A few months ago I read a book of short stories called Not For The Nervous and decided that I would include some of my favorite stories on my site during my 31 Days of Halloween. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!
“How old are you?” I asked!
His eyes were on the revolver I was holding. “Look, mister, there’s not much in the cash register, but take it all. I won’t make no trouble.”
“I am not interested in your filthy money. How old are you?”
He was puzzled. “Forty-two.”
I clicked my tongue. “What a pity. From your point of view, at least. You might have lived another twenty or thirty years if you had just taken the slight pains to be polite.”
He didn’t understand.
“I am going to kill you,” I said, “because of the four-cent stamp and because of the cherry candy.”
He did not know what I meant by the cherry candy, but he did know about the stamp.
Panic raced into his face. “You must be crazy. You can’t kill me just because of that.”
“But I can.”
And I did.
When Dr. Briller told me that I had but four months to live, I was, of course, perturbed. “Are you positive you haven’t mixed up the X-rays? I’ve heard of such things.”
“I’m afraid not, Mr. Turner.”
I gave it more earnest thought. “The laboratory reports. Perhaps my name was accidentally attached to the wrong …”
He shook his head slowly. “I double-checked. I always do that in cases like these. Sound medical practice, you know.”
It was late afternoon and the time when the sun is tired. I rather hoped that when my time came to actually die, it might be in the morning. Certainly more cheerful.
“In cases like this,” Dr. Briller said, “a doctor is faced with a dilemma. Shall he or shall he not tell his patient? I always tell mine. That enables them to settle their affairs and to have a fling, so to speak.” He pulled a pad of paper toward him. “Also I’m writing a book. What do you intend doing with your remaining time?”
“I really don’t know. I’ve just been thinking about it for a minute or two, you know.”
“Of course,” Briller said. “No immediate rush. But when you do decide, you will let me know, won’t you? My book concerns the things that people do with their remaining time when they know just when they’re going to die.”
He pushed aside the pad. “See me every two or three weeks. That way we’ll be able to measure the progress of your decline.”
Briller saw me to the door. “I already have written up twenty-two cases like yours.” He seemed to gaze into the future. “Could be a best seller, you know.”
I have always lived a bland life. Not an unintelligent one, but bland.
I have contributed nothing to the world–and in that I have much in common with almost every soul on earth–but on the other hand I have not taken away anything either. I have, in short, asked merely to be left alone. Life is difficult enough without undue association with people.
What can one do with the remaining four months of a bland life?
I have no idea how long I walked and thought on that subject, but eventually I found myself on the long curving bridge that sweeps down to join the lake drive. The sounds of mechanical music intruded themselves upon my mind and I looked down.
A circus, or very large carnival, lay below.
It was the world of shabby magic, where the gold is gilt, where the top-hatted ringmaster is as much a gentleman as the medals on his chest are authentic, and where the pink ladies on horseback are hard-faced and narrow-eyed. It was the domain of the harsh-voiced vendors and the short-change.
I have always felt that the demise of the big circus may be counted as one of the cultural advances of the twentieth century, yet I found myself descending the footbridge and in a few moments I was on the midway between the rows of stands where human mutations are exploited and exhibited for the entertainment of all children.
Eventually, I reached the big top and idly watched the bored ticket-taker in his elevated box at one side of the main entrance.
A pleasant-faced man leading two little girls approached him and presented several cardboard rectangles which appeared to be passes.
The ticket-taker ran his finger down a printed list at his side. His eyes hardened and he scowled down at the man and the children for a moment. Then slowly and deliberately he tore the passes to bits and let the fragments drift to the ground. “These are no damn good,” he said.
The man below him flushed. “I don’t understand.”
“You didn’t leave the posters up,” the ticket-taker snapped. “Beat it, crumb!”
The children looked up at their father, their faces puzzled. Would he do something about this?
He stood there and the white of anger appeared on his face. He seemed about to say something, but then he looked down at the children. He closed his eyes for a moment as though to control his anger, and then he said, “Come on, kids. Let’s go home.”
He led them away, down the midway, and the children looked back, bewildered, but saying nothing.
I approached the ticket-taker. “Why did you do that?”
He glanced down. “What’s it to you?”
“Perhaps a great deal.”
He studied me irritably. “Because he didn’t leave up the posters.”
“I heard that before. Now explain it.”
