At Mrs. Farrelly's
Since his graduation front Loyola University in 1934,JOSEPH CARROLL has narked on newspapers, written publicity. done broadcast scripts for NBC, scried in the Army and, after the war, as a newscaster and then as an Associate Editor of Collier’s. After this apprenticeship, he took the plunge as a free lance and his short stories are being reprinted in anthologies, the surest test. “ I like ‘At Mrs. Farrelly’s” he says, “better than anv story Eve written up to now. Mrs. Farrelly’s conversation, considerably modified in the interest of propriety, is very like that of a lady in whose house f roomed when l first came to New York in 1939.”
by JOSEPH CARROLL
BRENNAN always stayed at Mrs. Farrelly’s rooming house when he was between voyages and when he was on the beach altogether, waiting for a berth. The house was one of a grimy red-brick row fronting the North River docks on a downtown street; it was within easy walking distance of the union hall on Seventeenth Street and close to Greenwich Village with its opportunities for companionship and carousal. Brennan had no family except a married sister in Ohio, with whom he exchanged perfunctorily dutiful letters once a year; and insofar as he had a home at all, it was Mrs. Farrelly’s.
The first time he stayed there, Mrs. Farrelly took an immediate liking to him and he to her. He had been shipping out for more than a year, and he was sick of blowing his pay on hotels; there were better things to blow it on. Brennan never saved any money but he liked to get value for what he spent, even if it was only a howling hangover and the memory of brief luxuries to take back to sea with him. A shipmate steered him to Mrs. Farrelly’s when they shipped in from South America, and when she opened the door to him, Brennan could tell he was making an impression.
He was used to being liked by women and wasn’t conceited about it: he figured they liked him not for his looks, which were average pleasant, but because he was a nice guy. He knew he was a nice guy and couldn’t imagine being anything else. Brennan was only twenty-two, but he’d been kicking around more or less on his own since he was a kid, and he had decided a long time ago that you had an easier time of it if you were a nice guy though it didn’t necessarily put money in your pocket. He liked women, too, most of them, so long as they didn’t embarrass him with importunities. Brennan liked to do the importuning himself—it was half the fun.
He liked Mrs. Farrelly right away, and not for her looks. She was in her late forties and wouldn’t have been a beauty even in her prime. The attempt to dye her hair had clearly been a mistake, for the natural mousy brown showed through under strands of the most startling magenta. Her figure was nothing much, and she had the chalky pallor of so many women who live their lives within the curious limits that a great city, no less than a prairie village, can impose; Mrs. Farrelly was a New Yorker born and bred, but she rarely traveled above Fourteenth Street or below Houston.
But her pale face was kind, and Brennan liked her smile. It was still early forenoon when he arrived with his gear, and Mrs. Farrelly was wearing a frayed robe of faded pink. “Excuse my being in my penorr,” she said, “but honest to God if I’m ever awake till noon. I just can’t seem to get started in the morning.” Every vowel came out flat and long, as if someone had been at it with a rolling pin.
She led Brennan up a flight of stairs and into his room. It was a narrow room, with a bed and small table, a chest of drawers, two chairs, and very little else; but. it was clean and prettified with various five-and-dime touches, such as the blue ribbons that looped back the gray-white window curtains. On the wall over the chest, was a picture in an ornate frame, whose gilt was peeling; the picture, in blurry blues and greens and yellows, showed a child crossing a narrow bridge over an angry stream, and behind him a girlish angel with wings outspread protectively.
Mrs. Farrelly said: “The you-know is down the hall — second door. Two other roomers on this Moor and they use it too, but it’s all right if everybody just coöperates. If someone’s in there too long, keep hammering loud. Nesbitt — he’s in the room across the hall — he goes in there with the Daily News sometimes. And he’ll stay until he’s got his horoscope worked out unless you make a racket. Honest, some people don’t have the least consideration.”
