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Thorne Smith


Tim Seeks Enlightenment

A FEW days later, after wolfing down a robust breakfast, Tim decided to call on his old friend, the village barber. Alfredo had lots of children, children without rhyme or reason. Mrs. Alfredo was always having a baby or about to have a baby or just getting over having a baby. She was in the baby business and seemed able to turn over her stock with surprising regularity and speed. Tim would speak with this Alfredo and pump him about babies. He would inquire into babies, their production and their upkeep. Sally would be surprised at his vast range of information. At the same time he would have his hair trimmed, or rather, he would have his wife's hair trimmed as a pretext for acquiring wisdom. For the moment Tim had forgotten that in his metamorphosed form his old friend, Alfredo, would hardly recognise him.

He slipped on one of Sally's smartest coats and crammed a small black felt hat carelessly on his head. Then he left the house, taking the lunging Dopey with him.

There was a touch of spring in the air and the snow was melting fast. The distant hills were coming through and the sun lay warm upon them. Soon they would arouse themselves from their winter slumber and take steps about getting green. It was quiet along the neat, well-ordered suburban street. Tim felt the quietness. It got inside him. He breathed deeply and stood at the curb, looking about him. He would like to efface all of the houses in sight as well as all of the persons who lived in them. Dopey lunged Tim across the street, then paused himself to investigate nothing much. The dog was too strong for Tim in his female body. Tim suspected that Dopey knew it and was prepared to take advantage of his knowledge. Yes, it was a nice suburb, mused Tim. That was just the trouble with it. It was too damned nice. But the spirit of the people was not so nice. It was too imitative, too acquisitive. A man had to have exactly what his neighbour had, or better—better if it could be managed. And a man had to live in a certain section or else exist under the burden of a steadily growing inferiority complex. It was sad about that. There were decent men and women living in other sections. Tim liked many of them. But there they were. They were just not on the in, and that was all there was to it. And women had such a way of lording it over their less fortunate sisters. It was cruel and it was senseless. He was glad Sally was not that way. She bought her meat wherever she liked. It was not her method, like so many of her friends, to establish prestige through the butcher or baker. Yes, this suburb would be better with a lot of revisions and deleting. All these real estate people with their quaint ideas and parky minds. Restricted developments and all that. They thrived on snobbery. And in New York the bread lines were twisting round corners. Men standing bleakly in the cold for the privilege of remaining miserably alive on the surface of a world that had no use for them. Yet the bread lines had thoughts and feelings. They were composed of human beings, men who wanted things and who missed things and who watched others live through eyes that were too distantly hopeless even to express envy. And right here in Cliffside men and women were making themselves miserable merely because they could not afford a car as good as Sam Jones's or a radio as fine as Bill Smith's or a home on Upper Clear View Road. It was all out of proportion. Tim realised that he himself was a selfish individual, but at least he didn't get all hot and bothered about those things. Give him a bottle and a book and leave him alone, that was all he asked. He realised that as an individual he could do nothing about the bread lines. He couldn't even help materially one individual member. But he was aware of their existence. That was a start, anyway. Idly his thoughts drifted and absently he delivered a sharp kick on Dopey's adamant rump. The dog made no protest. Tim rather suspected the beast enjoyed an occasional kick. It gave him to feel he was being noticed. Tim wondered if he was always going to be a woman, if life from now on was going to be just one baby after another. He knew he would never be clever about not having babies. He was altogether too careless and shiftless. He sighed from deep self-commiseration and started off down the street.

"Sally Willows," a voice called.

He turned with a frightened expression and saw, hurrying toward him, a woman who as far as he was concerned had never existed before. Evidently from the warmth of the kiss she gave Tim she must have known Sally quite intimately and liked her. Tim, poor soul, was not enough of a woman to know that the kisses women so liberally exchange with each other mean exactly less than nothing.

"Hello! Hello!" cried the woman.

Tim contented himself with one small "Hello."

"I've come back," said the other. "Here I am."

"Are you sure?" Tim asked her.

"Same old Sally, I see," continued the unknown.

"A trifle renovated," replied Tim. "Perhaps 'altered' would be a better word."

"What's all the news?" demanded the woman.

"The same old thing," said Tim easily. "Scandal and philandering and concealed animosity—envy and a touch of heartbreak thrown in for good measure. The merry whirl, you know."

"It's dreadful how people go on," the recently returned one contributed virtuously. "Of course Dan, my husband, doesn't know this, but I met the grandest man while I was away. I was all on my own, you know."

