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James M. Cain (1892–1977) was one of the most important authors in the history of crime fiction. Born in Maryland, he became a journalist after giving up on a childhood dream of singing opera. After two decades writing for newspapers in Baltimore, New York, and the army—and a brief stint as the managing editor of the New Yorker—Cain moved to Hollywood in the early 1930s. While writing for the movies, he turned to fiction, penning the novella The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934). This tightly wound tale of passion, murder, and greed became one of the most controversial bestsellers of its day, and remains one of the foremost examples of American noir writing. It set the tone for Cain’s next few novels, including Serenade (1937), Mildred Pierce (1941), Double Indemnity (1943), and The Butterfly (1947). Several of his books became equally successful noir films, particularly the classic 1940s adaptations of Mildred Pierce and Double Indemnity. Cain moved back to Maryland in 1948. Though he wrote prolifically until his death, Cain remains most famous for his early work.
SO I WENT IN the jewelry store, bought my ticket to Baltimore, and stepped out onto the street again, on my way to visit my father, to go to his arms and be loved. But if I actually meant to get on that bus, to leave my happy home (my more or less happy home), for good and all and forever, I didn't know then and don't know now. My father, my dreaming about him, my trying to be with him, is what I'm writing about, not so much that other thing, my helping out on the $120,000 holdup—so I don't look like such a jerk. So OK, maybe I was a jerk, but if so, I was a crazy jerk and not a silly one as the papers made me out. I am a girl, sixteen years old, five foot two, 36-24-35, 105 pounds, blond hair, blue eyes, with a so-so face and not-too-bad-figure—call it extra good. It's Mother's, and I could see what it was like when she walked around and when I looked at myself in the mirror without any clothes on, which I did often enough, perhaps oftener than I should. But if it's something special, that's not exactly my fault, and if it's partly what caused the trouble, that isn't my fault either. I'm putting it in just the same as the trouble, the whole trouble, has to go in too, or the rest of it makes no sense. And if it seems funny that I should tell it at all, instead of shutting up about it and letting it be forgotten, I can only say I'm not telling a thing that hasn't been already told, 'specially in the adoption papers, except they didn't tell it right, as I'm trying to do. So first off, about my name. It's Amanda Wilmer now, after the papers were taken on me week before last. Before that I was Amanda Vernick, as I'll explain. But everyone calls me Mandy, and now for what happened to me:
It really started before I was born, but I didn't know that at first, and so far as I was concerned it started three years ago, when Steve commenced beating me up. Steve, Steve Baker, was Mother's second husband, or at lease as I'd always thought, my stepfather, and at first I'd been nuts about him, his tricks that he'd play on me, his singing in the tub, and his jokes. I thought of him as my father and would climb all over him, wrestle with him, and race with him in the yard of the two-story house that we had, on a side street, back from the bank in Hyattsville, Maryland, which is eight miles from Washington, D.C. But then all of a sudden he changed and began beating me up—taking me over his knee, stripping my undies down, and smacking me with his hand. Well, when you're thirteen years old, that doesn't sit so good. The hurt meant nothing at all—him and ten like him couldn't have broke me, but him having the nerve, that bugged me. I screamed bloody murder and refused to say if I'd been running round, which was what he said I'd been doing. I hadn't been, though Amy Schultz had, a girl friend of mine that he knew, who did so much talking about it he thought I had too. And I might have, being human and perfectly normal, except the crumbs she ran with were no temptation to me. So I had nothing to tell, but when I wouldn't tell, he suspicioned me still more and beat me up still worse. And who thought it was nothing at all? Who said "Be nice to him!"—meaning giggle instead of scream—so he could "get going with me," and tension would be "relieved"? God rest her beautiful soul, but I have to say it of her, it was my darling mother. And if that seems funny to you, it seemed even funnier to me, as she knew and he knew and I knew why he did to me what I said before: spanking my more or less shapely backside, that he'd feel in between smacks and get a buzz off of.
So when the beatings started, she moved to her separate room, not sleeping with him anymore, and that matched up OK, except why wasn't she jealous of me? Why did she egg it on, as though throwing me at him? I couldn't figure it out, until one day I picked up the phone, the downstairs one in the hall, and upstairs she stopped talking quick and hung up. I knew then it was her that was stepping out and that that was the reason she had for not minding at all that Steve was messing with me. Then one day I staked her out—it was one of Steve's days in New York. He drove a truck, his own rig as he called it, part of a downtown fleet, Pan-Eastern Lines, Inc., and twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays, he hauled parcel post to New York, and wine off the boats coming back. So on a Monday I played hooky from school, took some money I'd made doing odd jobs for folks, and tucked away in the malt shop down on the boulevard till the laundry truck went up. Then I went and got in a cab and had it park across from the bank. And then sure enough, here she came, but instead of turning left for the bus stop as I expected, she turned right and crossed with the light, so she was just up the street from me. Then from behind me cab came a Caddy, a green Cadillac sedan, stopping between me and her. Then when it drove off she was gone. I told my driver to follow it, but when we got to the light it changed, and when it came green again the Caddy was out of sight and the driver refused to chase it. "I want to live, that's why—I just don't care to be dead."
