Mothers to Men by Zona Gale

Mothers to Men by Zona Gale

MOTHERS TO MEN

“Daddy!”

The dark was so thick with hurrying rain that the child’s voice was drowned. So he splashed forward a few steps in the mud and puddles of the highway and plucked at the coat of the man tramping before. The man took a hand from a pocket and stooped somewhat to listen, still plodding ahead.

“Daddy! It’s the hole near my biggest toe. My biggest toe went right through that hole an’ it chokes my toe awful.”

The man suddenly squatted in the mud, presenting a broad, scarcely distinguishable back.

“Climb up,” he commanded.

The boy wavered. His body ached with weariness, his feet were sore and cold, something in his head was numb. But in a moment he ran on, two steps or three, past the man.

“Nope,” he said, “I’m seeing if I could walk all the way. I could—yet. I just told you ’bout my toe, daddy, ’cause I had to talk about it.”

[Pg 2]

The man said nothing, but he rose and groped for the child’s arm and got it about the armpit, and, now and then as they walked, he pulled the shoulder awkwardly upward, trying to help.

After a time of silence the rain subsided a little, so that the child’s voice was less like a drowned butterfly.

“Daddy,” he said, “what’s velvet?”

“I dunno, sonny. Some kind of black cloth, I guess. Why?”

“It came in my head,” the child explained. “I was tryin’ to think of nice things. Velvet sounds like a king’s clothes—but it sounds like a coffin too. I didn’t know if it’s a nice thing.”

This, the man understood swiftly, was because her coffin had been black velvet—the coffin which he had had no money to buy for her, for his wife and the boy’s mother, the coffin which had been bought with the poor fund of a church which he had never entered. “What other nice thing you been thinkin’ of?” he asked abruptly.

“Circus. An’ angels. An’ ice-cream. An’ a barrel o’ marbles. An’ bein’ warm an’ clean stockin’s an’ rocked….”

“My God!” said the man.

[Pg 3]

The child looked up expectantly.

“Did he say anything back?” he inquired eagerly.

“Not a word,” said the man in his throat.

“Lemme try,” said the child. “God—oh, God—God dear!” he called into the night.

From the top of the hill on the edge of the Pump pasture which in that minute they had reached, they suddenly saw, cheery and yellow and alive, the lamps of Friendship Village, shining in the valley; and away at one side, less in serene contemplation than in deliberate withdrawal, shone the lights of a house set alone on its hill.

“Oh, daddy, daddy—look at the lights!” the child cried. “God didn’t say nothin’ with words. Maybe he talks with lights instead of ’em.”

The man quickened his steps until, to keep pace with him, the little boy broke into uneven running.

“Is those lights where we’re goin’, daddy?” he asked.

“That’s where,” said the man. He put his hand in his pocket and felt for the fifteen cents that lay there, wrapped in paper. The fancied odour and warmth of something to drink caught at him until he could hardly bear the longing.

[Pg 4]

But before he could get to the drink he must do something else. The man had been fighting away the thought of what he meant to do. But when they entered the village and were actually upon its main street, lonely in the rainy, eight o’clock summer dusk, what he meant to do had to be faced. So he began looking this way and that for a place to leave the child. There was a wagon shop. Old wagons stood under the open shed, their thills and tongues hanging, not expectant of journeys like those of new wagons, but idle, like the worn arms of beaten men. Some men, he thought, would leave the boy there, to sleep under a seat and be found in the morning; but he was no such father as that, he reflected complacently. He meant to leave the boy in a home, give him a fair start. There was a little house with a broken picket fence—someway she wouldn’t have liked him to be there; she always liked things nice. He had never been able to give the boy much that was nice, but now, he said to himself, he would take nothing second rate. There was a grocery with a light above stairs where very likely the family lived, and there, too, was a dry stairway where the child could sit and wait until somebody came—no, not there either…. “The best ain’t none too good for the little fellow,” thought the man.

[Pg 5]

“Dad-ee!” cried the child suddenly.

