A selection of 3 of Nelson Algren’s best short stories
Saturday 21 July 2018, by
Nelson Algren (1909-1981), author notably of the novels Never Come Morning (1942), The Man With the Golden Arm (1949) and A Walk On the Wild Side (1956), of the essay Chicago, City on the Make (1951) and of the short-story anthology The Neon Wilderness (1947), had a special talent for the short-story format, where his fascination with the low, low side of street life in the America of the thirties and forties, his innate empathy with the dropouts and losers of those rough days, his psychological insights, his ear for the language of the common man and his gift for pungent, powerful prose made him one of the very best writers of short stories of his time.
We have chosen three of his most outstanding tales for your consideration:
1. Kingdom City to Cairo - The narrator remembers hitching a ride from a most unusual Reverend on a Missouri highway. One of the funniest stories by Nelson Algren, or anyone else. (2,800 words)
2. The Brothers’ House - A man just released from jail desperately seeks to start a new life by returning with determination to his beloved family farm. (1,400 words)
3. Pero Venceremos - A veteran of the Spanish Civil War just cannot stop talking about his experiences there, ten years afterwards. (1,600 words)
An e-book is available for downloading below.
1. KINGDOM CITY TO CAIRO
One wet December forenoon fifteen years ago I was leaning against a signpost that read WELCOME TO KINGDOM CITY, waiting for a lift. A whitish fog lay on the highway and overhead the big wet sky of Missouri moved, unseen, across the unplanted land. A Ford truck with one cracked headlight glowing dimly limped past, followed now and then by salesmen trying to make time into Cairo. Then a Chevvie coupe went by fast, screeched abruptly to a stop twenty yards up the road, and slammed into reverse. "He makes his decisions fast," I thought as I scrambled into the seat, and he had the speedometer back to sixty before I got the door closed behind me.
A scratchy, big-nosed man with a hospital complexion, in a potato-colored collar and a dark clerical suit; he held the wheel as though unaware of the fog and looked as full of starch as his collar.
"I’m not a minister any more," he explained. "I’m getting into a new racket. I was ordained by the Seventh-Day Adventists but they threw me out before the week was up. You see, I have a weakness. What time is it now?" He sized me up in chicken-like jerks of his neck; the knuckles on the wheel were bony, the fingers yellowed by nicotine. "What time is it?" he demanded impatiently, ignoring a sign that read: SCHOOL—SLOW.
"Do you have Standard Time? New York Time? Postal Telegraph Synchronous time or just plain good old Daylight Saving? Are you from Babylon, brother? I have to be in the post office at Sodom before dark. What time is it, brother?"
I surmised that it must be almost noon and nodded suggestively to a yellow-and-black warning: DANGER-CURVE AHEAD. He smiled smugly, as though he had planted the sign there himself just for a prank on others, and swung around the rear of a truck on the sheerest assumption that nothing might be coming from the other direction, swerving back to the right side of the road directly below the peak of the grade. His shadow-rimmed eyes fixed on me. I grinned weakly, and he patted my shoulder paternally.
I didn’t like his shoulder-patting.
"You know why I stopped when you flagged me? I need advice is why. Maybe everything’ll be all right now after all. You see, I have a weakness—you don’t mind listening?"
"Just don’t forget the wheel, Reverend. That’s all I ask."
"Reverend. Yes, Reverend. That’s just it. I’m not a Reverend. When my flock in Kingdom City found out I was running the tourists’ concession in Hotel Ulysses they told me I’d either have to give it up or get out of their pulpit. That concession got a bad name hereabouts, but it’s a little gold mine. I can’t figure out what to do. If I didn’t have such a weakness. Don’t you think our meeting means something?"
"It probably means we’ll end up with our little toes turned up in a ditch if you don’t hold onto that wheel while you’re preaching."
