Waiting with the Little Clowns
Something woke me early the next morning and I lay there wondering what it was. Gene was sleeping peacefully beside me—there was no sound anywhere; quietness, like a benediction . . . the bright, still sunlight outside. What was it? Something I had not done? Then I knew—I hadn't turned the windmill on last night.
You know why. You thought of it. But you were afraid it would start in the night and wake him up.
I dressed without disturbing him, put the draft on the stove, and went out to the kitchen. Trixie was asleep on her mat; she was not a young dog, so she opened one eye and went back to sleep. I had quietly closed the doors behind me, and now I picked up the iron shaker and as gently as possible shook down the ashes in the stove. But this required a vigorous manipulation back and forth of the stove shaker, which was very much like the old-fashioned crank used to start a Ford. A pile of fine ashes appeared in the opening below the firebox; when the coal was halfway down the grate, I looked at it, saw tiny blue flames appear, and, laying aside the shaker, proceeded to the next step, which consisted of getting on my knees and peeking up into the grate and with the poker dislodging the large "clinkers," as they were called. If this were done properly there would be a good fire all day; otherwise it would sulk and be moody, like a person who has not had a good bowel movement.
I stood up and straightened my back, lifted the stove lid and saw the coal beginning to glow and burn hot just as it should. Good! Next a couple of small shovelfuls of coal, the drafts open, and the top of the stove beginning to get hot. I debated whether or not to take the ashes out now. I was enjoying all this, so I decided to finish the job instead of doing it later—perhaps when Gene would be watching me and wondering what it was all about. I got the big coal scuttle from the shed and removed the ashes and put the kettle on. The cats followed me into the kitchen and I gave them some milk—when I looked for them again they had disappeared. . . .
Now—turn on the windmill! There was no hurry. Everything was still peaceful—there was no sign of any wind. So I stood at the kitchen window, looking out. Behind the three dark cedars near the barn an oak tree was a glittering, silent deep red against the blue of the sky. Not a leaf had fallen. Near it, the old wild-cherry tree was as bright a yellow as the oak was red; only the beach-plum bushes along the fence had lost their leaves and their branches were a tangle of misty gray. Beyond the fence, on the other side of Allen Street, the little pines stood still, waiting. . . .
But I could wait no longer. There might be a breeze any moment, and we mustn't run out of water. I didn't know if the tank in the barn was full—it might not be. I pulled on a sweater and ran around the back of the house and, standing under the tall and rusty and familiar old windmill, pulled down the wooden lever and fastened it down with the wire. There was a clank as I did this; the tail of the windmill swung out, the metal fan quivered and groaned and then all was still. I looked up anxiously. There wasn't a sign of a breeze—even up there.
But later, when I was getting breakfast, thinking that Gene was still asleep and that I'd have it ready when he woke up, he suddenly appeared at the kitchen door wearing his old blue bathrobe, his hair tousled, looking around in astonishment and anxiety.
"What on earth is that noise?"
I hadn't noticed—I suppose I was too used to it, and besides I'd been grinding the coffee. I listened. There was only silence, then it started again, a clank, a rattling groan, a whirring—brief but hopeful.
"It's only the windmill. It always makes that noise when it starts."
"It startled me—I thought I was in a stokehole!" he said gloomily and rather resentfully. He pulled the bathrobe more closely around him. "Also, there was a cat asleep on my feet when I woke up!"
The fact that he knew it would be necessary for him to return to Macdougal Street before very long to attend rehearsals of The Moon of the Caribbees made Gene rather moody. He really wanted to settle down to work on his plays. At times he even tried to persuade himself and me that it would be just as well if he attended only the last rehearsal or so and left the rest of it up to Jig Cook. But Jig was busy with Susan's play, Tickless Time, which was to be on the same bill—and after all, The Moon was Gene's favorite play. The Provincetown Players had never felt they could do it justice before; but now, with a stage nearly three times as deep as the stage at 139 Macdougal, there was a chance to make the production that Gene dreamed of—even though it seemed impossible because of lack of time and money to build the plaster dome that he so much wanted.
