“I wish there wasn’t all that money,” said Nancy Holmes Ryan. “I really wish it wasn’t there.” Nancy had been married for an hour and a half now. She was driving with her husband from Boston to Cape Cod. The time was noon, late winter. The scenery was leaden sea, summer cottages boarded up, scrub oaks still holding their brown leaves tight, cranberry bogs with frosty beards —
“That much money is embarrassing,” said Nancy. “I mean it.” She didn’t really mean it — not very much, anyway. She was enduring the peculiar Limbo between a wedding and a wedding night. Like many maidens in such a Limbo, Nancy found her own voice unreal, as though echoing in a great tin box, and she heard that voice speaking with unreasonable intensity, heard herself expressing extravagant opinions as though they were the bedrock of her soul.
They weren’t the bedrock of her soul. Nancy was bluffing — pretending to love this and hate that — dealing as best she could with the confusing fact of Limbo, of being nothing and nobody and nowhere until her new life, until her married life could truly begin.
A moment before, Nancy had launched a startlingly bitter attack on stucco houses and the people who lived in them, had made her husband promise that they would never live in a stucco house. She hadn’t really meant it.
Now, out of control, not really meaning it, Nancy was wishing that her husband were poor. He was a long way from being poor. He was worth about two hundred thousand dollars.
Nancy’s husband was an engineering student at M.I.T. His name was Robert Ryan, Jr. Robert was tall, quiet — pleasant and polite, but often withdrawn. He had been orphaned at the age of nine. He had been raised from then on by his aunt and uncle on Cape Cod. Like most orphaned minors with a lot of money, Robert had two guardians — one for his finances and one for his person. The Merchants’ Trust Company of Cape Cod was his financial guardian. His uncle Charley Brewer was the guardian of his person. And Robert was not only going to Cape Cod to honeymoon. He was going to take full control of his inheritance as well. His wedding day was also his twenty-first birthday, and the bank’s financial guardianship was legally at an end.
Robert was in a Limbo of his own. He wasn’t full of talk. He was almost completely mechanical, in harmony with the automobile and little else. His response to his pink and garrulous new wife was as automatic as his responses to the road.
On and on Nancy talked.
“I would rather start out with nothing,” she said. “I wish you’d kept the money a secret from me — just left it in the bank for emergencies.”
“Forget about it then,” said Robert. He pushed in the cigarette lighter. It clicked out a moment later, and Robert lit a cigarette without taking his eyes from the road. “I’m going to keep my job,” said Nancy. “We’ll make our own way.” She was a secretary in the admission office at M.I.T. She and Robert had known each other for only two months before they were married. “We’ll live within whatever we actually make ourselves,” she said. “Good,” said Robert.
“I didn’t know you had a dime when I said I’d marry you,” said Nancy. “I know,” said Robert.
“I hope your uncle knows that,” said Nancy.
“I’ll tell him,” said Robert. Robert hadn’t even told his uncle Charley that he was going to get married. That would be a surprise.
It was typical of Robert to deal in large surprises, to make his decisions in solitude. Even at the age of nine, he had found it somehow important to show very little emotional dependance on his uncle and aunt. In all the years Robert had lived with them, only one remark had been made about the way he kept his distance. His aunt Mary had once called him her boarder.
Aunt Mary was dead now. Uncle Charley lived on, was going to meet Robert for lunch in the Atlantic House, a restaurant across the street from the bank. Charley roamed all over Cape Cod in a big, sad old Chrysler, knocking on strangers’ doors. He was a straight-commission salesman of aluminum combination storm windows and screens.
“I hope your uncle likes me,” said Nancy.
“He will,” said Robert. “Don’t worry about it.”
“I worry about everything,” said Nancy.
The Merchants’ Trust Company of Cape Cod, as Robert’s financial guardian, had certain duties to perform on Robert’s twenty-first birthday. They had to get him to sign many documents, and they had to give him an accounting of their custodianship going back twelve years.
The bank was expecting him at one-thirty.
There wasn’t anything in particular that Robert’s other guardian, his uncle Charley, the guardian of his person, had to do on the same day. Under law, Charley’s responsibility for the boy’s person simply evaporated on that day.
That was that — automatically.
But Charley couldn’t let it go at that. After all, Charley had no other children, he loved Robert, and he thought that raising the boy was the best thing he and his wife had done with their lives. So Charley planned to make a sentimental little ceremony of surrounding Robert’s person before the boy went to the bank.
Charley didn’t know about Robert’s marriage, so Charley’s plan was for just two people.
Charley went into the Atlantic House a half an hour before Robert was supposed to arrive. Charley went into the bar side of the restaurant, and he picked a small table for two.
He sat down and waited.
Several people in the bar knew Charley, and they nodded to him. Those who knew Charley well were surprised to see him on the bar side, because Charley hadn’t dared to take a drink for eight years. He hand’t dared to drink because he was an alcoholic. One small beer was enough to start Charley on a toot that could last for weeks.
