Safe at Last

JESSE HILL FORDis an ATLANTICdiscovery who graduated from Vanderbilt University and studied writing under Andrew Lytle at the University of Florida. Three of his short stories have appeared in our pages, and in 1959 he was awarded an Atlantic Grant to assist him with his novel, which has now been completed. His first play, THE CONVERSION OF BUSTER DRUMWRIGHT,was produced by CBS Television Workshop last winter.


AS PEOELE said, Mr. Clarence Perks looked like a man who would skin a flea for its hide and tallow. It was his nose, too long and too thin and too snoopy; it was his eyes, restless and gleaming hard as flint. Below his eyes two red spots marked his cheekbones, and the rest of his face was pale and tinged yellow, like a toad’s belly. When he spoke, his voice was no better, for it whined like an old hound under the porch on a winter’s night.

As a result, his only way of making friends was to listen to people, and all the winter, after he came to Somerton from East Tennessee, he listened to the West Tennesseans talk. Mostly they told him what a regular ringtail tooter Billy Turnbull had been, how everybody loved Billy, what a fast car Billy had, and what a sweet wife Billy had left without any insurance to support her, so that she had bought a couple of hair dryers on credit and curtained off half the front room at Billy’s house for a beauty parlor business.

And Mr. Clarence listened and said almost nothing because he was at a disadvantage in Somerton, having taken Billy Turnbull’s place as manager of the People’s Dandy Store, a dry-goods establishment on Main Street across from Alf’s Service Station. Alf’s, Mr. Clarence soon learned, sold almost anything liquid you could name except gasoline and oil, and it had been Alf’s where Billy was last seen alive. Although Billy had had on him a sweet face, the truth was that Billy had been a pretty terrible drinker about once a month, and when he drank, Billy’s thoughts always wandered to his car, which was blue and had a souped-up engine, until finally Billy would get in his car and shake the cobs out of it in the general direction of Memphis. The last time Billy had lit a rag for Memphis, he had died trying to cross the Forked Deer River about six feet to the left of the highway bridge, thereby leaving the Somerton People’s Dandy without a living manager. Here was where Mr. Clarence Perks came in, a stranger from East Tennessee, and under a cloud because he was replacing a very popular fellow.

When they asked Mr. Perks why in the world he was sent to Somerton, the old man would turn white around the mouth and try to reel off the explanation as fast as he could, for merely thinking of why gave him a deep sensation of regret. The People’s Dandy was a chain of stores operating in fifty Tennessee counties, and they had bought Mr. Perks out lock, stock, and barrel up in Cherokee Gap, near the state line, where he had owned a small store. Then, like a fool, Mr. Perks had gone to work for the People’s Dandy folks, managing what had once been his own store. The next thing he knew they had transferred him to Somerton. The reason they transferred him, they said, was because he didn’t have any living family. His wife was dead. So one day, sure enough, his orders came, and Mr. Perks got on the bus in the sunset of his life, for he was sixty and hadn’t felt well in years, and he came to live far, far away from everything he loved.

But anyway, he said, he had survived. He had a room two blocks back off Main Street in the Somerton Tourist Home. What he didn’t tell was that every night when he couldn’t sleep for thinking about home, about Cherokee Gap, he would raise his window and put the light out and lie on his bed listening to them break half-pint bottles out behind Alf’s Service Station.

He would listen to the bottles breaking, and finally the sounds of shattering glass would get his mind off all his wrong decisions and he would think how they were over at Alf’s mourning for Billy Turnbull. Half-an-acre-of-broken-glass, Mr. Perks would think, hearing a bottle break. For Mr. Perks himself was not a drinking man. And presently, counting the bottles as they broke, Mr. Perks would be lulled to sleep, if he didn’t think about his wife, Lura. But if he happened to think about his wife, he would lie wide-awake and begin to blame Lura for dying, for Lura’s death was what he figured had caused all his troubles. If Lura had lived, he would not have sold his store in Cherokee Gap. Lura wouldn’t have let him do it. If Lura had lived, Mr. Clarence Perks would never have been transferred into the midst of strangers just at a time in his life when the idea of going beyond the sunset should have been a comfort.

