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The Complete Stories of Truman Capote, Page 6

Truman Capote

  “Please hurry … I have a heavy package.”

  “Go away,” said Mrs. Miller. She returned to the living room, lighted a cigarette, sat down and calmly listened to the buzzer; on and on and on. “You might as well leave. I have no intention of letting you in.”

  Shortly the bell stopped. For possibly ten minutes Mrs. Miller did not move. Then, hearing no sound, she concluded Miriam had gone. She tiptoed to the door and opened it a sliver; Miriam was half-reclining atop a cardboard box with a beautiful French doll cradled in her arms.

  “Really, I thought you were never coming,” she said peevishly. “Here, help me get this in, it’s awfully heavy.”

  It was not spell-like compulsion that Mrs. Miller felt, but rather a curious passivity; she brought in the box, Miriam the doll. Miriam curled up on the sofa, not troubling to remove her coat or beret, and watched disinterestedly as Mrs. Miller dropped the box and stood trembling, trying to catch her breath.

  “Thank you,” she said. In the daylight she looked pinched and drawn, her hair less luminous. The French doll she was loving wore an exquisite powdered wig and its idiot glass eyes sought solace in Miriam’s. “I have a surprise,” she continued. “Look into my box.”

  Kneeling, Mrs. Miller parted the flaps and lifted out another doll; then a blue dress which she recalled as the one Miriam had worn that first night at the theatre; and of the remainder she said, “It’s all clothes. Why?”

  “Because I’ve come to live with you,” said Miriam, twisting a cherry stem. “Wasn’t it nice of you to buy me the cherries …?”

  “But you can’t! For God’s sake go away—go away and leave me alone!”

  “… and the roses and the almond cakes? How really wonderfully generous. You know, these cherries are delicious. The last place I lived was with an old man; he was terribly poor and we never had good things to eat. But I think I’ll be happy here.” She paused to snuggle her doll closer. “Now, if you’ll just show me where to put my things …”

  Mrs. Miller’s face dissolved into a mask of ugly red lines; she began to cry, and it was an unnatural, tearless sort of weeping, as though, not having wept for a long time, she had forgotten how. Carefully she edged backward till she touched the door.

  She fumbled through the hall and down the stairs to a landing below. She pounded frantically on the door of the first apartment she came to; a short, redheaded man answered and she pushed past him. “Say, what the hell is this?” he said. “Anything wrong, lover?” asked a young woman who appeared from the kitchen, drying her hands. And it was to her that Mrs. Miller turned.

  “Listen,” she cried, “I’m ashamed behaving this way but—well, I’m Mrs. H. T. Miller and I live upstairs and …” She pressed her hands over her face. “It sounds so absurd.…”

  The woman guided her to a chair, while the man excitedly rattled pocket change. “Yeah?”

  “I live upstairs and there’s a little girl visiting me, and I suppose that I’m afraid of her. She won’t leave and I can’t make her and—she’s going to do something terrible. She’s already stolen my cameo, but she’s about to do something worse—something terrible!”

  The man asked, “Is she a relative, huh?”

  Mrs. Miller shook her head. “I don’t know who she is. Her name’s Miriam, but I don’t know for certain who she is.”

  “You gotta calm down, honey,” said the woman, stroking Mrs. Miller’s arm. “Harry here’ll tend to this kid. Go on, lover.” And Mrs. Miller said, “The door’s open—5A.”

  After the man left, the woman brought a towel and bathed Mrs. Miller’s face. “You’re very kind,” Mrs. Miller said. “I’m sorry to act like such a fool, only this wicked child …”

  “Sure honey,” consoled the woman. “Now, you better take it easy.”

  Mrs. Miller rested her head in the crook of her arm; she was quiet enough to be asleep. The woman turned a radio dial; a piano and a husky voice filled the silence and the woman, tapping her foot, kept excellent time. “Maybe we oughta go up too,” she said.

  “I don’t want to see her again. I don’t want to be anywhere near her.”

  “Uh-huh, but what you shoulda done, you shoulda called a cop.”

  Presently they heard the man on the stairs. He strode into the room frowning and scratching the back of his neck. “Nobody there,” he said, honestly embarrassed. “She musta beat it.”

  “Harry, you’re a jerk,” announced the woman. “We been sitting here the whole time and we woulda seen …” she stopped abruptly, for the man’s glance was sharp.

