"E.J. ELWOOD!" Liz said anxiously. "You aren't listening to anything we're saying. And you're not eating a bit. What in the world is the matter with you? Sometimes I just can't understand you."
For a long time there was no response. Ernest Elwood continued to stare past them, staring out the window at the semi-darkness beyond, as if hearing something they did not hear. At last he sighed, drawing himself up in his chair, almost as if he were going to say something. But then his elbow knocked against his coffee cup and he turned instead to steady the cup, wiping spilled brown coffee from its side.
"Sorry," he murmured. "What were you saying?"
"Eat, dear," his wife said. She glanced at the two boys as she spoke to see if they had stopped eating also. "You know, I go to a great deal of trouble to fix your food." Bob, the older boy, was going right ahead, cutting his liver and bacon carefully into bits. But sure enough, little Toddy had put down his knife and fork as soon as E.J. had, and now he, too, was sitting silently, staring down at his plate.
"See?" Liz said. "You're not setting a very good example for the boys. Eat up your food. It's getting cold. You don't want to eat cold liver, do you? There's nothing worse than liver when it gets cold and the fat all over the bacon hardens. It's harder to digest cold fat than anything else in the world. Especially lamb fat. They say a lot of people can't eat lamb fat at all. Dear, please eat."
Elwood nodded. He lifted his fork and spooned up some peas and potatoes, carrying them to his mouth. Little Toddy did the same, gravely and seriously, a small edition of his father.
"Say," Bob said. "We had an atomic bomb drill at school today. We lay under the desks."
"Is that right?" Liz said.
"But Mr. Pearson our science teacher says that if they drop a bomb on us the whole town'll be demolished, so I can't see what good getting under the desk will do. I think they ought to realize what advances science has made. There are bombs now that'll destroy miles, leaving nothing standing."
"You sure know a lot," Toddy muttered.
"Oh, shut up."
"Boys," Liz said.
"It's true," Bob said earnestly. "A fellow I know is in the Marine Corps Reserve and he says they have new weapons that will destroy wheat crops and poison water supplies. It's some kind of crystals."
"Heavens," Liz said.
"They didn't have things like that in the last war. Atomic development came almost at the end without there really being an opportunity to make use of it on a full scale." Bob turned to his father. "Dad, isn't that true? I'll bet when you were in the Army you didn't have any of the fully atomic --"
Elwood threw down his fork. He pushed his chair back and stood up. Liz stared up in astonishment at him, her cup half raised. Bob's mouth hung open, his sentence unfinished. Little Toddy said nothing.
"Dear, what's the matter?" Liz said.
"I'll see you later."
They gazed after him in amazement as he walked away from the table, out of the dining-room. They heard him go into the kitchen and pull open the back door. A moment later the back door slammed behind him.
"He went out in the back yard," Bob said. "Mom, was he always like this? Why does he act so funny? It isn't some kind of war psychosis he got in the Philippines, is it? In the First World War they called it shell shock, but now they know it's a form of war psychosis. Is it something like that?"
"Eat your food," Liz said, red spots of anger burning in her cheeks. She shook her head. "Darn that man. I just can't imagine --"
The boys ate their food.
It was dark out in the back yard. The sun had set and the air was cool and thin, filled with dancing specks of night insects. In the next yard Joe Hunt was working, raking leaves from under his cherry tree. He nodded to Elwood.
Elwood walked slowly down the path, across the yard towards the garage. He stopped, his hands in his pockets. By the garage something immense and white loomed up, a vast pale shape in the evening gloom. As he stood gazing at it a kind of warmth began to glow inside him. It was a strange warmth, something like pride, a little pleasure mixed in, and -- and excitement. Looking at the boat always made him excited. Even when he was first starting on it he had felt the sudden race of his heart, the shaking of his hands, sweat on his face.
His boat. He grinned, walking closer. He reached up and thumped the solid side. What a fine boat it was, and coming along damn well. Almost done. A lot of work had gone into that, a lot of work and time. Afternoons off from work, Sundays, and even sometimes early in the morning before work.
