Fiction

A MAN OF PRINCIPLE

ROBERT ZACKS March 1 1949
Fiction

A MAN OF PRINCIPLE

ROBERT ZACKS March 1 1949

A MAN OF PRINCIPLE

ROBERT ZACKS

FROM the bedroom where she was answering the phone Hilda’ voice suddenly sounded flat with embarrassment. Joe stopped polishing his shoes and listened.

“Why, we don’t exactly know . . .’’she said. "I mean it’s nothing definite, just one of those leads . . .”

She listened a while, then she said in a loudly indignant voice, “Why, Bill, I’m surprised at you, I really am! You know we wouldn’t . . . Why, I’m insulted, I really am!”

, When she came in with a slightly strained expression, Joe said, “What did he want?”

“He heard about the apartment,” Hilda said quietly. “He ran into Dorothy and AÍ up in the country. She told him you offered her an apartment.”

Joe straightened up. He stared at Hilda. “That puts us in an awkward position.”

“I don’t see why,” said Hilda coldly. “I don’t see why it does at all. We haven’t seen Bill and Anne for months and we obviously have other friends who are just as much in need of an apartment.”

Joe started polishing his shoes again, slowly. “You should have told him we’ve given it away already. Now we’re in an embarrassing position.” Hilda said calmly, “Who could I say we’d given it to? We haven’t made up our minds yet, have we? If I gave the wrong name he’d find out about it eventually.”

“What did he say that made you sore?”

“First he made a few cracks about friends in need. You know he’s living with in-laws. He sounded pretty desperate.”

> “Well, so are all our friends,” growled Joe. “So are most of the people we know.”

“Then,” said Hilda, “he said if we’d give it to him he’d appreciate it. He said he’d show his appreciation.”

Joe slowly lifted his head. His eyes widened. “You mean he said he’d pay us off. He actually said , : i”

“Not in actual words,” said Hilda quickly. “You know, a sort of implication. Just that he’d show his appreciation.”

“Why the nerve of that guy!” said Joe angrily. “If that, isn’t Bill for you. Doesn’t he think we’ve got principles?”

“That’s what I told him,” said Hilda. “You heard me, didn’t you? He apologized. He said he was under a terrible strain, he didn’t know what he was saying.”

Joe looked at her without saying anything. Then he put on his brightly polished black shoes and went into the bathroom to shave while Hilda prepared a breakfast of soft-boiled eggs and toast. When Joe came out of the bathroom he was still sour over the incident.

“Maybe we’ll have to give it to him,” he said glumly as he sat down at the table.

Hilda looked at him in dismay. “I thought we were going to give it to your boss’ daughter. Didn’t you . . .”

Joe frowned. He ate his egg thoughtfully. “Well,” he grunted, “I’m not committed to her yet. And after all, Bill’s an old friend of mine. And there are other factors to be considered.”

“What other factore?” asked Hilda, staring at Joe.

Joe shrugged and looked down at his plate. “Well, for instance, Bill is a veteran and I never did get into the army. You know the position I’m in. We’ve got a swell apartment here for ourselves and he comes back—to what?”

Hilda’s face shadowed in disappointment. Joe’s boss had a wonderful summer place in the country and she’d been hoping—but after all . . .

“Joe,” she said softly. “You’re a real nice guy, you know that?”

Joe looked up, smiling. He made a fist the way he’d seen Humphrey Bogart do it in the movies and gently touched it against her jaw in a restrained, masterful love touch.

“We’ve gotta help the vets, don’t we? Bill’s one of my oldest, friends.”

AFTER breakfast was over Joe, on his way Jto work, stopped in downstairs to speak to Mr. Vinson, the landlord. The apartment he had to give away was in an old brownstone being remodeled by Mr. Vinson. It was on the next block. Joe rang the bell and Mr. Vinson came out. in a bathrobe.

“Hiya, Vinsy,” said Joe cheerfully. “How’s the hang-over?”

Mr. Vinson, a jolly-looking, stout man, greeted Joe. “What can I do for you, Joe?” he asked.

Joe told him he had a veteran who desperately needed the apartment. “Fellow’s living with in-laws. Going nuts. I know you said I could have one of the apartments but I wanted to make sure.”

Mr. Vinson stared at Joe. “Say, what is the matter with you anyway?” he said. “I told you one of the apartments was yours to give away. You’ve asked me four times ‘just to be sure.’ You know I keep my word. What’s the matter with you?”

