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What did you ask, Andy Bissette? Do I “understand these rights as you’ve explained em to me”?
Gorry! What makes some men so numb?
No, you never mind—still your jawin and listen to me for awhile. I got an idear you’re gonna be listenin to me most of the night, so you might as well get used to it. Coss I understand what you read to me! Do I look like I lost all m’brains since I seen you down to the market? That was just Monday afternoon, in case you lost track. I told you your wife would give you merry hell about buying that day-old bread—penny wise and pound foolish, the old saying is—and I bet I was right, wasn’t I?
I understand my rights just fine, Andy; my mother never raised no fools. I understand my responsibilities too, God help me.
Anything I say might be used against me in a court of law, you say? Well will wonders never cease! And you can just get that smirk off your face, Frank Proulx. You may be a hot-shot town cop these days, but it hasn’t been too long since I seen you runnin around in a saggy diaper with that same foolish grin on your face. I’ll give you a little piece of advice—when you get around an old biddy like me, you just want to save that grin. I c’n read you easier’n an underwear ad in the Sears catalogue.
All right, we’ve had our fun; might as well get down to it. I’m gonna tell you three a hell of a lot startin right about now, and a hell of a lot of it prob’ly could be used against me in a court of law, if anyone wanted to at this late date. The joke of it is, folks on the island know most of it already, and I’m just about half-past give-a-shit, as old Neely Robichaud used to say when he was in his cups. Which was most of the time, as anyone who knew him will tell you.
I do give a shit about one thing, though, and that’s why I come down here on my own hook. I didn’t kill that bitch Vera Donovan, and no matter what you think now, I intend to make you believe that. I didn’t push her down that frigging staircase. It’s fine if you want to lock me up for the other, but I don’t have none of that bitch’s blood on my hands. And I think you will believe that by the time I’m finished, Andy. You was always a good enough boy, as boys go—fair-minded, is what I mean—and you’ve turned into a decent man. Don’t let it go to your head, though; you grew up same as any other man, with some woman to warsh your clothes and wipe your nose and turn you around when you got y’self pointed in the wrong direction.
One other thing before we get started—I know you, Andy, and Frank, accourse, but who’s this woman with the tape-recorder?
Oh Christ, Andy, I know she’s a stenographer! Didn’t I just tell you my Mamma didn’t raise any fools? I may be sixty-six come this November, but I still got all my marbles. I know a woman with a tape-recorder and a shorthand pad’s a stenographer. I watch all those courtroom shows, even that L.A. Law where nobody can seem to keep their clothes on for fifteen minutes at a time.
What’s your name, honey?
Uh-huh . . . and whereabouts do you hail from?
Oh, quit it, Andy! What else you got to do tonight? Was you plannin to go over to the shingle and see if you could catch a few fellas diggin quahogs without a license? That’d prob’ly be more excitement than your heart could take, wouldn’t it? Ha!
There. That’s better. You’re Nancy Bannister from Kennebunk, and I’m Dolores Claiborne from right here on Little Tall Island. Now I already said I’m going to do a country-fair job of talking before we’re done in here, and you’re going to find I wasn’t lyin a bit. So if you need me to speak up or to slow down, just say so. You needn’t be shy with me. I want you to get every goddam word, startin with this: twenty-nine years ago, when Police Chief Bissette here was in the first grade and still eatin the paste off the back of his pitchers, I killed my husband, Joe St. George.
I feel a draft in here, Andy. Might go away if you shutcha goddam trap. I don’t know what you’re lookin so surprised about, anyway. You know I killed Joe. Everybody on Little Tall knows it, and probably half the people across the reach in Jonesport know it, too. It’s just that nobody could prove it. And I wouldn’t be here now, admittin it in front of Frank Proulx and Nancy Bannister from Kennebunk if it hadn’t been for that stupid bitch Vera, gettin up to more of her nasty old tricks.
Well, she’ll never get up to any more of em, will she? There’s that for consolation, at least.
Shift that recorder a little closer to me, Nancy, dear—if this is going to get done, it’ll get done right, I’ll be bound. Don’t those Japanese just make the most cunning little things? Yes indeed . . . but I guess we both know that what’s going on the tape inside that little cutie-pie could put me in the Women’s Correctional for the rest of my life. Still, I don’t have no choice. I swear before heaven I always knew that Vera Donovan’d just about be the death of me—I knew it from the first time I saw her. And look what she’s done—just look what that goddamned old bitch has done to me. This time she’s really stuck her gum in my gears. But that’s rich people for you; if they can’t kick you to death, they’re apt to kiss you to death with kindness.
Oh, gorry! I’m gettin to it, Andy, if you’ll just give me a little peace! I’m just tryin to decide if I should tell it back to front or front to back. I don’t s’pose I could have a little drink, could I?
Oh, frig ya coffee! Take the whole pot and shove it up your kazoo. Just gimme a glass of water if you’re too cheap to part with a swallow of the Beam you keep in your desk drawer. I ain’t—
What do you mean, how do I know that? Why, Andy Bissette, someone who didn’t know better’d think you just toddled out of a Saltines box yesterday. Do you think me killin my husband is the only thing the folks on this island have got to talk about? Hell, that’s old news. You, now—you still got some juice left in you.
Thank you, Frank. You was always a pretty good boy, too, although you was kinda hard to look at in church until your mother got you cured of the booger-hookin habit. Gorry, there were times when you had that finger so far up y’nose it was a wonder you didn’t poke your brains out. And what the hell are you blushin for? Was never a kid alive who didn’t mine a little green gold outta their old pump every now and again. At least you knew enough to keep your hands outta your pants and off your nuts, at least in church, and there’s a lot of boys who never—
Yes, Andy, yes—I am gonna tell it. Jeezly-crow, you ain’t never shook the ants out of your pants, have you?
Tell you what: I’m gonna compromise. Instead of telling her front to back or back to front, I’m gonna start in the middle and just kinda work both ways. And if you don’t like it, Andy Bissette, you can write it up on your T.S. list and mail it to the chaplain.
Me and Joe had three kids, and when he died in the summer of ’63, Selena was fifteen, Joe Junior was thirteen, and Little Pete was just nine. Well, Joe didn’t leave me a pot to piss in and hardly a window to throw it out of—
I guess you’ll have to fix this up some, Nancy, won’t you? I’m just an old woman with a foul temper and a fouler mouth, but that’s what happens, more often than not, when you’ve had a foul life.
Now, where was I? I ain’t lost my place already, have I?
Oh—yes. Thank you, honeybunch.
What Joe left me with was that shacky little place out by the East Head and six acres of land, most of it blackberry tangles and the kind of trashwood that grows back after a clear-cut operation. What else? Lemme see. Three trucks that didn’t run—two pickups and a pulp-hauler—four cord of wood, a bill at the grocery, a bill at the hardware, a bill with the oil company, a bill with the funeral home . . . and do you want the icing on the goddam cake? He wa’ant a week in the ground before that rumpot Harry Doucette come over with a friggin IOU that said Joe owed him twenty dollars on a baseball bet!
He left me all that, but do you think he left me any goddam insurance money? Nossir! Although that might have been a blessin in disguise, the way things turned out. I guess I’ll get to that part before I’m done, but all I’m trying to say now is that Joe St. George really wa’ant a man at all; he was a goddam millstone I wore around my neck. Worse, really, because a millstone don’t get drunk and then come home smellin of beer and wantin to throw a fuck into you at one in the morning. Wasn’t none of that the reason why I killed the sonofawhore, but I guess it’s as good a place as any to start.
An island’s not a good place to kill anybody, I can tell you that. Seems like there’s always someone around, itching to get his nose into your business just when you can least afford it. That’s why I did it when I did, and I’ll get to that, too. For now suffice it to say that I did it just about three years after Vera Donovan’s husband died in a motor accident outside of Baltimore, which was where they lived when they wasn’t summerin on Little Tall. Back in those days, most of Vera’s screws were still nice and tight.
With Joe out of the pitcher and no money coming in, I was in a fix, I can tell you—I got an idear there’s no one in the whole world feels as desperate as a woman on her own with kids dependin on her. I’d ’bout decided I’d better cross the reach and see if I couldn’t get a job in Jonesport, checkin out groceries at the Shop n Save or waitressin in a restaurant, when that numb pussy all of a sudden decided she was gonna live on the island all year round. Most everyone thought she’d blown a fuse, but I wasn’t all that surprised—by then she was spendin a lot of time up here, anyway.
The fella who worked for her in those days—I don’t remember his name, but you know who I mean, Andy, that dumb hunky that always wore his pants tight enough to show the world he had balls as big as Mason jars—called me up and said The Missus (that’s what he always called her, The Missus; my, wasn’t he dumb) wanted to know if I’d come to work for her full-time as her housekeeper. Well, I’d done it summers for the family since 1950, and I s’pose it was natural enough for her to call me before she called anyone else, but at the time it seemed like the answer to all my prayers. I said yes right on the spot, and I worked for her right up until yest’y forenoon, when she went down the front stairs on her stupid empty head.
What was it her husband did, Andy? Made airplanes, didn’t he?
Oh. Ayuh, I guess I did hear that, but you know how people on the island talk. All I know for sure is that they was well-fixed, mighty well-fixed, and she got it all when he died. Except for what the government took, accourse, and I doubt if it got anywhere near as much as it was probably owed. Michael Donovan was sharp as a tack. Sly, too. And although nobody would believe it from the way she was over the last ten years, Vera was as sly as he was . . . and she had her sly days right up until she died. I wonder if she knew what kind of a jam she’d be leavin me in if she did anything besides die in bed of a nice quiet heart-attack? I been down by East Head most of the day, sittin on those rickety stairs and thinkin about that . . . that and a few hundred other things. First I’d think no, a bowl of oatmeal has more brains than Vera Donovan had at the end, and then I’d remember how she was about the vacuum cleaner and I’d think maybe . . . yes, maybe . . .
But it don’t matter now. The only thing that matters now is that I have flopped out of the frying pan and into the fire, and I’d dearly love to drag myself clear before my ass gets burned any worse. If I still can.
I started off as Vera Donovan’s housekeeper, and I ended up bein something they call a “paid companion.” It didn’t take me too long to figure out the difference. As Vera’s housekeeper, I had to eat shit eight hours a day, five days a week. As her paid companion, I had to eat it around the clock.
She had her first stroke in the summer of 1968, while she was watchin the Democratic National Convention in Chicago on her television. That was just a little one, and she used to blame it on Hubert Humphrey. “I finally looked at that happy asshole one too many times,” she said, “and I popped a goddam blood-vessel. I should have known it was gonna happen, and it could just as easily have been Nixon.”
She had a bigger one in 1975, and that time she didn’t have no politicians to blame it on. Dr. Freneau told her she better quit smokin and drinkin, but he could have saved his breath—no highsteppin kitty like Vera Kiss-My-Back-Cheeks Donovan was going to listen to a plain old country doctor like Chip Freneau. “I’ll bury him,” she used to say, “and have a Scotch and soda sitting on his headstone.”
For awhile it seemed like maybe she would do just that—he kept scoldin her, and she kept sailin along like the Queen Mary. Then, in 1981, she had her first whopper, and the hunky got killed in a car-wreck over on the mainland the very next year. That was when I moved in with her—October of 1982.
Did I have to? I dunno. I guess not. I had my Sociable Security, as old Hattie McLeod used to call it. It wasn’t much, but the kids were long gone by then—Little Pete right off the face of the earth, poor little lost lamb—and I had managed to put a few dollars away, too. Living on the island has always been cheap, and while it ain’t what it once was, it’s still a whale of a lot cheaper than livin on the mainland. So I guess I didn’t have to go live with Vera, no.
But by then her and me was used to each other. It’s hard to explain to a man. I ’spect Nancy there with her pads n pens n tape-recorder understands, but I don’t think she’s s’posed to talk. We was used to each other in the way I s’pose two old bats can get used to hangin upside-down next to each other in the same cave, even though they’re a long way from what you’d call the best of friends. And it wasn’t really no big change. Hanging my Sunday clothes in the closet next to my housedresses was really the biggest part of it, because by the fall of ’82 I was there all day every day and most nights as well. The money was a little better, but not so good I’d made the downpayment on my first Cadillac, if you know what I mean. Ha!
I guess I did it mostly because there wasn’t nobody else. She had a business manager down in New York, a man named Greenbush, but Greenbush wa’ant going to come up to Little Tall so she could scream down at him from her bedroom window to be sure and hang those sheets with six pins, not four, nor was he gonna move into the guestroom and change her diapers and wipe the shit off her fat old can while she accused him of stealin the dimes out of her goddam china pig and told him how she was gonna see him in jail for it. Greenbush cut the checks; I cleaned up her shit and listened to her rave on about the sheets and the dust bunnies and her goddam china pig.
And what of it? I don’t expect no medal for it, not even a Purple Heart. I’ve wiped up a lot of shit in my time, listened to even more of it (I was married to Joe St. George for sixteen years, remember), and none of it ever gave me the rickets. I guess in the end I stuck with her because she didn’t have nobody else; it was either me or the nursin home. Her kids never came to see her, and that was one thing I felt sorry for her about. I didn’t expect them to pitch in, don’t get that idear, but I didn’t see why they couldn’t mend their old quarrel, whatever it was, and come once in awhile to spend the day or maybe a weekend with her. She was a miserable bitch, no doubt about it, but she was their Ma. And by then she was old. Accourse I know a lot more now than I did then, but—
Yes, it’s true. If I’m lyin, I’m dyin, as my grandsons like to say. You just call that fella Greenbush if you don’t believe me. I expect when the news gets out—and it will, it always does—there’ll be one of those soppy articles in the Bangor Daily News about how wonderful it all is. Well, I got news for you—it ain’t wonderful. A friggin nightmare is what it is. No matter what happens in here, folks are gonna say I brainwarshed her into doin what she done n then killed her. I know it, Andy, n so do you. There ain’t no power in heaven or on earth that can stop people from thinkin the worst when they want to.
Well, not one goddam word of it’s true. I didn’t force her to do nothing, and she sure didn’t do what she did because she loved me, or even liked me. I suppose she might have done it because she thought she owed me—in her own peculiar way she could have thought she owed me plenty, and t’wouldn’t have been her way to say anything. Could even be what she done was her way of thankin me . . . not for changin her shitty diapers but for bein there on all the nights when the wires came out of the corners or the dust bunnies came out from under the bed.
You don’t understand that, I know, but you will. Before you open that door and walk out of this room, I promise you’ll understand everything.
She had three ways of bein a bitch. I’ve known women who had more, but three’s good for a senile old lady mostly stuck in a wheelchair or in bed. Three’s damn good for a woman like that.
The first way was when she was a bitch because she couldn’t help it. You remember what I said about the clothespins, how you had to use six of em to hang the sheets, never just four? Well, that was just one example.
There were certain ways things had to be done if you worked for Mrs. Kiss-My-Back-Cheeks Vera Donovan, and you didn’t want to forget a single one of them. She told you how things were going to go right up front, and I’m here to tell you that’s how things went. If you forgot something once, you got the rough side of her tongue. If you forgot twice, you got docked on payday. If you forgot three times, that was it—you were down the road, and no excuses listened to. That was Vera’s rule, and it sat all right with me. I thought it was hard, but I thought it was fair. If you was told twice which racks she wanted the bakin put on after it came out of the oven, and not ever to stick it on the kitchen windowsills to cool like shanty Irish would do, and if you still couldn’t remember, the chances were good you wasn’t never going to remember.
Three strikes and you’re out was the rule, there was absolutely no exceptions to it, and I worked with a lot of different people in that house over the years because of it. I heard it said more’n once in the old days that workin for the Donovans was like steppin into one of those revolvin doors. You might get one spin, or two, and some folks went around as many as ten times or a dozen, but you always got spat out onto the sidewalk in the end. So when I went to work for her in the first place—this was in 1949—I went like you’d go into a dragon’s cave. But she wasn’t as bad as people liked to make out. If you kept your ears open, you could stay. I did, and the hunky did, too. But you had to stay on your toes all the time, because she was sharp, because she always knew more of what was going on with the island folk than any of the other summer people did . . . and because she could be mean. Even back then, before all her other troubles befell her, she could be mean. It was like a hobby with her.
“What are you doing here?” she says to me on that first day. “Shouldn’t you be home minding that new baby of yours and making nice big dinners for the light of your life?”
“Mrs. Cullum’s happy to watch Selena four hours a day,” I said. “Part-time is all I can take, ma’am.”
“Part-time is all I need, as I believe my advertisement in the local excuse for a newspaper said,” she comes right back—just showin me the edge of that sharp tongue of hers, not actually cuttin me with it like she would so many times later. She was knittin that day, as I remember. That woman could knit like a flash—a whole pair of socks in a single day was no problem for her, even if she started as late as ten o’clock. But she said she had to be in the mood.
“Yessum,” I said. “It did.”
“My name isn’t Yessum,” she said, putting her knitting down. “It’s Vera Donovan. If I hire you, you’ll call me Missus Donovan—at least until we know each other well enough to make a change—and I’ll call you Dolores. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Missus Donovan,” I said.
“All right, we’re off to a good start. Now answer my question. What are you doing here when you’ve got a house of your own to keep, Dolores?”
“I want to earn a little extra money for Christmas,” I said. I’d already decided on my way over I’d say that if she asked. “And if I’m satisfactory until then—and if I like working for you, of course—maybe I’ll stay on a little longer.”
“If you like working for me,” she repeats back, then rolls her eyes like it was the silliest thing she’d ever heard—how could anybody not like working for the great Vera Donovan? Then she repeats back, “Christmas money.” She takes a pause, lookin at me the whole time, then says it again, even more sarcastic. “Kuh-riss-mas money!”
Like she suspected I was really there because I barely had the rice shook out of my hair and was havin marriage troubles already, and she only wanted to see me blush and drop my eyes to know for sure. So I didn’t blush and I didn’t drop my eyes, although I was only twenty-two and it was a near thing. Nor would I have admitted to a single soul that I was already havin trouble—wild hosses wouldn’t have dragged it out of me. Christmas money was good enough for Vera, no matter how sarcastic she might say it, and all I’d allow to myself was that the house-money was a little tight that summer. It was only years later that I could admit the real reason why I went up to face the dragon in her den that day: I had to find a way to put back some of the money Joe was drinking up through the week and losin in the Friday-night poker games at Fudgy’s Tavern over on the mainland. In those days I still believed the love of a man for a woman and a woman for a man was stronger than the love of drinkin and hell-raisin—that love would eventually rise to the top like cream in a bottle of milk. I learned better over the next ten years. The world’s a sorry schoolroom sometimes, ain’t it?
“Well,” Vera said, “we’ll give each other a try, Dolores St. George . . . although even if you work out, I imagine you’ll be pregnant again in a year or so, and that’s the last I’ll see of you.”
The fact was I was two months pregnant right then, but wild hosses wouldn’t have dragged that outta me, either. I wanted the ten dollars a week the job paid, and I got it, and you better believe me when I say I earned every red cent of it. I worked my tail off that summer, and when Labor Day rolled around, Vera ast me if I wanted to keep on after they went back to Baltimore—someone has to keep a big place like that up to snuff all the year round, you know—and I said fine.
I kep at it until a month before Joe Junior was born, and I was back at it even before he was off the titty. In the summer I left him with Arlene Cullum—Vera wouldn’t have a crying baby in the house, not her—but when she and her husband were gone, I’d bring both him and Selena in with me. Selena could be mostly left alone—even at two going on three she could be trusted most of the time. Joe Junior I carted with me on my daily rounds. He took his first steps in the master bedroom, although you can believe Vera never heard of it.
She called me a week after I delivered (I almost didn’t send her a birth announcement, then decided if she thought I was lookin for a fancy present that was her problem), congratulated me on givin birth to a son, and then said what I think she really called to say—that she was holdin my place for me. I think she intended me to be flattered, and I was. It was about the highest compliment a woman like Vera can pay, and it meant a lot more to me than the twenty-five-dollar bonus check I got in the mail from her in December of that year.
She was hard but she was fair, and around that house of hers she was always the boss. Her husband wasn’t there but one day in ten anyway, even in the summers when they were supposed to be livin there full-time, but when he was, you still knew who was in charge. Maybe he had two or three hundred executives who dropped their drawers every time he said shit, but Vera was boss of the shootin match on Little Tall Island, and when she told him to take his shoes off and stop trackin dirt on her nice clean carpet, he minded.
And like I say, she had her ways of doin things. Did she ever! I don’t know where she got her idears, but I do know she was a prisoner of them. If things wasn’t done a certain way, she’d get a headache or one in her gut. She spent so much of her day checkin up on things that I thought plenty of times she would have had more peace of mind if she’d just given over and kep that house herself.
All the tubs had to be scrubbed out with Spic n Span, that was one thing. No Lestoil, no Top Job, no Mr. Clean. Just Spic n Span. If she caught you scrubbin one of the tubs with anything else, God help you.
When it came to the ironin, you had to use a special spray-bottle of starch on the collars of the shirts and the blouses, and there was a piece of gauze you were supposed to put over the collar before you sprayed. Friggin gauze didn’t do a goddam thing, so far as I could ever tell, and I must have ironed at least ten thousand shirts and blouses in that house, but if she came into the laundry room and saw you was doin shirts without that little piece of netting on a collar, or at least hung over the end of the ironin board, God help you.
If you didn’t remember to turn on the exhaust fan in the kitchen when you were fryin somethin, God help you.
The garbage cans in the garage, that was another thing. There was six of em. Sonny Quist came once a week to pick up the swill, and either the housekeeper or one of the maids—whoever was most handy—was supposed to bring those cans back into the garage the minute, the very second, he was gone. And you couldn’t just drag em into the corner and leave em; they had to be lined up two and two and two along the garage’s east wall, with their covers turned upside-down on top of em. If you forgot to do it just that way, God help you.
Then there was the welcome mats. There were three of em—one for the front door, one for the patio door, and one for the back door, which had one of those snooty TRADESMAN’S ENTRANCE signs on it right up until last year, when I got tired of looking at it and took it down. Once a week I had to take those welcome mats and lay em on a big rock at the end of the back yard, oh, I’m gonna say about forty yards down from the swimmin pool, and beat the dirt out of em with a broom. Really had to make the dust fly. And if you lagged off, she was apt to catch you. She didn’t watch every time you beat the welcome mats, but lots of times she would. She’d stand on the patio with a pair of her husband’s binoculars. And the thing was, when you brought the mats back to the house, you had to make sure WELCOME was pointin the right way. The right way was so people walkin up to whichever door it was could read it. Put a welcome mat back on the stoop upside-down and God help you.
There must have been four dozen different things like that. In the old days, back when I started as a day-maid, you’d hear a lot of bitching about Vera Donovan down at the general store. The Donovans entertained a lot, all through the fifties they had a lot of house-help, and usually the one bitching loudest was some little girl who’d been hired for part-time and then got fired for forgetting one of the rules three times in a row. She’d be tellin anyone who wanted to listen that Vera Donovan was a mean, sharp-tongued old bat, and crazy as a loon in the bargain. Well, maybe she was crazy and maybe she wasn’t, but I can tell you one thing—if you remembered, she didn’t give you the heat. And my way of thinking is this: anyone who can remember who’s sleepin with who on all those soap opera stories they show in the afternoon should be able to remember to use Spic n Span in the tubs and put the welcome mats back down facin the right way.
But the sheets, now. That was one thing you didn’t ever want to get wrong. They had to be hung perfectly even over the lines—so the hems matched, you know—and you had to use six clothespins on each one. Never four; always six. And if you dragged one in the mud, you didn’t have to worry about waitin to get something wrong three times. The lines have always been out in the side yard, which is right under her bedroom window. She’d go to that window, year in and year out, and yell at me: “Six pins, now, Dolores! You mind me, now! Six, not four! I’m counting, and my eyes are just as good now as they ever were!” She’d—
Oh bosh, Andy—let her alone. That’s a fair enough question, and it’s one no man would have brains enough to ask.
I’ll tell you, Nancy Bannister from Kennebunk, Maine—yes, she did have a dryer, a nice big one, but we were forbidden to put the sheets in it unless there was five days’ rain in the forecast. “The only sheet worth having on a decent person’s bed is a sheet that’s been dried out-of-doors,” Vera’d say, “because they smell sweet. They catch a little bit of the wind that flapped them, and they hold it, and that smell sends you off to sweet dreams.”
She was full of bull about a lot of things, but not about the smell of fresh air in the sheets; about that I thought she was dead right. Anyone can smell the difference between a sheet that was tumbled in a Maytag and one that was flapped by a good south wind. But there were plenty of winter mornins when it was just ten degrees and the wind was strong and damp and comin from the east, straight in off the Atlantic. On mornins like that I would have given up that sweet smell without a peep of argument. Hangin sheets in deep cold is a kind of torture. Nobody knows what it’s like unless they’ve done it, and once you’ve done it, you never ever forget it.
