“Now, now, just calm down. Your father will do whatever is best”

Together apart

Often he thought: My life did not begin until I knew her.
She would like to hear this, he was sure, but he did not know how to tell her. In the extremity of passion he cried out in a frantic voice: “I love you!” yet even these words were unsatisfactory. He wished for something else to say. He needed to let her know how deeply he felt her presence while they were lying together during the night, as well as each morning when they awoke and in the evening when he came home. However, he could think of nothing appropriate.
So the years passed, they had three children and accustomed themselves to a life together, and eventually Mr. Bridge decided that his wife should expect nothing more of him. After all, he was an attorney rather than a poet; he could never pretend to be what he was not.

Ruth snapped her fortune cookie apart and straightened the crumpled paper. “ ‘Your new affairs will turn out well,’ ” she read, and laughed.
Both of them turned to Mrs. Bridge, who looked at them blankly. There was no fortune cookie on her plate. She had eaten it.
“Mother,” said Ruth with an incredulous expression, “did you eat the paper?”
With as much dignity as possible she said, “I thought there was something odd inside.”
After a long silence Mr. Bridge said, “Do you mean to tell me you never saw a fortune cookie before?”
She smiled stiffly.
“Well,” he said, “I’m not sure just what we do now. Would you like another?”
“No, thank you, I don’t believe so,” she replied, and she touched her pearl necklace as if it were a talisman which would protect her from everything strange.

In forty-seven years she had seen Lake Michigan and had viewed the Rocky Mountains a few miles west of Denver, otherwise she knew of nothing larger than Lake Lotawana. Several times she had mentioned how much she would like to see the Grand Canyon.
He often thought about this; it saddened him and filled him with grave wonderment, and caused him to feel obscurely guilty. Perhaps they should not have waited so long to take this trip. They could have visited Europe sooner, seen and done many things. Now it was almost too late. She was passing through life with a neutral and pleasant expression, utterly failing to recognize the world in which she lived [...]

Then he realized that she was weeping. Very much amazed he bent toward her and wondered if he should ask what was wrong, but he decided to wait; possibly she was weeping for no specific reason, as women do. In a little while she withdrew her hand; he heard the snap of her purse opening, and guessed that she wanted a handkerchief. She blew her nose. He heard her draw a deep breath. Then she patted his arm.
“Everything has been just lovely,” she said.
She had been crying from happiness, which was something he had never done in his life and which was incomprehensible to him. Thoughtfully he contemplated the fearful blackness surrounding them, for there was no light anywhere beyond the rail of the ship, and he wondered if this was how it must be, if this was how they would end their lives, accompanying each other so closely, loving each other, touching one another with affection and sympathy, yet singularly alone.

Call of duty

She would greet him at the door, glance at the briefcase, and put on an expression of dismay or resignation, saying, “Now truthfully, Walter, couldn’t whatever it is wait till tomorrow?” By this she demonstrated her concern for his health and reminded him that he did not need to work such long hours for the family’s benefit. They had plenty of food, a nice house, and money enough to pay the bills. Then he would reply that he was only planning to work a little while after dinner or that he was going to finish a few things which should have been taken care of a week ago [...]

It occurred to him that she went shopping merely to use up time. The children were in school, or when they were not in school they were busy with their own affairs. Harriet took care of the house, did the cooking, and ordered groceries. A laundress came once a week to do the washing and ironing. There was not much else to be done. She did not have any way to occupy herself. As he became aware of this it seemed grotesque. He himself had too much to do. Days were not long enough. Yet for her the days had grown too long. That was why she went shopping. He perceived this so clearly that he could not imagine why he had failed to perceive it earlier.

The years were falling over like ducks in a shooting gallery, and it seemed to Mr. Bridge that he had scarcely taken aim at one when it disappeared. Now another year was all but gone. However, it had been a good year. He was not dissatisfied. He had worked hard, harder than most men, but the work had been rewarding. He was acquiring more than he needed, quite a lot more. And yet most important was the happiness he sensed around him. He believed that his wife was happy and the children also, and because of this he felt their happiness within himself.

