The worm in the apple (by John Cheever)

The Crutchmans were so very, very happy and so temperate in all their habits and so pleased with everything that came their way that one was bound to suspect a worm in their rosy apple and that the extraordinary rosiness of the fruit was only meant to conceal the gravity and the depth of the infection. Their house, for instance, on Hill Street with all those big glass windows. Who but someone suffering from a guilt complex would want so much light to pour into their rooms? And all the wall-to-wall carpeting as if an inch of bare floor (there was none) would touch on some deep memory of unrequition and loneliness. And there was a certain necrophilic ardor to their gardering. Why be so intense about digging holes and planting seeds and watching them come up? Why this morbid concern with the earth?
She was a pretty woman with that striking pallor you so often find in maniacs. Larry was a big man who used to garden without a shirt, which may have shown a tendency to infantile exhibitionism.
They moved happily out to Shady Hill after the war. Larry had served in the Navy. They had two happy children: Rachel and Tom. But there were already some clouds on their horizon. Larry's ship had been sunk in the war and he had spent four days on a raft in the Mediterranean and surely this experience would make him skeptical about the comforts and songbirds of Shady Hill and leave him with some racking nightmares. But what was perhaps more serious was the fact that Helen was rich. She was the only daughter of old Charlie Simpson — one of the last of the industrial buccaneers — who had left her with a larger income than Larry would ever take away from his job at Melcher & Thaw. The dangers in this situation are well-known. Since Larry did not have to make a living — since he lacked any incentive — he might take it easy, spend too much time on the golf links and always have a glass in his hand. Helen would confuse financial with emotional independence and damage the delicate balances within their marriage. But Larry seemed to have no nightmares and Helen spread her income among the charities and lived a comfortable but modest life. Larry went to his job each morning with such enthusiasm that you might think he was trying to escape from something. His participation in the life of the community was so vigorous that he must have been left with almost no time for self-examination. He was everywhere: he was at the communion rail, the fifty-yard line, he played the oboe with the Chamber Music Club, drove the fire truck, served on the school board and rode the 8:03 into New York every morning. What was the sorrow that drove him?
He may have wanted a larger family. Why did they only have two children? Why not three or four? Was there perhaps some breakdown in their relationship after the birth of Tom? Rachel, the oldest, was terribly fat when she was a girl and quite aggressive in a mercenary way. Every spring she would drag an old dressing table out of the garage and set it up on the sidewalk with a sign saying: FReSH LEMonADE.5 c. Tom had pneumonia when he was six and nearly died but he recovered and there were no visible complications. The children may have felt rebellious about, the conformity of their parents for they were exacting conformists. Two cars? Yes. Did they go to church? Every single Sunday they got to their knees and prayed with ardor. Clothing? They couldn't have been more punctilious in their observance of the sumptuary laws. Book clubs, local art and music lovers associations, athletics and cards — they were up to their necks in everything. But if the children were rebellious they concealed their rebellion and seemed happily to love their parents and happily to be loved in return, but perhaps there was in this love the ruefulness of some deep disappointment. Perhaps he was impotent. Perhaps she was frigid — but hardly, with that pallor. Everyone in the community with wandering hands had given them both a try but they had all been put off. What was the source of this constancy? Were they frightened? Were they prudish? Were they monogamous? What was at the bottom of this appearance of happiness?
As their children grew one might look to them for the worm in the apple. They would be rich, they would inherit Helen's fortune and we might see here, moving over them, the shadow that so often falls upon children who can count on a lifetime of financial security. And anyhow Helen loved her son much too much. She bought him everything he wanted. Driving him to dancing school in his first blue serge suit she was so entranced by the manly figure he cut as he climbed the stairs that she drove the car straight into an elm tree. Such an infatuation was bound to lead to trouble. And if she favored her son she was bound to discriminate against her daughter. Listen to her. "Rachel's feet," she says, "are immense, simply immense. I can never get shoes for her." Now perhaps we see the worm. Like most beautiful women she is jealous; she is jealous of her own daughter! She cannot brook competition. She will dress the girl in hideous clothing, having her hair curled in some unbecoming way and keep talking about the size of her feet until the poor girl will refuse to go to the dances or if she is forced to go she will sulk in the ladies' room, staring at her monstrous feet. She will become so wretched and so lonely that in order to express herself she will fall in love with an unstable poet and fly with him to Rome, where they will live out a miserable and a boozy exile.
