“But I absolutely can’t understand Mr. Auden,” says Jessica Todd, flirtatiously. She is speaking to Linton Wheeler, a much younger man, a student and himself a poet. They are in Jessica’s bookstore, in a small university town: Hilton, in the middle South. She is seated behind her desk. Small and plump, with little shape, sad, not aging well, Jessica usually thinks of herself (she feels herself) in terms of defects (pores and sags), but today she is aware only of her eyes, which are large and dark brown. Even Tom, her husband, has said that they are beautiful. She and Linton are communicating through their eyes, hers to his wide-spaced hazel. Eyes and somewhat similar voices—both are from Virginia.
“Or Delmore Schwartz or T. S. Eliot either,” says Jessica, lamentingly.
Serious Linton begins to explain. William Empson, Brooks, and Warren. He mentions Donne and the Metaphysicals. Jacobean drama. Pound?
“You know I can’t read Ezra Pound.”
Linton’s skin is very fair, even now, in mid-summer; he dislikes the sun, stays indoors. His hair is a light sandy brown, worn longer than the fashion of that time (middle thirties). There are Bacchus curls around his face. A wide mouth, with curiously flat lips. Jessica has sometimes imagined that the young Shelley looked like that. She spent her girlhood reading Shelley, and Byron and Keats and Wordsworth, but especially Shelley, and she has wondered if she married Tom Todd because he was—still is, in fact—writing a book on Shelley. (Not true: she married him because of passionate kisses—then).
“You really should try to read Brooks and Warren,” says gentle Linton, now.
“Oh Linton, I will, I really will.” And for no reason, but happily, she laughs.
Earlier they have both been laughing at other customers who have been in and out, habitués of Jessica’s: Clarissa Noble, who can’t remember which mystery stories she’s already read; old Mrs. Vain, who only reads books on genealogy or gardening; Dr. Willingham, the filthy-minded botanist; Miss Phipps, a blond beautician, who likes love stores with nice endings.
Good friends, Jessica and Linton, despite a gap in age, laughing together in the middle of a summer afternoon.
The store is a narrow, very high-ceilinged building, with windows up near the roof, through which now slanting downward come bright bars of light, moted with dust, in the otherwise dim and book-crowded room. Next door is the Presbyterian Church, red brick, with a formal hedged green yard. Tom is, or was, a Presbyterian, but Jessica is an almost-lapsed Episcopalian (not quite: those prayers and especially the General Confession linger in her mind and at odd times they surface). She and Tom have never gone to church, to either church, and it seems an irony to Jessica that his church (of which she faintly disapproves: that dismal catechism) should be next door to her store.
Linton smokes too much, He always smells of cigarettes, he leaves in his wake a drift of stale smoke. He blows smoke out, then leans back and inhales it, in a way that Jessica has never seen anyone inhale. A shy boy, from a very small town—a country crossroads—this way of smoking is perhaps his boldest gesture.
He likes Jessica, or rather, he does not not like her, as he does most older women. Of young ones, the coeds, he is simply and absolutely terrified.
“I’ve always loved poetry,” says Jessica. “But these new things—it isn’t fair,” She feels curiously giddy.
One of the things that Linton likes about Jessica is that she doesn’t dye her hair, as his mother does. At that moment he can hardly see her face, in that dim light, but a bar of sunlight has reached her head, turning white to gold. “Ma’am, you do have the prettiest hair,” says Linton shyly.
“Why Linton—” Tears rush toward her eyes—her heart might break. “Why Linton, what a very sweet thing to say,” she barely gets out.
Should he not have said that? Sensing strong emotion, which he imagines to be distress, Linton retreats to poetry. “And SEVEN TYPES OF AMBIGUITY, that’s really something, ma’am,” he says, blushing. “I know you’d enjoy that one.”
“I’ll try it.” Jessica speaks faintly, wishing he would go: she would like to be alone, to savor and to think.
“My goodness, it’s almost five,” says Linton. “I’ve got to get to work.” He is a part-time waiter at the college cafeteria, Swain Hall, which is inevitably called Swine Hall. Linton is what is called a self-help student.
He half smiles, and hurries out, banging the old door and letting in a wave of exhausted late afternoon summer air. Leaving his stale Camel smell.
Motionless, Jessica sits there smiling. She is almost dazzled by her sudden sharp (if narrow) glimpse of possibilities, a bright glimpse like a slit in the darkness of her usual melancholy. She is a woman not yet 40, with beautiful eyes. And beautiful hair. Linton is not a possibility (is he?) But older women, especially literary women, sometimes have young men, Young Lovers. A woman desired is a woman not seen as herself, is a woman recreated—she is remembering Tom’s brief blind passion for her.
To be loved by a much younger person is to be forgiven, forgiven for age. Did she read that somewhere? did she make it up?
