Quentin at Peace

September 1, 1970

ImageI have lived here for the past fifteen years eight of them alone save for Jason and Carruthers. They’ve endured as long as I have in this place, this house with its lovely garden and shaded trees and the road far enough removed that even in the worst time of the day the traffic is hardly audible. I go by the name of Quentin Ames because I’ve always known, even before my mother finally told me, that Dalton Ames was my father. He was a dashing man as handsome as my mother was beautiful. I never even saw a glimpse of him, not once in my life only the single picture my mother presented to me on my 21st birthday in a hotel room in New York City, the Plaza, where we shared a quiet dinner. There were candlesticks lighted so that her face was partially obscured by the yellow light cast on her lovely outline with the blackness of the room behind her.

I remember that she slid the photograph across the gleaming table and at first I didn’t know it was a photograph at all but some square piece of paper, money perhaps or some card, some emblem of the past she was always, whenever we saw each other, pushing on me so that I felt I had some roots other than the ones established so long ago in Jefferson and the Compson estate. He was standing next to a glider on the porch of some house, perhaps it was the Compson house, his one hand on the arm rest, as graceful and long-fingered as my own. It must’ve been a chilly day because he wore a black sweater with a heavy collar only the tie visible and a small slice of a white shirt. His legs were crossed with his one foot, toe first, perpendicular to the other foot in what could only be construed as a pose. His face wore a beautiful smile, white teeth and a small, thin moustache that gave him a distinct look of a gentleman, a happy and confident gentleman. He had no hat, but there was a straw hat lying on a small table next to the glider and I’ve always considered that hat as his own. His hair was blonde, as is mine, and his broad forehead and small ears that could only be seen because of his closely cropped hair, are identical to my own, or so it seems to me after years of looking at the same picture.

I picked up the picture thinking it was money or some small document and then I saw it was a picture of a handsome man, and even before mother said the words, I knew it was Dalton Ames.

“This is a picture of your father,” mother said in a voice so soft not even the flames of the two candles moved as the words crossed to me at the same instant I picked up the photograph.

“Dalton Ames,” I said. She looked across at me with a look of puzzlement or perhaps surprise but either way her features were made even more beautiful by the expression that changed with my words.

“I didn’t know if you knew that he was your father. I didn’t know if your grandmother or your uncle “

“Dilsey told me,” I said cutting off the word before it could spill out from her lovely and soft lips, red with some lipstick she didn’t need but spread there anyway as in a final act of defiance against a whole race of Compson men and the puritanical and severe women they married or didn’t marry.

She smiled brightly and I knew as I held the picture before me, the way I used to hold presents in my hand and not open them for the longest time to feel the impatience of my own fingers and the slight tremble in my heart, that she was thinking of Dilsey.

“I visited her in Memphis once after mother died and before she died. I remember that the first thing she asked was of you. ‘How dat girl of yos doing, Miss Candace?’ She began to laugh then and I knew that she was thinking about the money and about “

“She nearly told me from the time I could walk,” I said, cutting off her words again. ‘Dat man come here onliest fur what he knowd he could git. I seed dat from the start he don’t want nothing ‘cept what he seed he could git. Hit ain’t yo fault tho, honey. You be awright in de end.’

I picked up the picture and looked at it for a long time. I could feel her eyes on me as I looked, but I knew she wanted me to take my time.

“Quentin,” she said in a rush and I knew it was for fear I would stop her with my own words, “your uncle, I guess felt the same way Dilsey did. He wanted to kill your father, wanted to kill all men and even boys who ever looked upon me.”

“He was crazy, Mother,” I said.

I could tell from the flash that sparked in her brown and lovely eyes that she wanted to protest, but she didn’t. She was honoring the fact that I was twenty-one and after another day together she would return to Hollywood, California and her other world, the world that had nothing to do with my own. She had asked me to return with her, to live with her in the warm sunshine of California, to stay with her and the house full of servants she’d been given by someone who I could only guess was a man, but I could easily tell from the way she asked, her face lifted a bit as if the air just below the surface of her nose was unpleasant that she only meant it as a gesture in the way she would remove a glove to shake hands with a stranger.

“He was wounded from the time he was a boy. Mother, your grandmother, always divided we children as if Quentin and I (only later Benjy when he was changed from Maury) and Jaso “

“Don’t you think I already know this mother? Don’t you think I already know what Grandmother was capable of doing to us, to anyone who had the bad luck to have been imprisoned in that house with her and him. Don’t you think I already know,” I said. I wanted her to understand what her absence had done, what effect her selfish decision had done to me for all those years living under that roof with those people.