"No offense," he grinned, "no offense. I’m just a Seventh-Day Adventist off on a six-day binge. But you can’t buy a snort in Kingdom City for love or money. Do you drink, brother? Smoke? Chew? Swear? You should, you know. I can quote you chapter and verse for anything you want to do, including arson, rape, incest, gluttony, breach of promise, or tapping a gas main. It’s all right there in the good book and no fee for the service—now isn’t that wonderful?"
"I don’t know. The way you drive is, though."
He patted my shoulder again.
"The wheel, Reverend, the wheel."
"I could be like a father to you."
"I don’t miss the old man that much."
"I’ll be a brother to you."
"Okay. You be a brother: brother that wheel awhile."
He put his eyes on the road once more and we drove on in an uneasy silence, while I brooded over my peculiar luck in meeting the wrong people. The fog lifted as high as the telephone wires. This was Illinois country now, rutted and seedless and tough as its own scrub oak, laced only by Sears, Roebuck fences and U.S. 66.
"Don’t worry about my driving, brother," he assured me. "I always drive like this. I believe in fate is why: when it’s my time to go I’ll go."
"That’s all right," I reminded him, "but I might not want to come along right yet."
"Look at that life line." He showed me his palm. "I’ll live to be a hundred and eight."
"You won’t live twenty minutes if you don’t put that life line back on the wheel." I looked at the long Illinois fields and thought nostalgically of coffee.
"I just had an operation," he said, as though explaining his recklessness. "Can’t seem to go anywhere slow any more. Always in such a hurry. Thyroid trouble. I’ve only got one kidney. I have a weakness, but I can’t stop now. Oh my, what I’ve been through, What time is it?"
For some reason he smiled quite gaily and added flippantly: "Aren’t things getting terrible? Isn’t everything just awful? Aren’t things bad enough without everybody making them worse by talking about them? And aren’t they getting worse all the time?"
I agreed that they were. "Your driving isn’t getting any better either," I felt compelled to add.
He slowed a little at last, seemed to collect his thoughts, and managed finally to give his hard-luck story without watching me instead of the road.
"It’s like this. I’m in love. But that’s only part of it. I’m married and so is she, but not to each other. That’s why I have to run a rat race to the Post Office in Cairo like this. That’s where she writes me. I’m always afraid her husband is going to pick up one of her letters there. It wouldn’t be hard for him to do, He’s my brother. We have the same mailbox there. I always have to beat him there on account he’s deputy sheriff." He paused to catch his breath. "What do you think?"
"In that case you better step on the gas."
He got that idiotically happy grin on him again, as if the whole affair was the funniest thing ever. "That ain’t all. I bought this concession off a Jew from Chicago, a disbarred attorney. Sunk my last dime in it. Now they want me to give it up. I don’t give a holy damn for the pulpit, but it’ll mean not seeing her. I’ll be living in Cairo and she’ll be in Kingdom City. As long as I had the pulpit we could cover up—I had business there. But now I don’t, and the brother’ll catch on as sure as hell’s on fire if I start chasing back into Missouri twice a week.
"Of course she could leave him and come to Cairo. That’d be just fine and dandy, like sugar candy. Just about the time my wife’d be putting a hole through the girl friend’s head the brother’d arrive with a posse looking for me. A nice kettle of fish, I will say. But it does me good to talk to someone about it, someone I won’t see again, who won’t see me, that I don’t know from Adam and who don’t know me."
"If I ever get out of this car I guarantee you won’t see me again," I decided to myself.
"Leaving my flock is the least part. They’re just a bunch of tarts and rumpots anyhow. Rams and ewes, brother, rams and ewes. I’m no better and no worse—but my ewe is the sweetest ewe of all. If I thought I had to give her up I’d run this car into the ditch around the next curve. Only why should the blind lead the blind? Beside, I got a good thing in this concession—
You got a place to stay tonight, brother?"
I’d been nodding, and shook my head, no, I hadn’t. I hadn’t slept in a bed in four nights.
"You can stay at the hotel if you want. Don’t thank me. No trouble at all."
It wouldn’t have been much trouble. But I was too tired to care where I slept. I dozed while he chattered on.
