Men With Their Big Shoes

Shirley Jackson

It was young Mrs. Hart’s first summer of living in the country, and her first year of being married and the mistress of a house; she was going to have her first baby soon, and it was the first time she had ever had anyone, or thought of having anyone, who could remotely be described as a maid. Young Mrs. Hart spent hours every day, while she was resting as the doctor told her to, in peacefully congratulating herself. When she was sitting in the rocking chair on the front porch she could look down the quiet street with the trees and gardens and kind people who smiled at her as they passed; or she could turn her head and look through the wide windows in her own house, into the pretty living room with the chintz curtains and matching slip-covers and maple furniture; she could raise her eyes a little and look at the ruffled white curtains on the bedroom windows. It was a real house: the milkman left milk there every morning; the brightly painted pots in a row along the porch railing held real plants which grew and needed regular watering; you could cook on the real stove in the kitchen, and Mrs. Anderson was always complaining about the shoe marks on the clean floors, just like a real maid.

“It’s the men who make dirt on the floor,” Mrs. Anderson would say, regarding the print of a heel, “a woman, you watch them, she always puts her feet down quiet. Men with their big shoes.” And she would flick carelessly at the mark with the dustcloth.

Although Mrs. Hart was unreasonably afraid of Mrs. Anderson, she had heard and read so much about how all housewives these days were intimidated by their domestic help, that she was never surprised at first by her own timid uneasiness; Mrs. Anderson’s belligerent authority, moreover, seemed to follow naturally from a knowledge of canning and burnt-sugar gravy and setting yeast rolls out to rise. When Mrs. Anderson, all elbows and red face, her hair pulled disagreeably tight, had presented herself first at the back door with an offer to help, Mrs. Hart had accepted blindly, caught between unwashed windows and a litter of unpacking and dust; Mrs. Anderson had started correctly with the kitchen, and made Mrs. Hart a hot cup of tea the first thing; “You can’t afford to get too tired,” she said eyeing Mrs. Hart’s waist, “you got to be careful right along.”

By the time Mrs. Hart discovered that Mrs. Anderson never got anything quite clean, never completely managed to get anything back where it belonged, it was incredible to think of doing anything about it. Mrs. Anderson’s thumb prints were on all the windows, and Mrs. Hart’s morning cup of tea was a regular institution; Mrs. Hart put the water on to boil directly after breakfast, and Mrs. Anderson made them each a cup of tea when she came at nine. “You need a hot cup of tea to start your day off right,” she said amiably every morning, “it settles your stomach for the day.”

“Thirty-seven years,” Mrs. Anderson said. She shook her head. “And he wants me to get out.”

Mrs. Hart never allowed herself to think further about Mrs. Anderson than to feel comfortably proud of having all the house work done for her ("a regular treasure," she wrote to her girl friends in New York, "and she fusses over me like I was actually her baby!"); it was not until Mrs. Anderson had been coming dutifully every morning for over a month that Mrs. Hart recognized with sickening conviction that the faint small uneasiness was justified.

It was a warm sunny morning, the first after a week of rain, and Mrs. Hart put on an especially pretty house dress — washed and ironed by Mrs. Anderson — and made her husband a soft-boiled egg for his breakfast, and went down the front walk with him to wave good-bye till he got to the corner and the bus which took him to his job at the bank in the neighboring town. Coming back up the walk to her house, Mrs. Hart admired the sunlight on the green shutters, and spoke affectionately to her next-door neighbor, who was out already sweeping her porch. “Pretty soon I’ll have my baby out in the garden in his play pen,” Mrs. Hart thought, and left the front door open behind her for the sun to come in and soak into the floor. When she came into the kitchen, Mrs. Anderson was sitting at the table, and the tea was poured.

“Good morning,” Mrs. Hart said, “isn’t it a beautiful day?”

“Morning,” Mrs. Anderson said. She waved at the tea. “I knew you was just out front — so I got everything all ready. Can’t start the day off without your cup of tea.”

