O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1921 online

. (page 8 of 28)
Online LibraryVariousO. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1921 → online text (page 8 of 28)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

several loungers came along gallantly. Mrs. Egg cordially thanked them
as she sank into the driving seat, settled her black straw hat, and
drove off.

Beholding two of her married daughters on the steps of the drug store,
she stopped the car and shouted: "Hey, girls, the fleet's gettin' in
to-morrow. Your papa's gone to meet Dammy. I just shoved him on the
train. By gee! I forgot to tell him he was to fetch home - no, I wrote
that down - well, you come out to supper Wednesday night."

"But can Dammy get discharged all in one day?" a daughter asked.

Mrs. Egg had no patience with such imbecility. She snapped, "Did you
think they'd discharge him a foot at a time, Susie?" and drove on up
the street, where horsechestnuts were ready to bloom, appropriately,
since Adam was fond of the blossoms. She stopped the car five times to
tell the boys that Adam would be discharged tomorrow, and made a sixth
stop at the candy shop, where a clerk brought out a chocolate ice
cream with walnut sauce. He did this mechanically. Mrs. Egg beamed at
him, although the fellow was a newcomer and didn't know Adam.

"My boy'll be home Wednesday," she said, giving the dish back.

"Been in the Navy three-four years, ain't he?"

Mrs. Egg sighed. "April 14, 1917. He was twenty-one las' week, so he
gets discharged soon as the fleet hits New York. My gee, think of
Dammy being twenty-one!"

She drove on, marvelling at time, and made her seventh stop at the
moving-picture theatre. The posters of the new feature film looked
dull. The heavily typed list of the current-events weekly took her
sharp eye. She read, "Rome Celebrates Anniversary - Fleet Sails from
Guantanamo," and chuckled. She must drive in to see the picture of the
fleet. She hadn't time to stop now, as lunch would be ready.
Anyhow, night was the time for movies. She drove on, and the brick
business buildings gave out into a dribble of small frame cottages,
mostly shabby. Edith Webb was coming out of her father's gate.

Mrs. Egg made an eighth halt and yelled, "Hey, Edie, Dammy'll be home
Wednesday night," for the pleasure of seeing the pretty girl flush.
Adam had taken Edith to several dances at Christmas. Mrs. Egg chuckled
as the favoured virgin went red, fingering the top of the gatepost.
Edith would do. In fact, Edith was suitable, entirely.

"Well, I'm glad," the girl said. "Oh, say, was it our house or the
next one you used to live in? Papa was wondering last night."

"It was yours," Mrs. Egg declared; "and thank your stars you've got a
better father than I had, Edie. Yes, right here's where I lived when I
was your age and helped Mamma do sewin', and sometimes didn't get
enough to eat. I wonder if that's why - well, anyhow, it's a
solid-built house. I expect Dammy'll call you up Wednesday night." She
chuckled immensely and drove on again.

From the edge of town she passed steadily a quarter of a mile between
her husband's fields. His cows were grazing in the pastures. His apple
trees were looking well. The red paint of his monstrous water tanks
soothed her by their brilliance. A farmhand helped her out of the car
and she took the shallow veranda steps one at a time, a little moody,
wishing that her mother was still alive to see Adam's glory. However,
there were six photographs of Adam about the green sitting room in
various uniforms, and these cheered her moment of sorrow. They weren't
altogether satisfactory. His hard size didn't show in single poses. He
looked merely beautiful. Mrs. Egg sniffled happily, patting the view
of Adam in white duck. The enlarged snapshot portrayed him sitting
astride a turret gun. It was the best of the lot, although he looked
taller in wrestling tights, but that picture worried her. She had
always been afraid that he might kill someone in a wrestling match.
She took the white-duck photograph to lunch and propped it against the
pitcher of iced milk.

