Issue 183, Winter 2007
Four of them were on one side of a dim room.
—I’m going to try it, said the first.
The girl watched herself in the mirror as the young man approached.
—I wonder, he said. I thought perhaps . . .
He stopped mid-sentence, for tears had begun to well up in the girl’s eyes. She began to cry.
—Please, she said, just leave me alone.
She wore a straight brown dress, buttoned all up the side, and a long tweed coat. Her hair was braided into itself.
—Are you all right? he asked. Can I help you?
—You know, you can’t just speak to people. That’s not how things are anymore. No one wants to just be spoken to.
She rubbed her eyes.
—It’s rather silly of you. Already you look a bit like a fool.
The barkeeper, standing just across the bar, nodded.
—There are rules, he said.
And indeed, on the wall, a list of rules.
—I’m sorry. I didn’t know.
—That’s no excuse.
The girl stood up as if to go.
—I’ll take care of this, Myrna, said the bartender. You stay where you are.
He came around the bar toward Harp. He was a big man, with thick forearms like a steelworker.
—It’s time for you to go, lad. The others too.
—Come on, said Harp, taking a step back. The place is empty. I’ll just go back to the table. We’ll mind our own business.
—Hey, Barton! the man called to the back.
Another man appeared.
Harp’s friends had come over.
—What’s the problem? said Lubeck.
—The lot of you, said the barkeeper. Get out.
—We didn’t do anything, said Carr. Why should we leave? Our money’s good.
The girl spoke up.
—He told me if I didn’t go into the back with him he’d hit me. He said he was going to take me off somewhere and tear me in half. Wouldn’t think nothing of it, he said. Just like that.
Her face was fierce and covered in tears.
—What? I didn’t . . .
The barkeeper and the man called Barton looked at each other.
Barton grabbed Harp and lifted him from the ground. At a half run, he went for the door and heaved him through.
The barkeeper took Brennan’s shoulder. Brennan wrenched away and ran out past Barton. It was a general flight.
—If I ever see you in here again, said the barkeeper.
Harp’s face was bruised and cut from the street where he’d been thrown. They dusted him off and continued on.
—What was that?
—Why did she say that?
—Who was that girl?
They soon came to another place and began again. Lubeck was talking to two dressed like matchstick girls.
—Can you believe it?
—That’s ridiculous, said the first girl. She must have a score to settle, and she can’t settle it.
—I don’t know, said the second girl. Maybe you deserved it. I don’t know.
Lubeck spoke up.
—But Harp didn’t say anything like that. The girl just invented it. She made it all up.
—Well it had to come from somewhere, didn’t it, said the second matchstick girl. It had to come from somewhere.
—That’s right, said the first matchstick girl. Even if she was making it up.
—But it’s not fair, said Carr. She made the whole thing up. It wasn’t true.
—Well, I guess you’re right then, said the second matchstick girl. But any way you look at it, you lost. If she wasn’t lying, well then, your friend deserved what he got, and it was her speaking up that caused him to get punished, in which case she won, and if she was lying, then she managed to trick those guys into throwing you out, in which case she still won. She won and you lost, and it was the four of you against just her. That’s pretty good.
The matchstick girls agreed: the girl in the brown dress had won.
An hour or two went by.
It was thus late in the evening when one of the matchstick girls yelped.
—Hey, isn’t that the girl. Isn’t that her out the window?
—That’s her, said Harp. Damned if it isn’t her. Let’s go.
—What’ll we do? asked Carr.
—I don’t know, said Harp. Let’s go.
The party poured out into the street, with the four young men ahead of the others. Indeed, the long tweed coat and brown dress of the girl could be made out just up ahead. It had snowed the day before, and drifts and piles lined the street. The girl walked there in the company of an older man.
—Let’s pelt them, said Harp.
He forced the brown gritty snow into a ball as the others did the same. Then with a shout, they ran forward, throwing the snowballs as hard as they could.
The first missed the man’s shoulder by an arm’s length. But the second struck him. He turned, face lit up with anger. The girl stopped too, and turned, and just at that moment, a snowball struck her hard in the face. In the moment before it struck a fact became plain to all of them: it was not the girl, but someone else, a woman of perhaps forty.
She tumbled down, falling heavily onto her back with a cry. The man started after them. What was there to do? They ran. Down the first alley, onto the next street, a right turn, a left, onto another street, onto another alley. They were young and in good health, so they made it safely away.
Carr woke to banging on the door to his flat. He pulled on a pair of pants and went to see what it was.
It was Harp.
—You’ve got to come with me. It’s bad. Come to Lubeck’s place.
Lubeck and Brennan, two of the four young men, lived near the river in a big house owned by Lubeck’s mother.
—Give me a second, said Carr.
He finished dressing and then the two were walking in the street.
—What is it?
—Lubeck got a letter. You’ll see.
More than that, Harp wouldn’t say.
It was Lubeck’s mother let Carr in. Brennan came to the door too. Lubeck was sitting in a chair by the window.
—What is it? asked Carr. What happened?
Brennan took a letter off a side table and handed it to Carr.
—Read it for yourself, he said.
Dear J. Lubeck,
It is my understanding that you and three others, L. Carr, F. Brennan, and J. Harp, were on Sycamore Street last night where I went walking with my wife. You must understand that we were at the hospital much of the night. My wife has been caused to have a miscarriage. While I might take this matter up with the police, I prefer, as a gentleman, to meet with you and decide the matter by force. Your family has long lived in this town, so I believe you will honor your commitment. Come then, tomorrow morning, that is, December 5, to the racing track out past Elridge Green no later than six A.M. Bring a second, as I shall.
Judge Allen Henry
Lubeck’s mother called to Lubeck from across the room.
—You won’t fail us, will you, John?
—There’s nothing to do, said Lubeck, standing up, still looking out the window. There’s nothing to do.
—That’s right, said his mother. It’s the only thing.
She looked them one by one—Brennan, Carr, Harp—full in the face.
—A thing like that, she said. It’s awful. There’s no choice in the matter. You’ve got to have it out or we can’t live in this town.
Lubeck’s brothers and sisters had come into the room. There were eight of them of various ages. Lubeck’s stepfather also had come in.
—A bad business, a bad business, he said, and pulled at his mustache. Seems to me you deserve what you get.
—That’s right, said Lubeck’s mother.
—These days, what with automobiles and propeller airplanes, the power of man is getting stronger and stronger, said Lubeck’s stepfather. If he doesn’t learn some moral strength, it’ll all be as unjointed as a scarecrow.