Second Wife


I RECOLLECT how crazy I was about Sissy Whitley.

She was a thick, deep girl, and turning eighteen, though as old in body and head as she’d ever be, I allow; I always thought of her as a big Jimson weed, or maybe a pokeberry bush, growing in deep loam behind some old barn, in burning June sunshine.

Her hair was matted, and yellow-like; it had streaks of sunburn in it, making an uneven tone of brass on her head. I know that don’t sound much; but when you think of her warm red cheeks, and her fine strong teeth, white as anything where the black-gum brush reached them; and how she laughed, and how healthy she was, and all — well, she just got me, that’s all.

I was seventeen, myself, then; but mighty big for my age. I was a grown man, in fact; at least lots of people took me for voting age. Twenty, not less.

All I can say is, Sissy got me. That laugh of hers — insulting, happy, loud, goading; and her deep thick body . . . I remember the first time I had the feeling of all of her in my arms — as Dennis Sawyer would have said it, the logload of her. It was a Sunday night, on our way back from preaching. Sissy had climbed up on a rail fence, and she slipped off and I caught her before she hit the ground. J thought, then, it was accident, but — anyhow, the brass of her hair in the moonlight; her body — and you know how spongy and queer and nice girl-flesh feels, when you’re a boy; her breath, with just the faintest odor of snuff on it; and that laugh, husky and tempting — you can see for yourself, and me only seventeen, though big for my age and all that, and Sissy a year older, and as grown up and everything as she would ever be.

She must of wanted me to kiss her, but I did n’t know that then. I set her on the ground. She was giggling, and I tell you I felt queer. A little blind, maybe.

‘You just ain’t fitten for nothing a-tall, Bud!’ she snickered.

It made me a little mad. I reckon it was because I wanted her to get on the fence and fall again.

‘How come I ain’t fitten for nothing?’ I asked her. ‘Old Dennis Sawyer will tell you himself I’m about the best sawmill buck in these Forked Deer bottoms! And he ain’t a man to brag on his wage hands.’

Sissy looked at me and choked back her giggles, until she liked to bust. Finally she asked me, as if inquiring after the health of Dennis’s old woman: ‘How is Mag Sawyer coming along?’

‘Poorly. Mighty poorly.’

‘Bud, reckon Mag will die?’ Now Sissy’s laugh was really gone.

‘She can’t last much longer, in reason.’

‘A year, reckon, Bud?’

It seemed strange to me, all at once, that Sissy was so het up about an old woman. ’Not apt, I told her. ’But how come you so interested, huh?’

She just stood there in the moonlight a minute, looking odd; she started to giggle, then did n’t, and put her arm through mine, and hummed and kind of shoved me along, till we come to her gate. I still did n’t think nothing, but back in my head I must of been thinking something, too. But when Sissy dallied, smiling through the palings at me, and swaying herself and humming that silly song — well, the back-head thinking stopped. She wanted me to try to kiss her. But I was scared. What could a boy of seventeen that did n’t know nothing about girls do, in a fix like this?

She said, ‘You still ain’t fitten for nothing, Bud! Good night.‘

‘Good night, Sissy,’ I told her; and I waited, and she waited.

I turned away a little, and so Sissy went in the house. It was a boxed, weather-brown shack of a house, on a rise of ground above the swamps of Forked Deer. It was a littered dump; kind of trashy, when you thought of it. But I was n’t thinking. I went home, not able to think much.

‘Well, Bud,’ Dennis Sawyer asked me next morning at the breakfast table, ‘where was you out last night so late?’

‘Preaching,’ I said. ‘And seeing Sissy Whitley there and back.’

I still was n’t thinking, you see. For I knowed that Sissy had worked here at Sawyers’ a little, but that was before I come here. Well, Dennis looked at me, and red went over his flabby old face. Mag, his bean-pole hag of an old woman, she took to coughing. She got up and went out. It all got strange in there. It liked to took my appetite. But I finished my biscuit and butter and molasses and got out and went down to the shelter where the oxen were kept. It was inside a pole-fenced lot.

There was a lot of log wagons and log carts here, for Dennis Sawyer was running a sawmill. It was n’t a big sawmill, nor a little one, neither; I reckon he could cut, in a twelve-hour day, eighteen or twenty thousand board feet — that size mill. He farmed some, too. In the open lands back from the swamp he had a right smart patch of fresh land open, and in corn and peas for the bulls, and a little cotton, for cash crop, and to give him the flavor of being a big planter. He had maybe fifteen hands in the woods and at the mill, and some nigger tenants working the land. I boarded at the house, the only wage hand fed and bedded; that was because, I reckon,

I could cook at a pinch.