"It'll be awful gettin' him clothes," she told the cook; "except
shoes. Thank God, his feet ain't as big as the rest of him! Say,
remind me to make a coconut cake in the morning in the big pan. He
likes 'em better when they're two three days old so the icin's kind of
spread into the cake. I'd of sent a cake on with his papa, but Mr. Egg
always drops things so much. It does seem - - " The doorbell rang. Mrs.
Egg wiped her mouth and complained, "Prob'ly that gentleman from
Ashland to look at that bull calf. It does seem a shame folks drop in
at mealtimes. Well, go let him in Sadie."

The cook went out through the sitting room and down the hall. Mrs. Egg
patted her black hair, sighed at her third chop and got up. The cook's
voice mingled with a drawling man's tone. Mrs. Egg drank some milk and
waited an announcement. The cook came back into the dining room and
Mrs. Egg set down the milk glass swiftly, saying, "Why, Sadie!"

"He - he says he's your father, Mis' Egg."

After a moment Mrs. Egg said, "Stuff and rubbidge! My father ain't
been seen since 1882. What's the fool look like?"

"Awful tall - kinda skinny - bald - - "

A tremor went down Mrs. Egg's back. She walked through the sitting
room and into the sunny hall. The front door was open. Against the
apple boughs appeared a black length, topped by a gleam. The sun
sparkled on the old man's baldness. A shivering memory recalled that
her father's hair had been thin. His dark face slid into a mass of
twisting furrows as Mrs. Egg approached him.

He whispered, "I asked for Myrtle Packer down round the station. An
old feller said she was married to John Egg. You ain't Myrtle?"

"I'm her," said Mrs. Egg.

Terrible cold invaded her bulk. She laced her fingers across her
breast and gazed at the twisting face.

The whisper continued: "They tell me your mamma's in the cem'tery,
Myrtle. I've come home to lay alongside of her. I'm grain for the grim
reaper's sickle. In death we sha'n't be divided; and I've walked half
the way from Texas. Don't expect you'd want to kiss me. You look awful
like her, Myrtle."

Tears rolled out of his eyes down his hollowed cheeks, which seemed
almost black between the high bones. His pointed chin quivered. He
made a wavering gesture of both hands and sat down on the floor.
Behind Mrs. Egg the cook sobbed aloud. A farmhand stood on the grass
by the outer steps, looking in. Mrs. Egg shivered. The old man was
sobbing gently. His head oscillated and its polish repelled her. He
had abandoned her mother in 1882.

"Mamma died back in 1910," she said. "I dunno - well - - "

The sobbing was thin and weak, like an ailing baby's murmur. It
pounded her breast.

She stared at the ancient dusty suitcase on the porch and said, "Come
up from Texas, have you?"

"There's no jobs lef for a man seventy-six years of age, Myrtle,
except dyin.' I run a saloon in San Antonio by the Plaza. Walked from
Greenville, Mississippi, to Little Rock. An old lady give me carfare,
there, when I told her I was goin' home to my wife that I'd treated so
bad. There's plenty Christians in Arkansaw. And they've pulled down
the old Presbyterian church your mamma and I was married in."

"Yes; last year. Sadie, take Mr. Packer's bag up to the spare room.
Stop cryin', Papa."

She spoke against her will. She could not let him sit on the floor
sobbing any longer. His gleaming head afflicted her. She had a queer
emotion. This seemed most unreal. The gray hall wavered like a
flashing view in a film.

"The barn'd be a fitter place for me, daughter. I've been a - - "

"That's all right, Papa. You better go up and lie down, and Sadie'll
fetch you up some lunch."

His hand was warm and lax. Mrs. Egg fumbled with it for a moment and
let it fall. He passed up the stairs, drooping his head. Mrs. Egg
heard the cook's sympathy explode above and leaned on the wall and
thought of Adam coming home Wednesday night. She had told him a
thousand times that he mustn't gamble or mistreat women or chew
tobacco "like your Grandfather Packer did." And here was Grandfather
Packer, ready to welcome Adam home!

The farmhand strolled off, outside, taking the seed of this news. It
would be in town directly.

"Oh, Dammy," she said, "and I wanted everything nice for you!"

