MONDAY: A Bird in the Hand

BY RUTH ZAVITZ

This story was a finalist in the 2009 John Kenneth Galbraith Short Story Contest. Copyright is held by the author.

“THAT WAS a pleasant party last night.” Harry Thomas poured cornflakes into his bowl and reached for the milk pitcher.

“Yes it was.” Violet handed him his cup of coffee. “But wouldn’t you think they could think of some new ideas for gifts? Side chairs, just like they gave us when we got married, one wine-coloured tapestry, one green.”

Harry sprinkled sugar liberally on his cereal. “Those are probably all that’s available since the war. Leftovers. Hitler really screwed up domestic production.”

“They make a nice looking couple. I hope they’ll be happy.”

Harry’s smile disappeared and, changing the subject, he said, ”Who was the handsome dark fellow you were dancing with? I don’t think I ever saw him before.”

“Oh, that’s Kelly Moore, Danny’s brother. He’s been away since just after the first war ended.”

“He’s an excellent dancer.”

“He always was.” Violet was glad Harry couldn’t see the gooseflesh on her thighs as she remembered the feel of Kelly’s arm around her.

“Is he married?”

“Why, I don’t know. I didn’t ask him.” Violet’s hand shook slightly, spilling her coffee onto the oilcloth table cover and she felt her face grow hot. She rose quickly, turning her back on Harry, and reached for the dishcloth hanging on the tap over the white enamel sink. Through the window over the sink she saw dark clouds building above the maples on the west side of the yard.

She pulled back the checked gingham curtains for a better look and to hide her confusion. “Looks like a storm coming up.”

“The paper didn’t say anything about rain. Probably it will pass us by.”

“Better take your raincoat anyway. Want another cup of coffee?”

“All right.” He held out his cup. “I’m early.”

Not wanting to talk any more about last night’s party Violet wracked her brain for something to say. “Oh, I saw a cardinal in the yard yesterday. Such a glowing red colour. He was beautiful.”

“Beautiful, but useless.”

He stacked his dirty dishes and set them on the drain-board beside the sink. He stretched his arms, then pulled down his vest and adjusted his cuffs. “I’d better get down to the barber shop. Ed Carter will be in. He’s my only shave customer. Refuses to use the new safety razors. My gain, I guess. Do you need any money?”

“No, I haven’t spent all you gave me last week.” She was lucky to have such a good-natured, generous husband.

“Don’t skimp. You know I don’t like living in your house.”

When they had married, Harry had objected to moving into the house her parents had left her. She had persuaded him, but he still wasn’t happy about it.

“Oh, Harry, forget it. The house is here.”

“Well, at least I can provide the cash. I’ll slip into Cedarville after work and see Elis Long about putting in a bathroom. It’s time we got some modern conveniences. I’ll probably be a little late.”

Out in the front hall, he put on his hat and picked up his raincoat. He stood for a moment staring into the hall mirror. The light shining through the blue glass sidelights that flanked the front door gave his face an unhealthy tint.

“We can get an annulment if you want,” he said softly, opened the door and went out.

She stared at the closed door. Had it been that obvious? Suppose other people had noticed. What would they think? She clutched her apron to her face. Kelly had caught her by surprise, home after all these years. Of course he looked older, but he still had that great, thick thatch of hair, a lot of white in the black now but it just made him look more distinguished. And tanned. He always had looked as if he spent all his time at the beach. Harry never had a tan because he spent his daytime hours indoors in his barbershop.

Violet returned to the kitchen and began washing the dishes, staring unseeing out the window. She’d been terribly in love with Kelly in high school. He was so handsome and dashing, always joking, looking at her as if she were the only person in the room. They had planned to marry after they graduated.

Kelly said, “Let’s keep it a secret just between the two of us.”

She’d wanted the whole world to know, but Kelly said, “It’s more romantic this way don’t you think?”

Then he suddenly left town — folks said he was the father of Lily Calhoun’s baby. Violet never believed it. Lily was no better than she should be. She’d go out with anybody. Who knew who the father might be? It was terrible how a lot of gossips could spoil a man’s reputation.