“Well,” said Joe. “After all, you could make plenty in an ‘under-the-table’ pay-off if you wanted to. I mean to say it would be awkward if I told somebody there was no pay-off and—” Mr. Vinson was staring at Joe and Joe said

hastily, “Well, I mean it’s a hard thing to believe

“Listen,” said Mr. Vinson irritably, “when I rented you this place did I ask you for a bribe? Then what’s so amazing about it now?”

“Okay,” said Joe quickly. “It’s good to know there’s some square guys in the world. You’re a right guy, Mr. Vinson.”

“Yeah,” said Mr. Vinson dryly. “Well, you bring this guy down to look at the place next week. It won’t be ready for a month but he can pick his paint colors and which apartment he wants.”

“Fine,” said Joe eagerly. “Don’t forget, another party in my apartment tonight.”

Mr. Vinson waved his hand and went back into his own apartment.

JOE waited four days and then allowed Hilda to call Bill at his office and tell him the good news. Although it wasn’t necessary, Bill dropped his work, went home to pick up Anne and they came over to Joe’s apartment. When Joe came home they had spent the whole afternoon watching the construction and had already picked their colors. Bill and Anne were almost hysterical with their delight. Bill came over, grabbed Joe’s hand and wrung it fervently.

“Pal,” he said with deep feeling. “You have no idea what this means to us. It’s—It’s—” He stopped, unable to find words.

“Oh, don’t I?” said Joe heartily. “You think I don’t, hey? Look, Billy boy, you aren’t the only friends we have that need an apartment. There’s others we know that need it even more. Some of them haven’t even in-laws to five with. They’re in hotel rooms, going broke.”

Bill and Anne looked at him soberly. “I know,” said Bill, seriously. “I’m sure glad you picked me. By the way, how—”

“Well,” said Joe quickly. “When you heard about it from Dorothy it was júst a lead. It wasn’t definite, as Hilda told you it wasn’t over the phone. Dorothy was right there when I heard about it, but I never offered it to her. It just came through definitely yesterday.”

“We just, can’t begin to thank you enough,” said Anne fervently. Her eyes were shining. “You know, it’s our first apartment. We were married during the war.”

“Part of the way you can thank us,” said Joe grimly, “is to protect us.” He shook his head worriedly. “There’ll be a lot of friends sore at us because we gave the place to you instead of them. Just like you would have gotten sore if we’d given it to somebody else.”

Bill nodded underatandingly.

“I can see the position you are in,” he admitted. “We won’t talk about how we got the place. Say, how did you . . .”

“Mr. Vinson, the landlord, is my pal,” said Joe. “He’s a good guy.” He hesitated. Then he said with a casual significance. “He comes in here every night and talks your head off. But it pays off. After all, he had to return the favor.”

Bill looked at Joe carefully. Before he could say anything Hilda, who had been impatiently awaiting a chance to come into the conversation, said, “And would you believe it, Mr. Vinson won’t take a bribe. That’s the kind of—”

Then she caught the wink Joe was giving Bill and she said indignantly, “But he doesn’t, Joe. We didn’t have to pay one when we took this place.” “No,” said Joe Continued on page 30

"Joe," she said softly, "you're a real nice guy."

A Man of Principle

Continued from page 20

smoothly. “No, we didn’t. That’s right.” He looked at Bill. “You sure are getting a break,” he said. “Do you know what you’d have to pay off to another landlord or super? Why, they’re getting as much as a thousand dollars!”

“Yes,” said Anne, bitterly. “And we know why. It’s sheer desperation. You don’t know what it’s like not to have your own place.”

“Well,” said Joe. “It must be uncomfortable, all right. Of course, it’s cheaper, not having to pay rent. You must have saved plenty.”

“We saved money,” said Bill. He was watching Joe with a puzzled frown. “We saved quite a bit the last few months. Anne was working up to last week.”

“We haven’t been able to save much,” said Joe. He went to the shelf and took off some glasses and got out a bottle of Scotch. “We’ve been entertaining that landlord a lot. It’s been expensive, but it’s paid off. Take this apartment we got you, for instance.” Joe started pouring drinks.

Bill and Anne looked at each other. Hilda was looking at Joe with a startled, almost angry look.

Bill cleared his throat. “Joe,” he said, looking steadily at Joe, “this apartment was tremendously important to me. It was a great thing for me that you picked me. In fact, considering the way the war pulled us apart and the few times we’ve seen each other, it was very pleasing ...” Bill laughed and shook his head, “. . . it was magnificent that you selected us as the lucky ones.”

