"After Twenty Years" is a short story by the American author William Sydney Porter, who wrote under the pseudonym of O. Henry. It was first published in the Sunday edition of the New York World in 1905. The story was included in the 1906 anthology The Four Million, and it has since been republished in many short story collections.
In the story, a man returns to New York to keep an appointment he made with his childhood friend twenty years ago. Their reunion proves difficult as the different paths taken by the two friends have led their lives in opposite directions.
"After Twenty Years" was adapted as an episode of the American television series O. Henry Playhouse in 1957. The story is frequently taught in the classroom, and it is also often used as the source material for student film projects.
A policeman on his beat walks along a deserted thoroughfare in New York at night, trying doors of businesses closed for the day. He sees a man leaning in the doorway of a hardware store. As he approaches, the man speaks up and assures the officer that he is just waiting for a friend. According to the man, the appointment was made twenty years ago, when there was a restaurant there. The policeman informs him that the restaurant was torn down five years ago.
The man lights his cigar and continues to talk. He says that he dined there with his best friend, Jimmy Wells, exactly twenty years ago, when he was eighteen and Jimmy twenty years old. He was leaving New York the following morning for the West to make his fortune, but Jimmy was set on staying in New York. They agreed to meet in exactly twenty years. Although they lost touch after a couple of years, the man still trusts Jimmy to meet him as promised, as long as he is still alive.
It is clear from the diamonds on his handsome watch that the man has made his fortune. He hopes his friend, a good man, has done half as well, having stayed in New York rather than going out to the West to compete with the sharpest.
It is now nearly 10pm, the appointed hour. The officer asks how long he is going to wait, and the man answers that he will give his friend at least half an hour. The policeman leaves to go on along his beat, and the man continue to wait in the cold drizzle and the wind.
Twenty minutes later, a man in a long overcoat approaches and doubtfully asks "Is that you, Bob?" The two men greet each other excitedly and walk up the street arm in arm. Bob tells Jimmy that the West has treated him well, and Jimmy says he has a job with a city department. As Bob begins to tell his success story, they come to a corner lit by the bright lights of a drug store. Seeing his companion's face, Bob stops suddenly. He realizes it is not his friend Jimmy - twenty years is a long time, but not long enough to "change a man's nose from a Roman to a pug."
The other man reveals that he has had Bob under arrest for the past ten minutes. Twenty years has changed a good man into a bad one, and "Silky" Bob is wanted in Chicago. Before taking him away, the officer hands Bob a note from Patrolman Wells. The note explains that, when Bob lit the match to light his cigar, Officer Jimmy Wells saw and recognized the face of a wanted man. He could not bring himself to do the job, so he went to get a plainclothes man.