Nothing was important to Kelly— outside engineering. Then he met Catherine, and discovered how wrong a guy can be

JAMES CARVER August 15 1948


Nothing was important to Kelly— outside engineering. Then he met Catherine, and discovered how wrong a guy can be

JAMES CARVER August 15 1948

Nothing was important to Kelly— outside engineering. Then he met Catherine, and discovered how wrong a guy can be



THEY met at one of the little parties Fred Parkinson and his wife Gwen gave at their apartment Saturday nights.

The parties were small and quiet, just a few of the men, mostly veterans like Fred himself, who were taking engineering at the university, and their wives or girls sitting around drinking a few beers, talking and listening to the record player.

Kelly Mercer wasn’t sure he wanted to go. He liked Fred all right, and he always enjoyed himself at these little Saturday night affairs, but Kelly begrudged any time he took from his books unless it was for something important. And to Kelly there was nothing really important outside of getting his degree and becoming an engineer.

Tonight he came to Fred’s apartment a little late, a little sulky, because he had given in to the desire to be where there were people. Gwen seemed to recognize the signs because she whispered to him as he shuffled into the little hall, “Forget about the books for a night, Kelly. There’s a nice girl here I want you to meet.”

That was how they met. Kelly lit a cigarette and sat on a hassock beside Catherine Roberts, with a bottle of beer between his feet and listened to the conversation.

It was always the same at these clambakes, Kelly told himself. Here they were talking about the war in one corner and school in the other. He butted his cigarette and looked around. Catherine Roberts was watching him.

Kelly hadn’t paid much attention to her when they had been introduced. He got the impression of a small, dark, slim girl with shy eyes. He hadn’t heard her speak except for the murmured acknowledgment of the introduction.

Kelly swung around a little until he was facing her and locked his hands across his knees.

“And which shall we. talk about?” he asked. “The war or the school?”

“Is that all there is?” she asked. Her voice was soft and nice to listen to.

‘‘That’s all—house rule. The war’s a kind of hoof and mouth disease with us. We walked around in those suits for four years and now we’re going to talk about, it for the rest of our lives, I guess,” said Kelly.

“What were you in?” asked Catherine.

Kelly rose. *

“Say, you don’t know what you’re doing. The last person who asked that was found here the following Tuesday, weak and gibbering and plucking at his clothes. You want to be careful,” he said slapping the pocket of his leather jacket. “Look, will you excuse me for a few minutes? I’m out of cigarettes. I’m going down to the corner.” Catherine got up.

“I’ll go with you,” she said.

Kelly called to Gwen from the door, told her where they were going. He and Catherine walked down the stairs and out on the street. At the corner Kelly turned to go into a cigar store.

“Let’s walk a little farther,” said Catherine. “I feel like some air.”

They walked in silence for half a block. Kelly ran a hand over his close-cropped blond head and looked down at Catherine.

“How well do you know Gwen and Fred?” he asked her.

“Pretty well. That is, I’ve known Gwen for years. We come from the same town. I didn’t, meet Fred before this year,” she said.

“She didn’t sick you on me to try and cheer me up or something, did she?” Kelly blurted out,.

Catherine shook her head. She brushed back her long dark hair before she answered.

“No, this was my own idea. Do you mind?”

“No, I don’t mind. But Gwen seems to think because I’m single and working hard at my studies that I’m going through hell. I’m not. I had four big years full of going places and doing things.”

“And girls . . .?”

“Yes, there were even some girls. Enough anyway that I’m happy to be a hermit for the next three years and get this course. It. means more to me than anything else in the world.” Kelly heard his own voice strangely savage.

“Here’s another cigar store,” said Catherine.

They bought the cigarettes and walked back to the apartment without speaking. The Parkinsons were a walkup, three flights. Kelly paused at the first landing to wait for Catherine who was a step behind him. When she joined him on the landing he folded his arms around her and kissed her hard.

They walked the other two flights slowly. At the door of the apartment. Kelly paused and jabbed at his mouth with the back of his hand.

“You haven’t, got. any lipstick,” said Catherine in a flat voice and opened the door. She paused for a moment, as though she wanted to be sure Kelly was behind her, then walked in to rejoin the party.

KELLY played squash on Mondays after classes.

