Fiction

THE LESSER EVIL

Pa took his checkers seriously, as befits a champion. He even got Ma interested when she found out how much depended on his winning

FRANK BENNETT July 15 1948
Fiction

THE LESSER EVIL

Pa took his checkers seriously, as befits a champion. He even got Ma interested when she found out how much depended on his winning

FRANK BENNETT July 15 1948

THE LESSER EVIL

FRANK BENNETT

Fiction

MY PA legged it across the pine floor of his carpenter shop to where Ma's six unfinished chairs stood.

“Tommy,” he said, popping a peppermint into his mouth and grinning, “a smart man will consider the lesser of two evils ahead of the importance of a job sometimes.”

“Yes, sir,” I agreed.

“Ain’t no question,” he went on around the peppermint, “that finishing the Deacon’s albir is more important than your Ma’s chairs, but being a smart man I will do the chairs first.”

“Yes, sir,” 1 said.

There was no doubt in my mind about Pa being

smart. Hadn’t he built our house and his carpenter shop? Besides, he’d made most of our furniture and the fiddle that he played hoedowns on in the evenings for Ma and my Aunt Margie and me.

He picked up one of the chairs—it had been sanded as slick as window glass and was ready for the varnish—and ran his long, sensitive fingers over it.

“Women,” he said, “ain’t smart, son, but they’re persistent. I reckon if I don’t have these chairs done for your Ma’s meeting of the Uplift Club, I’d never hear the end of it.”

“Ma,” I reminded, “wants to be elected president something terrible. She figures that having six new chairs will kind of impress the other ladies.”

Pa nodded and scratched his long, thin nose thoughtfully. “Being president means a lot to your Ma, I guess. Just like me being checker champion of Springhill means a lot to me. But there’s a difference, son. It takes brains to be a champion

checker player. But all it takes to get to be president of the club is to be on the good side of Deacon Stout’s wife.”

IT WAS then that I noticed the stranger standing outside the big front window. He had on a greenish-brown store suit and a red bow tie, and on his handsome head, sitting at a cocky angle, was a black derby hat. He was kind of youngish and his beady black eyes were fixed on Pa’s checkerboard, which lay on a low stand just inside the window.

That checkerboard was something to look at. Pa had made it out of blocks of ebony and white maple. Inlaid between the squares were narrow strips of redwood and around the edges of the board was a lot of fancy scroll work.

The stranger moved from the window to the open door and walked in. He was as tall as Pa and wore fancy pointed-toe button shoes. In his left hand, he had a small black valise.

“Good morning, friend,” he said to Pa. “I saw your checkerboard and came in for a better look.”

Pa beamed. He was mighty proud of that checkerboard.

“Look it over all you want to,” he said.

Then he got the checkers out of the drawer of his desk and dumped them on the board. He’d made the checkers, too.

The stranger’s black eyes sparkled and he said a lot of nice things about Pa’s work on the checkerboard.

Pa just about popped his buttons. “My name’s Jason Bloom,” he said, holding out his hand.

The stranger smiled, exposing two rows of white, even teeth, and shook Pa’s hand. “I’m Kip Conrad,” he said. “Just arrived in your town. I sure do admire that checkerboard.”

Pa hooked his thumbs under his suspenders and strutted a little. He showed the stranger how he’d jointed Ma’s chairs and the unfinished altar that Deacon Stout had ordered for the church. But the stranger wasn’t interested in chairs or altars. He stood looking down at the checkerboard and rubbing his slim white fingers together.

“Ever play any checkers?” Pa asked casually. “Some,” Mr. Conrad replied. He tipped his derby back on his slick black hair and picked up a white checker. “But never with an outfit as fancy as this.”

“Well,” Pa said, “I got a lot of work to turn out before a week from Sunday. They’re going to dedicate the new altar then. These chairs but I’ll take time off for one game.”

The stranger upended his valise and sat down on it. Pa slid up one of Ma’s chairs and draped his long frame over it. Then he fished a half dollar from a pocket, laid it on the board and winked.

"I ain't a betting man," he said. "Never bet over fifty cents on anything. But if you'd care to-" The stranger winked back, found a half dollar after some difficulty and laid it beside Pa's money.

