Forsaken by the Bitch Goddess at Year’s End
"Who Has Seen the Wind?" by Carson McCullers
An Introduction by Halimah Marcus
For a period of several years in my early twenties, I read “Who Has Seen the Wind?” by Carson McCullers every Christmas. After reading the story, you may find this tradition odd. Though it’s set in wintertime, it’s snowing, and there are parties, the story makes no mention of the holidays or Christmas. Also, it’s depressing.
Ken Harris, alcoholic writer who has published two books, the first acclaimed and the second ignored, is drowning in liquor and unproductivity. His marriage is ending. The “bitch goddess” that once granted him youth and talent has abandoned him for other unsuspecting fools. The most impactful, emotional moments of his life are a distant mirage he can no longer access.
So why did I read this story on a holiday that is meant to be merry and bright? I think I liked to be reminded, at the end of the year, what not to become. Ken Harris is a failure, but not because he has failed, necessarily. He is a failure because of the distance between what he thought he would be and what he has become, between how he imagines himself and the man he has been all along.
Revisiting the story for this issue, I noticed I may have gotten the idea to read it annually from Ken Harris himself: at a party, he brags about a passage of Proust he reads every year. Was it possible that I wanted to be like the butt of the story’s joke, the man I considered a cautionary tale?
Those Christmases spent with “Who Has Seen the Wind?” came before I went to grad school, before I moved to New York, before I got a job in publishing and started attending parties where an editor might mistake one writer for another, or pose the dreaded question, “What are you writing these days?” as one editor asks Ken. Even though the night that follows is depraved and devastating, I’ll admit it also seemed a little glamourous.
Carson McCullers published this story in Mademoiselle in 1956, just over ten years before she died at the age of fifty. McCullers is a writer that inspires fascination; her life was too short, and from afar, seems at once fabulous and mortally frustrating. She wrote novels and stories that were both deeply imaginative and brutally realistic, she was friends with Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, she came from the south and lived in a bohemian artists’ collective in Brooklyn, she was ill as a child, suffered from strokes, and drank too much.
Jenn Shapland, the author My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, is similarly fascinated. In the book, out in February 2020, Shapland explores McCullers’ legacy as a queer artist and surfaces her important relationships, both creative and romantic, with women. Shapland observes how McCullers gave desires and her secrets to her characters: to Frankie who does not know she is in love with her brother’s fiancé in a Member at the Wedding, to the partnership between John Singer and Spiros Antonapoulos in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, to Captain Penderton’s attraction to Private Williams in Reflections of a Golden Eye.
With this transference in mind, I read “Who Has Seen the Wind?” differently this time. McCullers, who herself struggled with alcoholism and, like any writer, with periods of self-doubt, is not contemptuous of Ken Harris; she recognizes him and fears the part of herself that they share in common. Previously, “Who Has Seen the Wind?” was only available in The Mortgage Heart, a collection of McCullers’ essays, poems, and short works. It has never before appeared online. This may not be a Christmas story, but it is sharp and masterful—dangerous even—and it is my gift to you. A knife, instead of coal, in your stocking.
– Halimah Marcus
Editor-in-Chief, Recommended Reading
Forsaken by the Bitch Goddess at Year’s End
“Who Has Seen the Wind? by Carson McCullers
All afternoon Ken Harris had been sitting before a blank page of the typewriter. It was winter and snowing. The snow muted traffic and the Village apartment was so quiet that the alarm clock bothered him. He worked in the bedroom as the room with his wife’s things calmed him and made him feel less alone. His pre-lunch drink (or was it an eye opener?) had been dulled by the can of chili con carne he had eaten alone in the kitchen. At four o’clock he put the clock in the clothes hamper, then returned to the typewriter. The paper was still blank and the white page blanched his spirit. Yet there was a time (how long ago?) when a song at the corner, a voice from childhood, and the panorama of memory condensed the past so that the random and actual were transﬁgured into a novel, a story––there was a time when the empty page summoned and sorted memory and he felt that ghostly mastery of his art. A time, in short, when he was a writer and writing almost every day. Working hard, he carefully broke the backs of sentences, x‘d out offending phrases and changed repeated words. Now he sat there, hunched and somehow fearful, a blond man in his late thirties, with circles under his oyster blue eyes and a full, pale mouth. It was the scalding wind of his Texas childhood he was thinking about as he gazed out of his window at the New York falling snow. Then suddenly a valve of memory opened and he said the words as be typed them:
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads
The wind is passing by.
The nursery verse seemed to him so sinister that as he sat thinking about it the sweat of tension dampened his palms. He jerked the page from the typewriter and, tearing it into many pieces, let it fall in the wastepaper basket. He was relieved that he was going to a party at six o’clock, glad to quit the silent apartment, the torn verse, and to walk in the cold but comforting street.
The subway had the dim light of underground and after the smell of snow the air was fetid. Ken noticed a man lying down on a bench, but he did not wonder about the stranger’s history as he might have done another time. He watched the swaying front car of the oncoming express and shrank back from the cindery wind. He saw the doors open and close—it was his train—and stared forlornly as the subway ground noisily away. A sadness fretted him as he waited for the next one.
The Rodgers’ apartment was in a penthouse far uptown and already the party had begun. There was the wash of mingled voices and the smell of gin and cocktail canapés. As he stood with Esther Rodgers in the entrance of the crowded rooms he said:
“Nowadays when I enter a crowded party I think of that last party of the Due de Guermantes.”
“What?” asked Esther.
“You remember when Proust—the I, the narrator— looked at all the familiar faces and brooded about the alterations of time? Magnificent passage — I read it every year.”
