The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court
For the most part I saw only two friends during this period. And these were not among my oldest, closest friends. They were, rather, two young men who had had experiences similar to my own—not in the war itself but still earlier and with regard to their registration with the Draft Board at the beginning of the war. I cannot now say for sure that this significantly or intentionally was the case or whether perhaps it all occurred just by chance. At any rate, one of these friends, it may possibly be remembered by an attentive reader, was a man named Alex Mercer. The other was Alex’s longtime friend Phillip Carver, and so it may well have been that they both were attracted to making my closer acquaintance by their special sensitivity to the predicament I found myself in at this point. On the other hand these two contemporaries of mine may unconsciously have lent themselves to my support without themselves fully understanding their own motivation. Anyhow, the case was that during the first months after I was released from my two-year stay in the army hospital and when I had first returned to Memphis the acclaim and the adulation that then became mine constituted a painful experience for me. And this was due to certain well-publicized exploits attributed to me by army communiqués on the first day after the Normandy beachhead—exploits for which my memory still even till this day presents a perfect blank.
Everyone in Memphis now knew, of course, that at the beginning of the war I had first listed myself as a conscientious objector. And this would only add luster to my image as the war hero I had now been acclaimed. I had no difficulty in recognizing the pleasure people took from the irony of my situation. For I all too well remembered the excitement generated (ten years after the First World War) by any public appearance of Sergeant Alvin York or by that of Colonel Luke Lea. The identity of the former is well known, of course. The latter was a Tennessee man who had led a party trying to capture Kaiser Wilhelm after that famous ogre fled to Holland at the end of the war. As a boy the exploits of both these men had seemed to me well worth celebrating. They remained Tennessee’s two principal war heroes from 1917 until the Second World War, and now my own story whetted the public’s appetite for another such hero. As a child I could accurately recall both these men and had myself participated in the adulation they received. I even once shook hands with the famous Colonel Lea when riding on an elevator with him in downtown Memphis. My father had recognized him and took that opportunity to introduce the two of us. On another occasion I was taken on a twenty-mile ride over rough country road—by an uncle of mine who lived on the Cumberland Plateau—to hear Sergeant York address the congregation of a country church.For a time my only experiences with the present-day Tennessee populace were barely less remarkable for me than those men’s experiences had been a generation earlier. Once while riding an escalator—I believe it was in Goldsmith’s Department Store—I was spotted by a group of school-age boys riding upward on a parallel escalator. I of course heard their exclamations to each other about who I was and what I had allegedly done in the war. And I saw them presently begin running up the upward moving flight and saw them squeezing by people on the downward flight I was riding. Suddenly I took fright and myself commenced squeezing past my own fellow passengers until I had in short order reached the first floor of the department store. Then I ran out through the crowd and pushed through the revolving door and on out onto the sidewalk. When presently I went scurrying up an alleyway toward Front Street I saw two wooden sawhorses blocking my route and workmen digging up patches of the pavement. I also observed at once that a line of pedestrians were carefully making their way around either end of the sawhorses and through the narrow passageway between that impediment and an adjacent building. With no hesitation I took on greater speed now in the direction of the street blockade ahead. And when I had made my way past the workmen and the sawhorses in my path I was astonished to hear a generous round of applause from the onlookers. It was applause for me! I might have assumed their applause to represent only the great good nature of Memphis citizenry in general except that simultaneously I heard my own name being called out above the applause. They had recognized their hero!
During that first year or so after the war I was often so recognized and applauded wherever I went. The schoolboys on the escalator failed to overtake me that day, and the pedestrians did not pursue me. But as I came out on Front Street I spied a bench in front of one of the cotton offices and found it necessary to drop down there to rest. I found it necessary because even in the last moments after I turned into Front Street and with a glimpse of the water of the Mississippi River not far ahead, myself panting and sweating as I certainly was (though it was not by any means a hot day), I experienced a flashing image of a certain steep path beside a green hedgerow in Normandy and with a similar glimpse of the English Channel just over a slight rise in the land. It was an image or scene which periodically presented itself to me after any moments of emotional excitement or after any strenuous physical exertion of almost any kind. But after that flash of memory there was nothing more. And there never could be more—not ever. Beyond this there was nothing in my memory till I woke many days later in an English hospital tent. What my acts of heroism had been, remained for me to discover from chance remarks I heard dropped from other soldiers who came upon the scene and from accounts I uncovered in old newspapers.
When I was a boy no older than those boys who had sighted me on the escalator I had already by then commenced my own brand of hero worship. My choice of those heroes or non-heroes was, I am sure, a response in some degree to the conventional and decidedly bland mentality of my parents—and indeed of all members of our family except of course my Great-Aunt Gussie, whom I then knew of course almost entirely by representation alone. Both my parents always spoke with a certain condescension of Sergeant York and his “untutored, hill-country, plain-people” background. And despite the fact of his having so famously brought in a horde of German prisoners, my father was apt on all occasions to remind one that Sergeant York had begun his career as a conscientious objector, which was intended on Father’s part to show how little understanding that country boy had had of what the world we live in is like. On the other hand, though he had been a political enemy of my grandfather, Colonel Luke Lea was generally spoken of at home with all due or undue respect. Despite the total failure of the escapade in which he and three fellow officers took over a command car and raced off across the Dutch border to try to capture the Kaiser, and despite the later scandal regarding his later business practices, and despite even his spending a period of time in a North Carolina jail as a result of those practices, I was required as a child to speak of him with the same respect I would have spoken of any other adult and certainly any other “gentleman.” And that day when my father introduced him in the elevator I observed that my mother, whose father it was he had “betrayed” in politics, turned her back on the Colonel and on the rest of the ride upward behaved not only as though he did not exist but as though Father and I were complete strangers to her. It was all a curious business to me, and I often thought of it when I had first come home a hero of a kind from my own war. During this period I took an interest in discovering just what kind of endings these men’s lives had come to. I learned that Sergeant York lived out his life in the region of Tennessee known as the Highland Rim and died in the very cabin where he had been born. And Colonel Lea of course had gone on to distinguish himself as a showoff of a predictable kind in the world of business and high finance and had died of old age in the comfortable house of his estate near Nashville, only two or three miles from where he had himself first seen the light of day.
By the time I came home from overseas my two parents were now in their midsixties and like so many people who have reached that age, they were especially sympathetic to anyone of their acquaintance who was a decade or so older than themselves. Soon after I got home they began receiving word from their relatives that Aunt Gussie Jones, still living in the Stoneleigh Court up in Washington, was in a bad state of health and could not be expected to live for many months. After a while my father began urging me to write a line to the old lady. But he asked in such a casual way that I didn’t imagine for a moment that he really wished me to do so. It was only his way of saying that he no longer had any interest in communicating with the likes of Aunt Gussie. I had no thought of writing her myself, of course, and without explaining why, I laughed rather nervously at the very idea. I had been in such low spirits after that visit to Washington and before my subsequent embarkation for overseas and the combat ahead for me that I had not given my parents an account of my adventures with Aunt Gussie and had scarcely ever mentioned the name of Lila Montgomery. It was only after I had been home for nearly two years that I heard her name mentioned by my mother.
I had not known for certain whether Mother knew the name of the girl I had gone to see in Washington. She gave me no indication. I can only suppose Aunt Gussie had mentioned it to her in a letter. It was a good many months later that I heard her, in passing, mention Lila’s name to Father. Again I made no acknowledgment of my acquaintance with her—and certainly not that of any romantic interest on my part. I had by this time been having dates with Ruthie Ann Sedwick, who was a cousin of my friend Alex Mercer’s. I had met Ruthie Ann while she was baby-sitting Alex’s two children when his wife was in the hospital giving birth to a third child. I suppose it was the power of suggestion that made me begin to imagine that Alex Mercer’s way of life, with his steady job and his growing family and his clear intention of putting down roots in Memphis, might be the way for me to go. The truth is, though, I made no mention of Ruthie Ann’s name to my family either. I do believe that I loved my parents very dearly, but I had long since ceased to confide anything of a very private or delicate nature to either of them. Ever since the days of my stand on the matter of conscientious objection I had been convinced that there were many matters on which we could never understand each other and that should never be brought up for discussion. The fact is that from early childhood I observed that there were areas in which there could be no understanding or agreement between them and me. And until the war came along I had always assumed that in every instance they had been right and that I, through perversity and ignorance, had been wrong. For instance, at the age of four or five I had gone to Father at Easter and said that I had seen Mother hiding eggs in the grass and shrubbery and that I therefore no longer believed in the Easter Bunny. Father had quickly assured me that I was mistaken and that my mistake must remain a secret between him and me. And in fact I never again raised any questions on that score. It may seem incredible, but once at Christmas when I was seven or eight (after I was of school age at any rate) I saw Father filling the stocking I had hung on my bedpost at bedtime. When I reported this to my mother she took a similar line to my Father with regard to the Easter Bunny. She said she was sure I must have dreamed it and that events in dreams sometimes seemed more real to us than real events. Once when I came home from Sunday school, during those years, I announced to my older sister that I didn’t believe the story of Christ’s resurrection was a true story. I said I could tell from the Sunday school teacher’s tone of voice and from the look on her face that she did not believe it for a minute! My sister flew into a fury of rage against me. She said that I ought to be ashamed of myself and that if I knew what was good for me I would never say such things in the presence of our parents. I followed her advice and in the future kept any such thoughts to myself. . . . At the age of eleven I was sent to a summer day camp for boys. In the shower room at camp I had felt humiliated by the discovery of a difference between me and all the other campers. I was the only one of that group of boys who had not been circumcised. At the end of the summer I went to Father with considerable embarrassment but with firm resolution, and requested that the same operation be performed on me. At first I thought his sudden blushes meant that he was angry, but after a moment he spoke to me very gently. “I believe most of the boys at that camp of yours,” he said, “must be of the Jewish faith. It is a matter of faith to them, and you must not wish to be like them in that respect.”
