FICTION

A House for Carrie

Carrie wrote a poem about her life...but what she didn’t put on paper was a legacy to a little girl of hope and faith and love

PAN STERLING March 1 1944
FICTION

A House for Carrie

Carrie wrote a poem about her life...but what she didn’t put on paper was a legacy to a little girl of hope and faith and love

PAN STERLING March 1 1944

A House for Carrie

PAN STERLING

CARRIE WILSON worked for my mother. Years ago. Her wage was two dollars a week. That was all she had wanted, all she would take.

“But, Carrie, I should pay two or three times that or expect to be without help,” my mother had told her when she had trudged up the lane from the highway to talk about working for us.

“Two dollars is what I asked for, Mrs. Burton. I’ve worked lots of places for that. 1 don’t never ask for anymore. I like it to be two dollars. If l can get that I can get my house and that’s what I want. Besides, I eat real hearty. And I write my poetry. Two dollars is enough. I guess you’ll see.”

So Carrie had come. My mother thought if she would wash the dishes and gather eggs when Paul and 1 were in school, and things like that, she'd feel all right about the two dollars. Carrie was to sleep in my room, the east one upstairs that had six windows. My bed was in an alcove and Carrie’s was across the room. My father carried her tin and wood trunk in front of him up the back stairs, hoisting it with his knees, and I watched her take things out of it—such a lot of things from that round-top trunk that w-as lined with wallpaper. There were handkerchiefs with pink or blue or yellow tatting on them, a veil that was the color of smoke, a cushion top, some long grey underwear with square patches, her shirtwaists and skirts and dresses, which now I know were donations from every horne she had worked in, some baking powder cans filled with four-o’clock and garden seed, an empty candy box with pins in it, some balls of string, a great roll of tied rags for carpets, a great

stack of Comfortable Homes, which Carrie said was the best magazine she’d ever heard of—and the poem.

The poem was in a furred brown envelope with an elastic band about it. Carrie lifted that envelope with both hands to her bosom, one hand pressing the other as though the papers should be kept warm. “This here’s my long poem,” she said. “It’s all about my life.” Later she read verses to Paul and me. Paul is my brother. This is the way the poem began:

“Thirty years ago today I was borned so they say.

In a farmhouse of renown I was borned in Dover Town.

“The house it was so very old But it kept me from the cold.

There to woman I did grow.

All my life was filled with woe."

Some of the W'oes she read even that night, and one by one as the weeks went by we knew them by heart: how her stepmother slapped her, how she got married and how her husband slapped her, how a canary bird died, and how her husband went to jail. Other verses she folded away, however, and never let us see what she had written.

She had written that poem on any and all kinds of paper, tablet sheets, notebook leaves, wrapping paper, torn-open grocery sacks, cigarette tissue, and even wallpaper.

“I write about everything that happens to me. 1 wrote about when I was born and when I was a girl and when I got married and when—well, when people were mean,” she said that night. “I’ll make verses about coming here.”

At supper even my father quit eating and listened to her tell about all the people she had worked for: the Murphys who were good to her but couldn’t pay her anything, the Reynolds who gave her only one quilt for her bed, the Myers who had her come there every time they had a new baby, Mrs. Denton who called her a half-wit . . .

“I know a half-wit,” Paul broke in. “He’s Midge’s fellah.”

“He is not. That old Lawrence. I just hate him.”

“Children!” our father commanded. I thought that even he would break a cup the way he set it down, however, when she said that whenever anybody paid her two dollars a week she saved a dollar seventy-five cents out of it so she could buy a house and have her little girl come live with her.

“Have you got a little girl?” I cried. “What’s her name?”

“Marguerite Pearl,” Carrie said.

“Where is she? Why didn’t she come with you?”

“She couldn’t, dear,” my mother said.

Carrie lifted her head and looked straight at my mother. “I can have her when I buy me a house,” she said. “I can get her when I fix a home.”

“She could live with you now, couldn’t she?” I asked.

“No. Not now.” She returned to eating and kept watching me. Once she reached her hand and ran it on my hair. “She’s got fluffy yellowish hair,” she said.