In the still hall her one sob sounded like a shout. Mrs. Egg marched
back to the dining room and drank a full glass of milk to calm

"Says he can't eat nothin', Mis' Egg," the cook reported, "but he'd
like a cup of tea. It's real pitiful. He's sayin' the Twenty-third
Psalm to himself. Wasted to a shadder. Asked if Mr. Egg was as
Christian an' forbearin' as you. Mebbe he could eat some buttered

"Try and see, Sadie; and don't bother me. I got to think."

She thought steadily, eating cold rice with cream and apple jelly. Her
memory of Packer was slim. He had spanked her for spilling ink on his
diary. He had been a carpenter. His brothers were all dead. He had run
off with a handsome Swedish servant girl in 1882, leaving her mother
to sew for a living. What would the county say? Mrs. Egg writhed and
recoiled from duty. Perhaps she would get used to the glittering bald
head and the thin voice. It was all most unreal. Her mother had so
seldom talked of the runaway that Mrs. Egg had forgotten him as
possibly alive. And here he was! What did one do with a prodigal
father? With a jolt she remembered that there would be roast veal for

At four, while she was showing the Ashland dairyman the bull calf,
child of Red Rover VII and Buttercup IV, Mrs. Egg saw her oldest
daughter's motor sliding across the lane from the turnpike. It held
all three of her female offspring. Mrs. Egg groaned, drawling
commonplaces to her visitor, but he stayed a full hour, admiring the
new milk shed and the cider press. When she waved him good-bye from
the veranda she found her daughters in a stalwart group by the
sitting-room fireplace, pink eyed and comfortably emotional. They
wanted to kiss her. Mrs. Egg dropped into her particular mission chair
and grunted, batting off embraces.

"I suppose it's all over town? It'd travel fast. Well, what d'you
think of your grandpapa, girls?"

"Don't talk so loud, Mamma," one daughter urged.

Another said, "He's so tired he went off asleep while he was telling
us how he nearly got hung for shooting a man in San Antonio."

Mrs. Egg reached for the glass urn full of chocolate wafers on the
table and put one in her mouth. She remarked, "I can see you've been
having a swell time, girls. A sinner that repenteth - - "

"Why, Mamma!"

"Listen," said Mrs. Egg; "if there's going to be any forgiving done
around here, it's me that'll do it. You girls was raised with all the
comforts of home and then some. You never helped anybody do plain
sewin' at fifteen cents a hour nor had to borrow money to get a decent
dress to be married in. This thing of hearin' how he shot folks and
kept a saloon in Texas is good as a movie to you. It don't set so easy
on me. I'm old and tough. And I'll thank you to keep your mouths shut.
Here's Dammy comin' home Wednesday out of the Navy, and all this piled
up on me. I don't want every lazyjake in the country pilin' in here to
hear what a bad man he's been, and dirty the carpets up. Dammy likes
things clean. I'm a better Christian than a lot of folks I can think
of, but this looks to me like a good deal of a bread-and-butter
repentance. Been devourin' his substance in Texas and come home
to - - "

"Oh, Mamma, your own papa!"

"That's as may be. My own mamma busted her eyesight and got heart
trouble for fifteen mortal years until your papa married me and gave
her a home for her old age, and never a whimper out of her, neither.
She's where she can't tell me what she thinks of him and I dunno what
to think. But I'll do my own thinkin' until Dammy and your papa gets
back and tell me what they think. This is your papa's place - and
Dammy's. It ain't a boardin' house for - - "

"Oh, Mamma!"

"And it's time for my nap."

Susan, the oldest daughter, made a tremulous protest. "He's
seventy-six years old, Mamma, and whatever he's done - - "

"For a young woman that talked pretty loud of leavin' her husband when
he came home kind of lit up from a club meetin' - - " Mrs. Egg broke
in. Susan collapsed and drew her gloves on hastily. Mrs. Egg ate
another chocolate wafer and resumed: "This here's my business - and
your papa's and Dammy's. I've got it in my head that that movie weekly
picture they had of Buttercup Four with her price wrote out must have
been shown in San Antonio. And you'll recollect that your papa and me
stood alongside her while that fresh cameraman took the picture. If I
was needin' a meal and saw I'd got a well-off son-in-law - - "

"Mamma," said Susan, "you're perfectly cynical."

