A Radcliffe graduate, SALLIE BINGHAM started gaining awards for her fiction while she was in college. One of her short stories won the Dana Reed Prize for 1957 and was reprinted in THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES 1959; recently she received an O. Henry award for “The Banks of the Ohio” which appeared in the January, 1963, ATLANTIC.
WHEN Lillian was eleven, and even when she was twelve, she found it strange and sad that Mrs. Harris over the way had so much trouble with her dog. The dog was only a poodle, although a great masterful brute with a bark like a bloodhound’s, and it seemed wrong to Lillian that anyone, even a tiny lady like Mrs. Harris, should be dragged down the street by a poodle. If it had been a Great Dane, or a St. Bernard, Lillian would not have minded so much, although in any case, as her mother said, it was perfectly awful to see a human being totally at the mercy of a dog.
Lillian’s mother did not entirely approve of Mrs. Harris, but she enjoyed her. “Look at that hat, will you,” she would say, twitching the curtain aside as Mrs. Harris ran down the street at the wrong end of a leather leash. Mrs. Harris wore great turbans, hard as helmets, in all the colors of the hectic rainbow; her little pink ears protruded under the edge, quite nakedly. Lillian’s mother wore hats only to funerals (she said a hat took the set out of her hair), and she refused, absolutely, to own a dog in the city. “You’d be the last one to get up and walk it at six o’clock in the morning,” she said whenever Lillian asked.
Lillian liked Mrs. Harris, although it was disturbing to feel that she might at any moment call for help. She was the most dependent grown person Lillian had ever met. She was not above asking the delivery boy from Sloan’s to help her with a cranky can opener, and whenever she went outside, she appealed to anyone who might be passing, to the trees and benches in the park and the sky above, to witness her predicament. “Oh, no! Oh. Ronny!" she would gasp as the poodle lunged across an intersection. “Oh! Oh, not again!” she would plead when she saw that he was headed for a wretched mongrel, a sort of Pekingese, which lived in Gary’s Drug. Even when she was not actually calling out, Mrs. Harris’ face was a naked appeal. She always looked flushed and moist, even in the bitter dry winter weather; she was always quite breathless as she ran down the street. People went out of their way to help her, picking up parcels she dropped and mailing her letters when Ronny wouldn’t let her stop at the box. From time to time, Mrs. Harris would try to restrain the dog by laying both hands firmly on the leash. “Now, Ronny. Now, really, Ronny!” It was a fruitless attempt. On she would go, fluttering with a kind of excitement, of gaiety, like the tail of a runaway kite. There was really no contest between her and the dog. That seemed quite shameless to Lillian. At last, after prolonged sniffing, the poodle would choose his place, lift his flounced leg, and gaze off haughtily into the distance. Mrs. Harris, the leash at last slack in her hand, would stand panting, gazing off, too, with an expression of vague disdain while the hot urine splashed and smoked on the sidewalk. Lillian thought she might at least turn her back.
“Of course, she is a new widow,” Lillian’s mother said whenever Mrs. Harris was mentioned, as though that explained everything. Mrs. St. George was fond of categories; she knew what to expect of brides, and adolescents, and eleven-year-olds, and it was mortifying to Lillian that her mother’s expectations were seldom disappointed. But she did not believe her mother had Mrs. Harris pinned down; there was something so lively and strange, almost frightening, about the lady. “Of course, she would have a dog, living alone; think how nervous she must be,” Mrs. St. George would say, although she herself (perhaps because of her category: she was married, and strongly attached) had never known a moment of fear.
Then, one morning in January, when Lillian was on her way to school, she had a conversation, really her first, with Mrs. Harris. Lillian couldn’t help noticing that Mrs. Harris was not dressed. She had on a coat and one of her turbans, but a wispy fringe of something, a white, lacy edge, hung down her leg. Mrs. Harris held on to a lamppost with one hand and talked to Lillian while the dog strained at the leash. “Out early!” Mrs. Harris exclaimed, nodding brightly. “Off to school so early?”
“Yes,” Lillian said. She kept staring at the lace which trailed down Mrs. Harris’ bare calf.
“Oh, well, at your age But I always hated to get up early!” she amended, cutting across one of Mrs. St. George’s categories.
“Oh, I don’t mind,” Lillian said gallantly, although in fact it was difficult for her to get up in the morning. She remembered how the Sloan boy had said, “Oh, I don’t mind,” after he had related spending half an hour fixing Mrs. Harris’ can opener. “I don’t have to leave this early if I take the bus,” Lillian confided. “But I sort of like walking down Beacon Street, when it’s fine.”
