NOTE: “Every Friday Nite is Kiddies Nite,” written before 1939, was inspired by Rev. Walter Dakin, Tennessee Williams’s maternal grandfather who retired as rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church of Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1931 and relocated to Memphis. Eventually Reverend and Mrs. Dakin moved to St. Louis. It is ironic that Rev. Houston in the story prefers the excitements of city life over his sleepy Missouri parish since Tom Williams (Tennessee) preferred life as a frequent childhood visitor to Clarksdale over the pollution and social ambitions of St. Louis. “Every Friday Nite is Kiddies Nite” was found in the Tennessee Williams Collection of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, with the alternative title, “Age of Retirement.” – Tom Mitchell, Editor, The Caterpillar Dog and Other Early Stories
This story appears in the forthcoming collection The Caterpillar Dogs and Other Early Stories, which will be published by New Directions in April 2023. This is the story’s first publication.
When the Reverend Houston was seventy he was retired from the ministry with a pension, paid by the national church organization, that was slightly in excess of the salary he had been receiving for nearly fifty years from his parish at New Babylon, Missouri. There were no strings attached to this pension. He could do with it and with himself, thereafter, practically anything that pleased his rational fancy. Naturally enough, he quit preaching. He had been preaching for nearly fifty years and he was getting just as tired of it as his congregation was. One Sunday morning during the summer of his seventieth year he shook hands with his successor, a vigorous young man who would attract plenty of spinsters to the Sunday-school faculty, walked calmly out of the church and never returned.
“What will poor old Reverend Houston do with himself now that he can’t preach the Gospel anymore?” most of the congregation pityingly wondered. Their anxiety for his future was entirely logical. When a man has been preaching for nearly fifty years or doing anything for nearly fifty years, that thing usually has become the integrating thread of his personality and without it the whole fabric is likely to ravel and collapse upon itself like a bundle of old, discarded rags.
The old cleric himself was undismayed. There was a mysterious contentment shining upon his face which seemed to indicate that there can be no darkness where there has once been light.
First of all, he had a talk with his daughter Dora. She was his only child. Dora was married and had three children. His wife, Amanda, had been in God’s keeping for more than twenty years, so Dora was really the only person with whom he needed to discuss his future.
He said, “Dora, you know that I’m a very old man. All of my life I’ve been a true servant of God, preaching his Gospel in this little Missouri town.... And now I’ve received a divine warning that the time has come for me to prepare myself for the World Beyond. I feel that I can best make these preparations in solitude... away from family and friends... perhaps in some strange city where new ways will be opened. In short, I’ve decided to move to Saint Louis!”
Dora was appropriately shocked: But Father this! But Father that!
When the Reverend Houston was young, people said that he looked like the young Nazarene Himself must have looked. His face was beautiful and calm and infinitely tender. Now he looked more, if you will pardon what is only an apparent blasphemy, like the eldest of the Trinity. He really did look, with his spiritual blue eyes, wavy, white hair, kind but dignified manner, like a physical reflection of the Absolute.
He lifted one hand toward Dora in a way that was beseechingly final.
“No more, please, no more! I have heard His voice!”
When members of an amazed congregation questioned him about this sudden resolution to depart from New Babylon, at a time in life when even the most inveterate wanderers begin to think nostalgically of home, the Reverend Houston merely cleared his throat and raised his eyes significantly above their heads. Dora did the talking. She was more than willing to divulge her father’s secret.
“He has received a call,” she whispered piously. “A call from another parish? But I thought...”
“Oh, no!” she gasped. “A call from... from Above!”
Early in July, on a day when hell itself seemed to be exuding from the streets of New Babylon in the hideous bursting of bombs and crackers, the old clergyman packed up a few of his personal effects, surprisingly few, and departed for the scene of his monastic reclusion. He had kissed Dora and his grandchildren goodbye, of course, but no one else was aware for several days that he had gone, which added much to the mysterious aspect of the hegira and caused everyone who knew him to feel, more keenly than ever before, the strange holiness of the old man’s nature.
