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“Jellyfish” by Thomas Beer

Published: April 4, 2017

A Saturday Evening Post regular and writer of more than 100 short stories in the early twentieth century, Thomas Beer was best known for his biography of Stephen Crane as well as his novel The Mauve Decade. Beer’s fiction evokes metaphors and complexity of characters that preceded work along the same vein from William Faulkner. “Jellyfish” is Thomas Beer’s 1919 short story concerned with the responsibility of military service, or refrain from it, as it relates to a sailor’s domestic life. 

Mayberry Street has a singular summer music of its own, quite independent of the locust trees that overhang its pleasant length. After breakfast the veranda rocking chairs commence a calm creaking, which goes on with a silent interlude at luncheon time, until the wind comes cool from the shallow charming bay and the ladies of the dozen boarding houses go in to dress for dinner. In the dark hours the melody is much disturbed by the feet of young men and the clamor of virgins. Cigarette sparks move and flicker on the various steps, and sometimes there are bursts of amorous song.

Mr. Cooley preferred Mayberry Street by night. In daytime the slow movement of the placid ladies and the gentle flutter of their light sedate garments roused something acid in his nature. He could not walk past the verandas, undergoing polite inspection, without a desire to curse aloud. He loathed Mrs. Bayne’s boarding house as much as his wife delighted in it; and he chose to say so on a July evening when hooking Mrs. Cooley’s gown.

“Oh, don’t be so silly, George!” said Mrs. Cooley, tranquilly powdering her chins. “It’s the nicest place we’ve been in for years. And I couldn’t think of offending Mrs. Bayne by leaving, when we’ve taken her best room for the whole season.”

“Damn Mrs. Bayne!” Cooley grunted, breaking a finger nail.

“Now, George!”

“She and her daughters and her sisters,” he raged, “and all the rest of the old women!”

“Really, George!”

“The whole street’s a regular henroost,” he declared.

“Oh, I suppose” — she sighed — “you’d like a lot of bars and bowling alleys! George, there isn’t a single woman in this house who isn’t a lady. And Mrs. Bayne’s husband was a naval officer.”

“I hope some of his other widows,” Cooley sneered, “have more sense than she’s got.”

However, he admitted to himself that Mrs. Bayne had a financial grasp. The old house, he reckoned, cost nothing for repairs. Its handsome chambers were of the solid building favored by rich whaling captains. Its deep garden supplied much of the excellent food. It threw a patrician, permanent air over the boarders; and they paid accordingly.

“I think,” said Mrs. Cooley, “that Mrs. Bayne and her sisters are perfectly sweet; and so are the girls. I think it’s very pathetic that they have to take boarders, and I do wish Mrs. Bayne’s son would hurry up and get out of the Army, so as to take some of the burden off her.”

“I can’t see that she looks very squashed down,” Cooley stated.

“And if they’re so doggone poor why don’t the dear sweet girls go and work in the kitchen — or she — or her sisters? This is the second year we’ve been here and all I’ve heard out of Mrs. Bayne is: ‘Oh, if Henry was only home, so as to — ’”

“You’d better change your collar,” said Mrs. Cooley; “there’s the dinner gong.”

People at a windowDinner irritated Cooley. Mrs. Bayne and her sisters — the Misses Lovett — were large pretty women. The Bayne daughters were also pretty; and the family group had an aureole of plaintive comfort, a dignified pathos. He could not imagine them in wrappers, scrubbing the kitchen floor. He could not imagine them in any useful posture; and all their guests, he thought, were of the same sort. He included Mrs. Cooley in this condemnation; he had been married thirty years.

“They’d a lot rather pay twenty-five a week and have somebody else make them comfortable than do anything for themselves,” he said, resuming the argument at bedtime.

“Well,” yawned Mrs. Cooley, “why not? And things are so expensive, George! Poor Mrs. Bayne has to pay that Portuguese boy a dollar a day just to pull vegetables and make ice cream. If her son was home — ”

“She’d save a dollar a day,” snapped Cooley. “Why doesn’t she let one of her daughters grind the ice cream freezer?”

