John watched his mother, head cocked to one side, and when he had swallowed his last mouthful he cut her off in mid-sentence.
“You a lawyer, Frank?”
“Me? A lawyer? No. Why?”
“Hoping you might be, is all. I could use a lawyer. Whaddya do, then? Advertising man, or what?”
“No. I work for Knox Business Machines.”
“Whaddya do there? You design the machines, or make them, or sell them, or repair them, or what?”
“Sort of help sell them, I guess. I don’t really have much to do with the machines themselves; I work in the office. Actually it’s sort of a stupid job. I mean there’s nothing — you know, interesting about it, or anything.”
“Interesting?” John Givings seemed offended by the word. “You worry about whether a job is ‘interesting’ or not? I thought only women did that. Women and boys. Didn’t have you figured that way.”
“Oh, look, the sun’s coming out!” Mrs. Givings cried. She jumped up, went to the picture window and peered through it, her back very rigid. “Maybe we’ll see a rainbow. Wouldn’t that be lovely?”
The skin at the back of Frank’s neck was prickling with annoyance. “All I meant,” he explained, “is that I don’t like the job and never have.”
“Whaddya do it for, then. Oh, okay okay –” John Givings ducked his head and weakly raised one hand as if in a hopeless attempt to ward off the bludgeon of public chastisement. “Okay; I know; it’s none of my business. This is what old Helen calls Being Tactless, Dear. That’s my trouble, you see; always has been. Forget I said it. You want to play house, you got to have a job. You want to play very nice house, very sweet house, then you got to have a job you don’t like. Great. This is the way ninety-eight-point-nine per cent of the people work things out, so believe me buddy you’ve got nothing to apologize for. Anybody comes along and says ‘Whaddya do it for?’ you can be pretty sure he’s on a four-hour pass from the State funny-farm; all agreed. Are we all agreed there, Helen?”
“Oh look, there is a rainbow,” Mrs. Givings said, “– or no, wait, I guess it isn’t — oh, but it’s perfectly lovely in the sunshine. Why don’t we all take a walk?”
“As a matter of fact,” Frank said, “you’ve pretty well put your finger on it, John. I agree with everything you said just now. We both do. That’s why I’m quitting my job in the fall and that’s why we’re taking off.”
John Givings looked incredulously from Frank to April and back again. “Yeah? Taking off where? Oh, hey, yeah, wait a minute — she did say something about that. You’re going to Europe, right? Yeah, I remember. She didn’t say why, though; she just said it was ‘very strange.'” And all at once he split the air — very nearly split the house, it seemed — with a bray of laughter. “Hey, how about that, Ma? Still seem ‘very strange’ to you? Huh?”
“Steady down, now,” Howard Givings said gently from his corner. “Steady down, son.”
But John ignored him.
“Boy!” he shouted. “Boy, I bet this whole conversation seems very, very strange to you, huh, Ma?”
They had grown so used to the bright, chirping sound of Mrs. Givings’ voice that day that her next words came as a shock, addressed to the picture window and spoken in a wretchedly tight, moist whimper: “Oh John, please stop.”
Howard Givings got up and shuffled across the room to her. One of his white, liver-spotted hands made a motion as if to touch her, but he seemed to think better of it and the hand dropped again. They stood close together, looking out the window; it was hard to tell whether they were whispering or not. Watching them, John’s face was still ebullient with the remnants of his laughter.
“Look,” Frank said uneasily, “maybe we ought to take a walk or something.” And April said, “Yes, let’s.”
“Tell you what,” John Givings said. “Why don’t the three of us take a walk, and the folks can stay here and wait for their rainbow. Ease the old tension all around.”
He loped across the carpet to retrieve his cap, and on the way back he veered sharply with an almost spastic movement to the place where his parents stood, his right fist describing a wide, rapid arc toward his mother’s shoulder. Howard Givings saw it coming and his glasses flashed in fright for an instant, but there was no time to interfere before the fist landed — not in a blow but in a pulled-back, soft, affectionate cuffing against the cloth of her dress.
“See you later, then, Ma,” he said. “Stay as sweet as you are.”
Up in the woods behind the house, steaming in the sun, the newly rainwashed earth gave off an invigorating fragrance. The Wheelers and their guest, relaxing in an unexpected sense of camaraderie, had to walk single file on the hill and pick their way carefully among the trees; the slightest nudge of an overhanging branch brought down a shower of raindrops, and the glistening bark of passing twigs was apt to leave grainy black smears on their clothing. After a while they quit the woods and walked slowly around the back yard. The men did most of the talking; April listened, staying close to Frank’s arm, and more than once he noticed, glancing down at her, that her eyes were bright with what looked like admiration for the things he was saying.
The practical side of the Europe plan didn’t seem to interest John Givings, but he was full of persistent questions about their reasons for going; and once, when Frank said something about “the hopeless emptiness of everything in this country,” he came to a stop on the grass and looked thunderstruck.
“Wow,” he said. “Now you’ve said it. The hopeless emptiness. Hell, plenty of people are on to the emptiness part; out where I used to work, on the Coast, that’s all we ever talked about. We’d sit around talking about emptiness all night. Nobody ever said ‘hopeless,’ though; that’s where we’d chicken out. Because maybe it does take a certain amount of guts to see the hopelessness. And I guess when you do see the hopelessness, that’s when there’s nothing to do but take off. If you can.”
“Maybe so,” Frank said. But he was beginning to feel uncomfortable again; it was time to change the subject. “I hear you’re a mathematician.”
“You hear wrong. Taught it for a while, that’s all. Anyway, it’s all gone now. You know what electrical shock treatments are? Because, you see, the past couple months I’ve had thirty-five — or no, wait — thirty-seven –” He squinted at the sky with a vacant look, trying to remember the number. In the sunlight, Frank noticed for the first time that the creases in his cheeks were really the scars of a surgeon’s lancet, and that other areas of his face were blotched and tough with scar tissue. At one time in his life his face had probably been a mass of boils and cists. “– thirty-seven electrical shock treatments. The idea is to jolt all the emotional problems out of your mind, you see, but in my case they had a different effect. Jolted out all the God-damned mathematics. Whole subject’s a total blank.”
“How awful,” April said.
“‘How awful.‘” John Givings mimicked her in a mincing, effeminate voice and then turned on her with a challenging smirk. “Why?” he demanded. “Because mathematics is so ‘interesting’?”
“No,” she said. “Because the shocks must be awful and because it’s awful for anybody to forget something they want to remember. As a matter of fact, I think mathematics must be very dull.”
He stared at her for a long time, and nodded with approval. “I like your girl, Wheeler,” he announced at last. “I get the feeling she’s female. You know what the difference between female and feminine is? Huh? Well here’s a hint: a feminine woman never laughs out loud and always shaves her armpits. Old Helen in there is feminine as hell. I’ve only met about half a dozen females in my life, and I think you got one of them here. Course, come to think of it, that figures. I get the feeling you’re male. There aren’t too many males around, either.”