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Art for Artie


THE first thing that I missed when I ambled into the All-Pure Lunch was Nellie Magee, the horn-rimmed cashier. I had been away on the road for two months and on my return I hotfooted it for the one-arm-pay-as-you-leave foodatarium.

But where was the charming Nellie? In her place sat an austere blonde. Blue eyes that pierced, hair that reminds one of a slice of Heaven, and a mouth that would have made Mr. Antony think Cleopatra was Topsy. I grabbed the proffered ticket and walked up to the counter. There I found Artie Magee, Nellie's brother, still on the job, serving ham and eggs, et cetera, to all comers.

"Howdy, Joe!" welcomed Artie. "Just blow in town?"

"Yep," I said. "Where's Nellie?"

"Not here any more. How d'ye like the new one?"

"Not so bad," I admitted. "She could pose for the magazine covers, and get away with it."

"Fine girl," volunteered Artie, as he changed his apron.

"But why did Nellie leave?" I persisted, Frankly, I was sort of partial to Nellie.

"It's a good story. Wait a moment—I'll tell you all about it while I eat. Go over there and sit down. I'll get Mike to watch the counter. Hey, Mike!"

I sat at the table, and Artie joined me a minute later with a tray, containing beef stew, a side of macaroni, and several other mysteries. He abstractedly stirred the stew with a fork, then grinned boyishly.

"Joe," he began, "d'ye remember a tall, solemn- looking bird that used to come in here for breakfast?"

"Do you mean the one that looked like a professional humorist or a college professor?" I asked.

"I don't know what them there college professors look like—but you know the guy I mean—the one that used to come in most of the time with a bunch of books under his wing, see? Yeah, maybe he did look like what you said, only it turns out that he wasn't. Well, he used to stare at Nellie, you remember, but when he would slip her his check he'd never say a word."

"One of those timid boys, eh?"

"Yeah—sort of bashful. Well, you know how Nellie always had some books around up there near the register, and when she wasn't busy relieving the customers of the coin, she'd open 'em up and read. She was what you calls romantic, see, but anyway one day he asks me who the cashier was and when I told him that she was no less than my sister, he asks me would I care to introduce him."

"What was the idea?" I wanted to know.

"Wait a minute—I'm coming to that part, see. I asks him what he wants to know her for, and he says that he has noticed that she was always reading and says that he likes highbrow girls, and all that. So I says to him that I would speak to Nellie about it and then let him know what she says. Well, what d'ye suppose she does say, hey?"

"How should I know?" I asked. "But I hope that she gave him the air!"

"No, sir! I no more than mentions that Mr. Brown was willing to meet her than she up and near shouts for joy! Says she was tired of talking to a bunch of lowbrows, and that she would be glad to meet a highbrow for a change. Right away, see, she must have took him for what you says he was, so I introduces 'em the next day and she was tickled silly to meet him, and so they talks for a while and I went behind the counter.

"That night," went on Artie, "Nellie tells me that she has been asked by Mr. Brown to go to some highbrow lecture about a nipper named Nietzsche—did you ever hear of 'im?—that was to be held down in that there Greenwich Village place. She's all excited, see, and I commences to do a little figgering myself. I been reading a lot about that there Greenwich Village bunch in the papers and so I guesses that I should go along for protection, if need be. I told Nellie that she could go, all right, if her friend would stand the company of her little brother Artie. And—well, what d'ye know, hey?"

"What?" I asked.

"When Mr. Brown calls at our house he insists that I go along with 'em, and he says that he thinks that I will enjoy the lecture. So I says that I have always wanted to be one of them there highbrows myself, but that a guy who was tossed out to sell papers at the age of six didn't have much of a chance, and that was what happens to me, Joe. But Nellie was always a good reader, see, and so I told Mr. Brown that I was glad that some one in the Magee family knew the difference between geography and Hoboken."

Artie halted long enough to swallow the last of the stew.

"Well," he went on, "we lands at the place where the lecture was to come off and Mr. Brown shells out and buys the tickets. I see a bunch of ladies and gents in the hall that looks kind of goofy to me, see, but I figgers that I was midst highbrow society and lets it go at that. I sit there staring around like a regular dumbbells, see, and waits for the show to start. Mr. Brown and Nellie is talking about some bird named Einstein, who has a new idea about his relatives, or something, and I just take long slants at the ceiling and tries to look intelligent. I note that Mr. Brown was sort of uneasy about something, and then he switches the subject to the weather, and I jumped right into the conversation and held my own for five minutes.