Joe smiled. “That’s all right.” “We’d better be going,” said Anne. “It’s getting late.” Bill nodded agreement. Hilda said quickly,

“Oh, no. You’re staying for supper.” “You sure are,” said Joe quickly. “We’ve got plenty. We got a lovely batch of steaks.”

“No,” said Bill, firmly. “I wouldn’t think of it.”

“Say,” said Joe, staring coldly at Bill. “Say, what is this? Is the apartment all you wanted? I thought we’re friends. Now that the apartment’s yours, we’re not good enough to eat with, hah?”

Bill flushed and Anne stared at Joe. Hilda smiled uneasily. “Joe,” she said, “of course they’ll stay. They were just being polite. Joe, your humor is as flat as boiled water.” She turned to Anne. “You’ll stay. Don’t mind Joe’s punk jokes. He’s just trying to be a host.” “Glad to,” said Bill, smiling a little, watching Joe’s face with a concealed thoughtfulness.

ANNE and Hilda started clearing the table and setting out dishes and cutlery. The phone rang in the bedroom and Joe went in to answer it.

“That might be for me,” said Bill anxiously, starting to get up. “I left the work in the office in a kind of mess, what with rushing right down here. I left this number in case of trouble.” “No,” said Hilda, waving him back. “It’s Joe’s mother. She calls every day at exactly this time. See, look at the clock. It’s exactly four.”

Bill settled back in his chair. Joe spoke in a very low murmur. About all that could be heard, through the clatter of the dishes that the girls were setting out, was an occasional no and sorry. Then Joe came in with a surprised look on his face.

WELL,” he said, falling heavily into an easy chair, “would you believe it? That was my boss. He

heard about the apartment because of my big mouth. When will I learn to shut up! I was talking about it in the office last week and sure enough some stooge carried it to the boss. He offered me a month’s vacation with pay if I’d save it for him.”

Bill’s face grew stiff and Anne’s face paled’. They looked at Joe miserably. Hilda was startled. Joe pointed to Bill and Anne and laughed.

“Holy smokes, look at them. What are you worrying about? D’ya think I’d let you down? I told him the apartment didn’t come through. It’s yours, quit worrying.”

Bill looked haggard. “Still,” he said uncertainly, “I’d feel better if—”

“Look,” said Joe scornfully. “Quit worrying, will you? Mr. Vinson told you to send him a cheque tomorrow for two months’ rent in advance, didn’t he? When he accepts the cheque you’ve got the place.”

Bill’s worried look slowly faded and Anne, watching him anxiously, felt better, too. He leaned back in his chah limply and shook his head.

“Oh, come, let’s eat,” said Hilda. As they continued their interrupted preparations for supper Bill stared thoughtfully at Joe. Then he said softly,

“That was mighty tough for you, losing a month’s vacation with pay.”

Joe shrugged and looked at his glass. “The boss would have found some way of making it up. I’d just come back to more work.”

“It was nice of you, Joe,” repeated Bill quietly.

Joe grinned. “Forget it,” he said, waving his hand. He got up and went into the bathroom.

Hilda came out of the kitchen, looked at the clock and frowned. She went into the bedroom and picking up the phone, dialed a number. Bill could hear her clearly. She apparently was talking to Joe’s mother.

“I was worried when you didn’t call,” she said. “You always call right at . . . you did call! I don’t understand. I’ve been . . .” Then her voice trailed away, suddenly.

As she came out of the bedroom, with her face set and embarrassed, she cast a swift, frightened glance at Bill but he rigidly had his head bent over a magazine and didn’t look at her. Hilda met Joe as he was coming out of the bathroom and she started to say something, faltered and fled to the kitchen.

“Say,” yelled Joe after her. “What’s eating you?”

Hilda appeared at the doorway, l\er face pale. “We need some mustard,” she said. “Go down for mustard.”

“Okay,” said Joe. Hilda went into the kitchen.

“Hey, Billsy,” said Joe commandingly. “Put your coat on. The ladies want mustard and they shall have mustard. Let’s go.”

Bill was looking at Joe steadily. He didn’t get up. “Joe, sit down. I want to talk to you,” he said. There was a touch of desperation in his voice.

“Holy smokes,” said Joe, amused. “You still worrying? For Pete’s sake. I told you it was set. The apartment’s yours.”

Bill was silent for a moment, looking for a path to follow, for the proper words. He was in a panic of doubt. He was pretty sure of his conclusions, but it was a delicate thing.