But when the girl enters the room she is pretty and prettily dressed and she smiles at her mother with perfect love. Her feet are quite large, to be sure, but so is her front. Perhaps we should look to the son to find our trouble.
And there is trouble. He fails his junior year in high school and has to repeat and as a result of having to repeat he feels alienated from the members of his class and is put, by chance, at a desk next to Carrie Witchell, who is the most conspicuous dish in Shady Hill. Everyone knows about the Witchells and their pretty, high-spirited daughter. They drink too much and live in one of those frame houses in Maple Dell. The girl is really beautiful and everyone knows how her shrewd old parents are planning to climb out of Maple Dell on the strength of her white, white skin. What a perfect situation! They will know about Helen's wealth. In the darkness of their bedroom the/ will calculate the settlement they can demand and in the malodorous kitchen where they take all their meals they will tell their pretty daughter to let the boy go as far as he wants, But Tom fell out of love with Curie as swiftly as he fell into ii and after that he fell in love with Karen Strawbridge and Susie Morris and Anna Macken and you might think that he was unstable, but in his second year in college he announced his engagement to Elizabeth Trustman and they were married after his graduation and since then he had to serve his time in the army she followed him to his post in Germany, where they studied and learned the language and befriended the people and were a credit to their country.
Rachel's way was not so easy. When she lost her fat, she became very pretty and quite fast. She smoked and drank and probably fornicated and the abyss that opens up before a pretty and an intemperate young woman is unfathomable. What, but chance, was there to keep her from ending up as a hostess in a Times Square dance hall? And what would her poor father think, seeing the face of his daughter, her breasts lightly covered with gauze, gazing mutely at him on a rainy morning from one of those show cases? What she did was to fall in love with the son of the Farquarsons" German gardener. He had come with his family to the United States on the Displaced Persons quota after the war. His name was Eric Reiner and to be fair about it he was an exceptional young man who looked on the United States as a truly New World. The Crutchmans must have been sad about Rachel's choice — not to say heartbroken — but they concealed their feelings. The Reiners did not. This hard-working German couple thought the marriage hopeless and improper. At one point the father beat his son over the head with a stick of firewood. But the young couple continued to see each other and presently they eloped. They had to. Rachel was three months pregnant. Eric was then a freshman at Tufts, where he had a scholarship. Helen's money came in handy here and she was able to rent an apartment in Boston for the young couple and pay their expenses. That their first grandchild was premature did not seem to bother the Crutchmans. When Eric graduated from college he got a fellowship at M.I.T. and took his Ph.D. in physics and was taken on as an associate in the department. He could have gone into industry at a higher salary but he liked to teach and Rachel was happy in Cambridge, where they remained.
With their own dear children gone away the Crutchmans might be expected to suffer the celebrated spiritual destitution of their age and their kind — the worm in the apple would at last be laid bare — although watching this charming couple as they entertained their friends or read the books they enjoyed one might wonder if the worm was not in the eye of the observer who, through timidity or moral cowardice, could not embrace the broad range of their natural enthusiasms and would not grant that, while Larry played neither Bach nor football very well, his pleasure in both was genuine. You might at least expect to see in them the usual destructiveness of time, but either through luck or as a result of their temperate and healthy lives they had lost neither their teeth nor their hair. The touchstone of their euphoria remained potent, and while Larry gave up the fire truck he could still be seen at the communion rail, the fifty-yard line, the 8:03 and the Chamber Music Club, and through the prudence and shrewdness of Helen's broker they got richer and richer and richer and lived happily, happily, happily, happily.