All the little live thin.., p.21
All the Little Live Things, p.21Wallace Stegner
Several times during that sweaty afternoon I had caught Fran’s eyes on me, or caught her working in my direction. Evidently the shell game I had played on her hadn’t satisfied. She had peeked under my remarks and found no pea, and she was going to make the old thimblerigger go through his act again. No, that was unfair. She didn’t suspect me of rigging anything, she only felt she had missed the full discussion. Pontifex Maximus, that was who I was, and she hadn’t been able to read my bull.
But I didn’t feel like Pontifex Maximus. I felt like Josephus Arbiter, the Master of the Revels, and so I slipped Fran’s unaggressive but persistent pursuit. I kept clots of people between us, I failed to catch glances, I made strategic retreats to the toilet.
When I finally did find myself confronting the statue, I could feel the alcohol in my balance and my tongue, and I was again in the company of Annie Williamson. The patio had half cleared to watch Lucio and others dig out the pit where a hundred pounds of beef had been roasting in foil packages since noon. Some of the ladies, Ruth and Marian among them, were clearing the bar table and setting out plates and silver. I registered Marian’s activity long enough to be exasperated: Sit down and be enceinte, let somebody else do that. But my eye was promptly recaptured by the shadow that the statue’s coy leer threw on the east wall, a thing to scare you to death, and my ear was tuned to Annie’s confidential whisper, which would have rustled palm fronds at forty rods.
“Now you tell me,” she said. “You tell me. What is it?”
“Annie, you’ve been a judge in too many dog shows to be baffled by art. Look her over. Check out her points.”
Annie’s face was as brown and shiny as a buckeye, her arms were brown, her legs were brown, her badger-brush of hair bristled, her eyes were beginning to frost over. She gave me a look through blue cataracts, put her can of beer behind her and balanced it on her tailbone, and began to rotate around the figure. She examined its rear end for a good while, hands behind her, head sunk, lower lip jutting. If she had had a cigar she would have looked like a transvestite Winston Churchill in a fright wig. She bent, and her bifocally magnified eye glared at me through the navel. She straightened, shaking her head.
“It beats me. It’s got points, like you say. It’s got class. It could be Best of Show. But what the hell’s the breed?”
“I thig it’s a gollie,” I said.
Annie opened her eyes wide in contempt. Her bristly scalp snapped down and snapped back. Circling, she peered up under the hammer claws. “Good bite,” she said, and then, excitedly, “Say, the roof of her mouth is purple. That means chow blood.”
“But if she’s chow shouldn’t she have red hair?” I said. “You notice she hasn’t got any hair. And look at that brisket. Could she be a Mexican Topless?”
“Haw!” Annie said—one blat from an old rubber-bulb Model-T horn. She touched the carriage bar, which dangled like a withered right arm from the typewriter’s shoulder. “A pointer?” She leaned, trying to read the label on the rusted machine, and shook her head again. “Who ever heard of a Royal pointer?”
With her knuckles she knocked once, experimentally, on the galvanized skirt, which hummed out a resonant A. Old Joe Allston, that bald-headed cutup, threw a finger in the air, slopping his drink. “Annie, that did it! We’ve got it!”
She waited, glowering.
“My dear Watson,” I said, “it’s an Ashcan Hound.”
Babble, clatter, blurt, crash, Annie came down in laughter like somebody falling through a skylight. She fell upon me and embraced me, roaring. And as she did so the camera changed its angle and looked with Joe Allston over the damp gray head, straight into the face of Fran LoPresti, a dozen feet away. For the instant of contact her eyes flared as hot as the spit of her torch. The soft face wore every expression I never expected to see there—disappointment, rage, a distended ugly vanity, and hatred, hatred. Then the hostess look melted over her mouth and eyes, her face moistened and softened into the rubbery indulgent smile. Of course. Only Joe making one of his jokes. That vixenish expression? Illusion. How could you make a harpy out of blancmange?