Now another year was ending. The year had been good and he regretted the end of it, but he felt pleased that it was concluding without sickness in the family and with indications that the worst of the Depression might be over. The children were growing up nearly as he hoped they would and his wife was content. These were the important things. Secondly, he could feel the burden of his work, and this also was good.

He wished to impress upon his son three things which he felt that he himself had achieved: financial security, independence, and self-respect. In his mind these were of supreme importance. They stood together like the points of the fleur-de-lis.

A copy of the will was in the safe-deposit box, and though he knew every word of it he sometimes read it through, searching for possible points of contention. The logic and clarity of the will were pleasing to him; the measured cadence of the sentences he had composed was reassuring, as though the measure of his mind must be respected when it was read aloud at some future date. Often he read to himself particular passages from the will, imagining the delight and surprise with which it would be heard for the first time by his wife and by the children, not merely for the precision of language but because they had no idea of the value of the investments.

Rigid thinking

Gaily she cried, “Don’t be an old stick-in-the-mud! Tonight you’re going to put on a paper hat and enjoy yourself!”
“I will not wear a paper hat,” he said. “That’s final.”
“Oh, goodness, we all feel silly,” she replied, adjusting the peppermint-red hat she had chosen, “but everybody’s wearing one.”
“I am not everybody,” he said.
“You certainly aren’t,” she said. “But can’t you make an exception on New Year’s Eve?”
“No,” said Mr. Bridge.

On the way home she wanted to know what he thought of the ballet. He told her he liked it.
He never said anything further about the ballet, but he could not forget those muscular young men bounding around on the stage. Very often he realized that he was thinking about them, and each time this happened he discovered a frown on his face. For young girls to spend their lives dancing seemed perfectly natural, they were charming; and although he did not intend to go to another ballet he admitted that watching them dance around in time to the music had been a pleasure. But the male dancers puzzled him. No doubt they were necessary for the show, and he could not think of any specific reason the young men should not be dancing; all the same he did not quite like it.

On his way back to the office he stopped at Woolf Brothers clothing store and picked out a red-plaid wool shirt which he did not like. He asked the clerk to giftwrap it, and he took it home and after dinner produced it and announced to the family that he had bought himself a present. While everybody watched, he opened the box.
There was not much reaction to the shirt. It was not grotesque. Not at all. His wife remarked that it was quite attractive and as winter was coming on it should be very practical and comfortable to wear around the house or in the yard. He had not expected this. He had thought there would be some laughter; then he himself could join in the fun and explain how he happened to buy it, all because of Dr. Sauer’s socks, so the entire business could be finished. But because nobody thought the shirt was amusing he could not make a joke of it; he was obliged to pretend he had bought the shirt because he liked it. Carolyn asked him to put it on. He did not want to, but he took it out of the box and went upstairs to the bedroom where he put it on. It scratched.
He wore his new shirt the rest of the evening while he read the Star and the Wall Street Journal and listened to the radio; and that night he hung it in the closet, knowing that every time he opened the closet door and saw the shirt he was going to be annoyed. He began to estimate how long he must leave it hanging in the closet before he could say he was tired of it and suggest giving it to the Salvation Army.

Yet while he was singing he reflected on the word “joy” [...] he thought he must have known it because he understood the connotation, which would be impossible without having experienced it. However, if he had once known joy it must have been a long time ago. Satisfaction, yes, and pleasure of several sorts, and pride, and possibly a feeling which might be called “rejoicing” after some serious worry or problem had been resolved. There were many such feelings, but none of them should be called “joy.” He remembered enthusiasm, hope, and a kind of jubilation or exultation. Cheerfulness, yes, and joviality, and the brief gratification of sex. Gladness, too, fullness of heart, appreciation, and many other emotions. But not joy. No, that belonged to simpler minds.

