The Calm Man

by Frank Belknap Long

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Sally watched the molten gold glow in the sky. Then knew she would not see her son and her husband ever again on Earth.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Sally Anders had never really thought of herself as a wallflower. A girl could be shy, couldn’t she, and still be pretty enough to attract and hold men?

Only this morning she had drawn an admiring look from the milkman and a wolf cry from Jimmy on the corner, with his newspapers and shiny new bike. What if the milkman was crowding sixty and wore thick-lensed glasses? What if Jimmy was only seventeen?

A male was a male, and a glance was a glance. Why, if I just primp a little more, Sally told herself, I’ll be irresistible.

Hair ribbons and perfume, a mirror tilted at just the right angle, an invitation to a party on the dresser--what more did a girl need?

“Dinner, Sally!” came echoing up from the kitchen. “Do you want to be late, child?”

Sally had no intention of being late. Tonight she’d see him across a crowded room and her heart would skip a beat. He’d look at her and smile, and come straight toward her with his shoulders squared.

There was always one night in a girl’s life that stands above all other nights. One night when the moon shone bright and clear and the clock on the wall went tick tock, tick tock, tick tock. One night when each tick said, “You’re beautiful! Really beautiful!”

Giving her hair a final pat Sally smiled at herself in the mirror.

In the bathroom the water was still running and the perfumed bath soap still spread its aromatic sweet odor through the room. Sally went into the bathroom and turned off the tap before going downstairs to the kitchen.

“My girl looks radiant tonight!” Uncle Ben said, smiling at her over his corned beef and cabbage.

Sally blushed and lowered her eyes.

“Ben, you’re making her nervous,” Sally’s mother said, laughing.

Sally looked up and met her uncle’s stare, her eyes defiant. “I’m not bad-looking whatever you may think,” she said.

“Oh, now, Sally,” Uncle Ben protested. “No sense in getting on a high horse. Tonight you may find a man who just won’t be able to resist you.”

“Maybe I will and maybe I won’t,” Sally said. “You’d be surprised if I did, wouldn’t you?”

It was Uncle Ben’s turn to lower his eyes.

“I’ll tell the world you’ve inherited your mother’s looks, Sally,” he said. “But a man has to pride himself on something. My defects of character are pretty bad. But no one has ever accused me of dishonesty.”

Sally folded her napkin and rose stiffly from the table.

“Good night, Uncle,” she said.

When Sally arrived at the party every foot of floor space was taken up by dancing couples and the reception room was so crowded that, as each new guest was announced, a little ripple of displeasure went through the men in midnight blue and the women in Nile green and lavender.

For a moment Sally did not move, just stood staring at the dancing couples, half-hidden by one of the potted palms that framed the sides of the long room.

Moonlight silvered her hair and touched her white throat and arms with a caress so gentle that simply by closing her eyes she could fancy herself already in his arms.

Moonlight from tall windows flooding down, turning the dancing guests into pirouetting ghosts in diaphanous blue and green, scarlet and gold.

Close your eyes, Sally, close them tight! Now open them! That’s it ... Slowly, slowly...

He came out of nothingness into the light and was right beside her suddenly.

He was tall, but not too tall. His face was tanned mahogany brown, and his eyes were clear and very bright. And he stood there looking at her steadily until her mouth opened and a little gasp flew out.

He took her into his arms without a word and they started to dance...

They were still dancing when he asked her to be his wife.

“You’ll marry me, of course,” he said. “We haven’t too much time. The years go by so swiftly, like great white birds at sea.”

They were very close when he asked her, but he made no attempt to kiss her. They went right on dancing and while he waited for her answer he talked about the moon...

“When the lights go out and the music stops the moon will remain,” he said. “It raises tides on the Earth, it inflames the minds and hearts of men. There are cyclic rhythms which would set a stone to dreaming and desiring on such a night as this.”

He stopped dancing abruptly and looked at her with calm assurance.

“You will marry me, won’t you?” he asked. “Allowing for a reasonable margin of error I seriously doubt if I could be happy with any of these other women. I was attracted to you the instant I saw you.”

A girl who has never been asked before, who has drawn only one lone wolf cry from a newsboy could hardly be expected to resist such an offer.

Don’t resist, Sally. He’s strong and tall and extremely good-looking. He knows what he wants and makes up his mind quickly. Surely a man so resolute must make enough money to support a wife.

“Yes,” Sally breathed, snuggling close to him. “Oh, yes!”

She paused a moment, then said, “You may kiss me now if you wish, my darling.”

He straightened and frowned a little, and looked away quickly. “That can wait,” he said.


They were married a week later and went to live on an elm-shaded street just five blocks from where Sally was born. The cottage was small, white and attractively decorated inside and out. But Sally changed the curtains, as all women must, and bought some new furniture on the installment plan.

The neighbors were friendly folk who knew her husband as Mr. James Rand, an energetic young insurance broker who would certainly carve a wider swath for himself in his chosen profession now that he had so charming a wife.

Ten months later the first baby came.

