From the Relief Society Magazine, January 1942 –
There’s Always a New Beginning
Mary Ek Knowles
Clara showed Henry the fur coat as he was getting ready to leave for work. She took it out of the silver box beneath the bed, slipped it over her flowered housecoat and posed in the doorway of the large old-0fashioned kitchen, her hands held out, her blond hair golden above the shiny black fur.
“Well,” she said, “do you like it?” There was defiance in her tone as she consciously braced herself for the outburst that was sure to follow; and there were carefully-thought-out arguments on the tip of her tongue.
But there was no outburst. Henry Jones stopped in the act of zipping up his woolen jacket, and his brown eyes looked at the coat and then at Clara. He was standing by the window, and in the cold light of the winter morning his face looked weary, lined.
“So you got it after all,” he said in a quiet voice, then he put on his hat, picked up his lunch bucket and went out. The closing of the door had a final muffled sound to it.
Clara’s hands dropped to her side. Her look of antagonism gave way to one of perplexity. He hadn’t even waited for her to tell him how they could make the payments! In fact, he hadn’t even seemed interested.
Henry’s fur-lined, leather gloves lying on the cupboard caught her attention. She picked them up and hurried to the window.
Henry had almost reached the front gate. He walked slowly down the neatly shoveled path, his head bowed to the stiff winter wind, his hands in his pockets, his shoulders hunched up and close together as if to conserve the heat of his body.
Clara’s conscience pricked her. She should not have insisted on keeping the car today. There was nothing she really needed it for. The walk to the Amalgamated Factory where Henry worked was a long one, the weather was bitter cold, and Henry’s breakfast had been very light. He would be thoroughly chilled by the time he reached work.
As Henry reached the gate, Clara held the gloves up, expecting him to turn and wave to her. But he did not look back smiling, and suddenly Clara realized, with a bit of a shock, that it had been a long time since Henry had kissed her good-by, a very long time since they had gone through the little morning ritual of Henry waving a good-by to her and she blowing a kiss to him.
She felt a sudden, crazy impulse to open the door, call Henry back and feel his strong arms about her. Then Overmans’ house next door blocked out Henry’s solid frame, and the shrill whistle of a freight engine cut the winter stillness, and the impulse passed.
She tossed the gloves back on the cupboard and sat down at the small kitchen table. She was a young woman – not young in the glowing wide-eyed way that twenty is young, but still young. Her hair shown like molten gold in the light; her skin was firm and smooth; her dark lashes were long. In fact she would have been a very pretty woman were it not for the tight, nervous look in her face, the discontented droop of her red mouth.
She returned to her breakfast. Henry might have said something more than just, “So you got it after all.” True they had threshed the matter out last Saturday night, and Henry had shown her – all the while making neat little columns of figures on the back of an envelope – that they could not afford a fur coat, any kind of a fur coat. But that was before she had talked to Mr. Solomon. He had made the terms so easy – no money down, just three dollars a month until May. By that time the living room set would be paid for, and they could increase the payments on the coat.
Clara pushed her breakfast aside and got up. One thing she knew: she would not take the coat back – no matter what Henry said, no matter if it took the rest of their lives to pay for it!
She walked into the bedroom and stood before her dressing table mirror. Her slim hands caressed the fur. A fur coat was not a luxury; it was an investment. One shouldn’t figure the initial coast only, but the many years of service the coat would give, she told herself, neatly, systematically, in the very words that Mr. Solomon had used in selling the coat to her.
Her mind shied away from the stark truth. Tomorrow was Vida King’s swanky tea, and she, Clara Jones, had reached a point where she could no longer bear the sight of her drab, black-and-white tweed coat lying among the glittering fur ones.
Through the open bedroom door, she could see the living room and the dining room beyond. Her house, left to them by Henry’s father, was in the wrong part of town. It was old-fashioned with big, high-ceilinged rooms. Her dining room set was cheap, veneered wood and her living room set was shabby before it had been paid for. The silver in the buffet drawer was inexpensive plateware. All were imitations of the real thing. But this fur coat was real. It was not dyed rabbit, but the real thing, as good or better than the other women’s coats.
