by Dorothy Parker
"My dear," Mrs. Marshall said to Mrs. Ames, "I never was so surprised in my life. Never in my life. Why, Grace and I were like that - just like that."
She held up her right hand, the upstanding first and second fingers rigidly close together, in illustration.
Mrs. Ames shook her head sadly, and offered the cinnamon toast.
"Imagine!" said Mrs. Marshall, refusing it though with a longing eye. "We were going to have dinner with them last Tuesday night, and then I got this letter from Grace from this little place up in Connecticut, saying she was going to be up there she didn't know how long, and she thought, when she came back, she'd probably take just one big room with a kitchenette. Ernest was living down at the club, she said."
"But what did they do about their apartment?" Mrs. Ames's voice was high with anxiety.
"Why, it seems his sister took it, furnished and all - by the way, remind me, I must go and see her," said Mrs. Marshall. "They wanted to move into town, anyway, and they were looking for a place."
"Doesn't she feel terribly about it - his sister?" asked Mrs. Ames.
"Oh - terribly." Mrs. Marshall dismissed the word as inadequate. "My dear, think how everybody that knew them feels. Think how I feel. I don't know when I've had a thing depress me more. If it had been anybody but the Weldons!"
Mrs. Ames nodded.
"That's what I said," she reported.
"That's what everybody says." Mrs. Marshall quickly took away any undeserved credit. "To think of the Weldons separating! Why, I always used to say to Jim. 'Well, there's one happily married couple, anyway,' I used to say, 'so congenial, and with that nice apartment, and all.' And then, right out of a clear sky, they go and separate. I simply can't understand what on earth made them do it. It just seems too awful!"
Again Mrs. Ames nodded, slowly and sadly.
"Yes, it always seems too bad, a thing like that does," she said. "It's too bad."
Mrs. Ernest Weldon wandered about the orderly living-room, giving it some of those little feminine touches. She was not especially good as a touch-giver. The idea was pretty, and appealing to her. Before she was married, she had dreamed of herself as moving softly about her new dwelling, deftly moving a vase here or straightening a flower there, and thus transforming it from a house to a home. Even now, after seven years of marriage, she liked to picture herself in the gracious act.
But, though she conscientiously made a try at it every night as soon as the rose-shaded lamps were lit, she was always a bit bewildered as to how one went about performing those tiny miracles that make all the difference in the world to a room. The living-room, it seemed to her, looked good enough as it was - as good as it would ever look, with that mantelpiece and the same old furniture. Delia, one of the most thoroughly feminine of creatures, had subjected it to a long series of emphatic touches earlier in the day, and none of her handiwork had since been disturbed. But the feat of making all the difference in the world, so Mrs. Weldon had always heard, was not a thing to be left to servants. Touch-giving was a wife's job. And Mrs. Weldon was not one to shirk the business she had entered.
With an almost pitiable air of uncertainty, she strayed over to the mantel, lifted a small Japanese vase, and stood with it in her hand, gazing helplessly around the room. The white-enameled bookcase caught her eye, and gratefully she crossed to it and set the vase upon it, carefully rearranging various ornaments to make room. To relieve the congestion, she took up a framed photograph of Mr. Weldon's sister in evening gown and eye-glasses, again looked all about, and then set it timidly on the piano. She smoothed the piano-cover ingratiatingly, straightened the copies of "A Day in Venice," "To a Wild Rose," and Kreisler's "Caprice Viennois," which stood ever upon the rack, walked over to the tea-table and effected a change of places between the cream-jug and the sugar-bowl.
Then she stepped back, and surveyed her innovations. It was amazing how little difference they made to the room.
Sighing, Mrs. Weldon turned her attention to a bowl of daffodils, slightly past their first freshness. There was nothing to be done there; the omniscient Delia had refreshed them with clear water, had clipped their stems, and removed their more passe sisters. Still, Mrs. Weldon bent over them pulling them gently about.
She liked to think of herself as one for whom flowers would thrive, who must always have blossoms about her, if she would be truly happy. When her living-room flowers died, she almost never forgot to stop in at the florist's, the next day, and get a fresh bunch. She told people, in little bursts of confidence, that she loved flowers. There was something almost apologetic in her way of uttering her tender avowal, as if she would beg her listeners not to consider her too bizarre in her taste. It seemed rather as though she expected the hearer to fall back, startled, at her words, crying, "Not really! Well, what are we coming to?"
She had other little confessions of affection, too, that she made from time to time; always with a little hesitation, as if understandably delicate about baring her heart, she told her love for color, the country, a good time, a really interesting play, nice materials, well-made clothes, and sunshine. But it was her fondness for flowers that she acknowledged oftenest. She seemed to feel that this, even more than her other predilections, set her apart from the general.