A new waitress who didn’t know Charley took his order, went over to the bar, announced the order loaned and clear. “Bourbon on the rocks,” she said. She said it emptily. She didn’t know that she was announcing big news, announcing that Charley Brewer, after eight dry-as-dust years, was going to have a drink.
Charley got his drink.
Ned Crosby, the owner of the Atlantic House, came right along with it. When the waitress put the drink in front of Charley, Ned slipped into the chair facing him.
“Hello Charley,” said Ned, gently, watchfully.
Charley thanked the waitress for the drink, took his own sweet time in acknowledging Ned. “Hello, Ned,” he said. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to give up that chair pretty soon. My boy’s going to walk in here any minute.”
“The drink for him?” said Ned.
“For me,” said Charley. He smiled serenely.
Both men were in their late forties, both were going bald, both were alcoholics. They had been boozing buddies years before. They had sworn off booze at the same time, had gone to their first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous together.
“Today’s the boy’s twenty-first birthday, Ned,” said Charley. “Today he is a man.”
“Good for him,” said Ned. He pointed to the drink. “That accounts for the celebration.”
“That accounts for it,” said Charley simply. He made no move to touch the drink. He wasn’t going to drink it until Robert walked in.
Strangers looking at Charley and Ned would have guessed that Ned was broke and Charley was prosperous. They would have guessed exactly wrong. Ned, dumpy and humble, wearing rumpled sports clothes from plain pipe racks, took thirty thousand dollars a year out of the Atlantic House. Charley, tall and elegant, sporting a British mustache, made about a tenth that much selling storm widows and screens.
“That’s a new suit, Charley?” said Ned.
“It’s one I’ve had a while,” said Charley. The suit, dark, expensive, and gentlemanly, was in point of fact sixteen years old, dated back to the days when Charley had really been the rich man he seemed. Charley, like the person whose guardian he was, had inherited a lot of money, too. He had lost it all in one fantastic business enterprise after another. There had been a venetian blind factory, a chain of frozen custard stands, a distributorship for Japanese vacuum cleaners, a ferry operating between Hyannis and Nantucket — even a scheme for harnessing steam that escaped from italian volcanoes.
“Don’t worry about the drink, Ned,” said Charley. “Did I say I was Worried?” said Ned.
“Doesn’t take much imagination to guess what you’re thinking,” said Charley. The most obvious trap that an alcoholic could fall into was a celebration, and Charley knew this perfectly well.
“That’s the most flattering thing anybody’s said to me all week,” said Ned. “This is no ordinary celebration,” said Charley.
“They never are, Charley,” said Ned.
“What I am celebrating today,” said Charley, “is the one thing that really turned out well.”
“Uh huh,” said Ned. His faced remained cheerfully quizzical. “Go on and celebrate if you want to, Charley — but not in here.”
Charley closed his hands around his glass. “Yes —” he said, “in here, and pretty darn soon, too.” He had been planning the dramatic gesture of the drink too long to be talked out of it now. He was fully aware of the danger the drink represented. He was scared to death of it. It represented as terrifying a test as walking a tightrope across Niagara Falls.
But the danger was the whole point.
“Ned —“ said Charley, “that boy is going to watch in horror while I swallow this drink. And would you like to know what is going to happen to me?” Charley leaned forward. “Nothing,” he said. He sat back again. “You can watch in horror,” he said, “and anybody else who wants to can watch in horror, too. Sell tickets. It ought to be worth a pretty good price of admission, because Charley Brewer is going to take his first drink in eight years — swallow it right down — and that drink isn’t going to touch him!
“Why?” said Charley, and he put the question so loudly that it was heard across the room.
“Why isn’t this stuff poison for me today?” he said, pointing down at his glass. He answered his own question softly, sibilantly. “Because today I have nothing but a complete success to think about, Ned. This is one day my failures won’t come crowding in on me, gibbering and squawking.”
Charley shook his head in incredulous gratitude. “That kid — that lovely kid of mine,” he said. “I can take a drink today, Ned, because today I am not a disappointed man,”
Robert Ryan, Jr., parked his car in the paved lot behind the Atlantic House. It was the first stop in his married life, and his new bride was keeping track of all firsts.
“This is our very first stop,” said Nancy Holmes Ryan. She pretended to memorize the place, to find love poetry in the backs of a dime store, a shoe store, a radio store, and the Atlantic House. “I’ll always remember this place as the very first place we stopped,” she said.
Robert got out of the car promptly, went around to Nancy’s side, opened her door.
“Wait,” said Nancy. “Now that you’re married, you’ll have to learn how to wait a little.” She turned the car mirror in order to see her own reflection in it. “You’ll have to learn —” she said, “a woman can’t just rush into things like a man. She’s got to get ready a little.”
“Sorry,” said Robert.
“Especially if she’s going to meet a new relative,” said Nancy. She frowned at herself in the mirror — and then she tried, in quick succession, a whole series of expressions by which she might be judged. “I — I hardly know anything about him,” she said.
