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The Man Who Loved Children
By Christina Stead
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1968 Christina Stead
All rights reserved.
1 Henny comes home.
All the June Saturday afternoon Sam Pollit's children were on the lookout for him as they skated round the dirt sidewalks and seamed old asphalt of R Street and Reservoir Road that bounded the deep-grassed acres of Tohoga House, their home. They were not usually allowed to run helter-skelter about the streets, but Sam was out late with the naturalists looking for lizards and salamanders round the Potomac bluffs, Henrietta, their mother, was in town, Bonnie, their youthful aunt and general servant, had her afternoon off, and they were being minded by Louisa, their half sister, eleven and a half years old, the eldest of their brood. Strict and anxious when their parents were at home, Louisa when left in sole command was benevolent, liking to hear their shouts from a distance while she lay on her belly, reading, at the top of the orchard, or ambled, woolgathering, about the house.
The sun dropped between reefs of cloud into the Virginia woods: a rain frog rattled and the air grew damp. Mother coming home from the Wisconsin Avenue car, with parcels, was seen from various corners by the perspiring young ones, who rushed to meet her, chirring on their skates, and who convoyed her home, doing figures round her, weaving and blowing about her or holding to her skirt, and merry, in spite of her decorous irritations.
"I come home and find you tearing about the streets like mad things!"
They poured into the house, bringing in dirt, suppositions, questions, legends of other children, and plans for the next day, while Louie, suddenly remembering potatoes and string beans neglected, slunk in through the back door. Henrietta took a letter off the hall stand, a letter addressed to her, to "Mrs. Samuel Clemens Pollit," which she tore open, muttering, with a half-smile, "The fool!" She went into the long dining room to read it, while Saul, technically the elder of the seven-year-old twins, hung from the chair back, saying,
"Who's it from, Mother, who's it from?" and his twin, straw-headed Samuel, tried to wrest her handbag from her, meanwhile repeating, "Can I look in your bag, can I look in your bag, can I?"
When she heard him, at last, she relinquished the worn old cowhide bag and went on reading, without paying the least attention to their excited examination of her keys and cosmetics, nor to ten-year-old Ernest, her first-born, who, after counting her money and putting it into little piles, said sagely,
"Mother has two dollars and eighty-two cents: Mother, when you went out you had five dollars and sixteen cents and a stamp. What did you buy, Mother?"
They heard Louisa coming, chanting, "Hot tea, hot tea! Make way there!" and shifted a quarter of an inch on their hams. Louie picked her way carefully through their midst, carrying a large cup of tea which she put down in front of her stepmother.
"Did anyone come or telephone?"
"The paint came, Mother." Louie stopped in the doorway. "It's in the washhouse."
"Is he going to start painting and messing everything up tomorrow?" Henrietta asked.
Louie said nothing but moved slowly out.
"Mother, you spent two dollars and thirty-four cents. What did you buy?"
"What's in this parcel, Moth?" Evie asked.
"Oh, leave me alone; you're worse than your father."
Henrietta took off her gloves and began to sip her tea. This was her chair and also the one that all visitors sought. It was straight but comfortable, not too low, and set between the corner window and that cushioned bench which ran along the west wall. The children would line up on this bench and hang entranced on the visitor's life story. Visitors looked awkward there, arrayed in the accidents of life's put-together and rough-and-tumble, laughing uncouthly, unexpectedly at imbecile jokes, giving tongue to crackpot idioms; yet they thought themselves important, and it appeared that as they ran about the streets things happened to them. They had knots of relations with whom they argued and sweethearts to whom they cooed; they had false teeth, eyeglasses, and operations. The children would sit there staring with mouth open and gulping, till Henny snapped, "Are you catching flies?"
When Henny sat there, on the contrary, everything was in order and it was as if no one was in the house; it was like the presence of a somber, friendly old picture that has hung on a wall for generations. Whenever Sam was out, particularly in the afternoon, Henny would sit there, near the kitchen where she could get her cups of tea hot, and superintend the cooking. The children, rushing in from school or from the orchard, would find her there, quiet, thin, tired, with her veined, long olive hands clasped round the teacup for warmth, or gliding, skipping through wools and needles, as she knitted her pattern into bonnets and bootees for infants who were always appearing in the remote world. Then she would be cheerful and say to them in her elegant, girlish, spitfire way, "A fool for luck, a poor man for children, Eastern shore for hard crabs, and niggers for dogs"; and, "I have a little house and a mouse couldn't find it and all the men in our town couldn't count the windows in it: what is it?" When she had asked the riddle she would smile archly, although they all knew the answer, for Henny knew very few riddles. But these dear little rigmaroles would only come out when Daddy was out.
