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THE PERFECTIONIST. Margaret St. Clair.


I had nightmares about it for several years afterward – the kind where something is on your heels, and you make desperate efforts, each more futile than the last, to escape it – and always felt bad about them when I woke up. I never could decide whether I was justified in having bad dreams at all.

It began when I went to live with Aunt Muriel in 1933. I hadn’t had a job for six months when I got the letter of invitation from her, and I hadn’t eaten much at all for two weeks.

Aunt Muriel wasn’t exactly my aunt, to begin with. She was a sort of great-aunt, once removed, on my mother’s side, and I hadn’t seen her since I was a beady-eyed kid in knee breeches.

The invitation might have surprised me – though she explained in the letter that she was an old woman, getting lonely, and felt the need of some kindred face near her – only I was too hungry to wonder.

There was a money order in the letter, and a ticket to Downie, where she lived. After I paid the back room rent with the money order and got myself a meal with double portions of everything, I had two dollars and thirteen cents left. I caught the afternoon train to Downie, and a little before noon the next day I was walking up the steps to Aunt Muriel’s house.

Aunt Muriel herself met me at the door. She seemed glad to see me. She wrinkled up her mouth in a smile of welcome.

«So good of you to come, Charles!», she said. «I really can’t thank you enough! So very good of you!». She ran to italics (1).

I was beginning to warm up to the old girl (2). She didn’t look any older to me than she had fifteen years before. She’d been held together by whalebone (3) and net collars then, and she still was. I put the more flattering portion of this idea into words.

«Oh, Charles», she chirped, «you flatterer!». She gave me another smile and then led me into the hall.

I followed her up the stairs to my room on the second floor front. It had a high ceiling and a tall fourposter bed which should have had curtains around it to cut off the draft. After she left, I put my imitation leather suitcase in the big closet and went into the bath next door to clean up.

Lunch was laid on the dining-room table when I came down, and a maid, who looked a good deal older than Aunt Muriel, was fluttering in and out with more dishes. With my aunt’s encouragement, I ate enough to keep me comatose all afternoon, and then sat back with a cigarette and listened to her talk.

She began by doing a good deal of commiserating with herself on the subject of her age and loneliness, and a good deal of self-congratulation because she was going to have a young kinsman around from now on.

It developed that I was expected to make myself useful in small ways like walking the dog – an unpleasant Pomeranian (4) named Teddy – and taking letters to the mailbox. This was perfectly all right with me, and I told her so.

There was a short hiatus (5) in the conversation. Then, picking Teddy up off the floor where he’d been during the meal, she installed him in her lap and launched out on an account of what she called her hobby. In the last year or so she’d taken up drawing and it had become, from what she said, almost an obsession.

Holding Teddy under one arm, she rose and went to the walnut sideboard and returned with a portfolio of drawings for me to look at.

«I do almost all my drawing here in the dining-room», she said, «because the light is so good. Tell me, what do you think of these?». She handed me fifty or sixty small sheets of drawing paper.

I spread the drawings out on the dining-room table, among the litter of dishes, and examined them carefully. They were all in pencil, though one or two had been touched up with blotches of water color, and they were all of the same subject, four apples in a low china bowl.

They had been labored over; Aunt Muriel had erased and re-erased until the surface of the paper was gritty and miserable. I racked my brains for something nice to say about them.

«You – unh – you’ve really caught something of the essence of those apples», I forced out after a moment. «Very creditable».

My aunt smiled. «I’m so glad you like them», she replied. «Amy said – the maid, you know – that I was silly to work at them so much, but I couldn’t stop, I couldn’t bear to stop, until they were perfect». She paused, then added, «Do you know, Charles, I had the biggest difficulty!».


«The apples kept withering! It was dreadful. I put them in the icebox just as soon as I got through for the day, but still they went bad after two or three weeks. It wasn’t until Amy thought of dipping them in melted wax that they lasted long enough».

«Good idea».

«Yes, wasn’t it? But you know, Charles, I’ve gotten rather tired of apples lately. I’d like to try something else ... I’ve been thinking, that little tree out on the lawn would make a good subject».

She went over to the window to show me the tree she meant. I followed her. It was a young sapling, just coming into leaf. My aunt said it was a flowering peach.

«Don’t you think that would be a good subject, Charles? I believe I’ll try it this afternoon while you take Teddy for a little walk».

Amy helped bundle my aunt up in several layers of coats and mufflers, and I carried the stool, the easel, the box of pencils and the paper out into the garden for her.

