Authors: Jim Thompson
Little, Brown and Company
New York Boston London
To Lois and Elliott McDowell
“Ah, take the cash and let the credit go…”
t was five o’clock when the train stopped at Verdon, and the town and the valley still lay under the gray dark of pre-dawn. Along the crest of the sand-hills a few snaky fingers of sunlight had edged down through the hayflats, dipping shiveringly into the icy Calamus, darting back through driftfence, scurrying past soddy and dugout; but the rich valley rested undisturbed, darkly, luxuriously. Like some benevolent giant resting until the last possible moment for the day’s prodigious labors, it clung to the darkness; and the dimmed lights of the train stood back against the night, satisfied with their own dominion. The long station platform was a brown field of plank, harrowed with age and drought and rain.
Mrs. Dillon stepped down from the train, pulling her elbow gingerly away from the proffered hand of the conductor. This was not entirely due to prudishness (although all her training inclined her to believe that a woman traveling unescorted could not be too careful); it was largely because she disliked and was terrified by the conductor. She assured herself that she was able to hold her own with any man—any two like
—but the fright and dislike were there, nonetheless. It was the terror and distaste of a proud person who has had more demanded of him than he can give. She could have, to use one of her favorite expressions, snatched the trainman bald-headed.
In moving away from him, however, and partly because of the darkness, she did not put her foot down squarely on the alighting stool. She fell forward to the platform, instinctively twisting her body so that she would not crush her son whom she carried in her arms. He fell on top of her, rolled across her face and ostrich-plumed hat, and came awake whimpering on his knees. She brushed down her skirts and petticoats with a swooping motion and was back on her feet before the conductor could reach her.
She stooped, clutched the boy to her bosom once, then shook him vigorously. “You’re all right, aren’t you? Well, stop that bawling, then.” She began rearranging her hat, pawing at him with the other hand. “Do you hurt somewhere? Well, shut up! Show me where you’re hurt.”
The conductor cleared his throat. “All right, lady. How about you and me finishing our business so this train can leave?”
“What?” Mrs. Dillon turned on him furiously. “You stop bothering me! You’ve pestered me this whole trip until I’m about half sick. I’ve got nothing more to say to you!”
“You say your husband’s got a law office in Oklahoma City?”
“Yes, I did say it!” said Mrs. Dillon. “Robert A. Dillon, attorney at law.” She rolled the title out, hungrily even in her fear.
“But he’s not there now?”
“No, he’s not! I told you that, too! And I’m telling you again I don’t know where he is, and—and I don’t care!”
“Now, never mind about that,” said the conductor, writing into a notebook by the light of his lantern. “Who are you visiting here?”
“That’s none of your business!”
“Parents, mmm?” The conductor wrote. “And you still say that big youngster is only five years old, that he isn’t quite five yet?”
“I’ve told you a hundred times. I won’t tell you again!”
“Well”—he snapped shut his notebook—“you’ll find you can’t defraud a railroad, lady. It’s best not to try. You’ll hear from us.”
Mrs. Dillon glared at him, shaking. “Oh, will I?” she demanded suddenly.
“That you will. You can’t—”
“Don’t you tell me what I can and can’t do! My son, Robert, and I just fell off your train. The step was slippery. Yes, and I’ll bet a doctor could find plenty wrong with us, and I’ve got half a mind to—”
“Now, just a minute,” the conductor protested. “That step ain’t slippery. Besides, no one saw you—”
“I’ll get plenty of ’em to say they did!” Mrs. Dillon exclaimed practically. “My family just about built this town. Me and my—my family and their friends built the town down there where the station ought to be instead of half a mile way up here. Yes, and they got stuck for thousands of dollars’ worth of town lots out there in that cornfield. And they pay so much freight to your thieving railroad it doesn’t pay ’em to ship their stuff half the time. And—”
“All right, lady, all right.” The conductor waved his lantern wearily. “We’ll call it quits.”
Better even than she, he knew what happened when a countryman went to court against the railroad in this section. They were clannish, intermarried; and even in the midst of fighting among themselves, they would turn to make common cause against the railroad. It was ever the prize Holstein that had been run over, always the seed-grain field that had been ignited by sparks from the smokestack. Not that the railroad was powerless; it had, rather, grown too far from its roots. It had battened on townsites and subsidies and subcontracts, damning one section, enriching another, then threatening the second with the fate of the first. And even now it fed richly, fed far beyond the demands of its expenses—its legitimate expenses. But its friends, its servants, rather, were in the cities and capitals. There the branches lay green. The roots, unprotected, gnawed at, watered unwillingly or with malice, were dying.
Mrs. Dillon, watching the train jerk and hump and glide away, was all unconscious of the fact that she had created history, that she was the symbol of an era which would, perhaps unintentionally, almost always be misinterpreted. Thirty years later, even fifteen years later in the depression of the early twenties, when editorial writers and politicians were crying for the rugged individualism of bygone days—when they were actually praising distrust of government and encouraging anarchy—Mrs. Dillon would still not see the part she had played for what it was. Nor would she have cared greatly if she had.
The things that would stand out clear and sharp in her memory were the dawn spreading down the river, like paint pulled over a canvas; the green fields of corn, popping and rustling with their growth; the muted, sad lowing of awakening cattle; her youth and confidence in the face of disaster; her boy, her boy, her boy.…
…Now, she patted him again, tenderly, spat on her palm and applied it to the stubborn cowlick at the back of his head, and threatened to skin him alive.
“What are you bellering about?” she demanded. “I swear I’ll tan you brown if you don’t shut up! What’s the matter with Mama’s little sweetheart?”
“How do I…maybe he had to see a man. He’ll be along afterwhile, and if you’re not good I’ll tell him about it.”
