FICTION

Well, Good Night

Remember when you first went out on a date?—If you do you’ll like this story of tongue-tied courtin’

CHARLES MERGENDAHL July 15 1945
FICTION

Well, Good Night

Remember when you first went out on a date?—If you do you’ll like this story of tongue-tied courtin’

CHARLES MERGENDAHL July 15 1945

Well, Good Night

CHARLES MERGENDAHL

THEY came out through the revolving doors of the theatre, and they walked side by side through the crowded darkness of city streets. The boy walked on the outside, taking short steps, trying to adjust his stride to the shorter steps of the girl’s high heels. He was a tall boy and a thin boy, pale and slightly stooped, with the kind of long body that seems rather surprised to have grown so suddenly. He wore a dark brown suit with dull red stripes, a little too wide, and a soft hat with a blue feather protruding rakishly from the band. His tie was knit, with a large knot, his shoes highly polished. They looked a little out of place under his casually garterless socks.

. He walked close to the girl, with his hand swinging beside hers, not quite touching it, not quite, but so close the touching of fingers would have been an intended accident. And he looked sideways at the girl as they walked through the dark. He looked at the neat line of her mouth, repainted only a few seconds before they left the theatre, and he looked at the clean profile of her face, young and fresh, with the sacred beauty of the very young.

She wore a short fur coat, although it was very warm for October, and there was a thin veil over her face, hanging from an impossible but beautiful hat. The veil made her seem very far away, but her hand swinging so close to his own made her very close. She tottered beside him on her high heels, and she tried very hard to make her steps long in order to keep up with his boyish stride.

They stopped at a curb.

“It’s right across the street,” the boy said. “1 remember because of the liquor store on the corner.” The girl didn’t answer, and the boy touched her elbow as they stepped down from the curb. He did not help her down from the sidewalk and he did not guide her across the street. He merely touched her elbow because it was a good time to touch a girl’s elbow, and the girl did not draw away because it was a good time to let him.

They crossed the street and walked down the pavement toward his car; his father’s car. He dropped Iris hand from her elbow after she had stepped up to the new pavement. He didn’t want to drop his hand, but he did anyway. It was all right crossing the street, but it felt awkward on the sidewalk. It felt as though he was touching her elbow on purpose, and it felt as though she might not like it.

“Right here,” the boy said. “Right here.” He bent down and inserted a key in the door lock, turned it, and opened the car door. He touched the girl’s elbow once more as she stepped in, and he noticed the sweep of her slender legs as she tucked them under her on the car seat. Then he closed the door and walked around in front of the car to the other door.

He could feel the girl’s eyes on him as he moved, and he tried to be casual about it. He tried very hard, but it didn’t work somehow. It was the same as coming back through a long line of tables in a restaurant when the girl was watching him come. It was the same as trying to eat a sandwich with lettuce in the middle when the girl was watching. The lettuce always seemed to keep pulling out of the sandwich, and it always seemed that someone asked him a question just as he was trying to eat the sandwich and be casual at the same time. He had to finish eating the lettuce before he could speak, and the girl always watched him, so when he finally did answer his words were flat and not very sparkling. He liked to have the girl watch him because she was she and he was he, and he liked that personal contact. But not eating lettuce. Not crossing a room toward her table, and not going around in front of a car. It always embarrassed him.

He got into the car and started the engine. They drove down the street, turned left, and headed out, over a long bridge, through the city toward the girl’s home in the suburbs.

IT CERTAINLY is pretty along this bridge at night,” the boy said. “The lights over the water and the moving, lights of the automobiles along the shore. Like little fireflies, hovering along the bank.” “Yes, it’s very pretty.”

“It certainly is.” Then he remembered he had said the same thing once before, about fireflies hovering. 11. had been one week ago, the last Friday night, exactly one week, and he had said the same words, and he had wondered whether fireflies really hovered or he should have used another word. And the girl had said the same thing, too, “Yes, it’s very pretty.” That had been their first date. ’Phis was their second, and they were saying the same things over again.

“Would you like to eat?” the boy asked. “I mean would you like to stop somewhere and have something to eat? A hamburger maybe, or maybe a hot dog or some eggs or something?”

“I don’t care. Anything you like.”

“No, anything you like. A hot dog or something.” “Well, I don’t care.”

“Well, neither do I.” There was a pause and the girl didn’t say anything one way or another. “That’s one thing about me,” he went on, “I don’t much care whether I eat or not. Sometimes I like to eat and sometimes I don’t like to eat. It just depends on how I feel.”

“That’s the way it is with me,” the girl said.

