How Can I Tell You?
By John O'Hara - Dec 15, 2017
A T-Bird and two Galaxies was very good for one day, especially as the T-Bird did not involve a trade-in. The woman who bought it, Mrs. Preston, had come in and asked for Mark McGranville and shown him a magazine ad. “Do you have one of these in red?” she said.
“Not on the floor, Mrs. Preston,” he said. “But I can have one for you inside of two hours.”
“You can? Brand-new?”
“Brand-new,” he said.
“Red, like this?”
“The exact same color, the same body job, white walls, radio and heater. I could have it in front of your house inside of two hours. And if you were thinking of getting rid of your ranch wagon, I can allow you—well, let’s see what the book says.”
“Did I say I wanted to trade in my ranch wagon? I love it. I wouldn’t think of getting rid of it. I want the Thunderbird for Buddy. He just passed all his exams and he’s coming home for the weekend.”
“Well you know exactly what he wants, Mrs. Preston. Because he’s been here a couple times, looking at T-Birds. He’s a very lucky boy.”
“He’s a good boy, Mark. Not a lucky boy.”
“Yes, he’s one of the best,” said Mark McGranville.
“And you say you can have a car just like this in two hours? Where do you have to go for it?”
“Oh, all I have to do is pick up the phone, call the factory distributor, and tell him what I want.”
“But how do you know he has what I want?”
“Because we dealers get a list of what was shipped to the factory distributor. I guarantee you I have just what you want. I’ll bring it to your door this afternoon, personally, and be glad to take care of the registration, insurance, all the details. Would you want us to finance it for you?”
“I would not. You bring the car around and I’ll give you a cheque for the whole thing, license and everything. I don’t suppose you could have his initials put on today?”
“If you let me have the car overnight I can have his initials put on and bring it back to you before noon tomorrow. R.W.P.?”
“R.W.P. That’s right. In yellow. Yellow would be better on red.”
“About three quarters of an inch high? Or smaller? Maybe a half an inch. A half an inch in yellow shows up well. If he wants bigger initials later, that’s easy to fix.”
“I’ll leave that to you, Mark. And you’ll take care of everything? He gets home tomorrow afternoon.”
“He couldn’t have a nicer surprise. It is a surprise, isn’t it?”
“It certainly is. It’s a surprise to me. I wasn’t going to buy him a car till he graduates. But he’s been so good, and why not let him have the fun out of it?”
“You’re right, Mrs. Preston.”
“How’s Jean? And the children?”
“They’re fine, thank you. Very fine.”
“You get credit for this sale, don’t you?”
“You bet I do,” he said. “Appreciate your asking for me.”
“Well, you’ve always been a good boy, too, Mark. I’m sure your mother’s very pleased with you.”
“Your mother’s a fine woman, Mark. Any time she’s thinking of going back to work again, I hope she lets me know first.”
“She would, that’s for sure. But I guess she likes keeping house for my sister. They have that little ranch-type out at Putnam Park, the two of them. Mary has her job at the Trust Company, and my mother has enough to keep her occupied.”
“Very nice for both of them. Well, I mustn’t keep you any longer. You have some telephoning to do.”
“Thank you very much, Mrs. Preston,” he said. He accompanied her to her ranch wagon, held the door open for her, and waited in the parking lot until she turned the corner.
The other transactions of the day were more typical, not sales that were dropped in his lap by a Mrs. Preston. But all three sales should have made him feel better than he felt on the way home, and he did not know why he should find himself wanting a drink and, what’s more, heading for Ernie’s to get it. He locked his car and entered the taproom, hung his hat and coat on a clothestree, and took a seat in a booth. Ernie came to wait on him.
“Well, hi, stranger,” said Ernie.
“Hello, Ernie,” said Mark McGranville. “Quiet.”
“Well, a little early. Never much action before six. The lunch trade till ha’ past two, then maybe a few strays during the afternoon. How’s it with you?”
“Not bad. Pretty good.”
“Ed and Paul were in last night, them and their wives for dinner. Paul made a pretty good load. What’s her name, his wife?”
“She snuck her head over and asked me to cut his drinks, but I couldn’t do that. I said to her, what’d she want to do? Get me in trouble? You know Paul, he caught me watering his drinks and he’d have it all over town in no time. He’s no bargain anyway, Paul.”
“No, he’s a noisy son of a bitch when he makes the load.”
“But he’s a friend of yours, though, isn’t he?”
“I guess so,” said Mark. “Let me have a bourbon and soda, will you, Ernie?”
“Why sure. Is there anything the matter, Mark?”
“I don’t know. You want any particular bourbon?”
“I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. You know that.”
“Okay, okay,” said Ernie. He pantomimed getting a kick in the behind and went to the bar to get Mark’s drink. He returned with a small round tray on which were a highball glass, a shot glass with the bourbon, a small bottle of club soda. “There you are. That’s Old Gutburner, the bar bourbon.”
“Gutburner. Old Gutburner. That’s what Paul calls the bar bourbon. It ain’t all that bad. You want some music?”
“You just want to sit here and nobody bother you. Okay,” said Ernie. He walked away, spinning the inverted tray on his forefinger, and Mark had a couple of sips of his drink. He waited for some pleasant effect, and when none came, he finished the drink in a gulp. “Ernie? Bring me another shot, will you?”
“Right,” said Ernie. He served a second shot glass of the bourbon. “You got enough soda there? Yeah, you got enough soda.”
“I don’t want any soda. I’m drinking this straight.”
