Poor White

by Sherwood Anderson

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Book Four: Chapter XVII

As in most older American homes, the kitchen at the rear of the Butterworth farmhouse was large and comfortable. Much of the life of the house had been led there. Clara sat in a deep window that looked out across a little gully where in the spring a small stream ran down along the edge of the barnyard. She was then a quiet child and loved to sit for hours unobserved and undisturbed. At her back was the kitchen with the warm, rich smells and the soft, quick, persistent footsteps of her mother. Her eyes closed and she slept. Then she awoke. Before her lay a world into which her fancy could creep out. Across the stream before her eyes went a small, wooden bridge and over this in the spring horses went away to the fields or to sheds where they were hitched to milk or ice wagons. The sound of the hoofs of the horses pounding on the bridge was like thunder, harnesses rattled, voices shouted. Beyond the bridge was a path leading off to the left and along the path were three small houses where hams were smoked. Men came from the wagon sheds bearing the meat on their shoulders and went into the little houses. Fires were lighted and smoke crawled lazily up through the roofs. In a field that lay beyond the smoke houses a man came to plow. The child, curled into a little, warm ball in the window seat, was happy. When she closed her eyes fancies came like flocks of white sheep running out of a green wood. Although she was later to become a tomboy and run wild over the farm and through the barns, and although all her life she loved the soil and the sense of things growing and of food for hungry mouths being prepared, there was in her, even as a child, a hunger for the life of the spirit. In her dreams women, beautifully gowned and with rings on their hands, came to brush the wet, matted hair back from her forehead. Across the little wooden bridge before her eyes came wonderful men, women, and children. The children ran forward. They cried out to her. She thought of them as brothers and sisters who were to come to live in the farmhouse and who were to make the old house ring with laughter. The children ran toward her with outstretched hands, but never arrived at the house. The bridge extended itself. It stretched out under their feet so that they ran forward forever on the bridge.

And behind the children came men and women, sometimes together, sometimes walking alone. They did not seem like the children to belong to her. Like the women who came to touch her hot forehead, they were beautifully gowned and walked with stately dignity.

The child climbed out of the window and stood on the kitchen floor. Her mother hurried about. She was feverishly active and often did not hear when the child spoke. "I want to know about my brothers and sisters: where are they, why don't they come here?" she asked, but the mother did not hear, and if she did, had nothing to say. Sometimes she stopped to kiss the child and tears came to her eyes. Then something cooking on the kitchen stove demanded attention. "You run outside," she said hurriedly, and turned again to her work.

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From the chair where Clara sat at the wedding feast provided by the energy of her father and the enthusiasm of Jim Priest, she could see over her father's shoulder into the farm house kitchen. As when she was a child, she closed her eyes and dreamed of another kind of feast. With a growing sense of bitterness she realized that all her life, all through her girlhood and young womanhood, she had been waiting for this, her wedding night, and that now, having come, the occasion for which she had waited so long and concerning which she had dreamed so many dreams, had aborted into an occasion for the display of ugliness and vulgarity. Her father, the only other person in the room in any way related to her, sat at the other end of the long table. Her aunt had gone away on a visit, and in the crowded, noisy room there was no woman to whom she could turn for understanding. She looked past her father's shoulder and directly into the wide window seat where she had spent so many hours of her childhood. Again she wanted brothers and sisters. "The beautiful men and women of the dreams were meant to come at this time, that's what the dreams were about; but, like the unborn children that ran with outstretched hands, they cannot get over the bridge and into the house," she thought vaguely. "I wish Mother had lived, or that Kate Chanceller were here," she whispered to herself as, raising her eyes, she looked at her father.

Clara felt like an animal driven into a corner and surrounded by foes. Her father sat at the feast between two women, Mrs. Steve Hunter who was inclined to corpulency, and a thin woman named Bowles, the wife of an undertaker of Bidwell. They continually whispered, smiled, and nodded their heads. Hugh sat on the opposite side of the same table, and when he raised his eyes from the plate of food before him, could see past the head of a large, masculine-looking woman into the farmhouse parlor where there was another table, also filled with guests. Clara turned from looking at her father to look at her husband. He was merely a tall man with a long face, who could not raise his eyes. His long neck stuck itself out of a stiff white collar. To Clara he was, at the moment, a being without personality, one that the crowd at the table had swallowed up as it so busily swallowed food and wine. When she looked at him he seemed to be drinking a good deal. His glass was always being filled and emptied. At the suggestion of the woman who sat beside him, he performed the task of emptying it, without raising his eyes, and Steve Hunter, who sat on the other side of the table, leaned over and filled it again. Steve like her father whispered and winked. "On the night of my wedding I was piped, you bet, as piped as a hatter. It's a good thing. It gives a man nerve," he explained to the masculine-looking woman to whom he was telling, with a good deal of attention to details, the tale of his own marriage night.

