Where the Car Turns at 18th by Edna Ferber
This will be a homing pigeon story. Though I send it ever so far--though its destination be the office of a home-and-fireside magazine or one of the kind with a French story in the back, it will return to me. After each flight its feathers will be a little more rumpled, its wings more weary, its course more wavering, until, battered, spent, broken, it will flutter to rest in the waste basket.
And yet, though its message may never be delivered, it must be sent, because--well, because----
You know where the car turns at Eighteenth? There you see a glaringly attractive billboard poster. It depicts groups of smiling, white-clad men standing on tropical shores, with waving palms overhead, and a glimpse of blue sea in the distance. The wording beneath the picture runs something like this:
"Young men wanted. An unusual opportunity for travel, education, and advancement. Good pay. No expenses."
When the car turns at Eighteenth, and I see that, I remember Eddie Houghton back home. And when I remember Eddie Houghton I see red.
The day after Eddie Houghton finished high school he went to work. In our town we don't take a job. We accept a position. Our paper had it that "Edwin Houghton had accepted a position as clerk and assistant chemist at the Kunz drugstore, where he would take up his new duties Monday."
His new duties seemed, at first, to consist of opening the store in the morning, sweeping out, and whizzing about town on a bicycle with an unnecessarily insistent bell, delivering prescriptions which had been telephoned for. But by the time the summer had really set in Eddie was installed back of the soda fountain.
There never was anything better looking than Eddie Houghton in his white duck coat. He was one of those misleadingly gold and pink and white men. I say misleadingly because you usually associate pink-and-whiteness with such words as sissy and mollycoddle. Eddie was neither. He had played quarter-back every year from his freshman year, and he could putt the shot and cut classes with the best of 'em. But in that white duck coat with the braiding and frogs he had any musical-comedy, white-flannel tenor lieutenant whose duty it is to march down to the edge of the footlights, snatch out his sword, and warble about his country's flag, looking like a flat-nosed, blue-gummed Igorrote. Kunz's soda water receipts swelled to double their usual size, and the girls' complexions were something awful that summer. I've known Nellie Donovan to take as many as three ice cream sodas and two phosphates a day when Eddie was mixing. He had a way of throwing in a good-natured smile, and an easy flow of conversation with every drink. While indulging in a little airy persiflage the girls had a great little trick of pursing their mouths into rosebud shapes over their soda straws, and casting their eyes upward at Eddie. They all knew the trick, and its value, so that at night Eddie's dreams were haunted by whole rows of rosily pursed lips, and seas of upturned, adoring eyes. Of course we all noticed that on those rare occasions when Josie Morehouse came into Kunz's her glass was heaped higher with ice cream than that of any of the other girls, and that Eddie's usually easy flow of talk was interspersed with certain stammerings and stutterings. But Josie didn't come in often. She had a lot of dignity for a girl of eighteen. Besides, she was taking the teachers' examinations that summer, when the other girls were playing tennis and drinking sodas.
Eddie really hated the soda water end of the business, as every soda clerk in the world does. But he went about it good-naturedly. He really wanted to learn the drug business, but the boss knew he had a drawing card, and insisted that Eddie go right on concocting faerie queens and strawberry sundaes, and nectars and Kunz's specials. One Saturday, when he happened to have on hand an over-supply of bananas that would have spoiled over Sunday, he invented a mess and called it the Eddie Extra, and the girls swarmed on it like flies around a honey pot.
That kind of thing would have spoiled most boys. But Eddie had a sensible mother. On those nights when he used to come home nauseated with dealing out chop suey sundaes and orangeades, and saying that there was no future for a fellow in our dead little hole, his mother would give him something rather special for supper, and set him hoeing and watering the garden.
So Eddie stuck to his job, and waited, and all the time he was saying, with a melting look, to the last silly little girl who was drinking her third soda, "Somebody looks mighty sweet in pink to-day," or while he was doping to-morrow's ball game with one of the boys who dropped in for a cigar, he was thinking of bigger things, and longing for a man-size job.
