Civil War?"
"Your grandmother was a queer old lady."
"Yes. When Cal came home, Grandma sent word to Florence Feather that if she was waiting for her to die to marry Cal, she wanted the Feathers to know that the Beggs were a long-lived race."
"Was she so rich?"
"No. It wasn't money. Florence said nobody but the devil could live with Cal's mother."
"So Cal didn't marry, after all?"
"Nograndmothers always have their way."
The mother laughsthe laugh of a profiteer recounting incidents of business prowess, apologetic of its grasping security, the laugh of the family triumphant, worsting another triumphant family in the eternal business of superimposition.
"If I'd been Uncle Cal I wouldn't have stood it," the child proclaims rebelliously. "I'd have done what I wanted to do with Miss Feather."
The deep balance of the father's voice subjugates the darkness to the final diminuendo of the Beggs' bedtime.
"Why do you want to rehash all that?" he says judiciously.
Closing the shutters, he boxes the special qualities of his house: an affinity with light, curtain frills penetrated by sunshine till the pleats wave like shaggy garden borders about the flowered chintz. Dusk leaves no shadows or distortions in his rooms but transfers them to vaguer, grayer worlds, intact. Winter and spring, the house is like some lovely shining place painted on a mirror. When the chairs fall to pieces and the carpets grow full of holes, it does not matter in the brightness of that presentation. The house is a vacuum for the culture of Austin Beggs' integrity. Like a shining sword it sleeps at night in the sheath of his tired nobility.
The tin roof pops with the heat; the air inside is like a breath from a long unopened trunk. There is no light in the transom above the door at the head of the upstairs hall.
"Where is Dixie?" the father asks.
"She's out with some friends."
Sensing the mother's evasiveness, the little girl draws watchfully close, with an important sense of participation in family affairs.
"Things happen to us," she thinks. "What an interesting thing to be a family."
"Millie," her father says, "if Dixie is out traipsing the town with Randolph McIntosh again, she can leave my house for good."
Her father's head shakes with anger; outraged decency loosens the eyeglasses from his nose. The mother walks quietly over the warm matting of her room, and the little girl lies in the dark, swelling virtuously submissive to the way of the clan. Her father goes down in his cambric nightshirt to wait.
From the orchard across the way the smell of ripe pears floats over the child's bed. A band rehearses waltzes in the distance. White things gleam in the darkwhite flowers and paving stones. The moon on the windowpanes careens to the garden and ripples the succulent exhalations of the earth like a silver paddle. The world is younger than it is, and she to herself appears so old and wise, grasping her problems and wrestling with them as affairs peculiar to herself and not as racial heritages. There is a brightness and bloom over things; she inspects life proudly, as if she walked in a garden forced by herself to grow in the least hospitable of soils. She is already contemptuous of ordered planting, believing in the possibility of a wizard cultivator to bring forth sweet-smelling blossoms from the hardest of rocks, and night-blooming vines from barren wastes, to plant the breath of twilight and to shop with marigolds. She wants life to be easy and full of pleasant reminiscences.
Thinking, she thinks romantically on her sister's beau. Randolph's hair is like nacre cornucopias pouring forth those globes of light that make his face. She thinks that she is like that inside, thinking in this nocturnal confusion of her emotions with her response to beauty. She thinks of Dixie with excited identity as being some adult part of herself divorced from her by transfiguring years, like a very sunburned arm which might not appear familiar if you had been unconscious of its alterations. To herself, she appropriates her sister's love affair. Her alertness makes her drowsy. She has achieved a suspension of herself with the strain of her attenuated dreams. She falls asleep. The moon cradles her tanned face benevolently. She grows older sleeping. Someday she will awake to observe the plants of Alpine gardens to be largely fungus things, needing little sustenance, and the white discs that perfume midnight hardly flowers at all but embryonic growths; and, older, walk in bitterness the geometrical paths of philosophical Le Nôtres rather than those nebulous byways of the pears and marigolds of her childhood.
