A Dollar Ninety-Eight
A dramatic story of the price that crooked Shorty White paid for honest happiness
BERNARD J. FARMER
FIFTY—seventy-five— dollar — ten — twenty— twenty-one,” muttered Shorty White to himself, counting coins one by one into a shaking palm. “Dollar twenty-one. Can’t make it mor’n that, nohow.”
He tied the money in a soiled handkerchief and knotted it, wrapping it round and round; then replaced the precious bundle in the breast pocket of his coat.
He had to be careful.
Yesterday he had lost ten cents. A small hole in the side pocket of his tattered coat, and the money had slipped through. For hours he had paced the streets, searching every possible place, going over his previous route as he remembered it.
But the dime was never found. Someone had picked it up, or the wheels of passing traffic had ground it into the mud; and the loss meant that Shorty was ten cents farther away from his cherished goal —a small green brooch in the jeweller’s window before him.
The price was a dollar ninety-eight.
Not two dollars, mark you, but a dollar ninety-eight. There is a world of difference in two cents, as no doubt the jeweller, a student of psychology, knew.
Shorty gave his pocket a final pat to make sure that all was safe, then gave himself up to luxurious reflection. How bright the brooch looked, winking in the light from cunningly contrived electric lamps! It was in the form of a maple leaf and set with diamonds—at least, the tiny stones looked and flashed like diamonds, and Maidie would never know the difference.
The brooch was for her birthday, three days hence. It was to be Shorty’s vindication; earned with honest money, sweated for, worked for, as he had worked for nothing else in all his fifty-five years— and he hadn’t worked very much.
Usually he had been two jumps ahead of the law; that is, when he had been ahead at all. Otherwise, he went to jail.
Thirty days. Sixty days. Sometimes more. Just petty offenses; picking pockets; filching from stores. The police were tired of him and could do nothing with him. He had neither the brains to become even a moderately efficient criminal nor the desire to be an honest man. He would probably have disappeared one dark night in the harbor where the water flows blackest, but for Maidie.
They lived in the same house; a ramshackle rooming house in the east end of the city, tenanted by the very poor. Maidie was sixteen, daughter of the landlady; but there was a difference between her and the other inmates. She worked.
Often Shorty saw her at night when she came home from the hat factory where she was employed: a brownhaired girl with level eyes and a little rounded chin that should take her away some day from the hopeless poverty of Goldie Street.
He invented errands to take him near her; fixing the kitchen tap, a loose board in the floor, eyeing his deity the while with the dumb adoration of a dog. If he had had a daughter, she would have been like Maidie.
The girl was kind to the old man. When her mother wanted to turn him out of his miserable attic, she protested. Didn’t he make up his rent doing odd jobs? Who fixed the roof last winter? No one if not Shorty. Certainly not the landlord. That gentleman tried to forget his property in Goldie Street.
Her mother sullenly acquiesced. . She knew full well that it was only the loyalty of her daughter that kept her from that dread place—the House of Industry. So Shorty stayed on, and with pathetic eagerness tried to make himself useful.
At intervals he stole. Then the police would come.
“C’mon, Shorty,” they would say with wearied patience, and Shorty would be sent up for another term.
Maidie always cried. “Oh Shorty, how can you!”she would say, and the old man was always apologetic. “Dunno what comes over me, my dear. Next time I’ll get some work.”
But when he came out it was the same thing over again.
CO IT might have gone on indefinitely but for the ^ brooch. He had seen it coming back one night from a visit to a certain tobacco store, the proprietor of which seemed criminally careless of his stock, and he was at the lowest wave of moral resistance. In his pocket was a packet of cigarettes which he had not paid for; also an apple filched from a fruit store. He was looking for something else more substantial to take when he spied the brooch.
Bright and alluring, it gleamed through the glass window of the jeweller’s, and a small ticket attached gave the price—a dollar ninetyeight.
Shorty went closer; stared raptly. It was just the thing for Maidie’s birthday. For some time he had been toying vaguely with the idea of giving her something—and here it was.
He went inside the shop and interviewed the fatfaced Jew in charge.
“That pin thing in the window, a dollar ninetyeight—will you keep it for me?”
The Jew eyed him narrowly. He was familiar with Shorty and his kind. It wouldn’t be the first time he had been held up. His hand stole under the counter, but Shorty was too excited to notice.
“You keep it for me?” he repeated.
“Yeth, if you leave a deposit,” said the Jew curtly.
But Shorty had no deposit’ not even a cent. He went outside and eyed the treasure again lingeringly, before embarking on the task of making a dollar ninety-eight.
