Charlotte Armstrong






















At the Circus

He had never seen such a thing in his life. He could have looked at it with tolerance and even a mild curiosity, had it kept still, both immovable-still and silent-still. But it did neither. And it was intent upon him. It intended to … do what? He didn’t know. But whatever it intended was meant for him, all right. It loomed and swelled and swooped upon him with a horrid speed.

There was first the whiteness. White, in itself, was not alarming, but this whiteness was shaped to suggest something that had never in his experience been white before. The shape of a “face” had never been as white as this. It had been black, tan, yellow, pink, peach, or creamy with red or brown blotches, all of which variations he had accepted in his day, but he had never seen a face-shape in a color basically so dead and terrible a white.

It was a face, because on a face, as he knew very well, there were eyes, nose, and mouth. On this thing there were eyes, very large, great black-and-red circles, interlined with the uncanny white, but also very small, peering at him from the centers of those circles. Two small somewhat almond-shaped elements in a design would not have been frightening had they been still, but these moved. They “saw” him. They projected something cold and tired that he somehow received and knew to be both intent and indifferent, placing him as one among many, and what of it? He wasn’t used to that.

There was a jutting-forth in the proper central position, as “nose,” and it was white, but yet worse. The white had an improbable ending, a coloration at the foremost knob that was perfectly round and brilliantly crimson. This monstrous nose was not mere design, either. It quivered, it drew in air, it was casting a shaft of warm air upon his very cheek.

Then there was “mouth.” Mouth he understood. Mouth spoke, mouth smiled, mouth kissed. This mouth was either a small pink-lined slit or huge curvings of red, outlined by blue, and all on that dead white, and in the midst, the little part writhed and from it came booming sounds and huffs of air. While the nose twitched and the little slits of eyes watched, the mouth stretched hideously, making the great red-and-blue outlines grow larger and larger and the noise was too near, too loud.…

He screamed his terror. It came out in waves, intermittent with the gasping breaths he had to draw (he knew that) in whatever peril.

His father was laughing. His mother was thrusting him toward the thing. It raised sharp triangles of red-and-blue brows and it breathed, and it boomed, while he screamed his mortal terror of what was so grotesquely an exaggeration and a contradiction of much that he had learned to trust, so far.

His mother turned him; her hand spread on his back. “He’s a little young,” she said, and then to him, crooning, “Wasn’t that a funny man?”

His father said happily, “All kids love clowns. Listen to them squeal!” Children were screaming, along the row.

But for him, the baby guessed, there would be peace, now, for a while, and nothing but what he could bear. For a while.

“Hush. Hush,” his mother said, “Don’t be so silly. Such a funny man!”

So he drew himself into himself, for he had to live, he knew that, and he rested, trembling for the mercy of the giants with whom he lived, but whom he dared not altogether trust, anymore. Anymore.


The World Turned Upside Down

Deedee Jonas lay on her stomach in a certain spot at the very lip of the swimming pool, where the coping met the concrete of the deck.

The rule was that no one, at all, ever, was allowed to swim alone, but Deedee had dunked herself in the shallow end long enough to get wet. So the scrap of pink-flowered cotton she wore was dank and cold. The mock brassiere, which was a mere prophecy on Deedee’s flat little chest, was crushed upon the heat of the stone. Her left arm was crooked to make a pillow for her forehead. From the ends of her short blond hair, cold little trickles slipped around her neck. The sun beat on her bare shanks. She lay very still.

The kids weren’t out of Sunday school yet. They soon would come … one or two of her neighborhood pals … in suit with towel, clicking through the gate.

Deedee hadn’t felt like going to Sunday school. It was too beautiful a day … too beautiful a day. “This is the day that the Lord has made: we will rejoice in it and be glad.” That’s what they would be saying inside the stone walls in the religious gloom. Deedee liked that very much.

Deedee was twelve: her father was dead. She and her mother lived here alone. Her mama hadn’t gone to church this morning, either. There was company for lunch.

Deedee liked being exactly where she was. In a way, she would be sorry when the kids did come. This spot, where she was lying, had a magic secret. She would never tell the kids about it. Or anyone. She wouldn’t tell for anything.

