The Beau Monde of Mrs. Bridge
January 11, 2013 | by Evan S. Connell
Our great contributor Evan Connell died this week. His best-loved novel, Mrs. Bridge, began as a short story in the Fall 1955 issue of The Paris Review. See below for the full text.
The black Lincoln that Mr. Bridge gave her on her forty-seventh birthday was a size too long and she drove it as cautiously as she might have driven a locomotive. People were always blowing their horns at her or turning their heads to stare when they went by. The Lincoln was set to idle too slowly and in consequence the engine sometimes died when she pulled up at an intersection, but as her husband never used the Lincoln and she herself assumed it was just one of those things about automobiles, the idling speed was never adjusted. Often she would delay a line of cars while she pressed the starter button either too long or not long enough. Knowing she was not expert she was always quite apologetic when something unfortunate happened, and did her best to keep out of everyone’s way. She changed into second gear at the beginning of any hill and let herself down the far side much more slowly than necessary.
Usually she parked in a downtown garage where Mr. Bridge rented a stall for her. She had only to honk at the enormous doors, which would then trundle open, and coast on inside where an attendant would greet her by name, help her out, and then park the formidable machine. But in the country club district she parked on the street, and if there were diagonal stripes she did very well, but if parking was parallel she had trouble judging her distance from the curb and would have to get out and walk around to look, then get back in and try again. The Lincoln’s seat was so soft and Mrs. Bridge so short that she had to sit very erect in order to see what was happening ahead of her. She drove with arms thrust forward and gloved hands tightly on the large wheel, her feet just able to depress the pedals all the way. She never had serious accidents but was often seen here and there being talked to by patrolmen. These patrolmen never did anything partly because they saw immediately that it would not do to arrest her, and partly because they could tell she was trying to do everything the way it should be done. When parking on the street it embarrassed her to have people watch, yet there always seemed to be someone at the bus stop or lounging in a doorway with nothing to do but stare while she struggled with the wheel and started jerkily backward. Sometimes, however, there would be a nice man who, seeing her difficulty, would come around and tip his hat and ask if he might help.
“Would you, please?” she would ask in relief, and after he opened the door she would get out and stand on the curb while he put the car in place. It was a problem to know whether he expected a tip or not. She knew that people who stood around on the streets were in need of money, still she did not want to offend anyone. Sometimes she would hesitantly ask, sometimes not, and whether the man would accept a twenty-five-cent piece or no, she would smile brightly up at him, saying, “Thank you so much,” and having locked the Lincoln’s doors she would be off to the shops.
If Mrs. Bridge bought a book it was almost always one of three things: a best seller she had heard of or seen advertised in all the stores, a self-improvement book, or a book by a Kansas City author no matter what it was about. These latter were infrequent, but now and again someone would explode on the midst of Kansas City with a Civil War history or something about old Westport Landing. Then, too, there were slender volumes of verse and essays usually printed by local publishing houses, and it was one of these that lay about the living room longer than any other book with the exception of an extremely old two-volume set of The Brothers Karamazov in gold-painted leather which nobody in the house had ever read and which had been purchased from an antique dealer by Mr. Bridge’s brother. This set rested gravely on the mantelpiece between a pair of bronze Indian chief heads—the only gift from cousin Lulubelle Watts that Mrs. Bridge had ever been able to use—and was dusted once a week by Hazel with a peacock feather duster. The volume that ran second to The Brothers Karamazov was a collection of thoughts by the local minister, Dr. Foster, a short and congenial and even jovial man with a big, handsome head capped with soft golden white hair that he allowed to grow long and which he brushed toward the top of his head to give himself another inch or so. He had written these essays over a period of several years with the idea of putting them into book form, and from time to time would allude to them, laughingly, as his memoirs. Then people would exclaim that he surely mustn’t keep them to himself until he died, at which Dr. Foster, touching the speaker’s arm, would laugh heartily and say, “We'll think it over, we'll think it over,” and clear his throat.
