[Fiction] Artists in Uniform, By Mary McCarthy | Harper's Magazine

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[Fiction]

Artists in Uniform

Adjust
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.”

I REOPENED my book with an air of having closed the subject and read a paragraph three times over. I exulted to think that I had made a modest contribution to sanity in our times, and I imagined my words pyramiding like a chain letter — the Colonel telling a fellow-officer on the veranda of a club in Texas, the engineer halting a works-superintendent in a Colorado mine shaft: “I met a woman on the train who claims . . . Yes, absolutely. . . .” Of course, I did not know Harvard as thoroughly as I pretended, but I forgave myself by thinking it was the convention of such club-car symposia in our positivistic country to speak from the horse’s mouth.

Meanwhile, across the aisle, the engineer and the Colonel continued their talk in slightly lowered voices. From time to time, the Colonel’s polished index-fingernail scratched his burnished black head and his knowing blue eye forayed occasionally toward me. I saw

that still I was a doubtful quantity to them, a movement in the bushes, a noise, a flicker, that was figuring in their crenelated thought as “she.” The subject of Reds in our colleges had not, alas, been finished; they were speaking now of another university and a woman faculty-member who had been issuing Communist statements. This story somehow, I thought angrily, had managed to appear in the newspapers without my knowledge, while these men were conversant with it; I recognized a big chink in the armor of my authority. Looking up from my book, I began to question them sharply, as though they were reporting some unheard-of natural phenomenon. “When?” I demanded. “Where did you see it? What was her name?” This request for the professor’s name was a headlong attempt on my part to buttress my position, the implication being that the identities of all university professors were known to me and that if I were but given the name I could promptly clarify the matter. To admit that there was a single Communist in our academic system whose activities were hidden from me imperiled, I instinctively felt, all the small good I had done here. Moreover, in the back of my mind, I had a supreme confidence that these men were wrong: the story, I supposed, was some tattered piece of misinformation they had picked up from a gossip column. Pride, as usual, preceded my fall. To the Colonel, the demand for the name was not specific but generic: what kind of name was the question he presumed me to be asking. “Oh,” he said slowly with a luxurious yawn, “Finkelstein or Fishbein or Feinstein.” He lolled back in his seat with a side glance at the engineer, who deeply nodded. There was a voluptuary pause, as the implication sank in. I bit my lip, regarding this as a mere diversionary tactic. “Please!” I said impatiently. “Can’t you remember exactly?” The Colonel shook his head and then his spare cheekbones suddenly reddened and he looked directly at me. “I can tell you one thing,” he exclaimed irefully. “They weren’t named Ryan or Murphy.”

The Colonel went no further; it was quite unnecessary. In an instant, the young man was at his side, yapping excitedly and actually picking at the military sleeve. The poor thing was transformed, like some creature in a fairy tale whom a magic word releases

from silence. “That’s right, Colonel,” he happily repeated. “I know them. I was at Harvard in the business school, studying accountancy. I left. I couldn’t take it.” He threw a poisonous glance at me, and the Colonel, who had been regarding him somewhat doubtfully, now put on an alert expression and inclined an ear for his confidences. The man at the other end of the car folded his newspaper solemnly and took a seat by the young man’s side. “They’re all Reds, Colonel,” said the young man. “They teach it in the classroom. I came back here to Missouri. It made me sick to listen to the stuff they handed out. If you didn’t hand it back, they flunked you. Don’t let anybody tell you different.” “You are wrong,” I said coldly and closed my book and rose. The young man was still talking eagerly, and the three men were leaning forward to catch his every gasping word, like three astute detectives over a dying informer, when I reached the door and cast a last look over my shoulder at them. For an instant, the Colonel’s eye met mine, and I felt his scrutiny processing my green back as I tugged open the door and met a blast of hot air, blowing my full skirt wide. Behind me, in my fancy, I saw four sets of shrugging brows.

