John Steinbeck / Johnny "El Oso"
The village of Loma is built, as its name implies, on a low round hill that rises like an island out of the flat mouth of the Salinas Valley in central California. To the north and east of the town a black tule swamp stretches for miles, but to the south the marsh has been drained. Rich vegetable land has been the result of the draining, land so black with wealth that the lettuce and cauliflowers grow to giants.
The owners of the swamp to the north of the village began to covet the black land. They banded together and formed a reclamation district. I work for the company which took the contract to put a ditch through. The floating clamshell digger arrived, was put together and started eating a ditch of open water through the swamp.
I tried living in the floating bunkhouse with the crew for a while, but the mosquitoes that hung in banks over the dredger and the heavy pestilential mist that sneaked out of the swamp every night and slid near to the ground drove me into the village of Loma, where I took a furnished room, the most dismal I have ever seen, in the house of Mrs. Ratz. I might have looked farther, but the idea of having my mail come in care of Mrs. Ratz decided me. After all, I only slept in the bare cold room. I ate my meals in the galley of the floating bunkhouse.
There aren’t more than two hundred people in Loma. The Methodist church has the highest place on the hill; its spire is visible for miles. Two groceries, a hardware store, an ancient Masonic Hall and the Buffalo Bar comprise the public buildings. On the side of the hills are the small wooden houses of the population, and on the rich southern flats are the houses of the landowners, small yards usually enclosed by high walls of clipped cypress to keep out the driving afternoon winds.
There was nothing to do in Loma in the evening except to go to the saloon, an old board building with swinging doors and a wooden sidewalk awning. Neither prohibition nor repeal had changed its business, its clientele, or the quality of its whisky. In the course of an evening every male inhabitant of Loma over fifteen years old came at least once to the Buffalo Bar, had a drink, talked a while and went home.
Fat Carl, the owner and bartender, greeted every newcomer with a phlegmatic sullenness which nevertheless inspired familiarity and affection. His face was sour, his tone downright unfriendly, and yet – I don’t know how he did it. I know I felt gratified and warm when Fat Carl knew me well enough to turn his sour pig face to me and say with some impatience, “Well, what’s it going to be?” He always asked that although he served only whisky, and only one kind of whisky. I have seen him flatly refuse to squeeze some lemon juice into it for a stranger.
Fat Carl didn’t like the fumadiddles. He wore a big towel about his middle and he polished the glasses on it as he moved about. The floor was bare wood sprinkled with sawdust, the bar an old store counter, the chairs were hard and straight; the only decorations were the posters and cards and pictures stuck to the wall by candidates for county elections, salesman and auctioneers. Some of these were many years old. The card of Sheriff Rittal still begged for reelection although Rittal had been dead for seven years.
The Buffalo Bar sounds, even to me, like a terrible place, but when you walked down the night street, over the wooden sidewalks, when the long streamers of swamp fog, like waving, dirty bunting, flapped in your face, when finally you pushed open the swinging doors of Fat Carl’s and saw men sitting around talking and drinking, and Fat Carl coming along toward you, it seemed pretty nice. You couldn’t get away from it.
There would be a game of the mildest kind of poker going on. Timothy Ratz, the husband of my landlady, would be playing solitaire, cheating pretty badly because he took a drink only when he got it out. I’ve seen him get it out five times in a row. When he won he piled the cards neatly, stood up and walked with great dignity to the bar. Fat Carl, with a glass half filled before he arrived, asked, “What’ll it be?”
“Whisky,” said Timothy gravely.
In the long room, men from the farms and the town sat in the straight hard chairs or stood against the old counter. A soft, monotonous rattle of conversation went on except at times of elections or big prize fights, when there might be orations or loud opinions.
I hated to go out into the damp night, and to hear far off in the swamp the chuttering of the Diesel engine on the dredger and the clang of the bucket, and then to go to my own dismal room at Mrs. Ratz’.
Soon after my arrival in Loma I scraped an acquaintance with Mae Romero, a pretty half-Mexican girl. Sometimes in the evenings I walked with her down the south side of the hill, until the nasty fog drove us back into town. After I escorted her home I dropped in at the bar for a while.
