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The Boarding House


ISSUE:  Summer 1985

She grew up in Saint Joseph’s parish, in the still-respectable part of the city, where houses were set off from the street by steep steps leading to large porches. In summer, geranium-filled planters lined the steps, and green pots overflowing with petunias swung from the railings. In winter, glass enclosures were put onto the porches making shiny rooms for boots and mufflers. The small vestibules provided passageways between the piercing iciness of the outside and the warm inside smells of cabbage and bacon.

Katherine’s house was on a corner lot facing Broad Street. It was a green clapboard house filled with unrelated adults. The neighbors’ houses were painted white; relatives of every kind lived in them. In addition to parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, there were servants and visiting Irish clergy. Mainly, there were tremendous numbers of children. On Katherine’s street alone there were more than 50 children. The Fitzgibbons, the McDonoughs, and the O’Briens had seven kids apiece. The Farrells, the O’Rourkes, and the Malloys had nine.

Katherine, an only child, had spent months of her life in the upstairs rooms of these neighbors’ houses. There, she’d played with dolls, cards, jacks, and board games of every description. As a teen-ager she’d dressed in the clothes of her friends, putting on and taking off their sweaters, blouses, dresses, and skirts until her arms ached. In many of the homes she’d been less a guest than a daughter. She often stayed for dinner, and on those nights she forgot her own house where the table was lined with oilcloth and where large black pots were put directly onto the table. At her friends’ homes she tried to appear nonchalant while unfolding a large dinner napkin or when selecting a roll with silver tongs.

In Katherine’s house, the upstairs rooms were rented to newspapermen and public-school teachers. The boarders took breakfast and dinner at the house. They also left their doors unlocked so that Katherine and her mother, Anna, could pick up their clothes and make up their beds. Katherine’s father, who might have spared his wife the drudgery of taking care of boarders, was less a permanent resident than a boarder himself. His drinking bouts, which Katherine’s mother insisted on calling business trips, kept him away most of the year. When he was home, he slept in the parlor, on a large Victorian sofa stuffed with horsehair. He took his meals in the dark dining room with the boarders while Katherine and Anna ate in the steamy kitchen after cleaning up. Throughout the night they could hear toilets being flushed as the lodgers walked back and forth to the bathroom in the hall.

During Katherine’s last year of high school she began to perceive the enormous changes that were about to occur. Though it was the midst of the Depression, her friends were talking about college. They were looking at maps and atlases. They were going away for trips and coming home with pictures of large brick buildings. For her part, Katherine was lucky to have been allowed to finish high school. For years, Anna had been threatening to send her “into business”; Katherine knew that meant becoming a secretary in one of the large offices a bus ride away. Fortunately, Anna was kept at bay until six days after Saint Joseph’s high school graduation when Katherine began her job. Ten weeks later, when trunks were being taken from the neighbors’ porches, Katherine was at the bus stop with a sandwich hidden in her oversize pocketbook.

At first there were Christmas and summer parties to which she was invited. But no matter how carefully she looked through magazines or how attentively she listened to sales-ladies, Katherine never dressed like the college girls. Then, too, after a while, she had little to say to her old friends.”But we have a history,” she’d whisper, watching Timmy Fitzgibbon or Mike Malloy leave the porch after seeing her home. The fact was, the brothers of her childhood friends kept in touch more than their sisters. Katherine was invited to several college weekends but after the first she did not accept.

Katherine retreated to her job. For ten years she dated no one. During this time her former friends married and moved to the suburbs. When the war came, their husbands received commissions, interrupting their legal and medical careers to serve. Katherine stayed with the now-widowed Anna and with their dwindling number of tenants. She had stopped wondering what her life would be, had stopped thinking about it altogether. Her only hope was that she would dull herself sufficiently so that with the passing years the panicky feeling of drowning, which now came upon her weekly, would subside. Because she believed each year would be as the one before, she prayed that over time she could resign herself to the routine of the boarding house. When she looked at Anna, she tried not to see the enormous boxes of noodles, the gallon-sized jars of lard, the gravies pocked with balls of flour. She tried to see her mother apart from the boarding house; she did not let herself think how much she hated the place.

