That summer, somewhere along in July, Sibyl Armstrong, who was still the wife of Rex Armstrong, formed a habit of sliding the screens together — the house was of Oriental inspiration — and then pulling the curtains over them. She wasn’t sure why she did it, particularly after she had stumbled twice over a little wicker footstool, once when it was where it belonged and once after she’d moved it.
Perhaps the reason, although she did not really seek it, was that summer gloom was in her blood. Her mother kept the house back in Davenport, Iowa, where Sibyl grew up, as dark as possible in the summertime on the theory that if you don’t see the sun you don’t think about the heat. It’s an untenable theory, but here was Sibyl beginning to do things the way her mother had. A sign of age, or at least of maturity — of settling in with the ancestors.
It was hard to read in that house in Davenport, Iowa, in the summertime; Sibyl had not, in fact, done much reading. Summer was when she mostly sat in a big chair with one leg flung over a chair arm and thought about life — what she would be when she grew up, how she would look, what she would wear, and how deeply and imaginatively and stylishly her husband would love her after a wedding that could take, in her fancy, many forms, from a production in a church to an elopement involving the use of a ladder. She seldom, in the depths of the big chair, thought about what the children would be like or how many there might be, and this might in some way account for the fact that she and Rex hadn’t had any. What you don’t dream of you often don’t get, not that you always get what you do, of course.
In that big chair Sibyl dreamed of being rescued and married and maintained in a style to which she became thoroughly accustomed, well in advance of reality, during the heat of those adolescent summers. It was very fancy dreaming she did in that chair, but it had worked out accurately — up to a point. The rescue had been effected eventually from college, not from home. It was an elopement, too: a no-ladder elopement, but authentic, dramatic and uncontested. And the marriage was, in its way, a living reenactment of the dream — with all that love, all that style, all that elegance: the king-size bed in the master bedroom, the double dressing rooms, the pool, the terrace, and beyond it the teahouse — the one they built when they were on an inner-peace kick — with the great flat imported stones to leave shoes on. That’s how it was; name anything, the Armstrongs had one and knew how it worked.
Some churls always say of happiness that you can’t buy it, and others will add that you can’t take your purchases with you, and the truth is that nemesis, although it operates on a hit-or-miss system, manages frequently to hit some very happy people, among them now the Armstrongs — Sibyl with the screens pulled together and the curtains drawn, and Rex in the hospital with a no-visitors sign on his door, floating in a coma compounded of morphine and ultimate non-aggression.
The telephone rang, and Sibyl Armstrong, sitting with one leg flung over a chair arm, jackknifed herself up and out of the chair. Crossing the room, she tripped over the footstool again, picked it up, took it with her, sat down on it and caught the telephone at the second ring. One way to keep track of a footstool is to sit on it, and sitting doubled up is one way to keep from shaking. She put the telephone against her knees, bent to it and said hello in a voice that cracked a little. She lived in fear, and her voice was untrustworthy. The other voice was cultured, female, nobody from the hospital. It asked, elaborately, for Mrs. Armstrong.
“Speaking,” said Sibyl, to her own surprise. It was the first time in her life she’d answered “speaking,” but at least she didn’t say “shaking.”
“Sib?” the other voice said, quite simply now. “Maggie Staples.”
No bell rang. No bell very well could. Sibyl Armstrong’s consciousness was taken up with one name only these days, in a very one-track way. She was excluded from the hospital room until noon, while the nurses did their things, but she was admitted at 12 and allowed to sit beside the bed until midnight or whenever somebody sent her home. And from six in the morning until noon she waited for the telephone to ring, hoping wildly that it wouldn’t. Not today, please, not today, some other day, and not by phone. Let me be there.
The name “Maggie Staples” meant nothing, and when she said, “Oh, Maggie Staples,” she brought so little conviction to it that her caller offered a short refresher course.
They’d lived straight across the hall from each other for three years at Biddle College (for Women) before Maggie Staples lit out and went on to higher things in the region about Times Square and Broadway. Maggie Staples kept it brief and said it quite gracefully, but Sibyl recalled that they’d both failed to graduate, and for much the same reason, except that Maggie’s marriage had been to a career. When you’re offered a meaty role on Broadway, you don’t tell the producer to wait until you’ve been handed a diploma and can therefore switch your tassel from one side of your silly hat to the other. You accept the role. You go.
“I know,” Sibyl said. “I think I saw a thing on you in one of the magazines.”
