ALL his life Albert had wanted to do something brave and wonderful. What it would be he didn’t know, but he was sure that some day he would do a great, deed. In school when Miss Thomas, the history teacher, had a little time left over near the end of the period, she would read the children a story from a book called Hero Tales from History. Albert would sit there listening both eagerly and painfully. He felt sad and thwarted when he realized how time was going by, and still he hadn’t had a chance to be a hero.
Every once in a while when he was turning through the paper, he would see where a child had saved someone’s life. Once a twelve-year-old boy had foiled an attempted bank holdup and captured three desperadoes single-handed. Once a girl had saved her sister from a falling tree. But the last straw was when he read that a dog had got a medal for rescuing a man from drowning. That made Albert feel very disgusted. If a dog could do a thing like that, he knew he could.
One summer just before his twelfth birthday he went over to Harrison City to spend a few weeks with his mother’s aunt and uncle. He hadn’t seen them since he was very small because up until the year before they had lived in Lakeville, Mississippi. Albert didn’t want to go very much, but his aunt kept writing to his mother about how anxious she was to see Albert, so his parents said he had to go whether he wanted to or not.
His Aunt Minnie turned out to be a nervous skinny little woman with a knob of hair on top of her head, and his Uncle Clem was a little man with glasses sliding down his nose, and false teeth. He ran a shoe-repair shop. Harrison City was not a city at all; it was just a few houses and stores. There wasn’t much to do. Every morning after breakfast his Aunt Minnie would say, ‘Now, Albert, you run on out and play with the boys.’ Albert would go out and look for some boys in a half-hearted way, but he didn’t see any, so he sat down on the steps.
After a long time he would get up and go down to his Uncle Clem’s shoeshop, and his Uncle Clem would look up at him over the rim of his glasses and say, with his mouth full of tacks, ‘How you doing, boy?’
‘Fine,’ Albert would reply, and after this conversation he would stand there a few minutes; then he would go back to the house.
At night after supper his Uncle Clem would take off his shoes, and with his feet propped up he would get ready to read the paper he had brought up from the post office.
‘You all right, boy?’ he would ask before he began.
Albert’s Aunt Minnie would start clearing up the dishes, and she would say, ‘Now, Albert, you run out and have a good time with the young folks.’
Then Albert would go out and sit on the steps, and sometimes he would take a long walk in the dark. He felt rather lonely in Harrison City, and as if he had no business being there. He would look in the windows of the houses that he passed and see people sitting in their living rooms, listening to the radio or talking, and he would think that he was the only person in the whole town who didn’t seem to know what to do with himself. Sometimes he would stop at a drugstore and get a soda with a dime of the money that his father had given him to have a good time with in Harrison City, and the drugstore clerk would remark, ‘Hot tonight, ain’t it?’
‘Yeah,’ Albert would say. As he drank his soda he would look around the place and plan what he would do if a holdup man came in while he was there.
‘Hurry back,’ the clerk would tell Albert when he had finished the soda and paid the check. Then Albert would go out and walk a few more blocks before he turned around and went back to his uncle’s house.
His Aunt Minnie would be knitting on something, and his Uncle Clem would be asleep with his mouth open and his teeth nearly dropping out.
‘Well, you got back, didn’t you?’ his Aunt Minnie would remark. His Uncle Clem would open one eye and mutter sleepily, ‘How you coming, boy?’
Albert would smile at them both with nervous politeness and sit on the edge of a chair for a minute. Then he would go up to bed.
‘Albert don’t have much to say, does he?’ he heard his Aunt Minnie remark several nights as he went up the stairs. ‘He ain’t got much life to him.’
From halfway up the steps Albert glared through the transom at her, but she went on knitting, calmly unaware of his gaze. As he pulled off his clothes he muttered to himself that he would show everybody, including his Aunt Minnie, when the right time came.
