TAKE A CHANCE
A laggard in love discovers that courage doesn't always wear trousers
MARY remembered the first time Michael came into the place. She was wiping off the counter when she looked up and saw him standing there, big and tall, with a mop of sandy hair that wanted to curl, and blue eyes, as blue as the new shirt he wore. His collar was open, his sleeves rolled up. His throat and arms, bronze and hard, glistened with perspiration. He took out a handkerchief and wiped his face and said, “Judas! It’s hot.”
Then he grinned broadly, and little crinkly lines, fanshaped, appeared at the corners of his eyes. Mary grinned in response. Lucille, the girl who worked with Mary, became interested and started down the alley behind the counter. Mary, knowing what it meant when Lucille began smoothing her hair, leaned forward to take his order.
After that he came in every day or so between six and eight and sat on one of the stools near the window. Mary waited on that end of the counter.
Mary’s hours were from twelve to eight. Sometimes she worked later because John, the night man, was not always
on time. Whenever John came in at eight-fifteen or eightthirty, sullen, running his tongue over dry lips, she knew' he had been drinking. But John never bothered her, and she didn't mind working overtime.
The coffee shop was not a bad place to work in. It w'as clean and the food w'as good, especially the hot roast beef sandwiches. It was a small place on the comer, so small that only tw'o girls w'ere needed to wait on the narrow' white counter that ran from the plate-glass window' to the kitchen wall. Mary liked it better than the bigger places. The Old Man paid good wages, was always pleasant, and not hard to please. And a lot of god looking young truck drivers and shipping clerks came in for sandwiches and coffee. They were a good-natured, easy-going lot, friendly and rarely offensive. She didn’t mind being kidded about her sombre
grey eyes and her dark hair, smooth and black as a crow’s breast. She rather liked them for it. She liked the truck drivers best—especially Michael Farrell.
A month passed after that first day he came in before she learned his name. He wasn’t a fast worker, as far as girls were concerned, and he didn’t talk much. But he always smiled and was friendly. Somehow she rather liked him because he didn’t rush in and try to date her up like some of the others. But she knew she would go out with him if he asked her. His indifference intrigued her.
He came in later than usual one evening. It was after eight, and Lucille, who left on the stroke of the clock, was gone. Mary was waiting for John.
A grubby looking person who needed a shave was annoying her. I le ordered a cup of coffee, and when she placed it before him he caught her hand and made a wise-crack. She ignored him and tried to freeze him out with a stare from her grey eyes. However, her eyes were not the kind to freeze anyone. And she knew it. She didn’t want to press the little button under the counter and summon the Old Man from the kitchen. The Old Man didn’t like trouble.
The grubby looking person continued to make remarks about a date and “showing her a hot time.” When she passed in front of him he reached over the counter and caught her arm.
It was then she heard a voice she knew, saying, "Haven’t you finished that coffee?”
CHE looked up quickly. There he was. She never knew a big man who could come in so quietly. He seemed to have appeared suddenly—like magic. He wasn’t smiling and there was nothing friendly looking about him. He slapped the grubby looking person on the shoulder with the back of his hand and said, "Scr-ram, before I take a sock at you.’’
The grubby looking person “scr-rammed.”
“Thanks, Mr.—what’s your name?” Mary said.
“Mike—Michael Farrell.” He grinned and the little crinkly lines spread around his eyes.
“Thanks, Michael, for getting rid of that bum.”
“ ’S all right. I don’t like to see a guy get fresh where he ain't wanted. A guy can tell who he can get fresh with.” I íe dropped the keys of his truck into his coat pocket and sat down. "Say, what’s your name?”
“I gotta sister named Mary. She’s just about as pretty as you are.”
For a moment her eyes met his, then she said, “Wliat’ll
you have?” Idly she arranged the pepper and salt shakers and the bottle of ketchup.
