Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson


  “Splendid,” I said, making an enormous smile for all of them. “I’m doing wonderfully well.”

  “Good,” he said. “How soon do you think we ought to leave?”

  “Around noon, probably,” I said. “Everything is fine, really.”

  My husband asked politely, “May I help you with breakfast?”

  “No, indeed,” I said. I stopped to catch my breath and smiled reassuringly. “I feel so well,” I said.

  “Would you be offended,” he said, still very politely, “if I took this egg out of my glass?”

  “Certainly not,” I said. “I’m sorry; I can’t think how it got there.”

  “It’s nothing at all,” my husband said. “I was just thirsty.”

  They were all staring at me oddly, and I kept giving them my reassuring smile; I did feel spendid; my months of waiting were nearly over, my careful preparations had finally been brought to a purpose, tomorrow I would be wearing my yellow nightgown. “I’m so pleased,” I said.

  I was slightly dizzy, perhaps. And there were pains, but they were authentic ones, not the feeble imitations I had been dreaming up the past few weeks. I patted Laurie on the head. “Well,” I said, in the tone I had used perhaps five hundred times in the last months, “Well, do we want a little boy or a little boy?”

  “Won’t you sit down?” my husband said. He had the air of a man who expects that an explanation will somehow be given him for a series of extraordinary events in which he is unwillingly involved. “I think you ought to sit down,” he added urgently.

  It was about then that I realized that he was right. I ought to sit down. As a matter of fact, I ought to go to the hospital right now, immediately. I dropped my reassuring smile and the fork I had been carrying around with me.

  “I’d better hurry,” I said inadequately.

  My husband called the taxi and brought down my suitcase. The children were going to stay with friends, and one of the things we had planned to do was drop them off on our way to the hospital; now, however, I felt vitally that I had not the time. I began to talk fast.

  “You’ll have to take care of the children,” I told my husband. “See that . . .” I stopped. I remember thinking with incredible clarity and speed. “See that they finish their breakfast,” I said. Pajamas on the line, I thought, school, cats, toothbrushes. Milkman. Overalls to be mended, laundry. “I ought to make a list,” I said vaguely. “Leave a note for the milkman tomorrow night. Soap, too. We need soap.”

  “Yes, dear,” my husband kept saying. “Yes dear yes dear.”

  The taxi arrived and suddenly I was saying goodbye to the children. “See you later,” Laurie said casually. “Have a good time.”

  “Bring me a present,” Jannie added.

  “Don’t worry about a thing,” my husband said.

  “Now, don’t you worry,” I told him. “There’s nothing to worry about.”

  “Everything will be fine,” he said. “Don’t worry.”

  I waited for a good moment and then scrambled into the taxi without grace; I did not dare risk my reassuring smile on the taxi driver but I nodded to him briskly.

  “I’ll be with you in an hour,” my husband said nervously. “And don’t worry.”

  “Everything will be fine,” I said. “Don’t worry.”

  “Nothing to worry about,” the taxi driver said to my husband, and we started off, my husband standing on the lawn wringing his hands and the taxi tacking insanely from side to side of the road to avoid even the slightest bump.

  I sat very still in the back seat, trying not to breathe. I had one arm lovingly around my suitcase, which held my yellow nightgown, and I tried to light a cigarette without using any muscles except those in my hands and my neck and still not let go of my suitcase.

  “Going to be a beautiful day,” I said to the taxi driver at last. We had a twenty-minute trip ahead of us, at least—much longer, if he continued his zig-zag path. “Pretty warm for this time of year.”

  “Pretty warm yesterday, too,” the taxi driver said.

  “It was warm yesterday,” I conceded, and stopped to catch my breath. The driver, who was obviously avoiding looking at me in the mirror, said a little bit hysterically, “Probably be warm tomorrow, too.”

  I waited for a minute, and then I was able to say, dubiously, “I don’t know as it will stay warm that long. Might cool off by tomorrow.”

  “Well,” the taxi driver said, “it was sure warm yesterday.”

  “Yesterday?” I said. “Yes, that was a warm day.”