In my own car, I sat down, opposite two fat nuns, and tried to assemble my thoughts. I ought to have spoken, I felt, and yet what could I have said? It occurred to me that the four men had perhaps not realized why I had left the club car with such abruptness: was it possible that they thought I was a Communist, who feared to be unmasked? I spurned this possibility, and yet it made me uneasy. For some reason, it troubled my amour-propre to think of my anti-Communist self living on, so to speak, green in their collective memory as a Communist or fellow-traveler. In fact, though I did not give a fig for the men, I hated the idea, while a few years ago I should have counted it a great joke. This, it seemed to me, was a measure of the change in the social climate. I had always scoffed at the notion of liberals “living in fear” of political demagoguery in America, but now I had to admit that if I was not fearful, I was at least uncomfortable in the supposition that anybody, anybody whatever, could think of me, precious me, as a Communist. A remoter possibility was, of course, that back there my departure was being ascribed to Jewishness, and this too annoyed me. I am in fact a quarter Jewish, and though I did not “hate” the idea of being taken for a Jew, I did not precisely like it, particularly under these circumstances. I wished it to be clear that I had left the club car for intellectual and principled reasons; I wanted those men to know that it was not I, but my principles, that had been offended. To let them conjecture that I had left because I was Jewish would imply that only a Jew could be affronted by an anti-Semitic outburst: a terrible idea. Aside from anything else, it voided the whole concept of transcendence, which was very close to my heart, the concept that man is more than his circumstances, more even than himself.

However you looked at the episode, I said to myself nervously, I had not acquitted myself well. I ought to have done or said something concrete and unmistakable. From this, I slid glassily to the thought that those men ought to be punished, the Colonel, in particular, who occupied a responsible position. In a minute, I was framing a businesslike letter to the Chief of Staff, deploring the Colonel’s conduct as unbecoming to an officer and identifying him by rank and post, since unfortunately I did not know his name. Earlier in the conversation, he had passed some comments on “Harry” that bordered positively on treason, I said to myself triumphantly. A vivid image of the proceedings against him presented itself to my imagination: the long military tribunal with a row of stern soldierly faces glaring down at the Colonel. I myself occupied only an inconspicuous corner of this tableau, for, to tell the truth, I did not relish the role of the witness. Perhaps it would be wiser to let the matter drop . . .? We were nearing St. Louis now; the Colonel had come back into my car, and the young accountant had followed him, still talking feverishly. I pretended not to see them and turned to the two nuns, as if for sanctuary from this world and its hatreds and revenges. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched the Colonel, who now looked wry and restless; he shrank against the window as the young man made a place for himself amid the Colonel’s smart luggage and continued to express his views in a pale breathless voice. I smiled to think that the Colonel was paying the piper. For the Colonel, anti-Semitism was simply an aspect of urbanity, like a knowledge of hotels or women. This frantic psychopath of an accountant was serving him as a nemesis, just as the German people had been served by their psychopath, Hitler. Colonel, I adjured him, you have chosen, between him and me; measure the depth of your error and make the best of it! No intervention on my part was now necessary; justice had been meted out. Nevertheless, my heart was still throbbing violently, as if I were on the verge of some dangerous action. What was I to do, I kept asking myself, as I chatted with the nuns, if the Colonel were to hold me to that lunch? And I slowly and apprehensively revolved this question, just as though it were a matter of the most serious import. It seemed to me that if I did not lunch with him — and I had no intention of doing so — I had the dreadful obligation of telling him why.