So he resigned himself to this, and during the next few days managed to occupy himself with things to do that would make it easy to start work when rehearsals were over. He was not going to let Christmas have its usual effect on him this year, he told me; by December twenty-third, the day after The Moon opened, he would be back here and at his desk, or on his bed, working, and Christmas could go to the devil. So, during the next few days, we changed some of the furniture around, started the stove in the lower nursery, walked to the village and bought a leather jacket and rubbers, and in the afternoon began taking long walks through the pines. Gene decided he would work in the dining room where the fireplace was; there was a big table there that he could use, and he liked the fire. The closet had always been piled up with dishes and glass; he took them out, put them in the kitchen, and put his scripts and books on the empty shelves. The bookcases in the studio were full of books that had been there for years; but there was a tall old rosewood secretary in our bedroom, with glass doors backed with faded pink silk, behind which were some shelves. One morning I heard Gene in the studio and found him carefully going through the books there and putting in a pile on the floor those he wanted to read. A little later he carried them in and arranged them in the secretary-desk, carefully and thoughtfully.
At night we went to bed early; he had fixed a long cord from the socket and made a reading light that hung on the wooden headboard, and before getting into bed he would choose a book from behind the faded silk of the glass doors of the secretary and lie reading for an hour, while I did the same; both of us propped up on horsehair pillows and very content.
But every morning after breakfast, which we ate in front of the open fire, there was that period of silent expecting and waiting, which was to go on all winter and spring—getting more tense and at the same time more hopeless as the days went by. About a quarter past nine we would both look out of the front windows, where the road passed beyond the hedge at the end of the garden, to see if the mailman was going to stop at the gate. Sitting there waiting, I would sometimes think of our old mailman, who used to go by when we were still children, old George Hankins, who (like the present, younger man) took the mail to the next town three miles away and dropped the mail for a half a dozen houses along the way. Old George had one little red horse, very alert and full of spirits, and an old, gray lazy mare, and we would watch to see which horse would be attached to his old hooded buggy. . . . We didn't have a mailbox then: if there were books or magazines, he would throw them over the hedge; but if there was a letter he would stop the horse, yell loudly, "Mail" and someone would go out and get it. I remembered when we were children how George Hankins, not so old then, would call out sometimes in the spring, on his trip back, "Lil-locks, children, lilocks!" and we would run out and pick up great flowering branches of early pale lilacs that he had broken off for us on his return from the other town. "Them lilocks bloom earlier than yourn, Mr. Boulton," he would shout to my father if he saw him. "Real good earth up there in Herbertsville!"
Old George was dead, and we were waiting, not for lilacs, but for a letter from John D. Williams.
"You can't expect to hear—it's too soon," I told Gene every morning—hardly able to bear his gloomy and pessimistic expression as he waited to see if the mailman would stop.
One morning, in that mild Indian summer which was upon us, he walked out and stood at the gate. When he came back across the lawn, carrying only bills from the electric-light company and the hardware store, which he hadn't even bothered to open, he said as he came up to where I was waiting on the porch "What's the matter with that goddamn mailman? He just glared at me!"
I was disturbed by this—I couldn't understand it.
"Maybe they look at you and think you're one of them there furriners—" I laughed, remembering how strangely the jitney man had acted the night we first arrived. "So Agnes Boulton married an I-talian this time! What'll she be up to next!"
He didn't think this funny, but looked gloomily at the two bills.
"We've got to be careful of the money— What's this? Did you buy something more at that hardware store?" he added, seeing the name and address in the corner.
I knew what he meant. "I'm not buying anything we don't need—it's probably about fixing the windmill." He looked at me suspiciously, and I knew what he was thinking of—an incident that occurred the afternoon that we went downtown to buy the jackets and get some things we needed at the stationery store.
My father, on arriving with the family and finding that there was the necessity (because of the circumstances) of paying rent, had hopelessly contemplated some small water colors he had done, debated about their chances of being sold, and then asked the proprietor of the hardware store, whom he knew well from the days when he was making many purchases there, if he'd give him a job. This was done, at ten dollars a week, and so every day from seven-thirty in the morning until six o'clock at night he stood behind a counter, sorting hinges for customers, weighing nails, advising perplexed women what sort of doorknobs, or latches perhaps, would be suitable. And—the stupid situation being what it was—I had to slip into the hardware store if I wanted to see him, and, in fact, even if I wanted to buy something, without Gene. I did this a few times without arousing much suspicion; then, that afternoon, when he insisted on going in to find out if they sold punching bags, I became so nervous and acted so strangely that he grew very suspicious and unpleasant, insisting I must be going in to talk to some admirer who worked there.
