FICTION

TOUGH EGG

She was the wrong woman and he was a tough guy . . A story as human as your own mother—with a cast from Huckleberry Finn

EDWIN RUTT February 1 1946
FICTION

TOUGH EGG

She was the wrong woman and he was a tough guy . . A story as human as your own mother—with a cast from Huckleberry Finn

EDWIN RUTT February 1 1946

TOUGH EGG

She was the wrong woman and he was a tough guy . . A story as human as your own mother—with a cast from Huckleberry Finn

EDWIN RUTT

CHAN sauntered home through crisp dusk, walking on the little grass plots between pavement and curb where he could feel the crunch of dried leaves under his feet. The faint acrid smell of a bonfire hung in the twilight.

He breathed deeply, gathering in lungfuls of keen air. It made him feel strong and alive all over—from the roots of hair like red wire, down to his toes, restless in the sturdy brown brogues. He was pleased. He supposed that this pressing new-found strength, and the confidence that it gave him, had come because he was grown-up, practically.

Chandler Hull had just turned 14.

He scuffed on through masses of leaves. His healthy pink-and-tan face was screwed into a slight scowl that wrinkled his short freckle-splotched nose. It was not a sulky scowl but rather one induced by deep absorption. Chan was weighted with a commission of importance tonight.

The scent of the bonfire came more sharply now. He turned a corner and saw the fire, superimposing grey-blue streamers on the lilac-colored haze. Lefty, rake in hand, had charge of the fire. Pete sat hard by on the curbstone, spitting occasionally into the flames.

Lo,” Chan said, suitably laconic.

Lefty and Pete greeted him with deference. Chan was older than they were. Stronger, tougher, more experienced.

“We been thinking,” Lefty announced, without preamble, “about the Centennial over at Rapidston Sat’day night.”

“Centennial?” queried Chan. “What’s that?”

“I dunno,” Lefty said, rather heavily. “But it’s some kind of a—a celebration. You know, fireworks, shooting galleries, merry-go-round and stuff.”

“Yeah?” said Chan.

“Yeah. Pete heard his dad talking about it. And we’d sure like to go.”

“Why don’t you, then?” Chan spoke as a free man who went whither he pleased.

“Gee, where’d we get the dough?” Lefty drove a smudged hand into his pocket and the firelight glinted off a lonely quarter. “That’s all I got. And Pete’s got nothing.”

Chan considered. He was intrigued by fireworks and shooting galleries. “How much’d it take for the three of us?”

Pete answered. “ ’Bout seven-eight dollars. To do it right.”

Chan absorbed this. “Your folks let you go?” he enquired.

“Nope,” Lefty said promptly. “But my folks gen’rally play cards somewhere Sat’day night. So do Pete’s. We could sneak out easy.”

“Okay.” Chan made a sudden decision. “I’ll get the dough. But not a word to anybody, see?”

They gaped at him incredulously, respectfully. “Where you going to get eight bucks?” Lefty asked finally.

“Huh? Well, I help Mr. Rowley in the store after school, don’t I?”

“Sure. But you ain’t been doing it long enough to save up all that money.”

“Lissen,” Chan growled, “ain’t it enough that I’m getting the money, without you knowing where? But I—I got ways of raising money. F’rinstance, I got a job every night this week. And it’s only Monday.” “Job? What doin’?”

“Never mind,” Chan said, darkly mysterious. “You guys want to go to the cen—cent—celebration? Okay. I’ll be seeing you about it. So long, now!”

He walked off, swinging strong young shoulders. Lefty, leaning on the rake, gazed after him admiringly. “That Chan,” Lefty said, “he knows a thing or two. And he’s sure a—a tough egg!”

Pete spat into the fire. “Sure is!” he agreed.

CHAN entered his own house by the kitchen door.

Reen was giving his small half brothers, Don and Curtis, and little Christy their supper. Reen turned from the stove as Chan closed the door. She was tall and slim, with very black eyes.

“Well,” she said, “how did the work go today?” “Okay.” From beneath lowered lashes Chan shot a half-resentful glance at his stepmother. He was aware, though in vague fashion, that this after-school job was a move toward getting out from under Reen’s jurisdiction. That being the case, the less she knew about it the better.

Reen did not press him. She began dishing up his supper. As Chan slid into his place, little blond Christy pounded rapturously with her spoon. Chan was her favorite and with his appearance she became blissfully happy.

“My, what a fuss, Christy!” Reen said.

Chan poked Christy in her small well-padded ribs, but sent Reen another dark surreptitious look. Instantly he felt guilty and dropped his eyes. He didn’t know why he disliked Reen. She had never been anything but kind to him—except, of course, that once. But he did dislike her. He always had.