He was waiting for me as I descended the car steps. “Aren’t you coming to lunch with me?” he called out and moved up to take my elbow. I began to tremble with audacity. “No,” I said firmly, picking up my suitcase and draping an olive-green linen duster over my arm. “I can’t lunch with you.” He quirked a wiry black eyebrow. “Why not?” he said. “I understood it was all arranged.” He reached for my suitcase. “No,” I said, holding on to the suitcase. “I can’t.” I took a deep breath. “I have to tell you. I think you should be ashamed of yourself, Colonel, for what you said in the club car.” The Colonel stared; I mechanically waved for a red-cap, who took my bag and coat and went off. The Colonel and I stood facing each other on the emptying platform. “What do you mean?” he inquired in a low, almost clandestine tone. “Those anti-Semitic remarks,” I muttered, resolutely. “You ought to be ashamed.” The Colonel gave a quick, relieved laugh. “Oh, come now,” he protested. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t have lunch with anybody who feels that way about the Jews.” The Colonel put down his attaché-case and scratched the back of his lean neck. “Oh, come now,” he repeated, with a look of amusement. “You’re not Jewish, are you?” “No,” I said quickly. “Well, then . . . said the Colonel, spreading his hands in a gesture of bafflement. I saw that he was truly surprised and slightly hurt by my criticism, and this made me feel wretchedly embarrassed and even apologetic, on my side, as though I had called attention to some physical defect in him, of which he himself was unconscious. “But I might have been,” I stammered. “You had no way of knowing. You oughtn’t to talk like that.” I recognized, too late, that I was strangely reducing the whole matter to a question of etiquette: “Don’t start anti-Semitic talk before making sure there are no Jews present.” “Oh, hell,” said the Colonel, easily. “I can tell a Jew.” “No, you can’t,” I retorted, thinking of my Jewish grandmother, for by Nazi criteria I was Jewish. “Of course I can,” he insisted. “So can you.” We had begun to walk down the platform side by side, disputing with a restrained passion that isolated us like a pair of lovers. All at once, the Colonel halted, as though struck with a thought. “What are you, anyway?” he said meditatively, regarding my dark hair, green blouse, and pink earrings. Inside myself, I began to laugh. “Oh,” I said gaily, playing out the trump I had been saving, “I’m Irish, like you, Colonel.” “How did you know?” he said amazedly. I laughed aloud. “I can tell an Irishman,” I taunted. The Colonel frowned. “What’s your family name?” he said brusquely. “McCarthy.” He lifted an eyebrow, in defeat, and then quickly took note of my wedding ring. “That your maiden name?” I nodded. Under this peremptory questioning, I had the peculiar sensation that I get when I am lying; I began to feel that “McCarthy” was a nom de plume, a coinage of my artistic personality. But the Colonel appeared to be satisfied. “Hell,” he said, “come on to lunch, then. With a fine name like that, you and I should be friends.” I still shook my head, though by this time we were pacing outside the station restaurant; my baggage had been checked in a locker; sweat was running down my face and I felt exhausted and hungry. I knew that I was weakening and I wanted only an excuse to yield and go inside with him. The Colonel seemed to sense this. “Hell,” he conceded. “You’ve got me wrong. I’ve nothing against the Jews. Back there in the club car, I was just stating a simple fact: you won’t find an Irishman sounding off for the Commies. You can’t deny that, can you?”

HIS voice rose persuasively; he took my arm. In the heat, I wilted and we went into the air-conditioned cocktail lounge. The Colonel ordered two old-fashioneds. The room was dark as a cave and produced, in the midst of the hot midday, a hallucinated feeling, as though time had ceased, with the weather, and we were in eternity together. As the Colonel prepared to relax, I made a tremendous effort to guide the conversation along rational, purposive lines; my only justification for being here would be to convert the Colonel. “There have been Irishmen associated with the Communist party,” I said suddenly, when the drinks came. “I can think of two.” “Oh, hell,” said the Colonel, “every race and nation has its traitors. What I mean is, you won’t find them in numbers. You’ve got to admit that the Communists in this country are 90 per cent Jewish.” “But the Jews in this country aren’t 90 per cent Communist,” I retorted.

As he stirred his drink, restively, I began to try to show him the reasons why the Communist movement in America had attracted such a large number, relatively, of Jews: how the Communists had been anti-Nazi when nobody else seemed to care what happened to the Jews in Germany; how the Communists still capitalized on a Jewish fear of fascism; how many Jews had become, after Buchenwald, traumatized by this fear. . . .

But the Colonel was scarcely listening. An impatient frown rested on his jaunty features. “I don’t get it,” he said slowly. “Why should you be for them, with a name like yours?” “I’m not for the Communists,” I cried. “I’m just trying to explain to you —” “For the Jews,” the Colonel interrupted, irritable now himself. “I’ve heard of such people but I never met one before.” “I’m not ‘for’ them,” I protested. “You don’t understand. I’m not for any race or nation. I’m against those who are against them.” This word, them, with a sort of slurring circle drawn round it, was beginning to sound ugly to me. Automatically, in arguing with him, I seemed to have slipped into the Colonel’s style of thought. It occurred to me that defense of the Jews could be a subtle and safe form of anti-Semitism, an exercise of patronage: as a rational Gentile, one could feel superior both to the Jews and the anti-Semites. There could be no doubt that the Jewish question evoked a curious stealthy lust or concupiscence. I could feel it now vibrating between us over the dark table. If I had been a good person, I should unquestionably have got up and left.

“I don’t get it,” repeated the Colonel. “How were you brought up? Were your people this way too?” It was manifest that an odd reversal had taken place; each of us regarded the other as “abnormal” and was attempting to understand the etiology of the disease. “Many of my people think just as you do,” I said, smiling coldly. “It seems to be a sickness to which the Irish are prone. Perhaps it’s due to the potato diet,” I said sweetly, having divined that the Colonel came from a social stratum somewhat lower than my own.

