Ten days after the failure of the bank in Libya Hill, Randy Shepperton arrived in New York. He had made up his mind suddenly, without letting George know, and the motives that brought him were mixed. For one thing, he wanted to talk to George and see if he couldn’t help to get him straightened out. His letters had been so desperate that Randy was beginning to be worried about him. Then, too, Randy felt he just had to get away from Libya Hill for a few days and out of that atmosphere of doom and ruin and death. And he was free now, there was nothing to keep him from coming, so he came.
He arrived early in the morning, a little after eight o’clock, and took a taxi from the station to the address on Twelfth Street and rang the bell. After a long interval and another ringing of the bell, the door lock clicked and he entered the dim-lit hall. The stairs were dark and the whole house seemed sunk in sleep. His footfalls rang out upon the silence. The air had a close, dead smell compounded of many elements, among which he could distinguish the dusty emanations of old wood and worn plankings and the ghostly reminders of many meals long since eaten. The light was out on the second-floor landing and the gloom was Stygian, so he groped along the wall until he found the door and rapped loudly with his knuckles.
In a moment the door was almost jerked off its hinges, and George, his hair dishevelled, his eyes red with sleep, an old bathrobe flung hastily over his pyjamas, stood framed in the opening, blinking out into the darkness. Randy was a little taken back by the change in his appearance in the six months since he had last seen him. His face, which had always had a youthful and even childish quality, had grown older and sterner. The lines had deepened. And now his heavy lip stuck out at his caller with a menacing challenge, and his whole pug-nosed countenance had a bulldog look of grim truculence.
When Randy recovered from his first surprise he cried out heartily:
“Now wait a minute! Wait a minute! Don’t shoot! I’m not that fellow at all!”
At the unexpected sound of the familiar voice George looked startled, then his face broke into a broad smile of incredulity and delight. “Well, I’ll be damned!” he cried, and with that he seized hold of Randy, wrung him vigorously by the hand, almost dragged him into the room, and then held him off at arm’s length while he grinned his pleasure and amazement.
“That’s better,” said Randy in a tone of mock relief. “I was afraid it might be permanent.”
They now clapped each other on the back and exchanged those boisterous and half-insulting epithets with which two men who have been old friends like to greet each other when they meet. Then, almost at once, George asked Randy eagerly about the bank. Randy told him. George listened intently to the shocking details of the catastrophe. It was even worse than he had supposed, and he kept firing questions at Randy. At last Randy said:
“Well, that’s just about the whole story. I’ve told you all I know. But come, we can talk about that later. What I want to know is — how the hell are you? You’re not cracking up, too, are you? Your last letters made me a little uneasy about you.”
In their joy at seeing one another again and their eagerness to talk, they had both remained standing by the door. But now, as Randy put his casual finger on George’s sore spot, George winced and began to pace back and forth in an agitated way without answering.
Randy saw that he looked tired. His eyes were bloodshot, as if he had not slept well, and his unshaved face made him look haggard. The old bathrobe he was wearing had all the buttons missing, and the corded rope that belonged to it was also gone and George had lashed a frayed necktie round the middle to hold the thing together. This remarkable garment added to his general appearance of weariness and exhaustion. His features as he strode about the room had the contracted intensity of nervous strain, and as he looked up quickly Randy saw the worry and apprehension in his eyes.
Suddenly he paused and faced Randy squarely, and with a grim set to his jaws said:
“All right, let me have it! What are they saying now?”
“Who? What is who saying?”
“The people back home. That’s what you meant, isn’t it? From what they’ve written me and said to my face, I can imagine what they’re saying behind my back. Let’s have it and get it over with. What are they saying now?”
“Why,” said Randy, “I don’t know that they’re saying anything. Oh, they said plenty at first — just the kind of thing they wrote you. But since the bank failed I don’t think I’ve heard your name mentioned. They’ve got too much real trouble to worry about now.”
George looked incredulous, and then relieved. For a moment he studied the floor and said nothing. But as his sense of relief spread its soothing balm upon his agitated spirit he looked up and smiled broadly at his friend, and then, realising for the first time that Randy was standing there with his back against the door, he suddenly remembered his duties as a host and burst out impulsively and warmly:
“God, Randy, I’m glad to see you! I can’t get over it! Sit down. Sit down! Can’t you find a chair somewhere? For Christ’s sake, where are all the chairs in this dump?”
With that he went over to a chair that was piled high with manuscript and books, brushed these things off unceremoniously on to the floor, and shoved the chair across the room towards his friend.
He apologised now for the coldness of the place, explaining unnecessarily that the door-bell had got him out of bed, and telling Randy to keep his overcoat on and that it would be warmer in a little while. Then he vanished through a doorway into a noisome cubby-hole, turned on a faucet, and came back with a coffee-pot full of water. This he proceeded to pour into the spout of the radiator that stood below a window. When this was done, he got down on his hands and knees, peered about underneath, struck a match, turned some sort of valve, and applied the flame. There was an immediate blast, and pretty soon the water began to rattle and gurgle in the pipes.