You take the basket out to the lines, and the steam comes risin off the top, and the first sheet is warm, and maybe you think to y’self—if you ain’t never done it before, that is—“Aw, this ain’t so bad.” But by the time you’ve got that first one up, and the edges even, and those six pins on, it’s stopped steaming. It’s still wet, but now it’s cold, too. And your fingers are wet, and they’re cold. But you go on to the next one, and the next, and the next, and your fingers turn red, and they slow up, and your shoulders ache, and your mouth is cramped from holdin pins in it so your hands are free to keep that befrigged sheet nice and even the whole while, but most of the misery is right there in your fingers. If they’d go numb, that’d be one thing. You almost wish they would. But they just get red, and if there are enough sheets they go beyond that to a pale purple color, like the edges of some lilies. By the time you finish, your hands are really just claws. The worst thing, though, is you know what’s gonna happen when you finally get back inside with that empty laundry basket and the heat hits your hands. They start to tingle, and then they start to throb in the joints—only it’s a feelin so deep it’s really more like cryin than throbbin; I wish I could describe it to you so you’d know, Andy, but I can’t. Nancy Bannister there looks like she knows, a little bit, anyway, but there is a world of difference between hangin out your warsh on the mainland in winter and hangin it out on the island. When your fingers start to warm up again, it feels like there’s a hive of bugs in em. So you rub em all over with some kind of hand lotion and wait for the itch to go away, and you know it don’t matter how much store lotion or plain old sheep-dip you rub into your hands; by the end of February the skin is still going to be cracked so bad that it’ll break open and bleed if you clench a hard fist. And sometimes, even after you’ve gotten warm again and maybe even gone to bed, your hands will wake you up in the middle of the night, sobbin with the memory of that pain. You think I’m jokin? You can laugh if you want to, but I ain’t, not a bit. You can almost hear em, like little children who can’t find their mammas. It comes from deep inside, and you lie there and listen to it, knowin all the time that you’ll be goin back outside again just the same, nothin can stop it, and it’s all a part of woman’s work no man knows about or wants to know about.
And while you were goin through that, hands numb, fingers purple, shoulders achin, snot leakin off the end of y’nose and freezin tight as a tick to your upper lip, she’d more often than not be standin or sittin there in her bedroom window, lookin out at you. Her forehead’d be furrowed and her lips drawed down and her hands workin on each other—all tensed up, she’d be, like it was some kind of complicated hospital operation instead of just hangin sheets out to dry in the winter wind. You could see her tryin to hold herself back, to keep her big trap shut this time, but after awhile she wouldn’t be able to no more and she’d throw up the window and lean out so that cold east wind streamed her hair back, and she’d howl down, “Six pins! Remember to use six pins! Don’t you let the wind blow my good sheets down to the corner of the yard! Mind me, now! You better, because I’m watching, and I’m counting!”
By the time March came, I’d be dreamin of gettin the hatchet me n the hunky used to chop up kindling for the kitchen stove (until he died, that is; after that I had the job all to myself, lucky me) and hittin that loudmouth bitch a good lick with it right between the eyes. Sometimes I could actually see myself doin it, that’s how mad she made me, but I guess I always knew there was a part of her that hated yellin down that way as much as I hated hearin it.
That was the first way she had of bein a bitch—not bein able to help it. It was really worse for her than it was for me, specially after she’d had her bad strokes. There was a lot less warshin to hang out by then, but she was just as crazy on the subject as she’d been before most of the rooms in the house were shut off and most of the guest-beds stripped and the sheets wrapped in plastic and put away in the linen closet.
What made it hard for her was that by 1985 or so, her days of surprisin folks was through—she had to depend on me just to get around. If I wa’ant there to lift her out of bed and set her in her wheelchair, in bed she stayed. She’d porked up a lot, you see—went from a hundred and thirty or so in the early sixties to a hundred and ninety, and most of the gain was that yellowish, blubbery fat you see on some old people. It hung off her arms and legs and butt like bread-dough on a stick. Some people get thin as jerky in their sundown years, but not Vera Donovan. Dr. Freneau said it was because her kidneys weren’t doin their job. I s’pose so, but I had plenty of days when I thought she put on that weight just to spite me.
The weight wasn’t all, either; she was halfway to bein blind, as well. The strokes done that. What eyesight she had left came and went. Some days she could see a little bit out of her left eye and pretty damned good out of the right one, but most times she said it was like lookin through a heavy gray curtain. I guess you can understand why it drove her crazy, her that was such a one to always keep her eye on everythin. A few times she even cried over it, and you want to believe that it took a lot to make a hard baby like her to cry . . . and even after the years had beat her to her knees, she was still a hard baby.
I dunno for sure, and that’s the truth. I don’t think so. And if she was, it sure wasn’t in the ordinary way old folks go senile. And I’m not just sayin that because if it turns out she was, the judge in charge of probatin her will’s apt to use it to blow his nose with. He can wipe his ass with it, for all of me; all I want’s to get outta this friggin mess she’s landed me in. But I still gotta say she probably wa’ant completely vacant upstairs, not even at the end. A few rooms to rent, maybe, but not completely vacant.
The main reason I say so was she had days when she was almost as sharp as ever. They were usually the same days when she could see a little, and help you to sit her up in bed, or maybe even take those two steps from the bed to the wheelchair instead of having to be hoisted across like a bag of grain. I’d put her in the wheelchair so I could change her bed, and she wanted to be in it so she could go over to her window—the one that looked out on the side yard and the harbor view beyond that. She told me once that she’d go out of her mind for good if she had to lay in bed all day and all night, with nothing but the ceiling and the walls to look at, and I believed her.
She had her confused days, yes—days when she didn’t know who I was, and hardly even who she was. On those days she was like a boat that’s come loose from its moorins, except the ocean she was adrift on was time—she was apt to think it was 1947 in the mornin and 1974 in the afternoon. But she had good days, too. There were less of them as time went on and she kept havin those little strokes—shocks, the old folks call em—but she did have em. Her good days was often my bad ones, though, because she’d get up to all her old bitchery if I let her.
She’d get mean. That was the second way she had of bein a bitch. That woman could be as mean as cat-dirt when she wanted to. Even stuck in a bed most of the time, wearin diapers and rubber pants, she could be a real stinker. The messes she made on cleanin days is as good an example of what I mean as anything. She didn’t make em every week, but by God I’ll tell you that she made em on Thursdays too often for it to be just a coincidence.
Thursdays was cleanin day at the Donovans’. It’s a huge house—you don’t have any idear until you’re actually wanderin around inside it—but most of it’s closed off. The days when there might be half a dozen girls with their hair done up in kerchiefs, polishin here and warshin windows there and dustin cobwebs outta the ceiling corners somewhere else, are twenty years or more in the past. I have walked through those gloomy rooms sometimes, lookin at the furniture swaddled up in dustsheets, and thought of how the place used to look back in the fifties, when they had their summer parties—there was always different-colored Japanese lanterns on the lawn, how well I remember that!—and I get the funniest chill. In the end the bright colors always go out of life, have you ever noticed that? In the end things always look gray, like a dress that’s been warshed too many times.
For the last four years, the open part of the house has been the kitchen, the main parlor, the dinin room, the sun-room that looks out on the pool and the patio, and four bedrooms upstairs—hers, mine, and the two guest-rooms. The guest-rooms weren’t heated much in wintertime, but they were kept nice in case her children did come to spend some time.
Even in these last few years I always had two girls from town who helped me on cleanin days. There’s always been a pretty lively turnover there, but since 1990 or so it’s been Shawna Wyndham and Frank’s sister Susy. I couldn’t do it without em, but I still do a lot of it m’self, and by the time the girls go home at four on Thursday afternoons, I’m ’bout dead on my feet. There’s still a lot to do, though—the last of the ironin, Friday’s shoppin list to write out, and Her Nibs’ supper to get, accourse. No rest for the wicked, as they say.
Only before any of those things, like as not, there’d be some of her bitchery to sort out.
She was regular about her calls of nature most of the time. I’d slip the bedpan under her every three hours, and she’d do a tinkle for me. And on most days there was apt to be a clinker in the pan along with the pee after the noon call.
Except on Thursdays, that is.
Not every Thursday, but on the Thursdays when she was bright, I could count on trouble more often than not . . . and on a backache that’d keep me awake until midnight. Even Anacin-3 wouldn’t ease it at the end. I’ve been healthy as a horse most of my life and I’m still healthy as a horse, but sixty-five is sixty-five. You can’t shake things off the way you once could.
On Thursday, instead of getting half a bedpan filled with pee at six in the morning, I’d get just a dribble. The same thing at nine. And at noon, instead of some pee and a clinker, there was apt to be nothing at all. I’d know then I might be in for it. The only times I absolutely knew I was in for it were the times when I hadn’t gotten a clinker out of her Wednesday noon, either.
I see you tryin not to laugh, Andy, but that’s all right—you let it out if you have to. It wasn’t no laughing matter then, but it’s over now, and what you’re thinkin ain’t nothin but the truth. The dirty old bag had her a shit savings account, and it was like some weeks she banked it in order to collect the interest . . . only I was the one who got all the withdrawals. I got em whether I wanted em or not.
I spent most of my Thursday afternoons runnin upstairs, tryin to catch her in time, and sometimes I even did. But whatever the state of her eyes might be, there was nothing wrong with her ears, and she knew I never let any of the town girls vacuum the Aubusson rug in the parlor. And when she heard the vacuum cleaner start up in there, she’d crank up her tired old fudge factory and that Shit Account of hers’d start payin dividends.
Then I thought up a way of catchin her. I’d yell to one of the girls that I guessed I’d vacuum the parlor next. I’d yell that even if they was both right next door in the dinin room. I’d turn on the vacuum, all right, but instead of usin it, I’d go to the foot of the stairs and stand there with one foot on the bottom step and my hand on the knob of the newel post, like one of those track fellows all hunkered down waitin for the starter to shoot off his gun and let them go.
Once or twice I went up too soon. That wa’ant no good. It was like a racer gettin disqualified for jumpin the gun. You had to get up there after she had her motor runnin too fast to shut down, but before she’d actually popped her clutch and dumped a load into those big old continence pants she wore. I got pretty good at it. You would, too, if you knew you’d end up hossin a hundred and ninety pounds of old lady around if you timed it wrong. It was like tryin to deal with a hand grenade loaded with shit instead of high explosives.
I’d get up there and she’d be layin in that hospital bed of hers, face all red, her mouth all screwed up, her elbows diggin into the mattress and her hands balled up in fists, and she’d be goin “Unnh! Unnnnnhhhh! UNNNNNNNNNHHHH!” I tell you something—all she needed was a coupla rolls of flypaper danglin down from the ceilin and a Sears catalogue in her lap to look right at home.
Aw, Nancy, quit bitin the insides of y’cheeks—better to let it out n bear the shame than hold it in n bear the pain, as they say. Besides, it does have its funny side; shit always does. Ask any kid. I c’n even let it be a little funny to me now that it’s over, and that’s somethin, ain’t it? No matter how big a jam I’m in, my time of dealin with Vera Donovan’s Shit Thursdays is over.
She’d hear me come in, and mad? She’d be just as mad as a bear with one paw caught in a honeytree. “What are you doing up here?” she’d ask in that hoity-toity way of talking she’d use whenever you caught her gettin up to dickens, like she was still going to Vassar or Holy Oaks or whichever one of the Seven Sisters it was her folks sent her to. “This is cleaning day, Dolores! You go on about your business! I didn’t ring for you and I don’t need you!”
She didn’t scare me none. “I think you do need me,” I’d say. “That ain’t Chanel Number Five I smell comin from the direction of your butt, is it?”
Sometimes she’d even try to slap at my hands when I pulled down the sheet and the blanket. She’d be glarin like she meant to turn me to stone if I didn’t leave off and she’d have her lower lip all pooched out like a little kid who don’t want to go to school. I never let any of that stop me, though. Not Patricia Claiborne’s daughter Dolores. I’d get the sheet down in about three seconds, and it never took much more’n another five to drop her drawers and yank the tapes on those diapers she wore, whether she was slappin my hands or not. Most times she left off doin that after a couple of tries, anyway, because she was caught and we both knew it. Her equipment was so old that once she got it goin, things just had to run their course. I’d slide the bedpan under her just as neat as you please, and when I left to go back downstairs n really vacuum the parlor, she was apt to be swearin like a dock walloper—didn’t sound a bit like a Vassar girl then, let me tell you! Because she knew that time she’d lost the game, you see, and there was nothing Vera hated worse’n that. Even in her dotage, she hated to lose somethin fierce.
Things went on that way for quite awhile, and I started to think I’d won the whole war instead of just a couple of battles. I should have known better.
There came a cleaning day—this was about a year and a half ago—when I was all set and ready to run my race upstairs and catch her again. I’d even got to like it, sort of; it made up for a lot of times in the past when I’d come off second best with her. And I figured she was plannin on a real shit tornado that time, if she could get away with it. All the signs were there, and then some. For one thing, she wasn’t just havin a bright day, she’d been havin a bright week—she’d even asked me that Monday to put the board across the arms of her chair so she could have a few games of Big Clock solitaire, just like in the old days. And as far as her bowels went, she was havin one hell of a dry spell; she hadn’t dropped nothing in the collection plate since the weekend. I figured that particular Thursday she was plannin on givin me her goddam Christmas Club as well as her savins account.
After I took the bedpan out from under her that cleaning day noon and saw it was as dry as a bone, I says to her, “Don’t you think you could do something if you tried a little bit harder, Vera?”
“Oh Dolores,” she says back, looking up at me with her filmy blue eyes just as innocent as Mary’s little lamb, “I’ve already tried as hard as I can—I tried so hard it hurt me. I guess I am just constipated.”
I agreed with her right off. “I guess you are, and if it doesn’t clear up soon, dear, I’ll just have to feed you a whole box of Ex-Lax to dynamite you loose.”
“Oh, I think it’ll take care of itself in time,” she said, and give me one of her smiles. She didn’t have any teeth by then, accourse, and she couldn’t wear her lower plate unless she was sittin up in her chair, in case she might cough and pull it down her throat and choke on it. When she smiled, her face looked like an old piece of tree-trunk with a punky knothole in it. “You know me, Dolores—I believe in letting nature take her course.”
“I know you, all right,” I kind of muttered, turnin away.
“What did you say, dear?” she asks back, so sweet you’d’ve thought sugar wouldn’t melt in her mouth.
“I said I can’t just stand around here waitin for you to go number two,” I said. “I got housework. It’s cleaning day, you know.”
“Oh, is it?” she says back, just as if she hadn’t known what day it was from the first second she woke up that morning. “Then you go on, Dolores. If I feel the need to move my bowels, I’ll call you.”
I bet you will, I was thinkin, about five minutes after it happens. But I didn’t say it; I just went on back downstairs.
I got the vacuum cleaner out of the kitchen closet, took it into the parlor, and plugged it in. I didn’t start it up right away, though; I spent a few minutes dusting first. I had gotten so I could depend on my instincts by then, and I was waiting for somethin inside to tell me the time was right.
When that thing spoke up and said it was, I hollered to Susy and Shawna that I was going to vacuum the parlor. I yelled loud enough so I imagine half the people down in the village heard me right along with the Queen Mother upstairs. I started the Kirby, then went to the foot of the stairs. I didn’t give it long that day; thirty or forty seconds was all. I figured she had to be hangin on by a thread. So up I went, two stairs at a time, and what do you think?
Not . . . one . . . thing.
Except the way she was lookin at me, that was. Just as calm and as sweet as you please.
“Did you forget somethin, Dolores?” she coos.
“Ayuh,” I says back, “I forgot to quit this job five years ago. Let’s just stop it, Vera.”
“Stop what, dear?” she asks, kinda flutterin her eyelashes, like she didn’t have the slightest idear what I could be talkin about.
“Let’s quit evens, is what I mean. Just tell me straight out—do you need the bedpan or not?”
“I don’t,” she says in her best, most totally honest voice. “I told you that!” And just smiled at me. She didn’t say a word, but she didn’t have to. Her face did all the talkin that needed to be done. I got you, Dolores, it was sayin. I got you good.
But I wasn’t done. I knew she was holdin onto one gut-buster of a b.m., and I knew there’d be hell to pay if she got a good start before I could get the bedpan under her. So I went downstairs and stood by that vacuum, and I waited five minutes, and then I ran up again. Only that time she didn’t smile at me when I came in. That time she was lyin on her side, fast asleep . . . or that was what I thought. I really did. She fooled me good and proper, and you know what they say—fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
When I went back down the second time, I really did vacuum the parlor. When the job was done, I put the Kirby away and went back to check on her. She was sittin up in bed, wide awake, covers thrown back, her rubber pants pushed down to her big old flabby knees and her diapers undone. Had she made a mess? Great God! The bed was full of shit, she was covered with shit, there was shit on the rug, on the wheelchair, on the walls. There was even shit on the curtains. It looked like she musta taken up a handful and flang it, the way kids’ll fling mud at each other when they’re swimmin in a cowpond.
Was I mad! Mad enough to spit!
“Oh, Vera! Oh, you dirty BITCH!” I screamed at her. I never killed her, Andy, but if I was gonna, I would’ve done it that day, when I saw that mess and smelled that room. I wanted to kill her, all right; no use lyin about that. And she just looked at me with that foozled expression she got when her mind was playing tricks on her . . . but I could see the devil dancin in her eyes, and I knew well enough who the trick had been played on that time. Fool me twice, shame on me.
“Who’s that?” she asked. “Brenda, is that you, dear? Have the cows got out again?”
“You know there ain’t been a cow within three mile of here since 1955!” I hollered. I came across the room, takin great big strides, and that was a mistake, because one of my loafers come down on a turd and I damn near went spang on my back. If I had done, I guess I really might have killed her; I wouldn’t have been able to stop myself. Right then I was ready to plow fire and reap brimstone.
“I dooon’t,” she says, tryin to sound like the poor old pitiful lady she really was on a lot of days. “I dooo-ooon’t! I can’t see, and my stomach is so upset. I think I’m going to be whoopsy. Is it you, Dolores?”
“Coss it’s me, you old bat!” I said, still hollerin at the top of my lungs. “I could just kill you!”
I imagine by then Susy Proulx and Shawna Wyndham were standin at the foot of the stairs, gettin an earful, and I imagine you’ve already talked to em and that they’ve got me halfway to hung. No need to tell me one way or the other, Andy; awful open, your face is.
Vera seen she wasn’t fooling me a bit, at least not anymore, so she gave up trying to make me believe she’d gone into one of her bad times and got mad herself in self-defense. I think maybe I scared her a little, too. Lookin back on it, I scared myself—but Andy, if you’d seen that room! It looked like dinnertime in hell.
“I guess you’ll do it, too!” she yelled back at me. “Someday you really will, you ugly, bad-natured old harridan! You’ll kill me just like you killed your husband!”
“No, ma’am,” I said. “Not exactly. When I get ready to settle your hash, I won’t bother makin it look like an accident—I’ll just shove you out the window, and there’ll be one less smelly bitch in the world.”
I grabbed her around the middle and h’isted her up like I was Superwoman. I felt it in my back that night, I can tell you, and by the next morning I could hardly walk, I was in such pain. I went to that chiropractor in Machias and he did something to it that made it feel a little better, but it ain’t never really been right since that day. Right then I didn’t feel a thing, though. I pulled her out of that bed of hers like I was a pissed-off little girl and she was the Raggedy Ann doll I was gonna take it out on. She started to tremble all over, and just knowing that she really was scared helped me catch hold of my temper again, but I’d be a dirty liar if I didn’t say I was glad she was scared.
“Oooouuu!” she screams. “Ooouuuu, doooon’t! Don’t take me over to the window! Don’t you throw me out, don’t you dare! Put me down! You’re hurrrting me, Dolores! OOOUUUUU PUT ME DOOOWWWWN!”
“Oh quitcha yappin,” I says, and drops her into her wheelchair hard enough to rattle her teeth . . . if she’d had any teeth to rattle, that is. “Lookit the mess you made. And don’t try to tell me you can’t see it, either, because I know you can. Just look!”
“I’m sorry, Dolores,” she says. She started to blubber, but I saw that mean little light dancing way down in her eyes. I saw it the way you can sometimes see fish in clear water when you get up on your knees in a boat and look over the side. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make a mess, I was just trying to help.” That’s what she always said when she shit the bed and then squooshed around in it a little . . . although that day was the first time she ever decided to fingerpaint with it as well. I was just tryin to help, Dolores—Jesus wept.
“Sit there and shut up,” I said. “If you really don’t want a fast ride over to that window and an even faster one down to the rock garden, you best mind what I say.” And those girls down there at the foot of the stairs, I have no doubt at all, listenin to every word we was sayin. But right then I was too goddam mad to think about anythin like that.
She had enough sense to shut up like I told her, but she looked satisfied, and why not? She’d done what she set out to do—this time it was her who’d won the battle, and made it clear as windowglass that the war wasn’t over, not by a long chalk. I went to work, cleaning and setting the place to rights again. It took the best part of two hours, and by the time I was done, my back was singin “Ave Maria.”
I told you about the sheets, how that was, and I could see by your faces that you understood some of that. It’s harder to understand about her messes. I mean, shit don’t cross my eyes. I been wipin it up all my life and the sight of it never crossed my eyes. It don’t smell like a flower-garden, accourse, and you have to be careful of it because it carries disease just like snot and spit and spilled blood, but it warshes off, you know. Anyone who’s ever had a baby knows that shit warshes off. So that wasn’t what made it so bad.
I think it was that she was so mean about it. So sly about it. She bided her time, and when she got a chance, she made the worst mess she could, and she did it just as fast as she could, because she knew I wouldn’t give her long. She did that nasty thing on purpose, do you see what I’m getting at? As far as her fogged-in brain would let her, she planned it out, and that weighed on my heart and darkened my outlook while I was cleanin up after her. While I was strippin the bed; while I was takin the shitty mattress pad and the shitty sheets and the shitty pillowslips down to the laundry chute; while I was scrubbin the floor, and the walls, and the windowpanes; while I was takin down the curtains and puttin up fresh ones; while I was makin her bed again; while I was grittin my teeth n tryin to keep my back locked in place while I cleaned her up n got a fresh nightgown on her n then hossed her outta the chair and back into bed again (and her not helpin a bit but just lollin there in my arms, dead weight, although I know damn well that was one of the days when she could have helped, if she’d wanted to); while I was warshin the floor; while I was warshin off her goddam wheelchair, and really havin t’scrub by then because the stuff was dried on—while I was doin all that, my heart was low and my outlook was darkened. She knew it, too.
She knew it and it made her happy.
When I went home that night I took some Anacin-3 for my aching back and then I went to bed and I curled up in a little ball even though that hurt my back, too, and I cried and cried and cried. It seemed like I couldn’t stop. Never—at least since the old business with Joe—have I felt so downhearted and hopeless. Or so friggin old.
That was the second way she had of bein a bitch—by bein mean.
What say, Frank? Did she do it again?
You’re damned tooting. She did it again the next week, and the week after that. It wasn’t as bad as that first adventure either time, partly because she wasn’t able to save up such a dividend, but mostly because I was prepared for it. I went to bed crying again after the second time it happened, though, and as I lay there in bed feeling that misery way down low in my back, I made up my mind to quit. I didn’t know what’d happen to her or who would take care of her, but right then I didn’t care a fiddlyfuck. As far as I was concerned, she could starve to death layin in her own shitty bed.
I was still crying when I fell off to sleep, because the idear of quittin—of her gettin the best of me—made me feel worse’n ever, but when I woke up, I felt good. I guess it’s true how a person’s mind doesn’t go to sleep even if a person thinks it does; it just goes on thinkin, and sometimes it does an even better job when the person in charge isn’t there to frig it up with the usual run of chatter that goes on in a body’s head—chores to do, what to have for lunch, what to watch on TV, things like that. It must be true, because the reason I felt so good was that I woke up knowin how she was foolin me. The only reason I hadn’t seen it before was because I was apt to underestimate her—ayuh, even me, and I knew how sly she could be from time to time. And once I understood the trick, I knew what to do about it.
It hurt me to know I’d have to trust one of the Thursday girls to vacuum the Aubusson—and the idear of Shawna Wyndham doin it gave me what my grampa used to call the shiverin hits. You know how gormy she is, Andy—all the Wyndhams are gormy, accourse, but she’s got the rest of em beat seven ways to downtown. It’s like she grows bumps right out of her body to knock things over with when she goes by em. It ain’t her fault, it’s somethin in the blood, but I couldn’t bear thinkin of Shawna chargin around in the parlor, with all of Vera’s carnival glass and Tiffany just beggin to be knocked over.
Still, I had to do somethin—fool me twice, shame on me—and luckily there was Susy to fall back on. She wa’ant no ballerina, but it was her vacuumed the Aubusson for the next year, and she never broke a thing. She’s a good girl, Frank, and I can’t tell you how glad I was to get that weddin announcement from her, even if the fella was from away. How are they doin? What do you hear?
