Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson


  I lifted my head from the steam of my coffee. “Look,” I said bitterly, “I could go stay in a hotel somewhere and write you when it’s all over.”

  “How do you feel?” my husband asked.

  “Bah,” I said distinctly.

  “So long as you don’t have any children today,” Laurie said. “You got to pick me up at Cub Scouts at five.”

  “Tomorrow?”

  “No,” said my husband. “Tomorrow is the Numismatic Society and I didn’t go the last time because I had a cold and I didn’t go the time before because your mother was here and I’d hate to miss it again for a trifle.”

  “And Sunday of course your aunt and uncle are coming,” I told my husband. “How about Monday?”

  Elsie put her head around the corner of the kitchen door. “Monday morning I take my driving test,” she said, “so don’t go before Monday afternoon. I can drive you. And then of course on Tuesday Jannie goes to Kathy’s party.”

  “Wednesday?”

  “I was planning to visit my sister,” Elsie said. “You remember you said it would be all right, you said you would probably be back from the hospital by then and—”

  “Is Thursday fairly clear for everybody?” I asked, my voice rising.

  “Well, Friday,” Laurie said, worried, “Friday is Cub Scouts again.”

  “Have the baby on my birthday,” Jannie called from the kitchen.

  Jannie’s birthday was ten months and some days off. “I’ll try to make it,” I said.

  Laurie laughed. “Mr. Feeley says if the baby’s born before Tuesday he’ll give you ten percent of his winnings.”

  “What winnings?” I asked.

  Laurie glanced, dismayed, at his father, and his father said elaborately, rising from his chair, “Want to take another look at those Roman coins, son?”

  “What winnings?” I said insistently.

  “Nothing to worry about,” my husband said. “Just something we were . . .” He thought. “Making for the baby,” he finished finally.

  “A book,” Laurie added helpfully.

  His father glanced at him with respect. “That’s right,” he said, “a baby book.”

  They headed for the study. “It couldn’t be before Tuesday,” my husband was saying to Laurie, as one continuing a private discussion, “the law of probability . . .”

  “Ross told me in school yesterday he wants a dime on Christmas Day,” Laurie said.

  “Tell him we’ll give him thirty to one,” my husband said.

  From the study I could hear my husband saying that Ross’ money was as good as gone, and Laurie remarked that he thought he could count the teacher in for maybe even a quarter.

  “I wouldn’t like to see any more money go on Tuesday,” my husband remarked absently, “you can’t count on her to figure the odds, you know.”

  “Just like her to pick a day with no money in it,” Laurie confirmed. “Is this Nero, Dad?”

  “It’s the button from my jacket,” my husband said. “I meant to ask Jannie to sew it on.”

  I lighted another cigarette and poured hot coffee into my cup; it did not seem worthwhile doing anything else. “Ten minutes of nine,” Elsie remarked in the kitchen.

  With a great shout Sally slid off her chair and Jannie followed. “Come back here and finish this oatmeal,” Elsie said as they raced for the front door.

  “Bye, Dad,” Laurie said. He went through the kitchen to get his lunch box, and stopped in the dining room on his way to the front door. “See you at five?” he asked me.

  “Oh, surely, surely,” I said.

  I followed them to the front door and waved as they got into the school bus; Sally sat at the front window to watch for the station wagon which would take her to nursery school. The mail had come, and I got Sally to pick it up off the floor for me and then went with it into the study.

  “All bills today,” I said maliciously to my husband.

  “Again?” he said. “It seems like it was only—”

  “Pay them in Roman coins,” I said. I sat down in the straight chair I had brought into the study especially; the upholstered chairs are difficult to get out of without a struggle. “Pay them with your eleven Siamese gambling house tokens,” I said.

  My husband glanced at me apprehensively. “How do you feel?”

  “Pay them in counterfeit Scottish merks,” I said. “I feel fine.”

  My husband touched the stack of mail with one finger, timidly. “One of us,” he said, “has got to go to the bank and see Mr. Andrews.”