That was best, early in the morning, with the bright sun shining down and the air good-smelling and fresh, and everything wet and sparkling. He liked that time best of all, and there was no one else up to bother him and ask him questions. He thumped the solid side again. A lot of work and material, all right. Lumber and nails, sawing and hammering and bending. Of course, Toddy had helped him. He certainly couldn't have done it alone; no doubt of that. If Toddy hadn't drawn the lines on the board and --
"Hey," Joe Hunt said.
Elwood started, turning. Joe was leaning on the fence, looking at him. "Sorry," Elwood said. "What did you say?"
"Your mind was a million miles away," Hunt said. He took a puff on his cigar. "Nice night."
"That's some boat you got there, Elwood."
"Thanks," Elwood murmured. He walked away from it, back towards the house. "Goodnight, Joe."
"How long is it you've been working on that boat?" Hunt reflected. "Seems like about a year in all, doesn't it? About twelve months. You sure put a lot of time and effort into it. Seems like every time I see you you're carting lumber back here and sawing and hammering away."
Elwood nodded, moving towards the back door.
"You even got your kids working. At least, the little tyke. Yes, it's quite a boat." Hunt paused. "You sure must be going to go quite a way with it, by the size of it. Now just exactly where was it you told me you're going? I forget."
There was silence.
"I can't hear you, Elwood," Hunt said. "Speak up. A boat that big, you must be --"
Hunt laughed easily. "What's the matter, Elwood? I'm just having a little harmless fun, pulling your leg. But seriously, where are you going with that? You going to drag it down to the beach and float it? I know a guy has a little sail-boat he fits on to a trailer cart, hooks it up to his car. He drives down to the yacht harbor every week or so. But my God, you can't get that big thing on a trailer. You know, I heard about a guy built a boat in his cellar. Well, he got done and you know what he discovered? He discovered that the boat was so big when he tried to get it out the door --"
Liz Elwood came to the back door, snapping on the kitchen light and pushing the door open. She stepped out on to the grass, her arms folded.
"Good evening, Mrs. Elwood," Hunt said, touching his hat. "Sure a nice night."
"Good evening." Liz turned to E.J. "For heaven's sake, are you going to come in?" Her voice was low and hard.
"Sure." Elwood reached out listlessly for the door. "I'm coming in. Goodnight, Joe."
"Goodnight," Hunt said. He watched the two of them go inside. The door closed, the light went off. Hunt shook his head. "Funny guy," he murmured. "Getting funnier all the time. Like he's in a different world. Him and his boat!"
He went indoors.
"She was just eighteen," Jack Fredericks said, "but she sure knew what it was all about."
"Those southern girls are that way," Charlie said. "It's like fruit, nice soft, ripe, slightly damp fruit."
"There's a passage in Hemingway like that," Ann Pike said. "I can't remember what it's from. He compares a --"
"But the way they talk," Charlie said. "Who can stand the way those southern girls talk?"
"What's the matter with the way they talk?" Jack demanded. "They talk different, but you get used to it."
"Why can't they talk right?"
"What do you mean?"
"They talk like -- colored people."
"It's because they all come from the same region," Ann said.
"Are you saying this girl was colored?" Jack said.
"No, of course not. Finish your pie." Charlie looked at his wristwatch. "Almost one. We have to be getting on back to the office."
"I'm not finished eating," Jack said. "Hold on!"
"You know, there's a lot of colored people moving into my area," Ann said. "There's a real estate sign up on a house about a block from me. 'All races welcomed.' I almost fell over dead when I saw it."
"What did you do?"
"I didn't do anything. What can we do?"
"You know, if you work for the Government they can put a colored man or a Chinese next to you," Jack said, "and you can't do anything about it."
"It interferes with your right to work," Charlie said. "How can you work like that? Answer me."
"There's too many pinks in the Government," Jack said. "That's how they got that, about hiring people for Government jobs without looking to see what race they belong to. During WPA days, when Harry Hopkins was in."
