Ellis Parker Butler
Lem Redding had a dimple in his cheek that appeared when he smiled. For a boy with a faceful of freckles he was pretty. He had dear, bright gray eyes, and his smile, aided by the dimple, made most folks love him at sight. His hair was brown, as his dead mother’s had been; in fact he was much like that mother in more ways than one – far more like her than he was like Harvey Redding, his father. Lem was quick, agile, lively, and Harvey was plumb lazy.
Without an exception Harvey Redding was the laziest man in or near Riverbank. He was one of the heaviest men, too, for he was a glutton. He loved food. He ate too much and he drank too much and he sat too much, all of which increased his girth. He was as huge as Falstaff.
For two or three years Harvey Redding had been meaning to get a new belt, but, somehow, he never “got around to it,” and for quite a while the tongue of the belt buckle had been in the last hole, while Harvey himself kept right on enlarging. As a result the belt made a tight band around his middle and seemed cutting him in two. When Harvey leaned forward the belt entirely disappeared under a great roll of fat and his face turned purple.
In most respects Harvey was the best-natured, easiest-going man in the world, but he had fits of intense irritation, when he lost his temper entirely and “dod-basted” like a trooper. These spells came, usually, when he had to do any work. Moving was work for him. He lost his placidity if he had to get out of his chair to close a door, or put a stick of wood in the stove, or do any hard labor of that sort. He also lost his temper over accidents, as when he fell asleep in his chair – as he did every half-hour during the day – and his lighted pipe fell in at the open bosom of his gray flannel shirt and burned his skin. At such times he “dod-basted” everybody and everything, and almost got out of his chair.
The chair he liked best was an ancient hickory rocker which he had braced and trussed with stout wires. On the seat was a round cushion covered with green rep, worn threadbare, and flattened by long use.
Harvey’s hair was thin and iron-gray and he never brushed it because brushing hair meant exertion. On the top of his cranium was a spot entirely bald. There were times when Harvey thought that if the world had no flies to alight on that bald spot and no people to make him get out of the chair, he might be perfectly happy. The flies made him ferocious. He slapped at them, when they alighted on his head, with a vigor that would possibly have crushed his skull if his hands had not been like rubber gloves inflated to puffiness. His lips were puffy, too, and of a purple hue.
You can, doubtless, visualize Harvey Redding seated in his rocker, puffing endlessly at his pipe, dropping off to sleep every half-hour or so, losing his pipe, awakening with a start, “dod-basting,” slapping flies and picking up his fallen reading matter again, grunting as he reached for it. He was a great reader.
He was indeed an untiring reader. He read dime novels and a certain “Lives of the Saints.” He had a pile of three hundred or more dime novels and some of his favorites he had read so often that they were mere rags. The “Lives of the Saints” was a later favorite. He had found it in a pile of waste paper he had bought – he was at that time in the junk business – and he had found its pages fascinating. He had his favorite saints just as he had his favorite dime novel heroes, and he not only read about them, but thought about them. He would sit in his rocker by the hour, slapping flies, smoking his pipe, and thinking what he would have done if he had been Saint Francis, Saint George, or Saint Anthony.
His son Lem was a great comfort to him. Lem could feed the horse, run across the street for another package of smoking tobacco, get a handful of matches, and make life fairly endurable by doing most of the work that needed to be done. It interfered with Lem’s schooling, but Harvey did not mind that. Lem sat on the seat of the junk wagon when Harvey went out for junk, the string of cowbells clanking on the rope stretched between the two uprights on the wagon. If by any chance a woman signaled the wagon Lem got down and went to see what she had to sell.
Lem weighed the junk and carried it to the wagon and carried the money back to her.
There was just one thing Harvey would not let Lem do. He would not let him drive the horse. He told Lem it was not safe, but a kitten could have driven the old gray wreck. Harvey liked to drive the horse. It was a gentle occupation, suitable for a contemplative mind. It gave him an excuse to sound authoritative. He could shout at the horse if it flicked its tail at a fly, “dod-baste” at it if the tail went over a rein:
“Dod-baste you, you brute! Lem, git down an’ lift that line from under that hoss’s tail,” he would command.
In the few years since Lem’s mother had died Harvey had been in half a dozen businesses, all centering around the horse and the small house on the ample vacant lot on Elm Street. He had tried the retail ice business, the milk business, a carter’s trade, a vegetable market, a small grocery business, and, finally, the junk business. He had a perfectly good excuse for failure in each – unfair, dod-basted, ruinous, cut-throat competition – and now this same Nemesis was attacking his junk business. The Russian Jews had come to Riverbank – especially Moses Shuder.
At the time when a great pogrom and persecution was taking place in Russia tender-hearted Riverbank had raised a fund to pay the passage of some of the Russian Jews from Poland to Riverbank. Eight came, with their families. Riverbank looked at them, said they were perfectly awful creatures, and kept as far from them as possible, and the Russian Jews began picking up old bottles, empty tin cans, bits of rags, and pieces of paper. They found wealth – meager wealth at first – beside the fences, in the roads, in vacant lots, where no American would have bothered to look for it.
