Pepper Street is a really nice, safe California neighborhood. The houses are tidy and the lawns are neatly mowed. Of course, the country club is close by, and lots of pleasant folks live there. The only problem is they knocked down the wall at the end of the street to make way for a road to a new housing development. Now, that’s not good—it’s just not good at all. Satirically exploring what happens when a smug suburban neighborhood is breached by awful, unavoidable truths, The Road Through the Wall is the tale that launched Shirley Jackson’s heralded career.
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Mrs. Merriam came to her back window, which saw Miss Fielding’s house and Pepper Street beyond, and looked anxiously down Pepper Street. Mrs. Merriam’s clock had stopped; it was easier to look out the back window than go upstairs to the bedroom clock. Mrs. Merriam’s kitchen had a built-in electric clock (and a built-in dishwasher and a built-in refrigerator) but the electric clock had broken long ago, and when the refrigerator broke and the electrician came to fix it Mrs. Merriam could have him fix the clock. So that when the living-room clock stopped Mrs. Merriam was without the time downstairs.
At quarter-past three Mrs. Merriam had gone back to her sewing, but she heard the children coming up Pepper Street. They came from Winslow Road, from the school, and they came past the vacant lots first and then down past the Ransom-Joneses on one side and the Perlmans on the other (Marilyn Perlman, however, was always home last, because she left the school a few minutes after everyone else, and walked home alone), and then they passed the Robertses and the Byrnes on one side and the Donalds on the other, and the Roberts boys dropped off, and Pat Byrne, and Tod Donald went home while Virginia Donald and Mary Byrne came along the street slowly with the girls, Harriet Merriam and Helen Williams, and the girls stood on the corner of Pepper and Cortez and talked while the boys went home to leave their jackets and receive from their mothers an apple or a piece of cake, or, in the case of Pat Byrne, a glass of milk and two graham crackers. Miss Fielding heard the children coming when they reached the Donalds’ house; she went inside with the cat, and lay down on the living-room couch. Mrs. Merriam, who was anxious, heard the children when they passed the house-for-rent, and from her back window saw Harriet coming down the street, carrying her books, along with the other girls, while the two Martin children, always the least enthusiastic and with the farthest to go, hesitated constantly—George outside the Desmond house till Johnny Desmond put his head out of the kitchen window and said, “Go on home, Martin,” and Hallie, who was only nine, around the group of girls on the corner, trying artfully to get a word into the conversation, until the group broke up and Hallie came tagging up Cortez Road with Harriet.
Mrs. Merriam prevented herself from going to the door to meet Harriet; she sat in the long light living-room with the basket of sewing on the floor beside her, unaware that with her tall thin body silhouetted against the big window, and her narrow severe head bent slightly to the sewing, she looked bleak and menacing after the cheerful sunlight outside. She heard Harriet say, “’Bye, Hallie,” and come noisily up the front steps and open the door with a crash. Mrs. Merriam kept her eyes down on her sewing; Harriet would know she was offended. She heard Harriet’s steps in the hall, and then the hesitation that would be Harriet in the living-room doorway, recognizing that her mother was offended.
“I’m home, Mother,” Harriet said. “No more school till September.” It was her nervous voice, trailing off at the end of the sentence with a little giggle. Harriet was a big girl, large-boned and stout, and Mrs. Merriam braided Harriet’s hair every morning and dressed her in bright colors. For the last year or so, from twelve to almost fourteen, Harriet had begun to speak awkwardly when she was uneasy, missing her words sometimes, and stammering. Mrs. Merriam thought of it as Harriet’s nervous voice, and it made her own voice even more precise.
“I see you’re home,” Mrs. Merriam said. “That is, I heard you.”
Harriet looked down at her large feet, in heavy-soled oxfords. “I’m sorry I slammed the door,” she said.
“Of course you are,” Mrs. Merriam said. She leaned over and selected a spool of thread from the sewing-box beside her on the floor. “You always are, afterward.”
Harriet waited for a minute, politely, and then said, “Can I go on down to Helen’s? They’re waiting for me. I just wanted to tell you I was home.”
“You can go to Helen’s,” Mrs. Merriam said. She heard Harriet’s gusty sigh of relief, and added daintily, “but you may not.”
Mrs. Merriam tightened her mouth over her sewing. “I think you know what you’ve done, Harriet.”
“Mother,” Harriet began, only what she finally said was, “M-m-m-mother,” and she stopped helplessly.
“Please, Harriet,” Mrs. Merriam said. “There’s nothing to talk about. Go to your room.”
“But—” Harriet began. Then she said, “Oh, Lord,” and started heavily up the stairs.
“You might spend the time writing letters,” her mother said, raising her voice slightly.