After I had been home from the war for somewhat more than a year Father received a long-distance telephone call from Washington—I can only suppose from subsequent events that the call was from Lila Montgomery herself—informing him that Aunt Gussie was to be removed from her hospital in Washington to St. Joseph’s Catholic Hospital in Memphis. He was told the date and hour of the train’s arrival and that she would be accompanied by both a “trained nurse” and by none other than Lila Montgomery herself. The call had come to Father’s office on a weekday, and that night he told us no more about it than that. I received this news—along with Mother and my sister Agnes—and I had far less to say about the prospect before us than did anyone else present. I was unwilling to commit myself to showing interest either in my aunt or in Lila. That night I was to take Ruthie Ann Sedwick to a neighborhood movie, and I resolved not even to mention the matter to her. My sister Agnes was going to a country club dance with her fiancé, Hubert Madison, and I knew that she—and my parents when they went up to bed—would repeat a good many times the kind of remarks they had made at the dinner table before going upstairs. Their remarks there had consisted mostly of speculation about who had made the decision to send Aunt Gussie home to Tennessee to die. As for me, I had had a flash of insight at the very first moment of Father’s revelation of his news. And, strangely enough, the flash came not from any previous understanding of Lila’s character when I had known her in Washington but quite extraordinarily from a sudden foresight, a stunning unexplainable prescience of what Lila had become since I last saw her. I was not aware of having given much reflection to changes that might have taken place in her character since we parted in Washington. I know only that something deeper than thought or reflection had transpired somewhere within my being that informed me that if she would turn up in Memphis I must not expect to see the girl in the single strand of pearls and the hand-knit blue sweater and the pleated skirt and the neat low-heeled shoes. Nor was I to expect her to appear in such new clothes as she had put on just before she sent me away to the war. The sudden flash told me only as much as that about what not to expect in the Lila Montgomery who would come escorting the sick person which I knew Aunt Gussie now to be. This insight of course seemed to reach me through processes and channels that would not ordinarily be open or available to a young man of my sometimes unobservant and for the most part unintellectual temperament. In this instance my head—or I might even venture to say my heart—made associations and induced deductions and drew upon farfetched comparisons that it would never perhaps be able to do again. In a word, I knew that Lila Montgomery would be something different and mean something different from what she had been and meant before. And now for the first time I understood or perceived that nothing in this world would ever again be or mean what it had been or meant before the day I crept on my hands and knees along that path beside the hedgerow at the beachhead in Normandy.
When Lila descended the steep little flight of steps from the Pullman car to the platform in the old Union Station at Memphis there was a party of seven of us to greet her—or rather present to meet Aunt Augusta St. John-Jones. Word had gone through the whole family connection that Aunt Gussie was on her way. Besides my parents and my sister Agnes and myself there were three cousins of ours whom Father had corralled into meeting the train. Two of the cousins were young men of my generation, to whom I bore some slight resemblance. These were nephews of my father’s. The third cousin was a youngish spinster of an age somewhere midway between my own and my parents’. Her name was Andrea Lomax, and she lived alone in an old-fashioned apartment house on Cleveland Avenue where she had grown up with her family. As Lila Montgomery stepped down onto the footstool that the porter had provided I presently realized that only I of the family members gathered there would be able to recognize her. As a matter of fact I was not at first sure it was she I beheld on the metal steps coming down from the Pullman car. Even when she had stepped down onto the wooden railway platform I was not certain it was she. There was a crazy moment when I thought perhaps it was the rather plump nurse following behind her on the steps who might be she. Lila was so greatly changed that in that moment prior to my certain recognition of her she might have been any one of the half-dozen women following close behind her on the steps. And when I did recognize her for a certainty by the familiar grin that now played on her lips I became equally certain that during another moment Lila Montgomery was not at all sure which of the three young men in civilian clothes and endowed with a decided family resemblance was he whom she had known at Camp Forrest and in Washington. At some moment, however, she did become sure—perhaps only at the moment when I stepped forward to take the piece of hand luggage she carried and to place a kiss on her forehead. Or perhaps it should be put the other way around, for it was the kiss on the forehead that I had first in mind, and I am afraid it was a sort of Judas kiss—intended to let the rest of the family know who she was. The fact was, moreover, that once I had planted that brotherly kiss on Lila’s forehead—or rather once, as it seemed to me, she herself was certain that I was who I was—she suddenly came up on her tiptoes and placed a kiss on my lips of a kind I most assuredly had never before received from her either at Camp Forrest or in Washington. In retrospect it seemed to me that our affair in those earlier days had been almost entirely platonic. Under present circumstances this kiss of Lila’s was no less than alarming. For my most pressing concern at that moment was not for Lila but for Ruthie Ann and the serious turn her and my conversations had recently taken. I felt myself instantly withdrawing from this kiss of Lila’s as though I recognized what it might suggest about her behavior and perhaps the general style of her life nowadays. And then during the moment of the kiss I heard the jolly little trained nurse behind her saying, “So this is why it was necessary for us to bring Mrs. St. John-Jones out here to a Memphis hospital.” Then she gave way to what we all very soon came to recognize as her own characteristic burst of staccato laughter. And when presently she was introduced to me by Lila and I asked her how my aunt had borne the journey she suddenly looked very solemn and replied that she was afraid that Aunt Gussie had not borne it well at all. And carefully looking directly at me and possibly avoiding Lila’s eye she asserted somewhat gravely, “I fear undertaking such a journey has been too much for your aunt.” Then she added solicitously to me, “Would you care to come aboard the train and see her? She’s still in her berth in the drawing room.”
Lila Montgomery had now descried at some distance up the platform a stretcher cart being rapidly wheeled along in our direction. She commenced waving with both hands at the stretcher bearers. The stretcher was clearly something she had ordered when setting out from Washington and hence was now on the lookout for. As she hailed the stretcher bearers with a certain authority, I glanced back at the assembled family members and was somewhat taken aback to see that none of them had yet come forward. Rather, they struck me as standing there still in open-mouthed amazement, so to speak, at the remarkable warmth with which I had been greeted by the good-looking young woman who had just stepped off the train. Perhaps this was only something I imagined, but it made me gesture with some impatience for all the group to come forward.
When I had introduced them all around, my spinster cousin Andrea Lomax touched my arm and said, “Don’t you think you and I might go aboard and greet the old lady? I remember her very well from the old days when I used to go in from Miss Madeira’s and stay with her at the Stoneleigh Court.” And then Andrea turned to Nurse O’Neill (for so the attending nurse would presently refer to herself) and asked her permission to let the two of us board the train and enter Aunt Gussie’s drawing room accommodation. In response to this Nurse O’Neill shrugged her shoulders in a most offhand fashion, saying in an exaggeratedly indifferent manner (so it seemed to me), “You may all of you go ahead if you like, though I am afraid she won’t know any of you from Adam’s house cat! For she is not at all herself.” Notwithstanding this chilling response, Andrea presently climbed aboard. And I soon followed after her. I suppose I did so partly because I wanted time to adjust my thoughts to the ardor of Lila’s kiss. As we went along the little passage that ran alongside Aunt Gussie’s drawing room I heard Andrea Lomax ask querulously from over her shoulder, “Is that young woman someone you met in Washington during the war?”
