Sob Sister, by Fannie Hurst
Every Soul Hath Its
Physics can answer whence goes the candle-flame when it vanishes into
blackness and what becomes of sound when the great maw of silence
digests it. But what science can know the destiny of the pins and pins
and pins, and what is the oblivion which swallows that great army of
street-walking women whose cheeks are too pink and who dwell outside the
barbed-wire fence of respectability?
Let the pins go, unless one lies on the sidewalk point toward you, and
let this be the story of Mae Munroe, herself one of the pink-cheeked
grenadiers of that great army whose destiny is as vague as the destiny
of pins, and who in more than one vain attempt to climb had snagged
her imitation French embroidery petticoats on the outward side of that
Then, too, in the years that lead up to this moment Mae Munroe had taken
on weight—the fair, flabby flesh of lack of exercise and no lack of
chocolate bonbons. And a miss is as good as a mile, or a barbed-wire
fence, only so long as she keeps her figure down and her diet up. When
Mae Munroe ran for a street-car she breathed through her mouth for the
first six blocks after she caught it. The top button of her shoe was no
longer equal to the span. But her eyes were still blue, rather like sky
when you look straight up; her hair yellow to the roots; and who can
gainsay that a dimple in the chin is not worth two in the cheeks?
In the florid disorder of a red velvet sitting-room cluttered with
morning sunshine and unframed, unsigned photographs of stage favorites,
empty bottles and dented-in cushions, Mae Munroe stirred on her high
mound of red sateen sofa-pillows; placed her paper-bound book face down
on the tabouret beside her; yawned; made a foray into an uncovered box
of chocolate bonbons; sank her small teeth into a creamy oozing heart
and dropped a particle of the sweet into the sniffling, upturned snout
of a white wool dog cuddled in the curve of her arm; yawned again.
"No more tandy! Make ittsie Snookie Ookie sick! Make muvver's ittsie
bittsie bow-wow sick! No! No!"
Each admonition she accompanied with a slight pat designed to intimidate
further display of appetite. The small bunch in her arms raised his head
and regarded her with pink, sick little eyes, his tongue darting this
way and that in an aftermath of relish; then fell to licking her bare
forearm with swift, dry strokes.
"Muvver's ittsie bittsie Snookie! Him love him poor muvver! Him poor,
A cold tear oozed through one of Miss Munroe's closed eyes, zigzagged
down her face, and she laid her cheek pat against the white wool.
"Muvver just wishes she was dead, Snookie. God! don't she just!"
An hour she lay so. The morning sunshine receded, leaving a certain
grayness in the cluttered room. From the rear of the flat came the
clatter of dishes and the harsh sing of water plunging from a faucet.
The book slid from its incline on the pillow to the floor and lay with
its leaves crumpled under. The dog fell to snoring. Another while ticked
past—loudly. And as if the ticking were against her brain like drops of
water, she rose to a half-sitting posture, reached for the small onyx
clock on the mantelpiece and smothered it beneath one of the red sateen
sofa-pillows. When she relaxed again two fresh tears waggled heavily
down her cream-colored cheeks. Then for a while she slept, with her
mouth ever so slightly open and revealing the white line of her teeth.
The tears slid off her cheeks to the mussed frills of her negligée and
The little dog emerged from his sleep gaping and stretching backward his
hind legs. Mae Munroe yawned, extending her arms at full length before
her; regarded her fair ringed fingers and the four dimples across the
back of each hand; reached for a cigarette and with the wry face of
nausea tossed it back into its box; swung to a sitting posture on the
side of the sofa, the dog springing from the curve of her arm to the
floor, shaking himself.
Her blowsy hair, burned at the ends but the color of corn-silk, came
unloosed of its morning plait and she braided it over one shoulder, her
blue eyes fixed on space. Tears would come.
Then she rose and crossed to the golden-oak piano between the windows,
her negligee open its full length and revealing her nightdress; crossed
with a slight limp and the dog yapping at the soiled and lacy train;
fell to manipulating the self-playing attachment, peddling out a
metallic avalanche of popular music.
At its conclusion she swung around on the bench, her back drooping as if
under pressure of indolence; yawned; crossed to the window and between
the parted lace curtains stood regarding the street two stories beneath,
and, beyond the patches of intervening roofs, a limited view of the
Hudson River, a barge of coal passing leisurely up center stream, a tug
suckling at its side.
From the hallway and in the act of mopping a margin of floor, a
maid-of-all-work swung back from all-fours and sat upright on her heels,
inserting a head of curl-papers through the open doorway.
"Play that over again, Miss Mae. That Mustard Glide' sure does tickle my
Miss Munroe turned to the room with the palm of her hand placed pat
against her brow. "God!" said she, "my head!"
"Aw, Miss Mae, can't you get yourself in a humor? What's the matter with
you and me going to a movie this afternoon, eh?"
"Movie! The way every damn thing gets on my nerves, I'd be a hit at a
movie, wouldn't I? I'd be a hit anywheres!"
"I tell you, Miss Mae, all this worry ain't going to get you nowheres.
He'll come around again all right if you only give him time. And if he
don't, you should worry! I tell you there ain't one of 'em breathes is
worth more than his bank-book."
"God! my head!"
The figure on all-fours rose to full height, drying each forearm on her
"Lay down, dearie, and just don't you worry. I've seen 'em get spells or
get holy and stay away for two months on a stretch, and the checks not
coming in regular as clockwork like yours, neither. Two months at a time
I've seen 'em stick away. Why, when I worked on the lower West Side they
used to stick away two and three months like that and then come loafing
in one night just like nothing hadn't happened. You ain't got no kick
coming, Miss Mae."
A layer of tears rose immediately to Miss Munroe's eyes, dimming them.
