Three Players of a Summer Game by Tennessee Williams
Story originally published in The New Yorker in 1952.
Croquet is a summer game that seems, in a curious way, to be composed of images, very much as a painter’s abstraction of summer or one of its games would be composed of them. The delicate wire wickets set in a lawn of smooth emerald that flickers fierily at some points and rests under violet shadow in others; the wooden poles gaudily painted and like moments that stand out in a season that was a struggle for something of unspeakable important to someone passing through it; the clean and hard wooden spheres of different colors and the strong, rigid shape of the mallets that drive the balls through the wickets; the formal design of those wickets and poles upon the croquet lawn – all this is like a painter’s abstraction of a summer and a game played in it. And I cannot think of croquet without hearing a sound like the faraway booming of a cannon fired to announce a white ship coming into a harbor. The faraway booming sound is that of a green-and-white striped awning coming down over a gallery of a white frame house in Meridian, Mississippi. The house is of Victorian design carried to an extreme of improvisation, an almost grotesque pile of galleries and turrets and cupolas and eaves, all freshly painted white – so white and so fresh that it has the blue-white glitter of a block of ice in the sun. The house is like a new resolution not yet tainted by any defection from it. And I associate the summer game with players coming out of this house with the buoyant air of persons just released from a suffocating enclosure. Their clothes are as light in weight and color as the flattering clothes of dancers. There are three players – a woman, a man, and a little girl.
The voice of the woman player is not at all loud, yet it has a pleasantly resonant quality; it carries farther than most voices, and it is interspersed with peals of treble laughter. The woman player, even more than her male opponent in the game, has the grateful quickness of motion of someone let out of a suffocating enclosure; her motion has the quickness of breath released just after a moment of terror, of fingers unclenched when panic is suddenly past, or of a cry that subsides into laughter. She seems unable to speak or move about moderately; she moves convulsively in rushes, whipping her white skirts with long strides that quicken to running. Her skirts make a faint crackling sound as her pumping thighs whip them open – the sound that comes to you, greatly diminished by distance, when fitful fair-weather gusts belly out and slacken the faraway sails of a yawl. This agreeably cool summer sound is accompanied by another, which is even cooler – the ceaseless, tiny chatter of beads hung in long loops from her throat. They are not pearls but they have a milky lustre; they are small, faintly speckled white ovals – polished bird eggs turned solid and strung upon glittery filaments silver. The woman player is never still for a moment; sometimes she exhausts herself and collapses on the grass in the conscious attitudes of a dancer. She is a thin woman, with long bones and skin of a silky sheen, and her eyes are only a shade or two darker than the blue-tinted bird’s-egg beads about her long throat. She is never still – not even when she has fallen in exhaustion on the grass. The neighbors think she’s gone mad, but they feel no pity for her, and that, of course, is because of her male opponent in the game. This player is Brick Pollitt, a young Delta planter, a man so tall, with such a fiery thatch of hair, that to see a flagpole on an expanse of green lawn or even a particularly brilliant weather vane or cross on a steeple is sufficient to recall that long-ago summer which his legend belongs to.
This male player of the summer game is a drinker who has not yet fallen beneath the savage axe blows of his liquor. He is not so young any more, but he has not yet lost the slim grace of his youth. He is a head taller than the tall woman player. He is such a tall man that even in those sections of the lawn dimmed under violet shadow his head continues to catch fiery rays of the descending sun, the way the heavenward-pointing index finger of a huge gilded hand atop a Protestant steeple in Meridian goes on drawing the sun’s flame for a good while after the lower surfaces of the town have sunk into lingering dusk.
The third player of the summer game is the woman’s daughter, a plump twelve-year-old child named Mary Louise. This little girl has made herself distinctly unpopular among the children of the neighborhood by imitating too perfectly the elegant manners and cultivated Eastern voice of her mother. She sits in an electric automobile, on the sort of fat silk pillow that expensive lap dogs sit on, uttering treble peals of ladylike laughter, tossing her copper curls, using grown-up expressions such as “Oh, how delightful!” and “Isn’t that just lovely!” She sits in the electric automobile sometimes all afternoon, by herself, as if she were on display in a glass box, only now and then raising a plaintive voice to call her mother and ask if it is all right for her to come in now, or if she can drive the electric around the block, which she is sometimes then permitted to do.
Our house was on the opposite corner, and I was the only child close to her age (I was a boy of fourteen) who could put up with her precocious refinements. For a very short time, she had had another friend, a little girl named Dorothea, and the two of them would get into their mothers’ castoff finery and have tea parties on the lawn, but one afternoon Dorothea took umbrage at something, overturned the tea table, and stalked off, chanting a horrid little verse: “Smarty, Smarty, gave a party, Nobody came but a sad old darky!” “Common!” Mary Louise shrieked after her, and they didn’t play together any more. Sometimes she called me over to play croquet with her, but that was only when her mother and Brick Pollitt has disappeared into the house too early to play the game. Mary Louise had a passion for croquet. She played it purely for itself; it did not have for her any shadowy connotations.
