Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson


  “Have you got a handkerchief?” I asked her before I started the car, and she nodded gravely, deeply aware of her green bows.

  “I brought my invitation,” she said. “In case we forgot the time or something.”

  “I only wish I knew more about the people,” I said, looking at the invitation with hope, as though its pattern of pink balloons and bright lettering might somehow indicate what sort of person had paid a dime for six of them at the five and ten; “I feel a little bit worried, letting you go off to a strange house.”

  “I got an invitation,” Jannie said.

  I sighed, and started the car. “She sounded all right,” I said, “the little girl’s mother, I mean. When I called her to get directions to the house, she sounded all right. Richmond Road,” I said, “and turn left at the private school.”

  “I say ‘Thank you very much, Mrs. Arden,’ when I’m ready to go home.”

  “Did you say you had a handkerchief?” We turned onto Richmond Road and Jannie settled back and folded her hands in her lap, no longer the everyday Jannie who rode with me, in her blue snowsuit, to the grocery and the post office and the bakery, but a dressed-up lady in a white collar and a green beret; “Is Rita a polite little girl?” I asked with great casualness.

  “She’s all right,” Jannie said. “From school.”

  I have always remembered a birthday party I went to where all the children were older, and strangers, and I sat in a corner all afternoon determined not to cry. “Do you know who else will be there?”

  “Pals of mine,” Jannie said, exasperated. “From school.”

  “I suppose it’s all right,” I said.

  “Well, now that I’m all dressed and everything,” Jannie said.

  I peered through the window. “Left at the private school,” I said. “We watch for Overlea Drive and turn right. Then there’s a sign saying Arden halfway up the hill. She said we couldn’t miss it.”

  “Tell Sally I’ll bring her some candy,” Jannie said as we made a hesitant left turn around the private school, “and I’ll bring Laurie some cake. And don’t plan on any supper for me tonight—I’ll be too full from the party. And the invitation says the party is over at five, so you come and get me maybe about five-thirty. That,” she explained, “will give me time to pick up candy and stuff that people have forgotten about, so I can bring it to Sally.”

  “Have you got a handkerchief? Overlea Drive.”

  “And I say,” Jannie went on, her tone sharpening, “I say ‘Thank you, Mrs. Arden,’ when I’m ready to come home. And I have got a handkerchief.”

  “Sign saying Arden,” I said, “sign saying Arden.”

  “I’ve never been here before, you know,” Jannie said. “Rita doesn’t take the school bus.”

  “I’m surprised, living so far away from the school,” I said. “Sign saying Arden, Private Road.”

  I turned the car and had to shift into second. “The chauffeur brings her,” Jannie said. “I wonder if that’s Rita’s house way up there?”

  It was the only house in sight. We were driving past terraced lawns, rich with ornamental trees and graveled walks; I saw a sundial and what may have been a swimming pool. Above us, on the top of the hill, the house looked like someone’s dream of a country club, with picture windows and fieldstone and gabled roofs. “Is that where we’re going?” I asked, turning to look at Jannie.

  “Seven chimneys,” she said. “Rita always said she lived in a big house.”

  We turned onto a circled driveway which took us past a garage holding, I thought, three foreign cars, and came around to the front door. We stopped abruptly because the car parked by the front door was so soft and low and shiny that the irresistable thought of bumping it and perhaps putting a scratch on its fender (that was a fender?) made my teeth chatter. One of a pair of matched gray poodles rose lazily from the wide front steps and looked down at us. “Jannie,” I said, “look, honey, I’ve only got on my blue jeans and my old jacket. And my loafers. I’ll just wait here and you run on up and ring the doorbell. I’ll just wait here and see that you get in all right.”

  Jannie turned and stared at me. “Why don’t you come up to the door?” she said. “You’re my mother, aren’t you?”

  “Yes,” I said doubtfully, and climbed out after her. She ran up the steps, nodded cheerfully at the poodles when they approached her, and rang the bell; I followed gingerly, edging up the steps and moving aside briskly when one of the poodles came too close. I had a sudden rich picture of the years ahead, with me hanging around in the shrubbery trying to catch a glimpse of my beautifully-gowned daughter waltzing in the ballroom, and then the door was opened by a maid in a yellow uniform, and behind her clustered a group of little girls in party dresses pink, blue, and white.

  “Hi, kids,” said Jannie.

  “It’s Joanne,” said a little girl in blue, who was apparently the hostess, “now we can start the party.”

  “And this,” said Jannie grandly, “is my mother.”

  The little girl in blue curtsied, I almost curtsied back, and Jannie said, as they turned to go inside, “We live in a bigger house than this,” and then called back to me, “Don’t forget to tell Sally what I’m bringing her,” as the door closed.

  When I came back to get Jannie at five-fifteen, which I thought a neat compromise on time between the invitation and Jannie’s obviously superior planning, I had put on a skirt and a pair of decent shoes. When I rang the doorbell the maid asked me inside, and I waited for barely a minute, listening to the sound of small girls’ voices screaming happily from somewhere within, before a woman in gray taffeta and what were probably real emeralds—I would have believed anything by then—came to me, holding out both her hands to take mine.

