Bright flows the river, p.16

Bright Flows the River, page 16

 

Bright Flows the River
 



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  The hiatus between his father and himself had grown more painful and more obstinate than ever before. Guy visited Tom two or three weekends a month, and he did not acknowledge to himself that those visits were loaded with restraint, sadness, and often long uncommunicative silences. He knew when his father looked at him intently, as if waiting, but he would never return those looks. His father had nothing to offer him but thinking, and Guy did not want to think of anything any longer but money. Once Tom had said to him, “‘The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.’” But Guy had thought, with inward derision: getting what? He saved his money almost as grimly as did his mother. He hoped to buy some stocks in a few years. But—how much? He did not confess to himself that he was afraid and growing more frightened every day.

  He had no friends. He felt no rapport with the rowdy and meaty men with whom he worked and whose pleasures were simple if very enjoyable. Their conversation was confined to the subjects of women, automobiles, the new ones after the war, and drink and poker, their pettish wives, and, sometimes, “the kids.” None had any authentic ambition. Some were proud of the tract houses they were buying, and exchanged information on crabgrass in the summer and complaints of heating bills in the winter. Some were discontented with their unions, or spoke of strikes. No one worked more than eight hours a day now, or five days a week—but the discontent was growing. Guy’s contemporaries, and older men, remembered the days of the Depression and the hopelessness, and rejoiced in their “decent” present wages and their new “benefits,” which meant paid hospitalization, insurance and “sick leave,” and paid vacations, and pensions. They talked of the day of their retirement and how they would buy a small boat and go fishing. Their comprehension of anything else did not extend further than the sumptous moving pictures, which were another world of sleek women with jewels and finely tailored men, fast cars, great houses, and constant feverish leisure, and nights of dancing and wenching.

  The new discontent was growing. It was not based any longer on fear of being out of work, fear of starving, fear of homelessness, fear of broken shoes and hunger, fear of illness and the “poorhouse.” Those days, they believed, were gone and happily forgotten.

  It was a different discontent now, a sullen resentful discontent, and a rising dull hatred. It was pervaded by envy and hatred for “the rich.” This was not true of the older men, who thanked God nightly for the new life for the working class, the new access to a few luxuries, the new safety. But it was true of the other men, of Guy’s age or younger. It was greed, a hating greed. Why should they, they asked, not have what the “rich guys” have, without any effort? Why should the “bosses” have handsomer and more expensive cars than they had? And prettier women and imposing houses? Yes, they could send their children to college now, if they wished, but that was not enough. They did not for a moment believe that riches were often a reward for superior gifts, intelligence, invention, harder work, more ambition, more determination, more planning. They harbored the idea that they were the victims of thieves.

  It was contemptuously amusing to Guy that it was not the men of enormous inherited wealth who aroused their cupidity, envy, and hatred. For these they had an almost abject awe and admiration. The men whom they resented with such a dangerous resentment were men they called “no better than me, and how did he get all that money?” The middle class was their target of smoldering rage.

  Tom had recently said to his son, “Why, it’s clear, Jerry, what’s going on. Men ain’t being encouraged any longer to work hard, aspire, sacrifice, think—though what the hell most people want with a lot of money I don’t know. Among the men you work with there must be some who are incipient draftsmen, engineers, inventors, craftsmen, and all that. There is free night education for them, or education at little cost. Why don’t they attend good trade schools or colleges at night? The old American dream of making it on your own, and competing for the prizes of life, is gone. You should know why, Jerry. The whispering men who sneak among these discontented workers, the lethal deadly men who mutter the working class is being ‘exploited’ and abused and kept from their lawful ‘rights.’ They never tell the men that many of them are making more money than most teachers, and some foremen and truck drivers and carpenters and such have higher incomes than many a professor or newspaperman or younger banker or lawyer, even, perhaps, a doctor. The middle class. That’s the target of their discontent, Jerry.

  “And you know why. At least I have been telling you. Things are moving faster and faster now, and the spew comes from Washington. It is coming from all the capitals in the world. Fascistic Communism. The destruction of the middle class, which is the only protection for the workingman against the power seekers. Once the middle class is destroyed through the mindless hatred of the unthinking and the envious and the ignorant, then it is all over. It will be over, sooner or later. Then a nation of the enormously rich and powerful—and slaves, a slavery they never heard of before, or can’t possibly imagine. The greatest way the middle class is now being eliminated is through vengeful taxes—though the tremendously rich pay little or no taxes. Old trust funds. Inherited guarded wealth, foreign investments, national investments. Foundations. It was planned that way a long, long time ago. And, it will succeed, unless the working class are enlightened as to their real enemies. Who is going to enlighten them?”

  Guy did not see the hope on his father’s face, the waiting.

  Guy said, “I don’t give a damn about the noble workers, for God’s sake, Pa. I just want money myself. A lot of money.”

  “Well, then, why don’t you go to night college?”

  “Why? Just to become a middle-class man? That’s not enough for me, Pa. I’ve seen the middle-class sections in cities. Nice little houses, with larger lawns and rosy wives and fat children—and mortgages and taxes and no tangible security, and endless worry. Not enough. I want to be rich. The hell of it is, I have no talent, no gifts, no genius for money.”

