Dessie was the beloved of the family. Mollie the pretty
kitten, Olive the strong-headed, Una with clouds on her head, all were loved, but
warm-beloved. Hers was the twinkle and the laughter infectious as chickenpox, and hers the
gaiety that colored a day and spread to people so that they carried it away with them.
I can put it this way.
Mrs. Clarence Morrison of 122 Church Street, Salinas, had three children and a husband who ran a dry goods store. On certain mornings, at breakfast, Agnes Morrison would say, “I’m going to Dessie Hamilton’s for a fitting after dinner.”
The children would be glad and would kick their
copper toes against the table legs until cautioned. And Mr. Morrison would rub his
palms together and go to his store, hoping some drummer would come by that day. And any drummer who did come by was likely to get a good order. Maybe the children and Mr. Morrison would forget why it was a good day with a promise on its tail.
Mrs. Morrison would go to
the house next to
Reynaud’s Bakery at two o’clock and she would stay until four. When she came out her eyes would be wet with tears and her nose red and
home, she would dab her nose and wipe her eyes and laugh all over again. Maybe all Dessie had done was to put several black pins in a cushion to make it look like the Baptist minister, and then had the pincushion deliver a short dry sermon. Maybe she had recounted a meeting with Old Man Taylor, who bought old houses and moved them to a big vacant lot he owned until he had so many it looked
Sargasso Sea. Maybe she had read a poem from Chatterbox with
matter. It was warm-funny, it was catching funny.
The Morrison children, coming home from school, would find no aches, no carping, no headache. Their noise was not a scandal nor their dirty faces a care. And when the giggles overcame them, why, their mother was giggling too.
Mr. Morrison, coming home, would tell of the day and get listened to, and he would try to retell the drummer’s stories—some of them at least. The supper
would be delicious—omelets never fell and cakes rose to
balloons of lightness, biscuits fluffed up, and no one could season a stew like Agnes Morrison. After supper, when the children had laughed themselves to sleep, like as not Mr. Morrison would touch Agnes on the shoulder in their old, old signal and they would go to bed and make love and be very happy. The visit to Dessie might carry its charge into two days more before it petered out and the little headaches came back and business was not so good as last year. That’s how Dessie was and that’s what she could do. She carried excitement in her arms just as Samuel had. She was the darling, she was the beloved
of the family.
Dessie was not beautiful. Perhaps she wasn’t even pretty, but she had the glow that makes men follow a woman in the hope of reflecting a little of it. You would have thought that in time she would have got over her first love affair and found another love, but she did not. Come to think of it, none of the Hamiltons, with all their versatility, had any versatility in love. None of them seemed capable of light or changeable love.
Dessie did not simply
throw up her hands and give up. It was much worse than that. She went right on doing and being what she was—
without the glow. The people who loved her ached for her, seeing her try, and they got to trying for her.
Dessie’s friends were
good and loyal but they were human, and humans love to feel good and they hate to feel bad. In time the Mrs.
Morrisons found unassailable reasons for not going to the little house by the bakery.
They weren’t disloyal. They didn’t want to be sad as much as they wanted to be happy. It is easy to find a logical and virtuous reason for not doing what you don’t want to do.
Dessie’s business began
to fall off. And the women who had thought they wanted dresses never realized that
what they had wanted was happiness.
changing and the ready-made dress was becoming popular. It was no longer a disgrace to wear one. If Mr. Morrison was stocking ready-mades, it was only reasonable that Agnes Morrison should be seen in them.
The family was worried about Dessie, but what could you do when she would not admit there was anything wrong with her? She did admit to pains in her side, quite fierce, but they lasted only a little while and came only at intervals.
Then Samuel died and
the world shattered like a dish. His sons and daughters and friends groped about among the pieces, trying to put some kind of world together again.
Dessie decided to sell
her business and go back to the ranch to live with Tom. She hadn’t much of any business to sell out. Liza knew about it, and Olive, and Dessie had written to Tom.
But Will, sitting scowling at the table in the San Francisco Chop House, had not been told. Will frothed inwardly and finally he balled up his napkin and got up. “I forgot something,” he said to Adam. “I’ll see you on the train.”
He walked the half-block to Dessie’s house and
went through the high grown garden and rang Dessie’s bell.
She was having her
dinner alone, and she came to the door with her napkin in her hand. “Why, hello, Will,” she said and put up her pink cheek for him to kiss. “When did you get in town?” “Business,”
“Just here between trains. I want to talk to you.”
She led him back to her kitchen
combined, a warm little room papered
Automatically she poured a cup of coffee and placed it for him and put the sugar bowl and the cream pitcher in front of it.
“Have you seen
Mother?” she asked. “I’m just here over trains,”
“Dessie, is it true you want to go back to the ranch?”
