Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson


  Jannie looked bright and alert, and said sweetly, “Can we have two desserts?”

  “Perhaps, dears,” I said with that same sweet smile, “if we eat allllll our lunch.”

  Waitresses always take a very long time when you are waiting at a restaurant table with children. I would prefer not to believe that this is due entirely to the general appearance and deportment of my children at the table. At any rate, we had been sitting—me with my hands neatly folded, Laurie with his elbows on the table, and Jannie sliding down in her chair so that her chin rested comfortably on the edge of the table—waiting, I say, for perhaps ten minutes, while waitresses scurried busily past, serving the tables on either side of us, bringing extra pats of butter, stopping to chat merrily, hovering solicitously over customers who could not make up their minds.

  “When is she going to come?” Laurie demanded.

  “I want my lunch,” Jannie amplified. She reached out and gave a sharp slap against one of Laurie’s elbows, so that his head crashed down and his chin cracked on the table. “Keep your elbows off the table,” she said admonishingly.

  “Now, children,” I said in my gentle voice, scowling fiercely at Jannie, “now, children, remember we intended to use our very best manners.”

  “Well, she—” Laurie began righteously.

  “He had his elbows on the table,” Jannie said. “Mommy dearest, Laurie was putting his old elbows on the table, Mommy dear.”

  “Listen,” Laurie said, “she went and—”

  “Darlings,” I said, my voice more sugary, if possible, than before, “let us remember that other people are trying to eat their lunches, too, and we—”

  “What?” Laurie said to Jannie, who was whispering earnestly in his direction.

  “Nothing,” Jannie said, looking attentively at me. “We are being good children, Mommy dearest. We are letting other people eat their lunch.”

  “That’s right, dear,” I said to her, “my children are such good—”

  “Why are you talking funny like that?” Laurie asked me, interested, just as the waitress showed up beside us. “You sound like a cat.”

  He and Jannie both began to laugh loudly. “She sounds like a cat,” Jannie told the waitress.

  “You wanna order?” the waitress said to me.

  “I want spaghetti,” Jannie said immediately.

  “I want spaghetti,” Laurie said.

  “Let me see.” I consulted the menu. “Omelette?” I said to Laurie. And, to Jannie, “Vegetable plate?”

  “No,” Jannie said, “spaghetti.”

  “No spaghetti today,” the waitress said. She sighed deeply, fussing with her hair. “Ony what’s onna menu,” she said.

  “Chicken salad?” I said. “Liver?”

  “Liver,” Laurie said, and made a noisy gesture of distaste. “Liver-biver-shiver-tiver-wiver-niver—”

  “Liver-liver-liver,” said Jannie.

  “Children,” I said, recollecting myself in time, so that it came out gentle. “We must not take up all this time deciding.”

  “I decided,” Laurie said. “Spaghetti.”

  Jannie switched sides abruptly. “Vegetable plate,” she said. “Mommy dear.”

  “Justa minute,” the waitress said, and departed.

  Two unpleasant-looking women wearing flowered hats got up ostentatiously from the next table and moved to a table across the room. “Look here,” I said, my voice just loud enough to carry across our own table, “one more word out of either of you and you—” eyeing Laurie “—will find yourself being spanked right here in public where everyone will laugh at you and you—” eyeing Jannie “—will find yourself being spanked somewhere in private where no one can hear you. And right now Jannie is going to have a vegetable plate for lunch and Laurie is going to have a chicken salad and I am going to have spaghetti—I mean, a club sandwich. Now does anyone have anything to say?”

  They stared at me numbly. Laurie scowled, and showed his teeth, and was quiet. Jannie’s face moved, the corners of her mouth turned down, her great blue eyes filled with tears, and she took a deep breath. “Just one howl out of you,” I said sweetly, “and all your girls get shut outdoors tonight.” She closed her mouth, and blinked.

  Laurie made a move as though to reach for his gun. “That man can still take your picture, you know,” I said. He put both hands back on the table.

  “Ha, ha,” Jannie said bitterly to me, “you’ve only got one head.”

  “Put your foot in here,” Laurie told me, extending his water glass.

  The waitress reappeared. “Kids made up their minds?” she said.

  “Vegetable plate,” said Jannie meekly.

