Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson


  The next day Laurie remarked at lunch, as soon as he sat down, “Well, Charles was bad again today.” He grinned enormously and said, “Today Charles hit the teacher.”

  “Good heavens,” I said, mindful of the Lord’s name, “I suppose he got spanked again?”

  “He sure did,” Laurie said. “Look up,” he said to his father.

  “What?” his father said, looking up.

  “Look down,” Laurie said. “Look at my thumb. Gee, you’re dumb.” He began to laugh insanely.

  “Why did Charles hit the teacher?” I asked quickly.

  “Because she tried to make him color with red crayons,” Laurie said. “Charles wanted to color with green crayons so he hit the teacher and she spanked him and said nobody play with Charles but everybody did.”

  The third day—it was Wednesday of the first week—Charles bounced a seesaw onto the head of a little girl and made her bleed and the teacher made him stay inside all during recess. Thursday Charles had to stand in a corner during storytime because he kept pounding his feet on the floor. Friday Charles was deprived of blackboard privileges because he threw chalk.

  On Saturday I remarked to my husband, “Do you think kindergarten is too unsettling for Laurie? All this toughness and bad grammar, and this Charles boy sounds like such a bad influence.”

  “It’ll be all right,” my husband said reassuringly. “Bound to be people like Charles in the world. Might as well meet them now as later.”

  On Monday Laurie came home late, full of news. “Charles,” he shouted as he came up the hill; I was waiting anxiously on the front steps, “Charles,” Laurie yelled all the way up the hill, “Charles was bad again.”

  “Come right in,” I said, as soon as he came close enough. “Lunch is waiting.”

  “You know what Charles did?” he demanded, following me through the door. “Charles yelled so in school they sent a boy in from first grade to tell the teacher she had to make Charles keep quiet, and so Charles had to stay after school. And so all the children stayed to watch him.”

  “What did he do?” I asked.

  “He just sat there,” Laurie said, climbing into his chair at the table. “Hi Pop, y’old dust mop.”

  “Charles had to stay after school today,” I told my husband. “Everyone stayed with him.”

  “What does this Charles look like?” my husband asked Laurie. “What’s his other name?”

  “He’s bigger than me,” Laurie said. “And he doesn’t have any rubbers and he doesn’t ever wear a jacket.”

  Monday night was the first Parent-Teachers meeting, and only the fact that Jannie had a cold kept me from going; I wanted passionately to meet Charles’ mother. On Tuesday Laurie remarked suddenly, “Our teacher had a friend come see her in school today.”

  “Charles’ mother?” my husband and I asked simultaneously.

  “Naaah,” Laurie said scornfully. “It was a man who came and made us do exercises. Look.” He climbed down from his chair and squatted down and touched his toes. “Like this,” he said. He got solemnly back into his chair and said, picking up his fork, “Charles didn’t even do exercises.”

  “That’s fine,” I said heartily. “Didn’t Charles want to do exercises?”

  “Naaah,” Laurie said. “Charles was so fresh to the teacher’s friend he wasn’t let do exercises.”

  “Fresh again?” I said.

  “He kicked the teacher’s friend,” Laurie said. “The teacher’s friend told Charles to touch his toes like I just did and Charles kicked him.”

  “What are they going to do about Charles, do you suppose?” Laurie’s father asked him.

  Laurie shrugged elaborately. “Throw him out of school, I guess,” he said.

  Wednesday and Thursday were routine; Charles yelled during story hour and hit a boy in the stomach and made him cry. On Friday Charles stayed after school again and so did all the other children.

  With the third week of kindergarten Charles was an institution in our family; Jannie was being a Charles when she cried all afternoon; Laurie did a Charles when he filled his wagon full of mud and pulled it through the kitchen; even my husband, when he caught his elbow in the telephone cord and pulled telephone, ashtray, and a bowl of flowers off the table, said, after the first minute, “Looks like Charles.”