He exhaled as though it cost him money. “Our advance man goes through a town two weeks before we get there. He leaves posters advertising the show any place he can–grocery stores, shoe shops, meat markets–any place that will paste them in the window and keep them there until the show comes to town. He hands out two or three passes for that. But what some of these jokers don’t know is that we check up. If the posters aren’t still up when we hit town, the passes are no good.”
“I see,” I said dryly. “And so you tear up the passes in their faces and in front of their children. Evidently that man removed the posters from the window of his little shop too soon. Or perhaps he had those passes given to him by a man who removed the posters from his window.”
“What’s the difference? The passes are no good.”
“Perhaps there is no difference in that respect. But do you realize what you have done?”
His eyes were narrow, trying to estimate me and any power I might have.
“You have committed one of the most cruel of human acts,” I said stiffly. “You have humiliated a man before his children. You have inflicted a scar that will remain with him and them as long as they live. He will take those children home and it will be a long, long way. And what can he say to them?”
“Are you a cop?”
“I am not a cop. Children of that age regard their father as the finest man in the world. The kindest, the bravest. And now they will remember that a man had been bad to their father–and he had been unable to do anything about it.”
“So I tore up his passes. Why didn’t he buy tickets? Are you a city inspector?”
“I am not a city inspector. Did you expect him to buy tickets after that humiliation? You left the man with no recourse whatsoever. He could not buy tickets and he could not create a well-justified scene because the children were with him. He could do nothing. Nothing at all, but retreat with two children who wanted to see your miserable circus and now they cannot.”
I looked down at the foot of his stand. There were the fragments of many more dreams–the debris of other men who had committed the capital crime of not leaving their posters up long enough. “You could at least have said, `I’m sorry, sir. But your passes are not valid.’ And then you could have explained politely and quietly why.”
“I’m not paid to be polite.” He showed yellow teeth. “And mister, I like tearing up passes. It gives me a kick.”
And there it was. He was a little man who had been given a little power and he used it like a Caesar.
He half rose. “Now get the hell out of here, mister, before I come down there and chase you all over the lot.”
Yes. He was a man of cruelty, a two-dimensional animal born without feeling and sensitivity and fated to do harm as long as he existed. He was a creature who should be eliminated from the face of the earth.
If only I had the power to …
I stared up at the twisted face for a moment more and then turned on my heel and left. At the top of the bridge I got a bus and rode to the sports shop at Thirty-seventh.
I purchased a .32 caliber revolver and a box of cartridges.
Why do we not murder? Is it because we do not feel the moral justification for such a final act? Or is it more because we fear the consequences if we are caught–the cost to us, to our families, to our children?
And so we suffer wrongs with meekness, we endure them because to eliminate them might cause us even more pain than we already have.
But I had no family, no close friends. And four months to live.
The sun had set and the carnival lights were bright when I got off the bus at the bridge. I looked down at the midway and he was still in his box.
How should I do it? I wondered. Just march up to him and shoot him as he sat on his little throne?
The problem was solved for me. I saw him replaced by another man–apparently his relief. He lit a cigarette and strolled off the midway toward the dark lake front.
I caught up with him around a bend concealed by bushes. It was a lonely place, but close enough to the carnival so that its sounds could still reach me.
He heard my footsteps and turned. A tight smile came to his lips and he rubbed the knuckles of one hand. “You’re asking for it, mister.”
His eyes widened when he saw my revolver.
“How old are you?” I asked.
“Look, mister,” he said swiftly, “I only got a couple of tens in my pocket.”
“How old are you?” I repeated.
His eyes flicked nervously. “Thirty-two.”
I shook my head sadly. “You could have lived into your seventies. Perhaps forty more years of life, if only you had taken the simple trouble to act like a human being.”
His face whitened. “Are you off your rocker, or something?”
I pulled the trigger.
The sound of the shot was not as loud as I had expected, or perhaps it was lost against the background of the carnival noises.
He staggered and dropped to the edge of the path and he was quite dead.
I sat down on a nearby park bench and waited.
Five minutes. Ten. Had no one heard the shot?
I became suddenly conscious of hunger. I hadn’t eaten since noon. The thought of being taken to a police station and being questioned for any length of time seemed unbearable. And I had a headache, too.
I tore a page from my pocket notebook and began writing:
A careless word may be forgiven. But a lifetime of cruel rudeness may cannot. This man deserves to die.
I was about to sign my name, but then I decided that my initials would be sufficient for the time being. I did not want to be apprehended before I had a good meal and some aspirins.