What the game meant to Brick Pollitt calls for some further account of Brick’s life before that summer. He had been a celebrated athlete at Sewanee, and had married a New Orleans debutante who was a Mardi Gras queen and whose father owned a fleet of banana boats. It had seemed a brilliant marriage, with lots of wealth and prestige on both sides, but only two years later Brick started falling in love with his liquor, and Margaret, his wife, began to be praised for her patience and loyalty to him. Brick seemed to be throwing his life away, as if it were something disgusting that he had suddenly found in his hands. This self-disgust came upon him with the abruptness and violence of a crash on a highway. But what had Brick crashed into? Nothing that anybody was able to surmise, for he seemed to have everything that young men like Brick might hope or desire to have. What else is there? There must have been something that he wanted and lacked, or what reason was there for his dropping his life and taking hold of a glass that he never let go of for more than one waking hour? His wife, Margaret, took hold of Brick’s ten-thousand-acre plantation. She had Brick’s power of attorney, and she managed all his business affairs with astuteness. “He’ll come out of it,” she would say. “Brick is passing through something that he’ll come out of.” She always said the right thing, took the conventionally right attitude, and expressed it to the world which admired her for it. Everybody admired her as a remarkably fine and brave little woman who had much to put up with. Two sections of an hourglass could not drain and fill more evenly than Brick and Margaret after he took to drink. It was as though she had her lips fastened to some invisible wound in his body through which drained out of him and flowed into her the assurance and vitality that had been his before his marriage. Margaret Pollitt lost her pale, feminine prettiness and assumed in its place something more impressive – a firm and rough-textured sort of handsomeness. Once very pretty but indistinct, a graceful sketch that was done with a very light pencil, she became vivid as Brick disappeared behind the veil of his liquor. She abruptly stopped being quiet and dainty. She was not apt to have dirty fingernails, which she covered with scarlet enamel. When the enamel chipped off, the gray showed underneath. Her hair was now cut short, so that she didn’t have to “mess with it.” It was wind-blown and full of sparkle; she jerked a comb through it, making it crackle. She had white teeth that were a little too large for her thin lips, and when she threw her head back in laughter, strong cords stood out in her smooth brown throat. She had a booming laugh that she might have stolen from Brick while he was drunk or asleep beside her at night. She had a way of releasing the clutch on a car at the exact instant that he laughter boomed out, and of not calling goodbye but of thrusting one bare, strong arm straight out with the fingers clenched as the car shot off in high gear and disappeared into a cloud of yellow dust. She didn’t drive her own little runabout nowadays as much as she did Brick’s Piece-Arrow touring car, for Brick’s driver’s license had been revoked. She frequently broke the speed limit on the highway. The patrolmen would stop her, but she had such an affability, such a disarming way with her, that they would have a good laugh together and there would be no question of a ticket.
Somebody in her family died in Memphis that spring, and she went there to attend the funeral and collect her inheritance, and while she was away, Brick Pollitt slipped out from under her thumb a bit. Another death occurred during her absence. That nice young doctor who took care of Brick when he had to be carried to the hospital took sick in a shocking way. An awful flower grew in his brain, like a fierce geranium – grew and grew and one day shattered its pot. All of a sudden, the wrong words came out of his mouth; he seemed to be speaking in an unknown tongue; he couldn’t find things with his hands; he made troubled signs over his forehead. His wife led him about the house by one hand, yet he stumbled and fell flat; the breath was knocked out of him, and he had to be put to bed by his wife and the Negro yardman; and he lay there laughing weakly, incredulously, trying to find his wife’s hand with both of his while she looked at him with eyes that she couldn’t keep from blazing with terror. He lived on under drugs for a week, and it was during that time that Brick Pollitt came and sat with Isabel Grey by her dying husband’s bed. She couldn’t speak; she could only shake her head incessantly, like a metronome, with no lips visible in her white face but two pressed-narrow bands of a dimmer whiteness that shook as if some white liquid flowed beneath them with a rapidity and violence that made them quiver.
“God” was the only word she was able to say, but Brick Pollitt somehow understood what she meant by that word, as if it were in a language that she and he, alone of all people, could speak and understand. And when the dying man’s eyes opened, as if they were being forced, on something they couldn’t bear to look at, it was Brick, his hands suddenly quite sure and steady, who filled the hypodermic needle for her and pumped its contents fiercely into her husband’s hard young arm. And it was over.
There was another bed at the back of the house, and he and Isabel lay beside each other on that bed for a couple of hours before they let the town know that her husband’s agony was completed, and the only movement between them was the intermittent, spasmodic digging of their fingernails into each other’s clenched palm while their bodies lay stiffly separate, deliberately not touching any other points, as if they abhorred any other contact with each other.
And so you see what the summer game on the violet-shadowed lawn was – it was a running together out of something unbearably hot and bright into something obscure and cool.
The young widow was left with nothing in the way of material possessions except the house and an electric automobile. By the time Brick’s wife, Margaret, had returned from her journey to Memphis, Brick had taken over the various details of the widow’s life that a brother or a relative, if she had had one, would have seen to. For a week or two, people thought it was very kind of him, and then all at once they decided that Brick’s reason for kindness was by no means noble. It appeared that the widow was now his mistress, and this was true. It was true in the limited way that most such opinions are true. She was his mistress, but that was not Brick’s reason. His reason had something to do with that chaste interlocking of hands their first time together, after the hypodermic. It had to do with those hours, now receding and fading behind them, as all such hours must, but neither of them could have said what it was, aside from that. Neither of them was able to think very clearly. But Brick was able to pull himself together for a while and take command of the young widow’s affairs.
