I was christened Faith Marie after my mother’s favorite sister, who died of Parkinson’s disease the week before her 18th birthday, and whose memory has been preserved with stories of her courage and kindness that always inspired me as a girl. “The good die young,” my mother used to sigh, whenever she mentioned Auntie Fay, and the saying always worried me. I wanted to be good. It was the one success I could imagine. While I was young, I tried to be as good as I could be, and for as long as my father lived, I gave him little trouble. I was his pride, my mother used to say. If he hadn’t died of a stroke in his sleep that Sunday afternoon ten years ago, my life would never have taken the turn it did.
Were father and mother alive today, I know we’d be living just the same as always. We’d be rising at six and retiring at eleven seven days a week. Father would be winning at checkers, gin rummy, and hearts, and mother and I would still be trying to beat him. On Thursday nights we’d eat out at one of the same three restaurants we always went to, and father would be manager of Loudon Bank and Trust, where he hardly missed a day for 30 years. Wherever he went, he’d be making a grand impression with the profound conviction of his voice and the power of his penetrating eyes, which could see right into a man. And all the anger in him, which he rarely expressed, would still be stored at the back of his eyes or in the edge of his voice, so that even when he laughed you’d know he wasn’t relaxed. He never was relaxed, no matter how he tried. I know I’d be dressed like a proper school girl, conservative and neat in cotton or wool dresses, never pants, my long hair pinned at the sides and rippling down my back or tied up in a braid for church or holidays or dinners out, but never short and boyish the way I wear it now. I’d be odorless and immaculate as ever, without an inkling of a body. And people would still be saying what a graceful girl I was. The way I moved was more like floating. The way I’d walk across our lawn, carrying a frosted glass of mother’s minted tea out to the hammock where father read his evening paper in the summer before dinner. Sipping his drink and surveying the mowed yard and trimmed bushes and ever blooming flowers (which were my mother’s work), he’d tousle my hair and sigh, “Now this is the life,” as if he nearly believed it. Listening to him, I know I’d be as pale as ever with the face of a girl who lives as much in books as in the world. And I’d feel as far removed from father and that yard as if each page of history or poetry I’d ever read were another mile I’d walked away from home, and each word I learned another door that closed behind me. Though I’d know, no matter what I read, that my mind would never countermand my conscience or overrule my heart. Looking at me, my father’s eyes would turn as warm as ever, the way they only seemed to do when he looked at me. Not even at my mother, whose whole mind and heart had been amended, geared to please him, would he ever look that way without a trace of anger or suspicion. But when he’d look at me I’d see the love he’d never put in words and the faith I’d never disappoint him. I hoped I never would. To keep the peace, his, my mother’s and my own, was such a need I had that had they lived I’m sure the three of us would have passed from Christmas to Christmas, through the dips and peaks of every year, like a ship that’s traveling the same circle where the view is always familiar.
I remember one Sunday father and I were walking home from church all finely dressed and fit to impress whomever we passed. We crossed the green at the center of town and were approached by a pretty girl no more than 20, who was singing at the top of her voice. She smiled at us as she went by, leaving a strong soprano trill in our ears. I wasn’t surprised when father turned to look at her, outraged. “Now that’s the kind of bitch I’d like to see run out of town,” he said. I knew he’d say the same to mother or me if we ever crossed or disappointed him. Because he couldn’t tolerate the slightest deviation from his rules. He loved me with all of his heart on the condition that I please him.
Poor mother couldn’t live without father. He’d been the center of her life for 30 years. Unlike father, whose beliefs were sacred to him, she had no strong opinions of her own. When he died, she wept with fear as much as grief, as if his death had been a shattering explosion that left our house and town in ruins. She sat all day in his easy chair and couldn’t be moved, as if all of her habits as well as her heart were permanently broken. My words and tears never touched her. Exactly like the garden flowers she used to cut to decorate the house, she faded a little more each day. And it was only two months after father was gone that she was laid beside him. She was buried in June, the week before our high school graduation.
