One winter morning when Father left the Riding Club on horseback and rode through East Fifty-eighth Street, his horse fell with him. Not only did the stupid animal fall but he landed on Father’s foot.
Father pulled his foot out from under, got the horse up, and went on to the Park for his ride. But he found later that one of his toes had been bent and that he couldn’t straighten it out.
This was not only an inconvenience to Father, it was a surprise. He knew other men got smashed up in accidents, but he had assumed that that was because they were brittle. He wasn’t. He was constructed in such a manner, he had supposed, that he couldn’t be damaged. He still believed that this was the case. Yet one of his toes had got bent.
That toe never did straighten out and Father talked of it often. He felt that he had had a strange experience, one that was against Nature’s laws, and he expected those who listened to his story to be deeply concerned and impressed. If they weren’t, he repeated it.
We heard it at home hundreds of times, one year after another. “That’s enough about your toe,” Mother would cry. “Nobody cares about your toe, you know, Clare!”
But Father said that of course people did. He told all his friends at the club. “You know what happened to me? Why, one morning when the pavement was icy, that bay cob that Sam Babcock sold me fell on my toe–and he bent it! Never had such a thing happen to me all my life. Bent my toe! It’s getting a corn on it now. Here. On top. My shoemaker says he can’t fix it. There’s nobody as stupid as a shoemaker, except that bay cob.”
From this time on, although he still was contemptuous of diseases, Father began to dislike to hear any accounts of other men’s accidents. They seemed to him portents of what might happen, even to him.
One day in the country, when he took the train at the Harrison station, he saw a pretty neighbour of ours, young Mrs. Wainwright, sitting in the car with her boy. He stopped to say how d’ye do, intending to sit and talk with her. But she said, as she greeted him, “I’m taking my little son in to the dentist–he’s had such a sad accident, Mr. Day. He’s broken off two front teeth.”
The boy grinned, Father looked at the broken stumps, and his face got all twisted and shocked. “Oh, my God!” he said. “Oh! Oh!” And he hurriedly left her, to sit in some other car. When he got home that evening, he complained about this occurrence, and blamed Mrs. Wainwright for showing him her family horrors.
“Your husband felt so badly about my little boy,” Mrs. Wainwright said next week to Mother. “How sympathetic he is, Mrs. Day.”
A year or so later, Father had another of these situations to face. The doctors had to operate on one of my legs for adhesions. Worst of all, since for some reason I couldn’t be moved at that time to a hospital, I was operated on at home.
They left me feeling comfortable enough, with my leg trussed up in plaster. But Mother was troubled and unhappy about it, and when Father came in and she ran to him to pour out her woes she disturbed him.
He couldn’t get away from it this time. There was no next car to go to. He puckered his face up in misery. He chucked his coat and hat in the closet. He finally told Mother he was sorry for me but he wished she would let him be sorry in peace. The whole damn house was upset, he said, and he wanted his dinner.
When he had his dinner, he couldn’t enjoy it. He could only half enjoy his cigar. He felt distressed but didn’t wish to say so. He was cross to Mother. He swore. Mother said he was heartless and went off to bed.
He felt badly to think that I might be suffering. But he didn’t at all like to feel badly. He didn’t know much about suffering, and the whole situation confused him. He walked up and down and said “Damn.” He said he wished to God that people would take care of themselves the way he did, and be healthy and not bother him this way. Then he lit another cigar, sat down to read, and tried to forget all about it. But as his feelings wouldn’t let him do that, he helplessly frowned at his book.
Mother had told him not to go up to see me, but after a while he just had to. He came quietly up to the top floor, groped around in the dark, and looked in my door. “Well, my dear boy,” he said.
His voice was troubled and tender.
I said, “Hello, Father.”
That made him feel a little better, and he hopefully asked me, “How are you?”
I made an effort and replied, “I’m all right.”
“Oh, damn,” Father said, and went down again.
I knew it was the wrong thing to say. If I had been angry at my leg and the ether, he would have felt reassured. He liked a man to be brave in a good, honest, full-blooded way. He hated to see him merely lie still and pretend he was all right when he wasn’t.
He sat up late, smoking and reading or pacing the floor, and when he went to bed himself he slept badly. That was the last straw. He got up and moved into the spare room in the rear of the house. I was in the room just above. I could hear him talking bitterly to himself about the way they had tucked in the sheets. Even after he had got them fixed properly, his mind was not at rest. He tossed impatiently about, got up and drank some water, said it was too warm, dozed a little, woke up again, hunted around for the switch, turned the light on, and felt miserable. As he never did anything in silence, his resentment burst out in groans. They grew louder and louder.
My leg was feeling easier by that time. I had no pain to speak of, and I slept all that Father would let me. Mother, on the floor below Father, with her ears stuffed with cotton, slept too. But the spare-room bed was by an open window facing the quiet back yards, and as the neighbours, it seemed, had no cotton, they hadn’t much chance to rest.
The next day, Mother happened to stop in to see Mrs. Crane, who lived a few doors away from us, and started to tell her about my operation. But Mrs. Crane interrupted.
“Oh yes, Mrs. Day,” she said. “My daughter and I knew something had happened. It must have been terrible. We were so sorry for him. We could hear him groaning all night. How very hard it must have been for you. My daughter and I got a little sleep toward morning, but I’m afraid you had none at all.”
On her way home, Mother met another of the neighbours, Mrs. Robbins, who lived on the other side of our block in the next street, and whose rear bedrooms faced ours. Mrs. Robbins, too, knew all about it.
“My room is in the front of the house,” she said, “so I didn’t know what had happened until Mr. Robbins told me at breakfast. He talked of nothing else all this morning. He couldn’t believe that I hadn’t heard the–er–your poor son’s dreadful cries.”
Mother waited that evening for Father to get home from his office. The minute he came in, she pounced on him. “Oh, Clare!” she said. “I am so ashamed of you! You get worse and worse. I saw Mrs. Crane today and Mrs. Robbins, and they told me what happened last night, and I don’t believe any of the neighbours got one wink of sleep.”
“Well,” Father answered, “neither did I.”
“Yes, but Clare,” Mother impatiently cried, seizing his coat lapels and trying to shake him, “they thought it was Clarence making those noises and all the time it was you!”
“I don’t give a damn what they thought,” Father said wearily. “I had a bad night.”