The man-size job loomed up before Eddie's dazzled eyes when he least expected it. It was at the close of a particularly hot day when it seemed to Eddie that every one in town had had everything from birch beer to peach ice cream. On his way home to supper he stopped at the postoffice with a handful of letters that old man Kunz had given him to mail. His mother had told him that they would have corn out of their own garden for supper that night, and Eddie was in something of a hurry. He and his mother were great pals.
In one corner of the dim little postoffice lobby a man was busily tacking up posters. The whitewashed walls bloomed with them. They were gay, attractive-looking posters, done in red and blue and green, and after Eddie had dumped his mail into the slot, and had called out, "Hello, Jake!" to the stamp clerk, whose back was turned to the window, he strolled idly over to where the man was putting the finishing touches to his work. The man was dressed in a sailor suit of blue, with a picturesque silk scarf knotted at his hairy chest. He went right on tacking posters.
They certainly were attractive pictures. Some showed groups of stalwart, immaculately clad young gods lolling indolently on tropical shores, with a splendor of palms overhead, and a sparkling blue sea in the distance. Others depicted a group of white-clad men wading knee-deep in the surf as they laughingly landed a cutter on the sandy beach. There was a particularly fascinating one showing two barefooted young chaps on a wave-swept raft engaged in that delightfully perilous task known as signaling. Another showed the keen-eyed gunners busy about the big guns.
Eddie studied them all.
The man finished his task and looked up, quite casually.
"Hello, kid," he said.
"Hello," answered Eddie. Then--"That's some picture gallery you're giving us."
The man in the sailor suit fell back a pace or two and surveyed his work with a critical but satisfied eye.
"Pitchers," he said, "don't do it justice. We've opened a recruiting office here. Looking for young men with brains, and muscle, and ambition. It's a great chance. We don't get to these here little towns much."
He placed a handbill in Eddie's hand. Eddie glanced down at it sheepishly.
"I've heard," he said, "that it's a hard life."
The man in the sailor suit threw back his head and laughed, displaying a great deal of hairy throat and chest. "Hard!" he jeered, and slapped one of the gay-colored posters with the back of his hand. "You see that! Well, it ain't a bit exaggerated. Not a bit. I ought to know. It's the only life for a young man, especially for a guy in a little town. There's no chance here for a bright young man, and if he goes to the city, what does he get? The city's jam full of kids that flock there in the spring and fall, looking for jobs, and thinking the city's sittin' up waitin' for 'em. And where do they land? In the dime lodging houses, that's where. In the navy you see the world, and it don't cost you a cent. A guy is a fool to bury himself alive in a hole like this. You could be seeing the world, traveling by sea from port to port, from country to country, from ocean to ocean, amid ever-changing scenery and climatic conditions, to see and study the habits and conditions of the strange races----"
It rolled off his tongue with fascinating glibness. Eddie glanced at the folder in his hand.
"I always did like the water," he said.
"Sure," agreed the hairy man, heartily. "What young feller don't? I'll tell you what. Come on over to the office with me and I'll show you some real stuff."
"It's my supper time," hesitated Eddie. "I guess I'd better not----"
"Oh, supper," laughed the man. "You come on and have supper with me, kid."
Eddie's pink cheeks went three shades pinker. "Gee! That'd be great. But my mother--that is--she----"
The man in the sailor suit laughed again--a laugh with a sting in it. "A great big feller like you ain't tied to your ma's apron strings are you?"
"Not much I'm not!" retorted Eddie. "I'll telephone her when I get to your hotel, that's what I'll do."
But they were such fascinating things, those new booklets, and the man had such marvelous tales to tell, that Eddie forgot trifles like supper and waiting mothers. There were pictures taken on board ship, showing frolics, and ball games, and minstrel shows and glee clubs, and the men at mess, and each sailor sleeping snug as a bug in his hammock. There were other pictures showing foreign scenes and strange ports. Eddie's tea grew cold, and his apple pie and cheese lay untasted on his plate.
