Early one morning, during a wearying hot spell in the city, a police car that happened to be cruising along Canal Street drew over to the curb and one of the two policemen in the car leaned out of the window and fingered a come-here to an old man wearing a black derby hat, who carried a large carton on his back, held by clothesline rope to his shoulder, and dragged a smaller carton with his other hand.
But the peddler, either not hearing, or paying no attention, went on. At that, the policeman, the younger of the two, pushed open the door and sprang out. He strode over to the peddler and shoving the large carton on his back, swung him around as if he were straw. The peddler stared at him in frightened astonishment. He was a gaunt, shriveled man with very large eyes which at the moment gave the effect of turning lights so that the policeman was a little surprised though not for long.
“Are you deaf?” he said.
The peddler’s lips moved in a way that suggested he might be, but at last he cried out, “Why do you push me?” and again surprised the policeman with the amount of wail that rang in his voice.
“Why didn’t you stop when I called you?”
“So who knows you called me? Did you say my name?”
“What is your name?”
The peddler clamped his sparse, yellow teeth rigidly together.
“And where’s your license?”
“What license?—who license?”
“None of your wisecracks—your license to peddle. We saw you peddle.”
The peddler did not deny it.
“What’s in the big box?”
“What’s in the other?”
“Don’t you know it’s against the law to peddle without a license?”
Without answering, the peddler looked around but there was no one in sight except the other policeman in the car and his eyes were shut as if he were catching a little lost sleep.
The policeman on the sidewalk opened his black summons book.
“Spill it, Pop, where do you live?”
The peddler stared down at the cracked sidewalk.
“Hurry up, Lou,” called the policeman from the car. He was an older man though not so old as the peddler.
“Just a second, Walter, this old guy here is balky.”
With his pencil he prodded the peddler who was still staring at the sidewalk but who then spoke, saying he had no money to buy a license.
“But you have the money to buy bulbs. Don’t you know you’re cheating the city when you don’t pay the legitimate fees?”
“. . .”
“Talk, will you?”
“Come on, Lou.”
“Come on yourself, this nanny goat won’t talk.”
The other policeman slowly got out of the car, a heavy man with gray hair and a red face shiny with perspiration.
“You better give him the information he wants, Mister.”
The peddler, holding himself stiff, stared between them. By this time some people had gathered and were looking on but Lou scattered them with a wave of his arm.
“All right, Walter, give me a hand. This bird goes to the station house.”
Walter looked at him with some doubt but Lou said, “Resisting an officer in the performance of his duty.”
He took the peddler’s arm and urged him forward. The carton of bulbs slipped off his shoulder, pulling him to his knees.
“Veh is mir.”
Walter helped him up and they lifted him into the car. The young cop hauled the large carton to the rear of the car, opened the trunk and shoved it in sideways. As they drove off, a man in front of one of the stores held up a box and shouted, “Hey, you forgot this one,” but neither of them turned to look back, and the peddler didn’t seem to be listening.
On their way to the station house they passed the Brooklyn Bridge.
“Just a second, Lou,” said Walter. “Could you drive across the bridge now and stop at my house? My feet are perspiring and I’d like to change my shirt.”
“After we get this character booked.”
But Walter querulously insisted it would take too long and though Lou didn’t want to drive him home he finally gave in. Neither of them spoke on the way to Walter’s house, which was not far from the bridge, on a nice quiet street of three-story brownstone houses with young trees in front of them, newly planted not far from the curb.
When Walter got out, he said to the peddler, “If you were in Germany they would have killed you. All we were trying to do was give you a summons that would maybe cost you a buck fine.” Then he went up the stone steps.
After a while Lou became impatient waiting for him and honked the horn. A window shade on the second floor slid up and Walter in his underwear called down, “Just five minutes, Lou—I’m just drying my feet.”
He came down all spry and they drove back several blocks and onto the bridge. Midway across, they had to slow down in a long traffic line and to their astonishment the peddler pushed open the door and reeled out upon the bridge, miraculously ducking out of the way of the trailers and trucks coming from the other direction. He scooted across the pedestrian’s walk and clambered with ferocious strength up on the railing of the bridge.
But Lou, who was very quick, immediately pursued him and managed to get his hand on the peddler’s coat-tails as he stood poised on the railing for the jump.
With a yank Lou pulled him to the ground. The back of his head struck against the sidewalk and his derby hat bounced up, twirled, and landed at his feet. However, he did not lose consciousness. He lay on the ground moaning and tearing with clawlike fingers at his chest and arms.