Beyond the Sunset. It had been a favorite song of his, for he had secretly planned for twentyfive years to die before his wife, Lura, did, and thus to have some time to himself in heaven before she got there. Well, that was all ruined. She was there now, waiting for him, and so he didn’t write in to the radio stations on his birthday any more to request them to play Beyond the Sunset for Clarence Perks. No. He had only one remaining pleasure in life, and when he finally got around to thinking about it he could get some little bit of satisfaction. His mind would feed on it, and then, while the sound of bottles breaking behind Alf’s drifted in his window upstairs at the Somerton Tourist Home, Mr. Perks would drop off to sleep. And not infrequently, he would dream about his one remaining pleasure, shooting pool.

SO THE winter passed, and Mr. Perks was still listening, trying hard to make friends with the People’s Dandy customers, and they began to dingdong at him in March, saying everybody in cotton country had to have credit for spring hats and shoes and work clothes, and how in the hell did he expect to stay in business being so tight on credit? And Billy Turnbull, now, he had let everybody have credit because he knew come the fall and cotton season that the accounts would be settled up. And all the while Mr. Perks just stood there with a letter in his hind pants pocket from the People’s Dandy Chain, from the headquarters office in Nashville. And the letter said that, other than certain names on the letter in black, credit would be limited to twenty-five dollars per customer family, and that names on the list in red — the worst of it being that so many of the red names were Billy Turnbull’s own flesh and kin — that the red names were to have no credit at all.

So, whenever he got a chance, Mr. Perks nearly wore the letter out that spring by unfolding it in the stock room at the back of the store, checking to see who could buy what, if anything, and in what amounts.

And when summer, which fell in like the roof was on fire in June, instead of creeping up gradually sweet the way it did up east in Cherokee Gap, when summer came they commenced to complain how the store wasn’t even air conditioned and said they never knew the People’s Dandy to be so hot back whenever Billy was manager, back when it was a real store where somebody could buy something without he had to sign his name six times. For, as they said, it hurt a man or a woman having to go through standing there while some point-nosed hill rabbit like Mr. Clarence Perks called up the bank and shouted so loud in the telephone he could be heard clean across the street and into the dime store if you happened to be over there.

“Well,” Mr. Perks would sometimes say, slyly, “the dime store’s strictly cash, so why would anybody in Sligo County be over there anyhow?” Mr. Perks couldn’t help saying something back now and then, for he was dead tired of trying to sleep under an electric fan, a thing never needed where he had come from, and the hot weather lit a little blaze of anger in him that he could not hide all the time.

And finally, in September, the cotton bolls started turning brown. That was when Mr. Perks discovered they didn’t have enough cotton sacks in stock, long funny things he had never seen, things the cotton pickers were supposed to drag behind them as they went through the fields. So Mr. Perks put through a rush order and ended up with several gross too many in stock, many more than could be sold. For that mistake he got a birthday letter from People’s Dandy, addressed in red ink. All it said was: “Happy birthday with regard to seven gross cotton sacks too many in which People’s Dandy money tied up.”

Of course, his clerks found out about the birthday letter by taking it out of the wastebasket before throwing the trash out back of the store, and they told the birthday story on Mr. Perks all over town. For several days afterward store customers would come in and try to explain to Mr. Perks how to merchandise his store. And he just sat by the hour and listened and never uttered a word, for at noon every day he got some relief.

As long as he could remember, nearly, since he first went to work in a dry-goods store in Cherokee Gap at eleven years of age, Mr. Clarence had played pool on his lunch hour. So now, every day at noon, he took his two boloney and mustard light-bread sandwiches to the Somerton Pool Hall, down a side street and up over the bus station, and there Mr. Perks gobbled his sandwiches down. When his sandwiches were gone he would buy a Powerhouse candy bar and a Pepsi, and finally, swigging on the Pepsi and eating the candy, he would shoot a game or two of pool.

