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   Chapter 20 No.20

Windy McPherson's Son By Sherwood Anderson Characters: 23950

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


One crisp winter evening Sam found himself on a busy street corner in Rochester, N.Y., watching from a doorway the crowds of people hurrying or loitering past him. He stood in a doorway near a corner that seemed to be a public meeting place and from all sides came men and women who met at the corner, stood for a moment in talk, and then went away together. Sam found himself beginning to wonder about the meetings. In the year since he had walked out of the Chicago office his mind had grown more and more reflective. Little things-a smile on the lips of an ill-clad old man mumbling and hurrying past him on the street, or the flutter of a child's hand from the doorway of a farmhouse-had furnished him food for hours of thought. Now he watched with interest the little incidents; the nods, the hand clasps, the hurried stealthy glances around of the men and women who met for a moment at the corner. On the sidewalk near his doorway several middle-aged men, evidently from a large hotel around the corner, were eyeing, with unpleasant, hungry, furtive eyes the women in the crowd.

A large blond woman stepped into the doorway beside Sam. "Waiting for some one?" she asked, smiling and looking steadily at him, with the harried, uncertain, hungry light he had seen in the eyes of the middle-aged men upon the sidewalk.

"What are you doing here with your husband at work?" he ventured.

She looked startled and then laughed.

"Why don't you hit me with your fist if you want to jolt me like that?" she demanded, adding, "I don't know who you are, but whoever you are I want to tell you that I've quit my husband."

"Why?" asked Sam.

She laughed again and stepping over looked at him closely.

"I guess you're bluffing," she said. "I don't believe you know Alf at all. And I'm glad you don't. I've quit Alf, but he would raise Cain just the same, if he saw me out here hustling."

Sam stepped out of the doorway and walked down a side street past a lighted theatre. Along the street women raised their eyes to him and beyond the theatre, a young girl, brushing against him, muttered, "Hello, Sport!"

Sam wanted to get away from the unhealthy, hungry look he had seen in the eyes of the men and women. His mind began working on this side of the lives of great numbers of people in the cities-of the men and women on the street corner, of the woman who from the security of a safe marriage had once thrown a challenge into his eyes as they sat together in the theatre, and of the thousand little incidents in the lives of all modern city men and women. He wondered how much that eager, aching hunger stood in the way of men's getting hold of life and living it earnestly and purposefully, as he wanted to live it, and as he felt all men and women wanted at bottom to live it. When he was a boy in Caxton he was more than once startled by the flashes of brutality and coarseness in the speech and actions of kindly, well-meaning men; now as he walked in the streets of the city he thought that he had got past being startled. "It is a quality of our lives," he decided. "American men and women have not learned to be clean and noble and natural, like their forests and their wide, clean plains."

He thought of what he had heard of London, and of Paris, and of other cities of the old world; and following an impulse acquired through his lonely wanderings, began talking to himself.

"We are no finer nor cleaner than these," he said, "and we sprang from the big clean new land through which I have been walking all these months. Will mankind always go on with that old aching, queerly expressed hunger in its blood, and with that look in its eyes? Will it never shrive itself and understand itself, and turn fiercely and energetically toward the building of a bigger and cleaner race of men?"

"It won't unless you help," came the answer from some hidden part of him.

Sam fell to thinking of the men who write, and of those who teach, and he wondered why they did not, all of them, talk more thoughtfully of vice, and why they so often spent their talents and their energies in futile attacks upon some phase of life, and ended their efforts toward human betterment by joining or promoting a temperance league, or stopping the playing of baseball on Sunday.

As a matter of fact were not many writers and reformers unconsciously in league with the procurer, in that they treated vice and profligacy as something, at bottom, charming? He himself had seen none of this vague charm.

"For me," he reflected, "there have been no Fran?ois Villons or Sapphos in the tenderloins of American cities. There have been instead only heart-breaking disease and ill health and poverty, and hard brutal faces and torn, greasy finery."

He thought of men like Zola who saw this side of life clearly and how he, as a young fellow in the city, had read the man at Janet Eberly's suggestion and had been helped by him-helped and frightened and made to see. And then there rose before him the leering face of a keeper of a second-hand book store in Cleveland who some weeks before had pushed across the counter to him a paper-covered copy of "Nana's Brother," saying with a smirk, "That's some sporty stuff." And he wondered what he should have thought had he bought the book to feed the imagination the bookseller's comment was intended to arouse.

In the small towns through which Sam walked and in the small town in which he grew to manhood vice was openly crude and masculine. It went to sleep sprawling across a dirty beer-soaked table in Art Sherman's saloon in Piety Hollow, and the newsboy passed it without comment, regretting that it slept and that it had no money with which to buy papers.

