Just before sunset she drove into the enormous parking lot of the South Gate Shopping Center and parked near the telephone booth closest to the highway. She sat sideways in the seat, resting her cheek on her arm, and watched the street that ran from the new Rivermere suburb into the highway. Waiting, she wore her daytime face and thought her daytime thoughts.
She saw him, as he drew up to the highway and glanced quickly to his left, and then he drove down the highway and passed the shopping center, his eyes straight ahead. She kept her head on her arm, willing herself slack, but feeling the tension mount deep within as her purpose gathered itself.
Five minutes, she thought; let five minutes go by, and then I will or I won’t, but wait five minutes, please wait five minutes, just five minutes, only five. . . She fixed her attention on her watch and waited while the second hand swung slowly down and slowly up, and she did not stir until the fifth ascent had been completed.
She got out of the car. She entered the telephone booth and closed the door behind her. She took a dime from her purse and dropped it into the slot. She dialed the numbers, taking great care that each spin was complete before she began the next. When the telephone rang at the other end, she licked her lips and cleared her throat.
“Hello.” Hearing the cool, assured voice, she felt a giggle shape and heap itself within her, wild, enormous and absurd, and she knew for the first time that she was really going to do what she had planned for weeks to do.
“Mrs. Blackwell?” No, no, no, she thought. You cannot, you must not giggle, not now. She bit her lip and fought it.
“Yes, speaking. Who is it? Who’s speaking please?”
“Mrs. Blackwell, I know you won’t believe me, but I am a friend of yours, or I wish to be. But Mrs. Blackwell, I love your husband and he loves me, and you must let him go.”
It was so easy, once begun. The words came out exactly as she had rehearsed them, with just the right blend of sympathy and assurance. And most important, not once did she slip back into her normal voice.
She talked for nearly three minutes and then stopped suddenly in the middle of a sentence and stared at the telephone in bewilderment before she hung up. Then she went back to her car and waited. It was almost an hour before she saw him drive back down the highway and turn left. She counted carefully to 100 before she backed her car out and followed.
She drove past his house without looking at it. At the end of the long street she turned and drove back slowly, with the headlights off. When she was a half block from him, she turned into the driveway of one of the darkened, still-vacant houses.
She kept the motor running. She sat facing toward where the lighted houses began. She felt very tired and very sad, and she cried a little while she watched and waited.
Tracy Blackwell had soft, clear gray eyes; he walked with a very slight limp because of a piece of shrapnel imbedded in one leg; there emanated from him the faint, pleasant aroma of the five expensive cigars he allowed himself each day.
He came home from the neighborhood library that evening a placidly contented married man. More so than most, for his wife and three-year old son had returned that morning from a weeklong visit with her mother. In the bedroom he put the books he had been carrying on the night table and saw that Della was standing at the window with her back to him.
“Got a Maigret, a Perry Mason, and a Mr. and Mrs. North,” he said. “That ought to hold you. As for me, please address all communications to the planet Aldegor. All hell has broken loose and I’m off with the Intergalactic Patrol to see what’s up.”
And he shut up, quickly. Della was crying, and he could tell that she had been crying for some time. He moved toward her, to hold her and hush her tears. “Sugar, sugar, what on earth is wrong?” he asked, and then stood appalled, when she turned, by the look on her face.
“Nothing,” she said and pushed him away. “Just nothing at all. Just leave me alone.” She walked past him out of the room, leaving him to stare after her, no longer a placid, contented married man.
“Sex,” he said aloud, and his face became sullen. Because Della had been away for a whole week, he had planned that tonight, after Tim was asleep, they would go to bed and read for a while, and then he would turn off the light, and then Mr. Blackwell would declare war on Mrs. Blackwell, and they would live happily ever after. Or at least sleep and wake up to another day.