  During the third and fourth weeks there seemed to be a reformation in Charles; Laurie reported grimly at lunch on Thursday of the third week, “Charles was so good today the teacher gave him an apple.”

  “What?” I said, and my husband added warily, “You mean Charles?”

  “Charles,” Laurie said. “He gave the crayons around and he picked up the books afterward and the teacher said he was her helper.”

  “What happened?” I asked incredulously.

  “He was her helper, that’s all,” Laurie said, and shrugged.

  “Can this be true, about Charles?” I asked my husband that night. “Can something like this happen?”

  “Wait and see,” my husband said cynically. “When you’ve got a Charles to deal with, this may mean he’s only plotting.”

  He seemed to be wrong. For over a week Charles was the teacher’s helper; each day he handed things out and he picked things up; no one had to stay after school.

  “The P.-T.A. meeting’s next week again,” I told my husband one evening. “I’m going to find Charles’ mother there.”

  “Ask her what happened to Charles,” my husband said. “I’d like to know.”

  “I’d like to know myself,” I said.

  On Friday of that week things were back to normal. “You know what Charles did today?” Laurie demanded at the lunch table, in a voice slightly awed. “He told a little girl to say a word and she said it and the teacher washed her mouth out with soap and Charles laughed.”

  “What word?” his father asked unwisely, and Laurie said, “I’ll have to whisper it to you, it’s so bad.” He got down off his chair and went around to his father. His father bent his head down and Laurie whispered joyfully. His father’s eyes widened.

  “Did Charles tell the little girl to say that?” he asked respectfully.

  “She said it twice,” Laurie said. “Charles told her to say it twice.”

  “What happened to Charles?” my husband asked.

  “Nothing,” Laurie said. “He was passing out the crayons.”

  Monday morning Charles abandoned the little girl and said the evil word himself three or four times, getting his mouth washed out with soap each time. He also threw chalk.

  My husband came to the door with me that evening as I set out for the P.-T.A. meeting. “Invite her over for a cup of tea after the meeting,” he said. “I want to get a look at her.”

  “If only she’s there,” I said prayerfully.

  “She’ll be there,” my husband said. “I don’t see how they could hold a P.-T.A. meeting without Charles’ mother.”

  At the meeting I sat restlessly, scanning each comfortable matronly face, trying to determine which one hid the secret of Charles. None of them looked to me haggard enough. No one stood up in the meeting and apologized for the way her son had been acting. No one mentioned Charles.

  After the meeting I identified and sought out Laurie’s kindergarten teacher. She had a plate with a cup of tea and a piece of chocolate cake; I had a plate with a cup of tea and a piece of marshmallow cake. We maneuvered up to one another cautiously and smiled.

  “I’ve been so anxious to meet you,” I said. “I’m Laurie’s mother.”

  “We’re all so interested in Laurie,” she said.

  “Well, he certainly likes kindergarten,” I said. “He talks about it all the time.”

  “We had a little trouble adjusting, the first week or so,” she said primly, “but now he’s a fine little helper. With lapses, of course.”

  “Lau
rie usually adjusts very quickly,” I said. “I suppose this time it’s Charles’ influence.”

  “Charles?”

  “Yes,” I said, laughing, “you must have your hands full in that kindergarten, with Charles.”

  “Charles?” she said. “We don’t have any Charles in the kindergarten.”

  • • •

  It was soon after this meeting—the whole question of Charles having somehow dissipated and become without discussion a forbidden topic—that my husband, moved by some obscure impulse which may or may not have been connected with Charles, bought himself an air gun. I have never really believed that my husband is the Kit Carson type, but it is remotely possible that occasionally a feeling for the life romantic overcomes him; this air gun was large and menacing and he told me, in that terribly responsible voice men get to using when they are telling their wives about machinery, or guns, or politics, that he got it for target practice.

  There had been a rat in the cellar, he said; he was sure he had seen a rat when he went down to start the furnace. So, of course, he was going to shoot it. Not trap it or poison it—that was for boys and terriers; he was going to shoot it.