"Dissipation and vice get into the life of youth," he thought, coming to a street corner where young men played pool and smoked cigarettes in a dingy poolroom, and turned back toward the heart of the city. "It gets into all modern life. The farmer boy coming up to the city to work hears lewd stories in the smoking car of the train, and the travelling men from the cities tell tales of the city streets to the group about the stove in village stores."

Sam did not quarrel with the fact that youth touched vice. Such things were a part of the world that men and women had made for their sons and daughters to live in, and that night as he wandered in the streets of Rochester he thought that he would like all youth to know, if they could but know, truth. His heart was bitter at the thought of men throwing the glamour of romance over the sordid, ugly things he had been seeing in that city and in every city he had known.

Past him in a street lined with small frame houses stumbled a man far gone in drink, by whose side walked a boy, and Sam's mind leaped back to those first years he had spent in the city and of the staggering old man he had left behind him in Caxton.

"You would think no man better armed against vice and dissipation than that painter's son of Caxton," he reminded himself, "and yet he embraced vice. He found, as all young men find, that there is much misleading talk and writing on the subject. The business men he knew did not part with able assistance because it did not sign the pledge. Ability was too rare a thing and too independent to sign pledges, and the lips-that-touch-liquor-shall-never-touch-mine sentiment among women was reserved for the lips that did not invite."

He began reviewing incidents of carouses he had been on with business men of his acquaintance, of a policeman knocked into a street and of himself, quiet and ably climbing upon tables to make speeches and to shout the innermost secrets of his heart to drunken hangers-on in Chicago barrooms. Normally he had not been a good mixer. He had been one to keep himself to himself. But on these carouses he let himself go, and got a reputation for daring audacity by slapping men on the back and singing songs with them. A glowing cordiality had pervaded him and for a time he had really believed there was such a thing as high flying vice that glistens in the sun.

Now stumbling past lighted saloons, wandering unknown in a city's streets, he knew better. All vice was unclean, unhealthy.

He remembered a hotel in which he had once slept, a hotel that admitted questionable couples. Its halls had become dingy; its windows remained unopened; dirt gathered in the corners; the attendants shuffled as they walked, and leered into the faces of creeping couples; the curtains at the windows were torn and discoloured; strange snarling oaths, screams, and cries jarred the tense nerves; peace and cleanliness had fled the place; men hurried through the halls with hats drawn down over their faces; sunlight and fresh air and cheerful, whistling bellboys were locked out.

He thought of the weary, restless walks taken by the young men from farms and country towns in the streets of the cities; young men believers in the golden vice. Hands beckoned to them from doorways, and women of the town laughed at their awkwardness. In Chicago he had walked in that way. He also had been seeking, seeking the romantic, impossible mistress that lurked at the bottom of men's tales of the submerged world. He wanted his golden girl. He was like the na?ve German lad in the South Water Street warehouses who had once said to him-he was a frugal soul-"I would like to find a nice-looking girl who is quiet and modest and who will be my mistress and not charge anything."

Sam had not found his golden girl, and now he knew she did not exist. He had not seen the places called by the preachers the palaces of sin, and now he knew there were no such places. He wondered why youth could not be made to understand that sin is foul and that immorality reeks of vulgarity. Why could not they be told plainly that there are no housecleaning days in the tenderloin?

During his married life men had come to the house who discussed this matter. One of them, he remembered, had maintained stoutly that the scarlet sisterhood was a necessity of modern life and that ordinary decent social life could not go on without it. Often during the past year Sam had thought of the man's talk and his brain had reeled before the thought. In towns and on country roads he had seen troops of little girls come laughing and shouting out of school houses, and had wondered which of them would be chosen for that service to mankind; and now, in his hour of depression, he wished that the man who had talked at his dinner table might be made to walk with him and to share with him his thoughts.

Turning again into a lighted busy thoroughfare of the city, Sam continued his study of the faces in the crowds. To do this quieted and soothed his mind. He began to feel a weariness in his legs and thought with gratitude that he should have a night of good sleep. The sea of faces rolling up to him under the lights filled him with peace. "There is so much of life," he thought, "it must come to some end."

Looking intently at the faces, the dull faces and the bright faces, the faces drawn out of shape and with eyes nearly meeting above the nose, the faces with long, heavy sensual jaws, and the empty, soft faces on which the scalding finger of thought had left no mark, his fingers ached to get a pencil in his hand, or to spread the faces upon canvas in enduring pigments, to hold them up before the world and to be able to say, "Here are the faces you, by your lives, have made for yourselves and for your children."

In the lobby of a tall office building, where he stopped at a little cigar counter to get fresh tobacco for his pipe, he looked so fixedly at a woman clad in long soft furs, that in alarm she hurried out to her machine to wait for her escort, who had evidently gone up the elevator.

