An Apple A Day
by William Irish
They were known as "Fruits" and "Catcher," those were their professional names. They were partners, and they were getting ready for a business undertaking. Fruits sat at a table, under a shaded light, intently engaged in work of a delicate but indeterminate nature, while Catcher kept pacing restlessly to and fro in the background.
The accessories of the task, spread out on a sheet of newspaper, were a sharp-edged fruit knife, a platter of rosy-cheeked apples, and a small bright object that glittered deceptively and might have been casually mistaken for a diamond, though on closer inspection it proved to be only a nodule of faceted and tinsel-backed glass.
"I've got it now," Fruits announced at last. He had opened a tiny triangular "window" in the surface skin of the apple, a flap, a trap door, that hung back upon itself. He folded this carefully back. Then, poising his knife delicately, he gouged out a small segment of the snowy flesh underneath. He had a little hollowed-out box now, a cubed cell, secreted within the apple. When the scallop of skin was smoothed down into place again, no vestige of it remained.
Catcher shook his head. "It's too simple," he said. "I hope it works."
"It always works the first time," Fruits assured him. "It works just once to a pitch. And this is our first time for it in this town, so what are you worried about?"
Catcher was still troubled. "People don't go into places like that eating apples."
"They're used to seeing me do it now. I munched one the first time I was in. I munched one the second time. Why should they think anything of it if I do it a third time? To them it's just a mannerism of mine now."
Catcher shrugged, only partially convinced. "To me it would still look suspicious."
Fruits revealed himself as somewhat of a philosopher at this point. "That's because you're in on the know. People that are on the up and up, honest, as you might say, they don't expect anything dishonest, they don't watch out for it, until after it's already too late. That's the big advantage we have over them."
He donned an impeccably tailored coat, complete down to boutonniere, which had hung awaiting him over the back of a chair while he worked. This mercifully obliterated the knitted elastic arm-bands which he had flaunted heretofore. He drew on one glove, picked up its mate and a polished malacca walking stick in that same hand, adjusted a gray Homburg so that it tilted at just the right clubman-about-town angle, and then turned this way and that, displaying his person to his partner's appreciative gaze.
"Pretty good," the latter murmured admiringly.
"I look like brokers are supposed to, but don't," Fruits explained. "If you look like they really do, then they take you for something else."
He inserted the twinkling nub of glass that had been resting on the newspaper into the opening of his glove, where it remained fixed alongside the fleshy part of the thumb, so that it could be ejected again at the backward prod of a single finger folded against his palm. The invisibly sutured apple he thrust boldly and undisguisedly into the side pocket of his trousers, where it created a slight but not irreparable distortion of their drape over his hip-line.
"That the way you're going to carry it?" Catcher asked dubiously. "Open like that?"
"That's the way one of them would, if he came out of his office feeling boyish and bought one off a pushcart standing handy at the curb. It's only housewives that carry them around in paper bags."
Some short time later they parted on a downtown sidewalk, a few doors away from an imposing double shopfront that bore the legend "Corday, jewelers" over it. Their manner of breaking company was gradual, progressive, rather than abrupt, immediate. Until this point they had been walking abreast. Now Catcher slackened, began to fall behind, while Fruits continued his own pace unchanged. He delivered parting instructions out of the corner of his mouth.
"See those three windows on the second floor, right over the store sign? They're the ones to his private office. That'll tell you about where to stand. Got it? Have your hat ready."
Catcher removed his headgear, as though he found the late afternoon excessively warm. He mopped lightly at his forehead with a large handkerchief, and also dabbed it at the headband within the upended hat. This was for the sake of plausibility, to indicate to passers-by, should they happen to notice, why he was keeping it off his head and turned over like that.
Fruits, meanwhile, had entered the jeweler's. He was greeted by cordial bows on every side as he proceeded toward the rear. An assistant manager came forward to bend welcomingly from the waist. "Good afternoon, Mr. Nash. I believe Mr. Corday is expecting you upstairs in his private office."
Mr. Nash nodded affably, without breaking pace. "Quite," he said, with a clipped nasal inflection that might have been taken for Harvard or Oxford, but as a matter of fact had been derived from a California-made film.
Even the page who ran the elevator had been tactfully coached in the use of his name. "Good afternoon, Mr. Nash."
"Good afternoon, son," Mr. Nash said benignly.
Mr. Corday greeted him above. Mr. Corday spoke through a desk-transmitter to persons unknown. "Bring in that tray Mr. Nash was looking at the last time. Number Seven."
The tray was brought with admirable alacrity. The door was closed and they seated themselves to their pleasant and mutually profitable task.
Mr. Nash was fashionably vague as to details. "Now we had reached a point - " he said helplessly.
"We had narrowed it down to these two, Mr. Nash."
Mr. Nash remembered. "Quite."
Mr. Corday separated a cataclysm of fire from the black velvet-lined tray, held it up for individual inspection.
"Now, as I said before, in the matter of quality there is very little choice between the two - "
Mr. Nash was obviously in need of some slight outward stimulation to his powers of making a decision. His hand made a half-start within his coat as if to take out a cigarette case, then desisted again.
"Cigarette, Mr. Nash?"
"No, I'm not allowed. I just remembered. Doctor's orders, you know. I think, if you don't mind - "
He produced an apple and blew on it preparatory to taking a bite. Mr. Corday beamed indulgent approval.
Mr. Nash, apple poised in hand, took up one of the stones. "This one is sixty thousand. And the one you've got is seventy-five. Is that right?"
"Precisely. I see you have a very good memory. Now let me point out - "
Mr. Nash's straying hand had picked up a third gem at random, not one of the two under discussion.
"That one's only fifty thousand," Mr. Corday said, in a rather reproachful parenthesis.
Mr. Nash promptly put it back again, as though guilty of a faux pas. At that moment he finally delivered his long-pending first bite into the apple. Co-ordination is a commendable attribute, and that was one thing he had no film to thank for; it was native to him.
His teeth sank into it, but the bite was never completed. He grimaced excruciatingly and withdrew them rather hastily.
"What's the matter?" Mr. Corday asked solicitously.
"Sour. Sets my teeth on edge. Brrr. Excuse me a minute till I get rid of it."
Mr. Corday accommodatingly reached toward a tooled leather waste container, to draw it forward for his convenience. Mr. Nash, however, had apparently missed seeing the gesture. He rose without waiting for it to be completed, stepped over to the narrowly-opened lengthwise window, elevated his wrist slightly, and the apple was gone. Then he came back and sat down again.
The transaction seemed now to have gained momentum; almost as though the acid of the offending apple had acted as a lubricant. Mr. Nash took out a checkbook from his pocket, opened it. In another moment he would indubitably have made his decision known, had not an untoward interruption occurred somewhere outside just then.
A woman started to scream piercingly, on the sidewalk just below the office windows.
Both looked up, one as startled as the other. Both left their seats in unison, started for the window to see what it was. Whether both arrived there together or not escaped Corday's notice in the excitement. He craned his neck trying to look down toward street-level at an obtuse angle.
"I can't make it out. I don't see anything - " he reported to the fellow-onlooker he imagined to be beside him.
There was no answer, and there was too much room at the window.
He turned. The room was empty.
The malacca stick still hung from the back of the chair. One glove and the sterile checkbook remained on the edge of the desk.