At other times they would find her, ugly, with her hair pushed back and her spectacles on, leaning over a coffee-soiled white linen tablecloth (she would have no others, thinking colored ones common), darning holes or fixing the lace on one of her lace covers inherited from Monocacy, her old Baltimore home. Then she would growl,
"If you stand there staring at me, I'll land you one to send you flying!" or, "Don't gabble to me about the blessed snakes: it's bad luck to have snakes, and he always keeps snakes for pets."
Now Henny sent little Evie running to get her hand lotion and nail buff while she discontentedly examined her great agate nails and complained about flecks in them and an injured half-moon,
"I don't know what I go to that woman in the arcade for; she hacks my cuticle too."
"You have money on your tea, Moth!" said Saul cheerfully.
"Yes, that's good," and she carefully lifted the circle of froth to her mouth in her teaspoon, but it broke, and at this she gave an irritated cry, "Oh, there, now I won't get any." The cup was a cup that their father had seen in a junk shop near P Street, old heavy china with the word "Mother" on it, between bunches of roses: and he had made them buy it for her for her last birthday.
Henny sat dreaming, with the letter in her lap. She was not nervous and lively like the Pollits, her husband's family, who, she said, "always behaved like chickens With their heads cut off," but would sit there still, so gracefully languid, except to run her fingers over the tablecloth, tracing the design in the damask, or to alter her pose and lean her face on her hand and stare into the distance, a commonplace habit which looked very theatrical in Henny, because of her large, bright eyeballs and thin, high-curved black eyebrows. She was like a tall crane in the reaches of the river, standing with one leg crooked and listening. She would look fixedly at her vision and suddenly close her eyes. The child watching (there was always one) would see nothing but the huge eyeball in its glove of flesh, deep-sunk in the wrinkled skullhole, the dark circle round it and the eyebrow far above, as it seemed, while all her skin, unrelieved by brilliant eye, came out in its real shade, burnt olive. She looked formidable in such moments, in her intemperate silence, the bitter set of her discolored mouth with her uneven slender gambler's nose and scornful nostrils, lengthening her sharp oval face, pulling the dry skinfolds. Then when she opened her eyes, there would shoot out a look of hate, horror, passion, or contempt. The children (they were good children, as everyone said) would creep up, so as not to annoy her and say, at her elbow, "Moth, can Whitey come in?" or some such thing, and she would start and cry,
"What do you mean sneaking up on me like that, are you spying on me like your father?" or, "Get out of my sight before I land you one, you creeper!" or, "What do you mean trying to frighten me, is it supposed to be funny?"
And at other times, as now, she would sit with her glances hovering round the room, running from dusty molding to torn curtain frill, from a nail under the transom left over from the last Christmas to a worn patch on the oilcloth by the door, threadbare under so many thousand little footsteps, not worrying about them, but considering each well-known item, almost amiable from familiarity, almost interested, as if considering anew how to fix up these things when fatigue had gone and the tea and rest had put new energy into her.
Henny had never lived in an apartment. She was an old-fashioned woman. She had the calm of frequentation; she belonged to this house and it to her. Though she was a prisoner in it, she possessed it. She and it were her marriage. She was indwelling in every board and stone of it: every fold in the curtains had a meaning (perhaps they were so folded to hide a darn or stain); every room was a phial of revelation to be poured out some feverish night in the secret laboratories of her decisions, full of living cancers of insult, leprosies of disillusion, abscesses of grudge, gangrene of nevermore, quintan fevers of divorce, and all the proliferating miseries, the running sores and thick scabs, for which (and not for its heavenly joys) the flesh of marriage is so heavily veiled and conventually interned.
As Henny sat before her teacup and the steam rose from it and the treacherous foam gathered, uncollectible round its edge, the thousand storms of her confined life would rise up before her, thinner illusions on the steam. She did not laugh at the words "a storm in a teacup." Some raucous, cruel words about five cents misspent were as serious in a woman's life as a debate on war appropriations in Congress: all the civil war of ten years roared into their smoky words when they shrieked, maddened, at each other; all the snakes of hate hissed. Cells are covered with the rhymes of the condemned, so was this house with Henny's life sentence, invisible but thick as woven fabric. Here she sat to play solitaire, the late sun shining on the cards and on the green and red squares of the linoleum. When Sam was put, if Henny felt restless, she would take her double pack and shuffle them with a sound like a distant machine gun, and worry and reshuffle and begin to lay them out eagerly, by fours. All the children watched and showed her where to lay the cards, until she said good-humoredly,
"Oh, go and put your head in a bag!" and she taught Louie how to play, saying she must never touch them when her father was round, that was all.