  “Chicken salad,” Laurie said politely. “And two cups of coffee, please.”

  “Two glasses of milk,” I told her. “And I will have a club sandwich.”

  “And Linda will have spaghetti,” Jannie said, “and Marilyn will have spaghetti, and Susan will have spaghetti . . .”

  “Jannie,” I said sharply.

  “And Margaret,” Jannie whispered, “Margaret has to have the vegetable plate.”

  If I gave up any idea of my dark suit, all we still had to do was manage the escalator going down and get ourselves into a bus and out again at home. I sighed. “I wonder how Daddy and Sally are getting along,” I said.

  It was at that moment that the waitress approached our table with the plate of soup and the seven little Ellenoys backed her into those spurs.

  • • •

  We are all of us, in our family, very fond of puzzles. I do double-crostics and read mystery stories, my husband does baseball box scores and figures out batting averages, and says he knows the odds against drawing a fourth ace, Laurie is addicted to the kind of puzzle which begins “There are fifty-four items in this picture beginning with the letter C,” Jannie does children’s jigsaws, and Sally can put together an intricate little arrangement of rings and bars which has had the rest of us stopped for two months. We are none of us, however, capable of solving the puzzles we work up for ourselves in the oddly diffuse patterns of our several lives, and along with such family brain-teasers as “Why is there a pair of rollerskates in Mommy’s desk?” and “What is really in the back of Laurie’s closet?” and “Why doesn’t Daddy wear the nice shirts Jannie picked out for Father’s Day?” we are all of us still wondering nervously about what might be called the Great Grippe Mystery. As a matter of fact, I should be extremely grateful if anyone could solve it for us, because we are certainly very short of blankets, and it is annoying not to have any kind of an answer. Here, in rough outline, is our puzzle:

  Our house is, as I have said, large, and the second floor has four bedrooms and a bathroom, all opening out onto a long narrow hall which we have made even narrower by lining it with bookcases so that every inch of hall which is not doorway is books. As is the case with most houses, both the front door and the back door are downstairs on the first floor. The front bedroom, which is my husband’s and mine, is the largest and lightest, and has a double bed. The room next down the hall belongs to the girls, and contains a crib and a single, short bed. Laurie’s room, across the hall, has a double-decker bed and he sleeps on the top half. The guest room, at the end of the hall, has a double bed. The double bed in our room is made up with white sheets and cases, the baby’s crib has pink linen, and Jannie’s bed has yellow. Laurie’s bed has green linen, and the guest room has blue. The bottom half of Laurie’s bed is never made up, unless company is going to use it immediately, because the dog traditionally spends a large part of his time there and regards it as his bed. There is no bed table on the distaff side of the double bed in our room. One side of the bed in the guest room is pushed against the wall. No one can fit into the baby’s crib except the baby; the ladder to the top half of Laurie’s double-decker is very shaky and stands in a corner of the room; the children reac
h the top half of the bed by climbing up over the footboard. All three of the children are accustomed to having a glass of apple juice, to which they are addicted, by their bedsides at night. Laurie uses a green glass, Jannie uses a red glass, Sally uses one of those little flowered cheese glasses, and my husband uses an aluminum tumbler because he has broken so many ordinary glasses trying to find them in the dark.

  I do not take cough drops or cough medicine in any form.

  The baby customarily sleeps with half a dozen cloth books, an armless doll, and a small cardboard suitcase which holds the remnants of half a dozen decks of cards. Jannie is very partial to a pink baby blanket, which has shrunk from many washings. The girls’ room is very warm, the guest room moderately so; our room is chilly, and Laurie’s room is quite cold. We are all of us, including the dog, notoriously easy and heavy sleepers; my husband never eats coffee cake.

