Set primarily in Texas and Oklahoma during the Great Depression, these extraordinary stories display the unique blend of irony, nostalgia, and sharp-edged lyricism that established William Humphrey as one of America’s finest chroniclers of small-town life.
In “The Last Husband,” a bright-eyed newlywed bears witness to the cynical intrigues of an older married couple. “The Human Fly” is the darkly humorous story of a young man’s misguided attempt to create a new identity for himself in the rural Texas community where his name has become a running joke. “Quail for Mr. Forester” is the tender and precisely detailed portrait of a young Southern boy yearning for the glorious past he never knew. In “The Rainmaker,” a self-proclaimed professor of the elements is tarred, feathered, and run out of town for raising a dust storm instead of delivering the promised downpour. He escapes across the Red River and finally succeeds in bringing an end to the drought, only to be forced to flee yet again when a three-day deluge results in disastrous flooding.
Marked by the same originality and artistry that distinguished Home from the Hill and The Ordways as two of the finest novels in American literature, The Collected Stories of William Humphrey is a testament to the breathtaking scope of its author’s vision and the graceful precision of his craft.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of William Humphrey including rare photos form the author’s estate.
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About the Author
A longtime professor of English and writing at Bard College and other schools, Humphrey was the recipient of awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Texas Institute of Arts and Letters.
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The Collected Stories of William Humphrey
By William Humphrey
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1985 William Humphrey
All rights reserved.
Mr. Hardy sat on the edge of the bed waiting for his mind to catch up, and told himself that today he ought to be especially nice to Clara.
He reached for his twist on the nightstand and, marking the spot with his thumb, carefully measured off his morning chew. He wrapped his teeth around it, then decided it wasn't quite what he needed and wrung off a man-sized plug. He gathered his clothes from the chair. In his sock feet, gaiters in his hand, he paused at the door and listened; Clara slept soundly.
Holding a kidney in place, Mr. Hardy bent to light the stove. He spat in the ash box and stashed his quid in the corner of his mouth so he could blow the fire. He set the coffeepot on the lid and put the biscuits in the oven and thought there was time to look the place over a bit before they started in on it, maybe tuck a few old things out of sight that Clara would cry over if she came across them.
The loose floor board just inside the dining room sighed under Mr. Hardy's feet. For the first time in he didn't know how long, he thought of Virgie. She was worn out from her trip, a new bride, new to Texas and scared, but trying to be brave and trying not to show how ugly and ramshackle this house seemed to her, and he said he would get to that board the very next morning.
When he rummaged around in his mind for a picture of her, Mr. Hardy found that Virgie's face and Clara's, like two old tintypes laid face to face in an album, had come off on each other. What would Virgie have come to look like, he wondered, if she had lived? The only way he could picture her was about like Clara looked now. The main thing Mr. Hardy recalled about his first wife was that she died and he married Clara. The three years that lay between had been lost in the shuffle. Mr. Hardy could thumb through his years like pages in a book, but looking up a certain one was like hunting a sentence he had come across years before. "How was it, Mr. Hardy, you took so long about getting married again?" he could remember Clara asking more than once, and of course he answered, "I was a while finding the right woman." It seemed now he hardly waited a decent time after laying Virgie in the ground. Being without a wife had made him feel queer. With three stepchildren to take on, and all boys so she couldn't expect any help with the housework, he was afraid no woman would have him. At the same time he feared some other man might see the day's work Clara Dodson could do and grab her up, she might just be waiting for a chance to lay down, he suspected, when she was mistress of a house of her own.
He needn't have worried about Clara, Mr. Hardy told himself, feeling guilty for standing off and thinking about her in such a cold-hearted way. As long as she was able she worked night and day, and often he wondered if even Virgie could have made a better mother to her boys.
Little by little, as Virgie's belongings got shoved further back in the attic of the house, Virgie had been pushed further and further back in the unused corners of Mr. Hardy's mind. He all but forgot they were Virgie's children, that this had ever been any but Clara's house.
