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Caged By Reeve

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Caged
Purcell was a small, fussy man; red cheeks and a tight melonlike stomach. Large glasses so magnified his eyes as to give him the appearance of a wise and kind owl.
He owned a pet shop. He sold cats and dogs and monkeys; he dealt in fish food and bird seed, prescribed remedies for ailing canaries, on his shelves there were long rows f cages. He considered himself something or professional man.
There was a constant stir of life in his shop. The customers who came in said: “Aren’t they very cute! Look at that little monkey! They’re sweet”.
And Mr. Purcell himself would smile and rub his hands and nod his head.
Each morning, when the routine of opening his shop was completed, it was the proprietor’s custom to perch on a high stool, behind the counter, unfold his morning paper, and digest the day’s news.
It was a raw, wintry day. Wind gusted against the high, plateglass windows.
Having completed his usual tasks, Mr. Purcell again mounted the high stool and unfolded his morning paper.
He adjusted his glasses, and glanced at the day’s headlines.
There was a bell over the door that rang whenever a customer entered.
This morning however, for the first time Mr. Purcell could recall, it failed to ring.
Simply he glanced up, and there was the stranger, standing just inside the door, as if he had materialized out of thin air.
The storekeeper slid off his stool.
From the first instant he knew instinctively, that the man hated him; but out of habit he rubbed his hands, smiled and nodded.
“Good morning”, he beamed. “What can I do for you?”
The man’s shinny shoes squeaked forward. His suit was cheap, ill-fitting, but obviously new. Ignoring Purcell for a moment, he looked around the shadowy shop.
“A nasty morning”, volunteered the shopkeeper. He clasped both hands across his melonlike stomach, and smiled importantly. “Now what was it you wanted?”
The man stared closely at Purcell, as though just now aware of his presence. He said, “I want something in a cage”.
“Something in a cage?” Mr. Purcell was a bit confused. “You mean – some sort of pet?”
“I mean what I said!” snapped the man. “Something in a cage. Something alive that’s in a cage”.
“I see,” hastened a storekeeper, not at all certain that he did. “Now let me think. A white rat, perhaps? I have some very nice white rats”.
“No!” said the man. “Not rats. Something with wings. Something that flies”.
“A bird!” exclaimed Mr. Purcell.
“A bird’s all right”. The customer pointed suddenly to the cage which contained two snowy birds. “Doves? How much for those?”
“Five-fifty,” was prompt answer. “And a very reasonable price. They are fine pair”.
“Five-fifty?” The man was obviously disappointed. He produced a five dollars bill. “I’d like to have those birds. But this is all I’ve got. Just a five dollars”.
Mentally, Mr. Purcell made a quick calculation, which told him that at fifty cent reduction he could still reap a tidy profit. He smiled kindly “My dear man, if you want them that badly, you can certainly have them for five dollars”.
“I’ll take them”. He laid his five dollars on the counter. Mr. Purcell unhooked the cage and handed it to his customer. “That noise!” The man said suddenly. “Doesn’t it get on your nerves?”
“Noise? What noise?” Mr. Purcell could hear nothing unusual.
“Listen”. The staring eyes came closer. “How long do you think it took me to make that five dollars?”
The merchant wanted to order him out of his shop. But oddly enough, he couldn’t. He heard himself asking, “Why-why, how long did it take you?”
The other laughed. “Ten years! At hard labor. Ten years to earn five dollars. Fifty cents a year”.
It was best, Purcell decided, to humor him. “My, my! Ten years. That’s certainly a long time. Now –“
“They give you five dollars,” laughed the man, “and a cheap suit, and tell you not to get caught again”.
The man swung around, and stalked abruptly from the store.
Purcell sighed with sudden relief. He walked to the window and stared out. Just outside, his peculiar customer had stopped. He was holding the cage shoulder-high, staring at his purchase. Then, opening the cage he reached inside and drew out one of the doves. He tossed it into the air. He drew out the second and tossed it after the first. They rose like balls and were lost in he smoky gray of the wintry city. For an instant the liberator’s silent gaze watched them. Then he dropped the cage and walked away…

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