You had to keep in shape and the games like football and basketball took too much time. This way you could slip in for a fast game and out again.

His muscles felt tight and fine as though they had been newly tuned as he stood on the top step of the gym entrance the Monday after the Parkinson party. The early spring wind pushed cold flatfingers through his hair. He hadn’t rubbed it dry after his shower. A guy could get a cold that way: a guy could get sick and be out of school for days, maybe weeks, maybe miss his year.

He zippered his combat jacket up to his neck and shoved his hands deep into the pockets and began to walk swiftly. Down Memorial Walk under the skeletal elms, past the Gothic cave of the entrance to the library. As he drew near the building he saw the glowing end of a cigarette mark the dusk with a little fiery loop as someone tossed it away. As he passed he heard the urgent whisper of softsoled shoes in a hurry.

Then Catherine was beside him, her books cradled in her arms. She was a breathless, windblown little figure as she tried to hang onto her books, push her hair back and keep up with Kelly’s long strides.

“I was waiting for you,” she said. “They told me at the gym you were playing squash. So I waited. Do you mind—do you mind my waiting for you?” “No, I don’t mind. Why should I?” he answered. “I don’t know. Why did you leave the party the other night without saying good-by to anyone? You went out to the kitchen and then a little while later Gwen said you had gone home.”

Kelly looked down at her for a moment without speaking.

“I was tired. I get tired of parties very easily. Besides, I had a lot of work to do yesterday,” he said brusquely.

Catherine gave a little skip to catch up to him. “You’ve got to work all right, I guess. You’ve got a tough year,” said Catherine in a small voice.

“A very tough year,” said Kelly firmly. “And it comes first.”

They were out of the university grounds now and walking toward Fairlawn Street where many of the student boardinghouses and fraternity houses art» located.

“You going to eat?” asked Kelly suddenly.

“Yes, art? you?”

“At the greasy spoon you know the White Lunch. Ever eat there? A delightful cuisine. They cater to a type of gourmet who has exactly fifty cents to spend on dinner,” said Kelly.

“Oh, I’ll pay for my own,” said Catherine eagerly.

Kelly grinned.

“Guess you’ll have to,” he said. “I’m just about broke again. Near the end of the month. We turn up here.”

The White Lunch was full of noise and students and the fog of frying food. Catherine and Kelly walked the length of the double row of booths before they found a place to sit. The single occupant at the table looked up.

“Hello, Kelly. Sit down,” said the young man with a friendly smile.

“This is Brock Sheppard, Catherine Roberts. Sheppard is one of my instructors,” said Kelly.

“And one of your former sergeants,” said the other, making room for Kelly on his side of the table.

“Sheppard isn’t the least bit rank-conscious now but there was a time when he wouldn’t associate with officers,” explained Kelly. “He just sneered at them.”

The conversation soon turned to schoolwork. Once or twice Sheppard looked across at Catherine and made an attempt to draw her into the conversation but Kelly brought him back to the problem he had outlined on a paper napkin in pencil.

“Will you go over that again, Brock? ! guess I’m just plain stupid. When you have a piston, say two inches in diameter . . .” Kelly began and bent over the diagram.

Catherine finished her dinner and drank her coffee. Kelly and Sheppard talked. Suddenly she scooped up her books and was gone.

Sheppard looked up.

“Look, Kelly, we weren’t very polite to your girl friend,” he said.

“She isn’t my girl friend. She’s just a gal I met the other night at a party,” said Kelly turning back to the drawing. “I have it now, Brock. I had entirely the wrong slant on the whole thing. It’s been worrying me all day.”

He threw down the pencil. He looked taut and tired.

“It’s tough getting gack to school, Brock. Last year was tough this

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one is tougher. I never was the best student in the world and after four years away . . .” Kelly shook his head.

“How old are you, Kelly?” asked Brock.

“I’m 24 now. I’m an old man, Brock,” he said.

Brock nodded toward the door.

“She doesn’t think so.”

“Let’s go,’’ said Kelly rising. “Thanks a lot, Brock. That was really a lot of help.”

“Any time I can help, Kelly, let me know,” he said. He put a hand on Kelly’s arm. “And, lieutenant, don’t bear down too hard on those books.”