Esther looked disturbed. “There’s so much noise. Is your wife coming?”
Ken’s face quivered a little and he took a Martini the maid was passing. “She’ll be along when she leaves her office.”
“Marian works so hard — all those manuscripts to read.”
“When I find myself at a party like this it’s always almost exactly the same. Yet there is the awful difference. As though the key lowered, shifted. The awful difference of years that are passing, the trickery and terror of time, Proust . . .”
But his hostess had gone and he was left standing alone in the crowded party room. He looked at faces he had seen at parties these last thirteen years — yes, they had aged. Esther was now quite fat and her velvet dress was too tight –– dissipated, he thought, and whisky-bloated. There was a change —thirteen years ago when he published The Night of Darkness Esther would have fairly eaten him up and never left him alone at the fringe of the room. He had been the fair-haired boy, those days. The fair-haired boy of the Bitch Goddess — was the Bitch Goddess success, money, youth? He saw two young Southern writers at the window — and in ten years their capital of youth would be claimed by the Bitch Goddess. It pleased Ken to think of this and he ate a ham doodad that was passed.
Then he saw someone across the room whom he admired. She was Mabel Goodley, the painter and set-designer. Her blond hair was short and shining and her glasses glittered in the light. Mabel had always loved The Night and had given a party for him when he got his Guggenheim. More important, she had felt his second book was better than the first one, in spite of the stupidity of the critics. He started toward Mabel but was stopped by John Howards, an editor he used to see sometimes at parties.
“Hi there,” Howards said, “what are you writing these days, or is it a fair question?”
This was a remark Ken loathed. There were a number of answers––sometimes he said he was finishing a long novel, other times he said he was deliberately lying fallow. There was no good answer, no matter what he said. His scrotum tightened and he tried desperately to look unconcerned.
“I well remember the stir The Doorless Room made in the literary world of those days — a fine book.”
Howards was tall and he wore a brown tweed suit. Ken looked up at him aghast, steeling himself against the sudden attack. But the brown eyes were strangely innocent and Ken could not recognize the guile. A woman with tight pearls around her throat said after a painful moment, “But dear, Mr. Harris didn’t write The Doorless Room.”
“Oh,” Howards said helplessly.
Ken looked at the woman’s pearls and wanted to choke her. “It couldn’t matter less.”
The editor persisted, trying to make amends. “But your name is Ken Harris. And you’re married to the Marian Campbell who is fiction editor at —”
The woman said quickly: “Ken Harris wrote The Night of Darkness — a fine book.”
Harris noticed that the woman’s throat was lovely with the pearls and the black dress. His face lightened until she said: “It was about ten or fifteen years ago, wasn’t it”
“I remember,” the editor said. “A fine book. How could I have confused it? How long will it be before we can look forward to a second book?”
“I wrote a second book,” Ken said. “It sank without a ripple. It failed.” He added defensively, “The critics were more obtuse even than usual. And I’m not the best-seller type.”
“Too bad,” said the editor. “It’s a casualty of the trade sometimes.”
“The book was better than The Night. Some critics thought it was obscure. They said the same thing of Joyce.” He added, with the writer’s loyalty to his last creation, “It’s a much better book than the first, and I feel I’m still just starting to do my real work.”
“That’s the spirit,” the editor said. “The main thing is to keep plugging away. What are you writing now— if that’s a fair question?”
The violence swelled suddenly. “It’s none of your business.” Ken had not spoken very loudly but the words carried and there was a sudden area of silence in the cocktail room. “None of your Goddam business.”
In the quiet room there came the voice of old Mrs. Beckstein, who was deaf and sitting in a corner chair. “Why are you buying so many quilts?”
The spinster daughter, who was with her mother always, guarding her like royalty or some sacred animal, translating between the mother and the world, said firmly, “Mr. Brown was saying…”
The babble of the party resumed and Ken went to the drink table, took another Martini and dipped a piece of cauliflower in some sauce. He ate and drank with his back to the noisy room. Then he took a third Martini and threaded his way to Mabel Goodley. He sat on an ottoman beside her, careful of his drink and somewhat formal. “It’s been such a tiring day,” he said.
“What have you been doing?”
“Sitting on my can.”
“A writer I used to know once got sacroiliac trouble from sitting so long. Could that be coming on you?”
“No,” he said. “You are the only honest person in this room.”
He had tried so many different ways when the blank pages started. He had tried to write in bed, and for a time he had changed to long-hand. He had thought of Proust in his cork-lined room and for a month he had used ear-stoppers—but work went no better and the rubber started some fungus ailment. They had moved to Brooklyn Heights, but that did not help. When he learned that Thomas Wolfe had written standing up with his manuscript on the icebox he had even tried that too. But he only kept opening the icebox and eating. . . . He had tried writing drunk—when the ideas and images were marvelous at the time but changed so unhappily when read afterward. He had written early in the morning and dead sober and miserable. He had thought of Thoreau and Walden. He had dreamed of manual labor and an apple farm. If he could just go for long walks on the moors then the light of creation would come again—but where are the moors of New York?
He consoled himself with the writers who had felt they failed and whose fame was established after death. When he was twenty he day-dreamed that he would die at thirty and his name would be blazoned after his death. When he was twenty-five and had finished The Night of Darkness he daydreamed that he would die famous, a writer’s writer, at thirty-five with a body of work accomplished and the Nobel Prize awarded on his deathbed. But now that he was nearly forty with two books—one a success, the other a defended failure— he did not day-dream about his death.
“I wonder why I keep on writing,” he said. “It’s a frustrating life.”