Alabama never could place what woke her mornings as she lay staring about, conscious of the absence of expression smothering her face like a wet bath mat. She mobilized herself. Live eyes of a soft wild animal in a trap peered out in skeptic invitation from the taut net of her features; lemon-yellow hair melted down her back. She dressed herself for school with liberal gestures, bending forward to watch the movements of her body. The schoolbell on the still exudings of the South fell flat as the sound of a buoy on the vast mufflings of the sea. She tiptoed into Dixie's room and plastered her face with her sister's rouge.
When people said, "Alabama, you've got rouge on your face," she simply said, "I've been scrubbing my face with the nailbrush."
Dixie was a very satisfactory person to her young sister; her room was full of possessions; silk things lay about. A statuette of the Three Monkeys on the mantel held matches for smoking. The Dark Flower, The House of Pomegranates, The Light that Failed, Cyrano de Bergerac, and an illustrated edition of The Rubáiyát stretched between two plaster "Thinkers." Alabama knew the Decameron was hid in the top bureau drawershe had read the rough passages. Over the books, a Gibson girl with a hatpin poked at a man through a magnifying glass; a pair of teddy bears luxuriated over a small white rocker. Dixie possessed a pink picture hat and an amethyst bar pin and a pair of electric curling irons. Dixie was twenty-five. Alabama would be fourteen at two o'clock in the morning on the fourteenth of July. The other Beggs sister, Joan, was twenty-three. Joan was away; she was so orderly that she made little difference in the house, anyway.
Alabama slid down the banisters expectantly. Sometimes she dreamed that she fell down the well of the staircase and was saved at the bottom by landing astride the broad railingsliding, she rehearsed the emotions of her dream.
Already Dixie sat at table, withdrawn from the world in furtive defiance. Her chin was red and red welts stood out on her forehead from crying. Her face rose and fell in first one place and then another beneath the skin, like water boiling in a pot.
"I didn't ask to be born," she said.
"Remember, Austin, she is a grown woman."
"The man is a worthless cuss and an unmitigated loafer. He is not even divorced."
"I make my own living and I'll do as I please."
"Millie, that man is not to enter my house again."
Alabama sat very still, anticipating some spectacular protest against her father's interruption of the course of romance. Nothing transpired but the child's stillness.
The sun on the silvery fern fronds, and the silver water pitcher, and Judge Beggs' steps on the blue and white pavings as he left for his office measured out so much of time, so much of spacenothing more. She heard the trolley stop under the catalpa trees at the corner and the Judge was gone. The light flicked the ferns with a less organized rhythm without his presence; his home hung pendant on his will.
Alabama watched the trumpet vine trailing the back fence like chip coral necklaces wreathing a stick. The morning shade under the chinaberry tree held the same quality as the lightbrittle and arrogant.
"Mamma, I don't want to go to school any more," she said, reflectively.
"I seem to know everything."
Her mother stared at her in faintly hostile surprise; the child, thinking better of her intended expositions, reverted to her sister to save her face.
"What do you think Daddy will do to Dixie?"
"Oh, pshaw! Don't worry your pretty head about things like that till you have to, if that's what's bothering you."
"If I was Dixie, I wouldn't let him stop me. I like 'Dolph."
"It is not easy to get everything we want in this world. Run on, nowyou will be late to school."
Flushed with the heat of palpitant cheeks, the schoolroom swung from the big square windows and anchored itself to a dismal lithograph of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Slow days of June added themselves in a lump of sunlight on the far blackboard. White particles from the worn erasers sprayed the air. Hair and winter serge and the crust in the inkwells stifled the soft early summer burrowing white tunnels under the trees in the street and poulticing the windows with sweet sickly heat. Humming Negroid intonations circulated plaintively through the lull.
"H'ye ho' tomatoes, nice ripe tomatoes. Greens, colla'd greens."
The boys wore long black winter stockings, green in the sun.
