John Spellman’s Business

John Spellman stood outside the cathouse in the cold, shivering slightly. He wore no coat, though a sturdy brown hat protected his head from the musk-heavy wind. He looked at his watch. He had been waiting for forty-five minutes. Ten more minutes and it would be another half-hour for the coat. His lips were cracked and sore at the corners. He ran his tongue over them and fingered the wad of bills in his pocket.

A man was shuffling down the street toward him, a thin, waving reed in the rough air. A crowd of people followed him, jeering and noisy. The man had a hound’s face, long and sad and fearful, and he wouldn’t meet John Spellman’s eyes. His clothes were spattered and abused, stained with mud and food. He came to the front of the cathouse and stood looking up at its elaborate facade for some time.

The man turned to face the crowd. His eyes found John Spellman’s and lingered mournfully there while he spoke. “This is what the Lord says,” said the man. His voice was soft, penetrant, and monotonous. “‘If you will not hearken to me, to walk in that law divine, which I have set before you, to hearken to the prophets and the early-rising messengers, which I have sent before you, then will I make this city, this state, this nation a Shiloh and a curse to all the nations.'”

A person in the crowd shouted, “Jap lover! Traitor!”

The man muttered, “This is what the Lord has said. See, I am in your hands; do with me what seems right. But know that if you spill my blood you spill the blood of an innocent man, and may the desserts fall upon this city and this country.” He began again, without inflection, “This is what the Lord says, ‘If you will not hearken to me…'” A rock hit him over the eye.

The man stood there, arms hanging limply at his side, eyes fixed on John Spellman’s as the angry crowd hurled clods of dirt and stones at him. A policeman came ambling up the street and took the man’s arm. He pulled the man away from the mob. The man shook his head at John Spellman and seemed to bend a little farther toward the earth.

Then the street was empty and John Spellman was shivering again. The sailor wearing his long dark coat over a rumpled white uniform slipped out of the cathouse and came over to John Spellman. He smelled of perfume and sex. “Thanks, kid,” said the sailor.

John Spellman looked at his watch. “It’s been over an hour,” he said.

“Aw, come on, kid,” said the sailor ingratiatingly. “Be a pal. It wasn’t much over.”

John Spellman shook his head.

“Look, I don’t have any more money. How about… how about you come down to the yard sometime and I’ll show you around the ships? How’d that be?”

John Spellman hesitated, then nodded. It would be good advertising. The sailor slipped off John Spellman’s coat and handed it to him, then walked whistling off down the street. John Spellman crossed to the cathouse and put his hand where the man had stood. The stones of the ground were warm, and growing warmer.