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(c. 1929)

by Charles MacArthur

Chapter I.

The night clerk at the Y.M.C.A. Hotel said that it was a fine morning, and Mr. Stovich made ringing response.

“You said a mouthful! It sure is one swell day.”

“For me” -- he added significantly.

Mr. Stovich drolly winked his eye as he made this comment. It was the night clerk’s cue, but he muffed it completely. Instead of rising to the occasion, he merely glanced at the clock, observed that it was six o’clock, and said:

“Ain’t you up kinda early this morning?”

Stovich could hardly believe his ears. It was too astounding and incredible. He scanned the other’s face in the expectation that his words would prove to be a jest. But no. Obviously, the man did not know who Mr. Stovich was, or what he was doing abroad at this early hour. Perceiving this, Stovich smiled coldly, and with considerable dignity remarked:

“I see you don’t read the newspapers.”

“Why -- what do you mean?” replied the night clerk, with maddening lack of comprehension.

“You ought to know about that little necktie party we’re giving them Hunkies this morning?”

Mr. Stovich accompanied this reproach with an indignant stare.

“That’s right!” cried the clerk, instantly and profoundly impressed. “You’re Mr. Stovich, ain’t you?”

Stovich exhibited all his gold teeth in a gratified smile. He nodded.

“The day clerk was tellin’ me,” continued the other. “Excuse me, brother, for not knowing you!”

“No offense,” said Stovich graciously.

He smiled again and passed into the quick lunch that adjoined the hotel lobby, happily conscious that he was followed by a popeyed stare. Presently he was followed by the night clerk himself, who stood at a respectful distance while Stovich added a bottle of ketchup to a plate brimming with beans.

“It ain’t hurt your appetite none!”

For reply, Stovich impaled a large chunk of bacon with his fork. It disappeared with a gurgling, sand-sucker effect.

“I bet them guys over in the jail ain’t very hungry, heh?”

Mr. Stovich winked that such was undoubtedly the case. Encouraged, the night clerk sat down.

“Tell me something,” he said. “Are you goin’ to see ‘em get it?”

This was too much. Stovich stopped eating to stare.

“I mean, are you goin’ t’be right in the same room with ‘em -- anyways near the scaffold?”

By shifting a quantity of bread and beans to the right cheek, Stovich managed to release a guffaw. His eyes glistened at the preposterous ignorance of the man.

“Am I?” he demanded -- “Am I!”

His Adam’s apple worked violently on a four-inch plunge. Soon it was possible for him to talk.

“I’m the guy,” he explained modestly, “that does the dirty work.”

A segment of his cinnamon bun went into his coffee with this, but he did not take his eyes from the night clerk’s face or risk missing out on a second of the ensuing surprise.

“Say! -- no kidding -- you don’t mean -- you spring the trap?”

“That’s all!” replied Stovich. His smile spread in spite of his modest disinclination to exult.

“God! I wouldn’t want your job!” The night clerk meant it.

“Why not?”

“No, thanks! Nix on that stuff for mine!”

“Oh, is that so?” Stovich interposed, with some heat. “If everybody felt like you do, where the hell would we be at? Huh? Your life wouldn’t be worth a nickel! Maybe you don’t give a damn, but did you ever stop to think of what would happen to your mother, and your sister, if there wasn’t any capital punishment? Supposin’ some dinge came along and -- how would you feel about that?”

The night clerk supposed that was one way of looking at it.

“You’re damn right!” declared Stovich. “Besides, I guess you’d change your mind pretty quick if somebody handed you a hundred bucks every time you pushed a little button --”

“A hundred bucks!”

“Three hundred bucks this morning,” Stovich corrected amiably. “We’re goin’ t’knock off three of ‘em -- in a row!”

He beamed at the other’s undisguised envy.

“Yes, sir! Three pushes at a hundred a push! I guess that’s kinda rotten, huh?”

“Pretty soft,” said the night clerk, dismally. “I work three months for that.”

“And I work three minutes.” Stovich could not forbear from rubbing it in.

The night clerk proceeded to other questions. How many men had Stovich seen die? Was it true that they always loaded them up with morphine? How did they act when the rope was put around their necks? Was it a fact that doomed men stood constantly in need of a plumber?

Stovich resented this examination as a cow might resent the milking activities of an inexpert farmhand. They had nothing to do with his three hundred-dollar fee, and by degrees his manner became professional, reticent, and strained.

Rising abruptly, he selected a sagging slab of strawberry shortcake from the counter. He was mindful of the extravagance of his purchase, but he salved his economical soul with the reflection that it was not every day that somebody handed him three hundred dollars. This was no time for self-denial.

One shortcake led to another, and it was twenty minutes past six before Stovich had finished his repast. He helped himself liberally to toothpicks, paid his check, and strolled magnificently through the lobby to the street, with the night clerk twittering at his heels.

© 2003-04 The Estate of Charles G. MacArthur. All Rights Reserved.

Continue to Chapter Two or Return to Charles Gordon MacArthur Page

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