He had vaguely expected that Mabel, his friend, might say something about his being a born writer, might even remind him of his duty to his talent, that she might even mention “genius,” that magic word which turns hardship and outward failure to somber glory. But Mabel’s answer dismayed him. “I guess writing is like the theatre. Once you write or act it gets in your blood.”
He despised actors—vain, posey, always unemployed. “I don’t think of acting as a creative art, it’s just interpretive. Whereas the writer must hew the phantom rock —”
He saw his wife enter from the vestibule. Marian was tall and slim with straight, short black hair, and she was wearing a plain black dress, an office-looking dress without ornament. They had married thirteen years ago, the year The Night had come out, and for a long time he had trembled with love. There were times he awaited her with the soaring wonder of the lover and the sweet trembling when at last he saw her. Those were the times when they made love almost every night and often in the early morning. That first year she had even occasionally come home from the office at her lunch hour and they had loved each other naked in the city daylight. At last desire had steadied and love no longer made his body tremble. He was working on a second book and the going was rough. Then he got a Guggenheim and they had gone to Mexico, as the war was on in Europe. His book was abandoned and, although the flush of success was still on him, he was unsatisfied. He wanted to write, to write, to write — but month after month passed and he wrote nothing. Marian said he was drinking too much and marking time and he threw a glass of rum in her face. Then he knelt on the floor and cried. He was for the first time in a foreign country and the time was automatically valuable because it was a foreign country. He would write of the blue of the noon sky, the Mexican shadows, the water-fresh mountain air. But day followed day—always of value because it was a foreign country—and he wrote nothing. He did not even learn Spanish, and it annoyed him when Marian talked to the cook and other Mexicans. (It was easier for a woman to pick up a foreign language and besides she knew French.) And the very cheapness of Mexico made life expensive; he spent money like trick money or stage money and the Guggenheim check was always spent in advance. But he was in a foreign country and sooner or later the Mexican days would be of value to him as a writer. Then a strange thing happened after eight months: with practically no warning Marian took a plane to New York. He had to interrupt his Guggenheim year to follow her. And then she would not live with him—or let him live in her apartment. She said it was like living with twenty Roman emperors rolled into one and she was through. Marian got a job as an assistant fiction editor on a fashion magazine and he lived in a cold-water ﬂat—their marriage had failed and they were separated, although he still tried to follow her around. The Guggenheim people would not renew his fellowship and he soon spent the advance on his new book.
About this time there was a morning he never forgot, although nothing, absolutely nothing, had happened. It was a sunny autumn day with the sky fair and green above the skyscrapers. He had gone to a cafeteria for breakfast and sat in the bright window. People passed quickly on the street, all of them going somewhere. Inside the cafeteria there was a breakfast bustle, the clatter of trays and the noise of many voices. People came in and ate and went away, and everyone seemed assured and certain of destination. They seemed to take for granted a destination that was not merely the routine of jobs and appointments. Although most of the people were alone they seemed somehow a part of each other, a part of the clear autumn city. While he alone seemed separate, an isolate cipher in the pattern of the destined city. His marmalade was glazed by sunlight and he spread it on a piece of toast but did not eat. The coffee had a purplish sheen and there was a faint mark of old lipstick on the rim of the cup. It was an hour of desolation, although nothing at all happened.
Now at the cocktail party, years later, the noise, the assurance and the sense of his own separateness recalled the cafeteria breakfast and this hour was still more desolate because of the sliding passage of time.
“There’s Marian,” Mabel said. “She looks tired, thinner.”
“If the damned Guggenheim had renewed my fellowship I was going to take Marian to Europe for a year,” he said. “The damned Guggenheim—they don’t give grants to creative writers any more. Just physicists — people like that who are preparing for another war.”
The war had come as a relief to Ken. He was glad to abandon the book that was going badly, relieved to turn from his “phantom rock” to the general experience of those days—for surely the war was the great experience of his generation. He was graduated from Officer’s’ Training School and when Marian saw him in his uniform she cried and loved him and there was no further talk of divorce. On his last leave they made love often as they used to do in the first months of marriage. It rained every day in England and once he was invited by a lord to his castle. He crossed on D-Day and his battalion went all the way to Schmitz. In a cellar in a ruined town he saw a cat sniffing the face of a corpse. He was afraid, but it was not the blank terror of the cafeteria or the anxiety of a white page on the typewriter. Something was always happening—he found three Westphalian hams in the chimney of a peasant’s house and he broke his arm in an automobile accident. The war was the great experience of his generation, and to a writer every day was automatically of value because it was the war. But when it was over what was there to write about—the calm cat and the corpse, the lord in England, the broken arm?
In the Village apartment he returned to the book he had left so long. For a time, that year after the war, there was the sense of a writer’s gladness when he has written. A time when the voice from childhood; a song on the corner, all fitted. In the strange euphoria of his lonely work the world was synthesized. He was writing of another time, another place. He was writing of his youth in the windy, gritty Texas city that was his hometown. He wrote of the rebellion of youth and the longing for the brilliant cities, the homesickness for a place he’d never seen. While he was writing One Summer Evening he was living in an apartment in New York but his inner life was in Texas and the distance was more than space: it was the sad distance between middle age and youth. So when he was writing his book he was split between two realities—his New York daily life and the remembered cadence of his Texas youth. When the book was published and the reviews were careless or unkind, he took it well, he thought, until the days of desolation stretched one into the other and the terror started. He did odd things at this time. Once he locked himself in the bathroom and stood holding a bottle of Lysol in his hand, just standing there holding the Lysol, trembling and terrified. He stood there for half an hour until with a great effort he slowly poured the Lysol in the lavatory. Then he lay on the bed and wept until, toward the end of the afternoon, he went to sleep. Another time he sat in the open window and let a dozen blank pages of paper ﬂoat down the six stories to the street below. The wind blew the papers as he dropped them one by one, and he felt a strange elation as he watched them ﬂoat away. It was less the meaninglessness of these actions than the extreme tension accompanying them that made Ken realize he was sick.
