Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson

  Sally at this time gave up any notion of being a co-operative member of a family, named herself “Tiger” and settled down to an unceasing, and seemingly endless, war against clothes, toothbrushes, all green vegetables, and bed. Her main weapon was chewing gum, which she stole out of Laurie’s pockets and with which she could perform miracles of construction on her own hair, books, and, once, her father’s typewriter.

  I estimated that since we had moved into this house I had used up more than five hundred packages of chocolate pudding. A new school bus was proposed, to be put into service the next school year; the younger Harvey boy, who had been in high school when we moved into town, was to be the driver. Most reluctantly, with a great deal of hesitation and judicious packing and unpacking, and some vast confusion with white shirts, my husband made ready for a major trip to New York.

  It was a solemn parting at the station; our two older children stood close to us, and Sally sat, rocking, on a luggage cart. Laurie had said “Where’s the train?” four times, and Sally had indicated seven times that she planned to accompany her father. My husband had said perhaps eleven times that he was sure everything would be all right while he was gone, and I cannot remember how many times I must have said that he was not to worry about us; we would be fine. The train was fifteen minutes late, which gave us all time to repeat ourselves, and to make various other completely reasonable remarks like “Boy, I bet you wouldn’t stand on those tracks when the train comes,” (Laurie, to Jannie) and “Are you sure you packed those warm socks?” (me, to my husband) and “Suppose the train doesn’t ever come?” (Jannie, to her father).

  “Old Mother Hubbid went to the cubbid,” Sally said loudly and insistently.

  “Boy,” Laurie said to his father, “I sure wish that train would come. Let’s go home,” he said to me abruptly, “he can get on a train by hisself.”

  There was a general nervous stirring among the people on the platform; I had begun a stern remark to Laurie about how we had come here to say goodbye to Daddy, after all, but everyone began to say “Here it comes, here it comes,” and Sally bounced up and down, shouting, and Jannie and Laurie both moved forward so that I had to grab quickly for the backs of their jackets. “Well,” my husband said to me.

  “Goodbye, goodbye,” I said. My husband, running, turned and waved. The children all waved back enthusiastically and called “Goodbye, goodbye,” and I hung on to the backs of their jackets. Sternly repressing a pang of honest envy, I watched the train move off and my husband waving at the window. “Well, children,” I said at last, “home we go.”

  “Has Daddy gone?” Sally asked.

  “All gone,” Laurie said.

  I shepherded them into the car, prevented Sally from climbing right on out the window on the other side, and began to pull on my gloves. “Old Mother Hubbid,” Sally said, “went—”

  “Hubbid, hubbid, hubbid,” Laurie said. “What’s so special about Mother Hubbid?”

  “I was talking,” Sally said with dignity. “Old—”

  “Can’t you ever talk about anything else in the world?”

  “Can we have a popsicle?” Jannie asked, hanging over the back seat behind my head, “because Daddy’s gone away, can we have a popsicle or a piece of bubble gum or a lollipop or a frozen custard or a popsicle? Because Daddy’s gone away?”

  “We’re going directly home for dinner,” I said. “Chocolate pudding for dessert.”

  “No chocolate pudding for Dad,” Laurie said mournfully.

