Grade 10 Short Story
“The Possibility of Evil”
by Shirley Jackson
Miss Adela Strangeworth stepped daintily along Main Street on her way to the grocery. The sun was shining, the air was fresh and clear after the night’s heavy rain, and everything in Miss Strangeworth’s little town looked washed and bright. Miss Strangeworth took deep breaths, and thought that there was nothing in the world like a fragrant summer day.
She knew everyone in town, of course; she was fond of telling strangers – tourists who sometimes passed through the town and stopped to admire Miss Strangeworth’s roses – that she had never spent more than a day outside this town in all her long life. She was seventy-one, Miss Strangeworth told the tourists, with a pretty little dimple showing by her lip, and she sometimes found herself thinking that the town belonged to her. “My grandfather built the first house on Pleasant Street,” she would say, opening her blue eyes with the wonder of it. This house, right here. My family has lived here for better than a hundred years. My grandmother planted these roses, and my mother tended them, just as I do.”…
Miss Strangeworth never gave away any of her roses, although the tourists often asked her. The roses belonged on Pleasant Street, and it bothered Miss Strangeworth to think of people wanting to carry them away, to take them into strange towns and down strange streets….
Walking down Main Street on a summer morning, Miss Strangeworth had to stop every minute or so to say good morning to someone or to ask after someone’s health. When she came into the grocery, half a dozen people turned away from the shelves and counters to wave at her or call out good morning.
“And good morning to you, Mr. Lewis,” Miss Strangeworth said at last…
“Good morning,” Mr. Lewis said, and added politely, “lovely day.”
“It is a very nice day,” Miss Strangeworth said as though she had only just decided that it would do after all. “I would like a chop, please, Mr. Lewis, a small, lean veal chop. Are those strawberries from Arthur Parker’s garden? They’re early this year.”
“He brought them in this morning,” Mr. Lewis said.
“I shall have a box,” Miss Strangeworth said. Mr. Lewis looked worried, she thought, and for a minute she hesitated, but then she decided that he surely could not be worried over the strawberries. He looked very tired indeed…. “And a can of cat food and, I think, a tomato.”
Silently, Mr. Lewis assembled her order on the counter and waited. Miss Strangeworth looked at him curiously and then said, “It’s Tuesday, Mr. Lewis. You forgot to remind me.”
“Did I? Sorry.”
“Imagine your forgetting that I always buy my tea on Tuesday,” Miss Strangeworth said gently. “A quarter pound of tea, please, Mr. Lewis.”
“Is that all, Miss Strangeworth?”
“Yes, thank you, Mr. Lewis. Such a lovely day, isn’t it?” “Lovely,” Mr. Lewis said.
Miss Strangeworth moved slightly to make room for Mrs. Harper at the counter. “Morning, Adela,” Mrs. Harper said, and Miss Strangeworth said, “Good morning, Martha.”…
“Ran out of sugar for my cake frosting,” Mrs. Harper explained. Her hand shook slightly as she opened her pocketbook. Miss Strangeworth wondered, glancing at her quickly, if she had been taking proper care of herself. Martha Harper was not as young as she used to be, Miss Strangeworth thought. She probably could use a good, strong tonic…
Carrying her little bag of groceries, Miss Strangeworth came out of the store into the bright sunlight and stopped to smile down on the Crane baby. Don and Helen Crane were really the two most infatuated young parents she had every known, she thought indulgently, looking at the delicately embroidered baby cap and the lace-edged carriage cover.
“That little girl is going to grow up expecting luxury all her life,” she said to Helen Crane.
Helen laughed. “That’s the way we want her to feel,” she said. “Like a princess.”
“A princess can be a lot of trouble sometimes,” Miss Strangeworth said dryly. “How old is her highness now?”
“Six months next Tuesday,” Helen Crane said, looking down with rapt wonder at her child. “I’ve been worrying, though, about her. Don’ you think she ought to move around more? Try to sit up, for instance?”
“For plain and fancy worrying,” Miss Strangeworth said, amused, “give me a new mother every time”
“She just seems – slow,” Helen Crane said.
“Nonsense. All babies are different. Some of them develop much more quickly than others.
“That’s what my mother says,” Helen Crane laughed, looking a little bit ashamed.
“I suppose you’ve got young Don all upset about the fact that his daughter is already six months old and hasn’t yet begun to learn to dance?”
“I haven’t mentioned it to him. I suppose she’s just so precious that I worry about her all the time.”
