He wouldn’t clean the baby’s ass or talk to her parents and she could say it didn’t amount to much? He suddenly had one of his visions of her: She was dancing naked in a cage in a club in a Navy area in Jacksonville. Gyrating did not quite do her salacious whirling and spine-whipping justice. He got a grip on the kitchen counter and waited for the seizure to pass and hoped nothing blew out. He was afraid to feel the jacket for pills. He was afraid of the pills. He was afraid of about everything in these visions except the floor immediately beneath his feet, which in this case was kitchen linoleum that also scared him because of his having inexplicably waked up on some of it that morning.
He calmed himself. These visions, if you wanted to call them that, were what informed him of his wife’s nasty sexual past. He did not know where they came from. That is to say, his wife had not told them to him, nor had anyone else. Which did not reduce their claim on him a bit, or their … mythical truth. They were like the Harpies, as if he were … whoever the old fart was they snatched the food from. Every time he saw his wife as an angel, as way better than something good enough to eat, these things came from the sky screeching No you don’t and fouling the air and somehow instilling in the prospect of his beautiful wife an odor utterly rancid. And while you could not say where these Harpies came from, or ascribe any reason why they were coming as you starved to death, you also could not say they were not, in important senses, real.
In his kitchen, his wife humming in the laundry room, Mr. Elliot was still recovering from the naked-dancing vision. He tried reasoning some more. He had disappeared for a week, he gave her his list, she kissed him and started laundry. All right. There was something domestically pliable or reliable enough in her that belied her having danced naked in a cage. Or argued for it. Only someone who had weathered — or enjoyed — the pawing (and?) of the denizens of, say, the Comic Book Club, sailors off ships, would find his own trials amounting to not much.
Mr. Elliot groaned audibly in the kitchen. He could not cry. He was beyond that. He started tapping his foot.
He was hearing, from the laundry room, Mrs. Elliot, who was humming and singing, somewhat, a song, to the rhythm of the washing machine. Her voice was not good, but at any rate she was not so much singing as talking the lyrics, as if trying to recall them.
And if that mockingbird don’t sing,
Somebody gonna buy me a diamond ring.
Mr. Elliot was further stricken, if that were possible. Was she mocking him? How had she come up with this business of a bird in a cage — the only way you could have a mockingbird — and why a mockingbird just as he had had his attack of seeing her in a cage? Had she sent the Harpies of go-go? The myth surfaced: He was King Phineus, blind at a stone table, reaching for roast lamb and stuffed vine leaves and getting flapped in the face by leering, stinking birds.
“What’s that song, dear?” he asked.
“You were singing.”
“I was singing?”
Ho! She did not have the courage to kill him openly and cleanly. She was doing more capework. Mr. Elliot walked into the laundry room with violence — which he had never effected and only once himself been a minor victim of — uppermost in his mind. He hummed the tune, as menacingly as he could.
Mrs. Elliot, smiling at him, picked the tune up and hummed herself. Mr. Elliot, who thought he should hit her, wanted suddenly to kiss her, badly.
“Oh that,” Mrs. Elliot said. “You know what? I can’t figure the sense of having a mockingbird in there. It seems to mock the sentimentality of the song itself, doesn’t it? Is that possible? Could it be that sophisticated?”
Could she? was all Mr. Elliot could think. Enough to send the caged woman, the caged bird, the mockery … she looked delicious! She was taking his hand. She put it with hers into the open washing machine, down into the hot suds and clothes, and their hands swung together in the reversing half-circle motion.
Then Mrs. Elliot held his hand — not simply in there, but held it as if they were holding hands. As if, remove the washing machine, they were new to each other and at the movies.
“I knew a boy did this with his feet once and the thing went into spin,” Mrs. Elliot was saying. Mr. Elliot had a dreamlike look on his face, so she waited before telling the story.
Mrs. Elliot thought of the woman Cleveland, who was real. She looked at the cute lout whose hand she was holding, who was determined to be real, who did not know that if she held his hand long enough where it was he’d lose his arm. Maybe Cleveland could explain the mockingbird business. She was pretty sure the song was Motown.
“What happened?” Mr. Elliot asked.
“It went into spin, broke everything below his waist.” Mr. Elliot eased his hand out of the tub.
Mr. Elliot had a grateful and self-pitying look on his face as if he was about to blubber. But this was not his emotion. He was confused, confused and happy, happy and confused and happy. He wanted to sing the song, too, but Mrs. Elliot, who had the baby asleep in one arm and Mr. Elliot with the other, was taking them both to bed.
The Winnowing of Mrs. Schuping
MRS. SCHUPING LIVED ON a moribund estate that had once been grand enough in trees alone that a shipbuilder scouting live oaks in the eighteenth century had bought the tract for wood to make warships for the British Navy. Oak of that sort, when fitted and shipped into six-inch walls, would not merely withstand or absorb cannonballs but repel them a good way toward their source. Mrs. Schuping did not know this, but she knew she had big old trees, and she patted their flanks when she strolled the grounds.
The house had died. So slatternly, so ratty was it that Mrs. Schuping was afraid to enter it again once she had worked up the courage to go out of it, which was more dangerous. She had been hit by boards twice while leaving the house but never when going in.
There was no such thing as falling-down insurance, an actuarial nicety that flabbergasted and enraged Mrs. Schuping. Falling down was what really plagued houses, therefore that was what you could not protect them from by lottery.
She called herself Mrs. Schuping arbitrarily. She had no husband nor had she ever found in the least logical the idea of having one man whom you so designated. Wholly preposterous.
She had a good toaster. It was a four-slice commercial stainless square job, missing its push-down knobs, so that you had to depress the naked notched metal thingies to lower the bread. It looked like you’d need a rag to protect your hand, but you did not. Perhaps if you were hustling breakfasts in a good diner you might, but not slowly, at home. Life was winnowing for Mrs. Schuping.
When she bought the house, she had found a huge collection of opera records, of which she knew nothing except that they sounded ridiculous. This collection she played dutifully, over and over, until it was memorized, until it could not be said that she was ignorant of opera. When she had mastered the collection, she wondered why, and she sailed the records, one by one, into the swamp behind the rotting house. She winnowed the collection of opera records until it was a collection of cardboard boxes, and eventually used those to set her first swamp fire.
Setting the swamp on fire was not a winnowing of her life, but it did winnow the swamp. The burnings seemed to her rather naughty and frivolous, and surprisingly agreeable to look at and to smell. She took an un-adult pleasure in them, along with an adult fear that she might be somehow breaking the law even though the swamp was hers.