Two American tourists find themselves seriously befuddled by their unorthodox Italian guide. A hospitalized graduate student turns the sounds of pain and despair into music. A family is tragically taken apart, and then reformed, by a deadly outbreak of influenza. The short fiction in this collection, some of it autobiographical in inspiration, reflects both the adept, witty storytelling and the insightful social commentary of New York Times–bestselling author Mary McCarthy.
A National Book Award finalist known for such novels as Birds in America and The Groves of Academe—as well as memoir (Memories of a Catholic Girlhood) and travel writing (Venice Observed)—McCarthy shows in Cast a Cold Eye why she has been called “a brilliant writer with a rare talent for corrosive satire” (The Atlantic Monthly).
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Mary McCarthy including rare images from the author’s estate.
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About the Author
MARY MCCARTHY (1912–1989) was a short-story writer, bestselling novelist, essayist, and critic. She was the author of The Stones of Florence and Birds of America, among other books.
Read an Excerpt
Cast a Cold Eye
By Mary McCarthy
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1978 Mary McCarthy
All rights reserved.
She would leave him, she thought, as soon as the petunias had bloomed. With a decisive feeling of happiness, she set down her trowel and sank back on her heels to rest. Around her lay the brown earth of the converted vegetable garden, a slightly lopsided rectangle, across which careened the flower seedlings in rows that were both neat and unsteady, so that the whole planting, seen from a distance, looked like a letter written by a child who has lost his ruler. If only, she reflected, she had done it the way the book said and marked out the rows with stakes and string. Next year. Her heart turned over with horror as she perceived the destination of her thought. She had done it again. Next year, of course, she would not be here. She had been telling herself this for five weeks, yet she could not seem to remember it. Left to itself, her idle mind reached out lazily, unthinkingly, for a plan, as doubtless Persephone's hand had strayed toward a pomegranate seed.
She remembered all the times she had thought of leaving him before. But there had always been something—the party Saturday night that she did not want to miss, the grapes blue on the vines waiting to be made into jelly, the new sofa for the living room that Macy's would deliver next week, the man to see about the hot-water heater. And by the time the sofa had come, the man had gone, the jelly had been made, she would no longer be angry with him, or at any rate her anger would have lost its cutting edge and she would have only the dull stone of discontent to turn over and over in her palm.
Now, however, it was settled, this problem that had been agitating her since April, since the morning she had planted the sweet peas instead of packing her suitcase, as she ought of course to have done when he had uttered the unspeakable sentence. Now she had actually set a date for her departure, a date on a real calendar, and not simply on the calendar of her heart, where the years were written as days and it seemed always a matter of a few weeks at most before she would be back with her friends, a returned traveler with a fresh slice of life in her hands and many stories to tell. She had been trying since April to do it, all the while that she went on with her digging and watering and weeding, trying to imagine the flowers in their places in August and herself not there to see them, herself in New York in a hot furnished room. It was a little like imagining her own death, but there had been mornings when she had been almost able to do it, and then she would set down her tools and say to herself in surprise, Why, I can leave tomorrow. There is nothing to keep me here. Always, however, she would have forgotten the petunias, which were growing in flats inside the house and had therefore not fallen under her eye. Suddenly they would flash into her mind, white, ruffled, with yellow throats, blocked out in squares, alternating with squares of blackish red zinnias, with the heavenly blue of the scabiosa making a backdrop of false sky behind them; her heart would contract with love and despair as she saw that she could not leave them—she was in bondage unless they should die.
But to acknowledge this was to feel panic. Speaking to her of time and the seasons, the garden urged her to hurry, to go now, before it was too late, before the wheel, turning, should carry her once again on its slow journey through birth, reproduction, and death. Now for the first time she began to count the weeks. Her sensibility quivered in a continual anticipation of change; she took offense readily, pushed everything to extremes, and, in her mind, renounced her friends, her house, her china, a dozen times a day. Desperate measures occurred to her: if she were to kill the petunias ...? Petunias are peculiarly subject to the damping-off sickness. Water cautiously, warned the gardening book. She would stare at the pitcher of ice water on the luncheon table as the heir stares at the bottle of sleeping medicine by the bedside of his aging relative. But always her resolution softened; the grotesque temptation passed, and, trembling, she would slip out of the house, quietly, lest her husband hear her and detain her on some pretext (for he considered that she was working too hard, complained that he never saw her, that her temper was being ruined); she would collect the trowel, the spading fork, the hand cultivator, and let herself into her enclosure, fenced off against rabbits and woodchucks, and there begin once again her penitential exercise, her agony in the garden.
