HIT and Run
WILL F. JENKINS
I TS TOO bad about Charley, but it’s just one of those things. Everybody wondered about him for a long while. He sold his car and took to riding in streetcars all of a sudden, and nowadays when someone of the crowd stops by for him and Edith, to take them to a party, he gets tight-lipped and queer the minute the motor starts. And usually, when he gets to the party, he takes three or four drinks right on top of each other and draws into his shell. He isn’t much if an acquisition now. He used to be a lot of fun, too. It’s odd. And too bad.
When Fred and Martha had the crowd around a couple of weeks ago, an argument started over something or other, and somebody said that if the average man suspected himself of the things his wife is calmly sure about, the average man would commit suicide. It was an exaggeration, of course, but somebody laughed, and the women smiled politely while they thought about whatever women do think about while men
are talking. But Charley......he’d had four or
five drinks blew right up. He said suddenly and very bitterly:
“You’re darned right he would!’’ He repeated it. "You’re darned right!” And then he added more bitterly still: "But
sometimes he hasn’t enough life insurance to be able to.”
Then he went back to where Fred had been mixing the drinks. When Fred went back presently, Charley was just putting down a glass. His face was flushed and his eyes were beginning to look fuzzy. He said querulously:
“There’s something I’ve been trying to forget and that fool reminded me of it. Do you mind if I get tight, Fred?”
Of course Fred said he didn’t mind. And Charley did get tight. Edith tried to laugh it oiï. but there were tears in her eyes that were halfway liquid cusswords, and she disappeared after a bit. When the party broke up, Charley was in no shape to go home, so he and Edith had to stay overnight with Fred and Martha. Charley had passed out add, looking like a dead man, and Fred put him to bed and tried to sleep on a couch downstairs. And that’s how the story got out. Not really out, you understand, but Edith was crying and mad at the same time, and she told Martha what had happened.
She expected sympathy for being married to a man who was male and unreasonable and couldn’t see that the thing didn’t matter, especially after a year and more.
Martha sympathized with her, I guess. Most women would. But it’s too bad about Charley.
TT HAPPENED last year. Some time in the spring.
Edith had just got some fresh broccoli and was cooking it the way Charley likes it best, to be served with hollandaise sauce. She was standing by the stove- it was the maid’s day ofp^with a draining ladle in her hand when she heard the car içlrive in. Charley, you know, coming home from the office,' /
The car came in, in low, with Charley driving it into the garage as usual. Edith was trying the broccoli to see if it was done, when she heard the motor cut off. Then the
garage doors closed, one after the other, and she heard Charley walking on the gravel path to the side door. Usually he whistled. A pretty cheerful guy, Charley, only married three years and all.
Today he didn’t whistle, but Edith didn’t think anything of it. She had dinner almost ready. She heard Charley come up the concrete steps, and she heard the side door open and close. And then she didn’t hear anything more at all. It was as if he’d come in the door and dosed it behind him and then just stood still. Which isn’t what a man usually does when he comes home.
Edith poked the broccoli with the draining ladle. No sound. Charley didn’t move. She raised her head. She said:
No answer. Edith listened. She heard him breathing.
Harshly. As if he were panting. A sudden surge of uneasiness swept over her. She went to the door between the kitchen and dining room.
He made a noise then. Not a word. Just a—a sound. Then she heard his shoes creak. Then the whisper of his hand on wallpaper, as if he were steadying himself. A staggering, unsteady footstep. Then another. And Charley didn’t get tight in those days. Besides, Edith had just heard him walk in from the garage and he’d walked all right. She stared blankly, feeling scared, but not knowing exactly why.
Then she saw him. He reached the door to the dining room and stood there, leanirg against the frame. He looked all right, except for his face. Clothes neat and creased. He looked quite all right except for his face. But that was a funny greyish color, and his eyes were terrified and blank. He saw Edith, but it was as if he barely noticed her. He seemed to be looking at something inside of himself, and his face was grey because of what he saw.
Edith looked at him, stunned. “Charley!” she cried, frightened. “What’s the matter?”
He shook his head and managed to reach a chair. An armchair. What they call the master’s chair in period diningroom suites. He sank into that chair— collapsed into it. And instantly all strength seemed to leave him. He looked as if his bones had turned into jelly, and his eyes kept that inward-looking expression, and his face stayed grey.
Edith ran to him.