"Suddenly a pale-faced bozo ambles out on the platform, takes a couple of swigs of water, brushes his hair back—and, believe me, Joe, that baby had plenty of the same—then he bows to all the customers. He's wearing a nice set of whiskers, and everything, and he puts his hands behind his back, coughs a couple of times for luck, then starts to say something about art. Well, my name's Art, see, and I thought he was bawling me out for mixing in with that swell bunch, but after he got talking for a while I see that he didn't even know I was alive. Well, Joe, I listens to him for about a half-hour without knowing what he was driving at, if anything. But, boy, believe me, that fella had more words on tap than a dictionary ever heard of!"

"So you didn't like the affair, eh?" I asked. "Oh, I liked it, all right, but I didn't know what it was all about. Well, near the end of his spiel the bird with the whiskers gets all worked up, commences to wave his hands in the air, and says as how America was rotten with commercialism and such stuff, see, and that there ain't no chance for any art. I took a slant at Mr. Brown and saw that he was half-asleep, so I guesses that he knew all about it, having heard it all before, but when I looks at Nellie, why, she's got both eyes popping out of her head. However, I knew that Nellie didn't know much more about it all than I did, see, and what the deuce we was both doing there was a mystery to me! But anyway, I sort of liked it, see, and when it was all over we blew out and Mr. Brown asks Nellie what she thinks about the show, and Nellie says as how it was all perfectly lovely, and the like, and when he asks me how I enjoyed it, I says that it tickled me almost as much as the Dempsey- Carpentier brawl at Jersey City. He looks at me kind of goofy at that and says that there was a little difference between the two, and so I says that there sure was, because in the lecture no one got knocked for a row of stars."

"That remark must have shocked Mr. Brown," I interrupted.

"Nope," replied Artie, "he seems to be a regular bird for a highbrow, and so he hails a taxi and we goes home. Nellie thanks him at the door and says that she just loves such things, and that she hopes he will take her to some more. And I says that as far as I was concerned it was O.K., but that I would have to study up a bit to find out what was going on.

"Well, Joe, the next day Mr. Brown comes into the beanery with a load of books under his wing, bows to Nellie, then ambles up to the counter and orders his ham and eggs. After I shout his order into our extra special French chef, I takes a slant at the books. Boy, howdy! The titles alone would have made you seasick! One was something about The Art of Sphere-Harmonies, or the like, and the other was entitled The Greek Iambust, or, something, and the rest of the books give me a headache from just looking at 'em!

"'Would you and your sister care to attend the opera tonight?' he suddenly asks.

"'Sure thing!' I says. 'I ain't been there for some time.'

"'All right, then,' he says, 'you tell Miss Magee I'll get the tickets, and well go.'

"Well," went on Artie, "sure enough that night I find myself parked in the Metropolitan Opera House, for the first time in my life, and the seats must have set Mr. Brown back at least a fortune. I forget what the show was all about, see, but I figger it must have been a musical act, because there was a lot of singing, and every now and then one of the actors would let out a squark and then stab himself in the neck. I laughs at that, see, but the other customers looks at me like I had swiped the widow's mite, or robbed a blind man. So I figgers that I wasn't supposed to laugh at all, and so I sat up stiff, like a regular statue, like the ladies I saw down in the boxes.

"Boys, you should of seen them ladies! They was all dressed up in diamonds and white skin, and I guess they must have been wearing bathing suits, because I couldn't see much clothes. Well, anyway, during the show Mr. Brown and Nellie sort of snuggle up close to one and the other, see, and I figgers that they ain't paying no more attention to the act than a bird who was then walking around Times Square looking for Napoleon. Me? Say, Joe, I'm seeing a bit of heaven, see, and I'm getting strong for the art stuff, seeing that I never before had a chance, and I was darn glad that Nellie had met such a nice chap as Mr. Brown. The way he talks to her he must have figgered that she was a regular highbrow, too, see, and you got to give Nellie credit, because she sure did hold her own!"

Artie excused himself, went to the counter for another beef stew, then returned. I offered him and myself a cigar, we both accepted, and I settled back to hear the end of the story.

