Fair’s Fair by Jane Speed
I knew right away mother had something besides breakfast on her mind when she set a bowl of oatmeal in front of me. I mean it was Saturday. She usually gives that «busy little engines need good fuel» stuff a rest on Saturdays and lets me have whatever I want.
I was still wondering if it would do me any good to point this out to her when Daddy came in and sat down at the table. So I decided to just put a lot of strawberry jam on the oatmeal to pep it up and not say anything. Maybe, if I kept quiet, Mother would halfway forget I was there and go ahead and talk to Daddy about whatever was bothering her. Of course, it might be just bills. You’d be surprised how worked up my parents can get on that subject sometimes.
Daddy drank his juice down in one gulp like he always does and picked up the morning paper. But I could tell by the way Mother was stirring and stirring her coffee that he wasn’t going to get much read.
Sure enough, in about half a minute she said, «Harry —»
He just said. «Mm?» and kept his head behind the paper, although he must have known already that it was a lost cause.
«Herbert Wellman’s mother died last week.»
«Did she now?» Daddy folded the paper and put it aside then.
It actually took me a couple of seconds to figure out who Herbert Wellman was. That may sound funny because the Wellmans live right next door to us. But I sometimes forget their name because Jeddie Brubaker always calls Mrs. Wellman the Cat Lady. That’s because she likes cats so much. She has a couple of her own and every night she puts bowls of milk and scraps out for all the strays in the neighborhood. I know because my bedroom is over our kitchen and I watch her sometimes from my window taking the stuff down their steep old back-porch steps.
Some nights they get to howling and fighting out back — the cats, I mean — and Daddy wanted to complain about it once but Mother wouldn’t let him. She said cats were all poor Isobel Wellman had. She had no children and she hardly even had a husband. And it does seem that way because Mr. Wellman is almost never there.
He comes home late every night, sometimes not till after I’m in bed and he’s never there on weekends at all. On weekends he always goes to look after his mother’s place. It’s in a little town called Penn Oaks about fifty miles from here. Only I suppose now she’s dead he won’t be doing that any more.
«Well, it’s about time —» Daddy began, then the way he stopped all of a sudden I knew without looking that Mother must have given him the old «little pitchers have big ears» signal.
«Amy, dear,» she said to me in that phony bright kind of voice she always uses when she’s going to try to talk me into something I don’t particularly want to do. «It’s such a lovely morning, why don’t you go on outside and play.»
Wouldn’t you know? Just when things were getting interesting. Still — she didn’t seem to notice that I hadn’t finished my oatmeal (frankly, that strawberry jam didn’t work out too well), so I just slid off my chair and went out the screen door.
I made as much noise as possible going down the back steps, then I tiptoed around and hoisted myself up onto the garbage can under the open breakfast-room window. I’d hardly missed a thing what it’s going to be like for Isobel now,» Mother was saying, «having him home on weekends.»
«Well — fine, I should think. I mean, isn’t that what you’ve been complaining about all these years? — his spending every spare minute at his mother’s and leaving poor Isobel with nothing but those damn cats. Oh, I agree, I agree.» Daddy said this last part kind of fast as though Mother had started to interrupt him. «That’s no way to treat a wife. But Herb had his problems, too, with that mother of his. She must have been a real Tartar — wouldn’t budge out of the old house and yet she refused to hire anyone to look after things for her. So — now she’s gone. Maybe Herb and Isobel can finally settle down and lead a normal life.»
«I just hope,» Mother said, kind of gloomy and mysterious, «it isn’t too late.»
«Now what the devil do you mean by that?»
«Oh, Harry! They’ve been living that way for fifteen years. People can’t just snap back and forth like — like puppets.»
For a minute neither of them said anything, then Mother started again and her voice sounded different, sort of quiet. «Have you forgotten what Isobel Wellman was like when they first moved here? How pretty she was?»
I nearly fell off the garbage can when she said that. You should see Mrs. Wellman. For one thing, her fingernails are always a lot dirtier than my mother’d ever let me get away with. That’s because next to cats she likes gardening best of all. and she doesn’t wear garden gloves because she says she likes the feel of the soil.
This year she’s got a lot of sweet peas that she’s really crazy about. They are sort of pretty — kind of a pinkish lavender. But not Mrs. Wellman. I mean she’s okay to talk to and all that, but she’s not pretty. She’s all caved-in looking and beaky-nosed and her hair goes every which way as though she never combed it.
Jeddie Brubaker says she’s a witch. And you know some-thing? 1 used to halfway believe it was true. That’s when I was a lot younger, of course. But Mrs. Wellman used to do all kinds of cooking and baking and I guess she had more than she needed because she was always handing stuff out to the neighborhood kids. For a long time I was afraid to take anything from her for fear it would cast a spell on me or something.