But the Colonel’s hide was tough. “You’ve got me wrong,” he reiterated, with an almost plaintive laugh. “I don’t dislike the Jews. I’ve got a lot of Jewish friends. Among themselves, they think just as I do, mark my words. I tell you what it is,” he added ruminatively, with a thoughtful prod of his muddler, “I draw a distinction between a kike and a Jew.” I groaned. “Colonel, I’ve never heard an anti-Semite who didn’t draw that distinction. You know what Otto Kahn said? ‘A kike is a Jewish gentleman who has just left the room.’ ” The Colonel did not laugh. “I don’t hold it against some of them,” he persisted, in a tone of pensive justice. “It’s not their fault if they were born that way. That’s what I tell them, and they respect me for my honesty. I’ve had a lot of discussions; in procurement, you have to do business with them, and the Jews are the first to admit that you’ll find more chiselers among their race than among the rest of mankind.” “It’s not a race,” I interjected wearily, but the Colonel pressed on. “If I deal with a Jewish manufacturer, I can’t bank on his word. I’ve seen it again and again, every damned time. When I deal with a Gentile, I can trust him to make delivery as promised. That’s the difference between the two races. They’re just a different breed. They don’t have standards of honesty, even among each other.” I sighed, feeling unequal to arguing the Colonel’s personal experience.

“Look,” I said, “you may be dealing with an industry where the Jewish manufacturers are the most recent comers and feel they have to cut corners to compete with the established firms. I’ve heard that said about Jewish cattle-dealers, who are supposed to be extra sharp. But what I think, really, is that you notice it when a Jewish firm fails to meet an agreement and don’t notice it when it’s a Yankee.” “Hah,” said the Colonel. “They’ll tell you what I’m telling you themselves, if you get to know them and go into their homes. You won’t believe it, but some of my best friends are Jews,” he said, simply and thoughtfully, with an air of originality. “They may be your best friends, Colonel,” I retorted, “but you are not theirs. I defy you to tell me that you talk to them as you’re talking now.” “Sure,” said the Colonel, easily. “More or less.” “They must be very queer Jews you know,” I observed tartly, and I began to wonder whether there indeed existed a peculiar class of Jews whose function in life was to be “friends” with such people as the Colonel. It was difficult to think that all the anti-Semites who made the Colonel’s assertion were the victims of a cruel self-deception.

A dispirited silence followed. I was not one of those liberals who believed that the Jews, alone among peoples, possessed no characteristics whatever of a distinguishing nature — this would mean they had no history and no culture, a charge which should be leveled against them only by an anti-Semite. Certainly, types of Jews could be noted and patterns of Jewish thought and feeling: Jewish humor, Jewish rationality, and so on, not that every Jew reflected every attribute of Jewish life or history. But somehow, with the Colonel, I dared not concede that there was such a thing as a Jew: I saw the sad meaning of the assertion that a Jew was a person whom other people thought was Jewish.

Hopeless, however, to convey this to the Colonel. The desolate truth was that the Colonel was extremely stupid, and it came to me, as we sat there, glumly ordering lunch, that for extremely stupid people anti-Semitism was a form of intellectuality, the sole form of intellectuality of which they were capable. It represented, in a rudimentary way, the ability to make categories, to generalize. Hence a thing I had noted before but never understood: the fact that anti-Semitic statements were generally delivered in an atmosphere of profundity. Furrowed brows attended these speculative distinctions between a kike and a Jew, these little empirical laws that you can’t know one without knowing them all. To arrive, indeed, at the idea of a Jew was, for these grouping minds, an exercise in Platonic thought, a discovery of essence, and to be able to add the great corollary, “Some of my best friends are Jews,” was to find the philosopher’s cleft between essence and existence. From this, it would seem, followed the querulous obstinacy with which the anti-Semite clung to his concept; to be deprived of this intellectual tool by missionaries of tolerance would be, for persons like the Colonel, the equivalent of Western man’s losing the syllogism: a lapse into animal darkness. In the club car, we had just witnessed an example: the Colonel with his anti-Semitic observation had come to the mute young man like the paraclete, bearing the gift of tongues.

