Our Mr. Wrenn, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 13

He is “Our Mr. Wrenn”

DEAR ISTRA — I am back in New York feeling very well & hope this finds you the same. I have been wanting to write to you for quite a while now but there has not been much news of any kind & so I have not written to you. But now I am back working for the Souvenir Company. I hope you are having a good time in Paris it must be a very pretty city & I have often wished to be there perhaps some day I shall go. I [several erasures here] have been reading quite a few books since I got back & think now I shall get on better with my reading. You told me so many things about books & so on & I do appreciate it. In closing, I am yours very sincerely,

WILLIAM WRENN.

There was nothing else he could say. But there were a terrifying number of things he could think as he crouched by the window overlooking West Sixteenth Street, whose dull hue had not changed during the centuries while he had been tramping England. Her smile he remembered — and he cried, “Oh, I want to see her so much.” Her gallant dash through the rain — and again the cry.

At last he cursed himself, “Why don’t you do something that ‘d count for her, and not sit around yammering for her like a fool?”

He worked on his plan to “bring the South into line”— the Souvenir Company’s line. Again and again he sprang up from the writing-table in his hot room when the presence of Istra came and stood compellingly by his chair. But he worked.

The Souvenir Company salesmen had not been able to get from the South the business which the company deserved if right and justice were to prevail. On the steamer from England Mr. Wrenn had conceived the idea that a Dixieland Ink-well, with the Confederate and Union flags draped in graceful cast iron, would make an admirable present with which to draw the attention of the Southem trade. The ink-well was to be followed by a series of letters, sent on the slightest provocation, on order or re-order, tactfully hoping the various healths of the Southland were good and the baseball season important; all to insure a welcome to the salesmen on the Southem route.

He drew up his letters; he sketched his ink-well; he got up the courage to talk with the office manager. . . . To forget love and the beloved, men have ascended in aeroplanes and conquered African tribes. To forget love, a new, busy, much absorbed Mr. Wrenn, very much Ours, bustled into Mr. Guilfogle’s office, slapped down his papers on the desk, and demanded: “Here’s that plan about gettin’ the South interested that I was telling you about. Say, honest, I’d like awful much to try it on. I’d just have to have part time of one stenographer.”

“Well, you know our stenographers are pretty well crowded. But you can leave the outline with me. I’ll look it over,” said Mr. Guilfogle.

That same afternoon the manager enthusiastically O. K.‘d the plan. To enthusiastically — O. K. is an office technology for saying, gloomily, “Well, I don’t suppose it ‘d hurt to try it, anyway, but for the love of Mike be careful, and let me see any letters you send out.”

So Mr. Wrenn dictated a letter to each of their Southern merchants, sending him a Dixieland Ink-well and inquiring about the crops. He had a stenographer, an efficient intolerant young woman who wrote down his halting words as though they were examples of bad English she wanted to show her friends, and waited for the next word with cynical amusement.

“By gosh!” growled Bill Wrenn, the cattleman, “I’ll show her I’m running this. I’ll show her she’s got another think coming.” But he dictated so busily and was so hot to get results that he forgot the girl’s air of high-class martyrdom.

He watched the Southern baseball results in the papers. He seized on every salesman on the Southern route as he came in, and inquired about the religion and politics of the merchants in his district. He even forgot to worry about his next rise in salary, and found it much more exciting to rush back for an important letter after a quick lunch than to watch the time and make sure that he secured every minute of his lunch-hour.

When October came — October of the vagabond, with the leaves brilliant out on the Palisades, and Sixth Avenue moving-picture palaces cool again and gay — Mr. Wrenn stayed late, under the mercury-vapor lights, making card cross-files of the Southern merchants, their hobbies and prejudices, and whistling as he worked, stopping now and then to slap the desk and mutter, “By gosh! I’m gettin’ ’em — gettin’ ’em.”

He rarely thought of Istra till he was out on the street again, proud of having worked so late that his eyes ached. In fact, his chief troubles these days came when Mr. Guilfogle wouldn’t “let him put through an idea.”

