They were finding again the Christmas spirit that had been lost through the war years. All of his intimates were still fighting in Europe or the Pacific, and it was as much for the thought of them as for Biddy that Neil and Vestal bustled all over town, buying a Christmas tree a full month early.
They hoped to have Belfreda as a sweet and trusting member of the Yuletide family, and Vestal throbbed at her, “Mr. Kingsblood and I have already found the jolliest tree, and the expressman is bringing it here tonight. We’ll keep it in the garage. Wouldn’t you like to help us — you know, make a little ceremony of it? The tree is just as much for you as it is for us, of course.”
“We got our own tree, at home.”
“Oh, do you have Christmas trees on Mayo Street?”
“Yes, we got Christmas trees on Mayo Street! And we got families on Mayo Street!”
Vestal was more furious with herself than with the girl. She perceived that she had been assuming that Christmas was a holiday invented by the Pilgrim Fathers at Plymouth, along with Santa Claus and yule-logs and probably the winter solstice, and must all be delightful novelties to persons of African descent. She stuttered:
“Yes, I meant — I didn’t mean — I just thought it might amuse you —”
Belfreda said airily, “No, thanks. I’m going out with my boyfriend this evening,” and she departed, leaving Vestal and Neil flat in the kitchen which they had once loved, but which Belfreda had turned into an alien and hostile cave.
“Oh, let’s get out of here! The place reeks of her,” Neil raged. “Yes, I’ve got so I hate to come in here. She acts as if I were an intruder — as though I was going to snoop into the refrigerator and see if she keeps it clean.”
“Well, you do. And she doesn’t.”
“What gets me is the way she just looks at you, if you ask her to do anything unusual. She always does what you tell her, but she always makes you think she’s going to refuse, and then you wonder what you’ll do — fire her or apologize. Oh, dear!”
Neil boasted, “I’ve got so I can laugh off that look, but what gets me is the way she never empties all the ash-trays. By God, she’ll leave one of them dirty, even if it kills her. I’ll bet she makes a memo to do it.”
“That doesn’t worry me as much as that sullen look, as though she’s going to get out a razor.”
“I believe the ice pick is preferred now, by the better smokes,” said Neil. “Oh, I’m sorry. That sounds snooty. Poor Belfreda — dirty dishes all day. We’ve got a phobia on the dinges.”
But after dinner, the next evening, Neil again viewed with alarm:
“We’ve got to do something about our Topsy. Maybe it’s time to fire her. That was the worst meal she’s ever given us. She managed to fry the meat hard as leather and — I thought all zigs were wonderful at sweet potatoes, to which they’re believed to be related, but she does something to them that makes ’em taste like squash. And I swear, this is the fourth time this week she’s given us that same pudding.”
“Second. But I do hope I can persuade her to do something different for the Havocks tomorrow evening. I dislike Curtiss so much that we simply have to give him a wonderful spread.”
For the preparation of that wonderful spread, Belfreda did do something different. She failed to appear at all.
Curtiss, son of the lusty contractor, Boone Havock, had always been a mistake. He had probably been confused in the cradle by the boisterousness of his father, the screaming humor of his mother. He was a large lout, good-looking in a sulky way, and he had a large allowance, but he had never been popular with the girls whose love he had tried to buy or the boys with whom he sought companionship in boozing.
In the single month of January, 1942, Curtiss had married Nancy Pzort, who came from a family of inconsiderable market-gardeners, their daughter, Peggy, had been born, and Curtiss had run off to join the Marines. When he was invalided out, as a corporal, his father, though he noisily disapproved of HIS son’s having married a dollarless Slav, arranged for Curtiss a makeshift job in the Blue Ox National Bank, and bought for the young couple a fancy villa of stucco and green tiles, next-door to Neil.
As a veteran of four, Biddy considered the Havocks’ Peggy, at two and three-quarters, a mere child, but they played together all day. Curtiss assumed that as a fellow-banker and old schoolmate, Neil must love him and desire to listen to his damp stories about chasing stenographers. Curtiss was, in fact, a nuisance.
He dropped in at any time from before breakfast to after midnight, expecting coffee, expecting a highball, expecting an audience, and Neil and Vestal were so annoyed by him that they were extra careful to be cordial. And they were sorry for little Nancy Pzort Havock, that poor child of nature inducted into a family of bank-robbers.
The Kingsbloods were having the Curtiss Havocks in for dinner, this mid-December evening.
Vestal looked forward to it calmly and resolutely. She went to the market for squabs, chestnuts, and mushrooms, and on the morning of the ordeal, she begged of Belfreda, in the manner of a new captain addressing an old top-sergeant, “Look, uh, honey, I’ll be away for lunch — just give Biddy her cereal. Now see if you can’t run up a dinner that’ll knock the Havocks’ eyes out tonight. You’ll have all day for it. Use the good silver and the lace tablecloth.”
