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That Tree

ISSUE:  Summer 1934

He had really wanted to be a cheerful bum lying under a tree in a good climate, writing poetry. He wrote bushel basketsful of poetry and it was all no good and he knew it, even while he was writing it. Knowing his poetry was no good did not take away much from his pleasure in it. He would have enjoyed just that kind of life: no respectability, no responsibility, no money to speak of, wearing worn-out sandals and a becoming, if probably ragged, blue shirt, lying under a tree writing poetry. That was why he had come to Mexico in the first place. He had felt in his bones it was the place for him. Long after he had become a quite important journalist, an authority on Latin-American revolutions and a best seller, he confessed to any friends and acquaintances who would listen to him—he enjoyed this confession, it gave him a chance to talk about the thing he believed he loved best, the idle free romantic life of a poet—that the day Miriam kicked him out was the luckiest day of his life. She had left him, really, packing up suddenly in a cold quiet fury, stabbing him with her elbows when he tried to put his arms around her, now and again cutting him to the bone with a short sentence expelled through her clenched teeth; but he felt that he had been, as he always explained, kicked out. She had kicked him out and it had served him right.

The shock had brought him to himself as if he had been surprised out of a long sleep. He had sat quite benumbed in the bare clean room, among the straw mats and the painted Indian chairs Miriam hated, in the sudden cold silence, his head in his hands, nearly all night. It hadn’t even occurred to him to lie down. It must have been almost daylight when he got up stiff in every joint from sitting still so long, and though he could not say he had been thinking, yet he had formed a new resolution. He had started out, you might almost say that very day, to make a career for himself in journalism. He couldn’t say why he had hit on that, except that the word would impress his wife, the work was just intellectual enough to save his self-respect such as it was, and even to him it seemed a suitable occupation for an active real man. His wife had said, “Parasite!” She had said, “Ne’er-do-well!” And he had translated these relatively genteel epithets instantly into their proper synonyms of Loafer! and Bum! Miriam had been a school teacher, and no matter what her disappointments and provocations may have been, you could not expect her easily to forget such discipline. Besides, she really was a properly brought up girl; not a prissy bore, not at all, but a—well, there you are, a nicely brought up girl who took life seriously. And what can you do about that? She was really sweet and gay and full of little crazy notions, but never at the moment when they might really have meant something. She was never able to see the amusing side of a threatening situation which, taken seriously, would ruin everything. No, her sense of humor never worked for salvation. It was just an extra frill on what would have been a good time anyhow.

He wondered if any of us had ever thought how impossible it is to explain or make other people see the special qualities in the person you love. There was such a special kind of beauty in Miriam. In certain lights and moods he simply got a kind of clutch in the pit of his stomach when he looked at her. He thought there was something to be said for living with one person day and night the year round. It brings out the worst, but it brings out the best too, and Miriam’s best was pretty damn swell. He couldn’t describe it. It was easier to talk about her faults. Three years he had lived with her and he couldn’t tell to this day why he had ever wasted a minute on her. She wasn’t beautiful in his style. He confessed to a weakness for the kind that knocks your eye out. You could have put her mind in a peanut shell. She hadn’t temperament of the kind he’d got used to in the Mexican girls. But there was something about her. In cold blood he could size her up to himself. But it made him furious if anyone even hinted a criticism against her. His second wife had made a point of disparaging Miriam. In the end, he would almost be willing to swear this had led to his second divorce. He could not bear hearing Miriam called a mousy little nit-wit—at least not by that woman. . . .

Both of us jumped nervously at an explosion in the street, the backfire of an automobile.

“Another revolution,” said the fat, red young man in the tight purplish suit, at the next table. He looked like a parboiled sausage ready to burst from its skin. It was an old joke, but he was trying to look as if he had invented it.

The journalist glanced back at him over a sloping shoulder. “Another one of those smart-cracking newspaper guys,” he said, in a tough voice, too loudly on purpose. “Sitting around the Hotel Regis lobby wearing out the spittoons.”

The smart-cracker swelled visibly and turned a darker red. “Who do you think you’re talking about, you banjo-eyed chinless wonder, you?” he asked explicitly.