From the first night she belonged to our house. She washed the dishes and talked to my mother and flipped Paul whenever he teased me about Lawrence. Then when all the work was done she would put on a pair of spectacles, no bigger than her eyes, and sit in the kitchen rocking chair to read recipes to my mother from the Comfortable Home papers or find a story or a

poem in them for Paul and me. How well I remember her grey eyes shining through those little specs.

There she would sit in the rocking chair, head against the embroidered tidy, paper high, while I stood on one rocker, holding to a chair arm to question her about things in the magazine. Sometimes she would answer me, slipping an arm about me. Sometimes she would say, “Because” or “Uh-huh” and go on reading to herself. Sometimes she would not even hear but would say instead, “Looks like this here’s a good recipe for jam cake, Mrs. Burton. It says take two thirds cup butter—” or, “Listen to this; a man was driving his car ...”

“Some day I’m going to send this Comfortable Home magazine some of my poetry,” Carrie told us. “They like sad poetry like I do.”

“Why don’t you read us poetry about your fellah?” Paul wanted to know.

“I haven’t got a fellah.”

“Yes you have. I saw one of your poems that said ‘loves me.’

You tried to burn it up.”

“That’s all you know,” Carrie flared. “You don’t even know how I had it rhymed.”

So Paul, as he always did, started down the alphabet: “Doves me, goves me, hoves me, koves me ...”

Carrie’s hand slapped space and we laughed at the darkness of her frown. “You tease me and I’ll sit on the meal chest again.”

That had been the worst of her threats, that and saying she would leave us. Once she had sat on the meal chest for over two hours and neither Paul nor I could coax her down. We had been teasing her in the kitchen, safety-pinning her apron strings and giggling, and when she could stand us no longer she had banged a kettle on the back of the stove and run to the barn to climb on top of the high meal chest there, drawing her knees up and leaning against the bales of hay to make herself comfortable. Our mother and father had gone off to town with the produce and when an hour had passed, and another, we almost cried. Mamma and Papa would come and know that the place was the same as being left alone and that we ware responsible.

“Carrie, please come down.”

“No. I’m just going to sit here and think another verse.”

“Carrie, please.”

“No, sir.”

“We won’t tease you any more. We’ll both make you something for Marguerite Pearl.”

She looked through the bar door and over the fields.

“I’m not going to get down. I’m going to tell your Papa.”

And she did.

EVERY Thursday Carrie went to town to see Marguerite Pearl, her little girl. Sometimes my father took her and sometimes she caught a ride with Hansens, who lived next farm to us. I made more of Thursdays than she did, it seemed, though she always started getting ready on Wednesdays and was good for almost nothing else, my mother said. On Thursdays I “fixed her up.” I combed her hair, paled her with powder and put beet juice on her cheeks.

One of those Thursdays was Marguerite Pearl’s birthday, the same day that was the Thursday of Mamma and Papa’s lodge dinner. Carrie said so at breakfast. “At three o’clock this afternoon she’s going to be eight years old.”

“We’ll stir up an extra little cake,” my mother said. “We’ll decorate it with red-hots and Midge can count out eight fresh red candles.”

“I’ll draw her a picture,” I promised.

And I did. I leaned against the kitchen table, tongue between my lips, and drew a picture of à little girl with bright cheeks and round eyes and yellow hair. I crayoned a lavender dress on her, and lavender socks and a lavender hair ribbon. She was a little girl who smiled, a little girl who was eight.

“She’s nice,” Carrie told me, leaning over, beating

cake batter. “That’s really the kind of hair Marguerite Pearl’s got.”

But I did not give the picture to Marguerite Pearl. I kept it for myself.

“Midge Burton, what’s got into you?” my mother demanded.

“I can’t give her away, Mamma. I love her. Marguerite Pearl can draw her own girl, can’t she?”

Whatever the arguments were, I did not give up the picture. I struck it with gum to the wall beside my dresser.

My mother took me by the shoulders and bent to talk to me. All that I remember is that I looked her in the eyes and shook my head. I’m sure that 1 told her I’d give her something else; not the picture.

