Miriam ~ A Classic American Short Story by Truman Capote
For several years, Mrs. H. T. Miller lived alone in a pleasant apartment (two rooms with kitchenette) in a remodeled brownstone near the East River. She was a widow: Mr. H. T. Miller had left a reasonable amount of insurance. Her interests were narrow, she had no friends to speak of, and she rarely journeyed farther than the corner grocery. The other people in the house never seemed to notice her: her clothes were matter-of-fact, her hair iron-gray, clipped and casually waved; she did not use cosmetics, her features were plain and inconspicuous, and on her last birthday she was sixty-one. Her activities were seldom spontaneous: she kept the two rooms immaculate, smoked an occasional cigarette, prepared her own meals and tended a canary.
Then she met Miriam. It was snowing that night. Mrs. Miller had finished drying the supper dishes and was thumbing through an afternoon paper when she saw an advertisement of a picture playing at a neighborhood theatre. The title sounded good, so she struggled into her beaver coat, laced her galoshes and left the apartment, leaving one light burning in the foyer: she found nothing more disturbing than a sensation of darkness.
The snow was fine, falling gently, not yet making an impression on the pavement. The wind from the river cut only at street crossings. Mrs. Miller hurried, her head bowed, oblivious as a mole burrowing a blind path. She stopped at a drugstore and bought a package of peppermints.
A long line stretched in front of the box office; she took her place at the end. There would be (a tired voice groaned) a short wait for all seats. Mrs. Miller rummaged in her leather handbag till she collected exactly the correct change for admission. The line seemed to be taking its own time and, looking around for some distractions, she suddenly became conscious of a little girl standing under the edge of the marquee.
Her hair was the longest and strangest Mrs. Miller had ever seen: absolutely silver-white, like an albino’s. It flowed waist-length in smooth, loose lines. She was thin and fragilely constructed. There was a simple, special elegance in the way she stood with her thumbs in the pockets of a tailored plum-velvet coat.
Mrs. Miller felt oddly excited, and when the little girl glanced toward her, she smiled warmly. The little girl walked over and said, “Would you care to do me a favor?”
“I’d be glad to if I can,” said Mrs. Miller.
“Oh, it’s quite easy. I merely want you to buy a ticket for me; they won’t let me in otherwise. Here, I have the money.” And gracefully she handed Mrs. Miller two dimes and a nickel.
They went over to the theatre together. An usherette directed them to a lounge; in twenty minutes the picture would be over.
“I feel just like a genuine criminal,” said Mrs. Miller gaily, as she sat down. “I mean that sort of thing’s against the law, isn’t it? I do hope I haven’t done the wrong thing. You mother knows where you are, dear? I mean she does, doesn’t she?
The little girl said nothing. She unbuttoned her coat and folded it across her lap. Her dress underneath was prim and dark blue. A gold chain dangled about her neck, and her fingers, sensitive and musical looking, toyed with it. Examining her more attentively, Mrs. Miller decided the truly distinctive feature was not her hair, but her eyes; they were hazel, steady, lacking any childlike quality whatsoever and, because of their size, seemed to consume her small face.
Mrs. Miller offered a peppermint. “What’s your name, dear?”
“Miriam,” she said, as though, in some curious way, it were information already familiar.
“Why, isn’t that funny—my name’s Miriam, too. And it’s not a terribly common name either. Now, don’t tell me your last name’s Miller!”
“But isn’t that funny?”
“Moderately,” said Miriam, and rolled a peppermint on her tongue.
Mrs. Miller flushed and shifted uncomfortably. “You have such a large vocabulary for such a young girl?”
“Well, yes,” said Mrs. Miller, hastily changing the topic to: “Do you like the movies?”
“I really wouldn’t know,” said Miriam. “I’ve never been before.”
Women began filling the lounge; the rumble of the newsreel bombs exploded in the distance. Mrs. Miller rose, tucking her purse under her arm. “I guess I’d better be running now if I want to get a seat,” she said. “It was nice to have met you.”
Miriam nodded ever so slightly.
It snowed all week. Wheels and footsteps moved soundlessly on the street, as if the business of living continued secretly behind a pale but impenetrable curtain. In the falling quiet there was no sky or earth, only snow lifting in the wind, frosting the window glass, chilling the rooms, deadening and hushing the city. At all hours it was necessary to keep a lamp lighted, and Mrs. Miller lost track of the days: Friday was no different from Saturday and on Sunday she went to the grocery story; closed, of course.