At last, when he had been preaching in Kansas City for seventeen years and his name was recognized, and he was always mentioned in The Tattler and sometimes in the city paper, a small publishing firm took these essays which he had quietly submitted to them several times before. The book came out in a black cover with a dignified grey-and-purple dust jacket which showed him smiling pensively out of his study window at dusk, hands clasped behind his back and one foot slightly forward.
The first essay began: “I am now seated at my desk, the desk that has been a source of comfort and inspiration to me these many years. I see that night is falling, the shadows creeping gently across my small but (to my eyes) lovely garden, and at such times as this I often reflect on the state of Mankind.”
Mrs. Bridge read Dr. Foster’s book, which he had autographed for her, and was amazed to find that he was such a reflective man, and so sensitive to the sunrise which she discovered he often got up to watch. She underlined several passages in the book that seemed to have particular meaning for her, and when it was done she was able to discuss it with her friends, who were all reading it, and she recommended it strongly to Grace Barron who at last consented to read a few pages.
With ugly, negative books about war and communists and perversion and everything else constantly flooding the counters this book came to her like an olive branch. It assured her that life was worth living after all, that she had not and was not doing anything wrong, and that people needed her. So, in the shadow of Dostoevsky, the pleasant meditations of Dr. Foster lay in various positions about the living room.
MAID FROM MADRAS
The Bridges gave a cocktail party not because they wanted to have cocktails with a mob of people, but because it was about time for them to be giving a party. Altogether more than eighty people stood and wandered about the home which stood on a hillside and was in the style of a Loire valley chateau. Grace and Virgil Barron were there, Madge and Russ Arlen, the Heywood Duncans, Wilhelm and Susan Van Metre looking out of place, Lois and Stuart Montgomery, the Beckerle sisters in ancient beaded gowns and looking as though they had not an instant forgotten the day when Mrs. Bridge had entertained them in anklets, Noel Johnson huge and by himself because she was in bed suffering from exhaustion, Mabel Ehe trying to start serious discussions, Dr. and Mrs. Batchelor whose Austrian refugee guests were now domestics in Los Angeles, and even Dr. Foster, smiling tolerantly, appeared for a whisky sour and a cigarette while gently chiding several of the men about Sunday golf. There was also an auto salesman named Beachy Marsh who had arrived early in a double-breasted pin-stripe business suit instead of a tuxedo, and being embarrassed about his mistake did everything he could think of to be amusing. He was not a close friend but it had been necessary to invite him along with several others.
Mrs. Bridge rustled about the brilliantly lighted home checking steadily to see that everything was as it should be. She glanced into the bathrooms every few minutes and found that the guest towels, which resembled pastel handkerchiefs, were still immaculately overlapping one another on the rack—at evening’s end only three had been disturbed—and she entered the kitchen once to recommend that the extra servant girl, hired to assist Hazel, pin shut the gap in the breast of her starched uniform.
Through the silver candelabra and miniature turkey sandwiches Mrs. Bridge went graciously smiling and chatting a moment with everyone, quietly opening windows to let out the smoke, removing wet glasses from mahogany table tops, slipping away now and then to empty the onyx ashtrays she had bought and distributed throughout the house.
Beachy Marsh got drunk. He slapped people on the shoulder, told jokes, laughed loudly, and also went around emptying the ashtrays of their magenta-colored stubs, all the while attempting to control the tips of his shirt collar which had become damp from perspiration and were rolling up into the air like horns. Following Mrs. Bridge halfway up the carpeted stairs he said hopefully, “There was a young maid from Madras, who had a magnificent ass; not rounded and pink, as you probably think—it was grey, had long ears, and ate grass.”
“Oh, my word!” replied Mrs. Bridge, looking over her shoulder with a polite smile but continuing up the stairs, while the auto salesman plucked miserably at his collar.