“It’s gas,” he said, as he clambered to his feet. “That’s the worst thing about this place — it gives me headaches when I have to spend long hours working here.”
While this operation had been going on, Randy took a look round. The room, which was really two large rooms thrown together when the sliding-doors that joined them were pushed into the wall, as now, seemed as big as a barn. The windows at the front gave on to the street, and those at the rear looked out over some bleak little squares of backyard fences to another row of buildings. The first impression Randy got was one of staleness: the whole apartment had that unmistakable look and feeling of a place where someone has lived and where something has been finished so utterly that there is no going back to it. It was not merely the disorder everywhere — the books strewn around, the immense piles of manuscript, the haphazard scattering of stray socks, shirts and collars, old shoes, and unpressed trousers inside out. It was not even the dirty cup and saucer filled with old cigarette-butts, all of them stained with rancid coffee, which was set down in the vast and untidy litter of the table. It was just that life had gone out of all these things — they were finished — all as cold and tired and stale as the old dirty cup and the exhausted butts.
George was living in the midst of this dreary waste with a kind of exasperated and unhappy transciency. Randy saw that he had caught him on the wing, in that limbo of waiting between work which is one of the most tormenting periods a writer can know. He was through with one thing, and yet not really ready to settle down in earnest to another. He was in a state of furious but exhausted ferment. But it was not merely that he was going through a period of gestation before going on with his next book. Randy realised that the reception of his first, the savagery of the attack against him in Libya Hill, the knowledge that he had done something more than write a book — that he had also torn up violently by the roots all those ties of friendship and sentiment that bind a man to home — all of this, Randy felt, had so bewildered and overwhelmed him that now he was caught up in the maelstrom of the conflict which he had himself produced. He was not ready to do another piece of work because his energies were still being absorbed and used up by the repercussions of the first.
Moreover, as Randy looked round the room and his eye took in the various objects that contributed to its incredible chaos, he saw, in a dusty corner, a small green smock or apron, wrinkled as though it had been thrown aside with a gesture of weary finality, and beside it, half-folded inwards, a single small and rather muddy overshoe. The layer of dust upon them showed that they had lain there for months. These were the only poignant ghosts, and Randy knew that something which had been there in that room had gone out of it for ever — that George was done with it.
Randy saw how it was with George, and felt that almost any decisive act would be good for him. So now he said:
“For God’s sake, George, why don’t you pack up and clear out of all this? You’re through with it — it’s finished — it’ll only take you a day or two to wind the whole thing up. So pull yourself together and get out. Move away somewhere — anywhere — just to enjoy the luxury of waking up in the morning and finding none of this round you.”
“I know,” said George, going over to a sagging couch and tossing back the pile of foul-looking bedclothes that covered it and flinging himself down wearily. “I’ve thought of it,” he said.
Randy did not press the point. He knew it would be no use. George would have to work round to it in his own way and in his own good time.
George shaved and dressed, and they went out for breakfast. Then they returned and talked all morning, and were finally interrupted by the ringing of the telephone.
George answered it. Randy could tell by the sounds which came from the transmitter that the caller was female, garrulous, and unmistakably Southern. George did nothing for a while but blurt out polite banalities:
“Well now, that’s fine . . . I certainly do appreciate it . . . That’s mighty nice of you . . . Well now, I’m certainly glad you called. I hope you will remember me to all of them.” Then he was silent, listening intently, and Randy gathered from the contraction of his face that the conversation had now reached another stage. In a moment he said slowly, in a somewhat puzzled tone: “Oh, he is? . . . He did? . . . Well”— somewhat indefinitely —“that’s mighty nice of him . . . Yes, I’ll remember . . . Thank you very much . . . Good-bye.”
He hung up the receiver and grinned wearily.
“That,” he said, “was one of the I-just-called-you-up-to-tell-you-that-I’ve-read-it-all-every-word-of-it-and-I-think-it’s-perfectly-grand people — another lady from the South.” As he went on his voice unconsciously dropped into burlesque as he tried to imitate the unction of a certain type of Southern female whose words drip molasses mixed with venom:
“‘Why, I’ll declayah, we’re all just so proud of yew-w! I’m just simply thrilled to daith! It’s the most wondaful thing I evah read! Why it is! Why, I nevah dreamed that anyone could have such a wondaful command of lang-widge!’”
“But don’t you like it just a little?” asked Randy. “Even if it’s laid on with a trowel, you must get some satisfaction from it.”
“God!” George said wearily, and came back and fell upon the couch. “If you only knew! That’s only one out of a thousand! That telephone there”— he jerked a thumb towards it —“has played a tune for months now! I know them all — I’ve got ’em classified! I can tell by the tone of the voice the moment they speak whether it’s going to be type B or group X.”
“So the author is already growing jaded? He’s already bored with his first taste of fame?”
“Fame?”— disgustedly. “That’s not fame — that’s just plain damn rag-picking!”
“Then you don’t think the woman was sincere?”