On Katherine’s 29th birthday, Jack Doyle, a G. I. just back from the war, walked into Katherine’s office. He was looking for the paymaster’s office one floor above them. After directing him, Katherine watched as he swaggered down the hall on surprisingly little feet. His work boots were dotted with knobs of dried mortar; they rolled with each step. At lunch-time Jack returned with two sandwiches. He was a big man with a powerful chest and a neck 17 inches around. He and Katherine ate in a park across from the building. As she chewed, Jack pointed to the masonry he was doing on the roof line. “Seven stories up,” he said, “I don’t like being much closer to the ground than that.”

Katherine smiled, glad she didn’t have to say anything. His presence overwhelmed her, paralyzed her really, so that as he spoke she feared she might forget to breathe. It was not so much his good looks that captured her, though his bottle-green eyes and jet black hair were striking, but the confidence that radiated from his body. It seemed to Katherine no one could avoid noticing how easy he was with his shoulders and hips, with his back and legs. It was simple for him to wave his hands in the air, or to point with one of his fingers, which had an abundance of black wiry hairs growing on it.

There was only Anna to disapprove of the marriage, and when she said, “Thank God he doesn’t drink,” no obstacle remained. They were married in the church rectory with Anna and Henry Whelan, a longtime boarder, acting as witnesses. Afterward they celebrated with several friends from Katherine’s office.”She’s too good for you,” Henry said, toasting the couple. Katherine and Anna drew in their breaths, only letting them out when Jack smiled. More than one or two of Katherine’s office mates had said Jack’s sixth grade education made him an unsuitable match.”I mean,” Henry said, realizing he’d made the group uncomfortable, “no one’s good enough for Katherine.”

“I know,” Jack said, pulling Katherine toward him. She breathed in his odor and was afraid. His hand was so large it went from her waist to her breast.

For the first months of the marriage, though Katherine wished otherwise, they lived in an upstairs room at Anna’s. Like mice, they buried themselves under the blankets in their room and listened to the noise around them—the men coming and going on the stairs, the sounds of the toilets flushing and of Anna banging her heavy pots or running her new electric mixer.

“Don’t get up,” Jack whispered on the first morning he left for work. It was five-thirty when Katherine heard him preparing his breakfast in the kitchen. Even after Jack and Katherine moved to their own apartment, six blocks away, they kept the routine. Each morning, Katherine would lie in bed listening to her husband readying himself for work. As she listened, she’d become aware of the warmth she was giving off—aware of her legs and arms, her torso and neck, her face and scalp. She could actually feel how she radiated heat by holding her hands several inches from her bare shoulders. It felt as if her palms were only inches away from a blast furnace. When she touched her cheeks, they seemed to burn with fever. Jack had named her “Kitten” and in the mornings, stretching her legs before settling back into the hot nest she’d made for herself, Katherine believed it was a good nickname. She could hear her own purring which seemed to come from a motor buried deep within her. The purrs traveled through her limbs, exiting at the tips of her fingers and her toes.

In the evenings Katherine often read to Jack. He’d sit in the horsehair sofa Anna had given them, with his feet propped on a needlepoint footstool. Seeing him this way—a huge man balanced delicately on graceful furniture—made Katherine ache with loving him. But what touched her even more was the rapt look that came to Jack’s face as she read to him. He appeared to be transfixed by the words; his eyes never left her mouth, though sometimes he would nod when she looked up.

In the second year of the marriage, Katherine became pregnant. For weeks nausea trailed her; it came into striking distance whenever she moved quickly. As a result, she floated through her days, careful not to jar herself. At the office she spent a lot of time in the bathroom. Holding the white enamel edges she’d gaze into the reflection of her own eyes which managed to move around even after she’d pinned them down.”Take it easy,” she’d say, letting the saliva run from the side of her lips. She ran cold water on her wrists then dabbed her face with wetted-down paper towels. She did not tell the other employees or her boss about the pregnancy, and later, in the third month, when she lost the baby, she was glad she’d remained silent She and Jack were the only ones to mourn.