  “Going to be nice today, too,” the driver said. I clutched my suitcase tighter and made some small sound—more like a yelp than anything else—and the taxi veered madly off to the left and then began to pick up speed with enthusiasm.

  “Very warm indeed,” the driver babbled, leaning forward against the wheel. “Warmest day I ever saw for the time of year. Usually this time of year it’s colder. Yesterday it was terribly—”

  “It was not,” I said. “It was freezing. I can see the tower of the hospital.”

  “I remember thinking how warm it was,” the driver said. He turned into the hospital drive. “It was so warm I noticed it right away. ‘This is a warm day,’ I thought; that’s how warm it was.”

  We pulled up with a magnificent flourish at the hospital entrance, and the driver skittered out of the front seat and came around and opened the door and took my arm.

  “My wife had five,” he said. “I’ll take the suitcase, Miss. Five and never a minute’s trouble with any of them.”

  He rushed me in through the door and up to the desk. “Here,” he said to the desk clerk. “Pay me later,” he said to me, and fled.

  “Name?” the desk clerk said to me politely, her pencil poised.

  “Name,” I said vaguely. I remembered, and told her.

  “Age?” she asked.“Sex? Occupation?”

  “Writer,” I said.

  “Housewife,” she said.

  “Writer,” I said.

  “I’ll just put down housewife,” she said. “Doctor? How many children?”

  “Two,” I said. “Up to now.”

  “Normal pregnancy?” she said. “Blood test? X-ray?”

  “Look—” I said.

  “Husband’s name?” she said. “Address? Occupation?”

  “Just put down housewife,” I said. “I don’t remember his name, really.”

  “Legitimate?”

  “What?” I said.

  “Is your husband the father of this child? Do you have a husband?”

  “Please,” I said plaintively, “can I go on upstairs?”

  “Well, really,” she said, and sniffed. “You’re only having a baby.”

  She waved delicately to a nurse, who took me by the same arm everybody else had been using that morning, and in the elevator this nurse was very nice. She asked me twice how I was feeling and said “maternity?” to me inquiringly as we left the elevator; I was carrying my own suitcase by then.

  Two more nurses joined us upstairs; we made light conversation while I got into the hospital nightgown. The nurses had all been to some occupational party the night before and one of them had been simply a riot; she was still being a riot while I undressed, because every now and then one of the other two nurses would turn around to me and say, “Isn’t she a riot, honestly?”

  I made a few remarks, just to show that I too was lighthearted and not at all nervous; I commented laughingly on the hospital nightgown, and asked with amusement tinged with foreboding what the apparatus was that they were wheeling in on the tray.

  My doctor arrived about half an hour later; he had obviously had three cups of coffee and a good cigar; he patted me on the shoulder and said, “How do we feel?”

  “Pretty well,” I said, with an uneasy giggle that ended in a squawk. “How l
ong do you suppose it will be before—”

  “We don’t need to worry about that for a while yet,” the doctor said. He laughed pleasantly, and nodded to the nurses. They all bore down on me at once. One of them smoothed my pillow, one of them held my hand, and the third one stroked my forehead and said, “After all, you’re only having a baby.”

  “Call me if you want me,” the doctor said to the nurses as he left, “I’ll be downstairs in the coffee shop.”

  “I’ll call you if I need you,” I told him ominously, and one of the nurses said in a honeyed voice, “Now, look, we don’t want our husband to get all worried.”

  I opened one eye; my husband was sitting, suddenly, beside the bed. He looked as though he were trying not to scream. “They told me to come in here,” he said. “I was trying to find the waiting room.”

  “Other end of the hall,” I told him grimly. I pounded on the bell and the nurse came running. “Get him out of here,” I said, waving my head at my husband.

  “They told me—” my husband began, looking miserably at the nurse.

  “It’s allllll right,” the nurse said. She began to stroke my forehead again. “Hubby belongs right here.”

  “Either he goes or I go,” I said.

  The door slammed open and the doctor came in. “Heard you were here,” he said jovially, shaking my husband’s hand. “Look a little pale.”

  My husband smiled weakly.

  “Never lost a father yet,” the doctor said, and slapped him on the back. He turned to me. “How do we feel?” he said.

