No One Worth Possessing
HENRY BEETLE HOUGH
Should a man be jealous of the new friends his girl made while he was away at war? Here’s one dramatic answer
WHAT was between them, Ross knew, was not really the width of the table in the hotel dining room, so neat and white and small, but that incredible stretch of 31 months, during which Joan had been to him a dream, a memory—everything except flesh and blood—and he had been to her . . .
well, he W’ondered. He smiled across the table, shyly, as he might have smiled long ago at some strange lady making a call in his mother’s house. Joan’s eyes were smiling too. If he only knew what she was thinking he would know what to say.
The polished silver was deployed on the white cloth in an arrangement which seemed to him a high form of art. It stood for the good things of ordinary life, and you could get the same sort of pleasure from looking at it that you could from listening to distant
music. He lifted the knife and then the forks and put them down again, just so. Joan laughed.
“Ross,” she said, “you haven’t changed.”
“No,” he said, “1 haven’t changed. I’ve just been in storage for a while. Not cold storage, of course, but I do think I’ve kept fairly well, considering.”
“Of course you have, but I didn’t mean that. You look different and that worried me at first. They kippered you over in Burma, Ross. You’re dry-cured. You’re too thin—but lean is the word, isn’t it?”
“How can you tell?” he asked. “Don’t you see that I’ve aged years and years?”
“You do look older, around the eyes, I think. But the way you grin is the same. Half pleased, half shy . .
“Half hoping,” said Ross.
“Friendly, Irut keeping something back.”
“I’m not keeping anything back,” Ross said. “Not any more. Remember that night when I whistled under your window, and you came out, anil we sat on the old board fence under the Clematis?”
“And you asked my advice about running away from home.”
“Yes, and I told you everything except that I was suspended from school for forgetting to show up at some special exercises. I’m not like that now, Joan. Once we start talking I’ll tell all.”
“You wouldn’t admit it was my advice which kept you from running away. You said it was something about the Clematis.”
“That was just my romantic indirection.” “Romantic nothing. You were a hoodlum and you only tolerated me because you wanted me to be your first-assistant hoodlum.”
“Which you were.”
“No, Ross, I was only saving you from yourself. I hid my finer feelings on purpose.”
“Is the Clematis still growing over Uncle Charlie’s barn? Does it make the same old shadows in the moonlight?”
“No,” Joan said. “We had to cut it down when the barn was moved to make an addition for the machine shop.”
HE WAS SO unreasonably sorry to hear this that he thought it would sound foolish if he tried to explain. It: was true there had been nothing romantic between him and Joan at the time, not when they were kids, and she had climbed roofs to help him pick horse chestnuts. But when the romance had come in later years these memories had seemed its very core and foundation. He and Joan were aware that they had been predestined lovers, and the experiences shared and remembered were a wealth of richest ore. All that small-town life as boy and girl, growing up together in the same block, set them apart from the world in general. They both seemed to feel the same way, and their intertwined lives had become a favorite legend between them, like the folklore of nations.
He was afraid to look at Joan too much but he kept observing her without exactly looking. She wasn’t really a lot older, but she was more complete, he thought, as if there had been a flowering in a new spring which he had missed. Foolishly he kept comparing her with the little girl Joan who had roosted with him on a board fence over which purple stars of Clematis would no longer hang in future Junes. The old tomboyiahness had somehow been transformed into poise and confidence, the impishness in her brown eyes had struck a balance with this earnestness he could not recognize or read, and her once rowdy hair now stayed over her forehead and at her temples in glowing chestnut curbs. She was, he thought, a beautiful woman.
“I suppose Aunt Clara will miss the Clematis,” he said.
Instead of answering directly, she said, “Ross, don’t you think it was a good idea for us to meet in Montreal?”
“Swell. We’re together that much sooner.”
“I almost couldn’t come at the last minute. 1 suppose 1 must tell you. Aunt Clara is quite seriously ill and they have been afraid of all sorts of complications. At. her age, you know, anything would be serious. But she seemed much better and both she and Uncle Charlie wanted me to come. That was what the telegram was about this morning. You must have wondered.”
“I didn’t think anything of it,” he said, because he had told himself she had a right to get telegrams.
“Uncle Charlie promised faithfully to give me regular bulletins. Everything is all right so far. I mean Aunt Clara is just the same, no worst».”
