The Jelly-Bean by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Over Tilly's garage a bleak room echoed all day to the rumble and snorting down-stairs and the singing of the negro washers as they turned the hose on the cars outside. It was a cheerless square of a room, punctuated with a bed and a battered table on which lay half a dozen books--Joe Miller's "Slow Train thru Arkansas," "Lucille," in an old edition very much annotated in an old-fashioned hand; "The Eyes of the World," by Harold Bell Wright, and an ancient prayer-book of the Church of England with the name Alice Powell and the date 1831 written on the fly-leaf.
The East, gray when Jelly-bean entered the garage, became a rich and vivid blue as he turned on his solitary electric light. He snapped it out again, and going to the window rested his elbows on the sill and stared into the deepening morning. With the awakening of his emotions, his first perception was a sense of futility, a dull ache at the utter grayness of his life. A wall had sprung up suddenly around him hedging him in, a wall as definite and tangible as the white wall of his bare room. And with his perception of this wall all that had been the romance of his existence, the casualness, the light-hearted improvidence, the miraculous open-handedness of life faded out. The Jelly-bean strolling up Jackson Street humming a lazy song, known at every shop and street stand, cropful of easy greeting and local wit, sad sometimes for only the sake of sadness and the flight of time--that Jelly-bean was suddenly vanished. The very name was a reproach, a triviality. With a flood of insight he knew that Merritt must despise him, that even Nancy's kiss in the dawn would have awakened not jealousy but only a contempt for Nancy's so lowering herself. And on his part the Jelly-bean had used for her a dingy subterfuge learned from the garage. He had been her moral laundry; the stains were his.
As the gray became blue, brightened and filled the room, he crossed to his bed and threw himself down on it, gripping the edges fiercely.
"I love her," he cried aloud, "God!"
As he said this something gave way within him like a lump melting in his throat. The air cleared and became radiant with dawn, and turning over on his face he began to sob dully into the pillow.
In the sunshine of three o'clock Clark Darrow chugging painfully along Jackson Street was hailed by the Jelly-bean, who stood on the curb with his fingers in his vest pockets.
"Hi!" called Clark, bringing his Ford to an astonishing stop alongside. "Just get up?"
The Jelly-bean shook his head.
"Never did go to bed. Felt sorta restless, so I took a long walk this morning out in the country. Just got into town this minute."
"Should think you would feel restless. I been feeling thataway all day--"
"I'm thinkin' of leavin' town" continued the Jelly-bean, absorbed by his own thoughts. "Been thinkin' of goin' up on the farm, and takin' a little that work off Uncle Dun. Reckin I been bummin' too long."
Clark was silent and the Jelly-bean continued:
"I reckin maybe after Aunt Mamie dies I could sink that money of mine in the farm and make somethin' out of it. All my people originally came from that part up there. Had a big place."
Clark looked at him curiously.
"That's funny," he said. "This--this sort of affected me the same way."
The Jelly-bean hesitated.
"I don't know," he began slowly, "somethin' about--about that girl last night talkin' about a lady named Diana Manners--an English lady, sorta got me thinkin'!" He drew himself up and looked oddly at Clark, "I had a family once," he said defiantly.
"And I'm the last of 'em," continued the Jelly-bean his voice rising slightly, "and I ain't worth shucks. Name they call me by means jelly--weak and wobbly like. People who weren't nothin' when my folks was a lot turn up their noses when they pass me on the street."
Again Clark was silent.
"So I'm through, I'm goin' to-day. And when I come back to this town it's going to be like a gentleman."
Clark took out his handkerchief and wiped his damp brow.
"Reckon you're not the only one it shook up," he admitted gloomily. "All this thing of girls going round like they do is going to stop right quick. Too bad, too, but everybody'll have to see it thataway."
"Do you mean," demanded Jim in surprise, "that all that's leaked out?"
"Leaked out? How on earth could they keep it secret. It'll be announced in the papers to-night. Doctor Lamar's got to save his name somehow."
Jim put his hands on the sides of the car and tightened his long fingers on the metal.
"Do you mean Taylor investigated those checks?"
It was Clark's turn to be surprised.
"Haven't you heard what happened?"
Jim's startled eyes were answer enough.
"Why," announced Clark dramatically, "those four got another bottle of corn, got tight and decided to shock the town--so Nancy and that fella Merritt were married in Rockville at seven o'clock this morning."
A tiny indentation appeared in the metal under the Jelly-bean's fingers.
"Sure enough. Nancy sobered up and rushed back into town, crying and frightened to death--claimed it'd all been a mistake. First Doctor Lamar went wild and was going to kill Merritt, but finally they got it patched up some way, and Nancy and Merritt went to Savannah on the two-thirty train."
Jim closed his eyes and with an effort overcame a sudden sickness.
"It's too bad," said Clark philosophically. "I don't mean the wedding--reckon that's all right, though I don't guess Nancy cared a darn about him. But it's a crime for a nice girl like that to hurt her family that way."
The Jelly-bean let go the car and turned away. Again something was going on inside him, some inexplicable but almost chemical change.
"Where you going?" asked Clark.
The Jelly-bean turned and looked dully back over his shoulder.
"Got to go," he muttered. "Been up too long; feelin' right sick."
* * * * *
The street was hot at three and hotter still at four, the April dust seeming to enmesh the sun and give it forth again as a world-old joke forever played on an eternity of afternoons. But at half past four a first layer of quiet fell and the shades lengthened under the awnings and heavy foliaged trees. In this heat nothing mattered. All life was weather, a waiting through the hot where events had no significance for the cool that was soft and caressing like a woman's hand on a tired forehead. Down in Georgia there is a feeling--perhaps inarticulate--that this is the greatest wisdom of the South--so after a while the Jelly-bean turned into a poolhall on Jackson Street where he was sure to find a congenial crowd who would make all the old jokes--the ones he knew.