The Nice People by Henry Cuyler Bunner

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This story is from Bunner's Short Sixes and also appeared in his periodical Puck in the July 30, 1890 issue.

"They certainly are nice people," I assented to my wife's observation, using the colloquial phrase with a consciousness that it was anything but "nice" English, "and I'll bet that their three children are better brought up than most of----" "Two children," corrected my wife. "Three, he told me." "My dear, she said there were two." "He said three." "You've simply forgotten. I'm sure she told me they had only two--a boy and a girl." "Well, I didn't enter into particulars." "No, dear, and you couldn't have understood him. Two children." "All right," I said; but I did not think it was all right. As a near-sighted man learns by enforced observation to recognize persons at a distance when the face is not visible to the normal eye, so the man with a bad memory learns, almost unconsciously, to listen carefully and report accurately. My memory is bad; but I had not had time to forget that Mr. Brewster Brede had told me that afternoon that he had three children, at present left in the care of his mother-in-law, while he and Mrs. Brede took their summer vacation. "Two children," repeated my wife; "and they are staying with his aunt Jenny." "He told me with his mother-in-law," I put in. My wife looked at me with a serious expression. Men may not remember much of what they are told about children; but any man knows the difference between an aunt and a mother-in-law. "But don't you think they're nice people?" asked my wife. "Oh, certainly," I replied. "Only they seem to be a little mixed up about their children." "That isn't a nice thing to say," returned my wife. I could not deny it. * * * * * And yet, the next morning, when the Bredes came down and seated themselves opposite us at table, beaming and smiling in their natural, pleasant, well-bred fashion, I knew, to a social certainty, that they were "nice" people. He was a fine-looking fellow in his neat tennis-flannels, slim, graceful, twenty-eight or thirty years old, with a Frenchy pointed beard. She was "nice" in all her pretty clothes, and she herself was pretty with that type of prettiness which outwears most other types--the prettiness that lies in a rounded figure, a dusky skin, plump, rosy cheeks, white teeth and black eyes. She might have been twenty-five; you guessed that she was prettier than she was at twenty, and that she would be prettier still at forty. And nice people were all we wanted to make us happy in Mr. Jacobus's summer boarding-house on top of Orange Mountain. For a week we had come down to breakfast each morning, wondering why we wasted the precious days of idleness with the company gathered around the Jacobus board. What joy of human companionship was to be had out of Mrs. Tabb and Miss Hoogencamp, the two middle-aged gossips from Scranton, Pa.--out of Mr. and Mrs. Biggle, an indurated head-bookkeeper and his prim and censorious wife--out of old Major Halkit, a retired business man, who, having once sold a few shares on commission, wrote for circulars of every stock company that was started, and tried to induce every one to invest who would listen to him? We looked around at those dull faces, the truthful indices of mean and barren minds, and decided that we would leave that morning. Then we ate Mrs. Jacobus's biscuit, light as Aurora's cloudlets, drank her honest coffee, inhaled the perfume of the late azaleas with which she decked her table, and decided to postpone our departure one more day. And then we wandered out to take our morning glance at what we called "our view"; and it seemed to us as if Tabb and Hoogencamp and Halkit and the Biggleses could not drive us away in a year. I was not surprised when, after breakfast, my wife invited the Bredes to walk with us to "our view." The Hoogencamp-Biggle-Tabb-Halkit contingent never stirred off Jacobus's veranda; but we both felt that the Bredes would not profane that sacred scene. We strolled slowly across the fields, passed through the little belt of woods and, as I heard Mrs. Brede's little cry of startled rapture, I motioned to Brede to look up. "By Jove!" he cried, "heavenly!" We looked off from the brow of the mountain over fifteen miles of billowing green, to where, far across a far stretch of pale blue lay a dim purple line that we knew was Staten Island. Towns and villages lay before us and under us; there were ridges and hills, uplands and lowlands, woods and plains, all massed and mingled in that great silent sea of sunlit green. For silent it was to us, standing in the silence of a high place--silent with a Sunday stillness that made us listen, without taking thought, for the sound of bells coming up from the spires that rose above the tree-tops--the tree-tops that lay as far beneath us as the light clouds were above us that dropped great shadows upon our heads and faint specks of shade upon the broad sweep of land at the mountain's foot. "And so that is your view?" asked Mrs. Brede, after a moment; "you are very generous to make it ours, too." Then we lay down on the grass, and Brede began to talk, in a gentle voice, as if he felt the influence of the place. He had paddled a canoe, in his earlier days, he said, and he knew every river and creek in that vast stretch of landscape. He found his landmarks, and pointed out to us where the Passaic and the Hackensack flowed, invisible to us, hidden behind great ridges that in our sight were but combings of the green waves upon which we looked down. And yet, on the further side of those broad ridges and rises were scores of villages--a little world of country life, lying unseen under our eyes. "A good deal like looking at humanity," he said; "there is such a thing as getting so far above our fellow men that we see only one side of them." Ah, how much better was this sort of talk than the chatter and gossip of the Tabb and the Hoogencamp--than the Major's dissertations upon his everlasting circulars! My wife and I exchanged glances. "Now, when I went up the Matterhorn" Mr. Brede began. "Why, dear," interrupted his wife, "I didn't know you ever went up the Matterhorn." "It--it was five years ago," said Mr. Brede, hurriedly. "I--I didn't tell you--when I was on the other side, you know--it was rather dangerous--well, as I was saying--it looked--oh, it didn't look at all like this." A cloud floated overhead, throwing its great shadow over the field where we lay. The shadow passed over the mountain's brow and reappeared far below, a rapidly decreasing blot, flying eastward over the golden green. My wife and I exchanged glances once more. Somehow, the shadow lingered over us all. As we went home, the Bredes went side by side along the narrow path, and my wife and I walked together. "Should you think," she asked me, "that a man would climb the Matterhorn the very first year he was married?" "I don't know, my dear," I answered, evasively; "this isn't the first year I have been married, not by a good many, and I wouldn't climb it--for a farm." "You know what I mean," she said. I did. * * * * * When we reached the boarding-house, Mr. Jacobus took me aside. "You know," he began his discourse, "my wife she uset to live in N' York!" I didn't know, but I said "Yes." "She says the numbers on the streets runs criss-cross-like. Thirty-four's on one side o' the street an' thirty-five on t'other. How's that?" "That is the invariable rule, I believe." "Then--I say--these here new folk that you 'n' your wife seem so mighty taken up with--d'ye know anything about 'em?" "I know nothing about the character of your boarders, Mr. Jacobus," I replied, conscious of some irritability. "If I choose to associate with any of them----" "Jess so--jess so!" broke in Jacobus. "I hain't nothin' to say ag'inst yer sosherbil'ty. But do ye know them?" "Why, certainly not," I replied. "Well--that was all I wuz askin' ye. Ye see, when he come here to take the rooms--you wasn't here then--he told my wife that he lived at number thirty-four in his street. An' yistiddy she told her that they lived at number thirty-five. He said he lived in an apartment-house. Now there can't be no apartment-house on two sides of the same street, kin they?" "What street was it?" I inquired, wearily. "Hundred 'n' twenty-first street." "May be," I replied, still more wearily. "That's Harlem. Nobody knows what people will do in Harlem." I went up to my wife's room. "Don't you think it's queer?" she asked me. "I think I'll have a talk with that young man to-night," I said, "and see if he can give some account of himself." "But, my dear," my wife said, gravely, "she doesn't know whether they've had the measles or not." "Why, Great Scott!" I exclaimed, "they must have had them when they were children." "Please don't be stupid," said my wife. "I meant their children." After dinner that night--or rather, after supper, for we had dinner in the middle of the day at Jacobus's--I walked down the long verandah to ask Brede, who was placidly smoking at the other end, to accompany me on a twilight stroll. Half way down I met Major Halkit. "That friend of yours," he said, indicating the unconscious figure at the further end of the house, "seems to be a queer sort of a Dick. He told me that he was out of business, and just looking round for a chance to invest his capital. And I've been telling him what an everlasting big show he had to take stock in the Capitoline Trust Company--starts next month--four million capital--I told you all about it. 