But, he thought, why do I have this sick flutter in my gut? When her father died, Della had cried from grief, and she sometimes cried from a peculiar mixture of vexation and exhaustion. In the early days of their marriage, he remembered wistfully, she had touched and confounded him often by crying from a sudden excess of happiness. But these tears made him want to cut and run. He felt he had to do something, anything rather than stay in the bedroom feeling as though he had been cursed.
“Ho, Tim,” he shouted. “Time for bath, bed and Bimbo.” He moved into the bathroom behind the frolicking Tim, confused, uneasy and very much aware of Della standing silently now in the living room.
For the next half hour he had no problems save keeping a firm grip on a slick eel of a three-year-old boy. Then he dressed Tim and popped him into bed, and while the boy lay with his hands clasped behind his head, he embarked on another Bimbo adventure. Tracy had invented Bimbo when Tim was two, and for a year now he had been improvising, with increasing desperation, one ridiculous story after another about a little boy with the happy gift of changing into a horse or a dog or a bumblebee, or whatever he chose. Sometimes he wished that Tim would get as tired of Bimbo as he was, although he knew he would be hurt when it happened.
“And so Bimbo said, ‘Stick, Stack, Stimbo,’ and once again, he was no longer a blackjack squirrel but a stumbling, bumbling, butt-headed, bowlegged little boy,” he concluded. “And now to sleep with you, old Tim Blackwell.”
At the door he looked back. Tim was already asleep, and he moved without haste down the hall and entered the living room. Della sat with her gaze fixed on the opposite wall. He sat down on the sofa, facing her, and lighted a cigar.
“Whenever I ask what’s wrong,” he said, “and you say, ‘Nothing,’ it turns out to be something I’ve done. So, what is this ‘nothing’ that makes you cry?”
Della said in a flat, dead voice, “Tracy, have you been unfaithful to me?”
Her face persuaded him to take it seriously. “Son of a gun,” he said. “Della, that’s not a question to ask me. If I have been, I’d say no, and if I haven’t, I’d say no, but how could I prove it?” The reply pleased him and he gave her a look of triumph.
She looked back at him as though she felt sorry for him. “Who was it that said whenever a man and a woman reach a perfect understanding, one of them is lying?”
“I don’t know,” Tracy said. “Probably one of those jug headed detectives in one of those detective novels you read. It sounds like it. What’s this all about?”
Like a child reciting a dull lesson, she said, “While you were at the library, a woman called me. She said she was in love with you. She said that you were in love with her. She said that she and you had a wonderful week together while I was at mother’s. So much better, she said, than the hour or two you’ve been able to steal before. That’s what this is all about.”
“This woman,” Tracy said carefully, “what did she say her name was?”
“She didn’t say. I suppose she would have, but I got so upset I hung up. And,” Della added sadly, “she said she wanted to be a friend to me. And I guess she was.”
He thought with a sudden clarity that if he were guilty, he could probably stare her down. But now he could only look sullenly at the floor.
“You believed her? Just like that you believed her? You couldn’t even wait to talk to me? You try me, convict me and sentence me, just like that?” Anger made him look at her. “I’ve heard you say you love me, Della,” he said. “Not often, but a few times, these past five years. Now you make me wonder what you meant.”
“You can ease up,” Della said.
She put her hand in her dress pocket and fished out a man’s handkerchief. She held it up and then let it float down to the floor.
“And what do you call this?” she asked.
Tracy rose slowly. He picked up the handkerchief and looked at the monogram.
“I call it a handkerchief,” he said. “What do you call it?”
“I call it exhibit A,” she said. “You will note, Mr. Blackwell, the lipstick on it. She — my friend — said I’d probably find a handkerchief like this in the laundry. I’ll anticipate your next question, Mr. Blackwell. No, it is not a shade of lipstick I have ever used.”
Although the handkerchief could not be his, it was. And if Della said it wasn’t her lipstick, then even though it had to be, it wasn’t. Nothing could be explained. He wished suddenly that he were Bimbo and could turn into a rat or a roach or a measle germ and get out of that room, where there was nothing to do but stand, still and dumb.