"OK, take me home."
Twenty minutes later, though, I had what I wanted and more. She had taken the laundry in, but it was still in the lower hall and, of course, I put it away. However, I missed a gingham dress, and thinking it might have got in with her things, I looked in her bureau drawers. And sure enough it was, with the aprons she had sent out. But under the pillow slips, tucked away nice and neat, was a letter. I certainly wouldn't have opened it if it hadn't been for the address, which was to her, "Care General Delivery, Hyattsville, Md." That seemed very peculiar, and I decided to have a look. Inside was a newspaper piece, a clip from the Baltimore Sun, about a Benjamin Wilmer, the story of his life, also a picture of him, quite a good-looking guy. It seemed he'd been born in Baltimore, and gone to City College, before coming into some land that his father had had when he died, at Rocky Ridge in Frederick County, known as "Wilmer's Folly" from its being all rock and scrub woods, not worth the taxes it paid. But it had a stream running through it, with riparian rights attached, whatever they were, and when he had it analyzed, it was right for fermenting grain. So he dammed it, made a lake, put in power, and started a bonded distillery. Now it had all paid off, so he was a leading citizen, one of Frederick County's "more eligible bachelors." Enclosing the clip was a note, giving her his love, and saying the Caddy was ordered, in green to blend with her hair. Her hair is dark red, and she dotes on bottle-green.
So that named the guy, but it didn't clear anything up. Because if he was such an eligible bachelor, and if he had dough for a Caddy to blend with her hair, why wasn't he having it done? Shipping her out to Reno, melting the thing with Steve, and marrying her himself? Why wasn't she making him do it? It wasn't as though she was bashful. Outside she was soft and pretty and meek, like butter wouldn't melt in her mouth. But inside she wasn't meek and could melt butter fast. She could crack the whip, and it seemed funny she hadn't. And on top of that there was Steve. If I knew she was playing around, he knew she was playing around, and why was he letting her do it? Why hadn't he thrown her out? The more I thought about it, I was the answer both ways—with her, that she couldn't get married until she was rid of me, which meant throwing me at Steve. And with him, that he'd never make a move, to throw her out or anything, if he thought it meant losing me. So there I was in the middle, and I commenced getting the creeps. And it may not sound like much, but I'd have died before going to Steve—that way I'm talking about. And the worst of it was I was fifteen years old and had no one on this earth, not one human being, to take up for me. If you hear of a child acting crazy, you ask about that first of all—if she has a father that kicks her around and a mother that lets him do it. With no one to take up for her, she can go haywire fast. It's the first thing you want to find out, before sending her to reform school. Maybe she's not the one to reform.
So in the dark I would lie there, and then I knew I had to leave home. Where I would go I didn't know, except it seemed to boil down to a life of shame, which had a mink coat attached, at lease so I'd heard; or a convent, which had a nun habit. We were Episcopal, but they have Episcopal nunneries too, and I'd heard they'd take you in. Either way I'd get even, parade in front of Mother and Steve in the mink coat or nun habit, whichever, and say, "You made me what I am today, I hope you're satisfied." And then it came to me, and came to me night after night: I didn't have to do that, go for the shame or the convent, neither of which really appealed to me, as I did have someone out there to take up for me. That was my father, my real father I'm talking about, at lease as I thought he was then—that I'd never heard from, at Christmas or Valentine's or even on my birthday. But who said he knew where I was? Could be that Mother hadn't told him, as they'd broken up when I was born and she never spoke of him. But I began imagining him, how good-looking he was, and how we'd live, us two, on a desert isle we'd swim to when our plane was wrecked at sea, and eat clams and drink coconut milk. I got so I knew every tree, every bunch of grass, every stretch of sand on that island I had with him. Then I knew I was going to him, and once more I played hooky from school.