To this I heard myself reply noncommittally, “More or less I did, Andrea,” making it plain to this elder cousin of mine that it was distinctly none of her business where I had known “that young woman.” For I was perfectly aware that this spinster cousin had observed the amorous nature of the kiss that Lila Montgomery had bestowed upon me when she stepped off the train. At the door to the drawing room Andrea hesitated and gave me a quick look that said we must be prepared to expect almost anything once we got inside and which suggested somehow that she herself had some old scores to be settled with this mutual aunt of ours.
The face of the old creature that presently peered out at us from under the sheet in the made-up drawing room berth bespoke nothing less than absolute terror. Presently now Andrea, to my delight, was addressing the old lady in the gentlest and most reassuring voice imaginable. But in response the dark, hollow eyes and near toothless mouth gave no distinct sign of recognition. The eyes seemed to stare right through the both of us, as though we were perfect strangers, or as though she hadn’t the power to summon up whatever memory of us she might once have had. But after a time Aunt Gussie very distinctly spoke the name “Lila” as though that were now the only name that could mean anything to her. Simultaneously we heard the stretcher bearers first stumbling along the passage and then bumping against the open door to Aunt Gussie’s compartment. To make way for them Andrea and I at once backed out into the first Pullman section. Through the window out there I had a glimpse of Lila Montgomery speaking very effusively to my mother and father and to other members of the family. Seeing her so engaged with my parents and my brother and sister suddenly all seemed like a confused dream to me: this admixture of people thus appearing from different moments and in different contexts of my life! And certainly no less confusing was the subsequent emergence from the drawing room of my little aunt, now supine on the stretcher and being wielded into the passage by two white-clad and rather pudgy young men and attended by the resplendent Nurse O’Neill, who had now joined forces with them. Andrea and I remained by the Pullman section window long enough to see the stretcher appear on the platform and be carted away by the vehicle waiting there. The cluster of family members could hardly have got more than a glimpse of Aunt Gussie as she was wheeled by. She must have appeared to them, as she had to Andrea and me, as little more than a corpse. Nurse O’Neill and Lila Montgomery, hurriedly calling out instructions to the family group gathered there about the disposition of their luggage, went running unceremoniously after their departing charge.
And yet next day when I was taken to see Aunt Gussie at St. Joseph’s Hospital, allegedly at her request, she seemed—upon my entering the hospital room—almost her very same wizened, black-eyed self, even with the gypsy scarf tied about her old head. She greeted me quite familiarly, like someone who might have been near and dear to her for many years. “Come in, you young rascal of a war hero!” she exclaimed in that memorable, husky voice of hers. It said worlds to me! Somehow at the moment it seemed to tell me all I needed to know about Lila and Aunt Gussie and how close they had become and how much they might have talked about me—especially in recent months. Yet even before this first exclamation of hers was quite uttered, her voice began to trail off into what was at last little more than a whisper. It became immediately apparent to me that the hardy tone she had at first affected was done only with the greatest effort and could not be sustained for more than a few moments at a time. She seized my hand between her own two hands, which for all their old appearance of transparency were like steel in their grasp. Then she began again in a voice that would once again trail off into a whisper: “You young scamp you, you see I have hunted you out in the wilds of West Tennessee in order to return your ‘fantastically good-looking girl’ to your safekeeping! I think you will find her worthy of the war hero that you have become.” So saying, like some child in a school play who has spoken its only allotted lines and then out of utter exhaustion has gone into a near faint, my Aunt Gussie slumped into silence and simultaneously released my hand from her steel-like grasp. Lila Montgomery was at that moment standing near me beside the high hospital bed. It was she who had this morning summoned me to my aunt’s bedside in the hospital, and the thought occurred to me even then that Aunt Gussie had conceivably memorized those spoken lines in order to oblige Lila Montgomery, though it seemed equally possible that my aunt had done so in order to satisfy some deathbed scheme of her very own.
From the moment on the previous day when, out on the railway platform, I first heard Nurse O’Neill’s burst of staccato laughter an uneasy feeling began developing inside me. I had felt some force at work within me that I knew I had best take note of. Perhaps it was Nurse O’Neill’s unbecoming girlish irony, more than her laughter, that had alerted me to imminent danger of some sort. At any rate during waking moments of that night’s sleep her words more than once rang in my ears: “So this was why it was deemed necessary for us to bring Mrs. St. John-Jones out here to a Memphis hospital to die?” And now at Aunt Gussie’s bedside, with Lila beside me and Nurse O’Neill just opposite, it was easy to imagine myself trapped in a nest of armed combat troops—all of them appropriately outfitted with spiked helmets and war gear of the most threatening kind. Though I did not in any literal sense do so, it might have been tempting to try to equate this moment with that other moment when I alone had allegedly held off a horde of Huns similar to and equal to Sergeant York’s own. But despite any battle shock or other permanent disability I had suffered I yet had more fundamental wisdom in my nature than to give way to such images. In the first place I knew with all certainty that that memory was forever blotted from my mind. And I had too much respect—of almost the religious variety—for all under Heaven that is blessedly blocked from human memory and particularly for those horrors blocked from my own consciousness and the memory of events never to be recalled on that hillside above the Normandy beachhead—such non-memories being truly like the battle dead who had been left behind in that place—too much respect, I should emphasize, to allow me to think even momentarily of equating it with such a prosaic and pathetic scene as this at St. Joseph’s Hospital. And true though it is that certain war correspondents and certain official military observers have since given relatively accurate accounts of what occurred that June day in 1944 and of the role I myself played among the hedgerows on that hillside, still in each case the journalist and the military narrator needed for his own purposes that which only I could supply. Of course I have not necessarily had to believe in the truth of their accounts. As I have read them I have gone along with said accounts (it has been a “learning experience” for me) because since I do not remember anything, I cannot therefore deny anything. For my own peace of mind and sometimes out of vanity I have accepted as truth all that I have seen put in writing. There have been moments when to deny anything at all would seem to deny everything and to have begun a great unraveling that might have ended I know not where. I therefore can deny nothing except in ridiculous instances like the present when I am tempted to make some petty and ignoble comparison between the present unworthy events and events of those heroic moments which all the world will continue to believe in and consider so until the day when I can truthfully make a denial.
That first day on the railway platform it must have at some point been decided where Lila would reside during her stay in Memphis. The only detail I can recall is that when leaving the Union Station it happened to come to my attention that Lila’s two rather large pieces of luggage were placed in the trunk of Andrea Lomax’s navy blue sedan. At noon on the second day of her stay in Memphis I received a telephone call from Lila requesting that I might be so kind as to fetch her in one of my parents’ cars and take her out to dinner that night. Andrea was being very hospitable, Lila’s old familiar voice assured me, but it would surely seem an imposition for her to turn up there for dinner every night. Besides, said that charming voice whose every engaging quality now rang familiarly in my ear, there were certain matters that she and I had to discuss.
At this very period in my recuperation from my bad war experiences my relations with Ruthie Ann Sedwick were becoming more and more intense. My immediate reaction to Lila’s call was that either I had to break my engagement with Ruthie Ann that evening or somehow arrange to include her in any plans I might make with Lila. I decided that any version of the latter would be too awkward. And as I might well have predicted, that dear girl Ruthie Ann Sedwick was ever so understanding about the problem I was faced with. I scarcely needed speak of it. She seemed immediately to comprehend the whole situation. It was as though she said to herself, “Of course there must have been a girl in Washington, and what could be more likely than that she should accompany his Aunt Gussie on the train? Probably they became acquainted through his aunt.” And how different this was from Lila Montgomery! During the first days after her arrival I would several times make a point of mentioning Ruthie Ann’s name to her. She seemed deaf to the very sound of it. Until nearly the very end she would seem willfully unaware of Ruthie Ann’s existence.
As a matter of fact it was Andrea Lomax who proved not so understanding. For the evening ahead she had prepared a rather elaborate dinner for herself and her house guest, during which I must suppose that she, as a curious-minded old maid, intended to extract whatever information Lila and I were concealing about our acquaintance. But Lila had overlooked telling her about our other plans for the evening! Andrea, though obviously disappointed, commenced insisting that we both of us stay on at her place for dinner. But Lila was adamant, insisting herself that it was too much of an imposition on Andrea. Afterward, I fear, they were unable to make it up between them. As a result, on the following day, Lila rented a small car for her own use, though actually she would make little enough use of it. She did, however, continue to occupy her room at Andrea’s place for the duration of her protracted visit to Memphis, but she took her meals elsewhere.
As I followed Lila out through the entry doorway that night at Andrea’s I saw Lila give a quick glance backward into the front room of the place, and her expression seemed strangely familiar to me. I could tell that she would prefer not to be coming here again. But I perceived too that it was somehow important to her to be staying with a member of my family. But clearly what was equally or even more important to her was that she and I should have this first evening together and entirely alone. The expression on her face was familiar to me but was assuredly not one that I could thoroughly have comprehended at an earlier time in our acquaintance. I read in it now a purposefulness about her that would have entirely eluded me at any previous time.