  For the better part of a Sunday morning he crouched dangerously at the open cellar door, waiting for the rat to show his whiskers, which the rat was kind enough not to do. Our two excellent cats were also staying inside, sitting complacently and with some professional interest directly behind my husband. The rat hunt was broken up when the kitchen door banged open and Laurie crashed in with three friends to see how his father shot the rat. Eventually, I suppose, the rat wandered off, although I do not see how he could conceivably have been frightened by the prospect of being shot. Probably he had never realized until then that he had strayed into a house with cats and children. At any rate, my husband and the cats, hunting in a pack, managed to bring down even better game; it must have been about the Tuesday after the rat hunt that our female cat, Ninki, who is something of a hunter, caught a chipmunk. She has done this before and will do it again, although I am sure she will never again ask my husband to sit in with her. The chipmunk she caught that morning—it was about nine-thirty—was not co-operative, and when Ninki brought him into the kitchen, where she usually brings chipmunks with some odd conviction that she must eat them in her own dish, the chipmunk ducked under her paw and raced madly to a rather tall plant on the window sill. The plant was just strong enough to bear the weight of one chipmunk, and Ninki, in a sort of frenzy, hurried into the dining room where my husband was just finishing his coffee and talked him into going into the kitchen to see her chipmunk in the plant. My husband took one look and went for his air gun.

  Ninki was able to get onto the window sill, but the plant was tall enough and the pot it stood in shaky enough so that she could not quite reach the chipmunk, who was standing precariously on the very top of the plant. My husband drew a careful bead with the air gun and then found that unless he stepped up and held his weapon against the chipmunk’s head, he stood a very good chance of missing the chipmunk, if not actually the cat, who was a large and intrusive target.

  By this time, of course, I had put down my coffee cup and was standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the dining room, safely out of range as women should be when men are hunting, and saying things like “Dear, why don’t you put a paper bag over it or something and take it outside?” and “Dear, don’t you think it would be easier if—”

  Ninki was by this time irritated beyond belief by the general air of incompetence exhibited in the kitchen, and she went into the living room and got Shax, who is extraordinarily lazy and never catches his own chipmunks, but who is, at least, a cat, and preferable, Ninki saw clearly, to a man with a gun. Shax sized up the situation with a cynical eye, gave my husband and his gun the coldest look I have ever seen a cat permit himself, and then leaped onto the window sill and sat on the other side of the flowerpot. It made a pretty little tableau: Ninki and Shax sitting on either side of the flowerpot and the chipmunk sitting on top of the plant.

  After a minute the chipmunk—feeling rightly that all eyes were upon him—fidgeted nervously, and the plant began to sway. As the chipmunk was very nervous and the top of the plant very supple, soon the top of the plant began to swing from side to side, like a pendulum, so that the chipmunk, going faster and faster, rocked over to one cat and then to the other, grazing a nose of each, while they backed away dubiously. My husband still had his aim on the chipmunk, and he began to rock back and forth. When the cats finally realized what was happening, they took turns batting the chipmunk as he swung between them.

  All of this happened so quickly that I believe—unless I prefer to move out I have no choice but to believe—that my husband pressed the trigger of the air gun without really meaning to, because it is certain that he missed the chipmunk and the cats, and hit the window. The crash sent cats, chipmunk, and Nimrod in all directions—the cats under the table, the chipmunk, with rare presence of mind, out the broken window, and my husband, with even rarer presence of mind, back to the dining room and to his seat at the table. I advanced from my post in the kitchen doorway and picked up the air gun from the floor; then, with what I regard as unique forbearance, I went for the broom and dustpan. All I permitted myself, spoken gently and without undue emphasis, was “Thank heaven Laurie is in school.”

