From the Relief Society Magazine, April 1949 –
By Mary Ek Knowles
Myra reached for the paper shopping bag that hung on the hook by the stove. She heard the kitchen door creak as it swung open and she knew, without turning around, that Bob was standing in the doorway.
Her hand closed tight over the twine handle. She shut her eyes and thought, if he says, “Going somewhere, baby?” I’ll scream, because he knows I go to the market at this time every morning.
“Going somewhere, baby?”
She wanted to swing around and say, “Skip it, Bob!” Three months ago she wouldn’t have hesitated. But then Bob had been well. He had been section boss at Amalgamated Lumber and Construction Company. He’d been catch on the plant baseball team…
Now everything was different. When the lumber mill burned Bob had rescued five of his workers from the flames. Bob was a hero. He had a medal and a pension for life, but he had badly burned lungs, too. And he would be a semi-invalid for the rest of his life.
Myra thought of the Hendersons in the frame house on the corner and more than ever held back the sharp words. For over forty years Mr. Henderson had been a semi-invalid from a back injury. The old couple quarreled a great deal and since the fire they had become to Myra the horrible example of what she and Bob could become, if she wasn’t careful. Two people chained together through duty and obligation, not love.
We’ll never bicker and quarrel like the Hendersons, she vowed, and she turned around, her lips tilted in a smile, her eyes very blue. She gave the same answer she had given every morning since Bob came home from the hospital two months ago. “Yes, I thought I’d run down to the market.”
“Bring me a magazine, will you?”
Bob stood with hands on his hips. Sometimes it was difficult to remember how ill he was. He looked just the same, his face ruggedly handsome, his auburn hair curling in tight waves. He was wearing a white tee shirt with AC on the front. Once Bob had played baseball. Now he had to lie down and rest after the least exertion. She knew heartbreak all over again.
She said, “Yes, darling. I’ll bring you the latest magazines.” She lifted her mouth for his kiss. His lips scarcely touched hers. Her mind snagged on the fact, and then she looked into the living room and onto the glassed-in front porch that had become “Bob’s corner.” It was a shambles again, Bob’s pajamas on the big chair, a jigsaw puzzle dumped on the card table, magazines and papers tumbled onto the floor.
Twice already this morning she had straightened Bob’s corner! Couldn’t he at least pick his things up She saw Bob looking at her in that new, watchful way he had.
“Something wrong?” he asked, and his voice was curiously tight.
“Wrong?” she said brightly. “No, of course not.”
“Well, hurry back.”
It was almost the final touch, like the final drop of a dripping tap that sends one hurtling into madness. Must he say that every time she left the house?
She smiled. “Be right back.
She walked out the back door, down the steps, and around the side of the house. And her steps took her around the block rather than pass the Hendersons.
I won’t hurry back! She started to cry, tears she brushed angrily away as quickly as they formed. She thought, oh, what’s wrong with me? I do love you, Bob.
She remembered the scene in the hospital and the doctor telling her, “If by some miracle your husband lives he will be a semi-invalid.” And she could hear her words, “I don’t care. If only he’ll live!”
“You’re very young, Mrs. Forrest,” the doctor had said kindly. “It’s not easy …”
“I love Bob, Doctor, and I want to be with him no matter what happens. I’ll never complain!”
And now she could hardly wait to get away. She had been braced for the big emergencies that would arise. But there hadn’t been any. After the testimonial dinner for Bob, after the publicity had died down, their life had settled into a dull, quiet pattern.
She thought, I’ll be all right. It’s just the heat and I didn’t sleep last night. Bob was prowling around, opening and closing the ice box, turning on taps, leaving them dripping. She took the grocery list from her purse and studied it. From force of habit she walked fast. Have to hurry back… take care of Bob…
The large supermarket was crowded, but cool. She was walking towards the meat counter when a voice called, “Myra Forrest!”