“Yeah, bourbon ought to be drunk straight. Bourbon has a flavor that if you ask me, you oughtn’t to dilute it. That is, if you happen to like the taste of bourbon in the first place. Personally, I don’t. I’ll take a drink of bourbon, like if I’m at a football game to see the New York Giants. Or you take if I’m out in the woods, looking for deer, I usely take a pint of rye with me, or sometimes bourbon. It’ll ward off the cold and the taste lasts longer. But for all-day drinking, I stick to scatch. You don’t get tired of the taste of scatch. Your rye and your bourbon, they’re too sweet if you’re gonna drink all day. You know a funny thing about scatch, it’s getting to be the most popular drink in France and Japan. That was in an article I read, this magazine I get. You know, in this business we get these magazines. I guess you have them in the car business. Trade publications, they’re known as.”
“Even the undertakers.”
“The undertakers have trade publications.”
“They do, ah? Well, wuddia know. I guess every business has them.”
“Every business is the same, when you come right down to it,” said Mark McGranville.
“Well that’s a new one on me. We’re all in it for the money, but what’s the same about selling cars and pushing Old Gutburner?”
“What you just said,” said Mark McGranville. “We’re all in it for the money. You. Me. Undertakers.”
“You’re talking like an I-don’t-know-what,” said Ernie.
“I know I am. What do I owe you?”
“Be—nothing,” said Ernie.
“On the house?”
“Come in again when you’ll get some enjoyment out of it. I don’t want to take your money under these conditions.”
“Yeah, me. You got sumpn eatin’ you, boy, whatever it is.”
“I know I have,” said Mark McGranville. “Maybe it’s the weather. I don’t know.”
“Well, my booze won’t do it any good, Mark. I get days like this myself, once in a great while. The women get them all the time, but that’s different. Take in a show tonight. You know this English fellow, with the big gap in his teeth. Terry?”
“He’s at the Carteret. He’s always good for a laugh. You’re not a booze man, Mark. Some are, but not you. You were taking it like medicine, for God’s sake. Castor oil or something.”
“Yeah. Well, thanks, Ernie. See you,” said Mark McGranville. He could not understand why he went through dinner and the entire evening without telling Jean about the T-Bird and the two Galaxies in one day. He knew that it was because he did not want to give her any good news; that much he understood. She would respond to the good news as she always did, enthusiastically and proudly, and he was in no mood to share her enthusiasm or accept the compliment of her pride in him. All that he understood, but he could not understand why he preferred to remain in this mood. She would cheer him up, and he did not want to be cheered up. He was perfunctory when the kids kissed him goodnight, and after the eleven o’clock news on the TV he rose, snapped the power dial, and went to the bedroom. He was in bed when Jean kissed him goodnight and turned out the light.
“Mark?” she said, from her bed.
“Is there something the matter?”
“Goodnight,” she said.
“Goodnight,” said Mark McGranville.
Five, ten dark minutes passed.
“If you don’t want to tell me,” she said.
“How the hell can I tell you when I don’t know myself?” he said.
“Oh,” she said. “Shall I come over?”
“I just as soon you wouldn’t,” he said. “I don’t know what it is.”
“If I come over, you’ll sleep better,” she said.
“Jean, please. It isn’t that. Christ, I sold two Galaxies and a T-Bird today–”
“That ought to make me feel good, but I don’t know what’s the matter with me. I had a couple drinks at Ernie’s, but nothing.”
“I knew you had something to drink. It didn’t show, but I could smell it.”
“Oh, I’m not hiding anything.”
“You hid it about the Galaxies and the T-Bird.”
“I know I did. I’d have told you in the morning.”
“All right. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight,” he said.
He thought his mind was busy, busy, busy, and that he had been unable to get to sleep, but at five minutes past two he looked at the radium hands of the alarm clock and realized that he must have slept for at least an hour, that some activity of his mind was actually dreams. They were not frightening dreams or lascivious ones; they were not much of anything but mental activity that had taken place while he thought he was awake but must have been asleep. Jean was asleep, breathing regularly. She made two musical notes in deep sleep, the first two notes of “Yes Sir That’s My Baby”; the yes note as she exhaled, sir as she drew breath. And yet he could tell, in spite of the dark, that she would be slightly frowning, dreaming or thinking, one or the other or both. He had so often watched her asleep, physically asleep, and making the musical notes of her regular breathing, but the slight frown revealing that her mind was at work, that her intelligence was functioning in ways that would always be kept secret from him, possibly even from herself. It was not that her sleeping was a mask; far from it. The mask was her wakeful face, telling only her responses to things that happened and were said, the obvious responses to pleasant and unpleasant things in life. But in the frowning placidity of sleep her mind was naked. It did not matter that he could not read her thoughts; they were there, far more so than when she was awake.
He got out of bed and went to the living room and turned on one bulb in a table lamp. He lit a cigarette and took the first drag, but he let it go out. He was thirty years old, a good father, a good husband, and so well thought of that Mrs. Preston would make sure that he got credit for a sale. His sister had a good job, and his mother was taken care of. On the sales blackboard at the garage his name was always first or second, in two years had not been down to third. Nevertheless he went to the hall closet and got out his 20-gauge and broke it and inserted a shell.
He returned to his chair and re-lit the cigarette that had gone out, and this time he smoked rapidly. The shotgun rested with the butt on the floor, the barrel lying against his thigh, and he held the barrel loosely with the fingers of his left hand as he smoked. The cigarette was now down to an inch in length, and he crushed it carefully.
Her voice came softly. “Mark,” she said.
He looked at the carpet. “What?” he said.
“I won’t,” he said.