I was sitting in the bar one night talking to Alex Hartnell, who owned a nice little farm. We were talking about black bass fishing, when the front doors opened and swung closed. A hush fell on the men in the room. Alex nudged me and said, “It’s Johnny Bear.” I looked around.
His name described him better than I can. He looked like a great, stupid, smiling bear. His black matted head bobbed forward and his long arms hung out as though he should have been on all fours and was only standing upright as a trick. His legs were short and bowed, ending with strange, square feet. He was dressed in dark blue denim, but his feet were bare; they didn’t seem to be crippled or deformed in any way, but they were square, just as wide as they were long.
He stood in the doorway, swinging his arms jerkily the way half-wits do. On his face there was a foolish happy smile. He moved forward and for all his bulk and clumsiness, he seemed to creep. He didn’t move like a man, but like some prowling night animal. At the bar he stopped, his little bright eyes went about from face to face expectantly, and he asked, “Whisky?”
Loma was not a treating town. A man might buy a drink for another if he were pretty sure the other would immediately buy one for him. I was surprised when one of the quiet men laid a coin on the counter. Fat Carl filled the glass. The monster took it and gulped the whisky.
“What the devil – ” I began. But Alex nudged me and said, “Sh.”
There began a curious pantomime. Johnny Bear moved to the door and then he came creeping back. The foolish smile never left his face. In the middle of the room he crouched down on his stomach. A voice came from his throat, a voice that seemed familiar to me.
“But you are too beautiful to live in a dirty town like this.”
The voice rose to a soft throaty tone, with just a trace of accent in the words. “You just tell me that.”
I’m sure I nearly fainted. The blood pounded in my ears. I flushed. It was my voice coming out of the throat of Johnny Bear, my words, my intonation. And then it was the voice of Mae Romero – exact. If I had not seen the crouching man on the floor I would have called to her. The dialogue went on. Such things sound silly when someone else says them. Johnny Bear went right on, or rather I should say I went right on. He said things and made sounds.
Gradually the faces of the men turned from Johnny Bear, turned toward me, and they grinned at me. I could do nothing. I know that if I tried to stop him I would have a fight on my hands, and so the scene went on, to a finish. When it was over I was cravenly glad Mae Romero had no brothers. What obvious, forced, ridiculous words had come from Johnnie Bear. Finally he stood up, still smiling the foolish smile, and he asked again, “Whisky?”
I think the men in the bar were sorry for me. They looked away from me and talked elaborately to one another. Johnny Bear went to the back of the room, crawled under a round card table, curled up like a dog and went to sleep. Alex Hartnell was regarding me with compassion. “First time you ever heard him?”
“Yes, what in hell is he?”
Alex ignored my question for a moment. If you’re worrying about Mae’s reputation, don’t. Johnny Bear has followed Mae before.”
“But how did he hear us? I didn’t see him.”
“No one sees or hears Johnny Bear when he’s on business. He can move like no movement at all. Know what our young men do when they go out with girls? They take a dog along. Dogs are afraid of Johnny and they can smell him coming.”
“But good God! Those voices –”
Alex nodded. “I know. Some of us wrote up to the university about Johnny, and a young man came down. He took a look and then he told us about Blind Tom. Ever hear of Blind Tom?”
“You mean the Negro piano player? Yes, I’ve heard of him.”
“Well, Blind Tom was a half-wit. He could hardly talk, but he could imitate anything he heard on the piano, long pieces. They tried him with fine musicians and he reproduced not only the music but every little personal emphasis. To catch him they made little mistakes, and he played the mistakes. He photographed the playing in the tiniest detail. The man says Johnny Bear is the same, only he can photograph words and voices. He tested Johnny with a long passage in Greek and Johnny did it exactly. He doesn’t know the words he’s saying, he just says them. He hasn’t brains enough to make anything up, so you know that what he says is what he heard.”
“But why does he do it? Why is he interested in listening if he doesn’t understand?”