I folded the page and put it into the dead ticket-taker’s breast pocket.
I met no one as I returned up the path and ascended the footbridge. I walked to Weschler’s, probably the finest restaurant in the city. The prices are, under normal circumstances, beyond me, but I thought that this time I could indulge myself.
After dinner, I decided an evening bus ride might be in order. I rather enjoyed that form of city excursion and, after all, my freedom of movement would soon become restricted.
The driver of the bus was an impatient man and clearly his passengers were his enemies. However, it was a beautiful night and the bus was not crowded.
At Sixty-eighth Street, a fragile white-haired woman with cameo features waited at the curb. The driver grudgingly brought his vehicle to a stop and opened the door.
She smiled and nodded to the passengers as she put her foot on the first step, and one could see that her life was one of gentle happiness and very few bus rides.
“Well!” the driver snapped. “Is it going to take you all day to get in?”
She flushed and stammered. “I’m sorry.” She presented him with a five-dollar bill.
He glared. “Don’t you have any change?”
The flush deepened. “I don’t think so. But I’ll look.”
The driver was evidently ahead of his schedule and he waited.
And one other thing was clear. He was enjoying this.
She found a quarter and held it up timorously.
“In the box!” he snapped.
She dropped it into the box.
The driver moved his vehicle forward jerkily and she almost fell. Just in time she managed to catch hold of a strap.
Her eyes went to the passengers, as though to apologize for herself–for not having moved faster, for not having immediate change, for almost falling. The smile trembled and she sat down.
At Eighty-second, she pulled the buzzer cord, rose, and made her way forward.
The driver scowled over his shoulder as he came to a stop. “Use the rear door. Don’t you people ever learn to use the rear door?”
I am all in favor of using the rear door. Especially when a bus is crowded. But there were only a half a dozen passengers on this bus and they read their newspapers with frightened neutrality.
She turned, her face pale, and left by the rear door.
The evening she had had, or the evening she was going to have, had now been ruined. Perhaps many more evenings, with the thought of it.
I rode the bus to the end of the line.
I was the only passenger when the driver turned it around and parked.
It was a deserted, dimly lit corner, and there were no waiting passengers at the small shelter at the curb. The driver glanced at his watch, lit his cigarette, and then noticed me. “If you’re taking the ride back, mister, put another quarter in the box. No free riders here.”
I rose from my seat and walked slowly to the front of the bus. “How old are you?”
His eyes narrowed. “That’s none of your business.”
“About thirty-five, I’d imagine,” I said. “You’d have had another thirty years or more ahead of you.” I produced the revolver.
He dropped the cigarette. “Take the money,” he said.
“I’m not interested in money. I’m thinking about a gentle lady and perhaps the hundreds of other gentle ladies and the kind harmless men and the smiling children. You are a criminal. There is no justification for what you do to them. There is no justification for your existence.”
And I killed him.
I sat down and waited.
After ten minutes, I was still alone with the corpse.
I realized that I was sleepy. Incredibly sleepy. It might be better if I turned myself in to the police after a good night’s sleep.
I wrote my justification for the driver’s demise on a sheet of note paper, added my initials, and put the page in his pocket.
I walked four blocks before I found a taxi and took it to my apartment building.
I slept soundly and perhaps I dreamed. But if I did, my dreams were pleasant and innocuous, and it was almost nine before I woke.
After a shower and a leisurely breakfast, I selected my best suit. I remembered I had not yet paid that month’s telephone bill. I made out a check and addressed an envelope. I discovered that I was out of stamps. But no matter, I would get one on the way to the police station.
I was almost there when I remembered the stamp. I stopped in at a corner drugstore. It was a place I had never entered before.
The proprietor, in a semi-medical jacket, sat behind the soda fountain reading a newspaper and a salesman was making notations in a large order book.
The proprietor did not look up when I entered and he spoke to the salesman. “They’ve got his fingerprints on the notes, they’ve got his handwriting, and they’ve got his initials. What’s wrong with the police?”
The salesman shrugged. “What good are fingerprints if the murderer doesn’t have his in the police files? The same goes for the handwriting if you got nothing to compare it with. And how many thousand people in the city got the initials L. T.?” He closed the book. “I’ll be back next week.”
When he was gone, the druggist continued reading the newspaper.
I cleared my throat.
He finished reading a long paragraph and then looked up. “Well?”