Mrs. Egg pronounced, "I'm forty-five years of age," and got up.

The daughters withdrew. Mrs. Egg covered the chocolate urn with a
click and went into the kitchen. Two elderly farmhands went out of the
porch door as she entered.

Mrs. Egg told the cook: "Least said, soon'st mended, Sadie. Give me
the new cream. I guess I might's well make some spice cookies. Be
pretty busy Wednesday. Dammy likes 'em a little stale."

"Mis' Egg," said the cook, "if this was Dammy that'd kind of strayed
off and come home sick in his old age - - "

"Give me the cream," Mrs. Egg commanded, and was surprised by the
fierceness of her own voice. "I don't need any help seein' my duty,

At six o'clock her duty became highly involved. A friend telephoned
from town that the current-events weekly at the moving-picture theatre
showed Adam in the view of the dreadnoughts at Guantánamo.

"Get out," said Adam's mother. "You're jokin'! ... Honest? Well, it's
about time! What's he doin'? ... Wrestlin'? My! Say, call up the
theatre and tell Mr. Rubenstein to save me a box for the evenin'

"I hear your father's come home," the friend insinuated.

"Yes," Mrs. Egg drawled, "and ain't feelin' well and don't need
comp'ny. Be obliged if you'd tell folks that. He's kind of sickly. So
they've got Dammy in a picture. It's about time!" The tremor ran down
her back. She said "Good-night, dearie," and rang off.

The old man was standing in the hall doorway, his head a vermilion
ball in the crossed light of the red sunset.

"Feel better, Papa?"

"As good as I'm likely to feel in this world again. You look real like
your mother settin' there, Myrtle." The whisper seemed likely to ripen
as a sob.

Mrs. Egg answered, "Mamma had yellow hair and never weighed more'n a
hundred and fifty pounds to the day of her death. What'd you like for

He walked slowly along the room, his knees sagging, twitching from end
to end. She had forgotten how tall he was. His face constantly
wrinkled. It was hard to see his eyes under their long lashes. Mrs.
Egg felt the pity of all this in a cold way.

She said, when he paused: "That's Adam, there, on the mantelpiece,
Papa. Six feet four and a half he is. It don't show in a picture."

"The Navy's rough kind of life, Myrtle. I hope he ain't picked up bad
habits. The world's full of pitfalls."

"Sure," said Mrs. Egg, shearing the whisper. "Only Dammy ain't got any
sense about cards. I tried to teach him pinochle, but he never could
remember none of it, and the hired men always clean him out shakin'
dice. He can't even beat his papa at checkers. And that's an awful
thing to say of a bright boy!"

The old man stared at the photograph and his forehead smoothed for a
breath. Then he sighed and drooped his chin.

"If I'd stayed by right principles when I was young - - "

"D'you still keep a diary, Papa?"

"I did used to keep a diary, didn't I? I'd forgotten that. When you
come to my age, Myrtle, you'll find yourself forgettin' easy. If I
could remember any good things I ever did - - "

The tears dripped from his jaw to the limp breast of his coat. Mrs.
Egg felt that he must be horrible, naked, like a doll carved of
coconut bark Adam had sent home from Havana. He was darker than Adam
even. In the twilight the hollows of his face were sheer black. The
room was gray. Mrs. Egg wished that the film would hurry and show
something brightly lit.

The dreary whisper mourned, "Grain for the grim reaper's sickle,
that's what I am. Tares mostly. When I'm gone you lay me alongside
your mamma and - - "

"Supper's ready, Mis' Egg," said the cook.

Supper was odious. He sat crumbling bits of toast into a bowl of hot
milk and whispering feeble questions about dead folk or the business
of the vast dairy farm. The girls had been too kind, he said.

