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Sweeter Than the Flesh of Birds


ISSUE:  Autumn 1962

“After all,” Jane said, “it is my own money. It isn’t as if I were taking anything away from you or the children.”

Her husband sighed and shrugged, wounded by misapprehension and misunderstanding. They were in the kitchen having breakfast, a white, bright, tidy, pleasant place in the morning sunlight. She was sitting at the table, still wearing her wrapper, but her hair was neatly brushed in place and her face was made up for the day. She was a woman who found neatness and control easy. She would not lose her outward composure, her quiet and tested certitude if at that moment a loud bugle at the end of the block had proclaimed the Judgment Day.

Howard stood next to the stove, sipping his coffee that was too hot to drink in a hurry. But, of course, he was in a hurry, and it showed all over him from the little stains of dried mud (from yesterday’s rain storm) on the tips of his shoes to the tiny fleck of shaving soap just below his left car. She could see it all at a glance and she knew that he could feel, as always, her calm, objective scrutiny of him. Naked or clothed, drunk or sober, he wasn’t likely to cause her to raise her eyebrows. Not that she was judging him. She made no evaluation. She simply saw things as they were. She simply looked and saw him exactly as he was this morning and would be so many others.

Around them swirled the relentless shrill action of the two children getting ready for school, bolting breakfast, looking for books and mittens. But this was habitual as well. The truth is that Jane and Howard might just as well have been on a desert island a little larger than the stove, along with a single stylized palm tree and their thoughts.

They always moved into this kind of intense and bitter vacuum when they had to deal with the problem of John.

“It’s your money all right,” Howard said. “And you’re free as a bird to spend it any way you want to. That’s not the point.”

“If it isn’t the money, what is the point?”

“I don’t really care about the money,” he said. “I wouldn’t care even if it had to come out of our own savings or household money or what have you. It’s the idea of the thing that worries me.”

At this she smiled. It was a pleasant, knowing smile that wouldn’t be named a sign of sarcasm by a stranger.

“I suppose,” she said, “you see it as a matter of principle.”

He had finished his coffee now and had his back to her as he bent over the white sink to rinse out the cup.

“No, I don’t quite mean that. What kind of an argument could I come up with against charity in principle?”

“It isn’t charity. It isn’t as if John were a beggar with his palm stuck out.”

“I think beggar would be a charitable word for it. Maybe you’d prefer parasite or confidence man? Personally I’m inclined to favor bum.”

Howard always looked more attractive to her, at once more manly and forceful when he had been needled into fighting back on her own terms. At another time except breakfast they might have gone on, beginning to quarrel mildly enough as now, but moving on by a kind of intricate, emotional disrobing into naked open rage that might end anywhere, as likely as not in some act or office of love. But it was the morning. The children had to get off to school and be had to go to work.

“That’s the trouble with you,” she said. “You just don’t understand how it is with a close family.”

“Oh, I had a perfectly normal family,” he said. “It was a mere and fortunate geographical accident that it didn’t turn out to be a Southern family.”

“More’s the pity.”

Then they both laughed because this little turn in the argument, though as real and thorny a boundary between them as a strand of barbwire, signified by the accumulated rules and precedents of the game that the discussion was over.

So they laughed at each other, reserving judgment for another time, and then in a breathless moment they were all gone leaving her alone in the house. Howard kissed her and ran out of the back door toward the garage, hat on the back of his head, buttoning his overcoat as he went. The children clattered once more around the kitchen in a jerky dance and galloped off like a pair of heavy ponies slamming the front door with window-shaking finality behind them. She was left alone with a second cup of coffee and time to think ahead with pleasure and some amusement about what her brother John would be needing the money for this time and how he would go about wheedling it out of her. John was ten years older. If he had fumbled through three marriages in less time than it had taken most men to discover the woe of one, if he had already failed in more schemes, projects, businesses, and ordinary jobs than it was worth counting, it had not always been so. Far from it. In the beginning he had seemed blessed with the pure shine of luck, hound for success. Her most vivid memory of him this morning was almost chivalric in its persistent and abstract beauty. She was only a girl then and John was away at the State University. They had all driven over to see him play in the homecoming game. She drank coffee in a paper cup that morning, her first coffee, because there was nothing else, and then with the strange warm feeling inside her and the sweet taste on her tongue, she sat in the stadium and saw him make three spectacular touchdowns against Georgia Tech, a lean, small whirling dervish in the gaudy orange and blue uniform of the University, dainty-footed, agile, dancing across the clipped green field with its freshly chalked yardlines, a field so green and flat it might have held the armored knights of Sir Walter Scott. (Later, in college herself, she would read the “Faerie Queene” and incongruously picture all those allegorical adventures on just such a field.)

She had been an awkward, plain, growing girl then, and he had been the laughing, dauntless, magical, imperious emblem of all possible fulfillment.

They waited quietly in the long shadows by the field house after the game. When be came out he was in a laughing, back-slapping broil of the other players and the heavy, jowly alumni with their hats and cigars. But he broke free of them too and sprinted over, took her up in bis hands and tossed her high and light as a doll for one dizzying instant in the air, caught her and set her down as lightly as a leaf falling.

“How’s my baby girl? How did you like that, Janey girl?”

For that moment and some others like it she would never cease to be grateful. Nor would she ever be able to forgive him now. She would not let anything change it for her, though, not even when he was expelled from the University only a few months later for cheating—that caused some gnashing of teeth at home—not even when, over the years, be seemed determined to follow his vocation as a swaggering, arrogant, foolish, and weak buffoon, Not even now, when she was a grown woman with children of her own. It gave a kind of bitter sweetness to all her old memories now that the world was so new and changed.

