Poor White by Sherwood Anderson
Hugh McVey was twenty-three years old when he went to live in Bidwell. The position of telegraph operator at the Wheeling station a mile north of town became vacant and, through an accidental encounter with a former resident of a neighboring town, he got the place.
The Missourian had been at work during the winter in a sawmill in the country near a northern Indiana town. During the evenings he wandered on country roads and in the town streets, but he did not talk to any one. As had happened to him in other places, he had the reputation of being queer. His clothes were worn threadbare and, although he had money in his pockets, he did not buy new ones. In the evening when he went through the town streets and saw the smartly dressed clerks standing before the stores, he looked at his own shabby person and was ashamed to enter. In his boyhood Sarah Shepard had always attended to the buying of his clothes, and he made up his mind that he would go to the place in Michigan to which she and her husband had retired, and pay her a visit. He wanted Sarah Shepard to buy him a new outfit of clothes, but wanted also to talk with her.
Out of the three years of going from place to place and working with other men as a laborer, Hugh had got no big impulse that he felt would mark the road his life should take; but the study of mathematical problems, taken up to relieve his loneliness and to cure his inclination to dreams, was beginning to have an effect on his character. He thought that if he saw Sarah Shepard again he could talk to her and through her get into the way of talking to others. In the sawmill where he worked he answered the occasional remarks made to him by his fellow workers in a slow, hesitating drawl, and his body was still awkward and his gait shambling, but he did his work more quickly and accurately. In the presence of his foster-mother and garbed in new clothes, he believed he could now talk to her in a way that had been impossible during his youth. She would see the change in his character and would be encouraged about him. They would get on to a new basis and he would feel respect for himself in another.
Hugh went to the railroad station to make inquiry regarding the fare to the Michigan town and there had the adventure that upset his plans. As he stood at the window of the ticket office, the ticket seller, who was also the telegraph operator, tried to engage him in conversation. When he had given the information asked, he followed Hugh out of the building and into the darkness of a country railroad station at night, and the two men stopped and stood together beside an empty baggage truck. The ticket agent spoke of the loneliness of life in the town and said he wished he could go back to his own place and be again with his own people. "It may not be any better in my own town, but I know everybody there," he said. He was curious concerning Hugh as were all the people of the Indiana town, and hoped to get him into talk in order that he might find out why he walked alone at night, why he sometimes worked all evening over books and figures in his room at the country hotel, and why he had so little to say to his fellows. Hoping to fathom Hugh's silence he abused the town in which they both lived. "Well," he began, "I guess I understand how you feel. You want to get out of this place." He explained his own predicament in life. "I got married," he said. "Already I have three children. Out here a man can make more money railroading than he can in my state, and living is pretty cheap. Just to-day I had an offer of a job in a good town near my own place in Ohio, but I can't take it. The job only pays forty a month. The town's all right, one of the best in the northern part of the State, but you see the job's no good. Lord, I wish I could go. I'd like to live again among people such as live in that part of the country."
The railroad man and Hugh walked along the street that ran from the station up into the main street of the town. Wanting to meet the advances that had been made by his companion and not knowing how to go about it, Hugh adopted the method he had heard his fellow laborers use with one another. "Well," he said slowly, "come have a drink."
The two men went into a saloon and stood by the bar. Hugh made a tremendous effort to overcome his embarrassment. As he and the railroad man drank foaming glasses of beer he explained that he also had once been a railroad man and knew telegraphy, but that for several years he had been doing other work. His companion looked at his shabby clothes and nodded his head. He made a motion with his head to indicate that he wanted Hugh to come with him outside into the darkness. "Well, well," he exclaimed, when they had again got outside and had started along the street toward the station. "I understand now. They've all been wondering about you and I've heard lots of talk. I won't say anything, but I'm going to do something for you."
