Fiction

THE HERO

Cheers from grandstand thousands had been high glamour for her and the football star she loved. Till the day of the big game it had been a little like being a princess in her own right

MONA WILLIAMS October 1 1950
Fiction

THE HERO

Cheers from grandstand thousands had been high glamour for her and the football star she loved. Till the day of the big game it had been a little like being a princess in her own right

MONA WILLIAMS October 1 1950

THE HERO

MONA WILLIAMS

HILDA stood outside the door and listened, before she raised her hand to knock. The corridor, with its thick hotel carpet, was quiet, but through the door labeled 620 a sea of party noise reached out to her. She was a little scared, her heart was thumping, hut it wasn’t all fear—it was pride, too. She had never met these people, Danny’s father and mother and their friends.

She took a deep breath and knocked, loud enough to be heard above the voices inside; then the door opened, and a short, thick man stood there. He was as unlike Danny as two men could he, and yet some subtle arrangement of features told her instantly this was Danny's father.

“I’m Hilda,” she said, and at the name his reddish face beamed like a sun. He put an arm around her shoulders and drew her inside, bawling out to everybody, “Here she is, folks! Here’s the girl—Danny’s girl!”

Ah, it was marvelous, the recognition, the welcome—she felt like a princess. This was Danny’s mother, Mrs. Fulton, taking her coat, an angular, deeply tanned woman, babbling in a nervous hoarse voice, “But, darling, you came alone! Where’s Danny? All these people are panting for a look at him! Tomorrow, out on the field, he’ll be just a number.”

“Not that boy!” somebody cried out joyfully, “Not even in a football helmet. Not that gorgeous hunk of muscle! I saw his picture in a magazine last month.”

“He asked me to come on ahead, because he wanted me to be sure to meet you before the game tomorrow. He can only look in for a minute —I guess even that took some wangling.”

A woman with fashionable blue-white curls

Cheers from grandstand thousands had been high glamour for her and the football star she loved. Till the day of the big game it had been a little like being a princess in her own right

smirked at her, “How does it feel to be a football hero’s girl? Aren’t you the lucky one?”

Others took it up. “How does it feel? Aren’t you worried about his getting hurt? Don’t you just die of pride when the whole grandstand’s cheering him? How does it feel?”

“Wonderful,” she admitted weakly, accepting an expensive dab of caviar, “even if I have to share him with a lot of people.”

The suite, three rooms thrown open for the party, smelled of money. All the guests were a generation removed from Hilda, but never, in her own age group, had she seen such an air of gay abandon, such avid enjoyment. Danny had told her about his parents’ friends. Usually she could read his feelings in his voice, she knew when he was worried about an exam, or angry, or feeling good. But speaking of his parents his voice held nothing, no warmth, no criticism, nothing but information.

These people were certainly not bored idlers, in spite of the fact that they didn’t work for a living. They worked too hard at having fun. They followed the seasonal sports from Sun Valley to Saratoga, to Long Island Sound, to Florida, skiing, sailing, deepsea fishing, never bored for a minute.

Hilda wished Danny would come. It was pleasant, in a jittery way, to be the centre of attention, to hear the women exclaim over her engagement ring, to have the big, paunchy man who owned a hotel offer them a suite for the honeymoon next summer—but Hilda wished Danny would come. That would be her big moment, when the spotlight moved to Danny, and she could lose herself with the rest of his admirers.

Through a fog of cigarette smoke her glance stopped at an incongruous figure standing in the corner. A spare and silent man, leaning negligently

against the window drapery, while laughter and argument eddied ajpout him. He just didn’t belong in this room ! She asked Mr. Fulton about him.

“Who’s that man over by the window? I wonder if he’s as detached from all this as he looks.”

“Him?” Mr. Fulton’s head jerked toward the window. “Now, there’s a lesson for you: Never take it for granted because once you were great buddies with a guy, you can pick up right where you left off. That’s Avery—Sam Avery. Ever heard of him? No. You never heard of him, nobody here ever heard of him, but scientists heard of him. Sure —he’s a big science man.”

“What kind of science?”