Well, that’s fine. Fine. I’m glad for her. I don’t s’pose she’s got a bun in the oven yet, does she? These days it seems like folks wait until they’re almost ready for the old folks’ home before they—
Yes, Andy, I will! I just wish you’d remember it’s my life I’m talkin about here—my goddam life! So why don’t you just flop back in that big old chair of yours and put your feet up and relax? If you keep pushin that way, you’re gonna give y’self a rupture.
Anyway, Frank, you give her my best, and tell her she just about saved Dolores Clairborne’s life in the summer of ’91. You c’n give her the inside story about the Thursday shitstorms n how I stopped em. I never told em exactly what was goin on; all they knew for sure was that I was buttin heads with Her Royal Majesty. I see now I was ashamed to tell em what was goin on. I guess I don’t like gettin beat any more than Vera did.
It was the sound of the vacuum, you see. That was what I realized when I woke up that mornin. I told you there was nothin wrong with her ears, and it was the sound of the vacuum that told her if I was really doin the parlor or standin at the foot of the stairs, on my mark. When a vacuum cleaner is sittin in one spot, it only makes one sound, you see. Just zooooooo, like that. But when you’re vacuumin a rug, it makes two sounds, and they go up and down in waves. whoop, that’s when you push it out. And zoop, that’s when you pull it back to you for another stroke. WHOOP-zoop, WHOOP-zoop, WHOOP-zoop.
Quit scratchin your head, you two, and look at the smile Nancy’s wearin. All a body’d have to do to know which of you has spent some time runnin a vacuum cleaner is look at your faces. If you really feel like it’s that important, Andy, try it for yourself. You’ll hear it right off, though I imagine Maria’d just about drop dead if she came in and saw you vacuumin the livin-room rug.
What I realized that mornin was that she’d stopped just listenin for when the vacuum cleaner started runnin, because she’d realized that wasn’t good enough anymore. She was listenin to see if the sound went up and down like it does when a vacuum’s actually workin. She wouldn’t pull her dirty little trick until she heard that WHOOP-zoop wave.
I was crazy to try out my new idear, but I couldn’t right away, because she went into one of her bad times right about then, and for quite awhile she just did her business in the bedpan or peed a little in her diapers if she had to. And I started to get scared that this would be the time she wouldn’t come back out of it. I know that sounds funny, since she was so much easier to mind when she was confused in her thinkin, but when a person gets a good idear like that, they kinda want to take it for a test-drive. And you know, I felt somethin for that bitch besides wanting to throttle her. After knowin her over forty years, it’d be goddam strange if I didn’t. She knitted me an afghan once, you know—this was long before she got really bad, but it’s still on my bed, and it’s some warm on those February nights when the wind plays up nasty.
Then, about a month or a month and a half after I woke up with my idear, she started to come around again. She’d watch Jeopardy on the little bedroom TV and rag the contestants if they didn’t know who was President durin the Spanish-American War or who played Melanie in Gone With the Wind. She started all her old globber about how her kids might come n visit her before Labor Day. And, accourse, she pestered to be put in her chair so she could watch me hang the sheets and make sure I used six pins and not just four.
Then there come a Thursday when I pulled the bedpan out from under her at noon dry as a bone and empty as a car salesman’s promises. I can’t tell you how pleased I was to see that empty bedpan. Here we go, you sly old fox, I thought. Now ain’t we gonna see. I went downstairs and called Susy Proulx into the parlor.
“I want you to vacuum in here today, Susy,” I told her.
“Okay, Missus Claiborne,” she said. That’s what both of them called me, Andy—what most people on the island call me, s’far’s that goes. I never made an issue of it at church or anywhere else, but that’s how it is. It’s like they think I was married to a fella named Claiborne at some point in my checkered past . . . or maybe I just want to believe most of em don’t remember Joe, although I guess there’s plenty who do. It don’t matter too much, one way or the other, in the end; I guess I am entitled to believe what I want to believe. I was the one married to the bastard, after all.
“I don’t mind,” she goes on, “but why are you whisperin?”
“Never mind,” I said, “just keep your own voice down. And don’t you break anything in here, Susan Emma Proulx—don’t you dare.”
Well, she blushed just as red as the side of the volunteer fire truck; it was actually sorta comical. “How’d you know my middle name was Emma?”
“None of your beeswax,” I says. “I’ve spent donkey’s years on Little Tall, and there’s no end to the things I know, and the people I know em about. You just be careful of your elbows around the furniture and Missus God’s carnival glass vases, especially when you’re backin up, and you won’t have a thing to worry about.”
“I’ll be extra careful,” she said.
I turned the Kirby on for her, and then I stepped into the hall, cupped my hands around my mouth, and hollered: “Susy! Shawna! I’m gonna vacuum the parlor now!”
Susy was standin right there, accourse, and I tell you that girl’s entire face was a question mark. I just kinda flapped my hand at her, tellin her to go on about her business and never mind me. Which she did.
I tiptoed over to the foot of the stairs n stood in my old place. I know it’s silly, but I ain’t been so excited since my Dad took me huntin for the first time when I was twelve. It was the same kind of feelin, too, with your heart beatin hard and kinda flat in your chest and neck. The woman had dozens of valuable antiques as well as all that expensive glass in the parlor, but I never spared a thought to Susy Proulx in there, whirlin and twirlin amongst them like a dervish. Do you believe it?
I made myself stay where I was as long as I could, about a minute and a half, I think. Then I dashed. And when I popped into her room, there she was, face red, eyes all squinched down into slits, fists balled up, goin “Unhh! Unhhhhh! UNHHHHH!” Her eyes flew open in a hurry when she heard the bedroom door bang open, though. Oh, I wish I’d had a camera—it was priceless.
“Dolores, you get right back out of here!” she kinda squeaks. “I’m tryin to have a nap, and I can’t do it if you’re going to come busting in here like a bull with a hard-on every twenty minutes!”
“Well,” I said, “I’ll go, but first I think I’ll put this old fanny-pan under you. From the smell, I’d say a little scare was about all you needed to take care of your constipation problem.”
She slapped at my hands and cussed me—she could cuss somethin fierce when she wanted to, and she wanted to every time somebody crossed her—but I didn’t pay much attention. I got the bedpan under her slick as a whistle, and, like they say, everythin came out all right. When it was done, I looked at her and she looked at me and neither one of us had to say a thing. We knew each other of old, you see.
There, you nasty old quim, I was sayin with my face. I’ve caught up with you again, and how do you like it?
Not much, Dolores, she was sayin with hers, but that’s all right; just because you’ve got caught up doesn’t mean you’ll stay caught up.
I did, though—that time I did. There were a few more little messes, but never again anythin like the time I told you about, when there was even shit on the curtains. That was really her last hurrah. After that, the times when her mind was clear got fewer and fewer, and when they came, they were short. It saved my achin back, but it made me sad, too. She was a pain, but she was one I’d gotten used to, if you see what I mean.
Could I have another glass of water, Frank?
Thank you. Talkin’s thirsty work. And if you decide to let that bottle of Gentleman Jim Beam out of your desk for a little fresh air, Andy, I’ll never tell.
No? Well, that’s about what I expected from the likes of you.
Now—where was I?
Oh, I know. About how she was. Well, the third way she had of bein a bitch was the worst. She was a bitch because she was a sad old lady who had nothin to do but die in an upstairs bedroom on an island far from the places and the people she’d known most of her life. That was bad enough, but she was losin her mind while she did it . . . and there was part of her that knew the rest of her was like an undercut riverbank gettin ready to slide down into the stream.
She was lonely, you see, and that I didn’t understand—I never understood why she threw over her whole life to come out to the island in the first place. At least not until yesterday. But she was scared, too, and I could understand that just fine. Even so, she had a horrible, scary kind of strength, like a dyin queen that won’t let go of her crown even at the end; it’s like God Himself has got to pry it loose a finger at a time.
She had her good days and her bad ones—I told you that. What I call her fits always happened in between, when she was changin from a few days of bein bright to a week or two of bein fogged in, or from a week or two of bein fogged in to a time of bein bright again. When she was changin, it was like she was nowhere . . . and part of her knew that, too. That was the time when she’d have her hallucinations.
If they were all hallucinations. I’m not so sure about that as I used to be. Maybe I’ll tell you that part and maybe I won’t—I’ll just have to see how I feel when the time comes.
I guess they didn’t all come on Sunday afternoons or in the middle of the night; I guess it’s just that I remember those ones the best because the house was so quiet and it would scare me so when she started screaming. It was like havin somebody throw a bucket of ice-cold water over you on a hot summer’s day; there never was a time I didn’t think my heart would stop when her screams began, and there never was a time I didn’t think I’d come into her room and find her dyin. The things she was ascairt of never made sense, though. I mean, I knew she was scared, and I had a pretty good idear what she was scared of, but never why.
“The wires!” she’d be screamin sometimes when I went in. She’d be all scrunched up in bed, her hands clutched together between her boobs, her punky old mouth drawn up and tremblin; she’d be as pale as a ghost, and the tears’d be runnin down the wrinkles under her eyes. “The wires, Dolores, stop the wires!” And she’d always point at the same place . . . the baseboard in the far corner.
Wasn’t nothing there, accourse, except there was to her. She seen all these wires comin out of the wall and scratchin across the floor toward her bed—at least that’s what I think she seen. What I’d do was run downstairs and get one of the butcher-knives off the kitchen rack, and then come back up with it. I’d kneel down in the corner—or closer to the bed if she acted like they’d already progressed a fairish way—and pretend to chop them off. I’d do that, bringin the blade down light and easy on the floor so I wouldn’t scar that good maple, until she stopped cryin.
Then I’d go over to her and wipe the tears off her face with my apron or one of the Kleenex she always kept stuffed under her pillow, and I’d kiss her a time or two and say, “There, dear—they’re gone. I chopped off every one of those pesky wires. See for yourself.”
She’d look (although at these times I’m tellin you about she couldn’t really see nothing), and she’d cry some more, like as not, and then she’d hug me and say, “Thank you, Dolores. I thought this time they were going to get me for sure.”
Or sometimes she’d call me Brenda when she thanked me—she was the housekeeper the Donovans had in their Baltimore place. Other times she’d call me Clarice, who was her sister and died in 1958.
Some days I’d get up there to her room and she’d be half off the bed, screamin that there was a snake inside her pillow. Other times she’d be settin up with the blankets over her head, hollerin that the windows were magnifyin the sun and it was gonna burn her up. Sometimes she’d swear she could already feel her hair frizzin. Didn’t matter if it was rainin, or foggier’n a drunk’s head outside; she was bound and determined the sun was gonna fry her alive, so I’d pull down all the shades and then hold her until she stopped cryin. Sometimes I held her longer, because even after she’d gotten quiet I could feel her tremblin like a puppy that’s been mistreated by mean kids. She’d ask me over and over again to look at her skin and tell her if it had blistered anywhere. I’d tell her over and over again that it hadn’t, and after a little of that she’d sometimes go to sleep. Other times she wouldn’t—she’d just fall into a stupor, mutterin to people who weren’t there. Sometimes she’d talk French, and I don’t mean that parley-voo island French, either. She and her husband loved Paris and went there every chance they got, sometimes with the kids and sometimes by themselves. Sometimes she talked about it when she was feelin perky—the cafés, the nightclubs, the galleries, and the boats on the Seine—and I loved to listen. She had a way with words, Vera did, and when she really talked a thing up, you could almost see it.
But the worst thing—what she was scared of most of all—were nothing but dust bunnies. You know what I mean: those little balls of dust that collect under beds and behind doors and in corners. Look sort of like milkweed pods, they do. I knew it was them even when she couldn’t say it, and most times I could get her calmed down again, but why she was so scared of a bunch of ghost-turds—what she really thought they were—that I don’t know, although I once got an idear. Don’t laugh, but it come to me in a dream.
Luckily, the business of the dust bunnies didn’t come up so often as the sun burnin her skin or the wires in the corner, but when that was it, I knew I was in for a bad time. I knew it was dust bunnies even if it was the middle of the night and I was in my room, fast asleep with the door closed, when she started screamin. When she got a bee in her bonnet about the other things—
Oh, wasn’t I?
No, you don’t need to move your cute little recorder any closer; if you want me to talk up, I will. Most generally I’m the bawlinest bitch you ever run across—Joe used to say he wished for cotton to stick in his ears every time I was in the house. But the way she was about the dust bunnies gave me the creeps, and if my voice dropped I guess that just proves they still do. Even with her dead, they still do. Sometimes I used to scold her about it. “Why do you want to get up to such foolishness, Vera?” I’d say. But it wa’ant foolishness. Not to Vera, at least. I thought more’n once that I knew how she’d finally punch out—she’d scare herself to death over those friggin dust bunnies. And that ain’t so far from the truth, either, now that I think about it.
What I started to say was that when she got a bee in her bonnet about the other things—the snake in the pillowslip, the sun, the wires—she’d scream. When it was the dust bunnies, she’d shriek. Wasn’t even words in it most times. Just shriekin so long and loud it put ice-cubes in your heart.
I’d run in there and she’d be yankin at her hair or harrowin her face with her fingernails and lookin like a witch. Her eyes’d be so big they almost looked like softboiled eggs, and they were always starin into one corner or the other.
Sometimes she was able to say “Dust bunnies, Dolores! Oh my God, dust bunnies!” Other times she could only cry and gag. She’d clap her hands over her eyes for a second or two, but then she’d take em back down. It was like she couldn’t bear to look, but couldn’t bear not to look, either. And she’d start goin at her face with her fingernails again. I kep em clipped just as short as I could, but she still drew blood lots of times, and I wondered every time it happened how her heart could stand the plain terror of it, as old and fat’s she was.
One time she fell right out of bed and just lay there with one leg twisted under her. Scared the bejesus out of me, it did. I ran in and there she was on the floor, beatin her fists on the boards like a kid doin a tantrum and screamin fit to raise the roof. That was the only time in all the years I did for her that I called Dr. Freneau in the middle of the night. He came over from Jonesport in Collie Violette’s speedboat. I called him because I thought her leg was broken, had to be, the way it was bent under her, and she’d almost surely die of the shock. But it wasn’t—I don’t know how it wasn’t, but Freneau said it was just sprained—and the next day she slipped into one of her bright periods again and didn’t remember a thing of it. I asked her about the dust bunnies a couple of times when she had the world more or less in focus, and she looked at me like I was crazy. Didn’t have the slightest idear what I was talkin about.
After it happened a few times, I knew what to do. As soon as I heard her shriekin that way, I was up from bed and out my door—my bedroom’s only two doors down from hers, you know, with the linen closet in between. I kep a broom propped in the hall with the dustpan poked onto the end of the handle ever since she had her first hissy over the dust bunnies. I’d go peltin into her room, wavin the broom like I was tryin to flag down a goddam mail-train, screamin myself (it was the only way I could make myself heard).
“I’ll get em, Vera!” I’d shout. “I’ll get em! Just hold the friggin phone!”
And I’d sweep at whatever corner she was starin into, and then I’d do the other one for good measure. Sometimes she’d calm down after that, but more often she’d start hollerin that there were more under the bed. So I’d get down on my hands n knees and make like I was sweepin under there, too. Once the stupid, scared, pitiful old dub almost fell right outta bed on top of me, tryin to lean over and look for herself. She prob’ly woulda squashed me like a fly. What a comedy that woulda been!
Once I’d swept everyplace that had her scared, I’d show her my empty dustpan and say, “There, dear—see? I got every one of those prickish things.”
She’d look into the dustpan first, and then she’d look up at me, tremblin all over, her eyes so drowned in her own tears that they swam like rocks when you look down and see em in a stream, and she’d whisper, “Oh, Dolores, they’re so gray! So nasty! Take them away. Please take them away!”
I’d put the broom and the empty dustpan back outside my door, handy for action next time, and then I’d go back in to soothe her as best I could. To soothe myself, as well. And if you think I didn’t need a little soothin, you try wakin up all alone in a big old museum like that in the middle of the night, with the wind screamin outside and an old crazy woman screamin inside. My heart’d be goin like a locomotive and I couldn’t hardly get my breath . . . but I couldn’t let her see how I was, or she’d have started to doubt me, and wherever would we have gone from there?
What I’d do most times after those set-to’s was brush her hair—it was the thing that seemed to calm her down the quickest. She’d moan n cry at first, and sometimes she’d reach out her arms and hug me, pushin her face against my belly. I remember how hot her cheeks and forehead always were after she threw one of her dust bunny wingdings, and how sometimes she’d wet my nightie right through with her tears. Poor old woman! I don’t guess any of us here know what it is to be that old, and to have devils after you you can’t explain, even to yourself.
Sometimes not even half an hour with the hairbrush would do the trick. She’d keep lookin past me into the corner, and every so often she’d catch her breath n whimper. Or she’d flap her hand at the dark under the bed and then kinda snatch it back, like she expected somethin under there to try n bite it. Once or twice even I thought I saw somethin movin under there, and I had to clamp my mouth shut to keep from screamin myself. All I saw was just the movin shadow of her own hand, accourse, I know that, but it shows what a state she got me in, don’t it? Ayuh, even me, and I’m usually just as hardheaded as I am loudmouthed.
On those times when nothin else’d do, I’d get into bed with her. Her arms would creep around me and hold onto my sides and she’d lay the side of her head down on what’s left of my bosom, and I’d put my arms around her and just hold her until she drifted off. Then I’d creep out of bed, real slow and easy, so as not to wake her up, and go back to my own room. There was a few times I didn’t even do that. Those times—they always came when she woke me up in the middle of the night with her yowlin—I fell asleep with her.
It was on one of those nights that I dreamed about the dust bunnies. Only in the dream I wasn’t me. I was her, stuck in that hospital bed, so fat I couldn’t even hardly turn over without help, and my cooze burnin way down deep from the urinary infection that wouldn’t never really go away on account of how she was always damp down there, and had no real resistance to anything. The welcome mat was out for any bug or germ that came along, you might say, and it was always turned around the right way.
I looked over in the corner, and what I saw was this thing that looked like a head made out of dust. Its eyes were all rolled up and its mouth was open and full of long snaggly dust-teeth. It started comin toward the bed, but slow, and when it rolled around to the face side again the eyes were lookin right at me and I saw it was Michael Donovan, Vera’s husband. The second time the face come around, though, it was my husband. It was Joe St. George, with a mean grin on his face and a lot of long dust-teeth all snappin. The third time it rolled around it wasn’t nobody I knew, but it was alive, it was hungry, and it meant to roll all the way over to where I was so it could eat me.
I woke myself up with such a godawful jerk that I almost fell out of bed myself. It was early mornin, with the first sun layin across the floor in a stripe. Vera was still sleepin. She’d drooled all over my arm, but at first I didn’t even have the strength to wipe it off. I just laid there trembling, all covered with sweat, tryin to make myself believe I was really awake and things was really all right—the way you do, y’know, after a really bad nightmare. And for a second there I could still see that dusthead with its big empty eyes and long dusty teeth layin on the floor beside the bed. That’s how bad the dream was. Then it was gone; the floor and the corners of the room were as clean and empty as always. But I’ve always wondered since then if maybe she didn’t send me that dream, if I didn’t see a little of what she saw those times when she screamed. Maybe I picked up a little of her fear and made it my own. Do you think things like that ever happen in real life, or only in those cheap newspapers they sell down to the grocery? I dunno . . . but I know that dream scared the bejesus out of me.
Well, never mind. Suffice it to say that screamin her friggin head off on Sunday afternoons and in the middle of the night was the third way she had of bein a bitch. But it was a sad, sad thing, all the same. All her bitchiness was sad at the bottom, although that didn’t stop me from sometimes wantin to spin her head around like a spool on a spindle, and I think anybody but Saint Joan of Friggin Arc woulda felt the same. I guess when Susy and Shawna heard me yellin that day that I’d like to kill her . . . or when other people heard me . . . or heard us yellin mean things at each other . . . well, they must have thought I’d hike up my skirts and tapdance on her grave when she finally give over. And I imagine you’ve heard from some of em yesterday and today, haven’t you, Andy? No need to answer; all the answer I need’s right there on your face. It’s a regular billboard. Besides, I know how people love to talk. They talked about me n Vera, and there was a country-fair amount of globber about me n Joe, too—some before he died and even more after. Out here in the boondocks about the most int’restin thing a person can do is die sudden, did you ever notice that?
So here we are at Joe.
I been dreadin this part, and I guess there’s no use lyin about it. I already told you I killed him, so that’s over with, but the hard part is still all ahead: how . . . and why . . . and when it had to be.
I been thinkin about Joe a lot today, Andy—more about him than about Vera, truth to tell. I kep tryin to remember just why I married him in the first place, for one thing, and at first I couldn’t do it. After awhile I got into a kind of panic about it, like Vera when she’d get the idear there was a snake inside her pillowslip. Then I realized what the trouble was—I was lookin for the love part, like I was one of those foolish little girls Vera used to hire in June and then fire before the summer was halfway done because they couldn’t keep to her rules. I was lookin for the love part, and there was precious little of that even back in 1945, when I was eighteen and he was nineteen and the world was new.
You know the only thing that come to me while I was out there on the steps today, freezin my tookus off and tryin to remember about the love part? He had a nice forehead. I sat near him in study-hall back when we was in high school together—during World War II, that was—and I remember his forehead, how smooth it looked, without a single pimple on it. There were some on his cheeks and chin, and he was prone to blackheads on the sides of his nose, but his forehead looked as smooth as cream. I remember wantin to touch it . . . dreamin about touchin it, to tell the truth; wantin to see if it was as smooth as it looked. And when he asked me to the Junior-Senior Prom, I said yes, and I got my chance to touch his forehead, and it was every bit as smooth as it looked, with his hair goin back from it in these nice smooth waves. Me strokin his hair and his smooth forehead in the dark while the band inside the ballroom of The Samoset Inn played “Moonlight Cocktail” . . . After a few hours of sittin on those damned rickety steps and shiverin, that came back to me, at least, so you see there was a little something there, after all. Accourse I found m’self touchin a lot more than just his forehead before too many more weeks had passed, and that was where I made my mistake.
Now let’s get one thing straight—I ain’t tryin to say I ended up spendin the best years of my life with that old rumpot just because I liked the look of his forehead in period seven study-hall when the light came slantin in on it. Shit, no. But I am tryin to tell you that’s all the love part I was able to remember today, and that makes me feel bad. Sittin out on the stairs today by the East Head, thinkin over those old times . . . that was damned hard work. It was the first time I saw that I might have sold myself cheap, and maybe I did it because I thought cheap was the best the likes of me could expect to get for herself. I know it was the first time I dared to think that I deserved to be loved more’n Joe St. George could love anybody (except himself, maybe). You mightn’t think a hard-talking old bitch like me believes in love, but the truth is it’s just about the only thing I do believe in.
It didn’t have much to do with why I married him, though—I got to tell you that straight out. I had six weeks’ worth of baby girl in my belly when I told him I did n I would, until death do us part. And that was the smartest part of it . . . sad but true. The rest of it was all the usual stupid reasons, and one thing I’ve learned in my life is that stupid reasons make stupid marriages.
I was tired of fightin with my mother.
I was tired of bein scolded by my father.
All my friends was doin it, they was gettin homes of their own, and I wanted to be a grownup like them; I was tired of bein a silly little girl.
He said he wanted me, and I believed him.
He said he loved me, and I believed that, too . . . and after he’d said it n asked me if I felt the same for him, it only seemed polite to say I did.
I was scared of what would happen to me if I didn’t—where I’d have to go, what I’d have to do, who’d look after my baby while I was doin it.
All that’s gonna look pretty silly if you ever write it up, Nancy, but the silliest thing is I know a dozen women who were girls I went to school with who got married for those same reasons, and most of them are still married, and a good many of em are only holdin on, hopin to outlive the old man so they can bury him and then shake his beer-farts out of the sheets forever.
By 1952 or so I’d pretty well forgotten his forehead, and by 1956 I didn’t have much use for the rest of him either, and I guess I’d started hatin him by the time Kennedy took over from Ike, but I never had a thought of killing him until later. I thought I’d stay with him because my kids needed a father, if for no other reason. Ain’t that a laugh? But it’s the truth. I swear it is. And I swear somethin else as well: if God gave me a second chance, I’d kill him again, even if it meant hellfire and damnation forever . . . which it probably does.
I guess everybody on Little Tall who ain’t a johnny-come-lately knows I killed him, and most of em prob’ly think they know why—because of the way he had of usin his hands on me. But it wasn’t his hands on me that brought him to grief, and the simple truth is that, no matter what people on the island might have thought at the time, he never hit me a single lick during the last three years of our marriage. I cured him of that foolishness in late 1960 or early ’61.