He jumped forward. All the diamonds seemed in place on the tray, safely embedded in the velvet in parallel rows. The seventy-five-thousand-dollar one, the sixty - His hastily probing fingers struck the fifty-thousand-dollar one and dislodged a piece of twinkling glass backed with tinsel.
The screaming started again. This time it was the manager, and not the unknown woman on the street.
Catcher didn't see Mrs. Rosoff coming down the street with her baby carriage. He didn't even know she was Mrs. Rosoff. Mrs. Rosoff for her part didn't see Catcher. Her face was turned sharply sideward to take in the jeweled wrist watches, the rings and brooches, the silver candelabra displayed in Corday's window as she went by. They were not of immediate enough pertinency to her own affairs to have caused her to halt outright - such as a head of cabbage or a bargain in hand-knitted fascinators would have been - but it didn't cost anything to look.
For that matter, even had she seen Catcher, it is doubtful whether she would have altered her fixed course. A sidewalk loafer like that hanging around wiping the inside of his hat, it was up to him to get out of her way, not up to her to get out of his.
Mrs. Rosoff had with her, in the tormented bedding of the carriage, a loaf of bread, a bottle of horseradish, ten cents worth of potatoes, five cents worth of soup-greens, three apples, an orange, a rubber ball, and her son, Seymour.
Catcher and Mrs. Rosoff's baby carriage came into juxtaposition. He had been backing slowly outward toward the curb to gain the necessary perspective on the building-front before him, hat held motionless now before him bottomside-up, almost like an oversized alms-cup. Which in a way it was.
Startled at the prod of the baby carriage against the backs of his legs, he hitched uncontrollably forward again, for a distance of several paces. His nerves were taut, and the slight grazing contact had almost exploded them.
He and Mrs. Rosoff exchanged a look.
"What's a metta, you nidd the hull sidewokk?" Mrs. Rosoff lowered belligerently. She trundled on.
Something blurred had fallen into the carriage, unnoticed by either of them at moment of descent. Catcher only caught sight of it, or what he belatedly sensed to be it, in retrospect, after the carriage was already drawing away.
His eyes shot upward, questioning, appalled. A hand was just in the act of withdrawing itself from the lengthwise gap in the middle window, the one Fruits had told him to watch.
He bolted forward after the carriage. Its interior arrangement had already altered in that brief time. Mrs. Rosoff's hand had just finished prodding its contents into somewhat more semblance of order. There was more of Seymour now and less of the other things.
Catcher came up from the rear, unseen by her until he had already arrived broadside. His hand reached out toward the coverings with a futile plucking motion.
Mrs. Rosoff's voice rose to instant and ear-splitting denunciation, a task for which it was well primed at all times. "Get away from mine baby! What you doing?" She swerved the carriage violently off at an angle, proceeded on that tack.
A yard or so further on and Catcher had reappeared on the other side of her, again reaching out in convulsive clawing motions that fell short each time as the carriage picked up speed.
Mrs. Rosoff by this time was thoroughly alarmed. She showed vocal prowess she had not displayed in years. "Loafer!" she shrilled. "Take your hands off my child! Somebody look! A cop I'm culling he should get away from me!"
Catcher by this time was desperate almost to the point of hysteria. Heads were beginning to turn. The owners of them to stop in their tracks. The carriage was going faster and faster, Mrs. Rosoff on the run behind it, keening as she went.
Catcher made one last dashing sortie after it, at such velocity that he not only overtook but passed it going forward. And as he passed, he nipped at something and finally and successfully removed it, leaving a tent-shaped eruption of bedding behind him through which was left exposed a single pink-stockinged infant's foot, pawing uncertainly at the air. Then he put on a spurt of speed that carried him down to the next corner and out of sight around it like something whisked on a string.
Mrs. Rosoff's outcries were stratospheric in their range. "Kidnaper! Mine Seymour he's trying to take away from me! In broad daylight, yet!" That the object removed was obviously a good deal smaller than the child itself, since he held it in one hand alone, even in full flight, only added fuel to her paroxysm. "Low-life! Finnd! You seen him, all of you? You seen what he tried to do? That such people there should be! Mine blood it makes run culd!"
She had halted now, the center of a ring of onlookers. She hovered over the carriage, pressing the child to her in fierce maternal protective instinct, that inadvertently also included in the embrace the paper sackful of potatoes and the soup-greens.
In a moment she had calmed sufficiently to take stock. Probing within the ravaged carriage, she made a discovery. She smote her hand to her chest in beatific relief, held it there. "Is only an apple missing. Is only an apple he took." The discovery, once made, did little if anything to abate the intensity of her indignation. "A fine ting! On the street yet they rob from the children's mouths!"
A patrolman had finally wormed his way through the knot of spectators and confronted her. The story was poured volubly into his ears. Having heard, he scratched the back of his head, just under his uniform cap, skeptically. "Now what would a grown man want to take an apple away from a kid for, lady?"
Mrs. Rosoff gestured excitably with both hands at once. "You're asking me? I'm asking you why! You're an ufficer, ain't you? You should know these tings!"
Several bystanders chimed in to offer corroboration. "I seen him do it, officer. He did have one in his hand."
The patrolman scratched some more. "He sure must have been hard up for something to eat. Which way'd he go?" Then, voiding his own question, he suggested halfheartedly to Mrs. Rosoff: "You don't want me to run after him for that, lady, do you?"
She meanwhile had made an additional discovery, canceling out the original one. "No, wait. Is here yet the tird one. Under my dolling's tochus was lying the hull time, I didn't seen it until now." She straightened again, puzzled. "So then what did he took?"
"He had an apple in his hand, I seen it," one of the bystanders insisted.
Mrs. Rosoff shrugged. "From me he didn't get, that's all I know. Tree for ten they chodge me by the grocers, and tree I got." She kicked up the foot-brake at the rear of the carriage and proceeded on her way, shaking her head, sighing with martyred patience, and protesting in a slightly upward direction: "Always excitement. If it ain't one ting, it's another. To me this has to happen. It couldn't be somebody else."
The original kidnap-theory had reasserted itself once more, to the exclusion of the unsatisfactory apple-theory, by the time Mrs. Rosoff's husband had come home, been apprised of the event, and dined. They were sitting there now mulling over a list of possible suspects and motives. Mrs. Rosoff did most of the supplying, and Mr. Rosoff the more logical masculine discarding.
"Could be the Horowitzes you tink maybe? I never liked that woman. And from the time you broke up potnership with him, I been telling you Max you should look out, he'll find some way of getting back at you."
Mr. Rosoff flung a limply discrediting hand downward in her direction. "Three of their own they got already. What would they want another for?"
Mrs. Rosoff conceded the point. "Could be outsiders you tink maybe?" she proceeded darkly, leaning forward over her teacup. "Gengsters, like what you read in the paper?"
Her husband hiccoughed scornfully. "What we got that gengsters would want? You look so swell maybe, going down the stritt?"
Mrs. Rosoff promptly took up the challenge, with an air of long-persistent habit, however, rather than any undue present heat. "Coming from you, is good. Tree years I been asking you should get me a new coat."
At this point there was a rather peremptory and unheralded knocking at their outside door. A modicum of uneasiness returned to Mrs. Rosoff, the aftermath of her afternoon's experience.
"See who is before you uppen," she warned him in a whisper. "You tink maybe could be from today again?" By this she meant did he think it was a continuation of that afternoon's erratic persecution, in some unlooked-for shape or manner.
