Mary Pride

A graduate of Vassar and the mother of a small son, SUE KAUFMAN is married to a doctor and lives in New York City. She is the author of two novels, THE HAPPY SUMMED DAYSand GREEN HOLLY,and is now working on short stories. The ATLANTICpublished her storyThe Pride of the Morningin February of this year.

HE HAD been dressed and waiting for twenty minutes, and was sitting on the end of his carefully remade bed in the darkness, thinking that the whole thing was really quite funny, like a cartoon about an elopement, when the whistle finally came. Round, low, warble-pure on the first note, it lightly switched to a clean bobwhite cutoff — a startling sound for a girl to make, especially that one. He picked up the little canvas airline bag that held his swimming trunks and a towel, quickly stole down the uncarpeted stairs, and went out the door, managing to close it behind him without so much as a click. She stood under the streetlight, straddling a boy’s bicycle, her brother’s, he supposed. With one long look at her, dressed in worn jeans, a shirt, sneakers, a bandanna around her head, he stopped thinking there was anything funny. She wouldn’t look that way for anyone else, he thought angrily, irrationally, and padded noiselessly up the driveway to the garage.

Blindly entering the gassy darkness, he groped past rusted garden furniture, a lawn mower, a stack of old M.D. license plates until his fingers closed over the cold handlebars. Carefully he edged the bike out past the coupe’s left fender and wheeled it to the front of the house. As he came up, she reached into a brown paper shopping bag hanging off her handlebars and took out a lumpy towel. “It keeps smacking my knees when I pedal,” she explained loudly, ignoring the fact that it was just a little past five in the morning and everyone on the block was sleeping. “Can I put it in your basket?” He nodded, then inexplicably dropped the towel; it exploded on the damp sidewalk, a red bathing suit, a cap of pudgy red rubber flowers, a container of Toujours Moi talcum rolling out. She dropped her bike with a tinny clatter and stooped to pick up her swimming things, flipping them all back into the towel, jelly-roll fashion, then jamming it into his basket atop the canvas bag. “We’ll use my shopping bags for the flowers. I brought four,” she said, louder than ever, and went and remounted the boy’s bicycle with movements that made him blink.

“Where are we going?” he asked, doggedly whispering.

“The bay. Dodie Finch and Greely Smith are meeting us there,” she called, and set off. As he followed, David glanced uneasily up and down the block of ugly-tidy houses, certain that curious eyes were peeping from behind the pulled shades and billowing curtains, and equally certain she had intentionally, perversely wished to draw them. She’s really crazy, he thought, knowing very well she had insisted on picking him up because she was ashamed of her own street, her own house; too dumb not to guess that he, just like every other boy in the three top grades of Willett High School, knew exactly where she lived. In fact he, like many others, often purposely used that rundown little street on his way into the village to run an errand for his mother, just to be able to pass the dingy stucco house where she lived with her mother, younger brother, and hopeless drunk of a father, and to let his mind, for soothing seconds, make the plunge from glaring daylight to suave soft dark.

As THEY turned onto the deserted boulevard, the sky above the streetlamps seemed a lighter gray. It was five fifteen on what promised to be a fine clear day in June, ground mist aside. Which meant the bunting-trimmed tables could be set up on the school lawn, under the dipping willows, and mothers in straw and flower hats, fathers in light Suits could pleasantly mill about, drinking orange punch out of paper cups and exchanging mutual congratulations.

It was the dawn of Willett’s graduation day, the day on which he, David Thorne, and by some miracle she, Mary Pride, would graduate from Willett High School. Though no one quite knew why or when they had originated, an elaborate set of traditions had become attached to the events of this day. Always, for as long as anyone could remember, an escutcheon had stood on the auditorium platform where the graduating class sat trembling and perspiring in their white dresses and dark suits, a shield fashioned from flowers, bearing a blue W and the class numerals in cornflowers on a white ground of daisies. Strangely enough, it was the particular job of the graduating class to rise before dawn (on this one day they ought to have been allowed the sleep of the just) and, on bicycles (cars were taboo), to forage in the empty fields and back lots of Willett for the flowers used in the shield.