The prosecution rests.” Della stared with cold, empty eyes at the far wall.
“I don’t have a story about the handkerchief,” Tracy said. “Or about this woman, whoever she is, or whatever she said.” He looked about the room as though he had never seen it before. “How in the hell did I wind up here?” he said and walked out.
She heard him in the bedroom, opening and shutting drawers. She heard him begin to curse aloud, which frightened her. And then, because he was so disturbed, she became uneasy and no longer sure. She held out her shaking hands and watched them tremble until her raging hurt steadied them. When he came back down the hall minutes later, carrying an overnight bag, she was still sitting there, small, huddled and implacable.
“I’ll come for the rest of my stuff tomorrow night,” he said.
“Tracy, where are you going?” she asked.
“You can reach me at the office,” he said. “Anytime between nine and five.”
“But where will you sleep?” she cried. “Where will you eat? Who’ll look after you?”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” he said, “I took care of myself for a long time before I ever saw you. I’ll manage somehow.”
“Tracy Blackwell, if you walk out that door, you know I can only think one thing?” she said.
He moved to the door. “That’s why I’m leaving, so you can think about it, Della,” he said. “Get my stuff together. I’ll come for it between six and seven tomorrow.”
She heard with dull disbelief the car backing down the driveway. She went on thinking nothing and feeling nothing, long after the sound of the motor died away, until Tim cried out in a dream. He was quiet by the time she got to him, and after fussing with his blankets she came back to the living room and put out the lights. She went to the door and stood looking through the screen at nothing in particular.
She heard another car and saw its black shape move out of a carport down the street. She thought it curious that its lights were not on. It picked up speed as it approached her house. As it sped by, the horn blared three times, raucous and hateful.
“Oh, I am a fool!” Della Blackwell cried. She darted out on the stoop. “You! You!” she said under her breath to the disappearing car.
She sat down on the stoop. The cold stone seemed to steady her, and she began to sort out her feelings, one by one. Deep within her bones she knew that she could not forgive an unfaithful husband, that she would hug this hurt to her forever. But she would not, she decided, cry for the moon.
As her mother had cried for the moon she thought, and for a single such error had divorced her father. She saw her mother suddenly, for the first time, as a spoiled, fretful woman. And with a swift rush of pity and understanding, she thought of her father, remembering his shabby funeral a year ago. Her mother had not been there.
Tracy was gone. Tracy must come back. No matter what it cost her. She would not relive her mother’s life, nor could she send Tracy to relive her father’s life. And never, never, never, she thought fiercely must Tim become a stranger, or even worse, a mere acquaintance of his father.
She stood up and shook her fist in the direction the car without lights had taken, and went back in the house and locked the door.
In bed she reached over and pulled Tracy’s pillow into the crook of her arm and lay there holding onto the pillow looking into the dark.
Who is my enemy? she thought. And why? The memory of the woman’s voice came back to her, and she was filled not with anger but with an unaccountable sadness. She pondered the strange business of the horn blowing. Still mulling over these matters, she fell asleep.
After she passed his house, she turned the headlights on. She drove across town and parked behind a run-down apartment house. Through a rear door she entered an apartment on the ground floor. She crossed a dark room and pulled down the shades before she lighted a lamp. “Well, my dearest darlings,” she murmured, “did you miss your sugar lump while she was gone?”
In a large chair, facing the window, a male figure sat with a smaller male figure on his knee. Neither spoke or stirred. She stood behind the chair, her hands lightly carressing the backs of their heads.
“A cup of tea, Tracy, my sweetikins? You’d rather have sherry? I hear my lord, and his slave hastens to obey. And for you, Tim, my lambikins, a nice, hot cup of Postum.”
She went into a small alcove and turned on the gas under the kettle. Her foot touched something soft and, bending, she picked up a cheese sandwich. She looked at it, perplexed, and then put it on the drain board.
