In the town there were two mutes, and
they were always together. Early every morning they would come out
from the house where they lived and walk arm in arm down the street
to work. The two friends were very different. The one who always steered
the way was an obese and dreamy Greek. In the summer he would come
out wearing a yellow or green polo shirt stuffed sloppily into his
trousers in front and hanging loose behind. When it was colder he
wore over this a shapeless gray sweater. His face was round and oily,
with half-closed eyelids and lips that curved in a gentle, stupid
smile. The other mute was tall. His eyes had a quick, intelligent
expression. He was always immaculate and very soberly dressed.
Every morning the two friends walked
silently together until they reached the main street of the town.
Then when they came to a certain fruit and candy store they paused
for a moment on the sidewalk outside. The Greek, Spiros Antonapoulos,
worked for his cousin, who owned this fruit store. His job was to
make candies and sweets, uncrate the fruits, and to keep the place
clean. The thin mute, John Singer, nearly always put his hand on his
friends arm and looked for a second into his face before leaving
him. Then after this good-bye Singer crossed the street and walked
on alone to the jewelry store where he worked as a silverware engraver.
In the late afternoon the friends would
meet again. Singer came back to the fruit store and waited until Antonapoulos
was ready to go home. The Greek would be lazily unpacking a case of
peaches or melons, or perhaps looping at the funny paper in the kitchen
shelves. Inside were stored various bits of food he had collected
a piece of fruit, samples of candy, or the butt-end of a liverwurst.
Usually before leaving Antonapoulos waddled gently to the glassed
case in front of the store where some meats and cheeses were kept.
He glided open the back of the case and his fat hand groped lovingly
for some particular dainty inside which he had wanted. Sometimes his
cousin who owned the place did not see him. But if he noticed he stared
at his cousin with a warning in his tight, pale face. Sadly Antonapoulos
would shuffle the morsel from one corner of the case to the other.
During these times Singer stood very straight with his hands in his
pockets and looked in another direction. He did not like to watch
this little scene between the two Greeks. For, excepting drinking
and a certain solitary pleasure, Antonapoulos loved to eat more than
anything else in the world.
In the dusk the two mutes walked slowly
home together. At home Singer was always talking to Antonapoulos.
His hands shaped the words in a swift series of designs. His face
was eager and his gray-green eyes sparkled brightly. With his thin,
strong hands he talked Antonapoulos all that happened during the day.
Antonapoulos sat back lazily and looked
at Singer. It was seldom that he ever moved his hands to speak at
all - and then it was to say he wanted to eat or to sleep or to drink.
These three things he always said with the same, fumbling signs. At
time, if he were not too drunk, he would kneel down before his bed
and pray awhile. Then his plump hands shaped the words Holy
Jesus, or God, or Darling Mary. These
were the only words Antonapoulos ever said. Singer never knew just
how much his friend understood of all the things he told him. But
it did not matter.
They shared the upstairs of a small
house near the business section of the house. There were two rooms.
On the oil stove in the kitchen Antonapoulos cooked all of their meals.
There were straight, plain kitchen stairs for Singer and an overstuffed
sofa for Antonapoulos. The bedroom was furnished mainly with a large
double bed covered with an eiderdown comforter for the big Greek and
a narrow iron cot for Singer.
Dinner always took a long time, because
Antonapoulos loved food and he was very slow. After they had eaten,
the big Greek would lie back on his sofa and slowly lick over each
one of his teeth with his tongue, either from a certain delicacy or
because he did not wish to lose the savor of the meal - while Singer
washed the dishes.
Sometimes in the evening the mutes
would play chess. Singer had always greatly enjoyed this game, and
years before he had tried to teach it to Antonapoulos. At first his
friend could not be interested in the reasons for moving the various
pieces about on the board. Then Singer began to keep a bottle of something
good under the table to be taken out after each lesson. The Greek
never got on to the erratic movements of the knights and the sweeping
mobility of the queens, but he learned to make a few set, opening
moves. He preferred the white pieces and would not play if the black
men were given him. After the first moves Singer worked out the game
by himself while his friend looked on drowsily. If Singer made brilliant
attacks on his own men so that in the end the black king was killed,
Antonapoulos was always very proud and pleased.
The two mutes had no other friends,
and except when they worked they were alone together. Each day was
very much like any other day, because they were alone so much that
nothing ever disturbed them. Once a week they would go to the library
for Singer to withdraw a mistery book and on a Friday night they attended
a movie. Then on payday they always went to the ten-cent photograph
shop about the Army and Navy Store so that Antonapoulos could have
his picture taken. These were the only places where they made customary
visits. There were many parts in the town that they had never even
The town was in the middle of the deep
South. The summers were long and the months of winter cold were very
few. Nearly always the sky was a glassy, brilliant azure and the sun
burned down riotously bright. Then the light, chill rains of November
would come, and perhaps later there would be frost and some short
months of cold. The winters were changeable but the summers always
were burning hot. The town was a fairly large one. On the main street
there were two- and three-story shops and business offices. But the
largest buildings in the town were the factories, which employed a
large percentage of the population. These cotton mills were big and
flourishing and most of the workers in the town were very poor. Often
in the faces along the streets there was the desperate look of hunger
and of loneliness.