Brennan nodded, but Mrs. Farrelly showed no disposition to go; she wanted to talk, “It’d be a real nice view,” she said, pointing to the window, “except the pier fronts are in the way and you can’t see the river. I always say what’s the use of having a river that you can’t see it. Blocks and blocks and you can’t see it, unless you go up to the market by Little West Twelfth Street, where they fish off the pier. Honest, isn’t that some name? Little West Twelfth, how I love thee! You can see the river from the roof, but it’s too cold to go up there now. Summertimes, we go up — Farrelly and me. Farrelly’s my husband. It’s real pretty at night, all the lights over to Jersey and like on the boats. Some people they just never notice things like that, but Farrelly’s different. He’s a poet. He writes poetry.”
Brennan was interested. “You mean for a living?” he asked.
She looked doubtful. “Well, he writes it all the time, but I wouldn’t say he made a living out of it. There’s not much money in poetry. Farrelly says things are slow for poets these times. People just don’t have the money.”
Brennan started to laugh, and changed his mind: Mrs. Farrelly wasn’t being funny.
“You like poetry?” Mrs. Farrelly said.
“Yeah,” Brennan said. “I like it. I’d like to sec Far — your husband’s.”
She shook her head. “He’s so funny. He won’t show it to anybody — except me. He’s afraid somebody’ll steal it off him. He says poets are clickish — a little bunch of them have it all their own way and without you’re in the click you can’t have your poems printed up in books. Honest, I guess it’s the same in every line. Like the longshoremen — that’s what Nesbitt is, a longshoreman — unless they know the boss and slip him a little something once and a while they just don’t get through the shape-up. Nesbitt hasn’t had a day’s work in three weeks.”
Brennan had an odd vision of poets going through a shape-up and started to laugh again; again he changed his mind. “Yeah,” he said, “it’s the same in everything. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”
Mrs. Farrelly clasped her hands together appreciatively. “I’ll have to remember that to tell Farrelly. He likes things that are said neat. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” she repeated. She went to the door but then turned; Brennan had started to sit down on the bed. “Sit right down,” she said, “I’ll be going in a minute. You must be tired. Where was your ship? South America? My! I never been but to Hoboken. You sound educated.”
Brennan sat down, shaking his head. “Uh-uh. Grammar school. My old man died and I went to work soon as it was legal. I tried a lot of things, but I like shipping best. You get time to read.”
Mrs. Farrelly sighed. “You don’t know how lucky you are,” she said. “ I never get time to read, running this place like I do. Honest, if it isn’t this it’s that, in a rooming house. Keeping the place clean and going to the stores. I hardly even get to read the papers. Farrelly is a great reader — always was. And of course, he has his poetry to keep up on. He can’t do no writing here. Too noisy — trucks going by all the time, and sirens on the river, and the kids yelling out in the street. He goes over to the library up near Eighth Avenue every morning and stays there all day and writes. Honest, he has just pages and pages covered with it, and he won’t let me do a thing with it.”
She looked at Brennan pensively. “You seem like a real nice boy. I’d like for you to meet Farrelly. When do you ship out ?”
“Next week,” Brennan said. “I’d like the room until Sunday night.”
She looked pleased. “You could eat with us Sunday. We take our big meal in the afternoon and have just cold stuff for supper.”
Brennan was touched, and embarrassed. “Wouldn’t want to put you to any trouble,” he said.
She laughed. “Trouble? Why, all the trouble is putting out another plate. Farrelly and me never had a kid, isn’t that funny? We been married long enough to have them older than you. I used to kid him about it. It must be you just simply don’t have it, I told him once. And honest, it made him so mad I was scared. He hardly ever gets mad. But he hates anything vulgar.”
Brennan was blushing a little. “ I guess you do, too,” she said. “But I don’t mean anything by it. It’s just my way. I grew up around here — this house was my father’s, rest his soul. I had a brother was killed in an accident on the docks. He was older than me, and he talked real rough. This is a rough neighborhood. But Farrelly’s different.”
