Published on June 23, 1951
He came home early because he was worried about his wife, but, on reaching the house, found himself reluctant to go in. All that awaited him was a dispirited greeting, an apathetic glance. He decided to work in the yard until supper. Ethel would see him from the window. If she wanted him she could call. But he knew she would not call. She would not want him. All she wanted was to be left alone.
When he climbed out of the car a cocker spaniel started to whine and strain at its leash. He stroked the silky ears and the young dog wriggled with ecstasy from nose to tail. Rags had spent a miserable day, tethered to his kennel by two yards of rope, with no human voice to comfort him, no human touch to gladden him; but in an instant his woes were forgotten in the joy of his master’s homecoming.
“Poor little chap,” said John Morgan. “Not much of a life, is it?”
He unsnapped the catch that fastened the squirming spaniel, and Rags loped wildly round and round, giving tongue to his delight at being free.
Morgan glanced about the yard, hoping some task would suggest itself. But he had pruned each shrub and bush within an inch of its life, and raked and swept the lawn, borders and path until he could not pretend there was any more to be done. The garage? No, he had spent several afternoons putting it in order. Well, there was always the car. He had washed it earlier in the week, but a rainfall next day had left streaks. If he went over them with a dry rag he ought to be able to spin the job out for a couple of hours.
Hanging coat and vest on a hook in the garage, he took down his overalls. As he slipped into them, his eyes fell on a bicycle standing close to a wall and he felt a dull ache within him. It was the right size for a well-grown boy of eight, but no boy had ever swung a carefree leg across it. Not a scratch on the gleaming chromium and bright red paint. The tires had the unworn factory tread. It stood there as shiny and new as when he first saw it in a shop.
He came out of the garage with an armful of soft dry cloths, and the spaniel ran to him, wagging his tail, wagging his whole young body, casting hopeful glances at the street and whining an appeal.
“Not now,” said John Morgan. “Later.” The spaniel’s eloquent stare said he failed to see why this was not the best possible time for a good long walk.
The man cast a glance almost of trepidation at the house. Comely, well-kept, inviting; designed for easeful living. He and his wife had put more than money and time into it, they had put something of themselves. Nothing forbidding about the fieldstone and clapboards, but he could not help feeling uneasy until he turned his eyes away.
He began to rub the hood of the car, his breath hissing through his teeth as he warmed to the work. In his fiftieth year, he had a well-muscled body and an air of self-reliance. Until lately, most people had warmed to him quickly because of his frank, good-natured expression. During the past months he had begun to wear a harassed frown and his shoulders were often slumped with discouragement.
District manager of a large industrial concern, he enjoyed his work and was good at it. When the time came to retire, he expected to enjoy his leisure. No financial cares. A lot of fishing, hunting and loafing to catch up on. Lately, his plans for the future had dwindled to nothingness. It was all he could do to get through each day without thinking of the next.
The spaniel scampered down the drive to look wistfully at the tree-lined street. He stood stock-still, watching a boy kicking a can along the sidewalk. A grubby little fellow in a ragged sweater and torn blue jeans. When he looked up, the dog wagged his stumpy tail ingratiatingly. The boy went down on his knees, holding out grimy hands and making encouraging sounds with his tongue and teeth.
“Hey,” he protested happily, as Rags romped over him, licking his nose and chin and ears. “Hey! Whatcha think ya doin’, huh?”
In a tangle, they rolled across the gravel. The spaniel tore loose and raced up the drive, yelping an invitation to follow. The boy pursued warily, keeping a watchful eye on the man bent over the car. Each step he took was tentative, his toes ready to turn the other way if need should arise. The spaniel raced to and fro between car and boy, with ears flopping, his whole being proclaiming that this encounter was a piece of wonderful luck and they must make the most of it.
Morgan looked up to find the child staring at him. A tow-headed urchin, skinnier than any boy should be. Sharp-eyed as a sparrow, and poised for flight. All one had to say was “Get!” and he’d be gone.
After one look, which the boy’s eyes met guardedly, Morgan grunted and returned his attention to the car.
He could hear the boy murmuring to the dog, talking to him without words, in broken sounds which Rags found entirely comprehensible. The boy was on his knees again and Rags was all over him. They sprawled in front of the car, alongside the car, behind it. They rolled over and over in the garage doorway.
“Holy gee,” said the boy, and Morgan raised his head.
The youngster was gaping at the bicycle, his puny frame tense with awe. He put out a trembling hand and almost, but not quite, touched the gleaming handle bars.
“Golly!” he stammered. “Some . . . bike!”
The man did not answer. The boy backed away a piece.
