e The Stranger by J. D. Salinger
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The Stranger

 

 

by J. D. Salinger

 

 

THE maid at the apartment door was young and snippy and she had a part-time look about her. "Who'd ya wanna see?" she asked the young man hostilely.

The young man said, "Mrs. Polk." He had told her four times over the squawky house phone whom he wanted to see.

He should have come on a day when there wouldn't be any idiots to answer the house phones and doors. He should have come on a day when he didn't feel like gouging his eyes out, to rid himself of hay fever. He should have come - he shouldn't have come at all. He should have taken his sister Mattie straight to her beloved, greasy chop suey joint, then straight to a matinee, then straight to the train - without stopping once to take out his messy emotions, without forcing them on strangers. Hey! Maybe it wasn't to laugh like a moron, lie and leave.

The maid stepped out of the way, mumbling something about maybe she was out of the tub and maybe not, and the young man with the red eyes and the leggy little girl with him entered the apartment.

It was an ugly, expensive little New York apartment of the kind which seems to rent mostly to newly married couples - possibly because the bride's feet began to kill her at the last renting agency, or because she loves to distraction the way her new husband wears his wrist watch.

The living room, in which the young man and the little girl were ordered to wait, had one Morris chair too many, and it looked as though the reading lamps had been breeding at night. Ah, but over the crazy artificial fireplace there were some fine books.

The young man wondered who owned and cared about Rainer Maria Rilke and The Beautiful and the Damned and A High Wind in Jamaica, for instance. Did they belong to Vincent's girl or Vincent's girl's husband?

He sneezed, and walked over to an interesting, messy stack of phonograph records, and picked up the top record. It was an old Bakewell Howard - before Howard had gone commercial - playing Fat Boy. Who owned it? Vincent's girl or Vincent's girl's husband? He turned the record over, and through his leaky eyes he looked at a patch of dirty white adhesive tape fastened to the title sticker. Printed on the tape in green ink were the identification and warning: Helen Beebers - Room 202, Rudenweg - Stop Thief!

The young man grabbed his hip pocket handkerchief and sneezed again; then he turned the record back to the Fat Boy side. His mind began to hear the old Bakewell Howard's rough, fine horn playing. Then he began to hear the music of the unrecoverable years: the little, unhistorical, pretty good years when all the dead boys in the 12th Regiment had been living and cutting in on other dead boys on lost dance floors: the years when no one who could dance worth a damn had ever heard of Cherbourg or Saint-Lo, or Hurtgen Forest or Luxembourg.

He listed to this music until behind him his little sister started practicing belching; then he turned around and said, "Cut it out, Mattie."

At that instant a grown girl's harsh, childish, acutely lovely voice came into the room, followed by the girl herself.

"Hey," she said. "I'm sorry to keep you waiting. I'm Mrs. Polk. I don't know how you're

going to get them into this room. The windows are all funny. But I can't stand looking at that dirty old building across the wuddaya call-it." She caught sight of the little girl, who was sitting in one of the extra Morris chairs with her legs crossed. "Oh!" she cried ecstatically. "Who's this? Your little girl? Pussy cat!"

The young man had to make an emergency snatch at his pocket-handkerchief, and he sneezed four times before he could reply. "That's my sister Mattie," he told Vincent's girl. "I'm not the window man, if that's - "

"You aren't the curtain man?What's the matter with your eyes?"

"I have hay fever. My name is Babe Gladwaller. I was in the Army with Vincent Caulfield." He sneezed. "We were very good friends….Don't stare at me when I sneeze, please. Mattie and I came in town to have lunch and see a show, and I thought I'd drop by to see you; take a chance on your being in. I should have telephoned or something." He sneezed again, and when he looked up, Vincent's girl was staring at him. She looked fine. She probably could have lighted up a cigar and looked fine.

"Hey," she said, quietly for her; she was a shouter. "This room is dark as glop. Let's go in my room." She turned around and started to lead the way. With her back turned she said, "You're in the letter he wrote me. You live in a place starting with a 'V.'"

"Valdosta, New York."

They entered a lighter, better room; obviously Vincent's girl's and her husband's room. "Listen. I hate that living room. Sit in the chair. Just throw that glop on the floor. Pussy cat, baby, you sit here on the bed with me - oh, sweetie, what a beautiful dress! Oh, why did you come to see me? No, I'm glad. Go ahead. I won't look at you when you sneeze."

There was never a way, even back in the beginning, that a man could condition himself against the lethal size and shape and melody of beauty by chance. Vincent could have warned him. Vincent had warned him. Sure he had.

Babe said, "Well, I thought - "

"Listen, why aren't you in the Army?" Vincent's girl said. "Aren't you in the Army? Hey? Are you out on that new points thing?"

"He had a hundred and seven points," Mattie said. "He has five battle stars, but you only wear a little silver one if you have five. You can't get five of the little gold ones on the ribbon thing. Five would look better. They'd look more. But he doesn't wear his uniform anymore, anyway. I got it. I got it in a box."