That evening she scrambled eggs and fixed a bowl of tomato soup. Then, after putting on a flannel robe and cold-creaming her face, she propped herself up in bed with a hot-water bottle under her feet. She was reading the Times when the doorbell rang. At first she thought it must be a mistake and whoever it was would go away. But it rang and rang and settled to a persistent buzz. She looked at the clock: a little after eleven; it did not seem possible, she was always asleep by ten.
Climbing out of bed, she trotted barefoot across the living room. “I’m coming, please be patient.” The latch was caught; she turned it this way and that way and the bell never stopped for an instant. “Stop it,” she cried. The bolt gave way and she opened the door an inch. “What in heaven’s name?”
“Hello,” said Miriam.
“Oh…why, hello,” said Mrs. Miller, stepping hesitantly into the hall. “You’re that little girl.”
“I thought you’d never answer, but I kept my finger on the button; I knew you were home. Aren’t you glad to see me?”
Mrs. Miller did not know what to say. Miriam, she saw, wore the same plum velvet coat and now she had also a beret to match; her white hair was braided in two shining plaits and looped at the ends with enormous white ribbons.
“Since I’ve waited so long, you could at least let me in,” she said.
“It’s awfully late….”
Miriam regarded her blankly. “What difference does that make? Let me in. It’s cold out here and I have on a silk dress.” Then, with a gentle gesture, she urged Mrs. Miller aside and passed into the apartment.
She dropped her coat and beret on a chair. She was indeed wearing a silk dress. White silk. White silk in February. The skirt was beautifully pleated and the sleeves long; it made a faint rustle as she strode about the room. “I like your place,” she said. “I like the rug, blue’s my favorite color.” She touched a paper rose in a vase on the coffee table. “Imitation,” she commented wanly. “How sad. Aren’t imitations sad?” She seated herself on the sofa, daintily spreading her skirt.
“What do you want?” Mrs. Miller asked.
“Sit down,” said Miriam. “It makes me nervous to see people stand.”
Mrs. Miller sank to a hassock. “What do you want?” she repeated.
“You know, I don’t think you’re glad I came.”
For a second Mrs. Miller was without an answer; her hand motioned vaguely. Miriam giggled and pressed back on a mound of chintz pillows. Mrs. Miller noticed that the girl was less pale than she remembered; her cheeks were flushed.
“How did you know where I lived?”
Miriam frowned. “That’s no question at all. What’s your name? What’s mine?”
“But I’m not listed in the phone book.”
“Oh, let’s talk about something else.”
Mrs. Miller said, “Your mother must be insane to let a child like you wander around at all hours of the night—and in such ridiculous clothes. She must be out of her mind.”
Miriam got up and moved to a corner where a covered bird cage hung from a ceiling chain. She peeked under the cover. “It’s a canary,” she said. “Would you mind if I woke him? I’d like to hear him sing.”
“Leave Tommy alone,” Mrs. Miller said, anxiously. “Don’t you dare wake him.”
“Certainly,” said Miriam. “But I don’t see why I can’t hear him sing.” And then, “Have you anything to eat? I’m starving! Even milk and a jam sandwich would be fine.”
“Look,” said Mrs. Miller, arising from the hassock, “look—if I make some nice sandwiches will you be a good child and run along home? It’s past midnight, I’m sure.”
“It’s snowing,” reproached Miriam. “And cold and dark.”
“Well, you shouldn’t have come here to begin with,” said Mrs. Miller, struggling to control her voice. “I can’t help the weather. If you want anything to eat you’ll have to promise to leave.”
Miriam brushed a braid against her cheek. Her eyes were thoughtful, as if weighing the proposition. She turned toward the bird cage. “Very well, she said, “I promise.”
How old is she? Ten? Eleven? Mrs. Miller, in the kitchen, unsealed a jar of strawberry preserves and cut four slices of bread. She poured a glass of milk and paused to light a cigarette. And why has she come? Her hand shook as she held the match, fascinated, till it burned her finger. The canary was singing; singing as he did in the morning and at no other time. “Miriam,” she called, “Miriam, I told you not to disturb Tommy.” There was no answer. She called again; all she heard was the canary. She inhaled the cigarette and discovered she had lighted the cork-tip end and—oh, really, she mustn’t lose her temper.
