In 1915, Post editor George Horace Lorimer fished a short story called “Nature, Inc.” out of the “slush pile” of unsolicited manuscripts and took it home to read that night. The next morning, he wrote an encouraging letter to its young author, Harry Sinclair Lewis, accepting his story for publication. Over the next several years, the Post would publish almost three dozen more stories by the young man.
Lorimer recognized not only good writing but a kindred spirit in Sinclair Lewis. Both men saw potential for exciting fiction in the adventure of American business, and Lorimer was attracted by Lewis’ ability to mix satire and sentiment with a knowledge of sound business practices. As Lorimer once wrote, “Every business day is full of comedy, tragedy, farce, romance — all the ingredients of successful fiction.”
While other writers used formulaic settings of romances and adventure tales, Lewis captured the realities of modern American life and found a wealth of material in the lives of salesmen and clerks. Much of what he learned about salesmen, including their manners and banter, came from listening to their accounts of life, work, and travel while he was on the job as a night clerk at a popular Minnesota hotel.
But as the teens gave way to the Roaring Twenties, Lewis saw the business virtues that Lorimer celebrated — hard work and thrift — begin to fade, and his observations made it into his writing. He began, to Lorimer’s displeasure, mercilessly satirizing the sham and hypocrisy he saw in American business. This work culminated in the most celebrated satires of 1920s American society, Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922).
Lorimer was outraged by Babbitt, which he saw as a mockery of the conventional American values that he so prized. He wrote a scathing review of the novel, and the Post stopped publishing Lewis’ stories — at least, until 1931, after the stock market crash gave his cynicism an air of prescience.
Yet Lewis was more than a cynic. He still admired business success, and he recognized that American readers, while enjoying strong social criticism, still looked for morals and sentiment in popular fiction. Both qualities are on display in 1916’s “Honestly If Possible,” a story that reflects Lewis’ belief in business, hard work, and love.
Despite being 100 years old, the story is surprisingly modern in the way it depicts the predatory and condescending attitudes some men direct at women in business offices. And it is a more successful romance than might be expected from a writer with such a caustic reputation.
Honestly If Possible
By Sinclair Lewis
Originally published October 14, 1916
Terry Ames didn’t own evening clothes, and there was no running water in his furnished room, but every Saturday evening he paid a dollar and a half for dinner, which he always ate alone. He was one of the 300,000 solitary and industrious young men in New York. He knew no one except the office force, his dentist and two insignificant “fellows from back home.”
This gray-eyed youngster with the waist and shoulders of a half-miler, the thin, firm jaw of a surgeon, and the eager, awkward step of a young poet, this frequenter of offices and movies and beef-stew joints, was facing the blankness of life as somberly as an anchorite in a parching desert cell. If he could only be heroic or tragic or criminal or anything that would make him feel things! Any sorrow rather than row on row of unchanging gray days. He wanted to do high, vague, generous things, and the city told him to attend strictly to his desk.
He was neither a success nor a failure. He was making thirty-two dollars and a half a week with the mail-order real-estate firm of Hopkins & Gato. He wrote advertising copy, dictated correspondence, and occasionally was sent out to close up a prospect. He did have the facts of his job; he knew the difference between a blueprint and a second mortgage; but he simply couldn’t get the philosophy of the job to hang right. You would have been amused — or touched or impatient or morally edified — to see Terry trying to find out what a good, clean life really meant in the case of a young man whose boss pompously encouraged him to write advertisements that were deliberate, careful, scientific lies. He would have been discharged as dishonest if he had smuggled the truth into a single advertisement of the Terrace Valley Development. Did goodness consist in lying, then? he wailed.
When he had first come to New York, Terry had solemnly attended institute lectures that told him to be good and he would be happy, or to work hard and he would be rich, or to study shorthand and he would be famous. But most of the lecturers weren’t happy or rich or famous — or interesting. And they always rushed down and shook hands with him. Terry hated damp handshakes.
He saved up his dessert money and bought a large, gilt-edged book called Punch the Buzzer on Yourself, which claimed to give all the latest and best brands of practical wisdom. It was a chatty book. It sneaked up behind you and yelled in your ear in 14-point italics. Yet all that it said was to be good and work hard and buy the other books by the same author.
At last Terry took to asking the men in his office what this business world was up to anyway. He had chosen a peculiarly dangerous field for truth hunting, for the Hopkins & Gato office was a cranky one, boisterous and fearful and full of plots. Offices differ as much as bosses, and in about the same way. There are quiet, assured offices filled with pride of achievement. There are offices like that of Hopkins & Gato, where everybody gibes and is nervous about the gibes of others.
Old Hopkins had the habit of damning all your officemates when he was talking to you, in order to make you feel that you were on the inside with the boss, as his most trusted adviser. That was his jolly little way of influencing you to confide all the scandal you knew. If you were aware of the trick and tried to defend Harry or Mac or J.J., Mr. Hopkins would comment on Harry’s shambling feet, or Mac’s sporty wife, or J.J.’s shiftlessness, with a thin, acid smile that made you feel naive and absurd, and, first thing you knew, you were trying to prove your shrewdness by giving away every below-stairs secret. The men in the office were good fellows at heart, but they were spoiled by the bitter flavor of Hopkins. They went the rounds of one another’s desks, making beastly little jests. And they played jokes, hid hats and arranged humiliating fake telephone calls. After a few years in Hopkins & Gato’s fine, solid, prosperous office, you were qualified to go right out to the trenches and join the poison squad.
This was the font of wisdom where eager, fresh-colored, wistful, hard-working Terry Ames fished for the truth about this honesty which sounds so simple in the books and works out so jaggedly in ordinary life. He was always going out to lunch with J.J., with Mac, shrewdest of the salesmen, and with ancient Harry, the bookkeeper, who had detachable cuffs and a preternatural shrewdness in collections. While they all got on a mild coffee drunk, as is the way at business lunches, Terry persistently tried to bring the conversation round to the question of commercial honesty.
The wise elders shrieked at him:
“Oh, give your conscience a rest!”
They gave their consciences a good, permanent rest and fed them soothing sirup if they waked and cried.
