FICTION

WITH AN AIR OF DIGNITY

Steve fought Kersh with all he had and he always lost. Then Rita showed him a new and terrible way to conquer

MORLEY CALLAGHAN January 15 1948
FICTION

WITH AN AIR OF DIGNITY

Steve fought Kersh with all he had and he always lost. Then Rita showed him a new and terrible way to conquer

MORLEY CALLAGHAN January 15 1948

WITH AN AIR OF DIGNITY

FICTION

MORLEY CALLAGHAN

THE LANGLEYS were all ashamed of what was happening to young Steve. It was much worse for them because they were such a well-known, respectable family. Old Mr. Langley had been the bank manager until he had suffered a paralytic stroke. For years Steve’s older sister, Pauline, had been the town librarian. They lived in the big brick house on the outskirts of the prairie town and they had a girl named Rita Whaley doing the housework for them.

That winter it was as if they were all back where they had been three years ago when Steve had been eighteen and a little wild, refusing to go to school

and hanging around poolrooms and dance halls with big Kersh and his friends: they were right

back to those disgraceful days when the furniture store had been robbed and Kersh and his friends had been picked up and Steve had admitted he had heard Kersh planning to break into the store. Kersh had gone to jail for three years.

The whole thing ought to have been forgotten by everybody. It could have been too. But now, three years later, Steve was again mixed up with Kersh. It didn’t matter that Steve had gone to the university in Saskatoon and was now working in the bank. Kersh had come back to town hating

Steve and calling him a stool pigeon. Whenever Kersh got drunk he went looking for Steve and wherever he found him he beat him up.

Kersh was a powerful long-nosed truck driver with pale hard eyes who was over six feet tall. Steve was only five foot eight and he had small hands, too. When Kersh would come after him yelling, “All right, pigeon. It’s your turn now to get out of town,” Steve would stand up to him and battle him savagely, but near the end he always looked like a slight red-haired, freckled-faced boy with despair in his eyes.

Three times Kersh had beaten him cruelly, once in a restaurant, once on the street and once in the snow in front of the Langley home. The police had thrown Kersh in jail for a week, but that didn’t help much. Everybody knew he would keep on beating Steve Langley.

The last time Kersh came out to the Langley house after Steve was on a Saturday afternoon, and Rita Whaley, the stranger among the Langley’s and really a stranger in the town, was the one who saw his old car turning in from the highway. She was in her attic room standing by the window brushing her hair. She was letting her hair hang loose on her shoulders in a long bob as she used to wear it back east. There was bright sunlight glistening on the banked snow on the Langley drive and from the high window she was watching the way the road ran miles beyond the town into

the vast prairie snow. In the air there was sun and mist and dryness, yet it was very cold, twenty below zero.

As the car turned in, then stopped in the drive, Rita recognized Kersh. He was wearing a leather jacket and a brown cap. In the front seat with him was Whitey Breaden, a slow-witted fellow in a moth-eaten coon coat, who worked in a garage and who had once dreamed of being a professional boxer. Kersh always brought someone along with him. It was important to him to have an audience. Kicking the car door open he lurched out and stood there staring at the house with half-drunken arrogance.

T^"ERSH’S big confident grin made Rita feel -IV. sick, for Steve Langley had become very important to her. Unlike his sister, he treated Rita with a gentle respect as if she were a fine person, a friend of the family and not just a stray girl working her way to the west coast. Maybe the time she had dropped the letter from her sister in

Steve fought Kersh with all he had and he always lost. Then Rita showed him a new and terrible way to conquer

Vancouver and Steve had handed it to her his eye had caught a few lines. Maybe he understood that, in Montreal she had had a bad time, had lost all faith in herself. But his courteous respectful manner hadn’t changed; it filled her with gratitude. It seemed to caress and restore her. She would have done anything for him. With Kersh out there now she knew what was going to happen to Steve. So she rushed downstairs.

There in the wheel chair by the grate fire was old Mr. Langley and beside him in the rocking chair was Pauline, stitching on the hem of a dress. Steve, who had his back to the fire, was peeling an orange. His face had got thinner. It was nervous and serious now. Everything there was warm and peaceful. “Mr. Langley,” Rita blurted out to Steve, “It’s Kersh.”

“Kersh. Where?” lie asked, les face going white. “Out there in the car with a pal.”

The orange he had been peeling slipped from his hands and his eyes grew sick and despairing as he watched it roll on the floor. Then he looked at his sister and her face seemed to fascinate him. “Steve, what’ll you do?” she whispered.