"Now me," said the recruiting officer, "I'm a married man. But my wife, she wouldn't have it no other way. No, sir! She'll be in the navy herself, I'll bet, when women vote. Why, before I joined the navy I didn't know whether Guam was a vegetable or an island, and Culebra wasn't in my geography. Now? Why, now I'm as much at home in Porto Rico as I am in San Francisco. I'm as well acquainted in Valparaiso as I am in Vermont, and I've run around Cairo, Egypt, until I know it better than Cairo, Illinois. It's the only way to see the world. You travel by sea from port to port, from country to country, from ocean to ocean, amid ever-changing scenery and climatic conditions, to see and study the----"
And Eddie forgot that it was Wednesday night, which was the prescription clerk's night off; forgot that the boss was awaiting his return that he might go home to his own supper; forgot his mother, and her little treat of green corn out of the garden; forgot everything in the wonder of this man's tales of people and scenes such as he never dreamed could exist outside of a Jack London story. Now and then Eddie interrupted with a, "Yes, but----" that grew more and more infrequent, until finally they ceased altogether. Eddie's man-size job had come.
When we heard the news we all dropped in at the drug store to joke with him about it. We had a good deal to say about rolling gaits, and bell-shaped trousers, and anchors and sea serpents tattooed on the arm. One of the boys scored a hit by slapping his dime down on the soda fountain marble and bellowing for rum and salt horse. Some one started to tease the little Morehouse girl about sailors having sweethearts in every port, but when they saw the look in her eyes they changed their mind, and stopped. It's funny how a girl of twenty is a woman, when a man of twenty is a boy.
Eddie dished out the last of his chocolate ice cream sodas and cherry phosphates and root beers, while the girls laughingly begged him to bring them back kimonos from China, and scarves from the Orient, and Eddie promised, laughing, too, but with a far-off, eager look in his eyes.
When the time came for him to go there was quite a little bodyguard of us ready to escort him down to the depot. We picked up two or three more outside O'Rourke's pool room, and a couple more from the benches outside the hotel. Eddie walked ahead with his mother. I have said that Mrs. Houghton was a sensible woman. She was never more so than now. Any other mother would have gone into hysterics and begged the recruiting officer to let her boy off. But she knew better. Still, I think Eddie felt some uncomfortable pangs when he looked at her set face. On the way to the depot we had to pass the Agassiz School, where Josie Morehouse was substituting second reader for the Wilson girl, who was sick. She was standing in the window as we passed. Eddie took off his cap and waved to her, and she returned the wave as well as she could without having the children see her. That would never have done, seeing that she was the teacher, and substituting at that. But when we turned the corner we noticed that she was still standing at the window and leaning out just a bit, even at the risk of being indiscreet.
When the 10:15 pulled out Eddie stood on the bottom step, with his cap off, looking I can't tell you how boyish, and straight, and clean, and handsome, with his lips parted, and his eyes very bright. The hairy-chested recruiting officer stood just beside him, and suffered by contrast. There was a bedlam of good-byes, and last messages, and good-natured badinage, but Eddie's mother's eyes never left his face until the train disappeared around the curve in the track.
Well, they got a new boy at Kunz's--a sandy-haired youth, with pimples, and no knack at mixing, and we got out of the habit of dropping in there, although those fall months were unusually warm.
It wasn't long before we began to get postcards--pictures of the naval training station, and the gymnasium, and of model camps and of drills, and of Eddie in his uniform. His mother insisted on calling it his sailor suit, as though he were a little boy. One day Josie Morehouse came over to Mrs. Houghton's with a group picture in her hand. She handed it to Eddie's mother without comment. Mrs. Houghton looked at it eagerly, her eye selecting her own boy from the group as unerringly as a mother bird finds her nest in the forest.
