The Moth - James M. Cain - ebook

The Moth ebook

James M. Cain



A sweeping tale of love, loss, and the pursuit of beauty during the Great Depression. From birth, Jack Dillon is a golden child. Blessed with blond locks, glittering eyes, and a perfect voice, he is the most popular child singer in Baltimore. But when puberty robs him of his voice and the stock market wipes out his family fortune, Jack is forced to rebuild. Over the next fifteen years, Jack will see it all. From Maryland to California and back again, he will become a football star, a soldier, and a tramp. Through it all, he never loses his eye for beauty, or his hunger for a woman he has known since childhood. To find happiness in the face of the Depression, Jack will have to remember that no matter how the world has changed him, part of his soul remains as pure as the first note he sang.

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About the Book

About the Author

Title Page

Copyright Page


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30


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About the Book

A sweeping tale of love, loss, and the pursuit of beauty during the Great Depression.

From birth, Jack Dillon is a golden child. Blessed with blond locks, glittering eyes, and a perfect voice, he is the most popular child singer in Baltimore. But when puberty robs him of his voice and the stock market wipes out his family fortune, Jack is forced to rebuild.

Over the next fifteen years, Jack will see it all. From Maryland to California and back again, he will become a football star, a soldier, and a tramp. Through it all, he never loses his eye for beauty, or his hunger for a woman he has known since childhood. To find happiness in the face of the Depression, Jack will have to remember that no matter how the world has changed him, part of his soul remains as pure as the first note he sang.

About the Author

James M. Cain (1892-1977) was one of the most important authors in the history of crime fiction. Born in Maryland, he became a journalist after giving up on a childhood dream of singing opera. After two decades writing for newspapers in Baltimore, New York and the Army - and a brief stint as the managing editor of The New Yorker - Cain turned to fiction, penning a slim novella, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) that became one of the most controversial bestsellers of its day.

The Moth

James M. Cain




Bastei Entertainment is an imprint of Bastei Lübbe AG


Copyright © 2015 by Bastei Lübbe AG, Schanzenstraße 6-20, 51063 Cologne, Germany


For the original edition:

Copyright © 2012 by The Mysterious Press, LLC, 58 Warren Street, New York, NY. U.S.A.


Copyright © 1948 by Donald E. Westlake


Project management: Lori Herber

Cover adaptation: Christin Wilhelm,

Cover design by Mimi Bark


E-book production: Jouve Germany GmbH & Co. KG


ISBN 978-3-95859-456-2


All rights reserved, including without limitation the right to reproduce this e-book or any portion thereof in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of the publisher.


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

This story touches many parts of the United States, as well as a corner of Europe, alluding to various localities the reader will find familiar, and an occasional public figure. The characters, however, are imaginary, as are the incidents that engage them, and most of the specific settings. They do not represent, and are not intended to represent, actual persons, events, or places; nor have they been drawn, under disguise or in any other way, from the life of the author.


THE FIRST THING I remember was a big luna moth. I saw it in Druid Hill Park, which is up the street from our house, in Baltimore, on Mt. Royal Terrace. On cloudy days it’s a little dark out there, and things like fireflies and bats and swallows get their signals crossed up and come out. Well, one day when the sky was about the color of a wet slate shingle, I was over there with Jane, my colored nurse, and this thing began flying around. I followed it quite a while, to a wall and a hedge and a bush, and then I ran off to find Jane so she could see it too. When I got back, there was a boy, I guess ten or twelve years old, but to me then bigger than any Yale guard was, later. He had a stick, and he was whacking at the moth to kill it. Never in my whole life, in a dream or on a battlefield or anywhere, have I felt such horror as I did then. I screamed my head off. When Jane got there she told the boy to stop, but he kept right on whacking. She jerked the stick out of his hands. He kicked at her, and she let him have it on the shins. Then he spit, but I didn’t pay any attention. All I saw was that beautiful green thing, all filled with light, fluttering off through the trees, alive and free. It was a feeling I imagine other people have when they think about God in church. It makes no sense, does it, to say that a few times in my life, when something was happening inside of me, I could tell what it meant by the pale, blue-green, all-filled-with-light color the feeling had?

There’s no law it has to.

