It was a sunny day at the start of April, a month little-appreciated, when Michael Shale set out to have a day of forgiveness.
It had come to him late the night before, as he was taking receipt of a boot to the head from a gentleman who held strong views on Michael’s conduct and antecedents, that the holding of grudges caused a great quantity of strife in his neighbourhood. Big Sal and Galway Jimmy had, for example, vowed to slit each other’s throats over some tit-for-tat dispute all had forgotten the roots of, and while the rumpus promised to be entertaining it would doubtless draw the attentions of the short and easily-distracted arm of the law.
Whom, Michael thought in a flash of spring inspiration as he pressed a two-cent steak to his bruised face, really held the medal as first-place professional grudge-holders.
Michael was forced to postpone his Christian act as the rigours of the previous night, and Reggie Johnson, with whom he had shared many of these rigours and who was indeed best described as rigorous in all things (especially sharing), demanded his full attention.
When at last his duties to Reggie and the demands of the flesh, both pleasant and otherwise, had been discharged, Michael set about his plan to lead by example.
He left his basement room and ascended the steps with his hat almost tipped enough to hide his swollen face, and the moment his shoes touched the sidewalk, why, there was his first opportunity!
For here was Joe Jefferson, who’d stiffed him a dime last week, all haloed in the dusty light of a fine spring morning.
God moves in mysterious ways, thought Michael, much-satisfied, and he doffed his hat to Joe Jefferson and cried, “Joe! You rascal! Last week you stiffed me a dime!”
Now Joe Jefferson startled, for Michael Shale was a fine body of a man and despite his sour luck the night before and his Saturday night rouge habit, he was known to have a right hook that could swiftly introduce a fellow to the floor.
And when Joe Jefferson startled, two gossipy young things who leaned on the stairs leading up to the second floor rooms startled too.
“Yeah I did,” said Joe Jefferson, who was noted as a man whose chief route out of any hole he found himself in was to dig further, “What of it?”
“What of it?” cried Michael, as he began his walk through Harlem, “Why, I forgive you, Joe Jefferson, that’s what of it! And by God when I find the man who put the boot to my face last night, I shall forgive him too.”
Joe Jefferson received this blessing with a scowl and said to the gossipy young things at the stoop, “That kick to the head turned that fairy’s brain all right.”
But Michael Shale went on his way, ready to forgive.
At the General Store at the corner, where boys like to hang around and pinch and poke and shove each other (and sometimes Michael), he came across Father Abraham.
Father Abraham had a newspaper under his arm and his usual string bag of canned ham on his arm and a big broad-brimmed hat, and he was engaged in telling young Herbie Mitchell why it was unChristian to kick cats. He was unhampered by the absence of any direct repudiation of such behaviour in the scriptures, for neither he nor his unwilling audience had read them much.
“Shale,” said Father Abraham, who did not like to call a man ‘Mister’ unless he felt the fellow deserved it, “What are you about at this hour? Have you no job to go to?”
“Why Father, my work is in the evenings, over at Forty-Second Street,” said Michael, almost forgetting his original mission, “as so many of your parishioners know, coming to our theater for their Sunday instead of to your Church!”
The boys outside the General Store laughed and snickered, and none laughed harder than Herbie Mitchell, to see Father Abraham – Father Cans-of-Ham, they called him – given lip by a fairy, and a Negro, no less!
Father Abraham himself said a quite ungodly word.
“As to what I’m about,” said Michael, recalling his purpose, “On Tuesday you called me a layabout n*gger.”
“That I did, for that’s what you are,” Father Abraham said, drawing himself up like a man who is ready for a blow to the jaw, and who means to weather it with dignity. “And I see in the shade of your hat that a less kindly man than I gave you a much-deserved thrashing, you, you loitering degenerate!”
The boys outside the General Stores tittered and gasped, for Father Abraham being a man of whiter hue had turned a lobsterish red in his righteousness!