Hugh went to the station with his new-found friend and sat down in the lighted office. The railroad man got out a sheet of paper and began to write a letter. "I'm going to get you that job," he said. "I'm writing the letter now and I'll get it off on the midnight train. You've got to get on your feet. I was a boozer myself, but I cut it all out. A glass of beer now and then, that's my limit."
He began to talk of the town in Ohio where he proposed to get Hugh the job that would set him up in the world and save him from the habit of drinking, and described it as an earthly paradise in which lived bright, clear-thinking men and beautiful women. Hugh was reminded sharply of the talk he had heard from the lips of Sarah Shepard, when in his youth she spent long evenings telling him of the wonder of her own Michigan and New England towns and people, and contrasted the life lived there with that lived by the people of his own place.
Hugh decided not to try to explain away the mistake made by his new acquaintance, and to accept the offer of assistance in getting the appointment as telegraph operator.
The two men walked out of the station and stood again in the darkness. The railroad man felt like one who has been given the privilege of plucking a human soul out of the darkness of despair. He was full of words that poured from his lips and he assumed a knowledge of Hugh and his character entirely unwarranted by the circumstances. "Well," he exclaimed heartily, "you see I've given you a send-off. I have told them you're a good man and a good operator, but that you will take the place with its small salary because you've been sick and just now can't work very hard." The excited man followed Hugh along the street. It was late and the store lights had been put out. From one of the town's two saloons that lay in their way arose a clatter of voices. The old boyhood dream of finding a place and a people among whom he could, by sitting still and inhaling the air breathed by others, come into a warm closeness with life, came back to Hugh. He stopped before the saloon to listen to the voices within, but the railroad man plucked at his coat sleeve and protested. "Now, now, you're going to cut it out, eh?" he asked anxiously and then hurriedly explained his anxiety. "Of course I know what's the matter with you. Didn't I tell you I've been there myself? You've been working around. I know why that is. You don't have to tell me. If there wasn't something the matter with him, no man who knows telegraphy would work in a sawmill.
"Well, there's no good talking about it," he added thoughtfully. "I've given you a send-off. You're going to cut it out, eh?"
Hugh tried to protest and to explain that he was not addicted to the habit of drinking, but the Ohio man would not listen. "It's all right," he said again, and then they came to the hotel where Hugh lived and he turned to go back to the station and wait for the midnight train that would carry the letter away and that would, he felt, carry also his demand that a fellow-human, who had slipped from the modern path of work and progress should be given a new chance. He felt magnanimous and wonderfully gracious. "It's all right, my boy," he said heartily. "No use talking to me. To-night when you came to the station to ask the fare to that hole of a place in Michigan I saw you were embarrassed. 'What's the matter with that fellow?' I said to myself. I got to thinking. Then I came up town with you and right away you bought me a drink. I wouldn't have thought anything about that if I hadn't been there myself. You'll get on your feet. Bidwell, Ohio, is full of good men. You get in with them and they'll help you and stick by you. You'll like those people. They've got get-up to them. The place you'll work at there is far out of town. It's away out about a mile at a little kind of outside-like place called Pickleville. There used to be a saloon there and a factory for putting up cucumber pickles, but they've both gone now. You won't be tempted to slip in that place. You'll have a chance to get on your feet. I'm glad I thought of sending you there."
* * * * *
The Wheeling and Lake Erie ran along a little wooded depression that cut across the wide expanse of open farm lands north of the town of Bidwell. It brought coal from the hill country of West Virginia and southeastern Ohio to ports on Lake Erie, and did not pay much attention to the carrying of passengers. In the morning a train consisting of a combined express and baggage car and two passenger coaches went north and west toward the lake, and in the evening the same train returned, bound southeast into the Hills, The Bidwell station of the road was, in an odd way, detached from the town's life. The invisible roof under which the life of the town and the surrounding country was lived did not cover it. As the Indiana railroad man had told Hugh, the station itself stood on a spot known locally as Pickleville. Back of the station there was a small building for the storage of freight and near at hand four or five houses facing Turner's Pike. The pickle factory, now deserted and with its windows gone, stood across the tracks from the station and beside a small stream that ran under a bridge and across country through a grove of trees to the river. On hot summer days a sour, pungent smell arose from the old factory, and at night its presence lent a ghostly flavor to the tiny corner of the world in which lived perhaps a dozen people.
