The solid South stretches away for miles from Jeffersonville, long clay roads climbing slow hills covered with straggling pines, broad, blank cotton fields, isolated cabins in patches of sand, and far off in the distance the blue promise of hills. The town is lost beside a wide brown swirling river which cuts swiftly under its high red banks on either side. Deep trees overhang the brown foam at the edges, and shadows lie long and sleepily under the Spanish moss where darting hard-shelled insects fall down from the branches. Brown mud oozes between the cobblestones of the ponderous width of Jackson Street where it curls down to the riverside, lined with decaying wharves from the time when there was much shipping on the river.
Every springtime the brown water, with foam and twirling twigs and bits of feather, seeps slowly up the street until finally it reaches the gutters in front of the biggest hotel in Jeffersonville; then the inhabitants know that all the red clay bottoms for miles around are under water.
Wistaria meets over the warm asphalt in summer, and the young people swim in the lukewarm creeks. The drugstores are bright at night with the organdy balloons of girls’ dresses under the big electric fans. Automobiles stand along the curbs in front of open frame houses at dusk, and sounds of supper being prepared drift through the soft splotches of darkness to the young world that moves every evening out of doors. Telephones ring, and the lacy blackness under the trees disgorges young girls in white and pink, leaping over the squares of warm light toward the tinkling sound with an expectancy that people have only in places where any event is a pleasant one.
Nothing seems ever to happen in Jeffersonville; the days pass, lazily gossiping in the warm sun. A lynching, an election, a wedding, catastrophes, and business booms all take on the same value, rounded, complete, dusted by the lush softness of the air in a climate too hot for any but sporadic effort, too beneficent for any but the most desultory competition.
In my youth, number Twenty State Street had a pincushion of grass pushing up on either side of the straight brick path, and two cracked concrete steps leading to the blue and white octagonal paving blocks that formed the sidewalk. The roots of big water elms cracked the blocks, and we children skating home from school fell over the crevices. The house was an apologetic one for sheltering big families that had grown faster than the family income in that way obligations have of increasing their proportions more rapidly than the hopes and abilities that begot them.
Number Twenty was where Harriet and a fragile mother and Harriet’s younger sister lived in one room and a latticed back porch. The rest of the house, all the three-cornered bedrooms and back hallways and waste space under the stairs, was rented. It was, in fact, a boardinghouse of a very friendly Sunday dinner sort, and as we grew up and Harriet’s mother softly became an invalid, it grew to be Harriet’s responsibility. If the boarders weren’t friendly when they came, they soon fell into the note of shy bravado about the long table, and they never seemed able to dispense with it even after they realized how uncomfortable they were, what with Harriet’s squeezing them in between her beaux and her halfday job teaching school. The young men waiting to be married and old couples living on one railroad bond, and all the cheerful lot who came in the evening to sit about the stove in the parlor, seemed to find an ease and relaxation in Harriet’s jovial irony and in the big horselaugh she gave any pretentiousness.
Her manner with the old was free and impeccable. To the rest, she gave the right to all the self-deceptions they found necessary for their peace of mind, so long as they granted her that sudden, blatant laugh that began with a sort of ticklish chuckling and ended with a series of in-drawn screeches bordering on hysteria. The roots of it lay deep in fatigue and strain, and if it didn’t spare anyone’s nerves, well, ever since Harriet walked for the last time with the rest of us between the blind-eyed Venus and plaster Minerva that were just inside the high school door, she had never spared her own.
People early wondered why she didn’t go in for something more satisfactory and spectacular than teaching school and supervising a boardinghouse. It seemed to us such a waste of her energy and ability. The reason was probably that she was incapable of giving up anything; of relinquishing the smallest part of a conception or a phase of her life until she felt that it had been completed. She left school with all sorts of convictions about sticking to things until the ultimate desired effect was produced, and it kept her hoeing a hard row, sticking by the hopeless patchwork of the various responsibilities that were hers instead of trying to turn them into one bigger unit of a job.
Every place has its hours: there’s Rome in the glassy sun of a winter noon and Paris under the blue gauze of spring twilight, and there’s the red sun flowing through the chasms of a New York dawn. So in Jeffersonville there existed then, and I suppose now, a time and quality that appertains to nowhere else. It began about half past six on an early summer night, with the flicker and splutter of the corner streetlights going on, and it lasted until the great incandescent globes were black inside with moths and beetles and the children were called in to bed from the dusty streets.