Since hundreds of flowers were needed, the absolute minimum was one bag of flowers per senior; two were hoped for. Once found, the flowers were carried back to the school and dumped on the grass in back of the gymnasium, a place where the more artistic members of the junior class sat waiting, ready to begin weaving them into a wire frame. Released, the seniors slowly convened at Jim’s Diner in the village. After eating a large breakfast, and after waiting out a short token interval for digestion, they proceeded to a small bathing beach on the inlet. There, in lockers still dank with winter, they changed into bathing suits; giggling, covered with goose bumps, they then ventured out onto the dock, and after much shoving and hanging back, plunged shrieking and howling into the still chilly waters of the bay, unwillingly performing the ritual which had become a sort of baptism for the graduation that afternoon.

David, who had decided long in advance that the whole set of customs was stupid and childish, was now angrily certain of it as he cycled down an asphalt road slick as tar from mist and dew. Though for the first time in his life he was alone with Mary Pride — a situation he had efficiently dealt with many times in his imagination — he couldn’t think of anything but how cold he was without a sweater, how queasy he felt without breakfast, and how frightened he suddenly was; riding along, he found he couldn’t remember one word of the valedictory address he had to give that afternoon. At the moment it would have soothed him to see the work of a practical joker in his being given Mary Pride as a partner, but he knew very well that poor old Mr. Buckley had done the pairing, and knew, better than anyone, that even had one of his classmates done it, there was just no joke. True, Mary Pride was what she was, and true, he was the valedictorian, one of the most brilliant students Willett High School had seen in many years, but he was not by a long shot the classic grind, the pimply bespectacled scapegoat who is terrified of girls and is the constant butt of his schoolmates’ jokes. He didn’t have pimples, he didn’t wear glasses. He was tall, went out for sports, and was attractive enough to have always had all the friends and girls he could want. If he didn’t want many, if he carefully limited the number of these, it was not out of any bookish sense of superiority but out of an almost neurotic hypersensitivity about his father. Oh, he was the doctor’s son all right, but with a difference. Like Mary Pride’s father, his father drank, but unlike Mary Pride’s father, who had started out as a bartender, his father had destroyed a practice which had once encompassed five counties, had disgraced a noble profession, to say nothing of what he had done to his wife, his son. Yet, strangely, David could not hate him. He was just horribly ashamed, in a coldly intellectualized way, of such massive human failure, and now, as he rode along behind Mary Pride, he could not help being struck by the irony of it all, bitterly thinking: If nothing else, we have them in common.

With a sudden mechanical click the streetlights went off, leaving the morning hanging shades lighter about them. Everything was coated with moisture; there was a steady drip-a-drip from the thick tangles of foliage clumped on either side of the road and from the tall old maples and elms that branched out over the street. His English bike was well over six years old, but David had taken care of it, just as he took care of all the personal possessions that so rarely came his way, and it was good as new. He rode easily, almost effortlessly, while up ahead Mary Pride was almost doubled over with the job of pedaling her brother’s old balloon-tire bike. He had seen she was grimly determined to stay in the lead, and he let her, accepting the fact that she resented being paired off with him and didn’t even want to ride alongside him. This was not because there was someone else she would rather have been with, or ought to have been with — a girl like that didn’t have steady boyfriends; no one wanted the doubtlul honor of it — but simply because she disliked him intensely, having mistaken his reluctance to venture even a casual “hi” or “good morning’' for pure priggish snobbery.

IF SHE only knew, thought David, suddenly relaxed enough to let his mind drift in this direction. As he had ridden along, his speech had completely come back to him, and he was so relieved he almost began to enjoy the predawn dampness, the strangeness of being out at that unlikely hour. Against his will he found himself staring at Mary Pride’s back, unable to keep from noticing the way the thin strained shirting clearly outlined the straps and band of her brassiere, the suggestive way the worn brown leather seat fitted her full bottom. And then, in spite of everything — the hour, the surroundings— he felt it all beginning, the sludgy thickening of throat and tongue, the tensing of muscles in calves and forearms, the strange fumy lechery rising, burning in his chest. Like many sluttish girls — or, at least, girls with sluttish reputations — she roused frighteningly powerful and conflicting emotions: a pure, almost uncontainable lust, along with the brutal need to inflict humiliation, pain. It was this that had kept David away from her, had kept him from making his try like the others. Though, like the others, he despised her, it was just because he despised her that he could not take advantage of what she was. Concerned for her, he was even more concerned for himself; he just didn’t think he’d be able to handle the crushing load of self-loathing that was bound to come later, when he had finished with her, in whatever way.