The word “letters” carried Harriet hastily up the stairs and into her room; if there had been a lock on the door she might have been able to lock herself in, but she slammed the door violently, and then walked miserably over to her desk, although she knew, had seen from the doorway, that it was open. The slant-top, which should have been securely locked, was dropped down to make the table surface, and Harriet’s small papers and notebooks lay as she kept them, mercilessly neat, put back in the pigeonholes, perhaps even put back more carefully than Harriet, who loved them, ever did. Harriet went to the bed and looked under the pillow; the key was there, where it belonged. Harriet sat down heavily on the bed and said aloud, “What shall I do?” not because it was meaningful to her, or because she was concerned about what to do—she knew now, without question, the eventual series of acts to be forced from her—but because “What-shall-I-do?” seemed the formation of sounds most likely to apply to a situation like this.
From where she sat on the bed she could see out of the window which looked down on the corner of Pepper and Cortez; Hallie Martin, eating what seemed to be a doughnut, was rounding the corner, apparently bound for Helen’s. For a minute Harriet thought of calling to Hallie (“All is discovered”? “Burn the evidence”?), and then she said, “What shall I do?” again and got up and went over to the desk.
She put her hand lovingly on top of it; it had been a present from her father, who probably supposed that her mother had a key to it, from long knowledge of her mother. Harriet sat down in the desk chair and picked up the letter she had begun last night; her mother had set it open in the center of the desk, the only thing left out of place. It was a letter to George Martin, and it was written on shiny pink paper, and it began, “Dearest George.” Helen set the style; it was the way love letters were written, she said, and sometimes Helen’s letters to Johnny Desmond began, “Dearest dearest Johnny.” Harriet had chosen George to write to because he was dull and unpopular and she felt vaguely that she had no right to aim any higher than the one boy no one else would have; if she understood this feeling at all, she thought of it as “George always liked me best.”
Virginia Donald was writing to Art Roberts, and Mary Byrne was, cautiously, writing to her own brother. Hallie Martin carried the letters around, and Helen had written one for her to James Donald, who was seventeen and in third year high and the neighborhood hero. Hallie gave her letter to James Donald one evening when he came home at dinner time from football practice at the high school, and he read it while Hallie lurked excitedly on Helen’s front porch; and when James tore the letter up and dropped it in the gutter Hallie sneaked down and got the pieces and took them home. “They always do that,” Helen said wisely. “Men who don’t care, they’re callous.”
Harriet looked down at the “Dearest George” on the pink paper, and read on, in her own writing, “Let’s run away and get married. I love you and I want to—” The letter ended there, because Harriet had not been able to think of what she wanted to do with George; Helen’s letters ended, “kiss you a thousand times,” but Harriet could not bring herself to write such a thing, at least partly because the thought of kissing George Martin’s dull face horrified her. She felt, although she had not confessed it to Helen, that she could possibly bear to kiss James Donald’s face, but then Hallie had already written to him. Harriet tore the letter up slowly and threw it into the wastebasket. It was written, it had been read, she had no doubt that her mother would remember the words, and it was unpleasant to look at.
It was when she reached out for the other papers in the desk that she began to cry. She took down a notebook with “Poems” written on the front of it in pink and blue letters, and turned the pages slowly, reading and trying to pretend that she was her mother reading. The notebook labeled “Moods” she put aside unopened; it was dedicated “To my unknown hero,” and perhaps if she did not read it now, her mother would not have read it earlier. There were more notebooks, one called “Me,” which was the start of an autobiography; one named “Daydreams.”
• • •
“Pat,” Mrs. Byrne said softly, “you’re not drinking your milk.”
“I’ve got to hurry, Mother,” Pat said. He put the books down on the table and picked up the milk to drink it standing.
Mrs. Byrne reached out one of her hands, chapped and red from much housework, and took the glass away from him. “That’s not the way my boy does,” she said. “Sit down, son.”
Mary Byrne looked up from her crackers and milk. “For heaven’s sake sit down or get out,” she said. She was small and anemic and she had sinus trouble and she sniffled when she talked. Mr. and Mrs. Byrne both loved her dearly, but Pat was tall for his age and dark and almost handsome; both Pat and Mary were top of their classes in school, but Mary wore glasses and her hair straggled on her neck. “Golly,” Mary said, “other people are in as much of a hurry as you are.”
“I’m going to the library,” Pat said. “Artie and me.”
“You can drink your milk first,” Mrs. Byrne said. “Mary, finish before you go out.”
“What’s for dinner?” Mary asked. She moved her chair to see what Mrs. Byrne was doing at the sink. Her brother poked her arm, and she turned.
Pat gestured with his head at his mother, her back toward them, and took the folded papers out of one of his books. “Yours,” he mouthed at her.