Well, I hitched up the bulls and cracked the whip and drove off to the woods, wanting to get off from the house, and to think of Sissy, too.

Well, Dennis was grumpy when I drove back with the load. He looked at me pretty sour and mad. Mag was in bed. I seen her laying there, by the open window. At noon me and Dennis et our cold corn bread and Yankee beans and boiled pork on the log ramps above the mill. Dennis kept eyeing me. He said finally: —

‘Well, Bud, how was the sermon last night? I bet you did n’t hear a word of it.’

I said, not thinking, ‘It was the same old hellfire-brimstone stuff. But you can’t skeer me with that mush.‘

For some crazy reason that made old Dennis mad. He wagged his finger under my nose. ‘Darn your pop-eyed infidel picture, ve’d better be skeered of hellfire! Bub, when ye get to roasting I reckon you’ll respect God and the Devil, too! By durn—’ He was panting, and red in the face as a beet.

Heck, I did n’t want old Dennis Sawyer to get on my neck and fire me! I had to hang on to this job and stay close to Sissy. Well, did I back some water! ‘Ah, I did n’t mean it that ay, Uncle Dennis.’ That was the name I called him by. It saved mistering him. ‘Not the way you taken it.’ Then I got mealy-mouthed. ‘Anyway, me and Sissy did n’t talk foolish stuff on the way home. Why, she talked mostly about you-all. How she liked to work here, for Mis’ Mag — how good you was to her, and all that—’

Dennis stopped a hunk of pork-meat midway of his red unshaved jowl. He was as still and quiet as a froze rabbit, or something — like a clock when you wake and hear it stop in the night. He just looked at me, odd-like. And I had to go on, messing myself deeper, still not thinking, except I knowed I had got his mind off me. ‘ Yessir, we talked about you, Uncle Dennis!’

‘What — what did she say?’

Then I wished I had n’t got in so deep. But I floundered on, making it up as I went.

‘Ah, about all this, here —’ I waved at the logs, the sawmill and house, and bulls. ‘Cows, land, big sawmill, big bank account — you know, all that —’

‘She talked about — about that, did she?’

’That’s right.’ I looked at him close. His eyes was yellow and narrow, like a big tomcat’s. It give me the creeps, I ain’t denying. He all of a sudden finished his grub. Then he knocked the crumbs off his overalls legs. He motioned for the jug of water, and I reached down and handed it to him.

He drawed the cob stopper and throwed his head back and drunk, the sunlight in his red, deep-cut, warty face. Then he handed the jug back to me to drink. I rubbed off the jug mouth on my sleeve when he was n’t looking, and drunk, while he lighted his pipe.

Dennis then slid about so that his body fit the log, and he leaned back against a sapling. It wfas June, I recollect, and burning hot. I got drowsy after I’d packed my belly. But I was wide-awake, too, watching old Dennis, and him tomcattish yet. It begun to crawl into me — I mean, funny ideas, that made me mad, and hurt me, and kind of tickled me too, they was so crazy.

Dennis talked in the voice of a man who has done a lot of thinking about something. ’I’ve often thought about men, and second wives, Bud — young wives, I mean.’

I said, ’Well, I still got my first one to get.‘

He puffed and spat, not hearing; and I recollect how I just sat and looked at him close. I’d always thought of Dennis Sawyer as a big man, but he was n’t; he was fat around the belly, and his chest was right smart thick, but his legs was skinny, and his neck thin and weak-like. It was his shaggy head that made him seem big — and the way he hunkered himself. When you looked at him, not thinking, you’d have said he was old. But he was n’t; that is, he was about forty-five, and had the way of somebody not quite forty. Bright eyes, thick healthy hair, and all that. There was just a lot of man in him — too much when you got to thinking how mean he was. To hear him carry on about sin, and talk in pious-preacher talk about hell and eternity and the like, you’d figure he was a good man; but when you seen him, as I did once, kick a steer that was bogged down in the blue-black mud of West Tennessee till he broke its bones and it died — well, you’d get a different notion. I used to be scared of him. That was past. I only got sick at the stomach, looking at him, now, thinking of his hangdog way and poor mouth about hard times and lack of money, and him with a bank account at Dyersburg, and Mag dying because he was too stingy to put her in the hospital.