  “I looked all over,” he said, “and there just ain’t nobody there. Nobody, understand?”

  “Tell me,” said Mrs. Miller, rising, “tell me, did you see a large box? Or a doll?”

  “No, ma’am, I didn’t.”

  And the woman, as if delivering a verdict, said, “Well, for cryinoutloud.…”

  Mrs. Miller entered her apartment softly; she walked to the center of the room and stood quite still. No, in a sense it had not changed: the roses, the cakes, and the cherries were in place. But this was an empty room, emptier than if the furnishings and familiars were not present, lifeless and petrified as a funeral parlor. The sofa loomed before her with a new strangeness: its vacancy had a meaning that would have been less penetrating and terrible had Miriam been curled on it. She gazed fixedly at the space where she remembered setting the box and, for a moment, the hassock spun desperately. And she looked through the window; surely the river was real, surely snow was falling—but then, one could not be certain witness to anything: Miriam, so vividly there—and yet, where was she? Where, where?

  As though moving in a dream, she sank to a chair. The room was losing shape; it was dark and getting darker and there was nothing to be done about it; she could not lift her hand to light a lamp.

  Suddenly, closing her eyes, she felt an upward surge, like a diver emerging from some deeper, greener depth. In times of terror or immense distress, there are moments when the mind waits, as though for a revelation, while a skein of calm is woven over thought; it is like a sleep, or a supernatural trance; and during this lull one is aware of a force of quiet reasoning: well, what if she had never really known a girl named Miriam? that she had been foolishly frightened on the street? In the end, like everything else, it was of no importance. For the only thing she had lost to Miriam was her identity, but now she knew she had found again the person who lived in this room, who cooked her own meals, who owned a canary, who was someone she could trust and believe in: Mrs. H. T. Miller.

  Listening in contentment, she became aware of a double sound: a bureau drawer opening and closing; she seemed to hear it long after completion—opening and closing. Then gradually, the harshness of it was replaced by the murmur of a silk dress and this, delicately faint, was moving nearer and swelling in intensity till the walls trembled with the vibration and the room was caving under a wave of whispers. Mrs. Miller stiffened and opened her eyes to a dull, direct stare.

  “Hello,” said Miriam.



  I know what is being said about me and you can take my side or theirs, that’s your own business. It’s my word against Eunice’s and Olivia-Ann’s, and it should be plain enough to anyone with two good eyes which one of us has their wits about them. I just want the citizens of the U.S.A. to know the facts, that’s all.

  The facts: On Sunday, August 12, this year of our Lord, Eunice tried to kill me with her papa’s Civil War sword and Olivia-Ann cut up all over the place with a fourteen-inch hog knife. This is not even to mention lots of other things.

  It began six months ago when I married Marge. That was the first thing I did wrong. We were married in Mobile after an acquaintance of only four days. We were both sixteen and she was visiting my cousin Georgia. Now that I’ve had plenty of time to think it over, I can’t for the life of me figure how I fell for the likes of her. She has no looks, no body and no brains whatsoever. But Marge is a natural
blonde and maybe that’s the answer. Well, we were married going on three months when Marge ups and gets pregnant; the second thing I did wrong. Then she starts hollering that she’s got to go home to Mama—only she hasn’t got no mama, just these two aunts. Eunice and Olivia-Ann. So she makes me quit my perfectly swell position clerking at the Cash ’n’ Carry and move here to Admiral’s Mill, which is nothing but a damn gap in the road any way you care to consider it.

  The day Marge and I got off the train at the L&N depot it was raining cats and dogs and do you think anyone came to meet us? I’d shelled out forty-one cents for a telegram, too! Here my wife’s pregnant and we have to tramp seven miles in a downpour. It was bad on Marge, as I couldn’t carry hardly any of our stuff on account of I have terrible trouble with my back. When I first caught sight of this house I must say I was impressed. It’s big and yellow and has real columns out in front and japonica trees, both red and white, lining the yard.