Gene put the two bills on the mantelpiece, went to the closet, and took out the unfinished script of Chris. He looked through it, still morose, and put it back and went to the window and stood there, as if still waiting for the mailman and hoping for a letter. I knew what the trouble was; he wanted to get to work. This was the hour he had accustomed himself to working, and he was struggling in a sort of vacuum of frustration. . . . Somehow things didn't seem right: he couldn't put out the Chris script on the table, sort it, concentrate, begin to plan. I felt that it was something about the room itself that was wrong; the doors and windows; the fact that it was really a room through which the traffic of the house passed, even though now it was only the traffic of two people, and I was worried about that and asked him about it.
"No, it's all right—I like the big table. I don't want to start on Chris or The Straw and then have to leave it for rehearsals, that's all. When are you going to start working?" he added in a sarcastic tone. "We spent more money than you may realize in New York. I not only have to sit here and worry about Beyond going into rehearsal, I've got to begin worrying about the damn money angle too. You know we can't count on In the Zone going on much longer. Perhaps you're too absent-minded to recall that I telephoned Lewis and Gordon about that the first week we were in New York, and they were pretty damn uncertain about it, even then. I should have heard from them—wonder why I didn't?"
"I'm going to start working right now," I said, suddenly furious about everything, "if that's what you want me to do! I thought this whole plan, being alone here and everything else—your goddamn solitude—was so you could work! We have to go up to rehearsals—that stops you from getting started, but I have to put my nose to the grindstone—is that it?" I flew into the lower nursery and stood rigidly clenching my hands. The old Oliver typewriter was on the table, and furiously, so he could hear me, I inserted a sheet of paper into the machine and pushed the carriage, making the bell ring. I was going to sit down and bang away on the keys, making as much noise as possible—but I couldn't. I suddenly felt foolish and weepy and sad, and stood there silent, listening.
'There was not a sound in the other room. . . . Then I heard the front door close and saw Gene walk down the path. I ran back through the dining room onto the porch. "Gene—come back!"
But he refused to answer me, and I stood there desolate, watching him as he walked down the road.
So there I was alone, no longer angry but unhappy and confused. What was happening to us? Instead of seeing the situation as I had done only fifteen minutes ago when I had realized that Gene wanted to work and couldn't—or wouldn't—I was seized by a host of thoughts (none of them completed), which flew through my mind like besieging bats. We had acted as though we hated each other. What was it we had said in our anger? Money—but didn't he realize that I was doing everything I could? At least I wasn't spending anything much except for food. It was he who wanted the leather coat, and he who had insisted that I buy one too. Was it possible that after all his talk he did need people; that it was too much being alone with me? And the room—he insisted it was all right, he could work there, but was it? and what could I do about it? Was it sex—was that it? I had been tired at night lately, and gone right off to sleep . . . but couldn't he understand that? And I realized then, with something of dread and dismay, that he hadn't seemed to feel that way either. . . . All this was going through my mind; but behind it and overcoming it at last was just the longing to have Gene back, to throw myself into his arms and have him hold me tight and tell me that he loved me. . . . But it wouldn't happen—I was sure of that.
But it did happen—just that! I was going crazy—had he taken a train? Had he bought a bottle? Had he hitchhiked off to some unknown place? I wandered from the kitchen to the dining room; looked out of the windows; got my coat . . . but if I did go after him, he might come back and I'd be gone! Then he might leave again . . . and . . . all the while the two cats and Trixie were anxiously watching me, as if they knew something was wrong.
Then—the door into the dining room opened quietly and Gene stood there. I had not heard him, so silently had he come up on the porch. He looked cold and pinched, and he shivered and cast on me a reproachful, sad, and yet tender look.
"Aggie—my own wonderful little wife!" We hugged each other and clung together and sat before the fire so he could get warm; he in the oak chair and I on his lap, his arm around me, pressing his damp tender skin against my face.
"I walked to the ocean and back," he said. "Maybe it did me good. We mustn't ever have this happen again—these horrible, searing, destructive fights. Never again, darling, do you understand?" And taking his face away from mine he gazed at me tenderly. His face looked thin and tortured—and very humble. And I remember feeling, without any explanation of it, a faint incredulousness.
"Let us promise each other that, my own!"
"I promise, darling!"
"Let's forget the bills and the money and Lewis and Gordon and J. D. Williams—and everything. Except ourselves!" He stood up and pulled me close to him. "Let's get in to bed and get warm!" And he carried me in his arms into the bedroom, sat me on the bed, and began taking off my shoes.