“Will he be at Gran’pa Fargo’s house?”
“Oh, I guess. We’ll see.”
The boy began to weep again. “Y-you s-s-said Pop-puh would be at Gran’pa’s! Y-you s-said—”
“Well, darn it, I said we’d see!” exclaimed Mrs. Dillon. “Now, shut up or he’ll hear you and run away!”
“A-all right.” The boy shuddered and rubbed his eyes.
“Do you have to go to the toilet?”
“Well, I thought so!” said Mrs. Dillon. “I ought to know what’s wrong any time you start that dancing and prancing.”
Leaving the straw suitcase and the canvas “telescope” where they stood, she grasped him by the hand and led him down the fifty-odd feet—expensive and unnecessary feet—of the station platform. The night was rising like fog, now, and a steadily heightening wall of day was crowding beneath it.
At the end of the platform, Mrs. Dillon pointed down a narrow weed-arched path which led down through a ditch to a dull-red chalet on the opposite bank. The door stood open and even in the freshness of the morning there was the pungent, not-unpleasant smell of lime at work.
“All right,” said Mrs. Dillon. “You go right over there.”
The boy giggled incredulously. “Aw, that ain’t no bathroom.”
“That isn’t any bathroom.”
“Well, where is the bathroom, then?”
“I mean it is too a bathroom,” said Mrs. Dillon. “It’s what they call a privy. It’s the only kind of a bathroom they have out here.”
“Aw,” said the boy, studying her face; and he looked again at the little building. It was like one of the houses he and Papa had used to build out of cards. “Did you go to a privy when you were a little girl?”
“I always did,” said Mrs. Dillon firmly.
Robert jiggled uncertainly. He clutched himself. “You go with me,” he whined.
“No, I’m not going with you. I’ll get my skirts so wet in those weeds they never will get dry. You go on, and I’ll stand right here.”
“You won’t go ’way?”
“Where would I go to, for goodness’ sake? Climb a telephone pole?”
Robert giggled, his mother gave him a little shove, and he started down the path. By the time he had, after several stops and angry promptings, reached the ditch, he could see that the building was empty, and he strode on from there bravely. He stepped inside and looked around. The sole furniture of the structure was what appeared to be a chest with two holes in it against the opposite wall. He edged up to this and glanced down into a black abyss, sniffing. Then, intrigued, he placed his face to the smaller of the two holes, the one for women, and spent a long minute in interested study.
Frowning, if a child of slightly less than seven can be said to frown, he went to the door.
“There’s something in here,” he called. “It ain’t been flushed.”
“It hasn’t been flushed,” corrected Mrs. Dillon.
“I know it hasn’t.”
“Robert!” sputtered Mrs. Dillon. “If you don’t stop aggravating me—if I have to come over there to you—!”
“But it ain’t—it’s full.”
“It is not!” Mrs. Dillon almost shouted. “There’s plenty of room yet!”
“Well, but what do they do with it?”
“I don’t know!” yelled Mrs. Dillon; and sighed. “Well, yes, I do know. The Chinamen come up and get it.”
“Oh,” said her son.
There was enough of the truth as he knew it in her statement to satisfy him. He could not understand why the Chinamen would undertake such odious work nor how they could get up through the ground to perform it. But neither could he understand how they walked around on the other side of the earth with their heads hanging down, which, indubitably, they did.
“Well”—he hesitated—“maybe they’ll reach up and grab me.”
“I swear they’d bring you back if they did!” replied his mother. “But they won’t. They’re not out this late.
Now go on!
Robert went. Pleasantly frightened at the recent proximity of the Chinamen and amused at the thought of dampening some straggler, he fulfilled the demand upon him and turned to leave. He did not do so immediately, of course. It was his weakness, born perhaps of a bodily one (the need for rest and an excuse for it), to give free play to his curiosity whenever it was aroused.
He saw a mangled catalogue suspended from the wall by a nail. He lifted it down, took it to the door, and held it up, demanding the explanation for its presence.
“Robert! You come on here!”
“But what’s it for?”
“It’s to—it’s to read!”
“Well,” the boy said, “maybe I better read it a little, then.”
He opened the thick book clumsily and began turning through the pages, looking for some picture that would assist him with the text. He was a thin, gawky boy, pale, and with a big head and sandy hair. He wore what was known in those days as a Buster Brown suit: a middy blouse with a large drape collar and open-bottom, knee-length pants attached to the waist by a circle of large white buttons. His hat was a wide-brimmed brown sailor, held on by a rubber band beneath his chin, and decorated around the crown and over the rear brim by ribbon streamers. On his feet he wore brown-striped half-socks and patent leather slippers.
He had assumed the garb only upon Mrs. Dillon’s repeated assurances that it was the current uniform of the United States Army. She had dressed him thus in the futile hope of concealing his true age from the trainmen.
Her streak of hard practicality told her that it was something that had to be attempted, and, yet, looking at him now, so ludicrous and so trustfully unconscious of it, the tears came into her eyes. How wrong to abuse the confidence of a child! There was no excuse for it. Never, she thought, will I do it again.
She blinked her eyes, covering them for a moment with her hand. And when she opened them again, he was standing in front of her, smiling up at her proudly.
“The Chinamen didn’t get me, Mama. I went all by myself and I wasn’t a bit afraid.”
“Of course you weren’t! You’re Mama’s big brave boy, aren’t you?”
“Uh-huh. We goin’ out to Gran’pa Fargo’s house, now?”
“Will Papa be there?”
“I’m afraid not, honey.”
“You said he would! You said Papa would be there! You know you did! You said—”
“Well,” Mrs. Dillon said, “maybe he will be. We’ll see.”