  Eunice and Olivia-Ann had seen us coming and were waiting in the hall. I swear I wish you could get a look at these two. Honest, you’d die! Eunice is this big old fat thing with a behind that must weigh a tenth of a ton. She troops around the house, rain or shine, in this real old-fashioned nightie, calls it a kimono, but it isn’t anything in this world but a dirty flannel nightie. Furthermore she chews tobacco and tries to pretend so ladylike, spitting on the sly. She keeps gabbing about what a fine education she had, which is her way of attempting to make me feel bad, although, personally, it never bothers me so much as one whit, as I know for a fact she can’t even read the funnies without she spells out every single, solitary word. You’ve got to hand her one thing, though—she can add and subtract money so fast that there’s no doubt but what she could be up in Washington, D.C., working where they make the stuff. Not that she hasn’t got plenty of money! Naturally she says she hasn’t but I know she has because one day, accidentally, I happened to find close to a thousand dollars hidden in a flowerpot on the side porch. I didn’t touch one cent, only Eunice says I stole a hundred-dollar bill, which is a venomous lie from start to finish. Of course anything Eunice says is an order from headquarters, as not a breathing soul in Admiral’s Mill can stand up and say he doesn’t owe her money and if she said Charlie Carson (a blind ninety-year-old invalid who hasn’t taken a step since 1896) threw her on her back and raped her, everybody in this county would swear the same on a stack of Bibles.

  Now, Olivia-Ann is worse, and that’s the truth! Only she’s not so bad on the nerves as Eunice, for she is a natural-born half-wit and ought really to be kept in somebody’s attic. She’s real pale and skinny and has a mustache. She squats around most of the time whittling on a stick with her fourteen-inch hog knife, otherwise she’s up to some devilment, like what she did to Mrs. Harry Steller Smith. I swore not ever to tell anyone that, but when a vicious attempt has been made on a person’s life, I say the hell with promises.

  Mrs. Harry Steller Smith was Eunice’s canary named after a woman from Pensacola who makes home-made cure-all that Eunice takes for the gout. One day I heard this terrible racket in the parlor and upon investigating, what did I find but Olivia-Ann shooing Mrs. Harry Steller Smith out an open window with a broom and the door to the birdcage wide. If I hadn’t walked in at exactly that moment, she might never have been caught. She got scared that I would tell Eunice and blurted out the whole thing, said it wasn’t fair to keep one of God’s creatures locked up that way, besides which she couldn’t stand Mrs. Harry Steller Smith’s singing. Well, I felt kind of sorry for her and she gave me two dollars, so I helped her cook up a story for Eunice. Of course I wouldn’t have taken the money except I thought it would ease her conscience.

  The very first words Eunice said when I stepped inside this house were, “So this is what you ran off behind our back and married, Marge?”

  Marge says, “Isn’t he the best-looking thing, Aunt Eunice?”

  Eunice eyes me u-p and d-o-w-n and says, “Tell him to turn around.”

  While my back is turned, Eunice says, “You sure must’ve picked the runt of the litter. Why, this isn’t any sort of man at all.”

  I’ve never been so taken back in my life! True, I’m slightly stocky, but then, I haven’t got my full growth yet.

  “He is too,” says Marge.

  Olivia-Ann, who’s been standing there with her mouth so wide the flies could buzz in and out, says, “You heard what Sister said. He’s not any sort of a man whatsoever. The very idea of this little runt running around claiming to be a man! Why, he isn’t even of the male sex!”

  Marge says, “You seem to forget, Aunt Olivia-Ann, that this is my husband, the father of my unborn child.”

  Eunice made a nasty sound like only she can and said, “Well, all I can say is I most certainly wouldn’t be bragging about it.”

  Isn’t that a nice welcome? And after I gave up my perfectly swell position clerking at the Cash ’n’ Carry.

  But it’s not a drop in the bucket to what came later that same evening. After Bluebell cleared away the supper dishes, Marge asked, just as nice as she could, if we could borrow the car and drive over to the picture show at Phoenix City.

  “You must be clear out of your head,” says Eunice, and, honest, you’d think we’d asked for the kimono off her back.

  “You must be clear out of your head,” says Olivia-Ann.

  “It’s six o’clock,” says Eunice, “and if you think I’d let that runt drive my just-as-good-as-brand-new 1934 Chevrolet as far as the privy and back, you must’ve gone clear out of your head.”

  Naturally such language makes Marge cry.

  “Never you mind, honey,” I said, “I’ve driven pulenty of Cadillacs in my time.”

  “Humf,” says Eunice.

  “Yeah,” says I.