"You know where Harry Hopkins was born?" Ann said. "He was born in Russia."
"That was Sidney Hillman," Jack said.
"It's all the same," Charlie said. "They all ought to be sent back there."
Ann looked curiously at Ernest Elwood. He was sitting quietly, reading his newspaper, not saying anything. The cafeteria was alive with movement and noise. Everyone was eating and talking, coming and going, back and forth.
"E.J., are you all right?" Ann said.
"He's reading about the White Sox," Charlie said. "He has that intent look. Say, you know, I took my kids to the game the other night, and --"
"Come on," Jack said, standing up. "We have to get back."
They all rose. Elwood folded his newspaper up silently, putting it into his pocket.
"Say, you're not talking much," Charlie said to him as they went up the aisle. Elwood glanced up.
"I've been meaning to ask you something. Do you want to come over Saturday night for a little game? You haven't played with us for a hell of a long time."
"Don't ask him," Jack said, paying for his meal at the cash register. "He always wants to play queer games like deuces wild, baseball, spit in the ocean --"
"Straight poker for me," Charlie said. "Come on, Elwood. The more the better. Have a couple of beers, chew the fat, get away from the wife, eh?" He grinned.
"One of these days we're going to have a good old stag party," Jack said, pocketing his change. He winked at Elwood. "You know the kind I mean? We get some gals together, have a little show --" He made a motion with his hand.
Elwood moved off. "Maybe. I'll think it over." He paid for his lunch. Then he went outside, out on to the bright pavement. The others were still inside, waiting for Ann. She had gone into the powder room.
Suddenly Elwood turned and walked hurriedly down the pavement, away from the cafeteria. He turned the corner quickly and found himself on Cedar Street, in front of a television store. Shoppers and clerks out on their lunch hour pushed and crowded past him, laughing and talking, bits of their conversations rising and falling around him like waves of the sea. He stepped into the doorway of the television shop and stood, his hands in his pockets, like a man hiding from the rain.
What was the matter with him? Maybe he should go see a doctor. The sounds, the people, everything bothered him. Noise and motion everywhere. He wasn't sleeping enough at night. Maybe it was something in his diet. And he was working so damn hard out in the yard. By the time he went to bed at night he was exhausted. Elwood rubbed his forehead. People and sounds, talking, streaming past him, endless shapes moving in the streets and stores.
In the window of the television shop a big television set blinked and winked a soundless program, the images leaping merrily. Elwood watched passively. A woman in tights was doing acrobatics, first a series of splits, then cartwheels and spins. She walked on her hands for a moment, her legs waving above her, smiling at the audience. Then she disappeared and a brightly dressed man came on, leading a dog.
Elwood looked at his watch. Five minutes to one. He had five minutes to get back to the office. He went back to the pavement and looked around the corner. Ann and Charlie and Jack were no place to be seen. They had gone on. Elwood walked slowly along, past the stores, his hands in his pockets. He stopped for a moment in front of the ten cent store, watching the milling women pushing and shoving around the imitation jewelry counters, touching things, picking them up, examining them. In the window of a drugstore he stared at an advertisement for athlete's foot, some kind of a powder, being sprinkled between two cracked and blistered toes. He crossed the street.
On the other side he paused to look at a display of women's clothing, skirts and blouses and wool sweaters. In a color photograph a handsomely dressed girl was removing her blouse to show the world her elegant bra. Elwood passed on. The next window was suitcases, luggage and trunks.
Luggage. He stopped, frowning. Something wandered through his mind, some loose vague thought, too nebulous to catch. He felt, suddenly, a deep inner urgency. He examined his watch. Ten past one. He was late. He hurried to the corner and stood waiting impatiently for the light to change. A handful of men and women pressed past him, moving out to the curb to catch an oncoming bus. Elwood watched the bus. It halted, its doors opening. The people rushed on to it. Suddenly Elwood joined them, stepping up the steps of the bus. The doors closed behind him as he fished out change from his pocket.
