Story type: Literature
Mrs. Hosea C. Brewster always cleaned house in September and April. She started with the attic and worked her purifying path down to the cellar in strict accordance with Article I, Section I, Unwritten Rules for House Cleaning. For twenty-five years she had done it. For twenty-five years she had hated it—being an intelligent woman. For twenty-five years, towel swathed about her head, skirt pinned back, sleeves rolled up—the costume dedicated to house cleaning since the days of What’s-Her-Name, mother of Lemuel (see Proverbs)—Mrs. Brewster had gone through the ceremony twice a year.
Furniture on the porch, woolens on the line, mattresses in the yard—everything that could be pounded, beaten, whisked, rubbed, flapped, shaken or aired was dragged out and subjected to one or all of these indignities. After which, completely cowed, they were dragged in again and set in their places. Year after year, in attic and in cellar, things had piled up higher and higher—useless things, sentimental things; things in trunks; things in chests; shelves full of things wrapped up in brown-paper parcels.
And boxes—oh, above all, boxes; pasteboard boxes, long and flat, square and oblong, each bearing weird and cryptic pencilings on one end; cryptic, that, is to anyone except Mrs. Brewster and you who have owned an attic. Thus “H’s Fshg Tckl” jabberwocked one long slim box. Another stunned you with “Cur Ted Slpg Pch. ” A cabalistic third hid its contents under “Slp Cov Pinky Rm. ” To say nothing of such curt yet intriguing fragments as “Blk Nt Drs” and “Sun Par Val. ” Once you had the code key they translated themselves simply enough into such homely items as Hosey’s fishing tackle, canvas curtains for Ted’s sleeping porch, slip-covers for Pinky’s room, black net dress, sun-parlour valence.
The contents of those boxes formed a commentary on normal American household life as lived by Mr. and Mrs. Hosea C. Brewster, of Winnebago, Wisconsin. Hosey’s rheumatism had prohibited trout fishing these ten years; Ted wrote from Arizona that “the li’l’ ol’ sky” was his sleeping-porch roof and you didn’t have to worry out there about the neighbours seeing you in your pyjamas; Pink’s rose-cretonne room had lacked an occupant since Pinky left the Winnebago High School for the Chicago Art Institute, thence to New York and those amazingly successful magazine covers that stare up at you from your table—young lady, hollow chested (she’d need to be with that decolletage), carrying feather fan. You could tell a Brewster cover at sight, without the fan. That leaves the black net dress and sun-parlour valance. The first had grown too tight under the arms (Mrs. Brewster’s arms); the second had faded.
Now don’t gather from this that Mrs. Brewster was an ample, pie-baking, ginghamed old soul who wore black silk and a crushed-looking hat with a palsied rose atop it. Nor that Hosea C. Brewster was spectacled and slippered. Not at all. The Hosea C. Brewsters, of Winnebago, Wisconsin, were the people you’ve met on the veranda of the Moana Hotel at Honolulu, or at the top of Pike’s Peak, or peering into the restless heart of Vesuvius. They were the prosperous Middle-Western type of citizen who runs down to Chicago to see the new plays and buy a hat, and to order a dozen Wedgwood salad plates at Field’s.
Mrs. Brewster knew about Dunsany and Georgette and alligator pears; and Hosea Brewster was in the habit of dropping around to the Elks’ Club, up above Schirmer’s furniture store on Elm Street, at about five in the afternoon on his way home from the cold-storage plant. The Brewster house was honeycombed with sleeping porches and sun parlours and linen closets, and laundry chutes and vegetable bins and electric surprises as well-to-do Middle Western home is likely to be.
That home had long ago grown too large for the two of them—physically, that is. But as the big frame house had expanded, so had they—intolerance and understanding humanness—until now, as you talked with them, you felt that there was room and to spare of sun-filled mental chambers, and shelves well stored with experience, and pantries and bins and closets for all your worries and confidences.
But the attic! And the cellar! The attic was the kind of attic every woman longs for who hasn’t one and every woman loathes who has. “If I only had some place to put things in!” wails the first. And, “If it weren’t for the attic I’d have thrown this stuff away long ago,” complains the second. Mrs. Brewster herself had helped plan it. Hardwood floored, spacious light, the Brewster attic revealed to you the social, aesthetic, educational and spiritual progress of the entire family as clearly as if a sociologist had chartered it.
Take, for example (before we run down to the cellar for a minute), the crayon portraits of Gran’ma and Gran’pa Brewster. When Ted had been a junior and Pinky a freshman at the Winnebago High School the crayon portraits had beamed down upon them from the living-room wall. To each of these worthy old people the artist had given a pair of hectic pink cheeks. Gran’ma Brewster especially, simpering down at you from the labyrinthian scrolls of her sextuple gold frame, was rouged like a soubrette and further embellished with a pair of gentian-blue eyes behind steel-bowed specs. Pinky—and in fact the entire Brewster household—had thought these massive atrocities the last word in artistic ornament. By the time she reached her sophomore year, Pinky had prevailed upon her mother to banish them to the dining-room. Then two years later, when the Chicago decorator did over the living-room and the dining-room, the crayons were relegated to the upstairs hall.
Ted and Pinky, away at school, began to bring their friends back with them for the vacations. Pinky’s room had been done over in cream enamel and rose-flowered cretonne. She said the chromos in the hall spoiled the entire second floor. So the gold frames, glittering undimmed, the cheeks as rosily glowing as ever, found temporary resting-places in a nondescript back chamber known as the serving room. Then the new sleeping porch was built for Ted, and the portraits ended their journeying in the attic.