'Oh, well,' he says, 'let's wait and think about it.' 'Wait!' says I, 'the Capitoline Trust Company won't wait for you, my boy. This is letting you in on the ground floor,' says I, 'and it's now or never.' 'Oh, let it wait,' says he. I don't know what's in-to the man." "I don't know how well he knows his own business, Major," I said as I started again for Brede's end of the veranda. But I was troubled none the less. The Major could not have influenced the sale of one share of stock in the Capitoline Company. But that stock was a great investment; a rare chance for a purchaser with a few thousand dollars. Perhaps it was no more remarkable that Brede should not invest than that I should not--and yet, it seemed to add one circumstance more to the other suspicious circumstances. * * * * * When I went upstairs that evening, I found my wife putting her hair to bed--I don't know how I can better describe an operation familiar to every married man. I waited until the last tress was coiled up, and then I spoke: "I've talked with Brede," I said, "and I didn't have to catechize him. He seemed to feel that some sort of explanation was looked for, and he was very outspoken. You were right about the children--that is, I must have misunderstood him. There are only two. But the Matterhorn episode was simple enough. He didn't realize how dangerous it was until he had got so far into it that he couldn't back out; and he didn't tell her, because he'd left her here, you see, and under the circumstances----" "Left her here!" cried my wife. "I've been sitting with her the whole afternoon, sewing, and she told me that he left her at Geneva, and came back and took her to Basle, and the baby was born there--now I'm sure, dear, because I asked her." "Perhaps I was mistaken when I thought he said she was on this side of the water," I suggested, with bitter, biting irony. "You poor dear, did I abuse you?" said my wife. "But, do you know, Mrs. Tabb said that she didn't know how many lumps of sugar he took in his coffee. Now that seems queer, doesn't it?" It did. It was a small thing. But it looked queer, Very queer. * * * * * The next morning, it was clear that war was declared against the Bredes. They came down to breakfast somewhat late, and, as soon as they arrived, the Biggleses swooped up the last fragments that remained on their plates, and made a stately march out of the dining-room, Then Miss Hoogencamp arose and departed, leaving a whole fish-ball on her plate. Even as Atalanta might have dropped an apple behind her to tempt her pursuer to check his speed, so Miss Hoogencamp left that fish-ball behind her, and between her maiden self and contamination. We had finished our breakfast, my wife and I, before the Bredes appeared. We talked it over, and agreed that we were glad that we had not been obliged to take sides upon such insufficient testimony. After breakfast, it was the custom of the male half of the Jacobus household to go around the corner of the building and smoke their pipes and cigars where they would not annoy the ladies. We sat under a trellis covered with a grapevine that had borne no grapes in the memory of man. This vine, however, bore leaves, and these, on that pleasant summer morning, shielded from us two persons who were in earnest conversation in the straggling, half-dead flower-garden at the side of the house. "I don't want," we heard Mr. Jacobus say, "to enter in no man's pry-vacy; but I do want to know who it may be, like, that I hev in my house. Now what I ask of you, and I don't want you to take it as in no ways personal, is--hev you your merridge-license with you?" "No," we heard the voice of Mr. Brede reply. "Have you yours?" I think it was a chance shot; but it told all the same. The Major (he was a widower) and Mr. Biggle and I looked at each other; and Mr. Jacobus, on the other side of the grape-trellis, looked at--I don't know what--and was as silent as we were. Where is your marriage-license, married reader? Do you know? Four men, not including Mr. Brede, stood or sat on one side or the other of that grape-trellis, and not one of them knew where his marriage-license was. Each of us had had one--the Major had had three. But where were they? Where is yours? Tucked in your best-man's pocket; deposited in his desk--or washed to a pulp in his white waistcoat (if white waistcoats be the fashion of the hour), washed out of existence--can you tell where it is? Can you--unless you are one of those people who frame that interesting document and hang it upon their drawing-room walls? Mr. Brede's voice arose, after an awful stillness of what seemed like five minutes, and was, probably, thirty seconds: "Mr. Jacobus, will you make out your bill at once, and let me pay it? I shall leave by the six o'clock train. And will you also send the wagon for my trunks?" "I hain't said I wanted to hev ye leave----" began Mr. Jacobus; but Brede cut him short. "Bring me your bill." "But," remonstrated Jacobus, "ef ye ain't----" "Bring me your bill!" said Mr. Brede. * * * * * My wife and I went out for our morning's walk. But it seemed to us, when we looked at "our view," as if we could only see those invisible villages of which Brede had told us--that other side of the ridges and rises of which we catch no glimpse from lofty hills or from the heights of human self-esteem. We meant to stay out until the Bredes had taken their departure; but we returned just in time to see Pete, the Jacobus darkey, the blacker of boots, the brasher of coats, the general handy-man of the house, loading the Brede trunks on the Jacobus wagon. And, as we stepped upon the verandah, down came Mrs. Brede, leaning on Mr. Brede's arm, as though she were ill; and it was clear that she had been crying. There were heavy rings about her pretty black eyes. My wife took a step toward her. "Look at that dress, dear," she whispered; "she never thought anything like this was going to happen when she put that on." It was a pretty, delicate, dainty dress, a graceful, narrow-striped affair. Her hat was trimmed with a narrow-striped silk of the same colors--maroon and white--and in her hand she held a parasol that matched her dress. "She's had a new dress on twice a day," said my wife, "but that's the prettiest yet. Oh, somehow--I'm awfully sorry they're going!" But going they were. They moved toward the steps. Mrs. Brede looked toward my wife, and my wife moved toward Mrs. Brede. But the ostracized woman, as though she felt the deep humiliation of her position, turned sharply away, and opened her parasol to shield her eyes from the sun. A shower of rice--a half-pound shower of rice--fell down over her pretty hat and her pretty dress, and fell in a spattering circle on the floor, outlining her skirts--and there it lay in a broad, uneven band, bright in the morning sun. Mrs. Brede was in my wife's arms, sobbing as if her young heart would break. "Oh, you poor, dear, silly children!" my wife cried, as Mrs. Brede sobbed on her shoulder, "why didn't you tell us?" "W-W-W-We didn't want to be t-t-taken for a b-b-b-b-bridal couple," sobbed Mrs. Brede; "and we d-d-didn't dream what awful lies we'd have to tell, and all the aw-awful mixed-up-ness of it. Oh, dear, dear, dear!" * * * * * "Pete!" commanded Mr. Jacobus, "put back them trunks. These folks stays here's long's they wants ter. Mr. Brede"--he held out a large, hard hand--"I'd orter've known better," he said. And my last doubt of Mr. Brede vanished as he shook that grimy hand in manly fashion. The two women were walking off toward "our view," each with an arm about the other's waist--touched by a sudden sisterhood of sympathy. "Gentlemen," said Mr. Brede, addressing Jacobus, Biggle, the Major and me, "there is a hostelry down the street where they sell honest New Jersey beer. I recognize the obligations of the situation." We five men filed down the street. The two women went toward the pleasant slope where the sunlight gilded the forehead of the great hill. On Mr. Jacobus's veranda lay a spattered circle of shining grains of rice. Two of Mr. Jacobus's pigeons flew down and picked up the shining grains, making grateful noises far down in their throats.