“I won’t touch it, mister. Honest.”
Beyond a tightening of the mouth, the man gave no sign that he had heard.
The boy licked his lips. “Swell pooch you’ve got, mister. What’s his name?”
“Rags,” said Morgan. His tone was harsh, but he atoned for it by adding, “What’s yours?”
“Ted, but the kids call me Runty. I’m going on ten, but I guess I’m pretty small.”
“It isn’t size that counts, it’s what you’re made of. Touch the bike if you like. I won’t mind.”
The boy drew a deep breath. His hands fondled the bright red frame as tenderly as if it were infinitely precious and fragile. The wonder of it brought him close to tears.
“Not a mark,” he said huskily. “I — I guess your kid takes awful good care of it.”
Morgan’s lips contracted again. “Rags seems to have taken a shine to you. What about taking him for a walk?”
“Gee, could I?”
“You’d be doing me a favor.”
“Maybe he won’t come.”
“He’ll go if I tell him it’s all right.” Morgan stopped and patted Rags. “Go with Ted, old boy. At-a-boy, good boy; go with Ted.”
“Here, boy,” said Ted, snapping his fingers. “Come on, boy. Let’s go for a walk.”
“Walk” was the spaniel’s favorite word, dearer even than “dinner.” He trotted after his new friend. Turned to look back inquiringly. Morgan waved him on and, his doubts resolved, he sprinted out to the street with a jubilant bark. Watching them go, Morgan thought that nothing in the world made better sense than a boy and a dog.
While they were gone, he put his back into his work. The monotony of it offered a sort of mental ease. When he straightened up and glanced at his watch more than an hour had passed since he drove home from the office.
The boy and the dog returned in gleeful spirits while he was washing his hands under the garage faucet. Ted told him an involved yarn about a squirrel that had been only a split second too quick, and Rags sat back with his tongue hanging out, blinking fondly from one to the other. Drying his hands, Morgan dug into his pocket for a quarter. Ted looked at the coin, but made no move to take it.
“It’s yours. You’ve earned it.”
“It was fun taking Rags out. I don’t want to be paid.”
“Take it. You did me a good turn.”
The boy’s eyes shifted to the bicycle. “I don’t want your money, mister . . . but I sure would like a ride on that bike.” Aware of the cloud that had come over the man’s face, he went on quickly, earnestly, humbly, “I wouldn’t go far. Only round the block. I’d take care, honest I would. Your kid won’t mind.”
About to refuse, Morgan realized the depth of yearning behind the appeal. And a bicycle is made to be ridden, not to stand in a sacrosanct place, a monument to frustration. It was not possible to deny the plea. It was too small a thing, and too big.
“Only round the block?”
“Cross my heart.”
“All right. Go ahead.”
The boy almost choked with happiness. He wheeled out the bicycle, handling it with care. He swung a leg over the saddle; shot a radiant glance over his shoulder.
When he reached the house, the side door opened and Ethel appeared in frantic haste. Her mouth was open as if to scream, but no sound came out. She grasped the handle bars and shook them, throwing the boy off. He lay in a heap on the ground, staring up in consternation at her pale, contorted face. Stumbling to his feet, he ran shakily down the drive without looking back.
After a moment of shock, Morgan went forward limply and grasped the bicycle. At first it seemed his wife would not let it go. Her grip was so tight that her knuckles shone through the skin. He tried to speak to her, but was physically incapable of uttering a word.
“How could you?” she cried. “Oh, how could you? Timothy’s bicycle! My Timothy’s bicycle! How could you let another child touch it?”
Wheeling it back to its place, he sat on a packing case with his head on his hands. He sat motionless in the gathering dusk, and the spaniel shivered and whined at his feet. At last he led the little dog to his kennel and refastened the long leash. A reproachful whimpering followed him up the path to the house.
In the deserted kitchen, saucepans simmered on the stove. He paused for a drink of water before going through the dining room to the hall. The table was set for supper, but Ethel was not there. He knew where to find her. In the gaily papered room at the head of the stairs; that was where she would be. The room papered with sailboats and soaring gulls, with bright chintz at the windows and a gay spread on the half-size bed.
Climbing the stairs heavily, he stopped at the open door. Ethel was standing by the window, looking out, but he knew she was blind to the darkening street, the leafless maples, the rooftops above the hedges. What she saw, standing there, was in the recesses of her own mind. She was in control of herself now. Her rigid control was unnerving.