One night near the end of his visit he had walked a great deal farther then he had ever gone before. The weather had turned chilly and the wind was blowing so strongly that the trees bent almost to the ground. There wasn’t a star in the sky. It looked as if a storm were coming. Most of the people were inside their houses with the doors closed, and Albert kept thinking, ‘I ought to go back before it starts raining.’ But it seemed as if something made him go on.
Suddenly, as he was passing a large two-story house, he happened to look up, and what he saw sent chills of horror down his back. Red flames were licking through the shingles of the roof, right by the chimney of the house. For a moment he stood there and stared in unbelief. Then he knew that at last this was the chance to show the stuff that he was made of. He must notify the people that their house was on fire.
He must do it in a hurry, too, because soon the wind would spread the flames, and the house would be a raging inferno. He could look through the windows and see the people inside moving around, unaware of their danger. A man was turning the dial of the radio, and Albert could see through an open doorway into the dining room, where a large woman was setting the table and some children were running around playing. The sight made him feel cold all over.
And yet, on second thought, he wondered if he would be meddling in something that didn’t concern him if he reported the fire. He had heard about people setting their houses on fire on purpose, to collect the insurance. Maybe they had done that, and if they had, they wouldn’t like it if the fire was put out before it had time to do any damage.
He decided to walk around the block once, and then if the roof was still burning when he got back he would knock on their door and tell them about it. He walked as slowly as he could, but even that was too fast; it seemed scarcely a minute until he found himself back again before the house. The flames had spread, and he stood there watching them, thinking to himself that the house was doomed unless he did something right away.
This time through the window he could see the family sitting down at the table, and the mother putting dishes of food on it. She had a kind expression; she reminded him a little of his own mother, and it made him feel awful to think that he had to break up their meal with such news. He thought it would be better to wait till they had finished eating, and he told himself that he would walk around the block just one more time, and then he must really tell them.
‘I must keep cool,’ he thought in excitement.
This time he walked a little faster, realizing that there was no time to waste, and when he got back from around the block the whole side roof was ablaze. He couldn’t put it off any longer.
On trembling legs he went up the steps and on to the front porch. He knocked at the front door. The first knock was so weak that they didn’t hear it. The second time he could hear footsteps coming, and he braced himself to tell the bad news.
‘I mustn’t scare them too much,’ he thought, and just then the door opened and it was the fat woman.
‘What is it?’ she asked, peering into the dark of the porch.
Albert took a long trembling breath. ‘Excuse me for bothering you, lady,’ he said, ‘but I thought I ought to tell you that your house is on fire.’ As soon as the words were out he felt a great relief, because he had done his duty.
‘What?’ the woman screamed in an excited voice. Then she began to yell to her husband, ‘Henry, call the fire department quick! The house is on fire!’ The children began to scream and cry, and everything was very confused, with people rushing in different directions, dragging furniture and things toward the door. Albert began to get into the spirit of the thing, and he forgot to feel self-conscious.
’Keep calm,’ he kept telling everybody, but nobody paid much attention to him. He was trying to get the piano bench out when one of the children began to scream,‘Mamma! Mamma! Where’s Grandpa?’
‘Oh lordy, I forgot all about him,’ their mother said. ‘He’s upstairs taking a bath. One of you children run up and tell him to come down here quick!’
Albert dropped the piano bench. ‘I’ll go,’ he cried quickly. ‘I’ll tell him.’ And he ran up the steps and knocked on the first closed door that he saw. He could hear water splashing inside, so he knew that it was the right one.
‘They want you to come downstairs,’ he said through the crack.
‘Who does?’ a hoarse voice bellowed.
Albert jumped slightly at the unexpected volume of Grandpa’s voice.
‘That fat woman,’ he started to say; but that wouldn’t be polite, and he didn’t know what her name was. ‘Your daughter, I guess,’ he said rather lamely.
‘I ain’t coming,’ the voice stated with great finality.
Albert didn’t know what to do. He didn’t want to frighten the old man, who might be weak and delicate, but he had to let him know the danger of the situation. ‘The house is on fire,’ he explained as quietly as possible through the keyhole.
