Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson

  Laurie was chewing gum and throwing slowly and carefully. Barry took a minute off from the little truck he was placidly filling with sand and emptying again to ask me if the big boys were still playing baseball. I stood there, feeling Dot’s shoulder shaking against mine, and I tried to get my camera open to check the magazine of film but my fingers kept slipping and jumping against the little knob. I said to Dot that I guessed I would just enjoy the game for a while and not take pictures, and she said earnestly that Billy had had a little touch of fever that morning and the manager was taking his life in his hands putting Billy up there in all that catcher’s equipment in that hot shade. I wondered if Laurie could see that I was nervous.

  “He doesn’t look very nervous,” I said to Dot, but then my voice failed, and I finished, “does he?” in a sort of gasp.

  The batter was Jimmie Hill, who had already had three hits that afternoon. Laurie’s first pitch hit the dust at Billy’s feet and Billy sprawled full length to stop it. The man in the crowd behind us laughed. The boy on third hesitated, unsure whether Billy had the ball; he started for home and then, with his mother just outside the third-base line yelling, “Go back, go back,” he retreated to third again.

  Laurie’s second pitch sent Billy rocking backward and he fell; “Only way he can stop it is fall on it,” the man in the crowd said, and laughed.

  Dot stiffened, and then she turned around slowly. For a minute she stared and then she said, in the evilest voice I have ever heard her use, “Sir, that catcher is my son.”

  “I beg your pardon, ma’am, I’m sure,” the man said.

  “Picking on little boys,” Dot said.

  The umpire called Laurie’s next pitch ball three, although it was clearly a strike, and I was yelling, “You’re blind, you’re blind.” I could hear my husband shouting to throw the bum out.

  “Going to see a new pitcher pretty soon,” said the man in the crowd, and I clenched my fist, and turned around and said in a voice that made Dot’s sound cordial, “Sir, that pitcher is my son. If you have any more personal remarks to make about any member of my family—”

  “Or mine,” Dot added.

  “I will immediately call Mr. Tillotson, our local constable, and see personally that you are put out of this ball park. People who go around attacking ladies and innocent children—”

  “Strike,” the umpire said.

  I turned around once more and shook my fist at the man in the crowd, and he announced quietly and with some humility that he hoped both teams would win, and subsided into absolute silence.

  Laurie then pitched two more strikes, his nice fast ball, and I thought suddenly of how at lunch he and Billy had been tossing hamburger rolls and Dot and I had made them stop. At about this point, Dot and I abandoned our spot up on the hill and got down against the fence with our faces pressed against the wire. “Come on, Billy boy,” Dot was saying over and over, “come on, Billy boy,” and I found that I was telling Laurie, “Come on now, only two more outs to go, only two more, come on, Laurie, come on. . . .” I could see my husband now but there was too much noise to hear him; he was pounding his hands against the fence. Dot’s husband had his hands over his face and his back turned to the ball field. “He can’t hit it, Laurie,” Dot yelled, “this guy can’t hit,” which I thought with dismay was not true; the batter was Butch Weaver and he was standing there swinging his bat and sneering. “Laurie, Laurie, Laurie,” screeched a small voice; I looked down and it was Sally, bouncing happily beside me. “Can I have another nickel?” she asked. “Laurie, Laurie.”

  “Strike,” the umpire said and I leaned my forehead against the cool wire and said in a voice that suddenly had no power at all, “Just two strikes, Laurie, just two more strikes.”

  Laurie looked at Billy, shook his head, and looked again. He grinned and when I glanced down at Billy I could see that behind the mask he was grinning too. Laurie pitched, and the batter swung wildly. “Laurie, Laurie,” Sally shrieked. “Strike two,” the umpire said. Dot and I grabbed at each other’s hands and Laurie threw the good fast ball for strike three.

  One out to go, and Laurie, Billy, and the shortstop stood together on the mound for a minute. They talked very soberly, but Billy was grinning again as he came back to the plate. Since I was incapable of making any sound, I hung on to the wire and promised myself that if Laurie struck out this last batter I would never never say another word to him about the mess in his room, I would not make him paint the lawn chairs, I would not even mention clipping the hedge. . . . “Ball one,” the umpire said, and I found that I had my voice back. “Crook,” I yelled, “blind crook.”