Mrs. Hardy woke up just in time. Breathless, she lay listening to the thump of her heart, sure she had barely missed being taken, and thinking over what a terrible night she had been through. For each time she woke Mr. Hardy to rub her, there were ten times, she thought, when she bore her pain alone and in silence. If only Mr. Hardy would stay awake and talk to her a little while in bed at night. She would have rested ever so much better. Lying there in the quiet with her teeth out unnerved her, made her less certain of things, brought on bad dreams.
Each morning she felt glad all over again that never in thirty years had she once let Mr. Hardy see her with her teeth out. She trusted him not to look when he got up in the morning, and when she had to wake him she always took them from the tumbler first and eased them in. She smiled, thinking how Mr. Hardy always waited then, fumbling around as if he couldn't find the matches—in his own mind giving her a minute to wrap herself modestly—before lighting the lamp.
Mr. Hardy was nice in little ways like that, considerate, not like other men at all, and she ought not to complain if he was so quiet. Men just had little to say. She was used to all kinds, all funny in their own ways and no two alike except in one thing—men just never had much to say, and anything she couldn't put up with was one that did, you couldn't put any trust in them; she had never been much of a talker herself and couldn't stand gabbing women—still, being alone together as they were now, she did wish Mr. Hardy would try to be a little more company to her.
At least when he did find something to say it wasn't like other men, like the husbands of every other woman she could call to mind without exception, something sour-tempered or coarse, as if they begrudged you every word.
Being considerate by nature, Mr. Hardy would have opened out more, she felt, if he had been an American. But the English were close-mouthed and, to tell the truth, a little slow, she had long ago decided. Being English explained a lot of Mr. Hardy's quirks. Many times she had to make amends for his blunt manners to people he never really meant to hurt at all. He saved in niggling little ways. Nobody liked to see waste, but Mr. Hardy took it too far altogether.
It was being English had made him always work so hard, harder than he had to and harder than he need have let the neighbors pass by and see him at. There was nobody to blame but himself that now in his old age he had to sell his home; he had worked all the boys so hard it was no wonder each of them had enough farming by the time he was grown to last him the rest of his life.
Walking quietly, Mr. Hardy looked over the parlor until he saw on the mantelpiece the price tags the auctioneer had left. For weeks Clara had been telling everybody about the sale. She wanted them all to be sure it was not for money, but only because the house was too big, "now that the boys were all gone away," she said with pride, for she thought they had all come up in the world by moving into town. If there was anything that could come over him sometimes and make him feel he couldn't hold his head up before the neighbors, that was it.
It was terrible to have put in fifty years' hard work on a place and raised eight boys on it and there be not one among them willing to take up when you had done all you could and put in an honest day's work to keep it in the family. A great big bunch of conniving schemers with pasty-faced, shifty-eyed youngsters growing up just like them or worse. City slickers, that was what he had raised and whose bread he would have to eat from now on.
Clara, he expected, was looking forward to leaving, and he couldn't really blame her. It was a big house, and though they used little of it, hard to keep up. The very idea of a colored woman coming in to do the cleaning, handling all her stuff and dropping and breaking things, was enough to bring on one of her attacks. She would enjoy moving from one of the children to another in the time left them and he supposed that was how it would be. For a while he told himself they might take what money the old place brought and buy a little one with a couple of rooms and garden space, but Clara would never be happy in it, she would be mortified before the neighbors. A woman would rather have no home of her own at all than one without a big parlor with a sofa in it, and he had known all along it wouldn't turn out the way he wanted. A time came when you were too old for starting over.
Mrs. Hardy came into the kitchen rubbing her eyes and smelled the biscuits burning. She was in time, but if they had been burnt to a crisp, the idea of Mr. Hardy thinking to get breakfast would have made up for it. She thought of the day that lay ahead of her and how all sad things bring a little sweet with the bitter. Waiting for the eggs to boil she wondered what Mr. Hardy found so interesting he forgot about the biscuits. He was always mindful of such things, forever saying, "Now, Clara, don't forget about the biscuits," when to be sure she had forgot, her mind a thousand miles away.
