The first winter of our married life, we lived in a slum near the edge of the Wabash. The university had thrown up half a dozen prefabricated duplexes during the war and rented them out to the faculty whom it also impoverished in other ways. The war was over. I had persuaded Martha to marry me. I carried certain glorious credentials, and we were both ready to make a start in life, as the saying was then. It proved a bitter winter in every respect. We lived side by side with a fellow from biology: his sink butted our sink; his John rubbed the rear of ours; the shower stalls were linked; and we shared laundry and storage sheds like a roll towel in a public lavatory. Our garbage went in a common can and we parked our cars nose to tail in the street like sniffing dogs. Often the mailman got our letters mixed.
In front, the property was divided in fair-minded halves the way Solomon, in his wisdom, would surely have apportioned it (around their gum tree they planted crocus bulbs, while around our Chinese elm we put in daffs); but the backyard was enclosed by a weak wire fence which any gumptious turf would have shoved aside in a single season. There our lawn lay in pale passivity while weeds pushed through its flimsy sod like the spikes of a florist’s frog. We were conscientious renters, though, and by unspoken agreement, took carefully measured turns to mow the dandelions and plantain down.
The walls were thin, and soon we were sharing our quarrels too. The sounds of love-making passed between us like cups of borrowed sugar, and cooking odours were everywhere like the same paint. When the cold water tap on our tub was first turned, a shudder went through the pipe to which it was attached, it seemed to me, all the way to the reservoir. A single furnace fired us, but somehow all our ducts were tangled, so that the moans and groans of the house would wander like lost souls, carried through them on the warm rising air, to emerge with a bright irrelevant clarity (‘. . . on the sofa . . .’ ‘Carrie called . . . ‘ ‘ . . . later . . . – n’t the time . . . ‘) in any odd place at all and abruptly as a belch – occasionally even returning to the room where they’d been made – echoes as battered as our cooking pans.
When we met on the walk outside, often hugging groceries or lugging books – just because we heard our toilets flush – we scarcely spoke, our heads hidden behind redly stencilled paper sacks; and in the laundry room, encounters were so brief and polite the gas man knew us better. Martha’s ardour oddly came and went, and although I knew it was connected with the goings-on next door, it did not simply wax and wane with them; the correlation was more complicated, duplicitous, remote.
We were soon ashamed of our own sounds, as if every sign of life we made were a form of breaking wind. We were ashamed because we believed we heard the pop and creak of their floors, their stairs and settling springs, when normally we never noticed our own; because the scream of their kettle called us to our quiet kitchen; because we struggled to restore some sense to the voices which burbled and rumbled behind our common walls as one strains a pulpy juice for jelly; and we had to assume that they were curious too, had exchanged lewd grins, held fingers aside their noses like Santa Claus in that stupid poem, and had at least once listened through a wine glass to passages of passion of one kind or other. They would have been mostly about money, then, for at that time we hadn’t any, nor could we hear any harmony in the loose rattle of our change; so we fought like children about whether we should spend or save.
Martha kept faith in a challenging future. I lapsed like an unpaid policy. Hence Martha conserved while I consumed. She sold. I bought. She bawled me out. She wanted me to quit smoking. It was a selfish habit, she said. She claimed we couldn’t afford to buy books or pay dues in my damn clubs or fees for regular check-ups. Nothing’s going to go wrong with a nice soft body like yours, she said, palping me like a roasting turkey. The university’s library was large. There were lots of free lectures, and all the good movies would come round again like the famous comets. But who wants to watch a film as ancient as the family album? who cares about last year’s lovers, or all those stabbings stale as buns, or auto chases on worn-out tyres, I said, exasperation showing in my prose.
But we cut back. We inspected the dates on our pennies. I felt like a shabby freeloader, attending receptions just to snuffle up the cake and cookies, pocket mints. We kept magazines until they were old enough to be reread; converted boxes, cans, and jars, by means of découpage, a little sanding and shellac, into jaundiced baskets, pencil crocks and letter bins – Christmas presents for the folks which only cost us our pride. I licked her slender virginal lips like a Roman emperor. The simple pleasures are the best, she said. I cadged returnables from our neighbour’s trash; she returned the empties, saved trading stamps, suggested an extensive use of departmental stationery, the department phone for distant friends. Off and on I’d hunger for a steak, a melon, or a mound of shrimp. I think the wine we drank was trampled in Vermont.
Indiana’s cold came down the river like a draft, and the deep grey sky grew closer every day. Chimney smoke seemed simply an extension of it, as did one’s steaming breath. I had suffered many a Midwest winter, but I had never been married to the snow. During an embrace, I would discover my arm clamped about my wife’s waist like a frozen limb.