“I was thinking of it.”
“I don’t want you to go.” She smiled uncertainly. “Why not? What’s wrong
with that? Tom’s lonely down there.”
“You’ve got a nice business here,” he said. “I haven’t any business
here,” she replied. “I thought you knew that.”
“I don’t want you to go,” he repeated sullenly.
Her smile was wistful
and she tried her best to put a little mockery in her manner. “My big brother is masterful. Tell Dessie why not.”
“It’s too lonely down there.”
“It won’t be as lonely with the two of us.”
Will pulled at his lips angrily. He blurted, “Tom’s
not himself. You shouldn’t be alone with him.”
“Isn’t he well? Does he need help?”
Will said, “I didn’t want to tell you—I don’t think Tom’s ever got over—the death. He’s strange.”
affectionately. “Will, you’ve always
strange. You thought he was strange when he didn’t like business.”
“That was different. But now he’s broody. He doesn’t talk. He goes walking alone
in the hills at night. I went out to see him and—he’s been writing poetry—pages of it all over the table.”
“Didn’t you ever write
poetry, Will?” “I did not.”
“I have,” said Dessie. “Pages and pages of it all over the table.”
“I don’t want you to go.” “Let me decide,” she said
softly. “I’ve lost
something. I want to try to find it again.”
“You’re talking foolish.”
She came around the
table and put her arms around his neck. “Dear brother,” she said, “please let me decide.”
He went angrily out of
the house and barely caught his train.
Tom met Dessie at the King City station. She saw him out of the train window, scanning every coach for her. He was burnished, his face shaved so close that its darkness had a shine like polished wood. His red mustache was clipped. He wore a new Stetson hat with a flat crown, a tan Norfolk jacket with a belt buckle of mother-of-pearl. His shoes glinted in the noonday light so that it was sure he had gone over them with his handkerchief just before the train arrived. His hard collar stood up against his strong red neck, and he wore a pale blue knitted tie with a horseshoe tie pin. He tried to conceal his excitement by
clasping his rough brown hands in front of him.
Dessie waved wildly out the window, crying, “Here I
am, Tom, here I am!” though she knew he couldn’t hear her over the grinding wheels of the train as the coach slid past him. She climbed down the steps and saw him looking frantically about in the wrong direction. She smiled and walked up behind him.
“I beg your pardon, stranger,” she said quietly. “Is there a Mister Tom Hamilton here?”
He spun around and he squealed with pleasure and picked her up in a bear hug and danced around her. He held her off the ground with
one arm and spanked her bottom with his free hand. He nuzzled her cheek with his harsh mustache. Then he held her back by the shoulders and looked at her. Both of them threw back their heads and howled with laughter.
The station agent leaned
out his window and rested his elbows, protected with black false sleeves, on the sill. He said over his shoulder to the telegrapher,
Just look at
them!” Tom and
Dessie, fingertips touching, were
doing a courtly heel-and-toe
while he sang Doodle-doodle-doo and Dessie sang Deedle-deedle-dee, and then they
Tom looked down at her. “Aren’t
you Dessie Hamilton? I
remember you. But you’ve changed. Where are your pigtails?”
It took him quite a fumbling time to get her
luggage checks, to lose them
in his pockets, to find them and pick up the wrong pieces. At last he had her baskets piled in the back of the buckboard. The two bay horses pawed the hard ground and threw up their heads so that the shined pole jumped and the doubletrees squeaked. The harness was polished and the horse brasses glittered like gold. There was a red bow tied halfway up the buggy whip and red ribbons were braided into the horses’ manes and tails.
Tom helped Dessie into
the seat and pretended to peek coyly at her ankle. Then he snapped up the check reins and unfastened the leather tie reins from the bits. He
unwrapped the lines from the whip stock, and the horses turned so sharply that the wheel screamed against the guard.
Tom said, “Would you
care to make a tour of King City? It’s a lovely town.” “No,” she said. “I think I remember it.” He turned left and headed south and lifted the horses to a fine swinging trot.
Dessie said, “Where’s Will?”
“I don’t know,” he answered gruffly. “Did he talk to you?”
“Yes. He said you
shouldn’t come.” “He told me the same
thing,” said Dessie. “He got George to write to me too.” “Why
come if you want to?” Tom raged. “What’s Will got to do with it?”
She touched his arm.
“He thinks you’re crazy. Says you’re writing poetry.” Tom’s face darkened.
“He must have gone in the house when I wasn’t there. What’s he want anyway? He had no right to look at my papers.”
“Gently, gently,” said Dessie. “Will’s your brother. Don’t forget that.”
“How would he like me to go through his papers?” Tom demanded.
“He wouldn’t let you,” Dessie said dryly. “They’d be locked in the safe. Now let’s not spoil the day with anger.” “All right,” he said.