She wiped them away with one of her sleeve frills.
"Max ain't like that and you know it. You've seen for yourself how
he 'ain't missed his every other night in three years. You seen for
"They're all alike, I tell you, Miss Mae. The best way to handle 'em is
to leave 'em alone."
"How he's been falling off. Loo, all—"
"'Sh-h-h, now, Miss Mae, don't begin getting excited—all last night
while I was rubbing your head that's what you kept mumbling and mumbling
even after you fell asleep. That—don't help none."
"All last month so irregular and now only once last week, and—and not
at all this week. Good heavens! I just wonder, I—just wonder."
"Now, just whatta you bet he'll be up to supper to-night, Miss Mae? If
I was you, dearie, I wouldn't be scared, I'd just go right to the
"He gets so sore, Loo. You remember that time I telephoned him about
that case of wine he sent up and it came busted, and his mother—his old
woman was in the office. He raises hell if I try to telephone him during
"Just the same, I got a hunch he'll be up to supper to-night, and when I
get a hunch things happen."
"It's his old woman, I tell you. It's his old woman is sniffing things
again. Say, if he'd ever let me clap eyes on that old hag, wouldn't I
learn her how to keep her nose out of his business alrighty. Wouldn't I
just learn her! God! my head!"
"Lay down on the sofa, dearie, and rest up your red eyes. Take my tip
he'll be up to supper to-night. I'm going to order him a double sirloin
and a can of them imported—"
"Ugh! For Pete's sake cut it, Loo! If anybody mentions bill of fare to
me I'll yell. Take them empty bottles out of here, Loo, and choke that
damn clock with another pillow. My head'll just bust if I don't get some
"There, there, dearie! Here, lemme pull down the shades. Just try to
remember there ain't one of them is worth more than his bank-book. I
ain't going down to the dance with Sharkey to-night; I'm going to stay
right here and—"
"No, no, Loo. You go. You can have that blue silk waist I promised you
and wear them red satin roses he—he brought me that time from Hot
Springs. Wear 'em, but be careful of 'em."
"Aw, Miss Mae, with you here like a wet rag, and if he comes who'll
"He—he ain't coming, Loo, and if he does I'm the one he likes to fix
his things, anyway. I wanna be alone, Loo. I—I just wanna be alone."
"That's just it, Miss Mae, you're too much alone; you—"
"For Pete's sake, Loo, cut it or I'll holler. Cut the conversation,
"I'll fix the candied sweet-potatoes this morning, anyway, Miss Mae, so
if he does come—"
"I tell you I'm going to yell, Loo, if you mention bill of fare to me.
Cover up my feet, like a good girl, and take them bottles out and lemme
sleep. My head'll bust if I don't get some sleep."
"I tell you, Miss Mae, there ain't one of 'em is worth more than his
bank-book. You're always giving away everything you got, Miss Mae.
Honest, you'd give your best blue silk coat off your back if—"
"If that's what you're hinting for, Loo, for pity's sake take it! I
don't want it. It's too tight for me in the arms. Take it, Loo. I don't
want it. I don't want anything but to be let alone."
"Aw, now, Miss Mae, I didn't mean—"
"Get out, I tell you! Get out!"
"Yes, Miss Mae." With a final pat to the rug across Mae Munroe's feet
she scooped the litter of empty bottles under one arm and hurried out
smiling and closing the door softly behind her and tiptoeing down the
hallway to the kitchen.
On the couch Mae Munroe lay huddled with her face to the wall, her
cheeks crumpled against the white wool of the dog in her arms, her lips
dry, each breath puffing them outward. Easy tears would flow, enhancing
her lacy disorder. Noon slipped into afternoon.
The dusk of the city which is so immediately peppered with lights came
gradually to press against the drawn blinds. On the very crest of her
unrest, as if her mental travail had stimulated a cocaine courage, Mae
Munroe kicked aside the rug from her feet; rose and advanced to the wall
telephone; unhooked the receiver; hooked it up again; unhooked it this
time with a resolution that tightened and whitened her lips and sent the
color high into her face; placed her mouth close to the transmitter.
"Broad three-six." And tapped with one foot as she stood.
"Zincas Importing Company? I want to speak to Mr. Max Zincas."
Wrinkles crawled about her uncertain lips.
"This is his—his mother. Yes, Mrs. Zincas."
She closed her eyes as she waited.
"Hello, Max? That you, Max?"
She grasped at the snout of the instrument, tiptoeing up to it.
"It's me, dear. But—I had to get you to the 'phone somehow. I—I—No,
no, don't hang up, Max! Don't hang up, dear, I—I got to tell you
something; I got to, dear."
She raised herself closer to the mouthpiece for a tighter clutch of it.
"I'm sick, dearie. I—I'm dog sick, dearie. 'Ain't been about in a week.
The limp is bad and I'm sick all over. I am, dear. Come up to supper
to-night, dearie. You 'ain't been near for—for a week. I got to see you
about something. Just a quiet talk, dearie. I—I just got to see you,
Max. I—I'm sick, dog sick."
Her voice slipped up and away for the moment, and she crammed her lacy
fribble of a handkerchief tight against her lips, tiptoeing closer to
"No, no, Max, I swear to God I won't! Just quiet and no rough stuff. For
my sake come home to supper to-night, dearie! I swear. It's my thigh,
and I got a fever, dearie, that's eating me. What? Eight! No, that
ain't too late. Any time you can come ain't too late. I'll wait. Sure?
Good-by, dearie. At eight sharp. Good-by, dearie."
When she replaced the receiver on its hook, points of light had come
out in her eyes like water-lilies opening on a lake. The ashen sheaf of
anxiety folded back from her, color ran up into her face, and she flung
open the door, calling down the length of hallway.