LAUNDRESS IN THE REAR
Every Wednesday the laundress came, and as the bus line was several blocks distant from the Bridge home someone would almost always meet her bus in the morning. For years the laundress had been an affable old negress named Beulah Mae who was full of nutshell wisdom and who wore a red bandanna and a dress that resembled a dyed hospital gown. Mrs. Bridge was very fond of Beulah Mae, speaking of her as “a nice old soul” and frequently giving her a little extra money or an evening dress that had begun to look dated, or perhaps some raffle tickets that she was always obliged to buy from girl scouts and various charities. But there came a day when Beulah Mae had had enough of laundering, extra gifts or no, and without saying a word to any of her clients she boarded a bus for California to live out her life on the seashore. For several weeks Mrs. Bridge was without a laundress and was obliged to take the work to an establishment, but at last she got someone else, an extremely large and doleful Swedish woman who said during the interview in the kitchen that her name was Ingrid and that for eighteen years she had been a masseuse and liked it much better.
When Mrs. Bridge arrived at the bus line the first morning Ingrid saluted her mournfully and got laboriously into the front seat. This was not the custom, but such a thing was difficult to explain because Mrs. Bridge did not like to hurt anyone’s feelings by making them feel inferior, so she said nothing about it and hoped that by next week some other laundress in the neighborhood would have told Ingrid.
But the next week she again got in front, and again Mrs. Bridge pretended everything was all right. However on the third morning while they were riding up Ward Parkway toward the house Mrs. Bridge said, “I was so attached to Beulah Mae. She used to have the biggest old time riding in the back seat.”
Ingrid turned a massive yellow head to look stonily at Mrs. Bridge. As they were easing into the driveway she spoke: “So you want I should sit in the back.”
“Oh, gracious! I didn’t mean that,” Mrs. Bridge answered, smiling up at Ingrid. “You're perfectly welcome to sit right here if you like.”
Ingrid said no more about the matter and next week with the same majestic melancholy rode in the rear.
Ordinarily Mrs. Bridge examined the laundry but when she had shopping to do, or a meeting, the job fell to Hazel who never paid much attention to such things as missing buttons or loose elastic. Thus it was that Mrs. Bridge discovered Douglas wearing a shirt with cuffs that were noticeably frayed.
“For heaven’s sake!” she exclaimed, taking hold of his sleeve. “Has a dog been chewing on it?”
He looked down at the threads as though he had never before seen them.
“Surely you don't intend to wear that shirt?”
“It looks perfectly okay to me,” said Douglas.
“Just look at those cuffs! Anyone would think we’re on our way to the poorhouse.”
“So is it a disgrace to be poor?”
“No!” she cried. “But we’re not poor!”
Mrs. Bridge approved of equality. On certain occasions when she saw in the newspapers or heard over the radio that labor unions had won another victory she would think: “Good for them!” And, as the segregational policies of the various states became more and more subject to criticism by civic groups as well as by the federal government, she would feel that it was about time, and she would try to understand how discrimination could persist. However strongly she felt about this she was careful about what she said because she was aware that everything she had was hers through the efforts of one person: her husband. Mr. Bridge was of the opinion that people were not equal. In his decisive manner of speaking, annoyed that she should even puzzle over such a thing, he said, “You take all the people on earth and divide up everything, and in six months everybody would have just about what they have now. What Abraham Lincoln meant was equal rights, not equal capacity.”
This always seemed exactly what she was trying to point out to him, that many people did not have equal rights, but after a few minutes of discussion she would be overwhelmed by a sense of inadequacy and would begin to get confused, at which he would stare at her for a moment as though she were something in a glass box and then resume whatever he had been doing.
She invariably introduced herself to members of minority groups at whatever gathering she found herself associating with them.
“I’m India Bridge,” she would say in a friendly manner, and would wish it were possible to invite the people into her home. And when, among neighborhood friends she had known for a long time and who offered no unusual ideas, the increased means of certain classes were discussed, she would say, “Isn’t it nice that they can have television and automobiles and everything.”
