Julian English is thirty years old, a congenial seller of cars and popular with the country club set. He has the right connections with Ed Charney, the local bootlegger, and consequently is always well supplied with liquor. He and Caroline have been married four years. Both natives of Gibbsville, they have an assured social position and no children.
Just before Christmas, they go to a party at the country club. As usual, Julian has too much to drink. He sits idly twirling his highball and listening to Harry Reilly’s stories. Harry is a rich Irish Catholic and definitely a social climber. Julian dislikes Harry, although Harry loaned him twenty thousand dollars the previous summer to bolster his Cadillac agency. That loan does not give Harry the right to make passes at Caroline, Julian thinks darkly. Harry tells stories in paragraphs. He always pauses at the right time. Julian keeps thinking how fitting it would be if he stopped the stories by throwing his drink in Harry’s face. Julian grows bored. On impulse he does throw his drink in Harry’s face. A big lump of ice hits Harry in the eye.
On the way home, Julian and Caroline quarrel furiously. Julian accuses his wife of infidelity with Harry, among others. Caroline says that Julian always drinks too much and chases women as well. More important, Harry has a mortgage on the car agency and a good deal of influence with the Catholics, and he is a man who can hold a grudge.
Al Grecco is a little man who, as Ed Charney’s handyman, has a certain standing in the town. He likes Julian because Julian is the only one of the social set who is really friendly. Al grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. Before he was finally sentenced to a year in prison, he was arrested several times. When he got out, he worked in a poolroom for a while until his boss died. The widow wanted Al to stay on as manager, but he went to work for Charney. Now he delivers bootleg booze, runs errands, and keeps an eye on Helene Holman, the torch singer at the Stage Coach, a country inn owned by Charney. Helene is Charney’s girl, but Charney knows that if she is not carefully watched, she might, out of sheer good-heartedness, extend her favors to other men.
On Christmas Day, Julian wakes up with a hangover. As is his custom, he quarrels with the cook. At Caroline’s suggestion, he goes to Harry’s house to apologize. Although Harry’s sister is sympathetic, she brings down word that Harry will not see him; he has a black eye and is still perturbed.
Julian’s father and mother come for Christmas dinner. The father, a staid, successful surgeon, is always looking for evidence of moral weakness in Julian, for his own father committed suicide after embezzling a fortune. He is afraid that the English inheritance is stained. Dinner is a trying occasion.
Caroline and Julian have supper at the club....
(The entire section is 1180 words.)