Marian suggested he go to a psychiatrist and he said psychiatry had become an avant-garde method of playing with yourself. Then he laughed, but Marian did not laugh and his solitary laughter finished in a chill of fear. In the end Marian went to the psychiatrist and Ken was jealous of them both—of the doctor because he was the arbiter of the unhappy marriage and of her because she was calmer and he was more unhinged. That year he wrote some television scripts, made a couple of thousand dollars and bought Marian a leopard coat.
“Are you doing any more television programs?” Mabel Goodley asked.
“Naw,” he said, “I’m trying very hard to get into my next book. You’re the only honest person I know. I can talk with you . . .”
Freed by alcohol and secure in friendship (for after all Mabel was one of his favorite people), he began to talk of the book he had tried so long to do: “The dominant theme is the theme of self-betrayal and the central character is a small-town lawyer named Winkle. The setting is laid in Texas—my hometown—and most of the scenes take place in the grimy office in the town’s courthouse. In the opening of the book, Winkle is faced with this situation . . Ken unfurled his story passionately, telling of the various characters and the motivations involved When Marian came up he was still talking and he gestured to her not to interrupt him as he talked on, looking straight into Mabel’s spectacled blue eyes. Then suddenly he had the uncanny sensation of a déja vu. He felt he had told Mabel his book before—in the same place and in the same circumstance. Even the way the curtain moved was the same. Only Mabel’s blue eyes brightened with tears behind the glasses, and he was joyful that she was so much moved. “So Winkle then was impelled to divorce—” his voice faltered. “I have the strange feeling I have told you this before . . .”
Mabel waited for a moment and he was silent. “You have, Ken,” she said finally. “About six or seven years ago, and at a party very much like this one.”
He could not stand the pity in her eyes or the shame that pulsed in his own body. He staggered up and stumbled over his drink.
After the roar in the cocktail room the little terrace was absolutely silent. Except for the wind, which increased the sense of desertion and solitude. To dull his shame Ken said aloud something inconsequential: “Why, what on earth—” and he smiled with weak anguish. But his shame still smoldered and he put his cold hand to his hot, throbbing forehead. It was no longer snowing, but the wind lifted flurries of snow on the white terrace. The length of the terrace was about six footsteps and Ken walked very slowly, watching with growing attention his blunted footsteps in his narrow shoes. Why did he watch those footsteps with such tension? And why was he standing there, alone on the winter terrace where the light from the party room laid a sickly yellow rectangle on the snow? And the footsteps? At the end of the terrace there was a little fence about waist-high. When he leaned against the fence he knew it was very loose and he felt he had known that it would be loose and remained leaning against it. The penthouse was on the fifteenth floor and the lights from the city glowed before him. He was thinking that if he gave the rickety fence one push he would fall, but he remained calm against the sagging fence, his mind somehow sheltered, content.
He felt inexcusably disturbed when a voice called from the terrace. It was Marian and she cried softly: “Aah! Aah!” Then after a moment she added: “Ken, come here. What are you doing out there?” Ken stood up. Then with his balance righted he gave the fence a slight push. It did not break. “This fence is rotten— snow probably. I wonder how many people have ever committed suicide here.”
“Sure. It’s such an easy thing.”
Very carefully he walked on the backward footprints he had made before. “It must be an inch of snow.” He stooped down and felt the snow with his middle finger. “No, two inches.”
“I’m cold.” Marian put her hand on his coat, opened the door and steered him into the party. The room was quieter now and people were going home. In the bright light, after the dark outside, Ken saw that Marian looked tired. Her black eyes were reproachful, harried, and Ken could not bear to look into them.
“Hon, do your sinuses bother you?”
Lightly her forefinger stroked her forehead and the bridge of her nose. “It worries me so when you get in this condition.”
“Let’s put on our things and go.”
But he could not stand the look in Marian’s eyes and he hated her for inferring he was drunk. “I’m going to Jim Johnson’s party later.”
After the search for overcoats and the tagged good-bys a little group went down in the elevator and stood on the sidewalk, whistling for cabs. They discussed addresses, and Marian, the editor and Ken shared the first taxi going downtown. Ken’s shame was lulled a little, and in the taxi he began to talk about Mabel.
“It’s so sad about Mabel,” he said.
“What do you mean?” Marian asked.
“Everything. She’s obviously going apart at the seams. Disintegrating, poor thing.”
Marian, who did not like the conversation, said to Howards: “Shall we go through the park? It’s nice when it snows, and quicker.”
“I’ll go on to Fifth and Fourteenth Street,” Howards said. He said to the driver: “Go through the park, please.”
“The trouble with Mabel is she is a has-been. Ten years ago she used to be an honest painter and set-designer. Maybe it’s a failure of imagination or drinking too much. She’s lost her honesty and does the same thing over and over—repeats over and over.”
“Nonsense,” Marian said. “She gets better every year and she’s made a lot of money.”
They were driving through the park and Ken watched the winter landscape. The snow was heavy on the park trees and occasionally the wind slid the banked snow from the boughs, although the trees did not bow down. In the taxi Ken began to recite the old nursery verse about the wind, and again the words left sinister echoes and his cold palms dampened.