This letter I found among others, the paper thin and worn, the handwriting faint. It was written the day before The Moon of the Caribbees opened, which was on December twentieth of that year:
I'm not coming up. Not unless you send me a wire when you get this. (You ought to get it Friday A.M. early.) There was a letter from Lewis and Gordon and things seem doubtful about In the Zone.
So, much as I want to come, it's better to wait. I'll mail the story to Sonia (it's finished) and you'll have to tell me about The Moon.
But dear dearest heart, come home Saturday. I won't be able to stand another day longer than that without you. It's such a thin shadowy world, very still, just waiting—for you. All the reality is gone, and it's only when I shut my eyes and think about us, about you, that I'm something real—something still too, but with that stillness of the stars—something deep, something complete. . . . How futile words are!
Dear dearest, it's so silly to tell you that I love you (millionth time). Do you mind? I just wanted to say it again. You've never forgotten to say it to me, heart of mine. You are so beautiful, dearest, all of you.
I wonder if I'll not be able to take that train? I'm lonely!
Your very own wife,
Gene had gone to New York without me, protesting about it and predicting disaster for both of us but having to accept it, for, as so often happens, the mechanics of daily living blocked our intention to go up to the rehearsals together. It was impossible to leave the house alone—and that was all there was to it. The stoves had to be kept going or the pipes would freeze. The animals had to be fed—and I saw Gene give Trixie a vindictive look when I mentioned this; for he had never grown used to her, even though the little dog adored him. I had promised that if it were possible I would try and get someone to look after the fires, the animals, and the windmill, and join him in a few days.
The letter saying he must come up immediately had come sooner than he expected, but it was urgent; Jig Cook wrote that he had to come at once. If there had been time I might have arranged to have someone keep the place warm while I went up until he got settled, but not on that short notice; and to be truthful I was glad to be there alone for a short while.
After our quarrel I had taken the time to think things over very seriously. What I thought over was of course not myself and my family and our problem; but Gene—and myself in relationship to him. I recalled what he had said, and made an effort to find out if he was right in what he had said and how he'd said it. I tried to discover what, if anything (except the fact that he would soon be called to New York), was responsible for his inability to sit down after breakfast, even if he didn't do much actual writing, and spend some time working over his ideas, looking over his script, or something—as he had always done before.
I felt guilty because I was convinced that it was something to do with the house or his surroundings. I remembered what he'd said that first night—he'd wanted the west room to work in—until I'd explained things. I decided that I'd get the stove into the upper nursery, and we'd sleep there; the west room would be his study—leave the bed for him to lie and write on—have a long table there; another table for typing, near the west window; the secretary-desk was where it had always been, in the corner; and the Franklin stove, which was stored out in the barn, would keep the room warm, and be almost like an open fire.
This idea I had kept to myself, as I felt it was too much of a project to impose on him at that time—and also the problem that I felt this would solve was solved, temporarily at least, the very afternoon of our quarrel, when we returned to the house after a long walk.
We had started out late that afternoon, intending to walk to the ocean; then Gene decided it might be too far, as he'd been down there once before that day. So we took a road that Gene hadn't seen before, and came to a house. The fence was down; the bare sandy yard was full of trash—old kerosene stoves, broken chairs, pots and pans, and small, dirty, healthy-looking babies. A red-faced man was stretched on a hammock; a woman was hanging out quilts on a line; and there were three young girls, all blond and beautiful and all pregnant, sitting or walking in the sun in this front yard.
"Who are they, for God's sake?" Gene asked me. I told him that they had just appeared out of nowhere, no one knew from where, and taken the house, which had been empty for some time because of its bad state of repair. And there they had stayed and still no one knew where they came from or even what they lived on; for although the mother occasionally took in some washing, the big red-faced father never did a day's, or even an hour's, work, but sat inside or outside the house, depending on the weather, drinking cheap whisky. The queer thing was that the seven daughters were all fresh-faced, innocent-looking, healthy and blond—but each girl in turn became pregnant, usually having to leave school for this reason. No one knew how this happened, for they talked to no one, this family; and no one talked to them. They were the town outcasts and didn't seem to mind it or even to realize it. As to what happened to the girls after their babies joined the little group of other unidentified babies, I hadn't been able to learn, but it seemed to me I had heard that they just vanished, and nobody knew where.