“God knows all right! But he makes me mad. If I don’t want to live his kind of life I’m crazy—just crazy.”
Dessie changed the
subject, forced the change. “You know, I had quite a time at the last,” she said. “Mother wanted to come. Have you ever seen Mother cry, Tom?”
“No, not that I can
remember. No, she’s not a crier.”
“Well, she cried. Not much, but a lot for her—a
choke and two sniffles and a wiped nose and polished her glasses and snapped shut like a watch.”
Tom said, “Oh, Lord, Dessie, it’s good to have you back! It’s good. Makes me feel
I’m well from a
sickness.” The horses spanked
along the county road. Tom said,
“Adam Trask has
bought a Ford. Or maybe I should say Will sold him a Ford.”
“I didn’t know about the Ford,” said Dessie. “He’s buying my house. Giving me a very good price for it.” She laughed. “I put a very high price on the house. I was going to come down during negotiations.
accepted the first price. It put me in a fix.”
“What did you do, Dessie?”
“Well, I had to tell him
about the high price and that I
had planned to be argued down. He didn’t seem to care either way.”
Tom said, “Let me beg
you never to tell that story to Will. He’d have you locked up.”
“But the house wasn’t worth what I asked!” “I repeat what I said
about Will. What’s Adam want with your house?” “He’s going to move
there. Wants the twins to go to school in Salinas.” “What’ll he do with his ranch?”
“I don’t know. He didn’t say.”
Tom said, “I wonder
what would have happened if Father’d got hold of a ranch
like that instead of Old Dry and Dusty.”
“It isn’t such a bad place.”
except making a living.” Dessie said earnestly, “Have you ever known any family that had more fun?” “No, I don’t. But that
was the family, not the land.” “Tom, remember when
you took Jenny and Belle Williams to the Peachtree dance on the sofa?” “Mother never let me
forget it. Say, wouldn’t it be good to ask Jenny and Belle down for a visit?”
Dessie said. “Let’s do it.” When they turned off the county
road she said,
“Somehow I remember it differently.”
“I guess that’s it. Tom, there’s so much grass.” “I’m getting twenty head of stock to eat it.”
“You must be rich.” “No, and the good year
will break the price of beef. I wonder what Will would do. He’s a scarcity man. He told me. He said, ‘Always deal in scarcities.’ Will’s smart.”
The rutty road had not changed except that the ruts were deeper and the round stones stuck up higher.
Dessie said, “What’s the card on that mesquite bush?” She picked it off as they drove
by, and it said,
“Welcome Home.” “Tom, you did it!”
“I did not. Someone’s been here.”
Every fifty yards there
was another card sticking on a bush, or hanging from the branches of a madrone, or tacked to the trunk of a buckeye, and all of them said,
“Welcome Home.” Dessie squealed with delight over each one.
They topped the rise
above the little valley of the old Hamilton place and Tom pulled up to let her enjoy the view. On the hill across the valley,
whitewashed stones, were the huge
Home, Dessie.” She put her head against his lapel and laughed and cried at the same time.
ahead of him. “Now who could have done that?” he said. “A man can’t leave the place any more.”
In the dawn Dessie was awakened by the chill of pain that came to her at intervals. It was a rustle and a threat of pain; it scampered up from her side and across her abdomen, a nibbling pinch and then a little grab and then a hard catch and finally a fierce grip as though a huge hand had wrenched her.
When that relaxed she felt a soreness like a bruise. It didn’t last very long, but while it went on the outside world was blotted out, and she seemed to be listening to
the struggle in her body. When only the soreness remained she saw how the dawn had come silver to the windows. She smelled the good morning wind rippling the curtains, bringing in the odor of grass and roots and damp earth. After that sounds joined
the parade of
perception—sparrows haggling among themselves, a bawling cow monotonously beratine a punching hungry calf, a blue jay’s squawk of false excitement, the sharp warning of a cock quail on guard and the answering whisper of the hen quail
somewhere near in the tall grass. The chickenyard boiled with excitement over an egg, and a big lady Rhode Island Red, who weighed four pounds,
protested the horror of being lustfully pinned to the ground by a scrawny wreck of a rooster she could have blasted with one blow of her wing.
The cooing of pigeons brought memory into the procession.
remembered how her father had said, sitting at the head of the table, “I told Rabbit I was going to raise some pigeons and—do
said, ‘No white pigeons.’ ‘Why not white?’ I asked him, and he said, ‘They’re the rare worst of bad luck. You take a flight of white pigeons and they’ll bring sadness and death. Get gray ones.’ ‘Ilike white ones.’ ‘Get gray ones,’ he told me. And as the sky covers me, I’ll get white ones.”
And Liza said patiently, “Why do you be forever testing, Samuel? Gray ones taste just as good and they’re bigger.”