PA POPPED a peppermint into his mouth and told Mr. Conrad to move first. Mr. Conrad played a fast game, never once pausing to figure things out like Pa always did. Maybe being pushed along confused Pa. Anyway, he got skunked.

Mr. Conrad grinned with his white teeth and picked up the two half dollars. “Want to play another game?” he asked.

Pa shook his head in a dazed fashion. “Sorry,” he mumbled, “like I said, I just had time for one game. These chairs and that

altar—” His voice kind of died out on him.

The stranger stood up. “A

Pa took his checkers seriously, as befits a champion. He even got Ma interested when she found out how much depended on his winning

mighty fine checkerboard, Mr. Bloom,” he said, and walked out into the morning sunshine, jingling the coins.

Pa stared hard at the checkerboard. His long face was a little pale and his thin, brown hair kind of stood away from his bald spot.

“I must’ve made a little mistake some’ers,” he said in a faint voice. He rearranged the checkers and began to play the game over again. “Gotta figure this out,” he mumbled. “Don’t bother me now, son, while I’m thinking.”

I fooled around the shop, not saying a word, just smelling the wood shavings and the varnish and feeling the keen edges of Pa’s drawknife and chisels with my thumb. Then I went outside and played with my ball and catcher’s mitt. When I came back into the shop, Pa was still working with his checkers.

“Gotta find my mistake,” he kept mumbling. Then I dropped my ball on the floor accidently and his eyes jerked up. “Oh,” he said, “it s you. Tommy, I wouldn’t want people around Springhill to know how I lost that game.”

Just then I heard my Ma coming along the back path that runs between our house and the shop. She was humming a little tune and she came in with a smile on her face.

Ma was not a very strong-looking woman, but she was the kind that moved fast and got things done. I guess her greatest weakness was the Uplift Club. This was Springhill’s upper-crust club, so Pa said. He also said Ma was inclined to be a social climber.

The smile didn’t stay on her face. “Why, Pa,” she said, “those chairs are just like they were yesterday !”

Pa got up from the checkerboard with a weak show of dignity. “I been busy this morning, Sarah,” he said.

Ma’s eyes fixed on the altar. “Doing what?” she asked.

“One thing and another,” he answered.

“If those chairs aren’t ready by the time the club meets at our house,” she said, “I’ll be mortified to death!”

“Don’t worry,” Pa said. “I’ll—”

A short, fat shadow fell across the floor. It belonged to Deacon Stout. “Well, well, well! he boomed. “How’s the Blooms today——and the little bud?”

He threw back his big shaggy head and laughed. It was always a great joke with him—that bloom and bud business—but to me it never seemed very funny.

Ma smiled at him sweetly. She was always nice to the Deacon because his wife was the backbone of the Uplift Club. Pa didn’t look any too happy, even if he did kind of grin.

The Deacon waddled across the shop to the unfinished altar and rubbed a fat hand over the smooth surface. “A nice piece of work,

Jason,” he said in his deep voice.

“Mighty nice, but I had an idea you’d be a little further along with it. Don’t look like you’ve touched it in the last three days.”

“Been kind of tied up with these chairs,” Pa muttered.

“Got to have it finished before a week from Sunday,” Deacon Stout rumbled. “Got to have it for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the laying of the church cornerstone.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll—” Pa’s eyes strayed to the checkerboard, while his voice kind of faded out.

The Deacon waddled to the door and adjusted his hat. “Ah,

Mrs. Bloom,” he said, “my wife mentioned your name only this morning. Something about you being the next president of the Uplifters.”

Ma looked happy enough to run in circles. Pa just scowled and

popped a peppermint into his mouth.

That, noon, Pa didn’t eat much. We all noticed it, even my Aunt Margie, who is Ma’s younger sister and hardly ever notices any man who is already married.

“You don’t have to slight, your eating to get at those chairs,” Ma said. “Have some more ham.”

Pa shook his head. “Figure I’ll go down to the barbershop and get me a haircut.”

“Why,” Margie said, “you got one just last week.”

Margie was kind of short, and not as pretty as some girls around Springhill, but she was nice. She was not exactly an old maid, but, as Pa said, she had one foot in that classification. Now Pa scowled at her, but said nothing.

