When he began his talk with “You got your health, don’t you?” it touched those spots inside me. That was when I did it.
Why couldn’t what he said have been “The best things in life are free, buddy” or “Every dog has his day, fellow” or “If at first you don’t succeed, man”? No, he had to use that one line. You wouldn’t blame me. Not if you believe me.
The first thing I can remember, the start of all this, was when I was four or five somebody was soiling my bed for me. I absolutely was not doing it. I took long naps morning and evening so I could lie awake all night to see that it wouldn’t happen. It couldn’t happen. But in the morning the bed would sit there dispassionately soiled and convict me on circumstantial evidence. My punishment was as sure as the tide.
Dad was a compact man, small eyes, small mouth, tight clothes. He was narrow but not mean. For punishment, he locked me in a windowless room and told me to sit still until he came back. It wasn’t so bad a punishment, except that when Dad closed the door, the light turned off and I was left there in the dark.
Being four or five, I didn’t know any better, so I thought Dad made it dark to add to my punishment. But I learned he didn’t know the light went out. It came back on when he unlocked the door. Every time I told him about the light as soon as I could talk again, but he said I was lying.
One day, to prove me a liar, he opened and closed the door a few times from outside. The light winked off and on, off and on, always shining when Dad stuck his head inside. He tried using the door from the inside, and the light stayed on, no matter how hard he slammed the door.
I stayed in the dark longer for lying about the light.
Alone in the dark, I wouldn’t have had it so bad if it wasn’t for the things that came to me.
They were real to me. They never touched me, but they had a little boy. He looked the way I did in the mirror. They did unpleasant things to him.
Because they were real, I talked about them as if they were real, and I almost earned a bunk in the home for retarded children until I got smart enough to keep the beasts to myself.
My mother hated me. I loved her, of course. I remember her smell mixed up with flowers and cookies and winter fires. I remember she hugged me on my ninth birthday. The trouble came from the notes written in my awkward hand that she found, calling her names I didn’t understand. Sometimes there were drawings. I didn’t write those notes or make those drawings.
My mother and father must have been glad when I was sent away to reform school after my thirteenth birthday party, the one no one came to.
The reform school was nicer. There were others there who’d had it about like me. We got along. I didn’t watch their shifty eyes too much, or ask them what they shifted to see. They didn’t talk about my screams at night.
It was home.
My trouble there was that I was always being framed for stealing. I didn’t take any of those things they located in my bunk. Stealing wasn’t in my line. If you believe any of this at all, you’ll see why it couldn’t be me who did the stealing.
There was reason for me to steal, if I could have got away with it. The others got money from home to buy the things they needed--razor blades, candy, sticks of tea. I got a letter from Mom or Dad every now and then before they were killed, saying they had sent money or that it was enclosed, but somehow I never got a dime of it.
When I was expelled from reform school, I left with just one idea in mind--to get all the money I could ever use for the things I needed and the things I wanted.
It was two or three years later that I skulked into Brother Partridge’s mission on Durbin Street.
The preacher and half a dozen men were singing Onward Christian Soldiers in the meeting room. It was a drafty hall with varnished camp chairs. I shuffled in at the back with my suitcoat collar turned up around my stubbled jaw. I made my hand shaky as I ran it through my knotted hair. Partridge was supposed to think I was just a bum. As an inspiration, I hugged my chest to make him think I was some wino nursing a flask full of Sneaky Pete. All I had there was a piece of copper alloy tubing inside a slice of plastic hose for taking care of myself, rolling sailors and the like. Who had the price of a bottle?
Partridge didn’t seem to notice me, but I knew that was an act. I knew people were always watching every move I made. He braced his red-furred hands on the sides of his auctioneer’s stand and leaned his splotched eagle beak toward us. “Brothers, this being Thanksgiving, I pray the good Lord that we all are truly thankful for all that we have received. Amen.”
Some skin-and-bones character I didn’t know struggled out of his seat, amening. I could see he had a lot to be thankful for--somewhere he had received a fix.