  “So you’re Joanne’s mother,” she said. “Won’t you come in and have a drink?”

  • • •

  At about four o’clock on a Thursday afternoon the express man delivered a huge cardboard box containing a vast collection of curtains and drapes, found in an attic and sent along by my mother, in the hopes that I could use some and make the rest into slip covers or bedspreads or dusting cloths. I took the curtains out and left the big box in the front hall, meaning to take it out and leave it for the trash man when I came downstairs to make dinner. At about four-ten Laurie came out of his room, where he had been painting, and wandered into the bedroom where I was sorting the curtains out on the bed.

  “What’s the big box downstairs?”

  “Some things came in it,” I said.

  “Presents?”

  “No, these curtains.”

  “Who wants curtains?”

  At about four-thirteen Sally woke up from her nap, and went down the stairs head first, on her stomach, bumping from step to step and calling me. When she finally found me in the bedroom, after calling me through all the rooms in the house, she asked immediately, “Is it for me?”

  “Is what for you?”

  “The present. Downstairs, in the hall.”

  “No,” I said, “it was for me. These curtains.”

  “Can I have them?”

  “No.”

  “You can’t come to my house.”

  At four-thirty precisely Jannie arrived home, trotted up the front walk, opened the door, and fell over the box in the hall. “Who put this here for me to trip over?” she asked indignantly.

  “Mommy’s junk came in it,” Laurie said. I was by now in the study, inquiring if my husband would like a cocktail before dinner. He said no, he was working on an article about a woman with second sight, and he wanted to keep his own head clear. I went into the kitchen and halfheartedly began to take potatoes out of the bag. Jannie came into the kitchen and asked if she and Laurie and Sally might play with the big box in the hall, and I said yes, if they were quiet, because Daddy was working.

  Nearly ten minutes later,
after a good deal of giggling and screaming and two trips outside the study by my husband, once to the hallway to say to the children that if they could not keep quiet their mother would send them all to their rooms and once to the kitchen door to say to me that he could not work on the woman with second sight so long as those children were making so much noise, Laurie suddenly appeared in the kitchen and said delightedly, “Another present came, a real birthday present.”

  Wearily, having been half-expecting it, I put down the paring knife and followed Laurie through the study into the hall. My husband looked up as we passed and said, “This is a study, not a thoroughfare.”

  In the hall was the same big box, full of something which giggled and kicked around considerably. Laurie and Jannie watched pleasurably while I carefully opened the box, and when Sally popped out everyone screamed with surprise and hilarity. “I don’t want this present,” I said agreeably, “Tell the mailman to take it back.” Everyone laughed again, and I went back to the kitchen.

  Two minutes later Laurie reappeared in the kitchen. “Another present came,” he announced.

  Since I could not think of any good reason for persisting pig-headedly in my dinner preparations, I put down the paring knife and followed him through the study into the hall. “This is a study, not a thoroughfare,” my husband said as we went through.

  In the hall Sally and Laurie stood tensely while I opened the box and found Jannie. “I don’t want this present at all,” I said. “Tell the mailman to take this one along with the other.” Everyone laughed.

  I went back into the kitchen and in another minute Jannie and Sally came in to me. “Another present,” Jannie said, and Sally added, “It’s got Laurie in it now.”

  “This is a study, not a thoroughfare,” my husband said as we all went past.

  I opened the box, found Laurie, everyone laughed, and I said, “I don’t want this present, either; tell the mailman to take them all back.”

  I went back into the kitchen and took up the paring knife again, feeling mildly complacent over my participation in the children’s harmless games. There was a short, murmurous moment in the hall, and then the study door from the hall opened and my husband said, “This is a study, not a thoroughfare.” Then a great deal of whispering went on in the study, and finally my husband said, “All right, but just once.” After that there was much suppressed giggling from the hall.

  I was opening the oven door when Laurie, Jannie, and Sally came into the kitchen. “Another—” Laurie began, and then, “What’s that?”

  “I read about it in a magazine,” I said shyly. “It’s got tunafish and whipped cream and potatoes and chopped olives and black bean soup and sweet pickles and all sorts of good things.”

  “I don’t like it,” said Sally at once.

  “Well,” Laurie said compromisingly, “what’s for dessert?”

  “Canned peaches,” I said. “You see, I spent all afternoon with those curtains and—”

  “Tunafish?” said Jannie. “Please may I have some without tunafish?”

  “I believe I’ll make myself a peanut butter sandwich while I’m waiting,” Laurie said.

  “Girls, you can start setting the table,” I said. “Jannie, cups and glasses. Sally, table mats and silver.”

  “I want to do glasses,” Sally said at once.

  “Don’t forget the salt and pepper. Casserole, bread, salad, peaches.” I scowled indecisively at the oven door. “What would happen,” I asked Jannie, “if I put in tomato sauce?”

