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The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag

Robert A. Heinlein

  The Unpleasant Profession Of Jonathan Hoag -- Robert A. Heinlein

  (Version 2002.04.26 -- Done)

  -- the end it is not well.

  From too much love of living,

  From hope and fear set free,

  We thank with brief thanksgiving

  Whatever gods may be

  That no life lives forever;

  That dead men rise up never;

  That even the weariest river

  Winds somewhere safe to sea.



  "Is it blood, doctor?" Jonathan Hoag moistened his lips with his tongue and leaned forward in the chair, trying to see what was written on the slip of paper the medico held.

  Dr. Potbury brought the slip of paper closer to his vest and looked at Hoag over his spectacles. "Any particular reason," he asked, "why you should find blood under your fingernails?"

  "No. That is to say -- Well, no -- there isn't. But it is blood -- isn't it?"

  "No," Potbury said heavily. "No, it isn't blood."

  Hoag knew that he should have felt relieved. But he was not. He knew in that moment that he had clung to the notion that the brown grime under his fingernails was dry blood rather than let himself dwell on other, less tolerable, ideas.

  He felt sick at his stomach. But he had to know --

  "What is it, doctor? Tell me."

  Potbury looked him up and down. "You asked me a specific question. I've answered it. You did not ask me what the substance was; you asked me to find out whether or not it was blood. It is not."

  "But -- You are playing with me. Show me the analysis." Hoag half rose from his chair and reached for the slip of paper.

  The doctor held it away from him, then tore it carefully in two. Placing the two pieces together he tore them again, and again.

  "Why, you!"

  "Take your practice elsewhere," Potbury answered. "Never mind the fee. Get out. And don't come back."

  Hoag found himself on the street, walking toward the elevated station. He was still much shaken by the doctor's rudeness. He was afraid of rudeness as some persons are of snakes, or great heights, or small rooms. Bad manners, even when not directed at him personally but simply displayed to others in his presence, left him sick and helpless and overcome with shame.

  If he himself were the butt of boorishness he had no defense save flight.

  He set one foot on the bottom step of the stairs leading up to the elevated station and hesitated. A trip by elevated was a trying thing at best, what with the pushing and the jostling and the grimy dirt and the ever-present chance of uncouth behavior; he knew that he was not up to it at the moment. If he had to listen to the cars screaming around the curve as they turned north toward the Loop, he suspected that he would scream, too.

  He turned away suddenly and was forced to check himself abruptly, for he was chest to chest with a man who himself was entering the stairway. He shied away. "Watch your step, buddy," the man said, and brushed on past him.

  "Sorry," Hoag muttered, but the man was already on by.

  The man's tone had been brisk rather than unkind; the incident should not have troubled Hoag, but it did. The man's dress and appearance, his very odor, upset Hoag. Hoag knew that there was no harm in well-worn dungarees and leather windbreaker, no lack of virtue in a face made a trifle greasy by sweat dried in place in the course of labor. Pinned to the bill of the man's cap was an oval badge, with a serial number and some lettering. Hoag guessed that he was a truck driver, a mechanic, a rigger, any of the competent, muscular crafts which keep the wheels turning over. Probably a family man as well, a fond father and a good provider, whose greatest lapse from virtue might be an extra glass of beer and a tendency to up it a nickel on two pairs.

  It was sheer childishness for Hoag to permit himself to be put off by such appearance and to prefer a white shirt, a decent topcoat, and gloves. Yet if the man had smelled of shaving lotion rather than sweat the encounter would not have been distasteful.

  He told himself so and told himself that he was silly and weak. Still -- could such a coarse and brutal face really be the outward mark of warmth and sensitivity? That shapeless blob of nose, those piggish eyes?

  Never mind, he would go home in a taxi, not looking at anyone. There was a stand just ahead, in front of the delicatessen.

  "Where to?" The door of the cab was open; the hackman's voice was impersonally insistent.

  Hoag caught his eye, hesitated and changed his mind. That brutishness again -- eyes with no depth to them and a skin marred by blackheads and enlarged pores.