"Loo! Oh, Loo!"
"Put a couple of bottles of everything on ice before you go, dearie;
order a double porterhouse; open a can of them imported sausages he sent
up last month, and peel some sweet-potatoes. Hurry, Loo, I wanna candy
'em myself. Hurry, dearie!"
She snatched up her furry trifle of a dog, burying her warming face in
"M-m-muvver loves her bow-bow. Muvver loves whole world. Muvver just
loves whole world. M-m-m-m, chocolate? Just one ittsie bittsie piece and
muvver eat half—m-m-m! La-la! Bow-wow! La! La!"
Along that end of Riverside Drive which is so far up that rents begin to
come down, night takes on the aspect of an American Venetian carnival.
Steamboats outlined in electric lights pass like phosphorescent phantoms
up and down the Hudson River, which reflects with the blurry infidelity
of moving waters light for light, deck for deck. Running strings of
incandescent bulbs draped up into festoons every so often by equidistant
arc-lights follow the course of the well-oiled driveway, which in turn
follows the course of the river as truly as a path made by a canal
horse. A ledge of park, narrow as a terrace, slants to the water's edge,
and of summer nights lovers drag their benches into the shadow of trees
and turn their backs to the lampposts and to the world.
From the far side of the river, against the night sky and like an
ablutionary message let slip from heaven, a soap-factory spells out
its product in terms of electric bulbs, and atop that same industrial
palisade rises the dim outline of stack and kiln. Street-cars, reduced
by distance to miniature, bob through the blackness. At nine o'clock of
October evenings the Knickerbocker River Queen, spangled with light and
full of pride, moves up-stream with her bow toward Albany. And from her
window and over the waves of intervening roofs Mae Munroe cupped her
hands blinker fashion about her eyes and followed its gay excursional
passage, even caught a drift of music from its decks.
Motionless she stood there, bare-necked and bare-armed, against the cold
window-pane, inclosed from behind with lace curtains and watching
with large-pupiled eyes the steamer slip along into the night; the
black-topped trees swaying in the ledge of park which slanted to the
water's edge; the well-oiled driveway and its darting traffic of two
low-sliding lines of motor-cars with acetylene eyes.
At five minutes past eight Max Zincas fitted his key into the door and
entered immediately into the front room. On that first click of the
lock Mae Munroe stepped out from between the lace curtains, her face
carefully powdered and bleached of all its morning inaccuracies, her
lips thrust upward and forward.
He tossed his black derby hat to the red velvet couch and dropped down
beside it, his knees far apart and straining his well-pressed trousers
to capacity; placed a hand on each well-spread knee, then ran five
fingers through his thinning hair; thrust his head well forward,
foreshortening his face, and regarded her.
"Well, girl," he said, "here I am."
"Lied to me, eh? Pretty spry for a sick one, eh? Pretty slick! I knew
you was lying, girl."
"I been sick as a dog, Max. Loo can tell you."
"What's got you? Thigh?"
"God! I dun'no'! I dun'no'!"
She paused in the center of the room, her lips trembling and the light
from the chandelier raining full upon her. High-hipped and full-busted
as Titian loved to paint them, she stood there in a black lace gown
draped loosely over a tight foundation of white silk, and trying to
compose her lips and her throat, which arched and flexed, revealing the
heart-beats of her and the shortness of her breath.
"Is this the way to say hello to—to your Maizie, Max? Is—is this the
way?" Then she crossed and leaned to him, printing a kiss on his brow
between the eyes. "I been sick as a dog, Max. Ain't you going to—to
"Come, come, now, just cut that, Mae. Let's have supper and get down to
brass tacks. What's eating you?"
"Come, come, now, I'm tired, girl, and got to stop off at Lenox Avenue
to-night after I leave here. Where's your clock around here, anyways, so
a fellow knows where he's at?"
"There it is under the pillow next to you, Max. I smothered it because
it gets on my nerves all day. Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock, right
into my head like it was saying all the time: 'Oh-Mae! Oh-Mae! Oh-Mae!'
till I nearly go crazy, Max. Tick-tock—God! it—it just gets me!"
He reached for the small onyx clock, placing it upright on the mantel,
and shrugged his shoulders loosely.
"Gad!" he said, "you wimmin! Crazy as loons, all of you and your kind.
Come, come, get down to brass tacks, girl. I'm tired and gotta get
"Max, ain't—ain't this home no more, ain't it?"
He leaned forward, an elbow on each knee and striking his left hand
solidly into his right palm. "Now if that's the line of talk you got me
up here for, girl, you can cut it and cut it quick!"
"No, no, Max, it ain't my line of talk. Here, sit down, dearie, in your
own chair and I'll go and dish up."
"Her night off, poor girl. Four nights straight she's rubbed my head
"Right here, dearie, is your box of pills, underneath your napkin.
There, dearie! See? Just like always."
She was full of small movements that were quick as grace notes: pinning
the black lace train up and about her hips; drawing out his chair;
darting with the scarcely perceptible limp down the narrow hall, back
with dishes that exuded aromatic steam; placing them with deft, sure
fingers. Once she paused in her haste, edged up to where he stood
with one arm resting on the mantelpiece, placed an arm on each of his
shoulders and let her hands dangle loose-wristed down his back.
"Tired boy, to-night! Huh? Maizie's poor tired boy!"
He removed her hands, but gently, and strolled over to where the table
lay spread beside the cold, gilded radiator, a potted geranium in its
center, a liberal display of showy imitation pearl-handled cutlery
carefully laid out, and at each place a long-stemmed wineglass,
gold-edged and the color of amber.
"Come," he said, "let's eat and get it over."
