Gentleman’s Agreement, by Laura Z. Hobson – 1947 (Tom Lovell)

The tires squeaked against the snow.  As the car stopped, a smiling page boy in green opened the door for him, spotted the suitcase, and lugged it out, asking, “Skis, sir?”  Phil shook his head and nodded to the driver.  The car drove off.  Behind, a door opened heavily, and Phil turned.  His peripheral vision told him a man was waiting in the open door, but he stood still and looked about him with interest.  Sprawling, faced with half logs, smoke rising bluely at half a dozen massive stone chimneys, the inn sent off its instant message of being expensive, comfortable, and what was meant by the word “smart,” which blanketed a thousand variables.  At one side, along its shallow depth, was a porch studded with more of the bright raw colors of mittens and scarves and caps, restless with movement as skis were scraped and rubbed and waxed.  Everywhere was the smell of new snow, the stretching whiteness, the crunch of boots through the glazed top surface to the hardness below.  It would have been a calm and happy place for him to bring Kathy in their first living together.

Abruptly, he turned toward the front door.  The man waiting there gave a pleasant half salute and called out, “How do?” in the rising, puzzled tone of somebody expecting nobody, but not perturbed by the unexpected.  His face was pale, his hair thick and gray; he was as tall as Phil, middle-yeared, not homely, not handsome.  He wore grayish tweeds, with a plaid wool shirt, an island of color and impudence in his general indefiniteness.

“How do,” Phil said.  “The desk right ahead?”

“Just inside.  Driving through?”

“No, I came by air.”  He went past him, into a large lounge.  The registration desk was at his left, and he turned to it, but his snapshot picture of the place had already given him the blazing fireplace, the deep chairs, the beams overhead.  Behind the counter the tall man was gently pushing forward a leather-cornered pad with a registration card slotted into it, saying affably, “I hope it won’t be for too many days, but with one bag and no skis – ”

“I have reservations,” Phil said, and took the pen angled toward him from its plastic base.  “For a double room and bath, today through Thursday.”

He wrote, “Philip -”

“Reservations?  In what name?”  There was a stiffening all over him, mouth, voice, the arms on the counter.

Phil wrote, “S. Green” and his address.  Then he said, “Green.  My wife will get here tomorrow.”

“The Mr. Green who – ”

“Yes,” Phil said.  “You’re Mr. Calkins, the owner?”  He didn’t wait for the nod.  He pulled out his wallet, opened it without haste, took out the telegram, laid it on the desk, and set the wallet on top of it.  Absurdly, a shakiness began in his knees, but the slow-seeping juice that caused it merely deepened his steady voice.

“But there’s some error, Mr. Green.  There isn’t one free room in the entire inn.”  His eyes sent the page boy an almost imperceptible look, but Phil saw it.  It signaled “no” or “hold it” or something which the boy understood well enough to make him shift from his rigid attention to an “at ease.”  And with the signal, a curious thing had happened to Mr. Calkins’ face.  It had drawn all mobility into itself, absorbing it, blotterlike; it presented now only the even, dead stain of on-guardedness.

“You were about to give me a room – apart from the reservation.  What’s changed your mind?”

“Why, not a thing.  It’s unfortunate, but there isn’t – ”  He reached toward the telegram.  Quietly Phil shoved the wallet aside so that the message and the signature, “J. Calkins,” became visible.  But he let his hand rest on the lower part of it.  Mr. Calkins said, “Perhaps the Brewster Hotel near the station?” and reached toward the telephone.

“I’m not staying at the Brewster,” Phil said.  He looked directly into Calkins’ eyes.  Calkins raised his shoulders, drew his hand back from the telephone, and said nothing at all.  “I am Jewish, and you don’t take Jews – that’s it, isn’t it?”

“Why, I wouldn’t put it like that.  It’s just – ”

“This place is what they call ‘restricted’- is that it?”

“I never said that.”

It was like fighting fog, slapping at mist.  A man and woman came up, saying “Air-mail for these,” left two letters, and began to go off.

“If you don’t accept Jews, say so,” Phil said.  The pair stopped.  Calkins picked up the letters.

“I am very busy just now, Mr. Green.  If you’d like me to phone up a cab or the Brewster – ”  He reached into a drawer, took out a strip of air-mail stamps, and folded two back on the perforated hinge.  The couple moved on.  From behind him, the woman’s voice came clearly back to Phil.  “Always pushing in, that’s the Jew of it.” Calkins turned aside to a rustic box with a slit top and dropped the letters into it.  There was something so placid, so undisturbed about the gesture that all the backed-up violence Phil had been grinding down exploded.  His hand suddenly had plaid wool and buttons in it; he had leaned across the counter and seized Calkins under the throat, twisting him forward so that they faced each other once more.

“You coward,” he said and dropped his hand.  He turned to the page, signaled for his bag, and said, “My cab’s waiting; I’ve got tickets on the four-o’clock plane.”

The page grinned widely.  “So it is just books in it.  Clothes aren’t ever this heavy, sir.”

Calkins made a sound.  Comprehension was in it, and nervousness.  A cold shaft of triumph shot through the heat and poison boiling in Phil.  Mr. Calkins had caught on to the fact that something was going on besides the hiring of a room.  Mr. Calkins was frightened.

– Laura Z. Hobson