The Old Bird | A Love Story by J. F. Powers
Editor’s Note: Quality literature enriches the mind and soul. The following short story is optional, recommended reading for Seton high schoolers. Written by one of the last century’s great short story writers, this bittersweet tale tells of an aging man, his wife, and unemployment inspires compassion.
This short story is one of several that are paired with the Bayley Bulletin Winter Quarter Short Story Contest.
Unemployed and elderly Mr. Newman sensed there were others, some of them, just as anxious as he was to be put on. But he was the oldest person in the room. He approached the information girl, and for all his show of business, almost brusqueness, he radiated timidity. The man in front of him asked the girl a question, which was also Mr. Newman’s.
“Are they doing any hiring today?”
The girl gave the man an application, a dead smile, and told him to take a seat after he had filled it out.
An answer, in any event, ready on her lips, she regarded Mr. Newman. Mr. Newman thought of reaching for an application and saying, “Yes, I’ll take a seat,” making a kind of joke out of the coincidence—the fellow before him looking for a job, too—only he could see from the others who had already taken seats it was no coincidence. They all had that superior look of people out of work.
“Got an application there for a retired millionaire?” Mr. Newman said, attempting jauntiness. That way it would be easier for her to refuse him. Perhaps it was part of her job to weed out applicants clearly too old to be of any use to the company. Mr. Newman had a real horror of butting in where he wasn’t wanted.
The girl laughed, making Mr. Newman feel like a regular devil, and handed him an application. The smile she gave him was alive and it hinted that things were already on a personal basis between him and her and the company.
“You’ll find a pen at the desk,” she said.
Mr. Newman’s bony old hand clawed at his coat pocket and unsnapped a large ancient fountain pen. “I carry my own! See?” In shy triumph, he held up the fountain pen, which was orange. He unscrewed it, put it together, and fingered it as though he were actually writing.
But the girl was doing her dead smile at the next one.
Mr. Newman went over to the desk. The application questioned him: Single? Married? Children of your own? Parents living? Living with parents? Salary (expect) ? Salary (would take) ?
Mr. Newman made ready with his fountain pen and in the ensuing minutes he did not lie about his age, his abilities, or past earnings. The salary he expected was modest. He was especially careful about making blots with his pen, which sometimes flowed too freely. He had noted before he started that the application was one of those which calls for the information to be printed. This he had done. Under “DO NOT WRITE BELOW THIS LINE” he had not written.
Mr. Newman read the application over and rose to take it to the information girl. She pointed to a bench.
Hesitating for a moment, Mr. Newman seemed bent on giving it to her. He sat down. He got up. His face distraught, he walked unsteadily over to the girl.
Before she could possibly hear him, he started to stammer, “I wonder . . . maybe it will make a difference,” his voice both appealing for her mercy and saying it was out of the question—indeed he did not desire it—that she should take a personal interest in him. Then he got control, except for his eyes, which, without really knowing it, were searching the girl’s face for the live smile, like the first time.
“I used green ink,” he said limply.
“Let’s see.” The girl took the application, gave both sides a darting scrutiny, looking for mistakes. “Will it make any difference? If it does and I could have another application, I could—” Mr. Newman had his orange fountain pen out again, as though to match the green on its tip with the ink on the application and thus fully account for what had come about.
“Oh no, I think that’ll be all right,” the girl said, finally getting the idea. “We’re not that fussy.” Mr. Newman, however, still appeared worried. “No, that’s fine—and neat, too,” the girl said. “Mr. Newman.” She had spoken his name and there was her live smile. Mr. Newman blushed, then smiled a little himself. With perspiring fingers he put the fountain pen together and snapped it in his pocket.
The girl returned the application. Mr. Newman, lingering on, longed to confide in her, to tell her something of himself—why, for instance, he always used green ink; how famous and familiar a few years ago the initials “C. N.” in green had been at the old place. Like his friend Jack P. Ferguson (died a few years back, it was in the papers) and the telegram. “Telegram” Ferguson, he was called, because he was always too busy to write. Green ink and telegrams, the heraldry of business. He wanted to tell her of the old days—the time he met Elbert Hubbard and Charley Schwab at a banquet.
Then on this side of the old days he saw a busy girl, busy being busy, who could never understand, and he forced himself to give up hope.
