A Grand Day for Mr. Garvey

A New Englander who was educated at the University of Notre Dame, EDWIN O’CONNOR does his writing in the winter on Beacon Hill and in the summer at Wellfleet. His novel, THE LAST HURRAH, one of the most widely read books of 1956, is now being filmed, and his new book, BENJY, a Ferocious Fairy Tale, will be off press this month.


AT FIRST, old Mr. Garvey had deeply resented the indignity of being shipped off to the home, and more, of being shipped there by his own flesh and blood. He was not a man in whom family feeling ran strong, but he had his pride, and the thought of being abandoned to an institution at his time of life, merely because his niece and her husband had found an old man’s presence in their home a bit inconvenient, was so mortifying that he almost wept in his helplessness. As soon as he arrived at his new quarters he slumped into a chair in his neat little room and spent the day staring with miserable eyes at the holy picture above the bed, and raging at the inhuman behavior that had transferred him to this.

“Cold as stones, the pair of them,” he groaned. “An old man like me, packed off like a sheep — oh, the shame of it!”

Yet after a week at the home, Mr. Garvey found it to be much more congenial; after a month, he admitted — though only to himself — that he had never been so well off. The house was a great shambling stone structure, built years ago as the country refuge of a celebrated dealer in narcotics, and now, in these days of burdensome taxation, the property of the Church. It was handsomely located in the Berkshire region of Massachusetts, and from his window Mr. Garvey could look down each day upon the loveliest countryside in New England.

If the beauty of the prospect affected Mr. Garvey only mildly — he had never been much of a man for what his niece liked to call The Good Green Land — the concrete fact of his personal liberty positively delighted him. Now, for the first time in years, and within certain quite comfortable limitations, he was the master of his fate.

Life with Ellen and the man whom Mr. Garvey preferred to think of simply as “the husband” had been a series of tense, unwitting violations of the little proprieties — the legitimate rumbling of the stomach after a big meal, the shoes slid off for greater ease, the discreet employment of the toothpick — and he had always been conscious of a variety of impatient reactions: Ellen’s half-stifled sighs, the irritable rattling of the husband’s evening paper, the silent, solid conspiracy of exasperated glances.

And now there was no more of that, for generally speaking he was let alone. When the door of his room was open he could see an occasional white-clad nun walking swiftly and noiselessly down the great immaculate hallway. Mr. Garvey liked the nuns; he found them courteous and disposed to mind their business. As they passed, sometimes they looked in and said, “Good morning, Mr. Garvey, aren’t you looking well today!” And then they moved along, leaving him free to read his few books, to listen to his radio — and this had come to be the greatest of his new-found pleasures: daily he listened, fascinated, to the melancholy progress of the afternoon domestic dramas — or perhaps, in the rare intervals when he felt the need of companionship, to wander about the building, engaging in heartening snatches of acrimonious dispute with his elderly fellow residents. All in all, thought Mr. Garvey comfortably, it was a grand way to live, especially when a man was, like himself, rather close to the end of the rope.

Mr. Garvey’s room faced the southwest — this was a luxury, but the husband, in his eagerness to part with Mr. Garvey, had hot balked at the slight additional expense — and on the good days was filled for hours on end with the warm sunshine so welcome to old bones. But it was as an observation post that the room had its greatest advantage: from it Mr. Garvey could see every inch of the gravel drive which led from the highway into the grounds. This was most important, for each Thursday afternoon his niece rode in to pay her weekly call of duty, and Mr. Garvey liked to be thoroughly prepared for her arrival. His niece was his only visitor, and he both regretted and enjoyed her coming. On the one hand, it was invariably inopportune, occurring just as he was listening to “Pepper Young”; on the other, it gave him the opportunity of playing the little game which he had spent so much time devising.

ON THIS Thursday, his niece arrived somewhat earlier than usual; Mr. Garvey examined her dispassionately from above as she stepped briskly toward the front entrance. He thought once more that she was really quite a homely woman indeed. Then he hurried to his chair and, with a little thrill of anticipation, prepared to welcome her.

When she came in, he was sunk deep in the chair, breathing noisily, his mouth open, his eyes closed.

His niece halted and said, tentatively, “Uncle Martin?”

Mr. Garvey twisted, muttered, and blinked his eyes half open. “What is it now?” he asked wearily. “What is it this time?” Then, blinking again, he said with an air of discovery, “Ah. Ellen. It’s you. I thought ‘twas them again.”

The “them” was good, a nice preliminary touch. Without being a specific complaint against authority, it was at once accusing and forlorn, and Mr. Garvey was not a little disappointed that his niece failed utterly to respond to it.