  Eunice says, “If he’s ever so much as driven a plow, I’ll eat a dozen gophers fried in turpentine.”

  “I won’t have you refer to my husband in any such manner,” says Marge. “You’re acting simply outlandish! Why, you’d think I’d picked up some absolutely strange man in some absolutely strange place.”

  “If the shoe fits, wear it!” says Eunice.

  “Don’t think you can pull the sheep over our eyes,” says Olivia-Ann in that braying voice of hers so much like the mating call of a jackass you can’t rightly tell the difference.

  “We weren’t born just around the corner, you know,” says Eunice.

  Marge says, “I’ll give you to understand that I’m legally wed till death do us part to this man by a certified justice of the peace as of three and one-half months ago. Ask anybody. Furthermore, Aunt Eunice, he is free, white and sixteen. Furthermore, George Far Sylvester does not appreciate hearing his father referred to in any such manner.”

  George Far Sylvester is the name we’ve planned for the baby. Has a strong sound, don’t you think? Only the way things stand I have positively no feelings in the matter now whatsoever.

  “How can a girl have a baby with a girl?” says Olivia-Ann, which was a calculated attack on my manhood. “I do declare there’s something new every day.”

  “Oh, shush up,” says Eunice. “Let us hear no more about the picture show in Phoenix City.”

  Marge sobs, “Oh-h-h, but it’s Judy Garland.”

  “Never mind, honey,” I said, “I most likely saw the show in Mobile ten years ago.”

  “That’s a deliberate falsehood,” shouts Olivia-Ann. “Oh, you are a scoundrel, you are. Judy hasn’t been in the pictures ten years.” Olivia-Ann’s never seen not even one picture show in her entire fifty-two years (she won’t tell anybody how old she is but I dropped a card to the capitol in Montgomery and they were very nice about answering), but she subscribes to eight movie books. According to Postmistress Delancey, it’s the only mail she ever gets outside of the Sears & Roebuck. She has this positively morbid crush on Gary Cooper and has one trunk and two suitcases full of his photos.

  So we got up from the table and Eunice lumbers over to the window and looks
out to the chinaberry tree and says, “Birds settling in their roost—time we went to bed. You have your old room, Marge, and I’ve fixed a cot for this gentleman on the back porch.”

  It took a solid minute for that to sink in.

  I said, “And what, if I’m not too bold to ask, is the objection to my sleeping with my lawful wife?”

  Then they both started yelling at me.

  So Marge threw a conniption fit right then and there. “Stop it, stop it, stop it! I can’t stand any more. Go on, babydoll—go on and sleep wherever they say. Tomorrow we’ll see.…”

  Eunice says, “I swanee if the child hasn’t got a grain of sense, after all.”

  “Poor dear,” says Olivia-Ann, wrapping her arm around Marge’s waist and herding her off, “poor dear, so young, so innocent. Let’s us just go and have a good cry on Olivia-Ann’s shoulder.”

  May, June and July and the best part of August I’ve squatted and sweltered on that damn back porch without an ounce of screening. And Marge—she hasn’t opened her mouth in protest, not once! This part of Alabama is swampy, with mosquitoes that could murder a buffalo, given half a chance, not to mention dangerous flying roaches and a posse of local rats big enough to haul a wagon train from here to Timbuctoo. Oh, if it wasn’t for that little unborn George, I would’ve been making dust tracks on the road, way before now. I mean to say I haven’t had five seconds alone with Marge since that first night. One or the other is always chaperoning and last week they like to have blown their tops when Marge locked herself in her room and they couldn’t find me nowhere. The truth is I’d been down watching the niggers bale cotton but just for spite I let on to Eunice like Marge and I’d been up to no good. After that they added Bluebell to the shift.

  And all this time I haven’t even had cigarette change.

  Eunice has hounded me day in and day out about getting a job. “Why don’t the little heathen go out and get some honest work?” says she. As you’ve probably noticed, she never speaks to me directly, though more often than not I am the only one in her royal presence. “If he was any sort of man you could call a man, he’d be trying to put a crust of bread in that girl’s mouth instead of stuffing his own off my vittles.” I think you should know that I’ve been living almost exclusively on cold yams and leftover grits for three months and thirteen days and I’ve been down to consult Dr. A. N. Carter twice. He’s not exactly sure whether I have the scurvy or not.