“I thank you,” he said, going quickly back to his place on the bench to wait. He sat there rereading his application. Under “DO NOT WRITE BELOW THIS LINE” were some curious symbols. He guessed at their significance: CLN (Clean?); DSPN (Disposition?); PRSNLTY (Personality, no doubt about that one); PSE (Poise?); FCW (?), LYL (Loyal?); PSBLE LDR (Possible Leader); NTC (?). His fingers were damp with perspiration, and for fear he would present an untidy application, he laid it on his lap and held his hands open at his sides, letting them get cool and dry in case he had to shake hands with the interviewer.
When they were ready to see him, Mr. Newman hustled into a small glass office and stood before a young man. A sign with wooden letters indicated that he was Mr. Shanahan. Mr. Shanahan was reading a letter. Mr. Newman did not look directly at Mr. Shanahan: it was none of Mr. Newman’s business—Mr. Shanahan’s letter—and he did not want to seem curious or expectant of immediate attention. This was their busy season.
Mr. Shanahan, his eyes still reading the letter, noiselessly extended a hand toward Mr. Newman. A moment later he moved his head and it was then that Mr. Newman saw the hand. Mr. Newman paled. Caught napping! A bad beginning. He hastened to shake Mr. Shanahan’s hand, recoiled in time. Mr. Shanahan had only been reaching for the application. Mr. Newman handed it to Mr. Shanahan and said, “Thank you,” for some reason.
“Ah, yes. Have a seat.” Mr. Shanahan rattled the application in one hand. “What kind of work did you want to do?” Evidently he expected no answer, for he went on to say, “I don’t have to tell you, Mr. Newman, there’s a labor shortage, especially in non-defense industries. That, and that alone, accounts for the few jobs we have to offer. We’re an old-line house.”
“Yes,” Mr. Newman said.
“And there aren’t any office jobs,” Mr. Shanahan continued. “That’s the kind of work you’ve always done?”
“Yes, it is,” Mr. Newman said. Mr. Shanahan sucked a tooth sadly.
Mr. Newman was ready now for the part about the company letting him know later.
“How’d you like a temporary job in our shipping room?” Mr. Shanahan said, his eyes suddenly watchful.
For an instant Mr. Newman succeeded in making it plain that he, like any man of his business experience, was meant for better things. A moment later, in an interesting ceremony which took place in his heart, Mr. Newman surrendered his well-loved white collar. He knew that Mr. Shanahan, with that dark vision peculiar to personnel men, had witnessed the whole thing.
“Well . . .” he said.
Mr. Shanahan, the game bagged and bumping from his belt, got cordial now. “How are you, pretty handy with rope?”
He said it in such a flattering way that Mr. Newman trembled under the desire to be worthy. “Yes, I am,” he said.
“But can you begin right away?” It was the final test.
“Yes, I can!” Mr. Newman said, echoing some of Mr. Shanahan’s spirit. “You bet I can! ”
“Well then, follow me!”
Mr. Shanahan guided Mr. Newman through a maze of departments. On an elevator, going down, he revealed what the job paid to start. Mr. Newman nodded vigorously that one could not expect too much to start. Mr. Shanahan told him that he didn’t have to tell him that they were a firm known far and wide for fair dealing and that if (for any reason) Mr. Newman ever left them, it should be easy to get another position, and . . .
Out of the elevator and in the lower depths, Mr. Shanahan said he would like to make sure Mr. Newman understood the job was only temporary. After the Christmas holidays things were pretty slow in their line. Otherwise, they would be glad to avail themselves of his services the year round. However, the experience Mr. Newman would get here might very well prove invaluable to him in later life. Mr. Newman nodded less vigorously now.
They came to a long table, flat against a wall, extending around a rafterish room fitted out for packing: tough twine and hairy manila rope on giant spools, brown paper on rollers, sticking tape bearing the company’s name, crest, and slogan: “A modern house over 100 years young.”
Several men were packing things. Mr. Shanahan introduced Mr. Newman to one of them.
“This is your boss, Mr. Hurley. This is Mr. Newman. Mr. Newman’s pretty handy with rope. Ought to make an A-1 packer.”
“Well . . .” Mr. Newman said, embarrassed before the regular packers. He shook Mr. Hurley’s hard hand.
