Beyond the age of twelve, we were farmed out in the summer by the old woman to get a taste of life and the rudiments of earning. Even before, she had found something for me to do. There was a morning class for feeble-minded children, and when I had left Georgie in school I reported to Sylvester’s Star Theatre to distribute handbills. Grandma had arranged this with Sylvester’s father whom she knew from the old people’s arbor in the park.
If it got to our rear flat that the weather was excellent⎯warm and still, she liked it⎯she would go to her room and put on her corset, relic of when she was fuller, and her black dress. Mama would pour her a bottle of tea. Then in a chapeau of flowers and a furpiece of tails locked on her shoulder with badger claws, she went to the park. With a book she never intended to read. There was too much talk in the arbor for that. It was a place where marriages were made. A year or so after the old atheist’s death, Mrs. Anticol found herself a second husband there. This old widower traveled down from Iowa City for just that purpose, and when they were married the news came back that he kept her locked a prisoner in his house and made her sign away all rights to legacy. Grandma did not pretend to be sorry; she said, “Poor Bertha,” but with the humor she was a crackerjack at, as thin and full of play as fiddle wire, and she took herself credit for not going in for that kind of second marriage. I quit thinking long ago that all old people came to rest from the things they were out for in their younger years. That was what she wanted us to believe, “an old baba like me,” and accordingly we took her at her word to be old disinterested wisdom who had put by her vanity. But if she never got a marriage offer, I’m not prepared to say it made no difference to her. She couldn’t have been so sold on Anna Karenina for nothing, or another favorite of hers I ought to mention, Manon Lescaut and when she was feeling sharp she bragged about her waist and hips, so since she never gave up any glory or influence that I know of I can see it wasn’t only from settled habit that she went into her bedroom to lace on her corset and wind up her hair, but to take the eye of a septuagenarian Vronsky or De Grieux. I sometimes induced myself to see, beyond her spotty yellowness and her wrinkles and dry bangs, a younger and resentful woman in her eyes.
But whatever she was after for herself, in the arbor, she wasn’t forgetting us, and she got me the handbill job through old Sylvester, called The Baker because he wore white ducks and white golfer’s cap. He had palsy, thus the joke of his making rolls, but he was clean, brief-spoken, serious in the aim of his bloodshot eyes, reconciled, with a piece of nerve that was copied straight into the curve of his white horse-shoe of moustache, to the shortness of his days. I suppose her pitch with him was as usual, about the family she was protecting, and Sylvester took me to see his son, a young fellow whom money or family anxiety always seemed to make sweat blackly. Something, his shadow business and the emptiness of the seats at two o’clock, the violinist playing for him and the operator in the projection box alone, made it awful for him and misery to come across with my two bits. He said, “I’ve had kids who shoved the bills down the sewer. Too bad if I ever find out about it, and I have ways to check up.” So I knew that he might follow me along a block of the route and kept watch in the streets for his head with the weak hair of baldness and, coming out of hallways, for his worry-wounded eyes, as brown as a bear’s. “I’ve got a couple of tricks myself, for any punk who thinks he’s going to pull a fast one.” But when he believed I was trustworthy, and at first I was, following his directions about rolling the bills and sticking them into the brass mouthpieces over the bells, not fouling up the mailboxes and getting him in dutch with the postoffice, he treated me to seltzer and Turkish delight and said he was going to make a ticket-taker of me when I grew a little taller, or put me in charge of the popcorn machine he was thinking of getting; and one of these years he was going to hire a manager while he went back to Armour Institute to finish his engineering degree. He had only a couple of years to go and his wife was after him to do it. He took me for my senior, I suppose, to tell me this, as the people at the dispensary did, and as often happened. I didn’t entirely understand him.
