Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson

  “If you eat every single bite of your breakfast,” I said, “you may have some of your candy.”

  “Once there was a little boy,” Jannie said, shoving her egg around the plate with the handle of her fork, “and he had no mother or father.”

  “What happened to him?” Laurie said, sliding into his chair. “He says call back before two,” he remarked confidentially to his father.

  “He was eaten by a elephant,” Jannie said. “Look, no more breakfast.”

  I lifted her plate and, with a spoon, gathered the egg off the table and put it back onto the plate. “Every bite,” I said firmly, “or no candy.”

  “Once there was a little boy,” Jannie said mournfully, “and he had no mother or father.”

  She waited for a minute, but no one spoke; Laurie was engaged with his toast, I was trying to get Sally’s spoon out of her mouth, and my husband was counting the money in his wallet.

  “‘Once there was a little boy,’” Jannie said loudly, “‘and he had no mother or father,’ I said.”

  “What happened to him?” Laurie asked resignedly.

  Jannie giggled. “He was eaten by a bicycle,” she said.

  “Through,” Laurie announced suddenly. “See?” He turned his plate upside down, his milk cup upside down on top of that, and balanced his fruit juice glass on top of the whole thing.

  “Laurence,” his father said absently, “your napkin is on the floor.”

  Laurie snatched his airplane full of candy, and retired. I picked his napkin up off the floor, unloaded the milk cup and the fruit juice glass, caught Jannie’s plate just as it was sliding off the edge of the table, rescued the spoon from Sally, and said “More coffee?” to my husband.

  He looked deeply into his cup. “Yes, please,” he said.

  Breakfast was nearly over.

  Laurie had emptied his candies into a small bowl, and was stirring them around vigorously. “Look,” he said, coming around to Jannie’s side of the table, “Look, whirlpools.”

  “I want my candy,” Jannie said immediately.

  “Look, whirlpools,” Laurie said to his father. “Whirlpools,” he said to me. An idea struck him suddenly and he took a handful of the candies and put them on the tray of Sally’s highchair; they rolled back and forth and Sally regarded them dubiously.

  “Eat, Sally,” Laurie said. “Eat, eat, eat, eat, eat, eat, eat, eat . . .”

  “Laurence,” I said feverishly.

  “Okay, okay,” Laurie said. “Look, Sally. Candy.”

  He pointed to the small candies and Sally tried experimentally to pick one up. Her fingers were not well enough controlled to take hold of it, and she began to giggle, chasing the candies around the highchair tray.

  “Listen,” Laurie shouted, “Phoebe’s coming.”

  “Phoebe’s coming,” Jannie agreed loudly. She began to struggle, and Laurie at the same time tried to gather his airplane and candy together preparatory for a dash at the door. Jannie teetered backward in her chair, Laurie crashed into her, and they both went over, Jannie’s plate, with egg, moving gracefully off the table after them.

  “Can I have my candy now?” Jannie asked me, looking up hopefully from the floor. “Laurie did it.”

  “Phoebe,” Laurie was shouting from the front door, “Mommy’s going to kill you, and Daddy says—”

  The phone rang. This time I made it first, and, breathing hard, I lifted the receiver and said “Hello?”

  “Hello?” said a high thin voice. “May I please speak to Laurence?”

  • • •

  Phoebe was the last, for a long, long time, of my adjuvants. Not that I can’t use help around the house, but I am, not to put too fine a point on it, the person to whom the almost unemployable slack-jawed mother’s helper gravitates as to a natural home. I have never in my life made any pretense at being an efficient housekeeper; I can make a fair gingerbread and I know a thing or two about onion soup, but beyond the most rudimentary sweepings and dustings I am not capable. Not for me the turned sheet, the dated preserve, the fitted homemade slipcover or the well-ironed shirt. Nor do I stack up particularly well in the hired girl department; in our town the employer (obviously a staunch New England type who because of a broken leg or some incurable malady has found it necessary to “get help”) is expected to “work along,” to check dirt, to remain, at all times, level-headed.