“Yes”— his face and tone were bitter now —“she had all the sincerity of a carrion crow. She’ll go back and tell them that she talked to me, and by the time she’s finished with me she’ll have a story that every old hag in town can lick her chops and cackle over for the next six months.”
It sounded so unreasonable and unjust that Randy spoke up quickly:
“Don’t you think you’re being unfair?”
George’s head was down dejectedly and he did not even look up; with his hands plunged in his trouser pockets he just snorted something unintelligible but scornful beneath his breath.
It annoyed and disappointed Randy to see him acting so much like a spoiled brat, so he said:
“Look here! It’s about time you grew up and learned some sense It seems to me you’re being pretty arrogant. Do you think you can afford to be? I doubt if you or any man can go through life successfully playing the spoiled genius.”
Again he muttered something in a sullen tone.
“Maybe that woman was a fool,” Randy went on. “Well, a lot of people are. And maybe she hasn’t got sense enough to understand what you wrote in the way you think it should be understood. But what of it? She gave the best she had. It seems to me that instead of sneering at her now, you could be grateful.”
George raised his head: “You heard the conversation, then?”
“No, only what you told me.”
“All right, then — you didn’t get the whole story. I wouldn’t mind if she’d just called up to gush about the book, but, look here!”— he leaned towards Randy very earnestly and tapped him on the knee. “I don’t want you to get the idea that I’m just a conceited fool. I’ve lived through and found out about something these last few months that most people never have the chance to know. I give you my solemn word for it, that woman didn’t call up because she liked my book and wanted to tell me so. She called up,” he cried bitterly, “to pry round, and to find out what she could about me, and to pick my bones.”
“Oh, look here now —” Randy began impatiently.
“Yes, she did, too! I know what I’m talking about!” he said earnestly. “Here’s what you didn’t hear — here’s what she was working round to all the time — it came out at the end. I don’t know who she is, I never heard of her before — but she’s a friend of Ted Reeve’s wife. And apparently he thinks I put him in the book, and has been making threats that he’s going to kill me if I ever go back home.”
This was true; Randy had heard it in Libya Hill.
“That’s what it was about,” George sneered bitterly —“that woman’s call. That’s what most of the calls are about. They want to talk to the Beast of the Apocalypse, feel him out, and tell him: ‘Ted’s all right! Now don’t you believe all those things, you hear! He was upset at first — but he sees the whole thing now, the way you meant it — and everything’s all right.’ That’s what she said to me, so maybe I’m not the fool you think I am!”
He was so earnest and excited that for a moment Randy did not answer him. Besides, making allowances for the distortion of his feelings, he could see some justice in what George said.
“Have you had many calls like that?” Randy asked.
“Oh”— wearily —“almost every day. I think everyone who has been up here from home since the book was published has telephoned me. They go about it in different ways. There are those who call me up as if I were some kind of ghoul: ‘How are you?’— in a small, quiet tone such as you might use to a condemned man just before they lead him to the death chamber at Sing Sing —‘Are you all right?’ And then you get alarmed, you begin to stammer and to stumble round, ‘Why, yes? Yes, I’m fine! Fine, thanks!’— meanwhile, beginning to feel yourself all over just to see if you’re all there. And then they say in that same still voice: ‘Well, I just wanted to know . . . I just called up to find out . . . I hope you’re all right.’”
After looking at Randy for a moment in a tormented and bewildered way, he burst out in an exasperated laugh:
“It’s been enough to give a hippopotamus the creeps! To listen to them talk, you’d think I was Jack the Ripper! Even those who call up to laugh and joke about it take the attitude that the only reason I wrote the book was to see how much dirt and filth I could dig up on people I didn’t like. Yes!” he cried bitterly. “My greatest supporters at home seem to be the disappointed little soda-jerkers who never made a go of it and the frustrated hangers-on who never got into the Country Club. ‘You sure did give it to that son-of-a-bitch, Jim So-and-so!’ they call me up to tell me. ‘You sure did burn him up! I had to laugh when I read what you said about him — boy!’ Or: ‘Why didn’t you say something about that bastard, Charlie What’s-his-name? I’d have given anything to see you take him for a ride!’ . . . Jesus God!” He struck his fist upon his knee with furious exasperation. “That’s all it means to them: nothing but nasty gossip, slander, malice, envy, a chance of getting back at someone — you’d think that none of them had ever read a book before. Tell me,” he said earnestly, bending towards Randy, “isn’t there anyone there — anyone besides yourself — who gives a damn about the book itself? Isn’t there anyone who has read it as a book, who sees what it was about, who understands what I was trying to do?”
His eyes were full of torment now. It was out at last — the thing Randy had dreaded and wanted to avoid. He said:
“I should think you’d know more about that by this time than anyone. After all, you’ve had more opportunity than anyone else to find out.”