The next thing I remember was a Bartlett pear. It was given me by my aunts the first week of school, to take to my teacher, Miss Jonas. A tree was in the backyard, and they got the idea Miss Jonas should have a pear, so my Aunt Sheila went out and picked a big yellow one with a pink cheek on it, and sent me off with it. The school was three blocks away. The second block I smelled the pear. The third block I ate it. When I got to the school I didn’t have it, and began to worry. It was the day we were given cards with our names on them, and I found out I was John, not Jack. That was quite a piece of news, but I didn’t have my mind on it. When I got home there was Aunt Nancy, in a gingham apron and one of my father’s felt hats on, out in the yard raking leaves. She brought me in and sat me down and gave me milk, and then here it came: Had I remembered to tell Miss Jonas I hoped she enjoyed the pear, instead of just handing it to her? And I heard my mouth take over and hand out the damndest line of chatter you could imagine—all about how Miss Jonas had been tickled blue, had said she certainly would enjoy the pear, and especially because there was no tree in her backyard, so it would be a special treat to her, and it sure was swell to be remembered. It got by and it never bounced. And yet under it all was a sense of guilt, maybe the first time I ever felt it, that’s been down under some things I’ve pulled, quite a few of them, a pink, hot-faced sensation as much the color of that pear as my high spots have been the color of the moth.

My aunts had no brogue in their speech, though they were older than my father was, because they grew up in this country, while he stayed in Ireland till he was twenty-four. His father, Francis Dillon, was a stationary engineer, and an uncle in New York had got him a job on a new project just then starting up, a powerhouse to run electric lights on Broadway. So he came across, in 1881, and the two girls came with him. But my grandmother stayed in Derry, where they all came from, as my father wasn’t born yet, and the idea was she’d come later. But that wasn’t how it worked out. Why I don’t know, and my father didn’t. A little interfamily friction may have had something to do with it, or it may have been my grandmother was doing pretty well for herself, and hated to uphook and start over again. Or it may have been there weren’t enough kisses on the end of the letters she got from my grandfather. Anyhow, soon after my grandfather and his daughters moved to Baltimore, she moved from Derry to Dublin, where she opened first a little shop, then later a rooming house off Merriam Square. Of course, the old home was really Londonderry, but in the family it’s always been Derry, as it was in olden times, before the city of London adopted it for some kind of stepchild. The old lady must have done all right, because she put my father through Trinity College, and had just got him started at law when she died. He took that hard, and while her affairs were being settled, the doctors said he should take a sea trip for his health. So he joined some Irish players on their way to the St. Louis Fair. He didn’t turn out to be much of an actor, and left, but on his way back he stopped at Baltimore, and at last the Dillon family met Patrick, whom they had never seen. I guess they went a little nuts and he did. Anyway, he stayed, and it wasn’t long before he was practicing law, with all of them pretty proud of him for being so high-toned. By that time my grandfather had charge of a West Baltimore powerhouse, and as a matter of fact, he lived two or three years after my father got there. Then he died, and my father and his sisters kept house in Walbrook, a suburb, some distance from the house we’re in now. They worshipped him, he did them.

I didn’t worship them, because they didn’t have my respect, but I loved them the way you can only love something you pity. Why they didn’t have my respect was that they were such fools. I guess the pear, and forty-seven hundred other things like it, had something to do with it. They were born gulls, and would fall for anything, so it was romantic and silly and impossible. They were nuts about music, all three of them, but the Old Man didn’t kid himself he was a musician the way they did. Of course, being from the north of Ireland, they were Episcopalians, and Nancy sang in the church choir, up to the time they put the boys in, and closed her eyes and put expression in it. She was small and dumpy and dark, so when she sang We Praise Thee, O God she looked exactly like Slicker, our black cat, when he began yawning around ten o’clock. She always said I had inherited her voice, though how this came about she never explained. I had quite some voice for a little angel between nine and thirteen, and quite some left hook for a little rat of the same age. But what voice she had I couldn’t tell you, because in spite of all the faces she made, I never heard one sound come out of her you could hear above the organ.

Sheila was tall and had brown hair and played the piano, with the stool raised just so and her dresses spread out all around her and the music corners bent to little ears and one hand crossing over the other. But if she ever played a piece through and played it right, I don’t know when it was, and fact of the matter, when I came along as the boy wonder of North Baltimore and had to have somebody to play for me, it speedily became clear, kind of crystal clear, that Sheila wouldn’t do, and it led to quite a few things. At that time she put on an act about not being able to play accompaniments, as though accompaniments were just an unimportant sideline to a big-time pianist, and in her own imagination I think she really thought she was one. But just when and where and how she had done all that important work she never bothered to explain. There was plenty of music in Baltimore as the Peabody Conservatory is there, but she and Nancy and my father were always going up to New York to hear some special brand, and one time, just three or four years after he came over, they got a surprise. The attraction was Mme Luisa Tetrazzini in Lucia, and right after the curtain went up who should come out in a plumed hat but the boy who led the olio in St. Louis. His name was John McCormack.