It was Peggy Linford and it was quite apparent that she was going to have a baby. “Peggy!” She and Peggy had worked in “Ruth’s Book Nook” back in Habberton. Myra’s hand went out to the other girl and she thought, oh, I wish I were going to have a baby, but it’s impossible with the way things are. “What are you doing in Scoville, Peggy?”
“Phil’s company just transferred him here.”
“We must get together.”
“Let’s plan to go dancing as soon as Junior is born,” Peggy said.
Myra’s throat tightened. “Bob was injured in the lumber mill fire. He’ll never dance again.”
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry.” Peggy looked almost as if she were going to cry.
“Oh, we’re not so badly off,” Myra said quickly. “Bob gets a pension for life. He isn’t in bed or anything like that. But he can’t work. He just stays home and rests a great deal.”
“And you take care of him?”
“Oh, yes. Certainly.”
“You poor darling.”
The sympathy in Peggy’s voice was very real, and all at once Myra had a picture of herself patiently caring for Bob. She had never thought of it quite that way before. It was strangely comforting. She pushed her hair back and said quietly, “Oh, I love doing it. After all, I am his wife, you know. No sacrifice is too great.”
“Oh, yes, I know, Myra. I adore Phil, too, but…”
“Remember the fun we used to have at the ‘Book Nook’?” She didn’t want Peggy to say anything that would disturb the picture in her mind, the picture of her sacrificing herself for Bob. Now, and down through the years to come.
“Oh, I’ll never forget. Did you know that Ruth is opening a shop here in Scoville?” Peggy asked.”She wants me to come and work for her after the baby is born, but of course I can’t. But I know she would give the job to you.”
The job would be hers for the asking. And it would help out. Bob’s pension was very modest. Her spirits soared and then flattened. “Oh, no, I couldn’t. Bob…”
“Even for half a day?”
“I wouldn’t think of leaving Bob.” She was not aware that she stood very tall, that her smile was heroically brave.
Peggy patted her arm. “You’re an angel, Myra. A patient, good angel.”
Again here was that strange, new, intoxicating feeling. “Oh, no, I’m not an angel, Peggy. I’m just doing my duty, as any wife would.”
They parted soon after. Myra crossed ground beef off her list and bought steak. It would pinch her budget, but she would go without something herself so Bob could have the best.
The Hendersons were quarreling again. She heard their voices as she turned the corner. “You can just as well sit in the lawn swing, Zach Henderson! Least until I get the porch washed off!”
“Don’t need to wash the porch off again, and danged if I’m going to move!”
Myra was even with the Hendersons’ now. She could see Mr. Henderson in the rocking chair on the front porch, his feet on the railing, and Mrs. Henderson standing over him, a broom in her hand.
“You’ll move!” She nodded her head so vigorously that the white bun of hair quivered. “Or I’ll squirt the hose on you full force!” She marched down the steps, dropped the broom, picked up the hose and turned it on.
“Okay, I’m movin’ then!” Mr. Henderson swung his feet down from the railing and stomped angrily down the porch steps and across the lawn, short and bow-legged, his white hair seeming to stand on end with anger. “Plagued woman! Think we was goin’ to eat off the porch!”
I’ll never talk to Bob like that, Myra thought. Never. Someday people would say, “Little Mrs. Forrest… so patient…never a cross word…” The feeling she had had when she was talking to Peggy deepened until it was like warm, sweet honey.
She opened the back door of her house, called gaily, “I’m home, Bob. Everything all right?”
There was no answer. Something had happened. “Bob!” Terror jagged her voice. She hurried into the front room and stopped. Bob was sitting in the big chair in his corner reading a book. You could have answered, she thought. Didn’t have to scare me to death!
“Hi!” she said, not so gaily. Bob might have been in Asia for all the attention he paid. “Darling!”
He looked up then, frowned. “Yeah?”
“I spoke to you twice.”
She saw the muscle along his jaw tighten. “Reading.”