The daughter, Mary Louise, was a plump child of twelve. She was my friend that summer. Mary Louise and I caught lightning bugs and put them in Mason jars, and we played croquet when her mother and Brick Pollitt were not inclined to play. It was Mary Louise that summer who taught me how to deal with mosquito bites. She was plagued by mosquitos and so was I. She warned me that scratching the bites would leave scars on my skin, which was as tender as hers. I said that I didn’t care. Someday you will, she told me. She carried with her constantly that summer of lump of ice in a handkerchief. Whenever a mosquito bit her, instead of scratching the bit she rubbed it gently with the handkerchief-wrapped lump of ice until the sting was frozen to numbness. Of course, in five minutes it would come back and have to be frozen again, but eventually it would disappear and leave no scar. Mary Louise’s skin, where it was not temporarily mutilated by a mosquito bite or a slight rash that sometimes appeared after she ate strawberry ice cream, was ravishingly smooth and tender.
The Greys’ house was very run down, but soon after Brick Pollitt started coming over to see the young widow, the house was painted. It was painted so white that it was almost a very pale blue; it had the blue-white glitter of a block of ice in the sun. In spite of his red hair, Brick Pollitt, too, had a cool appearance, because he was still young and thin, as thin as the widow, and he dressed, as she did, in clothes of light weight and color. His white shirts looked faintly pink because of his skin underneath them. Once, I saw him at an upstairs window of the widow’s house just a moment before he pulled the shade down. I was in an upstairs room of my house, and I saw that Brick Pollitt was divided into two colors as distinct as two stripes of a flag, the upper part of him, which had been exposed to the sun, almost crimson and the lower part of him white as this piece of paper.
While the widow’s house was being repainted, at Brick Pollitt’s expense, she and her daughter lived at the Alcazar Hotel, also at Brick’s expense. Brick drove in from his plantation every morning to watch the house painters at work. His driving license had been restored to him, and this was an important step forward in his personal renovation – being able to drive his own car again. He drove with elaborate caution and formality, coming to a dead stop at every cross street in the town, sounding the silver trumpet at every corner, with smiles and bows and great circular gestures of his hands inviting pedestrians to precede him. But people did not approve of what Brick Pollitt was doing. They sympathized with Margaret, that brave little woman who had to put up with so much. As for Dr. Grey’s widow, she had not been very long in the town; the Doctor had married her while he was an interne at a big hospital in Baltimore. Nobody had formed a definite opinion of her before the Doctor died, so it was no effort now simply to condemn her, without any qualification, as a common strumpet.
Brick Pollitt, when he talked to the house painters, shouted to them as if they were deaf, so that all the neighbors could hear what he had to say. He was explaining things to the world, especially the matter of his drinking.
“It’s something that you can’t cut out completely right away,” he would yell up at them. “That’s the big mistake that most drinkers make – they try to cut it out completely, and you can’t do that. You can do it for maybe a month or two months, but all at once you go back on it worse than before you went off it, and then the discouragement is awful – you lose all faith in yourself and just give up. The thing to do, the way to handle the problem is like a bullfighter handles a bull in a ring. Wear it down little by little, get control of it gradually. That’s how I’m handling this thing! Yep. Now, let’s say that you get up wanting a drink in the morning. Say it’s ten o’clock, maybe. Well, you say to yourself, ‘Just wait half an hour, old boy, and then you can have one.’ . . . Well, at half past ten you still want that drink and you want it a little bit worse than you did at ten, but you say to yourself, ‘Boy, you could do without it half an hour ago, so you can do without it now.’ You see, that’s how you got to argue about it with yourself, because a drinking man is not one person. A man that drinks is two people, one grabbing the bottle, the other one fighting him off it – not one but two people fighting each other to get control of a bottle. Well, sir. If you can talk yourself out of a drink at ten, you can still talk yourself out of a drink at half past ten! But at eleven o’clock the need for the drink is greater. Now here’s the important thing to remember about this struggle. You got to watch those scales, and when they tip too far against your power to resist, you got to give in a little. That’s not weakness. That’s strategy! Because don’t forget what I told you. A drinking man is not one person but two, and it’s a battle of wits going on between them. And so I say at eleven, ‘Well, have your drink. Go on and have it! One drink at eleven won’t hurt you!’
“What time is it now? . . . Yep! Eleven . . . All right, I’m going to have me that one drink. I could do without it, I don’t crave it. But the important thing is . . .”
His voice would trail off as he entered the widow’s house. He would stay in there longer than it took to have one drink, and when he came out, there would be a change in his voice as definite as a change of weather or season. The strong and vigorous tone would be a bit filmed over.
Then he would usually begin to talk about his wife. “I don’t say my wife Margaret’s not an intelligent woman. She is, and both of us know it, but she don’t have a good head for property values. Now, you know Dr. Grey, who used to live here before that brain thing killed him. Well, he was my physician, he pulled me through some bad times when I had that liquor problem. I felt I owed him a lot. Now, that was a terrible thing the way he went, but it was terrible for his widow too; she was left with this house and that electric automobile and that’s all, and this house was put up for sale to pay off her debts, and – well, I bought it. I bought it, and now I’m giving it back to her. Now, my wife Margaret, she. And a lot of other folks, too. Don’t understand about this. . . . What time is it? Twelve? High noon! . . . This ice is melted . . .”
He'd drift back into the house and stay there half an hour, and when he’d come back out, it would be rather shyly, with a sad and uncertain creaking of the screen door pushed by the hand not holding the tall glass. But after resting a little while on the steps, he would resume his talk to the house painters.
“Yes,” he would say, as if he had paused only a moment before, “it’s the most precious thing that a woman can give to a man – his lost respect for himself – and the meanest thing one human being can do to another human being is take his respect for himself away from him. I. I had it took away from me.”
The glass would tilt slowly up and jerkily down, and he’d have to wipe his chin.