"The slut is bleeding me white. She knows I can’t give her up. I should’ve had that draft sent to Alton. Got to be back for love meeting in the tent by ten." He nudged me. "There’s a half pint in the side pocket. If you fall asleep I’m likely to do the same thing. Help yourself. Take a slug ’n think real hard ’n tell me what I should do. Take a slug and then say the first thing that comes into your head. It’ll be a sign for me, a pillar of cloud. Go ahead, brother, in the side pocket."
I drank and put the bottle back without passing it to him. I figured we were just staying alive by luck anyhow, so why press one’s luck? He watched me drinking, waited a long moment, and then said, "Well, brother?"
"Brush the ewe off, Deacon," I told him confidently, "before you get the brush yourself. Even if she don’t brush you, sooner or later your brother will. Quit while you’re still even. Strikes me you must make love like you drive. Step on the brake before you smash up?"
Without acknowledging this opinion, he said abruptly, "Do you have a good home, brother? What are you chasing yourself around Little Egypt for? A good home, stay in it. Or is your life a shambles too?"
"My life’s all right," I told him curtly. "What’ll this hotel deal cost me? I don’t have much money."
"Not a crying dime!" he cried happily, almost jumping out of the seat. "Not a Confederate penny! Not a Mexican nickel. Stay as long as you like, just like Adam in the garden." His voice leered slightly. "We may even find a loose Eve or two wandering around the concession."
I didn’t say a word. We were coming into the outskirts of Cairo.
The hotel was down by the levee. You could see Kentucky from the front windows. Upstairs, I was told, was the bedroom in which Grant had slept before Fort Defiance. I remember the boarded windows and the broken panes by the river, and the abandoned feed stores facing the moving Ohio. Long freights passed in the woods in Kentucky. Their shadows, as any army’s shadows, moved south on the moving waters. I remember their engine boilers lighting fragments of floodtime in old December, strewn on Kentucky’s shore.
And thought of the big rivers of the Republic, running the unplanted land and the littered shores of Kentucky. Saw, as always in those years, the big wet sky of the Republic over the big wet land. On that long-ago evening, from the musty lobby of that decaying Civil War hotel, I saw the cottonwoods crowd for warmth behind an abandoned filling station: a thousand nameless weeds thronged the prairie water front. They say, in summer, these grew rankly by day and stank by night.
The Hotel Ulysses squatted like a blind red ox, squat as Grant himself, staring blindly toward Vicksburg at midnight. At the barricades built against floodtime, above the blockaded river. Above an endless army’s shadows, moving south through the woods through Kentucky.
I believed in the bedroom where Grant had slept, but doubted the storeroom in the basement which the disbarred attorney had decided had been a prison. He had charged tourists fifteen cents to see the dungeon where the Rebs had been kept. The Reverend had knocked a few more bricks out of the wall and raised the ante to a quarter. When I assured him that it looked moldy enough to charge a half dollar he grew a little prim and explained that that wouldn’t be right as some of his own people, on his mother’s side, had been Rebs. He was quite frank about it all, however, and seemed to enjoy taking me up and downstairs, not even omitting the rope fire escape with which Grant’s room was still provided.
He had a colored bellhop who ran the elevator and conducted the tours. The boy got a nickel out of every quarter which the tourists invested in the place; the hotel got a dime and the Reverend got a dime.
What the Reverend omitted in his description was that he had two country girls, sisters, rooming together on the third floor, who were available to tired tourists. Their room was across the hall from the one in which Grant had slept; when I glanced in at Grant’s bed it looked as rumpled as though the general had just risen from it after a bad night with the bottle.
"This may not be Gomorrah," the Reverend told me slyly, "but we give them hell here all the same."
He said something to the desk clerk, nodding in my direction, and then came over to tell me that any time I wanted to hit the hay just to go on up to room 39. I trudged up to the third floor, hunted down the uncarpeted hall awhile, and then pushed into room 39.
