Once a week won’t kill you

by J. D. Salinger

He had a cigarette in his mouth while he packed, and his face squinted to avoid smoke in the eyes; so there was no way of telling by his expression whether he was bored or apprehensive, annoyed or resigned. The young woman sitting in the big man’s chair, looking like a guest, had her pretty face caught in a blotch of early-morning sunshine; it did her no harm. But her arms were probably the best of her. They were brown and round and good.

“Sweetie,” she said, “I don’t see why Billy couldn’t be doing all that. I mean.”

“What?” said the young man. He had a thick, chain-smoker’s voice.

“I mean I don’t see why Billy couldn’t be doing all that.”

“He’s too old,” he answered. “How ’bout turning on the radio. There might be some canned music on at this time. Try 1010.”

The young woman reached behind her, using the hand with the gold band wedding ring and on the little finger beside it the incredible emerald; she opened some white compartment doors, snapped something, turned something. She sat back and waited, and suddenly, without any pretext, she yawned. The young man glanced at her.

“What a horrible time to start, I mean,” she said.

“I’ll tell them,” said the young man, examining a stack of folded handkerchiefs. “My wife says it’s a horrible time to start out.”

“Sweetie, I am going to miss you horribly.”

“I’ll miss you, too. I have more white handkerchiefs than this.”

“I mean, I will,” she said. “It’s all so stinking. I mean. And all.”

“Well, that’s that,” said the young man, closing the valise. He lighted a cigarette, looked at the bed, and dropped himself on it . . .

Just as he stretched himself out the tubes of the radio were warmed, and a Sousa march, featuring what seemed to be an unlimited fife section, triumphed ­voluminously into the room. His wife swung back one of her marvellous arms and put a stop to it.

“There might have been something else on.”

“Not at this crazy time.”

The young man blew a faulty smoke ring at the ceiling.

“You didn’t have to get up,” he told her.

“I wanted to.”

It had been three years and she had never stopped talking to him in italics.

“Not get up!” she said.

“Try 570,” he said. “There might be something there.”

His wife tried the radio again, and they both waited, he closing his eyes. In a moment some reliable jazz came through.

“Do you have enough time to lay down like that? I mean.”

“To lie down like that — yes. It’s early.”

His wife suddenly seemed to be struck with a rather serious conjecture. “I hope they put you in the Calvary. The Calvary’s lovely,” she said. “I’m mad about those little sword do-hickies they wear on their collars. And you love to ride and all.”

“The Cavalry,” said the young man, with his eyes shut. “There’s not much chance of that stuff. Everybody’s going to the Infantry, these days.”

“Horrible, Sweetie, I wish you’d phone that man with the thing on his face. The Colonel. The one at Phyll and Kenny’s last week. In Intelligence and all. I mean you speak French and German and all. He’d ­certainly get you at least a commission. I mean you know how miserable you’ll be just being a private or something. I mean you even hate to talk to people and everything.”

“Please,” he said. “Keep quiet about that. I told you about that. That commission business.”

“Well, I hope at least they send you to London. I mean where there’s some civilised people. Do you have Bubby’s APO number?”

“Yes,” he lied.

His wife was making another apparently grave conjecture. “I’d love some material. Some tweed. Anything.” Then, almost instantly, she yawned, and said the wrong thing: “Did you say good-by to your aunt?”

Her husband opened his eyes, sat up rather sharply, and swung his feet over to the floor. “Virginia. Listen. I didn’t get a chance to finish last night,” he said. “I want you to take her to the movies once a week.”

“The movies?”

“It won’t kill you,” he said. “Once a week won’t kill you.”

“No, of course not, Sweetie, but –”

“No buts,” he said. “Once a week won’t kill you.”

“Of course I’ll take her, you crazy. I only meant — “

“It isn’t too much to ask. She isn’t young or anything any more.”

“But, Sweetie, I mean she’s getting worse again. I mean she’s so batty, she isn’t even funny. I mean you’re not in the house with her all day.”

“Neither are you,” he said. “And besides, she doesn’t ever leave her rooms unless I take her out somewhere or something.” He leaned closer to her, almost sitting off the edge of the bed. “Virginia, once a week won’t kill you. I’m not kidding.”

“Of course, Sweetie. If that’s what you want. I mean.”

The young man stood up suddenly.

“Will you tell Cook I’m ready for breakfast?” he asked, starting to leave for somewhere.

“Give us a teeny kiss first,” she said. “You ole soldier boy.”

He bent over and kissed her wonderful mouth and left the room.

He climbed a flight of wide, thickly carpeted steps, and at the top landing turned to his left. He rapped twice at the second door, on the outside of which was tacked a white, formal card from the old Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York: Please Do Not Disturb. There was a faded notation in ink, written in the margin of the card: Going to Liberty Bond rally. Be back. Meet Tom for me in lobby at six. His left shoulder is higher than his right and he smokes a darling little pipe. Love, Me.

The note was written to the young man’s mother, and he had read it when he was a small boy, and a hundred times since, and he read it now: in March, 1944.

“Come in, come in!” called a busy voice. And the young man entered.

By the window, a very nice-looking woman in her early fifties sat at a fold-leg card table. She wore a charming beige morning gown, and on her feet a pair of extremely dirty white gym shoes. “Well, Dickie Camson,” she said. “How did you ever get up so early, you lazy boy?”

“One of those things,” said the young man, smiling easily. He kissed her on the cheek, and with one hand on the back of her chair casually examined the huge leather-bound book opened before her. “How’s the collection coming?” he asked.

“Lovely. Simply lovely. This book — you haven’t seen it, you terrible boy — is brand new. Billy and Cook are going to save me all theirs, and you can save me all yours.”

“Just cancelled American two-cent stamps, eh?” said the young man.

“Quite an idea.”

He looked around the room. “How’s the radio going?”

It was tuned to the same station he had had on downstairs.

“Lovely. I took the exercises this morning.”

“Now, Aunt Rena, I asked you to stop taking those crazy exercises. I mean you’ll strain yourself. I mean there’s no sense to it.”

“I like them,” said his aunt firmly, turning a page in her album. “I like the music they play with them. All the old tunes. And it certainly doesn’t seem fair to listen to the music and not take the exercises.”

“It is fair. Now please cut it out. A little less integrity,” her nephew said.

He walked around the room a bit, then sat down heavily on the window seat. He looked out across the park, searching between the trees for the way to tell her that he was leaving. He had wanted her to be the one woman in 1944 who did not have someone’s hourglass to watch. Now he knew he had to give her his. A gift to the woman in the dirty white gym shoes. The woman with the cancelled American two-cent stamp collection. The woman who was his mother’s sister, who had written notes to her in the margins of old Waldorf Please Do Not Disturb cards . . . Must she be told? Must she have his absurd, shiny little hourglass to watch?

“You look just like your mother when you do that with your forehead. Yes. Just like her. Do you remember her at all, Richard?”

“Yes.” He took his time. “She never used to walk. She always ran, and then she’d stop short in a room. And she always used to whistle through her teeth when she was drawing the blinds in my room. The same tune most of the time. It was always with me when I was a boy, but I forgot it as I got older. Then in college — I had a roommate from Memphis, and he was playing some old phonograph records one afternoon, some Bessie Smiths, some Tea Gardens, and one of the numbers nearly knocked me out.

“It was the tune Mother used to whistle through her teeth, all right. It was called I Can’t Behave on Sundays ’Cause I’m Bad Seven Days a Week. A guy named Altrievi stepped on it when he was tight later on in the term, and I’ve never heard it since.” He stopped. “That’s about all I remember. Just dumb stuff.”

“Do you remember how she looked?”

“No.”

“She was quite a package.” His aunt placed her chin in the cup of one of her thin, elegant hands. “Your father couldn’t sit still, like a human being, in a room if your mother had left it. He’d just nod idiotically when someone talked to him, keeping those peculiar little eyes of his on the door she’d left by. He was a strange, rather rude little man. He did nothing with interest except make money and stare at your mother. And take your mother sailing in that weird boat he bought. He used to wear a funny little English sailor hat. He said it was his father’s. Your mother used to hide it on the days she had to go sailing.”

“It was all they found, wasn’t it?” asked the young man. “That hat.”

But his aunt’s glance had fallen on her album page. “Oh, here’s a beauty,” she said, and she held one of her stamps up to the daylight. “He has such a strong, bashed-nose face. Washington.”

The young man got up from the window seat. “Virginia told Cook to fix breakfast. I’d better go downstairs,” he said. But instead of leaving he walked over to his aunt’s card table. “Aunt Rena,” he said, “give me your attention a minute.”

His aunt’s intelligent face turned up to him.

“Aunt — Uh — There’s a war on. Uh — I mean you’ve seen it in the newsreels. I mean you’ve heard it on the radio and all, haven’t you?”

“Certainly,” she snorted.

“Well, I’m going. I have to go. I’m leaving this morning.”

“I knew you’d have to,” said his aunt, ­without panic, without bitter-sentimental reference to “the last one”. She was wonderful, he thought. She was the sanest woman in the world.

The young man stood up, setting his hourglass flippantly on the table — the only way to do it. “Virginia’ll come to see you a lot, Kiddo,” he told her. “And she’ll take you to the movies pretty often. There’s an old W.C. Fields picture coming to the Sutton next week. You like Fields.”

His aunt stood up, too, but moved briskly past him. “I have a letter of introduction for you,” she announced. “To a friend of mine.”

She was over at her writing desk now. She opened the topmost left-hand drawer, positively, and took out a white envelope. Then she went back to her stamp-album table again and casually handed the envelope to her nephew. “I didn’t seal it,” she said, “and you can read it if you like.”

The young man looked at the envelope in his hand. It was addressed in his aunt’s rather strong handwriting to a Lieutenant Thomas E. Cleve, Jr.

“He’s a wonderful young man,” said his aunt. “He’s with the Sixty-Ninth. He’ll look after you, I’m not at all worried.” She added impressively, “I knew this would happen two years ago, and immediately I thought of Tommy. He’ll be marvellously considerate of you.”

She turned around, rather vaguely this time, and walked less briskly back to her writing desk. Again she opened a drawer. She took out a large, framed photograph of a young man in the high-collared, 1917 uniform of a second lieutenant.

She moved unsteadily back to her nephew, holding the picture out for him to see. “This is his picture,” she informed him. “This is Tom Cleve’s picture.”

“I have to go now, Aunt,” the young man said. “Good-by. You won’t need anything. I mean you won’t need anything. I’ll write to you.”

“Good-by, my dear, dear boy,” his aunt said, kissing him. “You find Tom Cleve now. He’ll look after you, till you get settled and all.”

“Yes. Good-by.”

His aunt said absently, “Good-by, my darling boy.”

“Good-by.” He left the room and nearly stumbled down the stairs.

At the lower landing he took the envelope, tore it in halves, quarters, then eighths. He didn’t seem to know what to do with the wad, so he jammed it into his trouser pocket.

“Sweetie. Everything’s cold. Your eggs and all.”

“You can take her to the movies once a week,” he said. “It won’t kill you.”

“Who said it would? Did I ever once say it would?”

“No.” He walked into the dining room.

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