Brennan couldn’t think of anything to say, but she didn’t expect an answer. “You eat with us Sunday,”she said, and started out the door. Then she turned again. “Another thing,” she said diffidently. “I hope you’ll excuse me mentioning it. If you want to bring — uh — anybody up here nights —”
Brennan was now blushing all over, the rough redness at his cheekbones spreading throughout his olive face.
“—it’s all right if you aren’t too noisy about it. It’s just we don’t want the police on us. Lots of seamen stay here, and I know how it is. A person has their passions.”
Brennan was looking at the floor.
She coughed, artificially. “I hope you won’t take what I’m saying wrong. You’re so kind of young. Watch out for them hustling girls in the bar and grills. They’re no good — and you never know what you can pick up off them.”
She closed the door after her, and Brennan lay back on the bed, wondering why he liked the damn woman so much.
HE MET Farrelly at the Sunday meal. It was a good meal: baked ham and mashed potatoes and green vegetables and a bakery pie for dessert; but Brennan, who had spent too much time in Bleecker Street bars the night before, was in no condition to
“You need a drink,” Farrelly said, watching him nibble at the food; and he brought out a bottle of whisky. Mrs. Farrelly poured a hooker for each of them, but didn’t take any herself. She whisked back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room, which was brightly papered in a pattern of some yellow flower that made it look as though someone had been throwing eggs at the wall.
After the drink, Brennan fell better and could eat. He didn’t think Farrelly looked much like a poet, though you never could tell about poets. Farrelly’s hair was all white, which made his face look young. It was a coarse face in its surfaces: configurations of veins threaded his cheeks with an unhealthy blue over glittering crimson. Guiltily, Brennan reflected that his face might come to look like that if he spent the next five years as strenuously as he had spent it in Bleecker Street and environs the night before. Farrelly’s dissipations had not marred ihe odd juvenility of his features; his eyes were large and pale, and — white hair and all — he looked like an altar boy who had been on one hell of a toot.
If Mrs. Farrelly was disturbed by these evidences of intemperance, or even aware of them, she didn’t show it. She left the bottle close to Farrelly’s hand and looked at him dotingly whenever he spoke.
Farrelly was most courteous in his manner toward Brennan. “So you follow the sea?" he said bookishly.
“Yeah,” Brennan said. “It gives me something to do.”
“Do you admire Conrad?” asked Farrelly.
Brennan thought that was quite a leap, but he answered politely: “Some of him.”
“Do you find him true to life?”
Yes and no, Brennan said; he didn’t think seamen talked like that, even when Conrad was writing, but he guessed that if anyone ever wrote the way seamen really talked he wouldn’t be able to get it printed.
“I like Melville better,” Farrelly said. “I read him all the time.” Brennan thought to himself that he couldn’t have read Melville very carefully because he kept talking about Moby Dick as though it were a man; he said he had once seen John Barrymore in the title role.
All of Farrelly’s literary knowledge seemed fragmentary, and some of it was mistaken, Brennan knew. He tried to change the conversation, so as to work Mrs. Farrelly into it. She looked from one to another of them admiringly, and Brennan felt like a phony. He read books when he felt like it, the same way he drank or chased girls, when he felt like that. Unhappily, he told Farrelly that, no, he didn’t plan to write a book: he went to sea because it was a living, better than some other ways of making money, at least for him. If he ever got married, he thought he would want a shoreside job.
Farrelly didn’t listen to his answers; every question was a topic sentence for himself; and after the meal was over, when he had a lot more drinks, he didn’t even bother asking questions: he just talked. At Mrs. Farrelly’s urging, he recited a lot of poetry in a declamatory voice.
Brennan didn’t think he recited very well, though it might have been the liquor; he stopped at the end of every line, and, unless you knew the poem he was reciting, you wouldn’t have been able to make any sense out of it at all. Mrs. Farrelly did not seem to mind this: her rapt face showed that she was having a very good time.