The jingle of the telephone in the kitchen cut into her thoughts, and she hurried through the hallway, picked up the receiver and said, “Hello!”
A man’s heavy voice answered. “Is this the Henry Jones residence?”
“Yes. this is Mrs. Jones.”
“Does your husband work for the Amalgamated Factory?”
Cold apprehension clutched at Clara’s heart. “Yes,” she answered.
“This is Officer Pliny, Mrs. Jones.” The heavy voice almost seemed to soften. “Your husband has been seriously injured in a traffic accident, and the ambulance has taken him to the Mercy Hospital.”
For a stunned moment Clara did not speak, but just stood there by the door, the receiver held tightly in her hand, her blue eyes looking around the room, seeing nothing until they came to rest on Henry’s leather gloves on the cupboard.
They were old gloves – shabby gloves. Henry had bought them the winter after they were married. She recalled one cold night walking home from a double feature at “The Star”; she had put her hand in Henry’s big overcoat pocket, and his gloved hand had closed protectingly and warmly over her cold one. The seam of the first finger in the left glove had come unsewed. Henry had asked her to fix it, but somehow she had never found the time.
“Mrs. Jones! Mrs. Jones!” The insistent voice at the other end of the line brought her back to the present. “Are you still there? Do you hear me?”
“Yes.” It seemed to Clara that she shouted the word. Yet her voice, when it squeezed past the lump in her throat, was scarcely more than a whisper. “Yes, I’m coming right away.”
There was a waiting room next to “Emergency.” It was a small room with white, bare walls. There was a narrow table, a straight-backed bench, a brown rocking chair, an uncurtained window against which the wind blew icy sleet with a sharp, stinging sound.
Clara sat on the edge of the bench, every nerve taut, her head to one side, a listening look on her face. Once she got up quickly and hurried to the door of the operating room, her gloved hands held out in front of her as if to push the white, swinging door open. But when she reached the door, her hands dropped to her side. The closed doors, the quiet sounds coming from the room beyond, told her that here drama was being enacted in which she could play no part.
She turned and walked back to the bare, white-walled room and sank down on the hard bench. In that moment she felt old and beaten; the warm blood of life seemed drained from her limbs, her lips were dry and parched.
There was nothing, the nurse at the desk had told her, that she could do, but wait. The doctor was performing an emergency operation. All that could be done was being done. Her gray eyes had told Clara more. Henry was badly injured.
Wait and think and wonder – wonder at the change that had come over her and Henry. Now it seemed almost unbelievable that Henry had left for work without so much as a backward glance, and that she hadn’t even cared.
Time was when she had walked to the gate with Henry, and he had kissed her frankly and unashamedly before the eyes of all who cared to look; and she had run back to the house, her step light, her heart singing.
The memory was so poignant that Clara knew a pain so keen that she put her gloved hand to her lips to keep from crying out.
What then had happened to their marriage?
Somehow it all seemed to date back to that summer afternoon when she met Vida King – who had been Vida Smogg – on the street in town. Clara and Vida had been chums in their Westford High School days. Then Vida had married Paul King, moved away, and Clara had lost track of her. Now Vida was back in Westford and was very glad to meet Clara.
They had had lunch at “The Penguin” – tall, cool drinks and crisp leafy sandwiches. They had talked and laughed over old times. It was all so luxurious, so cool and restful, such fun. Vida King was still Vida Smogg who had lived on Appleton Street, despite the flashing dinner ring on her right hand, the white tailored suit and straw hat that looked like something out of Vanity Fair. Paul was doing splendidly, Vida had said. He was manager of the Alexander Advertising Agency now. And what was Henry doing?
Suddenly Clara had been a little frightened by it all – the purr of the air conditioner; the string quartet playing heavenly background music; Vida across the table from her, crisp and cool and confident. She became painfully conscious of her white hat and bag – 98c each in Barnfield’s basement – her green and white polka-dotted dress – $1.98, guaranteed washable.