“Good heavens, George,” said his wife, “that would never do!”

Cooley, having no taste for tennis or swimming, fretted a good deal over the interior politics of Mrs. Bayne’s establishment. It appeared insensate that Grace and Hilda should do nothing — outside the routine of manhunting; that the Misses Lovett — flatly their sister’s pensioners — should remain unoccupied. He could not see why Mrs. Bayne should hire a gaunt fisherman’s wife for the mending of her linen. His feelings, he found, were shared by the old captains who talked of whaling days so perpetually under the portico of the town library and limped up Ocean Street with gloomy stares at the summer folk.

“If it wasn’t for Henry Bayne,” said the venerable Eothen Hussey, “them women’d ‘a’ died of starvation. They’re bone idle an’ good for less’n nothing.”

“So Henry’s a good man of business?”

The venerable Eothen pondered, prodding the roots of an elm.

“I should guess so. His pa dyin’ when he was sixteen, he’d got to be. Yes; Henry’s a smart mower, I guess. He planted the garden. There wasn’t nothin’ but pansies there. He does all the chores. Yes; Henry’s a good kind of boy.”

The boarding ladies, on the other hand, knew nothing about Henry Bayne, though some of them had spent five summers under Mrs. Bayne’s care. Cooley assumed that the young man was self-effacing; but he was not prepared for Henry’s complete disappearance on arrival. The discharged soldier came and vanished. If Cooley had not seen his welcome home the existence of Henry in the house would have been unbelievable.

The noon steamboat whistled twice — once outside the long breakwaters that guard the harbor’s mouth, and once as it came to dock, and shortly there were carriages scattering past Mrs. Bayne’s veranda, bearing the pallor of new visitors. Cooley, smoking his pipe on the steps, noted these people and listened to the talk behind him. The Lovett sisters were praising Mrs. Bayne’s fortitude, in duet, for a chorus of ladies. It seemed that yesterday she personally had overseen the cleaning of the luncheon crabs.

“And the kitchen,” said one Lovett, “is so dreadfully hot!”

And a person has to stand over servants these days,” said the other. “You simply can’t trust them!”

The chorus groaned its assent. Cooley bit his pipestem, restraining oaths. A man in soldier clothes turned the corner from Ocean Street, striding along with a suitcase in one hand, the other swinging broadly; and Cooley stared at him with some relief of spirit. The delicate dialogue was rasping his self-respect; apparently effort was degrading to the Lovett sisters. The military person was tall and carried his big suitcase easily; so easily that he lifted it over Cooley’s head as he strode up the veranda steps.

“Why, Henry!” said the Lovetts.

There was a great screeching of rockers. The chorus of ladies rose, Cooley heard; and he heard Mrs. Bayne come out the front door, with an exclamation:

“Mercy, Henry! Did you see the girls at the dock? They were saying good-by to Miss Tyson.”

“No,” said Henry calmly; “I didn’t see them. Is anybody in my room?”

“Oh, no, dear. I couldn’t think of putting anyone in your room! I’m so glad you’ve come. Do see if you can get the freezer to work. I can’t think what’s the matter with it.”

“All right!”

“By gad!” whispered Cooley, dropping the pipe from his teeth.

He got up and walked hastily along the respectable street, swearing horribly. It was a hot day and he left his cap on the steps. Presently he thought the brains had commenced to boil inside his bald head. Certainly he was not quite sane, for, rounding a corner, he met a shabby old woman in black, and addressed her shamelessly:

Woman at a window“If you had a son, and he came back from France, what would you do?”

The old woman looked at Cooley for a minute, putting a hand on her flat breasts, and grew very white.

“If Eddie could come back from France,” she said, “I’d fall down on my knees an’ praise Mary an’ all the saints there is; an’ I’d be a better mother to him than ever I was; an’ — God hears me — I did my best!”

She became a blur in Cooley’s eyes, which abruptly filled with burning dampness. He gave her a foolish bow.

“I just heard a woman meet her boy. Do you know what she told him? She told him to go and freeze the ice cream for lunch!”