  "Unnh...excuse me. I forgot something." He turned away quickly and stopped abruptly, as something caught him around the waist. It was a small boy on skates who had bumped into him. Hoag steadied himself and assumed the look of paternal kindliness which he used to deal with children. "Whoa, there, young fellow!" He took the boy by the shoulder and gently dislodged him.

  "Maurice!" The voice screamed near his ear, shrill and senseless. It came from a large woman, smugly fat, who had projected herself out of the door of the delicatessen. She grabbed the boy's other arm, jerking him away and aiming a swipe at his ear with her free hand as she did so. Hoag started to plead on the boy's behalf when he saw that the woman was glaring at him. The youngster, seeing or sensing his mother's attitude, kicked at Hoag.

  The skate clipped him in the shin. It hurt. He hurried away with no other purpose than to get out of sight. He turned down the first side street, his shin causing him to limp a little, and his ears and the back of his neck burning quite as if he had indeed been caught mistreating the brat. The side street was not much better than the street he had left. It was not lined with shops nor dominated by the harsh steel tunnel of the elevated's tracks, but it was solid with apartment houses, four stories high and crowded, little better than tenements.

  Poets have sung of the beauty and innocence of childhood. But it could not have been this street, seen through Hoag's eyes, that they had in mind. The small boys seemed rat-faced to him, sharp beyond their years, sharp and shallow and snide. The little girls were no better in his eyes. Those of eight or nine, the shapeless stringy age, seemed to him to have tattletale written in their pinched faces -- mean souls, born for trouble-making and cruel gossip. Their slightly older sisters, gutter-wise too young, seemed entirely concerned with advertising their arrogant new sex -- not for Hoag's benefit, but for their pimply counterparts loafing around the drugstore.

  Even the brats in baby carriages -- Hoag fancied that he liked babies, enjoyed himself in the role of honorary uncle. Not these. Snotty-nosed and sour-smelling, squalid and squalling --

  The little hotel was like a thousand others, definitely third rate without pretension, a single bit of neon reading: "Hotel Manchester, Transient & Permanent," a lobby only a half lot wide, long and narrow and a little dark. They are stopped at by drummers careful of their expense accounts and are lived in by bachelors who can't afford better. The single elevator is an iron-grille cage, somewhat disguised with bronze paint. The lobby floor is tile, the cuspidors are brass. In addition to the clerk's desk there are two discouraged potted palms and eight leather armchairs. Unattached old men, who seem never to have had a past, sit in these chairs, live in the rooms above, and every now and then one is found hanging in his room, necktie to light fixture.

  Hoag backed into the door of the Manchester to avoid being caught in a surge of children charging along the sidewalk. Some sort of game, apparently -- he caught the tail end of a shrill chant, " -- give him a slap to shut his trap; the last one home's a dirty Jap!"

  "Looking for someone, sir?
Or did you wish a room?"

  He turned quickly around, a little surprised. A room? What he wanted was his own snug apartment but at the moment a room, any room at all, in which he could be alone with a locked door between himself and the world seemed the most desirable thing possible. "Yes, I do want a room."

  The clerk turned the register around. "With or without? Five fifty with, three and a half without."


  The clerk watched him sign, but did not reach for the key until Hoag counted out five ones and a half. "Glad to have you with us. Bill! Show Mr. Hoag up to 412."

  The lone bellman ushered him into the cage, looked him up and down with one eye, noting the expensive cut of his topcoat and the absence of baggage. Once in 412 he raised the window a trifle, switched on the bathroom light, and stood by the door.

  "Looking for something?" he suggested. "Need any help?"

  Hoag tipped him. "Get out," he said hoarsely.

  The bellman wiped off the smirk. "Suit yourself," he shrugged.

  The room contained one double bed, one chest of drawers with mirror, one straight chair and one armchair. Over the bed was a framed print titled "The Colosseum by Moonlight." But the door was lockable and equipped with a bolt as well and the window faced the alley, away from the street. Hoag sat down in the armchair. It had a broken spring, but he did not mind.

