From the Relief Society Magazine, January 1950 –
Grass in the Market Place
By Dorothy Clapp Robinson
Stepping outside, Kent turner closed the screen door quietly behind him. He stretched luxuriously and filled his lungs with air that was sharply cool and pungent with the flavor of morning. Three hours’ sleep had eased the strain of tired muscles, but that old nagging restlessness was still with him. Would he ever learn? Abruptly he reached for his irrigating shovel and threw it over his shoulder. As he started across the yard, Thane, the collie, rubbed against his legs.
Back of Mt. Putnam, dawn was a faint blush while, below, the river bottoms stretched into a long darkness. From the saddle of the granary a robin was flinging a liquid challenge to a still sleeping world. The notes brought a bitter-sweet nostalgia. Impatiently he lengthened his stride, but stopped abruptly as the throb of a motor broke the morning stillness.
Kent traced the sound as it wound along the rim of the benchland. That was a private road through his field. he waited, premonition tapping hard at his temples. Against the brightening sky he could see the car as it entered the yard. A door opened and a girl stepped out. Jean! The car rolled back to the gate. Kent’s long fingers bit hard against the handle of the shovel. Thane whined and the girl came to stand before him.
“Good morning.” There was no answer; she tried again. “Kent, I – I – ”
Kent waited, his body tall and hard with tension.
“Kent – I’ve – I’ve – oh, don’t be so stiff.”
“Leaving was your idea, not mine.”
Her head raised in angry protest. There was a moment of throbbing silence, then her shoulders dropped. “I want to stay – no, wait a moment – for a while, Kent. I heard you needed help.”
His laugh was mirthless. “I need a man. I have a housekeeper.”
“I know; but there are many things I could do.”
“Just what, besides daubing with paint and griping about hard work?”
She turned and went to stand by her bags, but, as he watched, the stiffness went out of her. Slowly she came back. She laid a hand on his arm.
“Won’t you give me a chance?”
Because her touch was dry ice in his veins he answered harshly, “Mrs. Bates isn’t up yet. You may have the back bedroom. Breakfast at six-thirty as usual.”
He whirled, and beyond the corral he straddled the fence and hurried to where water, running between rows of young beets, waited his attention. By the rapidly spreading light he noted the rows that were well soaked, those that were not. He dammed certain furrows and opened others. He felt the sun on his back and his shirt clung to him with perspiration. All the time his emotions were a battering ram pounding between the past and the present.
Why had she come back? Not because she was ready to give up painting, he had made certain of that with one glance at her bags. Because of love? She had loved him in the beginning, of that he was sure. Then why hadn’t they been able to make their marriage work? His one brief year with calm and gentle Barbara, who had died at Tim’s birth, had not prepared him for Jean. Jean had been a devoted mother to Tim, but she had been a temperamental wife. Painting had been her first love, of that, too, he felt certain. Was there now room in her heart for both, he wondered. No, that was wishful thinking.
Last night, alone with the silence and the water, he had told himself the wound was healed and he was free to marry again – should he ever reach that state of imbecility. But now she was back and he could only guess at her motive; and, fool that he was, he would gamble the opening of that wound against a day, a week, or a month of her presence.
With a savage push, the shovel bit deep into the bank of the ditch. He lifted the released mud and slapped it viciously into the mouth of a furrow.
Next to milking she had hated irrigating most. He straightened with a sudden thought. Well – why not? if her desire to stay was stronger than her dislike for milking – he turned and went slowly toward the house.
Halfway across the field his long legs faltered. He couldn’t do it. He had flung an ultimatum at her once and lost. With a groan, he dropped to the bank of the ditch and took his head between his hands.
Three years since she had gone away, and each year counted from one, as Tim would say. Tim! She might be after him – but that was absurd. Tim was his alone. There had been a baby girl, his and Jean’s. It was after her death that their differences had become a vicious wedge. Fear and heartbreak had warped his judgment, just as success and heartbreak had hers. She had won a national contest with a painting and had immediately plunged into plans for going east.
“You’re crazy,” he had shouted at her. “What would I do in town?”
“What do other men do? You are a college graduate. There are any number of things you might do.”
“But I am a farmer. My roots are here and here I am staying, so are you.”
“You can’t threaten me into staying. I hate this place. I hate –”
“Go on. Say it. Say you hate me.”
“No. no, Kent. I just hate your stubbornness. Always, always, the place comes first.”
“‘We get our living from the place. It must come first.”
“And I must paint.”