"Well," went on the world's fastest counterman, "I begin to take a fancy to Mr. Brown myself, see, because he was a regular fella, know what I mean, and if he wanted to marry Nellie—why, everything would be O.K. and correct with Brother Artie. Three days later Mr. Brown comes in with another bunch of books, and he looks kind of sad. He asks Nellie to watch the books for him while he gets his ham and eggs, and she blushes a little, and gives him a smile that would have made the Prince of Wales fall overboard. Then he comes up to the counter, tosses me a cigar and a tired grin, and says that he has got tickets for a whole series of lectures at a place called the Dickens Club.

"I didn't know what the dickens it was all about, see, but I was game for anything in the highbrow line, understand, ever since I got a taste of it. Why, I ain't even shot a game of kelly pool since Mr. Brown and Nellie got acquainted, and I laid off playing the ponies and such like, and gosh! I even went and joined a library! Of course, I didn't know what sort of books to get, so I asks the girl at the counter—and, believe me, Joe, she was sure pretty!—what books I should read, and then she asks me what I liked to read. I says that I didn't know, see, and that was the truth. So then she asks me what I had been reading, and I told her The Cops' Gazette and the Boxfighter's Pal and The Joynal, and then she says that, as far as she knows, them books wasn't the world's best litterachoor. So she gives me a fat book entitled Progressive Pilgrims, or something, written by a bird named John Bunion. Ever hear of 'im?

"Well, I takes it home and reads a bit of it each night while I'm in bed, see, and it was pretty slow stuff, because there ain't an Indian killed in the whole first chapter, and no one is knocked out, but I kind of like it, anyway. I finished it in about five nights and I was glad that I read it, and so I wrote a letter to the author in care of the publisher, telling him how much I enjoyed his stuff. I didn't get no answer from Mr. Bunion himself, see, but somebody in the publishers writes back and says that Mr. Bunion ain't been around there for some time, but they was glad that I liked the book, anyway."

"What's all that got to do with Nellie?" I demanded. "You take a terrible long time to get to the point, believe me!"

"Aw, wait a minute—I'm coming to that. You ain't in a hurry, are you? Well, we goes to the first lecture of the Dickens Club, and where d'ye suppose they was held?"

"I have no idea," I admitted.

"Mr. Brown piles us into a taxicab and when we get out we're in front of no less than the Hotel Astermore! The bird who opens the cab door is dressed up like a admiral of the Chinese navy, or something, and bows to us like we was no less than Lord Jollywell and His Majesty the King of Woofgus, and then I follow Nellie and Mr. Brown into the place.

"Swell? Boy, oh, boy! Say, they got a hall in that camp that would make a jewelry store look like a ashcan! Mr. Brown asks one of the bellhops where the Dickens Club hung out, and he shoos us into an elevator, and we speed up somewhere near the moon, then get off, and walk into a big hall, all decorated with gold and silver. Well, Mr. Brown takes off his coat and I see that he's wearing one of them soup-and-fish outfits. Right away I feel kind of nervous because all that I got on is one of the 'take-the-elevator-and-lose-ten' suits, which same I paid twenty-five bucks for. Of course, had I known that I should have dressed like Mr. Brown, I could have borrowed Mickey Dolan's suit easy. Mickey's a headwaiter in one of them Broadway cabarets, see, and he and me is good pals, except when we're playing poker.

"Well," grinned Artie, wading into some luscious rice pudding, "I take a slant at the other folks in the place, and I see that they're all dressed up like a million dollars, and there I am looking like Coxey's Army! Suddenly a female usher grabs our tickets and leads us down the aisle. She points to three seats in the midst of a row, and we got to plow through a gang of swell people to get there. As I'm wading through I get tangled up, or something, and I step on the bunion of some old gent, who was a dead ringer for Wilson. He lets out a college yell, and demands to know if I can't see where I'm going. I says to him that I didn't know his feet was there, and then he snorts and wants to know if I thought he left his feet home. Mr. Brown apologizes for me, see, and we get settled in our seats. I sit like a statue for about fifteen minutes, listening to Nellie and Mr. Brown talk about this and that, and finally a fat, well-dressed bird comes out on the stage. The bunch give him some applause, but I didn't see him do a thing, and then he bows and makes a grab for the pitcher of water, or whatever was in it.

