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O Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1919 by Various

Part 7 out of 7

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fascinatingly, as New Yorkers do". We live in Connecticut. You see, you
Wisconsin people have crowded us out of New York; no breathing space.
Besides, how can one live here? I mean to say--live. And then the
children--it's no place for children, grown up or otherwise. I love
it--oh, yes indeed. I love it. But it's too difficult."

Mrs. Brewster defended it like a true Westerner. "But if you have just a
tiny apartment, with a kitchenette--"

The New York woman laughed. There was nothing malicious about her. But
she laughed. "I tried it. There's one corner of my soul that's still
wrinkled from the crushing. Everything in a heap. Not to speak of the
slavery of it. That--that deceitful, lying kitchenette."

This was the first woman that Mrs. Brewster had talked to--really talked
to--since leaving Winnebago. And she liked women. She missed them. At
first she had eyed wonderingly, speculatively, the women she saw on
Fifth Avenue. Swathed luxuriously in precious pelts, marvelously coiffed
and hatted, wearing the frailest of boots and hose, exhaling a
mysterious heady scent they were more like strange exotic birds than
women.

The clerks in the shops, too--they were so remote, so contemptuous. When
she went into Gerretson's, back home Nellie Monahan was likely to say:
"You've certainly had a lot of wear out of that blue, Mrs. Brewster.
Let's see, you've had it two--three years this spring? My land! Let me
show you our new taupes."

Pa Brewster had taken to conversing with the doorman. That adamantine
individual, unaccustomed to being addressed as a human being, was
startled at first, surly and distrustful. But he mellowed under Hosey's
simple and friendly advances. They became quite pals, these two--perhaps
two as lonely men as you could find in all lonely New York.

"I guess you ain't a New Yorker, huh?" Mike said.

"Me? No."

"Th' most of the folks in th' buildin' ain't."

"Ain't!" Hosea Brewster was startled into it. "They're artists, aren't
they? Most of 'em?"

"No! Out-of-town folks, like you. West, East an' Californy, an' around
there. Livin' here, though. Seem t' like it better'n where they come
from. I dunno."

Hosey Brewster took to eying them as Mrs. Brewster had eyed the women.
He wondered about them, these tight, trim men, rather short of breath,
buttoned so snugly into their shining shoes and their tailored clothes,
with their necks bulging in a fold of fat above the back of their white
linen collar. He knew that he would never be like them. It wasn't his
square-toe shoes that made the difference, or his grey hat, or his baggy
trousers. It was something inside him--something he lacked, he thought.
It never occurred to him that it was something he possessed that they
did not.

"Enjoying yourself, Milly?"

"I should say I am, father."

"That's good. No housework and responsibility to this, is there?"

"It's play."

She hated the toy gas stove, and the tiny ice chest and the screen
pantry. All her married life she had kept house in a big, bounteous way;
apples in barrels; butter in firkins; flour in sacks; eggs in boxes;
sugar in bins; cream in crocks. Sometimes she told herself, bitterly,
that it was easier to keep twelve rooms tidy and habitable than one
combination kitchen-dining-and-living room.

"Chops taste good, Hosey?"

"Grand. But you oughtn't to be cooking around like this. We'll eat out
to-morrow night somewhere, and go to a show."

"You're enjoying it, aren't you, Hosey, h'm?"

"It's the life, mother! It's the life!"

His ruddy colour began to fade. He took to haunting department-store
kitchenware sections. He would come home with a new kind of cream
whipper, or a patent device for the bathroom. He would tinker happily
with this, driving a nail, adjusting a screw. At such times he was even
known to begin to whistle some scrap of a doleful tune such as he used
to hum. But he would change, quickly, into something lovely. The price
of butter, eggs, milk, cream and the like horrified his Wisconsin
cold-storage sensibilities. He used often to go down to Fulton Market
before daylight and walk about among the stalls and shops, piled with
tons of food of all kinds. He would talk to the marketmen, and the
buyers and grocers, and come away feeling almost happy for a time.