She finished her coffee and looked at the kitchen clock. She would have to get busy. Even though the house was always as neat as a ship, there were little things to he done. She wanted the whole place as neat and dustless as a good museum when John arrived.

Even though he had said on the phone that he would be by “sometime in the middle of the morning,” he came at noon to be in time for lunch. She had counted on that and had a good luncheon ready for him.

John seemed a little shabbier, softer, fleshier, bolder, and grayer than the last time, but he still had an easy smile, a winning smile. (Often, after he was gone, that would he the only memory he left behind, like the vanishing Cheshire cat.) They had moved since he had come last. Howard bad moved up and they had moved farther out into the suburbs. So she showed him all around the house and he ably and tactfully noticed the nice things she had done with the place. She offered him a drink before lunch and was somehow pleased when he declined even though his color, the little veins around his nose and a tremor of the fingers showed he was begging for one. She was amused, but deeply pleased too because his abstinence seemed to prove the ritual importance of the occasion to him. Of course, before he went back to the City, beginning at some bar near the station and continuing on the Club Car, he would more than make up for it. But, for the time being at least, he was willing to deny himself and pretend to her. Strangely, it did not make her ashamed of him in the least.

During lunch he managed to approach the subject boldly.

“I’d say it looks like the best chance I’ve had in a coon’s age,” he was saying. “Silberman says it’s a sure thing.”

“Silberman?”

“My partner.”

“Oh, I see. And what does this Mr. Silberman have to offer besides sage advice and counsel?”

“It isn’t the way you think, Jane. Silberman is giving me a great chance. He could give it to anybody else, but he likes me. He wants to help me. We get along and he’s doing me a favor.”

“No doubt,” she said. “No doubt this Silberman has an inbred charitable disposition.”

“Let’s leave him out of it then.”

“Why? Why leave him out? It’s his idea, isn’t it?”

“You’re a wonder,” John said, laughing.

“Well, isn’t it?”

“You don’t even know what the plan is. You don’t even know anything about Silberman except his name. And already you’re ready to pass judgment on the whole thing.”

“You’ll have to admit, John, that I have had a certain amount of vicarious experience with these ‘things’ in the past.”

“This is different,” he sard. “Just let me tell you about it.”

“I really don’t want to know,” she told him. “Spare me the sordid details of the Silberman-Singletree Treasure Hunt. Just let me go to my desk and write out a cheek for what you need—if I have enough in the bank.”

She rose from the dining room table and went to her writing desk in the living room. She opened her checkbook and sat waiting with her pen poised. He followed and stood behind her, looking over her shoulder.

“How much do you think you need?”

“You really would give me a check right now, without even knowing what for, wouldn’t you?”

“Haven’t I always? Have I ever let you down?”

“Not exactly,” he said.

“How do you mean that—not exactly?” She twisted around to look at him.

“Look,” he said. “You offered me a drink before lunch. Could I have one now?”

“Just tell me how much money you want.”

He sighed and turned away, looked out of a window at the yard.

“What would you say,” he said softly, “if I told you I didn’t come here just for money?”

“I’d probably say you were lying.”

“Suppose what I really wanted was your blessing and not a dime?”

“There’s an old proverb,” she said. “It goes: ‘Beware of lying, for it is sweeter than the flesh of birds’.”

Inexplicably John laughed. His laughter was sudden, loud, and crude in the dustless, well-kept room.

“God almighty, Jane! Where did you get that one?”

She shut her checkbook, put the top back on her pen, closed the desk and stood up. She was stiff with stilled anger.

“I will be happy to give you what I can,” she said. “I am happy to do what I can if you will just tell me how much.”

“I’m sure you are,” he said. “Now that we’re talking about the truth, I’m sure you are happy to give me the money.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“I guess it means I don’t want it this time. I guess it means I’d rather go back empty banded and face Silberman and get the immemorial horselaugh rather than take another check from you.”

“You’re getting so proud in middle age.”

“Proud?” he said. “Pride, that is it, isn’t it? You’ll let a man have anything, anything under the sun except his pride. Lord, I’m just the ne’er-do-well brother. What kind of a life does poor Howard have around here?”

“That’s quite enough,” she said, white-faecd with anger, feeling her hands tremble a little and hating herself for it.

“I’m sorry,” he said in a moment. “You know I didn’t really mean that.” Then: “Maybe I will have that drink now, if you don’t mind.”

“Help yourself.”

He poured himself a drink and then they sat down and chatted easily about the family. He had been out of touch with everybody and she told him all the news. Soon it was nearly time for his train and she called a taxi for him. They did not mention the check or the reason he had come to see her again. Rut when the taxi tooted its horn and he was at the door saying goodbye, she gave him a ten dollar bill. She stuffed it into his coat pocket and saw his eyes film with quick tears before he turned from her and ran, still lightfooted, after all, still curiously graceful, down the walk to the cab.

She shut the door and leaned back again it, breathing deeply. John would be back. He would came back again all right. Or maybe he would not come; he would write and then she could send a check in the mail.

Now she was alone again. In an hour or so the children would be borne from school. She had an hour to read or sew or write letters or phone somebody. But she felt tired, beyond doing anything.

She climbed the stairs and went into their bedroom, rummaged in her bureau drawers until she found what she was looking for—a yellowing snapshot of herself at the age of ten, a plain girl with pigtails, short skirt, skinny legs (one with a bandage) and bony knees, a sad little girl with an apprehensive, frightened look. She looked at herself in the picture and wept for herself and all the tricks and ravages of time, silently and hopelessly.

But when she raised her bead and saw herself in the mirror, already red-eyed and puffy from weeping, she put the picture back where she had found it. She went into the bathroom to wash her face and be ready for the children when they came home. Maybe she could take them somewhere. Perhaps they could read a story or play games. She really ought to think of something nice to do for them this afternoon.

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