Windy McPherson's Son

by Sherwood Anderson

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Book III - Chapter 5

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

A large blond woman stepped into the doorway beside Sam. "Waiting for someone?" she asked, smiling and looking steadily at him, with the harried,uncertain, hungry light he had seen in the eyes of the middle-aged menupon 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 Iwant 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 thesame, if he saw me out here hustling."

Sam stepped out of the doorway and walked down a side street past alighted theatre. Along the street women raised their eyes to him andbeyond 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 theeyes of the men and women. His mind began working on this side of thelives of great numbers of people in the cities--of the men and women onthe street corner, of the woman who from the security of a safe marriagehad once thrown a challenge into his eyes as they sat together in thetheatre, and of the thousand little incidents in the lives of all moderncity men and women. He wondered how much that eager, aching hunger stoodin the way of men's getting hold of life and living it earnestly andpurposefully, as he wanted to live it, and as he felt all men and womenwanted at bottom to live it. When he was a boy in Caxton he was more thanonce startled by the flashes of brutality and coarseness in the speech andactions of kindly, well-meaning men; now as he walked in the streets ofthe city he thought that he had got past being startled. "It is a qualityof our lives," he decided. "American men and women have not learned to beclean and noble and natural, like their forests and their wide, cleanplains."

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

"We are no finer nor cleaner than these," he said, "and we sprang from thebig clean new land through which I have been walking all these months.Will mankind always go on with that old aching, queerly expressed hungerin its blood, and with that look in its eyes? Will it never shrive itselfand understand itself, and turn fiercely and energetically toward thebuilding 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 hewondered why they did not, all of them, talk more thoughtfully of vice,and why they so often spent their talents and their energies in futileattacks upon some phase of life, and ended their efforts toward humanbetterment by joining or promoting a temperance league, or stopping theplaying of baseball on Sunday.

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

"For me," he reflected, "there have been no Franois Villons or Sapphos inthe tenderloins of American cities. There have been instead only heartbreaking disease and ill health and poverty, and hard brutal faces andtorn, 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'ssuggestion and had been helped by him--helped and frightened and made tosee. And then there rose before him the leering face of a keeper of asecond-hand book store in Cleveland who some weeks before had pushedacross the counter to him a paper-covered copy of "Nana's Brother," sayingwith a smirk, "That's some sporty stuff." And he wondered what he shouldhave thought had he bought the book to feed the imagination thebookseller's comment was intended to arouse.

In the small towns through which Sam walked and in the small town in whichhe grew to manhood vice was openly crude and masculine. It went to sleepsprawling across a dirty beer-soaked table in Art Sherman's saloon inPiety Hollow, and the newsboy passed it without comment, regretting thatit 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 astreet corner where young men played pool and smoked cigarettes in a dingypoolroom, and turned back toward the heart of the city. "It gets into allmodern life. The farmer boy coming up to the city to work hears lewdstories in the smoking car of the train, and the travelling men from thecities tell tales of the city streets to the group about the stove invillage stores."

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

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

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

He began reviewing incidents of carouses he had been on with business menof his acquaintance, of a policeman knocked into a street and of himself,quiet and ably climbing upon tables to make speeches and to shout theinnermost 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 tohimself. But on these carouses he let himself go, and got a reputation fordaring audacity by slapping men on the back and singing songs with them. Aglowing cordiality had pervaded him and for a time he had really believedthere 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 admittedquestionable couples. Its halls had become dingy; its windows remainedunopened; dirt gathered in the corners; the attendants shuffled as theywalked, and leered into the faces of creeping couples; the curtains at thewindows were torn and discoloured; strange snarling oaths, screams, andcries 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 farmsand country towns in the streets of the cities; young men believers in thegolden vice. Hands beckoned to them from doorways, and women of the townlaughed at their awkwardness. In Chicago he had walked in that way. Healso had been seeking, seeking the romantic, impossible mistress thatlurked at the bottom of men's tales of the submerged world. He wanted hisgolden girl. He was like the nave German lad in the South Water Streetwarehouses who had once said to him--he was a frugal soul--"I would liketo find a nice-looking girl who is quiet and modest and who will be mymistress and not charge anything."

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

During his married life men had come to the house who discussed thismatter. One of them, he remembered, had maintained stoutly that thescarlet sisterhood was a necessity of modern life and that ordinary decentsocial life could not go on without it. Often during the past year Sam hadthought of the man's talk and his brain had reeled before the thought. Intowns and on country roads he had seen troops of little girls comelaughing and shouting out of school houses, and had wondered which of themwould be chosen for that service to mankind; and now, in his hour ofdepression, he wished that the man who had talked at his dinner tablemight be made to walk with him and to share with him his thoughts.

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

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

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

Once more in the street, Sam shuddered at the thought of the hands thathad laboured that the soft cheeks and the untroubled eyes of this onewoman might be. Into his mind came the face and figure of a littleCanadian nurse who had once cared for him through an illness--her quick,deft fingers and her muscular little arms. "Another such as she," hemuttered, "has been at work upon the face and body of this gentlewoman; ahunter has gone into the white silence of the north to bring out the warmfurs that adorn her; for her there has been a tragedy--a shot, and redblood upon the snow, and a struggling beast waving its little claws in theair; for her a woman has worked through the morning, bathing her whitelimbs, her cheeks, her hair."