Their first battle was over Mr. Wrenn’s signing the letters personally; for the letters, the office manager felt, were as much Ours as was Mr. Wrenn, and should be signed by the firm. After some difficulty Mr. Wrenn persuaded him that one of the best ways to handle a personal letter was to make it personal. They nearly cursed each other before Mr. Wrenn was allowed to use his own judgment.

It’s not at all certain that Mr. Guilfogle should have yielded. What’s the use of a manager if his underlings use judgment?

The next battle Mr. Wrenn lost. He had demanded a monthly holiday for his stenographer. Mr. Guilfogle pointed out that she’d merely be the worse off for a holiday, that it ‘d make her discontented, that it was a kindness to her to keep her mind occupied. Mr. Wrenn was, however, granted a new typewriter, in a manner which revealed the fact that the Souvenir Company was filled with almost too much mercy in permitting an employee to follow his own selfish and stubborn desires.

You cannot trust these employees. Mr. Wrenn was getting so absorbed in his work that he didn’t even act as though it was a favor when Mr. Guilfogle allowed him to have his letters to the trade copied by carbon paper instead of having them blurred by the wet tissue-paper of a copy-book. The manager did grant the request, but he was justly indignant at the curt manner of the rascal, whereupon our bumptious revolutionist, our friend to anarchists and red-headed artists, demanded a “raise” and said that he didn’t care a hang if the [qualified] letters never went out. The kindness of chiefs! For Mr. Guilfogle apologized and raised the madman’s wage from seventeen dollars and fifty cents a week to his former nineteen dollars. [He had expected eighteen dollars; he had demanded twenty-two dollars and fifty cents; he was worth on the labor market from twenty-five to thirty dollars; while the profit to the Souvenir Company from his work was about sixty dollars minus whatever salary he got.]

Not only that. Mr. Guilfogle slapped him on the back and said: “You’re doing good work, old man. It’s fine. I just don’t want you to be too reckless.”

That night Wrenn worked till eight.

After his raise he could afford to go to the theater, since he was not saving money for travel. He wrote small letters to Istra and read the books he believed she would approve — a Paris Baedeker and the second volume of Tolstoi’s War and Peace, which he bought at a second-hand book-stall for five cents. He became interested in popular and inaccurate French and English histories, and secreted any amount of footnote anecdotes about Guy Fawkes and rush-lights and the divine right of kings. He thought almost every night about making friends, which he intended — just as much as ever — to do as soon as Sometime arrived.

On the day on which one of the Southern merchants wrote him about his son —“fine young fellow, sir — has every chance of rising to a lieutenancy on the Atlanta police force”— Mr. Wrenn’s eyes were moist. Here was a friend already. Sure. He would make friends. Then there was the cripple with the Capitol Corner News and Souvenir Stand in Austin, Texas. Mr. Wrenn secreted two extra Dixieland Ink-wells and a Yale football banner and sent them to the cripple for his brothers, who were in the Agricultural College.

The orders — yes, they were growing larger. The Southern salesmen took him out to dinner sometimes. But he was shy of them. They were so knowing and had so many smoking-room stories. He still had not found the friends he desired.

Miggleton’s restaurant, on Forty-second Street, was a romantic discovery. Though it had “popular prices”— plain omelet, fifteen cents — it had red and green bracket lights, mission-style tables, and music played by a sparrowlike pianist and a violinist. Mr. Wrenn never really heard the music, but while it was quavering he had a happier appreciation of the Silk–Hat-Harry humorous pictures in the Journal, which he always propped up against an oil-cruet. [That never caused him inconvenience; he had no convictions in regard to salads.] He would drop the paper to look out of the window at the Lazydays Improvement Company’s electric sign, showing gardens of paradise on the instalment plan, and dream of — well, he hadn’t the slightest idea what — something distant and deliciously likely to become intimate. Once or twice he knew that he was visioning the girl in soft brown whom he would “go home to,” and who, in a Lazydays suburban residence, would play just such music for him and the friends who lived near by. She would be as clever as Istra, but “oh, more so’s you can go regular places with her.” . . . Often he got good ideas about letters South, to be jotted down on envelope backs, from that music.

At last comes the historic match-box incident.