Well, that was out, too. It was the answer that he had to have, that he had feared to get. He stared at Randy for a minute or two with his tormented eyes, then he laughed bitterly and began to rave:
“Well, then, to hell with it! To hell with all of it!” He began to curse violently. “The small two-timing bunch of crooked sons-ofbitches! They can go straight to hell! They’ve done their best to ruin me!”
It was ignoble and unworthy and untrue. Randy saw that he was lashing himself into a fit of violent recrimination in which all that was worst and weakest m him was coming out — distortion, prejudice, and self-pity. These were the things he would have to conquer somehow or belost. Randy stopped him curtly:
“Now, no more of that! For God’s sake, George, pull yourself together! If a lot of damn fools read your book and didn’t understand it, that’s not Libya Hill, that’s the whole world. People there are no different from people anywhere. They thought you wrote about them — and the truth is, you did. So they got mad at you. You hurt their feelings, and you touched their pride. And, to be blunt about it, you opened up a lot of old wounds. There were places where you rubbed salt in. In saying this, I’m not like those others you complain about: you know damn wel! I understand what you did and why you had to do it. But just the same, there were some things that you did not have to do — and you’d have had a better book if you hadn’t done them. So don’t whine about it now. And don’t think you’re a martyr.”
But he had got himself primed into a mood of martyrdom. As Randy looked at him sitting there, one hand gripping his knee, his face sullen, his head brooding down between his hulking shoulders, he could see how this mood had grown upon him. To begin with, he had been naive not to realise how people would feel about some of the things he had written. Then, when the first accusing letters came, he had been overwhelmed and filled with shame and humility and guilt over the pain he had caused. But as time went on and the accusations became more vicious and envenomed, he had wanted to strike back and defend himself. When he saw there was no way to do that — when people answered his explanatory letters only with new threats and insults — he had grown bitter. And finally, after taking it all so hard and torturing himself through the whole gamut of emotions, he had sunk into this morass of self-pity.
George began to talk now about “the artist”, spouting all the intellectual and aesthetic small change of the period. The artist, it seemed, was a kind of fabulous, rare, and special creature who lived on “beauty” and “truth” and had thoughts so subtle that the average man could comprehend them no more than a mongrel could understand the moon he bayed at. The artist, therefore, could achieve his “art” only through a constant state of flight into some magic wood, some province of enchantment.
The phrases were so spurious that Randy felt like shaking him. And what annoyed him most was the knowledge that George was really so much better than this. He must know how cheap and false what he was saying really was. At last Randy said to him quietly:
“George, of all the people I have ever known, you are the least qualified to play the wounded faun.”
But he was so immersed in his fantasy that he paid no attention. He just said: “Huh?”— and then was off again. Anybody who was “a real artist,” he said, was doomed to be an outcast from society. His inevitable fate was to be “driven out by the tribe.”
It was all so wrong that Randy lost patience with him:
“For Christ’s sake, George, what’s the matter with you? You’re talking like a fool!” he said. “You haven’t been driven out of anywhere! You’ve only got yourself in a little hot water at home! Here you’ve been ranting your head off about ‘beauty’ and ‘truth’! God! Why in hell, then, don’t you stop lying to yourself? Can’t you see? The truth is that for the first time in your life you’ve managed to get a foothold in the thing you want to do. Your book got some good notices and has had a fair sale. You’re in the right spot now to go on. So where have you been driven? No doubt all those threatening letters have made you feel like an exile from home, but hell, man! — you’ve been an exile for years. And of your own accord, too! You know you’ve had no intention of ever going back there to live. But just as soon as they started yelling for your scalp, you fooled yourself into believing you’d been driven out by force! And, as for this idea of yours that a man achieves ‘beauty’ by escaping somewhere from the life he knows, isn’t the truth just the opposite? Haven’t you written me the same thing yourself a dozen times?”
“How do you mean?” he said sullenly.
“I mean, taking your own book as an example, isn’t it true that every good thing in it came, not because you withdrew from life, but because you got into it — because you managed to understand and use the life you knew?”
He was silent now. His face, which had been screwed up into a morose scowl, gradually began to relax and soften, and at last he looked up with a little crooked smile.
“I don’t know what comes over me sometimes,” he said. He shook his head and looked ashamed of himself and laughed. “You’re right, of course,” he went on seriously. “What you say is true. And that’s the way it has to be, too. A man must use what he knows — he can’t use what he doesn’t know . . . And that’s why some of the critics make me mad,” he added bluntly.
“How’s that?” asked Randy, glad to hear him talking sense at last. “Oh, you know,” he said, “you’ve seen the reviews. Some of them said the book was ‘too autobiographical’.”
This was surprising. And Randy, with the outraged howls of Libya Hill still ringing in his ears, and with George’s outlandish rantings in answer to those howls still echoing in the room, could hardly believe he had heard him aright. He could only say in frank astonishment:
“Well, it was autobiographical — you can’t deny it.”