All day and at night an intense persistent silence lay over Pickleville, while in Bidwell a mile away the stir of new life began. In the evenings and on rainy afternoons when men could not work in the fields, old Judge Hanby went along Turner's Pike and across the wagon bridge into Bidwell and sat in a chair at the back of Birdie Spink's drug store. He talked. Men came in to listen to him and went out. New talk ran through the town. A new force that was being born into American life and into life everywhere all over the world was feeding on the old dying individualistic life. The new force stirred and aroused the people. It met a need that was universal. It was meant to seal men together, to wipe out national lines, to walk under seas and fly through the air, to change the entire face of the world in which men lived. Already the giant that was to be king in the place of old kings was calling his servants and his armies to serve him. He used the methods of old kings and promised his followers booty and gain. Everywhere he went unchallenged, surveying the land, raising a new class of men to positions of power. Railroads had already been pushed out across the plains; great coal fields from which was to be taken food to warm the blood in the body of the giant were being opened up; iron fields were being discovered; the roar and clatter of the breathing of the terrible new thing, half hideous, half beautiful in its possibilities, that was for so long to drown the voices and confuse the thinking of men, was heard not only in the towns but even in lonely farm houses, where its willing servants, the newspapers and magazines, had begun to circulate in ever increasing numbers. At the town of Gibsonville, near Bidwell, Ohio, and at Lima and Finley, Ohio, oil and gas fields were discovered. At Cleveland, Ohio, a precise, definite-minded man named Rockefeller bought and sold oil. From the first he served the new thing well and he soon found others to serve with him. The Morgans, Fricks, Goulds, Carnegies, Vanderbilts, servants of the new king, princes of the new faith, merchants all, a new kind of rulers of men, defied the world-old law of class that puts the merchant below the craftsman, and added to the confusion of men by taking on the air of creators. They were merchants glorified and dealt in giant things, in the lives of men and in mines, forests, oil and gas fields, factories, and railroads.
And all over the country, in the towns, the farm houses, and the growing cities of the new country, people stirred and awakened. Thought and poetry died or passed as a heritage to feeble fawning men who also became servants of the new order. Serious young men in Bidwell and in other American towns, whose fathers had walked together on moonlight nights along Turner's Pike to talk of God, went away to technical schools. Their fathers had walked and talked and thoughts had grown up in them. The impulse had reached back to their father's fathers on moonlit roads of England, Germany, Ireland, France, and Italy, and back of these to the moonlit hills of Judea where shepherds talked and serious young men, John and Matthew and Jesus, caught the drift of the talk and made poetry of it; but the serious-minded sons of these men in the new land were swept away from thinking and dreaming. From all sides the voice of the new age that was to do definite things shouted at them. Eagerly they took up the cry and ran with it. Millions of voices arose. The clamor became terrible, and confused the minds of all men. In making way for the newer, broader brotherhood into which men are some day to emerge, in extending the invisible roofs of the towns and cities to cover the world, men cut and crushed their way through the bodies of men.
And while the voices became louder and more excited and the new giant walked about making a preliminary survey of the land, Hugh spent his days at the quiet, sleepy railroad station at Pickleville and tried to adjust his mind to the realization of the fact that he was not to be accepted as fellow by the citizens of the new place to which he had come. During the day he sat in the tiny telegraph office or, pulling an express truck to the open window near his telegraph instrument, lay on his back with a sheet of paper propped on his bony knees and did sums. Farmers driving past on Turner's Pike saw him there and talked of him in the stores in town. "He's a queer silent fellow," they said. "What do you suppose he's up to?"
