Bright flows the river, p.13

Bright Flows the River, page 13


Bright Flows the River

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  According to the more affluent in Cranston, this area was a “slum.” They never knew it, these sturdy old men and women. They scrubbed their porches and even the walks, every Saturday, and they somehow managed to have a few flowers in the garden in the summer, and their rooms, though very bare, smelled of soapsuds and fresh air. A few, like Mary, “kept roomers,” men who worked in the almost empty factories and in the sawmills. Mary paid one of her neighbors thirty-five dollars a month in rent, and never was she a day late. In the last few years she had added “supper” to the payments her “roomers” gave her, for a dollar a meal each, and she ate the scraps herself or gave them to the old woman who “helped out” in this eight-bedroom house, or, if there was a slice of ham or a sausage or two left intact, she would give it to her neighbors.

  “A good decent frau,” those about her said. “Even if she talks Bible all the time, and that boy of hers is a good boy, too.” Though they knew of Tom they avoided mentioning him to mother and son. It was understood that this was a very private topic and being, private themselves, they respected Mary’s privacy and independence. Some believed her to be a widow, though she never claimed this.

  Tom had given her literally his last penny when she had left him, some eight hundred dollars, and with this she had bought second- or third-hand furniture from the Salvation Army shop and had refinished and mended and upholstered it herself. The rooms might be almost empty but they were clean, if depressing and uncurtained and barren. For a free supper once or twice a week one of her roomers would stoke the furnace in the morning and take out the ashes. The house was mournfully chill in the winter, but the exhausted men hardly cared. Mary served them a supper that was filling if not particularly appetizing, and the beds were tidy and the sheets changed once a week and the old blankets, if patched and mended, were warm enough.

  Her roomers were, for the most part, sober and hard-working men, and if, out of their despair, they sometimes bought a cheap pint of moonshine whiskey, Mary did not particularly object so long as they drank it in their bedrooms, which often slept three men. But she insisted that the rent be paid on time, as she paid all her bills at once. There was a long thin “parlor,” hardly more than a hall, and there were a few comfortable chairs in it, and one old sofa and a radio, to which, if the men were not too tired at night, they listened. Few could afford a newspaper. When one appeared it was meticulously refolded after reading and passed along to the next man. When the weather was particularly grim and harsh, and after Mary had washed the dishes, they could, with her permission, retreat to the dingy kitchen, still warm from the last meal. But Mary never stayed among them. She went directly to her room, which contained only a bed, a rickety dresser, and a single kitchen chair. Guy’s room was as ascetic.

  For the past two summers Guy had not gone to stay with his father on the farm, though he managed the long streetcar ride and the long walk on weekends and on holidays. He was working himself, in a sawmill, ten hours a day, six days a week, for ten dollars weekly. He gave his mother seven of them.

  He knew what poverty was, and had never feared it, until today. He continued to listen to his mother, but not with his usual lighthearted admonishment and and his hope for the future.

  He listened with a closed hard face, and with his first fear, and his first feeling of despair. Yet there was a resolution growing in him. He said, “Ma, don’t worry so much. I know all about money. We’ve never had it. We will, someday. I know.”

  Mary, cooking a large kettle of spare ribs and sauerkraut this Sunday afternoon, nodded her head shortly. “You’re a good boy, Guy. You work very hard. You’re not like your pa at all. Someday you’ll amount to something.” She looked at him where he sat near the wood stove. “You’ll be working full time now, won’t you?”

  The acute new anxiety in Guy increased. “I did think of finishing school, Ma.” He put out his hand and touched the three books which lay on the table. Each Sunday he returned the books to his father and Tom gave him a fresh selection from his library. The dim warm kitchen, this summer evening, was heavy with the smell of pork and kraut. The wooden floor had no linoleum as yet, but the wood was scrubbed sedulously at least three times a week.

  “What for?” Mary demanded in a sharp voice. “Going to school’s no way of making a living, Guy. Waste of time. You’ve got to be thinking of a full-time job now. You’re sixteen years old; a man.”

  But Guy’s face was set as stubbornly as her own. “Ma, this is my last year at high school. I’ve been talking to the boss at the sawmill. He thinks, if things pick up, he can give me part-time work after school. Ma, it’s my senior year. When I finish it I think I can get a job in the office of the mill. I’m taking typing at school, too. An office job will pay more than working in the mill.”

  “How much more?”

  “Two or three dollars a week more.”

  Mary looked at the dilapidated ceiling as if imploring angels. “Guy, you’ll be wasting a whole year of work! We need the money, right now. Education isn’t for our kind; work and duty is all there is for us, and thank God for that. Books! Guy, you’re just an ordinary boy; nothing special, nothing very bright, though you are a good boy, I admit. But—books! Look what books did to your pa! Nothing ever came of it, him with his fancy talk and all. He got that talk out of the books. Addlepated. Do you want to be like him, with never a cent to bless yourself with?” In her exasperation she swept the books to the floor and glared down at them as if they were deadly enemies. In truth, she considered them so. “Haven’t you a duty to your mother?”