As a result, he steered clear of her in the flesh and let himself meet her only in his mind, constructing lurid little daydreams from what he had heard stated as facts. For the stories about the poor girl were endless, and though David doubted that they were all true, they had the same powerful ability to goad and rouse that her person did, and just by saying some of them over to oneself one could experience a certain intense pleasure — without guilt. And so David let himself go now as he bicycled along in the raw morning air, let his mind swarm and fill with violent images while he softly repeated, like some profane litany, key phrases and words from the things he had heard.

Suddenly, without warning, Mary Pride pulled over to the side of the road, and he shot past her, braking his bike with a grinding squeak. When he turned he saw that she had already left her bicycle on the curbstone and had started on tiptoe across someone’s lawn, her target a large flower bed which began on the left side of the house’s front steps and ended against a tall privet hedge. Like the rule which forbade the use of cars, another stated that no one, under any circumstances, was to pick flowers from the private gardens in the town. Honor-bound honor student that he was, David smoldered with disgust and hatred as he watched her trample through the bed and greedily pick the flowers, and he began to glance almost hopefully up at the lead-framed windows where the blinds remained tightly closed. She finally came to dump the wet blue flowers into his wicker bicycle basket and smiled up into his furious face. He blushed, almost choking on his anger, and said hoarsely, “There are laws against trespassing.”

“Oh, laws,” she said with a scornful little laugh, and, her pale eyes full of contempt for all the laws she had knowingly, willfully, gladly broken, she went and remounted her bicycle.

Murder in his heart, David fell in behind her once again. Soon, with an abrupt turnoff, they left the main boulevard, and, passing through an open wooden gate, entered the intricate network of back roads that eventually led, like a maze, to the bay. Here asphalt gave way to dirt; trees arched and tangled in thick meshes overhead; houses, larger, statelier, sat far back on gently graded slopes, hall hidden by tall ivy-covered walls or high hedges, reached by long winding gravel drives. As he followed her sure lead, David smiled to himself, taking a sanctimonious pleasure in noting the way she knew each devious turnoff, each new rutted road, until they suddenly passed an ugly yellow stucco wall, higher than the rest, topped with crude iron spikes, and his nasty smile vanished. In fact, he almost squirmed on his bicycle seat as he remembered being parked against that wall, remembered the glare of the flashlight that had thrust through the rolled-down window of his father’s coupe and mercilessly exposed him, lipstick-smirched, struggling upward on the seat (the unbuttoned girl wisely stayed down), while a harsh Scottish-caretaker voice ordered him to get a move on before the cops were called. With a roar of the motor and a scrunch of tires on loose dirt, he had gotten a move on and had not been back in the two months since. But now, forced to let up on Mary Pride, unable to take cover in self-righteous deceit, David began to use her, found he could not keep from wondering what it would be like when she was beside one in a car parked under fragrant maples, the tick-acrick of leaves, the soft chirrup of crickets, and the slow turning of bodies the only sounds in the dark.

Under a dazzling impact of red-gold light his mind stopped short. Dead ahead the sun was rising over the water, a red ball which burned through thinning mists; to the left and right of the road low grassy hills rolled away and glistened, covered with such a profusion of buttercups, daisies, dandelions, and cornflowers that David’s heart began to race. The sun cast a heavy orangeyellow glaze on everything, thickly coating the crude little shacks that stood down near the water, ugly lean-tos which the fishermen used for their equipment. Between the shacks, rowboats lay on their sides in the sand, looking like big exhausted fish washed up by the tide. Not another living soul was about.

