The Hack Driver


Sinclair Lewis

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eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

The Hack Driver

I dare say there’s no man of large affairs, whether he is bank president or senator or dramatist, who hasn’t a sneaking love for some old rum-hound in a frightful hat, living back in a shanty and making his living by ways you wouldn’t care to examine too closely. (It was the Supreme Court Justice speaking. I do not pretend to guarantee his theories or his story.) He may be a Maine guide, or the old garageman who used to keep the livery stable, or a perfectly useless innkeeper who sneaks off to shoot ducks when he ought to be sweeping the floors, but your pompous big-city man will contrive to get back and see him every year, and loaf with him, and secretly prefer him to all the highfalutin leaders of the city.

There’s that much truth, at least, to this Open Spaces stuff you read in advertisements of wild and woolly Western novels. I don’t know the philosophy of it; perhaps it means that we retain a decent simplicity, no matter how much we are tied to Things, to houses and motors and expensive wives. Or again it may give away the whole game of civilization; may mean that the apparently civilized man is at heart nothing but a hobo who prefers flannel shirts and bristly cheeks and cussing and dirty tin plates to all the trim, hygienic, forward-looking life our womenfolks make us put on for them.

When I graduated from law school I suppose I was about as artificial and idiotic and ambitious as most youngsters. I wanted to climb, socially and financially. I wanted to be famous and dine at large houses with men who shuddered at the Common People who don’t dress for dinner. You see, I hadn’t learned that the only thing duller than a polite dinner is the conversation afterward, when the victims are digesting the dinner and accumulating enough strength to be able to play bridge. Oh, I was a fine young calf! I even planned a rich marriage. Imagine then how I felt when, after taking honors and becoming fifteenth assistant clerk in the magnificent law firm of Hodgins, Hodgins, Berkman and Taupe, I was set not at preparing briefs but at serving summonses! Like a cheap private detective! Like a mangy sheriff’s officer! They told me I had to begin that way and, holding my nose, I feebly went to work. I was kicked out of actresses’ dressing rooms, and from time to time I was righteously beaten by large and indignant litigants. I came to know, and still more to hate, every dirty and shadowy corner of the city. I thought of fleeing to my home town, where I could at once become a full-fledged attorney-at-law. I rejoiced one day when they sent me out forty miles or so to a town called New Mullion, to serve a summons on one Oliver Lutkins. This Lutkins had worked in the Northern Woods, and he knew the facts about a certain timberland boundary agreement. We needed him as a witness, and he had dodged service.

When I got off the train at New Mullion, my sudden affection for sweet and simple villages was dashed by the look of the place, with its mud-gushing streets and its rows of shops either paintless or daubed with a sour brown. Though it must have numbered eight or nine thousand inhabitants, New Mullion was as littered as a mining camp. There was one agreeable-looking man at the station — the expressman. He was a person of perhaps forty, red-faced, cheerful, thick; he wore his overalls and denim jumper as though they belonged to him, he was quite dirty and very friendly and you knew at once he liked people and slapped them on the back out of pure easy affection.

“I want,” I told him, “to find a fellow named Oliver Lutkins.”

“Him? I saw him ‘round here ‘twan’t an hour ago. Hard fellow to catch, though — always chasing around on some phony business or other. Probably trying to get up a poker game in the back of Fritz Beinke’s harness shop. I’ll tell you, boy — Any hurry about locating Lutkins?”

“Yes. I want to catch the afternoon train back.” I was as impressively secret as a stage detective.

“I’ll tell you. I’ve got a hack. I’ll get out the boneshaker and we can drive around together and find Lutkins. I know most of the places he hangs out.”

He was so frankly friendly, he so immediately took me into the circle of his affection, that I glowed with the warmth of it. I knew, of course, that he was drumming up business, but his kindness was real, and if I had to pay hack fare in order to find my man, I was glad that the money would go to this good fellow. I got him down to two dollars an hour; he brought from his cottage, a block away, an object like a black piano-box on wheels.

He didn’t hold the door open, certainly he didn’t say “Ready, sir.” I think he would have died before calling anybody “sir.” When he gets to Heaven’s gate he’ll call St. Peter “Pete,” and I imagine the good saint will like it. He remarked, “Well, young fellow, here’s the handsome equipage,” and his grin — well, it made me feel that I had always been his neighbor. They’re so ready to help a stranger, those villagers. He had already made it his own task to find Oliver Lutkins for me.

