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A short story by Richard Yates

The Collected Stories of Richard Yates
Richard Yates
London 2002

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“Talent,” Robert Blaine said in his slow, invalid’s voice, “is simply a matter of knowing how to handle yourself.” He relaxed on his pillow, eyes gleaming, and shifted his skinny legs under the sheet. “That answer your question?”

“Well, now, wait a minute, Bob,” Jones said. His wheelchair was drawn up respectfully beside the bed and he looked absorbed but dissatisfied, begging to differ. “I wouldn’t define it as knowing how to handle yourself, exactly. I mean, doesn’t it depend a lot on the particular kind of talent you’re talking about, the particular line of work?”

“Oh, line of work my ass,” Blaine said. “Talent is talent.”

That was how the evening’s talk began at Blaine’s bed. There was always a lull in the tuberculosis ward after the wheeling-out of supper trays, when the sun threw long yellow stripes on the floor below the west windows and dazzled the silver spokes of wheelchairs in its path; it was a time when most of the thirty men who lived in the ward convened in little groups to talk or play cards. Jones usually came over to Blaine’s bed. He thought Blaine the most learned man and the best conversationalist in the building, and if there was one thing Jones loved, he said, it was a good gabfest. Tonight they were joined by young O’Grady, a husky newcomer to the ward who sat hunched at the foot of Blaine’s bed, his eyes darting from one speaker to the other. What was talent? Blaine had used the word, Jones had demanded a definition and now the lines were drawn–as clearly, at least, as they ever were.

“Best definition I can give you,” Blaine said. “Only definition there is. Knowing how to handle yourself. And the ultimate of talent is genius, which is what puts men like Louis Armstrong and Dostoyevsky in a class by themselves among horn players and novelists. Plenty of people know more about music than Armstrong; it’s the way he handles himself that makes the difference. Same thing’s true of a first-rate ballplayer or a first-rate doctor or a historian like Gibbon. Very simple.”

“Sure, that’s right,” O’Grady said solemnly. “Take a guy like Branch Rickey, he knows everything there is about baseball, but that don’t mean he’d of made a top ballplayer.”

“That’s right,” Blaine told him, “that’s the idea.” And O’Grady nodded, pleased.

“Oh-ho, but wait a minute now, Bob–” Jones squirmed eagerly in his wheelchair, charged with the cleverness of the point he was about to make. “I think I got you there. Branch Rickey is very talented–but as a baseball executive. His talent is in that field; he’s not supposed to be a player.”

“Oh, Jones.” Blaine’s face twisted in exasperation. “Go on back to bed and read your comic books, for Christ’s sake.”

Jones howled triumphantly and slapped his thigh, giggling, and for an instant O’Grady looked undecided whether to laugh at him or at Blaine. He picked Jones, and Jones’s smile sickened under the attack. “No, all I meant is that you can’t very well hold Branch Rickey up as an example of–“

“I’m not holding anybody up as an example of anything,” Blaine said. “If you’d only listen, instead of using your stupid mouth all the time, you might find out what we’re talking about.” He turned his head away in disgust, and O’Grady, still smiling, stared at his thick hands. Jones mumbled a small, blurred word of deference that could have been “all right” or “sorry.”

Finally Blaine turned back. “All I’m saying,” he began, with the elaborate patience of a man who has pulled himself together, “is the very simple fact that some persons are endowed with an ability to handle themselves well, and that we call this ability talent, and that it need have nothing whatever to do with accumulated knowledge, and that a vast majority of persons lack this ability. Now, is that clear?” His eyes bulged, making the rest of his face look even more sunken than usual. One meager hand was thrust out, palm up, fingers curled in a tortured appeal for reason.

“All right,” Jones said, “for purposes of argument, I’ll accept that.”