“Brothers,” Partridge went on after enjoying the interruption with a beaming smile, “you shall all be entitled to a bowl of turkey soup prepared by Sister Partridge, a generous supply of sweet rolls and dinner rolls contributed by the Early Morning Bakery of this city, and all the coffee you can drink. Let us march out to The Stars and Stripes Forever, John Philip Sousa’s grand old patriotic song.”
I had to laugh at all those bums clattering the chairs in front of me, scampering after water soup and stale bread. As soon as I got cleaned up, I was going to have dinner in a good restaurant, and I was going to order such expensive food and leave such a large tip for the waiter and send one to the chef that they were going to think I was rich, and some executive with some brokerage firm would see me and say to himself, “Hmm, executive material. Just the type we need. I beg your pardon, sir--” just like the razor-blade comic-strip ads in the old magazines that Frankie the Pig sells three for a quarter.
I was marching. Man, was I ever marching, but the secret of it was I was only marking time the way we did in fire drills at the school.
They passed me, every one of them, and marched out of the meeting room into the kitchen. Even Partridge made his way down from the auctioneer’s stand like a vulture with a busted wing and darted through his private door.
I was alone, marking time behind the closed half of double doors. One good breath and I raced past the open door and flattened myself to the wall. Crockery was ringing and men were slurping inside. No one had paid any attention to me. That was pretty odd. People usually watch my every move, but a man’s luck has to change sometime, doesn’t it?
Following the wallboard, I went down the side of the room and behind the last row of chairs, closer, closer, and halfway up the room again to the entrance--the entrance and the little wooden box fastened to the wall beside it.
The box was old and made out of some varnished wood. There was a slot in the top. There wasn’t any sign anywhere around it, but you knew it wasn’t a mailbox.
My hand went flat on the top of the box. One finger at a time drew up and slipped into the slot. Index, fore, third, little. I put my thumb in my palm and shoved. My hand went in.
There were coins inside. I scooped them up with two fingers and held them fast with the other two. Once I dropped a dime--not a penny, milled edge--and I started to reach for it. No, don’t be greedy. I knew I would probably lose my hold on all the coins if I tried for that one. I had all the rest. It felt like about two dollars, or close to it.
Then I found the bill. A neatly folded bill in the box. Somehow I knew all along it would be there.
I tried to read the numbers on the bill with my fingertips, but I couldn’t. It had to be a one. Who drops anything but a one into a Skid Row collection box? But still there were tourists, slummers. They might leave a fifty or even a hundred. A hundred!
Yes, it felt new, crisp. It had to be a hundred. A single would be creased or worn.
I pulled my hand out of the box. I tried to pull my hand out of the box.
I knew what the trouble was, of course. I was in a monkey trap. The monkey reaches through the hole for the bait, and when he gets it in his hot little fist, he can’t get his hand out. He’s too greedy to let go, so he stays there, caught as securely as if he were caged.
I was a man, not a monkey. I knew why I couldn’t get my hand out. But I couldn’t lose that money, especially that century bill. Calm, I ordered myself. Calm.
The box was fastened to the vertical tongue-and-groove laths of the woodwork, not the wall. It was old lumber, stiffened by a hundred layers of paint since 1908. The paint was as thick and strong as the boards. The box was fastened fast. Six-inch spike nails, I guessed.
Calmly, I flung my whole weight away from the wall. My wrist almost cracked, but there wasn’t even a bend in the box. Carefully, I tried to jerk my fist straight up, to pry off the top of the box. It was as if the box had been carved out of one solid piece of timber. It wouldn’t go up, down, left or right.
But I kept trying.
While keeping a lookout for Partridge and somebody stepping out of the kitchen for a pull on a bottle, I spotted the clock for the first time, a Western Union clock high up at the back of the hall. Just as I seen it for the first time, the electricity wound the spring motor inside like a chicken having its neck wrung.
The next time I glanced at the clock, it said ten minutes had gone by. My hand still wasn’t free and I hadn’t budged the box.