"Yes," said Tim, trying to keep the sarcasm from his voice. "Dan was just grinding dumbly along while you met the grandest man."

"Dan loves his work," declared the woman. "Couldn't drag him away from it."

"Did you ever try the dragging process?" Tim asked mildly.

"Don't be horrid, Sally," said the other. "Don't you believe a woman should have her own life?"

"Oh, don't misunderstand me," replied Tim. "I believe a woman should have at least nine lives, like a cat. And all the grand men she can handle. It merely occurred to me that if there wasn't a husband knocking about in the background, stupidly loving his work or pretending to love his work, she'd have one hell of a time struggling through one life in the manner to which she was accustomed. It was merely a passing thought."

"No doubt about that," agreed the other. "A husband is convenient at times."

"Around the first of the month," suggested Tim, thoroughly hating this woman.

"Yes," said the woman. "What a horrible dog. Where are you off to?"

"That's not a horrible dog," retorted Tim. "That's the finest mixture of canine strains that ever perplexed a bitch. And if you'd like to know, I'm going to get a shave."

"A shave?" exclaimed the woman.

"I mean a trim," Tim hastened to reply. "Did I say a shave? How stupid of me. What I really meant to say was a trim, you know, the hair."

"I'll walk along with you part of the way," said the woman. "That is, if your dog will give me some of the sidewalk."

Dopey received another kick and moved slightly in advance, gratefully wagging his tail. He hated this stopping on street corners and talking to people. It made him nervous.

"Did you ever have a baby?" Tim asked presently, with as much indifference as he could manage.

"Why, don't you remember?" said the woman in a surprised voice. "You came to see me yourself at the hospital."

"Did I?" asked Tim absently. "That was nice of me, but then I'm always doing nice things, and there are so many babies—too many."

The woman laughed.

"You're a queer little duck," she said.

"Aren't I," agreed Tim, "Did it hurt much, this baby?"

"Why, didn't you know?" asked the woman. "For days they thought I wasn't going to live. I had septic fever and all sorts of complications."

Tim shrank within himself and looked at the pavement with scared eyes.

"Are there lots of complications you can get?" he asked in a low voice.

"You wouldn't believe how many there are," said the woman. "All sorts of things can happen."

Tim choked down a little gasp.

"Then it was pretty awful?" he went on.

"I wouldn't go through it again for all of the money in the world," the woman assured him. "And I'm fond of money, but I was lucky at that."

"How do you make that out?" Tim inquired.

"The woman in the room next to mine died and the one next to her went mad," replied Tim's companion. "Stark, staring mad."

Tim felt that within a very few moments he would follow the example of the woman next to the woman who died.

"Are the doctors kind?" he managed to ask after swallowing hard several times.

"Mine wasn't," replied the other. "He was as cross and callous as an old crab. It's quite ghastly," she continued. "I'm glad it's all over. Any woman who has the nerve enough to have a baby has my sympathy. It's nip and tuck for her."

Tim had no use for the woman's sympathy. She was burning him up. He parted with her on Springfield Avenue, and dragged Dopey, squatting sidewise, into the barber's shop.

He found Alfredo disengaged and, after elaborate courtesies, seated himself in the glistening Italian's chair. Dopey delicately rested his head on a cuspidor and endeavoured to forget everything by going to sleep. Tim was very much upset. His conversation with the unknown woman had sadly shattered his morale.

"How are you to-day, Alfredo?" he asked in a weary voice.

Alfredo paused in his occupation and looked slightly perplexed. Then he glanced behind him to discover if another customer had been speaking, a customer with a strangely familiar voice.

"I am well, madam," he replied at length. "You have been here before, madam?"

The twice repeated "madam" served to remind Tim even in his preoccupied frame of mind that he was no longer the customer with whom Alfredo had been wont to deal. He smiled sweetly upon the Italian and spoke in a ladylike voice.

"No, Alfredo," he said, "but my husband, Mr. Willows, comes to you often. He has spoken to me of your family. Says you have a splendid lot of children."

Alfredo's eyes and teeth did some fairly snappy sparkling upon the reception of this compliment.

"Mr. Willows, madam," he said. "He's one fine man. One of my best. I like him very much."

"He advised me to come to you for a nice trim," continued Tim, deciding that Alfredo himself was not such a bad fellow. "About your family now—is your wife well? No ill effects?"

