Poor White by Sherwood Anderson
It was a hot, dusty day, a week after Hugh's marriage to Clara, and Hugh was at work in his shop at Bidwell. How many days, weeks, and months he had already worked there, thinking in iron--twisted, turned, tortured to follow the twistings and turnings of his mind--standing all day by a bench beside other workmen--before him always the little piles of wheels, strips of unworked iron and steel, blocks of wood, the paraphernalia of the inventor's trade. Beside him, now that money had come to him, more and more workmen, men who had invented nothing, who were without distinction in the life of the community, who had married no rich man's daughter.
In the morning the other workmen, skillful fellows, who knew as Hugh had never known, the science of their iron craft, came straggling through the shop door into his presence. They were a little embarrassed before him. The greatness of his name rang in their minds.
Many of the workmen were husbands, fathers of families. In the morning they left their houses gladly but nevertheless came somewhat reluctantly to the shop. As they came along the street, past other houses, they smoked a morning pipe. Groups were formed. Many legs straggled along the street. At the door of the shop each man stopped. There was a sharp tapping sound. Pipe bowls were knocked out against the door sill. Before he came into the shop, each man looked out across the open country that stretched away to the north.
For a week Hugh had been married to a woman who had not yet become his wife. She belonged, still belonged, to a world he had thought of as outside the possibilities of his life. Was she not young, strong, straight of body? Did she not array herself in what seemed unbelievably beautiful clothes? The clothes she wore were a symbol of herself. For him she was unattainable.
And yet she had consented to become his wife, had stood with him before a man who had said words about honor and obedience.
Then there had come the two terrible evenings--when he had gone back to the farmhouse with her to find the wedding feast set in their honor, and that other evening when old Tom had brought him to the farmhouse a defeated, frightened man who hoped the woman would put out her hand, would reassure him.
Hugh was sure he had missed the great opportunity of his life. He had married, but his marriage was not a marriage. He had got himself into a position from which there was no possibility of escaping. "I'm a coward," he thought, looking at the other workmen in the shop. They, like himself, were married men and lived in a house with a woman. At night they went boldly into the presence of the woman. He had not done that when the opportunity offered, and Clara could not come to him. He could understand that. His hands had builded a wall and the passing days were huge stones put on top of the wall. What he had not done became every day a more and more impossible thing to do.
Tom, having taken Hugh back to Clara, was still concerned over the outcome of their adventure. Every day he came to the shop and in the evening came to see them at the farmhouse. He hovered about, was like a mother bird whose offspring had been prematurely pushed out of the nest. Every morning he came into the shop to talk with Hugh. He made jokes about married life. Winking at a man standing nearby he put his hand familiarly on Hugh's shoulder. "Well, how does married life go? It seems to me you're a little pale," he said laughing.
In the evening he came to the farmhouse and sat talking of his affairs, of the progress and growth of the town and his part in it. Without hearing his words both Clara and Hugh sat in silence, pretending to listen, glad of his presence.
Hugh came to the shop at eight. On other mornings, all through that long week of waiting, Clara had driven him to his work, the two riding in silence down Medina Road and through the crowded streets of the town; but on that morning he had walked.
On Medina Road, near the bridge where he had once stood with Clara and where he had seen her hot with anger, something had happened, a trivial thing. A male bird pursued a female among the bushes beside the road. The two feathered, living creatures, vividly colored, alive with life, pitched and swooped through the air. They were like moving balls of light going in and out of the dark green of foliage. There was in them a madness, a riot of life.
Hugh had been tricked into stopping by the roadside. A tangle of things that had filled his mind, the wheels, cogs, levers, all the intricate parts of the hay-loading machine, the things that lived in his mind until his hand had made them into facts, were blown away like dust. For a moment he watched the living riotous things and then, as though jerking himself back into a path from which his feet had wandered, hurried onward to the shop, looking as he went not into the branches of trees, but downward at the dust of the road.
In the shop Hugh tried all morning to refurnish the warehouse of his mind, to put back into it the things blown so recklessly away. At ten Tom came in, talked for a moment and then flitted away. "You are still there. My daughter still has you. You have not run away again," he seemed to be saying to himself.