  She waited for his answer. Her lean dark face was shining with anger; her beautiful black eyes flashed. The coil of thick black braids on her head were ribboned with white. Her body was thinner than ever and she had lost the bosom Tom had so admired when she was younger. Her housedress was gray and mended, her “house shoes” broken, and her stockings were of coarse cotton. The hands on her narrow hips were scoured and red and rough with labor.

  “Of course I have a duty to you, Ma,” said Guy. He loved his mother and his compassion for, her was never absent. “And I intend to fulfill it. That’s why I must finish school and get an office job. I’ll make much more money. Just this one year—”

  She put up her hand as if to fend off any further argument. “How do you know you’ll get more money? In the meantime we need your wages. Work hard, work very hard, save a little if you can, and maybe someday you’ll be a foreman in the mill, if you work very, very hard, and mind your manners and learn the business and keep your head down, and show respect. Never talk back to your superiors. Always be ready to do a little extra work, even if they don’t pay overtime any longer. Things can’t get worse than they are now. They’re sure to get better, and then your wages will be better, too. Haven’t you any respect for Labor?”

  “Sure I have, Ma. What do you think I’m doing this summer? I’m working, as I did last summer, and as I’ll do next summer, and winter, too. But I’ve got to finish school. My last year.”

  “It’s all foolishness, Guy! Books aren’t for you. Waste of valuable time. School! All you need to know, folks like us, is to write a neat hand and do figures, so you can watch the bills. You try to climb out of the life God ordained for you and you’ll suffer for it! It’s in the Bible. You’ve got to make money, Guy. Things are bound to get better and a good job in the mills is a start. Money. Money. If you don’t have it people will despise you. And we need the money now. Not next year, in some fancy office you imagine, but right away. Money.” She spoke the word with reverence and avid desire.

  Why, she worships it! thought Guy, with mingled contempt and pity. It’s not a matter of need. She’s got nearly a thousand dollars in the bank now. It’s money for money’s sake—that is what she wants. Just money, for itself. Poor Ma. She’s had a hard life, I know, but others have it harder and they don’t talk of money as if it’s holy and all there is in life.

  He had never told his mother that his father was a man of high education and
that once he had been a professor of history in an excellent university. She would not have believed it, or she would point out, triumphantly, that all that education had come to nothing. It had not produced money. That Tom had deliberately forsaken a fine profession to live as he wished would have been incredible to her.

  “If you’ve got money, you’ve got the world,” said Mary. “And you can look people in the face—with money. You can toss your head at them. It’s all there is, Guy.”

  He bit his tongue to keep from saying, “How about your God? Doesn’t He come first? You are always saying Christ was an uneducated man, and a hard-working character. But you never knew that He had attended the school at the synagogue for many years, and that people called Him ‘rabbi,’ which means teacher. An uneducated and illiterate man was anathema to the Jews. No matter how poor they were, their sons received an education, as Christ received one. He knew all the laws and the prophets; He knew all history. But you always call Him ‘only a poor carpenter.’ He was a carpenter to earn a living, but He was always a student, and to learn and to read were the most important things in His era. Pa told me and showed me all of this. Pa wants me to have an education so I will understand the world of men and make up my mind what part I wish to play in it. Books, he says, are the paper doors opening on eternity and grandeur.”

  No, he could not say this to his mother, who reverenced money and thought it the one good in the world, not just for security or peace of mind, but as the most valuable of all things.

  But he did say, “The more education you have, Ma, the better your position in life, and the more money you’ll have.”

  “Nonsense! Look at the teachers and the educated men who are starving or are on relief! It’s in the papers every night. Now, if they’d have had a good sound job, like yours, and like the other men in this house, they’d be able to pay their way and not be beggars. But their soft hands are just like their soft minds. Useless, in days like these and in other days, too. What did their books ever bring them? And doctors. I hear doctors are starving these days, too, or taking pay in vegetables and a little meat, when they can get it from the farmers. There’s no substitute for a good sound job, Guy, with regular pay. Books! Wish they’d never been invented! It would be a happier world—and money in the bank, too.”

  Guy looked about the kitchen; he thought of this house. Was this to be all his life? The fear sharpened in him, and the new despair increased. In a way his mother was right. Money was the most important thing in the world. But it could not be earned to any great extent in a mill. It could be earned—how?

  I’ve got to get it some way, somehow, the young man thought, and his determination made him clench his fists. I can’t live like this all the rest of my life; I can’t live like the wretched men in this house. I’ve seen it all myself, but never really saw it before. Money is indeed everything. It is freedom. It is the golden door to life.

  He said with hard stubbornness, “Ma, I’m going to finish this last year in school. I’ll work after school and all summer, and next year I’ll work full time. And I’ll start to think how to make a lot of money—”

  Mary stared at him. “You’ll not make it through books, son.”