“Well, how do you feel now? Right this minute?”

“1 don’t care,” the girl said. “This is one of those times it doesn’t make any difference.”

“That’s the way with me too. It doesn’t make any difference. Especially it’s always that way about olives. I don’t know. Olives are one thing I don’t seem to be able to get excited about, and yet I eat them all the time anyway. Like peanuts. You see them there in

front of you, and you don't like them particularly. You never even thought about whether you like them or not. Rut you eat them just the same. Just because they’re in front of you . . . Funny.”

“I guess it’s just human nature,” the girl said.

“Yes, 1 guess that’s what it is.” He glanced at the girl, surprised that she was so clever, that she had such a deep understanding. “Just human nature.”

He looked out the window and he saw the blinking neon sign of an all-night restaurant. It was the last place to eat before they reached the girl’s house. “Yes, that’s what it is all right. Just human nature.” And he spoke very fast because he didn’t want the girl to notice the neon sign. He didn't want her to see the restaurant and start, the long conversation, the long questions and vague answers all over again. If they passed the sign then he couldn’t very well take her anywhere to eat, could he? And if he couldn’t take her anywhere then she had no right ever being indignant about it. did she? Not that he didn't uxint to take her to eat. Not that she really would be indignant, because she wouldn’t . She wasn’t that kind of girl. She was a real nice girl, she was. But he w’anted to get the eating business out of the way. It was tying him up in knots, and he wanted to get it over with.

The girl fumbled in her handbag. “Do you want a cigarette?” she asked.

“A cigarette? Why, yes. Yes, I’d like that.”

“I’ll light one for you.”

“Will you really? Well, that would be fine. That would be just great. Yes, sir.”

And he saw her light the cigarette. He saw the match flare in the dark and he saw her face over the match, cool and lovely. He saw her put the cigarette in her lovely red mouth, exposed now, naked in the night, as he took the lighted cigarette from her long cool fingers. He noted the traces of her lipstick on the tip of the cigarette, and he placed it gently, almost reverently into his mouth. “Thank you,” he said. “Thanks a lot.” He dragged deep and he tasted her lipstick. It was like raspberry. It was the nearest thing to raspberry lie had ever experienced, and it was almost like touching her lips, almost like kissing her. He sighed and he said, “My, that tastes good.”

“Yes, a cigarette is always good, don’t you think?” “No, I don’t mean the cigarette. I mean the lipstick. Like raspberry. Just like touching your mouth — I mean—well, your lipstick tastes like raspberry.” “Oh!” the girl said. “It’s not raspberry.”

“What 1 mean is it

Continued on page 28

Remember when you first went out on a date?—If you do you’ll like this story of tongue-tied courtin’

Well, Good Night

Continued from page 13

I tastes all right. I mean probably it feels pretty good to taste raspberry all the time. It would be nice to taste it all the time. I mean 1 wouldn’t mind having some of it on my mouth. That

is, well—to wear it.” His voice trailed off and died away.

“You’d look kind of funny,” the girl said.

“Yes, I guess I would.” He brightened and laughed, letting the laughter fade away in a normal manner. Then he sighed a long sigh because he was glad she had said that. He was glad she had helped him out. It had been a very dangerous conversation, but she had helped him along, and perhaps she didn’t think anything bad after all.

They drove in silence for a while, and the girl smoked her own cigar! ette in the darkness. Then she pulled down her veil again, and it was as i though she had suddenly closed a door in his face. He shivered and he resented i her a little. He tried not to, but it was j there, deep inside him, a resentment Í toward this cool girl, this crisp young ; girl who put a wall between them. He glanced at her profile under the veil, i and it reminded him of someone, a I moving picture actress. He thought for a moment, trying to decide who it j was. Rita Hayworth. That was it, j Rita Hayworth. And he thought Rita : Hayworth was an extremely beautiful j girl.

“You know what,” he said. “You ; look just like somebody. I always knew

it, but I couldn’t figure out who it was till just now.”

“Do I?” the girl said. “Who?” Only * she wasn’t looking at him. She was looking straight ahead out the car window.

“Rita Hayworth.” And he watched for her smile of approval.

“Rita Hayworth?”

“Almost exactly like her. That’s what 1 think.”

“Well,” the girl said, “I never thought she was so beautiful.”

“You didn’t?”

“Oh, I guess she’s all right. I guess a lot of people think she’s pretty beauti¡ fui. But I never tried to look like her I especially. I don’t think she’s my type especially. I always tried to look like Arleen Whelan.”

“Arleen Whelan? What picture was she in?”

