A student of economics now working towards his doctorate, RICHARD T. GILL is a Harvard graduate who finds the atmosphere of Cambridge conducive also to the writing of short stories. He has enjoyed the stimulus of working under Archibald MacLeish in English S, and in summer school has gained much from his hours with Frank O’Connor, the Irish storyteller, This is his first story to be published.
by RICHARD T. GILL
IT’S strange how you do the right thing sometimes without knowing why. Here I was with this terrible bitterness, blaming Jack, almost hating him — but I stayed with him. He had the first attack just a few months after the argument with Frank. Whenever I said anything about writing to the boy, he’d look at me in that stubborn way of his and say, “You’ll be with your son again before long.”And I’d think to myself, “Yes, and I’ll be glad when it happens. You’ve only your own pride to blame if you die alone.”But when it came down to it, for all the thinking and planning I did, I never could run off and leave him. It’s the one thing I have to be thankful for.
Of course, he was up and about after that, but he was never a well man. He got to moving around the house very slow and when he went out for a walk he’d sometimes have to stop in the middle of the sidewalk to catch his breath. The work tired him badly. When he came home he’d go straight to the easy chair and sink into it as though his legs had given way under him. There he’d sit for the longest time without even the energy to speak to me. He kept at it, though, and he didn’t miss many days of work until this last summer when he had the really bad attack. Then I knew, even before the doctor told me, that it was the last attack but one and that he’d never get up out of the bed again.
And it was such a hot summer! He hated the bed and he’d get the sheet pulled out at the bottom and all tangled up, enough to choke him. I used to keep a cold compress on his forehead but he wouldn’t have me leaving the room, you know, and sometimes when I took it off it was hot already and no good at all. “Leave it alone, Bess,”he’d say.
“Stop fussing over me!" He used to pretend he was trying to save me work but all he really wanted was to keep me there in the room with him. It was funny the way he wanted me around like that. He’d raise a fuss even when I went down to fix him a little supper. I swear, I think he’d sooner done without.
Well, it was hard on me too. When I found out just how sick he was, the only thought I had was to let Frank know. It broke my heart to think of the two of them so far apart at the very end. And I knew Frank would never stop blaming himself if it happened that way. I was going to get the letter off in the evening when Jack was asleep, but he had a sixth sense about him, and as soon as I’d leave the room, he’d be awake and sitting up in bed. “You aren’t leaving, Bess?” he’d ask.
“I’ve got to put the things away in the kitchen,” I’d say. “Now don’t tell me you’re afraid of the dark! ”
“Why don’t you do it in the morning?”
“Because they’ll spoil,”I’d tell him. “Don’t be so silly! I’ll be right downstairs.”
Then I could see him fiddling around with the clock. “It shouldn’t take you more than a couple of minutes,” he’d say and I’d know that he was going to time me. Wasn’t that funny? You see, I thought he knew what I was up to. I thought he was making sure that I didn’t get the letter off behind his back. But now I think it was just that he was afraid of being alone in the room. He must have known that the end was very near for him.
Anyway, I couldn’t get away from him to write the letter, so I decided to do it right there in the room with him — where he couldn’t see it, of course. If he asked, I was going to tell him it was a letter to my brother, Russell — and, naturally enough, he did ask.
“I’m writing to Russ,” I said. “Now why don’t you go back to sleep so I can finish it up for the four-thirty collection?”
“Let me read it, will you?” he asked.
Well that frightened me because I’d already written a few lines and there was “Dear son” right at the top. So I got up from the chair and pretended I was angry with him. “Now look here, Jack,” I shouted at him. “I’m sick of all your nonsense! You’re a grown man and yet you can’t stand me doing a blessed thing without your knowing all about it. I’m fed up, I’ll tell you! I’m going to get this letter out to the collection and I’m not going to be interrupted any more by you. Silliness! Just silliness! What do you care what I write to my own brother?”
That didn’t faze him at all. He sat up straight in bed with that dead-stubborn look on his face. “Well I’ll get out of bed and read it then!” he shouted back.
