We present the short story "After Twenty Years," by O. Henry. The story was originally adapted and recorded by the U.S. Department of State.
The cop moved along the street, looking strong and important. This was the way he always moved. He was not thinking of how he looked. There were few people on the street to see him. It was only about ten at night, but it was cold. And there was a wind with a little rain in it.
He stopped at doors as he walked along, trying each door to be sure that it was closed for the night. Now and then he turned and looked up and down the street. He was a fine-looking cop, watchful, guarding the peace.
People in this part of the city went home early. Now and then you might see the lights of a shop or of a small restaurant. But most of the doors belonged to business places that had been closed hours ago.
Then the cop suddenly slowed his walk. Near the door of a darkened shop a man was standing. As the cop walked toward him, the man spoke quickly.
“It’s all right, officer,” he said. “I’m waiting for a friend. Twenty years ago we agreed to meet here tonight. It sounds strange to you, doesn’t it? I’ll explain if you want to be sure that everything’s all right. About twenty years ago there was a restaurant where this shop stands. ‘Big Joe’ Brady’s restaurant.”
“It was here until five years ago,” said the cop.
The man near the door had a colorless square face with bright eyes, and a little white mark near his right eye. He had a large jewel in his necktie.
“Twenty years ago tonight,” said the man, “I had dinner here with Jimmy Wells. He was my best friend and the best fellow in the world. He and I grew up together here in New York, like two brothers. I was eighteen and Jimmy was twenty. The next morning I was to start for the West. I was going to find a job and make a great success. You couldn’t have pulled Jimmy out of New York. He thought it was the only place on earth.
“We agreed that night that we would meet here again in twenty years. We thought that in twenty years we would know what kind of men we were, and what future waited for us.”
“It sounds interesting,” said the cop. “A long time between meetings, it seems to me. Have you heard from your friend since you went West?”
“Yes, for a time we did write to each other,” said the man. “But after a year or two, we stopped. The West is big. I moved around everywhere, and I moved quickly. But I know that Jimmy will meet me here if he can. He was as true as any man in the world. He’ll never forget. I came a thousand miles to stand here tonight. But I’ll be glad about that, if my old friend comes too.”
The man waiting took out a fine watch, covered with small jewels.
“Three minutes before ten,” he said. “It was ten that night when we said goodbye here at the restaurant door.”
“You were successful in the West, weren’t you?” asked the cop.
“I surely was! I hope Jimmy has done half as well. He was a slow mover. I’ve had to fight for my success. In New York a man doesn’t change much. In the West you learn how to fight for what you get.”
The cop took a step or two. “I’ll go on my way,” he said. “I hope your friend comes all right. If he isn’t here at ten, are you going to leave?”
“I am not!” said the other. “I’ll wait half an hour, at least. If Jimmy is alive on earth, he’ll be here by that time. Good night, officer.”
“Good night,” said the cop, and walked away, trying doors as he went.
There was now a cold rain falling and the wind was stronger. The few people walking along that street were hurrying, trying to keep warm. At the door of the shop stood the man who had come a thousand miles to meet a friend. Such a meeting could not be certain. But he waited.
About twenty minutes he waited, and then a tall man in a long coat came hurrying across the street. He went directly to the waiting man.
“Is that you, Bob?” he asked, doubtfully.
“Is that you, Jimmy Wells?” cried the man at the door.
The new man took the other man’s hands in his. “It’s Bob! It surely is. I was certain I would find you here if you were still alive. Twenty years is a long time. The old restaurant is gone, Bob. I wish it were here, so that we could have another dinner in it. Has the West been good to you?”
“It gave me everything I asked for. You’ve changed, Jimmy. I never thought you were so tall.”
“Oh, I grew a little after I was twenty.”
“Are you doing well in New York, Jimmy?”
“Well enough. I work for the city. Come on, Bob, We’ll go to a place I know, and have a good long talk about old times.”
The two men started along the street, arm in arm. The man from the West was beginning to tell the story of his life. The other, with his coat up to his ears, listened with interest.
At the corner stood a shop bright with electric lights. When they came near, each turned to look at the other’s face.
The man from the West stopped suddenly and pulled his arm away. “You’re not Jimmy Wells,” he said. “Twenty years is a long time, but not long enough to change the shape of a man’s nose.”
“It sometimes changes a good man into a bad one,” said the tall man. “You’ve been under arrest for ten minutes, Bob. Chicago cops thought you might be coming to New York. They told us to watch for you. Are you coming with me quietly? That’s wise. But first here is something I was asked to give you. You may read it here at the window. It’s from a cop named Wells.”
The man from the West opened the little piece of paper. His hand began to shake a little as he read.
“Bob: I was at the place on time. I saw the face of the man wanted by Chicago cops. I didn’t want to arrest you myself. So I went and got another cop and sent him to do the job.
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Now it's your turn to use the words in this story. How much do people change over time? What is it like to try to connect with a friend you have not seen in a long time? Let us know in the comments section or on our Facebook page.
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Words in This Story
cop – n. a person whose job is to enforce laws, investigate crimes, and make arrests
shop – n. a building or room where goods and services are sold
necktie –n. a long piece of cloth that is worn by men around the neck and under a collar and that is tied in front with a knot at the top
coat – n. an outer piece of clothing that can be long or short and that is worn to keep warm or dry