Mrs. Weldon gave the elderly daffodils a final pat, now, and once more surveyed the room, to see if any other repairs suggested themselves. Her lips tightened as the little Japanese vase met her gaze; distinctly, it had been better off in the first place. She set it back, the irritation that the sight of the mantel always gave her welling within her.
She had hated the mantelpiece from the moment they had first come to look at the apartment. There were other things that she had always hated about the place, too - the long, narrow hall, the dark dining-room, the inadequate closets. But Ernest had seemed to like the apartment well enough, so she had said nothing, then or since. After all, what was the use of fussing? Probably there would always be drawbacks, wherever they lived. There were enough in the last place they had had.
So they had taken the apartment on a five-year lease - there were four years and three months to go. Mrs. Weldon felt suddenly weary. She lay down on the davenport, and pressed her thin hand against her dull brown hair.
Mr. Weldon came down the street, bent almost double in his battle with the wind from the river. His mind went over its nightly dark thoughts on living near Riverside Drive, five blocks from a subway station - two of those blocks loud with savage gales. He did not much like their apartment, even when he reached it. As soon as he had seen that dining-room, he had realized that they must always breakfast by artificial light - a thing he hated. But Grace had never appeared to notice it, so he had held his peace. It didn't matter much, anyway, he explained to himself. There was pretty sure to be something wrong, everywhere. The dining-room wasn't much worse than that bedroom on the court, in the last place. Grace had never seemed to mind that, either.
Mrs. Weldon opened the door at his ring.
"Well!" she said, cheerily.
They smiled brightly at each other.
"Hel-lo," he said. "Well! You home?"
They kissed, slightly. She watched with polite interest while he hung up his hat and coat, removed the evening papers from his pocket, and handed one to her.
"Bring the papers?" she said, taking it.
She preceded him along the narrow hall to the living-room, where he let himself slowly down into his big chair, with a sound between a sigh and a groan. She sat opposite him, on the davenport. Again they smiled brightly at each other.
"Well, what have you been doing with yourself today?" he inquired.
She had been expecting the question. She had planned before he came in, how she would tell him all the little events of her day - how the woman in the grocer's shop had had an argument with the cashier, and how Delia had tried out a new salad for lunch with but moderate success, and how Alice Marshall had come to tea and it was quite true that Norma Matthews was going to have another baby. She had woven them into a lively little narrative, carefully choosing amusing phrases of description; had felt that she was going to tell it well and with spirit, and that he might laugh at the account of the occurrence in the grocer's. But now, as she considered it, it seemed to her a long, dull story. She had not the energy to begin it. And he was already smoothing out his paper.
"Oh, nothing," she said, with a gay little laugh. "Did you have a nice day?"
"Why - " he began. He had had some idea of telling her how he had finally put through that Detroit thing, and how tickled J. G. had seemed to be about it. But his interest waned, even as he started to speak. Besides, she was engrossed in breaking off a loose thread from the wool fringe on one of the pillows beside her.
"Oh, pretty fair," he said.
"Tired?" she asked.
"Not so much," he answered. "Why - want to do anything tonight?"
"Why, not unless you do," she said, brightly. "Whatever you say."
"Whatever you say," he corrected her.
The subject closed. There was a third exchange of smiles, and then he hid most of himself behind his paper.
Mrs. Weldon, too, turned to the newspaper. But it was an off night for news - a long speech of somebody's, a plan for a garbage dump, a proposed dirigible, a four-day-old murder mystery. No one she knew had died or become engaged or married, or had attended any social functions. The fashions depicted on the woman's page were for Miss Fourteen-to-Sixteen. The advertisements ran mostly to bread, and sauces, and men's clothes and sales of kitchen utensils. She put the paper down.
She wondered how Ernest could get so much enjoyment out of a newspaper. He could occupy himself with one for almost an hour, and then pick up another and go all through the same news with unabated interest. She wished that she could. She wished, even more than that, that she could think of something to say. She glanced around the room for inspiration.
"See my pretty daffy-down-dillies?" she said, finding it. To anyone else, she would have referred to them as daffodils.
Mr. Weldon looked in the direction of the flowers.
"M-m-mm," he said in admission, and returned to the news.
She looked at him, and shook her head despondently. He did not see, behind the paper; nor did she see that he was not reading. He was waiting, his hands gripping the printed sheet till their knuckles were blue-white, for her next remark.
"I love flowers," she said, in one of her little rushes of confidence.
Her husband did not answer. He sighed, his grip relaxed, and he went on reading.
Mrs. Weldon searched the room for another suggestion.
"Ernie," she said, "I'm so comfortable. Wouldn't you like to get up and get my handkerchief off the piano for me?"
He rose instantly. "Why, certainly," he said.
The way to ask people to fetch handkerchiefs, he thought as he went back to his chair, was to ask them to do it, and not try to make them think that you were giving them a treat. Either come right out and ask them, would they or wouldn't they, or else get up and get your handkerchief yourself.