Blaine’s hand dropped dead on the counterpane. “Doesn’t make any difference whether you accept it or not, you silly bastard. Happens to be true. Persons with talent make things happen, put it that way. Persons without talent let things happen to them. Talent, get it? Cuts through all your barriers of convention, all your goddamned middle-class morality. Your talented man can accomplish anything, get away with anything. Ask anybody whose business is sizing people up–any of your qualified psychologists–or for that matter your con men and your gamblers–any reasonably astute person who deals with the public. They’ll all tell you the same thing. Some have it, that’s all, and some don’t. Hell, I’ll give you an example. You familiar with those small, expensive men’s clothing stores up around Madison Avenue in the city?” They both shook their heads. “Well, doesn’t make any difference. Point is, those stores are the best in town. Very conservative, good English tailoring. Probably the top men’s stores in the country.”

“Oh, yeah,” O’Grady said, “I think I know the neighborhood.” But Jones giggled: “All I know is Macy’s and Gimbel’s.”

“Anyway,” Blaine went on, “I walked into one of those places one day when I first came to New York–oh, back around ‘thirty-nine or ‘forty.”

All the stories whose purpose was to show Robert Blaine as a seasoned man of the world were laid in ‘thirty-nine or ‘forty, when he had first come to New York, just as those intended to show him as an irrepressible youth took place in Chicago, “back in the Depression.” Rarely were there any stories about the Army, in which he had performed some drab office job, or about the series of veterans’ hospitals like this one that had been his life since the war.

“Just happened to be walking by–I don’t know; on my way to see some blonde, I guess, and I saw this coat in the window, beautiful imported English coat. Well, I decided I wanted it right on the spot, probably even decided I needed it; that was the way I used to do things. Strolled into the place and told the guy I wanted to try it on. Well, the coat didn’t hang right on me, too tight across the shoulders or something, and the guy asked me if I’d like to try something of better quality. Said he’d just gotten a few coats in from England. I said sure, and he brought out this really beautiful coat–” The word coat was all but lost in a sudden paroxysm of coughing that brought one of his hands up to clutch at the place where his last operation had been, while the other groped for a sputum cup. O’Grady glanced uneasily at Jones during the attack, but finally Blaine’s crumpled chest stopped heaving under the pajamas and the swollen vein shrank again in his temple. He lay back, regaining his breath. It was impossible to picture him swinging along Madison Avenue on his way to see some blonde; impossible that any coat could ever have been too tight across his shoulders. When he spoke again his voice was very strained and slow.

“He brought out this really beautiful coat. You know, the kind that never goes out of style; full cut, beautiful tailoring detail, rich material. Well, the minute I put the coat on, it was mine, that’s all there was to it. Good fit, harmonized well with the suit I was wearing. I told him I’d take it, even before I’d looked at the price tag. I think it was something over two hundred bucks; I’d probably have taken it if it’d been five hundred. But here I am, pulling the tag off the coat when I remembered I didn’t have my checkbook with me.”

“Oh Jesus,” Jones said.

“Well, by that time the guy and I are chatting about clothes and everything–you know; big friends–so I decided I’d just bluff it through. Started walking toward the door, wearing the coat, and he said, ‘Oh, Mr. Blaine, would you mind jotting down your address?’ I said, ‘Oh, yes, of course; stupid of me,’ and laughed–you know–and he laughed, and I wrote down the name of the hotel where I was living then, and we chatted a little more. He said, ‘You must drop in again, Mr. Blaine,’ and I took off. Next day I got the bill in the mail and sent him a check. In other words, he didn’t know who I was–I could have given him a phony address, anything. But just by the way I was dressed, way I walked, way I didn’t look at the price tag until after I’d agreed to buy the coat, he figured it’d be safe to handle it that way.”

Jones and O’Grady shook their heads appreciatively, and O’Grady said, “I’ll be damned.”

Robert Blaine lay back breathing hard, a smile hovering on his dry lips. The story had exhausted him.

“Really shows you what a man can get away with just by acting nonchalant,” Jones said. “Like when I was a kid, and we used to lift stuff out of the dimestore down home. Hell, I bet between the gang of us we must of cleaned that dimestore out of”– his lips worked, smiling, as he cast about for a suitable figure –“well, a lot of money, anyway.”

Blaine opened his mouth to explain that Jones had missed the whole point–he hadn’t meant shoplifting, for God’s sake–but he closed it again without speaking, reluctant to waste the breath. It was no use trying to explain anything to Jones; besides, Jones had settled back in the wheelchair now, twisted his mouth to one side and sniffed sharply through one nostril, which meant he was off on a story of his own.