“Oh?” the voice said. “When was that?”
“Ages ago,” Sibyl said; “twenty years at least.”
If at this moment the hospital was trying to call her, they would be getting a repetitive sound indicating that the telephone was in use.
“It couldn’t have been that long,” Maggie Staples said, “because, goose girl, we’ve only been out of college seventeen years.”
“Fifteen, then,” Sibyl said, “or twelve. I never have had much sense of time. Anyhow, I remember we were very proud.”
“Bless you,” the voice said, most sincerely. “I’ve tried to live up to it — that pride. In a way it’s the actor’s first obligation.”
“Maggie — I’ll have to say it — I’m in a predicament.”
“Yes, dear,” the voice said quickly, “tell me.”
“It’s just that I’m expecting a call.”
“Oh. If it’s important, I’ll hang right up.”
“It is. But call again sometime.”
“That I’ll do,” the voice said. Bravely. And hurt. “That I’ll certainly do.”
“Look, Maggie” Sibyl said. “Where are you staying? I’ll call you when I can.”
“It’s an unlisted number,” Miss Staples said, “and I’m not there, and I can’t remember it. I’ve been out here six weeks only, and my mind’s a whirlpool of terribly important numbers, one of which is mine — but which one?”
“Then you call me,” Sibyl said, “sometime. It’s nice of you to remember me after so long.”
“Nonsense. ‘Bye, dear.”
Click. And if the hospital had tried to call during the course of this unpredictable conversation, it would call again. It was 9:30 now. Two and a half hours more and she could push open the door with the no-visitors sign on it and try to share the coma.
Nine-thirty was an odd time for an actress to be up and about, communicating with old college classmates uncommunicated with for how many? . . . 17? . . . years. A girl named Maggie Staples had lived straight across the hall from her for three years. But girls who lived across the hall that long ago tend to blur and become confused with a lot of other more or less memorable girls from across the hall. Right now, for instance, Sibyl Armstrong found it hard even to recall the face of her roommate of those three years. Her memory limited itself to collecting memorabilia directly connected with Rex Armstrong, and it served her lavishly with all manner of bits and pieces and larger reconstructions. It brought her details — significant, insignificant and mixed — the insignificant becoming significant. The mole, for instance, on the bottom of his left foot, flat and smooth, more like a freckle, but large, the size of a quarter, and of a handsome brown color. When did she first know he had it?
He was lying in the sand, on his stomach, with his feet toward the ocean. West, that is, of course, and she, Sibyl, the reconstructor, was lying at right angles to him, at his feet, with her head facing Santa Barbara. She was gazing with fascination at his feet and thinking profound thoughts about man, not men, but primates all the way from apes to fellows — how the backs of their hands are hairy, but their palms are smooth and so are their feet. Then she was off the general and onto the particular, as usual, and lost in admiration of these particular bare soles, and it was then that she discovered the particular distinguishing mark. It was on the bottom of the foot farther north, the one closer to Santa Barbara. She remembered thinking that if you had to have such a large handsome freckle, the sole of the foot was a brilliant place to have it. And that night they had dinner in Santa Barbara with shoes on — a night that was all stars and no moon.
She lifted the telephone from her knees to the desk and stayed where she was, on the footstool. She was still sitting there, reconstructing, when the doorbell made the flat impersonal summons which Armstrong Associates — and Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong also — preferred to chimes. She sat where she was and ignored it, impersonally. She could do this for three summonses, but not for the fourth. She got up and walked across the living room into the entrance hall and opened the door during the fifth buzz.
There was a woman standing there, and when the door opened, she withdrew her gloved hand from the button she was pressing. She wore dark glasses and a floppy black hat and a black linen dress. An obvious example of a witch in gloves, and she spoke in a voice she knew the use of, a cool light breeze of a voice.
“When I took my bearings,” she said, “it turned out I was so near that I came along.”
She stepped in, still speaking, and said what she meant, very directly — that she knew a great deal about trouble and that she’d heard the sound of it — unmistakably just now on the phone.
“You’re Maggie Staples. Already?” Sibyl Armstrong said with a logic of her own.
“Just like that,” said the light voice, and Maggie Staples snapped a gloved middle finger against a gloved palm. “Just like that, I came where I was needed.”
She walked past Sibyl to the far end of the entrance hall and turned back to say, “Or if I’m not needed, something quite obviously is. Can you tell me what?”
Sibyl closed the door and leaned back against it with her hand still holding the knob.