  He took off his gloves and stared at his nails. They were quite clean. Could the whole thing have been hallucination? Had he ever gone to consult Dr. Potbury? A man who has had amnesia may have it again, he supposed, and hallucinations as well.

  Even so, it could not all be hallucinations; he remembered the incident too vividly. Or could it be? He strained to recall exactly what had happened.

  Today was Wednesday, his customary day off. Yesterday he had returned home from work as usual. He had been getting ready to dress for dinner -- somewhat absent -- mindedly, he recalled, as he had actually been thinking about where he would dine, whether to try a new Italian place recommended by his friends, the Robertsons, or whether it would be more pleasing to return again for the undoubtedly sound goulash prepared by the chef at the Buda-Pesth.

  He had about decided in favor of the safer course when the telephone had rung. He had almost missed it, as the tap was running in the washbasin. He had thought that he heard something and had turned off the tap. Surely enough, the phone rang again.

  It was Mrs. Pomeroy Jameson, one of his favorite hostesses -- not only a charming woman for herself but possessed of a cook who could make clear soups that were not dishwater. And sauces. She had offered a solution to his problem. "I've been suddenly left in the lurch at the last moment and I've just got to have another man for dinner. Are you free? Could you help me? Dear Mr. Hoag!"

  It had been a very pleasant thought and he had not in the least resented being asked to fill in at the last minute. After all, one can't expect to be invited to every small dinner. He had been delighted to oblige Edith Pomeroy. She served an unpretentious but sound dry white wine with fish and she never committed the vulgarism of serving champagne at any time. A good hostess and he was glad she felt free to ask him for help. It was a tribute to him that she felt he would fit in, unplanned.

  He had had such thoughts on his mind, he remembered, as he dressed. Probably, in his preoccupation, what with the interruption of the phone call breaking his routine, he had neglected to scrub his nails.

  It must have been that. Certainly there had been no opportunity to dirty his nails so atrociously on the way to the Pomeroys'. After all, one wore gloves.

  It had been Mrs. Pomeroy's sister-in-law -- a woman he preferred to avoid! -- who had called his attention to his nails. She had been insisting with the positiveness called "modern" that every man's occupation was written on his person. "Take my husband -- what could he be but a lawyer? Look at him. And you, Dr. Fitts -- the bedside manner!"

  "Not at dinner, I hope."

  "You can't shake it."

  "But you haven't proved your point. You knew what we are."

  Whereupon that impossible woman had looked around the table and nailed him with her eye. "Mr. Hoag can test me. I don't know what he does. No one does."

  "Really, Julia." Mrs. Pomeroy had tried hopelessly to intervene, then had turned to the man on her left with a smile. "Julia has been studying psychology this season."

  The man on her left, Sudkins, or Snuggins -- Stubbins, that was his name. Stubbins had said, "What does Mr. Hoag do?"

  "It's a minor mystery. He never talks shop."

  "It's not that," Hoag had offered. "I do not consider -- "

  "Don't tell me!" that woman had commanded. "I'll have it in a moment. Some profession. I can see you with a brief case." He had not intended to tell her. Some subjects were dinner conversation; some were not. But she had gone on.

  "You might be in finance. You might be an art dealer or a book fancier. Or you might be a writer. Let me see your hands."

  He was mildly put off by the demand, but he had placed his hands on the table without trepidation. That woman had pounced on him. "Got you! You are a chemist."

  Everyone looked where she pointed. Everyone saw the dark mourning under his nails. Her husband had broken the brief silence by saying, "Nonsense, Julia. There are dozens of things that will stain nails. Hoag may dabble in photography, or do a spot of engraving. Your inference wouldn't stand up in court."

  "That's a lawyer for you! I know I'm right. Aren't I, Mr. Hoag?"

  He himself had been staring unbrokenly at his hands. To be caught at a dinner party with untidy manicure would have been distressing enough -- if he had been able to understand it.