The day grew warm and the sky, seen through the shop window by the bench where Hugh tried to work, was overcast with clouds.
At noon the workmen went away, but Clara, who on other days had come to drive Hugh to the farmhouse for lunch, did not appear. When all was silent in the shop he stopped work, washed his hands and put on his coat.
He went to the shop door and then came back to the bench. Before him lay an iron wheel on which he had been at work. It was intended to drive some intricate part of the hay-loading machine. Hugh took it in his hand and carried it to the back of the shop where there was an anvil. Without consciousness and scarcely realizing what he did he laid it on the anvil and taking a great sledge in his hand swung it over his head.
The blow struck was terrific. Into it Hugh put all of his protest against the grotesque position into which he had been thrown by his marriage to Clara.
The blow accomplished nothing. The sledge descended and the comparatively delicate metal wheel was twisted, knocked out of shape. It spurted from under the head of the sledge and shot past Hugh's head and out through a window, breaking a pane of glass. Fragments of the broken glass fell with a sharp little tinkling sound upon a heap of twisted pieces of iron and steel lying beside the anvil....
Hugh did not eat lunch that day nor did he go to the farmhouse or return to work at the shop. He walked, but this time did not walk in country roads where male and female birds dart in and out of bushes. An intense desire to know something intimate and personal concerning men and women and the lives they led in their houses had taken possession of him. He walked in the daylight up and down in the streets of Bidwell.
To the right, over the bridge leading out of Turner's Road, the main street of Bidwell ran along a river bank. In that direction the hills out of the country to the south came down to the river's edge and there was a high bluff. On the bluff and back of it on a sloping hillside many of the more pretentious new houses of the prosperous Bidwell citizens had been built. Facing the river were the largest houses, with grounds in which trees and shrubs had been planted and in the streets along the hill, less and less pretentious as they receded from the river, were other houses built and being built, long rows of houses, long streets of houses, houses in brick, stone, and wood.
Hugh went from the river front back into this maze of streets and houses. Some instinct led him there. It was where the men and women of Bidwell who had prospered and had married went to live, to make themselves houses. His father-in-law had offered to buy him a river front place and already that meant much in Bidwell.
He wanted to see women who, like Clara, had got themselves husbands, what they were like. "I've seen enough of men," he thought half resentfully as he went along.
All afternoon he walked in streets, going up and down before houses in which women lived with their men. A detached mood had possession of him. For an hour he stood under a tree idly watching workmen engaged in building another house. When one of the workmen spoke to him he walked away and went into a street where men were laying a cement pavement before a completed house.
In a furtive way he kept looking about for women, hungering to see their faces. "What are they up to? I'd like to find out," his mind seemed to be saying.
The women came out of the doors of the houses and passed him as he went slowly along. Other women in carriages drove in the streets. They were well-dressed women and seemed sure of themselves. "Things are all right with me. For me things are settled and arranged," they seemed to say. All the streets in which he walked seemed to be telling the story of things settled and arranged. The houses spoke of the same things. "I am a house. I am not built until things are settled and arranged. I mean that," they said.
Hugh grew very tired. In the later afternoon a small bright-eyed woman--no doubt she had been one of the guests at his wedding feast--stopped him. "Are you planning to buy or build up our way, Mr. McVey?" she asked. He shook his head. "I'm looking around," he said and hurried away.
Anger took the place of perplexity in him. The women he saw in the streets and in the doors of the houses were such women as his own woman Clara. They had married men--"no better than myself," he told himself, growing bold.
They had married men and something had happened to them. Something was settled. They could live in streets and in houses. Their marriages had been real marriages and he had a right to a real marriage. It was not too much to expect out of life.
"Clara has a right to that also," he thought and his mind began to idealize the marriages of men and women. "On every hand here I see them, the neat, well-dressed, handsome women like Clara. How happy they are!
"Their feathers have been ruffled though," he thought angrily. "It was with them as with that bird I saw being pursued through the trees. There has been pursuit and a pretense of trying to escape. There has been an effort made that was not an effort, but feathers have been ruffled here."