The first I remember of my father was when he took me down to North Avenue one day and held my hand while we walked along, and I chirped it was easy to tell how tall I was, as I was exactly half as tall as he was. He said it was easy now, but the question was: Would I stay that way? I think it was my first encounter with the idea I was growing and next year might not be the same size as I was then. We were on our way to his garage. He hadn’t started out to be a garage man but became one by accident. Around 1908 he bought a car. He was driving it along, and pulled out for a traction engine and wound up in the ditch. He swore, though he’s never convinced me, that the steering gear was defective, and sued. So the company made propositions, but as they didn’t have much, he settled for an agency, selling the car. Later, he said he wanted something on paper, a commitment he could put a price on when they’d be in shape to buy him out, and never expected to peddle the things because it was a cross between enlarging pictures and insurance. But when I came along in 1910 he was making more money from cars then five lawyers were making from clients, because the car became a very celebrated one, even though it was cheap, that you’d know if I chose to name it.

So a lawyer that was doing fair turned into a mechanic that was doing terrific. If you asked me, it made his life bitter. To an American, a business is a life. To an Irishman, especially one with a university education, it’s not, because there’s no such intellectual snob. I’ve heard him prove it a thousand times, that the automobile has done more for man than anything since Moses. Law, he said, makes property, steam makes power, but petroleum makes light, and the great light lit up when they put the stuff on wheels, so the lowliest “wight” could drive out of his village and see what the wide world looked like. I’ve seen him take a ball bearing from his pocket and orate on its being the finest jewel ever made. And yet, in their shelves around his study, I think those books, row on row of them in leather bindings, looked down to mock him. When he closed them something went out of his life, and money didn’t take its place. And there may have been a family angle too. His mother, as I piece it together, never liked that title, “stationary engineer,” that was worn by my grandfather. The automobile agency was not quite the same as superintendent of a powerhouse, but it was like it, and I imagine he wondered what she would have thought of it.

My mother I saw once, to know it. She was born in Baltimore, but she and my father didn’t meet for some years after he got here. Then at a Christmas party, when she was home from school, they danced together, and before New Year’s got married, in Elkton, after running away. She was sixteen, he twenty-eight. You’d think they were the right age to be happy, and that they’d got started the right way. But his hair had started to gray, and from things I’ve heard from Nancy and Sheila and others, he got the idea the difference in their ages was an Irish Sea between them. And then he began figuring she moved in a world of kids that thought he was funny. Three years after I was born in 1910, a rich boy came down from Philly. It was over him they had the bust-up, and it was on account of him, or what the Old Man got in his head about him, that it was put in the settlement he should keep me. But I’ll go to my grave believing it was all his imagination, and I’ve got my reasons for thinking he went to his grave believing so too. The bust-up knocked him galley-west, and he never remarried. He and she had set up shop in Roland Park, with Nancy and Sheila staying in the Walbrook house. But after she left he sold both houses, and he and his sisters moved to the house on Mt. Royal Terrace, and they even started going to a different church, which I’ll call St. Anne’s. So far as they were concerned there had never been a Louise Thorne, and I was a boy that had really been brought by a stork, and had a father and aunts but no mother.

All that, though, was before I was four years old, and I had no memory of what she looked like, and no pictures of her were around. All I knew about her was from a little trunk I found in the attic, that I doubt if the Old Man or my aunts even knew about. It had in it some of her clothes, especially a dark-blue velvet dress I loved to touch, and a black leather case with a nail file in it, a buffer, an orange stick, a powder box, a fluffy puff, and a little bottle of perfume with a glass stopper. By the time I was ten I must have smelled that perfume a thousand times, and when something had gone wrong, I’d go up there in the attic, open the trunk, touch the velvet dress, and smell the perfume. Well, came the time when I was the wonder child of Baltimore, the sweet singer of Mt. Royal Terrace, the minstrel boy of Maryland, with the church full whenever I sang, pieces about me in the papers all the time, and money rolling in, specially those twenties for Abide with Me at funerals, very joyous occasions in the life of a cute boy singer. And one morning we hadn’t even finished the first hymn, when I noticed this number on the aisle in the second pew, that was alone, and seemed most interested in me. By that time, though I was only thirteen, I’d had plenty of admiration from the female sex, partly from how I sounded, but partly from how I looked, with my big blue eyes and bright gold hair, in my little white surplice. But if you think I had got bored with it in any way, you’ve formed a false impression of my character. And if she looked older than I was, I had already found out even if they were older, the pretty ones could be awful sweet. She was plenty pretty. Her hair was gold, but the light from the Resurrection, streaming in through the stained glass window behind her, turned it red. Her eyes, though, were blue, and they stared straight at me.