Chan’s own mother, a pale pink-and-white flower of a woman, had died when he was four. He remembered her in a dim shadowy way, as one might remember a lovely ghost half-seen in a dream. A lovely ghost, flitting noiselessly about the house, with a little tuneless song on her lips. But one day the flitting and the singing stopped. Chan’s mother just seemed to wilt away.

Easy-going Bill Hull had done the best he could. A succession of housekeepers, mostly querulous and complaining, took the establishment in dubious charge. It hadn’t worked well. Bill Hull, watching his young son growing shy and introverted, made up his mind about a certain matter. After all, a suitable time—two years—had elasped. Irene came soon after that.

Chan could recall the afternoon of her arrival. His father had been absent for some days and Chan, hearing his infectious laugh in the lower hall, had clattered down the stairs. He Continued on page 26

Tough Egg

Continued from page 18

had stopped short before the tall handsome woman with flashing black eyes.

“Hi, son,” Bill Hull had said, “come meet your new mother!”

Perhaps it was a tactless way of breaking this cataclysmic development to a six-year-old. Chan hesitated, scowled. “Don’ wanna new mother,” and he’d pressed his face against Bill’s knees.

Irene laughed. She had a gay ringing laugh in those days. “But I want a son. A boy like you, Chan.”

She’d tried then to put her arm around him. Chan had jerked away. And Irene’s eyes, half rueful, half amused, went to Bill’s.

“He’ll get used to you,” Bill said. “It’s a lot for a kid to take in all at once.”

But he never had grown used to her, really. He called her “Reen,” because his inexperienced tongue couldn’t manage “Irene,” and the contraction stuck. He was polite and gave her little trouble as the years passed and Don, Curtis and Christy came along. But she remained an interloper; an alien presence to whom he deferred, but persistently refused affection.

Chan lacked two months of being 11 when Bill Hull was killed in an automobile crash. He left very little. But the house was unencumbered and Reen was a good manager. Somehow the five of them had rubbed along.

WHEN Chan finished supper there was still an hour till time for his rendezvous. He went upstairs and spent a desultory period with his schoolbooks. Then he came down. Reen had put the younger children to bed and he could hear her in the kitchen, washing up.

He debated slipping out by the front door but discarded the idea. There would be something sneaky about that and, since the kitchen was his usual means of exit, it might give Reen the right to question him later. Besides, there was no reason why he should not walk boldly out of the kitchen door.

But when his hand was on the knob Reen spoke. “Where are you going, Chan?”

He paused. “Out. Just out.”

“But where? It’s quite late. And I suppose you have homework.”

Chan frowned. This was not altogether an unexpected situation. Still, he hadn’t bargained on any particular trouble with Reen.

“Well,” Reen wiped a dish, “I’m waiting.”

He kicked at the linoleum, racking his brain for a possible white lie. None occurred. “Oh,” he said finally, “I—I got a date.”

She misconstrued it instantly. “A date? Good heavens, at your age!”

“It’s not a date, exactly,” Chan said. “It’s a job.” He added, more glibly and from hearsay, “I got a job on tonight.”

“What kind of a job?” She was like a persistent fly, nagging at him. Suddenly he felt exasperated.

“If you got to know,” he flung out, “it’s down at the bowling alley. Setting up pins for Charley Byerson.”

Reen flushed at his unwonted rudeness. But she said, quietly, “I’d rather you wouldn’t do that, Chan.”

“Why not?” he demanded. “I’ve set up pins before. Lots of times.”

She shrugged. “You wouldn’t have, if I’d known. As for ‘why not?’ I’ll give you three reasons right off. The bowling alley’s no place for a boy like you. Bill wouldn’t have liked you to hang around there. And Charley Byerson is practically the village loafer.”

Chan stared at her. Why, Charley Byerson was someone to be looked up to—emulated! Had he not achieved eight straight strikes only the previous week? Chan himself had seen the phenomenon.

“You—you don’t know what you’re talking about!” he exclaimed.

Reen’s face darkened. Chan did not realize it, but the face was not quite the face of the girl Bill Hull had brought home long ago. There was a gaunt look about it now, and networks of tiny lines at eye and mouth corners.

“Don’t speak to me that way, Chan!” Reen said sharply.

“But you’re butting into something that—that . . .” He checked it, avoiding a dangerous finish.

“That what?”

“Oh, gee!” he squirmed. “Why do I have to answer all these questions? Why can’t I just—just go?”