A moment later he took his seat, next to an immense old woman with a child on her lap. Elwood sat quietly, his hands folded, staring ahead and waiting, as the bus moved off down the street, moving towards the residential district.
When he got home there was no one there. The house was dark and cool. He went to the bedroom and got his old clothes from the closet. He was just going out into the back yard when Liz appeared in the driveway, her arms loaded with groceries.
"E.J.!" she said. "What's the matter? Why are you home?"
"I don't know. I took some leave. It's all right."
Liz put her packages down on the fence. "For heaven's sake," she said irritably. "You frightened me." She stared at him intently. "You took leave?"
"How much does that make, this year? How much leave have you taken in all?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know? Well, is there any left?"
"Left for what?"
Liz stared at him. Then she picked up her packages and went inside the house, the back door banging after her. Elwood frowned. What was the matter? He went on into the garage and began to drag lumber and tools out on to the lawn, beside the boat.
He gazed up at it. It was square, big and square, like some enormous solid packing crate. Lord, but it was solid. He had put endless beams into it. There was a covered cabin with a big window, the roof tarred over. Quite a boat.
He began to work. Presently Liz came out of the house. She crossed the yard silently, so that he did not notice her until he came to get some large nails.
"Well?" Liz said.
Elwood stopped for a moment. "What is it?"
Liz folded her arms.
Elwood became impatient. "What is it? Why are you looking at me?"
"Did you really take more leave? I can't believe it. You really came home again to work on -- on that."
Elwood turned away.
"Wait." She came up beside him. "Don't walk off from me. Stand still."
"Be quiet. Don't shout."
"I'm not shouting. I want to talk to you. I want to ask you something. May I? May I ask you something? You don't mind talking to me?"
"Why?" Liz said, her voice low and intense. "Why? Will you tell me that? Why?"
"That. That-that thing. What is it for? Why are you here in the yard in the middle of the day? For a whole year it's been like this. At the table last night, all of a sudden you got up and walked out. Why? What's it all for?"
"It's almost done," Elwood murmured. "A few more licks here and there and it'll be --"
"And then what?" Liz came around in front of him, standing in his path. "And then what? What are you going to do with it? Sell it? Float it? All the neighbors are laughing at you. Everybody in the block knows --" Her voice broke suddenly. "-- Knows about you, and this. The kids at school make fun of Bob and Toddy. They tell them their father is -- That he's --"
"That he's crazy?"
"Please, E.J. Tell me what it's for. Will you do that? Maybe I can understand. You never told me. Wouldn't it help? Can't you even do that?"
"I can't," Elwood said.
"You can't! Why not?"
"Because I don't know," Elwood said. "I don't know what it's for. Maybe it isn't for anything."
"But if it isn't for anything why do you work on it?"
"I don't know. I like to work on it. Maybe it's like whittling." He waved his hand impatiently. "I've always had a workshop of some kind. When I was a kid I used to build model airplanes. I have tools. I've always had tools."
"But why do you come home in the middle of the day?"
"I get restless."
"I -- I hear people talking, and it makes me uneasy. I want to get away from them. There's something about it all, about them. Their ways. Maybe I have claustrophobia."
"Shall I call Doctor Evans and make an appointment?"
"No. No, I'm all right. Please, Liz, get out of the way so I can work. I want to finish."
"And you don't even know what it's for." She shook her head. "So all this time you've been working without knowing why. Like some animal that goes out at night and fights, like a cat on the back fence. You leave your work and us to --"
"Get out of the way."
"Listen to me. You put down that hammer and come inside. You're putting your suit on and going right back to the office. Do you hear? If you don't I'm never going to let you inside the house again. You can break down the door if you want, with your hammer. But it'll be locked for you from now on, if you don't forget that boat and go back to work."
There was silence.
"Get out of the way," Elwood said. "I have to finish."
