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EVEN NOW, looking back, I can't see any least hint of menace in the way I found out my son Johnny was married. The only thing that seemed wrong, then, was that what I was hearing didn't go with Johnny. Any more than the rest of what had happened went with Johnny.
When the car stopped in front of my house, on the afternoon of what must have been Tuesday, November fourth, I was doing what I'd been doing since morning and for many days past--I was hunched over a lap table in a corner of the livingroom davenport, playing Canfield as steadily as I could play. Red on black, black on red, one-two-three---- Solitaire may not seem much of a refuge from grief, but it was one for me. When I'd played long enough, rhythmically enough, then the events of the weeks just past faded a little bit; I was able to sit in a comforting half fog, in which I felt little and thought less.
The car's halt struck a snag in the rhythm; my glance went to the windows across the room. If the car's occupants were neighbors or casual friends, then I could stay where I was, unmoving and unanswering; after a while they'd believe I was out somewhere, and go away. But it was no neighbor who emerged from the car, and no random friend. It was Phil Sawyer, accompanied by Bunky Knowles.
Ever since I was widowed, which is fifteen years past, Phil, who was my husband's closest friend, and Bunky, who was Johnny's, have been parts of my family. We've been together for all the events which bring out Minneapolis families--state fairs and museum visits, lake-shore picnics and tours of the Como Zoo, graduations and ball games. Now I might shrink from their coming as I shrank from everyone's coming, but I knew it was little use. Phil would know I wasn't out, and if I didn't answer the door chimes he'd have the house down. Before that could happen I started up, shoving aside the lap table, staggering as the foot I'd been sitting on found the floor.
Must I say what it's like to be mourning an only son? It can scarcely be necessary; in this story, as I realize, it's almost out of place. You'll recall from your own griefs that first stupefied dullness, and the dragging that hangs from your shoulders, a knapsack of stones. The anger, the wildness that shoot through its coma, the hunger to mutiny when there's nothing against which you can mutiny----
By the time the chimes sounded their second call, I'd reached the hall and, willy-nilly, the mirror there, over the phone table.
In the spring just behind me, for Mother's Day, what Johnny sent me from Fort Benning was a pin-up of Cleopatra on a barge; the two words he'd written beneath it were "Look Alikes." That was nothing but silly, yet I'd laughed and been warmed by it. No one would have sent me any such token now; Johnny'd never have written those words, seeing me now. I might dab at my hair, might try pressing color into my cheeks, but it didn't help; when I opened the door Phil's glance leaped to mine, and then another line bit itself in at the corner of his mouth. Johnny and I had added a fair number of lines there, these two months.
Accusing, reproving, but not actually expectant of anything better, Phil said, "Three o'clock, Gail, and you're still in your housecoat." He came stockily past me, overcoat collar up against a thin falling of snow outside, but hat pulled from his thick springing iron-gray hair. Rocklike and sorrowing and stern. Bunky, behind him, kept his light-lashed eyes downcast; he said awkwardly, "I guess we should've called you first," and then he too was in the hall, all twenty-year-old, familiar, one hundred and eighty-five pounds of him, brush-cut red head turtled into the shoulders of his dark leather battle jacket, right arm curled snailwise around the core of his textbooks. Maybe I should have noticed right then that the two of them struggled with a new evasiveness, the phrases they let fall were so stilted. "Snowing--can't last, though, not this early in November." "Just the same, I'll bet in two weeks I'm out on skis--"
But everyone near me, in these days, was ill at ease; it wasn’t until Phil had laid his overcoat aside on a hall chair, and we were well into the living room, that I began sensing they had something special on their minds. Instead of settling, Phil stayed on his feet, wandering between fireplace and front windows in a kind of abeyance. Bunky dropped beside me on the davenport, jacket unzippered but not removed, books balanced on a solid young gabardine knee, yet his fingers too, stubby and amber-flecked, slid nervously up and down the cut edges lettered "Knowles, '54." Phil, according to pattern, should have continued reproof-- "I ran into old Reverend Mr. Raeburn yesterday; he told me you'd turned down the Christmas pageant." Bunky should have added, “I saw Mother at breakfast; she said the kids at St. Adolph's still didn't have anyone else for their story hour--"
Instead, once their first words were out, they fell silent, letting me do the filling in. Neither one let his glance stray toward me.