Ma said, “Jason, don’t you get into a checker game at. the barbershop and stay there all afternoon. You’ve got to get busy on those chairs. If they’re not done by next Friday—”

“Chairs, chairs, chairs!” Pa yelled. “All I hear about is chairs!”

“And there’s the altar—” Ma began.

Pa slapped his hat on his head and slammed out of the house.

Right off I guessed why he was going to the barbershop. He was going there to play Jeff Hicks, the barber, a game of checkers. He could always beat Jeff and Pa needed to win a game or two to get back his self-respect. I put on my cap and followed him to the barbershop.

We went in, and Jeff Hicks said, “H’lo, Jason.”

Pa said, “Jeff, if you ain’t, too busy—” His voice stuck in his throat, and his eyes got as big as half dollars.

There at the second chair, a razor in one hand and a brush in the other, stood Mr. Conrad, and he was about to shave old Man Prescott., the baker.

“Oh,” Jeff Hicks said, seeing Pa’s wide eyes fastened on the stranger,

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“Jason, this is Kip Conrad. He came here askin’ for a job, so I hired him. Kip, meet Jason Bloom.”

Mr. Conrad flashed his white teeth. “Mr. Bloom and I met this morning,” he said.

“Jason is the best carpenter and cabinetmaker in the state,” Jeff said, “besides being the champion checker player of Springhill. What can I do you for, Jason?”

Pa looked a little faint, “Haircut, Jeff,” he choked.

I watched the stranger shave Old Man Prescott. He was as good with the razor as he’d been with Pa’s checkers. He did a lot of talking, too, mostly about where he’d been and all the things he’d seen.

“I’m not the kind to get tied down very long at a time,” he said. “I like my freedom.”

“Club, blub, bloop,” Old Prescott said through a hot towel. “Yes, sir,” Mr. Conrad said, “I like to go places.”

On the way back to his shop, Pa didn’t say a word. Once inside he shut the door and went to work with the checkers.

“Can’t understand how I let that tramp barber beat me,” he mumbled. “Got to figure out where I made my mistake.”

All afternoon and all the next day, Pa didn’t do a lick of work. He just worried about losing that checker game.

Along toward sundown on Saturday, the Deacon dropped in to look at the altar. He was kind of huffed because Pa hadn’t worked on it any more

At supper that evening, Ma asked about her six chairs.

“They’re coming,” Pa said, but Ma didn’t believe him.

After supper, they cornered me and asked me what had got into Pa. Now, I was not the kind to blab, but when Ma got a certain look in her blue eyes I knew it was time to talk. So I told her about Mr. Conrad and how he skunked Pa at checkers.

“Oh, oh!” was all she said, but there was a look of deep worry on her face. I had an idea that she was thinking that Pa might never get around to finishing the chairs and the altar, for she knew that my Pa was the kind who couldn’t work when a great worry hung over his head. And if that altar wasn’t finished, Ma realized that like as not Mrs. Stout would decide that Ma wasn’t fit presidential timber for the Uplift Club.

Just then my Aunt Margie came in, her cheeks looking all pink. “There’s a new man in town,” she trilled. “He’s tall and handsome and his name is Kip Conrad!”

“I know,” Ma said sadly. “I know.”

The next day being Sunday, we went to church. I noticed Deacon Stout talking earnestly to Preacher Burris and when we went in the preacher shook hands with Pa and asked, “How’s the new altar coming along, Brother Bloom?”

“So, so,” Pa answered, not looking the preacher in the eyes.

“Must have it for next Sunday, you know,” Rev. Burris said.

“Sure,” Pa nodded, not looking at him. “Don’t worry.”

Mr. Conrad was at church, too, sitting with Jeff Hicks and his fat wife. A time or two, I saw him giving my Aunt Margie an appraising glance.

After the services, Mrs. Stout came around and shook hands with Ma and told her she looked nice in her new black hat. Then she said, “I do hope your husband gets to work on the altar! It would be a calamity if it wasn’t finished before next Sunday!”

“It certainly would,” Ma admitted unhappily.