“Charley! You’re sick! I’ll get a doc—” He said with a peculiar, detached distinctness:
“I’m not sick. I’m all right.” Then he said with enormous difficulty. “I—I ran over a child just now, coming home.”
UDITH exclaimed and went white. They hadn’t any kids of their own, but they were figuring that in a year or two . . . “Oh, Charley!” said Edith. She went sick, herself. “How did it happen? And you’re so careful ! You didn’t . . . It isn’t—dead, is it?”
He didn’t answer. His eyes fixed themselves on the opposite side of the room, but he didn’t seem to see it. And Edith went paler yet. When he didn’t answer, she figured the worst. She wrung her hands.
“It’s dead!” she cried in distress. “Who was it? How did it happen?”
He shook his head. He looked like one of those moving puppets they put in advertising displays in show windows.
“I—don’t know,” he said thickly. “I don’t know whether it’s dead or not. I didn’t stop. I didn’t go back.”
There was a very great stillness. Edith couldn’t realize, right away, just how enormous the thing war-. She was thinking about the kid. Being a woman, that ■' as natural.
She drew in her breath sharply. Charley didn’t move. Didn’t stir. Didn’t shift his eyes from the spot on the wall he was not even seeing. It was unbearably still in the room. Then Edith heard the broccoli bubbling on the stove. It was trying to boil over.
She went into the kitchen and turned it off. She found herself staring at her own reflection in the kitchen mirror. She was as white as chalk, and her eyes looked queer. Then she realized that if only hearing about it had affected her so much, Charley must feel horribly.
She went back to him. He hadn’t stirred. Still staring at the spot on the opposite wall, with his face like grey felt.
“Charley,” she said. “Maybe the child isn’t dead. Lots of children are knocked down by cars and not killed. Maybe it’s not even hurt !”
“I—ran over it,” said Charley. Then his voice went up a tone or two. “And I didn’t stop! I didn’t go back !”
Edith thought, “Hit-and-run,” and believed she understood. She tried to be practical. Charley was in a bad way, and he was her husband. And a woman doesn’t think much about abstractions when her man is in trouble.
Not abstractions like law or justice, or duty or humanity, or any little things like that.
“Did—anybody see the accident?” she asked shakily.
“Kids,” said Charley huskily. “They —screamed.”
Edith wet her lips.
“Do you think—anybody got your license number?”
He shook his head. She thought so, anyhow. But he just sat there as if his bones were jelly. His face stayed that queer grey color.
“Unless there are—marks on the car,” said Edith, more shakily still,
“they—might not be able to tell you did it, Charley.”
“I—didn’t stop,” said Charley. His voice sounded as if his throat hurt him.
“I—didn’t go back.”
“Wait,” said Edith.
She ran out of the house to the garage. It took her a couple of minutes to open the doors, because her hands shook so. She went in, steeling herself, to see if the car showed any signs of the accident. It might have been pretty gruesome. If it had, she’d probably have cleaned it off. A woman will do pretty remarkable things for her husband if she likes him. Edith looked.
Nothing on the mudguards or bumper.
She got down and looked at the wheels and the front axle. Not a sign. Nothing.
She went back into the house.
Charley had got a bottle out of the sideboard. It was there to give a drink to any of the crowd who might drop in.
Charley poured out a drink and gulped it down.
“There isn’t a mark on the car,” said Edith, very white. “If nobody got the license number, Charley, there’s nothing to show that you’ve been in an accident. And it couldn’t have been— very bad, or there’d be—stains.”
Charley poured himself another drink. His hands quivered like tuning forks. He didn’t say a word. His eyes still had that queer, terrified expression at what he seemed to see inside of himself. He drank this one too. It was his third.
“I didn’t stop,” he repeated. It seemed as if he still didn’t quite believe it. “I didn’t go back!”
He started to pour out another drink. Edith stopped him.
“Better wait until you’ve had dinner,
Charley. But you haven’t told me how it happened. Here! Come in here and sit down quietly and tell me about it.
Maybe—maybe the child wasn’t badly hurt ...”
She led the way into the living room.
He followed her just like a sleepwalker.
She guided him to a big chair, his favorite one. She sat him down and perched on the chair arm beside him.
“Now tell me, Charley. All about it.
You’ll feel better.”
He fumbled with his hands. She took them in hers. He dragged them away
again without noticing. They just moved aimlessly, twitching.
