As soon as the sun rose from the horizon the heat began, cutting short the cool freshness and the summer morning songs of birds. Kenny Veech, walking in on the highway north of the village, took off his coat and slung it over his shoulder. One of his shoe soles had come loose at the toe, and when he walked it made a scuffling, slapping noise against the concrete. He walked with his shoulders hunched and his head down, half asleep from the warmth of the sun and the rhythmic sound of his flapping shoe sole.
The village lay down the road in front of him. Above the green crowns of trees rose two pointed church steeples and a great standpipe water tank. But Kenny Veech did not lift his head to look. He took scant notice of the occasional automobiles that he met, most of them carrying factory workers into the city for the morning shift, waving his arm abstractedly sometimes in response to the shrill blare of their auto horns.
Kenny Veech passed the village limits sign and crossed over onto the strip of sidewalk that began abruptly just beyond it. He walked perceptibly faster now as the houses grew thicker. The street was quiet and empty, but in the sun it bore a fresh alert look like a shiny scrubbed morning face. At the last house before the store buildings, a sagging faded frame structure set close to the pavement in the front and on the far side jammed up against the used-car lot of the town garage, Kenny Veech turned in.
He cut through the small unkempt yard to the back of the house. The little wooden back porch sagged and teetered under his weight. The door was open, covered by the rusty screen. The house was still, but living, somnambulistic with sleeping people. Kenny threw his coat on the warped porch boards and sat down on the top step. He stretched his big, well-muscled frame, yawning, with his arms out wide and his eyes shut, and then he pressed his hands down through his tousled light hair over his eyes and face. He lifted his foot and studied the condition of the loose shoe sole carefully; then he yawned again. He went through his coat pockets for cigarettes, but found none. He collected all the coins from various pockets in one hand, and after he put the coat down again, he counted them, poking at them with one finger as they lay in his brown palm. A nickel, three pennies, one Canadian penny and a slot-machine slug. He counted twice to make sure; then he put them in the breast pocket of his soiled white shirt. His face relaxed suddenly, and the assurance and mockery went out of the eyes. He looked puzzled and hurt and bewildered, like a child, and finally desperate. He dropped his head between his knees and sat still, his hands clasped across the back of his neck.
The sun shone down hotter over the weeds in the back yard and the untidy bit of garden, and onto the porch boards. Flies crawled lazily on the screen door and over his arms; the bees among the weeds kept up a continual humming. A train went through, and the vibrations shook the whole house; the porch jiggled and swayed under him.
In the stillness again, there came a sound of heavy feet in the kitchen. Kenny, on the steps, did not stir or lift his head. Molly Veech moving around the kitchen in her old bedroom slippers carefully avoided the back door. Each one was perfectly aware of the other. In a minute or two Molly came to the door and unhooked the screen. Kenny waited for her voice without moving, and she stood for a second looking at him. Her body, corsetless, sagged comfortably under her faded cotton dress, and her straight gray hair hung carelessly behind her ears.
"Well, I'll be darned," she said at last in her full pleasant voice, but not surprised at all.
Kenny sat up immediately and twisted around on the step toward her. His face was good-humored and careless again. He yawned and stretched elaborately. "Hi yah, Mom!"
She smiled with him involuntarily, and then, as her face softened, she struggled to keep it severe. "Now lookit here," she said. "I been telling you you gotta cut this kind of business out and I ain't just been talking to hear myself neither...."
"The coffee hot yet, Mom?" he asked her fondly.
"No, not yet. I ain't got the water pumped. Lord, what do you think folks are gonna say, you hanging around Ashbury all night, and then not walking in here till after daylight in the morning. I tell yuh..."
"What you got?" he said.
"Huh? Oh, I got a dress of Josie's to iron out for her to wear to school this morning." She held it over one arm, the bottom of it rubbing carelessly against the rusty screen.
"Well, ain't that something," he said, indignantly, sitting up straight. "What's the matter of Josie getting up an' ironing her own dress instead of putting all that work on you, Ma?"
She moved back from the door, mollified by his concern for her. "Oh, it ain't no work, I hate to get her up till she has to."
