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Something Happened 10
"Do you like to be teased?" she asked me softly. And when I nodded, she said: "Who doesn't?"
Now that I think of it, she wasn't bad at all.
I don't know what happened to Tom (he could have been killed, for all I know or care); he left me his handwriting, and I still sit at a desk, in my office at the company or in my study at home, and use it I don't know what finally became of Marie Jencks. I never even found out what happened to me.
Mrs. Yerger, I sense, is still there. (The name is different, but the character is indestructible.) The Mrs. Yergers always survive, unattracted as they are to folly or indiscretion, and so do their grim-faced Mr. Yergers, if there are any (the Mrs. Yergers don't need them), who are indistinguishable from them by everything but gender and dress. The Mrs. Yergers become not only heads of the file room, but mayors, school principals, college deans, majors, judges, government attorneys, colonels, Selective Service board members, American Legion officials, attorney generals, Presidents of the United States of America, and managers of minor departments in companies like mine. Along with Green and Black and Horace White, I have played the part of tyrant myself at times with people in the company who are subordinate to me, and I play it often at home with my wife and my daughter and my son, and even at times with my idiot child, who also doesn't understand what's going on.
("How can you call him that?" my wife will lash out at me with strong emotion. "How can you talk about him that way? He's your own flesh and blood!"
"By definition," I will inform her coldly, "an idiot is any person who lacks the capacity to develop beyond a mental age of three or four, even if he is my own flesh and blood.") I abandon Kagle's limp for the time being and start around in back of her, observing her closely, through the corner of my eye, trying to see how closely she has been observing me (through the corner of her eye). She is not wearing her girdle (which is normally a reliable sign that she is in a cordial mood). The round-shouldered colored maid we have now is concealing herself in a far corner of our large kitchen, working noiselessly over a black wooden salad bowl we bought from a different round-shouldered colored woman in Jamaica during a vacation there. She is afraid of me (I think, and I am afraid of her). My wife stands at the stove, stirring red wine into a pan of dark meat that might be chicken livers or chunks of beef. The bottle of wine is more than half empty (or less than half full. Ha, ha). I move behind my wife very carefully toward a glass and some ice cubes (although I am tempted to shout Ole! when I think of my Cuban), and I try my best to Temember on what terms she and I parted this morning, or went to sleep last night, in order to know if she is still angry with me for something I did or didn't say or do that I am no longer even aware of.
Is she mad or is she glad? I can't remember. And I am unable to tell. So I remain on guard. I bend a bit nearer to her with a cracker and rolled anchovy and perceive suddenly that she is neither mad nor glad. It will make not the slightest difference to her whether we parted on good terms or bad, because she has forgotten too.
She has been drinking again, and I can tell, from her downcast look of furtive uncertainty, that she also is trying to recall whether we are friends tonight or not. (Am I mad or am I glad?) She is waiting for some sign from me. (Am I mad at her for something she said or did wrong or glad with her because she didn't?) I don't know why she is so afraid of me when I am so afraid of her. She is rigid and alert, contrite already (for what? God knows), tense as a bowstring as she stirs her simmering pan and hopes that I'm not angry with her for something she did or didn't say or do that she is unable to remember. It's almost enough to make me laugh.
"You're right," I say, just to get things going for both of us.
"Kagle," I say, and feign Kagle's limp for one step. "We had a few drinks."
"I'm glad they put you in a good mood."
The maid takes it all in spookily with averted eyes. My apprehensions gone, I move to my wife's side and kiss her lightly on the cheek. She turns her face up diffidently, still not completely sure. She smells of wine and expensive perfume.
"Hungry?" she asks.
"I will be. Looks good."
The maid glides past us to carry the salad bowl into the dining room.
"How is this one working out?" I ask.
"All right," my wife says. "I had some wine," she adds hastily. "I was using it to cook the chicken livers with. So I thought I'd better try some to make sure it's good."
"Is it good?"
"Good enough." She smiles. "Do you want some?"
"I'll have some bourbon."
"I'll have more wine."
"Kids all right?"
I am off to a fairly good start, I feel, and it may yet turn out that this evening at home will be pleasant. My wife is slightly on the defensive (which will make things easier for both of us). The children (thank heavens) have not come flying at me with grievances and demands. My daughter is in her room, on the telephone. My boy is in his room, watching television. (The set is on loud and I can hear it.) Neither has been much affected by the fact that I am there, that Daddy is home (and I am vaguely hurt by their neglect. A dog would have greeted me with more love). The maid still seems properly subjugated and gives no indication of any incipient Black rebellion. (We pay her well and treat her courteously, and she is probably more at ease in her position with me than I am in my position with her. I am not totally comfortable having maids.) Derek is not nearby, yawping or whimpering or trying to talk, and the nurse (or governess) we have for him now is not hanging around glaring at us as though he were our fault, as though we wanted him that way. (Her job, really, is not to nurse or govern, but to keep herself out of sight, and to keep him out of sight as much as possible, even though he is not disagreeable to look at or have around when he is playing quietly with some brightly colored book or infantile doodad.) They are leaving me be. I have my whiskey. Wife has her wine.
"What did you do today?" I ask routinely (before she can ask me).