But anyway, he was just a little deceived in me, for when he told me his other boys had dumped bills down the sewer, I felt I couldn’t do less either, and watched for my chance. Or gave out wads to the kids in George’s dummy-room when I came at noon to fetch him at the penal-looking school built in the identical brick with the ice-house and the casket factory which were its biggest neighbors. It had the great gloom inside of clinks the world over, with ceilings the eye had to try for and wood floors trailed with marching. Summers, one corner of it was kept open for the feeble-minded and, coming in, you traded the spray of the ice-house for the snipping, cooing hubbub of paperchain making and the commands of teachers. I sat on the stairs and divided the remaining bills, and when class let out Georgie helped me get rid of them. Then I took him by the hand and led him home.
Much as he loved Winnie, he was scared of strange dogs and, as he carried her scent, drew them. They were always sniffing his legs and I took to carrying stones to pitch at them.
This was my last idle summer. The next, as soon as the term was over, Simon was sent up to work as a bell-hop in a resort hotel in Michigan and I went to the Coblins’ on the North Side to help Coblin with his newspaper route. I had to move there, for the papers came into the shed at four in the morning and we lived better than half an hour away on the street-car. But it wasn’t exactly as though I were passing into strange hands, for Anna Coblin was my mother’s cousin and I was accordingly treated as a relative. Hyman Coblin came for me in his Ford; George howled when I left the house; he had a way of demonstrating the feelings Mama could not show under ban of the old woman, who had hired me out. George had to be shut up in the parlor, where I sat him down by the stove. But Cousin Anna wept enough for everybody and plastered me with kisses at the door of her bungalow, seeing me dog-dumb with the heartbreak of leaving home—a very temporary kind of emotion for me and almost, as it were, borrowed from Mama who saw her sons drafted untimely into hardships. But Anna Coblin, who had led the negotiations for me, cried the most. Her feet were bare, her hair enormous and her black dress misbuttoned. “I’ll treat you like my own boy,” she promised, “my own Howard.” She took my canvas laundry-bag from me and put me in Howard’s room, between the kitchen and the toilet.
Howard had taken a powder. Together with Joe Kinsman, the undertaker’s son, he had lied about his age and enlisted in the Marine Corps. The families were trying to get them out, but in the meantime they had been shipped to Nicaragua and were fighting Sandino and his rebels. She grieved terribly, as if he were dead already. And as she had great size and terrific energy of constitution, she produced all kinds of excesses. Even physical ones: moles, blebs, hairs, bumps in her forehead, huge concentration in her neck; she had spiraling reddish hair springing with no negligible beauty and definiteness from her scalp, tangling as it widened up and out, cut ducktail fashion in the back and scrawled out high above her ears. Originally strong, her voice was crippled by weeping and asthma and the whites of her eyes coppery from the same causes, a burning morose face, piteous, and her spirit untamed by thoughts or the remote considerations that can reconcile people to awfuller luck than she had. Because, said Grandma Lausch, cutting her case down to scale with her usual satisfaction in the essential, what did she want, a woman like that? Her brothers found her a husband, bought him a business, she had two children in her own house and a few pieces of real-estate besides. She might still be in the millinery factory where she started out, in a loft on Wabash Avenue. That was the observation we heard after Cousin Anna had come to talk to her—as one comes to a wise woman; amassed herself into a suit, hat, shoes, and sat at the kitchen table looking at herself in the mirror as she spoke, not casually, but steadily, sternly, with wrathful comment, even at the bitterest, even when her mouth was at the widest stretch of tears, she went on watching. Mama, her head wrapped in a bandana, was singeing a chicken at the gas plate.
“Daragaya, nothing will happen to your son; he’ll come back,” said the old woman while Anna sobbed. “Other mothers have their sons there.”
“I told him to stop going with the undertaker’s. What kind of a friend was that for him? He dragged him into it.”