She made no sign, but with the corners of her lips propped bravely
upward in her too red smile made a last hurried foray into the kitchen,
returning with a covered vegetable-dish held outright from her.
"Guess!" she cried.
"Can't," he said, and seated himself.
"Gowan, guess like you used to, dearie."
He fell immediately to sampling with short, quick stabs of his fork the
dish of carmine-red pickled beets beside his plate.
"Aw, gowan, Max, give a guess. What did you used to pay for with six big
kisses every time I candied them for you? Guess, Max."
"Sit down," he said, and with his foot shoved a small stool before her
"Lordy!" she said, drawing up en tête-à-tête, unpinning and spreading
her lacy train in glory about her, "but you're some little sunbeam to
have around the house."
"What these beets need is a little sugar."
She passed him the bowl; elevated her left foot in its slightly soiled
white slipper to the footstool; fastened her napkin to her florid bosom
with one of her numerous display of breastpins; poured some opaque wine
into his glass, coming back to flood her own to the brim; smiled at him
across the red head of the potted geranium, as if when the heart bleeds
the heart grows light.
"Here's to you, Max!"
He raised his glass and drank in through his rather heavy mustache, then
flecked it this way and that with his napkin "Ahh-h-h-h, that's the
"Such a cotton mouth my bad boy brought home."
"Aha! Fee, fie, fum! Aha!"
"I broiled it under the single burner, Max, slow like you like. Here,
you carve it, dearie. Just like always, eh?"
His fleshy, blue-shaved face took on the tenseness of concentrated
effort, and he cut deep into the oozing beef, the red juice running out
in quick streams.
"No, no, you keep that, Max; it's your rare piece."
The small dog shook himself and rose from sleep and the depths of a
pillow, nosing at her bare elbow.
"Was muvver's ittsie Snookie Ookie such a hungry bow-wow?"
He yapped shortly, pawing her.
"Ask big bossie sitting over there carving his din-din if him got
chocolate tandy in him pocket like always for Snookie Ookie. No, no, bad
red meat no good for ittsie bittsie bow-wow. Go ask big bossie what
him got this time in him pocket for Snookie. Aw, look at him, Max; he
remembers how you used to bring him—"
"Get down! Get down, I said! For God's sake get that little red-eyed,
mangy cur out of here while we're eating, can't you? Good gad! can't
a man eat a meal in this joint without having that dirty cur whining
around? Get him down off your dress there, Mae. Get out, you little cur!
"Chocolate candy in my pocket. Chocolate arsenic, you mean! My damn-fool
days are over."
"What's got you, Max? Didn't you buy him for me yourself that day at the
races five whole years ago? Wasn't the first things you asked for, when
you woke in the hospital with your burns, me and—and Snookie? What's
soured you, Max? What? What?"
"I'm soured on seeing a strapping, healthy woman sniveling over a little
sick-eyed cur. Ain't that enough to sour any man? Why don't you get up
and out and exercise yourself like the right kind of wimmin do? Play
tennis or get something in you besides the rotten air of this flat, and
mewling over that sick-eyed cur. Get out! Scc-c-c-c-c!"
The animal bellied to the door, tail down, and into the rear darkness of
"Max, what's got you? What do I know about tennis or—things like that?
You—you never used to want—things like that."
"Aw, what's the use of wasting breath?"
He flecked at his mustache, inserting the napkin between the two top
buttons of his slight bay of waistcoat; carved a second helping of meat,
masticating with care and strength so that his temples, where the hair
thinned and grayed, contracted and expanded with the movements of his
"What's the use?"
"Thigh bother you?"
"Didn't I tell you not to spare expense on trying new doctors if—"
"That ain't my real trouble, Max; it—"
"Been out to-day?"
"No, Max, I been sick as a dog, I tell you."
"No wonder you're sick, cooped up in this flat with nobody but a
servant-girl for company. Gad! ain't you ashamed to get so low that your
own servant-girl is your running-mate? Ain't you?"
"I know. I know."
"I been so blue, Max. Loo can tell you how I been waiting and wondering.
I—Lord, I been so blue, Max. She's good to me, Max, and—and I been so
"Never knew one of you wimmin that wasn't that way half her time. You're
a gang of sob sisters, every one of you—whining like you got your foot
caught in a machine and can't get it out."
"How you mean, Max?"
"Aw, you're all either in the blues or nagging. Why ain't you sports
enough to take the slice of life you get handed you? None of you ain't
healthy enough, anyways, I tell you, indoors, eating and sleeping and
mewling over poodle-dogs all the time. I'm damn sick of it all. Damn
sick, if you want to know it."
"But, Max, what's put this new stuff into your head all of a sudden? You
never used to care if—"
"And you got to quit writing me them long-winded letters, Mae, about
what's come over me. Sometimes a fellow just comes to his senses, that's
"And you got to quit butting in my business hours on the telephone. I
don't want to get ugly, but you got to cut it out. Cut it out, Mae, is
what I said!"
He quaffed his wine.
"Max dear, if you'll only tell me what's hurting you I'll find a way to
make good. I—I can learn lawn-tennis, if that's what you want. I can
take off ten pounds in—"
"Aw, I don't want nothing. Nothing, I tell you!"
"If I only knew, Max, what's itching you. This way there's days when I
just feel like I can't go on living if you don't tell me what's got you.
I just feel like I can't go on living this way, Max."
Tears hot and ever ready flowed over her words and she fumbled for her
handkerchief, sobs rumbling up through her.
"I just can't, I—I just can't!"
He pushed back from his half-completed meal, rising, but stooping to rap
his fist sharply against the table.
"Now, lemme tell you this much right now, Mae, either you got to cut
this sob stuff and get down to brass tacks and tell me what you want,
or, by gad! I'll get out of here so quick it'll make your head swim. I
ain't going to be let in for no tragedy-queen stuff, and the sooner you
know it the better. Business! I'm a business man."
