A Private Possession

EILEEN PUSHES THE puff sleeve higher on her skinny arm but it slips down almost to her elbow again; the elastic cannot hold it.

EILEEN PUSHES THE puff sleeve higher on her skinny arm but it slips down almost to her elbow again; the elastic cannot hold it.
Aunt Billie buys all the dresses too big so she’ll get more wear out of them. If Eileen pushes up both sleeves so that the cloth blouses properly, she can hold them there by keeping her arms pressed firmly against her sides. But as soon as she relaxes, the sleeves ease down again and hang limply, almost to her elbows. And the skirt, of course, is too long.
“Goodnight, Sister”…….”Goodnight, Sister.”
The girls are filing out of the classroom and Eileen is near the end of the line. The nun, pale and rather sinister in her black robes, stands at the door with one of her white hands holding the other loosely at her waist. Eileen counts to herself: four more, three more, two more.
“Goodnight, Sister.”
“Goodnight, Frances.”
Now it is her turn. “Goodnight, Sister.”
“Goodnight, Eileen.”
And she hurries into the cool hallway that smells of pencils, threading her way between groups of little girls. She is taller than anyone in the fourth grade and has no friends. Some of the girls are afraid of her, and she accepts this with pride although she would rather be liked. But now she thinks only of getting outside and meeting her brother. The sun is blinding in the concrete school yard and she squints and makes a visor with both hands. Roger’s group of boys is bunched by the corner of the building, and she picks him out. He is laughing and when he sees her he looks embarrassed. She starts toward the road, walking slowly so he can catch up. Above the chattering and shouting she hears him say, “See you guys,” and then she hears his shoes scuffling up behind her.
“Leen, will you take it easy? Why d’ya always have to be in such a big rush?”
“We’ll miss the trolley.”
“Oh, miss the trolley. That ain’t the only trolley.”
“Don’t say ‘ain’t.'”
“Why?”
“Because you know better, that’s why.”
“Aw, shut up.”
She probes the pockets of her dress, feels the warm, hard fifty-cent piece she found in the playground that morning. “Roger?”
“What.”
“Look what I found at recess.”
“Hey! Where’d ya find it?”
She senses the quick envy in his voice and decides to make the most of it. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“Come on. Where’d ya find it?”
But she raises her eyebrows coyly and smiles a secret smile. They are waiting at the trolley stop now, and Roger lapses into sullenness. After a moment he says, “Know what Whitey an’ Clark an’ them were saying?”
There is a tightening in her chest. It will be something about her.
“They said you had so many freckles you couldn’t hardly see the skin between ’em, and you might just as well be a darkie.”
“Think I care?” Then, after a pause, “I could tell you about some things I heard.” But she sees the flicker of worry in his face vanish as he becomes confident she is making it up. And she can’t think of anything mean enough so she doesn’t carry it through except to say, “But I won’t, because it’s not polite.”
“You didn’t hear anything. I know you.”
From the streetcar they watch yellow weeds streak by on the side of the road, look idly beyond them at the trim white houses and flat greenness of the Florida suburb. She decides to tell him about the half-dollar now. “Roger?”
“Yeah.”
“I found it by the wire fence. Over there on the other side of the swings, you know?” The excitement of finding it returns and she can tell he is interested even though he says, “What do I care?”
When they walk up the driveway he kicks up small clouds of dust with his feet. “What’re ya gonna buy with it?”
“I haven’t decided. Maybe I won’t buy anything, and just save it instead.” She has almost forgotten to tell him the most important part. “Roger, don’t tell Aunt Billie, all right? Promise?”
“Why?”
She isn’t sure, exactly. It is mostly because she wants something of her own, something Aunt Billie can’t touch. “Just because, that’s why.”
“Okay.” And she looks at him, wondering if he understands.
Aunt Billie, in here room upstairs, is writing her weekly letter to their mother. She is a neat woman with a small, pretty mouth.

The school is doing wonders for your offspring, Monica. They were a pair of wild Indians all summer, you know, and this discipline is such a relief. Roger seems to be doing splendidly at his studies and it’s fine for him to be with other boys. Eileen, of course, is still a problem. One Sister tells me they simply cannot get her to take an interest, and heaven knows I can’t handle the child. But she has quieted down a good deal. We haven’t had a real tantrum for several months now.