On that October evening in 1910 he dined early at Miggleton’s. The thirty-cent table d’hote was perfect. The cream-of-corn soup was, he went so far as to remark to the waitress, “simply slick”; the Waldorf salad had two whole walnuts in his portion alone.

The fat man with the white waistcoat, whom he had often noted as dining in this same corner of the restaurant, smiled at him and said “Pleasant evening” as he sat down opposite Mr. Wrenn and smoothed the two sleek bangs which decorated the front of his nearly bald head.

The music included a “potpourri of airs from ‘The Merry Widow,’” which set his foot tapping. All the while he was conscious that he’d made the Seattle Novelty and Stationery Corner Store come through with a five-hundred-dollar order on one of his letters.

The Journal contained an editorial essay on “Friendship” which would have been, and was, a credit to Cicero.

He laid down the paper, stirred his large cup of coffee, and stared at the mother-of-pearl buttons on the waistcoat of the fat man, who was now gulping down soup, opposite him. “My land!” he was thinking, “friendship! I ain’t even begun to make all those friends I was going to. Haven’t done a thing. Oh, I will; I must!”

“Nice night,” said the fat man.

“Yuh — it sure is,” brightly agreed Mr. Wrenn.

“Reg’lar Indian–Summer weather.”

“Yes, isn’t it! I feel like taking a walk on Riverside Drive — b’lieve I will.”

“Wish I had time. But I gotta get down to the store — cigar-store. I’m on nights, three times a week.”

“Yuh. I’ve seen you here most every time I eat early,” Mr. Wrenn purred.

“Yuh. The rest of the time I eat at the boarding-house.”

Silence. But Mr. Wrenn was fighting for things to say, means of approach, for the chance to become acquainted with a new person, for all the friendly human ways he had desired in nights of loneliness.

“Wonder when they’ll get the Grand Central done?” asked the fat man.

“I s’pose it’ll take quite a few years,” said Mr. Wrenn, conversationally.

“Yuh. I s’pose it will.”

Silence.

Mr. Wrenn sat trying to think of something else to say. Lonely people in city restaurants simply do not get acquainted. Yet he did manage to observe, “Great building that’ll be,” in the friendliest manner.

Silence.

Then the fat man went on:

“Wonder what Wolgast will do in his mill? Don’t believe he can stand up.”

Wolgast was, Mr. Wrenn seemed to remember, a pugilist. He agreed vaguely:

“Pretty hard, all right.”

“Go out to the areoplane meet?” asked the fat man.

“No. But I’d like to see it. Gee! there must be kind of — kind of adventure in them things, heh?”

“Yuh — sure is. First machine I saw, though — I was just getting off the train at Belmont Park, and there was an areoplane up in the air, and it looked like one of them big mechanical beetles these fellows sell on the street buzzing around up there. I was kind of disappointed. But what do you think? It was that J. A. D. McCurdy, in a Curtiss biplane — I think it was — and by golly! he got to circling around and racing and tipping so’s I thought I’d loose my hat off, I was so excited. And, say, what do you think? I see McCurdy himself, afterward, standing near one of the — the handgars — handsome young chap, not over twenty-eight or thirty, built like a half-miler. And then I see Ralph Johnstone and Arch Hoxey —”

“Gee!” Mr. Wrenn was breathing.

“— dipping and doing the — what do you call it? — Dutch sausage-roll or something like that. Yelled my head off.”

“Oh, it must have been great to see ’em, and so close, too.”

“Yuh — it sure was.”

There seemed to be no other questions to settle. Mr. Wrenn slowly folded up his paper, pursued his check under three plates and the menu-card to its hiding-place beyond the catsup-bottle, and left the table with a regretful “Good night.”

At the desk of the cashier, a decorative blonde, he put a cent in the machine which good-naturedly drops out boxes of matches. No box dropped this time, though he worked the lever noisily.

“Out of order?” asked the cashier lady. “Here’s two boxes of matches. Guess you’ve earned them.”

“Well, well, well, well!” sounded the voice of his friend, the fat man, who stood at the desk paying his bill. “Pretty easy, heh? Two boxes for one cent! Sting the restaurant.” Cocking his head, he carefully inserted a cent in the slot and clattered the lever, turning to grin at Mr. Wrenn, who grinned back as the machine failed to work.

