Windy McPherson's Son

by Sherwood Anderson

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Book I - Chapter 5

Sam was a half-grown man of fifteen when the call of the city came to him.For six years he had been upon the streets. He had seen the sun come uphot and red over the corn fields, and had stumbled through the streets inthe bleak darkness of winter mornings, when the trains from the north cameinto Caxton covered with ice, and the trainmen stood on the desertedlittle platform whipping their arms and calling to Jerry Donlin to hurrywith his work that they might get back into the warm stale air of thesmoking car.

In the six years the boy had grown more and more determined to become aman of money. Fed by banker Walker, the silent mother, and in some subtleway by the very air he breathed, the belief within him that to make moneyand to have money would in some way make up for the old half-forgottenhumiliations in the life of the McPherson family and would set it on amore secure foundation than the wobbly Windy had provided, grew andinfluenced his thoughts and his acts. Tirelessly he kept at his efforts toget ahead. In his bed at night he dreamed of dollars. Jane McPherson hadherself a passion for frugality. In spite of Windy's incompetence and herown growing ill health, she would not permit the family to go into debt,and although, in the long hard winters, Sam sometimes ate cornmeal mushuntil his mind revolted at the thought of a corn field, yet was the rentof the little house paid on the scratch, and her boy fairly driven toincrease the totals in the yellow bankbook. Even Valmore, who since thedeath of his wife had lived in a loft above his shop and who was ablacksmith of the old days, a workman first and a money maker later, didnot despise the thought of gain.

"It is money makes the mare go," he said with a kind of reverence asbanker Walker, fat, sleek, and prosperous, walked pompously out ofWildman's grocery.

Of John Telfer's attitude toward money-making, the boy was uncertain. Theman followed with joyous abandonment the impulse of the moment.

"That's right," he cried impatiently when Sam, who had begun to expressopinions at the gatherings in the grocery, pointed out hesitatingly thatthe papers took account of men of wealth no matter what theirachievements, "Make money! Cheat! Lie! Be one of the men of the big world!Get your name up for a modern, high-class American!"

And in the next breath, turning upon Freedom Smith who had begun to beratethe boy for not sticking to the schools and who predicted that the daywould come when Sam would regret his lack of book learning, he shouted,"Let the schools go! They are but musty beds in which old clerkliness liesasleep!"

Among the travelling men who came to Caxton to sell goods, the boy, whohad continued the paper selling even after attaining the stature of a man,was a favourite. Sitting in chairs before the New Leland House they talkedto him of the city and of the money to be made there.

"It is the place for a live young man," they said.

Sam had a talent for drawing people into talk of themselves and of theiraffairs and began to cultivate travelling men. From them, he got into hisnostrils a whiff of the city and, listening to them, he saw the great waysfilled with hurrying people, the tall buildings touching the sky, the menrunning about intent upon money-making, and the clerks going on year afteryear on small salaries getting nowhere, a part of, and yet notunderstanding, the impulses and motives of the enterprises that supportedthem.

In this picture Sam thought he saw a place for himself. He conceived oflife in the city as a great game in which he believed he could play asterling part. Had he not in Caxton brought something out of nothing, hadhe not systematised and monopolised the selling of papers, had he notintroduced the vending of popcorn and peanuts from baskets to the Saturdaynight crowds? Already boys went out in his employ, already the totals inthe bank book had crept to more than seven hundred dollars. He felt withinhim a glow of pride at the thought of what he had done and would do.

"I will be richer than any man in town here," he declared in his pride. "Iwill be richer than Ed Walker."

Saturday night was the great night in Caxton life. For it the clerks inthe stores prepared, for it Sam sent forth his peanut and popcorn venders,for it Art Sherman rolled up his sleeves and put the glasses close by thebeer tap under the bar, and for it the mechanics, the farmers, and thelabourers dressed in their Sunday best and came forth to mingle with theirfellows. On Main Street crowds packed the stores, the sidewalks, anddrinking places, and men stood about in groups talking while young girlswith their lovers walked up and down. In the hall over Geiger's drug storea dance went on and the voice of the caller-off rose above the clatter ofvoices and the stamping of horses in the street. Now and then a fightbroke out among the roisterers in Piety Hollow. Once a young farm hand waskilled with a knife.

In and out through the crowd Sam went, pressing his wares.

"Remember the long quiet Sunday afternoon," he said, pushing a paper intothe hands of a slow-thinking farmer. "Recipes for cooking new dishes," heurged to the farmer's wife. "There is a page of new fashions in dress," hetold the young girl.

Not until the last light was out in the last saloon in Piety Hollow, andthe last roisterer had driven off into the darkness carrying a Saturdaypaper in his pocket, did Sam close the day's business.

And it was on a Saturday night that he decided to drop paper selling.

"I will take you into business with me," announced Freedom Smith, stoppinghim as he hurried by. "You are getting too old to sell papers and you knowtoo much."

Sam, still intent upon the money to be made on that particular Saturdaynight, did not stop to discuss the matter with Freedom, but for a year hehad been looking quietly about for something to go into and now he noddedhis head as he hurried away.

