FICTION

A Different Cup of Tea

KAY WEBSTER December 1 1946
FICTION

A Different Cup of Tea

KAY WEBSTER December 1 1946

A Different Cup of Tea

KAY WEBSTER

THE SMELL of coffee and bacon came to him through the half-closed door, so strong that it seemed he could almost touch it. Closer to him, reaching him as he moved between the smooth sheets, was the smell of lavender or rose verbena or whatever it was that women put in their linen closets to make sheets smell that way. Home smells all of them, and at this moment, more than any other time, he was glad to be at home.

Later, after he had eaten breakfast., and talked with his mother and his brother George, he would not be so sure.

His mother called. “Mac, breakfast’s ready,” and he grunted and stretched his long legs down to the bottom of the bed. This first waking moment was the way it had been when he was a kid, but then there had always been an urgency to get up, a new baseball to throw on the way to school, a headlong rush to see if his white mice or his bunny had survived the night or perhaps had acquired miraculous new characteristics. When he was older there had been the anticipation that some particular girl, depending on the season, would notice him at school, would see suddenly that here was a sterling fellow, different from the rest, from the callow, insensitive ones. None, so far as he could remember, ever had, except for several dull, timid creatures who had clung to him, his mother had often said with a tiny smile, like leeches.

He wondered sleepily if all dreams winnowed away until, with the inexorable passage of time, you found that they really hadn’t mattered very much at all.

He eased out of bed with caution, because now, for a little while, he felt fine, and he could not afford in his present frame of mind to spoil that feeling. He walked into the bathroom and looked at his face, his plain, ugly mug, in the mirror. Here you are, he said to himself, Macdonald Wilson James, with no longer even a paltry corporal in front of that fancy-sounding name. You thought coming home would be fine, but it’s not—it’s just the same, and it always will be. Better get used to it, bud.

He padded down the stairs in his old heelless slippers, and his mother called sharply, “Mac, for goodness sakes, 1 thought I’d thrown those things away.”

He tried tó keep the slippers from making so much noise, and one of them fell off and slipped limply down the stairs, slapping on the treads like a landed fish. He retrieved it and walked into the kitchen. George was halfway through his boiled egg and his mother was pouring him what would be his third cup of coffee. George always had a third cup of coffee halfway through his egg. It was one of his few indulgences.

“Good morning, mother,” Mac said. He bent and kissed her smooth cheek. She expected her sons to kiss her on appropriate occasions, but he could not remember when she had last kissed him. He thought how nice she looked, so clean and cool, so almost antiseptic. Around her was an indefinable scent that was simply his mother’s, and it had been hers ever since he could remember. He would know it anywhere.

He turned to George. “How’s the boy?” he said.

George managed to swallow and look

knowing at the same time. “Have a good time last night?” he asked politely. One could depend on George to say the proper thing at the proper time.

“Rugged,” Mac said, because he thought his practiced use of the word might please his mother. Her conception of its meaning would be vague, but she was bound to think it very soldierly. He had not managed to get a commission or be wounded but he had tried since he came home to assume some of the other aspects of the battle-scarred veteran. He was glad to please her any way he could.

Now she was hovering over George, buttering his toast, getting him more jam. George had always been delicate. He had been an expediter in a war plant and now he was selling bonds, and, Mac was sure, doing it with dispatch.

“Go-getter,” Mac said under his breath, and George said alertly, “What’s that?”

“Oh, hell, nothing. How about some breakfast, mother?”

“Just a minute, Mac. George is a little late.”

“Not our George,” Mac said.

“Really, Mac.” His mother was frowning. I have that effect on her, Mac thought. The problem child, that’s me.

George wiped his mouth and said sturdily, “Well, time to be off.”

“That’s the old fight,” Mac said, and began to clear George’s dishes from the table.

His mother said, “I made this coffee fresh for George. It should be all right . . .”

“Sure,” Mac said, “what’s good enough for George is good enough for me.” Only it never had been. He’d always wanted more.

SHE HAD been very conscientious about sending parcels overseas. Once she had sent him a bottle of rye snugly concealed in a loaf of bread, and when he had opened the parcel and seen it

They were striving to be what they weren’t. It was wonderful to learn that together they could be themselves

there he had laughed—the sadness and homesickness and love for her lodging in his throat like a stone. He had looked for a note in the parcel, he had searched her letters for a long time afterward for some mention of this alien thing she had done for him, some small joke, perhaps, some feeling of a thing shared, but there had been nothing ever but the final knowledge that once again she had done something she disliked out of a duty that was as irrevocable and tenacious as time itself. He had begun then to drink more. Not a great deal, but a little more all the time. There had been the fighting, certainly,' but the waiting had been harder, the long long months of bridge and rain and mud up to your knees and then more bridge and the vino, if you could get it. With the vino time went faster for a little while.