“Physics. He and I were classmates 25 years ago, so when I read in the alumni paper he’s in town, I invite him to the party. Somebody ought to put him out of his misery. Tell him to go home, or back to his cell, or wherever it is.” He glanced over again at Avery and laughed. “You know what? I don’t think it’s even dawned on him yet that the big game is tomorrow.”

Suddenly he pushed past her, his eyes on the door. “Here he is. Here’s the boy now.”

Danny just couldn’t walk into a room inconspicuously. He was too big and vital—too, well— physical. Hilda didn’t join the welcomers at the door; she sat quietly where Mr. Fulton had left her, watching Danny, watching his mother’s proprietary hand on his arm, b’stening to her voice, harsh with pride, as she introduced him to her friends.

Then he saw Hilda. Across the room he gave her a little salute, and she went faint with love of him, but still she made no claim on his attention. This was the parents’ hour. Some people standing near her were discussing him with frank sensuality.

“What do you suppose a boy like that would weigh? He must be six-two. And not an ounce of fat—look at those shoulders!”

“About 195,” someone else guessed. “Pure muscle. Of course he’s trained to the peak of condition.”

A faint little crawl of irritation went over Hilda. She did not ask herself why. She edged a bit away from the group. A waiter appeared with a tall glass of tomato juice bedded in ice. Mrs. Fulton seized it from the tray and presented it to her son.

Hilda’s eyes, moving around the room, stopped again at the physicist. He glanced once at Danny, but his impassive face told her nothing. Danny was making his way toward her now.

“Hello, honey, what do you think of this menagerie?”

“They’re awfully nice! They’ve been wonderful to me.”

He fished an olive out of her glass and ate it moodily. “If any more well-wishers ask me how much I weigh, I’m going to start asking how old they are. I feel like a statistic.”

She said lightly, “Well, naturally they’re interested. I heard your father say there’s a lot of money in this room bet on the game tomorrow.”

“Uh-huh. They bet on horses, too. But the horses get a break. They don’t have to hear about it.”

Across the room the physicist was looking at his watch. Hilda nodded toward him. “There’s one guest who’s not interested. He’s just wondering how he can fade out of this picture.”

“Who’s that?”

“His name is Avery. He’s a scientist and he got in by mistake.”

“Avery!” Danny

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rose from the arm of her chair. The physics Avery? I wonder if there’s a chance in the world it could be—wait a minute, honey, I’ll be right back.”

There was a small commotion in front of Hilda when someone dropped a plate of canapes. Then she was drawn into an enthusiastic conversation about the Stanford-Cal game, to which several of the party were flying next week. After that, a football strategist made an expert diagnosis of tomorrow’s game. Everyone listened eagerly. It was several minutes before Hilda looked around for Danny again. Neither he nor Mr. Avery was in the

She looked at her watch—5.25. She knew Danny had to be back for dinner with the team at 6, but surely he wouldn’t leave without a word to her! Then she saw Mrs. Fulton hurrying across the room in her direction.

“Darling, you’ve simply got to pry Danny loose from that man! I can’t get a word in edgewise—they simply wave me away!”

“You mean Mr. Avery? Where are they?”

“In the bathroom, of all places—it seems it was the only place they could talk. I’m sure the man is crazy—be’s going on at great length about neutrons or" electrons and Danny acts positively hypnotized. Be a dear, and see if you can’t break it up.”

“But, Mrs. Fulton, you know Danny’s majoring in physics. If he really wants to talk to Mr. Avery—”

“But, heavens—physics at a party! And with all these people crazy to talk football. It looks so queer.”

Hilda got up and walked through a crowded bedroom to the bathroom door. It was a little open, but even so, it afforded a degree of privacy. She gave the door a light push.

Mr. Avery was sitting on the edge of the tub, making little scrawls and figures on the back of an envelope, while Danny watched in complete absorption.

“Danny, it’s 5.30. Haven’t you got to be getting back?”

He looked up. His face had a bright, blind look, as though he hadn’t yet pulled away from some inner vision.

“Oh—sure, we’re both leaving. This is Mr. Avery, Hilda—Samuel Avery. You must have heard me speak of him —I’ve just finished reading his last book.”

She and Mr. Avery nodded across the washbasin.