“I sure hope so,” Mr. Hurley said grimly. “This is our busy season.”
When Mr. Shanahan had gone Mr. Hurley showed Mr. Newman where he could hang his coat. He told him what he would have to do and what he would be held responsible for. He cited the sad case of the shipment sent out last week to Fargo, North Dakota. The company had lost exactly double the amount of the whole sale, to say nothing of good will. Why? Faulty packing! He urged Mr. Newman to figure it out for himself. He told Mr. Newman that haste made waste, but that they were expected to get incoming orders out of the house on the same day. Not tomorrow. Not the next day. The same day. Finally Mr. Hurley again brought up the case of the shipment sent to Fargo and seemed pleased with the reaction it got. For Mr. Newman frowned his forehead all out of shape and rolled his head back and forth like a sad old bell, as if to say, “Can such things be?”
“All right, Newman, let’s see what you can do!” Mr. Hurley slapped him on the shoulder like a football coach sending in a substitute. Mr. Newman, gritting his false teeth, tackled his first assignment for the company: a half-dozen sets of poker chips, a box of rag dolls, 5,000 small American flags, and a boy’s sled going to Waupaca, Wisconsin.
Mr. Newman perspired . . . lost his breath, caught it, tried to break a piece of twine with his bare hands, failed, cut his nose on a piece of wrapping paper, bled, barked his shin on an ice skate, tripped, said a few cuss words to himself . . . perspired.
“We go to lunch at twelve in this section,” Mr. Hurley told him in a whisper a few minutes before that time. “If you want to wash up, go ahead now.”
But Mr. Newman waited until the whistle blew before he knocked off. He had a shipment he wanted to get off. It was ten after twelve when he punched out.
There was no crowd at the time clock and he had a chance to look the thing over. He tried to summon up a little interest, but all he felt with any intensity was the lone fact that he’d never had to punch a clock before. It had always been enough before that he live by one.
On his lunch hour he did not know where to go. The company had a place where you could eat your lunch, but Mr. Newman had neglected to bring one. Quite reasonably he had not anticipated getting a job and starting on it the same day. After the usual morning of looking around, he had expected to go home and eat a bite with Mrs. Newman.
He walked past a lunch stand twice before he could make certain, without actually staring in the window at the menu painted on the wall, that hamburgers were ten cents and coffee five. He entered the place, then, and ordered with assurance that he would not be letting himself in for more than he could afford. He did not have any money to spare.
Would it be better, he wondered, to have payday come soon and get paid for a few days’ work, or could he hold out for a week or so and really have something when he did get paid? Leaving the lunch stand, he walked in the direction of the company, but roundabout so he would not get back too soon. Say about fifteen minutes to one. That would give him time to go to the washroom.
“Where did you eat your lunch?” Mr. Hurley asked him the first thing. “I didn’t see you in the lunchroom.”
“Oh, I ate out,” Mr. Newman said, gratified that he’d been missed until he saw that he had offended Mr. Hurley by eating out. “I didn’t bring my lunch today,” he explained. “Didn’t think I’d be working so soon.” “Oh.” But Mr. Hurley was still hurt.
“I heard they let you eat your lunch in the building,” Mr. Newman said, giving Mr. Hurley his chance.
Mr. Hurley broke down and told Mr. Newman precisely where the employees’ lunchroom was, where it wasn’t, how to get there from the shipping room, how not to. There were two ways to get there, he said, and he guessed, as for him, he never went the same way twice in a row.
“You know how it is,” Mr. Hurley laughed, tying it in with life.
In the end Mr. Newman was laughing with Mr. Hurley, “Well, I guess so.” Talking with Mr. Hurley gave Mr. Newman a feeling of rare warmth. It was man-to-man or nothing with Hurley. He hoped there would be other lunch hours like this one. He went back to work at four minutes to one.
During the afternoon Mr. Newman worked up a dislike for the fat fellow next to him, but when they teamed up on a big shipment of toys the fat fellow made some cynical remarks about the company and Mr. Newman relaxed. His kind were harmless as rivals. Mr. Newman thought the company would be better off with employees like himself. And then he was ashamed, for at bottom he admired the fat fellow for his independence. Mr. Newman regretted that he was too old to be independent.