She had the Kinsmans down for death-breeders, and I found out that she made a detour of blocks when shopping so that she wouldn’t pass Kinsman’s parlors, though she had always boasted before that Mrs. Kinsman, a big, fresh, leery looking woman was a lodge-sister and friend of hers—the rich Kinsmans. Coblin’s uncle, a bank officer, was buried out of Kinsman’s, and Friedl Coblin and Kinsman’s daughter went to the same elocution teacher. She had the impediment of Moses whose hand the watching angel guided to the coal, Friedl, and she carried her stuttering into fluency, later. Years after, at a football game where I was selling hot dogs, I heard her; she didn’t recognize me in the white hat of the day, but I remembered coaching her in “When the Frost is on the Punkin.” And also Cousin Anna’s oath that I should marry her when I was grown. It was in her tears of welcome when she pressed me on the porch of the bungalow that day. “Hear, Owgest, you’ll be my son, my daughter’s husband, mein kind!” At this moment she had once more given Howard up for dead. But she kept this project of marriage going all the time. When I cut my hand while sharpening the lawn mower she said, “It’ll heal before your wedding day,” and then, “It’s better to marry somebody you’ve known all your life, I swear. Nothing worse than strangers. You hear me? Hear!” So she had the future mapped because little Friedl so resembled her that she lived with foreknowledge of her difficulty; she herself had had to be swept over it by the rude providence of her brothers. No mother to help her. And probably she felt that if her brothers had not found a husband for her, she would have been destroyed by the choked power of her instincts, deprived of children. And the tears to shed for them would have drowned her as sure as the water of Ophelia’s brook. The sooner married the better. Where Anna hailed from, there was no encouragement of childhood anyhow. Her own mother had been married at thirteen or fourteen, and Friedl therefore had only four or five years to go. Anna herself had exceeded this age-limit by fifteen at least, the last few, I imagine, of fearful grief, before Coblin married her. Accordingly she was already on campaign, every young boy a prospect, for I assume I was not the only one but, for the time being, the most available. And Friedl was being groomed with music and dancing lessons as well as elocution and going into the best society obtainable. No reason but this would have made Anna belong to a lodge, she was too gloomy and house-haunting a woman, and it needed a great purpose to send her to benefits and bazaars.
To anybody who snubbed her child she was a terrible enemy and spread damaging rumors. “The piano teacher told me herself. Every Saturday it was the same story when she went to give Minnie Carson her lesson, Mister tried to pull her behind the door with him.” Whether true or not, it soon became her conviction. It made no difference who confronted her or whether the teacher came to plead with her to stop. But the Carsons had not invited Friedl to a birthday party and got themselves an enemy of Corsican rigor and pure absorption.
And now that Howard had run away, all her enemies were somehow implicated as hell’s agents and deputies and she lay in bed crying and cursing them, “O God, Master of the Universe, may their hands and feet wither and their heads dry out,” and other grandiose things, everyday language to her. As she lay in the summer light, tempered by the shades and the catalpa of the front yard, flat on her back with compresses, towels, rags, she had a considerable altitude of trunk, the soles of her feet shining in the sheets like graphite rubbings, feet of war disasters in the ruined villages of the Peninsular campaign; flies riding in echelon on the long string of the light-switch. While she panted and butchered on herself with pains and fears. She had the will of a martyr to carry a mangled head in paradise till doomsday, in the suffering mother’s band led by Eve and Hannah. For Anna was terribly religious and had her own ideas of time and place, so that Heaven and eternity were not too far, for she had things segmented, flattened down and telescoped like the stages and floors of the Leaning Tower, while Nicaragua was at a distance double the circumference of the world, where that bantam Sandino⎯and who he was to her is outside my power to imagine⎯was killing her son.
The filth of the house, meantime, and particularly of the kitchen, was stupendous. But nevertheless, swollen and fire-eyed, slow on her feet, shouting incomprehensibly on the telephone, and her face as if lit by that gorgeous hair which finally advanced her into royalty, she somehow kept up with her duties. She had meals on time for her men, she saw to it that Friedl practised and rehearsed, that the money collected was checked, counted, sorted and the coins rolled when Coblin wasn’t on hand to attend to it himself; that the new orders were taken promptly.