Babe crossed his legs as most tall men do, laying the ankle on the knee. "I'm out. I got out," he said. He looked at the clock in his sock, one of the most unfamiliar things in the new, combat-bootless world, then up at Vincent's girl. Was she real? "I got out last week," he said.

"Gee, that's swell."

She didn't care much one way or the other. Why should she? So Babe just nodded, and said, "You, uh….You know Vincent's - you know he was killed, don't you?"

"Yes."

Babe nodded again, and reversed the position of his legs, laying the other ankle on the other knee.

"His father phoned and told me," Vincent's girl said, "when it happened. He called me Miss Uhhh. He's known me all my life and he couldn't think of my first name. Just that I loved Vincent and that I was Howie Beeber's daughter. He thought we were still engaged, I guess. Vincent and I."

She put her hand on the back of Mattie's neck, and stared at Mattie's right arm, which was nearest her. Not that there was anything the matter with Mattie's right arm. It was just bare and brown and young.

"I thought you might want to know a little about it all," Babe said, and sneezed about six times. When he put away his handkerchief, Vincent's girl was looking at him, but she didn't say anything. Very confusing and annoying. Maybe she wanted him to quit his introductions. He thought, and said, "I can't tell you he was happy or anything when he died. I'm sorry. I can't think of anything good. Yet I want to tell you the whole business."

"Don't lie to me at all. I want to know," Vincent's girl said. She let go of Mattie's neck. Then she just sat and didn't especially look at, or do, anything.

"Uh, he died in the morning. He and four other G.I.s and I were standing around a fire we made. In Hurtgen Forest. Some mortar dropped in suddenly - it didn't whistle or anything - and it hit Vincent and three of the other men. He died in the medics' CP tent about thirty yards away, not more than about three minutes after he was hit." Babe had to sneeze several times at that point.

He went on, "I think he had too much pain in too large an area of his body to have realized anything but blackness. I don't think it hurt. I swear I don't. His eyes were open. I think he recognized me and heard me when I spoke to him, but he didn't say anything to me at all. The last thing he said was about one of us was going to have to get some wood for the lousy fire - preferably one of the younger men, he said - you know how he talked." Babe stopped there because Vincent's girl was crying and he didn't know what to do about it.

Mattie spoke up, telling Vincent's girl: "He was a witty guy. He was at our house. Gee!" Vincent's girl went on crying with her face in one hand, but she heard Mattie. Babe looked at the low-cut shoe on his foot, and waited for something quiet and sensible and easier to happen - such as Vincent's girl, Vincent's swell girl, not crying anymore.

When that happened - and it happened quickly, too - he talked again. "You're married and I didn't come here to torture you. I just thought, from stuff that Vincent told me, that you used to love him a lot and that you'd want to hear this stuff. I'm sorry I have to be a stranger with hay fever and on my way to lunch and a matinee. I didn't think it would be any good, but I came anyway. I don't know what's wrong with me since I'm back."

Vincent's girl said, "What's a mortar? Like a cannon?"

How could you ever tell what girls were going to say or do?…"Well, sort of. The shell drops in without whistling. I'm sorry." He was apologizing too much, but he wanted to apologize to every girl in the world whose lover had been hit by mortar fragments because the mortars hadn't whistled. He was very afraid now, that he had told Vincent's girl too much too coldly. The hay fever, the dirty hay fever, certainly was no help. But the thing that was really terrible was the way your mind wanted to tell civilians these things - that was much more terrible than what your voice said.

Your mind, your soldier's mind, wanted accuracy above all else. So far as details went, you wanted to be the bull's-eye kid: Don't let any civilian leave you, when the story's over, with any comfortable lies. Shoot down all the lies. Don't let Vincent's girl think that Vincent asked for a cigarette before he died. Don't let her think that he grinned gamely, or said a few choice last words.

These thing didn't happen. These things weren't done outside movies and books except by a very, very few guys who were unable to fasten their last thoughts to the depleting joy of being alive. Don't let Vincent's girl fool herself about Vincent, no matter how much she loved him. Get your sight picture on the nearest, biggest lie. That's why you're back, that's why you were lucky. Don't let anybody good down. Fire! Fire, buddy! Now!

Babe uncrossed his legs, briefly squeezed his forehead with the heels of his hands, then he sneezed about a dozen times. He used a fourth, fresh handkerchief on his burning, watery eyes, put it away, and said, "Vincent loved you something terrific. I don't know exactly why you broke up, but I do know it wasn't anybody's fault. I got that feeling about it when he talked about you - that your breaking up wasn't anybody's fault. Was it anybody's fault? I oughtn't to ask you that. Your being married. Was it anybody's fault?"

"It was his fault."

"How come you married Mr. Polk, then?" Mattie demanded.

"It was his fault. Listen. I loved Vincent. I loved his house and I loved his brothers and I loved his mother and father. I loved everything. Listen, Babe. Vincent didn't believe anything. If it was summer he didn't believe it; if it was winter he didn't believe it. He didn't believe anything from the time little Kenneth Caulfield died. His brother."

"That the little one, the younger one he was so crazy about?"

"Yes. I loved everything. I swear to you," Vincent's girl said, touching Mattie's arm almost vaguely.