Ross thought of Charles and Clara Kennedy—they were Joan’s uncle and aunt, not his—as the world’s most blessed and contented married couple. It was even partly because of them that he was certain Joan and he would hit it off well. They had so much in common, and the example of a gracious marriage, which had mellowed until it seemed close to the secret of all life and all happiness. If anything should happen to Aunt Clara . . . no, no, that would be too cruel. Nothing could happen to her or to Uncle Charlie, not for years yet. They were the old stock, bred to weather storms, and there was something about their love which made you feel one would always somehow sustain the other
“Why, Joan,” he said. “Tears? It can’t be that bad.”
“Of course it Isn’t, Ross. It’s only that I can’t help worrying.”
So now he knew this much more of what she had been thinking about. But what else? He felt an unreasoning eagerness. He had found her at the station after being ridiculously afraid he would not even recognize her. Of course he had, immediately, but then his uneasiness grew that the recognition was incomplete. Their two minds were not yet matched up as they had been in t he old days.
The waiter served their lunch ceremoniously; and pretty soon a uniformed boy came through the dining room, calling, “Mr. Tyler or Miss Kennedy, please.”
“Right here,” Ross said to the boy. And then to Joan, “This may be a fellow I asked to come around to the hotel. We were together in Burma. I sort of thought you’d be interested in hearing him talk, and I wanted him to look at you, too.”
“Oh, I’d love to meet him!”
But it wasn’t old Foxy Blades from Burma, with his ugly pan, bushy eyebrows and gift of mimicry. The boy said that Mr. Bicknell was outside and was trying to locate Mr. Tyler or Miss Kennedy.
“I don’t know any Bicknell,” Ross said.
“Of course you don’t,” said Joan. “He’s the Dominion Machine Co. man who has handled the
subcontracts we’ve had in the shop. But he knows about you, plenty. He’s been so helpful, Ross. He got me reservations on the train after I was practically resigned to standing up all the way to Montreal.”
She told the boy to ask Mr. Bicknell to join them in the dining room, and a minute later Ross saw Mr. Bicknell coming. He was not much older than Ross, grey at the temples, with a thin, intelligent face, a breezy manner, and clothes so good-looking that Ross hated them. Ross himself had changed into civilian clothes as quickly as he could, because what he wanted most was to get back, completely back. He had not paid much attention to the selection of a suit—even in the old days he had cut such things short—and the result was, he knew, uninspired. The 31 months, meaning principally Burma and checkerboard flying fields in the jungle, were represented outwardly by a button on his lapel and nothing else.
“So here you are,” Mr. Bicknell said, his voice brisk and cordial. “I hoped I’d find you somewhere around the shack. Ross Tyler, I’ve heard a good deal about you and I’m mighty glad to have a look at you at last, also to tell you what a great job this young lady has been doing at the plant.”
“The plant?” Ross said.
“The machine shop,” Joan told him.
“She still calls it that,” said Mr. Bicknell. “A lot of folks like myself are more respectful.”
“Oh,” said Ross, feeling inadequate and also a little like a bum who had drifted in from far outside.
“Won’t you sit down, Roy?” said Joan.
Roy Bicknell was already drawing up a chair from the next table.
“I’m not going to intrude,” he began. “This is your reunion and 1 hope it’ll be a reunion to remember. I just want to do what I can to help you have a good time in Montreal. It occurred to me that you might like to take in a night club and the Club Cimon is a
pretty good bet. This little envelope has reservations for a table for two tonight, with the compliments of Dominion Machine and yours truly. You’ll like the show, and there won’t be any check. It’s all taken care of.”
“Oh, Roy!” Joan cried. “Why, Ross, isn’t that grand?”
“Yes,” Ross said. “Yes, it is. That’s fine, Mr. Bicknell.”
IT WAS stupid of him, but Ross had not made any plans for the evening. He had thought the evening would take care of itself when it came. Aside from the marvel and the puzzle of seeing Joan again he had felt only one concern. He wanted her to know some things about Burma, which he could not explain, which probably could not be explained in words at all. He had been hoping that old Foxy Blades would come around, because just seeing him and his deliberate idiocy might make her understand the distance, the fellowship, and the shared jungle days so untranslatable into terms of normal life.