When the Reverend Houston arrived in Saint Louis his first impression was somewhat disappointing. Saint Louis was about a hundred miles northeast of New Babylon and he naturally thought it would be a little cooler. When he got off the train he found that Saint Louis was just as hot in July as New Babylon was. In fact, he felt a little hotter. Well, he no longer needed to wear this heavy, clerical garb. As soon as he reached his new home, a small furnished apartment in the west end of town, he would change into something cooler and pack the black suit permanently away. That is, he thought a trifle sadly, against the time of his burial.
He asked a few directions, in his polite, Southern way, and took a streetcar going west. As he rode through the lamp-lighted streets and saw all the strange people moving restlessly around with not one familiar face among them, the old man’s reflections took a less melancholy turn. Here in this strange city he had virtually no social obligations. Undoubtedly there were sick babies and pregnant wives in Saint Louis, but he was acquainted with neither their street addresses nor their telephone numbers, so nobody could sensibly accuse him of indifference for failing to call. This should have made him feel terribly lonely. Somehow it didn’t affect him that way. Perhaps the truth of the matter was that in New Babylon he’d had an overdose.
“Ah, but that’s an unworthy thought!” as Dora would say.
His little apartment was nice. It had been inexpensively but neatly furnished. There was a tiny parlor, bedroom, bath, and kitchenette. It looked like it had already been lived in, as though its tenants had just stepped out the minute before he entered.
Well, really, that picture above the sofa...
He looked at it a long time, wondering vaguely about its propriety, and in the end he decided to let it hang. It was obviously a work of art. But were ministers expected to appreciate such things? It was a highly colorful lithograph of a young girl sitting quite naked on the top of an equally naked hill. It might very well be a picture of Mother Eve, painted while Father Adam is out picking berries, reflected the old man, and it really does brighten things up.
With this off his mind, he quickly removed his clerical garments, dropped them in the center of the floor, and hastened into his new bathroom.
“Hmmm, hmmm!” he grunted as inspecting approvingly the room’s appointments, and then filled the tub with lukewarm water.
A cold bath would just make me feel hotter! he thought.
He lay in the water a long time thinking about his new life and making vague but comfortable plans. When he got out, he felt much cooler and even younger somehow. Unconsciously he glanced in the medicine cabinet mirror.
I don’t show my age! he reflected. Why, I could pass for a man of fifty!
Which was not a vain delusion. The necessary self-discipline of a clerical life had kept him quite youthful. He would probably linger on in this solitary state for a good many years.
Retiring to his bedroom he put on a pair of pyjamas. He had always liked fancy pyjamas and tonight for some reason he put on a pair of his fanciest.
“A clergyman don’t get much chance to wear bright colors on the outside, so I make up for it in my pyjamas!” he used to explain when neighbors poked sly fun at the gorgeously-colored nightclothes that made his backyard, on washdays, look something like an Oriental bazaar.
Here in the city, where all the people were so busy about their own business, who would bother to question him about these little worldly eccentricities of his?
“Hmmm, hmmm,” he grunted, not unhappily, as he tied the braided cord. The pyjamas were black and gold silk, executed in the Russian manner. Looking in the long mirror on the closed door, he thought that they gave him a rather romantic look. He was seventy, of course, but even at seventy...
Suddenly he glanced out the window.
“Good heavens! Forgot to pull the shade down! Ah, well...”
He sank contentedly onto the bed and bounced a little to test its springs. It was softer than the bed at home, the bed that he and Amanda...
I’m a very lonely man, he reflected promptly.
For a while he remained in the bedroom, soaking himself in its luxurious stillness as he had in the tub of lukewarm water. There was beauty in this stillness. It was sweeter to his ears, somehow, than sacred music sung by a fine church choir. People had often spoken about the noise and confusion of the city. But he couldn’t remember ever having spent an evening in New Babylon as quiet as this. Though Dora’s family had their own little cottage he had always enjoyed considerably more of their companionship than he had felt he had any right to expect. They had lived right across the street from the rectory. Dora had usually prepared their meals in his kitchen. Saved him the expense of a cook. And it was so nice, all of them eating together. Dora was an amateur dietician, by the way, and the meals were closely calculated to supply plenty of roughage for the kiddies without aggravating her husband’s tendency toward high-blood pressure. The Reverend Houston’s stomach required no special consideration in the kitchen and received none. Even between meals he never suffered from loneliness. The kiddies had converted his attic into a playroom. Dora’s husband was also around the place quite a bit. Ralph was a good-hearted fellow. He was a carpenter. Employment was scarce in New Babylon, but he kept in practice. Oh, yes, there were always plenty of little things around home to keep him busy. The rectory was a frame building. There was always somewhere a loose board or a broken shingle.
Sometimes the old Reverend Houston caught himself wishing that either his Saviour or his son-in-law had practiced a different trade, it was so hard to think of them both pounding nails into wood, especially when he was feeling drowsy after an evening meal.
“I’m a very lonely man,” he suddenly repeated, vigorously shaking his head. Then he added with a more obvious cheerfulness, “But I still have a belly for supper!”
He had stopped at the corner grocer’s to purchase some food supplies. Now he went into his little kitchenette to prepare his first solitary meal. The Reverend Houston took a sheer delight in good food that caused him some conscientious embarrassment when eating in company. It was hard for him to eat decorously as a clergyman should. He would anticipate so keenly each savory morsel while he was delicately spearing it with his fork and lifting it gracefully to his lips, that the actual consummation of grinding it between his jaws was often a disheartening anticlimax.
Tonight he glanced gratefully around at the kitchen stove, and the icebox, and the sink. Here was the kind of company that he most enjoyed while eating!
He fell upon the sirloin steak like a hungry dog, lifting it to his mouth with his fingers, gnawing every shred of meat from the bone, sucking the marrow, sopping up the gravy with thick crusts of bread and finally licking his fingers.
“Good Heavens!” he suddenly gasped, “I even forgot to say Grace!”
“Hmmm, hmnn!” he grunted as he walked sedately into the parlor after his lonely meal. Yes, there it was, the little radio that he had paid the real estate agent to install. He stretched himself leisurely, like a well-fed cat, and walked over to this neatly mysterious little box. He had never owned one at home. His poorer parishioners couldn’t afford radios themselves so he had thought it would appear...
Ah, well, he thought, when a man gets as old as I am...
He examined the little box earnestly for several minutes before he quite determined which switches and dials did what. Then he tuned in on a nice musical program and settled himself in the big easy chair. The minutes went by. Time had never passed so quickly, so sweetly, not even when poor Amanda was living. He felt rested. He felt himself sinking into a soporific detachment from life.
“Life,...” he whispered.
He repeated the word several times and he found his lips curving into a gentle smile.
After a while some comedians came on the air and some of the things they said... The Reverend Houston heard himself chuckling deep down in his throat, as he chuckled when New Babylon mothers told him the cute little things that their infants were saying, only tonight his chuckling gave him a curiously more personal satisfaction. He wondered what Dora would think, what she would say, if she could hear him chuckling like this at a couple of comedians!
“Not like you, father!”
“Ah, but there’s nothing sinful, my dear, about a little good-natured joking!”
By and by he looked at his watch. It was nearly ten. In a few minutes he would be feeling sleepy, so he had better write that letter to Dora at once. He’d promised her that he would write once a week, beginning his very first evening in Saint Louis. Now that was rather silly of him, wasn’t it! What could he possibly write her about once a week?
He went over to the mantel and set the little mahogany clock. He wound it and observed with satisfaction, pressing it against one ear, that it seemed to be running quite smoothly.