One paragraph will cover the cellar. Stationary tubs, laundry stove. Behind that, bin for potatoes, bin for carrots, bins for onions, apples, cabbages. Boxed shelves for preserves. And behind that Hosea C. Brewster’sbete noirand plaything, tyrant and slave—the furnace. “She’s eating up coal this winter,” Hosea Brewster would complain. Or: “Give her a little more draft, Fred. ” Fred, of the furnace and lawn mower, would shake a doleful head. “She ain’t drawin’ good. I do’ know what’s got into her. ”
By noon of this particular September day—a blue-and-gold Wisconsin September day—Mrs. Brewster had reached that stage in the cleaning of the attic when it looked as if it would never be clean and orderly again. Taking into consideration Miz’ Merz (Mis’ Merz by-the-day, you understand) and Gussie, the girl, and Fred, there was very little necessity for Mrs. Brewster’s official house-cleaning uniform. She might have unpinned her skirt, unbound her head, rolled down her sleeves and left for the day, serene in the knowledge that no corner, no chandelier, no mirror, no curlicue so hidden, so high, so glittering, so ornate that it might hope to escape the rag or brush of one or the other of this relentless and expert crew.
Every year, twice a year, as this box, that trunk or chest was opened and its contents revealed, Mis’ Merz would say “You keepin’ this, Miz’ Brewster?”
“That? Oh, dear yes!” Or: “Well—I don’t know. You can take that home with you if you want it. It might make over for Minnie. ”
Yet why, in the name of all that’s ridiculous, did she treasure the funeral wheat wreath in the wa
lnut frame? Nothing is morepasse than a last summer’s hat, yet the leghorn and pink-cambric-rose thing in the tin trunk was the one Mrs. Brewster had worn when a bride. Then the plaid kilted dress with the black velvet monkey jacket that Pinky had worn when she spoke her first piece at the age of seven—well, these were things that even the rapacious eye of Miz’ Merz (by-the-day) passed by unbrightened by covetousness.
The smell of soap and water, and cedar, and moth balls, and dust, and the ghost of a perfumery that Pinky used to use pervaded the hot attic. Mrs. Brewster, head and shoulders in a trunk, was trying not to listen and not to seem not to listen to Miz’ Merz’ recital of her husband’s relations’ latest flagrancy.
“’Families is nix,’ I says.’I got my own family to look out fuh,’ I says. Like that.’Well,’ s’s he, ‘w’en it comes tothat,’ s’s he, ‘I guess I got some—’“ Punctuated by thumps, spatterings, swashings and much heavy breathing, so that the sound of light footsteps along the second-floor hallway, a young clear voice calling, then the same footsteps, fleeter now, on the attic stairway, were quite unheard.
Pinky’s arm were around her mother’s neck and for one awful moment it looked as if both were to be decapitated by the trunk lid, so violent had been Mrs. Brewster’s start of surprise.
Incoherent little cries, and sentences unfinished.
“Pinky! Why—my baby! We didn’t get your telegram. Did you—”
“No; I didn’t. I just thought I—Don’t look so dazed, mummy—You’re all smudged too—what in the world!” Pinky straightened her hat and looked about the attic. “Why, mother! You’re—you’re house cleaning!” There was a stunned sort of look on her face. Pinky’s last visit home had been in June, all hammocks, and roses, and especially baked things, and motor trips into the country.
“Of course. This is September. But if I’d known you were coming—Come here to the window. Let mother see you. Is that the kind of hat they’re—why, its a winter one, isn’t it? Already! Dear me, I’ve just got used to the angle of my summer one. You must telephone father. ”
Miz’ Merz damply calicoed, rose from a corner and came forward, wiping a moist and parboiled hand on her skirt. “Ha’ do, Pinky? Ain’t forgot your old friends, have you?”
“It’s Mrs. Merz!” Pinky put her cool, sweet fingers into the other woman’s spongy clasp. “Why, hello, Mrs. Merz! Of course when there’s house cleaning—I’d forgotten all about house cleaning—that there was such a thing, I mean. ”
“It’s got to be done,” replied Miz’ Merz severely.
Pinky, suddenly looking like one of her own magazine covers (in tailor clothes), turned swiftly to her mother. “Nothing of the kind,” she said crisply. She looked about the hot, dusty, littered room. She included and then banished it all with one sweeping gesture. “Nothing of the kind. This is—this is an anachronism. ”
“Mebbe so,” retorted Miz’ Merz with equal crispness. “But it’s got to be cleaned just the same. Yessir; it’s got to be cleaned. ”
They smiled at each other then, the mother and daughter. They descended the winding attic stairs happily, talking very fast and interrupting each other.
Mrs. Brewster’s skirt was still pinned up. Her hair was bound in the protecting towel. “You must telephone father. No, let’s surprise him. You’ll hate the dinner—built around Miz’ Merz; you know—boiled. Well, you know what a despot she is. ”
It was hot for September, in Wisconsin. As they came out to the porch Pinky saw that there were tiny beads of moisture under her mother’s eyes and about her chin. The sight infuriated her somehow. “Well, really, mother!”