Through the screened window she sees them starting up the driveway. She adds: “But they’re really swell kids. I’ve grown quite enslaved by them.” Then she puts the blue monogrammed page back in the stationery box. “Roger!” she calls through the window. “You’ll ruin your new shoes doing that.” She gets up and goes downstairs to let them in. “Now hurry and change your clothes if you want to, and wash carefully. Food’s on the table.”
Eileen feels better when she has put on khaki shorts and a pullover jersey. There is a good smell of sea and sand in the old clothes. She transfers the half-dollar from the dress to the pocket of the shorts.
“Eileen!”
“Coming.”
On the enameled kitchen table there are two big glasses of milk and a plate of cream cheese and jelly sandwiches. Roger has already started. He is talking with his mouth full and has a milk moustache. Aunt Billie leans against the spotless white refrigerator, arms folded, smoking a cigarette. “Well, we’ll see,” she says to Roger.
He has been asking about the turtles again. There is a place down the road where you can buy a small live turtle with your name painted on its shell. They are forbidden at school and so have become a fad in Roger’s class. The game is to see if you can keep one all day without getting caught.
Eileen bites into a sandwich and reaches for her milk. She decides she would like a turtle too, but not just for school purposes. She could play with it for hours and take care of it, let it crawl wetly across her arm. And it would have “Eileen” written gracefully on its back, with perhaps a rose or a coconut palm. It would be alive and hers. They cost sixty cents. Why, she could buy one tomorrow if she felt like it, and Aunt Billie couldn’t do anything. Only it might be more fun to keep the money for something else. Or just for itself, as a secret.
“You mustn’t slump so, Eileen.”
“Roger’s slumping.”
“Well, Roger mustn’t either. But it’s more important for you to learn those things, dear. In a few years you’ll be very grateful if you’ve learned to keep your back straight. A good posture is one of the most valuable things a lovely young girl can have.”
This is an old theme of Aunt Billie’s. Eileen thinks it inconsistent with other things she has heard, or rather overheard, Aunt Billie say. (“Of course, Eileen will never be a really pretty girl.”)
No, Eileen decides, she’ll keep the fifty cents just the way it is. She chews the sandwich methodically for a long time without swallowing, staring at the refrigerator. So many you can’t see between them. Might as well be a darkie. She wonders if they really did say that. It doesn’t matter. He said it, anyway.
Roger is anxious to go on talking about the turtles. “They only cost sixty cents, Aunt Billie. And they last forever, almost.”
“I said we’ll see, Roger, but we won’t discuss it any further now. Eileen would probably want one too, and two times sixty cents is a dollar twenty.”
Eileen is afraid Roger is going to mention the half-dollar; his face shows he has thought of a new approach.
“Well, yeah, Aunt Billie, but Leen has fifty–”
She has cut him off with a sharp glare that says, “You promised!”
“–cents already,” he finishes lamely, and then he blushes and looks away. Eileen feels her mouth growing tight with anger as she looks at him.
Aunt Billie says, “All right, dear,” hardly paying attention, but there is a long silence after this, and when Eileen glances up she is startled by the look of concern–no, curiosity–that has come into Aunt Billie’s eyes.
“Why, Eileen, dear. Whatever is the matter? Roger, what did you say that upset her so? Something about fifty cents?” Kindly but shrewd.
“Nothing,” Roger mumbles, making it worse.
The eyes are turned on Eileen again. “Dear, what is this about fifty cents? Do you have fifty cents?” Inquisitive, now, sensing something unpleasant.
The lie is automatic. “No.” But it is also obvious.
“Eileen, dear. It doesn’t matter to me whether you have fifty cents or not. It does matter whether or not you’re telling the truth.” And now it is an authoritative, confident voice.
“I am telling the truth, Aunt Billie. I don’t have fifty cents. Roger just said that.” And Roger looks shocked. Oh, he’d understand if he had to wear those dresses, if he had to–
“Eileen!”
Waves of dread and fear come over her. She begins to wonder if she should show the fifty cents after all.
“Come here.”
Slowly she puts down her sandwich and rises from the table.
“Now either show me this fifty cents or tell me where it is. I’ve heard quite enough of this storytelling.”
Dumbly, then, she produces the warm coin. Aunt Billie looks at it with wide, worried eyes. “But why were you so–” Eileen can see the accusation forming in Aunt Billie. “Where did you get that money, Eileen?”
And in slow terror, now, she realizes that saying “I found it” will sound like another lie.
“I–I found it.”
“Tell me the truth.”
“I did. I found it.”
Roger is white-faced across the table. He is nervously fingering a sandwich, watching. “That’s right, Aunt Billie, she found it,” he says.
“Were you with he when she found it?”
And then the worst thing happens. Roger says “no, but–” and Eileen says “yes,” at the same instant. Then they look at each other quickly, both shaking their heads.
Aunt Billie is looking steadily at Eileen. “I’ve heard quite enough of this. Go change your clothes, Eileen. We’re going back to school.”
She is unable to speak or move.
“Now. Go change your clothes. And wipe the milk off your face first.”
With the back of her hand Eileen removes the milk moustache. Then she turns and walks out of the kitchen. She hears Roger say, “But she–” And Aunt Billie, sternly: “Never mind, Roger. This is between Eileen and me. It doesn’t concern you at all.”
Eileen puts on the flapping cotton dress and changes her sneakers for shoes. There is a drab nausea in her chest, like the first stage of car sickness. With the half-dollar in her pocket she goes to the front door. Aunt Billie is waiting for her; she has put on a hat and powdered her face. They are silent as they walk down the drive, and not until they are waiting for the trolley is Eileen able to say, “Aunt Billie, it’s true. I did find it. At recess in the school yard.”
“Dear, if you found it why on earth would you have been so afraid to tell me? Now don’t make it worse. I’m sure one lie is bad enough.”
On the streetcar a constriction of her throat is added to the nausea. Milk rides heavily in her stomach and the tastes of cream cheese and jelly cloy her mouth. None of what is happening seems real. Beside her, Aunt Billie’s profile is raised defiantly. The school yard is clean and deserted in the afternoon light. The nun who lets them in leads them slowly down the long, pencil-smelling corridor to Sister Katherine’s office, and then they are inside and it is too late, and there is nothing to do but stand there.
Sister Katherine’s face is warm and smiling at first. “Why, good afternoon, Mrs. Taylor.” But when she looks at them closely her face begins to get like Aunt Billie’s.
“I believe my niece has something to tell you, Sister. Go ahead, Eileen.”
But if she tried to speak she would burst into tears, and there is nothing to say. Everything is purple and brown and black in the room. There are wide, washed boards in the floor, and a wrinkled black shoe peeks from the hem of Sister Katherine’s robe.
“What is it, child?”
Sister Katherine’s face is the color of a dead pig Eileen saw once on a farm.
“Perhaps you’d better explain, Mrs. Taylor.”
“I think Eileen is quite capable of telling you herself. Go on, dear.”
“I–” The floorboards blur and shift before her.
Aunt Billie sighs tiredly. “Well, Sister, it’s simply this. It seems Eileen has stolen fifty cents; I presume it was from one of the other children, and I’ve brought her here to return it to you.”
“Well, child?”
There is nothing to do but hand her the half-dollar. Eileen’s throat is on fire and she thinks, It’s a dream and I’ll wake up.
And now Sister Katherine’s face is opening and closing and there is a quiet voice: “You know this is a very wrong thing you’ve done, Eileen. I don’t believe I have to tell you that when we do a very wrong thing we must expect to suffer for it…”
The pig has been dead for three days in the rain. In a sudden panic Eileen wants to scream, “I didn’t steal it! I found it! I found it!” Instead she stands there, waiting for it to be over.
And later Sister Katherine and Aunt Billie are shaking hands. “I can’t tell you how badly I feel about this, Sister.”
And soon they are in the gray school yard again, then at the trolley stop. On the streetcar, silent, she watches the lavender blur of passing weeds. (I hate her, I hate her, I hate her, I hate her.)
Roger is standing by the house, hands in pockets, when they come up the driveway. His eyes are round and his lips look small and pale. Aunt Billie goes inside and Eileen stands there with Roger for a minute. But there is nothing to say. You can’t throw yourself into a boy’s arms and cry, and she doesn’t want to anyway. She doesn’t want anybody’s arms. She doesn’t want– All she wants is to–
She walks erectly around the side of the house. There is a place out in back, a kind of toolshed, where she can be alone.
Upstairs, Aunt Billie has opened the stationery box again and started a new paragraph.

A most distressing thing just happened, Monica…

Eileen stands in the shed and stares at a plank shelf that holds two half-gallon cans of paint.

Sherwin-Williams: White Lead.
Sherwin-Williams: Forest Green.

And when the sobs finally begin they are long, scalding ones, the kind that come again and again.
from The Collected Stories of Richard Yates.
This reprinting most definitely violates several copyright and republication rules and/or regulations and therefore should be savored while it lasts.


auth=Yates, Richard