So when we got to the offertory and I started the Schubert Ave Maria, I gave out with plenty, and beamed it right at her. After about three bars of it she looked away quick, and then back at me again, and I knew she’d got it, I was singing to her. When I finished and sat down, our eyes crossed and she nodded and this beautiful smile crept over her face, and for the first time I began to wonder if there was something about her that was more than a pretty girl that had liked how I sang. I was still crossed up when we started out, and she put out her hand as I went by, and gave me a little pat. We robed in the basement, not because there wasn’t plenty of room in the vestry, but so we could file out through the church, singing a recessional a cappella, and our voices would die away in the distance as we went down the stairs.

I had already passed her when it hit me, the perfume she had on, and I knew who she was. I wanted to turn around and speak to her, but I was afraid. I was afraid I’d cry. So I kept on, one step at a time, just like the rest, and hoped nobody would notice that I wasn’t singing any more. We got back to the basement at last, and I tore off the robes and ran back upstairs. People were all over the place, in the vestibule and outside, just leaving, some of them talking with Dr. Grant, the rector. She wasn’t there. It was part of the deal, I know now, that she would never visit me, and the way I dope it out, somebody had tipped her that my aunts and the Old Man were on one of their trips to New York, with me left behind with some friends, so she could see me without anybody knowing who she was, and hear me. But I hadn’t doped out anything then. All I knew was she was beautiful, and my mother, and I wanted to touch her, the way she had touched me. And when I couldn’t find her I went down to the basement again and cracked up, but good. The organist was a young guy named Anderson, that could play all right but thought he was a wonderful cut-up. He winked at the other boys, and began to whistle A Furtive Tear, from The Elixir of Love, or Una Furtiva Lagrima, as I sang it, in Italian. I almost killed that organist. I beat him up so bad even the boys got scared, and the men, the basses and tenors, called a cop. But when he got there I was gone.


MY FIRST FRIEND WAS a boy named Glendenning Deets, and I met him in the park. He was a little older than I was, so instead of a tricycle, like I was riding, he was on a bike. We stopped, and he passed some remarks about the gocart, as he called it, then said that for five cents he’d let me ride the bike. I said all right. But when he got off the bike, I grabbed it and tried to run off with it without paying the five cents. He mauled me up pretty bad. But then something happened that gave me the bulge on him from there on in. I went down, from the hook he hung on my jaw, and as I got up I stumbled into the tricycle and went down again. That hit him funny, and he began making a speech about it to the nursemaids that were looking on. That made me sore, though until then I had felt like a few uppercuts were coming to me for what I had done. So I piled into him. But all he did was wrestle me off and back away and duck. And I smelled it that knocking me down and making a speech about it was all the fight he had in him that day, and he was my potato if I wanted him. I let him have it. Somebody pulled me off him and made us shake hands. I took the bike over to some grass, but when I tried to ride I couldn’t.

When I got tired of trying he said we ought to get ourselves some peaches. “Where?”

“From the orchard.”

“What orchard?”

“... On Park Avenue.”

“Just steal them, hey?”

“What do you mean steal them? They’re prematures.”

They were a few trees in a backyard, what was left of an orchard, and like all old trees they produced prematures, fruit that ripens ahead of the regular crop. It was the first I knew about that, but he got it off with quite an air, like it was inside stuff you had to get wise to before you had it straight what was stealing and what was not. He said the prematures were no good to sell, “and they’ll thank you for taking them away.” But by the time we had eaten four or five white clings, something in overalls came through the fence and we got out of there quick. He was pretty sore. “The dumb buzzard, with not even enough sense to know we’re doing him a favor.”

People with not enough sense to know you were doing them a favor by taking whatever they had seemed to be quite numerous whenever he was around.