“Somebody way up, no doubt,” said the journalist, in his natural voice. “Somebody in with the government, I bet.”

“Dyuhwanna fight?” asked the newspaper man, trying to unwedge himself from between the table and his chair, which was against the wall.

“Oh, I don’t mind,” said the journalist, “if you don’t.”

The newspaper man’s friends laid soothing paws all over him and held him down. “Don’t start anything with that shrimp,” said one of them, his wet pink eyes trying to look sober. “For crisesake, Joe, can’t you see he’s about half your size and a feeb to boot?”

“I’ll feeb him,” said the newspaper man, wiggling faintly under restraint.

“Genlemans, genlemans,” urged the little Mexican waiter, “Genlemans, there are ladies and genlemans present. Plees not to dispute.”

“Who the hell are you, anyhow?” the newspaper man asked the journalist, from under his shelter of hands, around the thin form of the waiter.

“Nobody you’d wanta know, Joe,” said another of his pawing friends. “Pipe down now before these greasers turn in a general alarm. You know how liable they are to go off when you least expect it. Pipe down now, Joe! Now you remember what happened the las’ time, Joe. Whaddayah care, anyhow?”

“Genlemans,” said the little waiter, working his thin, outspread, mahogany-colored hands up and down alternately as if they were on sticks. “It is necessary it must cease or the genlemans must remove themself.”

It did cease; it seemed to evaporate like a fog. The four newspaper men at the next table subsided, cluttered in a circle with their heads together, muttering into their highballs. The journalist went on talking, in a low voice.

He never had liked this café, never had any luck in it. Something always happened here to spoil his evening. If there was one brand of bum on earth he despised, it was a newspaper bum. He just happened to know that the hum at the next table was about due to be deported. It had been pretty safe to make that crack about the government. He thought that would settle him. One evening he had come here with Miriam for dinner and dancing, and at the very next table sat four fat generals from the North, with oxhorn mustaches and big bellies and big belts full of cartridges and pistols. It was in the old days just after Obregón had taken the Capital, and the town was crawling with generals. These four were having an argument very quietly, their mean little eyes boring into each other’s faces. He and his wife were dancing within arm’s length of the table when one of the generals got up suddenly, tugging at his pistol, which stuck, and the other three jumped up and grabbed him, all without a word; everybody in the place saw it. So far there was nothing unusual. The point was, every right-minded Mexican girl on the dance floor just grabbed her man firmly by the waist and spun him around until his back was to the generals, holding him before her like a shield, and there the whole roomful had stood frozen for a second, the music dead. But his wife had broken from him and hidden under a table. He had to drag her out by the arm before everybody. She didn’t even want to come out after it was all over. It had been the most utterly humiliating moment of his whole blighted life. He had thought he couldn’t survive to pick up their things from the cloak room and get her out of there. The generals had all sat down again and everybody went on dancing as though nothing had happened.

He had tried, for hours that night and off and on for nearly a year, to explain to her how he felt about it. She could not understand at all. Sometimes she said it was all perfect nonsense. At other times she said it had never occurred to her to save her life at his expense. She thought that such tricks were all very well for these Mexican girls who had only one idea in their heads and would take any chance to hold a man closer than they should, but she could not for the life of her see why he should want her to imitate them. Besides, she had felt safer under the table. It was her first and only thought. He told her a bullet might very well have gone straight through the wood; a plank was no protection at all, a human torso was as good as a feather pillow to stop a bullet. She kept saying it simply never occurred to her to do anything else, and that it really had nothing to do with him at all. He could never make her see his point of view for a moment. It should have had something to do with him. All those Mexican girls knew exactly what they should do; they were born knowing it, they did it instantly, and his wife had merely proved once for all that her instincts were somehow out of tune. When she tightened her mouth to bite her lips and say “Instincts!” she could make it sound like the most obscene word in any language. It was truly a shocking word on her lips.

