The Weedkiller's Daughter

The Weedkiller's Daughter

by Harriette Simpson Arnow

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As compelling as it is turbulent, The Weedkiller’s Daughter captures a family at the center of the rapidly changing society of midcentury Detroit. Fifteen-year-old Susie greets this new era with a sense of curiosity, while her father rages against it, approaching anything and everything foreign, unconventional, or unfortunate as he does the weeds he


As compelling as it is turbulent, The Weedkiller’s Daughter captures a family at the center of the rapidly changing society of midcentury Detroit. Fifteen-year-old Susie greets this new era with a sense of curiosity, while her father rages against it, approaching anything and everything foreign, unconventional, or unfortunate as he does the weeds he perpetually removes from his garden. As Susie seeks escape from her parents’ increasingly restrictive world of order and monotony, she ventures deeper and deeper into a dangerously new territory. The Weedkiller’s Daughter is a gripping psychological exploration of a generation on the brink of indelible—and irreversible—transformation.

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Michigan State University Press
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By Harriette Simpson Arnow

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2012 Thomas Arnow
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61186-057-3

Chapter One

"Stand right here," they had said. "It's the safest spot. The place looks deserted, but there's a cook in the kitchen. The back door is open; if someone tries to bother you, scream and run in."

And so she stood among the garbage cans in the shadows behind the drive-in and watched the couple she called Uncle Jeff and Aunt Margaret as they rushed on tiptoe back to their car; soundless as thieves they were trying to be. She could still feel their kisses on each cheek, and hear their whispered good-byes along with all those silly warnings.

Would she be that way, afraid, when she was as old as they—somewhere around fifty? One of the biggest nights of her life, yet they worried over the time. "So late," they had said. "Your parents will get suspicious. And that sack of party favors and things under your rebozo makes it bulge. Try to keep your arms over it—just in case."

They had acted as if the warmish rainy night were a wild, girl-hungry beast; and Detroit, even away up here past the northern edge, was for her a jungle of rioters and holdup men. The silliest thing was the way they had worried over that boy waiting on the other side of the drive-in to take her home. His driving? His character? His way with girls?

She had tried to soothe them. "He's no more interested in me than I am in him. I think he's some kind of big-wheel senior at school. I've heard him talk in Assembly. Anyway, this is more business than a real date. He has a perfect reputation. So polite; he somehow makes me think of a plastic gardenia. He's kind of—."

"Priggish?" Uncle Jeff had finished for her; and both had smiled as if she were still five years old. Now, they planned to follow his car: "—just to make certain you get safely home."

She watched the dim shapes disappear into the car parked near the end of the exit on the empty side of the drive-in parking lot, unlighted because when the night grew old, as now, few customers came. The taillights went on; and the car moved slowly, almost soundlessly, into a side street, where it stopped at the spot from which "we can see you safely into that boy's car."

She loved them, but—. She'd better get to the corner of the building; there, she'd peep, then dash for the car; mustn't let him know her "protectors" were following him. She staggered after the first step as her foot came hard down against damp cement, her big toe plowing into a gucky softness. She had unknowingly worked a foot out of the miserable high-heeled thing her mother had bought for what she thought was to be a high-school party. Careful not to loosen her arms from the bulging shawl, she picked up the shoe, and, not wanting to put that dirty big toe back into it, carried it to the corner.

She stopped to study the drive-in lot, deserted save for the boy's car, empty. Back to her, he paced restlessly up and down as he watched the street. If she ran tiptoe, she might make it into the car without his seeing that she wore only one shoe. And she had better hurry. The click of his heels on the cement said he was already annoyed by the long wait.

The stillness of the sleeping city let him hear the small sounds she made. He also saw that lopsided run in one shoe, she thought. Hard to say; the long wait had got him, and he didn't mind showing it. He answered her apologies for being late with an angry:

"You're sorry! One hour and forty minutes I waited in that cruddy joint. I had to tip the carhop extra to let me stay.—Please buckle your seat belt."