“This,” Brother Partridge said, “is one of the most profound experiences of my life.”
My head hinged until it lined my eyes up with Brother Partridge. The pipe hung heavy in my pocket, but he was too far from me.
“A vision of you at the box projected itself on the crest of my soup,” the preacher explained in wonderment.
I nodded. “Swimming right in there with the dead duck.”
“Cold turkey,” he corrected. “Are you scoffing at a miracle?”
“People are always watching me, Brother,” I said. “So now they do it even when they aren’t around. I should have known it would come to that.”
The pipe was suddenly a weight I wanted off me. I would try robbing a collection box, knowing positively that I would get caught, but I wasn’t dumb enough to murder. Somebody, somewhere, would be a witness to it. I had never got away with anything in my life. I was too smart to even try anything but the little things.
“I may be able to help you,” Brother Partridge said, “if you have faith and a conscience.”
“I’ve got something better than a conscience,” I told him.
Brother Partridge regarded me solemnly. “There must be something special about you, for your apprehension to come through miraculous intervention. But I can’t imagine what.”
“I always get apprehended somehow, Brother,” I said. “I’m pretty special.”
“William Hagle.” No sense lying. I had been booked and printed before.
Partridge prodded me with his bony fingers as if making sure I was substantial. “Come. Let’s sit down, if you can remove your fist from the money box.”
I opened up my fingers and let the coins ring inside the box and I drew out my hand. The bill stuck to the sweat on my fingers and slid out along with the digits. A one, I decided. I had got into trouble for a grubby single. It wasn’t any century. I had been kidding myself.
I unfolded the note. Sure enough, it wasn’t a hundred-dollar bill, but it was a twenty, and that was almost the same thing to me. I creased it and put it back into the slot.
As long as it stalled off the cops, I’d talk to Partridge.
We took a couple of camp chairs and I told him the story of my life, or most of it. It was hard work on an empty stomach; I wished I’d had some of that turkey soup. Then again I was glad I hadn’t. Something always happened to me when I thought back over my life. The same thing.
The men filed out of the kitchen, wiping their chins, and I went right on talking.
After some time Sister Partridge bustled in and snapped on the overhead lights and I kept talking. The brother still hadn’t used the phone to call the cops.
“Remarkable,” Partridge finally said when I got so hoarse I had to take a break. “One is almost--almost--reminded of Job. William, you are being punished for some great sin. Of that, I’m sure.”
“Punished for a sin? But, Brother, I’ve always had it like this, as long as I can remember. What kind of a sin could I have committed when I was fresh out of my crib?”
“William, all I can tell you is that time means nothing in Heaven. Do you deny the transmigration of souls?”
“Well,” I said, “I’ve had no personal experience--”
“Of course you have, William! Say you don’t remember. Say you don’t want to remember. But don’t say you have no personal experience!”
“And you think I’m being punished for something I did in a previous life?”
He looked at me in disbelief. “What else could it be?”
“I don’t know,” I confessed. “I certainly haven’t done anything that bad in this life.”
“William, if you atone for this sin, perhaps the horde of locusts will lift from you.”
It wasn’t much of a chance, but I was unused to having any at all. I shook off the dizziness of it. “By the Lord Harry, Brother, I’m going to give it a try!” I cried.
“I believe you,” Partridge said, surprised at himself.
He ambled over to the money box on the wall. He tapped the bottom lightly and a box with no top slid out of the slightly larger box. He reached in, fished out the bill and presented it to me.
“Perhaps this will help in your atonement,” he said.
I crumpled it into my pocket fast. Not meaning to sound ungrateful, I’m pretty sure he hadn’t noticed it was a twenty.
And then the bill seemed to lie there, heavy, a lead weight. It would have been different if I had managed to get it out of the box myself. You know how it is.
Money you haven’t earned doesn’t seem real to you.
There was something I forgot to mention so far. During the year between when I got out of the reformatory and the one when I tried to steal Brother Partridge’s money, I killed a man.