Hugh walked in the streets of Bidwell at night as he had walked in the streets of towns in Indiana and Illinois. He approached groups of men loafing on a street corner and then went hurriedly past them. On quiet streets as he went along under the trees, he saw women sitting in the lamplight in the houses and hungered to have a house and a woman of his own. One afternoon a woman school teacher came to the station to make inquiry regarding the fare to a town in West Virginia. As the station agent was not about Hugh gave her the information she sought and she lingered for a few moments to talk with him. He answered the questions she asked with monosyllables and she soon went away, but he was delighted and looked upon the incident as an adventure. At night he dreamed of the school teacher and when he awoke, pretended she was with him in his bedroom. He put out his hand and touched the pillow. It was soft and smooth as he imagined the cheek of a woman would be. He did not know the school teacher's name but invented one for her. "Be quiet, Elizabeth. Do not let me disturb your sleep," he murmured into the darkness. One evening he went to the house where the school teacher boarded and stood in the shadow of a tree until he saw her come out and go toward Main Street. Then he went by a roundabout way and walked past her on the sidewalk before the lighted stores. He did not look at her, but in passing her dress touched his arm and he was so excited later that he could not sleep and spent half the night walking about and thinking of the wonderful thing that had happened to him.
The ticket, express, and freight agent for the Wheeling and Lake Erie at Bidwell, a man named George Pike, lived in one of the houses near the station, and besides attending to his duties for the railroad company, owned and worked a small farm. He was a slender, alert, silent man with a long drooping mustache. Both he and his wife worked as Hugh had never seen a man and woman work before. Their arrangement of the division of labor was not based on sex but on convenience. Sometimes Mrs. Pike came to the station to sell tickets, load express boxes and trunks on the passenger trains and deliver heavy boxes of freight to draymen and farmers, while her husband worked in the fields back of his house or prepared the evening meal, and sometimes the matter was reversed and Hugh did not see Mrs. Pike for several days at a time.
During the day there was little for the station agent or his wife to do at the station and they disappeared. George Pike had made an arrangement of wires and pulleys connecting the station with a large bell hung on top of his house, and when some one came to the station to receive or deliver freight Hugh pulled at the wire and the bell began to ring. In a few minutes either George Pike or his wife came running from the house or fields, dispatched the business and went quickly away again.
Day after day Hugh sat in a chair by a desk in the station or went outside and walked up and down the station platform. Engines pulling long caravans of coal cars ground past. The brakemen waved their hands to him and then the train disappeared into the grove of trees that grew beside the creek along which the tracks of the road were laid. In Turner's Pike a creaking farm wagon appeared and then disappeared along the tree-lined road that led to Bidwell. The farmer turned on his wagon seat to stare at Hugh but unlike the railroad men did not wave his hand. Adventurous boys came out along the road from town and climbed, shouting and laughing, over the rafters in the deserted pickle factory across the tracks or went to fish in the creek in the shade of the factory walls. Their shrill voices added to the loneliness of the spot. It became almost unbearable to Hugh. In desperation he turned from the rather meaningless doing of sums and working out of problems regarding the number of fence pickets that could be cut from a tree or the number of steel rails or railroad ties consumed in building a mile of railroad, the innumerable petty problems with which he had been keeping his mind busy, and turned to more definite and practical problems. He remembered an autumn he had put in cutting corn on a farm in Illinois and, going into the station, waved his long arms about, imitating the movements of a man in the act of cutting corn. He wondered if a machine might not be made that would do the work, and tried to make drawings of the parts of such a machine. Feeling his inability to handle so difficult a problem he sent away for books and began the study of mechanics. He joined a correspondence school started by a man in Pennsylvania, and worked for days on the problems the man sent him to do. He asked questions and began a little to understand the mystery of the application of power. Like the other young men of Bidwell he began to put himself into touch with the spirit of the age, but unlike them he did not dream of suddenly acquired wealth. While they embraced new and futile dreams he worked to destroy the tendency to dreams in himself.