I knew he would too. So I promised I’d let him see the letter when it was finished. I decided I’d have to write a letter to Russell at the same time I was writing to Frank so I’d have something to show him. Oh, what an afternoon that was! I remember I’d got just about halfway through the two letters when the doorbell rang downstairs. I had to go because I knew it was the boy from the druggist’s. And then, while I was paying for the medicine, I kept thinking “Why didn’t I take the letters with me?" and, as soon as I could, I rushed back up the stairs, feeling like I was going to have an attack myself. But he was still in bed when I got there and the first thing he said was “You’ll let me see that letter to Russ before it goes?” And I said I would, thanking heaven that the doctor had told him it would kill him if he got out of bed and walked around.
I’LL never forget that afternoon! There I was writing two letters at one time with my heart in my throat all the while and it was all because of a crazy argument years back. And t here wasn’t even anything to argue about! Why, Frank never even saw the girl again as far as that goes. It was all words, that’s all it was. They were both in the living room and I was in the hall to Frank’s back, shaking my head and waving my hands at Jack so he wouldn’t say something he’d regret. But he couldn’t even see me! He was blind! “You’ll be crawling on your knees when you come back to this house!” he said. And I stood there praying to myself: “Take it, Frank. Take it from him just this once—for me. He’s an old man and you’re all his life and he doesn’t know what he’s saying. Be a great man, Frank, and take it just this one time.” But the boy — he was only eighteen — he was quivering and white and he had no control over himself. “I wouldn’t even come to your funeral!” he said. Then he went up to his room, got his things together, and came down with the suitcases in his hands. I tried to stop him but all he did was kiss me and say he was sorry. Then he left the house and that was the last I saw of him for all those years.
And I tell you it was just words, that’s the thing that breaks your heart. The girl, the girl, what did she matter? Oh, how many times did I beg him to ask Frank to come back or to let me ask him? How I hated him sometimes, sitting there in his chair, brooding over it again and again, just because he couldn’t keep control of his mouth, just because he had a temper tantrum like a twoyear-old. And I hated him for it! Sometimes he’d have a pain in the middle of the night and he’d call me. And I’d lie there in the bed next to his, thinking: “Suppose I don’t come. Suppose I just let you suffer. Would it be anything compared to what you’ve put me through?” But I’d always go to him finally. I was all the time thinking about going to the boy, leaving him alone with his bitter, selfish pride. But, of course, I didn’t do that either.
Well, I had a real afternoon of if that day! But I finally got the letter off and Frank must have left his home just as soon as he read it because I saw him coming up the front walk the very next day, just a little after lunchtime. I made up some excuse and ran down the stairs to meet him. I told him that Jack didn’t know I’d written, and explained what the doctor had said—that it’d kill him to get the least bit upset. Then I asked him if he would make believe, just for my sake, that he’d come on his own. Frank was good about it. “I’ll do the best I can,” he said and I knew that he would go just about all the way. But I could see from the look in his eye that he still felt it, after all those years.
Then I had to go up and tell Jack that he was there. Oh, I tell you. I was trembling like a leaf. I didn’t know if he’d see the boy at all and, if he did, why then he might make it so bad that the boy wouldn’t take it. But most of all I was thinking: “Will he guess that I sent for him? Won’t he think it awfully peculiar that Frank just happened to come by when he was so sick?” That was what worried me most. And it’s the strangest thing of all, but as I walked up the stairs I felt just the same as if I’d been unfaithful to Jack. What a crazy, crazy world it is! I felt guilty for bringing him his one son before he died. “He mustn’t ever know,”I thought. “It’ll be all over if he ever finds out about the letter.”
So I went up and told him a long story about how Frank had come to town on business, that he was in a new firm now that made him travel a lot — oh, I invented a whole new life for the boy! Then I said that Frank had come to the house to pay a visit to me and, hearing how sick he was, had wanted to come up and see him. On and on I went, not letting him get a chance to ask a question, but when I was all finished, he just looked at me coldly and said, “You wrote him to come, didn’t you?”