It was all an accident, but killing somebody is reason enough to get punished. It didn’t have to be a sin in some previous life, you see.
I had gotten my first job in too long, stacking boxes at the freight door of Baysinger’s. The drivers unloaded the stuff, but they just dumped it off the truck. An empty rear end was all they wanted. The freight boss told me to stack the boxes inside, neat and not too close together.
I stacked boxes the first day. I stacked more the second. The third day I went outside with my baloney and crackers. It was warm enough even for November.
Two of them, dressed like Harvard seniors, caps and striped duffer jackets, came up to the crate I was dining off.
“Work inside, Jack?” the taller one asked.
“Yeah,” I said, chewing.
“What do you do, Jack?” the fatter one asked.
“Got a union card?”
I shook my head.
“No,” I said. “I’m just helping out during Christmas.”
“You’re a scab, buddy,” Long-legs said. “Don’t you read the papers?”
“I don’t like comic strips,” I said.
They sighed. I think they hated to do it, but I was bucking the system.
Fats hit me high. Long-legs hit me low. I blew cracker crumbs into their faces. After that, I just let them go. I know how to take a beating. That’s one thing I knew.
Then lying there, bleeding to myself, I heard them talking. I heard noises like make an example of him and do something permanent and I squirmed away across the rubbish like a polite mouse.
I made it around a corner of brick and stood up, hurting my knee on a piece of brown-splotched pipe. There were noises on the other angle of the corner and so I tested if the pipe was loose and it was. I closed my eyes and brought the pipe up and then down.
It felt as if I connected, but I was so numb, I wasn’t sure until I unscrewed my eyes.
There was a big man in a heavy wool overcoat and gray homburg spread on a damp centerfold from the News. There was a pick-up slip from the warehouse under the fingers of one hand, and somebody had beaten his brains out.
The police figured it was part of some labor dispute, I guess, and they never got to me.
I suppose I was to blame anyway. If I hadn’t been alive, if I hadn’t been there to get beaten up, it wouldn’t have happened. I could see the point in making me suffer for it. There was a lot to be said for looking at it like that. But there was nothing to be said for telling Brother Partridge about the accident, or murder, or whatever had happened that day.
Searching myself after I left Brother Partridge, I finally found a strip of gray adhesive tape on my side, out of the fuzzy area. Making the twenty the size of a thick postage stamp, I peeled back the tape and put the folded bill on the white skin and smoothed the tape back.
There was only one place for me to go now. I headed for the public library. It was only about twenty blocks, but not having had anything to eat since the day before, it enervated me.
The downstairs washroom was where I went first. There was nobody there but an old guy talking urgently to a kid with thick glasses, and somebody building a fix in one of the booths. I could see charred matches dropping down on the floor next to his tennis shoes, and even a few grains of white stuff. But he managed to hold still enough to keep from spilling more from the spoon.
I washed my hands and face, smoothed my hair down, combing it with my fingers. Going over my suit with damp toweling got off a lot of the dirt. I put my collar on the outside of my jacket and creased the wings with my thumbnail so it would look more like a sports shirt. It didn’t really. I still looked like a bum, but sort of a neat, non-objectionable bum.
The librarian at the main desk looked sympathetically hostile, or hostilely sympathetic.
“I’d like to get into the stacks, miss,” I said, “and see some of the old newspapers.”
“Which newspapers?” the old girl asked stiffly.
I thought back. I couldn’t remember the exact date. “Ones for the first week in November last year.”
“We have the Times microfilmed. I would have to project them for you.”
“I didn’t want to see the Times,” I said, fast. “Don’t you have any newspapers on paper?” I didn’t want her to see what I wanted to read up on.
“We have the News, bound, for last year.”
I nodded. “That’s the one I wanted to see.”
She sniffed and told me to follow her. I didn’t rate a cart to my table, I guess, or else the bound papers weren’t supposed to come out of the stacks.