HERE in the bar, it grew plainer and plainer that the Colonel did not regard himself as an anti-Semite but merely as a heavy thinker. The idea that I considered him anti-Semitic sincerely outraged his feelings. “Prejudice” was the last trait he could have imputed to himself. He looked on me, almost respectfully, as a “Jew lover,” a kind of being he had heard of but never actually encountered, like a centaur or a Siamese twin, and the interest of relating this prodigy to the natural state of mankind overrode any personal distaste. There I sat, the exception which was “proving” or testing the rule, and he kept pressing me for details of my history that might explain my deviation in terms of the norm. On my side, of course, I had become fiercely resolved that he would learn nothing from me that would make it possible for him to dismiss my anti-anti-Semitism as the product of special circumstances: I was stubbornly sitting on the fact of my Jewish grandmother like a hen on a golden egg. I was bent on making him see himself as a monster, a deviation, a heretic from Church and State. Unfortunately, the Colonel, owing perhaps to his military training, had not the glimmering of an idea of what democracy meant; to him, it was simply a slogan that was sometimes useful in war. The notion of an ordained inequality was to him “scientific.”

“Honestly,” he was saying in lowered tones, as our drinks were taken away and the waitress set down my sandwich and his corned-beef hash, “don’t you, brought up the way you were, feel about them the way I do? Just between ourselves, isn’t there a sort of inborn feeling of horror that the very word, Jew, suggests?” I shook my head, roundly. The idea of an innate anti-Semitism was in keeping with the rest of the Colonel’s thought, yet it shocked me more than anything he had yet said. “No,” I sharply replied. “It doesn’t evoke any feeling one way or the other.” “Honest Injun?” said the Colonel. “Think back; when you were a kid, didn’t the word, Jew, make you feel sick?” There was a dreadful sincerity about this that made me answer in an almost kindly tone. “No, truthfully, I assure you. When we were children, we learned to call the old-clothes man a sheeny, but that was just a dirty word to us, like ‘Hun’ that we used to call after workmen we thought were Germans.”

“I don’t get it,” pondered the Colonel, eating a pickle. “There must be something wrong with you. Everybody is born with that feeling. It’s natural; it’s part of nature.” “On the contrary,” I said. “It’s something very unnatural that you must have been taught as a child.” “It’s not something you’re taught,” he protested. “You must have been,” I said. “You simply don’t remember it. In any case, you’re a man now; you must rid yourself of that feeling. It’s psychopathic, like that horrible young man on the train.” “You thought he was crazy?” mused the Colonel, in an idle, dreamy tone. I shrugged my shoulders. “Of course. Think of his color. He was probably just out of a mental institution. People don’t get that tattletale gray except in prison or mental hospitals.” The Colonel suddenly grinned. “You might be right,” he said. “He was quite a case.” He chuckled.

I leaned forward. “You know, Colonel,” I said quickly, “anti-Semitism is contrary to the Church’s teaching. God will make you do penance for hating the Jews. Ask your priest; he’ll tell you I’m right. You’ll have a long spell in Purgatory, if you don’t rid yourself of this sin. It’s a deliberate violation of Christ’s commandment, ‘Love thy neighbor.’ The Church holds that the Jews have a sacred place in God’s design. Mary was a Jew and Christ was a Jew. The Jews are under God’s special protection. The Church teaches that the millennium can’t come until the conversion of the Jews; therefore, the Jews must be preserved that the Divine Will may be accomplished. Woe to them that harm them, for they controvert God’s Will!” In the course of speaking, I had swept myself away with the solemnity of the doctrine. The Great Reconciliation between God and His chosen people, as envisioned by the Evangelist, had for me at that moment a piercing, majestic beauty, like some awesome Tintoretto. I saw a noble spectacle of blue sky, thronged with gray clouds, and a vast white desert, across which God and Israel advanced to meet each other, while below in hell the demons of disunion shrieked and gnashed their teeth.

“HELL,” said the Colonel, jovially. “I don’t believe in all that. I lost my faith when I was a kid. I saw that all this God stuff was a lot of bushwa.” I gazed at him in stupefaction. His confidence had completely returned. The blue eyes glittered debonairly; the eagles glittered; the narrow polished head cocked and listened to itself like a trilling bird. I was up against an air man with a bird’s-eye view, a man who believed in nothing but the law of kind: the epitome of godless materialism. “You still don’t hold with that bunk?” the Colonel inquired in an undertone, with an expression of stealthy curiosity. “No,” I confessed, sad to admit to a meeting of minds. “You know what got me?” exclaimed the Colonel. “That birth-control stuff. Didn’t it kill you?” I made a neutral sound. “I was beginning to play around,” said the Colonel, with a significant beam of the eye, “and I just couldn’t take that guff. When I saw through the birth-control talk, I saw through the whole thing. They claimed it was against nature, but I claim, if that’s so, an operation’s against nature. I told my old man that when he was having his kidney stones out. You ought to have heard him yell!” A rich, reminiscent satisfaction dwelt in the Colonel’s face.