Both the policemen stood there looking down at him, not sure what to do since there was absolutely no bleeding. As they were talking it over, a fat woman with moist eyes, who despite the heat, was wearing a white shawl over her head, and carrying, with the handle over her pudgy arm, a large basket of salted five-cent pretzels, passed by and stopped out of curiosity to see what had happened.
Seeing the man on the ground she called out, “Bloostein!” but he did not look at her and continued tearing at his arms.
“Do you know him?” Lou asked her.
“It’s Bloostein. I know him from the neighborhood.”
“Where does he live?”
She thought for a minute but didn’t know. “My father said he used to own a store on Second Avenue but he lost it. Then his Missus died and also his daughter was killed in a fire. Now he’s got the seven years’ itch and they can’t cure it in the clinic. They say he peddles with light bulbs.”
“Don’t you know his address?”
“Not me. What did he do?”
“It doesn’t matter what he tried to do,” said Walter.
“Goodbye, Bloostein, I have to go to the schoolyard,” the fat lady apologized. She picked up the basket and went with her pretzels down the bridge.
By now Bloostein had stopped his frantic scratching and lay quietly on the sidewalk. The sun shone straight into his eyes but he did nothing to shield them.
Lou, who was quite pale, looked at Walter and Walter said, “Let him go.”
They got him up on his feet, dusted his coat and placed his dented hat on his head. Lou said he would get the bulbs out of the car but Walter said, “Not here, down at the foot of the bridge.”
They helped Bloostein back to the car and in a few minutes let him go with his carton of bulbs at the foot of the bridge, not far from the place where they had first chanced to see him.
But that night, after their tour of duty, when Lou drove him home, Walter got out of the car and saw, after a moment of disbelief, that Bloostein himself was waiting for him in front of his house.
“Hey, Lou,” he called, but Lou had already driven off so he had to face the peddler alone. Bloostein looked, with his carton of bulbs, much as he had that morning, except for the smudge where the dent on his derby hat had been, and his eyes were fleshy with fatigue.
“What do you want here?” Walter said to him.
The peddler parted his lips then pointed to his carton. “My little box lights.”
“What about it?”
“What did you do with them?”
Walter thought a few seconds and remembered the other box of bulbs.
“You sure you haven’t gone back and hid them somewhere?” he asked sternly.
Bloostein wouldn’t look at him.
The policeman felt very hot. “All right, we’ll try and locate them but first I have to have my supper. I’m hungry.”
He went up the steps and turned to say something more but a woman came out of the house and he raised his hat to her and went in.
After supper he would have liked very much to relax in front of the radio but instead he changed out of his uniform, said he was going to the corner, and walked, conscious of his heavy disappointment, down the stairs.
Bloostein was planted where he had left him.
“My car’s in the garage.” Walter went slowly up the street, Bloostein following with his carton of bulbs on his back.
At the garage Walter motioned him into the car. Bloostein lifted the carton into the back seat and got in with it. Walter drove out and over the bridge to Canal Street, to the place where they had taken the peddler into the police car.
He parked and went into three of the stores there, flashing his badge, and asking if anyone knew who had got the bulbs they had forgotten. No one knew for sure but the clerk in the third store thought it might be someone next door whose name and address he gave to Walter.
Before returning to the car Walter went into a tavern and had a few beers. Over the fourth he had a hunch and called the police property clerk, who said he had taken in no electric bulbs that day. Walter walked out and asked Bloostein how many bulbs he had had in the carton.
“At how much—wholesale?”
“That’s four eighty,” he figured. Taking a five-dollar bill from his wallet, he handed it to Bloostein who wouldn’t accept it.
“What do you want, the purple heart?”
“My little box lights.”
Walter then kidded, “Now you’re gonna take a little ride.”
They then rode to the address he had been given but no one knew where the one who had the bulbs was. Finally a baldheaded, stocky man in an undershirt came down from the top floor and said he was the man’s uncle and what did Walter want.
Walter convinced him it wasn’t serious. “It’s just that he happens to know where these bulbs are that we left behind by mistake after an arrest.”
The uncle said if it were not really serious he would give him the address of the social club where he could find his nephew. The address was a lot further uptown and on the East Side.
“This is foolish,” Walter said to himself as he came out of the house. He thought maybe he could take his time and Bloostein might go away, so he stopped at another beer parlor and had several more as he watched a ten-round fight on television.
He came out sweaty from the beers.
But Bloostein was there.
Walter scratched under his arm. “What’s good for an itch?” he said. When he got into the car he thought he was a little bit drunk but it didn’t bother him and he drove to the social club on the East Side) where a dance was going on. He asked the tickettaker in a tuxedo if this nephew was around.