Well, he droned on, talking stuff he’d thought of, I reckon, in many a midnight. ‘But, then,’ he sort of argued the matter with himself, ‘they is second wives, and second wives. Young women and young women.‘

’I allow so,’I grudged him.

He went on directly: ‘Take old Oliver Mingle, now. He lost his first wife. Right prime woman she was, too. So she kicked out, and old Mingle got to poking his nose about and exercising his eyeballs in s’arch of a fraish female. He was, I recollect, sixty-five. He had a right smart passel of money laid up, too. Them’s the kind the young critters look for, and take in. You know how it shapes up — first wife works her fingers to the bone, saving and scraping; she does without so’s to accumulate for her old age and his; so she works herself to death. Then the second wife, more apt than not a lazy hunker, comes along and lives on the fat of the land. So this-here wench Jo Landis, from down Rcelfoot way, she takes in old Ol Mingle, and the way she leads him around by the nose and unlatches the pucker-strings of his purse is a sin and a shame. Know what, Bud? She had no more principle than a skunk. All the while she was making out like she went back home to Rcelfoot to see her mammy and pappy, why, she was going back to a sweetheart she left there. Did Oliver raise hell when he got wind of it!’

‘Then what?’ I asked, grumpy.

‘The gal lied out of it, drawed the wool over his eyes, till she finished getting his money; then she snapped her fingers in his whiskers and walked out and taken her young man. Can you think of a human being that lousy?’

‘I’d better gear the bulls,’ I said, ‘and haul some logs — some of Mis’ Mag’s logs.’

I seen him squinch at that. It was virgin timber. He was cutting it and shipping the lumber, and putting the money in the bank, while Mag died by inches.


I went to see Sissy soon after this, a night when the moon was plumb full. Sissy wanted to walk, so I said all right, and we started off. I liked to of fell over a pile of junk on the crazy porch. Sissy’s old trashy paw could pile up as much as a boxcar load of plunder on a porch — ploughs, harness, plough points, grass sacks, shoes, stovewood, dogs, dirty clothes, the devil only knows what. And the smells that Sissy’s maw kept the place varnished with, where she was too trifling to scrub and scour — well, it did n’t make you hanker to eat there regular. But they was clever folks, at that; they laughed a lot, and made you forget how trashy they was. They drank, and cussed, and fought; but they got on, maybe a lap or two ahead of starvation. But Sissy was different. You’ve noticed how pretty and purple the bloom of the Jimson weed is? She was like that. You mash the fknver and it lets out a stink, of course; but I was n’t thinking of that now. Besides, you kind of like to be around trashy folks, for it makes you feel you’re somebody yourself. Now, I never felt like much around folks like Tom Hornbeak, and his sister Mary, what lived out at Roellen, where I’d come from down here to work for Dennis Sawyer. Mary was studying for a school-teacher, and was she keen! Tom was finishing high school, and went well-dressed, and he could talk proper like nobody’s business. They liked me, too. But I always had to be on my p’s and q’s around them.

Funny enough, to-night Sissy was thinking about Mary Hornbeak, too. You see, I’d told her about Mary, and about Tom, and how they was n’t high and mighty around me, though they had a right to be, if they wanted to. Mary’d tried to learn me a little proper talk and manners, and Tom thought him and me might go into some kind of a business. That is, if I’d come back and maybe go to school some. They liked me — I could see that; and I just thought worlds of them. So I’d told Sissy about it, you see; and how me and Mary sometimes wrote letters, though I had n’t answered Mary’s last letter.

‘Because,’ I had started to say to Sissy; then my tongue got thick and I could n’t finish that it was because I was in love with Sissy — crazy about her, to tell the truth.

So, as Sissy and me walked along in the moonlight, she bumped close to me, and laughed that funny intimate laugh of hers. It got me, I’m telling you.

‘Have you writ that letter to Mary Hornbeak yet, Bud?’

‘Aw, how could I be writing letters to anybody when I’m thinking of you all the time, Sissy — night and day?’

She stopped in the path. ‘Do you mean that, Bud?’

‘I sure do mean that!’