  Laurie pitched, the batter swung, and hit a high foul ball back of the plate; Billy threw off his mask and tottered, staring up. The batter, the boys on the field, and the umpire, waited, and Dot suddenly spoke.

  “William,” she said imperatively, “you catch that ball.”

  Then everyone was shouting wildly; I looked at Dot and said, “Golly.” Laurie and Billy were slapping and hugging each other, and then the rest of the team came around them and the manager was there. I distinctly saw my husband, who is not a lively man, vault the fence to run into the wild group and slap Laurie on the shoulder with one hand and Billy with the other. The Giants gathered around their manager and gave a cheer for the Braves, and the Braves gathered around their manager and gave a cheer for the Giants, and Laurie and Billy came pacing together toward the dugout, past Dot and me. I said, “Laurie?” and Dot said, “Billy?” They stared at us, without recognition for a minute, both of them lost in another world, and then they smiled and Billy said, “Hi, Ma,” and Laurie said, “You see the game?”

  I realized that my hair was over my eyes and I had broken two fingernails. Dot had a smudge on her nose and had torn a button off her sweater. We helped each other up the hill again and found that Barry was asleep on the car robe. Without speaking any more than was absolutely necessary, Dot and I decided that we could not stay for the second game of the double-header. I carried Barry asleep and Dot brought his dump truck and the car robe and my camera and the box score which she had not kept past the first Giant run, and we headed wearily for the car.

  We passed Artie in his green Giant cap and we said it had been a fine game, he had played wonderfully well, and he laughed and said tolerantly, “Can’t win ’em all, you know.” When we got back to our house I put Barry into his bed while Dot put on the kettle for a nice cup of tea. We washed our faces and took off our shoes, and finally Dot said hesitantly that she certainly hoped that Marian wasn’t really offended with us.

  “Well, of course she takes this kind of thing terribly hard,” I said.

  “I was just thinking,” Dot said after a minute, “we ought to plan a kind of victory party for the Braves at the end of the season.”

  “A hot-dog roast, maybe?” I suggested.

  “Well,” Dot said, “I did hear the boys talking one day. They said they were going to take some time this summer and clean out your barn, and set up a record player in there and put in a stock of records and have some dances.”

  “You mean . . .” I faltered. “With girls?”

  Dot nodded.

  “Oh,” I said.

  When our husbands came home two hours later we were talking about old high school dances and the time we went out with those boys from Princeton. Our husbands reported that the Red Sox had beaten the Dodgers in the second game and were tied for first place with the Braves. Jannie and Sally came idling home, and finally Laurie and Billy stopped in, briefly, to change their clothes. There was a pickup game down in Murphy’s lot, they explained, and they were going to play some baseball.

  That summer was one of the hottest we had ever had, and I got sunburned sitting on the hill over third base. The day Laurie pitched a no-hit shut-out I thought I had sunstroke. In the middle of the fifth inning, when people began murmuring in the bleachers, and coun
ting every strike, I went up over the top of the hill and down the other side to where there was a tree and some grass and I sat there; I could not see the ball field, but I could hear the umpire’s calls and, then, the excitement rising. I sat in the shade and figured out that there were only seventeen more days before school started. Sally and Jannie were going to need new winter coats; a year from now I would be getting Barry ready for kindergarten. The first winter we were in our new house, when Laurie used to go sledding on this hill, he could stand just about where I was sitting now, and see our back porch, and I used to signal him that it was time to come home by hanging a dish towel over the porch rail; I could not see the back porch now because the trees were still thick. In another few weeks, I thought, the leaves would be coming down again. School, birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, the long spring days, and then another summer. I could hear cheering from the ball field. The years go by so quickly, I thought, rising; he used to be so small.

