The Fat Lady Who Climbed Fences
by Charles Hoy Fort
A cherry on a plum on an apple! All three impaled upon a skewer to hold them together. That should give you some idea of Mrs. Pillquit's figure. Head as round as a cherry's face; face of cherry complexion; face hung so precariously that one good shake of the round head would, I am sure, detach at least one of the loose, wobbly cheeks that looked pendent. Encroaching cheeks forcing lips into a pouting expression. Big blue eyes with a look of infantine calm and innocence.
"Bad luck to old maids!" pouted Mrs. Pillquit. In her rocking-chair she was sitting at her kitchen window. A large tenement kitchen. Flooring of wide, clean, bare boards. A kitten chasing a cockroach up and down a bare board. Green-painted walls with white blotches where holes had been plastered but not repainted.
The sun was setting. But last rays of sunlight could not fall upon Mrs. Pillquit at her window, because sheets and blankets, on the clothes-line that ran to the window of the floor above, eclipsed the setting sun. Mrs. Pillquit never went to the street, so her only chance to enjoy a little sunlight was at her kitchen window, late in the afternoon. The top-floor tenant was very particular in the matter of bedding; had it hanging out on the line all day. Hence:
"Bad luck to old maids!"
Sun gone. Tenement house beginning to stir with the activity of supper-preparing; men coming home from their work. Pork chops sizzling on the first-floor stove; second-floor corned beef and cabbage warming over; but Mrs. Pillquit, of the third floor, cooked only for herself, for her husband worked in a restaurant, board and twelve dollars a week.
Mrs. Pillquit lighting a tin-reflector lamp, hanging it on a nail in the wall. Quick steps outside. Mr. Pillquit home from work. A dapper little man, pretty well impressed with his own importance. Dapper little man throwing the door open, crying:
"Mommer, you ain't got a second to spare if you want to save your life!"
Mrs. Pillquit looking at him doubtfully. "Why, yes, popper; but I don't have to leave the room, do I?"
"Quick! Put on your hat, mommer! The wall of the next-door building is bulging and will fall on the top of us any second!"
"Then," sorrowfully, "I'd be all crushed out flat."
"Fly for your life, mommer!"
Said Mrs. Pillquit sadly: "I don't know how to fly. I'll be all crushed out and flat, and you'll marry again, and sometimes think of me, and say I wasn't so bad, after
"Oh, if you ain't the worst!" Mr. Pillquit tossing his hat and coat to a chair. "You'd actually sit here and be all crushed out flat rather than stir from the room?"
"Oh, then you're only fooling me again?" said reproachful Mrs. Pillquit. "And the building ain't going to fall? You play such tricks and try and get me out to the street when you know I ain't able to stir from this room."
"Can't nothing ever get you down those stairs? And you'd sit here and be crushed before you'd move?" But Mr. Pillquit's interest turned to other matters. Mr. Pillquit striding up and down a bare board, rubbing his hands briskly. "Mommer, the restaurant couldn't run a day without me. The manager says I'm the best storeroom man he ever had. Every manager I ever worked under said that, and a manager can't get along without a good storeroom man. Why, mommer, the hash-machine broke down today and I put the corned beef through the mangle, which squeezed it so we could mix it up with our hands in no time. No one else thought of that. We ran out of chicken soup, and the manager was frantic. `Bob,' he says to me, `I've only got you to depend on; we must get chicken soup somewheres.' So I says, `Boil over the boiled chickens.' We boil over the sandwich chickens, and I never saw anyone gratefuller. `I'd be lost without you, Bob!' he tells me." Mr. Pillquit swaggering up and down the bare board, his head bobbing emphasis.
Mrs. Pillquit wobbling after him. Mrs. Pillquit looking apprehensive. Trying to tell him something, finally blurting:
"It's our turn to scrub down the stairs, popper."
"What!" Mr. Pillquit pausing in his swaggering. "Well, then, you must do it! It ain't a man's place to do such work. When he's away all day, it's the woman's place to do the housework."
"Oh, popper," piteously, "I could scrub down the stairs, but I could never climb up them again."
"Oh, yes, you could! That's all nonsense. Aren't you ever going out again? And the doctor telling you you must have exercise!"