Mrs. Stout smiled with her lips, but her eyes had a frosty glint in them. “Mr. Stout and I are looking forward to unveiling the new altar, you know, on the church’s twenty-fifth anniversary.”

“I know,” Ma said weakly.

Mrs. Stout didn’t say any more, but Ma knew what she had in mind. If Pa didn’t get the altar finished on time, Ma would never be president of the Uplifters.

I happened to glance outside and there was Mrs. Hicks introducing Aunt Margie to Kip Conrad. Margie’s face was flushed, but Mr. Conrad seemed perfectly at ease. He was a fine sight, too, with the sun shining on his slick black hair and his derby cradled gracefully in the crook of his arm. His store suit, I saw, had been brushed and pressed as sharp as a knife’s edge.

Ma, Pa and I went over that way and Margie made the introductions.

Ma shook hands with Mr. Conrad. “Glad to meet you,” she smiled. “You must come to see us some time.”

Pa ran his long index finger in around his stiff collar and looked a little white about his eyes.

“Sure, Mr. Conrad,” he mumbled. “Drop over—any time.”

LATE that afternoon, Mr. Conrad j came over to our place. Ma invited Mr. Conrad in and he shook hands with Pa. Then he sat down on the couch and admired our furniture. When anybody does that, Pa usually sticks out his chest and says, “I made all of it except the reed organ and the coal burner.” This time he kept still.

Pretty soon, Margie came down the stairs. She was all dressed up as if she were going to the city.

Mr. Conrad got up and bowed deeply with his derby hat pressed against his stomach.

“Miss Margie,” he said, “you look gorgeous.”

Margie blushed.

Ma asked him to stay for supper and he did. All through the meal he told about his travels. From all the places he’d been, I guessed he couldn’t have stayed more than a week in any one place. Ma kept saying, “My, my, howinteresting!” and passing him more to eat. Pa hardly lifted his eyes from his plate once.

After supper, we went into the front

loom and Ma lit the round burner lamp. Then Mr. Conrad spied Pa’s fiddle and lifted it carefully from its case.

“Pa plays the fiddle,” Ma informed him smilingly, “and Margie does right well on the reed organ.”

Mr. Conrad turned to Pa, his white teeth flashing. “I bet you made this wonderful violin yourself, Mr. Bloom.” Pa swallowed hard and nodded his head.

Mr. Conrad turned to Ma. “Your husband is a genius.”

“Pa,” Ma smiled innocently, “is the checker champion of Springhill, too.” Pa kind of choked over a peppermint. Smiling, Mr. Conrad held the fiddle toward Pa. “Mr. Bloom, would you play me a tune?” he asked.

Pa was slightly pale. “Why,” he said, “I don’t feel much like playing tonight, Mr. Conrad. I—”

“You hold a violin like you might know how to play,” Margie said. “Do you play, Mr. Conrad?”

Mr. Conrad plunked the strings with his white fingers. “Some,” he admitted. “Studied the instrument when I was a youngster, but my feet itched too much for me to stick to it.”

My Pa was an ear fiddle player and proud of the way he could whip out “Old Zip Coon” and “Pop! Goes the Weasel.” But Mr. Conrad was a note fiddler. In no time at all, he and Margie were playing some note music and he made that fiddle talk like it had never talked before.

Pa keptsliding down in his chair until he looked about the size of me. He stood it as long as he could, then got stiffly to his feet and walked out of the house without a word. I went to the kitchen door and looked outside. A light was burning in Pa’s shop—the one that hung over the checkerboard.

THE NEXT morning, when I went out to the shop, the sun was warm and bright through the front windows and making long shadows of the vise handle and some oak strips that Pa had stacked against the workbench. Pa stood staring at the Deacon’s altar and sucking at a peppermint. The sun made the wrinkles in his face look deep and his thinning brown hair kind of stood on end.

“You know, Tommy,” he said, “I got it all figured out.”

“Yes, sir,” 1 said.

“That Conrad feller beat me by accident. Like as not he couldn’t do it again in a thousand years.”

Pa suddenly looked kind of happy, just like he believed what he had said. He pried the lid off a varnish can with a screw driver and picked up the varnish brush. I suddenly felt good inside. I guessed that Ma’s chairs would be finished by Friday, all right, and the Deacon’s altar would be ready for the unveiling.