“No!" I fairly shouted at him. “Are you deaf now, too! Didn’t you hear a word of what I was telling you? He dropped by to see me as far as that goes. But now he’d like to say hello to you too.”
I put it that way because somehow it seemed more likely. Even then, it sounded awfully weak to me, the boy gone all those years and suddenly dropping by to see his mother.
“Do you swear—absolutely swear —that you didn’t send for him?” he asked.
I looked him straight in the eye without blinking a lash. “Of course I do!" I said. “I think you’re going soft, Jack! Haven’t you been listening to me? Anyway, when could I have written him? I’ve been fussing over you all the time!”
Then he closed his eyes for a minute and a very funny expression went over his face. It looked like he was struggling inside, the way it was when he had an attack.
“You can send him up" was what he said finally.
Well, that was one thing over with, but then I began wondering what he’d say to the boy. I went down and told Frank exactly what I’d said about the business and everything and then, before he went upstairs, I took his hand and kissed it over and over again and told him how he was a good, good boy and how I’d loved him all those years ami, I don’t know what came over me, but I cried like a baby and he had to take me into the living room and sit me down in a chair before he could go upstairs.
So I waited there, sitting down, too weak to think of anything except keeping myself from fainting away, and finally, after half an hour or so, Frank came down. I couldn’t even ask what had happened, I was that weak, but he sat down on the arm of my chair, put his hand on my shoulder, and told me that everything was all right. And I stayed there for the longest time, feeling dizzy, with Frank patting me on the shoulder.
“Will you stay for a while, Frankie?” I asked when I could talk again.
“Sure, Ma, I can take my vacation now,” he said. “It’s as good a time as any.”
“Oh, but that’ll interfere with your work. You don’t want to get into any trouble.”
“They’ll get along okay,” he replied. “I’ll give them a call tomorrow morning.”
“You’re sure it’s all right?”
He gave me a big smile, knowing I’d have dropped dead right there if he said he was going to leave me again. “I’m sure,” he said. “Don’t worry about it.”
Then, before I went back to the room, I started to cry again. I did more crying that day than I’d done in the whole time since he left us. “It wasn’t too bad, was it, Frankie?” I asked him.
He smiled again and I knew it had been hard on him but that everything was really all right.
WELL, it was funny the way it was then. I expected it would be very touch-and-go between them, but instead they got together right away, the two of them. Jack was so much better than I thought he’d be. Oh, they talked most of the night, long after he should have been asleep, and I don’t mind saying that he didn’t care too much if I went down to fix him a big supper that took two hours, or spent a long time in the bathroom wetting a compress,
Still it was funny. When he was with Frank you’d have thought nothing’d ever happened, but when he was alone with me, he’d start asking questions. Had I sent for the boy? Did I swear I’d never written any letter? He’d get the queerest look on his face. It was like he was trying to prove he wasn’t going to be fooled by anybody. Sometimes I’d come in when the two of them were having a great time of it talking away and, I swear, the way he looked, it almost seemed he was afraid to let me know he was enjoying himself. Then, when the boy left, he’d start the questions again. Of course I never gave him a hint of the letter. I kept on inventing this and that and then got Frank aside and told him what I’d said. He had to laugh the way I was becoming such a big liar. Still I couldn’t understand why Jack kept harking back to the same subject over and over again. I knew all the time it would break his heart if the boy actually left him.
Then one night a week or so after Frank arrived Jack and I were alone in the bedroom. Frank hadn’t been out of the house since the day he came and I made him go downtown to a movie. Oh, I tell you, that was a hot night! You just sat there still with the sweat breaking out all over you and Jack was feeling it badly. He’d been failing that week, too much excitement I suppose, and he looked tired and feverish. He got to talking about the boy and how fine he’d turned out and what a sweet boy he was. He was just sort of rambling all over the place. I knew he wasn’t quite clear in his mind because when I brought in a fresh compress from the bathroom he was lying there still talking as though I’d been with him all the time. I gave him the compress and told him not to tire himself out, but he kept going on, so I let him be. The doctor had told me not to fight him when he was like that.