There was a woman, fully clothed, on the bed, and a man shaving at the dresser mirror. The woman looked at me leisurely over the cover of a movie magazine while I stood trying to apologize. "It’s all right," the woman said, "try another door." Just like that. I backed out feeling confused.
And saw then, on either side of the hall, that none of the doors had locks. Some stood open and some a little ajar; not one was fully closed. Some hotel, I thought. Some concession. I hesitated in front of a room from which no light showed, poked my head in, and asked politely. "Anyone in here?"
There was no answer. Nor was there any light, save a dry kerosene lamp. I lit matches and discerned a bed, a chair, and a mirror. That was all I needed. I backed the chair against the doorknob and threw myself across the bed.
I was in the very depths of sleep, dreaming that I wanted to waken; every time I nearly attained wakefulness I’d slip back into the abyss of sleep. It was like being drowned in some gigantic aquarium, for I could feel, like one awake, the whole weight of sleep, like the weight of deep waters upon me. Then something woke me sharply and I was sitting on the edge of the bed and the whole room was moving. The walls, and the floor, as though carpeted, stirred restlessly. Down from the mirror, across the floor, along my arms, a living carpet moved. Then they began biting.
A civilization of bedbugs had come out of the walls, from between the wallpaper, from the bedposts, from the mattress and the ceiling. I brushed them off my arms in a panic of disgust and they surged back up my legs. I yanked the chair away from the door and fled down the stairs half covered with a dark and rippling sheet.
No one was at the desk as I ran past: only a small night bulb, which, it seemed to me, was shaded by them.
All that night I walked the darkened, rutted roads of southern Illinois, too sick with horror and fatigue to find the highway. I crushed them between my palms as I walked, I stopped and
burned them until I ran out of matches; stood, shivering in the December chill, crushing them between my palms. And with every step I took they bit, as though resenting movement. They bit my back, hips, and neck, and all I knew to do was to keep moving, in a kind of desperate hope of shaking them off.
In the whitish fog of morning I came on a railroad spur where a boxcar, its floor covered with straw, stood waiting to be switched. I crawled in and found, in one corner, a sleeping hobo. I wakened him and he gave me matches. By the time the train began moving I’d gotten rid of them, although I’d had to throw away my shirt out of simple revulsion, in spite of the cold.
Late that night, going through Joplin, Missouri, I stole a shirt off a clothesline at a water stop, and three days later, in New Orleans, I found a Salvation Army Home with a shower.
Tonight, a decade and a half after, I’m still wondering whether the Reverend’s weakness was women, whisky, his single kidney, or practical joking.
2. THE BROTHERS’ HOUSE
It was not that I that sinned the sin,
The ruthless body dragged me in.
– Walt Whitman
All that day David lay on his bunk, thinking of a different place—a glad, bright place. Eyes closed, he saw the great prairie once more. He saw the quiet old house in which he was born, the house where his mother had worked and prayed. He saw the shadowed porch and the trim green lawn. He saw the sunny dooryard where tall lilacs grew. He saw the pleasant meadow where the great oak stood. He saw the sloping corn-land that rolled to the running sky and he seemed to smell the windy smell of clouds across the earth. He remembered how as a boy he had played in the sun in the summer; how the wind had gone wailing through the white nights of winter; how dead leaves had drifted in brown months of autumn; and how in the springtime all things were so fair, so tender and green, so young and unspoiled, so strange and so sweetly troubling. He opened his eyes. The cell was gray as death. The stench of a thousand imprisoned men hung in the air like a low gray pall. David thought, "I want to go back."
All that night David lay wakeful, remembering, regretting, hoping. In five months he would be free once more, free to breathe again and to live. Should he then return to the city? Of a sudden he hated the city, its manifold faces and narrow streets, the dark ways and the shouting. He hated the men who had used him more intensely than ever he’d hated his brothers. Should he beseech those brothers that he might return? Or should he go back without supplication—merely go back, merely come to a house that he had known, to a door that once had stood wide? Would they embrace him? He wondered. They were all four strong men. They were all four hard.