She carried the food in on a tray and set it on the coffee table. She saw first that the bird cage still wore its night cover. And Tommy was singing. It gave her a queer sensation. And no one was in the room. Mrs. Miller went through an alcove leading to her bedroom; at the door she caught her breath.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
Miriam glanced up and in her eyes was a look that was not ordinary. She was standing by the bureau, a jewel case opened before her. For a minute she studied Mrs. Miller, forcing their eyes to meet, and she smiled. “There’s nothing good here,” she said. “But I like this.” Her hand held a cameo brooch. “It’s charming.”
“Suppose—perhaps you’d better put it back,” said Mrs. Miller, feeling suddenly the need of some support. She leaned against the door frame; her head was unbearably heavy; a pressure weighted the rhythm of her heartbeat. The light seemed to flutter defectively. “Please, child…a gift from my husband.”
“But it’s beautiful and I want it,” said Miriam. “Give it to me.”
As she stood, striving to shape a sentence which would somehow save the brooch, it came to Mrs. Miller there was no one to whom she might turn; she was alone; a fact that had not been among her thoughts for a long time. Its sheer emphasis was stunning. But here in her own room in the hushed show-city were evidences she could not ignore or, she knew with startling clarity, resist.
Miriam ate ravenously, and when the sandwiches and milk were gone, her fingers made cobweb movements over the plate, gathering crumbs. The cameo gleamed on her blouse, the blond profile like a trick reflection on its wearer. “That was very nice,” she sighed, “though now an almond cake or a cherry would be ideal. Sweets are lovely, don’t you think?”
Mrs. Miller was perched precariously on the hassock, smoking a cigarette. Her hairnet had slipped lopsided and loose strands straggled down her face. Her eyes were stupidly concentrated on nothing and her cheeks were mottled in red patches, as though a fierce slap had left permanent marks.
“Is there a candy—a cake?”
Mrs. Miller tapped ash on the rug. Her head swayed slightly as she tried to focus her eyes. “You promised to leave if I made the sandwiches,” she said.
“Dear me, did I?”
“It was a promise and I’m tired and I don’t feel well at all.”
“Mustn’t fret,” said Miriam. “I’m only teasing.”
She picked up her coat, slung it over her arm, and arranged her beret in front of a mirror. Presently she bent close to Mrs. Miller and whispered, “Kiss me good night.”
“Please—I’d rather not,” said Mrs. Miller.
Miriam lifted a shoulder, arched an eyebrow. “As you like,” she said, and went directly to the coffee table, seized the vase containing the paper roses, carried it to where the hard surface of the floor lay bare, and hurled it downward. Glass sprayed in all directions and she stamped her foot on the bouquet.
Then slowly she walked to the door, but before closing it she looked back at Mrs. Miller with a slyly innocent curiosity.
Mrs. Miller spent the next day in bed, rising once to feed the canary and drink a cup of tea; she took her temperature and had none, yet her dreams were feverishly agitated; their unbalanced mood lingered even as she lay staring wide-eyed at the ceiling. One dream threaded through the others like an elusively mysterious theme in a complicated symphony, and the scenes it depicted were sharply outlined, as though sketched by a hand of gifted intensity: a small girl, wearing a bridal gown and a wreath of leaves, led a gray procession down a mountain path, and among them there was unusual silence till a woman at the rear asked, “Where is she taking us?” ”No one knows,” said an old man marching in front. “But isn’t she pretty?” volunteered a third voice. “Isn’t she like a frost flower…so shining and white?”
Tuesday morning she woke up feeling better; harsh slats of sunlight, slanting through the Venetian blinds, shed a disrupting light on her unwholesome fancies. She opened the window to discover a thawed, mild-as-spring day; a sweep of clean new clouds crumpled against a vastly blue, out-of-season sky; and across the low line of rooftops she could see the river and smoke curving from tugboat stacks in a warm wind. A great silver truck plowed the snow-banked street, its machine sound humming on the air.
After straightening the apartment, she went to the grocer’s, cashed a check and continued to Schrafft’s, where she ate breakfast and chatted happily with the waitress. Oh, it was a wonderful day more like a holiday—and it would be so foolish to go home.
She boarded a Lexington Avenue bus and rose up to Eighty-sixth Street; it was here that she decided to do a little shopping.
She had no idea what she wanted or needed, but she idled along, intent only upon the passers-by, brisk and preoccupied, who gave her a disturbing sense of separateness.