I sat back in the rocker, only half listening, feeling drowsy and hot, but relaxed, you know, and peaceful. I even dozed off sitting up for a minute or two. When I woke up and heard that he was still rambling on, I decided I’d better try to quiet him after all, so I got up from the rocker and bent over him. He looked at me a little strangely and I wasn’t sure that he even recognized me.
“Where’s Frank?” he asked.
“I sent him off to the movies, Jack, He’ll be back before too long.”
He closed his eyes and nodded his head. I thought he would drop off then, so I straightened out the sheet at the foot of the bed and then made the pillow comfortable around his head. Then he opened his eyes again and looked at me in a very queer way.
“He really hurried to get here, didn’t he?" he asked.
“What was that, Jack?”
“He came the very next day. Actually, he couldn’t have lost a minute.”
“Well, he was here on business,” I said. “And, of course, he wanted to see you and me.”I was so used to telling the same story that I did it without even thinking.
“Yes, yes, I know,” he said, shaking his head impatiently. “But he must have left the moment he knew. Why, he was in the house here almost before we finished lunch.”
“You’d really better try to get to sleep now. You’re getting overtired.”
I could see from his face that he wasn’t paying the least attention to me, he was trying to figure something out. “The letter couldn’t have reached him before the morning,” he went on. “And it takes . . . well, it takes four hours by train.”
It made me feel very funny to hear him talking like that. I thought he might be trying to trap me, he was so peculiar on that subject. “There wasn’t any letter,”I said. “You know that, Jack.”
“He must have gone right to the station as soon as he read the letter,” he continued, smiling up at the ceiling. “He wouldn’t even have had the time to leave word with anybody.”
“What are you talking about? He never heard a word till he got here. Now, no more talk, you go to sleep.”
He turned his head and looked at me, still with that queer expression around his eyes. “How do you mean?” he asked. “You were the one who wrote the letter. It was the day you wrote to Russ.”
“I never sent any . . .”
“Oh, come on, Bess!” he interrupted impatiently. “It was that afternoon when the boy came with the medicine. I’m surprised at you, forgetting it so soon.”
And then he turned over on his side away from me. I tell you I was so mixed up I didn’t know what to think. Of course it didn’t, take me long to figure out what had happened. He had gotten out of bed that day and looked at the letters. All the while he was asking me those questions he knew perfectly well what it was I’d done. It gave me the strangest feeling. I sat down on the rocker again, not really thinking about anything, but just feeling that I was old and tired and that the end wasn’t far off for either of us.
A few minutes later, he turned back to me. He looked awfully weary and tired but his eyes were clearer again. “I have a little pain in my chest,” he said weakly. “I think I’ll go to sleep now.” He took my hand and held it for a minute and then let it go, “Good night, Bess,” he said. And those were the last words he ever spoke to me.
The doctor came and went before Frank got back from the movie. He wanted to stay to tell the boy for me but I said it was all right, that I would do it myself. After he left, I went back to the rocker by the bed where he was lying and sat there waiting for the boy to come home. All the bitterness was drained out of me. I was thinking back over the sadness of those long years but more of Jack than of myself. I’d never really known how lonely he was. I had enough sorrow of my own to keep me awake nights, tossing and turning, blaming him all the time, hating him sometimes for being so cold and heartless. He had that strong pride and I never gave a thought to what was going on inside. How lonely he must have been!
And, as I sat there, I kept wondering why it was that Frank hadn’t come of his own accord. Oh, I didn’t blame him, I didn’t blame anybody, but it wouldn’t have hurt him to do that little bit for his father. It’s so different when you’re old and your life’s behind you and you’ve only got the one son. I wished the boy had come, I wished I’d never had to write the letter. I rocked back and forth, wondering and waiting, and the one thing I was thankful for was that, in all those years, I’d never left Jack to suffer by himself.