Skip to main content

An Old-Fashioned Story


ISSUE:  Summer 1981

When Clorinda’s letter came, Jackie was 14. The idea of having a memory had just begun to be exotic. You could remember, and it was a feeling of conceit, an aberration, a limitless unfixed disguise that made things seem what they were not. Would you know yourself as once you might have been? Jackie tapped the letter on her tooth and let the voluptuous sensation of Clorinda envelop vast roomy mirrors outside the commonplace.

That was dippy thinking and dead-end. In plain terms, they had not met since they were seven. Both were now 14. There was something embarrassing, mawkish, too realistic about the years that divided. But as Jackie still felt that every friend was the big experience, hot-shot, soul mate (precociously admitted, the arrows always pointing to your own self-interests), she could afford to give in a little to childish sentiment. There was much to be gained, and the thought that Clorinda still wanted to see her. After all these years, Jackie ploughing through her life in the same old place, not quite middle-South, and Clorinda off on unknown rounds in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Clorinda did not send a photograph, and she invited Jackie to come visit next week. Jackie’s stomach slightly turned. To think that Clorinda would have grown taller, slimmer, blonder, curly-headedy-er. Jackie reconstructed Clorinda’s elfin features. Secretly, she was the elf of the Second Grade, as Jackie was the black cat tiger. Clorinda, tiny and sprigs of golden curls, and Jackie was the suave black tiger. They were both little white girls in a white girl neighborhood, but that was the part that Jackie played. She didn’t figure why. Clorinda was light and pixie with a husky pixie voice, and Jackie was the black cat river. Tigers and rivers and skulking underground. Clorinda danced and Jackie swam. But they complemented each other, knowing it very well.

“Do you want to go?” said Jackie’s mother. “I wonder what Mr. Harper is doing.”

“What did he do?” and Jackie. “I remember, he ran trains.”

“He was an engineer on the L & N, I think.”

“Mrs. Harper, I remember her, was plenty tall.”

“Yes,” said Jackie’s mother. “She was raw-boned, gaunt. But attractive in her way.”

Jackie said, “Clorinda was pretty.”

“And the boy, wasn’t he younger?”

“Yes.”

“Kevin. He was one of those children whose face looks as if it never fits together. Probably changed by now.”

“Yes.”

“Do you,” said Jackie’s mother, “want to go?”

“Yes.” Jackie’s stomach gave the same, unpleasant heave. It was like seeing something perfect in your mind that was going to happen outside. She didn’t know if she could face it. Another way to think was that nothing ever changed. Clorinda in the playfield, in a starched lavender-flowered dress. The tiny, dainty, thin-dainty legs, as she ran up to catch a volley ball toss. Clorinda had always reminded of morning-glories strung on the wire school fence. Memory again, and Jackie could feel contemptuous of herself. The silly, childish past. What did Clorinda know about boys? She did not know about boys, and how they smelled and tasted. Chewing-gum lips, and the flat buckles on their skinny leather belts. Clorinda didn’t know about chasing in the alley, and the sly electric welcome of fingers slightly touching. Grabbing around, and everybody running off again. Jackie held back, not only to entice the flood that was finally coming. At this age, of course, she depended on her own hypocrisy. She recognized to what uses she put it, deciding for a little while longer to play it safe. She had her technique, and time enough for later.

Clorinda did not know any of this yet. She knew nothing about Jackie, their letters never said. Jackie anticipated for a moment unfolding her own deepest, most wry cleverness, to show off her experience and prowess. For Clorinda’s piquant wonder, the shining elfin eyes which Jackie, overwhelmingly, recalled were gray.

The contempt for her own true-heartedness came back. You get along in this world only by denying what you felt. That was one of the tricky rules, meanwhile snatching when you could one fast drink of feeling, when nobody watched or knew. She stood at the table, quizzically, and gave her mother a disinterested smile.

“Sure,” she said. “I’d like to go. Even if I don’t like Clorinda, or she thinks I’m a bore.” Mechanical phrases sealed the issue. “I’ll just go along for the trip.”

The next week, Jackie was on the bus. Out of her suitcase, she sneaked a homemade sausage sandwich wrapped in wax paper and a German sour pickle. (This was a period in America when some people could not afford bus station snacks, but it wasn’t considered respectable to bring your own.) Goodbye, farewell. Jackie had given strict orders against her mother that she not be accompanied by any family person. Eating her sausage, she leaned back in luxury. Goodbye, farewell. The bus jiggled along, tears formed in the hot corners of her eyes. Jackie was not much used to travel and led a sheltered life. But more due to money lack than cowardly inhibition. Jackie felt sorry for her parents, who never had a break, but now let their undeserving daughter take a four-day fling. Phooey, rat, hell, bitch. A string of off-color words flattered her into composure. Rat, phooey, hell. She gobbled the sour pickle.