And then she began to cry as I knew she would, the stained tears from her eyeliner running down her cheeks and making a path in her heavy makeup. She lowered her head and pushed aside her plate of untouched food, and then she placed her arms on the table and her head on her arms and cried silently with small spasms or shudders from her delicate shoulders. She was wearing a high-collared blouse with a pin through the top of the collar and I looked at the top of her lovely and delicate head, the brown hair cascading down over her arms. She expected me to say something then, I knew she did, some comforting word that would erase the guilt she already felt for her abandonment of me. But I didn’t say anything but just allowed her to continue to cry while I fingered the picture of my father, the only time I ever saw his face, the only picture I would ever have of him, the only way I would ever be able to know what he looked like. I held it in my hands and stared at his face, placing my own face closer to his so that I could see if I was able to see his eyes or only the outline of eyes from the brownish tint with its white border. But it was too glossy to see his eyes and I must have fallen into a deep concentration because I didn’t realize that mother had stopped crying. It wasn’t until I looked up from the picture that I saw that she’d been looking at me.

“I never heard of him again after he left Jefferson.”

She must’ve known I was going to ask her that question. She must’ve seen it in the way I was looking at the picture, turning it over in my hands.

“Even though he was much more of a man than your Uncle Quentin, much stronger and more of a man of the world, I think he left because he thought your uncle was crazy, thought he was going to wait and shoot him in the back sometime when he wasn’t looking.”

She laughed then. She reached down into a bag she had beside her chair and took out a small and delicate handkerchief and dabbed her face and wiped her eyes looking as she did to see if the rest of the black came with it. She put the handkerchief back in the bag and slid the plate of food in front of her again. She didn’t pick up her fork, though. She stared at the plate.

Finally she said, “He didn’t know Quentin. He would never have done that even though I know he wanted to kill him. ‘Tell me what you’ve done with him, Caddy. Tell me what he’s done to you and I’ll kill him for you.’ But he would’ve done it facing him, even if Dalton had shot him dead.”

“Where did he go?” I asked.

“I don’t know. He came from a very good family, but I never knew from where. He always talked about Memphis, but I never looked for him. I had you to worry about.”

I laughed then and my sound made her look up from her plate and I thought she might cry again, but she didn’t. She just looked at me for a long time and I looked back at her. I didn’t hate her, but I wasn’t going to allow her to make me forgive her. I hadn’t the other times we’d seen each other, the time in Savannah when I was still with Merle and she came to our room. Merle looked at her that time as if he could have her too, and she looked back at him until he looked away the toothpick in his mouth, but limp suddenly. Her being there had made me want to get as far away from him and her as I could, but I waited it out until Merle finally got us north and near New York.

I didn’t forgive her then, though, even when she fell on her knees and begged me too. Merle had gone out for cigarettes and some whiskey and she waited until the door had closed and then fell on her knees. I only waited for her to finally stand and then I kissed her on both cheeks and then went into the tiny bathroom locking the door as I closed myself in. I thought she would try the door-knob or say something through the door, but she didn’t. She left after what seemed like a long time, and I waited in there until Merle returned and then I came out to his roughness and sweat after which he would fall asleep never waking until morning.

Then there was the time when we were outside of Philadelphia, some awful place with a terrible sounding name. I think by then I knew she paid men to follow us, because it was impossible otherwise for her to find where we moved. We were always following the carnival, or most of the time.

But this time she waited until I was alone in the room and then she knocked and when I opened the door she came in as if I’d already been expecting her, the flush on her cheeks there because she’d rushed so hard in order to make the appointment. That time she’d not begged or even said anything other than she wanted to give me money so I could get away from Merle. She took me out to dinner at a small and cheap restaurant that had flies swarming around the room and sometimes near our food and she slid an envelope across the table and I knew it contained money. I let it set next to my plate without even looking at it and then she told me she wanted me to leave Merle. She told me she would put me through school. Or I could come and live with her, but her invitation was as weak as the evening light that flooded in from the crowded street outside. She didn’t ask me to forgive her, but asking me to leave Merle meant the same thing. If I’d left him then, she would have known I did. But I didn’t forgive, I couldn’t. I’d lived in that house too long and endured those people for too long.

I remember one time when T.P. was in the room with Grandmother, putting wood in the fire because even in most days in the summer she required a fire burning. She was always cold and I wondered if her blood was as frozen as her feelings toward anyone but her one son.

“You, T.P.,” Grandmother shouted from her bed where I stood beside her so that she could check my appearance before I went off to school. I must’ve been ten at the time, because I was wearing a long, black skirt with black tights and black buckled shoes. I had on a white frock blouse and my hair was tied in the back with a black ribbon bow. Grandmother inspected me everyday until I finally refused. Then she would send T.P. to my room anyway, each day, to inform me that I was expected to appear in her room before I went down to breakfast and then on to school. But I only ignored his knocking, his raspy, Negro voice.

“You, T.P.,” she said again.

“Yessum,” he said, not looking up from piling the wood in the fire.

“Do you have a mother, T.P.?” She said, this time looking at me, arranging my hair behind my shoulders so she could more clearly see my face. It was warm in the room, I couldn’t move without feeling needles of sweat bead up on my skin, and the smell of camphor made me want to gag.

“Yessum,” he said.

“Do you know who she is?” she asked.

“Yessum, Miss Cahline. Course I does.”

She slid her hands down my arms to straighten out the wrinkles in my sleeves.

“Do you have a father, T.P.?”

“Yessum,” T.P. said.

“Do you know who he is?” she asked.