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A Retrieved Reformation by O. Henry

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A guard came to the prison shoe-shop, where Jimmy Valentine was assiduously stitching uppers, and escorted him to the front office. There the warden handed Jimmy his pardon, which had been signed that morning by the governor. Jimmy took it in a tired kind of way. He had served nearly ten months of a four year sentence. He had expected to stay only about three months, at the longest. When a man with as many friends on the outside as Jimmy Valentine had is received in the "stir" it is hardly worth while to cut his hair.

"Now, Valentine," said the warden, "you'll go out in the morning. Brace up, and make a man of yourself. You're not a bad fellow at heart. Stop cracking safes, and live straight."

"Me?" said Jimmy, in surprise. "Why, I never cracked a safe in my life."

"Oh, no," laughed the warden. "Of course not. Let's see, now. How was it you happened to get sent up on that Springfield job? Was it because you wouldn't prove an alibi for fear of compromising somebody in extremely high-toned society? Or was it simply a case of a mean old jury that had it in for you? It's always one or the other with you innocent victims."

"Me?" said Jimmy, still blankly virtuous. "Why, warden, I never was in Springfield in my life!"

"Take him back, Cronin!" said the warden, "and fix him up with outgoing clothes. Unlock him at seven in the morning, and let him come to the bull-pen. Better think over my advice, Valentine."

At a quarter past seven on the next morning Jimmy stood in the warden's outer office. He had on a suit of the villainously fitting, ready-made clothes and a pair of the stiff, squeaky shoes that the state furnishes to its discharged compulsory guests.

The clerk handed him a railroad ticket and the five-dollar bill with which the law expected him to rehabilitate himself into good citizenship and prosperity. The warden gave him a cigar, and shook hands. Valentine, 9762, was chronicled on the books, "Pardoned by Governor," and Mr. James Valentine walked out into the sunshine.

Disregarding the song of the birds, the waving green trees, and the smell of the flowers, Jimmy headed straight for a restaurant. There he tasted the first sweet joys of liberty in the shape of a broiled chicken and a bottle of white wine--followed by a cigar a grade better than the one the warden had given him. From there he proceeded leisurely to the depot. He tossed a quarter into the hat of a blind man sitting by the door, and boarded his train. Three hours set him down in a little town near the state line. He went to the cafe of one Mike Dolan and shook hands with Mike, who was alone behind the bar.

"Sorry we couldn't make it sooner, Jimmy, me boy," said Mike. "But we had that protest from Springfield to buck against, and the governor nearly balked. Feeling all right?"

"Fine," said Jimmy. "Got my key?"

He got his key and went upstairs, unlocking the door of a room at the rear. Everything was just as he had left it. There on the floor was still Ben Price's collar-button that had been torn from that eminent detective's shirt-band when they had overpowered Jimmy to arrest him.

Pulling out from the wall a folding-bed, Jimmy slid back a panel in the wall and dragged out a dust-covered suit-case. He opened this and gazed fondly at the finest set of burglar's tools in the East. It was a complete set, made of specially tempered steel, the latest designs in drills, punches, braces and bits, jimmies, clamps, and augers, with two or three novelties, invented by Jimmy himself, in which he took pride. Over nine hundred dollars they had cost him to have made at ----, a place where they make such things for the profession.

In half an hour Jimmy went down stairs and through the cafe. He was now dressed in tasteful and well-fitting clothes, and carried his dusted and cleaned suit-case in his hand.

"Got anything on?" asked Mike Dolan, genially.

"Me?" said Jimmy, in a puzzled tone. "I don't understand. I'm representing the New York Amalgamated Short Snap Biscuit Cracker and Frazzled Wheat Company."

This statement delighted Mike to such an extent that Jimmy had to take a seltzer-and-milk on the spot. He never touched "hard" drinks.

A week after the release of Valentine, 9762, there was a neat job of safe-burglary done in Richmond, Indiana, with no clue to the author. A scant eight hundred dollars was all that was secured. Two weeks after that a patented, improved, burglar-proof safe in Logansport was opened like a cheese to the tune of fifteen hundred dollars, currency; securities and silver untouched. That began to interest the rogue- catchers. Then an old-fashioned bank-safe in Jefferson City became active and threw out of its crater an eruption of bank-notes amounting to five thousand dollars. The losses were now high enough to bring the matter up into Ben Price's class of work. By comparing notes, a remarkable similarity in the methods of the burglaries was noticed. Ben Price investigated the scenes of the robberies, and was heard to remark:

"That's Dandy Jim Valentine's autograph. He's resumed business. Look at that combination knob--jerked out as easy as pulling up a radish in wet weather. He's got the only clamps that can do it. And look how clean those tumblers were punched out! Jimmy never has to drill but one hole. Yes, I guess I want Mr. Valentine. He'll do his bit next time without any short-time or clemency foolishness."

Ben Price knew Jimmy's habits. He had learned them while working on the Springfield case. Long jumps, quick get-aways, no confederates, and a taste for good society--these ways had helped Mr. Valentine to become noted as a successful dodger of retribution. It was given out that Ben Price had taken up the trail of the elusive cracksman, and other people with burglar-proof safes felt more at ease.

One afternoon Jimmy Valentine and his suit-case climbed out of the mail-hack in Elmore, a little town five miles off the railroad down in the black-jack country of Arkansas. Jimmy, looking like an athletic young senior just home from college, went down the board side-walk toward the hotel.

A young lady crossed the street, passed him at the corner and entered a door over which was the sign, "The Elmore Bank." Jimmy Valentine looked into her eyes, forgot what he was, and became another man. She lowered her eyes and coloured slightly. Young men of Jimmy's style and looks were scarce in Elmore.

Jimmy collared a boy that was loafing on the steps of the bank as if he were one of the stockholders, and began to ask him questions about the town, feeding him dimes at intervals. By and by the young lady came out, looking royally unconscious of the young man with the suit- case, and went her way.

"Isn' that young lady Polly Simpson?" asked Jimmy, with specious guile.

"Naw," said the boy. "She's Annabel Adams. Her pa owns this bank. Why'd you come to Elmore for? Is that a gold watch-chain? I'm going to get a bulldog. Got any more dimes?"

Jimmy went to the Planters' Hotel, registered as Ralph D. Spencer, and engaged a room. He leaned on the desk and declared his platform to the clerk. He said he had come to Elmore to look for a location to go into business. How was the shoe business, now, in the town? He had thought of the shoe business. Was there an opening?

The clerk was impressed by the clothes and manner of Jimmy. He, himself, was something of a pattern of fashion to the thinly gilded youth of Elmore, but he now perceived his shortcomings. While trying to figure out Jimmy's manner of tying his four-in-hand he cordially gave information.

Yes, there ought to be a good opening in the shoe line. There wasn't an exclusive shoe-store in the place. The dry-goods and general stores handled them. Business in all lines was fairly good. Hoped Mr. Spencer would decide to locate in Elmore. He would find it a pleasant town to live in, and the people very sociable.

Mr. Spencer thought he would stop over in the town a few days and look over the situation. No, the clerk needn't call the boy. He would carry up his suit-case, himself; it was rather heavy.

Mr. Ralph Spencer, the phoenix that arose from Jimmy Valentine's ashes --ashes left by the flame of a sudden and alterative attack of love-- remained in Elmore, and prospered. He opened a shoe-store and secured a good run of trade.

Socially he was also a success, and made many friends. And he accomplished the wish of his heart. He met Miss Annabel Adams, and became more and more captivated by her charms.

At the end of a year the situation of Mr. Ralph Spencer was this: he had won the respect of the community, his shoe-store was flourishing, and he and Annabel were engaged to be married in two weeks. Mr. Adams, the typical, plodding, country banker, approved of Spencer. Annabel's pride in him almost equalled her affection. He was as much at home in the family of Mr. Adams and that of Annabel's married sister as if he were already a member.

One day Jimmy sat down in his room and wrote this letter, which he mailed to the safe address of one of his old friends in St. Louis:

Dear Old Pal:

I want you to be at Sullivan's place, in Little Rock, next Wednesday night, at nine o'clock. I want you to wind up some little matters for me. And, also, I want to make you a present of my kit of tools. I know you'll be glad to get them--you couldn't duplicate the lot for a thousand dollars. Say, Billy, I've quit the old business--a year ago. I've got a nice store. I'm making an honest living, and I'm going to marry the finest girl on earth two weeks from now. It's the only life, Billy--the straight one. I wouldn't touch a dollar of another man's money now for a million. After I get married I'm going to sell out and go West, where there won't be so much danger of having old scores brought up against me. I tell you, Billy, she's an angel. She believes in me; and I wouldn't do another crooked thing for the whole world. Be sure to be at Sully's, for I must see you. I'll bring along the tools with me.

Your old friend,

Jimmy.

On the Monday night after Jimmy wrote this letter, Ben Price jogged unobtrusively into Elmore in a livery buggy. He lounged about town in his quiet way until he found out what he wanted to know. From the drug-store across the street from Spencer's shoe-store he got a good look at Ralph D. Spencer.

"Going to marry the banker's daughter are you, Jimmy?" said Ben to himself, softly. "Well, I don't know!"