When his thoughts had driven him into a half desperate mood Hugh went out of the streets of bright, ugly, freshly built, freshly painted and furnished houses, and down into the town. Several men homeward bound at the end of their day of work called to him. "I hope you are thinking of buying or building up our way," they said heartily.
* * * * *
It began to rain and darkness came, but Hugh did not go home to Clara. It did not seem to him that he could spend another night in the house with her, lying awake, hearing the little noises of the night, waiting--for courage. He could not sit under the lamp through another evening pretending to read. He could not go with Clara up the stairs only to leave her with a cold "good-night" at the top of the stairs.
Hugh went up the Medina Road almost to the house and then retraced his steps and got into a field. There was a low swampy place in which the water came up over his shoetops, and after he had crossed that there was a field overgrown with a tangle of vines. The night became so dark that he could see nothing and darkness reigned over his spirit. For hours he walked blindly, but it did not occur to him that as he waited, hating the waiting, Clara also waited; that for her also it was a time of trial and uncertainty. To him it seemed her course was simple and easy. She was a white pure thing--waiting--for what? for courage to come in to him in order that an assault be made upon her whiteness and purity.
That was the only answer to the question Hugh could find within himself. The destruction of what was white and pure was a necessary thing in life. It was a thing men must do in order that life go on. As for women, they must be white and pure--and wait.
* * * * *
Filled with inward resentment Hugh at last did go to the farmhouse. Wet and with dragging, heavy feet he turned out of the Medina Road to find the house dark and apparently deserted.
Then a new and puzzling situation arose. When he stepped over the threshold and into the house he knew Clara was there.
On that day she had not driven him to work in the morning or gone for him at noon hour because she did not want to look at him in the light of day, did not want again to see the puzzled, frightened look in his eyes. She had wanted him in the darkness alone, had waited for darkness. Now it was dark in the house and she waited for him.
How simple it was! Hugh came into the living-room, stumbled forward into the darkness, and found the hat-rack against the wall near the stairway leading to the bedrooms above. Again he had surrendered what he would no doubt have called the manhood in himself, and hoped only to be able to escape the presence he felt in the room, to creep off upstairs to his bed, to lie awake listening to noises, waiting miserably for another day to come. But when he had put his dripping hat on one of the pegs of the rack and had found the lower step with his foot thrust into darkness, a voice called to him.
"Come here, Hugh," Clara said softly and firmly, and like a boy caught doing a forbidden act he went toward her. "We have been very silly, Hugh," he heard her voice saying softly.
* * * * *
Hugh went to where Clara sat in a chair by a window. From him there was no protest and no attempt to escape the love-making that followed. For a moment he stood in silence and could see her white figure below him in the chair. It was like something still far away, but coming swiftly as a bird flies to him--upward to him. Her hand crept up and lay in his hand. It seemed unbelievably large. It was not soft, but hard and firm. When her hand had rested in his for a moment she arose and stood beside him. Then the hand went out of his and touched, caressed his wet coat, his wet hair, his cheeks. "My flesh must be white and cold," he thought, and then he did not think any more.
Gladness took hold of him, a gladness that came up out of the inner parts of himself as she had come up to him out of the chair. For days, weeks, he had been thinking of his problem as a man's problem, his defeat had been a man's defeat.
Now there was no defeat, no problem, no victory. In himself he did not exist. Within himself something new had been born or another something that had always lived with him had stirred to life. It was not awkward. It was not afraid. It was a thing as swift and sure as the flight of the male bird through the branches of trees and it was in pursuit of something light and swift in her, something that would fly through light and darkness but fly not too swiftly, something of which he need not be afraid, something that without the need of understanding he could understand as one understands the need of breath in a close place.
With a laugh as soft and sure as her own Hugh took Clara into his arms. A few minutes later they went up stairs and twice Hugh stumbled on the stairway. It did not matter. His long awkward body was a thing outside himself. It might stumble and fall many times but the new thing he had found, the thing inside himself that responded to the thing inside the shell that was Clara his wife, did not stumble. It flew like a bird out of darkness into the light. At the moment he thought the sweeping flight of life thus begun would run on forever.