But the two mutes were not lonely at
all. At home they were content to eat and drink, and Singer would
talk with his hands eagerly to his friend about all that was in his
mind. So the years passed in this quiet way until Singer reached the
age of thirty-two and had been in the town with Antonapoulos for ten
Then one day the Greek became ill.
He sat up in bed with his hands on his fat stomach and big, oily tears
rolled down his cheeks. Singer went to see his friends cousin
who owned the fruit store, and also he arranged for leave from his
own work. The doctor made out a diet for Antonapoulos and said that
he could drink no more wine. Singer rigidly enforced the doctors
orders. All day he sat by his friends bed and did what he could
to make the time pass quickly, but Antonapoulos only looked at him
angrily from the corners of his eyes and would not not be amused.
The Greek was very fretful, and kept
finding fault with the fruit drinks and food that Singer prepared
for him. Constantly he made his friends help him out of bed so that
he could pray. His huge buttocks would sag down over plump little
feet when he kneeled. He fumbled with his hands to say Darling
Mary and then held to the small brass cross tied to his neck
with a dirty string. His big eyes would wall up to the ceiling with
a look of fear in them, and afterward he was very sulky and would
not let his friend speak to him.
Singer was patient and did all that
he could. He drew little pictures, and once he made a sketch of his
friend to amuse him. This picture hurt the big Greeks feelings,
and he refused to be reconciled until Singer had made his face very
young and handsome and colored his hair bright yellow and his eyes
china blue. And then he tried not to show his pleasure.
Singer nursed his friend so carefully that after a week Antonapoulos was able to return to his work. But from that time on there was a difference in their way of life. Trouble came to the two friends.
Antonapoulos was not ill any more,
but a change had come in him. he was irritable and no longer content
to spend the evenings quietly in their home. When he would wish to
go out Singer followed along close behind him. Antonapoulos would
go into a restaurant, and while they sat at the table he slyly put
lumps of sugar, or a pepper-shaker, or pieces of silverware in his
pocket. Singer always paid for what he took and there was no disturbance.
At home he scolded Antonapoulos, but the big Greek only looked at
him with a bland smile.
The months went on and these habits
of Antonapoulos grew worse. One day at noon he walked calmly out of
the fruit store of his cousin and urinated in public against the wall
of the First National Bank Building across the street. At times he
would meet people on the sidewalk whose faces did not please him,
and he would bump into these persons and push at them with his elbows
and stomach. He walked into a store one day and hauled out a floor
lamp without paying for it, and another time he tried to take an electric
train he had seen in a showcase.
For Singer this was a time of great
distress. He was continually marching Antonapoulos down to the courthouse
during lunch hour to settle these infringements of the law. Singer
became very familiar with the procedure of the courts and he was in
a constant state of agitation. The money he had saved in the bank
was spent for bail and fines. All of his efforts and money were used
to keep his friend out of jail because such charges as theft, committing
public indecencies, and assault and battery.
The Greek cousin for whom Antonapoulos
worked did not enter into these problems at all. Charles Parker (for
that was the name this cousin had taken) let Antonapoulos stay on
at the store, but he watched him always with his pale, tight face
and he made no effort to help him. Singer had a strange feeling about
Charles Parker. He began to dislike him.
Singer lived in continual turmoil and
worry. But Antonapoulos was always bland, and no matter what happened
the gentle, flaccid smile was still on his face. In all the years
before it had seemed to Singer that there was something very subtle
and wise in this smile of his friend. He had never known just how
much Antonapoulos understood and what he was thinking. Now in the
big Greeks expression Singer thought that he could detect something
sly and joking. He would shake his friend by the shoulders until he
was tired and explain things over and over with his hands. But nothing
did any good.
All of Singers money was gone
and he had to borrow from the jeweler for whom he worked. On one occasion
he was unable to pay bail for his friend and Antonapoulos spent the
night in jail. When Singer came to get him out the next day he was
very sulky. He did not want to leave. He had enjoyed his dinner of
sowbelly and cornbread with syrup poured over it. And the new sleeping
arrangements and his cellmates pleased him.
They had lived him so much alone that
Singer had no one to help him in his distress. Antonapoulos let nothing
disturb him or cure him of his habits. At home he sometimes cooked
the new dish he had eaten in the jail, and on the streets there was
never any knowing just what he would do.
And the final trouble came to Singer.
One afternoon he had come to meet Antonapoulos
at the fruit store when Charles PArker handed him a letter. The letter
explained that Charles Parker had made arrangements for his cousin
to be taken to the state insane asylum two hundred miles away. Charles
Parker had used his influence in the town and the details were already
settled. Antonapoulos was to leave and to be admitted into the asylum
the next week.
Singer read the letter several times,
and for a while he could not think. Charles Parker was talking to
him across the counter, but he did not even try to read his lips and
understand. At last Singer wrote on the little pad he always carried
in his pocket:
You cannot do this. Antonapoulos
must stay with me.