“I had it took away from me! I won’t tell you how, but maybe, being men about my age, you’re able to guess it. That was how. Some of them don’t want it. They cut it off. They cut it right off a man, and half the time he don’t even know when they cut it off him. Well, I knew it all right. I could feel it being cut off me. Do you know what I mean? . . . That’s right.
“But once in a while there’s one – and they don’t come often – that wants for a man to keep it, and those are the women that God made and put on this earth. The other kind come out of Hell, or out of . . . I don’t know what. I’m talking too much. Sure. I know I’m talking too much about private matters. But that’s all right. This property is mine. I’m talking on my own property and I don’t give a hoot who hears me or what they think! I’m not going to try to fool anybody about it. Whatever I do is nothing to be ashamed of. I’ve been through things that I would rather not mention. But I’m coming out of it now, God damn it, yes, I am! I can’t take all the credit. And yet I’m proud. I’m goddam proud of myself, because I was in a pitiful condition with that liquor problem of mine, but now the worst is over. I’ve got it just about licked. That’s my car out there and I drove it up here myself. It’s no short drive, it’s almost a hundred miles, and I drive it each morning and drive it back each night. I’ve got back my driver’s license, and I fired the man that was working for my wife, looking after our place. I fired that man and not only fired him but give him a kick in the britches that made him eat standing up for the next week or two. It wasn’t because I thought he was fooling around. It wasn’t that. But him and her both took about the same attitude toward me, and I didn’t like the attitude they took. They would talk about me right in front of me, as if I wasn’t there. ‘Is it time for his medicine?’ Yes, they were giving me dope! So one day I played possum. I was lying out there on the sofa and she said to him, ‘I guess he’s passed out now.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, dead drunk at half past one in the afternoon!’ Well. I got up slowly. I wasn’t drunk at that hour, I wasn’t even half drunk. I stood up straight and walked slowly toward him. I walked straight up to them both, and you should of seen the eyes of them both bug out! ‘Yes, Jesus,’ I said, ‘at half past one!’ And I grabbed him by his collar and by the seat of his britches and turkey-trotted him right on out of the house and pitched him on his face in a big mud puddle at the foot of the steps to the front veranda. And as far as I know or care, maybe he’s still laying there and she’s still screaming, ‘Stop, Brick!’ But I believe I did hit her. Yes, I did. I did hit her. There’s times when you got to hit them, and that was one of those times. I ain’t been to the house since. I moved in the little place we lived in before the big one was built, on the other side of the bayou, and ain’t crossed over there since.
“Well, sir, that’s all over with now. I got back my power of attorney which I’d give to that woman and I got back my driver’s license and I bought this piece of property in town and signed my own check for it and I’m having it completely done over to make it as handsome a piece of residential property as you can find in this town and I’m having that lawn out there prepared for the game of croquet.”
Then he’d look at the glass in his hand as if he had just then noticed that he was holding it. He’d give it a look of slightly pained surprise, as if he had cut his hand and just now noticed that it was cut and bleeding. Then he would sigh like an old-time actor in a tragic role. He would put the tall glass down on the balustrade with great, great care, look back at it to make sure that it wasn’t going to fall over, and walk, very straight and steady, to the porch steps and, just as steady but with more concentration, down them. When he arrived at the foot of the steps, he would laugh as if someone had made a comical remark. He would duck his head genially and shout to the house painters something like this: “Well, I’m not making any predictions, because I’m no fortuneteller, but I’ve got a strong idea that I’m going to lick my liquor problem this summer, ha-ha, I’m going to lick it this summer! I’m not going to take no cure and I’m not going to take no pledge. I’m just going to prove I’m a man again! I’m going to do it step by little step, the way that people play the game of croquet. You know how you play that game. You hit the ball through one wicket and then you drive it through the next one. You hit it through that wicket and then you drive on to another. You go from wicket to wicket, and it’s a game of precision – it’s a game that takes concentration and precision, and that’s what makes it a wonderful game for a drinker. It takes a sober man to play a game of precision. It’s better than shooting pool, because a pool hall is always next door to a gin mill, and you never see a pool player that don’t have his liquor glass on the edge of the table or somewhere pretty near it, and croquet is also a better game than golf, because in golf you’ve always got that nineteenth hole waiting for you. Nope, for a man with a liquor problem croquet may seem a little bit sissy, but let me tell you it’s a game of precision. You go from wicket to wicket until you arrive at that big final pole, and then, bang, you’ve hit it, the game is finished, you’re there! And then, and not until then, you can go up here to the porch and have you a cool gin drink, a buck or a Collins. Hey! Where did I leave that glass? Aw! Yeah, hand it down to me, will you? Ha-ha. Thanks.”
He would take a birdlike sip, make a fiercely wry face, and shake his head violently as if somebody had drenched it with water. “This God-damned stuff!”
He would look around to find a safe place to set the glass down again. He would select a bare spot of earth between the hydrangea bushes and deposit the glass there as carefully as if he were planting a memorial tree, and then he would straighten up with a great air of relief and expand his chest and flex his arms. “Ha-ha, yep, croquet is a summer game for widows and drinkers, ha-ha!”
