The Background


The Background was written in 1978.  

He was standing at the window staring out at the sky. It was gray, from horizon to horizon, a uniform dull gray—not a hint of texture, not the slightest variation in color. It had been that way for days, lying over the withered fields, standing behind the leafless trees. It was boring. He turned away from it, touching the reflection of himself in the dusty window, putting his finger on its nose, laughing a little before going to his desk.

When he heard her on the stairs he pushed back from his typewriter and held out his arms. She came quickly and sat in his lap, straddling him, putting her arms around his neck.

"If you had a comfortable chair up here, I'd come more often," she
said. She looked over his shoulder, selecting her spot. "If you had a
rocking chair I'd sit over there in the corner with a light and read

"You know I don't entertain while I work," he said.

"Oh you wouldn't have to entertain, I'd just be with you."

He laughed. "You'd read aloud."

She traced a line in his cheek. "It's true," she said softly. "I can't
help myself, I share everything."

He laughed and kissed her. Then, very slowly, he dumped her backwards off his lap and onto the floor. "Let me work now," he said. "I don't get much time."

"But I haven't seen you all day."

"I was only away for three hours," he said, "please..."

She stretched out, backwards on the floor. Supporting herself on the palms of her hands she lifted and lowered her thighs suggestively. He watched. Then she got up. At the door she turned to him. "You should keep your door closed," she said, "for all you care about anyone being here."

She slammed the door as she left.

II Still there was no change. Wherever he looked it was the same dull gray sky—expressionless, boring, ultimately oppressive. He turned away from it; he didn't want to look. He wanted to work; he wanted to work harder than he had ever worked before.

Her entrance was deliberately casual. She avoided his eyes and with a little more than necessary display of interest examined the things on his table, picking up a book, flipping noisily through its pages, pushing a file box to one side, pushing it back again. He went on working.

Do you like this sketch?" she asked abruptly, holding out a sketch he had done years before. "I don't."

"I don't know," he replied. He wanted to go on working.

"Don't you want to know why I don't like it?"

"No," he said slowly. "No, I don't."

"Well I don't like it, it's weak."

"I didn't ask," he said.

She waved the sketch in his face. "It's weak," she repeated. "I don't like it at all."

He tightened his grip on the typewriter table. "I didn't ask," he said, unable to mask his irritation.

She smiled. "You never could accept criticism, could you?" She threw the sketch down on the table. "Well don't start a fight..."

"Start a fight!" He pushed back from the table. "Who the hell's starting fight? All I want to do..."

"I knew it," she said. "I knew it."

She kicked the door as she left.

He stared at the dent for a long, long time.

III And still there was no change. He hardly looked any more he knew it so well. He stood at the window out of habit, for no other reason, and sometimes he traced a face, his own face, in the steam. More often he just went to his desk.

"What are you doing?" She was standing in the doorway, her eyes lowered, her voice sad.

"Oh, fooling around with some things," he said, "typing..."

"No kidding:" The change was sudden. "You think I can't see you're typing? You think I can't hear that damn machine?"

He flinched. She had wanted another kind of answer from him, something that would tell her the way he was thinking. And he'd known it, yes, he'd known it. He looked at her for a long time, searching carefully for the right words.

'Look," he said finally. "David's doing what he wants, he's visiting next door. I'm doing what I want, I'm typing. I don't ever want to feel that I have to stay downstairs, that I can't come up here just because we have guests. I don't ever want to feel like a prisoner..."

"You wouldn't be so bored with us," she interrupted, "if you didn't
hold yourself so aloof."

"I'm doing what I want," he repeated. "David's doing what he wants. If you don't like what you're doing, complain to David."

"David's doing what he wants," she said sullenly.

"Yea, and he's leaving you to entertain a not very interesting girlfriend.”

She shrugged. "If you didn't hold yourself so aloof, you could talk to me.”

"Look," he said, "If you and I had been alone this morning, I would still be doing what I'm doing now. The only difference is that you and I would have talked to each other over breakfast."

"We could talk now," she said.

He sighed and for a seconds rested his forehead in his hands and closed his eyes. Then he pushed away from his typewriter. "What do you want to talk about?" he asked.

She thought for a minute. "What I'm going to do for the party tonight."

He was silent. They were both silent. In a minute she turned and walked away.

When she returned she went right up to him and slapped him hard across the face. "You don't talk," she hissed. "You don't ever do anything. You're a bore..."

He grabbed at her as she raised her arm a second time, then stood and pulled her close to him. "Don't," he said softly, "don't..."

She wrenched free. "You're dull, boring," she cried. "I hate you!”

The cold air helped, but there wasn't any place he wanted to go. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and started down the hill. In the large, nearly empty barn he stood staring up through the siding at the sky—the monstrous gray sky. He hated it. Suddenly he screamed, as loud as he could, forcing the sound up through his throat until his temples throbbed. Just as suddenly he stopped. The silence was extraordinary. He was amazed. The scream had departed so quickly, but it had left all this resonance in the silence around him— something so rich that he stood listening in total astonishment. Then he laughed and with the smile still on his face turned back, to the house, to her, the guests, and eventually, his work.


© Helen Thorington, 2004