He lived with his mother, a grey, silent woman with a peculiar ashy complexion. The house in which they lived stood in a little grove of trees beyond where the main street of Winesburg crossed Wine Creek. His name was Joe Welling, and his father had been a man of some dignity in the community, a lawyer, and a member of the state legislature at Columbus. Joe himself was small of body and in his character unlike anyone else in town. He was like a tiny little volcano that lies silent for days and then suddenly spouts fire. No, he wasn’t like that–he was like a man who is subject to fits, one who walks among his fellow men inspiring fear because a fit may come upon him suddenly and blow him away into a strange uncanny physical state in which his eyes roll and his legs and arms jerk. He was like that, only that the visitation that descended upon Joe Welling was a mental and not a physical thing. He was beset by ideas and in the throes of one of his ideas was uncontrollable. Words rolled and tumbled from his mouth. A peculiar smile came upon his lips. The edges of his teeth that were tipped with gold glistened in the light. Pouncing upon a bystander he began to talk. For the bystander there was no escape. The excited man breathed into his face, peered into his eyes, pounded upon his chest with a shaking forefinger, demanded, compelled attention.
In those days the Standard Oil Company did not deliver oil to the consumer in big wagons and motor trucks as it does now, but delivered instead to retail grocers, hardware stores, and the like. Joe was the Standard Oil agent in Winesburg and in several towns up and down the railroad that went through Winesburg. He collected bills, booked orders, and did other things. His father, the legislator, had secured the job for him.
In and out of the stores of Winesburg went Joe Welling–silent, excessively polite, intent upon his business. Men watched him with eyes in which lurked amusement tempered by alarm. They were waiting for him to break forth, preparing to flee. Although the seizures that came upon him were harmless enough, they could not be laughed away. They were overwhelming. Astride an idea, Joe was overmastering. His personality became gigantic. It overrode the man to whom he talked, swept him away, swept all away, all who stood within sound of his voice.
In Sylvester West’s Drug Store stood four men who were talking of horse racing. Wesley Moyer’s stallion, Tony Tip, was to race at the June meeting at Tiffin, Ohio, and there was a rumor that he would meet the stiffest competition of his career. It was said that Pop Geers, the great racing driver, would himself be there. A doubt of the success of Tony Tip hung heavy in the air of Winesburg.
Into the drug store came Joe Welling, brushing the screen door violently aside. With a strange absorbed light in his eyes he pounced upon Ed Thomas, he who knew Pop Geers and whose opinion of Tony Tip’s chances was worth considering.
“The water is up in Wine Creek,” cried Joe Welling with the air of Pheidippides bringing news of the victory of the Greeks in the struggle at Marathon. His finger beat a tattoo upon Ed Thomas’s broad chest. “By Trunion bridge it is within eleven and a half inches of the flooring,” he went on, the words coming quickly and with a little whistling noise from between his teeth. An expression of helpless annoyance crept over the faces of the four.
“I have my facts correct. Depend upon that. I went to Sinnings’ Hardware Store and got a rule. Then I went back and measured. I could hardly believe my own eyes. It hasn’t rained you see for ten days. At first I didn’t know what to think. Thoughts rushed through my head. I thought of subterranean passages and springs. Down under the ground went my mind, delving about. I sat on the floor of the bridge and rubbed my head. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, not one. Come out into the street and you’ll see. There wasn’t a cloud. There isn’t a cloud now. Yes, there was a cloud. I don’t want to keep back any facts. There was a cloud in the west down near the horizon, a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand.
“Not that I think that has anything to do with it. There it is, you see. You understand how puzzled I was.
“Then an idea came to me. I laughed. You’ll laugh, too. Of course it rained over in Medina County. That’s interesting, eh? If we had no trains, no mails, no telegraph, we would know that it rained over in Medina County. That’s where Wine Creek comes from. Everyone knows that. Little old Wine Creek brought us the news. That’s interesting. I laughed. I thought I’d tell you–it’s interesting, eh?”
Joe Welling turned and went out at the door. Taking a book from his pocket, he stopped and ran a finger down one of the pages. Again he was absorbed in his duties as agent of the Standard Oil Company. “Hern’s Grocery will be getting low on coal oil. I’ll see them,” he muttered, hurrying along the street, and bowing politely to the right and left at the people walking past.
