Fiction

Keep away from Laura

MORLEY CALLAGHAN November 1 1952
Fiction

Keep away from Laura

MORLEY CALLAGHAN November 1 1952

Keep away from Laura

Fiction

MORLEY CALLAGHAN

As the chestnuts fell the haughty man in the big house raged about “those people” across the street. Despite himself, Joe tell too when he heard the call of youth in the whispering leaves of the forbidden tree

A BIG chestnut tree in front of the Herberts’ corner house spread its branches across the windows and sheltered it from the noisy new apartment house and its balconies across the street, where the Stanowskis lived with their Polish, Jewish and Ukrainian neighbors. It was the last of the fine old houses on the street. All the other old places had been torn down or broken up into flats. Mr. Herbert, a leather-goods manufacturer in a small way, lived there with his daughter.

Joe Stanowski hadn’t had a chance to meet the Herberts. When his mother and younger brother. Pete, had moved into the apartment he had been working in Detroit, and now he had been home only a few days. On Saturday afternoon he was coming home from work when Mr. Herbert and his daughter were approaching their shined-up old Cadillac on the drive to the left of their tree. The daughter looked so slim and pretty in her tailored blue suit that Joe slowed down to watch her get into the car. Leading the way to open the door for her. her father had a slow commanding stride, his pearlgrey hat square on the top of his head, and Joe didn’t like his dark, proud, gloomy face. Nor did he like the way he wouldn’t deign to notice the Jewish woman on the stoop next door, who bowed to him as she shook out her floor mop. But Joe did like the glimpse he got of the daughter’s legs as she stepped into the car. Her father drew on his yellow gloves, then pressed the starter. It spun loudly, but the motor didn’t start. After waiting gravely for a moment he gave it another spin. Nothing happened. So Mr. Herbert kept his foot on the starter while the slow whirring sound tilled the street.

Crossing the road slowly, then hesitating, Joe waited, hoping he might lie helpful and then have a chance to speak to the girl, and the Jewish woman, leaning on her mop. also watched with interest. For some reason then. Mr. Herbert took ofT his gloves and tried again and. as the loud and futile spinning continued, Joe’s own mother, plump and jolly-looking, and his younger brother, Pete, came out on their balcony to watch. They waved to Joe. Three little kids in torn sweaters who had crossed the street moved under the chestnut tree and gaj>ed at the car.

"Having some trouble?” Joe called, but apparently Mr. Herbert didn't hear him. for he got out of the car, chased the kids away irritably, circled the car with great deliberation, readjusted his hat. scowled at the row of apartment houses, and got into the car and spun the starter until the kids he had chased had come back again.

As Joe approached the car confidently his eyes were on t he little dark curls at the back of Miss Herbert’s neck. "Just a minute.” he called He had a slow lazy smile and a fine head with thick fair hair. \ ou 11 ha\e no juice left in that battery.” Raising the old car's hood he reached for the choke, closed it and held it.' "All right. Trv again.” he said calmly.

Eyeing him grimly Mr. Herbert delilierated and tapped the dashboard with his fingers and. as their eyes met. Joe knew that he resented him raising the hood of the old car and he resented him Continued on page 35

Continued on page 35

Keep Away From Laura

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 13

walking on the lawn under the old tree.

“Yes, try it again, daddy,” the girl

At the first spin the motor started. “Thank you,” Mr. Herbert said, and the tone was so clipped and curt he might just as well have asked Joe why he didn't mind his own business. It was insulting and as the car backed away Joe reddened and cursed softly. Then Miss Herbert waved and smiled gratefully. Feeling better, he stood watching until the car went down the street and turned the corner, then he crossed to his own place and asked his mother about the Herberts.

Mr. Herbert was an old bear who ought to have moved out of the neighborhood long ago if he didn't like it, she said. Instead, he stayed there with his daughter in his big old house behind his big old tree, driving his silly old car, and looking down his nose at everybody and always making trouble for the kids who climbed the tree and knocked down the chestnuts.

COMING home Monday evening Joe went into the corner drugstore to get a coke, and there was Miss Herbert at the counter buying some aspirin. She was carrying a big folio. The counter lights gleamed on her long black hair parted in the centre, and he saw that she had soft shy brown eyes. “Oh, hello,” he said.

“Why, hello,” she called as she turned to go “Have you started any more cars?” Forgetting about his coke he went out with her. “I go this way too," he said, falling in step. She held aloof until he asked what she was carrying in the folio, then she told him she was going to art school studying design and wanted to do interior decorating. And he told her he was at an airplane factory but was studying draftsmanship three nights a week at night school. He talked easily and eloquently. He had the fine Kuropean manners of his Polish father. As she kept glancing at him he didn’t know how it happened, but suddenly they started laughing and slowing down and her shy stiffness vanished, and he felt exuberant, then almost shy himself.

At the big chestnut tree she said reluctantly. "Well. I'm afraid I leave you here."

"Well, what’s your first name?”

“Laura. Laura. That’s a nice name. Say, why don’t we go to the movies some night?”