After supper that night, which he ate in silence, apparently very absorbed, Gene went into the bedroom and lay down on the bed. Then he came back, and took paper, pencils and his writing board from the closet.
"I've thought of a one-act play—a peach! I'm going to outline it now and go ahead with it tomorrow. I should be able to finish it before I have to go to New York."
I was tired that night—between the quarrel, the reconciliation, our walk, and my various duties I must attend to every day, I didn't have much energy left. I went to bed earlier than usual, leaving Gene at the table before the fire, working. . . . The next day I woke up as usual and, still feeling tired, went back to sleep for a few minutes. I was awakened by a noise from the kitchen. Gene was not in the bed. I usually got up before he did, and, thinking it must be very late, I looked at the clock—to find that it was only seven-thirty. I put on my bathrobe and went into the kitchen.
Gene was there, holding the stove shaker in one hand and the poker in the other. He had removed the stove lid and he was staring inside with a puzzled expression on his face.
"Darling—what are you doing?" I had surprised him, and he turned to me, smiling ruefully.
"Something happened—there doesn't seem to be any fire left!"
I looked. The grate was empty. "You shook it too hard! The grate opened and it all fell down below!" I couldn't help laughing at him. "Now we have to start another fire!"
"You go back to bed and rest. I know how to start a fire. I've made up my mind to give you a hand with these stoves. Go on back to bed for a while and leave me alone!"
He looked so determined that I stifled the impulse to tell him what to do next and obeyed him. But I left the door open and listened to every sound—paper being crumpled, kindling snapping as he broke it, the roar of flame up the stovepipe, and then the sound of coal being dumped on the blaze. My darling Gene . . . I propped the pillow behind my back, then had a horrible thought. I bet he forgot to open the damper! I rushed into the kitchen again.
"Did you open the damper?"
"Think I'm that stupid? Go back to bed, you crazy little thing."
After he started on the one-act play in the dining room that morning he forgot all about the stoves—even forgot to watch for the mailman. I sneaked out and brought back a letter from a little theater that wanted to do one of his one-act plays, and kept it in the kitchen until he was through his work.
He worked on the play, which was based on the family we had seen, for two or three days—for some reason he didn't want to show me this play until it was finished and typed. It took him another day or so to revise and then type it. He was going over his script, getting ready to read it to me, when the postman brought a special delivery to the door. It was that letter from Jig. Please come up that afternoon if possible, if not next day at the latest.
"We can go tomorrow morning," Gene said. "Don't look so concerned—relax! Listen to this; I think it's pretty good. . . ."
I'm not going to mention the title of that one-act play here, but it is listed among Gene's lost plays, and I don't think that a copy of it exists today.
He left the next afternoon (as I said before) and I was alone in the house during rehearsals; and near the end of the time that I was alone I wrote the letter I have mentioned. That was on a Thursday morning. An hour or so later I wrote another letter:
I just sent you a letter and now it seems to me it wasn't a very practical letter and that you might want to know more definitely about Lewis and Gordon. So—I'm enclosing theirs. I did not intend sending it or telling you what they had to say until you got back, as I was afraid it might give you the blues; but on thinking it over perhaps you will want while in town to phone him and find out something definite. So here it is.
Don't be discouraged. Now I'm here and not so worried about things I'm going to support the family for a change. I have started a story and know I can do a lot. I always can when it really gets down to brass-tacks. You said just about that a week or so ago, and it's true. Only you didn't say it in quite that flattering way. I will simply do Harold de Polo's stunt for a while—look over old copies of the magazines I'm writing for and dope out some plots. . . . The reason I haven't sold stuff this summer is, as you know, I was getting in too much of the other, more serious—or anyway, attempted serious style.
Wrote two letters for you. I'm getting a lot done while you're away—have to keep busy, so as not to miss you too much. Having stove put upstairs etc. Finished typing story. Under the circumstances I ought to stay here, and get things started . . . stories I mean. So please Dearest don't fail to be down.
Come earlier Saturday if you can. By getting your mother to phone Penn station you can get time of trains and wire me if you take other train than the one leaving three something. I'll meet that one Saturday evening, with jitney, as I have some shopping to do. Love to all.
Au Revoir, my own dearest . . .
If your write me on getting this I'll get letter Saturday A.M. or noon. Please do.
But, late on Saturday afternoon, a boy arrived at the house on a bicycle, knocked at the door, and handed me a telegram:
I will not come home until you come up.
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