  “How do you know?”

  “Oh, for Christ’s sake, Pa! I’m not a kid any longer. I am going on twenty-eight. At least I’m not married, with a family, as a lot of idiot slobs are, and kept in a prison of debts. I pay a woman occasionally, and no obligations. But—I can’t see the way to get what I want.”

  Tom sighed. “I suppose I’m lucky that I never wanted much, and there is no fever in myself for what I lack. But, your life is yours, and it isn’t mine. We’re getting off the track. I don’t know if you fully understand what is threatening this world of men, or don’t care. We can’t all be crusaders. No apologies. Me—I see it all before me and I lay low, and glad I’m not a minute younger. Well. I still hope you’ll find your way, as you want to do, and I only hope it will give you some deep satisfaction. But—find your way, boy, find your way.” He added, “I think you had a dream, once. But you’ve forgotten it.”

  “A dream,” said Guy, with despairing contempt.

  He had not noticed that for some months his twiglike father, his birdlike father, was becoming very thin, almost transparent, much older, more sad, and sometimes withdrawn. But his high shrill laughter was as ready as usual, and he often looked at the world about him with joy and pleasure. He had Sal, he had his land, his stock, his little farming, and above all, his books. His hair was almost gone, his beard just a scraggle, and his clever fine hands were sometimes clasped together for a long time, as if contemplative. “I’m getting old,” he once said. Guy did not hear.

  He went to see his father in January of 1948, on a Sunday. He did not stay very often now for the full weekends. Before he left, his mother said, “You’re not going out to that farm, are you?” Her voice was accusing and rigorous. “I guess you forgot. There’s a church supper tonight and you promised to go with me. A good chicken supper, a dollar apiece.”

  “I forgot, Ma. I didn’t see Pa last Sunday, and I told him I was going today.”

  “It’s bad weather and it’s hard on the tires and the eng
ine and the gas. Gas’s expensive; takes more on those roads. Tell him you can’t come. You promised your mother, Guy, and you got a duty towards her, though seems like you don’t often remember it, leaving me alone on a Sunday all the time.”

  “I’m going,” he said. For some reason he felt oppressed more than usual in this drab thin house. There was already much snow on the ground, and more had begun to fall. From the kitchen window he could see the rear of the house and the dilapidated rears of others on the next street, and the sheds with their garbage cans and the long streamers of snow twisting over them. The bleakness seeped into his very bones. The radio was inanely babbling away on a kitchen counter, and from the cadence of the man’s voice, sonorous and portending, Guy gathered that it was a late sermon being broadcast. At any rate, the man was castigating those guilty of “sins of omission and commission.” Mary had been listening with a properly subdued air. She said, “He and that sinful woman he’s got living there with him. Can’t bear to think of it. You really going, and I’ll have to go alone to the supper and it costs—”

  Guy threw down a dollar on the table. He did not speak, usually, so roughly to his mother, but he said, “I’m going. I just feel uneasy and I don’t know why.” She looked at the dollar and picked it up deftly.

  “And at his age, too. He ought to be ashamed.”

  Guy left without speaking again. His little elderly car, pre-war, was indeed showing signs of fragility outwardly but the sturdy engine ran with no trouble. He thought of his father, as the windshield wipers strove with the fast-falling snow. At least the farmhouse would be warm and Sal was adept at making the most ordinary food delicious, and there would be conversation with his father, however much conversation with him now angered his son only too frequently. Guy supposed that it was the way between the generations—lack of understanding, though he had an uncomfortable thought that his father understood him too damned well. He loved his father with a mature love, not a child’s, and all at once he said to himself, “Why, damn it, Pa’s the only friend I’ve got in the whole shitty world! But I always knew that. He’s like the only real thing in my life.”

  The truth of it shook him and he made the car move faster. I think I’ll tell him today. I haven’t told him for a long time how much he means to me. I just took it for granted that he knew. And another thing, I’ve never heard him complain in all the time I can remember, no matter what happens.

  Guy thought of Sal, and it came to him that she had not lately looked at him with her broad and bawdy smile, but had greeted him somewhat tersely for a considerable time, and that all her laughter was for his father and never for him. If Guy spoke to her lately she would reply quite shortly, and direct her conversation to Tom, and her merry eyes would well with tenderness and love, and she would listen to every intonation of his voice. Now, what the hell have I done to her? Guy asked himself, with some irritation. Perhaps she’s angry that I don’t stay weekends all the time any longer, but just Sunday. But, hell, I work hard, and sometimes Pa’s sermons get under my skin though I can’t explain exactly why. He always talked like that. Sal. Now, I like her far more than I do poor Ma. She’s really alive, at the least. The car moved faster.