“Der . . . jener . . . Owgest, the telephone ringt. Hear! Don’t forget to tell them it’s now extra the Saturday afternoon paper!”
And when I tried to blow on Howard’s saxophone, I learned how quickly she could get out of bed and cover the house. She tore into the room and snatched it from me, yelling, “Already they’re taking his things away from him!” in a way that made the skin gather down my head the length of the neck. And I saw where a son-in-law, granted, only a prospective one, ranked with regard to her son. She did not forgive me that day, notwithstanding that she knew she had scared me. But I reckon that I looked less wounded than I felt and she assumed I had no sense of penitence. What really is more like it is that I had no grudge-bearing power, unlike Simon with his old South honor and his codo-duello dangerous easiness that was his specialty of the time. Besides, how could you keep a grudge against anyone so stupendous? And even when she pulled the saxophone out of my hands she was hunting her reflection in the small mirror atop of the long chest of drawers. But I went down to the cellar where the storm-windows and the tools were and there, after I decided I wouldn’t cut out for home just yet only to be sent back by Grandma Lausch, I became interested in why the toilet trickled, took the lid off the water box and passed my time below there tinkering while the floor of the kitchen bowed and crunched.
That would be Five Properties shambling through the cottage, Anna’s brother and the male of her breed, an immense man, long armed and humped, head grown off the thick band of muscle on his back as original as a bole, hair tender and greenish brown, eyes completely green, clear, estimating, primitive and sardonic, an Eskimo smile of primitive simplicity opening on Eskimo teeth buried in high gums, kidding, gleeful and unfrank; a big-footed contender for wealth. He drove a dairy truck, one of these electric jobs where the driver stood up like a helmsman, the bottles and wood and wire cases clashing like wild. He took me around his route a few times and paid me half a buck for helping him hustle empties. When I tried to handle a full case, he felt me up, ribs, thighs and arms⎯this was something he loved to do⎯and said, “Not yet, you got to wait yet,” lugging it off himself and crashing it down beside the ice-box. He was the life of the quiet little lard-smelly Polish groceries he covered, punching it out or grappling in fun with the owners, head to head; or swearing in Italian at the Italians: ”Fungoo!” and measuring off a chunk of stiff arm at them. He gave himself an awful lot of delight. And he was very shrewd, his sister said. Five years ago he had done a small part in the ruin of empires, driving wagons of Russian and German corpses to burial on Polish farms; and now he had money in the bank, he had stock in the dairy, and he had picked up in the theater the fat swagger of the suitor everyone hated:
“Five prope’ties. Plente money.”
Of a Sunday morning, when the balloon peddlers were tootling in the sweetness and calm of the leafy street and blue sky, he came down to breakfast in a white suit, picking his teeth finely, Scythian hair stroked down under a straw katie. Nonetheless he had not cast off his weekday milk smell. But how fine he was this morning, windburned and hearty-blooded, teeth, gums and cheeks involved in a bursting grin. He pinched his copper-eyed sister who was sullen with tears.
“Go, breakfast is ready.”
“Five prope’ties, plente money.”
A smile stole over her face which she morosely resisted. But she loved her brother.
“Go! My child is missing. The world is chaos.”
“Don’t be a fool. You’ll have a child yourself, and then you’ll know what wehtig is.”
Five Properties cared absolutely nothing about the absent or the dead and freely said so. Hell with them. He had worn their boots and caps while the stiffs were bouncing in his wagon through shot and explosion. What he had to say was usually on the Spartan or proconsular model, quick and hard. “You can’t go to war without smelling powder.” “If granny had wheels she’d be a cart.” “Sleep with dogs and wake with fleas.” One simple moral in all, amounting to, “You have no one to blame but yourself” or, Frenchywise⎯for I have put in my time in the capital of the world⎯”tu l’as voulu, Georges Dandin.”
Thus you see what views Five Properties must have had on his nephew’s enlistment. But he partly spared his sister.