Denny lived in Frederick, but he spent his summer in town with an aunt, Miss Eunice Deets, who lived on Linden Avenue, while his father and mother went to Europe. The summer after we hooked the peaches he said we should have a job, to make some money. That was all right with me, but what job I had no idea. One night, though, he was over after dinner, and got to talking with my father about the garage, and how he’d been noticing things there, specially the time the men took going for wrenches, jacks, and stuff, so why couldn’t he and I be hired on to do that running, and save a lot of time? What he was doing at the garage, which was half a mile from his house, he didn’t bother to say. But he made my father laugh. When he was asked how much we wanted, he said ten cents an hour apiece. So my father said a buck a week, for five hours’ work on Saturday, wouldn’t break him, and we could consider ourselves hired. It was still only eight o’clock, so he drove us to an Army-Navy store near Richmond Market, and got us a jumper suit apiece, visor hats, brogan shoes, lunch buckets, and cotton gloves. I don’t say we didn’t earn our money, because the men ran us ragged, though if it was for the time it saved or the fun of seeing us trot I wouldn’t like to say. But one day, around twelve thirty, when everybody was out back sitting against the fence eating lunch, a guy came in with his car boiling. We took him back to Ed Kratzer, the foreman, who said leave it and he’d see what he could do. The guy got loud about how he had to get to Germantown, Pa., by six o’clock that night. “Then in that case take it somewhere else. If you want us to fix it, leave it and we’ll see what we can do. Just now we’re eating, and if you ask me that’s what you could be doing, and you’ll get there just as quick.”

“... Where do I eat?”

“There’s a drugstore across the street.”

So after he swallowed three times that’s where he went. But of course, when he was gone I had to look big, so I lifted the hood of the car, which was standing in the middle of the garage floor, with nobody around it but us. But when I opened the door I noticed the hand brake was on, hard. It should have been, of course, but it came to me I hadn’t noticed him set it, and you generally did notice it in those days because the ratchet sounded like somebody winding an alarm clock. Then something else came to me. It was a Ford and I don’t know if you remember the old Model T. It had low and high gear on the left, reverse gear center, foot brake on the right, and hand brake straight up the middle. You set the hand brake when you stopped, but in low gear, the car could still go, and I had a hunch. As soon as I cranked it I got in and let off the brake. Sure enough, when I pushed in low gear the car went, and when I dropped the pedal back into high it still went. I stopped and tried reverse and it was all right. I cut my motor and got out. “Well, now, there’s a dumbbell for you.”

“How do you mean, Jack?”

“Driving with his brake on. You can’t do it.”

“And that’s all that was wrong with it?”

“That’s all.”

I got a can, put some water in, and that helped with the temp. He kept studying me. “What we going to charge him, Jack?”

“We got nothing to do with that.”

“Why not?”

“The men attend to charges.”

“When they do the work, they do. But for crying out loud, we did the work. We made it run. We—”

“I thought that was me.”

“Oh, pardon me.”

“We, my eye.”

“Then it’s all yours—for whatever you get.”

What I would get was nothing, as I very well knew. Pretty soon I said: “What do you think we ought to charge him?”

“Who ought to charge him, Jack?”

“We ought to.”

“That’s better. That’s a whole lot better. Gee, that’s a pain in the neck for you, a guy too dumb even to see chances to make dough, and then when somebody else kicks in with a little brains—”

“What do you think we ought to—”

“Two dollars.”

“For just taking off his brake?”

“I thought you put in a new bearing.”

“I don’t like to crook anybody.”

“Who you crooking? Not your old man, that’s a cinch, because we haven’t even used a handful of his waste. And not Kratzer, because he was too lazy even to get in here and see what was wrong. And not the guy. He’ll thank you for getting him out of here on time. He’ll want to pay you. He’ll—”

But my face must have told him, because he shut up and slid over to the back door to check on the situation out back. Then he had me roll the car out front. Then he raced across to the drugstore.

I drove the car up the street, took a U-turn, and had hardly run back before there the guy was, so excited he could hardly talk. I played it just like Denny said, with a whole lot of stuff about how I didn’t want to see him wait while the men finished their lunch, and some more about how he should be careful to let the brake off, “as that’s generally the answer when you burn out a bearing.” He hardly heard me. It turned out he had had the car two days, and probably didn’t know what the hand brake was until somebody set it for him the night before in the garage where he stored it in Washington. He paid the two dollars without a whimper, and even gave me a half dollar extra for helping him out. Soon as he drove off that was divided, in the drug store. Denny saw to that. “All you need is a little brains, Jack. In the garage business it’s like everything else. It’s initiative that counts, every time.”

It was Denny, that summer or maybe the next, that got me started on my singing career, though all it amounted to, at first, was some more of the Deets initiative. They had had a mixed choir at St. Anne’s with four paid soloists and I guess maybe fifteen to twenty volunteers like Nancy. But when Dr. Grant came in, after Dr. Struthers died, he was very High-Church, and pretty soon there was a fight, but he had his way. The soloists were out and the mixed choir was out. The men stayed, to sing the tenor and bass parts, but the sopranos and altos were to be boys. I’d hate to tell you what Denny and I did to them. We chased them up alleys and yelled at them and beat them up. One night a couple called, the man with a buggy whip. He wanted to dust me off for something that had happened, and my father had to get tough.