  The last few days of summer go faster, though, than any other time of year. In honor of Sally’s entrance into second grade, and Jannie’s triumphant arrival at fifth grade, I sat them down one evening and, with my husband’s help and much advice and laughter from Laurie and Barry, cut their hair short. Both girls, enchanted with their light heads, admiring each other, feeling incredulously at the cut ends, began to cry when they saw their own hair which I carefully put away in a package in my dresser. At that time Laurie was wearing his hair long, and cultivated into a careful wave over his forehead, by means of the adhesive assistance of several evil-smelling compounds. “Hello, little girl,” Sally said repeatedly to Laurie, and, to Jannie, “Hello, little boy.” Barry asked for a set of cowboy holsters for his approaching fourth birthday. Dikidiki, old and shabby but still perceptibly blue, slept now in a small bed made for him by Laurie, with a pillow sewed by Jannie and a coverlet decorated with crayon pictures by Sally. Dikidiki slept almost all the time, day and night, until something troubled Barry, or angered him, and then he would go to his room and get Dikidiki and they would retreat together to the far corner of the guest room and sit behind the window curtain. Sally and Jannie were allowed to buy one book a week each, from their allowances, and Laurie one popular tune arranged for the trumpet.

  Toby, who was finding the summers hotter than they used to be when he was a puppy, suffered a good deal, walking back and forth to the ball field after Laurie. In addition to a certain amount of stiffness in his old joints, a malady which my husband and I regarded with ready sympathy after a summer of sitting on the car robe on a grassy hill over the ball field, his fear of thunderstorms, always acute, increased with advancing age. He could sense thunder long before it was audible to the rest of us, and all that summer the first intimation that the ball game might be rained out was Toby, heading home in a black streak.

  Yain had been rudely jolted out of his fool’s paradise by finding that there was another cat in the world, after all; one day Jannie came home from the ball field with a tiny, frightened black kitten which had been wandering pathetically around the refreshment stand. Could we keep it, she wanted to know, it would be her cat and she would promise to take care of it all by herself and no one else wanted it and it would die and if she promised to take care of it could she keep it for her very own? I said that I supposed it would be all right because our quarantine on cats was nearly ended. After a couple of days of heavy cream and fresh meat and raw eggs beaten in milk, and regular brushing with Jannie’s doll hairbrush, the little kitten was sleek and shining, and wholly unafraid of Yain, who loathed him. Jannie named the kitten Stardust, but the rest of us called him Gato.

  “You see,” Laurie explained to Jannie, “Stardust is all right for a name for people and stuff, but a cat should have a decent name.”

  “I used to have a cat named Creampuff,” I said defensively.

  “I bet you did, too, kid,” Laurie said. “And you never learned to ice skate, or to sled.”

  “I couldn’t,” I said. “There wasn’t any snow.” I thought, staring out the kitchen window reminiscently, “The first snowsuit I ever saw was the one Laurie had when he was a baby. I used to read about snow, and I saw pictures of it, but until I was grown up and came to live in the East I couldn’t really imagine what it was like.” Looking out at the lawn, I thought of the drifts piling up against the hedge, and the wind whipping past the back door, and the icy sidewalks, and I shivered. “I didn’t know when I was well off,” I said.

  Jannie prompted me, softly. “And you used to live next door to a candy factory. . . .”

  “To a man who owned a candy factory. Mr. Thompson. And just before Christmas every year he would take my brother and me to visit his candy factory.”

  “—and he would tell you to eat all you wanted—” Jannie went on.

  “And on the first floor,” Laurie came in, “were the people making little hard Christmas candies, and ribbon candy, and candy canes, and you and your brother always tried to remember not to take a candy cane because they lasted so long you had to leave out some other things—”

  “And on the second floor they were making caramels, with big pots boiling and if you took a caramel you had to keep chewing on it and you missed the fudge—” Jannie said.

  “And on the third floor they were making little mints, peppermint and lemon and orange and cinnamon, and if you took a cinnamon one it was so peppery you couldn’t taste anything for a long time—” Laurie continued.

  “And on the top floor,” Jannie said, “were the ladies dipping chocolates, and when you got way up there you were so full of candy canes and cinnamon mints and caramels you couldn’t eat any chocolates.”

  “But he always gave us a little box to take home with us,” I said. “We used to put the little boxes under the Christmas tree. He was very nice, Mr. Thompson.”