Alabama wrote "Randolph McIntosh" under "A debate in the Athenian Assembly." Drawing a ring around "All the men were at once put to death and the women and children sold into slavery," she painted the lips of Alcibiades and drew him a fashionable bob, closing her Myer's Ancient History on the transformation. Her mind rambled on irrelevantly. How did Dixie make herself so fluffy, so ready always for anything? Alabama thought that she herself would never have every single thing about her just right at oncewould never be able to attain a state of abstract preparedness. Dixie appeared to her sister to be the perfect instrument for life.
Dixie was the society editor of the town paper. There was telephoning from the time she came home from the office in the evening till supper. Dixie's voice droned on, cooing and affected, listening to its own vibrations.
"I can't tell you now----" Then a long slow gurgle like the water running out of a bathtub.
"Oh, I'll tell you when I see you. No, I can't tell you now."
Judge Beggs lay on his stern iron bed sorting the sheafs of the yellowing afternoons. Calfskin volumes of the Annals of British Law and Annotated Cases lay over his body like leaves. The telephone jarred his concentration.
The Judge knew when it was Randolph. After half an hour, he'd stormed into the hall, his voice quaking with restraint.
"Well, if you can't talk, why do you carry on this conversation?"
Judge Beggs brusquely grabbed the receiver. His voice proceeded with the cruel concision of a taxidermist's hands at work.
"I will thank you never to attempt to see or to telephone to my daughter again."
Dixie shut herself in her room and wouldn't come out or eat for two days. Alabama reveled in her part of the commotion.
"I want Alabama to dance at the Beauty Ball with me," Randolph had said over the wire.
Her children's tears infallibly evoked their mother.
"Why do you bother your father? You could make your arrangements outside," she said placatingly. The wide and lawless generosity of their mother was nourished from many years of living faced with the irrefutable logic of the Judge's fine mind. An existence where feminine tolerance plays no role being insupportable to her motherly temperament, Millie Beggs, by the time she was forty-five, had become an emotional anarchist. It was her way of proving to herself her individual necessity of survival. Her inconsistencies seemed to assert her dominance over the scheme had she so desired. Austin couldn't have died or got sick with three children and no money and an election next fall and his insurance and his living according to law; but Millie, by being a less closely knit thread in the pattern, felt that she could have.
Alabama mailed the letter that Dixie wrote on her mother's suggestion and they met Randolph at the "Tip-Top" Café.
Alabama, swimming through her teens in a whirlpool of vigorous decision, innately distrusted the "meaning" communicated between her sister and Randolph.
Randolph was a reporter for Dixie's paper. His mother kept his little girl in a paintless house downstate near the canebrakes. The curves of his face and the shape of his eyes had never been mastered by Randolph's expression, as if his corporeal existence was the most amazing experience he had ever achieved. He conducted night dancing classes for which Dixie got most of his pupilshis neckties, too, for that matter, and whatever about him that needed to be rightly chosen.
"Honey, you must put your knife on your plate when you're not using it," Dixie said, pouring his personality into the mold of her society.
You'd never have known he had heard her, though he seemed to be always listening for somethingperhaps some elfin serenade he expected, or some fantastic supernatural hint about his social position in the solar system.
"And I want a stuffed tomato and potatoes au gratin and corn on the cob and muffins and chocolate ice cream," Alabama interrupted impatiently.
"My God!So we're going to do the Ballet of the Hours, Alabama, and I will wear harlequin tights and you will have a tarlatan skirt and a three-cornered hat. Can you make up a dance in three weeks?"
"Sure. I know some steps from last year's carnival. It will go like this, see?" Alabama walked her fingers one over the other inextricably. Keeping one finger firmly pressed on the table to mark the place she unwound her hands and began again. "----And the next part is this way----And it ends with a brrrrroop!" she explained.
Dubiously Randolph and Dixie watched the child.
"It's very nice," commented Dixie hesitantly, swayed by her sister's enthusiasm.
"You can make the costumes," Alabama finished, glowing with the glamour of proprietorship. Marauder of vagrant enthusiasm, she piled the loot on whatever was at hand, her sisters and their sweethearts, performances and panoplies. Everything assumed the qualities of improvisation with the constant change in the girl.