  My husband caught the grippe first, on a Friday, and snarled and shivered and complained until I prevailed upon him to go to bed. By Friday night both Laurie and Sally were feverish, and on Saturday Jannie and I began to cough and sniffle. In our family we take ill in different manners; my husband is extremely annoyed at the whole procedure and is convinced that his being sick is somebody’s fault, Laurie tends to become a little light-headed and strew handkerchiefs around his room, Jannie coughs and coughs and coughs, Sally turns bright red, and I suffer in stoical silence, so long as everyone knows clearly that I am sick. We are each of us privately convinced that our own ailment is far more severe than anyone else’s. At any rate, on Saturday night I put all the children into their beds, gave each of them half an aspirin and the usual fruit juice, covered them warmly, and then settled my husband down for the night with his tumbler of water and his cigarettes and matches and ashtray; he had decided to sleep in the guest room because it was warmer. At about ten o’clock I checked to see that all the children were covered and asleep and that Toby was in his place on the bottom half of the double-decker. I then took two sleeping pills and went to sleep in my own bed in my own room. Because my husband was in the guest room I slept on his side of the bed, next to the bed table. I put my cigarettes and matches on the end table next to the ashtray, along with a small glass of brandy, which I find more efficacious than cough medicine.

  I woke up some time later to find Jannie standing beside the bed. “Can’t sleep,” she said. “Want to come in your bed.”

  “Come along,” I said. “Bring your own pillow.”

  She went and got her pillow and her small pink blanket and her glass of fruit juice, which she put on the floor next to the bed, since she had got the side without any end table. She put her pillow down, rolled herself in her pink blanket, and fell asleep. I went back to sleep, but sometime later Sally came in, asking sleepily, “Where’s Jannie?”

  “She’s here,” I said. “Are you coming in bed with us?”

  “Yes,” said Sally.

  “Go and get your pillow, then,” I said.

  She returned with her pillow, her books, her doll, her suitcase, and her fruit juice, which she put on the floor next to Jannie’s. Then she crowded in comfortably next to Jannie and fell asleep. Eventually the pressure of the two of them began to force me uneasily toward the edge of the bed, so I rolled out wearily, took my pillow and my small glass of brandy and my cigarettes and matches and my ashtray and went into the guest room, where my husband was asleep. I pushed at him and he snarled, but he finally moved over to the side next to the wall, and I put my cigarettes and matches and my brandy and my ashtray on the end table next to his cigarettes and matches and ashtray and tumbler of water and put my pillow on the bed and fell asleep. Shortly after this he woke me and asked me to let him get out of the bed, since it was too hot in that room to sleep and he was going back to his own bed. He took his pillow and his cigarettes and matches and his ashtray and his aluminum glass of water and went padding off down the hall. In a few minutes Laurie came into the guest room where I had just fallen asleep again; he was carrying his pillow and his glass of fruit juice. “Too cold in my room,” he said, and I moved out of the way and let him get into the bed on the side next to the wall. After a few minutes the dog came in, whining nervously, and came up onto the bed and curled himself up around Laurie and I had to get out or be smothered. I gathered together what of my possessions I could, and made my way into my own room, where my husband was asleep with Jannie on one side and the baby on the other. Jannie woke up when I came in and said, “Own bed,” so I helped her carry her pillow and her fruit juice and her pink blanket back to her own bed.

  The minute Jannie got out of our bed the baby rolled over and turned sideways, so there was no room for me. I could not get into the crib and I could not climb into the top half of the double-decker, so since the dog was in the guest room I went and took the blanket off the crib and got into the bottom half of the double-decker, setting my brandy and my cigarettes and matches and my ashtray on the floor next to the bed. Shortly after that Jannie, who apparently felt left out, came in with her pillow and her pink blanket and her fruit juice and got up into the top half of the double-decker, leaving her fruit juice on the floor next to my brandy.

  At about six in the morning the dog wanted to get out, or else he wanted his bed back, because he came and stood next to me and howled. I got up and went downstairs, sneezing, and let him out, and then decided that since it had been so cold anyway in the bottom half of the double-decker I might as well stay downstairs and heat up some coffee and have that much warmth, at least. While I was waiting for the coffee to heat Jannie came to the top of the stairs and asked if I would bring her something hot, and I heard Laurie stirring in the guest room, so I heated some milk and put it into a jug and decided that while I was at it I might just as well give everybody something hot so I set out enough cups for everyone and brought out a coffee cake and put it on the tray and added some onion rolls for my husband, who does not eat coffee cake. When I brought the tray upstairs Laurie and Jannie were both in the guest room, giggling, so I set the tray down in there and heard Sally talking from our room in the front. I went to get her and she was sitting up in the bed talking to her father, who was only very slightly awake. “Play card?” she was asking brightly, and she opened her suitcase and dealt him, onto the pillow next to his nose, four diamonds to the ace jack and the seven of clubs.

