Port of Embarkation

A story by Elizabeth Spencer

It was on the afternoon of the day my father went back to his unit and thence to overseas service in World War II that I saw the horses. They were coming up the hill from the held, and all I could see first was the delicately scalloped, chestnut tips of their four ears all set forward, which showed their effort, one pair lower than the other. Then their forelocks and long, down-plunging, toiling heads rose to view, the chins dipped low and lather from the bit splashing down, to foam across the twinned chests. I saw the black harness, heard the shout of the driver, and had the impression of a heavily laden wagon, though who the driver was—somebody working for us? a stranger?—and what the wagon carried, I did not know.

The team of great strong chestnut horses lingered in my mind’s vision even after I woke on the bed in the far corner of the sleeping porch where I had gone to cry myself to sleep, not wanting anyone to see my tears. The hill up from the field was blocked from my view by the whole of the house which lay between. But caught in the dream, I lay still in the afternoon July heat, willing for a time for it to extend its power. There was indeed a moment of further increase when I knew that the nearer horse had white-stockinged hind legs, and that the hill, though steep, was nothing to the power of the team which nobly crested it.

And this was all.

In the center of the house I ran into my mother, who also showed signs of having been crying, but who at once asked where my brother was. He had said he was going somewhere. but I had forgotten where. We went into the kitchen together, trying to act as if it were any other day—we were a reserved kind of family—and found that my brother had already gotten into the lunch and had eaten most of it. We would have to scramble eggs, or drive uptown to the grocery, and we preferred not to have to go out and talk to people. An alternative was to locate my brother and get him to bring us something, but this would undoubtedly provoke a quarrel between hint and my mother. My brother was stubborn and seemed to be unfeeling with us all. but 1 had caught the worst of his nature, for. being smaller and younger I was the object of bullying and threats.

In the hallway to which I had returned, to look past the white front porch, across the positive, relentless sun glare of the yard, toward the fall of the hill, to where I had dreamed the horses ascending, I could hear my mother’s and brother’s voices. Though he had missed my father’s departure with us in the car to the airport, he had been somewhere around, it would seem, all the time.

“That food you got into, that was mine and Estelle’s lunch. You knew that, didn’t you?”

“No. I didn’t know it. How would I?”

“You must have heard us say we didn’t want to go out. we’d have a cold lunch, I’d make the potato salad and an aspic, then stuff some eggs. You said you wouldn’t be here. There’s not enough left for one, now, much less both of us.”

“Can’t you just fix some more?”

“I certainly don’t want to. I guess I can . . .” The down-turning of their encounter was like fire in a log smothering down to smoke; then (1 knew it would come by the tension in my middle), my mother’s voice flared up like flame.

“Why can’t you be more considerate! That’s all I ever want to know. You’re the man of the house now. Your father told you that, last night at dinner. We’d like to count on you, we need to count on you. but you . . . ! What do you care?”

“The way you tell it. I don’t care about nothing.”

“Do you? I’d dearly love to know.”

“What you want me to do? You want me to go uptown and get something for your nourishment?”

My mother started crying. He was that sarcastic. “Oh, we’ll manage. We’ll manage somehow.”

Mother eventually found a can of crabmeat and made another salad and we sat down to a good lunch. Iced tea, crisp and lemony brown, is comforting after you’ve been crying, especially on a hot day. It soothes out your feelings.

“We’re going to be stuck here all summer.” I remarked. “with the way he acts. It’s all on purpose,” I added, which was not a good thought to give her.

She put her hand to her head. “I think he has problems,” she said. “I think something worries him deep down.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“How do we know each other’s problems unless we tell them? How do I know? Maybe there’s some girl he likes who doesn’t like him, maybe he doesn’t know what to do with himself, maybe he hates it about your father and doesn’t want to show it.”

“Maybe he’s just mean and doesn’t like us and wants to show that.”

“I wish you wouldn’t talk like that,” Mother said. She looked frail and she was upset, but she could come out with things full force. “It may interest you to know. Missy, that I love you both the same, I’ve always said that, and it’s true. Your brother knows I love him. He’d have to know that.”

That afternoon Mother and 1 went to the picture show in a neighboring town. Our town was too small to have anything but a fleabag for a movie house, so we generally went over to a larger town. The larger towns, having more pavement and less shade, were hotter than our own. We parked between two white slanted lines, each a paintbrush wide, and walked to the movie house. The sidewalk burned through the soles of our shoes.