"My wife," replied Alfredo complacently, "she make another baby now."

"How interesting," observed Tim. "Does she find it very difficult?"

Alfredo shrugged his shoulders rather discouragingly.

"You know how it is, madam," he said. "It is never good. Like death itself."

"No, I didn't know that," said Tim faintly, sinking a little in the chair.

"It is always bad, madam," continued Alfredo. "There is nothing good about it. The first time, she nearly died."

"O-o-o-o," came shudderingly from Tim.

"Did I hurt, madam?" asked Alfredo, pausing with poised comb.

"No, Alfredo," answered Tim, rallying in the chair. "Everything's splendid. Go right on. You say she nearly died?"

"Yes, madam," continued the barber reminiscently. "My wife she was at the death. What suffering, madam. What anguish. It is always thus with the first."

"O-o-o-o-o," gasped Tim, slumping miserably still farther down in the chair.

"I'm sure I must be hurting, madam," said Alfredo.

"No, Alfredo," answered Tim. "Not the way you think. You're doing fine."

"It was torture, madam, torture," resumed the begetter of many progeny. "She was on the wreck."

"What!" exclaimed Tim, starting up in the chair. "That's painting the lily. She had this baby in a wreck?"

"No, madam," explained Alfredo. "Not in a wreck. She was on this wreck. How do you say—the torture wreck."

Tim's thoughts dwelt broodingly on this mystifying but nevertheless chilling new item of awfulness.

"Because she wouldn't bear down?" he asked. "Is that why they did it?"

Alfredo shrugged his shoulders uncomprehendingly.

"I don't know, madam," he replied. "She was on it, the wreck."

"But they have no right to put people on wrecks when they're going to have babies," protested Tim.

"I don't know," replied Alfredo rather hopelessly. "There she was. On it."

Suddenly the intention rather than the meaning of the Italian's words dawned upon Tim.

"You mean she was on the rack," he suggested. "Isn't that it, Alfredo?"

Once more Alfredo resorted to one of his expressive shrugs.

"It's all the same," he said. "Wreck or rack, she was on it. Untold suffering and danger. Without cease." He paused for a moment, then added proudly, "Italian women have their babies much easier than American."

Upon the receipt of this information Tim's eyes grew round with horror. The hair that Alfredo was trimming endeavoured to rise up on its ends.

"You mean they have a harder time of it than your wife?" faltered Tim.

"Much," replied Alfredo generously. "Many die. Poof! They are gone. It is sad."

It was altogether too sad for Tim, When he left the barber's shop he was plumbing the depths of spiritual depression. He was going to die, die like a dog on a wreck. There was not the remotest chance of escape. His number was up. Alfredo must know what he was talking about. Certainly he had had enough experience.

He stopped in front of a grocery store to consider a display of nuts. It was an attractive display. Tim was very fond of nuts. He thought of the vanished bar of a vanished Sherry's where in bygone days he had eaten tons of nuts and swallowed gallons of cocktails. Gone, all gone. His past life swam before him. He was beginning to die a little already, he decided. A baby carriage had been parked near him. With morbid curiosity he bent down and regarded the small and disconcertingly complacent face of its occupant. A nice baby with nice little old wise eyes. A potential murderer. The baby looked long at Tim, then showed him how to blow bubbles without the use of either water or soap. The baby was good at it, had mastered the technique. From the number of bubbles it made it was apparent the baby knew it was putting on a pretty good show. "Bubbles," thought Tim moodily. "For all the good we accomplish in this world we might just as well sit in a carriage and blow bubbles. I've even lost that art." Then the baby's mother appeared. Tim smiled timidly at her.

"You've a lovely baby," he said. "I envy you."

The young mother's face flushed with gratification.

"He's not so bad," she smiled, endeavouring to keep a check on her inordinate pride.

"Did—did—did it hurt much?" asked Tim, almost in a whisper.

"My dear, I almost died," said the woman.

