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good country people
Gothic Digital Series @ UFSC
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Good Country People
(A good man is hard to find, 1955)
BESIDES the neutral expression that she wore when she was alone, Mrs. Freeman
had two others, forward and reverse, that she used for all her human dealings. Her
forward expression was steady and driving like the advance of a heavy truck. Her eyes
never swerved to left or right but turned as the story turned as if they followed a
yellow line down the center of it. She seldom used the other expression because it
was not often necessary for her to retract a statement, but when she did, her face
came to a complete stop, there was an almost imperceptible movement of her black
eyes, during which they seemed to be receding, and then the observer would see that
Mrs. Freeman, though she might stand there as real as several grain sacks thrown on
top of each other, was no longer there in spirit. As for getting anything across to her
when this was the case, Mrs. Hopewell had given it up. She might talk her head off.
Mrs. Freeman could never be brought to admit herself wrong to any point. She would
stand there and if she could be brought to say anything, it was something like, “Well, I
wouldn‖t of said it was and I wouldn‖t of said it wasn‖t” or letting her gaze range over
the top kitchen shelf where there was an assortment of dusty bottles, she might
remark, “I see you ain‖t ate many of them figs you put up last summer.”
They carried on their most important business in the kitchen at breakfast. Every
morning Mrs. Hopewell got up at seven o‖clock and lit her gas heater and Joy‖s. Joy
was her daughter, a large blonds girl who had an artificial leg. Mrs. Hopewell thought
of her as a child though she was thirty-two years old and highly educated. Joy would
get up while her mother was eating and lumber into the bathroom and slam the door,
and before long, Mrs. Freeman would arrive at the back door. Joy would hear her
mother call, “Come on in,” and then they would talk for a while in low voices that
were indistinguishable in the bathroom. By the time Joy came in, they had usually
finished the weather report and were on one or the other of Mrs. Freeman‖s
daughters, Glynese or Carramae. Joy called them Glycerin and Caramel. Glynese, a
redhead, was eighteen and had many admirers; Carramae, a blonde, was only fifteen
but already married and pregnant. She could not keep anything on her stomach.
Every morning Mrs. Freeman told Mrs. Hopewell how many times she had vomited
since the last report.
Mrs. Hopewell liked to tell people that Glynese and Carramae were two of the
finest girls she knew and that Mrs. Freeman was a lady and that she was never
ashamed to take her anywhere or introduce her to anybody they might meet. Then
she would tell how she had happened to hire the Freemans in the first place and how
they were a godsend to her and how she had had them four years. The reason for her
keeping them so long was that they were not trash. They were good country people.
She had telephoned the man whose name they had given as reference and he had told
her that Mr. Freeman was a good farmer but that his wife was the nosiest woman ever
to walk the earth. “She‖s got to be into everything,” the man said. “If she don‖t get
there before the dust settles, you can bet she‖s dead, that‖s all. She‖ll want to know all
your business. I can stand him real good,” he had said, “but me nor my wife neither
could have stood that woman one more minute on this place.” That had put Mrs.
Hopewell off for a few days.
She had hired them in the end because there were no other applicants but she
had made up her mind beforehand exactly how she would handle the woman. Since
she was the type who had to be into everything, then, Mrs. Hopewell had decided, she
would not only let her be into everything, she would see to it that she was into
everything – she would give her the responsibility of everything, she would put her in
charge. Mrs. Hopewell had no bad qualities of her own but she was able to use other
people‖s in such a constructive way that she had kept them four years.
Nothing is perfect. This was one of Mrs. Hopewell‖s favorite sayings. Another was:
that is life! And still another, the most important, was: well, other people have their
opinions too. She would make these statements, usually at the table, in a tone of
gentle insistence as if no one held them but her, and the large hulking Joy, whose
constant outrage had obliterated every expression from her face, would stare just a
little to the side of her, her eyes icy blue, with the look of someone who had achieved
blindness by an act of will and means to keep it.
When Mrs. Hopewell said to Mrs. Freeman that life was like that, Mrs. Freeman
would say, “I always said so myself.” Nothing had been arrived at by anyone that had
not first been arrived at by her. She was quicker than Mr. Freeman. When Mrs.