Sometimes Terry could get oracles out of old Harry, who defended the Hopkins system of exaggerating in advertisements, using much retouched half tones, hypnotizing old-lady customers, and selling jerry-built houses from which the concrete peeled off during the first winter.
“It’s all right to talk, but you aren’t in business for your health, are you? Besides, everybody does it.”
The others would nod approval of Harry’s pellucid philosophy and drop into Terry’s truth-begging palm such pearls as these:
“This bull about building homes for the future and making suburbs beautiful listens well in a high-school recitation, but how are you going to support the business meanwhile?”
“Why, we’re regular angels compared with most of ’em. Look at this free-if-you-pay-for-the-abstract scheme.”
“Why, if you did tell the people the truth they wouldn’t be satisfied.”
“I guess we’re as honest as the next fellow.”
“Yes, sure, honestly — if possible!”
“When you’re as old as I am —”
“Get the dough first —”
When Terry declared that other firms — big, reputable, national concerns — must surely have a higher standard of honesty than Hopkins & Gato, the men didn’t take the trouble to argue; they merely smiled and made him feel schoolboyishly credulous. By his constant inquiring he was in danger of becoming an office pest; but in nauseated horror he realized that fact, and tried to conceal his restless fumbling for understanding.
In the city’s somber corridor of brooding gods, gigantic graven idols with hands on their brutal knees and granite eyes insolently blank above his clerkly questioning, he prayed for guidance, but only an echo answered him, and over the temple brooded the shadow of Pilatus, still asking, “What is truth?”
You — philosophers and poets and iron-jawed statesmen, foreign observers of America, and clever ladies of the literary table d’hôtes and soldiers who demand that we take your military training — you know what our offices are — just desks and cigars and rubber bands, and derby hats over a slight baldness. Yes, you know there isn’t any grave and quiet nobility or glorious struggle of youth among us who are dollar chasers.
Oh! Oh, you do, do you? Then listen.
Hopkins & Gato were on the jump, booming a new development. They had sold most of their Long Island suburb to unfortunates who had never seen New York State; and now, lest they seem to neglect the suckers in New York, they were taking on Tangerine Springs, “the citrus city, the best orange district in Florida,” for mail and direct selling. Mr. Hopkins had a whole pamphlet of affable government figures about the yield in orange groves not more than ten miles from Tangerine Springs, figures so convincing that the Hopkins copy writer, Terry Ames, wondered where the flaw really was as he turned out notices about “Golden fruit and a golden bank account; the way out for the city man who is tired of offices and Northern cold. Own your own bungalow among the palms and hibiscus; easy work and big returns.”
“That’s me. ‘Tired of offices and cold.’ Wonder if there’s a single darn palm in Florida. Can’t be if a Hopkins ad says there is,” he grumbled as he viciously jabbed at his typewriter with two thin fingers.
Terry had grown accustomed to lying about the Long Island property, but he couldn’t get up much enthusiasm about this new fraud. He wanted to believe in Tangerine Springs as long as he could. But he discovered the facts soon enough.
A Brooklyn man wrote in that he knew Florida, that Tangerine Springs might perhaps be all right for trucking, but certainly was too wet and low for citrus fruits. His letter closed:
“Tell the bright young man who is guilty of your ads that he might catch more fools if he said less about sunshine and bungalows and more about kumquats and mandarins. There’s just one thing that saves the public from liars like you people — that is, you don’t know how to run your own business. I bet you don’t know flatwoods from hammock.”
Did Mr. Clyde Hopkins blush at this letter? No, Mr. Clyde Hopkins did not blush. He called in Terry Ames and snapped:
“If you can’t put a little more pep and novelty in your Tangerine copy, you better quit. Here, read this letter!”
Terry marveled, as he read, that Mr. Hopkins was willing to show this exposure of his own crimes. He stammered:
“But, uh, how — how about this ‘all right for trucking, bum for citrus fruit,’ Mr. Hopkins?”
“Rats; always got to have a few kicks. How does he know it ain’t good for oranges till he tries it? Now, get a good line about all the different kinds of oranges into your copy. And you might even write this boob, thanking him for the tip. Don’t let him think we’re sore.”
Terry wanted to resign. But, if he did, Hopkins would merely laugh and go on selling Tangerine lots. As he gloomed back to his desk, Terry sketched a moving picture of himself as the young hero who would convert the office to truth, single-handed. He saw Hopkins trembling before his denunciations, and even that old cynic Harry weeping down his alpaca coat sleeves and selling his agate scarfpin to get money to refund to Hopkins’ victims.
But — Terry wasn’t a Galahad; he was about like the rest of us; he wanted to be honest and also to get that little envelope next Saturday. So he studied a bulletin on orange growing till he had an artistic inspiration and was lost in composing a blurb which began:
“Do you know that the orange industry has just started? Do you know what a kumquat is? Do you know that the whole world is begging for the chance to give you money for the kumquats you could grow at Tangerine Springs?”
When the advertisement was glowingly finished, however, Terry gravitated to Mac’s desk and complained: “Say, hang it, I don’t like this Tangerine project. Land’s no good for citrus fruits. Why not sell it for truck —”
“Say, Ames, don’t you ever give your conscience an hour off? Do you know what’s the matter with it? You smoke too many cigarettes.”
Then Mac laughed for four minutes and hustled round the office, revealing his new joke to everybody: “So I says to him, ‘Do you know what’s the matter with you? Why,’ I says, ‘you’re getting smoker’s heart in the conscience!’”
When J.J. sent Terry an office “memo” next morning, he headed it:
“To the man with the ingrowing conscience and the outsticking cigarette.”
Watkins asked Terry why he didn’t smoke cigars, like a man, and Peter had some light, elephantine pleasantries about a pipe. In fact, Terry’s general childishness was the office joke, till they had a new topic in the expected arrival of a woman to try to do a man’s work.
This gave an almost perfect opportunity for them to dig out all the good old shady jokes about women’s foibles. Hopkins was, it seemed, going to get one Susan Bratt to manage the follow-up and circularizing systems — check up the lists, tabulate returns, get out form letters, direct 12 girl
assistants. She was to replace Peter. Whenever Peter was out of hearing, everybody insinuated that he was a loafer, a borrower of small sums till Monday; but, even so, Peter was certainly preferable to this Susan Bratt.
