Jesse felt ready to weep. He was waiting for Tom. Tom was his brother-in-law. Jesse knew he looked terrible.
True, they hadn’t seen each other for five years; but Tom looked five years older, that was all. He was still Tom. God! was he so different? Brackett finished his telephone call. He leaned back in his chair and glanced over at Jesse with small, clear blue eyes that were suspicious and unfriendly. He was a heavy man of forty-five. He looked like a capable businessman – which he was. He surveyed Jesse with cold indifference, unwilling to spend time on him.
«Yes?» Brackett said suddenly. «What do you want?»
«I guess you don’t recognise me, Tom», said Jesse. «I am Jesse Fulton. Ella sends you her love.»
Brackett rose and walked over to the counter until they were face to face.
«Yes, I believe you are», Brackett said finally, «but you sure have changed».
«By God, it’s five years, ain’t it?» Jesse said. «You only saw me a couple of times anyway. What if I have changed? Don’t everybody?»
«You was solid looking,» Brackett continued softly, in the same tone of wonder. «You lost weight, I guess?»
Jesse kept silent. He needed Brackett too much to risk antagonising him. The pause lengthened, became painful. Brackett flushed and burst out in apology.
«Come in. Take a seat. Good God, boy» – he grasped Jesse’s hand and shook it – «I am glad to see you; don’t think anything else!»
«It’s all right,» Jesse murmured. He sat down, thrusting his hand through his curly, tangled hair.
«Why are you limping?»
«I stepped on a stone; it jagged a hole through my shoe,» Jesse pulled his feet back under the chair. He was ashamed of his shoes.
Brackett kept his eyes off Jesse’s feet. He knew what was bothering the boy and it filled his heart with pity.
«Well, now listen,» Brackett began, «tell me things. How’s Ella?»
«Oh, she’s pretty good,» Jesse replied absently. He had a soft, pleasing, rather shy voice that went with his soft gray eyes.
«And the kids?»
«Oh, they’re fine… Well, you know,» Jesse added, becoming more attentive, «the young one has to wear a brace. He can’t run around, you know. But he’s smart. He draws pictures and he does things, you know.»
«Yes,» Brackett said. «That’s good.» He hesitated. There was a moment’s silence. «Ella didn’t tell me things were so bad for you, Jesse. I might have helped.»
«Well, goodness,» Jesse returned softly, «you have your own troubles haven’t you?»
«Yes,» Brackett leaned back.
«Tom, listen,» Jesse said, «I come here on purpose.» He thrust his hand through his hair. «I want you to help me.»
Brackett had been expecting this. «I can’t much. I only get thirty-five a week and I’ї damn grateful for it.»
«Sure, I know,» Jesse emphasised excitedly. «I know you can’t help us with money. But we met a man who works for you! He was in our city! He said you could give me a job!»
«Oh, why didn’t you tell me?» Jesse burst out reproachfully. «Why, as soon as I heard it I started out. For two weeks now I have been pushing ahead like crazy.»
Brackett groaned aloud. «You come walking from Kansas City in two weeks so I could give you a job?»
«Sure, Tom, of course. What else could I do?»
«Jesse! It’s slack season. And you don’t know this oil business. It’s special. I got my friends here but they couldn’t do nothing now. Don’t you think I’d ask for you as soon as there was a chance?»
Jesse cried, «But listen, this man said you could hire! He told me! He drives trucks for you! He said you always need men!»
«Oh! …You mean my department?» Brackett said in a low voice.
«Yes, Tom. That’s it!»
«Oh, no, you don’t want to work in my department,» Brackett told him in the same low voice. «You don’t know what it is.»
«Yes, I do,» Jesse insisted. «He told me all about it, Tom. You’re dispatcher, ain’t you? You send the dynamite trucks out?»
«Who was the man, Jesse?»
«Everett, Everett, I think.»
«Egbert? Man about my size?» Brackett asked slowly
«Sure, there’s job. There’s even Egbert’s job if you want it.»
«On the job, Jesse. Last night if you want to know.»
«Oh! … Then, I don’t care!»
«Now you listen to me!» Brackett said. «I’ll tell you a few things that you should have asked before you started out. It ain’t dynamite you drive. It’s nitroglycerin!»
«But I know,» Jesse told him reassuringly. «He advised me, Tom. You don’t have to think I don’t know.»
«Shut up a minute,» Brackett ordered angrily. «Listen! You just have to look at this soup, see? You just cough loud and it blows!»
«Listen, Tom –»
«Now, wait a minute, Jesse. I know you had your heart set on a job, but you’ve got to understand. This stuff goes only in special trucks! 3t night! They got to follow a special route! They can’t go through any city! Don’t you see what that means? Don’t that tell you how dangerous it is?»
«I’ll dive careful,» Jesse said. «I know how to handle a truck. I’ll drive slow.»