HE HAD always played against himself—all his life. And nobody in Cherokee Gap had cared, for the pool hall was nearly always empty at noon anyway. And probably nobody in Somerton would have ever noticed if the pool hall manager on this particular day had not been fresh out of detective magazines to read. What the Somerton pool hall manager saw over Mr. Perks’s shoulder was that the new manager of the People’s Dandy was a pool-playing shark. He was more than that, he was a maestro. Old Mr. Perks was so good that the sight caught the pool hall manager comletely off guard and he swallowed his spit backwards and nearly strangled before he could quit coughing. As he said later, Mr. Clarence Perks just didn’t look like a pool shooter, he didn’t act like a pool shooter, he didn’t smell like one — but he was. So when Mr. Perks had cleared all the balls off the table and racked himself up a new game, the pool hall manager, who made it quite a practice never to say a word if he could possibly get around saying it, spoke up.

“You shoot pretty fair,” he said.

His coughing and gagging hadn’t startled Mr. Perks a bit, but his speaking voice did. Mr. Perks long since had assumed that the pool hall manager was a deaf-mute, for he had never heard him say a word or seen him even come from behind his counter, not for ten months, six days a week, fifty minutes each day. Not even “Hello.”

So Mr. Perks felt his heart begin to pound and he took a swig of Pepsi to calm himself. Then he said, “Well, many thanks,” and put his drink down and broke the triangle formation of balls and swiftly cleared the table again. Just to be friendly he made some of his hardest shots with the cue stick behind his back. And then he sank a few shooting left-handed, thinking the pool hall manager might say something else, but he didn’t. The manager just stood there. So when the last shot was sunk Mr. Perks ate the last bit of Powerhouse and downed the final swig of Pepsi and went back to the People’s Dandy. Hardly anyone noticed him as he went swiftly up to Main Street, and at one o’clock sharp he was in the back of the store again, checking his black list before phoning the bank. But that was the last day hardly anybody noticed Mr. Perks on his lunch hour.

It was the last day because the next day the pool hall manager went downstairs to the bus station and bought four secondhand mystery magazines from the ticket agent for a dime. The bus drivers saved the magazines for the ticket agent, collecting what passengers left behind when a bus was emptied. So at noon, when the ticket agent saw Mr. Clarence Perks pass, and when he heard footsteps on the stairs leading up to the pool hall, something in his brain connected up the noise going past his ear with what his eyes had just seen. In other words, as he later said, he put two and two together to get four, that the noise on the stairs and the sight of Mr. Clarence Perks going by with his sack of two boloney sandwiches were connected.

The ticket agent put his hand in his pocket then and fingered the dime which the pool hall manager had paid for the four magazines, and fingering the dime he remembered what the pool hall manager had said about Mr. Perks. So in five minutes, when he couldn’t get it off his mind, for not being able to believe it, the ticket agent was upstairs eating a stale pack of Cheez-It snacks and drinking a grape soda which he bought with the dime. He stood beside the pool hall manager and they both watched Mr. Perks.

For his part, Mr. Perks tried to start up a conversation. He tried twice. The first time he said it was a nice day, and the second time he said it was a shame the way candy bars got littler every year. For example, he went on, say the clothing business tried something like that, making all the shirts littler. But neither the pool hall manager nor the ticket agent wanted to talk, so Mr. Perks concentrated on his game and ignored them. And the day following he had ten people watching him. And the next day following that, which was Friday, there were a dozen, including a sort of slick-faced young man in electric-blue peg trousers, who identified himself as a champion pool shooter from Colliertown, over in the next county. He wanted to shoot Mr. Perks a game, he said, for ten dollars. He looked relieved when Mr. Perks said flatly, “No thanks.”Everybody there knew Mr. Perks could have beat the out-oftown man hands down, and by reputation the Colliertown hot shot was the best pool player in West Tennessee, or had been, until Mr. Clarence Perks was transferred to Somerton.