Then, one day, with a sort of shock, he remembered a farmer he had known
back home in Winnebago. He knew the farmers for miles around, naturally,
in his business. This man had been a steady butter-and-egg acquaintance,
one of the wealthy farmers in that prosperous farming community. For
his family's sake he had moved into town, a ruddy, rufous-bearded,
clumping fellow, intelligent, kindly. They had sold the farm with a fine
profit and had taken a boxlike house on Franklin Street. He had nothing
to do but enjoy himself. You saw him out on the porch early, very early
summer mornings.

You saw him ambling about the yard, poking at a weed here, a plant
there. A terrible loneliness was upon him; a loneliness for the soil he
had deserted. And slowly, resistlessly, the soil pulled at him with its
black strength and its green tendrils, down, down, until he ceased to
struggle and lay there clasped gently to her breast, the mistress he had
thought to desert and who had him again at last, and forever.

"I don't know what ailed him," his widow had said, weeping. "He just
seemed to kind of pine away."

It was one morning in April--one soft, golden April morning--when this
memory had struck Hosey Brewster. He had been down at Fulton Market.
Something about the place--the dewy fresh vegetables, the crates of
eggs, the butter, the cheese--had brought such a surge of homesickness
to him as to amount to an actual nausea. Riding uptown in the subway he
had caught a glimpse of himself in a slot-machine mirror. His face was
pale and somehow shrunken. He looked at his hands. The skin hung loose
where the little pads of fat had plumped them out.

"Gosh!" he said. "Gosh, I--"

He thought, then, of the red-faced farmer who used to come clumping into
the cold-storage warehouse in his big boots and his buffalo coat. A
great fear swept over him and left him weak and sick.

The chill grandeur of the studio-building foyer stabbed him. The
glittering lift made him dizzy, somehow, this morning. He shouldn't have
gone out without some breakfast perhaps. He walked down the flagged
corridor softly; turned the key ever so cautiously. She might still be
sleeping. He turned the knob, gently; tiptoed in and, turning, fell over
a heavy wooden object that lay directly in his path in the dim little
hall. A barked shin. A good round oath.

"Hosey! What's the matter? What--" She came running to him. She led him
into the bright front room.

"What was that thing? A box or something, right there in front of the
door. What the--"

"Oh, I'm so sorry, Hosey. You sometimes have breakfast downtown. I
didn't know-"

Something in her voice--he stopped rubbing the injured shin to look up
at her. Then he straightened slowly, his mouth ludicrously open. Her
head was bound in a white towel. Her skirt was pinned back. Her sleeves
were rolled up. Chairs, tables, rugs, ornaments were huddled in a
promiscuous heap. Mrs. Hosea C. Brewster was cleaning house.

"Milly!" he began, sternly. "And that's just the thing you came here to
get away from. If Pinky--"

"I didn't mean to, father. But when I got up this morning there was a
letter--a letter from the woman who owns this apartment, you know. She
asked if I'd go to the hall closet--the one she reserved for her own
things, you know--and unlock it, and get out a box she told me about,
and have the hall boy express it to her. And I did, and--look!"

Limping a little he followed her. She turned on the light that hung in
the closet. Boxes--pasteboard boxes--each one bearing a cryptic
penciling on the end that stared out at you. "Drp Stud Win," said one;
"Sum Slp Cov Bedrm," another; "Toil. Set & Pic. Frms."

Mrs Brewster turned to her husband, almost shamefacedly, and yet with a
little air of defiance. "It--I don't know--it made me--not homesick,
Hosey. Not homesick, exactly; but--well, I guess I'm not the only woman
with a walnut streak in her modern make-up. Here's the woman--she came
to the door with her hat on, and yet--"

Truth--blinding, white-hot truth--burst in upon him. "Mother," he
said--and he stood up, suddenly robust, virile, alert--"mother, let's go
home."

Mechanically she began to unpin the looped-back skirt.

"When?"

"Now."

"But, Hosey! Pinky--this flat--until June--"

"Now! Unless you want to stay. Unless you like it here in this--this
make-believe, double-barreled, duplex do-funny of a studio thing. Let's
go home, mother. Let's go home--and breathe."