KELLY walked quickly back to his rooming house and let himself in with his own key. The front hall of the old house had the sour smell of a cave. And it wasn’t as well-lit as most caves. A small bulb high in the lofty ceiling shed a greenish light over the table on which the day’s mail was spread out. Kelly found a letter from his mother, shoved it in the pocket of his jacket and started up the stairs.

He paused at the second step. Somewhere in the upper reaches of the old house there was singing. A door opened and a fresh blast of singing rocketed along the corridor and then the door slammed.

Kelly mounted the steps slowly. Sounded like those freshman engineers down the hall. Weren’t they having a class party tonight? As he reached the top of the stairs and was about to turn down to his room the door opened again.

“We are, we are, we are the engineers . . .”

Kelly grinned as he turned and slid his hand along the railing. A peremptory young voice stopped him from behind.

“Hey, you!”

Kelly slowly turned.

A boy Kelly had seen in the halls walked slowly toward him. His tie was loosened and his shirt collar was open. His curly hair looked damp and a little dissolute.

“You speaking to me?” asked Kelly. “You’re an engineer, aren’t you?” asked the boy. “Well, come on down to the room. That’s where you belong. Come on down,” he said, indicating the room with the singing by an extravagant sweeping gesture.

“Sorry,” said Kelly. “Got to crack a book.”

The boy walked up to Kelly.

“Now look here,” he said curtly. “That’s not good enough. We’re engineers, aren’t we? Well, come on down and join the party.”

He put his hand on Kelly’s sleeve. Kelly shrugged it off.

“I don’t want to be unneighborly, Joe, but I’m not coming down. I’ll be seeing you,” said Kelly.

The youngster made a lunge at Kelly as he turned to leave and spun him around.

“We’ll be seeing you right now, general. So we’re not good enough to associate with, just because we didn’t hit the beach with the old umpty-ump division, eh?” he shouted.

Kelly pushed the boy in the chest and stepped back.

“I’m not drinking with you. Get that through your head and keep your hands to yourself or you’ll have a fight on them,” he said angrily.

The singing stopped suddenly and the door of the room down the hall opened. A boy walked quickly up the hall and took the other by the arm. “Come on back, George. The guv

doesn’t want to drink with us so just come back.” He looked over his shoulder at Kelly and grinned. “Sorry, Mac, but my friend is a little high.”

“That’s all right,” said Kelly, and walked slowly down to his room. Just as he opened the door he could hear a loud, protesting voice saying, “Yeah so what. Those veterans with their high and mighty airs trying to make us look like children give me a pain.” Kelly sat at his desk for a long time with a book open before him. Why didn’t people just leave him alone? First Gwen Parkinson trying to cheer him up, then this girl Catherine Roberts trying to—well, whatever she was trying to do. And Brock giving him solemn advice, and now this kid accusing him of acting like a professional veteran. Couldn’t they understand that he wanted to be left alone so he could pass some exams and get a job and get some kind of career started? He was behind time now and any diversion was going to put him still further behind.

Why did people put him in the position where he had to act like a prig or a heel to explain this to them? Like Catherine. He had been pretty rough with her all right. But what the hell— this was his life he was trying to shape. He lunged savagely at the book. Let them stand well back and take care of themselves — Mercer was coming through.

But it didn’t go so well. At tenthirty he pulled on his jacket and went out. He’d have a cup of coffee at the White Lunch and go for a walk. Maybe he’d feel more like working when he got back.

THE White Lunch was crowded with students having their evening coffee. Kelly sat down at the counter and ordered a cup. While he was waiting he looked down the long narrow room. At the back of the restaurant there was a good deal of loud talk and shouting—probably the windup of that class dinner.

Kelly stirred his coffee. When someone sat on the stool next to him he pulled in his elbow to make room for the newcomer. As he took his first sip he looked over the rim of his cup. Catherine was sitting beside him with her hands folded lightly in her lap. What was this? He put the thick white cup down heavily.

“Well,” he said.

“I thought you might be here,” she said.

He rubbed his hand hard over his hair and looked for a moment at the pyramid of soft drink bottles behind the counter. He sighed deeply.

“Coffee?” he asked her in a flat voice. She nodded. Then after he had ordered she said quickly, “I suppose you think I haven’t much pride pestering you like this.”