The cases of books, row after row, smelled good. Like old leather and good pipe tobacco. I had been here before. In this world, it’s the man with education who makes the money. I had been reading the Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia. So far I knew a lot about Mark Antony, Atomic Energy, Boron, Brussels, Catapults, Demons, and Divans.
I guess I had stopped to look around at some of the titles, because the busy librarian said sharply, “Follow me.”
I heard my voice say, “A pleasure. What about after work?”
I didn’t say it, but I was used to my voice independently saying things. Her neck got to flaming, but she walked stiffly ahead. She didn’t say anything. She must be awful mad, I decided. But then I got the idea she was flushed with pleasure. I’m pretty ugly and I looked like a bum, but I was young. You had to grant me that.
She waved a hand at the rows of bound News and left me alone with them. I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to hunt up a table to lay the books on or not, so I took the volume for last year and laid it on the floor. That was the cleanest floor I ever saw.
It didn’t take me long to find the story. The victim was a big man, because the story was on the second page of the Nov. 4 edition.
I started to tear the page out, then only memorized the name and home address. Somebody was sure to see me and I couldn’t risk trouble just now.
I stuck the book back in line and left by the side door.
I went to a dry-cleaner, not the cheapest place I knew, because I wouldn’t be safe with the change from a twenty in that neighborhood. My suit was cleaned while I waited. I paid a little extra and had it mended. Funny thing about a suit--it’s almost never completely shot unless you just have it ripped off you or burned up. It wasn’t exactly in style, but some rich executives wore suits out of style that they had paid a lot of money for. I remembered Fredric March’s double-breasted in Executive Suite while Walter Pidgeon and the rest wore Ivy Leagues. Maybe I would look like an eccentric executive.
I bought a new shirt, a good used pair of shoes, and a dime pack of single-edged razor blades. I didn’t have a razor, but anybody with nerve can shave with a single-edge blade and soap and water.
The clerk took my two bucks in advance and I went up to my room.
I washed out my socks and underwear, took a bath, shaved and trimmed my hair and nails with the razor blade. With some soap on my finger, I scrubbed my teeth. Finally I got dressed.
Everything was all right except that I didn’t have a tie. They had them, a quarter a piece, where I got the shoes. It was only six blocks--I could go back. But I didn’t want to wait. I wanted to complete the picture.
The razor blade sliced through the pink bath towel evenly. I cut out a nice modern-style tie, narrow, with some horizontal stripes down at the bottom. I made a tight, thin knot. It looked pretty good.
I was ready to leave, so I started for the door. I went back. I had almost forgotten my luggage. The box still had three unwrapped blades in it. I pocketed it. I hefted the used blade, dulled by all the work it had done. You can run being economical into stinginess. I tossed it into the wastebasket.
I had five hamburgers and five cups of coffee. I couldn’t finish all of the French fries.
“Mac,” I said to the fat counterman, who looked like all fat countermen, “give me a Milwaukee beer.”
He stopped polishing the counter in front of his friend. “Milwaukee, Wisconsin, or Milwaukee, Oregon?”
He didn’t argue.
It was cold and bitter. All beer is bitter, no matter what they say on TV. I like beer. I like the bitterness of it.
It felt like another, but I checked myself. I needed a clear head. I thought about going back to the hotel for some sleep; I still had the key in my pocket (I wasn’t trusting it to any clerk). No, I had had sleep on Thanksgiving, bracing up for trying the lift at Brother Partridge’s. Let’s see, it was daylight outside again, so this was the day after Thanksgiving. But it had only been sixteen or twenty hours since I had slept. That was enough.
I left the money on the counter for the hamburgers and coffee and the beer. There was $7.68 left.
As I passed the counterman’s friend on his stool, my voice said, “I think you’re yellow.”
He turned slowly, his jaw moving further away from his brain.
I winked. “It was just a bet for me to say that to you. I won two bucks. Half of it is yours.” I held out the bill to him.
His paw closed over the money and punched me on the biceps. Too hard. He winked back. “It’s okay.”