Still smiling, she shakes her head, to shake off all of this. But she is aware of a rare mood of indulgence toward herself. She knows that it is silly, this imagining of young lovers, at her age. But on the other hand—why not? Is love restricted to people of a definite age, and a certain degree of beauty?
(Yes, indeed it is, she is later to decide, and she is to feel, as she has felt before, that her own needs, insofar as they are sexual, are obscene. But thou oh lord have mercy upon us miserable offenders. )
Now she puts the money from the cashbox into her purse, $5. 73; she stands up and looks around. She walks determinedly toward the door, which she opens and closes and locks behind her.
Her car, the old Chevy, is parked at the curb. For a wonder, it starts up easily. She drives down Main Street, turns left at the light, and heads out of town, toward her own house.
It is a lovely afternoon, and the town just now is at its greenest and loveliest. The lawns, the profuse shrubbery, the heavy green pine boughs against a barely fading pale blue sky—all beautiful. Jessica drives down the long white concrete highway, the last hill leading home, with an obscure anticipation.
Her own driveway leads to the back of the house, past the old terraced garden, the abandoned tennis court. Roses, just past their prime, climb the fence at the far edge of the garden, and the grape arbor is flowing with green vines. At the moment Jessica is in love with her house, the land, their garden.
Beyond the side yard some woods begin, pines and maples, cedars, elms; through these trees is the path leading down to the swimming pool (Tom’s pride, built with his World War I bonus, and partly with his own hands). That is where Tom and the children will be, Avery and Devlin. Probably with some company.
Jessica goes inside the house, and upstairs to her room to change into her bathing suit. Undressing, she does not regard her body in the long mirror or think about it, as she sometimes does (unhappily). Humming something to herself she puts on her dark wool suit, her flowered beige kimona, slippers, and she picks up her white rubber cap from the top of her chest of drawers, the mahogany chest that matches the broad double bed, which her parents slept in, in Virginia. Tom has moved into what was meant to be the guest room.
She goes downstairs, still humming, through the living room and out the side door, down to the lawn. She smiles as she recognizes that the tune is an Easter hymn—”There is a green hill, far away”—Easter songs, in August? But something in the air that day has more of spring than summer in it, some fragrance, some suggestion.
Should she invite Linton to come over for a swim sometime? Well, why not?
At the edge of the woods, the top of the embedded slate steps that lead down to the pool, she pauses and listens, separating out voices. Tom’s—his laugh. The somewhat higher responding laugh of Harry McGinnis, there with his wife, Irene. And at the prospect of Irene, of watching Irene with Tom, Jessica’s breath tightens in a way that is drearily familiar to her, but then she thinks a new thought: she thinks, so what?—for her an unfamilar phrase. So what? Tom has a crush on Irene, and she on him. So what? Today, at this moment, her own heart is light and high. Is indestructible?
She starts down the path, and halfway down, just past the giant maple in which her children have built a treehouse, she calls out, “Here I am! Hello?” She is unaware of sounding not quite like herself. As though she were a guest?
She is answered by silence, a break in whatever they were laughing about, and then Tom’s voice: “Well, old dear, so at long last you’re home?”
They are all there, as she descends to the clearing: Tom (her Tom) tall and slender, blue-eyed, censorious; Harry, dark and slight, neatly made; and pretty blond Irene, in a ruffled pink bathing suit. And children: her own thin two, Avery, her dark daughter, and fairer Devlin, on a steamer rug, on the grass; and young Harry McGinnis, who lies tensely on the edge of the pool, in a space of sun. Harry is a golden boy, extremely handsome—almost beautiful, looking like neither Irene nor his father.
For something to say, Jessica calls out, “Children, you look cold, you wrap up in your towels. Avery, Devlin.” They look at her with blank and patient faces, and then Avery turns toward young Harry, who has begun to do pushups, there beside the pool.
Jessica says, “Why Irene, what a pretty bathing suit. Can you really wear it into the water?”
Before Irene can answer Tom breaks in, “That’s what she alleges, but we have yet to see a test of her claim, any proof of her alleged bathing suit.” He makes a gesture as though to throw her into the pool.
And Irene turns from Jessica to Tom. “You wouldn’t!” she cries out. “You’re just a mean old tease, Tom Todd. Of course I can swim in this suit, it’s just that I’m feeling so warm, and so lazy.”
“Tom, darling, I’m dying for a drink,” says Jessica. “What a perfect day for gin.” (Again she sounds like someone else, but who? Someone in a book?) “But first I’ll go in for a little dip,” she says. This is herself; it is what she always says, and does.
Dropping her robe, as no one watches, she steps into the shallow end of the rough concrete oval; as the cool sliding water reaches her waist she begins to swim a gentle breaststroke, her legs in a practiced frog kick, to the end of the pool. There she reaches for the edge, and, holding on, she looks back at the group in the clearing, in the sun, who are not looking at her. Harry (big Harry: this distinction is to become ironic in a few years, when his son grows so much larger than he) big Harry is telling a story; Jessica can catch echoes of his precise and somewhat finicky voice, not quite hearing what he says.