Up until then, he hit me quite a lot, yes. I can’t deny it. And I stood for it—I can’t deny that, either. The first time was the second night of the marriage. We’d gone down to Boston for the weekend—that was our honeymoon—and stayed at the Parker House. Hardly went out the whole time. We was just a couple of country mice, you know, and afraid we’d get lost. Joe said he was damned if he was gonna spend the twenty-five dollars my folks’d given us for mad-money on a taxi ride just because he couldn’t find his way back to the hotel. Gorry, wa’ant that man dumb! Of course I was, too . . . but one thing Joe had that I didn’t (and I’m glad of it, too) was that everlastin suspicious nature of his. He had the idear the whole human race was out to do him dirty, Joe did, and I’ve thought plenty of times that when he did get drunk, maybe it was because it was the only way he could go to sleep without leavin one eye open.
Well, that ain’t neither here nor there. What I set out to tell you was that we went down to the dinin room that Sat’dy night, had a good dinner, and then went back up to our room again. Joe was listin considerably to starboard on the walk down the hall, I remember—he’d had four or five beers with his dinner to go with the nine or ten he’d took on over the course of the afternoon. Once we were inside the room, he stood there lookin at me so long I asked him if he saw anythin green.
“No,” he says, “but I seen a man down there in that restaurant lookin up your dress, Dolores. His eyes were just about hangin out on springs. And you knew he was lookin, didn’t you?”
I almost told him Gary Cooper coulda been sittin in the corner with Rita Hayworth and I wouldn’t have known it, and then thought, Why bother? It didn’t do any good to argue with Joe when he’d been drinkin; I didn’t go into that marriage with my eyes entirely shut, and I’m not gonna try to kid you that I did.
“If there was a man lookin up my dress, why didn’t you go over and tell him to shut his eyes, Joe?” I asked. It was only a joke—maybe I was tryin to turn him aside, I really don’t remember—but he didn’t take it as a joke. That I do remember. Joe wasn’t a man to take a joke; in fact, I’d have to say he had almost no sense of humor at all. That was something I didn’t know goin into it with him; I thought back then that a sense of humor was like a nose, or a pair of ears—that some worked better than others, but everybody had one.
He grabbed me, and turned me over his knee, and paddled me with his shoe. “For the rest of your life, nobody’s gonna have any idear what color underwear you’ve got on but me, Dolores,” he said. “Do you hear that? Nobody but me.”
I actually thought it was a kind of love-play, him pretendin to be jealous to flatter me—that’s what a little ninny I was. It was jealousy, all right, but love had nothing to do with it. It was more like the way a dog will put a paw over his bone and growl if you come too near it. I didn’t know that then, so I put up with it. Later on I put up with it because I thought a man hittin his wife from time to time was only another part of bein married—not a nice part, but then, cleanin toilets ain’t a nice part of bein married, either, but most women have done their fair share of it after the bridal dress and veil have been packed away in the attic. Ain’t they, Nancy?
My own Dad used his hands on my Mum from time to time, and I suppose that was where I got the idear that it was all right—just somethin to be put up with. I loved my Dad dearly, and him and her loved each other dearly, but he could be a handsy kind of man when he had a hair layin just right across his ass.
I remember one time, I must have been, oh I’m gonna say nine years old, when Dad came in from hayin George Richards’s field over on the West End, and Mum didn’t have his dinner on. I can’t remember anymore why she didn’t, but I remember real well what happened when he came in. He was wearin only his biballs (he’d taken his workboots and socks off out on the stoop because they were full of chaff), and his face and shoulders was burned bright red. His hair was sweated against his temples, and there was a piece of hay stuck to his forehead right in the middle of the lines that waved across his brow. He looked hot and tired and ready to be pissed off.
He went into the kitchen and there wasn’t nothing on the table but a glass pitcher with flowers in it. He turns to Mum and says, “Where’s my supper, dummy?” She opened her mouth, but before she could say anythin, he put his hand over her face and pushed her down in the corner. I was standin in the kitchen entry and seen it all. He come walkin toward me with his head lowered and his hair kinda hangin in his eyes—whenever I see a man walkin home that way, tired out from his day of work and his dinner-bucket in his hand, it makes me think of my Dad—and I was some scared. I wanted to get out of his way because I felt he would push me down, too, but my legs was too heavy to move. He never, though. He just took hold of me with his big warm hard hands and set me aside and went out back. He sat down on the choppin block with his hands in his lap and his head hung down like he was lookin at them. He scared the chickens away at first, but they come back after awhile and started peckin all around his shoes. I thought he’d kick out at em, make the feathers fly, but he never done that, either.
After awhile I looked around at my Mum. She was still sittin in the corner. She’d put a dishtowel over her face and was cryin underneath it. Her arms were crossed over her bosom. That’s what I remember best of all, though I don’t know why—how her arms were crossed over her bosom like that. I went over and hugged her and she felt my arms around her middle and hugged me back. Then she took the dishtowel off her face and used it to wipe her eyes and told me to go out back and ask Daddy if he wanted a glass of cold lemonade or a bottle of beer.
“Be sure to tell him there’s only two bottles of beer,” she said. “If he wants more’n that, he better go to the store or not get started at all.”
I went out and told him and he said he didn’t want no beer but a glass of lemonade would hit the spot. I ran to fetch it. Mum was gettin his supper. Her face was still kinda swole from cryin, but she was hummin a tune, and that night they bounced the bedsprings just like they did most nights. Nothing else was ever said or made of it. That sort of thing was called home correction in those days, it was part of a man’s job, and if I thought of it afterward at all, I only thought that my Mum must have needed some or Dad never would have done what he did.
There was a few other times I saw him correct her, but that’s the one I remember best. I never saw him hit her with his fist, like Joe sometimes hit me, but once he stropped her across the legs with a piece of wet canvas sailcloth, and that must have hurt like a bastard. I know it left red marks that didn’t go away all afternoon.
No one calls it home correction anymore—the term has passed right out of conversation, so far as I can tell, and good riddance—but I grew up with the idear that when women and children step off the straight n narrow, it’s a man’s job to herd them back onto it. I ain’t tryin to tell you that just because I grew up with the idear, I thought it was right, though—I won’t let myself slip off that easy. I knew that a man usin his hands on a woman didn’t have much to do with correction . . . but I let Joe go on doin it to me for a long time, just the same. I guess I was just too tired from keeping house, cleanin for the summer people, raisin m’family, and tryin to clean up Joe’s messes with the neighbors to think much about it.
Bein married to Joe . . . aw, shit! What’s any marriage like? I guess they are all different ways, but there ain’t one of em that’s what it looks like from the outside, I c’n tell you that. What people see of a married life and what actually goes on inside it are usually not much more than kissin cousins. Sometimes that’s awful, and sometimes it’s funny, but usually it’s like all the other parts of life—both things at the same time.
What people think is that Joe was an alcoholic who used to beat me—and probably the kids, too—when he was drunk. They think he finally did it once too often and I punched his ticket for it. It’s true that Joe drank, and that he sometimes went to the A.A. meetins over in Jonesport, but he was no more an alcoholic than I am. He’d throw a drunk every four or five months, mostly with trash like Rick Thibodeau or Stevie Brooks—those men really were alcoholics—but then he’d leave it alone except for a nip or two when he come in at night. No more than that, because when he had a bottle he liked to make it last. The real alkies I’ve known in my time, none of em was int’rested in makin a bottle of anythin last—not Jim Beam, not Old Duke, not even derail, which is antifreeze strained through cotton battin. A real drunk is only int’rested in two things: puttin paid to the jug in the hand, and huntin for the one still in the bush.
No, he wasn’t an alcoholic, but he didn’t mind if people thought he’d been one. It helped him get work, especially in the summer. I guess the way people think about Alcoholics Anonymous has changed over the years—I know they talk about it a lot more than they used to—but one thing that hasn’t changed is the way people will try to help somebody who claims he’s already gone to work helpin himself. Joe spent one whole year not drinkin—or at least not talkin about it when he did—and they had a party for him over in Jonesport. Gave him a cake and a medallion, they did. So when he went for a job one of the summer people needed done, the first thing he’d tell em was that he was a recoverin alcoholic. “If you don’t want to hire me because of that, I won’t have any hard feelins,” he’d say, “but I have to get it off my chest. I been goin to A.A. meetins for over a year now, and they tell us we can’t stay sober if we can’t be honest.”
And then he’d pull out his gold one-year medallion and show it to em, all the while lookin like he hadn’t had nothin to eat but humble pie for a month of Sundays. I guess one or two of em just about cried when Joe told em about how he was workin it a day at a time and takin it easy and lettin go and lettin God whenever the urge for a drink hit him . . . which it did about every fifteen minutes, accordin to him. They’d usually fall all over themselves takin him on, and at fifty cents or even a dollar an hour more than they’d intended to pay, like as not. You’d have thought the gimmick would have fallen flat after Labor Day, but it worked amazin well even here on the island, where people saw him every day and should have known better.
The truth is most of the times Joe hit me, he was cold sober. When he had a skinful, he didn’t much mind me at all, one way or the other. Then, in ’60 or ’61, he come in one night after helpin Charlie Dispenzieri get his boat out of the water, and when he bent over to get a Coke out of the fridge, I seen his britches were split right up the back. I laughed. I couldn’t help myself. He didn’t say nothin, but when I went over to the stove to check on the cabbage—I was makin a boiled dinner that night, I remember like it was yesterday—he got a chunk of rock maple out of the woodbox and whacked me in the small of the back with it. Oh, that hurt. You know what I mean if anyone’s ever hit you in the kidneys. It makes them feel small and hot and so heavy, like they’re gonna bust loose from whatever holds them where they’re supposed to be and they’ll just sink, like lead shot in a bucket.
I hobbled as far as the table and sat in one of the chairs. I woulda fallen on the floor if that chair’d been any further away. I just sat there, waitin to see if the pain was gonna pass. I didn’t cry, exactly, because I didn’t want to scare the kids, but the tears went rollin down my face just the same. I couldn’t stop them. They were tears of pain, the kind you can’t hold back for anybody or anythin.
“Don’t you ever laugh at me, you bitch,” Joe says. He slang the stovelength he hit me with back into the woodbox, then sat down to read the American. “You ought to have known better’n that ten year ago.”
It was twenty minutes before I could get outta that chair. I had to call Selena to turn down the heat under the veg and the meat, even though the stove wasn’t but four steps away from where I was sittin.
“Why didn’t you do it, Mommy?” she asked me. “I was watchin cartoons with Joey.”
“I’m restin,” I told her.
“That’s right,” Joe says from behind his paper, “she ran her mouth until she got all tuckered out.” And he laughed. That did it; that one laugh was all it took. I decided right then he wasn’t never going to hit me again, unless he wanted to pay a dear price for it.
We had supper just like usual, and watched the TV just like usual afterward, me and the big kids on the sofa and Little Pete on his father’s lap in the big easy-chair. Pete dozed off there, same as he almost always did, around seven-thirty, and Joe carried him to bed. I sent Joe Junior an hour later, and Selena went at nine. I usually turned in around ten and Joe’d sit up until maybe midnight, dozin in and out, watchin a little TV, readin parts of the paper he’d missed the first time, and pickin his nose. So you see, Frank, you’re not so bad; some people never lose the habit, even when they grow up.
That night I didn’t go to bed when I usually did. I sat up with Joe instead. My back felt a little better. Good enough to do what I had to do, anyway. Maybe I was nervous about it, but if I was, I don’t recall. I was mostly waitin for him to doze off, and finally he did.
I got up, went into the kitchen, and got the little cream-pitcher off the table. I didn’t go out lookin for that special; it was only there because it was Joe Junior’s night to clean off the table and he’d forgotten to put it in the refrigerator. Joe Junior always forgot something—to put away the cream-pitcher, to put the glass top on the butter dish, to fold the bread-wrapper under so the first slice wouldn’t get all hard overnight—and now when I see him on the TV news, makin a speech or givin an interview, that’s what I’m most apt to think about . . . and I wonder what the Democrats would think if they knew the Majority Leader of the Maine State Senate couldn’t never manage to get the kitchen table completely cleared off when he was eleven. I’m proud of him, though, and don’t you ever, ever think any different. I’m proud of him even if he is a goddam Democrat.
Anyway, he sure managed to forget the right thing that night; it was little but it was heavy, and it felt just right in my hand. I went over to the woodbox and got the short-handled hatchet we kep on the shelf just above it. Then I walked back into the livin room where he was dozin. I had the pitcher cupped in my right hand, and I just brought it down and around and smacked it against the side of his face. It broke into about a thousand pieces.
He sat up pretty pert when I done that, Andy. And you shoulda heard him. Loud? Father God and Sonny Jesus! Sounded like a bull with his pizzle caught in the garden gate. His eyes come wide open and he clapped his hand to his ear, which was already bleedin. There was little dots of clotted cream on his cheek and in that scraggle down the side of his face he called a sideburn.
“Guess what, Joe?” I says. “I ain’t feelin tired anymore.”
I heard Selena jump outta bed, but I didn’t dare look around. I could have been in hot water if I’d done that—when he wanted to, he could be sneaky-fast. I’d been holdin the hatchet in my left hand, down to my side with my apron almost coverin it. And when Joe started to get up outta his chair, I brought it out and showed it to him. “If you don’t want this in your head, Joe, you better sit down again,” I said.
For a second I thought he was gonna get up anyway. If he had, that would have been the end of him right then, because I wasn’t kiddin. He seen it, too, and froze with his butt about five inches off the seat.
“Mommy?” Selena called from the doorway of her room.
“You go on back to bed, honey,” I says, not takin my eyes off Joe for a single second. “Your father n I’re havin a little discussion here.”
“Is everything all right?”
“Ayuh,” I says. “Isn’t it, Joe?”
“Uh-huh,” he says. “Right as rain.”
I heard her take a few steps back, but I didn’t hear the door of her room close for a little while—ten, maybe fifteen seconds—and I knew she was standin there and lookin at us. Joe stayed just like he was, with one hand on the arm of his chair and his butt hiked up offa the seat. Then we heard her door close, and that seemed to make Joe realize how foolish he must look, half in his seat and half out of it, with his other hand clapped over his ear and little clots of cream dribblin down the side of his face.
He sat all the way down and took his hand away. Both it and his ear were full of blood, but his hand wasn’t swellin up and his ear was. “Oh bitch, ain’t you gonna get a payback,” he says.
“Am I?” I told him. “Well then, you better remember this, Joe St. George: what you pay out to me, you are gonna get back double.”
He was grinnin at me like he couldn’t believe what he was hearin. “Why, I guess I’ll just have to kill you, then, won’t I?”
I handed over the hatchet to him almost before the words were out of his mouth. It hadn’t been in my mind to do it, but as soon as I seen him holdin it, I knew it was the only thing I coulda done.
“Go on,” I says. “Just make the first one count so’s I don’t have to suffer.”
He looked from me to the hatchet and then back to me again. The look of surprise on his face would have been comical if the business hadn’t been so serious.
“Then, once it’s done, you better heat up that boiled dinner and help yourself to some more of it,” I told him. “Eat til you bust, because you’ll be goin to jail and I ain’t heard they serve anything good and home-cooked in jail. You’ll be over in Belfast to start with, I guess. I bet they got one of those orange suits just your size.”
“Shut up, you cunt,” he says.
I wouldn’t, though. “After that you’ll most likely be in Shawshank, and I know they don’t bring your meals hot to the table there. They don’t let you out Friday nights to play poker with your beerjoint buddies, either. All I ask is that you do it quick and don’t let the kids see the mess once it’s over.”
Then I closed my eyes. I was pretty sure he wouldn’t do it, but bein pretty sure don’t squeeze much water when it’s your life on the line. That’s one thing I found out that night. I stood there with my eyes shut, seein nothin but dark and wonderin what it’d feel like, havin that hatchet come carvin through my nose n lips n teeth. I remember thinkin I’d most likely taste the wood-splinters on the blade before I died, and I remember bein glad I’d had it on the grindstone only two or three days before. If he was gonna kill me, I didn’t want it to be with a dull hatchet.
Seemed like I stood there like that for about ten years. Then he said, kinda gruff and pissed off, “Are you gonna get ready for bed or just stand there like Helen Keller havin a wet-dream?”
I opened my eyes and saw he’d put the hatchet under his chair—I could just see the end of the handle stickin out from under the flounce. His newspaper was layin on top of his feet in a kind of tent. He bent over, picked it up, and shook it out—tryin to behave like it hadn’t happened, none of it—but there was blood pourin down his cheek from his ear and his hands were tremblin just enough to make the pages of the paper rattle a tiny bit. He’d left his fingerprints in red on the front n back pages, too, and I made up my mind to burn the damned thing before he went to bed so the kids wouldn’t see it and wonder what happened.
“I’ll be gettin into my nightgown soon enough, but we’re gonna have an understandin on this first, Joe.”
He looks up and says, all tight-lipped, “You don’t want to get too fresh, Dolores. That’d be a bad, bad mistake. You don’t want to tease me.”
“I ain’t teasin,” I says. “Your days of hittin me are over, that’s all I want to say. If you ever do it again, one of us is goin to the hospital. Or to the morgue.”
He looked at me for a long, long time, Andy, and I looked back at him. The hatchet was out of his hand and under the chair, but that didn’t matter; I knew that if I dropped my eyes before he did, the punches in the neck and the hits in the back wouldn’t never end. But at long last he looked down at his newspaper again and kinda muttered, “Make yourself useful, woman. Bring me a towel for my head, if you can’t do nothin else. I’m bleedin all over my goddam shirt.”
That was the last time he ever hit me. He was a coward at heart, you see, although I never said the word out loud to him—not then and not ever. Doin that’s about the most dangerous thing a person can do, I think, because a coward is more afraid of bein discovered than he is of anything else, even dyin.
Of course I knew he had a yellow streak in him; I never would have dared hit him upside the head with that cream-pitcher in the first place I hadn’t felt I had a pretty good chance of comin out on top. Besides, I realized somethin as I sat in that chair after he hit me, waitin for my kidneys to stop achin: if I didn’t stand up to him then, I probably wouldn’t ever stand up to him. So I did.
You know, taking the cream-pitcher to Joe was really the easy part. Before I could do it, I had to once n for all rise above the memory of my Dad pushin my Mum down, and of him stroppin the backs of her legs with that length of wet sailcloth. Gettin over those memories was hard, because I dearly loved them both, but in the end I was able to do it . . . prob’ly because I had to do it. And I’m thankful I did, if only because Selena ain’t never going to have to remember her mother sittin in the corner and bawlin with a dishtowel over her face. My Mum took it when her husband dished it up, but I ain’t goin to sit in judgment of either of em. Maybe she had to take it, and maybe he had to dish it up, or be belittled by the men he had to live n work with every day. Times were different back then—most people don’t realize how different—but that didn’t mean I had to take it from Joe just because I’d been enough of a goose to marry him in the first place. There ain’t no home correction in a man beating a woman with his fists or a stovelength outta the woodbox, and in the end I decided I wasn’t going to take it from the likes of Joe St. George, or from the likes of any man.
There were times when he raised his hand to me, but then he’d think better of it. Sometimes when the hand was up, wantin to hit but not quite darin to hit, I’d see in his eyes that he was rememberin the cream-pitcher . . . maybe the hatchet, too. And then he’d make like he only raised that hand because his head needed scratchin, or his forehead wipin. That was one lesson he got the first time. Maybe the only one.
There was somethin else come out of the night he hit me with the stovelength and I hit him with the cream-pitcher. I don’t like to bring it up—I’m one of those old-fashioned folks that believes what goes on behind the bedroom door should stay there—but I guess I better, because it’s prob’ly part of why things turned out as they did.
Although we were married and livin under the same roof together for the next two years—and it might have been closer to three, I really can’t remember—he only tried to take his privilege with me a few times after that. He—
Accourse I mean he was impotent! What else would I be talkin about, his right to wear my underwear if the urge took him? I never denied him; he just quit bein able to do it. He wasn’t what you’d call an every-night sort of man, not even back at the start, and he wasn’t one to draw it out, either—it was always pretty much wham, bam, and thank you, ma’am. Still n all, he’d stayed int’rested enough to climb on top once or twice a week . . . until I hit him with the creamer, that is.
Part of it was probably the booze—he was drinkin a lot more durin those last years—but I don’t think that was all of it. I remember him rollin offa me one night after about twenty minutes of useless puffin and blowin, and his little thing still just hangin there, limp as a noodle. I dunno how long after the night I just told you about this would have been, but I know it was after because I remember layin there with my kidneys throbbin and thinkin I’d get up pretty soon and take some aspirin to quiet them down.
“There,” he says, almost cryin, “I hope you’re satisfied, Dolores. Are you?”
I didn’t say nothing. Sometimes anything a woman says to a man is bound to be the wrong thing.
“Are you?” he says. “Are you satisfied, Do-lores?”
I didn’t say nothing still, just laid there and looked up at the ceilin and listened to the wind outside. It was from the east that night, and I could hear the ocean in it. That’s a sound I’ve always loved. It soothes me.
He turned over and I could smell his beer-breath on my face, rank and sour. “Turnin out the light used to help,” he says, “but it don’t no more. I can see your ugly face even in the dark.” He reached out, grabbed my boob, and kinda shook it. “And this,” he says. “All floppy and flat as a pancake. Your cunt’s even worse. Christ, you ain’t thirty-five yet and fuckin you’s like fuckin a mudpuddle.”
I thought of sayin “If it was a mudpuddle you could stick it in soft, Joe, and wouldn’t that relieve your mind,” but I kep my mouth shut. Patricia Claiborne didn’t raise any fools, like I told you.
There was some more quiet. I’d ’bout decided he’d said enough mean things to finally send him off to sleep and I was thinkin about slippin out to get my aspirin when he spoke up again . . . and that time, I’m pretty sure he was cryin.
“I wish I’d never seen your face,” he says, and then he says, “Why didn’t you just use that friggin hatchet to whack it off, Dolores? It would have come to the same.”
So you see, I wasn’t the only one that thought gettin hit with the cream-pitcher—and bein told things was gonna change around the house—might have had somethin to do with his problem. I still didn’t say nothing, though, just waited to see if he was gonna go to sleep or try to use his hands on me again. He was layin there naked, and I knew the very first place I was gonna go for if he did try. Pretty soon I heard him snorin. I don’t know if that was the very last time he tried to be a man with me, but if it wasn’t, it was close.
None of his friends got so much as a whiff of these goins-ons, accourse—he sure as hell wasn’t gonna tell em his wife’d whopped the bejesus out of him with a creamer and his weasel wouldn’t stick its head up anymore, was he? Not him! So when the others’d talk big about how they was handlin their wives, he’d talk big right along with em, sayin how he laid one on me for gettin fresh with my mouth, or maybe for buyin a dress over in Jonesport without askin him first if it was all right to take money out of the cookie jar.
How do I know? Why, because there are times when I can keep my ears open instead of my mouth. I know that’s hard to believe, listenin to me tonight, but it’s true.
I remember one time when I was workin part-time for the Marshalls—remember John Marshall, Andy, how he was always talkin about buildin a bridge over to the mainland?—and the doorbell rang. I was all alone in the house, and I was hurryin to answer the door and I slipped on a throw-rug and fell hard against the corner of the mantel. It left a great big bruise on my arm, just above the elbow.
About three days later, just when that bruise was goin from dark brown to a kind of yellow-green like they do, I ran into Yvette Anderson in the village. She was comin out of the grocery and I was goin in. She looked at the bruise on my arm, and when she spoke to me, her voice was just drippin with sympathy. Only a woman who’s just seen something that makes her happier’n a pig in shit can drip that way. “Ain’t men awful, Dolores?” she says.
“Well, sometimes they are and sometimes they aren’t,” I says back. I didn’t have the slightest idear what she was talkin about—what I was mostly concerned with was gettin some of the pork chops that were on special that day before they were all gone.
She pats me kinda gentle on the arm—the one that wasn’t bruised—and says, “You be strong, now. All things work for the best. I’ve been through it and I know. I’ll pray for you, Dolores.” She said that last like she’d just told me she was gonna give me a million dollars and then went on her way upstreet. I went into the market, still mystified. I would have thought she’d lost her mind, except anyone who’s ever passed the time of day with Yvette knows she ain’t got a whole hell of a lot to lose.
I had my shoppin half done when it hit me. I stood there watchin Skippy Porter weigh my chops, my marketbasket over my arm and my head thrown back, laughin from way down deep inside my belly, the way you do when you know you can’t do nothing but let her rip. Skippy looked around at me and says, “You all right, Missus Claiborne?”
“I’m fine,” I says. “I just thought of somethin funny.” And off I went again.
“I guess you did,” Skippy says, and then he went back to his scales. God bless the Porters, Andy; as long as they stay, there’ll be at least one family on the island knows how to mind its business. Meantime, I just went on laughin. A few other people looked at me like I’d gone nuts, but I didn’t care. Sometimes life is so goddam funny you just have to laugh.