"Why do you do it if it gives you no pleasure?" her husband would ask. "Don't pretend you are doing it for me." She knew no answer to this; only once she had turned on him, saying, "Ah, you hate it because it is mine. You would like to see it all go to ruin." And truly she did not understand why she was doing it, unless it was somehow against him. It was as though she owed these plants some extra and conspicuous loyalty to make up to them for his jealous hostility, which was always waiting its chance, alleging urgent business, sexual desire, anything, to keep her within doors. Sometimes it seemed to her that she stayed on simply as the guardian and defender of these plants, to which she stood in a maternal relation, having brought them into existence. At other times it was cruder. She would not, she would tell herself grimly, give him the satisfaction of seeing her lose the investment of work and love she had made in this rich but difficult soil. She had made a mistake, she knew it; the nurseryman had warned her, "You're biting off more than you can chew." Now she would pause occasionally to look out at the weeds swaying in the light spring wind, pressing up against the fence of her enclosure, where they grew taller, fiercer, more luxuriant than they did in the field itself. It was as if the field were a hostile sea which billowed and swelled in the distance with a sort of menacing calm, and spent itself vindictively in that last breast-high green wave which it launched upon her rectangular island. At such moments, dread would seize her; she would shudder and turn back to her task, knowing that every minute must be made to count, lest she be inundated, her work and tools be lost in this watery jungle of nature. And always it was as if he were the ally of the weeds—he was fond of telling her, pedantically, that there was no botanical distinction between a weed and a flower. On mornings when she would hurry out after a rainy spell to find her brown space green with a two-day crop of wild mustard, she would feel him to be nearly victorious; tears of injury and defiance would stand in her eyes as she scratched the ground with the claw.
She could remember a time when it had not been so, when her borders had been gay with simple clear colors, pink and scarlet, lemon yellow and cornflower blue, when her husband had stood by in admiration, saying, "You have green thumbs, my dear." Then she had been ready enough to lay down her tools, to greet a friend, to go on a picnic, to give an order to her maid; then there had been summer afternoons when he sat on a bench with a drink while she let the hose play gently over the flower beds and stopped from time to time to take the glass from him and sip.
Later, kneeling out in the garden, she would try to decide at what moment the change had come. When she had declined to go with him to the city because there was no one to water the flowers? When he had bought the dog that rooted up the tulips? Ah no, she thought. It had been inevitable from the beginning that the garden should have become suffused with suffering, like a flower that is reverting to its original lenten magenta, for everything returns to itself and a marriage made out of loneliness and despair will be lonely and desperate. And if I have a garden to console me, you will have a dog, and your dog will destroy my garden, and so it will go, until all good has turned to evil, and there is not a corner of life that has not been flooded with hatred. It had become meaningless to draw up lists of grievances (her picture torn across the middle and thrown in the kitchen wastebasket), for to have a grievance is to assert that some human treaty has been violated, and they were past treaties, past reparations, past forgiveness; to invoke love, morality, public opinion was pure simony—in every belligerent country the priests are praying for victory.
How far it had gone she had never perceived until yesterday. She was repeating the flower names to herself: black boy, black ruby, honesty, mourning bride (ah yes, she murmured, that is I, that is I), snowstorm, purity, and last of all the free package thrown in by the seedsman which was designated Peace. Dear God, she had exclaimed, it's as if I were growing flowers for a funeral blanket. Is it possible that I wish him dead? And at once the vision of herself as a young widow slipped into her fancy, like a view into an old stereopticon. She saw herself pale and beautiful in black, murmuring repentant phrases to some intimate woman friend. (It's true that we didn't get along, but I couldn't have wished this to happen. I am sorry now for everything, and I would like to be able to tell him so. If only he could have known that I loved him after all.) Yes, she thought, if he were dead, I could love him sincerely. And how practical it would be! She would not have to give up anything—the Spode salad plates, the garden, the candy-striped wallpaper in the living room. And she would not have to decide whether to take the roasting pan or leave it (it had belonged to her in the first place). All the objects she had nearly determined to relinquish if she were to leave him, all these things she considered already lost, would be restored to her. And she could move about among them alone; she could have everything the way she wanted it, there would be no one to stop her, no one to say, "Why do we have to have a soup and a salad course? You are spending too much money."