Once more in the street, Sam shuddered at the thought of the hands that had laboured that the soft cheeks and the untroubled eyes of this one woman might be. Into

his mind came the face and figure of a little Canadian nurse who had once cared for him through an illness-her quick, deft fingers and her muscular little arms. "Another such as she," he muttered, "has been at work upon the face and body of this gentlewoman; a hunter has gone into the white silence of the north to bring out the warm furs that adorn her; for her there has been a tragedy-a shot, and red blood upon the snow, and a struggling beast waving its little claws in the air; for her a woman has worked through the morning, bathing her white limbs, her cheeks, her hair."

For this gentlewoman also there had been a man apportioned, a man like himself, who had cheated and lied and gone through the years in pursuit of the dollars to pay all of the others, a man of power, a man who could achieve, could accomplish. Again he felt within him a yearning for the power of the artist, the power not only to see the meaning of the faces in the street, but to reproduce what he saw, to get with subtle fingers the story of the achievement of mankind into a face hanging upon a wall.

In other days, in Caxton, listening to Telfer's talk, and in Chicago and New York with Sue, Sam had tried to get an inkling of the passion of the artist; now walking and looking at the faces rolling past him on the long street he thought that he did understand.

Once when he was new in the city he had, for some months, carried on an affair with a woman, the daughter of a cattle farmer from Iowa. Now her face filled his vision. How rugged it was, how filled with the message of the ground underfoot; the thick lips, the dull eyes, the strong, bullet-like head, how like the cattle her father had bought and sold. He remembered the little room in Chicago where he had his first love passage with this woman. How frank and wholesome it had seemed. How eagerly both man and woman had rushed at evening to the meeting place. How her strong hands had clasped him. The face of the woman in the motor by the office building danced before his eyes, the face so peaceful, so free from the marks of human passion, and he wondered what daughter of a cattle raiser had taken the passion out of the man who paid for the beauty of that face.

On a side street, near the lighted front of a cheap theatre, a woman, standing alone and half concealed in the doorway of a church, called softly, and turning he went to her.

"I am not a customer," he said, looking at her thin face and bony hands, "but if you care to come with me I will stand a good dinner. I am getting hungry and do not like eating alone. I want some one to talk to me so that I won't get to thinking."

"You're a queer bird," said the woman, taking his arm. "What have you done that you don't want to think?"

Sam said nothing.

"There's a place over there," she said, pointing to the lighted front of a cheap restaurant with soiled curtains at the windows.

Sam kept on walking.

"If you do not mind," he said, "I will pick the place. I want to buy a good dinner. I want a place with clean linen on the table and a good cook in the kitchen."

They stopped at a corner to talk of the dinner, and at her suggestion he waited at a near-by drug store while she went to her room. As he waited he went to the telephone and ordered the dinner and a taxicab. When she returned she had on a clean shirtwaist and had combed her hair. Sam thought he caught the odour of benzine, and guessed she had been at work on the spots on her worn jacket. She seemed surprised to find him still waiting.

"I thought maybe it was a stall," she said.

They drove in silence to a place Sam had in mind, a road-house with clean washed floors, painted walls, and open fires in the private dining-rooms. Sam had been there several times during the month, and the food had been well cooked.

They ate in silence. Sam had no curiosity to hear her talk of herself, and she seemed to have no knack of casual conversation. He was not studying her, but had brought her as he had said, because of his loneliness, and because her thin, tired face and frail body, looking out from the darkness by the church door, had made an appeal.

She had, he thought, a look of hard chastity, like one whipped but not defeated. Her cheeks were thin and covered with freckles, like a boy's. Her teeth were broken and in bad repair, though clean, and her hands had the worn, hardly-used look of his own mother's hands. Now that she sat before him in the restaurant, in some vague way she resembled his mother.

After dinner he sat smoking his cigar and looking at the fire. The woman of the streets leaned across the table and touched him on the arm.

"Are you going to take me anywhere after this-after we leave here?" she said.

"I am going to take you to the door of your room, that's all."

"I'm glad," she said; "it's a long time since I've had an evening like this. It makes me feel clean."

For a time they sat in silence and then Sam began talking of his home town in Iowa, letting himself go and expressing the thoughts that came into his mind. He told her of his mother and of Mary Underwood and she in turn told of her town and of her life. She had some difficulty about hearing which made conversation trying. Words and sentences had to be repeated to her and after a time Sam smoked and looked at the fire, letting her talk. Her father had been a captain of a small steamboat plying up and down Long Island Sound and her mother a careful, shrewd woman and a good housekeeper. They had lived in a Rhode Island village and had a garden back of their house. The captain had not married until he was forty-five and had died when the girl was eighteen, the mother dying a year later.

