A Variety of Porches


There is a street in that town that leads off the main street and is only two blocks long, but on this street you would never know that in five minutes’ walking you could reach the swarming center of the town, for this two-block-long street is shaded with green oaks that muffle the noise and hurry of the far-off people who pass two blocks away. The houses here were built in the days when men felt that big houses were an honor and a pride and a necessity, but now no one loves them enough to spend the money necessary to keep them as private residences. They have become boardinghouses, with groups of chairs on the big, deep verandas where the paying guests sit in the cool Southern dusk to talk among themselves and to watch the sparse passing. It was in the third house of the second block where, all one summer, a young man sat the whole long day on the porch instead of just in the evenings as the other guests did.

This was a strange thing to the citizens of that street, for only one other person sat all day on the porch of one of the houses and he was an old man who had reached his glory many years before as a State Senator and who therefore had nothing else to do but think of the days of his greatness when people had called him the Honorable Mr. Stirling of Calhoun County. But for young men there are many things, girls and jobs and future, and so it was felt that this was a strange person who only wanted to sit on the porch like an old man with everything behind him.

Mrs. Bee, the owner of the house, remembered his coming clearly, for even then, before he had distinguished himself by his marathon performance, she had felt an unsatisfied curiosity. He had turned into her walk one morning in the late spring carrying a single, new-looking suitcase and knocked on the side of the screen door. Mrs. Bee, who had been watching him from a front-room window, appeared almost before the knock had had time to sound into the depths of the house, for there were many boardinghouses and perhaps he would not wait.

“Yes?” she said, filling the doorway rather than just standing there, for she was a big woman with the look and feel of soft dough.

“Do you have a room to rent?” he said in a voice that was not Southern and yet not Northern either. He looked away from her to the street. “It’s very quiet here.”

“Yes, I have a room,” Mrs. Bee said. “Would you like to see it, Mr….”

“Johnson,” he said. “If I may.”

“Right this way.” Mrs. Bee led him down the hall and up the stairs to the second floor. “Of course, we’re not at all formal here. Just one big family. Everybody calls me Mrs. Bee, though my name is really Mrs. Brathwaite.” She paused a moment so that he could tell his first name, but he did not seem to notice; so she opened the door, standing aside that he might see the room.

“It’s on the back,” she said. “But it’s quiet and I noticed you like that. Washroom down the hall.” She folded her hands, looking at him, and then she saw the thinness of his face and the tired, wrinkled look around his eyes. There was a pucker of strain or tension or anxiety in his forehead, or perhaps it was only that he needed glasses.

“Yes… “he said.

“We have only the best people here,” Mrs. Bee said, thinking that he was hesitating too long. “Very refined people. I wouldn’t have any others in my house. I wasn’t really brought up to this but my husband was killed in the first World War….”

He listened patiently to her story, not sitting down or turning loose the suitcase, just standing there listening without even looking bored, until she had finished.

“I’ll take it,” he said. “It’s fine.” He stopped and then he said, “I am very sorry about your husband.”

It was the first time in all the years she had polished and refined her little history on each new guest that anyone had ever responded in that way. Mrs. Bee was touched, and pleased that she had had the perception to rent her room to such a fine young man; so there was an air of triumphant briskness in her manner as she closed the deal, even though it didn’t affect the price.

“It’s $50 a month, with board,” she said. “In advance.”

He paid her the money and she went out, leaving him to unpack, and when the other members of the big family came home that evening after work he was sitting in a rocker at the end of the porch, not rocking, his feet firm on the floor, watching the people passing down the street. They looked at him curiously as they entered, as they would have looked at any new guest, but he did not seem to notice them, not looking or nodding a greeting as they came one by one up the walk to go and wash and come back to sit on the porch until supper. Then there was talking, but Mr. Johnson did not join in, sitting silently in the gathering darkness among the talking people, and he did not look any longer at the street but at the Honorable Mr. Stirling across the way.

The supper bell rang, not a tinkling note but a hearty, robust clamor, and they all went in, Mr. Johnson last, and Mrs. Bee caught him by the arm as he waited to see where the others seated themselves.

“This is Mr. Johnson,” she said. “Our new guest. Now I want you to feel right at home, Mr. Johnson.” She introduced the others. Mr. Johnson nodded his head politely toward each named face, and then he took his seat near the end of the table.

“Where you from, Mr. Johnson?” the girl sitting next to him asked.

“The North,” he told her, and though it was not the detailed answer she had wanted and expected, there was a withdrawal, a reserve, in his tone that kept her from pressing the question.