So we stood there, looking at one another. Sissy peered back, to make sure the old man was n’t following us. You see, the old folks must of been thinking about old Dennis Sawyer, and those things older folks think of but young folks don’t. Then Sissy laughed, and looked back at me; then she took my two hands and put them on her, and showed me how to hold her tight, right up close. All the while she kept giggling.

‘You are just the no-fittenest boy ever I seen, Bud Bane! Darn your trifling picture, I never seen the beat of you.’

I told her something — I reckon it. must of been what could you expect in a boy that was only seventeen, and backward, though he looked like a man. So she said: ‘I aims to show you how to kiss a girl.’

And she showed me. I don’t mind saying, now, that it was a funny experience, that first time I ever kissed a girl, and crazy about Sissy like I was. The second kiss had a different taste — that is, some different; but it was a right smart while before I actually got the full flavor. Of all the things I ever seen Sissy work at, kissing was just about the best job she could do. When you thought of it, she was like a song that comes from away down deep and goes away on the dewy wind. Or maybe she was like a stream of water gushing out of the side of a hill. A Jimson weed, blooming in the hot day in delta land. You know what I mean. I don’t know book learning enough to make it sound right. But she was terrible and awful pretty to me, in that little time there in the moonlight on the path. She finally laughed.

‘Bud, do you like it?’

My voice was choked and funny and fiat when I told her, ‘God, yes.’

‘You love me, don’t you?’

‘God, yes. A long time.’

‘You never told me.’

‘I did n’t know how.’

‘You are just the no-countest boy ever I seen, Bud!’

‘Anyway, old Dennis Sawyer has been talking about you.’

‘Me?’ She laughed, a lazy crazy-girl laugh, and I thought she’d be mad; but she was a little pleased and interested. ‘What’s that old mudwump been saying about me, Bud?’

‘He’s been talking about second wives.’

She echoed in a voice like something across a slough, ‘Second wives!’

‘He’s got eyes on you, that’s what! And his old woman not dead yet. It makes me sick!’

‘So Dennis got his eye peeled on a young gal for a second wife, huh?’

’God, I hope you ain’t thinking of being her!‘ I was hot, shocked, and my feelings got in my voice. ‘Durn his low-down picture, he might at least be decent enough to wait till Mag’s dead and cold in her grave!’ Did Sissy get mad? No. She just laughed. It was a lazy, funny sound. She held up her rich mouth, filled with them good teeth of hers, and it just got me. I took to practising on kissing her some more, and I may as well admit I got good fast. You got to remember that I was only seventeen, and she was older, and as growed-up as ever she’d be. A girl like Sissy could do what she wanted with a boy like me, as well as a old man like Dennis Sawyer. So she puffed a little breath in my face when I stopped kissing her.

‘Listen, Bud,’ she said, soft.

‘Well, what, Sissy?’

’Listen, and if this pinches you some place, don’t you beller too loud.‘

‘I reckon I can stand it,’ I told her, getting warm some more.

‘All right, then. Mag’s going to kick the bucket. All right, what if I did marry old Dennis, then? Wait — whoa! — you said you could stand it, and now you stop hollering till I’m through.’ She held me, though I tried pretty hard to let her loose. She went right on: ‘What if I married him? I could loose up the pucker-strings of his old sock-bank, I’m telling you, Bud, He’s a low, stingy old devil. He’s got it coming to him. Bud, quit trying to pull loose, now! It would n’t mean you and me breaking up. I’d make Dennis make you head man about the works. You’d be boss, and everything. Don’t you see? I could fix you up a nice room there — better’n any you got now; and cook good for you; and you’d be mister. Boss the niggers and hands at the mill. Be the whole works. And I’d have silk underwear, and silk stockings, and silk dresses, and fine shoes, and everything. Would n’t you like to see me in silk underwear, Bud?’

I tell you, I was shocked. Me only a boy — there was n’t enough man in me yet, and the boy did n’t know what to do about this woman he had to contend with. I was shocked, sick, dizzy. In that funny caressing voice, with kisses now and then, Sissy went on to outline it all. How she’d be better off, and so would I; and then later we could marry, when she had milked the old cow dry. Besides, how many years would it take us, being married, to accumulate a half, or a third, as much? She had reason in her, Sissy did. And I did want money. I liked to boss niggers and sawmill labor. I loved Sissy so awful and terrible that, scandalized as I was, I just could n’t think about going away and leaving her, though she tied herself to old Dennis Sawyer. I tell you, I was a changed man, in that little while I stood there with her in my arms, and thinking of old Mag dying, and her marrying old Dennis, and me hanging around the farm and sawmill, waiting. Old Dennis had it coming to him, all right. But it hurt me, away deep.

