CHAPTER ONE return to Books > The Beckoning Door
I WONDER how many other people have looked at a face they knew or thought they knew, and seen fixed on it the tight, still smile that meant death was near. Sylvia did, I know that; or Sylvia and probably old Hector too; for Sylvia and for Hector there weren’t any afterthoughts—or maybe there were; maybe the little instant they had was enough; maybe they too, in their instant, saw the world turn over, revealing its underside.
That, I think, is what’s happened to me; I don’t understand it, entirely; I don’t yet, entirely, know what I feel. Other people, people I read about, especially, seem always to know what they’re thinking or feeling; they’re exasperated or happy or loving or sad, just the one thing at a time, and so clearly. For me, it’s almost never that way; I’m more apt to be unclear and mixed. Sylvia, for instance. I know too much now about Sylvia; I know things about Sylvia I wish I had never needed to know about anyone. But even then—even then—I don’t know. Maybe what I feel toward Sylvia is the dislike and resentment the people of Long Meadow have for so long taken it for granted I felt. Maybe I hold her in abhorrenc—if the codes I’ve lived by are right, that’s what I’m supposed to do. Or maybe—in the night when I wake up I feel it—maybe in spite of what Sylvia was and what Sylvia did I’m still linked to her; maybe in some way she’s part of myself.
Of course I had known my cousin Sylvia was home from New York for the summer; in a town the size of Long Meadow—”even when it’s swelled by resorters—you can scarcely miss a circumstance so whetting to the local tongues. But my path and Sylvia’s didn’t cross often—not of late, anyway; it wasn’t until a night toward the middle of August that I so much as saw her, and then only passingly, at the distance of sidewalk to street.
I was, I remember, coming out of Pete’s Kitchen—not a circumstance at all remarkable; I drop in at Pete’s for coffee half the nights of my life. The only thing at all out of the ordinary, that night, was that Russ Bennert was with me. It was, perhaps, nine then, or shortly before it, because that’s the routine—around eight-thirty when we’re through with admissions and the rush of evening visitors is over I push back my books in the hospital office for a ten-minute break, while the night nurse on main peels an ear for the phone. Often Doris Orfelt drops in to go with me, but that night she’d been busy; as I went down the side corridor past the common room Russ Bennert had lifted his head from the building plans spread on the common-room table; he’d said, “Alone tonight, Cathy? Then I’m going too.”
I’d answered as shortly as possible, “That’s not the least necessary,” but he had unfolded his big body anyway; he’d said, “I’ve known you since you were seven, Cathy; there’s no reason—is there? why we can’t be friends.”
And so I had let him come with me, humiliated because being near him was at once a pain and its opposite, wishing—as I so often had wished—that he was away again as he’d been during the war, wishing I could be anywhere but in Long Meadow, where I couldn’t escape seeing him. Carefully speaking of nothing but the weather and the proposed new hospital, we walked the half block to the Kitchen; still carefully distant, we sat at the long counter served by Mrs. Haushofer, having some of Pete’s spring-water coffee and his freshly fried doughnuts. While we were doing so Hector LeClerque ambled in; Hector, as usual by that time of evening, was well in need of a sobering snack, and Russ bought him one. I was taking coffee back for Dr. Diebuhr too; I remember my hands were full as Russ opened the door for me, and I stepped through to the side porch which used to give entry to a country-style house but which now takes the traffic of Pete’s bouncing young enterprise.
It was then that the car came by, drifting lazily up from the darkness behind it—a long gray convertible with its top, down, announced not so much by its whispering motor as by the shafts of its lights and the swell of its radio. During the moment it passed under the nearest street light the four people in it were framed in an obscure and leaf-edged relief—Sylvia driving, her head a little forward, her long light hair loose on the shoulders of a misty white blouse, her hands high on the wheel. At her side, arm along her back and dark head bent toward her, sat Pete Fenrood, his long young body holding something of the poise and balance of a ready leopard; in the back seat—bald head surmounting thick shoulders in a much too young plaid sport shirt—Clint Boyce slouched beside his red-haired wife.
Abreast of Pete’s place of business they all, except Sylvia, turned; Pete, straightening a little, called, “Hi, you!”; Clint Boyce, too, lifted a careless hand. Then they were past us, the car floating forward into darkness the same way it had floated up from it, trailing the receding wink of its taillights, the receding drift of its music, the echo of Sylvia’s husky low laugh.
Beside me, Russ spoke quietly. “They must have left Ada with Lucy. . . . It looks as if Sylvia’s making a play for Pete Fenrood. I wondered, when she loaned him that money. I’m sorry, Cathy.”
I said, “There’s nothing at all to be sorry about.”
