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Authors: John O’Hara

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BOOK: Ten North Frederick
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“May I offer congratulations, sir?”

“Thanks, Harry, you may, you may indeed.”

“It's too early to tell who she looks like?” said Harry.

“I haven't laid eyes on her. I'm taking her on faith and I love her sight unseen.”

“Yes, sir,” said Harry. He raised his cup. “To the new Miss Chapin. The only Miss Chapin, I guess, sir?”

“You are correct,” said Ben.

Ben returned to the sitting room where Joe was sitting on the sofa beside his mother. “Well, any more news?” said Ben.

“Not yet,” said Joe.

“Can't I persuade you two that this is a cause for celebration, not for long faces?” said Ben.

“It's easy for
you
to forget,” said Charlotte.

“How
dare
you!” said Ben.

“Father, please,” said Joe.

“Go upstairs and see your wife and your child,” said Ben. “Do as I tell you.”

“I'd better wait till—”

“Did you hear me?” said Ben.

Joe rose and left the room, and when he had gone Ben stood before his wife. “So—you've been filling him up with the horrors of it.”

“I refuse to listen to you,” said Charlotte.

“I know what you're doing, and you know I know it,” said Ben.

“If you could see yourself,” said Charlotte.

“I see
you
, all right,” said Ben.

“Yes, and I see you. You look as though you were having apoplexy. If you are—too bad. Too—bad.”

“You wish I were, but I'm not, Charlotte. I'm in the best of health and I'm going to stay that way, so I can watch my son getting to be a man.”

“Your idea of a man,” said Charlotte.

“Exactly,” said Ben. “Now he's a father, and you're going to have to watch him getting to be a husband. He hasn't been, but he will be. The human being you ought to hate now is that baby. That baby is your rival now.”

“Well, you never were,” said Charlotte. “I never had to worry about you.”

“Oh, I admit that. You ran his life, you got the affection and respect. But watching you lose it to a tiny girl, an infant, that's going to be some satisfaction to me. And there isn't a thing you can do about it, Charlotte my dear.”

“We'll see,” said Charlotte. “Or I will. As you yourself said, you won't be here for her wedding, and a lot can happen between now and then.”

Harry came in with the tray. “Congratulations, ma'am.”

“Thank you, Harry.”

The man left the room and Ben picked up the champagne bottle, removed the foil and the wire and started to twist the cork. Suddenly he turned and fell onto the sofa, dropping the bottle. Charlotte jumped to her feet, away from him, and looked at him. His eyes had closed and he was breathing heavily, his cheeks puffing and vibrating his lips.

“Ben!” she whispered sharply. “Ben!”

There was no answer.

“Ben Chapin,” she whispered again. That he was alive it was plain to see and hear. He was half sitting, half lying on the sofa, asleep as she had often seen him in his chair, but she knew that the suddenness of the overpowering sleep, the quick fall, were signs of a stroke. She jerked the bellpull and Harry responded. He went to Ben without speaking to Charlotte.

“A stroke?” said Harry.

“You'd better get Dr. English.”

Dr. English came down to the sitting room in his shirt-sleeves. He examined Ben, and with Harry's help stretched him out on the sofa. He turned to Charlotte. “He's had a stroke. He mustn't be moved. And I'd like an ice pack.”

“Some ice in the bowl, sir,” said Harry.

“How convenient,” said English. “Did he just keel over?”

“Yes,” said Charlotte. “We were talking, and Harry had brought in the champagne. And Ben was opening the bottle and suddenly he fell, right about where I was sitting. What can we do?”

“For the time being, let him sleep. I'll give him some medicine. Harry, go upstairs and bring me my satchel, the small black one with the compartments for pill bottles. Bring it right down and don't stop to answer any questions. Mrs. Chapin, I think it would be better if you went to your room.” Harry left.

“I don't think so,” said Charlotte.

“Well, I do.”

“I'm perfectly all right,” said Charlotte.

“Yes, I know you are,” said English. “That isn't what I was thinking about. And if you don't like being alone, take Marian with you, but not your son.”

“What are you implying?”

“Now, Mrs. Chapin, please?” said English. “As soon as the registry's open I'm going to get a trained nurse. You understand that there'll be two trained nurses staying in the house?”

“Yes, I understand,” said Charlotte.

“Then we
both
understand,” said English. “A mutual understanding, and no more need be said.”

She half smiled at him. “I think you're insolent, Billy English.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps Billy English is, but this is
Doctor
English, Mrs. Chapin, and I think
you're
being impertinent.”

“You will excuse me?” said Charlotte, and withdrew.

 • • • 

The presence in
10
North Frederick of two helpless persons and two persons who were professionally helpful brought about major rearrangements in the housekeeping and in the household. “I always seem to be passing someone on the stairs,” said Joe to his wife.

“Well, we have life and death happening right here at home. It's like a small hospital.”

“Doesn't seem so small, either,” said Joe. “I went to see Billy English.”

“What did Billy have to say?”

“I went to have a talk with him about Father.”

“Yes, I gathered that,” said Edith.

“Billy doesn't think that was the first stroke Father had. I don't suppose Father ever said anything to you?”

“Heavens, no.”

“Well, it was a possibility. You and Father were getting closer,” said Joe.

“Mostly because I was having Ann. He was being solicitous, that's all.”

“He never said anything to me.”

“And I shouldn't think he'd have said anything to your mother,” said Edith.

“No. I haven't asked her, but I shouldn't think so,” said Joe.

“If he had had a stroke before wouldn't somebody have known?”

“Not necessarily. It might have been a slight one and he didn't even know it himself. At least not recognized it as a stroke.”

“Are you worried about him?”