She swallowed her tears, even smiling, and with her hand pat against her
bosom as if to suppress its heaving.
"I'm all right now, Max. I'm so full up with worry it—it just slipped
out. I'm all right now, Max. Sit down. Sit down and finish, dearie."
But he fell to pacing the red carpet in angry staccato strides. His
napkin dropped from his waistcoat to the floor and he kicked it out of
"By gad! I didn't want to come, anyhow. I knew the sniveling I'd be let
in for. Gimme a healthy woman with some outdoors in her. Gimme—"
"I ain't going to let out any more, Max; I swear to God I ain't. Sit
down, dear, and finish your supper. Looka, your coffee's all cold. Lemme
go out and heat it up for you. I—"
"I'm done. I'm done before I begin. Now, Mae, if you can behave yourself
and hold in long enough, just say what you got me up here for, and for
God's sake let's have it over!"
He planted himself before her, feet well apart, and she rose, pushing
back her chair, paling.
"I—I 'ain't got much of anything to say, Max, except I—I thought maybe
you'd tell me what's eating you, dearie."
"After all these years we been together, Max, so—so happy, all of a
sudden, dear, these last two months dropping off from every other night
to—to twice a week and then to—to once, and this last week—not at
all. I—I—heavens above, Max, I 'ain't got nothing to say except what's
got you. Tell me, dearie, is it anything I've done? Is it—"
"You talk like a loon, Mae, honest you do. You 'ain't done nothing.
It's just that the—the time's come, that's all. You know it had to. It
always has to. If you don't know it, a woman like—like you ought to.
Gad! I used to think you was the kind would break as clean as a whistle
when the time came to break."
"Yes, break. And don't gimme the baby-stare like that, neither. You know
what I mean alrighty. You wasn't born yesterday, old girl!"
The blood ran from her face, blanching it. "You mean, Max—"
"Aw, you know what I mean alrighty, Mae, only you ain't sport enough to
take things as they come. You knew all these years it had to come sooner
or later. I 'ain't never quizzed into your old life, but if you didn't
learn that, you—well you ought to. There never was a New Year came in,
Mae, that I didn't tell you that, if you got the chance, for you to go
out after better business. I never stood in your light or made no bones
"My God! Max, you—you're kidding!"
"All these years I been preaching to you, even before I joined
Forest Park Club out there. 'Don't get soft, Mae. Keep down. Use the
dumb-bells. Hustle around and do a little housework even if I do give
you a servant. Walk in the park. Keep your looks, girl; you may need
'em,' I used to tell you."
She clapped her hands over her mouth as if to stanch hysteria.
"Another let-out like that, Mae, and, by gad! I'll take my hat and—"
"No, no, Max, I—I didn't mean it. I'm all right. I—Only after all
these years you wouldn't do it, Max. You wouldn't. You wouldn't throw me
over and leave me cold, Max. What can I do after all these years? I—I
'ain't got a show in a chorus no more. You're kidding, Max. You're a
white man, Max, and—you—you wouldn't do it, Max. You wouldn't. You—"
"Now, now, you can't say I 'ain't been as white as silk, girl, and I'm
going to be just as white as I've been, too. Don't worry, girl. For six
years there 'ain't been a better-stocked flat than this in town, has
"The best none too good, eh?"
"Just the same stuff comes here that I send up to my mother's flat, eh?
All the drinks and all the clothes you want and a servant in the house
as good as my mother's own, eh? No kick coming, eh, girl?"
"You—you wouldn't, Max—you wouldn't ditch me. What could I do?
Nothing—nothing. I—I can't hire out as a scrubwoman, I—"
"Come, come now, girl, you're pretty slick, but you—you don't quite
slide. What about that thirty-five hundred you got down in your
jeans—eh? Them thirty-five hundred in the Farmers' Savings Bank—eh?
"Hah! Knocked you off your pins that time, didn't I? I found your
bank-book one morning, kiddo—found it on the floor right next to the
"Max, I—Out of my checks I—I saved—I—"
"Sure! Gad! I ain't kicking about it, girl. Glad for you! Glad you got
it, girl, only don't try to tell me you can't take care of yourself in
this world alrighty, girl. Any old time you can't! Gad! thirty-five
hundred she snitches out of her allowance in six years, lives on the
fat of the land, too, and then tries to bamboozle me that she's flat.
Thirty-five hundred in six years. Gad! I got to hand it to you there,
kiddo; I got to hand it to you!"
"You can have it back, Max. I—I was going to surprise you when I had
five thousand. I—"
"Gad! I don't want your money, girl. It's yours. You're fixed for life
on it. I'm even going to hand you over a couple of thou extra to show
you that I'm no cheap sport. I won't have a woman breathing can say I
ain't white as silk with her."
"Max, you—you're killing me! Killing me! Killing me!"
"Now, now, Mae, if I was you I wouldn't show my hand so. I don't want to
hurt you, girl. It ain't like I got any but the finest feelings for you.
You're all right, you are. You are."
"Then, Max, for God's sake—"
"But what are you going to do about it? What the hell is anybody going
to do about it? You ain't no baby. You know what life is. And you know
that the seams has got to show on one of the two sides and it ain't your
fault you got turned on the under side. But you should worry, girl!
You're fixed. And I'm here to tell you I'm going to hand you on top of
the two thou this here little flat just as it stands, Mae. Just as it
stands, piano and all. I just guess you got a kick coming!"
Her hands flew to her bosom as if the steel of his words had slipped
deep into the flesh. "You don't mean what you're saying, Max."
"Sure, I do! Piano and all, girl."