My mother let me go. She sighed.

So, at noontime, the red and white cake waited in a box while Carrie shooed our chickens out of some kind of trouble. I swung on the screen and waited for her to come in so that I could prepare her.

Two chairs were ready for her beside the kitchen screen; one for her to sit

on and one for the wash pan, comb, powder box, my Easter perfume, and all other necessary things. At last she came and sat for me, straight and tall. I got atop a box.

“Why do you have brown hair?” I asked, sopping a lock with my comb. “Why don’t you have yellow hair like your little girl’s?”

“I got the hair the Lord give me. Hurry, Midge. I’m good and late.”

“If you had curly hair you’d look better. Especially when it’s Marguerite Pearl’s birthday.”

“Especially when it’s Marguerite Pearl’s birthday,” my mother echoed for my benefit. I rushed on with my questioning.

“Will Marguerite Pearl’s hair ever be straight?” “No,” said Carrie. “1 guess it’s always going to be fluffy.” Suddenly she twisted around and looked at my own hair. “Midge, I don’t want you to get mad at me,” she said. “But I think Marguerite Pearl’s hair’s even prettier than yours is.”

Before me came the little girl of my picture. “Well, if it’s yellow, it is. I wish I could see Marguerite Pearl. Could I? When you get a house?”

“Maybe. I got to go, Midge. Hansen’s ’ll be honking for me in a minute.”

“If you build a house as close as Hansen’s, Marguerite Pearl could stay all night with me, couldn’t she?”

“Stop bothering Carrie, Midge.”

“But she could, Mamma. She could play with me.” “Carrie has to hurry, Midge.”

“All right, Mamma. I just have to fix one side.” “You have enough lilac on her. She’ll smell you out, Carrie.”

’Tain’t lilac. It’s lilies of the valley.”

“It’s nice.” Carrie stretched the front of her dress and bent her head to it, smiling at my mother. “She give me the rest of it to take to Marguerite Pearl.”

“She should give the picture, too,” my mother said.

“The perfume’s enough, Mrs. Burton. I’ll bet you Marguerite Pearl’s going to like it.”

Carrie got up then and looked into the glass of the pushed back kitchen door. It made a good mirror to show her thin neck under her thin face, and her redbrown hair plastered to her ears. She smiled at herself, thinking perhaps she looked nice. At least she knew she smelled like flowers.

“Why don’t you write things about Marguerite Pearl?” I asked her.

Carrie pressed her hands all the way down her blouse and skirt and started for the back stairs. “I do. I write a lot about her. Maybe I’ll think another verse on my way back.”

A voice screeched from the porch:

“Thirty years ago today 1 was horned so they say”

“Paul!”

“What I want her to read is that one about her

fellah.”

“I’ll fellah you!” Carrie lunged to him, her eyes sparkling to his. “If you make me miss Hansen’s, I’ll sit on the meal chest and make you get another licking.”

My mother laughed. Carrie laughed too but acted mad and said we’d better be careful about getting her to sit on the meal chest tonight while Papa and Mamma were away.

She went upstairs and came down tall in a felt hat and a man’s blue straight sweater buttoned over her shirtwaist. I had the perfume bottle wrapped in a piece of yellow-roses wallpaper. She put it in her bulging pocketbook and took the cake box by its string.

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Carrie wrote a poem about her life...but what she didn’t put on paper was a legacy to a little girl of hope and faith and love

A House for Carrie

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I watched her hurry, leaning on the wind, being careful of the cake.

“Carrie stays just a little while when she visits Marguerite Pearl, Mamma,”

I I said.

“She stays as long as she can, dear. Marguerite Pearl is in a school.”

“Oh, boarding school,” Paul bragged. “I know a girl’s got a sister goes to boarding school.” He made a silly face at me. “She’s dopey Lawrence’s cousin.” He teased me about Lawrence all the time. Once he even tried to get him to kiss me. Lawrence grinned all the time; and he stumbled when he walked.