Terry pictured her as fat, 40, faded, dumpily industrious and wheezily sniffing, staring dully from behind thick glasses and making a bad precedent by staying late. He joined the others in referring to her as “the brat.” The forlorn and lonely seeker of honesty was preparing to make it as difficult as he could for the forlorn and lonely interloper.
On Monday morning Terry woke with the usual Monday-morning shock of discovering that the holiday was over, and groaned:
“Back to the mine! Oh, I can’t stand any more rotten chirping little 50-line ads about kumquats — but I will.”
Every day in his life would be just one more dinky page in an endless desk calendar.
He entered the office with Mac, who was the local ladykiller, and who stopped just inside the door to chuckle:
“Hey, Ames, the little Bratt has came. Some dame, kid, some chicken! Me for it! My lit-tle Sue, I could love you-oo.”
At Peter’s desk was the new office woman. She looked up. Terry caught the flash of her eyes. “Gee!” said he.
A slender, curly-haired girl of 23 or 24, with the untroubled brown eyes of a gallant boy, yet with curving shoulders in a blouse of white silk that looked as though it could never be anything but fresh. A quick-moving, self-possessed girl. Mac turned, as they separated, and winked at Terry, who hated the suggestive wink and the troublesome new girl about equally. He had, at least, grown used to his round of boredom. He had invented ways of pulling through the day — sneaking out for a cup of coffee round the corner, talking to old Harry, standing out in the hall at the mail chute and warning himself to work as though he did like it. Now, this satin-cheeked young Susan Bratt would inspire new jealousies and make the office intolerable.
All day long he watched Miss Bratt smile gratefully at the men who straightened their ties and went to introduce themselves to her. He saw Gato himself call for office supplies for her — even to blue and red pencils and a letter opener, tools which the rest of them had to steal from one another. He saw the bunch maneuvering to find things to explain to her, advice to give her. And she was pleasant to all of them. Terry had to admire her modulating voice, though he hated to hear it respond to the smirking, much married Mac, who leaned over her desk and flashed his diamond ring at her. Terry found that he, too, had the most surprising number of errands that took him up to her end of the office. But he wouldn’t introduce himself to her — no, not for anything!
When he left at 5:30, she was putting on a blue linen jacket with impudent white cuffs and collar, and a small toque which sat cockily on her brown, shining hair. All the Sir Walter Raleighs in the shop galloped up to help her, while the old dependables, the stenographers who had been with the firm since Hopkins was a yearling, somehow managed to struggle into their sateen-lined, tabby black jackets without assistance.
“Good Lord, look at them, everyone but old Harry and me and the firm! With J.J. holding her bag! Well, I know one person that isn’t going to fall for the Queen of the Rancho stuff,” Terry grumbled as he clumped out.
He walked down the Bowery and had dinner in Chinatown. He peered into pawnshop windows, he watched the bums, he chose the noisiest chop-suey den in town, he made much of ordering almond omelet and “sweet and pungent.” He wouldn’t admit it, but he was trying to flee from loneliness, the loneliness that usually was merely drab boredom but to-night was a tangible, pursuing presence.
Fear was creeping into him — fear of himself, fear of the cryptic city. He rushed out of the restaurant. Through streets deserted and foreboding he swung down to the Battery, listening to his own footsteps. Among the derelicts, dark shoddy figures writhing on the benches, he sat, neat and efficient and — a derelict. Beside him sat Fear.
A barge load of immigrants was bound for Ellis Island. One of them struck up on his accordion a wailing folk song, full of the melancholy of wide brown moors, and Terry’s frantic restlessness changed to a softer unhappiness in which every memory was tender and hopelessly sad. Then he knew that all this while he had been subconsciously reviewing Susan Bratt. Her harsh name changed to a sound of music. In the mist rising from the river he saw her face. He felt himself kiss her smiling lips. He sprang up, amazed at the force of his fancy. He exclaimed:
“Why, I’ve never seen her but just one day — flirt that tries to work everybody. Why, I haven’t even met her yet. … But, by Jiminy, I will tomorrow! No, I won’t either. All this kitten stuff!”
Her luminous eyes went home with him, and he could scarce sleep for longing to see her. Then it was morning again — same old prosaic awakening to the same old raucous alarm clock in the same old room, with the same old office details ahead. He plodded uptown. He already knew that his overnight fervor about Miss Bratt was a dream; that she was merely a business female, not a princess of romance. He glanced at her.
“Yup. Nothing but a pretty girl. Woods are full of ’em.”
She had no relation to the lighted passionate face that had looked at him from the fog of the harbor.
Not till 10 or 11 o’clock did he fall in love with her again!
J.J.’s desk was near Miss Bratt’s. With J.J., late that morning, Terry had to work out a new form letter to galvanize installment payments. When he was really on the job Terry tried to be crisp, alert, practical, and in such a mood of justice he wondered if Miss Bratt really was looking for flirtations.
She seemed very busy, cross-checking two lists of alfalfa-land inquiries to be used for the Tangerine Springs circularizing.
J.J. and Terry were sitting in one of those familiar poetic abstractions, trying to think of a better phrase to close the letter which they were planning — tilted back, tapping their teeth with their pencils, heads on one side, one eye closed, the other eye screwed up and anxiously regarding the ceiling, looking tremendously wise, and both of them passing the buck and plaintively hoping that the other fellow was going to hurry up and think of the phrase. Perhaps you’ve done it yourself. Through the trance, Terry heard Mac’s voice, honeyed but slightly hoarse:
“Well, little one, things going better today? Sorry I been out this morning. Meant to stick round and slip you some more pointers.”
Terry’s tilted chair came down sharply, and he stared. Mac was beside Miss Bratt’s desk, in his very best lady-killing attitude, as used successfully with waitresses, telephone girls, and young ladies at hotel news stands — hat on one side, both hands in his pockets, his trim feet doing a little private dance by themselves, all very gay and intimate.
Terry was groaning:
“Good Lord, what a simp I am, mooning over this girl, and she standing for Mac. Urgh!”