He was surprised at the change in her since he had first met her in Minneapolis and chose to believe it had been caused by her teaching school. He told her he thought it the most deadly occupation there was and a law should be passed prohibiting pretty women under thirty-five years of age from taking it up. She reminded him they were living on the money she had earned at it. They had been engaged for three years. While she was in Minneapolis saving up her money and filling a trunk with linen, he had been living in Mexico City with an Indian girl who posed for a set of painters he knew. He had a job teaching English in one of the Technical Schools. Damned odd, he had been a school teacher, too, but he had never thought of it in that way till this minute. The Indian girl had a baby, but it made very little difference; a baby or two more or less, you know how they are. Later on she was taken up by one of the famous painters and grew very sophisticated and a “character,” but at that time she was still simple and nice. When the time came for Miriam to come out and marry him, the girl had gone away very cheerfully—too cheerfully, he thought afterwards—with a new man. She had come back in three days to say she was at last going to get married honestly, and she felt he should give her the furniture for her dowry. He had helped her pile it on the backs of two Indian carriers and the girl had walked away with the baby’s head dangling out of her shawl. Of course she hadn’t got married; she had never even thought of it.

When Miriam arrived the place was practically empty, because he hadn’t been able to save a peso. After she sized up the situation, she cried intermittently for the first few weeks and was pretty miserable, but she had come all that way to marry after three years’ planning and she couldn’t see herself going back and facing the music at home. She knew nothing of the Indian girl, and believed, or professed to believe, that he was virgin as she was at their marriage. She hadn’t much curiosity and her moral standards were severe, so that she made it impossible for him ever to take her into his confidence about his past. She simply took it for granted in the most irritating way that he hadn’t any past worth talking about except the three years they were engaged, and that, of course, they already shared. His intention to play the role of a man of the world initiating an innocent but interestingly teachable bride was nipped in the bud. He couldn’t even play the role of a poet. She kept him too straitly to the chalk line of a marriage in which pleasure above all must be restrained to conform to mutual virtue.

The thing that got him down finally was Miriam’s devilish inconsistency. She spent three years writing him how dull and dreadful and commonplace her life was, how sick and tired she was of petty little conventions and amusements, how narrow-minded everybody around her was, how she longed to live in a beautiful, dangerous place among interesting people who painted and wrote poetry, and how his letters came into her stuffy little world like a breath of free mountain air, and all that. He had something of a notion he was freeing a sweet bird from a cage: once freed, she would perch gratefully on his hand. Then she came out with a two-hundred-pound trunk of linen and enough silk underwear to last her a lifetime, you might have thought, expecting to settle down in a modern steam-heated flat and have nice artistic young couples from the American colony in for dinner Wednesday evenings.

He had lost his teaching job almost immediately. The Minister of Education, who was a patron of the school superintendent, was put out of office suddenly, and of course every soul in his party down to the school janitors went out with him; and there you were. After a while you learn to take such things calmly. You wait until your man gets back in the saddle, or you work up an alliance with the new one. . . . Whichever . . . Miriam was not interested in politics or the movement of history. She could see nothing but that he had lost his job. So they lived on Miriam’s savings eked out with birthday and Christmas checks from her father, who kept threatening to come for a visit, in spite of Miriam’s letters telling him how horrible the country was, Miriam went on holding her nose when she went to the markets, and trying to cook wholesome civilized American food over a charcoal brazier, and doing the washing in the patio over a stone tub with a cold water tap; and everything that had seemed so jolly and natural with the Indian girl was too damnifying for words with Miriam.