“Joe,” he said tightly, embarrassedly. “I’ve been thinking. I’m sure getting away with murder in getting this place. I need it desperately and your friendship for me is not only getting me this place but I don’t even have to pay the usual bonus.”

“Yep,” nodded Joe, looking at the floor. “I guess you’re saving plenty.”

Continued on page 32

Continued from page 30

“But you’re losing,” said Bill, in a monotone. “You’re losing a month’s vacation and your boss’ approval. Joe, if I took this place without showing my appreciation I’d be an ungrateful dog. Joe, I want you to take this.”

With quick, nervous motions Bill was taking out his wallet, taking out large bills, twenties and a couple of fifties and holding them out with a pleading look.

Suddenly Joe was on his feet, his face working. “What do you take me for!” he shouted angrily. “Do you think I’d take a bribe from a friend for an apartment? Listen, you, I’ve got principles. What do you think I am? I can’t be bought. I’m no grafter.” Hilda and Anne were at the door, startled, and Bill was on his feet, his face miserable, his lips twitching.

“Put your money away!” said Joe furiously. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself. I swear, why . . .” he choked with indignation, “. . . I absolutely swear I’m almost sorry I’m giving you the apartment.”

Slowly, with trembling hand, Bill put the money back in his wallet. Anne quickly went to him.

“You don’t understand,” she said to Joe trembling. “Wherever we’ve gone we’ve had to—”

“I’m no grafter!” said Joe angrily. “Don’t you think I’ve got principles?” “Sure,” said Bill dully. His face was a dark, painful red. “I’m sorry, Joe. Terribly sorry.”

“Well, forget it,” mumbled Joe. “Let’s go get that mustard.”

THEY didn’t look at each other as they put on their coats and there were tears in Anne’s eyes as she tried to act casual about the whole thing. Hilda said nothing, just stonily continued arranging the food on dishes.

Bill and Joe went down the stairs and walked to the delicatessen store on the corner. Bill walked with his face rigid. Joe looked at him and slapped his shoulder, “Ah, I’m sorry, Bill,” he muttered. “I was kind of rough. It really isn’t your fault. I should have been gracious about it. I suppose it is the accustomed thing these days to pay off for a thing like that,” then he hesitated and added, “in one way or another.”

Bill didn’t say a word. He walked along with his lips pressed closely together in a thin line.

“I’m sorry,” said Joe, earnestly. “I shouldn’t have blown up. After all, you were just trying to show appreciation. But good Lord, man,” Joe groaned, “that just isn’t done. Offering a friend money for an apartment. I mean . . .” Joe shrugged helplessly, “after all . . .” He looked at Bill and Bill didn’t look back.

SILENTLY the two of them went into the delicatessen and bought the mustard. On the way back, in the middle of the block, Joe stopped before a furniture store and stared into the window.

“See that desk?” said Joe, pointing. “Isn’t that a beauty! Some day I’m going to get that desk. When I save up enough.”

He looked casually at Bill. Bill stared into the display window at the desk. It was a modern, light mahogany job. It was beautiful. It cost two hundred and twenty-five dollars.

“It’s fine,” said Bill quietly. Really beautiful.”

“I’ve liad my eye on that desk for months,” said Joe calmly. “I sure would like to have it.”

Slowly Bill looked around and met Joe’s eye. For a long moment Bill looked at Joe and then Joe’s eyes wavered.

“I see,” said Bill.

Suddenly Joe got sore. “What do you mean, you see? What do you see?” Bill smiled faintly, gravely. “I see it’s a beautiful desk,” he said.

Joe said sullenly, “Yeah. It’s really something.”

He turned and they walked back to the apartment.

THE supper was excellent. Thick, rare steak, mashed potatoes, peas. Cold beer. They ate hungrily, but silently. When it was over and the dishes had been washed, they sat around the living room and read or listened to the radio.

After a decent interval Bill got up slowly. “It was a fine meal,” he said. “Please accept our thanks.”

“Stick around,” said Joe. “Why go now? I’m having another gang in tonight. Mr. Vinson will be up, too. Let’s make it a celebration. Let’s celebrate getting the apartment for you.”

“Please stay,” said Hilda, worriedly. “We’ll all have a good time.”

Bill looked at Anne. Anne nodded. “Thanks,” said Bill. “We will.” He looked at his watch. “But I’ve got something I must attend to. Anne, you wait here. I’ll be back in half an hour.” Anne said in surprise, “Where are you going?”

“Now, now,” said Joe, chuckling. “Don’t worry. He’s not going to run away from you.”

Bill smiled at Anne. “I’ll be back in ten or fifteen minutes,” he said.