Mac took his hands from his pockets, leaned over her desk, picked up her pastepot and fondled it. To the absurdly squeamish Terry it seemed as though Mac would be taking her hand next. Mac murmured, like a cooing jackass:
“Well, did the girlie get her hooky-wookies into the job pretty good today?”
Miss Bratt laid down her list of names, put a paper weight exactly in the center of the desk, straightened the nest of pencils and pens in front of her inkwell, and said with startling clearness:
“Mr. Mac — MacDervish, isn’t it? — I’m very busy. I’m obliged to you for your pointers of yesterday, but I didn’t really need them. I’m afraid I’m horribly competent. So if you would — how would you say it in your language? — if you would ring off you’d save me lots and lots of trouble. I think that’s all.”
And she did not smile with a sugary prissy sanctity; she did not look about for applause. She rose rather quickly and stood straight, her fingers on the edge of the desk, while for a second she seemed to look far away, sadly. Then, eyes down, she passed Mac and quietly began to flip through a file of names. As Mac shuffled away she ignored him.
Terry was glowingly happy — that is, till J.J. grated:
“Cranky little hen. … Well, have you got that phrase yet?”
During the several million hours that had still to drag themselves past before 12:30, when he would be free to go out to lunch, Terry found the needed phrase, dictated some correspondence, and came back to study the big map of Florida that hung near Miss Bratt’s desk. He had convinced himself that he needed to examine that map immediately — so immediately that he left his draft of the big Tangerine circular in the middle of a sentence. As he went up the central aisle of the office he felt kindly toward his fellow workers, toward Harry and J.J. and Gato and Watkins and this new Miss Bratt. What a good, knowable bunch of human beings they all were — all except Mac. And except Hopkins, of course. Then the office changed to a hideous tangle of dead, gaunt trees, a wilderness filled with ambushes that threatened the unconscious Sue Bratt. Mac was talking to Watkins, Mac’s rival as office masher. The two men glanced at Miss Bratt and snickered.
While Terry was examining the map near her, Watkins came forward and oozily said:
“Uh, have you, uh, a date for lunch, Miss Bratt? Be glad tuh — ”
“I have!” said Miss Bratt.
This time she didn’t flee to the files. She sat still, a slight droop to her shoulders that were so smooth and rosy under her silk waist, and she looked Watkins up and down, quiet, a little perplexed, very cool.
“Well, uh,” he went on, “some day, if you could, uh, grace the feast with your charms —”
“No. Afraid not.” Her right hand picked up a list of names. But behind the list, as Terry could see from his station at the map, her left arm pressed anxiously against her bosom, while her eyes somberly kept Watkins in view.
Terry broke in:
“Say, Watkins, come here a second. Where’s the head of navigation on the Saint John’s River? Let’s see how much you know about Florida, old fathead.”
Watkins unwillingly came over. Terry generously accompanied him back to his desk. As they passed Mac, Watkins tittered:
At 12:30, to the second, Terry grabbed his hat and hastened out to Henrico’s Chop House to meet J.J. and Harry and Mac and Watkins — and large, solid food with too much coffee. He was rather keen for doing something spectacular and heroic if Mac or Watkins so much as mentioned Miss Bratt. He pictured himself slapping Mac, and he was so exalted with newborn devotion that he might actually have done something of the kind, although office lunches are not commonly the scenes of anything
more melodramatic than spearing a toasted roll across the table. He waited, panting, inspired — though not fasting. But the only word of her was Mac’s growl at Watkins:
“Stung, all right. Pretty standoffish. Pass us the chutney, will yuh, Wat?”
Thus they dismissed the tale of the weeping fair one and the secret knight.
Terry Ames wasn’t always secret-knighting about the office. He really did get out copy and correspondence, you understand. But he contrived to see how, within less than three days, Miss Bratt made a place for herself. She was pleasant to old Harry, who chewed tobacco and collected from widows but did not try to flirt with babes. She was sturdily independent in an argument with Gato. In the murkiness of this cranky, distrustful office she was a clear light that shone into the dark carelessness of former attempts at system. Tenderly he watched her march on.
Terry wasn’t trying to pick acquaintance with her. He didn’t dare! However, he was careful to be on hand when she took the elevator down, a little after 5:30, a couple of days later. Just to ride with her, be near her, perhaps feel a casual touch of her magic arm that was of a more silken substance than the busy arms of the stenographers! She seemed unaware of him as she rang the elevator bell and waited. Her face was as serenely gallant as that of a boy crusader — fresh, smooth, rather round. She was so untiring, so incisively interested in her work. She would go far. … But wasn’t she, he wondered in dismay, almost too inhumanly efficient? It wasn’t quite decent to look fresh and competent after 5:30!
Her hand, which had remained on the iron box of the elevator signal, suddenly slumped to her side. She wiped her other hand across her eyes, which remained closed for a minute, the lids bunchy and trembling with weariness. No, she wasn’t too efficient!
It seemed to him, brooding beside her in the elevator, that her little, white, soft linen collar, the blue linen of her jacket sleeve, the line of her cheek, everything relating to her, was enchantment, set off from all the commonplace feminine things in the world, standing out as peculiar and perfect.
Next morning, Terry was drawing water at the cooler that served the office as patio, garden, village green and memorial fountain when he became agitatedly aware that Miss Susan Bratt was waiting beside him. He heard himself blurting out:
“G’ morning, Miss Bratt.”
She didn’t repulse him. Easily:
“Good morning, Mr. Ames.”
“W-w-why, I didn’t kn-know you even knew my name.”
“I didn’t, till you took Mr. Watkins away from me. I was very grateful to you. Then I knew you must be Mr. Ames — I could see what you were.”
“Yes, b-but —” desperately. “But what am I?”
“Mr. MacDervish had given me a chart of the office, and he told me that Mr. Ames wasn’t practical; he said you ‘seemed to think we were in business for our health — always yelping about honesty.’ And it was so very much for my health to lose Mr. Watkins that I knew my Good Samaritan must be you.”
“I wonder if maybe you and I don’t belong to the same race of people.”
“Yes, the cranks, the people that aren’t content with just galumphing along and making a living, but have to fuss round and take all the joy out of life by wanting people to be honest or efficient or original, or some darn thing they don’t want to take the trouble to be.”