All that winter David went about his duties with the thought of freedom in his heart. All that sad winter he lived in hope.
The desire for home sharpened. He began counting the hours of the slow days; then the minutes of the slow hours; and before the end he numbered the very seconds passing.
For David sensed that he stood at the gate of a different life —that these days and hours and seconds were the last unclean fringe of the old way.
Then it was April, and his time was up, and his life was beginning again. One sunny forenoon all the windows of the great courthouse were opened. All the long winter they had been locked, but now they were flung wide. And the morning when that happened was the morning David was again given freedom. He stood before the judge with his cap in his hand, with the clean breeze from the newly opened windows in his hair; and he promised then to live hereafter as heretofore he had not. Thus three times had David stood before. Three times in the past had he promised what he promised now.
He came out on the sunny street, blinking. How strange it was to walk in the open! How sweet it was just to breathe! He could not walk fast enough, could not breathe deeply enough. So he ran. Ran just a little way, he could not run far, he was not a strong man. And for twenty months he had been where the good sun never pierces, in the place where no man runs.
He slept in a field that night a dozen miles from any town. Once, toward morning, he woke suddenly, with a fear like a hand at his heart; he felt he was back on his prison bunk with the stench of caged men hanging, as a cloud suspended, in the gray air about him. He sat bolt upright, fear shaking his heart loosely about under his breast. It was a full half minute before he realized; then he saw a small light from a farmhouse or a barn shining to him from far in the distance, and he was reassured. But the little light went out as he watched—and before he fell once more to sleep he felt afraid of something; he did not know quite what.
He was up with the sun, swinging along in the first faint blue of day. And all that day joy kept him. All about him was so beautiful that he wanted to sing; yet David knew no song. In his life had been little of laughter. He wanted to sing, yet something hurt all the while. It was as though outwardly his spirit rose and rejoiced, yet to itself sorrowed secretly.
Eighteen days David walked the way, feeling that now, at last, he was going home. On the afternoon of the nineteenth day he came to the great oak; and because he had rested in its shade so often in his youth, he lay down beneath it now. The small bent grasses pricked his palms and pressed themselves among his fingers. Long shadows trembled in the light.
Once, when he was not quite twelve, David had run away from home for a full day, and his brothers had found him asleep beneath this very tree. He remembered how his mother had cried over him when they brought him home all tears. This time she would not be there. She would not be there tonight. He fell to sleep remembering, and when he awoke it was dusk.
For a moment he felt uneasy, as men who have been often mocked and shamed sometimes feel upon waking. Then he jumped to his feet and shook the feeling off, for he had now but a little space to go. Yet, somehow, the uneasiness within remained.
As he walked through the dusk he passed a young orchard, and the odor of cherry blossoms came fainting to him. Somewhere to his left a drowsy dove was calling low and patiently. The great moon came over the edge of the prairie and it was night.
O sweet maytime, O deep good air,
O prairie night so darkly fair,
O lilacs growing by the stair,
Shall no far April heal my pain?
Shall no spring make me whole again?
It was misting moonlight when he came in sight of the house. How quietly it waited there! It looked like a darkcowled nun kneeling in prayer beneath great stars, the moonlight a halo about her bent head. How quietly it waited there! The memory of his last night in it came upon him. He had stood in the dooryard that night with his brothers about him, like a caught thing. Jesse had beaten him, the brothers watching in a dark wolf-circle. How shameful that had been!
Now a lamp burned in the kitchen. Men were talking there. He leaned on the gate, he listened intently: their voices came to him in a slow curving murmuring, in a wave that broke and fell, never falling quite to silence, never rising quite to clarity. They perhaps had been plowing all day. Plowing the brown earth.
Suddenly something was unfamiliar. Suddenly something unseen was changed. Something was suddenly strange and hostile. He felt he did not wish to go home after all. He felt ill.
The walls are bare within,
The brothers sit in a row,
There once was a woman here,
But that was long ago.
When the tall lamp flickers yellowly
And the gibbous moon rides low,
I see her face in the windy dark,
And I long for the long ago.