“Well, apologize to her right now,” Miss Strangeworth said. “She is probably worrying about why you keep jumping all the time.” Smiling to herself and shaking her old head, she went on down the sunny street, stopping once to ask little Billy Moore why he wasn’t out riding in his daddy’s shiny new car, and talking for a few minutes outside the library with Miss Chandler, the librarian, about the new novels to be ordered, and paid for by the annual library appropriation. Miss Chandler seemed absent-minded and very much as though she was thinking about something else. Miss Strangeworth noticed that Miss Chandler had not taken much trouble with her hair this morning, and sighed. Miss Strangeworth hated sloppiness.
Many people seemed disturbed recently, Miss Strangeworth thought. Only yesterday the Stewarts’ fifteen-year-old Linda had run crying down her own front walk and al the way to school, not caring who saw her. People around town thought she might have had a fight with the Harris boy, but they showed up together at the soda shop after school as usual, both of them looking grim and bleak….
From halfway down the block Miss Strangeworth could catch heavy accent of her roses, and she moved a little more quickly. The perfume of roses meant home, and home meant the Strangeworth House on Pleasant Street. Miss Strangeworth stopped at her own front gate, as she always did, and looked with deep pleasure at her house, with the red and pink and white roses massed along the narrow lawn, and the rambler going up along the porch; and the neat, unbelievably trim lines of the house itself, with its slimness and its washed white look…. Miss Strangeworth went up her front steps, unlocked her front door with her key, and went into the kitchen to put away her groceries. She debated having a cup of tea and then decided it was too close to midday dinnertime; she would have the appetite for her little chop if she had tea now. Instead, she went
Chunk break; stop & review what’s important & why into the light, lovely sitting room…. Miss Strangeworth had put a bowl of her red roses on the low table before the window, and the room was full of their scent.
Miss Strangeworth went to the narrow desk in the corner, and unlocked it with her key. She never knew when she might feel like writing letters, so she kept her notepaper inside, and the desk locked. Miss Strangeworth’s usual stationary was heavy and cream-coloured, with “Strangeworth House” engraved across the top, but, when she felt like writing her other letter, Miss Strangeworth used a pad of various-coloured paper, layered in pink and green and blue and yellow; everyone in town bought it and used it for odd, informal notes and shopping lists…. Everyone used the matching envelopes for tucking away recipes, or keeping odd little things in, or even to hold cookies in the school lunch boxes….
Although Miss Strangeworth’s desk held trimmed quill pen… and a gold-frosted fountain pen,... Miss Strangeworth always used a dull stub of pencil when she wrote her letters, and she printed them in a childish block print. After thinking for a minute, although she had been phrasing the letter in the back of her mind all the way home, she wrote on a pink sheet: Didn’t you every see an idiot child before? Some people just shouldn’t have children, should they?
She was pleased with the letter. She was fond of doing things exactly right…
After thinking for a minute, she decided that she would like to write another letter, perhaps to go to Mrs. Harper, to follow up the ones she had already mailed. She selected a green sheet this time and wrote quickly: Have you found out yet what they were all laughing about after you left the bridge club on Thursday? Or is the wife really the last one to know?
Miss Strangeworth never concerned herself with facts; her letters all dealt with the more negotiable stuff of suspicion. Mr. Lewis would never have imagined for a minute that his grandson might be lifting petty cash from the store register if he had not had one of Miss Strangeworth’s letters. Miss Chandler, the librarian, and Linda Stewart’s parents would have gone unsuspectingly ahead with their lives, never aware of the possible evil lurking nearby, if Miss Strangeworth had not sent letter to open their eyes. Miss Strangeworth would have been genuinely shocked if there had been anything between Linda Stewart and the Harris boy, but, as long as evil existed unchecked in the world, it was Miss Strangeworth’s duty to keep her town alert to it. It was far more sensible for Miss Chandler to wonder about what Mr. Shelley’s first wife had really died of than to take a chance on not knowing. There were so many wicked people in the world and only one Strangeworth left in town. Besides, Miss Strangeworth liked writing her letters.
She addressed an envelope to Don Crane after a moment’s thought,… using a pink envelope to match the pink paper. Then she addressed a second envelope, green, to Mrs. Harper. Then an idea came to her and she selected a blue sheet and wrote: You never know about doctors. Remember they’re only human and need money like the rest of us. Suppose the knife slipped accidentally. Would Doctor Burns get his fee and a little extra from that nephew of yours?