Her thoughts reverted to Clorinda, then were lost in the yellow-green spring countryside. There were a few men on the bus, too middle-aged to be interesting. Although, this idea was just a pose. And if Jackie looked at some man with crossed knees long enough, she could imagine actively putting the palms of her hands on his legs. She tried to curb herself but could not stop thinking what she liked to. Getting her hands around the lovely-meated knees and also squeezing his wrists and elbows and kissing the harsh, smooth-shaven cheeks of men. Often these attacks of desire could nearly swallow up reason. As, when she was a little child, she liked to hug a tree.

When the bus stopped at Terre Haute, Clorinda and her younger brother were waiting. Jackie was not surprised. It was a funny thing, and she let the fact sink in. She recognized Clorinda by not recognizing her. She knew she would be changed, and Jackie let the galloping uneasy feeling simply run over her for a moment. She felt remorse too, the way you feel guilty for being mean. Clorinda was no longer pretty. She was absolutely glumpy, standing on the platform, peering with large bespectacled eyes. What had been elfin had turned into raw bones. Maybe not so bad, but it matched somebody else. Her blond hair had darkened, and the light freckled skin was just mottled, drab. She and Kevin waved. Jackie dragged over her suitcase. Kevin was about her height, still a little boy. But Clorinda was a big bungling woman.

“Did you know me?” asked Jackie.

“Sort of.” Clorinda examined her with slow incurious eyes, which at first looked too big, popped. Jackie searched for her beauty. Defiance made her do it, like being determined to put a picture back in its frame. If she said that, would Clorinda know what she meant? She felt a hovering indecision, whether or not to trust (as it used to be) how the other thought no matter what. She could not find a way to speak the subject.

“I knew you,” said Jackie.

“Mother is at home. She said to take a taxi.”

The town was like a movie that seemed strange. All the time the three of them walked, aiming for a taxi, Kevin lugging the bag, Jackie had this double vision. It was like everything you knew was building up and disappearing—a kind of idea she had just come on recently. Unexpected developments, and Jackie loved thinking in these terms. But could leave it alone if she wanted, Clorinda wore a print dress, with a white collar around the gawky neck. She was at an awkward age, Jackie’s mother would say. Jackie had never grown any taller past the age of eleven, but she was not quite a runt and normal-short. They had plenty to talk about, Clorinda asking about the trip. At the same time, she seemed cagey and remote. That was what caused the strangeness, or maybe it was her different appearance. Still, somewhere in that big ungainly girl was the shiny little drop of elfin gold.

Mrs. Harper welcomed Jackie. She asked about Jackie’s mother and father. Only Mrs. Harper, Jackie could estimate, was definitely real. It was not that she looked exactly the same as she did seven years ago. Jackie had no memory for other people’s mothers. But it was how red and slightly flushed Mrs. Harper’s face was. That made her seem real, and the nub of some experience Jackie didn’t have to embroider on. Mrs. Harper sat down earnestly and asked what she and her mother and father had been doing all these years.

Jackie said that her father still had his lumberyard job over at Kretchmer’s. Her mother stuck around the house, doing housework. Jackie rattled on, everything feeling important that she mentioned.

“What have you been doing?”

Jackie said, “I play the violin. But not very good.” Privately, she thought she did better. But it was not a thing to say.

Mrs. Harper nodded, the perfect audience. All the news was taken right. Kevin stood shyly in the corner. It was true, his face had not yet come together. The gray eyes too wide, and the tufted brown hair made the skull seem lopsided. He was gallantly aware of not being usual looking. But Kevin kept himself a gentleman and was not going to get mad at what other people thought.

These ideas flitted through Jackie’s mind. Clorinda sat on the divan, and Jackie noticed how thoroughly a woman she was. Clorinda looked about 18. Neither of the girls wanted to make an effort to live up to the past. Any references to or images of what Jackie might have considered before shrivelled in her head like burnt paper.

As soon as they were alone in the guest room (Kevin’s and lent for the visit) Clorinda said:

“Jackie, do you have any dates?”

“Yes. My mother lets me. Yours?”

Behind the glasses, Clorinda rolled sophisticated eyes.

“Sure. What else is there?”

Jackie had a slight sense of distaste. Why? In the double-track way, her mind crossed over again. She felt she had to protect the seven-year-old elf that Clorinda was from the big gangling woman she’d become. Thinking like that wasn’t just dumb, it was crazy.

“I got a couple of dates lined up for you,” Clorinda said.