“Henry is Sales Manager for the Amalgamated Factory,” she lied.
Clara got up now and walked over to the window. Henry a sales manager! Henry who walked to work, his lunch bucket under his arm! Henry who entered the side door of the factory and became suddenly just another worker among the thousands of other workers! O, Henry, my dear, forgive me.
She pressed her burning cheek against the cold window pane. She needn’t have lied. Vida wouldn’t have cared. She could have said, “You and Paul have been very successful, Vee! You’re way out of our class. We still live across the railroad tracks on Wichita Street.”
But she couldn’t go back and live the afternoon over. The words had been spoken, never to be recalled.
Clara closed her eyes. That chance meeting had led to other meetings. Her head spun, remembering. The thing had been like a snowball rolling downhill, sweeping everything before it: first, lunching informally with Vida in her new home on Gramercy Heights; then, “Come over next Wednesday, Clara, I want you to meet the girls”; luncheons, matinees, theater parties, teas, had followed; then, “It’s my turn to entertain next week, Vida …” That had meant new furniture to dress up the old house, new clothes, the bill from Carters.
That bill had been the cause of her first real quarrel with Henry. Standing now by the window, Clara remembered that quarrel. Henry had looked at the bill and given a long, low whistle.
“$17.50 for a hat, Clara!” he had exclaimed. “What’s it made of, spun gold?”
“No, silly! It’s an original Carrol model,” she had shot back, a sharp edge to her voice, “and that isn’t so much to pay. Vida King never pays less than $25 for a hat!”
Henry’s quiet look had been keen and searching. “Phil King makes at least four times the salary I do, Clara. Better stay in your own back yard, honey.”
Clara buried her face in her cold hands as if to shut out the memories, but they came crowding in upon her, vivid, real. The day they had quarreled over the hat, a slow burning resentment had started. The rest was forgivable – a woman’s foolishness, a childish desire to “be somebody” – but not the resentment. Resentment against easy-going, good-natured Henry, the dilapidated secondhand car that had to be humored into starting, the old house with its wooden front porch, its ornate fireplace, its dark pantry – this was the thing that could not be forgiven.
Clara lifted her face and looked out into the winter day. Had Henry felt her resentment and been hurt by it? She remembered one evening not long ago when she had looked up from a novel to find Henry watching her. At the time, the look of sadness in his face had irritated her. Now it haunted her. She remembered Henry as he walked down the neatly-shoveled path that morning. His step had been that of a condemned man. A man who had just been condemned to three years of hard labor – to pay for a fut coat.
There was a sound of doors opening, of rubber-soled shoes on smooth floors. Clara turned, her hands clenched tightly together. If only Henry could live long enough for her to tell him how much she loved him, to beg his forgiveness!
There were four nurses in the hallway outside the operating room; there were two doctors, a tall one with glasses, and a short, heavy-set one. And there was Henry lying very still on the long, white cart, his body covered with a white sheet, his head swathed in bandages.
Clara said, “I’m Mrs. Henry Jones.” She felt like a child speaking a piece.
The tall doctor with the glasses nodded. “The patient is not out of the anesthetic yet.” There was no lifting note of encouragement in his voice.
The pitiful moans and mumblings of the ether-dazed, half-conscious man wrung Clara’s heart. She wanted to cry, “O, Henry, Henry, my own darling!” She wanted to run to him, take him in her arms and pillow his head against her breast. Instead she stood for a tense little moment off by herself before she walked to Henry’s side.
As she looked closely at him, an icy sensation of shock, as if someone had dashed cold water in her face, raced up her spine. She looked up quickly, bewilderment clouding her face, her blue eyes questioning.
“This man is not my husband!” she cried.
The doctors and nurses looked from one to the other.
“Not your husband?’ someone said.
Clara shook her head. Her “no” was scarcely more than a whisper.
Then the doctors and nurses were all talking at once, but quietly.
“But his identification card read, ‘Henry Jones, Amalgamated Factory,’” the short doctor told her.