“But not ‘too autobiographical’,” George went on earnestly. “If the critics had just crossed those words out and written in their place ‘not autobiographical enough’, they’d have hit it squarely. That’s where I failed. That’s where the real fault was.” There was no question that he meant it, for his face was twisted suddenly with a grimace, the scar of his defeat and shame. “My young hero was a stick, a fool, a prig, a snob, as Dedalus was — as in my own presentment of the book I was. There was the weakness. Oh, I know — there were lots of autobiographical spots in the book, and where it was true I’m not ashamed of it, but the hitching-post I tied the horses to wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t true autobiography. I’ve learned that now, and learned why. The failure comes from the false personal. There’s the guilt. That’s where the young genius business gets in-the young artist business, what you called a while ago the wounded faun business. It gets in and it twists the vision. The vision may be shrewd, subtle, piercing, within a thousand special frames accurate and Joycean — but within the larger one, false, mannered, and untrue. And the large one is the one that matters.”
He meant it now, and he was down to solid rock. Randy saw the measure of his suffering. And yet, now as before, he seemed to be going to extremes and taking it too hard. In some such measure all men fail, and Randy said:
“But was anything ever as good as it could be? Who succeeded anyway?”
“Oh, plenty did!” he said impatiently. “Tolstoy when he wrote War and Peace. Shakespeare when he wrote King Lear. Mark Twain in the first part of Life on the Mississippi. Of course they’re not as good as they might have been — nothing ever is. Only, they missed in the right way: they might have put the shot a little further — but they were not hamstrung by their vanity, shackled by their damned self-consciousness. That’s what makes for failure. That’s where I failed.”
“Then what’s the remedy?”
“To use myself to the top of my bent. To use everything I have. To milk the udder dry, squeeze out the last drop, until there is nothing left. And if I use myself as a character, to withhold nothing, to try to see and paint myself as I am-the bad along with the good, the shoddy alongside of the true — just as I must try to see and draw every other character. No more false personal, no more false pride, no more pettiness and injured feelings. In short, to kill the wounded faun.”
Randy nodded: “Yes. And what now? What comes next?”
“I don’t know,” he answered frankly. His eyes showed his perplexity. “That’s the thing that’s got me stumped. It’s not that I don’t know what to write about. — God!” he laughed suddenly. “You hear about these fellows who write one book and then can’t do another because they haven’t got anything else to write about!”
“You’re not worried about that?”
“Lord, no! My trouble’s all the other way round! I’ve got too much material. It keeps backing up on me”— he gestured round him at the tottering piles of manuscript that were everywhere about the room —“until sometimes I wonder what in the name of God I’m going to do with it all — how I’m going to find a frame for it, a pattern, a channel, a way to make it flow!” He brought his fist down sharply on his knee and there was a note of desperation in his voice. “Sometimes it actually occurs to me that a man may be able to write no more because he gets drowned in his own secretions!”
“So you’re not afraid of ever running dry?”
He laughed loudly. “At times I almost hope I will,” he said. “There’d be a kind of comfort in the thought that some day — maybe after I’m forty — I would dry up and become like a camel, living on my hump. Of course, I don’t really mean that either. It’s not good to dry up — it’s a form of death . . . No, that’s not what bothers me. The thing I’ve got to find out is the way!” He was silent a moment, staring at Randy, then he struck his fist upon his knee again and cried: “The way! The way! Do you understand?”
“Yes,” said Randy, “I think I do. But how?”
George’s face was full of perplexity.. He was silent, trying to phrase his problem.
“I’m looking for a way,” he said at last. “I think it may be something like what people vaguely mean when they speak of fiction. A kind of legend, perhaps. Something — a story — composed of all the knowledge I have, of all the living I’ve seen. Not the facts, you understand — not just the record of my life — but something truer than the facts — something distilled out of my experience and transmitted into a form of universal application. That’s what the best fiction is, isn’t it?”
Randy smiled and nodded encouragement. George was all right. He needn’t have worried about him. He would work his way out of the morass. So Randy said cheerfully:
“Have you started the new book yet?”
He began to talk rapidly, and again Randy saw worried tension in his eyes.
“Yes,” he said, “I’ve written a whole lot. These ledgers here”— he indicated a great stack of battered ledgers on the table —“and all this manuscript”— he swept his arms in a wide gesture round the room —“they are full of new writing. I must have written half a million words or more.”
Randy then made the blunder which laymen so often innocently make when they talk to writers.
“What’s it about?” he said.
He was rewarded with an evil scowl. George did not answer. He began to pace up and down, thinking to himself with smouldering intensity. At last he stopped by the table, turned and faced Randy, and, with the redemptive honesty that was the best thing in him, bluntly said:
“No, I haven’t started my new book yet! . . . Thousands of words”— he whacked the battered ledgers with a flattened palm —“hundreds of ideas, dozens of scenes, of scraps, of fragments — but no book! . . . And”— the worried lines about his eyes now deepened —“time goes by! It has been almost five months since the other book was published, and now”— he threw his arms out towards the huge stale chaos of that room with a gesture of exasperated fury —“here I am! Time gets away from me before I know that it has gone! Time!” he cried, and smote his fist into his palm and stared before him with a blazing and abstracted eye as though he saw a ghost —“Time!”