I suppose I pouted for, “Don’t quarrel,” our mother ordered. “And stop teasing Carrie so much. She’s had a hard enough life and you two shouldn’t add to her troubles. As it is, even though this is her own little daughter’s birthday, she’s going to hurry back so Papa and I can get away at five-thirty. Be good to her now. She’s good to you.”

“Could she make thimble biscuits for us?”

“Now why did you have to go guess that? She wanted to surprise you with them.”

That was joy enough, for thimble biscuits were cut by a thimble and eaten with butter and honey pieces as big as they.

1 HURRIED with whatever chores my mother set me to do and when I was tired 1 lay in the sun on our porch with my head on Bunch, our dog, and thought how Carrie went to see her little girl on Thursday, and how we teased her. There were special ways we had of teasing Carrie—apron-string teasings, poem teasings, fellah teasings, mimicking-Bunchy-or-the-cat teasings —and dooflicker.

Dooflickering, we did at the table. We’d say, “Carrie, please may I have some dooflicker?” and Carrie would be supposed to know what we meant, though dooflicker could be honey, or pickles, or catsup, or cocoa, or anything else, mostly something that was not on the table. At a certain point, however, my father always made us behave.

Poor Carrie.

I giggled and Bunchy stirred. Seeing Carrie pointing, asking, “This? That? This?” I lay still.

I wished the girl in the picture on my wall were not quite so sweet. Then I went to sleep.

When Carrie returned that night, we greeted her halfway down the house path with our song: “Thimble biscuits! Thimble biscuits! Mamma said you had to make us thimble biscuits.”

She pulled her hat from her presseddown hair and whipped it a time or two against her knee, then rubbed an eye. “1 don’t have to make anything,” she said. “My, but it was dusty.”

I knew that the redness of her eyes was not from dust.

She shook dust from her sweater sleeves. “Better wear your coat, Mrs. Burton. It’s turning cool.”

“So I see, Carrie. You leave your sweater on, Midge, and you and Paul bring more wood so Carrie can keep I the fire going.”

“Thimble biscuits! Thimble biscuits!” That made our tune for skipping.

We raced back, wind-blown, arms chin-high with wood, ready to kick the bottom part of the screen door for them to let us in, and I heard Carrie say, “They do their best, I guess, Mrs. Burton. I said to that head woman, ‘just as soon as I get me a house . . . ’ ”

She stopped when she knew we were there. K

1 dumped my load and brushed wood dust from my sleeves. “Did she like the perfume?”

Carrie turned. Her smile was quick. Her eyes were not red any more.

“Yes, she did. Liked it better’n anything I ever brought. Don’t know why I never thought of perfume.” Already her fingers were at the flour and Shortening.

I got a thimble from the machine drawer and Carrie cut row after row of our biscuits and lined them in the cooking pan.

“Say some of your poem, Carrie.” Carrie began to recite as perfectly as she said she had done one time at a home talent show:

“Twenty-five years February eleven My dear mother went to heaven.

Oh, how sorry we did feel,

But to Cod we did appeal.”

She said the last words like the minister did.

“Say one about Marguerite Pearl.”

“Marguerite Pearl has golden hair That would take first prize at any fair.

“I don’t know the rest.”

“Oh, Carrie, you do, too. You do, too. You know you do.”

“I don’t either.”

“Then you gotta say one about your fellah.”

“Haven’t got a fellah.”

“You wrote—‘loves me’ ...” “What if I did? Wasn’t about a fellah.”

“Was it about Marguerite Pearl?” Carrie knelt at the oven to slide the biscuit pan in. She said “Yes,” in a very low voice.

WHEN we got to the supper table, Carrie said the verse of Simpson Brown:

“In the middle of the town A store is owned by Simpson Brown He works there with quite a strife. Mr. Cunningham’s daughter is his wife.”

At the last word Paul suddenly drew straight in his chair. “Pass the dooflicker,” he ordered pompously.

Carrie stopped, her fork over her plate, and looked puzzled for a moment, then began pointing to this and that about her.

“Paul!” I exclaimed. “You didn’t

say please.”

“Ah, gee, then please pass the dooflicker.”

Carrie’s fork wavered. “This? That? This?”