  I asked my husband if he would like some coffee, and he said it was terribly cold. I suggested that he come down into the guest room, where it was warmer. He and the baby followed me down to the guest room, and my husband and Laurie got into the bed and the rest of us sat on the foot of the bed and I poured the coffee and the hot milk and gave the children coffee cake and my husband the onion rolls. Jannie decided to take her milk and coffee cake back into her own bed, and since she had mislaid her pillow she took one from the guest room bed. Sally of course followed her, going first back into our room to pick up her pillow. My husband fell asleep again while I was pouring his coffee, and Laurie set his hot milk precariously on the headboard of the bed and asked me to get his pillow from wherever it was, so I went into the double-decker and got him the pillow from the top, which turned out to be Jannie’s, and her pink blanket was with it. I took my coffee cake and my coffee into my own bed and had just settled down when Laurie came in to say cloudily that Daddy had kicked him out of bed and could he stay in here. I said of course and he said he would get a pillow and he came back in a minute with the one from the bottom half of the double-decker which was mine. He went to sleep right away, and then the baby came in to get her books and her suitcase and decided to stay with her milk and her coffee cake, so I left and went into the guest room and made my husband move over and sat there and had my coffee. Meanwhile Jannie had moved into the top half of the double-decker, looking for her pillow, and had taken instead the pillow from Sally’s bed and my glass of brandy and had settled down there to listen to Laurie’s radio. I went downstairs to let the dog in and he came
upstairs and got into his bed on the bottom half of the double-decker, and while I was gone my husband had moved back over onto the accessible side of the guest room bed so I went into Jannie’s bed, which is rather too short, and I brought a pillow from the guest room, and my coffee.

  At about nine o’clock the Sunday papers came and I went down to get them, and at about nine-thirty everyone woke up. My husband had moved back into his own bed when Laurie and Sally vacated it for their own beds, Laurie driving Jannie into the guest room when he took back the top half of the double-decker, and my husband woke up at nine-thirty and found himself wrapped in Jannie’s pink blanket, sleeping on Laurie’s green pillow and with a piece of coffee cake and Sally’s fruit juice glass, not to mention the four diamonds to the ace jack and the seven of clubs. Laurie, in the top half of the double-decker, had my glass of brandy and my cigarettes and matches and the baby’s pink pillow. The dog had my white pillow and my ashtray. Jannie in the guest room had one white pillow and one blue pillow and two glasses of fruit juice and my husband’s cigarettes and matches and ashtray and Laurie’s hot milk, besides her own hot milk and coffee cake and her father’s onion rolls. The baby in her crib had her father’s aluminum tumbler of water and her suitcase and books and doll and a blue pillow from the guest room, but no blanket.

  The puzzle is, of course, what became of the blanket from Sally’s bed? I took it off her crib and put it on the bottom half of the double-decker, but the dog did not have it when he woke up, and neither did any of the other beds. It was a blue-patterned patchwork quilt, and has not been seen since, and I would most particularly like to know where it got to. As I say, we are very short of blankets.

  • • •

  With colder weather setting in, and school once more in sight, I took out the somewhat worn pair of red overalls which had had “Laurie” embroidered on them and crossed out, and “Jannie” embroidered underneath; I now crossed out the “Jannie” and embroidered “Sally” on them. They were a little thin in the seat, and the bottoms of the legs were frayed, but the sentiment was there. Sally also inherited hundreds of pullover shirts and thousands of unmatched socks. Laurie got a leather jacket, Jannie took to carrying a pocketbook, Ninki’s third litter of kittens turned out to include one without a tail, and the family of a friend of Jannie’s eagerly seized upon this one as a particularly delightful pet. Jannie entered a kind of private kindergarten, which consisted entirely of little girls and which met mornings in the home of a retired grade-school teacher; Jannie began to skip instead of walk and giggled unendurably with her friends. By the end of the first two weeks of school the mother of Jannie’s friend called up indignantly to tell me that the kitten had suddenly begun to grow a tail, had grown half a tail and stopped, and that they now had a kitten with a half-tail, which they did not regard as a particularly delightful pet, and she strongly implied that we had deliberately misled them into believing that they were getting a kitten which would be permanently without a tail.

 
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