“I wasn’t quite sure whether you were sleeping or not, Uncle Martin,” she said, crossing the room and kissing him lightly on the forehead. “I hope I didn’t wake you.”

Mr. Garvey gave her a sad little smile. “I don’t mind gettin’ woke up,” he said gently. “I get woke up a lot around here. I don’t mind at all.” He regarded his niece mournfully. “You look good,” he said.

“I feel well, Uncle Martin, thank you.”

“And the husband?”

She smiled brightly. “You mean Arthur, of course, Uncle Martin. Yes, he’s fine too; he asked me to give you his very best.”

“All. Well well. And how are things,” he asked suddenly, “out in The World?”

She laughed. “I’m sure you’d know much more about that than I would, Uncle Martin. I seldom listen to the radio these days and I don’t think I’ve read a paper for weeks. Honestly, I just don’t know where the time goes!”

Mr. Garvey was silent. Two weeks ago, the phrase “out in The World” would have done it. It would have summoned to her mind an immediate picture of his own restricted life within severe walls, so sadly contrasted to her own suburban freedom; it would have raked her conscience. And now, in deliberate misconstruction of his meaning, she had laughed! Mr. Garvey wondered grimly whether she was not becoming more adept at his little game. He resolved to try another tack. “You’ll stay to supper?”

“No, I’m afraid not, Uncle Martin. I’d love to, of course, but it’s such a long drive back, and Arthur is expecting me. We’re having some people in tonight.”

“It’s most likely all for the best,” Mr. Garvey said. “The meals we get here are very poor. There’s days I don’t touch a thing.”

“Why Uncle Martin!” She waggled a finger at him and her lips formed a little pout; to his horror, the old man saw that she had determined upon a course of playful reproach. “Shame on you. Uncle Martin. And you would never eat when you were with us, either; that’s what used to worry us so. You need to eat to keep up your strength. And I’m sure you get plenty of good nourishing food up here: the menus look most attractive.”

“On the menu and in the stomach: there’s a difference there,” Mr. Garvey observed darkly. “A man likes some taste to his food.” Actually, he was quite pleased with the institutional cooking, finding it far more to his liking than the gay little neutral meals prepared by his niece. Still, there was the game to get on with, so he said doggedly, “It ain’t like home cookin’.”

Ellen patted his hand. “Now you’re flattering me, Uncle Martin. Thank you very much, but I’m afraid I couldn’t begin to feed you the way they do up here. I’ve never seen you looking better. And naturally your food must be agreeing with you or you wouldn’t be looking so wonderfully well, would you?” She smiled briskly and with finality; it was time for a change of subject. “Now,” she said, “what nice things have happened to you since I was here last week?”

Mr. Garvey’s eyes gleamed; here, unlooked for, was opportunity. “They gave us a television,” he said.

“A television set? Oh, how nice, Uncle Martin! That must be great fun for you!”

“And then,” he said triumphantly, “they took it away!” By a great stroke of fortune, the television set had broken down the night before, and had to be removed for repairs. Everyone had been delighted; from the beginning the majority of the old gentlemen had viewed with extreme distaste the flickering antics of brash young comedians, saying things they did not understand.

“Gone for good, I s’pose,” said Mr. Garvey with a sigh. He went on to tell a moving tale of aged men, huddled in the reading room, watching with disconsolate eyes as the principal vehicle of their enjoyment was trundled from the premises. As the story came to its hopeless conclusion, he watched her carefully from the corner of his eye, searching for the first sign of sympathy.

“Oh, come now, Uncle Martin, I’m sure you’re exaggerating,” she said, using the voice he particularly disliked: it was the assured voice with which she minimized the complaints of her small son. “They’ve simply taken it away to have it fixed; they’ll have it back in no time. After all, they want you to be happy, don’t they?”

“Aha,” he said cynically, but his response lacked conviction.

THERE was no doubt of it, he thought, she was getting hard. Wistfully, he recalled the wonderful occasions of her first few visits when, with mounting distress and anxiety, she had listened to his mournful little fictions and had gone away troubled in heart. But now she had built up an unfeeling immunity; his little game had been destroyed. At the thought, despair surged over him; with bitter eyes he watched his niece as she walked to the window.

“Such a green place,” she said, her voice trilling a little. “A cool, green place. It’s so lovely here, Uncle Martin: think of all the thousands, the millions of people in the hot city at this time of year, and then think of yourself, up here!”

He grunted; he could not trust himself to words. It was then that he heard the tapping at the door and looked up to see old Mr. Calderone.

“A thousand pardons, my good Garvey,” said Calderone in his deep, stagy voice. “I didn’t know you had company. A thousand pardons. I’ll return another time.”