“I haven’t thought of that jingle in years,” John Howards said.
“Jingle? It’s as harrowing as Dostoevski.”
“I remember we used to sing it in kindergarten. And when a child had a birthday there would be a blue or pink ribbon on the tiny chair and we would then sing Happy Birthday.”
John Howards was hunched on the edge of the seat next to Marian. It was hard to imagine this tall, lumbering editor in his huge galoshes singing in a kindergarten years ago.
Ken asked: “Where did you come from?”
“Kalamazoo,” Howards said.
“I always wondered if there really was such a place or a––figure of speech.”
“It was and is such a place.” Howards said. “The family moved to Detroit when I was ten years old.” Again Ken felt a sense of strangeness and thought that there are certain people who have preserved so little of childhood that the mention of kindergarten chairs and family moves seem somehow outlandish. He suddenly conceived a story written about such a man—he would call it The Man in the Tweed Suit—and he brooded silently as the story evolved in his mind with a brief ﬂash of the old elation that came so seldom now.
“The weatherman says it’s going down to zero tonight,” Marian said.
“You can drop me here,” Howards said to the driver as he opened his wallet and handed some money to Marian. Thanks for letting me share the cab. And that’s my part,” he added with a smile. “It’s so good to see you again. Let’s have lunch one of these days and bring your husband if he would care to come.” After he stumbled out of the taxi he called to Ken, “I’m looking forward to your next book, Harris.”
“Idiot,” Ken said after the cab started again. “I’ll drop you home and then stop for a moment at Jim Johnson’s.”
“Who’s he–––why do you have to go?”
“He’s a painter I know and I was invited.”
“You take up with so many people these days. You go around with one crowd and then shift to another.”
Ken knew that the observation was true, but he could not help it. In the past few years he would associate with one group—for a long time he and Marian had different circles of friends—until he would get drunk or make a scene so that the whole periphery was unpleasant to him and he felt angry and unwanted. Then he would change to another circle—and every change was to a group less stable than the one before, with shabbier apartments and cheaper drinks. Now he was glad to go wherever he was invited, to strangers where a voice might guide him and the ﬂimsy sheaves of alcohol solace his jagged nerves.
“Ken, why don’t you get help? I can’t go on with this.”
“Why, what’s the matter?”
“You know,” she said. He could feel her tense and stiff in the taxi-cab. “Are you really going on to another party? Can’t you see you are destroying yourself? Why were you leaning against that terrace fence? Don’t you realize you are––sick? Come home.”
The words disturbed him, but he could not bear the thought of going home with Marian tonight. He had a presentiment that if they were alone in the apartment something dreadful might come about, and his nerves warned him of this undeﬁned disaster.
In the old days after a cocktail party they would be glad to go home alone, talk over the party with a few quiet drinks, raid the icebox and go to bed, secure against the world outside. Then one evening after a party something had happened—he had a blackout and said or did something he could not remember and did not want to remember; afterward there was only the smashed typewriter and shafts of shameful recollection that he could not face and the memory of her fearful eyes. Marian stopped drinking and tried to talk him into joining AA. He went with her to a meeting and even stayed on the wagon with her for ﬁve days—until the horror of the unremembered night was a little distant. Afterward, when he had to drink alone, he resented her milk and her eternal coffee and she resented his drinking liquor, In this tense situation he felt the psychiatrist was somehow responsible and wondered if he had hypnotized Marian. Anyway now the evenings were spoiled and unnatural. Now he could feel her sitting upright in the taxi and he wanted to kiss her as in the old days when they were going home after a party. But her body was stiff in his embrace.
“Hon, let’s be like we used to be. Let’s go home and get a buzz on peacefully and hash over the evening. You used to love to do that. You used to enjoy a few drinks when we were quiet, alone. Drink with me and cozy like in the old days. I’ll skip the other party if you will. Please, Hon. You’re not one bit alcoholic. And it makes me feel like a lush your not drinking—I feel unnatural. And you’re not a bit alcoholic, no more than I am.”
“I’ll ﬁx a bowl of soup and you can turn in.” But her voice was hopeless and sounded smug to Ken. Then she said: “I’ve tried so hard to keep our marriage and to help you. But it’s like struggling in quicksand. There’s so much behind the drinking and I’m so tired.”
“I’ll be just a minute at the party—go on with me.”
“I can’t go on.”
The cab stopped and Marian paid the fare. She asked as she left the cab, “Do you have enough money to go on?—if you must go on.”
Jim Johnson’s apartment was way over on the West Side, in a Puerto Rican neighborhood. Open garbage cans stood out on the curb and wind blew papers on the snowy sidewalk. When the taxi stopped Ken was so inattentive that the driver had to call him. He looked at the meter and opened his billfold—he had not one single dollar bill, only ﬁfty cents, which was not enough. “I’ve run out of money, except this ﬁfty cents,” Ken said, handing the driver the money. “What shall I do?”
The driver looked at him. “Nothing, just get out. There’s nothing to be done.”
Ken got out. “Fifteen cents over and no tip—sorry—”
“You should have taken the money from the lady.”
This party was held on the walk-up top ﬂoor of a cold-water ﬂat and layered smells of cooking were at each landing of the stairs. The room was crowded, cold, and the gas jets were burning blue on the stove, the oven open for warmth. Since there was little furniture except a studio couch, most of the guests sat on the ﬂoor. There were rows of canvases propped against the wall and on an easel a picture of a purple junk yard and two green suns. Ken sat down on the ﬂoor next to a pink-cheeked young man wearing a brown leather jacket.
