Our National Short Story Month celebrations continue with one of the first stories written by the unparalleled Flannery O’Connor. Appropriately, O’Connor will begin gracing Forever stamps on June 5th. “The Geranium” can be found in her recently reissued The Complete Stories.
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Old Dudley folded into the chair he was gradually molding to his own shape and looked out the window fifteen feet away into another window framed by blackened red brick. He was waiting for the geranium. They put it out every morning about ten and they took it in at five-thirty. Mrs. Carson back home had a geranium in her window. There were plenty of geraniums at home, better-looking geraniums. Ours are sho nuff geraniums, Old Dudley thought, not any er this pale pink business with green, paper bows. The geranium they would put in the window reminded him of the Grisby boy at home who had polio and had to be wheeled out every morning and left in the sun to blink. Lutisha could have taken that geranium and stuck it in the ground and had something worth looking at in a few weeks. Those people across the alley had no business with one. They set it out and let the hot sun bake it all day and they put it so near the ledge the wind could almost knock it over. They had no business with it, no business with it. It shouldn’t have been there. Old Dudley felt his throat knotting up. Lutish could root anything. Rabie too. His throat was drawn taut. He laid his head back and tried to clear his mind. There wasn’t much he could think of to think about that didn’t do his throat that way.
His daughter came in. “Don’t you want to go for a walk?” she asked. She looked provoked.
He didn’t answer her.
“No.” He wondered how long she was going to stand there. She made his eyes feel like his throat. They’d get watery and she’d see. She had seen before and had looked sorry for him. She’d looked sorry for herself too; but she could er saved herself, Old Dudley thought, if she’d just have let him alone—let him stay where he was back home and not be so taken up with her damn duty. She moved out of the room, leaving an audible sigh, to crawl over him and remind him again of that one minute—that wasn’t her fault at all—when suddenly he had wanted to go to New York to live with her.
He could have got out of going. He could have been stubborn and told her he’d spend his life where he’d always spent it, send him or not send him the money every month, he’d get along with his pension and odd jobs. Keep her damn money—she needed it worse than he did. She would have been glad to have had her duty disposed of like that. Then she could have said if he died without his children near him, it was his own fault; if he got sick and there wasn’t anybody to take care of him, well, he’d asked for it, she could have said. But there was that thing inside him that had wanted to see New York. He had been to Atlanta once when he was a boy and he had seen New York in a picture show. Big Town Rhythm it was. Big towns were important places. The thing inside him had sneaked up on him for just one instant. The place like he’d seen in the picture show had room for him! It was an important place and it had room for him! He’d said yes, he’d go.
He must have been sick when he said it. He couldn’t have been well and said it. He had been sick and she had been so taken up with her damn duty, she had wangled it out of him. Why did she have to come down there in the first place to pester him? He had been doing all right. There was his pension that could feed him and odd jobs that kept him his room in the boarding house.
The window in that room showed him the river—thick and red as it struggled over rocks and around curves. He tried to think how it was besides red and slow. He added green blotches for trees on either side of it and a brown spot for trash somewhere upstream. He and Rabie had fished it in a flat-bottom boat every Wednesday. Rabie knew the river up and down for twenty miles. There wasn’t another nigger in Coa County that knew it like he did. He loved the river, but it hadn’t meant anything to Old Dudley. The fish were what he was after. He liked to come in at night with a long string of them and slap them down in the sink. “Few fish I got,” he’d say. It took a man to get those fish, the old girls at the boarding house always said. He and Rabie would start out early Wednesday morning and fish all day. Rabie would find the spots and row; Old Dudley always caught them. Rabie didn’t care much about catching them—he just loved the river. “Ain’t no use settin’ yo’ line down dere, boss,” he’d say. “Ain’t no fish dere. Dis ol’ riber ain’t hidin’ none nowhere ’round hyar, nawsuh.” And he would giggle and shift the boat downstream. That was Rabie. He could steal cleaner than a weasel but he knew where the fish were. Old Dudley always gave him the little ones.
Old Dudley had lived upstairs in the corner room of the boarding house ever since his wife died in ’22. He protected the old ladies. He was the man in the house and he did the things a man in the house was supposed to do. It was a dull occupation at night when the old girls crabbed and crocheted in the parlor and the man in the house had to listen and judge the sparrow-like wars that rasped and twittered intermittently. But in the daytime there was Rabie. Rabie and Lutisha lived down in the basement. Lutish cooked and Rabie took care of the cleaning and the vegetable garden; but he was sharp at sneaking off with half his work done and going to help Old Dudley with some current project—building a hen house or painting a door. He liked to listen, he liked to hear about Atlanta when Old Dudley had been there and about how guns were put together on the inside and all the other things the old man knew.
