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Shep Campbell polishes his shoes in preparation for that evening’s visit from the Wheelers. He relishes the task, which reminds him the army. As a boy and a young man, Shep had wanted to become tough and manly, despite being brought up by a wealthy single mother who coddled him and wanted to dress him in fancy clothing. He had rebelled against her, gotten kicked out of his private school, and then joined the army, where he had been celebrated for his toughness. After the war, he had studied mechanical engineering and married Milly, pursuing a middle-class life away from the soft, spoiled world of moneyed New Yorkers.
This is the first scene told from the perspective of Shep Campbell. It shows that, like Frank, Shep struggled in his youth to understand how to live up to a masculine ideal of toughness. Shep felt that wealth and luxury were for the weak and womanly, like his mother. During the war, the tough attitude he cultivated was appreciated, and he decided to continue to reject his upper-class roots after the war’s end.
Shep and Milly were living in Arizona when he suddenly began to feel alienated from those around him. He fantasized about the East, where he thought people cared about the wider world and the arts, and imagined affairs with the sophisticated graduates of women’s colleges. He became withdrawn from those around him and, one night, broke his hand punching a wall and called Milly “an ignorant cunt.” A week later, they moved to New York. There, they discovered that Shep’s mother’s fortune was gone and went through their savings quickly, while Shep spent his days wondering how to find fulfillment. Finally, Shep got a job and they moved to the Revolutionary Hill Estates. Although this was not the life he dreamed of in Arizona, he felt more content and no longer regretted his “tough guy” phase. He feels that he is Frank Wheeler’s equal, despite having gone to a midwestern technical college.
Shep suddenly realizes that his pursuit of masculine toughness has led him into a life that he doesn’t love. He then feels depressed and anxious, worrying that he has rejected his cultural birthright. For him, this has less to do with money and class than it does with cultural experiences. Now Shep feels more reconciled to his life, although it is not what he dreamed of when he was in Arizona. He has worldly friends like the Wheelers, and he is their equal. At the same time, he thinks he would never have been such a successful soldier if his personal development hadn’t included a “tough guy” phase.
Shep has also come to appreciate Milly, and feels grateful that he went through his “tough guy” phase because it brought him to her. Even though they have different backgrounds and their marriage isn’t very romantic, she has stuck by him and even adjusted to the new life he thrust upon her. Shep admires how she learned to decorate their house in a way that April Wheeler praised. Now, preparing for drinks with the Wheelers, Milly asks Shep if he has noticed that the Wheelers seem to be acting a little stuck up lately. Shep says she is imagining it, then gives her a little hug. He is unpleasantly shocked that she smells bad. He offers to let her shower, but she says she is ready. Shep then showers and thinks about Milly’s smell, deciding that it must be that she sweats more when she feels stressed.
Shep appreciates how Milly adjusted to the new lifestyle he thrust upon her when he moved them East. She has dutifully played the traditional role of a supportive wife, through thick and thin. He is grateful that she has learned how to fit in with people from a different class background, but only partially recognizes what a stress this places on her. Milly, for her part, knows that their friendship with the Wheelers is essential to keeping Shep happy. She feels that the Wheelers have been pulling away and worries about how Shep may react if they lose that friendship.
As Shep gets ready, he remembers an occasion, almost a year ago, when he danced with April at the bar Vito’s Log Cabin and the smell of her sweat aroused him. Walking downstairs with a can of beer, caught up in his thoughts, Shep nearly trips over his four sons, who are watching TV and chewing gum. He feels slightly revolted by them. He gets another can of beer from the kitchen and goes into the backyard. He thinks to himself that he was not revolted, but disapproving, because they looked so middle class. But perhaps, he thinks, it was just that seeing them interrupted his thoughts about April Wheeler. Experimentally, he whispers, “I love you, April.” Milly surprises him at that moment by calling out that the Wheelers have arrived.
Shep rebelled against his own upbringing, and hated the coddling of his wealthy mother, which made him feel weak and lacking in manliness. Now, he has the opposite reaction to his own children, feeling disappointed in their lack of refinement. He does not seem to notice or appreciate that they embody the traits of boyish brawn that he cultivated in himself when he was their age. His crush on April also shows his continued yearning for a life of culture and taste, as the tasteful, elegant April represents this more elevated world to him.
The evening feels awkward because the Wheelers seem to be in their own world. Frank looks around, snobbishly appraising the Wheeler’s living room. April hardly speaks. Finally, the Wheelers announce that they are moving to Europe. The Campbells explode with questions, but the Wheelers keep looking at one another, as if deciding whether to include the Campbells in their secret. Shep conceals his distress, while Milly tells the Wheelers that they will miss them. Later, Shep tells Milly that the Wheelers’ plan sounds immature. Milly is relieved, saying it seems like they have given no thought to their children. In bed later, Shep knows that Milly wants to keep talking and to cry while he comforts her, but he pretends to be asleep. He thinks back to his wartime experiences in Paris, feeling painfully envious of Frank for getting to go live in that exquisite city with the exquisite April.
The Wheelers act snobbishly, just as Milly feared, making the evening awkward. While Shep finds their behavior infuriating, he is also deeply envious of the richer, more cultured life that they are going to pursue. The idea of being in Paris with a sophisticated woman like April fits his fantasy perfectly. Still, he recognizes that their plan is an irresponsible one, reassuring Milly by agreeing with her that the Wheelers should give more thought to their children. The Wheelers’ plan brings back Shep’s internal struggle to balance his desire for a cultured life and his responsibilities to his family.