Alex rolled a cigarette and lighted it. “He isn’t, but he loves whiskey. He knows if he listens in windows and comes here and repeats what he hears, someone will give him whisky. He tries to palm off Mrs. Ratz’ conversation in the store, or Jerry Noland arguing with his mother, but he can’t get whiskey for such things.”
I said, “It’s funny somebody hasn’t shot him while he was peeking in windows.”
Alex picked up his cigarette. Lots of people have tried, but you just don’t see Johnny Bear, and you don’t catch him. You keep your windows closed, and even then you talk in a whisper if you don’t want to be repeated. You were lucky it was dark tonight. If he had seen you, he might have gone through the action too. You should see Johnny Bear screw up his face to look like a young girl. It’s pretty awful.”
I looked toward the sprawled figure under the table. Johnny Bear’s back was turned to the room. The light fell on his black matted hair. I saw a big fly land on his head, and then I swear I saw the whole scalp shiver the way the skin of a horse shivers under flies. The fly landed again and the moving scalp shook it off. I shuddered too, all over.
Conversation in the room had settled to the bored monotone again. Fat Carl had been polishing a glass on his apron towel for the last ten minutes. A little group of men near me was discussing fighting dogs and fighting cocks, and they switched gradually to bullfighting.
Alex, beside me, said, “Come have a drink.”
We walked to the counter. Fat Carl put out two glasses. “What’ll it be?”
Neither of us answered. Carl poured out the brown whisky. He looked sullenly at me and one of his thick, meaty eyelids winked at me solemnly. I don’t know why, but I felt flattered. Carl’s head twitched backed toward the card table. “Got you, didn’t he?”
I winked back at him. “Take a dog next time.” I imitated his clipped sentences. We drank our whisky and went back to our chairs. Timothy Ratz won a game of solitaire and piled his cards and moved up on the bar.
I looked back at the table under which Johnny Bear lay. He had rolled over on his stomach. His foolish, smiling face looked out at the room. His head moved and he peered all about, like an animal about to leave its den. And then he came sliding out and stood up. There was a paradox about his movement. He looked twisted and shapeless, and yet he moved with complete lack of effort.
Johnny Bear crept up the room toward the bar, smiling about at the men he passed. In front of the bar his insistent question arose, “Whisky? Whisky?” It was like a bird call. I don’t know what kind of bird, but I’ve heard it – two notes on a rising scale, asking a question over and over, “Whisky? Whisky?”
The conversation in the room stopped, but no one came forward to lay money on the counter. Johnny smiled plaintively. “Whisky?”
Then he tried to cozen them. Out of his throat an angry woman’s voice issued. “I tell you it was all bone. Twenty cents a pound, and half bone.” And then a man, “Yes, ma’am. I didn’t know it. I’ll give you some sausage to make it up.”
Johnny Bear looked around expectantly. “Whisky?” Still none of the men offered to come forward. Johnny crept to the front of the room and crouched. I whispered, “What’s he doing?”
Alex said, “Sh. Looking through a window. Listen!”
A woman’s voice came, a cold, sure voice, the words clipped. “I can’t quite understand it. Are you some kind of monster? I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen you.”
Another woman’s voice answered her, a voice low and hoarse with misery.
“Maybe I am a monster. I can’t help it. I can’t help it.”
“You must help it,” the cold voice broke in. “Why you’d be better dead.”
I heard a soft sobbing coming from the thick smiling lips of Johnny Bear. The sobbing of a woman in hopelessness. I looked around at Alex. He was sitting stiffly, his eyes wide open and unblinking. I opened my mouth to whisper a question, but he waved me silent. I glanced about the room. All the men were stiff and listening. The sobbing stopped. “Haven’t you ever felt that way, Emalin?”
Alex caught his breath sharply at the name. The cold voice announced, “Certainly not.”
“Never in the night? Not ever – ever in your life?”
“If I had,” the cold voice said, “if ever I had, I would cut that part of me away. Now stop your whining, Amy. I won’t stand for it. If you don’t get control of your nerves I’ll see about having some medical treatment for you. Now go to your prayers.”