Just one week ago, a fact which had given her discovery a Sundayish flavor, Deedee had flopped upon this spot for no reason at all. Ever since, she’d had a reason, and ever since, she had permitted herself to lie here a little while each day. She rationed her pleasure.

The coping of the pool was smooth to the fingertips, smooth but speckled with holes like small Swiss-cheese holes. The concrete of the deck was rougher with swirls in it like huge fingerprints, lying in a pattern. Just where these two textures met, here at the shallow end, the men who had poured the deck had made a tiny mistake in their subtle business of grading the concrete. Water was supposed to be gently led away from the pool and off the deck into the soil. But just here a long narrow puddle tended to remain.

Last Sunday, when Deedee had opened her eyes, without thought, expecting to see nothing, since her nose was nearly touching the solid deck, she had suddenly seen through to a glorious world in full color, vast and enchanting. She was looking down into the vault of the sky.

Every day since, Deedee had been able to lie face down, eyes hidden, seeming to be asleep or drugged by the sun, and all the while she could plainly see the whole world above her and behind her and even before her. The puddle was a mirror.

She was looking now, past the strangely narrowed shadow of her own jawbone, at the blue blue sky, the fresh shining gold-edged green of the camphor leaves, and everything was greener, bluer, and more golden and more whatever it was. She could see the gate. No one could surprise her. There was delight in this. She could see the bright pink of the geraniums along the two-steps-down. She could see the jasmine vine on the trellis climbing to the eaves and she could see the house roof, chimney, clouds in the sky. She could see the whitewashed wall that was actually twenty feet from the top of her head.

She seemed to look through the slot of the puddle into a bowl, and in the bowl was the whole world upside down, at once bigger and smaller than real. It was so beautiful. It was her own. If Deedee blew out her breath gently the whole secret reflected world would tremble.

Alone by the pool, half-naked, looking like a pagan child, Deedee Jonas was in a state of awe.

Her mother, Helen Jonas, came out of the house with Douglas Carey. “Has she drowned?” said Helen calmly. “Where is she?”

“On the deck. I see her,” the man said. “Frying.”

Deedee heard them. She also saw them at the gate. She did not move.

“What have we here?” said Douglas, “One pink lizard with yellow hair.”

“Hi.” Deedee made her voice sleepy.

“Deedee, aren’t you done on that side?” her mother said.

“Um um.”

“Leave her,” said Douglas. “Fried children. Favorite dish in southern California.”

“I sometimes wonder,” said Helen, “what it is going to do to their skins. They’ll all wind up with leather hides.”

“Well?” he said tolerantly.

Deedee watched them. They sat down side by side on the canvas pad of the settee. Her mother was wearing last season’s suit, the blue-and-white polka dot. Her mother’s hair was yellow.

Deedee was well content with her mother. Other kids would sometimes say, “My mom will have kittens!” “My mom will flip!” But Deedee’s mom neither flipped nor had kittens. She made safety rules with sense to them. Deedee never saw reason to break them. She made honesty rules and then made it easy to tell her the truth. She did not fuss or nag. She liked to listen and she understood adventures very well. Deedee was warm and easy with her mother and never even thought about the relationship.

Her father she often forgot, although he was present in her cosmos, something good there. Like the Lord, but not so near.

The Lord was her Father.

Douglas Carey was a man. He often came for lunch, to swim, or in the evening to take her mother somewhere. Several men did. But this one Deedee liked best.

Deedee watched him now and he didn’t know she could see him at all. There was something deeply thrilling about this. She could see them both, so clearly, and she thought they were beautiful. She watched her mother untangle her toes from her sandals and stretch out her nice sun-tinted legs. She watched Douglas Carey light their cigarettes. She listened to their easy lazy voices, the adult chatter, of which she received the sense of easiness.

Deedee was very happy. It was just perfect. The beautiful day. Her mother near. And only Douglas Carey, besides … who was Deedee’s own.