The shined-up old Cadillac came turning in at the Herbert drive and stopped at the garage. Mr. Herbert got out and stood there watching them.

“But you haven’t told me your own name,” she said.

“Joe Stanowski.”

"Stanowski."

"Yeah, that’s a Polish name. I just live across the street.”

"Oh. There."

"Well, I’ll call you." he said uneasily, for she looked embarrassed, and he thought it was because her unsmiling father was approaching with his slow deliberate stride, scrutinizing them boldly.

TUST before the street lights came ** on Joe was in the front room playing some records when he heard an angry shout coming from across the street. He looked out the window and saw Mr. Herbert on his steps waving his arms. A kid ran across the lawn and down the street. Another was swinging from a branch. His own

brother, Pete, came running across the road heading for home with chestnuts dropping from his pockets and bouncing on the pavement, until he realized he was betraying his identity, then he circled away and went on down the

Coming down the steps slowly Mr. Herbert stood on the lawn, looking up at the tree, then he put his hands on his hips and surveyed the litter of sticks and stones the kids had thrown at the chestnuts, and the leaves they had knocked down He began methodically to pick up the sticks and stones, t' en

suddenly he straightened and glared at the apartment house. Dropping the sticks he came striding across the street.

“Mother, mother,” Joe called. “Here comes Mr. Herbert. Pete has been at

“Oh, my. You speak — No, you keep out of it. I'll speak." she said, hurrying from the kitchen and smoothing her grey hair She tried to pull off her apron, had difficulty with it and grew flustered, but she was at the door when Mr. Herbert knocked.

"Ah. Mr. Herbert,” she said, with her broad Polish accent

“Madan o."he began, but he couldn’t maintain his enormously superior tone with his dark gloomy face full of violence. "That boy of yours,” he snapped at her. “That little vandal—” When Mrs. Stanowski tried to interrupt him he lost his temper completely. "None of you people have any respect for a man's property. Why don’t you keep to yourselves?”

“Such a way to talk over t few chestnuts.” Joe heard his mother say. When she spoke slowly she spoke very good Fjnglish and he hoped she wouldn’t get excited: then suddenly words

poured from her in Polish and broken English. ‘‘Mother,” Joe called anxiously, and then he was standing behind her, and Mr. Herbert had shifted his eyes to him. "The police, no doubt, will understand you better than I do.” Mr. Herbert said sharply. “In the meantime.” he added, his eyes meeting Joe’s, “keep away from my tree. Do you understand?” And he walked

Joe and his mother stood at the front window and watched him cross the road and begin to clear his lawn of the sticks and leaves. “That was for me—that speech.” Joe thought. “He threw it right at me. He means keep away from Laura."

The street lights came on and radios blared from open windows and. as they watched Mr. Herbert circling around, Joe was sure he knew what he was thinking: every time he stooped down Mr. Herbert was hating what had happened to the neighborhood. “We’re all just dirt to him,” Joe thought bitterly. He wished his mother hadn’t got so excited.

Turning away restlessly from the window he looked around the room at the cheap furniture his mother had scrimped and saved for. but when he giamed at her and saw that her jaw still trembled he felt ashamed and hated Mr. Herbert. “Just the same,” he said harshly, “if Pete doesn’t keep away from that tree and stop humiliating us I’ll beat his ears off.”

But he had told Laura that he would telephone Eer and he did so next evening.

“How about that movie?" he asked,

“Really,” she said, sounding embarrassed, “I hardly ever go to the movies. Thank you just the same.”

“Maybe I could meet you down at the corner some night we could

walk up

“I have no fixed time for coming home.” She spoke gently, as if trying not to hurt him, and he knew her father had talked to her and told her she should look down her nose at him.

“Look here,” he said angrily, "for thousands of years kids have been knocking down chestnuts. They’ve got a right to do it. Your tree is no different than anybody else’s. and if your old man comes charging across here again insulting my mother I’ll throw him

“Why—the idea of you talking to me like that," she gasped haughtily.

T get the point.” he said. “I won’t even bother you.” And he hung up.

That night he sat on the front balcony in the cool of the evening watching the lights in the Herbert place shining through the thick leaves of the tree. Their ground-floor window was open and someone was playing a piano. In a little while it became a duet. Old Herbert and his daughter were playing a little Bach. “Listen how stiff it is." he thought contemptuously. “Mechanical and stiff. My mother could go over there and play rings around both of them.” But he couldn’t stop watching the lighted windows behind the tree.

Later a whole gang of older boys came down the street and. as they usually did, they stopped under the Herbert tree and loafed there, laughing and talking and whistling, and their voices sounded loud and reckless on the quiet street. They made lewd jokes and jeered at each other. In a little while a police prowl car came along, a cop got out and made the boys go home, and Joe knew that Mr. Herben had phoned the police station. Suddenly Joe was glad the tree was there for, though it spread its branches protectively across Laura’s windows, it seemed to him that it also spread the city life around her house and tormented her.

