Story type: Literature
His wife had always spoiled him outrageously. No doubt of that. Take, for example, the matter of the pillows merely. Old man Minick slept high. That is, he thought he slept high. He liked two plump pillows on his side of the great, wide, old-fashioned cherry bed. He would sink into them with a vast grunting and sighing and puffing expressive of nerves and muscles relaxed and gratified. But in the morning there was always one pillow on the floor. He had thrown it there. Always, in the morning, there it lay, its plump white cheek turned reproachfully up at him from the side of the bed. Ma Minick knew this, naturally, after forty years of the cherry bed. But she never begrudged him that extra pillow. Each morning, when she arose, she picked it up on her way to shut the window. Each morning the bed was made up with two pillows on his side of it, as usual.
Then there was the window. Ma Minick liked it open wide. Old man Minick, who rather prided himself on his modernism (he called it being up to date) was distrustful of the night air. In the folds of its sable mantle lurked a swarm of dread things–colds, clammy miasmas, fevers.
“Night air’s just like any other air,” Ma Minick would say, with some asperity. Ma Minick was no worm; and as modern as he. So when they went to bed the window would be open wide. They would lie there, the two old ones, talking comfortably about commonplace things. The kind of talk that goes on between a man and a woman who have lived together in wholesome peace (spiced with occasional wholesome bickerings) for more than forty years.
“Remind me to see Gerson to-morrow about that lock on the basement door. The paper’s full of burglars.”
“If I think of it.” She never failed to.
“George and Nettie haven’t been over in a week now.”
“Oh, well, young folks…. Did you stop in and pay that Koritz the fifty cents for pressing your suit?”
“By golly, I forgot again! First thing in the morning.”
A sniff. “Just smell the Yards.” It was Chicago.
“Wind must be from the west.”
Sleep came with reluctant feet, but they wooed her patiently. And presently she settled down between them and they slept lightly. Usually, some time during the night, he awoke, slid cautiously and with infinite stealth from beneath the covers and closed the wide-flung window to within a bare two inches of the sill. Almost invariably she heard him; but she was a wise old woman; a philosopher of parts. She knew better than to allow a window to shatter the peace of their marital felicity. As she lay there, smiling a little grimly in the dark and giving no sign of being awake, she thought, “Oh, well, I guess a closed window won’t kill me either.”
Still, sometimes, just to punish him a little, and to prove that she was nobody’s fool, she would wait until he had dropped off to sleep again and then she, too, would achieve a stealthy trip to the window and would raise it slowly, carefully, inch by inch.
“How did that window come to be open?” he would say in the morning, being a poor dissembler.
“Window? Why, it’s just the way it was when we went to bed.” And she would stoop to pick up the pillow that lay on the floor.
There was little or no talk of death between this comfortable, active, sound-appearing man of almost seventy and this plump capable woman of sixty-six. But as always, between husband and wife, it was understood wordlessly (and without reason) that old man Minick would go first. Not that either of them had the slightest intention of going. In fact, when it happened they were planning to spend the winter in California and perhaps live there indefinitely if they liked it and didn’t get too lonesome for George and Nettie, and the Chicago smoke, and Chicago noise, and Chicago smells and rush and dirt. Still, the solid sum paid yearly in insurance premiums showed clearly that he meant to leave her in comfort and security. Besides, the world is full of widows. Everyone sees that. But how many widowers? Few. Widows there are by the thousands; living alone; living in hotels; living with married daughters and sons-in-law or married sons and daughters-in-law. But of widowers in a like situation there are bewilderingly few. And why this should be no one knows.
So, then. The California trip never materialized. And the year that followed never was quite clear in old man Minick’s dazed mind. In the first place, it was the year in which stocks tumbled and broke their backs. Gilt-edged securities showed themselves to be tinsel. Old man Minick had retired from active business just one year before, meaning to live comfortably on the fruit of a half-century’s toil. He now saw that fruit rotting all about him. There was in it hardly enough nourishment to sustain them. Then came the day when Ma Minick went downtown to see Matthews about that pain right here and came home looking shrivelled, talking shrilly about nothing, and evading Pa’s eyes. Followed months that were just a jumble of agony, X-rays, hope, despair, morphia, nothingness.
After it was all over: “But I was going first,” old man Minick said, dazedly.
The old house on Ellis near Thirty-ninth was sold for what it would bring. George, who knew Chicago real-estate if any one did, said they might as well get what they could. Things would only go lower. You’ll see. And nobody’s going to have any money for years. Besides, look at the neighbourhood!
Old man Minick said George was right. He said everybody was right. You would hardly have recognized in this shrunken figure and wattled face the spruce and dressy old man whom Ma Minick used to spoil so delightfully. “You know best, George. You know best.” He who used to stand up to George until Ma Minick was moved to say, “Now, Pa, you don’t know everything.”
After Matthews’ bills, and the hospital, and the nurses and the medicines and the thousand and one things were paid there was left exactly five hundred dollars a year.
“You’re going to make your home with us, Father,” George and Nettie said. Alma, too, said this would be the best. Alma, the married daughter, lived in Seattle. “Though you know Ferd and I would be only too glad to have you.”
Seattle! The ends of the earth. Oh, no. No! he protested, every fibre of his old frame clinging to the accustomed. Seattle, at seventy! He turned piteous eyes on his son George and his daughter-in-law Nettie. “You’re going to make your home with us, Father,” they reassured him. He clung to them gratefully. After it was over Alma went home to her husband and their children.
So now he lived with George and Nettie in the five-room flat on South Park Avenue, just across from Washington Park. And there was no extra pillow on the floor.
Nettie hadn’t said he couldn’t have the extra pillow. He had told her he used two and she had given him two the first week. But every morning she had found a pillow cast on the floor.
“I thought you used two pillows, Father.”
“But there’s always one on the floor when I make the bed in the morning. You always throw one on the floor. You only sleep on one pillow, really.”
“I use two pillows.”
But the second week there was one pillow. He tossed and turned a good deal there in his bedroom off the kitchen. But he got used to it in time. Not used to it, exactly, but–well—-
The bedroom off the kitchen wasn’t as menial as it sounds. It was really rather cosy. The five-room flat held living room, front bedroom, dining room, kitchen, and maid’s room. The room off the kitchen was intended as a maid’s room but Nettie had no maid. George’s business had suffered with the rest. George and Nettie had said, “I wish there was a front room for you, Father. You could have ours and we’d move back here, only this room’s too small for twin beds and the dressing table and the chiffonier.” They had meant it–or meant to mean it.
“This is fine,” old man Minick had said. “This is good enough for anybody.” There was a narrow white enamel bed and a tiny dresser and a table. Nettie had made gay cretonne covers and spreads and put a little reading lamp on the table and arranged his things. Ma Minick’s picture on the dresser with her mouth sort of pursed to make it look small. It wasn’t a recent picture. Nettie and George had had it framed for him as a surprise. They had often urged her to have a picture taken, but she had dreaded it. Old man Minick didn’t think much of that photograph, though he never said so. He needed no photograph of Ma Minick. He had a dozen of them; a gallery of them; thousands of them. Lying on his one pillow he could take them out and look at them one by one as they passed in review, smiling, serious, chiding, praising, there in the dark. He needed no picture on his dresser.
A handsome girl, Nettie, and a good girl. He thought of her as a girl, though she was well past thirty. George and Nettie had married late. This was only the third year of their marriage. Alma, the daughter, had married young, but George had stayed on, unwed, in the old house on Ellis until he was thirty-six and all Ma Minick’s friends’ daughters had had a try at him in vain. The old people had urged him to marry, but it had been wonderful to have him around the house, just the same. Somebody young around the house. Not that George had stayed around very much. But when he was there you knew he was there. He whistled while dressing. He sang in the bath. He roared down the stairway, “Ma, where’s my clean shirts?” The telephone rang for him. Ma Minick prepared special dishes for him. The servant girl said, “Oh, now, Mr. George, look what you’ve done! Gone and spilled the grease all over my clean kitchen floor!” and wiped it up adoringly while George laughed and gobbled his bit of food filched from pot or frying pan.
They had been a little surprised about Nettie. George was in the bond business and she worked for the same firm. A plump, handsome, eye-glassed woman with fine fresh colouring, a clear skin that old man Minick called appetizing, and a great coil of smooth dark hair. She wore plain tailored things and understood the bond business in a way that might have led you to think hers a masculine mind if she hadn’t been so feminine, too, in her manner. Old man Minick had liked her better than Ma Minick had.
Nettie had called him Pop and joked with him and almost flirted with him in a daughterly sort of way. He liked to squeeze her plump arm and pinch her soft cheek between thumb and forefinger. She would laugh up at him and pat his shoulder and that shoulder would straighten spryly and he would waggle his head doggishly.
“Look out there, George!” the others in the room would say. “Your dad’ll cut you out. First thing you know you’ll lose your girl, that’s all.”
Nettie would smile. Her teeth were white and strong and even. Old man Minick would laugh and wink, immensely pleased and flattered. “We understand each other, don’t we, Pop?” Nettie would say.
During the first years of their married life Nettie stayed home. She fussed happily about her little flat, gave parties, went to parties, played bridge. She seemed to love the ease, the relaxation, the small luxuries. She and George were very much in love. Before her marriage she had lived in a boarding house on Michigan Avenue. At mention of it now she puckered up her face. She did not attempt to conceal her fondness for these five rooms of hers, so neat, so quiet, so bright, so cosy. Over-stuffed velvet in the living room, with silk lampshades, and small tables holding books and magazines and little boxes containing cigarettes or hard candies. Very modern. A gate-legged table in the dining room. Caramel-coloured walnut in the bedroom, rich and dark and smooth. She loved it. An orderly woman. Everything in its place. Before eleven o’clock the little apartment was shining, spotless; cushions plumped, crumbs brushed, vegetables in cold water. The telephone. “Hello!… Oh, hello, Bess! Oh, hours ago … Not a thing … Well, if George is willing … I’ll call him up and ask him. We haven’t seen a show in two weeks. I’ll call you back within the next half hour … No, I haven’t done my marketing yet…. Yes, and have dinner downtown. Meet at seven.”
Into this orderly smooth-running mechanism was catapulted a bewildered old man. She no longer called him Pop. He never dreamed of squeezing the plump arm or pinching the smooth cheek. She called him Father. Sometimes George’s Father. Sometimes, when she was telephoning, there came to him–“George’s father’s living with us now, you know. I can’t.”
They were very kind to him, Nettie and George. “Now just you sit right down here, Father. What do you want to go poking off into your own room for?”
He remembered that in the last year Nettie had said something about going back to work. There wasn’t enough to do around the house to keep her busy. She was sick of afternoon parties. Sew and eat, that’s all, and gossip, or play bridge. Besides, look at the money. Business was awful. The two old people had resented this idea as much as George had–more, in fact. They were scandalized.
“Young folks nowdays!” shaking their heads. “Young folks nowdays. What are they thinking of! In my day when you got married you had babies.”
George and Nettie had had no babies. At first Nettie had said, “I’m so happy. I just want a chance to rest. I’ve been working since I was seventeen. I just want to rest, first.” One year. Two years. Three. And now Pa Minick.
Ma Minick, in the old house on Ellis Avenue, had kept a loose sort of larder; not lavish, but plentiful. They both ate a great deal, as old people are likely to do. Old man Minick, especially, had liked to nibble. A handful of raisins from the box on the shelf. A couple of nuts from the dish on the sideboard. A bit of candy rolled beneath the tongue. At dinner (sometimes, toward the last, even at noon-time) a plate of steaming soup, hot, revivifying, stimulating. Plenty of this and plenty of that. “What’s the matter, Jo? You’re not eating.” But he was, amply. Ma Minick had liked to see him eat too much. She was wrong, of course.
But at Nettie’s things were different. Hers was a sufficient but stern menage. So many mouths to feed; just so many lamb chops. Nettie knew about calories and vitamines and mysterious things like that, and talked about them. So many calories in this. So many calories in that. He never was quite clear in his mind about these things said to be lurking in his food. He had always thought of spinach as spinach, chops as chops. But to Nettie they were calories. They lunched together, these two. George was, of course, downtown. For herself Nettie would have one of those feminine pick-up lunches; a dab of apple sauce, a cup of tea, and a slice of cold toast left from breakfast. This she would eat while old man Minick guiltily supped up his cup of warmed-over broth, or his coddled egg. She always pressed upon him any bit of cold meat that was left from the night before, or any remnants of vegetable or spaghetti. Often there was quite a little fleet of saucers and sauce plates grouped about his main plate. Into these he dipped and swooped uncomfortably, and yet with a relish. Sometimes, when he had finished, he would look about, furtively.
“What’ll you have, Father? Can I get you something?”
“Nothing, Nettie, nothing. I’m doing fine.” She had finished the last of her wooden toast and was waiting for him, kindly.
Still, this balanced and scientific fare seemed to agree with him. As the winter went on he seemed actually to have regained most of his former hardiness and vigour. A handsome old boy he was, ruddy, hale, with the zest of a juicy old apple, slightly withered but still sappy. It should be mentioned that he had a dimple in his cheek which flashed unexpectedly when he smiled. It gave him a roguish–almost boyish–effect most appealing to the beholder. Especially the feminine beholder. Much of his spoiling at the hands of Ma Minick had doubtless been due to this mere depression of the skin.
Spring was to bring a new and welcome source of enrichment into his life. But these first six months of his residence with George and Nettie were hard. No spoiling there. He missed being made much of. He got kindness, but he needed love. Then, too, he was rather a gabby old man. He liked to hold forth. In the old house on Ellis there had been visiting back and forth between men and women of his own age, and Ma’s. At these gatherings he had waxed oratorical or argumentative, and they had heard him, some in agreement, some in disagreement, but always respectfully, whether he prated of real estate or social depravity; prohibition or European exchange.
“Let me tell you, here and now, something’s got to be done before you can get a country back on a sound financial basis. Why, take Russia alone, why …” Or: “Young people nowdays! They don’t know what respect means. I tell you there’s got to be a change and there will be, and it’s the older generation that’s got to bring it about. What do they know of hardship! What do they know about work–real work. Most of ’em’s never done a real day’s work in their life. All they think of is dancing and gambling and drinking. Look at the way they dress! Look at …”
“That’s so,” the others would agree. “I was saying only yesterday …”
Then, too, until a year or two before, he had taken active part in business. He had retired only at the urging of Ma and the children. They said he ought to rest and play and enjoy himself.
Now, as his strength and good spirits gradually returned he began to go downtown, mornings. He would dress, carefully, though a little shakily. He had always shaved himself and he kept this up. All in all, during the day, he occupied the bathroom literally for hours, and this annoyed Nettie to the point of frenzy, though she said nothing. He liked the white cheerfulness of the little tiled room. He puddled about in the water endlessly. Snorted and splashed and puffed and snuffled and blew. He was one of those audible washers who emerge dripping and whose ablutions are distributed impartially over ceiling, walls, and floor.
Nettie, at the closed door: “Father, are you all right?”
Splash! Prrrf! “Yes. Sure. I’m all right.”
“Well, I didn’t know. You’ve been in there so long.”
He was a neat old man, but there was likely to be a spot or so on his vest or his coat lapel, or his tie. Ma used to remove these, on or off him, as the occasion demanded, rubbing carefully and scolding a little, making a chiding sound between tongue and teeth indicative of great impatience of his carelessness. He had rather enjoyed these sounds, and this rubbing and scratching on the cloth with the fingernail and a moistened rag. They indicated that someone cared. Cared about the way he looked. Had pride in him. Loved him. Nettie never removed spots. Though infrequently she said, “Father, just leave that suit out, will you? I’ll send it to the cleaner’s with George’s. The man’s coming to-morrow morning.” He would look down at himself, hastily, and attack a spot here and there with a futile fingernail.
His morning toilette completed, he would make for the Fifty-first Street L. Seated in the train he would assume an air of importance and testy haste; glance out of the window; look at his watch. You got the impression of a handsome and well-preserved old gentleman on his way downtown to consummate a shrewd business deal. He had been familiar with Chicago’s downtown for fifty years and he could remember when State Street was a tree-shaded cottage district. The noise and rush and clangour of the Loop had long been familiar to him. But now he seemed to find the downtown trip arduous, even hazardous. The roar of the elevated trains, the hoarse hoots of the motor horns, the clang of the street cars, the bedlam that is Chicago’s downtown district bewildered him, frightened him almost. He would skip across the street like a harried hare, just missing a motor truck’s nose and all unconscious of the stream of invective directed at him by its charioteer. “Heh! Whatcha!… Look!”–Sometimes a policeman came to his aid, or attempted to, but he resented this proffered help.
“Say, look here, my lad,” he would say to the tall, tired, and not at all burly (standing on one’s feet directing traffic at Wabash and Madison for eight hours a day does not make for burliness) policeman, “I’ve been coming downtown since long before you were born. You don’t need to help me. I’m no jay from the country.”
He visited the Stock Exchange. This depressed him. Stocks were lower than ever and still going down. His five hundred a year was safe, but the rest seemed doomed for his lifetime, at least. He would drop in at George’s office. George’s office was pleasantly filled with dapper, neat young men and (surprisingly enough) dapper, slim young women, seated at desks in the big light-flooded room. At one corner of each desk stood a polished metal placard on a little standard, and bearing the name of the desk’s occupant. Mr. Owens. Mr. Satterlee. Mr. James. Miss Rauch. Mr. Minick.
“Hello, Father,” Mr. Minick would say, looking annoyed. “What’s bringing you down?”
“Oh, nothing. Nothing. Just had a little business to tend to over at the Exchange. Thought I’d drop in. How’s business?”
“I should think it was!” Old man Minick would agree. “I–should–think–it–was! Hm.”
George wished he wouldn’t. He couldn’t have it, that’s all. Old man Minick would stroll over to the desk marked Satterlee, or Owens, or James. These brisk young men would toss an upward glance at him and concentrate again on the sheets and files before them. Old man Minick would stand, balancing from heel to toe and blowing out his breath a little. He looked a bit yellow and granulated and wavering, there in the cruel morning light of the big plate glass windows. Or perhaps it was the contrast he presented with these slim, slick young salesmen.
“Well, h’are you to-day, Mr.–uh–Satterlee? What’s the good word?”
Mr. Satterlee would not glance up this time. “I’m pretty well. Can’t complain.”
“Anything I can do for you?”
“No-o-o. No. Not a thing. Just dropped in to see my son a minute.”
“I see.” Not unkindly. Then, as old man Minick still stood there, balancing, Mr. Satterlee would glance up again, frowning a little. “Your son’s desk is over there, I believe. Yes.”
George and Nettie had a bedtime conference about these visits and Nettie told him, gently, that the bond house head objected to friends and relatives dropping in. It was against office rules. It had been so when she was employed there. Strictly business. She herself had gone there only once since her marriage.
Well, that was all right. Business was like that nowdays. Rush and grab and no time for anything.
The winter was a hard one, with a record snowfall and intense cold. He stayed indoors for days together. A woman of his own age in like position could have occupied herself usefully and happily. She could have hemmed a sash-curtain; knitted or crocheted; tidied a room; taken a hand in the cooking or preparing of food; ripped an old gown; made over a new one; indulged in an occasional afternoon festivity with women of her own years. But for old man Minick there were no small tasks. There was nothing he could do to make his place in the household justifiable. He wasn’t even particularly good at those small jobs of hammering, or painting, or general “fixing.” Nettie could drive a nail more swiftly, more surely than he. “Now, Father, don’t you bother. I’ll do it. Just you go and sit down. Isn’t it time for your afternoon nap?”
He waxed a little surly. “Nap! I just got up. I don’t want to sleep my life away.”
George and Nettie frequently had guests in the evening. They played bridge, or poker, or talked.
“Come in, Father,” George would say. “Come in. You all know Dad, don’t you, folks?” He would sit down, uncertainly. At first he had attempted to expound, as had been his wont in the old house on Ellis. “I want to say, here and now, that this country’s got to …” But they went on, heedless of him. They interrupted or refused, politely, to listen. So he sat in the room, yet no part of it. The young people’s talk swirled and eddied all about him. He was utterly lost in it. Now and then Nettie or George would turn to him and with raised voice (he was not at all deaf and prided himself on it) would shout, “It’s about this or that, Father. He was saying …”
When the group roared with laughter at a sally from one of them he would smile uncertainly but amiably, glancing from one to the other in complete ignorance of what had passed, but not resenting it. He took to sitting more and more in his kitchen bedroom, smoking a comforting pipe and reading and re-reading the evening paper. During that winter he and Canary, the negro washwoman, became quite good friends. She washed down in the basement once a week but came up to the kitchen for her massive lunch. A walrus-waisted black woman, with a rich throaty voice, a rolling eye, and a kindly heart. He actually waited for her appearance above the laundry stairs.
“Weh, how’s Mist’ Minick to-day! Ah nev’ did see a gemun spry’s you ah fo’ yo’ age. No, suh! nev’ did.”
At this rare praise he would straighten his shoulders and waggle his head. “I’m worth any ten of these young sprats to-day.” Canary would throw back her head in a loud and companionable guffaw.
Nettie would appear at the kitchen swinging door. “Canary’s having her lunch, Father. Don’t you want to come into the front room with me? We’ll have our lunch in another half-hour.” He followed her obediently enough. Nettie thought of him as a troublesome and rather pathetic child–a child who would never grow up. If she attributed any thoughts to that fine old head they were ambling thoughts, bordering, perhaps, on senility. Little did she know how expertly this old one surveyed her and how ruthlessly he passed judgment. She never suspected the thoughts that formed in the active brain.
He knew about women. He had married a woman. He had had children by her. He looked at this woman–his son’s wife–moving about her little five-room flat. She had theories about children. He had heard her expound them. You didn’t have them except under such and such circumstances. It wasn’t fair otherwise. Plenty of money for their education. Well. He and his wife had had three children. Paul, the second, had died at thirteen. A blow, that had been. They had not always planned for the coming of the three but they always had found a way, afterward. You managed, somehow, once the little wrinkled red ball had fought its way into the world. You managed. You managed. Look at George! Yet when he was born, thirty-nine years ago, Pa and Ma Minick had been hard put to it.
Sitting there, while Nettie dismissed him as negligible, he saw her clearly, grimly. He looked at her. She was plump, but not too short, with a generous width between the hips; a broad full bosom, but firm; round arms and quick slim legs; a fine sturdy throat. The curve between arm and breast made a graceful gracious line … Working in a bond office … Working in a bond office … There was nothing in the Bible about working in a bond office. Here was a woman built for child-bearing.
She thought him senile, negligible.
In March Nettie had in a sewing woman for a week. She had her two or three times a year. A hawk-faced woman of about forty-nine, with a blue-bottle figure and a rapacious eye. She sewed in the dining room and there was a pleasant hum of machine and snip of scissors and murmur of conversation and rustle of silky stuff; and hot savoury dishes for lunch. She and old man Minick became great friends. She even let him take out bastings. This when Nettie had gone out from two to four, between fittings.
He chuckled and waggled his head. “I expect to be paid regular assistant’s wages for this,” he said.
“I guess you don’t need any wages, Mr. Minick,” the woman said. “I guess you’re pretty well fixed.”
“Oh, well, I can’t complain.” (Five hundred a year.)
“Complain! I should say not! If I was to complain it’d be different. Work all day to keep myself; and nobody to come home to at night.”
“Since I was twenty. Work, work, that’s all I’ve had. And lonesome! I suppose you don’t know what lonesome is.”
“Oh, don’t I!” slipped from him. He had dropped the bastings.
The sewing woman flashed a look at him from the cold hard eye. “Well, maybe you do. I suppose living here like this, with sons and daughters, ain’t so grand, for all your money. Now me, I’ve always managed to keep my own little place that I could call home, to come back to. It’s only two rooms, and nothing to rave about, but it’s home. Evenings I just cook and fuss around. Nobody to fuss for, but I fuss, anyway. Cooking, that’s what I love to do. Plenty of good food, that’s what folks need to keep their strength up.” Nettie’s lunch that day had been rather scant.
She was there a week. In Nettie’s absence she talked against her. He protested, but weakly. Did she give him egg-nogs? Milk? Hot toddy? Soup? Plenty of good rich gravy and meat and puddings? Well! That’s what folks needed when they weren’t so young any more. Not that he looked old. My, no. Sprier than many young boys, and handsomer than his own son if she did say so.
He fed on it, hungrily. The third day she was flashing meaning glances at him across the luncheon table. The fourth she pressed his foot beneath the table. The fifth, during Nettie’s afternoon absence, she got up, ostensibly to look for a bit of cloth which she needed for sewing, and, passing him, laid a caressing hand on his shoulder. Laid it there and pressed his shoulder ever so little. He looked up, startled. The glances across the luncheon had largely passed over his head; the foot beneath the table might have been an accident. But this–this was unmistakable. He stood up, a little shakily. She caught his hand. The hawk-like face was close to his.
“You need somebody to love you,” she said. “Somebody to do for you, and love you.” The hawk face came nearer. He leaned a little toward it. But between it and his face was Ma Minick’s face, plump, patient, quizzical, kindly. His head came back sharply. He threw the woman’s hot hand from him.
“Woman!” he cried. “Jezebel!”
The front door slammed. Nettie. The woman flew to her sewing. Old man Minick, shaking, went into his kitchen bedroom.
“Well,” said Nettie, depositing her bundles on the dining room table, “did you finish that faggoting? Why, you haven’t done so very much, have you!”
“I ain’t feeling so good,” said the woman. “That lunch didn’t agree with me.”
“Why, it was a good plain lunch. I don’t see—-“
“Oh, it was plain enough, all right.”
Next day she did not come to finish her work. Sick, she telephoned. Nettie called it an outrage. She finished the sewing herself, though she hated sewing. Pa Minick said nothing, but there was a light in his eye. Now and then he chuckled, to Nettie’s infinite annoyance, though she said nothing.
“Wanted to marry me!” he said to himself, chuckling. “Wanted to marry me! The old rip!”
At the end of April, Pa Minick discovered Washington Park, and the Club, and his whole life was from that day transformed.
He had taken advantage of the early spring sunshine to take a walk, at Nettie’s suggestion.
“Why don’t you go into the Park, Father? It’s really warm out. And the sun’s lovely. Do you good.”
He had put on his heaviest shirt, and a muffler, and George’s old red sweater with the great white “C” on its front, emblem of George’s athletic prowess at the University of Chicago; and over all, his greatcoat. He had taken warm mittens and his cane with the greyhound’s head handle, carved. So equipped he had ambled uninterestedly over to the Park across the way. And there he had found new life.
New life in old life. For the park was full of old men. Old men like himself, with greyhound’s-head canes, and mufflers and somebody’s sweater worn beneath their greatcoats. They wore arctics, though the weather was fine. The skin of their hands and cheek-bones was glazed and had a tight look though it lay in fine little folds. There were splotches of brown on the backs of their hands, and on the temples and forehead. Their heavy grey or brown socks made comfortable folds above their ankles. From that April morning until winter drew on the Park saw old man Minick daily. Not only daily but by the day. Except for his meals, and a brief hour for his after-luncheon nap, he spent all his time there.
For in the park old man Minick and all the old men gathered there found a Forum–a safety valve–a means of expression. It did not take him long to discover that the Park was divided into two distinct sets of old men. There were the old men who lived with their married sons and daughters-in-law or married daughters and sons-in-law. Then there were the old men who lived in the Grant Home for Aged Gentlemen. You saw its fine red-brick facade through the trees at the edge of the Park.
And the slogan of these first was:
“My son and my da’ter they wouldn’t want me to live in any public Home. No, sirree! They want me right there with them. In their own home. That’s the kind of son and daughter I’ve got!”
The slogan of the second was:
“I wouldn’t live with any son or daughter. Independent. That’s me. My own boss. Nobody to tell me what I can do and what I can’t. Treat you like a child. I’m my own boss! Pay my own good money and get my keep for it.”
The first group, strangely enough, was likely to be spotted of vest and a little frayed as to collar. You saw them going on errands for their daughters-in-law. A loaf of bread. Spool of white No. 100. They took their small grandchildren to the duck pond and between the two toddlers hand in hand–the old and infirm and the infantile and infirm–it was hard to tell which led which.
The second group was shiny as to shoes, spotless as to linen, dapper as to clothes. They had no small errands. Theirs was a magnificent leisure. And theirs was magnificent conversation. The questions they discussed and settled there in the Park–these old men–were not international merely. They were cosmic in scope.
The War? Peace? Disarmament? China? Free love? Mere conversational bubbles to be tossed in the air and disposed of in a burst of foam. Strong meat for old man Minick who had so long been fed on pap. But he soon got used to it. Between four and five in the afternoon, in a spot known as Under The Willows, the meeting took the form of a club–an open forum. A certain group made up of Socialists, Free Thinkers, parlour anarchists, bolshevists, had for years drifted there for talk. Old man Minick learned high-sounding phrases. “The Masters … democracy … toil of the many for the good of the few … the ruling class … free speech … the People….”
The strong-minded ones held forth. The weaker ones drifted about on the outskirts, sometimes clinging to the moist and sticky paw of a round-eyed grandchild. Earlier in the day–at eleven o’clock, say–the talk was not so general nor so inclusive. The old men were likely to drift into groups of two or three or four. They sat on sun-bathed benches and their conversation was likely to be rather smutty at times, for all they looked so mild and patriarchal and desiccated. They paid scant heed to the white-haired old women who, like themselves, were sunning in the park. They watched the young women switch by, with appreciative glances at their trim figures and slim ankles. The day of the short skirt was a grand time for them. They chuckled among themselves and made wicked comment. One saw only white-haired, placid, tremulous old men, but their minds still worked with belated masculinity like naughty small boys talking behind the barn.
Old man Minick early achieved a certain leadership in the common talk. He had always liked to hold forth. This last year had been one of almost unendurable bottling up. At first he had timidly sought the less assertive ones of his kind. Mild old men who sat in rockers in the pavilion waiting for lunch time. Their conversation irritated him. They remarked everything that passed before their eyes.
“There’s a boat. Fella with a boat.”
A silence. Then, heavily: “Yeh.”
“Look at those people laying on the grass. Shouldn’t think it was warm enough for that…. Now they’re getting up.”
A group of equestrians passed along the bridle path on the opposite side of the lagoon. They made a frieze against the delicate spring greenery. The coats of the women were scarlet, vivid green, arresting, stimulating.
“Good weather for riding.”
A man was fishing near by. “Good weather for fishing.”
“Wonder what time it is, anyway.” From a pocket, deep-buried, came forth a great gold blob of a watch. “I’ve got one minute to eleven.”
Old man Minick dragged forth a heavy globe. “Mm. I’ve got eleven.”
“Little fast, I guess.”
Old man Minick shook off this conversation impatiently. This wasn’t conversation. This was oral death, though he did not put it thus. He joined the other men. They were discussing Spiritualism. He listened, ventured an opinion, was heard respectfully and then combated mercilessly. He rose to the verbal fight, and won it.
“Let’s see,” said one of the old men. “You’re not living at the Grant Home, are you?”
“No,” old man Minick made reply, proudly. “I live with my son and his wife. They wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“Hm. Like to be independent myself.”
“Lonesome, ain’t it? Over there?”
“Lonesome! Say, Mr.–what’d you say your name was? Minick? Mine’s Hughes–I never was lonesome in my life ‘cept for six months when I lived with my daughter and her husband and their five children. Yes, sir. That’s what I call lonesome, in an eight-room flat.”
George and Nettie said, “It’s doing you good, Father, being out in the air so much.” His eyes were brighter, his figure straighter, his colour better. It was that day he had held forth so eloquently on the emigration question. He had to read a lot–papers and magazines and one thing and another–to keep up. He devoured all the books and pamphlets about bond issues and national finances brought home by George. In the Park he was considered an authority on bonds and banking. He and a retired real-estate man named Mowry sometimes debated a single question for weeks. George and Nettie, relieved, thought he ambled to the Park and spent senile hours with his drooling old friends discussing nothing amiably and witlessly. This while he was eating strong meat, drinking strong drink.
Summer sped. Was past. Autumn held a new dread for old man Minick. When winter came where should he go? Where should he go? Not back to the five-room flat all day, and the little back bedroom, and nothingness. In his mind there rang a childish old song they used to sing at school. A silly song:
Where do all the birdies go?
I know. I know.
But he didn’t know. He was terror-stricken. October came and went. With the first of November the Park became impossible, even at noon, and with two overcoats and the sweater. The first frost was a black frost for him. He scanned the heavens daily for rain or snow. There was a cigar store and billiard room on the corner across the boulevard and there he sometimes went, with a few of his Park cronies, to stand behind the players’ chairs and watch them at pinochle or rum. But this was a dull business. Besides, the Grant men never came there. They had card rooms of their own.
He turned away from this smoky little den on a drab November day, sick at heart. The winter. He tried to face it, and at what he saw he shrank and was afraid.
He reached the apartment and went around to the rear, dutifully. His rubbers were wet and muddy and Nettie’s living-room carpet was a fashionable grey. The back door was unlocked. It was Canary’s day downstairs, he remembered. He took off his rubbers in the kitchen and passed into the dining room. Voices. Nettie had company. Some friends, probably, for tea. He turned to go to his room, but stopped at hearing his own name. Father Minick. Father Minick. Nettie’s voice.
“Of course, if it weren’t for Father Minick I would have. But how can we as long as he lives with us? There isn’t room. And we can’t afford a bigger place now, with rents what they are. This way it wouldn’t be fair to the child. We’ve talked it over, George and I. Don’t you suppose? But not as long as Father Minick is with us. I don’t mean we’d use the maid’s room for a–for the–if we had a baby. But I’d have to have someone in to help, then, and we’d have to have that extra room.”
He stood there in the dining room, quiet. Quiet. His body felt queerly remote and numb, but his mind was working frenziedly. Clearly, too, in spite of the frenzy. Death. That was the first thought. Death. It would be easy. But he didn’t want to die. Strange, but he didn’t want to die. He liked Life. The Park, the trees, the Club, the talk, the whole show…. Nettie was a good girl…. The old must make way for the young. They had the right to be born…. Maybe it was just another excuse. Almost four years married. Why not three years ago?… The right to live. The right to live….
He turned, stealthily, stealthily, and went back into the kitchen, put on his rubbers, stole out into the darkening November afternoon.
In an hour he was back. He entered at the front door this time, ringing the bell. He had never had a key. As if he were a child they would not trust him with one. Nettie’s women friends were just leaving. In the air you smelled a mingling of perfume, and tea, and cakes, and powder. He sniffed it, sensitively.
“How do you do, Mr. Minick!” they said. “How are you! Well, you certainly look it. And how do you manage these gloomy days?”
He smiled genially, taking off his greatcoat and revealing the red sweater with the big white “C” on it. “I manage. I manage.” He puffed out his cheeks. “I’m busy moving.”
“Moving!” Nettie’s startled eyes flew to his, held them. “Moving, Father?”
“Old folks must make way for the young,” he said, gaily. “That’s the law of life. Yes, sir! New ones. New ones.”
Nettie’s face was scarlet. “Father, what in the world—-“
“I signed over at the Grant Home to-day. Move in next week.” The women looked at her, smiling. Old man Minick came over to her and patted her plump arm. Then he pinched her smooth cheek with a quizzical thumb and forefinger. Pinched it and shook it ever so little.
“I don’t know what you mean,” said Nettie, out of breath.
“Yes, you do,” said old man Minick, and while his tone was light and jesting there was in his old face something stern, something menacing. “Yes, you do.”
* * * * *
When he entered the Grant Home a group of them was seated about the fireplace in the main hall. A neat, ruddy, septuagenarian circle. They greeted him casually, with delicacy of feeling, as if he were merely approaching them at their bench in the Park.
“Say, Minick, look here. Mowry here says China ought to have been included in the four-power treaty. He says—-“
Old man Minick cleared his throat. “You take China, now,” he said, “with her vast and practically, you might say, virgin country, why—-“
An apple-cheeked maid in a black dress and a white apron stopped before him. He paused.
“Housekeeper says for me to tell you your room’s all ready, if you’d like to look at it now.”
“Minute. Minute, my child.” He waved her aside with the air of one who pays five hundred a year for independence and freedom. The girl turned to go. “Uh–young lady! Young lady!” She looked at him. “Tell the housekeeper two pillows, please. Two pillows on my bed. Be sure.”
“Yes, sir. Two pillows. Yes, sir. I’ll be sure.”