Johnny Bear smiled on. “Whisky?” Two men advanced without a word and put down coins. Fat Carl filled two glasses and, when Johnny Bear tossed off one after the other, Carl filled one again. Everyone knew by that how moved he was. There were no drinks on the house at the Buffalo Bar. Johnny Bear smiled about the room and then he went out with that creeping gait of his. The doors folded together after him, slowly and without a sound.
Conversation did not spring up again. Everyone in the room seemed to have a problem to settle in his own mind. One by one they drifted out and the back-swing of the doors brought in little puffs of tule fog. Alex got up and walked out and I followed him.
The night was nasty with the evil-smelling fog. It seemed to cling to the buildings and to reach out with free arms into the air. I doubled my pace and caught up with Alex. “That was it?” I demanded. “What was it all about?”
For a moment I thought he wouldn’t answer. But then he stopped and turned to me. “Oh, damn it. Listen! Every town has its aristocrats, its family above reproach. Emalin and Amy Hawkins are our aristocrats, maiden ladies, kind people. Their father was a congressman. I don’t like this. Johnny Bear shouldn’t do it. Why! they feed him. Those men shouldn’t give him whisky. He’ll haunt that house now….Now he knows he can get whisky for it.”
I asked, “Are they relatives of yours?”
“No, but they’re – why, they aren’t like other people. They have the farm next to mine. Some Chinese farm it on shares. You see, it’s hard to explain. The Hawkins women, they’re symbols. They’re what we tell our kids when we want to – well, to describe good people.”
“Well,” I protested, “nothing Johnny Bear said would hurt them, would it?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what it means. I mean, I kind of know. Oh! Go on to bed. I didn’t bring the Ford. I’m going to walk on home.” He turned and hurried into that slow squirming mist.
I walked along to Mrs. Ratz’ boardinghouse. I could hear the chuttering of the Diesel engine off in the swamp and the clang of the big steel mouth that ate its way through the ground. It was Saturday night. The dredger would stop at seven Sunday morning and rest until midnight Sunday. I could tell by the sound that everything was all right. I climbed the narrow stairs to my room. Once in bed I left the light burning for a while and stared at the pale insipid flowers on the wallpaper. I thought of those two voices speaking out of Johnny Bear’s mouth. They were authentic forces, not reproductions. Remembering the tones, I could see the women who had spoken, the chill-voiced Emalin, and the loose, misery-broken face of Amy. I wondered what caused the misery. Was it just the lonely suffering of a middle-aged woman? It hardly seemed so to me, for there was too much fear in the voice. I went to sleep with the light on and had to get up and later turn it off.
About eight the next morning I walked down across the swamp to the dredger. The crew was busy bending some new wire to the drums and coiling the worn cable for removal. I looked over the job and at about eleven o’clock walked back to Loma. In front of Mrs. Ratz’ boardinghouse Alex Hartnell sat in a model-T Ford touring car. He called to me, “I was just going to the dredger to get you. I knocked off a couple of chickens this morning. Thought you might like to come out and help with them.”
I accepted joyfully. Our cook was a good cook, a big pasty man; but lately I had found a dislike for him arising in me. He smoked Cuban cigarettes in a bamboo holder. I didn’t like the way his fingers twitched in the morning. His hands were clean – floury like a miller’s hands. I never knew before why they called them moth millers, those little flying bugs. Anyway I climbed into the Ford beside Alex and we drove down the hill to the rich land of the southwest. (42) The sun shone brilliantly on the black earth. When I was little, a Catholic boy told me that the sun always shone on Sunday, if only for a moment, because it was God’s day. I always meant to keep track to see if it were true. We rattled down to the level plain.
Alex shouted, “Remember about the Hawkinses?”
“Of course I remember.”
He pointed ahead. “That’s the house.”
Little of the house could be seen, for a high thick hedge of cypress surrounded it. There must be a small garden inside the square too. Only the roofs and the tops of the windows showed over the hedge. I could see that the house was painted tan, trimmed with dark brown, a combination favored for railroad stations and schools in California. There were two wicket gates in the front and side of the hedge. The barn was outside the green barrier to the rear of the house. The hedge was clipped square. It looked incredibly thick and strong.