“Yessum, Miss Cahline,” he said.

“You may go then,” she said, sighing as if the thought of him leaving, getting up from where he was squatting would require her own effort. “Tell Dilsey Miss Quentin will be down for breakfast directly. And tell her to try and keep Benjy quiet until I call for my own breakfast. I didn’t sleep at all last night.”

“Yessum,” T.P. said, and then left the room.

“You may go down, now Quentin. What clothes you wear won’t hide what you are, I guess.”

And I remember that I wanted to slap her, but instead, because I knew it infuriated her, I just left the room without a word of goodbye or any other word only the soft sound of the door closing behind me.

“I tried to make your life as comfortable as I could,” Mother continued, her eyes on an even blacker shade, glistening from the two flames of the candles. “I had to find some way to support myself and send money to you. I had no idea that Jas “

“You could have come for me when I was ten,” I said, my voice no louder than her own. “I wanted you to come for me even though I had no idea who you were, even though all the pictures of you had been cut out of family portraits as was Uncle Quentin’s own pictures. I had no idea who you were, but I knew you had to be better than what I endured there with them.”

“I couldn’t,” she said, lowering her face to her plate once again. “I had no idea they’d treat their own flesh and blood that way.”

“Ha!” I said. “They treated you that way. I know they did. I could tell it in Dilsey’s voice when she spoke of you. ‘Your Momma was nothin but devilment from de start. But she was brung to hit by Miss Cahline de way she treat dat child, tellin her all de time dat she ain’t no Bascomb, remindin her she is a Compson, but de Lord seed dat too.’ So I knew all along, I believed all along, because you knew how it was and then you didn’t come and rescue me. I had to do it on my own.”

This time she did begin to cry again, but she looked directly at me as the tears rolled down her face. Even with her makeup smeared I saw how beautiful she was and I couldn’t understand how my father could have left her.

“It wasn’t because of Quentin,” I said. “There must’ve been another reason my father left you.”

“Quentin met him on the bridge going out of town and he had a gun. He told me what happened and so did Dalton. I went to Quentin and I told him to leave us alone. He called me a whore and I hit him, I scratched at his face. I loved him for that. No one else would’ve done that for me, except Benjy if he could’ve. But I knew he wouldn’t stop until Dalton left and Dalton knew it too. Mother somehow knew or father knew or guessed and she took me up to French Lick on some holiday so that Mother could rest and Herbert was there and there was no time to wait. He was rich Quentin, but he could count just like anyone else and so he divorced me.”

“And then you came back?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “He stayed for as long as it took for you to be born and then we settled without any lawyers, quietly, but I had to go from Indiana, I had to leave. He wanted me to go somewhere before it showed and then come back, but I wouldn’t. I know he wanted me to stay, wanted me to get rid of you so that he could continue to walk around with me on his arm.”

“You should’ve gotten rid of me,” I said.

She started to get up. I could see that she was going to come over to me and hold me, and I put my hand up and she stopped.

“And then you took me back!” I demanded.

“I had no choice, Quentin.”

“You took me back,” I shouted. “You took me back and left me with Grandmother and him. No one was there to protect me.”

“I thought finally Mother would see that you needed me. I thought she would finally let me come and I could be with you, at least have you summers and be able to come and be custodian enough to make sure that you were safe. But I had no idea the depth of her evilness. I had no idea she could stand between me and my own daughter. ‘Do you want it known that the child is a bastard?’ she asked me. ‘Do you want her to live with that the rest of her life? At least Jason will be close to a real father to her. The closest thing she’ll ever have to a real father. He will look after her and he won’t go to the side table every time he’s reminded that he didn’t have the advantages that you and Quentin were given. At least he won’t do that.’ And I thought that she would love you because you were a child and her blood as well as my own.”

“Ha!” I said and I could feel the tears running down my face. I knew I was mostly feeling sorry for myself.

I had formed small impressions before when I would look at my mother, but this time I was certain that I saw a little of him in the way that her face was shaped. Of course his face was fat, lazy as he was, but the roundness coming down from the cheeks were the same and the chin, with the slight cleft just noticeable in certain light was there also. I could watch him at times when he didn’t know I was looking and I would think that thank God I wasn’t a Bascomb. But I could see that there was a little of the Bascomb in mother also.

“What did Uncle Quentin look like?” I asked.

“He looked like my father. He didn’t get my father’s name, but he was the spitting image of my father. Very handsome even when he was in a fury about something, mostly having to do with me and the fact that he didn’t shoot Dalton. Didn’t make Dalton pay for what he’d done to me. As if I had no part in it. Perhaps he was crazy.”

She laughed abruptly then, and the impression that she looked like him disappeared. I suddenly saw her as she must’ve been when my father first looked at her, first decided that he wanted to kiss her mouth, touch her face. The picture was lying next to me and I looked down at it, put my face close to it and then I looked at her. She put her hand to her hair then, patting it.

“Yes,” she said, her voice small. “You look like your father. I wanted you to see who you looked like even though you never met him. Even though he never came for you or for me.”