“Because you can’t, Chan. That’s all.”

Suddenly he grew rebellious. She was forbidding him, thwarting him. And it—it couldn’t be. He mustn’t let it be. Subconsciously he recognized that her successful interference would negate his new feeling of strength and independence. He swallowed, and drove himself to say gruffly, “Well, I’m going anyhow.”

Reen looked at him for a full 10 seconds. Then she said, lips tightening, “Chan, you and I had a—a bad moment once. Remember?”

He winced. The episode was burnt indelibly into his memory.

It had happened shortly after Bill’s death. Reen had forbidden him to go to the river with the other boys, for the excellent reason that he had not yet learned to swim. But Chan, following some perverse and inexplicable impulse, disobeyed continuously. Finally, in desperation, Reen switched him.

She had done a thoroughly efficient jcb. And Chan was remembering it as he stood clutching the doorknob, and kicking sulkily at the linoleum.

Perhaps it would have comforted Continued on page 29

Continued from page 26 Chan had he known that, after it was over, Reen had thrown the switch out of the window and cried half the night. But he never knew. Not until tonight had Reen ever referred to the indignity she had visited on him. And Chan himself had never given her cause to.

But tonight was different. The Chandler Hull of tonight was not the Chandler Hull who had sneaked off to the river once too often and got a licking for it. This chandler Hull stood on the threshold of manhood, with important work to do.

“I certainly hope,” Reen said, as if reading his thoughts, “that we won’t have to repeat that performance.”

Chan hardly heard her. He was thinking of Lefty and Pete. He’d talked big, swaggered even. And if Reen frustrated him now he’d look a fjol in the eyes of Lefty and Pete. He, Chan Hull, who knew that he held their respect now, who . . . Involuntarily he wrenched the door open.

“I don’t care about anything,” he muttered. “I’m going.”

Reen’s left hand shot out. Her fingers gripped his arm. She closed the door again with her foot. “Chan . . .” She got no farther. Something hot and red blazed before Chan’s eyes. He was scarcely aware of his own foot lashing out, taking Reen on the ankle.

Reen forced back an exclamation of pain and surprise. Then she slapped him, a stinging openhanded slap that brought a flame to his cheek.

“Now,” her breath came jerkily, “I’ve had enough. Go to your room!” He stumbled away. His feet pounded, furiously and purposely, on the stairs. The slap had hurt. But the hurt was nothing compared to the embarrassment caused by the childish reflex that had made him put his hand to his cheek.

Reeri came to his room later. She was in a dark-blue negligee and slippers. “Chan,” she said, “I want to talk to you.”

He was squirming over a textbook. He’d been squirming over it for two hours, biting back hot tears of resentment. Now he glued his ,eyes to an unseen page, and kept his lips tight. Reqn smiled. She’d expected silence, first.

^‘Look, Chan,” she said, “I hated ■doing what I had to do tonight. But do you know why I did it?”

He hunched closer over the uninformative book. He wouldn’t answer. She, or nothing on earth, could make him answer.

“I did it,” Reen went on, “because Bill would have wanted me to. You see, Chan, I promised Bill that if—if anything ever happened, I’d . . . well, look out for you. Just as I’m trying to do for the others. And you know very well that something did happen and . . . oh, Chan, you’re not helping me much!”

Helping her? Good night, what did she expect, after that!

“Chan!” Reen moved closer. She wanted to put her arm around him, but she didn’t. She had never tried to again since that first day. “Most of the time, Chan, you’ve been a swell kid. I couldn’t have asked for anything better if you’d been my—my own son.”

Bill? Son? In some inexplicable way she was burrowing under his defenses, flicking him where it hurt. The realization, coupled with a desire to hit back, brought him violently out of his shell. “I’m not your son!” he snouted.

A shadow made Reen’s eyes even darker. “I know. And you wouldn’t want to—to try to be. You’ve been very clear about that. So . . .” she hesitated, hopefully, but Chan was behind his wall again—“there isn’t any point in talking, i$. there?”

She spoke to a bent reddish head. Chan was deep in anticipated humiliation. And she recognized that once more he had managed to elude her.

MR. ROWLEY’S grocery was the next thing to a one-man concern. His lone assistant had quit to take a better-paying job, and from that point until Chan’s advent Mr. Rowley had carried on alone. He was very glad to get the services of young Chan Hull on schoolday afternoons and full time Saturdays.

One of Chan’s functions was to sweep out the store after the day’s business. He was thus engaged when Lefty and Pete entered on Tuesday evening. Mr. Rowley was occupied in the rear.