  “Not me,” I said.

  “Of course not,” my husband said soothingly. “You can go in tomorrow morning,” he added, “if you’re still here.”

  • • •

  Our local bank is an informal and neighborly spot, lavish with its hard-covered checkbooks, always ready to look up the value of the Swiss franc, eager to advise on investments or make wills. Its atmosphere is substantially less hushed and reverent than, say, a good movie theatre, with a loud-speaker system which plays soft music for depositors, an air-cooling device which clears the air of the acrid scent of ten-dollar bills, richly upholstered benches for nervous mortgagees; it is a bank dedicated to every friendly pursuit except the swift transference of money. I have had occasion, over the past few years, to deal frequently with the bank’s Mr. Andrews, a man of chilling questions and a very cynical view of me, over some minor monies which have passed reluctantly from Mr. Andrews’ hands into our bank account, and rapidly from there into the hands of various milkmen, doctors, department stores, and sundry poker cronies of my husband’s. Mr. Andrews likes to believe that he is giving me this money as a favor. “We are always glad to lend funds,” he is apt to say, with a dim smile, “after all, that’s what a bank is for, isn’t it?” Since Mr. Andrews so obviously believes that that is the main thing that a bank is not for, my answer to this is usually a gay laugh and a quick question about how ninety days is six months, isn’t it? Mr. Andrews is also fond of saying things like, “Well, we have our obligations to meet, too, you realize,” and “If we were to accommodate everyone who asks us . . .”

  Mr. Andrews never says “money,” just like that, the way the rest of us do so often; he refers to it reverently as “Credit” or “Funds” or “Equity.” I have fallen into the habit of taking one or more of my children with me when I drop in to speak to Mr. Andrews about equity or funds or credit, in the unexpressed hope that their soft pathetic eyes might touch Mr. Andrews’ heart, although I know by now that their soft pathetic little eyes might as easily open the door to the vault; the only time, I think, that I have ever seen Mr. Andrews really taken aback was when Laurie, when he had just commenced coin-collecting, asked if he might look over the bank’s small change for V nickels.

  At any rate, shortly before Christmas, then—and Christmas is of course always a time of great monetary discomfort around our house—I came timidly to Mr. Andrews’ bank, at the back of my mind the thought that the children’s presents had at least been bought and duly hidden, although not paid for, and holding by one hand my daughter Jannie, in a blue snow suit, and holding by the other hand my daughter Sally, in a red snow suit. The girls had their hair brushed and their boots on the right feet, and if I could raise the cash from Mr. Andrews they were each going to have an ice cream cone. We came into the bank, where the loudspeaker system was playing “Joy to the World,” and found that the center paddock, where they usually foreclose mortgages, had been given over to a tall and gracious Christmas tree; because of the holiday season, they were foreclosing their mortgages in a sort of little recess behind the tellers. I sat the girls down on a velvet-covered bench directly in front of the Christmas tree, and told them to stay right where they were and Mommy would be back in a minute and then we would all go and get our ice cream cones. They sat down obediently, and I made my way over to Mr. Andrews’ secretary
.

  “Good morning,” I said to her.

  “Good morning,” she said. “Merry Christmas.”

  “Oh,” I said. “Merry Christmas.”

  She nodded brightly and turned back to the papers on her desk. I twined my fingers around the ornamental ironwork of the railing, and said, “I wonder if I might perhaps be able to see Mr. Andrews?”

  “Mr. Andrews? And what did you want to see him about?”

  “Well,” I said, coming a little closer, “it was to have been about our loan.”

  “Your loan?” she said, in that peculiarly penetrating tone all bank employees use when there is a question of money going the unnatural, or reverse-English direction. “You wanted to pay back your loan?”

  “I hoped,” I said, “that perhaps I could speak to Mr. Andrews.”

  “Isn’t that sweet?” she said unexpectedly.

  After a minute I realized that she was staring past me to where my girls were sitting, and I turned and saw without belief that Santa Claus, complete with sack of toys, had come out from behind the Christmas tree and was leaning over the railing and beckoning my daughters to him.