This was a kind of secret. At least nobody ever spoke of it or ever would. This man had done the one thing necessary. He had paid attention. Deedee knew. No child is fooled by phony attention. No child is flattered by the boring question or the dull comment on the answer. “How do you like school this year?” “Oh, isn’t that nice!” “What are you doing, dear?” “My, that must be fun!” This was the kind of chitchat between the generations that passed for attention, but it didn’t mean anything.

When Douglas Carey asked a question, he received the answer: he gave it thought. It didn’t matter so much whether he liked the answer or even whether he liked Deedee herself. He wanted to know about her and what she was thinking and this was more gratifying than well-meant goodwill. It gave her dimension, solidified her being. For instance, he always heard what she said, and heard it the first time, and got it right. He knew, right now, that Deedee was lying on the deck not far away, and he did not forget it. She existed in his attention.

And therefore, he was hers. Deedee didn’t wonder why. This was simply so.

“The concert’s on Thursday and so is the Millers’ party. Choose one, I guess,” her mother was saying.

“Decisions. Decisions. Let’s go to the movies.”

“The sky could fall in before Thursday, I suppose.”

“That’s the spirit.” He’d stretched out his legs, too. Deedee could study his profile. “This I like,” he said. “Secluded.”

“Not many can see through a brick wall,” her mother murmured.

“Nobody can see over, either. Where are all the kids today?”

“They’ll be around.”

“I like it the way it is,” he said. “Just us chickens.”

Deedee saw her mother’s forearm come up swiftly. “My heathen child,” said her lazy voice, “skipped Sunday school.”

“Oh, well,” he said quickly, and to Deedee it was a miracle of understanding. “Such a beautiful day.”

“Pure Chamber of Commerce.”

“Look at that cloud.”

The cloud was purest white on blue. Then in Deedee’s own bright reflected world there was movement, under the cloud and the sky. As her mother turned up her face to look, Douglas leaned forward. His left arm went around her mother’s neck. His brown right hand came up and pressed the flesh of her mother’s shoulder. The faces came together. Helen’s lips parted and yearned, and then they were kissing, smashed together, and Deedee’s heart was jumping, jumping, and the puddle was troubled by her breath and the bright world quivered and shook to pieces.

“Blue skies …” Deedee heard her mother say dreamily. The voice was easy.

“Nothing but blue skies …” he sang softly.

Deedee stopped her breath and the puddle steadied. They were sitting as if nothing had happened. In their voices nothing had happened. They had no notion that she could see.

Deedee’s heart kept jumping. She was rigid. She couldn’t hold as still as this much longer.

“Hate to miss the concert …”

“Midge Miller is one of those aggressive hostesses, alas.”

“Take offense? Well …”

The casual easy voices went right on.

Silently, Deedee rolled her body. She slipped off the coping and into the water with scarcely a splash. She swam underwater, face fiercely frowning, breath held hard, silence roaring in her ears.

“I think she must have gills,” said Helen Jonas in affectionate mock dismay. She watched the lively weaving of the skinny legs down under the blue surface.

“Let’s tell her,” her said in a low voice. “Isn’t this the perfect time? Let me tell her.”

“No, I …”

“Honey, we better. If we want the wedding set up for the first of September. I’d like to tell her, Helen. I think I can. We’re pretty good friends. I’ve seen to that.”

“I know. I know you have.”

Deedee’s head broke the surface just beyond the ladder and made the violent backward fling that cast the wet hair out of her eyes. Deedee swam on to the far end and her water-sleek head floated where she held to the coping under the diving board.

Helen Jonas put her hand on her throat. “You had better let me tell her,” she said in sudden nervousness.

“If you say so,” he agreed amiably. “Well, meanwhile …” He got up and made a flat dive, a great commotion. He threshed busily down the pool.

Helen saw Deedee’s face turn, and turn away, with panic in the motion. Deedee climbed out. Deedee came trotting along the poolside, her heels thudding.

“Hey!” Douglas was calling. “Hey, Ducks!”

Deedee snatched her towel off the low wall and said through it to her mother, “Forgot my earplugs.”

Then the gate clicked. Helen distinctly heard the relief in Deedee’s cry of greeting. “Oh hi, Mary Jo. Come on in.”