The next morning Jimmy took breakfast at the Adamses. He was going to Little Rock that day to order his wedding-suit and buy something nice for Annabel. That would be the first time he had left town since he came to Elmore. It had been more than a year now since those last professional "jobs," and he thought he could safely venture out.

After breakfast quite a family party went downtown together--Mr. Adams, Annabel, Jimmy, and Annabel's married sister with her two little girls, aged five and nine. They came by the hotel where Jimmy still boarded, and he ran up to his room and brought along his suit- case. Then they went on to the bank. There stood Jimmy's horse and buggy and Dolph Gibson, who was going to drive him over to the railroad station.

All went inside the high, carved oak railings into the banking-room-- Jimmy included, for Mr. Adams's future son-in-law was welcome anywhere. The clerks were pleased to be greeted by the good-looking, agreeable young man who was going to marry Miss Annabel. Jimmy set his suit-case down. Annabel, whose heart was bubbling with happiness and lively youth, put on Jimmy's hat, and picked up the suit-case. "Wouldn't I make a nice drummer?" said Annabel. "My! Ralph, how heavy it is? Feels like it was full of gold bricks."

"Lot of nickel-plated shoe-horns in there," said Jimmy, coolly, "that I'm going to return. Thought I'd save express charges by taking them up. I'm getting awfully economical."

The Elmore Bank had just put in a new safe and vault. Mr. Adams was very proud of it, and insisted on an inspection by every one. The vault was a small one, but it had a new, patented door. It fastened with three solid steel bolts thrown simultaneously with a single handle, and had a time-lock. Mr. Adams beamingly explained its workings to Mr. Spencer, who showed a courteous but not too intelligent interest. The two children, May and Agatha, were delighted by the shining metal and funny clock and knobs.

While they were thus engaged Ben Price sauntered in and leaned on his elbow, looking casually inside between the railings. He told the teller that he didn't want anything; he was just waiting for a man he knew.

Suddenly there was a scream or two from the women, and a commotion. Unperceived by the elders, May, the nine-year-old girl, in a spirit of play, had shut Agatha in the vault. She had then shot the bolts and turned the knob of the combination as she had seen Mr. Adams do.

The old banker sprang to the handle and tugged at it for a moment. "The door can't be opened," he groaned. "The clock hasn't been wound nor the combination set."

Agatha's mother screamed again, hysterically.

"Hush!" said Mr. Adams, raising his trembling hand. "All be quite for a moment. Agatha!" he called as loudly as he could. "Listen to me." During the following silence they could just hear the faint sound of the child wildly shrieking in the dark vault in a panic of terror.

"My precious darling!" wailed the mother. "She will die of fright! Open the door! Oh, break it open! Can't you men do something?"

"There isn't a man nearer than Little Rock who can open that door," said Mr. Adams, in a shaky voice. "My God! Spencer, what shall we do? That child--she can't stand it long in there. There isn't enough air, and, besides, she'll go into convulsions from fright."

Agatha's mother, frantic now, beat the door of the vault with her hands. Somebody wildly suggested dynamite. Annabel turned to Jimmy, her large eyes full of anguish, but not yet despairing. To a woman nothing seems quite impossible to the powers of the man she worships.

"Can't you do something, Ralph--/try/, won't you?"

He looked at her with a queer, soft smile on his lips and in his keen eyes.

"Annabel," he said, "give me that rose you are wearing, will you?"

Hardly believing that she heard him aright, she unpinned the bud from the bosom of her dress, and placed it in his hand. Jimmy stuffed it into his vest-pocket, threw off his coat and pulled up his shirt- sleeves. With that act Ralph D. Spencer passed away and Jimmy Valentine took his place.

"Get away from the door, all of you," he commanded, shortly.

He set his suit-case on the table, and opened it out flat. From that time on he seemed to be unconscious of the presence of any one else. He laid out the shining, queer implements swiftly and orderly, whistling softly to himself as he always did when at work. In a deep silence and immovable, the others watched him as if under a spell.

In a minute Jimmy's pet drill was biting smoothly into the steel door. In ten minutes--breaking his own burglarious record--he threw back the bolts and opened the door.

Agatha, almost collapsed, but safe, was gathered into her mother's arms.

Jimmy Valentine put on his coat, and walked outside the railings towards the front door. As he went he thought he heard a far-away voice that he once knew call "Ralph!" But he never hesitated.

At the door a big man stood somewhat in his way.

"Hello, Ben!" said Jimmy, still with his strange smile. "Got around at last, have you? Well, let's go. I don't know that it makes much difference, now."

And then Ben Price acted rather strangely.

"Guess you're mistaken, Mr. Spencer," he said. "Don't believe I recognize you. Your buggy's waiting for you, ain't it?"

February 11, 2019
by Сергей
0
61

Cream By Haruki Murakami

Read 35 minutes. Read more on @one_story



So I’m telling a younger friend of mine about a strange incident that took place back when I was eighteen. I don’t recall exactly why I brought it up. It just happened to come up as we were talking. I mean, it was something that happened long ago. Ancient history. On top of which, I was never able to reach any conclusion about it.

“I’d already graduated from high school then, but wasn’t in college yet,” I explained. “I was what’s called an academic ronin, a student who fails the university entrance exam and is waiting to try again. Things felt kind of up in the air,” I went on, “but that didn’t bother me much. I knew that I could get into a halfway decent private college if I wanted to. But my parents had insisted that I try for a national university, so I took the exam, knowing all along that it’d be a bust. And, sure enough, I failed. The national-university exam back then had a mandatory math section, and I had zero interest in calculus. I spent the next year basically killing time, as if I were creating an alibi. Instead of attending cram school to prepare to retake the exam, I hung out at the local library, plowing my way through thick novels. My parents must have assumed that I was studying there. But, hey, that’s life. I found it a lot more enjoyable to read all of Balzac than to delve into the principles of calculus.”

At the beginning of October that year, I received an invitation to a piano recital from a girl who’d been a year behind me in school and had taken piano lessons from the same teacher as I had. Once, the two of us had played a short four-hands piano piece by Mozart. When I turned sixteen, though, I’d stopped taking lessons, and I hadn’t seen her after that. So I couldn’t figure out why she’d sent me this invitation. Was she interested in me? No way. She was attractive, for sure, though not my type in terms of looks; she was always fashionably dressed and attended an expensive private girls’ school. Not at all the kind to fall for a bland, run-of-the-mill guy like me.

When we played that piece together, she gave me a sour look every time I hit a wrong note. She was a better pianist than I was, and I tended to get overly tense, so when the two of us sat side by side and played I bungled a lot of notes. My elbow bumped against hers a few times as well. It wasn’t such a difficult piece, and, moreover, I had the easier part. Each time I blew it, she had this Give me a break expression on her face. And she’d click her tongue—not loudly but loud enough that I could catch it. I can still hear that sound, even now. That sound may even have had something to do with my decision to give up the piano.

At any rate, my relationship with her was simply that we happened to study in the same piano school. We’d exchange hellos if we ran into each other there, but I have no memory of our ever sharing anything personal. So suddenly receiving an invitation to her recital (not a solo recital but a group recital with three pianists) took me completely by surprise—in fact, had me baffled. But one thing I had in abundance that year was time, so I sent off the reply postcard, saying that I would attend. One reason I did this was that I was curious to find out what lay behind the invitation—if, indeed, there was a motive. Why, after all this time, send me an unexpected invitation? Maybe she had become much more skilled as a pianist and wanted to show me that. Or perhaps there was something personal that she wished to convey to me. In other words, I was still figuring out how best to use my sense of curiosity, and banging my head against all kinds of things in the process.

The recital hall was at the top of one of the mountains in Kobe. I took the Hankyu train line as close as I could, then boarded a bus that made its way up a steep, winding road. I got off at a stop near the very top, and after a short walk arrived at the modest-sized concert venue, which was owned and managed by an enormous business conglomerate. I hadn’t known that there was a concert hall here, in such an inconvenient spot, at the top of a mountain, in a quiet, upscale residential neighborhood. As you can imagine, there were plenty of things in the world that I didn’t know about.