“I remember one time when I was about fifteen years of age–no, must have been sixteen, because it was the year before I joined the Navy. Well, the other kids and I’d pretty well perfected that technique of acting nonchalant, and one day I got to feeling good, and I decided the dimestore was too tame. Decided I’d try my luck in this big Montgomery Ward store we had down home, which naturally was a lot harder. Thought I’d go it alone, see if I could get away with it, have something to brag about to the gang–you know how kids are. So in I walked, taking my time, circulating around . . .” His voice prattled on, almost effeminate in its preciseness, its Tennessee accent all but bleached out by the ten years he had spent away from home (five in the Navy, he would explain, holding up five fingers, and five in the hospital). Once he paused to cough into a neatly folded Kleenex, which he dropped into Blaine’s waste bag. All the nurses agreed that Jones was an ideal patient; he never complained, never broke rules, and kept his belongings spick-and-span.

“I remember each item as if it were yesterday,” he said, and spread his fingers to count them off. “One small monkey wrench; one of those jacknives with the five-inch blades; three or maybe four boxes of .22 caliber ammunition; two little sixteen-millimeter Mickey Mouse films–don’t ask me why I got those–and a stainless-steel padlock. Well, they had this store detective there, and he saw me take the padlock. Let me get all the way to the door and then came over and put the arm on me. Took me upstairs to the manager’s office with all that stuff in my jacket and pants pockets. Scared? Brother, I was scared half to death. But the thing was, he’d only seen me take the padlock, and neither he nor the manager stopped to think I might have other stuff too. The manager took the padlock and sat there chewing me out for about ten minutes, took my mom’s name and address and everything, and all the time I’m standing there wondering if they’ll frisk me before they let me go, and find those cartridges and the other stuff. But they never did; I walked out of there with all that stuff in my pockets, and went home. My mom never heard anything from the manager either. But brother, that was the last time I ever tried anything in that store!”

“Well, but don’t you see, you’re talking about stealing,” Robert Blaine said. “What I meant was–“

But O’Grady interrupted him, and O’Grady’s voice was stronger. “Reminds me one time in the Army, when we first hit Le Havre.” O’Grady folded his big arms across his bathrobe. He loved to talk about times in the Army. “You guys ever been to Le Havre? Well, ask anybody that was there, they’ll tell you it was one lousy town. I mean it was all bombed to hell, for one thing, and most of the part that wasn’t bombed was off-limits, but the main thing was the way the people treated you. I mean, they just didn’t have no damn use for GIs, I don’t care how nice you treated them. So anyway, these three of my buddies and me go into this little gin mill, a real beat-up little place, and hell, we’re just off the boat; we don’t know how the people are. So we order a couple cognacs and the bartender gives us this real dirty look, just like this–” and O’Grady made an unpleasant face. O’Grady had hit Le Havre a year after the war, on his way to the Army of Occupation, and this had been his first night overseas, a burly adolescent with PX overseas cap cocked to the eyebrow, his eyes narrowed at foreigners. (Maybe the war was over, but weren’t they headed for sure trouble with the Russians in Germany? Hadn’t the captain said, “You men are still soldiers in every sense of the word”?)

