Authors: Irwin Shaw
Rich Man, Poor Man
First published in Great Britain by Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1971
(c) Irwin Shaw 1969, 1970
Mr Donnelly, the track coach, ended the day’s practice early because Henry Fuller’s father came down to the high school field to tell Henry that they had just got a telegram from Washington announcing that Henry’s brother had been killed in action in Germany. Henry was the team’s best shot-putter. Mr Donnelly gave Henry a chance to go in and change his clothes alone and go home with his father, then whistled to gather the whole of the squad in a group and said they could all go home, as a gesture of respect.
The baseball team was practising on the diamond, but nobody on the baseball team had lost a brother that afternoon, so they kept on practising.
Rudolph Jordache (two-twenty low hurdles) went into the locker-room and took a shower, although he hadn’t run enough to work up a sweat. There never was enough hot water at home and when he could he showered at the gym. The high school had been built in 1927, when everybody had money, and the showers were roomy and with plenty of hot water. There was even a swimming pool. Usually, Rudolph took a swim too, after practice, but he didn’t today, out of respect.
The boys in the locker-room spoke in low tones and there was none of the usual horsing around. Smiley, the captain of the team, got up on the bench and said he thought that if there was a funeral service for Henry’s brother, they all ought to chip in and buy a wreath. Fifty cents a man would do it, he thought, You could tell by looking at the boys’ faces who could spare the fifty cents and who couldn’t. Rudolph couldn’t spare it, but he made a conscious effort to look as though he could. The boys who agreed most readily were the ones whose parents took them down to New York City before the school term to buy the year’s clothes for them. Rudolph bought his clothes in town, in Port Philip, at Bernstein’s Department Store.
He was dressed neatly, though, with a collar and tie and a sweater under a leather windbreaker, and brown pants, from an old suit whose jacket had gone through at the elbows. Henry Fuller was one of the boys who got his clothes in New York, but Rudolph was sure Henry wasn’t getting any pleasure from the fact this afternoon.
Rudolph got out of the locker-room quickly because he didn’t want to walk home with any of the other fellows and talk about Henry Fuller’s brother. He wasn’t particularly friendly with Henry, who was rather stupid, as the weight men were likely to be, and he preferred not to pretend to any excessive sympathy.
The school was in a residential part of town, to the north and east of the business centre, and was surrounded by semidetached one-family houses that had been built at about the same time as the school, when the town was expanding. They were all the same originally but through the years their owners had painted the trim and doors in different colours and here and there had made a bay window or a balcony in forlorn attempts at variety.
Carrying his books, Rudolph strode along the cracked sidewalks of the neighbourhood. It was a windy early spring day, although not very cold, and he had a sense of well-being and holiday because of the light workout and the short practice. Most of the trees had already put out their leaves and there were buds everywhere.
The school was built on a hill and he could see the Hudson river below him, still looking cold and wintry, and the spires
of the churches of the town, and in the distance to the south, the chimney of the Boylan Brick and Tile Works, where his
sister Gretchen worked, and the tracks of the New York Central, along the river. Port Philip was not a pretty town,
although once it had been, with big white Colonial houses mingled with solid Victorian stone. But the boom in the 1920s had brought a lot of new people into town, working people, whose homes were narrow and dark, spreading out into all neighbourhoods. Then the Depression had thrown almost everybody out of work and the jerry-built houses had been neglected, and as Rudolph’s mother complained, the entire town had become a single slum. This wasn’t absolutely true.
The northern part of the town still had many fine big houses and wide streets and the houses had been kept up through
everything. And even in the neighbourhoods that were run down there were big houses that families had refused to leave and were still presentable behind generous lawns and old trees.
The war had brought prosperity once again to Port Philip and the Brick and Tile Works and the cement plant were going full blast and even the tannery and the Byefield Shoe Factory had started up again with Army orders/But with the war on, people had other things to do than worry about keeping up appearances and; if possible, the city looked more dilapidated than ever.
With the town spread before him like that, planless and jumbled in the windy afternoon sun, Rudolph wondered if anybody would give his life to defend it or to take it, as Henry Fuller’s brother had given his life to take some nameless town in Germany.
Secretly, he hoped that the war would last another two years, “although it didn’t look as though it would. He was going to be seventeen years old soon and another year after that he could enlist. He saw himself with a lieutenant’s silver bars, taking an enlisted man’s salute, waving a platoon to follow him under machine-gun fire. It was the sort of experience a man ought to have. He was sorry there was no more cavalry. That must have been something - waving a sabre, at a full gallop, charging the despicable foe.
He didn’t dare mention anything like this around the house. His mother became hysterical when anybody as much as suggested that perhaps the war would last and her Rudolph would be taken. He knew that some boys lied about their age to enlist - there were stories about fifteen-year-old boys, even fourteen-year-olds, who were in the Marines and who had won medals - but he couldn’t do anything like that to his mother.
As usual, he made a detour to pass the house where Miss Lenaut lived. Miss Lenaut was his French teacher. She was nowhere in sight.
Then he walked down to Broadway, the main street of the town, which ran parallel to the river and which was also the through highway from New York to Albany. He dreamed of having a car, like the ones he saw speeding through town. Once he had a car he would go down to New York every weekend. He wasn’t quite sure what he would do in New York, but he could go there.