Hopewell said to her after they had been on the place for a while, “You know, you‖re
the wheel behind the wheel,” and winked, Mrs. Freeman had said, “I know it. I‖ve
always been quick. It‖s some that are quicker than others.”
“Everybody is different,” Mrs. Hopewell said.
“Yes, most people is,” Mrs. Freeman said.
“It takes all kinds to make the world.”
“I always said it did myself.”
The girl was used to this kind of dialogue for breakfast and more of it for dinner;
sometimes they had it for supper too. When they had no guest they ate in the kitchen
because that was easier. Mrs. Freeman always managed to arrive at some point during
the meal and to watch them finish it. She would stand in the doorway if it were
summer but in the winter she would stand with one elbow on top of the refrigerator
and look down at them, or she would stand by the gas heater, lifting the back of her
skirt slightly. Occasionally she would stand against the wall and roll her head from
side to side. At no time was she in any hurry to leave. All this was very trying on Mrs.
Hopewell but she was a woman of great patience. She realized that nothing is perfect
and that in the Freemans she had good country people and that if, in this day and age,
you get good country people, you had better hang onto them.
She had had plenty of experience with trash. Before the Freemans she had
averaged one tenant family a year. The wives of these farmers were not the kind you
would want to be around you for very long. Mrs. Hopewell, who had divorced her
husband long ago, needed someone to walk over the fields with her; and when Joy
had to be impressed for these services, her remarks were usually so ugly and her face
so glum that Mrs. Hopewell would say, “If you can‖t come pleasantly, I don‖t want you
at all,” to which the girl, standing square and rigid-shouldered with her neck thrust
slightly forward, would reply, “If you want me, here I am – LIKE I AM.”
Mrs. Hopewell excused this attitude because of the leg (which had been shot off
in a hunting accident when Joy was ten). It was hard for Mrs. Hopewell to realize that
her child was thirty-two now and that for more than twenty years she had had only
one leg. She thought of her still as a child because it tore her heart to think instead of
the poor stout girl in her thirties who had never danced a step or had any normal
good times. Her name was really Joy but as soon as she was twenty-one and away
from home, she had had it legally changed. Mrs. Hopewell was certain that she had
thought and thought until she had hit upon the ugliest name in any language. Then
she had gone and had the beautiful name, Joy, changed without telling her mother
until after she had done it. Her legal name was Hulga.
When Mrs. Hopewell thought the name, Hulga, she thought of the broad blank
hull of a battleship. She would not use it. She continued to call her Joy to which the
girl responded but in a purely mechanical way.
Hulga had learned to tolerate Mrs. Freeman who saved her from taking walks with
her mother. Even Glynese and Carramae were useful when they occupied attention
that might otherwise have been directed at her. At first she had thought she could not
stand Mrs. Freeman for she had found it was not possible to be rude to her. Mrs.
Freeman would take on strange resentments and for days together she would be
sullen but the source of her displeasure was always obscure; a direct attack, a positive
leer, blatant ugliness to her face – these never touched her. And without warning one
day, she began calling her Hulga.
She did not call her that in front of Mrs. Hopewell who would have been incensed
but when she and the girl happened to be out of the house together, she would say
something and add the name Hulga to the end of it, and the big spectacled Joy-Hulga
would scowl and redden as if her privacy had been intruded upon. She considered the
name her personal affair. She had arrived at it first purely on the basis of its ugly
sound and then the full genius of its fitness had struck her. She had a vision of the
name working like the ugly sweating Vulcan who stayed in the furnace and to whom,
presumably, the goddess had to come when called. She saw it as the name of her
highest creative act. One of her major triumphs was that her mother had not been
able to turn her dust into Joy, but the greater one was that she had been able to turn
it herself into Hulga. However, Mrs. Freeman‖s relish for using the name only irritated
her. It was as if Mrs. Freeman‖s beady steel-pointed eyes had penetrated far enough
behind her face to reach some secret fact. Something about her seemed to fascinate
Mrs. Freeman and then one day Hulga realized that it was the artificial leg. Mrs.
Freeman had a special fondness for the details of secret infections, hidden
deformities, assaults upon children. Of diseases, she preferred the lingering or
incurable. Hulga had heard Mrs. Hopewell give her the details of the hunting accident,
how the leg had been literally blasted off, how she had never lost consciousness. Mrs.