But then one day Denny found out that the cutie pies got eighty cents a Sunday for doing it. He almost set Nancy, Sheila, my father, and his aunt, Miss Eunice, crazy, that he and I should get a shot at the sugar. Finally it turned out two places had become vacant, and we would be given a trial after rehearsal one afternoon. We waited quite a while, sitting in the rear of the church, while they went through Te Deums and anthems and Gregorian chants, or plain songs as they’re called. They seemed to be the main reason Dr. Grant wanted boys, as it was dry, gray music, some of it sung without accompaniment, and women would have ruined it. But the director was a woman, Miss Eleanor Grant, Dr. Grant’s cousin. She had sung with the Century Opera, but after we got in the war married a French officer, and when he got killed she didn’t go back on the stage right away, but stayed on in Baltimore and taught. She was small and dark and pretty, and even watching her from the back of the church, where I was sitting with Nancy and Sheila and Denny and Miss Eunice, I fell for her hard.

We had been told, when our turn came, not to sing anything religious, but whatever we happened to know and like, so Denny sang A Perfect Day, with Anderson playing for him, and I sang The Rosary, with Sheila. Denny got as far as “when you sit alone with your thoughts,” when Miss Eleanor stopped him and said it was very nice of him to sing for her, but he needn’t bother to finish it, and later, maybe when he was older, she hoped he’d come back. The cutie pies, who were hanging around, all began to laugh, and for once I didn’t blame them. Because Denny sang it in the same gashouse bark he used on Over There, which was his favorite tune at the time, and maybe it sounded funny but it didn’t sound good. Me, I only got as far as “The hours I spend with thee, dear heart.” Because Sheila, as soon as she got spread out on the organ bench, and got the stops pulled open, and got a heel-and-toe grip on the pedals, unfortunately let her music go sliding to the floor. However, she started anyhow, and that was how I came to be thrown out at first base. Because of course her fingers would start it in the key she knew it in, which was two flats, but when Anderson put the music back, her eyes would read it in the key they saw it in, which was six flats. That was how it happened that the first chord and I were in one key, and the second chord and Sheila were in another key, and it sounded like a lunatic asylum.

Next thing I knew, there was Sheila, as usual, giving out with the gushy alibi, like she was a real virtuoso or something, and small chores like this were quite beneath her, and Miss Eleanor was smiling and nodding and patting me. By that time I had somehow swallowed that string of pearls and maybe a couple of tonsils, but I got the surprise of my life. Miss Eleanor put her arm around me, and said there wouldn’t really be any need to go on, as she thought I was a boy they wanted, and would I report next Wednesday to rehearse?

Walking home I never heard three women have so much to say about another woman in all my life. Miss Eunice was burned up at the way Denny had been cut off, though how much he had sounded like a crow with the croup she didn’t mention. Sheila said no wonder I was flustered, the highhanded way things were done around there, and as for that draft, that practically blew the hair off your head, to say nothing of the music in front of you, well! Nancy, who was still sore about being fired, criticized Miss Eleanor’s “method.” Denny had nothing to say, until he and I were alone together, out in his front yard. Then he hauled off and hit me. Then he hit me again. By that time I had got to know him fairly well, so I just waited. Pretty soon he began to blow and backed off, and I stepped up and let him have it, but with the flat of my hand, a slap on the cheeks that sounded like a seal clapping for himself in the circus. “Now do I beat you up or do you cut this out?”

He burst out crying and plumped down on the bench beside the front walk. I sat down beside him and let him bawl. Until then he’d been the smart guy, but when I got the job and he didn’t, he hated me for it. Not that he let it interfere with our beautiful friendship, or kept him from figuring what we would do with the money, once I began collecting my eighty cents. Or, as we could truthfully say, our eighty cents.


BUT THE ONE REALLY to blame for my singing career was Miss Eleanor, and she got interested in me, as you might expect, on account of my trying to get away with something, though up to then she hadn’t tried to hide it that she liked me. She rehearsed us, as I said, on Te Deums and anthems and chants, but on hymns there was no rehearsal, only home work. It was her test for character. Because if a boy, once he got his book to take home, and was given next Sunday’s numbers, wouldn’t go to his mother’s piano and beat out his part and learn it, there wasn’t much to do about him. If he would, maybe he had something and she would work on him. If he wouldn’t, he was out. Well, she gave me a hymn book, and also another book, that explained how to tell one key from another, major from minor, treble from bass, and 3/4 from 4/4. So I wanted the eighty cents, and made Sheila play the stuff for me, so I could learn it, which wasn’t hard, as my voice was high, and I always got the soprano part, which was melody.