Mrs. Brewster unpinned her skirt and smoothed it down and smiled at Pinky, all unconscious that she looked like a plump, pink Sister of Mercy with that towel bound tightly about her hair. With a swift movement Pinky unpinned the towel, unwound it, dabbed with it tenderly at her mother’s chin and brow, rolled it into a vicious wad and hurled it through the open doorway.
“Now just what does that mean?” said Mrs. Brewster equably. “Take off your hat and coat, Pinky, but don’t treat them that way—unless that’s the way they’re doing in New York. Everything is so informal since the war. ” She had a pretty wit of her own, Mrs. Brewster.
Of course Pinky laughed then, and kissed her mother and hugged her hard. “It’s just that it seems idiotic—your digging around in an attic in this day and age! Why it’s—it’s—” Pinky could express herself much more clearly in colours than in words. “There is no such thing as an attic. People don’t clean them any more. I never realized before—this huge house. It has been wonderful to come back to, of course. But just you and dad. ” She stopped. She raised two young fists high in important anger. “Do youlikecleaning the attic?”
“Why, no. I hate it. ”
“Then why in the world—”
“I’ve always done it, Pinky. And while they may not be wearing attics in New York, we haven’t taken them off in Winnebago. Come on up to your room, dear. It looks bare. If I’d known you were coming—the slip covers—”
“Are they in the box in the attic labeled ‘Slp Cov Pinky Rum’?” She succeeded in slurring it ludicrously.
It brought an appreciative giggle from Mrs. Brewster. A giggle need not be inconsistent with fifty years, especially if one’s nose wrinkles up delightfully in the act. But no smile curved the daughter’s stern young lips. Together they went up to Pinky’s old room (the older woman stopped to pick up the crumpled towel on the hall floor). On the way they paused at the door of Mrs. Brewster’s bedroom, so cool, so spacious, all soft greys and blues.
Suddenly Pinky’s eyes widened with horror. She pointed an accusing forefinger at a large dark object in a corner near a window. “That’s the old walnut desk! she exclaimed.
“I know it. ”
The girl turned, half amused, half annoyed. “Oh, mother dear! That’s the situation in a nutshell. Without a shadow of doubt, there’s an eradicable streak of black walnut in your grey-enamel make-up. ”
“Eradicable! That’s a grand word, Pinky. Stylish! I never expected to meet it out of a book. And fu’thermore, as Miz’ Merz would say, I didn’t know there was any situation. ”
“I meant the attic. And it’s more than a situation. It’s a state of mind. ”
Mrs. Brewster had disappeared into the depths of her clothes closet. Her voice sounded muffled. “Pinky, you’re talking the way they did at that tea you gave for father and me when we visited New York last winter. ” She emerged with a cool-looking blue kimono. “Here. Put this on. Father’ll be home at twelve-thirty, for dinner, you know. You’ll want a bath, won’t you, dear?”
“Yes. Mummy, is it boiled—honestly?—on a day like this?”
“With onions,” said Mrs. Brewster firmly.
Fifteen minutes later Pinky, splashing in a cool tub, heard the voice of Miz’ Merz, high-pitched with excitement and a certain awful joy: “Miz’ Brewster! Oh, Miz’ Brewster! I found a moth in Mr. Brewster’s winter flannels!”
“Oh!” in choked accents of fury from Pinky; and she brought a hard young fist down in the water—spat!—so that it splashed ceiling, hair and floor impartially.
Still, it was a cool and serene young daughter who greeted Hosea Brewster as he came limping up the porch stairs. He placed the flat of the foot down at each step, instead of heel and ball. It gave him a queer, hitching gait. The girl felt a sharp little constriction of her
throat as she marked that rheumatic limp. “It’s the beastly Wisconsin winters,” she told herself. Then, darting out at him from the corner where she had been hiding: “S’prise! S’prise!”
His plump blond face, flushed with the unwonted heat went darkly red. He dropped his hat. His arms gathered her in. Her fresh young cheek was pressed against his dear, prickly one. So they stood for a long minute—close.
“Need a shave, dad. ”
“Well gosh how did I know my best girl was coming!” He held her off. “What’s the matter, Pink? Don’t they like your covers any more?”
“Not a thing, Hosey. Don’t get fresh. They’re redecorating my studio—you know—plasterers and stuff. I couldn’t work. And I was lonesome for you. ”
Hosea Brewster went to the open doorway and gave a long whistle with a little quirk at the end. Then he came back to Pinky in the wide-seated porch swing. “You know,” he said, his voice lowered confidentially, “I thought I’d take mother to New York for ten days or so. See the shows, and run around and eat at the dens of wickedness. She likes it for a change. ”
Pinky sat up, tense. “For a change? Dad, I want to talk to you about that. Mother needs—”
Mrs. Brewster’s light footstep sounded in the hall. She wore an all-enveloping gingham apron. “How did you like your surprise, father?” She came over to him and kissed the top of his head. “I’m getting dinner so that Gussie can go on with the attic. Everything’s ready if you want to come in. I didn’t want to dish up until you were at the table, so’s everything would be hot. ” She threw a laughing glance at Pinky.
But when they were seated, there appeared a platter of cold, thinly sliced ham for Pinky, and a crisp salad, and a featherweight cheese souffle, and iced tea, and a dessert coolly capped with whipped cream.
“But, mother, you shouldn’t have—” feebly.
“There are always a lot of things in the house. You know that. I just wanted to tease you. ”
Father Brewster lingered for an unwonted hour after the midday meal. But two o’clock found him back at the cold-storage plant. Pinky watched him go, a speculative look in her eyes.