  “I didn’t know the bank had a Santa Claus,” I said.

  “Every year,” she said. “At Christmas, you know.”

  Jannie and Sally slid off the bench and trotted over to Santa Claus; I could hear Sally’s delighted, “Hello, Santa Claus!” and see Jannie’s half-embarrassed smile; people all over the bank were turning to look and to beam and to smile at one another and murmur appreciatively. Because I have known Jannie and Sally for rather a long time, I untwined my fingers from the ironwork and made across the bank for their bench, reaching them just as Santa Claus opened the little gate in the railing and ushered them inside. He sat down under the warm lights of the Christmas tree and took Jannie onto one knee and Sally onto the other.

  “Well, well, well,” he said, and laughed hugely. “And have you been a good girl?” he asked Jannie.

  Jannie nodded, her mouth open, and Sally said, “I’ve been very good.”

  “And do you brush your teeth?”

  “Twice,” said Sally, and Jannie said, “I brush my teeth every morning and every night and every morning.”

  “Well, well, well,” Santa Claus said, nodding his head appreciatively. “So you’ve been good little girls, have you?”

  “I’ve been very very good,” Sally said insistently.

  Santa Claus thought. “And have you washed your faces?” was what he finally achieved.

  “I wash my face,” said Sally, and Jannie, inspired, said, “I wash my face and my hands and my arms and my ears and my neck and—”

  “Well, that’s just fine,” Santa Claus said, and again he laughed merrily, caroming Jannie and Sally off his round little belly. “Fine, fine,” he said, “and now,” he said to Jannie, “what is old Santa going to bring you for Christmas?”

  “A doll?” Jannie said tentatively, “are you going to bring me a doll?”

  “I most certainly am going to bring you a doll,” said Santa Claus. “I’m going to bring you the prettiest doll you ever saw, because you’ve been such a good girl.”

  “And a wagon?” Jannie said, “and doll dishes and a little stove?”

  “That’s just what I’m going to bring you,” Santa Claus said. “I’m going to bring good little girls everything they ask for.”

  The fatuous smile I had been wearing on my face began to slip a little; there was a handsome doll dressed in blue waiting for Jannie in the guest room closet, and a handsome doll dressed in pink waiting for Sally; I began trying to signal surreptitiously to Santa Claus.

  “And me,” Sally said, “and me, and me, I want a bicycle.”

  I shook my head most violently at Santa Claus, smiling nervously. “That’s right,” Santa Claus said, “for good little girls, I bring bicycles.”

  “You’re really going to bring me a bicycle?” Sally asked incredulously, “and a doll and a wagon?”

  “I most certainly am,” Santa Claus told her.

  Sally gazed raptly at Jannie. “He’s going to bring my bicycle after all,” she said.

  “I want a bicycle too,” Jannie said.

  “Alllllll right,” said Santa Claus. “But have you been a good girl?” he asked Jannie anxiously.

  “I’ve been so good,” Jannie told him with ardor, “you just don’t know, I’ve been so good.”

  “I’ve been good,” Sally said. “I want blocks, too. And a doll carriage for my doll, and a bicycle.”

  “And our brother wants a microscope,” Jannie told Santa Claus, “and he’s been a very good boy. And a little table and chairs, I want.”

  “Santa Claus,” I said, “excuse me, Santa Claus. . . .”

  “Aren’t they darling?” a woman said behind me.

  “And candy, and oranges, and nuts,” Santa Claus was going on blissfully, “and all sorts of good things in your stockings, and candy canes—”

  “I forgot, I want a party dress.”

  “But you must be good little girls, and do just what your mommy and daddy tell you to, and never never forget to brush your teeth.”

  I went with haste back to Mr. Andrews’ secretary. “I’ve got to see Mr. Andrews,” I told her, “I’ve got to see him fast.”

  “You’ll have to wait,” she said, looking fondly over to where my daughters were receiving a final pat on the head from Santa Claus.