And now he was home and he had hung one on last night. She knew it; George knew it. George never touched a drop.

“Mac,” his mother said, “what are you going to do today?”

“Nothing much. Nothing very constructive.”

“In that case you might go over to see old Mr. Ramsay and his sister.” Or get a job, Mac thought. A nice clean respectable job. Why didn’t she say it?

“Okay,” he said. That much he could do. Old Mr. Ramsay of the Fighting 72nd and the slipping upper plate; older Miss Ramsay, who had sent him can after can of Prem and raisin cookies that were always moldy when they reached him. They would talk, he thought, how they would talk. And he would have nothing to say; no wounds to exhibit, nothing for the old man’s recollections or the woman’s pity to feed upon. He concerned himself for a moment with the fact that he had managed always to be a disappointment to everyone.

He ran his hands through his hair. His head had begun to ache now. “Well,” he said, “I might as well get going.”

His mother turned to him, lifting her hands out of the steaming dishwater. She had the same small frown between her eyes. “Shall I plan on you for dinner? I’d like to do the shopping this morning.”

“Yes,” he said, “I’ll be home.” It was easier to say yes. He might come home at that.

“I’ll dry the dishes, if you want,” he said. It was only nine o’clock and the day stretched before him like a desert.

“Thanks, dear,” his mother said, “but there aren’t many. I like to do them my own way.”

“Yes, sure,” he said. He went upstairs and sat on the edge of his bed, not thinking of anything, only conscious of a dull depression and the gnawing ache in his head. After a while the sound of the vacuum cleaner came to him from below, and he could imagine the intentness with which his mother went about her work—efficiently, without wasted motion, almost with joy. He remembered how it had been when they were kids, with the newspapers at every threshold and the bedroom slippers silently rebuking at the back door. George never forgot about the slippers. Everyone said that George was a great comfort to his widowed mother.

Mac got up from the bed with a sudden surge of energy. He could, he supposed, tackle Carson Brown about a job. He had kept his many unsuccessful attempts a careful secret from his mother and he had kept Brown as a last resort, promising himself that whatever Brown offered Continued on page 37

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he would take, if all else failed. He dressed meticulously, thinking wryly as he knotted his tie that he might be no beauty but at least he was clean,cleaner than he had been for five years.

The busy whirr of the vacuum successfully screened his departure from his mother, and he had the childish, dogged hope that she might wonder why he had left without speaking to her. The need to hurt her into an awareness of him beset him now as strongly as it had when, as a child, he had begun with disobedience, and when that had been clearly ineffective had graduated into hurling alley-learned obscenities at her, biting and kicking her in a kind of ecstasy, a tumult of ambiguous, childish emotion.

Meeting her immobility and reasonable, aloof kindness (naturally I make no distinctions between my children—I treat them exactly alike), he would turn on George like a young animal, smashing at him with his small fists until he was exhausted and George squealing like a stuck pig. Then he would go off somewhere by himself to be very sick, refusing, young as he was, to be unmanned by pity. After a while he would come back, breaking into an urgent trot as he neared the house, hoping to surprise her into some show of feeling at his return. But it was always the same; he could find no hate or love or sadness, only complete indifference like a wall.

Oh, to hell with it, he thought, I don’t mind George any more. I don’t think I ever really minded George, it was just the other thing.

TTE WALKED along, not hurrying, JL! and the tree-lined street that had seemed so familiar in his thoughts of home had now a vagueness, as if he were still seeing it with the eyes of memory. On this vacant lot here he had played baseball; on this lawn next to it he and the rest of the gang had played most of their rough games, simply because old man Barton had been so fussy about the lawn and its broom-swept greenness. Y es, the small arrogant sign was still there: Keep off thé Grass. He stifled an impulse to desecrate with irreverent feet that useless virgin growth, just for oldtimes’ sake.

He had had a place of a sort in this street as a child, but he could not somehow get past that time. The whole period since his home-coming was like a dream he could not pierce, and he was frightened at his inability to place himself in the present.

It stayed with him, this screening shadow, all the way downtown on the streetcar; the faces of the people on the long seat across from him seemed to fold and crease like rubber masks as they talked. The sound of their words, which he tried, leaning a little forward in his seat, to decipher, seemed like incohesive fragments of noise, silly meaningless noise, and he was again

frightened. It will go away, he thought. If I have patience and forget about it, it will go away in a little while.