“Am I worried about him? Perhaps not as much as I should be.”

“Should you be?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Why?” said Edith. “Something Billy English told you?”

“What he didn't tell me, as much as what he did.”

“What do you think he didn't tell you?”

“Well—he seemed to be implying that Father'd now had two strokes and the next one would be fatal.”

“But he didn't say it in so many words?”

“No, not in so many words. Doctors can be like lawyers when it comes to making a positive statement. And I guess for the same reason. Self-protection. What you don't say can't be used against you.”

“It's too bad your father isn't going to live a long time.”

“It is, but why do you say it that way?” said Joe.

“Because he loves Ann and gets such pleasure out of her.”

“So does Mother.”

“Your mother is waiting for me to produce a son. Your father is happy that I produced Ann.”

“Naturally Mother would like to have a grandson, but I don't think of her as waiting for you to produce one. She loves you very dearly. I've told you that.”

“Yes, you've told me, quite a few times. But I think your mother and I understand each other. You don't understand us. You see—we don't have to love each other, your mother and I.”

“Not have to, of course.”

“Not have to, and don't. I am your wife, and that was all I was until Ann was born. Now it's all I am again until I produce a grandson. You mustn't insist on your mother and me loving each other. That's one of your notions. You have so many notions.”

“I believe in certain things, yes.”

“Notions. I'm talking about notions. You've had a notion for years that your mother and father love each other. They don't. They hate each other. Why can't you face the truth and admit that they hate each other? I hadn't lived in this house a week before I knew it. I guessed it before we were married, but after a week, I knew it.”

“They often disagree, and—”

“Please don't deny it to me. That's the trouble with your notions. You deceive yourself.”

“Sometimes it's better to deceive yourself.”

“Oh, you do admit it.”

“No, I don't admit it. Underneath it all Father and Mother love each other.”

“You'd be happier if you admitted it,” said Edith.

“Happier? To admit that my father and mother hate each other?”

“Yes.”

“Edith, there are times when I don't understand you at all.”

“I can readily believe that.”

“How could I possibly be happier if I knew my father and mother hated each other?”

“I can explain that easily. If you admitted it, then you wouldn't keep on looking for signs of their loving each other. You never see any signs of it, but you go on looking because you won't admit the truth. The truth being, that they can't stand each other.”

“Now how would that make me happier?”

“I've just told you,” said Edith. “You spend half your life convincing yourself that they love each other and looking for proof, but the only time you get any kind of proof it's proof that they
don't
love each other, not that they do.”

“But you haven't explained why I'd be happier.”

“If you thought there was a gold mine in the back yard and dug for it and dug for it, but then some expert told you there was no gold within a thousand miles, wouldn't you be happier not wasting your time?”

“The expert might be wrong.”

“Meaning I might be wrong?” said Edith.

“Yes. You might be.”

“When you were a little boy, you believed in Santa Claus.”

“Till I was five years old, I think.”

“But not now,” said Edith.

“No.”

“Because believing in Santa Claus is a childish notion.”

“It may be a childish notion, yes. But it's a good one.”

“For children.”

“Yes.”

“Did the stork bring Ann?”

“Oh, now, Edith,” said Joe.

“Did the stork bring Ann?”

“‘Answer yes or no'? No.”

“You and I made love and your seed stayed inside me and grew and finally very painfully I gave birth to a child. Not the stork flying over Gibbsville and bringing a baby to
10
North Frederick Street.”

“Yes.”

“When you were born, did the stork bring you?”

“No.”

“Your mother and father made love, and so forth.”

“Yes.”

“Your mother eats three meals a day.”

“Yes.”

“Your father eats three meals a day.”

“Yes.”

“Does your mother go to the bathroom?”

“Yes, and so does my father.”

“Do they drink water?”

“Yes.”

“Do they breathe air?”

“Yes.”

“Does your mother like anybody?”

“Of course.”

“Does she dislike anybody?”

“Yes.”

“Does she hate anybody?”

“Oh.”

“Please just answer me. Does she?”

“I don't know that she hates anybody.”

“Do you believe it possible that she
could
hate anybody?”

“Could, that's a big word. Yes, I suppose she could.”

“Could she hate your father?”

“She could, but I don't admit that she does.”

“Will you admit that she could hate him and that he could hate her? You don't have to go into the reasons why they do, just admit that they could. If you admit that much, for the first time in your life, then that'll be a start toward getting rid of one of your notions. You know of law cases in which the husband and wife hate each other, even kill each other. Your notion is that it couldn't happen to your mother and
your
father.”

“That's what I prefer to think.”

“You're afraid that if you think something people will know you're thinking it. Don't be afraid of that. They won't have to know. But if you deceive yourself, you'll know it. You'll be more successful and happier if you don't deceive yourself. I'm happier than you are because I don't deceive myself. I know all the good and the bad things about myself.”

“I don't think you're any happier than I am, and I don't know any of the bad things about you.”

“You might not be so happy if you knew the bad things about me.”

“What are they?”

“They're my secret, and I hope you never find out. You won't if I can help it.”

“Would you like to know some of the bad things about me?” said Joe.

“No, I'd rather not.”

“Ah, then you practice self-deception too.”

“Perhaps I do, perhaps not. But it doesn't suit my plan to have you tell me the bad things about yourself.”

“You'd rather find them out on your own hook?”

“Oh, perhaps. I'm only a woman, so don't expect me to be consistent.”

The crying of their daughter brought an end to the colloquy. The nursery was on the floor above their room and in the hall they saw Joe's father standing in the doorway of his own bedroom, clad in nightgown and bathrobe and leaning on a snakewood walking stick.

“Time for her little drink, eh?” said Ben.

BOOK: Ten North Frederick
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