"Oh, popper, I ain't fit to be seen on the street. I'm so ee-normous! I'd drop if I walked a block! Popper, all the other tenants took their turns, and it's our turn on the stairs now; and, if you don't like it, you ought to live in a house where there's a housekeeper."
"Give me the pail and scrub brush," said Mr. Pillquit forlornly. "It's all nonsense you not being able to go up or downstairs, and you ain't half as helpless as you make out. They'll laugh at me for a month if they see a man scrubbing down the stairs. I'll never do it again!" Wrathful Mr. Pillquit going out to the hall, Mrs. Pillquit faintly calling:
"Be sure to sweep down before you scrub, popper!"
Mr. Pillquit scrubbing down the stairs. You would have thought him laying a train of powder to blow up the tenement. Such a look of fear and guilt! What if any tenant should come along and see him doing a woman's work! A man tenant would be bad enough, but if a woman tenant should see him, she would deride him for all time.
Top-floor opening, a woman tenant in the top floor! Mr. Pillquit stumbling downstairs to hide his pail under the top-floor sink, pretending to wash his hands there, though it is a serious offense for a tenant to use any sink other than his own. But the door had been opened only for air, and Mr. Pillquit was saved.
Mr. Pillquit scrubbing his way down to the second floor. And what if the second-floor door should open! Sound of sweeping behind it. Long strokes of a broom, short dabs in corners, then concentrating strokes approaching the door. Sweeper starting to turn the door-knob. Mr. Pillquit rising guiltily from hands and knees -- saved again! Door not opening. Someone crying, "Oh, don't sweep dirt out in the hall, or something'll surely happen!"
For, as everyone knows, when you sweep dirt out of a room, you sweep out your luck.
Mr. Pillquit returning to the third floor so humiliated that there was none of his former swaggering.
"Here's your pail, mommer," humbly.
Mrs. Riordan, of the second floor, running into the room. Laying a dime on the table. Pointing to the dime. Running back to the hall. Turning again to point at the dime. Down the stairs with her.
"I won't!" said Mr. Pillquit weakly. "I ain't going to chase errands for anybody." But he had scrubbed down the stairs, and his sense of importance was gone.
"Ah, the poor soul!" waves of sympathy coursing up and down Mrs. Pillquit's vastness. "Her husband won't give her any beer when he's off the drinking. 'Tis not right to deprive her, just because he's stopped for a week and'll then be at it worse than ever."
Humbled Mr. Pillquit going for a pint of beer and then returning with it. Mrs. Riordan stealing up the stairs, and then darting into the room, after him. Pantomimically, with long arms, expressing her harassments, and down with a glass of beer. One long arm aloft and waving to express, "You can't stir but what the men are watching you!" Down with another glass. Distress upon Mrs. Riordan's long, red face; glasses coming too swiftly, but not a moment to waste, for at any moment Mr. Riordan might be heard shouting for her. One hand holding a third glass; other hand rubbing her stomach. Shouts from the second hall:
"Nellie! Nellie, where are you?"
Such distress! Mrs. Riordan forcing down a third glass and grabbing Mrs. Pillquit's evening newspaper, which would be her excuse for going to a neighbor's. Down the stairs with her, a fourth glass in her hand, empty glass left on the sink shelf.
"Now, I ain't got any paper!" complained Mr. Pillquit. "Well, anyhow, I'm going out for a walk, mommer."
"Oh, now, popper!" lips pursed like a pouting child's. "You leave me every night."
"But I want you to come with me, mommer. You won't come along?"
"Oh, you know I can't do that! Oh, I'd drop and never get up again if I stirred a step from the house. And I don't see where you go every evening."
"Just walking," said Mr. Pillquit. He went walking.
Mrs. Pillquit left alone. It was very unpleasant to be left alone, every evening -- but never, never could she go down those stairs.
Door opening and top-floor maiden lady coming in. "Oh, excuse me!" very common mistake in houses where all doors look alike. "I got in the wrong floor." Casting one eye at the floor, to see whether there was carpet, other eye wandering to see what kind of furniture the Pillquits had.