“I—was coming home,” he said without expression, “and I turned down Elm Avenue. There’s not much traffic there. I came along about thirty, I guess, until I came to that stretch with the big trees on the right-hand side. You know. A half-block of little shops on one side, and a big vacant space on the other, with those huge trees that lean out over the street. They hang low.”
Edith knew. Two or three small stores, a chain store, and a shoemaker’s shop on one side of the street. Opposite, a row of big trees planted years before the suburb was developed, and half a block of vacant lots. Weeds grow there, and in the summer there are bare places where boys play baseball, and sometimes places where kids have made campfires to cook potatoes they’ve had their mothers give them, and places where they’ve dug holes for reasons that
nobody but kids could possibly understand. The trees lean out more than halfway across the asphalt, and the branches hang low. Not much above car-top high. Tmcks must brush against the lower leaves anyhow.
Charley went on, tunelessly:
“Just as I got there, I saw that there were some kids up in the trees. Climbing. You know. One of them yelled down at me out of the first tree. 1 guess he was playing Tarzan. I went on, not thinking of anything at all, and then something fell out of a tree right in front of the car. I heard screams up in the trees. Then I saw blue, and I saw white. A kid’s overalls maybe, and his blouse. Then the - the thing that had fallen hit the road right in front of the car. It was so close that the car’s hood hid it when it landed. And—and it happened in the fraction of a second. The thing fell—and 1 hit it. I didn’t even have time to swerve so as to avoid it.”
He stopped. Edith winced, but she said:
“You couldn’t have helped it, Charley ! Not possibly !”
He said without expression:
“No, I couldn’t have helped it. Nobody could. It fell right in front of the car. Before I could twist the wheel the front wheel went over it, and before I could put on the brakes the—the back wheel—bumped ...”
He swallowed. His hands shook.
“But it wasn’t your fault!” insisted Edith. “They shouldn’t let children play like that. But it wasn’t your fault and you’re not to blame in any way! But was the—child hurt badly, Charley?”
“I didn’t stop!” said Charley. His voice grew thin as he looked inside of himself. “I didn’t go back! I—could have taken the kid to a hospital, maybe. I saw it all crumpled up and shapeless in the back-view mirror. Maybe it was dead then, or—or maybe it died later because I didn’t stop and rush it to a doctor. I don’t know. But I lost my head. I jammed on the accelerator and went away from there with those kids yelling behind me like fiends."
Edith’s own hands shook a little, but she stroked Charley’s hair comfortingly. "It wasn't your fault,” she reminded
him. “Just.....just try not to think of it,
Charley. It couldn't l>e helped. It was fated. Nobody noticed you, and nobody will know you were driving the car, but everybody will know it was an unavoidable accident. You try to eat some dinner and—and we’ll see what the paper says in the morning.”
TT’S FUNNY that she didn’t see what Charley was thinking about. He could have called up the police station and told them all about it, giving his name and SÍ) on. If she’d urged him to it, he’d have done it. It would have been a lot better if he had. Because, even though he didn’t stop after the accident, if he’d told on himself immediately he’d have felt better. And possibly, with what he'd have found out . . .
But he didn't. Edith tried to buck him up. She put dinner on the table and tried to get him to eat. He couldn’t. Anil she kept reiterating that he couldn’t possibly have avoided the accident, and it wasn’t his fault, and nobody could possibly blame him. All of which was true.
They weren’t going anywhere that night and he used to read a lot, but he couldn’t read then. He picked up a book and held it in his hands, and they shook, and he didn’t notice that the book was quivering so it would have been impossible to distinguish one word from another. He just sat staring blindly at the page, with Edith looking at him now and again and worrying about him.
At ten o’clock she made him go to bed. She undoubtedly tried to comfort him, but it didn't seem to do any good. She pointed out that even if the thing were traced to him, he couldn’t be punished for anything more serious than leaving the scene after an accident.
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Hit and Run
Continued from page 15—Starts on page 14
She didn’t think anybody had the license number. There‘d be no trouble. There couldn’t be!
Edith didn't see the enormity of the thing as Charley saw it. you see. She cuddled up to him. and petted him. and presently went peacefully to sleep without realizing it. She was sorry about the kid. but it wasn’t Charley’s fault and he couldn't be made to suffer because of it . .
He woke her up by getting back into bed about three o’clock in the morning. He’d gone downstairs and taken two or three drinks. He couldn’t sleep and hoped they’d help.
"But Charley!” said Edith. "You’re morbid about it ! It wasn’t your fault ! You couldn’t possibly have helped it !”