“Everything, everything,” he whispered, “is running quite smoothly!”
Then he went into his bedroom. Before he could switch on the light he noticed the golden twinkling of a theater sign across the street. He left his light off, walked over to the window, perched himself comfortably upon the sill and gazed raptly down. The illuminated letters on one side announced the evening’s program.
It’s a double-program. Now that is very nice, isn’t it!
All during the first picture you could enjoy the comforting knowledge that when it was over you wouldn’t have to go home. There would be another picture right afterwards. And after the second picture you would really be sleepy and ready for bed.
Vera Preston in The Lawless Wife was one of the pictures. The other was Hugh Silvers in Dancing Dandies. Both of these pictures had been on the condemned list at home. At home he would never have dared, but here in Saint Louis where nobody knew him...
At home in New Babylon there had recently been a crusade against the moving-pictures. Some loud-mouthed evangelist from Memphis had started it all. One night during his series of revival meetings he had invited all of the local clergymen to occupy seats on his rostrum and as a climax to that evening’s exhortation he had turned to the seated clerics and demanded that all should stand up who pledged their support in fighting the invidious propaganda that the devil was issuing from his earthly citadel at Hollywood. Of course the Reverend Houston had felt obliged to stand up with the others, although personally he could see no harm in the movies. They were, in fact, one of his dearest indulgences. But after this unfortunate revival meeting his visits to the New Babylon picture-house had been furtive, spoiled by a sense of guilt. Sometimes he would sneak in for a second show on cold winter nights when few people were on the street. He would purchase a ticket with his hat pulled down over his eyes and his coat collar turned up and his knees actually trembling. He always imagined that the girl in the ticket-box was giving him a satirical smile.
“Ah!” he exclaimed, “Ah!” as he suddenly noticed this sign: EVERY FRIDAY NITE IS KIDDIES NITE!
The Reverend Houston knew what that meant. It meant gun-shooting, plenty of gun-shooting, and there was nothing that the peaceable old clergyman relished so thoroughly on the screen as the shooting of guns. The cracking of revolvers, the shrill rat-a-tat-tatting of machine guns gave him more vicarious excitement than romantic spinsters are supposed to derive from scenes of celluloid passion!
In New Babylon gun-shooting pictures were condemned. They put vicious thoughts in the minds of the young. But here in St. Louis...
“Well, when a man gets to be my age...”
He uttered these words in a way that was neither very sad nor very resigned.
“When a man gets to be my age . . . ah, well!”
Feeling a little ashamed of himself, but hardly depressed, the Reverend Houston switched on his bedroom light. He opened his suitcase and took out materials for writing. Comfortably yawning, he set himself down at the little table and started writing Dora a decent, fatherly letter that she would be proud to read aloud to all the folks at home.
“My Dear Child,” he wrote, “I have spent this evening in peaceful meditation. I am lonely but contented as I could hope for. It is quiet and comfortable here. I feel more deeply than ever before that God is with me. Of course I miss the merry voices of the little ones. I miss all my old friends and most of all my dear daughter and son-in-law. But the will of God is an inscrutable will and I am very sure he has brought me alone to this city for a certain definite purpose, divinely strange and...”
His pen hesitated for a moment and once again he felt his lips curving into a satisfied smile.
“Divinely strange and beautiful!”
He underlined the word beautiful twice, more for his own benefit than Dora’s. Dora could not be expected to understand the beauty of God’s will as completely as he who had studied it so earnestly for all these fifty years!
With this duty accomplished, the old man pressed the stopper into his bottle of ink and wiped the pen dry. He blotted every inch of the letter, neatly folded it, and slipped it into an envelope, sealed it, and inscribed his new address, perhaps too plainly, across the flap.
His lips were still smiling as he switched off the bedroom light and crawled into the sweet, cool bed.
“Now it is all finished,” he whispered softly, “and I can go to sleep!”