What else should she have said? Nothing wrong with that. But Jackie felt faintly pressured, hemmed-in.

“Well,” she said. “I’ll see.”

“What do you mean? They’re nice kids.”

“I know,” said Jackie. Her words vaporized. “I mean, all right,”

That night Mrs. Harper cooked a chicken with creamed gravy and had green beans and then cherry tarts for dessert. The Harpers were not rich either and seemed even worse off than Jackie’s people. Mr. Harper was sick and had been let go from his railroad job, only doing part-time work. But he still wore his railroad cap that Jackie remembered. She always thought he was not dressed up because he wore the gray-striped denim cap inside the house. He had a sick looking color and looked older than anybody Jackie had ever known. The change had made him very old.

He sat down and belched. It was indigestion and not bad manners. Mrs. Harper handed him some medicine. Clorinda did not pay attention to anybody, she sat at the table putting on fingernail polish, even a few seconds before supper was served. It seemed terrible and sordid, and Jackie had a chilly feeling. But also she was thrilled. People so badly off, and each performing, like shabby poor-folks acting. It was not really too awful or dangerous. Though, just seeing things so badly off and the table cloth with a hole neatly mended, that’s the way it looked. This was not in Jackie’s language yet, but she had a sense of the extravagant misery. It was a keen feeling of excitement, that families got poor. And she was torn between her 14-year-old contempt and her inborn sense of importance about what people had to go through. Jackie didn’t have the words for this either, but it was the spirit of the connoisseur.

She was a little afraid of Mr. Harper. Just because he was sick. She was afraid of people with whom she could not enter any give-and-take relation. Included, there was no possibility of feeling romantic about him. He was too sad and out of work. There was nobody to be in love with, really. Clorinda had changed too much, although Jackie kept looking for glints. But even Clorinda’s movements had slowed down. She wore heavy high heels and had heavy woman’s legs. The only thing that remained was her husky voice.

“Mom, Jackie and I are going to the movies,” she said to Mrs. Harper.

“All right,” said Mrs. Harper. “Jackie,” she said, “I trust you to take care of Clorinda.”

That was funny. Clorinda was twice as big. But maybe Mrs. Harper sensed the same thing. Jackie was the suave old tiger self, and Clorinda had been nothing but a fairy, a tinkerbell elf. She was clearly a dependent. Jackie tapped a front tooth with her fork. Maybe it was not loyal to Clorinda, having this idea. But Jackie would always take care of her, after all.

When they got alone again, Clorinda said:

“You don’t think we’re really going to the movies?”

“I don’t care,” said Jackie.

“Not the kids I know.”

“All right.”

Jackie was not as pleased as she might have been. But she was tired from the bus ride and was therefore not getting the right bang out of an opportunity offered.

It was a big chance to be with boys. She never doubted that she was more than a little girl. She had never in her life felt like a child. It was Clorinda who’d been that. Not herself. Jackie was always being canny and never innocent. And she played those games that were outlandish, of testing memory. And she could be perfectly calm and see the world falling apart. And nobody, especially not Clorinda, could see how sick and old her father, Mr. Harper, was. However, even seeing matters clearly, Jackie did not like the way Clorinda talked about boys. It was the slow motion, and how she moved her heavy legs. And everything was, for a moment, too unpleasantly in contrast to their grammar school days.

She was walking on eggs of dreams. Clorinda set her hair, and Jackie went into the bathroom to wash her face. Mrs. Harper had hung up two towels, and a small clean ragged wash cloth. Jackie gritted her teeth, exalted. The sparseness and poverty of the bathroom felt enchanted. She frothed the soap in her hands and rubbed it over her face. In the mirror, she saw her own black, humorless, terribly observing eyes. She feared that Clorinda was too lethargic in her own ways to make Jackie any better or different. Jackie glimpsed that she had actually made the trip in the hope of improving herself.

The boys came in a car, they must have been about 18 years old. There were two of them, big dumb louts. As soon as Jackie saw them, she tried to imagine putting her hands on their knees. But they were so compulsively apish, with their swinging animal arms and leering smiles, their eyes dull-leaded—their souls, she felt, were composed of greasy soup. But they had a car, and their hair was slicked down. One boy was named Tom and the other Red. Red was Clorinda’s partner; they sat in the back seat and, before the car was three blocks away, they were locked in a writhing embrace. Jackie kept her eyes on the street, passing unfamiliar corners.

“Where are we going?” she said.

“To get some beer. Then a place in the woods,” her own delegated lout said.