"No, no, you don't. You're just kidding me, Max, like you used to when
you wanted to tease me and throw a scare in me that your mother was wise
about the flat. Quit your kidding, Max, and take me in your arms and
sing me 'Maizie you're a Daisie' like you used to after—after we had a
little row. Lemme hear you call me 'Maizie,' dear, so I'll know you're
only kidding. I'm a bum sport, dearie. I—I never could stand for
guying. Cut the comedy, dear."
She leaned to him with her lips twisted and dried in their frenzy to
belie his words, but with little else to indicate that her heart
lay ticking against her breast like a clock that makes its hour in
"Quit guying, Max, for God's sake! You—you got me feeling sick clear
down inside of me. Cut it, dear. Too much is enough."
Her dress rustled with the faint swish of scything as she moved toward
him, and he withdrew, taking hold of the back of his chair.
"Now, now, Mae; come, come! You're a sensible woman. I ain't stuck on
this business any more than you are. You ought to have let me stay away
and just let it die out instead of raking up things like this. Come,
buck up, old girl! Don't make it any harder than it's got to be. These
things happen every day. This is business. There, there! Now! Now!"
The sudden bout of tenderness brought the tears stinging to her eyes
and she was for ingratiating herself into his embrace, but he withdrew,
edging toward the piano with an entire flattening of tone.
"Now, now, Mae, I tell you that you got to cut it. It would have been
better if you had just let the old cat die, You oughtn't to tried that
gag to get me here to-night. You'll get a lot more out of me if you do
it dry, girl. A crying woman can drive me out of the house quicker 'n
plague, and you ought to know it by now."
She sat down suddenly, feeling queasy.
"Now, now, old girl, buck up! Be a sport!"
"Gimme a drink, Max. I—Just a swallow. I—I'm all right." And she
squeezed her eyes tight shut to blink out the tears.
He handed her a tumbler from the table, keeping his head averted, and
after a bit she fell to sobbing and choking and trembling.
"It's her! It's your old woman. She's been chloroforming you with a lot
of dope talk about hitting the altar rail with a bunch of white satin
with a good fat wad sewed in the lining. It's your old—"
"It's your old woman. She—she don't know you like I do, Max. She—"
"Now, now, Mae! You knew this had to come sooner or later, I 'ain't
never lied, have I? Right here in this room 'ain't you told me a dozen
times you'd let me go quietly when the time came? 'Ain't you?"
"I never thought you meant it, Max. You don't mean it now. Don't let
your old woman upset you, dear. What she don't know won't hurt her.
Stick around her a little more if you think she's got a hunch about me
and the flat. But she 'ain't, dearie; there ain't a chance in the world
she's got a hunch about me. Don't let her make a mollycoddle out of you,
Max. That old woman don't know enough about life and things to—"
"You cut that and cut it quick! I'm a decent fellow, I am. For six years
I been tipping you off to leave my mother's name out—out of your mouth.
There's a place for everything and, by gad! your mouth ain't the place
for her name! By gad! I ain't no saint, but I won't stand for that! By
gad! I—I won't!"
"Oh-h-h-h-h! Oh-h-h-h! Oh-h-h!"
She struck her breast twice with the flat of her hand, her voice so
tight and high that it carried with it the quality of strangulation.
"Ain't fit to mention her name, ain't I? Ain't fit to mention her name?
My kind ain't fit to mention her name, eh?"
"No, if you got to know it. Not—like that! My old mother's name. Not
"Not fit, eh? What are we fit for, then, us that only get the husks of
you men and nothing else?"
"What am I fit for? Fit to run to when your decent friends won't stand
for you? Fit to run to when you get mixed up in rotten customs deals?
Fit to stand between you and hell when you got the law snapping at your
heels for—for smuggling? Who was fit to run to then? Her whose name I
ain't fit to mention? Her? Naw, you was afraid she'd turn on you. Naw,
not her! Me! Me! I'm the one whose mouth is too dirty to mention your
old lady's name—"
"By gad! you got to cut that or—"
"Just the same, who was it you hollered for when you woke up in the
hospital with your back like raw meat? Who was it you hollered for then?
Her whose name I ain't fit to mention? Naw, it wasn't! Me! Me! I was
good enough then. I was good enough to smuggle you out of town overnight
when you was dodging the law, and to sleep in my clothes for two weeks,
ready to give the signal."
"That's right, dig up! Dig up! You might forget something."
"I been good enough to give you free all these years what you wasn't man
enough to pay for. That's what we women are; we're the free lunch that
you men get with a glass of beer, and what the hell do you care which
garbage-pail what's left of us lands in after you're done with us!"
"Cut that barroom talk around here if—"
"Good enough for six years, wasn't I, to lay down like a door-mat for
you to walk on, eh? Good enough. Good enough when it came to giving up
chunks of my own flesh and blood when your burns was like hell's fire
on your back and all your old woman could do to help was throw a swoon
every time she looked at you. Good enough to—"
"Gad! I knew it! I knew it! Knew you'd show your yellow streak."
She fell to moaning in her hands. "No, no, Max, I—"
"Bah! you can't throw that up to me, though. I never wanted it! I
could have bought it off any one of them poor devils that hang around
hospitals, as many inches off any one of 'em as I wanted. I never wanted
them to graft it on me off you. I told the doctor I didn't. I knew you'd
be throwing it up to me some day. If I'd bought it off a stranger I—I
wouldn't have that limp in front of me always to—to rub things in. I
knew you'd throw it up to me. I—Gad! I knew it! I knew it!"
"No, no, Max, I didn't mean it. You—you just got me so crazy I don't
know what I'm saying. Sure, I—I made you take it off me. I wanted 'em
to cut it off me to graft on your burns because it—it was like finding
a new way of saying how—how I love you, Max. Every drop of blood was
like—like I could see for myself how—how I loved you, Max. I—"
"Oh, my God!" he said, folded his arms atop the piano, and let his head
fall into them. "Oh, my God!"