“You never came for me,” I said. I felt strangely like I wanted to protect my father. As if what had happened to me at that house had nothing to do with him.

“I never came for you,” she repeated.

“I felt a hundred times like I could’ve done what my uncle did. I felt like I could easily have fallen into a river and just gone down into a soft liquid that had nothing to do with niggers and Grandmother and him. I didn’t because every time I thought of doing it, I thought of him and Grandmother. What satisfaction they would’ve gotten if I’d have done what all Compsons do, drown themselves or drink themselves to death or get pregnant or castrated. But I’m not a Compson! I’m a Dalton.”

“You are a Dalton,” she repeated.

I picked up the picture slowly, dramatically, as if looking at my father would only underscore what I’d just said. As if looking at the picture would remind her that she was not as much part of me as he was.

“I knew after years of not hearing a word from mother, I would write her weekly, that I would have to speak to Jas “

“Don’t say his name around me,” I said.

“Speak to him and go through him. I knew that money was the only way to get to him so that at least I could look at you or secure a picture of you. He felt like he’d been cheated because Herbert had promised him a job at his bank. And then when we divorced of course that came to an end. He knew that he could bargain for money by having you. I had no idea what they were doing to my little girl.” Her voice even got smaller then, but I ignored it.

“But you wanted me to be a Compson otherwise you wouldn’t have named me Quentin.”

“Father realized that it was a mistake naming him after the long line of men who had worn that name. I thought it would be the only chance to have Quentin go on. I thought I owed him that much, owed my father that much after not knowing what it would cost him to name him the name of all Compson progenitors.”

“I had to endure that name all through school.”

“It didn’t hurt you,” she said, I could hear a kind of pride in the tone of her voice. She meant it as a compliment to me, that she was proud of me.

Merle came for me because I’d told him to go by the school, to drive by the school at 7:45 and I would be standing out there if I could get away. He pulled up in his Ford with the top down and he wore the red bow tie just as I asked him too. He couldn’t keep his hands off me even when I got in the car he had his hand on my leg and I had to brush it off. “Just wait,” I said. “Just wait at least until we get out of town.” And he put his hand back on my knee and I laughed because I could feel the urgency even in his hand. I turned in the seat and put my books, threw my books in the back so that they spread across the back like blood spread outs in water and once again he put his hand this time on my ass, slid his hand up under my dress and I turned quickly so that no one would see what he’d done.

We drove out towards Mottsville and it was hot for early April. But it was fine with the breeze coming over the top of the windscreen and my hair blowing into my face. Merle drove as he always did as if nothing else was of interest to him. He chewed gum like a cow like he didn’t have any thought in his head whatsoever and I liked that about him. I wanted only something simple so that I didn’t have to think or wonder what was coming next, who would say what so that the next part would be a reminder of who I was or who Benjy was or that Luster was only a nigger or Dilsey didn’t have what ever she was supposed to have ready in time. And I liked Merle’s hands. They were smooth and warm and he just took what he wanted without any avarice or something behind it or something around the corner that I couldn’t see. Just his hands doing what he wanted them to do and then his warm body against my own and I felt as if the warmth of his body, the hardness of his body could erase all that coldness just for a little at least.

“We can’t be out here any longer than two. I want to be back into town at two so that he can start to look for us even though he won’t expect to see me until three fifteen. We can’t make a mistake of being any later than two because otherwise he won’t understand that I am doing it for him.” He drove on as if he didn’t hear me, his eyes focused on the road and I knew that this car was more important than even me even what we were about to do. And that was all right too because I didn’t want to be that important. I didn’t want to be central to anything anymore. I wanted to just feel some warmth that would erase the cold I always felt. Dilsey tried, I’ll say that much for her, but she was up against a power that not only was too strong for her because she was only a nigger, but because she loved also. That was the mistake she made and I’d watched her enough to figure that out so that I wouldn’t make the same mistake. Dilsey loved and if that love had only been for me that would’ve been fine, but she even loved him and Grandmother. Even him.

I always had to smile to myself when I thought of Merle because I knew that he thought I only wanted him, couldn’t have enough of him. “You need this all the time,” he would say when he was inside me. “You need what I got here all the time, baby, don’t you.” “Yes,” I would say. And it was true in a way. I needed the warmth to drive away the coldness. The only other heat I knew was hate and that could come at anytime. It could come whenever I heard his voice, but that heat was like standing next to an outside fire in freezing temperatures. Only a part of the body would be warm only a part could feel the heat at one time and that wasn’t enough.

He didn’t know that I’d watched him for so long. He was really foolish always saying to me that I missed school for a reason he had no idea about, telling Grandmother that I missed school. “I can only take her to the door and make sure she enters,” he would say. “I can’t walk her to each class and still go to my job so that we have food on the table enough for everyone. I can’t feed a house full of niggers and invalids and make sure she goes to each class too. What slick feller she’s with when she should be in school I can’t control. Well, I can but you won’t let me. Give me two weeks with her alone and not only will she go to school and stay there, but she’ll thank us for what we provide for her too. She won’t sully the name that she doesn’t care enough about to even cover or hide what she freely gives all them boys who know it is theirs for the taking. Or at least freely given between seven forty five and three fifteen weekdays.