Sometimes at night they would go ‘possum hunting. They never got a ‘possum but Old Dudley liked to get away from the ladies once in a while and hunting was a good excuse. Rabie didn’t like ‘possum hunting. They never got a ‘possum; they never even treed one; and besides, he was mostly a water nigger. “We ain’t gonna go huntin’ no ‘possum tonight, is we, boss? I got a lil’ business I wants tuh tend tuh,” he’d say when Old Dudley would start talking about hounds and guns. “Whose chickens you gonna steal tonight?” Dudley would grin. “I reckon I be huntin’ ‘possum tonight,” Rabie’d sigh.
Old Dudley would get out his gun and take it apart and, as Rabie cleaned the pieces, would explain the mechanism to him. Then he’d put it together again. Rabie always marveled at the way he could put it together again. Old Dudley would have liked to have explained New York to Rabie. If he could have showed it to Rabie, it wouldn’t have been so big—he wouldn’t have felt pressed down every time he went out in it. “It ain’t so big,” he would have said. “Don’t let it get you down, Rabie. It’s just like any other city and cities ain’t all that complicated.”
But they were. New York was swishing and jamming one minute and dirty and dead the next. His daughter didn’t even live in a house. She lived in a building—the middle in a row of buildings all alike, all blackened-red and gray with rasp-mouthed people hanging out their windows looking at other windows and other people just like them looking back. Inside you could go up and you could go down and there were just halls that reminded you of tape measures strung out with a door every inch. He remembered he’d been dazed by the building the first week. He’d wake up expecting the halls to have changed in the night and he’d look out the door and there they stretched like dog runs. The streets were the same way. He wondered where he’d be if he walked to the end of one of them. One night he dreamed he did and ended at the end of the building—nowhere.
The next week he had become more conscious of the daughter and son-in-law and their boy—no place to be out of their way. The son-in-law was a queer one. He drove a truck and came in only on the weekends. He said “nah” for “no” and he’d never heard of a ‘possum. Old Dudley slept in the room with the boy, who was sixteen and couldn’t be talked to. But sometimes when the daughter and Old Dudley were alone in the apartment, she would sit down and talk to him. First she had to think of something to say. Usually it gave out before what she considered was the proper time to get up and do something else, so he would have to say something. He always tried to think of something he hadn’t said before. She never listened the second time. She was seeing that her father spent his last years with his own family and not in a decayed boarding house full of old women whose heads jiggled. She was doing her duty. She had brothers and sisters who were not.
Once she took him shopping with her but he was too slow. They went in a “subway”—a railroad underneath the ground like a big cave. People boiled out of trains and up steps and over into the streets. They rolled off the street and down steps and into trains—black and white and yellow all mixed up like vegetables in soup. Everything was boiling. The trains swished in from tunnels, up canals, and all of a sudden stopped. The people coming out pushed through the people coming in and a noise rang and the train swooped off again. Old Dudley and the daughter had to go in three different ones before they got where they were going. He wondered why people ever went out of their houses. He felt like his tongue had slipped down in his stomach. She held him by the coat sleeve and pulled him through the people.
They went on an overhead train too. She called it an “El.” They had to go up on a high platform to catch it. Old Dudley looked over the rail and could see the people rushing and the automobiles rushing under him. He felt sick. He put one hand on the rail and sank down on the wooden floor of the platform. The daughter screamed and pulled him over from the edge. “Do you want to fall off and kill yourself?” she shouted.
Through a crack in the boards he could see the cars swimming in the street. “I don’t care,” he murmured, “I don’t care if I do or not.”
“Come on,” she said, “you’ll feel better when we get home.”
“Home?” he repeated. The cars moved in a rhythm below him.
“Come on,” she said, “here it comes; we’ve just got time to make it.” They’d just had time to make all of them.
They made that one. They came back to the building and the apartment. The apartment was too tight. There was no place to be where there wasn’t somebody else. The kitchen opened into the bathroom and the bathroom opened into everything else and you were always where you started from. At home there was upstairs and the basement and the river and downtown in front of Fraziers . . . damn his throat.
The geranium was late today. It was ten-thirty. They usually had it out by ten-fifteen.