He seemed to have no difficulty in assimilating her rather elliptically conveyed thought. At any rate he adopted the suggestion. He posted himself profileward to the door, head down in an attitude of intent listening. "Hus there?" he inquired cautiously.
A voice came through hollowly from the other side. "Police Department."
Mrs. Rosoff jumped to her feet with a nod of vindication that was almost avid. "Did I tell you?" she confirmed. "What did I tell you?"
She hadn't, as a matter of fact, told him anything. What she meant was that the afternoon's incident must have had some deeper motivation than the mere theft of an apple to result in an official aftermath of this sort.
Again her husband seemed to read the text of her thought without the necessity of full word-coverage. He nodded in agreement, even as he set about opening the door.
Two men came forward, one behind the other. The foremost one took out some sort of folder or card-case, flapped it up, flapped it down, put it away again, while the eyes of both Rosoffs followed its movements fascinatedly. "I'm Inspector Grady of the Detective Bureau," he announced.
The Rosoffs were impressed; they were even a little in awe. They were not afraid as the guilty are afraid, but they were indubitably anxious to ingratiate themselves as fully as possible with persons of such majestic standing, never before encountered at such close quarters, right here in their own home.
Mr. Rosoff diffidently chafed his hands down his sides, in order to have them suitably groomed in case a handclasp of social introduction were to be expected of him, a point of etiquette he was unsure of.
"Good ivning," Mrs. Rosoff simpered tentatively, for her part, and shifted a near-by chair very slightly out from the wall, to show that it was at their disposal if acceptable.
"Did you have an experience with a man this afternoon, madam," the inspector inquired without further overture, "who took some object out of your baby carriage as you were going down the street?"
Mrs. Rosoff liked being called "madam"; they only did that in the most high-class stores. "Indidd yes," she said, tilting her head virtuously aloft. "And rilly it's an outrage such things should - "
"Bring him in, boys," the inspector said over his shoulder, without waiting for her to continue.
Mrs. Rosoff's tormentor of that afternoon was brought in from the outside hall in custody. Double-flanked custody. He looked very dispirited, even apathetic.
"That's him!" Mrs. Rosoff was shrilly accusative. "That's the man you was just mentioning, Inspector! Such a fright he gave me I'll never - " Her hands grimly folded to her chest in ladylike distress.
Again the inspector didn't wait to hear her out; with a wisdom born of past interviews of this nature. "Take him out again, boys," he said dryly.
The apparition was whisked away again and the door closed. The two original visitors remained where they were.
"You were bringing home some apples with you in the carriage at the time, weren't you?" the inspector continued.
"That's so. I just finished buying," Mrs. Rosoff shrugged complacently, willing to be lenient now that her sense of injury had been so magnificently solved.
"Would you mind producing them?"
"Look, wait, I show you." Mrs. Rosoff ran toward the dining table. She came back holding between her hands a glass bowl. Within it, jittering slightly with the vibration of her passage, rested a solitary spoon, nothing else.
"I don't get you. What's in this?" the inspector asked.
"Now nothing," admitted Mrs. Rosoff. "Was in it epplesuss. For supper I made." She thrust the bowl forward placatingly. "Wipe your finger in. Taste."
The two detectives exchanged a look of catastrophic frustration. Then Grady turned back to her again, narrowed his eyes implacably.
"Did you find anything in those apples?"
Mrs. Rosoff was nonplused for a moment at the bizarreness of such a question, which contradicted the laws of horticulture as she knew them. "The curs only," she faltered, doing her best to give the precise answer he seemed to expect.
Grady's eyes were slits of cross-examination.
"You pretty sure you didn't find anything in those apples? Where's your garbage pail? I'd like to examine it for myself."
Mrs. Rosoff could sense a dramatic crisis, without being at all aware of its components. "Quick!" she said, appealing to her husband. "Didn't go down the dumbwaiter yet, did it? Go see it shouldn't go down! I got it on."
"I didn't hear him ring yet," Mr. Rosoff tried to reassure her.
"Sometimes he pulls without ringing. Take it off, quick!" Mrs. Rosoff advised excitably.
By this time all four of them had repaired to the kitchen. A wooden panel was flung open and the pail was rescued in its original state of profusion. The inspector spread a newspaper on the floor with a perfunctory word implying permission gained from Mrs. Rosoff, when as a matter of fact he had not consulted her, reversed the pail, and emptied its contents into a pyramidal cone, that rapidly lost its sharpness of outline and flattened out under the ministrations of his grubbing fingers.
Finally he reared erect on his haunches. "There's only two here."
"One I didn't yuz," admitted Mrs. Rosoff.
"Why'd'n't you say so sooner?" Grady winced in rebuke, vigorously flicking his hands down floorward and withdrawing them again a number of times in rapid succession, to rid them of unwelcome particles of adhesion.
"Did I know?" Mrs. Rosoff protested. "You didn't ask me how many - "
"What'd you do with the one you didn't use?"
"On the windowsill I put it, to take it beck tomorrow he should give me a good one for it. Hulls from somebody's teeth it had in it. This I wouldn't stand for. To a steady customer like me he shouldn't sell such a - "
Grady and his subordinate exchanged a knowing look. "That's the one," the inspector murmured quietly. He addressed Mrs. Rosoff again. "Show us where you've got it."
"Over there, look, right out there, I show you."
She flung open the window. The ledge was bare.
"Is gun now!" Mrs. Rosoff exclaimed blankly. "What happened?"
Grady leaned out to look down. Instantly a lurking gust of wind had knifed at his hat, unsettling it. He had to clap his hand to it to hold it on.
He drew his head into the room again.
"The wind tumbled it down," he answered her dourly, "that's what happened." He thumbed his assistant in the general direction of the door, hastened out after him. "Let's get down there fast, see if we can catch up with it. We'll have to begin all over again."
The door slammed after the two of them.
Mr. and Mrs. Rosoff reseated themselves once more, presently, to a discussion of the matter.
Mr. Rosoff, husbandlike, was inclined to make his wife responsible for the upsetting series of events. "Sorus," he grumbled aggrievedly. "Apples you had to bring home, yet, with tings in 'em! You couldn't bring anyting else, apples it had to be!"
"Did I know?" wailed Mrs. Rosoff defensively. "Next time I open a can, believe me, so noting should get inside!"
He'd been standing by the window like that a long time now. Just standing looking out but not seeing anything. Yes, seeing things, but not the things there were outside to see. Not the blank wall of the building across the way, nor the iron slats of the fire escape platform closer at hand, just under the window, nor the uprights that railed it, nor the skeletal iron ladder that came down slantwise from above and gave onto it all the way over at one side. Nor even the piece of cord with which Dot had bisected it, from which hung now two limp skeins that were her stockings.
He'd been standing a long time before these various things, seeing things elsewhere. Elsewhere and yet to be. Seeing a man come up beside him tomorrow, sometime during the day, at his work and hearing him say: "You're wanted in the manager's office, Medwick. I'll take over the window until you get back." Knowing he never would get back, once he got up and went inside there to where he was summoned. Seeing through that door there beyond which they were waiting for him, and knowing that he would never come out again a free man. Never come out again an honest man.
Then the rest would follow. Arrest and exposure, trial and sentence, separation and imprisonment.
He'd managed to cushion one blow, and one only. He'd told her first, and not afterward. He'd told her tonight, a night ahead, so that she wouldn't sit waiting for him to come home tomorrow night and wondering why he was so late. He'd brought her pain tonight, so that she wouldn't have so much pain tomorrow.