Every afternoon Alabama and Randolph rehearsed in the old auditorium till the place grew dim with dusk and the trees outside seemed bright and wet and Véronèse as if it had been raining. It was from there that the first Alabama regiment had left for the Civil War. The narrow balcony sagged on spindle iron pillars and there were holes in the floor. The sloping stairs led down through the city markets: Plymouth Rocks in cages, fish, and icy sawdust from the butcher shop, garlands of Negro shoes and a doorway full of army overcoats. Flushed with excitement, the child lived for the moment in a world of fictitious professional reserves.
"Alabama has inherited her mother's wonderful coloring," commented the authorities, watching the gyrating figure.
"I scrubbed my cheeks with a nailbrush," she yelled back from the stage. That was Alabama's answer about her complexion; it was not always accurate or adequate, but that was what she said about her skin.
"The child has talent," they said, "it should be cultivated."
"I made it up myself," she answered, not in complete honesty.
When the curtains fell at last on the tableau at the end of the ballet she heard the applause from the stage as a mighty roar of traffic. Two bands played for the ball; the Governor led the grand march. After the dance she stood in the dark passage that led to the dressing room.
"I forgot once," she whispered expectantly. The still fever of the show went on outside.
"You were perfect," Randolph laughed.
The girl hung there on his words like a vestment waiting to be put on. Indulgently, Randolph caught the long arms and swept her lips with his as a sailor might search the horizons of the sea for other masts. She wore this outward sign that she was growing up like a decoration for valorit stayed on her face for days, and recurred whenever she was excited.
"You're almost grown, aren't you?" he asked.
Alabama did not concede herself the right to examine those arbitrary points of view, meeting places of the facets of herself envisaged as a woman, conjured up behind his shoulders by the kiss. To project herself therein would have been to violate her confessional of herself. She was afraid; she thought her heart was a person walking. It was. It was everybody walking at once. The show was over.
"Alabama, why won't you go out on the floor?"
"I've never danced. I'm scared."
"I'll give you a dollar if you'll dance with a young man who's waiting."
"All right, but s'pose I fall down or trip him up?"
Randolph introduced her. They got along quite nicely, except when the man went sideways.
"You are so cute," her partner said. "I thought you must be from some other place."
She told him he could come to see her sometime, and a dozen others, and promised to go to the country club with a redhead man who slid over the dance floor as if he were skimming milk. Alabama had never imagined what it would be like to have a date before.
She was sorry when the makeup came off of her face with washing next day. There was only Dixie's rouge pot to help her masquerading through the engagements she had made.
Sloshing his coffee with the folded Journal, the Judge read the account of the Beauty Ball in the morning's paper. "The gifted Miss Dixie Beggs, oldest daughter of Judge and Mrs. Austin Beggs of this city," the paper said, "contributed much to the success of the occasion, acting as impresario to her talented sister, Miss Alabama Beggs, assisted by Mr. Randolph McIntosh. The dance was one of startling beauty and the execution was excellent."
"If Dixie thinks that she can introduce the manners of a prostitute into my family, she is no daughter of mine. Identified in print with a moral scapegoat! My children have got to respect my name. It is all they will have in the world," the Judge exploded.
It was the most Alabama had ever heard her father say about what he exacted of them. Isolated by his unique mind from the hope of any communication with his peers, the Judge lived apart, seeking only a vague and gentle amusement from his associates, asking only a fair respect for his reserve.
So Randolph came in the afternoon to say good-bye.
The swing creaked, the Dorothy Perkins browned in the dust and sun. Alabama sat on the steps watering the lawn with a hot rubber hose. The nozzle leaked lugubriously over her dress. She was sad about Randolph; she had hoped some occasion would present itself for kissing him again. Anyway, she told herself, she would try to remember that other time for years.
Her sister's eyes followed the man's hands as if she expected the path of his fingers to lead her to the ends of the earth.