In one of the pauses, she asked Farrelly to bring out his own poetry or recite it to Brennan. Farrelly, whose eyes were pretty glassy by this time, turned to her coldly. “The time hasn’t come,” he said. “You know that. This is a fine young man” — he pointed to Brennan — “but what do we know about him?”
And then he went upstairs, walking rigidly and holding to the banister as he walked.
Mrs. Farrelly hoped Brennan’s feelings weren’t hurt. “He has to be so careful,”she said enigmatically. Brennan said not at all and it was time for him to be going anyway.
The next few times he hit port, Brennan saw a lot of Mrs. Farrelly but very little of her husband. Brennan stayed out till all hours, and it was always late when he got up. Mrs. Farrelly took to asking him down to the kitchen for coffee and talked to him confidentially about Farrelly, who still spent his days at the library.
“He’s failing,” Mrs. Farrelly said one morning. “All you have to do is look at him to see he’s failing. And it isn’t as if he was old: he’s only fifty-three. He’s sick, that’s what he is, and is it any wonder with the way he’s treated when all he wants is to put in a fair day’s work at his poetry? My sisters won’t even talk to him — and the way they talk about him would make you sick to your stomach. Nell’s the worst. She never married and she’s never been with anyone. You know the way women like that are?”
Brennan drank his coffee unquiveringly; he had got over blushing at Mrs. Farrelly’s occasional physiological allusions, and this one was only mildly blunt. He told her he knew what she meant.
“Nell’s got scabs on her knees from going to church every day of her life but all she ever thinks about is the one thing. She’s always going on about the Porto Ricans and the colored in the neighborhood, and she like to of died when I had a colored for a roomer. I didn’t see there was anything wrong about it, being he was a lot cleaner than most that stay here. But you bust Nell’s head open and you’d find only the one thing. Every lime she looks at Farrelly I know she’s thinking dirty. I know he takes his drop, but I never heard him say a dirty word.
“The other sister — Hattie — has her own man and four kids, but she’s never got over it that Pa left this place to me. Farrelly moved in here right after we were married — he was working over to the market then, but he never liked it because he got no time to work on his poetry al all. So after Pa died, he quit, and ever since it’s been the poetry.”
Flickeringly, her eyes looked wistful, Brennan thought.
“So the two of them are all the time chewing about Farrelly,” she went on. “They’re the only family I got now but I sent the pair of them flying out of this kitchen only last week for having their foul mouths on Farrelly. It was ‘why don’t he; work?’ and ‘why do you give him money for drink?’ until I told the both of them to kiss the left cheek of my behind and threw them out.”
She poured more coffee for Brennan and herself, “lie’s failing, though. I can see it every day goes by. He don’t readout what he’s wrote during the day to me any more, like he always used to — and he bites my head off if I ask him about it. He just sits and don’t say anything, only to himself, stuff I can’t even understand, over and over and over. And you know something? He cries. All by himself in the bedroom, he cries. I found him like that last night and I told him, ‘What’s the matter, lovey?’ And he just, said to go away, and kept on crying.”
Brennan stood up quickly. “I have to meet a fellow,” he said.
She followed him to the front door. “You think — you think maybe I shouldn’t let him have money for the drink, like Hattie says? It’s the only thing he takes any pleasure in, except the poetry.”
Brennan said awkwardly, “I don’t know, Mrs. Farrelly. Maybe you better call a doctor to look at him.”
“He hates doctors,” Mrs. Farrelly said. “I might call one, if he gets worse.”
Brennan went out,
BRENNAN shipped out on the longest trip he had ever made, and what with layovers for repairs and weather delays, it was more than three months before he saw Mrs. Farrelly again. His ship docked late on a summer afternoon, but after he was paid off he stopped in a saloon on South Street where he met the union delegate from his ship and got in an argument about the handling of a beef on the trip. Other crew members were there, and the argument wasn’t very parliamentary; Hrennan was too tired for a fight, so he slipped out and walked to Mrs. Farrelly’s. The walk cleared his head, which badly needed clearing.
