The Life You Save May Be Your Own
THE OLD WOMAN and her daughter were sitting on their porch when Mr. Shiftlet came up their road for the first time. The old woman slid to the edge of her chair and leaned forward, shading her eyes from the piercing sunset with her hand. The daughter could not see far in front of her and continued to play with her fingers. Although the old woman lived in this desolate spot with only her daughter and she had never seen Mr. Shiftlet before, she could tell, even from a distance, that he was a tramp and no one to be afraid of. His left coat sleeve was folded up to show there was only half an arm in it and his gaunt figure listed slightly to the side as if the breeze were pushing him. He had on a black town suit and a brown felt hat that was turned up in the front and down in the back and he carried a tin tool box by a handle. He came on, at an amble, up her road, his face turned toward the sun which appeared to be balancing itself on the peak of a small mountain.
The old woman didn’t change her position until he was almost into her yard; then she rose with one hand fisted on her hip. The daughter, a large girl in a short blue organdy dress, saw him all at once and jumped up and began to stamp and point and make excited speechless sounds.
Mr. Shiftlet stopped just inside the yard and set his box on the ground and tipped his hat at her as if she were not in the least afflicted; then he turned toward the old woman and swung the hat all the way off. He had long black slick hair that hung flat from a part in the middle to beyond the tips of his ears on either side. His face descended in forehead for more than half its length and ended suddenly with his features just balanced over a jutting steel‑trap jaw. He seemed to be a young man but he had a look of composed dissatisfaction as if he understood life thoroughly.
“Good evening,” the old woman said. She was about the size of a cedar fence post and she had a man’s gray hat pulled down low over her head.
The tramp stood looking at her and didn’t answer. He turned his back and faced the sunset. He swung both his whole and his short arm up slowly so that they indicated an expanse of sky and his figure formed a crooked cross. The old woman watched him with her arms folded across her chest as if she were the owner of the sun, and the daughter watched, her head thrust forward and her fat helpless hands hanging at the wrists. She had long pink‑gold hair and eyes as blue as a peacock’s neck.
He held the pose for almost fifty seconds and then he picked up his box and came on to the porch and dropped down on the bottom step. “Lady,” he said in a firm nasal voice, “I’d give a fortune to live where I could see me a sun do that every evening.”
“Does it every evening,” the old woman said and sat back down. The daughter sat down too and watched him with a cautious sly look as if he were a bird that had come up very close. He leaned to one side, rooting in his pants pocket, and in a second he brought out a package of chewing gum and offered her a piece. She took it and unpeeled it and began to chew without taking her eyes off him. He offered the old woman a piece but she only raised her upper lip to indicate she had no teeth.
Mr. Shiftlet’s pale sharp glance had already passed over everything in the yard‑the pump near the comer of the house and the big fig tree that three or four chickens were preparing to roost in‑and had moved to a shed where he saw the square rusted back of an automobile. “You ladies drive?” he asked.