His enemy was Time. Or perhaps it was his friend. One never knows for sure.
Randy stayed in New York several days, and the two friends talked from morning till night and from night till morning. Everything that came into their heads they talked about. George would stride back and forth across the floor in his restless way, talking or listening to Randy, and suddenly would pause beside the table, scowl, look round him as though he were seeing the room for the first time, bring down his hand with a loud whack on a pile of manuscript, and boom out:
“Do you know what the reason is for all these words I’ve written? Well, I’ll tell you. It’s because I’m so damned lazy!”
“It doesn’t look like the room of a lazy man to me,” said Randy, laughing.
“It is though,” George answered. “That’s why it looks this way. You know”— his face grew thoughtful as he spoke —“I’ve got an idea that a lot of the work in this world gets done by lazy people. That’s the reason they work — because they’re so lazy.”
“I don’t follow you,” said Randy, “but go on — spill it — get it off your chest.”
“Well,” he said, quite seriously, “it’s this way: you work because you’re afraid not to. You work because you have to drive yourself to such a fury to begin. That part’s just plain hell 1 It’s so hard to get started that once you do you’re afraid of slipping back. You’d rather do anything than go through all that agony again — so you keep going — you keep going faster all the time — you keep going till you couldn’t stop even if you wanted to. You forget to eat, to shave, to put on a clean shirt when you have one. You almost forget to sleep, and when you do try to you can’t — because the avalanche has started, and it keeps going night and day. And people say: ‘Why don’t you stop some time? Why don’t you forget about it now and then? Why don’t you take a few days off?’ And you don’t do it because you can’t — you can’t stop yourself — and even if you could you’d be afraid to because there’d be all that hell to go through getting started up again. Then people say you’re a glutton for work, but it isn’t so. It’s laziness — just plain, damned, simple laziness, that’s all.”
Randy laughed again. He had to — it was so much like George — no one else could have come out with a thing like that. And what made it so funny was that he knew George saw the humour of it, too, and yet was desperately in earnest. He could imagine the weeks and months of solemn cogitation that had brought George to this paradoxical conclusion, and now, like a whale after a long plunge, he was coming up to spout and breathe.
“Well, I see your point,” Randy said. “Maybe you’re right. But at least it’s a unique way of being lazy.”
“No,” George answered, “I think it’s probably a very natural one. Now take all those fellows that you read about,” he went on excitedly —“Napoleon — and — and Balzac — and Thomas Edison”— he burst out triumphantly —“these fellows who never sleep more than an hour or two at a time, and can keep going night and day — why, that’s not because they love to work! It’s because they’re really lazy — and afraid not to work because they know they’re lazy! Why, hell yes!” he went on enthusiastically. “I know that’s the way it’s been with all those fellows! Old Edison now,” he said scornfully, “going round pretending to people that he works all the time because he likes it!”
“You don’t believe that?”
“Hell, no!”— scornfully. “I’ll bet you anything you like that if you could really find out what’s going on in old Edison’s mind, you’d find that he wished he could stay in bed every day until two o’clock in the afternoon! And then get up and scratch himself! And then lie around in the sun for a while! And hang round with the boys down at the village store, talking about politics, arid who’s going to win the World Series next autumn!”
“Then what keeps him from it, if that’s what he wants to do?”
“Why,” he cried impatiently, “laziness! That’s all. He’s afraid to do it because he knows he’s so damned lazy! And he’s ashamed of being lazy, and afraid he’ll get found out! That’s why!”
“Ah, but that’s another thing! Why is he ashamed of it?”
“Because,” he said earnestly, “every time he wants to lie in bed until two o’clock in the afternoon, he hears the voice of his old man ——”
“His old man?”
“Sure. His father.” He nodded vigorously.
“But Edison’s father has been dead for years, hasn’t he?”
“Sure — but that doesn’t matter. He hears him just the same. Every time he rolls over to get an extra hour or two, I’ll bet you he hears old Pa Edison hollering at him from the foot of the stairs, telling him to get up, and that he’s not worth powder enough to blow him sky high, and that when he was his age, he’d been up four hours already and done a whole day’s work — poor, miserable orphan that he was!”
“Really, I didn’t know that. Was Edison’s father an orphan?”
“Sure — they all are when they holler at you from the foot of the stairs. And school was always at least six miles away, and they were always barefooted, and it was always snowing. God!” he laughed suddenly. “No one’s old man ever went to school except under polar conditions. They all did. And that’s why you get up, that’s why you drive yourself, because you’re afraid not to — afraid of ‘that damned Joyner blood in you.’ . . . So I’m afraid that’s the way it’s going to be with me until the end of my days. Every time I see the Ile de France or the Aquitania or the Berengaria backing into the river and swinging into line on Saturday, and see the funnels with their racing slant, and the white breasts of the great liners, and something catches at my throat, and suddenly I hear mermaids singing — I’ll also hear the voice of the old man yelling at me from as far as back as I can remember, and telling me I’m not worth the powder to blow me up. And every time I dream of tropic isles, of plucking breadfruit from the trees, or of lying stretched out beneath a palm-tree in Samoa, fanned by an attractive lady of those regions clad in her latest string of beads — I’ll hear the voice of the old man. Every time I dream of lying sprawled out with Peter Breughel in Cockaigne, with roast pigs trotting by upon the hoof, and with the funnel of a beer bung in my mouth — I’ll hear the voice of the old man. Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all. I’m lazy — but every time I surrender to my baser self, the old man hollers from the stairs.”