  I was indulgent enough to return the air gun to my husband after a few days, but I would have thought that Ninki had more sense. Perhaps she never dreamed I would give the air gun back, or perhaps she just thought target practice around the house had been given up as impractical; perhaps, with some kind of feline optimism I cannot share, she believed that the chipmunk episode had been a freak, the sort of thing that might happen to any man confronting an oscillant chipmunk.

  So it was not more than a week later that Ninki gave the air gun another chance. It was a cool evening, and I was lying on the couch with a blanket over me, reading a mystery story; my husband was sitting quietly in his chair reading the newspaper. We had just congratulated one another on the fact that it was now too late for casual guests to drop in, and my husband had mentioned three or four times that he thought he might like some of that pot roast in a sandwich before he went to bed. Then we heard Ninki’s unmistakably triumphant mighty-hunter howl from the dining room.

  “Look,” I said apprehensively, “Ninki’s got something, a mouse or something. Make her take it outside.”

  “She’ll get it out by herself.”

  “But she’ll chase it around and around and around the dining room and kill it there and—” I gulped unhappily “—eat it. Get it out now while it’s still alive.”

  “She won’t—” my husband began, when Ninki’s triumphant wail broke off with a muffled oath and Ninki herself came hurriedly to the dining room door and stared compellingly at my husband.

  “Do you always need help?” he asked her crossly. “Seems to me a great big cat like you—”

  I shrieked. Ninki lifted her head resignedly, as one whose bitterest views of fate have been confirmed; my husband gasped. Ninki’s supper, a full-grown and horribly active bat, was sweeping magnificently down the length of the living room. For a minute I watched it with my mouth open and then, still yelling, buried my head under the blanket.

  “My gun,” I heard my husband shouting at Ninki, “where is my gun?”

  Even under the blanket I could hear the flap of the bat’s wings as it raced up and down the living room; I put my knees under my chin and my arms over my head and huddled under the blanket. Outside, they were stalking the bat; I could hear my husband tiptoeing warily down the room, with Ninki apparently right behind him, because he was saying, “Don’t hurry, for heaven’s sake, give me a chance to aim.”

  A hideous thought came to me. “Is it on me?” I said through my teeth, “just tell me once, is it on me, on the blanket? Ninki, is it? Is it?”

  “Now you just stay perfectl
y still,” my husband said reassuringly. “These things never stay in one place for very long. Why, only the other day I was reading in the paper about a woman who—”

  “Is it on the blanket?” I insisted hysterically, “on me?”

  “Listen,” my husband said crossly, “if you keep on shaking like that, I’ll never be able to hit it. Hold still, and I’m sure to miss you.”

  I do not know what the official world’s record might be for getting out from under a blanket, flying across a room, opening a door and a screen door, and getting outside onto a porch with both doors closed behind you, but if it is more than about four seconds I broke it. I thought the bat was chasing me, for one thing. And I knew that, if the bat were chasing me, my husband was aiming that gun at it, wherever it was. Outside on the porch, I leaned my head against the middle pillar and breathed hard.

  Inside, there was a series of crashes. I recognized the first as the report of the air gun. The second sounded irresistibly like a lamp going over, which is what it turned out to be. The third I could not identify from the porch, but my husband said later that it was Ninki trying to get out of the way of the air gun and knocking over the andirons. Then my husband spoke angrily to Ninki, and Ninki snarled. Each of them, it seemed, thought the other one had frightened the bat, which had left the blanket when I did, although not half so fast, and was now circling gaily around the chandelier.

  “Come on in,” my husband said through the door; he tried to open it but I was hanging on from the outside; “Come on in, it won’t hurt you. I promise it won’t.”

  “I’ll stay out here,” I said.

  “It’s just as frightened as you are,” he said.

  “It is not,” I said.

  Then he apparently spoke to Ninki again, because he said excitedly, “It’s landing; keep away now, you’ll be hurt.”

  There was a great noise of rushing and snarling and shooting, then a long silence. Finally I asked softly, “Are you all right?”

 
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