Authors: Mary McCarthy
Tags: #General Fiction
A Charmed Life
OHN SINNOTT CUT HIS
hand trying to raise a stuck window in the downstairs bathroom. They had been established in their new-bought house a month, and John was still doing minor repairs. The summer tenant had left a row of cigarette burns on the upstairs-bathroom mantel, a big grease spot on the rug in the dining room (where he had spilled a platter of steak), a broken windowpane, an ink-stain worthy, as Martha Sinnott said, of Martin Luther on her white writing desk. The tenant was a bachelor lawyer from New York, with a theatrical clientele; and he had paid a very good rent, Martha reminded John, who was inclined to fly into tempers and feel himself misused. You had to expect some breakage, said Martha virtuously. They, too, had broken things in their day, she pointed out, reciting an inventory of their own sins as tenants. But for John it was not the same thing. He declined to compare himself with a tenant who let his friends drive their cars all over the lawn and shoot at bottles when they had been drinking and fall into Martha’s herb box, which she had planted in such a fever that spring, when they came up to get the house ready. John did not think that the fact that the tenant had left some liquor in the cabinet compensated for the damage. Nor did he think that the dining-room rug was the place to carve a steak, even though, as Martha pointed out, the table did wobble.
He was angry and he grew angrier all through September, as he came upon new scars and scratches, which he no longer mentioned to Martha, for it distressed her to be told of the tenant’s misdeeds, partly for the tenant’s sake and partly for John’s—she feared he was becoming unbalanced. Ever since Labor Day—the day the tenant had vacated—things had not been right between them. Martha, it seemed, had constituted herself the tenant’s advocate, finding excuses for him, palliating, appealing for clemency with big sorrowful brown eyes, like a regular little Portia. And in order to excuse the tenant she would gently indicate the house’s drawbacks—the wobbling table, the erratic stove, the fact that she had not got around to making curtains for the bedroom. This, for John, was indefensible. He was a young man of passionate loyalties and he would hear no word against the house, any more than he would against Martha. He detested her habit of self-criticism; he wished her and hers to be invulnerable.
He detested it most of all when she was right, or partly right, as she was, he knew, about the tenant. But she did not understand, as if perversely, that his anger at the lawyer was necessary to him, and principally on her account: he could not bear that her house should be treated with contumely. For Martha was in a delicate situation. She ought never to have come back here—and both John and Martha knew it—to the village of New Leeds, which she had left seven years before, when she had run away with John.
The Sinnotts were a romantic couple. Strangers still glanced after them on the street, wherever they went; waiters smiled; butchers beamed—as if they were morganatic, said Martha, who had begun to find the position ridiculous. It was partly their appearance. Martha was a strange, poetical-looking being, with very fair, straight hair done in a little knot, a quaint oval face, very dark, wide-set eyes, and a small, slight figure; she had been on the stage. John, also, was quite remarkable-looking, tall and small-boned, with high coloring, neatly inscribed features, and dark-brown, stiffly curling hair; he was the son of a military family and was often taken for English. Nobody ventured to guess Martha’s origins; in fact she was the child of a Swedish engineer and an Italian music teacher, who had borne her in Juneau, Alaska.
On the afternoon of John’s mishap, they were wearing matching white wool sweaters. Martha was sitting in the parlor, on the sofa, with yards of heavy white linen on her lap, making curtains for the bedroom; by her side was a box of brass rings. The scene was just what they had desired when they bought the house—the coal fire burning in the grate, white eighteenth-century panelling, deep window embrasures, the old black horsehair sofa, and Martha sewing tranquilly, like some Protestant pastor’s wife in an old tale, her mother’s gold thimble on her finger. And like the wife sewing in the fairy tale, Martha was wishing for a child. She wanted a center for their life, something, as she said ardently, to live for. Martha was a purposeful young woman; she sought a meaning for everything. She did not understand, yet, why they had come back to New Leeds, and she was waiting, eagerly, for the answer. She could not settle down in the house, as she told her husband, until she knew
they were here.
But on this particular afternoon she had decided that it was because they were going to have a child, probably, and her soul drew a breath of relief. John did not want a baby, so he flatly said, but he had never made her do anything to prevent it—he would change, Martha assured herself, if she actually became pregnant. With these thoughts running through her head, she was plying her needle contentedly when she heard a funny sound, a sort of muffled howl, that made her think a wild animal had got into the back of the house. This fantastic surmise permitted her to go on sewing steadily, like a sleeper who dreams an explanation for an alarming noise. She had hemmed nearly half a length before she awoke to the fact that the funny sound was her husband, John, in the kitchen. “What
it?” she called out in an angry voice mechanically fending off the knowledge that something bad must have happened to him. She laid aside the material, stabbing in the needle with the resigned, irritable patience of a person who is used to senseless interruptions. A hollow groan answered: “Hurt … [gasp] …myself.” Then she flew to the kitchen.
It was a fairly deep, crescent-shaped cut in the cushion of the field of Mars. The blood was spurting into the sink under a stream of cold water from the faucet. In the cellar, the noisy old pump was hammering as if in its death rattle. Martha resisted the impulse to turn the water down. “Let me see,” she begged, but John elbowed her sharply away as she hovered on tiptoe beside him, trying to get a second look at the cut. He kept holding it under the cold water and then licking it, dog style—he clung to the belief that the human tongue was antiseptic. “Bandage,” he gasped, gesturing her off with a look of ferocious hatred. Martha obeyed; she fetched gauze pads, adhesive tape, and scissors from the upstairs bathroom, taking her time, though she had the impression she was hurrying. She was no good at first aid, and minor injuries flustered her. She considered them unnecessary.