  In honor of Daddy’s departure we also had hot dogs and baked beans; I fed the children first and then, fighting down as unworthy the thought of my husband dining, no doubt, on roast beef and caviar in that haunt of iniquity and high living, the railroad dining car, I had my dinner on a tray, eating my hot dog absent-mindedly and reading a mystery story. The house was very quiet after the children were asleep, and I remembered suddenly, without at all wanting to, that our nearest neighbors had gone to Florida for the winter. I went to bed early, taking along my mystery story and the cat, and fell asleep with the light on. Several times during the night I awoke nervously, because the cat was restless, and although it was uncomfortable sleeping with the light on, I was reluctant to turn it off; there was a distinct ominous creaking in the hall just outside my door and I was growing increasingly positive that I smelled smoke. At any rate, I woke up in the morning cross and uncooperative, to find that it was seven-thirty instead of seven (had that ominous creaking been the alarm I had forgotten to set?) and that what looked and sounded like rain outside the window was, actually, rain. I leaped out of bed, slammed the window shut, turned off the light, opened the door and yelled, “Isn’t anybody up?” There was a swift, answering disturbance, as of several children hastily dropping coloring books and crayons, and moving purposefully toward school clothes. My teeth not brushed (first things first, I kept telling myself), I hurried to the kitchen, set water on to boil for oatmeal, filled the fruit juice glasses, and—first things first—plugged in the coffeepot. By the time Jannie reached the kitchen I had the bowls and spoons out; I gave her a quick appraising glance and said, “Take off that necklace. Those are your best shoes and it’s raining. Put on a sweater instead of that blouse. Brush your teeth.” And, beyond her to Sally, “Shoes on wrong feet. And I put out a pair of decent overalls for you last night, not a sunsuit. And you’ve got to wear socks.” I put back my head and shouted, “Laurie!”

  After a minute he called back “I’m getting dressed.”

  “Sally,” I said, “go and wake your brother.”

  “It’s cold,” Jannie said. She shivered elaborately. “It’s terribly cold.”

  “If you had on a sweater instead of a silk blouse—” I said. “Sally, wake your brother.”

  “I’m cold,” Sally said.

  “Awake,” Laurie said, appearing in the kitchen doorway in his pajamas. “Hey, it’s cold.”

  It began to occur to me that it was cold; I had been moving so fast up to now that I had not noticed the faint undefinable chill on everything I touched—the spoons, the cereal box, the backs of the chairs. I looked at Laurie, and Laurie looked at me, and then he said, nodding, “Yup. I sure bet it is.”

  I went into the living room, Laurie following me, Jannie following him, and Sally padding on behind, murmuring, “To get her poor doggie something to eat.” The thermostat in the living room was set at seventy-two, the thermometer below it read sixty-one. I looked at Laurie again and he nodded reassuringly. Gingerly I turned the thermostat up to seventy-five, to eighty, and, not breathing, we all listened. There was no answering roar from the cellar; the furnace was off.

  I am not of a mechanical turn of mind. I am wholeheartedly afraid of fuses and motorcycles and floor plugs and lightning rods and electric drills and large animals and most particularly of furnaces. Laboriously, over the space of years of married life, my husband has taught me to use such hazardous appliances as a toaster and an electric coffeepot, but no one is ever going to get me to go down cellar and fool around with a furnace. I had a fairly clear notion that the best way to get the house warm again was to march firmly to a little door in the monster’s side and press the third little button from the left; my husband and the furnace man, working together, had once shown this to me, their voices rising shrilly as they explained it over and over; no furnace, my husband had said, touching his forehead with the tips of his fingers, has ever exploded because some woman pressed the third little button from the left, no furnace. “Lady,” the furnace man had said, twisting his hands together, “suppose some day you got to start the furnace, and no one’s around, say, and you got to start it—”

  Rising to heights of heroism far beyond my usual abilities, I strode responsibly to the cellar door, the children crowding along behind me. “The furnace seems to be off,” I said to Laurie. “I’ll just run down and start it up again.”

  “Yeah,” Laurie said. “Yo
u go right on down.” He regarded me without optimism.

  I set my hand on the cellar doorknob. “But something might be broken,” I said. (Was it the third little button from the left? The second? The right?) “I don’t want to turn it on if it’s broken,” I said to Laurie. “I wouldn’t like to do it any damage.”

  “It might be out of gas,” Jannie suggested.

  I turned to her gratefully. “That’s right,” I said. “Now I think of it, it would be very dangerous to turn it on if there’s no oil. It grinds the parts together,” I told Laurie, who nodded gravely. “I better call the man,” I said.