Someone was coming toward him. It was Jesse, he knew his stride; David clung to the gate in his weakness. How strong, how kind Jesse looked! Love for the brother choked him, his love closed his throat. Jesse was speaking to him, and he could not reply.
"What do you want?" Jesse asked.
David could only raise his face to be recognized. Jesse saw.
"Well, what do you want?" he repeated.
3. PERO VINCEREMOS
"I been in more ballroom brawls," O’Connor assured me, "I been in more ballroom brawls."
But no one pays O’Connor attention any more. O’Connor is O’Connor and we’ve heard it all before. There’s bock beer and a bingo game that you almost beat and a juke box that still plays "Lili Marlene" and we all have our own troubles anyhow.
"At Sierra La Valls, a place we called The Pimple, we attacked with the Mac-Paps and the English. There was a Moor in front ’n one behind ’n I fixed him in front through the groin the same second the steel of him behind come through me here." O’Connor tapped his left shoulder.
"It’s the other shoulder, Denny," I reminded him, "and it healed up long since."
He gave me the glance as though I hadn’t heard it all a hundred detailed times in the decade since his return from Spain. I could have given him back the story word for word.
"When I got him in front through the groin the steel of him behind come through me here—I didn’t feel it, I seen it ’n come around fast with the butt before he could loosen ’er. Caught him square with the flat of it ’n he went out cold ’n I finished him where he lay with his bayonet still in my back. It tore me up pretty bad, turnin’ so fast on him that way, but I didn’t faint till I seen he was done for keeps. Them was Black Arrows ’n Falangistas ’n you can’t give that kind a chance. We had to be sparin’ with cartridges, but they could use an anti-tank shell on anythin’ that moved. They had more anti-tank shells than we had cartridges, they had more planes than we had machine guns. They could lay down an enfilading fire like pushin’ on a button —’n keep ’er right there too, like they’d went off somewhere ’n forgot to turn somethin’ off. They could land shells in the heart of a trench, movin’ down the middle of ’er foot by foot ’n never miss the middle. Like a champ horseshoe pitcher in East St. Louis I used to know who’d never miss a ringer."
He picked up a half dollar and a dime lying beside his glass. "See that?" Holding up the half. "This is overhead shrapnel, this here’s a hunk no bigger ’n a half dollar." He put the coin down. "You know what a hunk that size will do to a man? It’ll cut him in half. Sever him. It’ll slice off his neck or maybe both legs, just a hunk that big. Now this"—exchanging the half for the dime—"this’ll slice off a hand like slicin’ through cheese—a piece just this tiny." He brought his knees up to his chin in the booth, yanked up his trouser leg to the knee, and slipped off his shoe and sock.
"Here, I’ll show you somethin’."
I’d first seen that leg after Sierra La Valls. It was marked four times from shrapnel between the ankle and the knee; the heel wore a crusted wound, like a sea shell’s crusted mouth, and was crossed twice by thin white scars, as a hot-cross bun is crossed with sugar. After ten years it was still open and the edges were hard as cement. Within, like O’Connor, it was decaying.
"See that? That’s rot. I used to think it’d stop but I don’t think so no more. Some one of these days they’ll be takin’ ’er off me—’n you know how much shrapnel they took out of that job?" He touched fingertip to thumb to indicate a pellet the size of a grape seed.
"That much did that. Now you know."
He yanked down the trouser, looking pleased with himself, and slipped the shoe and sock back on with an air of finality. A second world war had come and gone and Denny hadn’t yet spoken of anything else but overhead shrapnel on the Ebro and a man’s need for taking care of himself, of being alert for physical disaster that might come any hour of the day or night in any of a thousand guises. He was still frightened of the hand-to-hand stuff. It wouldn’t be so bad if he’d invent a little sometimes as he went along. But it’s always the same threadbare routine.
"I was raised in East St. Louis," he went on, "a couple blocks south of the Valley. I been in more brawls on land ’n sea than you got fingers ’n toes ’n I’m a good union man to boot. You got to be in East St. Louis. That’s where I learned to hold my fire."