"Well, this stout fella makes a short speech that was pure Greek to me, and then he introduces a bird who he claims is Professor Murgatroyd Malcolm, A.B.C., A.E.F., and B.V.D., or whatever the letters he said was. He says that Professor Malcolm had come all the ways down from Urlton College to address us about—well, about something, I forget what he says, see—but, anyway, it sounded good whether you understand it or no. So the professor begins to talk about the life of a Chinaman named Confusion, or something, and I have both ears flapping forward, but, believe me, Joe, I don't get a thing that the bird was hollering about. Far as I was concerned, he could have been talking in Japanese.

"I take a slant at Mr. Brown and Nellie, and they are paying as much attention to the professor as a dumbbell. They just lean up against one another, see, and I guess that love stuff must be the goods, hey? Well, about two days later the professor gets winded, or the like, and then he says that if the folks would like to ask him any questions he would be glad to answer them. Right away some thin fella gets up on his legs in the rear and demands to know what the professor thinks of the next war. Well, I no more than hears that, see, than I was gonna get right up and tell that guy and the world what I thought about it, seeing that I spent two years in France enjoying the pleasures of poison gas and musical cannons, et cetera, and that if the thin fella would like to know what sort of a monkey business war was—why, all that the sucker had to do was to join the army and see for himself.

"Well, the professor on the platform says that that was a fine question, and that he thinks that unless we prepare to meet Japan in the fast- approaching future, the Japs will soon be hanging around Times Square like locusts, and then we'll all be in hock. Then he points to the flag above the platform and says that no one will ever be able to lick us if we had a standing army of about five million. The customers in the place bust into cheers when they hears that, see, just like they knew what war was themselves, and then the thin bird gets up and says that he agrees with the fat one, and says that he trusts that the American people will never let any Japs take away their country.

"Well, that was all right, see, and I hoped that it would never happen, but I would like to know what the thin guy and the professor would do when the war comes around, see, and so I gets up—can you imagine my nerve, Joe?—and says to the thin bird, 'Pardon me, mister,' I says, 'but I don't remember seeing you in the army, or did you get married all of a sudden?' The professor raps for order at that, and all the ladies and gents demand that I should be put out on my head. Well, I'm getting a little sore, see, and so I figgers that I have been insulted. So I gets up again and says that if that bird in the rear will come to the front I'll fight the gent on the stage, and that the professor can be the referee."

"Then what happened?" I asked.

"See that bump near the left ear?" asked Artie, indicating. "Well, that's where I got it when the riot starts! Somebody blows a whistle, see, and a whole regiment of special cops, no bigger than Jesse Willard and 'Strangler' Lewis, comes down the aisle, gets their hooks onto me and—wham!—I'm tossed clean out of the hall. And they don't stop entertaining me till I land in the street, which same I did in a neat pile!

"Of course, I didn't like to be showed up that way, see, but seeing that I ain't the army and navy I didn't have a show. So I just waits outside for Mr. Brown and Nellie to come out, and when they did I was ashamed to face Mr. Brown, figgering that I had no doubt disgraced 'im. But when he comes out with Nellie on his arm, he grins all over like a regular fella, and says that I was some game chap, and that I was the kind of bird that he likes to have around. So after that we all goes home in a taxi, and I went up to my room to read, and leave Nellie and Mr. Brown in the parlor.

"Well, a half-hour later, while I'm trying to plow through one of them there highbrow books that that pretty girl at the library give me, I hear a couple of smacks down in the hall, see, that sounds like kisses. Then I hears Mr. Brown say good night, and hears the door slam.

"Well," went on Artie, making headway into his second plate of pudding, "the rest of the lectures at the Dickens had to worry along without me, see, but Mr. Brown and Nellie attends every one. Me? I keep going back and forth to the library, understand, and the nice little librarian seems to take a interest in me like I was her own brother, and she gives me all kinds of advice, and so I spends the nights up in my room reading the classicals. I decide that I'm gonna get an education, see, and just let Mr. Brown and Nellie know that they wasn't the only highbrows in the bunch. Besides that, I have fell in love with the girl at the library, understand, and although I figgers that she ain't got any more affection for me than I have for carbolic, I live in hopes that she might give me a tumble later on.