“Can’t you, Sibyl, make a try?”
She turned, tentatively, toward the living room, and Sibyl walked across the hall behind her. They went in together.
“Be careful of that stool,” Sibyl said, “that one in front of the desk.” She drew some curtains and separated the screens, and Maggie Staples stood in the center of the room and looked at the room from floor to ceiling and from wall to wall and gave a sigh of profound admiration.
“Marvelous room,” she said. “Absolute room.”
Sibyl looked at it too. It was the first time she’d seen it for a long, long time.
“An architect’s house has more or less of an obligation to be good,” she said.
“It lives up,” Maggie Staples said. She started toward a chair and then stood still and said, “Show me the kitchen, will you, Sib? That’s the test of a house.”
The kitchen also lived up. Gourmet to the very whisks was how Maggie Staples put it, and speaking of food, she was a little weak. She’d missed breakfast, for complicated reasons, but the custom of the country would suit her perfectly, if there happened to be any vodka in the house and any California orange juice toward the making of a screwdriver. Or better still, some tomato juice toward that other breakfast favorite out here — the Bloody Mary. Foolish custom of a foolish country, and how adaptable can you get? But she’d go back to soft-boiled eggs in New York. Meanwhile vodka, like the Romans when in Russia.
“Maybe we’d better go into the saloon,” Sibyl said.
“Well, it’s not a family room.” Sibyl led her in, and Maggie Staples laughed behind her all the way and found it beautifully stocked and wonderfully restful.
“Great relief from those bars all hung over with Toulouse-Lautrec. Aren’t you having one?”
“No, thanks,” Sibyl said and felt foolish, not for the decision but for the thanks. She had never liked to drink, except with Rex. When he stopped wanting to, she stopped wanting to. She looked at the telephone hanging low under the bar, touched it to ask it not to ring and then went around to the other side and sat on a stool beside the breakfast guest.
“What are you doing out here?” she said. “Television?”
Maggie Staples responded with a restrained double take. She heard it, couldn’t believe it, heard it again and appeared to choke slightly on the Bloody Mary.
“Do I look like television?” she asked. “Do I give the impression of being both adult and Western?”
“I don’t really know much about it,” Sibyl said. “Ours blew up and we never remember to have it fixed.”
“Good policy,” said Maggie Staples. “It’s the kind of sawmill I don’t care to get tangled up in. And whatever else you can say for me or against me, I haven’t.” She took a drink, set the glass down and added with emphasis, “Ever.”
The next question should be, logically, a narrowing down (Then what is this job? What are you doing?), but Sibyl’s guest answered it, in an oblique way, before she was asked.
“I’m trying to do a little good in a world where anxiety arrives and serenity departs.” She looked into her glass, saying it, and rattled the ice cubes like dice in a cup.
“I’m told your husband is very ill,” she said.
Sibyl jumped as suddenly as if she’d touched an open wire. She got off her stool and went around the counter to make certain the telephone was hanging properly on its hook.
Maggie Staples misinterpreted the move. Pushing her empty glass across the counter, she said, “Thanks, I will. You know, most women can cook passably, but very few can mix a decent drink. Why do you suppose that is?”
Her hostess, behind the counter, didn’t offer a guess. She found a small can of tomato juice and opened it, looking deeply preoccupied. Finally she looked up and said, “But how — ”
“How did I know? Sixth sense, I suppose. I knew you married a man named Rex Armstrong — as a matter of fact, I danced with him once when he came up to one of those dumb Biddle dances we used to go through every spring. Now he’s an important man. People hear about important men.”
She took off the dark glasses, and Sibyl saw her eyes and was seen seeing them. “Smog,” Maggie Staples said. “One more reason for me not to stay out here.”
She put the glasses back on and said quietly, “Sibyl, I hope you know I’d never presume on a college friendship, nor on my reputation, nor your husband’s, for that matter. How serious is it — do you know?”
“Do I know?” Sibyl said, but only to herself. She pared a sliver of peel from a lemon, gave it a twist and let it drop into the glass. It was quite a while before the answer came. And Maggie Staples waited for it, decently, with respect.
“The classification,” Sibyl said very slowly, “is terminal.” And she went on, faster: “Terminal’s the term, and it doesn’t mean where you change trains — it’s where you get off and stay off.”
She felt around for the tray of ice cubes, but it had gone somewhere. “End of the whole bumping line,” she said.