But there for a split second had been the spirit that created Snaggletooth. And who had fetched it into the open? I, Pontifex Maximus, with my papal infallibility.
Damn people who puttered together junk art in their backyards and thought themselves Leonardo. Why couldn’t this foolish Fran LoPresti be a culture-club woman like anyone else? Why not concentrate on Russian visitors? Why not grow camellias? But my anger was more than half contrition, for I liked the silly woman. Sober, I would have taken pains to protect her from scoffers like myself.
For somewhere under the soft smile, soft voice, soft movements, away down below the cultivated emphysema and the skin that wouldn’t take sun and the hands that wore gloves for the slightest task, there was a dream. There was this woman, the dream went, who worked quietly, satisfying her own demanding standards without thought of fame, and in her country patio she accumulated statues, busts, herms, figures, mosaics, groups, shapes, forms, until one day a visitor, some Pontifex Maximus in a Homburg, found his way to that garden of art. How did he stand? He stood amazed. What could he not believe? He could not believe his eyes. He got out his checkbook, he claimed this, and this, and this. Tell no one, he said. Trust me. And hurried away to inform collectors and gallery owners and directors of museums. Within weeks the garden was a place of pilgrimage like Milles’ place outside Stockholm, and it was peopled with copies and castings of her works, plus some originals that she would not part with no matter how the world clamored for them. In later years she would receive there, gracious and brilliant, and her charming quiet daughter would rise from listening, and go out softly and come back bringing tea, being careful not to clack the cups and saucers while the visitors’ tape recorders were still on.
Oh, Jesus. Too soon oldt and too late schmardt.
Annie backed out of my arms wiping her eyes, saying, “Joe, you slay me. What did you say you were before you retired? One of the Marx brothers?”
“Shhhh,” I said. “Our Russian friends are easily offended.” And escaped, leaving her haw-hawing.
Backed against a tree in left field, I had time and sobriety enough to reflect that I had done to Fran precisely what I most loathe when it is done to me. I remembered an assistant coach at Illinois nearly fifty years back, who came into the locker room one day when I was alone in there, stripped, yanking at a stuck locker door. He stared at me with a dawning smile, put out a hand that closed clear around my biceps, and passed on, saying with a burble, “Take it easy, there, Muscles, you’ll pull the joint down.” Nothing he could ever have said to me, no subsequent friendliness, could have altered my perception that he had expressed his absolutely honest mind, and that therefore I hated him and always would. And did, standing there outside the party for the purpose of hating myself.
Or that box supper in Maquoketa, the shadow social where girls brought boxed meals and walked in turn between a light and a hung sheet so that men recognizing a shadow shape would bid five, ten, fifteen dollars for the cooking and the company and the Ladies’ Aid would raise a round sum. When a half dozen had crossed, and posed, and been bid up and knocked down, and come giggling and blushing off to join their purchasers, then what was that balloony shadow that appeared, a thing that even as shadow had three left feet? Laughter erupted all over the hall, most hearty and spontaneous. Hoots, wolf whistles, a bid of two bits, a raise to thirty cents, more laughter. The shadow hung a moment, lurched, spread, and was gone to the sound of heavy running feet. A door slammed. Suddenly silent, we sat there in front of the dusty American flag with the laughter dying off our faces, and would not look at one another.
I saw that girl every day in the bakery where she worked after school: a girl hastily helpful, easily embarrassed, hotly flushing. Time and silence will not have healed her. If she is still alive I am sure she has nights when the memory of those thirty seconds thunders in her ears and turns her
I would have to hunt Fran up and try to laugh or explain or apologize away my crude humor (it was the dhrink talkin’) and lead her back to the welded woman and fill her full of perceptive appreciation. I would have to lie my head off, because here the only kindness was to lie. I might even have to offer to buy the damned thing, and what if I should succeed? That scarecrow in our patio would drive away even the buzzards.