I le gave his order, and Mary waited in the kitchen to see that he got an extra thick slice of roast beef. She placed the food before him and leaned on the counter, hoping that no one else would come in while he was there. She watched him while he ate.
She liked the fine bronze hairs on the back of his hand, his hard, sinewy fingers. She thought his eyes were much darker at night, almost purple black. She liked them better when they were blue. They sort of fitted him—those intense blue eyes. He was so sound and healthy looking; there was strength in his shoulders hunched over the counter. His whole make-up, his eyes, his mouth, the way he carried his head, made you feel that he was glad to be alive. Mary was glad she was alive and knew him.
Presently he got up and dropped a dollar bill on the counter. Mary gave him change and said; “Don’t you want another cup of coffee?”
“Thanks. I guess one’s enough. Got to be travelling. See you tomorrow, maybe.” He flipped his hand in a salute.
At the door he turned back, looked at her for a moment, and said; “Where do you live?”
She rattled the dishes to cover her surprise and told him.
“I’ll take you home,” he said, “if you don’t mind riding a truck. How soon can you leave?”
“Soon as the night man comes. He’ll be here in a minute.”
Quickly she cleared the dishes, and as she wiped the counter she wondered how it would feel to be in his arms and have him kiss her. She knew she would let him if he wanted to. She hoped he would want to.
Presently John came in, mumbled a greeting and looked at the clock. Mary put on her coat and hat and joined Michael at the door. When her arm w'ent through his, she knewr the thrill that one knows when a wish comes true. She didn’t say anything because she didn’t know what to say. She was just happy. It showed in her face.
They went through the door to the street, and there Mary’s thrill died as quickly as it came. The grubby looking person was standing at the comer in the shadow of the light post. She looked at him from the comer of her eyes and tightened her hold on Mike. Mike was taking her home because the grubby looking person was there waiting for her, not because he cared anything about her. Not because she liad pretty hair and big eyes and a straight nose and slender ankles, just because he “didn’t like to see a guy get fresh.”
“Maybe he don’t like girls.” she thought. She said: “It’s going to get cold, pretty soon.”
Mike said “Yeah.” and bent his head into the w'ind.
In the middle of the block he stopped before a big truck that proclaimed in letters, no longer white, that it belonged to the Security Warehouse. By its lettering and fenders, Mary knew that the truck had seen a great deal of service. Mike helped her in, got in beside her. and started the engine with a roar.
“Don’t you get cold in this thing?” she asked.
“I did last winter,” he told her, “but I’m going to have a new one in a coupla weeks. One of those big babies with a cab front, all dosed in. Be pretty swell.”
Yes. Mary thought it would, too.
“It’s nice of you to take me home—Michael,” she said presently.
“Oh, that’s all right. I don’t like to see a guy get fresh. He might’ve started something again.”
Yes, Mary knew that was the reason.
At her house Mike drew the truck up to the curb, helped her out and followed her up the steps. Up three flights he followed her to stop at her door. There he said good night with that funny little flip of his hand, like a salute. Then he turned back.
“Say, if that guy ever bothers you again just let me know, will ya?”
“I sure will, Michael. But—how’ll* I let you know?”
Mike, perplexed, twisted his mouth. Then he grinned.
“Hadn’t thought of that. Guess I’ll drop by about closing time. Well, so long.”
She watched him go down the steps. At the foot of the stairs he turned and looked back and smiled. Then he went on. Leaning over the banister rail, she could see his battered felt hat, the spread of his shoulders, and one final glimpse of his hand as he swung around the newel post on the lower floor. Faintly she heard the door close downstairs.
THE next evening Mike appeared promptly at eight and took her home. And the next and the next. A week passed, and Mary began to look at the clock and listen for his truck. She could never hear him come in. He always came in as he had the first time she had seen him—quiet, noiseless, appearing suddenly from nowhere.
Only once had the grubby looking person returned. He left a;oon as Mike came in.