When George Willard went to work for the Winesburg Eagle he was besieged by Joe Welling. Joe envied the boy. It seemed to him that he was meant by Nature to be a reporter on a newspaper. “It is what I should be doing, there is no doubt of that,” he declared, stopping George Willard on the sidewalk before Daugherty’s Feed Store. His eyes began to glisten and his forefinger to tremble. “Of course I make more money with the Standard Oil Company and I’m only telling you,” he added. “I’ve got nothing against you but I should have your place. I could do the work at odd moments. Here and there I would run finding out things you’ll never see.”
Becoming more excited Joe Welling crowded the young reporter against the front of the feed store. He appeared to be lost in thought, rolling his eyes about and running a thin nervous hand through his hair. A smile spread over his face and his gold teeth glittered. “You get out your note book,” he commanded. “You carry a little pad of paper in your pocket, don’t you? I knew you did. Well, you set this down. I thought of it the other day. Let’s take decay. Now what is decay? It’s fire. It burns up wood and other things. You never thought of that? Of course not. This sidewalk here and this feed store, the trees down the street there–they’re all on fire. They’re burning up. Decay you see is always going on. It doesn’t stop. Water and paint can’t stop it. If a thing is iron, then what? It rusts, you see. That’s fire, too. The world is on fire. Start your pieces in the paper that way. Just say in big letters ‘The World Is On Fire.’ That will make ’em look up. They’ll say you’re a smart one. I don’t care. I don’t envy you. I just snatched that idea out of the air. I would make a newspaper hum. You got to admit that.”‘
Turning quickly, Joe Welling walked rapidly away. When he had taken several steps he stopped and looked back. “I’m going to stick to you,” he said. “I’m going to make you a regular hummer. I should start a newspaper myself, that’s what I should do. I’d be a marvel. Everybody knows that.”
When George Willard had been for a year on the Winesburg Eagle, four things happened to Joe Welling. His mother died, he came to live at the New Willard House, he became involved in a love affair, and he organized the Winesburg Baseball Club.
Joe organized the baseball club because he wanted to be a coach and in that position he began to win the respect of his townsmen. “He is a wonder,” they declared after Joe’s team had whipped the team from Medina County. “He gets everybody working together. You just watch him.”
Upon the baseball field Joe Welling stood by first base, his whole body quivering with excitement. In spite of themselves all the players watched him closely. The opposing pitcher became confused.
“Now! Now! Now! Now!” shouted the excited man. “Watch me! Watch me! Watch my fingers! Watch my hands! Watch my feet! Watch my eyes! Let’s work together here! Watch me! In me you see all the movements of the game! Work with me! Work with me! Watch me! Watch me! Watch me!”
With runners of the Winesburg team on bases, Joe Welling became as one inspired. Before they knew what had come over them, the base runners were watching the man, edging off the bases, advancing, retreating, held as by an invisible cord. The players of the opposing team also watched Joe. They were fascinated. For a moment they watched and then, as though to break a spell that hung over them, they began hurling the ball wildly about, and amid a series of fierce animal-like cries from the coach, the runners of the Winesburg team scampered home.
Joe Welling’s love affair set the town of Winesburg on edge. When it began everyone whispered and shook his head. When people tried to laugh, the laughter was forced and unnatural. Joe fell in love with Sarah King, a lean, sad-looking woman who lived with her father and brother in a brick house that stood opposite the gate leading to the Winesburg Cemetery.
The two Kings, Edward the father, and Tom the son, were not popular in Winesburg. They were called proud and dangerous. They had come to Winesburg from some place in the South and ran a cider mill on the Trunion Pike. Tom King was reported to have killed a man before he came to Winesburg. He was twenty-seven years old and rode about town on a grey pony. Also he had a long yellow mustache that dropped down over his teeth, and always carried a heavy, wicked-looking walking stick in his hand. Once he killed a dog with the stick. The dog belonged to Win Pawsey, the shoe merchant, and stood on the sidewalk wagging its tail. Tom King killed it with one blow. He was arrested and paid a fine of ten dollars.
Old Edward King was small of stature and when he passed people in the street laughed a queer unmirthful laugh. When he laughed he scratched his left elbow with his right hand. The sleeve of his coat was almost worn through from the habit. As he walked along the street, looking nervously about and laughing, he seemed more dangerous than his silent, fierce-looking son.
