by Richard Yatess
From The Collected Stories of Richard Yates
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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