For a few moments, standing there in the sun, he would seem as sure and powerful as the sun itself, but then some little shadow of uncertainty would touch him again, get through the wall of his liquor; some tricky little shadow of thought, as sly as a mouse, quick, dark, too sly to be caught, and without his moving enough for it to be noticed his still fine body would fall as violently as a giant tree crashes down beneath a final axe stroke, taking with it all the wheeling seasons of sun and stars, whole centuries of them, crashing suddenly into oblivion and rot. He would make this enormous fall without a perceptible movement of his body. At the most, it would show in the faint flicker of something across his face, whose color gave him the name people knew him by. Possibly one knee sagged a little forward. Then slowly, slowly, he would fasten one hand over his belt and raise the other one hesitantly to his head, feel the scalp and the hard round bowl of the skull underneath it, as if he dimly imagined that by feeling that dome he might be able to guess what was hidden inside it – facing now the intricate wickets of the summer to come.
For one reason or another, Mary Louise Grey was locked out of the house a great deal of the time that summer, and since she was a lonely child with little or no imagination, apparently unable to amuse herself with solitary games – except the endless one of copying her mother – the afternoons when she was excluded from the house because her mother had a headache were periods of great affliction. There were several galleries with outside stairs between them, and she would patrol the galleries and wander forlornly about the lawn or go down the front walk and sit in the glass box of the electric. She would vary her steps, sometimes walking sedately, sometimes skipping, sometimes hopping and humming, one plump hand always clutching a handkerchief that contained the lump of ice. This lump of ice to rub her mosquito bites had to be replaced at frequent intervals. “Oh, iceman!” the widow would call sweetly from an upstairs window. “Don’t forget to leave some extra pieces for little Mary Louise to rub her mosquito bites with!”
From time to time, Mary Louise would utter a soft cry, and, in a voice that had her mother’s trick of carrying a great distance without being loud, call, “Oh, Mother, I’m simply being devoured by mosquitos!”
“Darling,” her mother would answer from the upstairs window, “that’s dreadful, but you know that Mother can’t help it; she didn’t create the mosquitos and she can’t destroy them for you!”
“You could let me come in the house, Mama.”
“No, I can’t let you come in, precious. Not yet.”
“Why not, Mother?”
“Because Mother has a sick headache.”
“I will be quiet.”
“You say that you will, but you won’t. You must learn to amuse yourself, precious; you mustn’t depend on Mother to amuse you. Nobody can depend on anyone else forever. I’ll tell you what you can do till Mother’s headache is better. You can drive the electric out of the garage. You can drive it around the block, but don’t go into the business district with it, and then you can stop in the shady part of the drive and sit there perfectly comfortably till Mother feels better and can get dressed and come out. And then I think Mr. Pollitt may come over for a game of croquet. Won’t that be lovely?”
“Do you think he will get here in time to play?”
“I hope so, precious. It does him so much good to play croquet.”
“Oh, I think it does us all good to play croquet, Mary Louise would say, in a voice that trembled just at the vision of it.
Before Brick Pollitt arrived – sometimes half an hour before his coming, as though she could hear his automobile on the highway twenty miles from the house – Mary Louise would bound plumply off the gallery and begin setting up the poles and wickets. While she was doing this, her plump little buttocks and her beginning breasts and her shoulder-length copper curls would all bob up and down in unison. I would watch her from our front steps. She worked feverishly against time, for experience had taught her that the sooner she completed the preparations for the game, the greater would be the chance of getting her mother and Mr. Pollitt to play it. Frequently she was not fast enough, or they were too fast for her; by the time she had finished her perspiring job, the veranda would be deserted. Her wailing cries would begin, punctuating the dusk at intervals only a little less frequent than the passing of cars of people going out for evening drives to cool off.
“Mama! Mama! The croquet set is ready!”
Usually there would be a long, long wait for any response to come from the upstairs window toward which the calls were directed. But one time there wasn’t. Almost immediately after the wailing voice was lifted, begging for the commencement of the game, Mary Louise’s thin, pretty mother showed herself at the window. That was the time when I saw, between the dividing gauze of the bedroom curtains, her naked breasts, small and beautiful, shaken like two angry fists by her violent motion. She leaned between the curtains to answer Mary Louise not in her usual tone of gentle remonstrance but in a shocking cry of rage: “Oh, be still, for God’s sake, you fat little monster!”
Mary Louise was shocked into silence that must have lasted for a quarter of an hour. It was probably the word “fat” that struck her so overwhelmingly, for Mary Louise had once told me, when we were circling the block in the electric, that her mother had told her that she was not fat, that she was only plump, and that these cushions of flesh were going to dissolve in two or three more years and then she would be just as thin and pretty as her mother.
Though Mary Louise would call me over to play croquet with her, she was not at all satisfied with my game. I had had so little practice and she so much, and, besides, it was the company of the grown-up people she wanted. She would call me over only when they had disappeared irretrievably into the lightless house or when the game had collapsed owing to Mr. Brick Pollitt’s refusal to take it seriously. When he played seriously, he was even better at it than Mary Louise, who practiced sometimes all afternoon in preparation for a game. But there were evenings when he would not leave his drink on the porch but would carry it down onto the lawn with him and play with one hand, more and more capriciously, while in the other hand he carried a tall glass. Then the lawn would become a great stage on which he performed all the immemorial antics of the clown, to the exasperation of Mary Louise and her thin, pretty mother, both of whom would become very severe and dignified on these occasions. They would retire from the croquet lawn and stand off at a little distance, calling softly, like a pair of complaining doves, both in the same ladylike tones of remonstrance. He was not a middle-aged-looking man – that is, he was not at all big around the middle – and he could leap and run like a boy. He could turn cartwheels and walk on his hands, and sometimes he would grunt and lunge like a wrestler or make long, crouching runs like a football player, weaving in and out among the wickets and gaudily painted poles of the croquet lawn. The acrobatics and sports of his youth seemed to haunt him. He would call out hoarsely to invisible teammates and adversaries – muffled shouts of defiance and anger and triumph, to which an incongruous counterpoint was continually provided by the faint, cooing voice of the widow: “Brick! Brick! Stop now, please stop! The child is crying! People will think you’ve gone crazy!” For Mary Louise’s mother knew why the lights had gone out on all the screened porches up and down the street and why the automobiles drove past the house at the speed of a funeral procession while Mr. Brick Pollitt was making a circus ring of the croquet lawn.