Compton people who wouldn’t speak to me today were concerned and kind when mother died. There were several families that offered me a home. But I was 18, old enough to be on my own, and more at ease in the drawing rooms of novels than I’d ever be in any Compton house. Today there are many in town who believe it was a great mistake, letting me live alone. But I was adamant about it, and I appeared to be as responsible and as mature as any valedictorian of her class is expected to be.
I was as shaken by my parents” death as if the colors of the world had all been changed. Having adjusted myself to my father’s wishes for so many years, I had no other inclination. After he was gone, I continued to live exactly as he would have liked me to. If anything, I was more careful not to hurt him than before, as if in death his feelings had become more sensitive than ever and the burden of his happiness was entirely left to me. After mother’s death and the end of school, I took the first available job in town at Compton library. I was grateful that the work suited me, because I would have taken any job to keep me busy.
Our town of Compton is a tourist town. For three months out of every year the population triples, and Decatur street is a slow parade of bodies and cars that doesn’t end for 90 days. At the end of June, the summer people come. In their enormous yachts and their flashy cars, they arrive. Every year it is a relief to see them come and then a relief to see them go. They are so different from us.
Compton people are short on words. Even in private with their closest kin, the talk is sparse and actions have more meaning. Whenever father was troubled, mother made him a squash pie or one of his other favorites to indicate her sympathy or support. She never asked him to explain. If a man in Compton is well-liked, he’ll never have to buy himself a drink at the taverns. By the little favors, by the number of nods he receives on the street, or by the way he is ignored as much as if he were . dead, he’ll know exactly what his measure is with people. And by the silences, by whether there is comfort or communion in the long pauses between sentences, he’ll know exactly how close he is to an acquaintance. I’ve always known that Compton people were unique. Our women never chattered the way the summer women do, as if there were no end to what they’d say. I’ve seen the summer people’s children awed and muted by the grave reserve and the repressed emotion of a Compton child. And I’ve seen the staring fascination of all Compton with the open manner of the summer people, who wander through the streets at noon, baring their wrinkled thighs, their cleavage and their bulges to the sun for everyone to see—a people whose feelings flash across their faces as obvious and naked as if they had no secrets. As a child, I used to wander down to watch them at the docks. They seemed as alien and entertaining as a circus troupe. At five o’clock, from boat to boat, there was the sound of ice and glasses, the smell of tonic water, shaving lotion, lipstick, and perfume. For evening the women dressed in shocking pink and turquoise, colors bright enough to make a Compton woman blush. There was always laughter interwoven with their conversation, and the liquor made the laughter louder and the talk still freer until the people were leaning into each other’s faces or falling into embraces with little cries of “darling” or “my dear.” And as I watched them, the gaiety, the confidence, and the warmth of these people always inspired me with affection and yearning for the closeness and the freedom that they knew. It wasn’t till I was older I realized that all of their words and embraces brought them no closer to each other than Compton people are—that the distances between them were just as painful and exactly as vast, in spite of the happy illusion they created.
The summer mother died, I walked to work through the crowds to the rhythm of the cash registers, which never stopped ringing till ten o’clock at night in the restaurants and gift shops all along Decatur Street. And all summer the library, which is a busy place in winter, was nearly empty. I sat at the front desk in the still, dark room, listening to the commotion of cars and voices in the streets. And through the windows I could tell the weather in the patch of sky above the heavy laden elms whose leaves were never still, but trembled, bobbed, and shuddered to every slightest nuance of the air. And seemed to capture and proclaim the whole vitality of every day more truly and completely than any self-afflicted human soul could ever hope to render it. I have no other memory of that summer, which disappeared as quickly as it came. But the end of every Compton summer is the same. Even the most greedy merchants are frazzled and fatigued by the daily noise and the rising exuberance of the tourists passing down the coast to home. By then, the beaches and the streets are strewn with cans and papers, as if the town had been a carnival or a zoo, and Compton is glad to see the last of the crowd, whose refuse is only further evidence of the corruption of their pleasure-happy souls.
My first winter alone there were many nights when I cried myself to sleep. I missed my mother’s quiet presence in the house, and the smells which always rose from the warm, little kitchen where she baked or washed or sat across from me on winter afternoons when I came in from school. Even for a Compton woman she was more than usually quiet, so shy that she had no friends. She went to church on Sunday but the rest of the week she hardly left the yard. My father shopped for all of our food to save her the pain of going out in public. If she’d had her way, she’d never have eaten out with us on Thursday nights. But father insisted on it. “She needs the change,” he used to say.