“Let me try it,” caroled Mr. Wrenn, and pounded the lever with the enthusiasm of comradeship.

“Nothing doing, lady,” crowed the fat man to the cashier.

“I guess I draw two boxes, too, eh? And I’m in a cigar-store. How’s that for stinging your competitors, heh? Ho, ho, ho!”

The cashier handed him two boxes, with an embarrassed simper, and the fat man clapped Mr. Wrenn’s shoulder joyously.

“My turn!” shouted a young man in a fuzzy green hat and a bright-brown suit, who had been watching with the sudden friendship which unites a crowd brought together by an accident.

Mr. Wrenn was glowing. “No, it ain’t — it’s mine,” he achieved. “I invented this game.” Never had he so stood forth in a crowd. He was a Bill Wrenn with the cosmopolitan polish of a floor-walker. He stood beside the fat man as a friend of sorts, a person to be taken perfectly seriously.

It is true that he didn’t add to this spiritual triumph the triumph of getting two more boxes of matches, for the cashier-girl exclaimed, “No indeedy; it’s my turn!” and lifted the match machine to a high shelf behind her. But Mr. Wrenn went out of the restaurant with his old friend, the fat man, saying to him quite as would a wit, “I guess we get stung, eh?”

“Yuh!” gurgled the fat man.

Walking down to your store?”

“Yuh — sure — won’t you walk down a piece?”

“Yes, I would like to. Which way is it?”

“Fourth Avenue and Twenty-eighth.”

“Walk down with you.”

“Fine!”

And the fat man seemed to mean it. He confided to Mr. Wrenn that the fishing was something elegant at Trulen, New Jersey; that he was some punkins at the casting of flies in fishing; that he wished exceedingly to be at Trulen fishing with flies, but was prevented by the manager of the cigar-store; that the manager was an old devil; that his (the fat man’s own) name was Tom Poppins; that the store had a slick new brand of Manila cigars, kept in a swell new humidor bought upon the advice of himself (Mr. Poppins); that one of the young clerks in the store had done fine in the Modified Marathon; that the Cubs had had a great team this year; that he’d be glad to give Mr. — Mr. Wrenn, eh? — one of those Manila cigars — great cigars they were, too; and that he hadn’t “laughed so much for a month of Sundays as he had over the way they stung Miggleton’s on them matches.”

All this in the easy, affectionate, slightly wistful manner of fat men. Mr. Poppins’s large round friendly childish eyes were never sarcastic. He was the man who makes of a crowd in the Pullman smoking-room old friends in half an hour. In turn, Mr. Wrenn did not shy off; he hinted at most of his lifelong ambitions and a fair number of his sorrows and, when they reached the store, not only calmly accepted, but even sneezingly ignited one of the “slick new Manila cigars.”

As he left the store he knew that the golden age had begun. He had a friend!

He was to see Tom Poppins the coming Thursday at Miggleton’s. And now he was going to find Morton! He laughed so loudly that the policeman at Thirty-fourth Street looked self-conscious and felt secretively to find out what was the matter with his uniform. Now, this evening, he’d try to get on the track of Morton. Well, perhaps not this evening — the Pennsylvania offices wouldn’t be open, but some time this week, anyway.

Two nights later, as he waited for Tom Poppins at Miggleton’s, he lashed himself with the thought that he had not started to find Morton; good old Morton of the cattle-boat. But that was forgotten in the wonder of Tom Poppins’s account of Mrs. Arty’s, a boarding-house “where all the folks likes each other.”

“You’ve never fed at a boarding-house, eh?” said Tom. “Well, I guess most of ’em are pretty poor feed. And pretty sad bunch. But Mrs. Arty’s is about as near like home as most of us poor bachelors ever gets. Nice crowd there. If Mrs. Arty — Mrs. R. T. Ferrard is her name, but we always call her Mrs. Arty — if she don’t take to you she don’t mind letting you know she won’t take you in at all; but if she does she’ll worry over the holes in your socks as if they was her husband’s. All the bunch there drop into the parlor when they come in, pretty near any time clear up till twelve-thirty, and talk and laugh and rush the growler and play Five Hundred. Just like home!