"My lord ! Don’t you see? I didn’t stop. I didn’t go back !"
And then he lay stock-still, staring into the darkness, and Edith drifted off to sleep again in spite of trying to stay awake to comfort him.
In the morning his face wasn’t so grey, but his eyes were sunken. He hadn’t slept a wink. Edith got the morning paper and hunted it over from top to bottom. Not a word about any kid being run over by a hit-and-run driver. She told Charley.
"It’ll probably be in the later editions," he said tonelessly.
He couldn’t eat. but he drank a lot of coffee and took a snifter before he went out - which wasn’t Charley’s style. He didn’t take the car. Edith saw him tramping off toward the trolley line with his shoulders sagging as if he’d committed a crime. Edith was a little bit vexed with him. He didn’t seem to realize that it had been unavoidable!
It’s odd that she didn’t see what was bothering Charley.
The later morning paix'rs didn’t have a word about the accident in them. Edith went up the street and bought copies to be sure. The afternoon paper didn't mention it. Not even the last edition of all.
Charley came doggedly home with the final in his pocket.
“No." he said without interest, when she asked him. “It’s not in the paper.” “Maybe you didn’t actually injure the child.” said Edith. She didn’t believe it, but they’d only been married three years, and a woman naturally sticks up for her man. "Maybe a branch broke with him on it, and it was the branch that made the car bump. You might not have toucher! him at all. Charley.”
Charley looked at her.
"I know I didn’t stop'” he said bitterly. “I know I didn’t go back! Isn’t that enough?"
AND STILL she didn’t get it. Funny, - isn’t it? Like everybody else-every man, anyhowCharley had a sort of ideal vision of himself, and he’d throw his life away rather than lose it. You’ve got one, and I guess I have too. And Charley’s picture of himself didn’t jibe at all with driving off after he’d run over a kid. A man who’ll do that is pretty low, of course. To leave a kid lying in the road when maybe it needs to be rushed to a hospital, just so the man can save his own skin—that kind is low !
But Charley wasn’t really that kind. The thing took him by surprise. He lost his head. Through no fault of his own— even he had to admit that—he'd run over a child. And he’d lost his head and practically come to to realize that after the accident he'd run away. Most men figure a hit-and-run driver as a good deal lower than an ordinary murderer. And Charley’d found he was one. and it knocked the props from under him. A man can take some pretty hard knocks, but when he stops believing in his own decency or even his excuses for the lack of it why. he's pretty far gone. And that was Charley.
He couldn’t read this night either. Edith found him hunting around in his desk and adding things up. He didn’t say a word, but he tore up the paper he’d added on, and he took some drinks. He went to bed tight. He’d got tight all by himself, and that is bad ! Edith fished in the wastebasket and pieced together the scraps he’d figured on. He’d been adding up sums which puzzled her until she realized they were the face values of his insurance policies. Then she was scared to death.
She hunted up his revolver and hid it, crying. She went feverishly through the medicine chest and took out everything that was poisonous and smashed it. And then she lay awake all night long, listening to his heavy breathing. She was the one who couldn’t sleep that night.
Next morning he went tramping off to the trolley line without a word about the car, still in the garage. He hadn’t said a word about the accident either, but Edith knew. She nearly went out of her head with worry, all by herself in the house. At last she couldn’t stand it any longer. In the early afternoon she put on her shopping clothes and went up on Elm Avenue. It was twelve or fifteen blocks from home. She walked all the way, and her knees got wobbly when she saw the block of low-hanging trees ahead.
There it was. The empty lot—half a block of it—with scorched places where kids had cooked potatoes, and bare places where they played games, and holes that had been dug for reasons only kids would understand. And the trees. They were big ones, leaning a little toward the street, and their branches reached out a good two thirds of the way to the opposite side.
Edith felt sort of faint. There were some kids playing in the vacant lot. Edith was on the other side, of course. She saw what
looked like a great wet splash on the pavement. For an instant she thought it was where they’d washed up where Charley’s accident had been. But that was two days ago. This was fresh. More, there was oil mixed with it. She saw the iridescent colors on the asphalt.
She went into the chain store and made some purchases. She bought two pounds of confectioners’ sugar and three dozen clothespins and a box of prepared gingerbread and half a pound of sliced ham. While the chain-store man was wrapping them up, she said:
“I see children playing over there. Is it a sort of playground for the children around here?”