Yet when Lila and I dined together later that evening I recognized in her demeanor a cheerfulness and charm that would have seemed actually foreign to her nature in my former acquaintance with her. No semblance of the old pouty expression showed itself at any time during that evening—or at any time later, for that matter. That whole pouty business was obviously something left over from the personality of the child Lila Montgomery had once been. Neither was there now any evidence of the mixture of the once companionable and always impersonal feeling that had formerly marked her personality. Most striking, though, was the absence of the old mobility of facial expression which I had noted the very first time I saw Lila on the Camp Forrest dance floor nearly five years before I became aware of this absence tonight first while introducing her to two casual acquaintances in the restaurant and again when merely hearing her place an order with our waitress after we had been seated at our table. The change in her manner—the rigidity of it—had been noticeable even in such passing and casual exchanges. And it now seemed, in retrospect, that a change had been apparent to me two days before on the railway platform in the Union Station. It seemed to me that she had greeted my mother and my father and the other members of my family with approximately the same at once rigid and effusive manner that she had used just now while addressing our waitress in the restaurant. Above all, it was the peculiar mixture of rigidity and effusiveness of manner that most distinctly set the new Lila apart from the old. There was a oneness in her way of addressing people now where once there had been great shades and distinctions at hand for everyone.
But equally distinct was her way of dressing nowadays. There was something I kept referring to (only to myself) as her high style. There was the different era we had all moved into—men and women alike—and there was of course the difference in Lila Montgomery’s present age. She had seen a good deal more of the world now—even there in wartime Washington she had, even in Washington which somehow always manages to give one the feeling of being in a bit of a backwater. One felt that she would not willingly have been seen nowadays in one of those outfits she had purchased when she went to take up the new job that Aunt Gussie had found her—much less in one of the little blouse-and-pleated-skirt “sets” she had arrived in Washington wearing. Without having a lot more interest than I could reasonably have been expected to possess in such matters it wasn’t easy for me to put my finger on what the principal difference in her “look” was. What I finally settled on by way of close observation was that she no longer on any occasion wore a hat. I had noticed her hatlessness almost the first moment she stepped off the train. There was something I didn’t like about it from the outset. It made her seem quite undressed in a way that I could never like. I believe I noticed too from that first moment when she stepped off the train that there was something different about her very carriage. Rather, I should say, there was something so altered about how that young woman stepping off the train at the Union Station “carried” herself that at first I drew a perfect blank. She manifested such “manner,” such “presence,” such consciousness of her own consummate good grooming that I quite frankly could not identify her as any person whom I would have been likely to make friends with in the past. Even the bestowal of her ostensibly passionate kiss seemed somehow so studied a performance that I doubted anyone else—not even Aunt Gussie if she had been able to witness it—could have believed it one more whit than I had. And someone with Andrea Lomax’s suspicious nature would inevitably have suspected that things were not quite what they seemed.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing of all was the wardrobe that even I wouldn’t be long in discovering Lila had brought along for her Memphis sojourn. The two large pieces of luggage that I had seen thrust into the trunk of Andrea Lomax’s car must have been jam-packed with countless frocks for Lila to deck herself out in. (And perhaps there were other frocks to be shipped separately.) Already on only the second night she had appeared in three different garments, and during the remaining ten days of the visit she was destined to appear in as many ensembles as there were days. Ill equipped as I may be to judge such matters, moreover, I could not but compare habiliments of this present wardrobe of Lila Montgomery’s and those I recalled from former days. Gone were the frilled frocks and shirtwaists that once had seemed so becoming to the young girl from Tullahoma, Tennessee, or even to the office worker in wartime Washington, D.C. Now she was all bright silk prints with low necklines and rather heavily ornamented bracelets and necklaces. There was nothing, to be sure, suggesting extreme bad taste, but there was everything that such a one as I could recognize, without knowing quite how I recognized it, that was part and parcel of the post-Second World War that Lila Montgomery and I and everybody like us had lived on into. That was what she was or what she seemed like to me.
After dinner we sat and talked for a while about Aunt Gussie. It seems her illness had come on quite suddenly. For a year or longer she had existed almost entirely on a diet of raw eggs, which had seemed adequate and even thoroughly satisfactory until six weeks or so ago. Then she had begun to weaken. Lila Montgomery was sent for by Nurse O’Neil. Lila had not seen the old lady for two or three weeks before that. But she had always kept in fairly regular touch with her, visiting her almost on a fortnightly basis. This, in fact, was what struck me as most surprising. In whatever few thoughts I had about the matter it had never seemed likely to me that their friendship had been a continuing or in any sense an intimate one. Above all, it had never crossed my mind that Lila and Aunt Gussie together would have read accounts of my own Normandy exploits in the newspaper or that I could have risen to the rank of hero in their minds. And regardless of that it would never have occurred to me that Aunt Gussie might have kept a firm grip on her relations with Lila. But apparently this was the case. It came out presently, though with Lila’s making only passing reference to it, that once Lila Montgomery had accepted her first job through my aunt’s auspices, she reported to her on the progress in her career with what I would consider an unnatural regularity. When Lila told me about this I immediately and to my own dismay somehow visualized her seated at the card table opposite my aunt there in Aunt Gussie’s tiny Stoneleigh Court apartment. I saw her leaning over a deck of tarot cards laid out on the table there. More clearly even I saw her participating in some sort of séance under Aunt Gussie’s direction, caught up in a trance, as it were, and revealing to the old lady every detail of her work where she was currently employed. . . .But this was only the stuff of my imagination, of course. I cannot be sure of what the scene was like. But I did learn how frequently Lila had made a habit of reporting to the old lady’s apartment and sometimes, incidentally, reading to her from the daily newspaper. And I do know that when Aunt Gussie was taken ill and she was sent for by the frightened nurse, Lila had just then taken a new job at some different senator’s office. And I do know that on the following day Lila resigned from that new and rather important job she had taken and had once begun making to bring Aunt Gussie down to Tennessee.
When the telephone message reached her Lila had been greatly alarmed simply by the fact of a professional nurse’s having been called in. She hurried to the taxi and rushed over to the Stoneleigh Court. She found it reassuring when Nurse O’Neill revealed herself to be not only a Roman Catholic but even someone who took a considerable interest in Aunt Gussie’s spiritualist concerns. Nurse O’Neill had acted as companion and nurse for another old Catholic lady during her final days, one who had resided in the apartment adjacent to Aunt Gussie’s. Upon the death of that neighbor lady my aunt more or less inherited the services of this good Catholic nurse, who also brought along with her a devout Catholic doctor. Lila saw at once that Aunt Gussie was in good hands and according to her she might not have renewed her old interest in me except that from the outset Aunt Gussie had talked incessantly about me and the great fame I had acquired as a war hero.
All of this came through to me while Lila sat talking after dinner that first night. What did not come through to me so clearly was whether it had been more Aunt Gussie’s or perhaps Lila’s wish that the old lady be brought back to Tennessee. Lila at no time made this quite clear to me. I had either to try to imagine my aunt whispering to Lila from her sickbed that she wished to be removed to St. Joseph’s Hospital, in Memphis, or imagined Lila urging such a removal when she and Aunt Gussie conferred during the wee hours of the nights. In any case I got the distinct impression that during a number of sessions held between them just prior to this one the two women had been almost exclusively concerned with the news of my having been awarded the Medal of Honor for my great exploits on the beachhead at Normandy. And it was this subject that occupied the two of us during the last hour of our talk that night in the restaurant. We talked until most lights had been put out in the little restaurant and until in fact we were told by the proprietor, in the politest Memphis way, that it was his closing time.
