It was raining that morning, and still very dark. When the boy
reached the streetcar café he had almost finished his route and he
went in for a cup of coffee. The place was an all-night café owned
by a bitter and stingy man called Leo. After the raw, empty street,
the café seemed friendly and bright: along the counter there were a
couple of soldiers, three spinners from the cotton mill, and in a
corner a man who sat hunched over with his nose and half his face
down in a beer mug. The boy wore a helmet such as aviators wear.
When he went into the café he unbuckled the chin strap and raised
the right flap up over his pink little ear; often as he drank his
coffee someone would speak to him in a friendly way. But this
morning Leo did not look into his face and none of the men were
talking. He paid and was leaving the café when a voice called out to
"Son! Hey Son!"
He turned back and the man in the corner was crooking his finger
and nodding to him. He had brought his face out of the beer mug and
he seemed suddenly very happy. The man was long and pale, with a big
nose and faded orange hair.
The boy went toward him. He was an undersized boy of about
twelve, with one shoulder drawn higher than the other because of the
weight of the paper sack. His face was shallow, freckled, and his
eyes were round child eyes.
The man laid one hand on the paper boy's shoulders, then grasped
the boy's chin and turned his face slowly from one side to the
other. The boy shrank back uneasily.
"Say! What's the big idea?"
The boy's voice was shrill; inside the café it was suddenly very
The man said slowly: "I love you."
All along the counter the men laughed. The boy, who had scowled
and sidled away, did not know what to do. He looked over the counter
at Leo, and Leo watched him with a weary, brittle jeer. The boy
tried to laugh also. But the man was serious and sad.
"I did not mean to tease you, Son," he said. "Sit down and have a
beer with me. There is something I have to explain."
Cautiously, out of the corner of his eye, the paper boy
questioned the men along the counter to see what he should do. But
they had gone back to their beer or their breakfast and did not
notice him. Leo put a cup of coffee on the counter and a little jug
"He is a minor," Leo said.
The paper boy slid himself up onto the stool. His ear beneath the
upturned flap of the helmet was very small and red. The man was
nodding at him soberly. "It is important," he said. Then he reached
in his hip pocket and brought out something which he held up in the
palm of his hand for the boy to see.
"Look very carefully," he said.
The boy stared, but there was nothing to look at very carefully.
The man held in his big, grimy palm a photograph. It was the face of
a woman, but blurred, so that only the hat and the dress she was
wearing stood out clearly.
"See?" the man asked.
The boy nodded and the man placed another picture in his palm.
The woman was standing on a beach in a bathing suit. The suit made
her stomach very big, and that was the main thing you noticed.
"Got a good look?" He leaned over closer and finally asked: "You
ever seen her before?"
The boy sat motionless, staring slantwise at the man. "Not so I
"Very well." The man blew on the photographs and put them back
into his pocket. "That was my wife."
"Dead?" the boy asked.
Slowly the man shook his head. He pursed his lips as though about
to whistle and answered in a long-drawn way: "Nuuu—" he said. "I
The beer on the counter before the man was in a large brown mug.
He did not pick it up to drink. Instead he bent down and, putting
his face over the rim, he rested there for a moment. Then with both
hands he tilted the mug and sipped.
"Some night you'll go to sleep with your big nose in a mug and
drown," said Leo. "Prominent transient drowns in beer. That would be
a cute death."
The paper boy tried to signal to Leo. While the man was not
looking he screwed up his face and worked his mouth to question
soundlessly: "Drunk?" But Leo only raised his eyebrows and turned
away to put some pink strips of bacon on the grill. The man pushed
the mug away from him, straightened himself, and folded his loose
crooked hands on the counter. His face was sad as he looked at the
paper boy. He did not blink, but from time to time the lids closed
down with delicate gravity over his pale green eyes. It was nearing
dawn and the boy shifted the weight of the paper sack.
"I am talking about love," the man said. "With me it is a
The boy half slid down from the stool. But the man raised his
forefinger, and there was something about him that held the boy and
would not let him go away.
"Twelve years ago I married the woman in the photograph. She was
my wife for one year, nine months, three days, and two nights. I
loved her. Yes...." He tightened his blurred, rambling voice and
said again: "I loved her. I thought also that she loved me. I was a
railroad engineer. She had all home comforts and luxuries. It never
crept into my brain that she was not satisfied. But do you know what
"Mgneeow!" said Leo.
The man did not take his eyes from the boy's face. "She left me.
I came in one night and the house was empty and she was gone. She
"With a fellow?" the boy asked.
Gently the man placed his palm down on the counter. "Why
naturally, Son. A woman does not run off like that alone."
The café was quiet, the soft rain black and endless in the street
outside. Leo pressed down the frying bacon with the prongs of his
long fork. "So you have been chasing the floozie for eleven years.