"It is the end of romance," shouted Telfer, who stood beside Freedom Smithbefore Geiger's drug store and who had heard the offer. "A boy, who hasseen the secret workings of my mind, who has heard me spout Poe andBrowning, will become a merchant, dealing in stinking hides. I am overcomeby the thought."

The next day, sitting in the garden back of his house, Telfer talked toSam of the matter at length.

"For you, my boy, I put the matter of money in the first place," hedeclared, leaning back in his chair, smoking a cigarette and from time totime tapping Eleanor on the shoulder with his cane. "For any boy I putmoney-making in the first place. It is only women and fools who despisemoney-making. Look at Eleanor here. The time and thought she puts into theselling of hats would be the death of me, but it has been the making ofher. See how fine and purposeful she has become. Without the millinerybusiness she would be a purposeless fool intent upon clothes and with itshe is all a woman should be. It is like a child to her."

Eleanor, who had turned to laugh at her husband, looked instead at theground and a shadow crossed her face. Telfer, who had begun talkingthoughtlessly, out of his excess of words, glanced from the woman to theboy. He knew that the suggestion regarding a child had touched a secretregret in Eleanor, and began trying to efface the shadow on her face bythrowing himself into the subject that chanced to be on his tongue, makingthe words roll and tumble from his lips.

"No matter what may come in the future, in our day money-making precedesmany virtues that are forever on men's lips," he declared fiercely asthough trying to down an opponent. "It is one of the virtues that provesman not a savage. It has lifted him up--not money-making, but the power tomake money. Money makes life livable. It gives freedom and destroys fear.Having it means sanitary houses and well-made clothes. It brings intomen's lives beauty and the love of beauty. It enables a man to goadventuring after the stuff of life as I have done.

"Writers are fond of telling stories of the crude excesses of greatwealth," he went on hurriedly, glancing again at Eleanor. "No doubt thethings they tell of do happen. Money, and not the ability and the instinctto make money, is at fault. And what of the cruder excesses of poverty,the drunken men who beat and starve their families, the grim silences ofthe crowded, unsanitary houses of the poor, the inefficient, and thedefeated? Go sit around the lounging room of the most vapid rich man'scity club as I have done, and then sit among the workers of a factory atthe noon hour. Virtue, you will find, is no fonder of poverty than you andI, and the man who has merely learned to be industrious, and who has notacquired that eager hunger and shrewdness that enables him to get on, maybuild up a strong dexterous body while his mind is diseased and decaying."

Grasping his cane and beginning to be carried away by the wind of hiseloquence Telfer forgot Eleanor and talked for his love of talking.

"The mind that has in it the love of the beautiful, that stuff that makesour poets, artists, musicians, and actors, needs this turn for shrewdmoney getting or it will destroy itself," he declared. "And the reallygreat artists have it. In books and stories the great men starve ingarrets. In real life they are more likely to ride in carriages on FifthAvenue and have country places on the Hudson. Go, see for yourself. Visitthe starving genius in his garret. It is a hundred to one that you willfind him not only incapable in money getting but also incapable in thevery art for which he starves."

After the hurried word from Freedom Smith, Sam began looking for a buyerfor the paper business. The place offered appealed to him and he wanted achance at it. In the buying of potatoes, butter, eggs, apples, and hideshe thought he could make money, also, he knew that the dogged persistencywith which he had kept at the putting of money in the bank had caughtFreedom's imagination, and he wanted to take advantage of the fact.

Within a few days the deal was made. Sam got three hundred and fiftydollars for the list of newspaper customers, the peanut and popcornbusiness and the transfer of the exclusive agencies he had arranged withthe dailies of Des Moines and St. Louis. Two boys bought the business,backed by their fathers. A talk in the back room of the bank, with thecashier telling of Sam's record as a depositor, and the seven hundreddollars surplus clinched the deal. When it came to the deal with Freedom,Sam took him into the back room at the bank and showed his savings as hehad shown them to the fathers of the two boys. Freedom was impressed. Hethought the boy would make money for him. Twice within a week Sam had seenthe silent suggestive power of cash.

The deal Sam made with Freedom included a fair weekly wage, enough to morethan take care of all his wants, and in addition he was to have two-thirdsof all he saved Freedom in the buying. Freedom on the other hand was tofurnish horse, vehicle, and keep for the horse, while Sam was to take careof the horse. The prices to be paid for the things bought were to be fixedeach morning by Freedom, and if Sam bought at less than the prices namedtwo-thirds of the savings went to him. The arrangement was suggested bySam, who thought he would make more from the saving than from the wage.