He got up briskly and took the water pail from the kitchen to the pump at the back door. He pumped fast and noisily, whistling over the squeaking and groaning of the old pump.
When he carried the pail of water in, his mother had the ironing board set up and was straightening out the dress over it. "Here you are, Mom," he said. He came up behind her and put his arms around her. She pulled him up against her and kissed him. "You're a bum," she said contentedly. "You're nothing but a good-for-nothing, lazy, old bum."
He sat in the chair by the table while she pressed the flimsy white dress. "Say, Mom, gimme a dime, will you? I wanta go uptown and get some cigarettes before breakfast. I'm all outa cigarettes."
"Ain't you got no money?" she said.
"Not a cent," he said, turning out pockets one after another.
"Good," she said, "I'm glad of it. You smoke too many cigarettes, anyway. It'll be good for you if you don't have none today."
"Ah hell, Mom!"
She hung the fresh dress over the back of a chair, and put the ironing board away. Jud Higgins came out of the bedroom off the kitchen, pulling at his suspenders. He grinned at them, wrinkling up his face under the stubby white whiskers, and went out the back door and down the path among the weeds to the little wooden outhouse.
"What's old pickle puss grinnin' about this morning?" Kenny said.
"I tell you, Kenny, you can't keep on fooling around like this," she said. "You're going to ruin your health. Lord, drinking and smoking and staying up all night. How'd you get home?"
"I got a ride out of Ashbury with a guy I know that drives a truck, and then I walked in from the main road."
While she stirred the kettle of oatmeal on the stove, Sam Veech came into the kitchen silently and went to the sink. He was a heavy, mild, slow-motioned man. He washed methodically, wiped his face on the rough towel and combed his hair neatly. He did not speak to either his wife or son, and their voices died out when he appeared. When he was through he went into the living room and picked up the tattered library book from the center table and went out onto the front porch. In a minute they heard the squeak of the porch swing. At the sound, Molly gave an exaggerated sigh and looked at Kenny, lifting her eyebrows and shaping her mouth.
He answered her with ready sympathy. "I thought you was gonna get the old man on the W.P.A."
"Well, I'm still aiming to," she said. "Only it ain't so easy to get on as it used to be."
She put the dishes of steaming oatmeal around the stained
oil-cloth-covered table, and Kenny turned his chair around. While she filled the cups from the heavy coffee pot, she yelled, "Come on, breakfast's ready." Her voice echoed through the house, and there was a sound over their heads of bed springs squeaking. Sam Veech came in obediently and smoothed his hair once before the crooked kitchen mirror above the sink.
Molly said, "Say, Kenny, how much was they selling raspberries for up to Ashbury? I been figuring on putting up some red raspberries this year. They make nice eating sauce. I oughta get 'em while they're nice berries yet. This dry weather they ain't gonna be nice for long."
"I dunno, I didn't notice no raspberries."
Sam pulled his chair out and said mildly, "I should think you could get raspberries right here in town. I see some of Dettler's berries in Clark's store yesterday, and they was real nice. He's got a big patch of red and black ones both, and he lets pickers in to pick on shares."
Kenny sugared his oatmeal quietly. Molly put the coffee pot back on the stove and went to the screen door. "Mr. Higgins!" she called. "Come on in here; we're eating!"
Dorothy crowded into the kitchen door before Carl, and slid her thin little body in between the chair and table without pulling the chair out. Her face under her frizzy blonde hair was surprisingly secret and artificial. She spoke to nobody in particular in a childish treble. "Carl stole my money," she said, twisting her bare feet around the chairrungs and looking at Kenny beside her out of the corners of her eyes.
"Oh, hell," Carl said.
Molly put the milk bottle in the middle of the table and sat down heavily in her chair. She split the situation apart and dealt with it deftly. "Dor'thy, if you don't quit that lyin' all the time, I'm goin' to tell your mother on you, and she'll take care of you proper. Carl, you better cut out that swearin' and cussin'. I ain't gonna have you hangin' around this house a-talking like that."