She was rather fussy about the location of the various items, but I finally got them fixed to her satisfaction. Then, though I’d much rather have had an afterluncheon nap upstairs, I snapped the lead on Teddy’s objectionable little collar and started out for a survey of the town of Downie.

I soon realized that Downie was the sort of town whose social life centers around the drugstore, but I managed to kill the next two hours by letting Teddy investigate the lamp posts which caught his fancy.

I expected to find Aunt Muriel on the lawn when I got back, hard at work on her drawing, but she had gone in and the easel and stool were gone, too. I looked around for her, but she wasn’t in sight, so I let Teddy climb into his box in the dining-room and went upstairs for that belated nap.

After all, I couldn’t get to sleep. For some irrelevant reason I kept thinking of all those painstaking drawings of the bowl of apples, and I lay on the bed and counted the spots on the wall until dinner time.

The dinner was good, and plentiful. My aunt, however, was definitely snappish. After Amy had cleared away the dishes and my aunt had restored Teddy to his accustomed place on her lap, I found out what the reason was.

«My drawing went badly», she complained. «The wind kept whipping those leaves around until I couldn’t get a thing done».

«I didn’t notice much wind, Aunt Muriel», I said rather stupidly.

«You just don’t notice things!», she flared. «Why, the leaves weren’t still a single minute».

I hastened to make amends (6).

«I can see that a careful craftsman like yourself might be distracted», I placated her. «I’m sorry. I haven’t been with artists much».

The reference to herself as an artist pleased my aunt.

«Oh, I’m sure you didn’t mean to give offense», she said. «It’s just that I can’t work with anything unless it’s absolutely still. That’s why I stayed with the apples so long. But I would like to draw that tree. I wonder ...». She went into a brown study (7) which lasted until she had emptied two cups of coffee.

«Charles», she said finally, «I’ve been thinking. I want you to chop that tree down for me tomorrow and bring it into the house. I’ll put it in one of those two-quart milk bottles. That way I can draw without the wind bothering me».

«But it’s such a nice little tree», I protested. «Besides, it won’t last long after it’s been cut down».

«Oh, it’s only a tree», she replied. «I’ll get another from the nursery (8). And about the withering, Amy is wonderful with flowers. She puts aspirin and sugar in the water, and they last forever. Of course, I’ll have to work fast. But if I put in two or three hours in the morning and four or five after lunch, I ought to get something done».

As far as she was concerned, the matter was settled.

Immediately after breakfast next morning, Aunt Muriel led me to the tool shed in the rear of the house and gave me a rusty hatchet. She watched with ghoulish interest while I put an edge on the hatchet and then escorted me to the scene of the execution. Feeling like a murderer, I severed the little sapling from its trunk with a couple of chops and then carried it into the house.

I spent the rest of that day, and the next three or four days, working in the garden. I’ve always liked gardening, and there were some nice things in the place, though they’d been badly neglected. I divided some perennials and fertilized the earth around them with bone meal. Somebody had stocked up the shed with Red Arrow and nicotine sulphate, and I had a good time spraying for aphids and beetles.

Friday morning at breakfast I found a five-dollar bill folded up in my napkin. I raised my eyebrows toward Aunt Muriel. She nodded, yes, it was for me, while a faint flush washed up in her flabby cheeks.

I folded it neatly and put it in my pocket, feeling a warm glow of gratitude for the old girl. It really was extraordinarily decent of her to provide me with cigarette money. I resolved to go shopping for a little present for her that afternoon.

I found that the resources of Downie were limited. After hesitating between a China fawn and a bowl of fan-tailed goldfish, I decided that the goldfish had more verve. I went in after them, and discovered that Drake, the clerk who sold them to me, had been to California, too, and was practically a friend. I made a date with him for a gabfest (9) the following night.

Aunt Muriel seemed genuinely delighted with the fish. She oohed and ahhed over the sinuosity and filminess of their tails and ended by installing the bowl on the little stand beside her easel.

We began to settle into a routine. In the mornings and early afternoons Aunt Muriel drew in the dining-room while I worked in the garden. Later in the day I ran errands, walked Teddy, and undertook a bunch of small repairs around the house.

About the middle of my second week with Aunt Muriel, the peach tree withered beyond any hope. She told me at dinner time, with a tone of one announcing a major disaster, that she had had to throw it out. We held a post mortem (10) on the batch of thirty-two drawings she had been able to complete before the catastrophe.