  “It would be even worse,” Jannie said cheerfully.

  “Clean towels,” I said. “I’ll be right down; Laurie, you wash your hands before you touch that bread.”

  I went out of the kitchen and through the study and through the hall and up the stairs, found the clean towels and brought them down again. “Supper in about five minutes,” I said as I went through the study; “Supper in about five minutes,” I said as I went past the dining room; “Supper in about five minutes,” I said as I came into the kitchen. “Laurie, start telling Dad supper is ready.”

  Laurie went into the study and came back. “Not there,” he said.

  “He probably went to wash,” Jannie said.

  “Salt and pepper,” I said, surveying the table. Jannie had set everything left-handed, as usual.

  “I washed,” Sally said, coming out of the bathroom. I glanced beyond her to the clean towel I had just hung on the rack, and sighed. “Laurie and Jannie, wash,” I said. “Dad ought to be down in a minute.”

  “Seems like there was something I meant to tell you,” Laurie said, taking his place at the table with his peanut butter sandwich.

  “You call those hands clean?”

  “I said I didn’t like this,” Jannie said, looking into her plate.

  “Seems like it was something about Dad,” Laurie said.

  • • •

  Ninki had four black and white kittens on December fifth. Their eyes opened, they began to tumble delightfully together on the kitchen floor, and Ninki, svelte and lively, got back to her mouse-hunting. I continued to come downstairs each morning step by step, holding on to the bannister. The morning the first snow fell I came into the kitchen where Jannie and Sally were eating oatmeal at the yellow table, and Elsie, a nice girl whom I had hired to stay with us until the first of the year, was cheerfully spreading mustard on Laurie’s lunch sandwiches.

  “Good morning,” Elsie said brightly. “Still with us, I see?”

  “Yeah,” I said. “Coffee?”

  “Good morning, Mommy dear,” said Jannie, in the sweet voice which means she has decided to hold out on her oatmeal until ten minutes to nine, and Sally echoed, “Good morning, Mommy dear, dear morning, good Mommy.”

  “Uh,” I said.

  “Thought I heard the car go out last night,” Elsie said conversationally, “but then I thought you’d surely wake me if you were going.”

  “I surely would,” I said.

  “And how do you feel? Well?”

  “I surely do,” I said. I took my coffee into the dining room and settled down with the morning paper. A woman in New York had had twins in a taxi. A woman in Ohio had just had her seventeenth child. A twelve-year-old girl in Mexico had given birth to a thirteen-pound boy. The lead article on the woman’s page was about how to adjust the older child to the new baby. I finally found an account of an axe murder on page seventeen, and held my coffee cup up to my face to see if the steam might revive me.

  “Laurie,” Elsie said at the back stairs, “ten minutes after eight.”

  “I’m coming,” Laurie said. “Mommy still here?”

  “She surely is,” Elsie said gaily. “Brush your teeth.”

  I turned to the sports page.

  Jannie’s voice rose clearly from the kitchen. “When we get our baby brother,” she asked, “will he have his breakfast out here with us?”

  “Oatmeal?” Sally added.

  “He’ll be very tiny,” Elsie told them, “and at first he’ll spend all his time in the crib and he’ll have all his meals from a bottle.”

  “And I’m going to give him a bath,” Jannie said.

  “And I’m going to give him some of my oatmeal,” Sally said.

  “Let’s ask Mommy when he’s coming,” Jannie said.

  “Never you mind,” Elsie said hastily “Finish that oatmeal.”

  Laurie came crashing downstairs and I heard my husband’s feet hit the floor beside the bed. “Good morning, Mommy,” Laurie called from the kitchen. “I was sure you’d be gone today.”

  “Yeah.”

  Laurie brought his tray in and set it on the table; he began to spoon sugar thoughtfully onto his oatmeal. “You know,” he said, “you don’t suppose you won’t go at all, do you?”

  “I’ve thought of it,” I said.

  Laurie began to laug
h uproariously. “All those baby clothes,” he said.

  “That’s enough sugar,” I said. “Read the paper or something.”

  Laurie took the sports section and propped it up against the coffeepot. “By the way,” he said suddenly, looking up from the paper, “the teacher asked me yesterday again what about my baby brother. She’s going to sing ‘Happy Birthday to You’ when it comes.”

  “Tell her I’ve gone to Mexico,” I said.

  My husband came downstairs at that moment, glanced at me with some surprise, and said, “Good morning, good morning.”

  “Good morning, Dad,” Laurie said. “Mommy’s still here.”

  “Good morning,” my husband said in the kitchen to Elsie and the girls, and I could hear Elsie telling him that she had surely thought we would wake her if we left during the night.

  My husband brought his tray in and set it down on the table.

  “Coins from Hong-Kong should be here today,” Laurie told him.

  “Ought to write that fellow,” my husband said vaguely.

  “How do you figure about Mommy?” Laurie asked.

  My husband looked searchingly at me. “Damned if I know,” he said.

 
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