In blind fury he had splintered her easel with his boot. One powerful fling had scattered her paints. For a moment she had stared at him, white-lipped, and then had walked out of his life. His cheeks burned at the memory of his uncontrolled anger, but he had been right – well, surely he had been justified. Against the making of a home, her painting was no more than child’s play. Besides, he wanted the whole heart and soul of her, not a share. Now she was back and there was milking to be done.
She was sitting on the back steps in slacks and shirt. Thane was lying with his head in her lap.
“Come on.” He stood the shovel against the house. “I’ll start you on your work.”
“We always milk before breakfast. Have you forgotten?”
She rose abruptly, pushing the dog away.
After they were through, he sent her to the house while he wheeled the cans of milk to the road. When he came in she was sitting on the bench by the breakfast table. Mrs. Bates, the housekeeper, was baking waffles.
“if you had of told me we was having company –,” she began.
“We’re not,” he interrupted. “This is – a – our new hired man.”
Mrs. Bates dropped the waffle she was balancing on a knife. She smacked more batter on the iron. Her disapproval swelled to fill the room.
Kent sat down. With seeming indifference, Jean glanced at him, but that glance saw the network of coming wrinkles about his eyes and the straight lines of his mouth. He offered cream for her cereal but she refused.
“You will have to eat if you work.”
“I am waiting for a waffle.” A few moments later she was buttering the waffle, when she paused abruptly, knife poised in air.
“Morning, Bates. Hiya, Dad.” The bathroom door had opened and a boy came through. He had on shoes and levis but no shirt. He had washed hastily, and beads of moisture clung to his cheeks below his ears. A wet comb had leveled a path in the exact center of his riotous curls. Except for the curls, he was a replica of his father. The smile that passed between them made the girl blink quickly. The boy was slipping into the seat opposite his father when he noticed the stranger. He stopped short, then sat down by Kent.
“We have company already, huh?”
“I am not company, Timmy. I am your father’s – hired man.” The tone was so-o casual, but Kent could see the throbbing in her throat.
Tim’s laughter tumbled over the table. “You are not.”
“Cross my heart.”
Kent’s eyes darkened with misery. Just that easy – the inning was all hers.
“Phooey. Did I see you some place?”
“Umm-m. Could be.”
The boy searched for something that eluded him. “How did you know my name?”
“Why – your father must have told me.”
“Huh. You’re nice. I would like you for a mother.”
Kent expelled his breath. He rose abruptly and spoke to Jean. “You may clean the milkhouse. Tomorrow we will see about driving tractor. Tim, don’t forget the chickens before you take the cows to pasture.” He tousled the boy’s hair, and the gesture claimed sole possession. He stopped on the porch to pull on his boots.
When Jean came out Tim was with her, talking excitedly. A momentary exultation swept over Kent. It was so right for Tim to love her. It was so right for the three of them to be together.
“Don’t be a dope,” he warned himself. “Women like her never change. They are too self-centered.”
She didn’t come in to supper. Tim rushed in, ate hurriedly, and rushed out again. At eight, Kent coming in from changing the water, stopped by the barn. She and Tim were still struggling with the milkers.
“Go to the house,” he ordered. “I will finish.”
She ignored him as completely as she did his command. He hesitated only a moment, then went to the washhouse to change his clothes. In ten minutes they were through.
“This is the end,” Kent thought, and strangely was not pleased. “She will be gone with the morning.”
He was wrong. At five the next morning she was in the barn. At the end of the week Kent was bewildered. By all the rules she should have been gone. Could she have been sincere in what she said? The cows dropped gallons on their milk, but Jean gave no indication of knowing it. Mrs. Bates protested once.
“That girl is killing herself, and her not weighing a hundred pounds at the best.”
“One hundred ten,” he corrected. No one need tell him how much she should weigh. At one hundred ten she fit into the curve of his arm when he held it so …
One evening when she had been there a month, Kent came in from the field in time to see her and Tim making for the path that led to the river bottoms. Hopes that had grown unacknowledged writhed under a death blow. Well – what had he expected? He cut across the field to intercept them.
“Where are you going, Tim?”
The boy turned a troubled glance to his father. Ever since Jean had been living with them his father had been cross.
“For the cows, Dad. Jean is going with me after we see her picture. Did you know she paints pictures?”
“Jean wasn’t hired to paint.”
“Come on, Timmy.” Jean ran quickly down the path, but the boy hung back. Kent took his hand, but it was quietly withdrawn. Again the inning was hers.
Not long after that Kent came up behind Tim and Jean as they were bringing the cows out of the meadows. They were not aware of his presence. One cow refused to go with the herd and repeatedly Tim had to bring her back.
“Get back there, you crazy old so-and-so,” he yelled, and threw a well-aimed rock at her. The cow jumped and started the herd running. When Tim would have run after them Jean held him back.