With a choking cry Tim turned from her and hurried down the street. The woman looked after him curiously, then shook her head and dismissed the incident from her mind, for the moment. But Tim did not hurry far. Dopey had other plans. If there was anything the dog loved it was to give the appearance of ferocity without incurring the risk of putting it to the test. On such occasions he was an awful sight to behold. He foamed at the mouth and rolled his eyes. His jaws were a nest of teeth lined with hellish red. A very small dog already on the run was the excuse for the demonstration. Dopey's fury was instantaneous. He lunged after the small creature like a maniac on four feet. The pursued uttered a despairing yelp and doubled on his tracks. Dopey followed his example with an unpleasant sound of scraping toenails. Unfortunately Dr. Jordan stepped blithely into the picture at this moment. Dopey rounded the clerical legs at great speed and brought his leash against them with terrific force. The sudden shock pulled Tim to the pavement. Dr. Jordan almost immediately emulated his example. As a matter of fact, for a moment it was a neck-and-neck race to see who would hit the sidewalk first. Tim won by a sufficient margin to permit Dr. Jordan to descend heavily upon him. Dopey, suddenly realising that he was no longer under restraint, sat down abruptly and whimpered. At any moment that small dog might change its mind and return to bite him. In the meantime from beneath the body of the stunned man of God came one of the most convincing and comprehensive expositions of the baser side of the English language that had ever been heard on Springfield Avenue, or on any other avenue, for that matter. All the bitterness and depression pent up in Tim's soul poured out through his throat and crackled venomously in the surrounding air. Even in his dazed condition the Rev. Dr. Jordan was reminded of something. It had to do with the explosion of a gasoline stove. There had been a church supper. The good man shuddered at the memory.

"Well?" came the voice from beneath him, "isn't it about time you were thinking about getting up? Do you like it here? Why not kneel on my body and offer up a prayer?"

The small crowd, that had both seen and heard, stolidly watched Dr. Jordan struggle to his feet and brush himself off diligently.

"That's right, you big stiff," came spitefully from the pavement. "Leave me here crushed and broken."

Dr. Jordan looked down at the small figure and was human enough to long to kick it completely out of his sight and memory. Two women stepped forward and helped Tim to rise. Then the three of them stood looking at Dr. Jordan.

"Such language," said one of the women.

"Never heard anything like it in all my life," observed the other.

"And from a man of the cloth," put in Tim. "It's not the sort of language one would expect Dr. Jordan, I'm shocked and surprised. You have overstepped. You have put your foot in it."

"My dear ladies," rumbled Dr. Jordan, his face not unlike a grinning sunset, "I assure you I did not open my mouth. Not a word of anger or condemnation passed my lips. I heard all the terrible things you heard, the unbelievably vile language, and I was shocked to the core."

"Where is that?" inquired Tim.

"Where's what, the core?" asked Dr. Jordan.

"Yes, the core," replied Tim.

"Madam, it is merely an expression," explained the badgered man.

"Well, I don't think it's a very nice expression, I'm sure," replied Tim.

"I agree," said one of the other women. "It's a terrible thing to speak about."

"Why, my dear madam," pleaded Dr. Jordan. "It's the most harmless thing in the world. Let me———"

"We know how harmless it is," the other woman cut in sarcastically. "You'll be telling us next that babies are found in cabbage heads. What a man."

"If you've finished insulting us, Dr. Jordan," said Tim in his most ladylike voice, "we'll be going. I suggest that the next time you see a woman on the public thoroughfares you'll make some effort to control yourself. In the privacy of one's home I could understand, if not condone, your conduct, but an assault on the main street of the town is short-sighted, to say the least. And do try to elevate your language. It's disgusting."

With this Tim collected Dopey and, with a bright smile at the two ladies, sailed off down the street. Dr. Jordan, standing amid the ruins of a shattered world, looked after him with murder in his heart. As if not knowing what to do with his hands he extended them supplicatingly to the street and turned helplessly from side to side. He seemed to be looking for someone to whom he could explain the whole ghastly affair, some reasonable, fair-minded person. Then, fearing lest he should go mad in public, he hurried home and turned on the radio at full blast. And under the cover of the resulting din the Rev. Dr. Jordan gave vent to his pent-up emotion. He could not remember all of the words Tim had used while lying on the sidewalk, but those that he did recall, Dr. Jordan made do double service. He concocted words of his own. In his desperation he even resorted to those words and expressions that are usually to be found on billboards, subway posters, and lavatories. Then, having cleansed his soul and unburdened his mind, he turned off the radio, sat down at his desk, and set about preparing his Sunday sermon in almost a cheerful mood.

Tim's last experience of the day was one he would have preferred to avoid. He would have preferred to avoid them all, he now decided, and remain in a state of blessed ignorance.

On his way home from the village, and while he was in the act of cursing Dopey bitterly for his hypocritical conduct, he glanced up to find himself looking into the clear, inquiring eyes of Claire Meadows.

