Fiction — From the March 1953 issue

Artists in Uniform

A story

The Colonel went out sailing.
He spoke with Turk and Jew . . .

“POUR it on, Colonel,” cried the young man in the Dacron suit excitedly, making his first sortie into the club-car conversation. His face was white as Roquefort and of a glistening, cheese-like texture; he had a shock of tow-colored hair, badly cut and greasy, and a snub nose with large gray pores. Under his darting eyes were two black craters. He appeared to be under some intense nervous strain and had sat the night before in the club car drinking bourbon with beer chasers and leafing magazines which he frowningly tossed aside, like cards into a discard heap. This morning he had come in late, with a hangdog, hangover look, and had been sitting tensely forward on a settee, smoking cigarettes and following the conversation with little twitches of the nose and quivers of the body, as a dog follows a human conversation, veering its mistrustful eyeballs from one speaker to another and raising its head eagerly at its master’s voice. The Colonel’s voice, rich and light and plausible, had in fact abruptly risen and swollen, as he pronounced his last sentence. “I can tell you one thing,” he said harshly. ‘‘They weren’t named Ryan or Murphy!”

A sort of sigh, as of consummation, ran through the club car. ‘‘Pour it on, Colonel, give it to them, Colonel, that’s right, Colonel,” urged the young man in a transport of admiration. The Colonel fingered his collar and modestly smiled. He was a thin, hawklike, black-haired handsome man with a bright blue bloodshot eye and a well-pressed, well-tailored uniform that did not show the effects of the heat — the train, westbound for St. Louis, was passing through Indiana, and, as usual in a heat-wave, the air-conditioning had not met the test. He wore the Air Force insignia, and there was something in his light-boned, spruce figure and keen, knifelike profile that suggested a classic image of the aviator, ready to cut, piercing, into space. In base fact, however, the Colonel was in procurement, as we heard him tell the mining engineer who had just bought him a drink. From several silken hints that parachuted into the talk, it was patent to us that the Colonel was a man who knew how to enjoy this earth and its pleasures: he led, he gave us to think, a bachelor’s life of abstemious dissipation and well-rounded sensuality. He had accepted the engineer’s drink with a mere nod of the glass in acknowledgment, like a genial Mars quaffing a libation; there was clearly no prospect of his buying a second in return, not if the train were to travel from here to the Mojave Desert. In the same way, an understanding had arisen that I, the only woman in the club car, had become the Colonel’s perquisite; it was taken for granted, without an invitation’s being issued, that I was to lunch with him in St. Louis, where we each had a wait between trains — my plans for seeing the city in a taxicab were dished.

From the beginning, as we eyed each other over my volume of Dickens (“The Christmas Carol?’’ suggested the Colonel, opening relations), I had guessed that the Colonel was of Irish stock, and this, I felt, gave me an advantage, for he did not suspect the same of me; strangely so, for I am supposed to have the map of Ireland written on my features. In fact, he had just wagered, with a jaunty, sidelong grin at the mining engineer, that my people “came from Boston from way back,” and that I — narrowed glance, running, like steel measuring-tape, up and down my form — was a professional sculptress. I might have laughed this off, as a crudely bad guess like his Christmas Carol, if I had not seen the engineer nodding gravely, like an idol, and the peculiar young man bobbing his head up and down in mute applause and agreement. I was wearing a bright apple-green raw silk blouse and a dark-green rather full raw silk skirt, plus a pair of pink glass earrings; my hair was done up in a bun. It came to me, for the first time, with a sort of dawning horror, that I had begun, in the course of years, without ever guessing it, to look irrevocably Bohemian. Refracted from the three men’s eyes was a strange vision of myself as an artist, through and through, stained with my occupation like the dyer’s hand. All I lacked, apparently, was a pair of sandals. My sick heart sank to my Ferragamo shoes; I had always particularly preened myself on being an artist in disguise. And it was not only a question of personal vanity — it seemed to me that the writer or intellectual had a certain missionary usefulness in just such accidental gatherings as this, if he spoke not as an intellectual but as a normal member of the public. Now, thanks to the Colonel, I slowly became aware that my contributions to the club-car conversation were being watched and assessed as coming from a certain quarter. My costume, it seemed, carefully assembled as it had been at an expensive shop, was to these observers simply a uniform that blazoned a caste and allegiance just as plainly as the Colonel’s khaki and eagles. “Gardez,” I said to myself. But, as the conversation grew tenser and I endeavored to keep cool, I began to writhe within myself, and every time I looked down, my contrasting greens seemed to be growing more and more lurid and taking on an almost menacing light, like leaves just before a storm that lift their bright undersides as the air becomes darker. We had been speaking, of course, of Russia, and I had mentioned a study that had been made at Harvard of political attitudes among Iron Curtain refugees. Suddenly, the Colonel had smiled. “They’re pretty Red at Harvard, I’m given to understand,” he observed in a comfortable tone, while the young man twitched and quivered urgently. The eyes of all the men settled on me and waited. I flushed as I saw myself reflected. The woodland greens of my dress were turning to their complementary red, like a color-experiment in psychology or a traffic light changing. Down at the other end of the club car, a man looked up from his paper. I pulled myself together. “Set your mind at rest, Colonel,” I remarked dryly. “I know Harvard very well and they’re conservative to the point of dullness. The only thing crimson is the football team.” This disparagement had its effect. “So . . .?” queried the Colonel. “I thought there was some professor. . . .” I shook my head. “Absolutely not. There used to be a few fellow-travelers, but they’re very quiet these days, when they haven’t absolutely recanted. The general atmosphere is more anti-Communist than the Vatican.” The Colonel and the mining engineer exchanged a thoughtful stare and seemed to agree that the Delphic oracle that had just pronounced knew whereof it spoke. “Glad to hear it,” said the Colonel. The engineer frowned and shook his fat wattles; he was a stately, gray-haired, plump man with small hands and feet and the pampered, finical tidiness of a small-town widow. “There’s so much hearsay these days,” he exclaimed vexedly. “You don’t know what to believe.”

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