"Thank you ever so much," his wife said with enthusiasm.
Delia appeared in the doorway. "Dinner," she murmured bashfully, as if it were not quite a nice word for a young woman to use, and vanished.
"Dinner, Ern," cried Mrs. Weldon gaily, getting up.
"Just minute," issued indistinctly from behind the newspaper.
Mrs. Weldon waited. Then her lips compressed, and she went over and playfully took the paper from her husband's hands. She smiled carefully at him, and he smiled back at her.
"You go ahead in," he said, rising. "I'll be right with you. I've just got to wash up."
She looked after him, and something like a volcanic eruption took place within her. You'd think that just one night - just one little night - he might go and wash before dinner was announced. Just one night - it didn't seem much to ask. But she said nothing. God knew it was aggravating, but after all, it wasn't worth the trouble of fussing about.
She was waiting, cheerful and bright, courteously refraining from beginning her soup, when he took his place at the table.
"Oh, tomato soup, eh?" he said.
"Yes," she answered. "You like it, don't you?"
"Who - me?" he said. "Oh, yes. Yes, indeed."
She smiled at him.
"Yes, I thought you liked it," she said.
"You like it, too, don't you?" he inquired.
"Oh, yes," she assured him. "Yes, I like it ever so much. I'm awfully fond of tomato soup."
"Yes," he said, "there's nothing much better than tomato soup on a cold night."
"I think it's nice, too," she confided.
They had had tomato soup for dinner probably three times a month during their married life.
The soup was finished, and Delia brought in the meat.
"Well, that looks pretty good," said Mr. Weldon, carving it. "We haven't had steak for a long time."
"Why, yes, we have, too, Ern," his wife said eagerly. "We had it - let me see, what night were the Baileys here? - we had it Wednesday night - no, Thursday night. Don't you remember?"
"Did we?" he said. "Yes, I guess you're right. It seemed longer, somehow."
Mrs. Weldon smiled politely. She could not think of any way to prolong the discussion.
What did married people talk about, anyway, when they were alone together? She had seen married couples - not dubious ones but people she really knew were husbands and wives - at the theater or in trains, talking together as animatedly as if they were just acquaintances. She always watched them, marvelingly, wondering what on earth they found to say.
She could talk well enough to other people. There never seemed to be enough time for her to finish saying all she wanted to to her friends; she recalled how she had run on to Alice Marshall, only that afternoon. Both men and women found her attractive to listen to; not brilliant, not particularly funny, but still amusing and agreeable. She was never at a loss for something to say, never conscious of groping around for a topic. She had a good memory for bits of fresh gossip, or little stories of some celebrity that she had read or heard somewhere, and a knack of telling them entertainingly. Things people said to her stimulated her to quick replies, and more amusing narratives. They weren't especially scintillating people, either; it was just that they talked to her.
That was the trick of it. If nobody said anything to you, how were you to carry on a conversation from there? Inside, she was always bitter and angry at Ernest for not helping her out.
Ernest, too, seemed to be talkative enough when he was with others. People were always coming up and telling her how much they had enjoyed meeting her husband, and what fun he was. They weren't just being polite. There was no reason why they should go out of their way to say it.
Even when she and Ernest had another couple in to dinner or bridge, they both talked and laughed easily, all evening long. But as soon as the guests said good night and what an awfully nice evening it had been, and the door had closed behind them, there the Weldons were again, without a word to say to each other. It would have been intimate and amusing to have talked over their guests' clothes and skill at bridge and probable domestic and financial affairs, and she would do it the next day, with great interest, too, to Alice Marshall, or some other one of her friends. But she couldn't do it with Ernest. Just as she started to, she found she simply couldn't make the effort.
So they would put away the card-table and empty the ash-receivers, with many "Oh, I beg your pardon's" and "No, no - I was in your way's," and then Ernest would say, "Well, I guess I'll go along to bed," and she would answer, "All right - I'll be in in a minute," and they would smile cheerfully at each other, and another evening would be over.
She tried to remember what they used to talk about before they were married, when they were engaged. It seemed to her that they never had had much to say to each other. But she hadn't worried about it then; indeed, she had felt the satisfaction of the correct, in their courtship, for she had always heard that true love was inarticulate. Then, besides, there had been always kissing and things, to take up your mind. But it had turned out that true marriage was apparently equally dumb. And you can't depend on kisses and all the rest of it to while away the evenings, after seven years.
You'd think that you would get used to it, in seven years, would realize that that was the way it was, and let it go at that. You don't, though. A thing like that gets on your nerves. It isn't one of those cozy, companionable silences that people occasionally fall into together. It makes you feel as if you must do something about it, as if you weren't performing your duty. You have the feeling a hostess has when her party is going badly, when her guests sit in corners and refuse to mingle. It makes you nervous and self-conscious, and you talk desperately about tomato soup, and say things like "daffy-down-dilly."