Another week passed, with Mike acting as escort each evening. Not once in that time had he touched her, beyond
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helping her in and out of the truck; not one word of tenderness had he uttered. He was as impersonal as the truck he drove. She wondered why he didn't want to put his arm around her and maybe kiss her. Other men did. She had read about men who were courageous with men and timid as rabbits with girls. She wondered if Mike were like that.
One evening when he brought her home she stopped at the head of the stairs and turned to him.
“You don't like.girls, do you, Michael?” “Sure, I like ’em. Generally speaking, they’re all right, I guess.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean you.” he said quickly. “You’re swell, Mary —but—”
She sat on the top step and motioned for him to sit beside her. He dropped down and hung his hat on one knee. He hugged the other knee and stared down the steps.
“You’re wondering why I been coming over here with you for a coupla weeks,” he said slowly as if he were measuring his words, “and never tried any of this necking business.”
“I don’t go out for that,” she said with an edge on her voice, angry that he had read her thoughts.
“I didn’t say you did,” he returned, still staring down the steps. “What I was going to say is that when a guy starts necking then he gets into trouble.”
“What do you mean?” she demanded. The uncertainty of his meaning left her doubtfuland incensed. What did he think she was?
"What I’m trying to say,” said Mike, floundering. “Oh, well—when a guy starts necking around with one girl, then he falls in love with her, and ’fore he knows it he’s hooked up for life—married. And there
“Oh,” said Mary, rather relieved. “But don’t you like girls at all?”
“Yeah, but I—”
“Don’t you like to go out and dance and—”
“I drive a truck lots better’n I dance.”
"I bet you dance grand, Michael.”
“I’ll show you some night if you wanta step out.”
. “I’d love to.”
Mike quit twirling his hat and looked at her.
“Then I’d be holding you in my arms and \ the music would be playing sorta sweet and I I 'd wanta kiss you.”
“Well?” returning his gaze.
“That wouldn’t do.” He shifted his eyes and twirled his hat again.
Mary looked at him with a little pity, a little disgust.
“You’re a funny boy,” she said.
“No. I just know what I want. A guy like me that knows where he’s going has got no business with a woman on his hands.” He turned back to her and his hands were still. “I know what happens. Look at Sam Hillman. He was a swell guy with a swell job. He fell in love with a good looker with eyes that knocked him for a loop. He got married and he's been doing loops ever since, l ie’s broke all the time ’cause he’s not making money enough for two of ’em. Now if he’d waited a coupla years— ”
“Why doesn’t she help him?” Mary demanded.
“Ask her. Some girls will and some i won’t.”
i “And you’re scared —”
! “No. I’m not taking any chances. I can’t ! afford to fall for —” He stopped suddenly and looked at her intently. “If I kissed anybody as pretty as you—” He stopped again and looked down the stairs. “It would be mighty easy to fall in love with you, and I can’t afford to fall in love with anybody not now. You see. Mary, I don’t intend to drive a truck the rest of my life. I’m going to have somebody drive a truck for me. I want a fleet of my own trucks and
a big freight business. There’s plenty of money in it. Then I can fall in love.”
"And you’re going to do without love until you’re an old man?” she demanded.
“Old man?” He looked at her sharply. “Say, baby, I’m saving every nickel I make. It won’t be long.”
“No, I guess not. But—it’ll seem a long time to some people.”
“Yeah. But you see I wanta be sure. I want a girl that’ll help me get somewhere. Most girls haven't any nerve. You don’t know whether they’re going to stick by a guy or not. I don’t want a clinging vine that turns out to be a bunch of poison ivy.” Mary stood up and looked down at him indignantly.
“Now listen here, Michael Farrell. I’m no clinging vine—if that’s what you mean. I’ve been making my own living for two years. And girls can do just as much as men. Goodnight!”
The door slammed with a bang.
As Mike went slowly down the steps he had no way of knowing that Mary was lying on her bed, crying.