“The hedge keeps the wind out,” Alex shouted above the roar of the Ford.
“It doesn’t keep Johnny Bear out,” I said. A shadow crossed his face. He waved at a whitewashed square building standing out in the field. “That’s where the Chink sharecroppers live. Good workers. I wish I had some like them.”
At that moment from behind the corner of the hedge a horse and buggy appeared and turned into the road. The gray horse was old but well groomed, the buggy shiny and the harness polished. There was a big silver H on the outside of each blinder. It seemed to me that the check-rein was too short for such an old horse.
Alex cried, “There they are now, on their way to church.”
We took off our hats and bowed to the women as they went by, and they nodded formally to us. I had a good look at them. It was a shock to me. They looked almost exactly as I thought they would. Johnny Bear was more monstrous even than I had known, if by the tone of voice he could describe the features of his people. I didn’t have to ask which was Emalin and which was Amy. The clear straight eyes, the sharp sure chin, the mouth cut with the precision of a diamond, the stiff curveless figure, that was Emalin. Amy was very like her, but so unlike. Her edges were soft. Her eyes were warm, her mouth full. There was a swell to her breast, and yet she did look like Emalin. But whereas Emalin’s mouth was straight by nature, Amy held her mouth straight. Emalin must have been fifty or fifty-five and Amy about ten years younger. I had only a moment to look at them, and I never saw them again. It seems strange that I don’t know anyone in the world better than those two women.
Alex was shouting, “You see what I meant about aristocrats?”
I nodded. It was easy to see. A community would feel kind of – safe, having women like that about. A place like Loma with its fogs, with its great swamp like a hideous sin, needed, really needed, the Hawkins women. A few years there might do things to a man’s mind if those women weren’t here to balance matters.
It was a good dinner. Alex’s sister fried the chicken in butter and did everything else right. I grew more suspicious and uncharitable toward our cook. We sat around in the dining room and drank really good brandy.
I said, “I can’t see why you ever go into the Buffalo. That whisky is –”
“I know,” said Alex. “But the Buffalo is the mind of Loma. It’s our newspaper, our theater and our club.”
This was so true that when Alex started the Ford and prepared to take me back I knew, and he knew, we would go for an hour or two to the Buffalo Bar.
We were nearly into town. The feeble lights of the car splashed about on the road. Another car rattled toward us. Alex swung across the road and stopped. “It’s the doctor, Doctor Holmes,” he explained. The oncoming car pulled up because it couldn’t get around us. Alex called, “Say, Doc. I was going to ask you to take a look at my sister. She’s got a swelling on her throat.”
Doctor Holmes called back, “All right, Alex, I’ll take a look. Pull out, will you? I’m in a hurry.”
Alex was deliberate. “Who’s sick, Doc?”
“Why, Miss Amy had a little spell. Miss Emalin phoned in and asked me to hurry. Get out of the way, will you?”
Alex squawked his car back and let the doctor by. We drove on. I was about to remark that the night was clear when, looking ahead, I saw the rags of fog creeping around the hill from the swamp side and climbing like slow snakes on the top of Loma. The Ford shuddered to a stop in front of the Buffalo. We went in.
Fat Carl moved toward us, wiping a glass on his apron. He reached under the bar for the nearby bottle. “What’ll it be?”
“Whisky.” For a moment a faint smile seemed to flit over the fat sullen face. The room was full. My dredger crew was there, all except the cook. He was probably on the scow, smoking his Cuban cigarettes in a bamboo holder. He didn’t drink. That was enough to make me suspicious of him. Two deck hands and an engineer and three levermen were there. The levermen were arguing about a cutting. The old lumber adage certainly held for them: “Women in the woods and logging in the honky-tonk.”