Lefty and Pete jubilantly displayed a dollar. “Got it for raking leaves,” Lefty informed Chan. “We’re putting it toward Sat’day night. That’s if you still want to go.”

~^“Why not?” Chan hid his disappointment under gruffness. He had halfhoped that Lefty and Pete had come to announce an inability to attend the Rapidston Centennial after all. Far from that, they had made the expedition even more practicable. But it still fell to his lot to provide the greater portion of the necessary funds. And a certain serenity in the attitudes of Lefty and Pete told him that they were confidently depending on him.

Chan kept his face sombre, but his mind was a whirlpool. A moment ago had been the time to tell them that the affair was off. But he had let the moment slip by. Moreover, reassuring words had left his lips. Now he’d look foolish trying to crawl out of it. He would belittle himself in the eyes ot these satellites. And yet . . . Swiftly he totalled up his finances. He had, he computed, something over two dollars. Adding to that the dollar clutched in Lefty’s hand, they’d need . . .

Chan’s eyes went involuntarily to the shelf where Mr. Rowley kept shortening on display.

“Well,” said Lefty, relieved, “glad you’re all set. Pete and me, we been counting on it.”

They departed obediently, and Chan finished sweeping. All during the process the shortening display seemed to draw his eyes with a kind of terrifying fascination.

FOR the rest of the week Chan lived in something like a dangerous dream. He was aware that the world —his world—had become distorted, different. And he didn’t like it. Nor did he like feeling clever and selfsatisfied one moment and, unaccountably, uncertain and fearful the next. He would have liked to brush these unaccustomed sensations away and get back to . . . well, to the way he had been before. But he couldn’t. Chan Hull had a fixed idea, and he was stubborn.

It was on Friday night that, an hour after dinner, the doorbell rang.

Chan answered it. Mr. Rowley, looking foreign in a derby hat and black business suit instead of his store apron, stood on the threshold.

“I want to see Mrs. Hull, Chan,” Mr. Rowley said. His eyes didn’t quite meet Chan’s.

But Chan looked at Mr. Rowley, staringly, almost stupidly. He did not at first take in the full import of Mr. Rowley’s presence here, perhaps because for days his brain had been acting in a queer, muddled way. Then realization came. And with it, panic. Panic that started as a quivering, heaving ball inside him and spread, suddenly and sharply, like a fan opening.

Reen came out of the kitchen. “What is it, Chan? . . . Oh!”

In a daze Chan watched her move up the hall. She looked tall and strong and—and protective. And he felt trapped, cornered. He had a strange, childish impulse to rush to her, grip her hand and cling to it. But he had never done that, even when he was little. He couldn’t do it now.

Mr. Rowley said, clearing his throat, “I’d like to see you a minute, Mrs. Hull.” He shook his head in Chan’s direction. “Alone.”

After the door of the living room closed, Chan waited in the hallway. He was conscious of his arms and legs shaking; of an empty, gone feeling in his stomach; of perspiration on his forehead. What was he going to do? To say? How ... ? He didn’t know. His brain was curiously numb.

Voices reached him despite the closed door, Mr. Rowley’s unwittingly lifted

“. . . deposit every day before the bank closes . . . put what I take in after that in this empty shortening can for overnight . . . kind of a hiding place, like . . . leave the safe open nights, so if burglars get in they won’t ruin it ... in the back room a time or two just before closing up . . . stepped down the street once . . . couldn’t have been anybody else . . . didn’t say anything about it today because . . .”

True, all true, those heavy monotonously delivered words! Chan had a sudden wild desire to run—run anywhere, to get outside and lose himself in the night. He even took a ’step forward. But the living room door opened.

Reen’s voice was stiff, unnatural. “Come here a moment, Chan!”

He came, head down. Mr. Rowley’s head was down too, his eyes on heavy square-toed shoes.

“Chan,” Reen stared at him so hard that she forced him to look at her, “Mr. Rowley’s told me something that I just can’t believe.”

Chan felt his flush sweep from neck to scalp and knew at once that he gave himself away. And he had no prepared defense. He had not thought beyond the act itself, to the possibility of being caught.

“Then you did do it, didn’t you, Chan?” Oh, if Reen’s eyes wouldn’t stare at him that way, as if they were fixed in her head and she couldn’t move them.

Mr. Rowley shifted uncomfortably. “You see, Mrs. Hull, I count the money when I put it in that can. And again when I take it out. First time, I figured I’d counted wrong. But I couldn’t count wrong three mornings running.”

Chan heard himself shout, then. “I was going to put it back! Out — out of my wages!”