Several months later Katherine found herself thinking the miscarriage had been for the best. I don’t think I could share Jack with a baby, she thought one morning as she lay in bed watching Jack dress. When he bent to put on his boots, she imagined she could see through the top of his head, through his chest and into his heart. Although he was across the room, she strained to hear his heart, and after awhile she felt she succeeded. She synchronized the rhythm of her own heart to match his. In this way, she felt he was with her throughout the day . In fact, it wasn’t until the bus ride after work that it occurred to her that her situation was very much like the baby’s. Both had been sustained in the dark by the sound of a heart beat; both she and the baby had depended on that heart beat for their lives.

Because of the reduced number of boarders, Anna had fewer people to shower with advice. She turned to Jack. Each Tuesday when she came for dinner, she’d ask if he had any plans to return to school.”A fine fellow like you should get a high-school diploma. I could call over to West Side High for you. They have a night school. I have connections.”

Katherine was so offended by her mother’s remarks she refused to look at her. Instead she focused on Jack, who was always extremely polite to Anna.”I’ll look into it,” he said every week, waiting for Katherine to change the subject. When Anna’s persistence led her to bring West Side booklets to the house, Katherine pulled her mother aside.

“If you say one more word about night school, I’ll never see you again,” she said, surprising herself. The words and their ferocious delivery startled her; her eyes ached from the pressure she hadn’t released.

Anna’s eyes widened strangely.

“I mean it,” Katherine hissed. It quite amazed her that she did.

On weekends Jack liked to invite one or two of his friends to come for dinner. They’d arrive with their wives looking as if they’d just stepped out of the shower. Their hair would be wet, their faces almost sleek and ratlike. The women always looked inflated to Katherine, who imagined their husbands had pumped them up for display. As a game, Katherine took to seeing each female guest as an expression of her husband’s work. Edith, the plasterer’s wife, had the smooth poreless skin of a freshly plastered wall. The painter’s wife wore clothes that were splashed with color. The carpenter’s wife wore wooden bracelets and beads. On the soles of her platform shoes were wooden slabs that might have been made from two-by-fours. Even Arnette, the electrician’s wife, a dull woman 40 pounds overweight, wore wire jewelry. On her ear lobes were copper coils; her heavy wrists were banded with aluminum.

When the couples left, Katherine would study herself in the mirror, looking for bricks and mortar. She’d always liked Stripes, which now struck her as poor imitations of the cement-lined courses of buildings. Three of her favorite dresses were reddish brown. She tried to share her images with Jack, but he couldn’t see what was so funny about them. “You don’t look anything like a building,” he said finally, causing Katherine to smile secretly about her discoveries.

In the fourth year of their marriage Jack fell from the sixth floor of a building. The doctors said any other man would have perished from the fall but Jack survived with broken ribs and two severely fractured legs. He stayed in the hospital for a month before he was wheeled into the apartment for several months of recuperation. Katherine had prepared for him by renting a bulky hospital bed which she put in the living room. She also told her boss that after 15 years of loyal service she had to have three months leave from her job.

“You’ll soon be well,” she told Jack when the attendants transferred him to the bed. Jack looked anything but convinced. “I’m in bad shape,” he said, closing his eyes for a nap.

Katherine sat watching him for an hour. When she realized he’d sleep for several more, she went into the bedroom and sat on the end of the bed. She looked at the large cedar tree which grew across the street. It had four feathery peaks. With each gust of wind, the top branches moved first, then, as if by secret tree communication, the middle and lower limbs moved too.

“Where are you?” Jack called.

“Here, darling. Would you like some juice?”

“I need more of the pain medicine,” Jack said. “That doctor don’t know a thing about pain.”

Katherine brought him the pills. When he next slept, she phoned Doctor Dorset, who said Jack shouldn’t be taking more than what the prescription allowed.

During the first week that Jack was home, Katherine dreamed of his fall. She was standing on the shaky scaffolding when a wind kicked up, causing the boards to hit the building. After each impact of board on brick, her feet moved closer to the edge but in the way of dreams she found she was unable to move back to a safer place. She had to experience each jolt, knowing it was inevitable that one would eventually propel her over the edge. When the final collision knocked her from the boards, she worked hard to keep aloft. By pumping her arms and kicking her legs, she managed to slow her fall. As the earth rose to her face, she forced herself to wake. A minute later she tiptoed to where Jack slept and took comfort in the rise and fall of his chest.