“I don’t know,” he said helplessly. “Lock the doors, I guess. Yeah, lock the door, Rita.” Then lie sat down slowly, took a deep breath and closed his eyes, and when bis sister cried fiercely, “The drunken lout. To come right into our home. All right. I’ll have the police out here in ten minutes,” Steve onlv shook his head.

“We’ve already tried that,” he said lifelessly. “A fine exhibition.”

His father was watching him with lively eyes. Sin e he had the stroke old Mr. Langley had lost, the power of speech. Everything he had to say he said with his eyes. And what he was saying now worried Steve.

“Hell, Langley,” Kersh yelled. “Come on out. I want to eeyou.”

“Don’t say anything.” Steve said.

“What if he tries to come in?” Pauline asked. “I’m frightened, Steve.”

“If he’s good and drunk he’ll go away.”

But Kersh had begun to pound on the door. “Come on out. here, little pigeon,” he roared.

“Steve, don’t you

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understand,” Pauline pleaded, “this is our house, our home.”

“I know.”

“Get him to go away, Steve.”

“I’m not going out there,” he said tonelessly. “It’s no use.”

It wasn’t the pain from Kersh’s blows that he feared, nor the taste of his own blood streaming from his mouth, or the swelling that would close his eyes: it was the misery of having to take it the %vay Kersh wanted to hand it out, starting with the first hard slap, then his own countering punch, then the gradual ebbing of his skill and strength as Kersh kept slugging him. And then, finally, the unbearable humiliating moment when he was stunned and

helpless looking up at Kersh’s grinning exultant face.

It was always the way Kersh wanted it to go and while Kersh could enjoy beating him and humiliating him Steve knew he would never be rid of him. And in his own home town he could never have a decent life.

“I’m not afraid of him. I’m not,” he repeated doggedly. Then he swung around to his father who sat so motionless in the wheel chair. The crippled man still looked like a dignified figure with his white hair and his neat black coat. Before he had been stricken old Mr. Langley had been a tall powerful man with a commanding presence and Steve had always had great respect for him. Now it seemed to him that his father’s eyes were bright and critical; he was watching and waiting to see what his son would do.

“I’m not afraid of him, don’t you understand?” Steve explained. He was making an angry apology to his father. “I’m just not big enough. I can smack him again and again. And then what? I can’t go on. He gets the satisfaction of making me quit because I can’t go on. Only I’m not licked. So I can’t go out t here, see?”

His father turned his eyes away and Steve looked appealingly at his sister, who nodded sympathetically, and then he looked at Rita Whaley who tried to hide her concern with a nervous shy smile.

“Heh, Langley,” Kersh yelled. “I’m right here on your doorstep. Come on out. Or maybe I should come in.”

“If he tries to come in—” Steve whispered as he went slowly to the window, “I’ll kill him. Somehow I’ll kill him. I’ve got a right to kill him.”

' On the windowpane there was heavy frost and he breathed en it and began to rub away the frost in frenzy so he could look out.

Then he could see Whitey Breaden’s face at the lowered window' of the car. Whitey was waiting with a big derisive grin. Over to the right, on the path was Kersh, scowling now', blinking because the sun on the snow dazzled him, then lurching suddenly in the snow and going down on one knee and cursing and nursing bis contempt for Steve as he straightened up and came closer. In tin* cold bright sunlight his heavy red i face shorn; with so much mean drunken brutal contempt that Steve began to j feel a little crazy. His right knee began to jerk and he couldn’t control it ¡ and turning suddenly with a happy little smile he left the others and hurriedly went upstairs to bis room. From the closet he got the twenty-two be used to bunt rabbits and came down and took up his position at the window again.

“You big fool, Steve,” his sister cried out. “Oh, you big fool.”

“Get away,” be said as she came close to him.

“It’ll only make it worse for you, Ste\re,” she pleaded. “I’d shoot him like a rabbit if that was all there would be to it. But it’ll be the end of you, too. It’ll be the end for all of us.”

“Get him out of there quick then.”

“Hold on to yourself, Steve. I can’t make him go.”

“Maybe 1 mightbo able to talk to j him,” Rita said quickly.

“Keep out of this, Rita,” he said.