“Indeed I’ve had a rough night,” said Michael, removing his hat in belated greeting, “And indeed I am seeking the perpetrator. But I’m no layabout, Father, and first I must address these ill words you have used upon me.”
“And just what do you propose to do?” Father Abraham asked in a far littler voice than before, for Michael was near a foot taller than he and the word of the Lord has historically failed to prevent many a martyr from meeting his maker at the hands of more muscular men.
“To forgive you, of course,” said Michael, replacing his hat, and his smile was bright in the morning sun. “It is the Christian thing.”
“So it is,” said Father Abraham with not much conviction and watering eyes. “So it is.”
And Michael Shale went on his way, leaving Father Abraham to let out a large breath, and Herbie Mitchell to say, “Some slap that fairy’s had, to make him talk that way!”
At the Subway Station, where three Italian fairies called Miss Pell, Miss Give, and Miss Take – or Angelo, Antonio, and Giovanni Cesare Claudio Pietro to their Mammas – liked to meet men who liked to meet fairies, Michael Shale stopped to buy a newspaper.
“Why Michael Shale,” said the newspaper boy, “you got yourself a real shiner right there.”
“Indeed I do,” said Michael, for indeed he did.
“Indeed she do,” sang Miss Pell, who had missed the whole fight that night and disliked it.
“Oh don’t she just,” trilled Miss Give, who’d missed the start, and was confused.
“And what a night,” called Miss Take, who’d seen the whole thing and loved it. “Hey Miss Shale, are you all right?”
“I got my mind made up,” said Michael, who did not like to be called Miss Shale when it was not a Saturday night, “to find the boot that kicked me.”
“Oooh,” said the fairies, and “oh,” said the newspaper boy, and “Get outta the goddamn road ya degenerates!” said the meat wagon man trying to pass them on a busy street.
“What’ll you do?” asked the newspaper boy.
“Yes, what’ll you do?” asked the Misses Pell, Give, and Take.
“Will you move you black behind?” cried the meat wagon man, whose sausages were starting to spoil.
“Forgive him” said Michael, serene as the sunshine, “it’s the Christian thing.”
“I’m Jewish,” said the newspaper boy.
“Even so,” said Michael Shale.
“I heard it was Leggy Tom,” said Miss Pell, who heard a lot of rumours.
“I think it was Fat Bob,” said Miss Give, and pinched her.
“It was Greasy Ray,” screeched Miss Take, making half the street stare, “what are you, goddamn blind, Miss Give? You was there.”
“Much obliged,” said Michael, and he raised his hat. “Take care now, ladies.”
“Now who does she think she’s fooling with all this ‘forgive’,” sighed Miss Pell, but Michael Shale went on his way, and the meat wagon man took his spoiling sausages on his, too.
When Michael Shale got to the City College, where all the smart girls walked fast in their calf-length skirts, he saw Maimie Reed, who just last month threatened to write Michael’s Momma back home and tell her what life he was leading.
Maimie Reed tossed her head – her hair was set and carefully kept and her hat by the way almost covered it all – and said, “Hello Michael, I see you took a beating. Did it set you to rights?”
“It’ll take more than a bruise to kick the fairy out of me,” said Michael Shale, and he lifted his hat so that she could see what a fine bruise it was. “Miss Reed, you have been bearing tales.”
Miss Reed hoisted her books, which had long titles in French and in Latin and in Math, which was harder, and she said, “Not yet, but if you don’t mend your ways, Michael Shale, I’ll write to my Auntie and you’ll catch H-E-L-L.”
“Now Maimie, that isn’t nice,” said Michael, and he put on his hat again. “But I forgive you.”
Maimie gave a great snort and she said, “You’ll get worse than a bruise one day soon.”
“Well perhaps,” said Michael, “but at present I’m away to find Greasy Ray and talk to him about this one he’s given to me.”
“Now don’t you go starting fights,” Maimie sighed, for she knew her cousin was a lost cause. “If you get yourself arrested again you’ll break your Momma’s heart.”
