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Excerpt from “The Family Nobody Liked”

Published in Post, January 24, 1959, Originally titled “The Porcelain Clock”

She stepped down from the bus into the hard brilliance of a late afternoon in autumn. With the uncertainty of the stranger, she looked around her, took a few steps, then hesitated beside one of the benches lining the sidewalk. Dropping the flimsy suitcase as if it were an intolerable burden, she rubbed her hand and wrist absently.

Behind her the bus choked noisily to life and moved away, and with its going she felt utterly alone and abandoned. Closer to tears than she had been since she left the hospital, she cradled her arm against her body and took a deep steadying breath.

The town looked alien and indifferent. The old courthouse sat in the middle of the square, drowsing under its crimson elms, and at the bottom of the street she caught a glimpse of the river, the far side glittering in the sun while the nearer bank darkened in the long shadows. Across the street were stores and a bright yellow gas station, but they seemed deserted; no one moved or spoke in all the length of the street. it was impossible to believe that such a person as Ben Fletcher existed, or that the cafe he had told her about was anything but a shadowy fantasy she had conjured up out of desperation.

Then a man came out of the courthouse and walked toward her. As if his appearance had been a signal, the town abruptly came to life: a car drove by, a dog barked somewhere, two small children ran down the street.

The man reached the bench where she stood and walked around her; he glanced at her as he passed, a swift incurious look, and went on to the corner.

He paused there. Then he turned and came back.

Feeling very conspicuous, she picked up the suitcase, trying to look like a person who knew where she was going, who had someone to care what happened to her, whose friends had not met the bus because of some foolish mistake.

He stopped before he. Then he said, “Can I help you?”

The knowledge that she could not even deceive a stranger was somehow worse than all the rest. She stopped, too weary to turn him away with a lie. “I’m looking for Ben Fletcher,” she said flatly.

Then you’re heading in the wrong direction.” With one movement he reached for the suitcase and took her arm to turn her. “I’ll show you.”

“Don’t bother,” she said quickly. “I’ll find him myself.”

“It’s no bother,” he said. Then he added, quietly, “Would you like to sit down first and rest for a few minutes?”

For a moment she thought she would cry. “No,” she said finally. “It’s jus that the trip was so long, and I–” She didn’t finish; once again it seemed too much of an effort to lie.

He said nothing else. Crossing the street, he led her past the gas station and a grocery; then he turned a corner and stopped under a striped awning. “This is it,” he said, and held the door open for her.

She looked at him directly for the first time. he was a tall, heavy-shouldered young man with a dark face and scowling black brows; everything about him, from the deep lines around his mouth to the big calloused hands, seemed grim and harsh, even forbidding. He did not, she thought warily, look like a man who was much inclined to kindness.

But his eyes, meeting hers, were a clear cool grey, and they neither judged nor questioned. “I expect you’ll find Ben in the back,” he said. “Ask one of the girls.” When she reached for the suitcase, he said, “I’ll take it in for you.”

His voice was too firm, and she was too tired to argue. Going inside, she watched as he put the suitcase down behind the door. Then he turned to her again and smiled. It was a brief smile, but she saw at once that the deep lines in his face had not, after all, been etched there by harshness.

“Good luck,” he said.

Startled, she wondered if he had only to look at her to know all about her, to know that she had been ill and needed a job desperately, that coming here was a last despairing hope. “Thank you,” she said.

He nodded briefly and sat down on a counter stool with his back to her, ordering a cup of coffee as impersonally as if he had never spoken to her. She was grateful for that; asking a favor of anyone, and particularly Ben Fletcher, was a humiliation she preferred to endure alone.

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