Kenny poked his finger into the little girl's thin ribs, and grinned at Carl over the table top. "What you so sour about, kid? Whatsa matter, you got some kinks in your love life? Did you hear the kid's got a girl? Oh, boy, what a girl! You just oughta see him hanging around downtown waiting for Franny Cope to walk by. He ain't even got the nerve to ask her for a date, but he gets his money's worth every time he sees her, man, oh, man!
"Oh, how I love to see you, Franny --
Wigglin' your little fanny..."
Dorothy laughed shrilly, not a laugh at all, but a sort of hysterical cry, above Kenny's laughter.
The red color spread over Carl's thin face to the edge of his untidy black hair. "Shut your God-damn mouth, will you?"
Jud Higgins banged the screen door. "Where'm I gonna eat? Ain't got no place set for me. Pretty pass when I ain't welcome to eat with nobody no more. But I been expectin' it. I seed it a-coming."
par"Oh, Lord!" Molly said, getting up. "There ain't no use a-dishing up your breakfast, Mr. Higgins, when nobody knows how long you're gonna set out there in that toilet. Here, here's your oatmeal, and you set right down there and eat it now."
She filled up Kenny's coffee cup and sat down again. She stirred her own coffee placidly. "Lord, I wish I had some of them red raspberries of Dettler's to put up. Carl, why don't you go right over to Dettler's when you get your breakfast et, and see if you can't pick today?"
Jud spoke with his mouth full while little trickles of milk rolled down his chin out of the corners of his mouth, catching in the short whiskers. "If you picked berries over there to Dettler's, the old son of a bitch would cheat you out of all your pickin'. Worst God-damn crook a-livin'!" He choked on the oatmeal, lumps of it flying out of his mouth.
"Carl, you hurry up and eat and go on over there," Molly said.
Carl turned white and put his cup down; his voice was jerky with anger. "My God, you make me sick. You know I got a job delivering for the meat market. You think I'm gonna quit my job and go over there and pick berries! My God, you oughta know! What's the matter with you?" His voice sputtered out and his lips trembled and his dark eyes were blazing.
"That's no way to talk to your mother. If you can't talk decent and civil you better keep still." Molly became more indignant with every word she spoke. "When it comes to eating, I notice you're willing and able, right here every meal a-scoopin' it away; but when it comes to helpin' get ahold of something to eat, why, that's different."
"Where's my money going that I get at the meat market? Where's that going? I don't do a God-damn thing but eat here, I don't. Where's two-thirds of every pay check I get to the meat market going?"
"If you think I'm gonna have you running after that Cope girl, you're crazy," Molly replied, disregarding Carl's question. "She's tough, that's what she is." Molly's breath was running out. "She's always been tough, and I won't have..."
Carl suddenly became coherent, and yelled at the top of his lungs. "My God, you make me sick, the whole bunch of you. I'm workin', ain't I, and turning in my money here; but what about him?" He leveled his finger at Kenny across the table. "What about him? What's the matter with him going over to Dettler's and picking some berries? Nobody says a thing about him picking a berry or doing one single God-damn lick of work anywhere. No, he can lay around here and eat what the rest of us get out and earn. He can go to Ashbury every damn night and spend the money you give him to do it with, drinking and chasing women, and not get home till morning, and then sleep all day long so he'll be in good shape to go back to Ashbury tonight. That's perfectly all right, ain't it? What's the matter with..."
Kenny said, "You mind your own business for a change, you little..."
"I'm telling you," Molly said, "you better cut out that cussin' and swearin', mister."
It was as if the sudden bright anger was a contagious thing that swept around the table.
Sam Veech raised his soft voice and inserted it into the commotion. "No son of mine is gonna do that kind of business, tearing around all night long and then coming dragging in here in the morning. I always been a decent lawabiding man. We ain't that kind of folks..."
Molly interrupted him. "What you expect Kenny to do, sit around here waitin' for a job to come to him? If he don't go to Ashbury once in awhile to see if they ain't takin' on men in the shops again, how you think he's ever...?"
Dorothy closed her eyes and twitched all over with nervous excitement. "Damn liar, damn liar," she yelled over and over.