"Oh, Eddie's better looking than that!" she cried, with a tremulous little laugh. "How funny those pants make them look, don't they? And his mouth isn't that way, at all. Eddie always had the sweetest mouth, from the time he was a baby. Let's see some of these other boys. Why--why----"
Then she fell silent, scanning those other faces. Presently Josie bent over her and looked too, and the brows of both women knitted in perplexity. They looked for a long, long minute, and the longer they looked the more noticeable became the cluster of fine little wrinkles that had begun to form about Mrs. Houghton's eyes.
When finally they looked up it was to gaze at one another questioningly.
"Those other boys," faltered Eddie's mother, "they--they don't look like Eddie, do they? I mean----"
"No, they don't," agreed Josie. "They look older, and they have such queer-looking eyes, and jaws, and foreheads. But then," she finished, with mock cheerfulness, "you can never tell in those silly kodak pictures."
Eddie's mother studied the card again, and sighed gently. "I hope," she said, "that Eddie won't get into bad company."
After that our postal cards ceased. I wish that there was some way of telling this story so that the end wouldn't come in the middle. But there is none. In our town we know the news before the paper comes out, and we only read it to verify what we have heard. So that long before the paper came out in the middle of the afternoon we had been horrified by the news of Eddie Houghton's desertion and suicide. We stopped one another on Main Street to talk about it, and recall how boyish and handsome he had looked in his white duck coat, and on that last day just as the 10:I5 pulled out. "It don't seem hardly possible, does it?" we demanded of each other.
But when Eddie's mother brought out the letters that had come after our postal cards had ceased, we understood. And when they brought him home, and we saw him for the last time, all those of us who had gone to school with him, and to dances, and sleigh rides, and hayrack parties, and picnics, and when we saw the look on his face--the look of one who, walking in a sunny path has stumbled upon something horrible and unclean--we forgave him his neglect of us, we forgave him desertion, forgave him the taking of his own life, forgave him the look that he had brought into his mother's eyes.
There had never been anything extraordinary about Eddie Houghton. He had had his faults and virtues, and good and bad sides just like other boys of his age. He--oh, I am using too many words, when one slang phrase will express it. Eddie had been just a nice young kid. I think the worst thing he had ever said was "Damn!" perhaps. If he had sworn, it was with clean oaths, calculated to relieve the mind and feelings.
But the men that he shipped with during that year or more--I am sure that he had never dreamed that such men were. He had never stood on the curbing outside a recruiting office on South State Street, in the old levee district, and watched that tragic panorama move by--those nightmare faces, drink-marred, vice-scarred, ruined.
I know that he had never seen such faces in all his clean, hard-working young boy's life, spent in our prosperous little country town. I am certain that he had never heard such words as came from the lips of his fellow seamen--great mouth-filling, soul-searing words--words unclean, nauseating, unspeakable, and yet spoken.
I don't say that Eddie Houghton had not taken his drink now and then. There were certain dark rumors in our town to the effect that favored ones who dropped into Kunz's more often than seemed needful were privileged to have a thimbleful of something choice in the prescription room, back of the partition at the rear of the drug store. But that was the most devilish thing that Eddie had ever done.
I don't say that all crews are like that one. Perhaps he was unfortunate in falling in with that one. But it was an Eastern trip, and every port was a Port Said. Eddie Houghton's thoughts were not these men's thoughts; his actions were not their actions, his practices were not their practices. To Eddie Houghton, a Chinese woman in a sampan on the water front at Shanghai was something picturesque; something about which to write home to his mother and to Josie. To those other men she was possible prey.
Those other men saw that he was different, and they pestered him. They ill-treated him when they could, and made his life a hellish thing. Men do those things, and people do not speak of it.