He dipped the brush into the varnish and gave me a wink. “The lesser of two evils, son. A smart man will consider that.” He set one of the chairs on the workbench. “Yes, sir, if I don’t get these chairs done, your Ma will—”

A long shadow leaped from the open doorway and fell flat against a pile of shavings. I glanced up. There stood Mr. Conrad in the doorway grinning. He shoved his derby to the back of his slick hair and straightened his bow tie.

“Things are kind of slack at the barbershop,” he said. “Thought I’d drop in for a visit, Mr. Bloom.”

Pa put the brush into a can of water and carefully covered the varnish can. “Glad you come, Mr. Conrad,” he said. “Sorry I had to leave in the middle of your fiddlin’ last night, but when a man is snowed under with work—”

“Perfectly all right,” Mr. Conrad

said. He’d moved to the checkerboard and was running a white finger over the scroll work. “A wonderful board, Mr. Bloom. Wonderful!”

Pa got the checkers out of the desk drawer. “Time for just one game,” he said, flipping a half dollar into the air.

Pa took the first move. Eleven to 15. Mr. Conrad came back with 24-19. It was the Cross opening. Pa smiled. That was Jeff Hicks’ way of opening and Pa could beat Jeff with his eyes shut. But he didn’t beat Mr. Conrad. Pa never even got a man to the king-row.

Pa got to his feet. “Got to get on with my work,” he said stiffly. “Come around again sometime, Mr. Conrad.”

“Thanks,” Mr. Conrad said, and went out, jingling the two half dollars.

Pa sat down at the checkerboard again and began to move the men around with a shaking hand. “Got to figure out where I made my mistake,” he muttered.

That afternoon, Ma came into the shop to see how her chairs were coming. She left the shop, looking pretty grim. About sundown, the Deacon stopped by. When he left, his face was as red as a ripe tomato. It all had me mighty worried—Ma and the Deacon both mad at Pa and Pa not caring a hoot about anything except losing those two games of checkers.

At supper, Ma didn’t say a word and Pa had no appetite. If it hadn’t been for Margie, things would have been awfully quiet. But she acted kind of giggly-

Just as we were leaving the table, she said, “Mr. Conrad’s coming over again this evening.”

Pa snorted and walked out of the house. Ma still didn’tsay anything, but I could tell by the frown on her face that she was doing some heavy thinking. Suddenly she smiled and for some reason, my worry seemed to slip from my shoulders.

The next morning, Ma said she had to have some things from the city. The first thing I knew, she’d bundled Margie off on the train with a list of things and a twenty-dollar bill. Pa was so busy studying his checkers that he didn’t know about the twenty dollars, or he would have had a fit.

On the way home from taking Margie to the depot, Ma and I walked by Jeff Hicks’ barbershop. Mr. Conrad saw us and Ma smiled and motioned for him to come outside.

“I’d love to have you over for supper this evening,” she told him.

Mr. Conrad looked both surprised and pleased. He straightened his bow tie and rubbed his white fingers together. “I’ll certainly be happy to come,” he said.

We went on and 1 said, “I don’t think Pa wants him around.”

Ma smiled down at me and her eyes twinkled. “Your Pa,” she said, “is a wonderful man when it comes to using his hands, but he is not so good at using his head.”

THAT evening, Mr. Conrad seemed disappointed that Margie wasn’t at home and he said so. Ma smiled and said, “You know how girls are—always wanting to get things to pretty themselves up for some man.”

Mr. Conrad looked slightly embarrassed.

Pa was in an ugly mood. “Can’t imagine what Margie could get that would pretty her up much,” he growled.

“Margie,” Ma said sweetly, “will make a wonderful wife.”

Mr. Conrad fidgeted a little and said nothing.

After supper, we went into the front room and Ma asked Mr. Conrad to play on Pa’s fiddle. That was when Pa put on his hat and walked out of the

house, saying he had some business to attend to.

Mr. Conrad tuned up the fiddle and played a little, but his heart wasn’t in it.

