Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 945
Bruce Dudley’s name is really John Stockton. He grows tired of being John Stockton, reporter on a Chicago paper and married to Bernice. His wife, who works on the same paper and writes magazine stories on the side, thinks him flighty, and he admits it. He wants adventure, and he wants to go back to Old Harbor, the river town in Indiana where he spent his childhood. With less than three hundred dollars, he leaves Chicago, Bernice, and his job on the paper. He picks up the name Bruce Dudley from two store signs in an Illinois town. After a trip down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, he goes to Old Harbor and gets a job varnishing automobile wheels in the Grey Wheel Company, which is owned by Fred Grey.
Working in the same room with Bruce is Sponge Martin, a wiry old fellow with a black mustache who lives a simple, elemental life. That is the reason, perhaps, why Bruce likes him so much. Sometimes when the nights are fair and the fish are biting, Sponge and his wife pack up sandwiches and moonshine whiskey and go down to the river. They fish for a while and get drunk, and then Sponge’s wife makes him feel like a young man again. Bruce wishes he could be as happy and carefree as Sponge.
When Bruce was making his way down the Mississippi, he stayed for five months in an old house in New Orleans, where he watched African Americans and listened to their songs and laughter. It seemed to him, listening to their dark laughter, that they lived as simply as children and were happy.
Aline, the wife of Fred, sees Bruce walking out the factory door one evening as she sits in her car waiting for her husband. She does not know who he is, but she remembers another man to whom she felt attracted in the same way. In Paris, after the war, she saw a man at Rose Frank’s apartment whom she desired. Then she married Fred, who was recovering from the shock of the war, even though he was not the man for whom she wished.
One evening, Bruce passes by the Grey home as Aline stands in the yard. He stops and looks first at the house and then at Aline. Neither speaks, but something passes between them. They find each other.
Aline, who advertised for a gardener, hires Bruce after turning down several other applicants. Bruce quit his job at the factory shortly before seeing her advertisement. When he first begins to work for Aline, they both maintain some reserve, but each of them carries on many imaginary conversations with the other. Fred seems to resent Bruce’s presence on the grounds, but he says nothing to the man, and when he questions his wife, he learns that she knows nothing of Bruce except that he is a good worker.
Aline watches her husband leave for the factory each morning and wonders how much he knows or guesses. She thinks a great deal about her own life and about life in general. Her husband is no lover. Few women nowadays have true lovers. Modern civilization tells people what they cannot have, and people belittle what they cannot possess. Because people do not have love, they make fun of it, are skeptical of it, and besmirch it. The play between Aline and the two men continues silently. Two black women who work in Aline’s house watch the proceedings. From time to time, they are heard laughing, and their dark laughter sounds mocking. White folks are strange, making life so complicated, whereas black people take what they want simply, openly, happily.
One day in June, after Fred went to march in a veterans’ parade and the servants went to watch the parade, Aline and Bruce remain on the property alone. She sits and watches him work in the garden. Finally, when he looks at her, he follows her into the house through a door she purposely leaves open. Bruce leaves the house before Fred returns, and he disappears from Old Harbor. Two months later, Aline tells Fred she is expecting a child.
When Fred comes home one evening in the early fall, he sees his wife and Bruce together in the garden. Aline calmly calls to him and announces that the child she is expecting is not his. She and Bruce waited, she goes on, to let him know they are leaving. Fred pleads with her to stay, knowing she is hurting herself, but they walk away; Bruce carries her two heavy bags.
Fred stands with his revolver in his hand a few minutes later, telling himself that he cannot dispassionately let another man walk away with his wife. His mind is filled with confused anger, and for a moment he thinks of killing himself. Then he follows the pair along the river road. He is determined to kill Bruce, but he loses sight of the two in the darkness. In a blind fury, he shoots at the river. On the way back to his house, he stops to sit on a log. The revolver falls to the ground, and for a long time he sits crying like a child.
After Fred returns to his home and goes to bed, he tries to laugh at what has happened, but he cannot. Outside in the road, he hears a sudden burst of laughter. It is the younger of the two black servants who work in the Grey home. She cries out loudly that she knew all the time, and again there comes a burst of dark laughter.
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