Many toys were arrayed on shelves around the room. The bed was neatly made, in readiness for an occupant. A Teddy bear lolled against the footboard. In the bathroom, a row of toy boats and buoyant playthings waited on the rim of the tub. All very tidy, much tidier than a small boy would have kept it. Waiting for small hands to disarrange, to grasp right and left and reduce it to a livable confusion. There was even a small suit of freshly laundered pajamas laid out on the speckless coverlet.
Morgan cleared his throat. “Ethel, let’s get rid of all this. Send it to an orphanage. Send it anywhere, but get it out of the house. There must thousands of children who — ”
“Yes,” she said, “the world is full of children. Thousands of them. Millions. And I hate them all — every last one — because they are alive and my little boy is dead.”
The nurse said crisply, “You may go in.” John Morgan put down an out-ofdate magazine and went through the door she indicated. The doctor, a forceful-looking man in the thirties, glanced up with a frown of recognition.
“Surely we’ve met.”
“When you talked to the Men’s Club. Your speech impressed me. It made sense. That’s why I’m here.”
“Take a seat. Offhand, I’d say you look pretty fit.”
“I’ve come about my wife.”
“Oh? Then, perhaps, she ought to be the one sitting in that chair.”
“She wouldn’t come. She won’t see a doctor. All she wants is to be left alone.”
“And you’re worried?”
“Worried as hell.”
The doctor filled his pipe. He slid his tobacco pouch across the desk.
Morgan said, “Thanks.”
“I can give you the best part of an hour,” said the doctor, leaning back and puffing contentedly. “Since coming to town I haven’t been overburdened with patients. Take your time. Just relax and tell me what’s bothering you.”
“I’ll be fifty next month,” said Morgan, charging his pipe methodically. “My wife is a year or so younger. We were in love when we married and somehow managed to keep our love — well, perhaps not exciting, but alive. We’ve always been in comfortable circumstances and our tastes are pretty much the same. The only snag was, we couldn’t seem to have a child.”
“A pretty big snag, if you want one badly enough.”
“Yes. It came to be an ache in both of us. We didn’t talk about it. In married life you mostly talk about the little things. On her fortieth birthday, Ethel turned to me and said, ‘Well, I guess it’s always going to be just the two of us.’ I kissed her . . . and put my heart into it.
“We had more sense than to sour our lives pining for what we couldn’t have. It was there, the emptiness, but we made the most of what we had. And then, after we’d given up hoping, our family doctor told Ethel she was pregnant. I don’t think either of us quite believed it, just at first. It was . . . too good to be true.”
Taking a creased snapshot from his wallet, he passed it across the desk. It was of a small boy in shorts and T shirt. Seven or eight years old, with sturdy legs and a winning smile.
“Timothy,” said Morgan, his tongue dwelling on the syllables.
“Fine little chap,” said the doctor.
His own wife was going to have their first child in less than a month. He certainly would not grumble if they got one like this.
“We were the most indulgent parents ever,” said Morgan, “but you couldn’t spoil a nature like his. He was all boy. Into everything. On the go. Never clean for five minutes at a stretch. When he was home you’d hear him all over the house. But he had another side. Sometimes he’d drop everything, run to his mother and throw his arms about her. In his own way, he sensed how much she needed his love.”
He chuckled. There was a faraway look in his eyes.
“I’ll never forget the day he learned that grownups have birthdays. He was four or five. I guess he thought grownups were ageless until he saw me giving his mother a diamond ring for her fortyfifth birthday. When we called him for supper, there was no answering shout. We hunted high and low. No Timothy. I was on the phone, calling the police, when he trotted into the yard. His face shone as if it were lit up inside . . . and in his hands he held a huge bunch of violets. They quite took the shine out of my three-carat diamond.
“Well, we knew he’d only had a nickel. And that was a mighty big bunch. Not the kind you find in the woods. The large-petaled, deep-colored sort the florists sell. Worth fifty cents, maybe a dollar. After Timothy was in bed, I took a run down to the neighborhood florist. He said, sure he sold violets to Master Timothy Morgan. A big bunch for a nickel. I offered to pay the balance, but the florist only laughed. He said, ‘One day, maybe fifteen years from now, Master Timothy will be coming in for orchids or gardenias, and then I’ll nick him but good.’
“After that, two or three times a year, Timothy bought flowers for his mother. Her birthday, Christmas. Any special occasion. Violets, if he could get them. A big bunch for a nickel, a dime whatever he had. Ethel kept them a long, long time and always saved one to press in a book.”
He was silent for a while, and the doctor sat in silence, waiting for him to go on, letting him take his time. Suddenly, Morgan started and seemed to come back from a far-off place. He blinked at the other man:
“You were telling me about Timothy,” said the doctor.
Morgan said, “There was a polio epidemic shortly before you came to town.”