"That's how I love you, Max. That's how you—you're all in the world I
got, Max. That's why I—can't, just can't let you go, dear. Don't throw
me over, Max. Cut the comedy and come down to earth. You 'ain't had a
holy spell for two years now since the old woman sniffed me and wanted
to marry you off to that cloak-and-suit buyer with ten thou in the bank
and a rush of teeth to the front. You remember how we laffed, dearie,
that night we seen her at the show? Don't let your old lady—"
"Cut that, I tell you!"
"You'd be a swell gink hitting the altar trail with a bunch of white
satin, wouldn't you? At your time of life, forty and set in your ways,
you'd have a swell time landing a young frisky one and trying to learn
one of them mother's darlings how to rub in your hair-tonic and how to
rub your salad-plate with garlic? Gosh-golly! I bust right out laffing
when I even think about it! Come down to earth, Max! You'd be a swell
hit welded for life with a gold band, now, wouldn't you?"
She was suddenly seized with immoderate laughter not untinctured with
hysteria, loud and full of emptiness, as if she were shouting for echoes
in a cave.
"Like hell you would! You tied to a bunch of satin and tending the
kids with the whooping-cough! Whoops la, la!" She fell to rocking
herself backward and forward, her rollicking laughter staining her face
"Whoops la, la! Whoops la, la!"
Suddenly Max Zincas rose to his height, regarding her sprawling
uncontrolled pose with writhing lips of distaste, straightened his
waistcoat, cleared his throat twice, and, standing, drank the last of
his wine. But a pallor crept up, riding down the flush.
"Funny, ain't it? Laff! Laff! But I'd wait till you hear something
funnier I got to tell you. Funny, ain't it? Laff! Laff!"
She looked up with her lips still sagging from merriment, but the dark
red in her face darker.
His bravado suddenly oozed and the clock ticked roundly into the silence
"Huh?" she repeated, cocking her head.
"You got to know it, Mae, and the sooner I get it out of me the better.
But, remember, if you wanna drive me out before I'm finished, if you
wanna get rid of me a damn sight quicker than any other way, throw me
some sob stuff and watch. You—Well—I—The sooner I get it out of me
the better, Mae."
"She's a—a nice little thing, Mae. Her mother's a crony with my old
lady. Lives in a brownstone out on Lenox Avenue. Met her first at—at a
tennis-match she was winning at—at Forest Park Club."
"Not a high-stepper or a looker like you in your day, Mae, none of—that
chorus pep you used to have. Neat, though. Great little kid for
outdoors. Nice little shape, too. Not in your class, but—but neat. Eyes
like yours, Mae, only not—not in your class. A—a little cast in one of
them, but all to the good, Mae. Nice clean little—girl, fifteen thou
with her, and her old man half owner in the Weeko Woolen Mills. I—I
need the money, Mae. The customs is digging up dirt again. It ain't
like I 'ain't been on the level with you, girl. You knew it had to come
sooner or later. Now, didn't you, Mae? Now there's the girl. Didn't
Reassured, he crossed to where she sat silent, and placed a large, heavy
hand on her shoulder.
"There's nothing needs to worry you, old girl. Thirty-five hundred in
your jeans and a couple of thou and the flat from me on top. Gad! it's a
cinch for you, old girl. I've seen 'em ready for the dump at your age,
and you—you're on the boom yet. Gad! you're the only one I ever knew
kept her looks and took on weight at the same time. You're all right,
Mae, and—and, gad! if I don't wish sometimes the world was different!
Gad! if—if I don't!"
And, rather reassured, he tilted her chin and pinched her cold cheek and
touched the corner of his eyes with the back of his wrist."
"Gad, if—if I don't!"
It was as if the flood of her emotion had risen to a wave and at his
words frozen on its crest. She opened her lips to speak, but could only
regard him with eyes as hard as ice-fields.
"Now, now, Mae, don't look thataway. You're a sensible woman and know
the world's just built thataway. I always told you it don't cost us men
nothing but loose change to show ourselves a good time. You girls gotta
pay up in different coin. If I hadn't come along some other fellow
would, so what's the use a fellow not showing himself a good time?
You girls know where you get off. Come, be a sport, old girl! With
thirty-five hundred in your jeans and me wanting to do the square
thing—the piano and all, lemme say to you that you 'ain't got a kick
coming. Just lemme say that to you—piano and all, Mae!"
Sobs trembled up, thawing the edge of ice that incased her. A thin blur
of tears rose to her eyes like a premonitory ripple before the coming of
"You can't! You can't! You—you can't ditch me like that, I tell you.
"By God! if you're going to begin to holler I'll get out of here so
quick it'll make your head swim!"
"Oh no, you don't! Aw, no, you don't! You ain't going to quit so easy
for a squint-eyed little hank that—that your old woman found for you.
Max, you ain't! You wouldn't! Tell me you wouldn't, dear. Tell me! Tell
"Get off your knees there and behave yourself, Mae! Looka your dress
there, all torn. This ain't no barroom. Get up and behave yourself!
Ain't you ashamed! Ain't you ashamed!"
She was trembling so that her knees sent little ripples down the tight
white silk drop-skirt.
"You can't ditch me like this and get away with it. You and me
can't—can't part peaceful. You can't throw me over after all these
years for a little squint-eyed hank and get away with it! By Heaven! you
He drew tight fists to his sides, his lower jaw shot forward. "You start
a row here and, by gad! if I don't—"
"I ain't! I ain't! But don't throw me over, Max, after all these years!