They'd stopped talking about it. There wasn't anything left to say that they hadn't already said. There were only tag-ends and scraps left over that they hadn't already used up.
She was sitting there now, somewhere behind him. She'd cried a little, and that was all the crying she'd do for now. She'd have lots more crying to do later. But she'd have lots more time to do it in, too. He didn't look to see where she was. He knew she was there, that was all. Quiet there.
She spoke again finally. "Sit down," she pleaded wanly. "Finish this. You've left it all."
He didn't answer, didn't move.
Presently, she spoke again. "Jerry, you haven't said anything in such a long time. Don't stand there like that. At least turn this way and let me look at your face."
"I don't want to show you my face any more. I'm ashamed of it."
"It's my face too, Jerry," she said wistfully. "We only have one face between us, you know."
He didn't turn. "I'm no crook, Dot," he flared rebelliously. "I've never been one. I wasn't born to be one. I don't know how such a thing ever happened to me!" He put his hand to his forehead for a minute, then dragged it heavily off again.
"Is it an awful lot, Jerry?"
He nodded somberly for a moment without answering. Then he said, "An awful lot for people like us. I don't even know myself any more. It just kept on, after it once started."
"Is it all gone? Isn't there any way of - of making some of it good?"
"I don't know where it went myself. It just went. There isn't any way I know of, unless five or ten thousand dollars were to drop from the sky at my very feet this moment."
"Are they bound to find out right away? Isn't there a chance of gaining a little time?"
"There's just tonight, that's all I have. Tomorrow they re going to find out. They'll know by the time the bank closes at three o'clock. They'll know. They'll know for sure. There's just tonight. There isn't anything that can save me after that."
She saw him look down. He prodded at some imaginary object on the floor at his feet that wasn't there at all, and thrust it forward with his toe, edged it aside. Then let it be, the nothingness that it was.
"Ach, it's such an old story, isn't it?" he said disgustedly.
"To us it's new," she murmured.
A period of silence fell between them once again; more of that silence that resolved nothing, that pointed up the futility of the whole discussion. Yet it wasn't quite intact; she kept making some little sound. Some little sound she was making kept coming from the table she sat by. He didn't look to see just what it was. It might have been a fork that she kept turning over and over with her hand, from side to side, and that struck the table each time she did so. Strangely enough it didn't irritate him as he would have thought it might have, it didn't exasperate his already tautened nerves. He had so seldom found her an irritant in any of his stresses, he reflected, wondering why this should be so; they interacted upon one another with remarkable smoothness.
"I could get out of town, I suppose," he said somberly, and then before the slight creak of alarm her chair gave as she half rose to her feet could complete itself, he had already added: "But I'm not going to. I've sometimes thought - in moments when I'd come back to my right senses - that something like this would happen, was bound to happen sooner or later; but I never saw myself running away, I never counted on that. And I'm not going to now. That's not the answer. There's you. And they'd only catch up with me somewhere and bring me back again. I'm not a crook, I wouldn't know how to - a crook knows how to protect himself." He whinnied a little. "That sounds funny, doesn't it, Dot? I've taken money that doesn't belong to me, and yet I keep saying I'm not a crook. But I didn't intend to take it, I didn't plan on it. It just seemed to happen by itself. A minute before it happened each time, I had no thought of doing it, I didn't know I was going to. And then I'd look and - it was over, I'd already done it. And it was so easy. And oh, it was going to be replaced the very next day, each time; or within the week at the latest. But I couldn't quit now, I couldn't quit where I was, or then I would be in trouble, I'd have lost everything. Then I'd have had no way of making it up. And they'd keep phoning me for more margin and more margin. Every time I'd try to sell short, it would go way down; and every time I'd try to buy in, it would go way up sky high. It was like a quicksand, and the more I struggled, the more I kept getting in deeper and deeper. Five thousand, and then seven, eight, and then ten - And then - I don't know what happened - all of a sudden it all went, altogether, and there was nothing left. Just smoke drifting away, and nothing left. Just a big hole in my accounts." His hand plowed through his hair, over and over, tormentedly. "But I didn't mean to be a crook. I didn't know I was being one - " And then he said limply, "What good is that now?"
She'd come up behind him, close behind him. Her arm crept forward about his shoulder, and clung there, returning over the opposite one. She pressed her cheek against his back, tightly, and held it there. His hand found hers, upon his shoulder, and pressed upon it in turn, crushing it to him for a moment.
"Don't go, Jerry. You won't, will you? Don't do anything like that."
"I won't go. I told you I won't, and I won't."
She sighed with exhausted gratitude. They stayed that way, her nestled head hidden behind him. Before them, unseen, the blank wall; opposite them, the iron-runged platform, the diagonal ladder, the two stockings stirring uneasily.
"Your insurance, Jerry?"
"That went. That was the first thing that went, before the other. It was just a drop in the bucket, anyway."
"Do you think - maybe if you went to him tonight of your own accord and told him ahead of time, without waiting?"
"The manager, you mean? It wouldn't make any difference. He's responsible to the board of directors. He'd have to take action, as long as there's a shortage involved, whether he found it out from me or from the auditors or no matter who."
Another silence fell.
He took her hand and disengaged it from his shoulder, as if he were about to move away at last. "It's no good standing here, waiting for something to happen. Waiting for heaven to send me down a sign. Those things don't happen."
There was a heavy clanging thud, on the iron staves just outside the sill.
She gave a slight start, all out of proportion to the cause, of tightly coiled nerves releasing themselves. "What was that?"
"Nothing. Just something that fell down on the fire escape outside," he said dully. "I can see it rolling there."
"I'd better get my stockings in. The wind'll blow them off the line. Jerry, can you reach them for me?" The trivia of domesticity reasserting itself even in the depths of a crisis such as they had never experienced before. The terrible resiliency of little things, that will not be downed.
He opened the lower pane and drew them in for her. Then he reached downward to the floor of the platform below, and grappled for, and finally secured and looked at, something. He brought that in too.
"An apple," he said cheerlessly. "That's what it was. Must belong to someone above us."
He continued holding it after that, still standing there where he was. He didn't hold it statically, he kept tossing it slightly up and down within the hollow of his one hand, just enough so that it broke contact each time. He wasn't looking at it nor thinking of it. But whatever his thoughts were, they seemed to have a quickening effect upon it. Faster and faster became its bobbing up and down within his palm, as if some determination within him were mounting to a climax.
She meanwhile had gone back to the table, seated herself beside it, drawing one stocking at a time over her hand, to inspect its texture for rents or snarls. Yet with her, as with him the apple, this was an outside thing, mechanical, a thing that her fingers did that her mind had no part of. That could be seen.
Suddenly the apple had stopped. Decision had crystallized.
She looked up. Held the look with taut, white-faced continuity.
He went over to the chair athwart which his coat still lay rumpled, flung there when he'd first returned hours before. He shrugged it on, carrying the apple down through its sleeve and out again below without releasing it. Then he picked up his hat.
"Jerry," she said with quiet intensity.
"I'm going out for a walk, to think it over. I'll be back soon."
The look she was bearing steadily upon him didn't falter. She got up and went toward him, as if drawn in its wake by its very intensity.
"A breath of air'll do me good," he said. He noticed the apple. "I'll give this back to them if I see them."
