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“Sixteen” by Jessamyn West Essay

The steam from the kettle had condensed on the cold window and was running down the glass in tear-like trickles. Outside in the orchard the man from the smudge company was refilling the posts with oil. The greasy smell from last night’s burning was still in the air. Mr. Delahanty gazed out at the bleak darkening orange grove; Mrs. Delahanty watched her husband eat, nibbling up to the edges of the toast, then staking the crusts about his tea cup in a neat fence-like arrangement.

“We’ll have to call Cress,” Mr. Delahanty said finally. “Your father’s likely not to last out the night. She’s his only grandchild. She ought to be here.”

Mrs. Delahanty pressed her hands to the bones above her eyes. “Cress isn’t going to like being called away from college,” she said.

“We’ll have to call her anyway. It’s the only thing to do.” Mr. Delahanty swirled the last of his tea around in his cup so as not to miss any sugar.

“Father’s liable to lapse into unconsciousness any time.” Mrs. Delahanty argued. “Cress’ll hate coming and Father won’t know whether she’s here or not. Why not let her stay at Woolman?”

Neither wanted, in the midst of their sorrow for the good man whose life was ending, to enter into any discussion of Cress. What was the matter with Cress? What happed to her since she went away to college? She, who had been open and loving? And who now lived inside a world so absolutely fitted to her own size and shape that she felt any intrusion, even that of the death of her own grandfather, to be an unmerited invasion of her privacy. Black magic could not have changed her more quickly and unpleasantly and nothing except magic, it seemed, would give them back their lost daughter.

Mr. Delahanty pushed back his cup and saucer. “Her place is here, Gertrude. I’m going to call her long distance now. She’s a bright girl and it’s not going to hurt her to miss a few days from classes. What’s the dormitory number?”

“I know it as well as our number,” Mrs. Delahanty said. “But at the minute it’s gone. It’s a sign of my reluctance, I suppose. Wait a minute and I’ll look it up.”

Mr. Delahanty squeezed out from behind the table. “Don’t bother. I can get it.”

Mrs. Delahanty watched her husband, his usually square shoulders sagging with weariness, wipe a clear place on the steamy windowpane with his napkin. Some of the green twilight appeared to seep into the warm dingy little kitchen. “I can’t ever remember having to smudge before in February. I expect you’re right,” he added as he went toward the phone. “Cress isn’t going to like it.”

Cress didn’t like it. It was February, the rains had been late and the world was burning with a green fire; a green smoke rolled down the hills and burst shoulder-high in the cover crops that filled the spaces between the trees in the orange orchards. There had been rain earlier in the day and drops still hung from the grass blades, sickle-shaped with their weight. Cress, walking across the campus with Edwin, squatted to look into one of these crystal globes.

“Green from the grass and red from the sun,” she told him. “The whole world right there in one raindrop.”

“As Blake observed earlier about a grain of sand,” said Edwin.

“O.K., show off,” Cress told him. “You know it-but I saw it.” She took his hand and he pulled her up, swinging her in a semicircle in front of him. “Down there in the grass the world winked at me.”

“Don’t be precious, Cress,” Edwin said.

“I will,” Cress said, “just to tease you. I love to tease you, Edwin.”

“Why?” Edwin asked.

“Because you love to have me,” Cress said confidently, taking his hand. Being older suited Edwin. She remembered when she had like him in spite of his looks; but now spindly had become spare, and the dark shadow of his beard-Edwin had to shave every day while other boys were still just fuzzy- lay under his pale skin; and the opinions, which had once been so embarrassingly unlike anyone else’s, were now celebrated at Woolman as being “Edwinian.” Yes, Edwin had changed since that day when she had knocked his tooth out trying to rescue him from the mush pot. And had she changed? Did she also look better to Edwin, almost slender now and the freckles not noticeable except at the height of summer? And with her new-found ability for light talk? They were passing beneath the eucalyptus trees and the silver drops, falling as the wind shook the leaves, stung her face, feeling at once both cool and burning, Meadow larks in the fields which edged the campus sang in the quiet way they have after the rain has stopped.

“Oh, Edwin,” Cress said, “no one in the world love the meadow lark’s song the way I do!”

“It’s not a competition,” Edwin said, “you against the world in an ‘I-love-the-meadow-larks’contest. Take it easy, kid. Love ‘em as much as in you lieth, and let it go at that.”