At first the snow helped. It kept us in. We played parchesi to calm our nerves. Martha would cook chicken livers again, and then, because they were so cheap – dear god – immediately again. She recommended peanut butter and claimed beans were a good buy. They blow balloons up your ass, I’d shout, with an embarrassed unoriginality, and then we would both look warily up and down, ducking the outcry as if I’d just hurled a tennis ball against the wall. In this toilet-tissue house, I’d hiss poisonously in her ear, we can’t afford to fart. Then even when there was boot-deep snow, a cold scarf of wind, I’d leave the place to pout, closing the front door cautiously, violence in my silent face.
They’d designed our building like a pair of paper mittens, but the left mitten had been limp when we moved in, otherwise we might have been warned; and when its new tenants arrived, we found nothing amiss in the movers’ tread or the gruff reality of their voices. The clear scrape of cardboard cartons did not trouble us, or the thump of heavy chests. Besides, it was warm, and windows were open. We simply had new neighbours. There was a hand now stuffed in the other glove. The noise was natural. Things would settle down. We hoped they would prove to be sympathetic types, maybe even friends. Then a headboard bumped rhythmically against what we’d thought was our most private wall. Their vacuum cleaner approached and receded like a train. Waters were released which gushed and roared and even whistled. Didn’t I hear a male voice singing ‘Lazy Mary’ one morning? Whose life could ever be the same?
After that we tiptoed, grew footpads, became stealthy. When we heard their closet hangers jangle like cattle on a hill far away, we shut our doors so silently the latches snicked like a rifle. I had heard his heavy smoker’s hack (hollow, deep and wet as a well), so we took multivitamins to ward off coughs, then syrups to stifle them when colds caught us anyway, and increasingly felt like thieves and assassins.
Our ears were soon as sensitive as a skinless arm, and we spoke in whispers, registered the furtive drip of remote taps. It was like living in front of a mike as you might pose and smirk in front of a mirror. We heard ourselves as others might hear us; we read every sound the way we read the daily paper; and we came to feel as though we were being chased, caught, charged and humiliatingly arraigned for crimes against the public silence – for making obscene sounds at the symphony or crying out loud at the circus.
In the flush of our shame, we wanted no one to know us, so we held hats in front of our voices, coats over our sinks and grains. We treated even the crudest iron cooking pot as if it were Limoges, slowing our motions as movies had shown us we should to defuse explosives. I ceased singing in the shower. We kissed only in distant corners, and as quietly as fish. We gave up our high-spirited games. Martha no longer cried out when she came, and I grew uncertain of her love. Small incidents were absurdly enlarged the way the whine of a mosquito is magnified by an enclosing darkness: a fallen spoon sounded like a broken jar, a shattered glass was a spilled tray, a dropped book a bomb. I exaggerate now, but it’s true that as our neighbours sensed our presence the way we had theirs, they sent their sounds to Coventry too, and the house was shortly filled – palpably stuffed – with silence like a stomach’s ache.
I began to suffer from insomnia. The dark boneless hollow of our bedroom seemed the menacing shape of my future, and I stared into it as if the energy of my eyes would act as a light. Maybe, less than a forearm away, another husband was doing the same – one whole half of his hopes discovered to be empty as a soldier’s sleeve. It was not the kind of commencement I had counted on. I thought of my career (it was the commonest cliché) as one great climb – stretches of superhuman effort spelled by brief stops for rest and acclimation. People and towns would assume their true size, dwindling like the past behind me, becoming merely part of the grand patterns of history. I knew I would have to strain every nerve (as it was uncomfortably put) to realize my ambitions. A simple inspection of the past was child’s play, but the composition of history was not a young man’s work; it was not an arena for the display of an ill-informed or immature mind; no inept cape, however flamboyant, could turn aside the charges of time; it was not everybody’s satisfying hobby or soothing Sunday scribble; for how many great ones were there in a century? when poets were as plentiful as pilchards and paintings bloomed like fields of fall weeds. I would have to climb beyond bias, become Olympian, part the clouds; and already I have resolved to work with material so racial and rednecked and cruel and costly (the extirpation of the Jews exceeded any subject), what tools or gloves or masks or prophylactic washing up would protect me from contamination? It was not like the commitment of the poet, whose projects were likely to last as long as his latest erection – whether for elegy, ode, or little lyric – or till the clit was rubbed like an angry correction
I suddenly realized, considering this, that perhaps I spent so readily because I felt more secure in my future, while Martha conserved because she felt she hadn’t any.