This period of his life, in which he had thrown off the claims of the spiritual and adopted a practical approach, was evidently one of those “turning points” to which a man looks back with pride. He lingered over the story of his break with church and parents with a curious sort of heat, as though the flames of old sexual conquests stirred within his body at the memory of those old quarrels. The looks he rested on me, as a sharer of that experience, grew more and more lickerish and assaying. “What got you down?” he finally inquired, settling back in his chair and pushing his coffee cup aside. “Oh,” I said wearily, “it’s a long story. You can read it when it’s published.” “You’re an author?” cried the Colonel, who was really very slow-witted. I nodded, and the Colonel regarded me afresh. “What do you write? Love stories?” He gave a half-wink. “No,” I said. “Various things. Articles. Books. Highbrowish stories.” A suspicion darkened in the Colonel’s sharp face. “That McCarthy,” he said. “Is that your pen name?” “Yes,” I said, “but it’s my real name too. It’s the name I write under and my maiden name.” The Colonel digested this thought. “Oh,” he concluded.

A new idea seemed to visit him. Quite cruelly, I watched it take possession. He was thinking of the power of the press and the indiscretions of other military figures, who had been rewarded with demotion. The consciousness of the uniform he wore appeared to seep uneasily into his body. He straightened his shoulders and called thoughtfully for the check. We paid in silence, the Colonel making no effort to forestall my dive into my pocketbook. I should not have let him pay in any case, but it startled me that he did not try to do so, if only for reasons of vanity. The whole business of paying, apparently, was painful to him; I watched his facial muscles contract as he pocketed the change and slipped two dimes for the waitress onto the table, not daring quite to hide them under the coffee cup — he had short-changed me on the bill and the tip, and we both knew it. We walked out into the steaming station and I took my baggage out of the checking locker. The Colonel carried my suitcase and we strolled along without speaking. Again, I felt horribly embarrassed for him. He was meditative, and I supposed that he too was mortified by his meanness about the tip.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he said suddenly, setting the suitcase down and turning squarely to face me, as though he had taken a big decision. “I may have said a few things back there about the Jews getting what they deserved in Germany.” I looked at him in surprise; actually, he had not said that to me. Perhaps he had let it drop in the club car. “But that doesn’t mean I approve of Hitler.” “I should hope not,” I said. “What I mean is,” said the Colonel, “that they probably gave the Germans a lot of provocation, but that doesn’t excuse what Hitler did.” “No,” I said, somewhat ironically, but the Colonel was unaware of anything satiric in the air. His face was grave and determined; he was sorting out his philosophy for the record. “I mean, I don’t approve of his methods,” he finally stated. “No,” I agreed. “You mean, you don’t approve of the gas chamber.” The Colonel shook his head very severely. “Absolutely not! That was terrible.” He shuddered and drew out a handkerchief and slowly wiped his brow. “For God’s sake,” he said, “don’t get me wrong. I think they’re human beings.” “Yes,” I assented, and we walked along to my track. The Colonel’s spirits lifted, as though, having stated his credo, he had both got himself in line with public policy and achieved an autonomous thought. “I mean,” he resumed, “you may not care for them, but that’s not the same as killing them, in cold blood, like that.” “No, Colonel,” I said.

He swung my bag onto the car’s platform and I climbed up behind it. He stood below, smiling, with upturned face. “I’ll look for your article,” he cried, as the train whistle blew. I nodded, and the Colonel waved, and I could not stop myself from waving back at him and even giving him the corner of a smile. After all, I said to myself, looking down at him, the Colonel was “a human being.” There followed one of those inane intervals in which one prays for the train to leave. We both glanced at our watches. “See you some time,” he called. “What’s your married name?” “Broadwater,” I called back. The whistle blew again. “Brodwater?” shouted the Colonel, with a dazed look of unbelief and growing enlightenment; he was not the first person to hear it as a Jewish name, on the model of Goldwater. “B-r-o-a-d,” I began, automatically, but then I stopped. I disdained to spell it out for him; the victory was his. “One of the chosen, eh?” his brief grimace commiserated. For the last time, and in the final fullness of understanding, the hawk eye patrolled the green dress, the duster, and the earrings; the narrow flue of his nostril contracted as he curtly turned away. The train commenced to move.


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