Lying beneath cool white sheets in the hospital Sally looked at the other women and felt so deliriously happy she wanted to cry. It was a beautiful baby and it cuddled close to her heart, its smallness a miracle in itself.

The other husbands came in and sat beside their wives, holding on tight to their happiness. There were flowers and smiles, whispers that explored bright new worlds of tenderness and rejoicing.

Out in the corridor the husbands congratulated one another and came in smelling of cigar smoke.

“Have a cigar! That’s right. Eight pounds at birth. That’s unusual, isn’t it? Brightest kid you ever saw. Knew his old man right off.”

He was beside her suddenly, standing straight and still in shadows.

“Oh, darling,” she whispered. “Why did you wait? It’s been three whole days.”

“Three days?” he asked, leaning forward to stare down at his son. “Really! It didn’t seem that long.”

“Where were you? You didn’t even phone!”

“Sometimes it’s difficult to phone,” he said slowly, as if measuring his words. “You have given me a son. That pleases me very much.”

A coldness touched her heart and a despair took hold of her. “It pleases you! Is that all you can say? You stand there looking at me as if I were a--a patient...”

“A patient?” His expression grew quizzical. “Just what do you mean, Sally?”

“You said you were pleased. If a patient is ill her doctor hopes that she will get well. He is pleased when she does. If a woman has a baby a doctor will say, ‘I’m so pleased. The baby is doing fine. You don’t have to worry about him. I’ve put him on the scales and he’s a bouncing, healthy boy.’”

“Medicine is a sane and wise profession,” Sally’s husband said. “When I look at my son that is exactly what I would say to the mother of my son. He is healthy and strong. You have pleased me, Sally.”

He bent as he spoke and picked Sally’s son up. He held the infant in the crook of his arm, smiling down at it.

“A healthy male child,” he said. “His hair will come in thick and black. Soon he will speak, will know that I am his father.”

He ran his palm over the baby’s smooth head, opened its mouth gently with his forefinger and looked inside.

Sally rose on one elbow, her tormented eyes searching his face.

“He’s your child, your son!” she sobbed. “A woman has a child and her husband comes and puts his arms around her. He holds her close. If they love each other they are so happy, so very happy, they break down and cry.”

“I am too pleased to do anything so fantastic, Sally,” he said. “When a child is born no tears should be shed by its parents. I have examined the child and I am pleased with it. Does not that content you?”

“No, it doesn’t!” Sally almost shrieked. “Why do you stare at your own son as if you’d never seen a baby before? He isn’t a mechanical toy. He’s our own darling, adorable little baby. Our child! How can you be so inhumanly calm?”

He frowned, put the baby down.

“There is a time for love-making and a time for parenthood,” he said. “Parenthood is a serious responsibility. That is where medicine comes in, surgery. If a child is not perfect there are emergency measures which can be taken to correct the defect.”

Sally’s mouth went suddenly dry. “Perfect! What do you mean, Jim? Is there something wrong with Tommy?”

“I don’t think so,” her husband said. “His grasp is firm and strong. He has good hearing and his eyesight appears to be all that could be desired. Did you notice how his eyes followed me every moment?”

“I wasn’t looking at his eyes!” Sally whispered, her voice tight with alarm. “Why are you trying to frighten me, Jim? If Tommy wasn’t a normal, healthy baby do you imagine for one instant they would have placed him in my arms?”

“That is a very sound observation,” Sally’s husband said. “Truth is truth, but to alarm you at a time like this would be unnecessarily cruel.”

“Where does that put you?”

“I simply spoke my mind as the child’s father. I had to speak as I did because of my natural concern for the health of our child. Do you want me to stay and talk to you, Sally?”

Sally shook her head. “No, Jim. I won’t let you torture me any more.”

Sally drew the baby into her arms again and held it tightly. “I’ll scream if you stay!” she warned. “I’ll become hysterical unless you leave.”

“Very well,” her husband said. “I’ll come back tomorrow.”

He bent as he spoke and kissed her on the forehead. His lips were ice cold.

For eight years Sally sat across the table from her husband at breakfast, her eyes fixed upon a nothingness on the green-blue wall at his back. Calm he remained even while eating. The eggs she placed before him he cracked methodically with a knife and consumed behind a tilted newspaper, taking now an assured sip of coffee, now a measured glance at the clock.

The presence of his young son bothered him not at all. Tommy could be quiet or noisy, in trouble at school, or with an A for good conduct tucked with his report card in his soiled leather zipper jacket. It was always: “Eat slowly, my son. Never gulp your food. Be sure to take plenty of exercise today. Stay in the sun as much as possible.”

Often Sally wanted to shriek: “Be a father to him! A real father! Get down on the floor and play with him. Shoot marbles with him, spin one of his tops. Remember the toy locomotive you gave him for Christmas after I got hysterical and screamed at you? Remember the beautiful little train? Get it out of the closet and wreck it accidentally. He’ll warm up to you then. He’ll be broken-hearted, but he’ll feel close to you, then you’ll know what it means to have a son!”

Often Sally wanted to fly at him, beat with her fists on his chest. But she never did.