“It’s so nice that you and Margie both play,” Ma said. “Just think of all the happy evenings you two will have together in your own home.” She sighed. “Of course, you’ll have to settle down—hut you’ve been so many places, anyway.” She brightened suddenly. “Margie is so happy. Only yesterday she was talking about weddings and you should have seien her face. It shone like it was lighted up from inside her. And her eyes—”

Mr. Conrad ran a silk handkerchief over his damp forehead and then loosened his collar with a nervous finger.

“ Ma rgie wan ts a big chu reh wedd i ng, ” Ma went on, “hut she isn’t sure what you’ll think of that idea, Mr. Conrad.”

“I haven’t given it any thought,” Mr. Conrad murmured.

“Margie loves children, you know. Said she hoped she’d have five—three boys and two girls. Wouldn’t that make a lovely family?”

“Yes, indeed,” Mr. Conrad choked.

“Have you thought about a house? Margie likes the Hunter place. That’s just across the street. I understand it’s for sale. It would be awful nice, having you folks live so close.”

Mr. Conrad’s black eyes moved over the room. There was a trapped, desperate expression on his handsome face.

“1 really think I ought to be going,” he said. “I—”

“Margie will get back on the ten o’clock train.” Ma said. “I know you’ll want to meet her— but don’t you pry into her packages, Mr. Conrad.” Ma chuckled. “You know what they say, it’s bad luck for the man to see the wedding dress before—”

Mr. Conrad had staggered to his feet. He swallowed and his bow tie jumped. He put on his derby backwards and when he turned it around he got his slick hair all mussed up.

He groped for the door, found it and went out and I said, “Gee, Ma, I don’t think Pa will like being related to Mr. Conrad, the way he plays checkers and the fiddle and—”

“It’s past your bedtime, Tommy," Ma said sharply.

THE NEXT morning at the breakfast table my Aunt Margie was spilling over with excitement. It seemed that on the train she had met the new Springhill schoolteacher and he was young, single and very handsome.

“I asked him over for supper tonight,” she said to Ma. “I hope you

don’t mind. I’ll do the cooking and—” “That’s fine,” Ma said. “I’d much rather have him around than that tramp barber.”

“Oh, Mr. Conrad.” Margie shrugged. “He’s an interesting character, but like you say, he’s just a tramp—”

“Hey,” I began, “I thought—” Something hit me a rap on the shin. Hard. It was Ma’s foot.

After breakfast, Pa and I went out to his shop and he sat down at the checkerboard and began to mumble, “Gotta figure where I made my mistake. Gotta—”

A shadow fell across the floor. ] looked up and saw Jeff Hicks’ lanky form in the doorway.

“H’lo, Tommy,” he said. “H’lo, Jason. Say, whatta you know! That tramp of a Conrad has left me flat. Pulled out last night with his satchel of tools for the Lord knows where. That’s a tramp for you, their feet get to itchin’, an’—say, how about a game of checkers this mornin’, Jason?’”

Pa stood blinking foolishly at Jeff. Slowly understanding came. With it, the worried scowl left his face and his shoulders came up. He popped a peppermint into his mouth and shook his head as he began to look for the screw driver to pry the lid off the can of varnish.

“Got to get these chairs done before Friday,” he said. “And the Deacon’s altar finished before Sunday morning. But you come around Sunday afternoon. Maybe you’d like to risk a half dollar—”

“Ain’t riskin’ no half dollar playin’ the champion of Springhill,” Jeff said. “But I’ll see you Sunday.”

He went out and Pa grinned at me and said, “Reckon I’d better do these chairs first. Your Ma’d have a fit if they weren’t done so’sshe could impress the Uplifters Friday.”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“Women are funny that way,” he went on. “Persistent, too. For years your Ma’s wanted to he president. With me getting the altar finished by Sunday so the Deacon and his wife can put on a big to-do at church, she’ll get elected as sure as shootin’.” He gave me a slow wink. “Like as not she’ll think she got herself elected being downright smart. But you and me will know better. We’ll know that these six chairs and the altar turned the trick. And who in this town is smart enough to build chairs and altars?”

“Nobody but you,” I said. “And besides, you’re the checker champion of Springhill.”

“Yes, sir,” he said, popping a peppermint into his mouth. “Yes,siree!” ★