Yvette’s married to Tommy Anderson, accourse, and Tommy was one of Joe’s beer-and-poker buddies in the late fifties and early sixties. There’d been a bunch of them out at our place a day or two after I bruised my arm, tryin to get Joe’s latest bargain, an old Ford pick-em-up, runnin. It was my day off, and I brought em all out a pitcher of iced tea, mostly in hopes of keepin em off the suds at least until the sun went down.
Tommy must have seen the bruise when I was pourin the tea. Maybe he asked Joe what happened after I left, or maybe he just remarked on it. Either way, Joe St. George wasn’t a fella to let opportunity pass him by—not one like that, at least. Thinkin it over on my way home from the market, the only thing I was curious about was what Joe told Tommy and the others I’d done—forgot to put his bedroom slippers under the stove so they’d be warm when he stepped into em, maybe, or cooked the beans too mushy on Sat’dy night. Whatever it was, Tommy went home and told Yvette that Joe St. George had needed to give his wife a little home correction. And all I’d ever done was bang off the corner of the Marshalls’ mantelpiece runnin to see who was at the door!
That’s what I mean when I say there’s two sides to a marriage—the outside and the inside. People on the island saw me and Joe like they saw most other couples our age: not too happy, not too sad, mostly just goin along like two hosses pullin a wagon . . . they may not notice each other like they once did, and they may not get along with each other as well as they once did when they do notice each other, but they’re harnessed side by side n goin down the road as well’s they can just the same, not bitin each other, or lollygaggin, or doin any of the other things that draw the whip.
But people aren’t hosses, n marriage ain’t much like pullin a wagon, even though I know it sometimes looks that way on the outside. The folks on the island didn’t know about the cream-pitcher, or how Joe cried in the dark and said he wished he’d never seen my ugly face. Nor was that the worst of it. The worst didn’t start until a year or so after we finished our doins in bed. It’s funny, ain’t it, how folks can look right at a thing and draw a completely wrong conclusion about why it happened. But it’s natural enough, as long as you remember that the inside and outside of a marriage aren’t usually much alike. What I’m gonna tell you now was on the inside of ours, and until today I always thought it would stay there.
Lookin back, I think the trouble must have really started in ’62. Selena’d just started high school over on the mainland. She had come on real pretty, and I remember that summer after her freshman year she got along with her Dad better than she had for the last couple of years. I’d been dreadin her teenage years, foreseein a lot of squabbles between the two of em as she grew up and started questionin his idears and what he saw as his rights over her more and more.
Instead, there was that little time of peace and quiet and good feelins between them, when she’d go out and watch him work on his old clunkers behind the house, or sit beside him on the couch while we were watchin TV at night (Little Pete didn’t think much of that arrangement, I can tell you) and ask him questions about his day durin the commercials. He’d answer her in a calm, thoughtful way I wasn’t used to . . . but I sort of remembered. From high school I remembered it, back when I was first gettin to know him and he was decidin that yes, he wanted to court me.
At the same time this was happenin, she drew a distance away from me. Oh, she’d still do the chores I set her, and sometimes she’d talk about her day at school . . . but only if I went to work and pulled it out of her. There was a coldness that hadn’t been there before, and it was only later on that I began to see how everything fit together, and how it all went back to the night she’d come out of her bedroom and seen us there, her Dad with his hand clapped to his ear and blood runnin through the fingers, her Mom standin over him with a hatchet.
He was never a man to let certain kinds of opportunity pass him by, I told you, and this was just more of the same. He’d told Tommy Anderson one kind of story; the one he told his daughter was in a different pew but the same church. I don’t think there was anything in his mind at first but spite; he knew how much I loved Selena, and he must have thought tellin her how mean and bad-tempered I was—maybe even how dangerous I was—would be a fine piece of revenge. He tried to turn her against me, and while he never really succeeded at that, he did manage to get closer to her than he’d been since she was a little girl. Why not? She was always tender-hearted, Selena was, and I never ran up against a man as good at the poor-me’s as Joe was.
He got inside her life, and once he was in there, he must have finally noticed just how pretty she was getting, and decided he wanted somethin more from her than just to have her listen when he talked or hand him the next tool when he was head-down in the engine compartment of some old junk truck. And all the time this was goin on and the changes were happenin, I was runnin around, workin about four different jobs, and tryin to stay far enough ahead of the bills to sock away a little each week for the kids’ college educations. I never saw a thing until it was almost too late.
She was a lively, chatty girl, my Selena, and she was always eager to please. When you wanted her to fetch somethin, she didn’t walk; she went on the run. As she got older, she’d put supper on the table when I was workin out, and I never had to ask her. She burned some at first and Joe’d carp at her or make fun of her—he sent her cryin into her room more’n once—but he quit doin that around the time I’m tellin you about. Back then, in the spring and summer of 1962, he acted like every pie she made was pure ambrosia even if the crust was like cement, and he’d rave over her meatloaf like it was French cuisine. She was happy with his praise—accourse she was, anyone would have been—but she didn’t get all puffed up with it. She wasn’t that kind of girl. Tell you one thing, though: when Selena finally left home, she was a better cook on her worst day than I ever was on my best.
When it came to helpin out around the house, a mother never had a better daughter . . . especially a mother who had to spend most of her time cleanin up other people’s messes. Selena never forgot to make sure Joe Junior and Little Pete had their school lunches when they went out the door in the mornin, and she covered their books for em at the start of every year. Joe Junior at least could have done that chore for himself, but she never gave him the chance.
She was an honor roll student her freshman year, but she never lost interest in what was goin on around her at home, the way some smart kids do at that age. Most kids of thirteen or fourteen decide anyone over thirty’s an old fogey, and they’re apt to be out the door about two minutes after the fogies come through it. Not Selena, though. She’d get em coffee or help with the dishes or whatever, then sit down in the chair by the Franklin stove and listen to the grownups talk. Whether it was me with one or two of my friends or Joe with three or four of his, she’d listen. She would have stayed even when he and his friends played poker, if I’d let her. I wouldn’t, though, because they talked so foul. That child nibbled conversation the way a mouse’ll nibble a cheese-rind, and what she couldn’t eat, she stored away.
Then she changed. I don’t know just when that change started, but I first saw it not too long after she’d started her sophomore year. Toward the end of September, I’m gonna say.
The first thing I noticed was that she wasn’t comin home on the early ferry like she had at the end of most school-days the year before, although that had worked out real well for her—she was able to get her homework finished in her room before the boys showed up, then do a little cleanin or start supper. Instead of the two o’clock, she was takin the one that leaves the mainland at four-forty-five.
When I asked her about it, she said she’d just decided she liked doin her homework in the study-hall after school, that was all, and gave me a funny little sidelong look that said she didn’t want to talk about it anymore. I thought I saw shame in that look, and maybe a lie, as well. Those things worried me, but I made up my mind I wasn’t going to push on with it no further unless I found out for sure something was wrong. Talking to her was hard, you see. I’d felt the distance that had come between us, and I had a pretty good idear what it all traced back to: Joe half outta his chair, bleedin, and me standin over him with the hatchet. And for the first time I realized that he’d prob’ly been talkin to her about that, and other things. Puttin his own spin on em, so to speak.
I thought if I chaffed Selena too hard on why she was stayin late at school, my trouble with her might get worse. Every way I thought of askin her more questions came out soundin like What have you been up to, Selena, and if it sounded that way to me, a thirty-five-year-old woman, how was it gonna sound to a girl not quite fifteen? It’s so hard to talk to kids when they’re that age; you have to walk around em on tiptoe, the way you would a jar of nitroglycerine sittin on the floor.
Well, they have a thing called Parents Night not long after school lets in, and I took special pains to get to it. I didn’t do as much pussyfootin around with Selena’s home-room teacher as I had with Selena herself; I just stepped right up n asked her if she knew any particular reason why Selena was stayin for the late ferry this year. The home-room teacher said she didn’t know, but she guessed it was just so Selena could get her homework done. Well, I thought but didn’t say, she was gettin her homework done just fine at the little desk in her room last year, so what’s changed? I might have said it if I thought that teacher had any answers for me, but it was pretty clear she didn’t. Hell, she was probably scat-gone herself the minute the last bell of the day rung.
None of the other teachers were any help, either. I listened to them praise Selena to the skies, which wa’ant hard work for me to do at all, and then I went back home again, feelin no further ahead than I’d been on my way over from the island.
I got a window-seat inside the cabin of the ferry, and watched a boy n girl not much older’n Selena standin outside by the rail, holdin hands and watchin the moon rise over the ocean. He turned to her and said somethin that made her laugh up at him. You’re a fool if you miss a chance like that, sonny-boy, I thought, but he didn’t miss it—just leaned toward her, took her other hand, and kissed her as nice as you please. Gorry, ain’t you foolish, I said to myself as I watched em. Either that or too old to remember what it’s like to be fifteen, with every nerve in your body blastin off like a Roman candle all of the day and most of the night. Selena’s met a boy, that’s all. She’s met a boy and they are probably doin their studies together in that room after school. Studyin each other more’n their books, most likely. I was some relieved, I can tell you.
I thought about it over the next few days—one thing about warshin sheets and ironin shirts and vacuumin rugs, you always have lots of time to think—and the more I thought, the less relieved I was. She hadn’t been talkin about any boy, for one thing, and it wasn’t ever Selena’s way to be quiet about what was goin on in her life. She wasn’t as open and friendly with me as she’d been before, no, but it wasn’t like there was a wall of silence between us, either. Besides, I’d always thought that if Selena fell in love, she’d probably take out an ad in the paper.
The big thing—the scary thing—was the way her eyes looked to me. I’ve always noticed that when a girl’s crazy about some boy, her eyes are apt to get so bright it’s like someone turned on a flashlight behind there. When I looked for that light in Selena’s eyes, it wasn’t there . . . but that wasn’t the bad part. The light that’d been there before had gone out of em, too—that was the bad part. Lookin into her eyes was like lookin at the windows of a house where the people have left without rememberin to pull down the shades.
Seein that was what finally opened my eyes, and I began to notice all sorts of things I should have seen earlier—would have seen earlier, I think, if I hadn’t been workin so hard, and if I hadn’t been so convinced Selena was mad at me for hurtin her Dad that time.
The first thing I saw was that it wasn’t just me anymore—she’d drawn away from Joe, too. She’d stopped goin out to talk to him when he was workin on one of his old junks or somebody’s outboard motor, and she’d quit sittin beside him on the couch at night to watch TV. If she stayed in the living room, she’d sit in the rocker way over by the stove with a piece of knittin in her lap. Most nights she didn’t stay, though. She’d go in her room and shut the door. Joe didn’t seem to mind, or even to notice. He just went back to his easy-chair, holdin Little Pete on his lap until it was time for Pete to go to bed.
Her hair was another thing—she didn’t warsh it every day like she used to. Sometimes it looked almost greasy enough to fry eggs in, and that wasn’t like Selena. Her complexion was always so pretty—that nice peaches n cream skin she prob’ly got from Joe’s side of the family tree—but that October pimples sprang up on her face like dandelions on the town common after Memorial Day. Her color was off, and her appetite, too.
She still went to see her two best friends, Tanya Caron and Laurie Langill, once in awhile, but not anywhere near as much as she had in junior high. That made me realize neither Tanya nor Laurie had been over to our house since school let back in . . . and maybe not durin the last month of the summer vacation, neither. That scared me, Andy, and it made me lean in for an even closer look at my good girl. What I saw scared me even more.
The way she’d changed her clothes, for instance. Not just one sweater for another, or a skirt for a dress; she’d changed her whole style of dressin, and all the changes were bad. You couldn’t see her shape anymore, for one thing. Instead of wearin skirts or dresses to school, she was mostly wearin A-line jumpers, and they was all too big for her. They made her look fat, and she wasn’t.
At home she’d wear big baggy sweaters that came halfway to her knees, and I never saw her out of her jeans and workboots. She’d put some ugly rag of a scarf around her head whenever she went out, somethin so big it’d overhang her brow and make her eyes look like two animals peerin out of a cave. She looked like a tomboy, but I thought she’d put paid to that when she said so-long to twelve. And one night, when I forgot to knock on her door before I went into her room, she just about broke her legs gettin her robe offa the closet door, and she was wearin a slip—it wasn’t like she was bollicky bareass or nothin.
But the worst thing was that she didn’t talk much anymore. Not just to me; considerin the terms we were on, I coulda understood that. She pretty much quit talkin to everybody, though. She’d sit at the supper-table with her head down and the long bangs she’d grown hangin in her eyes, and when I tried to make conversation with her, ask her how her day had gone at school and things like that, all I’d get back was “Umkay” and “Guesso” instead of the blue streak she used to talk. Joe Junior tried, too, and run up against the same stone wall. Once or twice he looked at me, kinda puzzled. I just shrugged. And as soon as the meal was over and the dishes was warshed, out the door or up to her room she’d go.
And, God help me, the first thing I thought of after I decided it wasn’t a boy was marijuana . . . and don’t you give me that look, Andy, like I don’t know what I’m talkin about. It was called reefer or maryjane instead of pot in those days, but it was the same stuff and there was plenty of people from the island willin to move it around if the price of lobsters went down . . . or even if it didn’t. A lot of reefer came in through the coastal islands back then, just like it does now, and some of it stayed. There was no cocaine, which was a blessing, but if you wanted to smoke pot, you could always find some. Marky Benoit had been arrested by the Coast Guard just that summer—they found four bales of the stuff in the hold of the Maggie’s Delight. Prob’ly that’s what put the idear in my head, but even now, after all these years, I wonder how I ever managed to make somethin so complicated outta what was really so simple. There was the real problem, sittin right across the table from me every night, usually needin a bath and a shave, and there I was, lookin right back at him—Joe St. George, Little Tall Island’s biggest jack of all trades and master of none—and wonderin if my good girl was maybe out behind the high-school woodshop in the afternoons, smokin joy-sticks. And I’m the one who likes to say her mother didn’t raise no fools. Gorry!
I started thinkin about goin into her room and lookin through her closet and bureau drawers, but then I got disgusted with myself. I may be a lot of things, Andy, but I hope I ain’t never been a sneak. Still, even havin the idear made me see that I’d spent way too much time just creepin around the edges of whatever was goin on, hopin the problem would solve itself or that Selena would come to me on her own.
There came a day—not long before Halloween, because Little Pete’d put up a paper witch in the entry window, I remember—when I was supposed to go down to the Strayhorn place after lunch. Me and Lisa McCandless were going to turn those fancy Persian rugs downstairs—you’re supposed to do that every six months so they won’t fade, or so they’ll fade even, or some damned thing. I put my coat on and got it buttoned and was halfway to the door when I thought, What are you doin with this heavy fall coat on, you foolish thing? It’s sixty-five degrees out there, at least, real Indian Summer weather. And this other voice come back and said, It won’t be sixty-five out on the reach; it’ll be more like fifty out there. Damp, too. And that’s how I come to know I wasn’t goin anywhere near the Strayhorn place that afternoon. I was gonna take the ferry across to Jonesport instead, and have it out with my daughter. I called Lisa, told her we’d have to do the rugs another day, and left for the ferry landin. I was just in time to catch the two-fifteen. If I’d missed it, I might’ve missed her, and who knows how different things might have turned out then?
I was the first one off the ferry—they was still slippin the last moorin rope over the last post when I stepped down onto the dock—and I went straight to the high school. I got the idear on my way up that I wasn’t going to find her in the study-hall no matter what she and her home-room teacher said, that she’d be out behind the woodshop after all, with the rest of the thuds . . . all of em laughin and grab-assin around and maybe passin a bottle of cheap wine in a paper bag. If you ain’t never been in a situation like that, you don’t know what it’s like and I can’t describe it to you. All I can say is that I was findin out that there’s no way you can prepare yourself for a broken heart. You just have to keep marchin forward and hope like hell it doesn’t happen.
But when I opened the study-hall door and peeked in, she was there, sittin at a desk by the windows with her head bent over her algebra book. She didn’t see me at first n I just stood there, lookin at her. She hadn’t fallen in with bad comp’ny like I’d feared, but my heart broke a little just the same, Andy, because it looked like she’d fallen in with no comp’ny at all, and could be that’s even worse. Maybe her home-room teacher didn’t see anything wrong with a girl studyin all by herself after school in that great big room; maybe she even thought it was admirable. I didn’t see nothing admirable about it, though, nor anything healthy, either. She didn’t even have the detention kids to keep her comp’ny, because they keep the bad actors in the lib’ry at Jonesport-Beals High.
She should have been with her girlfriends, maybe listenin to records or moonin over some boy, and instead she was sittin there in a dusty ray of afternoon sun, sittin in the smell of chalk and floor-varnish and that nasty red sawdust they put down after all the kids have gone home, sittin with her head bent so close over her book that you’d’ve thought all the secrets of life n death was in there.
“Hello, Selena,” I says. She cringed like a rabbit and knocked half her books off her desk turnin around to see who’d told her hello. Her eyes were so big they looked like they filled the whole top half of her face, and what I could see of her cheeks and forehead was as pale as buttermilk in a white cup. Except for the places where the new pimples were, that is. They stood out a bright red, like burnmarks.
Then she saw it was me. The terror went away, but no smile come in its place. It was like a shutter dropped over her face . . . or like she was inside a castle and had just pulled up the drawbridge. Yes, like that. Do you see what I’m tryin to say?
“Mamma!” she says. “What are you doin here?”
I thought of sayin, “I’ve come to take you home on the ferry and get some answers out of you, my little sweetheart,” but somethin told me it would have been wrong in that room—that empty room where I could smell the thing that was wrong with her just as clear as I could smell the chalk and the red sawdust. I could smell it, and I meant to find out what it was. From the look of her, I’d waited far too long already. I didn’t think it was dope anymore, but whatever it was, it was hungry. It was eatin her alive.
I told her I’d decided to toss my afternoon’s work out the door and come over and window-shop a little, but I couldn’t find anything I liked. “So I thought maybe you and I could ride back on the ferry together,” I said. “Do you mind, Selena?”
She finally smiled. I would have paid a thousand dollars for that smile, I can tell you . . . a smile that was just for me. “Oh no, Mommy,” she said. “It would be nice, having company.”
So we walked back down the hill to the ferry-landin together, and when I asked her about some of her classes, she told me more than she had in weeks. After that first look she gave me—like a cornered rabbit lookin at a tomcat—she seemed more like her old self than she had in months, and I began to hope.
Well, Nancy here may not know how empty that four-forty-five to Little Tall and the Outer Islands is, but I guess you n Frank do, Andy. Most of the workin folk who live off the mainland go home on the five-thirty, and what comes on the four-forty-five is mostly parcel post, UPS, shop-goods, and groceries bound for the market. So even though it was a lovely autumn afternoon, nowhere near as cold and damp as I’d thought it was gonna be, we had the aft deck mostly to ourselves.
We stood there awhile, watchin the wake spread back toward the mainland. The sun was on the wester by then, beatin a track across the water, and the wake broke it up and made it look like pieces of gold. When I was a little girl, my Dad used to tell me it was gold, and that sometimes the mermaids came up and got it. He said they used those broken pieces of late-afternoon sunlight as shingles on their magic castles under the sea. When I saw that kind of broken golden track on the water, I always watched it for mermaids, and until I was almost Selena’s age I never doubted there were such things, because my Dad had told me there were.
The water that day was the deep shade of blue you only seem to see on calm days in October, and the sound of the diesels was soothin. Selena untied the kerchief she was wearin over her head and raised her arms and laughed. “Isn’t it beautiful, Mom?” she asked me.
“Yes,” I said, “it is. And you used to be beautiful, too, Selena. Why ain’t you anymore?”
She looked at me, and it was like she had two faces on. The top one was puzzled and still kinda laughin . . . but underneath there was a careful, distrustin sort of look. What I saw in that underneath face was everythin Joe had told her that spring and summer, before she had begun to pull away from him, too. I don’t have no friends, is what that underneath face said to me. Certainly not you, nor him, either. And the longer we looked at each other, the more that face came to the top.
She stopped laughin and turned away from me to look out over the water. That made me feel bad, Andy, but I couldn’t let it stop me any more than I could let Vera get away with her bitchery later on, no matter how sad it all was at the bottom. The fact is, sometimes we do have to be cruel to be kind—like a doctor givin a shot to a child even though he knows the child will cry and not understand. I looked inside myself and saw I could be cruel like that if I had to. It scared me to know that then, and it still scares me a little. It’s scary to know you can be as hard as you need to be, and never hesitate before or look back afterward and question what you did.
“I don’t know what you mean, Mom,” she says, but she was lookin at me with a careful eye.
“You’ve changed,” I said. “Your looks, the way you dress, the way you act. All those things tell me you’re in some kind of trouble.”
“There’s nothing wrong,” she said, but all the time she was sayin it she was backin away from me. I grabbed her hands in mine before she could get too far away to reach.
“Yes there is,” I said, “and neither of us is steppin off this ferry until you tell me what it is.”
“Nothin!” she yelled. She tried to yank her hands free but I wouldn’t let loose. “Nothin’s wrong, now let go! Let me go!”
“Not yet,” I says. “Whatever trouble you’re in won’t change my love for you, Selena, but I can’t begin helpin you out of it until you tell me what it is.”
She stopped strugglin then and only looked at me. And I seen a third face below the first two—a crafty, miserable face I didn’t like much. Except for her complexion, Selena usually takes after my side of the family, but right then she looked like Joe.
“Tell me somethin first,” she says.
“I will if I can,” I says back.
“Why’d you hit him?” she asks. “Why’d you hit him that time?”
I opened my mouth to ask “What time?”—mostly to get a few seconds to think—but all at once I knew somethin, Andy. Don’t ask me how—it might have been a hunch, or what they call woman’s intuition, or maybe I actually reached out somehow and read my daughter’s mind—but I did. I knew that if I hesitated, even for a second, I was gonna lose her. Maybe only for that day, but all too likely for good. It was a thing I just knew, and I didn’t hesitate a beat.
“Because he hit me in the back with a piece of stovewood earlier that evenin,” I said. “Just about crushed my kidneys. I guess I just decided I wasn’t going to be done that way anymore. Not ever again.”
She blinked the way you do when somebody makes a quick move toward your face with their hand, and her mouth dropped open in a big surprised O.
“That ain’t what he told you it was about, was it?”
She shook her head.
“What’d he say? His drinkin?”
“That and his poker games,” she said in a voice almost too low to hear. “He said you didn’t want him or anybody else to have any fun. That was why you didn’t want him to play poker, and why you wouldn’t let me go to Tanya’s sleep-over last year. He said you want everyone to work eight days a week like you do. And when he stood up to you, you conked him with the creamer and then said you’d cut off his head if he tried to do anything about it. That you’d do it while he was sleepin.”
I woulda laughed, Andy, if it hadn’t been so awful.
“Did you believe him?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Thinking about that hatchet made me so scared I didn’t know what to believe.”
That went in my heart like a knife-blade, but I never showed it. “Selena,” I says, “what he told you was a lie.”
“Just leave me alone!” she said, pullin back from me. That cornered-rabbit look come on her face again, and I realized she wasn’t just hidin somethin because she was ashamed or worried—she was scared to death. “I’ll fix it myself! I don’t want your help, so just leave me alone!”
“You can’t fix it yourself, Selena,” I says. I was usin the low, soothin tone you’d use on a hoss or lamb that’s gotten caught in a barbwire fence. “If you could have, you already would have. Now listen to me—I’m sorry you had to see me with that hatchet in my hand; I’m sorry about everythin you saw n heard that night. If I’d known it was going to make you so scared and unhappy, I wouldn’t have took after him no matter how much he provoked me.”
“Can’t you just stop it?” she asks, and then she finally pulled her hands out of mine and put em over her ears. “I don’t want to hear any more. I won’t hear any more.”
“I can’t stop because that’s over and done with, beyond reach,” I says, “but this ain’t. So let me help, dear heart. Please.” I tried to put an arm around her and draw her to me.
“Don’t! Don’t you hit me! Don’t you even touch me, you bitch!” she screams, and shoved herself backward. She stumbled against the rail, and I was sure she was gonna go flip-flop right over it and into the drink. My heart stopped, but thank God my hands never did. I reached out, caught her by the front of the coat, and drug her back toward me. I slipped in some wet and almost fell. I caught my balance, though, and when I looked up, she hauled off and slapped me across the side of the face.
I never minded, just grabbed hold of her again and hugged her against me. You quit at a time like that with a child Selena’s age, I think a lot of what you had with that child is gonna be over for good. Besides, that slap didn’t hurt a bit. I was just scared of losin her—and not just from my heart, neither. For that one second I was sure she was gonna go over the rail with her head down and her feet up. I was so sure I could see it. It’s a wonder all my hair didn’t go gray right then.