The food was coming around now and they were all busy, but Mr. Roberts found time to shout across the table, “Guess you was in the service, Johnson. What outfit?”

“Ninth Army,” Mr. Johnson said, and then Mr. Roberts got the mashed potatoes and that line of inquiry was not pursued further.

And so it was there was something in his manner, though he was civil enough, that made him separate and apart from all the others right at the beginning, and even Mrs. Bee, who had been preparing a gambit along the line of his occupation and prospects, found it impossible to question him.

The next morning he finished breakfast and went out to the porch to sit in the same rocker he had used the day before. He stayed there until the morning movement had ended except for an occasional delivery boy on a silent bicycle, and looked at Mr. Stirling across the street. By the middle of the morning Mrs. Bee, remembering his expressed regret for her husband, brought him some old magazines that Mr. Alberts, the reading bookkeeper, had thrown away and which Mrs. Bee had thriftily saved.

“No use in you setting here, doing nothing,” she said. “Might as well read.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Bee,” he said and took the magazines from her.

Mrs. Bee stood her ground. “Maybe Mr. Roberts could get you on at the rubber plant. I could speak to him … if that’s your line of work.”

“Thank you,” he said. “You needn’t bother.” He hesitated. “I’m on … vacation.”

“Oh,” she said, vastly relieved and even pleased, for her house was a working house. And she went inside again, thinking about putting up a sign calling the attention of tourists. Later she noticed that he put the magazines on the floor beside his chair and did not touch them again.

The days and weeks passed, the long slow summer days of the South, piling imperceptibly one on the other toward winter, though in the timeless days of Southern summer one can never believe that winter will ever come. With the passing of the time there was a change in Mr. Johnson as slow and imperceptible as the leaning of the summer toward the cold again. With the days of quiet sitting it seemed that he was relaxing a tension that had not been noticed until his relaxation from it made it evident. It was as if every day loosened another drawn muscle in his mind. The tiredness smoothed out around his eyes and the little puckered frown disappeared. In the evenings he talked a little on the porch with the others, though always about inconsequential things, and he did more listening than talking. For that reason he was liked, for almost everyone in a boardinghouse is articulate with his story, almost under a compulsion to explain how he has come to live in that way; so a good, fresh listener is always welcome. He listened so well to their talking of themselves that they didn’t notice that he never gave his own history.

But one day, after he had been there for a long time, Mrs. Bee heard him talking to someone freely in a way he had never spoken before. It was Mr. Stirling, who had moved off his porch and crept slowly on his cane across the street.

“My name is Stirling,” he said. “The Honorable Mr. Stirling from Calhoun County.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Stirling,” Mr. Johnson said. “Won’t you sit down?” There was a friendliness in his voice that Mrs. Bee had never heard before and so she stood listening to what they would say.

Mr. Stirling came up on the porch and sat down next to Mr. Johnson. “I been setting over there watching you, son,” Mr. Stirling said. “And I been wondering why a young man would spend a summer just setting.”

“It’s a good place to sit,” Mr. Johnson said. “The street is so quiet you’d hardly know there was a world outside of it.”

“That’s all right for an old, used-up man like me. But you’re young. You ought to be building yourself a family and a place for yourself.”

“I don’t know. I felt a need for sitting on a porch somewhere for a while.” The quiet presence of the old man let him talk even though there was not in him an eagerness to do so. “It’s a hard thing to explain and I don’t know if I could explain it. I wanted a peace, a stillness. . . .” He moved his hands to fill the gap in the words.

Mr. Stirling nodded his head as if he understood the thought of Mr. Johnson, the feeling that could not come out into cold saying.

“It’s good to set and think.”

Mr. Johnson turned his head to look at him. “I’ve been watching you, too, and I could tell you’ve been a big man. I could tell by the way you’d sit there remembering.”

“No, I wasn’t a big man,” Mr. Stirling said, a faint sigh in the words. “I was a little man among giants in my day.”

Mrs. Bee was surprised, for it was the first time she’d ever seen him pass up a chance to explain, out of the long-ago bitterness, how he had been defeated after so many years at the State Capitol as Senator from his district.

“You could be a big man,” Mr. Stirling said. “If you had the feeling in you to be one.”

“They don’t grow big men any more,” Mr. Johnson said. “Just little ones. . . .” He stared into the dazzle of sunlight that flowed into the middle of the street where the shade of the trees did not reach. “When I was little I used to go to my grandfather’s farm in the summer. There were two or three little lakes on his land, and one summer it didn’t rain for a long time and they all dried up. After a while you could see the fish flouncing and dying in the muddy water that was left and that’s the way the world is now . . . it’s full of little men living and fighting and dying like minnows in a crowded pool.”