Hers thoughts returned to the previous evening. Kelly had danced with her three times and looked at her in the old way, as if they were alone. She’d felt all dizzy. When she got herself together, she asked him what he was doing, and if he was going to stay around, but now she thought of it, he’d never said. She hadn’t asked him if he was married, didn’t want to know, she guessed. It was thrilling to be in his arms again. Imagine! A forty-something feeling like a giddy teenager.

She threw a dishtowel over the dishes in the drainer — Harry said it was unhygienic to dry them with a towel, and climbed the back stairs. Harry’s bed was made and the room neat, as he always kept it. Across the hall in the bedroom that had been her parents’, she folded her nightgown under the pillow and pulled the covers tightly as her mother had taught her.

Then she collapsed on the bed, wrinkling the spread she had just smoothed. She wished she could make some sense of her life.

She’d been heartbroken when Kelly left, and the worst of it was she couldn’t tell anyone. To keep the neighbours from seeing her misery, she had gone to Nobleton to work.

After her father died she’d come home to take care of her mother. When her mother died she offered to do the church flowers and volunteered in the library for something to do. She was well on the way to being a traditional old maid when Harry Thomas came to the village and opened a barbershop.

He was rather good looking, she had thought. Tall and straight-backed, with curly dark hair and startling blue eyes. He said he had no family and was reticent about his origins.

Chatting, as he exchanged his books in the library, they discovered a mutual interest in mystery stories. They discussed various authors and titles and discovered their tastes dovetailed well, deciding Agatha Christie and Dashiell Hammett were their favourites.

One day, without thinking about it, she accompanied him across the street to the lunch counter at the service station, and they continued their talk. She later realized the villagers had noticed and commented to each other on it.

As soon as Harry became aware of the community’s interest he said, “Let’s really give them something to talk about. There’s a mystery play on at the Grand Theatre I’ve wanted to see. Shall we go?”

It sounded like a date, but at their ages it couldn’t be. He probably just wanted company.

They spent a pleasant evening. When he brought her home he shook hands with her at the door. After that he occasionally invited her to go over to the lunch counter for coffee or to a movie in town. She knew the villagers were chuckling at this September romance, but she didn’t care.

He showed up one night at her door in his newly-waxed Chevy, his eyes sparkling and the corners of his mouth turned up in that funny smile he had and said, “Let’s go for a drive. It’s a beautiful night.”

They didn’t drive far — just down to the millpond. They sat for awhile admiring the glow of the full moon’s path across the water.

Harry cleared his throat. “We’ve got to be pretty good friends, haven’t we, Vi?”

“Oh, yes.”

“I guess I haven’t been very good company, lately. Had something on my mind, but now I’ve made my decision. Vi, let’s get married.”

She felt all fluttery. Imagine, at her age. But why not? Harry was a kind, considerate man, and good-looking. “All right, Harry.”

But after the wedding she discovered he wasn’t what she had thought a husband would be. He was always kind, but he seldom even touched her. Even at the wedding he had kissed her on the forehead. She had thought it was shyness with everyone watching, but it was no different when they were alone. She had gotten used to it, but now Kelly was back, she realized what she was missing.

The phone rang in the kitchen. She hurried down and lifted the receiver.

“Hi Vi. Mind if I come over?” Kelly’s voice. That lovely Irish lilt.

“No, of course not.” She felt as if she were choking. She cleared her throat. “I-I’ll put the coffee on.”

“Be there in a jiff. We’ve got a lot to catch up on.”

Violet rushed upstairs, changed her print housedress for the brown crepe with the white crocheted collar, dipped her hands in the pitcher on the washstand and smoothed her hair. She powdered her nose, spilling powder on the dresser she had just dusted. Impatiently, she brushed the powder onto the floor.

She was getting some jumbles out of the cookie crock in the pantry when Kelly knocked. She opened the door and he swept her into his arms, holding her tight against him and gave her a long kiss.

“Kelly! Stop!” She  pulled herself free.

“What’s the matter? You used to like that.”

“That was a long time ago.” She ran her hands over her hips, smoothing her dress.

“You don’t love me any more?” He grinned the lop-sided grin that had always made her heart skip.