MARY PRIDE had already pulled her bike up into the grass on the right side of the road and sat in the roadbed unlacing her red sneakers. She set them carefully by the bicycle, rose, and without so much as a glance back at him, slipped the shopping bags off the handlebars and waded barefoot into the deep tangled grasses. When she got as far as a large oak halfway up the slope, she unceremoniously sat down on the grassless patch under its boughs, took a pack of cigarettes from her shirt pocket, and lit one. To his great annoyance, her utter indifference stung him, made him feel foolish. He left his bike on the grass near hers and resentfully plunged into the high wet grass, hating the way the bottoms of his khaki pants immediately became drenched and stuck to his ankles. When he reached the place where she sat, lordly as Robin Hood, under the spreading tree, she turned up her pale-blue eyes and for an unnerving moment just stared at him. Then, wordlessly, she held out the pack of cigarettes, with a book of matches neatly tucked down into the cellophane wrapper. After he lit one, he awkwardly dropped down into the dirt at her side. For several minutes they sat in almost hostile silence while twin elastic threads of smoke rose tautly to the boughs overhead, then broke into curly tangles when they hit the leaves. “Why’nt you roll up your pants?” she said suddenly. “And take off your sneakers. They’ll only get all wet and sloshy.”

Shrugging (but also maddeningly flushing), he rolled the soggy pants halfway up his calves but left his sneakers on; he had always been secretly ashamed of his long, bony, bumpy-toed feet. “Where do you suppose the others are?” he asked, not because he cared, but because he knew she did.

To his surprise she looked bored. “The easiest way to get here is from around the other side,” she said, irritating him by her assumption that he would not know this part of town. She stood up. “I think we each ought to get one of a kind,” she said as she handed him two paper bags. “One daisy and one cornflower apiece — don’t you?”

He nodded and swallowed hard, forced to look away from the face suspended above him: several yellow snails of pinned-flat curls had worked their way out of the edges of her Paisley scarf; without its usual frame of carefully streaked hair, without the color lent by lipstick and powder, her face seemed strange — larger, pale, almost plain and yet a blunted look of honesty and health and cleanliness shone out of those flat freckled planes, a look that took him unawares and deeply moved him, coming from where it did. Confused, he watched her stride purposefully away up the slope, then suddenly stop and begin to snatch at daisies, and he wondered if it was the cigarette that made him feel so light-headed. He reluctantly rose and ambled out onto the hill. He veered off at an angle to the place where she worked and kept his distance from clumps of shiny three-pronged leaves he thought might be poison ivy. The thatchy abundance of flowers excited him, and soon he was wholly absorbed in the mechanics of picking the white flowers with furry gold centers, liking the way the hollow tubes of stems broke cleanly between his fingers, even liking the sticky milky substance they left. Methodically, as rhythmically as a field hand, he bent and picked, bent and picked, and he slowly filled one of the bags, astonished when he finally found himself on the crown of the hill, the sun suddenly hot and strong on his back and hands.

“Hey. How’re you doing?” she called from somewhere close in back of him. He turned and found her less than twenty feet away, her face red and perspired, her ankles and wrists stuck with bits of wet leaves and grasses. For a long minute they stared warily at each other above the heads of the flowers. Then, simultaneously, they burst into laughter. “Both mine are filled,” she said, coming to peer into the one bag he had almost finished. “Lord, but you’re slow. I’ll help you do the cornflowers. It’s getting too hot.”

Side by side, they slowly worked their way back down the hill, filling his second bag with the last of the cornflowers. Their grasping hands made rippy-plucky sounds as they closed quickly, almost in unison, over the brittle stems of the bluestarred flowers, which had a faint iodoform smell that David liked. By the time they were near the bicycles the bag was brimming. Mary Pride was left with a fistful of flowers and no place to put them. “Use my bicycle basket,” David began, then stopped, perplexed by the look of horror that was slowly puckering her face. Holding her hand straight out in front of her, she slowly uncurled her fingers one by one; together they looked into the glistening, leaf-stained palm, where, mangled amongst the tangled stems, a large furry yellow and black bumblebee writhed and buzzed in agony. “Oh, no,” she whispered, with a sharp little insuck of breath. “Please,” she begged, and dropped the contents of her hand into the dirt at the side of the road. “Please,” she repeated, turning her back. “You step on it, David. I’m barefoot.” For the span of a second, David listened to the tortured buzzing. Then he took one heavy step forward and savagely ground his rubber heel into the dirt. He felt sick to his stomach. “OK,”he said.