I’d felt that I should bring something to show my appreciation for having been invited, so at a florist’s near the train station I had selected a bunch of flowers that seemed to fit the occasion and had them wrapped as a bouquet. The bus had shown up just then and I’d hopped aboard. It was a chilly Sunday afternoon. The sky was covered with thick gray clouds, and it looked as though a cold rain might start at any minute. There was no wind, though. I was wearing a thin, plain sweater under a gray herringbone jacket with a touch of blue, and I had a canvas bag slung across my shoulder. The jacket was too new, the bag too old and worn out. And in my hands was this gaudy bouquet of red flowers wrapped in cellophane. When I got on the bus decked out like that, the other passengers kept glancing at me. Or maybe it just seemed as if they did. I could feel my cheeks turning red. Back then, I blushed at the slightest provocation. And the redness took forever to go away.

“Why in the world am I here?” I asked myself, as I sat hunched over in my seat, cooling my flushed cheeks with my palms. I didn’t particularly want to see this girl, or hear the piano recital, so why was I spending all my allowance on a bouquet, and travelling all the way to the top of a mountain on a dreary Sunday afternoon in November? Something must have been wrong with me when I dropped the reply postcard in the mailbox.

The higher up the mountain we went, the fewer passengers there were on the bus, and by the time we arrived at my stop only the driver and I were left. I got off the bus and followed the directions on the invitation up a gently sloping street. Each time I turned a corner, the harbor came briefly into view and then disappeared again. The overcast sky was a dull color, as if blanketed with lead. There were huge cranes down in the harbor, jutting into the air like the antennae of some ungainly creatures that had crawled out of the ocean.

The houses near the top of the slope were large and luxurious, with massive stone walls, impressive front gates, and two-car garages. The azalea hedges were all neatly trimmed. I heard what sounded like a huge dog barking somewhere. It barked loudly three times, and then, as if someone had scolded it severely, it abruptly stopped, and all around became quiet.

As I followed the simple map on the invitation, I was struck by a vague, disconcerting premonition. Something just wasn’t right. First of all, there was the lack of people in the street. Since getting off the bus, I hadn’t seen a single pedestrian. Two cars did drive by, but they were on their way down the slope, not up. If a recital was really about to take place here, I would have expected to see more people. But the whole neighborhood was still and silent, as if the dense clouds above had swallowed up all sound.

Had I misunderstood?

I took the invitation out of my jacket pocket to recheck the information. Maybe I’d misread it. I went over it carefully, but couldn’t find anything wrong. I had the right street, the right bus stop, the right date and time. I took a deep breath to calm myself, and set off again. The only thing I could do was get to the concert hall and see.

When I finally arrived at the building, the large steel gate was locked tight. A thick chain ran around the gate, and was held in place by a heavy padlock. No one else was around. Through a narrow opening in the gate, I could see a fair-sized parking lot, but not a single car was parked there. Weeds had sprouted between the paving stones, and the parking lot looked as if it hadn’t been used in quite some time. Despite all that, the large nameplate at the entrance told me that this was indeed the recital hall I was looking for.

I pressed the button on the intercom next to the entrance but no one responded. I waited a bit, then pressed the button again, but still no answer. I looked at my watch. The recital was supposed to start in fifteen minutes. But there was no sign that the gate would be opened. Paint had peeled off it in spots, and it was starting to rust. I couldn’t think of anything else to do, so I pressed the intercom button one more time, holding it down longer, but the result was the same as before—deep silence.

With no idea what to do, I leaned back against the gate and stood there for some ten minutes. I had a faint hope that someone else might show up before long. But no one came. There was no sign of any movement, either inside the gate or outside. There was no wind. No birds chirping, no dogs barking. As before, an unbroken blanket of gray cloud lay above.

I finally gave up—what else could I do?—and with heavy steps started back down the street toward the bus stop, totally in the dark about what was going on. The only clear thing about the whole situation was that there wasn’t going to be a piano recital or any other event held here today. All I could do was head home, bouquet of red flowers in hand. My mother would doubtless ask, “What’re the flowers for?,” and I would have to give some plausible answer. I wanted to toss them in the trash bin at the station, but they were—for me, at least—kind of expensive to just throw away.

Down the hill a short distance, there was a cozy little park, about the size of a house lot. On the far side of the park, away from the street, was an angled natural rock wall. It was barely a park—it had no water fountain or playground equipment. All that was there was a little arbor, plunked down in the middle. The walls of the arbor were slanted latticework, overgrown with ivy. There were bushes around it, and flat square stepping stones on the ground. It was hard to say what the park’s purpose was, but someone was regularly taking care of it; the trees and bushes were smartly clipped, with no weeds or trash around. On the way up the hill, I’d walked right by the park without noticing it.

I went into the park to gather my thoughts and sat down on a bench next to the arbor. I felt that I should wait in the area a little longer to see how things developed (for all I knew, people might suddenly appear), and once I sat down I realized how tired I was. It was a strange kind of exhaustion, as though I’d been worn out for quite a while but hadn’t noticed it, and only now had it hit me. From the arbor, there was a panoramic view of the harbor. A number of large container ships were docked at the pier. From the top of the mountain, the stacked metal containers looked like nothing more than the small tins that you keep on your desk to hold coins or paper clips.

After a while, I heard a man’s voice in the distance. Not a natural voice but one amplified by a loudspeaker. I couldn’t catch what was being said, but there was a pronounced pause after each sentence, and the voice spoke precisely, without a trace of emotion, as if trying to convey something extremely important as objectively as possible. It occurred to me that maybe this was a personal message directed at me, and me alone. Someone was going to the trouble of telling me where I’d gone wrong, what it was that I’d overlooked. Not something I would normally have thought, but for some reason it struck me that way. I listened carefully. The voice got steadily louder and easier to understand. It must have been coming from a loudspeaker on the roof of a car that was slowly wending its way up the slope, seemingly in no hurry at all. Finally, I realized what it was: a car broadcasting a Christian message.



“Everyone will die,” the voice said in a calm monotone. “Every person will eventually pass away. No one can escape death or the judgment that comes afterward. After death, everyone will be severely judged for his sins.”

I sat there on the bench, listening to this message. I found it strange that anyone would do mission outreach in this deserted residential area up on top of a mountain. The people who lived here all owned multiple cars and were affluent. I doubted that they were seeking salvation from sin. Or maybe they were? Income and status might be unrelated to sin and salvation.

“But all those who seek salvation in Jesus Christ and repent of their sins will have their sins forgiven by the Lord. They will escape the fires of Hell. Believe in God, for only those who believe in Him will reach salvation after death and receive eternal life.”

I was waiting for the Christian-mission car to appear on the street in front of me and say more about the judgment after death. I think I must have been hoping to hear words spoken in a reassuring, resolute voice, no matter what they were. But the car never showed up. And, at a certain point, the voice began to grow quieter, less distinct, and before long I couldn’t hear anything anymore. The car must have turned in another direction, away from where I was. When that car disappeared, I felt as though I’d been abandoned by the world.

A sudden thought hit me: maybe the whole thing was a hoax that the girl had cooked up. This idea—or hunch, I should say—came out of nowhere. For some reason that I couldn’t fathom, she’d deliberately given me false information and dragged me out to the top of a remote mountain on a Sunday afternoon. Maybe I had done something that had caused her to form a personal grudge against me. Or maybe, for no special reason, she found me so unpleasant she couldn’t stand it. And she’d sent me an invitation to a nonexistent recital and was now gloating—laughing her head off—seeing (or, rather, imagining) how she’d fooled me and how pathetic and ridiculous I must look.

O.K., but would a person really go to all the trouble of coming up with such a complicated plot in order to harass someone, just out of spite? Even printing up the postcard must have taken some effort. Could someone really be that mean? I couldn’t remember a thing I’d ever done to make her hate me that much. But sometimes, without even realizing it, we trample on people’s feelings, hurt their pride, make them feel bad. I speculated on the possibility of this not unthinkable hatred, the misunderstandings that might have taken place, but found nothing convincing. And as I wandered fruitlessly through this maze of emotions I felt my mind losing its way. Before I knew it, I was having trouble breathing.

This used to happen to me once or twice a year. I think it must have been stress-induced hyperventilation. Something would fluster me, my throat would constrict, and I wouldn’t be able to get enough air into my lungs. I’d panic, as if I were being swept under by a rushing current and were about to drown, and my body would freeze. All I could do at those times was crouch down, close my eyes, and patiently wait for my body to return to its usual rhythms. As I got older, I stopped experiencing these symptoms (and, at some point, I stopped blushing so easily, too), but in my teens I was still troubled by these problems.