He caught her to him with unexpected fierceness, and they clung together for a moment. He kissed her hungrily, twice on the mouth and once above the eye. "I love you," he murmured throatily. "I'm sorry I - brought this on us." Then he released her as abruptly as he had seized her, and opened the door to go out.
The whiteness of her face had become livid. "You're - you're not going to do anything, are you? You wouldn't be that foolish, would you? Jerry, look at me. I don't like the way you're saying good-by."
He looked at her. "I'll be right back. Just let me go out for a minute and think."
He closed the door rather quickly, frustrating some gesture her hands had been about to make toward him. Some gesture of detention or appeal.
Two heavy-set men were filing across the stair-landing as he came out, on their way from the flight below to the next flight leading up. He had to stand back a moment to let them pass. They didn't look at him. "It's the floor above," he heard one mutter. "Rosoff is the name." They trooped on up out of sight, while he went trampling rapidly downward toward the street.
He felt some impediment within his hand, within his coat pocket, and withdrew both, to find out what it was. He saw it was the apple. He was already well beyond the street doorway by now, so he didn't turn back, he continued onward with it, held openly in sight. Who wanted an apple back, anyway?
An urchin on one of the stoops looked rather longingly at it as he went by, and for a minute he was going to present it to him. But his long stride had already carried him too far past before he could put the idea into effect, and again he didn't retrace his steps.
He rounded the same corner that he turned twice a day, going to and coming from work. And then down two blocks that way, and downstairs to the subway stop, was the way he always went. He stood for a minute, and he didn't know which way to go. Because he wasn't going to work tonight; he'd come out for a walk, that was what he'd told her.
A walk. A walk to where?
Then because he always went down that way other days, he went down that way now, tonight, again. The line of stores, the shops and business places, the same familiar line, in the same familiar sequence he knew so well, were beside him along the way. The candy-store first, with its bulky marbleized counter, and then the shoe-repair shop, where he sometimes stopped in for a shine or a new pair of lifts. The operator was always close up beside the window, he always did his work close up beside the window, in a vivid green smock or work-jacket. He was there now, slicing away at the edge of a sole with a sharp knife, and he looked up. They exchanged a friendly nod.
The man passing thought: He'll be there in the window tomorrow night again at this same time, but I won't pass by.
And then on the corner the drugstore. Then you crossed the intermediate street, and on the other side, a pawnbroker's. He'd never been in there. You went in there when you needed money badly and fast, and you pledged something of greater value than the sum you were to receive, and you were given the money. If he had something on him now worth a great deal, and he went in there, and the broker said, "I'll give you so much for this," how simple it would be.
The child in him wasn't quite dead yet, he saw, to dream things like that.
Then he came to the slant-roofed subway kiosk of thick murky glass and iron framework, sheltering steps leading down below, and he stopped there at the mouth of it.
Brackish air came billowing up into his face, as from a subterranean commotion, and there was a receding, hollow-sounding vibration accompanying it. A train had just pulled out as he arrived above.
Those trains down there, they took him to work other days. They took you all over, to any part of the city. They could even take him, he supposed, to the home of the manager, as she had suggested just now, though he wasn't quite sure where that was, he would have had to look it up first. But that would have been a bootless journey.
They took you anywhere, those trains down there. They could even take him - out of this. They could rescue him from disgrace and imprisonment.
The people started coming up, only reaching street-level now from the train that was already well into the distance, far down the track beyond this point. He stepped a little aside, at the entrance to the vent, to be out of their way, and watched them as they crowded and jostled by. Men and women, tired-looking, indifferent-looking, sullen-looking, vacant-looking. They were blind with their own concerns, they saw nothing, not even one another. Their eyes were surface-attributes, with no inner functions; like buttons or pieces of nacre stuck into their heads on the outside for purposes of decoration or symmetry only.
A dozen worlds went by him as he watched, a dozen worlds cut off from one another though they jostled at every turn; worlds that were apart. Each with its hells and heavens.
They were gone now. The space was clear. He could go down now. He'd stay up here a little longer. Like an actor in the wings waiting for his cue; he doesn't come on the stage too soon. The next train wouldn't come in for four or five minutes yet. He knew they always gave them that much headway, at least. He'd be able to hear it coming in the distance, while it was still well short of the station, anyway. He knew that too; he often had, running in the mornings for these selfsame steps, to be on time. He could go down then, when he heard it coming from afar.
He started to jounce the apple up and down once again, as he had back at his home. Slowly at first. Then a little faster. Then faster still.
He wondered for a moment whether he'd have time to eat it before the next train came. He smiled a little at such a curious thought. Basically, you ate to stay alive, wasn't that what you did it for? That would be a contradictory thing to do.
The sound began, of the next train. He caught it almost at its inception; indistinct, far off, still merely a whine, a hum, a muffled whirring somewhere way up the tunnel. Growing louder, growing stronger, not stopping as it was.
The apple was in constant motion now, vibrating, dancing to the pulsing of his hand.
The hum had swollen to a roar now. The train was near, was very near. The train that took you anywhere, the train that took you out of this.
Suddenly the apple had stopped, held fast within his frozen grasp. Then he flung it, aiming it at a half-filled wastepaper receptacle, standing there just outside the entrance, over beside the curb.
He didn't wait to see whether it fell accurately within or not. He turned and ran down the steps, their steel rims clicking with a false impression of looseness under his quick-pedaling feet. He went down the way he always did when he ran for trains, turned partly sidewise to obtain a better equilibrium, and with one leg consistently lagging two steps behind the other all the way down.
The three-sided enclosure where he had stood remained vacant, acting now only as a filter to sounds from below, but with no one there to hear them any longer.
There was no sharp crack of the turnstile to denote an admission. Instead a man's voice called out in indignant authority: "Hey, you, come back here - !"
The roar still came on for a moment more, swelling smoothly; then abruptly it shattered into a hideous discord of squalling, grinding brakes, applied too quickly but yet not quickly enough. There was a shuddering stoppage, a dislocation of heavy bodies.
The din, the clamor they made, came gushing up the empty steps. Magnified, as though forced by compressed air.
Then in its wake the smaller, human sound of a woman screaming rabidly, taken up instantly by a second, by a third, until all were blended together in a harrowing chorus of unreason.
But the place above remained as barren, as lifeless, as ever, with nothing to show there had been anyone standing there until just now.
A door-threshold for a mattress. A lower step for a head-rest. The sharp bite of the step didn't even hurt his neck any more, he was so used to it. He'd fit it into the indentation between his jaw-line and his collarbone and cushion it there.
No one ever disturbed him, if he picked the right kind of doorway, a laissez-faire kind of a doorway. He could stay in it until the smoke cleared from his brain and consciousness came back again. This had nothing to do with the arbitrary bourgeois subdivisions of sleeping-time and waking-time, night and day. This had to do solely with nickels and dimes, and the smoke he quaffed by means of them. When he didn't have them, that was waking-time, that was time of pain and chill and threatened attacks of memory; when he did have them, that brought on sleeping-time soon after, as surely as effect follows cause.
He got up, very uncertainly, very waveringly, and stretched and rubbed himself, and squirmed within the never-discarded cocoon of his clothing, and looked out of the doorway and saw that it was the bourgeois subdivision, night, though several hours short of their actual sleeping-time yet. How strange to all go to sleep at one time, how strange to all go to sleep in beds, in rooms that belonged individually to each sleeper.