“Poor John,” she asseverated, trying to feel some solicitude as she started down the stairs again.
John.” But as soon as she saw him, scowling, seated at the kitchen table, sucking his hand, annoyance supervened. His moaning and swaying distracted her as she cut the strips of adhesive. When she tried to get the bandage on, she found that the strips were too short. “For God’s sake, let me do it!” her husband exclaimed. Martha’s heart quivered. Her delicate brown eyes opened wide and a tear stood in each of them. As she began to cut fresh strips, in silence, the two tears dropped, like gentle reproaches, onto the cherry table.
John Sinnott watched her sullenly. He knew that he had hurt her feelings deliberately, and he felt no remorse. Another time, Martha’s honesty and ineptitude would have touched him: she could not pretend to sympathize with what to her was an unseemly display. Appreciative of this—indeed, it was this straightness he admired in her—John nevertheless was enraged. The cut throbbed; he felt sick at his stomach. And he blamed her. Yes, that was the irrational thing. He blamed her, not only for her childish clumsiness with the bandage (she was clever enough with her fingers when it came to cooking and sewing and could make the prettiest tray for you when you were sick in bed with the doctor!) but for the cut itself. The instant his hand had gone through the window, a frantic rage had seized him. He had tried to discharge it elsewhere—on the tenant, the previous owner, the drunken, irresponsible handyman—but it was Martha’s toothbrush and lipstick and pale tortoise combs, lying on the window sill, that claimed the blame. Tears of fury had risen to his eyes. His own toothbrush and hairbrush and toothpaste lay on the sill, too. But he could not see them; all he could see was Martha—
lipstick, which rolled to the floor,
window. And all he could hear now was Martha’s voice, clear in his memory, murmuring that they ought to have shelves and a medicine cabinet in the downstairs bathroom. He suddenly stamped his foot on the floor and snatched the bandage away.
This was the way affairs had been going ever since they had come back to New Leeds to make a better life. The slightest thing that went wrong made him see Martha in it, though he would not say so. “I didn’t think of you at all,” he would demur if she protested that he blamed her, whereas in fact she was always in his mind, concealed under the appearance of a windstorm, a bare patch in the lawn, a piece of broken glass, a defective battery. He dwelt in an anthropomorphic world peopled by her impulsive mistakes. Yet the cardinal mistake, which was to come back here at all, he considered his own responsibility. Martha hated New Leeds—that is, its social aspect. This hatred, John had decided, was her safeguard. They could come back here because the place had no temptations for her; she had no wish to be a part of it again. They had come here, he announced, to be alone, so that Martha could write the play that he believed she could do, if she could get the right conditions.
And what was wrong with that, he furiously wanted to know. He had stern faith in Martha. He had seen her through three years during which she acted on Broadway while studying for her Ph.D. in philosophy, and three more years in which she did odd jobs—writing theater notices, recording novels for the blind, making a new translation of
The Wild Duck
for an off-Broadway production—and one year that was wasted in false starts on her play. He was used to making decisions and sacrifices on her behalf. He had stuck to a dullish job in the Historical Society, six days a week, so that Martha could be free not to work on radio or television. He had done this voluntarily and over Martha’s protest—she did not altogether like to be believed in. They had come to the country because he had decreed that it was time for them both to be serious, which was impossible in the city, with the telephone going all the time.
And, morally speaking, there was no reason John could see why they should not have chosen New Leeds; they had no wish to mingle in the community. Yet ever since Labor Day, from the moment they crossed the threshold, each of them had known that they had blundered, and had known that the other knew. But John’s military mentality would not admit of an error once their forces were committed. It incensed him to hear Martha talk blithely of “our” mistake, as she named it. She knew as well as he did that there was no retreat. He had quit his job to come here. Their small capital—the sum of two legacies—was tied up in the house. Every day there were new, unforeseen expenses: yesterday the pump, which Martha had put on the blink by leaving a faucet running; today the window, which would cost a dollar for a new pane, even if he puttied it himself. He had earned no money since they had been here; neither had Martha. She refused to worry about money and kept talking about improvements and additions. After only a month, he was sick at heart and scared. It was ironic for him to think that their seventh wedding anniversary was coming in November; seven years, they had once agreed, was the fatal span for love. At night, he still slept with Martha wrapped tenderly in his arms, but by day, more and more, he sensed that she conspired against him.
What frightened Martha, for her part, was the ebbing of concern. She had caught herself several times forgetting John’s existence when he had gone to the village for a few hours. They did not even quarrel the way they used to. Now, for example, once the bandage was on, they were no longer cross, though they had given each other ample provocation. He glowered and she looked sad, but underneath, she knew, neither of them felt a single thing. Martha would have liked to go back to the parlor and pick up her sewing or her book, but it did not seem quite polite to do so while John was in pain. John, she saw, wanted to lie down, away from her insistent gaze. But she could not let him be, because they had once been in love. “Lie down now,” she urged, half-heartedly. “I’ll put your things away.” But he at once smelt a reproach in her offer. “I’ll do it,” he retorted. “Just go away and leave me alone.” Martha glanced out the window. The sun was setting, and wood would have to be brought in for the dining-room fireplace before it got dark; if his tools were not put away, the dew would rust them. She knew very well that if he went into the bedroom, he would not come out for some time, and it exasperated her that he refused to know this simple fact about himself. She did not in the least mind getting the wood—why should she? What she minded was his self-deception. In his place, an honest person would have said thank you, and left it at that. She started to speak and halted herself, taking full credit for not saying what was on the tip of her tongue, but her glance out the window had said it all for her. “I’ll
it!” he cried, jumping up. He retired to the bedroom and theatrically slammed the door.