She sat stiff and straight, arms clutched about the great black shawl wrapped around head, shoulders, and breast. They were on the expressway before she had with quick but cautious movements of her hands, fastened the belt. "You chose the drive-in," she reminded him. "'Respectable and inconspicuous,' you said. Add the extra tip to your time-and-a-half for overtime."

"But who can pay for the static your old man's going to throw out when I bring his fifteen year—."

"Pardon me, but I'll be sixteen in April."

"This is September.—home at three o'clock in the morning. And stewed. I saw you staggering up to the car."

The secret of where she had been would cool him down. She couldn't tell that. Yet she should try to talk. And how did one talk to an angry boy who was nothing more than a familiar stranger? "I wish you wouldn't imagine things," she got out at last. "I was at a lovely place. Warm is the only word I can think of, no chills from saying the wrong thing, or disapproving stares."

"Who doesn't need a place to take the chill away? But if I knew the name of any night spot that lets a young girl like you drink until she's the picture of a little floozy, I'd report it."

"Thank you. Do you charge extra for this lecture or does it come in a package deal like the how-to lesson with the new sailboat?"

He ignored her question. She looked behind, and saw, keeping at a discreet distance, the familiar lights of Uncle Jeff 's car. There was little else to watch. The tired time of night had come; she would have been lonesome, had not the warm feeling from the party been wrapped about her like the shawl. Everything perfect and beautiful—except for one big lack.

Uncle Lans, her godfather, could not come. He'd telephoned apologies and sent gifts, but no gift could take the place of his actual self. And she hadn't seen him in so long, so long. A good while ago his wife had died, and left him to manage his children, see to the servants, plus his man's work in business; it wasn't his fault he couldn't get to the party or have the time for her he'd used to have when she was little.—Think of the nice things you'd had this evening; big ones, little ones—like getting there, for example.

Plane trips were almost always nice, but this one, swooping through the twilight, north and east into Canada, had been—if she could write a poem—but no poor poem by Susan Schnitzer could say what the clouds had said. If she could paint a picture. Two pictures: earth below in the smudgy twilight, lights of the heavy traffic glinting through spatters of rain; the ugliness of summer's dying before autumn came alive; more ugliness in the hard, too-shiny airport corridors, always dead-seeming, no matter how loud the people.

At last, a seat by a porthole as you sailed into the cloudlands, then higher and into the sunset on the valleys and mountains of cloud below, a pearly white world touched here and there with rosy light from the setting sun. Times, you could think a ship's captain had invited you to the bridge to watch some wild, wild sea, breaking-wave mountains and flying foam caught one microinstant in stillness. As you flew farther from the sunset, the valleys filled with twilight, and—.

"You smell like The Primitive's basement at wine-bottling time. I can't take you home like this. Try a cigarette—or something. I don't smoke."

The disgust and anger in his voice brought her down from the cloud world, but the words were only senseless sounds until at last wine penetrated. The smell of wine was bugging him. She shrugged. Supposing her parents were home? They wouldn't smell the wine and that wonderful champagne on her breath because of the liquor on their own. "Do you know," she asked, "there are places in the world where it's no sin for even children to have wine?"

He nodded. "But Eden Hills is not one of those places."

She sighed. "I know." She studied the humps and bulges under the shawl; nodded after a moment, then began a careful loosening. In spite of her care, the shawl slipped from her head to let two large silver clasps slide down so that hair fell across her face until only the tip of her nose was visible. Searching under the shawl with one hand, she found at last a party favor—a small box of mints. She opened the dainty box after one annoyed glance at the boy; she had intended the little gift as a keepsake to remain unopened forever; but anything to cool this piece of crossness by her side. She offered him one; he declined, but she ate two, slowly, as if the candies were pills to be chewed. They may have helped her breath, but the mint smell seemed to do nothing for the boy.