She turned back, paler than ever. “I didn’t mean to,” she said like a child.,

“It could have stung you,” he said stupidly, feeling something terrible happening in his chest.

“No. I don’t think bumbles do.”

He didn’t correct her. He just stood there, all hands and feet and neck, suddenly helplessly in love with her. “My sneakers are sloshy,” he finally said.

“Take them off,” she said simply.

Without a thought for his bumpy bony feet, he did. Setting the sneakers at the roadside to dry out in the sun, he looked at his wristwatch. It was six thirty, and though there was still no sign of the others, he was reluctant even to mention them. “How would you like to take a ride in one of those boats?”

“Do you think we could?”

“I don’t see why not,” said he, the observer of rules, the guardian of private property. “Nobody’s around. And it’s not as if we were stealing it — ”

Though she saw their earlier roles reversed, she permitted herself only a faint mischievous smile. She held out her hand, and he took it, pleased by the innocent way her fingers lightly curled in his, by the feeling of sun-warmed dirt under his bare soles. As they drew near the water, a gummy salt smell, thick as broth, rose from the broken shells littering the sand. The sun, climbing rapidly, had burned away the mist. When they walked out onto the sand, a big gull flapped from behind one of the weathered shacks and lit on the still water without a ripple.

Unable to bear the heat, David stripped off his damp shirt and laid it out on one of the boats, completely unselfconscious until he turned and saw that Mary Pride was staring at him, frankly curious — and surprised. He almost laughed aloud. Instead, acutely aware of himself, proud of his flat-muscled hairless chest, he quietly asked her to give him a hand with one of the boats, Together they easily turned and lifted one of the old shells, carrying it down and setting it in the shallow water, leaving one corner still resting on the sand. David picked up the oars that had fallen out and, fitting them into the rusted locks, handed her in. When she was seated, he shoved them off with a thrust of one long leg, and the boat slid out along the glassy top of the water. He decided to let it glide by itself, and drew in the oars, folding them across each other in back of him like big wooden grasshopper wings. The sun, shining directly down and reflecting off the slick water top, blinded them. But slowly, as though to oblige them, the boat eased around all by itself, and the sun was no longer in their eyes. It was then that they saw them —six of them — scattered across a grassy rise a quarter of a mile down the curving shore; on the road just below, the hood of a blue sedan iridescently glittered.

Going cold, David dully stared at the car, which belonged to Greely Smith’s father, and he wondered about his own tenacity — stupidity, really: everyone else broke rules and got away with it; why did he feel so compelled to obey them?

He did not want to look directly at Mary Pride, did not want to see her reaction. But suddenly one of the figures on the hill straightened up, and after staring intently out at them began waving, calling, “— ary? — ary?”, and David had to look at her. She sat very still, neat nostrils flaring. When the call came again she swore softly, and, turning away, reached into her shirt pocket for the pack of cigarettes. Wordlessly shaking out two, she lit one for David and handed it to him. He put it, warm and moist from her pale mouth, into his own, but nothing in him stirred; like the mists, all his dank thoughts had burned away, dried up in the sun. Shifting so that he could no longer see the others on the shore, he stared at her. Her kerchief had come so loose she had finally snatched it off; she sat peacefully, unvain, faintly squinting, almost ugly with the light harshly striking her face and Medusa curls snaking all over her head.

“Are you happy about college? About getting in where you wanted?” she asked, breaking the long silence, shyly turning away to trail a finger in the water.

“Yes,” he said flatly.

“Are you going to be a doctor too?” she went on innocently, but all the same he blushed, feeling the deep touchy ache that any mention, direct or indirect, of his father brought.

“No. Not a doctor.”

“Well, what then?” she persisted clumsily.

“I don’t know,” he said, sounding curt and irritable, but actually just wanting to end this conversation which could only lead them to her own plans, to her future without college, which at best would contain a job in some village store and a marriage, if she was lucky, to some local fireman or policeman or gas-station attendant.

“I’m going to secretarial school,” she announced, as though having read his mind. She looked almost angry, her face red, lips primly compressed. “A good one. In New York.”