"Oh, sure," Carl said. "The best time of day to start looking for a job is eight o'clock at night, sure, and if you do a good job of looking you can't get home till morning. And the best place for looking is every God-damn beer joint and whore house and poolroom on Water Street, and..."
Sam's voice was tremulous. "There's other jobs besides the shops, ain't there? He could pick berries couldn't he, or anything he can get? When I was his age there wasn't no shops to work in, and I didn't sit around home eating off..."
"Oh, go to hell," Kenny said coolly.
Molly leaned across the table and pounded on it with her fist until the dishes rattled. "You better shut your mouth, Sam Veech! What have you got to say, I'd like to know? What you doin' day after day but settin' out there in that porch swing on your behind a-readin' those cussed lib'ry books and a-swinging back and forth, back and forth, while your fambly has to get out and hustle for the victuals you swill down three times a day regular as clockwork? I'd like to know and..."
"Damn liar, damn liar," Dorothy crooned, swaying in ecstasy, her eyes still shut.
Sam Veech stumbled up out of his chair. Old Jud laughed, his eyes darting from face to face, and reached over for his half-eaten dish of oatmeal.
Josette came in then, sweeping her father aside out of the doorway. She was a tall full-bodied girl, with firm breasts under her cotton slip, and rounded brown arms and shoulders. Her motions were all hurried, and there were little worry wrinkles across her forehead and around her eyes. "Ma, did you get my dress pressed? It's terribly late. Is there any hot water left for me to wash in?" She took the tea kettle off the stove as she spoke and poured water into the washbasin in the sink.
"Oh, Lord," Molly said, "I clean forgot to call you. You hurry up there and get washed and I'll set your breakfast on. You got time to eat your breakfast."
Josette scrubbed herself with the soapy faded washcloth. "You needn't worry about my oversleeping. Nobody could get any sleep with the racket you were making down here. All of you yelling as loud as you could, and the language you were using...I don't see what you think the neighbors think of us, the way you all were..."
"Oh, God," Kenny said. "Ain't we somebody, now Ernie is sending us to business college? We're getting too good for our own family now, ain't we? All we want to do is run around with Midge Clark, on account of her daddy runs a store, whenever Midge Clark will look at yuh, and that ain't too often."
"Well, maybe I am too good," she said, without turning around.
"I'm surprised you ever bother to come home at all," Carl said vindictively, shoving his chair back.
"You don't think I want to, do you?"she said, her voice muffled by the dress as she pulled it down over her head. "What do you think I'm doing, if it isn't trying to get out of here just as quick as I can? All that's the matter with you, Carl Veech, is that you're jealous, that's all. Well, maybe Ernie would help you go to school if you attended to your business better in high school and got better marks and was nice to Ernie and..."
"Yeah, you said it that time," Carl called back to her from the living room. "You better get down off your high horse. You aren't any smarter than anybody else. You just sugared around Ernie and got him to send you up there and..." The rush of a train put an end to his words. Carl went out banging the door behind him. The air was close and hot and there was a lazy buzz of activity around the store buildings. Carl walked toward the meat market, his eyes and ears blind to everything, fitting his stride to the old refrain of his mind, "My God, I've got to get out of this. I've got to get away from here."
Back in the kitchen, Josette put lipstick on her mouth.
Molly said, "You come on and eat here. They'll be stopping for you in a minute, and you'll have to go. You can't keep skipping meals like this; it ain't good for you. First thing you know, you'll be getting sick. I'll put up your lunch right away."
"No," Josette said, with hair pins in her mouth. "I haven't got time for you to fix it. I'll have to buy my lunch in Ashbury again, or else go without. It seems funny you can't get around in the morning and..."
"Well, maybe you better buy something then. You got some money?"
Josette rearranged the brown curls above her forehead. "Well, I've got some, but I've got to buy typing paper today and I think I've got to have another book and..."
"I better give you some." Molly disappeared into the living room.
"If you'd cut out some of that primping, you could put up your own dinner for a change instead of taking Ma's money day after day..."
"Oh, for heaven's sake, you should talk about saving Ma's money..." Josette drank her coffee standing by the table, with her eyes staring out of the window to the street. Kenny sat alone at the table, slouched back at ease in his chair.