“Who said anything about fights?” cried Michael, already on the move, “I only mean to forgive him.”
“And if I believe that, I’ll believe anything,” said Maimie Reed to herself, and she hitched up her books, which were sliding.
But Michael Shale went on his way with a song in his heart and a sunbeam on his hat, ready to forgive.
He found Greasy Ray where Greasy Ray was always to be found; hanging around the Childs on Forty-Second Street like a bad stink, his feet on a seat and so much Brillantine in his hair that he looked like a motor oil spill.
Word travels faster than a man on foot, Michael Shale saw, for a waiter he knew in ways of which Father Abraham did not approve raised up his thin eyebrows and said, “I hear you’re in the forgiveness business now, Miss Shale.”
“That I am,” said Michael, for that he was. And he took off his hat. “And I’ve a man in mind.”
“I’ll tell him,” said the waiter, with a smile that meant no good, for he loved a cat-fight as much as his manager hated them, though he was never in them himself. “He’s been waiting on you while I’ve been waiting on him, if you know what I mean.”
Greasy Ray was awash with sweat and his fingers drilled out a syncopation on the table top like the finest beat-man in the Cotton Club, for he’d heard Michael Shale “forgave” Joe Jefferson and he did not believe it; and he’d heard Michael Shale “forgave” Father Abraham, and he did not believe it; and he hadn’t heard that Michael Shale also forgave his cousin Maimie Reed – for she was not the kind of girl who knew the likes of Greasy Ray – but had he heard he’d have hardly believed it either.
It is fair to say that hasty-hoofed heavily-pomaded young man with the harsh opinions on Michael Shale’s conduct was now sorely rattled.
“Shale!” he cried, leaping to his feet as Michael came to his table. “What’s all this – what brings you – that is, I say – what do you want?”
Holding his hat in his hands, Michael said, “Oh, since you ask, Ray, I’d like an apology for some things you said last night.”
All the faces in the Childs on Forty-Second Street this fine spring afternoon were turned on Greasy Ray like a handful of scrubbed spotlights on a Broadway soloist, and Greasy Ray’s courage – never of much size – gave out, and Greasy Ray’s pride – somewhat larger, but manageable – got swallowed under their gaze.
“It’s yours!” cried Ray, too fast, and hot about the cheeks.
“And for messing up my hair,” said Michael, severely.
“Sure! I’m sorry,” said Ray, clearly. He’d lost track of his hands, and so wrapped them around each other like a pastor, to keep them safe from getting lost again.
“And bruising my eye,” said Michael, pointing to it.
“Right! I shouldna!” sang Ray, in a real fever of contrition.
“Very good,” said Michael, content. “Then I forgive you.”
Greasy Ray squinted, which did little to improve him. The waiter with the thin eyebrows squinted, but he didn’t need improving. The horde at Childs on Forty-Second Street squinted, and held their breath, for they were past improvement.
“Eh?” said Ray, ready to flinch. “That’s all?”
“That’s all?” complained the waiter, who’d been hoping for a fight.
“That’s all?” sighed the disappointed customers, who’d heard stories about this Childs. Most of them were true – but they happened at night.
“Sure,” said Michael, with a great big smile. “For now.”
“Listen, pal, if you’re going to slug me one, get it over with, all right,” trembled Ray in testy tremolo, braced for a swing.
Michael leaned close and raised his hand, until he cast a deep shadow over the greasy little white man, and he tapped Greasy Ray tenderly on the cheek with no more than the breath of a feather.
“No,” he said, as sunny as the day, “I shall not.”
And Michael Shale left the Childs on Forty-Second Street well-satisfied, ready to take all the rest of April in his real long stride (as only a fairy can).
The author has, as may be apparent, been combining period research on 1920s Manhattan (prices, some slang, and locations may be assumed to be therefore at least vaguely accurate) with idly reading Vile Bodies as part of his recuperation from surgery.
Tips may be left here if you enjoyed the story.