Master and commander

A sergeant at the Sixty-third Street police station telephoned to say they were holding Douglas. Mrs. Bridge, who had answered the telephone, gasped “Oh, my word!” and hurried into the living room where her husband was stretched out on the sofa listening to Nelson Eddy sing “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.” She knew how much he enjoyed Nelson Eddy and she did not want to interrupt. He was awake, she knew, but his eyes were shut and he was going to be annoyed. Grasping her beads, she leaned over and said, “Walter?”
He opened his eyes and looked up at her. He had been irritated by the ringing telephone and he could not help feeling annoyed with her too, although she would not have interrupted unless the call was important.

Ruth was ready to go out for the evening. Her mother commented on how nicely she was dressed. Mr. Bridge agreed, but he noticed that she was not wearing stockings. He told her to go upstairs and put them on. She said it was too hot to wear stockings.
He said, “Don’t tell me how hot it is! I have seldom been as uncomfortable in my entire life as I was downtown today. Court was like an oven. However, I presented myself as I invariably do despite the heat because it is important to appear respectable. And you will not leave this house looking like a tramp from the North End. You may stay at home and dress as you please, or you may go out when you are respectably dressed. Take your choice. I have nothing further to say.”

“You are not yet twenty-one. Until you are twenty-one you will listen to me.”
“For Christ’s sake. Why do you think I left Kansas City?”
Mr. Bridge was stunned. She had never spoken like this.
“Stop living in the past,” she said. “Don’t you know what year this is? This isn’t the first of the century any longer. Do you expect me to live the way Mother lived?”
“Your mother has always lived a decent life. I thank the Lord that’s not a thing to be ashamed of. I don’t know what sort of a life you are living.”
“I don’t know either. I need to find out.”

[...] of these [temperamental characteristics] the most unmistakable was that despotic obstinacy which could not conceive of surrender, no matter what the cost. He knew this in himself. So he smiled as he considered it in his son.

Discriminatory, really?

Later that night Mrs. Bridge asked if he had found the change. He answered that he had not, and indicated by his tone that he did not want to talk about it again. However, he continued to think about the missing money. He wanted to believe that Harriet [the Black maid] had stolen the coins. There was no proof that she had not. The incident troubled him because it never was resolved. It bothered him like a small sore which healed underneath a scab; and this, too, disappeared at last. But it left a little scar.

He judged from her attitude toward the Negro that she had never been intimate with him. Because of their mutual interest in art exhibits and plays and so forth they had attended one or two of these things together. That was all. Yet they had gone together, they had been seen together, probably they had eaten together. Perhaps this intermingling of the races was inevitable. In centuries to come it might be all right. But not now.
A few days after returning to Kansas City he noticed a story in the Wall Street Journal about the factors responsible for success in business. It was headlined “All Men Are Not Created Equal.” He clipped out this headline and saved it.

“There are plenty of decent colored schools.”
“Yes, I imagine,” she said, dipping her fingers into the jar of cream.
“Why doesn’t the boy pick one of those schools? Why the devil does he want to go to Harvard?”
“Goodness, I’m not the person to ask,” she replied. She continued stroking the cream on her face. “But it’s hardly a mystery. Harvard is such a fine school.”
“It is a fine school. A very fine school. It’s a very fine school indeed.”
Because of his tone she paused. She glanced at him in the mirror. “If Harriet’s nephew wishes to attend Harvard don’t you think he has every right to?”
“Junior Dewes, or whatever his name is, has the right to apply for admission. He does not necessarily have the ‘right’ to attend Harvard.”
“Well,” she said, “of course, it isn’t up to me. I haven’t the faintest idea whether or not they’re going to accept him. I suppose that’s up to the Board of Trustees, or whoever makes these decisions.”
“If you want my opinion, that boy is asking for trouble. Why does he want to attend Harvard? There have been any number of Negroes who became respected, influential men without going to a white school. Look at George Washington Carver! Look at Booker T. Washington! Lord, these men managed to get a fine education without doing what this boy in Cleveland wants to do. [...] No good will come of it,” he said as he paced the bedroom pulling at the tassels of his robe.”

Evan S. Connell - Mr. Bridge (Counterpoint, 2005) [1969]