Belfreda only nodded, and Vestal went off merrily. Neil would come home by bus; it was her day to have the car; and she was a gallant spectacle as she sped to the Women’s Club for bridge-luncheon.
She went with Jinny Timberlane out to the Judge’s smart house in the Country Club District. Jinny had a new moleskin winter suit that was a sight worth traveling for, and Vestal did not go home till after six. She hoped that Belfreda would have the table set as well as the squabs cleaned, and that Biddy would be lenient with a tardy mother.
She bounced into a curiously still house that smelled empty. No one answered her “Oo-hoo!” and there was no one upstairs, downstairs, in the kitchen. The squabs remained nakedly in the refrigerator, and on the kitchen table was a note in Belfreda’s writing, which was the smooth machine-made script of a business-college:
“My grandpa sick, I had to go to him, I took Biddy to Grandma Kingsblood’s, maybe back this evening, Belfreda.”
Vestal said one brief and extraordinarily unladylike word and went into action. She telephoned to Neil’s sister, Joan, to bring the baby over, she vaulted into working dress, she cleaned the squabs and mixed the dressing. When Neil came in, she said only, “The dinge has walked out on us for the evening. I knew she was a tart. Set the table. The vulgar lace cloth and all the agony.”
His long and freckled hands were deft, and he did a worthy job, calling to her, “When I get fired, we can hire out as cook and butler.”
“Yes, and don’t think we may not have to, if these Democrats and Communists keep on jacking up the income tax.”
Curtiss and Nancy Havock came in, screaming, at five minutes to seven. If they were late for everything else, they were always a little beforetime for drinks. That good-natured wench, Nancy, dipped the French-fried sweet potatoes into the kettle of fat, while Curtiss volunteered to mix the cocktails, which was unfortunate, as his favorite recipe was ninety per cent. gin, five per cent. vermouth, and five per cent. white mule. By the time they sat down, not later than twenty-five minutes past seven, Curtiss was already full of jollity and viciousness.
“You got to fire that nigger tonight. I always told you they were dogs. If you don’t whip ’em, they don’t respect you. God, I hate the whole black mess of ’em. I know a fellow from Washington that’s right on the inside, and he claims Congress is going to bring back slavery. That would be the smartest thing they ever done. Wouldn’t I like to see one of these nigger college professors sent back to making cotton, and laid over a barrel and getting fifty lashes if he bellyached!”
“Nuts, you got mixed up,” said his wife genially. “What the fellow said was, the big guns in Congress are thinking about moving all the darkies to Africa. That would be a dandy idea.”
Curtiss was sufficiently plastered now to scream at his wife, “So I’m a liar, am I, you little Polack bitch!”
Neil heaved up his great shoulders, preparing to remark, “Havock, I’d like to have you shut up and go home,” but Nancy was rather pleased by such ardent attention, and she crooned, “Why, dearie, I don’t think that’s a nice way to talk.” She beamed on Vestal with, “Yeh, why don’t you can the zig?” (In English, this meant discharge the Negro.) “I know where I can get you a hired girl — my cousin, Shirley Pzort. She’s been working at Wargate’s and they fired her for just necking the least little bit with a foreman.”
That wounded Curtiss’s ever-present pride of gentility, and he observed, “Bad enough for you to have a manure-shoveler for a father and a chippy like Shirley for a cousin, without having her work as a hash-hustler right next door to us — for the son of a tooth-jerker!”
Before Neil could say anything, Vestal had them all out in the kitchen, washing the dishes, and neighborhood amity was preserved, even at the cost of a platter which Curtiss broke.
It must have been by voodoo and clairvoyance that Belfreda came flirting in at the second when Neil had wiped the last saucepan. “Howdy!” she chirruped, and it seemed to Neil that she winked at Curtiss. “My granddad was sick. Sorry. Well, good night, folks!”
If there was gin on her breath, and there probably was, none of them was in a condition to know it. She frisked off to bed without so much as breaking out the ice-cubes which would obviously be needed, if Curtiss was to be kept in the state of imbecility demanded by the Havock idea of hospitality — in their house or anybody else’s. Neil stared after her, but Vestal warned him with, “Hush! After all, she does save me a little work.”
“But she expected us to fire her! She was waiting for it! She had a good come-back all ready. Shame to rob her of the chance. The way she gloated — I’ve got to crack down on her.”
“You leave her alone till after the Christmas cheer, if any, and then I really will hustle and find somebody else,” promised Vestal.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11