Those five men at lunch in the restaurant
are talking about women. Three are wearing starched collars, suits with
vests, and have watch chains across their middles. One of them recently
put in his first telephone, warning his family not to make a call unless
it was an emergency. That guy, Emil Decker, felt satisfied with the way
he handled his three daughters and his wife. He contributed little to
the conversation except for an occasional grunt of interest. They fell
silent as the cheeky young waitress poured a second round of coffee, cleaned
off the table, and left their checks.
"Women?" laughed George, a shoe salesman
whose wife had failed to become pregnant. "They have it made! While the
men sweat out a living they lounge around at home in bedroom slippers
or go to the beauty parlor for expensive permanents."
"Or take the kids to the park," Willy
Hahn said, "spreadin' out a blanket on the grass, relaxin' and listenin'
to the birds. You come home a wreck and half the time to a warmed over
dinner. It's like a lifetime vacation for them."
"That's what it comes down to in the
end," Sid, known as 'the Cigar' said, lighting a Havana. He was into his
second divorce. "The men break their backs hauling in the money so the
women can spend it on clothes, on strawberry shortcake in Schrafft's,
meeting God-knows-who there. Once they start going to Schrafft's, watch
out. Then they get stiffed if you don't help them on with their coats,
open the car door for them, take them to fancy restaurants, hold the umbrella
up when it rains. On top of that you better carry heavy insurance premiums
in the event you die so they can wallow in a life of luxury. Women have
a hundred ways to make you do exactly what they want. They cry. They scream.
They faint. They threaten you with divorce and alimony payments that trap
you for the rest of your life. Right Rizzo?" He turned to the fourth of
"Yeah," Rizzo agreed. He was carrying
a heavy second mortgage. "And most of the time you get something heated
out of a can."
Broadening their conversation, they
confidentially revealed to each other what sports they were, how gallantly
they treated the women. The two words they agreed described it were "ladies
"It's always ladies first," Willy Hahn
agreed. "Ladies first! When you're tryin' to get on a crowded bus, when
you're steppin' into a shaky rowboat, or when you're runnin' for your
life out of a burnin' building, ladies first, ladies first! They get the
priorities." He looked at Decker who'd remained silent. "Don't they?"
"I see it around me all the time. But
thank God, not me, knock wood." And Decker rapped on the table. "I'm in
"Give that gentleman a great big cigar,"
Decker was a no-nonsense customer, a
ten-hour a day hard-working business man, his life devoted to his small
factory from which he made a good living until recently. He was a proud
man, a clean man, well-built, but becoming alarmed at his developing belly.
He wore pince-nez glasses. To save time in morning, he shined one shoe
a day. A planner, he was uncertain as to how many children he wanted,
but when the first was a daughter, and the second was a daughter, and
the third was a daughter, his soul began to evaporate. Who would inherit
the factory? Swallowing his angst at his wife's ridiculous one-note productions,
he found himself of an afternoon at his doctor's office for a high colonic,
where he received shocking information while casually discussing his family.
"You do know that it is the male sperm
that decides the sex of the child," the doctor informed him.
This unexpected blow struck hard, for
he had given his wife another chance to make good, having impregnated
her for the fourth time. Decker now realized he had only himself to blame
when the next child would arrive a screaming female. His delirious capers
when told it was a boy came to a sudden end upon learning the infant had
to be placed in an incubator. It was his understanding that incubator
babies shrank, and that his son would turn into a midget. Whereupon he
His wife, Hedda, a small, quiet woman,
of sweet disposition, a natural talent as a housekeeper, cook, and sock-darner,
kept things running on a minimal budget, content with her nest and her
flock. Their eldest daughter, Edith, a sharp, competent short-hand secretary
at twenty-one, held a position in a legal firm. She had little patience
with her eighteen year old sibling Marian, a more easy going, sensuous
girl who was inclined to leave her bed unmade and her stockings draped
over the chair. Their snub-nosed sister Judith, a fifteen year old flirt,
was her father's favorite. He chuckled at her childish fantasy of becoming
an actress, a profession he regarded as the road to prostitution.
Decker's hopes for his daughters were
that they would marry men like himself, settle down to producing a family,
and provide comfort in his old age. Edith had considered college, perhaps
law, but Decker held it would only be thrown away time and money since
marriage would prevent her from pursuing a career not suitable for women
in any case. Little did he know she hated men and would have to be dragged
to the altar. The girls, and Marian in particular, sensed that their brother
Joshua, who had not turned out to be a midget after all, had become the
object of his father's visions.
Decker had not participated in the talk
at lunch, his mind preoccupied with other matters. Business had been deteriorating.
In his last conversation with him their accountant had intoned the grim
facts. He passed these on to his partner, Osterman, a chubby, excitable
man in charge of the clattering machine shop. They manufactured cardboard
boxes. Osterman, heavily in debt, hinted that business had fallen off
because Decker failed to bring in enough orders. They had words over that.
"You have more men than you need in
the factory," Decker countered. He had watched Osterman with his feet
up in his tiny office while a machine in need of repair lay idle for days.
After a bitter argument they agreed to let two men go, but not Osterman's
incompetent nephew, the last hired.
"We have to start cutting our take in
half for a couple of months," Decker said.
"I can't live on half!" Osterman cried.
"If you stopped playing cards every night you could!"
"Not yet, not yet," his uncle said.
Osterman jumped up. "That's none of your business!"
"It is now. Because if we don't draw less the business
"Where did you get that?"
"Hambleton. I spoke to him this morning."
"I never wanted him for an accountant. He's a penny-pincher.
What did he say?"
"Three months. We got to turn it around in three months."
That wrangle had taken place a couple
of weeks ago. Things were still teetering. Decker, having invested in
stocks, had a substantial cushion, but he knew Osterman remained in trouble.
On the subway ride home, Decker began
to recall the lunch exchanges. It was true that men were always sweating
it out and having to carry huge insurance policies and all that. And it
was true that Hedda had taken the children to the park and sat on the
benches in the sunshine while he was running his ass off to beat the competition.
And now the home telephone bills were creeping up. It was all petty, he
realized, but somehow it gnawed at him. His lunch began coming up on him.
He was tired and gassy as he approached his white clapboard house standing
in a row of exactly similar white clapboard houses. As he opened the front
door he heard his middle daughter talking animatedly on the telephone.
She had apparently been babbling for some time.
"Oh, yes, Miss Riley," she was saying.
"That's exactly what I'm going to do." She saw him coming toward her and
froze. "I have to go now, Miss Riley. 'Bye!'" She hung up. "Hello, papa,"
she said, pushing her hands nervously through her long bob.
"Who was that?" Decker asked, removing his coat.
"Miss Riley. From school. The school nurse." She took
his coat and hung it in the closet.
"Didn't you go to school today?"
"Of course I did,"
"So why did she call you?"
"I called her."
"Couldn't wait until tomorrow? You had to call her immediately?"
"It was something personal, important..." Marian mumbled.
"Where's your mother?"
"She got stuck on the subway. There was some kind of
tie-up in Manhattan. She called a few minutes ago."
"What's she doing in Manhattan? Isn't dinner ready?"
"She prepared it before she left. She's going to heat
it up. She had an appointment with a friend for lunch in Schrafft's."