But it couldn’t have been a shout. Because no one heard apparently. Reen’s eyes had swung to Mr. Rowley’s.

“Mr. Rowley,” Reen said, in a strange dogged tone, “I don’t understand this—yet. But I’m sure of one thing. Bill Hull’s son isn’t a thief. Not —not at heart.”

Chan gulped. He wanted to cry out; assure Mr. Rowley that what Reen said was true. But he couldn’t speak. He was afraid to, lest he lose control ot these hot insistent clouds gathering behind his eyes.

“Look, Mrs. Hull,” Mr. Rowley was saying, embarrassedly, “I know young Chan isn’t a thief, really. That’s why I thought I’d come straight to you first.”

“Chan,” Reen said, still in that queer voice, “you’d better go now.”

He went, just before the cloudlike things ran together all at once and exploded ...

There was moonlight in Chan’s room. Mingling with the darkness it created

an eerie, silvery glow. Reen’s figure laid a shadow across the misty silver.

He hadn’t heard her until she was just at the door. Then he’d started, but pressed his face again into a wet pillow.

“Chan!” When he didn’t answer, she sat on the edge of the bed. He felt it sag beneath her weight.

Then for a while there was quiet, unbroken save for the tiny indefinable sounds a room makes at night.

“Chan,” Reen said at last, “I have to know just one thing. Why, Chan?”

He didn’t want to speak, because he couldn’t trust his voice. But she made him. In the semidarkness her fingers found his shoulders.

“I don’t want to hurt you, Chan. Any more than you’re hurt already. But . . . Oh, don’t you see? I’ve got to know why.”

It was no use. All this confident lately acquired strength he’d been feeling was a foolish flabby thing compared to the strength in those fingers. It seemed to fail him, melt away, leaving him weak and hollow inside.

Brokenly he told her.

“I see.” Reen drew a long breath. “You boasted to Lefty and Pete. You promised them. And, of course . . .” She let it hang, got slowly to her feet, and went out of the room.

Chan flung himself over on his back. This was funny. She hadn’t jumped on him, or scolded him violently as he’d expected. She’d simply spoken softly, and gone. But . . . He moved again, apprehensively..

He thought he knew what she’d gone for, and a shiver went through him. It was the shame of it that he was going to mind—the humiliation. Not the pain. He had that coming to him. And he could take it. But . . .

Reen was back. This time her footsteps sounded definitely, purposefully. She came and stood by his bed. She carried something in her right hand.

It was coming now. Chan steeled himself and said, thickly, “Reen! Please don’t put the light on! Just— just lick me in the dark.” He couldn’t bear to have Reen, or anyone, see him as he must look now.

“Lick you?” There was surprise in Reen’s voice. “I’m certainly not licking you for something that was my own fault.”

Her fault? He couldn’t follow.

Reen seemed to divine his confusion. “Yes, Chan. I should have made you tell me why you wanted to work at the bowling alley. It’s up to me to—to handle those things. But I didn’t. I just forbade you . . . and left you in a spot.”

He was still trying to figure it out when she did put the light on. Her right hand held nothing more ominous than her handbag. She took out a $10 bill.

“You’re getting this changed tomorrow, Chan,” she said. “You’re paying Mr. Rowley back the few dollars you took. Then you’re taking Lefty and Pete to this centennial thing. I . . .” she smiled suddenly—“I’m probably doing very wrong. Their parents would kill me if they knew.

But if Lefty and Pete want to sneak out, that’s their business. One thing though, Chan! You’re doing no sneaking. You’re walking straight out by the front door.”

He looked at her uncomprehendingly. This was Reen whom he had known all these years, but really hadn’t known at all. And Reen had stood up for him tonight. She had told Mr. Rowley, stubbornly, fiercely even, that he wasn’t a thief. Even when she knew that, actually, that was just what he had been. He blinked hastily, because those warm almost uncontrollable things were back of his eyes again.

“Reen,” he said, hesitatingly, “I’m sorry. For—for everything.”

She turned away. “I know, Chan. And I know that it won’t happen again, ever.”

So she knew that. She—she trusted him, in spite of . . . He stopped, struck by another thought.

“B-but,” he said, uneasily, “everybody’s going to know something happened. That I got fired. For s-stealing.”

Reen sat on the bed again. She took his hand. “No,” she said, “nobody’s going to know. Mr. Rowley is a very understanding man, Chan. He remembers something most men forget—that he was young himself once. I asked him to take you back, because it’s important for you to go back, especially now. And do you know what he said? He said he was just going to forget all about it!”

She put her arm around him, and this time Chan didn’t squirm away.