Marching Men

by Sherwood Anderson

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Book II: Chapter IV

The people of Chicago go home from their work at evening--drifting they go in droves, hurrying along. It is a startling thing to look closely at them. The people have bad mouths. Their mouths are slack and the jaws do not hang right. The mouths are like the shoes they wear. The shoes have become run down at the corners from too much pounding on the hard pavements and the mouths have become crooked from too much weariness of soul.

Something is wrong with modern American life and we Americans do not want to look at it. We much prefer to call ourselves a great people and let it go at that.

It is evening and the people of Chicago go home from work. Clatter, clatter, clatter, go the heels on the hard pavements, jaws wag, the wind blows and dirt drifts and sifts through the masses of the people. Every one has dirty ears. The stench in the street cars is horrible. The antiquated bridges over the rivers are packed with people. The suburban trains going away south and west are cheaply constructed and dangerous. A people calling itself great and living in a city also called great go to their houses a mere disorderly mass of humans cheaply equipped. Everything is cheap. When the people get home to their houses they sit on cheap chairs before cheap tables and eat cheap food. They have given their lives for cheap things. The poorest peasant of one of the old countries is surrounded by more beauty. His very equipment for living has more solidity.

The modern man is satisfied with what is cheap and unlovely because he expects to rise in the world. He has given his life to that dreary dream and he is teaching his children to follow the same dream. McGregor was touched by it. Being confused by the matter of sex he had listened to the advice of the barber and meant to settle things in the cheap way. One evening a month after the talk in the park he hurried along Lake Street on the West Side with that end in view. It was near eight o'clock and growing dark and McGregor should have been at the night school. Instead he walked along the street looking at the ill- kept frame houses. A fever burned in his blood. An impulse, for the moment stronger than the impulse that kept him at work over books night after night there in the big disorderly city and as yet stronger than any new impulse toward a vigorous compelling march through life, had hold of him. His eyes stared into the windows. He hurried along filled with a lust that stultified his brain and will. A woman sitting at the window of a little frame house smiled and beckoned to him.

McGregor walked along the path leading to the little frame house. The path ran through a squalid yard. It was a foul place like the court under his window behind the house in Wycliff Place. Here also discoloured papers worried by the wind ran about in crazy circles. McGregor's heart pounded and his mouth felt dry and unpleasant. He wondered what he should say and how he should say it when he came into the presence of the woman. He wished there were some one to be hit with his fist. He didn't want to make love, he wanted relief. He would have much preferred a fight.

The veins in McGregor's neck began to swell and as he stood in the darkness before the door of the house he swore. He stared up and down the street but the sky, the sight of which might have helped him, was hidden from view by the structure of an elevated railroad. Pushing open the door of the house he stepped in. In the dim light he could see nothing but a form sprang out of the darkness and a pair of powerful arms pinned his hands to his sides. McGregor looked quickly about A man huge as himself held him tightly against the door. He had one glass eye and a stubby black beard and in the half light looked sinister and dangerous. The hand of the woman who had beckoned to him from the window fumbled in McGregor's pockets and came out clutching a little roll of money. Her face, set now and ugly like the man's, looked up at him from under the arms of her ally.

In a moment McGregor's heart stopped pounding and the dry unpleasant taste went out of his mouth. He felt relieved and glad at this sudden turn to the affair.

With a quick upward snap of his knees into the stomach of the man who had held him McGregor freed himself. A swinging blow to the neck sent his assailant groaning to the floor. McGregor sprang across the room. In the corner by the bed he caught the woman. Clutching her by the hair he whirled her about. "Hand over that money," he said fiercely.

The woman put up her hands and plead with him. The grip of his hands in her hair brought the tears to her eyes. She thrust the roll of bills into his hands and waited, trembling, thinking he intended to kill her.

A new feeling swept over McGregor. The thought of having come into the house at the invitation of this woman was revolting to him. He wondered how he could have been such a beast. As he stood in the dim light thinking of this and looking at the woman he became lost in thought and wondered why the idea given him by the barber, that had seemed so clear and sensible, now seemed so foolish. His eyes stared at the woman as his mind returned to the black-bearded barber talking on the park bench and he was seized with a blind fury, a fury not directed at the people in the foul little room but at himself and his own blindness. Again a great hatred of the disorder of life took hold of him and as though all of the disorderly people of the world were personified in her he swore and shook the woman as a dog might have shaken a foul rag.

"Sneak. Dodger. Mussy fool," he muttered, thinking of himself as a giant attacked by some nauseous beast. The woman screamed with terror. Seeing the look on her assailant's face and mistaking the meaning of his words she trembled and thought again of death. Reaching under the pillow on the bed she got another roll of bills and thrust that also into McGregor's hands. "Please go," she plead. "We were mistaken. We thought you were some one else."

McGregor strode to the door past the man on the floor who groaned and rolled about. He walked around the corner to Madison Street and boarded a car for the night school. Sitting in the car he counted the money in the roll thrust into his hand by the kneeling woman and laughed so that the people in the car looked at him in amazement. "Turner has spent eleven dollars among them in two years and I have got twenty-seven dollars in one night," he thought. He jumped off the car and walked along under the street lights striving to think things out. "I can't depend on any one," he muttered. "I have to make my own way. The barber is as confused as the rest of them and he doesn't know it. There is a way out of the confusion and I'm going to find it, but I'll have to do it alone. I can't take any one's word for anything."

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