(Page 5 of 5)
This regimen was hard on the dogs; but it was hard on June too. For one thing, she was not used to walking twenty-odd miles a day. (Mrs. Drax could not explain why the sight of June’s crumpled car filled her with revulsion and panic, and June did not press her.) She could not take the dogs along, either, because Mrs. Drax did not like dogs, and dogs did not like her. When she and June’s dogs were in the same room together the dogs stood on one side and barked at Mrs. Drax while she sat on the other side and yelled right back at them, as though they were all debating some controversial new traffic law in town hall. And though June normally liked walking, since it gave her the opportunity to wave at her neighbors and smile kindly at strangers, she found that no one smiled back when she was with Mrs. Drax, who scowled at everyone: postmen, children, and panhandlers — especially panhandlers, whom she called “dirty bums” or “lazy beggars,” advised to seek employment, and sometimes spat at. June, who had always been flustered by panhandlers (she found that they made her feel awkward, privileged, and ungenerous whether she gave them spare change or not), was positively mortified by Mrs. Drax’s behavior. She apologized profusely and gave them all ten-dollar bills — so that, in time, the bums on their downtown route came to relish Mrs. Drax’s maltreatment, and even to like her a little; while June, they felt, was a “dumb cluck” and a “three-minute egg.”
Life with Mrs. Drax was not always so terrible. One day, while they rolled down Harper Street, Mrs. Drax napped in her chair, her head lolling back, and the sight of her puckered face, petulant even in sleep, gave June sentimental daydreams about a daughter who moves back home to nurse her dying mother . . .
June no longer wondered why Mrs. Drax was such a nasty person. When Mrs. Drax was awake, the question did not grip the imagination. When Mrs. Drax went rigid with frustration at some perceived wrong, thrusting out her pelvis and kicking her legs, or crumpled into a seething, trembling bomb of resentment, or exploded in a fulminating tantrum, it didn’t seem to matter much whether she acted this way because she had been spoiled as a child or deprived as an adolescent, or because her parents had been disgracefully poor or disgracefully rich, or because she had been forced to marry a man she did not love or had lost the one she did. Anything was possible; and probably at least one explanation was correct. But because Mrs. Drax was not a character in a novel, June could never know the real reasons. The thing to remember, she felt, was that there was some explanation. Nasty people were not born nasty, and did not choose to be nasty just for the fun of it. Something turned them that way; it was not their fault — so one could have sympathy for them. Or so at least June felt while Mrs. Drax slept.
When Reginalda awoke, she caught June looking at her tenderly.
She understood by this time that June was no saleslady for a wheelchair manufacturer, but rather some kind of novelist — in other words, a filthy liar. The woman was obviously some kind of con artist; why else would she be nice? Besides, no one cheerful could be for real. She was so cheerful she was skittish. She spoke always in a chipper telemarketer’s voice, as if afraid you’d hang up on her before she could get her hooks in. And Reginalda did not like the way she peered out at you over her fat cheeks, like some cagey woodland rodent peering out of some hollow tree. The kinder and more considerate June was, the more Reginalda distrusted and disliked her.
“What are you looking at? Eyes on the road, short stack! You trying to break my legs on a telephone pole?”
June’s sympathetic daydreams fled; she bit her lip and sighed; her exasperation overflowed into speech before she could catch herself. “We’re not even moving, Reginalda. It’s a stop light.”
Reginalda believed that only weak, fickle people corrected themselves. “I know what a stop light is!” she screeched. Bystanders turned to look censoriously at June. What was she doing to that poor old lady?
The light changed, but June did not move.
“What’s the hold up? Get a move on, slowpoke!”
June gazed sadly into Mrs. Drax’s face. She tried to explain how unnecessary all this nastiness was. “Don’t you — It isn’t — We don’t have to — ” She gasped in frustration. If only she could write Mrs. Drax a nice long letter! “Darnit, Reginalda, I’m on your side. You don’t have to be so,” — she shook her arms and stamped her feet to illustrate Mrs. Drax’s character — “all the time, anymore. You know? Okay?”
A breathless gust of fear passed through Reginalda. She confused it for anger; then it became anger. She could no more identify the cause of this anger than she could have identified the genus of tree burning in a fireplace. Nor was she inclined to introspection. All she knew was that this tubby, meddlesome sneak was lecturing her. She lost her temper.
She swore and snorted and spat and flailed till the unmended bones in her arms and legs broke again. She bucked the wheelchair into the street and it began to roll downhill. June screamed and ran after it.
Late that night, after many hours at the hospital, June brought Mrs. Drax home. She put her in her own bedroom and made her as comfortable as possible in her new wheelchair; Mrs. Drax told her to keep her dirty sausage fingers to herself and to mind her own business. Then June went upstairs and locked herself in the attic, so that the dogs would not hear her cry.