“It’s always somehow soothing to sit in a painter’s studio. Painters don’t have the problems writers have. Who ever heard of a painter getting stuck? They have something to work with—the canvas to be prepared, the brush and so on. Where is a blank page––painters aren’t neurotic as many writers are.”
“I don’t know,” the young man said. “Didn’t van Gogh cut off his ear?”
“Still the smell of paint, the colors and the activity is soothing. Not like a blank page and a silent room. Painters can whistle when they work or even talk to people.”
“I know a painter once who killed his wife.”
When Ken was offered rum punch or sherry, he took sherry and it tasted metallic as though coins had been soaked in it.
“You a painter?”
“No,” said the young man. “A writer—that is, I write.”
“What is your name?”
“It wouldn’t mean anything to you. I haven’t published my book yet.” After a pause he added: “I had a short story in Bolder Accent—it’s one of the little magazines—maybe you’ve heard of it.”
“How long have you been writing?”
“Eight—ten years. Of course I have to do part-time jobs on the outside, enough to eat and pay the rent.”
“What kind of jobs do you do?”
“All kinds. Once for a year I had a job in a morgue. It was wonderful pay and I could do my own work four or five hours every day. But after about a year I began to feel the job was not good for my work. All those cadavers—so I changed to a job frying hot dogs at Coney Island. Now I’m a night clerk in a real crummy hotel. But I can work at home all afternoon and at night I can think over my book—and there’s lots of human interest on the job. Future stories, you know.”
“What makes you think you are a writer?”
The eagerness faded from the young man’s face and when he pressed his ﬁngers to his ﬂushed cheek they left white marks. “Just because I know. I have worked so hard and I have faith in my talent.” He went on after a pause. “Of course one story in a little magazine after ten years is not such a brilliant beginning. But think of the struggles nearly every writer has—even the great geniuses. I have time and determination—and when this last novel ﬁnally breaks into print the world will recognize the talent.”
The open earnestness of the young man was distasteful to Ken, for he felt in it something that he himself had long since lost. “Talent,” he said bitterly. “A small, one-story talent—that is the most treacherous thing that God can give. To work on and on, hoping, believing until youth is wasted—I have seen this sort of thing so much. A small talent is God’s greatest curse.”
“But how do you know I have a small talent—how do you know it’s not great? You don’t know—you’ve never read a word I’ve written!” he said indignantly.
“I wasn’t thinking about you in particular. I was just talking abstractly.”
The smell of gas was strong in the room—smoke lay in drafty layers close to the low ceiling. The floor was cold and Ken reached for a pillow nearby and sat on it. “What kind of things do you write?”
“My last book is about a man called Brown—I wanted it to be a common name, as a symbol of general humanity. He loves his wife and he has to kill her because—”
“Don’t say anything more. A writer should never tell his work in advance. Besides, I’ve heard it all before.”
“How could you? I never told you, finished telling—”
“It’s the same thing in the end,” Ken said. “I heard the whole thing seven years—eight years ago in this room.”
The flushed face paled suddenly. “Mr. Harris, although you’ve written two published books, I think you’re a mean man.” His voice rose.
“Don’t pick on me!”
The young man stood up, zipped his leather jacket and stood sullenly in a corner of the room.
After some moments Ken began to wonder why he was there. He knew no one at the party except his host and the picture of the garbage dump and the two suns irritated him. In the room of strangers there was no voice to guide him and the sherry was sharp in his dry mouth. Without saying good-by to anyone Ken left the room and went downstairs.
He remembered he had no money and would have to walk home. It was still snowing, and the wind shrilled at the street corners and the temperature was nearing zero. He was many blocks away from home when he saw a drug store at a familiar corner and the thought of hot coffee came to him. If he could just drink some really hot coffee, holding his hands around the cup, then his brain would clear and he would have the strength to hurry home and face his wife and the thing that was going to happen when he was home. Then something occurred that in the beginning seemed ordinary, even natural. A man in a Homburg hat was about to pass him on the deserted street and when they were quite near Ken said: “Hello there, it’s about zero, isn’t it?”
The man hesitated for a moment.
“Wait,” he went on. “I’m in something of a predicament. I’ve lost my money—never mind how—and I wonder if you would give me change for a cup of coffee.”
When the words were spoken Ken realized suddenly that the situation was not ordinary and he and the stranger exchanged that look of mutual shame, distrust, between the beggar and the begged. Ken stood with his hands in his pockets—he had lost his gloves somewhere—and the stranger glanced a final time at him, then hurried away.
“Wait,” Ken called. ”You think I’m a mugger—I’m not! I’m a writer—I’m not a criminal.”
The stranger hurried to the other side of the street, his briefcase bouncing against his knees as he moved. Ken reached home after midnight.
Marian was in bed with a glass of milk on the bedside table. He made himself a highball and brought it in the bedroom, although usually these days he gulped liquor in secret and quickly.
“Where is the clock?”
“In the clothes hamper.”
He found the clock and put it on the table by the milk. Marian gave him a strange stare.
“How was your party?”
“Awful.” After a while he added, “This city is a desolate place. The parties, the people—the suspicious strangers.”
“You are the one who always likes parties.”
“No, I don’t. Not any more.” He sat on the twin bed beside Marian and suddenly the tears came to his eyes. “Hon, what happened to the apple farm?”
“Our apple farm—don’t you remember?”
“It was so many years ago and so much has happened.”