“What do you want? He wrote you last week.”
“Last week!” said Anna. “And what about meanwhile?”
“Meanwhile he’s got a little Indian girl to tickle and squeeze him.”
“Not my son,” she said directing her eyes to the kitchen mirror.
But in fact it appeared that the boys had found someone to shack up with. Joe Kinsman sent his dad a snapshot of two straighthaired native girls in short skirts and hand in hand, without comment. Kinsman had shown it to Coblin. The fathers weren’t exactly displeased; at least they didn’t see fit to show displeasure to each other. On the contrary. But Cousin Anna didn’t hear of the picture. I’m sure of that but equally sure she didn’t have to be shown it in order to know what Five Properties was telling her, and that undermined her denial.
Coblin had fatherly fears himself, but didn’t share Anna’s rage against Kinsman and kept up the necessary liaison with him at his office, for of course the undertaker couldn’t enter the house. Generally speaking, Coblin’s main lines were outside anyway, and he led a life of movement, steady and square-paced. By comparison with Anna and her brother he appeared small, but he was really a good size himself, sturdy and bald in a dean sweep of all his hair, features also big but rounded and flattened, puffy at the eyes which were given to blinking just about to the point of caricature. If you took this tic with the standard interpretation of meekness⎯well, there are types and habits that develop to beguile the experience of mankind. He was not driven down by Anna or Five Properties or other members of the family. He was something of a sport, he had his own motives and established right of way for them with the nervousness of a man who is likely to be dangerous when he makes a fight. And Anna gave in. Thus his shirts were always laid away in the drawer with strips of whalebone in the collar, and the second breakfast he took when he came back from morning deliveries had to include corn-flakes and hard-boiled eggs.
The meals were of amazing character altogether and in huge quantity⎯Anna was a believer in strong eating. Bowls of macaroni without salt or pepper or butter or sauce, brain stews and lung stews, calves’ foot jelly with bits of calves’ hair and sliced egg, cold pickled fish, crumb-stuffed tripes, canned corn chowder and big bottles of orange pop. All this went well with Five Properties, who spread the butter on his bread with his fingers. Coblin, who ate with better manners, didn’t complain either and seemed to consider it natural. But I know that when he went downtown to a carriers’ meeting he fed differently.
To begin with, he changed from the old check suit in which he did his route with a bagful of papers, like Millet’s Sower, for a new check suit. In his snap-brim detective’s felt and large toed shoes, carrying accounts and a copy of the Tribune for the Gumps, the sports results and the stock quotations⎯he was speculating⎯and also for the gang-war news, keeping up with what was happening around Colossimo and Capone in Cicero and the Northside O’Bannions, that being about the time when O’Bannion was knocked off among his flowers by somebody who kept his gun-hand in a friendly grip. With this, Coblin got on the Ashland car. For lunch he went to a good restaurant, or to Reicke’s for Boston beans and brown bread. Then to the meeting, where the circulation manager gave his talk. Afterwards, pie a-la-mode and coffee at the south end of the Loop, followed by a burlesque show at the Haymarket or Rialto, or one of the cheaper places where farm or Negro girls did the grinds, the more single-purposed, less playful and Parisian houses.