But pretty soon I thought: Why all that work? The notes, once I got straight how they worked, seemed to tell all you had to know, like when to go up and when to go down, how much, and how long to hang on. So of course, by my system then, I used initiative instead of work. Sheila would be all ready to brief me, and I’d say I’d already got the parts up. She wouldn’t believe me, and would shove the book at me and I’d read the part off and there’d be nothing she could say. It cut her out of a chance to act important, but if I knew it I knew it. Quantum quantum, as the Old Man would put it. But one Sunday something happened. By that time I was already a bit of a feature, but more on account of my angelic looks, I imagine, than my heaven-sent golden voice, which hadn’t developed a lot yet. I was put on the end, with a lectern in front of me, and a big leather-bound hymn book on it, that Dr. Grant found in his library, with a ribbon marker that had a golden fringe, so I made kind of a picture. And this morning we were singing a thing called Parting Hymn, with me on the melody, the cutie pies and the men on the parts, and the congregation doing whatever it felt like, mostly nothing. The organ wasn’t in it, except to play it through once before we started, because with just the voices and nothing instrumental there was that ethereal angelic effect Dr. Grant seemed to be so stuck on. And we were going fine until all of a sudden it sounded like eight cats in a barrel and everybody stopped, except that after a split second Miss Eleanor motioned at me and I went on. Then the rest came in, and we were moving again. To pull things together, Anderson brought the organ in. But on every verse, even with the organ, there was the same mess, and on every verse Miss Eleanor motioned me on. At last, though, it came to an end, and pretty soon after that we filed out singing our chant, and when she came down to the basement everything was straightened out, or so she said anyway, when she showed Anderson the misprint in the books, which of course had made things a little sour.

Next thing I remember, I was at her house on Eutaw Place for Sunday lunch, and she fixed it herself. It was a little house in a yard with lilacs all around it, mainly studio, two stories high, with a grand piano in it, but not much else except a bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen with a sunporch at one side, where we ate. After lunch we went in the studio and sat on the couch, and she read the Sunday paper and let me play with her Airedale dog Muggsy. Then all of a sudden she put up the paper and said: “Now Jack, what happened?”


“This morning. On the hymn.”

“Why—it was a misprint. Isn’t that what you said?”

“Yes, but why did you sing it correctly?”

“Well, I had a different book.”

“Are you sure?”

“Dr. Grant’s big book, that you gave me.”

“Is that the book you have home?”

“No, Miss Eleanor, but—”

“But what?”

“I don’t know what happened.”

“Did you study the parts?”

“Of course, Miss Eleanor.”


“I study them, always.”

“Come here, Jack.”

I went to her, and she motioned me to sit there beside her, and I did, and she put her arm around me and pulled my head on her shoulder. Neither Nancy nor Sheila ever did anything like that, so I guess it was the first time any woman had touched me, and I can remember now how soft she was and how much I liked her arm around me with her face close and her eyes looking down into mine. At that time I was ten and she must have been a little under thirty. To most kids, from what I’ve heard them say, that would be a great-great-grandmother, but not to me. I never notice much how old a woman is. She seemed like a pretty girl I knew, and we were having a little talk. “Now Jack, if you studied the part on that hymn, how does it happen you sang it in the right key, and didn’t make the misprint mistake, the way the others did?”

“Too much for me, Miss Eleanor.”

We sat there, and her arm was around me, but she wasn’t looking at me, and all of a sudden she wasn’t friendly any more. Then she winked away a tear and gave me a little shake. “Jack, why do you lie to me?”

“Why, Miss Eleanor, I wouldn’t lie to you.”

“You have lied to me. Now there’s no use your trying to deceive me about what you’ve been doing. I’ve been suspecting it all along. You don’t study these parts up at all. You stand there with a cheeky look on your face and read them off at sight and only pretend you got them up. And this morning, when you sang it right and everybody else sang it wrong, it was because you were reading it off Dr. Grant’s book, which is a very beautifully printed collection of celebrated hymns with no misprints in it at all, where all the others had the cheap edition that belongs to the church, and that you have at home to study from. So I know, of course. Now why do you still look me in the eye and say you don’t know how it happened?”

“I don’t even know what you’re talking about.” She stared at the piano a few minutes, then got up and went out. When she came back she had a bunch of lilacs she said I was to take to my aunts. I knew I was to go.