‘I ain’t coming!’ The voice grew louder and more irritated. ‘Get away from that door and leave me alone!’
Outside Albert could hear the fire truck arriving, and the sound made him very anxious. If he was going to save the old man he would have to do it quickly before the firemen found out about him and got him first.
It made Albert mad that Grandpa wouldn’t act as he was supposed to and let himself be rescued. He forgot to be calm and tactful, and he pounded on the door with both fists and shouted, ‘Open the door! Do you want to get burned alive?’
There was a moment’s silence, and Albert was opening his mouth to say, ‘Come out, or I’ll break the door in!’when suddenly it opened before him, and there stood an old man in a bathrobe with his white hair sticking up all over his head and an outraged expression on his face.
He grabbed Albert by the arm and began to shake him. ‘What do you mean, boy?’ he shouted. ‘Ain’t you got no manners at all? Don’t you know better than to break into a private house like this and disturb people? Ain’t you got ary bit of bringing up? Now you get out of here quick, before I call the law!’
‘But mister, you’ll . . .’ Albert tried to explain, but the old man gave him a hard shove that would have sent him downstairs headfirst if he hadn’t caught hold of the banisters. Then the old man went back in the bathroom, slammed the door, and locked it.
Albert stood looking at the closed door for a moment, then went slowly down the steps. He felt thwarted.
Outside in the front yard the family and a lot of the neighbors stood, watching the firemen training the hose on what was left of the fire. The fat woman’s husband was telling everybody that fifty dollars would cover the damage, and the fat woman was describing her feelings to all who would listen. The children had calmed down and were standing as close to the hose as they could get, and seemed to be enjoying the scene very much. They all seemed to have quite forgotten about Grandpa.
Albert stayed in the background, thinking he had better go pretty soon, because a few drops of rain were falling, and anyway, he wasn’t needed there any longer. As he started to slip off into the shadows the woman saw him and called out, ‘Wait a minute, son.’
‘This is the boy that told us about the fire,’ she told the people around her. ‘You sure have been a friend to us,’ she said to Albert. ‘I want to thank you.’
‘Oh, that’s all right,’ Albert muttered. He was aware of the people’s eyes on him in approval, but he didn’t feel important and elated as he had always thought a hero would feel. ‘I’ve got to go now — it’s going to rain,’ he said faintly.
He went down the walk, and then, almost running, he hurried along under the windy trees. Before he got halfway to his uncle’s house the rain came pouring down in sheets. As he jogged along he thought that if it hadn’t been for him that whole family would be out in this storm without a roof over their heads, but the thought did not make him happy. He kept thinking of what he should have done when the old man pushed him downstairs. A real hero would have cracked him over the head with something and carried him down whether he wanted to go or not.
He felt very disgusted. He had never thought of the possibility that when his chance to be a hero came it would be ruined by an unreasonable old man who didn’t want to be rescued.
Through the window he could see his aunt and uncle in the front room, as they always were, and when he went in the door his Aunt Minnie looked up and said, ‘Well, you got back, didn’t you?’
‘How you coming, boy?’ his Uncle Clem asked.
‘ Mercy, he’s all wet. Don’t sit down,’his Aunt Minnie said, seeing his soggy clothes. ‘Go upstairs and get dried out!’
‘You know, Clem, Albert don’t act quite bright to me,’ he heard his aunt say in a lowered voice as he dripped up the steps. ‘It runs in his father’s side of the family. There was his father’s cousin Jane Porterwood. She never was right. I just wonder . . .’
Albert felt somewhat resentful at her words, but he was too wet and discouraged to be really angry. He contented himself with giving her a halfhearted glare.
‘A lot of people are crazy, as far as that goes,’ his Uncle Clem remarked unexpectedly; and this observation, the longest he had ever heard his uncle make, so surprised Albert that he stood still and stared in astonishment through the transom at Uncle Clem, and for a moment he even forgot his own dejection.