You Can't Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe

8. The Company

George considered himself lucky to have the little room over the Shepperton garage. He was also glad that his visit had overlapped that of Mr. David Merrit, and that Mr. Merrit had been allowed to enjoy undisturbed the greater comfort of the Shepperton guest room, for Mr. Merrit had filled him with a pleasant glow at their first meeting. He was a ruddy, plump, well-kept man of forty-five or so, always ready with a joke and immensely agreeable, with pockets bulging with savoury cigars which he handed out to people on the slightest provocation. Randy had spoken of him as “the Company’s man,” and, although George did not know what the duties of a “Company’s man” were, Mr. Merrit made them seem very pleasant.

George knew, of course, that Mr. Merrit was Randy’s boss, and he learned that Mr. Merrit was in the habit of coming to town every two or three months. He would arrive like a benevolent, pink-cheeked Santa Claus, making his jolly little jokes, passing out his fat cigars, putting his arm round people’s shoulders, and, in general, making everyone feel good. As he said himself:

“I’ve got to turn up now and then just to see that the boys are behaving themselves, and not taking in any wooden nickels.”

Here he winked at George in such a comical way that all of them had to grin. Then he gave George a big cigar.

His functions seemed to be ambassadorial. He was always taking Randy and the salesmen of the Company out to lunch or dinner, and, save for brief visits to the office, he seemed to spend most of his time inaugurating an era of good feeling and high living. He would go around town and meet everybody, slapping people on the back and calling them by their first names, and for a week after he had left the business men of Libya Hill would still be smoking his cigars. When he came to town he always stayed “out of the house”, and one knew that Margaret would prepare her best meals for him, and that there would be some good drinks. Mr. Merrit supplied the drinks himself, for he always brought along a plentiful store of expensive beverages. George could see at their first meeting that he was the kind of man who exudes an aura of good fellowship, and that was why it was so pleasant to have Mr. Merrit staying in the house.

Mr. Merrit was not only a nice fellow. He was also “with the Company”, and George soon realised that “the Company” was a vital and mysterious force in all their lives. Randy had gone with it as soon as he left college. He had been sent to the main office, up North somewhere, and had been put through a course of training. Then he had come back South and had worked his way up from salesman to district agent — an important member of the sales organisation.

“The Company”, “district agent”, “the sales organisation”— mysterious titles all of them, but most comforting. During the week George was in Libya Hill with Randy and Margaret, Mr. Merrit was usually on hand at meal times, and at night he would sit out on the front porch with them and carry on in his jolly way, joking and laughing and giving them all a good time. Sometimes he would talk shop with Randy, telling stories about the Company and about his own experiences in the organisation, and before long George began to pick up a pretty good idea of what it was all about.

The Federal Weight, Scales, and Computing Company was a far-flung empire which had a superficial aspect of great complexity, but in its essence it was really beautifully simple. Its heart and soul — indeed, its very life — was its sales organisation.

The entire country was divided into districts, and over each district an agent was appointed. This agent, in turn, employed salesmen to cover the various portions of his district. Each district also had an “office man” to attend to any business that might come up while the agent and his salesmen were away, and a “repair man” whose duty it was to overhaul damaged or broken-down machines. Together, these comprised the agency, and the country was so divided that there was, on the average, an agency for every unit of half a million people in the total population. Thus there were two hundred and sixty or seventy agencies through the nation, and the agents with their salesmen made up a working force of from twelve to fifteen hundred men.

The higher purposes of this industrial empire, which the employees almost never referred to by name, as who should speak of the deity with coarse directness, but always with a just perceptible lowering and huskiness of the voice as “the Company”— these higher purposes were also beautifully simple. They were summed up in the famous utterance of the Great Man himself, Mr. Paul S. Appleton, III, who invariably repeated it every year as a peroration to his hour-long address before the assembled members of the sales organisation at their national convention. Standing before them at the close of each year’s session, he would sweep his arm in a gesture of magnificent command towards an enormous map of the United States of America that covered the whole wall behind him, and say:

“There’s your market! Go out and sell them!”

What could be simpler and more beautiful than this? What could more eloquently indicate that mighty sweep of the imagination which has been celebrated in the annals of modern business under the name of “vision”? The words had the spacious scope and austere directness that have characterised the utterances of great leaders in every epoch of man’s history. It is Napoleon speaking to his troops in Egypt: “Soldiers, from the summit of yonder pyramids, forty centuries look down upon you.” It is Captain Perry: “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.” It is Dewey at Manila Bay: “You may fire when ready, Gridley.” It is Grant before Spottsylvania Court House: “I propose to fight it out on this line, if it takes all summer.”