Helen shook her cigarette end into the plastic poolside ashtray. It had burned her middle finger. She put the finger in her mouth.

Intuition? How had Deedee received across the sunny air the news of the way it was between her mother and the man? How had Helen now received, over air and water and on the antennae of her motherhood, the news that Deedee knew? Helen was quite sure that Deedee conquered shock and pain—her dripping child who sturdily stood and plied the towel and welcomed the other little girl with iron poise.

Pain? Jealousy? Helen did not feel herself riven between the two of them. Something was wrong but not this.

Ah, Douglas was only a man, not yet a father. He had tried with Deedee, but he had not done it right. Oh Lord, I should have noticed, she thought. I’ve been reckless and careless with Deedee. Oh, forgive me. Oh, if Deedee is hurt and if Deedee can’t now accept him for a father … what will I do? What will I do?

Helen Jonas saw the clear bright sunny world and all her happiness turn upside down.

She got up and put on her cap and walked down the steps into the water.

The little girls trotted to the board. Deedee stood on the brink of a dive.

“I’ll watch,” called Douglas from the side. “Mind the ankles.” He was just a man, a nice friendly man, cut off from the news that shouted in the sunny air.

But Deedee didn’t look at him. She bounced into the air and came down, feet first, and feet wide, in an ugly jump.

The man had sense enough to be silent.

Helen swam to the deep end. She pulled herself out. “Deedee …”

“Go ahead and try it,” yelled Deedee’s floating head. “It doesn’t hurt so much.”

The neighbor’s child shivered on the board.

“Deedee,” said Helen in a low clear voice, “come here please.” The little girl obeyed. She’d never had reason to disobey. She swam to her mother. She hauled herself out of the water. They sat side by side, legs dangling.

“Douglas and I want to get married,” Helen said, clear and low. Words spoken in the sun.

“Oh?” said Deedee. Her wet lashes stuck together and made a pointed border to her frightened eyes.

The neighbor’s child jumped in with a fine splash. Ripples lapped on their legs.

“He wanted you to like him,” Helen said. (To be blunt, to be absolutely straight and blunt, and quickly so, was all she knew to do.)

“That’s O.K.,” said Deedee hastily. Helen saw her swallow. “Would we live here or someplace else?” The eyes cast a panic look around the world as if to see how much of it could be held together.

“We’d live here,” Helen said. “At least for a long while.”

Silence on the rim where they were. Mary Jo was floundering on a rubber toy. Douglas was standing in the water watching her. His back was turned. Maybe he had antennae after all.

Helen said to her child, “While I was deciding how I felt about Douglas, it was private. It should be.”

“I guess …” said Deedee and she flushed.

“Now,” said Helen in a businesslike way, “if you don’t want me to marry him, then I won’t do it. So you think it over. Tell me, if you think you could get used to it.”

Deedee’s heart was jumping again. But slowly, slowly, the world was rolling over and balancing back. This was a very grown-up kind of talk. Sharp and real. Hard and true. Solid. Everything shook except this honesty. Except this sacrifice.

Douglas came walking on the deck, making big wet foot marks.

“Excuse us,” said Helen. “This is mother-to-daughter stuff and you’re not in the picture. Yet.”

“Excuse me,” he said quietly. And he walked behind them and walked on.

“I guess I was dumb, huh, Mama?” Deedee said.

“I think he was a little bit dumb,” said Helen. “I guess he was … wooing you to be his daughter.”

Deedee sat very straight on the rim of the pool and she lifted both arms high over head. Something seemed to fly loose from her fingertips, a ghostly dove, a me-thing, a piece of a foolish secret. Her eyes turned sideways a little mischievously. “I can take it,” said Deedee with bold stoicism. She gave her bottom a mysterious flip of force and made a neat dive from a sitting position.

Helen stood up and walked along the deck, slightly trembling.

“All right?” he asked.

“She is a wonderful child!” said Helen fiercely. “An absolutely wonderful little girl! You see you appreciate that.”

Deedee swam on her back and looked into heaven. Three fathers, she thought. Well, O.K. She felt a little lonely but proud.