Mr. Stirling nodded his head again and after that they sat a long time in warm silence before Mr. Stirling went back across the street. When he left they only nodded at each other in the way of old friends, saying, “See you.”

From then on they sat together often, though always on Mr. Johnson’s porch, and they spoke very little that Mrs. Bee could hear. When they did talk it was of things and men of Mr. Stirling’s day and before, a moment of exchange and then of long thought. The days turned slowly into fall and the oak leaves browned and fell, making a rustling in the gutters and on the sidewalks under the brisk little swirls of wind, matching the sounds of old things in the conversations on the porch.

“It’s fall now,” Mr. Johnson told her one day. “Summer is nearly gone.”

“Yes,” Mrs. Bee said, watching him. “I guess you’ll be going back to your job soon.”

“Yes, I guess so,” he said and there was a grave acceptance in his voice as if he were already saying good-bye. “Yes, winter is coming soon. And when it’s wintertime you can’t just sit on a porch.”

And though he still stayed, talking to Mr. Stirling, there was a waiting in him now and he did not seem surprised when the men came.

They stopped on the street, and the little man in the black suit said in his Northern voice, “Yes, that’s him.”

They came up the walk, and by this time Mrs. Bee was standing in the door. Mr. Johnson watched them come without moving.

“Robert Wilder?” the marshal said.


“Robert Wilder, I have a warrant for your arrest,” the marshal said, a touch of formality in his voice. “I must place you under custody until such time as you may be returned to the State of Michigan for trial.”

“Yes,” Mr. Johnson said. “Yes, I understand.” The words were slow in him and he turned his head to look at the other man. “Hello, Mr. Stark.”

Mrs. Bee watched, the surprise of it in her face. “What did he do?” she said, the outrage and bewilderment mingling in her voice.

“I stole money,” Mr. Johnson said, looking at the street and at Mr. Stirling dozing, his head thrown back, in his chair. “I stole money from my father’s bank to come here … or some place like here.”

“You won’t get any help from your father, either,” Mr. Stark said, a touch of malice in his voice. “He told me to come down here and identify you and have you arrested when they sent us word you were here. He said he wouldn’t do anything to stop your just punishment.”

“I know,” Mr. Johnson said. “I knew he wouldn’t.”

Then the malice went out of Mr. Stark’s voice and he said, “Why did you do it? It would have all been yours some day.”

“I needed it now,” Mr. Johnson said, his eyes across the street where Mr. Stirling was awake now and watching them. “To buy a time for just sitting and being.” He looked at them. “All I ever did,” he said, “was fighting and working. Four years fighting and six years working. Now the fighting is coming again and I hadn’t ever had a chance to just be in my whole life. I wanted that, more than I’ve ever wanted anything, before the killing and the dying started again. I wanted to sit on a porch. . . .” He moved his hands in the gesture that Mrs. Bee had seen once before, filling out the sentence with the feeling he could not say.

“You won’t be setting on no porches in the pen,” the marshal said with heavy Southern humor.

Mr. Johnson looked at the marshal. “May I pack my bag?”

“I’ll go with you,” the marshal said, professional suspicion in his voice, and they went inside.

“I’ve never had anybody like that in my house,” Mrs. Bee told Mr. Stark. “It’s always been a respectable place. I had my doubts about that young man from the first time I laid eyes on him.” She was still enlarging on the theme when she heard them coming back and fell silent.

“Good-bye, Mrs. Bee,” Mr. Johnson said. “Thank you for the nice summer.”

Mrs. Bee was ashamed then of her words. “Good-bye, Mr. Johnson,” she said. “I hope they won’t be too hard on you.”

He went down the walk with the two men following and when he reached the street he stopped and looked at Mr. Stirling without speaking.

“Are you leaving, son?” Mr. Stirling said and there was an emptiness in the words as he looked at the suitcase in Mr. Johnson’s hand.

“Yes, Mr. Stirling,” Mr. Johnson said. “I have to go now.”

“Good-bye, son,” Mr. Stirling said. “I hope you’ll come back soon.”

“Yes,” Mr. Johnson said. “I hope so, too.” His voice grew a little stronger as he looked at the old Senator and at the quiet street. “I’ll try to come back, Mr. Stirling.”

He started walking down the two-block-long street under the bare oak trees toward the main street that led only five minutes away to the swarming center of the town.