Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson


  Another silence. “Are you all right?” I said.

  Another silence. I opened the door a crack and peered in cautiously. My husband was sitting on the couch, beating his hands on his knees. The air gun was on the floor. Ninki and the bat were gone.

  “Is it all right to come in?” I asked.

  “I don’t know,” my husband said, looking at me bitterly, “have you got a ticket?”

  “I mean,” I said, “where’s the bat?”

  “She’s taken it into the dining room,” my husband said.

  There was a nick in the wallpaper over the couch. In the dining room Ninki was growling pleasurably, deep in her throat. “She went faster than the pellet, is all,” my husband said reasonably. “I was just getting ready to aim and she passed me and passed the pellet and hit the bat just as the pellet hit the wall.”

  “Hadn’t you better get it out of the dining room?” I asked.

  He began to beat his knees again. I went back to the couch, shook the blanket thoroughly to make sure there had been only one bat on it and that one was gone, and settled down in my chair with my mystery story. After a while Ninki came out of the dining room, nodded contemptuously at my husband, glanced at me and, with a grin at the air gun, got onto my husband’s chair and went to sleep on his paper.

  I took the air gun and put it on the top shelf of the pantry, where I believe it still is. Now and then it occurs to me that in case of burglars I can take it down to protect the house, but I really think one of the kitchen knives would be safer, if Ninki is not around to take care of me.

  It was only the next morning that the man came to fix the glass in the kitchen window, and when Laurie, who was on his reluctant way to school, told the man his father had shot it out with a gun, I laughed cheerily and remarked that boys always had such good stories to cover their own misdeeds. Laurie looked at me in honest indignation, and I told him that he could take a package of gum from the pantry. Although I do not believe in actually encouraging children to tell lies, and do not in any case suppose that one pack of gum can cover up a flagrance like that one, Laurie gave every impression of being satisfied to share a joke about his father. It never occurred to me that the foundations of our parental authority were being slowly shattered until he came home from school some three or four days later with his jacket torn and an air of great innocent suffering. He was half an hour late, and he was accompanied by two of his friends, both of unsavory character; they strode manfully into the house and on into the study where my husband was peacefully doing research for an article on extinct fishes. I heard part of the conversation from upstairs where I was trying to dress Jannie after her nap. With my mind almost unoccupied, I listened without any real attention. “And they threw stones,” one of Laurie’s friends said in a thin, excited voice; he is somewhat older than Laurie, and he usually tells Laurie’s stories for him when Laurie is too modest to tell them for himself, “and they said terrible language, and they hit Laurie, and everything.”

  “Where were you all this time?” my husband asked. I could feel through the floor the righteous indignation mounting in the study. “Where were you two while these boys were hitting Laurie?”

  There was a moment of quiet, and then Laurie’s voice: “George was behind the tree, and William was running up here to tell you.” Laurie apparently stopped to think for a minute. “I didn’t run,” he added finally, “because I can’t very well, in these snow pants.”

  The enemy—I could see them from the upstairs front window—were still lingering outside, backing down the hill slowly, prepared to do further battle. Then I heard the front door slam. My husband issued forth, supported valiantly on either side by Laurie’s two friends, while Laurie, with commendable discretion, stayed just inside the front door, yelling, “Here comes my father!”

  Halfway up the hill, the enemy waited for my husband, and, although I could not hear, I could see them—my husband speaking fiercely and the enemy looking at him with wide, honest eyes. Presently the battle was resolved; my husband turned and stamped back to the house and the enemy went on down the hill, turning at a safe distance to call inaudible insults.

  When my husband came inside, I went downstairs to meet him. “Well?” I said.

  All of them began talking at once. “And they hit Laurie and everything,” his talkative friend said; “They even chased me,” his other friend added.

  “And these darn old snow pants,” Laurie said at the same time, while over all of them rose the voice of my husband saying, “Ought to be taught better manners. Boy like that deserves a good whipping.”