Lila really began this last part of our talk by inquiring of me if it were actually true that I had begun my army career as a conscientious objector. At first I thought she was going to take me to task for never having told her about that. To my surprise, she expressed her great delight and approval when I confessed to her, which struck me as quite ironic in view of the pains I had once taken to conceal the very fact from her. In my mind I could not resist comparing Ruthie Ann’s indifference to what my status had been upon first entering the army with Lila’s curiosity and her belated delight in it. And without my making any reference to it Ruthie Ann had seemed to sense from the first afternoon we met at Alex Mercer’s house that I could actually remember nothing about the much heralded events at Normandy. It was something that between the two of us we were destined never to mention. When the subject arose in the company of others, Ruthie Ann would quietly turn away and busy herself with other matters. Presently it became clear to me that Lila’s delight and approval were predicated upon my having become a war hero. Twice before I finished I had to describe to her my alleged exploits in greatest detail—all of which I had learned by rote, or course—our landing at Normandy and my reputed capture of two dozen German soldiers. I have to say that at first my manufacture of this memory was a considerably easier fabrication than when I had once found the necessity to conceal from her my role as a conscientious objector. I had by this time read so many accounts of how I had held off a whole company of Nazis and made prisoners of the two dozen of them that I now had no difficulty in picturing the adventure in my mind—how I had been crawling in the slimy earth behind the dense hedges there and taken the men one by one as they came out from a low brick archway—an archway so low they had to stoop to pass under it and so were caught off guard by the steel ring of my carbine, which kept firing away just inches above their heads—how the stupid krauts kept coming, as though they themselves were being fired from some automatic weapon, kept coming through that low archway in a peasant’s barn till some one of them could see they were being made the captives of some low-ranking Yank, at which point they all more or less stampeded backward into the maze of cow stalls in the already roofless dairy barn, how I held them together there till I got some kind of relief from my cronies and then must have fainted away and struck my head on one of the barnyard stones. . . .But even before I got to that last part Lila had leaned across the table, seized my face in her beautiful hands and planted a kiss on my lips, and insisted that I repeat the whole fabricated account once again. It was as though she were looking or listening for some flaw that would give the whole thing away. But I did not betray myself. By now I had repeated the story so often to my family and friends that the hardest part had come to be making myself remember not to believe in my own pretended memory. At first I had had to labor at remembering that I actually remembered nothing. This was necessary to get myself released from the hospital and from the doctors that surrounded me—overseas at first and later back in this country. Pretending that the memory had come back to me was the way I could regain my freedom! And once I had returned to my family, the myth of my heroism became an even more profound necessity. Most wonderful of all, my unremembered heroism freed me from the old shame of having been a conscientious objector. I spent so many hours thinking about my old secret and my new secret that at last I could not fail to speculate about what secrets other people kept. Perhaps it was only a way I had of consoling myself. What secrets did my mother and father share? And what secrets did they keep for a lifetime from each other? What awful secrets had they kept about Aunt Gussie and about their own parents and about my own brother and sister and my spinster cousin Andrea Lomax? I realized perfectly how childish all this seemed, how like delayed doubts of childhood and puberty it was. Yet from the day I returned home from the war, nursing my secret—my “blankness,” as I came to call my state of mind—it was always with me. And it seemed the worse somehow because it was a secret nobody else could possibly know—not for certain, they couldn’t.
It was past midnight when Lila and I left the restaurant on Front Street. We walked down the cobblestone embankment and up Riverside Drive toward Mud Island and the New Bridge. Lila had begun to talk about the time we spent together at Camp Forrest and after that about those weeks in Washington. As we walked she hung on to my arm and pressed herself very close against me. And she talked about those earlier days in most romantic and sentimental terms. She had a very clear head and remembered everything we had ever said to each other. But somehow it always came out different from the way I had remembered it. She spoke as if we had been real lovers from the beginning and had parted only after a little spat and a lovers’ quarrel. She even spoke of that last long walk we took through Georgetown as though it represented a lovers’ parting. At last she looked up at me and said, “Let’s go back to Andrea’s! She’ll be wondering if we’re going to be staying out all night.” And so we got in the car and headed back to Andrea’s apartment at Crosstown. When I had parked at the curb in front of Andrea’s complex and after Lila already had her right hand on the door handle beside her she leaned way across the seat to kiss me on the cheek. It crossed my mind that that meant “good night” and that she did not even want me to see her to the apartment door. It struck me for a moment that she was, after all, the same old Lila Montgomery I had known at Tullahoma and in Washington. Then as if she had changed her mind—had had it changed for her by some power outside herself—she relaxed her grasp on the door handle and asked, “Won’t you come in for a while?” I was out of the car almost at once and stood on the other side holding her door open for her. Her change of heart—or mind—seemed irresistible to me. She seemed so like the old Lila on the dance floor at Camp Forrest. And we approached the front entrance on tiptoe, pretending we were afraid of being overheard and giggling at ourselves like two schoolchildren.
There was only one table lamp left burning in Andrea’s living room, as an indication no doubt that she had retired. We lingered in that room for a very few minutes—not speaking, while sitting very close beside each other. Then it was as though she had another sudden change of intention. Taking me by the hand, she led me back to the bedroom she was occupying at the end of a narrow corridor. She closed the door behind us, and now of course it became evident what her intention was. It became clear, moreover, that she was making no effort to conceal what we were about from my cousin Andrea Lomax in the adjacent room. There was no softness about the way Lila closed the bedroom door, and to speak plainly there was no effort to stifle the sounds of brutish lovemaking to which we would presently yield ourselves. What would afterward strike me as most extraordinary about this scene of fornication was not the evidence of my own gross wartime experience in the realm of casual sex (shocking as the present instance of it might be to me) and not even the convincing, the indubitable evidence as there clearly was of the similar experience by Lila Montgomery during the three or so brief years she spent working in the bureaus of wartime Washington, D.C., but rather other matters that pressed themselves more deeply on my consciousness when the episode had passed. When finally she had left the bed and had gone in unabashed nakedness to contemplate the streetlight just below and outside the window, I felt myself compelled to think of how driven she, throughout our lovemaking, had seemed by some other desire or some other power than her own.
For both of us it had seemed a mechanical and most unnatural performance. It had nothing to do with the two people who had once been intimately or affectionately acquainted. It seemed to me that we were now much more by way of being strangers to each other than we had been an hour before. More than anything else I felt the great intervention of some other power. Stupid as the idea struck me, it seemed momentarily that the war itself had intervened. And I was further distracted by another thought or impression. Could it be that Lila had consciously or even subconsciously wished to have Andrea Lomax overhear the noises we made tonight and identify the sounds? Was Andrea the other power or presence that I felt? While whispering good-night to Lila at her bedroom door and simultaneously thinking perhaps I had detected a light under Andrea’s own door I even found myself wondering if there could have been some collusion between the two. But at once I thought better of this. And in the days that followed I came to think it almost a certainty that Lila had wished above all—or someone else had wished it—to place herself in the domicile of one of my relatives. It would have been a matter of strategy with her. Or had it perhaps been a strategy worked out between herself and Nurse O’Neill? It had even occurred to me that Nurse O’Neill had been the other power I had to deal with.
In the upstairs hall of my mother’s house there was a curio case displaying all the various medals that had come my way in the war—down to the good-marksmanship and even the good-conduct medals. Mother was fond of saying of course that she valued the good-conduct above all others, adding piously that without that it was likely none of the others would have followed. She was speaking half in jest when she made this remark, as she was about half the remarks she ever made. When she made an opportunity to take Lila upstairs to see the curio case with my medals, Lila’s wry comment had been that she herself valued the good-marksmanship medal above all others and it was likely that without that medal none of the others would have followed. This was a comment that Mother was not afterward able to forgive Lila, maintaining that it was too much like something our Aunt Gussie might have said. Perhaps Mother’s half-pious, half-ironic note seemed to her within the bounds of old-fashioned convention and good taste, whereas with Aunt Gussie the measure of what was beyond those bounds was ever in doubt. Perhaps it was a fine line which my own masculine sensibilities could not grasp.
On the day after Lila and I had gone to Andrea’s place, Lila arrived in the morning, self-invited, for breakfast at our house. And she would do so in fact every morning during the rest of her visit. She would arrive each day wearing a different dress, as I have already indicated. My mother and my younger sister, Agnes, were genuinely admiring of the rather brilliant ensembles she appeared in, and I am afraid they never failed to comment on this. I do not think that either of them meant to imply that Lila was dressing so for my benefit, or at least that either of them would for a moment have acknowledged as much to herself, nor do I think they were being critical of such bright, dressy colors being selected for a trip such as this one to Memphis. I think it was more likely an acknowledgement that these hues represented a particular kind of bright print now available and fashionable in Washington which, alas, was not available and fashionable down here in Memphis. Be that as it may, Mother on one particular occasion spoke to Agnes of how much these prints were like those once long ago affected by Aunt Gussie Jones. She said this in Lila Montgomery’s presence, and I immediately saw Lila’s face become diffused with blushes! It was as if for Lila there had been one too many references and comparisons made to Aunt Gussie. Though nothing was said about it by any person present, and though the blushes vanished almost immediately, I believe notice was taken by everyone—even by my father, who was also present though not previously taking part in the conversation. Anyhow, it then struck me for the first time that in the eyes of all my family Lila was a veritable reincarnation of Aunt Augusta St. John-Jones and that Lila herself was somehow aware of this. I don’t know at what moment or moments members of my family first received such an impression. Perhaps it was just after Lila stepped off the train from Washington. There was no physical resemblance between the two, of course, but there was, as my mother might have said, some sine qua non about her that bespoke Aunt Gussie herself. (My mother’s speech, like that of other genteel ladies of her generation, was full of such Latin phrases and expressions, which she still retained from boarding school days.) It occurred to me at this moment that the great change I thought I had noted in Lila constituted nothing more or less than this influence on her of my aunt’s personality. In any case, I had confessed to myself that my relatives observed this and articulated it among themselves well before I did.