It was this last, I think, which made a beginning alarm shoot up. Not fear; I'd have said I'd been given everything in fear's gift. More a driven unwillingness to meet a new eventuality of any kind. But tenterhooks haven't ever been very sufferable for me, either. So I asked, at once.
Phil was the one who began answering. Twisting about toward the fireplace but quickly turning back, brushing the heel of his palm up along his cheekbone and the thin long scar which was a memento of the one time Johnny and Bunky, then both eleven, had managed brief possession of a BB gun.
He said, "It begins to look--there's some evidence--I suppose you can just as well take it straight. We've got reason to believe Johnny was married, Gail."
I think what I first felt was that I must somehow pass it off. That I must manage, some way, to be humorous. But I wasn't able to make it. I sat on where I was beside Bunky, and what I went through was the second falling of a mallet blow. Bringing back all the initial concussion, the outraging of belief, the deep stunning plunge of the event eight weeks past. I rocked with it----
After a while I was speaking too, whispering, in unison with whatever Phil had gone on to add. "That's not ever true. Johnny was perfectly welcome to marry; I'd have liked it if he'd married. But he'd never do so, not telling me. You know me, you knew Johnny. He had no reason whatever to----"
No one should have looked at me; I covered my face. Feeling, after a while, pain recede and dull until it was like old thunder. And then, in the way he could come, I saw Johnny, all his grin and his mischief, the high clean look at his temples and the riffling of his tightly curled dark brown hair, his long boy's body and the turbulence of his unharnessed vitality. I heard him, teasing, "Remember me, Mother? When better scrapes are made----"
Straining, I tried to keep him, but no effort would hold him there. He faded away from me, dimming, losing sharpness, leaving little but sweat against my hands and a harsh coldness under my breasts. In that chill I grew aware of Phil once more----
"--may not prove true," he was saying. "I'd really have preferred not bringing this to you at all, but it was your right, we felt----"
My ears might be opening, but what they conveyed to me wasn't informative. I asked, "Some girl came to you . . . ?"
He said, "No, not to me. She doesn't seem to have made contact with anyone. That's what's so----"
One of my shoulders, as I also grew aware, was being held in a firmly supportive grip; another more tentative touch lay under the opposite elbow. I looked up. "But then what----"
It was Bunky whose hand lay under my elbow; in youthful embarrassment he withdrew it as soon as I dropped my hands. Phil kept his grip of my shoulder an instant or two longer before he also fell back.
"I've been telling you. This letter from a lieutenant at Fort Benning. He replied to my----"
A flirt of hair, like a sparrow's tail, had been brushed up at the side of Phil's head by his brushing hand; he was meeting my eyes straightly enough, now, his glance understanding but driving through, the same one he'd worn pulling slivers out of small fingers and taping cut shins. Seeing that I'd lost half he said, he drew in a breath, starting over.
"Once Bunky'd come to me----"
Beyond where I now was, beyond the heard but unaccepted fact, lay circumstance and coming about. I tried facing up to it, but it seemed too much. I groped out, reaching, I suppose, for the escape of my lap table and the cards. Coming up, instead, against Bunky's leather jacket.
After the first stilted interchanges, Bunky hadn't put in much more, but now he turned to me the full troubled earnestness of his gold-freckled, still childish face. So much the same face from which, at four, he'd delivered an owl-eyed reflection: "You're not such a cross mother as my mother." Our relationships had shifted since that day; he now, not I, was the one who enfolded protectingly.
He said, "I can see how you hardly can believe it; I've a hard time believing it too. I don't want you to think I was in on it--Johnny didn't let on to me. It was just--well, one night last week I went out to the Palladium, in Hopkins." He'd been stumbling, but having reached that point began pouring out the rest more fluently. "I hadn't been going there--well, not since Johnny. But I was there in the bowling alley; I had a game with a couple of guys I know. I guess I sort of noticed this other guy standing around in the door to the bar; anyway it seemed that way afterward. Older fellow, maybe twenty-eight, thirty. He had a drink in his hand and was just there, that's all, about a minute or two, looking on. Then when I was going out to my car----"
The anxious fluency broke once more, returning to uncertainty. "Maybe this is the wrong way, Gail. Maybe you'd rather we just----"
"No," I said. "No, go on." A little vitality was waking again, and with it more puzzlement. Why should anything about Johnny come this way? I'd begun seeing a picture too--the long dimly lit bowling alley, Bunky and his friends throwing themselves forward after the balls, the man lurking.