Clara did not look at Hugh again. What he did seemed no concern of hers. Bowles the Bidwell undertaker had surrendered to the influence of the wine that had been flowing freely since the guests arrived and now got to his feet and began to talk. His wife tugged at his coat and tried to force him back into his seat, but Tom Butterworth jerked her arm away. "Ah, let him alone. He's got a story to tell," he said to the woman, who blushed and put her handkerchief over her face. "Well, it's a fact, that's how it happened," the undertaker declared in a loud voice. "You see the sleeves of her nightgown were tied in hard knots by her rascally brothers. When I tried to unfasten them with my teeth I bit big holes in the sleeves."

Clara gripped the arm of her chair. "If I can let the night pass without showing these people how much I hate them I'll do well enough," she thought grimly. She looked at the dishes laden with food and wished she could break them one by one over the heads of her father's guests. As a relief to her mind, she again looked past her father's head and through a doorway into the kitchen.

In the big room three or four cooks were busily engaged in the preparation of food, and waitresses continually brought steaming dishes and put them on the tables. She thought of her mother's life, the life led in that room, married to the man who was her own father and who no doubt, but for the fact that circumstances had made him a man of wealth, would have been satisfied to see his daughter led into just such another life.

"Kate was right about men. They want something from women, but what do they care what kind of lives we lead after they get what they want?" she thought grimly.

The more to separate herself from the feasting, laughing crowd, Clara tried to think out the details of her mother's life. "It was the life of a beast," she thought. Like herself, her mother had come to the house with her husband on the night of her marriage. There was just such another feast. The country was new then and the people for the most part desperately poor. Still there was drinking. She had heard her father and Jim Priest speak of the drinking bouts of their youth. The men came as they had come now, and with them came women, women who had been coarsened by the life they led. Pigs were killed and game brought from the forests. The men drank, shouted, fought, and played practical jokes. Clara wondered if any of the men and women in the room would dare go upstairs into her sleeping room and tie knots in her night clothes. They had done that when her mother came to the house as a bride. Then they had all gone away and her father had taken his bride upstairs. He was drunk, and her own husband Hugh was now getting drunk. Her mother had submitted. Her life had been a story of submission. Kate Chanceller had said it was so married women lived, and her mother's life had proven the truth of the statement. In the farmhouse kitchen, where now three or four cooks worked so busily, she had worked her life out alone. From the kitchen she had gone directly upstairs and to bed with her husband. Once a week on Saturday afternoons she went into town and stayed long enough to buy supplies for another week of cooking. "She must have been kept going until she dropped down dead," Clara thought, and her mind taking another turn, added, "and many others, both men and women, must have been forced by circumstances to serve my father in the same blind way. It was all done in order that prosperity and money with which to do vulgar things might be his."

Clara's mother had brought but one child into the world. She wondered why. Then she wondered if she would become the mother of a child. Her hands no longer gripped the arms of her chair, but lay on the table before her. She looked at them and they were strong. She was herself a strong woman. After the feast was over and the guests had gone away, Hugh, given courage by the drinks he continued to consume, would come upstairs to her. Some twist of her mind made her forget her husband, and in fancy she felt herself about to be attacked by a strange man on a dark road at the edge of a forest. The man had tried to take her into his arms and kiss her and she had managed to get her hands on his throat. Her hands lying on the table twitched convulsively.

In the big farmhouse dining-room and in the parlor where the second table of guests sat, the wedding feast went on. Afterward when she thought of it, Clara always remembered her wedding feast as a horsey affair. Something in the natures of Tom Butterworth and Jim Priest, she thought, expressed itself that night. The jokes that went up and down the table were horsey, and Clara thought the women who sat at the tables heavy and mare-like.