He didn’t know that I kept my eyes on him all the time because by then I was writing letters to mother; I’d found the one single letter that had been written to Grandmother that hadn’t been opened by Jason: ” here is the money for this month and I hope it helps to augment the burden it must be for keeping Quentin. I know I won’t get a reply, its enough that you are taking the money and using it so that Quentin at least knows that part of her progress into womanhood is coming from me. I never know if it is enough so I am sending more this time, an additional ten dollars, because I know the older Quentin becomes the more her demands are. I hope also Benjy is safe and that one day you will forgive me Mother for being too much of a Compson. Candace. And inside was a check made out to Grandmother for two-hundred dollars. I held it for a long time and then it came to me that the checks must’ve been coming for a long time and so I looked at the calendar to be sure of the date and then the next month, I think it was November, I watched him closely, stayed out of school for those days only to watch him. And it was that evening when he shut the door behind him and I stood on the other side and he said: Go ahead and burn it. I haven’t had my supper yet and the rest of them won’t want to wait long even though it’s my money that puts it on the table. Go ahead and burn it and get it over with.” And she said: “I hate to burden you with Quentin too, but if I accept this then it is telling her that a name doesn’t mean a thing. If only they’d turned out like you, it wasn’t enough that I had to bear the hardship of Benjy, that wasn’t enough.” And he said: “Just go on and burn it. Strike the match and get it over with, maybe next month I can hear more of the family saga but right now I’d like to have a little dinner. Now, now, I don’t want you to have to cry it’s just that I work all day and I look forward to just coming home and reading the paper and then sitting down to a good meal” And she said: “I hope I’m not spiting her and hurting you in the process.” And then he said: “It’s too late to worry about that now. It’s too late to concern yourself with me being hurt on account of some bastard child or the opportunities I should have had but never had because of spite. If we took score on that account, I’d still be calculating on only the one side of the ledger. Don’t worry about me. One more mouth to feed won’t make that much of a difference even if her name has to end in something other than that of her father. I already feed half the niggers in this county, I guess one more mouth won’t make a difference.” And she said: “If I even thought for a minute ” But I went away from the sound of them and I had to go to my room and sit there for a while to make myself stop from shaking. Two hundred dollars I kept saying to myself.

And then I began to watch him even more closely and I knew then that he gave Grandmother a check other than the money order mother sent her and she would burn that check and then Jason would cash the real money order and then take it to his room. I knew that too, because I listened from outside his door so that I could hear the sound of the box being opened with a key and the rasp of the money being counted on his bed, the sound of the springs squeaking from his weight and the squeak only in reverse when he got up from the bed and put the box back into his closet and then I would move away from the door and go to my own room. Two hundred dollars, two hundred dollars.

And it was almost a year from that time that I went to the carnival and I met Merle. He was working the ferris wheel that night and I was with my friend Lucinda Cosway and he put the bar across the both of us and Lucinda began to giggle. I could smell his sweat and the peppermint smell on his breath from the gum. He had large veins sticking out from his arms and his sleeves were rolled up to above the elbow. He smiled at the both of us, but mostly at me. “Have a fun ride, ladies,” he said. “You go five times more around because you both are so pretty.” And then he stepped back from the chair and put his hand on the lever and his foot on a pedal and we went up and away from him. “He looked at you like he could eat you,” Lucinda whispered to me. “It don’t matter which of us he eats,” I said. “We both look to him like candy, I guess.” Lucinda giggled at that and every time our car came down to the bottom he would tip his hat to us and then we would go up into the air again. The town looked different from up there, the school and the bank and the court house, and over in the distance I could see the golf course and from there I could see the house. It looked like any normal house from up in the air, and every time we got to the top I would look out at it and think if other people lived there what it would be like, or if mother and father lived there. Dalton Ames.

When we finally got off the ride he pulled the bar away from us and when I stood on the deck of the ride, I felt slightly light-headed and he put his hand on my elbow to steady me. “We’re here for the week,” he said and his smile said that he was used to talking to young girls without turning red or feeling nervous. “I ain’t got nothing to do in the morning and afternoons,” he said. “We have school,” Lucinda said giggling, as if everything in the world was funny. “Speak for yourself,” I said. “Quentin!” Lucinda said, her voice sounding far away from me. “Do you have a car?” I said. I looked at him and tried to match his own powerful gaze. “I can sure get one,” he said. “I can sure do that.” “I’ll be out in the front of the school at seven forty-five. You have a car then, I might go for a ride with you.” “I can sure get one,” he said again. “Quentin!” Lucinda said.

Each day Jason would drop me off at school and then I would wait out in the front of the school and Merle would come and stop in the front with the top down and then we would drive away. The school never called Grandmother or at least not that I knew about until the day before the day I decided to leave. We would go out of town and on the back roads passing teams of mules in the fields plowing for the cotton and mules on the road with niggers on the rickety wagons and the sun was so bright and when I was next to him in the car I felt like a flood of joy would surge in my chest I felt so free. He would put his hand on my leg and work his way up to between my legs and I would feel the blood come to my face, the heat to my face. And then we could find a place down in the valley of a field next to a stream and the bugs would jump out of the high grass and we’d take a blanket he brought with him and lay it out flat on the grass. Afterward Merle was kind and gentle to me and I liked to look at his dark features, his black hair and the muscles on his back and arms.