When she came out to sun herself again, she did not lie in her magic spot. The world in the puddle was the Lord’s world, as all worlds would ever be. And the Lord had other children. And it was confusing, but it was true, that her mother was a kind of sister, too, and the man was brother, and Deedee must help them.


The Enemy

They sat late at the lunch table and afterwards moved through the dim, cool, high-ceilinged rooms to the Judge’s library where, in their quiet talk, the old man’s past and the young man’s future seemed to telescope and touch. But at twenty minutes after three, on that hot, bright, June Saturday afternoon, the present tense erupted. Out in the quiet street arose the sound of trouble.

Judge Kittinger adjusted his pince-nez, rose, and led the way to his old-fashioned veranda from which they could overlook the tree-roofed intersection of Greenwood Lane and Hannibal Street. Near the steps to the corner house, opposite, there was a surging knot of children and one man. Now, from the house on the Judge’s left, a woman in a blue house-dress ran diagonally toward the excitement. And a police car slipped up Hannibal Street, gliding to the curb. One tall officer plunged into the group and threw restraining arms around a screaming boy.

Mike Russell, saying to his host “Excuse me, sir,” went rapidly across the street. Trouble’s center was the boy, ten or eleven years old, a towheaded boy with tawny-lashed blue eyes, a straight nose, a fine brow. He was beside himself, writhing in the policeman’s grasp. The woman in the blue dress was yammering at him. “Freddy! Freddy! Freddy!” Her voice simply did not reach his ears.

“You ole stinker! You rotten ole stinker! You ole nut!” All the boy’s heart was in the epithets.

“Now, listen …” The cop shook the boy who, helpless in those powerful hands, yet blazed. His fury had stung to crimson the face of the grown man at whom it was directed.

This man, who stood with his back to the house as one besieged, was plump, half-bald, with eyes much magnified by glasses. “Attacked me!” he cried in a high whine. “Rang my bell and absolutely leaped on me!”

Out of the seven or eight small boys clustered around them came overlapping fragments of shrill sentences. It was clear only that they opposed the man. A small woman in a print dress, a man in shorts, whose bare chest was winter-white, stood a little apart, hesitant and distressed. Up on the veranda of the house the screen door was half-open, and a woman seated in a wheelchair peered forth anxiously.

On the green grass, in the shade perhaps thirty feet away, there lay in death a small brown-and-white dog.

The Judge’s luncheon guest observed all this. When the Judge drew near, there was a lessening of the noise. Judge Kittinger said, “This is Freddy Titus, isn’t it? Mr. Matlin? What’s happened?”

The man’s head jerked. “I,” he said, “did nothing to the dog. Why would I trouble to hurt the boy’s dog? I try—you know this, Judge—I try to live in peace here. But these kids are terrors! They’ve made this block a perfect hell for me and my family.” The man’s voice shook. “My wife, who is not strong … my stepdaughter, who is a cripple … these kids are no better than a slum gang. They are vicious! That boy rang my bell and attacked! I’ll have him up for assault! I …”

The Judge’s face was old ivory and he was aloof behind it.

On the porch a girl pushed past the woman in the chair, a girl who walked with a lurching gait.

Mike Russell asked, quietly, “Why do the boys say it was you, Mr. Matlin, who hurt the dog?”

The kids chorused, “He’s an ole mean …” “He’s a nut …” “Just because …” “… took Clive’s bat and …” “… chases us …” “… tries to put everything on us …” “… told my mother lies …” “… just because …”

He is our enemy, they were saying; he is our enemy.

“They …” began Matlin, his throat thick with anger.

“Hold it a minute.” The second cop, the thin one, walked toward where the dog was lying.

“Somebody,” said Mike Russell in a low voice, “must do something for the boy.”

The Judge looked down at the frantic child. He said, gently, “I am as sorry as I can be, Freddy …” But in his old heart there was too much known, and too many little dogs he remembered that had already died, and even if he were as sorry as he could be, he couldn’t be sorry enough. The boy’s eyes turned, rejected, returned. To the enemy.

Russell moved near the woman in blue, who pertained to this boy somehow. “His mother?”

“His folks are away. I’m there to take care of him,” she snapped, as if she felt herself put upon by a crisis she had not contracted to face.