“I’ll let no flimsy fairy
tale push me,” Samuel said. And Liza said with her dreadful simplicity, “You’re already pushed by your own
contentiousness. You’re a mule of contention, a very mule!”
“Someone’s got to do these
sullenly. “Else Fate would not ever get nose-thumbed and mankind
would still be
clinging to the top branches of a tree.”
And of course he got white pigeons and waited truculently for sadness and death until he’d proved his point. And here were the great-great-grand
cooing in the morning and rising to fly like a whirling white scarf around the wagon shed.
As Dessie remembered,
she heard the words and the house
around her grew
peopled. Sadness and death, she thought, and death and sadness, and it wrenched in her stomach against the soreness. You just have to wait around long enough and it will come.
She heard the air
bellows in the forge and the practice tap for range of hammer on anvil. She heard Liza open the oven door and the thump of a kneaded loaf on the floury board. Then Joe wandered about, looking in unlikely places for his shoes, and at last found them where he had left them under the bed.
She heard Mollie’s
sweet high voice in the kitchen, reading a morning text from the Bible, and Una’s
full cold throaty
Tom had cut
Mollie’s tongue with his pocketknife and died in his heart when he realized his courage.
“Oh, dear Tom,” she said, and her lips moved. Tom’s cowardice was as huge as his courage, as it must be in great men. His violence
tenderness, and himself was a pitted battlefield of his own
forces. He was confused now, but Dessie could hold his bit and point him, the way a handler points a thoroughbred at the barrier to show his breeding and his form.
Dessie lay part in pain
and a part of her dangled still in sleep while the morning brightened
window. She remembered that Mollie was going to lead the Grand March at the Fourth of July picnic with no less than Harry Forbes, State Senator. And Dessie had not finished putting the braid on Mollie’s dress. She struggled to get up. There was so much braid, and here she lay
She cried, “I’ll get it done, Mollie. It will be ready.”
She got up from her bed
and threw her robe around her and
through the house crowded with Hamiltons. In the hall they were gone to the bedrooms. In the bedrooms, with the beds neat-made, they were all in the kitchen, and in the kitchen—they dispersed and were gone. Sadness and death. The wave receded and left her in dry awakeness.
The house was clean, scrubbed and immaculate, curtains washed, windows
polished, but all as a man does it—the ironed curtains did not hang quite straight and there were streaks on the windows
showed on the table when a book was moved.
The stove was warming, with orange light showing around the lids and the soft thunder
of drafty flame
leaping past the open damper. The kitchen clock flashed its pendulum behind its glass skirt, and it ticked like a little wooden hammer striking on
an empty wooden box. From outside came a whistle as wild and raucous as a reed and pitched high and strange. The whistling scattered a savage melody.
Then Tom’s steps sounded on the porch, and he came in with an armload of oakwood so high he could not see over it. He cascaded the wood into the woodbox.
“You’re up,” he said.
“That was to wake you if you were still sleeping.” His face was lighted with joy. “This is a morning light as down and no time to be slugging.” “You sound like your
father,” Dessie said, and she laughed with him.
His joy hardened to
fierceness. “Yes,” he said loudly. “And we’ll have that time again, right here. I’ve been dragging myself in misery like a spine-broken snake.
No wonder Will
thought I was cracked. But now you’re back, and I’ll show you. I’ll breathe life into life again. Do you hear? This house is going to be alive.”
“I’m glad I came,” she said, and she thought in
desolation how brittle he was now and how easy to shatter, and how she would have to protect him.
“You must have worked
day and night to get the house so clean,” she said. “Nothing,” said Tom. “A little twist with the fingers.” “I know that twist, but it
was with bucket and mop and on
you’ve invented some way to do it by chicken power or the harnessed wind.” “Invented—now
why I have no time. I’ve invented a little slot that lets a necktie slip around freely in a stiff collar.”
“You don’t wear stiff collars.”
“I did yesterday. That’s when I invented it. And
chickens—I’m going to raise millions
houses all over the ranch and a ring on the roof to dip them in a whitewash tank. And eggs will come through on a little conveyor belt—here! I’ll draw it.”
“I want to draw some breakfast,”
“What’s the shape of a fried egg? How would you color the fat and lean of a strip of bacon?”
“You’ll have it,” he cried, and he opened the
stove lid and assaulted the fire with the stove lifter until
the hairs on his hand curled and charred. He pitched wood in and started his high whistling.
Dessie said, “You sound like some goat-foot with a wheat flute on a hill in Greece.”
“What do you think I am?” he shouted.
miserably, If his is real, why can’t my heart be light? Why can’t I climb out of my gray ragbag? I will, she screeched inside herself. If he can—I will.
She said, “Tom!” “Yes.”
“I want a purple egg.”