Mr. Perks thought very little more about it. He had always played against himself, not against others. And as far as he was concerned, that was that. Besides, cotton season was going now in dead earnest, and they were really busy at the People’s Dandy.

WHEN he locked up the store that evening to go home, tractor-drawn cotton trailers were piling into Main Street like an endless circus parade, and little rollers of cotton lint about the size of Mr. Perks’s thumbs were blowing along the sidewalk, picking up dust and trash as they went. The little thumbs of cotton tickled Mr. Perks some way, making him almost smile, seeing them. They made him think of a barbershop in Somerton where they were cutting off all the long gray whiskers of all the old men in the whole world. Whiskers, thought Mr. Perks as he walked to the tourist home. Cabbage, he thought, as he went inside the home and climbed the stairs to the hallway bathroom and washed up for supper.

And it was sure enough cabbage he had smelled as he came in the door. At supper Mrs. Dillworth, the landlady, talked her customary steady stream and let the others at her table — the three railroad men, the two salesmen, the tractor mechanic, the new high school agriculture teacher, and Mr. Perks — eat in peace. Mr. Perks was inwardly observing, as was his habit, that the fatfaced salesman ate twice as many biscuits as the others at the table. And then he wondered why the mere fact that the high school ag teacher took cream in his coffee but no sugar set him apart from the rest of them somehow, identified him, in fact, as an educated man. But-it-does, Mr. Perks thought, helping himself to more cabbage as the bowl came by, and as he replaced the serving spoon, the sound of it rapping against the bowl reminded him that the room had gone silent. Looking at Mrs. Dillworth, he realized dimly that she had spoken to him.

“I beg your pardon?” said Mr. Perks to the landlady.

“— that you play pool?” she said. “Do you go to the pool hall after lunch each day, Mr. Perks?”

“Why, yes,” said Mr. Perks, “I do.” He had it in mind to explain that he had been doing just that for years, playing pool against himself on his lunch hour, and to add that it was his one remaining pleasure, but something about the set of Mrs. Dillworth’s mouth drained that notion out of him, and he corrected himself, lamely saying, “Well, I — I don’t often go if it’s raining.”

“They sell beer there,” said Mrs. Dillworth. “It’s a gathering place for drunkards, trash.”

“But I don’t drink,” Mr. Perks said. He looked about him, at the other men.

“Beer and billiards go together like ham and eggs,” Mrs. Dillworth said firmly. “I don’t like the name of the Somerton Tourist Home being mixed up with the pool hall, Mr. Perks.”

“Anybody who goes to a pool hall is asking for trouble,” the tractor mechanic said. He was a very religious man, and his voice quavered as he spoke. Three years before he had tracked down his young wife arid her lover and had killed them both with a ball-peen hammer, in selfdefense. Mr. Perks had always been a little frightened of the mechanic, and sometimes, meeting him coming out of the bathroom in the morning, Mr. Perks had noticed the mechanic’s white muscular arms. The man was a violent enemy of everything sinful and was capable of nearly anything, so they said, when he lost his temper. “Asking for trouble,” the mechanic repeated. “First it’s a sip of beer. Next you start smoking. Then you spit on the floor. One bad habit leads to another one until, until you — you —" The next sin was so terrible that the tractor mechanic did not even talk about it. He turned very pale instead and was silent a moment before he said, “I don’t know if I’d want to live under the same roof with anybody that went in a place like that pool hall.”

“Well, wait a second,” Mr. Perks said. “Now you take this fact, now, I’m sixty-five years old.” He made himself five years older than he really was. But-I-have-to-protect-myself, he thought. Certainly the mechanic wouldn’t try to throttle a weak little old man and send him beyond the sunset. But the mechanic was still glaring at Mr. Perks.

“It’s never too late for sin,” the tractor mechanic said in a threatening tone. “Never too early and never too late, Mr. Clarence. If it happens to be one thing I know out of experience, it’s just that.”