Molly came back with her purse in her hand and gave Josette some change. "Ain't Jen getting up?" she said.
"I don't know," Josette said. "She went back to sleep after I got up. I think you ought to talk to her, Ma. The way she's running around now, it's a disgrace..."
Josette closed her purse on the money with a snap under Kenny's eyes.
An automobile horn made an insistent raucous sound outside. Josette caught up her books and purse and rushed out, calling good-bye absently over her shoulder, and setting a cool pretty smile on her mouth, ready to face what she thought of as the real beginning of her day -- the moment when the front screen slammed behind her, and drowned out the porch swing squeaking under her father's weight.
"Lord," Molly said, "I ain't good for nothing once breakfast is over, everybody rushing around so. You want some more coffee, Kenny? Wait a minute and I'll throw out those grounds in your cup and you can have all fresh."
She stirred her coffee leisurely, and the flies buzzed and crawled over the dirty table and dishes. "You know," she said, "if Ernie comes in tonight, I believe I'll have him see about buying me some red raspberries somewhere. I wanted to put up a few of the red ones this year. They make real nice sauce, and I want to get them now while they're nice yet. They won't stay nice long, in this hot dry weather."
Kenny felt again for the cigarettes. "Say, Ma, guess who I seen in Ashbury last night. She offered to give me a ride home, only I wasn't ready to come yet. Rita!"
"Rita Sibley? Why, that was nice of her. But then she's always been nice to me. All the while she and Ernie was having trouble, and after she divorced him and even since she got married again, she's always been real nice. Is she staying here in town since her school was out?"
"Yeah, she was just up to Ashbury seeing a movie or something. Joe is working nights now, I guess."
"How was she looking?" Molly asked.
"Swell. She's damn good-looking woman, and she knows how to dress too. I guess she was too good for old Ernie, at that."
"Well," Molly said, "I wouldn't say that exactly. I never want to take sides, or anything like that, but I guess Ernie and Rita couldn't make a go of it for lots of reasons."
"She sure is a swell-looking woman," Kenny said again, his voice trailing out after his thoughts.
"I oughta do some hoeing in that garden," his mother said. "I guess I better get out there before this sun gets any hotter. Mary'll want her breakfast in a minute. You tell her everything's hot there on the stove."
"Yeah," Kenny said absently, his mind busy with the image of Rita and her hair pale blonde against her brown skin...
Molly poured milk in the cat's dish. She lingered in the door for a moment and finally ambled out among the weeds to the little garden plot.
Kenny shoved dishes aside before him on the table and pillowed his head on his elbows. He drowsed a little, his thoughts unrolling like a slow smoke spiral. Rita Sibley's thin scented body; a funny little squirt named Bill who used to hang around Ashbury till he went out to Milwaukee and hired out as a shooter for some mob there, and made good money, they said, except he got killed the other day; his mother out in the garden with her hoe striking sharp steel against stones, an awful good old girl at that, they didn't come any better; a factory whistle cutting the air open. So the little squirt named Bill was dead. What was it like to be dead? Something black to be afraid of, especially if it hurt, and you couldn't tell him that it didn't hurt to die. Then, underneath, a little insistent tick: you're wasting your time; you ain't getting any younger; you ought to have a job and get some place. What you oughta do is get out of this dump and go away some place and amount to something....
His mind came back to the kitchen table with a snap at the touch of Mary's hand along his forehead.
He sat up straight, blinking his eyes in the sunlight, and his whole manner changed in her presence. He became more contained, more sophisticated, his voice lowered and slowed as if it was drawn down by her own low husky voice. "G'morning, Mary. How are you? Mom left your breakfast on the stove. Wait a minute, I'll set these dirty dishes off the table for you." He got up immediately and began to stack the dishes together.
Mary said, "Thanks." She took the discolored ragged fly swatter from a hook by the stove and began to kill the flies on the table. The old swatter became a delicate precise instrument in her hands. She struck leisurely and accurately, littering the floor with the little crumpled bodies. She was small, with fine clear features, her head not quite to Kenny's shoulder, her body slight and well formed. Her hair was smooth and short, lying in big golden-brown waves on her head. It was her mouth perhaps, absurdly small and rosy, that gave her a peculiarly childlike quality.