"So--well, so I went out to my car and was going to get into it, when this same man I'd noticed came around from in back of another car. He said, 'Say, didn't I used to see you out here last year with Johnny Kiskadden?' he said yes, yes he did. Then--well, he----"
The earnest light eyes had looked at me through most of this, but now their gaze moved to the books he'd dropped on the coffee table. Still speaking, he picked up one of the heavier volumes, turning it in spread fingers.
"He'd been drinking--I'd guess he'd been drinking a lot. He wasn’t too much of a customer to begin with, I guess. You get 'em like that, once in a while, out there at the Palladium. Kind of dark and tall and caved-in-looking. A piece of hair over his forehead and a big adam’s apple jumping up and down. What he said was--well, he said, ‘Anyway that so-and-so Kiskadden got what was coming to him.' I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t like what he’d called Johnny. I got mad. I said--well, I guess that’s not important. I was going to light into him. He said something else about Johnny. And then just before I slapped him up against the car he said, 'I'm the one ought to know. He’s the one sneaked my girl out away from me. He’s the one married her.’ It sort of knocked me for a loop. I’d already started in, hitting him, but my fist kind of glanced off. He’d pulled back along the car and then before I--well, I guess I didn't think very fast. Maybe I should have done something. Maybe I should have held onto him. But he kind of got himself together and went away and I let him go. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t believe it, anyway. I went home, but I couldn’t seem to forget it, either. So I went to Phil." A tight, sad laugh came in. “I guess that’s where we all of us go when we don’t know what to do."
“You may think we should have told you at once.” Phil, still on his feet, continued pushing his stocky person back and forth. “I saw no use in bothering you, though, unless we had at least some confirmation. I wrote the Fort. That’s the answer that came today.”
"If you brought----" Once more I reached for what seemed sharpest.
"Here." From a breast pocket he produced an envelope, neatly, even in these circumstances, removing the inner sheet, handing it to me unfolded so that I could plunge immediately into the typed paragraphs.
"--from our records, we are able to substantiate that Private John Kiskadden, 16438716399, filed with us on June 24th of this year a regularly attested notification of his marriage to Miss Sherry Lee Givens of Columbus, Georgia. Our address for Mrs. John Kiskadden, to which allotments were mailed, is----"
The names, the dates, were so much more concrete than Phil’s hesitance, than Bunky’s stumbling; against them I felt the first crackings of the dam of denial.
"May not prove true," Phil said, but for him too, as for me, there must have been recollections to deepen those cracks. Johnny’s frequent jumpiness, during the past winter and spring, a jumpiness entirely at variance with his usual high cheer. The sullenness he’d shown in March, when he'd come down one morning for breakfast, after a late night out, refusing explanation for a cut lip and black eye. The day a month or so afterward when he’d thrown over the university courses in which he’d been doing so well, to enlist in the infantry. The distracted jerkiness and the changes of mood he’d again displayed while home on his September furlough.
Against the wash of those recollections, it wasn’t possible to stand any way but weakly.
One of the hardest things for this story to do, it may be, is get you to understand about Johnny. His good solid core, but, outside that, his adventuring wildness. When he was little he had golden-brown curls, his skin was pale olive, his eyes were those of a Raphael angel, but few people said, even then, that he was one. The summer he was four I came home once from shopping to find his distracted sitter and a company of firemen maneuvering him down from a three-story roof. The year he was six he and Bunky—picked up from the neighborhood to be a man Friday—stowed away in a moving van, in which they weren’t found for ten hours, when the van began unloading in Duluth. Since Horace and Pamela Knowles, Bunky’s parents, are two of Minneapolis’ most prominent attorneys-at-law, I was naturally being threatened with the works. Ten years later I found a note on the hall table the morning after school closed, a note saying, “Dear Mother, don’t worry, I’ll be home in the fall. Just thought I’d look around.” He was home a month later, temporarily satisfied, having hitchhiked from coast to coast, for the most part in small private planes.