When Sarah King began walking out in the evening with Joe Welling, people shook their heads in alarm. She was tall and pale and had dark rings under her eyes. The couple looked ridiculous together. Under the trees they walked and Joe talked. His passionate eager protestations of love, heard coming out of the darkness by the cemetery wall, or from the deep shadows of the trees on the hill that ran up to the Fair Grounds from Waterworks Pond, were repeated in the stores. Men stood by the bar in the New Willard House laughing and talking of Joe’s courtship. After the laughter came the silence. The Winesburg baseball team, under his management, was winning game after game, and the town had begun to respect him. Sensing a tragedy, they waited, laughing nervously.
Late on a Saturday afternoon the meeting between Joe Welling and the two Kings, the anticipation of which had set the town on edge, took place in Joe Welling’s room in the New Willard House. George Willard was a witness to the meeting. It came about in this way:
When the young reporter went to his room after the evening meal he saw Tom King and his father sitting in the half darkness in Joe’s room. The son had the heavy walking stick in his hand and sat near the door. Old Edward King walked nervously about, scratching his left elbow with his right hand. The hallways were empty and silent.
George Willard went to his own room and sat down at his desk. He tried to write but his hand trembled so that he could not hold the pen. He also walked nervously up and down. Like the rest of the town of Winesburg he was perplexed and knew not what to do.
It was seven-thirty and fast growing dark when Joe Welling came along the station platform toward the New Willard House. In his arms he held a bundle of weeds and grasses. In spite of the terror that made his body shake, George Willard was amused at the sight of the small spry figure holding the grasses and half running along the platform.
Shaking with fright and anxiety, the young reporter lurked in the hallway outside the door of the room in which Joe Welling talked to the two Kings. There had been an oath, the nervous giggle of old Edward King, and then silence. Now the voice of Joe Welling, sharp and clear, broke forth. George Willard began to laugh. He understood. As he had swept all men before him, so now Joe Welling was carrying the two men in the room off their feet with a tidal wave of words. The listener in the hall walked up and down, lost in amazement.
Inside the room Joe Welling had paid no attention to the grumbled threat of Tom King. Absorbed in an idea he closed the door and, lighting a lamp, spread the handful of weeds and grasses upon the floor. “I’ve got something here,” he announced solemnly. “I was going to tell George Willard about it, let him make a piece out of it for the paper. I’m glad you’re here. I wish Sarah were here also. I’ve been going to come to your house and tell you of some of my ideas. They’re interesting. Sarah wouldn’t let me. She said we’d quarrel. That’s foolish.”
Running up and down before the two perplexed men, Joe Welling began to explain. “Don’t you make a mistake now,” he cried. “This is something big.” His voice was shrill with excitement. “You just follow me, you’ll be interested. I know you will. Suppose this–suppose all of the wheat, the corn, the oats, the peas, the potatoes, were all by some miracle swept away. Now here we are, you see, in this county. There is a high fence built all around us. We’ll suppose that. No one can get over the fence and all the fruits of the earth are destroyed, nothing left but these wild things, these grasses. Would we be done for? I ask you that. Would we be done for?” Again Tom King growled and for a moment there was silence in the room. Then again Joe plunged into the exposition of his idea. “Things would go hard for a time. I admit that. I’ve got to admit that. No getting around it. We’d be hard put to it. More than one fat stomach would cave in. But they couldn’t down us. I should say not.”
Tom King laughed good naturedly and the shivery, nervous laugh of Edward King rang through the house. Joe Welling hurried on. “We’d begin, you see, to breed up new vegetables and fruits. Soon we’d regain all we had lost. Mind, I don’t say the new things would be the same as the old. They wouldn’t. Maybe they’d be better, maybe not so good. That’s interesting, eh? You can think about that. It starts your mind working, now don’t it?”
In the room there was silence and then again old Edward King laughed nervously. “Say, I wish Sarah was here,” cried Joe Welling. “Let’s go up to your house. I want to tell her of this.”
There was a scraping of chairs in the room. It was then that George Willard retreated to his own room. Leaning out at the window he saw Joe Welling going along the street with the two Kings. Tom King was forced to take extraordinary long strides to keep pace with the little man. As he strode along, he leaned over, listening–absorbed, fascinated. Joe Welling again talked excitedly. “Take milkweed now,” he cried. “A lot might be done with milkweed, eh? It’s almost unbelievable. I want you to think about it. I want you two to think about it. There would be a new vegetable kingdom you see. It’s interesting, eh? It’s an idea. Wait till you see Sarah, she’ll get the idea. She’ll be interested. Sarah is always interested in ideas. You can’t be too smart for Sarah, now can you? Of course you can’t. You know that.”