Sam tried to impart everything he knew to the children and grumbled that the mother taught nothing at all: yet their influence on the boys and girls was equal. The children grabbed tricks and ideas according to the need of the day, without thinking at all of where they got them, without gratitude; and Henny saw this and so did not bother her head about her children. She herself belonged to a grabbing breed. Henny would also tell fortunes, by the cards, over her tea, though never for the children. While she was dealing to tell the fortune of Aunt Bonnie (Sam's twenty-five-year-old sister and their unpaid maid of all work), or Miss Spearing (Henny's old-maid friend from schooldays), she would always begin a wonderful yarn about how she went to town, "more dead than alive and with only ten cents in my purse and I wanted to crack a safe," and how, in the streetcar, was "a dirty shrimp of a man with a fishy expression who purposely leaned over me and pressed my bust, and a common vulgar woman beside him, an ogress, big as a hippopotamus, with her bottom sticking out, who grinned like a shark and tried to give him the eye," and how this wonderful adventure went on for hours, always with new characters of new horror. In it would invariably be a woman with a cowlike expression, a girl looking frightened as a rabbit, a yellow-haired frump with hair like a haystack in a fit, some woman who bored Henny with her silly gassing, and impudent flighty young girls behind counters, and waitresses smelling like a tannery (or a fish market), who gave her lip, which caused her to "go to market and give them more than they bargained for." There were men and women, old acquaintances of hers, or friends of Sam who presumed to know her, to whom she would give the go-by, or the cold shoulder, or a distant bow, or a polite good day, or a black look, or a look black as thunder, and there were silly old roosters, creatures like a dying duck in a thunderstorm, filthy old pawers, and YMCA sick chickens, and women thin as a rail and men fat as a pork barrel, and women with blouses so puffed out that she wanted to stick pins in, and men like coalheavers, and women like boiled owls and women who had fallen into a flour barrel; and all these wonderful creatures, who swarmed in the streets, stores, and restaurants of Washington, ogling, leering, pulling, pushing, stinking, overscented, screaming and boasting, turning pale at a black look from Henny, ducking and diving, dodging and returning, were the only creatures that Henny ever saw.
What a dreary stodgy world of adults the children saw when they went out! And what a moral, high-minded world their father saw! But for Henny there was a wonderful particular world, and when they went with her they saw it: they saw the fish eyes, the crocodile grins, the hair like a birch broom, the mean men crawling with maggots, and the children restless as an eel, that she saw. She did not often take them with her. She preferred to go out by herself and mooch to the bargain basements, and ask the young man in the library what was good to read, and take tea in some obscure restaurant, and wander desolately about, criticizing shopwindows and wondering if, in this street or that, she would yet, "old as I am and looking like a black hag," meet her fate. Then she would come home, next to some girl "from a factory who looked like a lily and smelled like a skunk cabbage," flirting with all the men and the men grinning back, next to some coarse, dirty workman who pushed against her in the car and smelled of sweat, or some leering brute who tried to pay her fare.
Louie would sit there, on the end of the bench, lost in visions, wondering how she would survive if some leering brute shamefully tried to pay her fare in a public car, admiring Henny for her strength of mind in the midst of such scandals: and convinced of the dreary, insulting horror of the low-down world. For it was not Henny alone who went through this inferno, but every woman, especially, for example, Mrs. Wilson, the woman who came to wash every Monday. Mrs. Wilson, too, "big as she was, big as an ox," was insulted by great big brutes of workmen, with sweaty armpits, who gave her a leer, and Mrs. Wilson, too, had to tell grocers where they got off, and she too had to put little half-starved cats of girls, thin as toothpicks, in their places. Mrs. Wilson it was who saw the ravishing Charlotte Bolton (daughter of the lawyer, who lived in a lovely bungalow across the street), she saw "my lady, standing with her hands on her hips, waggling her bottom and laughing at a man like a common street-girl," and he "black as the inside of a hat, with dark blood for sure." Louie and Evie, and the obliging little boys, tugging at the piles of greasy clothes on Mondays, puffing under piles of new-ironed linen on Tuesdays, would be silent for hours, observing this world of tragic faery in which all their adult friends lived. Sam, their father, had endless tales of friends, enemies, but most often they were good citizens, married to good wives, with good children (though untaught), but never did Sam meet anyone out of Henny's world, grotesque, foul, loud-voiced, rude, uneducated, and insinuating, full of scandal, slander, and filth, financially deplorable and physically revolting, dubiously born, and going awry to a desquamating end.
Excerpted from The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead. Copyright © 1968 Christina Stead. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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