Maggie Staples watched her hunt for the tray and waited for her to find it be- fore she spoke. It was a trained voice — calm, kind, compassionate and dispassionate at once.
“It goes without saying,” she said, “that with your combined intelligences you’ve done everything that can possibly be done,” and Sibyl answered a little breathlessly that, intelligent or not, they’d tried first things first, and then, one after the other: the rays, the pills, the shots, the chemical approach.
“But nothing new is new enough. By now there should be a cure, but the geniuses all go into physics to help us get into a great big game of Russian roulette. Any number can play.”
“Don’t talk that way or think that way, Sibyl. It’s wrong, wrong, wrong.”
“What’s so wrong, wrong, wrong about it?”
“Bitterness won’t help. That’s really what I came to say — that you’ve got to learn to accept this and then prepare yourself for it. In spiritual ways and in practical ways.”
Sibyl put a glass in front of her, and Maggie curled her hand around it. “This for me? Shouldn’t you have one?”
“I had breakfast,” Sibyl said, “at six o’clock. That’s when the switchboard operator comes on duty. They close the board at midnight and open it at six, and if anything significant has happened during the night, after midnight and before six, they’ll telephone.” She folded a towel, dampened it and pushed it along the counter, with the grain. “At least they say they will,” she said. “and it gives me something to think about in the two minutes it takes me to eat my three-minute egg every morning at six o’clock.”
“You talk exactly the way you did in college.”
“Well, I don’t feel the way I did in college — exactly.” Sibyl hung the towel on a hook. “You’re right, I’m bitter as all gall.”
The dark glasses turned directly to her now, and the rich, light voice told her how to think of it. “Think of it this way.” The voice grew more rich than light. “You’ve had much more than most people ever have. You’ve had a wonderful life together. It’s been an achieved relationship.”
Sibyl Armstrong, behind the bar, picked up an ice cube, closed her hand on it and looked truly puzzled. “Has it?” she said.
“Hasn’t it?” Maggie Staples said, just audibly.
“Oh — achieved and a half,” Sibyl said, “but I didn’t know it had been written up in Variety.”
“You are bitter, Sib. Listen, girl, tell me about it. Just talk. Say anything. Believe me, it helps.”
Sibyl took the towel off the hook and folded it precisely, corner to corner. “What would I say if I talked? That he’s six feet three and a quarter inches and that he’s now edging a hundred and ten pounds? Does that help?”
“Doesn’t it? To get it off your chest — to an old friend?”
“No, it doesn’t. Not one — ” Not one what? Whit, jot, bit or smidgen? “No, it doesn’t help at all,” she said.
She unfolded the towel, twisted it, snapped it and looked at Maggie Staples’s glass, a third full. She drank fast, there was that about her old friend Maggie Staples. Sibyl looked at her closely, then at her watch and said, “I don’t remember you very clearly from college, to tell you the truth.”
“I’m sorry. Vain of me, but I supposed you would.”
There was now a fourth of the drink left and a little over an hour left before it would be time to go to the hospital.
“You were in the plays — the class plays and the Masquers.”
“Was I not!” said Maggie Staples. “All the way from Hedda to Jocasta through Sabina. I worked in those days, slaved. I still am, of course — still do, I mean.”
She laughed suddenly. “Am, do, be, was, been. Take your choice, it’s all the future imperfect or action completed in the past.” She laughed again.
“I hate to do, it,” Sibyl said, getting it in fast, “but I’m going to have to close the bar and get ready to leave. First, though, I’d like — ” She started it bravely enough, then stopped, upsure, and then said it. “I’d like to know what you want.”
Maggie Staples heard the question, drained her glass and pushed it across the counter. “The same thing, only this time a little less tomato juice and a touch heavier on the vodka, if you can stand a suggestion. Lots of people can’t.”
My own fault, Sibyl said to herself. I should have said, “Why did you come?” not, “What do you want?” But she mixed the drink, in line with the suggestion, and then she dried her hands on the towel, hung the towel on the hook and put both hands on the counter and both elbows out, an Irish stance, and said it clearly: “What do you want? You wanted to see me — for a reason. But you haven’t made the reason clear.”
Maggie Staples took it slowly. Yes, she was here for a reason, and she’d stated it earlier. She was here, knowing the trouble, with an offer of help. But this was not one of those vague let-me-know-if-there’s-anything-I-can-do offers. No. Not one of those. Her offer was a specific one, pragmatic, practical, and it meant that when the time came there would be no panic or indecision; distressing details would be taken care of, intelligently and with the utmost delicacy, by a staff of men and women skilled in solving problems of this sort. There would be no taking advantage of grief and distraction to drive a bargain.