Jackie felt a disapproval mixed with conscience. In spite of herself, what had she wanted? She knew. What she’d wanted was grown-up laughing and talking, like in Scott Fitzgerald. This, where she was, was also different from the magic feeling of boys grabbing in the alley. They, at least, were friendly. The silence in the car was deadening. From the rear seat came the sound of kisses and rustling. Tom, her front-seat lout, reached over and yanked at Jackie’s skirt.

“Cut it out,” Jackie said.

“What’s the matter? You yellow?”

Inwardly, she swore never to go out with anybody under 30. Older people were more polite. Her mind ticked regulations. But, in fact, Jackie might have guessed and maybe it was Clorinda’s lousy crowd. That was what Terre Haute boys were like.

“No, I’m not yellow.”

“Then, what are you?”

“I’m somebody—” the words tumbled out, scathing. “I’m somebody that can’t stand big apes.”

“Why, you filthy—” Jackie had always enjoyed the curse words that bubbled up in her head. But hearing them said aloud (and directed at her character) was something else. A stream was let loose. She didn’t even know him, and he was talking as viciously as he could. The boy was driving faster and faster. She did not feel she ought to have kept quiet. She only hoped, though, she could get out before the car turned over. She didn’t even know him. In the back seat, the other couple necked, oblivious.

“Pull over,” said Jackie.

The boy drove on. Jackie’s mind worked like a piston.

“Okay,” she said. “Pardon me what I said. If you slow down, I’ll act like you wanted.”

“Huh—” he appeared disconcerted by the change. But he said, “You’d better.” The boy eased his foot on the gas. At the same time, he was sullen. “You Southern girls are too damned stuck up.”

“Oh,” said Jackie, “we’re not that much. I just didn’t know how to do.”

“Up here,” said Tom, “girls are good for just one thing. You know what that is.”

“Sure,” Jackie said. She felt an ecstasy of hate. “When you come down to it, I guess you’re right.”

They stopped at what looked like a main corner, waiting for a light. Jackie put her hand on the door handle and got out. In a flash, she was safe on the sidewalk.

“Now—” her companion sneered. “What’s up?”

“Thanks,” she said. “I’ve gotta go back.”

Clorinda was pulling out of her sleepy involvement. She put a disheveled head at the window. “Jackie,” she said. “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing,” said Jackie. “I’m just tired. You all go along. I’ll get back. See you, Clorinda, in the morning.”

“What? Well, I think you’re nuts.”

“Yes, I am.”

“Crap,” said Tom. “She’s a bitch. There’s nothing I hate more than a bitch and a tease. You’re the kind of girl that can make a man sick.”

“Okay,” said Jackie. “See you, Clorinda.” She stifled false apologies.

“Well,” Clorinda put her head back down in the car. “I think you’re nuts.”

Jackie walked off. The car did not even pause. Ahead, it went zooming in second gear. Jackie for a moment felt relieved. But the next instant she opened her pocketbook. And into it, having swiftly removed wallet and lipstick, she was expertly sick.

Nobody apparently noticed. The sky was half-dark, and everybody walking along was busy, heading for a movie or a store. Jackie took a streetcar to Clorinda’s address. The motorman said where to transfer, and it was not very long. Her face, she felt, was either green or white.

Mrs. Harper was sitting on the porch. She did not act like anything was wrong.

“I see,” she said, “you decided to come back.”

“Yes,” said Jackie. “I was sick.”

Mrs. Harper did not comment.

But Jackie kept the pocketbook out of sight until she reached the bathroom. Then she found some Old Dutch Cleanser and set about her job. It was hard cleaning all the guck out of the lining. Jackie felt perfectly well and calm. Why did she ever throw up? When the task was done, she returned to the guest room. Kevin was bunking on the sofa in the parlor, and the Harpers had a bedroom down the hall. Clorinda’s private quarter was a renovated backporch and not big enough for two, with any comfort. Jackie put on her pajamas and climbed into the small brown wooden bed. The clean sheets felt clean, with a nice blanket piled on. She had to clear her mind, and get some needed rest.

Jackie didn’t know how much later, but Clorinda had opened the door. A slant of light went across the wall.

“Hey, you still awake?”

Jackie said, “I don’t know. What’s the trouble?”

Clorinda shut the door and came in. She said, “Don’t turn on the light.”

“I won’t.”

Clorinda said, “Oh well, turn it on.”

“I don’t know where it is.”

Clorinda breathed around a little and clicked a lamp.

Jackie said, “What’s happened?”

“Nothing. You nearly ruined it. But Tom gave Red the car. We went on anyway.”

“I’m glad.”

Clorinda sat in silence. What she rested on was like a cedar chest, with her profile rising out of bulky shadows. She had her glasses off, and the big pop eyes looked naked. Jackie felt a twinge, she didn’t know at what. Clorinda’s bunched-up clothes and hair seemed unprotected. Though her manner was cold, officious.