The locust swarm of young, wet-haired from swimming, came streaming in the drive. The olive and potato-chip crops were gone in seconds, the nut bowls emptied. While the younger ones prospected for Cokes in the cement mixer, the older ones poured themselves drinks under their indulgent parents’ eyes. I saw Debby, slippery and fast as a minnow, dart through the crowd to jam against her mother’s knees, talking excitedly around the neck of a Coke bottle. She made a brief, attractive picture, framed in Marian’s arm: Happy Childhood, authentically adjusted to country living. Marian had no need to worry about her any longer.
But then came another figure in a faded blue jersey and cut-off jeans, slouching with her face closed. Her dark hair was lankly wet, her legs heavy, her hips wide. On her seat the slick stain of bareback riding was a part of her natural coloration, like the scut of a deer. Not Happy Childhood she: Junior Alienation, rather. I saw Fran LoPresti, from the table, note her daughter’s presence. For a breath or two she stood with knives and forks in her hands, watching, before she turned and again began laying out the silver in handy piles. Julie skirted the edge of the patio as if to avoid people, and she looked out of the comers of her eyes to note and hate those who observed or greeted her. Expressionless, she noted and hated me.
She made her way to Marian’s chair and stood talking. Her hands were jammed unladylike in her hip pockets, her haunch swelled like the haunch of a Percheron mare. Opulent, in her way, a forming reservoir of fecundity. Give her a year to discover she was female, and Fran would look back upon her present difficulties as the golden age. Marian’s face was turned upward inquiringly. She looked concerned. She shook her head, saying something, and Debby took the Coke bottle out of her mouth and said something else. Julie shrugged, looking over her shoulder.
Now came a crowd of men and boys bearing smoking bundles of foil on a sheet of plywood. They set it on the end of the table, Lucio whetted his knife and with its point flicked the foil from a great roast. Women pressed paper plates into the hands of children and stood them in line. The developer came from inside with a gallon jug of wine in each hand. The alcohol-heightened shouting talk roared outward from the paved triangle like the barking of a thousand sea lions. When I could see again through the press, Marian had stood up and was getting Debby into line. Julie had gone.
From over near the west wing Ruth was flagging me to come and eat, but I, out in left field where I felt I belonged, indicated with my raised glass that I wanted to finish my drink first. I watched Fran, in her best haut blancmange, maneuver plates into the hands of the Russians, who fell back against the wall and sat down on a pile of planks, looking behind them first as if for tacks. By the time I had got them settled and looked for Fran again, she was hurrying around the house, heading toward the car-jammed driveway and the front yard.
It is a moment I would just as soon not recall. I am like a Monday-morning football fan watching the movies of a lost game, and arriving at the point where the home quarterback cocks his arm to throw the pass that will be intercepted and run back for the winning touchdown. Don’t throw it! groans the fan. Don’t go after her, I urge myself in recollection. But I was full of the half-drunken conviction that I must make my difficult peace.
Like so many things, it comes back by way of the nose. My memory hunts by scent, like a beagle, among a banquet of smells: the rich aroma of Lucio’s carving, odors of green concrete and adobe dust, a whiff of acetylene gas, the faint chlorine scent that the young had brought in their wet hair, the tang of gin and lime from my glass. In those odors is the whole jammed patio, the sticky, fading afternoon. And there goes Joseph Allston, a jaunty sport-shirted figure with a tanned head, around the corner after Fran LoPresti, whom he has just seriously offended. Brilliantly inadvertent, he bumbles right into mother and daughter, nose to nose in a bitter quarrel.
Julie was backed against the bumper and grill of a parked car, but she looked as if she might come out clawing at any minute. Fran was crowded close to her, her head sunk to bring her face close to that of her shorter daughter. Her throat and cheeks were mottled, she poured words into the girl’s face in a harsh, cutting whisper as different from her ordinary soft voice as the crackling of a down high-tension line is from the bubbling of a percolator.... spectacle of yourself ... dressed like that ... too good to say hello, is that it? ... not lift a hand to help ... all by myself, a hundred people ... other people’s daughters ... out with those beatniks, were you? ... now you listen to me, don’t get that look on your face ... never again, you hear? You HEAR? Answer me....