Late one evening when he was making one of his crazy dashes across the lawn with an imaginary football hugged against his belly, he tripped over a wicket and sprawled on the lawn, and he pretended to be too gravely injured to get back on his feet. His groans brought Mary Louise and her mother running from behind the vine-screened end of the veranda and out upon the lawn to assist him. They took him by the hands and tried to haul him up, but with a sudden shout of laughter he pulled them both on top of him and held them there till both of them were sobbing. He got up, finally, to replenish his glass of iced gin, and then returned to the lawn. That evening was a fearfully hot one, and Brick decided to cool and refresh himself with the sprinkler while he enjoyed his drink. He turned it on and pulled it out to the center of the lawn. There he rolled about on the grass under its leisurely revolving arch of water, and as he rolled about, he began to wriggle out of his clothes. He kicked off his white shoes and one of his pale-green socks, tore off his drenched white shirt and grass-stained linen pants, but he never succeeded in getting off his necktie. Finally, he was sprawled, like some grotesque fountain figure, in underwear and necktie and the one remaining pale-green sock while the revolving arch of water moved with cool whispers about him. The arch of water had a faint crystalline iridescence, a mist of delicate colors, as it wheeled under the moon, for the moon had by that time begun to poke with an air of slow astonishment over the roof of the little building that housed the electric. And still the complaining doves cooed at him from various windows of the house, and you could tell their voices apart only by the fact that the mother murmured “Brick? Brick?” and Mary Louise called him Mr. Pollitt. “Oh, Mr. Pollitt, Mother is so unhappy! Mother is crying!”
That night, he talked to himself or to invisible figures on the lawn. One of them was his wife, Margaret. He kept saying, “I’m sorry, Margaret, I’m sorry, Margaret, I’m sorry, so sorry, Margaret. I’m sorry I’m no good, I’m sorry, Margaret, I’m so sorry, so sorry I’m no good, sorry I’m drunk, sorry I’m no good, I’m so sorry it all had to turn out like this. . .”
Later on, much later, after the remarkably slow procession of touring cars had stopped passing the house, a little black sedan that belonged to the police drew up in front of the Greys’ and sat there for a while. In it was the chief of police himself. He called “Brick! Brick!” almost as gently and softly as Mary Louise’s mother had called from the lightless windows. “Brick! Brick, old boy! Brick, fellow?” he called, till finally the inert fountain figure in underwear and green sock and unremovable necktie staggered out from under the rotating arch of water and stumbled down to the walk and stood there negligently and quietly conversing with the chief of police, under the no longer at all astonished, now quite large and indifferent great yellow stare of the August moon. They began to laugh softly together, Mr. Brick Pollitt and the chief of police, and finally the door of the little black car opened and Mr. Brick Pollitt got in beside the chief of police while the common officer got out to collect the clothes, flabby as drenched towels, on the croquet lawn. Then they drove away, and the summer night’s show was over.
It was not quite over for me, for I had been watching it all that time with unabated interest. And about an hour afterward I saw Mary Louise’s mother come out onto the lawn; she stood there with an air of desolation for quite a while. Then she went into the garage and backed the electric out. The electric went sedately off into the summer night, with its buzzing no louder than an insect’s, and perhaps an hour later it came back again, containing in its glass show box not only the thin, pretty widow but a quiet and chastened Mr. Pollitt. She curved an arm about his immensely tall figure as they went up the front walk, and I heard him say only one word distinctly. It was the name of his wife.
Early that autumn, which was different from summer in nothing except the quicker coming of dusk, the visits of Mr. Brick Pollitt began to take on a spasmodic irregularity. That faraway boom of a cannon at five o’clock was now the announcement that two ladies in white dresses were waiting on a white gallery for someone who was each time a little more likely to disappoint them than the time before. Disappointment was not a thing Mary Louise was inured to; it was a country that she was passing through not as an old inhabitant but as a bewildered explorer, and each afternoon she lugged the oblong box out of the garage, ceremonially opened it upon the center of the lawn, and began to arrange the wickets in their formal pattern between the two gaudily painted poles that meant beginning, middle, and end. And the widow talked to her from the gallery, under the awning, as if there had been no important alteration in their lives or their prospects. Their almost duplicate voices as they talked back and forth between the gallery and lawn rang out as clearly as if the enormous corner lot were enclosed at this hour by a still more enormous and perfectly transparent glass bell that picked up and carried through space whatever was uttered beneath it. This was true not only when they were talking to each other across the lawn but when they were seated side by side in the white wicker chairs on the gallery. Phrases from these conversations became catchwords, repeated and mocked by the neighbors, for whom the widow and her daughter and Mr. Brick Pollitt had been three players in a sensational drama. It had shocked and angered them for two acts, but now as it approached a conclusion it was declining into unintentional farce, which they could laugh at. It was not difficult to find something ludicrous in the talks between the two ladies or the high-pitched elegance of their voices.
Mary Louise would ask, “Will Mr. Pollitt get here in time for croquet?”
“I hope so, precious. It does him so much good.”