In Wisconsin you are likely to find snow in April--snow or slush. The
Brewsters found both. Yet on their way up from the station in 'Gene
Buck's flivver taxi, they beamed out at it as if it were a carpet of
daisies.

At the corner of Elm and Jackson Streets Hosey Brewster stuck his head
out of the window. "Stop here a minute, will you, 'Gene?"

They stopped in front of Hengel's meat market, and Hosey went in. Mrs.
Brewster leaned back without comment.

Inside the shop. "Well, I see you're back from the East," said Aug
Hengel.

"Yep."

"We thought you'd given us the go-by, you stayed away so long."

"No, sir-ree! Say, Aug, give me that piece of bacon--the big piece. And
send me up some corned beef to-morrow, for corned beef and cabbage. I'll
take a steak along for to-night. Oh, about four pounds. That's right."

It seemed to him that nothing less than a side of beef could take out of
his mouth the taste of those fiddling little lamb chops and the
restaurant fare of the past six months.

All through the winter Fred had kept up a little heat in the house, with
an eye to frozen water pipes. But there was a chill upon the place as
they opened the door now. It was late afternoon. The house was very
still, with the stillness of a dwelling that has long been uninhabited.
The two stood there a moment, peering into the darkened rooms. Then
Hosea Brewster strode forward, jerked up this curtain, that curtain with
a sharp snap, flap! He stamped his feet to rid them of slush. He took
off his hat and threw it high in the air and opened his arms wide and
emitted a whoop of sheer joy and relief.

"Welcome home! Home!"

She clung to him. "Oh, Hosey, isn't it wonderful? How big it looks!
Huge!"

"Land, yes." He strode from hall to dining-room, from kitchen to
library. "I know how a jack-in-the-box feels when the lid's opened. No
wonder it grins and throws out its arms."

They did little talking after that. By five o'clock he was down in the
cellar. She heard him making a great sound of rattling and bumping and
shaking and pounding and shoveling. She smelled the acrid odour of his
stubby black pipe.

"Hosey!"--from the top of the cellar stairs. "Hosey bring up a can of
preserves when you come."

"What?"

"Can of preserves."

"What kind?"

"Any kind you like."

"Can I have two kinds?"

He brought up quince marmalade and her choicest damson plums. He put
them down on the kitchen table and looked around, spatting his hands
together briskly to rid them of dust. "She's burning pretty good now.
That Fred! Don't any more know how to handle a boiler than a baby does.
Is the house getting warmer?"

He clumped into the dining-room, through the butler's pantry, but he was
back again in a wink, his eyes round. "Why, say, mother! You've got out
the best dishes, and the silver, and the candles and all. And the
tablecloth with the do-dads on it. Why--"

"I know it" She opened the oven door, took out a pan of biscuits and
slid it deftly to one side. "It seems as if I can't spread enough. I'm
going to use the biggest platter, and I've got two extra boards in the
table. It's big enough to seat ten. I want everything big somehow. I've
cooked enough potatoes for a regiment, and I know it's wasteful, and I
don't care. I'll eat in my kitchen apron, if you'll keep on your
overalls. Come on."

He cut into the steak--a great thick slice. He knew she could never eat
it, and she knew she could never eat it. But she did eat it all,
ecstatically. And in a sort of ecstatic Nirvana the quiet and vastness
and peace of the big old frame house settled down upon them.

The telephone in the hall rang startlingly, unexpectedly.

"Let me go, Milly."

"But who in the world! Nobody knows we're--"

He was at the telephone. "Who? Who? Oh." He turned: "It's Miz' Merz. She
says her little Minnie went by at six and saw a light in the house.
She--Hello! What?... She says she wants to know if she's to save time
for you at the end of the month for the April cleaning."

Mrs. Brewster took the receiver from him: "The twenty-fifth, as usual,
Miz' Merz. The twenty-fifth, as usual. The attic must be a sight."

THE END

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