THE task proved gigantic, for the money had to be earned honestly, not begged or stolen. Maidie would never accept a present bought with stolen money.
Always hollow-eyed and weary looking, his face grew thinner till his skin, rough and unshaven, was merely dirty parchment stretched over his cheek bones, and two deep lines furrowed his mouth. Two things were against him, his record and his age; and either was enough to stop him in a city where many able-bodied men were seeking work.
At first he was quite confident; he tried the usual channels, the employment agencies, the factories, leads furnished by the papers. His faded blue eyes beseeched over numberless store counters. But in vain. They would have none of him. One man did employ him as a night watchman, and his job lasted just half an hour. A derby-hatted gentleman spied him flitting about the building in the dark, made investigation, and recognized Shorty. He called up the proprietor—and Shorty had to go.
The old man grew dispirited. He was almost giving up when he made his first dime selling papers while the newsvendor had his supper. Shorty considered it a good omen; he hadn’t asked for the job. Just a casual word, then “Hand ’em out, will yuh, while I eat?” and Shorty stood with the unfamiliar bundle under his arm, shouting raucously, while, on the soap box behind, the newsvendor supervised his efforts.
Ten cents he received for that—fifteen minutes’ work; then the next night the regular boy returned.
Shorty allowed himself the luxury of another glance at the precious brooch and made another try. This time he was more ingenious. Someone had parked a car in a non-parking street. Sooner or later a policeman would come along and the owner would be fined. Shorty hunted him out and explained the mistake. The owner gave him all the change he had in his pockets—sixty cents.
A red letter day, that.
Shorty went home that night with his hopes high; but the next day he was down in the depths again. Not a cent did he make, and in addition he lost a dime.
When he went back to the rooming house Maidie remarked on his appearance.
His face was a blotchy white and his hands shook as if he had a palsy.
“Feel a bit sick,” he mumbled, and averted his eyes. The brooch seemed a vague bright speck visible through the distant gates of paradise—impossible of realization.
Maidie sighed. She thought he had stolen again, and expected to see the police come any minute. Nevertheless, she went into the
kitchen and cut a generous wedge of pie. Shorty took it with shaking hands and was eating when her mother came in.
“Why d’you give pie to that bum? Ain’t we got enough trouble to feed ourselves?”
Maidie’s eyes flashed.
“Leave him alone, ma, he’s hungry.”
“Well, why don’t he work then?”
Shorty flushed, gulped down the remainder of the pie, and went upstairs to bed. For a long time he lay awake, staring with unseeing eyes at the ceiling. Surely he could make a dollar ninety-eight for the only one in the world who had ever been kind to him.
The next morning he went forth again, determined to kill himself rather than give in. A fireman gave him a dime for fetching a packet of cigarettes; another fifteen cents he made by shouting to a truck driver that a sheet of iron had fallen off his truck, and helping to load it on again; and by the end of the week he had made just a dollar twenty-one.
SHORTY turned away from the jeweller’s window; gave an automatic pat to his pocket, and set out again on his weary round. A dull pain gnawed at his stomach, but he had no thought of spending money on food. Scraps could sometimes be had by applying at the rear of cafeterias. Failing that, he would do without. His body and soul were bound up in the obsession that ran through his brain—the brooch.
He plodded through a modest residential thoroughfare, and the row on row of orderly windows gave him an idea.
Storm windows! It was late fall; getting cold. What a fool he had been not to have thought of that before !
Hurrying up to a neat front door, he rang the bell. The door opened a fraction:
“Nothing today !” then slammed in his face,
“Bad cess to ’em,” he mumbled, and tried again at the next house.
This time a lady came right out and eyed him up and down.
“What do you want?”
“Put your storm windows on, ma’am— for a dollar,” he added hopefully.
The lady pursed up her lips. “A dollar!”
“Well, fifty cents then,” said Shorty desperately.
The lady temporized.
“You put them on and I’ll see what I’ll give you when you’ve done the job.”
Shorty agreed. He was too needy to bargain. At once he plunged into the task of putting storm windows on an eightroomed house, and for the next three hours worked with almost pathetic care so that the windows fitted just so and the outer door swung too conscientiously each time it was opened. When at last he had finished, the lady carefully examined his work and handed him two coins.
Shorty looked at them. Thirty cents.
His face whitened. “Can’t you
spare a little more, ma’am? I’ve done you a good job.” “That’s all the change I have,” said the lady. She saw Shorty’s face grow tense, his fists clench, and looked apprehensively up the street.