Again, it’s impossible to know what Anna’s idea was of his downtown program. She was, you might say, in a desert, pastoral condition of development and not up to the fancy stage of Belshazzar’s Feast of barbaric later days. For that matter, Coblin wasn’t really up to it either. He was a solid man of relatively low current in his thoughts; he took the best care of his business and wouldn’t overstay downtown to an hour that would make it difficult for him to rise at his regular time, four o’clock. He played the stock market, but that was business. He played poker, but never for more than he carried in his change-heavy pockets. He didn’t have the long distance burrowing vices of people who take you in by mildness and then turn out to have been digging and tunneling all the while⎯as skeptical judges are proud to find when they see well-thought-of heads breaking through the earth in dark places. He was by and large okay with me, although he had his sullen times when he would badger me to get on faster with filling in the Sunday Supplement. That was usually Anna’s effect, when she obtained the widest influence on him and got him on war-footing with her in the smoke of her trenches. But on his own he had an entirely different spirit of private gayness, as exemplified by the time I walked in on him when he was in the bath-tub, lying in the manly state and dripping himself with the sponge in the steamy, steerage-cramped space of the small windowless bathroom. It might have been a heavier thing to ponder that the father of a Marine and of a young daughter, and the husband of Cousin Anna, should be found in so little dignity⎯heavier, I see now, than it actually was. But my thoughts on this head have never had any great severity; I could not see a debauchee where I had always seen Cousin Hyman, largely a considerate and merciful man, generous to me.
In fact they were all generous. Cousin Anna was a saving woman, she sang poor and did not spend much on herself, but she bought me a pair of winter hightops with a jack-knife on the side. And Five Properties loved to bring treats, cases of chocolate milk and flouncy giant boxes of candy, bricks of ice-cream and layer cakes. Both Coblin and he were hipped on superabundance. Whether it was striped silk shirts, or sleeve-garters, or stockings with clocks, dixies in the movies or crackerjacks in the park when they took Friedl and me rowing, they seldom bought less than a dozen, Five Properties with bills, Cousin Hyman with his heaps of coins, just as flush. There was always much money in sight, in cups, glasses and jars and spread on Coblin’s desk. They seemed sure I wouldn’t take any and probably because everything was so lavish I never did. I was easily appealed to in this way, provided that I was given credit for understanding what the set-up was, as when Grandma sent me on a mission. I could put my heart into a counterfeit, too, just so the color was showing that won my interest or affection. So don’t think I’m trying to put over that, handled right, a Cato could have been made of me, or a young Lincoln who tramped three miles of a frontier zero gale to refund a few pennies to a customer. I don’t want to pass for having such legendary presidential stuff. Only those three miles wouldn’t be a hindrance if the right feelings were kindled, “right” not to be confused with honorable. It depended on which way I was drawn.
Home was a dry contrast, neat and polished, on my half days off. At Anna’s the floors were washed on Friday afternoon when she got down from bed and waded barefoot after the strokes of the mop, going forward, and afterwards spread clean papers that soaked and dried and weren’t taken up again till the week was over. Whereas here you smelled the daily cleaning wax and everything was in place on a studious plan⎯veneer shining, doilies spread, dime-store cut-glass, elkhorn, clock set in place⎯as regular as a convent parlor or any place where the love of God is made ready for on a base of domestic neatness and things kept well separated from the sea-composition of brutal and noisy trouble that heaves over every undefended wall. The bed that Simon and I slept in bulged up in full dress with pieces of embroidery on the pillow; books (Simon’s hero’s library) stacked; college pennants nailed in line; the women knitting by the clear, wall-browned summer air of the kitchen window; Georgie in the sunflowers and green wash-line poles of the yard, stumbling after slow Winnie who went to smell where sparrows had alighted.
I guess it troubled me to see how absent Simon and I could be from the house and how smooth it went without us. Mama must have felt something about this and fussed over me as much as was allowable; she’d bake a cake and I was something of a guest, with the table spread and jam dishes filled. That way my wage-earning was recognized and it gave me pride to dig the folded dollars out of my watch pocket. Yet when any joke of the old woman’s made me laugh harder than usual a noise came out of me which was the echo of the whooping-cough⎯I was only that much ahead of childhood; and although I was already getting rangy and the shape of my head was fully formed I was still kept in short pants and Eton collar.
“Well, they must be teaching you fine things over there,” said Grandma. “This is your chance to learn culture and refinement.” She meant to boast that she had already formed me and we had nothing to fear from common influences. But a little ridicule was indicated, just in case there should danger.
“Is Anna still crying?”