In a northern town a negro couple opened a grocery store in a white neighborhood; that night the windows were smashed and the store set afire. Newspapers published photographs of the ruined property, of two smirking policemen, and of the negro couple who had lost their entire savings. Mrs. Bridge read this story while having breakfast by herself several hours after her husband had left for work. She studied the miserable faces of the young negro and his wife. Across the newspaper the morning sun slanted warm and cheerful, in the kitchen Hazel sang hymns while peeling apples for a pie, all the earth as seen from her window seemed content, yet such things still came to pass. In her breakfast nook, a slice of buttered toast in hand, Mrs. Bridge felt a terrible desire. She would press these unfortunate people to her breast and tell them that she, too, knew what it meant to be hurt but that everything would turn out all right.
She had always done a reasonable amount of charity work along with her friends, particularly at a little store on Ninth Street where secondhand clothing that had been collected in drives was distributed. In this store were two rooms, in the front one a row of card tables placed together, behind which stood the charity workers who were to assist people seeking something to wear, and in the back room were several more card tables and collapsible wooden chairs where Mrs. Bridge and her fellow workers ate their lunch or relaxed when not on duty in front.
She often went down with Madge Arlen. One week they would drive to their work in the Arlen’s Chrysler, the next week in Mrs. Bridge’s Lincoln, and when this was the case Mrs. Bridge always drew up before the garage where her parking stall was rented. She honked, or beckoned if someone happened to be in sight, and shortly one of the attendants whose name was George would come out buttoning up his jacket and he would ride in the rear seat to the clothing store. There he would jump out and open the door for Mrs. Bridge and after that drive the Lincoln back to the garage because she did not like it left on the street in such a neighborhood.
“Can you come by for us around six, or six-fifteen-ish, George?” she would ask.
He always answered that he would be glad to, touched the visor of his cap, and drove away.
“He seems so nice,” said Mrs. Arlen as the two of them walked into their store.
“Oh, he is!” Mrs. Bridge agreed. “He’s one of the nicest garage men I’ve ever had.”
“How long have you been parking there?”
“Quite some time. We used to park at that awful place on Walnut.”
“The one with the popcorn machine? Lord, isn't that the limit?”
“No, not that place. The one with the Italians. You know how my husband is about Italians. Well, that just seemed to be headquarters for them. They came in there to eat their sandwiches and listen to some opera broadcast from New York. It was just impossible. So finally Walter said, ‘I’m going to change garages.’ So we did.”
They walked past the row of card tables piled high with soiled and sour unwashed clothing and continued into the back room where they found some early arrivals having coffee and eclairs. Mrs. Bridge and Mrs. Arlen hung up their coats and also had coffee, and then prepared for work. The reform school had sent down some boys to assist and they were put to work untying the latest sacks of used clothing and dumping them out.
By two o’clock everything was ready for the day’s distribution. The doors were unlocked and the first of the poor entered and approached the counter behind which stood Mrs. Bridge and two others with encouraging smiles, all three of them wearing gloves.
ROBBERY AT HEYWOOD DUNCANS
The Bridges were almost robbed while attending a cocktail party at the Heywood Duncans’. Shortly after ten o’clock, just as she was taking an anchovy cracker from the buffet table, four men appeared in the doorway with revolvers and wearing plastic noses attached to horn-rimmed glasses for disguise. One of them said, “All right, everybody. This is a stick-up!” Another of the men—Mrs. Bridge afterwards described him to the police as not having worn a necktie—got up on the piano bench and from there stepped up on top of the piano itself where he pointed his gun at different people. At first everybody thought it was a joke, but it wasn’t because the robbers made them all line up facing the wall with their hands above their heads. One of them ran upstairs and came down with his arms full of fur coats and purses while two others started around the room pulling billfolds out of the men's pockets and drawing rings from the ladies’ fingers. Before they had gotten to either Mr. or Mrs. Bridge, who were lined up between Dr. Foster and the Arlens, something frightened them and the one standing on the piano called out in an ugly voice, “Who’s got the keys to that blue Cadillac out front?”