  Anyway, we were quite late. Very late, as a matter of fact; it was eight-thirty before I had gotten all the shoes tied, all the oatmeal consumed, the hair combed, the teeth brushed, the lunch boxes filled, the homework collected, the jackets on, the rubbers located, and had sneaked in a cup of coffee for myself. I lined the children out into the car, checking like an electric eye for handkerchiefs and contraband, and succeeded in rooting out and confiscating a small plastic telephone and two pieces of bubble gum from Sally and a large ring set with a glittering ruby from Jannie. I shut the car door behind them, raced around to the other side to catch Sally going out the opposite window, counted again to make sure I had three of them, and sat down in the driver’s seat with a little sigh.

  “If you got up earlier,” Jannie said critically, “we wouldn’t have to hurry so.”

  I opened my mouth to answer, reflected in time that the poor dears were at present fatherless, and said with great moderation, “Well, at least we’re in plenty of time now.” I pressed the starter.

  Jannie giggled. “In Laurie’s school he sits with the girls because he’s so pretty.”

  “Hey, now, you—”

  “Children,” I said, “do be still.” I pressed the starter. “After all,” I said, with a light little laugh, “Jannie only teases Laurie because she knows he minds it; suppose you try keeping your temper, Laurie, and see how quickly she—” I pressed the starter.

  “Old Mother Hubbid,” Sally swept into the silence, “she went to the cubbid to get her dog something to eat, and when she started to get breakfast she had oatmeal.” She began to laugh wildly. “Oatmeal,” she repeated helplessly, “oatmeal.”

  I pressed the starter and pulled out the choke.

  “Won’t the star cart?” Jannie asked. Laurie began to shriek with laughter and after a bewildered minute Jannie joined in. “Old Mother Hubbid—” Sally began.

  I pressed the starter and pulled out the choke and began to bang both hands on the steering wheel.

  “Why don’t you get out and crank it?” Laurie asked, howling.

  “Why don’t you get yourself a horse or something?” Jannie asked.

  “Old Mother—”

  “Just flooded it,” I said, my voice level and restrained and even faintly amused. “Silly old car,” I said affectionately, and gave a vicious kick at the clutch.

  “Hey,” Laurie said, suddenly no longer entertained, “we gonna be late?”

  “Certainly not. Just tell the teacher that the car—”

  “I told her that the last time,” Laurie said. His voice became panicky. “And she said,” he went on, “if I’m not in my sneakers by quarter of nine they’ll get a substitute at left tackle and—”

  “Why won’t it start?” Jannie asked insistently. “What’s the matter with the car?”

  Fatherless or not, I raised my voice. “Never mind,” I said. I have been patient with my car through many of its moods, and there is little that we do not know about each other by now, the car and I. It knows perfectly, for instance, that I am made extremely nervous by a kind of low moaning sound it makes when it is unhappy, and I know clearly that if it has come into my car’s obscure mind not to start, no siren’s tricks of mine can make it. “Sell the filthy thing for fifty cents,” I said nastily, and climbed out and went into the house, mumbling to myself, and dialed our village taxi.

  “Again?” Mr. Williams said when I told him. “You figure it’s the battery again?”

  “The children,” I said, “have just seven minutes to get to school.”

  “Well, they won’t make it,” he said. “Time I get up there and back again. But I figure it ain’t going to shock the teachers none, them being late again.” He giggled, and I hung up.

  I saw Laurie and Jannie off to school in the taxi, stowing away lunch boxes and books, and cautioning Jannie firmly against getting out at the graded school instead of her kindergarten; I asked Mr. Williams to pick Jannie up at twelve and Laurie at three, and said I would pay him later, it being nearly nine o’clock by now. Then—first things first—I came back into the house and shut Sally into her room with her blocks and took up the telephone; since my teeth were chattering I called first of all the number of K. B. Anderson, Plumbing and Heating, and got Mrs. Anderson, who answered the phone mornings in the office. I told her who I was, and all about how our furnace had gone out, and asked could Mr. Anderson please come right over?