“All day long. And what does he do⎯he looks at her and blinks with his eyes. And the kid stammers. It must be lively. And Five Properties, that Apollo⎯still looking for an American girl to marry?”
That was her deft, scuttling way. With the small yellow bone of her hand, the hand that had been truly married in Odessa to a man of real weight, she threw the switch, the water rushed in and the clumsy sank, money, strength, fat, silks and candy boxes and left the witty and superb the contemplation of the ripples. You had to know, to get this as I did, that on Armistice Day of 1922, when she turned her ankle coming down the stairs at eleven o’clock while the factories brewed up their solemn celebrating noise and she should have been standing still, Five Properties picked her up while she was spitting and wincing⎯any harm she got was the injury of the world⎯and rushed her to the kitchen. But her memory specialized in misdemeanors and offences, which were as ineradicable from her brain as the patrician wrinkle was between her eyes, and her dissatisfaction was an element and a part of nature.
Five Properties was keen on getting married. He took the question up with everybody and naturally had been to see Grandma Lausch about it, and she masked herself up as usual and looked considerate and polite while in secret she checked off and collected what she wanted for her file. But also she saw a piece of change in it for her, a matchmaker’s fee. She watched for business opportunities. Once she had master-minded the smuggling of some immigrants from Canada. And I happen to know that she had made an agreement with Kreines about a niece of his wife, that Kreines was to act as go-between while the old woman encouraged Five Properties from her side. The scheme fell through, although Five Properties went into it eagerly at first, arriving to present himself brushed and burnished, flaming from his shave up to the Eskimo angle of his eyes, on his way to Kreines’s basement where the meeting was to be. But the girl was thin and pale and didn’t satisfy him. He had in mind a bouncing, blackhaired, large-lipped, party-going peach. He was gentlemanly about his refusal and took her out once or twice; she got a kewpie doll from him and one of these cartwheel crimson Bunte boxes, and he was done. The old woman then said she gave him up. However, I believe her arrangement with Kreines stood for some time after, and Kreines didn’t quit. He still came to the Coblins’ on Sundays and he did a double errand, for he had New Year’s cards to sell on commission for a printer. It was one of his regular lines, like buying job-lots and auction goods and taking people from the neighborhood to the Halsted Street furniture stores when he got wind of their needing a suite. But he worked craftily on Five Properties, and I would see them confabbing in the shed, Kreines with his rolled legs and his conscript’s history pasted on his eager, humiliated back, his beef-eater’s face inflated to the height of his forehead with the fine points of the young lady of that day: of good family, nourished from her mother’s hand with the purest and whitest food, brought up without rudeness or collision, producing breasts on time, no evil thoughts as yet, giving nothing but the clearest broth, you might say⎯and I can put myself in Five Properties’ thoughts as he listened, crossed his arms, grinned and appeared to scoff. Was she really so gentle, swell, and white? And if she overflowed into coarseness and grossness, after a little marriage, and lay in the luxury of bed eating fig-newtons, corrupt and lazy, sending messages by window-shade to sleek young boys? or if her father was a grafter, her brothers bums and card-sharks, her mother loose or a spendthrift? Five Properties wanted to be awfully careful, and he didn’t lack warnings and cautions from his sister who, by ten years of seniority, could tip him off to American dangers and those of American women for green, old-country boys especially. She was comical when she did it, but grimly comical, for it was time taken from mourning.
“It’ll be something different than with me, somebody that understands life. If she wants a fur coat, like her swell friends’, you’ll have to buy a fur coat and she won’t care if you have to schlepp aus your strength to do it, a fresh young thing.”
“Not me,” said Five Properties, in somewhat the way Anna had said, “Not my son.”
He was rolling bread-pills in his broad fingers and smoking a cigar, his green eyes awake and cold, and promising that no one would lead him that kind of chase.
Busy at his accounts in his bvd’s⎯the afternoon was hot⎯Coblin blinked me an extra smile, observing how I neglected my book to listen to this conversation. He never had it in for me because I broke in on his privacy in the bathroom; just the contrary.
