Read This Sweet Sickness Online
Authors: Patricia Highsmith
ADDITIONAL BOOKS BY PATRICIA HIGHSMITH
PUBLISHED BY W. W. NORTON
Strangers on a Train
The Price of Salt
(as Claire Morgan)
The Talented Mr. Ripley
The Glass Cell
A Suspension of Mercy
Ripley Under Ground
A Dog's Ransom
Little Tales of Misogyny
The Animal-Lover's Book of Beastly Murder
Slowly, Slowly in the Wind
The Boy Who Followed Ripley
The Black House
People Who Knock on the Door
Mermaids on the Golf Course
Ripley Under Water
Small g: A Summer Idyll
Nothing That Meets the Eye: The Uncollected Stories of Patricia Highsmith
ADDITIONAL TITLES FROM OTHER PUBLISHERS
Miranda the Panda Is on the Veranda (with Doris Sanders)
A Game for the Living
The Cry of the Owl
The Two Faces of January
Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction
Those Who Walk Away
The Tremor of Forgery
The Snail-Watcher and Other Stories
Found in the Street
Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes
This Sweet Sickness
W. W. N
Â Â Â L
To my Mother
t was jealousy that kept David from sleeping, drove him from a tousled bed out of the dark and silent boardinghouse to walk the streets.
He had so long lived with his jealousy, however, that the usual images and words, with their direct and obvious impact on the heart, no longer came to the surface of his mind. It was now just the Situation. The Situation was the way it was and had been for nearly two years. No use bothering with the details. The Situation was like a rock, say a five-pound rock, that he carried around in his chest day and night. The evenings and the nights, when he wasn't working, were a little bit worse than the daytime, that was all.
The streets in the neighborhood, residential in a shabby, run-down way, were now black and deserted. It was just after midnight. David turned a corner into a street that sloped down toward the Hudson River. Behind him, he heard a faint sound of car motors starting: the movie on Main Street was letting out. He stepped onto a curb and dodged the trunk of a tree that grew inward, sloping over the sidewalk. In the upstairs corner room of a two-story frame house a yellowish light was on. Was somebody reading late or just going to the bathroom, David wondered. A man passed him, weaving lazily, drunk. David came to a
sign, stepped over a low white fence onto pebbly ground, folded his arms and stood staring at the blackness in front of him that was the river. He could not really see the river, but he could smell it. He knew it was there, gray-green, deep and rolling, and more or less dirty. He had left the house without his jacket, and the autumn wind blew sharp. He stood it for five minutes or so, then turned and recrossed the little fence.
His way back to the boardinghouse took him past Andy's Diner, an aluminum boxcar set catercornered in a vacant lot. Without desire for food or even warmth, he walked toward it. There were only two customers, men, a long way apart in the row of stools, and David sat down midway between them. The place smelled of frying hamburger meat and, faintly, of its weak coffee that David disliked. A muscular, slow-moving man named Sam ran the diner with his wife. Someone had told David that Andy had died a couple of years ago.
“How you tonight?” Sam said tiredly, not even looking at David, and gave the counter a perfunctory swipe with a rag.
“Fine. I'll have a cup of coffee, please,” David said.
“Yes, please.” With milk and sugar the coffee tasted rather like tea, and certainly would not keep anybody awake. David put his elbows on the counter, made a fist of his cold right hand, and squeezed it hard with his left. He stared unseeing at a brightly colored photograph of a plate of food. Somebody came in and sat down beside him, a girl. David did not glance her way.
“Good evening, Sam,” the girl said, and Sam's face came alive.
“Hi-i! How's my sweetheart tonight? What'll it be? The usual?”
“Uh-huh. And plenty of whip cream.”
“Not me, I don't have to worry.” She turned her head to David. “Good evening, Mr. Kelsey.”
David started and looked at her. He didn't know her. “Good evening,” he replied, automatically smiling a little, then looked in front of him again.
After a moment the girl said, “Are you always so quiet?”
He looked at her again. She wasn't a cheap girl, he thought, just an ordinary girl. “I suppose so,” he said shyly, and dragged the mug of coffee toward him.
“You don't remember me, do you?” she said with a laugh.
“No, I don't.”
“I'm staying at Mrs. McCartney's too,” she said through a wide smile. “She introduced us Monday night. I've seen you every night in the dining room, but I have breakfast earlier than you do. My name's Effie Brennan. Glad to meet you for the second time.” She gave a nod that made her light brown hair bounce.