Going up in the elevator to Brown’s office he pushed the thought of his isolation away, but did not look at the faces of the people so close to him. I will do one thing at a time, he thought, I will concentrate on Brown. I will be like George, I will content myself with the business of the moment.

Brown did not keep him waiting long. When he went into the cool, mahogany-filled office he had a momentary return to the feeling of being himself in a place he knew.

“Hello, Mac,” Brown said. “Good to see you back.” And he means it, Mac thought, he’s a very good guy.

“Nice to be home,” Mac said. The shadow came down again and he tried to dispel it by looking fixedly at Brown’s face. He could think of nothing at all to say to that face—that big, pleasant, sure face.

“What can I do for you, Mac?” Brown said.

“I need a job.” There it was out. He had punctured the shadow a little.

“There’s not much doing right now, boy. What can you do?”

A little of this, a little of that; he was strong, if unskilled, and he had been the recipient of exactly two stripes and no decorations. He had not excelled at school; George had been the scholar in the family while he, competing in another way,had severaltimes come close to expulsion. He had been good at football and baseball and he had always come home very dirty. The time when he would have to say, this I can do or that, had seemed a long time away, and then had come the Army, and he had learned some things, but nothing very saleable.

“Have you any openings in the office?” he said.

“Look here, Mac. I’ve got a lieutenant-colonel as a grease monkey at No. 42. Office jobs don’t grow on trees. And they don’t pay any better than the other kind.”

“What have you, then?”

Brown riffled through some papers, full of busy geniality, and a little careful now of committing himself. Mac knew what was coming before Brown, opened his mouth.

“I might be able to fit you in on one of the tank trucks as a helper. It’s far from a white-collar job, but it’s the best I can do right now.”

So, as he had expected, in spite of all his impotent hopefulness, this was to be the same as all the others.

“Thanks a lot, Carson,” he said. “But I think I’ll look around a bit.”

“Certainly,” Brown said. “You may have better luck somewhere else. It’s a pretty big job to fit all you fellows in. There just isn’t enough to go around.” .

“Sure,” Mac said, “I know how it is. Thanks a lot, anyway.”

He walked out of the office, trying to excuse himself for what he had just done and knowing irrevocably that he had failed again, and consciously, to burst out of the web.

He sat in a movie for a few hours, and

the people on the screen were more real to him that any he had seen on the streets. But now he did not care very much, and the hopelessness and the vacancy inside him grew simply because he did not care.

When he came ou the beer parlors had opened. He walked into the nearest one and sat there watching the people come and go. Several very pretty girls, the sort of girls he had thought about a great deal when he had been overseas, walked past him with their escorts, on their way through to thé ladies’section of the tavern. He took note of each one clinically, without any interest whatsoever, merely as an exercise to make the time go faster. Suddenly he blinked and pulled himself up from his slouched position. He looked at his watch; it was exactly 3.25. Not George, surely, in the middle of the business day, looking sheepish and as unseasonable as a mosquito in winter, and with him a small blond girl in a skirt that was just enough too tight to make her altogether the unexpected type for George.

Who would have believed it of our George, Mac thought. And aliveness stirred in him again. He stood up, swaying a little.

“Comrades,” he said. “Cheers.”

George looked disconcerted. Mac thought happily, how inconvenient for poor old George.

“Can I tag along?” he said. “I’m tired of the all-male atmosphere, but up to now I couldn’t do anything about it.”

The girl smiled and Mac noticed that her teeth were a little uneven. But altogether she wasn’t bad, not bad at all.

She looked at George and George said, “Excuse me . . . Marta, this is my brother Mac.”

“I didn’t know you had a brother, Georgie,” Marta said. So it’s Georgie is it, Mac thought, and I’ll bet her name was Martha in the beginning. He looked at her hands and they were clean and a little red, the bright polish chipped here and there. A waitress, he thought. My, my! I expect mother doesn’t know about this.

They walked together into theladies’ section of the tavern and Mac managed to attend to the business of the girl’s coat before George could collect himself. The girl looked very pleased and she kept surveying Mac with small darting glances. It was plain that two escorts in a world of shortages were a very fortunate occurrence.

“My goodness,” she said, “it’s nice and cool in here. I do like a glass of beer in the afternoon . . . especially in the summer.”

“Yes,” Mac said. “There’s nothing like a glass of beer. But I hardly thought it was quite the dish for George.”