“Aw, I don’t see nothing so wrong in it,” said the fat-faced salesman tolerantly, buttering a biscuit. “If Mr. Perks wants to run upstairs over the bus station on his lunch hour at noon and shoot hisself a little pool. Especially so long as he don’t bother nobody. Maybe has him a candy bar and a Pepsi. Now I wouldn’t know, of course, what Mr. Clarence does, for, as you all know, it is my policy to keep my nose out of other folks’ business and never to listen at no idle gossip.”

“No sugar, thanks,”said the ag teacher automatically as he reached out and got the cream pitcher.

Sizing up things, Mr. Perks saw that, except for Mrs. Dillworth and the tractor mechanic, none of the others cared. And the fat salesman was the star boarder, since he took the three-dollar room which looked out over the parking lot of the Methodist Church. So the matter was more or less settled. But as they left the table, embarrassed and silent for the sake of Mr. Perks, the tractor mechanic growled one last time. “You’ll end up getting in trouble, Mr. Perks. You’ll see,” he said.

MR. PERKS opened the store Saturday morning, not sure whether he would go to the pool hall or not. He thought of his wife, Lura, and he thought of Cherokee Gap. He thought of Beyond the Sunset. No-escape, he thought.

At lunchtime he grabbed his paper sack and walked on down to the pool hall. He finished eating and took down the cue stick he always used, an old model, one end of which appeared a little charred, as though someone years before had poked a fire with it. Turning to the table, he saw the ticket agent coming through the screen door, followed by two farmers in overalls. Mr. Perks chalked his cue stick and had just prepared to break the wedge of balls at the other end of the pool table when a weather-gnarled hand appeared in his line of sight. The hand held a brown bottle of beer, and when it drew back it left the beer bottle directly in front of the cue ball. The entire action reminded Mr. Perks of a television advertisement, so he looked up at the farmer and grinned. But when he saw the farmer’s face he felt the pink dawn of something warn him, deep in his belly. The other man had a sour, milky odor, and his face was curiously reptilian, with a blunt, curved mouth.

“Play you for that there beer,” the farmer said. “And then my brother, he wants to play you.”

He turned and took down a cue stick from the rack and turned back to Mr. Perks, as though the match were arranged.

“I don’t play for beer,” Mr. Perks said.

“Ain’t you the champeen?” the farmer asked.

“I never play —”

“Ain’t you the new People’s Dandy man?”

Mr. Perks nodded. “But I don’t play for beer,” he said. “I just don’t.”

The farmer’s brother stepped in from behind Mr. Perks then. “We come up here to play you,” the brother said. He turned to the ticket agent. “He’s the one they been talking about, ain’t he? Looky there at what a nose.”

“Oh, he’s the one,” said the ticket agent. “He’s the champ.”

“I come on my lunch hour. I don’t drink beer nor gamble,” Mr. Perks said. He spoke calmly, trying not to show his anger.

“That’s right, boys. No call to take offense,” said the ticket agent. “Just because Mr. Perks is particular about who he plays with ain’t no cause tor you to go and bust an old man’s face in with them beer bottles.”

Mr. Perks felt himself go pale.

The farmer turned angrily to the ticket agent. “You mean to say I ain’t got the right to ast anybody I want to about shooting a pool game with me? Is that what you’re a-trying to push off on me?”

“I ain’t in this argument, mister,” the ticket agent said. “It’s between you and him, between Mr. Clarence Perks here and yourself.”

The farmer turned back to him, and Mr. Perks saw again that his mouth was curved upward toward the center, like a snake’s. “You think I ain’t got the money to play you, ain’t that it, Mr. Dandy?”

“Mr. Perks gets awful mad if you don’t call him by his right name,” the ticket agent said.

“Think I ain’t got it,” the farmer went on, moving his right hand slowly up the front of his overalls to a center zipper pocket over his chest. Mr. Perks expected to see a pistol, but instead money came out of the pocket, a great wad of it.

“Boys, he’s going to bet his cotton money against Mr. Perks,” the ticket agent said.