“Can they be reached?”

“No,” she said decisively.

The young man put his stranger’s hand on the boy’s rigid little shoulder. But he too was rejected. Freddy’s eyes, brilliant with hatred, clung to the enemy. Hatred doesn’t cry.

“Listen,” said the tall cop, “if you could hang onto him for a minute …”

“Not I,” said Russell.

The thin cop came back. “Looks like the dog got poison. When was he found?”

“Just now,” the kids said.

“Where? There?”

“Up Hannibal Street. Right on the edge of ole Matlin’s back lot.”

“Edge of my lot!” Matlin’s color freshed again. “On the sidewalk, why don’t you say? Why don’t you tell the truth?”

“We are! We don’t tell lies!”

“Quiet, you guys,” the cop said. “Pipe down, now.”

“Heaven’s my witness, I wasn’t even here!” cried Matlin. “I played nine holes of golf today. I didn’t get home until … May?” he called over his shoulder. “What time did I come in?”

The girl on the porch came slowly down, moving awkwardly on her uneven legs. She was in her twenties, no child. Nor was she a woman. She said in a blurting manner, “About three o’clock, Daddy Earl. But the dog was dead.”

“What’s that, miss?”

“This is my stepdaughter …”

“The dog was dead,” the girl said, “before he came home. I saw it from upstairs, before three o’clock. Lying by the sidewalk.”

“You drove in from Hannibal Street, Mr. Matlin? Looks like you’d have seen the dog.”

Matlin said with nervous thoughtfulness, “I don’t know. My mind … Yes, I …”

“He’s telling a lie!”


“Listen to that,” said May Matlin, “will you?”

“She’s a liar, too!”

The cop shook Freddy. Mr. Matlin made a sound of helpless exasperation. He said to the girl, “Go keep your mother inside, May.” He raised his arm as if to wave. “It’s all right, honey,” he called to the woman in the chair, with a false cheeriness that grated on the ear. “There’s nothing to worry about, now.”

Freddy’s jaw shifted and young Russell’s watching eyes winced. The girl began to lurch back to the house.

“It was my wife who put in the call,” Matlin said. “After all, they were on me like a pack of wolves. Now, I … I understand that the boy’s upset. But all the same, he can not … He must learn … I will not have … I have enough to contend with, without this malice, this unwarranted antagonism, this persecution …”

Freddy’s eyes were unwinking.

“It has got to stop!” said Matlin almost hysterically.

“Yes,” murmured Mike Russell, “I should think so.” Judge Kittinger’s white head, nodding, agreed.

“We’ve heard about quite a few dog-poisoning cases over the line in Redfern,” said the thin cop with professional calm. “None here.”

The man in the shorts hitched them up, looking shocked. “Who’d do a thing like that?”

A boy said, boldly, “Ole Matlin would.” He had an underslung jaw and wore spectacles on his snub nose. “I’m Phil Bourchard,” he said to the cop. He had courage.

“We jist know,” said another. “I’m Ernie Allen.” Partisanship radiated from his whole thin body. “Ole Matlin doesn’t want anybody on his ole property.”

“Sure.” “He doesn’t want anybody on his ole property.” “It was ole Matlin.”

“It was. It was,” said Freddy Titus.

“Freddy,” said the housekeeper in blue, “now, you better be still. I’ll tell your dad.” It was a meaningless fumble for control. The boy didn’t even hear it.

Judge Kittinger tried, patiently. “You can’t accuse without cause, Freddy.”

“Bones didn’t hurt his ole property. Bones wouldn’t hurt anything. Ole Matlin did it.”

“You lying little devil!”

He’s a liar!”

The cop gave Freddy another shake. “You kids found him, eh?”

“We were up at Bourchard’s and were going down to the Titus house.”

“And he was dead,” said Freddy.

I know nothing about it,” said Matlin icily. “Nothing at all.”

The cop, standing between, said wearily, “Any of you people see what coulda happened?”

“I was sitting in my backyard,” said the man in shorts. “I’m Daugherty, next door, up Hannibal Street. Didn’t see a thing.”