"Well, Mr. Brown doesn't show up one night to take Nellie out, and so Nellie asks me would I take her out myself, and—well, what d'ye know, Joe? Listen! When I asks her where she would like to go, she says that she would be delighted to go around to the Photoplay Theater and see no less than William S. Heart, in Two Gun Murphy. I asks her how about the highbrow stuff, and she says that she's getting tired of it for a while, and that she would like to see something else for a change. So I takes her to the show, see, and we get there right in the middle of the picture, the part where Bill Heart was just knocking forty or fifty Indians for a row of tomahawks, which same sets the gallery wild with delight.

"Personally, I don't care for that stuff any more, see, since I have been introduced to the art game, but I just went along to please Nellie. Well, in the fourth reel, Bill gets into a corking jam with the villain—a guy with a set of black whiskers and bushy eyebrows, see—and it begins to look as how Bill was gonna be tapped for a trip to the next world. The villain has Bill's arms tied behind his back and sprinkles about ten dollars' worth of kerosene around the shack, with the idea I guess of giving Bill a hot time before he says farewell forever. While Bill is holding our attention by gnashing his teeth in rage, I feels Nellie shivering with excitement, and you could have heard half a pin drop in the whole theater. Bill gets free somehow from the ropes, makes a leap for the villain, lands on the critter's back, and then knocks him for a touchdown. That sets the gallery off for fair, and even Nellie claps her hands so hard I thought she would bust something, and she says, 'Isn't he just splendid?' and I tells her that I think it's terrible stuff and that it's older than New Year's, and that I had read where a guy named Shakespeare had pulled better stuff than that long before even the Civil War.

"So then she asks me since when I'm a highbrow, and I tells her I have been one ever since she and Mr. Brown had been going together, and she says nothing to that and keeps her eyes on the picture. Well, in the last reel Bill Heart wallops a whole village full of bandits and the like, without exerting himself too much, see, and the whole house comes down with the wildest applause. I note some bird in the row right in front of us was stamping his feet and everything, and I guess that he must have figgered that the thing was real."

"Say!" I snapped impatiently. "You haven't told me what happened to Nellie yet. What do I care about Bill Heart? Believe me, you take a long time to answer a question."

"Hold your horses," beamed Artie. "The end is worth waiting for, I'll say it is! Now, listen, Joe! When they finish the picture they switch the lights on, see, and then Nellie and me get up to go out, and then—well, what d'ye know, hey? The bird in the row in front of us, the guy who was clapping so hard, see, turns out to be no less than Mr. Brown! Can you tie that?"

"No, I can't!" I said. "How come?"

"As Mr. Brown turns to walk down the aisle he spots Nellie, and she sees him, and then you should of seen the blushes on both their faces! Boy, oh, boy! I'll say it was some pretty! Nellie grips my arm a little tight and starts to mumble something, while Mr. Brown opens his mouth like a fish out of water. He reaches our side when we get to the lobby, see, and he tips his hat and says that he was surprised to see us. Then Nellie says that she was also surprised to see him in such a theater, and then what d'ye suppose Mr. Brown says, hey? Well, would you believe it, Joe, he takes Nellie by the arm, looks into her eyes, and says that she might as well know the truth now as well as later, because he says that he couldn't play the part of the highbrow any longer! Nellie asks him what he means by that, and he says that he wasn't a highbrow at all, but a boss plumber! And then he says that he took Nellie around to all them there high-class places because he thought that she was a highbrow. Pretty good, what?"

"Not so bad," I conceded. "But I haven't heard what happened to Nellie yet!"

"Well," went on Artie, "after hearing that Mr. Brown wasn't a highbrow, she breaks down and confesses that she ain't one either, and that the reason that she went to those lectures was because she thought that he liked 'em, and then she wants to know why he always had a bunch of books under his wing when he come into the restaurant, and then he says, 'Why, I was just bringing them home to my sister!' And then— Well, they was married two weeks ago, Joe, and I gotta postcard from 'em saying that Niagara Falls was a great sight for the eyes, and that they hoped me and Mary would go there also when we start our honeymoon, after we get married next week."

"Mary?" I asked, puzzled. "Who's Mary?"

Artie grinned broadly, fingered the lead-ware for a moment shyly, then became rather red in the face.

"Joe," he finally said, "d'ye see that new cashier up there in Nellie's place? Well, she's Mary, and she's the girl at the library that I was telling you about. Er—will you have a bite to eat, Joe?"

Well, best o' luck, Nellie!