His fingers plowed through his hair in the quick gesture that had always been a danger signal, but he said pleasantly, “Yea?23h, I’m okay.”
There was a silence with them staring at each other. “I bought steak for dinner. You can go on with your reading and I’ll call you when dinner is ready.” She turned back to the kitchen, but Bob was behind her.
Oh, no, she thought. You’re not going to help me get dinner again! But Bob was already going through the shopping bag. He s969kinned two bananas and sliced them onto dishes of bread pudding.
Myra grabbed an apron. The big goof! The bananas were for breakfast. How did he expect to live on his pension if he didn’t co-operate! She got potatoes out of the sack, plumped them into a pan, and turned the water on with a gush.
“What kind of potatoes?” Bob was standing over her like an over grown Airedale puppy.
“Mashed. There’s some gravy in the icebox from yesterday.” The paring knife hacked into a potato.
“Whoa, there, honey. Not that way. You’ve got a lot of waste motion. Start peeling from the top; use long, rapid strokes.”
Her hands were suddenly trembling and the warm-honey feeling was gone. Oh, shut up! she wanted to cry. She said, “You peel these and put them in the pressure cooker while I set the table and heat the broiler.”
She set the table. The kitchenette was small and narrow. She placed the steak in the broiler pan. She reached for the salt and stumbled into Bob.
He said, “Whoops!” and grinned.
She grabbed the salt shaker, turned back. Her path was blocked by Bob’s posterior as he peered into the oven. “Ought to be pretty good. Don’t cook it too much this time,” he said.
“I won’t. Would you move, dear?”
“Oh, sure. Sorry!”
He moved just enough to let her by, but he didn’t go away. He was everywhere she turned, his big feet in the way for her to stumble over. She picked up the long-handled fork. Bob bent over the oven again. She took a deep breath, quickly handed the fork to him. “Would you mind watching the steak?” She fled to the front room.
Magazines were spread over the floor in Bob’s corner, all open, in some kind of crazy order. She picked them up, stacked them in a neat pile and a thought was torturing her … I’m not a noble person. I’m mean and small inside or I wouldn’t feel as I do. But if you weren’t noble, you made yourself so. She strengthened the frayed fabric of her soul with good resolutions.
“Steak’s done, honey!”
Just outside the kitchen door she stopped and she felt suddenly desperate. Dinner with Bob and her sitting across from each other not talking. After two months of each other’s company twenty-four hours a day – what was there left to talk about! No reliving a ball game, deciding what Smith should have done on second base when George hit a two-bagger. No office gossip …
Dinner was an ordeal. Twice she started to mention her meeting with Peggy and then stopped. Peggy … that would make Bob remember dancing. She was relieved when Bob put his napkin down and stood up.
“You go and rest while I wash the dishes.” She didn’t mention that she was going to iron afterwards. Maybe he would sleep until she was through.
She knew some degree of peace washing the dishes alone. There was no sound from the other room. Quietly she pulled the ironing board down from the wall. It squeaked on its hinges. She heard Bob coming. Not again. Not ironing while Bob kibitzed. “Look, honey, if you’ll just be a bit more scientific, that shirt’s going to be a whole lot easier to iron…” Swiftly she put the board back again. She was securing the door just as Bob walked into the kitchen.
“Aren’t you going to iron?” He looked disappointed.
“No, I’m tired. Thought I’d finish that story I started last night.” She walked past him into the living room. It was incredible that in the few minutes Bob had been alone he could have so wrecked his corner. But he had. Again the magazines were spread out open on the floor. She bent and picked one up, straightened slowly, as Bob yelled, “Leave my things alone. It took me fifteen minutes to fix them just the way I wanted!”
Bob had an expression on his face like Mr. Henderson when he stomped down the porch steps. Myra bent and placed the magazine back on the floor and she had a picture of herself through the years, growing thin and frail, looking after Bob. Poor little Mrs. Forrest … a veritable angel … It was a touching picture.