“Mrs. Arty’s nearly as fat as I am, but she can be pretty spry if there’s something she can do for you. Nice crowd there, too except that Teddem — he’s one of these here Willy-boy actors, always out of work; I guess Mrs. Arty is kind of sorry for him. Say, Wrenn — you seem to me like a good fellow — why don’t you get acquainted with the bunch? Maybe you’d like to move up there some time. You was telling me about what a cranky old party your landlady is. Anyway, come on up there to dinner. On me. Got anything on for next Monday evening?”

“N-no.”

“Come on up then —— East Thirtieth.”

“Gee, I’d like to!”

“Well, why don’t you, then? Get there about six. Ask for me. Monday. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I don’t have to get to the store evenings. Come on; you’ll find out if you like the place.”

“By jiminy, I will!” Mr. Wrenn slapped the table, socially.

At last he was “through, just through with loafing around and not getting acquainted,” he told himself. He was tired of Zapps. There was nothing to Zapps. He would go up to Mrs. Arty’s and now — he was going to find Morton. Next morning, marveling at himself for not having done this easy task before, he telephoned to the Pennsylvania Railroad offices, asked for Morton, and in one-half minute heard:

“Yes? This is Harry Morton.”

“Hullo, Mr. Morton! I’ll just bet you can’t guess who this is.”

“I guess you’ve got me.”

“Well, who do you think it —”

“Jack?”

“Hunka.”

“Uncle Henry?”

“Nope.” Mr. Wrenn felt lonely at finding himself so completely outside Morton’s own world that he was not thought of. He hastened to claim a part in that world:

“Say, Mr. Morton, I wonder if you’ve ever heard of a cattle-boat called the Merian?

“I— Say! Is this Bill Wrenn?”

“Yes.”

“Well, well, well! Where areyou? When’d you get back?”

“Oh, I been back quite a little while, Morty. Tried to get hold of you — almost called up couple of times. I’m in my office — Souvenir Company — now. Back on the old job. Say, I’d like to see you.”

“Well, I’d like to see you, old Bill!”

“Got a date for dinner this evening, Morty?”

“N-no. No, I don’t think I’ve got anything on.” Morton’s voice seemed to sound a doubt. Mr. Wrenn reflected that Morton must be a society person; and he made his invitation highly polite:

“Well, say, old man, I’d be awful happy if you could come over and feed on me. Can’t you come over and meet me, Morty?”

“Y-yes, I guess I can. Yes, I’ll do it. Where’ll I meet you?”

“How about Twenty-eighth and Sixth Avenue?”

“That’ll be all right, Bill. ‘Bout six o’clock?”

“Fine! Be awful nice to see you again, old Morty.”

“Same here. Goo’-by.”

Gazing across the table at Miggleton’s, Mr. Wrenn saw, in the squat familiar body and sturdy face of Morton of the cattle-boat, a stranger, slightly uneasy and very quiet, wearing garments that had nothing whatever to do with the cattle-boats — a crimson scarf with a horseshoe-pin of “Brazilian diamonds,” and sleek brown ready-made clothes with ornately curved cuffs and pocket flaps.

Morton would say nothing of his wanderings after their parting in Liverpool beyond: “Oh, I just bummed around. Places. . . . Warm to-night. For this time of year.” Thrice he explained, “I was kind of afraid you’d be sore at me for the way I left you; that’s why I’ve never looked you up.” Thrice Mr. Wrenn declared that he had not been “sore,” then ceased trying to make himself understood.

Their talk wilted. Both of them played with their knives a good deal. Morton built a set of triangles out of toothpicks while pretending to give hushed attention to the pianist’s rendition of “Mammy’s Little Cootsie Bootsie Coon,” while Mr. Wrenn stared out of the window as though he expected to see the building across get afire immediately. When either of them invented something to say they started chattering with guilty haste, and each agreed hectically with any opinion the other advanced.

