From Nothing That Meets the Eye: The Uncollected Stories of Patricia Highsmith
Patricia Highsmith is most often categorized as a genre crime writer, thanks in large part to the well-known film adaptations of her novels Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley. But while this classification is fine as far as it goes, it doesn’t go nearly far enough. As with her contemporary, Shirley Jackson, the reductive attitude toward her work is at once limiting and subtly belittling (in that genre fiction is still looked down upon by a large contingent of literary snobs). Highsmith’s canonization in the Library of America has not done much to counter this prejudice, but a quick look at her output, which includes the groundbreaking lesbian novel The Price of Salt, originally published under a pseudonym, indicates that the author’s work at once deepens and transcends any attempt at easy summation.
Nowhere is this more true than in her short fiction, which was prodigious and remarkable in its range. For every more-or-less typical genre story there is something like “Born Failure,” an ironic piece about a sad-sack who inherits and then loses a fortune that had the potential to change his life. (Even pieces like “A Mighty Nice Man” and “Music to Die By,” which do cleave more closely to crime genre tropes and tactics, should be considered more precisely psychological studies of highly disturbed individuals.)
What Highsmith was most concerned with in her fiction is the human psyche, especially those aspects that are dark or twisted or amoral. Her characters tend to be deceitful or hypocritical or greedy and they have a habit of making decisions that are rarely in their best interests. She writes with a pervading irony that shines a bright light on her characters’ faults and frequently erupts in violence; her short fiction arguably has more in common with Flannery O’Connor than with Dashiell Hammett.
At first blush, “Where the Door Is Always Open and the Welcome Mat Is Out” appears entirely atypical for Highsmith. For one thing, it is entirely devoid of any kind of crime element.
The story opens with Mildred, an overworked secretary, rushing home to clean up before the arrival of her sister, Edith, on the 6:10 train. Right out of the gate, Highsmith drops us into the world of a harried New York City office drone racing around to fulfill both her professional and familial obligations:
It was already 5:22, later than she had anticipated, because some letters Mr. Sweeney wanted sent out at the last minute had delayed her at the office. She would have only about twenty-two minutes at home to straighten anything that might have gotten unstraightened since last night’s cleaning, lay the table and organize their delicatessen supper, and fix her face a bit before she left for Penn Station. It was lucky she’d done the marketing in her lunch hour.
The expectations placed on women to juggle professional and personal lives are profound here. Mildred notices the spreading stain from something – dill pickles? rollmops? – leaking through the bag of deli goods; it is a potent symbol of the various pressures in her life. (On the bus home, she feels more in control with her hand over the damp place on the bag, where she is preventing the leakage from spreading.)
Mildred’s panic is a result of her sister surprising her the day before with a telegram saying that she’d be passing through town on her way to Ithaca from Cleveland and asking to crash for the night. Ignoring the inconvenience, Mildred jumps into action, cleaning her apartment and stocking up on provisions to feed her sibling. “Her sister Edith was such a neat houskeeper herself, Mildred knew she would have to have things in apple pie order, if her sister was to take a good report back to their Cleveland relations. Well, at least none of the folks in Cleveland could say she‘d lost her hospitality because she’d become a New Yorker.”
The idea that Mildred has something to prove to her family is extended when Edith arrives and expresses explicit distaste about the apartment Mildred had worked so hard to tidy up. Edith is critical of the traffic noise from outside and the fact that Mildred has provided cold deli food for dinner rather than a hot meal. Equally disturbing to Edith is her sister’s drinking: she turns up her nose at the whiskey Mildred offers her when they get back to their apartment and is aghast at the notion that Mildred stopped off at a bar prior to meeting her. (After all Mildred’s running around to make it to Penn Station on time, the train’s arrival is delayed, leaving her with twenty minutes to kill.)
On one level, “Where the Door Is Always Open and the Welcome Mat Is Out” tells a simple domestic story about mismatched siblings: the frazzled big-city dweller and the more carefree, smaller city housewife. But there is an element of culture warfare simmering just under the surface of Highsmith’s barbed story. Edith is scandalized by her sister’s lifestyle in New York – a city she finds “so unfriendly” with “no trees to look at or anything.” Edith’s disdain at Mildred’s surroundings is palpable and she undercuts her sister’s independence by suggesting that Mildred would be much happier moving back home to live with her family in Cleveland, notwithstanding Mildred’s assertion that “New York’s my home now.” When the sisters go out to the movies and Edith opts for the rundown neighbourhood cinema rather than the nicer theatres on Broadway, it almost feels as though she is trying to prove a point to her sister about the reduced standard of living Edith feels Mildred has been relegated to.
The central conflict in the story is between Mildred’s stubborn independence and Edith’s shocked sensibilities (including the bias from outsiders that New Yorkers are unfriendly). Of course when she arrives at Mildred’s apartment, Edith focuses on the dirty blinds and not “the kitchen table where everything was lined up as neatly as a colour photograph in a magazine.” Nor does Edith appreciate the trouble Mildred has gone to in order to provide food and shelter for her at short notice: “A lot her sister knew about all she had to contend with, the million and one things she had to think of all by herself, not only at home but at the office, too. You could tell just by looking at Edith she never had to worry or rush about anything, even to take a hard-boiled egg off the stove.”
Sure enough, the story’s finale finds Mildred once again racing to work having dropped her sister at the train station, running in front of a large truck as she tears across the road – Does the truck hit her? We aren’t told, but even Highsmith can’t be that cynical … can she? – and wondering whether to invite Edith and her son Arthur back to her place if they should pass through the city again. “She’d be able to make them comfortable somehow.” It’s the last word that turns the knife ever so viciously.