She visited the attic that afternoon at four, when it was again neat, clean, orderly, smelling of soap and sunshine. Standing there in the centre of the big room, freshly napped, smartly coiffed, blue-serged, trim, the very concentrated essence of modernity, she eyed with stern deliberation the funeral wheat wreath in its walnut frame; the trunks; the chests; the boxes all shelved and neatly inscribed with their “H’s Fshg Tckl” and “Blk Nt Drs. ”
“Barbaric!” she said aloud, though she stood there alone. “Medieval! Mad! It has got to be stopped. Slavery!” After which she went downstairs and picked golden glow for the living-room vases and scarlet salvia for the bowl in the dining-room.
Still, as one saw Mrs. Brewster’s tired droop at supper that night, there is no denying that there seemed some justification for Pinky’s volcanic remarks.
Hosea Brewster announced, after supper, that he and Fred were going to have a session with the furnace; she needed going over in September before they began firing up for the winter.
“I’ll go down with you,” said Pinky.
“No, you stay up here with mother. You’ll get all ashes and coal dust. ”
But Pinky was firm. “Mother’s half dead. She’s going straight up to bed, after that darned old attic. I’ll come up to tuck you in, mummy. ”
And though she did not descend to the cellar until the overhauling process was nearly completed she did come down in time for the last of the scene. She perched at the foot of the stairs and watched the two men, overalled, sooty, tobacco-wreathed and happy. When finally, Hosea Brewster knocked the ashes out of his stubby black pipe, dusted his sooty hands together briskly and began to peel his overalls, Pinky came forward.
She put her hand on his arm. “Dad, I want to talk to you. ”
“Careful there. Better not touch me. I’m all dirt. G’night, Fred. ”
“Listen, dad. Mother isn’t well. ”
He stopped then, with one overall leg off and the other on, and looked at her. “Huh? What d’you mean—isn’t well? Mother. ” His mouth was open. His eyes looked suddenly strained.
“This house—it’s killing her. She could hardly keep here eyes open at supper. It’s too much for her. She ought to be enjoying herself—like those huge rooms. And you’re another. ”
“Yes. A slave to his furnace. You said yourself to Fred, just now, that it was all worn out, and needed new pipes or something—I don’t know what. And that coal was so high it would be cheaper using dollar bills for fuel. Oh, I know you were just being funny. But it was partly true. Wasn’t it? Wasn’t it?”
“Yeh, but listen here, Paula. ” He never called her Paula unless he was terribly disturbed. “About mother—you said—”
“You and she ought to go away this winter—not just for a trip, but to stay. You”—she drew a long breath and made the plunge—“you ought to give up the house. ”
“Permanently. Mother and you are buried alive here. You ought to come to New York to live. Both of you will love it when you are there for a few days. I don’t mean to come to a hotel. I mean to take a little apartment, a furnished apartment at first to see how you like it—two rooms and kitchenette, like a play-house. ”
Hosey Brewster looked down at his own big bulk. Then around the great furnace room. “Oh, but listen—”
“No, I want you to listen first. Mother’s worn out, I tell you. It isn’t as if she were the old-fashioned kind; she isn’t. She loves the theatres, and pretty hats, and shoes with buckles, and lobster, and concerts. ”
He broke in again: “Sure; she likes ’em for change. But for a steady diet—Besides, I’ve got a business to ‘tend to. My gosh! I’ve got a business to—”
“You know perfectly well that Wetzler practically runs the whole thing—or could, if you’d let him. ” Youth is cruel like that, when it wants its way.
He did not even deny it. He seemed suddenly old. Pinky’s heart smote her a little. “It’s just that you’ve got so used to this great barracks you don’t know how unhappy it’s making you. Why, mother said to-day that she hated it. I asked about the attic—the cleaning and all—and she said that she hated it. ”
“Did she say that, Paula?”
He dusted his hands together, slowly, spiritlessly. His eyes looked pained and dull. “She did, h’m? You say she did?” He was talking to himself, and thinking, thinking.
Pinky, sensing victory, left him. She ran lightly up the cellar stairs, through the first-floor rooms and up to the second floor. Her mother’s bedroom door was open.
A little mauve lamp shed its glow upon the tired woman in one of the plump, grey-enamel beds. “No, I’m not sleeping. Come here, dear. What in the world have you been doing in the cellar all this time?”
“Talking to dad. ” She came over and perched herself on the side of the bed. She looked down at her mother. Then she bent and kissed her. Mrs. Brewster looked incredibly girlish with the lamp’s rosy glow on her face and her hair, warmly brown and profuse, rippling out over the pillow. Scarcely a thread of grey in it. “You know, mother, I think dad isn’t well. He ought to go away. ”
As if by magic the youth and glow faded out of the face on the pillow. As she sat up, clutching her n
ightgown to her breast, she looked suddenly pinched and old. “What do you mean, Pinky! Father—but he isn’t sick. He—”
“Not sick. I don’t mean sick exactly. But sort of worn out. That furnace. He’s sick and tired of the thing; that’s what he said to Fred. He needs a change. He ought to retire and enjoy life. He could. This house is killing both of you. Why in the world don’t you close it up, or sell it, and come to New York?”