SHE TRIED to look like a newcomer in the neighborhood, spotting safe playing places for her children. Women do that. The chain-store clerk said:
“No, ma’am ! It’s just a vacant lot the little devils have took over. You ain’t been here long?”
“No,” said Edith.
“Then let me tell you, ma’am, to watch your kids!” said the chain-store clerk. “See that splash of oil and water out there? The kids did it. We got the toughest bunch of imaginative little devils around here that you’d ever want your kids to stay away from !”
Edith felt queer. She was going to work around to Charley’s accident of two days before. But the chain-store man went on: “Just an hour ago it is. ma’am ! Just one hour! They tried it the other day and it didn’t work. But half a dozen of ’em was up in the trees, out over the street an’ yellin’ to each other. And they’d made a sort of dummy out of little Tommy Allen’s overalls, that they swiped out of his mother’s backyard, and a old shirtwaist they’d got somewhere, and they had it up in the tree. And one hour ago. ma’am, there was somebody come along in a car, goin’ along peaceful an’ mindin’ his busi-
Conlinued on page 28
Continued from page 26
ness, and they yelled at him to make him know they was up in the trees—and then they dropped that dummy right in front of his car! Yes, ma’am! They wanted to scare him, they told the cop, after. And they did! Yes, ma’am, they did! The guy in the car thought one of ’em had fallen off a limb, and he jerked his car around and smashed into a tree, and broke two ribs against his steerin’ wheel an’ wrecked the car complete, tryin’ to keep from runnin’ over the dummy them young devils had dropped down for a joke. They took him off to hospital, and a wreckin’-car just took the scraps away . . . What’s the matter, ma’am?”
”N-nothing,” said Edith, trembling. She paid for her packages and took them. Then she said: “But—don’t any of them ever get hurt, playing—in trees—like that?”
“No, ma’am,” said the clerk pessimistically. “Nothin’ could hurt the little devils we got around here. If they was to break a arm or leg occasional, maybe we’d have some peace while they was laid up.”
Edith tucked her packages under her arm. She escaped. She felt almost lightheaded because of the discovery. She wanted to laugh hysterically. She wanted to tell Charley instantly, to relieve his mind.
She did call his office, but he was out. But when he came tramping home at last with a hunted, haggard look on his face and the sagging shoulders of a man who’s taken a licking, she flew to the door and threw her arms around him.
“Charley!” she said breathlessly. “It’s all right! You didn’t hurt anybody! I— went up Elm Avenue today and found out. Listen !”
She told him the whole thing. He listened without a word, his eyes fixed upon her queerly. When she’d finished, he took off his topcoat and hung it up.
“That’s a kid’s idea of a joke for you,” he said tonelessly. “Well, I’m glad I didn’t hurt anybody.” He added, “I sold the car today.”
He wasn’t elated. He wasn’t relieved.
Edith’s smile wavered and died. She stared at him. bewildered.
“But—don’t you feel better? Nothing happened. Nothing!”
He said bitterly:
“Nothing happened! Good lord, can’t you realize that I thought I’d hurt the kid? I thought there was a kid that needed to get to a doctor or a hospital! Don’t you realize that I saw a crumpled-up shape in the back-view mirror and thought I’d done it—and I didn’t stop? I didn’t go back? Don’t you see that?”
He went into the dining room and poured himself a drink. The glass clattered against the neck of the bottle.
'Y/rOU SEE, it was just one of those ■I things. But everybody wondered about Charley. He sold the car and took to riding in streetcars all of a sudden, and nowadays when somebody stops by to take him and Edith to a party, he gets tightlipped and queer the instant the motor starts. And usually when he gets to the party he takes three or four drinks right on top of each other and draws into his shell. He’s not much of an acquisition now. He used to be a lot of fun, too. It’s odd. And too bad.
We’d still be wondering, if Fred and Martha hadn’t given a party and if somebody there hadn’t said that if a man suspected about himself the things his wife was calmly sure of, he’d commit suicide. Charley heard that wisecrack and blew right up.
“You’re darned right he would!” said Charley violently. “If he had life insurance enough to be able to !”
And then he went out by the cocktailshaker and got so tight that he and Edith had to stay overnight at Fred and Martha’s house. And Edith, crying and angry and still not understanding, told Martha the whole story. She wanted sympathy, I guess, for being married to a man who was male and unreasonable and couldn’t see that the thing didn’t matter, especially after a year and more.
I guess Martha sympathized with her. Most women would. But it’s too bad about Charley.