“No, listen, Steve,” she said eagerly, “a girl can do things with a guy like I that when nobody else can.” As she i touched his arm gently she showed j how moved she w'as. Rut he didn’t notice that she was moved or excited, or that he seerm d to he very important to her. Standing there in her brown house dress with her brown hair thick on her shoulders, she had a small apologetic smile as if she felt that her confidence in her ability to handle Kersh revealed an aspect of her life j that she had tried to hide from them.

“1 know how you feel, Steve,” she said. “Maybe 1 can get him to go ! away.”

I “Maybe she’s right, Steve,” his , sister said eagerly.

j “It’s no good,” he said. “Talking to him is no good.”

“Wait, Steve,” Rita said. Fussing with her hair a little she got her muskrat coat from the peg in the hall and went out.

STEVE put his face against the spot on the window he had rubbed clear I of the frost and waited until he saw her come into the path of sunlight. She j was holding the collar of her coat tight, j across her throat and taking slow j delicate steps in the snow because she j had on low shoes. A bright sun glowed against a shimmering prairie mist and very quickly Rita’s face seemed to glow in that misty sunlight.

Kersh waited with a wide grin. With I a deliberate air Whitey Breaden got ! out of the car and joined Kersh as she approached with an easy smile and then the three of them were closer together,

I talking, hot breath streaming from I their mouths, and she looked like a j little girl beside Kersh in his leather i jacket. Soon it became like a friendly little meeting. Kersh pointed at the house, he laughed and patted Whitey on the back, then he took Rita’s ; arm in a confidential gesture. She shrugged, hesitated, and looked back at the house. Everything was going easily. Suddenly she left them and came in quickly.

“1 knew he wouldn’t go,” Steve said to her.

“They stand there waiting,” Pauline, who was still at the window, said. “What are they waiting for, Rita?”

“They’ll go all right,” she said.

“No, they’re not going.”

“Well, you see,” she said awkwardly, “Kersh wants me to go into town and have some dinner with them. I don’t know. What do you think?”

It was as if she w'as waiting to learn their opinion of her. And she saw the relief come in Steve’s eyes as he said, “You can’t get mixed up with Kersh, Rita.”

“It’s just a matter of going in to town with him,” Pauline Langley said quickly as she seemed to take in all of Rita’s life in one swift appraising glance.

“1 wouldn’t want to see you get into more trouble. Maybe 1 can talk some sense into Kersh,” said Rita.

“You’re crazy, R'ta,” said Steve.

“No, go ahead, Rita,” said Pauline.

“I’ll change my dress,” said Rita and she hurried upstairs.

Steve and his sister were silent a moment with their father watching them. They were suddenly both embarrassed. But Pauline, w'ho was a severe proud girl, said irritably, “I’m not. worried, Steve. A girl like Rita can always handle a man like Kersh.”

“A girl like Rita?”

“Yes. She can look after herself, Steve. She won’t even stay with us long. It’s not as if she belongs here with us—one of the family.”

Rita came downstairs and they stopped talking.

She had on a green dress and a lot of lipstick and she hurried to the hall and got her overshoes and began to put them on. But as she was knotting the lace on l lie right overshoe she looked up as if their silence and the way they were watching her bothered her. With a sharp look at. Pauline she paused as if she suddenly understood what they had beer, saying about her.

“If you’re worrying about me it’s a mistake,” she said. “Kersh is all right when lie’s sober. It’s nothing. I’ll he back in an hour or t wo.”

Then she went out and they watched her get into the car with Kersh and the car turned out to the road. Suddenly it was worse for Steve than if he had gone out to Kersh himself and had been beaten up. It was worse because all the old humiliation was there without the enraged contempt.

It seemed to him that his father was watching him. Wherever he moved he was sure his father’s eyes were on him. An hour passed, then it was dinnertime, hut he could not eat. nor could he read after dinner. He found himself repeating, “It was mighty good of her, sure. But when Kersh gets some food in him he can be a nice guy. She knows it. She’s been around. It’s up to her now. And what’s it to me?” But the hours passed and he was waiting for her to return.

He went up to his own room and stood by the window watching the road in the long lonely prairie twilight. His concern for her bewildered him. Gradually his bewilderment became contempt for himself.

WHEN the contempt became too strong to bear he began to get dressed in a slow, methodical fashion. He shaved himself carefully, he put on a clean white shirt and his good blue suit. He wanted to look like an important dignified man who didn’t belong in Kersh’s world. When he went downstairs where his father in the wheel chair was dozing by the fire he saw how the hot coals were throwing a fiery reflection on his father’s broad calm forehead and he frowned. He put on his overcoat and the expensive fur cap they had given him at Christ-

mas and went out and along the road to town, walking slowly.