The ticket-taker, whose right eye was very crossed, assured him that nobody by the name mentioned was there.
“It’s really not very important,” Walter said. “Just about a small carton bulbs he happens to be holding for this old geezer outside.”
“I wouldn’t know anything about it.”
“It’s nothing to worry about.”
Walter stood by the door a few minutes and watched the dancers but there was no one whose face he could recognize.
“He’s really not there.”
“I don’t doubt your word.”
Afterwards he said it was a nice dance but he had to leave.
“Stay awhile,” said the ticket-taker.
“I have to go,” said Walter. “I have a date with a back-seat driver.” The ticket-taker winked with his good eye, which had a comical effect, but Walter didn’t smile and soon he left.
“Still here, Kid?” he asked Bloostein.
He started the car and drove back to Sixth Avenue, where he stopped at a liquor store and bought himself a fifth of whiskey. In the car he tore the wrapper off the bottle and took a long pull.
“Drink?” He offered the botde to Bloostein.
Bloostein was perched like a skinny owl on the back seat gazing at him.
Walter capped the botde but did not start the car. He sat for a long time at the wheel, moodily meditating. At the point where he was beginning to feel down in the dumps, he got a sudden idea. The idea was so simple and good he quickly started the motor and drove downtown straight to Canal, where there was a hardware store that stayed open to midnight. He almost ran into the place and in ten minutes came out with a wrapped carton containing five dozen sixty-watt bulbs.
“The joy ride’s finished, my friend.”
The peddler got out and Walter unloaded the large carton and left it standing on the sidewalk near the smaller one.
He drove off quickly.
Going over the bridge he felt relieved, yet at the same time a little anxious to get to sleep because he had to be up at six. He garaged the car and then walked home and upstairs, taking care to move about softly in the bathroom so as not to awaken his son, a light sleeper, nor his wife, who slept heavily but couldn’t get back to sleep once she had been waked up. Undressing, he got into bed with her, but though the night was hot he felt like a cake of ice covered with a sheet. After a while he got up, raised the shade and stood by the window.
The quiet street was drenched in moonlight, and warm dark shadows fell from the tender trees. But in the tree shadow in front of the house were two strange oblongs and a gnarled, grotesque-hatted silhouette that stretched a tormented distance down the block. Walter’s heart pounded heavily for he knew it was Bloostein.
He put on his robe and straw slippers and ran down the stairs.
Bloostein stared at the moonlit sidewalk.
“What do you want?”
“. . .”
“You better go, Bloostein. This is too late for monkey business. You got your bulbs. Now you better just go home and leave me alone. I hate to have to call the police. Just go home.”
Then he lumbered up the stone steps and the flight of carpeted stairs. Inside the bedroom he could hear his son moan in his sleep. Walter lay down and slept but was awakened by the sound of soft rain. Getting up, he stared out. There was the peddler in the rain, with his white upraised face looking at the window, so near he might be standing on stilts.
Hastening into the hall, Walter rummaged in a closet there for an umbrella but couldn’t find one. Then his wife woke and called in a loud whisper, “Who’s there?” He stood motionless and she listened a minute and evidently went back to sleep. Then because he couldn’t find the umbrella he got out a light summer blanket, brought it into the little storage room next to the bedroom, and taking the screen out of the window, threw the blanket out to Bloostein so he wouldn’t get too wet. The white blanket seemed to float down.
He returned to bed, by an effort of the will keeping himself there for hours. Then he noticed that the rain had stopped and he got up to make sure. The blanket lay heaped where it had fallen on the sidewalk. Bloostein was standing away from it, under the tree.
Walter’s straw slippers squeaked as he walked down the stairs. The heat had broken and now a breeze came through the street, shivering the leaves in summer cold.
In the doorway he thought, what’s my hurry? I can wait him out till six, then just let the mummy try to follow me into the station house.
“Bloostein,” he said, going down the steps, but as the old man looked up, he felt a sickening emptiness.
Staring down at the sidewalk he thought about everything. At last he raised his head and slowly said, “Bloostein, I owe you an apology. I’m really sorry the whole thing happened. I haven’t been able to sleep. From my heart I’m truly sorry.”
Bloostein gazed at him with enormous eyes reflecting the moon. He answered nothing but it seemed he had shrunk and so had his shadow.
Walter said good night. He went up and lay down under the sheet.
“What’s the matter?” said his wife.
She turned over on her side.
“Don’t wake Sonny.”
He rose and went to the window. Raising the shade, he stared out. Yes, gone. He, his boxes of lights and soft summer blanket. He looked again but the long, moonwhitened street had never been so empty.