  That is why I always end up with people like Phoebe. If she could make chowder or raised doughnuts she would, in our town, have a home of her own. If she had a natural gift for getting things clean, or an instinctive ability at getting three rebellious children into bed, she would be gainfully employed in our nearest big town. If she knew how to do anything right at all, she would not be working for me.

  Take Hope, for instance. I always get hold of these people because they answer an ad I put in the paper, and someone apparently read it to Hope. I wanted to phrase the ad in some cute irresistible fashion such as “I am almost helpless around a house. I honestly don’t know a thing about housework. Isn’t there some kind girl who wants to help me, at a moderate salary?” Instead, at a dollar for ten words for three days, what I usually say is “Houseworker wanted. Good ref. Mod. sal. Children. Meals. Laundry. Cleaning.”

  I always hire the first person who comes, usually without remembering to check on the good ref. This is not only because I am extremely gullible, but at least partially because I am openly terrified of anyone who looks me straight in the eye and speaks emphatically, and these women, looking for jobs at mod. sal. and with no serious intentions whatsoever about Meals. Laundry. Cleaning., alway use a voice of great clarity and strength when talking to me. I am usually not able to say anything at all, or else what I do say comes out entirely wrong, and modest disclaimers turn out to be flat denials—a statement to the effect that no one can cook for my husband except me because he has odd ideas about food turns out to say that I intend to do all the cooking myself, in spite of what my ad said, with the rider that I have a crazy husband who lives exclusively on bread and water.

  The only person, by the way, whom I ever escaped in a situation like that was a gentlewoman of about two hundred years who came one day in answer to one of my usual ads; I tried to conduct the interview with gravity, and she answered all my timid questions with modesty and restraint until I mentioned, in the laughing voice that I reserve for controversial subjects, that dishes were a problem in a family the size of ours, particularly, I added, washing them.

  “Dishes,” she said eagerly, “now, I love dishes.”

  “I suppose you collect them?” I asked, for want of anything better to say.

  “Washing dishes,” she said. “Now, washing dishes I can’t stop. If I don’t watch myself—” she cackled delightedly “—I just go on washing dishes over and over and over and over and over and over again, all day long. All day long, now,” and she cackled again.

  I told her I would let her know about the job, and after she had left I telephoned the number she gave me and left a message that I had just had word that my mother was coming to live with me and so I wouldn’t need anyone to help around the house.

  I passed up that nice old lady, who was essentially agreeable and had at least one cleanly virtue, to hire Hope. Hope disliked washing dishes, but she did them. She wore neat house dresses, although she had a weakness for high-heeled, ankle-strap black sandals around the house. She did not quarrel with my cooking for my husband, although, as it turned out, it was unnecessary; Hope spent most of her time in the kitchen making biscuits which were light and pleasant, and cheese soufflés, and chocolate cakes, and fried chicken. I even checked her good ref. The old lady to whom I spoke was enthusiastic in her praise. “She’s a good girl,” the old lady said insistently—perhaps I feel now, too insistently. “You don’t need to worry about Hope any, she’s a good girl. Don’t you pay any attention to what you may hea
r—that Hope is a good girl.”

  The only trouble with Hope was that she disappeared at the end of the first week, taking with her her salary, ten dollars she had borrowed from me, and my overshoes. Two days after Hope disappeared I answered a ring at the door, and found standing there a lady of unequivocal firmness and a most suspicious eye. “Is Hope here?” she asked me.

  “She is not,” I said shortly, not overanxious to dwell lengthily upon the subject of Hope.

  “I’m her parole officer,” the woman said. “If you know where she is it’s your duty to tell me.”

  “She’s got my overshoes, wherever she is,” I said, and tried to close the front door, but the parole officer put her shoulder against the frame and said, “It’s your civic duty as a citizen to report this matter.” After I had told her all about Hope and my overshoes I pointed out that the ten dollars was relatively unimportant but that with this constant wet weather it was hard going without anything on my feet, and asked nervously what chance there was of getting them back.

  “We’ll get them,” she said enigmatically, “they can’t get far without stealing a car.”

  A week later I was invited to the local jail to see Hope, who gave me back my overshoes with an apology for having kept them so long, asked kindly after the children, the cats, and the dog, remarked parenthetically that she had never really gotten to know my husband, and asked me to go five thousand dollars bail for her.