I don't know all the things that he suffered. But in his mind, day by day, grew the great, overwhelming desire to get away from it all--from this horrible life that was such a dreadful mistake. I think that during the long night watches his mind was filled with thoughts of our decent little town--of his mother's kitchen, with its Wednesday and Saturday scent of new-made bread--of the shady front porch, with its purple clematis--of the smooth front yard which it was his Saturday duty to mow that it might be trim and sightly for Sunday--of the boys and girls who used to drop in at the drug store--those clear-eyed, innocently coquettish, giggling, blushing girls in their middy blouses and white skirts, their slender arms and throats browned from tennis and boating, their eyes smiling into his as they sat perched at the fountain after a hot set of tennis--those slim, clean young boys, sun-browned, laughing, their talk all of swimming, and boating, and tennis, and girls.
He did not realize that it was desertion--that thought that grew and grew in his mind. In it there was nothing of faithlessness to his country. He was only trying to be true to himself, and to the things that his mother had taught him. He only knew that he was deadly sick of these sights of disease, and vice. He only knew that he wanted to get away--back to his own decent life with the decent people to whom he belonged. And he went. He went, as a child runs home when it had tripped and fallen in the mud, not dreaming of wrong-doing or punishment.
The first few hundred miles on the train were a dream. But finally Eddie found himself talking to a man--a big, lean, blue-eyed western man, who regarded Eddie with kindly, puzzled eyes. Eddie found himself telling his story in a disjointed, breathless sort of way. When he had finished the man uncrossed his long lean legs, took his pipe out of his mouth, and sat up. There was something of horror in his eyes as he sat, looking at Eddie.
"Why, kid," he said, at last. "You're deserting! You'll get the pen, don't you know that, if they catch you? Where you going?"
"Going!" repeated Eddie. "Going! Why, I'm going home, of course."
"Then I don't see what you're gaining," said the man, "because they'll sure get you there."
Eddie sat staring at the man for a dreadful minute. In that minute the last of his glorious youth, and ambition, and zest of life departed from him.
He got off the train at the next town, and the western man offered him some money, which Eddie declined with all his old-time sweetness of manner. It was rather a large town, with a great many busy people in it. Eddie went to a cheap hotel, and took a room, and sat on the edge of the thin little bed and stared at the car- pet. It was a dusty red carpet. In front of the bureau many feet had worn a hole, so that the bare boards showed through, with a tuft of ragged red fringe edging them. Eddie Houghton sat and stared at the worn place with a curiously blank look on his face. He sat and stared and saw many things. He saw his mother, for one thing, sitting on the porch with a gingham apron over her light dress, waiting for him to come home to supper; he saw his own room--a typical boy's room, with camera pictures and blue prints stuck in the sides of the dresser mirror, and the boxing gloves on the wall, and his tennis racquet with one string broken (he had always meant to have that racquet re-strung) and his track shoes, relics of high school days, flung in one corner, and his gay-colored school pennants draped to form a fresco, and the cush- ion that Josie Morenouse had made for him two years ago, at Christmas time, and the dainty white bedspread that he, fussed about because he said it was too sissy for a boy's room--oh, I can't tell you what he saw as he sat and stared at that worn place in the carpet. But pretty soon it began to grow dark, and at last he rose, keeping his fascinated eyes still on the bare spot, walked to the door, opened it, and backed out queerly, still keeping his eyes on the spot.
He was back again in fifteen minutes, with a bottle in his hand. He should have known better than to choose carbolic, being a druggist, but all men are a little mad at such times. He lay down at the edge of the thin little bed that was little more than a pallet, and he turned his face toward the bare spot that could just be seen in the gathering gloom. And when he raised the bottle to his lips the old-time sweetness of his smile illumined his face.
Where the car turns at Eighteenth Street there is a big, glaring billboard poster, showing a group of stalwart young men in white ducks lolling on shores, of tropical splendor, with palms waving overhead, and a glimpse of blue sea in the distance. The wording beneath it runs something like this:
"Young men wanted. An unusual opportunity for travel, education and advancement. Good pay. No expenses."
When I see that sign I think of Eddie Houghton back home. And when I think of Eddie Houghton I see red.