“You want to hear something?”

Jackie said, “Sure.”

“I’ve got caught.”

“What’s—?”

Clorinda turned, full on.

“You know what that means!”

Jackie sank, abashed. The waves of the other girl’s wrath went over her.

“Yes. I guess I do.”

“Don’t you guess! You know.”

Jackie felt astonished. But the way it was happening was also very cold, Clorinda’s face was immobile in satisfaction.

“Now I’ve got them where they’re going to be.”

“Who?” Jackie propped herself on elbows. “Clorinda, who?”

“Don’t call me Clorinda. Nobody calls your other name.” Clorinda’s voice mimicked the wayside problem. “It’s Jackie, Jackie. But not me. Why am I called this?”

Jackie listened carefully. It was like figuring out pig Latin. There was something flipping back, or in between. She ought to circumvent the trouble-making places.

She said, “Yes, okay. I don’t like Jacqueline either. I’ll call anything you want.”

Clorinda shot a bitter glance, in charge of herself again. She said she hadn’t told Red but was going to.

“Even if it wasn’t him.”

She spat her feelings, jerky. Jackie accepted the way she talked. It was like taking things in through a sieve, not what you could put your mind on all at once. But Clorinda was testing her own courage, saying what she needed.

What Jackie spoke was not her real train of thought. She said, “You going to tell your mother?”

Clorinda looked at her blankly.

“Sure. She prob’ly knows.”

“Will—?”

Clorinda gave a little laugh.

“Don’t worry. I can wind her around my little finger.”

The main thing was, though, she was going to tell her Dad. He’d be plenty upset. Upset wasn’t what Clorinda used, Jackie could almost hear the thinking better than words uttered. Clorinda’s thoughts overflowed, and you couldn’t hold them back. Mr. Harper would have it out with Red, and they’d have to get married.

Jackie said, “You want to get married. Now?

“You bet your life I do.” In the tone, there was no answer.

But everything that Jackie had ever daydreamed about felt shrunken up. All of her expectations were a cause for self-distrust. Even if things like memories never quite came to the surface, tigers and elves and all that mushy stuff. Jackie’s next question was a total giveaway. She felt in Clorinda the rebuff before she made it.

Jackie said, “You still going back to school?”

Clorinda said, “Heck no.” She was done with that. School was a place for idiots. What good was going to school? She turned her bulging sad eyes straight on Jackie. Jackie felt the force. It was like a wheelbarrow emptying bricks. Jackie could not keep her gaze on the other girl’s face. Nothing could be brought to terms, and it could not be summarized. By now, Jackie had had crushes on lots of teachers, and usually what they taught. Sports and mathematics, music, lab. But she sensed the violation toward her friends; it wasn’t what you ought to feel. As there was also a vague connection with the boys she liked in alleys. It was a transgression that she couldn’t tell. Doing the way you felt was always forbidden. But just assuming that frame of mind was indulgent and wrong.

Considering the way that Clorinda felt.

What Jackie liked, Clorinda hated.

People could vanish from your life and maybe not come back. And yet, Clorinda sat there like a big stuffed avenging angel. Was she in love with Red? It didn’t matter to Clorinda (Jackie thought) if she was, or not.

The lamp seemed muddier, draining. Through the dim curtains were shreds of dawn.

Clorinda gave a yawn.

She said, “How long you going to stay?”

Jackie said, “I don’t know. I’ve got to go and do some things. I thought I might get a bus tomorrow. They gave a round trip back.”

Clorinda got up and lumbered toward the door.

She said, “If Red don’t marry me, my Dad’ll beat him up.”

Jackie almost did not say anything. The idea of Mr. Harper hitting anybody did not seem true.

She said, “I hope—” hesitating. “I hope he won’t.”

Clorinda shifted her eyes, pityingly.

“We got different ideas. You want the light put out?”

Jackie said yes.

She pulled the covers up. She looked around the room after Clorinda left. By the bureau she caught sight of something she’d noticed before. Kevin had cut out some newspaper pictures of dogs and tacked them on the wall. It didn’t mean anything. Jackie felt submerged. Nothing would have helped. Even if she’d been smart and called Clorinda another name. All that had been told seemed boring as the moon. And what Jackie had talked out, too. It didn’t mean anything.

She tried to wonder what it meant. It was like one of those old-fashioned stories that just went on and on. And nothing new to learn. Why was she going home? Jackie saw no point. There was no reason for going back. Or to stay at Clorinda’s either. There ought to be someplace else that wasn’t here or home.

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading