Story type: Literature
Though he rarely heeded its summons–cagy boy that he was–the telephone rang oftenest for Nick. Because of the many native noises of the place, the telephone had a special bell that was a combination buzz and ring. It sounded above the roar of outgoing cars, the splash of the hose, the sputter and hum of the electric battery in the rear. Nick heard it, unheeding. A voice–Smitty’s or Mike’s or Elmer’s–answering its call. Then, echoing through the grey, vaulted spaces of the big garage: “Nick! Oh, Ni-ick!”
From the other side of the great cement-floored enclosure, or in muffled tones from beneath a car: “Whatcha want?”
“Dame on the wire.”
“I ain’t in.”
The obliging voice again, dutifully repeating the message: “He ain’t in…. Well, it’s hard to say. He might be in in a couple hours and then again he might not be back till late. I guess he’s went to Hammond on a job—-” (Warming to his task now.) “Say, won’t I do?… Who’s fresh! Aw, say, lady!”
You’d think, after repeated rebuffs of this sort, she could not possibly be so lacking in decent pride as to leave her name for Smitty or Mike or Elmer to bandy about. But she invariably did, baffled by Nick’s elusiveness. She was likely to be any one of a number. Miss Bauers phoned: Will you tell him, please? (A nasal voice, and haughty, with the hauteur that seeks to conceal secret fright.) Tell him it’s important. Miss Ahearn phoned: Will you tell him, please? Just say Miss Ahearn. A-h-e-a-r-n. Miss Olson: Just Gertie. But oftenest Miss Bauers.
Cupid’s messenger, wearing grease-grimed overalls and the fatuous grin of the dalliant male, would transmit his communication to the uneager Nick.
“‘S wonder you wouldn’t answer the phone once yourself. Says you was to call Miss Bauers any time you come in between one and six at Hyde Park–wait a min’t’–yeh–Hyde Park 6079, and any time after six at—-“
“Wha’d she want?”
“Well, how the hell should I know! Says call Miss Bauers any time between one and six at Hyde Park 6—-“
“Swell chanst. Swell chanst!”
Which explains why the calls came oftenest for Nick. He was so indifferent to them. You pictured the patient and persistent Miss Bauers, or the oxlike Miss Olson, or Miss Ahearn, or just Gertie hovering within hearing distance of the telephone listening, listening–while one o’clock deepened to six–for the call that never came; plucking up fresh courage at six until six o’clock dragged on to bedtime. When next they met: “I bet you was there all the time. Pity you wouldn’t answer a call when a person leaves their name. You could of give me a ring. I bet you was there all the time.”
“Well, maybe I was.”
Bewildered, she tried to retaliate with the boomerang of vituperation.
How could she know? How could she know that this slim, slick young garage mechanic was a woodland creature in disguise–a satyr in store clothes–a wild thing who perversely preferred to do his own pursuing? How could Miss Bauers know–she who cashiered in the Green Front Grocery and Market on Fifty-third Street? Or Miss Olson, at the Rialto ticket window? Or the Celtic, emotional Miss Ahearn, the manicure? Or Gertie the goof? They knew nothing of mythology; of pointed ears and pug noses and goat’s feet. Nick’s ears, to their fond gaze, presented an honest red surface protruding from either side of his head. His feet, in tan laced shoes, were ordinary feet, a little more than ordinarily expert, perhaps, in the convolutions of the dance at Englewood Masonic Hall, which is part of Chicago’s vast South Side. No; a faun, to Miss Bauers, Miss Olson, Miss Ahearn, and just Gertie, was one of those things in the Lincoln Park Zoo.
Perhaps, sometimes, they realized, vaguely, that Nick was different. When, for example, they tried–and failed–to picture him looking interestedly at one of those three-piece bedroom sets glistening like pulled taffy in the window of the installment furniture store, while they, shy yet proprietary, clung to his arm and eyed the price ticket. Now $98.50. You couldn’t see Nick interested in bedroom sets, in price tickets, in any of those settled, fixed, everyday things. He was fluid, evasive, like quicksilver, though they did not put it thus.
Miss Bauers, goaded to revolt, would say pettishly: “You’re like a mosquito, that’s what. Person never knows from one minute to the other where you’re at.”
“Yeh,” Nick would retort. “When you know where a mosquito’s at, what do you do to him? Plenty. I ain’t looking to be squashed.”
Miss Ahearn, whose public position (the Hygienic Barber Shop. Gent’s manicure, 50c.) offered unlimited social opportunities, would assume a gay indifference. “They’s plenty boys begging to take me out every hour in the day. Swell lads, too. I ain’t waiting round for any greasy mechanic like you. Don’t think it. Say, lookit your nails! They’d queer you with me, let alone what else all is wrong with you.”
In answer Nick would put one hand–one broad, brown, steel-strong hand with its broken discoloured nails–on Miss Ahearn’s arm, in its flimsy georgette sleeve. Miss Ahearn’s eyelids would flutter and close, and a little shiver would run with icy-hot feet all over Miss Ahearn.
Nick was like that.
Nick’s real name wasn’t Nick at all–or scarcely at all. His last name was Nicholas, and his parents, long before they became his parents, traced their origin to some obscure Czechoslovakian province–long before we became so glib with our Czechoslovakia. His first name was Dewey, knowing which you automatically know the date of his birth. It was a patriotic but unfortunate choice on the part of his parents. The name did not fit him; was too mealy; not debonair enough. Nick. Nicky in tenderer moments (Miss Bauers, Miss Olson, Miss Ahearn, just Gertie, et al.).
His method with women was firm and somewhat stern, but never brutal. He never waited for them if they were late. Any girl who assumed that her value was enhanced in direct proportion to her tardiness in keeping an engagement with Nick found herself standing disconsolate on the corner of Fifty-third and Lake trying to look as if she were merely waiting for the Lake Park car and not peering wistfully up and down the street in search of a slim, graceful, hurrying figure that never came.
It is difficult to convey in words the charm that Nick possessed. Seeing him, you beheld merely a medium-sized young mechanic in reasonably grimed garage clothes when working; and in tight pants, tight coat, silk shirt, long-visored green cap when at leisure. A rather pallid skin due to the nature of his work. Large deft hands, a good deal like the hands of a surgeon, square, blunt-fingered, spatulate. Indeed, as you saw him at work, a wire-netted electric bulb held in one hand, the other plunged deep into the vitals of the car on which he was engaged, you thought of a surgeon performing a major operation. He wore one of those round skullcaps characteristic of his craft (the brimless crown of an old felt hat). He would deftly remove the transmission case and plunge his hand deep into the car’s guts, feeling expertly about with his engine-wise fingers as a surgeon feels for liver, stomach, gall bladder, intestines, appendix. When he brought up his hand, all dripping with grease (which is the warm blood of the car), he invariably had put his finger on the sore spot.
All this, of course, could not serve to endear him to the girls. On the contrary, you would have thought that his hands alone, from which he could never quite free the grease and grit, would have caused some feeling of repugnance among the lily-fingered. But they, somehow, seemed always to be finding an excuse to touch him: his tie, his hair, his coat sleeve. They seemed even to derive a vicarious thrill from holding his hat or cap when on an outing. They brushed imaginary bits of lint from his coat lapel. They tried on his seal ring, crying: “Oo, lookit, how big it is for me, even my thumb!” He called this “pawing a guy over”; and the lint ladies he designated as “thread pickers.”
No; it can’t be classified, this powerful draw he had for them. His conversation furnished no clue. It was commonplace conversation, limited, even dull. When astonished, or impressed, or horrified, or amused, he said: “Ken yuh feature that!” When emphatic or confirmatory, he said: “You tell ’em!”
It wasn’t his car and the opportunities it furnished for drives, both country and city. That motley piece of mechanism represented such an assemblage of unrelated parts as could only have been made to cooerdinate under Nick’s expert guidance. It was out of commission more than half the time, and could never be relied upon to furnish a holiday. Both Miss Bauers and Miss Ahearn had twelve-cylinder opportunities that should have rendered them forever unfit for travel in Nick’s one-lung vehicle of locomotion.
It wasn’t money. Though he was generous enough with what he had, Nick couldn’t be generous with what he hadn’t. And his wage at the garage was $40 a week. Miss Ahearn’s silk stockings cost $4.50.
His unconcern should have infuriated them, but it served to pique. He wasn’t actually as unconcerned as he appeared, but he had early learned that effort in their direction was unnecessary. Nick had little imagination; a gorgeous selfishness; a tolerantly contemptuous liking for the sex. Naturally, however, his attitude toward them had been somewhat embittered by being obliged to watch their method of driving a car in and out of the Ideal Garage doorway. His own manipulation of the wheel was nothing short of wizardry.
He played the harmonica.
Each Thursday afternoon was Nick’s half day off. From twelve until seven-thirty he was free to range the bosky highways of Chicago. When his car–he called it “the bus”–was agreeable, he went awheel in search of amusement. The bus being indisposed, he went afoot. He rarely made plans in advance; usually was accompanied by some successful telephonee. He rather liked to have a silken skirt beside him fluttering and flirting in the breeze as he broke the speed regulations.
On this Thursday afternoon in July he had timed his morning job to a miraculous nicety so that at the stroke of twelve his workaday garments dropped from him magically, as though he were a male (and reversed) Cinderella. There was a wash room and a rough sort of sleeping room containing two cots situated in the second story of the Ideal Garage. Here Nick shed the loose garments of labour for the fashionably tight habiliments of leisure. Private chauffeurs whose employers housed their cars in the Ideal Garage used this nook for a lounge and smoker. Smitty, Mike, Elmer, and Nick snatched stolen siestas there in the rare absences of the manager. Sometimes Nick spent the night there when forced to work overtime. His home life, at best, was a sketchy affair. Here chauffeurs, mechanics, washers lolled at ease exchanging soft-spoken gossip, motor chat, speculation, comment, and occasional verbal obscenity. Each possessed a formidable knowledge of that neighbourhood section of Chicago known as Hyde Park. This knowledge was not confined to car costs and such impersonal items, but included meals, scandals, relationships, finances, love affairs, quarrels, peccadillos. Here Nick often played his harmonica, his lips sweeping the metal length of it in throbbing rendition of such sure-fire sentimentality as The Long, Long Trail, or Mammy, while the others talked, joked, kept time with tapping feet or wagging heads.
To-day the hot little room was empty except for Nick, shaving before the cracked mirror on the wall, and old Elmer, reading a scrap of yesterday’s newspaper as he lounged his noon hour away. Old Elmer was thirty-seven, and Nicky regarded him as an octogenarian. Also, old Elmer’s conversation bored Nick to the point of almost sullen resentment. Old Elmer was a family man. His talk was all of his family–the wife, the kids, the flat. A garrulous person, lank, pasty, dish-faced, and amiable. His half day off was invariably spent tinkering about the stuffy little flat–painting, nailing up shelves, mending a broken window shade, puttying a window, playing with his pasty little boy, aged sixteen months, and his pasty little girl, aged three years. Next day he regaled his fellow workers with elaborate recitals of his holiday hours.
“Believe me, that kid’s a caution. Sixteen months old, and what does he do yesterday? He unfastens the ketch on the back-porch gate. We got a gate on the back porch, see.” (This frequent “see” which interlarded Elmer’s verbiage was not used in an interrogatory way, but as a period, and by way of emphasis. His voice did not take the rising inflection as he uttered it.) “What does he do, he opens it. I come home, and the wife says to me: ‘Say, you better get busy and fix a new ketch on that gate to the back porch. Little Elmer, first thing I know, he’d got it open to-day and was crawling out almost.’ Say, can you beat that for a kid sixteen months—-“
Nick had finished shaving, had donned his clean white soft shirt. His soft collar fitted to a miracle about his strong throat. Nick’s sartorial effects were a triumph–on forty a week. “Say, can’t you talk about nothing but that kid of yours? I bet he’s a bum specimen at that. Runt, like his pa.”
Elmer flung down his newspaper in honest indignation as Nick had wickedly meant he should. “Is that so! Why, we was wrastling round–me and him, see–last night on the floor, and what does he do, he raises his mitt and hands me a wallop in the stomick it like to knock the wind out of me. That’s all. Sixteen months—-“
“Yeh. I suppose this time next year he’ll be boxing for money.”
Elmer resumed his paper. “What do you know.” His tone mingled pity with contempt.
Nick took a last critical survey of the cracked mirror’s reflection and found it good. “Nothing, only this: you make me sick with your kids and your missus and your place. Say, don’t you never have no fun?”
“Fun! Why, say, last Sunday we was out to the beach, and the kid swum out first thing you know—-“
“Oh, shut up!” He was dressed now. He slapped his pockets. Harmonica. Cigarettes. Matches. Money. He was off, his long-visored cloth cap pulled jauntily over his eyes.
Elmer, bearing no rancour, flung a last idle query: “Where you going?”
“How should I know? Just bumming around. Bus is outa commission, and I’m outa luck.”
He clattered down the stairs, whistling.
Next door for a shine at the Greek bootblack’s. Enthroned on the dais, a minion at his feet, he was momentarily monarchial. How’s the boy? Good? Same here. Down, his brief reign ended. Out into the bright noon-day glare of Fifty-third Street.
A fried-egg sandwich. Two blocks down and into the white-tiled lunchroom. He took his place in the row perched on stools in front of the white slab, his feet on the railing, his elbows on the counter. Four white-aproned vestals with blotchy skins performed rites over the steaming nickel urns, slid dishes deftly along the slick surface of the white slab, mopped up moisture with a sly grey rag. No nonsense about them. This was the rush hour. Hungry men from the shops and offices and garages of the district were bent on food (not badinage). They ate silently, making a dull business of it. Coffee? What kinda pie do you want? No fooling here. “Hello, Jessie.”
As she mopped the slab in front of him you noticed a slight softening of her features, intent so grimly on her task. “What’s yours?”
“Bacon-and-egg sandwich. Glass of milk. Piece of pie. Blueberry.”
Ordinarily she would not have bothered. But with him: “The blueberry ain’t so good to-day, I noticed. Try the peach?”
“All right.” He looked at her. She smiled. Incredibly, the dishes ordered seemed to leap out at her from nowhere. She crashed them down on the glazed white surface in front of him. The bacon-and-egg sandwich was served open-faced, an elaborate confection. Two slices of white bread, side by side. On one reposed a fried egg, hard, golden, delectable, indigestible. On the other three crisp curls of bacon. The ordinary order held two curls only. A dish so rich in calories as to make it food sufficient for a day. Jessie knew nothing of calories, nor did Nick. She placed a double order of butter before him–two yellow pats, moisture-beaded. As she scooped up his milk from the can you saw that the glass was but three quarters filled. From a deep crock she ladled a smaller scoop and filled the glass to the top. The deep crock held cream. Nick glanced up at her again. Again Jessie smiled. A plain damsel, Jessie, and capable. She went on about her business. What’s yours? Coffee with? White or rye? No nonsense about her. And yet: “Pie all right?”
“Yeh. It’s good.”
She actually blushed.
He finished, swung himself off the stool, nodded to Jessie. She stacked his dishes with one lean, capable hand, mopped the slab with the other, but as she made for the kitchen she flung a glance at him over her shoulder.
“Some folks has all the luck.”
He grinned. His teeth were strong and white and even. He walked toward the door with his light quick step, paused for a toothpick as he paid his check, was out again into the July sunlight. Her face became dull again.
Well, not one o’clock. Guessed he’d shoot a little pool. He dropped into Moriarty’s cigar store. It was called a cigar store because it dealt in magazines, newspapers, soft drinks, golf balls, cigarettes, pool, billiards, chocolates, chewing gum, and cigars. In the rear of the store were four green-topped tables, three for pool and one for billiards. He hung about aimlessly, watching the game at the one occupied table. The players were slim young men like himself, their clothes replicas of his own, their faces lean and somewhat hard. Two of them dropped out. Nick took a cue from the rack, shed his tight coat. They played under a glaring electric light in the heat of the day, yet they seemed cool, aloof, immune from bodily discomfort. It was a strangely silent game and as mirthless as that of the elfin bowlers in Rip Van Winkle. The slim-waisted shirted figures bent plastically over the table in the graceful postures of the game. You heard only the click of the balls, an occasional low-voiced exclamation. A solemn crew, and unemotional.
Now and then: “What’s all the shootin’ fur?”
“In she goes.”
Nick, winner, tired of it in less than an hour. He bought a bottle of some acidulous drink just off the ice and refreshed himself with it, drinking from the bottle’s mouth. He was vaguely restless, dissatisfied. Out again into the glare of two o’clock Fifty-third Street. He strolled up a block toward Lake Park Avenue. It was hot. He wished the bus wasn’t sick. Might go in swimming, though. He considered this idly. Hurried steps behind him. A familiar perfume wafted to his senses. A voice nasal yet cooing. Miss Bauers. Miss Bauers on pleasure bent, palpably, being attired in the briefest of silks, white-strapped slippers, white silk stockings, scarlet hat. The Green Front Grocery and Market closed for a half day each Thursday afternoon during July and August. Nicky had not availed himself of the knowledge.
“Well, if it ain’t Nicky! I just seen you come out of Moriarty’s as I was passing.” (She had seen him go in an hour before and had waited a patient hour in the drug store across the street.) “What you doing around loose this hour the day, anyway?”
“I’m off ‘safternoon.”
“Are yuh? So’m I.” Nicky said nothing. Miss Bauers shifted from one plump silken leg to the other. “What you doing?”
“Oh, nothing much.”
“So’m I. Let’s do it together.” Miss Bauers employed the direct method.
“Well,” said Nick, vaguely. He didn’t object particularly. And yet he was conscious of some formless programme forming mistily in his mind–a programme that did not include the berouged, be-powdered, plump, and silken Miss Bauers.
“I phoned you this morning, Nicky. Twice.”
“They said you wasn’t in.”
A hard young woman, Miss Bauers, yet simple: powerfully drawn toward this magnetic and careless boy; powerless to forge chains strong enough to hold him. “Well, how about Riverview? I ain’t been this summer.”
“Oh, that’s so darn far. Take all day getting there, pretty near.”
“Not driving, it wouldn’t.”
“I ain’t got the bus. Busted.”
His apathy was getting on her nerves. “How about a movie, then?” Her feet hurt. It was hot.
His glance went up the street toward the Harper, down the street toward the Hyde Park. The sign above the Harper offered Mother o’ Mine. The lettering above the Hyde Park announced Love’s Sacrifice.
“Gawd, no,” he made decisive answer.
Miss Bauers’s frazzled nerves snapped. “You make me sick! Standing there. Nothing don’t suit you. Say, I ain’t so crazy to go round with you. Cheap guy! Prob’ly you’d like to go over to Wooded Island or something, in Jackson Park, and set on the grass and feed the squirrels. That’d be a treat for me, that would.” She laughed a high, scornful tear-near laugh.
“Why–say—-” Nick stared at her, and yet she felt he did not see her. A sudden peace came into his face–the peace of a longing fulfilled. He turned his head. A Lake Park Avenue street car was roaring its way toward them. He took a step toward the roadway. “I got to be going.”
Fear flashed its flame into Miss Bauers’s pale blue eyes. “Going! How do you mean, going? Going where?”
“I got to be going.” The car had stopped opposite them. His young face was stern, implacable. Miss Bauers knew she was beaten, but she clung to hope tenaciously, piteously. “I got to see a party, see?”
“You never said anything about it in the first place. Pity you wouldn’t say so in the first place. Who you got to see, anyway?” She knew it was useless to ask. She knew she was beating her fists against a stone wall, but she must needs ask notwithstanding: “Who you got to see?”
“I got to see a party. I forgot.” He made the car step in two long strides; had swung himself up. “So long!” The car door slammed after him. Miss Bauers, in her unavailing silks, stood disconsolate on the hot street corner.
He swayed on the car platform until Sixty-third Street was reached. There he alighted and stood a moment at the curb surveying idly the populous corner. He purchased a paper bag of hot peanuts from a vender’s glittering scarlet and nickel stand, and crossed the street into the pathway that led to Jackson Park, munching as he went. In an open space reserved for games some boys were playing baseball with much hoarse hooting and frenzied action. He drew near to watch. The ball, misdirected, sailed suddenly toward him. He ran backward at its swift approach, leaped high, caught it, and with a long curving swing, so easy as to appear almost effortless, sent it hurtling back. The lad on the pitcher’s mound made as if to catch it, changed his mind, dodged, started after it.
The boy at bat called to Nick: “Heh, you! Wanna come on and pitch?”
Nick shook his head and went on.
He wandered leisurely along the gravel path that led to the park golf shelter. The wide porch was crowded with golfers and idlers. A foursome was teed up at the first tee. Nick leaned against a porch pillar waiting for them to drive. That old boy had pretty good practise swing … Stiff, though … Lookit that dame. Je’s! I bet she takes fifteen shots before she ever gets on to the green … There, that kid had pretty good drive. Must of been hundred and fifty, anyway. Pretty good for a kid.
Nick, in the course of his kaleidoscopic career, had been a caddie at thirteen in torn shirt and flapping knickers. He had played the smooth, expert, scornful game of the caddie with a natural swing from the lithe waist and a follow-through that was the envy of the muscle-bound men who watched him. He hadn’t played in years. The game no longer interested him. He entered the shelter lunchroom. The counters were lined with lean, brown, hungry men and lean, brown, hungry women. They were eating incredible dishes considering that the hour was 3 P. M. and the day a hot one. Corned-beef hash with a poached egg on top; wieners and potato salad; meat pies; hot roast beef sandwiches; steaming cups of coffee in thick white ware; watermelon. Nick slid a leg over a stool as he had done earlier in the afternoon. Here, too, the Hebes were of stern stuff, as they needs must be to serve these ravenous hordes of club swingers who swarmed upon them from dawn to dusk. Their task it was to wait upon the golfing male, which is man at his simplest–reduced to the least common denominator and shorn of all attraction for the female eye and heart. They represented merely hungry mouths, weary muscles, reaching fists. The waitresses served them as a capable attendant serves another woman’s child–efficiently and without emotion.
“Blueberry pie a la mode,” said Nick–“with strawberry ice cream.”
Inured as she was to the horrors of gastronomic miscegenation, the waitress–an old girl–recoiled at this.
“Say, I don’t think you’d like that. They don’t mix so very good. Why don’t you try the peach pie instead with the strawberry ice cream–if you want strawberry?” He looked so young and cool and fresh.
“Blueberry,” repeated Nick sternly, and looked her in the eye. The old waitress laughed a little and was surprised to find herself laughing. “‘S for you to say.” She brought him the monstrous mixture, and he devoured it to the last chromatic crumb.
“Nothing the matter with that,” he remarked as she passed, dish-laden.
She laughed again tolerantly, almost tenderly. “Good thing you’re young.” Her busy glance lingered a brief moment on his face. He sauntered out.
Now he took the path to the right of the shelter, crossed the road, struck the path again, came to a rustic bridge that humped high in the middle, spanning a cool green stream, willow-bordered. The cool green stream was an emerald chain that threaded its way in a complete circlet about the sylvan spot known as Wooded Island, relic of World’s Fair days.
The little island lay, like a thing under enchantment, silent, fragrant, golden, green, exquisite. Squirrels and blackbirds, rabbits and pigeons mingled in AEsopian accord. The air was warm and still, held by the encircling trees and shrubbery. There was not a soul to be seen. At the far north end the two Japanese model houses, survivors of the exposition, gleamed white among the trees.
Nick stood a moment. His eyelids closed, languorously. He stretched his arms out and up deliciously, bringing his stomach in and his chest out. He took off his cap and stuffed it into his pocket. He strolled across the thick cool nap of the grass, deserting the pebble path. At the west edge of the island a sign said: “No One Allowed in the Shrubbery.” Ignoring it, Nick parted the branches, stopped and crept, reached the bank that sloped down to the cool green stream, took off his coat, and lay relaxed upon the ground. Above him the tree branches made a pattern against the sky. Little ripples lipped the shore. Scampering velvet-footed things, feathered things, winged things made pleasant stir among the leaves. Nick slept.
He awoke in half an hour refreshed. He lay there, thinking of nothing–a charming gift. He found a stray peanut in his pocket and fed it to a friendly squirrel. His hand encountered the cool metal of his harmonica. He drew out the instrument, placed his coat, folded, under his head, crossed his knees, one leg swinging idly, and began to play rapturously. He was perfectly happy. He played Gimme Love, whose jazz measures are stolen from Mendelssohn’s Spring Song. He did not know this. The leaves rustled. He did not turn his head.
“Hello, Pan!” said a voice. A girl came down the slope and seated herself beside him. She was not smiling.
Nick removed the harmonica from his lips and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Hello who?”
“Wrong number, lady,” Nick said, and again applied his lips to the mouth organ. The girl laughed then, throwing back her head. Her throat was long and slim and brown. She clasped her knees with her arms and looked at Nick amusedly. Nick thought she was a kind of homely little thing.
“Pan,” she explained, “was a pagan deity. He played pipes in the woods.”
“‘S all right with me,” Nick ventured, bewildered but amiable. He wished she’d go away. But she didn’t. She began to take off her shoes and stockings. She went down to the water’s edge, then, and paddled her feet. Nick sat up, outraged. “Say, you can’t do that.”
She glanced back at him over her shoulder. “Oh, yes, I can. It’s so hot.” She wriggled her toes ecstatically.
The leaves rustled again, briskly, unmistakably this time. A heavy tread. A rough voice. “Say, looka here! Get out of there, you! What the—-” A policeman, red-faced, wroth. “You can’t do that! Get outa here!”
It was like a movie, Nick thought.
The girl turned her head. “Oh, now, Mr. Elwood,” she said.
“Oh, it’s you, miss,” said the policeman. You would not have believed it could be the same policeman. He even giggled. “Thought you was away.”
“I was. In fact, I am, really. I just got sick of it and ran away for a day. Drove. Alone. The family’ll be wild.”
“All the way?” said the policeman, incredulously. “Say, I thought that looked like your car standing out there by the road; but I says no, she ain’t in town.” He looked sharply at Nick, whose face had an Indian composure, though his feelings were mixed. “Who’s this?”
“He’s a friend of mine. His name’s Pan.” She was drying her feet with an inadequate rose-coloured handkerchief. She crept crabwise up the bank, and put on her stockings and slippers.
“Why’n’t you come out and set on a bench?” suggested the policeman, worriedly.
The girl shook her head. “In Arcadia we don’t sit on benches. I should think you’d know that. Go on away, there’s a dear. I want to talk to this–to Pan.”
He persisted. “What’d your pa say, I’d like to know!” The girl shrugged her shoulders. Nick made as though to rise. He was worried. A nut, that’s what. She pressed him down again with a hard brown hand.
“Now it’s all right. He’s going. Old Fuss!” The policeman stood a brief moment longer. Then the foliage rustled again. He was gone. The girl sighed, happily. “Play that thing some more, will you? You’re a wiz at it, aren’t you?”
“I’m pretty good,” said Nick, modestly. Then the outrageousness of her conduct struck him afresh. “Say, who’re you, anyway?”
“My name’s Berry–short for Bernice…. What’s yours, Pan?”
“Ugh, terrible! I’ll stick to Pan. What d’you do when you’re not Panning?” Then, at the bewilderment in his face: “What’s your job?”
“I work in the Ideal Garage. Say, you’re pretty nosey, ain’t you?”
“Yes, pretty…. That accounts for your nails, h’m?” She looked at her own brown paws. “‘Bout as bad as mine. I drove one hundred and fifty miles to-day.”
“Ya-as, you did!”
“I did! Started at six. And I’ll probably drive back to-night.”
“I know it,” she agreed, “and it’s wonderful…. Can you play the Tommy Toddle?”
“Yeh. It’s kind of hard, though, where the runs are. I don’t get the runs so very good.” He played it. She kept time with head and feet. When he had finished and wiped his lips:
“Elegant!” She took the harmonica from him, wiped it brazenly on the much-abused, rose-coloured handkerchief and began to play, her cheeks puffed out, her eyes round with effort. She played the Tommy Toddle, and her runs were perfect. Nick’s chagrin was swallowed by his admiration and envy.
“Say, kid, you got more wind than a factory whistle. Who learned you to play?”
She struck her chest with a hard brown fist. “Tennis … Tim taught me.”
Nick leaned closer. “Say, do you ever go to the dances at Englewood Masonic Hall?”
“I never have.”
“‘Jah like to go some time?”
“I’d love it.” She grinned up at him, her teeth flashing white in her brown face.
“It’s swell here,” he said, dreamily. “Like the woods?”
“Winter, when it’s cold and dirty, I think about how it’s here summers. It’s like you could take it out of your head and look at it whenever you wanted to.”
“A man said practically the same thing the other day. Name of Keats.”
“He said: ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever.’”
“That’s one way putting it,” he agreed, graciously.
Unsmilingly she reached over with one slim forefinger, as if compelled, and touched the blond hairs on Nick’s wrist. Just touched them. Nick remained motionless. The girl shivered a little, deliciously. She glanced at him shyly. Her lips were provocative. Thoughtlessly, blindly, Nick suddenly flung an arm about her, kissed her. He kissed her as he had never kissed Miss Bauers–as he had never kissed Miss Ahearn, Miss Olson, or just Gertie. The girl did not scream, or push him away, or slap him, or protest, or giggle as would have the above-mentioned young ladies. She sat breathing rather fast, a tinge of scarlet showing beneath the tan.
“Well, Pan,” she said, low-voiced, “you’re running true to form, anyway.” She eyed him appraisingly. “Your appeal is in your virility, I suppose. Yes.”
She rose. “I’ve got to go.”
Panic seized him. “Say, don’t drive back to-night, huh? Wherever it is you’ve got to go. You ain’t driving back to-night?”
She made no answer; parted the bushes, was out on the gravel path in the sunlight, a slim, short-skirted, almost childish figure. He followed. They crossed the bridge, left the island, reached the roadway almost in silence. At the side of the road was a roadster. Its hood was the kind that conceals power. Its lamps were two giant eyes rimmed in precious metal. Its line spelled strength. Its body was foreign. Nick’s engine-wise eyes saw these things at a glance.
“That your car?”
She unlocked it, threw in the clutch, shifted, moved. “Say!” was wrung from Nick helplessly. She waved at him. “Good-bye, Pan.” He stared, stricken. She was off swiftly, silently; flashed around a corner; was hidden by the trees and shrubs.
He stood a moment. He felt bereaved, cheated. Then a little wave of exaltation shook him. He wanted to talk to someone. “Gosh!” he said again. He glanced at his wrist. Five-thirty. He guessed he’d go home. He guessed he’d go home and get one of Ma’s dinners. One of Ma’s dinners and talk to Ma. The Sixty-third Street car. He could make it and back in plenty time.
Nick lived in that section of Chicago known as Englewood, which is not so sylvan as it sounds, but appropriate enough for a faun. Not only that; he lived in S. Green Street, Englewood. S. Green Street, near Seventieth, is almost rural with its great elms and poplars, its frame cottages, its back gardens. A neighbourhood of thrifty, foreign-born fathers and mothers, many children, tree-lined streets badly paved. Nick turned in at a two-story brown frame cottage. He went around to the back. Ma was in the kitchen.