Don't, Max! You need me. There ain't a woman on God's earth will do for
you what I will. I—I 'ain't got nobody but you, Max, to do for. I
tell you, Max, you—you need me. Think, dear, all them months when the
customs was after you. Them hot days when you couldn't show your face,
and I used to put you to bed and fan and fan you eight hours straight
till you forgot to be scared and fell asleep like a baby."
"Now, now, Mae, I—"
"Them nights we used to mix a few drinks when we came home from a show
or something and sit right here in this room and swill 'em off, laffing
and laffing till we got a little lit up. That time when we sneaked down
to Sheepshead and you lost your wad at the wheel and I won it back for
you. All them times, Max! That—that Christmas Eve you sneaked away from
your old woman! Remember? I tell you, Max, you can't throw me over after
what we been through together, and get away with it. You can't, not by a
damn sight! You can't!"
In spite of herself her voice would slip up, raucous sobs tore through
her words, tears rained down her frankly distorted face, carrying their
bitter taste of salt to her lips.
"You can't! You can't! I 'ain't got the strength! I 'ain't got a thing
in life that ain't wrapped around you. I can't go back to hit or miss
like—like I could ten years ago. I 'ain't got nothing saved out of it
all but you. Don't try to ditch me, Max! Don't! I—I'll walk on my knees
for you. I—"
"For God's sake, Mae, I—"
"If there's a way to raise two times fifteen thou for you, Max, I—I'll
raise it. I'll find a way, Max. I tell you I will! I'm lucky at the
wheel, Max. You watch and see. You just watch and see. I can work. Max,
"Get up, Mae, get up. There's a good girl. Get up and—"
"I'll work my fingers down, Max, only don't try to ditch me, don't try
to ditch me! I'll go out to the country where your old woman can't ever
sniff me. I—I'll fix it, Max, so you—so you just can't lose. Don't
ditch me, dear; take your Maizie back. Take me in your arms and call me
Maizie. Take me!"
"Girl, 'ain't you—'ain't you got no shame!"
"Just try me back for a month, Max. For a month, Max, and see if—if I
don't fix things so they come out right. Gimme a month, Max! Gimme, Max!
And with her last remnant of restraint gone, she lay downright at his
feet, abandoned to virulent grief, and in her naked agony a shapeless
mass of frill and flounce, a horrible and not dramatic spectacle of
abandonment; decencies gone down before desire, the heart ruptured and
broken through its walls. In such a moment of soul dishabille and
her own dishabille of bosom bulging above the tight lacing of her
corset-line as she lay prone, her mouth sagging and wet with tears, her
lips blowing outward in bubbles, a picture, in fact, to gloss over, Mae
Munroe dragged herself closer, flinging her arms about the knees of Mr.
Zincas, sobbing through her raw throat.
"Just a month, Max! Don't ditch me! Don't! Don't! Don't!"
He looked away from the sorry spectacle of her bubbling lips and great,
"Leggo! Leggo my knees!"
"Just a month, Max, just—"
"Leggo! Leggo my knees! Leggo, girl! Ain't you ashamed!"
"Just a month, Max, I—"
"Gad! 'ain't you got no shame, girl! Get up! Leggo! I can't stand
this, I tell you. Be a sport and leggo me quiet, Mae. I—I'll send you
everything, a—a check that'll surprise you, old girl! Lemme go quiet!
Nothing can't change things. Quit your blubbering. It makes me sick,
I tell you. Quit your blubbering, old girl, and leggo. Leggo! Leg-go!
Leg-go, I say!"
Suddenly he stooped and with a backward turn of her wrist unloosed
himself and, while the pain still staggered her, side-stepped the huddle
of her body, grasped his hat from the divan and lunged to the door,
tugging for a frantic moment with the lock.
On her knees beside the piano, in quite the attitude he had flung her,
leaning forward on one palm and amid the lacy whirl of her train, Mae
Munroe listened to his retreating steps; heard the slam of a lower door.
You who recede before the sight of raw emotions with every delicacy
shamed, do not turn from the spectacle of Mae Munroe prone there on the
floor, her bosom upheaved and her mouth too loose. When the heart is
torn the heart bleeds, whether under cover of culture and a boiled
shirt-front or without shame and the wound laid bare. And Mae Munroe,
who lay there, simple soul, only knew or cared that her heart lay
quivering like a hurt thing, and for the sobs that bubbled too frankly
to her lips had no concern.
But after a while they ceased of exhaustion, and she rose to her feet,
her train threatening to throw her; walked toward the cold, cloyed
dinner, half-eaten and unappetizing on the table; and fell to scooping
some of the cold gravy up from its dish, letting it dripple from the
spoon back again. The powder had long since washed off her cheeks and
her face was cold as dough. The tears had dried around her mouth.
Presently she pinned up the lacy train about her, opened a cupboard door
and slid into a dark, full-length coat, pinned on a hat with a feather
that dropped over one side as if limp with wet, dabbed at her face with
a pink powder-chamois and, wheezing ever so slightly, went out, tweaking
off two of the three electric lights after her—down two flights of
stairs through a quiet foyer and out into the fluid warmth of late
October. Stars were out, myriads of them.
An hour she walked—down the cross-town street and a bit along the
wide, bright, lighted driveway, its traffic long since died down to an
occasional night-prowling cab, a skimming motor-car; then down a flight
of curving stone steps with her slightly perceptible limp, and into the
ledge of parkway where shadows took her into their velvet silence; down
a second flight, across a railroad track, and to the water's edge, where
a great coal-station ran a jut of pier out into the river. She could
walk its length, feeling it sway to the heavy tug of current.
Out at the very edge the water washed up against the piles with a thick,
inarticulate lisp, as if what it had to say might only be understood
from the under side.