“Sherry,” she said and opened the cupboard. She found a bottle labeled PURE CIDER VINEGAR and filled a glass halfway. The kettle began to whistle. She spooned Postum into a cup and added hot water.
She carried the cup of Postum and the glass of vinegar back across the room and set them on the table by the big chair. She sat down on the floor before the two figures and began to talk, quickly and urgently. Her voice was low, murmuring, and she never paused for a reply. She leaned forward often and patted the still hand of the larger figure with timid little pats, as though she feared reproof.
“I told her,” she said. “She wouldn’t believe me at first, and then she became very angry, but she let you go. I knew she would understand that you belonged to me, if I explained it.”
She talked this way for almost two hours, and then she subsided. Presently she rose and turned off the lamp. She undressed in the dark, letting her dress and undergarments stay where they fell. She took a man’s shirt from the closet and put it on. She picked up the smaller figure and paced the room, rocking it to and fro in the cradle of her arms. Very softly she sang:
“Go to sleep, my little baby Before the boogey man gets you. When you wake, you shall have cake, So ride on, Prince Charlie.”
She paced and rocked and sang the one song for a long time, and then stopped abruptly. She threw the smaller figure back into the closet. Returning to the chair, she picked up the larger figure and sat down with it on her lap. Gently, her fingers stroked the figure’s hair.
In the closet the Charlie McCarthy doll lay where it had landed, legs bent, head flung back. A chink of light came through the window shade and was reflected by the monocle in the doll’s right eye.
She sat with the store-window dummy on the chair, caressing its cold cheeks until sleep came over her, and then she left it and got into the bed in the corner of the room. She lay back in the bed, her face as blank as the face of the figure in the chair.
Tracy Blackwell sat at his big desk at the end of the long office, studying the employee called Wilhelmina Forth, who sat directly in his line of vision. There were two paper coffee cups on Miss Forth’s desk — both cold, he guessed — one half-gnawed candy bar and one half empty package of cheese crackers. For the past half hour the rollers of her chair had been going back and forth over a tuna sandwich that had fallen or been brushed from her desk.
“She can’t keep house like that,” he said to Molly Grimes, Miss Forth’s supervisor.
“I have news for you, Tracy,” Molly said. “I went by to see her once. She keeps house exactly like that. She only washes dishes once a week, and I think she prepares a lot of things she never eats.”
“There’s no hope for her, is there?” he asked. “You know I don’t like to fire anybody.”
“Her work is messy,” Molly said, “and she’s messy, and she tries so damned hard to be liked that the other girls can’t stand her. So you may as well scuttle her. And not next week. Today, Tracy.”
He winced as the chair wheel gouged the tuna sandwich again. “All right,” he said. “Send her over in a few minutes and I’ll do the dirty deed.”
Today, he thought, any problem that can be handled is welcome. Della had called him shortly after he reached his desk that morning.
“Mr. Blackwell, your wife,” she had said. “When you come this evening to get your things, Tim will be over at Nell’s. I want you to bring my rival with you. I want to talk to both of you.”
She had hung up before he could speak, flinging him back into the unreasoning rage he had mastered during the long, sleepless night. Before Della’s call he had made up his mind simply to return that afternoon and sue for peace. The telephone call from the unknown woman was probably a misguided practical joke; the explanation, if one ever came, would be as simple as that.
But after Della’s call, no ma’am. Not Tracy Blackwell. He had not looked at another woman since the day of his marriage. He had been a good husband to his wife and a good father to his son, and he had worked like a Turk to make a living for them. If Della needed proof of his innocence, then their marriage was a mockery. She could go straight to the devil.
He began to fill out the multitude of forms required to discharge an employee, and a moment later he saw Miss Forth get up and come toward him with her peculiar, graceless stride. As she drew closer, he noted the ardent, hopeful expression on her face. He felt vaguely sorry for her, as he would for any misfit, but she did not meet the company’s standards and must be rejected.