  I told her civilly enough that these constant ads in the paper made such a drain on my pocketbook that I had really nothing left for more than household expenses, and asked nicely what she was in for. It turned out to be grand larceny; my overshoes, she said, she had never regarded as anything but a loan; it was a difficulty with a former employer’s fur coat which worried her now. I shook hands cordially with the jailer’s wife, declined a piece of fresh-made sponge cake, and departed. I sent a carton of cigarettes and some magazines to the jail for Hope about a month later, and got back an earnest letter saying she would be sure to come back to work for us when she got out, and could we wait three years?

  Between the time I last saw Hope and the time I got her letter, Amelia had come and gone. Amelia had been recommended to me by a neighbor, with the specific statement that Amelia was not an intelligent girl, but she was able, my neighbor was confident, to do simple household tasks. Amelia washed dishes, but not very clean. She arrived every morning on foot, by a process which required that she inquire at every house in the neighborhood each day before she found ours. She never tried to borrow my overshoes, which I was keeping anyway in the only closet in the house which locked, and I sincerely believe that after working for us for two days she was still unable to find her way from the kitchen to the front door without falling over the furniture.

  Like Hope, Amelia had but one major failing. The second day she was with us—which turned out, coincidentally, to be the last—she made cookies, spending all one joyous afternoon in the kitchen, droning happily to herself, fidgeting, cluttering, measuring.

  At dinner, dessert arrived with Amelia’s giggle and a flourish. She set the plate of cookies down in front of my husband, and my husband, who is a nervous man, glanced down at them and dropped his coffee cup. “Sinner,” the cookies announced in bold pink icing, “Sinner, repent.”

  Phoebe did not stay with us much longer than Amelia had. She was accustomed to arriving mornings on a motorcycle, but after two weeks her mother called one morning to say that there had been an American Legion convention in a nearby city and that Phoebe was now in Kansas City. It was terribly hot all that summer, and I kept thinking about poor old Phoebe in Kansas City on her motorcycle. Perhaps I privately envied the motorcycle, it being a species of abandoned travel with which I am respectably unfamiliar; perhaps the notion of wild noisy motion appealed to Laurie. He asked me one morning later that summer, “Why don’t we have a car?” I was stirring chocolate pudding—a talent of the late Phoebe’s—at the stove, and he was painting at the kitchen table. Jannie was laboriously dressing her doll on the floor, singing quietly to herself while she stuffed the doll’s arms brutally into one of the baby’s nightgowns.

  “Why don’t we have a car?” I repeated absently. “I suppose because no one around here can drive.”

  “If we had a car,” Laurie said, in the tone which I was beginning to recognize as one all seven-year-old boys use to their mothers, as of one explaining a relatively uncomplicated situation to a sort of foolish creature, apt to become sentimental and impertinent unless firmly held in check, “if we had a car, we could ride around.”

  “But no one around here can drive,” I said.

  “And we could go anywhere we wanted,” Laurie said. “And we wouldn’t have to walk, or drive with other people, or take taxis.”

  “Who would drive us?”

  “I could sit in the front seat,” Laurie said, “and Jannie and Sally could sit in the back seat.” He thought. “And Daddy could ride on the running board.”

  “What would I be doing?” I asked. “Driving?”

  “I want to ride in the front,” Jannie said, lifting her head to scowl at her brother. “I want to ride in the front and Laurie in back with Baby.”

  “I’m going to ride in the front,” Laurie said. “I’m older.”

  “But I’m a girl,” Jannie said, undeniably.

  “But who would drive?” I said.

  “Listen,” Laurie said to me, a thin edge of contempt in his voice, “can’t you drive a car?”

  “No, I cannot.”

  “Can Daddy?”


  “Can’t either of you drive?”


  Laurie put his paint brush down and looked at me for a long minute. “Then what can you do?” he asked.

  “Well,” I said, “I can make chocolate pudding, and I can wash dishes, and I can . . .”

  “Anybody can do that,” Laurie said. “What I mean is, can’t you drive a car?”