  “I suppose not. But I’ll get an office job, after I’m graduated. More money. There’s no money in that mill. You’ll never get rich just working for a living. There must be other ways. Thousands of people have found the way to become rich. I swear to God, I’m not going to be poor all the rest of my life!”

  He had begun to sweat in the extremity of his emotions. Suddenly he hated poverty above all other things. He hated the poor. His father was deliberately poor. That was another matter, and his own business. But he, Guy, would find the way to be rich. One day.

  That weekend he did not go to see his father. He wrote him a letter instead. “There’s a lot to do about the house, Pa, and Ma needs my help. I’ll see you next week, if I can.” But he did not. He was afraid he might repeat this conversation to Tom. He could see Tom’s cynical smile; he could see him shrug his lean shoulders. He could see the look in Tom’s small and penetrating blue eyes. Tom might not understand the new desperation and resolute will of his son.

  He saw his father the last weekend before school. He said, “Pa, I’m finishing this year, and I’ll be graduated in June. I’m going to get an office job, for more pay.”

  Tom said, “An office, hey? Never saw an office that wasn’t teeming with silent misery. Mean little minds, mean little grubs with ink-stained fingers. Why don’t you go to college?”

  “Now, Pa, with what?”

  “You can work at anything during the day, and go to college at night. Somewhere, if not here. You can support yourself by any kind of work, and pay your way through school. I knew many a man who did that.”

  “Did you, Pa?”

  Tom was silent a moment. Then he said, “I never told you much about my parents. My father was a very successful businessman, God help him. My mother had been a teacher, poor soul. I ache for teachers. My father sent me to college—If I’d worked my way through I might—No. I’m content as I am, far more content than my father ever was. He knew nothing but work, and it finally came to him that he had worked himself to death, and for what?”

  It was the summer of 1939.

  The world exploded into fire and thunder. Suddenly American factories became busy and bustling. Suddenly the Depression was over and men were working again, making munitions and other war matériel. The President announced the absolute neutrality of the United States, though shipments of munitions and food and other supplies and contraband were shipped to “the Allies.” It was not a matter of neutrality, people said. The contraband was being paid for, and lavishly.

  Suddenly there was renewed talk, renewed old talk, of German “bestiality and atrocities.” The great and famous flyer Charles Lindbergh helped form the America First Committee.

  Guy returned to school. In the summer of 1940 he was making fifty dollars a week in the sawmill. The next winter he was making eighty.

  Mary was jubilant. “See, I told you!” she cried with joy.

  Guy did not say to her, “And young men, like me, are dying and fighting. And for what?”

  He said to himself: This is not what I want. I want money, not this dribble.

  After his father had tried to talk to him about the war, and discovered that Guy was not interested, and that a new quiet had come to him in spite of the wildness that now lived constantly in his eyes, Tom refrained from discussing the dreadful events of the day. He knew that Guy loved him more than ever, but of what he was now thinking he never told Tom. His father had his life. But he, Guy, must make his own life, and, as his father did, he must go his own way.

  He had abandoned the idea of working in the mill’s offices. He had discovered that the salary there was much less than his wages. By the end of 1940, during the “phony war,” his wages were one hundred dollars a week.

  He bought a small secondhand car, much to his mother’s dismay and expostulations. He used it to visit his father.

  They talked of many things, but they did not talk of the war. They did not talk of Guy’s education. A sad hiatus came between them, but Guy resolutely refused to surmount it. He had his life to live and it was not his father’s. He bought no books for himself. He borrowed no more from his father. His gaze was on what he called “greater things.” He was saving some money.

  In June 1941, Hitler invaded Russia. In December, Pearl Harbor was attacked. A few months later Guy was drafted.

  “I could have claimed you were needed on the farm,” Tom said. “I’m not getting younger, and it’s the truth.”

  But Guy was filled with an unformed excitement. He was sick of the mill, sick of his endless days of work, sick of the monotony. He would see the world at least. He would see some “action.” He would find a way to make money, to become rich. His mind was closed to his father’s cynicism.

  “If we’d just have let Hitler alone when he attacked Sta
lin,” said Tom, “the two murderers would have finished each other off, and the war would soon be over. But no, some sinister men in America had a reason to save Stalin, and I know why. It all started with the Bolshevik Revolution. It started in 1917. The war never really ended. I remember that Wilson said my war was to ‘make the world safe for democracy.’ He didn’t know it but he was making the world safe for Socialism–Fascistic Communism. The same thing. And this war is only to extend its power over all the world. So this damned war will go on until Fascism can’t be challenged any longer, not even by our country. All I can say, kiddo, is that the world we have known has gone forever and the Age of Tyrants has begun. Let the idiots blabber of a ‘free world.’ I’ll never know it again, in my lifetime, and you can bet, Jerry, you’ll never know it either.”

  James sighed, as he watched the man in the wing chair. I wonder if I’ll ever reach him; after all, he thought.

  Then, to his amazement, Guy sat up in his chair and stared fully at him. James got to his feet and slowly went to the other man. For a long moment they looked at each other.

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