That was the quietest bar I ever saw. There weren’t any fights, not much singing, and no tricks. Somehow the sullen baleful eyes of Fat Carl made drinking a quiet, efficient business rather than a noisy game. Timothy Ratz was playing solitaire at one of the round tables. Alex and I drank our whisky. No chairs were available, so we just stayed leaning against the bar, talking about sports and markets and adventures we had had or pretended we had – just a casual barroom conversation. Now and then we bought another drink. I guess we hung around for a couple of hours. Alex had already said he was going home, and I felt like it. The dredger crew trooped out, for they had to start to work at midnight.
The doors unfolded silently, and Johnny Bear crept into the room, swinging his long arms, nodding his big hairy head and smiling foolishly about. His square feet were like cats’ feet.
“Whisky?” he chirruped. No one encouraged him. He got out his wares. He was down on his stomach the way he had been when he got me. Sing-song nasal words came out, Chinese I thought. And then it seemed to me that the same words were repeated in another voice, slower and not nasally. Johnny Bear raised his shaggy head and asked, “Whisky?” He got to his feet with effortless ease. I was interested. I wanted to see him perform. I slid a quarter along the bar. Johnny gulped his drink. A moment later I wished I hadn’t. I was afraid to look at Alex; for Johnny Bear crept to the middle of the room and took that window pose of his.
The chill voice of Emalin said, “She’s in here, doctor.” I closed my eyes against the looks of Johnny Bear, and the moment I did he went out. It was Emalin Hawkins who had spoken.
I had heard the doctor’s voice in the road, and it was his veritable voice that replied, “Ah – you said a fainting fit?”
There was a little pause, and then the doctor’s voice again, very softly, “Why did she do it, Emalin?”
“Why did she do what?” There was almost a threat in the question.
“I’m your doctor, Emalin. I was your father’s doctor. You’ve got to tell me things. Don’t you think I’ve seen that kind of a mark on the neck before? How long was she hanging before you got her down?”
There was a longer pause then. The chill left the woman’s voice. It was soft, almost a whisper. “Two or three minutes. Will she be all right, doctor?”
“Oh, yes, she’ll come around. She’s not badly hurt. Why did she do it?”
The answering voice was even colder than it had been at first. It was frozen. “I don’t know, sir.”
“You mean you won’t tell me?”
“I mean what I say.”
Then the doctor’s voice went on giving directions for treatment, rest, milk and a little whisky. “Above all, be gentle,” he said. “Above everything, be gentle with her.”
Emalin’s voice trembled a little. “You would never – tell, doctor?”
“I’m your doctor,” he said softly. “Of course I won’t tell. I’ll send down some sedatives tonight.”
“Whisky?” My eyes jerked open. There was the horrible Johnny Bear smiling around the room.
The men were silent, ashamed. Fat Carl looked at the floor. I turned apologetically to Alex, for I was really responsible. “I didn’t know he’d do that,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
I walked out the door and went to the dismal room at Mrs. Ratz’. I opened the window and looked out into that coiling, pulsing fog. Far off in the marsh I heard the Diesel engine start slowly and warm up. And after a while I heard the clang of the big bucket as it went to work on the ditch.
The next morning one of those series of accidents so common in construction landed on us. One of the new wires parted on the in-swing and dropped the bucket on one of the pontoons, sinking it and the works in eight feet of ditch water. When we sunk a dead man and got a line out to it to pull us from the water, the line parted and clipped the legs neatly off one of the deck hands. We bound the stumps and rushed him to Salinas. And then little accidents happened. A leverman developed blood poisoning from a wire scratch. The cook finally justified my opinion by trying to sell a little can of marijuana to the engineer. Altogether there wasn’t much peace in the outfit. It was two weeks before we were going again with a new pontoon, a new deck hand and a new cook.
The new cook was a sly, dark, little long-nosed man, with a gift for subtle flattery.