Ross had not been listening to what was said, but he found himself standing up and mumbling thanks as Mr. Bicknell prepared to depart.
“I hope you don’t mind,” Joan said, after he had gone.
“It’s really business, you see. Roy thinks the shop has possibilities after the war. He thinks the town is going to be quite a thriving city and he’s making up to us. It’s so nice of him to want to do something, and he’s been so good to Uncle Charlie that it wouldn’t do to refuse. Not that we haven’t helped him a lot, too.”
“I used to know a sales manager in the old days,” Ross said. “He used to take me out to dinner and send me neckties at Christmas, but nobody ever blew me to a night club.”
Joan laughed, and the sound was more than music. That should have made things all right but it didn’t. Ross realized, of course, that entertaining a returned soldier and his girl was the thing to do, but he wished that he had made his own plans for the evening. “What shall we do this afternoon?” he asked.
“You tell me.”
“I had been thinking we might just sort of ramble, the way we did once in a while. Maybe get on a bus and go out to the lake shore.”
“I’d love that,” Joan said, “but I had planned to leave word at the hotel where I could be reached. Never mind, I can call back from a booth and ask for any messages.”
“Not only that but something might come up at the shop. I’m afraid I’ve turned into a factory woman, Ross. This is my first holiday in quite a while.”
She went to her room to get ready and he called for her there. As he stood at the door he could not help noticing the red roses on her bureau. They were almost exactly the roses he would have sent her if he had not been so slow and so broke. He stared at them. “Mr. Bicknell?” he asked.
“Silly!” she said. “No. Quite a middle-aged gent and very dull indeed. Clint Grinnell. There’s a question of postwar patent rights his people are interested in. Of course they all had to know when I was to be in Montreal, and where, and why.”
“Why, Joan,” he said, “you’ve turned into a big shot. I’m proud to know you.”
“I’m not sure I like your tone, young fellow.”
He had not meant it as a crack but the false note had sounded through and now he could not easily explain. He looked at her across the 31 months and it seemed that the sooner they went on to something else the better.
“Let’s go,” he said.
She put her arms around his neck and nestled her head against his shoulder. He found himself kissing her soft hair. He did not know why but tears came to his eyes. He could not make out why he was such a kid and she was so confidently mature. He knew he had not been a kid in Burma or on the long trip home. He felt far away. She was trying to draw him back because she knew, but he still felt far away. Even with her so close and so dear there was this overwhelming loneliness.
A little later they were on a bus and Ross drew consolation and a certain companionship from the thousands of strange faces. Whatever he might be and whatever he might feel, his lot was shared many, many times. It couldn’t be important, this strangeness, because there was so much of it, and there were so many to get over it together. And yet, he thought, not so many whose girls had been built up in their
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absence, with so much new between them. i
The lake shore was fun, as Ross had hoped it would be. Together they looked out over the St. Lawrence and chattered just as they had in the old days.
But now Joan was suddenly serious and he helped her find a telephone. He watched from outside the booth as she dropped her nickel and dialed the number of the hotel. She was completely unaware of him; the excitement had gone from her face. It seemed to him her gaiety had been all a kindly pretense. In a minute she hung up the receiver and rejoined him. No messages.
“Everything is okay then,” Ross said.
“I hope so.”
She was trying to be light-hearted, he knew that, but moments of silence came between them. She was really anxious and abstracted. Well, he couldn’t blame her, for he was worried about Aunt Clara himself.
“If there had been any change Uncle Charlie would have wired,” he said.
As a matter of fact I was just thinking about the shop. I wish we had finished those new jigs before I left. I suppose I sound silly to you, Ross, but you don’t know how queer it is to be making things nobody ever dreamed of before. They don’t look like anything when you finish them, and you can only guess what sort of apparatus they will fit into. But they’ve got to be just right.”
“No,” said Ross, “I wouldn’t know.”
“Let’s snap out of it. Let’s just walk.”
They walked and that was all right for a while. But in the end Ross suggested that they go back to the hotel and Joan was more than willing. The expedition had hardly been a success.
THERE was still no message for Joan but the clerk at the desk handed Ross a slip of paper along with his key.
“Scoots, old man,” he read. “Where you been all p.m.? I waited around for you. Have to go now but will try to call back before train time. Foxy.” Joan had looked over his shoulder, and she asked in a puzzled voice, “Are you ‘Scoots’?”