One of my first observations about my parents after my return from overseas was that they showed far less interest in relatives, whether near or distant, than they had done before the war. Until news came of Aunt Gussie’s illness her very name had scarcely been mentioned since I reappeared in Memphis. The old days that my parents had talked so much about in my boyhood were not often mentioned. Even old-maid cousins like Andrea Lomax were not often seen in our house, and the young men cousins who turned up at the train station—those two who looked so like me that Lila could not be sure which of us three might be the real me—even they had to be “contacted” by my father and forced to make an appearance at the station.
And in retrospect one felt that my father and mother and my sister had wanted the cousins present so that they themselves would not feel solely responsible for Aunt Gussie’s care and well-being once she reached Memphis. And after the first day or so I was the one member of the family who turned up regularly at St. Joseph’s Hospital. It might also be remarked that from this time none of my old boyhood friends was very much in evidence—none of those who as boys had hung about our house so regularly as to be considered almost members of the family; instead, only old would-be fellow conscientious objector friends Alex Mercer and Phillip Carver, and intentionally or not, my two parents always had difficulty in distinguishing who of these was who. Very soon Phillip left Memphis (without telling his family he was going) and went to live out the rest of his life in New York City. But even then Father was ever apt to address Alex as “Alex-or-Phil, whichever you are.” It was as if ever after he and Mother lived in a kind of limbo and declined to try to connect either past or present with each other. Somehow I could not tell whether they were still more in a state of shock from my having signed up as a C.O. or from my having returned as a war hero. Perhaps it was neither. Perhaps they were simply two people who had reached a time in life when the past and the future seem equally unreal and undistinguishable from each other. Such a time comes eventually for every man and woman. But in this case it may have been only the war because for some sweet-natured people the mere existence of the war itself was sufficient to disorient them forever.
The fact was, my parents’ life together seemed to me every day that passed more and more a secretive affair—altogether unfathomable to me. It seemed the two of them agreed on nothing under the sun, and yet I cannot recall their ever having spoken a disagreeable word to each other. Their peaceful coexistence was one of the great mysteries of life for me. But I have to insist that it was but one of the great mysteries. I seemed ever less able to comprehend the lives lived by those around me. I found myself constantly trying to remind myself why my two good friends, Alex and Phillip, had taken on the rôle of conscientious objectors. I always remembered why I had done so. It had simply seemed absurd to align oneself with men bent on killing other men who similarly had no reason for killing me. But I actually saw no reason why my two good friends—or anyone else—should necessarily feel the same as I did. But feeling as I did about this, it did not seem strange to me that I should let myself forever forget the men I had killed or captured in Normandy. And it was no easier for me to explain the one than the other. Yet there was one matter that disturbed my peace of mind as nothing else had ever done. I was not so much disturbed by my having thus casually taken Lila to bed—or permitted myself to be taken to bed—as by our having revealed to each other how accustomed our wartime lives had made us to such affairs. And I was considerably more disturbed by the great desire I felt, despite the awful mechanical quality of it, to repeat the performance we had allowed ourselves there in Andrea’s spare bedroom. It was the continuing desire that made it torture for me for several days afterward and that made me wonder again and again about the callous feeling that now possessed me.
On the day after the evening I spent with Lila I went, before doing anything else, to see Ruthie Ann Sedwick. It was not in order to tell her what had happened the night before that I went to her. I wanted simply to stand in her presence and try to discern what my own feelings would be when she and I stood face to face. I found her in the basement of her mother’s house, where she was experimenting with some tomato plants that she had pulled out of the ground by their roots the night before, this being in the fall of the year and at the time of the first frost. Ruthie Ann was a serious amateur horticulturist—not a mere genteel lady gardener—and she had read somewhere recently that if she hung her tomato plants upside down from her basement ceiling the fruit would continue to ripen without rotting. She had told me about this a few days before, and so when her mother had directed me to the basement this morning I was not surprised to find her so employed. She began at once to expound theories on why her plants were not doing so well as she had expected. I didn’t listen of course. I could attend only to what my own feelings were upon seeing her this morning. My feelings about Lila did not seem to exist. That is, what had occurred to me the night before seemed to have no bearing on the present moment or on the undeniable love I had come to feel for this girl I had met by chance.
I had been seeing Ruthie Ann so regularly these past weeks that my dropping by like this was hardly anything out of the ordinary. I had even worked with her some in the big vegetable and flower garden, which was in a fenced-in vacant lot adjoining her other’s bungalow-style house there in Crosstown Memphis. Admittedly, what had appealed to me about her was her motherly posture and her beautiful patience with Alex Mercer’s young children. There was an almost perpetual smile on her generous mouth, as though she were mildly amused not only by the Mercer children but by almost everything else that came her way. She had an adequate sense of her own dignity, yet when I had brought forth from my father’s garage the motorcycle I had had since early boyhood she had not scrupled for one second about hopping on behind me or being seen riding all about that genteel old neighborhood, which was still there in Crosstown in those days. I believe she was always without personal ambition or vanity—more than anyone else I have ever known. Her father had died when she was still a small child, and Ruthie Ann seemed content enough to continue always living there alone with her mother, running errands for the old lady as thought she herself were happy to be perpetually occupied by that and by reading aloud to her mother, who rather surprisingly had a decidedly highbrow taste in modern fiction. Neither she nor her mother ever expressed an interest in my having once registered as a conscientious objector or having afterward been hailed as a war hero. The only emotion Ruthie Ann would ever show in the latter was a kind of mild amusement. And even from our first meeting I felt that she suspected that I could not remember anything about my exploits at the Normandy beachhead. Best of all, perhaps, I sensed from the beginning that Ruthie Ann had not the normal quantity of secrets in her own life. As well as not caring to ferret out whatever secrets I might have.
When we were talking a while that day among the upside-down tomato plants, suddenly I found myself stepping forward and then leaning among those upside-down plants to embrace for the first time this girl I knew I had fallen in love with. Just as I was kissing the smiling mouth she turned up to me I heard the footsteps of her mother on the basement stair just behind me. She approached not seeming to take notice of how we were occupied and assuming certainly that it was not the first time we had so occupied ourselves. She fairly stumbled upon us as she made her way over the heap of tomatoes lying on the cement floor and commented ever so casually that we certainly had picked an awkward place to so engage ourselves. I was so amused and charmed by this that I could barely resist turning and embracing Ruthie Ann’s mother herself. But, having received a telephone call from Lila just before setting out on my motorcycle, I had now to return to my house and exchange that vehicle for my mother’s more suitable sedan in order to fetch Lila Montgomery from Andrea’s place to take her to the hospital. As I hurried out of the basement I had heard the two of them, mother and daughter, laughing together at what they must have supposed to be my sudden embarrassment. As I rode my motorcycle home I could only think with pleasure of how wisely these wonderful women had waited the war out, making their garden, reading their “highbrow fiction,” closing their ears to the noise of the war, insisting in their ways, as only women could really do, on a conscientious objection to the war.
Lila was waiting on the front stoop of the apartment house when I pulled up at the curb. She was got up in yet another bright print dress—worn underneath a short navy jacket, it being a morning in late autumn. She wore no hat and had on a pair of shiny navy blue gloves that matched her low-heeled shoes as well as a flat purse under her arm. I believe I had noted every article of clothing before I had pulled up to the curb, even the smooth perfection of her silk stockings over her knees and her slender crossed ankles. I said to myself frankly that she would appeal to any man who ever lived and I was lucky she had not been snatched away before I got there. She remained seated on the stoop until I stopped the car, and then pushing back the fold of her glove she flirtatiously cast her eyes down at the tiny watch on her wrist. I was thirty minutes late! But in the blink of an eye she had sprung up from the stoop and rushed forward to the car, and sticking her head through the driver’s window she gave me one of those impassioned kisses that she seemed to have discovered since the days that I first knew her. Still standing with her head pushed inside the window she said, “You know, don’t you, that I’ve really come out here to Memphis to fetch you back to Washington with me!”
And I thought, “My God, I believe she really has!”
I drove us on to the hospital, again thinking mostly of what a power she was and wondering how conceivably I could ever do other than what she would tell me to do. And simultaneously I had begun wondering once more what was the source of the power she possessed or which seemed to possess her these days.
