I first met Tom Barclay at my husband’s funeral, as he recalled to me later, though he made so little impression on me at the time that I had no recollection of ever having seen him before. Mr. Garrick, the undertaker, was in the habit of calling Student Aid, at the University, for boys to help him out, but one of those chosen that day, a junior named Dan Lacey, couldn’t come for some reason, and his father asked Tom as a favor to go in his place. Tom, though he’d graduated the year before, did the honors with me, calling for me and bringing me home in a big shiny limousine. But he rode up front with the driver, so we barely exchanged five words, and I didn’t even see what he looked like. Later, he admitted he saw what I looked like—not my face, as I was wearing a veil, but my "beautiful legs," as he called them. If I paid no attention to him, I had other things on my mind: the shock of what had happened to Ron, the tension of facing police, and the sudden, unexpected glimpse of my sister-in-law’s scheme to steal my little boy. Ethel is Ron’s sister, and I know quite well it’s tragic that as a result of surgery she can never have a child of her own. I hope I allow for that. Still and all, it was a jolt to realize that she meant to keep my Tad. I knew she loved him, of course, when I went along with her suggestion, as we might call it, that she take him until I could ‘readjust’ and get back on my feet. But that she might love him too much, that she might want him permanently, was something I hadn’t even dreamed of.
I caught on soon enough, though, when she came over, at graveside. Leaving Jack Lucas, her husband, and Mr. and Mrs. Medford, her parents, who of course were also Ron’s parents, she first shook hands with Dr. Weeks, and I suppose thanked him for the beautiful service he’d conducted, and then came over to me. "Well, Joan," she began, "you got what you wanted at last—I hope you’re satisfied."
"What’s that supposed to mean?" I asked her.
"I think you know."
"If I did I wouldn’t be asking. Say it."
"Well the police certainly thought it funny, as everyone else did—you putting him out in the rain, in nothing but his pajamas, so he had to drive somewhere to get taken in, and if he crashed on a culvert wall I don’t think you were really surprised—or much upset."
"I put him out," I told her, "after he came home drunk at two o’clock Sunday morning, woke me hollering for another beer, and then got the bright idea of punishing Tad for something he did week before last—and Tad still healing from the last time. I knew nothing about the car he had borrowed over the weekend, which must have been at the curb, keys still in the ignition, for him to be able to drive off the way he did. Nor did I pay much attention when I looked out and found him gone. By that time, nothing he did or could do would surprise me, and as soon as I got Tad quiet I went to bed. It wasn’t until the afternoon, when he was finally identified, that I found out what had happened to him. So if you think I planned it that way, you’re mistaken."
"So you say."
"And so you’ll say too."
"...I beg your pardon, Joan?"
"Say it, Ethel, what I told you to say, that you’re mistaken—or I’m slapping your face right here, in front of Dr. Weeks, in front of the Medfords, in front of Ron’s friends, in a way you won’t forget. Ethel—"
"I was mistaken."
"I thought you were."
"I said it. I don’t think it."
"What you think means less than nothing to me. What you say does, and it better correspond." We stood there glaring at each other, but then ice water began to drip down my back. It crossed my mind, suppose she really gets mean, and tells me to come get Tad? I thought: I can’t take him yet, as I can’t work if I have to stay with him, and I had to get work to eat, and also pay for him, as of course I couldn’t just sponge his keep off Ethel. I felt myself swallowing, then swallowing again, and at last swallowing hard. I said: "Ethel, I apologize for my tone. I’ve been through quite a lot, and being accused of murder, or something that sounds a lot like it, is more than I can take. So—"
"It’s O.K. I make allowance."
"Now, may we get on?"
"If you’re talking about Tad, everything’s taken care of, and there’s nothing to get on to."
"Then, I thank you."
But I sounded stiff, and she snapped: "Joan, there’s nothing to thank me for, Tad’s my own flesh and blood. He’s welcome and more than welcome, for as long as may be desired. And the longer that is, the better I’m going to like it."
That’s when she overshot it, not so much by what she said, as by the look in her eye as she said it. And that’s when I woke up, to the fact it was not at all like her to take things lying down, especially an insult from me, and if she did take it, there had to be a reason. It brought me up short, but what could I do about it, especially here by the side of Ron’s grave, with his father, mother, and friends still whispering nice things about him? There was nothing that I could think of, as slaps wouldn’t cover it, or make any sense at all—they never made sense actually, as I had often found out to my sorrow, and would shortly find out again. All I could do was blink, and I heard myself ask, very meekly: "Where is Tad, by the way?"
"Joan, I thought best not to have a three-year-old child at the service, but he’s in good hands and there’s no need for you to worry."