>fIKE came into the coffee shop DLL promptly at eight the next ¡evening. When Mary looked up he was standing in front of the counter. She gave him an impersonal glance and said :
“What’ll you have, Mr. Farrell?”
He grinned, and the little crinkly lines, fan shaped, showed at the corners of his eyes. He dropped his keys in the pocket of his coat and said;
“Aw, Mary. Come off that high horse.” For a moment she stared hesitantly, then she matched his smile.
“I can’t be sore at you.” she said. “But you do make me awfully mad, the way you talk.”
“You know I didn’t mean you.” He leaned over the counter. “Wish John would come on. Got something to show you.” “John’s here, in the kitchen. I’m ready
Forgetting that she had been sore with him, she got her coat and joined him at the door. She knew by the sparkle in his eyes, the proud lilt of his voice, what he wanted to show her. She knew that, regardless of what had been said or done, she would not spoil this moment for him. She passed through the door, clinging to his arm.
“What you think of that?” he demanded with a gesture.
Drawn up at the curb was a huge red truck, body and driver’s seat completely enclosed. Mary looked at it and thought it was as big as her bedroom.
“Gee! It’s swell, Michael,” she said. “Regular travelling vault,” he explained. “Body’s all solid and the doors in the back automatically lock when they’re closed. Even the doors to the driver’s seat lock.” He lowered his voice. “It’s for carrying special orders— valuable orders, silks and furs and the like.”
He helped her in and slid under the wheel. “That’s what I’m doing now—hauling special shipments. No more little trucking for me. Nothing but long hauls. And when I’ve got a big order I’ll have a guard with me.”
“Guard?” repeated Mary, feeling a vague alarm.
“Sure. On account of hi-jackers. All the big silk and fur robberies don't happen in lofts and warehouses. Terry Connell got held up just a coupla blocks from the warehouse. Lost about twenty thousand in silks. ’Course his was an old rattler that they could get into. Now this baby is closed up like a bank. And nobody has a key ’cept me and the warehouse.”
“But, Michael, if anybody wanted to hold you up —”
Michael smiled in that patronizing way men have with women who don't understand.
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Continued, from page 32 “The windshield and the glass in the doors are bulletproof, and the panels”—he thumped the panel beside him—“are steel. If anybody steps out in the road I just keep going. Nope, they’ll have to find some other way to get me.”
Mary nodded and was silent. Somehow she wished he had not told her of steel panels and bulletproof glass. He had implanted a thin suspicion of fear in her and she knew it would grow. She was the kind of girl who would worry about a man she loved.
It was not until she was sitting with Michael on the steps outside her room that her words betrayed her fear. She had not wanted to say anything that even suggested anxiety, for she instinctively knew that he would not like it. He was the sort, she felt, who would never admit fear. Michael might be fearless but he would not be cautious He was too headstrong, too determined, and he was, she thought, adolescent enough to consider an admission of fear to be due to lack of courage.
“Michael, couldn’t you haul something that wasn’t so—so valuable?” she asked. “Something that nobody would want to steal?”
Michael laughed. “Sure I could. But I wouldn’t get as much money—and I need the money, Mary. Besides, they got faith in me. They know I play square and—”
He stopped suddenly and she knew that he had seen the worry in her eyes. Instantly she smiled.
“Now see,” he said, “that’s just what I told you about girls. Here you’re looking like I’m going to get bumped off soon as I walk out the door. Now if I was married to you, you’d be worrying and have me worried. Don’t you see?”
Impulsively she laid her hand on his arm. “I wasn’t worrying, Michael,” she said. "I—I just wanted you to be careful.”
His eyes were very solemn when he looked at her. “Why?”
“Because—” Funny how dark blue his eyes were and how the pupils dilated. Funny how they watched her and hushed her voice. Funny how soft and yet how strong his hand was. closing over hers.
“I told you once that if I ever kissed anybody as pretty as you—” His voice was funny. It was not like Michael talking.