“Now be off with you or I’ll call the police!”
A big blue form had turned the corner and was coming slowly down the street.
Shorty saw it, and his mouth twisted in a bitter smile.
“Thank you, ma’am.”
He tried two other houses, but the occupants were out. It was getting too dark to work by now. He decided to go home and be up early the next morning. For all his weariness, his hopes were beginning to ride high again. The storm windows should be a small gold mine. Not all the householders would be like the lady he had just left: and he should easily be able to make the necessary forty-seven cents and have money over as well.
No, Shorty didn’t see how he could miss the brooch now. Only forty-seven cents—and three days to make it in. Now just one look at the brooch to see it was still safe. He dragged his tired feet to the jeweller’s and peered through the glass.
There it was, chaste and beautiful: a maple leaf set with diamonds. Shorty liked to think of them as diamonds.
He drank it in with his whole soul; fed his obsession on it as a starving man would eye a morsel of bread; watched it now from this angle, now from that, admiring the flash of the stones.
Only he did not see two figures lurking in the shadows, or the face of the jeweller eyeing him suspiciously from behind the window curtain.
His mind was up in the clouds. Forgotten now his fatigue. How Maidie would love his present! He tried to imagine what she would say. Suddenly it came:
“Shorty!” Just that. “Shorty!” And her brown eyes would shine.
He reeled suddenly and leant against the window. His head was swimming and a sharp pain in his side told him that he hadn’t eaten since morning. No matter; he mustn’t spend his precious hoard on food. Perhaps he could get something at a Chinese restaurant close by; he had once helped to paper the walls.
He moved away from the jeweller’s; but hardly had he gone more than a few yards when there was a crash of breaking glass behind and two figures sped by him at top speed. One of them half turned in the lamplight and showed a face scarred on the left cheek.
Shorty ran after them, shouting at the top of his voice for the police.
Someone else was shouting behind him, but he gave no heed. He was straining his eyes to follow the fleeing men. They divided. One was lost in the shadows; the other went straight on.
“Police !—Murder !”
The voice of the jeweller came behind. Two policemen came up; the jeweller raved and gesticulated, pointing to the figure of Shorty.
In two minutes he was in the hands of the policemen, vainly shouting to them to follow the men he had seen.
“Why, it’s Shorty White.”
One of the policemen flashed a torch and recognized him. The jeweller gave a gasp. “That’s the man. I see him stare in my window all de veek!”
“Get after ’em, you . . . !”
Shorty kicked and bit and struggled in the grasp of the officers; mouthing denials; calling them fools; waving and pointing up the street, but they only laughed; and realizing at last that it was useless, he became deathly quiet.
“That’s better, Shorty, keep quiet. Ah old hand like you ought to know it’s no good.”
“Since you’re so . . . sure I done it, search me!”
One of the officers searched him, but with no result beyond his precious hoard tied up in the handkerchief.
The Jew broke out in frantic wails.
“I tell you I vas vrobbed! He hide it somewheres.”
“Oh shut up, you! He’s probably ditched the stuff and left a pal to pick it up—who’s the pal, Shorty?”
The old man made no reply. He was reserving himself for what was to come. Black as night, the fates were closing round him. Three more days ! And he was being locked up for a crime he hadn’t committed ! His mouth grew bitter. The blamed fools! And all this time the real thieves were getting farther and farther away.
In sullen silence he waited till the wagon came up; then they were whirled away to the station. Shorty slumped forward, his head on his hands, his eyes closed. The Jew kept up a ceaseless wailing, pausing every now and again to curse at Shorty. The two policemen sat stolid and silent as two monuments.
Arrived at the station, they came to life, hauled Shorty out and took him before the inspector, followed by the Jew.
The jeweller told his story, broken by many wailings and pleadings to the deity.
The inspector heard him out and turned weary eyes on Shorty.
“Anything to say, Shorty?”
Shorty braced himself up and told his tale as clearly and concisely as he could, keeping back, however, all mention of the brooch and Maidie’s birthday. He had no desire to be laughed at on that, and like many another man before him, thought the mere fact of his being innocent would establish the proof.
The inspector’s lips tightened.
“Did you men see these fellows run up the street?”
Both policemen shook their heads. No, they had not seen them.
“You say you searched him?”
The officers nodded. Yes, they had searched him and found nothing. Probably he had a confederate somewhere near and passed over the spoil.
“You’re a—liar!” burst out Shorty.
Shorty closed his mouth. It would do him no good to get mad.
“Can you describe these men?”
Shorty did the best he could. Of one he was certain. He was tall and slim and had a scar on his left cheek.