“That’s fine,”he said, too loudly. “Good secretarial jobs can lead to all sorts of things. You start that way — and who knows?”

“Yes. Who knows?” she said, her eyes like blue enamel buttons. Then, with a teasing smile, she gripped the gunwale to her right and slipped agilely over the side of the boat, leaving it gently drumming from side to side. She had somehow managed to do this without wetting her head. She laughed up at him as he peered down with stupefaction; then turned and gave several ploppy paddle strokes which carried her a few feet away. “What d’you think you’re doing? You crazy?” he demanded, but, ignoring him, she splashed about in a listless circle, finally coming back to the boat. “’S cold.”she gasped breathlessly, laughing still.

“What did you expect?” he muttered, furious at her for making him iurious. Stonily he watched while she gave a sudden puzzled grimace and went under, then swore aloud. She was willing to play games even at the expense of her hair, carefully washed and put up for the graduation and the dance that night. Almost beginning to hate her all over again, he watched her head break through the stirred-up water. “’S a cramp,” she spluttered, rolling forward like a seal, and through the clear green water he could see her, right under the surface, frantically doing something to one of her legs. For an eternal moment David, a fair swimmer, sat and unwillingly considered the lucid, icy water. Then he sprang to life, dropping prayerfully to his knees in the center of the boat. When she surfaced he leaned far out, grabbing hold of a cold and slippery wrist, and the boat gave a violent tipping lurch. “Steady,”he said, more to the boat than to her, and drawing her in close, got hold of the other arm. Locked in a chill and viselike embrace, limbs working together, as synchronized as lovers’, they slowly, between them, managed to ease her into the boat.

Eyes closed, she sank back into the bow of the boat. David stared disbelievingly at her heaving chest, quickly, guiltily looking away as she opened her eyes. “Felt like tangled rubber bands,” she explained between breaths and experimentally moved her right leg. “Thank you.”

Remembering his reluctance to jump into the water after her, he couldn’t speak.

“I said, thank you, David,” she repeated, louder now that her breathing was less labored, and sitting up straight, stared challengingly into his eyes.

“For what?” he mumbled, hot-faced, and reached around in back of him to fit the oars into the locks.

When the boat gritted into the sandy shore the others were waiting. For a moment they just stood there, the girls tittering and shifting, the boys silent, tensely staring; the wet shirt clung to Mary Pride’s torso, defining her deep breasts as explicitly as classic drapery in a museum. Incurious eyes flickered over David, helping her out; someone finally came forward with a shielding towel. At once, like nubile handmaidens, the girls closed ranks about Mary Pride, making hushing little gull sounds. From the boys there came low rumblings: “Bike on the car — ” “Scratch the hood — “I’ll ride it to her house — ” Dazed, David beached the boat, helped by Greely Smith, whom he heartily loathed, and who softly said, “Hey,” winking as David buttoned his shirt back on over his bare chest.

The boys dispersed, one heading for Mary Pride’s bicycle, the other two starting toward the shiny blue car. The girls were leading Mary Pride toward the road when she suddenly stopped in her tracks and, shaking herself free of them, turned. “David.”’ she called clearly, imperiously, “David Thorne!”

He blushed as he paused in the roadbed.

“You all right?” she asked; behind her, two of the girls exchanged a poking nudge.

“Sure,” he said.

“I am too,” she said, softer, as though they were suddenly alone. “I’m only going home to change into dry clothes. I’ll be at the diner. Will you?”

Blinking, but not from the sunlight, David stared. For in her eyes was the whole summer ahead, the summer before he left for school, the last summer he ever intended to spend in this town. A summer of leaf-scented lanes, warm night sands, soft damp grasses, a glad and limitless giving of which he couldn’t partake. He stared, appalled, at his future, at himself, met much too soon, longing to cry out and protest at what he saw. Oh, what kind of cripple was a person, so bound by honor and tied by self-esteem they could not move, could neither take in hatred nor love since each asked too high a price.

“David?” she said, uncertain, growing hurt, the girls behind her grinning now.

“Sure, I’ll be there,” he said lightly, committed. “Hurry and change—I’ll save you a seat.”