“Well, yes,” he said. “I guess so.” “Why on earth should anyone call you that?”
“I don’t know. It was just an idea of Foxy’s, I guess.”
“I’m sorry you missed your friend.” “You can’t understand about Foxy without seeing him,” Ross said. “I wanted you to see him. He and I were pals.”
“But I do understand. Of course I do.”
“No,” he said, “you don’t. It’s more than Foxy, it’s a lot of other things, too.”
There was no chance to go into long explanations then, and Ross knew he did not have the faculty of saying what had to be grasped as a whole, with all the senses engaged at once. He and Foxy had come back from Burma together, and it was really a block of life he wanted Joan to know about. It was all over and done with, but she had to know. He and she had to know everything that concerned the other, just as they always had.
When he saw Joan dressed for the evening he could not help feeling appalled. She was lovelier than he had expected and she looked as if she might be used to being lovely. Her dress was blue and filmy. Ross had provided himself with a dinner jacket but it didn't fit too well, and he was awkward.
He lacked all smoothness, and he remembered that smoothness had always been a vitally important quality. In the old days he had fancied that he possessed it to a degree, but not any more.
And then, at last, the Club Cimon, with Joan across the table from him, and the swing band playing. He had liked music like this but now it bothered him. He could not think to it and he had to think. He looked around at the ornate fittings, the many tables crowded into small space, the shining black dance floor, the self-sufficient men and women. He suffered from a sense of constriction and glanced at Joan as if for help, but she was not troubled by anything of the sort. She was enjoying herself. They had left word at the hotel and any messages would be relayed to her.
“It’s hot here, isn’t it?” Joan asked.
“Is it? I hadn’t noticed.”
“But you look warm,” she said.
He felt sort of warm but not because of the temperature of the Club Cimon. More on account of Mr. Bicknell, probably. Then he thought he saw Mr. Bicknell coming toward them through the spatter of tables, but it proved not to be Mr. Bicknell at all. It was Mr. Laycock, who turned out to be a contractor’s man who knew Joan and reproved her for not letting him know she was in town. Joan introduced Ross, and told Mr. Laycock how he was just back from Burma. Mr. Laycock seemed to get the picture, and in a little while he sent the waiter with a bottle of special wine with his compliments.
“I wish he hadn’t,” Joan said to Ross. “I like him all right but Uncle Charlie wouldn’t want to do business with his people.”
Ross sipped the wine. It tasted like any wine to him.
“Look, you,” said Joan. “You told me a while ago that you weren’t keeping anything back. You said you would tell all. I’m listening.”
“I guess I need a board fence to sit on,” Ross said.
“What about Burma? I’m waiting to hear.”
“Well, it was sort of hot,” Ross began. He tried to go on, leaving out the obvious things. But it was the obvious things which mattered. It was the succession of commonplaces, the day after day of plugging, not the adventures, Joan wanted to hear and to which he felt she was entitled. He gave up and asked her to dance.
They danced but he was worse than he would have thought possible. He seemed to have lost the will to dance, even though he longed to measure up to Joan’s blithe expertness. Looking over her head he saw Mr. Bicknell, no, Mr. Laycock, and he flushed again at the inspection. There was no earthly use, he thought, and with rising anger at himself, at Bicknell and Laycock and the others, at everything in general, he began to lose what the Air Force people called orientation. He and Joan sat down again but the orientation was no good. It was gone entirely.
Mr. Laycock came over and asked permission to dance with Joan and, of course, out of politeness she had to dance with him. Ross thought he would grind his teeth to see if that would help. It didn’t. He tried another glass of wine. The wine did not affect him. Yet when Mr. Laycock returned to the table with Joan, Ross stood up.
“Mr. Bicknell,” he said. “Mr. Bicknell, I’ve been thinking . .
“Not Bicknell, Laycock.”
“Yes, Ross, dear, this is Mr. Laycock.”
“All right,” said Ross. “Mr. Laycock Bicknell, I’ve been thinking
! you might like to have some of this very special, particular wine ...” i And, reaching that point, Ross lifted I the bottle and poured what remained Í of the contents down Mr. Laycock’s immaculate front. The wine was red and it spread like boxcar paint.