“No no,”Mr. Garvey said hastily. “Come in, Calderone. Come in, come in, man!” The warmth of the reception was without precedent, for usually when the ancient theatrical face of Mr. Calderone thrust itself through the doorway, Mr. Garvey feigned sleep or desperate illness. He considered Calderone a maniac, or worse, a nuisance; today, however, the man might have his uses. With a faint stirring of hope he said, “I want you to meet the niece, Calderone.”

“Niece?” Mr. Calderone stepped jauntily into the room with a great elegance of movement. He was a tall man, only slightly bent, with long white hair and fine dark eyes. “Well, Garvey, you old rogue,” he said, in fruity tones of reprimand, “why have you kept this charming creature from us until now, eh? She’s charming, utterly charming!'’ He stood, negligently posed, smiling appreciatively at Ellen; against the worn backdrop of his features, absurdly youthful teeth gleamed.

“Aren’t you nice to say such things, Mr. Calderone,” Ellen said, with some awkwardness. She was not a little embarrassed by this elderly cavalier with his great young teeth.

“Calderone here was on the stage,” Mr. Garvey said superfluously. “What was the name, Calderone?”

“Cardew,” said Mr. Calderone. “Edwin Cardew. For the purposes of the marquee, you know. It was a name not unknown in its day, although I’ll bet a button that it means next to nothing to this charming young lady. The fame of the player is all too fleeting, alas!”

“I don’t believe I’ve actually seen you on the stage,” Ellen said tactfully, “but of course I’ve heard your name.” She was suddenly touched by this old man, so pathetically fishing for the rare words of recognition. Generously, she lied again. “I’ve heard you mentioned many times,” she said.

“So we are remembered, after all,”said Mr. Calderone, and smiled his young smile. “Well well, Garvey, fancy that. There are those who recall the brief hour, so long ago. Ah, they were good days, great days, and I lived them to the full. I have always had the knack of leading the full life,” he said, leaning confidentially toward Ellen, “even now, here in the asylum.”

“I think it’s wonderful to be able to enjoy life like that. Although,” she added, with a quick little laugh, “I’d hardly call this lovely place an asylum, would you, Mr. Calderone?”

“It’s quite all right, my dear,” Mr. Calderone said comfortingly. “You need have no fear: we are quite without illusion up here. We know our unhappy condition full well, eh, Garvey?”

“We do queer things now and again. I guess,” said Mr. Garvey in a strange, small voice.

“Uncle Martin!” Ellen said sharply. Turning to Mr. Calderone, she said, “No, but surely you must realize that this isn’t an institution in any — well, in any derogatory sense of the word. It’s simply a pleasant home . . .”

“Charming!” said Mr. Calderone, with another great smile. “But it is not necessary, my dear. We may be poor crazed men up here, but we are not in the least sensitive about, it are we, Garvey?”

“Ah well,” said Mr. Garvey, with a little sigh. Glancing at his niece, he had all he could do to keep from chuckling aloud. This was the stuff, he thought joyously: oh, Calderone was just the boy for the job!

“We do no harm,” Mr. Calderone was saying. “We harm no living soul. We may be aged and deranged, but we bear ill will toward none, even to those who are unkind. Sometimes,” he said dreamily, “as I stroll about the grounds, I go out to the wall, where I can watch the cars of normal men roll along the highway. And as I stand there watching, I can see the people pointing as they go by, and I know that they are saying, ‘There is where the old madmen live.’ But I bear them no ill will, I assure you. Instead, I laugh.” In demonstration of this, he laughed, loudly and rather alarmingly.

“But you’re very wrong!” Ellen cried, looking anxiously at her uncle. “No one says things like that, or if they do they’re greatly mistaken. No one thinks that this is a place for the mentally ill, Mr. Calderone. It’s simply a retreat, where elderly people can live more comfortably . . .”

Mr. Calderone smiled with great benignity. “She’s kind, Garvey,” he said. “You have a kind girl there. It warms the cockles of the heart.”

“She’s a grand girl,” Mr. Garvey agreed, in his new weak voice. “A grand, kind girl, all right.”

“Not all are so kind to people like ourselves,” said Mr. Calderone, “Eh, Garvey? And yet we do not mind. For after all, we know that we have nearly run the race. We know that in a few months, or weeks, or even days,” he said, his fine dark eyes glowing happily, “we go to meet our Maker.”

“Dust to dust,” murmured Mr. Garvey helpfully.

“And not a one of us can escape, mad or sane,” Mr. Calderone said, nodding sagely. “That I find the most consoling thought of all.” Clearly, it was a thought which exhilarated as well as consoled, for one old hand tossed outward and upward in the gesture of the toast. “All dumped into the dark pit together,” he said exultantly. “Eh, Garvey? Day by day we crumble.”