Toward the end of the day he was coming from getting a drink of water when he overheard Mr. Hurley talking with Mr. Shanahan.
“Yeah,” Mr. Hurley said, “when you said the old bird was handy with rope I thought, boy, he’s old enough to think about using some on himself. My God, Shanahan, if this keeps up we’ll have to draft them from the old people’s home.”
Mr. Newman, feeling indecently aged, unable to face them, went for another drink of water. He had to keep moving. When he returned to the shipping room they were all working and Mr. Shanahan was not there.
Just before quitting time, Mr. Hurley came over and congratulated him on his first day’s work. He said he thought Mr. Newman would make out all right, and showed him an easier way to cut string. When he suggested that Mr. Newman wash up before the whistle blew, Mr. Newman did not have the faith to refuse. He could not look Mr. Hurley in the eye now and say something about wanting to finish up a shipment. Any extraordinary industry on his part, he knew now, was useless. He was too old. All they could see when they looked at him was an old man. That was the only fact about him. He was an old bird.
“All right, Charley, see you in the morning,” Mr. Hurley said.
Mr. Newman slowly brought himself to realize he was “Charley” to Mr. Hurley. He had never before been “Charley” to anyone on such short acquaintance. Probably he would be “Old Charley” before long, which reminded him that Christmas was coming. There was no meaning beyond Christmas in all this sweat and humiliation, but that was enough. He would stick it out.
Mr. Newman was impressed again with the vault-like solemnity of the washroom. The strange dignity of the toilet booths, the resounding marble chips in the floor, the same as statehouses, the plenitude of paper, the
rude music of water coursing, the fat washbowls, all resplendent and perfect of their kind, and towels, white as winding sheets, circulating without end . . .
Mr. Newman, young here, luxuriated. Still he was sensible about it. The company was a big company and could no doubt stand a lot of wasting of towels and toilet paper, but Mr. Newman, wanting to be fair, took only what he needed of everything. He would not knowingly abuse a privilege. He read a notice concerning a hospitalization service the company offered the employees. The sensibleness of such a plan appealed strongly to Mr. Newman. He thought he would have to look into that, completely forgetting that he was only on temporary.
At the sound of the five-o’clock whistle Mr. Newman hurried out and took his place in the line of employees at the time clock. When his turn came to punch out, clutching his time card, he was shaking all over. The clock would jam, or stamp the time in the wrong place, or at the last moment, losing confidence in the way he was holding the card, after all his planning, he would somehow stick it in the wrong way. Then there would be shouts from the end of the line, and everybody would know it was all on account of an old bird trying to punch out.
Mr. Newman’s heart stopped beating, his body followed a preconceived plan from memory in the lapse, and then his heart started up again. Mr. Newman, a new friend to the machine, had punched out smoothly. One of the mass of company employees heading for home, Mr. Newman, his old body at once tired and tingling, walked so briskly he passed any number of younger people in the corridors. His mood was unfamiliar to him, one of achievement and crazy gaiety. He recognized the information girl ahead of him, passed her, and said over his shoulder: “Well, good night!”
She smiled in immediate reflex, but it was sobering to Mr. Newman, though she did say good night, that she did not seem to remember him very well, for it had not been the live smile.
At the outside door it was snowing. Mr. Newman bought a newspaper and let the man keep the two cents change. He meant to revive an old tradition with him by reading the paper on the streetcar. There was enough snow on the sidewalk to ease his swollen feet.
It was too crowded on the streetcar to open his paper and he had to stand all the way. His eyes on a placard, he considered the case of a man from Minneapolis who had got welcome relief. Hanging there on a strap, rocking with the elemental heave of the streetcar, he felt utterly weary, a gray old thing. What mattered above all else, though—getting a job—he had accomplished. This he told himself over and over until it became as real as his fatigue and mingled itself with the tortured noise of the streetcar.
His wife met him at the door. One glimpse of his face, he thought, was all she needed and she would know how to treat him tonight.
Already she knew something was up and had seen the scratch on his nose. She only said: “You stayed downtown all day, Charley.”
“Yes, I did,” he said.
She went to hang up his coat, hat, and scarf. He stepped across the familiar rug to the radiator. He stood there warming his hands and listening to her moving things in the kitchen. He could not bring himself to go there, as he did on any other night before supper, to talk of nothing important or particular, to let the water run till it got cold, to fill their glasses. He had too much to tell her tonight. He had forgotten to remove his rubbers.