“Of course not. I’m a married woman.” She had almost said “old married woman”, but she didn’t feel old right now.

“Yeah. That’s what I hear. You must have been pretty hard up to marry a pansy.”

“What do you mean? What’s a pansy? What are you saying?”

“Oh, come on. Don’t give me that wide-eyed stare. You couldn’t be that innocent.” He pinched her cheek.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, and if you’re going to be rude you can leave.”

“Okay, okay. Sorry, Vi. My lips are sealed.” Kelly raised his hands, palms outward as if warding her off. It made her smile.

He sniffed the air. “Mmmm. That coffee smells good. Hey, are those jumbles? I haven’t had any since I left home. I used to pick out the nuts and raisins to eat last.”

“Yes, Harry likes them, too. Sit down. I’ll get the coffee.”

She brought in a tray and set it on the coffee table. She hesitated. Should she sit in Harry’s chair by the window or on the couch with Kelly? The chair was clear across the room. She sat down beside him and busied herself with the coffee cups, hoping her hands wouldn’t shake.

Hey looked around the room. “Same old place. Hasn’t changed a bit. These big houses are pretty valuable nowadays. I suppose you signed it over to Harry when you married?”

“No, I still own it.” She didn’t want to discuss who owned the house. There was enough of that with Harry. “What have you been doing all these years?”

“Oh, a little of this, a little of that. I’ve travelled a lot. When things get too hot, I just move on.”

“Too hot?” Violet turned to look at him.

“Well, you know, Vi, sometimes things don’t work out, and I get blamed for things.”

“Like Lily Calhoun?”

“Well, yeah. But I don’t have any other kids–that I know of.”

“You’re not married?”

“No. Never had time. Always on the move.”

“Kelly, how could you do that to Lily when you and I were going to be married?”

“Well, you wouldn’t let me love you. A fellow’s got to have an outlet.”

Was she responsible for Lily’s trouble? Her mother had said you shouldn’t tease a man. Had she teased him? She hadn’t meant to, but she’d loved him so much she couldn’t help letting him hug her and returning his kisses.

He was gazing at her with that melting look. She was glad she was sitting down. It always made her knees weak when he looked at her that way.

“Vi, you can’t keep living like this. I know, you don’t want to talk about it, but you should have a real man. It’s not too late. We could be out of here this afternoon. I’d show you what a man should be. You could get some decent clothes. That’s an old maid’s dress.”

Well, she supposed it was. It was what women her age wore, here. Kelly wanted to take her away. He still loved her, then. And Harry had said he’d let her go. But she must be careful. “Would you marry me?”

“Well, I would if I could, but you’re already married. Anyway, nobody cares about that legal stuff any more.”

“I do.”

“Oh, Vi, it’s good to see you again.” He gathered her into his arms, and she realized what she had been missing all these years. Being enfolded in strong arms as if she was entirely surrounded. Before she comprehended what was happening, she was lying full length on the chesterfield with Kelly pushing his hard body close against her.

“Kelly! Stop!”

“Come on, Vi. You know you want it. You’re starved for it.”

“Kelly. What are you doing? Let me up.” She struggled against him, even while her body was responding.

“Who would see us? Harry? Why would he care? He’s just a dog-in-the-manger. Doesn’t want you himself but won’t let anyone else have you.”

“He would, too. He offered me an annulment.” What had she said? She hadn’t meant to tell him that.

“Aha. So it’s all right. You could be free. But we can’t wait for that. I’ve got to leave this afternoon. Got a big deal cooking in Montreal.”

“You’re going away? You just got here.”

“Yep. Time and tide wait for no man. Got to strike while the iron’s hot. We can come back and sell the house, later. Oh, Baby, I need you with me. Say you’ll come. I’ve loved you all my life. How much longer are you going to make me wait?”

She was tingling all over. Who would have thought someone as old as she could feel this way? Her life wasn’t over, after all. She could walk out of here with him, now. But what would people say? And she really should tell Harry what she was going to do. She had to think, and she couldn’t with Kelly so close.

” I have to think about it.”