“You’re a liar!” said the Irish woman. “There isn’t a woman living would do such a thing!”

At luncheon Cooley noticed that the ice cream was very good; but there was not another place set at the Bayne table, though all Henry’s relatives were smiling. Their light gowns seemed more crisp than usual and they spoke cheerfully of driving out to the golf links for tea.

“Isn’t it nice,” said Mrs. Cooley, “that Henry’s come home? It gives them so much more freedom!”

“I’m thinking of taking the whole lot out in a catboat and scuttling the boat!” Cooley answered.

“George,” his wife sighed, “I really think you’re perfectly silly!”

Henry did not come to dinner or to any following meal; but the songs of the Portuguese youth in the backyard were replaced by American whistling, and Cooley fancied that the ax sounded more vigorously in the woodshed. From the listening post of his bedroom he heard grocers’ boys and such chatting about bloodshed with a grave-voiced male; but it was a week before he saw Henry crouching in the bean forest of the kitchen garden and stalked him, observing his stained overalls and fifty-cent canvas shoes.

“Good day,” he mentioned.

Henry admitted that it was a good day and went on stripping beans into a tin pan, expecting some complaint about last night’s food.

“I was wondering,” said Cooley, “if you wouldn’t come sailing with me this afternoon.”

He made this offer timidly. He had no sons and his partners in the Detroit foundry were as old and potbellied as himself. He had no business playing with a long young fellow — a fighting man. Henry squatted, silent, alarmed by this condescension. However, it was his duty to please the tenant of the best room, and sailing away from Mayberry Street was something.

“I don’t see why I can’t.”

“Well then,” said Mr. Cooley, “let’s sneak off after lunch. I’ll meet you at the post office.”

He parried his wife’s attempt to take him driving and found Henry at the post office reading a letter.

“I expect,” Cooley suggested, “that you can sail a boat pretty well.”

“Oh, yes,” said Henry. “Let’s get one of Obed Bunkers’ tubs.”

Very dutifully he tried to put this most important letter out of his mind, though it crackled in his pocket, and selected one of Obed Bunkers’ catboats at the dank pier, helped his host into it and made sail.

The bay glittered like new brass under the sun, and its rim of sand bluffs and sandspurs shimmered white. The brown sail was barely filled and the boat glided steadily, its feeble wake leaving the clean bottom visible; so Henry could notice how little changed were the habits of pirate crabs and minnows in his absence. Cooley saw the smile.

“I expect,” he said, “you’re mighty fond of this island.”

“Oh, I don’t know! But I haven’t been sailing for a long time.”

Henry looked back at the town’s lovely profile of elms and spires, with the absurd whale walks floating like rafts among the trees and the windmill stretching its idle arms. He had come home to bondage; but there was, perhaps, some gilt on the chains. At least, pride made him say so.

“It’s a nice old place.”

“I should think,” said Cooley, “it would get hellish tiresome in winter.”

“It does.”

“And what do you do in the winter?”

“Work in the bank, sir.”

“My Lord Jehoshaphat!” said Cooley. “And what do your mother and your sisters and your aunts do?”

“Oh, nothing — that is, they go to Boston sometimes.”

“But you don’t,” Cooley asserted; “you stay here and work in the bank.”

Conversation halted, though they were thinking the same thing — that it was a dull existence. Cooley thought so from the vantage of Detroit; Henry, after twenty months of cities and camps and freedom. Also, he wondered whether another row between the cook and the head waitress would break out before dinner. But politeness bade him talk:

“I think you live in Detroit, sir. My captain’s from Detroit. He’s cashier of a bank — the Provost National.”

“Young Moulton? Yes; I know him. Fine fellow too.”

“Isn’t he?” Henry beamed. “I just got a letter from him.”

This provided a springboard. The sail flapped while they discussed Captain Moulton and fell still while Henry talked about battles. It developed that he had been Moulton’s top sergeant. Mr. Cooley’s deep reading of war news had taught him that a top sergeant, though less in degree than divisional commanders, is to be reverenced. He demanded the secret of Germany’s collapse and forgot that his neck was blistering. Henry leaned on the useless tiller and spoke. No one in Mayberry Street had asked about these matters. He even showed Mr. Cooley the queer purple streak across his biceps, which did not interfere with the freezing of ice cream.