“That’s so. that’s so,” Mr. Garvey sighed. “We ain’t what we used to be, and that’s a fact.” He felt like singing: his niece had sprung up from her chair and now stood by the window in rigid disapproval, her back toward them. She was pulling nervously at her gloves; with satisfaction, Mr. Garvey saw that she was on the ropes at last. He thanked the miracle that had brought Calderone to the room. Now, however, the job was done, and he was weary of this tiresome man with all his silly jabber; he said without courtesy, “Well, good-by, Calderone. Run along now.”

“Yes, I must go. I have many things to attend to before the day is out,” Mr. Calderone said pleasantly; in his daily rounds he had become accustomed to curt dismissal. “Good-by, Garvey, until tomorrow. And good-by to you, my dear,” he said with a courtly bow. “This has been a great pleasure. I only hope we may see you again soon although, at our time of life, we make no plans, eh, Garvey?”

“Yes yes,” Mr. Garvey said impatiently. “Run along now, Calderone.”

Still with her back to the room. Ellen bobbed her head stiffly; Mr. Garvey waved his hand irritably; and with a final elegant flourish, Mr. Calderone was gone.

“Ah, there goes a smart one,” said Mr. Garvey in obvious admiration. “They don’t fool Calderone. He’s the man can tell you things.”

“Uncle Martin,” said his niece, turning to face him. She stood with her feet wide apart: it was the posture of Resolution, of No Nonsense. On her face, however, was hesitancy and doubt. It was the old familiar mixture that rose to the surface whenever she decided to Do Something about her uncle. Do something, yes, but what?

“Uncle Martin,” she said again, and he waved a feeble hand at her and gave her a strangely sweet smile.

“Ah well,” he said, his voice barely audible now, “what’s to be will be, I guess. You’re a grand girl, yes you are.”

“Uncle Martin,” she said a third time, but more urgently now; and leaning forward, she began to talk to him. Mr. Garvey closed his eyes; his whole being was flooded with a great warm inner smile. He knew all that his niece would say, and exactly the tones in which she would say it. He knew, for example, that the mildly hectoring tone with which she now addressed him was just a bluff. It would not last; as it went on and met no response (other than, of course, the nice little weak smile he would preserve on his lips) it would melt into the familiar wheedling manner, and when this got nothing (as indeed it would, for he would even keep his eyes closed tight all the while she talked, and maybe breathe a bit on the fast side, just to help things along) then there would conic, at last, the welcome rush of concern and alarm. And that, thought Mr. Garvey with satisfaction, that was the stuff for a selfish girl who packs her uncle off to an old folks’ home way up in the hills somewheres, and then once in a blue moon trots herself in to see him with her perky little step and her hard little pebble eyes and the ha ha ha on her lips and not a single blessed bit of worry in her voice! Oh yes yes, thought Mr. Garvey jubilantly, this was the stuff for her! It was indeed!

It was some time before his niece finally left the room.

“Good-by, Uncle Martin,” she said loudly; in reply, she heard only small, gasping snores. She turned to go; then, at the doorway, paused once more. Mr. Garvey, observing her with some difficulty from under lowered lids, noted that she looked perplexed and worried. Then she hurried from the room, and Mr. Garvey, listening, could hear the quick anxious steps moving away from him. He knew that they were going toward the office of the sister-in-charge.

After a reasonably prudent interval, he sat up, smoothing his coat and straightening his tie. He was a neat man, he liked to keep spick-and-span, and partly because of this, partly because he had no more pressing concern at the moment, he rose, went over to the small washstand, and began to brush his teeth. He took great pride in the fact that he still had many of his own teeth; he brushed them several times each day. As he brushed, he stopped frequently, and smiled slightly into the mirror: he was thinking of the dialogue nowtaking place between his niece and Sister Thomasina.

He knew that, a few minutes from now, his niece would leave the building, get into her car, and hurry off down the gravel drive: she would leave, he thought, faster than she had come. He knew too that later, in an hour or so, maybe, Sister Thomasina would come round to see him. She would ask questions, gently, cleverly; he would be polite, full of common sense, cheerful, convinced that long and happy years yet remained to him. He would be appreciative of everything; he would speak with fondness and gratitude of the home, of Ellen, of the husband, even. Then Sister Thomasina would go away.

After that, there would be nothing to do until supper. Then he would eat, and stop to chat a bit, maybe, with some of the other old men, and then he would come back to his room, listen a while to his radio, and then he would wash, say his prayers, and get into bed, and the day would be over for Mr. Garvey.

And then, next week, Ellen would come again. . . .