Danny looked longingly at the window. “There wouldn’t happen to be a fire escape out there, would there? No, I was afraid not. Well, come on—let’s buck the well-wishers.”

The three of them cut a ruthless path through the party to the door. Danny’s mother had a final word.

“Don’t forget you’re having dinner with us all tomorrow night after the game! Hilda too, of course. Your father has ordered imported champagne, so it is going to be a real celebration.”

Danny groaned. “Suppose we lose? Can we get our money back on the champagne?”

“Don’t be silly!” Her thin, ringed hand touched his cheek. “You couldn’t lose the biggest game of the year.”

Across the room a voice called out, “If we bring our programs to dinner, will you autograph ’em? Luck, big boy!”

“Luck!” they all sang out. “We’ll be seeing you! Mow ’em down, Dannyboy, mow ’em down!”

THE marquee outside the hotel made a pool of light in the November dusk, and a cold wind swept the side-

“We’ll pick up a bite somewhere,” Mr. Avery said to Danny, as though he were no more aware of Hilda than of other strangers who had ridden down in the elevator with them. “Then, if you like, we’ll drop around to my place. I have a dinner date I’ll be glad to cancel.” He loped into a cigar store on the corner.

Hilda cried, “You can’t go with him! You told me you had to be back at 6 o’clock.”

He stood between her and the wind, and even in the dark she could feel the new life and glow in him. “Do you realize he’s breaking a date to go on talking with me? That’s something— that’s really something! It isn’t as though he had to start from scratch— I’ve read every word he’s ever written!”

“Danny, you know what they’ll think—that you’re with me. Breaking training for me!”

“Can you tell a man like that 'sorry, some other time?’ Tonight I’ve got to go home and get my sleep, lie on a bed like a hunk of roast beef for 9 hours, because there’s a little game tomorrow.”

“Little game! Why, there are people getting their sleep tonight just so they’ll have pep enough to yell themselves hoarse for you tomorrow!” Her voice broke a little.

“You can’t let them down, and your teammates, and your family, and —and me, because of a man you never met until an hour ago!”

As Mr. Avery stepped out of the cigar store, she turned and hurried in the opposite direction.

At ten o’clock there were still about a half dozen guests remaining in the Fulton suite. During the past hour tension had increased in the room. Danny was missing! Somebody had called the hotel as early as 7 o’clock to report his absence at dinner, and since then there had been other calls from assistant coaches and trainers, demanding his whereabouts.

Mrs. Fulton was tensest of all. She had changed to leopard print fireside pyjamas, and now she paced the floor,

smoking. Frequently she halted at the telephone.

“I’m going to call that girl again. I can’t believe she doesn’t know more than she pretends. After all, they left this room together.”

“She says he didn’t even take her home,” Mr. Fulton reminded her glumly. “She knew he was already late, and she left him right outside the

“That’s her story,” Mrs. Fulton said sharply.

“I think,” the big hotel man said impressively, “that this has become a matter for the police. The feeling about this game is running high—to say nothing of the money involved. I’ve heard of cases where rival teams or interested parties kidnapped a star player.”

“Absolutely!” Mrs. Fulton’s eyes flashed. “I’ve thought so all along. It’s time the police were notified. You call them, Harry.”

Mr. Fulton said sheepishly, “It seems kind of making him out a Mama’s boy. Big husky kid like that, 21 years old. Why don’t we try the girl again first? Could be he was out on a little party, and just now got in touch with her.”

“An athlete doesn’t go on a party the night before a game,” Mrs. Fulton said coldly. But she glanced at the telephone pad for Hilda’s number and put through the call.

They were all silent, listening. As Mrs. Fulton talked to Hilda, she moved restlessly, and stroked nervously at the cords in her neck. When she set down the instrument she faced them all in triumph.

“She does know more than she pretends ! The only time she lost her poise was when I mentioned going to the police. She thought that was quite unnecessary. Certainly, she knows where he is! I definitely had the feeling there was a third person involved. Something in the tone of her voice.”

Everybody looked startled. Mr. Fulton scratched his ear, and said in a hesitant, off-hand voice, “You know there was somebody else left with Danny and Hilda. You remember— that Avery bird.”

“That’s right,” cried the woman with the blue-white curls, “Danny was talking to him in the bathroom. Oh, the queerest stuff—didn’t make sense at all!”