He had run a few steps on and stood with his nose against the misty pane of Abagail Arnold’s Home Bakery. Covered with pink mosquito-netting were a plate of sugar rolls, a fruit cake, a platter of cream puffs, and a tall, covered jar of shelled nuts.

“Hustle up—you!” said the man roughly, and took him by the arm again.

“I was comin’,” said the little boy.

Why not leave the child at the bakery? No—a house. It must be a house, with a porch and a front stair and big upstairs rooms and a look of money-in-the-bank. He was giving care to the selection. It was as if he were exercising some natural paternal office, to be scrupulously discharged. Music issued from the wooden saloon building with the false two-story front and the coloured windows; from a protesting piano a dance tune was being furiously forced, and, as the door swung open, the tap and thud of feet, the swell of voices and laughter, the odour of the spirits caught at the cold and weary man. “Hurry along—hurry along!” he bade the boy roughly. That was where he would come back afterward, but first he must find the right place for the boy.

Vaguely he was seeking for that section of[Pg 6] the village which it would call “the residence part,” with that ugly and naked appropriation of the term which excludes all the humbler homes from residence-hood at all. But when he had turned aside from the main street he came upon the First Church, with lights streaming from the ground-glass windows of the prayer-meeting room, and he stood still, staring up at it.

She had cared a good deal about that sort of thing. Churches did good—it was a church that had buried her when he could not. Why not there? Why not leave the child there?

He turned aside and mounted the three wooden steps and sat down, drawing the boy beside him. Grateful for a chance to rest, the child turned sidewise and dropped his head heavily on his father’s arm. There was light enough for the father to see the thick, wet hair on the babyish forehead.

“I did walked all the way, didn’t I?” the child said triumphantly.

“You bet you did,” said his father absently.

Since the boy’s mother had died only three months had passed, but in that time had been crowded for the child a lifetime of physical misery. Before that time, too, there had been hunger and cold and the torture of the continual[Pg 7] quarreling between that mother, sickly, half-fed, irritable, and this father, out of work and drunken. Then the mother had died, and the man had started out with the boy, seeking new work where they would not know his old vice. And in these three months, for the boy’s sake, that old vice had been kept bound. For the boy’s sake he had been sober and, if the chance had come, he would have been industrious. But, save for odd jobs, the chance never came; there seemed to be a kind of ineffectualness in the way he asked for work which forbade him a trial. Then one day, after almost three months of the struggle, he had waked to the old craving, to the need, the instant need, for liquor. He had faced the situation honestly. He knew, or thought he knew, his power of endurance. He knew that in a day or two he would be worsted, and that there would follow a period of which, afterward, he would remember nothing. Meanwhile, what of the boy? He had a fondness for the boy, and there remained to the man some shreds of decency and even of tradition. He would not turn him over to the “authorities.” He would not cast him adrift in the city. He resolved to carry him to the country, to some near little town where, dimly it seemed to him, the people would be[Pg 8] more likely to take him in. “They have more time—an’ more room—an’ more to eat,” he sought to explain it to himself. So he had walked, and the child had walked, from the City to Friendship Village. He must find a place to leave him: why not leave him here on the church steps, “outside the meetin’?”

“Don’t you go to sleep, kiddie,” he said, and shook him lightly.

“I was jus’ restin’ my eye-flaps. Eye-things. What are they, daddy?”

“Eye-lids.”

“Yes. Them. They’re tired, too,” said the child, and smiled—the sleepy smile which gave his face a baby winsomeness. Then he snuggled in the curve of arm, like a drowsy, nosing puppy.

The father sat looking down on him, and in his breast something pulled. In these three months he had first become really acquainted with the boy, had first performed for him little personal offices—sewed on a button or two, bought him shoes, bound up a hurt finger. In this time, too, he had first talked with him alone, tried to answer his questions. “Where is my mamma, an’ will she rock somebody else?” “Are you going to be my daddy till you die, an’ then who’ll be?” “What is the biggest thing everybody knows? Can I know it too?”[Pg 9]… Also, in these three months, at night he had gone to sleep, sometimes in a bed, oftener in a barn, now and again under the stars, with the child breathing within his reach, and had waked to keep him covered with his own coat. Now he was going to end all this.