Kenny stacked the dirty dishes carelessly on the stove. "Say, Mary, you got a cigarette?"
She took a long flat silver case out of her pocket and opened it for him. He struck a match down his trouser leg and held it for her before he lit his own. "God, that tastes good. You sure do treat yourself to the best, don't you?"
She squinted her eyes from the smoke while she filled her coffee cup, and then she sat down beside him at the table, and sipped the hot black coffee.
Kenny watched her admiringly. "Ain't you gonna eat something?"
She shook her head. "No, I'll pick up something after I get down to the hotel."
She smoked silently, and Kenny leaned forward on his arms, watching her.
At last she said, "How's everything?"
"Oh, so-so," he said guardedly. "Same old crowd, same old thing. You know, sometimes I get so God-damn sick of it I could..."
"Yeah, I know." She looked him full in the face. Her eyes were startlingly blue, set in deep brown shadows, infinitely old, and infinitely weary.
He put his hand out suddenly and covered hers on the table. "How's things with you, kid?"
"So-so; same old thing," she said indifferently. She twisted her fingers up around his thumb. They sat quietly looking deep into each other's eyes.
"Lew was in Chicago last week, huh?" he said.
"Yeah, I kept things running at the hotel. He got back last night."
She looked away again, out of the window, but he kept his eyes upon her face.
"I was talking to Rita Sibley in Ashbury last night," he said suddenly.
"Yeah, that's the way I got it figured."
She laughed shortly, tipping her head back. It was as if some detailed communication had passed between them that made any further discussion of the subject unnecessary. They were silent again for a long time.
"Where's Ma?" she said finally.
"Out there in the garden. You want to see her before you go downtown?"
They were silent again as if they were both loath to put an end to the quiet moments sliding by there in the kitchen while the sun rose higher and higher.
Mary got up and shoved her chair back. "Go on up and get some sleep, Ken." She fumbled in the pocket of her modish black linen dress. She took out a crumpled five-dollar bill and wadded it up small in her hand, and slid it into his, closing his fingers tight over it. They smiled then, both of them, for the first time.
She went to the door and called, "Hey, Mom!"
Molly Veech stood up straight in the garden back of the weeds, and wiped the sweat off her face. "You ready to go downtown, Mary? I'll be right in."
She threw her hoe down carelessly across a tangle of tomato plants and came to the house, hoisting her heavy body clumsily up the steps.
"Where's Kenny?" she said.
"He's gone upstairs to bed."
Molly sat down hard on a chair, wiping the sweat off her face. "My, you look nice and cool this morning."
"Is Dorothy behaving all right? She doesn't give you any trouble, does she?"
"Lord, no," Molly said. "She ain't a bit of trouble. She's an awful funny little kid in a lot of ways, but she ain't no trouble having around." Molly went on comfortably, fanning herself with a piece of newspaper. "I figure I'll have Ernie get me some red raspberries somewhere to put up; they make real nice sauce."
"I'll get some and have them sent up when I get downtown."
"No, you ain't gonna do no such thing. Lord knows you do enough around here. Let Ernie get the berries."
"Josette doing all right in school? I haven't seen the kid in a week," Mary said.
"Just fine, I guess. Say, Mary," Molly lowered her voice, "I wanted to talk to you about Jen. Josie claims we ought to talk to her or something. She's doing an awful lot of running around lately. She's mixed up with a kind of tough crowd, you know. That Frances Cope and her are thicker than spatter. She's gone every night. They do an awful lot of drinking and stuff, and I just don't know...Honest, for twins, Jen and Josie ain't no more alike than black and white. I just don't know what we oughta..."
Mary snapped open the silver cigarette case. "Jen's a good kid. She don't use her head, but she's a good kid."
"Well," Molly said reflectively. "But I tell you what, Mary, I wish you'd talk to her. You're a lot older and you know Jen thinks you're just about it, if you'd just kind of talk to her..."
