Long Distance by Edna Ferber
Chet Ball was painting a wooden chicken yellow. The wooden chicken was mounted on a six-by-twelve board. The board was mounted on four tiny wheels. The whole would eventually be pulled on a string guided by the plump, moist hand of some blissful five-year-old.
You got the incongruity of it the instant your eye fell upon Chet Ball. Chet’s shoulders alone would have loomed large in contrast with any wooden toy ever devised, including the Trojan horse. Everything about him, from the big, blunt-fingered hands that held the ridiculous chick to the great muscular pillar of his neck, was in direct opposition to his task, his surroundings, and his attitude.
Chet’s proper milieu was Chicago, Illinois (the West Side); his job that of lineman for the Gas, Light & Power Company; his normal working position astride the top of a telegraph pole, supported in his perilous perch by a lineman’s leather belt and the kindly fates, both of which are likely to trick you in an emergency.
Yet now he lolled back among his pillows, dabbing complacently at the absurd yellow toy. A description of his surroundings would sound like pages 3 to 17 of a novel by Mrs. Humphry Ward. The place was all greensward, and terraces, and sundials, and beeches, and even those rhododendrons without which no English novel or country estate is complete. The presence of Chet Ball among his pillows and some hundreds similarly disposed revealed to you at once the fact that this particular English estate was now transformed into Reconstruction Hospital No. 9.
The painting of the chicken quite finished (including two beady black paint eyes), Chet was momentarily at a loss. Miss Kate had not told him to stop painting when the chicken was completed. Miss Kate was at the other end of the sunny garden walk, bending over a wheel chair. So Chet went on painting, placidly. One by one, with meticulous nicety, he painted all his fingernails a bright and cheery yellow. Then he did the whole of his left thumb and was starting on the second joint of the index finger when Miss Kate came up behind him and took the brush gently from his strong hands.
“You shouldn’t have painted your fingers,” she said.
Chet surveyed them with pride. “They look swell.”
Miss Kate did not argue the point. She put the freshly painted wooden chicken on the table to dry in the sun. Her eyes fell upon a letter bearing an American postmark and addressed to Sergeant Chester Ball, with a lot of cryptic figures and letters strung out after it, such as A.E.F. and Co. 11.
“Here’s a letter for you!” She infused a lot of Glad into her voice. But Chet only cast a languid eye upon it and said, “Yeh?”
“I’ll read it to you, shall I? It’s a nice fat one.”
Chet sat back, indifferent, negatively acquiescent. And Miss Kate began to read in her clear young voice, there in the sunshine and scent of the centuries-old English garden.
It marked an epoch in Chet’s life–that letter. It reached out across the Atlantic Ocean from the Chester Ball of his Chicago days, before he had even heard of English gardens.
Your true lineman has a daredevil way with the women, as have all men whose calling is a hazardous one. Chet was a crack workman. He could shinny up a pole, strap his emergency belt, open his tool kit, wield his pliers with expert deftness, and climb down again in record time. It was his pleasure–and seemingly the pleasure and privilege of all lineman’s gangs the world over–to whistle blithely and to call impudently to any passing petticoat that caught his fancy.
Perched three feet from the top of the high pole he would cling protected, seemingly, by some force working in direct defiance of the law of gravity. And now and then, by way of brightening the tedium of their job, he and his gang would call to a girl passing in the street below, “Hoo-hoo! Hello, sweetheart!”
There was nothing vicious in it. Chet would have come to the aid of beauty in distress as quickly as Don Quixote. Any man with a blue shirt as clean and a shave as smooth and a haircut as round as Chet Ball’s has no meanness in him. A certain daredeviltry went hand in hand with his work–a calling in which a careless load dispatcher, a cut wire, or a faulty strap may mean instant death. Usually the girls laughed and called back to them or went on more quickly, the color in their cheeks a little higher.
But not Anastasia Rourke. Early the first morning of a two-week job on the new plant of the Western Castings Company, Chet Ball, glancing down from his dizzy perch atop an electric-light pole, espied Miss Anastasia Rourke going to work. He didn’t know her name or anything about her, except that she was pretty. You could see that from a distance even more remote than Chet’s. But you couldn’t know that Stasia was a lady not to be trifled with. We know her name was Rourke, but he didn’t.
So then: “Hoo-hoo!” he had called. “Hello, sweetheart! Wait for me and I’ll be down.”
Stasia Rourke had lifted her face to where he perched so high above the streets. Her cheeks were five shades pinker than was their wont, which would make them border on the red.