Jim did not come to the table to sit with the others, was in fact not invited, but all evening he kept appearing and reappearing and had the air of a master of ceremonies. Coming into the dining room he stood by the door, scratching his head. Then he went out. It was as though he had said to himself, "Well, it's all right, everything is going all right, everything is lively, you see." All his life Jim had been a drinker of whisky and knew his limitations. His system as a drinking man had always been quite simple. On Saturday afternoons, when the work about the barns was done for the day and the other employees had gone away, he went to sit on the steps of a corncrib with the bottle in his hand. In the winter he went to sit by the kitchen fire in a little house below the apple orchard where he and the other employees slept. He took a long drink from the bottle and then holding it in his hand sat for a time thinking of the events of his life. Whisky made him somewhat sentimental. After one long drink he thought of his youth in a town in Pennsylvania. He had been one of six children, all boys, and at an early age his mother had died. Jim thought of her and then of his father. When he had himself come west into Ohio, and later when he was a soldier in the Civil War, he despised his father and reverenced the memory of his mother. In the war he had found himself physically unable to stand up before the enemy during a battle. When the report of guns was heard and the other men of his company got grimly into line and went forward, something happened to his legs and he wanted to run away. So great was the desire in him that craftiness grew in his brain. Watching his chance, he pretended to have been shot and fell to the ground, and when the others had gone on crept away and hid himself. He found it was not impossible to disappear altogether and reappear in another place. The draft went into effect and many men not liking the notion of war were willing to pay large sums to the men who would go in their places. Jim went into the business of enlisting and deserting. All about him were men talking of the necessity of saving the country, and for four years he thought only of saving his own hide. Then suddenly the war was over and he became a farm hand. As he worked all week in the fields, and in the evening sometimes, as he lay in his bed and the moon came up, he thought of his mother and of the nobility and sacrifice of her life. He wished to be such another. After having two or three drinks out of the bottle, he admired his father, who in the Pennsylvania town had borne the reputation of being a liar and a rascal. After his mother's death his father had managed to marry a widow who owned a farm. "The old man was a slick one," he said aloud, tipping up the bottle and taking another long drink. "If I had stayed at home until I got more understanding, the old man and I together might have done something." He finished the bottle and went away to sleep on the hay, or if it were winter, threw himself into one of the bunks in the bunk house. He dreamed of becoming one who went through life beating people out of money, living by his wits, getting the best of every one.

Until the night of Clara's wedding Jim had never tasted wine, and as it did not bring on a desire for sleep, he thought himself unaffected. "It's like sweetened water," he said, going into the darkness of the barnyard and emptying another half bottle down his throat. "The stuff has no kick. Drinking it is like drinking sweet cider."

Jim got into a frolicsome mood and went through the crowded kitchen and into the dining room where the guests were assembled. At the moment the rather riotous laughter and story telling had ceased and everything was quiet. He was worried. "Things aren't going well. Clara's party is becoming a frost," he thought resentfully. He began to dance a heavy-footed jig on a little open place by the kitchen door and the guests stopped talking to watch. They shouted and clapped their hands. A thunder of applause arose. The guests who were seated in the parlor and who could not see the performance got up and crowded into the doorway that connected the two rooms. Jim became extraordinarily bold, and as one of the young women Tom had hired as waitresses at that moment went past bearing a large dish of food, he swung himself quickly about and took her into his arms. The dish flew across the floor and broke against a table leg and the young woman screamed. A farm dog that had found its way into the kitchen rushed into the room and barked loudly. Henry Heller's orchestra, concealed under a stairway that led to the upper part of the house, began to play furiously. A strange animal fervor swept over Jim. His legs flew rapidly about and his heavy feet made a great clatter on the floor. The young woman in his arms screamed and laughed. Jim closed his eyes and shouted. He felt that the wedding party had until that moment been a failure and that he was transforming it into a success. Rising to their feet the men shouted, clapped their hands and beat with their fists on the table. When the orchestra came to the end of the dance, Jim stood flushed and triumphant before the guests, holding the woman in his arms. In spite of her struggles he held her tightly against his breast and kissed her eyes, cheeks, and mouth. Then releasing her he winked and made a gesture for silence. "On a wedding night some one's got to have the nerve to do a little love-making," he said, looking pointedly toward the place where Hugh sat with head bent and with his eyes staring at a glass of wine that sat at his elbow.

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It was past two o'clock when the feast came to an end. When the guests began to depart, Clara stood for a moment alone and tried to get herself in hand. Something inside her felt cold and old. If she had often thought she wanted a man, and that life as a married woman would put an end to her problems, she did not think so at that moment. "What I want above everything else is a woman," she thought. All the evening her mind had been trying to clutch and hold the almost forgotten figure of her mother, but it was too vague and shadowy. With her mother she had never walked and talked late at night through streets of towns when the world was asleep and when thoughts were born in herself. "After all," she thought, "Mother may also have belonged to all this." She looked at the people preparing to depart. Several men had gathered in a group by the door. One of them told a story at which the others laughed loudly. The women standing about had flushed and, Clara thought, coarse faces. "They have gone into marriage like cattle," she told herself. Her mind, running out of the room, began to caress the memory of her one woman friend, Kate Chanceller. Often on late spring afternoons as she and Kate had walked together something very like love-making had happened between them. They went along quietly and evening came on. Suddenly they stopped in the street and Kate had put her arms about Clara's shoulders. For a moment they stood thus close together and a strange gentle and yet hungry look came into Kate's eyes. It only lasted a moment and when it happened both women were somewhat embarrassed. Kate laughed and taking hold of Clara's arm pulled her along the sidewalk. "Let's walk like the devil," she said, "come on, let's get up some speed."

Clara put her hands to her eyes as though to shut out the scene in the room. "If I could have been with Kate this evening I could have come to a man believing in the possible sweetness of marriage," she thought.

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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.