  “Well,” she said, “not this morning. He won’t be back till dinner-time and then this afternoon he’s got to put in a heater over to Sawyer’s. Tomorrow, maybe.”

  “But we have no heat and the children—”

  “Maybe not even tomorrow, though, now I think of it,” she went on. “On account of that plumber’s convention up to Waterville tonight. And you know what they are.”

  I agreed with haste that I did indeed know what they were, and said anxiously that it was getting colder here, and the children—

  “Whyn’t you try young Dick Sampson over on Bridge Street?” she asked. “He used to do some plumbing afore he was married.”


  “No, it’s not Bridge Street at all. I don’t know what made me think it was. He used to be on Bridge Street, but then he took over that television repair service.”

  “So he won’t be going to the plumber’s convention?” I asked politely.

  “Not him,” she said with satisfaction. “He married one of the Wiley girls, that’s why I thought first of Bridge Street. Mildred, I’d say it was.”

  “But the furnace—”

  “East Main,” she said. “Knew it would come to me. Or you might even try to get ahold of Bill England. There’s one might know what to do, or any of the Hope boys.”

  “Thanks very much,” I said. As I hung up, staring hopelessly at the names I had jotted down (I knew the Hope boys, and I would as soon have frozen to death) it occurred to me that among all the friends I had in town I might locate one with a husband who was not afraid to go down into our cellar and look at our furnace. Nancy, I thought; she and Cliff had once come over and helped us put down a rug. I dialed Nancy and she answered and I asked her how she was and she asked me how I was and I told her about my husband’s being out of town and she told me about the new chairs they were getting for the porch and I said how I had meant to call her and she said it had been so long since we got together and I said we must have a bridge game sometime next week and she said she would call me and I said I’d get in touch with her and I was just about to hang up when I remembered and said oh, look, there was something I meant to ask her. So I told her the furnace was off and I didn’t know how to start it and she said why didn’t I call Anderson?

  “There’s a plumber’s convention,” I said.

  “Again? But when William dropped the hairbrush down the drain and I called Anderson, Mrs. Anderson said there was a plumber’s convention then. And that was only about six weeks ago because my mother—”

  “But do you think that Cliff—?”

  “He’d love to,” she assured me. “I’ll send him over just as soon as he gets home. He’ll be glad to do it.”

  We decided we would certainly get in touch with one another very soon, and hung up. I called Eddie at the garage and asked him to come and get my
car again, and he sighed and said did I think it was still going to be the fan belt this time? I washed the breakfast dishes and made the beds, and it occurred to me that when Eddie came for the car I might ask him to go down cellar and start the furnace, him being a mechanic and all, but when he finally did come for the car, I was on the phone; Nancy had called back to say she was sorry, it wasn’t a plumber’s convention, it was an oil burner convention, and she had done Mr. Anderson an injustice. So we agreed that we would have a bridge game real soon, and by that time Eddie had disappeared with my car. At lunchtime the taxi brought Jannie home from school and I recalled with abrupt clarity that I had meant to stop on my way that morning and pick up a loaf of bread. I gave Jannie and Sally crackers and peanut butter for lunch, and while they were murmuring sadly in the kitchen I went to the phone and called my friend Carol. She asked how I was and I asked how she was and she told me about the bad cold her boy had been having and I told her about my husband’s being out of town and she said we must get together some evening soon. I said I would call her, and meanwhile would she mind picking up a loaf of bread for me when she went down to the store? Because something had gone wrong with my car. She said sympathetically that you certainly needed a car out on our road, didn’t you, and did I mind being alone in our big house at night? I said no, oh, no, I was never nervous, and could she also get me a can of tunafish? I felt urgently that there was something I had forgotten, but had no time to stop and think because she was saying was there anything else? It was no trouble at all. So I told her that would be plenty, thanks, and it was so nice of her, and we must surely get together some time real soon.

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