"Oh, do sit down, ma'am; I'm all alone!" from lonesome Mrs. Pillquit. Maiden lady's thin hair done up like a pitcher handle, in the back. When speaking, she smiled three fluttering wrinkles in her cheeks. Maiden lady looking around, remarking:
"You haven't any carpet, have you? Well, you don't have to have carpet, like I do, because I have millionaires coming to see me."
"Millionaires?" Mrs. Pillquit was deeply impressed.
"Oh, yes, indeed, they come to engage me for work. Just suppose I had an old stove like yours -- oh, but it's quite right for you!" Three deep wrinkles smiled into each cheek. "Or oilcloth on my table! Oh, yes, your cheesecloth curtains are very nice -- for you! But I must have real lace. I have millionaires coming to see me."
Mr. Pillquit back from his walk. Running excitedly up the stairs and bursting into the kitchen, crying:
"Fire, mommer! Big fire, and this house'll go next!"
"Then, I'll burn," said Mrs. Pillquit, not alarmed, but sorrowful.
"Come run, mommer; we ain't got time to save a thing!"
"I'll have to burn," said Mrs. Pillquit, as if in impersonal pity for herself.
"Oh, if you ain't the worst!" Mr. Pillquit stamping on the floor, saying disgustedly: "Well, I guess you would rather sit there and burn than run down to the street. There ain't any fire, then. Mommer, I'm bound to get you out."
"I'd drop before I went ten steps," said Mrs. Pillquit. "Then there ain't any fire, and it was just more tricks?"
"I'll get you down those stairs some way!" said very determined Mr. Pillquit. "Once I do, you'll have no excuse, and there won't be any more scrubbing down stairs for me. You know you're as able to go out as anybody."
"I'll drop dead," from placid Mrs. Pillquit.
Another evening. Very important-looking Mr. Pillquit just entering the kitchen. Frowning so that a severe aspect should heighten his look of importance. "They couldn't run a day without me, mommer! There's the cook, for instance! All out of French fries, and the vegetable woman hadn't cut any. But I'd told the dishwasher to save all the French fries that came in with the dishes, and, though someone had thrown tomato soup all over them, we cleaned them up -- the cook couldn't get along without me!"
"Ashes!" said Mrs. Pillquit.
Jaunty shoulders drooping. And head drooping. "Oh, now, mommer, it's too much to ask me to carry down ashes."
"Oh, well, now, popper," pursing pouting lips at him, rolling big eyes at him, "the ashes been accumulating three days and be filling the room up, and I can't go down with them, because I couldn't get back."
Gloomy Mr. Pillquit. Carrying ashes down to the yard, pausing at every landing to look ahead, darting to the yard, throwing ashes ten feet toward a barrel, and then away with him.
"Goes out and leaves me all alone!" pouted Mrs. Pillquit to her friend, Mrs. Clamp, who had dropped in for a moment.
"You can't trust the men!" from Mrs. Clamp, a wan woman, whose manner was tragic and vehement.
"Don't you think you can?" Big eyes wistful and sorrowful, but without suspicion in them.
"You can't trust the men!" Mrs. Clamp cried so vehemently that the glass of beer she was holding was dashed over her skirt. "Oh, never mind that!" rubbing the beer into the skirt. "There's nothing like beer to bring out the color of black goods."
Pouring more beer into her hollowed hand, rubbing more beer on the skirt. "Don't never try it with blue or gray, but there's nothing like beer for black. You can't trust the men!"
Mrs. Pillquit looked worried. "Can't you?" she asked.
Mr. Pillquit coming home from his evening walk. Shoulders swinging jauntily--but:
"Oh, popper!" thumb in Mrs. Pillquit's mouth, "I don't know how you'll take it, but you'll have to go empty this cabbage water and then clean the sink."
Jauntiness swept away. "Oh, mommer, you go too far, you do! You know you can at least go down to the sink."
"Why, no, popper! Don't you see that if I could go one sink down, I could go two sinks down? And if I could go two sinks down, I could go all the way to the street? So take down the sink broom with you."
Despondent Mr. Pillquit taking the sink broom with him.