"I couldn't help but feel that if they knew all about me - - "

"They're nice sociable girls," Mrs. Egg panted, dizzy with dislike of
her veal. She went on: "And they like a good cry, never havin' had
nothin' to cry for."

His eyes opened wide in the lamplight, gray brilliance sparkled. Mrs.
Egg stiffened in her chair, meeting the look.

He wailed, "I gave you plenty to cry for, daughter." The tears hurt
her, of course.

"There's a picture of Dammy in the movies," she gasped. "I'm goin' in
to see it. You better come. It'll cheer you, Papa."

She wanted to recall the offer too late. In the car she felt chilly.
He sank into a corner of the tonneau like a thrown laprobe. Mrs. Egg
talked loudly about Adam all the way to town and shouted directions to
the driving farmhand in order that the whisper might not start. The
manager of the theatre had saved a box for her and came to usher her
to its discomfort. But all her usual pleasure was gone. She nodded
miserably over the silver-gilt rail at friends. She knew that people
were craning from far seats. Her bulk and her shadow effaced the man
beside her. He seemed to cower a little. At eight the show began, and
Mrs. Egg felt darkness as a blessing, although the shimmer from the
screen ran like phosphorus over the bald head, and a flash of white
between two parts of the advertisement showed the dark wrinkles of his

"Like the pictures, Papa?"

"I don't see well enough to take much pleasure in 'em, Myrtle."

A whirling globe announced the beginning of the weekly. Mrs. Egg
forgot her burdens. She was going to see Adam. She took a peppermint
from the bag in her hand and set her teeth in its softness, applauded
a view of the President and the arrival of an ambassador in New York.
Then the greenish letters declared: "The fleet leaves Guantánamo
training ground," and her eyes hurt with staring. The familiar lines
of anchored battleships appeared with a motion of men in white on the
gray decks. The screen showed a race of boats which melted without
warning to a mass of white uniforms packed about the raised square of
a roped-in Platform below guns and a turret clouded with men. Two
tanned giants in wrestling tights scrambled under the ropes. There was
a flutter of caps.

"Oh!" said Mrs. Egg. "Oh!"

She stood up. The view enlarged. Adam was plain as possible. He
grinned, too; straight from the screen at her. The audience murmured.
Applause broke out, Adam jerked his black head to his opponent - and
the view flicked off in some stupid business of admirals. Mrs. Egg sat
down and sobbed.

"Was that Adam, daughter? The - the big feller with black hair?"

"Yes," said Mrs. Egg; "yes." She was hot with rage against the makers
of pictures who'd taken him from her. It was a shame. She crammed four
peppermints into her mouth and groaned about them, "As if people
wouldn't rather look at some good wrestlin' than a lot of captains and

"How long's the boy been in the Navy, Myrtle?"

"April 14, 1917."

The whisper restored her. Mrs. Egg yawned for an hour of nonsense
about a millionaire and his wife who was far too thin. Her father did
not speak, although he moved now and then. The show concluded. Mrs.
Egg lumbered wearily out to her car in the dull street and vaguely
listened to the whisper of old age. She couldn't pay attention. She
was going home to write the film company at length. This abuse of Adam
was intolerable. She told the driver so. The driver agreed.

He reported, "I was settin' next to Miss Webb."

"That's Dammy's girl, Papa. Go on, Sam. What did Edie say?"

"Well," said the driver, "she liked seein' the kid. She cried,

Mrs. Egg was charmed by the girl's good sense. The moon looked like a
quartered orange over the orchard.

She sighed, "Well, he'll be home Wednesday night, anyhow. Edie ain't
old enough to get married yet. Hey, what's the house all lit up for?
Sadie ought to know better."

She prepared a lecture for the cook. The motor shot up the drive into
a babble and halted at the steps. Someone immense rose from a chair
and leaped down the space in one stride.

Adam said, "H'lo, Mamma," and opened the car door.