He started another lecture on "such places," that ended with: "If I had known what you were up to, I'd never have helped you. And no namedropping about my help."

She tossed back her hair. "Do you really think Robert Thomas Hedrick III—that is your name isn't it?—has weight enough to fall?"

He was good at ignoring insults; never heard that one; smoothly old-mannish as he said: "And don't tell Iggy. Poor kid would feel guilty. He somehow managed to give me the idea you were some kind of pitiful custody case."

She gave him a quick speculative glance, then turned back to road-watching. It would be nice to cool him down with the truth, but never could she say: "Yes, I am a kind of custody case. You see there was in my family a kind of civil war; ended now for years—or so my parents think. I lost; the winning side got me. Yes, I drank wine; mostly champagne to celebrate my grandmother's sixty-second birthday." She glanced around to find him looking at her instead of the road.

"Now, will you get into your other shoe, and fix that hair? We'll be there soon."

"Don't worry. Remember? We danced so hard my hairdo crumbled. Anyway there'll be nobody home to see.—Oh, I just remembered, I've danced, but not my shoes."

She searched again under the shawl until she found a square of sandpaper. "Ah, the dance for the shoes; I've found it." She chanted softly to herself as with quick, light raspings she roughened the slipper's sole: "You're too pretty to scruff, hateful though you may be, but I must, I must. Just enough to show the floor was crowded; all the football boys, the cheer-leading girls, and the marching bandsmen, all come out for the first big high-school formal of the year, the Opening-Our-Football-Season Prom. My escort was a marvelous dancer, and oh so sure-footed, so only a bit of scuffing over heels and toes."

The sandpapering quickened as she kept time to the jumping syllables: "Lev' ton pied, légèr' bergère / Lev' ton pied légèrment,—." Still singing, she cleaned her dirtied toe with a handkerchief, then put on the slippers. She was fishing on the floor for the hair-clasps when she felt fingers give the small of her bare back one quick investigative touch. She jerked away, and sat pressed against the door, her glance on the boy frightened as well as embarrassed.

"Pardon me," he said, his voice pure ice, "but I couldn't believe my eyes. Can't you fasten your dress?"

"I'll try," she said, and sat as straight as possible, stomach sucked in, as she reached behind and tugged several times. She gave up, explaining: "The zipper won't go any higher." All at once it had been late, too late for anything but a quick change; no time to bother with a girdle, a chore anyway, after all that food and drink. "There's a little button at the neck. If I can fasten that, would you be satisfied?"

"You'd really have to work hard to make things worse."

She found the fastening, and after a short struggle, said: "There, I hope you're happy."

"I have been happier. Suppose your parents should see? What would I tell them? The truth?"

"You don't know the truth," she pointed out.

"I do know that instead of the school dance, I drove you to the Hotel Pontchartrain where you disappeared while I was buying a paper you asked me to get; and that about eight hours later you walked into the drive-in lot. I never even saw a car. And now that dress; will it get by?"

"I tell you there'll be nobody to get by. If you hadn't pried you'd never have noticed the dress."

He did not answer. She wondered briefly if he had noticed her bra; the dress was lined so she wore no slip. A moment later it didn't matter too much; after all he was only one more familiar stranger in the school orchestra, where she as a second violinist played with her back to him.

Why worry? This, the only unpleasant part of the fantastic evening, would soon be over. They had long since left the throughway, and were now on curves of new pavement, bordered at intervals by blue street lights, but so high, so pale, they lighted nothing except streaks of road. Had not the car's lights swept over a driveway now and then, the place would have seemed a waste inhabited only by light-bearing poles. The car rounded another curve; the lights picked out a cone-shaped hill of loose red earth, beside it a giant digger, the scoop at rest. She shivered, whispering: "Those things make me think of mad monsters waiting to tear you to pieces."