On the bench by the arbor, I screwed my eyes tightly shut, bent over, and waited to be freed from that blockage. It may have been five minutes, it may have been fifteen. I don’t know how long. All the while, I watched as strange patterns appeared and vanished in the dark, and I slowly counted them, trying my best to get my breathing back under control. My heart beat out a ragged tempo in my rib cage, as if a terrified mouse were racing about inside.

I’d been focussing so much on counting that it took some time for me to become aware of the presence of another person. It felt as if someone were in front of me, observing me. Cautiously, ever so slowly, I opened my eyes and raised my head a degree. My heart was still thumping.

Without my noticing, an old man had sat down on the bench across from me and was looking straight at me. It isn’t easy for a young man to judge an elderly person’s age. To me, they all just looked like old people. Sixty, seventy—what was the difference? They weren’t young anymore, that was all. This man was wearing a bluish-gray wool cardigan, brown corduroy pants, and navy-blue sneakers. It looked as though a considerable amount of time had passed since any of these were new. Not that he appeared shabby or anything. His gray hair was thick and stiff-looking, and tufts sprung up above his ears like the wings of birds when they bathe. He wasn’t wearing glasses. I didn’t know how long he’d been there, but I had the feeling that he’d been observing me for quite some time.

I was sure he was going to say, “Are you all right?,” or something like that, since I must have looked as if I were having trouble (and I really was). That was the first thing that sprang to mind when I saw the old man. But he didn’t say a thing, didn’t ask anything, just gripped a tightly folded black umbrella that he was holding like a cane. The umbrella had an amber-colored wooden handle and looked sturdy enough to serve as a weapon if need be. I assumed that he lived in the neighborhood, since he had nothing else with him.

I sat there trying to calm my breathing, the old man silently watching. His gaze didn’t waver for an instant. It made me feel uncomfortable—as if I’d wandered into someone’s back yard without permission—and I wanted to get up from the bench and head off to the bus stop as fast as I could. But, for some reason, I couldn’t get to my feet. Time passed, and then suddenly the old man spoke.

“A circle with many centers.”

I looked up at him. Our eyes met. His forehead was extremely broad, his nose pointed. As sharply pointed as a bird’s beak. I couldn’t say a thing, so the old man quietly repeated the words: “A circle with many centers.”

Naturally, I had no clue what he was trying to say. A thought came to me—that this man had been driving the Christian loudspeaker car. Maybe he’d parked nearby and was taking a break? No, that couldn’t be it. His voice was different from the one I’d heard. The loudspeaker voice was a much younger man’s. Or perhaps that had been a recording.

“Circles, did you say?” I reluctantly asked. He was older than me, and politeness dictated that I respond.

“There are several centers—no, sometimes an infinite number—and it’s a circle with no circumference.” The old man frowned as he said this, the wrinkles on his forehead deepening. “Are you able to picture that kind of circle in your mind?”

My mind was still out of commission, but I gave it some thought. A circle that has several centers and no circumference. But, think as I might, I couldn’t visualize it.

“I don’t get it,” I said.

The old man silently stared at me. He seemed to be waiting for a better answer.

“I don’t think they taught us about that kind of circle in math class,” I feebly added.

The old man slowly shook his head. “Of course not. That’s to be expected. Because they don’t teach you that kind of thing in school. As you know very well.”

As I knew very well? Why would this old man presume that?

“Does that kind of circle really exist?” I asked.

“Of course it does,” the old man said, nodding a few times. “That circle does indeed exist. But not everyone can see it, you know.”

“Can you see it?”

The old man didn’t reply. My question hung awkwardly in the air for a moment, and finally grew hazy and disappeared.

The old man spoke again. “Listen, you’ve got to imagine it with your own power. Use all the wisdom you have and picture it. A circle that has many centers but no circumference. If you put in such an intense effort that it’s as if you were sweating blood—that’s when it gradually becomes clear what the circle is.”

“It sounds difficult,” I said.

“Of course it is,” the old man said, sounding as if he were spitting out something hard. “There’s nothing worth getting in this world that you can get easily.” Then, as if starting a new paragraph, he briefly cleared his throat. “But, when you put in that much time and effort, if you do achieve that difficult thing it becomes the cream of your life.”

“Cream?”

“In French, they have an expression: crème de la crème. Do you know it?”

“I don’t,” I said. I knew no French.

“The cream of the cream. It means the best of the best. The most important essence of life—that’s the crème de la crème. Get it? The rest is just boring and worthless.”

I didn’t really understand what the old man was getting at. Crème de la crème?

“Think about it,” the old man said. “Close your eyes again, and think it all through. A circle that has many centers but no circumference. Your brain is made to think about difficult things. To help you get to a point where you understand something that you didn’t understand at first. You can’t be lazy or neglectful. Right now is a critical time. Because this is the period when your brain and your heart form and solidify.”

I closed my eyes again and tried to picture that circle. I didn’t want to be lazy or neglectful. But, no matter how seriously I thought about what the man was saying, it was impossible for me at that time to grasp the meaning of it. The circles I knew had one center, and a curved circumference connecting points that were equidistant from it. The kind of simple figure you can draw with a compass. Wasn’t the kind of circle the old man was talking about the opposite of a circle?

I didn’t think that the old man was off, mentally. And I didn’t think that he was teasing me. He wanted to convey something important. So I tried again to understand, but my mind just spun around and around, making no progress. How could a circle that had many (or perhaps an infinite number of) centers exist as a circle? Was this some advanced philosophical metaphor? I gave up and opened my eyes. I needed more clues.

But the old man wasn’t there anymore. I looked all around, but there was no sign of anyone in the park. It was as if he’d never existed. Was I imagining things? No, of course it wasn’t some fantasy. He’d been right there in front of me, tightly gripping his umbrella, speaking quietly, posing a strange question, and then he’d left.



I realized that my breathing was back to normal, calm and steady. The rushing current was gone. Here and there, gaps had started to appear in the thick layer of clouds above the harbor. A ray of light had broken through, illuminating the aluminum housing on top of a crane, as if it had been accurately aiming at that one spot. I stared for a long while, transfixed by the almost mythic scene.

The small bouquet of red flowers, wrapped in cellophane, was beside me. Like a kind of proof of all the strange things that had happened to me. I debated what to do with it, and ended up leaving it on the bench by the arbor. To me, that seemed the best option. I stood up and headed toward the bus stop where I’d got off earlier. The wind had started blowing, scattering the stagnant clouds above.

After I finished telling this story, there was a pause, then my younger friend said, “I don’t really get it. What actually happened, then? Was there some intention or principle at work?”

Those very odd circumstances I experienced on top of that mountain in Kobe on a Sunday afternoon in late autumn—following the directions on the invitation to where the recital was supposed to take place, only to discover that the building was deserted—what did it all mean? And why did it happen? That was what my friend was asking. Perfectly natural questions, especially because the story I was telling him didn’t reach any conclusion.

“I don’t understand it myself, even now,” I admitted.

It was permanently unsolved, like some ancient riddle. What took place that day was incomprehensible, inexplicable, and at eighteen it left me bewildered and mystified. So much so that, for a moment, I nearly lost my way.

“But I get the feeling,” I said, “that principle or intention wasn’t really the issue.”

My friend looked confused. “Are you telling me that there’s no need to know what it was all about?”

I nodded.

“But if it were me,” he said, “I’d be bothered no end. I’d want to know the truth, why something like that happened. If I’d been in your shoes, that is.”

“Yeah, of course. Back then, it bothered me, too. A lot. It hurt me, too. But thinking about it later, from a distance, after time had passed, it came to feel insignificant, not worth getting upset about. I felt as though it had nothing at all to do with the cream of life.”

“The cream of life,” he repeated.

“Things like this happen sometimes,” I told him. “Inexplicable, illogical events that nevertheless are deeply disturbing. I guess we need to not think about them, just close our eyes and get through them. As if we were passing under a huge wave.”