The leaves of the elms stenciled black friezes over the sidewalks, and men in shirt sleeves threw arcs of warm rubber-smelling water onto the moonvines and Bermuda grass until the air was fresher with a baked, grassy scent, and the ladies behind the thick-flowering vines had a moment’s respite from their fanning. The town waited for the nine o’clock breeze in a floating stillness so complete that you could hear the grinding wheels of a trolley car climbing a hill six blocks away. Inside, girls in preparation for the evening dance struggled between the difficulties of the spasmodic sweep of an electric fan and the dripping heat.
That was how it happened that one night during the war, when Harriet was still only nineteen and at the beginning of her effort, the doorbell rang and she answered it in a pair of blue bloomers and a huge bath towel. The doorbell before nine could only mean a telegram or something that could be reached around for. She swung the door back in front of her as a screen, and there stood Dan Stone, all the high spots of him lighted up and shining with the light from the hall. He was a big, square soldier, fine legs like a Greek athlete, and a handsome Ohio face with a chin and a big arena of teeth.
He had behind him a girl who, even in the dark, Harriet knew was not Southern. Her black hair was too sleek to have known the muddy water of summer creeks, and her dark clothes were cut with a precision and directness which could not have been interrupted by frequent half-hour respites from the heat. Harriet was swept with an exultant embarrassment that she always felt in a situation promising adventure. She laughed and he laughed, and the gray eyes back of his shoulder started a little to hear so much instantaneous comradeship bouncing down the worn veranda.
He explained about himself to Harriet, about how he was engaged to the cloudless eyes in the faultless tailleur, and how the hotel lobbies filled with fan-draped flags and khaki hats and Red Cross posters were not the place to leave his fiancee. His mother had intended coming South, but she was ill. The regiment was leaving any time now, so couldn’t Harriet’s mother find a place for Louise among the hot biscuits and iced tea and fresh vegetables.
So Louise and Harriet, living in the same house, became friends for three weeks—which is a long time in wartime—and Harriet initiated Louise into our dawdling late yellow afternoons of Jeffersonville; into the automobile rides past dusty mock-orange hedges, the beveled fruit rotting beneath; into the sweet tartness of Coca-Cola cooling in wooden tubs beside a country store; into the savory vapors of Mexican hot dog stands, and into all the mysteries of a town that, to escape the heat, sleeps nine months a year under its banks of four-petal roses.
We knew all about each other in Jeffersonville: how each other swam and danced and what time our parents wanted us to be home at night, and what each one of us liked to eat and drink and talk about, so that we all were one against the taller, broader, older youth in uniform which had begun from boredom to invade the ice cream parlors and the country club dances, and to change into something serious the casualness of an intimate social world founded on the fact that people like filling the same hours with the same things. We swam at five o’clock because the glare of the sun on the water was too hot to permit swimming before that, but with the advent of a colder-climate organization that five o’clock swim and the six o’clock soda became self-conscious rituals that moved along more robustly than the long-legged, affable young men of Jeffersonville could follow with ease.
There weren’t enough girls to go around. Girls too tall or too prim for the taste of Jeffersonville were dragged from their spinsterly pursuits to dance with the soldiers and make them feel less lonely through the summer nights. You can imagine how the popular ones fared! Harriet’s sagging veranda was almost completely in uniform. It looked like a recruiting station.
During the weeks that Louise spent in the vine-clad smouldering depths of the South, Dan was always there at Harriet’s, lounging over the front banisters with the loose longness of a rubber man, or standing under the stairs, his face in a beam, while he waited for the girls to materialize out of the dust of powder and squeaks and slamming of doors that always began when they heard him in the hall below. He came every day in the firefly hush before supper, and he stayed until the last trolley rolled its cargo of summer light down the dim streets and out to camp.
At first, he and Louise fought shy of the lazy groups of us banging the screen door and laughing and shouting plans back and forth. They would have dinner in town under big fans like airplane propellers, waiting for the steaming corn on the cob to cool and the ice cream to melt, unable to eat in the lush, fertile heat. Gradually, they became part of the restless inertia of Harriet’s porch. Dan liked it, and little by little Louise of the indigo hair and aquamarine eyes was left lost and baffled in the horsey smell of men in khaki and the heavy fragrance of white flowers in the semi-tropics. From soft shaded corners, the great rolling, enveloping laugh of Dan swept out, coming closer all the time, the way thunder seems to come nearer as you hear it passing over; and then out of the same lacy, geometric dusk, the audacious friendliness of Harriet’s kidding horselaugh.