I don’t remember mother ever raising her voice to me in anger. All discipline was left to father. She didn’t often kiss or hug me either. But she used to brush my hair one hundred strokes a night, and I remember the gentle touch of her hands. There were times when her shyness made her seem as self-effacing as a nun, and times when I thought I must be living with a saint, the way she read her Bible daily and seemed to have no selfish desires or worldly needs. She dressed in greys and browns, and her dresses hung loose on her bony frame. Though her face was usually serious if not sad, I always believed she was happy in her life with father and me. She couldn’t do enough for us, particularly father. About her past I only knew that she was born of alcoholic parents who were now both dead, that she’d worshipped her sister, Faith, and that she never corresponded with her other sister, Mary, who lived in California and was also alcoholic. Most often mother didn’t like to reminisce. If I asked her a question she didn’t like, she didn’t answer it. There were some weeks when she spoke so little that if she hadn’t read aloud to me, I hardly would have heard her voice. It was her reading aloud at night that I missed the most after she was gone. It was a habit we kept from before I could read to myself, when to hear her speak page after page was a luxury as soothing and as riveting as any mystery unravelling itself to revelation. It was through the sound of her voice speaking someone else’s words that I knew my mother best.
Many nights I cried with all the fear and passion of the child I was and would ever have remained had I been given a choice. And, with a child’s love, I saw the images of my father and mother rise up in the dark above my bed as clear and painfully defined as the impression they had left upon my heart. For the simplicity of my old life, I also cried. The simple life of a child who wants to please. For I recognized myself among the spinster women of our town, of whom there are many. Women who never leave the houses of their stern fathers and their silent, sacrificing mothers, houses of a kind so prevalent in Compton. Daughters with all of the rebellion driven out of them at an early age, all of the rudeness skimmed away, severely lashed and molded by the father’s anger and the mother’s fear of all the changing values in the sinful world. Many of our Compton spinsters are sensitive, high strung. You can see they were the children who avoided pain, preferred endearments and affection. They rarely gossip the way the married women do. To their mothers and their fathers they are faithful and devoted to the end, loyal to the present and the past, forgetful of the future. So much I see about them now that I didn’t know when I counted myself one of them.
I had one friend from childhood, Mary Everly, who was studying to be a nurse in a city 50 miles away. Though she sometimes wrote to me, she never came home, finding Compton a “stifling” place. I was close to no one else in town. A few months after mother died, the invitations to supper and the concerned calls from neighbors stopped. Like my mother, I was shy. I had no skill at small talk and was relieved to be left in peace. But I analyzed myself the way a lonely person wonders why he is not loved. And I studied my life until I was as far removed from it as if I had been carved and lifted out of Compton and left to hover like a stranger over everything familiar.
Two times I went to visit Father Ardley in his blue-walled office at the vestry, and twice the touch of his thumb on my forehead, where he signed the cross, brought me to tears. I was drawn to the love of the church. I had an unexamined faith in God, but a fear that His demands would be crushing, were I to take them to heart. It was an irrational fear I tried to explain to Father Ardley, whose eyes were as cold as a winter sky while his voice was like the sun warming it. “You are still in mourning Faith,” he said to me. “Such a loss as you’ve suffered can’t be gotten over quickly. You must pray to God and keep yourself busy, child,” he said, though I had never been idle in my life, not ever then or now.
For seven years I was as busy as I could be. My conscience kept me well supplied with tasks, and there is no end to what a person ought to do. I worked at the library. I lived in my father’s house. I baked for the church bazaars. I visited Father Ardley. The summer people came and left as regular as the tides. I had as many warm acquaintances as ever, and I had no close friends. I still wrote letters to Mary Everly, who was now a nurse, married, and living in Cincinnati with her second baby on the way. Though the memory of my parents” love sustained me, and my father’s wishes continued to guide me, time diluted their power to comfort me. Some mornings, walking through the sunny streets to work, the thought of death would take me by surprise, and I knew that mine would mean no more to anyone in town than the sudden disappearance of a picket fence on Elm street or a missing bed of flowers in Gilbey Park.