“But we do. We did. Last winter—”
“I don’t mean just for a little trip. I mean to live. Take a little two-room apartment in one of the new buildings—near my studio—and relax. Enjoy yourselves. Meet new men and women. Live! You’re in a rut—both of you. Besides, dad needs it. That rheumatism of his, with these Wisconsin winters—”
“But California—we could go to California—”
“That’s only a stop-gap. Get your little place in New York all settled, and then run away whenever you like, without feeling that this great bulk of a house is waiting for you. Father hates it; I know it. ”
“Did he ever say so?”
“Well, practically. He thinks you’re fond of it. He—”
Slow steps ascending the stairs—heavy, painful steps. The two women listened in silence. Every footfall seemed to emphasize Pinky’s words. The older woman turned her face toward the sound, her lips parted, her eyes anxious, tender.
“How tired he sounds,” said Pinky; “and old. And he’s only—why, dad’s only fifty-eight. ”
“Fifty-seven,” snapped Mrs. Brewster sharply, protectingly.
Pinky leaned forward and kissed her. “Good night, mummy dear. You’re so tired, aren’t you?”
Her father stood in the doorway.
“Good night, dear. I ought to be tucking you into bed. It’s all turned around, isn’t it? Biscuits and honey for breakfast, remember. ”
So Pinky went off to her own room (sans“slp cov”) and slept soundly, dreamlessly, as does one whose work is well done.
Three days later Pinky left. She waved a good-bye from the car platform, a radiant, electric, confident Pinky, her work well done.
“Au ‘voir!The first of November! Everything begins then. You’ll love it. You’ll be real New Yorkers by Christmas. Now, no changing your minds, remember. ”
And by Christmas, somehow, miraculously, there they were, real New Yorkers; or as real and as New York as anyone can be who is living in a studio apartment (duplex) that has been rented (furnished) from a lady who turned out to be from Des Moines.
When they arrived, Pinky had four apartments waiting for their inspection. She told them this in triumph and well she might, it being the winter after the war when New York apartments were as scarce as black diamonds and twice as costly.
Father Brewster, on hearing the price, emitted a long low whistle and said: “How many rooms did you say?”
Two—and a kitchenette, of course. ”
“Well, then, all I can say is the furniture ought to be solid gold for that; inlaid with rubies and picked out with platinum. ”
But it wasn’t. In fact, it wasn’t solid anything, being mostly of a very impermanent structure and style. Pinky explained that she had kept the best for the last. The thing that worried Father Brewster was that, no matter at what hour of the day they might happen to call on the prospective lessor, that person was always feminine and hatted. Once it was eleven in the morning. Once five in the afternoon.
“Do these New York women wear hats in the house all the time?” demanded Hosea Brewster worriedly. “I think they sleep in ’em. It’s a wonder they ain’t bald. Maybe they are. Maybe that’s why. Anyway, it makes you feel like a book agent. ”
He sounded excited and tired. “Now, father!” said Mrs. Brewster, soothingly.
They were in the elevator that was taking them up to the fourth and (according to Pinky) choicest apartment. The building was what is known as a studio apartment, in the West Sixties. The corridors were done in red flagstones, with grey-tone walls. The metal doors were painted grey.
Pinky was snickering. “Now she’ll say: ‘Well, we’ve been very comfortable here.’ They always do. Don’t look too eager. ”
“No fear,” put in Hosey Brewster.
“It’s really lovely. And a real fireplace. Everything new and good. She’s asking two hundred and twenty-five. Offer her one seventy-five. She’ll take two hundred”
“You bet she will,” growled Hosea.
She answered the door—hatted; hatted in henna, that being the season’s chosen colour. A small dark foyer, overcrowded with furniture; a studio living-room, bright, high-ceilinged, smallish; one entire side was window. There were Japanese prints, and a baby grand piano, and a lot of tables, and a davenport placed the way they do it on the stage, with its back to the room and its arms to the fireplace, and a long table just behind it, with a lamp on it, and books, and a dull jar thing, just as you’ve seen it in the second-act library.
Hosea Brewster twisted his head around and up to gaze at the lofty ceiling. “Feel’s if I was standing at the bottom of a well,” he remarked.
But the hatted one did not hear him. “No; no dining-room,” she was saying briskly. “No, indeed. I always use this gate-legged table. You see? It pulls out like this. You can easily seat six—eight, in fact. ”
“Heaven forbid!” in ferventsotto vocefrom Father Brewster.
“It’s an enormous saving in time and labour. ”
“The—kitchen!” inquired Mrs. Brewster.
The hat waxed playful. “You’ll never guess where the kitchen is!” She skipped across the room. “You see this screen?” They saw it. A really handsome affair, and so placed at one end of the room that it looked a part of it. “Come here. ” They came. The reverse side of the screen was dotted with hooks, and on each hook hung a pot, a pan, a ladle, a spoon. And there was the tiny gas range, the infinitesimal ice chest, the miniature sink. The whole would have been lost in one corner of the Brewster’s Winnebago china closet.
“Why, how—how wonderful!” breathed Mrs. Brewster.
“Isn’t it? So complete—and so convenient. I’ve cooked roasts, steaks, chops, everything, right here. It’s just play. ”
A terrible fear seized upon Father Brewster. He eyed the sink and the tiny range with a suspicious eye. “The beds,” he demanded, “where are the beds?”
She opened the little oven door and his heart sank. But, “They’re upstairs,” she said. “This is a duplex, you know. ”
A little flight of winding stairs ended in a balcony. The rail was hung with a gay mandarin robe. Two more steps and you were in the bedroom—a rather breathless little bedroom, profusely rose-coloured, and with whole battalions of photographs in flat silver frames standing about on dressing table, shelf, desk. The one window faced a grey brick wall.