Bill was gone half an hour. When he came back his face was smooth and untroubled. He didn’t look at Joe and Joe carefully avoided looking at him.

“Bill,” said Anne, “what’s going on here? Where were you?”

“I’ll tell you later,” said Bill. “Let’s get ready for the party. What time does it begin?”

“Oh, about eight,” said Joe, genially. He was putting crackers on a tray. “There’s nothing for you to do. You two just sit down and take it easy.”

THE guests started drifting in about seven-thirty. Bill and Anne didn’t know any of them. They were all new friends of Joe and Hilda, friends made during the war. Bill waited until Mr. Vinson came up and got him alone in a corner.

“Mr. Vinson,” said Bill, “here’s a cheque for two months’ rent you asked for. As long as I’m here tonight I may as well give it to you instead of sending it in the mail.”

Mr. Vinson took the cheque and grinned. “Afraid I’ll change my mind?” he said shrewdly.

“I’ll feel easier if you take it now.” Mr. Vinson grunted and put the cheque in his pocket. “Now you can stop worrying.”

Bill hesitated. “Look here, Mr. Vinson. I wish you’d explain something to me.”

“I’ll bet I know what it is,” said Mr. Vinson. “You want to know the catch. You’re wondering why I’m not asking for a bonus. Right?”

Bill nodded.

Mr. Vinson said, “Also, you’re wondering why I don’t give the place away myself. Well, look, son, not everybody is a crook. When the time comes that everybody is crooked it’ll be pretty bad for this country. You would be surprised how many people there are that don’t take bribes. I’m making a nice profit on the place right now. I’m an honest businessman. It’s as simple as that.”

Bill looked at Mr. Vinson. There was a shine in his eyes.

“Thanks,” he said simply.

Mr. Vinson looked puzzled. “For what?” he asked. “You’re paying for

the place. Oh, you mean for giving it to you. Well, there are eight apartments in the place. I only needed five of them to take care of my immediate friends. I let Joe talk me out of one of them. You can thank him.”

“I’m going to,” said Bill. He stood up.

“Everybody quiet,” yelled Bill suddenly. “Quiet please. I want to make a speech.”

Faces turned and stared at him, puzzled looks, annoyed glances. The babble of voices died away. Joe stared at Bill and Anne looked at him wonderingly.

Bill waited till there wasn’t a sound.

“I want to make a public apology to both Mr. Vinson and to Joe,” said Bil} quietly. “He, I mean Joe, got me an apartment. My wife Anne and I have taken quite a kicking around since I got out of the army. So when Joe offered us this apartment I stupidly tried to show my gratitude by offering him money.”

“Hey,” said Joe, his smile fading. “Bill, take it easy.”

“Don’t worry, Joe,” said Bill, smiling faintly. “Don’t worry about a thing. Joe told me off good. He told me t ought to be ashamed of myself and I am. I should have known better. Joe

told me he was a man of principle and that he wasn’t a grafter. He wouldn’t take the money. In fact,” Bill laughed; harshly, “he told me what I could do with the money.”

There were laughs and approving looks at Joe. There was sweat on Joe’s face as he stared at Bill.

Bill continued, “Now, Joe won’t take the money and I’m something of a heel for making him even have to say no to me, for implying by my inexcusable behavior that I thought he’d take it. But still, I want to show my gratitude. I want to do something to show how I feel. After all, Joe selected me rather than any one of a number of other friends for this apartment. I’m sure you all agree that I must show my gratitude some way. I finally figured out a way that’s not crude.” Bill stopped. He looked at Joe. Joe wasn’t sweating now. He looked relieved. For a moment he had been scared.

Bill reached into his pocket. “I have in my hand,” he said, holding up a slip of paper, “a cheque for the National Infantile Paralysis Fund and the name of the contributor will be Joe Maxwell, your host. And the amount of the cheque,” and here Bill looked at Joe, “the amount of the cheque is two hundred and twenty-five dollars. In other words, ladies and gentlemen, I’m giving the money that Joe so nobly refused to a good cause and I’m giving it in his name. I sincerely hope that I have redeemed myself.”

There was a moment’s silence as Joe’s jaw dropped and he looked sick. Then the guests burst into applause and favorable comment.

“Very nice,” said Mr. Vinson approvingly. “A very nice gesture.”

“Thanks for the apartment, Joe,” said Bill, reaching out his hand.Weakly, Joe took it. He gulped and swallowed.

“That’s all right,” he said, helplessly. “That’s all right.” if

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