“You big ape, you!” she called, in her clear, crisp voice. “If you had your foot on the ground you wouldn’t dast call to a decent girl like that. If you were down here I’d slap the face of you. You know you’re safe up there.”
The words were scarcely out of her mouth before Chet Ball’s sturdy legs were twinkling down the pole. His spurred heels dug into the soft pine of the pole with little ripe, tearing sounds. He walked up to Stasia and stood squarely in front of her, six feet of brawn and brazen nerve. One ruddy cheek he presented to her astonished gaze. “Hello, sweetheart,” he said. And waited. The Rourke girl hesitated just a second. All the Irish heart in her was melting at the boyish impudence of the man before her. Then she lifted one hand and slapped his smooth cheek. It was a ringing slap. You saw the four marks of her fingers upon his face. Chet straightened, his blue eyes bluer. Stasia looked up at him, her eyes wide. Then down at her own hand, as if it belonged to somebody else. Her hand came up to her own face. She burst into tears, turned, and ran. And as she ran, and as she wept, she saw that Chet was still standing there, looking after her.
Next morning, when Stasia Rourke went by to work, Chet Ball was standing at the foot of the pole, waiting.
They were to have been married that next June. But that next June Chet Ball, perched perilously on the branch of a tree in a small woodsy spot somewhere in France, was one reason why the American artillery in that same woodsy spot was getting such a deadly range on the enemy. Chet’s costume was so devised that even through field glasses (made in Germany) you couldn’t tell where tree left off and Chet began.
Then, quite suddenly, the Germans got the range. The tree in which Chet was hidden came down with a crash, and Chet lay there, more than ever indiscernible among its tender foliage.
Which brings us back to the English garden, the yellow chicken, Miss Kate, and the letter.
His shattered leg was mended by one of those miracles of modern war surgery, though he never again would dig his spurred heels into the pine of a G. L. & P. Company pole. But the other thing–they put it down under the broad general head of shock. In the lovely English garden they set him to weaving and painting as a means of soothing the shattered nerves. He had made everything from pottery jars to bead chains, from baskets to rugs. Slowly the tortured nerves healed. But the doctors, when they stopped at Chet’s cot or chair, talked always of “the memory center.” Chet seemed satisfied to go on placidly painting toys or weaving chains with his great, square-tipped fingers–the fingers that had wielded the pliers so cleverly in his pole-climbing days.
“It’s just something that only luck or an accident can mend,” said the nerve specialist. “Time may do it–but I doubt it. Sometimes just a word– the right word–will set the thing in motion again. Does he get any letters?”
“His girl writes to him. Fine letters. But she doesn’t know yet about– about this. I’ve written his letters for him. She knows now that his leg is healed and she wonders—-“
That had been a month ago. Today Miss Kate slit the envelope post- marked Chicago. Chet was fingering the yellow wooden chicken, pride in his eyes. In Miss Kate’s eyes there was a troubled, baffled look as she began to read:
Chet, dear, it’s raining in Chicago. And you know when it rains in Chicago it’s wetter, and muddier, and rainier than any place in the world. Except maybe this Flanders we’re reading so much about. They say for rain and mud that place takes the prize.
I don’t know what I’m going on about rain and mud for, Chet darling, when it’s you I’m thinking of. Nothing else and nobody else. Chet, I got a funny feeling there’s something you’re keeping back from me. You’re hurt worse than just the leg. Boy, dear, don’t you know it won’t make any difference with me how you look, or feel, or anything? I don’t care how bad you’re smashed up. I’d rather have you without any features at all than any other man with two sets. Whatever’s happened to the outside of you, they can’t change your insides. And you’re the same man that called out to me that day, “Hoo-hoo! Hello, sweetheart!” and when I gave you a piece of my mind, climbed down off the pole, and put your face up to be slapped, God bless the boy in you—-
A sharp little sound from him. Miss Kate looked up, quickly. Chet Ball was staring at the beady-eyed yellow chicken in his hand.
“What’s this thing?” he demanded in a strange voice.
Miss Kate answered him very quietly, trying to keep her own voice easy and natural. “That’s a toy chicken, cut out of wood.”
“What’m I doin’ with it?”
“You’ve just finished painting it.”
Chet Ball held it in his great hand and stared at it for a brief moment, struggling between anger and amusement. And between anger and amusement he put it down on the table none too gently and stood up, yawning a little.
“That’s a hell of a job for a he-man!” Then in utter contrition: “Oh, beggin’ your pardon! That was fierce! I didn’t—-“
But there was nothing shocked about the expression on Miss Kate’s face. She was registering joy–pure joy.