Mrs. Fulton was on her feet again. “What’s the man’s phone number? Where does he live?”

IT TOOK some time to locate Mr.

Avery. His number was unlisted. At last it occurred to Mr. Fulton to get in touch with a member of the Alumni staff, and after dragging in a few mutual acquaintances he was given the unlisted number.

The room was so silent now with suspense that the gentle nasal voice which answered this last effort was faintly audible to everybody. Then came Vlr. Fulton’s incredulous, “You mean he’s there? Danny’s there with you now?”

Mrs. Fulton snatched away the phone. “Let me speak to him!” And a moment later, “Danny, are you all right? Darling, don’t you know you’ve had us all nearly crazy?”

When she had finished talking, she looked at her guests, her face flushed with something like embarrassment. “He was just about to leave. He didn't realize it was so late. It seems he got interested in some theory—I suppose he was flattered, an older man like tliat! And just forgot the time. Aren’t boys incredible?”

“Call the coach and tell him,” Mr. Fulton said, babbling with relief. “Coach’ll have plenty to say to him. Course he’s got every right to keep

Danny out of the game, breaking training like this. But he won’t do-it, not with a tough game like tomorrow. So, he’s been spending the evening horsing around with physics. What a kid! Never mind, you wait till he gets out on that field tomorrow—he’ll be serious enough then!”

SATURDAY afternoon was bright and cold—football weather. Hilda was to ride out to the stadium with friends, and meet the Fultons there. Danny had given her her ticket, one of a block of seats on the 50-yard line, which the Fulton party would occupy.

She had lived this moment many times before, threading through a crowd of football fans to watch Danny play, lost in yelling, jostling people, barkers with banners and peanuts and boutonnieres, hearing Danny’s name on every side. And always she had had a lovely secret feeling of being an invisible princess, unknown and unmarked, but still Danny’s girl. But not

She wished the game were over and that she and Danny could be aloné. She wanted to ask him if last night had been worth the quarrel. She thought of the way the party guests had looked at him, as though he were a prize bull, and of the way Mr. Avery had not looked at him at all, until they had begun to talk together. He didn’t know Danny, and yet he was the only one there who really cared what went on in Danny’s mind. Suddenly Hilda wanted to tell him that she understood why he had gone away with a man who didn’t know there was a game tomor-

She walked through the ramp numbered on her ticket and was directed to her row. Then she saw the Fulton party, and she waved and slid in. The big hotel man tucked her in beside him and patted his gurgling hip pocket.

“I’ve been saving a place for you. It’s going to get cold pretty soon, but it’s a great day for a game.”

Yes, it was a great day. But for the next two hours she wouldn’t be aware of the weather, she wouldn’t know whether she was cold or warm. The band was playing now, the heavy beat throbbing in the pit of her stomuch, and presently the players appeared, running out to a sharp burst of applause.

At once her eyes picked up the familiar 22, alive with significance among the blur of other numbers. The sight of thé powerful, easy-moving figures reassured her, and she relaxed in her seat. All during the warm-up period she followed 22, until the whistle sounded. And then in the opening skirmish she lost him. She edged forward in her seat, seeking.

From three seats down she heard Mrs. Fulton’s hoarse cry. “Harry— look! Danny’s benched. Look—there —22. He’s on the bench!”

It was true. Danny wasn’t in thq opening line-up! The Fulton party was in instant protest. Several people roBe to Bhoul, and Mr. Fulton made loud, menacing noises, full of astonishment and indignation.

“Of all the dopey stunts! What’d they bench him for? .Just because a guy breaks a little training rule? Danny’s got more than any other eleven guys put together; might as well try to play without the bull! Isjok at ’em they can’t even get started!”

And that was true, too. Hilda saw the team, Danny's team, go through its smart, practiced huddles, come out with snap and purpose, paus«« in their neat wing-back formations, t«;nse, alive. But that was as far as they went. No back could g««t away. No pass was completed. And before the game was three minutes old, the oppos-

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ing team was in possession of the ball on their own 40 yard line. In three more minutes they had marched down the field to the first touchdown.