He shuffled out of the doorway, and lights were on, blossoming like big translucent oranges and lemons all up and down the murky pathway of the shadowed street. Each one was swollen to still greater size, in his eyes alone, with a nebula like a soap-bubble around it, but these were pricked to extinction one by one as his pupils slowly contracted to normal.
He started down the street, the long street that never led anywhere. Sometimes it was called this, sometimes it was called that, but it never had a destination. Now he was coursing it again, keeping rather more closely to the walls than to the outer side of it. Why, he could not have told; nor why he should go down this one way rather than up the other; nor for that matter why he should move at all and not just stay where he was.
He'd once had a name. Oh sure, he could remember it if he tried hard enough. It would come back almost always. Once in a while not. But mostly it would come back, strange-sounding and unfamiliar, like something objective, that belonged to somebody else entirely, not to him. It was like an ascot tie or a pair of spats; you knew where it went, but hell, you never thought of putting it on you there.
He kept from trying to remember it all he could. He didn't want it back. There was pain in it. It hurt. It was like pins and needles creeping through the memory, trying to bring back circulation. Just like when your foot's been asleep, so with your memory; it hurts to stir it.
Once in a while he got a strange feeling. It was a feeling that he wasn't going to live very much longer. It didn't come from any bodily symptom of illness; he had none. It was more a sort of foreknowledge, hanging over his mind. A sense of all things having their appointed time, and of his own appointed time hovering over him more closely day by day and almost hour by hour.
And then when he got this feeling, a smoldering sense of rebellion would come over him. Not rebellion at having to die. He really didn't care, he didn't mind that at all. The doorsteps in the void couldn't be any colder or harder than those on this side. But rebellion at having to die like this. Still having nothing, after never having had anything all his life long. Without at least having had something once before he died. Why couldn't he just once have - have everything, before he died? Just for one last time, that would have also been the first. Just for a night. All right, just for an hour. Fine clothes. A walloping huge meal, with no room left over, none of those crannies and crevices. Smokes galore. Wine. A car, to stop by and pick up the rest of the boys and take them for a ride in. Not to keep those things. Just to try them out. You shouldn't leave this world behind without at least sampling what was in it. That was what you were put here for. Not to, was rudeness to your host, and a reflection on His hospitality.
Even when they executed you legally for a crime, they gave you one last big fat meal before they did.
This then was his rebellion. It only came with that feeling. He'd quench it with alky, with smoke, in order not to be annoyed. It went out easy enough. It wasn't a very strong flame. It wasn't a flame at all. It was just a smoldering, banked discontent, a regret lurking down deep where you couldn't get at it, sending up a thin coil of smoke through the litter and debris with which existence had filled him.
The feeling was on him tonight. The feeling was very strong tonight. The feeling about not living very much longer, that is. He'd sluice it out with alcohol in a little while, as soon as he got the requisite nickels and dimes. No good to tell any of the boys about it. You kept a thing like that to yourself. That was about all you had left to keep to yourself: past life and future death.
He thought he'd like to go uptown for a little while. Well, that was easy enough. And by that he didn't mean walking, either. Transportation was never any problem. Sometimes it took a little longer to achieve, sometimes not quite so long, that was all.
A man was coming toward him. He marked the approaching figure down, aimed himself at him with that peculiar, sidewise, crablike scuttling motion they all of them made use of in the touch.
"Hey mister, could you spare me a nickel to get uptown?" He spoke low, almost inaudibly, and this was done with a purpose too; if they didn't hear you the first time, sometimes they automatically slackened or halted, to give you time to repeat, and that was as good as winning the touch.
The man was short and to the point, and he didn't slacken.
"Get out of here, bum!"
He got out of there. A first refusal was a permanent refusal. If you argued with it you only got in trouble. He'd learned that long ago.
He marked another figure down. He was getting back into the rhythm of it now, after his sleep.
This time he got a moral stricture with it. "Why don't ya cut that out?"
He got a nickel the third time, and that was about the usual ratio of donations to refusals. Possibly a little higher. That was all he'd wanted, and he desisted for the time being.
He got on a Third Avenue trolley car and dropped the nickel into the fare register almost before the warmth of the legitimate owner's hand had had time to wear off it. He rode all the long way past the Williamsburg Bridge plaza and Cooper Square and St. Mark's Place, up into the regions where the streets squared off into rectangles and started to have numbers instead of names, up into the zones where everyone worked and the doorways might have had figures in them but they were standing up and not recumbent. All the long way up he rode. He got out again at random, and now he was uptown.
You had to be careful uptown. Uptown was dangerous ground. They ran you in at the drop of a hat, uptown. But the pickings were better uptown, too. It equalized itself.
This was a veritable fruit orchard of incandescent oranges and lemons; down his way they had been scattered sparsely about in the dark. Here the darkness was pushed all the way back, high into the sky. And even up there it was kind of bright by reflection. As though all the luminous pollen floating upward stuck to the roof of the sky.
Or they were like glowing balloons, the lights of night, the lights of life, that was another way of looking at it. He imagined when you died this was what it would be like, this was what would happen: the pin point that was your death would touch them one by one - not all together at one time, but one after the other, going down the line away from you into the furthest distance - and one by one they would pop into nothingness, until the last was gone, the last was out, the long vista was blankness, darkness unrelieved. Then that would be death, your death. They'd still be there for someone else, but not for you.
A sailor and his girl were coming along. The boys, his kind of boys, always called this a natural. There was not only the innate generosity of the typical seafaring man, there was the feminine-audience factor to puff it up still further. He jacked up his request accordingly. "Admiral, could you let us have a quarter?"
He saw them look at one another and grin. But it wasn't in a sneering, derogatory way. It was hard to explain, but it was more in a raffish, broadminded way. The sort of grin that said: "What the dickens, you have to expect this."
The quarter was produced from a curious little blouse pocket high up near the man's shoulder.
He thanked him. "I hope you and your young lady have a good time, young fellow," he benisoned them diplomatically.
A second quarter was produced.
The girl giggled. "Come on, Brad, that's enough for one time," she cautioned.
They went on. "Poor old duffer, I'd hate to be like that," he overheard the sailor remark before they were well out of earshot.
He thought about that for a little while, as far as the next corner, or perhaps the one after. He answered it in his own mind. "So would I have, once. So would I have, once. But I didn't know it was coming." He felt like turning his head to call back after them: "After it does come, you don't mind so much." But when he did turn it, they were already long gone from sight. Forever gone, except in his own mind now. And they would be washed out of there, presently, when the next inundation of smoke came.
Two quarters was a lot. He could get four shots of smoke out of that, and a nickel to ride back on to where the smoke was waiting, and still have a nickel left over. He'd better wait long enough to get just a little more, now that he was all the way up here. Four shots wasn't quite enough to put him fast asleep, he'd been noticing of late. It was taking five and upwards to do that, recently. And he hated that in-between state, where you didn't quite make oblivion but were blurred and helpless. He'd better stick around a little longer. He'd go one more block, and then he'd turn back and work his way slowly over to where the trolley line was once more. There, where those subway-stairs were ahead, descending below the ground, he'd turn there. You had to turn some place or other, you had to turn sooner or later, or you never stopped going, you kept on forever.
He made his turn, and stopped for a moment by the wastepaper receptacle standing there at the curbline to browse and see if there was anything in it of worth to him. Sometimes you got pretty good papers to read, if they weren't too old, and too battered and rumpled.