George was full of his own problems and talked about them constantly. Randy was an understanding listener. But suddenly one day, towards the end of Randy’s visit, the thought struck George as strange that his friend should be taking so much time off from his job. He asked Randy about it. How had he managed it?
“I haven’t got a job,” Randy answered quietly with his little embarrassed laugh. “They threw me out.”
“You mean to say that that bastard Merrit —” George began, hot with instant anger.
“Oh, don’t blame him,” Randy broke in. “He couldn’t help it. The higher-ups were on his tail and he had to do it. He said I wasn’t getting the business, and it’s true — I wasn’t. But what the Company doesn’t know is that nobody can get the business any more. It isn’t there, and hasn’t been for the last year or so. You saw how it was when you were home. Every penny anybody could get hold of went into real estate speculation. That was the only business they had left down there. And now, of course, that’s gone, too, since the bank failed.”
“And do you mean to say,” George commented, speaking the words slowly and with emphasis —“do you mean to say that Merrit seized that moment to throw you out on your ear? Why, the dirty ——”
“Yes,” said Randy. “I got the sack just a week after the bank closed. I don’t know whether Merrit figured that was the best time to get rid of me or whether it just happened so. But what’s the difference? It’s been coming for a long time. I’ve seen it coming for a year or more. It was just a question of when. And believe me,” he said with quiet emphasis, “I’ve been through hell. I lived from day to day in fear and dread of it, knowing it was coming and knowing there wasn’t anything I could do to head it off. But the funny thing is, now it’s happened I feel relieved.” He smiled his old clear smile. “It’s the truth,” he said. “I never would have had the guts to quit — I was making pretty good money, you know — but now that I’m out, I’m glad. I’d forgotten how it felt to be a free man. Now I can hold my head up and look anybody in the eye and tell the Great Man, Paul S. Appleton himself, to go to the devil. It’s a good feeling. I like it.”
“But what are you going to do, Randy?” asked George with evident concern.
“I don’t know,” said Randy cheerfully. “I haven’t any plans. All the years I was with the Company I lived pretty well, but I also managed to save a little something. And, luckily, I didn’t put it in the Citizens Trust, or in real estate either, so I’ve still got it. And I own the old family house. Margaret and I can get along all right for a while. Of course, jobs that pay as well as the one I had don’t turn up round every corner, but this is a big country and there’s always a place for a good man. Did you ever hear of a good man who couldn’t find work?” he said.
“Well, you can’t be too sure of that,” said George, shaking his head dubiously. “Maybe I’m wrong,” he went on, pausing and frowning thoughtfully, “but I don’t think the Stock Market crash and the bank failure in Libya Hill were isolated events. I’m coming to feel,” he said, “that we may be up against something new — something that’s going to cut deeper than anything America has experienced before. The papers are beginning to take it seriously. They’re calling it a depression. Everybody seems to be scared.”
“Oh, pshaw!” said Randy with a laugh. “You are feeling low. That’s because you live in New York. Here the Stock Market is everything. When it’s high, times are good; when it’s low, they’re bad. But New York is not America.”
“I know,” said George. “But I’m not thinking about the Stock Market. I’m thinking about America . . . Sometimes it seems to me,” he continued slowly, like a man who gropes his way in darkness over an unfamiliar road, “that America went off the track somewhere — back round the time of the Civil War, or pretty soon afterwards. Instead of going ahead and developing along the line in which the country started out, it got shunted off in another direction — and now we look round and see we’ve gone places we didn’t mean to go. Suddenly we realise that America has turned into something ugly — and vicious — and corroded at the heart of its power with easy wealth and graft and special privilege . . . And the worst of it is the intellectual dishonesty which all this corruption has bred. People are afraid to think straight —afraid to face themselves —afraid to look at things and see them as they are. We’ve become like a nation of advertising men, all hiding behind catch phrases like ‘prosperity’ and ‘rugged individualism’ and ‘the American way’. And the real things like freedom, and equal opportunity, and the integrity and worth of the individual — things that have belonged to the American dream since the beginning — they have become just words, too. The substance has gone out of them — they’re not real any more . . . Take your own case. You say you feel free at last because you’ve lost your job. I don’t doubt it — but it’s a funny kind of freedom. And just how free are you?”
“Well, free enough to suit me,” said Randy heartily. “And, funny or not, I’m freer than I’ve ever been before. Free enough to take my time and look round a bit before I make a new connection. I don’t want to get in with another outfit like the old one. I’ll land on my feet,” he said serenely.