“It ain’t fair to the kid not to. It ain’t fair to cart him around like this,” he said over and over, defending himself before some dim dissenter.

The boy suddenly swung back from his father’s arm and looked up in his face. “Will—will there be any supper till morning?” he asked.

You might have thought that the man did not hear, he sat so still looking down the wet road-ruts shining under the infrequent lamps. Hunger and cold, darkness and wet and ill-luck—why should he not keep the boy from these? It was not deserting his child; it was giving him into better hands. It did not occur to him that the village might not accept the charge. Anything would be better than what he himself had to give. Hunger and cold and darkness….

“You stay still here a minute, sonny,” said the man.

“You goin’ ‘way?” the child demanded.

“A minute. You stay still here—right[Pg 10] where you are,” said the man, and went into the darkness.

The little boy sat still. He was wide awake now that he was alone; the walls of the dark seemed suddenly to recede, and instead of merely the church steps there was the whole black, listening world to take account of. He sat alert, trying to warm each hand on the cold wrist of its fellow. Where had his father gone? To find them a place to stay? Suppose he came back and said that he had found them a home; and they should go to it; and it would have a coal stove and a bedstead, and a pantry with cookies and brown sugar in the jars. And a lady would come and cook molasses candy for him….

All this time something was hurting him intolerably. It was the foot, and the biggest toe, and the hole that was “choking” him. He fumbled at his shoe laces, but they were wet and the shoes were wet and sodden, and he gave it up. Where had his father gone? How big the world seemed when he was gone, and how different the night was. And when the lady had the molasses candy cooked, like in a story, she would cool it at the window and they would cut it in squares….

As suddenly as he had gone, his father reappeared from the darkness.

[Pg 11]

“Here,” he said roughly, and thrust in the child’s hands a paper bag. And when he had opened it eagerly there were sugar rolls and cream puffs and a piece of fruit cake and some shelled nuts. Fifteen cents’ worth of food, badly enough selected, in all conscience, but—fifteen cents’ worth. The fifteen cents which the man had been carrying in his pocket, wrapped in paper.

“Now set there,” said his father, “an’ eat ’em up. An’ listen, son. Set there till folks come out from in there. Set there till they come out. An’ here’s somethin’ I’m puttin’ in your coat pocket—see? It’s a paper. Don’t you look at it. But when the folks come out from in there—an’ ask you anything—you show ’em that. Remember. Show ’em that.”

In the prayer-meeting room the reed organ sent out some trembling, throaty chords, and the little group in there sang an old melody. It was strange to the man, as he listened—

“Break thou the bread of life
To me, to me—”

but, “That’s it,” he thought, “that’s it. Break it to him—I can’t. All I can give him is stuff in a paper bag, an’ not always that. Now you break it to him—”

[Pg 12]

“Dad-ee!” cried the child. “You!”

Startled, the man looked down at him. It was almost like a counter charge. But the child was merely holding out to him half his store. The man shook his head and went down the steps to the sidewalk and turned to look back at the child munching happily from the paper sack. “Break it to him—break it to him—God!” the father muttered, as he might have used a charm.

Again the child looked out expectantly.

“Did he say anything back?” he asked eagerly.

“Not a word—not a word,” said the man again. This time he laughed, nervously and foolishly. “But mebbe he will,” he mumbled superstitiously. “I dunno. Now, you set there. An’ then you give ’em the paper—an’ go with anybody out o’ the church that asks you. Dad may not get back for—quite a while….”

The man went. The child, deep in the delight of a cream puff, wondered and looked after him troublously, and was vaguely comforted by the murmur of voices beyond the doors.

“Why, God didn’t answer back because he was to the church meeting,” the child thought, when he heard the people moving about within.

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