It was made of large wire-mesh, and you could see into it all the way down the sides to the bottom. A fleck of color embedded in the white and dun filling that stuffed it, about halfway down and peering through against the wire, caught his eye. He burrowed his way down toward it, nearly up to the elbow of one arm, upheaving the strata of papers that had formed atop it since it had been inserted. It could perhaps have been told by this how long it had been in there, if there had been some sure way of calculating how long it took one of these holders to fill up to its brim.
Then when he'd brought it up through the paper-drifts, it was only an apple.
He was going to let it drop back again for a minute, but he didn't. He looked at it more closely, turned it. Why, it was good. It was whole. It had teeth-marks faintly visible in it, but no overt amputation. And after all, other people's teeth couldn't hurt you, they were just bone.
He dusted it off a little against his shaggy sleeve. It was a meal, a delicacy. He'd keep it till later. Why eat it now? It would always hold good. At least it wouldn't turn rotten for maybe another whole day yet. You could tell that by looking at it. It didn't have a soft spot in it.
He folded it over with a scrap of rag he had about him, and put it into one of the bottomless abysses lurking in his clothing that served him as places of safekeeping.
Then he went on.
This venture had turned out to be highly profitable, more so than many another excursion uptown. But the discontent was on him, as if perversely fanned by his very success. That feeling of mortality that was the cause of it, that it stemmed from, was very strong right now, stronger than ever. That was the reason for it.
A glowing show-window drifted up beside him as he moiled along, and he turned and stopped and stood before it, rooted there with a curious mute yearning. It was like looking into a lighted tank of tropical fish, with the variegated colors in it artfully disposed here and there like schools of just such fish in arrested swimming-formation.
He moved a little closer to the glass sheath that walled him off from it. The colors burned in his face. Why couldn't he have neckties like that, once before he died? He was a man, he was a human being. He had a neck for them to go around. They were made for anyone to wear. Why hadn't he ever had one, all his long life long?
Suddenly he began to pound against the thick plate-glass with the flat of his hand. Faster and faster. His hand was flabby and the glass was stout, so the casing wasn't in much danger.
People turned their heads at the sound. Abashed, he scurried on, away from there. "I haven't much time, I haven't much more time," he whimpered aloud in excuse, as if somebody unseen were taxing him with what he had just done. "Why can't I have one - before I go where there aren't any?"
And then a little later on, a street or two further over, the same thing happened over again. Another lushly suffused panel, opening in the wall he was trudging along, trapped him, held him fast. This one had living beings in it. Two of them were up close, others deeper within. Semi-transparent curtains veiled the sides, but in the center where they failed to come quite together there was a gap, and through this he looked.
The two persons at the table directly before him were a man and woman. They remained stubbornly unaware of him, though they must have seen his face peering in that close beside them. In the background waiters streaked about, taking sudden turns of direction where there were unguessed aisles between the tables that he could not see from where he was.
The woman's chair had a ruff of fur curved about its back. She poised a fork, occasionally touching it to something on her plate. The man removed the lustrous silver dome of a chafing-dish, spooned something out, replaced it again.
Standing there, eyes hungrily following every slightest move they made, he knew it wasn't their food itself he wanted, it was - well, the privilege of being in there where they were, and having such food. Just once, just once sitting down to such a table, spread with damask linen, covered with a profusion of crystal and china and silver, having such a lovely lady opposite him for his guest, having such food and drink brought to him by white-gloved waiters. All that, all that. Just once, just one brief time.
Again he pounded - despairingly, bitterly - not very forcefully. The woman drew her fur protectively closer about the shoulder on that side, as though he were a draft to be warded off. The man shot him a rebuking look, then turned his face the other way, out into the room, in search of redress.
Someone came to the entrance, swung a loose arm at him. "Get away from there. What're you doing?"
The hand with which he'd been pummeling slipped reluctantly down the glass, with a sort of clawing motion.
"Get your hands off the glass. What're you trying to do, smear it up?"
He'd better quit it, he'd get in trouble. He shuffled off into the dark, left the window behind. The rebellion was troublesome tonight. He recognized that. He'd better go downtown and get some sleep. He'd better go down and buy some sleep.
The sense of finality, that was strong, that was almost overpowering. That was in every breath he took, even now as he walked along. That was in the way he found himself panting, without having hurried at all. Above all, that was in the unwonted clarity rather than habitual dimness of his senses and perceptions. Their usual cobwebby contentment was gone tonight. He wanted to stand on a corner and scream: "Give me things! Quick, give me all the things I've done without, before I leave them behind forever."
More than anything, that was in the incident that occurred just before he boarded the trolley that was to take him back downtown again. A man had just emerged from a cigar store as he passed before its entrance himself, and had halted a moment to scan a palmful of change he had just received following whatever purchase it was he had made, to make sure it was accurate before reimbursing it. A common enough turn of habit.
Through long habit of his own, unpremeditated now, he promptly accosted the man. Again the boys called this a natural. Anyone already holding coins out in full view in his hand usually found it doubly difficult to refuse, the burden of most refusals being "I haven't anything to give you."
The man gave him a nickel, pocketed the rest, and walked away.
He stood there looking at it for a moment, as though he'd never seen one before. And then the rebellion took him fiercely. He raised his hand and flung it down violently, so that it bounced and rolled away. He'd never done that before, never yet. Not even to a penny. "I don't want nickels from strangers!" he railed tearfully at the top of his cracked voice. "I want something that belongs to me! Something of my own!"
He boarded the trolley car and he went downtown, to where the lights were few against the all-enveloping dark and legs peered horizontally from doorways.
He went into the place they called "Old Joe's," nobody knew why. There was nobody there named Joe, Old Joe or New Joe. But it was his favorite place; the smoke was stronger, and they gave you a finger's breadth more.
With the first short tumbler of the smoke, the rebellion was quenched. It became a mild regret. "I shouldn't be down here," he murmured. "I should be uptown, at one of those tables like I saw through that window." Then even that went too. Peace had come back, ear-ringing, eye-dimming contentment. Sleep would soon follow.
He fumbled in his clothing to pay for the first smoke. They made you pay right as you went along, naturally; where would they have been if they hadn't? He fumbled and he felt the firm round shape of the apple. He explored it with his fingertips, leaving it in where it was.
He ought to eat it now, he supposed. No telling how long he would sleep after this, and it might be spoiled by that time. He ought to go outside into the privacy of one of the near-by doorways and munch it, before he went any further with the smoke. And then come back again afterwards and go ahead.
He turned from the dank, moldering counter, to carry this project out. If you didn't do things right while you were thinking of them, you forgot what they were after a minute or two.
Somebody standing next to him put out a hand to detain him, said: "How're you doing, old-timer?"
"I'm doing all right," he said confidentially. "I was uptown just now, and I had a good night. I had a very good night."
He turned back to the counter again, to prove to him that he was telling the truth, and he ordered another smoke. He'd already forgotten what he'd been about to go outside for anyway.
After the fourth smoke he wasn't standing upright any more. He was lolling face-down at one of the tables at the back of the place, and somebody, maybe it was his new acquaintance from up front, was bending over him and shaking him and urging him to come outside with him. He couldn't see very well any more, but he could hear his voice. "Come on outside, I know where we can get some more of it. I got a friend outside, he can get us some more of it."