My younger friend was quiet for a time, considering that huge wave. He was an experienced surfer, and there were lots of things, serious things, that he had to consider when it came to waves. Finally, he spoke. “But not thinking about anything might also be pretty hard.”

“You’re right. It might be hard indeed.”

There’s nothing worth getting in this world that you can get easily, the old man had said, with unshakable conviction, like Pythagoras explaining his theorem.

“About that circle with many centers but no circumference,” my friend asked. “Did you ever find an answer?”

“Good question,” I said. I slowly shook my head. Had I?

In my life, whenever an inexplicable, illogical, disturbing event takes place (I’m not saying that it happens often, but it has a few times), I always come back to that circle—the circle with many centers but no circumference. And, as I did when I was eighteen, on that arbor bench, I close my eyes and listen to the beating of my heart.

Sometimes I feel that I can sort of grasp what that circle is, but a deeper understanding eludes me. This circle is, most likely, not a circle with a concrete, actual form but, rather, one that exists only within our minds. When we truly love somebody, or feel deep compassion, or have an idealistic sense of how the world should be, or when we discover faith (or something close to faith)—that’s when we understand the circle as a given and accept it in our hearts. Admittedly, though, this is nothing more than my own vague attempt to reason it out.

Your brain is made to think about difficult things. To help you get to a point where you understand something that you didn’t understand at first. And that becomes the cream of your life. The rest is boring and worthless. That was what the gray-haired old man told me. On a cloudy Sunday afternoon in late autumn, on top of a mountain in Kobe, as I clutched a small bouquet of red flowers. And even now, whenever something disturbing happens to me, I ponder again that special circle, and the boring and the worthless. And the unique cream that must be there, deep inside me. ♦

(Translated, from the Japanese, by Philip Gabriel.)

January 29, 2019
by Сергей
1
160

Beginner’s Luck by Chris Rose

Read 13 minutes. Read more on @one_story


James Milner’s hands were shaking as he sat down at his desk. The man sitting at the computer terminal next to him laughed.

“First time on one of these machines, is it?”

“No!” lied James, as convincingly as he could. “I could use one of these things in my sleep!” James looked at the computer screen in front of him with its mysterious programme, and hoped that he was a convincing liar.

“That’s a good job then” laughed his new colleague, “because I often do!” They both laughed again. James hoped that his laugh would cover up how nervous he was. His new colleague sitting next to him turned back to his computer screen and started typing furiously, then shouting lots of instructions into the telephone headset he had. James put on the telephone headset he had by the side of his desk. “At least if I put this on I’ll look like I know what I’m doing”, he thought. Then he stared at the computer screen in front of him with the mysterious programme. There were hundreds of numbers and dates and names of cities written on it, as well as lots of strange names like “NYSE” and “CAC40” and other things. He had no idea what any of it meant.

The telephone headset was ok though. At least he knew what that was. His only other job ever had been in a fast food restaurant in London. They used the telephone headsets there too. But in the fast food restaurant it was easy. The instructions he heard through his telephone headset in the fast food restaurant were nothing more complicated than “two cheeseburgers without ketchup!”, “extra french fries now!”, “triple special burger with extra cheese!”. All he had had to do was listen to the instructions, put the pieces of frozen food in the microwave oven, then pull them out again after a few seconds, put them in a little box and give them to the person next to him. That had been easy. This job, his new job, his first “real” job, he now realised, was going to be a lot more difficult.

When he put the telephone headset on here he didn’t hear orders for extra french fries and different types of hamburgers, but excited men in faraway places shouting orders at him like “2000 Taipei heavy! Sell! Sell!! Sell!!!” or “Drop coming up on the NYSE! Buy! Buy!! Buy!!!” At first he sat there and tried to pretend he knew what he was doing. He tried pressing a few keys on the computer in front of him, but nothing seemed to happen to the screen. Lots of numbers appeared, frequently. Then they disappeared. After the first couple of hours on his new job, he turned round to the man sitting next to him, and tried to laugh again.

“Phew! This is pretty tiring, isn’t it?”

“This is nothing!” said the other man. “You’d better be thankful that today is a quiet day!!” He laughed his big laugh again. Then he held out a big hand to James and said “Davy. Davy Peterson. Good to meet you. Sorry I didn’t introduce myself before, but it always a bit busy here first thing in the morning, catching the late end of the Asian markets…you know how it is!!!”

“Yeah, sure!” laughed James, even though he didn’t have a clue about how it was.

James Milner had always been an average boy. At school he had never done very well, but he hadn’t done very badly either. When it came to the end of the year, he always just passed his exams, though he never got great marks. When his teachers wrote their annual reports, James knew that the teachers didn’t even know who he was.

After he had left school, he had gone to university, one of those universities which is just ok, not a great university, but not a bad one either. He had studied economics and commerce there, and got a degree. He didn’t have a great mark, but he didn’t have a bad one either. James didn’t really want to be a great businessman, a fantastic entrepreneur, an accountant or even a politician, even though his father pushed him a lot. James Milner came from quite a wealthy family, and he had always felt the pressure of his father’s expectations breathing down his neck. James didn’t really want to do very much at all in life really. He liked to take it easy, sleep a lot, and to travel. His father, however, had great expectations for his son. James’ father thought that he should become a great businessman, an entrepreneur, at least an accountant, or – if he couldn’t even become an accountant — then that he should go into politics. The problem was that James just didn’t care.

After he left university, he worked in the fast food restaurant for a while. It was ok there. No, the money wasn’t great, but his colleagues were friendly, and the work wasn’t difficult, even though the shifts were terrible. James hated working late at night or early in the morning. He really just wanted to sleep. And to travel, to go to other places. The problem was that James was too lazy to travel. He had never actually ever been further than Brighton, about an hour from where he was born and lived. Still he liked the idea of travel.

After a year, James’ father was desperate. “You must do something with your life, James!” he said. And so he telephoned his brother, James’ uncle. James’ uncle was the head of a very important bank in the city of London.

James knew what was happening. He had listened at the door while his father called his brother.

“..yes…young James…ha ha ha…yes, he’s a good boy..yes…got his degree last year…yes…you know how it is…now he wants to have a “gap year”…or something like that…yes…ha ha ha…yes..very bright, very intelligent..needs encouragement…a little push.. a little help…”

Next Monday James was sitting there in front of a computer which he had no idea how to use, apparently controlling the financial fortunes of Western Europe.

Even though he was worried at first, James soon learned how to use the computer and how to do his new job. It wasn’t that difficult after all, he soon learned. The people around him weren’t all that intelligent or clever, he realised. He even thought that it wasn’t really that different to working in the fast food restaurant. Instructions came through either on his telephone headset or on his computer screen and he followed them – when he understood them. Mostly the work consisted of buying and selling things. It was like a market. Instead of stocks and shares and personal fortunes, James imagined that he was selling carrots and cabbages and cauliflowers. When he had to make his own decisions, James took a coin out of his pocket, threw it up in the air, and depending on which side it landed on, he bought or sold.

It was amazing, he couldn’t believe it, but he started to be successful. After two weeks on the job, one of his bosses came up to him and said “Great work James!” James didn’t even know what he had done. He just kept on doing the same thing, buying or selling when he felt like it. “Beginner’s luck!” laughed his friend Davy next to him, every time that James seemed to manage to earn or save a fortune just by clicking the right keys on his computer.

James began to get more courageous. He put bigger and bigger numbers into his computer. Bigger numbers seemed to create even bigger numbers. It was great fun, he thought. The bigger the number, the bigger the reward. Buy 1000 shares! Sell 100 000! Buy a million, then sell them again ten minutes later.

Then his boss came to his desk holding a huge bottle of vintage champagne. “This is for you James! Great work on the Singapore bank takeover there! We were risking a lot, but I was following you and I cold see that you knew exactly what you were doing! You kept cool throughout it all!”

James and Davy and the boss opened the champagne right there and drank it all. Some of it spilled on his computer, but he didn’t care. He felt great! After drinking all the champagne they all went to a bar and carried on drinking some more. It was nearly two o’clock in the morning when the bar closed. Davy said that he was going back into the office – seeing as he was still awake he thought he could get some work done on the Asian markets. James was still so happy he went into the office as well. He was so tired he couldn’t see what he was doing, but he just kept on shouting “buy!” or “sell” and pushing all the buttons on his computer.