She said gently, “I’m sorry, darling. I didn’t realize …”
“You’re not sorry! Why don’t you say what you really think! It annoys you the way I mess things up!”
“Why, what do you mean?” The picture of the frail, patient Myra was no longer touching. There was a tenseness in the air like the ominous quiet before a storm.
Bob’s fingers ruffled his hair and his words ripped through the air like forked lightning. “I’m fed up with your Florence Nightingale role. You’re getting to be a martyr and you’re beginning to enjoy it!”
“A martyr! You’ve got a lot of nerve!” The anger within her ignited like gasoline, and all at once the grievances she had held back came flaming out.
They stood in the center of the room shouting at each other, and their words were like clap of thunder.
“If you’re so fed up, why don’t you leave me, then?” he growled.
“I will. I’m going to get a job at the bookstore!”
“I wish you would!”
Myra stopped suddenly, all the bitterness and anger gone. And she was sick with realization of what had happened.
She saw Bob swallow. He said quietly, “We sounded just like the Hendersons.”
Myra pushed open the front screen and ran down the steps. She heard the door slam, Bob’s voice,”Myra!” He was running and he mustn’t run! By the Hendersons’ fence she swung around to face him. She heard a voice say affectionately, “There. Here’s a cushion for your back, Nonnie.”
Mr. and Mrs. Henderson were sitting close together in the lawn swing, so close Myra could have reached her hand through the feathery shrubbery and touched them. They were drinking lemonade.
Bob reached Myra. He said, “Honey – ” And then stopped, fascinated, too, by this new picture of the Hendersons.
Myra saw Mr. Henderson pat Mrs. Henderson’s hand. “Mighty cooling lemonade, Nonnie.”
Nonnie Henderson looked up at him, a twinkle in her brown eyes. “Not near as cooling as that hose would have been this morning, if you hadn’t moved!”
“Would you a’squirted on me? Really?”
“I sure would of, if you hadn’t moved.”
The old man chuckled.”You noticed I moved quick.”
Nonnie Henderson bent over and kissed him gently on the cheek, and the lawn swing swung contentedly back and forth.
Myra felt Bob take hold of her arm, pilot her up the street. “What do you know!” he whispered. “Then quarrels don’t mean anything. They are just thunderstorms to clear the air. You can see they are nuts about each other.”
“Oh, Bob, I was going to be so noble.”
“Sure. Me, too. Noble Bob, a hero to the end with never a gripe, never a cross word to the little woman. But people aren’t noble, honey. They’re just poor humans bristling with annoying habits.
“I didn’t really mean it, about getting a job.”
“Why not, honey? That is, for a while. I think that’s what you need. Maybe for just half a day. You could bring the groceries home and I could fool around in the kitchen fixing meals.”
Yes, alone in the kitchen, Bob could manage very well. “I’d never leave you alone!”
“Okay, so I’d be alone a half day, so what? I’d have enough to keep me busy – looking after my canaries.”
“Yeah. I’m going to raise canaries to sell. Fellow in the hospital gave me those magazines and I’ve been studying up on them, trying to decide.”
Myra went on a mental tour of their small house. “You could have them in the basement.”
“Basement!” Bob said indignantly. “Basement’d be too damp. The glassed-in porch would be just the ticket. Even temperature. Lots of sunshine.”
Myra’s mind tried dizzily to adjust to the future and a front room full of warbling canaries. “Th-that’s a grand idea. Is there money in it, Bob?”
“You bet!” Bob’s voice was enthusiastic for the first time in months. “This fellow was telling me, over a period of time, his brother made enough money to pay for his home. I figure …:”
“Enough –” the words came out thick, “enough to someday afford a baby?”
Bob pulled her hand through his arm and patted it. “You bet. Darned soon! That’s why I said work at the bookshop, but only fora little while. Until I get this canary business going. Okay?”
Myra’s small world righted itself and began to turn, crazily, stormily, but happily. “Okay, Bob,” she echoed.