“It must be funny to go through all that and come back here,” said Cooley, and glanced at the barely vibrant water. “Hello! Jellyfish!”

“It’s the sun,” Henry told him; “they like it.”

Just below the surface, now rising, now gracefully descending toward the shadow, they glistened, pink, mauve and silver — a hundred translucent, languid bodies. The light shot through their drifting fringes and round heads, courting the glow. Cooley stared at their lazy motion contemptuously.

“What do they live on?” he grunted. “They couldn’t catch anything.”

“Oh, bugs and chips of seaweed. They just run into things. The water feeds them.”

“All they’ve got to do,” Cooley said, “is eat and float — huh?”

Anger at anything so impertinent seized him. He grasped the boat hook and began to thrash the water. The jellies drew off and sank, still dignified, into the lower calm.

“I’ve a lot more use for a shark,” Cooley panted.

“Oh, well,” said Henry; “they don’t do any harm. They sting a bit if you run into them… ”

Enough wind rose late in the afternoon and they got home. The breach between the cook and the head waitress had not visibly deepened. Henry was glad, though his sisters reproached him courteously for failing to mend the veranda swing.

“Well, I’m mighty sorry. All you’ve got to do, though, is to tack the slats back. I’ll do it now.”

“Oh, no, Henry!” said Grace. “Everyone’s out in the chairs.”

“Well — thunder! — none of them knew me from Adam. I can’t see — ”

“Oh, no, Henry,” said Hilda; “that wouldn’t do!”

“All right! I’ll fix it while they’re at dinner,” he promised.

Cooley caught sight of him through the curtains and dropped his soup spoon. Against the afterglow the young man’s square chin and straight nose had the heroic romance of a well-designed poster.

“What a lot of hogs there are in the world!” he remarked.

“Good gracious, George! I think you were out in the sun too long. You’re dreadfully red!”

“Sixteen times twenty-five,” said Cooley, “is four hundred.” He was calculating the weekly income of Mrs. Bayne. Mrs. Cooley glared at him, frightened. “Let’s call it three months — the season. Three times sixteen hundred is forty-eight hundred; less taxes, servants’ pay, and so on. Three thousand, anyhow. She gets a pension? — I mean Mrs. Bayne.”

“Yes; some dreadfully little thing. She told me once that if they didn’t own this house they’d have nothing in the world but five hundred dollars a year. George, I’ve decided to ask the girls out for a month next winter.”

“If you do that,” he hissed, “I’ll spend every cent I’ve got on whisky; and I’ll come home drunk every night. So help me George Washington!”

Henry’s room was directly beneath the slates, and these had heated all day; so a smell of old wall paper lay heavy about his bed, conquering cigarette smoke. He sweated on the sheets and remembered, for comparison, the lower hold of the Caronia one night when the ventilators jammed. A passage from Captain Moulton’s letter buzzed in his ears:

“Though I know you would hate leaving home so soon after getting back, I should be very glad to have you here with me; and there is a good job waiting, any time you want it — two thousand a year. I know you can handle it.”

A wind crept through the tiny windows and stirred the circles of stagnant smoke into shapes like the languid jellyfish of that afternoon. Two thousand a year! He made ten a week at the bank — in winter. He had been making that ever since he was sixteen. If Robert Bunker died, sometime he would be promoted to twenty-five. Two thousand! It shouted itself. Henry got out of bed and walked round the floor.

“I do wish,” muttered Mrs. Cooley, “that Henry would stop tramping! I can’t get to sleep.”

“I’ll go up and stop him,” said her husband.

“I wish you would. I don’t like to speak to Mrs. Bayne about it. It hurts her so when she thinks — ”

“Ha!” Cooley snarled. “I’m glad something hurts her. I didn’t think anything could.”