The girl glanced at him, and her lips curled a little at the corners. “She’s a stage actress,” she said. “She plays on the legitimate stage.”

“Oh.”

“I never tried to look like Rita ! Havworth at all. Never once in my ! life'”

“Well,” the boy said, “what I mean j is that was what / thought. Maybe ! nobody else would t hink that at all. In j fact I don’t guess anybody else would I ever think that. No sir, nobody else.

Just me. I mean—well, she’s one of my favorites, and I think she’s beautiful, and it just popped into my head just for a minute, just a fraction of a second, that you look a little bit like her. Just a little bit.”

“Just a little bit?”

“That’s all. Just a little tiny teenie weenie bit. You couldn’t even hardly notice it.”

“But you said you thought she was beautiful,” the girl said.

“Well, maybe I—”

“I guess you don’t think I’m beautiful at all. You think I’m not such a beautiful girl at all.”

“No, I didn’t say that. What I mean is—”

“You think I’m homely. That’s what you mean.”

“No, it isn’t what I mean at all. Not at all at all.”

THEY reached the final turn before they drove up the gentle slope of hill to the girl’s house, and he spun the wheel hard to the right, a little frantic and a little angry. The girl was thrown against him as the car turned. She put out a hand to steady herself, and her hand touched his knee. But she snatched it away again. She sat up straight in the seat and smoothed down her dress with her long fingers.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m terribly sorry. I almost missed the turn. I guess.” But he hadn’t missed it, and he reminded himself to try that again. A fast right turn was a good idea. It brought the girl very close to him, and he would remember that trick and use it again.

Then they saw the girl’s house before them, and the car slowed down and stopped under a huge elm tree. The boy switched off the motor and slipped down under the wheel. He pushed his hat back on his head, and he drummed on the wheel with his fingers.

The girl was silent, staring straight ahead. She was sitting upright in the seat, her back stiff, her hands folded carefully in her lap.

“Well,” the boy said. And he touched the light switch with his fingers. It took an hour to move his hand to the switch, another hour to pull it back again. It seemed that all the world was watching him put out the lights, and that all the world was criticizing.

“I guess I’d better go in,” the girl said.

“No, you don’t have to go in now, do you? Not for a little while anyway?” He started to put on the lights again, hating to do it, but the girl wasn’t moving. Her hand rested gently on the doorknob, but she hadn’t moved really. He left the lights off.

“Well, just for a little while. All right.” And she sat back, stiff in the seat.

They sat in the car and they smoked. Once the boy slid his arm along the back of the seat so his fingers touched the girl’s fur coat. But she moved then, just slightly, a fraction of an inch,

and he drew his hand back again. The girl was fumbling in her handbag, and once she dropped a comb to the floor. The bov bent over to find it, and it brought him very near her, close in the night. But she moved away then.

She said it didn’t matter about the comb. He could find it in the morning or after she got out of the car He said things in little sentences, and the girl answered in little sentences. He told her what hr liked, and she liked something different. He told her his favorite movie actors and games and foods and sports. But she always preferred something different. She kept her veil down over her face, and she kept her hands folded in her lap, either that or fumbling in her bag, looking for something indefinite, something she would never find.

The boy watched her, and he became bitter and resentful. Who did she think she was anyway? Who was she to get so aloof? Just a girl who looked something like Rita Hayworth and thought she looked like some stage actress, whatever her name was. And what was so wonderful about a stage actress anyway? Here he’d gone and taken her out last week and he’d been a perfect gentleman all the time. Every minute of the time. Here he’d bought a new tie and a new hat, and he’d had his shoes shined at a regular shoe parlor by a regular shoeshine boy. He hadn’t even tried to shine them himself. And he’d borrowed his father’s car and bought the gas with his own money and taken her to a really good show. And it wasn’t cheap, either. Not by a long shot it wasn’t. And he’d offered to buy her something to eat, too. A hamburger or hot dog or anything she wanted. Anything on the menu. And what did he get out of it? Exactly what? Well, to hell with her! That’s what.

Who did she think she was anyway? If you leaned toward her a little she jumped away. And if you said something nice she tried to tie you up in knots. And suppose he did try to kiss her. Didn’t Emily Post even say it was all right? Right smack in Emily Post if said it was all right to kiss a girl on your second date. And here it was his second date and he was very much attracted to her, maybe even in love with her. Maybe so. You couldn’t tell about that, but maybe so. And he hadn’t kissed her or anything. Just touched her elbow that once when they were crossing the curb.

IT SURE is a pretty night,” the boy said. “It sure makes you think about—well, about romance, if you know what I mean.” It was his last chance, and it was a desperate chance.