We would go to the house in the early afternoon when Jason was at work and Dilsey would fix us something to eat, cutting her eyes at me when he wasn’t looking knowing Jason would holler if he knew someone was eating his food. Merle had a nice smile and the only time he was ever mean is when Benjy was around or Luster or Dilsey. “That loony makes me nervous with all his moaning and slobbering. Be better locked up,” he would say as we sat on the glider and Benjy would come to see if mother was where I was, smelling something or reminded of something, not that Merle was anything like Dalton Ames. Dalton Ames. “I thought slavery was over. Why you got all these niggers running around here like they own the place or you own them?”

I knew that Grandmother wouldn’t come down because the afternoons were the time she slept the soundest sleep. I would hear her walking in her room late at night when I was in bed or coming in through the window in my room, and so we had the place to ourselves save for Dilsey and Benjy and Luster. Roskus was too old to even come outside anymore, and the cows had been sold so if Merle got touching me again we would go into the barn and I would smell Queenie and hear her push up against her stall door wanting me to give her some grain or hay. Luster knew to stay away and sometimes he couldn’t keep Benjy from pestering us and that made Merle mad. “Keep that loony away from us!” he would yell to Luster.

And then on Wednesday, the second week the carnival was in town, Grandmother called me to her room. She had her Bible lying beside her as she lay in the bed and I knew that was a bad sign. She looked at me out of her sad face and I knew that she was going to tell me how much she wished I had come into the world under different circumstances.

“I got a letter from the school today, Quentin. I received a letter from Professor Jenkins. A boy ran it over from the school and Dilsey brought it up to me.”

She leaned over to her nightstand and picked up a piece of paper that was lying next to the lamp. She put it out with her hand as if I would like to hold it, read it. I kept my hands at my side and looked at her full on the face.

Finally she said, “Would you like to know what it says?”

“You’re going to tell me anyway,” I said.

“It says you haven’t been in school for nearly two weeks. It says that you’ve missed all your classes and you may now have to make up your full year in the summer.” She dropped the paper on the bed and put her hand to her forehead as if she were feeling her own temperature. She began to weep.

“He takes me to school every morning. You can ask him if you don’t believe me.”

“Does he walk you directly to the inside of the door?” she said.

“He doesn’t have to. I can walk on my own.”

“How could there be a mistake about this?” she said.

“He’s nearly dead he’s so old. He might have me mixed up with some other person,” I said.

She looked at me for a long time out of her empty and sad eyes and then she made like she was going to cry again.

“I thought Benjy would have been curse enough for any person. I thought God would’ve said she has learned to live with enough of a trial. But then he gave me Quentin who saw only life as a curse to fling away as if it was as unimportant as the life of a fly and then he gave me your mother and she…”

But then she stopped because she was looking closely at me. I felt my fist ball up and I wanted to go over and hit her and she saw it in my eyes. She looked down at the paper and then she began to sob, her face going down into both of her hands. I waited for her to quit and I looked at the top of her head. It was getting almost as gray as iron, and I could not think of a time that I’d wanted to touch it and stroke it like sometimes I did with Dilsey’s coarse hair, her hair like that of the tail of Queenie. Finally, after a long time, she stopped and looked up at me.

“I’ll have to tell Jason,” she said.

“Tell him anything you like,” I said. “He doesn’t have anything to do with me.”

“He’s as close to a father as you’ll ever know,” she said. “He provides for you out of the goodness of his own heart.”

“He knows how to sign checks,” I said. But as soon as it came out of my mouth I regretted saying it.

“What ever do you mean, Quentin?”

“Just what I said,” I said. “I guess he can sign checks as well as anyone in this house.”

“Everything that is bought in this house is bought either through my own money or Jason’s,” she said.

“That’s all right then,” I said.

Mother had written me to say that she was going to send me money. I told her I needed money to buy clothes, that Jason had stopped buying me clothes because he didn’t like what I was wearing to school. I knew that would get her, because I knew that she was sending that money mostly for me. So I went into Earl’s on Wednesday instead of going home for lunch and I knew mother had sent him a letter. I told him I wanted the money mother had sent me and he said it was ten dollars. I knew he was lying and I begged him to tell me the truth. He wouldn’t. He made me sign the money order and he wouldn’t show it to me, he wouldn’t show me the amount. I knew it was more, but he would only give me ten dollars as if the money that he was putting in the bank was for him and I didn’t count for anything. He could call me whore and I didn’t care, but he had no right to take money that was directly sent to me. I thought of telling Grandmother, but she wouldn’t have believed me. She always thought Jason told the truth. He was more of a Bascomb, she would have said. He was more like her side of the family.