“Well, he brings the drinks, puts ’em down, grabs our dough and takes off to the rear of the bar where these other frogs were sitting. So, you know, what the hell, we got kind of sore. I mean, we couldn’t see no goddamn frog bartender treating us like shit, you know what I mean? So this buddy of mine, guy named Sitko, he says, ‘Come over here, Jack.'” O’Grady’s eyes grew cold, recalling Sitko’s face. “He says, ‘You compree English?’ Guy says yes, a little, and old Sitko says, ‘Whadda you got against Americans?’ Guy says he don’t understand–you know, ‘no compree’ or some damn thing–and old Sitko says, ‘You compree all right, Buster, don’t gimme that. Whadda you got against Americans?’ Guy still makes out like he don’t understand, see, and Sitko’s really getting sore, but we tell him, ‘Forget it, Sitko. The guy don’t understand, leave him alone.’ So we go on drinking, you know, couple more rounds, and old Sitko don’t say anything, but he’s getting madder all the time. Drunker he gets the madder he gets. So finally we’re ready to leave, and Sitko says let’s buy a bottle, take it back to camp. So we call the bartender back and ask him how much for a bottle. He shakes his head, says no, he can’t sell no bottles. Well, that did it, far as old Sitko’s concerned. He waits until the bartender goes away again, and then he ducks under the bar–there’s this little gate like in the top of the bar, see, right where we’re standing–and he grabs a bottle off the shelf and hands it out to this other guy, Hawkins, and says, ‘Hold this for me, Hawk.’ Then he hands one out to me and comes out with a couple more in his hands–clean as a whistle; those frogs never saw a thing. So we each of us had a bottle–oh Jesus, I forget what-all we had; cognac, we had that, and what’s the name of that other stuff? Calvados–we had some of that too, and some other kind of stuff besides. So we shoved the bottles up inside our battle jackets and we’re just leaving, almost to the door, when one of the frogs catches on. He starts yelling and pointing, and then they all come after us, but by that time we’re out in the street, going like hell.”

Jones giggled, rubbing his palms together and pressing them between his thighs. “You get away?”

“Oh, yeah, we got away all right–finally.” O’Grady’s face showed he had suddenly decided to amend the story–either because a full retreat seemed unmanly in the telling, or simply to make it last longer. “But just outside the door I dropped my damn bottle–didn’t break, just fell on the sidewalk, and I hadda stop and pick it up.”

“Oh Jesus,” Jones said.

“So here I am bending over, picking up the damn bottle, and this big frog comes up behind me. I just straightened up and swung around, holding the bottle by the neck, and let him have it right across the side of the head. Didn’t break that time either–don’t ask me what it did to that bastard’s head, but I think he was out cold–and I took off again. Never ran so fast in my life.”

“Ha-ha goddamn,” Jones said. “I bet you guys had a party that night, huh?”

“Boy, you ain’t kidding,” O’Grady said.

Robert Blaine had squirmed fretfully throughout the story, clearly annoyed. Now he propped himself up on one elbow and glowered at them. “Hell,” he said, “you guys are talking about stealing. Hell, if you want to talk about stealing, that’s different. I’ll tell you a story. I’ll tell you a story about stealing. In Chicago, back in the Depression. Lost my job on the Tribune just before Christmas. Little woman sitting at home with the kid–I was married then, see. Didn’t work at it very hard, but I was; had a three- or four-year-old kid–and here I am out of a job at Christmas. Went off on about a four-day drunk, ended up in some hotel with this model I used to run around with, girl named Irene. Beautiful girl. Tall, long legs, looked like a million dollars.”

O’Grady’s eyes flicked at Jones in a quick smile of disbelief, but Jones was listening attentively, and Blaine didn’t stop his flat-voiced monotone long enough to notice it. It seemed almost that he couldn’t stop, that the talking was a kind of convulsion, a bloodless hemorrhage.

“She said, ‘Robert, you’ve got to pull yourself together; do you know what day this is?’ Turns out it was Christmas Eve. I said, ‘Don’t worry, honey.’ Said, ‘Come on, we got some shopping to do.’ Checked out of the hotel–she had to pay the bill; I was flat broke by that time–and I grabbed a cab and took her to Marshall Field’s. She kept saying, ‘I don’t understand, Robert. What’s the idea?’ Got to Marshall Field’s, took her inside and started walking around the women’s accessories department, pulling her along by the hand. Found a nice woman’s handbag–I don’t know, lizard-skin or something, about twenty-five bucks. Said to Irene, ‘Think the little woman’d like this?’ She said, ‘Well certainly, but you can’t afford anything like that.’ I said, ‘Here, hold on to it.’ Handed her the bag and pulled her along through the crowd. Went to the toy department, picked up this big teddy bear, said, ‘Irene, think Bobby’d like this?’ She said, ‘You can’t do this, Robert.’ Said, ‘Why not? Doing it, aren’t I?’ Handed her the teddy bear and we took off. Teddy bear was small enough so she could hold it under her coat, see, she had this big fur coat–and we went all over the store that way. Got a couple more things for my kid, and then she said, ‘We’ve got to get out of here, Robert.’ Said, ‘Not until we buy something for you, baby.’ Took her to the blouse department, got this beautiful pure-silk blouse off the counter, just her size, and then we walked out the front door and into a cab. Took Irene back to her place, borrowed a couple bucks from her so I could pay off the driver, and then I rode home. Irene couldn’t get over it. Kept saying, ‘Nobody but you could do a thing like that, Robert.'” He began to laugh noiselessly, his eyes gleaming.