Paul shook his head in patience. I sat still with butter seeping into my tiny biscuit. Then, “Pass me some dooflicker too,” I said. “Please.”

“Oh, you!” Carrie said and went from salt to bread to stewed peaches and back again, and nothing on the table was dooflicker. “What is dooflicker? Some your mother’s beans?” That was it. She went to the pantry for the big brown crock. A spoonful of beans and bacon went to our plates. A great heap of the rich brownness piled her own dish.

“Does Marguerite Pearl want you to hurry and get your house?”

Suddenly Carrie’s red hand with the fork in it went away from the beans and lay across the tablecloth. She did not look at me. She looked at the closed stair door. “I would have had a house if it hadn’t been for Jim Wilson,” she said, as though she were telling that to the

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door. “I would have had a girl and maybe a boy home with me and I’d be I setting at my own table. My husband’s i the fault of it all. He’s why I’ve had my woe.”

Everything around her seemed to keep still. Even wood stopped crackling in the stove.

“It’s all right if Marguerite Pearl lives in a boarding school, Carrie,” I told her. “Paul knows a girl’s got a sister goes to boarding school.”

Carrie’s cheeks began to pull. Sitting straight in her chair, she began crying without putting her handkerchief or even her hands to her eyes.

“We won’t tease you any more,” we promised, reaching our hands along the tablecloth. “Honest we won’t.”

“I don’t care about teasing. I’m not crying about that.” She looked down at us, first at me then at Paul. Sobs were jumping in her breast, and her face stretched more. Without even trying to stop her tears, it seemed, she worked her knuckles into her eyes and when she lifted her fork again I remembered words she had said to my mother, “But I eat really hearty.” Busy at eating beans, it was hard to cry or even to want to cry. So she stopped.

Suddenly then she was erect, her damp face gleaming in the lamplight. “Say! I forgot to tell you I brought you some bubble gum.”

SEEMED everyone was away from the table at once and over to the chair where her things were, searching her pocketbook and the pockets of her sweater. Seemed she might have lost the little package, but she found it in a mass a paper scraps in her pocket. I knew what the paper scraps were too. Tornup yellow wallpaper. She gathered the gum papers we dropped and when she reached to her sweater pocket we knew what she meant to do. Burn poetry. For she had written on the j yellow wallpaper from the perfume bottle. She had written poetry on it ! and torn it up. Sitting in town in Hansen’s car, probably waiting for them, she had folded the paper and written poetry.

In less time that it took for pieces to fall to the fire, I was at her side, twisting to wink at Paul and to plant my ; foot over a piece that fluttered down; quite a large piece. We could see no words on the scraps the flames caught but we danced and yelled anyway: “Carrie wrote something about her fellah! Carrie wrote something about her fellah!”

In the commotion I gathered the scrap from the floor and tried to signal Paul. He was tugging at Carrie’s arm, however, and did not see me, so I hid the piece in my own sweater pocket. Paul could read it to me later or I could spell it out by myself. I was not quite as old as Marguerite Pearl, yet I could read a little. I joined the dance and the chorus: “Carrie wrote about her

fellah!”

Somehow Carrie got rid of Paul’s hands at her arm and rattled the stove lid into place. She pushed past us to the chair where her sweater hung. We hushed. She pulled her arm into the sweater’s sleeve.

“I’m going right down to the barn,” she said. “Y’ou’re bad. I’ll sit on the meal chest until your papa comes.”

Our whimpering and possibly the chilly evening won her.

“We’ll play dominoes and we won’t tease you and we’ll go to bed when you say.”

“All right. And you’ve got to help

do dishes.”

“Um-huh! I’ll wipe and Paul ’ll carry them to the pantry.”

We let the gum bubble out of our mouths while we scraped and stacked

the plates and the bubbles burst and ridged our cheeks. Carrie said she’d have to use coal oil to get it off.

Paul teetered a chair beside us and as I wiped cups he hung them on his fingers. When his hand was full of three cups and a pitcher, he shuffled to the pantry, humming Carrie’s made-up tune:

“A baby came to bless our home.

I thought I never more would roam.”