As traffic manager for Flamingo Airlines, he was in charge of the three dozen women who answered the constantly ringing phones. He did not think of them as women; he thought of them as the company did, as agents — good, average and borderline. Scrupulously he kept his distance from them and praised, admonished, promoted and discharged, in strict accordance with the circumstances and company policy. And, above all, he never thought of them between five p.m. and nine a.m.
When Miss Forth sat down by him, he plunged ahead. “I’ve been reviewing your record, Miss Forth,” he said, “and frankly, your work is not up to our standards.” He was suddenly uncomfortable beneath the steadiness of her gaze. “Not up to our standards at all. I’m afraid that I’ll have to let you go.”
It’s like a play, she thought. How serious he was! She must play her part too! Oh, he would laugh soon over her cleverness with the handkerchief, how she had whisked it away when he left his jacket hanging on the chair, and marked it with her lips, and returned it deftly, secretly. No one had seen her then, and she would not fail him now!
“Of course,” she said. “I understand why you have to fire me. It’s only natural.” She leaned forward. “Do I look concerned enough?”
He said, “What? Well, fired is a pretty rough word, Miss Forth. It’s just that I think you ought to be doing something more — ah — suited to your particular qualifications. Flamingo Airlines just isn’t the place for you.”
She nodded. How deliciously formal he was! “When do you think I can settle down in my new position?” she asked.
How many times, he thought, have I put of firing a girl only to find that she takes it more calmly than I do?
“With your spirit, very soon, Miss Forth,” he said. “I admire the way you’re facing up to this. You make it much easier for me.”
“Do you think I might assume my new duties today?” she asked.
He knew he was staring at her.
“I should think you’d like to take time out today and take stock of yourself,” he said. “But if you realty feel up to it and look around, I suppose it’s quite possible you’ll place yourself before the sun goes down.” He felt a wave of guilt about his insincerity. “And I hope your new boss will appreciate you and that you’ll be very happy with your next job, Miss Forth.”
She nodded. “Should I make a scene or something? Or should I just walk out now, quietly and with dignity?”
He was caught up in a whirl of shapeless thoughts and feelings. Things had gone lopsided and wrong; something grave was happening. Then, remembering the desolation he had felt as he stood in his living room looking at a handkerchief with lipstick on it, he rejected Miss Forth and whatever problems she might have.
“I hadn’t really thought about it, Miss Forth,” he said, “but I should imagine quiet dignity would be more in keeping with your character.”
Deep down at the bottom of the well, where it had always been so very dark, a bright, warm light pulsed and flowed upward through her veins. She smiled warmly at him; surely that much was permissible. Now, she must pretend to bid him farewell and go to ready the apartment for his arrival. He had not said so, but she knew from the tenderness in his gray eyes that it would be tonight.
“Mr. Blackwell” — she rose and put out her hand — “I’ve enjoyed working for you, and I am very sorry my work was not good enough. I promise you that I will perform my new duties in a more satisfactory manner.”
She pressed his hand; he returned the pressure — nervously because he was so shy. She turned, never more proud of herself than now, and walked away from him.
Tracy Blackwell watched her pick up her belongings. The girl at the next desk said something to her, and he heard her laugh, high and free. She walked to the door, and there she turned slightly, toward him, and gave him a careless wave of her hand as she went out.
He half rose in his chair, feeling that he should follow her, and then he sat down again and stared across the office for a long time. Later he stirred himself and called the janitor and told him to get the tuna sandwich off the floor.
Miss Forth drove straight through a red light onto the highway. The screech of brakes and the white face of the man whose car she missed only by inches were exhilarating. She turned the radio volume up as high as it would go, and just in time; the giggling had begun to shake her so that she could no longer drive. She pulled off the road, stalling the engine, and lay back.
After a while she turned the radio down. “I am disgusted,” she said. “Simply sick and disgusted with you, Wilhelmina Forth. We will have no more of this nonsense, thank you.” She drove on into the city, to the bank, and drew out all her money. It came to $307.81, but she paid no attention to the amount as she stuffed it into her purse.