His arms were around her and his lips pressing down on hers. She relaxed in his arms, and was conscious of the smell of tobacco and leather coat. He released her and leaned against the wall.
"You said that it wouldn’t do to kiss me.” she chided: “that you weren’t taking any chances.”
"You got to take a chance some time -just once.”
Again he looked at her solemnly and intently. Again he kissed her.
“There’s no soft music, Michael.”
“There is,” said Michael. “In me.”
After Michael was gone Mary sat in the window and listened to the roar from the street below. In her mind was a curious mixture of joy and apprehension, intensified by the new significance he now had for her. She could see the play of his eyes, the twist of his mouth. His every gesture became invested with a meaning apart from anybody else, Superimposed on these reflections were headlines in the papers, a blurred picture of a wrecked truck. She shuddered and turned away from the window.
A WEEK went by and Mary said nothing about Michael’s new duties. She did not have to be told twice that he disliked any mention of the subject. And in trying to ignore the idea that he might be in danger, she found it easier to forget it. Within another week she had ceased to worry. She could only think of her love for him and her persistent hope that he would soon have money enough to buy a truck of his own.
Strangely enough, it was Mary who was confronted with danger just about the time she stopped worrying about Michael. One Saturday afternoon before the six o’clock crowd started coming in, two men sat down
at the counter and asked for coffee. Mary turned to the shining percolator behind her. Then she heard a sort of strangled gasp from Lucille. She whirled quickly and found herself facing a half concealed revolver. There was nothing to do but remain quiet. The men took forty-four dollars and some odd change from the cash register and walked out. Then Lucille screamed and became very dramatic.
After that Mary arranged a signal with the Old Man in the kitchen. When she pressed three times on the little button hidden under the counter it meant trouble, and the Old Man would slip out the back door and call the policeman on the beat.
When Michael heard about the hold-up he laughed and kidded Mary. He told her he should have been worrying about her instead of her worrying about him. No one, he declared, was going to stop a truck that was shut up like a safe. Mary smiled and agreed and told him she had been foolish. Michael smiled and took another chance and kissed her.
Another week went by and Michael’s long promised evening of “stepping out to dance” was set for Saturday. Mary began watching the clock at seven-thirty. Michael was to dress, come for her, and take her home and wait while she changed.
At eight Lucille left promptly, and Mary was alone in the coffee shop except for the Old Man in the kitchen. John had not appeared, neither had Michael. Fifteen minutes later Michael came in. Mary tried to hide her disappointment when she saw that he wore his work clothes and his old leather coat.
He dropped the keys of the truck into his coat pocket as he always did, and leaned over the counter.
“Sorry, Mary. We’ll have to make it some other night,” he said. “Got to make a special trip to Danbridge.”
“That’s all right,” she told him.
“Hope you’re not disappointed but it can’t be helped.” He lowered his voice. “Mary, I’ve got enough silk in that truck to keep you in dresses the rest of your life. All special imported stuff. If I had what that truck’s worth—” He stopped abruptly as the door opened.
A rather well-dressed man came in and sat down next to Michael. He ordered a cup of coffee.
“Better give me one, too,” said Michael. “It’s cold tonight.”
“Sure is,” the man agreed. He started talking to Michael in a desultory manner about roads leading out of the city.
Mary placed two cups of coffee on the counter as a second man came in. He took the seat on the right of Michael and ordered coffee. Michael, turned sidewise in his seat, was discussing a road map with the man on his left.
Mary picked up a cup and turned to the big percolator. Suddenly her hand trembled. The shining nickel of the percolator was a mirror, if an imperfect one. In it she saw the man on Michael’s right move his hand and covertly drop something in Michael’s cup. For an instant she wanted to turn and scream a warning, but fear held her. Michael’s words flashed through her thoughts: “They’ll have to find some other way to get me.” This was the other way. Knockout drops! A simple matter then to take the keys, drive off and loot the truck at leisure. Instead of screaming, Mary stood still, filled the cup, and tried to relax.