In the weeks that followed, Katherine made every effort to be a good nurse, although it was quite clear that Jack was not trying to be a good patient. Daily, she put a crisp white sheet over the blankets on his bed because she’d read it gave the patient a feeling of calm and order. She put a small table beside the bed. On it she kept two pitchers, one filled with iced water and the other with orange juice. After clearing away his breakfast dishes, she read to him from the newspaper until he drifted off for his morning nap. Afternoons she ran to the corner store, coming back with chops, fruits, fresh vegetables. She also made a stop at the florist so there’d be a single flower to adorn his lunch and dinner tray. But despite her labors—the legs that throbbed from tending his bedside, the back that ached from changing the sheets—Jack was not responding as the doctor predicted. And it wasn’t just his complaints or his irritability that began to grate on Katherine’s nerves. He never had anything to say. He remained so silent and peevish that Katherine sometimes wondered if he had any thoughts at all.

Instead of becoming stronger and more active with time, he grew fatter and lazier. His muscles disappeared. His body came to resemble a large waxy mass of cheese. When Katherine helped him change into freshly laundered pajamas, she could not bear to look at the pale skin which covered the big lumps of sagging tissue. She could not bear to see how his thick neck became part of his head.

“The pain’s worse,” Jack said every morning after sleeping solidly for nine hours. When Doctor Dorset came to remove the casts, Katherine was almost surprised to hear him say that Jack was mending fine.

Katherine followed the doctor into the hallway. She told him about Jack’s continued pain and about Jack’s complaints.

“These big physical guys make the worst patients,” Dr. Dorset said.”They’re never sick a day in their lives and when something finally does go wrong they act like it’s never happened to anyone else. They live in their bodies.”

Katherine padded back to the apartment. Jack was sitting at the edge of the bed looking at his white thighs. The mottled skin reminded Katherine of the cold purply flesh of an uncooked turkey.”Only a little more time and you’ll have your strength back,” she said, forcing herself to pat Jack’s soft shoulder.

“Easy for you to say,” Jack snarled. “You don’t know nothing about pain. I’m suffering all the time.”

“Don’t know anything,” Katherine said, going to the bed-room to look at the cedar. It was the first time she’d ever corrected him, but instead of feeling guilty she wanted him to make another mistake soon so she could again reprove him.

Katherine propped her feet on the windowsill across from the bed and wondered if it was her husband’s physical strength that had prevented her from correcting him in the past. She recalled how afraid she’d once been of his body. Although he’d never threatened her, she’d always been a tiny bit frightened of him. His awful stubbornness, his intractable obstinacy, had then seemed to be the logical outgrowth of his masculine power.

She stared out the window for several minutes. “Not frightened,” she whispered, “awed.” Thinking about how she once loved his body made her cry. The tears came in long noisy sobs, overpowering her. She rolled herself into a fetal position on the bed, staying there until the quilt beneath her cheek was sopping wet. When she finally got up, she splashed cold water on her face.

“I don’t want no lunch,” Jack said when he saw her. Katherine fixed it anyway, then encouraged him to walk to the table.

Little by little as the days passed and Jack found himself able to do more, he became less cranky. When Katherine returned to work in the middle of May, Jack was able to get around the apartment without help. He was able to remove from the refrigerator the platters Katherine prepared each morning. He was able to run water over the soiled plates which he left in the sink. He moved back to the bedroom at the end of the month.

Katherine, embarrassed to bring up the topic of his return to work, waited for Jack to broach the subject. She waited a month and when it became apparent that he would not discuss his plans she took a deep breath.”Jack,” she said, “have you given any thought to when you’ll go back to work?”

“I’m thinking I may never go back to brick laying,” he said. “I’m thinking I could do some other kind of work like helping your mother with the boarding house.”

When Katherine heard Jack’s words, she knew she’d always known them. They exploded so close to her heart she could not believe they hadn’t been there all along, like a hidden mine waiting to be triggered.

“We could move back into the place,” Jack continued. “Those downstairs rooms haven’t been painted in 20 years.”

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