  “No,” I said sharply, “I cannot drive a car. And I do not, furthermore, intend to learn. And I also do not want to hear one more—”

  “If we had a car,” Jannie said, “I could ride in the front and Laurie could ride in the back with Baby.”

  “I’m older,” Laurie said mechanically. “You ride in back.”

  “I’m a girl,” Jannie said.

  “Why not let Baby ride in front?” I asked in spite of myself. “She’s younger. And she’s a girl.”

  “But if Laurie and I rode in back we would fight,” Jannie said.

  “That’s true,” I said. “So why not—” but the chocolate pudding thickened and I had to stop talking.

  Jannie began to sing one of her morning songs. “On earth, what are you doing,” she sang softly, “on earth, what are you doing? I am going splickety-splot. On earth, what are you doing, on earth, what are you doing? I am going thumpety-thump. We do dig and it does rain.” While she sang she rocked her doll, Laurie painted amiably, and I hummed to myself while I poured the pudding into dishes and wondered whether I could get away with chicken soup again for lunch today.

  Jannie began her song for the third time, and Laurie set his page aside and asked absently, “Why did you say we don’t have a car?”

  “We don’t have a car,” I said wearily, “because both Daddy and I would rather roller-skate.”

  “Can Daddy drive?” Jannie asked. “Daddy can do anything, can’t he?”

  I hesitated, not at the moment able to find an answer, and Laurie said, “If we had a car you could take us for rides.”

  “Now listen to me, both of you,” I began with great firmness, but at that moment the baby woke up and as I started upstairs I heard Laurie asking dreamily, “Jannie, what would you do if a snake came and ate you?”

  In our family a conversation such as this one about the car does not end, ever. At dinner that nig
ht Laurie remarked to his father, “Mommy is going to get a car and drive it around.”

  “And I’m going to ride in front,” Jannie said.

  “I’m going to ride in front,” Laurie said. “I’m—”

  “I’m a girl,” Jannie said.

  My husband regarded me with mild surprise. “A car?” he said, perplexed. “You mean, drive me if I wanted to go for a haircut? And I wouldn’t have to—”

  “Wait,” I said, “wait, wait.”

  “I’m going to ride in front,” Laurie said.

  “I’m a—”

  “I am going to ride in front,” my husband said flatly.

  • • •

  The man from the driving school was named Eric, and he was about eighteen years old and undisguisedly amused at meeting anyone who could not drive a car. When I told him sharply that in his business he must meet quite a few people who could not drive a car he laughed and said that usually people my age did not try to learn new tricks. I eyed the dual-control car he had parked in our driveway and said falsely that I might surprise him by learning faster than he expected. He patted me on the shoulder and said, “That’s my girl.”

  Laurie and Jannie and my husband holding the baby stood on the front porch cheering and waving as I rode off with Eric, crushed into a corner of the seat to avoid touching any of the dual controls, and desperately afraid that if I did the car would go out of control and rocket madly off the road, no doubt killing other innocent people and very probably ending my driving lessons. Laurie and Jannie and my husband holding the baby were again on the front porch cheering, two hours later, when I came back with Eric, dismayed and bewildered and not prepared to take levelly any childish prattle about how we would drive around when we had a car.

  I took ten lessons from Eric, including lessons in stopping and starting, making a U turn—that was how I got the dent in the back of the car, but Eric said they were insured against that kind of thing—making right turns and left turns, shifting gears, backing and filling, allemande left, and reeling and writhing and fainting in coils. He neglected to teach me how to turn on the lights and what to do when a funny little noise started somewhere inside. Every time I got out of his car in front of my own house, weak-kneed and with my hands stiffened into a permanent grasp on a steering wheel, I was greeted with cheers and friendly criticism by my faithful family. I completely captivated one of Laurie’s friends—a young gentleman from Cub Scouts whose mother and father both know how to drive, and have for years—by running smack into the stone wall at the foot of our garden, something no one else has so far been able to do, since the wall is set approximately seven feet from the driveway and is clearly visible. Evenings, I studied a little book Eric had sold me, which told in graphic detail what to do in case the car skidded out of control, what to do in case the steering wheel came off in my hands (from this I got the vivid impression of running the car like a bobsled, and steering by leaning from side to side), and how to bandage a compound fracture.

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