“I was beginning to think the sun would never come out again,” Mrs. Hart said. She sat down and pulled her cup towards her. “It’s so lovely to be dry and warm again.”

“It settles your stomach, tea does,” Mrs. Anderson said. “I already put the sugar in. You’ll be having trouble with your stomach right along now.”

“You know,” Mrs. Hart said happily, “last summer about this time I was still working in New York, and I didn’t think Jim and I were ever going to get married.” “And now look at me,” she added, and laughed.

“You never know what’s going to happen to you,” Mrs. Anderson said. “When things look worst, you’ll either die or get better. I used to have a neighbor was always saying that.” She sighed and rose, taking her cup with her to the sink. “Of course, some of us never get much good coming along,” she said.

“And then everything happened in about two weeks,” Mrs. Hart said. “Jim got this job up here, and the girls at the office gave us a waffle iron.”

“It’s up on the shelf,” Mrs. Anderson said. She reached out for Mrs. Hart’s cup. “You sit still,” she said. “You’ll never have another chance to take it easy like this.”

“I can’t remember to sit still all the time,” Mrs. Hart said, “everything’s too exciting.”

“It’s for your own good,” Mrs. Anderson said. “I’m only thinking of you.”

“You’ve been very nice,” Mrs. Hart said dutifully, “coming to help every morning like this. And taking such good care of me.”

“I don’t want thanks,” Mrs. Anderson said. “You just come through all right, that’s all I want to see.”

“But I really don’t know what I’d do without you,” Mrs. Hart said. That ought to be enough for today, she thought suddenly, and laughed aloud at the idea of a portion of gratitude doled out every morning to Mrs. Anderson, like a bonus on her hourly wage. “It’s true, though,” she thought; “I have to say it every day, sooner or later.”

“You laughing about something?” Mrs. Anderson said, half turning, with her hard red wrists braced against the sink. “I say something funny?”

“I was just thinking,” Mrs. Hart said quickly, “thinking about the girls I used to be in the office with. They’d be so jealous if they could see me now.”

“Never know when they’re well off,” Mrs. Anderson said.

Mrs. Hart reached out and touched the yellow curtain at the window beside her, thinking of the one-room apartments in New York and the dark office. “I wish I could be cheerful these days,” Mrs. Anderson went on.

Mrs. Hart dropped her hand quickly from the curtain and turned to smile sympathetically at Mrs. Anderson. “I know,” she murmured.

“You never know how bad it can be,” Mrs. Anderson said. She jerked her head towards the back door. “He was at it again. All night long.” By now Mrs. Hart knew how to tell whether “he” meant Mr. Anderson or Mr. Hart; a gesture of Mrs. Anderson’s head towards the back door and the path she took home every day meant Mr. Anderson; the same gesture towards the front door, where every night Mrs. Hart met her husband, meant Mr. Hart. “Not a minute’s sleep for me,” Mrs. Anderson was saying.

“Isn’t that a shame,” Mrs. Hart said. She stood up quickly and started for the back door. “Dishtowels on the line,” she explained.

“I’ll do it later,” Mrs. Anderson said. “Cursing and yelling,” she went on, “I thought I was going crazy. ‘Why don’t you go on and get out?’ he says to me. Went over and opened the door wide as it would go and yelled so’s all the neighbors could hear him. ‘Why don’t you get out?’ he says.”

“Terrible,” Mrs. Hart said, her hand on the back door knob.

“Thirty-seven years,” Mrs. Anderson said. She shook her head. “And he wants me to get out.” She watched Mrs. Hart light a cigarette and said, “You shouldn’t smoke. You’ll likely be sorry if you go on smoking like that.” “That’s why I never had any children,” she went on; “what would I do, him acting like that with children around listening?”

Mrs. Hart walked across to the stove and looked into the teapot. “Believe I’ll have another cup,” she said. “Will you have another, Mrs. Anderson?”