“Now look here,” George said, “just because I don’t get drunk every night in the week . . .”

“I am now,” Mac said, “in the first sad stages of rehabilitation. I will improve, they tell me, as time goes on, and if I am treated tenderly.”

The girl was looking at him with wide-eyed interest. She fluttered her eyelashes. Mac thought, one of those. So that’s the score.

“Were you overseas?” she asked.

“Oh, my yes,” he said. “I was in a battle too. And I had dysentery and trench feet.”

“Oh,” she said. Her confusion was evident.

“What restaurant do you work in?” he asked abruptly.

“Well ...” she said. She looked at George. George was gazing into the distance.

“Well,” she went on, “the Arcade. George thinks it would be a good idea

for me to quit and get a different sort of job.”

He would, Mac thought. “What time,” he said, “do you have to be back at work?” He watched with deliberate intentness the growing insecurity in George’s expression, and the idea came to him.

“Five-thirty,” she said.

He was alive again and the terrifying sense of unreality had disappeared for the moment. He could perhaps make it disappear for quite a long time this way.

“We will just have time,” he said, “to go up to our house for a spot of tea. Our mother always has tea at four o’clock. We will take a taxi.”

AS THE idea grew it seemed more A*, efficacious still, and he was anxious to accomplish what he planned before the curtain came down again and left him again uncaring.

“That would be very nice,” the girl said. “I’ve never met your mother.” Of course you haven’t, Mac thought, and if it weren’t forme you never would. It occurred to him, in somewhat hazy surprise, that she might be a very nice girl when you got to know her and that what he was doing was in the nature of a dirty shame.

“Perhaps mother isn’t home,” George said hopefully.

“Oh, yes,” Mac said, “she’s home.”

“She isn’t expecting us.” George was trying valiantly. Mac was amused. He was very sure of himself now.

“We’ll get a cab right now,” he said. “We mustn’t let Martha be late for work.”

“The name is Marta,” George said crossly.

“Okay,” Mac said, “Marta.” He was a little worried that George would still find some excuse for not coming. No, he thought, he won’t do that now . . . it’s too late. It is necessary for him to try to salvage some of the beans.

In the taxi he turned to the girl. “There’s nothing quite like a cup of tea, is there?” he said in a conversational tone.

“No,” she said seriously. “It seems to me at our house somebody’s always having a cup of tea.”

And you have a wood stove, Mac thought, and the kettle is always boiling, and if you feel like having a piece of bread and jam at two o’clock in the morning you can have it* and if you slop it around a bit and there are a few dirty dishes they can wait till tomorrow.

“My mother has tea at four o’clock,” he said. He looked at the girl. She was sitting up very straight with her hands folded in her lap and her bright lower lip caught between her teeth. The beer and the sense of aliveness coming into him again made him feel almost tender toward her and he wished for a moment that he could do this thing some other way.

“Here wo are,” he said. The cab stopped and he helped her out with studied deference. Her small reddened hand was moist and cold and it trembled a little within his.

He paid the driver with a fine flourish and walked steadily up the stairs, still holding the girl’s hand. George dawdled behind, looking very much as if he would rather be somewhere else.

“Come on, Georgie,” Mac said.

The girl pulled at his hand. “I need to fix my face.”

“Your face is fine,” Mac said. “It’s a very pretty face.”

The living room was cool and quiet, and his mother was sitting near the big window with the tea tray beside her. She was alone. When she saw them she got slowly to her feet, carefully wiping her lips with a small Madeira napkin.

Continued on page 40

Continued from page 38 “Why, how nice,” she said. She looked first at George. “There’s nothing wrong?”

“Not yet,” George said, with some sulkiness.

“We brought a friend for tea,” Mac said. He waited for George to say something, but George remained as silent as the grave. So that’s it, he thought, as he watched George walk across the room, pick up a thin slice of cinnamon toast and return with it to a big chair in the far corner of the room —she’s going to be my friend.

IM ET George and Marta downtown,” he said. “They were having a friendly glass of beer. I thought it would be a good idea to bring them home to tea.”

“I haven’t met your friend yet,” his mother said. She looked at Marta with a wintry smile. “I’m afraid I don’t know your last name.”

“O’Donnell,” Marta said. “O’Donnell? That’s Irish, isn’t if?” “Yes!”

“Isn’t that funny . . . our milkman’s name is O’Donnell. But , of course, he wouldn’t be related to you.”

“No,” the girl said. She clutched at Mac’s hand. The thing was going very badly, Mac thought, not at all as he had seen it there for a moment in the tavern.