Mr. Perks looked around at the crowd, surprised at how quickly it had gathered. Then he looked at the farmer. “I’ll shoot you for a dollar,” he said briskly. “You want to break them?”

The farmer nodded and the game started. Mr. Perks won the dollar, and then five dollars, and then the bets were doubled each time, because the crowd insisted that it was only fair for Mr. Perks to give the farmer a chance to win his cotton money back. Just when the bet got up over two hundred dollars, Mr. Perks began to warm up. He beat the farmer shooting all his shots with the cue stick behind his back. Then he beat him shooting left-handed. And finally the farmer laid down the entire roll, seven hundred dollars. Mr. Perks shot the last game left-handed with one foot off the floor and his left eye closed, and the farmer got five shots and missed three of those. Then Mr. Perks clasped his hands together and cracked his knuckles. My-dander’s-up, Mr. Perks thought. “Now, where’s your brother?” he asked.

“I done thought this over, and I don’t guess I’ll play,” the brother said. “I never could stand the sight of a cheater, nohow.”

“Are you saying I cheat?” Mr. Perks said sternly. My-dander’s-up, he thought again. Itreally-is-up. He had felt the same way only once that he could remember, once near Cherokee Gap when the car he was riding in with its owner lost its brakes on a mountain road and finally plowed into a hay wagon, killing a mule and the man driving the wagon and breaking Mr. Perks’s collarbone. It was a queer giddy feeling, and for the second time in his life he was feeling it. He noticed his unfinished Powerhouse and calmly took a bite of it. Then he swigged a little Pepsi. Finally he looked at the man he had beaten fairly. Seven-hundred-dollars-and-forty-six-cents, he thought. And then he felt the warning. The farmer’s hand came out of his overalls pocket slowly, this time with a little hook-bill knife, which the farmer opened. Seeing the dark little yellow-tarnished blade gave Mr. Perks a sensation he sometimes had when he went outdoors and saw the sunset after working hard indoors all day. It was exhilarating, like stepping outside into the cool fresh air and looking west, at the last pink glow of the sky, like knowing suddenly how you’ve spent your whole life. Your-wholeform-life, thought Mr. Clarence Perks, looking at the knife blade.

“He’s gonna cut the old man,” said the ticket agent, marveling. “He’s gonna spill Mr. Perks’s guts — he’s going to — looky!”

The farmer came on slowly and Mr. Perks backed away. It was like a dance, but the music was mostly silent except for the scrape of Mr. Perks’s shoes and the sudden scuffle of the farmer’s shoes as he lunged forward. Mr. Perks reversed the old pool cue and brought it down briskly on the farmer’s head. When the cue didn’t break he swung it sideways and caught the man just above the left ear. First the farmer’s knife fell, and then the farmer himself went down. He appeared to sit down at first, but then, with the blood running freely over his ear where the scalp was split, he fell backwards, hard. He lay there very pale and still, the first man Mr. Clarence Perks had ever felled. Oh-Lord-my-dander’s-sureup, thought Mr. Perks. It’s-up-for-a-fact!

While the pool hall manager phoned the police, the ticket agent squatted dowm beside the bleeding man and spoke up. “It was the purest case of selfdefensing I ever seen,” he declared. “I wish you’d looky how this guy’s a-bleeding.”

The cue stick, which Mr. Perks still held, was broken like a corn stalk. And-it-was-my-favoriteone-too, he thought sadly. It’s-ruined.

“Clovis is kilt,” said the bleeding man’s brother. “Clovis? Are you dead, Clovis?”

“Huh?” Clovis replied in a weary voice.

“I ast if you was dead.”

“Naw, but hell, I’m hurt. My head’s done broke.” The wounded farmer sat up then, and with a final effort he stood, leaning against his brother and groggily pressing a faded bandanna handkerchief into the gash on his head. “You’re a mean little bastard, ain’t you?” he said to Mr. Perks.