It was another Monday morning, early in June, a month ago, and once more Steve had driven in to the District to start his trip to New York. Once more I sat in the malt shop, once more Mother appeared, once more the Caddy stopped, once more it started off and she wasn't there anymore. I went back to the house and packed, taking my time about it. I put my things in my zipper bag, the one I'd had at the beach—my dresses, some shorts, socks and other stuff, and one extra pair of shoes, but I put some loafers back as they took up too much room. I put on a blue mini dress. I put on a black straw hat, one I'd worn to church but OK, I thought, for travel. I counted my money, the thirty I'd made from odd jobs, the sixteen for baby-sitting, and the twenty-eight I had left over from delivering papers. I wrote Mother a note, pretty mean I guess, saying I was fed up but telling her good-bye and Steve good-bye. I left it on the hall table, picked up my bag and coat, walked down to the jewelry store, and, like I said, bought my bus ticket to Baltimore. Then I went out on the street again, but if I tell the truth, in my secret heart I didn't know what I meant to do—get on the bus and go through with it, or walk on back to the house, tear up my note, and go on as I had been going. But on the bench, when I got to it, was a boy.CHAPTER 2
WHEN HE SAW ME he got up and took my bag and coat. He was medium height and kind of good-looking, except for the slant of his face, off to one side, with dark hair, black eyes, and sideburns. He had on gray slacks and a zipper jacket and looked around nineteen, three years older than I was. But when he sat down again, it wasn't beside the bag and coat, but between me and them, kind of close, which was OK with me, except he was kind of rank from not having had a bath. I didn't mind too much, but didn't like it much either. However, no use magnifying small things, so when he said "Hiya," I did, and we took it from there. He said what nice weather we were having, and I said yeah, it sure was, He said it was generally balmy in June, and I said there was that about it. We went along like that a few minutes, and then he asked if I was taking the bus. I said, "Yeah," and then right away took it back, because, like I said, I wasn't sure yet, down deep inside me, if I was taking that bus or not. I stammered, "I mean, I'm thinking about it. I... have my ticket bought, but I haven't decided yet." But then at last, for no good reason at all, except he was looking at me, except he kept looking at me, like I must be some kind of a kook, I did make up my mind—I knew I was taking that bus. I said, "Yeah, I've pretty well made up my mind. I guess I'm taking it, yeah." And then: "I am! You can bet your sweet life on that!" And then, blurting it out, still for the same reason of how he was looking at me: "I'm leaving home if you have to know! I'm going to Baltimore! I'm going to find my father—my real father I'm talking about, not this other one, the one that beat me up!"
"... The one that what?"
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't unload on you."
"Well, hey! It's what a friend is for, isn't it?"
"I could use one all right."
He patted my hand, and we sat for some little time. Then: "I'm leaving home too, and I'm bound for Baltimore too. But I'm different from you—I'm not leaving, I was put. Out, I mean, like Bill Bailey, except without any fine-tooth comb till I bought myself one." He took a comb from his pocket and waved it around at me. Then he went on, "Without anything, if you can believe it. Some friends took me in, but this morning they put me out. Stuff was missing from the pantry, and they said I took it and sold it. I said I hadn't. I offered to prove I hadn't, but would they let me? Would they believe what I said? Why is it my father, my mother, my friends, everyone except maybe my sister, got to believe somebody else, not me? Why can't they ever believe me?"
"I've been through that, plenty."
"But why? Will you tell me?"
"With that stepfather of mine I know why—I hope to tell you I do. I'd be ashamed to say. I'd be ashamed even to breathe it."
"... When does your bus come through?"
"Twenty after. But I thought it was your bus too."
"I wish it was. I'd love to travel with you, and Baltimore's where I'm bound. The thing of it is I'm flat. I told you how they put me out—without a comb, without a brush, without a dime, and without one word being said about the two hundred they owe me, that they're holding for me, that they're supposed to be holding for me, that by rights ought to be mine ... How much money you got?"
"... Little over seventy-four dollars."
"Look, if you could lend me two dollars, then I could buy me a ticket and keep you company on this trip."
"Thanks. You're swell. What's your name?"
"Mandy—Mandy Vernick. It's really Amanda, but Mandy's what they call me. What's yours?"
"Rick. Rick Davis."
"Rick? That's for Richard?"
"I like it better than Dick."
By then I had out my billfold to give him the money. He said, "Make it five—then I can hold my head up."
So I made it five.
He went and bought a ticket, and then our bus came along, "three-twenty, right on time," as he said, taking a flash at my watch. It was half full, but the back seat was empty and we took it, me sitting next to the window, him putting my bag and coat topside, in the rack over our heads. We passed a meadow off to one side, with a plane taxiing on it, a little yellow plane, and he said, "The College Park Flying Field—oldest one in the world. Did you know that, Mandy?"
"I never even heard of it."
"Well, it is."
That was the whole conversation for at lease half the trip. The bus was a local, stopping every three or four miles, but we held hands and didn't mind. Then, though, I started talking, half to myself, and it all commenced coming out, about Steve, the real reason he had for spanking me, and even about Mother, who I shouldn't have mentioned at all but had to; I just couldn't help it. And yet I mightn't have if it hadn't been for him, listening so sympathetic. Seems funny, the way he treated me later, that I didn't catch on at the time the kind of a guy he was. But I didn't and went on and on, at last even telling about my father and how I would call him up soon as I got into the bus station in Baltimore. But then for the first time, 'stead of being so sympathetic, he shook his head no. "What's the matter, Rick? I say something out of line?"
"Mandy, it's none of my business—tell me shut my big mouth and I shut it. But that don't sound good to me; it don't sound good at all."
"How do you mean it don't sound good?"
"Well? Suppose he's not home. What then?"
"I can wait, can't I? And call again?"
"Suppose he's out of town?"
"...I hadn't thought of that."
"Suppose he married after the bust-up? The one he had with your mother? Suppose his wife answers?"
"... I can ask to speak to him, can't I?"
"Suppose she asks who's calling?"
"Well? Can't I say?"
Excerpted from The Enchanted Isle by James M. Cain. Copyright © 1985 James M. Cain. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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