Next afternoon. Top-floor maiden lady suddenly running to the stairs. She had heard loud groans in the room below. Down the stairs with the maiden lady to exclaim:
"Oh, Mrs. Pillquit, please don't do that!"
Mrs. Pillquit rocking herself in her chair, looking at a letter just brought to her.
"Oh, my heart's broke!" groaned rocking, wobbling Mrs. Pillquit.
"Oh, but I expect millionaires, for me to go to work today! And millionaires are so sensitive and don't like to hear groans! Oh, you mustn't carry on so when there are millionaires coming to see me!"
"He's broken my heart! My poor heart's broke!"
"But the millionaires!" cried the apprehensive maiden lady.
"Bad luck to you and your millionaires!" Mrs. Pillquit again reading the letter. Lamentations renewed so that the maiden lady hastened down the stairs to receive millionaires on the front stoop.
Mr. Pillquit home, in the evening, Mrs. Pillquit not looking at him. "Why, what's the matter, mommer?" Mrs. Pillquit turning her back to him. "Why, I ain't done anything, have I? Do you want more ashes carried down?" Back turned to him until he went out for his evening walk.
Then up from her chair with Mrs. Pillquit! Bonnet slapped on and hat-pins stabbed into it. Down the stairs and after him -- perhaps not three or four steps at a time--but down and after him! And up the street after him, Mr. Pillquit a hundred feet ahead.
When Mr. Pillquit came to a long yard with carts in it, he entered the yard. Mrs. Pillquit right after him. Mr. Pillquit coming to a string of carts in his way. Climbing over a cart. Mrs. Pillquit right after him! Dodging down under a driver's seat when he seemed about to turn around.
Mr. Pillquit going on to the end of the yard, and, by means of some leaning boards, climbing upon a shanty. From the roof of the shanty he scaled a fence and dropped upon the other side.
A shanty to climb? She did it! Not noiselessly and not so very gracefully, perhaps -- but she did it! To the fence with Mrs. Pillquit. Ten-foot fence! Up and down the other side by means of broken places for feet and hands. Did it, but brought the whole top of the fence with her before she got all the way down.
Windows thrown open. Cries of, "Stop-pit! Stop-pit! Who's breaking that fence down?" Mrs. Pillquit struggling amid fallen boards, crying, "Don't shoot! I didn't mean no harm by it!"
"Stop-pit! Stop-pit or you'll be arrested!" And Mrs. Pillquit had gone, ran and wobbled through a hall to the street, glad to escape, neither arrested nor shot.
Mrs. Pillquit had scarcely time to reach home when Mr. Pillquit returned.
"Oh, don't come near me! Don't never speak to me again!" Mrs. Pillquit wobbling with blubbering sobs.
"Mommer," said Mr. Pillquit brightly, "don't I see ashes under the stove? Well, right down to the back yard with them, just as quick as you can!"
"Oh, I couldn't!" Mrs. Pillquit almost forgetting the letter that had caused adventures and despair.
"Come now, mommer," brisk way with him, way of a man who will stand no more nonsense. "Take this bundle of papers down with you."
"Oh, you know I couldn't never! See here -- " waving the letter.
"You can't? After climbing up over high carts?"
Mrs. Pillquit stammered.
"Over a shanty? Over a ten-foot fence?"
Mrs. Pillquit blubbering: "All is over betwixt us-- but how did you know?"
"My dear," said Mr. Pillquit, taking the rocking chair, and making himself comfortable in it, "the room looks a little untidy. Please go down and empty that dishwater in the sink. And run out and get me something nice to eat and don't stop to jump any hurdles or climb any trees -- what an athlete you are!"
"This letter -- " blubbered and wobbled Mrs. Pillquit.
Mr. Pillquit, languid in the comfort he was enjoying, languidly took the letter she held out.
"Yes!" said Mr. Pillquit. "Not fires and not falling buildings could do it, but how quick this brought you out!"
"`Dear Madame,'" he read, "`take a friend's advice and find out where your husband goes every night.'"
"Very good!" said Mr. Pillquit. "I have scrubbed down my last stairs. Now, just you go on your little errands and don't stop to play leapfrog on the way. Mommer, as I'll show you, this was written backhand by myself."
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