At this Mrs. Ralph Porter screamed, “Don’t you tell him, Ralph!”
But the bandits took Mr. Porter’s keys anyway and after telling them all not to move for thirty minutes they ran out the porch door.
It was written up on the front page of the newspaper, with pictures on page eight, including a close-up of the scratched piano. Mrs. Bridge, reading the story in the breakfast room next morning after her husband had gone to work, was surprised to learn that Stuart Montgomery had been carrying just $2.14 and that Mrs. Noel Johnson’s ring had been zircon.
FOLLOW ME HOME
How the scare actually started no one knew, although several women, one of whom was a fairly close friend of Madge Arlen, claimed they knew the name of someone who had been assaulted not far from Ward Parkway. Some thought it had happened near the plaza, others thought farther south, but they were generally agreed that it had happened late at night. The story was that a certain lady of a well-known family had been driving home alone and when she had slowed down for an intersection a man had leaped up from behind some shrubbery and had wrenched open the door. Whether the attack had been consummated or not the story did not say, the important part was that there had been a man and he had leaped up and wrenched open the door. There was nothing in the paper about it, nor in The Tattler, which did not print anything unpleasant, and the date of the assault could not be determined for some reason, only that it had been on a dark night not too long ago.
When this story had gotten about none of the matrons wished to drive anywhere alone after sundown. As it so happened they were often obliged to go to a cocktail party or a dinner by themselves because their husbands were working late at the office, but they went full of anxiety, with the car doors locked. It also became customary for the husband-host to get his automobile out of the garage at the end of an evening and then to follow the unescorted matrons back to their homes. Thus there could be seen processions of cars driving cautiously and rather like funerals across the boulevards of the country club residential district.
So Mrs. Bridge came home on those evenings when her husband did not get back from the office in time, or when he was too tired and preferred to lie in bed reading vacation advertisements. At her driveway the procession would halt, engines idling, while she drove into the garage and came back out along the driveway so as to be constantly visible, and entered by the front door. Having unlocked it she would step inside, switch on the hall lights, and call to her husband, “I’m home!” Then, after he had made a noise of some kind in reply, she would flicker the lights a few times to show the friends waiting outside that she was safe, after which they would all drive off into the night.
NEVER SPEAK TO STRANGE MEN
On a downtown street just outside a department store a man said something to her. She ignored him. But at that moment the crowd closed them in together.
“How do you do?” he said, smiling and touching his hat.
She saw that he was a man of about fifty with silvery hair and rather satanic ears.
His face became red and he laughed awkwardly. “I’m Gladys Schmidt’s husband.”
“Oh, for Heaven’s sake!” Mrs. Bridge exclaimed. “I didn’t recognize you.”
While idly dusting the bookcase one morning she paused to read the titles and saw an old red-gold volume of Conrad that had stood untouched for years. She could not think how it happened to be there. Taking it down she looked at the flyleaf and found: Ex Libris Thomas Bridge.
She remembered then that they had inherited some books and charts upon the death of her husband’s brother, an odd man who had married a night club entertainer and later died of a heart attack in Mexico.
Having nothing to do that morning she began to turn the brittle, yellowed pages and slowly became fascinated. After standing beside the bookcase for about ten minutes she wandered, still reading, into the living room where she sat down and did not look up from the book until Hazel came in to announce lunch. In the midst of one of the stories she came upon a passage that had once been underlined, apparently by Tom Bridge, which remarked that some people go skimming over the years of existence to sink gently into a placid grave, ignorant of life to the last, without ever having been made to see all it may contain. She brooded over this fragment even while reading further, and finally turned back to it again, and was staring at the carpet with a bemused expression when Hazel entered.
Mrs. Bridge put the book on the mantel for she intended to read more of this perceptive man, but during the afternoon Hazel automatically put Conrad back on the shelf and Mrs. Bridge did not think of him again.