I was wishing he’d hold his fire long enough for me to put a nickel in the juke. I knew he hadn’t belonged to a union since Pearl Harbor. Abruptly, as though suddenly afraid of losing my attention, he sloshed his beer across the floor, shoved the glass into his pocket and, covering it with his hand, broke it neatly on the corner of the table and withdrew it jagged and cracked. He emptied the fragments on the floor and held up the bottom half.
"No one can touch you when you’re fixed up with somethin’ like this," he assured me as though we were being threatened from the next booth. "Even if a guy got the difference on him he don’t want to get too close to no man with broken glass in his hand. So just work up close to him ’n ask would he like one of his lamps trimmed." He described a circle in mid-air with a screwlike movement of the glass and reassured me that the fellow would put the difference back on his hip where it belonged.
But his heart wasn’t in it after all. He put the glass down, looking tired, and apologized indistinctly. "I’m just a poor boy doin’ the best he can. Maybe I just wasn’t raised right."
"Maybe it was that war, Denny. A lot of the boys got hurt in the big one too, you know." Anything to get his mind off Spain.
"Oh, that one," he said. "I guess it was bigger all right. But ours was tougher." He always referred to the great war as "theirs" and to the war in Spain as "ours." "Not one guy in ten even got shot at in the big one," he added. "We had the hand-to-hand stuff." He had something there, I had to admit that.
"At Sierra La Valls," he started in again, "two of them jumped me. It wasn’t yet mornin"n still foggy, one in front ’n one behind, I was comin’ back from a all-night scout, I got the one in front through the groin ’n drew it out clean the same second the steel of him behind come through my shoulder. I didn’t feel it, I just seen it ’n come ’round fast with the butt. Laid one out cold ’n got the other where it counts. Finished him where he lay, him I’d cold-caulked, ’n his own steel sticking out of my back when I done it."
I rose indifferently, shoved a nickel in the juke, turned the volume on "loud," and returned to the table till the piece was almost finished: a Dorsey recording called "As Long as You Live You’ll Be Dead if You Die." Then I bought a quarter’s worth of sixes at the twenty-six board. I made it last, shaking slowly. On the last roll I needed but one six and it came all fives and deuces and I saw him coming again, limping a little, like he does on flat surfaces. So I bought another quarter’s worth in a hurry and offered him the box. He didn’t want it, of course. He’d just watch. That’s all he’d been doing for a decade: watching. He wasn’t interested in dice any more than in beer. Or in women, or swing, or the opening game at Comiskey Park, or Woodcock’s chances against Louis, or any of the good American things he’s been raised on and lived by.
He had gone to sea at eighteen and had helped chase Sandino, one afternoon in Nicaragua, and now he wished to tell me more about Sierra La Valls. That was pretty little to grant a man, but I took sixes again and thought of him at forty. He’d only have one foot by then, if he was still around. In a way he wasn’t much here any more at thirty-five. He too lay among the dead at Sierra La Valls. He’d keep on talking awhile, though, to whoever would listen, about that foggy morning at The Pimple. Then curtains. Game called, darkness.
"At Fuente de Ebro—" he began.
"Maybe you’d better forget Fuente de Ebro," I advised him directly. "After all, that’s a hundred years ago."
He looked at me a long moment, as though trying to understand what I’d said. He was trying so hard that he was biting his lip. Then seemed suddenly to understand at last.
"Why, no," he told me, a little dreamily, "it ain’t that long ago at all. It’s just like yesterday."
He rose slowly, his last nickel in his palm, and leaned as though resting against the juke while it began, for the last time, "As Long as You Live You’ll Be Dead if You Die." When it was finished he returned slowly and asked me, "Did I say yesterday?" And shook his head like a man recalling an endless dream. "It wasn’t even yesterday, the way it feels."
"How does it feel, Denny?"
"It feels more—like tomorrow."
I hadn’t thought of it just that way before.