“Glad to meet you,” David said. “Sorry my memory's so bad.”
“Maybe for people. Mrs. McCartney says you're a whiz of a scientist. Thanks, Sam.”
She bent over her chocolate, smelling its vapor, and though David did not glance at her, he was aware that she wiped her spoon surreptitiously with her paper napkin before she put it into the cup, and that she played with the dollop of whipped cream, turning it over and over with the spoon in the chocolate.
“You weren't by any chance at the movie tonight, were you, Mr. Kelsey?”
“No, I wasn't.”
“You didn't miss much. But I like practically any kind of movies, I guess. Maybe it's not having a TV set any more. The girls I was living with before had one, but it belonged to the girl who moved out. I had one at home, but I haven't been home in six months. To live, I mean. I'm from Ellenville. You're not from here, are you?”
“Oh, California!” she said with awe. “Well, Froudsburg isn't much, I guess, but it's bigger than what I'm used to. Which isn't saying much, of course.” She smiled her big smile again. She had large, square front teeth and a rather thin face. “I've got a nice job here. I'm a secretary in a lumber yard. Depew's. You probably know it. I had a nice apartment, but one of my roommates got married, so we had to give the place up. Right now I'm looking for another apartment I can afford. I can't say I'd like Mrs. McCartney's on a permanent basis.” She laughed.
David didn't know what to say.
“Would you?” she asked.
“Oh, it's all right.”
She sipped again, bending low. “Well, maybe for a man. I don't like this business of sharing bathrooms. Have you been there long?”
“A little over a year,” David said, feeling the girl's eyes on him, though he did not look at her.
“Gosh. Then I guess you must like it.”
Other people had said the same thing to him. Everyone, even this girl who had just come to Mrs. McCartney's, knew he made a good salary. Sooner or later someone at the house would tell her what he did with his money.
“But Mrs. McCartney told me you had an invalid mother to support.”
She knew already. “That's right,” David said.
“Mrs. McCartney thinks that's wonderful of you. So do I. I don't suppose you have a match, Mr. Kelsey.”
“I'm sorry. I don't smoke.” He raised his hand. “Sam, could you let her have a match?”
“Sure thing.” Sam handed David a book of matches with his free hand as he walked by.
The girl held her cigarette in her mouth between two fingers with painted nails, expecting him to light it for her, but he presented the book of matches to her with a smile. Then he laid a dime down on the counter and slid off the stool. “Well, good night.”
“Just a sec and I'll walk with you. That is, if you're going home.”
David said nothing, trapped. He found himself opening the sliding door for her. She was talking again, something about coming to the diner for her coffee breaks, because the lumber yard wasn't far away. She chattered on, and David pretended to listen. She asked him what kind of consulting work he did at Cheswick Fabrics, and he replied that that meant various competitors came to snoop around the factory and find out, for instance, the formula of the rinse they used for the plastics.
“Aw, I bet you're kidding! Mrs. McCartney said you were the head of Cheswick, and people have to come to you instead of you going to them, because your company can't spare you for a day,” the girl ran on, her voice loud and clear in the sleeping street.
“I don't know where she got that. A man named Lewissohn is the head of it. I'm just the chief engineer. Just a chemist.”
“Speaking of chemistry, I bet you've got a brand new kind of element in Mrs. McCartney's upstairs bathroom,” she said through a laugh. “Did you see that orangey stuff in the tub underneath the tap? Good grief!”
David, who knew the orange deposits well, laughed too, and glanced at the girl as they walked under a street lamp. She was about five feet five and perhaps twenty-four, not pretty and not unattractive either. Her light brown eyes looked up at him frankly and with a naive mischief.
“We're here. Isn't that it?” she asked, pointing at the dark house in a row of houses.
“Yes,” said David, who could have found the house blindfolded, guided by the irregularities of the sidewalk under his feet.
The girl stopped on the short front walk, and an instant later David saw what she had seen. It was Wes. He had been sitting on the front steps.
“Well, well,” Wes said softly, looking at the girl.
“You didn't wake Mrs. Mac, did you, Wes?” David asked.
“No, just one of the old guys downstairs.” Wes bowed to the girl.
“I'd better say good night,” David said to her in a quiet voice.
“You're not going to introduce us?” asked Wes.
“I'm sorry. This is Wes Carmichael. Missâ”
“Brennan,” the girl said. “Effie.”