She hesitated a little over his youthful confidences. She inspected him — his flush, his lips open with eagerness. Then she nodded.
“Yes,” she said; “though I guess I’m a frightful outsider in that race of people — just a hyphenated citizen. But I do like to fight for — oh, I don’t know what to call it — sincerity, I guess. Hard to call it anything without getting into some kind of cant.”
“Yes, and it’s hard to know what the deuce it is. Take me! Oh, I’m a fine, walloping social reformer, I am! All day long I write lies to make poor devils buy swamp land.”
“And I send out the lies for you.”
“Let’s go dig ditches.”
“Let’s — only we won’t.”
Miss Brett was beginning to glance over his shoulder. He realized that he was keeping her out in the middle of the office, to the vast interest of Mac, Watkins and the battery of stenographers. He sighed:
“Prob’ly be a scandal if we go on holding the Society for the Promulgation of Ethics among the Heathen Bosses any longer. I — it’s — Please let me welcome you to this punk office.”
She did not answer in words, yet her smile, as she turned away, took him into her friendship.
The babes in the wood, lost in a thicket of useless industry, had recognized each other, and Terry had an impulse to take her hand, to run away with her who had, over two paper cups of water, become his playmate. But with Miss Rheinstein, the boss’ stenographer, watching you, you don’t take hands and run away. No, you parade back to your desk, you go over every word you have said to Sue, and worry lest you have started out by making a bad impression.
They met again and again. And they didn’t talk of office honesty more than reasonably often. Indeed, though Terry invariably took away the impression that they had been conferring on subjects of great intellectual value, their discussions were often limited to a couple of smiles, a couple of nods and “Tired?” “Yes, rather.” “Must be a perfectly corking day out in the country.” “Yes, must be.”
Lingering needlessly over letter files, laughing while he helped her to dig out old lists from the document safe, OKing the proof of a form letter, they came to depend on each other for fire that would kindle the dry wood of routine. He knew her square, dimpled hands that hovered accurately over papers; she knew his thin, stained fingers that made amusing manikins out of wire paper fasteners.
The Tangerine Springs circular was out, in its glossy envelope adorned with a sketch of an orange tree and a legend which in 10 words conveyed two lies, a financial misstatement and a botanical error. Now, Miss Susan Bratt’s corner of the office was filled with scrubby girls rented from an agency. They sat at long tables and blew their noses and chewed gum and addressed envelopes in elegant script all day long. Miss Brett was mother and drill sergeant and police officer to them. She had to keep them till 6:30 and had to fight Hopkins to get overtime pay for them.
It was 6:31 now, and every single addressing girl had already piled into the elevator. Sue sat among the long tables messily piled with circulars and lists.
There was no one else in the office except Terry, who was finishing an advertisement. The yoke of the job was on him. Till he sat back, his work finished, he was not Terry Ames, a person to desire and have dreams, but a little shaggy dog in a treadmill of advertisements. Then, because he had smoked too furiously all day, and the good old family remedy for that is to groan “Oh, I oughtn’t to smoke so much,’ and light another cigarette, he tried that remedy, slouching in his chair, ruefully wriggling his
tired fingers. Slowly, as humanness began to flow again into fingers and blurred eyes and beaten-out brain, he became aware that the person who was straightening up the addressing tables was not the executive Miss Bratt, but the golden Sue.
He loafed down the office, too conscious of the stiffness of his knees, which had been rigidly crossed all day while he was typing, to be a secret knight. And Sue showed in her crinkling brow the signs of that persistent, sneaking, office headache which pinches the back of your eyeballs every time you move. Her marvelously trim hair was beginning to be disheveled; her normally unerring movements were slow and pitifully fumbling. With her superiority was gone something of her self-dependence. She looked at Terry with a smile that was worn at the edges, forlornly welcoming his presence.
“All in?” he said.
“Both of us are, I guess.”
He sat on the edge of a desk, his feet in a chair.
“Got a good bunch of girls to help you?”
“Yup. Mostly are.”
“Poor darlings, we’d be as bad as they are if we worked just one week in a place, addressing circulars to Bazooza, Oklahoma, and Winnepowunkus, Maine.”
“Yup. Always said that if I were a day laborer I’d get drunk every Saturday evening to try to forget it. Say, as man to man, Miss Superior Bratt, does this cigarette make your head ache?”
“As man to man, nothing could make it ache more than it does now. If you’ll give me one, I think I’ll try one myself.”
In the muted hours after the office has closed, time ceases to register. There is nothing that must be done for Mr. Hopkins in 15 minutes. Miss Bratt, who usually went straight home, sighed into a chair. She took a cigarette, lighted it unskillfully, smoked it very badly, with rapid, shallow little puffs.
She crushed it out and grumbled:
“Hang it, now you see why offices wear out women and scrap ’em. They simply can’t do some things, though they bluff that they can. I’d be almost a good office man if I didn’t wear skirts and if I could learn to smoke. I can’t. I detest smoking. Yet whenever I get as tired as this I think I want to smoke. That’s how big a little fool your superior Miss Bratt is.”
“Poor kid! Guess we’re both done up with this office grind, and no fresh air. And the object of it all … I ask you, why should we contribute all our youth to getting out these cursed lies about Tangerine?”
“The old worry about honesty?”
“Yes. Always have it. And go on writing the lies. Ain’t husky enough to dig ditches. Course, if I were a noble fiction hero I’d beat it to the open and lead a free, untrammeled life; but bein’ just folks and not liking to roll my cigarettes, I suppose I’ll stick here and go on kicking. But I’ll worry, allee samee.”
“So shall I, I guess,” she said. “Poor tired Terry Ames and Sue Bratt what want to run and play in the meadows!”
“We are just kids, aren’t we, dear? “
“Yes, and the worst of it is we can’t complain. We aren’t picturesque and heroic and romantic, like raggedy vagabonds. Nobody would let us play mandolins and things in nice rose gardens — we’re too
clean and well paid. Yup. We’re just impractical, and any good business man would tell us we don’t know when we’re well off.”