“No,” she said. “I’m determined to overdo it. Listen,” she exclaimed, as two birds sang together. “Not grieving, nor amorous, nor lost. Nothing to read into it. Simply music, Like Mozart. Complete. Finished. Oh, it is rain to listening ears.” She glanced at Edwin to see how he took this rhetoric. He took it calmly. She let go his hand and capered amidst the fallen eucalyptus leaves. “The Gardener thinks you’ve got St. Vitus’ dance,” Edwin said.

Old Boat Swain, the college gardener whose name was really Swain, was leaning on his hoe, watching her hopping and strutting. She didn’t give a hoot about him or what he thought.

“He’s old,” she told Edwin. “He doesn’t exist.” She felt less akin to him than to a bird or toad.

There were lights already burning in the dorm windows. Cress could see Ardis and Nina still at their tables, finishing their Ovid or looking up a final logarithm. But between five and six most of the girls stopped trying to remember which form of the sonnet Milton had used or when the Congress of Vienna had met, and dressed for dinner. They got out of their sweaters and jackets and into their soft bright dresses. She knew just what she was going to wear when she came downstairs at six to meet Edwin-green silk like the merman’s wife. They were going to the Poinsettia for diner, escaping salmon-wiggle night in the college dinning room.

“At six,” she told him, “I’ll fly down the stairs to meet you like a green wave.”

“See you in thirty minutes,” Edwin said, leaving her at the dorm steps.

The minute she opened the door, she began to hear the dorm sounds and smell the dorm smells-the hiss and rush of the showers, the thud of the iron, a voice singing, “Dear old Woolman we love so well,” the slap of bare feet down the hall, the telephone ringing.

And the smells! Elizabeth Arden and Cashmere Bouquet frothing in the showers; talcum powder falling like snow; Intoxication and Love Me and Devon Violet; rubber-soled sneakers, too, and gym T-shirts still wet with sweat after basketball practice, and the smell of the hot iron on damp wool.

But while she was still listening and smelling, Edith shouted from the top of the stairs, “Long distance for you, Cress. Make it snappy.”

“Tenant calling Crescent Delahanty,” the operator said. It was her father: “Granfather is dying, Cress. Catch the 7:30 home. I’ll meet you at the depot.”

“What’s the matter-Cressie?” Edith asked.

“I have to catch the 7:30 Pacific Electric. Grandfather’s dying.”

“Oh, poor Cress,” Edith cried and pressed her arm about her.

Cress scarcely heard her. Why were they calling her home to watch Grandpa die, she thought, angrily and rebelliously. An old man, past eighty. He’d never been truly alive for her, never more than a rough, hot hand, a scraggly mustache that repelled her when he kissed her, an old fellow who gathered what he called “likely-looking” stones and kept them washed and polished, to turn over and admire. It was silly and unfair to make so much of his dying.

But before she could say a word, Edith was telling the girls. They were crowding about her. “Don’t cry,” they said. “We’ll pack for you. Be brave, darling Cress. Remember your grandfather has had a long happy life. He wouldn’t want you to cry.”

“Brave Cress-brave Cress,” they said. “Just frozen.”

She wasn’t frozen. She was determined. She was not going to go. It did not make scense. She went downstairs to meet Edwin as she had planned in her green silk, ready for dinner at the Poinsettia. The girls had told him.

“Are you wearing that home?” He asked.

“I’m not going home,” she said. “It’s silly and useless. I can’t help Grandfather. It’s just a convention. What good can I do him, sitting there at home?”

“He might do you some good,” Edwin said. “Had you thought about that?”

“Why, Edwin!” Cress said. “Why, Edwin!” She had the girls tamed, eating out of her hand, and here was Edwin who loved her-he said so, anyway-cold and disapproving. Looking at herself through Edwin’s eyes, she hesitated.

“Go on,” Edwin said. “Get what you need and I’ll drive you to the station.”

She packed her overnight bag and went with him; there didn’t seem-once she’d had Edwin’s view of herself-anything else to do. But once on the train her resentment returned. The Pacific Electric was hot and smelled of metal and dusty plush. It clicked past a rickety Mexican settlement, through La Habra and Brea, where the pool hall signs swung in the night wind off the ocean. An old man in a spotted corduroy jackey, and his wife in her broken net, sat in front of her.

Neat, though Cress, anyone can be neat, if he wants to.

He father, bareheaded, but in his big sheepskin jacket, met her at the depot. It was after nine, cold and raw.