It was almost midnight when he rang the doorbell. He saw the light go on behind the glass panels that flanked the door; then the door opened and Mrs. Farrelly stood blinking at him. She was fully dressed, in a black dress. As soon as she saw Brennan she started to cry, and he knew what must have happened.
He stepped inside and put an arm around her shoulder, waiting until the sobbing stopped. She leaned her head against him. “You were the only one,” she said. “You were the only one was ever nice about his poetry.”
Brennan kept his arm around her. “Would you make me some coffee?” he asked.
“Honest to God,” she said, stepping away from him, “I forgot all about it. I got some on.”
He followed her through the dark hallway and into the lighted kitchen. The coffee had boiled over and the lid of the pot was rattling over the bubbling sounds.
Brennan sat down at the table and waited. She wiped off the smeared sides of the pot, brought cups from the pantry, end poured. Brennan lighted a cigarette, waiting for his coffee to cool.
“I buried Farrelly yesterday,” she said.
She sat down, her chair close to Hrennan. “The end came suddenly,” she said, relishing the formal obituary phrase, “though, like I told you, I seen it. coming. He fell over in the street coming from the library and they took him to Bellevue. He didn’t, even know me when they let me see him. He just cried and stared up at the ceiling. And then he screamed a lot — and then he didn’t do anything, He just passed away.”
She was quite dry-eyed now, and enjoying telling him about it. Brennan said how sorry he was.
“I know,” she said. “ I told my sister Hattie and Nell and all them snotnoses came to the wake about you. I told them you know about poetry. We waked him here, and I like to screamed listening to Hattie blabbering about it was a blessed release, and Nell with her ‘it’s the will of God and he’s at peace at last.’ And I wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of crying or taking on or anything. I just sat in there in the front room the whole three days and looked al him. He was laid out nice, in his good blue serge. And he looked so young. He was a fine-looking man, Farrelly was.”
She waited for Brennan to agree. “A fine-looking man,” he echoed.
“And I’d look at Farrelly, and then I’d look at that big bruiser Hattie’s married to, with the black hairs sticking out from his collar, and no gentleness to him at all and no brains in his thick head to understand poetry. And when I’d look at Farrelly again, I’d almost cry, thinking: it may be the will of God, but I hope He knows what He’s doing — taking away a man that never did anyone a day’s harm and could make up poetry right in the middle of the dirty streets and never take his mind off it for anything else, only his glass of whisky now and again — taking away a man like that and leaving only the slobs of men that laugh at poetry.”
She pushed back her chair and stood up. “He’s gone now and it can’t hurt him if I show it to you. I don’t care if it never gets printed up in books. The hell with the clicks. You been nice. I’ll show it to you.”
She went out and Brennan could hear her footsteps on the stairs. He stared into the grounds in his coffee cup. When she came back she was carrying a cardboard carton, which she placed on the table. She raised the covers, and Brennan saw that the box was filled with paper, tied in bundles. “This is only some of it,” Mrs. Farrelly told him, lifting out a bundle and undoing the ribbon that bound it. She handed it to Brennan and her hand shook.
He glanced at the top sheet of lined tablet paper such as school children use. The handwriting was large and legible, not beautiful but painstakingly neat, as though it were an exercise in penmanship.
Brennan read the opening lines on the top sheet: —
Ye Myrtles brown, with Ivy never-sear.
I com to pluck your Berries harsh and crude,
And with forc’d fingers rude,
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
He riffled the sheets, glancing at the titles carefully written in block capitals at the top of the pages: Kubla Khan, Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, Lines Written Among the Eaganean Hills, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, The Lotos-Eaters, The Blessed Damozel, Chorus from Atalanta in Calydon, The Hound of Heaven. . . .
He looked up at Mrs. Farrelly. “I can’t read them all now,” he said, smiling.
She smiled back. “Sure you can’t. You take all the time you want.” She put her hand on Brennan’s arm. “You read some of the first one. I seen you. Is it good poetry?”
Brennan lifted his free hand and touched her cheek gently. “The best,” he said.