For this gentlewoman also there had been a man apportioned, a man likehimself, who had cheated and lied and gone through the years in pursuit ofthe dollars to pay all of the others, a man of power, a man who couldachieve, could accomplish. Again he felt within him a yearning for thepower of the artist, the power not only to see the meaning of the faces inthe street, but to reproduce what he saw, to get with subtle fingers thestory 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 andNew York with Sue, Sam had tried to get an inkling of the passion of theartist; now walking and looking at the faces rolling past him on the longstreet he thought that he did understand.

Once when he was new in the city he had, for some months, carried on anaffair with a woman, the daughter of a cattle farmer from Iowa. Now herface filled his vision. How rugged it was, how filled with the message ofthe ground underfoot; the thick lips, the dull eyes, the strong, bulletlike head, how like the cattle her father had bought and sold. Heremembered the little room in Chicago where he had his first love passagewith this woman. How frank and wholesome it had seemed. How eagerly bothman and woman had rushed at evening to the meeting place. How her stronghands had clasped him. The face of the woman in the motor by the officebuilding danced before his eyes, the face so peaceful, so free from themarks of human passion, and he wondered what daughter of a cattle raiserhad 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, calledsoftly, 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 gettinghungry and do not like eating alone. I want some one to talk to me so thatI won't get to thinking."

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

Sam said nothing.

"There's a place over there," she said, pointing to the lighted front of acheap 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 agood dinner. I want a place with clean linen on the table and a good cookin the kitchen."

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

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

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

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

She had, he thought, a look of hard chastity, like one whipped but notdefeated. 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 hadthe worn, hardly-used look of his own mother's hands. Now that she satbefore 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 womanof 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?" shesaid.

"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 likethis. It makes me feel clean."

For a time they sat in silence and then Sam began talking of his home townin Iowa, letting himself go and expressing the thoughts that came into hismind. He told her of his mother and of Mary Underwood and she in turn toldof her town and of her life. She had some difficulty about hearing whichmade conversation trying. Words and sentences had to be repeated to herand after a time Sam smoked and looked at the fire, letting her talk. Herfather had been a captain of a small steamboat plying up and down LongIsland Sound and her mother a careful, shrewd woman and a goodhousekeeper. They had lived in a Rhode Island village and had a gardenback of their house. The captain had not married until he was forty-fiveand 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 shyand reticent. She had kept the house clean and helped the captain in thegarden. When her parents were dead she had found herself alone withthirty-seven hundred dollars in the bank and the little home, and hadmarried a young man who was a clerk in a railroad office, and sold thehouse to move to Kansas City. The big flat country frightened her. Herlife there had been unsuccessful. She had been lonely for the hills andthe water of her New England village, and she was, by nature,undemonstrative and unemotional, so that she did not get much hold of herhusband. He had undoubtedly married her for the little hoard and, byvarious devices, began getting it from her. A son had been born, for atime her health broke badly, and she discovered through an accident thather husband was spending her money in dissipation among the women of thetown.

"There wasn't any use wasting words when I found he didn't care for me orfor 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 hadtaken a course in stenography, there was one thousand dollars of hersavings left and she felt pretty safe. She took a position and went towork, feeling well satisfied and happy. And then came the trouble with herhearing. She began to lose places and finally had to be content with asmall salary, earned by copying form letters for a mail order medicineman. The boy she put out with a capable German woman, the wife of agardener. She paid four dollars a week for him and there was clothing tobe bought for herself and the boy. Her wage from the medicine man wasseven dollars a week.

"And so," she said, "I began going on the street. I knew no one and therewas nothing else to do. I couldn't do that in the town where the boylived, so I came away. I've gone from city to city, working mostly forpatent medicine men and filling out my income by what I earned in thestreets. I'm not naturally a woman who cares about men and not many ofthem care about me. I don't like to have them touch me with their hands. Ican't drink as most of the girls do; it sickens me. I want to be leftalone. Perhaps I shouldn't have married. Not that I minded my husband. Wegot along very well until I had to stop giving him money. When I foundwhere it was going it opened my eyes. I felt that I had to have at least athousand dollars for the boy in case anything happened to me. When I foundthere wasn't anything to do but just go on the streets, I went. I trieddoing other work, but hadn't the strength, and when it came to the test Icared more about the boy than I did about myself--any woman would. Ithought 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 meI walk along the street praying that I won't shudder and draw away when hetouches me with his hands. I know that if I do he will go away and I won'tget any money.

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

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

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

The little German orchestra began playing a lullaby, and a fat Germanwaiter came in at the open door and put more wood on the fire. He stoppedby the table and talked about the mud in the road outside. From anotherroom 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 thathe liked her very much and thought that if she had belonged to him heshould have found a basis on which to live with her contentedly. She had aquality 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 tellyou. Perhaps you will think it bad of me. Sometimes when I don't want togo on the streets I get down on my knees and pray for strength to go ongamely. Does it seem bad? We are a praying people, we New Englanders."

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

"Are you there, O God? Have you left your children here on the earthhurting 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 hurtand destroy?"

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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.