He said, and almost shyly: “I don’t want to butt in on your private business, young fellow, but my guess is that you want to collect some money from Lutkins — he never pays anybody a cent; he still owes me six bits on a poker game I was fool enough to get into. He ain’t a bad sort of a Yahoo but he just naturally hates to loosen up on a coin of the realm. So if you’re trying to collect any money off him, we better kind of you might say creep up on him and surround him. If you go asking for him — anybody can tell you come from the city, with that trick Fedora of yours — he’ll suspect something and take a sneak. If you want me to, I’ll go into Fritz Beinke’s and ask for him, and you can keep out of sight behind me.”

I loved him for it. By myself I might never have found Lutkins. Now, I was an army with reserves. In a burst I told the hack driver that I wanted to serve a summons on Lutkins; that the fellow had viciously refused to testify in a suit where his knowledge of a certain conversation would clear up everything. The driver listened earnestly — and I was still young enough to be grateful at being taken seriously by any man of forty. At the end he pounded my shoulder (very painfully) and chuckled: “Well, we’ll spring a little surprise on Brer Lutkins.”

“Let’s start, driver.”

“Most folks around here call me Bill. Or Magnuson. William Magnuson, fancy carting and hauling.”

“All right, Bill. Shall we tackle this harness shop — Beinke’s?”

“Yes, jus’ likely to be there as anywheres. Plays a lot of poker and a great hand at bluffing — damn him!” Bill seemed to admire Mr. Lutkins’s ability as a scoundrel; I fancied that if he had been sheriff he would have caught Lutkins with fervor and hanged him with affection.

At the somewhat gloomy harness shop we descended and went in. The room was odorous with the smell of dressed leather. A scanty sort of a man, presumably Mr. Beinke, was selling a horse collar to a farmer.

“Seen Nolly Lutkins around today? Friend of his looking for him,” said Bill, with treacherous heartliness.

Beinke looked past him at my shrinking alien self; he hesitated and owned: “Yuh, he was in here a little while ago. Guess he’s gone over to the Swede’s to get a shave.”

“Well, if he comes in, tell him I’m looking for him. Might get up a little game of poker. I’ve heard tell that Lutkins plays these here immoral games of chance.”

“Yuh, I believe he’s known to sit in on Authors,” Beinke growled.

We sought the barber shop of “the Swede.” Bill was again good enough to take the lead, while I lurked at the door. He asked not only the Swede but two customers if they had seen Lutkins. The Swede decidedly had not; he raged: “I ain’t seen him, and I don’t want to, but if you find him you can just collect the dollar thirty-five he owes me.” One of the customers thought he had seen Lutkins “hiking down Main Street, this side of the hotel.”

“Well, then,” Bill concluded, as we labored up into the hack, “his credit at the Swede’s being ausgewent, he’s probably getting a scrape at Heinie Gray’s. He’s too darn lazy to shave himself.”

At Gray’s barber shop we missed Lutkins by only five minutes. He had just left — presumably for the poolroom. At the poolroom it appeared that he had merely bought a pack of cigarettes and gone on. Thus we pursued him, just behind him but never catching him, for an hour, till it was past one and I was hungry. Village born as I was, and in the city often lonely for good coarse country wit, I was so delighted by Bill’s cynical opinions on the barbers and clergymen and doctors and draymen of New Mullion that I scarcely cared whether I found Lutkins or not.

“How about something to eat?” I suggested. “Let’s go to a restaurant and I’ll buy you a lunch.”

“Well, ought to go home to the old woman. And I don’t care much for these restaurants — ain’t but four of ’em and they’re all rotten. Tell you what we’ll do. Like nice scenery? There’s an elegant view from Wade’s Hill. We’ll get the old woman to put us up a lunch — she won’t charge you but a half dollar, and it’d cost you that for a greasy feed at the caef — and we’ll go up there and have a Sunday-school picnic.”

I knew that my friend Bill was not free from guile; I knew that his hospitality to the Young Fellow from the City was not altogether a matter of brotherly love. I was paying him for his time; in all I paid him for six hours (including the lunch hour) at what was then a terrific price. But he was no more dishonest than I, who charged the whole thing up to the Firm, and it would have been worth paying him myself to have his presence. His country serenity, his natural wisdom, was a refreshing bath to the city-twitching youngster. As we sat on the hilltop, looking across orchards and a creek which slipped among the willows, he talked of New Mullion, gave a whole gallery of portraits. He was cynical yet tender. Nothing had escaped him, yet there was nothing, no matter how ironically he laughed at it, which was beyond his understanding and forgiveness. In ruddy color he painted the rector’s wife who when she was most in debt most loudly gave the responses at which he called the “Episcopalopian church.” He commented on the boys who came home from college in “ice-cream pants,” and on the lawyer who, after years of torrential argument with his wife, would put on either a linen collar or a necktie, but never both. He made them live. In that day I came to know New Mullion better than I did the city, and to love it better.