She drove to a grocery store across town from where she lived. There she bought hams and roasts and steaks and chops; fish and shrimps, oysters, lobsters and scallops; apples and oranges and figs and grapes; eggs, bacon and sausage; cheese, pickles, olives and anchovies; cookies and cakes and pie; ice cream and candy; and one large watermelon.
The grocery bill came to $176.60, and she tipped the boys who lugged everything out to her car one dollar each.
She drove to still another part of the city and stopped at a liquor store. There she bought whiskey, rum, brandy, gin and vodka, and twelve bottles of various brands of sherry. She had four dollars and one penny left after she paid the man at the liquor store, which was a disappointment to her, but there was nothing else she wished to buy.
When she got back to her apartment, she carried in her purchases, a bag at a time, making several trips. She piled everything in the middle of the room and arranged it all in a high pyramid. A bottle of sherry broke, but she paid no attention.
Finished, she felt suddenly almost ill with exhaustion. She lay down on the unmade bed but did not allow herself to cross more than halfway over the threshold of sleep. From the secret, twilight places of her mind came memories of things once dear to her.
Once she had a canary. It sang for a day or two, but she kept forgetting to feed it, and it died. And there had been a mouse that lived in the walls some place where she lived, and it would creep out into the pantry at night, and she would listen to its furtive rustling. But it had stopped coming — she never knew why — and she had missed it very much and would wake crying in the night.
She also remembered a song (But where? But when?) that someone had sung to a little girl as she was being rocked to sleep, the same song always, over and over and over.
“Go to sleep my little baby, Before the boogeyman gets you. When you wake, you shall have cake, So ride on, Prince Charlie.”
She remembered the song and the singing, but she could not remember the singer; it did not seem likely that she could have been that little girl, but if not, why did she remember it?
Down the hall a door slammed; voices were raised in angry dispute. She sat upright in bed. The twilight was gone, and soon he would be coming. Her first thought was clear, and she spoke it aloud. “It is you, Wilhelmina Forth, who has everything now. That woman has nothing.”
She had never seen Della Blackwell, and she imagined a magazine illustration, a woman with a pearl choker and a fur coat, with a look of glossy self-assurance, a woman accustomed to the unflagging devotion of countless men.
“I have been… thoughtless,” she said. She considered what to do about this unfortunate Della Blackwell. She left the apartment. There was a telephone in the hall, but she never used that one.
She ran to the booth at the corner. (Hadn’t the canary died? Hadn’t the mouse gone away? She had so little time.) She had five dimes, and she put all of them into the slot and dialed the number as swiftly as she could.
“Oh, Mrs. Blackwell,” she said. “This is your friend, Wilhelmina Forth.”
And, because she was not too late, she began to giggle with relief.
Della Blackwell stood by the bedroom window. “You will look around and see if I’ve left anything out?” she asked.
“No,” Tracy said. “Whatever’s not here, you can throw away.”
His suitcases lay open on the bed. There had been little conversation between them since he arrived. Imprisoned by self-pity in separate cells, they were aware of the electric clock on the night table as it hummed away, serenely, the minutes of their lives. They felt at the mercy of some monstrous reality from which there was no escape.
She had packed the suitcases as an opening bluff in an encounter with her husband and his paramour. But Tracy had come home alone, and she had been left without a role to play. All she could do now was look out the window.
The sight of the suitcases when he came home had swept away the last vestige of Tracy’s intention to let sleeping dogs lie. He would think about Tim later; Tim needed more than bedtime stories from him. Their marriage had become no more than the reading, by chance acquaintances, of different books in bed. Sheer lack of happenstance had kept the Blackwell’s together, so from sheer lack of desire the Blackwell’s would bust up — and here his line of reasoning failed him, for a life without Della could not be imagined or believed.
He had shut the last bag when the telephone rang. Della answered it on the bedroom extension.
He heard her say, “Who are you? What kind of woman are you, to do this awful thing, and then call me to laugh about it — to laugh at me?”