They took the apartment. And thus began a life of ease and gayety for Mr. and Mrs. Hosea C. Brewster, of Winnebago, Wisconsin.
Pinky had dinner with them the first night, and they laughed a great deal, what with one thing and another. She sprang up to the balcony, and let down her bright hair, and leaned over the railing,a la Juliet, having first decked Hosey out in a sketchy but effective Romeo costume, consisting of a hastily snatched up scarf over one shoulder, Pinky’s little turban, and a frying pan for a lute. Mother Brewster did the Nurse, and by the time Hosea began his limping climb up the balcony, the turban over one eye and the scarf winding itself about his stocky legs
, they ended by tumbling in a heap of tearful laughter.
After Pinky left there came upon them, in that cozy, little, two-room apartment, a feeling of desolation and vastness, and a terrible loneliness such as they had never dreamed of in the great twelve-room house in Winnebago. They kept close to each other. They toiled up the winding stairs together and stood a moment on the balcony, feigning a light-heartedness that neither of them felt.
They lay very still in the little stuffy rose-coloured room and the street noises of New York came up to them—a loose chain flapping against the mud guard of a Taxi; the jolt of a flat-wheeled Eighth Avenue street car the roar of an L train; laughter; the bleat of a motor horn; a piano in the apartment next door, or upstairs or down.
She thought, as she lay there, choking of the great gracious grey-and-blue room at home, many-windowed, sweet-smelling, quiet. Quiet!
He thought, as he lay there, choking, of the gracious grey-blue room at home; many-windowed, sweet-smelling, quiet. Quiet!
Then, as he had said that night in September: “Sleeping, mother?”
“N-no. Not yet. Just dozing off. ”
“It’s the strange beds, I guess. This is going to be great, though. Great!”
“My, yes!” agreed Mrs. Brewster, heartily.
They awoke next morning unrefreshed. Pa Brewster, back home in Winnebago, always whistled mournfully off key, when he shaved. The more doleful his tune the happier his wife knew him to be. Also, she had learned to mark his progress by this or that passage in a refrain. Sometimes he sang, too (also off key), and you heard his genial roar all over the house. The louder he roared, and the more doleful the tune, the happier his frame of mind. Milly Brewster knew this. She had never known that she knew it. Neither had he. It was just one of those subconscious bits of marital knowledge that make for happiness and understanding.
When he sang “The Dying Cowboy’s Lament” and came to the passage, “Oh, take me to the churchyard and lay the sod o-o-over me,” Mrs. Brewster used to say: “Gussie, Mr. Brewster’ll be down in ten minutes. You can start the eggs. ”
In the months of their gay life in Sixty-seventh Street, Hosey Brewster never once sang “The Dying Cowboy’s Lament,” nor whistled “In the Sweet By-and-By. ” No; he whistled not at all, or, when he did, gay bits of jazz heard at the theatre or in a restaurant the night before. He deceived no one, least of all himself. Sometimes his voice would trail off into nothingness, but he would catch the tune and toss it up again, heavily, as though it were a physical weight.
Theatres! Music! Restaurants! Teas! Shopping! The gay life!
“Enjoying yourself, Milly?” he would say.
“Time of my life, father. ”
She had had her hair dressed in those geometrical, undulations without which no New York audience feels itself clothed. They saw Pinky less frequently as time went on and her feeling or responsibility lessened. Besides, the magazine covers took most of her day. She gave a tea for her father and mother at her own studio, and Mrs. Brewster’s hat, slippers, gown and manner equalled in line, style, cut and texture those of any other woman present, which rather surprised her until she had talked to five or six of them.
She and Hosey drifted together and compared notes.
“Say, Milly,” he confided, “they’re all from Wisconsin—or approximately; Michigan and Minnesota, and Iowa, and around. Far’s I can make out there’s only one New Yorker, really, in the whole caboodle of ’em. ”
“That kind of plain little one over there—sensible looking, with the blue suit. I was talking to her. She was born right here in New York, but she doesn’t live here—that is, not in the city. Lives in some place in the country, in a house. ”
A sort of look came into Mrs. Brewster’s eyes. “Is that so? I’d like to talk to her, Hosey. Take me over. ”
She did talk to the quiet little woman in the plain blue suit. And the quiet little woman said: “Oh, dear, yes!” She ignored her r’s fascinatingly, as New Yorkers do”. We live in Connecticut. You see, you Wisconsin people have crowded us out of New York; no breathing space. Besides, how can one live here? I mean to say—live. And then the children—it’s no place for children, grown up or otherwise. I love it—oh, yes indeed. I love it. But it’s too difficult. ”
Mrs. Brewster defended it like a true Westerner. “But if you have just a tiny apartment, with a kitchenette—”
The New York woman laughed. There was nothing malicious about her. But she laughed. “I tried it. There’s one corner of my soul that’s still wrinkled from the crushing. Everything in a heap. Not to speak of the slavery of it. That—that deceitful, lying kitchenette. ”
This was the first woman that Mrs. Brewster had talked to—really talked to—since leaving Winnebago. And she liked women. She missed them. At first she had eyed wonderingly, speculatively, the women she saw on Fifth Avenue. Swathed luxuriously in precious pelts, marvelously coiffed and hatted, wearing the frailest of boots and hose, exhaling a mysterious heady scent they were more like strange exotic birds than women.