You frazzled old rascal!"
For the first time the man glanced at Leo. "Please don't be
vulgar. Besides, I was not speaking to you." He turned back to the
boy and said in a trusting and secretive undertone: "Let's not pay
any attention to him. O.K.?"
The paper boy nodded doubtfully.
"It was like this," the man continued. "I am a person who feels
many things. All my life one thing after another has impressed me.
Moonlight. The leg of a pretty girl. One thing after another. But
the point is that when I had enjoyed anything there was a peculiar
sensation as though it was laying around loose in me. Nothing seemed
to finish itself up or fit in with the other things. Women? I had my
portion of them. The same. Afterwards laying around loose in me. I
was a man who had never loved."
Very slowly he closed his eyelids, and the gesture was like a
curtain drawn at the end of a scene in a play. When he spoke again
his voice was excited and the words came fast—the lobes of his
large, loose ears seemed to tremble.
"Then I met this woman. I was fifty-one years old and she always
said she was thirty. I met her at a filling station and we were
married within three days. And you know what it was like? I just
can't tell you. All I had ever felt was gathered together around
this woman. Nothing lay around loose in me any more but was finished
up by her."
The man stopped suddenly and stroked his long nose. His voice
sank down to a steady and reproachful under-tone: "I'm not
explaining this right. What happened was this. There were these
beautiful feelings and loose little pleasures inside me. And this
woman was something like an assembly line for my soul. I run these
little pieces of myself through her and I come out complete. Now do
you follow me?"
"What was her name?" the boy asked.
"Oh," he said. "I called her Dodo. But that is immaterial."
"Did you try to make her come back?"
The man did not seem to hear. "Under the circumstances you can
imagine how I felt when she left me."
Leo took the bacon from the grill and folded two strips of it
between a bun. He had a gray face, with slitted eyes, and a pinched
nose saddled by faint blue shadows. One of the mill workers signaled
for more coffee and Leo poured it. He did not give refills on coffee
free. The spinner ate breakfast there every morning, but the better
Leo knew his customers the stingier he treated them. He nibbled his
own bun as though he grudged it to himself.
"And you never got hold of her again?"
The boy did not know what to think of the man, and his child's
face was uncertain with mingled curiosity and doubt. He was new on
the paper route; it was still strange to him to be out in the town
in the black, queer early morning.
"Yes," the man said. "I took a number of steps to get her back. I
went around trying to locate her. I went to Tulsa where she had
folks. And to Mobile. I went to every town she had ever mentioned to
me, and I hunted down every man she had formerly been connected
with. Tulsa, Atlanta, Chicago, Cheehaw, Memphis.. .. For the better
part of two years I chased around the country trying to lay hold of
"But the pair of them had vanished from the face of the earth!"
"Don't listen to him," the man said confidentially. "And also
just forget those two years. They are not important. What matters is
that around the third year a curious thing begun to happen to
"What?" the boy asked.
The man leaned down and tilted his mug to take a sip of beer. But
as he hovered over the mug his nostrils fluttered slightly; he
sniffed the staleness of the beer and did not drink. "Love is a
curious thing to begin with. At first I thought only of getting her
back. It was a kind of mania. But then as time went on I tried to
remember her. But do you know what happened?"
"No," the boy said.
"When I laid myself down on a bed and tried to think about her my
mind became a blank. I couldn't see her. I would take out her
pictures and look. No good. Nothing doing. A blank. Can you imagine
"Say Mac!" Leo called down the counter. "Can you imagine this
bozo's mind a blank!"
Slowly, as though fanning away flies, the man waved his hand. His
green eyes were concentrated and fixed on the shallow little face of
the paper boy.
"But a sudden piece of glass on a sidewalk. Or a nickel tune in a
music box. A shadow on a wall at night. And I would remember. It
might happen in a street and I would cry or bang my head against a
lamppost. You follow me?"
"A piece of glass . . ." the boy said.
"Anything. I would walk around and I had no power of how and when
to remember her. You think you can put up a kind of shield. But
remembering don't come to a man face forward—it corners around
sideways. I was at the mercy of everything I saw and heard. Suddenly
instead of me combing the countryside to find her, she begun to
chase me around in my very soul. She chasing me mind
you! And in my soul."
The boy asked finally: "What part of the country were you in
"Ooh," the man groaned. "I was a sick mortal. It was like
smallpox. I confess, Son, that I boozed. I fornicated. I committed
any sin that suddenly appealed to me. I am loath to confess it but I
will do so. When I recall that period it is all curdled in my mind,
it was so terrible."