Then she was cryin and tellin me she was sorry, that she never meant to hit me, that she never ever meant to do that, and I told her I knew it. “Hush awhile,” I says, and what she said back almost froze me solid. “You should have let me go over, Mommy,” she said. “You should have let me go.”
I held her out from me at arms’ length—by then we was both cryin—and I says, “Nothin could make me do a thing like that, sweetheart.”
She was shakin her head back and forth. “I can’t stand it anymore, Mommy . . . I can’t. I feel so dirty and confused, and I can’t be happy no matter how hard I try.”
“What is it?” I says, beginnin to be frightened all over again. “What is it, Selena?”
“If I tell you,” she says, “you’ll probably push me over the rail yourself.”
“You know better,” I says. “And I’ll tell you another thing, dear heart—you ain’t steppin foot back on dry land until you’ve come clean with me. If goin back n forth on this ferry for the rest of the year is what it takes, then that’s what we’ll do . . . although I think we’ll both be frozen solid before the end of November, if we ain’t died of ptomaine from what they serve in that shitty little snack-bar.”
I thought that might make her laugh, but it didn’t. Instead she bowed her head so she was lookin at the deck and said somethin, real low. With the sound of the wind and the engines, I couldn’t quite hear what it was.
“What did you say, sweetheart?”
She said it again, and I heard it that second time, even though she didn’t speak much louder. All at once I understood everythin, and Joe St. George’s days were numbered from that moment on.
“I never wanted to do anything. He made me.” That’s what she said.
For a minute I could only stand there, and when I finally did reach for her, she flinched away. Her face was as white as a sheet. Then the ferry—the old Island Princess, that was—took a lurch. The world had already gone slippery on me, and I guess I would have gone on my skinny old ass if Selena hadn’t grabbed me around the middle. The next second it was me holdin her again, and she cryin against my neck.
“Come on,” I says. “Come on over here and sit down with me. We’ve had enough rammin from one side of this boat to the other to last us awhile, haven’t we?”
We went over to the bench by the aft companionway with our arms around each other, shufflin like a pair of invalids. I don’t know if Selena felt like an invalid or not, but I sure did. I was only leakin from the eyes a little, but Selena was cryin s’hard it sounded like she’d pull her guts loose from their moorins if she didn’t quit pretty soon. I was glad to hear her cry that way, though. It wasn’t until I heard her sobbin and seen the tears rollin down her cheeks that I realized how much of her feelins had gone away, too, like the light in her eyes and the shape inside her clothes. I would have liked hearin her laugh one frig of a lot better’n I liked hearin her cry, but I was willin to take what I could get.
We sat down on the bench and I let her cry awhile longer. When it finally started to ease off a little, I gave her the hanky from my purse. She didn’t even use it at first. She just looked at me, her cheeks all wet and deep brown hollows under her eyes, and she says, “You don’t hate me, Mommy? You really don’t?”
“No,” I says. “Not now, not never. I promise on my heart. But I want to get this straight. I want you to tell me the whole thing, all the way through. I see on your face that you don’t think you can do that, but I know you can. And remember this—you’ll never have to tell it again, not even to your own husband, if you don’t want to. It will be like drawin a splinter. I promise that on my heart, too. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Mommy, but he said if I ever told . . . sometimes you get so mad, he said . . . like the night you hit him with the cream-pot . . . he said if I ever felt like telling I’d better remember the hatchet . . . and . . .”
“No, that’s not the way,” I says. “You need to start at the beginning and go right through her. But I want to be sure I got one thing straight from the word go. Your Dad’s been at you, hasn’t he?”
She just hung her head and didn’t say nothing. It was all the answer I needed, but I think she needed to hear herself sayin it right out loud.
I put my finger under her chin and lifted her head until we were lookin each other right in the eye. “Hasn’t he?”
“Yes,” she said, and broke out sobbin again. This time it didn’t last so long nor go so deep, though. I let her go on awhile just the same because it took me awhile to see how I should go on. I couldn’t ask “What’s he done to you?” because I thought the chances were pretty good she wouldn’t know for sure. For a little while the only thing I could think of was “Has he fucked you?” but I thought she might not know for sure even if I put it just that way, that crude. And the sound of it was so damned ugly in my head.
At last I said, “Has he had his penis into you, Selena? Has he had it in your pussy?”
She shook her head. “I haven’t let him.” She swallowed back a sob. “Not yet, anyway.”
Well, we were both able to relax a little after that—with each other, anyway. What I felt inside was pure rage. It was like I had an eye inside, one I never knew about before that day, and all I could see with it was Joe’s long, horsey face, with his lips always cracked and his dentures always kind of yellow and his cheeks always chapped and red high up on the cheekbones. I saw his face pretty near all the time after that, that eye wouldn’t close even when my other two did and I was asleep, and I began to know it wouldn’t close until he was dead. It was like bein in love, only inside out.
Meantime, Selena was tellin her story, from beginnin to end. I listened and didn’t interrupt even once, and accourse it started with the night I hit Joe with the creamer and Selena come to the door in time to see him with his hand over his bleedin ear and me holdin the hatchet over him like I really did intend to cut his head off with it. All I wanted to do was make him stop, Andy, and I risked my life to do it, but she didn’t see none of that. Everything she saw stacked up on his side of the ledger. The road to hell’s paved with good intentions, they say, and I know it’s true. I know it from bitter experience. What I don’t know is why—why it is that tryin to do good so often leads to ill. That’s for wider heads than mine, I guess.
I ain’t gonna tell that whole story here, not out of respect to Selena, but because it’s too long and it hurts too much, even now. But I’ll tell you the first thing she said. I’ll never forget it, because I was struck again by what a difference there is between how things look and how they really are . . . between the outside and the inside.
“He looked so sad,” she said. “There was blood running between his fingers and tears in his eyes and he just looked so sad. I hated you more for that look than for the blood and tears, Mommy, and I made up my mind to make it up to him. Before I went to bed, I got down on my knees and prayed. ‘God,’ I said, ‘if you keep her from hurting him any more, I’ll make it up to him. I swear I will. For Jesus’ sake, amen.’?”
You got any idear how I felt, hearin that from my daughter a year or more after I thought the door was shut on that business? Do you, Andy? Frank? What about you, Nancy Bannister from Kennebunk? No—I see you don’t. I pray to God you never will.
She started bein nice to him—bringin him special treats when he was out in the back shed, workin on somebody’s snowmobile or outboard motor, sittin beside him while we were watchin TV at night, sittin with him on the porch step while he whittled, listenin while he talked all his usual line of Joe St. George bullshit politics—how Kennedy was lettin the Jews n Catholics run everythin, how it was the Commies tryin to get the niggers into the schools n lunchrooms down south, and pretty soon the country would be ruined. She listened, she smiled at his jokes, she put Cornhuskers on his hands when they chapped, and he wasn’t too deaf to hear opportunity knockin. He quit givin her the lowdown on politics in favor of givin her the lowdown on me, how crazy I could be when I was riled, and everythin that was wrong with our marriage. Accordin to him it was mostly me.
It was in the late spring of 1962 that he started touchin her in a way that was a little more’n just fatherly. That was all it was at first, though—little strokes along the leg while they were sittin on the couch together and I was out of the room, little pats on the bottom when she brought him his beer out in the shed. That’s where it started, and it went on from there. By the middle of July, poor Selena’d gotten as scared of him as she already was of me. By the time I finally took it into my head to go across to the mainland and get some answers out of her, he’d done just about everything a man can do to a woman short of fucking her . . . and frightened her into doing any number of things to him, as well.
I think he would have picked her cherry before Labor Day if it hadn’t been for Joe Junior and Little Pete bein out of school and underfoot a lot of the time. Little Pete was just there and in the way, but I think Joe Junior had more’n half an idear of what was up, and set out to put himself in the way of it. God bless him if he did, is all I can say. I was certainly no help, workin twelve and sometimes fourteen hours a day like I was back then. And all the time I was gone, Joe was around her, touchin her, askin her for kisses, askin her to touch him in his “special places” (that’s what he called em), and tellin her that he couldn’t help it, he had to ask—she was nice to him, I wasn’t, a man had certain needs, and that was all there was to it. But she couldn’t tell. If she did, he said, I might kill both of them. He kep remindin her about the creamer and the hatchet. He kep tellin her about what a cold, bad-tempered bitch I was and about how he couldn’t help it because a man had certain needs. He drilled those things into her, Andy, until she was half-crazy with em. He—
Yes, he worked, all right, but his kind of work didn’t slow him down much when it came to chasin his daughter. A jack of all trades, I called him, and that’s just what he was. He did chores for any number of the summer people and caretook two houses (I hope the people who hired him to do that kep a good inventory of their possessions); there were four or five different fishermen who’d call him to crew when they were busy—Joe could haul traps with the best of em, if he wa’ant too hung over—and accourse he had his small engines for a sideline. In other words, he worked the way a lot of island men work (although not as hard as most)—a drib here n a drab there. A man like that can pretty much set his own hours, and that summer and early fall, Joe set his so’s to be around the house as much as he could when I was gone. To be around Selena.
Do you understand what I need you to understand, I wonder? Do you see that he was workin as hard to get into her mind as he was into her pants? I think it was seein me with that goddam hatchet in my hand that had the most power over her, so that was what he used the most. When he saw he couldn’t use it anymore to gain her sympathy, he used it to scare her with. He told her over n over again that I’d drive her out of the house if I ever found out what they was doin.
What they was doin! Gorry!
She said she didn’t want to do it, and he said that was just too bad, but it was too late to stop. He told her she’d teased him until he was half-crazy, and said that kind of teasin’s why most rapes happen, and good women (meanin bad-tempered, hatchet-wavin bitches like me, I guess) knew it. Joe kep tellin her he’d keep his end quiet as long as she kep hers quiet . . . “But,” he told her, “you have to understand, baby, that if some comes out, all comes out.”
She didn’t know what he meant by all, and she didn’t understand how bringin him a glass of iced tea in the afternoon and tellin him about Laurie Langill’s new puppy had given him the idear that he could reach between her legs n squeeze her there whenever he wanted, but she was convinced she must have done somethin to make him act so bad, and it made her ashamed. That was the worst of it, I think—not the fear but the shame.
She said she set out one day to tell the whole story to Mrs. Sheets, the guidance counsellor. She even made an appointment, but she lost her nerve in the outside office when another girl’s appointment ran a little overtime. That had been less than a month before, just after school let back in.
“I started to think how it would sound,” she told me as we sat there on the bench by the aft companionway. We were halfway across the reach by then, and we could see the East Head, all lit up with the afternoon sun. Selena was finally done her cryin. She’d give out a big watery sniffle every now n then, and my hanky was wet clear through, but she mostly had herself under control, and I was damned proud of her. She never let go of my hand, though. She held it in a death-grip all the time we was talkin. I had bruises on it the next day. “I thought about how it’d be to sit down and say, ‘Mrs. Sheets, my Dad is trying to do you-know-what to me.’ And she’s so dense—and so old—she’d probably say, ‘No, I don’t know-what, Selena. What are you talking about?’ Only she’d say TAWkeen about, like she does when she gets up on her high horse. And then I’d have to tell her that my own father was trying to screw me, and she wouldn’t believe me, because people don’t do things like that where she comes from.”
“I think it happens all over the world,” I said. “Sad, but true. And I think a school guidance counsellor would know it, too, unless she’s an out-and-out fool. Is Mrs. Sheets an out-and-out fool, Selena?”
“No,” Selena says, “I don’t think so, Mommy, but—”
“Sweetheart, did you think you were the first girl this ever happened to?” I asks, and she said something again I couldn’t hear on account of she talked so low. I had to ask her to say it again.
“I didn’t know if I was or not,” she says, and hugs me. I hugged her back. “Anyway,” she went on at last, “I found out sitting there that I couldn’t say it. Maybe if I’d been able to march right in I could have gotten it out, but not once I had time to sit and turn it over in my mind, and to wonder if Daddy was right, and you’d think I was a bad girl—”
“I’d never think that,” I says, and give her another hug.
She gave me a smile back that warmed my heart. “I know that now,” she said, “but then I wasn’t so sure. And while I was sitting there, watching through the glass while Mrs. Sheets finished up with the girl that was before me, I thought up a good reason not to go in.”
“Oh?” I asked her. “What was that?”
“Well,” she says, “it wasn’t school business.”
That struck me funny and I started to giggle. Pretty soon Selena was gigglin with me, and the giggles kep gettin louder until we was settin there on that bench, holdin hands and laughin like a couple of loons in matin season. We was so loud that the man who sells snacks n cigarettes down below poked his head up for a second or two to make sure we were all right.
There were two other things she said on the way back—one with her mouth and one with her eyes. The one she said out loud was that she’d been thinkin of packin her things and runnin away; that seemed at least like a way out. But runnin won’t solve your problems if you’ve been hurt bad enough—wherever you run, you take your head n your heart with you, after all—and the thing I saw in her eyes was that the thought of suicide had done more’n just cross her mind.
I’d think of that—of seein the thought of suicide in my daughter’s eyes—and then I’d see Joe’s face even clearer with that eye inside me. I’d see how he must’ve looked, pesterin her and pesterin her, tryin to get a hand up under her skirt until she wore nothin but jeans in self-defense, not gettin what he wanted (or not all of what he wanted) because of simple luck, her good n his bad, and not for any lack of tryin. I thought about what might’ve happened if Joe Junior hadn’t cut his playin with Willy Bramhall short a few times n come home early, or if I hadn’t finally opened my eyes enough to get a really good look at her. Most of all I thought about how he’d driven her. He’d done it the way a bad-hearted man with a quirt or a greenwood stick might drive a horse, and never stop once, not for love and not for pity, until that animal lay dead at his feet . . . and him prob’ly standin above it with the stick in his hand, wonderin why in hell that happened. This was where wantin to touch his forehead, wantin to see if it felt as smooth as it looked, had gotten me; this was where it all come out. My eyes were all the way open, and I saw I was livin with a loveless, pitiless man who believed anything he could reach with his arm and grasp with his hand was his to take, even his own daughter.
I’d got just about that far in my thinkin when the thought of killin him crossed my mind for the first time. That wasn’t when I made up my mind to do it—gorry, no—but I’d be a liar if I said the thought was only a daydream. It was a lot more than that.
Selena must’ve seen some of that in my eyes, because she laid her hand on my arm and says, “Is there going to be trouble, Mommy? Please say there isn’t—he’ll know I told, and he’ll be mad!”
I wanted to soothe her heart by tellin her what she wanted to hear, but I couldn’t. There was going to be trouble—just how much and how bad would probably be up to Joe. He’d backed down the night I hit him with the creamer, but that didn’t mean he would again.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” I said, “but I’ll tell you two things, Selena: none of this is your fault, and his days of pawin and pesterin you are over. Do you understand?”
Her eyes filled up with tears again, and one of em spilled over and rolled down her cheek. “I just don’t want there to be trouble,” she said. She stopped a minute, her mouth workin, and then she busts out: “Oh, I hate this! Why did you ever hit him? Why did he ever have to start up with me? Why couldn’t things stay like they were?”
I took her hand. “Things never do, honey—sometimes they go wrong, and then they have to be fixed. You know that, don’t you?”
She nodded her head. I saw pain in her face, but no doubt. “Yes,” she said. “I guess I do.”
We were comin into the dock then, and there was no more time for talk. I was just as glad; I didn’t want her lookin at me with those tearful eyes of hers, wantin what I guess every kid wants, for everything to be made right but with no pain and nobody hurt. Wantin me to make promises I couldn’t make, because they were promises I didn’t know if I could keep. I wasn’t sure that inside eye would let me keep em. We got off the ferry without another word passin between us, and that was just as fine as paint with me.
That evenin, after Joe got home from the Carstairs place where he was buildin a back porch, I sent all three kids down to the market. I saw Selena castin little glances back at me all the way down the drive, and her face was just as pale as a glass of milk. Every time she turned her head, Andy, I saw that double-damned hatchet in her eyes. But I saw somethin else in them, too, and I believe that other thing was relief. At least things are gonna quit just goin around n around like they have been, she musta been thinkin; scared as she was, I think part of her musta been thinkin that.
Joe was sittin by the stove readin the American, like he done every night. I stood by the woodbox, lookin at him, and that eye inside seemed to open wider’n ever. Lookit him, I thought, sittin there like the Grand High Poobah of Upper Butt-Crack. Sittin there like he didn’t have to put on his pants one leg at a time like the rest of us. Sittin there as if puttin his hands all over his only daughter was the most natural thing in all the world and any man could sleep easy after doin it. I tried to think of how we’d gotten from the Junior-Senior Prom at The Samoset Inn to where we were right now, him sittin by the stove and readin the paper in his old patched bluejeans and dirty thermal undershirt and me standin by the woodbox with murder in my heart, and I couldn’t do it. It was like bein in a magic forest where you look back over your shoulder and see the path has disappeared behind you.
Meantime, that inside eye saw more n more. It saw the crisscross scars on his ear from when I hit him with the creamer; it saw the squiggly little veins in his nose; it saw the way his lower lip pooched out so he almost always looked like he was havin a fit of the sulks; it saw the dandruff in his eyebrows and the way he’d pull at the hairs growin out of his nose or give his pants a good tug at the crotch every now and then.
All the things that eye saw were bad, and it come to me that marryin him had been a lot more than the biggest mistake of my life; it was the only mistake that really mattered, because it wasn’t just me that would end up payin for it. It was Selena he was occupied with then, but there were two boys comin along right behind her, and if he wouldn’t stop at tryin to rape their big sister, what might he do to them?
I turned my head and that eye inside saw the hatchet, layin on the shelf over the woodbox just the same as always. I reached out for it n closed my fingers around the handle, thinkin, I ain’t just going to put it in your hand this time, Joe. Then I thought of Selena turnin back to look at me as the three of em walked down the driveway, and I decided that whatever happened, the goddam hatchet wasn’t going to be any part of it. I bent down and took a chunk of rock maple out of the woodbox instead.
Hatchet or stovelength, it almost didn’t matter—Joe’s life come within a whisker of endin right then and there. The longer I looked at him sittin in his dirty shirt, tuggin at the hairs stickin outta his nose and readin the funnypages, the more I thought of what he’d been up to with Selena; the more I thought about that, the madder I got; the madder I got, the closer I came to just walkin over there and breakin his skull open with that stick of wood. I could even see the place I’d hit the first lick. His hair had started to get real thin, especially in back, and the light from the lamp beside his chair made a kind of gleam there. You could see the freckles on the skin between the few strands of hair that was left. Right there, I thought, that very place. The blood’ll jump up n splatter all over the lampshade, but I don’t care; it’s an ugly old thing, anyway. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to see the blood flyin up onto the shade like I knew it would. And then I thought about how drops would fly onto the light-bulb, too, and make a little sizzlin sound. I thought about those things, and the more I thought, the more my fingers bore down on that chunk of stovewood, gettin their best grip. It was crazy, oh yes, but I couldn’t seem to turn away from him, and I knew that inside eye would go on lookin at him even if I did.
I told myself to think of how Selena would feel if I did it—all her worst fears come true—but that didn’t work, either. As much as I loved her and as much as I wanted her good regard, it didn’t. That eye was too strong for love. Not even wonderin what would happen to the three of em if he was dead and I was in South Windham for killin him would make that inside eye close up. It stayed wide open, and it kep seein more and more ugly things in Joe’s face. The way he scraped white flakes of skin up from his cheeks when he shaved. A blob of mustard from his dinner dryin on his chin. His big old horsey dentures, which he got from mail-order and didn’t fit him right. And every time I saw somethin else with that eye, my grip on that stovelength would tighten down a little more.
At the last minute I thought of somethin else. If you do this right here and right now, you won’t be doin it for Selena, I thought. You wouldn’t be doin it for the boys, either. You’d be doin it because all that grabbin was goin on under your very nose for three months or more and you was too dumb to notice. If you’re going to kill him and go to prison and only see your kids on Sat’dy afternoons, you better understand why you’re doin it: not because he was at Selena, but because he fooled you, and that’s one way you’re just like Vera—you hate bein fooled worse’n anything.
That finally put a damper on me. The inside eye didn’t close, but it dimmed down and lost a little of its power. I tried to open my hand and let that chunk of rock maple fall, but I’d been squeezin it too tight and couldn’t seem to let go. I had to reach over with my other hand and pry the first two fingers off before it dropped back into the woodbox, and the other three fingers stayed curled, like they were still holdin on. I had to flex my hand three or four times before it started to feel normal again.
After it did, I walked over to Joe and tapped him on the shoulder. “I want to talk to you,” I says.
“So talk,” he says from behind the paper. “I ain’t stoppin you.”
“I want you lookin at me when I do,” I says. “Put that rag down.”
He dropped the paper into his lap and looked at me. “Ain’t you got the busiest mouth on you these days,” he says.
“I’ll take care of my mouth,” I says, “you just want to take care of your hands. If you don’t, they’re gonna get you in more trouble than you could handle in a year of Sundays.”
His brows went up and he asked me what that was supposed to mean.
“It means I want you to leave Selena alone,” I says.
He looked like I’d hoicked my knee right up into his family jewels. That was the best of a sorry business, Andy—the look on Joe’s face when he found out he was found out. His skin went pale and his mouth dropped open and his whole body kinda jerked in that shitty old rocker of his, the way a person’s body will jerk sometimes when they are just fallin off to sleep and have a bad thought on their way down.
He tried to pass it off by actin like he’d had a muscle-twinge in his back, but he didn’t fool either one of us. He actually looked a little ashamed of himself, too, but that didn’t win him any favor with me. Even a stupid hound-dog has sense enough to look ashamed if you catch it stealin eggs out of a henhouse.
“I don’t know what you’re talkin about,” he says.
“Then how come you look like the devil just reached into your pants and squeezed your balls?” I asked him.
The thunder started to come onto his brow then. “If that damned Joe Junior’s been tellin lies about me—” he begun.
“Joe Junior ain’t been sayin yes, no, aye, nor maybe about you,” I says, “and you can just drop the act, Joe. Selena told me. She told me everything—how she tried to be nice to you after the night I hit you with the cream-pitcher, how you repaid her, and what you said would happen if she ever told.”
“She’s a little liar!” he says, throwin his paper on the floor like that proved it. “A little liar and a goddam tease! I’m gonna get my belt, and when she shows her face again—if she ever dares to show it around here again—”
He started to get up. I took one hand and shoved him back down again. It’s awful easy, shovin a person who’s tryin to get out of a rockin chair; it surprised me a little how easy it was. Accourse, I’d almost bashed his head in with a stovelength not three minutes before, and that mighta had somethin to do with it.
His eyes went down to narrow little slits and he said I’d better not fool with him. “You’ve done it before,” he says, “but that don’t mean you can bell the cat every time you want to.”
I’d been thinkin that very thing myself, and not so long before, but that wasn’t hardly the time to tell him so. “You can save your big talk for your friends,” I says instead. “What you want to do right now isn’t talk but listen . . . and hear what I say, because I mean every word. If you ever fool with Selena again, I’ll see you in State Prison for molesting a child or statutory rape, whichever charge will keep you in cold storage the longest.”
That flummoxed him. His mouth fell open again and he just sat there for a minute, starin up at me.
“You’d never,” he begun, and then stopped. Because he seen that I would. So he went into a pet, with his lower lip poochin out farther than ever. “You take her part, don’t you?” he says. “You never even ast for my side of it, Dolores.”
“Do you have one?” I asked him back. “When a man just four years shy of forty asks his fourteen-year-old daughter to take off her underpants so he can see how much hair she has growin on her pussy, can you say that man has a side?”
“She’ll be fifteen next month,” he says, as if that somehow changed everything. He was a piece of work, all right.
“Do you hear yourself?” I asked him. “Do you hear what’s runnin out of your own mouth?”
He stared at me a little longer, then bent over and picked his newspaper up off the floor. “Leave me alone, Dolores,” he says in his best sulky poor-old-me voice. “I want to finish this article.”
I felt like tearin the damned paper out of his hands and throwin it in his face, but there would have been a blood-flowin tussle for sure if I had, and I didn’t want the kids—especially not Selena—comin in on somethin like that. So I just reached out and pulled down the top of it, gentle, with my thumb.
“First you’re gonna promise me you’ll leave Selena alone,” I said, “so we can put this shit-miserable business behind us. You promise me you ain’t gonna touch her that way ever again in your life.”
“Dolores, you ain’t—” he starts.
“Promise, Joe, or I’ll make your life hell.”
“You think that scares me?” he shouts. “You’ve made my life hell for the last fifteen years, you bitch—your ugly face can’t hold a candle to your ugly disposition! If you don’t like the way I am, blame yourself!”
“You don’t know what hell is,” I said, “but if you don’t promise to leave her alone, I’ll see you find out.”
“All right!” he yells. “All right, I promise! There! Done! Are you satisfied?”