"They're handy things," he said, preoccupied with the rearview mirror, worried. "I think that same car has been following us for miles, but it's always too far away for me to make it out. I'd say from the head-lights it looks like it's some kind of foreign job."

She looked around. Good old Uncle Jeff and Aunt Margaret were coming right along. Silly things; why didn't they get on home to bed? She wished she dared tell Robert old friends were following because they were worried over their Susie out with a strange boy. Pretending she knew nothing wasn't very nice. Yet the truth would make him even angrier; and here he was quarreling again.

"Now, are you all set to go home?"

She nodded. Home. Home where you would start thinking about that letter delivered in homeroom this—no, Friday was yesterday now—morning. She gave Robert a quick glance. Had she shivered? Had he noticed? She pulled the rebozo more closely about her, carefully arranged her arms over it, and sat silent, staring at nothing.

"And what happened to that happy tune?" Robert wanted to know after a few minutes.

"Tune? Oh.—I guess I was thinking of my trouble."

"Too bad you didn't sooner. But like you say, they may not be home, so we might get by."

She looked at him. "We? You don't have to come in. Anyway this is a trouble at school."

"Trouble at school? For you? That write-up of 'Susan Schnitzer, Outstanding Junior Girl Student,' in the 'Purple Sunflower' yesterday will make you automatic all-A."

"So what? The IBM and I," she said, no gladness in her voice, "we get along fine together. This is a people."


There was now no quarreling in his voice; kindness, almost, but more curiosity. She ignored it. If that psychologist now demanding still another session with her at school thought she was sick-sick, nobody but nobody was going to know it. Something had blown out her circuit-breakers—she was so careless; singing songs out of French Canada, and now bringing up her trouble. She saw her hands were bare, and remembered gloves. There'd be no one home to see, so she would put on the beautiful new long white ones Angie had given her tonight, straight from Paris.

She carefully drew on the gloves, but before the second was finished, she forgot and again started singing a sad, hymn-like song. Finished, still singing, she spread her fingers and considered the gloves.

"Now you are set up," Robert said. "Paris?"

She broke off the song as she covered her hands in a fold of the rebozo. "You—you know just by—half seeing them in this light?"

"Mostly guessing. Last summer in Paris I bought some like those as a gift—for my mother. Don't be scared." He sounded like a kind brother, if you could imagine such, as he went on: "Your people like some I know? So bugged by De Gaulle they won't buy anything made in France?"

She nodded. "If France were the only place. You get tired: hiding things, changing labels, pretending an Italian knit was made in Birmingham, that real Chinese jade is green glass, and—." Where was her IBM? Why had she rattled on so to this cross boy; except, worse, he was suddenly getting friendly and inquisitive. Why? Because he could afford kindness now that he was almost rid of this kooky girl who had never had a real date, and showed it? She didn't know how to act with a boy.

Moments later he sounded actually happy. "We're almost there. Here's the Old Road."

They followed the old asphalt pavement, narrow and root-cracked, for only a few hundred feet before leaving it with a downhill turn onto the wide cement of a subdivision. This road was so new, grease and tires had only streaked the bone-whiteness. Here, there were no street lamps. The car was rounding a long curve when from far away and in front of them, a red glow flickered, brightened, until the long, wooded hill above the road was silhouetted in blackness against the red-washed sky. "They're burning again over on the throughway cut. Green trees. Alive. Ugh!" Susie whispered.

"Just be thankful you'll be clear of the mess like we are on The Hill. And here we are." He was turning into a drive marked by green reflectors in front of two stone pillars, one bearing an entrance sign above a tendril of dead ivy.


Excerpted from THE WEED KILLER'S DAUGHTER by Harriette Simpson Arnow Copyright © 2012 by Thomas Arnow. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Harriette Simpson Arnow (1908-1986) was born in Kentucky and later moved to Detroit, the setting of her best-known work, The Dollmaker. Arnow is among the foremost chroniclers of Appalachian life and the great postwar migration north.

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