“Gives me heartburn,” Mrs. Anderson said. She put the freshly washed cup back on the table. “I just washed this,” she said, “but it’s your cup. And your house. I guess you can do what you want to.”

Mrs. Hart laughed and brought the teapot over to the table. Mrs. Anderson watched her pour the tea and then took the teapot away. “I’ll just wash this,” she said, “before you decide to drink any more.” She dropped her voice. “Too much liquid spoils the kidneys.”

“I always drink a lot of tea and coffee,” Mrs. Hart said.

“I don’t think people ought to talk about other people,” she said desperately, “I mean, I don’t think it’s fair to say things when you can’t know for sure.”

Mrs. Anderson looked at the dried dishes standing on the drain of the sink, and then picked up three glasses in each great hand. “You sure had a lot of dirty glasses around this morning.”

“I was just too tired last night to clean up,” Mrs. Hart said. “Besides,” she thought, “cleaning is what I pay her for,” and she added, making her voice light, “So I just left everything for you.”

“It’s my job to clean up after people,” Mrs. Anderson said. “Someone always has to do the dirty work for the rest. You have a lot of company?”

“Some new friends we’ve made,” Mrs. Hart said. “About six altogether.”

“He shouldn’t bring his friends home with you like that,” Mrs. Anderson said.

Mrs. Hart thought of the pleasant chatter about the New York theatre and the local roadhouse, where they all might go dancing soon, and the pretty compliments on her house, and showing the baby things to the two other young wives, and sighed. She had lost track of what Mrs. Anderson was saying.

“ — Right in front of his own wife,” Mrs. Anderson finished, and moved her head significantly towards the front door. “He do much drinking?”

“No, not much,” Mrs. Hart said.

Mrs. Anderson nodded. “I know what you mean,” she said. “You watch them taking one drink after another, and you can’t think of any way to tell them to stop. And then something makes them mad, and first thing you know they’re telling you to go on and get out.” She nodded again. “There’s nothing any woman can do but make sure when she does have to get out she sure has some place to go.”

Mrs. Hart said carefully, “Now, Mrs. Anderson, I don’t really think that all husbands — ”

“You only been married a year,” Mrs. Anderson said dismally, “and no one that’s older around to tell you.”

Mrs. Hart lit a second cigarette from the end of the first. “I’m really not at all worried about my husband’s drinking,” she said formally.

Mrs. Anderson stopped, holding a pile of clean plates. “Other women?” she asked. “Is that what it is?”

“What on earth makes you say that?” Mrs. Hart demanded. “Jim would no more look — "

“You need someone to be looking after you, times like this,” Mrs. Anderson said. “Don’t think I don’t know; you just want to tell someone about it all. I guess all men treat their wives the same, only some of them are drinkers and some of them throw their money away on gambling and some of them chase every young girl they see.” She laughed her abrupt laugh. “And some not so young, if you ask the wives,” she said. “If most women knew how their husbands were going to turn out, there’d be less marrying going on.”

“I think a successful marriage is the woman’s responsibility,” Mrs. Hart said.

“Mrs. Martin now, down at the grocery, she was telling me the other day, some of the things her husband used to do before he died,” Mrs. Anderson said. “You’d never suspect what some men do.” She looked thoughtfully at the back door. “Some’s worse than others, though. She thinks you’re real sweet, Mrs. Martin does.”

“That’s nice of her,” Mrs. Hart said.

“I didn’t say nothing about him,” Mrs. Anderson said, her head moving towards the front door. “I don’t mention any names, not where anybody’d think I know the people.”

Mrs. Hart thought of Mrs. Martin, keen-eyed and shrill, watching other people’s groceries. (“Two loaves of whole wheat today, Mrs. Hart? Company coming tonight?”) “I think she’s such a nice person,” Mrs. Hart said, wanting to add: “You tell her I said so.”

“I’m not saying she isn’t,” Mrs. Anderson said grimly. “You just don’t want to let her figure out anything’s wrong.”

“I’m sure — " Mrs. Hart began.