“Yes,” I says, although I wasn’t. He wasn’t ever gonna be able to satisfy me again. It wouldn’t have mattered if he’d worked the miracle of the loaves and fishes. I meant to get the kids out of that house or see him dead before the turn of the year. Which way it went didn’t make much difference to me, but I didn’t want him to know somethin was comin his way until it was too late for him to do anythin about it.
“Good,” he says. “Then we’re all done and buttoned up, ain’t we, Dolores?” But he was lookin at me with a funny little gleam in his eyes that I didn’t much like. “You think you’re pretty smart, don’t you?”
“I dunno,” I says. “I used to think I had a fair amount of intelligence, but look who I ended up keepin house with.”
“Oh, come on,” he says, still lookin at me in that funny half-wise way. “You think you’re such hot shit you prob’ly look over your shoulder to make sure your ass ain’t smokin before you wipe yourself. But you don’t know everything.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“You figure it out,” he says, and shakes his paper out like some rich guy who wants to make sure the stock market didn’t use him too bad that day. “It shouldn’t be no trouble for a smartypants like you.”
I didn’t like it, but I let it go. Partly it was because I didn’t want to spend any more time knockin a stick against a hornet’s nest than I had to, but that wasn’t all of it. I did think I was smart, smarter’n him, anyway, and that was the rest of it. I figured if he tried to get his own back on me, I’d see what he was up to about five minutes after he got started. It was pride, in other words, pride pure n simple, and the idea that he’d already got started never crossed my mind.
When the kids came back from the store, I sent the boys into the house and walked around to the back with Selena. There’s a big tangle of blackberry bushes there, mostly bare by that time of the year. A little breeze had come up, and it made them rattle. It was a lonesome sound. A little creepy, too. There’s a big white stone stickin out of the ground there, and we sat down on it. A half-moon had risen over East Head, and when she took my hands, her fingers were just as cold as that half-moon looked.
“I don’t dare go in, Mommy,” she said, and her voice was tremblin. “I’ll go to Tanya’s, all right? Please say I can.”
“You don’t have to be afraid of a thing, sweetheart,” I says. “It’s all taken care of.”
“I don’t believe you,” she whispered, although her face said she wanted to—her face said she wanted to believe it more than anythin.
“It’s true,” I said. “He’s promised to leave you alone. He doesn’t always keep his promises, but he’ll keep this one, now that he knows I’m watchin and he can’t count on you to keep quiet. Also, he’s scared to death.”
“Scared to dea—why?”
“Because I told him I’d see him in Shawshank if he got up to any more nasty business with you.”
She gasped, and her hands bore down on mine again. “Mommy, you didn’t!”
“Yes I did, and I meant it,” I says. “Best for you to know that, Selena. But I wouldn’t worry too much; Joe probably won’t come within ten feet of you for the next four years . . . and by then you’ll be in college. If there’s one thing on this round world he respects, it’s his own hide.”
She let go of my hands, slow but sure. I saw the hope comin into her face, and somethin else, as well. It was like her youth was comin back to her, and it wasn’t until then, sittin in the moonlight by the blackberry patch with her, that I realized how old she’d come to look that fall.
“He won’t strap me or anything?” she asked.
“No,” I says. “It’s done.”
Then she believed it all and put her head down on my shoulder and started to cry. Those were tears of relief, pure and simple. That she should have to cry that way made me hate Joe even more.
I think that, for the next few nights, there was a girl in my house sleepin better’n she had for three months or more . . . but I laid awake. I’d listen to Joe snorin beside me, and look at him with that inside eye, and feel like turnin over and bitin his goddam throat out. But I wasn’t crazy anymore, like I’d been when I almost poleaxed him with that stick of stovewood. Thinkin of the kids and what would happen to em if I was taken up for murder hadn’t had any power over that inside eye then, but later on, after I’d told Selena she was safe and had a chance to cool off a little myself, it did. Still, I knew that what Selena most likely wanted—for things to go on like what her Dad had been up to had never happened—couldn’t be. Even if he kep his promise and never touched her again, that couldn’t be . . . and in spite of what I’d told Selena, I wasn’t completely sure he’d keep his promise. Sooner or later, men like Joe usually persuade themselves that they can get away with it next time; that if they’re only a little more careful, they can have whatever they like.
Lyin there in the dark and calm again at last, the answer seemed simple enough: I had to take the kids and move to the mainland, and I had to do it soon. I was calm enough right then, but I knew I wasn’t gonna stay that way; that inside eye wouldn’t let me. The next time I got hot, it would see even better and Joe would look even uglier and there might not be any thought on earth that could keep me from doin it. It was a new way of bein mad, at least for me, and I was just wise enough to see the damage it could do, if I let it. I had to get us away from Little Tall before that madness could break all the way out. And when I made my first move in that direction, I found out what that funny half-wise look in his eyes meant. Did I ever!
I waited awhile for things to settle, then I took the eleven o’clock ferry across to the mainland one Friday mornin. The kids were in school and Joe was out on the boundin main with Mike Stargill and his brother Gordon, playin with the lobster-pots—he wouldn’t be back til almost sundown.
I had the kids’ savins account passbooks with me. We’d been puttin money away for their college ever since they were born . . . I had, anyway; Joe didn’t give a squitter if they went to college or not. Whenever the subject came up—and it was always me who brought it up, accourse—he’d most likely be sittin there in his shitty rocker with his face hid behind the Ellsworth American and he’d poke it out just long enough to say, “Why in Christ’s name are you so set on sendin those kids to college, Dolores? I never went, and I did all right.”
Well, there’s some things you just can’t argue with, ain’t there? If Joe thought that readin the paper, minin for boogers, and wipin em on the runners of his rockin chair was doin all right, there wasn’t no room at all for discussion; it was hopeless from the word go. That was all right, though. As long as I could keep makin him kick in his fair share if he happened to fall into somethin good, like when he got on the county road crew, I didn’t give a shit if he thought every college in the country was run by the Commies. The winter he worked on the road crew on the mainland, I got him to put five hundred dollars in their bank accounts, and he whined like a pup. Said I was takin all his dividend. I knew better, though, Andy. If that sonofawhore didn’t make two thousand, maybe twenty-five hundred, dollars that winter, I’ll smile n kiss a pig.
“Why do you always want to nag me so, Dolores?” he’d ask.
“If you were man enough to do what’s right for your kids in the first place, I wouldn’t have to,” I’d tell him, and around n around it’d go, blah-blah-blahdy-blah. I got pretty sick of it from time to time, Andy, but I almost always got out of him what I thought the kids had comin. I couldn’t get too sick of it to do that, because they didn’t have nobody else to make sure their future’d still be there for em when they got to it.
There wasn’t a lot in those three accounts by today’s standards—two thousand or so in Selena’s, about eight hundred in Joe Junior’s, four or five hundred in Little Pete’s—but this is 1962 I’m talkin about, and in those days it was a fairish chunk of change. More’n enough to get away on, that was for sure. I figured to draw Little Pete’s in cash and take cashier’s checks for the other two. I’d decided to make a clean break and move us all the way down to Portland—find a place to live and a decent job. We wasn’t none of us used to city livin, but people can get used to damned near anything if they have to. Besides, Portland wasn’t really much more than a big town back then—not like it is now.
Once I got settled, I could start puttin back the money I’d had to take, and I thought I could do it. Even if I couldn’t, they was bright kids, and I knew there were such things as scholarships. If they missed out on those, I decided I wasn’t too proud to fill out a few loan applications. The major thing was to get them away—right then doin that seemed a lot more important than college. First things first, as the bumper sticker on Joe’s old Farmall tractor used to say.
I’ve run m’gums for pretty near three-quarters of an hour about Selena, but it wasn’t only her who’d suffered from him. She got the worst of it, but there was plenty of black weather left over for Joe Junior. He was twelve in 1962, a prime age for a boy, but you wouldn’t know it lookin at him. He hardly ever smiled or laughed, and it really wasn’t any wonder. He’d no more’n come into the room and his Dad’d be on him like a weasel on a chicken, tellin him to tuck in his shirt, to comb his hair, to quit slouchin, to grow up, stop actin like a goddam sissy with his nose always stuck in a book, to be a man. When Joe Junior didn’t make the Little League All-Star team the summer before I found out what was wrong with Selena, you would have thought, listenin to his father, that he’d been kicked off the Olympic track team for takin pep-pills. Add to that whatever he’d seen his father gettin up to with his big sister, and you got a real mess on your hands, Sunny Jim. I’d sometimes look at Joe Junior lookin at his father and see real hate in that boy’s face—hate, pure n simple. And durin the week or two before I went across to the mainland with those passbooks in my pocket, I realized that, when it came to his father, Joe Junior had his own inside eye.
Then there was Little Pete. By the time he was four, he’d go swaggerin around right behind Joe, with the waist of his pants pulled up like Joe wore his, and he’d pull at the end of his nose and his ears, just like Joe did. Little Pete didn’t have any hairs there to pull, accourse, so he’d just pretend. On his first day at first grade, he come home snivellin, with dirt on the seat of his pants and a scratch on his cheek. I sat down beside him on the porch step, put my arm around his shoulders, and asked him what happened. He said that goddam little sheeny Dicky O’Hara pushed him down. I told him goddam was swearin and he shouldn’t say it, then asked him if he knew what a sheeny was. I was pretty curious to hear what might pop out of his mouth, to tell you the truth.
“Sure I do,” he says. “A sheeny’s a stupid jerk like Dicky O’Hara.” I told him no, he was wrong, and he asked me what it did mean, then. I told him to never mind, it wasn’t a nice word and I didn’t want him sayin it anymore. He just sat there glarin at me with his lip pooched out. He looked just like his old man. Selena was scared of her father, Joe Junior hated him, but in some ways it was Little Pete who scared me the most, because Little Pete wanted to grow up to be just like him.
So I got their passbooks from the bottom drawer of my little jewelry box (I kep em there because it was the only thing I had in those days with a lock on it; I wore the key around my neck on a chain) and walked into the Coastal Northern Bank in Jonesport at about half-past noon. When I got to the front of the line, I pushed the passbooks across to the teller, said I meant to close all three accounts out, and explained how I wanted the money.
“That’ll be just a moment, Mrs. St. George,” she says, and goes to the back of the tellers’ area to pull the accounts. This was long before computers, accourse, and they had to do a lot more fiddlin and diddlin.
She got em—I saw her pull all three—and then she opened em up and looked at em. A little line showed up down the middle of her brow, and she said somethin to one of the other women. Then they both looked for awhile, with me standin out there on the other side of the counter, watchin em and tellin myself there wasn’t a reason in the world to feel nervous and feelin pretty goddam nervous just the same.
Then, instead of comin back to me, the teller went into one of those jumped-up little cubby-holes they called offices. It had glass sides, and I could see her talkin to a little bald man in a gray suit and a black tie. When she came back to the counter, she didn’t have the account files anymore. She’d left them on the bald fella’s desk.
“I think you’d better discuss your children’s savings accounts with Mr. Pease, Mrs. St. George,” she says, and pushes the passbooks back to me. She did it with the side of her hand, like they were germy and she might get infected if she touched em too much or too long.
“Why?” I asked. “What’s wrong with em?” By then I’d given up the notion that I didn’t have anythin to feel nervous about. My heart was rappin away double-time in my chest and my mouth had gone all dry.
“Really, I couldn’t say, but I’m sure that if there’s a misunderstanding, Mr. Pease will straighten it right out,” she says, but she wouldn’t look me in the eye and I could tell she didn’t think any such thing.
I walked to that office like I had a twenty-pound cake of cement on each foot. I already had a pretty good idear of what must have happened, but I didn’t see how in the world it could have happened. Gorry, I had the passbooks, didn’t I? Joe hadn’t got em outta my jewelry box and then put em back, either, because the lock woulda been busted and it wasn’t. Even if he’d picked it somehow (which is a laugh; that man couldn’t get a forkful of lima beans from his plate to his mouth without droppin half of em in his lap), the passbooks would either show the withdrawals or be stamped ACCOUNT CLOSED in the red ink the bank uses . . . and they didn’t show neither one.
Just the same, I knew that Mr. Pease was gonna tell me my husband had been up to fuckery, and once I got into his office, that was just what he did tell me. He said that Joe Junior’s and Little Pete’s accounts had been closed out two months ago and Selena’s less’n two weeks ago. Joe’d done it when he did because he knew I never put money in their accounts after Labor Day until I thought I had enough squirreled away in the big soup-kettle on the top kitchen shelf to take care of the Christmas bills.
Pease showed me those green sheets of ruled paper accountants use, and I saw Joe had scooped out the last big chunk—five hundred dollars from Selena’s account—the day after I told him I knew what he’d been up to with her and he sat there in his rocker and told me I didn’t know everything. He sure was right about that.
I went over the figures half a dozen times, and when I looked up, Mr. Pease was sittin acrost from me, rubbin his hands together and lookin worried. I could see little drops of sweat on his bald head. He knew what’d happened as well as I did.
“As you can see, Mrs. St. George, those accounts have been closed out by your husband, and—”
“How can that be?” I asks him. I threw the three passbooks down on his desk. They made a whacking noise and he kinda blinked his eyes and jerked back. “How can that be, when I got the Christly savings account books right here?”
“Well,” he says, lickin his lips and blinkin like a lizard sunnin itself on a hot rock, “you see, Mrs. St. George, those are—were—what we call ‘custodial savings accounts.’ That means the child in whose name the account is held can—could—draw from it with either you or your husband to countersign. It also means that either of you can, as parents, draw from any of these three accounts when and as you like. As you would have done today, if the money had still, ahem, been in the accounts.”
“But these don’t show any goddam withdrawals!” I says, and I must have been shoutin, because people in the bank were lookin around at us. I could see em through the glass walls. Not that I cared. “How’d he get the money without the goddam passbooks?”
He was rubbin his hands together faster n faster. They made a sandpapery kind of sound, and if he’d had a dry stick between em, I b’lieve he coulda set fire to the gum-wrappers in his ashtray. “Mrs. St. George, if I could ask you to keep your voice down—”
“I’ll worry about my voice,” I says, louder’n ever. “You worry about the way this beshitted bank does business, chummy! The way it looks to me, you got a lot to worry about.”
He took a sheet of paper off his desk and looked at it. “According to this, your husband stated the passbooks were lost,” he says finally. “He asked to be issued new ones. It’s a common enough—”
“Common-be-damned!” I yelled. “You never called me! No one from the bank called me! Those accounts were held between the two of us—that’s how it was explained to me when we opened Selena’s and Joe Junior’s back in ’51, and it was still the same when we opened Peter’s in ’54. You want to tell me the rules have been changed since then?”
“Mrs. St. George—” he started, but he might as well have tried whistlin through a mouthful of crackers; I meant to have my say.
“He told you a fairy-story and you believed it—asked for new passbooks and you gave em to him. Gorry sakes! Who the hell do you think put that money in the bank to begin with? If you think it was Joe St. George, you’re a lot dumber’n you look!”
By then everybody in the bank’d quit even pretendin to be goin about their business. They just stood where they were, lookin at us. Most of em must have thought it was a pretty good show, too, judgin by the expressions on their faces, but I wonder if they would have been quite so entertained if it had been their kids’ college money that’d just flown away like a bigass bird. Mr. Pease had gone as red as the side of old dad’s barn. Even his sweaty old bald head had turned bright red.
“Please, Mrs. St. George,” he says. By then he was lookin like he might break down n cry. “I assure you that what we did was not only perfectly legal, but standard bank practice.”
I lowered my voice then. I could feel all the fight runnin outta me. Joe had fooled me, all right, fooled me good, and this time I didn’t have to wait for it to happen twice to say shame on me.
“Maybe it’s legal and maybe it ain’t,” I says. “I’d have to haul you into court to find out one way or the other, wouldn’t I, and I ain’t got either the time or the money to do it. Besides, it ain’t the question what’s legal or what ain’t that’s knocked me for a loop here . . . it’s how you never once thought that someone else might be concerned about what happened to that money. Don’t ‘standard bank practice’ ever allow you folks to make a single goddam phone call? I mean, the number’s right there on all those forms, and it ain’t changed.”
“Mrs. St. George, I’m very sorry, but—”
“If it’d been the other way around,” I says, “if I’d been the one with a story about how the passbooks was lost and ast for new ones, if I’d been the one who started drawin out what took eleven or twelve years to put in . . . wouldn’t you have called Joe? If the money’d still been here for me to withdraw today, like I came in meanin to do, wouldn’t you have called him the minute I stepped out the door, to let him know—just as a courtesy, mind you!—what his wife’d been up to?”
Because I’d expected just that, Andy—that was why I’d picked a day when he was out with the Stargills. I’d expected to go back to the island, collect the kids, and be long gone before Joe come up the driveway with a six-pack in one hand and his dinnerpail in the other.
Pease looked at me n opened his mouth. Then he closed it again and didn’t say nothing. He didn’t have to. The answer was right there on his face. Accourse he—or someone else from the bank—would have called Joe, and kep on tryin until he finally got him. Why? Because Joe was the man of the house, that’s why. And the reason nobody’d bothered to tell me was because I was just his wife. What the hell was I s’posed to know about money, except how to earn some down on my knees scrubbin floors n baseboards n toilet-bowls? If the man of the house decided to draw out all his kids’ college money, he must have had a damned good reason, and even if he didn’t, it didn’t matter, because he was the man of the house, and in charge. His wife was just the little woman, and all she was in charge of was baseboards, toilet-bowls, and chicken dinners on Sunday afternoons.
“If there’s a problem, Mrs. St. George,” Pease was sayin, “I’m very sorry, but—”
“If you say you’re sorry one more time, I’ll kick your butt up so high you’ll look like a hunchback,” I says, but there was no real danger of me doin anything to him. Right about then I didn’t feel like I had enough strength to kick a beer-can across the road. “Just tell me one thing and I’ll get out of your hair: is the money spent?”
“I would have no way of knowing!” he says in this prissy little shocked voice. You’da thought I’d told him I’d show him mine if he’d show me his.
“This is the bank Joe’s done business with his whole life,” I says. “He could have gone down the road to Machias or Columbia Falls and stuck it in one of those banks, but he didn’t—he’s too dumb and lazy and set in his ways. No, he’s either stuck it in a couple of Mason jars and buried it somewhere or put it right back in here. That’s what I want to know—if my husband’s opened some kind of new account here in the last couple of months.” Except it felt more like I had to know, Andy. Findin out how he’d fooled me made me feel sick to my stomach, and that was bad, but not knowin if he’d pissed it all away somehow . . . that was killin me.
“If he’s . . . that’s privileged information!” he says, and by then you’da thought I’d told him I’d touch his if he’d touch mine.
“Ayuh,” I says. “Figured it was. I’m askin you to break a rule. I know just lookin at you that you’re not a man who does that often; I can see it runs against your grain. But that was my kids’ money, Mr. Pease, and he lied to get it. You know he did; the proof’s right there on your desk blotter. It’s a lie that wouldn’t have worked if this bank—your bank—had had the common courtesy to make a telephone call.”
He clears his throat and starts, “We are not required—”
“I know you ain’t,” I says. I wanted to grab him and shake him, but I saw it wouldn’t do no good—not with a man like him. Besides, my mother always said you c’n catch more flies with honey than you ever can with vinegar, and I’ve found it to be true. “I know that, but think of the grief and heartache you’da saved me with that one call. And if you’d like to make up for some of it—I know you don’t have to, but if you’d like to—please tell me if he’s opened an account here or if I’ve got to start diggin holes around my house. Please—I’ll never tell. I swear on the name of God I won’t.”
He sat there lookin at me, drummin his fingers on those green accountants’ sheets. His nails were all clean and it looked like he’d had a professional manicure, although I guess that ain’t too likely—it’s Jonesport in 1962 we’re talkin about, after all. I s’pose his wife did it. Those nice neat nails made little muffled thumps on the papers each time they came down, n I thought, He ain’t gonna do nothin for me, not a man like him. What’s he care about island folk and their problems? His ass is covered, n that’s all he cares about.
So when he did speak up, I felt ashamed for what I’d been thinkin about men in general and him in particular.
“I can’t check something like that with you sitting right here, Mrs. St. George,” he says. “Why don’t you go down to The Chatty Buoy and order yourself a cruller and a nice hot cup of coffee? You look like you could use something. I’ll join you in fifteen minutes. No, better make it half an hour.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you so very much.”
He sighed and began shufflin the papers back together. “I must be losin my mind,” he says, then laughed kinda nervous-like.
“No,” I told him. “You’re helpin a woman who don’t have nowhere else to turn, that’s all.”
“Ladies in distress have always been a weakness of mine,” he says. “Give me half an hour. Maybe even a little longer.”
“But you’ll come?”
“Yes,” he said. “I will.”
He did, too, but it was closer to forty-five minutes than half an hour, and by the time he finally got to the Buoy, I’d pretty well made up my mind he was gonna leave me in the lurch. Then, when he finally came in, I thought he had bad news. I thought I could read it in his face.
He stood in the doorway a few seconds, takin a good look around to make sure there was nobody in the restaurant who might make trouble for him if we was seen together after the row I made in the bank. Then he came over to the booth in the corner where I was sittin, slid in acrost from me, and says, “It’s still in the bank. Most of it, anyway. Just under three thousand dollars.”
“Thank God!” I said.
“Well,” he says, “that’s the good part. The bad part is that the new account is in his name only.”
“Accourse it is,” I said. “He sure didn’t give me no new passbook account card to sign. That woulda tipped me off to his little game, wouldn’t it?”
“Many women wouldn’t know one way or the other,” he says. He cleared his throat, gave a yank on his tie, then looked around quick to see who’d come in when the bell over the door jingled. “Many women sign anything their husbands put in front of them.”
“Well, I ain’t many women,” I says.
“I’ve noticed,” he says back, kinda dry. “Anyway, I’ve done what you asked, and now I really have to get back to the bank. I wish I had time to drink a coffee with you.”
“You know,” I says, “I kinda doubt that.”
“Actually, so do I,” he says back. But he gave me his hand to shake, just like I was another man, and I took that as a bit of a compliment. I sat where I was until he was gone, and when the girl came back n asked me if I wanted a fresh cup of coffee, I told her no thanks, I had the acid indigestion from the first one. I had it, all right, but it wasn’t the coffee that give it to me.
A person can always find somethin to be grateful for, no matter how dark things get, and goin back on the ferry, I was grateful that at least I hadn’t packed nothing; this way I didn’t have all that work to undo again. I was glad I hadn’t told Selena, either. I’d set out to, but in the end I was afraid the secret might be too much for her and she’d tell one of her friends and word might get back to Joe that way. It had even crossed my mind that she might get stubborn and say she didn’t want to go. I didn’t think that was likely, not the way she flinched back from Joe whenever he came close to her, but when it’s a teenage girl you’re dealin with, anythin’s possible—anythin at all.
So I had a few blessings to count, but no idears. I couldn’t very well take the money outta the joint savings account me n Joe had; there was about forty-six dollars in it, and our checkin account was an even bigger laugh—if we weren’t overdrawn, we were damned close. I wasn’t gonna just grab the kids up and go off, though; no sir and no ma’am. If I did that, Joe’d spend the money just for spite. I knew that as well’s I knew my own name. He’d already managed to get through three hundred dollars of it, accordin to Mr. Pease . . . and of the three thousand or so left, I’d put at least twenty-five hundred away myself—I earned it scrubbin floors and warshin windows and hangin out that damned bitch Vera Donovan’s sheets—six pins, not just four—all summer long. It wasn’t as bad then as it turned out to be in the wintertime, but it still wasn’t no day in the park, not by a long shot.
Me n the kids were still gonna go, my mind was made up on that score, but I was damned if we was gonna go broke. I meant my children to have their money. Goin back to the island, standin on the foredeck of the Princess with a fresh open-water wind cuttin itself in two on my face and blowin my hair back from my temples, I knew I was going to get that money out of him again. The only thing I didn’t know was how.
Life went on. If you only looked at the top of things, it didn’t look like anything had changed. Things never do seem to change much on the island . . . if you only look at the top of things, that is. But there’s lots more to a life than what a body can see on top, and for me, at least, the things underneath seemed completely different that fall. The way I saw things had changed, and I s’pose that was the biggest part of it. I’m not just talkin about that third eye now; by the time Little Pete’s paper witch had been taken down and his pitchers of turkeys and Pilgrims had gone up, I was seein all I needed to with my two good natural eyes.
The greedy, piggy way Joe’d watch Selena sometimes when she was in her robe, for instance, or how he’d look at her butt if she bent over to get a dishcloth out from under the sink. The way she’d swing wide of him when he was in his chair and she was crossin the livin room to get to her room; how she’d try to make sure her hand never touched his when she passed him a dish at the supper-table. It made my heart ache for shame and pity, but it also made me so mad that I went around most days feelin sick to my stomach. He was her father, for Christ’s sake, his blood was runnin in her veins, she had his black Irish hair and double-jointed little fingers, but his eyes’d get all big and round if her bra-strap so much as fell down the side of her arm.