Then one time Jeddie dared me to take a cookie and eat it right there. And I did and it was pretty good. Not as good as my mother’s, but at least I didn’t fall down in a fit or anything. You just can’t believe half of what that klunky kid says.
«And how hard she tried,» Mother was really going strong now. «to make a nice home for that man. The meals she used to cook — and then he never came home for them. After a while she just gave up and made the best life she could, out of those cats and her garden. What I’m trying to say is, I think she’s come to count on Herb’s not being there.»
«Oh, Madge.» I heard Daddy’s chair scrape back. «I really think you’re making too much out of this. They’ll work things out. People do, you know.»
Mother gave a big sigh and said, «I hope you’re right.» Then she got up, too, and started clearing off the table, so I slid down off the garbage can in a hurry and ran back and got myself going in the old rope swing in case Daddy looked out back to see what I was doing.
After a while he and Mother both came out and he said he was going to drive her over to the shopping center to get some groceries and did I want to come along. But I’d already spent my allowance and it’s kind of boring just hanging around over there if you can’t buy anything, so I decided to stay home. I pumped myself up good and high so I could wave to them all the way out the driveway, then I just let the swing glide almost to a stop.
All of a sudden out of nowhere Marmy jumped into my lap. She’s one of Mrs. Wellman’s cats, my favorite. I used to think Mrs. Wellman got the name out of Little Women. It would fit, too, because Marmy’s always being a mother. Almost every time you turn around she’s got another litter of kittens.
But Mrs. Wellman said she named her that because she’s what’s called a marmalade cat, kind of splotchy yellow all over. She’s not much to look at— Marmy, I mean. She’s small, for one thing, and she stays skinny even though Mrs. Wellman feeds her a lot, and she kind of sags in the middle.
But I like her because she’s so smart. She really knows who’s her friend and who isn’t. Right now, if my father was home and came out the back door she’d be off like a streak. Daddy wouldn’t do anything mean to her, you understand, but she just knows somehow that he doesn’t really care for cats.
Not like that dumb Beau. That’s Mrs. Wellman’s other cat. Beau Brummcl. He’s Marmy’s son but he’s about three times as big as she is. He’s tiger except for a patch of white on his chest, really a big handsome tom. But lie’s all looks and no brains. Or else he’s just so conceited he’s sure everyone is going to admire him.
Honestly, that cat never learns. Like with Jeddie Brubaker. Jeddie’s always tormenting Beau; he actually tied a can to his tail once, but Beau still comes right up and rubs against his legs. You wouldn’t catch Marmy within a mile of that pest — Jeddie, I mean.
Marmy was licking my hand with her scratchy tongue and purring away like an engine. Then suddenly she stopped and arched her back, and in one leap she took off up the trunk of the tree and disappeared in the branches. I couldn’t figure out at first what had scared her, then I looked over next door and I saw that Mr. Wellman had come out on their back porch.
I’d never got a really good look at him in the daytime before. I saw him from my window last night, though, and I know why Marmy ran. Mr. Wellman doesn’t like cats. Last night he came out on the porch in his pajamas and bathrobe, smoking a cigar. Then he looked down and saw the stuff Mrs. Wellman had put out for the strays.
He stomped down the steps like he was real mad and dumped out the milk and put the scraps in the garbage can. And as he went back inside I heard him yelling to Mrs. Wellman that she wasn’t to do that any more; he’d had enough of those yowling cats cluttering up the back yard.
He just stood there now, looking around and frowning as though he didn’t much like anything he saw. I guess he was still unhappy because his mother died.
Then I saw Beau. He was walking along the porch railing toward Mr. Wellman, slow and fancy like a tightrope walker. And I knew just what he had in mind. I wanted to call out and warn Beau, but it wouldn’t have done any good with that stupid cat.
Sure enough. Beau jumped down right in front of Mr. Wellman and started rubbing against his legs. Mr. Wellman jerked away and said a really bad word. Then, before I knew what was happening, he pulled his leg back and brought it forward hard. The toe of his shoe caught Beau right smack in the stomach.
Beau let out an awful howl and went sailing out over the steps like he was flying. He landed on his feet all right, but not for long. He kind of staggered around and then fell over on his side, and all the time he kept up such a terrible howling I wanted to put my hands over my ears. Only I didn’t dare move even an inch for fear Mr. Wellman would look over and see me there. If he could do a thing like that to Beau —.
All at once Beau stopped howling. A sort of a big shiver ran all through him, and then he just lay still. Mr. Wellman started down a couple of steps and just then Mrs. Wellman came out the back door. Before she could say anything he turned around to her and said, «Isobel, I’m sorry. But that damned cat cut right across my feet as I was walking down the steps. I couldn’t help tripping over him. It’s a miracle we’re not both down there.”