Liz stared at him. "You're going on?" The man pushed past her. "You're going to go ahead? There's something wrong with you. Something wrong with your mind. You're --"
"Stop," Elwood said, looking past her. Liz turned.
Toddy was standing silently in the driveway, his lunch pail under his arms. His small face was grave and solemn. He did not say anything to them.
"Tod!" Liz said. "Is it that late already?"
Toddy came across the grass to his father. "Hello, boy," Elwood said. "How was school?"
"I'm going in the house," Liz said. "I meant it, E.J. Remember that I meant it."
She went up the walk. The back door slammed behind her.
Elwood sighed. He sat down on the ladder leading up the side of the boat and put his hammer down. He lit a cigarette and smoked silently. Toddy waiting without speaking.
"Well, boy?" Elwood said at last. "What do you say?"
"What do you want done, Dad?"
"Done?" Elwood smiled. "Well, there's not too much left. A few things here and there. We'll be through, soon. You might look around for boards we didn't nail down on the deck." He rubbed his jaw. "Almost done. We've been working a long time. You could paint, if you want. I want to get the cabin painted. Red, I think. How would red be?"
"Green? All right. There's some green porch paint in the garage. Do you want to start stirring it up?"
"Sure," Toddy said. He headed towards the garage.
Elwood watched him go. "Toddy --"
The boy turned. "Yes?"
"Toddy, wait." Elwood went slowly towards him. "I want to ask you something."
"What is it, Dad?"
"You -- you don't mind helping me, do you? You don't mind working on the boat?"
Toddy looked up gravely into his father's face. He said nothing. For a long time the two of them gazed at each other.
"Okay!" Elwood said suddenly. "You run along and get the paint started."
Bob came swinging along the driveway with two of the kids from the junior high school. "Hi, Dad," Bob called, grinning. "Say, how's it coming?"
"Fine," Elwood said.
"Look," Bob said to his pals, pointing to the boat. "You see that? You know what that is?"
"What is it?" one of them said.
Bob opened the kitchen door. "That's an atomic powered sub." He grinned, and the two boys grinned. "It's full of Uranium 235. Dad's going all the way to Russia with it. When he gets through, there won't be a thing left of Moscow."
The boys went inside, the door slamming behind them.
Elwood stood looking up at the boat. In the next yard Mrs. Hunt stopped for a moment with taking down her washing, looking at him and the big square hull rising above him.
"Is it really atomic powered, Mr. Elwood?" she said.
"What makes it run, then? I don't see any sails. What kind of motor is in it? Steam?"
Elwood bit his lip. Strangely, he had never thought of that part. There was no motor in it, no motor at all. There were no sails, no boiler. He had put no engine into it, no turbines, no fuel. Nothing. It was a wood hull, an immense box, and that was all. He had never thought of what would make it go, never in all the time he and Toddy had worked on it.
Suddenly a torrent of despair descended over him. There was no engine, nothing. It was not a boat, it was only a great mass of wood and tar and nails. It would never go, never never leave the yard. Liz was right: he was like some animal going out into the yard at night, to fight and kill in the darkness, to struggle dimly, without sight or understanding, equally blind, equally pathetic.
What had he built it for? He did not know. Where was it going? He did not know that either. What would make it run? How would he get it out of the yard? What was it all for, to build without understanding, darkly, like a creature in the night?
Toddy had worked alongside him, the whole time. Why had he worked? Did he know? Did the boy know what the boat was for, why they were building? Toddy had never asked because he trusted his father to know.
But he did not know. He, the father, he did not know either, and soon it would be done, finished, ready. And then what? Soon Toddy would lay down his paint brush, cover the last can of paint, put away the nails, the scraps of wood, hang the saw and hammer up in the garage again. And then he would ask, ask the question he had never asked before but which must come finally.
And he could not answer him.
Elwood stood, staring up at it, the great hulk they had built, struggling to understand. Why had he worked? What was it all for? When would he know? Would he ever know? For an endless time he stood there, staring up.
It was not until the first great black drops of rain began to splash about him that he understood.