"Nothing," she replies with a shrug, a confession of failure, a penitent admission that another day has been wasted. "Stayed home. Shopped. Rested. I slept."
"Anybody come over?"
That is good, if she is telling the truth, for it means that she has been drinking only wine, and probably no more than a little bit at a time, for too much wine makes her sick. I believe she is telling the truth, for I don't think my wife has learned how to lie to me yet. (My wife doesn't know how to flirt and doesn't know how to lie to me.) When she does have something she hopes to conceal, she remains silent about it and hopes I will not inquire. (If I ask, she will always tell me. She doesn't like to lie.) I cooperate by not prying when I sense she has a secret she wants to protect. I try to keep away from whatever I think she is trying to hide. I suspect she does the same for me (I suspect she knows a great deal more about me than she discloses). Our conversations, therefore, are largely about nothing, and frequently restrained.
"See you soon," I say, and start away in back of her with my drink. "I want to read the mail."
She nods. I pat her softly on the fanny as I pass. She is pleased, grateful, and presses her ungirdled ass back into my hand with a leer of lewd and tipsy delight.
"Later?" she says. "I hope you're in the mood."
"You know me," I laugh.
I'm sorry to see her this way. (It's not the way she used to be.) I may not love her anymore, but I've known her a long time now, and I do not feel like shouting Ole.
I'm sorry my wife drinks now in the afternoon, and perhaps takes a drink or two in the morning as well. I try not to say anything to her about it. That would be humiliating, and I would not want her to fear I was going to start bullying her about that, too. Usually, she will use some offhand way of informing me she's had a little something to drink that afternoon; she met her sister, or the wife of somebody, for lunch or fabric-shopping and had a cocktail or double scotch before coming home,
or, as she did just now, she has been cooking with wine. Sometimes she will want to tell me but wait too long and won't, and I will have the feeling then that she is trembling inside herself, wondering if I have noticed and will criticize. (My wife is afraid of me; I don't particularly want her that way, but it makes things easier.) At times I pity her.
She has never been drunk in the daytime (she does get drunk at parties and have a good time--although never at any of our own. My wife is a superior hostess), and neither of the children has ever remarked about her drinking at home during the day, so it may be that she has not let them notice. But I remember that she never used to drink at all; I remember that she never used to flirt. (She never used to swear.) And she is still religious; she goes to church most Sundays and tries to make the rest of us go too. (None of us want to. Once in a while we will, when I decide it's a small enough way of paying her a favor we owe. She isn't quite sure about the minister we have now, and neither am I.) My wife is also starting to learn how to use dirty words (in much the same self-conscious way other women take up painting at an advanced age or enroll in adult education courses in psychology, art history, or Jean-Paul Sartre). She is not much good at that, either. Her hell's and damn's carry too much emphasis, although her Oh shit's have the ring of authority by now. She is not as convincing as the rest of the men and women in our several social groups in the jaded indifference we affect toward obscenity. My fifteen-year-old daughter is already much better than my wife with dirty words. My daughter uses dirty language with us liberally in order to impress us with her intelligence; often, she uses it directly at us (especially at my wife), probing to see how far she will be allowed to go. (She's not allowed to go far by me.) And my boy, I can tell, is working up the courage to experiment at home with a dirty word or two. (He isn't sure what the word fuck means, although he knows it's dirty. He was under the impression fuck was the word for sexual intercourse, until I told him it usually wasn't.) It is painful for me to recall how my wife was, to know the kind of person she used to be and would have liked to remain, and to see what is happening to her now, as it is painful for me to witness the deterioration of any human being who has ever been dear (or even near) to me, even of chance acquaintances, or total strangers. (A spastic can affect me profoundly, and a person with some other kind of facial or leg paralysis can immobilize me with repugnance. I want to look away. I resent blind people when I see them on the street, grow angry with them for being blind and in danger on the street, and glance about desperately for somebody else to step alongside them before I have to guide them safely across the intersection or around the unexpected sidewalk obstruction that throws them abruptly into such pathetic confusion. I will not let myself cope with such human distress; I refuse to accept such reality; I dump it all right down into my unconscious and sit on it as hard as I can. Let it all come out in bad dreams if it has to. I forget them anyway as soon as I wake up.) Martha the typist, that young, plain girl in our office who has bad skin and is going crazy, is a total stranger to me and was already well on her way toward going crazy when she was sent upstairs to us by Personnel (to finish going crazy); I am not responsible; I do not know her; I do not know her mother in Iowa who has married again and will not take her back, or her father (if she still has a father), or anyone else among the many people in this world who should be close to her; yet, if I let it, it could break my heart that she is going crazy. I say nothing to her about how I feel (or could feel). But I always speak kindly to her. My manner is undisceming. I try not to let her see I care anything at all about what is happening to her (she might turn to me for help, if she knew I knew), and I try not to let myself care. I try not to let her see I know. (She might not know it yet herself.) It would probably be upsetting for her to learn that everyone around her knew she was going crazy.