“Catherine,” said Kelly wearily, “I haven’t thought about it. I’m sorry I ignored you at dinner tonight but there was some stuff I had to get from that guy. I’m not a boor—not a complete one anyway. It’s just that I’m kind—of—busy.”

He said the last three words slowly, accenting each one with a little chop of his hand. When he looked up he saw the boy with whom he had argued earlier in the evening, approaching. He hailed Kelly loudly and derisively, “Well, if it isn’t the general. The general and a pretty girl.” He gave a half-crooked grin. “Able to get awav from the books for this, eh?” He put one friendly arm around Kelly’s shoulder. the other around Catherine’s. He spoke to Catherine with his head close to hers.

“Has he come to that part yet where he tells you, ‘There I was. ten thousand

feet over Berlin, nothing on the clock | . . . flying upside down . . .’

Kelly stood up quickly. He grabbed the boy by the slack of his shirt front with his left hand and cocked his right.

“Listen, Buster, I’ve had just about ; all I want from you today. Now get out before I hit you in the mouth.”

Someone moved in between them and the boy left with his friends. When Kelly looked around Catherine was paying her check at. the cashier’s ! desk. He joined her and they walked out together. He still felt hot and jumpy with anger.

“He didn’t mean anything wrong,” said Catherine.

“I know, I know,” said Kelly, his voice hard. “I’m a heel. I should have slapped my thigh and laughed and laughed.”

“It would have been better than what you did,” she said.

Catherine turned up Fairlawn and Kelly walked beside her. He shrugged his shoulders. His jacket felt tight ; and clammy.

“Well, maybe after this display of mine, you’ll go away and stop bothering me,” he said through hard lips.

“Yes, I’ll stop bothering you. 1 tried to tell you back there . . .” her ¡ voice trailed off.

“I know 1 sound selfish but— Catherine, I can’t take a chance on missing everything I’ve hoped for and planned for years,” he said.

“Here’s where I live,” said Catherine, stopping before one of the identically hideous high red brick houses that ¡ lined Fairlawn Street. She put out her hand.

“I hope you become a great engineer, Kelly.”

And she was gone up the walk to the dark forbidding door of the rooming house. Kelly started to speak but he wasn’t sure she had heard him. He spoke again, “But Catherine . . .”

He walked home slowly along the dark and empty street.

The next night he walked back to the high red brick house where she lived. He wanted to see her again and tell her—just what did he want to tell her, he asked himself? That he was sorry she was lonely and that she loved him? She would be glad to hear that. Did he want to tell her . . . No, he said as he turned away from the door without knocking, this is the j way you wanted it. Leave it this way. | She’ll get over it and you'll get down to work.

But he didn’t get down to work. In the week that followed he spent hours staring into space. He found himself looking for her every time he turned : a corner on the campus, every time he | went into the White Lunch.

ON FRIDAY evening he met Brock i Sheppard in the White Lunch having his dinner.

“It’s still tough, Brock,” Kelly told ! him. “I’m pretty fair on the practical stuff but the theory throws me. I’m not a student I guess. The math and physics—all that stuff is very hard going.”

“Come around some night and I’ll give you a hand. Maybe I can help.” | Brock stopped and grinned. “Or are j you still going it alone?”

Kelly nodded.

“Something like that I guess. Per! haps I’m carrying it pretty far because !

1 should have some tutoring, but that’s how it is.”

Brock nodded.

“By the way. I saw that friend of yours—Miss Roberts, the other day in the admin, building. She wants me to let her know how you get along with your year. She gave me her address.

1 m to write to her. I suppose you know she’s leaving school this week :

end. In fact, I believe she was leaving at noon today.”

Kelly dropped his fork.

“Leaving school! Her exams aren’t for another month and a half! Is she sick?”

“She doesn’t look too well, but I don’t think that’s it. She just said she was going home.”

“Bui this means she loses her year -—everything,” said Kelly.

“Well, that’s what she said anyway,” said Brock rising. “Be seeing you.”

Kelly was staring at his plate. He looked up.

“Look, let me have that address, will you?”

“Sure, here it is,” said Brock, reaching for a notebook. “Parmenter

— it’s a little town. No street address

just Parmenter. It’s that kind of place. I’ve driven through it.”

“Thanks,” said Kelly, and he pushed his plate away and reached for his jacket.