He answered, “There ought to be, Cathy. Sooner or later I’ve got to be sorry about someone.”
Of the replies to that there were none I could make, not without too much betrayal. I went on down the walk, but as I did so—willy-nilly and fight as I would—I was shaken by compulsions I seldom allow myself, not when I’m waking. I couldn’t envy Sylvia, I couldn’t let myself be covetous, but there she went in this town she so fitfully visited only because the spirit moved her, there she went in a car that for me would be ransom, there she went pleasure-bent, there she went, free. While here on the walk in front of Pete’s Kitchen was I, one hand bearing a wax container of coffee, the other a brown paper bag with two doughnuts, caged in a town I despaired to be gone from, mortgaged to a job with no past and no future, bound by debt, bound by duty, bound—most unbreakably of all—by my own doubts and incapacities; no door ever opened for me. Here I was, beside the man who had begun blinding me to all other men when I was in pigtails and he seventeen—out on a basketball floor in a kind of blaze, big even then, so tall he could tip the ball into the basket, streaking down the middle with his blond head back and the ball slapping up to his hand, meeting interference or ignoring it with the same sure power. A man different from anyone else in Long Meadow—strong and quick and authoritative, openhanded and ambitious, getting a start in state politics, making his mark as a construction engineer.
A man I couldn’t so much as think of loving, because he was married to somebody else. Married to Sylvia’s sister and my one other cousin, Ada. The thrust of that rebellion washed up, washed over me, and then washed away, leaving an ebb that was older and drearier. When I came back to the night and the ordinary we were still only halfway to the hospital, and a murmur was sounding behind me.
“That M’selle Gainer, she is of the rich who do not care for the poor.”
Hector. I hadn’t heard him come after us, but when I turned he was right in back of me, padding along in his moccasins, his black French-Canadian eyes plaintive, even his long mustache drooping.
“Oh, go along, Hector,” Russ told him indulgently. “You’ve had three too many; get back to that shack of yours.”
Hector persisted. “My friend John Gainer, he does not forget. Always he has for Hector a little money for bread, a little money for wine. But this M’amselle, nothing.”
“Applesauce,” Russ told him more rudely. “She’s slipped you a fistful more times than you can count—if she hasn’t, why are you always out trailing her? Cut along now, sleep it off.”
For still a few steps the old man kept after us. What he had in mind, all too probably, was following me to the office, where he would have sat by my desk in the new-patient’s chair for the rest of the evening, retelling his wrongs. But Russ was a major of engineers during the war and his tone carries authority; at the edge of the hospital grounds the seedy old lumberjack came to a halt, rocking gently as he stood to watch us go.
“Poor bastard,” Russ muttered as we edged past Dr. Diebuhr’s red Studebaker—parked, as usual, head on toward the side entrance—”it’s too bad your grandfather didn’t leave him a little. Too bad your grandfather didn’t do a few other things too. I’ll have to hunt Hector a job somewhere—
He fell silent, after that, as I remained; at the door of the common room he said good night a trifle absently; I went on to my desk alone.
And that was all there was, then, to that brief glance of Sylvia; all that there was to the circumstances surrounding it. Perhaps, as I walked on up the corridor, my neck should have prickled; perhaps I should have felt some sixth sense of prescience, perhaps I should have been touched by my nearness to that other dread presence which even then must have been riding hooded and cloaked in the car I had seen. But I was too self-absorbed; what filled the center of my mind, as I went on up that hall, was the coffee I must get to Dr. Diebuhr, the tedious last hour I must put in on the hospital books, the peppermint ice cream I mustn’t forget to pick up on the way home, because Mother had phoned to say Agatha Pence and Rose Gamble had dropped in. And if my other thoughts were taken up it wasn’t by anything concerning Sylvia, or Hector, or even, directly, Russ. It was, instead, by the dreary old question concerning myself. “Will I ever get away from this? Will I ever get away?”
The next time I saw Sylvia, though, it was different. Not enough different so I could possibly have guessed what was ripening, but enough so that I was, at least, taken aback. Because Sylvia, that time, came to see me, and Sylvia’s coming to my house to see me was very nearly in a category with the Duchess of Windsor hopping a ride in a freight car.
The hour she chose for her descent was two o’clock, on a day toward the end of August. Since my work time begins at three I was doing what I most regularly do about then—I was upstairs dressing. Maybe Sylvia knocked before she opened the front door of our small forty-year-old house, or maybe, as I was later on to believe, she moved quietly through the rooms downstairs, looking for me or for something else. At any rate my first hint of her presence came when she called from the front hall.
“Cathy, you around here?” The voice drifted up, casual, scarcely raised, so much at home yet so out of place that for a while I could scarcely believe my ears. Mother, that day, was away at a Methodist bazaar; I’d thought myself not only alone in the house but certain to stay that way. Probably I met my own eyes incredulously in the mirror for as long as a minute before I even reached for the seersucker robe I had thrown on the bed. It was hot that afternoon, dry hot, the way August in Minnesota can be even as far north as we were, and I wasn’t wearing much.
“Cathy, aren’t you home?”
After that second call I managed an answer and got out through my bedroom door. Hall windows don’t come in local houses of the size and vintage of ours, but there was light enough in the well below for me to verify, from the stairhead, that she actually stood there.
“Sylvia.” I was stupid about it. “What’re you—because that, of course, was what I thought first: she’d never have been there without some reason.
She laughed, throwing my own broken-off query back at me. “What am I doing here? Sweet, aren’t you my only cousin?” That hazy, husky, slightly jerky drawl wasn’t any native way of speech, but she could make it be mesmerizing.
I started forward. “I’ll be right—””
“Oh, why bother? I can join you up there.” The fronts of my housecoat, as I discovered by that time, had gotten rolled in the belt; I was still tugging at them, trying to get myself decently covered, when she came level with me, rising lithely up through the dim well of the stairs, hands out-stretched and lips smiling, as if she truly were moved by an eagerness to see me.
“M-m-m,” she continued. “You should play up those curves of yours, Cathy; too bad you ever wear clothes. Why haven’t you been up to see me? There I’ve been, all alone in my piece of the old Gainer homestead—can’t you even say anything welcoming? You needn’t mean it.”
Hands light on my elbows, she rocked me a little, affectionate, ironical as if I were a loved younger sister. Under the circumstances, I couldn’t very well produce the obvious, which was that I had never in my life entered her home, any more than she had previously entered mine.
“It’s nice of you to be so unorthodox,” I managed instead. “It ought to set at least some of Long Meadow by the ears. If you’ll wait till I—”
“I’ll watch while you dress.”
I began resisting, but opposition to her highhandedness was one thing and getting anywhere was another; she stood waiting, cool, brows sweetly lifted, and after another quick glance at her I gave in over a point that couldn’t be worth struggling about anyway and led the way back to my room. Once there, while I went on with my hair, she immediately and airily flopped on the bed. I was by that time a little wary, or maybe—”along with my other responses—I had been wary from the first; you never quite knew, with Sylvia, whether good was going to pop from her or ill. She was gotten up, that afternoon, in an ankle-long velveteen, not beige, not orange, but somewhere between the two. Probably the dress was a Dior; her head, her shoulders, and most of her bosom rose out of the low roll of collar; the bodice hugged, the skirt artfully flared. The hat that went with this was wide, very wide, in the same velveteen, the front brim folding back to be held by a staggering three-foot-long quill. On the night I had seen her in the car, with her hair down, she might, in the darkness, have been seventeen; today for the incongruous setting of my angle-ceiled bedroom she had chosen to look what she was, twenty-nine, a schooled cosmopolite who could enjoy the full irony of sitting dressed as she was on a worn chenille bedspread, sables loose on her lap, brown suede gloves and handbag thrown beside her, one long leg carelessly swinging. Not beautiful maybe—the cheekbones were a little too high and angular, the gray eyes a little too small for beauty. But beauty wasn’t important in Sylvia, any more than it would have been in a timber wolf.
“Say it, darling,” she urged me. “How nice for me that I’ve got Long Meadow to startle, when it’s so hard to stand New York on its head with mere clothes. Iâ€™ve been at the bazaar.”
Mockery for me, because she was reading me. But mockery too for herself.
For as far back as I could remember, I had been supposed to detest and hate her. “Your cousin Sylvia, the one with the money.” It wasn’t from Mother or Father I had gotten that whisper, but surely it had come from most of the rest of Long Meadow. So long ago that my feet in yellow socks and black slippers still stuck straight out in front of me in a church pew, I was already aware of that whisper; across from me in another pew had been that other child, four years older and four years bigger, who had been Sylvia Gainer, and always around me the whisper was sibilant. Not “That’s her grandfather Gainer, who disowned her mother for marrying Carl Kingman’s son.” Not “That’s her cousin Ada”—Ada was so much older than I that there wasn’t any comparison; when I was four Ada must have been thirteen. Just always “That’s her cousin Sylvia.” Around me, tight and pressing, had crowded all the angers and animosities I had been supposed to feel; I had felt myself home along on the current, but at the same time, curiously, I had felt a kind of linking—the gray eyes under the blond hair and the slightly knobby forehead had looked at me as if they knew me.