In the night air there was a shining winter brightness and great height to the night with a sweep of yellow green and red northern lights across the sky. His feet crunched on the frozen snow. It sounded as if he had on squeaky new shoes. His nose began to tingle. A freight train moaned in the long night. Down the road shone the cluster of lights in the centre of the town and the houses now were closer together and he began to walk faster as if he had made a plan. But he had no plan at all.

The quiet street led to the park in front of the big white hotel and across the park was the row of stores, all closed now, with no lights showing except in that one narrow window which was Mike’s restaurant. When he got to the window he peered in: there, was Mike at the counter with his pointed bald head and his mustache, and the row of counter stools, the leather seats torn, the stuffing hanging out, and back in the comer by the kitchen, at the end table, were Kersh and Breaden and Rita and a barber named Henry Clay. They were joking and laughing and Rita looked happy.

For a long time Steve could not go in: he couldn’t force himself to do it until the longing to be far beyond Kersh became like a crazy eagerness to have Kersh and his friends see that they had to fear and respect him and that he would not permit Rita to stay with them there. Then he went in.

Kçrsh was the first to see him and what he saw in Steve’s face he didn’t like for he frowned and scowled and stoofi up slowly. “Mike,” he called. “You were closing up, weren’t you?”

“I want no trouble, Kersh,” Mike said, for he knew all about Steve and Kersh.

“You said you were closing up.”

“I’m closing. Sure.”

“Go ahead then.”

“What’s the idea, Steve?” Rita blurted out. Her face was flushed and she was ashamed that Steve had found her laughing and enjoying herself. “I thought you wanted to keep away,” she added harshly. “Okay, why don’t you?” ■/'

“I was passing by,” he said jerkily. “I thought you might want to come along with me.” In his good»elothes he looked like a very serious young man.

“Listen you. Beat it quick,” Kersh said, grinning at Whitey Breaden who smirked and took out a nail file and began to clean his nails. “Or maybe I don’t make myself clear, Mr. Langley?2’’ Kersh added.

“I’ll go in my own time—when Rita’s ready,” Steve said.

“I try to make you understand that I feel lousy about my whole life when I see yhu—stool pigeon,” Kersh said. He had had a lot to drink and his pale blue eyes were mean now. “Okay,” he grunted, “it’s always a pleasure.” He slapped Steve viciously on the mouth and waited for Steve to start swinging at him.

Steve started to swing and how he pulled the punch he did not know, hut it was as if a voice within him was crying, “No, not that. That’s what he wants. Don’t do anything he wants you to do.”

He found the strength to smile a little as if Kersh couldn’t really touch him.

“Come on, hit me,” Kersh said sharply.

“No, I’m not going to hit you, Kersh.”

“What’s this?” Kersh asked and when Steve saw the wonder in the pale blue eyes his heart leaped exultantly. “So now he’s yellow,” Kersh said.

“He was yellow three years ago, wasn-’t he?” Whitey asked. “A yellow pigeon.”

But Kersh didn't seem to like Steve’s tight superior smile, or the way he was holding his hands straight at his sides, or the way his eyes wouldn’t flinch. He seemed worried because Rita and Whitey and Mike were beginning to look at Steve with a fascinated interest .

“Superior little punk now, eh,” Kersh yelled and grabbed Steve by the collar, choked him, slapped his face, kept on slapping it till the head rolled drunkenly and the blood dribbled from the corner of his mouth. He kept it up in a frantic eagerness to make Steve raise his hands and resist or cry out for mercy, hut the hands didn’t come up, and when Kersh slammed him against the wall and grunted, “Grin at me again, mister,” Steve’s eyes were still unyielding.

“You’re making a big mistake, Kersh,” he whispered.

“How can a guy stand there like that and take it?” the barber asked Rita, but she only shook her head. She couldn’t take her eyes off Steve.

“Here,” Kersh coaxed, thrusting out his jaw eagerly. “Hit me here.”

“I don’t need to, Kersh,” Steve said. He was dazed and yet eager. It wasn’t going the way Kersh wanted it to go.

“Hit me right here, baby,” Kersh pleaded, tapping his jaw delicately with his forefinger.

“I don’t need to any more.”