  Jannie came down the stairs behind me, asking hopefully, “Was Laurie bad? I’m good, aren’t I? Did Laurie do something new bad?”

  When I had isolated the various political maneuvers into offense and defense, the story went something like this: Laurie and his two friends were walking home from school, entirely without malice, not hurting anybody and minding their own business. As a matter of fact, they stopped quite of their own accord to pick up the books of a little girl who had dropped them into a mud puddle. Furthermore, they were not even thinking any harm, because they were all three most unpleasantly surprised when the largest of the enemy, a boy named David Howell, came up behind them and pulled on the hood of Laurie’s jacket. When Laurie said “Hey!”—and we all agreed he was perfectly justified—David spat at him, pronounced half a dozen forbidden epithets, and finally struck him. Laurie’s two friends took no active part in the battle, partly because David was bigger than any of them and partly because, as they explained at great length, they felt strongly that it was Laurie’s fight and interference would not be sporting. They had come home with Laurie, however, to be his witnesses and to see that justice was done.

  “What did you do to David?” I asked my husband.

  “I said you’d tell his mother,” he said virtuously.

  I have seen David’s mother, have even spoken to her at P.-T.A. meetings. She is one of those impressive women who usually head committees on supervising movies, taking the entire sixth grade on a tour of one of our local factories, or outlawing slingshots, and I daresay she would be the first person everyone would think of if there should arise an occasion for the mothers to lift the school building and carry it bodily to another location. I felt very strongly, as a matter of fact, that bringing David’s mother into this incident was a grave tactical error.

  But there were the four of them looking at me trustingly—five, if you count Jannie, who was saying “Poor, poor Laurie,” and rubbing his head violently.

  “I’ll phone her right away,” I said, trying to make it sound resolute and threatening. After some unavoidable fumbling with the telephone book I found the Howells’ number and finally, with everyone sitting around the phone expectantly, cleared my throat, straightened my shoulders, and briskly gave the number to the operator. After a minute, a strong, no-nonsense voice said “Hello?”

  “Hello,” I said faintly, “is this Mrs. Howell?”

  “Yes,” she said. She sounded quite civil, so I changed my mind and said as politely as I could, “Mrs. Howell, I don’t know if your boy David has told you about attacking my son Laurie on his way home from school today, but I thought I’d better call you anyway and see if we can’t do something about it.” Realizing that I had ended a little weakly, I added, “Laurie is quite badly hurt.”

  Laurie looked up, gratified, and nodded. “Tell her I’m dead,” he said.

  “Mrs. Howell,” I said into the phone, scowling at Laurie, “I do think that a boy so much bigger than Laurie—a boy so much bigger, as David is—I mean, David is so much bigger than Laurie that I do think—”

  All this time Mrs. Howell had been silent. Now she said amiably, “I quite agree with you, of course. But I can’t quite believe this of David; David is such a quiet boy. Is your little boy sure it wasn’t David Williams or David Martin?”

 
“Are you sure it wasn’t David Williams or David Martin?” I asked hopefully of the audience beyond the telephone. They all shook their heads violently, and one of Laurie’s friends—the one who ran—said enthusiastically, “I know David Howell, and it was him all right. Anyway, he’s always doing things like this. Two, three times now, he’s hit Laurie. And me, too. He hits everybody.”

  “It was certainly your David,” I said to Mrs. Howell. “They all agree on that. He picked a fight with Laurie on the way home from school and really hurt Laurie quite badly.”

  “Well,” she said. “I’ll certainly speak to David,” she added after a minute.

  “Thank you,” I said, perfectly content to depart with this empty triumph, but my husband said, “Tell her he was fresh to me, too.”

  “He was fresh to my husband, too,” I said obediently into the phone.

  “Really?” Mrs. Howell said, as though David were fresh to her husband all the time and this was no surprise. “Well,” she said again, “I’ll certainly speak to him.”