They were always together, and for the last few days before Louise left, a sort of desperation hung about the trio. It seemed as if Dan was driven by some inner necessity for honesty to wound and hurt Louise in Harriet’s presence. Not that he was cross or ungracious or even impolite, but he simply unchained a robustness that he knew would terrify her, a quality that she thought of as masculine and frightening and that he thought of as particular to himself. They couldn’t seem to agree even about why they were not happy together any more.
At last one hot five o’clock, he hurried Louise over the pulpy boards of the station platform and into a long sleek train with a special name like a racehorse. While he waited for the train to pull out, they sat opposite each other on the green, prickly, cindery seats, and broke their engagement. There must have been some protecting quality about the Northern solidity of the steel and screens and humming fans that gave Louise the confidence and courage to face the fact that Dan was breaking their engagement. And he found something in the cart of dripping ice beside the steaming train, in the lounging, muddy river beside the tracks, in the low brick station with its long shed over the freight cars and drowsy porters, to keep him from minding that he was changing her life at a word into something quite different from how she had thought of it for two years. When the in-drawn siren call of ‘ ’Board’ swept along from the back of the long train, Dan swung down the steps with no remorse.
He was only ten minutes behind his usual time of arriving at Harriet’s, which meant to him simply that he had lost his seat in the creaking swing and that she was ten minutes deeper in the freshness of rose Southern organdy when they swung off together into the light and dark of the ambling street. They were in love.
Months afterwards when the war got itself over in one way or another, and after Dan had been to the port of embarkation and tasted New York on the eve of a departure that never came off, and after Harriet had had a dozen other beaux and a hundred other heartaches, he wrote for her to come to Ohio to visit his mother.
They had been engaged so long now, had written so many letters to each other from so far away, that their relationship had become a background for their lives rather than a reality, but Harriet decided to make the trip, searching vaguely to re-create those moments of mutual discovery that she and Dan had shared. From Jeffersonville, deserted in August, rows of newspapers yellowing in the heat before closed doorways, neglected lawns parching under the burning sun, shut windowpanes ricocheting the sun’s rays onto the already burning pavements, Harriet set out for the North to recapture the balm and beauty of war nights under an Alabama moon. In Ohio she sought the hoarse croaking of frogs in the cypress swamps, the glint of moonlight on black scummy water, the smell of pine rolling up from lone cabin chimneys, and, above all, the svelteness of youth in leather and uniform—young, strange foreign soldiers, conquerors of her most enthusiastic years.
Dan, she wrote home, met her in the huge glass and tile station. The nearest thing like it that Harriet had ever seen was an operating room, and immediately a sense of alarm arose out of the back of her neck and undermined the easy delight with which she had been looking forward to seeing him. The blue-white rays from the station skylight pelted mercilessly on rouge more convincing in the soft, fuzzy light of the South, and all his politeness could scarcely keep out of his eyes the dubious quality that men feel when they find themselves with women from a different financial plane than themselves. In the quiet beige heaviness, avenues lined with small clipped trees and gleaming white facades slid past until at last he helped her out in front of a gleaming glass and grilled door. Inside his mother waited.
Dan’s mother was as concise and formal and as black and white as a printed page, and Harriet, who was used to the old being tired and worn, fell into a panic. She lost her attention amongst the myriad silver picture frames and the bright backs of books that lined the walls, and her eyes kept hiding in corners behind the baskets of flowers or under the bearskin rug. It was an inauspicious beginning. She wanted to run, and in all the days she spent in the big redbrick house, she never quite conquered the feeling that she, on confronting its mistress, might jump suddenly out of the window.
The summer nights passed in cabarets or circling about between rows of geraniums down the broad gravel drives of country clubs. People were away and there weren’t many parties, so they even sought Louise, for old times’ sake, to complete a foursome.
They drove sometimes over the trim tar roads to an amusement park. Harriet liked that best of all because there, floating over the smell of the hot butter from the popcorn, the acrid smoke from the shooting gallery, and the tart brassness of the merry-go-round, their two laughs sounded together on the night air like an echo from the war. But those moments were rare.
Louise and Dan rediscovered a common taste for the wicker chairs and long frosted glasses of club verandas. Gradually they lapsed together into a silent, fashionable sentimentality amidst the clatter of golf clubs and automobile horns and the dim chink of poker chips drifting from the bar.