So when Mr. Paul S. Appleton, III, waved his arm at the wall and said: “There’s your market! Go out and sell them!”— the assembled captains, lieutenants, and privates in the ranks of his sales organisation knew that there were still giants in the earth, and that the age of romance was not dead.

True, there had once been a time when the aspirations of the Company had been more limited. That was when the founder of the institution, the grandfather of Mr. Paul S. Appleton, III, had expressed his modest hopes by saying: “I should like to see one of my machines in every store, shop, or business that needs one, and that can afford to pay for one.” But the self-denying restrictions implicit in the founder’s statement had long since become so out of date as to seem utterly mid-Victorian. Mr. David Merrit admitted it himself. Much as he hated to speak ill of any man, and especially the founder of the Company, he had to confess that by the standards of 1929 the old gentleman had lacked vision.

“That’s old stuff now,” said Mr. Merrit, shaking his head and winking at George, as though to take the curse off of his treason to the founder by making a joke of it. “We’ve gone way beyond that!” he exclaimed with pardonable pride. “Why, if we waited nowadays to sell a machine to someone who needs one, we’d get nowhere.” He was nodding now at Randy, and speaking with the seriousness of deep conviction. “We don’t wait until he needs one. If he says he’s getting along all right without one, we make him buy one anyhow. We make him see the need, don’t we, Randy? In other words, we create the need.”

This, as Mr. Merrit went on to explain, was what is known in more technical phrase as “creative salesmanship” or “creating the market”. And this poetic conception was the inspired work of one man — none other than the present head of the Company, Mr. Paul S. Appleton, III, himself. The idea had come to him in a single blinding flash, born full-blown like Pallas Athene from the head of Zeus, and Mr. Merrit still remembered the momentous occasion as vividly as if it had been only yesterday. It was at one of the meetings of the assembled parliaments of the Company that Mr. Appleton, soaring in an impassioned flight of oratory, became so intoxicated with the grandeur of his own vision that he stopped abruptly in the middle of a sentence and stood there as one entranced, gazing out dreamily into the unknown vistas of magic Canaan; and when he at last went on again, it was in a voice surcharged with quivering emotion:

“My friends,” he said, “the possibilities of the market, now that we see how to create it, are practically unlimited!” Here he was silent for a moment, and Mr. Merrit said that the Great Man actually paled and seemed to stagger as he tried to speak, and that his voice faltered and sank to an almost inaudible whisper, as if he himself could hardly comprehend the magnitude of his own conception. “My friends”— he muttered thickly, and was seen to clutch the rostrum for support —“my friends — seen properly”— he whispered, and moistened his dry lips —“seen properly — the market we shall create being what it is”— his voice grew stronger, and the clarion words now rang forth —“there is no reason why one of our machines should not be in the possession of every man, woman, and child in the United\ States!” Then came the grand, familiar gesture to the map: “There’s your market, boys! Go out and sell them!”

Henceforth this vision became the stone on which Mr. Paul S. Appleton, III, erected the magnificent edifice of the true church and living faith which was called “the Company”. And in the service of this vision Mr. Appleton built up an organisation which worked with the beautiful precision of a locomotive piston. Over the salesman was the agent, and over the agent was the district supervisor, and over the district supervisor was the district manager, and over the district manager was the general manager, and over the general manager was — if not God himself, then the next thing to it, for the agents and salesmen referred to him in tones of proper reverence as “P. S. A.”

Mr. Appleton also invented a special Company Heaven known as the Hundred Club. Its membership was headed by P. S. A., and all the ranks of the sales organisation were eligible, down to the humblest salesman. The Hundred Club was a social order, but it was also a good deal more than that. Each agent and salesman had a “quota”— that is to say, a certain amount of business which was assigned to him as the normal average of his district and capacity. A man’s quota differed from another’s according to the size of his territory, its wealth, and his own experience and ability. One man’s quota would be sixty, another’s eighty, another’s ninety or one hundred, and if he was a district agent, his quota would be higher than that of a mere salesman. Each man, however, no matter how small or how large his quota might be, was eligible for membership in the Hundred Club, the only restriction being that he must average one hundred per cent of his quota. If he averaged more — if he got, say, one hundred and twenty per cent of his quota — there were appropriate honours and rewards, not only social but financial as well. One could be either high up or low down in the Hundred Club, for it had almost as many degrees of merit as the Masonic order.

The unit of the quota system was “the point”, and a point was forty dollars’ worth of business. So if a salesman had a quota of eighty, this meant that he had to sell the products of the Federal Weight, Scales, and Computing Company to the amount of at least $3200 every month, or almost $40,000 a year. The rewards were high. A salesman’s commission was from fifteen to twenty per cent of his sales; an agent’s from, twenty to twenty-five per cent. Beyond this there were bonuses to be earned by achieving or surpassing his quota. Thus it was possible for an ordinary salesman in an average district to earn from $6,000 to $8,000 a year, while an agent could earn from $12,000 to $15,000, and even more if his district was an exceptionally good one.