It was while waiting at the corner of Third Avenue that she saw the man: an old man, bowlegged and stooped under an armload of bulging packages; he wore a shabby brown coat and a checkered cap. Suddenly she realized they were exchanging a smile: there was nothing friendly about this smile, it was merely two cold flickers of recognition. But she was certain she had never seen him before.
He was standing next to an El pillar, and as she crossed the street he turned and followed. He kept quite close; from the corner of her eyes she watched his reflection wavering on the shop windows.
Then in the middle of the block she stopped and faced him. He stopped also and cocked his head, grinning. But what could she say? Do? Here, in broad daylight, on Eighty-sixth Street? It was useless and, despising her own helplessness, she quickened her steps.
Now Second Avenue is a dismal street, made from scraps and ends; part cobblestone, part asphalt, part cement; and its atmosphere of desertion is permanent. Mrs. Miller walked five blocks without meeting anyone, and all the while the steady crunch of his footfalls in the snow stayed near. And when she came to a florist’s shop, the sound was still with her. She hurried inside and watched through the glass door as the old man passed; he kept his eyes straight ahead and didn’t slow his pace, but he did one strange, telling thing: he tipped his cap.
“Six white ones, did you say?” asked the florist. “Yes,” she told him, “white roses.” From there she went to a glassware store and selected a vase, presumably a replacement for the one Miriam had broken, thought the price was intolerable and the vase itself (she thought) grotesquely vulgar. But a series of unaccountable purchases had begun, as if by prearranged plan: a plan of which she had not the least knowledge or control.
She bought a bag of glazed cherries, and at a place called the Knickerbocker Bakery she paid forty cents for six almond cakes.
Within the last hour the weather had turned cold again; like blurred lenses, winter clouds cast a shade over the sun, and the skeleton of an early dusk colored the sky; a damp mist mixed with the wind and the voices of a few children who romped high on mountains of gutter snow seemed lonely and cheerless. Soon the first flake fell, and when Mrs. Miller reached the brownstone house, snow was falling in a swift screen and foot tracks vanished as they were printed.
The white roses were arranged decoratively in the vase. The glazed cherries shone on a ceramic plate. The almond cakes, dusted with sugar, awaited a hand. The canary fluttered on its swing and picked at a bar of seed.
At precisely five the doorbell rang. Mrs. Miller knew who it was. The hem of her housecoat trailed as she crossed the floor. “Is that you?” she called.
“Naturally,” said Miriam, the word resounding shrilly from the hall. “Open this door.”
“Go away,” said Mrs. Miller.
“Please hurry…I have a heavy package.”
“Go away,” said Mrs. Miller. She returned to the living room, lighted a cigarette, sat down and calmly listened to the buzzer; on and on and on. “You might as well leave. I have no intention of letting you in.”
Shortly the bell stopped. For possibly ten minutes Mrs. Miller did not move. Then, hearing no sound, she concluded Miriam had gone. She tiptoed to the door and opened it a sliver; Miriam was half-reclining atop a cardboard box with a beautiful French doll cradled in her arms.
“Really, I thought you were never coming,” she said peevishly. “Here, help me get this in, it’s awfully heavy.”
It was no spell-like compulsion that Mrs. Miller felt, but rather a curious passivity; she brought in the box, Miriam the doll. Miriam curled up on the sofa, not troubling to remove her coat or beret, and watched disinterestedly as Mrs. Miller dropped the box and stood trembling, trying to catch her breath.
“Thank you,” she said. In the daylight she looked pinched and drawn, her hair less luminous. The French doll she was loving wore an exquisite powdered wig and its idiot glass eyes sought solace in Miriam’s. “I have a surprise,” she continued. “Look into my box.”
Kneeling, Mrs. Miller parted the flaps and lifted out another doll; then a blue dress which she recalled as the one Miriam had worn that first night at the theatre; and of the reminder she said, “It’s all clothes. Why?”
“Because I’ve come to live with you,” said Miriam, twisting a cherry stem. “Wasn’t it nice of you to buy me the cherries…?”
“But you can’t! For God’s sake go away—go away and leave me alone!”
“…and the roses and the almond cakes? How really wonderfully generous. You know, these cherries are delicious. The last place I lived was with an old man; he was terribly poor and we never had good things to eat. But I think I’ll be happy here.” She paused to snuggle her doll closer. “Now, if you’ll just show me where to put my things…”
Mrs. Miller’s face dissolved into a mask of ugly red lines; she began to cry, and it was an unnatural, tearless sort of weeping, as though, not having wept for a long time, she had forgotten how. Carefully she edged backward till she touched the door.