They fell silent, and round Terry was the sweetest spell, the most delicate incantation of his life. Her soft shoulders drooped so pitifully and so near him. He was enveloped by her fragrance, here in the office that usually smelled of paper and typewriter oil and eraser dust. The building seemed incredibly still — the only noises were the jarring of the night elevator and the rustle of distant sweeping. Through the windows they saw a pink glow from the lights of Broadway, the Broadway of theaters and restaurants that had so little to do with the workers who in the silence were letting the wonder of life infuse their drained hearts.
The charm was broken by the rrrrr-ram-slam of the elevator stopping at their floor and voices passing the door.
Nervously prowling about, Terry talked office gossip, and while she put her own desk in order and reached for her hat and coat, she answered him, quietly, frankly — his office mate. The wonder of being man and woman, which had begun to steal over them, was broken. But the comfort of being understanding friends endured.
“Why, it’s almost seven!” she exclaimed as she headed for the elevator.
“And I’ve kept you,” he said regretfully.
“Terribly sorry — didn’t know how late —”
“Oh, I’m glad we did stay and talk. I feel like a human being again!”
Then the elevator was waiting for them, and the bored, noncommittal face of the old watchman who ran the elevator after 6:30 forbade any more youthful confidences. They were silent in the cage, and at the street door they parted.
And then for five months he didn’t get any nearer to her than he had that evening!
So long as he saw Sue only in the office he could never know her much better. She had never invited him to call on her, and though she seemed to have formed an alliance with him against the rest of the office, yet he knew no more of her private life than he did of Mac’s or J.J. ’s or Gato’s — rather less, for these men talked of “the wife” with startling frankness.
One evening he had suggested that he might walk with her to the subway or the elevated. She had refused rather abruptly. After that he had not dared to try again.
A September day of almost midsummer heat. The office force had perspired all afternoon and secretly had tried to pull down garments which kept stickily and vulgarly crawling up their backs. They had no energy for work. Even Terry, who was becoming ambitious, guiltily put off every possible task. J.J. and Watkins stopped at his desk now and then to gasp, always in the same words:
“Hot enough for you today? Going to rain. That’ll cool it off.”
All day the sky had been a dirty, even gray.
Just before closing time, the sky — and, seemingly all the air itself — suddenly turned to a terrifying greenish black. Gusts of wind scattered papers. Everyone leaped to close windows. The roar of the blast was muffled as the windows went bang-bang-bang. They all stood looking out at the storm. It was night dark. A feeling of awe and terror held them.
Terry saw Sue staring out uneasily. He also saw Mac, the irrepressible, moving toward her. He ranged down and joined her, while Mac pretended that he had been heading for another window.
“I’m scared,” Sue said.
The air seemed to boil. But no rain came yet. The world was taut, waiting for it.
The city had warded off Nature, but here was Nature trying to recapture her domain. It seemed as though the walls must be beaten flat, and wilderness creep back among the ruins. Angry supernal hands shook the windows. Fear was abroad, and turned the busily insignificant office folk into a more heroic race, more primeval and tragic.
Terry boldly laid his hand over hers as they faced the storm. He pretended that they were in the open together. They stood motionless, their hands stirringly warm to each other, unconscious of the fact that the rest of the office were muttering, “Gosh, going to rain fierce,” or “Got an umbrella, Mac? Left mine home, doggone it,” or “Wonder how I’ll get to the L,” or, very often, “Ames and Miss Bratt seem quite chummy.”
Mr. Hopkins stalked out of his office and stared about, whereupon they all guiltily left the windows and got to work — all but Terry and Sue, oblivious, shoulders comfortingly close together at the window. They did not move till the office had returned to its ordinary indifference to mere Nature, with typewriters chattering and desk lights snapped on to combat the abnormal darkness.
The cheerful yellow glow through the office made them all inattentive to the moment when the rain finally smashed down.
Terry’s leaving time came 15 minutes later. But he waited at a window, watching the rain change from a black torrent to a sheet of gray nastiness. The disappearance of the terror of the storm let him down. … Tonight he couldn’t even have a walk. Too wet. And he was inexpressibly tired of movies and of his musty room. The prospect of another evening of boredom palsied him.
She passed him. She did not speak, but her smile was confiding.
He heard himself urging:
“Gee, it’s going to be dreary. Please let me come up to your house and see you. Tonight.”
She pressed her throat. “Why —”
“Oh, not — not now. Terry, I’m — I don’t like myself at home. Really! I prefer the Miss Bratt of the office. I’d rather have you know her.”
She flickered past him, her cheeks colored.
Terry grouchily turned up his coat collar and left. From the lower hall he saw the whole street filled with flashes of rain. Gutters were full and pouring out fanwise at corners of the street. The street doorway was packed with a constantly growing crowd of sweatshop workers, anxious girls and men without umbrellas. They were pitiful. And Terry didn’t feel in the least superior to them as he was jammed in among them. He was muttering with inexpressible longing:
“If I could only see Sue tonight. There’s nothing to do, if I can’t see her. I’m going back up to the office and ask her again. No, I can’t do that.” He gazed out, moon-eyed.
A voice at his ear, a gay voice:
“Why, you poor baby!”
She was beside him.
“Festive city!” he growled. “Munition millionaires. Crowded cabarets. Fine! I’ll go home and play solitaire — if I can get anybody to play it with.”
“You round-eyed, little bunny rabbit sulking by yourself! Do you really —”
“Do I want to come up to your house? It scares me to think of how much I want to.”
Her eyes turned from his. Her voice, which had always been so clear, was uncertain:
“Oh, do come up then. Oughtn’t to let you, ought to leave office behind but — come. Blank East Eighty-seventh Street.”
She hastily pushed by him into the crowd.
The secret silver knight sat on a high stool at a lunch counter. He was so excited that he slopped too much catchup on his beans. Also he let the trolley carry him past the right street, in his perturbed worry as to what he should wear, what sort of ménage he would find. Was Miss Susan Bratt of a family poor or well-to-do? Did she have a wholesale family or a spinster flat? Should he wear evening clothes or be cheerful and democratic in a clean shave and just clothes? Incidentally, he didn’t own evening clothes. Of course he could hire them, but what was all this stuff about black and white ties, black and white waistcoats? In short, he had a perfectly tremendous and youthful time worrying, then put on the other suit, decided that his umbrella was no good, took said umbrella, and started for Eighty-seventh Street.