“Well,” Jones said chuckling, twisting his fingers. “Just shows you what a man can get away with.”

But Blaine was not finished. “Dutiful husband and father,” he said. “Coming home with gifts the day before Christmas. In a taxicab–” He laughed again, and it was an effort for him to pull his lips back over the grin of his yellow teeth in order to speak. “That’s the way I used to do things.” He sank back on his pillow and fell silent, breathing hard, while Jones and O’Grady tried to think of something to say.

At last O’Grady said, “Well–“

Blaine interrupted him. “And that’s not all I stole,” he said. “That’s not all I stole. Stole damn near everything I had in those days.” His face was sober again now, his eyes glazed, and as he spoke his fingers crept inside the pajama top to explore the scars. “Christ, I even stole Irene! Her husband made better than fifty thousand a year; she took off to New York with me and we lived off his dough for six months. Me, I didn’t have anything. Only she thought I had everything. Probably still does. Took a big wad of his dough and came to New York with me. I didn’t have anything. She thought I had everything. Thought I was a genius. Thought I was going to be another Sherwood Anderson. Probably still does.”

“Well, that’s life, I guess,” Jones said vaguely, and then both he and O’Grady became aware that Blaine was in some difficulty. His eyes had closed, and he was swallowing repeatedly–they could tell it by the bobbing of his sharp Adam’s apple–and they could see the flannel of his pajama top move with each beat of his heart. His breathing was shallow and irregular.

For some moments O’Grady stared at him, wide-eyed, until Jones signaled it was time to leave by backing his wheelchair up and turning it around. Anxiously, O’Grady slipped off the bed and came over to wheel the chair for him.

“See you later, Bob,” Jones called as they moved away, but Blaine made no reply. He didn’t even open his eyes.

“Christ almighty,” O’Grady said in a hushed voice as soon as they had left the bed. “What’s the matter with him?”

“Nerves,” Jones said with authority. “Happens to him quite often. Push me over to the nurse’s office, will you, O’Grady? I’ll just tell her about it; she’ll probably want to check his pulse and whatnot.”

“Okay,” O’Grady said. “Whaddya mean by nerves, exactly?”

“Well, you know. He’s pretty high-strung.”

Miss Berger was the nurse on duty, and she was laying out the evening medications when they stopped at the office door. She looked up, annoyed. “What do you want, Jones?”

“Just wanted to tell you Bob Blaine isn’t feeling too good, Miss Berger. Thought you might want to have a look at him.”


“Blaine. Nerves are kind of acting up again. You know.”

She shook her head over the medications tray, clicking her tongue. “Oh, honestly, that Blaine. Nerves, for God’s sake. Big baby, that’s all he is.”

“I just thought I’d tell you.”

“All right, all right,” she said, without looking up. “I can’t come now. He’ll have to wait.”

Jones and O’Grady shrugged in unison, and O’Grady started the wheelchair up again.

“Where to now?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Jones said. “Might as well go lay down, I guess, take it easy for a while. What time’s the movie tonight?”

Copyright © the Estate of Richard Yates 1976/2001

This story may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission. Please read the license.

This electronic version of Thieves is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with Methuen Publishing Ltd.. For rights information, contact Methuen directly in the first instance. Thieves appears in The Collected Stories of Richard Yates

About Richard Yates

Richard Yates was born in Yonkers, New York, in 1926. He wrote seven novels, among them Revolutionary Road, A Special Providence, The Easter Parade and A Good School. He died in 1992.


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