  “Terrible,” I said, and the doctor laughed again. “Just on my way downstairs,” he said to my husband. “Come along?”

  No one seemed actually to go or come that morning; I would open my eyes and they were there, open my eyes again and they were gone. This time, when I opened my eyes, a pleasant-faced nurse was standing beside me; she was swabbing my arm with a piece of cotton. Although I am ordinarily timid about hypodermics I welcomed this one with what was almost a genuine echo of my old reassuring smile. “Well, well,” I said to the nurse. “Sure glad to see you.”

  “Sissy,” she said distinctly, and jabbed me in the arm.

  “How soon will this wear off?” I asked her with deep suspicion; I am always afraid with nurses that they feel that the psychological effect of a hypodermic is enough, and that I am actually being innoculated with some useless, although probably harmless, concoction.

  “You won’t even notice,” she said enigmatically, and left.

  The hypodermic hit me suddenly, and I began to giggle about five minutes after she left. I was alone in the room, lying there giggling to myself, when I opened my eyes and there was a woman standing beside the bed. She was human, not a nurse; she was wearing a baggy blue bathrobe. “I’m across the hall,” she said. “I been hearing you.”

  “I was laughing,” I said, with vast dignity.

  “I heard you,” she said. “Tomorrow it might be me, maybe.”

  “You here for a baby?”

  “Someday,” she said gloomily. “I was here two weeks ago, I was having pains. I come in the morning and that night they said to me, ‘Go home, wait a while longer.’ So I went home, and I come again three days later, I was having pains. And they said to me, ‘Go home, wait a while longer.’ And so yesterday I come again, I was having pains. So far they let me stay.”

  “That’s too bad,” I said.

  “I got my mother there,” she said. “She takes care of everything and sees the meals made, but she’s beginning to think I got her there with false pretenses.”

  “That’s too bad,” I said. I began to pound the wall with my fists.

  “Stop that,” she said. “Somebody’ll hear you. This is my third. The first two—nothing.”

  “This is my third,” I said. “I don’t care who hears me.”

  “My kids,” she said. “Every time I come home they say to me, ‘Where’s the baby?’ My mother, too. My husband, he keeps driving me over and driving me back.”

  “They kept telling me the third was the easiest,” I said. I began to giggle again.

  “There you go,” she said. “Laughing your head off. I wish I had something to laugh at.”

  She waved her hand at me and turned and went mournfully through the door. I opened my same weary eye and my husband was sitting comfortably in his chair. “I said,” he said saying loudly, “I said, ‘Do you mind if I read?’” He had the New York Times on his knee.

  “Look,” I said, “do I have anything to read? Here I am, with nothing to do and no one to talk to and you sit there and read the New York Times right in front of me and here I am, with nothing—”

  “How do we feel?” the doctor asked. He was suddenly much taller than before, and the walls of the room were rocking distinctly.

  “Doctor,” I said, and I believe that my voice was a little louder than I intended it should be, “you better give me—”

  He patted me on the hand and it was my husband instead of the doctor. “Stop yelling,” he said.

  “I’m not yelling,” I said. “I don’t like this any more. I’ve changed my mind, I don’t want any baby, I want to go home and forget the whole thing.”

  “I know just how you feel,” he said.

  My only answer was a word which certainly I knew that I knew, although I had never honestly expected to hear it spoken in my own ladylike voice.

  “Stop yelling,” my husband said urgently. “Please stop saying that.”

  I had the idea that I was perfectly conscious, and I looked at him with dignity. “Who is doing this?” I asked. “You or me?”

  “It’s all right,” the doctor said. “We’re on our way.” The walls were moving along on either side of me and the woman in the blue bathrobe was waving from a doorway.

  “She loved me for the dangers I had passed,” I said to the doctor, “and I loved her that she did pity them.”

  “It’s all right, I tell you,” the doctor said. “Hold your breath.”

  “Did he finish his New York Times?”

  “Hours ago,” the doctor said.

  “What’s he reading now?” I asked.

  “The Tribune,” the doctor said. “Hold your breath.”

  It was so unbelievably bright that I closed my eyes.