Mrs. Egg squealed. The giant lifted her out of her seat and carried
her into the sitting room. The amazing muscles rose in the flat of his
back. She thought his overshirt ripped. The room spun. Adam fanned her
with his cap and grinned.

"Worst of radiograms," he observed; "the boys say Papa went on to meet
me. Well, it'll give him a trip. Quit cryin', Mamma."

"Oh, Dammy, and there ain't nothin' fit to eat in the house!"

Adam grinned again. The farmhands dispersed at his nod. Mrs. Egg beat
down her sobs with both hands and decried the radio service that could
turn Sunday into Tuesday. Here was Adam, though, silently grinning,
his hands available, willing to eat anything she had in the pantry.
Mrs. Egg crowed her rapture in a dozen bursts.

The whispering voice crept into a pause with, "You'll be wantin' to
talk to your boy, daughter. I'll go to bed, I guess."

"Dammy," said Mrs. Egg, "this is - - "

Adam stopped rolling a cigarette and nodded to the shadow by the hall
door. He said, "How you? The boys told me you'd got here," and licked
the cigarette shut with a flash of his red tongue. He struck a match
on the blue coating of one lean thigh and lit the cigarette, then
stared at the shadow. Mrs. Egg hated the old man against reason as the
tears slid down the dark face.

"Grain for the grim reaper's sickle, daughter. You'll be wantin' to
talk to your boy. I guess I'll say good-night." He faded into the

"Well, come, let's see what there is to eat, Mamma," said Adam, and
pulled Mrs. Egg from her chair.

He sat on the low ice chest in the pantry and ate chocolate cake. Mrs.
Egg uncorked pear cider and reached, panting, among apple-jelly
glasses. Adam seldom spoke. She didn't expect talk from him. He was
sufficient. He nodded and ate. The tanned surface of his throat
dimpled when he swallowed things. His small nose wrinkled when he

Mrs. Egg chattered confusedly. Adam grinned when she patted his smooth
hair and once said "Get out!" when she paused between two kisses to
assure him he was handsome. He had his father's doubts on the point
perhaps. He was not, she admitted, exactly beautiful. He was Adam,
perfect and hard as an oak trunk under his blue clothes. He finished
the chocolate cake and began to eat bread and apple jelly.

He ate six slices and drank a mug of pear cider, then crossed his legs
and drawled, "Was a fellow on the _Nevada_ they called Frisco Cooley."

"What about him, Dammy?"

"Nothin'. He was as tall as me. Skinny, though. Used to imitate actors
in shows. Got discharged in 1919."

"Was he a nice boy, Dammy?"

"No," said Adam, and reached for the pear-cider bottle. He fell into
his usual calm and drank another mug of cider. Mrs. Egg talked of Edie
Webb. Adam grinned and kept his black eyes on the pantry ceiling. The
clock struck eleven. He said, "They called him Frisco Cooley 'cause he
came from San Francisco. He could wrinkle his face up like a monkey.
He worked in a gamblin' joint in San Francisco. That's him." Adam
jerked a thumb at the ceiling.


"That's him," said Adam. "It took me a time to think of him, but
that's him."

Mrs. Egg fell back against the ice chest and squeaked: "You mean you
know this - - "

"Hush up, Mamma!"

"But he walked part the way from San Antonio. He - - "

"He ain't your father," said Adam, "so don't cry. Is there any maple
sugar? The grub on the train was fierce."

Mrs. Egg brought him the tin case of maple sugar. Adam selected a
chunk of the brown stuff and bit a lobe of it. He was silent. Mrs. Egg
marvelled at him. His sisters had hinted that he wasn't clever. She
stood in awe, although her legs ached. Adam finished the lump of maple
sugar and rose. He leaned on the shelves with his narrow waist curved
against them and studied a row of quince-preserve jars. His nose

He asked, "You been fumigatin'?"

"Fumigatin'! Why, Dammy, there ain't been a disease in the house since

Online LibraryVariousO. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1921 → online text (page 8 of 28)