  When Guy finally drove up to the farmhouse the day was darkening, though it was but one o’clock, and the snow was increasing. But the big kitchen window was bright with the kerosene lamp, as if greeting him. He opened the splintered door and a gush of warm air enveloped him like a welcoming friend. Sal was peeling potatoes at the “dry sink” with its pump handle—a fairly new installation—and his father was sitting near the ancient wood stove with its high warming shelf and its comforting fire. Tom was reading and smoking his old pipe. He looked up when Guy came in, stamping, and his face became as bright as the lamp.

  “I was afraid you’d decide not to come today, son,” he said. “Bad weather and getting worse.” He held out his hand to Guy, and Guy could feel its unusual heat, and its new fragility. Sal had not looked up from the sink; she kept her head over her work.

  “I didn’t come last Sunday,” said Guy. He looked at the woman, far more plump than a few years ago but clean and fresh in her gingham red-and-white frock and her worn sweater. “Hello, Sal,” he said.

  She said in her new abrupt voice, “Hello, Jerry.” That was all.

  So something had annoyed her and with impatience Guy wondered what it was. The constraint in the kitchen grew sharper and finally Tom noticed it. He said, “What’s the matter, Sal? Don’t you feel well?” His voice was anxious.

  Sal drew a deep breath. “I’m well enough,” she said. Her own voice had become uncertain. Guy shrugged, and hung up his snowy coat on the hook on the wooden wall. He smiled at his father. Tom was gazing at him very closely, and then he smiled. “Sit down, son,” he said. “Right near the stove where it’s good and warm. You’re getting to be quite a man, kiddo. It’s always a new shock to see that you’re no longer a kid.”

  “Well, I’m twenty-seven, for God’s sake, Pa. I’m not young any longer. I’m a man.”

  But Tom was gazing at him with deep love, as if he wished to impress Guy’s image on his eyes and mind and now the smile was faintly sad. Then observing that Guy noticed that, he laughed. “What is it Stevenson said? ‘For God’s sake, give me the man who has brains enough to make a fool of himself!’ I hope you take time enough off to make a fool of yourself, Jerry.”

  “Oh, I do,” said Guy, thinking gloomily: When? A bought girl occasionally, a movie once in a while when I can persuade Ma it isn’t sinful, and listening to the older boarders cough at night, drearily, and that damned mill!

  “There’s nothing like a fine woman, Jerry, nothing like wrestling with her in bed. But I hope you don’t marry too soon, not until you have some sense. I didn’t have any, and I was older than you. But what are you standing there for, with that sober look on your face?”

  Guy sat down and lit a cigarette and again studied Sal. Her black ringlets romped about her cheeks, but for all their rosiness the cheeks were taut, and her large red mouth was not smiling. Then she put down her knife, pulled on a very ugly old coat, took up a basket, and started for the door. “Need some eggs,” she said. “Out in the chicken coop.”

  “I’ll go for them Sal,” Guy said, and stood up. She gave him a quick denying glance, shook her head, and started for the door. He snatched up his own coat and followed her, to Tom’s wonderment. Guy found her running down the narrow snowy path in the direction of the shed, and she moved as if fleeing. He caught her halfway. “Sal,” he said. “What’s wrong with you? What have I done? You hardly speak to me anymore.”

  She pulled her arm fiercely from his hand and looked up at him with tears in her eyes and something else—bitter reproach.

  “I wouldn’t give you the time of day anymore, Jerry,” she said.

  “Christ, what have I done?”

  To his moved surprise the tears ran down her trembling cheeks.

  “You haven’t noticed anything, or do you just don’t care?”

  “About what?”

  “Your dad.”

  A savage blow like a fist struck Guy’s middle. He blinked the falling snow from his lashes. “You mean about my coming every Sunday?”

  “Oh, God!” she cried. “He’s sick, Jerry, he’s terribly sick! And you never saw it all these months! Don’t you look at anybody but yourself? Don’t you think of anybody but yourself?”

  “Sal, what do you mean he’s ‘sick’? I did notice a change in him lately, I think. But he’s getting old.”

  “He’s dying, you fool! Only a blind person couldn’t see that!”

  The giant fist struck again. “Dying? Who the hell told you that?”

  She hit herself on her great breast with her clenched hand and the tears were now running over her shaking lips. “No one has to tell me. I know.” She gulped and added in a broken voice, “I thought you saw—I thought you would help me. But you didn’t see, you didn’t care.”

  “What has he been com
plaining of?”

  “Nothing. That’s the worst. But he knows. He doesn’t know I saw him vomiting blood behind the barn, a month ago, brown blood like coffee grounds. When he came in he was whistling or singing as usual. I was too scared—and he had a look, I couldn’t ask him anything. I—I haven’t heard him complain of anything all the time I’ve lived here with him. He isn’t the kind you can talk to about any sickness, if he has it. But couple of months ago or more he was off his food. Stopped eating meat. Looked like he was in pain afterwards. But never a word. Always had a good appetite, he’s the wiry kind; now hardly eats at all. In bed—in bed he turns and groans, sometimes, and I know he isn’t asleep, though he pretends to be when I ask what’s the matter. When I first found out he was feeling bad, I asked him to go to a doctor, and he laughed and said, ‘What for? I’m fine. Just getting old, Sal.’”

 

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