He tried again. “Marta works in the Arcade,” he said. “George eats his lunch in the Arcade.” He was very tired of himself now, and yet he couldn’t seem to stop this curious attempt at revenge for a thousand childish hurts. He could see now, once again, that whatever George did would be, perhaps not always excusable, but at least meaningful to his mother. She must be, he was sure, very badly hurt; she could be on occasion coolly, subtly unkind, but he had never known her to be so thoroughly rude. He loved her very much, and he was more tired than he had ever been in his life.

“Come along,” Mrs. James said, “the tea will be cold.”

“I have to go now,” Marta said. “I mustn’t be late for work.” She released Mac’s hand and stood with her hands in front of her, demurely, like a little girl. The knuckles were white, and her small chin was thrust out and trembling.

“I’m sorry,” Mrs. James said. “We’d love to have you stay. You must come again some time. I’m always so glad to meet any of Mac’s friends.”

“I am not Mac’s friend,” the girl said. Her voice was shaking and the words came slowly and very clearly. “I thought George was my friend, but I understand about that now. It was nice, to have met you. Thank you very much.” She turned and walked out of the room and the three of them watched her go.

“What an odd girl,” Mrs. James said. “I’m sure when you see her again, Mac, you’ll tell her that if it was anything I said . . .”

“It’s not necessary,” Mac said, “to go on about it. It was just an idea I had. It didn’t work out very well.” “You should have used better judgment, Mac,” Mrs. James said. “It was most unkind of you to put the girl in such a position.”

What was the use of forcing her to admit what she already knew, that it was most unkind of George to put the girl in such a position? What was the use of trying to fit himself into any sort of an area of sympathy with these two in the room with him? He was ! definitely odd man out, and he always would be.

“How were the Ramsays?” his mother said.

“I didn’t see them.''

“Oh, Mac . . . really. I should think you could have done that much.”

That does it, Mac thought. The unerring hand, straight to the point with no stopovers, laying bare with deliberate accuracy the deplorable weakness in the situation.

“I think I’ll go out for a while,” he said.

IT WAS a long walk downtown, and by the time he had reached the swinging doors of the Arcade his head was clear again. She was at the far end of the counter by the steam table. He sat down on the nearest vacant stool and waited for her to see him there. After a while she turned, and he was sure that she had noticed him, but her eyes glanced past him as if he were invisible. Her small nose was red at the tip.

As she walked quickly past him he said, “What time are you through?” She walked by unseeing.

“I can sit here all night,” he said. She poured coffee into a cup automatically. It was for the jowly man on his left, and it slopped over into the saucer as she placed it in front of him.

“I’ll have a clean saucer, if you don’t mind,” the man said in a surly voice. Mac thought she was going to cry and his heart turned over.

“Please, Martha O’Donnell,” he said. “Please.”

She looked at him then, a clean straight look, and it was difficult for him to meet her eyes.

“All right,” she said. “I’m through at 10.”

At one minute after 10 she came out of the café. He took her hand and they walked for a long time without talking. After a while she said, “Where are we going?”

“Someplace where we can talk.” “There’s a place over this way.”

She led him to a small green square with a lone bench standing like a tired sentinel in the centre.

“This is a hell of a place,” he said. “I’ll bet our George picked this out.” “We can leave George out of this.” “There’s just one thing we ought to get clear about him,” Mac said. “None of it is George’s fault. It’s my fault . . . and yours, too, in a way.”

“Oh, sure,” she said.

“George,” he said, “is himself. He isn’t trying to be somebody else. lake you trying to be a girl named Marta and me trying to be a little gentleman and the apple of my mother’s eye.” “He was always at me,” she said crossly, “wanting me to meet him in my time off.”

“And you thought it was really something to go out with a smooth operator like George.”

“At least he was polite to me.”

“You never knew he had a family?” “To be sure, I know he has one now.” “I like you very much, Martha,” he said. “You make me feel alive, and I haven’t been really alive for a very long time. Trying to be something you aren’t kills a little of you every day.” “You could have died this afternoon, for all of me.”

“I didn’t like myself much, either. But I untied a few strings.”

The girl got up. She still held Mac’s hand. “You talk a l(it,” she said. “Let’s go to my house. We can always find some bread and jam or something. And the kettle will be boiling.”

As they walked Mac lifted his head and saw the stars. He could never remember a night when there had been such a fragrance in the air, or when the stars had been so clearly bright and jewellike. Each, he thought, has a sturdy, unswerving life of its own.

He smiled as he thought of the-cosy boiling of the kettle at Martha’s house. ★