That — just — wasn’t — so. Mr. Wellman had been standing on the porch. I saw him. He wasn’t going down the steps at all. I don’t know whether Mrs. Wellman believed him or not. She didn’t say anything. She just went down the steps past him and knelt beside Beau and stroked him for a minute. I think she was crying, but she didn’t make any noise.
Then she got up and went back under the steps and brought out a spade, and very gently she lifted up that big old cat in her arms.
For some reason that made Mr. Wellman mad. He stomped down the steps and said, «Oh, for God’s sake, stop making such a tragedy of it.» And lie grabbed Beau and the spade right out of her hands and started to the back of the yard.
I was scared he was going to stop near where I was, but he kept right on going. And then I saw where he was headed. He could have buried Beau anywhere in that whole yard, but instead he got down right in front of Mrs. Wellman’s sweet pea bed and started chopping at it, digging fast. When he had a hole big enough, he just threw Beau in like a sack of garbage, then he covered him over with dirt and that tangle of pulled-up sweet peas.
All that time Mrs. Wellman just stood there watching him. She never said a word. Once, though, she rubbed her hands down the sides of her skirt as though her legs hurt her.
Mr. Wellman got up and went back without even looking at her. He threw the spade in the tools basket, then he went up the steps and in the door, letting it slam behind him. And after a couple of minutes Mrs. Wellman went inside, too.
As soon as they’d gone I got off the swing and ran into our house as fast as I could. It surely did seem empty. I wondered what was taking my parents so long. I began to think maybe they’d had an accident and been killed and I’d have to live in this house all alone next door to Mr. Wellman for the rest of my life.
I was never so glad to hear anything as our car driving in. As soon as my parents came into the kitchen Daddy asked me, the way he always does, «Anything exciting happen while we were gone?» It’s a kind of a game and I always make up a lot of stuff, just silly, you know— he isn’t supposed to believe it.
Only today, when something really did happen, I couldn’t think of a thing to say. Daddy looked at me kind of funny for a minute, then he shrugged and went on helping Mother put away the groceries. I guess he thought I was just tired of the game.
I hung around inside the rest of the day. To tell the truth, I was afraid if I went out I might run into Mr. Wellman and I was sure if he took one look at me he’d know I knew what he did to Beau and how he’d lied about it.
Mother noticed after a while and she began to worry that I was coming down with something. She felt my forehead and took my temperature, and pretty soon after supper she said I’d better go up to bed and get a good night’s sleep. When I didn’t put up a fight, Daddy said I really must be sick.
Mother kissed me good night and said I could read a little while if I wanted to, so I finished my library book. But even after I’d turned off the light I didn’t feel really sleepy.
I got out of bed and went over to the window to see if anything was happening next door. There was a light on in the Wellmans’ kitchen, but everything seemed quiet. Then I looked down at the bottom of the steps and there, just like always, was a big bowl of milk and a plate of scraps. Mrs. Wellman must have forgotten about what Mr. Wellman told her last night. Boy, if he saw that he was really going to be mad!
I was just hoping and hoping he’d go right up to bed and not come out on the porch. But just then a puff of smoke came through the screen door and Mr. Wellman pushed it open and came out. He stood there smoking for a while just like last night. Then he must have looked down and seen the food because he let out a roar and started for the steps. But before he even got down to the first one he sort of pitched forward.
He didn’t go flying like Beau because he was so big and heavy. He just fell straight down and his head knocked over the bowl of milk. I waited to see if he was going to get up and stagger around, but he didn’t. So I decided I’d better go tell somebody what happened because he must be pretty badly hurt. His neck looked all bent around, the wrong way sort of.
But I didn’t have to after all because just then Mrs. Wellman came out the back door. She must have heard him call out. She stood there and looked at him for a minute and then she did the funniest thing. She stooped down by the railing at one side of the steps and untied something — string, I guess — and very carefully, like she wanted to save it, she wrapped it around her fingers all the way across the steps and untied it at the o, cr side. Then she stood up and tucked it into her pocket.
I thought maybe then she’d go down to see about Mr. Wellman, but she didn’t. She just went back inside the house.
Almost right away our telephone started ringing. And after about a minute I heard my father running down our back steps. He went across the driveway and knelt down beside Mr. Wellman. And when Mrs. Wellman came out again he talked to her for a couple of minutes, then he went with her inside their house.
Pretty soon a police car came up and then an ambulance, and everybody poked around at Mr. Wellman and they talked some more. And then finally they put Mr. Wellman on a stretcher and covered him all up and took him away.
For a long time after I got back into bed I lay there wondering if I ought to tell Daddy what I saw. I know Mr. Wellman didn’t fall down the steps by accident. But then — what happened to Beau wasn’t an accident either. So if I didn’t tell on Mr. Wellman, why should I tell on Mrs. Wellman? After all, fair’s fair.