Charles Parker shook his head excitedly.
He did not know much American. None of your business,
he kept saying over and over.
Singer knew that everything was finished.
The Greek was afraid that some day he might be responsible for his
cousin. Charles PArker did not know much about the American language
- but he understood the American dollar very well, and he had used
his money and influence to admit his cousin to the asylum without
There was nothing Singer could do.
The next week was full of feverish
activity. He talked and talked. And although his hands never paused
to rest he could not tell all he had to say. He wanted to talk to
Antonapoulos of all the thoughts that had ever been in his mind and
heart, but there was no time. His gray eyes glittered and his quick,
intelligent face expressed great strain. Antonapoulos watched him
drousily, and his friend did not know just what he really understood.
Then came the day when Antonapoulos
must leave. Singer brought out his own suitcase and very carefully
packed the best of their joint possessions. Antonapoulos made himself
a lunch to eat during the journey. In the late afternoon they walked
arm in arm down the street for the last time together. It was a chilly
afternoon in late November, and little huffs of breath showed in the
air before them.
Charles Parker was to travel with his
cousin, but he stood apart from them at the station. Antonapoulos
crowded in the bus and settled himself with elaborate preparations
in one of the front seats. Singer watched him from the window and
his hands began desperately to talk for the last time with his friend.
But Antonapoulos was so busy checking over the various items in his
lunch box that for a while he paid no attention. Just before the bus
pulled away from the curb he turned to Singer and his smile was very
bland and remote - as though already they were many miles apart.
The weeks that followed didnt
seem real at all. All day Singer worked over his bench in the back
of the jewelry store, and then at night he returned to the house alone.
More than anything he wanted to sleep. As soon as he came home from
work he would lie on his cot and try to doze awhile. Dreams came to
him when he lay there half-asleep. And in all of them Antonapoulos
was there. His hands would jerk nervously, for in his dreams he was
talking to his friend and Antonapoulos was watching him.
Singer tried to think of the time before
he had ever known his friend. He teried to recount to himself certain
things that had happened when he was young. But none of these things
he tried to remember seemed real.
There was one particular fact that
he remembered, but it was not all important to him. Singer recalled
that, although he had been deaf since he was an infant, he had not
always been a real mute. He was left an orphan very young and placed
in an institution for the deaf. He had learned to talk with his hands
and to read. Before he was nine years old he could talk with one hand
in the American way - and also could employ both of his hands after
the method of Europeans. He had learned to follow the movements of
peoples lips and to understand what they said. Then finally
he had been taught to speak.
At the school he was very intelligent.
He learned the lessons before the rest of the pupils. But he could
never become used to speaking with his lips. It was not natural to
him, and his tongue felt like a whale in his mouth. From the blank
expression on peoples faces to whom he talked in this way he
felt that his voice must be like the sound of some animal or that
there was something disgusting in his speech. It was painful for him
to try to talk with his mouth, but his hands were always ready to
shape the words he wished to say. When he was twenty-two he had come
South to this town from Chicago and he met Antonapoulos immediately.
Since that time he had never spoken with his mouth again, because
with his friend there was no need for this.
Nothing seemed real except the ten
years with Antonapoulos. In his half-dreams he saw his friend very
vividly, and when he awakened a great aching loneliness would be in
him. Occasionally he would pack up a box for Antonapoulos, but he
never received any reply. And so the months passed in this empty,
In the spring a change came over Singer.
He could not sleep and his body was very restless. At evening he would
walk monotonously around the room, unable to work off a new feeling
of energy. If he rested at all it was only during a few hours before
dawn - then he would drop bluntly into a sleep that lasted until the
morning light struck suddenly beneath his opening eyelids like a scimitar.
He began spending his evenings walking
around the town. he could no longer stand the rooms where Antonapoulos
had lived, and he rented a place in a shambling boarding-house not
far from the center of the town.
He ate his meals at a restaurant only
two blocks away. This restaurant was at the very end of the long main
street and the name of the place was the New York Café. The
first day he glanced over the menu quickly and wrote a short note
and handed it to the proprietor.
Each morning for breakfast I want
an egg, toast and coffee $0.15
The proprietor read the note and gave
him an alert, tactful glance. He was a hard man of middle height,
with a beard so dark and heavy that the lower part of his face looked
as though it were molded of iron. He usually stood in the corner by
the cash register, his arms folded over his chest, quietly observing
all that went on around him. Singer came to know this mans face
very well, for he ate at one of his tables three times a day.
Each evening the mute walked alone for hours in the street. Sometimes the nights were cold with the sharp, wet winds of March and it would be raining heavily. But to him this did not matter. His gait was agitated and he always kept his hands stuffed tight into the pockets of his trousers. Then as the weeks passed the days grew warm and languorous. His agitation gave way gradually to exhaustion and there was a look about him of deep calm. in his face there came to be a brooding peace that is seen most often in the faces of the very sorrowful or the very wise. But still he wandered through the streets of the town, always silent and alone.