When the eggs were done and still Mr. Hardy didn't come, she began to fidget. There were things about this day she had been dreading for weeks, and now she hoped he hadn't stumbled across a reminder of some old sadness and she not by his side to comfort him. Most such things had been done away with as she gradually made life easier for him, but some few, she always feared, might still be lying about.
She listened for his step in the attic. Could Mr. Hardy be sitting up there going through that box of Virgie's old things, too engrossed to stir?
He came in from outside, looking a little sheepish, it seemed to her. He had let the biscuits burn, she told him, and waited for him to say where he had been. She ought to try to get a bite down, he said, but the idea of food simply gagged her. Mr. Hardy felt he was not showing his own sense of the sadness of this day and pushed his plate back, but she said just because she couldn't eat he mustn't let that stop him.
She sighed and said she didn't know where to begin. It made no difference as far as he could see. He dug a pencil stub out of the silverware drawer. In the parlor they tried to choose what to hang the first tag on. She would have started in on little things and gradually got herself used to the idea, but Mr. Hardy went straight over to the player piano, the biggest thing in the room and the one over which she would have hesitated longest. Mr. Hardy stepped back and looked at it and thought it made the piano look suddenly very important. He imagined the auctioneer going through his spiel, "Now what am I bid for this fine player piano?" the bids going higher and higher, being called in from the front yard where the crowd had overflowed. He was beginning to enjoy himself.
"That player piano," said Mrs. Hardy, beginning to feel he was parting with it a bit too readily, "has been like a close friend to me. Many a night I believe I'd have went out of my mind if it hadn't been for that player piano."
"Well, maybe we could keep it," he said. "Isabel could find a place for it, I suppose, and you could listen to it whenever we went to stay with her."
She could listen to it; it meant nothing to him, all those fine old tunes she thought had stood for so much between them. No, she told him, they mustn't hang back over the first piece, they'd never raise any money. Well, now, they weren't that bad off; if she wanted it she would have it.
Mr. Hardy could not remember what he had paid for it and thought Clara was high when she insisted on a hundred dollars. Anyhow, they had used it a long time. Yes, but it was like new when they got it. They put down fifty dollars as the least they would take for it, and a note saying he could come down to $37.50 if that was all he could get; then Clara said to put down he ought to try to get fifty though, for it had the finest tone of any she ever heard. She stroked it. For one last time she wanted to hear "Over the Waves" and asked if he wouldn't like to, too. Really he thought they ought to get on, but he knew that tune meant a great deal to her.
She could close her eyes and hear it in her head any hour of the day and it was the night of her wedding when Mr. Hardy waltzed her till two o'clock in the morning. To look at him now who would ever believe it?
She hummed and swayed her head and tapped her foot and smiled to think she hadn't had two dozen words with Mr. Hardy when he asked her to marry him. No denying, he needed somebody to look after his boys, but there were others that he must have seen would do for that job just as well. At first she feared the change. But there was so little difference she felt at home right away, looking after Mr. Hardy and his boys instead of her father and brother and sister. For six months there was hardly time to think of anything; without a woman for three years the house, the boys, their shirts and socks all needed mending and darning, scrubbing and barbering. He told her to ease up a little, that she would kill herself with work as his first wife, Virgie, had done. No one had ever worried before how long or hard she worked. She had loved her mother and father, her brother and sister, but she grew to love Mr. Hardy so much more than all of them it made her ashamed. She came to think it had been sinful of her to marry him without feeling then as she did now about him. She thought of Virgie and dug out an old picture of her and, gazing at it, spent hours wondering if she had felt that way, too, about Mr. Hardy, which loved him the most, thinking up things she would do for him that Virgie, you could tell by her face, would have fallen short of.
The music stopped. If only there had been someone to pump the machine she would have asked Mr. Hardy to waltz with her, she was sure she still remembered the steps. He seemed impatient and she just wondered if he had forgot what tune that was.