Nick’s presence at the evening meal was an uncertain thing. Sometimes he did not eat at home for a week, excepting only his hurried early breakfast. He rarely spent an evening at home, and when he did used the opportunity for making up lost sleep. Pa never got home from work until after six. Nick liked his dinner early and hot. On his rare visits his mother welcomed him like one of the Gracchi. Mother and son understood each other wordlessly, having much in common. You would not have thought it of her (forty-six bust, forty waist, measureless hips), but Ma was a nymph at heart. Hence Nick.
“Hello, Ma!” She was slamming expertly about the kitchen.
“Hello, yourself,” said Ma. Ma had a line of slang gleaned from her numerous brood. It fell strangely from her lips. Ma had never quite lost a tinge of foreign accent, though she had come to America when a girl. A hearty, zestful woman, savouring life with gusto, undiminished by child-bearing and hard work. “Eating home, Dewey?” She alone used his given name.
“Yeh, but I gotta be back by seven-thirty. Got anything ready?”
“Dinner ain’t, but I’ll get you something. Plenty. Platter ham and eggs and a quick fry. Cherry cobbler’s done. I’ll fix you some.” (Cherry cobbler is shortcake with a soul.)
He ate enormously at the kitchen table, she hovering over him.
“What’s the news, Dewey?”
“Ain’t none.” He ate in silence. Then: “How old was you when you married Pa?”
“Me? Say, I wasn’t no more’n a kid. I gotta laugh when I think of it.”
“What was Pa earning?”
She laughed a great hearty laugh, dipping a piece of bread sociably in the ham fat on the platter as she stood by the table, just to bear him company.
“Say, earn! If he’d of earned what you was earning now, we’d of thought we was millionaires. Time Etty was born he was pulling down thirteen a week, and we saved on it.” She looked at him suddenly, sharply. “Why?”
“Oh, I was just wondering.”
“Look what good money he’s getting now! If I was you, I wouldn’t stick around no old garage for what they give you. You could get a good job in the works with Pa; first thing you know you’d be pulling down big money. You’re smart like that with engines…. Takes a lot of money nowadays for feller to get married.”
“You tell ’em,” agreed Nick. He looked up at her, having finished eating. His glance was almost tender. “How’d you come to marry Pa, anyway? You and him’s so different.”
The nymph in Ma leaped to the surface and stayed there a moment, sparkling, laughing, dimpling. “Oh, I dunno. I kept running away and he kept running after. Like that.”
He looked up again quickly at that. “Yeh. That’s it. Fella don’t like to have no girl chasing him all the time. Say, he likes to do the chasing himself. Ain’t that the truth?”
“You tell ’em!” agreed Ma. A great jovial laugh shook her. Heavy-footed now, but light of heart.
Suddenly: “I’m thinking of going to night school. Learn something. I don’t know nothing.”
“You do, too, Dewey!”
“Aw, wha’d I know? I never had enough schooling. Wished I had.”
“Who’s doings was it? You wouldn’t stay. Wouldn’t go no more than sixth reader and quit. Nothing wouldn’t get you to go.”
He agreed gloomily. “I know it. I don’t know what nothing is. Uh–Arcadia–or–now–vitality or nothing.”
“Oh, that comes easy,” she encouraged him, “when you begin once.”
He reached for her hand gratefully. “You’re a swell cook, Ma.” He had a sudden burst of generosity, of tenderness. “Soon’s the bus is fixed I’ll take you joy-riding over to the lake.”
Ma always wore a boudoir cap of draggled lace and ribbon for motoring. Nick almost never offered her a ride. She did not expect him to.
She pushed him playfully. “Go on! You got plenty young girls to take riding, not your ma.”
“Oh, girls!” he said, scornfully. Then in another tone: “Girls.”
He was off. It was almost seven. Pa was late. He caught a car back to Fifty-third Street. Elmer was lounging in the cool doorway of the garage. Nick, in sheer exuberance of spirits, squared off, doubled his fists, and danced about Elmer in a semicircle, working his arms as a prizefighter does, warily. He jabbed at Elmer’s jaw playfully.
“What you been doing,” inquired that long-suffering gentleman, “makes you feel so good? Where you been?”
“Oh, nowheres. Bumming round. Park.”
He turned in the direction of the stairway. Elmer lounged after him. “Oh, say, dame’s been calling you for the last hour and a half. Like to busted the phone. Makes me sick.”
“No, that wasn’t the name. Name’s Mary or Berry, or something like that. A dozen times, I betcha. Says you was to call her as soon as you come in. Drexel 47–wait a min’t’–yeh–that’s right–Drexel 473—-“
“Swell chanst,” said Nick. Suddenly his buoyancy was gone. His shoulders drooped. His cigarette dangled limp. Disappointment curved his lips, burdened his eyes. “Swell chanst!”