“He’ll have to come soon or it will be too dark to see the wickets.”
“That’s true, precious.”
“Mother, why is it dark so early now?”
“Honey, you know why. The sun goes South.”
“But why does it go South?”
“Precious, Mother cannot explain the movements of the heavenly bodies, you know that as well as Mother knows it. Those things are controlled by certain mysterious laws that people on earth don’t know or understand.”
“Mother, are we going East?”
“Before school starts.”
“Honey, you know it’s impossible for Mother to make any definite plans.”
“I hope we do. I don’t want to go to school here.”
“Why not, precious? Are you afraid of the children?”
“No, Mother, but they don’t like me. They make fun of me.”
“How do they make fun of you?”
“They mimic the way I talk and they walk in front of me with their stomachs pushed out and giggle.”
“That’s because they’re children and children are cruel.”
“Will they stop being cruel when they grow up?”
“Why, I suppose some of them will and some of them won’t.”
“Well, I hope we go East before school opens.”
“Mother can’t make any plans or promises, honey.”
“No, but Mr. Brick Pollitt –“
“Honey, lower your voice! Ladies talk softly.”
“Oh, my goodness!”
“What is it, precious?”
“A mosquito just bit me!”
“That’s too bad, but don’t scratch it. Scratching can leave a permanent scar on the skin.”
“I’m not scratching it. I’m just sucking it, Mother.”
“Honey, Mother has told you time and again that the thing to do when you have a mosquito bit is to get a small piece of ice and wrap it up in a handkerchief and rub the bite gently with it until the sting is removed.”
“That’s what I do, but my lump of ice is melted!”
“Get you another piece, honey. You know where the icebox is!”
“There’s not much left. You put so much in the ice bag for your headache.”
“There must be some left, honey.”
“There’s just enough left for Mr. Pollitt’s drinks.”
“Never mind that.”
“He needs it for his drinks, Mother.”
“Yes, Mother knows what he wants the ice for, precious.”
“There’s only a little piece left. It’s hardly enough to rub a mosquito bite with.”
“Well, use it for that purpose, that purpose is better, and anyhow when Mr. Pollitt comes over as late as this, he doesn’t deserve to have any ice saved for him.”
“I love ice and sugar!”
“What did you say, precious?”
“I said I loved ice and sugar!”
“Ice and sugar, precious?”
“Yes. I love the ice and sugar in the bottom of Mr. Pollitt’s glass when he’s through with it.”
“Honey, you mustn’t eat the ice in the bottom of Mr. Pollitt’s glass!”
“Why not, Mother?”
“Because it’s got liquor in it!”
“Oh, no, Mother. It’s just ice and sugar when Mr. Pollitt’s through with it.”
“Honey, there’s always a little liquor left in it.”
“Oh, no. Not a drop’s left when Mr. Pollitt’s through with it!”
“But you say there’s sugar left in it, and, honey, you know that sugar is very absorbent.”
“It’s what, Mummy?”
“It absorbs some liquor, and that’s a good way to cultivate a taste for it. And, honey, you know what dreadful consequences a taste of liquor can have. It’s bad enough for a man, but for a woman it’s fatal. So when you want ice and sugar, let Mother know and she’ll prepare some for you, but don’t ever let me catch you eating what’s left in Mr. Pollitt’s glass!”
“It’s almost completely dark now. Everybody is turning on their lights or driving out on the river road to cool off. Can’t we go out riding in the electric?”
“No, honey, we can’t till we know Mr. Pollitt’s not –“
“Do you still think he will come?”
“Precious, how can I say? Is Mother a fortune-teller?”
“Oh, here comes the Pierce, Mummy, here comes the Pierce!”
“Is it? Is it the Pierce?”
“Oh, no. No, it isn’t. It’s a Hudson Super Six. Mummy, I’m going to pull up the wickets now and water the lawn, because if Mr. Pollitt does come, he’ll have people with him or won’t be in a condition to play croquet. And when I’ve finished, I want to drive the electric around the block.”
“Drive it around the block, honey, but don’t go into the business district with it.”
“Are you going with me, Mummy?”
“No, precious, I’m going to sit here.”
“It’s cooler in the electric.”
“I don’t think so. The electric goes too slowly to make much breeze.”
If Mr. Pollitt did finally arrive those evenings, it was likely to be with a caravan of cars that came from Memphis, and then Mrs. Grey would have to receive a raffish assortment of strangers as if she herself had invited them to a party. The party would not confine itself to the downstairs rooms and galleries but would explode quickly and brilliantly in all directions, filling both floors of the house, spilling out upon the lawn, and sometimes even penetrating the little building that housed the electric automobile and the oblong box that held the packed-away croquet set. On those party nights, the fantastically balustraded and gabled and turreted white building would glitter all over, like one of those huge night-excursion boats that came downriver from Memphis, and it would be full of ragtime music and laughter. But at some point in the evening there would be, almost invariably, a disturbance. Some male guest would start cursing loudly, a woman would scream, you would hear a shattering of glass. Almost immediately afterward, the lights would go out in the house, as if it really were a boat and had run aground. From all the doors and galleries and stairs, people would come rushing forth, and the dispersion would be more rapid than the arrival had been. A little while later, the police car would pull up in front of the house. The thin, pretty widow would come out on the front gallery to receive the chief of police, and you could hear her light voice tinkling like glass chimes. “Why, it was nothing, it was nothing at all, just somebody who drank a little too much and lost his temper. You know how that Memphis crowd is, Mr. Duggan, there’s always one gentleman in it who can’t hold his liquor. I know it’s late, but we have such a huge lawn – it occupies half the block – that I shouldn’t think anybody who wasn’t overcome with curiosity would have to know that a party had been going on!”