  “Everything was much nicer in the olden days,” Jannie said.

  Sally said, “Uncle Louis says that when he was a little boy they had to chase him to school with a stick.”

  “They’re going to have to chase me, boy,” Laurie said grimly. “Only two weeks from Tuesday. Golly.”

  “Uncle Louis said when someone gives you a hamburger it isn’t polite to look inside to see if they put a two-inch salute firecracker in, and so Uncle Louis didn’t, but Mr. Feeley already had, and Uncle Louis got relish in his hair when it blew up.”

  “You know what I think?” Laurie said, coming to look out the window with me, “I think next summer maybe I’ll get a job, like down at Mike’s delivering groceries. I bet I could earn plenty that way, and then someday when I had enough I could get a little sports car. Boy,” he said. “Dig me driving a red and white M.G. to school.”

  • • •

  By the Saturday before Labor Day a decided atmosphere of cool restraint had taken over our house, because on Thursday my husband had received a letter from an old school friend of his named Sylvia, saying that she and another girl were driving through New England on a vacation and would just adore stopping by for the weekend to renew old friendships. My husband gave me the letter to read, and I held it very carefully by the edges and said that it was positively touching, the way he kept up with his old friends, and did Sylvia always use pale lavender paper with this kind of rosy ink and what was that I smelled—perfume? My husband said Sylvia was a grand girl. I said I was sure of it. My husband said Sylvia had always been one of the nicest people he knew. I said I hadn’t a doubt. My husband said that he was positive that I was going to love Sylvia on sight. I opened my mouth to speak but stopped myself in time.

  My husband laughed self-consciously. “I remember,” he said, and then his voice trailed off and he laughed again.

  “Yes?” I asked politely.

  “Nothing,” he said.

  I set the letter down tenderly in the center of his desk and said well, I guessed I had better get along to the breakfast dishes and he said that reminded him. “Sylvi
a,” he said. “She’s always so neat. You know. Nail polish, and things like that.”

  I put my hands in back of me and said yes, I understood.

  “I would take it as a personal kindness if things looked a little better than usual this weekend when Sylvia comes. Sort of spruced up—maybe wash the children and stuff. Everything nice.” He gestured. “You know,” he said.

  “By all means,” I said warmly. “I wouldn’t for anything in the world have Sylvia see the house looking the way it usually does. I shall go at once and mend that broken board in the front steps.”

  “What?” my husband said, but I closed the study door softly behind me, stood in the hall, and counted to a thousand. Then I stamped up to the guest room, where I swept the cobwebs off the ceiling as though I were pulling hair and completely wrecked what little nail polish I had opening the side guest room window so I could shake the mop out over the open study window just below. I took the guest room curtains down to wash and the curtain rod fell on my head. I scrubbed the bathroom floor and cleaned out the closet and washed down the hall woodwork and cleaned all the upstairs ashtrays and then I took a shower and came downstairs and made dinner. I was feeling very righteous and forgiving until my husband glanced down at his veal cutlet and asked absently if he had remembered to tell me that his friend Sylvia was a marvelous cook.

  On Friday morning I vacuumed all the downstairs rooms and washed down more woodwork and did the kitchen curtains and scrubbed the kitchen floor and polished the copper bottoms on the saucepans and dusted the living room and washed the glass in the front door and cleaned off the top of my desk and carefully put my leaking fountain pen down on my husband’s class notes. Then I put furniture polish on the dining room table and the two sideboards and washed the piano keys and cleaned all the downstairs ashtrays. I washed all the clock faces and the television screen. I arranged my husband’s collection of canes in the front hall. I swept the front porch and the back porch and went out with a damp cloth and cleaned off the lawn chairs. I called the grocer and ordered two ducklings to roast for Saturday dinner and said I would take two dozen ears of corn if it was fresh picked. Then I took a shower and came downstairs and made dinner and remarked to my husband that we were having roast duckling for dinner on Saturday night and at first he looked pleased, then he said in a worried voice that lots of people didn’t care for roast duckling and maybe I’d better make it rib-roast or something instead because he didn’t want Sylvia to get a wrong impression.

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