Alfrida said that there had been talk of sending Horse Henry done up in a wig

Alfrida said that there had been talk of sending

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Alfrida said that there had been talk of sending Horse Henry done up in a wig and pillow bosoms, or perhaps herself leering like the Witch of Babylon (not even she, at my parents’ table, could quote the Bible accurately and say “Whore”) with a ciggie-boo stuck to her lipstick. But, oh, she said, the paper would kill us. And anyway, it would be too mean. She always called her cigarettes ciggie-boos. When I was fifteen or sixteen she leaned across the table and asked me, “How would you like a ciggie-boo, too?” The meal was finished, and my younger brother and sister had left the table. My father was shaking his head. He had started to roll his own. I said thank you and let Alfrida light it and smoked for the first time in front of my parents. They pretended that it was a great joke. “Ah, will you look at your daughter?” said my mother to my father. She rolled her eyes and clapped her hands to her chest and spoke in an artificial, languishing voice. “I’m like to faint.” “Have to get the horsewhip out,” my father said, half rising in his chair. This moment was amazing, as if Alfrida had transformed us into new people. Ordinarily, my mother would say that she did not like to see a woman smoke. She did not say that it was indecent, or unladylike—just that she did not like it. And when she said in a certain tone that she did not like something it seemed that she was not making a confession of irrationality but drawing on a private source of wisdom, which was unassailable
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87 and almost sacred. It was when she reached for this tone, with its accompanying expression of listening to inner voices, that I particularly hated her. As for my father, he had beaten me, in this very room, not with a horsewhip but his belt, for running afoul of my mother’s rules and wounding my mother’s feelings, and for answering back. Now it seemed that such beatings could occur only in another universe. My parents had been put in a corner by Alfrida—and also by me—but they had responded so gamely and gracefully that it was really as if all three of us—my mother and my father and myself—had been lifted to a new level of ease and aplomb. In that instant I could see them—particularly my mother—as being capable of a kind of lightheartedness that was scarcely ever on view. All due to Alfrida. Alfrida was always referred to as a career girl. This made her seem to be younger than my parents, though she was known to be about the same age. It was also said that she was a city person. And the city, when it was spoken of in this way, meant the one she lived and worked in. But it meant something else as well— not just a distinct configuration of buildings and sidewalks and streetcar lines or even a crowding together of individual people.
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