“Come on now, Charley.”
He took a few steps, hesitated a second, and went straight into the kitchen. He was immediately, as he knew he would be, uneasy. He could think of nothing insignificant to say. His eyes were not meeting hers. The glasses were filled with water. Suddenly he had to look at her. She smiled. It was hard to bear. He did have news. But now, he felt, she expected too much.
He bit his lips in irritation and snapped, “Why didn’t you let me get the water?” That was beside the point, of course, but it gave him leeway to sit down at the table. He made a project of it. Trying to extend the note of normalcy, he passed things to her. He involved her subtly in passing them back. He wanted her to know there was a time and place for everything and now it was for passing. He invented an unprecedented interest in their silverware. His knife, fork, and spoon absorbed him.
“Where did we get this spoon?” he asked crossly.
It was all wasted. She had revamped her strategy. She appeared amused, and there was about her a determination deeper than his to wait forever. Her being so amused was what struck him as insupportable. He had a dismaying conviction that this was the truest condition of their married life. It ran, more or less, but always present, right through everything they did. She was the audience—that was something like it—and he was always on stage, the actor who was never taken quite seriously by his audience, no matter how heroic the role. The bad actor and his faithful but not foolish audience. Always! As now! It was not a hopeless situation, but only because she loved him.
She did love him. Overcome by the idea, he abandoned his silence. He heard himself telling her everything. Not exactly as it was, naturally, but still everything. Not at first about his being handy with rope, nothing about being “Charley” and an old bird, but quite frankly that he was working in the shipping room instead of the office. About Mr. Shanahan, the interviewer—how nice he was, in a way. About the information girl who seemed to take quite an interest in him and who, to his surprise, had said good night to him. Mr. Hurley, his department head, and how to get to the employees’ lunchroom. The washroom, plenty of soap and towels, a clean place—clean as her kitchen; she should see it. Where he had lunch, not much of a place. The fat fellow next to him at the table, not exactly loyal to the company, but a very likable chap . . . and here—he dug into his shirt pocket—was a piece of their sticking tape, as she could see, with their name and trademark.
” ‘A modern house,’ ” she read, ” ‘over 100 years young—young—well, that’s pretty clever.” “Oh, they’re an old-line firm,” Mr. Newman said.
“I’ll have to pack you a lunch then, Charley,” she said. She had finally got into the adventure with him. “I bought a paper tonight,” he said. “It’s in the other room.”
With a little excited movement she parted the organdy curtain at the window. “My, Charley, just look at that!” Snowflakes tumbled in feathery confusion past the yellow light burning in the court, wonderfully white against the night, smothering the whole dirty, roaring, guilty city in innocence and silence and beauty.
Mr. Newman squirmed warm inside the thought of everything he could think of—the snow falling, the glow in the kitchen, landing the job, Christmas coming, her . . .
Their supper got cold.
She let the curtain fall together, breathing, “My!”
Reluctantly Mr. Newman assumed the duty he had as husband and only provider—not to be swept away by dreams and snowflakes. He said with the stern wisdom of his generation: “Keeps up much longer it’ll tie up transportation.”
“But do you like that kind of work, Charley?”
He assured her most earnestly that he did, knowing she knew he’d do anything to get into an office again. He caught himself on the verge of telling her that working in the shipping room was just the way the company, since it was so old and reliable, groomed its new employees for service in the office. But that sounded too steep and ultimately disastrous. He had to confess it was only temporary work. This pained her, he could see, and he tried to get her mind on something else.
“I’ll bet you had no idea your husband was so handy with rope.” He told her how it came on big spools, like telegraph wire. But she did not think this important.
“The people,” he said, “the ones I’ve met at least—well, they all seem very nice.” “Then maybe they’ll keep you after Christmas, Charley!”
He looked sharply at her and could tell she was sorry she said that. She understood what must follow.
He opened his mouth to speak, said nothing, and then, closing his eyes to the truth, he said: “Yes. You know, I think they will. I’m sure of it.”
He coughed. That was not the way it was at all. It had happened again. He was the bad actor again.
His only audience smiled and loved him.