“But how are you going to do it?” asked George. “There can’t be anything for you in Libya Hill, with the bottom dropped out of everything down there.”
“Hell, I’m not wedded to the place!” said Randy. “I’ll go anywhere. Remember, I’ve been a salesman all my life — I’m used to travelling round. And I have friends in the game — in other lines — who’ll help me. That’s one good thing about being a salesman: if you can sell one thing, you can sell anything, and it’s easy to switch products. I know my way round,” he concluded with strong confidence. “Don’t you worry about me.”
They said very little more about it. And when Randy left, his parting words at the station were:
“Well, so long, fellow! You’re going to be all right. But don’t forget to kill that wounded faun! As for me, I don’t know just what the next move is, but I’m on my way!”
With that he got aboard his train, and was gone.
But George wasn’t too sure about Randy. And the more he thought about him, the less sure he became. Randy had certainly not been licked by what had happened to him, and that was good; but there was something about his attitude — his cheerful optimism in the face of disaster — that seemed spurious. He had the clearest head of anybody George knew, but it was almost as if he had shut off one compartment of his brain and wasn’t using at. It was all very puzzling.
“There are tides in the affairs of men,” George thought musingly —“definite periods of ebb and flow . . . And when they come, they come, and can’t be held back by wishing.”
That was it, perhaps. It seemed to George that Randy was caught in the ebb and didn’t know it. And that was what made it so queer and puzzling — that he, of all people, shouldn’t know it.
Also, he had spoken about not wanting to get mixed up with another outfit like the old one. Did he think the fearful pressures he had been subject to were peculiar to the company he had been working for, and that their counterparts existed nowhere else? Did he suppose he could escape those conditions just by changing jobs? Did he believe it was possible by such a shift to enjoy all the glorious advantages he had ever dreamed of as a bright, ambitious youth — high income and good living far beyond what most men are accustomed to — and to do it without paying the cost in other ways?
“What will you have? quoth God; pay for it, and take it,” said Emerson, in that wonderful essay on “Compensation” that every American ought to be required by law to read . . . Well, that was true. One always paid for it . . .
Good Lord! Didn’t Randy know you can’t go home again?
The next few years were terrible ones for all America, and especially terrible for Randy Shepperton.
He didn’t get another job. He tried everything, but nothing worked. There just weren’t any jobs. Men were being let off by the thousands everywhere, and nowhere were new ones being taken on.
After eighteen months his savings were gone, and he was desperate. He had to sell the old family house, and what he got for it was a mere pittance. He and Margaret rented a small apartment, and for another year or so, by careful management, they lived on what the house had brought them. Then that, too, was gone. Randy was on his uppers now. He fell ill, and it was an illness of the spirit more than of the flesh. At last, when there was nothing else to do, he and Margaret moved away from Libya Hill and went to live with the older sister who was married, and stayed there with her husband’s family — dependents on the bounty of these kindly strangers.
And at the end of all of this, Randy — he of the clear eyes and the quick intelligence — he who was nobody’s fool — he who thought he loved the truth and had always been able to see straight to the heart of most things — Randy went on relief.
And by that time George thought he understood it. Behind Randy’s tragedy George thought he could see a personal devil in the form of a very bright and plausible young man, oozing confidence and crying: “Faith!” when there was no faith, and dressed like a travelling salesman. Yes, salesmanship had done its job too well. Salesmanship — that commercial brand of special pleading — that devoted servant of self-interest — that sworn enemy of truth. George remembered how Randy had been able to look at his alien problem and see it in the abstract, whole and clear, because there was no self-interest to cast its shadow on his vision. He could save others — himself he could not save, because he could no longer see the truth about himself.
And it seemed to George that Randy’s tragedy was the essential tragedy of America. America — the magnificent, unrivalled, unequalled, unbeatable, unshrinkable, supercolossal, 99-and-44-one-hundredths-percent-pure, schoolgirl-complexion, covers-the-earth, I’d-walk-a-mile-for-it, four-out-of-five-have-it, his master’s-voice, askthe-man-who-owns-one, blueplate-special home of advertising, salesmanship, and special pleading in all its many catchy and beguiling forms.
Had not the real rulers of America — the business men — been wrong about the depression from the start? Had they not pooh-poohed it and tried to wipe it out with words, refusing to see it for what it was? Had they not kept saying that prosperity was just round the corner — long after “prosperity”, so-called, had vanished, and the very corner it was supposed to be round had flattened out and bent into a precipitate downward curve of hunger, want, and desperation?
Well, Randy had been right about the wounded faun. For George knew now that his own self-pity was just his precious egotism coming between him and the truth he strove for as a writer. What Randy didn’t know was that business also had its wounded fauns. And they, it seemed, were a species that you could not kill so lightly. For business was the most precious form of egotism-self-interest at its dollar value. Kill that with truth, and what would be left?
A better way of life, perhaps, but it would not be built on business as we know it.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02