“Yes,” the girl said, “it’s a pretty night.”

“I think October nights are the prettiest of all. You know, Halloween and Thanksgiving moons and pumpkins. The prettiest of all.”

“Isn’t Thanksgiving in November,” the girl asked.

“No—but I think November nights are pretty, too. Though there aren’t any nights as romantic as the nights in October. Not any at all.” His hand slid along the back of the seat for the second time, and his fingers touched the girl’s coat for the second time. They strayed along the coat and touched the long brown hair falling over the back of her neck.

She shook her head. “I’ve got to go in,” she said. “Really I do. Mother gets so angry when I sit out front. I mean—well, she wants me to come right in.”

“I see. You sit out front a lot, and your mother doesn’t like it when you sit out front. She gets tired of having you sit out front.”

“No, because I never did before. But if I did she wouldn’t like it. What I meant was—well, I have to go in.” She opened the car door and moved toward the doorway, half expecting him to object, to beg her to stay. But he didn’t move and he didn’t speak. He watched her hesitate, undecided, and he watched her step out by herself and i close the door herself. Then he stepped out on his side and walked with her to the porch. He walked slightly behind her so she couldn’t see his face. He could see the hall light through the glass doors. The girl opened the door and stepped into the hallway.

“Well,” she said. “It was a lovely evening, and thank you very much.”

“Oh, that’s all right.” He put his foot in the doorway, then pulled it back again. She half closed the door, swinging it back and forth in her hand. “That’s quite all right,” he said again,

“I had a pretty good time myself.”

“Pretty good?”

“Well, I had a good time myself.” He looked up at her and he saw her girl’s face through the veil still hanging from her hat. He saw her red lips behind the veil, and they had never seemed so far away. It had never seemed so hopeless. She was inside the house and he was outside. She was swinging the door back and forth in her hand, and she was one step above him so he had to look up at her. She was out of reach. She was in another world, untouchable and very far away.

“Well,” she said. “Good night.”

“Good night.”

“I had a nice time. Really.”

“Maybe I’ll see you again. Maybe soon.”

“Yes, that would be nice. If you want to, that is.”

“Well,” he said.

“Well,” she said.

“I’ll look for your comb. The one you dropped in the car, and I’ll save it for you.”

“That’s very nice. Thank you very much.”

“Well, good night,” he said.

“Good night,” she said.

The door closed.

He stood looking at the closed door. He saw her body move away from the doorway, and then her shape disappeared behind (he curtains that covered the glass door. He t urned and went down the walk. There was a large stone in front of him and he kicked it hard with the toe of his shoe.

It gave him a vicious pleasure, scratching the toe of his shoe, the shoe he had had shined by a regular bootblack, something special for a special evening with a special girl. It was a great satisfaction, marring his shoes, and when he reached the stone again, farther down the walk, he kicked it with the other foot. That scratched both his shoes, and that proved he didn’t care one way or another how he looked. He didn’t care one way or another whether his shoes were shined or not. And that ought to teach her a lesson. He’d show that frigid little girl. He certainly would.

Heclimbed intothecar and slammed the door hard so it made a cracking noise in the night. Then he started the engine and drove fast down the street, pushing hard on the accelerator. He turned the corner and he muttered under his breath, “Forget her! I say forget her!”

Inside the house the girl stood before the hall mirror. She took off her hat and her veil, and she studied her face in the mirror. She wrinkled her nose and puckered her lips, and she tried to see herself in profile. She talked to herself in the mirror, watching the movement of her own red lips.

Here she had gone and bought a new hat with a veil to go with it. And it had i

cost over seven dollars, that hat, and he hadn’t even noticed. And she’d worn a veil for the first time in her life. It made her look very grownup. She was sure of it. Everybody said so. Everybody except him, and he didn’t even notice. He didn’t say anything. He hadn’t even acted as though he liked it.

He’d just become angry and said she was homely. Or at least he had implied it, saying she looked like Rita Hayworth and saying Rita Hayworth was beautiful, and then changing his mind and saying she didn’t look like Rita Hayworth after all.

She stared into the mirror and she was sorry for herself. She wondered what was wrong, and she almost hated him for being so inattentive, not even opening the door for her, not paying any attention to her all night long. She almost hated him, but not quite. She stared into the mirror, and there were little drops of tears in her eyes. She watched the tears roll slowly from the corners of her lovely eyes and drop to her pale and lovely cheeks. She bit hard on her lip, and she stared at her face in the mirror.

It would have been all right. Even Emily Post had said so. Right in Emily Post it had said so. “He might at least have kissed me.”