They heard or saw me, their heads jerked around from their mortal duel, their eyes stabbed me, Medusa and basilisk. Her lips still pointed like a beak, Fran grabbed her Gretchen braid in one hand with an exclamation. I saw her eyes flick off me to something behind, I saw the girl’s slow dark smolder of eyes on me for an instant, and then Fran had swung around and was walking toward the front door, and Julie, pushing herself away from the car’s radiator with a hunch of her behind, slouched off the other way, toward the stable. Turning myself, ready to flee or tiptoe, I saw the Russians getting into an old Plymouth. They were what Fran’s eyes had flicked to in the very moment of my interruption: one more grain of sand to her burden—obviously the Independence Day revels had not fascinated them.
I tried to tell myself that it was just as well I had interrupted. Whatever Fran was demanding of Julie, it did not look as if Julie was in any mood to submit, and their argument might have got even shriller, and drawn a crowd. But I didn’t persuade myself. I knew that the essential thing was that on top of my snickers at her art, I should demonstrate my infallibility by stumbling into them when the masks were off. Exposure of that kind she would hate as much as she hated ridicule. So I sneaked back and got my plate filled and found a seat beside Ruth and Marian and sat chewing Lucio’s delectable beef as if it had been unboiled rawhide. With food, the party noise had diminished, but it was still loud.
“Did you talk to Fran?” Marian said.
“I wondered. Julie was asking me if I didn’t want her to take Debby home after a while, and put her to bed, so I could stay at the party.”
“What did you say?”
“I said we weren’t staying longer than just to the beginning of the fireworks. I thought maybe she was wanting an excuse to slip off to Peck’s.”
“You think very clearly.”
“Is Fran upset?”
“Yes, I’d say she’s definitely upset.”
Her clear glance was clouded by a frown. Her mouth looked tired. “Damn! What should I do?” .
“Nothing,” I said. “Anything you could do would be wrong. Leave it to Fran to do something.”
It was growing dusky, but not so dark that I couldn’t see the droop of her mouth, the sag of her shoulders. She looked sad, her plate was hardly touched. It irritated me that she should fret herself over that goonish girl—in fact, it irritated me that the LoPresti family existed, at that moment—but I had no spirits left for cheering her. The only illumination in the patio came through the rectangle of the door, through which I could see two couples dancing, trying in their drink to be as young as their children, doing the frug or the watusi or the jerk, one of those rope-climbing, joint-dislocating dances. The bang-bang music pounded out through the door and I felt it
Somebody flipped a switch. Cones of light burst out above the shapes of driftwood and iron. Directly in front of us the welded woman stepped tall into the bug-streaked beam of a spot. Ahhhh! said the crowd, pleased at this ingenuity. I squinted, trying to see Fran, hoping she would come out and accept some dishonest praise and start feeling better. No sign of her.
“Do you really want to stay for the fireworks?” I said.
“I couldn’t drag Debby away before.”
“We could take you home and I could come back for her in the car.”
“Joe,” Ruth said, standing behind Marian with her hands on the slim shoulders and her eyebrows up into inverted V’s, “why don’t you go get the car now, and then we’ll all be ready to go as soon as Debby’s seen a few rockets.”
“Of course,” I said. “Good idea. I should have thought of that myself.” When I stood up, my legs told me that I was still not fully sober, and my head added that I would soon be hung over.
“But Joe’s been the life of the party!” Marian said. “Oh dear, I really botched everything, talking you into walking. I’m sorry. Please don’t leave because of me, you’re having so much fun.”
“An orgy of high spirits,” I said.
The smile, sympathetic, friendly, amused, lightened her face in the diffused glow of the spot. “What’s the matter?” she said. “One too many? Maybe Fran’s got some vitamin B. John swears by those.”
All the Little Live Things by Wallace Stegner / History & Fiction have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes