RING AROUND HER HEART
Cathy had to learn what Granny already knew—sometimes people have riches they don’t know about ... A tender, moving story of today
CATHY WINTERS came back home to Rocky Falls within a year from the time she’d left to marry Eddie, the Eddie whom neither her folks nor the town had known. And now never would.
Mrs. Benson said it. Mrs. Benson, unsponsored commentator of five counties, trapped Cathy and her folks at the station between the baggage truck and the milk cans: “Cathy! You’re home too. Now, let’s see, who’d you marry? Don’t tell me.” In the filing case that was her mind the busy drawers slid open one by one.
Cathy could almost see the record marked, “Winters, C.,” and she leaned a little toward this human index in the neatly printed dress, this keeper * of data more official than any in the courthouse. It was suddenly important that Mrs. Benson, that the town, should know Eddie.
Mrs. Benson didn’t think so. She’d been frowning at the files, now she smiled, vaguely, and patted Cathy, “Of course! He wasn’t a local boy.” The implication was “that those things sometimes happen in the most careful families.” Her eyes were already searching beyond Cathy for more important persons. “That’s what got me for a moment, he wasn’t from around here.”
Cathy was outraged at this abrupt dismissal, this waving away of Eddie, as though he had never existed. “He came from the Cypress Hills country,” she put in hurriedly, trying to make him real to Mrs. Benson. “It’s beautiful country; rolling hills and wooded valleys and little streams and carpets of little flowers in the spring . . . It’s sheep country.” There was no slightest sign of recognition on the plump face in front of her. “He was a track star in university,” she was twisting her gloves. “He ran the mile in in, well, I’ve forgotten. But fast. He had such long legs.” If she could just make Mrs. Benson understand something about him, some little tiling. “His folks had a sheep ranch. They kept sheep,” she insisted, “you know, wool. Lamb chops and things.”
Mrs. Benson’s smile was distant. She’d never known anyone who kept lamb chops and things, not with the four legs still on. “You must come over someday, Cathy, and tell me all about your young man, ah, what’s-his-name?”
“Eddie,” Cathy said, her face white. “Eddie McClintock,” she said, the words breaking apart. Mom’s hand was on her arm. Sam Winters moved uneasily beside his daughter, her suitcase heavy in his hand. Only Granny, blinking sleepily beneath her sunshade, Granny with the lace of her petticoat purposefully showing off beneath the yards of flowered dimity that was her second best, remained unmoving and placid on the splintering station platform, in the sweet, heavy-headed sunshine of the June morning.
“My name is Mrs. Eddie McClintock,” said Cathy, desperately, to Mrs. Benson.
“And it’s nice you’re home,” that lady said, “so many girls back home now. All having babies.”
Quick on this new scent Mrs. Benson became the dear friend and confidante. “You come over tomorrow and tell me all about everything.”
“Granny’s getting tired,” murmured Mrs. Winters, her hands taut in the beautiful whiteness of her summer gloves. That was Mom, simple white against the smart dark dress, a little above the town as was right when Dad was the best lawyer in the county. “She should have her nap; she’s past 90, you know.”
So Mom hadn't said anything about the baby. But what could she say? Would you write it out on your best notepaper and take it down to the Falls Tribune that your daughter, Mrs. Eddie McClintock, had fainted at the top of two flights of stairs in a dirty rooming house in Halifax and that the baby was born too soon and never lived at all?
“Tomorrow, about three,” insisted Mrs. Benson, sensing facts that were eluding her. “I’ll make some sugar cookies and you can tell me all about the places that you’ve been. I just love to hear about places.”
You're wondering now about my Eddie, you think there's more to this than meets the eye. You want to know if there's a baby, thought Cathy bitterly. “I’ve seen some lovely railroad stations,” she said, and if her voice was harsh, the words were well controlled. Cool. She had herself in hand now. The Winters were a stubborn family; their pride was not a thing apart, kept in a dresser drawer and taken out at intervals of need.
They wore it every day.
“I can tell you the cheapest place to eat in Saint John,” she said,
“and that there were no paper towels in the rest room at Moncton. And if ever you have 12 hours at night in Montreal, and there are no vacancies, not anywhere, there is a dirty all-night theatre between a pawnshop and a bowling alley and you can sit in the back row, you and your husband, from dinner time until breakfast, when his leave is up.”
Granny tilted her sunshade. “It’s her first war,” she explained to Mrs. Benson. “Sam, I’ll sit in the front seat going home, Third Avenue needs paving and my bones are brittle. We’re a tough family,” she told Mrs. Benson, over her shoulder, moving to the car, “except that our bones get brittle when we hit 90.”
OH, we're tough, thought Cathy, going home, sitting in the sunny kitchen, in the safe and sheltered house; eating the cool salad and the sandwiches with cucumbers, the way Granny liked them. A stubborn family, sitting stiffly around the table in the nook, carefully eating every bite of the lunch.
She moved abruptly to the window over the sink and threw it open. The weights banged with her violence, clumping inside the casings. “Stuffy in here,” she said, sitting down again at her place, her hands tight together beside her empty plate. “Will it make a draught on Granny?”
“No,” Mom said quickly, “no, of course not. I—I didn’t notice how hot it was.”
It wasn’t hot, not really. Just closed in. “I guess
I got that habit from Eddie,” Cathy said, not looking at any of them. “He couldn’t stand to be shut up in a room.” ,
She smiled, trying it out, not quite making the casualness go over. “He was a great guy for opening windows. We used to go for walks, even when it was cold and raining, just to get outside and breathe all the air in the world.” She rushed on, as though if she slowed down someone might stop her. “It’s from being cooped up in an engine room, down beneath the water line; being boxed in down there, watching the dials and waiting.”
In the kitchen it was quiet; through the whole house there was this stillness, this listening. But they've never seen him, what can it mean to them? He was almost six feet tall, with shoulders like a truck, and when he laughed the walls shook and people knocked on the steam pipes and asked them to be quiet. He was going to build her a house in the hills by a spring; they would take the furniture in by truck, rolling over the roadless buffalo wool around the hills. He drew a map on the paper sack that had held a dozen oranges, to show ber how it could be done. He had a dog named Shep, not to work the sheep, “just to work me.” The laziest dog in the world, with brown spots and sleepy eyes.
“There were tulips on the kitchen curtains in Saint John,” she said, trying to make them see some little part of it. “We had five days there, when we
were first married. In Halifax it was rainy, and the landlady’d just had her teeth pulled and she was cross when we wanted hot water. And then we had that night in Montreal and there was no place to go and we sat up until breakfast time in the back of that filthy little movie house. Eddie kissed me good-by in Windsor Station, and people kept getting on and off the trains, going to work, and bumping into us. And Eddie was afraid we’d have twins. His sister’d had twins and had a pretty tough time of it and he didn’t want me having twins when he wasn’t around to look after me. I had my ticket back to Halifax and we still had the room rented there so he wasn’t worried about where I’d sleep after that night, that time in Montreal when he left me at the train, but he was worried about the idea of twins and his being gone.”
“Now, Cathy, listen!” Her father’s voice was harsh and rough.
What was the matter, didn’t he want to know about Eddie? He didn’t have to be so tough. Sitting there, glaring at them as if they’d all been overdrawing their allowances or something. He always got so fierce when he had to tell them something unpleasant that he didn’t really want to tell them.
“You musn’t do this, Cathy,” he was saying, laying down the law to her, wadding up his napkin in his big hand. “You.—you can’t keep reaching back. You can’t just—just live off the dead, Cathy, you’ve got to face that.”
He was almost as big as Eddie. Except older and more filled in. She’d never thought of him as a big man before. He seemed enormous. And he was tired.
“You can’t stand still even. You have to go on. You have to make a life for yourself, take up steno-
graphy or social service work, or ditch digging,” he was talking louder, hurrying, “anything at all that will keep you busy all day and so tired at night that you’ll sleep without brooding over the past. It sounds horrible.”
It is horrible.
“But you have to do it.” He didn’t look at her. “If there was anything at all that we could do, your mother and I, if we could lie right down here on this floor and die, and it would bring back your Eddie, we’d do it. But there’s nothing we can do, except just love you and have you here at home, safe and eating and sleeping until you get well again and can think about what you want to do. This will always be your home; you can do anything here you want, except, well, except live in the past. It’s for your own good, Cathy, you’ve got to take what you had, what you and Eddie had, and remember it and treasure it, but not live it over every day. Take it, and then go on from there.”
She held her hands together tight, on the table in front of her, to still their trembling. “But we didn’t have anything,” she said bitterly. “Nothing that was ours. Not even a dish towel. I’m not like the rest of the Winters. The family’s gone to seed. Granny’s on her third war, and she’s doing all right. Oh, I know, Grandpa Harry was killed, but they’d been married years and years and she had the children and the farm and the property in town. She must at least have had a set of dishes and a rocking chair that was theirs. And you folks, you came through your war all right, you’re working on your second. The Winters have always been the ones who marched in the parades and went to the reunions. Why, they write the books about the wars. Except me.”
She looked at them resentfully, her eyes too bright, her voice too loud. “Of course it’s just my first war.” She couldn’t help it if it sounded nasty. She couldn’t stop. “It’s my first husband dead too. And my first baby, that never really lived at all. First and last. Because there’ll never be anyone like Eddie. And if I wanted to, which I don’t, I couldn’t have another baby. The doctor said so. It’s my first war, and sometimes, at night, it doesn’t seem real to me. I can’t remember.”
She was crying now. She was so tired, and lonesome; all by herself here in this kitchen at home, with her folks right there where she could touch them. She didn’t want to touch them. She wanted Eddie.
“That’s the worst part,” she said brokenly, trying not to cry any more. “That’s what hurts so. I can’t remember any more. I reach out to touch him, and then he’s gone. Every day he’s gone a little farther away and pretty soon I won’t remember at all. I try and try, but he fades away and blurs. Every day it’s worse. How do you suppose he’d like that,
if he knew? Sometimes I think he does know and it hurts him. I dream about it hurting him. Granny, do you think he knows? Could he know? Oh, Granny, I want to remember; I don’t want to be like this, I’m empty. I haven’t anything at all.”
“Mostly you haven’t had any sleep,” said Granny gently, “and I haven’t had any nap at all.” She reproved the lot of them. “I’m practically 100 years old and I need my nap.” She began to collect the clutter that marked her presence everywhere, the peppermint drops and the bag for knitting and the case that held her reading glasses and the two handkerchiefs, the one currently in use and the spare one, neatly folded. “When your grandfather was killed,” she said to Cathy, “I went out that very afternoon and started plowing the south forty. I plowed it and harrowed and planted. Cultivated. Got the threshers in for the harvest and cooked for them too. That south forty was Harry’s pet. I figured he would have liked that, if he’d known. And maybe he did know, can’t nobody prove he didn’t.”
“But you had the farm,” Cathy insisted, dully, “you had the house and the children. The house,” she said, realizing all at once what a house was. She got up quickly, thinking, leaning against the wall of the nook. “A house,” she said. “That’s what we need, Eddie and I. We need a house.” Her mother was alarmed. “Sam, don’t you think ” “Now, Alice," said her father, “it’s all right, it’s shock. She doesn’t know what she’s saying.”
SHE did, though. She said it the next morning to Mr. Mercer in his real-estate office. “A little house, Mr. Mercer,” she said, “because I’ve only got the—just a little money. With a yard and some
big trees. Not close to the house, not shutting it in, but some trees in the back. An old house, I guess, is what I want, a little old house that’s been lived in a lot.” She hesitated. “Because I’m not experienced in living in a house of my own. You must have a house like that somewhere in town. You’ve got so many houses.”
She waited, anxiously, for him to produce a little old house that had been lived in a lot.
He drew circles on his scratch-pad. “You’re—a house for you, Cathy? You mean you want to make an investment, is that it, in a house and rent it out?”
“No, I want to live in it.”
“Like I said, a little house, not too expensive. For Eddie and me, because we never had a house. We— didn’t have time.”
She had a white ribbon in her hair, tied in a bow, like a kid. Red hair, shining and falling soft to her shoulders. She was in old blue jeans, rolled up at the knees, and a fuzzy white sweater. She was perfectly at ease before him, except for the urgency, the desperate shadow on the thin face. Yet perfectly normal.
He loosened his tie a little, this fat little Mr. Mercer she had known since she was so high. He fumbled for his hat. “A little house you want,” he grasped at facts he could understand, “with trees.”
He was kind. He took her all over town, endlessly, for three days. Humoring her. She didn’t care. She went on looking, doggedly, and she surprised him most of all by finding the little house. With trees.
“That one in front,” he said, discouraging her, “that’s dangerous.”
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Ring Around Her Heart
Continued from page 9 “We can cut that down. And leave the two in back. That makes the view better too.”
“The fence needs mending,” he said uneasily, “flowers all choked with weeds. It’s just a shack, three rooms. And it’s too far out, clear out here at the edge of town.”
She wasn’t listening. She was on the porch, looking through the dirty windows; she was on the path by the gate that hung on one hinge, staring out over the town and the valley. Inspecting the mailbox.
“That paint in the car,” she asked, “that you use for signs like For Sale and things, can I use it a second?”
She couldn’t make the letters even, but they were there, as plain as anything. for all the world to read: “Mrs. Eddie McClintock.”
Mr. Mercer fussed around her, worried, helpless. “Are you sure?” he kept saying. “Your father—the plumbing probably isn’t good. It needs painting. Don’t you think you better wait and ”
“I like this. It’s just right. For Eddie and me.”
He mopped his face. “I don’t know what your folks will think.”
Whatever they thought, they didn’t
say it. Nor did the town. But she felt them watching her. It rushed her. This constant watching, this turning of heads as she went down the street. She worked frantically, painting, mending the fence, helping old Ike Carter cut the dangerous tree, struggling with the weeds and the plumbing, which was bad after all, and the floors that sagged. She had that horrible hunted feeling that at any moment, someone, somehow, would reach out and stop her. She heard fragments of conversation, half-sentences drifting upstairs when they thought she was asleep.
“Sam, don’t you think—”
“But it’s so—so kind of ghoulish, Sam, the way she talks, the curtains she picks out because Eddie likes green. I—Sam, do you think you’d better see Doctor Anderson about her?”
“I did, last week. He says to let her get it out of her system.”
“But, Sam, she’s going to LIVE there.”
“Maybe not. Maybe not when the time comes.”
She did though. She moved into the little house, she and Shep. Somewhere along the line, painting, washing windows and wondering what made the fireplace smoke, she realized that she needed more than paint, more
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than having the weeds cut and the grass watered to make the house. She’d done a lot with the three rooms. Cut big view windows for looking out across the yard and down the valley. There were cool green drapes to draw : across at night; white ruffles in the
bedroom. Yellow touches here and there, and in the kitchen a splash of red on the pattern on the floor. Gay and singing, this house of hers and Eddie’s. Cool, open-feeling. Nothing shut in. Only her heart.
Only at night, in the new bed, in the house smelling of paint and shining unmarred furniture so carefully polished, only then she still reached out for him, asking him to come home, to their house. To come to this town; this strange place he’d never seen, to live among these people he had never known. Trying to remember him, clearly, without this fading out that always came.
She wrote to his mother, one last desperate bid for the peace she hadn’t found. “And so, if it would be all right, I’d like to have his dog. If you think he would be happy here with me.”
“Dogs are odd,” his mother had j replied, “Shep has been very lost and forlorn these last few months. Nothing we can do will satisfy him. I’m sending an old leather coat of Eddie’s, the one Shep has been sleeping on. Perhaps, in some way we do not understand, Shep may be happier with you, although he’s never seen you.”
SHE was waiting for him at the station when the expressman brought him from the car and set him on the platform, dusty and tired from the trip. She had the box with the coat in it under one arm., and she reached down and rubbed him behind an ear, and talked to him a minute and let him smell her, then she took the leash and they started up Third Avenue, slowly, wary of each other. He was stiff at first, from the train; sedate, as was fitting for a seven-yearold dog, and a lazy one at that. He just ambled along beside her, moving out now and then to points of interast, an inspection tour, but never going far. And it wasn’t the leash that held him. She took that off after a few blocks. It was something between them, a way they had of going up the ; street together, the two of them, surrounded by the strange town.
Folks meeting them, en route, knew then that this was Mrs. Eddie McClintock, and Eddie McClintock’s dog, going home, with a parcel under one arm, to the little house beyond the town. Through the gate and up the path, to find Granny dozing calmly in an armchair by the wide front window.
“It’s nice,” said Granny. “I like it. That his dog?”
“Mmm, kind of a mixture.” She took a peppermint drop to perk her up. “Got shook up some, coming over. Groceryman brought me. Your mother’ll have a fit, finding me gone. Won’t hurt her none though. Maybe shake up her liver a bit, do her good.” She looked at Cathy frankly, shrewdly. “House’s done now, what you goin’ to do next?”
“Why—” Cathy was startled. “Why —live here.” She put the box down on the floor and Shep went, over and lay down beside it. “I’ll live here,” she went on slowly, “and work for Mr. Mercer. In the office and doing over houses for him. I haven’t said any. thing yet about it to the folks.”
“You’ve told Mr. Mercer, though, I hope.”
She had to laugh. “He told me. After he saw what I did to this place. He needs someone who can take houses and make them over, fit for selling.
I’ll need to take some courses in design, and color and line and things like that. Some I can get by extension, from the college, and later on I want to go away somewhere and study. And then come back. I think it’s what I’d like to do the most, build houses, furnish them with color for people to live in. To— to be happy in.”
She moved to the window. Very young and thin. Her eyes tired, looking wistfully out over the valley. “Shep and I, we’ll build houses for the other people, all the happy people. There still are happy people, aren’t there, Granny? Somewhere? There still are people who have everything instead of nothing?”
“If I was you,” remarked Granny, “I’d ask those questions too. And then I’d answer them. Straight off.” She waited, and then went on, “But, of course, I’m an old lady, most a hundred, and I can ask myself questions and answer them right out loud and folks just think I’m losing my mind. And it’s all right, because Í I’m old. But you’re just a child, j Cathy, you better not answer yourself j out loud. Except, of course, when : there’s no one around but me.”
“All right,” said Cathy abruptly, “so I answer myself. Sure there still are people who have everything. So what?”
“So sometimes people have things they don’t know about.”
The shadows crept across the valley as the daylight fell away from the fields and the road and the town. A house stood sharply black against the i rolling hills of wheat, and in the town j the lights came on, lights in every house, where all the happy people lived.
“I know what we had,” said Cathy, staring into the darkness. “We had five days once in a one-room apartment . . . Five nights I heard him running up the stairs. He took them two at a time. He smelled of soap and cigarettes and wool. He held me so tight I couldn’t breathe. He teased me and pulled my hair, and we went dancing and a heel came off my slippers and I had to walk home carrying my shoes and so he took off his too. People thought we were crazy, going down the street giggling, carrying our shoes. We ate ham and eggs at midnight. We had apple pie for breakfast. We didn’t care. Whatever we got hungry for we had it then, no matter what time the clock said. We had a baby once. A little girl baby. He liked girls, if they were redheaded. He liked me. He used to say—”
She caught her breath. She held onto the drapes to steady herself. “Granny,” she said, low, wondering, j “why, Granny, I remember. I’m not j even trying hard, it’s as easy as easy, j Granny, I remember all of it.”
The excitement in her voice brought Shep to his feet, uneasy, watching her. “Here,” she said, unsteadily, “here,” j and when he came she knelt beside ! him, hugged him, cried into his coat I a little and he stood it patiently, this ! foolishness of humans. Here was some! one needing him, and he sat down to j wait and listen and let her scratch his j ear.
She was so tired all over she was limp. But not knotted up and tense inside. Not now. The window was cool against her cheek and she caught the heavy scent of the phlox, drifting in the house through the opened door. The garden was in shadows now; against the sky the fence stood black and sharp. The mailbox a solid thing. The stump looming as a deeper shadow in the night. The stump where the tree had been.
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Ring Around Her Heart
Continued, (rom page 47
“A neat stump,” old Ike had said, i “if I do say so. Pretty, kind of, with I all them rings on it. See that one ring, i that one there,” Ike was tired of i working and stalling for time to loaf,
I “that was the big fire we had here long time ago. See, the tree grew right on after the fire, and them other rings grew around it. Why, I bet if a tree could talk them rings would tell us j lots of things. Twan’t nothin’ hap| pened, all them years, but left its mark in them rings.”
And Granny’d said the same thing. People don’t always know what they do have. “I’m like that tree,” she said, “I’ve been through a fire. I’ve got the scars, down deep inside. Everything that happens to me, that touches me, leaves its mark.” She felt for the words, “Every day I live, every day I breathe and walk around, leaves its print. And I grow on, and there are other rings around those. We cut down the tree, Ike and I, but we didn’t destroy the rings. Nothing now, until the stump rots, will erase the rings. And nothing can take away what we j had, Eddie and I. We had it and I’ve ; still got it. He’ll always be with me,
! he’s the ring around my heart. And : the baby too. I did have a baby. As long as I live, if I live to be as old as Granny, still I’ve had a baby. That’s the next ring, after Eddie’s. I’m not empty-handed, how could I be when I’ve got so much inside, when I’ve got so much that nothing can ever take away? Granny—”
She was pretending she’d been asleep and hadn’t heard.
“You mustn’t startle me like that j when I’m dozing.”
Cathy laughed and pinched her cheek. “You’re an old fraud; when I ; get to be a hundred I’m going to be an old fraud too.”