“Young man, you’re drunk,” said ! Mr. Laycock, and a couple of waiters came running.
Ross remembered only a moment of satisfaction during which he hoped Mr. Laycock Bicknell, which was the name to which he still clung, was going to slug him. But nothing happened, except that Ross and Joan were escaping from the Club Cimon as swiftly as Joan could manage.
“Ross, Ross!” she said. “Why did you do that?”
j “I had to,” Ross said. “That’s all.” “Why did you have to?”
“I’m sore because I’ve lost you. I don’t know you any more. You’re somebody important. I don’t begrudge any "of that, but when a man and woman are going to get married, at least the way we wanted to get married, they have to see and feel things the same way. They have to hold a lot in common—common memories and experiences and all we used to have but haven’t got any more.”
THEY were in the taxi now. He went on and on, trying to explain. The years and months out of their lives had set them apart, and you couldn’t undo what time had forced upon you. It I was impossible to take time and roll it back up into a ball, even if you wished to, and he knew Joan didn’t wish.
“Why should you?” he asked, rhetorically. “You’ve got everything, and all the Bicknells and Laycocks and —what was the name of that other guy?—dancing around you.”
“Ross,” she said, “you’re being j childish. Of course we can’t get back ! where we were, that’s perfectly true. But we could be just as close as before if you’d only talk about things. I keep trying to draw you out but you just sit and look that frustrated way, like a boy. The only things you want to talk about are the old days. After all that’s ; a long time ago now. We were grown up even before the war. Don’t you remember that?”
“Sure, I remember,” Ross said. “Well, then. Do you think we should put on kiddy clothes and shin poles and climb over barns?”
“No,” said Ross. “I don’t think so at all.”
He said this so deliberately and j seriously that she turned and peered at him. He knew then what she was thinking. She was facing the fact for the first time that she had lost him and that he had lost her. She started to speak, and then fell silent. They were ! still cold and unspeaking when the taxi drew up in front of the hotel. He held the cab door and closed it after her. She swept on through the doorway, and as soon as he had paid the driver he followed.
The clerk was handing her a message. Ross wondered if it would be from Mr. Bicknell or somebody he had never heard of before. He did not doubt that j the supply was inexhaustible. But I this time the word was from Uncle Charlie. Aunt Clara was much worse and he thought Joan should come at once.
“There used to be a midnight train,” Ross said.
“There still is.”
Joan went to her room and packed as quickly as she could, and Ross was waiting for her. He took her hag and j then they were in a taxi again, speeding ! along through the open streets to ¡ Windsor Station. It wasn't possible to
get berths on the train and they sat up in a day coach.
After a while Joan began to nod and sleep fitfully, her head falling against Ross, but he had been accustomed to doing without sleep whenever occasion suggested and he remained wide awake. This will be the last time, he thought, that Joan and I will ride together, anywhere. She was still wearing the blue evening dress under a wrap, for there had not been time to change. Other passengers looked at her and at Ross curiously, but he did not mind. He was rather proud and pleased.
The only thing was, this would be the last time. He began to think what he would tell Uncle Charlie. Even with Aunt Clara desperately ill, he would say, you and she have something priceless that nobody can take away from you—a long life lived together, against the world. Now I’m sorry about Joan and me, he would go on, but it couldn’t be that way with us. We started out all right but along came the war and I went away to mark time in the jungle—oh, I did what they needed to have done, and maybe a little more than they hoped for, but so far as real life goes, it was marking time—and Joan took hold of the machine shop and turned into a different person. She found a career, you see, and I’m glad. Yes, I’m glad. But the time out for her and me can never be replaced. That’s why Joan and I aren’t getting married, Uncle Charlie.
THEY reached home in the drizzling morning and as they emerged from the station Ross saw the elms for the first time, arching over Main Street in the same old way. The rain on the sidewalks gave a sweet smell to the air, and this was one of the smells of home. He took Joan’s arm and guided her. She was white and tired and accepted his help without demur.
Uncle Charlie’s house looked about the same, but it needed paint. Ross supposed that many things like that had been neglected during the war. He opened the gate in the front fence and it squeaked, just as always. There was a weight attached to a cord which swung the gate shut.