To Harriet it all seemed like an illustration, an advertisement that reads under the bottom, “In Palm Beach they all smoke Melliflors.” This one would read, “In Ohio we have more and better of the best young people.” She was surprised at the robustness of her own laugh and distressed by the freeness of her Southern manner. She felt foreign to herself in finding herself so foreign to the others. She, never having been rich and “marriageable,” had never learned the protective formalities and reserves of expensive society. She was a lonely appendage to these white flannel afternoons.
With a sense of relief, she entered into the last week of her visit. Louise was constantly about the house now, her quiet voice muffled on the thick carpeted stairs or languidly discussing with Dan’s mother leagues and organizations and societies for the prevention of things. She belonged in that quiet house. The candlelight singing in the globular sides of silver bowls, the gleam of a gold plate under the strawberries, the feel of water heavier than the glass that contained it, called out no overpowering confusion, no overwhelmed inadequacy in her calm twilight eyes.
Harriet sensed all that, and so it was that she was less hurt and surprised than Dan had supposed she would be when he told her that he wanted to marry Louise. All she wanted at that moment were the bare floors of Jeffersonville, the succulence of a Sunday baked ham, the familiar clatter of green-rimmed dishes on the boardinghouse table.
When she got home, she told us all about the clubs and motorcars and how people dressed in the North, and she said simply that she and Dan had decided not to marry. She didn’t feel that she could leave her mother.
I left Jeffersonville about then, but I can imagine how the winter came and the groups about the parlor at Harriet’s grew bigger and perhaps younger. At holiday time there were dozens of college boys, joking and shooting dice and teasing the girls, so that if Harriet wanted to be alone she had to leave the house. At the Saturday night dances she often passed from one pair of arms to another without dancing a step. Everybody was fond of her, of her tireless good humor and impersonal intimacies.
Old people said they didn’t see how she found the courage to work all day and dance all night and look after the boardinghouse in odd moments, and always to be laughing and happy. She saved the money she earned, a little at a time, and twice every year she went to some big city. One summer she visited me in New York. She learned a vague species of French and bought all the fashionable magazines. She was determined to find for herself a bigger sophistication than Jeffersonville had to offer.
Five more summers and winters steamed off the slow river and passed like a gentle mist over the salvia beds and Cherokee hedges and ribbon grass of the town, and now the children she had drawn paper dolls for crowded the country club dances, and most of her contemporaries had kids of their own.
From time to time I went home and found the girls she grew up with vaguely pitying her about their bridge tables and over their bassinets, speculating about why she had not married this man or that, and wondering why she preferred long chalky hours in a primary school and the gentility of aged boarders’ complaints to the gilded radiators and flowered chintz of a suburban bungalow.
People went away and came back; friends of hers who had married or boys she had known in the army said she hadn’t changed a bit. The people she saw now formed an expensive white bungalow ring about the city, and they all owned silver cocktail glasses and dined by candlelight and liked the taste of preserved caviar. They gave teas and dinners and parties late at night for strangers in Jeffersonville who had arrived with cards to the club or letters of introduction, or who had come to give a concert or a lecture.
Charles was one of the ones who came with a letter. He was an architect. Jeffersonville is as famous for its old stairways and fanlights over its doorways as it is for its hospitality. Harriet met him in an odd sort of way. He just came bounding in one night, the light from the hall lighting up his square shoulders and an arena of big white teeth. He was tall and he laughed outrageously at her because she was all wrapped up in a bath towel with a few fluttery things underneath. She hadn’t known, naturally, that he would bounce in so unexpectedly, demanding a room. They laughed together, and evidently she felt the fear of losing interest in life scurry away down the worn veranda, worsted by the heartiness of two ringing battle laughs.
They were seen about together so constantly that nobody was much surprised when they ran away and got married. You see, he lived in Ohio, and he didn’t want to wait while a lot of elaborate preparations were made. That happened about two years ago, and the news is that they are perfectly happy—as she always showed herself and so deserved to be. They live behind an expensive grilled door with his mother, a black taffeta widow who is very rich and formidable, and Harriet seems to spend a great deal of time working for leagues and societies of all sorts.
Their life is full of candlelight and gleaming bright things. And, of course, she has the baby who, from his pictures, is big and square even for his age. She called him Dan “because,” she wrote me, “it’s the only name that really suits him.”
Published in College Humor magazine (July 1929), published as by F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
Illustrations by John LaGatta.