Somewhere down the hall a woman shrilled something unintelligible out to the street; a radio was bleating the worn music to a soap serial; and a garbage can crashed down a fire escape. The door to the next apartment slammed and a sharp footstep clipped down the hall. “That would be the nigger,” Old Dudley muttered. “The nigger with the shiny shoes.” He had been there a week when the nigger moved in. That Thursday he was looking out the door at the dog-run halls when this nigger went into the next apartment. He had on a gray, pin-stripe suit and a tan tie. His collar was stiff and white and made a clear-cut line next to his neck. His shoes were shiny tan—they matched his tie and his skin. Old Dudley scratched his head. He hadn’t known the kind of people that would live thick in a building could afford servants. He chuckled. Lot of good a nigger in a Sunday suit would do them. Maybe this nigger would know the country around here—or maybe how to get to it. They might could hunt. They might could find them a stream somewhere. He shut the door and went to the daughter’s room. “Hey!” he shouted, “the folks next door got ’em a nigger. Must be gonna clean for them. You reckon they gonna keep him every day?”
She looked up from making the bed. “What are you talking about? “
“I say they got ’em a servant next door—a nigger—all dressed up in a Sunday suit.”
She walked to the other side of the bed. “You must be crazy,” she said. “The next apartment is vacant and besides, nobody around here can afford any servant.”
“I tell you I saw him,” Old Dudley snickered. “Going right in there with a tie and a white collar on—and sharp-toed shoes.”
“If he went in there, he’s looking at it for himself,” she muttered. She went to the dresser and started fidgeting with things.
Old Dudley laughed. She could be right funny when she wanted to. “Well,” he said, “I think I’ll go over and see what day he gets off. Maybe I can convince him he likes to fish,” and he’d slapped his pocket to make the two quarters jingle. Before he got out in the hall good, she came tearing behind him and pulled him in. “Can’t you hear?” she’d yelled. “I meant what I said. He’s renting that himself if he went in there. Don’t you go asking him any questions or saying anything to him. I don’t want any trouble with niggers.”
“You mean,” Old Dudley murmured, “he’s gonna live next door to you?”
She shrugged. “I suppose he is. And you tend to your own business,” she added. “Don’t have anything to do with him.”
That’s just the way she’d said it. Like he didn’t have any sense at all. But he’d told her off then. He’d stated his say and she knew what he meant. “You ain’t been raised that way!” he’d said thundery-like. “You ain’t been raised to live tight with niggers that think they’re just as good as you, and you think I’d go messin’ around with one er that kind! If you think I want anything to do with them, you’re crazy.” He had had to slow down then because his throat was tightening. She’d stood stiff up and said they lived where they could afford to live and made the best of it. Preaching to him! Then she’d walked stiff off without a word more. That was her. Trying to be holy with her shoulders curved around and her neck in the air. Like he was a fool. He knew Yankees let niggers in their front doors and let them set on their sofas but he didn’t know his own daughter that was raised proper would stay next door to them—and then think he didn’t have no more sense than to want to mix with them. Him!
He got up and took a paper off another chair. He might as well appear to be reading when she came through again. No use having her standing up there staring at him, believing she had to think up something for him to do. He looked over the paper at the window across the alley. The geranium wasn’t there yet. It had never been this late before. The first day he’d seen it, he had been sitting there looking out the window at the other window and he had looked at his watch to see how long it had been since breakfast. When he looked up, it was there. It startled him. He didn’t like flowers, but the geranium didn’t look like a flower. It looked like the sick Grisby boy at home and it was the color of the drapes the old ladies had in the parlor and the paper bow on it looked like the one behind Lutish’s uniform she wore on Sundays. Lutish had a fondness for sashes. Most niggers did, Old Dudley thought.
The daughter came through again. He had meant to be looking at the paper when she came through. “Do me a favor, will you?” she asked as if she had just thought up a favor he could do.
He hoped she didn’t want him to go to the grocery again. He got lost the time before. All the blooming buildings looked alike. He nodded.
“Go down to the third floor and ask Mrs. Schmitt to lend me the shirt pattern she uses for Jake.”
Why couldn’t she just let him sit? She didn’t need the shirt pattern. “All right,” he said. “What number is it?”
“Number 10—just like this. Right below us three floors down.”