If Bill was ignorant of universities and of urban ways, yet much had he traveled in the realm of jobs. He had worked on railroad section gangs, in harvest fields and contractors’ camps, and from his adventures he had brought back a philosophy of simplicity and laughter. He strengthened me. Nowadays, thinking of Bill, I know what people mean (though I abominate the simpering phrase) when they yearn over “real he-men.”

We left that placid place of orchards and resumed the search for Oliver Lutkins. We could not find him. At last Bill cornered a friend of Lutkins and made him admit that “he guessed Oliver’d gone out to his ma’s farm, three miles north.”

We drove out there, mighty with strategy.

“I know Oliver’s ma. She’s a terror. She’s a cyclone,” Bill sighed. “I took a trunk out for her once, and she pretty near took my hide off because I didn’t treat it like it was a crate of eggs. She’s somewheres about nine feet tall and four feet thick and quick’s a cat, and she sure manhandles the Queen’s English. I’ll bet Oliver has heard that somebody’s on his trail and he’s sneaked out there to hide behind his ma’s skirts. Well, we’ll try bawling her out. But you better let me do it, boy. You may be great at Latin and geography, but you ain’t educated in cussing.”

We drove into a poor farmyard; we were faced by an enormous and cheerful old woman. My guardian stockily stood before her and snarled, “Remember me? I’m Bill Magnuson, the expressman. I want to find your son Oliver. Friend of mine here from the city’s got a present for him.”

“I don’t know anything about Oliver and I don’t want to,” she bellowed.

“Now you look here. We’ve stood for just about enough plenty nonsense. This young man is the attorney general’s provost, and we got legal right to search any and all premises for the person of one Oliver Lutkins.”

Bill made it seem terrific, and the Amazon seemed impressed. She retired into the kitchen and we followed. From the low old range, turned by years of heat into a dark silvery gray, she snatched a sadiron, and she marched on us, clamoring, “You just search all you want to — providin’ you don’t mind getting burnt to a cinder!” She bellowed, she swelled, she laughed at our nervous retreat.

“Let’s get out of this. She’ll murder us,” Bill groaned and, outside: “Did you see her grin? She was making fun of us. Can you beat that for nerve?”

I agreed that it was lese majesty.

We did, however, make adequate search. The cottage had but one story. Bill went round it, peeking in at all the windows. We explored the barn and the stable; we were reasonably certain that Lutkins was not there. It was nearly time for me to catch the afternoon train, and Bill drove me to the station. On the way to the city I worried very little over my failure to find Lutkins. I was too absorbed in the thought of Bill Magnuson. Really, I considered returning to New Mullion to practice law. If I had found Bill so deeply and richly human might I not come to love the yet uncharted Fritz Beinke and the Swede barber and a hundred other slow-spoken, simple, wise neighbors? I saw a candid and happy life beyond the neat learnings of universities’ law firms. I was excited, as one who has found a treasure.

But if I did not think much about Lutkins, the office did. I found them in a state next morning; the suit was ready to come to trial; they had to have Lutkins; I was a disgrace and a fool. That morning my eminent career almost came to an end. The Chief did everything but commit mayhem; he somewhat more than hinted that I would do well at ditch-digging. I was ordered back to New Mullion, and with me they sent an ex-lumber-camp clerk who knew Lutkins. I was rather sorry, because it would prevent my loafing again in the gorgeous indolence of Bill Magnuson.

When the train drew in at New Mullion, Bill was on the station platform, near his dray. What was curious was that the old dragon, Lutkins’s mother, was there talking to him, and they were not quarreling but laughing.

From the car steps I pointed them out to the lumber-camp clerk, and in young hero-worship I murmured: “There’s a fine fellow, a real man.”

“Meet him here yesterday?” asked the clerk.

“I spent the day with him.”

“He help you hunt for Oliver Lutkins?”

“Yes, he helped me a lot.”

“He must have! He’s Lutkins himself!”

But what really hurt was that when I served the summons Lutkins and his mother laughed at me as though I were a bright boy of seven, and with loving solicitude they begged me to go to a neighbor’s house and take a cup of coffee.

“I told ’em about you, and they’re dying to have a look at you,” said Lutkins joyfully. “They’re about the only folks in town that missed seeing you yesterday.”

This web edition published by:

eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005