Brackett groaned. «Do you think Egbert did not drive careful or didn’t know how to handle a truck?»
«Tom,» Jesse said earnestly, «you can’t scare me. I got my mind fixed on only one thing: Egbert said he was getting a dollar a mile. He was making five to six hundred dollars a month for half a month’s work, he said. Can I get the same?»
«Sure, you can get the same,» Brackett told him savagely. «A dollar a mile. It’s easy. But why do you think the company has to pay so much? It’s easy – until you run over a stone that your headlights didn’t pick out, like Egbert did. Or get something in your eye, so the wheel twist and you jar the truck! Or any other God damn thing that nobody ever knows! We can’t ask Egbert what happened to him. There’s no truck to give any evidence. There’s no corpse. There’s nothing! Not even a finger nail. All we know is that he don’t come in on schedule. Then we wait for the police to call us. You know what happened last night? Somethingwent wrong on the bridge. Maybe Egbert was nervous. Only there’s no bridge any more. No truck. No Egbert. Do you understand now? That’s what you get for your God damn dollar a mile!»
There was a moment of silence. Jesse sat twisting his long thin hands. His mouth was open, his face was agonized. then he shut his eyes and spoke sof tly. «I don’t care about that, Tom. You told me. Now you got to be good to me and give me the job.»
Brackett slapped the palm of his hand down on his desk.
«Listen, Tom» Jesse said softly, «you just don’t understand.» He opened his eyes. They were filled with tears. They made Brackett turn away. «Just look at me, Tom. Don’t that tell you enough? Tom, I just can’t live like this any more.»
«You’re crazy,» Brackett muttered. «Every year there’s one out of five drivers gets killed. That’s the average. What’s worth that?»
«Is my life worth anything now? We’re just starving at home, Tom.»
«Then you should have told me,» Brackett exclaimed harshly. «I’ll borrow some money and we’ll telegraph it to Ella.»
«And then what?»
«And then wait. You’re no old man. You got no right to throw your life away. Sometime you’ll get a job.»
«No!» Jesse jumped up. «No, I believed that too. But I don’t now,» he cried passionately. «You’re the only hope I got.»
«You’re crazy,» Brackett muttered. «I won’t do it. For God’s sake think of Ella for a minute.»
«Don’t you know I’m thinking about her?» Jesse asked softly. He plucked at Brackett’s sleeve.
Brackett leaped to his feet. «You say you’re thinking about Ella. How’s she going to like it when you get killed?»
«Maybe I won’t,» Jesse pleaded. «I’ve got to have some luck sometime.»
«That’s what they all think,» Brackett replied scornfully. «When you take this job your luck is a question mark. The only thing certain is that sooner or later you get killed.»
«Okay then,» Jesse shouted back. «But meanwhile I get something, don’t I? I can buy a pair of shoes. Look at me! I can buy a suit. I can smoke cigarettes. I can buy some candy f or the kids. I can eat some myself. Yes, by God, I want to eat some candy. I want a glass of beer once a day. I want Ella dressed up. I want her to eat meat three times a week, four times maybe. I want to take my family to the movies.»
Brackett sat down. «Oh, shut up,» he said.
«No,» Jesse told him softly, passionately, «you can’t get rid of me. Listen, Tom», he pleaded. «I got it all figured out. On six hundred a month look how much I can save! If I last only three months, look how much it is – a thousand dollars – more! And maybe I’ll last longer. Maybe a couple years, I can fix Ella up for life!»
«You said it,» Brackett interposed, «I suppose you think she’ll enjoy living when you’re on a job like that?»
«I got it all figured out,» Jesse answered excitedly. «She don’t know, see? I tell her I make only forty. You put the rest in a bank account for her, Tom.
«Oh, shut up,» Brackett said. «You think you’ll be happy? Every minute, waking and sleeping, you’ll be wondering if tomorrow you’ll be dead.»
Jesse laughed. «I’ll be happy! Don’t you worry, I’ll be so happy, I’ll be singing. Good Lord, Tom, I’m going to feel proud of myself for the first time in seven years!»
«Oh, shut up, shut up,» Brackett said.
Again there was silence.
«Tom, Tom –» Jesse said.
Brackett sighed. «Oh,» he said finally, «all right, I’ll take you on, God help me. If you’re ready to drive tonight, you can drive tonight.» Jesse didn’t answer. He couldn’t. Brackett looked up. The tears were running down Jesse’s face.
«Come back here at six o’clock,» Brackett said. «Here’s some money. Eat a good meal.»
«Thanks,» Jesse said. «Thanks, Tom.»
«I just –» Jesse stopped. Brackett saw his face.
The eyes were still glistening with tears, but the face was shining now.
Brackett turned away. «I’m busy,» he said.
Jesse went out. The whole world seemed to have turned golden. «I’m the happiest man in the world,» he whispered to himself. «I’m the happiest man on the whole earth.»