Freeman could listen to it any time as if it had happened an hour ago.
When Hulga stumped into the kitchen in the morning (she could walk without
making the awful noise but she made it – Mrs. Hopewell was certain – because it was
ugly-sounding), she glanced at them and did not speak. Mrs. Hopewell would be in
her red kimono with her hair tied around her head in rags. She would be sitting at the
table, finishing her breakfast and Mrs. Freeman would be hanging by her elbow
outward from the refrigerator, looking down at the table. Hulga always put her eggs
on the stove to boil and then stood over them with her arms folded, and Mrs.
Hopewell would look at her – a kind of indirect gaze divided between her and Mrs.
Freeman – and would think that if she would only keep herself up a little, she wouldn‖t
be so bad looking. There was nothing wrong with her face that a pleasant expression
wouldn‖t help. Mrs. Hopewell said that people who looked on the bright side of things
would be beautiful even if they were not.
Whenever she looked at Joy this way, she could not help but feel that it would
have been better if the child had not taken the Ph.D. It had certainly not brought her
out any and now that she had it, there was no more excuse for her to go to school
again. Mrs. Hopewell thought it was nice for girls to go to school to have a good time
but Joy had “gone through.” Anyhow, she would not have been strong enough to go
again. The doctors had told Mrs. Hopewell that with the best of care, Joy might see
forty-five. She had a weak heart. Joy had made it plain that if it had not been for this
condition, she would be far from these red hills and good country people. She would
be in a university lecturing to people who knew what she was talking about. And Mrs.
Hopewell could very well picture here there, looking like a scarecrow and lecturing to
more of the same. Here she went about all day in a six-year-old skirt and a yellow
sweat shirt with a faded cowboy on a horse embossed on it. She thought this was
funny; Mrs. Hopewell thought it was idiotic and showed simply that she was still a
child. She was brilliant but she didn‖t have a grain of sense. It seemed to Mrs.
Hopewell that every year she grew less like other people and more like herself –
bloated, rude, and squint-eyed. And she said such strange things! To her own mother
she had said – without warning, without excuse, standing up in the middle of a meal
with her face purple and her mouth half full – “Woman! Do you ever look inside? Do
you ever look inside and see what you are not? God!” she had cried sinking down
again and staring at her plate, “Malebranche was right: we are not our own light. We
are not our own light!” Mrs. Hopewell had no idea to this day what brought that on.
She had only made the remark, hoping Joy would take it in, that a smile never hurt
anyone. The girl had taken the Ph.D. in philosophy and this left Mrs. Hopewell at a
complete loss. You could say, “My daughter is a nurse,” or “My daughter is a school
teacher,” or even, “My daughter is a chemical engineer.” You could not say, “My
daughter is a philosopher.” That was something that had ended with the Greeks and
Romans. All day Joy sat on her neck in a deep chair, reading. Sometimes she went for
walks but she didn‖t like dogs or cats or birds or flowers or nature or nice young men.
She looked at nice young men as if she could smell their stupidity.
One day Mrs. Hopewell had picked up one of the books the girl had just put down
and opening it at random, she read, “Science, on the other hand, has to assert its
soberness and seriousness afresh and declare that it is concerned solely with what-is.
Nothing – how can it be for science anything but a horror and a phantasm? If science
is right, then one thing stands firm: science wishes to know nothing of nothing. Such
is after all the strictly scientific approach to Nothing. We know it by wishing to know
nothing of Nothing.” These words had been underlined with a blue pencil and they
worked on Mrs. Hopewell like some evil incantation in gibberish. She shut the book
quickly and went out of the room as if she were having a chill.
This morning when the girl came in, Mrs. Freeman was on Carramae. “She thrown
up four times after supper,” she said, “and was up twict in the night after three
o‖clock. Yesterday she didn‖t do nothing but ramble in the bureau drawer. All she did.
Stand up there and see what she could run up on.”
“She‖s got to eat,” Mrs. Hopewell muttered, sipping her coffee, while she watched
Joy‖s back at the stove. She was wondering what the child had said to the Bible
salesman. She could not imagine what kind of a conversation she could possibly have
had with him.