She would not have an Indian servant around her: they were dirty and besides how could she afford it? Yet he could not see why she despised and resented housework so, especially since he offered to help. He had thought it rather a picnic to wash a lot of gayly colored Indian crockery outdoors in the sunshine, with the bougainvillea climbing up the wall and the heaven tree in bloom. Not she. She despised him for thinking it a picnic. He remembered for the first time his mother doing the housework when he was a child. There were half a dozen assorted children, her work was hard and endless, but she went about it with quiet certainty, a happy, absorbed look on her face, as if her hands were working automatically while her imagination was away playing somewhere. “Ah, your mother!” said his wife, without any particular emphasis. He felt horribly injured, as if she were insulting his mother and calling down a curse upon her for bringing such a son into the world. . . . No doubt about it, Miriam had force; that is to say, she could end by making her personality, which no one need really respect, felt in a bitter, sinister way. She had a background, and solid earth under her feet, and a strong spine: even when she danced with him he could feel her tense controlled hips and her locked knees, which gave her dancing a most attractive strength and lightness without any yielding or softness at all. But something had happened to her. She had missed being beautiful. It wasn’t in her. He began to cringe when she reminded him that if he were an invalid she would cheerfully work for him and take care of him, but he appeared to be in the best of health, he was not even looking for a job, and he was still writing that poetry, which was the last straw. She called him a failure. She called him worthless and shiftless and trifling and faithless. She showed him her ruined hands and asked him what she had to look forward to, and told him again—and again—that she was not used to associating with the simply indescribably savage and awful persons who kept streaming through the place. Moreover, she had no intention of getting used to it. He tried to tell her that these persons were the best painters and poets and what-alls in Mexico, and that if she would learn to speak Spanish she could appreciate them better. She said, “Spanish I Let them learn to speak English!”

All this began to damage him seriously. Miriam had become an avenging fury, yet he could not condemn her. His old-fashioned, respectable middle-class, hard-working American ancestry and training rose up in him and fought on Miriam’s side. He felt that he had broken about every bone in him to get away from it and live it down, and here he was overtaken at last and beaten into a submission that had nothing to do with his will or his heart. It was as if his bloodstream had betrayed him. The prospect of taking a job and being a decent little clerk with shiny pants and elbows—for he couldn’t think of a job in any other terms—seemed like a kind of premature death which would not even compensate him with loss of memory. He didn’t do anything about it at all. He did odd jobs and picked up a little money, but never enough. He could see her side of it. At least he tried to. So he might have just gone on to some unimaginable end if she hadn’t written home for money, packed up, called him a few farewell names, and left.

She did him a great favor without knowing it. He had persuaded himself that they loved each other and so he had not really minded anything she said, but after she was gone remembered phrases and expressions of her mouth and eyes began to eat into his marrow. He was grateful to her. If she had not gone, he might have loitered on, wasting his time writing bad poetry, hanging around dirty picturesque little cafes with clever talkative young Mexicans who were either painting or writing or thinking about getting ready to paint or write. He knew well enough they were not bums: they worked all the time at something to do with Art, but try telling that to Miriam! Somehow he had never got to that tree he meant to lie down under. He had spent a good deal of time lying under tables at Dinty Moore’s or the Black Cat with a gang of Americans like himself who were studying the native customs. He was rehearsing, he tried to tell Miriam, for lying under a tree later on. It didn’t go over. She would have died with her boots on before she would have cracked a smile at that. So then . . . He had gone in for a career in the hugest sort of way. Except for her, he would have been a lousy failure, like those bums at Dinty Moore’s, still rolling under the tables, studying the native customs. He had gone in for a career—in journalism—and he had succeeded at it. He was a recognized authority on revolutions in twenty-odd Latin-American countries, and he could write about them. It was the kind of success you can cut out of newspapers and paste in a book, you can count it and put it in the bank and see it in people’s eyes at tea and dinner parties. On the strength of all this, he had got married again. Twice, in fact; and divorced twice. That made three times. That was plenty. He had spent a good deal of time and energy doing all sorts of things he didn’t care for in the least to prove to his first wife, who had been a twenty-three-year-old school teacher in Minneapolis, Minnesota, that he was not just merely a bum, fit for nothing but lying under a tree—if he had ever been able to locate that ideal tree he had in his mind’s eye—writing poetry, and enjoying himself.

Now he had done it. . . . He smoothed out the letter he had been turning in his hands and stroked it as if it were a cat. She had written and asked him to take her back. And would you believe it, he was going to do that very thing. He had that morning sent her by telegraph the money to travel on, and he was going to take her back. But he wasn’t going to marry her again. Not he. If she wanted to live with him, well and good. If not, she could just go back to that school of hers in Minneapolis. Her father was dead, no danger of a row there. If she stayed, she would walk a straight line all right, one that she hadn’t drawn for herself. He picked up a cheese knife and drew a long thin line in the checkered table-cloth. She would, believe him, walk that.


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