Sissy shook me, and shook me. ‘All right, Bud — say something.’

‘I can’t.’

‘Well, think about it, then. He’s got all of fifteen thousand dollars. Two years would about fix it, now would n’t it? If a second wife is such and such, can a second husband be such a much?’

So we walked again, and talked — Sissy done most of the talking, and it was all sense. I reckon I got mad, after I ’d begged her not to do it. We turned back, going to the shack. Well, it was deep late when I left her and went back home.


A light was burning in the front room at Sawyers’ when I snuck through the gate and tried to get in without Dennis knowing. But he heard me. He was listening, waiting, I was to know. I got my door open, and was slipping in, when there he stood with a little brass lamp in his hand. He had n’t pulled off his clothes or laid down. He looked funny, and his voice was empty. ‘Bud, she is dead. Mag’s gone.’

That was all he said. For a little my flesh crawled. You never saw a man, as I did, whose woman had gone, when he was waiting for her to go to marry a young girl, and seen her gone for good. And I knowed why Mag had kicked out so much sooner than she might have. It was the thought of Sissy. I allow as Mag and Dennis must of had a fight after I left the house — about the girl. Maybe Mag openly accused Dennis. Women are like that. And I never knowed, for Dennis was there alone, and he would n’t talk — never.

Now she was dead.

Well, they put the poor old soul away with a prayer and song or two, there not far from Forked Deer. And right off the women began to talk and snicker. You know how folks talk about such things. Would Dennis Sawyer start out to get him a fresh wife? Would he stop at old Whitley’s shack? Dennis done both of them very things.

It got me in a terrible mess. I’d see Sissy now and then, and I’d give her hell. She’d keep me pacified with her passion and her soft words and kisses. When I was with her, it was like being under a spell. She’d kiss me till I was drunk. I’d never loved ary other girl, and she wound me around her little finger. She’d plead with me not to get on a high horse.

‘Don’t go off on a high hoss, Bud!’ she would plead, in that honey voice of hers. ‘It’s for us both, all for you. You just lay low and keep calm. Don’t start any hell-raising. I’m going to marry old Dennis anyway; so you just stick around and have yourself a good job.’

She shook me affectionately, but I tell you I was sick in my soul.

‘You’ll have a lot of brats by him!’

I said bitterly.

‘Who, me? God, no!’ ’But —‘ I just looked at her, popeyed, I reckon.

‘No, not me. Not Sissy!’ So I had the feeling, more than ever, that Sissy was ages older than me, though only a year in time; and she talked of things I’d never quite know about. For my part, I could n’t tear myself from her, hating and loving her like I did. If I’d been older, if I’d knowed more about girls — but you see how it is. When a boy is in my sort of fix, he stays; so I stayed. Me and Sissy sometimes would fight, and I’d say I was going to kill her. But she’d only say, in those honey tones, ’Bud, would you kill me? You could n’t watch me die. You know you could n’t.’ She had me; for I could n’t. There were nights I could n’t sleep. I’d go out in the woods and try to walk it off. I planned sometimes to murder old Dennis Sawyer. But he owed me three months’ back pay; it would be late summer before he could sell off his lumber and pay me up. You can’t kill a man when things are messed up like that. And old Dennis was simply crazy about Sissy. At first he said that for the looks of things he would wait a year. But it was n’t long before he wondered if he could hold out six months. Finally he said to hell with the gossips.

‘To hell with ’em, Bud!’ He overlooked my sullen ways, my open hate for him, and even told me all that went on in his head. ‘If I waited a year, they’d blob; if six months, they’d blab; if no time a-tall, they’ll only blab-blob, so what the hell?‘ Then he might reach over and slap my back and grin. He was an evil devil when he grinned like that. ‘Don’t take it so hard, Bud. Don’t look so down in the mouth. I could n’t help beating your time, now could I?’

I did n’t say nothing, only glowered.

‘You see, Bud, gals will take up with growed-up men, men of some means, some experience and all, lots quicker than with a sappy boy. But you ’ll have your inning — just wait. Wait for your second wife.’

‘Anyhow, I won’t pick her out before the first one’s cold in her grave.’