The clerks in the shops, too—they were so remote, so contemptuous. When she went into Gerretson’s, back home Nellie Monahan was likely to say: “You’ve certainly had a lot of wear out of that blue, Mrs. Brewster. Let’s see, you’ve had it two—three years this spring? My land! Let me show you our new taupes. ”
Pa Brewster had taken to conversing with the doorman. That adamantine individual, unaccustomed to being addressed as a human being, was startled at first, surly and distrustful. But he mellowed under Hosey’s simple and friendly advances. They became quite pals, these two—perhaps two as lonely men as you could find in all lonely New York.
“I guess you ain’t a New Yorker, huh?” Mike said.
“Me? No. ”
“Th’ most of the folks in th’ buildin’ ain’t. ”
“Ain’t!” Hosea Brewster was startled into it. “They’re artists, aren’t they? Most of ’em?”
“No! Out-of-town folks, like you. West, East an’ Californy, an’ around there. Livin’ here, though. Seem t’ like it better’n where they come from. I dunno. ”
Hosey Brewster took to eying them as Mrs. Brewster had eyed the women. He wondered about them, these tight, trim men, rather short of breath, buttoned so snugly into their shining shoes and their tailored clothes, with their necks bulging in a fold of fat above the back of their white linen collar. He knew that he would never be like them. It wasn’t his square-toe shoes that made the difference, or his grey hat, or his baggy trousers. It was something inside him—something he lacked, he thought. It never occurred to him that it was something he possessed that they did not.
“Enjoying yourself, Milly?”
“I should say I am, father. ”
“That’s good. No housework and responsibility to this, is there?”
“It’s play. ”
She hated the toy gas stove, and the tiny ice chest and the screen pantry. All her married life she had kept house in a big, bounteous way; apples in barrels; butter in firkins; flour in sacks; eggs in boxes; sugar in bins; cream in crocks. Sometimes she told herself, bitterly, that it was easier to keep twelve rooms tidy and habitable than one combination kitchen-dining-and-living room.
“Chops taste good, Hosey?”
“Grand. But you oughtn’t to be cooking around like this. We’ll eat out to-morrow night somewhere, and go to a show. ”
“You’re enjoying it, aren’t you, Hosey, h’m?
“It’s the life, mother! It’s the life!”
His ruddy colour began to fade. He took to haunting department-store kitchenware sections. He would come home with a new kind of cream whipper, or a patent device for the bathroom. He would tinker happily with this, driving a nail, adjusting a screw. At such times he was even known to begin to whistle some scrap of a doleful tune such as he used to hum. But he would change, quickly, into something lovely. The price of butter, eggs, milk, cream and the like horrified his Wisconsin cold-storage sensibilities. He used often to go down to Fulton Market before daylight and walk about among the stalls and shops, piled with tons of food of all kinds. He would talk to the marketmen, and the buyers and grocers, and come away feeling almost happy for a time.
Then, one day, with a sort of shock, he remembered a farmer he had known back home in Winnebago. He knew the farmers for miles around, naturally, in his business. This man had been a steady butter-and-egg acquaintance, one of the wealthy farmers in that prosperous farming community. For his family’s sake he had moved into town, a ruddy, rufous-bearded, clumping fellow, intelligent, kindly. They had sold the farm with a fine profit and had taken a boxlike house on Franklin Street. He had nothing to do but enjoy himself. You saw him out on the porch early, very early summer mornings.
You saw him ambling about the yard, poking at a weed here, a plant there. A terrible loneliness was upon him; a loneliness for the soil he had deserted. And slowly, resistlessly, the soil pulled at him with its black strength and its green tendrils, down, down, until he ceased to struggle and lay there clasped gently to her breast, the mistress he had thought to desert and who had him again at last, and forever.
“I don’t know what ailed him,” his widow had said, weeping. “He just seemed to kind of pine away. ”
It was one morning in April—one soft, golden April morning—when this memory had struck Hosey Brewster. He had been down at Fulton Market. Something about the place—the dewy fresh vegetables, the crates of eggs, the butter, the cheese—had brought such a surge of homesickness to him as to amount to an actual nausea. Riding uptown in the subway he had caught a glimpse of himself in a slot-machine mirror. His face was pale and somehow shrunken. He looked at his hands. The skin hung loose where the little pads of fat had plumped them out.
“Gosh!” he said. “Gosh, I—”
He thought, then, of the red-faced farmer who used to come clumping into the cold-storage warehouse in his big boots and his buffalo coat. A great fear swept over him and left him weak and sick.
The chill grandeur of the studio-building foyer stabbed him. The glittering lift made him dizzy, somehow, this morning. He shouldn’t have gone out without some breakfast perhaps. He walked down the flagged corridor softly; turned the key ever so cautiously. She might still be sleeping. He turned the knob, gently; tiptoed in and, turning, fell over a heavy wooden object that lay directly in his path in the dim little hall. A barked shin. A good round oath.
“Hosey! What’s the matter? What—” She came running to him. She led him into the bright front room.
“What was that thing? A box or something, right there in front of the door. What the—”
“Oh, I’m so sorry, Hosey. You sometimes have breakfast downtown. I didn’t know-”
Something in her voice—he stopped rubbing the injured shin to look up at her. Then he straightened slowly, his mouth ludicrously open. Her head was bound in a white towel. Her skirt was pinned back. Her sleeves were rolled up. Chairs, tables, rugs, ornaments were huddled in a promiscuous heap. Mrs. Hosea C. Brewster was cleaning house.