“Oh, yes,” Mrs. Harris said, quite vaguely. “Oh, yes, don’t you?” She seemed to be studying Lillian, for some purpose of her own. “Please. Ronny,” she said when the dog gave a wrench. Then she looked at Lillian brightly. “Tell me, do you think you could hold him?”
Lillian felt quite warm toward her. She laid her books down on the sidewalk and reached for the leather leash. She looped it twice around her hand (she was a strong girl, for her age) and then planted her feet and let the dog pull his best. He couldn’t budge her; she simply planted her feet and leaned.
“Strong,” Mrs. Harris said, looking pleased. “Good and strong! How old, did you say?”
“I’ll be twelve in June.”
“Think your mother would object to your making a little money?”
Lillian was won. Of course she would object! She smiled at Mrs. Harris. “You mean for walking the dog?”
“Well, if you could help me out, in the mornings. I do hale to get up early!”
So it was arranged. Lillian was to be paid a dollar a week, for seven mornings of work; seven half hours, she calculated. I he pay was not particularly generous, but she thought her mother might be impressed by her willingness to get up and walk the dog; impressed to the point, perhaps, of letting her have a dog of her own. Besides, there was something private and a little exciting about the arrangement.
She expected her mother to object. She was actually looking forward to it. But when she told her the plan. Mrs. St. George only looked surprised. “Well, you must have made a hit with her,” she said, rather pleased. “After all, she is a new widow,” she added, to include this most recent development in the category, “and she must be lonely.” Then she began to look somber, and Lillian thought the argument was coming. “Listen to me,” her mother said. “ “Take the dog and walk it, but don’t go hanging around in her house.”
“ There won’t be any reason to go in.”
“Well, she’s a lonely woman. I don’t want you put upon. Of course, be polite and nice, and take the dog and walk it. But no lounging around in the house, you understand?”
Lillian agreed, rather disappointed by the triviality of the requirement. She hardly expected Mrs. Harris to invite her in.
EVERY morning from then on, at precisely eight o’clock, Lillian would cross the street and tap the greenish brass knocker on the door of number eleven. At once, inside the house, the poodle would give tongue. Gradually the barking would approach, and Lillian learned to know its modulations as doors were opened, steps descended, and the hall attained. Although she never saw the inside of the house, she had a strong impression of it, from the barking; of long, narrow halls, dark landings, and stuffy little rooms where the dog’s barking burst like an explosion. At last Mrs. Harris, rather pale and bedraggled, would peer out the little window beside the door. When she saw that it was really Lillian, she would open the door a crack and thrust the end of the leash through, calling, “Here he is!” A struggle would follow as Lillian tried to drag the dog through the narrow slit. Forced to open the door a little wider, Mrs. Harris would stand aside, clutching at her robe and prodding the dog with her satin slipper. “Out, sirrah! Out!” Finally, with a bound like a tiger’s, the poodle would clear the steps, and Mrs. Harris would slam the door behind him, so hard that Lillian could hear the crystals clacking on the hall chandelier.
Then she was off for her run. It was quite easy for her to control the big dog, and she enjoyed the little preliminary struggle. There was never any question of who would win. A few sharp jerks on the leash, a command uttered in a voice of authority, and the poodle would come rather raggedly to heel. Occasionally, in the Common, Lillian would give him a little leeway, only to snatch him in again when he began to pull. The poodle grew abashed and obedient, lifted his leg on a certain tree, and hardly seemed the same great brute which hauled Mrs. Harris down the street in the afternoon. Lillian was quite proud of her accomplishment.
Now and then her mother would ask if Mrs. Harris ever invited her in Lillian wished she could say that she knew the inside of number eleven like the palm of her hand, but it was not given her to test her mother on that score; she had never seen anything but the little white entrance hall and a slip of staircase beyond. Even on payday. Mrs. Harris pushed the dollar bill through the crack of the door. Lillian thought she might have been a little more outgoing; after all, they were neighbors, she was not just anyone’s child. Finally she realized that Mrs. Harris thought she was rewarded enough simply by being used. “You are such a help to me,” Mrs. Harris would say when they met on the street in the afternoon. “I simply don’t know how I’d get along without you!” In spite of herself, Lillian would beam.
So when she found out about Mrs. Harris — that was the way Lillian put it to herself: I have found out about Mrs. Harris — she was a little hurt, in her pride. For Mrs. Harris was using her for more than they had agreed.