The man leaned his head down and tapped his forehead on the
counter. For a few seconds he stayed bowed over in this position,
the back of his stringy neck covered with orange furze, his hands
with their long warped fingers held palm to palm in an attitude of
prayer. Then the man straightened himself; he was smiling and
suddenly his face was bright and tremulous and old.
"It was in the fifth year that it happened," he said. "And with
it I started my science."
Leo's mouth jerked with a pale, quick grin. "Well none of we boys
are getting any younger," he said. Then with sudden anger he balled
up a dishcloth he was holding and threw it down hard on the floor.
"You draggletailed old Romeo!"
"What happened?" the boy asked.
The old man's voice was high and clear: "Peace," he answered.
"It is hard to explain scientifically, Son," he said. "I guess
the logical explanation is that she and I had fleed around from each
other for so long that finally we just got tangled up together and
lay down and quit. Peace. A queer and beautiful blankness. It was
spring in Portland and the rain came every afternoon. All evening I
just stayed there on my bed in the dark. And that is how the science
come to me."
The windows in the streetcar were pale blue with light. The two
soldiers paid for their beers and opened the door—one of the
soldiers combed his hair and wiped off his muddy puttees before they
went outside. The three mill workers bent silently over their
breakfasts. Leo's clock was ticking on the wall.
"It is this. And listen carefully. I meditated on love and
reasoned it out. I realized what is wrong with us. Men fall in love
for the first time. And what do they fall in love with?"
The boy's soft mouth was partly open and he did not answer.
"A woman," the old man said. "Without science, with nothing to go
by, they undertake the most dangerous and sacred experience in God's
earth. They fall in love with a woman. Is that correct, Son?"
"Yeah," the boy said faintly.
"They start at the wrong end of love. They begin at the climax.
Can you wonder it is so miserable? Do you know how men should
The old man reached over and grasped the boy by the collar of his
leather jacket. He gave him a gentle little shake and his green eyes
gazed down unblinking and grave.
"Son, do you know how love should be begun?"
The boy sat small and listening and still. Slowly he shook his
head. The old man leaned closer and whispered:
"A tree. A rock. A cloud."
It was still raining outside in the street: a mild, gray, endless
rain. The mill whistle blew for the six o'clock shift and the three
spinners paid and went away. There was no one in the café but Leo,
the old man, and the little paper boy.
"The weather was like this in Portland," he said. "At the time my
science was begun. I meditated and I started very cautious. I would
pick up something from the street and take it home with me. I bought
a goldfish and I concentrated on the goldfish and I loved it. I
graduated from one thing to another. Day by day I was getting this
technique. On the road from Portland to San Diego—"
"Aw shut up!" screamed Leo suddenly. "Shut up! Shut up!"
The old man still held the collar of the boy's jacket; he was
trembling and his face was earnest and bright and wild. "For six
years now I have gone around by myself and built up my science. And
now I am a master. Son. I can love anything. No longer do I have to
think about it even. I see a street full of people and a beautiful
light comes in me. I watch a bird in the sky. Or I meet a traveler
on the road. Everything, Son. And anybody. All stranger and all
loved! Do you realize what a science like mine can mean?"
The boy held himself stiffly, his hands curled tight around the
counter edge. Finally he asked: "Did you ever really find that
"What? What say, Son?"
"I mean," the boy asked timidly. "Have you fallen in love with a
The old man loosened his grasp on the boy's collar. He turned
away and for the first time his green eyes had a vague and scattered
look. He lifted the mug from the counter, drank down the yellow
beer. His head was shaking slowly from side to side. Then finally he
answered: "No, Son You see that is the last step in my science. I go
cautious. And I am not quite ready yet."
"Well!" said Leo. "Well well well!"
The old man stood in the open doorway. "Remember," he said.
Framed there in the gray damp light of the early morning he looked
shrunken and seedy and frail. But his smile was bright. "Remember I
love you," he said with a last nod. And the door closed quietly
The boy did net speak for a long time. He pulled down the bangs
on his forehead and slid his grimy little forefinger around the rim
of his empty cup. Then without looking at Leo he finally asked:
"Was he drunk?"
"No," said Leo shortly.
The boy raised his clear voice higher. "Then was he a dope
The boy looked up at Leo, and his flat little face was desperate,
his voice urgent and shrill. "Was he crazy? Do you think he was a
lunatic?" The paper boy's voice dropped suddenly with doubt. "Leo?
But Leo would not answer him. Leo had run a night café for
fourteen years, and he held himself to be a critic of craziness.
There were the town characters and also the transients who roamed in
from the night. He knew the manias of all of them. But he did not
want to satisfy the questions of the waiting child. He tightened his
pale face and was silent.
So the boy pulled down the right flap of his helmet and as he
turned to leave he made the only comment that seemed safe to him,
the only remark that could not be laughed down and despised:
"He sure has done a lot of traveling."