The inspector moved impatiently. “Well, I’ll look out for ’em; but I’m bound to say, Shorty, I find it hard to believe. We know you and we know your record.”
Shorty felt a touch on his arm. He moistened his dry lips and made a last desperate attempt to save himself.
“Afore God, inspector, I had nothing to do with it. I was only looking in the window to—to buy something. * You get those guys and you’ll get the stuff back!”
“Well, all right—we’ll see. Take him below.”
The last thing Shorty heard before the gates closed in on his liberty was the frantic wailing of the Jew.
I ME passed.
Hours in a police cell are reckoned by meals, and Shorty’s were borne in by a big policeman three times a day with monotonous regularity. Each time he asked his guard for news, and each time the big policeman shook his head. No, nothing had been seen of the two men the old man had mentioned. Nor, he added, was there any trace of Shorty’s accomplice, and the spoil had not been recovered.
This thrust left the old man unmoved. He saw the uselessness of insisting on his story, and bit by bit he was sinking into a hopeless resignation.
On the second day Maidie came to see him. Her eyes were red and her small hands trembled as she seated herself on the only chair. Shorty sat on the bed and stared hard at the floor. He could think of nothing to say.
The big policeman passed and repassed the cell three times before Maidie spoke. “Shorty!”
The old man winced. “Yeah, Maidie?” “Why did you do it? I—I can understand sudden temptation, but breaking a store window is deliberate thievery—and I trusted you !”
“I never done it,” he said.
“But the jeweller said you kept staring through his window as if you were going to take something.”
Shorty was silent. What use was it to speak of the brooch now? That was gone as if it had never been.
Maidie’s mouth quivered.
“If only you could have waited, Shorty. I knew you were broke and I managed to get you a job as watchman at the factory. Now I shall have to go and tell them.”
“I tell you I never done it.”
“Who did then?”
“The two guys I tried to catch—and would have but for those blasted interfering cops.”
Maidie was silent.
“You believe me, don’t you?”
“How can I?” she asked miserably. “You know how it has always been.”
The black shadow passed and repassed the cell. Maidie put our her hand.
“Shorty, be honest with me. Even now I think I can fix that job. I was talking to the inspector. He was very kind. He said that when you come out ...”
“I tell you I never done it!”
Shorty looked up wildly. He was nearly at the .end of his endurance. Everywhere fate was working against him—and now even Maidie. He wanted to kick and scream.
Maidie got up to go.
He didn’t answer. The door shut with a clang and Maidie was gone. The big policeman came and peered in his cell, but he never looked up.
ANOTHER day and night passed, then came the morning of Maidie’s birthday. Shorty hardly touched his breakfast and waited apathetically till he should be haled before the court. Noon came and passed, and still no sign of his dinner. The big policeman was late, and when he did come he brought no food.
“Inspector wants to see you,” he said curtly.
Shorty got up and followed his guide. He felt no hope. Even when he found two men held in the charge room, one of them tall and slim and scarred on the left cheek, he thought it was only some new trick of fate to confound him.
But he was wrong. The stolen jewellery had been recovered with the men, and Shorty was free to go.
Free! What use was his freedom now? A scant four hours to earn forty-seven cents, and it had taken him more than a week to earn a dollar fifty-one !
“I’m sorry this happened, Shorty . . .” “Hell! gimme my money!” Shorty cut short the apologies of the inspector, grabbed his money, and dashed out of the police station at top speed.
“Forty-seven . . . forty-seven ...” the words rang through his brain like the blows of a hammer.
He must make it. He must. There was just one chance: the storm windows. He hurried west, now and then breaking into a run. He dare not risk spending money on a street car. Passers-by turned to look at him. His breath was coming in great sobbing gasps; his face was white, his eyes staring. They thought him mad and drew away; but Shorty never noticed. He could only see one thing—the brooch. His way lay past the jeweller’s, and the temptation was too great. Just one look. It wouldn’t take a second. Panting, he paused before the window and looked in.
■ The brooch was gone.
Shorty nearly fainted. The world blurred before his eyes, and dazed and weak he swayed against the glass.
The jeweller came out.
“Vat’s the matter? . . . Oh, it’s you, is it? Well, vat you vant?”
The old man opened his eyes.
“The brooch you had—dollar ninetyeight—where is it?”
“The vrobbers took it,” said the Jew. “I only get it back this morning.”
He led the way into the shop and pointed to a tray he was arranging for the window. Among an assortment of small trinkets was the brooch. On top lay a card: ON SALE . . . $1.50.