“I told her,” Mrs. Anderson said, “I said I was sure Mr. Hart never did any running around’s far as I knew. Nor drinking like some. I said I felt like you might be my own daughter sometimes, and no man was going to mistreat you while I was around.”

“I wish,” Mrs. Hart began again, a quick fear touching her; her kind neighbors watching her beneath their friendliness, looking out quietly from behind curtains, watching Jim, perhaps? “I don’t think people ought to talk about other people,” she said desperately, “I mean, I don’t think it’s fair to say things when you can’t know for sure.”

“Why, Mrs. Anderson,” Mrs. Hart said, looking horrified, “saying things like that about yourself!”

Mrs. Anderson laughed again suddenly and went over to open the mop closet. “You don’t want to let anything scare you,” she said, “not right now. Will I do the living room this morning? I could get the little rugs out to air in the sun. It’s just that he” — the back door — “got me all upset. You know.”

“I’m sorry,” Mrs. Hart said. “Isn’t that a shame!”

“Mrs. Martin said why didn’t I come live with you folks,” Mrs. Anderson said, searching violently in the mop closet, her voice sounding muffled and dusty. “Mrs. Martin was saying a young woman like you, just starting out, always needs a friend around.”

Mrs. Hart looked down at her fingers twisting the handle of the cup; she had only drunk half her tea. “It’s too late now for me to walk into another room,” she thought; “I can always say Jim would never allow it.” “I met Mrs. Martin in town a few days ago,” she said. “She was wearing an awfully good-looking blue coat.” She smoothed her house dress with her hand, and added irritably, “I wish I could get into a decent dress again.”

“‘Why don’t you get out?’ he says to me.” Mrs. Anderson backed out of the mop closet with a dustpan in one hand and a cleaning cloth in the other. “Drunk and cursing so’s all the neighbors could hear. ‘Why don’t you get out?’ I thought sure you’d hear him even up here.”

“I’m sure he couldn’t mean it,” Mrs. Hart said, trying to make her voice sound final.

You wouldn’t stand for it,” Mrs. Anderson said. She put the dustpan and cloth down and came over and sat down at the table opposite Mrs. Hart. “Mrs. Martin was thinking if you wanted me to I could come right into your spare room. Do all the cooking.”

“You could,” Mrs. Hart said amiably, “except that I’m going to put the baby in there.”

“We’d put the baby in your room,” Mrs. Anderson said. She laughed and gave Mrs. Hart’s hand a push. “Don’t worry,” she said, “I’d keep out of your way. Well, and if you wanted to put the baby in with me then I could get up at night to feed it for you. Guess I could take care of a baby all right.”

Mrs. Hart smiled cheerfully back at Mrs. Anderson. “I’d love to, of course,” she said. “Someday. Right now, of course, Jim would never let me do it.”

“Of course not,” Mrs. Anderson said. “The men never do, do they? I told Mrs. Martin down at the grocery — ‘She’s the nicest little thing in the world,’ I said, ‘but her husband wouldn’t let the scrub woman come live with them.’”

“Why, Mrs. Anderson,” Mrs. Hart said, looking horrified, “saying things like that about yourself!”

“And another woman, one who’s older and knows a little more,” Mrs. Anderson said. “She might see a little more, too, maybe.”

Mrs. Hart, her fingers tight on the teacup, caught a quick picture of Mrs. Martin, leaning comfortably across the counter. (“I see you’ve got a new star boarder, Mrs. Hart. Mrs. Anderson’ll see that you’re taken good care of.”) And her neighbors, their frozen faces regarding her as she walked down to meet Jim at the bus; the girls in New York, reading her letters together and envying her. (“Such a perfect jewel — she’s going to live with us and do all the work!”) Looking up at Mrs. Anderson’s knowing smile across the table, Mrs. Hart realized with a sudden unalterable conviction that she was lost.

Shirley Jackson was an American writer specializing in horror and mystery. Her works include The Haunting of Hill House.
Originally published:
March 1, 1947


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