“You big rube! Getting up in the middle of the night and stomping around like cattle. You’d better build a shed in the backyard and sleep there if you’re so dumb you can’t tell night from day.”
Even after thirty-three years of marriage he had never ceased to be appalled at the coarseness of her mind and speech—she who had seemed so mild and fragile and exquisite when he married her. He had crept back to bed, shamefacedly. He could hear the couple in the bedroom of the flat just across the little court grumbling and then laughing a little, grudgingly, and yet with appreciation. That bedroom, too, had still the power to appall him. Its nearness, its forced intimacy, were daily shocks to him whose most immediate neighbour, back on the farm, had been a quarter of a mile away. The sound of a shoe dropped on the hardwood floor, the rush of water in the bathroom, the murmur of nocturnal confidences, the fretful cry of a child in the night, all startled and distressed him whose ear had found music in the roar of the thresher and had been soothed by the rattle of the tractor and the hoarse hoot of the steamboat whistle at the landing. His farm’s edge had been marked by the Mississippi rolling grandly by.
Since they had moved into town he had found only one city sound that he really welcomed: the rattle and clink that marked the milkman’s matutinal visit. The milkman came at six, and he was the good fairy who released Ben Westerveld from durance vile—or had been until the winter months made his coming later and later, so that he became worse than useless as a timepiece. But now it was late March, and mild. The milkman’s coming would soon again mark old Ben’s rising hour. Before he had begun to take it easy six o’clock had seen the entire mechanism of his busy little world humming smoothly and sweetly, the whole set in motion by his own big work-calloused hands. Those hands puzzled him now. He often looked at them curiously and in a detached sort of way as if they belonged to someone else. So white they were, and smooth and soft, with long, pliant nails that never broke off from rough work as they used to. Of late there were little splotches of brown on the backs of his hands and around the thumbs.
“Guess it’s my liver,” he decided, rubbing the spots thoughtfully. “She gets kind of sluggish from me not doing anything. Maybe a little spring tonic wouldn’t go bad. Tone me up.”