  “Tell her he’s hit me lots of times,” Laurie said.

  “Don’t forget the bad words,” one of Laurie’s friends prompted.

  “Make it really forceful,” my husband said. “Why should he get away with a thing like this?”

  “Will you see that this is stopped once and for all?” I demanded emphatically into the phone.

  Her voice sharpened. “I said I’d speak to David,” she repeated ominously.

  “Thank you,” I said hastily, and hung up.

  We were congratulating one another on our victory when the phone rang. “This is Mrs. Howell,” she said when I answered, and her voice had lost much of its civility. “I spoke to David,” she went on. “I told you I would. And it seems that David was not entirely at fault.” She dwelt on the last few words as though they gave her some fierce pleasure.

  “I don’t understand,” I said. “Laurie was just walking along the—”

  “I beg your pardon,” she said, still with great relish. “What about the rock he threw at David?”

  I looked at Laurie over the top of the phone, and he returned my glance with sober earnestness. “What rock?” I said, and Laurie’s gaze did not waver, but an odd sort of reminiscent pleasure crept into his eye.

  “Laurie,” said Mrs. Howell plainly, “threw a rock and hit David in the head. There’s a big big bump. David hadn’t done anything up to then. But if your little boy throws rocks, I can hardly blame—”

  I retreated abruptly to safer ground. “Surely,” I said, “you are not going to say that there is any excuse for a bigger boy hitting a smaller boy?”

  “I shall certainly speak to David about that,” she said stiffly. “But then, when Laurie’s father called David a little sneak and said he ought to be horsewhipped—”

  “What about what David called Laurie?” I countered tellingly. “It was so bad that Laurie wouldn’t dream of repeating it.”

  Laurie and his two friends immediately said loudly what it was.

  “Your husband said David ought to be horsewhipped,” she said, not shaken, and almost, I thought, as though he were not actually the first person who had suggested major punishment for David, “and poor little David tried to tell him that Laurie had been throwing rocks. You really ought to do something about a child throwing rocks. None of my children throw rocks; it’s something I can’t stand. But poor little David—”

  “David did so throw rocks,” I said. “And if my husband said—”

  “I did not say it,” my husband said.

  “Surely there is no excuse,” she said, “for a grown man to pick on a poor little boy.”

  I backed up again. “What about poor little Laurie?” I asked. “He was quite badly hurt. Surely there is no excuse—”

  “Poor little David—” she began.

  “And my poor little—” I said, and then started again. “My husband, I mean. What about the names they yelled at him?”

  I was suddenly reminded of the time Mrs. Howell had taken part in a local debate, holding and maintaining with absolute conviction the position that our state should secede from the United States to avoid having its natural resources completely depleted. “Furthermore—” she was saying.

  “What a way to bring up a child,” I said gently. “What kind of a mother are you?”

  My audience, I perceived, was growing restless. Laurie’s two friends were putting on their overshoes; Laurie himself had entered into an elaborately casual game with Jannie that had taken them almost to the kitchen doorway, and my husband was sauntering almost noiselessly back to the study.

  “Now you listen to me,” Mrs. Howell began, her voice rising, “now you listen to me—”

  I hung up gracefully and followed Laurie into the kitchen.

  “Laurie,” I said sternly, “did you throw a rock at David?”

  Laurie pondered, frowning, his head on one side and one finger thoughtfully tapping his cheek. “I forget,” he said at last.

  “Try to remember,” I said threateningly. Laurie shook his head in despair. “I just forget,” he said.

  I went to the study door. “Did you call David a little sneak?” I demanded.

  My husband looked up from his article on extinct fishes. “A little what?” he said.

  “A little sneak.”

  “Don’t be ridiculous,” my husband said. “Why would I call what’s-his-name a little sneak?” He turned back to his article. “Are you still worrying about that?” he asked.

  The phone rang. I strode over and slammed it out of the receiver. “Well?” I said.