It was then that I got the idea to come back into town on that Thursday knowing that Jason would be looking for me, because she would say something to him. And she did. In the morning he threatened to hit me with his belt, but Dilsey stood in the way and then Grandmother came down and I went upstairs and dressed. I heard them arguing downstairs and as I put makeup on I felt a hate that I know would be the same hate that would drive people to murder. I could easily have murdered him or perhaps all of them. It wouldn’t have mattered at that moment as I put the makeup on my face. But I had to stop thinking that way and so I thought of the box. I had no idea how much was in there, but I knew it would take me out of here and up north where I’d decided I wanted to go. Merle and I had already decided we’d follow the carnival north, but he didn’t know that as soon as I got close enough to New York, I would leave him. He didn’t know that part but I was certain that it wouldn’t matter to him. He had had many women and even though he told me I was beautiful and a good lover, I knew he said that to anyone he was with at the time. I didn’t care what he said anyway. I only needed for him to help me to get north and to make Jason see how much I hated him, how much I wanted him to suffer like he’d made me suffer all these years.

We drove back into town and we came around the square and I saw Jason standing at the hardware store entrance. We drove past and then I made Merle turn around and drive past the square again and then I saw that he was out on the street with his neck straining to get a better look. I made Merle drive slowly then and I looked behind to see, but he went back in the store. I told Merle to park the car on a side street and then we went back by where the carnival was being set up for the night and I saw that he was in the opening going out into the back lot and then he did see us for sure. He strained his neck out again and then we waited in the alley to see what he’d do. After a while I saw him drive out of the square toward the house and so we got back into the car and put the top up. I didn’t want him to see us until we had almost run him over. We waited just beyond the square and then I saw the top of his car. I told Merle to head toward him until the last minute and then to turn the car around and roar past him. When we got close to the car, I saw his eyes get large; I know he thought we were going to hit him. Then Merle slammed on the brakes and pulled on the side and brought the car just in front of Jason’s car and then we sped ahead and I looked out the back window so that he could see my face.

I knew he would follow us then and so Merle roared out of town and I watched as he stayed behind us at some distance. I knew Merle wanted to fight him, but I told him I had a better idea, I knew a better way to make him regret he’d followed us. When we got far enough out of town and everything turned to fields, I made Merle pull far enough into a field, Ab Russell’s field, so that when Jason went by he’d see the car. Then we got out and went out over a plowed field and waited until I saw Jason start out after where he thought we’d gone and then we went back to his car and let out the air in the back tire and then we went back to Merle’s car. I could see Jason when we got into the car, he was coming out from the ditch and he was running, as fat as he was. I hit the horn and yelled as loud as I could and I kept hitting the horn until Merle finally took my hand from it. I hadn’t even realized I still was pushing it until the sound stopped. I pushed back in the seat then and just thought about how Jason would feel when he realized the spare was still in the garage where Luster had left it. I thought about that until we reached town and then I told Merle that I would be outside the house no later than nine that night and that we could leave then. That I would have everything ready then and that we could drive all night and rest in the morning when we were far enough into Tennessee so that no one would know us.

“We could wait and do it the day the show leaves. That way we could just hold up away from the show and we wouldn’t have to back track.”

“No!” I said, my voice rising so that he looked at me. “No,” I said again. “He has to discover I’m gone on Easter. I want him to know that I took the money on Easter day. It can’t be any other day but on Easter.”

My house is large for me and Jason and Carruthers. We don’t need all the room we have, but I have it for the rest of my life, I guess. I don’t see any dramatic events lying in wait for me on the horizon. Plus I love the gardens and the quiet. At night, in the late spring and summer, I can hear and feel the breeze come through the windows and I feel content with the quiet sound, the cool air crossing over my body. Even the hottest nights are nothing like the summer heat of Mississippi. I don’t miss that part of my life even slightly. I don’t miss the house I grew up in or the sound of Dilsey in the morning shouting up the stairs to Grandmother or Benjy moaning with Luster trailing after him. I don’t miss Mississippi even now, after all these years.

Every so often I’ll hear the drone of a car go by on the road and I wonder where it is going, who is inside. I wonder if they wonder who lives down such a long driveway. I don’t guess they do, though. I don’t guess they even see the driveway in the dark.

New Jersey is a pretty state, or at least the part where I live. There are still dairy farms and the fields that are cultivated each spring are rolling and soft and very pretty. There is nothing mean about the land here. In Mississippi I always felt like the ground was always screaming out like things in my head used to scream out. I guess that’s a silly thing to think about earth, about something that is only dirt, but I always thought of it that way. Here it is different. The softness of the pastures and the corn and hay that grows in the summer makes everything gentle and kind seeming. The black and white cows, Holsteins, make the fields even more welcoming. The mules back in Mississippi seemed as low and angry as most of the people. They always seemed as if they were part of the indolence that was part of all the people who stood and sat on their galleries and made judgment on the people who passed by.

Here people leave you alone mostly. I’m sure they wonder how a woman only in her early sixties could stay alone for so long. Not join clubs or church or come into town more often than once or twice a month. But they don’t ask and they don’t look askance when I do come in. They smile politely and load my Buick with the supplies I need and speak softly to me as if I’m ill or too sensitive to be able to respond to any noise. I appreciate their generous behavior.