Forcing a smile, she turned back to the counter and spilled some of the coffee as she set down the cup and saucer. She reached under the counter for a dish towel and wiped the counter with vigorous strokes, so vigorous that she upset the coffee in front of Michael. The coffee went over the counter and splashed on his coat.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ll wipe it off. Hope it didn't burn you. I think most of it went into your pocket.”
“And they pay you for this,” snarled the man on Michael’s right.
Mary ignored him. She was busy wiping Michael’s coat. Michael stood up and Mary ran the cloth over the pocket flap and inside the pocket.
“Sorry,” she said, folding up the towel and sticking it under the counter. As she withdrew her hand she let her finger linger long enough to press the button—three times.
She knew that the keys of Michael’s truck were wrapped in the coffee-stained towel.
“I’ll get you another cup,” she said to Michael, conscious that the two men were watching her intently. She knew they were cursing her for a clumsy fool.
QUIETLY she placed another cup of „coffee in front of Michael while she tried to smile and hide her perturbation. She did not want tö look at him for fear of betraying his danger. She was sure the two men were armed. Any sudden move might be disastrous.
Her hands moved nervously. Needlessly she wiped the counter with hurried, jerky strokes of the cloth. She shifted and arranged the heavy pepper and salt shakers, tightened the cap on the bottle of ketchup. She raised her eyes and met Michael’s questioning and puzzled stare.
Michael put both hands on the counter and started to rise.
“Keep still !”
Mary knew that the words, whispered, had come from the man on Michael’s left, though his lips had barely moved. She knew from the slight movement of his arm that below the counter, in an overcoat pocket, a gun was covering Michael. And Michael continued to stare at her as though he had not heard the command. Not a muscle in his face moved, only his eyes moved to the left.
Slowly Michael settled back in his seat, dragging his hands from the counter. Suddenly his elbow snapped backward viciously, striking the man on the shoulder. The man swung around on the revolving stool. A gun exploded. Plaster fell from the wall. Michael’s fist, driving like a piston, caught the man on the jaw. He toppled off the stool j with Michael on top of him.
At the instant the gun exploded, the man ■ on Michael’s right whirled, reaching for his j gun. His hand never reached his pocket. Mary brought the ketchup bottle down on his head with all the force she could muster. The bottle broke. The man slid from the stool, the tomato-red fluid flowing over his head and down the side of his face.
As Mary ran around the counter toward Michael the Old Man and Jim Conner, the policeman, came in at the door.
“Easy, kid,” said Conner, dragging Michael off the man. “He can’t hurt i nobody.” Michael stood up, breathing hard. | Conner looked at the second man. “Cripes !
I thought that was blood. Whatcha hit , him with?”
Mary gulped and sat down. “A ketchup bottle. He—he was going to shoot Michael.” “Him?” Conner jerked a thumb toward Michael.
Conner smiled and looked at Michael significantly.
“Hope she ain’t so handy with a rolling pin,” he said.
Michael grinned. “Say! I gotta be travelling.” He walked around the policeman to Mary. “Haven’t got time to tell you now, Mary, but—” His face suddenly went blank as he reached for his keys. “They got ’em !”
“No,” Mary said. “I got ’em.”
She went behind the counter and gave him the keys. He forgot the policeman and the Old Man and the other two men. He stared at the keys. Then he reached across the counter and grabbed Mary’s hands.
"This is no time to thank you,” he said, "but you—well, you know I said: ‘Some
girls will and some won’t.’ ”
“Will what, Michael?”
“Help a guy she’s married to. But with somebody like you—”
“But. Michael, you said—”
“Yeah, I know. I said a lot. But a guy’s got to take a chance to get anywhere in this world.” He gave her a hurried kiss and started out. At the door he turned back. “Say, you might be looking around for an apartment. I’ll be back in the morning.”