  But he had no slightest idea how his nails had become dirtied. At his work? Obviously -- but what did he do in the daytime?

  He did not know.

  "Tell us, Mr. Hoag. I was right, was I not?"

  He pulled his eyes away from those horrid fingernails and said faintly, "I must ask to be excused." With that he had fled from the table. He had found his way to the lavatory where, conquering an irrational revulsion, he had cleaned out the gummy reddish-brown filth with the blade of his penknife. The stuff stuck to the blade; he wiped it on cleansing tissue, wadded it up, and stuck it into a pocket of his waistcoat. Then he had scrubbed his nails, over and over again.

  He could not recall when he had become convinced that the stuff was blood, was human blood.

  He had managed to find his bowler, his coat, gloves, and stick without recourse to the maid. He let himself out and got away from there as fast as he could.

  Thinking it over in the quiet of the dingy hotel room he was convinced that his first fear had been instinctive revulsion at the sight of the dark-red under his nails. It was only on second thought that he had realized that he did not remember where he had dirtied his nails because he had no recollection of where he had been that day, nor the day before, nor any of the days before that. He did not know what his profession was.

  It was preposterous, but it was terribly frightening.

  He skipped dinner entirely rather than leave the dingy quiet of the hotel room; about ten o'clock he drew a tub of water just as hot as he could get it and let himself soak. It relaxed him somewhat and his twisted thoughts quieted down. In any case, he consoled himself, if he could not remember his occupation, then he certainly could not return to it. No chance again of finding that grisly horror under his fingernails.

  He dried himself off and crawled under the covers. In spite of the strange bed he managed to get to sleep.

  A nightmare jerked him awake, although he did not realize it at first, as the tawdry surroundings seemed to fit the nightmare. When he did recall where he was and why he was there the nightmare seemed preferable, but by that time it was gone, washed out of his mind. His watch told him that it was his usual getting-up time; he rang for the bellman and arranged for a breakfast tray to be fetched from around the corner.

  By the time it arrived he w
as dressed in the only clothes he had with him and was becoming anxious to get home. He drank two cups of indifferent coffee standing up, fiddled with the food, then left the hotel.

  After letting himself into his apartment he hung up his coat and hat, took off his gloves, and went as usual straight to his dressing room. He had carefully scrubbed the nails of his left hand and was just commencing on his right when he noticed what he was doing.

  The nails of his left hand were white and clean; those of the right were dark and dirty. Carefully holding himself in check he straightened up, stepped over and examined his watch where he had laid it on his dresser, then compared the time with that shown by the electric clock in his bedroom. It was ten minutes past six P.M. -- his usual time for returning home in the evening.

  He might not recall his profession; his profession had certainly not forgotten him.


  The firm of Randall & Craig, Confidential Investigation, maintained its night phone in a double apartment. This was convenient, as Randall had married Craig early in their association. The junior partner had just put the supper dishes to soak and was trying to find out whether or not she wanted to keep the book-of-the-month when the telephone rang. She reached out, took the receiver, and said, "Yes?" in noncommittal tones.

  To this she added, "Yes."

  The senior partner stopped what he was doing -- he was engaged in a ticklish piece of scientific research, involving deadly weapons, ballistics and some esoteric aspects of aero-dynamics; specifically he was trying to perfect his overhand throw with darts, using a rotogravure likeness of cafe society's latest glamour girl thumbtacked to the bread board as a target. One dart had nailed her left eye; he was trying to match it in the right.

  "Yes," his wife said again.

  "Try saying 'No,'" he suggested.

  She cupped the mouthpiece. "Shut up and hand me a pencil." She made a long arm across the breakfast-nook table and obtained a stenographer's pad from a hook there. "Yes. Go ahead." Accepting the pencil she made several lines of the hooks and scrawls that stenographers use in place of writing. "It seems most likely," she said at last. "Mr. Randall is not usually in at this hour. He much prefers to see clients during office hours. Mr. Craig? No, I'm sure Mr. Craig couldn't help you. Positive. So? Hold the line and I'll find out."