I never went out with men. Not that I wasn’t attractive. My father used to tell me I was pretty, and Mrs. Beggin at the library said I was a “lovely looking girl” and she couldn’t see why I wasn’t married yet. But Compton men knew different. Something they saw behind my shyness frightened them away. Something my mother and father had never seen. For beneath it all I wasn’t a normal Compton woman, not typical no matter how I tried to be. Whether it was the influence of the summer people or the hours I had escaped in books, I was always “different” as far as Compton men could see, and they were just as strange to me.
It was the eighth summer after mother’s death that I met Billy Tober. I was just 26. William Tober IV, his family had named him. He was a summer boy, four years younger than I, a college student, though his eyes were the shallow blue of a flier or a sailor. I noticed him before he ever noticed me. I’d always see him with a different girl with the same smile on his lips. He began to come to the library many afternoons. He liked poetry and novels, and he’d ask me for suggestions. I was surprised when he began to appear at the end of the day to walk me home. It wasn’t long before we began to meet in the evenings too.
I wish I could say that I remember Billy well, and I wish that I could describe him clearly. But I can’t remember much that he ever said and barely how he looked. I only remember the effect he had upon me. As if I knew how it would end, I never invited him to my house, and I’d only allow him to walk me halfway home, which made him laugh at first. In the evening, I’d meet him at Gilbey Park, which is just outside the center of Compton. It is a pretty hill of bushes, trees, and flowers which overlooks the harbor. On a hidden bench we sat and sipped the wine that Billy always brought. Though I’d never tasted liquor or sat and talked with a young man, I was completely at ease. The wine and dusky out-of-doors loosened my tongue until my hidden thoughts rose up as urgently as if my life depended on telling them. It often surprised me what I said, because whenever I was with Billy I was a different woman, so unlike my usual self I’m sure no one in Compton would have recognized me. It was as natural as breathing, the way I’d change into a giddy girl whenever I was with him. I fed on his flattery and couldn’t get enough of it. “Where did you ever get such hair?” he asked about the curls my mother never let me cut. After that, it was my eyes he noticed. My neck was regal as a queen’s, he said. And there was pride as well as grace in the way I walked. My hands, the smallness of my waist, my legs, my voice he also praised. I couldn’t hear enough. For the month of July, we saw each other every night. At home, I’d often stare for an hour at the stranger in the mirror, this woman with a body that a man desired.
Whatever it is that attracts a man to a woman I’ve too little experience to know. But I believe that for Billy every woman was a challenge. To win her heart as well as her body was his goal. He was as restless and driven a person as I’ve known. Obsession with a woman must have soothed him. He used to tell me that he loved me, but I’m sure that if he’d heard the same from me, his feelings would have died. If I had loved him, I would have told him. He begged me often enough to say it. But I never was able to. “We’re too different,” I insisted. “I’m not myself when I’m with you.” But I gloried in the power he’d given me. I was in love with his desire, which singled me out from all the world and made the world a painless kingdom where I ruled the more he wanted me. We met most nights in August. We drove out to Haskall Beach to a private place I knew. By then we hardly spoke, and there were times, with his breath hot on my face and his voice crying my name, I felt I’d be more comforted and serene if I were sitting there alone and free of all the yearning human arms can cause.
All those nights we spent together, I never took precautions. “Is it safe?” he asked me many times. But I ignored the question, as if it would have been the crowning sin if I’d been careful to prevent any meaning or possibility of love to come out of the fire of vanity and ignited pride which burned between us. Driving back to town, the silence in the car was so oppressive that it taunted us.
The day that Billy left, I felt relieved, and in the weeks that followed, I didn’t miss him once, which surprised me. We wrote no letters to each other. Life went back to normal, and the longer he was gone the more I began to hope I’d never see him again.
When doctor Filser told me I was pregnant, I could see he was surprised the way all Compton would be. I saw the way he looked at me with new, appraising eyes, and I burned to think of all the other eyes that would be privy to scenes of Billy and me on Haskall Beach. For I knew they’d piece it all together down to every detail.