“Uncle Charley?” said Robert.
“You haven’t said much,” said Nancy. “Tell me — tell me a few little things.” Robert shrugged. “Dreamer,” he said.
Nancy tried to make something of this, could make very little. “Dreamer?” she echoed.
“Lost everything he had in different crazy businesses,” said Robert. Nancy nodded. “I see.” She still saw very little. “Bob?”
“Hm?” said Robert.
“What does that have to do with dreams?” she said.
“Never see things the way they really are,” said Robert. His voice was just a little edgy.
“The way things really are —” he said, “that’s never good enough for Uncle Charley.”
The edginess increased. “Anything he’s mixed up in — he’ll fancy it up in his dreams till it’s the most glorious thing he ever heard of.”
“That sounds like a very nice way to be.” Her own tone, in involuntary response to Roberts’, was mildly argumentative.
“It’s a lousy way to be,” said Robert harshly. “I don’t see why,” said Nancy.
“The poor guy bets his life again and again and again on things that are just —” he shook his head wildly, “just nothing at all! Nothing!”
Robert’s bitterness startled Nancy, dismayed her. “Don’t you like him, Robert?” she said.
“Sure I like him!” said Robert loudly.
Robert’s tone was now so harsh, so wordily, so alone and unromantic, so unsuitable for a wedding day, that it was like a slap to Nancy. After an instant of shock, she could not hold back her tears. The tears were few, and unaccompanied by sound — but there they were in plain view, twinkling on the rims of her eyes. She turned away from Robert.
Robert turned red. His hands worked the air cumbersomely. “Sorry,” he said. “You sound so mad,” said Nancy.
“I’m not,” said Robert.
“You sound that way,” said Nancy. “What did I say wrong?”
“Nothing — nothing to do with you,” said Robert. He sighed. “You about ready?”
“No,” said Nancy, “not now — not after crying.” “Take your time,” said Robert.
Ned Crosby, the innkeeper, looked old. He was still at the table for two with Charley in the bar. He had been unable to wheedle his old friend out of taking a drink. With each new line of argument, Charley had become more radiant with the glamour of his plan.
Ned stood, and Charley looked up at him with amused affection.
“Going?” said Charley. “Going,” said Ned.
“I hope I’ve put your mind at ease,” said Charley lightly.
“Sure,” said Ned. He managed to smile. “Prosit, skoal, and mud in your eye,” he said.
“Join the boy and me in a drink, Ned?” said Charley playfully.
“I’m tempted,” said Ned, “but I’m scared to death the world wouldn’t cooperate.”
“What could go wrong?” said Charley.
“I don’t know, and neither do you,” said Ned. “But it’s an awfully busy world out there, full of fast moving people with big, fancy ideas of their own. No sooner would we get that first drink down, counting on a perfect day, and somebody would come crashing in here and say or do exactly the wrong thing.”
At the end of this speech, Ned intended to take Charley’s drink away from him. But he wasn’t quick enough. Before he could do it, Charley was on his feet, his glass on high, saluting Robert, who stood in the doorway.
In three brave, highly ceremonious gulps, Charley drank the drink down.
Nancy Holmes Ryan watched Charley do it through the small opening between her husband’s shoulder and the doorjamb. The opening widened now, until Nancy was framed alone in the doorway. Robert had gone to his uncle’s side.
There was a third man with them, frowsy, worried. The third man, of course, was the innkeeper, Ned. Of the three men, only Charley looked happy.
“Don’t worry —” Charley said to Robert. “I — I am not,” said Robert.
“I’m not starting on a binge,” said Charley. I haven’t taken up drinking again since you’ve been gone. This is a special drink.” He set the glass down with melodramatic finality. “One — just one. One drink, and that’s the end.” He turned to Ned.
“Have I shamed the Atlantic House?” he said. “No,” said Ned quietly.
“Nor am I going to,” said Charley. He motioned to the chair facing him. “Sit down, person,” he said to Robert.
“Person?” said Robert.
“What I’ve been guarding for twelve solid years,” said Charley. “What’ll you have?”
“Uncle Charley —“ said Robert, “I — I’d like you to meet my wife.”
“Your what?” said Charley. So far, he hadn’t noticed Nancy at all. Now, when
Robert nodded in her direction, Charley remained sitting, looked at her blankly. “My wife,” Robert said again, lamely.
Now Charley stood, his eyes on Nancy. His eyes were strangely empty. “How do you do?” he said.
Nancy bowed slightly. “How do you do?” she said. “I missed your name,” said Charley.
“Nancy,” said Nancy. “Nancy,” said Charley.
“We were married this morning,” said Robert.
“I see,” said Charley. He blinked hard several times, distorting his face, as though trying to make his eyes work better. And then, realizing that the expressions might be mistaken for drunkenness, he explained loudly, “Something in my eye.” He turned to Ned. “I’m not drunk, Ned,” he said.
“Nobody said you were, Charley,” said Ned.
“I don’t suppose this table will do any longer,” said Charley.