But although the dream had long since been forgotten, its freshness was renewed again. He could see the apple blossoms in the spring rain, the gray old farmhouse. He was milking at dawn, then tending the vegetable garden with the green curled lettuce, the dusty summer corn, the eggplant and the purple cabbages iridescent in the dew. The country breakfast would be pancakes and the sausage of home-raised pork. When morning chores and breakfast were done, he would work at his novel for four hours, then in the afternoon there were fences to be mended, wood to be split. He saw the farm in all its weathers—the snowbound spells when he would finish a whole short novel at one stretch; the mild, sweet, luminous days of May; the green summer pond where he ﬁshed for their own trout; the blue October and the apples. The dream, unblemished by reality, was vivid, exact.
“And in the evening,” he said, seeing the ﬁrelight and the rise and fall of shadows on the farmhouse wall, “we would really study Shakespeare, and read the Bible all the way through.”
For a moment Marian was caught in the dream. “That was the first year we were married,” she said in a tone of injury or surprise. “And after the apple farm was started we were going to start a child.”
“I remember,” he said vaguely, although this was a part he had quite forgotten. He saw an indefinite little boy of six or so in denim jeans . . . then the child vanished and he saw himself clearly, on the horse—or rather mule—carrying the finished manuscript of a great novel on the way to the nearest village to post it to the publisher.
“We could live on almost nothing—and live well. I would do all the work—manual work is what pays nowadays—raise everything we eat. We’ll have our own hogs and a cow and chickens.” After a pause he added, “There won’t even be a liquor bill. I will make cider and applejack. Have a press and all.”
“I’m tired,” Marian said, and she touched her fingers to her forehead.
“There will be no more New York parties and in the evening we’ll read the Bible all the way through. I’ve never read the Bible all the way through, have you?”
“No,” she said, “but you don’t have to have an apple farm to read the Bible.”
“Maybe I have to have the apple farm to read the Bible and to write well too.”
“Well, tant pis.” The French phrase infuriated him; for a year before they were married she had taught French in high school and occasionally when she was peeved or disappointed with him she used a French phrase that often he did not understand.
He felt a gathering tension between them that he wanted at all cost to wear through. He sat on the bed, hunched and miserable, gazing at the prints on the bedroom wall. “You see, something so screwy has happened to my sights. When I was young I was sure I was going to be a great writer. And then the years passed—I settled on being a fine minor writer. Can you feel the dying fall of this?”
“No, I’m exhausted,” she said after a while. “I have been thinking of the Bible too, this last year. One of the ﬁrst commandments is Thou shalt have no other gods before me! But you and other people like you have made a god of this—illusion. You disregard all other responsibilities—family, ﬁnances and even self-respect. You disregard anything that might interfere with your strange god. The golden calf was nothing to this.”
“And after settling to be a minor writer I had to lower my sights still further. I wrote scripts for television and tried to become a competent hack. But I failed even to carry that through. Can you understand the horror? I’ve even become mean-hearted, jealous—I was never that way before. I was a pretty good person when I was happy. The last and final thing is to give up and get a job writing advertising. Can you understand the horror?”
“I’ve often thought that might be a solution. Anything, darling, to restore your self-respect.”
“Yes,” he said. “But I’d rather get a job in a morgue or fry hot dogs.”
Her eyes were apprehensive. “It’s late. Get to bed.”
“At the apple farm I would work so hard—laboring work as well as writing. And it would be peaceful and—safe. Why can’t we do it, Baby-love?”
She was cutting a hangnail and did not even look at him.
“Maybe I could borrow from your Aunt Rose—in a strictly legal, banking way. With business mortgages on the farm and the crops. And I would dedicate the first book to her.”
“Borrow from—not my Aunt Rose!” Marian put the scissors on the table. “I’m going to sleep.”
“Why don’t you believe in me—and the apple farm? Why don’t you want it? It would be so peaceful and—safe. We would be alone and far away—why don’t you want it?”
Her black eyes were wide open and he saw in them an expression he had seen only once before. “Because,” she said deliberately, “I wouldn’t be alone and far away with you on that crazy apple farm for anything—without doctors, friends and help.” The apprehension had quickened to fright and her eyes glowed with fear. Her hands picked at the sheet.
Ken’s voice was shocked. “Baby, you’re not afraid of me! Why, I wouldn’t touch your smallest eyelash. I don’t even want the wind to blow on you—I couldn’t hurt—”
Marian settled her pillow and, turning her back, lay down. “All right. Good night.”
For a while he sat dazed, then he knelt on the floor beside Marian’s bed and his hand rested gently on her buttocks. The dull pulse of desire was prompted by the touch. “Come! I’ll take off my clothes. Let’s cozy.” He waited, but she did not move or answer.
“No,” she said. But his love was rising and he did not notice her words—his hand trembled and the fingernails were dingy against the white blanket “No more,” she said. “Not ever.”
“Please, love. Then afterward we can be at peace and can sleep. Darling, darling, you’re all I have. You’re the gold in my life!”
Marian pushed his hand away and sat up abruptly. The fear was replaced by a ﬂash of anger, and the blue vein was prominent on her temple. “Gold in your life—” Her voice intended irony but somehow failed. “In any case—I’m your bread and butter.”
The insult of the words reached him slowly, then anger leaped as sudden as a flame, “I— I—”
“You think you’re the only one who has been disappointed. I married a writer who I thought would become a great writer. I was glad to support you—I thought it would pay off. So I worked at an office while you could sit there—lowering your sights. God, what has happened to us?”
“I— I—” But rage would not yet let him speak.
“Maybe you could have been helped. If you had gone to the doctor when that block started. We’ve both known for a long time you are—sick.”