He was a tall gaunt hatless youth who had called yesterday to sell them a Bible. He
had appeared at the door, carrying a large black suitcase that weighted him so heavily
on one side that he had to brace himself against the door facing. He seemed on the
point of collapse but he said in a cheerful voice, “Good morning, Mrs. Cedars!” and set
the suitcase down on the mat. He was not a bad-looking young man though he had on
a bright blue suit and yellow socks that were not pulled up far enough. He had
prominent face bones and a streak of sticky-looking brown hair falling across his
“I‖m Mrs. Hopewell,” she said.
“Oh!” he said, pretending to look puzzled but with his eyes sparkling, “I saw it said
―The Cedars‖ on the mailbox so I thought you was Mrs. Cedars!” and he burst out in a
pleasant laugh. He picked up the satchel and under cover of a pant, he fell forward
into her hall. It was rather as if the suitcase had moved first, jerking him after it. “Mrs.
Hopewell!” he said and grabbed her hand. “I hope you are well!” and he laughed again
and then all at once his face sobered completely. He paused and gave her a straight
earnest look and said, “Lady, I‖ve come to speak of serious things.”
“Well, come in,” she muttered, none too pleased because her dinner was almost
ready. He came into the parlor and sat down on the edge of a straight chair and put
the suitcase between his feet and glanced around the room as if he were sizing her up
by it. Her silver gleamed on the two sideboards; she decided he had never been in a
room as elegant as this.
“Mrs. Hopewell,” he began, using her name in a way that sounded almost intimate,
“I know you believe in Chrustian service.”
“Well, yes,” she murmured.
“I know,” he said and paused, looking very wise with his head cocked on one side,
“that you‖re a good woman. Friends have told me.”
Mrs. Hopewell never liked to be taken for a fool. “What are you selling?” she
“Bibles,” the young man said and his eye raced around the room before he added,
“I see you have no family Bible in your parlor, I see that is the one lack you got!”
Mrs. Hopewell could not say, “My daughter is an atheist and won‖t let me keep the
Bible in the parlor.” She said, stiffening slightly, “I keep my Bible by my bedside.” This
was not the truth. It was in the attic somewhere.
“Lady,” he said, “the word of God ought to be in the parlor.”
“Well, I think that‖s a matter of taste,” she began, “I think…”
“Lady,” he said, “for a Chrustian, the word of God ought to be in every room in the
house besides in his heart. I know you‖re a Chrustian because I can see it in every line
of your face.”
She stood up and said, “Well, young man, I don‖t want to buy a Bible and I smell
my dinner burning.”
He didn‖t get up. He began to twist his hands and looking down at them, he said
softly, “Well lady, I‖ll tell you the truth – not many people want to buy one nowadays
and besides, I know I‖m real simple. I don‖t know how to say a thing but to say it. I‖m
just a country boy.” He glanced up into her unfriendly face. “People like you don‖t like
to fool with country people like me!”
“Why!” she cried, “good country people are the salt of the earth! Besides, we all
have different ways of doing, it takes all kinds to make the world go ―round. That‖s
“You said a mouthful,” he said.
“Why, I think there aren‖t enough good country people in the world!” she said,
stirred. “I think that‖s what‖s wrong with it!”
His face had brightened. “I didn‖t intraduce myself,” he said. “I‖m Manley Pointer
from out in the country around Willohobie, not even from a place, just from near a
“You wait a minute,” she said. “I have to see about my dinner.” She went out to the
kitchen and found Joy standing near the door where she had been listening.
“Get rid of the salt of the earth,” she said, “and let‖s eat.”
Mrs. Hopewell gave her a pained look and turned the heat down under the
vegetables. “I can‖t be rude to anybody,” she murmured and went back into the parlor.
He had opened the suitcase and was sitting with a Bible on each knee.
“I appreciate your honesty,” he said. “You don‖t see any more real honest people
unless you go way out in the country.”
“I know,” she said, “real genuine folks!” Through the crack in the door she heard a
“I guess a lot of boys come telling you they‖re working their way through college,”
he said, “but I‖m not going to tell you that. Somehow,” he said, “I don‖t want to go to
college. I want to devote my life to Chrustian service. See,” he said, lowering his voice,
“I got this heart condition. I may not live long. When you know it‖s something wrong
with you and you may not live long, well then, lady…” He paused, with his mouth
open, and stared at her.
He and Joy had the same condition! She knew that her eyes were filling with tears
but she …
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