My contact with the social life of Loma had gone to pot, but when the bucket was clanging into the mud again and the big old Diesel was chuttering away in the swamp I walked out to Alex Hartnell’s farm one night. Passing the Hawkins place, I peered in through one of the little wicket gates in the cypress hedge. The house was dark, more than dark because a low light glowed in one window. There was a gentle wind that night, blowing balls of fog like tumbleweeds along the ground. I walked in the clear a moment, and then was swallowed in a thick mist, and then was in the clear again. In the starlight I could see those big silver fog balls moving like elementals across the fields. I thought I heard a soft moaning in the Hawkins yard behind the hedge, and once when I came suddenly out of the fog I saw a dark figure hurrying along in the field, and I knew from the dragging footsteps that it was one of the Chinese field hands walking in sandals. The Chinese eat a great many things that have to be caught at night.
Alex came to the door when I knocked. He seemed glad to see me. His sister was away. I sat down by his stove and he brought out a bottle of that nice brandy. “I heard you were having some trouble,” he said.
I explained the difficulty. “It seems to come in series. The men have it figured out that accidents come in groups of three, five, seven, and nine.”
Alex nodded. “I kind of feel that way myself.”
“How are the Hawkins sisters?” I asked. “I thought I heard someone crying as I went by.”
Alex seemed reluctant to talk about them, and at the same time eager to talk about them. “I stopped over about a week ago. Miss Amy isn’t feeling very well. I didn’t see her. I only saw Miss Emalin.” Then Alex broke out, “There’s something hanging over those people, something –”
“You almost seem to be related to them,” I said.
“Well, their father and my father were friends. We called the girls Aunt Amy and Aunt Emalin. They can’t do anything bad. It wouldn’t be good for any of us if the Hawkins sisters weren’t the Hawkins sisters.”
“The community conscience?” I asked.
“The safe thing,” he cried. “The place where a kid can get gingerbread. The place where a girl can get reassurance. They’re proud, but they believe in things we hope are true. And they live as though – well, as though honesty really is the best policy and charity really is its own reward. We need them.”
“But Miss Emalin is fighting something terrible and – I don’t think she’s going to win.” “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know what I mean. But I’ve thought I should shoot Johnny Bear and throw him into the swamp. I’ve really thought about doing it.”
“It’s not his fault,” I argued. “He’s just a kind of recording and reproducing device, only you use a glass of whisky instead of a nickel.”
We talked of some other things then, and after a while I walked back to Loma. It seemed to me that that fog was clinging to the cypress hedge of the Hawkins house, and it seemed to me that a lot of the fog balls were clustered about it and others were slowly moving in. I smiled as I walked along at the way a man’s thought can rearrange nature to fit his thoughts. There was no light in the house as I went by.
A nice steady routine settled on my work. The big bucket cut out the ditch ahead of it. The crew felt the trouble was over too, and that helped, and the new cook flattered the men so successfully that they would have eaten fried cement. The personality of a cook has a lot more to do with the happiness of a dredger crew than his cooking has.
In the evening of the second day after my visit to Alex I walked down the wooden sidewalk trailing a streamer of fog behind me and went into the Buffalo Bar. Fat Carl moved toward me polishing the whisky glass. I cried, “Whisky,” before he had a chance to ask what it would be. I took my glass and went to one of the straight chairs. Alex was not there. Timothy Ratz was playing solitaire and having a phenomenal run of luck. He got it out four times in a row and had a drink each time. More and more men arrived. I don’t know what we would have done without the Buffalo Bar.
At about ten o’clock the news came. Thinking about such things afterwards, you never can remember quite what transpired. Someone comes in; a whisper starts; suddenly everyone knows what has happened, knows details. Miss Amy had committed suicide. Who brought in the story? I don’t know. She had hanged herself. There wasn’t much talk in the barroom about it. I could see the men were trying to get straight on it. I was a thing that didn’t fit into their schemes. They stood in groups, talking softly.
The swinging doors opened slowly and Johnny Bear crept in, his great hairy head rolling, and that idiot smile on his face. His square feet slid quietly over the floor. He looked about and chirruped, “Whisky? Whisky for Johnny?”
Now those men really wanted to know. They were ashamed of wanting to know, but their whole mental system required the knowledge. Far Carl poured a drink. Timothy Ratz put down his cards and stood up. Johnny Bear gulped the whisky. I closed my eyes.