Tom is looking at Irene, so small and blond, preening herself in the sun, in Tom’s gaze. And Jessica wonders how that would be, to be a woman looked at by men, aware of the power of one’s face, one’s small and desirable body. She can’t imagine it, and she lets go of the end of the pool, to swim back slowly, in the cool and concealing water.
She gets out quickly, and in a single gesture she picks up and puts on her robe. Elaborately Tom hands her the drink that he has made for her. His gestures always seem to mock themselves (is Jessica for the first time observing this? She has a sense of heightened powers, of newly and acutely sensing what is around her).
Harry McGinnis is a Classics professor, which was Jessica’s field of concentration at Randolph-Maeon, and he sometimes teases her about what he terms her desertion, her flight to modernity. He also teases her about what he calls her radical ideas; he says that Negroes have smaller brains than white people, making Jessica furious—but does he mean it? No one knows, least of all Jessica,
Today, which is all around an odd day, she decides to tease Harry. Well, why not? (So what?) “Well Harry,” she begins, “I’ve just spent the most wonderful morning reading Mrs. Virginia Woolf. Of course you couldn’t be persuaded to read any lady after Sappho?”
Pleased—he enjoys a little argument, although he has the Southern male’s generations-deep distrust of intelligence in women, Harry responds with more than usual gallantry: “Well, if anyone could persuade me, it would be you, Miss Jessica.”
Staring at the neat brown patch of hair on his chest, Jessica is wondering where to go from there when Tom breaks in: “Speaking of modernity,” he somewhat loudly says (is that what they were talking about?) “Have you good people heard the news that Benny Goodman is going to play in Carnegie Hall? Ben-ny Good-man.” His isolation of each syllable is replete with contempt.
Anti-Semitic. This horrifying word, or perception (which is not entirely new: from time to time he has-said certain not-nice things about his Jewish students) enters Jessica’s mind, and it is in fact so horrifying that she must force it out (Hitler, Jews in Germany—of course Tom is not like that). Defensively she says, “I really can’t see what’s so terrible about that.”
Lifting his head, for one instant Tom glares as though Jessica were a student (a Jewish student?) and then he turns to Harry and he says, “Jessica really only likes hymns. Episcopal hymns, of course. She’s always humming them, although a little off-key.” And he laughs, as though he had spoken kindly, or even amusingly.
Turning from him (something unbearable has risen in her chest) Jessica looks over toward her children.
Devlin is still there on the steamer rug, a towel obediently draped around his shoulder, but Avery has got up and walked around to the side of the pool, where young Harry is lying in the sun. She squats there beside him, much less beautiful than he; she seems to be saying something, but whatever it is Harry does not answer, nor even turn toward her. Avery is in love with Harry. Blindingly Jessica sees and feels this, as at the same time she tells herself that it is absolutely impossible: Avery is only nine, many years too young for a feeling of that sort. Impossible.
“Ben-ny Good-man,” Tom says again. “What do you imagine he’ll play—”The Flight of the Bumblebee”?”
“Silly, you’re thinking of Jack Benny.” Irene laughs, tinklingly,
“Well, I suppose I should concede that there is some difference between them.” Tom draws in his chin, raising his head in a characteristic gesture of defiance. But then, since it was Irene who spoke, he turns aside and allows his stern expression to dissolve into a laugh.
But suddenly, then, there is a tremendous sound, an explosion of water. All the grownups turn to see young Harry floundering in the pool—to see Avery, who has evidently just pushed him in, whose face is terrified, appalled.
Everyone screams at once—everyone but Jessica and Avery, who are staring at each other, frozen, across the pool.
Young Harry, from the pool to Avery: “You little bitch—”
Tom: “Avery, how dare you, damn you—”
Irene: “Harry, honey, your stomach’s all scraped—”
Big Harry to his son: “Don’t you ever let me hear you use language like that, and to a girl—”
At the sound of that splash something within Jessica has itself exploded, the day has exploded, and for a moment she is immobilized (as A very is). Jessica hears all those shouts as though they were distant voices. But then in a rush she gets up and hurries around to where Avery is, Avery still standing beside the pool, beside the place where Harry was lying. Jessica grasps her daughter’s arm. She pulls her around to the other side of the pool and then up the twig- and pebble-strewn slate steps, almost dragging her along, toward the side yard and the house.
Where the lawn begins Jessica stops; she turns to face Avery and to grasp her shoulders. And she begins to shake her daughter, saying loudly, terribly, “What’s the matter with you, are you in love with Harry McGinnis? Are you in love?”
Shaking her until they are both weeping.