What made me turn I don’t know—she may have glanced over my shoulder—but anyway, I did, and there not far away was my son, playing beside Ethel’s car, still favoring his left arm when picking up his ball, while Eliza, the woman who did Ethel’s cleaning, looked on. I started for him, remembered, and lifted my veil, throwing it up on my hat. About that time he saw me, and came running, but in the way a three-year-old runs, leaning over forward, his feet having a hard time keeping up with his head. They didn’t quite, but as he toppled I caught him. He wailed at the touch of my hand against his shoulder. I moved my hand and held him close and kissed him and loved him. When we’d had our beautiful moment Eliza assured me: "He’s been like a lamb, Miss Joan—no trouble at all. I was so sorry, what happened to Mr. Ron."
"Thanks Eliza, that helps."
"Want me to take him now?"
When I got back, Ethel had rejoined her parents and Jack. I thanked Dr. Weeks, shook hands with Ron’s friends, men he knew from the bars mostly, a none-too-refined bunch in work pants and windbreakers, but very well-behaved. Then I nodded to Mr. and Mrs. Medford, who nodded in return, coldly, and it was easy to see they believed Ethel’s nonsense. Then I rejoined Tom, who had withdrawn a few feet when Ethel came to me. "Are we ready?" I asked him.
"Any time you are, Mrs. Medford."
And so, on an afternoon in spring, I left the cemetery in College Park, Maryland, and headed for my home in Hyattsville, some five miles down the line, a suburb of Washington, D.C., to face the rest of my life, with a living to make, for myself and my little son, and no idea at all how to do it. So who am I, and why am I telling this? My maiden name is Joan Woods, and I was born in Washington, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh. My father, Charles Woods, is a lawyer and a community leader, with only one fault that I know of: He does what my mother says, always. At seventeen, I entered the University of Pittsburgh, but then opportunity knocked at my door: a boy from a steel family fell in love with me, and presently asked me to marry him. My mother was quite excited, and my father yessed her completely. But Fred bored me to tears, and a situation developed. To give it a chance to clear up, I took myself off to Washington, where a girl I knew had a job on "the Hill," as it’s called. She thought she could work me in too, and after taking me into her apartment, had me "stand by" for her call. Actually, it was "sit by," all day long, which can get tiresome, I found, as well as murderously lonesome. When the boy down the hall knocked I let him in, and one thing led to another. Next time, I was pregnant. But I knew nothing at all of anything that could be done. So far as I was concerned, a pregnant girl got married, which I did. To call Ron a reluctant bridegroom would be the understatement of the year. He hated getting married, hated little Tad, and I think hated me.
My mother hated me, and my father cut me off. I was left at the mercy of the Medfords, who I think hated me too, just to make it unanimous. Mr. Medford gave Ron a job, as a salesman in his real estate firm, and Ron did quite well—except he kept getting drunk. Then Mr. Medford would fire him, but hire him on again the following week. He fired and rehired him so often that Ron began gagging about it, calling himself Finnegan Medford, though that ended for good when Ron ruined the sale to the Castles, turning up drunk the way he did and putting his hands on Mrs. Castle, accidentally he claimed. There was no hiring him again after that, and Ron spent the months that followed cursing his father’s name, and my name, and our son’s, but not earning any income, so that our savings ran out and the utility companies wouldn’t hear excuses anymore and turned off service at our house. The house—Mr. Medford also gave us that, or half gave it to us, leaving a $7,500 mortgage dangling, as an "incentive" to Ron, he said, to straighten himself up and accept responsibility. It had no such effect, but it did make me gray in my teens, finding $110 each month for the amortization payments, back when there was still money to be found. Now there was none, and the foreclosure warnings had begun to arrive by mail.
It was in front of this house, a bungalow from the 1920s, that we stopped that day of the funeral, with Tom jumping out, handing me down, and waiting on the sidewalk while I ran up on the porch, found my key, and unlocked the front door. Then I turned, waved, and (he insisted later) blew him a kiss (which I don’t believe), having no idea at all that at that moment I was looking straight at my job, in a restaurant down the hill, and at the man I would come to crave as I crave life itself.
So what’s the fly in the ointment, and why am I taping this? It’s in the hope of getting it printed to clear my name of the slanders against me, in connection with the job and the marriage it led to and all that came after—always the same charge, the one Ethel flung at me of being a femme fatale who knew ways of killing a husband so slick they couldn’t be proved. Unfortunately, they can’t be disproved either, at least in a court of law, for as long as the papers say "it is alleged," you can’t sue anyone. All I know to do is tell it and tell it all, including some things no woman would willingly tell. I don’t look forward to it, but if that’s how it has to be, it’s how it has to be.
Whatever I did, Tom blew me a kiss, and drove off.
Copyright © 2012 by the Estate of James M. Cain.