“You have excited them. Wait until they are quiet and then we will drive them in.”
Tim sensed her disapproval. “You didn’t like me doing that, did you?” he asked.
“What do you think?”
“But she is an old –”
“A gentleman doesn’t lose his temper and yell.”
“Huh-uh. Dad does sometimes.”
Kent listened breathlessly for her answer, but it was drowned by the sudden barking of the collie.
Summer passed on wings of worry and work. Jean stayed on. Gradually she took over control of Tim. Slowly, so slowly he was not aware of it, she relieved Kent of many lesser responsibilities, especially those that concerned the running of the home. The hollow places in her cheeks filled out and her skin was a smooth velvety tan; yet, as the summer advanced, she grew increasingly restless. More and more often she followed the path down the bluff.
Kent, watching, wondered at man’s capacity for punishment. His arms ached for the feel of her. The irrigating season was over; the stacks of hay had turned brown. The potatoes were sacked and tomorrow he was starting on the beets. After that he would be around the house more and he would not be able to depend on the drugging power of exhaustion for self-control. This farce must end – now. He followed down the path.
Fall had swept the bottoms with a lavish brush. They were a riot of yellow and orange with here and there the flaming red of kinnikinnick. The blue of the river, showing through the partially leafless cottonwoods, duplicated the blue of the cloud-flecked sky. The slightly acrid odor of the meadows brought bitter-sweet memories. Other times they had been here when earth was rich with color and warm with life; when their love had been a living, undivided completeness.
He followed the winding path across the bridge, through the twilight of a cottonwo9od grove, and came to a clearing. here the river made a bend and, in the days before he owned this section, someone had built a shack against the bluff. He had rebuilt it into a studio. It had been their trysting place; it had been the scene of their last bitter quarrel.
As he came into the clearing Kent stopped short. Jean was standing before a canvas. The familiarity of her pose was breath-taking. He went slowly to stand back of her and she accepted his presence as if the lost years had never been. A long minute he looked, while pride and stubbornness fought for control of him. Pride won, but with it came a helplessness greater than he had known. He could no longer deny her art. Here was something that could not be bounded by his narrow acres. Here was vindication for her ambition.
The setting of the picture was similar to this spot. In the foreground a child, a small child with flaxen hair, clutched desperately at the scruff of a brown collie. His shoulders were tense, as if to ward off a blow. In the background a man was broadcasting grain over a rough and impotent ground. The sweep of his arm was both angry and determined. Opposite him a woman, using a stagnant pool as a mirror, was fastening a half-wilted flower in her hair. Between them the grass was rank and untrampled.
“Is it good, Kent?”
“You know it is.”
“I thought so but I was afraid to hope. What makes it good?” There was a breathlessness about her question that brought a tightening in his throat. “Once I tried to do this identical composition. The critics were savage.”
“No life, no depth, no understanding – to quote the kinder phrases.” She asked again, “What makes it good?”
“I am not sure I can say. The perception is better than the execution. It may be – it must be recognition of life and its relationships. I sensed at once the child’s fear and bewilderment, caught as he is between the fathers’ determination and the mother’s vanity.” He turned slowly to face her. Tears were running unheeded down her cheeks. “What are you trying to tell, Jean? Why are their faces turned from each other and from the richness that lies between them?”
“Just what you have said, Kent. I have grown up. I no longer see just the pool but the entire picture, and that perception has made me a better painter.”
“So you came back that you might be a better painter. I knew there was a catch somewhere.” His voice ran down to a point that was as bleak and cold as his eyes. “You may take your paints and leave – at once.”
“You are still fighting, aren’t you, Kent? Do you think painting alone would have kept me here? I tried to tell you that first morning. I want to stay home.”
“But – but …” The bleakness turned slowly to bewilderment. “You are no longer my wife. We are separated.”
Very carefully she laid aside her brush and came back to stand before him.
“We thought we were separated. We thought we could pull those years from our lives but we can’t. Between man and wife there can never be complete separation, only untrodden grass. There can be distance between them, yes; misunderstanding, yes, even forgetfulness, but never complete separation. I am your wife. I know now that miles, nor years, nor laws can undo the marriage relationship once it has existed. We may push it into the unaired chambers of our memory but it is still there. Marriage is, irrevocable and everlasting.”
Kent’s blood was pounding with hope, sweet and promising. He touched her gently, then suddenly she was in his arms, and the heartache and the misunderstanding were but a frightening nightmare. They did not hear the barking of the collie nor Tim’s cries until the boy threw himself against them.
“Us three is all together,” he cried happily.