THAT particular Monday, when she went to get the dog, Lillian tapped and tapped the knocker and finally rang the bell (although that was not their signal; the bell was for delivery boys), and still no one came to the door. Inside the house, two rooms away, she calculated, the poodle barked and barked in mounting frenzy. She could hear him leaping up against a closed door, could hear his toenails scraping. A strange fear came over her as she waited; her hands grew damp, she stamped in her boots, and wondered if she should go away. There was something frightening about the silence ol the house and the privacy of its closed stone face. It did not occur to her that something had happened to Mrs. Harris; in that case, she would have known what to do. Instead, she began to feel that the little lady was watching her from one of the small, winking windows high up in the house; watching her, and waiting impatiently for her to give up and go home.
That made Lillian stubborn. She would find out what was going on, she thought, using a phrase of her mother’s, and so she banged and banged on the door. At last she heard footsteps approaching, although the poodle still bayed and jumped inside the closed inner room. The door opened a crack, and she saw a man wearing a pair of blue pajamas.
“What is it?” he asked, ill-naturedly. He looked as though he had just been violently awakened.
“The dog— I’m supposed to walk him,” Lillian said, abashed.
“Oh, you’re the little girl.” And he closed the door. Lillian waited uncertainly, shifting from foot to foot, and gradually the strangeness of the thing wore through to her. She stepped back and looked up at the stone face of the house, bland in the bright morning sun. She thought a white curtain twitched, high up in a window, but she couldn’t be sure. Then the door opened and the poodle bounded out.
She went around that day in a dream. She knew how to draw conclusions; she was not, in her rational mind, confused by what she had seen. “After all, she is a new widow, and lonely,” as her mother would say. Yet the explanation did not quite cover the fear she felt, the confusion, when she thought of the man in the blue pajamas. She tried to remember whether he was blond or dark, old or young, but she couldn’t even make up her mind whether or not he had been wearing slippers. He was a stranger, to her, an intruder in that quiet house. And the two houses were so close; from her mother’s bedroom window Lillian could see the mirror glinting on Mrs. Harris’ dressing table. She felt it was an affront, and she was frightened, as she was when sometimes late at night she woke to hear the fire engines screaming, and knew that destruction was loose in that street of quiet houses.
That evening, when they were washing the dishes, Lillian asked her mother about Mr. Harris.
“You ought to remember him,” Mrs. St. George said. “He hasn’t been dead two years.”
“I don’t even remember what he looked like.”
“He was a funny little dried-up man, considerably older than his wife, by my guess,” her mother began, relishing each detail. “A funny little old man, very precise, with a rolled umbrella. He used to take great pride in the house; his window boxes won the prize nearly every year. Don’t you remember how he used to come out in the morning to water the petunias?”
“No,” Lillian said.
“He never missed a day — except, I guess, when it rained. And then, they used to say, he was the one who took care of the house: put on a big apron and did the silver, even got down on his hands and knees to scrub the floor.”
“Then what did she do?”
Mrs. St. George shrugged. “Oh, flitted around, I guess. She was always coming back with big boxes from Bonwit Teller.”
None of this was very satisfactory for Lillian. It did not seem to apply to what she had seen. Cautiously, she asked. “Why doesn’t she get married again? I mean, she’s still pretty young.”
Her mother looked at her. “Little pitchers,” she said gloomily. “What have you been hearing?”
The threat passed. “Who do I know that would talk about Mrs. Harris? I was just wondering why she doesn’t get married again.”
“Well, it’s not the law of the jungle,” Mrs. St. George said irritably.
“I just don’t know what she does all day,” Lillian explained, realizing too late that this, too, was one of her mother’s phrases. Mrs. St. George disliked laziness in women.
With a jerk, her mother undid her white apron. “Just sits around all day and reads the magazines, I guess,” she said. “That woman doesn’t amount to much.”
Lillian let the conversation drop. She did not like her mother to be unjust. It made it seem as though she, too, was querulous, uneasy— threatened.
A WEEK passed. Lillian did not know how to get out of walking the dog — she was afraid it would involve a scene with Mrs. Harris—and so she went on taking Ronny out, although she hardly liked to think that she made it possible for Mrs. Harris to lie half an hour longer in bed with the man in the blue pajamas. Lillian blamed herself for not guessing before — after all, she was going on twelve — that there was some reason for Mrs. Harris’ late-lying other than natural laziness. Or perhaps the reason was just a variation of natural laziness; and she thought of the edge of white lace she had once seen trailing down Mrs. Harris’ calf. Her own mother was up and dressed by seven o’clock every morning. Even on holidays, she was up half an hour before Lillian’s father, and down in the kitchen getting breakfast in her crackling white apron.