  “Such a lovely time,” I said to the doctor. “Thank you so much for asking me, I can’t tell you how I’ve enjoyed it. Next time you must come to our—”

  “It’s a girl,” the doctor said.

  “Sarah,” I said politely, as though I were introducing them. I still thought I was perfectly conscious, and then I was. My husband was sitting beside the bed, smiling cheerfully.

  “What happened to you?” I asked him. “No Wall Street Journal?”

  “It’s a girl,” he said.

  “I know,” I said. “I was there.”

  I was in a pleasant, clean room. There was no doubt that it was all over; I could see my feet under the bedspread.

  “It’s a girl,” I said to my husband.

  The door opened and the doctor came in. “Well,” he said. “How do we feel?”

  “Fine,” I said. “It’s a girl.”

  “I know,” he said.

  The door was still open and a face peered around it. My husband, the doctor, and I, all turned happily to look. It was the woman in the blue bathrobe.

  “Had it yet?” I asked her.

  “No,” she said. “You?”

  “Yep,” I said. “You going home again?”

  “Listen,” she said. “I been thinking. Home, the kids all yelling and my mother looking sad like she’s disappointed in me. Like I did something. My husband, every time he sees me jump he reaches for the car keys. My sister, she calls me every day and if I answer the phone she hangs up. Here, I get three meals a day I don’t cook, I kn
ow all the nurses, and I meet a lot of people going in and out. I figure I’d be a fool to go home. What was it, girl or boy?”

  “Girl,” I said.

  “Girl,” she said. “They say the third’s the easiest.”

  Two

  I believe that all women, but especially housewives, tend to think in lists; I have always believed, against all opposition, that women think in logical sequence, but it was not until I came to empty the pockets of my light summer coat that year that I realized how thoroughly the housekeeping mind falls into the list pattern, how basically the idea of a series of items, following one another docilely, forms the only possible reasonable approach to life if you have to live it with a home and a husband and children, none of whom would dream of following one another docilely. What started me thinking about it was the little slips of paper I found in the pockets of my light summer coat, one beginning “cereal, shoes to shop, bread, cheese, peanut butter, evening paper, doz doughnuts, CALL PICTURE.” I showed this list to my husband, and he read it twice and said it didn’t make any sense. When I told him that it made perfect sense because it followed my route up one side of the main street of our town and down the other side—I have to buy the cereal at a special store, because that’s the only one which carries the kind the children like—he said then what did CALL PICTURE mean? and when I explained that it meant I must call the picture-framer before I started out and was in big letters because if I took the list out in the store and found I had forgotten to call the picture-framer I would then have to stop in and see him, he sniffed and said if he managed his filing cabinet the way I managed my shopping. . . . The other list I found in my summer coat pocket started out “summer coat to clnrs.”

  The fact that I hadn’t taken my summer coat to the cleaners (oh, those first fall days, with the sad sharpness in the air and the leaves bright so that our road is a line of color, and the feeling of storing-in against the winter, and the pumpkins) does not materially affect my conviction that the kind of progress from one thing to another which makes up a list is deeply logical, if ineffectual. Say to my next-door neighbor that you admire her new kitchen linoleum, and she will tell you, “Do you like it, really? I wanted to get white instead of blue, but it gets dirty so quickly, and then of course John always did like blue best, but of course the cannister set and the kitchen table are lighter blue, and it would have meant replacing them, but then the curtains . . .” From here she may go off onto any of several tangents (I am assuming, of course, that she is not interrupted by my telling of my own experiences, or John’s saying how about bringing out some crackers and cheese for everybody, or a child crying somewhere upstairs), such as the dirt detour; she may give you a list of things which do get dirty (“. . . a black linoleum, and do you know it showed every single track . . .”) or things which do not get dirty (“. . . and even though it was really a pale yellow it just wiped off . . .”), or she may become interested in kitchen fixtures (“. . . and she had the prettiest curtains, but they were sort of odd, I thought, in a kitchen; they were . . .”) or bathroom fixtures (“. . . and they had the same tiles in the bathroom, only these were pink, and the curtains there . . .”) or even John’s likes and dislikes (“. . . but of course he won’t eat anything with garlic in it, so I have to take all the recipes I get and put in . . .”).

 
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