So I am silent with Martha, and I am silent with my wife, out of the same coarse mixture of sympathy and self-interest, about her drinking and flirting and dirty words, as I was silent also with my mother when she had the first of her brain strokes, and am silent also with everyone else I know in whom I begin to perceive the first signs of irreversible physical decay and approaching infirmity and death. (I write these people off rapidly. They become dead records in my filing system long before they are even gone, at the first indications that they have begun to go.) I say nothing to anybody about anything bad once I see it's already too late for anyone to help. I said nothing to my mother about her brain stroke, even though I was with her when it happened and was the one who finally had to make the telephone call for the doctor. I did not want her to know she was having a brain stroke; and when she did know, I didn't want her to know I knew.
I pretended not to notice when her tongue began rattling suddenly against the roof of her mouth during one of my weekly visits to the apartment in which she lived alone. The same splintered syllable, the same glottal stutter, kept coming out. I masked my surprise and hid my concern. She broke off, that first time, with a puzzled, almost whimsical look, smiled faintly in apology, and tried again to complete what she had started to say. The same thing happened. It happened the next time she tried. And the next. And the time after that, her attempt was not whole-hearted; she seemed to know in advance it was futile, that it was too late. She felt all right otherwise. But she nodded when I suggested we get a doctor; and as I telephoned, the poor old woman sat down and surrendered weakly with a mortified, misty-eyed, bewildered shrug. (She was frightened. And she was ashamed.) The doctor explained patiently afterward that it was probably not a clot but only a spasm (there was no such things as strokes, he said; there were only hemorrhages, clots, and spasms) in a very small blood vessel in her brain. (Had the affected blood vessel been a larger one, she would have suffered paralysis too on one side and perhaps loss of memory.) But she never spoke again for as long as she lived, although she continued, forgetfully, to try (out of habit, I suppose, rather than from any expectations of success) until the second in her series of spasms (or strokes), and then stopped trying. I would visit her in the nursing home (where she hated to be); I would do all the talking and she would listen and motion for the things she wanted or rise from her chair or bed (until she could no longer stand up, either) and go for them herself. Occasionally, she would jot a request on a scrap of paper. I never mentioned her stroke to her or referred to any of the other growing disabilities that appeared and crept over her remorselessly (arthritis, particularly, and a pervasive physical and mental indolence that blended finally into morbid apathy) as I sat by her bedside during my visits and talked to her about pleasant matters, soon running out of things to say about me, my wife, my children, and my job that I thought might make her feel good. She never knew that Derek had been born with serious brain damage, although she did know he had been born. I always told her he was fine. (I always told her everybody was fine.) We didn't know it either about Derek until he was a few years old, and by then it was too late: we'd already had him; he had already happened. (I wish I were rid of him now, although I don't dare come right out and say so. I suspect all of us in the family feel this way. Except, possibly, my boy, who may reason that if we did get rid of Derek, we could get rid of him, too, and is already concerned that we secretly intend to. My boy watches and absorbs everything having to do with us and Derek, as though waiting to see how we finally dispose of him, which is something, he senses, that sooner or later we will probably have to do.) My conversation to my mother, like my visits, was of no use to her. I pretended, by not speaking of it, for my sake as well as for hers (for my sake more than for hers) that she was not seriously ill and in a nursing home she hated, that she was not crippled and growing older and more crippled daily. I did not want her to know, as she did know (and I knew she knew), as she knew before I did, that she was dying, slowly, in stages, her organs failing and her faculties withering one by one. I brought her food (which, toward the end, when her mind was gone almost entirely and she could barely recollect who I was for more than a minute or two, she would sei
ze with her shriveled fingers and devour ravenously right from the wrapping paper like some famished, caged, wizened, white-haired animal--my mother). I pretended she was perfect and said nothing to her about her condition until she finally died. I was no use to her (except to bring her food), as I am no help now to our typist who is going insane right before my eyes, and am no help either to my wife with her drinking and her flirting and her other rather awkward efforts to be vital and gay. (I have visions these days when I am lying alone in strange beds in hotels or motels, trying to put myself to sleep, of being assailed by filthy hordes of stinging fleas or bedbugs against which I am utterly inept because I am too squeamish to endure them and have no other place to go.) I don't want my wife ever to find out she drinks too much at parties and sometimes behaves very badly with other people and makes an extremely poor impression when she thinks she is making a very good one! If she did (if she ever had even an inkling of how clumsy and overbearing she sometimes becomes), the knowledge would crush her (she would be destroyed), and she is already dejected enough.
At home during the day, she drinks only wine; in the evening, before or after dinner, she might drink scotch if I do. Many evenings we will not drink at all. She doesn't really like the taste of whiskey (although she is starting to enjoy the taste of martinis and to welcome that numbing-enlivening effect they mercifully produce so quickly) and doesn't know how to mix cocktails. At parties now, she will drink whatever's handed her as soon as we walk in and try to get a little high as quickly as she can. Then she will stick to that same drink for the rest of the evening. If things have been fairly comfortable between us that day and she is feeling secure, she will have a loud, jolly, friendly good time, with me and everyone else, until she gets drunk (if she does), and sometimes dizzy and sick, and no real harm will be done, although she used to be a quiet, modest girl, somewhat shy and refined, almost demure, always tactful and well-mannered.