When I told Father Ardley the news, I aimed the words and threw them at him one by one like darts. But his tone was not what I expected. He wasn’t angry with me. “I suppose it was that summer boy you were seeing,” he sighed, and he knew enough not to suggest the marriage he’d have insisted upon had Billy Tober been a Compton boy. Instead, he gave me the name of Brighton Adoption Agency.
For all of the nine months, I carried the child as if it were a sin beyond forgiveness and there was no forgetting or ignoring it. I felt my father’s wrath in every room of the house, and I never visited his or my mother’s graves, knowing the affront it would be. As if they had died again, I felt bereft. I was sure they wanted no part of me now and that I could never turn to them again.
Compton people were not so harsh. One hundred years ago they might have stoned me or run me out of town. Now, as much as they disapproved, they also pitied me. No one tried to deprive me of my job. Though there were some who would no longer speak to me, there were more whose pity moved them to be kinder than before. My humiliation was enough for them and lesson enough for their children. When they saw that my cross was sufficiently heavy, they approved. Even today, times when my heart is light and I’m tempted to laugh in public, I check myself. I know I’ll always be on good behavior in Compton, and the more abject I appear the better off I’ll be.
It is two o’clock, the last day of May, a Saturday, and all of the windows in the house are open for the first time this season. There is a cold breeze coming off the harbor, running through the rooms in currents which break against the walls and boil the curtains halfway to the ceiling. Every year it is the same, the day of opening the windows. The sea wind scours every corner of the house until its heavy atmosphere is broken. All of the memories which hang in odors are borne away until the rooms are only rooms and this woman, dreaming at a littered kitchen table, is just as relieved as if she’d just received communion, left all of her habits at the altar rail, and returned to her pew with no identity but her joy.
It is so quiet. The baby is asleep upstairs under a pink quilt. When he wakes, he will have roses in his cheeks. He is so blonde, his hair is nearly white. He bears no likeness to my family, and yet the night he was born I knew he was mine as surely as these arms or thoughts belong to me. After the pain of labor, as if I had been delivered of all shame, I asked to see the child. When I saw two waving arms, a tiny head, my heart rose up, amazed. And when they put him in my arms, it was love I held, all warmly wrapped, alive.
So many tired-looking mothers you see in Compton. They hardly seem to care how they appear. Wearing shabby clothes, herding their little broods across the streets, worried and snapping orders at them. But a Compton woman never shows her deepest feelings to the world. When Paul was first at home, I used to kiss his little face at least a hundred times a day. Who but an infant or God could stand so much affection? And all of those kisses were just the beginning of love, the first expression of my newly seeded heart which bloomed, expanded, and flowered with every kiss.
At five o’clock I’d pick the baby up from Mrs. Warren who cared for him the hours I worked. We’d ride home on a crowded bus of Compton women in their fifties, carefully dressed, who rested their heavy bodies behind a row of shopping bags. When they saw the child, their eyes grew soft and bright. “What a love,” they’d say, all smiles, and they’d ask his name or age and touch the corner of his blanket so gingerly, with reverence, as if he were to them the fearful treasure he was to me, and they had forgotten all of the strain, the distraction, the heavy weight of care which had exalted them and only remembered how close they once had come to perfect love. I could see them in their kitchens years ago, bathing their babies in the little plastic tubs that Compton mothers use. I could imagine them, once so shy and bending to the will of the town, their fathers, and their husbands, becoming fierce and stubborn, demanding so much satisfaction, comfort, and such happiness for their little ones as they had never dreamed of for themselves.
By now I ought to have the kitchen clean, the wash brought in and folded, and the vegetables picked and washed. It is so rare I sit and dream that when I do the memories come fast and heavy as an avalanche. I’ve known some cynics who remember only pain and ugliness, as if the way a man remembers corresponds with what he hopes. When Paul was born, it changed my past as well as the future. Now, when I look back, I see beauty. The older the memory, the more beautiful it has become. Even moments of great pain or disappointment have been transformed, given an importance and a dignity they never had at the time, as if whatever happens and wherever I have failed may one day be redeemed in the far future. I pray it will be so.