He found that she lived on cliffs above the East River, in a model tenement house of tapestry brick and many windows, a hygienic but stern cranny for his flower. He forgot clothes. He was the secret knight again, and he had found her castle. He trudged up several miles of steps, deciding, on alternate landings, that she would let him kiss her at the door, and that she would be icily stately. Then he changed from a romantic lover into a realistic and abashed young man calling on an ordinary girl. The Sue Bratt, in a white frock with a broad blue ribbon filleting her hair, who met him at the door, was not the keen and self-dependent comrade of the office, nor was she any known sort of a lady of dreams. She was just a young lady, who was not so very different from the young ladies he had known back home. She murmured:
“So glad you could come. My mother will be pleased to meet you. And Mr. Meehan. He comes from our town — Wiletta.”
“It’s almost stopped raining, hasn’t it?” she droned as she led him down the hall to a living room that was filled with patent rockers and niceness.
Terry felt smothered as he ducked his head before Mrs. Bratt’s creaking inquiries about his respectable health, as he grasped the flabby hand of Mr. Samuel Meehan, a thin, indigestive, baldish business grinder of 38. … “Gee, but I’d like to smoke; nothing doing here though,” he groaned. He was piloted to a red plush chair flanked by a large Chinese vase of the department-store dynasty, and they all began to converse. How they conversed! They took up, methodically and thoroughly, the topics of the weather, the church back in Wiletta, the movies, the wave of prohibition, what Mr. Meehan’s boss thought about saving money, what Mr. Meehan thought about his boss, what Mr. Meehan’s boss thought about Mr. Meehan, vacuum cleaners, Sousa’s band, and the nutritious quality of Brussels sprouts.
Sue seemed somewhat absent-minded about it all, but she responded readily — and dully — enough. She carefully divided her smiles between Mr. Meehan and Terry. At first Terry hoped that she was bored, but he gave up the hope. She showed considerable interest in the burning questions of sauce hollandaise and the passing of the tango. He became sulky, and was almost rude in thwarting Mrs. Bratt’s desire to know all about his origin, income, habits, and church affiliations.
Mr. Meehan was kind enough to go at 9:30, after dabbling at Sue’s hand and, with a watery smile, bidding her: “Be our nice little Sue now, and don’t let the suffering cats make you lose your sweet womanliness — back in Wiletta we don t believe in this shrieking suffrage sisterhood, Mr. Ames. Goodnight, Susie, and goodnight, Lady Bratt. Pleased metcha, Mr. Ames.” Mr. Meehan kept up his chirping for at least five minutes more before he flowed out of the door.
Mrs. Bratt rather unwillingly made excuses to disappear, and the golden children were left alone.
Terry rushed to open a window. He drew a deep breath. He looked to her for an intimate grin that would banish all Meehans to the old ladies’ home and make this strange alien room happily familiar. But Sue was at the small piano and was flapping the leaves of thin musical-comedy pieces. She chose “The Nagasaki-saki Rag,” and started to play it brilliantly. Terry tried to look edified. She struck two false notes, stopped, tried again, then slammed down the lid and faced him.
“I’m too tired to play tonight,” she said complacently.
The outward Terry made a polite noise like a kitten sneeze, but a somber inward Terry complained:
“Why the deuce can’t she be frank, the way she is in the office, and admit she can’t play the thing, no more’n a rabbit.”
“Don’t you just love music?” she said.
“Why, why, uh, yes — gee, I don’t know whether I do or not. Now, she was becoming as strange to him as was the room. He was uncomfortable.
“You ought to. It’s so — uh, well, cultured,” she went on. “I always thought Mr. Gato would make a good pianist, he has such sensitive fingers.”
“He’s a sensitive crook!”
“Terry Ames, if you’re going to be so disagreeable you can go right home. It’s almost time anyway.”
“Oh, gee, Sue, I didn’t mean to be grouchy!” wailed the metropolitan philosopher, very much like a young man back home. “I just meant — Honestly, now, you know he’s a crook. Sensitive fingers! For picking pockets! Oh, say, speaking of Gato, I just learned yesterday why poor old Harry is going to be fired. Struck the firm for a raise. J.J. told me —”
“I don’t think it’s nice of you to talk shop when we’ve both had so much of it.”
“Why, you brought it in yourself — about Gato —”
“Well — well, I just mentioned Mr. Gato’s artistic fingers, and I don’t think it’s very nice of you to call them pickpocket fingers, when you’re always complaining about people in the office knocking. And I do think he’s got the strongest chin, he must be quite athletic.”
“Oh, I s’pose he’s husky enough.” Terry gloomily thrust both of his unathletic hands into his coat pockets.
Without providing him with the smallest conversational bridge, she leaped to:
“But anyway … Oh, you ought to see the Russian ballet and —”
“Uh, yes — yes — I must go see —”
“Though I’d almost as soon stay home and read. Oh, Terry, have you read any of Jessica Brentwood Pipp’s Southern stories? They’re so sweet and optimistic! Oh, I would like to see the Southland and the old plantations! Mrs. Pipp makes them so real, and the old darkies must be funny.”
“Why, uh, no, I haven’t read her books.”
Terry was stunned by this conversational cabaret. He wanted to be frank, but what could he be frank about in all this flood? He was outraged at the empty talk of his goddess. And the amazing thing was that he didn’t love her any the less. So he meditated, as she opened the piano again and struck occasional chords while pattering on: “Of course I don’t mean Mrs. Pipp is a great writer, but she’s so, so optimistic … Oh Terry, do you play tennis? Don’t you love Maury McLoughlin?”
She had touched on one topic regarding which he did have enthusiasms, and he brightened up enough to carry them over the questions of golf, the subway, Lakewood, and the charms of Ethel Barrymore.
He bobbed up from his chair, pretended to look at a colored photograph of scrubby woods reflected in a second-rate lake, played with the dangles on an idiotic lamp shade, broke one, apologized perspiringly; straightened a sofa cushion; stalked up to her and, snatching her hand from the piano keys, dared to lay a finger on her pulse. He could feel her blood suddenly race, her hand tremble. They were silent. They stared at each other, frightened.