But it did n’t faze him. And I decided not to say the next thing that popped in my head: —

‘And second wives come high — when they’re young. But fools like you pay the price, thinking all the time maybe you won’t have to.’

That, as much as anything, kind of reconciled me to sticking around. Then, maybe I hoped at the last minute Sissy would get cold feet. But I did n’t know Sissy.

I heard them that night, when they had a big fight in the path. It was dark-moon, and I was on my way to see Sissy, and run into ’em there in the woods. Sissy and old Dennis was at it, tooth and nail. I hung to the fence, listening.

‘Well, we’re going to have a church wedding, or else!’ Sissy said.

Dennis Sawyer clamped his foot down on that. ‘No, sir! Not by a dang sight. Walk up that church aisle with you, and all them damned women grinning up at me? God, no!’

‘If that’s the way you feel about it, then, no wedding for me and you!’

That got Dennis stirred up bad. He began to beg, then to plead, and for all the world it was like a dog when you take it out to shoot it, and it knows. I wanted to laugh and was sick at the stomach at the same time.

‘You can’t go back on me now, Sissy — after we’ve — ’

‘All right, a big church wedding, or nothing!’

If it’d been Mag, Dennis would have pawed up the earth, put his foot down, and that’d been the end of it. But this was Sissy, and she was young, and her flesh was like sponge. Well, she won, as I knowed she would. So, as the days went along, there was a scrap of some kind every time they met. Next it was about these-here invitations with the letters sticking up above the surface of the paper. Sissy wanted to send them to all her kin back up at Obion, over on Reclfoot; send ’em to all Mag’s kin, Dennis’s kin, and the old women he hated to march up the church aisle before. The church she picked out was Middle Fork Baptist Church, and it was about the biggest and highand-mightiest here on Forked Deer. I reckon Sissy picked it because she wanted to show ’em. In a way I did n’t blame her, sick as I was over the whole mess. Anyhow, Sissy told me about it when I met her one night off from the shack; for now that Dennis Sawyer was courting their gal, old Whitley and his squaw told me to get and stay got, or I’d wish I had.

I tried to beg Sissy out of it. ‘Let’s you and I marry, Sissy. I am strong, and willing, and can always get work. We can marry —’

‘And live on what?’

‘On bread and water. I’d do it for you.’

‘No bread and water for me, Bud.’ Her lip was turned. ‘Not even to be your wife. I’ve had plenty of bread and water in my time with old Whitley and his wife, thank you; and I got my fill. But, honey, don’t you get discouraged and go away. You just stick around and be head man. Don’t you understand, darling?’

I don’t know that I did. I was bitter. I told her, ‘Well, Dennis has been talking to me, too. You think you’re going to pluck his feathers. You won’t. He’s not going to turn loose of his cash for you!’

She laughed lazily, a nasty trifling laugh, the like of which I hope no woman ever laughs about me, for I would n’t marry a second wife made of gold that laughed about me that way.

‘You don’t know Sissy!’ she said.

So there it was. I could never touch her with an argument or pleading. She loved me — Sissy did; but she loved silk things, too. The invitations went out and the decorations were bought and hung in the church, and old Dennis had paid for Sissy’s wedding duds, and diked himself out in new clothes, the like of which would have paid for a span of prime mules. Dennis had a sick and happy look. There was a watery-mouthed youngness about him. He’d worked off his belly some, and got a haircut, and looked, funny-like, sort of like regular folks. But deep down he had his sick moments. I could see that, watching him when he did n’t know I was looking. All told, he’d put out enough cash to buy a good secondhand portable sawmill already, and still had to walk up the aisle between rows of watching old women. Then how long did he have any guarantee of keeping Sissy after he got her? I saw him watching me, now; the question was in that mean look in his face. But I’d stay around. Sissy would see to it that I was made head man. I might catch a load of buckshot in my belly; but there I was — I could n’t go away. Maybe something would happen. I’d stick around. So it came the Sunday morning for the wedding, and at last I realized what men about to be hung come to see.