Later on, too, in spite of the bad fortune that so often seemed to result from her sporadic offers of friendship, things had stayed the same way. There’d been the time when I was six or so, and she had suddenly appeared beside me in a neighbor’s yard. “Here, you can have these,” she had said, thrusting at me a large bag of marbles. “I won ’em off Lucy Hague, and I’ll show how you play.” For the rest of that June afternoon she had squatted beside me, painstakingly drawing outlines in the dust, painstakingly guiding my inexpert fingers. Lucy Hague’s mother, afterward, had turned up to storm at me frighteningly, saying I’d stolen the marbles and wrenching them back, but I had always believed it was Lucy, not Sylvia, who lied. There’d been the time I almost ran away with her. There’d been the time I was a high school freshman and she got me elected to a society I had wretchedly had to turn down because I couldn’t afford it. Always the eyes with which she met mine had held the same look—detached, perhaps, but keeping their sure inner knowledge. They’d met mine that way the day she walked down a church aisle as a bridesmaid behind her sister Ada and Russ Bennett, and that gaze was the one she turned on me now. Against it I might continue to be wary, but I couldn’t be wholly hostile.
“Oh,” I replied to what she had just said, “the bazaar. When I thought you’d been fishing,”
The wriggle she gave in return to my tartness was one of pure pleasure.
“See?” she asked, and she was, then, entirely smiling. “I love you, Cathy. I love you, I love you. All those years, Grandfather Gainer threatening to disinherit me too if I so much as spoke to you, but—you’re like your mother. She just read my palm for me, at the bazaar.”
Abrupt change of subject, but abruptness was what you tuned yourself to, around Sylvia.
“Mother can’t sew much anymore, not with her hands.” I was careful, an increase of wariness telling me that Sylvia might be approaching what she’d come for. “So she’s taken up palmistry. In Long Meadow you’ve got to have some talent to offer up at bazaars.”
“Oh, don’t apologize.” It was light but, I thought, temporizing. “Aunt Julia’s good at it. Too good. She told me I was inconstant and ruthless. She said I was erratically selfish and erratically generous, and she didn’t know which was worse. She said I should have been spanked—”
I laughed. “Old residents usually come away from Mother’s booth looking a bit strained.”
“So I should think. She can be—well, she hits close.” This was much less airy, and I thought, “Here it comes.” “She told me I’d meet a tall man with dark hair and blue eyes. Well, I’ve met him. Anyway, I think I’ve met him. Cathy, last winter—this spring until I got homeâ€”how much did you see of Pete Fenrood?”
Back toward her, I let myself pull a cotton dress over my head before I answered, thinking, “That’s it, that’s why she’s come.” I was visited by a little, relaxing relief. Ever since her arrival I had—hadn’t I?—”half expected it might be something else, and here it was only Pete Fenrood. I repeated cautiously after her—Sylvia like Mother can hit close, and when you’re most at ease with her may be just the time to be most on your guard—”
“Pete Fenrood? Oh, I used to see him around town; I rather liked him awhile—”
“Until he began seeing me, until he got a reputation for being a hothead and turning up drunk on your porch.”
“All right, until he got into the fight with Clint Boyce, even if they do seem to have made up. And until he started drinking too much. In Long Meadow—”
Maybe it wasn’t supercilious; maybe it was thrown at me as a flat statement and nothing more, but resentment flared.
“All right, I’m provincial.” I wouldn’t add to it.
“Let’s not fight. I’m sorry I said that. You were seeing him quite often, though, weren’t you? He took you out—”
“A dance or two; a few movies.”
“That’s not what I heard.” She was sitting up straight by that time, not being airy any more. And I wasn’t fiddling with clothes, either; we were facing each other as belligerents.
“He calls you Miss Glacier of ’49. He’d scarcely do that if he hadn’t made tries.”
“I’d imagine that Pete’s always trying. You can’t have missed hearing about his womanless stretch on Saipan.”
“Now you’re being flip, Cathy.”
“Why not? If he’s your dark tall man, quick take him. For a wolf he’s not too bad. A little easygoing—””
She said, “I’m twenty-nine.” And then suddenly she wasn’t an antagonist any longer; not in the same way; she didn’t slump either; it was impossible for Sylvia to slump. She just sat there looking cool, shrewd, and sober in her elegant clothes, the foot in the brown platform pump no longer swinging. “As your mother would so brutally say, it’s time I cut such losses as I may have and settled down.” Then, in another quick shift, “Cathy, what about you? You needn’ stick around here in this town any longer, now that your father’s gone—why are you? Is it Russ Bennert?”
That was what I had shrunk from; that was what I had been afraid she might ask.