“I heard about it.”
“A good many children were stricken. Some of them went quickly. Timothy lasted just twenty-four hours from the time he complained of a sore throat. He was trying to smile when they took him away in the ambulance, trying to tell us not to worry, he’d be all right. Ethel and I sat in a waiting room all night and all the next day, except for a few minutes at a time, when I coaxed her out for a breath of air. On one of those short outings we saw a bicycle in a window and went right in and bought it. For Timothy. To come home to. Maybe we thought he’d be sure to get well if we acted as though nothing else was possible.”
The palm of his hand started to hit the arm of the chair with a monotonous beat.
“She didn’t cry when they told us. Her insides seemed to collapse, but she didn’t cry. It’s nearly six months now, but she’s never shed a tear. Doctor, it isn’t good for a woman not to cry when she’s hurt.”
“Now we are strangers, leading empty lives in an empty house. No, it isn’t empty. It’s still full of Timothy. His toys. His clothes. His picture books. His puppy, shivering at the end of a leash. The pictures he cut out of maga- zines on rainy days. His clothes are laid out, waiting for him to jump out of bed and throw them on. We’re living in a museum, a memorial to a dead child. She sits in the room that is waiting for Timothy, and it cuts her to pieces, but she doesn’t cry.”
“I’d better remind you, I’m not a psychiatrist.”
“I know that. But I feel you understand people. For God’s sake, tell me what to do.”
“Sorrow is part of human experience,” said the younger man slowly, “but this isn’t sorrow, it’s despair. Out of sorrow we grow in stature and find resources we never knew we had, but despair can only destroy.”
“It’s destroying her. What am I to do?”
“Have you thought of adopting a child? That might be the answer.”
“She won’t hear of it.”
“Then move away. Your present home is a constant reminder. Take her away and make a new start.”
“My firm offered to transfer me to California. But as long as Ethel lives, she’ll never leave Timothy’s home.”
“From what you tell me, she’s beyond deciding for herself. The first thing for you to do is to get rid of the child’s belongings. Give them away, burn them, destroy them, but get rid of them.”
“How shall I do it? Shall I wrench his things out of her hands?”
“You’ve heard of Restmore, the sanitarium on the other side of town? Wait, I know what you’re going to say . . . but it isn’t the average mental home. They’ll make your wife comfortable, there’s no reason to shrink from the idea. The superintendent is a good chap; he’ll study her sympathetically. After a few weeks, restful weeks, he’ll have an idea what treatment to suggest. In the meantime, you can clean house. Get rid of every possible reminder of your child.”
The nurse put her head into the room. “Your office is on the phone, Mr. Morgan. Your wife has been trying to reach you. She wants you to come home right away.”
He drove faster than ever before. On reaching the house, he jammed on the brakes and jumped out, leaving the engine running. He took the front steps two at a time. “Ethel!” he called as he opened the door. His voice echoed through the empty house. Shouting again, he heard an answering call from the yard.
Ethel was standing by the kennel.
“John, he’s been stolen!” she said distractedly. “Rags has been stolen!”
Morgan stooped to examine the frayed rope. “Nonsense. He’s run away. He’ll come home when he’s hungry.”
“I don’t believe you. Someone has stolen hint.”
“Ethel, look for yourself. The rope has been chewed, not cut. You can see the marks of his teeth.”
“Why should he run away? He never has before. I know he’s been stolen. The boy who was here yesterday — ”
Rising, he took his wife by the arm, doing his best to be patient. “Put on your coat and hat. We’ll take the car and look for him.”
Ethel said, “He’s tied up in some filthy outhouse”; but she went into the house for her things.
He felt his heart thumping. On the drive home he had been tormented by the dread of what he would find. He had imagined nothing so normal as a lonely pup running off to seek companionship. He knew that Rags himself meant nothing to Ethel. In their early married life she had never had a dog, never felt the need for one. She valued him only as a symbol. He had belonged to Timothy, and all Timothy’s belongings must stay in their place.
They drove slowly through the quiet neighborhood, peering right and left at every intersection, scrutinizing every hedge and driveway. They questioned a mailman, a delivery man, a boy bouncing a ball. No one had seen Rags. Several times Morgan got out and whistled, but no familiar bark answered.
“I knew we wouldn’t find him. I told you he was stolen. That boy — ”
Morgan headed the car away from the middle-class suburb toward the meaner streets that fringed the sawmill. Row upon row of narrow frame dwellings standing so close that an arm reached out of one could touch the wall of the next. All sadly in need of paint.
A group of youngsters lounged at a corner. He put his head out and asked if they knew a boy named Ted.