He climbed the stairs and detected Henry’s door by the margin of light. The smoke made him sneeze and the heat brought sweat through his pyjamas instantly. He was not surprised that Henry did not wear night clothes. It appeared pure reason.

“I’m sorry,” said the guilty one. “I forgot you’d be in bed… Could a fellow live in Detroit on a thousand a year?”

“A fellow could. Got another cigarette? . . . I suppose you look after the furnace winters?”

“Yes.”

“And you’re twenty-five years old?”

“Yes, sir,” said Henry.

Mr. Cooley lit a cigarette and examined the shelf of books and the chair with one leg replaced by a wooden peg. After a while he turned an odd look of anger on Henry.

“When I was a kid my dad bought a colt. Well, he needed a plow horse pretty bad; so we broke in Hercules. I was plowing with hiss one day and a fellow drove by in a buggy and stopped. ‘That’s a good puller,’ he said. ‘So-so!’ said dad. ‘I’ll buy him off you for two hundred dollars,’ the man said. After dad got his breath he told me to unhitch Hercules. And that’s the last I saw of him — except his pictures every time he smashed things up at Saratoga… Well, good night!”

Henry was eating breakfast in the pantry when his mother came to him, smiling. Her white linen gown was fresh and her cheeks were very pink with the cool morning.

“I’m so glad I found you. Mrs. Fitch wants her bed moved to the other end of her room and the window doesn’t work in Mrs. Pell’s room.”

“I’ll fix them,” he said.

“And don’t forget about the bluefish for dinner.”

“I won’t forget.”

“Don’t, please! I’m going driving with Mrs. Cooley now. Oh, yes — tell Sarah she forgot Mrs. Pell’s ice water last night. It’s so nice,” she added, “having you home again, dear. It was so hard last summer! What’s that mark on your arm?”

“Just a bruise,” he said, rolling his sleeve down.

His whole body ached. He had not slept and there was a sour suffocating taste in his throat. He wanted to yell:

“That’s a scar! There were shells exploding all round my battery last summer. It was hot. Our canteens gave out. After I got hit my captain gave me the last swallow out of his. When we went forward we came on bodies smashed open, which were still alive and howled. It must have been hard — going riding with the boarders! You make me sick!”

Instead of this, he stood smiling before her pinkness until she strolled out. In the afternoon, as he had forgotten several things, his aunts consulted each other.

“It’s really dreadful! I suppose being in the Army’s made the poor boy careless,” said one.

The other was more charitable: “Oh, he’ll settle down again! And, of course, he doesn’t realize how selfish his going was — I mean to us! He was carried away by the excitement. He’ll get over being restless by and by.”

From his post on the steps Mr. Cooley heard this and directed a wild blow at a moth. He missed the insect and hurt something in his shoulder, which twitched all the evening and woke him just at sunrise, when little sounds concentrate on the ear and a variety of noises maintain themselves importantly.

Thus, he was aware of coal being shifted on the steamboat that leaves the island every morning at half past six, and a cart on the cobblestones close to the pier. And he heard the whir — instantly checked — of an alarm clock in the room overhead. Then he followed the phases of Henry’s dressing, which included the assumption of shoes with heels, not rubber soles, and the sudden sharp rap of a dropped collar button. Here Mr. Cooley sat up and swung his legs out of bed carefully. The fellow was putting on his best clothes before breakfast — long before breakfast — in time to catch the steamboat.

After a little while Cooley opened the door an inch and crouched there villainously. He had always longed to be a detective, and now he had the satisfaction of seeing Henry steal downstairs, suitcase in hand, and of watching him slide a note under Mrs. Bayne’s door. There seemed no need of viewing the stealthy march of this recreant along Mayberry Street, but Mr. Cooley craned brazenly out of a window, grinning. Presently, as maidservants appeared to dust the rocking-chairs, the whistle sounded.

“Only think,” said Mrs. Cooley, after the indescribable forenoon — “Henry’s gone to Detroit! He says he’ll send Mrs. Bayne a thousand dollars a year. But think of how hard it’s going to be for her!”

“Oh, well,” Cooley yawned; “all she’s got to do is sit and rock. The water feeds them!”

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