Presently Moses Shuder was buying the scrap iron and old bottles that his fellows picked up. He hired a vacant lot and built him a rough shed, and from a despised, ignored alien became “competition” and the rival junkman of Riverbank. He bought an old bone-bag of a horse, bought other horses, bought the lot he had rented, bought a small cottage. Poorly clad, meek, shrewd, silent when abused and voluble when bargaining, Moses became a fixture and a feature. He lent money to Russian Jews who came from the old country and sent them out with peddlers’ packs of tinware, cheap dry-goods, and profitable small notions. Before he had been in Riverbank many years Mrs. Shuder began wearing a hat and talk-ing of the time when Our People would erect a synagogue.
Before Moses Shuder and his fellows had been in Riverbank long, Harvey began to feel pessimistic about the junk business.
“Dod-basted fleas, hoppin’ around everywhere all the time,” he said. “Live on a crust of bread an’ half a drink of water. Don’t know how to live like human folks. If this kind o’ thing keeps on I want to get out o’ the junk business, that’s what!”
The trouble with Harvey was not that Moses Shuder was in the junk business, but that Harvey was not and never had been. The bitter truth about Harvey is that he had never been in any business. He had merely let one or another business frame his copious leisure; his businesses were no more than excuses for being lazy. They camouflaged what otherwise would have been disgraceful sloth.
Harvey had been a farmhand until he married the farmer’s daughter. Then he had teased her to sell the farm and they had come to town. Half the price of the farm went the first year, part of it to purchase the lot and shack on Elm Street and the rest to make good the loss incurred by Harvey’s mode of doing business. Then his wife put her foot down. She went to a lawyer and had the remaining money tied up in such a manner that Harvey could not touch it, and from thereafter all he ever had was the twenty-five dollars a month his wife allotted to him from the income. While she lived he received that twenty-five dollars a month and after she died he continued to receive it. She had been a weary, weak creature, but he had never been able to change her resolution in this one matter. The money was for Lem.
When the vegetable market dried up and blew away with the last of Harvey’s capital, Lem’s mother had been dead several years and Harvey turned to his sister. He went up the hill to where she conducted a boarding-house and explained to her the great opportunity that awaited the man who started a grocery on Elm Street at that particular moment. In the end he came away with the money.
“I ain’t askin’ you to give me it with nothin’ to show for it, Sue,” he told her. “I would n’t ask that. I would n’t take it if you offered it to me that way. I aim to give you my note for it, my regular signed note, drawin’ seven per cent interest, until paid. A man might go back on his word, but a note is a note. It’s got to be paid as an’ when specified.”
So Sue Redding had the note and Harvey had her money, and for a while he enjoyed sitting behind a counter telling Lem to hand out canned corn and bluing and to weigh out sugar. When Lem was at school Harvey found it more comfortable to sit in the rocker and tell the children who came to buy that he guessed he was out of whatever it was they asked for, and when he had no more money with which to replenish his stock he sold what remained of the grocery and took up the junk business.
The junk business had the advantage of being a slow, sedentary business. When one wished one could sit and smoke; when the weather was favorable one could tell Lem to harness the horse and then take a slow, comfortable drive through bough-shaded streets, nobly heralded by clanking cowbells. There was no money to be made in the junk business as Harvey conducted it, but there could not be much loss. And always, regularly, the twenty-five dollars allowance came to him on the first of the month. It was ideal. Even Moses Shuder, despite Harvey’s complaints, was a blessing. He was an excuse for the lack of profit in the junk business and he was something to talk of and grow angry about. Harvey seemed to be, at last, in an ideal business, and one in which he could remain forever. And then the old horse died.
When Lem, sent to feed the horse, came back from the shack at the far end of the lot and reported that the old horse was dead, Harvey “dod-basted” his luck heartily.
“Well,” he drawled a moment later, “if he’s dead he’s dead, an’ it ain’t no fault of mine. You go downtown, Lem, an’ see who you can git to haul him away for about two dollars.”
The boy hurried away. Harvey puffed at his pipe and looked out of the gate of the junkyard at the street. It was late June. Now and then he slapped the bald spot on his head vigorously. He was giving things more thought than he had given anything in years. His affairs had reached a crisis. He could not be a junkman without a horse and he had no money with which to buy another horse. He owed Sue five hundred dollars and, the way she had been pressing him for payments recently, he knew she was not likely to lend him more. She was pestering him unmercifully for what he already owed her.
With his twenty-five dollars a month he could get along well enough, with no business to demand part of it, but he saw no comfort in life if Sue was to be continually drumming at him and nagging him for the repayment of the money. Except for Sue he could give up the pretense of being in business and take life comfortable, but Sue had only left him in semi-peace because he appeared to be doing business. When she learned that he was not even attempting to make money, she would be too annoying for comfort. Harvey sighed heavily and took up his book. It was the “Lives of the Saints.”
When Lem returned with a negro and a team of horses, Harvey put his hand in his trousers’ pocket and gave the negro two dollars and went on reading. A few minutes later he looked up from his book, for the negro’s team had stopped with their noses at his shoulder.
“Say, what you haulin’ that carcass out this way for?” Harvey demanded. “Whyn’t you take it out the back way?”
“‘Cause, boss, de gate ain’t wide ‘nuff. Got to go out dis yere way.”
“Well, dod-baste it! I guess I got to move,” said Harvey, and he got out of his rocker, groaned and moved it three feet to the left, and lost himself in the “Lives of the Saints” again.