I picked out one of them as having more plastic value than the rest. She admitted it was her favorite, too, and everything was fine. I could see, though, that she was wondering what she could draw next.

The next day she flitted restlessly through the house looking for something to draw. She kept popping out into the yard where I was transplanting antirrhinum seedlings, to ask my opinion of this or that as a subject for her pencil. I noticed, when I went in to lunch, that she kept watching the goldfish bowl speculatively, but I didn’t make anything of it at the time.

That night when I returned from Drake’s house she met me at the door and led me to the kitchen with an air of mysterious triumph.

«I was a little nervous about it», she said, with her hand on the handle of the refrigerator door. «But really, it came out ever so well!». She opened the refrigerator, fumbled in its depths a moment, and pulled out the goldfish bowl. Moisture began to condense on its surface. I stared at it stupidly.

«I knew the fish would never hold still, and yet I was just aching to draw them», she went on. «So I thought and I thought – and really, I do think it was a splendid idea, even if it was my own! I just turned the cold control way down, and put the bowl in, and came back in a couple of hours, and it was frozen solid!

«I was afraid the bowl would crack when it began to freeze, but it didn’t. See, the ice is perfectly clear». She picked up a dish towel and rubbed the moisture away until I could see the two goldfish neatly incased in transparent ice. «And now I’ll be able to draw them without any trouble. Isn’t it wonderful?».

I said yes, it was wonderful and went upstairs as soon as I decently could. The incident left an unpleasant taste in my mouth. Not that I held any especial brief for (11) the continued existence of the goldfish, but somehow ...

She’d seemed to enjoy watching them swimming about so much, and I’d given them to her, and – Oh, hell!

I woke up the next morning feeling faintly unhappy before I could remember what was disturbing me. When I remembered, I decided that I was acting like a champion chump (12). To let the demise of two goggle-eyed fish upset me was tops (13) in imbecility. Whistling, I went down to breakfast.

After the meal was over, Aunt Muriel got the bowl out of the refrigerator and set to work. I went out in the shed and messed around with the spray gun for a while.

Looking up at the scaling side of the house, I had an idea. Why not repaint it? I asked my aunt and she approved. Accordingly, after some calculation, I brought home a bucket of paint from the store and started sloshing it on.

The work proceeded slowly. Days went by and I got to be a familiar customer at the paint store. Aunt Muriel had finished her eighty-first study of the frozen goldfish before I’d given the big house its first coat, and the surface was so bad it was going to require at least two.

Spring drifted imperceptibly into early summer, and I was still painting the house and Aunt Muriel was still drawing the goldfish, both of us increasingly absorbed in our tasks.

I was having a pretty good time. Drake had introduced me to his sister, a vivid brunette with just the combination of honey and claws (14) which attracts me most in a woman, and he’d got another girl for himself. We went out together several nights each week. My room in the city with the unpaid rent, the hopeless hunt for a job, and the hunger, seemed a long way off.

I got the painting on the house done the day before Aunt Muriel decided she had exhausted the goldfish. I felt like celebrating. So I mixed soapsuds and nicotine sulphate, stirred up a mess of Red Arrow, and puttered among the neglected plants to my heart’s content.

Aunt Muriel handed me the last of the goldfish studies at dinner the next day and I went over the entire group with her. I was beginning to hate these inquests over the anatomy of whatever she’d been drawing, but I bore up (15) under it as well as I could.

When we’d finished, she said, «Charles, I’ve been wondering. Do you suppose Teddy would be a good subject for me next?».

I looked down at the little animal where he was lying in her lap and said yes, I thought he would, but would he hold still enough?

My aunt looked thoughtful.

«I don’t know», she said. «I’ll have to try to think of something. Perhaps I could give him his dinner right after breakfast. Or ...». She went off into one of those periods of meditation of hers and, after a while, I left unobtrusively for my date with Virginia, Drake’s sister.

We sat in the porch swing in the dark and held hands while the breeze blew the smell of purple lilacs toward us. It was a sweet, sad, sentimental sort of date.

The next day was Saturday. After breakfast my aunt told me to take Teddy for a walk, and to get him thoroughly tired out. She was going to feed him when I got back and she hoped that the exercise, plus the food, might make him comatose enough to serve as a model.

Obediently, we started out. Teddy and I assessed every lamp post in Downie at least twice, and if he wasn’t tired out when I brought him back, he should have been. My aunt took the lead from his collar and led him to the pantry where his food dish was waiting, piled high with hamburger (16).

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