“What’s this?” Kersh blurted out. He blinked his eyes rapidly and looked at the others to see if they felt he was being mocked. What he saw in their faces enraged him: they were looking at Steve with a wondering respect., for they understood now that he was yielding nothing to Kersh and was putting himself beyond Kersh’s reach.

Then Kersh smashed Steve on the jaw with his fist; he smashed him again and waited hut the crazy smile was still there. And Steve would not back away. His fine fur hat had been knocked off, his white shirt was spotted with blood from his mouth and his carefully combed hair hung over his eyes, hut he had a silent enduring dignity that began to embarrass them all. Still trying to smile Steve touched his swelling eye with his hand and swayed a little. Rita suddenly started to cry and put her hands over her face as if she had become humble and unimportant and was ashamed of being there.

“It’s a gag,” Kersh whispered, for he felt that the others were withdrawing from him: he was losing their

respect and he was bewildered. They seemed to be saying to him, “Not any more. It’s not right. Don’t make us sick. Don’t make us ashamed of being here.”

KERSH cracked Steve three times on the jaw and watched him slump to the floor.

“It’s not right, Kersh,” Mike protested. “How can you let yourself behave like this? 1 feel ashamed.”

The barber, who had got up, leaned over the table and looked down at Steve. “It’s very remarkable,” he said softly.

“À man shouldn’t let himself go like you do, Kersh,” Mike explained in a worried tone. “It’s not dignified.” “That’s true, Mike,” the barber said. “I don’t like to feel ashamed in my own place,” Mike went on. “That’s why a guy likes to have his own place.” “To be such a brute,” Rita whispered.

“Shut up,” Kersh said, for Steve was raising himself on one knee. The buzzing was going out of his head. He raised his right palm which had been supporting his weight on the wet floor. He looked up the wall, his mouth puffed and bleeding, then came the cracked broken smile. “What’s the

matter with you, Kersh?” he asked quietly.

“Me?” Kersh protested. He went tí) Iiit him again, then stopped suddenly with a sick look in his eyes. “The guy ain’t human—I cheapen myself hitting him,” he said slowly as if explaining to the others why he felt humiliated.

He turned his hack on Steve and appealed to the others resentfully, “Did I go after him? No, he came after me. The girl wanted to come along. All I want is that the guy should keep away from me.”

“I’ll tell him,” the barber said.

“Come on, let’s get out of here,” Kersh said gruffly. He wanted to swagger but he also wanted to avoid Steve’s eyes. He was afraid the others weren’t going to come with him. “What do you say?” he asked.

“Yeah,” the barber agreed diffidently. “I think we should go. Come on, Whitey.”

As they went out, Mike, watching them, said, “I kind of think that guv won’t ever bother you again, Steve.”

“I think you’re right, Mike,” Steve said, sitting down and straightening his collar and tie.

“A guy like Kersh ain’t used to feeling cheap,” Mike said thoughtfully.

Going back to the counter Mike poured a cup of coffee and brought it to Steve who had taken the handkerchief Rita had dipped in a glass of water and was wiping his face. “You don’t look so bad, Steve,” Mike said. “Are you all right?”

“It’s nothing,” Steve said, grinning a little. While he was gulping down

■I the coffee neither he nor Rita spoke.

When he had dusted off his coat and t put on his fur hat he said, “Come on, y Rita,” and lie smiled’politely at Mike v and they went out.

g The cold air stung the cuts on his ' face and he fingered the spots delicately. Then he noticed that she had 1 forgotten to put on her gloves. “Put , on your gloves, Rita,” he said, r Walking along in step with him she kept her head down and it was a long ) time before he realized she was crying.

“Heh, what’s the matter, Rita?”

“I can’t figure out why you came ’ after me.”

> “Well, I got thinking,” he said 1 awkwardly. “I couldn’t stay there at

s home and ever have a good opinion of myself.”

“But to have it happen like that over me,” she said brokenly. “To stand e there and be beaten—to take it—to make him quit . . .”

g “I guess it’s what would have hapy pened to my self-respect,” he said.

Then he took her arm. “Listen, Rita, e if I were you I’d move on to the coast,

s It won’t be any good for you around

here now. You don’t want to stay here

0 anyway.”

“Yes, maybe I could pull out at the e end of the month.” t “Out there you’ll meet new people.

Me, my life is around here,” he said r simply. They walked along silently, t their shoes squeaking on the hard dry e snow. They were having their own thoughts. Steve was watching the r ribbons of light on the rim of the prairie

1 sky. ★