As for the book, it was Simon’s copy of the Iliad, and I had been reading how the fair Briseis was dragged around from tent to tent and Achilles racked his spear and hung away his mail.
Early risers, the Coblins went to bed soon after supper, like a farm family. Five Properties was the first up, at half-past three, and waked Coblin. Coblin took me out with him to have breakfast at a joint on Belmont Avenue, a night-crowd hangout of truckers, conductors, postal-clerks and scrubwomen from Loop offices. Bismarcks and coffee for him, flapjacks and milk for me. He was in a big mood of sociability here, with the other steady patrons and with the Greek, Christopher, and the waitresses. He had no repartee but laughed at everything. At the convict hour between four and five when even those with the least to fear are darkened and sober, and back away from waking. It wasn’t so for him; in the summer, at least, he loved rising to get out of the house and having the coffee before him and last night’s bulldog edition under his arm.
We went back to the shed to meet the paper trucks that came booming down the alley tearing off leaves, with punks on the tail-gate-to be on newspaper trucks was as sure a stage in their advancement to hoodlums as a hitch in Bridewell or joy-riding in stolen cars⎯booting off bundles of Tribunes or Examiners. Then the crew of delivery boys would show up with bicycles and coasters, and the route covered by eight o’clock, Coblin and his older hands taking the steep back porches where you needed the knack of pitching the paper up to the third floor over the beams and clothes-lines. Meanwhile Cousin Anna was awake and making her specialties, as if the charge of them in the cottage had run down overnight⎯tears, speeches, brandishing, and bothering the morning mirrors with her looks. But, also, second breakfast was on the table and Coblin ate before setting out on collections in polite Panama hat and light banging of screen doors, blinking rapid-fire. He had morning gossamers on his trousers from being the first one through the yards, and he was ready for any conversation with up-to-the-minute gang news of the bloody nights of the beer barons and the last curb quotations⎯everybody was playing the stockmarket, led by Insull in his weightiest days.
And I was at home with Anna and the kid. Usually Anna went to Northern Wisconsin to escape the pollen in August, but this year, because of Howard’s running away, Friedl was deprived of her vacation. Anna often signed off with the last complaint that Friedl was alone among the better-class children to have no proper holiday. To make up for it, she fed her more than ever and the child had the color of too much nourishment in her face, a hectic, touchy, barbarous face. She could not be got to close the door when she went to the can, as even Georgie had been taught to do.
I hadn’t forgotten that Friedl had been promised to me when I kept out of sight at the football game that day, the players bucking and thudding on the white lines of the frozen field. She was a young lady then, corrected of all such habits, I’m sure, grown big like her mother and with her uncle’s winesap complexion, wearing a raccoon coat, eagerly laughing and flagging an Illinois banner. She was studying to be a dietician there. This was about ten years removed from the Saturdays when I had been given the money by Coblin to take her to the movies.
Anna did not object to our going, but she herself wouldn’t handle money on any holy days. She observed them all, including the new-moons, from a little guidebook, covering her head, lighting candles and whispering prayers, with her eyes dilated and determined, going after religious terrors with the fear and nerve of a Jonah driven to enter frightful Nineveh. She thought it was her duty while I was in her house to give me some religious instruction, and it was a queer account I got from her of the Creation and Fall, the building of Babel, the Flood, the visit of the angels to Lot, the punishment of his wife and the lewdness of his daughters, in a spout of Hebrew, Yiddish and English, powered by piety and anger, little flowers and bloody fires supplied from her own memory and fancy, nothing abridged in stories like the one about Isaac sporting with Rebecca in Abimelech’s gardens, or the rape of Dinah by Schechem.
“He tortured her,” she said. “How?”
“Tortured!” She didn’t think more was necessary and she was right. I have to hand it to her that she knew her listener. There wasn’t to be any fooling about such things, and she was directing me out of her deep chest to the great, eternal ones.