That night Kelly didn’t even try to study. He stacked his books to one side and wrote a letter which he promptly tore up.

Then he went down to the phone and found out what time buses went to Parmenter on Saturday morning.

He arrived at what seemed to be nothing more than four corners on the highway a little after ten o’clock.

“This is Parmenter, son, there isn’t any more,” said the driver when Kelly hesitated at the bottom step.

The only other passenger for Parmenter was an elderly woman.

“Catherine Roberts? In the Roberts house of course. 'That’s where you’ll find her. 'That’s the big white one up the highway,” she said with surprise in her voice.

Catherine answered his knock.

“Why, Kelly, how nice. What are you doing in Parmenter?”

“Catherine, what’s wrong?” Kelly asked quickly.

“'There’s nothing wrong. Come in, won’t you,” she said.

“Couldn’t we have a talk,” he looked around the veranda, “—somewhere?”

“We’ll go for a walk. Wait for me in the hall while 1 get a jacket. You’ll stay for lunch, won’t you? I’ll tell Mother,” said Catherine, leaving him in the hall as she disappeared toward the back of the house.

Kelly could hear her talking to someone in what seemed to be the kitchen. 'The hall was rich with the buttery sweetness of baking from the kitchen and the first smell of spring stealing through the open front door.

When Catherine came back, he noticed for the first time that she was wearing green slacks and a green sweater, a nice dark green, with a yellow jacket over the sweater. The guy who dreamed up those slacks must have been thinking of Catherine when he designed them, thought Kelly.

THKY walked along the highway for a short distance where the new grass was making bright epaulettes on the shoulder of the road.

“Let’s take this path,” said Catherine, leading the way through a gate into a field. “It’s all right, it’s part of our farm.”

“You haven’t told me why you did it— why you threw over your whole year, your degree— 1 never did know what course you were taking—and left school just before the exams. If I was the reason . . .”

“You weren’t the reason,” said Catherine, looking across the fields as they slowly followed the path.

“Are you sure you’re not sick?” “No.”

“Did you run out of money?”


Kelly stopped.

“Well then, if everything’s all right I guess I’ll start back. I’ve got no business busting in like this. But I was worried,” said Kelly, turning.

“That was sweet of you to he worried, Kelly.” Catherine’s chin was high. “It was sweet of you to cut your classes and everything to come up and see how I was. But I’m fine . . . really . . . I’m fine.” She paused, then added, “How are you, Kelly?”

He turned and faced her. “Terrible!”

“So am I,” said Catherine, a little breathlessly.

This time there was no savage hunger in Kelly’s kiss. It was slow and deep and wonderful, this feeling he had as his arms went around her slim body. In the circle of his arms Kelly felt he held all he had wanted, all he had fought so hard against admitting he needed.

“Somehow being an engineer isn’t nearly as important as it was a week ago, Catherine. 1 could get a job, and we could . . .” said Kelly with a deep sigh.

“You’ve got a job, Kelly. You’re going to be an engineer—a great engineer. I’ve got it all figured out,” she said.

He took her hand in his. He shook his head. She just didn’t understand, poor Catherine. She didn’t understand yet:

“I know I would be a good engineer once I got out on the job, but those books.”

He shook his head again.

“I didn’t tell you why 1 left school and came home,” said Catherine. “I left because I’ve been working on my master’s degree and I’ve done all the lab work and I came home to write my thesis.”

“Lab work?” said Kelly. “Don’t tell me you’re an engineer?”

“Not quite—I’m a physicist,” said Catherine, lowering her eyes.

Kelly scrubbed his hand hard across his hair with a characteristic gesture.


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He looked across at a Guernsey heifer which had moved up to investigate.

“How wrong can a guy be?” he asked the heifer.

Catherine was at the side.

“That’s not it at all, Kelly. How right can two people be? Come on, let’s find out.” she said taking his big hand in her small one.

They stood once again in the front hall with that fragrance all around them.

“Mother,” Catherine called.

Mrs. Roberts’ voice answered lightly and happily from upstairs. Catherine stood on the bottom step with one arm around the newel post. Her words were for her mother, but her smile and the love in her eyes were ali for Kelly-

“Mother, will you come down right away and meet Kelly Mercer, a very important person. And Mother, where did you put all my second-year science books? We’ve got a lot of work to do this week end!” ★