Hilda felt numb. She listened to the uproar around her, cries of “Where’s Danny?” “Put him in—we want Danny!” She watched the game, but without the familiar number 22 to focus on, it was meaningless. When the whistle blew for the first quarter, she looked at the scoreboard and its stark, bleak message. The opposing team had made two touchdowns, but failed to convert, making the score 12 to 0.

The Fultons were crowing with triumphant I-told-you-so’s.

“All right, we took our punishment! We swallowed our nice, nasty medicine. Now we’ll get Danny in this game and beat the pants off those guys!”

They were right. At the start of the second quarter, Danny was in. Everybody was standing up, expectant and bright-eyed.

Danny made a touchdown five minutes later. The roar was deafening. The hotel man pounded her shoulder. When the conversion was good, making the score 12-7, he summed it up for everybody— “The game’s in the bagone more touchdown and she’s ours!”

But at the end of the half the score remained the same. Danny just hadn’t seemed to get going.

A strange thing happened to Hilda during the last half. As those near her grew more frenzied, she grew calmer. She sat, cold and detached, watching the players as though she saw them in television, imagelike and remote. Even 22 was just a number now. And she saw precisely and in detail how it was that Danny lost the game.

Both teams had been playing ferocious football, the visitors fighting a defensive battle to keep the score as it was, and the home team, wildly offensive, throwing in everything for that victory touchdown. Everything except the big, sure-fire play built around Danny, the play he had told her about, never used except in practice, saved for an emergency like today’s.

There were only a few minutes left. Danny’s team had taken the ball in a series of straight line-smashing plays all the way from their own 10-yard line to the visitors’ 20. Not once did Danny pass or run with the ball. If this was a deception to cover the touchdown play, it seemed awfully real.

For one down the team was stalled on that 20-yard line. Now—Hilda

thought—this is it. This has got to be it. She saw the huddle, the snappy line-up, and she saw Danny streak around the left of the line, and turn for the pass as he crossed into the end zone. The ball sailed straight for him, but high. He reached into the air, snagged it, hobbled it, and it rolled to the ground —an incompleted pass.

She picked up the hotel man’s binoculars, and had an instant’s tiny vision of Danny’s face. He looked puzzled. He was staring at the ball as though he had never seen it before, as though it were an incomprehensible new problem. Walking back, shoulders slumped under the heavy pads, Hilda had the feeling that he was thinking. Thinking about what? About his last chance gone? Or was it something else? She couldn’t tell; the team was lining up for what would probably be the last play of the game.

Then an astonishing thing happened. Instead of trying to pass to someone else, instead of another new play, audaciously the quarter-back repeated the one which had just failed. Danny shot like s bullet to the exact spot in the end zone. And there, without a single opposing player anywhere near him, he opened his arms for the pass.

It was against all believable odds that Danny should fumble again. But the ball went through his hands as though they weren’t there.

FAR across the stadium came the mighty roar of the victors, but around Hilda there was a low, guttural sound, half groan, half growl. Presently, although the final gun had not yet signaled the end of the game, there was a scattered movement toward departure, and voices.

“What happened?” “Somebody shoulda told that Fulton guy what side he was playing on!”

At the sound of the final gun they huddled back to let Mr. and Mrs. Fulton precede them, as though there had been a death in the family. In the buffeting crowds outside, conversation was mercifully impossible. But when they reached the exit where Hilda was to meet her own friends to ride back to town, she stopped and confronted the Fultons.

“Will you still be expecting me for dinner at the hotel?”

Mrs. Fulton nodded. Her face looked grey in the fading light.

“We shall cancel the party, of course. Danny is apparently not at all well.* He’ll hardly be in the mood for a celebration.”

“You come, girly,” Mr. Fulton mumbled, patting her shoulder. “Somebody’s got to drink all that champagne —cheer us up.”

“Oh, now, honestly!” Hilda’s defiant ripple of laughter surprised even herself. “It’s not as though Danny had committed a crime! It’s just a game, after all.”

Even as she spoke, she felt desperately sorry for the Fultons. The words formed in her mind -they’re too old to be weaned away from childish things. They can’t think; they can only feel. Then, blessedly, she saw her friends, and could say a hurried goodby, and walk away from those shocked, pinched faces.