Sometime the next day James woke up feeling very bad. It was time to take a break, he thought. He phoned up his boss and said that he wouldn’t be in for a few days. He was going to take a holiday. “No problem!” said his boss. “You deserve a holiday! You take care of yourself and relax! And I want you back here in top form again next week!” James had always wanted to travel, and now was his chance. He walked to the nearest travel agent’s and bought a ticket to Thailand.

Two days later, James was sitting on a beach in Thailand. He felt great, he felt fantastic. This was what he had always wanted. He was sitting on a beautiful beach, looking at the beautiful sea with nothing to do and nothing to worry about. “Success!” he thought, then fell asleep again.

Later that evening he walked into the small town to find a bar. He noticed that there was a small stand selling English-language newspapers. Something about the headline he saw on the International Herald Tribune made him stop. Wait a second, he thought, that’s the name of my bank. He picked up the newspaper and started to read the article. At first he didn’t really understand what was happening. But it didn’t take long for him to understand. He didn’t bother buying the newspaper, but walked off and found a bar quickly.

In the bar there were some other Westerners, talking in English. “Have you heard about this bank that’s collapsed?” they were saying. “It looks like the entire London Stock Exchange might collapse!!!”

“It’s incredible” said one of the other people. “Some idiot sold 100 000 shares for 10p each, instead of buying 10 for 100 000 pounds! And that was only one of the mistakes he made…”

James left the bar immediately and went to the nearest cash machine. He took all the money that he could from the cash machine. Then he went back to the bar and asked if they needed a new barman.

“Yes” he told the owner, “I’ve got lots of experience! I used to work in a fast food restaurant in London!” The owner of the bar offered him a job immediately.

“By the way”, said James, “My name’s Fernando…just in case anyone ever comes looking for me…”

THE END

January 26, 2019
by Сергей
0
64

The Man Who Married Himself. Charlie Fish



'Why not?'

    With those two words, my good friend Reverend Zatarga changed the course of my life. When he said them to me, he had just spent two hours on the telephone with Bishop Fleming discussing various sections of the Bible in excruciatingly fine detail. He pointed out that Leviticus warns Christians not to marry their sister, aunt, mother, mother-in-law, daughter or even their granddaughter (should they be tempted). But nowhere in the good book is there a rule against marrying oneself. So when I told Reverend Zatarga that was exactly what I wanted to do, he eventually conceded those two fateful words:

    'Why not?'

    Of course, the Bible also neglects to forbid anyone from marrying great-grandmothers, tables or pet fish. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Bishop Fleming ended up marrying his beloved French poodle as a result of all this. Or his blanket - after all he's been sleeping with it for years. Anyway, once I convinced the good Reverend to let me marry the man of my dreams, I had to convince my mother and father. I'd have to say that between an international religion, firmly established for two millennia, and my own humble parents, my parents were far more difficult to persuade.

    My mother just wouldn't take it seriously at first. OK, very few people took it seriously, but I needed her to know I meant it. She kept asking me silly things like 'Why marry - you can just live with yourself?' or 'What will you wear for the wedding?'

    And sadly, it drove my father quite mad. Literally. For years after the wedding he spent days typing up articles for a wide variety of news journals, record books and space administration newsletters claiming that he was the first person to have had sex in space. He seemed quite convinced, despite the fact that the closest he had come to space was the big button on his computer keyboard. When asked who he had allegedly had sex with, he would usually pause briefly for dramatic effect, turn his wild eyes towards you and yell shrilly: 'Myself!'


    I would have hoped that I could trust my best friends to be sympathetic towards my cause, but I think it was all a bit of a joke for them. They were often supportive, but after the wedding they just spent a lot of time making fun of me. Some of the wedding presents I received from them were quite demeaning: pornographic magazines, silk gloves, even a ceiling mirror. And I'm disappointed in them for not stifling their mirth when Reverend Zatarga recited the marriage vows: 'Will you keep yourself as a husband, to live as one in marriage? Will you love and comfort yourself, obey and honour yourself in sickness and in health, and be faithful to yourself as long as you shall live?' I swear one of my friends wet himself laughing.

    I had a great honeymoon in Las Vegas, gambling away all my savings with nobody to nag me about how much money I was spending. I had a penthouse suite in the Luxor hotel for the night of consummation . . .

    I had many reasons for getting married when I did, apart from the tax benefits of course (trying to make the tax inspector understand that I was my own spouse was hell, though). Ever since I understood the concept of wedlock, I longed for a partner that I could trust. I wanted to have someone with me always, to whom I could tell all my deepest, darkest secrets without having them laugh at me. Unfortunately, although getting girlfriends was usually not too big a problem for me, I tended to have excruciatingly bad taste. Then I realised that my perfect partner was closer to home than anyone could have realised.

    Altogether, I think the marriage was a great success for the most part. I rarely argued with my spouse; in fact I found myself to be the best conversation holder around. The few times that I did argue, I always won. And the sex was, well - it was whatever I made of it. There was some media intrusion of course, lots of cheap journalists trying to cash in on this unusual union. I found some of their articles amusing, and others quite offensive, especially the ones dubbing me the most conceited and/or narcissistic man in the world. I don't think I'm such an egotist, I just happen to enjoy my company.


I suppose it was a hormonal thing, a stage of life or something, that made me suddenly crave a child. The cliche is that I realised I was mortal, and I therefore wanted to pass on my genes. So after many days weighing up the pros and cons I decided to split up from my husband in order to find a wife. I had a chat with Reverend Zatarga, and he informed me that I couldn't just file for a divorce on a moment's notice. I had to have legitimate justification. Curiously, wanting a baby wasn't on the list of good reasons to divorce.

    As the good Reverend explained, I could only divorce if I had been living apart from my spouse for at least a year which would be difficult without major surgery or if my spouse had treated me cruelly or been imprisoned for at least a year. I wasn't particularly willing to beat myself up a bit or lounge around in prison just so I could divorce myself. That left one option: Adultery. I just had to have sex with someone other than myself; normal, straight, human sex, and I could be free from the bonds of marriage.

    And so it was that I reluctantly removed my wedding ring and started searching for a mate. My friends were cruel about it, saying that I was separating to stop myself from going blind. I think my mother was relieved when I told her that my relationship with myself was coming to an end. My father just paused for dramatic effect, turned his wild eyes towards me and yelled shrilly: 'Myself!' Maybe he really is on another world.

    I expected it to take me quite a while to find someone who was both willing to sleep with me and who hadn't read the newspapers enough to know that I was already married, but I soon found a plain-faced Malaysian girl who was relatively easy to seduce. The sex was, to be honest, rather disappointing. It seemed that she knew almost nothing of what turns a man on, whereas by that point I myself had become quite an expert. I suppose it wasn't great for her either - I wasn't practised in pleasuring members of the fairer sex.


    The divorce was easy after that. It seemed that the church was keen to split me apart, as if my marriage had been a big mistake. I felt quite lonely for several months after the break-up. At least the local psychiatrist (specialising in multiple personality disorders) stopped sending me his damned business cards every week.

    It took me nearly a decade to find a good wife who didn't think she'd be marrying into a threesome. Most of that time was just waiting for the media to forget about 'The Man Who Married Himself'. Meanwhile, I wrote an autobiography with that very title. Included in the book was a detailed account of my marriage to myself, including the ups and downs of living with myself, how I dealt with everyone's criticism of me and my husband, and some intimate details of my relationship. I think it was these sections that made the book a real success when it was published some years later. People were just curious to read about the implications of such an unusual marriage. I suppose it made people think. They would read my book and ask themselves: 'Am I easy to live with? If I had to live with me, could I do it?' They all stopped searching for their Mister or Little Miss Right for just a moment to ask themselves if they would ever make a good spouse for anyone.

    I didn't hear of any copycat self-marriages, which probably either means the media lost interest or the church is determined not to let it happen again. Anyway, that's all behind me now. My wife and I have just moved into a new home, big enough to accommodate our new child when he is born. I am happy now. In fact, right now I can't wipe the smile off my face. You see, our next door neighbours are Bishop Fleming and his lovely wife, the French poodle.

January 23, 2019
by Сергей
0
4
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