Freedom Smith discussed even the most trivial matter in a loud voice,roaring and shouting in the store and on the streets. He was a greatinventor of descriptive names, having a name of his own for every man,woman and child he knew and liked. "Old Maybe-Not" he called WindyMcPherson and would roar at him in the grocery asking him not to shedrebel blood in the sugar barrel. He drove about the country in a lowphaeton buggy that rattled and squeaked enormously and had a wide rip inthe top. To Sam's knowledge neither the buggy nor Freedom were washedduring his stay with the man. He had a method of his own in buying.Stopping in front of a farm house he would sit in his buggy and roar untilthe farmer came out of the field or the house to talk with him. And thenhaggling and shouting he would make his deal or drive on his way while thefarmer, leaning on the fence, laughed as at a wayward child.

Freedom lived in a large old brick house facing one of Caxton's beststreets. His house and yard were an eyesore to his neighbours who likedhim personally. He knew this and would stand on his front porch laughingand roaring about it. "Good morning, Mary," he would shout at the neatGerman woman across the street. "Wait and you'll see me clean up abouthere. I'm going at it right now. I'm going to brush the flies off thefence first."

Once he ran for a county office and got practically every vote in thecounty.

Freedom had a passion for buying up old half-worn buggies and agriculturalimplements, bringing them home to stand in the yard, gathering rust anddecay, and swearing they were as good as new. In the lot were a half dozenbuggies and a family carriage or two, a traction engine, a mowing machine,several farm wagons and other farm tools gone beyond naming. Every fewdays he came home bringing a new prize. They overflowed the yard and creptonto the porch. Sam never knew him to sell any of this stuff. He had atone time sixteen sets of harness all broken and unrepaired in the barn andin a shed back of the house. A great flock of chickens and two or threepigs wandered about among this junk and all the children of theneighbourhood joined Freedom's four and ran howling and shouting over andunder the mass.

Freedom's wife, a pale, silent woman, rarely came out of the house. Shehad a liking for the industrious, hard-working Sam and occasionally stoodat the back door and talked with him in a low, even voice at evening as hestood unhitching his horse after a day on the road. Both she and Freedomtreated him with great respect.

As a buyer Sam was even more successful than at the paper selling. He wasa buyer by instinct, working a wide stretch of country very systematicallyand within a year more than doubling the bulk of Freedom's purchases.

There is a little of Windy McPherson's grotesque pretentiousness in everyman and his son soon learned to look for and to take advantage of it. Helet men talk until they had exaggerated or overstated the value of theirgoods, then called them sharply to accounts, and before they had recoveredfrom their confusion drove home the bargain. In Sam's day, farmers did notwatch the daily market reports, in fact, the markets were not systematisedand regulated as they were later, and the skill of the buyer was of thefirst importance. Having the skill, Sam used it constantly to put moneyinto his pockets, but in some way kept the confidence and respect of themen with whom he traded.

The noisy, blustering Freedom was as proud as a father of the tradingability that developed in the boy and roared his name up and down thestreets and in the stores, declaring him the smartest boy in Iowa.

"Mighty little of old Maybe-Not in that boy," he would shout to theloafers in the store.

Although Sam had an almost painful desire for order and system in his ownaffairs, he did not try to bring these influences into Freedom's affairs,but kept his own records carefully and bought potatoes and apples, butterand eggs, furs and hides, with untiring zeal, working always to swell hiscommissions. Freedom took the risks in the business and many timesprofited little, but the two liked and respected each other and it wasthrough Freedom's efforts that Sam finally got out of Caxton and intolarger affairs.

One evening in the late fall Freedom came into the stable where Sam stoodtaking the harness off his horse.

"Here is a chance for you, my boy," he said, putting his handaffectionately on Sam's shoulder. There was a note of tenderness in hisvoice. He had written to the Chicago firm to whom he sold most of thethings he bought, telling of Sam and his ability, and the firm had repliedmaking an offer that Sam thought far beyond anything he might hope for inCaxton. In his hand he held this offer.

When Sam read the letter his heart jumped. He thought that it opened forhim a wide new field of effort and of money making. He thought that atlast he had come to the end of his boyhood and was to have his chance inthe city. Only that morning old Doctor Harkness had stopped him at thedoor as he set out for work and, pointing over his shoulder with his thumbto where in the house his mother lay, wasted and asleep, had told him thatin another week she would be gone, and Sam, heavy of heart and filled withuneasy longing, had walked through the streets to Freedom's stable wishingthat he also might be gone.

Now he walked across the stable floor and hung the harness he had takenfrom the horse upon a peg in the wall.

"I will be glad to go," he said heavily.

Freedom walked out of the stable door beside the young McPherson who hadcome to him as a boy and was now a broad-shouldered young man of eighteen.He did not want to lose Sam. He had written the Chicago company because ofhis affection for the boy and because he believed him capable of somethingmore than Caxton offered. Now he walked in silence holding the lanternaloft and guiding the way among the wreckage in the yard, filled withregrets.

By the back door of the house stood the pale, tired-looking wife who,putting out her hand, took the hand of the boy. There were tears in hereyes. And then saying nothing Sam turned and hurried off up the street,Freedom and his wife walked to the front gate and watched him go. From astreet corner, where he stopped in the shadow of a tree, Sam could seethem there, the wind swinging the lantern in Freedom's hand and theslender little old wife making a white blotch against the darkness.

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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.