“Milly!” he began, sternly. “And that’s just the thing you came here to get away from. If Pinky—”
“I didn’t mean to, father. But when I got up this morning there was a letter—a letter from the woman who owns this apartment, you know. She asked if I’d go to the hall closet—the one she reserved for her own things, you know—and unlock it, and get out a box she told me about, and have the hall boy express it to her. And I did, and—look!”
Limping a little he followed her. She turned on the light that hung in the closet. Boxes—pasteboard boxes—each one bearing a cryptic penciling on the end that stared out at you. “Drp Stud Win,” said one; “Sum Slp Cov Bedrm,” another; “Toil. Set &Pic. Frms. ”
Mrs Brewster turned to her husband, almost shamefacedly, and yet with a little air of defiance. “It—I don’t know—it made me—not homesick, Hosey. Not homesick, exactly; but—well, I guess I’m not the only woman with a walnut streak in her modern make-up. Here’s the woman—she came to the door with her hat on, and yet—”
Truth—blinding, white-hot truth—burst in upon him. “Mother,” he said—and he stood up, suddenly robust, virile, alert—“mother, let’s go home. ”
Mechanically she began to unpin the looped-back skirt.
“But, Hosey! Pinky—this flat—until June—”
“Now! Unless you want to stay. Unless you like it here in this—this make-believe, double-barreled, duplex do-funny of a studio thing. Let’s go home, mother. Let’s go home—and breathe. ”
In Wisconsin you are likely to find snow in April—snow or slush. The Brewsters found both. Yet on their way up from the station in ‘Gene Buck’s flivver taxi, they beamed out at it as if it were a carpet of daisies.
At the corner of Elm and Jackson Streets Hosey Brewster stuck his head out of the window. “Stop here a minute, will you, ‘Gene?”
They stopped in front of Hengel’s meat market, and Hosey went in. Mrs. Brewster leaned back without comment.
Inside the shop. “Well, I see you’re back from the East,” said Aug Hengel.
“We thought you’d given us the go-by, you stayed away so long. ”
“No, sir-ree! Say, Aug, give me that piece of bacon—the big piece. And send me up some corned beef to-morrow, for corned beef and cabbage. I’ll take a steak along for to-night. Oh, about four pounds. That’s right. ”
It seemed to him that nothing less than a side of beef could take out of his mouth the taste of those fiddling little lamb chops and the restaurant fare of the past six months.
All through the winter Fred had kept up a little heat in the house, with an eye to frozen water pipes. But there was a chill upon the place as they opened the door now. It was late afternoon. The house was very still, with the stillness of a dwelling that has long been uninhabited. The two stood there a moment, peering into the darkened rooms. Then Hosea Brewster strode forward, jerked up this curtain, that curtain with a sharp snap, flap! He stamped his feet to rid them of slush. He took off his hat and threw it high in the air and opened his arms wide and emitted a whoop of sheer joy and relief.
“Welcome home! Home!”
She clung to him. “Oh, Hosey, isn’t it wonderful? How big it looks! Huge!”
“Land, yes. ” He strode from hall to dining-room, from kitchen to library. “I know how a jack-in-the-box feels when the lid’s opened. No wonder it grins and throws out its arms. ”
They did little talking after that. By five o’clock he was down in the cellar. She heard him making a great sound of rattling and bumping and shaking and pounding and shoveling. She smelled the acrid odour of his stubby black pipe.
“Hosey!”—from the top of the cellar stairs. “Hosey br
ing up a can of preserves when you come. ”
“Can of preserves. ”
“Any kind you like. ”
“Can I have two kinds?”
He brought up quince marmalade and her choicest damson plums. He put them down on the kitchen table and looked around, spatting his hands together briskly to rid them of dust. “She’s burning pretty good now. That Fred! Don’t any more know how to handle a boiler than a baby does. Is the house getting warmer?”
He clumped into the dining-room, through the butler’s pantry, but he was back again in a wink, his eyes round. “Why, say, mother! You’ve got out the best dishes, and the silver, and the candles and all. And the tablecloth with the do-dads on it. Why—”
“I know it” She opened the oven door, took out a pan of biscuits and slid it deftly to one side. “It seems as if I can’t spread enough. I’m going to use the biggest platter, and I’ve got two extra boards in the table. It’s big enough to seat ten. I want everything big somehow. I’ve cooked enough potatoes for a regiment, and I know it’s wasteful, and I don’t care. I’ll eat in my kitchen apron, if you’ll keep on your overalls. Come on. ”
He cut into the steak—a great thick slice. He knew she could never eat it, and she knew she could never eat it. But she did eat it all, ecstatically. And in a sort of ecstatic Nirvana the quiet and vastness and peace of the big old frame house settled down upon them.
The telephone in the hall rang startlingly, unexpectedly.
“Let me go, Milly. ”
“But who in the world! Nobody knows we’re—”
He was at the telephone. “Who? Who? Oh. ” He turned: “It’s Miz’ Merz. She says her little Minnie went by at six and saw a light in the house. She—Hello! What?… She says she wants to know if she’s to save time for you at the end of the month for the April cleaning. ”
Mrs. Brewster took the receiver from him: “The twenty-fifth, as usual, Miz’ Merz. The twenty-fifth, as usual. The attic must be a sight. ”