Hugh came to Bidwell in the early spring and during May, June and July the quiet station at Pickleville awoke for an hour or two each evening. A certain percentage of the sudden and almost overwhelming increase in express business that came with the ripening of the fruit and berry crop came to the Wheeling, and every evening a dozen express trucks, piled high with berry boxes, waited for the south bound train. When the train came into the station a small crowd had assembled. George Pike and his stout wife worked madly, throwing the boxes in at the door of the express car. Idlers standing about became interested and lent a hand. The engineer climbed out of his locomotive, stretched his legs and crossing a narrow road got a drink from the pump in George Pike's yard.
Hugh walked to the door of his telegraph office and standing in the shadows watched the busy scene. He wanted to take part in it, to laugh and talk with the men standing about, to go to the engineer and ask questions regarding the locomotive and its construction, to help George Pike and his wife, and perhaps cut through their silence and his own enough to become acquainted with them. He thought of all these things but stayed in the shadow of the door that led to the telegraph office until, at a signal given by the train conductor, the engineer climbed into his engine and the train began to move away into the evening darkness. When Hugh came out of his office the station platform was deserted again. In the grass across the tracks and beside the ghostly looking old factory, crickets sang. Tom Wilder, the Bidwell hack driver, had got a traveling man off the train and the dust left by the heels of his team still hung in the air over Turner's Pike. From the darkness that brooded over the trees that grew along the creek beyond the factory came the hoarse croak of frogs. On Turner's Pike a half dozen Bidwell young men accompanied by as many town girls walked along the path beside the road under the trees. They had come to the station to have somewhere to go, had made up a party to come, but now the half unconscious purpose of their coming was apparent. The party split itself up into couples and each strove to get as far away as possible from the others. One of the couples came back along the path toward the station and went to the pump in George Pike's yard. They stood by the pump, laughing and pretending to drink out of a tin cup, and when they got again into the road the others had disappeared. They became silent. Hugh went to the end of the platform and watched as they walked slowly along. He became furiously jealous of the young man who put his arm about the waist of his companion and then, when he turned and saw Hugh staring at him, took it away again.
The telegraph operator went quickly along the platform until he was out of range of the young man's eyes, and, when he thought the gathering darkness would hide him, returned and crept along the path beside the road after him. Again a hungry desire to enter into the lives of the people about him took possession of the Missourian. To be a young man dressed in a stiff white collar, wearing neatly made clothes, and in the evening to walk about with young girls seemed like getting on the road to happiness. He wanted to run shouting along the path beside the road until he had overtaken the young man and woman, to beg them to take him with them, to accept him as one of themselves, but when the momentary impulse had passed and he returned to the telegraph office and lighted a lamp, he looked at his long awkward body and could not conceive of himself as ever by any chance becoming the thing he wanted to be. Sadness swept over him and his gaunt face, already cut and marked with deep lines, became longer and more gaunt. The old boyhood notion, put into his mind by the words of his foster-mother, Sarah Shepard, that a town and a people could remake him and erase from his body the marks of what he thought of as his inferior birth, began to fade. He tried to forget the people about him and turned with renewed energy to the study of the problems in the books that now lay in a pile upon his desk. His inclination to dreams, balked by the persistent holding of his mind to definite things, began to reassert itself in a new form, and his brain played no more with pictures of clouds and men in agitated movement but took hold of steel, wood, and iron. Dumb masses of materials taken out of the earth and the forests were molded by his mind into fantastic shapes. As he sat in the telegraph office during the day or walked alone through the streets of Bidwell at night, he saw in fancy a thousand new machines, formed by his hands and brain, doing the work that had been done by the hands of men. He had come to Bidwell, not only in the hope that there he would at last find companionship, but also because his mind was really aroused and he wanted leisure to begin trying to do tangible things. When the citizens of Bidwell would not take him into their town life but left him standing to one side, as the tiny dwelling place for men called Pickleville where he lived stood aside out from under the invisible roof of the town, he decided to try to forget men and to express himself wholly in work.