She fumbled through the hall and down the stairs to a landing below. She pounded frantically on the door of the first apartment she came to; a short, redheaded man answered and she pushed past him. “Say, what the hell is this?” he said. “Anything wrong, lover?” asked a young woman who appeared from the kitchen, drying her hands. And it was to her that Mrs. Miller turned.
“Listen,” she cried, “I’m ashamed behaving this way but—well, I’m Mrs. H. T. Miller and I live upstairs and…” She pressed her hands over her face. “It sounds so absurd…”
The woman guided her to a chair, while the man excitedly rattled pocket change. “Yeah?”
“I live upstairs and there’s a little girl visiting me, and I suppose that I’m afraid of her. She won’t leave and I can’t make her and—she’s going to do something terrible. She’s already stolen my cameo, but she’s about to do something worse—more terrible.”
The man asked, “Is she a relative, huh?”
Mrs. Miller shook her head. “I don’t know who she is. Her name’s Miriam, but I don’t know for certain who she is.
“You gotta calm down, honey,” said the woman, stroking Mrs. Miller’s arm. “Harry here will tend to this kid. Go on, lover.” And Mrs. Miller said, “The door’s open—5A.”
After the man left, the woman brought a towel and bathed Mrs. Miller’s face. “You’re very kind,” Mrs. Miller said. “I’m sorry to act like such a fool, only this wicked child.”
“Sure, honey,” consoled the woman. “Now, you better take it easy.”
Mrs. Miller rested her head in the crook of her arm; she was quiet enough to be asleep. The woman turned a radio dial; a piano and a husky voice filled the silence and the woman, tapping her foot, kept excellent time. “Maybe we oughta go up too,” she said.
“I don’t want to see her again. I don’t want to be anywhere near her.”
“Uh-huh, but what you shoulda done, you shoulda called a cop.”
Presently they heard the man on the stairs. He strode into the room frowning and scratching the back of his neck. “Nobody there,” he said, honestly embarrassed. “She musta beat it.”
“Harry, you’re a jerk,” announced the woman. “We been sitting here the whole time and we woulda seen…” She stopped abruptly, for the man’s glance was sharp.
“I looked all over,” he said, “and there just ain’t nobody there. Nobody, understand?”
“Tell me,” said Mrs. Miller, rising, “tell me, did you see a large box? Or a doll?”
“No, ma’am, I didn’t.”
And the woman, as if delivering a verdict, said, “Well, for cryinoutloud…”
Mrs. Miller entered her apartment softly; she walked to the center of the room and stood quite still. No, in a sense it had not changed: the roses, the cakes, and the cherries were in place. But t his was an empty room, emptier than if the furnishings and familiars were not present, lifeless and petrified as a funeral parlor. The sofa loomed before her with a new strangeness: its vacancy had a meaning that would have been less penetrating and terrible had Miriam been curled on it. She gazed fixedly at the space where she remembered setting the and, for a moment, the hassock spun desperately. And she looked through the window; surely the river was real, surely snow was falling—but then, one could not be certain witness to anything: Miriam, so vividly there—and yet, where was she? Where? Where?
As though moving in a dream, she sank to a chair. The room was losing shape; it was dark and getting darker and there was nothing to be done about it; she could not life her hand to light a lamp.
Suddenly, closing her eyes, she felt an upward surge, like a diver emerging from some deeper, greener depth. In times of terror or immense distress, there are moments when the mind waits, as though for a revelation, while a skein of calm is woven over thought; it is like a sleep, or a supernatural trance; and during this lull one is aware of a force of quiet reasoning: well, what if she had never really known a girl named Miriam? That she had been foolishly frightened on the street? In the end, like everything else, it was of no importance. For the only thing she had lost to Miriam was her identity, but now she knew she had found again the person who lived in this room, who cooked her own meals, who owned a canary, who was someone she could trust and believe in: Mrs. H. T. Miller.
Listening in contentment, she became aware of a double sound: a bureau drawer opening and closing, she seemed to hear it long after completion—opening and closing. Then gradually, the harshness of it was replaced by the murmur of a silk dress and this, delicately faint, was moving nearer and swelling in intensity till the walls trembled with the vibration and the room was caving under a wave of whispers. Mrs. Miller stiffened and opened her eyes to a dull, direct stare.
“Hello,” said Miriam.