And that’s how mostly it was for me during the two weeks that lay ahead. Though Lila had leased a car for her own use in Memphis, she called our house each morning, requesting that whoever answered the phone give me the message that she was ready to go to the hospital. It seemed little enough that someone from our household should escort her to and from St. Joseph’s since Andrea was putting her up at her apartment and since after the first few days no one from our family was taking the trouble to visit Aunt Gussie at the hospital. Sometimes I would go with Lila to the door of the old lady’s room. But usually I would only peek through the open door and maybe whisper good morning to Nurse O’Neill. Several times I crooked my finger and beckoned the good nurse to come to the door and give me a report on the patient. Once I asked her where she herself was staying. She laughed her familiar staccato laugh and said, “Oh, the nuns are taking good care of me”—said it in a way that somehow made me doubt that was really the case. If I asked how her patient was doing she would always frown and say, “She can’t last long.” Aunt Gussie had never slept well the night before and that was why she was always sleeping soundly when I stopped by in the morning. “She never wants to see anybody except her niece there.” (That’s how she always referred to Lila.) She always seemed to want to put me off. “And all she asks of the young lady is what kind of ‘time’ she’s making with you.” Then of course Nurse O’Neill gave her staccato laugh, and I took this as my signal to leave. Before I went up to the room, though, I would already have asked Lila about my aunt’s condition. She would only shake her head and quickly change the subject. We would be sitting together in the cafeteria before we went up to her room, with me smoking a cigarette and with her sometimes holding my hand between the two of hers and smiling at me fondly. It was so often that way. I never slept with her again, though. I was spared that. But I fetched her from the hospital every afternoon, and I had always to take her somewhere for a spot of supper. I asked her out of the clear one day how long she thought she would stay in Memphis. She answered casually enough but with some certainty, “Oh, I’ll be here till she’s gone.” She was always cheerful when I picked her up at the hospital entrance and always leaned across the seat to give me a kiss but it got so we didn’t try to talk much. If she pressed me to do so, I would tell her one more time what it was like in Normandy. But we never talked at all about her life in Washington. She seemed to remember nothing about it.
I never had a clue about what might be going on in Lila’s mind or about how to account for her persistence until one day when I ran into Nurse O’Neill in the hospital corridor. And I cannot be sure that it was by chance we had that meeting. The first thing I knew was that she and I had literally bumped into each other and had turned in the corridor. Instead of laughing in her usual way the woman wore a deadly serious expression on her face, and she stood there as if intentionally meaning to block my further progress along the passage. I smiled at first and then I frowned, trying to read the significance of her standing there so. At last she said, “I don’t know how long she’s going to last.” Of course I took her to mean how long Aunt Gussie was going to last. “She’s having a hard time of it,” she went on, “and I don’t think you quite understand.” It began to dawn on me that it might not be Aunt Gussie Nurse O’Neill had in mind. But I didn’t want to give my idle thoughts away.
“You think my aunt might be very near the end, then?” I asked obliquely.
“I don’t know about your aunt.” It was as if she had decided to bolt and have done with it. “It’s Miss Lila Montgomery, I mean. I don’t know how long she’s going to last.” She stood silent for a moment. It was almost as though she had changed her mind about bolting.
“You mean Lila’s been under such a strain,” I said, myself clearly implying more than I said. If she were going to bolt then I wanted her to go ahead with it.
“The old lady’s got her under some kind of spell.” She came very close to me and actually spoke in a whisper. “I think she’s going to crack under it if you don’t help her. Anyway, I can’t help her. She’s gone too far.”
And before I could speak again she had swept off down the hall and through what I took to be the lab door. Only after she was out of sight did I realize she had been carrying some kind of plastic bottle or bedpan. And it occurred to me that that had only been her feeble excuse for hurrying along the corridor. And after she had passed through the swinging lab door she was immediately followed by two forbidding old nuns whose pace and deliberate hesitation so intimidated me that I did not follow her. Moreover, I stood there a moment in dazed reflection. I could not decide whether or not there might be collusion between Lila Montgomery and Nurse O’Neill. At last I decided I could not take the chance of being the dupe of such plotting. It was midmorning now, and I was due to pick up Ruthie Ann for lunch.
By the end of that week I was accustomed to having lunch every day with Ruthie Ann Sedwick and my two other meals—along with a couple of teatimes—with Lila Montgomery. As a matter of fact it was pretty nearly established that Ruthie Ann and I would regularly lunch together at home with her mother. Our lunch was not systematically nor on any principle planned as a vegetarian meal, but that’s what it amounted to. It somehow was what their whole life was like. Nothing was generally based on any system of principle. Their bungalow was just a house they happened to be living in at the time of Mr. Sedwick’s death. There just happened to be a vacant lot next door wherein they could plant a garden during the war years. When they could no longer afford to operate an automobile, they simply happened to be situated conveniently on a streetcar line and later a bus line. They merely happened to have inherited a cache of good clothing from a well-to-do late aunt. They planned nothing. They expected nothing. Everything simply came their way. “It’s because we are so good,” Mrs. Sedwick jested. “It’s because we want so little,” Ruthie Ann added a little more seriously. It was why they had been able to remain at peace with the world when everyone else had been going along with the babble—even taking advantage of it. And I had come upon them only just before it would have been too late, only just before the worldly Lila would have swept me up into her arms and made a national celebrity of me, the unknown war hero, made a national advantage of my nonheroic deeds in the great world of D.C., where it might matter most. What I recognized was that there just might be time for me to save myself.
But I had just enough feeling about Lila and the consolation she had once seemed to offer me that I knew I could not utterly reject the use she wanted to make of me now. The only defense I can make of my behavior after this point is that I did not speak of Lila and Ruthie Ann to each other—did not tell the one about the other. Every day there was the same leisurely lunch in the Sedwicks’ bungalow, and each morning and night Lila and I ate together at a different little restaurant or joint. If Lila and I talked at all she wanted it to be almost exclusively about the “happy” times we had had in Washington or the “happy” times we would yet have there when “all this” was over. She refused to reveal whether or not Aunt Gussie was now in a coma. Lila’s talk became ever more frenetic, ever persistent on the subject of our “happy” past times and future times together, interrupted by occasional references to my exploits in Normandy at the beachhead. On the two or three occasions when my parents dutifully dropped by the hospital, Lila received them in the waiting room and assured them that it would bring “no satisfaction” for them to see her now. From her conversation with me there was no positive indication of my aunt having her under “some kind of spell.” And yet once it had been suggested by Nurse O’Neill I could not altogether put the idea out of my head.
A combination of events at this time suggested to me that nothing in the world could seem better to me than to get married to Ruthie Ann Sedwick—and to do so at once. She agreed to go across the river with me to Arkansas, on Saturday morning, and we were married by a justice of the peace over there. We both had grown up in Memphis, and since our early teens we had known a number of people who had made that decision and, in varying degrees, had been very happy about it afterward. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to do, and I suppose that was why we felt so good about it. We told neither her mother nor my parents but enlisted a young couple who “happened” to live next door to the Sedwicks—and who “happened” to need to go over to Arkansas to buy some whiskey—to accompany us as witnesses. Ruthie Ann’s mother seemed awfully glad about it and at once began removing certain superfluous items from the guest room, which it was agreed we, the bride and groom, should occupy. At my parents’ house, to which we took the news, the announcement was received without the raising of an eyebrow, and the same thing was true there of my younger brother and sister, who presently, barely stifling yawns, took themselves upstairs—presumably for afternoon naps. I think my father would not even have put down his afternoon paper if Mother had not specifically told him to. Mother herself smiled rather blandly and tried to say with some warmth that they had only just been waiting for us to “name the day.” They made no reference to my having breakfasted and dined out with Lila Montgomery every day during the past two weeks. And it seemed to me in retrospect that when I had appeared at breakfast that morning and mentioned to them that I might have Ruthie Ann with me for dinner tonight they had scarcely acknowledged the information. It struck me now that likely they had not taken notice of my absence during the past three weeks or so.
It was while Ruthie Ann and I stood there burdening my parents with our non-news that I heard the slamming of metal against metal and heard the breaking of glass on the pavement of our driveway outside—the merest tinkling sound it must have been—seeming momentarily to reverberate throughout my brain and throughout the whole of the big house—upstairs and downstairs—in the most uncanny way. Simultaneously from the placid throats of my two parents came expressions of such shock and in such volume as could not ordinarily have seemed justified by the slight clatter we had heard from outside. And then also simultaneously and quite beyond any natural explanation I could think of there came from above stairs the resounding footsteps of my somewhat younger brother and sister as they leapt from their beds in the rooms where they had been napping and presently came bounding down the staircase and subsequently on through the open doorway to the front living room. By the time my two parents and those siblings of mine together reached the front windows of the house, the recent and upsetting noises in the driveway had become self-explanatory.