“I’d like a four-cent stamp, please.”
It appeared almost as though I had struck him. He stared at me for fifteen seconds and then he left his stool and slowly made his way to the rear of the store toward a small barred window.
I was about to follow him, but a display of pipes at my elbow caught my attention.
After a while I felt eyes upon me and looked up.
The druggist stood at the far end of the store, one hand on his hip and the other disdainfully holding the single stamp. “Do you expect me to bring it to you?”
And now I remembered a small boy of six who had had five pennies. Not just one, this time, but five, and this was in the days of penny candies.
He had been entranced by the display in the showcase–the fifty varieties of sweet things, and his mind had revolved in a pleasant indecision. The red whips? The licorice? The grab bags? But not the candy cherries. He didn’t like those.
And then he had become conscious of the druggist standing beside the display case–tapping one foot. The druggist’s eyes had smoldered with irritation–no, more than that–with anger. “Are you going to take all day for your lousy nickel?”
He had been a sensitive boy and he had felt as though he had received a blow. His precious five pennies were now nothing. This man despised them. And this man despised him.
He pointed numbly and blindly. “Five cents of that.”
When he left the store he had found that he had the candy cherries.
But that didn’t really matter. Whatever it had been, he couldn’t have eaten it.
Now I stared at the druggist and the four-cent stamp and the narrow hatred for anyone who did not contribute directly to his profits. I had no doubt that he would fawn if I purchased one of his pipes.
But I thought of the four-cent stamp, and the bag of cherry candy I had thrown away so many years ago.
I moved toward the rear of the store and took the revolver out of my pocket. “How old are you?”
When he was dead, I did not wait longer than necessary to write a note. I had killed for myself this time and I felt the need of a drink.
I went several doors down the street and entered a small bar. I ordered a brandy and water.
After ten minutes, I heard the siren of a squad car.
The bartender went to the window. “It’s just down the street.” He took off his jacket. “Got to see what this is all about. If anybody comes in, tell them I’ll be right back.” He put the bottle of brandy on the bar. “Help yourself, but tell me how many.”
I sipped the brandy slowly and watched the additional squad cars and finally the ambulance appear.
The bartender returned after ten minutes and a customer followed at his heels. “A short beer, Joe.”
“This is my second brandy,” I said.
Joe collected my change. “The druggist down the street got himself murdered. Looks like it was by the man who kills people because they’re not polite.”
The customer watched him draw a beer. “How do you figure that? Could have been just a holdup.”
Joe shook his head. “No. Fred Masters–he’s got the TV shop across the street–found the body and he read the note.”
The customer put a dime on the bar. “I’m not going to cry about it. I always took my business someplace else. He acted as though he was doing you a favor every time he waited on you.”
Joe nodded. “I don’t think anybody in the neighborhood’s going to miss him. He always made a lot of trouble.”
I had been about to leave and return to the drugstore to give myself up, but now I ordered another brandy and took out my notebook. I began making a list of names.
It was surprising how one followed another. They were bitter memories, some large, some small, some I had experienced and many more that I had witnessed–perhaps felt more than the victims.
Names. And that warehouseman. I didn’t know his name, but I must include him.
I remembered the day and Miss Newman. We were her sixth-graders and she had taken us on another one of her excursions–this time to the warehouses along the river, where she was going to show us “how industry works.”
She always planned her tours and she always asked permission of the places we visited, but this time she strayed or became lost and we arrived at the warehouse–she and the thirty children who adored her.
And the warehouseman had ordered her out. He had used language we did not understand, but we sensed its intent, and he had directed it against us and Miss Newman.
She was small and she had been frightened and we retreated. And Miss Newman did not report to school the next day or any day after that and we learned that she had asked for a transfer.
And I, who loved her, too, knew why. She could not face us after that.
Was he still alive? He had been in his twenties then, I imagined.
When I left the bar a half an hour later, I realized I had a great deal of work to do.
The succeeding days were busy ones and, among others, I found the warehouseman. I told him why he was dying, because he did not even remember.
And when that was done, I dropped into a restaurant not far away.
The waitress eventually broke off her conversation with the cashier and strode to my table. “What do you want?”
I ordered a steak and tomatoes.
The steak proved to be just about what one could expect in such a neighborhood. As I reached for my coffee spoon, I accidentally dropped it to the floor. I picked it up. “Waitress, would you mind bringing me another spoon, please?”