“Oh, don’t you see!” Clara’s hands held tight to the side of the cart, and she was both laughing and crying at the same time. “It’s a case of mistaken identity. The Amalgamated Factory employs thousands of men. There could be a dozen named Henry Jones. It’s quite a common name. This is not my Henry.”
She turned suddenly and almost ran down the long hall to the stairway at the end, only to sink down on the second step, all strength gone from her body, her cheek pressed against the cold, smooth wall. Tears ran unchecked down her face. It wasn’t Henry Jones. Her Henry was well and strong. He would come walking up the path tonight just as the 6:15 express blew its whistle, and he’d open the back door and call, “Hi, Clara!” and life would go on as before.
But no – not as before! The tears stopped, and Clara became very quiet and solemn inside. They couldn’t go back and live life over, correct all the mistakes that had been made. but they could go forward. There was always a new beginning! Warmth flowed back into Clara’s body, and she got to her feet. Fate had given her marriage a new lease, and she would make the most of it!
Clara’s hands were steady as she returned the fur coat to its tissue bed and tied the cord in a tight knot on the silver, oblong box. There was no regret, no sadness in her heart as she returned the coat simply but very firmly to Mr. Solomon. There was only eagerness – eagerness to get back to the house on Wichita Street.
The red brick house on Wichita Street had never been more than that to Clara – just a house. Now it suddenly became a home – their home, Henry’s and hers, the home in which they would rear a family. Now she saw the wooden front porch in terms of restful shade on sultry summer afternoons where she could sit with her mending while Henry puttered around in the garden. She saw the pantry in terms of shelf after shelf of carefully bottled fruit and glasses of sparkling clear jams and jellies.
For dinner she prepared a meal she knew Henry liked, a dinner she “hadn’t had time to fix” for ever so long – roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, buttered peas, fruit salad, and apple pie. She pushed the dining-room table close to the fireplace, set it carefully with her best linen and silver, then she built a fire in the fireplace and stood back with a feeling of pride. It was, she decided, a grand fireplace with a proper, well-built flue that sent the flames roaring up the chimney and warmth to every corner of the room.
Henry’s words, spoken so often that Clara had ceased to hear them, came back to her now with new meaning. “There’s nothing fancy about the place, Clara. It’s just an ordinary home, but it is well built. The walls are three bricks thick, the stone foundation is firm and solid. They don’t build houses like this anymore, honey.”
Clara sat down in the big armchair and gazed reflectively into the flames. The house was like Henry – old-fashioned, dependable, blessedly substantial.
She admitted to herself now what she had always known – that Henry would never be a great financial success. Some men were destined to rise to spectacular success with the speed of a shooting star, others to slow, quiet, uneventful lives. Henry was like that. And she was glad.
Wearily, Clara leaned back and closed her eyes and a great peace, a great quiet filled her heart. It was as if she had been climbing a steep hill with a heavy burden on her back, and now the burden was gone, and she could rest by the roadside. No more need to keep up pretense. From now on she was Mrs. Henry Jones who lived on Wichita Street. There was dignity and quiet pride in being just what you were.
The sound of footsteps on the porch and the opening of the front door roused Clara. She arose to her feet as Henry walked into the living room.
A moment he hesitated, and his quick glance took in the table set before the fireplace, the sparkle of silver and glass. His tired shoulders lifted.
It is little that a man like Henry asks, Clara thought – a good meal at the end of the day, a smile, a tender kiss. Only these, and he will serve his love to the end of his days.
Henry looked toward the kitchen and sniffed the tempting aroma of roast beef, then his dark eyes held Clara’s eyes for a long hushed moment.
“Hi, Clara,” he said.
“Hi, Henry, my dear.” And suddenly she was in Henry’s arms crying against his woolen jacket.
Henry’s strong arms about her tightened. “Clara, Clara, what’s the matter, honey?” Then his hold relaxed, and there was a little eternity before he spoke again, and all the gladness was gone from his voice. “If it’s the fur coat, Clara, I can borrow …”
“O, Henry, I don’t want the coat. I took it back. I just want you and the life you can give me. Hold me tight, Henry, and never let me go.”