Old Dudley was always afraid that when he went out in the dog runs, a door would suddenly open and one of the snipe-nosed men that hung off the window ledges in his undershirt would growl, “What are you doing here?” The door to the nigger’s apartment was open and he could see a woman sitting in a chair by the window. “Yankee niggers,” he muttered. She had on rimless glasses and there was a book in her lap. Niggers don’t think they’re dressed up till they got on glasses, Old Dudley thought. He remembered Lutish’s glasses. She had saved up thirteen dollars to buy them. Then she went to the doctor and asked him to look at her eyes and tell her how thick to get the glasses. He made her look at animals’ pictures through a mirror and he stuck a light through her eyes and looked in her head. Then he said she didn’t need any glasses. She was so mad she burned the corn bread three days in a row, but she bought her some glasses anyway at the ten-cent store. They didn’t cost her but $I.98 and she wore them every Saddey. “That was niggers,” Old Dudley chuckled. He realized he had made a noise, and covered his mouth with his hand. Somebody might hear him in one of the apartments.
He turned down the first flight of stairs. Down the second he heard footsteps coming up. He looked over the banisters and saw it was a woman—a fat woman with an apron on. From the top, she looked kind er like Mrs. Benson at home. He wondered if she would speak to him. When they were four steps from each other, he darted a glance at her but she wasn’t looking at him. When there were no steps between them, his eyes fluttered up for an instant and she was looking at him cold in the face. Then she was past him. She hadn’t said a word. He felt heavy in his stomach.
He went down four flights instead of three. Then he went back up one and found number 10. Mrs. Schmitt said O.K., wait a minute and she’d get the pattern. She sent one of the children back to the door with it. The child didn’t say anything.
Old Dudley started back up the stairs. He had to take it more slowly. It tired him going up. Everything tired him, looked like. Not like having Rabie to do his running for him. Rabie was a light-footed nigger. He could sneak in a hen house ‘thout even the hens knowing it and get him the fattest fryer in there and not a squawk. Fast too. Dudley had always been slow on his feet. It went that way with fat people. He remembered one time him and Rabie was hunting quail over near Molton. They had ’em a hound dog that could find a covey quickern any fancy pointer going. He wasn’t no good at bringing them back but he could find them every time and then set like a dead stump while you aimed at the birds. This one time the hound stopped cold-still. “Dat gonna be a big ‘un,” Rabie whispered, “I feels it.” Old Dudley raised the gun slowly as they walked along. He had to be careful of the pine needles. They covered the ground and made it slick. Rabie shifted his weight from side to side, lifting and setting his feet on the waxen needles with unconscious care. He looked straight ahead and moved forward swiftly. Old Dudley kept one eye ahead and one on the ground. It would slope and he would be sliding forward dangerously, or in pulling himself up an incline, he would slide back down.
“Ain’t I better get dem birds dis time, boss?” Rabie suggested. “You ain’t never easy on yo’ feets on Monday. If you falls in one dem slopes, you gonna scatter dem birds fo’ you gits dat gun up.”
Old Dudley wanted to get the covey. He could er knocked four out of it easy. “I’ll get ’em,” he muttered. He lifted the gun to his eye and leaned forward. Something slipped beneath him and he slid backward on his heels. The gun went off and the covey sprayed into the air.
“Dem was some mighty fine birds we let get away from us,” Rabie sighed.
“We’ll find another covey,” Old Dudley said. “Now get me out of this damn hole.”
He could er got five er those birds if he hadn’t fallen. He could er shot ’em off like cans on a fence. He drew one hand back to his ear and extended the other forward. He could er knocked ’em out like clay pigeons. Bang! A squeak on the staircase made him wheel around—his arms still holding the invisible gun. The nigger was clipping up the steps toward him, an amused smile stretching his trimmed mustache. Old Dudley’s mouth dropped open. The nigger’s lips were pulled down like he was trying to keep from laughing. Old Dudley couldn’t move. He stared at the clear-cut line the nigger’s collar made against his skin.
“What are you hunting, old-timer?” the Negro asked in a voice that sounded like a nigger’s laugh and a white man’s sneer.
Old Dudley felt like a child with a pop-pistol. His mouth was open and his tongue was rigid in the middle of it. Right below his knees felt hollow. His feet slipped and he slid three steps and landed sitting down.
“You better be careful,” the Negro said. “You could easily hurt yourself on these steps.” And he held out his hand for Old Dudley to pull up on. It was a long narrow hand and the tips of the fingernails were clean and cut squarely. They looked like they might have been filed. Old Dudley’s hands hung between his knees. The nigger took him by the arm and pulled up. “Whew!” he gasped, “you’re heavy. Give a little help here.” Old Dudley’s knees unbended and he staggered up. The nigger had him by the arm. “I’m going up anyway,” he said. “I’ll help you.” Old Dudley looked frantically around. The steps behind him seemed to close up. He was walking with the nigger up the stairs. The nigger was waiting for him on each step. “So you hunt?” the nigger was saying. “Well, let’s see. I went deer hunting once. I believe we used a Dodson .38 to get those deer. What do you use?”