For any debit that could be charged against Johnny, though, a thousand items came in on the credit side. When he was nine he brought home a Mexican kindergartner whose mother was ill; we had that boy for six months, and Johnny cried terribly when he went home. No one ever said Johnny tattled, or side-stepped consequences, or was lazy or disloyal, or cold or self-seeking or cruel. Anyway, you don’t love a son only if he’s a good child; you don’t build your life around him only if he’s a standard insurance risk. Being submissive and decorous wasn’t what I wanted of Johnny; I’d never had much use for tame men. I’d thought that what bounced him around was nothing but the bubbling of his youngness, and that after he’d finished his Army stint he’d come home to his love, which was engine engineering, and that as a man all his inventiveness and enthusiasm would help him do something outstanding and fine.
I’d thought a day might well come when I’d sit serene among the cavilers, thinking, even if I wouldn’t say it, “I could have said so.”
That wouldn’t come about. Not with Johnny gone. Home on his September furlough, hurtled in his jalopy against a telephone pole off the Hopkins road. No more than twenty, like Bunky, but smelling of liquor, and with an empty whiskey bottle in the mangled car.
I hadn’t accepted it. Death—there isn’t much you can argue against death. But that Johnny should drive and drink—cars were the thing toward which he was almost more respectful than toward anything else. Like most twenty-year-olds, he must have tried his one drink, or two; he’d want to prove he was a man. But not more; I’d have expected his training and good sense to hold him. Only you don’t argue with an empty bottle, either, or with witnesses who saw your son alone in his car, speeding, weaving long before he hit the pole.
Now it appeared this wasn’t all, either. Somewhere there might be a girl to whom he’d been joined in a marriage kept secret and furtive, like something best under a rock.
Acceptance, in circumstances such as these, can’t ever be happy acceptance, and beyond lies the question of what comes next. Johnny hadn’t told me, the girl hadn’t gotten in touch with me; I might try going on as I’d been before, pretending no knowledge had come to me. If that was the course I chose, then no word, I was certain, would leak from Phil’s lips or from Bunky’s.
If one set of instincts pulled that way, though, then another set jerked in contrary directions. I suppose it was pretty well set, even there at the first, just what course I’d be following.
Phil, sitting down, finally, launched into the advisings, the counselings, which he felt it his duty to make; I wasn’t attending him. All I asked of his hovering, and of Bunky’s, after a while, was that they get themselves farther off. At the door, when they were giving up, Phil did make one demand break through.
“Promise me just one thing. You know what you’re like, Gail; it wasn’t by accident Johnny jumped into things, and he didn’t get it from Howard. Don’t go off on this half cocked. See me before you make any start--"
I’d have agreed to anything. "Yes, I promise. I'll call you. I’ll come in to your office. Just let me get used to it. Let me think----"
When the door was shut fast I returned my face to my hands. Then, dropping the hands, I walked back through the hall to the diningroom bay. There, on glass shelves set into the windows, sit the milky blue hobnail pitchers, the honey-brown sugar bowls, the flag-painted plates, the flower-decked cups and saucers which were my mother’s and her mother’s. From the center shelf I took an Irish Belleek cup so thin that even on this dim day a soft pallor showed through the wafer-crisp white when I held it up.
There’s little strength, really, in loveliness, no matter what people say of it. Rather shortly I put the cup back. Went on to the living room, to the davenport and my lap table. Shuffled the cards, laid them evenly——
Shut it out. Convince myself that even if I did have to accept the rest of what had come to Johnny, I didn’t have to accept this. Not his marrying behind my back, making it appear he’d picked a girl so wrong he wouldn’t want me to know of her. Or else what was almost worse—that his life with me had never been open and free as I’d thought it was. But a matter of deceit, of unwholesome relationships hidden away from me——
Pinch that conjecture out, quench it, like two fingers squeezing a candle flame.
Yet all the while, there was only one way I saw myself. Alone in a car, heading toward Georgia and the girl as fast as I could go.
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