She addressed the blue envelope to old Mrs. Foster, who was having an operation next month. She had thought of writing one more letter, to the head of the school board, asking how a chemistry teacher like Billy Moore’s father could afford a new convertible, but all at once she was tired of writing letters. The three she had done would do for one day…
She had been writing her letters – sometimes two or three a day, sometimes no more than one in a month – for the past year. She never got any answers, of course, because she never signed her name…. The town where she lived had to be kept clean and sweet, but people everywhere were lustful and evil and degraded, and needed to be watched; the world was so large, and there was only one Strangeworth left in it. Miss Strangeworth sighed, locked her desk, and put the letters into her big, black leather pocketbook, to be mailed when she took her evening walk.
She broiled her little chop nicely, and had a sliced tomato and a good cup of tea ready when she sat down to her midday dinner…. Sitting in the warm sunlight that came through the tall windows of the dining room, seeing her roses massed outside, handling the heavy, old silverware and the fine, translucent china, Miss Strangeworth was pleased; she would not have cared to be doing anything else….
After a nap she worked in her garden for a little while, sparing herself because of the heat; then she went into her supper…. After her dishes were done and her kitchen set in order, she…set off on her evening walk, pocketbook under her arm….
There was only one place in town where she could mail her letters, and that was the new post office, shiny with red brick and silver letters. Although Miss Strangeworth had never given the matter any particular thought, she had always made a point of mailing her letters very secretly; it would, of course, not have been wise to let anyone see her mail them. Consequently, she timed her walk so she could reach the post office just as darkness was starting to dim the outlines of the trees and the shapes of peoples’ faces, although no one could ever mistake Miss Strangeworth, with her dainty walk and her rustling skirts.
There was always a group of young people around the post office…. Most of the children stood back respectfully as Miss Strangeworth passed, silenced briefly in her presence, and some of the older children greeted her, saying soberly, “Hello, Miss Strangeworth.”
Miss Strangeworth smiled at them and quickly went on…. The mail slot was in the door of the post office…. Miss Strangeworth stood by the door, opening her black pocketbook to take out the letters, and heard a voice which she knew at once to be Linda Stewart’s. Poor little Linda was crying again, and Miss Chunk break; stop & review what’s important & why Strangeworth listened carefully. This was, after all, her town, and these were her people; if one of them was in trouble, she ought to know it.
“I can’t tell you, Dave,” Linda was saying – so she was talking to the Harris boy, as Miss Strangeworth had supposed – “I just can’t. It’s just nasty.”
“But why won’t your father let me come around anymore? What on earth did I do?”
“I can’t tell you. I just wouldn’t tell you for anything. You’ve got to have a dirty, dirty mind for things like that.”….
Miss Strangeworth sighed and turned away. There was so much evil in people. Even in a charming little town like this one, there was still so much evil in people.
She slipped her letter into the slot, and two of them fell inside. The third caught on the edge and fell outside, onto the ground at Miss Strangeworth’s feet. She did not notice it…. Wearily Miss Strangeworth turned to go home to her quiet bed in her lovely house, and never heard the Harris boy calling to her to say that she had dropped something.
“Old lady Strangeworth’s getting deaf,” he said, looking after her and holding in his hand the letter he had picked up…. “It’s for Don Crane,… this letter…. Might as well take it on over.”… He laughed. “Maybe it’s got a cheque or something it and he’d be just as glad to have it tonight instead of tomorrow.”
“Catch old lady Strangeworth sending anybody a cheque,” Linda said. “Throw it in the post office. Why do anyone a favour?”…
“I’ll take it over, anyway,” the Harris boy said. “Maybe it’s good news for them. Maybe they need something happy tonight, too. Like us.”
Sadly, holding hands, they wandered off down the dark street, the Harris boy carrying Miss Strangeworth’s pink envelope in his hand.
Miss Strangeworth awakened the next morning with a feeling of intense happiness and, for a minute, wondered why, and then remembered that this morning three people would open her letters. Harsh, perhaps, at first, but wickedness was never easily banished, and a clean heart was a scoured heart…. Then, going downstairs, reflecting that perhaps a little waffle would be agreeable for breakfast in the sunny dining room, she found the mail on the hall floor, and bent to pick it up. A bill, the morning paper, a letter in a green envelope that looked oddly familiar. Miss Strangeworth stood perfectly still for a minute, looking down at the green envelope with the pencilled printing, and thought: It looks like one of my letters. Was one of my letters sent back? No, because no one would know where to send it. How did this get here?
Miss Strangeworth was a Strangeworth of Pleasant Street. Her hand did not shake as she opened the envelope and unfolded the sheet of green paper inside. She began to cry silently for the wickedness of the world when she read the words: Look out at what used to be your roses.