ALL that midsummer month Carol was sensitive to Kennicott. She recalled a hundred grotesqueries: her comic dismay at his having chewed tobacco, the evening when she had tried to read poetry to him; matters which had seemed to vanish with no trace or sequence. Always she repeated that he had been heroically patient in his desire to join the army. She made much of her consoling affection for him in little things. She liked the homeliness of his tinkering about the house; his strength and handiness as he tightened the hinges of a shutter; his boyishness when he ran to her to be comforted because he had found rust in the barrel of his pump-gun. But at the highest he was to her another Hugh, without the glamor of Hugh's unknown future.
There was, late in June, a day of heat-lightning.
Because of the work imposed by the absence of the other doctors the Kennicotts had not moved to the lake cottage but remained in town, dusty and irritable. In the afternoon, when she went to Oleson & McGuire's (formerly Dahl & Oleson's), Carol was vexed by the assumption of the youthful clerk, recently come from the farm, that he had to be neighborly and rude. He was no more brusquely familiar than a dozen other clerks of the town, but her nerves were heat-scorched.
When she asked for codfish, for supper, he grunted, "What d'you want that darned old dry stuff for?"
"I like it!"
"Punk! Guess the doc can afford something better than that. Try some of the new wienies we got in. Swell. The Haydocks use 'em."
She exploded. "My dear young man, it is not your duty to instruct me in housekeeping, and it doesn't particularly concern me what the Haydocks condescend to approve!"
He was hurt. He hastily wrapped up the leprous fragment of fish; he gaped as she trailed out. She lamented, "I shouldn't have spoken so. He didn't mean anything. He doesn't know when he is being rude."
Her repentance was not proof against Uncle Whittier when she stopped in at his grocery for salt and a package of safety matches. Uncle Whittier, in a shirt collarless and soaked with sweat in a brown streak down his back, was whining at a clerk, "Come on now, get a hustle on and lug that pound cake up to Mis' Cass's. Some folks in this town think a storekeeper ain't got nothing to do but chase out 'phone-orders. . . . Hello, Carrie. That dress you got on looks kind of low in the neck to me. May be decent and modest — I suppose I'm old-fashioned — but I never thought much of showing the whole town a woman's bust! Hee, hee, hee! . . . Afternoon, Mrs. Hicks. Sage? Just out of it. Lemme sell you some other spices. Heh?" Uncle Whittier was nasally indignant "CERTAINLY! Got PLENTY other spices jus' good as sage for any purp'se whatever! What's the matter with — well, with allspice?" When Mrs. Hicks had gone, he raged, "Some folks don't know what they want!"
"Sweating sanctimonious bully — my husband's uncle!" thought Carol.
She crept into Dave Dyer's. Dave held up his arms with, "Don't shoot! I surrender!" She smiled, but it occurred to her that for nearly five years Dave had kept up this game of pretending that she threatened his life.
As she went dragging through the prickly-hot street she reflected that a citizen of Gopher Prairie does not have jests — he has a jest. Every cold morning for five winters Lyman Cass had remarked, "Fair to middlin' chilly — get worse before it gets better." Fifty times had Ezra Stowbody informed the public that Carol had once asked, "Shall I indorse this check on the back?" Fifty times had Sam Clark called to her, "Where'd you steal that hat?" Fifty times had the mention of Barney Cahoon, the town drayman, like a nickel in a slot produced from Kennicott the apocryphal story of Barney's directing a minister, "Come down to the depot and get your case of religious books — they're leaking!"
She came home by the unvarying route. She knew every house-front, every street-crossing, every billboard, every tree, every dog. She knew every blackened banana-skin and empty cigarette-box in the gutters. She knew every greeting. When Jim Howland stopped and gaped at her there was no possibility that he was about to confide anything but his grudging, "Well, haryuh t'day?"
All her future life, this same red-labeled bread-crate in front of the bakery, this same thimble-shaped crack in the sidewalk a quarter of a block beyond Stowbody's granite hitching-post — —
She silently handed her purchases to the silent Oscarina. She sat on the porch, rocking, fanning, twitchy with Hugh's whining.
Kennicott came home, grumbled, "What the devil is the kid yapping about?"
"I guess you can stand it ten minutes if I can stand it all day!"
He came to supper in his shirt sleeves, his vest partly open, revealing discolored suspenders.
"Why don't you put on your nice Palm Beach suit, and take off that hideous vest?" she complained.
"Too much trouble. Too hot to go up-stairs."
She realized that for perhaps a year she had not definitely looked at her husband. She regarded his table-manners. He violently chased fragments of fish about his plate with a knife and licked the knife after gobbling them. She was slightly sick. She asserted, "I'm ridiculous. What do these things matter! Don't be so simple!" But she knew that to her they did matter, these solecisms and mixed tenses of the table.
She realized that they found little to say; that, incredibly, they were like the talked-out couples whom she had pitied at restaurants.
Bresnahan would have spouted in a lively, exciting, unreliable manner.
She realized that Kennicott's clothes were seldom pressed. His coat was wrinkled; his trousers would flap at the knees when he arose. His shoes were unblacked, and they were of an elderly shapelessness. He refused to wear soft hats; cleaved to a hard derby, as a symbol of virility and prosperity; and sometimes he forgot to take it off in the house. She peeped at his cuffs. They were frayed in prickles of starched linen. She had turned them once; she clipped them every week; but when she had begged him to throw the shirt away, last Sunday morning at the crisis of the weekly bath, he had uneasily protested, "Oh, it'll wear quite a while yet."
He was shaved (by himself or more socially by Del Snafflin) only three times a week. This morning had not been one of the three times.
Yet he was vain of his new turn-down collars and sleek ties; he often spoke of the "sloppy dressing" of Dr. McGanum; and he laughed at old men who wore detachable cuffs or Gladstone collars.
Carol did not care much for the creamed codfish that evening.
She noted that his nails were jagged and ill-shaped from his habit of cutting them with a pocket-knife and despising a nail-file as effeminate and urban. That they were invariably clean, that his were the scoured fingers of the surgeon, made his stubborn untidiness the more jarring. They were wise hands, kind hands, but they were not the hands of love.