Mary’s letters were written on blue paper; she recognized them and picked them up, thinking from her brother’s clandestine attitude that she might risk a knowing grin, but his eyes were looking away and his mouth was turned in disgust. Mary Byrne added another brick to her hatred for her brother and said, “Thanks.” She put the letters in to the pocket of her dress and said, “’Bye, Mom,” as she left the kitchen. Pat watched her go out the door into the front hall and then he said quietly, “Mother?”
“Pat darling,” said his mother without turning around.
“Listen,” Pat said quickly, “I don’t want to be a tattletale, but you better stop Mary from writing letters to boys.”
His mother turned, paring knife in her hand, and regarded him. “And what kind of letters is Mary writing to boys?”
Pat looked down at the table, at his hands moving nervously. “Letters,” he said, and wriggled. “You know.”
“And how do you know?” his mother said.
Pat’s face was red, and his voice went more and more quickly. “All the girls are doing it. It’s that Helen Williams. I just happened to see the letters.”
“And what boys?”
Pat stood up and picked up his books, but he said, “That’s the trouble. I don’t know what other boys.”
“I’ll speak to Mary,” his mother said. “But you mind your own business after this.”
“But it’s dirty,” Pat said.
“I’m not worried,” his mother said. “I want you to be a gentleman. A real gentleman. Don’t go out without your jacket.”
Pat hesitated and then said, “I didn’t mean to tell on her.”
“That’s my fine fellow.” His mother put down the knife and came over to kiss him. “Now don’t get all interested in the library and forget to come home for dinner.”
Mrs. Byrne had her potatoes pared and set on top of the stove, and the string beans cut and ready to start, when the phone rang. Drying her hands on her apron, Mrs. Byrne went into the hall and picked up the phone.
“Hello?” she said, and the telephone said steadily, “Hello, this is Josephine Merriam. Harriet’s mother.”
“Of course, Mrs. Merriam.” Mrs. Byrne bowed politely to Mrs. Merriam at least once a day. “How are you?”
“I am very much disturbed, Mrs. Byrne, and I think you ought to know the facts immediately, which is why I called. Our daughters have been doing some rather indiscreet things.”
“Yes?” said Mrs. Byrne.
“This morning,” Mrs. Merriam went on, “I happened to discover a letter my daughter had written to one of the neighborhood boys. It was a childish,” and Mrs. Merriam laughed shortly, “but improper letter. She tells me that the other girls in the neighborhood have been writing the same kind of letters.”
“Mary?” Mrs. Byrne said.
“Mary indeed,” said Mrs. Merriam. “And Virginia Donald, and of course, the source of it all, Helen Williams. I don’t know, naturally, whose fault it is,” she said lingeringly, “but of course I think the girls should be spoken to.”
“Of course,” Mrs. Byrne said. “I’ll speak to Mary, of course.”
“Harriet also tells me,” Mrs. Merriam said, “that your son has been getting letters.”
“Who from?” Mrs. Byrne’s voice was suddenly flat.
“I think he’s the person to tell you that,” Mrs. Merriam said. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Byrne, to be the one to tell you.”
“You couldn’t do anything else,” Mrs. Byrne said.
“After all, my own daughter is in it too,” Mrs. Merriam said.
“I’ll speak to Mary,” Mrs. Byrne said.
• • •
Marilyn Perlman came into the house quickly, opening the front door with her key. She put her books down on the hall table and read the note sitting there: “Dear, have gone to Mrs. White’s, back about five. If anyone calls take message. Love, Mother.” Marilyn wondered vaguely why her mother always ended even the slightest notes formally; her father had once told her solemnly that the notes left for the milkman always ended, “Yrs. sincerely, R. Perlman.”
The Perlmans’ home was probably the wealthiest-looking on the block, although presumably the Desmonds had more money than the Perlmans, and Mrs. Merriam was vaguely noted for her “taste.” The Perlmans’ living-room was pale green and beige, and Mr. Perlman liked to see a wood fire in the fireplace, although the Donalds had theirs stacked with imitation logs, and the Byrnes had a grate with a red light behind it. When Marilyn came into her living-room she was able to take a book from a bookcase; it was a limp-leather bound volume of Thackeray, but Harriet Merriam, after all, spent Saturday morning dusting the photograph album which lay on a side table in the Merriams’ living-room, and the first secular book in the Byrne house was Pat’s copy of Robinson Crusoe.
Marilyn was reading through Thackeray for words; from Vanity Fair she had gleaned “adorable” and “fearsome” and “horrid”; from The Virginian she already had half a dozen. Her word for today was “storied”; it had turned up in English class in school, and Marilyn had written it on the margin of her English book, for copying later.