Getting up, he went out, loafed across the road and walked up and down under the branches spreading over the sidewalk. He began to whistle softly. While he whistled he watched the upstairs window. At last he saw her shadow against the window shade. He laughed. He got pleasure out of jeering at her savagely. “You think you’re hidden up there and peeking out, eh. lady? That’s just right for a girl like you. Keep hidden, lady. No friends. Never a guy with you. Keep hidden and you'11 stay superior.” Sauntering up and down he made sure she would recognize him, and he felt good, thinking. “Wouldn’t you be embarrassed if you knew I had spotted you? Isn’t your old man pulling at your dress? What a lousy life you lead behind your tree.”

Still whistling softly, knowing she could see him plainly, he crossed the road to his own place.

IVTEXT night he saw her coming il home, walking on the other side of the street, aloofly self-conscious, ignoring him, and he felt sore, and he whistled that tune he had whistled under the tree, mocking her aloofness.

Early Sunday evening he heard that angry shout from across the street and the sound of kids running. At the front window he watched a kid he didn't know duck up an alley two doors below the Herbert house, and then Mr. Herbert, who had shouted from his open door, came leaping down the steps to grab a kid who was swinging from a branch. The kid, who had got his sleeve caught, was trying to free himself. “I’ll fix you this time, you scamp,” Mr. Herbert shouted. His arms wide open, he lunged at the swinging kid, who had jerked his sweater free, and who half fell, then staggered away from Mr. Herbert’s grasp and ducked and dodged across the lawn. “Oh, no you don’t." Mr. Herbert yelled, lunging again at the kid. who twisted away and eluded him and darted down the street. Like a sprinter Mr. Herbert took three leaping strides after him, then fell flat on his face and lay there, stunned.

It was a warm Sunday evening and the neighbors were on their balconies. Someone tittered, another guffawed, then there was a burst of laughter. Everybody was happy. Everybody enjoyed the comic performance. A silly fellow two doors away from the Stanowskis clapped and shouted, “Bravo.” Joe, at the window, laughed heartily. It was perfect. Flat on his

But Laura had come out and when she saw her father King on the lawn she ran to him and knelt down. Bewildered by the jeering laughter she looked over at the balconies»

Her bewilderment suddenly hurt Joe and he ran out and crossed the road and knelt down beside Mr. Herbert. "What’s the matter with him, Laura?”

“Maybe it’s his heart. It must be his heart.”

“Have you any pain, sir?”

"No,” said Mr. Herbert, whitefaced and gasping for breath as he rolled over on his side. “My legs just just suddenly fell away.”

Still enormously surprised and scared he let Joe take his hand and hoist him to his feet and, as he stood there, slowly brushing the twigs and grass from his coat, his strength returned. Then a young fellow on one of the balconies, seeing that Mr. Herbert was all right, yelled mockingly, “Speech. Speech.”

Trembling with outraged pride Mr. Herbert swung around and glared at the balconies, and then he turned to Joe. “Thank you,” he said in the same supercilious tone he had used when the car had been started for him. Feeling like a fool for being there Joe started to go.

“Joe,” Laura called.

“What?” he asked gruffly.

“Don’t go,” she began timidly. “You, you’ve been very kind.” She looked distracted and ashamed. After a nervous glance at her father she blurted out. “Won’t you come in with us? We could —we could have a cup of

“What is this?” Joe asked as he saw her father glance at her sharply. Then he was sure he knew what she was up to. She was going to use him to help her father recover his dignity. Under the eyes of the mocking neighbors she would have her father walk him into the house and show he was unruffled and superior and not miserably alone and against everybody on the street.

“No thanks.” he said abruptly, and as he started to walk across the street and some kid in hiding yelled, “Oh, Mr. Herbert, I'll race you down to the comer,” he grinned. Again the neighbors laughed.

Then he heard Mr. Herbert say, “Laura. Please.” It was her father’s shocked worried tone that made him turn. There was Laura, looking harassed and lonely, her fists clenched as she muttered and took a defiant step toward the neighbors on the balconies. Half crying, her face twisted, she was ready to denounce them and invite them all to jeer at her too. “Laura. No. Please keep out of this,” her father pleaded as if he realized he was drawing on her some lasting humiliation in the neighborhood.

“Let them stew in their own juice.’ Joe thought as he kept on going But Laura’s white tormented face seemed to follow him and cry out to him that she had not been trying to use him, she had only tried to grasp at the moment, had seen it was the one ready vulnerable moment to open the way to her, and that now, while his back was turned and he retreated, her life, which her father had made twisted and lonely, was being further warped into a lasting loneliness, and he couldn’t stand it. Wavering, he turned and hurried back.

“Laura,” he called.

“Oh, I'd like to tell those—.’

“Laura, you asked me in.”

“What? Yes. Why, yes.” she said, looking confused.

“Well, come on then.”

“Well, if you’d like to—.’ Her arm was trembling when he took it. Under the eyes of the watching neighbors they crossed the lawn, Mr. Herbert trailing awkwardly behind and, when they were under the big tree. Joe stopped a moment and looked up. and she wondered why he had such an odd reflective frown, if