“Though I fully realize,” Maggie Staples said, “that money is not a problem here, still it’s a matter of pride with me to be representing a group that I, personally, respect.”
Sibyl Armstrong’s voice became untrustworthy again, and when she said, “You represent a group?” the “group” came out falsetto.
“The best,” Maggie Staples said, and she sipped her drink while Sibyl Armstrong looked, rather stupidly but with fascination, at a brochure which now lay displayed on the counter before her.
She didn’t know how it got there; she didn’t touch it, but she did see it, more or less, and in a moment she said, “Why do they call it Crestview? Is there a view of a crest?”
“I don’t really know,” Maggie Staples said. “I’ve only been with them three weeks. Most of the staff is new.”
“But skilled, I believe you said,” said Sibyl, who suddenly had to sit down.
“Oh, very skilled, very highly,” Maggie said. “What’s the idea sitting on the floor? All these stools.”
“I like it here. It’s where I landed and I like it here. Let’s hear the proposition.”
There was no answer from above.
“How did you get my name?”
Still no answer. Silence at the bar.
“Go ahead, represent your group. How did you get my name?”
“Not yours. Your husband’s.”
Sibyl Armstrong heard that word, looked fast at her watch and saw that there was still a little time. She stood up, got a glass, poured herself a measure of bourbon and looked into it while she thought out the answer. Out loud. “Somebody gets to somebody who gets to an orderly who gets to a nurse who keeps informed on prognosis. And sells you the worthwhile names?”
It felt like a long speech, and when she’d finished it she drank off the bourbon and set down the glass.
“That make you feel any better?” Maggie Staples said.
“I didn’t drink it to feel better. I only needed something to toast one of Biddle College’s distinguished graduates.”
Maggie Staples started to get off the stool and then stayed where she was. “You’re forgetting. I didn’t graduate. I went on to higher things.”
“How do you mean, yes?”
“I mean yes, higher things, yes you bet,” Sibyl said, and this time Maggie did get off the stool.
“All right, but it wasn’t always like this,” she said. “I was good. You read the notices, you saw the spread. I started strong.”
She took off the dark glasses and let her eyes show — red — and then she half sat on the stool again and said simply, “I don’t know. I don’t know what happened.”
She picked up the brochure, shoved it into her bag and laughed — a short one. “I even had to tell these ghouls who I am — I mean who I was.”
She put the dark glasses in the bag and felt around in it and brought out the black gloves and drew them on, finger by finger. She looked for a moment at what was left of her drink, then turned her back on it and started toward the kitchen, the way they’d come in.
Sibyl followed her. In the kitchen she said, “Maggie, I don’t really have to leave for another half hour, if you’d like another drink. Or something.”
Maggie Staples reached up and touched one of the wire whisks hanging from the hood of the stove. “I’d like to have eighty-nine other drinks,” she said. “Or something. But in eighty-nine other places.”
“Don’t feel that way,” Sibyl said. “Don’t be bitter.”
“That’s my line.”
“I know,” Sibyl said. “I got it from you.”
They crossed the living room, and Sibyl Armstrong opened the door, and Maggie Staples stepped out onto the bricks and felt in her bag for her dark glasses.
“Call me sometime, will you?” Sibyl said.
Maggie picked her way across the stepping-stones. “Let’s say this,” the voice called back from under the hat. “I won’t unless there’s absolutely no need to.”
“Either way,” Sibyl said.
She closed the door and stood looking at it and then moved to one side of it, opened a louver and looked out, and watched Maggie Staples in her floppy hat and black dress and black gloves taking the stepping-stones until there was none left to triumph over. At the curb she stopped to look first down and then up the street. There was no car parked in the block. Sibyl saw her raise her hands to her waist in a gesture that very delicately suggested the tightening of a belt, and then move off to the right. She walked well on flat ground. Anyone who has learned to walk across a stage, no matter how long ago, can walk down a street as far as the corner. And turn the corner and be out of sight.
In Rex Armstrong’s house the telephone rang. Sibyl Armstrong heard it, knew what it meant, closed the louver and heard it ring again. Then she took a deep breath, touched her hands to her waist in a gesture she’d seen somewhere, and crossed the room, fairly steadily, to answer it.