"Maybe you'll come back when you've got your divorce," Alabama heard Dixie say in a truncated voice. The shape of Randolph's eyes was heavy with finality against the roses. His distinct voice carried clear and detached to Alabama.
"Dixie," he said, "you taught me how to use my knife and fork and how to dance and choose my suits, and I wouldn't come back to your father's house if I'd left my Jesus. Nothing is good enough for him."
Sure enough, he never did. Alabama had learned from the past that something unpleasant was bound to happen whenever the Saviour made his appearance in the dialogue. The savor of her first kiss was gone with the hope of its repetition.
The bright polish on Dixie's nails turned yellow and deposits of neglect shone through the red. She gave up her job on the paper and went to work at the bank. Alabama inherited the pink hat and somebody stepped on the bar pin. When Joan got home the room was so untidy that she moved her clothes in with Alabama. Dixie hoarded her money; the only things she bought in a year were the central figures from the "Primavera" and a German lithograph of "September Morn."
Dixie covered her transom with a block of pasteboard to prevent her father's knowing that she was sitting up after midnight. Girls came and went. When Laura spent the night the family was afraid of catching tuberculosis; Paula, gold and effulgent, had a father who had stood a murder trial; Marshall was beautiful and malicious with many enemies and a bad reputation; when Jessie came all the way from New York to visit she sent her stockings to the dry cleaner. There was something immoral about that to Austin Beggs.
"I don't see why," he said, "my daughter has to choose her companions from the scum of the earth."
"Depending on which way you look at it," protested Millie. "The scum might be a valuable deposit."
Dixie's friends read aloud to each other. Alabama sat in the little white rocker and listened, imitating their elegance and cataloguing the polite, bibelotic laughs which they collected from one another.
"She won't understand," they reiterated, staring at the girl with liquidated Anglo-Saxon eyes.
"Understand what?" said Alabama.
The winter choked itself in a ruching of girls. Dixie cried whenever a man talked her into giving him a date. In the spring, word came about Bandolph's death.
"I hate being alive," she screamed in hysterics. "I hate it, I hate it, I hate it! I could have married him and this wouldn't have happened."
"Millie, will you call the doctor?"
"Nothing serious, just nervous strain, Judge Beggs. Nothing to worry about," the doctor said.
"I cannot put up with this emotional nonsense any longer," Austin said.
When Dixie was better she went to New York to work. She cried when she kissed them all good-bye and went off with a bunch of kiss-me-at-the-gate in her hand. She shared a room with Jessie on Madison Avenue, and looked up everybody from home who had drifted up there. Jessie got her a job with the same insurance company as herself.
"I want to go to New York, Mamma," said Alabama as they read Dixie's letters.
"What on earth for?"
"To be my own boss."
Millie laughed. "Well, never mind," she said. "Being boss isn't a question of places. Why can't you be boss at home?"
Within three months Dixie married up therea man from Alabama, downstate. They came home on a trip and she cried a lot as if she was sorry for all the rest of the family who had to go on living at home. She changed the furniture about in the old house and bought a buffet for the dining room. She bought Alabama a Kodak and they took pictures together on the steps of the State Capitol, and under the pecan trees and holding hands on the front steps. She said she wanted Millie to make her a patchwork quilt and to have a rose garden planted around the old house, and for Alabama not to paint her face so much, that she was too young, that in New York the girls didn't.
"But I am not in New York," said Alabama. "When I go there, I will, anyway."
Then Dixie and her husband went away again, out of the Southern doldrums. The day her sister left, Alabama sat on the back porch watching her mother slice the tomatoes for lunch.
"I slice the onions an hour beforehand," Millie said, "and then I take them out so just the right flavor stays in the salad."
"Yes'm. Can I have those ends?"
"Don't you want a whole one?"
"No'm. I love the greenish part."
SELMA, LORD, SELMA
GIRLHOOD MEMORIES OF THE CIVIL-RIGHTS DAYS
By Sheyann Webb Rachel West Nelson
THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS
Copyright © 1980 The University of Alabama Press. All rights reserved.