The girl had not been much known in the Rhode Island village, being shy and reticent. She had kept the house clean and helped the captain in the garden. When her parents were dead she had found herself alone with thirty-seven hundred dollars in the bank and the little home, and had married a young man who was a clerk in a railroad office, and sold the house to move to Kansas City. The big flat country frightened her. Her life there had been unsuccessful. She had been lonely for the hills and the water of her New England village, and she was, by nature, undemonstrative and unemotional, so that she did not get much hold of her husband. He had undoubtedly married her for the little hoard and, by various devices, began getting it from her. A son had been born, for a time her health broke badly, and she discovered through an accident that her husband was spending her money in dissipation among the women of the town.

"There wasn't any use wasting words when I found he didn't care for me or for the baby and wouldn't support us, so I left him," she said in a level, businesslike way.

When she came to count up, after she had got clear of her husband and had taken a course in stenography, there was one thousand dollars of her savings left and she felt pretty safe. She took a position and went to work, feeling well satisfied and happy. And then came the trouble with her hearing. She began to lose places and finally had to be content with a small salary, earned by copying form letters for a mail order medicine man. The boy she put out with a capable German woman, the wife of a gardener. She paid four dollars a week for him and there was clothing to be bought for herself and the boy. Her wage from the medicine man was seven dollars a week.

"And so," she said, "I began going on the street. I knew no one and there was nothing else to do. I couldn't do that in the town where the boy lived, so I came away. I've gone from city to city, working mostly for patent medicine men and filling out my income by what I earned in the streets. I'm not naturally a woman who cares about men and not many of them care about me. I don't like to have them touch me with their hands. I can't drink as most of the girls do; it sickens me. I want to be left alone. Perhaps I shouldn't have married. Not that I minded my husband. We got along very well until I had to stop giving him money. When I found where it was going it opened my eyes. I felt that I had to have at least a thousand dollars for the boy in case anything happened to me. When I found there wasn't anything to do but just go on the streets, I went. I tried doing other work, but hadn't the strength, and when it came to the test I cared more about the boy than I did about myself-any woman would. I thought he was of more importance than what I wanted.

"It hasn't been easy for me. Sometimes when I have got a man to go with me I walk along the street praying that I won't shudder and draw away when he touches me with his hands. I know that if I do he will go away and I won't get any money.

"And then they talk and lie about themselves. I've had them try to work off bad money and worthless jewelry on me. Sometimes they try to make love to me and then steal back the money they have given me. That's the hard part, the lying and the pretence. All day I write the same lies over and over for the patent-medicine men and then at night I listen to these others lying to me."

She stopped talking and leaning over put her cheek down on her hand and sat looking into the fire.

"My mother," she began again, "didn't always wear a clean dress. She couldn't. She was always down on her knees scrubbing around the floor or out in the garden pulling weeds. But she hated dirt. If her dress was dirty her underwear was clean and so was her body. She taught me to be that way and I wanted to be. It came naturally. But I'm losing it all. All evening I have been sitting here with you thinking that my underwear isn't clean. Most of the time I don't care. Being clean doesn't go with what I am doing. I have to keep trying to be flashy outside so that men will stop when they see me on the street. Sometimes when I have done well I don't go on the streets for three or four weeks. Then I clean up my room and bathe myself. My landlady lets me do my washing in the basement at night. I don't seem to care about cleanliness the weeks I am on the streets."

The little German orchestra began playing a lullaby, and a fat German waiter came in at the open door and put more wood on the fire. He stopped by the table and talked about the mud in the road outside. From another room came the silvery clink of glasses and the sound of laughing voices. The girl and Sam drifted back into talk of their home towns. Sam felt that he liked her very much and thought that if she had belonged to him he should have found a basis on which to live with her contentedly. She had a quality of honesty that he was always seeking in people.

As they drove back to the city she put a hand on his arm.

"I wouldn't mind about you," she said, looking at him frankly.

Sam laughed and patted her thin hand. "It's been a good evening," he said, "we'll go through with it as it stands."

"Thanks for that," she said, "and there is something else I want to tell you. Perhaps you will think it bad of me. Sometimes when I don't want to go on the streets I get down on my knees and pray for strength to go on gamely. Does it seem bad? We are a praying people, we New Englanders."

As he stood in the street Sam could hear her laboured asthmatic breathing as she climbed the stairs to her room. Half way up she stopped and waved her hand at him. The thing was awkwardly done and boyish. Sam had a feeling that he should like to get a gun and begin shooting citizens in the streets. He stood in the lighted city looking down the long deserted street and thought of Mike McCarthy in the jail at Caxton. Like Mike, he lifted up his voice in the night.

"Are you there, O God? Have you left your children here on the earth hurting each other? Do you put the seed of a million children in a man, and the planting of a forest in one tree, and permit men to wreck and hurt and destroy?"

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