“Effie,” Wes repeated, smiling. “How do you do?”
“How do you do, Mr. Carmichael? Well, I'll be going in. Good night, Mr. Kelsey.”
Before she had unlocked the front door, Wes said in an urgent, flat tone, “Dave, I want you to come home with me. Don't argue. I'm in no mood for arguing. I had enough.”
“It's late, Wes, it's late.” David extricated his arm gently from Wes's hold.
“No, you're going to come. You can do more good by just putting your nose in that house than I can do with a million words. Words! What good're words with Laura!”
“Another bad night?”
Wes stood swaying with his face in his hands. “People over for drinks.
friends, and they didn't leave soon enough. She started blowing her top even before they left. Come with me, Dave, please. I'll drive you.”
“I'm not going.”
“You've gotta. You've never even met her, and boy, tonight's the night.”
“I don't want to meet her, ever. I'm sorry, Wes, but I don't. Now we both have to be at work at nine.”
“Oh, it's not that late. What is it, about eleven?” He tried to see his wristwatch dial and gave it up.
“I'll drive you home and walk back. How's that?”
“You'll drive me there and come in.
. Jesus, she's probably broken every dish in the house by now.”
“Sh-h-h. Come on.” He pulled Wes toward his car, a green Oldsmobile blocking half of Mrs. McCartney's driveway. He pushed Wes into it and got into the driver's seat.
During the ten-block drive David heard more details of the evening, which was no different from many other evenings he had heard about, though Wes was always convinced a new evening was different from all the others, and that things were getting worse between him and Laura.
“And then she expects me to make love to her!” Wes was saying with indignation. “How can I? How could anybody? Maybe some guys could, but I can't.”
Wes's voice was like a distant violence that did not concern David. He scanned the Carmichael house warily as he approached it, not wanting to encounter an enraged Laura on the sidewalk or the lawn. A light was on at a side window in the back of the house, probably the kitchen where all the breakage had taken place, and there was also a light in an upstairs room. It was absolutely quiet. David said that Laura had probably gone to bed and that there wasn't any use in his coming in at this hour, and after a few feeble protestations, Wes shut up. It was depressing to David that the mere proximity to Laura could so demolish Wes's courage and his intention.
“Dave, take the car and pick me up in it tomorrow morning. Don't walk back.”
“No, no, Wes. Now turn loose. I'm fine.”
Wes stood up suddenly tall and clapped David on the shoulder, but there was a scared look on his face and tears of drunken melancholy in his eyes. “You're the best pal a guy ever had, Dave. You're the greatest guy I ever knew.”
“Take some aspirin and drink a lot of water before you go to sleep,” David whispered.
David waved to him and walked off into the night. He felt strong and free, free of all the tragic mess that Wes was in. He even smiled at it, and shook his head pityingly. David had met Wesley Carmichael just after his honeymoon, and he remembered envying Wes his happiness. Bitterly envying it. He had almost been jealous. He had heard at the factory about Wes's easy, whirlwind courtship, about the beauty of Laura, et cetera, et cetera, and maybe there had been three months or so when Wes still wore that aura of happinessâa little mortal, touched for a while by the godsâbut that time had been so brief, David really hardly remembered it. There had been a swift descent to hell, and that was the level on which Wes lived now. Often Wes visited David in the evenings to escape from Laura's tongue and from her neurotic housecleaning. David pitied Wes on weekends, when (though Laura didn't have a job) the housecleaning was on full blast, because Laura, according to Wes, accused him of messing a room if he merely entered it. David shook his head again. To let as precious a thing as marriage rot like an apple before your eyes! It would never happen to him and Annabelle, David swore to himself, as he had sworn before. With the thought of her, a warm, tender pulse struck once throughout his whole body, like a mighty heartbeat. He was on the front walk of Mrs. McCartney's.
He heard the telephone start to ring before he reached the front steps. David unlocked the door and went quietly down the hall, and grabbed the telephone accurately in the dark. “Hello,” he whispered.
“Dave, it's Wes. She was asleep, thank God. What do you think of that?”
“Listen, I'd like to see you tomorrow night. I'll invite you out to dinner. Let's just sit somewhere and have a couple of beers and maybeâ”
“Tomorrow's Friday, Wes.”
“Oh, Christ. You're right.”
“I'm sorry, fellow, otherwise, Iâ”