She stalked angrily to my table and snatched the spoon from my hand. “You got the shakes, or something?”
She returned in a few minutes and was about to deposit a spoon, with considerable emphasis, upon my table.
But then a sudden thought altered the harsh expression of her face. The descent of the arm diminuendoed, and when the spoon touched the tablecloth, it touched gently. Very gently.
She laughed nervously. “I’m sorry if I was sharp, mister.”
It was an apology, and so I said, “That’s quite all right.”
“I mean that you can drop a spoon any time you want to. I’ll be glad to get you another.”
“Thank you.” I turned to my coffee.
“You’re not offended, are you, mister?” she asked eagerly.
“No. Not at all.”
She snatched a newspaper from an empty neighboring table. “Here, sir, you can read this while you eat. I mean, it’s on the house. Free.”
When she left me, the wide-eyed cashier stared at her. “What’s with all that, Mable?”
Mable glanced back at me with a trace of uneasiness. “You can never tell who he might be. You better be polite these days.”
As I ate I read, and an item caught my eye. A grown man had heated pennies in a frying pan and had tossed them out to some children who were making trick-or-treat rounds before Halloween. He had been fined a miserable twenty dollars.
I made a note of his name and address.
Dr. Briller finished his examination. “You can get dressed now, Mr. Turner.”
I picked up my shirt. “I don’t suppose some new miracle drug has been developed since I was here last?”
He laughed with self-enjoyed good nature. “No, I’m afraid not.” He watched me button the shirt. “By the way, have you decided what you’re going to do with your remaining time?”
I had, but I thought I’d say, “Not yet.”
He was faintly perturbed. “You really should, you know. Only about three months left. And be sure to let me know when you do.”
While I finished dressing, he sat down at his desk and glanced at the newspaper lying there. “The killer seems to be rather busy, doesn’t he?”
He turned a page. “But really the most surprising thing about the crimes seems to be the public’s reaction. Have you read the Letters from the People column recently?”
“These murders appear to be meeting with almost universal approval. Some of the letter writers even hint that they might be able to supply the murderer with a few choice names themselves.”
I would have to get a paper.
“Not only that,” Dr. Briller said, “but a wave of politeness has struck the city.”
I put on my coat. “Shall I come back in two weeks?”
He put aside the paper. “Yes. And try to look at this whole thing as cheerfully as possible. We all have to go some day.”
But his day was indeterminate and presumably in the distant future.
My appointment with Dr. Briller had been in the evening, and it was nearly ten by the time I left my bus and began the short walk to my apartment building.
As I approached the last corner, I heard a shot. I turned into Milding Lane and found a little man with a revolver standing over a newly dead body on the quiet and deserted sidewalk.
I looked down at the corpse. “Goodness. A policeman.”
The little man nodded. “Yes, what I’ve done does seem a little extreme, but you see he was using a variety of language that was entirely necessary.”
“Ah,” I said.
The little man nodded. “I’d parked my car in front of this fire hydrant. Entirely inadvertently, I assure you. And this policeman was waiting when I returned to my car. And also he discovered that I’d forgotten my driver’s license. I would not have acted as I did if he had simply written out a ticket–for I was guilty, sir, and I readily admit it–but he was not content with that. He made embarrassing observations concerning my intelligence, my eyesight, the possibility that I’d stolen the car, and finally on the legitimacy of my birth.” He blinked at a fond memory. “And my mother was an angel, sir. An angel.”
I remembered a time when I’d been apprehended while absentmindedly jaywalking. I would contritely have accepted the customary warning, or even a ticket, but the officer insisted upon a profane lecture before a grinning assemblage of interested pedestrians. Most humiliating.
The little man looked at the gun in his hand. “I bought this just today and actually I’d intended to use it on the superintendent of my apartment building. A bully.”
I agreed. “Surly fellows.”
He sighed. “But now I suppose I’ll have to turn myself over to the police?”
I gave it a thought. He watched me.
He cleared his throat. “Or perhaps I should just leave a note? You see I’ve been reading in the newspapers about …”
I lent him my notebook.
He wrote a few lines, signed his initials, and deposited the slip of paper between two buttons of the dead officer’s jacket.
He handed the notebook back to me. “I must remember to get one of these.”
He opened the door of his car. “Can I drop you off anywhere?”
“No, thank you,” I said. “It’s a nice evening. I’d rather walk.”
Pleasant fellow, I reflected, as I left him.
Too bad there weren’t more like him.