Something Ive Been Meaning to Tell You
the History of North America as she had never learned anything in her life. Missouri Compromise. Mackenzie to the Pacific, 1793—She never forgot.
Arthur Comber was thirty or so, with a high bald forehead, a red face in spite of not drinking (that later paled) and a clumsy, excited manner. He knocked a bottle of ink off his desk and permanently stained the History Room floor. “Oh dear, oh dear,” he said, crouching down to the spreading ink, flapping at it with his handkerchief. Et imitated that. “Oh dear, oh dear!” “Oh good heavens!” All his flustery exclamations and miscalculated gestures. Then, when he took her essay at the door, his red face shining with eagerness, giving her work and herself such a welcome, she felt sorry. That was why she worked so hard, she thought, to make up for mocking him.
He had a black scholar’s gown he wore over his suit,to teach in. Even when he wasn’t wearing it, Et could see it on him. Hurrying along the street to one of his innumerable, joyfully undertaken obligations, flapping away at the Oratorio singers, jumping on stage—so the whole floor trembled—to demonstrate something to the actors in a play, he seemed to her to have those long ridiculous crow’s wings flapping after him, to be as different from other men, as absurd yet intriguing, as the priest from Holy Cross. Char made him give up the gown altogether, after they were married. She had heard that he tripped in it, running up the steps of the school. He had gone sprawling. That finished it, she ripped it up.
“I was afraid one of these days you’d really get hurt.”
But Arthur said, “Ah. You thought I looked like a fool.”
Char didn’t deny it, though his eyes on her, his wide smile, were begging her to. Her mouth twitched at the corners, in spite of herself. Contempt. Fury. Et saw, they both saw, a great wave of that go over her before she could smile at him and say, “Don’t be silly.” Then her smile and her eyes were trying to hold on to him, trying to clutch onto his goodness (which she saw, as much as anybody else did, but which finally only enraged her, Et believed, like everything else about him, like his sweaty forehead and his galloping optimism), before that boiling wave could come back again, altogether carry her away.
Char had a miscarriage during the first year of her marriage and was sick for a long time afterwards. She was never pregnant again. Et by this time was not living in the house; she had her own place on the Square, but she was there one time on washday, helping Char haul the sheets off the line. Their parents were both dead by that time—their mother had died before and their father after the wedding—but it looked to Et like sheets for two beds.
“It gives you plenty of wash.”
“Changing sheets like you do.”
Et was often there in the evening, playing rummy with Arthur while Char, in the other room, picked at the piano in the dark. Or talking and reading library books with Char, while Arthur marked his papers. Arthur walked her home. “Why do you have to go off and live by yourself anyway?” he scolded her. “You ought to come back and live with us.”
“Three’s a crowd.”
“It wouldn’t be for long. Some man is going to come along some day and fall hard.”
“If he was such a fool as to do that I’d never fall for him, so we’d be back where we started.”
“I was a fool that fell for Char, and she ended up having me.”
Just the way he said her name indicated that Char was above, outside, all ordinary considerations—a marvel, a mystery. No one could hope to solve her, they were lucky just being allowed to contemplate her. Et was on the verge of saying, “She swallowed blueing once over a man that wouldn’t have her,” but she thought what would be the good of it, Char would only seem more splendid to him, like a heroine out of Shakespeare. He squeezed Et’s waist as if to stress their companionable puzzlement, involuntary obeisance, before her sister. She felt afterwards the bumpy pressure of his fingers as if they had left dents just above where her skirt fastened. It had felt like somebody absent-mindedly trying out the keys of a piano.
Et had set up in the dressmaking business. She had a long narrow room on the Square, once a shop, where she did all her fitting, sewing, cutting, pressing and, behind a curtain, her sleeping and cooking. She could lie in bed and look at the squares of pressed tin on her
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