Paul put the cups on the pantry shelf and came again. “Hurry up so we can play dominoes,” he commanded.

Carrie looked over her dishpan to the cleared end of the kitchen table. “Say, young man,” she said. “You do your work.”

INSTEAD of playing dominoes we built the county jail, then made the stockyards, then a house with a walk leading to the gate.

“Here’s your house, Carrie. It’s got six rooms.”

“I don’t want six. I want three,” Carrie said. “I want a kitchen and a front room and a bedroom with a wide bed in it so Marguerite Pearl can sleep with me.” All at once she got excited and I got her a pencil out of the knife and fork drawer so that she could draw a trailing floor plan. We knew where a couch was going to be and where she’d have her picture of the house and lake that was almost like the picture of the house and lake on our fat blue lamp.

“I’ll draw you a picture to stick up on your wall,” I said, then looked at her and almost could not take my eyes away.

Then she smiled, and I could smile. We had some sugar cookies and when the clock bonged eight Carrie said we had to get washed and off to bed. It was chilly going up the stairs. Carrie went ahead and lit the fat blue lamp with the farmhouse and the lake on it and in a moment I was in my bed by the window and Paul was snuggled in his across the hall. I squeezed Carrie round the neck, then she turned the lamp low and said she’d stay awake down in the kitchen until our parents came. For a long time after she went back down the steps, I heard the creak-creak of her rocking. She was reading Comforts.

“Good night, Paul,” I called.

“Good night, Midgie.”

“She liked the perfume,” I was thinking when I went to sleep. “She liked it better than she would of a picture.”

I wakened, sniffly. Perhaps it was ten minutes later, perhaps it was a half hour. I searched for my handkerchief, sleepily. It was not under my pillow. It was not in the pocket of my outing flannel nightgown, or even tucked up my sleeve.

The lamp’s light was trembling. The room was cold-smelling. Carrie was humming a tune downstairs.

I hated to get up for the handkerchief which I knew was in my sweater pocket but I decided I’d better, so I went on the cold floor, sniffling.

Of course, I found Carrie’s twisted paper that I’d hidden there. What I did about the handkerchief I don’t know, but I do know that I shivered with gladness instead of with cold. Ammunition for a new day’s teasing. A poem about Carrie’s fellah—or something else she did not want us to know about.

Tiptoe, not creaking the boards, I stalked to Carrie’s lamp, the fat blue lamp. Now I should know what forbidden thing she had written.

My hand made straight the paper.

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Scraps of Carrie’s familiar words were there, one same old poem, the verse that said:

“A baby came to bless our home.

I thought I never more should roam.”

And new lines—torn—but enough of them left to tell a secret. Enough left to tell about Marguerite Pearl.

Downstairs Carrie’s humming turned to song. She was fitting words for this very poem:

“They took her away when she was two.

I tried to get her back, but what could I do?”

“Ah, Carrie!”

I studied the picture of the house and the lake on the lamp and began to tear the paper, crosswise, crisswise. I made it as small as kids make notes at school. Not even Paul should know.

Slowly then I went to put the poem back in my sweater. My hand stayed in the pocket’s warmth. Carrie’s tornup words were in my fingers. These are what they were:

“Marguerite Pearl has blue eyes and kind of a dimple. What a pity it is she’s got to be simple.”

That iswhy Carrie could not have Marguerite Pearl with her. They had shut her up in that kind of a boarding school because she was not quite right — like other little girls. It made me want to cry.

I stood beside the chair, keeping my hand warm. I listened to Carrie’s song and her chair. Then I went on the cold floor to the dresser where my picture hung.

Round eyes looked over me and over the room. Crayoned cheeks were part of a smile. Fluffy hair moved in a breeze.

“You’re the favrit picture I ever drew,” I said. “I just love you.”

Twice I turned away to get into bed. Twice I came back to the picture. I pulled it from its gummed place on the wall. I padded to Carrie’s table. With tongue-wet pencil I printed, and propped my picture against the lamp’s blue base. Gum held it. The words showed. ,

“This is your little girl,” I had spelled for Carrie.