One time two women came out from the Presbyterian Church to visit me. I think they were probably commissioned by some committee to do so, but they were very polite and when I offered them tea they both declined. They’d only come out, they’d said, to introduce themselves. They knew I lived alone and they thought I might be lonely at times. They smiled a lot, and when they saw that I wasn’t interested in telling them something that would have justified my desire to be solitary, I think they began to get uncomfortable, bored or uninterested. I don’t know what they wanted me to tell them, exactly. I guess I could have told them where I came from, the life I’d led since running from Mississippi at the age of seventeen with almost seven thousand dollars in my black purse. I guess I could have told them I’d lived with several men and that after I’d left Merle, they’d all been rich; I’d always lived with rich men. I could have told them that I’d learned long ago that rage is never good and that it can turn even the best parts of your life tragic and that even love is weak as the winter sun compared to hatred with its hot fire that’s hard to burn out. But I didn’t tell them any of that. I sat there and listened to them tell me about their husbands and children and their lives in the town where I did my shopping. The town where I nodded to people I didn’t know and only out of politeness not because I was obliged in anyway to do it. I guess I could have told them a lot of things about myself, but I chose not too. Instead, I told them I’d been raised a Episcopalian, had gone to church with either Dilsey, a black woman who was part of our family, or my Grandmother. I told them I’d not been to church since I’d crossed the border of Mississippi and that I didn’t see any point in going to a church with which I wasn’t familiar so that I could worship a God who had long forgotten I even was still treading on his earth.

I told them that but with a smiling face so they could see I didn’t say it out of rage or spite or some hidden resentment to them or anyone else. I told them I was glad they’d come out to visit me and they were more than welcome to come again if they wanted. I wouldn’t mind sitting with them or others if they had friends.

But the truth was I hoped they wouldn’t come again. I’m content just being alone with my dog and cat. I like to walk out into the garden and sit under the one single Magnolia that is at the end of the flagstones where I have a table and chairs. I always arrange the chairs as if I’m expecting to entertain. I like that look. People are coming over in the heat of the afternoon to have a cool drink, sit in the cool shade of the single tree that happens to be the only reminder that I’m a southerner. I sit and sip my afternoon whiskey and mint and listen to the sound of breeze and the heavy breathing of Jason panting. I look out at the fields and trees beyond my own lawn as the sun begins to cast long golden streaks of end-of-the-day stillness on me and my house.

The clamor is gone for me then. I can feel the alcohol come out from the center of my body and radiate to the very tips of my extremities and I know that no one can alter this feeling. It is mine alone. Mine alone. No one else has control over this feeling of peace and ease.

I’m no longer young but I’m not old either. Sixty last year. When I look in the mirror I see the lines creeping in my face as though they are stories and part of a map of my journey from Mississippi to this bathroom where I stand to look at my face each morning and each evening. I look like my mother, but also I have much of my father in my face. I can see it when I take the photograph out of my father—my single connection to him—and stare at his handsome and young face. He smiles out at me as if his intention was to remind me that I am his. I’ve long gotten over the fact that he abandoned mother and me. I know that he must’ve seen the craziness of my family and ran. I do wonder how he could’ve left my mother, though. She was so beautiful with her brown eyes and lovely hair. When I saw her through the years for a day or two, men would turn in the street so that they could stare at her.

Dalton Ames. He must’ve been taken so strongly by the looks of my mother, by the prominence of the Compson family. One square mile of property in the center of the county seat, Jefferson. Who wouldn’t have been impressed? They would have to go beyond the rot-iron gates to see what was inside to really know. My father did that and then he ran. I’m sure he ran for that reason. Uncle Quentin challenged him and my grandfather was drunk and my great uncle Maury the same and the meanness of Jason. He ran as mother did and as I did. But he ran away from us, too, and I don’t know why he did that. I asked mother if he knew she was pregnant and she said he did. Perhaps she lied to me so that she would look better in my eyes. Perhaps he didn’t know and so the only sin he’d committed was sleeping with mother and then finding out about the Compsons and then running. The other sin, the sin of abandoning his daughter was not a sin at all, because he didn’t know. I don’t want to think of my father as knowing he had a daughter and still running away. I can’t look into the picture and see his young and beautiful face and then think he would do such a thing to a daughter who loved him so much.

But I’m more settled about that now. I don’t need to think of it all the time as I used to do. Now I can sit at the edge of the terrace with my minted whiskey and my cat on my lap and my dog beside me and just look out toward the horizon. I don’t feel the urgency I once felt to always change, always move so that I didn’t have to think of Jefferson and the seventeen years I lived in that house with a sickly grandmother and a crippled maid and an Uncle who I should have killed rather than take his money. Now I can sit in the quiet of the afternoons and feel nothing but peace and that is a comfort to me. I feel great comfort in knowing I don’t have to think about the past anymore.


Projected Letters is a literary magazine dedicated to publishing the best new and established writing from around the world.