Broadway was a nondescript thoroughfare, with shops of all kinds mixed together, butcher shops and markets next to quite large stores that sold women’s clothes and cheap jewellery and sporting goods. He stopped, as he often did, before the window of the Army and Navy Store, which had fishing equipment displayed along with work shoes and chino pants and shirts and flashlights and penknives. He stared at the fishing rods, thin and elegant, with their expensive reels. He fished in the river and, when the season was on, in the trout streams that were open to the public, but his equipment was primitive.
He went down another short street and turned to his left on Vanderhoff. Street, where he lived. Vanderhoff Street ran parallel to Broadway and seemed to be trying to emulate it, but doing it badly, like a poor man in a baggy suit and scuffed shoes pretending he had arrived in a Cadillac. The shops were small and the wares in their windows were dusty, as though the owners knew there really was no use. Quite a few of the shop fronts were still boarded up, having closed down in 1930 or 1931. When new sewer lines were laid down before the war the WPA had felled all the trees which had shaded the sidewalks and nobody had bothered to plant new ones. Vanderhoff was a long street and as he approached his own house the street became shabbier and shabbier, as though just the mere act of going south was somehow spiritually a decline.
His mother was in the bakery, behind the counter, with a shawl around her shoulders, because she was always cold. The building was on a corner, so there were two big windows and his mother kept complaining that with all that glass there was no way of keeping the shop warm. She was putting a dozen hard rolls in a brown paper bag for a little girl. There were cakes and tarts displayed in the front window, but they were no longer baked in the cellar. At the start of the war, his father, who did the baking, had decided that it was more trouble than it was worth and now a truck from a big commercial bakery stopped every morning to deliver the cakes and pastries and Axel confined himself to baking the bread and rolls. When pastries had remained in the window three days, his father would bring them upstairs for the family to eat. Rudolph went in and kissed his mother and she patted his cheek. She always looked tired and was always squinting a little, because she was a chain smoker and the smoke got into her eyes.
‘Why so early’ she asked.
‘Short practice today,’ he said. He didn’t say why. ‘I’ll take over here. You can go upstairs now.’
‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘My Rudy.’ She kissed him again. She
was very affectionate with him. He wished she would kiss his brother or sister once in a while, but she never did. He had never seen his mother kiss his father.
‘I’ll go and make dinner,’ she said. She was the only one in the family who called supper dinner. Rudolph’s father did the shopping, because he said his wife was extravagant and didn’t know good food from bad, but most of the time she did the cooking.
She went out the front door. There was no door that opened directly from the bakery to the hallway and the staircase that led up to the two floors above, where they lived, and he saw his mother pass the window, framed in pastry and shivering as the wind hit her. It was hard for him to remember that she was only a little over forty years old. Her hair was greying and she shuffled like an old lady.
He got out a book and read. It would be slow in the shop for another hour. The book he was reading was Burke’s speech On Conciliation With the Colonies, for his English class. It was so convincing that you wondered how all those supposedly smart men in Parliament hadn’t agreed with him. What would America have been like if they had listened to Burke? Would there have been earls and dukes and castles? He would have liked that. Sir Rudolph Jordache, Colonel in the Port Philip Household Guards.
An Italian labourer came in and asked for a loaf of white bread. Rudolph put down Burke and served him.
The family ate in the kitchen. The evening meal was the only one they all ate together because of the father’s hours of work. They had lamb stew tonight. Despite rationing, they always had plenty of meat because Rudolph’s father was friendly with the butcher, Mr Haas, who didn’t ask for ration tickets because he was German, too. Rudolph felt uneasy about eating black market lamb on the same day that Henry Fuller had found out his brother had been killed, but all he did about it was ask for a small portion, mostly potatoes and carrots, because he couldn’t talk to his father about fine points like that. His brother, Thomas, the only blonde in the family, besides the mother, who really couldn’t be called blonde any more, certainly didn’t seem to be worried about anything as he wolfed down his food. Thomas was just a year younger than Rudolph, but was already as tall and much stockier than his brother. Gretchen, Rudolph’s older sister, never ate much, because she worried about her weight. His mother just picked at
her food. His father, a massive man in shirtsleeves, ate enormously, wiping his thick, black mustache with the back of his hand from time to time.
Gretchen didn’t wait for the three-day-old cherry pie that they had for dessert, because she was due at the Army hospital just outside town where she worked as a volunteer nurse’s aid five nights a week. When she stood up, the father made his usual joke. ‘Be careful,’ he said. ‘Don’t let those soldiers grab you. We don’t have enough rooms in this house to set up a nursery.’
‘Pa,’ Gretchen said reproachfully.
‘I know soldiers,’ Axel Jordache said. ‘Just be careful.’
Gretchen was a neat, proper, beautiful girl, Rudolph thought, and it pained him that his father talked like that to her. After all she was the only one in the family who was contributing to the war effort.
When the meal was over, Thomas went out, too, as he did every night. He never did any homework and he got terrible marks in school. He was still a freshman in the high school, although he was nearly sixteen. He never listened to anybody.
Axel Jordache went into the livingroom up front to read the evening newspaper before going down to the cellar for the night’s work. Rudolph stayed in the kitchen to dry the dishes after his mother had washed them. If I ever get married, Rudolph thought, my wife will not have to wash dishes.
When the dishes were done, the mother got out the ironing board and Rudolph went upstairs to the room he shared with his brother, to do his homework. He knew that if ever he was going to escape from eating in a kitchen and listening to his father and wiping dishes it was going to be through books, so he was always the best prepared student in the class for all examinations.
Maybe, Axel Jordache thought, at work in the cellar, I ought to put poison in one of them. For laughs. For anything. Serve hem right. Just once, just one night. See who gets it