I don’t know why, but when I got halfway home I turned around and marched right back again. I wish I could say I woke up to the wrong of lying, but I can’t. All I can remember is that I kept thinking how soft she felt, and it was like when you touch a baby and you feel like Christmas Eve and never want to do wrong any more. I knew I had to go back and do something about it. She looked surprised when she saw me again, but I started right in: “Miss Eleanor, I did what you said.”

“... Come in.”

She took me over to the couch again, sat me back on the cushion, and ran her fingers through my hair. “Did Miss Sheila teach you how?”

“How to what?”

“Read at sight.”

“... What’s reading at sight?”

“Well, most people, unless they’re professionals, have to read on some instrument, usually piano, for pitch and to make sure they’re getting it right. But—Jack, do you mean you just stumbled on it by accident? That you looked at the notes, and after a little practice there in the choir you knew how they went? That nobody had to tell you?”

“Is it supposed to be hard or something?”

“Jack, I just love it.”

She took me in her arms, and hugged me, and gave me little pats, and then went to the icebox and got out some sherbet she had stashed there. She explained to me about sight reading, and how unusual it was for somebody to be able to do it without particularly knowing how they did it. What excited her was that she thought she had some kind of a musical genius wrapped up in the same package as a pretty good boy soprano. In that she was wrong. But we didn’t know anything for sure then, except that I was a kid that wasn’t getting anywhere at a rapid rate of speed, and that she was a pretty girl widowed by the war and somehow out of step with her trade. It seemed exciting that we should cook up a secret between us, that I was to say nothing to anyone about it, that she would give me lessons and make a famous singer out of me, and I would make her laugh. “The way you’ve been standing up there, with a pious look on your face, and pretending to have your parts down pat, and not doing a thing but reading it off stone cold—that’s what enchants me.”

“If you like it, then—”

“Oh dear.”

“What’s the matter, Miss Eleanor?”

“It’s wrong, isn’t it, to encourage deception in the young? Then, I guess we start all over again. Well, I won’t do it. How do you like that?”

“I like anything you say.”

“Sometimes you have to kid them, don’t you?”

“You mean—use initiative?”

“Use what?”

I told her about Denny, and the car, and how I took the brake off, and she whooped. “You’re simply precious.”

“Can I stay to supper?”

“I’ll see.”

She called up my aunts, and they said I could stay, and she explained to me why she had to be so formal. “Your aunt, Miss Nancy Dillon, has certain reservations about my method, I believe she calls it—”

“Oh boy, you ought to hear her method!”

So of course, we had some more laughing over that, but then she went on: “It’ll be simpler, in the beginning anyway, if we keep our schemes to ourselves. You drop by, on your way home from school, and I’ll work you over, step by step, and we’ll see what we’ll see. That is, unless there’s something you’d rather do.”

“Nothing I know of.”

“You’re a sweet baby.”

That night, after she made some omelet and we had that with some ice cream I got at a drug store, she played for me and told me about grand opera and how she sang in the Washington and Baltimore Aborn seasons of 1912, 1913, and 1914, and the Century Opera in New York the year after that, and it was my first taste of romance. Because I went nuts about her, and she went a little nuts about me, but I sometimes wonder if that didn’t have something to do with the baby she lost, not long after she married the Frenchman. The nicest part was how funny it was, the great trick we were playing on everybody. It seemed wonderful to hook a tone up, see her eyes light, have her pull me into her arms for little kisses, and then feel her burst out laughing. Pretty soon I’d kiss her on the cheek and not feel ashamed about it.


THE TROUBLE WITH BOYS, it turned out, is that they’ve got breath trouble, but they’ve got so little time to be boys that nobody does anything about it. So everybody pretends the “reedy” quality is pretty terrific and makes them sound like little angels. She, though, she didn’t buy it. “All they sound like to me is brats that can’t sing. But might be the one now to show what a boy might sound like if he sang instead of wheezed. Of course, it may not turn out like that. You may sound like some pip-squeak imitation of an operatic tenor. There’s such a thing as letting a wild Irish rose be a wild Irish rose, and not trying to make an American beauty out of it. Still, I’d like to try. At least you have a voice. It has every fault there is, from escapement to tremolo to four or five other things. It’s like a stream of warm honey that shatters in midair. But we may be able to coax it to flow, clear down to the waffle, and if we do, I’ll eat it with a little silver spoon... Kiss me now, and we’ll start.”

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!

Lesen Sie weiter in der vollständigen Ausgabe!