They looked at each other, his sudden fear and her quick rage meeting across the double bed. He made a little gesture to her and went down the hall to the living room and picked up the telephone receiver.
He knew immediately who it was. He listened to the voice climb dizzyingly upward and plunge helplessly downward and collapse finally into sick, gleeful laughter. Filled with terror, he thought, So I am guilty after all. The thought was too quick for understanding. He spoke quietly into the telephone.
“Miss Forth, this is Tracy Blackwell,” he said. “Just what in hell do you think you’re up to, calling my wife?” His terror was so strong that only rage could check it.
The giggling stopped. “Mr. Blackwell? Tracy? You’re there?” The voice was a child’s, waking in a strange house, puzzled, hesitant.
“Miss Forth, you could be arrested for this,” he said. “If you call my house again, I’m going to notify the police. Do you understand me, Miss Forth?”
The child was awake now, the night was dark, the house empty. “I have everything. Food, wine, everything. And love too. I have love too. And you aren’t coming?” The last words trailed off.
Della said, “My dear, is something wrong? Are you in trouble? Are you not well?”
But the line went dead; there was only the whirring rasp of the dial tone. Della came down the hall. Tracy stood in the living room with the receiver still in his hand. They stared at each other.
“I’m a fool,” Della said. “So are you. She’s sick. She’s very sick, and I’m afraid for her. and for you, and for me. Where does she live?” She cried out suddenly. “Find out where she lives! I’m afraid!”
He felt stupid, thick-blooded. He hung up and then dialed his office, and when he got the address he wrote it down on the pad by the telephone.
“It’s a half-hour from here,” he said. “What shall we do when we get there?”
“Whatever we have to,” she said. “We don’t have time to stand and talk.”
He followed her outside. She did not wait for him to open the car door for her, and she slid under the wheel to the other side. He backed out of the driveway, and by the time he reached the highway he was driving at full speed.
She returned the receiver to the hook — very carefully, as it might break. She left the booth and walked back to the apartment house. She kept her head down and took pains not to step on any cracks in the sidewalk, thus averting the hooded calamity which hovered over her, ready to strike her down if she gave any sign of having relaxed her attention.
In her room she leaned against the door and said, in high, mincing disdain, “Martha Wilhelmina Forth. You have been such a foolish, such a wicked — oh such a very awful girl! And you have gone too far now. Really, much too far!”
She walked around the pyramided grocery purchases to the closet. She opened the door a crack, peeped in, then opened it wide and took the small male figure and held it by one leg, upside down.
“I know you, little man,” she said. “You’re not little old Tim Blackwell; you’re little old Charlie McCarthy. My, you used to make me laugh.”
She threw the doll across the room. It landed on top of the grocery pyramid, and she clapped her hands when she saw that it was securely lodged. From the trunk at the foot of the bed she dragged the larger male figure. She sat him up on the trunk.
“And you, big mister, you’ve been found out,” she said. “You’re not Mr. Tracy Blackwell. You’re just a smart-alec window dummy, and I just picked you up and walked out of the store with you, and nobody stopped me, because who would steal a window dummy, except a crazy person?”
She went to the window and threw up the shade, and turned on all the lights. She kicked off her shoes, removed her coat and dress, and put them neatly away in the closet. She made up the bed, propping both pillows on her side. She took two blankets out of the trunk and stuffed them around the door. She tore an old dress to rags and stuffed them in the cracks of the windowsill. She went into the alcove and turned on the jets beneath the hot-water heater and beneath each of the three burners of the stove, and she opened the oven door wide. Then she cocked her head to one side and breathed with a light daintiness.
“There are things that smell worse,” she said.
She got into bed. She pulled the covers up to her hips and half-sat, half-lay against the pillows. She composed her face into a most serious, most thoughtful expression. The dingy smell of gas began to fill the room, and she felt her body sliding into an easy voluptuousness. She said drowsily, “Rock me. Sing to me.”
