Marching Men

by Sherwood Anderson

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Book II: Chapter V

The matter of McGregor's attitude toward women and the call of sex was not of course settled by the fight in the house in Lake Street. He was a man who, even in the days of his great crudeness, appealed strongly to the mating instinct in women and more than once his purpose was to be shaken and his mind disturbed by the forms, the faces and the eyes of women.

McGregor thought he had settled the matter. He forgot the black-eyed girl in the hallway and thought only of advancement in the warehouse and of study in his room at night. Now and then he took an evening off and went for a walk through the streets or in one of the parks.

In the streets of Chicago, under the night lights, among the restless moving people he was a figure to be remembered. Sometimes he did not see the people at all but went swinging along in the same spirit in which he had walked in the Pennsylvania hills. He was striving to get a hold of some elusive quality in life that seemed to be forever out of reach. He did not want to be a lawyer or a warehouseman. What did he want? Along the street he went trying to make up his mind and because his was not a gentle nature his perplexity drove him to anger and he swore.

Up and down Madison Street he went striding along, his lips muttering words. In a corner saloon some one played a piano. Groups of girls passed laughing and talking. He came to the bridge that led over the river into the loop district and then turned restlessly back. On the sidewalks along Canal Street he saw strong-bodied men loitering before cheap lodging houses. Their clothing was filthy with long wear and there was no light of determination in their faces. In the little fine interstices of the cloth of which their clothes were made was gathered the filth of the city in which they lived and in the stuff of their natures the filth and disorder of modern civilisation had also found lodging.

On walked McGregor looking at man-made things and the flame of anger within burned stronger and stronger. He saw the drifting clouds of people of all nations that wander at night in Halstead Street and turning into a side street saw also the Italians, Poles and Russians that at evening gather on the sidewalks before tenements in that district.

The desire in McGregor for some kind of activity became a madness. His body shook with the strength of his desire to end the vast disorder of life. With all the ardour of youth he wanted to see if with the strength of his arm he could shake mankind out of its sloth. A drunken man passed and following him came a large man with a pipe in his mouth. The large man did not walk with any suggestion of power in his legs. He shambled along. He was like a huge child with fat cheeks and great untrained body, a child without muscles and hardness, clinging to the skirts of life.

McGregor could not bear the sight of the big ungainly figure. The man seemed to personify all of the things against which his soul was in revolt and he stopped and stood crouched, a ferocious light burning in his eyes.

Into the gutter rolled the man stunned by the force of the blow dealt him by the miner's son. He crawled on his hands and knees and cried for help. His pipe had rolled away into the darkness. McGregor stood on the sidewalk and waited. A crowd of men standing before a tenement house started to run toward him. Again he crouched. He prayed that they would come on and let him fight them also. In anticipation of a great struggle joy shone in his eyes and his muscles twitched.

And then the man in the gutter got to his feet and ran away. The men who had started to run toward him stopped and turned back. McGregor walked on, his heart heavy with the sense of defeat. He was a little sorry for the man he had struck and who had made so ridiculous a figure crawling about on his hands and knees and he was more perplexed than ever.

       *       *       *       *       *

McGregor tried again to solve the problem of women. He had been much pleased by the outcome of the affair in the little frame house and the next day bought law books with the twenty-seven dollars thrust into his hand by the frightened woman. Later he stood in his room stretching his great body like a lion returned from the kill and thought of the little black-bearded barber in the room at the end of the hall stooping over his violin, his mind busy with the attempt to justify himself because he would not face one of life's problems. The feeling of resentment against the man had gone. He thought of the course laid out for himself by that philosopher and laughed. "There is something about it to avoid, like giving yourself up to digging in the dirt under the ground," he told himself.

McGregor's second adventure began on a Saturday night and again he let himself be led into it by the barber. The night was hot and the younger man sat in his room filled with a desire to go forth and explore the city. The quiet of the house, the distant rumble of street cars, the sound of a band playing far down the street disturbed and diverted his mind. He wished that he might take a stick in his hands and go forth to prowl among the hills as he had gone on such nights in his youth in the Pennsylvania town.

The door to his room opened and the barber came in. In his hand he held two tickets. He sat on the window sill to explain.

"There is a dance in a hall on Monroe Street," said the barber excitedly. "I have two tickets here. A politician sold them to the boss in the shop where I work." The barber threw back his head and laughed. To his mind there was something delicious in the thought of the boss barber being forced by the politicians to buy dance tickets. "They cost two dollars each," he cried and shook with laughter "You should have seen my boss squirm. He didn't want the tickets but was afraid not to take them. The politician could make trouble for him and he knew it. You see we make a hand-book on the races in the shop and that is against the law. The politician could make trouble for us. The boss paid out the four dollars swearing under his breath and when the politician had gone out he threw them at me. 'There, take them,' he shouted, 'I don't want the rotten things. Is a man a horse trough at which every beast can stop to drink?'"

McGregor and the barber sat in the room laughing at the boss barber who had smilingly bought the tickets while consumed with inward wrath. The barber urged McGregor to go with him to the dance. "We will make a night of it," he said. "We will see women there--two that I know. They live upstairs over a grocery store. I have been with them. They will open your eyes. They are a kind of women you haven't known, bold and clever and good fellows too."

McGregor got up and pulled his shirt over his head. A wave of feverish excitement ran over his body. "We shall see about this," he said, "we shall see if this is another wrong trail you are starting me on. You go to your room and get ready. I am going to fix myself up."

In the dance hall McGregor sat on a seat by the wall with one of the two women lauded by the barber and a third one who was frail and bloodless. To him the adventure had been a failure. The swing of the dance music struck no answering chord in him. He saw the couples on the floor clasped in each other's arms, writhing and turning, swaying back and forth, looking into each other's eyes and turned aside wishing himself back in his room among the law books.

The barber talked to two of the women, bantering them. McGregor thought the conversation inane and trivial. It skirted the edge of things and ran off into vague references to other times and adventures of which he knew nothing.

The barber danced away with one of the women. She was tall and the head of the barber barely Passed her shoulder. His black beard shone against her white dress. The two women sat beside him and talked. McGregor gathered that the frail woman was a maker of hats. Something about her attracted him and he leaned against the wall and looked at her, not hearing the talk.

A youth came up and took the other woman away. From across the hall the barber beckoned to him.

A thought flashed into his mind. This woman beside him was frail and thin and bloodless like the women of Coal Creek. A feeling of intimacy with her came over him. He felt as he had felt concerning the tall pale girl of Coal Creek when they together gether had climbed the hill to the eminence that looked down into the valley of farms.

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It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.