“Mean?” said Mr. Perks, as though the notion never had occurred to him. He took the wad of bills out of his pocket and laid them primly on the pool table. “I never wanted your money in the first place,” said Mr. Perks. “You keep it.” Then he spun on his heel and went back to the store, late getting back to work from lunch for the first time in his life that he could remember.

BY CLOSING TIME the clerks were giving him queer looks which told him they knew. But he ignored them as best he could, and when he finally locked the People’s Dandy and rattled the door for good measure before starting home for supper, he found he was not feeling bad, not feeling good. Just-feeling-about-the-same-as-always, he thought. He still missed Cherokee Gap, and yet for some reason he did not miss it quite as much, it seemed, not as much as he had missed it before. Gettingused-to-this-place-maybe, he thought, rounding the corner. The cotton gin was going full blast, and Mr. Perks saw the giant tube that sucked the cotton out of the trailers and up into the ginning machines. The tube, called the “suck,”was being guided into a fresh load of cotton by the man whose job it was to handle the unloading. Mr. Perks was still conscious of the gin’s operation while he washed up for dinner in the lukewarm tap water. He thought of the farmer’s head, remembering how the doctor had phoned him just before closing time to say the wound had required eighteen stitches. Drying his face, Mr. Perks went back to his room. He sat down in the wicker rocking chair to think. He began to rock, slowly at first, and then faster, in time with the swelling and subsiding of the sounds from the cotton gin. He felt a curious elation. And when the dinner bell rang, he went downstairs briskly and sat at the dining table. He was followed by the salesmen, the ag teacher, the three railroad men, and finally the tractor mechanic. Mrs. Dillworth came in last, from the kitchen, and sat down. “Hello,” said Mr. Perks. But she answered him very coldly, with a tight-lipped nod. As the biscuits came around, the fat salesman took two.

“I don’t hardly know of a person in Somerton that don’t sorely miss Billy Turnbull,’ the tractor mechanic began pointedly, addressing himself to Mrs. Dillworth with a righteous stare. “Billy managed that store and minded his business. And Billy never thought of hurting nobody. But some in this world are always trying to hurt others. It’s the trouble with some. But now, Billy, he wouldn’t of hurt a fly.” The tractor mechanic turned his gaze on Mr. Perks. Ball-peen-hammer, thought Mr. Perks.

“He was a sweet, sweet boy,” Mrs. Dillworth mourned. “Such a way to die, and such a sweet little wife to leave behind.”

The star salesman, who sold hardware, cleared his throat. “And she’s already took up with another man, so they say,” he said. “Not that I’m the one to spread a mean story. I wouldn’t know whether it’s true or not that this guy is seen very regular, while in the act of crawling out of her bedroom window late at night, at, say, two A.M. in the morning. I don’t spread mean stories. Some say he’s on the police force.”

The tractor mechanic gave a crestfallen grunt and began to eat wolfishiy. Mr. Perks helped himself to the fried chicken as it came by and took two spoons of gravy for his mashed potatoes, feeling an uneasy satisfaction at seeing the tractor mechanic crestfallen at last. The man appeared to have lost all interest in life now, outside of eating.

“Naw,” one of the railroad men put in. He was the tallest and leanest of the three, and he smoked a pipe. “It ain’t anybody on the police force. You got it wrong, for it’s this new guy, some drifter from Arkansas working down at the fire hall. I forget the peckerwood’s name.”

“That’s the one,” said Mrs. Dillworth. “They say he’s got this tattoo over his right elbow and he drinks paregoric. He used to be a sailor and once married this German woman, but later got him a divorce.” She shook her head disapprovingly. “And he’s not the only one, I hear.”

“No sugar,” said the ag teacher, taking advantage of the pause during which Mrs. Dillworth drew her breath. Mr. Perks stole another glance at the tractor mechanic. To his surprise, the other man was no longer pouting. He sat looking raptly at Mrs. Dillworth instead, his mouth half open, as though drinking in, in advance, the horror of what the landlady would say next. Safe, thought Mr. Perks. I’m-safe-at-last.