“No thinking, just do it. I’ll meet you down at the creek by the tree where we carved our names. Remember it? Say four o’clock. We shouldn’t leave the house together. No use getting the bloodhounds after us. I’ll be waiting, Honey.” He gave her another long kiss, slipping his tongue into her mouth. She didn’t like that, and drew back.

He laughed. “You’re such a prude, Vi, but I love it. Oh, say. Can you bring some money with you? I wasn’t sure if you’d come with me, and I don’t have enough for train fare for both of us. See you at four, Honey.”

She watched him striding down the street. What a man! Imagine walking through the streets of Montreal with him. She’d be so proud.

He turned the corner without looking back, and she reentered the house, a little disappointed. Maybe he didn’t want to draw attention to them. She would never have thought of it, herself. She’d have to get used to this cloak and dagger stuff. She giggled, then sobered. Poor Harry. Would he miss her? He’d been good to her, but maybe he didn’t care much since he’d never made love to her. What was it Kelly had called him? A pansy? A pansy was a flower, but it must have another meaning. She got the big Oxford dictionary and looked it up. It did have another meaning. She looked that word up, too. Was it possible?

What a thing to live with. But was it so? It was hard to understand. He never seemed to be especially interested in men, but maybe she wouldn’t have noticed–not knowing there was such a thing.

Mechanically, she took the tray to the kitchen, emptied the partly finished coffee out of the cups and stored the leftover cookies in the crock. She washed the plate and cups, dried them and put them in the china cabinet while she considered what she should take with her.

Upstairs, she stood a minute at the door to Harry’s bedroom before going on into her own. Except for the lack of love-making, her marriage had been a success. Harry was generous with his money and showed his appreciation for anything she did for him. They saw most things the same way and hardly ever had an argument. He was so gentle. She never felt overwhelmed, carried away, the way she was with Kelly.

Kelly wanted her to bring some money. She picked up her purse. It wouldn’t be much. If she had taken the money Harry had offered this morning she would have more to take to Kelly. No, that wasn’t right.

She sat on the bed, her purse in her lap and thought it over. What had Kelly said? Something about selling the house. Why would she want to sell it?

When the clock in the parlour chimed four, she went downstairs. Outside, the cardinal flew looping ahead of her toward the chicken coop. She wondered if it had a nest. She’d never seen a female around.

The sky was clear. Harry was right. The storm had gone around. That was good. Kelly wouldn’t get wet while he waited — if he waited.

The varicoloured hens clustered around her as she approached the hen coop. Inside, the Plymouth Rock hen was sitting on her nest and clucked a welcome. Unlike the others, she always laid her egg in the afternoon. Violet stroked the black and white barred feathers, then reached under her for the egg she knew would be there. Good old biddy.

Holding the smooth, warm egg in her hand, she decided she’d make a cheese omelet for Harry’s supper.

7 comments

  1. M.Wilson

    A touching story, hitting all the right notes. She saved his life, he saved hers…Because we only live once: is love worth the sacrifice or is it better to be on the safe side ?

  2. Pingback: RERUN FRIDAY: A Bird in the Hand |
  3. Jazz

    Too many holes in this story: let’s start with a nit:
    A large house in a good neighbourhood with no bathroom…
    After giving her heart and her lips to Kelly, Violet marries Harry without so much as a hug.
    Harry is a ‘good’ man, yet he uses their marriage to hide his homosexuality; unethical, immoral..? And this is ok..? But in the end they both got what they obviously wanted: He got respectability – she got someone to make omelettes for.

  4. Dave Moores

    Well said, Jazz. I couldn’t quite believe the story, though I wanted to.
    Or, then again, did violet have a lucky escape from a manipulative scoundrel?

  5. Mary Steer

    The third paragraph roots this story firmly in a time when there was a lot more innocence around sexuality, and homosexual men marrying women as “beards” was not unheard of but certainly wouldn’t have been spoken of. The house is clearly an old one – it belonged to Violet’s parents. I think Dave has hit the nail on the head: the bird in the hand of the title is indeed Violet’s escape from the manipulative scoundrel, who likely would’ve ditched her once he found someone else he wanted to shag and use. She dodged a bullet (to use a cliché – don’t we love ’em!) and she knew it (I’m a poet and I know it).

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