You can’t warm a stone by slapping it, Sally. You’d only bruise yourself. A stone is neither cruel nor tender. You’ve married a man of stone, Sally.

He hasn’t missed a day at the office in eight years. She’d never visited the office but he was always there to answer when she phoned. “I’m very busy, Sally. What did you say? You’ve bought a new hat? I’m sure it will look well on you, Sally. What did you say? Tommy got into a fight with a new boy in the neighborhood? You must take better care of him, Sally.”

There are patterns in every marriage. When once the mold has set, a few strange behavior patterns must be accepted as a matter of course.

“I’ll drop in at the office tomorrow, darling!” Sally had promised right after the breakfast pattern had become firmly established. The desire to see where her husband worked had been from the start a strong, bright flame in her. But he asked her to wait a while before visiting his office.

A strong will can dampen the brightest flame, and when months passed and he kept saying ‘no,’ Sally found herself agreeing with her husband’s suggestion that the visit be put off indefinitely.

Snuff a candle and it stays snuffed. A marriage pattern once established requires a very special kind of re-kindling. Sally’s husband refused to supply the needed spark.

Whenever Sally had an impulse to turn her steps in the direction of the office a voice deep in her mind seemed to whisper: “No sense in it, Sally. Stay away. He’s been mean and spiteful about it all these years. Don’t give in to him now by going.”

Besides, Tommy took up so much of her time. A growing boy was always a problem and Tommy seemed to have a special gift for getting into things because he was so active. And he went through his clothes, wore out his shoes almost faster than she could replace them.

Right now Tommy was playing in the yard. Sally’s eyes came to a focus upon him, crouching by a hole in the fence which kindly old Mrs. Wallingford had erected as a protection against the prying inquisitiveness of an eight-year-old determined to make life miserable for her.

A thrice-widowed neighbor of seventy without a spiteful hair in her head could put up with a boy who rollicked and yelled perhaps. But peep-hole spying was another matter.

Sally muttered: “Enough of that!” and started for the kitchen door. Just as she reached it the telephone rang.

Sally went quickly to the phone and lifted the receiver. The instant she pressed it to her ear she recognized her husband’s voice--or thought she did.

“Sally, come to the office!” came the voice, speaking in a hoarse whisper. “Hurry--or it will be too late! Hurry, Sally!”

Sally turned with a startled gasp, looked out through the kitchen window at the autumn leaves blowing crisp and dry across the lawn. As she looked the scattered leaves whirled into a flurry around Tommy, then lifted and went spinning over the fence and out of sight.

The dread in her heart gave way to a sudden, bleak despair. As she turned from the phone something within her withered, became as dead as the drifting leaves with their dark autumnal mottlings.

She did not even pause to call Tommy in from the yard. She rushed upstairs, then down again, gathering up her hat, gloves and purse, making sure she had enough change to pay for the taxi.

The ride to the office was a nightmare ... Tall buildings swept past, facades of granite as gray as the leaden skies of mid-winter, beehives of commerce where men and women brushed shoulders without touching hands.

Autumnal leaves blowing, and the gray buildings sweeping past. Despite Tommy, despite everything there was no shining vision to warm Sally from within. A cottage must be lived in to become a home and Sally had never really had a home.

One-night stand! It wasn’t an expression she’d have used by choice, but it came unbidden into her mind. If you live for nine years with a man who can’t relax and be human, who can’t be warm and loving you’ll begin eventually to feel you might as well live alone. Each day had been like a lonely sentinel outpost in a desert waste for Sally.

She thought about Tommy ... Tommy wasn’t in the least like his father when he came racing home from school, hair tousled, books dangling from a strap. Tommy would raid the pantry with unthinking zest, invite other boys in to look at the Westerns on TV, and trade black eyes for marbles with a healthy pugnacity.

Up to a point Tommy was normal, was healthy.

But she had seen mirrored in Tommy’s pale blue eyes the same abnormal calmness that was always in his father’s, and the look of derisive withdrawal which made him seem always to be staring down at her from a height. And it filled her with terror to see that Tommy’s mood could change as abruptly and terrifyingly cold...

Tommy, her son. Tommy, no longer boisterous and eager, but sitting in a corner with his legs drawn up, a faraway look in his eyes. Tommy seeming to look right through her, into space. Tommy and Jim exchanging silent understanding glances. Tommy roaming through the cottage, staring at his toys with frowning disapproval. Tommy drawing back when she tried to touch him.

Tommy, Tommy, come back to me! How often she had cried out in her heart when that coldness came between them.

Tommy drawing strange figures on the floor with a piece of colored chalk, then erasing them quickly before she could see them, refusing to let her enter his secret child’s world.

Tommy picking up the cat and stroking its fur mechanically, while he stared out through the kitchen window at rusty blackbirds on the wing...

“This is the address you gave me, lady. Sixty-seven Vine Street,” the cab driver was saying.

Sally shivered, remembering her husband’s voice on the phone, remembering where she was... “Come to the office, Sally! Hurry, hurry--or it will be too late!

Too late for what? Too late to recapture a happiness she had never possessed?

“This is it, lady!” the cab driver insisted. “Do you want me to wait?”

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