“If anybody sees us and asks,” Mother said, “I’m going to say we went just to get our minds off everything.”

“I’ll say that too,” I said.

Movies in those days were not, I think, air-conditioned, but they were air-cooled, which was not a bad substitute. They had large concealed fans, almost silent, which blew over ice, so that a constant breeze was stirring, moist and pleasant. If something in this apparatus broke, as it sometimes did, you sat there in the dark, sweltering and wondering whether or not the movie was interesting enough to hold you in discomfort.

That day nothing broke and the movie, Up in Arms, with Danny Kaye and Dinah Shore, seemed to be making the war a great big joke. We were complete suckers for what they were doing and sat there shaking with laughter.

When we went out together we heard a voice from the lobby where a wave of hot air was coming in through the front door which the matinee crowd was pushing open.

“Hey, wasn’t that swell?”

It was my brother, standing in a knot of other boys. He was laughing and talking out to us. Mother stood stock still when she saw him and I almost laughed out loud, not at the movie, but at

them, because she was good and ready in her mind to bless him out for going to a movie the day his father went to port of embarkation, but

then, there she was herself. The only difference was that she had her excuse ready and he, undoubtedly, did not.

“Got a ride home now,” Brother said to the boys he was with. He came over to us. “Lemme tag a ride,”he said. Then he flung an arm around each of us. You could think he was showing off for the benefit of the boys. But. as always with him. you couldn’t altogether tell why he was doing anything. He was just doing it. that was all. “I’ll buy you girls a coke,” he said.

We went next door to a little hamburger shop and sat at a booth. We ordered cokes and glasses of ice, the way we all liked them. Then we went to the car, where hot air had to be let out before we could even get in; and Brother drove us home.

All during the time we had been sitting and drinking the cokes together he had kept laughing and talking about the movie. “It’s that scat singing,” he said. “I can’t see how he does it, ‘less they speed up the sound track. I tried it but it didn’t work.”

“You tried to sing!” my mother exclaimed. “I never knew you to sing a note,”

“Oh, I got talents. I got lots of talents.” He was laughing at both of us. We might have been people he knew slightly. He was almost sixteen and I was just twelve.

After supper that night my father telephoned to cheer us up. “I been talking to some of the other officers,” he said. “They don’t see how the war can go on more than another year at the most. I may not even get there.”

I was on one phone. Mother on the other, but we couldn’t get my brother to hear us as he was moving the furniture in his room, making an awful racket. Wasn’t it important that they spoke? No matter what my father said, we all knew the war was reaching its height. He was heading straight to its heart.

“What’s going on there?”

“It’s Brother,” Mother said. “He’s started changing his room around. Wait, I’m going to call him again.”

“There’re a hundred people lined up to use this phone. I’ve got to get off it in three minutes or my name is mud. Listen, Ginny, you and Estelle both, don’t bother that boy.”

“We’re going to try to do everything right,” Mother said. “Don’t you worry, not about anything.”

“You let him be his own way. Just let him be.”

“I promise, Nat. Oh, I do!”

Then we were hollering goodbye, this morning all over again, until the phone clicked off. From my brother’s room, immediately after the click, something fell and smashed.

My mother and I rubbed ourselves with 6-12 and went to sit out on the porch in the dark. We hadn’t done much of anything, but I felt tired to death.

Neighbors’ lights glowed through the trees. Down the hill, the fields slept densely under dewfall. Lightning bugs drifted against a black row of bushes at the field’s distant edge. In all that lay out there, I knew the road where I had seen the horses in my dream was rising up as it always did, but I couldn’t make it out.

“I had this dream this morning after Daddy left,” I said. I told her about the horses, the wagon and driver.

She didn’t say anything, and I wondered if I should have mentioned it. I hadn’t tried to think what it meant, if anything.

Finally she said, “It’s funny what you dream.” I wondered whether she would ever think of it again. Maybe she would.

We heard a door slam above us and my brother’s heavy steps, coming downstairs. I felt the powerful sway of her promise to my father on the phone, his demand for it all the greater by coming through from afar, as though from an unseeable beyond: Let him be his own way. Just let him be.

I heard her talking to herself, whispering that she would try. □