And then something happened that made no sound at all.
It wasn’t an actual death, but it had nearly all the external indications of one. When there is a death in a house, the house is unnaturally quiet for a day or two. During that interval, the space that separates a house from those who watch it seems to become a translucent thickness of glass behind which whatever activity is visible goes on with the startling hush of a film when the sound track is broken. So it had been five months ago, when the pleasant young Doctor had died of that fierce flower grown in his skull. There had been an unnatural quiet for several days, and then a peculiar gray car with frosted windows had crashed through the bell of silence and the young Doctor, identifiable by the bronze gleam of hair at one end of the strapped and sheeted figure on the cot, had emerged from the house as if he were giving a public demonstration of how to go to sleep soundly in jolting motion under a blaze of lights.
That was five months ago, and it was now nearly October.
Mr. Pollitt had not been seen at the Greys’ for more than a week when, one day, a truck pulled up before the house and a workman planted a square wooden sign at the front of the lawn. Mrs. Grey came out of the house as if it had caught fire. She ran down the steps, her white skirts making the crackling noise of flame, calling out as she descended, “You, man! What are you doing! What are you putting up there!”
“A ‘For Sale’ sign,” he told her.
“Who told you to put that up? This house isn’t for sale!”
“Yes, Ma’am, it is!”
“Who said so?”
“Mrs. Pollitt, she said so.”
He stared at Mrs. Grey and she came no closer. Then he gave the pole of the red-lettered sign a final blow with the back of a shovel and tossed the implement crashing into the truck and drove off. The back of the sign said nothing, so presently Mrs. Grey continued her running advance to the front of the lawn, where the great red letters were visible. She stood in front of it, rapidly shaking her head, finally gasping aloud as if the import of it had just then struck her, and then she turned and went slowly and thoughtfully back to the radiant fantasy of a house just as Mary Louise appeared from behind it with the hose.
“Mother!” she called, “I’m going to water the lawn!”
“Don’t!” said Mrs. Grey.
The next afternoon, a fat and pleasantly smiling man, whom I had seen times without number loitering around in front of the used-car lot next to the Paramount movie, came up the front walk of the Greys’ house with the excessive nonchalance of a man who is about to commit a robbery. He pushed the bell, waited awhile, pushed it again, and then was admitted through an opening that seemed to be hardly wide enough for his figure. He came back out almost immediately with something in his closed fist. It was the key to the little building that contained the croquet set and the electric automobile. He drew its folding doors all the way open, and disclosed the electric sitting there with its usual manner of a lady putting on or taking off her gloves at the entrance to a reception. He started at it, as if its elegance were momentarily baffling. Then he got in and drove it out of the garage, holding the polished black stick with a look on his round face that was like the look of an adult who is a little embarrassed to find himself being amused by a game that was meant for children. He drove it serenely out into the wide, shady street, and at an upstairs window of the house there was some kind of quick movement, as if a figure looking out had been startled by something and then had retreated in haste.
Later, after the Greys had left town, I saw the elegant square vehicle, which appeared to be made out of glass and patent leather, standing with an air of haughty self-consciousness among a dozen or so other cars for sale in the lot next door to the Paramount movie theatre, and as far as I know, it may be still sitting there, but many degrees less glittering by now.
The Greys had come and gone all in one quick season: the young Doctor, with his understanding eyes and quiet voice, whom everyone had liked in a hesitant, early way and had said would do well in the town; the thin, pretty woman, whom no one had really known except Brick Pollitt; and the plump little girl, who might someday be as pretty and slender as her mother. They had come and gone in one season, yes, like one of these tent shows that suddenly appear in a vacant lot in a Southern town and cross the sky at night with mysteriously wheeling lights and unearthly music, and then are gone, and the summer goes on without them, as if they had never come there.
As for Mr. Brick Pollitt, I can remember seeing him only once after the Greys left town, for my time there was also coming to an end. This last time that I saw him was a brilliant fall morning. It was a Saturday morning in October. Brick’s driver’s license had been revoked again, and his wife, Margaret, sat in the driver’s seat of the Pierce-Arrow touring car. Brick did not sit beside her. He was on the back seat of the car, pitching this way and that way with the car’s jolting motion, like a loosely wrapped package being delivered somewhere. Margaret Pollitt handled the car with a wonderful male assurance, her bare arms brown and muscular, and the car’s canvas top had been lowered, the better to expose on its back seat the sheepishly grinning and nodding figure of Brick Pollitt. He was immaculately clothed and barbered. The knot of his polka-dot tie was drawn as tight as strong and eager fingers could knot a tie for an important occasion. One of his large red hands protruded, clasping the door to steady his motion, and two bands of gold glittered, a small one about a finger, a large one about the wrist. His cream-colored coat was neatly folded on the seat beside him and he wore a shirt of thin white material. He was a man who had been, and even at that time still was, the handsomest you were likely to remember.
Margaret blew the car’s silver trumpet at every intersection. She leaned this way and that way, elevating or thrusting out an arm as she greeted people on porches, merchants beside store entrances, people she barely knew along the walks, calling them all by their familiar names, as if she were running for office in the town, while Brick nodded and grinned with senseless amiability behind her. It was exactly the way that some ancient conqueror, such as Caesar, or Alexander the Great, or Hannibal, might have led in chains through a capital city the prince of a state newly conquered.