When they were agreed on the davenport and the Morris chair, the marble-topped table and the chandelier, Mrs. Hardy took the photograph album, the mantelpiece clock, a couple of antimacassars her mother had crocheted, two or three pieces off the whatnot, and the music roll for "Over the Waves" and went out to look at the buffet while it still had no price tag on it. She had tried for days to figure out some way of keeping it, but it was just too big. She could already see Cora Westfall going straight through the rest of the house until she came to that buffet; the woman had envied her that piece for years. Mrs. Hardy only hoped somebody else turned up who wanted it as bad and ran the bid up good and high.
She watched Mr. Hardy and the way he was putting that tag on the bedroom chiffonier anybody might have thought it was just any old thing instead of the present from the children on their twenty-fifth anniversary. Men never put much store in things, she knew, but that had not stopped her from hoping Mr. Hardy might be different. He never kept souvenirs. "Souvenir of what?" she could remember him asking at the end of days she would never forget as long as she lived. She must have a keepsake for everything that ever happened to her. She had come across a good many that no longer reminded her of whatever they were supposed to. All the same they meant a great deal to her. It would all come back to her in time.
By eleven o'clock Mrs. Hardy was tired, but he was the first to notice. He settled her with a pillow behind her head to rest in the Morris chair, but not before he had removed the price tag, for she said it made her feel she was up on the auction block. She eased herself out with a sigh and thought that even Mr. Hardy's attentions could sometimes cause her pain. He was tender with her, when he thought about it. He ought to know he could call on her to bear the sadness with him, that he needn't try to spare her any of it. Perhaps he was worrying what the neighbors might be saying, that he had failed her, left her without a home of her own in her last years. She didn't want anybody to hold anything against him on her account.
She was watching Mr. Hardy through the open door but turned her head so as not to see the trouble he was having getting up off his knees. She had had the best years of his life, she told herself. He had grown old by her side. But he had never been young by it and that was the thing she couldn't bear to think about. She said: A man's second choice was made when he knew better what he wanted, when he knew from experience what to steer clear of, when he looked deeper than a pretty face. It was only with a ripeness of years, as everybody knew, that true love came.
But as he worked he handled more carefully the things that had been Virgie's, held them longer in his hands as though he hated to give them up. A guilty feeling would come over him and what was it worth if he was gentle with her then? Watching him ponder over a lamp that had been brought out for Virgie all the way from St. Louis, then break off suddenly to come in and pat her head and say a word, she felt she was getting only the crumbs that fell from the table. Such a rush of old feeling for Virgie had risen in him, he would have said a loving word to anybody that stood near.
Mr. Hardy's little niceties were the only way he knew how to behave. She couldn't remember ever having seen him lose his temper. But so with Virgie, too, he must have been sweet and good and kind. She didn't enjoy thinking he had got on exactly badly with his first wife. In her own sure ways she had made life easier for him, but it hurt her to think he had ever been really unhappy. She hoped he hadn't stayed a widower for three years only because his first marriage had been unfortunate.
Sitting alone a feeling came over her that her whole life had been an accident. What if Virgie hadn't died? But she did and Mr. Hardy chose her, after looking the field over for a long time.
Mr. Hardy crossed the silver on his plate and tilted his chair back, feeling he ought to say something. He saw in a corner the pile of things Clara meant to keep from the sale. They had only been over the bottom part of the house and already she could start a rag and bone shop with the stuff she had put aside. He could ransack the rest of it, a suspicion came over Mr. Hardy, and not find in this house a single thing that was really his and his alone. Clara had so many things and got such enjoyment from each of them. He found a sixpence, worn smooth, and a rusty penknife from Sheffield; they were his and they were about all.
Excerpted from The Collected Stories of William Humphrey by William Humphrey. Copyright © 1985 William Humphrey. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
- Cover Page
- The Hardys
- Quail for Mr. Forester
- Man with a Family
- The Shell
- Report Cards
- The Fauve
- In Sickness and Health
- The Last Husband
- Dolce Far’ Niente
- The Patience of a Saint
- A Fresh Snow
- The Ballad of Jesse Neighbours
- A Good Indian
- A Job of the Plains
- Mouth of Brass
- A Home Away from Home
- The Rainmaker
- The Pump
- A Voice from the Woods
- The Human Fly
- The Last of the Caddoes
- A Biography of William Humphrey
- Copyright Page