Tracy Blackwell came back into the hospital room after he had talked to the policeman. Della sat by the head of the bed, looking very small in the dim night light. He glanced at the woman in the bed and, too weary to check it, thought, Because of this, I won’t sleep tonight. The ignoble thought made him weakly angry.
“She can’t be left alone,” he said. “The police handle attempted suicide as if it were murder. So it’s me or a policeman. You go on home.”
Della shook her head. “She came to, about an hour ago,” she whispered. “The doctor gave her a sedative. He said she’d sleep through the night. I’ll stay.”
“All right,” he said. He drew a chair up by Della’s and sat down. He felt spent, hard used, grateful for a breathing space.
The door had been hard to open. The blankets had jammed it. But he had gotten a whiff of the gas and put his full weight against the door and crashed through into the room. Holding his coat over his face, he had blundered into a huge pile of stuff in the center of the floor. When he fell, his knees were cut by broken glass.
His hand had closed on a man’s leg, which paralyzed him briefly before he realized it was some sort of huge doll and flung it away. He had gotten, somehow, across the room. Throwing up the window, he leaned out to suck in fresh air. He could not remember how or when he turned and got the woman off the bed and out of the apartment into the hall.
“Is she dead?” Della had asked.
He had put his coat under the woman’s head. “I don’t know. Find a phone and call the fire department. Tell them to bring oxygen. Move!”
He had straddled her and, remembering things from some half-forgotten firstaid course, began artificial respiration. She was breathing when the firemen came with oxygen. The firemen were quickly followed by an ambulance and — what he had not expected — a policeman.
When Miss Forth was settled at last in a hospital bed, the policeman asked his questions. He had answered all of them, including the last, which came as no surprise.
“I guess you put her in this jam,” the policeman had said. “Are you going to stay by her until she comes out of it?”
“I’ll be here,” Tracy said. “As long as need be.”
And now Miss Forth slept, and he sat all wrapped up in his own kindness and nobility and decency. But when she woke up, what then?
“I remember one time,” he said, and Della started. “I came home late at night, driving through the Cherry Hill section, and I saw this woman. She was sort of staggering down the street, and I thought she was drunk. And then, driving past her I saw she was hurt. There was blood on her face. I thought of stopping to see if I could do something for her. But instead I stepped on the gas and got the hell out of the Cherry Hill section.”
“You never told me about that,” Della said, but he gave no sign of having heard.
“Do you remember that time two, three years ago, when I had jury duty?” he said. “They made this man stand up in the courtroom right in front of two hundred people, and they read off what he had done. It was a very bad thing — molesting a child, that sort of thing — and he stood there with everybody looking at him, and he had to say, ‘Guilty.’ And you know, I thought, I am kin to that man, and then the next thought I had was, / must deny it to the last breath. Now, isn’t that a crazy thing?”
He looked at Della. She sat with her head bowed and her eyes closed, but her face seemed watchful.
“What’s going to happen?” he said. “Do you know?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Last night, when you left me, suddenly I didn’t know who I was. And I don’t know now.”
“I won’t lie,” he said. “And it’s too late to be polite. She scared me into being good and coming home.”
“She doesn’t know who she is either,” Della said. “I guess we can’t help her find out. I wish we could. But you can help me.”
“What can I do for you?” he said. He closed his hand tightly over hers.
“Go to work every day,” she said. “Tell Tim about Bimbo every night. And hold me, or beat me, anything at all, but don’t ignore me. What must I do for you?”
“Keep my house,” Tracy said. “Mind my son. Be there to be held. No more than that. There is no more than that.”
They were silent, looking at the woman on the bed. She was an accident that had happened to them. Before her, they were accidents that had happened to each other. For a long time they had only been making the best of things; now, thanks to her, they would begin making the most of things.
In patience, they settled down together. Presently they slept, two children who had wandered all night through a tangled wood, and had come upon a dark house, and found there another child more lost than they.