Uncle Charlie met them in the hall. It must have been Uncle Charlie, but Ross wondered if he really knew this tired bent old man. Joan threw her arms around his neck and kissed him, and he answered her unspoken question.
“She wants to see you, Joan. It’s all right. It won’t make any difference, the doctor says. You’d better go up . . . while there’s still time.”
Joan dropped her coat on a chair and went swiftly up the stairs, her filmy blue evening dress trailing. The hall was dark and dignified, even sombre now. The balustrade was of mahogany, and Joan looked slight as she went up with her hand on the railing.
“It’s good to see you, boy,” Uncle Charlie said, and led Ross into the parlor.
The house was large and oldfashioned, and there were folding shutters at the windows, painted white. These were partly closed but the room was not dark. It just seemed empty and constrained. All the squatty chairs with their quaint upholstery were exactly placed, the fire in the fireplace was laid with birch logs, for ornament only, and the landscape above the mantel showed a discreet, unmoving waterfall.
“I’m glad to see you, sir,” Ross said, and then, his voice dropping, “is it . . . the end?”
“Yes,” said Linde Charlie. “That’s what it is. I’ve been feeling lonely. I’ve wanted to talk to somebody. I’m glad
Joan’s back, but in some ways I can talk better to you.
“All last night, off and on. I sat in Clara’s room. She wanted to talk, you see. I suppose everybody would under those circumstances, but not everybody can. Clara and I have been lucky. She knows, of course. She knew before the doctor did. So all night long I sat ; there, and she would nap and then wake up and talk and then nap again.
“And this is what I can’t get used to, Ross. She didn’t talk about the things j I thought she would. She went back to i (he time she was a little girl, and began ! remem lering out loud. I never knew her father and mother, Ross, but I know them now. I think she was a good daughter to them but you would think that some things had worried her all her life.
“Then she talked about times at school and mentioned names of boys I never knew and never heard of. I don’t know why she never told me before. Here Clara and I have lived together for 46 years and there was all this about her which was a closed book, a fenced-off little world of her own. I wonder if we are all like that, Ross?”
“I don’t know, sir,” Ross said.
“You see, Clara and I never met until I was almost 30 and she was 25. After we were married we didn’t miss those years, but last night, as she was talking, I began to miss them, Ross. I don’t know if you can realize what I mean—I hope it doesn’t sound like a jealous and doddering old man—but I felt left out. Sometimes she spoke so warmly and brightly, as if it were only yesterday that she and this Loren Floyd were driving to the agricultural fair. They had dances at the fair every year then, Ross. Who was this Loren Floyd, I asked myself? I never heard of him. What business has my wife talking about Loren Floyd when there’s so little time left?”
n “You mustn’t mind, Uncle Charlie,” Ross said. “It must be like that with n every married couple.” Then Ross u began to wonder about what he had ;r said, and to feel uncomfortable, y “I guess it is,” said Uncle Charlie, e “Clara and I were luckier than most,
e to have had so much time together. I it don’t begrudge her the rest, my boy.
n No, I don’t. Maybe I did at first, but I
was taken by surprise. I figure this is >, how it works. If a person is worth :s loving and worth having a man can’t
0 hope to take over everything about her. n He shouldn’t want to. The sharing is N all right; that goes without any stint,
1 but the possessing—I judge that’s d where the limit is. I’ve read a poem, k Ross, which says that nobody worth 11 possessing can be quite possessed, and
last night I came to understand the t truth of that. I’m not sorry, I’m happy I about it. I’m an old man, and I’ve had
I so much more than most.”
e Ross sat silently in the stiff parlor d chair, trying not to muss the anti-
II macassar, and he thought of what Uncle Charlie had spoken from a full
I heart, with the clear vision of this important hour; and he thought of the 31 months. They did not seem so long it after all, nor would they matter much, >. by-and-by.
is The reason you can’t explain is s partly that you don’t have to explain, I he said to himself. You just let it ride I and maybe in the course of time it all a becomes clear. How little he and Joan I had lost after all, and how much they o could still have together, y Uncle Charlie stood up and moved n slowly into the hall. Ross stood at the il foot of the stairs beside him, and they y both listened. Ross remembered Aunt n Clara with love and regret, but at the if same time a fresh expectancy came into e his manner, because soon Joan would be s coming down the stairway to him in her filmy blue dress.