Without so much as a glance out any window I somehow—and without any natural explanation of the phenomenon—seemed to know precisely the source of the noise. I could not then and cannot now tell you how I had identified it, but I knew that it was the sound of the front bumper of Lila’s little-used rental car colliding with the rear bumper and the left rear light signal of Mother’s own sedan—the one which I had just used to transport Ruthie Ann and me to Arkansas and back. It will be said that I could not possibly have made such an identification without knowing more of events which had transpired earlier that afternoon, but I contend that there are events so inevitable in their sequence that persons in a certain state of mind cannot disengage either the sequence of cause and effect or any concatenation of the events. And from this point forward in this narrative I will not be held responsible for explanation or interpretation of events that follow with seeming mystery one upon the other. But this I know for a fair certainty. Lila had left her vigil at my aunt’s bedside earlier than was usual for her on this Saturday afternoon. Whatever had been her plans for the rest of the day, when she reached Andrea Lomax’s apartment house on Cleveland Street she found her two pieces of matched luggage placed side by side on the front stoop with a note tucked under one of the leather straps. No doubt she had perceived this note there under the strap before she even got out of the car and no doubt the unattended luggage on the front stoop must have struck her as an ominous omen. Without any formal address or preface the scribbled note had read simply: “Away from town for ten days. Trust you can find quarters elsewhere. A.L.”
Whatever frame of mind Lila had been in before that, she could not have been in the most placid spirit when, with no other place to go, she lugged her baggage into the rented car and headed for my parents’ house. In view of the little use she had previously made of this car, having been transported mainly in my mother’s sedan, she couldn’t have been altogether familiar with the mechanical operation of the vehicle she was driving—could not have been aware of how soon or how powerfully to apply pressure on the foot brake. One could imagine, moreover, that the sight of the car parked in the driveway, in which she may well have supposed I had been chauffeuring Ruthie Ann about all this day, may have caused her temporarily to lose absolute control of the car she sat behind the wheel of. It will doubtless be noted that I have carefully refrained from making any suggestion that Lila Montgomery purposefully rammed the one car into the other. But at my first sight of Lila she was already, without stopping to assist in the damage that might have occurred to the car, striding across the paved driveway and up the steps to the wide, tiled front porch of the house. It was my luckless younger brother who stepped forward and opened the plate-glass front door. And as he did so he could not resist exclaiming in a joyful voice that reached Lila at the top of the front steps: “Brother and Ruthie Ann have got themselves married!”
Lila in utter astonishment halted outside the open front door. It was as if she waited there for him to speak again, and to make certain she was right about what she thought she had heard. And presently my brother did repeat precisely what he had said before. And now Lila without looking at my brother, without looking to the left or right at anyone, proceeded through the open doorway and back to that point where my mother and father stood side by side in the center of the hall. Looking directly at Mother, she asked, “Is there a room somewhere that I could perhaps lie down in?” She hesitated that way in the middle of the question, as if she had at first not known what she was going to ask. Then as if trying to explain what would ordinarily have seemed obvious to everyone else present in the hall at that moment, she added, “I seem to be experiencing some kind of shock—some kind of electrical shock almost.”
I had the ugly impulse suddenly to burst into laughter. That is, it seemed obvious that this was just what a person would feel after the series of upsetting things Lila had just been through. Then Lila said, “I think probably I’m going to faint. I don’t know quite where I am. Oh, where am I? Where exactly are we?” And now with my arm about Ruthie Ann I felt a mixed compulsion again to laugh out loud and to go and try to say something consoling to the poor woman. But I said nothing and did nothing. And now Mother and Father together were leading Lila toward the broad, carpeted staircase that ascended the back wall of the hall. And Mother was speaking to Lila with a comforting warmth in her voice that I had not heard in years but that she had once used with all of us as little children. Before they reached the foot of the stairs, however, Lila had fainted away altogether, and with the help of my brother, Father had carried her to the first-floor bedroom that my parents used as their own.
When she fainted I looked immediately at my wristwatch. I think I did so because of the premonition I had. What had come to my mind of course was Nurse O’Neill’s enigmatic reference to the “spell” Lila had been under. At the time this seemed too stupid to be mentioned to anyone. It still seemed so to me afterward. No matter if it later evolved, as it would indeed so do, that Aunt Gussie had died at the very instant of Lila’s seizure, there were too many other immediate causes for Lila’s hysteria and fit of fainting for this one to be singled out, or so it seemed to my mind. And so it would seem to Ruthie Ann when I pointed out the coincidence to her. It was not the sort of thing that Ruthie Ann and her mother were willing to discuss as a possibility. And yet when the call came from Nurse O’Neill an hour later, the time given for death coincided precisely with the other event. And when next day I insisted upon checking with the good nurse on the exact time of death she seized my arm, as we bent over the chart, and whispered fiercely, “Why do you ask? Why do you ask that? I have told you, haven’t I, that Lila’s name was on her lips as she drew her last breath?” But I made no answer to this. By now I was in complete agreement with Ruthie Ann and her mother. I did not want to be guilty of encouraging the superstition of this poor Irish woman, isolated as she was from all her own kind.
Events of the remainder of that evening are almost too painful to relate and yet in retrospect they may not seem at all eventful. Upon being given the news of Aunt Gussie’s death, Lila showed no emotion whatsoever. Presently she said very firmly and quietly—almost under her breath, “If there’s a train going back to Washington tonight, I mean to be aboard it.”
There was such a train. And Lila with her luggage was put aboard it. It fell to my younger brother’s lot to see her to the train. He drove her to the Union Station in her own rented car since her luggage was already loaded therein and since the rear light signal on Mother’s sedan had been crushed—with its fragments of glass still lying on the pavement. Nobody made any mention of the broken glass during the rest of that evening and even when, after a while, Father and Mother went off out of decency to the hospital, they went in Father’s coupe. I recall that Father had to hurry back into the house before setting off, to ask me for certain about which street the hospital was on—whether it was on Poplar or Jackson. They had been to St. Joseph’s so seldom as that! And I recall that it was my younger brother’s lot next day to return Lila’s rented car to the rental place. And it was his lot also to see after having the rear light signal on Mother’s sedan repaired. It was too bad to leave it all for him to do, but I was a married man now, and, even so, since my injuries in the war I had been spared all such errands. I think, moreover, that my brother minded that sort of thing so much less than I did. I think he minded much more the note from Lila he had to bring home to me that night. Just before she got aboard the train, she rummaged in her purse for pencil and paper. On one side of the scrap handed me was the message left behind for her by Andrea Lomax. On the other side Lila had written simply the four words “I am so ashamed.”
Just before Lila was preparing to leave the house, my mother, always with her sense of propriety, walked up to her and said, “Don’t you want to stay long enough to attend Aunt Gussie’s funeral service?”
Lila spoke her reply through her teeth: “That would be Nurse O’Neill’s department. She’s a Roman Catholic, and she will already have arranged about all that.” Those were her last words. And she left the house as she entered it, without looking to her left or her right—without making her goodbyes to anyone. It was hard to remember her as the same effusive young woman who had stepped off the train two weeks ago. At that moment it would have been easier for me to remember the independent and ambitious young girl who had walked out of my life three years ago—before she attached her fortunes to my aunt Mrs. Augusta St. John-Jones.
And just as Lila predicted, the good nurse had assuredly arranged the funeral service to be said two days later at the Catholic chapel across from St. Joseph’s. My parents and the various other relatives, including Andrea Lomax and myself, put in a clumsy back-pew appearance at the mass, but we were not given much of a welcome by the young priest in charge. And we were none of us given the chance to say goodbye to Nurse O’Neill, who we had been told would go hurrying off to catch the late afternoon train to Washington. It had all been arranged, however, that my two parents would follow the hearse next morning up to the country town of Thornton. Aunt Gussie was to be buried there at the same town cemetery where she had once so long ago beguiled herself playing hide-and-seek with the suitors of her young ladyhood. My parents, in fact, lingered up there for a number of days, enjoying reunion with a number of old friends, some of whom they had not seen in many years.
Ruthie Ann and I took the opportunity to get ourselves settled in her mother’s house in Crosstown. We three have lived there very happily together during all the years since, enjoying the uneventful seclusion we are all equally fond of, gardening, reading our favorite fiction, taking turns with the shopping. Even our old friend Alex Mercer has ceased to pay intrusive calls upon us. We have achieved such peace that thoughts about whatever may have become of Phillip Carver, that other friend who wanted to enlist as a conscientious objector—even such wandering thoughts as that never disturb us here.
reprinted with the permission of the Taylor estate