  The loudspeaker system was playing “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” I was thinking wildly: bicycle, microscope, bicycle, table and chairs, doll dishes, and my daughters came running across the floor to me. “Look,” Sally was shrieking, “look at what Santa Claus gave to us.”

  “Santa Claus was here,” Jannie confirmed, “he came right into the bank where we were and he gave us each a present, look, a little bag of chocolate money.”

  “Oh, fine, fine, fine,” I said madly.

  “And I am going to have my bicycle, Santa said he was too bringing it.”

  “—and me a bicycle too, and doll carriages and dishes and—”

  “—and in our stockings.”

  “Mr. Andrews will see you now,” said the secretary.

  I sat my daughters down again and made my entrance into Mr. Andrews’ office. His nose still retained a trace of jovial redness, but the jolly old elf’s eye was the familiar agate, and the faint echo of jingle bells around him sounded more like the clinking of half dollars.

  “Well,” said Santa Claus, selecting my loan slip from the stack on his desk, “and what brings you here again so soon?’

  • • •

  It was a beautiful morning, cold and clear and full of color, and the taxi driver was just finishing a story about how his wife’s mother had come to visit them and canned all the peaches his wife had been planning to put into their freezer. “Just wasted the whole lot of them,” he said, and pulled up in front of the house with a flourish.

  “There are the children on the porch,” I said.

  “Beginning to seem like Christmas,” my husband said to the taxi driver as I got out, and the taxi driver said, “Snow before morning.”

  Jannie’s hair had obviously not been combed since I left, and as I went up the front walk I was resolving to make her tell immediately where she had hidden the hairbrush. She was wearing her dearest summer sundress, and she was barefoot. Laurie needed a haircut, and he had on his old sneakers, one of which no longer laces, but fastens with a safety pin; I had made a particular point of throwing those sneakers into the garbage can before I left. Sally had chocolate all over her face and she was wearing Laurie’s fur hat. All three of them were leaning over the porch rail, still and expectant.

  I tried to catch hold of all three of them at once, but they evaded me skillfully and ran at their father. “Did you bring it?” Jannie demanded, “did you bring
it, did you bring it, did you bring it?”

  “Is that it you’re carrying?” Laurie demanded sternly, “that little thing?”

  “Did you bring it?” Jannie insisted.

  “Come indoors and I’ll show you,” their father said.

  They followed him into the living room, and stood in a solemn row by the couch. “Now don’t touch,” their father said, and they nodded all together. They watched while he carefully set the bundle down on the couch and unwrapped it.

  Then, into the stunned silence which followed, Sally finally said, “What is it?”

  “It’s a baby,” said their father, with an edge of nervousness to his voice, “it’s a baby boy and its name is Barry.”

  “What’s a baby?” Sally asked me.

  “It’s pretty small,” Laurie said doubtfully. “Is that the best you could get?”

  “I tried to get another, a bigger one,” I said with irritation, “but the doctor said this was the only one left.”

  “My goodness,” said Jannie, “what are we going to do with that? Anyway,” she said, “you’re back.”

  Suddenly she and Sally were both climbing onto my lap at once, and Laurie came closer and allowed me to kiss him swiftly on the cheek; I discovered that I could reach around all three of them, something I had not been able to do for some time.

  “Well,” Laurie said, anxious to terminate this sentimental scene, “so now we’ve got this baby. Do you think it will grow?” he asked his father.

  “It’s got very small feet,” Jannie said. “I really believe they’re too small.”

  “Well, if you don’t like it we can always take it back,” said their father.

  “Oh, we like it all right, I guess,” Laurie said comfortingly. “It’s only that I guess we figured on something a little bigger.”

  “What is it?” asked Sally, unconvinced. She put out a tentative finger and touched one toe. “Is this its foot?”

  “Please start calling it ‘him,’” I said.

  “Him?” said Sally. “Him?”

  “Hi, Barry,” said Laurie, leaning down to look directly into one open blue eye, “hi, Barry, hi, Barry, hi, Barry.”

 
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