So much for the rewards of Mr. Appleton’s Heaven. But what would Heaven be if there were no Hell? So Mr. Appleton was forced by the logic of the situation to invent a Hell, too. Once a man’s quota was fixed at any given point, the Company never reduced it. Moreover, if a salesman’s quota was eighty points and he achieved it during the year, he must be prepared at the beginning of the new year to find that his quota had been increased to ninety points. One had to go onwards and upwards constantly, and the race was to the swift.

While it was quite true that membership in the Hundred Club was not compulsory, it was also true that Mr. Paul S. Appleton, III, was a theologian who, like Calvin, knew how to combine free will and predestination. If one did not belong to the Hundred Club, the time was not far distant when one would not belong to Mr. Appleton. Not to belong to it was, for agent or salesman, the equivalent of living on the other side of the railroad tracks. If one failed of admission to the Company Heaven, or if one dropped out, his fellows would begin to ask guardedly: “Where’s Joe Klutz these days?” The answers would be vague, and in the course of time Joe Klutz would be spoken of no more. He would fade into oblivion. He was “no longer with the Company”.

Mr. Paul S. Appleton, III, never had but the one revelation — the one which Mr. Merrit so movingly described — but that was enough, and he never let its glories and allurements grow dim. Four times a year, at the beginning of each quarter, he would call his general manager before him and say: “What’s the matter, Elmer? You’re not getting the business! The market is there! You know what you can do about it — or else . . .!” Thereupon the general manager would summon the district managers one by one and repeat to them the words and manner of P. S. A., and the district managers would reenact the scene before each of the district supervisors, who would duplicate it to the agents, who would pass it on to the salesmen, who, since they had no one below them, would “get out and hustle — or else!” This was called “keeping up the morale of the organisation.”

As Mr. David Merrit sat on the front porch and told of his many experiences with the Company, his words conveyed to George Webber a great deal more than he actually said. For his talk went on and on in its vein of mellow reminiscence, and Mr. Merrit made his little jokes and puffed contentedly at one of his own cigars, and everything he said carried an overtone of “What a fine and wonderful thing it is to be connected with the Company!”

He told, for example, about the splendid occasion every year when all the members of the Hundred Club were brought together for what was known as “The Week of Play”. This was a magnificent annual outing conducted “at the Company’s expense”. The meeting place might be in Philadelphia or Washington, or in the tropic opulence of Los Angeles or Miami, or it might be on board a chartered ship — one of the small but luxurious twenty-thousand-tonners that ply the transatlantic routes — bound to Bermuda or Havana. Wherever it was, the Hundred Club was given a free sweep. If the journey was by sea, the ship was theirs — for a week. All the liquor in the world was theirs, if they could drink it — and Bermuda’s coral isles, or the unlicensed privilege of gay Havana. For that one week everything on earth that money could buy was at the command of the members of the Hundred Club, everything was done on the grand scale, and the Company — the immortal, paternal, and great-hearted Company —“paid for everything”.

But as Mr. Merrit painted his glowing picture of the fun they had on these occasions, George Webber saw quite another image. It was an image of twelve or fifteen hundred men — for on these pilgrimages, by general consent, women (or, at any rate, wives) were debarred — twelve or fifteen hundred men, Americans, most of them in their middle years, exhausted, overwrought, their nerves frayed down and stretched to the breaking point, met from all quarters of the continent “at the Company’s expense” for one brief, wild, gaudy week of riot. And George thought grimly what this tragic spectacle of business men at play meant in terms of the entire scheme of things and the plan of life that had produced it. He began to understand, too, the changes which time had brought about in Randy.

The last day of his week in Libya Hill, George had gone to the station to buy his return ticket and he stopped in at Randy’s office a little before one o’clock to go home to lunch with him. The outer salesroom, with its shining stock of scales and computing machines imposingly arrayed on walnut pedestals, was deserted, so he sat down to wait. On one wall hung a gigantic coloured poster. “August Was the Best Month in Federal History,” it read. “Make September a Better One! The Market’s There, Mr. Agent. The Rest Is Up to You!”

Behind the salesroom was a little partitioned Space which served Randy as an office. As George waited, gradually he became aware of mysterious sounds emanating from beyond the partition. First there was the rustle of heavy paper, as if the pages of a ledger were being turned, and occasionally there would be a quick murmur of hushed voices, confidential, ominous, interspersed with grunts and half-suppressed exclamations. Then all at once there were two loud bangs, as of a large ledger being slammed shut and thrown upon a desk or table, and after a moment’s silence the voices rose louder, distinct, plainly audible. Instantly he recognised Randy’s voice — low, grave, hesitant, and deeply troubled. The other voice he had never heard before.