Mr. Wrenn surprised himself in the thought that Morton hadn’t anything very new to say, which made him feel so disloyal that he burst out, effusively:

“Say, come on now, old man; I just got to hear about what you did after you left Liverpool.”

“I—”

“Well —”

“I never got out of Liverpool! Worked in a restaurant. . . . But next time —! I’ll go clean to Constantinople!” Morton exploded. “And I did see a lot of English life in Liverpool.”

Mr. Wrenn talked long and rapidly of the world’s baseball series, and Regal vs. Walkover shoes.

He tried to think of something they could do. Suddenly:

“Say, Morty, I know an awful nice guy down here in a cigar-store. Let’s go down and see him.”

“All right.”

Tom Poppins was very cordial to them. He dragged brown canvas stools out of the tobacco-scented room where cigars were made, and the three of them squatted in the back of the store, while Tom gossiped of the Juarez races, Taft, cigar-wrappers, and Jews. Morton was aroused to tell the time-mellowed story of the judge and the darky. He was cheerful and laughed much and frequently said “Ah there, cull!” in general commendation. But he kept looking at the clock on the jog in the wall over the watercooler. Just at ten he rose abashedly, hesitated, and murmured, “Well, I guess I’ll have to be beating it home.”

From Mr. Wrenn: “Oh, Morty! So early?”

Tom: “What’s the big hurry?”

“I’ve got to run clear over to Jersey City.” Morton was cordial, but not convincing.

“Say — uh — Morton,” said Tom, kindly of face, his bald head shining behind his twin bangs, as he rose, “I’m going to have Wrenn up to dinner at my boarding-house next Monday. Like to have you come along. It’s a fine place — Mrs. Arty — she’s the landlady — she’s a wonder. There’s going to be a vacant room there — maybe you two fellows could frame it up to take it, heh? Understand, I don’t get no rake-off on this, but we all like to do what we can for M—”

“No, no!” said Morton. “Sorry. Couldn’t do it. Staying with my brother-in-law — costs me only ‘bout half as much as it would I don’t do much chasing around when I’m in town. . . . I’m going to save up enough money for a good long hike. I’m going clean to St. Petersburg! . . . But I’ve had a good time to-night.”

“Glad. Great stuff about you fellows on the cattle-ship,” said Tom.

Morton hastened on, protectively, a bit critically: “You fellows sport around a good deal, don’t you? . . . I can’t afford to. . . . Well, good night. Glad to met you, Mr. Poppins. G’ night, old Wr —”

“Going to the ferry? For Jersey? I’ll walk over with you,” said Mr. Wrenn.

Their walk was quiet and, for Mr. Wrenn, tragically sad. He saw Morton (presumably) doing the wandering he had once planned. He felt that, while making his vast new circle of friends, he was losing all the wild adventurousness of Bill Wrenn. And he was parting with his first friend.

At the ferry-house Morton pronounced his “Well, so long, old fellow” with an affection that meant finality.

Mr. Wrenn fled back to Tom Poppins’s store. On the way he was shocked to find himself relieved at having parted with Morton. The cigar-store was closed.

At home Mrs. Zapp waylaid him for his rent (a day overdue), and he was very curt. That was to keep back the “O God, how rotten I feel!” with which, in his room, he voiced the desolation of loneliness.

The ghost of Morton, dead and forgotten, was with him all next day, till he got home and unbelievably found on the staid black-walnut Zapp hat-rack a letter from Paris, in a gray foreign-appearing envelope with Istra’s intensely black scrawl on it.

He put off the luxury of opening the letter till after the rites of brushing his teeth, putting on his slippers, pounding his rocking-chair cushion into softness. Panting with the joy to come, he stared out of the window at a giant and glorious figure of Istra — the laughing Istra of breakfast camp-fire — which towered from the street below. He sighed joyously and read:

Mouse dear, just a word to let you know I haven’t forgotten you and am very glad indeed to get your letters. Not much to write about. Frightfully busy with work and fool parties. You are a dear good soul and I hope you’ll keep on writing me. In haste,

I. N.
Longer letter next time.

He came to the end so soon. Istra was gone again.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lewis/sinclair/wrenn/chapter13.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38