“Ted?” said a freckle-faced boy with a jaunty cowlick. “Naw. No kid called Ted in this street.”
“They call him Runty.”
“Oh, sure,” said the lad, grinning widely, “sure, I know Runty. Two blocks down, brown house onna corner. His old man got hisself killed in the war. His ma takes in washin’. Can’t miss it, mister; you’ll see alla clothes onna line.”
Tossing the lad a quarter, Morgan drove on. He stopped at a house more rundown than the rest. The yard was crisscrossed by lines sagging under the weight of damp garments.
“You’d better wait,” he said, opening the car door.
“I’m coming with you,” said Ethel, reaching for the handle on her side. “If that boy stole Rags, I mean to give him a piece of my mind.”
“Wait,” he repeated flatly, and she sank back.
Morgan went up a chipped walk. His knock was answered by a woman drying her hands on her apron. Of decent stock, and determinedly respectable, but careworn and overworked.
She listened to him apprehensively and broke in before he finished speaking, “Yes, sir, the little dog showed up this morning. He had a bit of chewed rope tied to his collar. I told Ted to take him right back where he came from.”
A little girl in a shabby but spotless frock, with a ribbon in her straight blond hair, stuck her head through under her mother’s arm.
“He wasn’t at school, ma. He played hooky. I bet he went hiking in the woods with the puppy.”
“My Ted is crazy for a dog,” said the woman apologetically, “but he’ll bring it back. He’s a good boy.”
“I know he is,” said Morgan warmly. “Please don’t let it worry you.”
He went back to the car. Ethel was sitting stiffly erect, staring straight in front of her.
“It’s all right,” he said, climbing in. “Rags came looking for company and the boy took him for a walk. They’ll be back when they’re tired.”
He reached for the key, but hesitated before turning it. “Decent, hard-working woman,” he said. “Worth helping out. We could do a lot for people like that. I guess the kids need just about everything.”
Through tight lips, Ethel said, “Drive to the police station.”
He stared at her. “Why?”
“That boy stole Timothy’s dog. He’s got to be reported.”
“Ethel, that’s crazy talk.”
“I intend to report him. If you won’t come, let me out of this car.”
“We’re going home,” he said firmly. Ethel was silent all the way, and went into the house without looking at him.
It was not quite dark when they heard a timid rap on the back door. Morgan opened it to find Ted and Rags bunched timorously on the steps. They both looked thoroughly cowed. A strand of dry fern clung to one of the spaniel’s floppy ears.
“He — he wanted to go after rabbits,” stammered the skinny little boy. “He wanted to go after rabbits awful bad.”
“I guess he did,” said John Morgan. “Looks like he’s had quite a day. My wife was worried — she isn’t well — but I guess everything’s all right now.”
“You ain’t sore?”
“No, I’m not sore. When my wife gets over her fright, she’ll understand.”
The boy’s eyes flickered in sudden panic over the man’s shoulder. Morgan sensed the ominous presence of his wife directly behind him.
“You’re a little thief !” said Ethel fiercely. “If I had my way, you’d be locked up!”
The boy cringed; the little dog cowered. Morgan picked up Rags and tucked him under his arm.
“Go home, Ted. Run on home.”
He shut the door. Ethel turned her face away as he passed. In the morning he would call the doctor and make arrangements about the sanitarium. He could not see that there was anything else to be done.
He tried to read his paper, but was utterly unable to concentrate. He had loved his wife for twenty years. He would have said there could never be a problem too great for them to see through together. Now he felt baffled, beaten.
Ethel, too, was restless. She prowled from room to room, unable to settle.
At about eight the back-door bell rang. Morgan ros., immediately, but when he reached the ball Ethel was opening the door. Ted stood there humbly in his blue jeans and ragged sweater. The pinched little face wore an anxious appeal.
“I — I’m awful sorry I worried you, lady,” he said. And he held up a large bunch of violets.
Morgan saw his wife’s back stiffening and held his breath in dismay. Violets. Was there any way to hurt her more?
“Who told you to bring those here?” she cried in a terrible voice.
The little boy started to weep. Between great gulping sobs, he gasped, “Please, lady, I — I only had a dime!”
Ethel knelt and put her arms about the forlorn figure. She was crying, the tears were streaming down her cheeks, but they were not the sort of tears to frighten a child.
Morgan’s trembling limbs failed him and he leaned against a wall for support. He felt as if every drop of blood had been drained from his body and every nerve anesthetized.
But he knew — beyond all doubt he knew — that from now on everything was going to be all right.
Featured image: Illustrated by Thornton Utz.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now