I seen the way Joe Junior also swung wide of him, and wouldn’t answer what Joe asked him if he could get away without doin it, and answered in a mutter when he couldn’t. I remember the day Joe Junior brought me his report on President Roosevelt when he got it back from the teacher. She’d marked it A-plus and wrote on the front that it was the only A-plus she’d given a history paper in twenty years of teachin, and she thought it might be good enough to get published in a newspaper. I asked Joe Junior if he’d like to try sendin it to the Ellsworth American or maybe the Bar Harbor Times. I said I’d be glad to pay for the postage. He just shook his head and laughed. It wasn’t a laugh I liked much; it was hard n cynical, like his father’s. “And have him on my back for the next six months?” he asks. “No thanks. Haven’t you ever heard Dad call him Franklin D. Sheenyvelt?”
I can see him now, Andy, only twelve but already purt-near six feet tall, standin on the back porch with his hands stuffed deep in his pockets, lookin down at me as I held his report with the A-plus on it. I remember the little tiny smile on the corners of his mouth. There was no good will in that smile, no good humor, no happiness. It was his father’s smile, although I could never have told the boy that.
“Of all the Presidents, Dad hates Roosevelt the most,” he told me. “That’s why I picked him to do my report on. Now give it back, please. I’m going to burn it in the woodstove.”
“No you ain’t, Sunny Jim,” I says, “and if you want to see what it feels like to be knocked over the porch rail and into the dooryard by your own Mom, you just try to get it away from me.”
He shrugged. He done that like Joe, too, but his smile got wide, and it was sweeter than any his father ever wore in his life when it did that. “Okay,” he said. “Just don’t let him see it, okay?”
I said I wouldn’t, and he run off to shoot baskets with his friend Randy Gigeure. I watched him go, holdin his report and thinkin about what had just passed between us. Mostly what I thought about was how he’d gotten his teacher’s only A-plus in twenty years, and how he’d done it by pickin the President his father hated the most to make his report on.
Then there was Little Pete, always swaggerin around with his butt switchin and his lower lip pooched out, callin people sheenies and bein kept after school three afternoons outta every five for gettin in trouble. Once I had to go get him because he’d been fightin, and hit some other little boy on the side of the head so hard he made his ear bleed. What his father said about it that night was “I guess he’ll know to get out of your way the next time he sees you comin, won’t he, Petey?” I saw the way the boy’s eyes lit up when Joe said that, and I saw how tenderly Joe carried him to bed an hour or so later. That fall it seemed like I could see everything but the one thing I wanted to see most . . . a way to get clear of him.
You know who finally gave me the answer? Vera. That’s right—Vera Donovan herself. She was the only one who ever knew what I did, at least up until now. And she was the one who gave me the idear.
All through the fifties, the Donovans—well, Vera n the kids, anyway—were the summer people of all summer people—they showed up Memorial Day weekend, never left the island all summer long, and went back to Baltimore on Labor Day weekend. I don’t know’s you could set your watch by em, but I know damn well you could set your calendar by em. I’d take a cleanin crew in there the Wednesday after they left and swamp the place out from stem to stern, strippin beds, coverin furniture, pickin up the kids’ toys, and stackin the jigsaw puzzles down in the basement. I believe that by 1960, when the mister died, there must have been over three hundred of those puzzles down there, stacked up between pieces of cardboard and growin mildew. I could do a complete cleanin like that because I knew that the chances were good no one would step foot into that house again until Memorial Day weekend next year.
There were a few exceptions, accourse; the year that Little Pete was born they come up n had their Thanksgiving on the island (the place was fully winterized, which we thought was funny, but accourse summer people mostly are funny), and a few years later they come up for Christmas. I remember the Donovan kids took Selena n Joe Junior sleddin with em Christmas afternoon, and how Selena come home from three hours on Sunrise Hill with her cheeks as red as apples and her eyes sparklin like diamonds. She couldn’t have been no more’n eight or nine then, but I’m pretty sure she had a crush the size of a pickup truck on Donald Donovan, just the same.
So they took Thanksgiving on the island one year and Christmas on it another, but that was all. They were summer people . . . or at least Michael Donovan and the kids were. Vera was from away, but in the end she turned out to be as much an island woman as I am. Maybe more.
In 1961 things started out just as they had all those other years, even though her husband had died in that car-crash the year before—she n the kids showed up on Memorial Day and Vera went to work knittin n doin jigsaw puzzles, collectin shells, smokin cigarettes, and havin her special Vera Donovan brand of cocktail hour, which started at five and finished around nine-thirty. But it wasn’t the same, even I could see that, n I was only the hired help. The kids were drawn-in and quiet, still mournin their Dad, I guess, and not long after the Fourth of July, the three of em had a real wowser of an argument while they were eatin at The Harborside. I remember Jimmy DeWitt, who waited tables there back then, sayin he thought it had somethin to do with the car.
Whatever it was, the kids left the next day. The hunky took em across to the mainland in the big motorboat they had, and I imagine some other hired hand grabbed onto em there. I ain’t seen neither one of em since. Vera stayed. You could see she wasn’t happy, but she stayed. That was a bad summer to be around her. She must have fired half a dozen temporary girls before Labor Day finally came, and when I seen the Princess leavin the dock with her on it, I thought, I bet we don’t see her next summer, or not for as long. She’ll mend her fences with her kids—she’ll have to, they’re all she’s got now—and if they’re sick of Little Tall, she’ll bend to them and go somewheres else. After all, it’s comin to be their time now, and she’ll have to recognize that.
Which only shows you how little I knew Vera Donovan back then. As far as that kitty was concerned, she didn’t have to recognize Jack Shit on a hill of beans if she didn’t want to. She showed up on the ferry Memorial Day afternoon in 1962—by herself—and stayed right through until Labor Day. She came by herself, she hadn’t a good word for me or anybody else, she was drinkin more’n ever and looked like death’s Gramma most days, but she came n she stayed n she did her jigsaw puzzles n she went down—all by herself now—n collected her shells on the beach, just like she always had. Once she told me that she believed Donald and Helga would be spending August at Pinewood (which was what they always called the house; you prob’ly know that, Andy, but I doubt if Nancy does), but they never showed up.
It was durin 1962 that she started comin up regular after Labor Day. She called in mid-October and asked me to open the house, which I did. She stayed three days—the hunky come with her, and stayed in the apartment over the garage—then left again. Before she did, she called me on the phone and told me to have Dougie Tappert check the furnace, and to leave the dust-sheets off the furniture. “You’ll be seeing a lot more of me now that my husband’s affairs are finally settled,” she says. “P’raps more of me than you like, Dolores. And I hope you’ll be seeing the children, too.” But I heard somethin in her voice that makes me think she knew that part was wishful thinkin, even back then.
She come the next time near the end of November, about a week after Thanksgivin, and she called right away, wantin me to vacuum and make up the beds. The kids weren’t with her, accourse—this was durin the school week—but she said they might decide at the last minute to spend the weekend with her instead of in the boardin schools where they were. She prob’ly knew better, but Vera was a Girl Scout at heart—believed in bein prepared, she did.
I was able to come right away, that bein a slack time on the island for folks in my line of work. I trudged up there in a cold rain with my head down and my mind fumin away like it always did in the days after I found out what had happened to the kids’ money. My trip to the bank had been almost a whole month before, and it had been eatin away at me ever since, the way bat’try acid will eat a hole in your clothes or your skin if you get some on you.
I couldn’t eat a decent meal, couldn’t sleep more’n three hours at a stretch before some nightmare woke me up, couldn’t hardly remember to change m’own underwear. My mind was never far from what Joe’d been up to with Selena, and the money he’d snuck out of the bank, and how was I gonna get it back again. I understood I had to stop thinkin about those things awhile to find an answer—if I could, one might come on its own—but I couldn’t seem to do it. Even when my mind did go somewheres else for a little bit, the least little thing would send it tumblin right back down that same old hole. I was stuck in one gear, it was drivin me crazy, and I s’pose that’s the real reason I ended up speakin to Vera about what had happened.
I surely didn’t mean to speak to her; she’d been as sore-natured as a lioness with a thorn in her paw ever since she showed her face the May after her husband died, and I didn’t have no interest in spillin my guts to a woman who acted like the whole world had turned to shit on her. But when I come in that day, her mood had finally changed for the better.
She was in the kitchen, pinnin an article she’d cut out of the front page of the Boston Globe to the cork bulletin board hung on the wall by the pantry door. She says, “Look at this, Dolores—if we’re lucky and the weather cooperates, we’re going to see something pretty amazing next summer.”
I still remember the headline of that article word for word after all these years, because when I read it, it felt like somethin turned over inside me. TOTAL ECLIPSE TO DARKEN NORTHERN NEW ENGLAND SKIES NEXT SUMMER, it said. There was a little map that showed what part of Maine would be in the path of the eclipse, and Vera’d made a little red pen-mark on it where Little Tall was.
“There won’t be another one until late in the next century,” she says. “Our great-grandchildren might see it, Dolores, but we’ll be long gone . . . so we better appreciate this one!”
“It’ll prob’ly rain like a bugger that day,” I says back, hardly even thinkin about it, and with the dark temper Vera’d been in almost all the time since her husband died, I thought she’d snap at me. Instead she just laughed and went upstairs, hummin. I remember thinkin that the weather in her head really had changed. Not only was she hummin, she didn’t have even a trace of a hangover.
About two hours later I was up in her room, changin the bed where she’d spend so much time layin helpless in later years. She was sittin in her chair by the window, knittin an afghan square n still hummin. The furnace was on but the heat hadn’t really took yet—those big houses take donkey’s years to get warm, winterized or not—and she had her pink shawl thrown over her shoulders. The wind had come up strong from the west by then, and the rain hittin the window beside her sounded like handfuls of thrown sand. When I looked out that one, I could see the gleam of light comin from the garage that meant the hunky was up there in his little apartment, snug as a bug in a rug.
I was tuckin in the corners of the ground sheet (no fitted sheets for Vera Donovan, you c’n bet your bottom dollar on that—fitted sheets woulda been too easy), not thinkin about Joe or the kids at all for a change, and my lower lip started to tremble. Quit that, I told myself. Quit it right now. But that lip wouldn’t quit. Then the upper one started to shimmy, too. All at once my eyes filled up with tears n my legs went weak n I sat down on the bed n cried.
If I’m gonna tell the truth, I might’s well go whole hog. The fact is I didn’t just cry; I put my apron up over my face and wailed. I was tired and confused and at the end of my thinkin. I hadn’t had anything but scratch sleep in weeks and couldn’t for the life of me see how I was going to go on. And the thought that kept comin into my head was Guess you were wrong, Dolores. Guess you were thinkin about Joe n the kids after all. And accourse I was. It had got so I wasn’t able to think of nothin else, which was exactly why I was bawlin.
I dunno how long I cried like that, but I know when it finally stopped I had snot all over my face and my nose was plugged up n I was so out of breath I felt like I’d run a race. I was afraid to take my apron down, too, because I had an idear that when I did, Vera would say, “That was quite a performance, Dolores. You can pick up your final pay envelope on Friday. Kenopensky”—there, that was the hunky’s name, Andy, I’ve finally thought of it—“will give it to you.” That woulda been just like her. Except anythin was just like her. You couldn’t predict Vera even back in those days, before her brains turned mostly to mush.
When I finally took the apron off my face, she was sittin there by the window with her knittin in her lap, lookin at me like I was some new and int’restin kind of bug. I remember the crawly shadows the rain slidin down the windowpanes made on her cheeks and forehead.
“Dolores,” she said, “please tell me you haven’t been careless enough to allow that mean-spirited creature you live with to knock you up again.”
For a second I didn’t have the slightest idear what she was talkin about—when she said “knock you up,” my mind flashed to the night Joe’d hit me with the stovelength and I hit him with the creamer. Then it clicked, and I started to giggle. In a few seconds I was laughin every bit as hard as I’d cried before, and not able to help that any more’n I’d been able to help the other. I knew it was mostly horror—the idear of bein pregnant again by Joe was about the worst thing I could think of, and the fact that we weren’t doin the thing that makes babies anymore didn’t change it—but knowin what was makin me laugh didn’t do a thing about stoppin it.
Vera looked at me a second or two longer, then picked her knittin up out of her lap and went back to it, as calm as you please. She even started to hum again. It was like havin the housekeeper sittin on her unmade bed, bellerin like a calf in the moonlight, was the most natural thing in the world to her. If so, the Donovans must have had some peculiar house-help down there in Baltimore.
After awhile the laughin went back to cryin again, the way rain sometimes turns to snow for a little while durin winter squalls, if the wind shifts the right way. Then it finally wound down to nothin and I just sat there on her bed, feelin tired n ashamed of myself . . . but cleaned out somehow, too.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Donovan,” I says. “I truly am.”
“Vera,” she says.
“I beg pardon?” I ast her.
“Vera,” she repeated. “I insist that all women who have hysterics on my bed call me by my Christian name thenceforward.”
“I don’t know what came over me,” I said.
“Oh,” she says right back, “I imagine you do. Clean yourself up, Dolores—you look like you dunked your face in a bowl of pureed spinach. You can use my bathroom.”
I went in to warsh my face, and I stayed in there a long time. The truth was, I was a little afraid to come out. I’d quit thinkin she was gonna fire me when she told me to call her Vera instead of Mrs. Donovan—that ain’t the way you behave to someone you mean to let go in five minutes—but I didn’t know what she was gonna do. She could be cruel; if you haven’t gotten at least that much out of what I been tellin you, I been wastin my time. She could poke you pretty much when n where she liked, and when she did it, she usually did it hard.
“Did you drown in there, Dolores?” she calls, and I knew I couldn’t delay any longer. I turned off the water, dried my face, and went back into her bedroom. I started to apologize again right away, but she waved that off. She was still lookin at me like I was a kind of bug she’d never seen before.
“You know, you startled the shit out of me, woman,” she says. “All these years I wasn’t sure you could cry—I thought maybe you were made of stone.”
I muttered somethin about how I hadn’t been gettin my rest lately.
“I can see you haven’t,” she says. “You’ve got a matching set of Louis Vuitton under your eyes, and your hands have picked up a piquant little quiver.”
“I got what under my eyes?” I asked.
“Never mind,” she says. “Tell me what’s wrong. A bun in the oven was the only cause of such an unexpected outburst I could think of, and I must confess it’s still the only thing I can think of. So enlighten me, Dolores.”
“I can’t,” I says, and I’ll be goddamned if I couldn’t feel the whole thing gettin ready to kick back on me again, like the crank of my Dad’s old Model-A Ford used to do when you didn’t grab it right; if I didn’t watch out, pretty soon I was gonna be settin there on her bed again with my apron over my face.
“You can and you will,” Vera said. “You can’t spend the day howling your head off. It’ll give me a headache and I’ll have to take an aspirin. I hate taking aspirin. It irritates the lining of the stomach.”
I sat down on the edge of the bed n looked at her. I opened my mouth without the slightest idear of what was gonna come out. What did was this: “My husband is trying to screw his own daughter, and when I went to get their college money out of the bank so I could take her n the boys away, I found he’d scooped up the whole kit n caboodle. No, I ain’t made out of stone. I ain’t made out of stone at all.”
I started to cry again, and I cried for quite awhile, but not so hard as before and without feelin the need to hide my face behind my apron. When I was down to sniffles, she said to tell her the whole story, right from the beginnin and without leavin a single thing out.
And I did. I wouldn’t have believed I could have told anyone that story, least of all Vera Donovan, with her money and her house in Baltimore and her pet hunky, who she didn’t keep around just to Simonize her car, but I did tell her, and I could feel the weight on my heart gettin lighter with every word. I spilled all of it, just like she told me to do.
“So I’m stuck,” I finished. “I can’t figure out what to do about the son of a bitch. I s’pose I could catch on someplace if I just packed the kids up and took em to the mainland—I ain’t never been afraid of hard work—but that ain’t the point.”
“What is the point, then?” she asked me. The afghan square she was workin on was almost done—her fingers were about the quickest I’ve ever seen.
“He’s done everything but rape his own daughter,” I says. “He’s scared her so bad she may never get all the way over it, and he’s paid himself a reward of purt-near three thousand dollars for his own bad behavior. I ain’t gonna let him get away with it—that’s the friggin point.”
“Is it?” she says in that mild voice of hers, and her needles went click-click-click, and the rain went rollin down the windowpanes, and the shadows wiggled n squiggled on her cheek and forehead like black veins. Lookin at her that way made me think of a story my grandmother used to tell about the three sisters in the stars who knit our lives . . . one to spin and one to hold and one to cut off each thread whenever the fancy takes her. I think that last one’s name was Atropos. Even if it’s not, that name has always given me the shivers.
“Yes,” I says to her, “but I’ll be goddamned if I see a way to do him the way he deserves to be done.”
Click-click-click. There was a cup of tea beside her, and she paused long enough to have a sip. There’d come a time when she’d like as not try to drink her tea through her right ear n give herself a Tetley shampoo, but on that fall day in 1962 she was still as sharp as my father’s cutthroat razor. When she looked at me, her eyes seemed to bore a hole right through to the other side.
“What’s the worst of it, Dolores?” she says finally, puttin her cup down and pickin up her knittin again. “What would you say is the worst? Not for Selena or the boys, but for you?”
I didn’t even have to stop n think about it. “That sonofawhore’s laughin at me,” I says. “That’s the worst of it for me. I see it in his face sometimes. I never told him so, but he knows I checked at the bank, he knows damned well, and he knows what I found out.”
“That could be just your imagination,” she says.
“I don’t give a frig if it is,” I shot right back. “It’s how I feel.”
“Yes,” she says, “it’s how you feel that’s important. I agree. Go on, Dolores.”
What do you mean, go on? I was gonna say. That’s all there is. But I guess it wasn’t, because somethin else popped out, just like Jack out of his box. “He wouldn’t be laughin at me,” I says, “if he knew how close I’ve come to stoppin his clock for good a couple of times.”
She just sat there lookin at me, those dark thin shadows chasin each other down her face and gettin in her eyes so I couldn’t read em, and I thought of the ladies who spin in the stars again. Especially the one who holds the shears.
“I’m scared,” I says. “Not of him—of myself. If I don’t get the kids away from him soon, somethin bad is gonna happen. I know it is. There’s a thing inside me, and it’s gettin worse.”
“Is it an eye?” she ast calmly, and such a chill swept over me then! It was like she’d found a window in my skull and used it to peek right into my thoughts. “Something like an eye?”
“How’d you know that?” I whispered, and as I sat there my arms broke out in goosebumps n I started to shiver.
“I know,” she says, and starts knittin a fresh row. “I know all about it, Dolores.”
“Well . . . I’m gonna do him in if I don’t watch out. That’s what I’m afraid of. Then I can forget all about that money. I can forget all about everythin.”
“Nonsense,” she says, and the needles went click-click-click in her lap. “Husbands die every day, Dolores. Why, one is probably dying right now, while we’re sitting here talking. They die and leave their wives their money.” She finished her row and looked up at me but I still couldn’t see what was in her eyes because of the shadows the rain made. They went creepin and crawlin all acrost her face like snakes. “I should know, shouldn’t I?” she says. “After all, look what happened to mine.”
I couldn’t say nothing. My tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth like an inchbug to flypaper.
“An accident,” she says in a clear voice almost like a schoolteacher’s, “is sometimes an unhappy woman’s best friend.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. It was only a whisper, but I was a little surprised to find I could even get that out.
“Why, whatever you think,” she says. Then she grinned—not a smile but a grin. To tell you the truth, Andy, that grin chilled my blood. “You just want to remember that what’s yours is his and what’s his is yours. If he had an accident, for instance, the money he’s holding in his bank accounts would become yours. It’s the law in this great country of ours.”
Her eyes fastened on mine, and for just a second there the shadows were gone and I could see clear into them. What I saw made me look away fast. On the outside, Vera was just as cool as a baby sittin on a block of ice, but inside the temperature looked to be quite a bit hotter; about as hot as it gets in the middle of a forest fire, I’d say at a guess. Too hot for the likes of me to look at for long, that’s for sure.
“The law is a great thing, Dolores,” she says. “And when a bad man has a bad accident, that can sometimes be a great thing, too.”
“Are you sayin—” I begun. I was able to get a little above a whisper by then, but not much.
“I’m not saying anything,” she says. Back in those days, when Vera decided she was done with a subject, she slammed it closed like a book. She stuck her knittin back in her basket and got up. “I’ll tell you this, though—that bed’s never going to get made with you sitting on it. I’m going down and put on the tea-kettle. Maybe when you get done here, you’d like to come down and try a slice of the apple pie I brought over from the mainland. If you’re lucky, I might even add a scoop of vanilla ice cream.”
“All right,” I says. My mind was in a whirl, and the only thing I was completely sure of was that a piece of pie from the Jonesport Bakery sounded like just the thing. I was really hungry for the first time in over four weeks—gettin the business off my chest done that much, anyway.
Vera got as far as the door and turned back to look at me. “I feel no pity for you, Dolores,” she said. “You didn’t tell me you were pregnant when you married him, and you didn’t have to; even a mathematical dunderhead like me can add and subtract. What were you, three months gone?”
“Six weeks,” I said. My voice had sunk back to a whisper. “Selena come a little early.”
She nodded. “And what does a conventional little island girl do when she finds the loaf’s been leavened? The obvious, of course . . . but those who marry in haste often repent at leisure, as you seem to have discovered. Too bad your sainted mother didn’t teach you that one along with there’s a heartbeat in every potato and use your head to save your feet. But I’ll tell you one thing, Dolores: bawling your eyes out with your apron over your head won’t save your daughter’s maidenhead if that smelly old goat really means to take it, or your children’s money if he really means to spend it. But sometimes men, especially drinking men, do have accidents. They fall downstairs, they slip in bathtubs, and sometimes their brakes fail and they run their BMWs into oak trees when they are hurrying home from their mistresses’ apartments in Arlington Heights.”
She went out then, closin the door behind her. I made up the bed, and while I did it I thought about what she’d said . . . about how when a bad man has a bad accident, sometimes that can be a great thing, too. I began to see what had been right in front of me all along—what I would have seen sooner if my mind hadn’t been flyin around in a blind panic, like a sparrow trapped in an attic room.
By the time we’d had our pie and I’d seen her upstairs for her afternoon nap, the could-do part of it was clear in my mind. I wanted to be shut of Joe, I wanted my kids’ money back, and most of all, I wanted to make him pay for all he’d put us through . . . especially for all he’d put Selena through. If the son of a bitch had an accident—the right kind of accident—all those things’d happen. The money I couldn’t get at while he was alive would come to me when he died. He might’ve snuck off to get the money in the first place, but he hadn’t ever snuck off to make a will cuttin me out. It wasn’t a question of brains—the way he got the money showed me he was quite a bit slyer’n I’d given him credit for—but just the way his mind worked. I’m pretty sure that down deep, Joe St. George didn’t think he was ever gonna die.
And as his wife, everything would come right back to me.
By the time I left Pinewood that afternoon the rain had stopped, and I walked home real slow. I wasn’t even halfway there before I’d started to think of the old well behind the woodshed.
I had the house to myself when I got back—the boys were off playin, and Selena had left a note sayin she’d gone over to Mrs. Devereaux’s to help her do a laundry . . . she did all the sheets from The Harborside Hotel in those days, you know. I didn’t have any idear where Joe was and didn’t care. The important thing was that his truck was gone, and with the muffler hangin by a thread the way it was, I’d have plenty of warnin if he came back.
I stood there a minute, lookin at Selena’s note. It’s funny, the little things that finally push a person into makin up her mind—sendin her from could-do to might-do to will-do, so’s to speak. Even now I’m not sure if I really meant to kill Joe when I came home from Vera Donovan’s that day. I meant to check on the well, yes, but that could have been no more than a game, the way kids play Let’s Pretend. If Selena hadn’t left that note, I might never have done it . . . and no matter what else comes of this, Andy, Selena must never know that.
The note went somethin like this: “Mom—I have gone over to Mrs. Devereaux’s with Cindy Babcock to help do the hotel wash—they had lots more people over the holiday weekend than they expected, and you know how bad Mrs. D.’s arthritis has gotten. The poor dear sounded at her wit’s end when she called. I will be back to help with supper. Love and kisses, Sel.”
I knew Selena’d come back with no more’n five or seven dollars, but happy as a lark to have it. She’d be happy to go back if Mrs. Devereaux or Cindy called again, too, and if she got offered a job as a part-time chambermaid at the hotel next summer, she’d prob’ly try to talk me into lettin her take it. Because money is money, and on the island in those days, tradin back n forth was still the most common way of life and cash a hard commodity to come by. Mrs. Devereaux would call again, too, and be delighted to write a hotel reference for Selena if Selena ast her to, because Selena was a good little worker, not afraid to bend her back or get her hands dirty.