Old Dudley was staring through the shiny tan shoes. “I use a gun,” he mumbled.
“I like to fool with guns better than hunting,” the nigger was saying. “Never was much at killing anything. Seems kind of a shame to deplete the game reserve. I’d collect guns if I had the time and the money, though.” He was waiting on every step till Old Dudley got on it. He was explaining guns and makes. He had on gray socks with a black fleck in them. They finished the stairs. The nigger walked down the hall with him, holding him by the arm. It probably looked like he had his arm locked in the nigger’s.
They went right up to Old Dudley’s door. Then the nigger asked, “You from around here?”
Old Dudley shook his head, looking at the door. He hadn’t looked at the nigger yet. All the way up the stairs, he hadn’t looked at the nigger. “Well,” the nigger said, “it’s a swell place—once you get used to it.” He patted Old Dudley on the back and went into his own apartment. Old Dudley went into his. The pain in his throat was all over his face now, leaking out his eyes.
He shuffled to the chair by the window and sank down in it. His throat was going to pop. His throat was going to pop on account of a nigger—a damn nigger that patted him on the back and called him “old-timer.” Him that knew such as that couldn’t be. Him that had come from a good place. A good place. A place where such as that couldn’t be. His eyes felt strange in their sockets. They were swelling in them and in a minute there wouldn’t be any room left for them there. He was trapped in this place where niggers could call you “old-timer.” He wouldn’t be trapped. He wouldn’t be. He rolled his head on the back of the chair to stretch his neck that was too full.
A man was looking at him. A man was in the window across the alley looking straight at him. The man was watching him cry. That was where the geranium was supposed to be and it was a man in his undershirt, watching him cry, waiting to watch his throat pop. Old Dudley looked back at the man. It was supposed to be the geranium. The geranium belonged there, not the man. “Where is the geranium?” he called out of his tight throat.
“What you cryin’ for?” the man asked. “I ain’t never seen a man cry like that.”
“Where is the geranium?” Old Dudley quavered. “It ought to be there. Not you.”
“This is my window,” the man said. “I got a right to set here if I want to.”
“Where is it?” Old Dudley shrilled. There was just a little room left in his throat.
“It fell off if it’s any of your business,” the man said.
Old Dudley got up and peered over the window ledge. Down in the alley, way six floors down, he could see a cracked flower pot scattered over a spray of dirt and something pink sticking out of a green paper bow. It was down six floors. Smashed down six floors.
Old Dudley looked at the man who was chewing gum and waiting to see the throat pop. “You shouldn’t have put it so near the ledge,” he murmured. “Why don’t you pick it up?”
“Why don’t you, pop?”
Old Dudley stared at the man who was where the geranium should have been.
He would. He’d go down and pick it up. He’d put it in his own window and look at it all day if he wanted to. He turned from the window and left the room. He walked slowly down the dog run and got to the steps. The steps dropped down like a deep wound in the floor. They opened up through a gap like a cavern and went down and down. And he had gone up them a little behind the nigger. And the nigger had pulled him up on his feet and kept his arm in his and gone up the steps with him and said he hunted deer, “old-timer,” and seen him holding a gun that wasn’t there and sitting on the steps like a child. He had shiny tan shoes and he was trying not to laugh and the whole business was laughing. There’d probably be niggers with black flecks in their socks on every step, pulling down their mouths so as not to laugh. The steps dropped down and down. He wouldn’t go down and have niggers pattin’ him on the back. He went back to the room and the window and looked down at the geranium.
The man was sitting over where it should have been. “I ain’t seen you pickin’ it up,” he said.
Old Dudley stared at the man.
“I seen you before,” the man said. “I seen you settin’ in that old chair every day, starin’ out the window, looking in my apartment. What I do in my apartment is my business, see? I don’t like people looking at what I do.”
It was at the bottom of the alley with its roots in the air.
“I only tell people once,” the man said and left the window.
Flannery O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1925. A devoted Catholic, she lived most of her life on a farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, where she raised peacocks and wrote. She was the author of two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away; thirty-one short stories; and numerous essays and reviews. When she died at the age of thirty-nine, America lost one of its most gifted writers at the height of her powers. Her complete short stories, published posthumously in 1971, received the National Book Award for fiction.
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