I tell you, the last place in the world I wanted to go was to that church. I could n’t go. But I would go, I knew; and so, after I dressed and ate a bite of grub, I got ready. But just before going out I stood a long time in the middle of this room where I had stayed while working for Dennis. It was a drab old room, and unkept and a little smelly. Houses where men stay are like that. Well, this room I would keep staying in when Sissy ran the house; but it would be changed. The bed would be made; maybe there’d be a carpet on the floor; curtains would flutter at the window. Sissy would cook and wash for me and look after me. I knew that. She’d crack the whip and poor old Dennis Sawyer would jump. He did n’t think he would, but he did n’t know. As for me, I’d stay on, and make the best of it, seeing Sissy come and go the bride of this old heathen. Two years, three, at most. In the meanwhile I’d live off the fat of the land; then Sissy would have milked the cow, and we’d go away with the bucket of cream. Dennis Sawyer had it coming to him. Men like him make their beds, even to their second-marriage beds; they’re selfish, and so they have coming to them just what they get. Dennis thought he and Sissy would fill that marriage bed and not kick the slats out; but he did n’t know Sissy.

There was a letter on my table that Dennis must have brought from the post office late last night and put there. But I was so sick that I did n’t even notice who it was from. I only knew that I was sick. I had grown up. I was, I reckon, as mature as I’d ever get, though but seventeen, going on eighteen. For I’d seen down to the soul of a female, and what a little ugly wart of a thing it was! A girl can make a man feel more sick than anything else under God’s heaven. Or she can lift him higher. I got my hat and went toward the church.

Well, the place was crowded. All the old women, that Dennis had feared, were there, setting like buzzards waiting for fresh meat. Some kin of Sissy’s, seeing me, got up and give me the seat on the left-hand side, on the aisle; and so I knowed she had looked after a place for me. It give me a creepy feeling. The church was awful pretty. Flowers like you buy— and how they must of set old Dennis back! Then the organ started, with that wedding march, and everything got still as a tomb. So here Sissy come, walking by her paw, who wore a new suit that come out of Dennis Sawyer’s pocket. Dennis come from another direction, his brother walking with him, like they do in town at weddings. I never seen one, but so they say. You thought of money. But I was looking at Sissy. I tell you, in her white satin dress, her veil of that funny stuff like dew on cobwebs at dawn — it got me. She seemed like an angel, for all she was a devil away down deep. The only color was her cheeks, scarlet lips, and that brassy hair, like dull fire, through the silk lace. Her and Dennis met before the preacher; and I liked to bit off my tongue to keep from yelling when they come to that part where if anybody’s got anything to say why these two should n’t be joined in the holy estate of matrimony — holy, good God!

So they were married.

Now they were coming back down the aisle, straight toward where I set. Sissy’s face was curious — it was a little hard, twisted, but when her eyes met mine it went tender and color come fast into her cheeks. I knew she was going to do it, had planned to do it, when she passed — seemed to turn her ankle, and stopped a second leaning close against me. The perfume filled my nose. I reckon in that little time I was blind. It was Sissy’s way of saying it was all right: Bud, don’t you beller so loud, or take this too hard; and two or three years is n’t so long. The filmy veil got hung between me and the end of the bench; and so Sissy leaned against me a longer time till I got it uncaught. Then she went on, me setting there with the color of her hair and eyes and white teeth as a sort of memory in my own eyes. I reckon I was plenty sick. The music stopped then and I got up. I don’t remember how I got out of that place. I must of shoved and jammed my way through the old women, who blab-blobbed like crows going to roost on the arms of a skeercrow. When I got out I must have run, for I was sweating and out of breath when I got to the house ahead of the bride and groom. Maybe I had in the back of my mind that letter. There it lay. It was from Mary. I ripped it open. She and Tom spoke of me so often — how I was such a strong, happy boy, so bright, and clean, and good. Why had n’t I written? By this time surely I had saved enough money to come on back home and enter school. Tom was wanting help now in his work.

I’d have to look to my p’s and q’s. There’d be bad moments. I slung my duds into an old grip, took the cash for my work Dennis Sawyer had paid me a day or so ago, and jumped out of the window as Sissy and Dennis come in at the front gate. So I run, thinking how it would change it all for Sissy when I was no longer there . . . her young, spoiled now by being a second wife, and married to a mean old skinflint like Dennis . . . would it be, I wondered, hell?

I ran, toting my suitcase as I did. And as I went I knew by a twist of instinct, just like a flash, what lots and lots of men have to grow old and take a second wife to learn about.

What was it? Never mind. But you’ll know, yourself, that day when you are n’t any longer young, and marry a girl for a second one, thinking it’s youth that you want.