She had never gone into politics the way some women did who were able to speak with masculine inflections about such affairs as farm surplus and foreign subsidies. She always listened attentively when these things came up at luncheons or circle meetings; she felt her lack of knowledge and wanted to know studying. But so many things kept popping up that it was difficult to get started, and then too she did not know exactly how one began to learn. At times she would start to question her husband but he refused to say much to her, and so she would not press the matter because after all there was not much she herself could accomplish.
This was how she defended herself to Mabel Ehe after having incautiously let slip the information that her husband told her what to vote for.
Mabel Ehe was flat as an adolescent but much more sinewy. Her figure was like a bud that had never managed to open. She wore tweed coats and cropped hair and frequently stood with hands thrust deep into her side pockets as if she were a man. She spoke short positive sentences, sometimes throwing back her head to laugh with a sound that reminded people of a dry reed splintering. She had many bitter observations in regard to capitalism, relating stories she had heard from unquestionable sources about women dying in childbirth because they could not afford the high cost of proper hospitalization or even the cost of insurance plans.
“If I ever have a child—” she was fond of beginning, and would then tear into medical fees.
She demanded of Mrs. Bridge: “Don’t you have a mind of your own? Great Scott, woman, you’re an adult. Speak out! We've been emancipated.” Ominously she began rocking back and forth from her heels to her toes, hands clasped behind her back while she frowned at the carpet of the Auxiliary clubhouse.
“You’re right,” Mrs. Bridge apologized, discreetly avoiding the smoke Mabel Ehe blew into the space between them. “It’s just so hard to know what to think. There’s so much scandal and fraud, and I suppose the papers only print what they want us to know.” She hesitated, then, “How do you make up your mind?”
Mabel Ehe removed the cigarette holder from her small cool lips. She considered the ceiling and then the carpet, as though debating on how to answer such a naive question, and finally suggested that Mrs. Bridge might begin to grasp the fundamentals by a deliberate reading of certain books, which she jotted down on the margin of a tally card. Mrs. Bridge had not heard of any of these books except one and this was because its author was being investigated, but she decided to read it anyway.
There was a waiting list for it at the public library but she got it at a rental library and settled down to go through it with the deliberation that Mabel Ehe had advised. The author’s name was Zokoloff, which certainly sounded threatening, and to be sure the first chapter was about bribery in the circuit courts. When Mrs. Bridge had gotten far enough along that she felt capable of speaking about it she left it quite boldly on the hall table, however Mr. Bridge did not even notice it until the third evening. He thinned his nostrils, read the first paragraph, grunted once, and dropped it back onto the hall table. This was disappointing. In fact, now that there was no danger involved, she had trouble finishing the book. She thought it would be better in a magazine digest, but at last she did get through and returned it to the rental library, saying to the owner, “I can’t honestly say I agree with it all but he’s certainly well informed.”
Certain arguments of Zokoloff remained with her and she found that the longer she thought about them the more penetrating and logical they became; surely it was time, as he insisted, for a change in government. She decided to vote liberal at the next election, and as time for it approached she became filled with such enthusiasm and anxiety that she wanted very much to discuss government with her husband. She began to feel confident that she could persuade him to change his note also. It was all so clear to her, there was really no mystery to politics. However when she challenged him to discussion he did not seem especially interested, in fact he did not answer. He was watching a television acrobat stand on his thumb in a bottle and only glanced across at her for an instant with an annoyed expression. She let it go until the following evening when television was over, and this time, he looked at her curiously, quite intently, as if probing her mind, and then all at once he snorted.
She really intended to force a discussion on election eve. She was going to quote from the book of Zokoloff. But he came home so late, so tired, that she had not the heart to upset him. She concluded it would be best to let him vote as he always had, and she would do as she herself wished, still upon getting to the polls, which were conveniently located in the country club shopping district, she became doubtful and a little uneasy. And when the moment finally came she pulled the lever recording her wish for the world to remain as it was.