Mrs. Weldon cast about in her mind for a subject to offer her husband. There was Alice Marshall's new system of reducing - no, that was pretty dull. There was the case she had read in the morning's paper about the man of eighty-seven who had taken, as his fourth wife, a girl of twenty - he had probably seen that, and as long as he hadn't thought it worth repeating, he wouldn't think it worth hearing. There was the thing the Baileys' little boy had said about Jesus - no, she had told him that the night before.
She looked over at him, desultorily eating his rhubarb pie. She wished he wouldn't put that greasy stuff on his head. Perhaps it was necessary, if his hair really was falling out, but it did seem that he might find some more attractive remedy, if he only had the consideration to look around for one. Anyway, why must his hair fall out? There was something a little disgusting about people with falling hair.
"Like your pie, Ernie?" she asked vivaciously.
"Why, I don't know," he said, thinking it over. "I'm not so crazy about rhubarb, I don't think. Are you?"
"No, I'm not so awfully crazy about it," she answered. "But then, I'm not really crazy about any kind of pie."
"Aren't you really?" he said, politely surprised. "I like pie pretty well - some kinds of pie."
"Do you?" The polite surprise was hers now.
"Why, yes," he said. "I like a nice huckleberry pie, or a nice lemon meringue pie, or a - " He lost interest in the thing himself, and his voice died away.
He avoided looking at her left hand, which lay on the edge of the table, palm upward. The long, grey-white ends of her nails protruded beyond the tips of her fingers, and the sight made him uncomfortable. Why in God's name must she wear her finger nails that preposterous length, and file them to those horrible points? If there was anything that he hated, it was a woman with pointed finger nails.
They returned to the living-room, and Mr. Weldon again eased himself down into his chair, reaching for the second paper.
"Quite sure there isn't anything you'd like to do tonight?" he asked solicitously. "Like to go to the movies, or anything?"
"Oh, no," she said. "Unless there's something you want to do."
"No, no," he answered. "I just thought maybe you wanted to."
"Not unless you do," she said.
He began on his paper, and she wandered aimlessly about the room. She had forgotten to get a new book from the library, and it had never in her life occurred to her to reread a book that she had once completed. She thought vaguely of playing solitaire, but she did not care enough about it to go to the trouble of getting out the cards, and setting up the table. There was some sewing that she could do, and she thought that she might presently go into the bedroom and fetch the nightgown that she was making for herself. Yes, she would probably do that, in a little while.
Ernest would read industriously, and, along toward the middle of the paper, he would start yawning aloud. Something happened inside Mrs. Weldon when he did this. She would murmur that she had to speak to Delia, and hurry to the kitchen. She would stay there rather a long time, looking vaguely into jars and inquiring half-heartedly about laundry lists, and, when she returned, he would have gone in to get ready for bed.
In a year, three hundred of their evenings were like this. Seven times three hundred is more than two thousand.
Mrs. Weldon went into the bedroom, and brought back her sewing. She sat down, pinned the pink satin to her knee, and began whipping narrow lace along the top of the half-made garment. It was fussy work. The fine thread knotted and drew, and she could not get the light adjusted so that the shadow of her head did not fall on her work. She grew a little sick, from the strain on her eyes.
Mr. Weldon turned a page, and yawned aloud. "Wah-huh-huh-huh-huh," he went, on a descending scale. He yawned again, and this time climbed the scale.
"My dear," Mrs. Ames said to Mrs. Marshall, "don't you really think that there must have been some other woman?"
"Oh, I simply couldn't think it was anything like that," said Mrs. Marshall. "Not Ernest Weldon. So devoted - home every night at half-past six, and such good company, and so jolly, and all. I don't see how there could have been."
"Sometimes," observed Mrs. Ames, "those awfully jolly men at home are just the kind."
"Yes, I know," Mrs. Marshall said. "But not Ernest Weldon. Why, I used to say to Jim, 'I never saw such a devoted husband in my life,' I said. Oh, not Ernest Weldon."
"I don't suppose," began Mrs. Ames, and hesitated. "I don't suppose," she went on, intently pressing the bit of sodden lemon in her cup with her teaspoon, "that Grace - that there was ever anyone - or anything like that?"
"Oh, Heavens, no," cried Mrs. Marshall. "Grace Weldon just gave her whole life to that man. It was Ernest this and Ernest that every minute. I simply can't understand it. If there was one earthly reason - if they ever fought, or if Ernest drank, or anything like that. But they got along so beautifully together - why, it just seems as if they must have been crazy to go and do a thing like this. Well, I can't begin to tell you how blue it's made me. It seems so awful!"
"Yes," said Mrs. Ames, "it certainly is too bad."
End of Too Bad by Dorothy Parker