She uneasily withdrew her hand. The hot room was electrically charged with fear, hope, timid understanding. He was again, as in the office months before, conscious of her peculiar magic, which seemed to grow and glow in the spellbound room. It wasn’t true; she hadn’t chattered like a parrot; surely she hadn’t! No, she was perfect, the true goddess, and, like a worshiper, he touched her hand.
Then she jumped up from the piano stool, dragged a photograph album from the table and began:
“Oh, I must show you the pictures we got on our vacation at Long Branch last summer. See, here’s where we stayed. Isn’t it the duckiest house! And here’s the bunch on the beach.”
They were off again.
The minutes were becoming terrible now. It was growing late. Already he ought to be going. Would he ever be allowed to come again, ever conjure up that spell of silence and love’s tense wonder?
“I do adore Nature,” she was saying. “I hate to be shut up in this horrid old city. It isn’t like Wiletta; there are such pretty maples there and the —”
“Is that where our friend Meehan comes from?”
“Yes. He’s always been such a good friend of the family. So kind to my mother.”
“Huh! It’s mother’s daughter that Br’er Meehan is interested in.”
She moved to the dingy brocade settee and hugged a sofa cushion, hid her lips with it, and looked over it with tempting bright eyes as she insisted:
“Well, perhaps I’m interested in him too. I’ve known him ever since —”
“Oh, sure. You sat on his knees. I know. And he taught you in Sunday school.”
“You shan’t make fun of him. Perhaps I’ll marry him some day.”
He was stern, somber, no longer boyishly jealous.
“You couldn’t do that, Sue! You do want to be big. And you do care, because I want you to be big, not — oh, not Meehany. You make believe you don’t know how much I honor you, dear, but you do know, you do!”
She tried to keep up the coquetry. She brushed the silken cord of the cushion with her lips and murmured:
“Well, Mr. Meehan never contradicts me, as you do. I must think about him seriously. He’d be —”
She stopped. Terry came and stood over her, his eyes hot. A flush came up in her cheeks, slow, painful. He sat down beside her, took the cushion away from her, took her hand and pressed it against his cheek till her fingers curved and clung there. The spell of silence began to fill the room again. Then the window shade rattled like spiteful laughter and the room seemed close, sordid.
He cried: “Oh, come up on the roof in the mist, where there’s air and sky! I don’t care if it is time for me to go! I don’t care if it is raining! Oh, Sue, Sue darling, we’re letting life get dusty. You — you who can fight the whole office alone — you aren’t going to go on pretending about love, are you?”
She hesitated, but he put an arm about her, lifted her up, drew her to the door, down the hall, up a flight of stairs to the roof. Below them was the East River, fantastically lighted from barges; and in the distant fog the huge electric signs of a factory were a throne of fire. Above them the pale, rosy sky; about them a misty breeze that blew away pettiness. He put his coat about her, stood holding it close to her shoulders, then kissed her hair, in which the dampness brought out all the fragrance.
“Oh, Terry, you mustn’t!” she sobbed.
“I will! I won’t go through all this giggling and candy toting and love making and pretending. Leave that for Meehan and Watkins and people that can’t make up their minds about love — or honesty, or anything. We’ve worked together, not just gone to parties. We buck the office together. We’ll buck life that way. We will! Come out of Wiletta!”
He cupped her wet cheeks with his two nervous, fine hands. He kissed her eyes.
“You frighten me,” she quavered.
“Dear, listen! We agree that in the office we’ll be honest — if possible. Now you be honest in love — if possible. I don’t know how I know you love me; it’s something deeper than facts; it’s just the feeling that when we’re together here, there’s something so intimate between us. And you hide it from yourself by talking of books and vacations and Wiletta! You, the worker —”
“Oh, Terry, how you talk and talk and talk! I do love you! But I’m afraid you’ll talk me out of it again. When I just want to rest!” She pillowed her cheek against his shoulder, his damp, warm shoulder.
Not for many minutes did she say:
“I was honest — as possible. I knew I was talking rot about Jessica Silly Brentwood Pipp and all, but I couldn’t think of anything else. I was so excited at having you with me, there in that quiet room. And when I tried to express it, I was so embarrassed that all I could think of was Mrs. Pipp. Only I really do like her piffle. I can have that one fault, can’t I, my perfect man?”
“Gee, the way I try to make poor Sue into a little tin god! Gato’s right about my being a crank.”
“Gato?” She grated out the name savagely. “If he ever dared to tell me you were a crank! My Terry, my boy that wants to be honest!”
“Say! Why shouldn’t I leave Hopkins & Gato and start in new, some place else? I’ve always wanted to, but before you came — just got to drifting —”
“No. That would be running away. Do you know, I’m going to hang onto my job for a while, even after we’re married — I suppose you’re going to be so kind and condescend to ask the milkmaid to marry you, sir, when you happen to think of it. And so, my little man, you won’t have me depending on you, and you can put on your boy-scout uniform and go tell Mr. Hopkins to change Tangerine from an orange development to truck farming. Do that! Do it tomorrow!”
“Um. Maybe I’d dare to buck him now with you backing me. But — suppose he fired me? Now? When I need the job for — for us?”
“Let him! That’s why I’m going to keep my job. Oh, you won’t be like the others — get cautious when you fall in love! You started me wanting to be honest, and I’m afraid you can’t stop that sort of thing, once it’s really started. You will fight it out with him! If you don’t, I will!”
“Yes. I’ll see him tomorrow. Maybe he’d do it now. Tangerine isn’t selling anything extra. Might actually go better as a truck proposition. But what a rotten, petty victory — to persuade a boss to be honest because there’s money in it for him!”
“I guess there’s nothing but petty victories in life, that and the real big thing of going on fighting — Oh, Terry, Terry, we’re talking again! Talking, talking! Tomorrow you can fight with Hopkins, but now — I’m wet and cold and tired. I’m just a bedraggled little girl, and I want to creep into your arms. Is that honest and frank enough for you, crusader of my soul?”
Great tatters of fog shut in the city children on the smug tenement, as though they stood solitary upon the roof of the world, mountain lovers, mates and fellow builders rolling boulders to make an enduring home.