  “If you think you can just hang up on people just because your son is a little bully and goes around throwing rocks and—”

  “If you think you and your half-witted David can get away with picking on every child in the neighborhood just because he’s overgrown and stupid—”

  “If you would care to—”

  “Perhaps you would like to—”

  We hung up simultaneously. My husband opened the study door and looked out. “Who were you talking to?” he asked.

  “Look,” I said, “if you’d just take care of your own affairs and let Laurie fight his own battles and not come to me to—”

  “I’m good, aren’t I?” Jannie said. She came over and pulled at my hand. “I’m good, aren’t I?”

  My husband said loudly, “Let’s box for a while, son. Get the gloves.” Without looking at me he added, “We’ll box out in the woodshed. Then,” he said thoughtfully, “the noise won’t bother Mother when she’s on the phone.”

  “Aren’t I?” said Jannie urgently. “Aren’t I?”

  I reached for the phone, and then hesitated. It was time to start the potatoes for dinner; I had a quick picture of Mrs. Howell peeling potatoes with one hand while she held a phone with the other, and I heard Laurie yelp as he walked into what was almost certainly a right cross.

  “Want to help Mommy make dinner?” I asked Jannie.

  Mrs. Howell and I met at the meat counter in the grocery the next morning; she smiled and I smiled and then she said, “How is Laurie today?”

  “He seems much better, thanks,” I said solemnly. “And David?”

  “Fairly well,” she said without turning a hair.

  “Horrible little beasts,” I said.

  “Liars, all of them,” she said. “I never believe a word they say.”

  We both laughed and turned to regard the meat. “They certainly do eat, though,” she said mournfully. “I suppose it’s hamburger again today.”

  “I was thinking about liver,” I said.

  “Will Laurie eat liver?” she asked with interest. “David won’t touch it; do you cook it any special way?”

  • • •

  I remember that during that fall and winter Laurie was still wearing, when I
forced him, a pair of red overalls onto which I had embroidered—during a time when I was somewhat more free and had a good deal more time to spend on the pretty little delicacies of life—a “Laurie” in green silk. He wore it to school only once, as I remember, and after that we made a bargain about how if I didn’t make him wear it in public he would try to bring himself to it on strictly private occasions. When it began to grow noticeably short on him, without being noticeably worn, I whimsically crossed out the “Laurie” with a green embroidered line, and embroidered “Joanne” underneath, and shortened it along with half a dozen other pair of overalls for Jannie. She wore it during the late spring and early summer, when Laurie first started going to the barber to get his hair cut; she was now wearing the green corduroy jacket Laurie had worn the day we moved. This was when my personal schedule resolved itself into a round of hemlines and chocolate pudding. When I was not shortening or lengthening the one I was stirring the other. The summer saw Jannie inherit a number of pullover shirts, which are fortunately without gender, and thousands of bachelor socks, in preparation for nursery school in the fall. Laurie had a new jacket for school, which we were taught to call a windbreaker rather than a jacket, and his shoes were so huge that I was uncomfortably made aware that he had passed from the lower-priced size into the higher-priced size.

  Summers go by so quickly, with a minimum of washing and a maximum of daylight, that we none of us have ever been able to perceive that infinitely cruel moment when the year turns and the days draw in; one morning the children were drinking lemonade in the back yard and talking largely of what they planned to build during the summer, and the next afternoon they were raking leaves and Jannie had lost a sandal in the leaf pile, to be hidden until perhaps next spring. Mothers have their own seasonal occupations; one afternoon I was sitting quietly in the living room, lengthening and shortening overalls in a sort of unworldly account; I had done three pair—one short and two long—when Laurie wandered in and stood in the center of the room, regarding me bleakly. Behind him trailed his dear friends Stuart and Robert, and after a few minutes, about as long as it takes short fat legs to catch up, Jannie plodded in. Our big dog Toby followed her. They lined themselves up in the center of the carpet and stood looking at me silently.

 
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