He wasn't conscious of moving, but then you never could feel yourself walk at this point of progression into oblivion, anyway. Darkness had seeped around him once more, on the outside, with those glowing disks, those balloons, floating sparingly about on it here and there, so he knew he must be on the open street again.
Then the two stone arms of a doorway shot forward to embrace him, to shield him lovingly, and he was down.
There were two voices now instead of one.
"He said he had a good night," one said to the other.
Somebody was going through his pockets.
But there was something more important than that which took his mind off it. One of the balloons, outside there just beyond the doorway, had just gone out. He could see it from where he was. Pricked into nothingness by the point of a pin that he knew was for himself alone. Then the next one was gone. Then the one after that. All down the line, back as far as he could see, they were going out one after the other.
"An apple," one of the voices said. "A lot of good that is!" There was a short breath of exertion, as when an arm has flung something far and wide.
He said with a sort of petulant aggrievement: "I ain't going to wake up again. This time I ain't waking up again, you hear me?"
Somebody laughed, he couldn't tell who.
It was close at hand first, but then it trailed off.
Maybe it was life itself laughing at him.
She never missed early morning mass. That was all she had. That, and her friendship for him. She didn't know his name, but it didn't matter, she didn't have to know it to be friends with him. She always came across him on her way back from early mass, that was when she looked for him, at that early hour, when the streets were newly sprinkled and fresh smelling and the sunlight was old rose and lavender. She knew just where to find him, what particular street to pass along on her way from the church in order to come upon him. He was always somewhere along that one certain street at that hour, she could be sure of that. Later in the day he wasn't about any more; she didn't know where he went or what he did, but he wasn't to be seen any more. But at that pristine hour, with the crisp blue shadows still long upon the ground, he was always sure to be there, along her homeward way.
This friendship had been going on for months now. She prized it as only the lonely can prize an interruption in their daily solitude. And since to feel friendship is to want to bestow marks of attention, even when they are unsolicited, she was never without a lump or two of sparkling sugar in her worn black bag, to offer him when they met.
He was a lovely roan with a white streak down his forehead. He was a mounted policeman's horse. Everyone must have something to love.
His rider was a tall, forbidding man, and she was rather in awe of him. He had a habit of looking straight out high above her head into the far distance, and seeming not to see her, but she had a feeling he knew everything she was doing. When he was up, the most she would dare was a stolen little pat on the flank as she went by, and she wouldn't linger. But once in a while he'd be inside talking to one of the men in the stores along there, and her friend would be waiting there alone. Then they'd have a time together.
She couldn't bring him the sugar now any more because of the new regulations. She'd bring him a carrot instead whenever she could, but they were harder to smuggle to him without being detected, and she knew his rider didn't approve. He tolerated, but he didn't encourage. Once he'd said to her openly, "Not too much of that now, lady, you'll spoil him on me." He'd frightened her a little, though perhaps without meaning to. She was quite easily frightened. She had white hair, and a tiny figure, no bigger than that of a child of twelve. And just as slim and just as straight.
He knew her step already. He was usually facing the other way, and he'd turn his head when he'd hear her coming, slight as her tread was, and watch her hopefully as she approached. It wrung her heart to have to disappoint him, to have to come up to him empty-handed.
But today there was this. This windfall. She wouldn't have to today. It had caught her eye, back there around the corner, just when she was wishing that she'd had something to give him. She'd retrieved it and looked it over carefully. As carefully as she would have if it had been intended for herself. There was nothing about it that could hurt him. She'd cleaned it for him thoroughly, before bringing it with her. She had it wrapped in a clean handkerchief now, secreted within her bag.
His rider was inside, talking to someone again. He turned his head when he heard her coming, the way he always did, and fixed those limpid, knowing eyes on her. She came hurrying up to him, in order to gain all the time possible before they were interrupted. She stroked him and patted him and spoke to him low. Everyone must have something to love.
He nuzzled her hand, and he even nuzzled the seam of her bag before she had got it quite open. She whisked the handkerchief off. She said, "Here, look what I've got for you." She stole a wary glance over her shoulder. She said, "Hurry up, before he comes out." She smoothed his coat down while he was busy enjoying it, made a great to-do over him, as a friend does.
Some men were shouting about something further up the street. She didn't pay any attention at first, didn't even turn to look. These stolen minutes were too precious to waste. Then they came running toward her, two of them, one behind the other. He finished the last of it just as they reached her. They were all out of breath, as though they'd been hurrying for a long time. Not only now, but for hours past, all night long, all over town.
"What'd you just give that horse?" the foremost one panted.
Instantly she was acutely frightened. Were they going to arrest her for it? "Only an apple," she faltered.
"Where'd you get it? Did you just pick it up out of an ashcan, back there around the corner, where the El runs?"
"Y-yes. I didn't mean any harm. It didn't seem to belong to anyone - "
"Wait a minute," he insisted. "Did it have teeth-marks on one side of it - little dents?"
She nodded fearfully, unsure just what heinous dereliction she had been guilty of, but expecting imminent arrest.
However, that point having been established, they seemed to exclude her from all further part in the problem that was agitating them, whatever it was. She saw one of them strike himself calamitously across the forehead, look at the other one.
"There's only one thing to be done now," he groaned dismally.
The strange little procession wended its way slowly along, following the customary beat of the horse's rider. Now, however, he was paced by a train of three persons afoot. One man walked slowly along on each side with a hand resting encouragingly against the animal's glossy flank. A street cleaner brought up the rear with his long-handled brush in poised readiness.
They would plod patiently to the limits of the mounted patrolman's beat in one direction, then turn back and retrace their route until they had reached its limits in the opposite direction. Then turn once more and go back the first way again. This had been going on uninterruptedly for the past several hours.
Nobody could understand what they were doing. Some said the men on foot were a bodyguard for the policeman. Some said the policeman was a bodyguard for the two men afoot. Since they kept tracing and retracing the same limited course, passing any given point not once but numberless times, this latter postulate wasn't very tenable. And into neither theory would the street cleaner fit very plausibly. Presently, since nothing continued to happen, people stopped loitering along the sidewalk waiting to see what it was that was meant to happen.
"Keep moving him, Donnelly, keep moving him," one of the self-appointed grooms would urge occasionally, and quite unnecessarily.
The rider didn't seem to relish the false position he found himself and his steed placed in, through circumstances beyond their control. "Don't hang around him so close, he's not used to it," he answered tartly.
"This is a crowded neighborhood," the unhappy Inspector Grady, who was on the left flank, let him know. "I've got a job to do, and I'm not taking any chances, with all these people around."
"Just be patient," was the sulky reply, "you'll get it."
As the cavalcade reached the last intersection but one, short of the perimeter of the beat they were advancing toward, the crossing-light suddenly changed, flashed red. They halted. A moment later there was a sudden shout of excitement that the passers-by were unable to account for. The small group milled about for a moment in a state of flux. One of the men on foot flung his arm up, and the rearguard street cleaner closed in. The horse side-stepped nervously.
The cop reached forward and patted his mount's neck as a mark of merited approval. "I told ya you'd get it," he said complacently to those immediately around him.
Inspector Grady floundered toward the curb and sat down on it in a state of semi-prostration. He took off his hat and fanned himself exhaustedly.
"Guard, how I hate apples!" he remarked vehemently to no one in particular. "It's given me an allergy to 'em!"
End of An Apple A Day by William Irish