Again he saw the expression he had seen before—it was the look that was the only thing he remembered in that awful blackout—the black eyes brilliant with fear and the prominent temple vein. He caught, reflected the same expression, so that their eyes were fixed for a time, blazing with terror.
Unable to stand this, Ken picked up the scissors from the bedside table and held them above his head, his eyes fixed on her temple vein. “Sick!” he said at last. “You mean—crazy. I’ll teach you to be afraid that I am crazy. I’ll teach you to talk about bread and butter. I’ll teach you to think I’m crazy!”
Marian’s eyes sparkled with alarm and she tried weakly to move. The vein writhed in her temple. “Don’t you move.” Then with a great effort he opened his hand and the scissors fell on the carpeted floor. “Sorry,” he said. “Excuse me.” After a dazed look around the room he saw the typewriter and went to it quickly.
“I‘ll take the typewriter in the living room. I didn’t finish my quota today—you have to be disciplined about things like that.”
He sat at the typewriter in the living room, alternating X and R for the sound. After some lines of this he paused and said in an empty voice: “This story is sitting up on its hind legs at last.” Then he began to write: The lazy brown fax jumped over the cunning dog. He wrote this a number of times, then leaned back in his chair.
“Dearest Pie,” he said urgently. “You know how I love you. You’re the only woman I ever thought about. You’re my life. Don’t you understand, my dearest Pie?”
She didn’t answer and the apartment was silent except for the rumble of the radiator pipes.
“Forgive me,” he said. “I’m so sorry I picked up the scissors. You know I wouldn’t even pinch you too hard. Tell me you forgive me. Please, please tell me.”
Still there was no answer.
“I’m going to be a good husband. I’ll even get a job in an advertising ofﬁce. I’ll be a Sunday poet—writing only on weekends and holidays. I will, my darling, I will!” he said desperately. “Although I’d much rather fry hot dogs in the morgue.”
Was it the snow that made the rooms so silent? He was conscious of his own heart beating and he wrote:
Why am I so afraid
Why am I so afraid
Why am I so afraid???
He got up and in the kitchen opened the icebox door. “Hon, I’m going to ﬁx you something good to eat. What’s that dark thing in the saucer in the corner? Why, it’s the liver from last Sunday’s dinner—you’re crazy about chicken liver or would you rather have something piping hot like soup? Which, Hon?”
There was no sound.
“I bet you haven’t even eaten a bite of supper. You must be exhausted—with those awful parties and drinking and walking—without a living bite. I have to take care of you. We’ll eat and afterward we can cozy.”
He stood still, listening. Then, with the grease-jelled chicken liver in his hands, he tiptoed to the bedroom. The room and bath were both empty. Carefully he placed the chicken liver on the white bureau scarf. Then he stood in the doorway, his foot raised to walk and left suspended for some moments. Afterward he opened closets, even the broom closet in the kitchen, looked behind furniture and peered under the bed. Marian was nowhere at all. Finally he realized that the leopard coat and her purse were gone. He was panting when he sat down to telephone.
“Hey, Doctor. Ken Harris speaking. My wife has disappeared. Just walked out while I was writing at the typewriter. Is she with you? Did she phone?” He made squares and wavy lines on the pad. “Hell yes, we quarreled! I picked up the scissors—no, I did not touch her! I wouldn’t hurt her little ﬁngernail. No, she’s not hurt—how did you get that idea?” Ken listened. “I just want to tell you this. I know you have hypnotized my wife––poisoned her mind against me. If anything happens between my wife and me I’m going to kill you. I’ll go up to your nosy Park Avenue office and kill you dead.”
Alone in the empty, silent rooms, he felt an undefinable fear that reminded him of his ghost-haunted babyhood. He sat on the bed, his shoes still on, cradling his knees with both arms. A line of poetry came to him. “My love, my love, my love, why have you left me alone?” He sobbed and bit his trousered knee.
After a while he called the places he thought she might be, accused friends of interfering with their marriage or of hiding Marian…
When he called Mabel Goodley he had forgotten the episode of the early evening and he said he wanted to come around to see her. When she said it was three o’clock and she had to get up in the morning he asked what friends were for if not for times like this. And he accused her of hiding Marian, of interfering with their marriage and of being in cahoots with the evil psychiatrist…
At the end of the night it stopped snowing. The early dawn was pearl gray and the day would be fair and very cold. At sunrise Ken put on his overcoat and went downstairs. At that hour there was no one on the street. The sun dappled the fresh snow with gold, and shadows were cold lavender. His senses searched the frozen radiance of the morning and he was thinking he should have written about such a day—that was what he had really meant to write.
A hunched and haggard ﬁgure with luminous, lost eyes, Ken plodded slowly toward the subway. He thought of the wheels of the train and the gritty wind, the roar. He wondered if it was true that in the ﬁnal moment of death the brain blazes with all the images of the past—the apple trees, the loves, the cadence of lost voices—all used and vivid in the dying brain. He walked very slowly, his eyes ﬁxed on his solitary footsteps and the blank snow ahead.
A mounted policeman was passing along the curb near him. The horse’s breath showed in the still, cold air and his eyes were purple, liquid.
“Hey, Officer. I have something to report. My wife picked up the scissors at me—aiming for that little blue vein. Then she left the apartment. My wife is very sick—crazy. She ought to be helped before something awful happens. She didn’t eat a bite of supper—not even the little chicken liver.”
Ken plodded on laboriously, and the officer watched him as he went away. Ken’s destination was as uncontrollable as the unseen wind and Ken thought only of his footsteps and the unmarked way ahead.