Mary did not answer. Molly settled back, savoring this confidential moment with her oldest daughter. "Well, I'll tell you, I don't know. There's a lot to having a family of kids besides just feeding them and getting the clothes to put on their backs, a whole lot more. And it's always been me that had to do it. You know your father ain't never been no help to me in raising up you kids. It's always been me, and sometimes I just don't know. Now, you take Kenny. What you think we oughta do about Kenny? I always figured as he got older he'd straighten out. He's an awful good-hearted kid, good as gold, but I don't know..."
"Kenny'll be all right," Mary said briefly.
"Well, I just don't know," Molly said insistently. "And then there's Carl. I just can't make head nor tail to that boy. Now he's getting older he's changing. Just this last year in high school I noticed it. He's changing. He's always acting like he's mad and spiteful about something. Maybe we ain't been able to do so much for him, but I done the best I could. I give him a place to stay and three meals a day, and next year he'll be graduating from high school, but I just can't make him out, the way he acts. He ain't like no kid I ever saw before. Sometimes I just don't know..."
Mary threw her cigarette down and said, "It's getting late, Mom, I gotta be going."
"Lord," Molly said, getting up. "It seems like I never see you to talk to, just a little piece in the morning like this sometimes, before you go to the hotel. You don't get home till so late every night."
"I'm sorry, Mom. You got plenty of money?"
"Sure, I ain't even busted that ten-dollar bill you give me Saturday night yet."
"Okay, g'bye, Mom."
"G'bye, Mary." Molly followed her out to the porch, and watched her down the street. She walked swiftly with her small head held high and a rhythm of motion all through her body.
"Move over," Molly Veech said to Sam in the porch swing. He slid over on the wooden slats obediently and she sat down, tipping the porch swing low on her end of it.
"Mary's an awful pretty woman, ain't she?" she said. "I tell you, I don't know what this fambly woulda done without her. There's folks in this town that ain't got enough to do tending to their own business that likes to talk about Mary, but I'll tell you I ain't never felt a single bit ashamed..."
She rocked the porch swing back and forth, with the chains groaning in protest at her weight.
"Mary ain't like most folks," her mother said. "She never was, even when she was just a little girl, and you can't expect her to live and act just like ordinary folks. She's an awful queer one, but I never been a bit ashamed..."
Sam Veech closed the book, with his finger stuck in among the pages to keep his place. He swung silently beside Molly, with his eyes turned away toward town, watching Mary's bright head shining in the sun as far as he could see it.
"I kinda figured maybe she'd marry Lew Lentz and settle down," Sam said. "But I guess she ain't a-going to."
"Don't it beat all," Molly said. "I've heard the story plenty times that he's just crazy to marry her too."
Sam nodded. "That's where folks get the idea she's just out after his money."
"Lord," Molly said indignantly, "they oughta know better. Mary's took up with plenty men before this that didn't have a cent to their names. They oughta know better'n to go saying things like that behind Mary's back."
"Well, I don't know," Sam said, opening his book once more.
Molly kept the swing in motion contentedly. "Mary ain't like other folks," she said. "She ain't never been like other folks. Nobody knows what's goin' on in that head a hers. Seems like she ain't got feelings even like most folks have -- not that she ain't the nicest, best-hearted girl in the world. Lord, all she's done for this fambly, and all. You just can't tell what's going on in her head, that's all." Molly sighed suddenly and gave up the puzzle.
"Anyway," she said, "I'd just give anything to know why she keeps hanging on to Lew Lentz when she won't marry him and Lord knows it ain't his money she's after. I'd just give anything to know."
Sam did not answer her. He was already lost in the pages of the library book.
Copyright © 1969 by Maritta Wolff Stegman
Whistle Stop, published to rave reviews and astonishing commercial success, is the story of the Veech family, an oversize, poverty-stricken tribe trying to make good in a cruel world. Through the course of a punishingly hot summer, we experience life with the six children and three adult Veeches as they bicker, brawl, make up, and provide titillating morsels of scandal for the neighborhood. A work of darkly comic grotesque, replete with shades of Flannery O'Connor, Whistle Stop is also a wrenching and earnest rumination on the tragedy of thwarted love.
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