The doctor’s tone was harsh. “Where is she, Emalin?” I’ve never heard a voice like that one that answered, cold control, layer and layer of control, but cold penetrated by the most awful heartbreak. It was a monotonous tone, emotionless, and yet the heartbreak got into the vibrations. “She’s in here, doctor.”
“H-m-m.” A long pause. “She was hanging a long time.”
“I don’t know how long, doctor.”
“Why did she do it, Emalin?”
The monotone again. “I don’t – know, doctor.”
A longer pause, and then “H-m-m. Emalin, did you know she was going to have a baby?”
The chill voice cracked and a sigh came through. “Yes, doctor,” very softly.
“If that was why you didn’t find her for so long – No, Emalin, I didn’t mean that, poor dear.”
The control was back in Emalin’s voice. “Can you make out the certificate without mentioning –”
“Of course I can, sure I can. And I’ll speak to the undertaker too. You needn’t worry.”
“Thank you, doctor.”
“I’ll go and telephone now. I won’t leave you here alone. Come into the other room, Emalin. I’m going to fix you a sedative…”
“Whisky? Whisky for Johnny?” I saw the smile and the rolling hairy head. Fat Carl poured out another glass. Johnny Bear drank it and then crept to the back of the room and crawled under a table and went to sleep.
No one spoke. The men moved up to the bar and laid down their coins silently. They looked bewildered, for a system had fallen. A few minutes later Alex came into the silent room. He walked quickly over to me. “You’ve heard?” he asked softly.
“I’ve been afraid,” he cried. “I told you a couple nights ago. I’ve been afraid,”
I said, “Did you know she was pregnant?”
Alex stiffened. He looked around the room and then back at me. “Johnny Bear?” he asked.
Alex ran his palm over his eyes. “I don’t believe it.” I was about to answer when I heard a little scuffle and looked to the back of the room. Johnny Bear crawled like a badger out of his hole and stood up and crept toward the bar.
“Whisky?” He smiled expectantly at Fat Carl.
Then Alex stepped out and addressed the room. “Now you guys listen! This has gone far enough. I don’t want any more of it.” If he had expected opposition he was disappointed. I saw the men nodding to one another.
“Whisky for Johnny?”
Alex turned on the idiot. “You ought to be ashamed. Miss Amy gave you food, and she gave you all the clothes you ever had.”
Johnny smiled at him. “Whisky?”
He got out his tricks. I heard the sing-song nasal language that sounded like Chinese. Alex looked relieved.
And then the other voice, slow, hesitant, repeating the words without the nasal quality.
Alex sprang so quickly that I didn’t even see him move. His fist splatted into Johnny Bear’s smiling mouth. “I told you there was enough of it,” he shouted.
Johnny Bear recovered his balance. His lips were split and bleeding, but the smile was still there. He moved slowly and without effort. His arms enfolded Alex as the tentacles of an anemone enfold a crab. Alex bent backward. Then I jumped and grabbed one of the arms and wrenched at it, and could not tear it loose. Fat Carl came rolling over the counter with a bung-starter in his hand. And he beat the matted head until the arms relaxed and Johnny Bear crumpled. I caught Alex and helped him to a chair. “Are you hurt?”
He tried to get his breath. “My back’s wrenched, I guess,” he said. “I’ll be all right.”
“Got your Ford outside? I’ll drive you home.”
Neither of us looked at the Hawkins place as we went by. I didn’t lift my eyes off the road. I got Alex to his own dark house and helped him to bed and poured a hot brandy into him. He hadn’t spoken all the way home. But after he was propped in the bed he demanded, “You don’t think anyone noticed, do you? I caught him in time, didn’t I?”
“What are you talking about? I don’t know yet why you hit him.”
“Well, listen,” he said, “I’ll have to stay close for a little while with this back. If you hear anyone say anything, you stop it, won’t you? Don’t let them say it.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He looked into my eyes for a moment, “I guess I can trust you,” he said. “That second voice – that was Miss Amy.”
The Long Valley
#AmericanWriters #JohnSteinbeck #ShortStories #ShortStoriesByJohnSteinbeck #Writes