But as he listened to that voice he began to tremble and grow white about the lips. For its very tone was a foul insult to human life, an ugly sneer whipped across the face of decent humanity, and as he realised that that voice, these words, were being used against his friend, he had a sudden blind feeling of murder in his heart. And what was so perplexing and so troubling was that this devil’s voice had in it as well a curiously familiar note, as of someone he had known.

Then it came to him in a flash — it was Merrit speaking! The owner of that voice, incredible as it seemed, was none other than that plump, well-kept, jolly-looking man who had always been so full of hearty cheerfulness and good spirits every time he had seen him.

Now, behind that little partition of glazed glass and varnished wood, this man’s voice had suddenly become fiendish. It was inconceivable, and as George listened he grew sick, as one does in some awful nightmare when he visions someone he knows doing some perverse and abominable act. But what was most dreadful of all was Randy’s voice, humble, low, submissive, modestly entreating. Merrit’s voice would cut across the air like a gob of rasping phlegm, and then Randy’s voice — gentle, hesitant, deeply troubled — would come in from time to time in answer.

“Well, what’s the matter? Don’t you want the job?”

“Why — why, yes, you know I do, Dave — haw-w”— and Randy’s voice lifted a little in a troubled and protesting laugh.

“What’s the matter that you’re not getting the business?” “Why — haw-w!”— again the little laugh, embarrassed and troubled —“I thought I was ——”

“Well, you’re not!” that rasping voice cut in like a knife. “This district ought to deliver thirty per cent more business than you’re getting from it, and the Company is going to have it, too — or else! You deliver or you go right out on your can! See? The Company doesn’t give a damn about you! It’s after the business! You’ve been around a long time, but you don’t mean a damn bit more to the Company than anybody else! And you know what’s happened to a lot of other guys who got to feeling they were too big for their job — don’t you?”

“Why — why, yes, Dave — but — haw-w!” the little laugh again”— but — honestly, I never thought ——”

“We don’t give a damn what you never thought!” the brutal voice ripped in. “I’ve given you fair warning now! You get the business or out you go!”

The glazed glass door burst open violently and Merrit came striding out of the little partitioned office. When he saw George, he looked startled. Then he was instantly transformed. His plump and ruddy face became wreathed in smiles, and he cried out in a hearty tone:

“Well, well, well Look who’s here! If it’s not the old boy himself!”

Randy had followed him out, and Merrit now turned and winked humorously at him, in the manner of a man who is carrying on a little bantering byplay:

“Randy,” he said, “I believe George gets better looking from day to day. Has he broken any hearts yet?”

Randy tried to smile, grey-faced and haggardly.

“I bet you’re burning them up in the Big Town,” said Merrit, turning back to George. “And, say, I read that piece in the paper about your book. Great stuff, son! We’re all proud of you!”

He gave George a hearty slap on the back and turned away with an air of jaunty readiness, picked up his hat, and said cheerfully:

“Well, what d’ya say, folks? What about one of Margaret’s famous meals, out at the old homestead? Well, you can’t hurt my feelings. I’m ready if you are. Let’s go!”

And, smiling, ruddy, plump, cheerful, a perverted picture of amiable good will to all the world, he sauntered through the door. For a moment the two old friends just stood there looking at each other, white and haggard, with a bewildered expression in their eyes. In Randy’s eyes there was also a look of shame. With that instinct for loyalty which was one of the roots of his soul, he said:

“Dave’s a good fellow . . . You — you see, he’s got to do these things . . . He — he’s with the Company.”

George didn’t say anything. For as Randy spoke, and George remembered all that Merrit had told him about the Company, a terrific picture flashed through his, mind. It was a picture he had seen in a gallery somewhere, portraying a long line of men stretching from the Great Pyramid to the very portals of great Pharaoh’s house, and great Pharaoh stood with a thonged whip in his hand and applied it unmercifully to the bare back and shoulders of the man in front of him, who was great Pharaoh’s chief overseer, and in the hand of the overseer was a whip of many tails which he unstintedly applied to the quivering back of the wretch before him, who was the chief overseer’s chief lieutenant, and in the lieutenant’s hand a whip of rawhide which he laid vigourously on the quailing body of his head sergeant, and in the sergeant’s hand a wicked flail with which he belaboured a whole company of groaning corporals, and in the hands of every corporal a knotted lash with which to whack a whole regiment of slaves, who pulled and hauled and bore burdens and toiled and sweated and built the towering structure of the pyramid.

So George didn’t say anything. He couldn’t. He had just found out something about life that he had not known before.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30