IT WASN’T very much like a party.

Silently, the three Fultons and Hilda followed the headwaiter into the glittering dining room of the great hotel, and allowed themselves to be seated. The flowers on the table, the dinner music, the interested glances of other guests, didn’t touch them. They ordered briefly, without appetite.

And yet, Hilda saw now, Danny was not unhappy. That new glow she had sensed in him was still there, banked to suit this wretched occasion, but still

“I’d like,” he began determinedly, “to get my apologies said here and now. I guess I know how you feel, how everybody feels. Sure all players have an off-day once in a while, without any apparent reason. But in this case you’re convinced there was a reason, and I’m willing to concede that. And take the blame for it.”

“You weren’t feeling well,” Mr. Fulton said heavily. “Maylxyou’re coming down with a cold. You were

“No, I wasn’t sick.”

“If you’d only got to bed at a decent hour last night!” Mrs. Fulton said. "I shall never understand why you went off with that man. If it had lx-en Hilda! But no, you left the poor child outside.”

“I left him. I knew Danny couldn't walk out on a man like Mr. Avery. I wouldn’t want him to.”

Mr. Fulton pushed aside his plate, folded his thick hands, and spoke squarely to Danny. "All right, boy, you tell me. Just what's so fascinating about this bird, Avery, that you couldn’t walk out on him?"

“That’s a tough assignment you’re not interested in his subject. Hut this.

you can understand—this is the practical thing. Mr. Avery has offered me a job when I graduate in June. Do you know what that means? A chance to work with one of the greatest men in the country.”

Mr. Fulton sat back and congratulated his wife. “Well. Now, that’s something. It seems we’ve got brains in the family!”

Her tanned, ringed fingers crumbled a roll and her voice was dry. “Fortunately, we have a little capital, also. I gather that scientists are not lavishly compensated.”

Danny said hotly, “What were you hoping would happen? That I’d play a one-man game today, and tomorrow the pros would come knocking at my door? Do you want me to spend my life playing games? I’ve loved football ever since I was a kid. I loved it right up to last year. But I’m not a kid any more—I’m through with games!” Hilda said softly, “That’s pretty exciting news, Danny.”

“It’s what I’ve always wanted. Exciting—sure—but what it excites is your mind, not your emotions. You open a door, and smack—there’s a brand-new mystery. Oh, I can’t tell you—I haven’t had time to tell you yet!”

“I know. All this afternoon, watching you play, I was thinking of the way you were last night. I couldn’t seem to concentrate on the game.” “Neither could I. I was still seeing a blackboard and a little piece of chalk moving across it. When I used to play football, I thought of nothing else in the world, not even you.”

She smiled. “Neither will you think of me when you have that little piece of chalk in your hand.”

“That’s all right—so long as I know you’re still there.”

They had been talking as though they were alone. Now as the headwaiter approached the table, they looked around guiltily. Mr. and Mrs. Fulton were occupied in dogged pursuit of their food.

“Shall I open the champagne now, sir?”

Mr. Fulton nodded bleakly. “Might as well. That’s what it was ordered for.”

They all sat silent during the ritual of the cork-popping and the careful filling of the glasses. Suddenly Hilda burst out.

“Someday you’ll be proud of him. You’ll see. Not the way it used to be when you sat in a grandstand and heard thousands of people cheering him, but deep down proud.”

Their faces didn’t change. Nervously Hilda picked up her glass and set it down. “Why, that same magazine that ran Danny’s picture had a picture of a scientist on the cover!”

“So it did,” Mrs. Fulton said slowly, putting down her fork. “Remember, Harry, we’ve got the magazine at home? There’s a big picture of some atomic scientist right on the cover.”

Mr. Fulton brightened. “That’s right—well, say, now.” He was thoughtful for a moment, as though some profound adjustment was going on inside him. Then he lifted his glass. “Here’s to science. Here’s to the new job, Danny-boy.”

They all lifted their glasses. Under the table, Danny’s hand clasped Hilda’s.

“Here’s to victory,” she said softly.

“Mind over matter,” he murmured, grinning.

The orchestra leader, seeing the little ceremony, stepped up the music, so that it seemed to float right out over their lifted glasses, it