Babe nodded. Without sneezing first, he reached into his inside coat pocket and took out something. "Uh," he said to Vincent's girl. "This is a poem he wrote. No kidding. I borrowed some air-mail envelopes from him and it was written on one of the backs. You can have it if you want it." He reached his long arm forward, unable to avoid being fascinated by the shiny links in his shirt cuffs, and handed her a mud-dirty G.I. air-mail envelope. It was folded once the short way, and slightly torn.

Vincent's girl looked at the face of it, and read the title with her lips moving. She looked at Babe. "Oh, Lord! Miss Beebers! He called me Miss Beebers!"

She looked down at the poem again, and read it through to herself, moving her lips. She shook her head when she reached the end, but not as though she were denying anything. Then she read the poem through again. Then she folded the poem into a very small size, as though concealment was necessary. She put her hand with the poem in it into her jacket pocket and left it there.

"Miss Beebers," she said, looking up as if someone had come in the room.

Babe, who had his legs crossed again, uncrossed them, as an overture to getting up. "Well," he said. "The poem, is all." He stood up and so did Mattie. Then Vincent's girl stood up.

Babe extended his hand, which Vincent's girl duly clasped. "I probably shouldn't have come," he said. "I had the best and the worst motives…and I'm acting very peculiarly. I don't know what's the matter. Goodbye."

"I'm very glad you came, Babe."

That made him cry and he turned around and walked quickly out of the room towards the front door. Mattie went out behind him, and Vincent's girl slowly followed. When he turned around in the hall outside the apartment, he was all right again.

"Can we get a cab or something?" he asked Vincent's girl. "Are there cabs running? I didn't even notice."

"Maybe you can get one. It's a good time."

"Would you like to go to lunch and theater with us?” he asked her.

"I can't. I have to - I can't. Ring the 'Up' bell, Mattie. The 'Down' one doesn't work."

Babe took her hand again. "Goodbye, Helen," he said, and released it. He walked over and stood beside Mattie in front of the closed elevator doors.

"What are you going to do now?" Vincent's girl almost shouted at him. "I told you, we're going - "

"I mean now that you're back."

"Oh!" He sneezed. "I don't know. Is there something to do? No, I'm kidding. I'll do something. I'll probably get an M.A. and teach. My father's a teacher."

"Hey. Go see some girl dance with a big bubble or something tonight, huh?"

 "I don't know any girls who dance with big bubbles. Ring the bell again, Mattie."

"Listen, Babe," Vincent's girl said intensely. "Call me sometime, willya? Please. I'm in the book."

"I know some girls," Babe said.

"I know, but we could have lunch or something and see a show. Wuddaya-call-it can get tickets to anything. Bob. My husband. Or come to dinner."

He shook his head and rang the elevator bell himself.

"Please."

"I'm all right. Don't be that way…I'm just not used to things yet."

The elevator doors slammed open. Mattie hollered "Goodbye," and followed her brother into the elevator. The doors slammed shut.

There weren't any taxis down in the street. They both walked west, toward the Park. The three long blocks between Lexington and Fifth were dull and noonish, as only that stretch can be in late August. A fat, apartment-house doorman, cupping a cigarette in his hand, was walking a wire-haired along the curb between Park and Madison.

Babe figured that during the whole time of the [Battle of the] Bulge, the guy had walked that dog on this street every day. He couldn't believe it. He could believe it, but it was still impossible. He felt Mattie put her hand in his. She was talking a blue streak.

"Mamma said we ought to see that play, Harvey. She said you like Frank Fay. It's about this man who talks to a rabbit. When he's drunk and everything, he talks to this rabbit. Or Oklahoma! Mamma said you'd like Oklahoma!, too. Roberta Cochran saw it and she said it was swell. She said - "

"Who saw it?"

"Roberta Cochran. She's in my class. She's a dancer. Her father thinks he's a funny guy. I was over at her house and he tries to make a lot of wisecracks. He's a dope.'" Mattie was quiet for a second. "Babe," she said.

"What?"

"Are you glad to be home?"

"Yes, baby."

"Ow! You're hurting my hand."

He relaxed his grip. "Why do you ask me that?"

"I don't know. Let's sit on top of the bus. An open one."

"All right."

The sun was brilliant and hot as they crossed over to the Park side of Fifth Avenue. At the bus stop, Babe lighted a cigarette and took off his hat. A tall blond girl carrying a hatbox walked zippily along the other side of the street. In the middle of the broad avenue a small boy in a blue suit was trying to get his small, relaxed dog, probably named Theodore or Waggy, to get up and finish walking across the street like someone named Rex or Prince or Jim.

"I can eat with chopsticks, " Mattie said. "This guy showed me. Vera Weber's father. I'll show you."

The sun was full warm on Babe's pale face. "Kiddo," he said to Mattie, tapping her on the shoulder, "that's something I have to see."

"Okay. You'll see," said Mattie. With her feet together she made the little jump from the curb to the street surface, then back again. Why was it such a beautiful thing to see?

 


 

This story was published in Collier’s - December 1, 1945


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