Now by eight o’clock in the morning the sunlight was warm and definite, and Lillian could feel it on her back through her thick coat. Ronny pranced down the steaming paths in the Common, danced on his little black devil’s hooves; grown vigorous with the good weather, he put up a renewed fight. This time Lillian cut a little switch and used it to break his spirit. Mrs. Harris, too, bloomed at that time; when she came to the door in the morning, she wore a bright yellow housecoat which did not cover her knees. In the window beside the front door, she had put a little pot of hyacinths, and every morning, while she waited for the dog, Lillian checked on the progress of the bulbs. At last, in late April, the first hyacinth bloomed, but it was too purple for Lillian’s taste. She never saw the man in the blue pajamas, but she knew he was in the house, because of the pot of hyacinths and Mrs. Harris’ new yellow housecoat.
Then, one Sunday in May, the unimaginable happened: Mrs. Harris invited her in. “Come in and have a cup of coffee,” she said, so reasonably Lillian couldn’t refuse, although she was frightened. She followed Mrs. Harris into the dim, shabby front hall, and then to the kitchen, which was in grand disorder. Bright sunlight fell on a waste of unwashed dishes and soaking pans. Mrs. Harris sat down on a high stool at the kitchen table and leaned on her elbows.
Lillian waited uncertainly. The faucet was dripping in the sink, and sunlight flickered on stainless steel and grimy linoleum. Mrs. Harris sat motionless, staring at a splash of egg which had dried on the kitchen table. She looked as though she were composing something in her mind; she was completely absorbed. At last Lillian noticed that the percolator was on the stove, and she went over and turned on the gas.
After a while, when the coffee was hot, she asked timidly, “Shall I pour you a cup?”
Mrs. Harris raised her head and looked at Lillian, as though she had forgotten that she had invited her in. “It’s very bad coffee,” she said. “I made it yesterday, and it was bad even then.”
Lillian looked around rather frantically for a cup. She found two, not yet dry, in the drainer.
“I meant to tell you, you don’t need to walk Ronny irom now on,” Mrs. Harris said, watching her pour the coffee.
To her surprise, Lillian felt disappointed, even angry. What right had this woman suddenly to cut her off? “But I want to keep on. I need the dollar,” she added, to make it more reasonable. “I want to keep on,” she repeated angrily.
“I’ll walk him myself, from now on; do me good to get out,” Mrs. Harris said. She stared at the coffee cup which Lillian had put in front of her. Then she picked up the sugar bowl and poured half its contents into the cup. “I guess you know he’s left me,” she said.
Lillian stood with her back to the stove, as far away from the woman as she could get. “I know you hate getting up early,” she said.
Mrs. Harris laughed. It was quite a human laugh, quite normal, to Lillian’s surprise. “Well, I won’t mind getting up early so much now,” Mrs. Harris said. “It was him, mainly, that objected.”
Lillian refused to pay any attention to that. “It’s still awfully cold in the mornings,” she said.
“Cold, is it?” Mrs. Harris asked. “In May?” And then she began to cry. She sat straight up on the stool and cried without a sound; tears ran down her cheeks and gathered on her chin.
Lillian offered her a piece of Kleenex. “It’s clean,” she said, holding it out, but Mrs. Harris did not take it. She sat crying without even trying to hide her face, and the tears ran in two rivers down her cheeks to her chin.
“Oh, my,” she said, after a while. “Oh, my, oh, my,” and she got up and wiped her face on a dirty dishcloth.
When she turned around, her face was shining. The tears seemed to have polished her skin; she looked young and fresh, like a girl. She smiled at Lillian shyly. “Such a scene!” she said. “I must have made you frantic.”And she picked up her coffee cup and drained it at a gulp. Then she found her purse in a cabinet and paid Lillian her final dollar.
“Shall I walk Ronny this morning?” Lillian asked. She did not think Mrs. Harris was in any condition to go outside, with her face shining like
that, all exposed.
“All right,” Mrs. Harris said, not appreciating the offer, and she went and got Ronny and gave him to Lillian.
In the park, which was deserted because it was early and a Sunday, Lillian walked the dog up and down between the flower beds. The transplanted tulips were set like spikes in the sodden ground, which smelled strong and rank and sour after the rain. As she walked up and down, Lillian thought of Mrs. Harris crying without even trying to hide her face. How indecent it seemed, to sit and cry and then drink a cup of coffee. Lillian knew that Mrs. Harris had enjoyed the scene; she could imagine her crying in that same way, gloriously, unshamed, when the man walked out. Her tears seemed terribly wrong to Lillian, terribly wrong and strange — a luxury; and her will set against everything she had seen, even while she felt tremulous, almost feverish, from it. At that moment, Ronny tugged at the leash — he had seen a squirrel across the Common — and for once, on purpose, Lillian let him drag her a few steps. He pulled hard, and her feet in her brown oxford shoes were jerked almost off the ground, and she skittered. For two steps, or, at the most, three; and then she reined him in. It was all she felt she could stand.