"I can tell that you like that dog," Mrs. Meadows remarked unsmilingly, "otherwise, with all you seem to have against the beast, you would not be associating with it."

"This dog is a vice, like drugs," replied Tim. "The animal is so darned useless I actually feel sorry for it."

"Come home and have some tea," said Mrs. Meadows, in a surprisingly comforting voice. "You've a desperate light in your eye. I'm a pretty desperate woman myself"

She took Tim by the arm, and reluctantly he allowed himself to be led to the home of Claire Meadows.

"But I forgot," said the woman suddenly. "You might lose your reputation if you were seen on the streets with me."

"Listen," Tim declared quite earnestly, "I haven't enough reputation left to dust a fiddle with. And I don't give a damn about this town. I'd like to blow it up."

"That would avail you little," said Claire Meadows. "There are oodles of other towns like this filled with almost exactly the same sort of persons. All over the world there are towns like this. You can't escape them."

"Then I will ignore them," replied Tim resolutely.

"If they let you," said Claire cryptically. "But they won't. These towns want to know. They insist on knowing, and they generally find out sooner or later. They look for the worst."

Over a cup of tea in Claire Meadows's pleasant drawing-room Tim broke down. Perhaps it was the dreamlike memory of another and happier occasion that did it. What it was he never quite knew, himself. He just found himself talking, and he didn't trouble to stop.

"I'm going to have a baby," he announced in a deep voice.

"That's nice," said Claire easily. "I wish I had mine."

"Did you ever have a baby?" asked Tim with awakened interest.

Mrs. Meadows nodded slowly and looked at Tim with unseeing eyes.

"I had a baby once," she said in a low voice. "A perfectly good baby. A little girl with sleepy eyes. She used to sigh so fatly."

"Did the little baby die?" asked Tim gently.

"No," she answered, with a hard note in her voice. "He took her with the divorce. She was old enough to go then. They said I was unfit. The law can say a lot of things it really doesn't mean. But they hurt for all that."

"Did you experience much trouble having this baby?" Tim inquired delicately.

Claire Meadows raised her eyes to heaven.

"Don't ask," was all she said.

The calm moderation of the woman chilled Tim's last hope. It lay cold against his heart. It was not so much what she had said as what she had left unsaid, what she had intimated, the awful things implied. In his self-absorption he forgot about Claire Meadows's baby and thought only of his own prospective one.

"But I'm not what I seem," he said haltingly.

"None of us is," replied Claire Meadows.

"I shouldn't be having this baby by rights," he went on. "You see, I'm a man at heart."

At this surprising statement, Claire Meadows sat up and looked penetratingly at Tim.

"You do talk like a man," she said at length.

"And I think like a man," added Tim.

"But seemingly you're not a man," the woman replied.

"It's a sort of yes-and-no proposition," Tim explained. "I don't function like a man, and now I'm in this terrible condition. Everybody says I'm going to die." Tim's voice grew shaky. "I haven't written my damn book yet," he added, "and now I guess I never will."

"Come over here," Claire's voice commanded.

She took Tim in her arms and made him comfortable. After she had heard his strange story she sat back and appeared quite charmed.

"I've always believed in magic," she remarked at last, "but I never knew it actually happened. After what you've told me almost anything is possible. I might get my own baby back. Are you sure you're not dreaming this?"

"I don't know," said Tim. "It seems like a dream."

"And you simply must not pay any attention to what other women say," continued Claire Meadows. "Childbirth is not easy under the most ideal circumstances, but it's not nearly so bad as the majority of women make out. After all, I don't blame them a bit. All men think that women exaggerate, so in order to give them an approximate idea of the truth women really do have to exaggerate. It's a vicious circle."

Presently Tim left. He was feeling greatly comforted. Claire Meadows had done it.

"You know," she said, following him to the door, "I've often longed to establish contact with a man's mind without having his body constantly interrupting the conversation. This is the first time I've had that pleasure."

It was Tim's grin that appeared on Sally's lips.

That night he related to Sally the experiences of the day. She was especially edified by his encounter with the Rev. Dr. Jordan. Later, while Tim was writing the next day's copy assignment, he sent her to the village to search for an avocado. He had yearnings.

"Here's your damned alligator-pear," she said an hour later. "I hope to God it bites you."

"What a way to speak to a person in my condition," replied Tim, delicately elevating his eyebrows.

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