“This is a sorry time, Cress,” he said. He put her suitcase in the back of the car and climbed into the driver’s seat without opening the door for her.

Cress got in, wrapped her coat tightly about herself. The sky was clear, the wind had died down.

“I don’t see any sense in my having to come home,” she said at last. “What good can I do Grandpa? If he’s dying, how can I help?”

“I was afraid that was the way you might feel about it. So was your mother.”

“Oh, Mother,” Cress burst out. “Recently she’s always trying to put me…”

Her father cut her off. “That’ll be about enough, Cress. Your place is at home and you’re coming home and keeping your mouth shut, whatever you think. I don’t know what’s happened to you recently. If college does this to you, you’d better stay home permanently.”

There was nothing more said until they turned up the palm-lined driveway that led to the house. “Here we are,” Mr. Delahanty told her.

Mrs. Delahanty met them at the door, tired and haggard in her Indian design bathrobe.

“Cress,” she said, “Grandfather’s conscious now. I told him you were coming and he’s anxious to see you. You’d better go in right away- this might be the last time he’d know you.”

Cress was standing by the fireplace holding first one foot then the other toward the fire. “Oh, Mother, what am I to say?” She asked. “What can I say? Or does Grandfather just want to see me?”

Her father shook his head as if with pain. “Aren’t you sorry your grandfather’s dying, Cress? Haven’t you any pity in you heart? Don’t you understand what death means?”

“He’s an old man,” Cress said obstinately. “It’s what we must expect when we grow old,” though she, of course, would never grow old.

“Warm you hands, Cress,” her mother said. “Grandfather’s throat bothers him and it eases him to have it rubbed. I’ll give you the ointment and you can rub it in. You won’t need to say anything.”

Cress slid out of her coat and went across the hall with her mother to visit her grandfather’s room. His think old body was hardly visible beneath the covers; his head, with its gray skin and sunken eyes. Lay upon the pillow as if bodiless. The night light frosted his white hair but made black caverns of his closed eyes.

“Father,” Mrs. Delahanty said. “Father.” But the old man didn’t move. There was nothing except the occasional hoarse rasp of an indrawn breath to show that he was alive.

Mrs. Delahanty pulled the cane-bottomed chair a little closer to the bed. “Sit here,” she said to Cress, “and rub this into his throat and chest.” She opened her father’s nightshirt so that an inch or two of bony grizzled chest was bared. “He says that this rubbing relieves him, even if he’s asleep or too tired to speak. Rub it in with a slow steady movement.” She went out to the living room leaving the door a little ajar.

Cress sat down on the chair an put two squeamish fingers into the jar of gray ointment; but she could see far more sense to this than to any talking or being talked to. If they had brought her home from school because she was needed in helping to care for Grandpa, that she could understand-but not simply to be present at his death. What had death to do with her?

She leaned over him, rubbing, but with yes shut, dipping her fingers often into the gray grease. The rhythm of the rubbing, the warmth and closeness of the room, after the cold drive, had almost put her to sleep when the old man startled her by lifting a shaking hand to the bunch of yellow violets Edith had pinned to the should of her dress before she left Woolman. She opened her yes suddenly at his touch, but the old man said nothing, only stroked the violets awkwardly with a trembling forefinger.

Cress unpinned the violets and put them in his hand. “There, Grandpa,” she said, “there. They’re for you.”

The old man’s voice was a harsh and faltering whisper and to hear what he said Cress had to lean very close.

“I used to-pick them-on Reservoir Hill. I was always sorry to- plow them up. Still-so sweet. Thanks,” he said, “to bring them. To remember. You’re like her. Your grandmother,” he added after a pause. He closed his eyes, holding the bouquet against his face, letting the wilting blossoms spray across one cheek like a pulled-up sheet of flowering earth. He said one more word, not her name but her grandmother’s.

The dikes about Cress’s heart broke. “Oh Grandpa. I love you,” she said. He heard her. He knew what she said, his fingers returned the pressure of her hand. “You were always so good to me, You were young and you loved flowers.” Then she said what was her great discovery. “And you still do. You still love yellow violets, Grandpa, just like me.”

At the sound of her uncontrolled crying, Mr. and Mrs. Delahanty came to the door. “What’s the matter, Cress?”

Cress turned, lifted a hand toward them. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she demanded. And when they didn’t answer, she said, “Edwin knew.”

Then she dropped her head on to her grandfather’s outstretched hand and said something, evidently to him, which neither her father nor her mother understood.

“It’s just the same.”


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