That was the queer thing, she thought; it was not a question of money. If he died, he would leave her nothing; the commissions would stop automatically, there would not even be any insurance. What he would do for her by dying would be to relieve her of the necessity of decision. How many women, she wondered, had poisoned their husbands, not for gain or for another man, but out of sheer inability to leave them. The extreme solution is always the simplest. The weed-killer is in the soup; the man is in his coffin. One regrets, but now it is too late; the matter is out of one's hands. Murder is more civilized than divorce; the Victorians, as usual, were wiser.
Really, she said to herself, I will have to get away if I am going to have such thoughts. And a dreadful presentiment flicked her heart, lightly at first, like the stroke of a lady's riding whip. What if I were to go in now and find him dead by his work table with the blueprints spread out before him? She saw, as if by second sight, what her remorse would be and knew that she could not bear it. In a moment she was stiff with fright. Clearly, she would have to go and look for him, but she could not move. Look, she said to herself, if he is dead the maid will come to tell me sooner or later. I do not have to find him. I can just stay here. But it was useless. By now she was certain that he was dead; one last hope, however, remained. If she were to get there quickly enough ... She found herself running down the driveway. Outside his window she stopped. It was too high for her to see in. See, she said to herself, almost happily, perceiving the difficulty, there is nothing you can do. But a stratagem occurred to her. By a supreme effort of will she made herself pull up an orange crate and climb onto it. She looked in. There he was at his table, motionless; she could not make out whether he was breathing. For the first time, she saw him with detachment, a man in a brown suit slumped over some papers, like a figure drawn by a painter and left there, a figure unknown, without history, and yet intensely itself. He moved, and was human again; she knew him, she disliked him; it was all right, he was alive. She drew a deep breath and slipped quickly down from the orange crate, before he should turn his head and see her. All afternoon in the garden she kept congratulating herself, fondly, hysterically, as people do when they have had, or believe they have had, a narrow escape. Yet when he came out at five to call her and startled her by approaching quietly, she gave a long, piercing, terrible scream, a scream that seemed to linger in the air long after she had left the garden. In some way, he had caught her red-handed.
This morning, in the garden, the scream was still there. Overnight, delay had become dangerous. A break must be made. The part of her that put up preserves, built terraces, laid in oil for the winter, would have to come to terms at last with the part that knew the train schedules by heart and kept a ten-dollar bill hidden in its jewelry box. A path would have to be cleared through the thicket of obligations with which she had surrounded herself, and it was not, after all, essential that she should choose the thorniest way. If she could not renounce the petunias, she would have them and then go. The important thing was that she should not make a single plan that would carry her beyond the first of August. Resolutely, she picked up her trowel and stabbed it into the ground, next to a clump of nut grass with its bright, spearlike leaves. Probing carefully, she lifted the plant and saw with satisfaction that the nut was there, dangling from the long root. The point about nut grass was that you must be sure to get the nut; otherwise your pains were wasted—within a week the plant would be up again. Hoeing was out of the question; you had to dig, with a spading fork or a trowel. "Why don't you give it up?" her husband had asked, indifferently, when she had showed him the thousands of green spears of the grass pricking the ground she had just cultivated. "Oh, go away," she had answered, and yet, often, this was what she most wanted to do, to give up and lie down on her bed and never make another effort, to sleep and have her meals brought up and live like a weed herself, silent and parasitic. But always the flowers pressed their claims; she would picture a few starved cosmos plants waving their thin heads among the tall grasses, and she would feel her heart wrung, as if squeezed out by those strong inimical brown roots. Ah well, she said to herself now, next year will be another matter. Next year nature can have her way. Thank God, at any rate, I did not put in any perennials.
All the rest of the morning she worked along cheerfully. When her maid's voice called her in to lunch, she got up with docility. Walking along the lane, she noticed that the wild lilies of the valley were nearly in bloom. There was a shady space along the veranda that could easily accommodate them. With fertilizer and cultivation, the blossoms should, by next year, double in size ... some plants with a good chunk of earth were already in her hands when she perceived what she was doing. "My God," she murmured, "my God," and dropped the plants back into the hole her trowel had cut. She pressed the earth down around them and trod on it with her foot. It had been a close shave, and the beating of her heart informed her, bluntly, that she must run no more risks. The whole property was pitted with traps for her; she walked in danger and there was no time to lose.
Excerpted from Cast a Cold Eye by Mary McCarthy. Copyright © 1978 Mary McCarthy. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Friend of the Family,
The Old Men,
Yonder Peasant, Who Is He?,
A Biography of Mary McCarthy,