From his seat on a box in the rough board shed that stuck like a burr on the rear of Cowley & Son’s store in Winesburg, Elmer Cowley, the junior member of the firm, could see through a dirty window into the printshop of the Winesburg Eagle. Elmer was putting new shoelaces in his shoes. They did not go in readily and he had to take the shoes off. With the shoes in his hand he sat looking at a large hole in the heel of one of his stockings.Then looking quickly up he saw George Willard, the only newspaper reporter in Winesburg, standing at the back door of the Eagle printshop and staring absentmindedly about. “Well, well, what next!” exclaimed the young man with the shoes in his hand, jumping to his feet and creeping away from the window.
A flush crept into Elmer Cowley’s face and his hands began to tremble. In Cowley & Son’s store a Jewish traveling salesman stood by the counter talking to his father. He imagined the reporter could hear what was being said and the thought made him furious. With one of the shoes still held in his hand he stood in a corner of the shed and stamped with a stockinged foot upon the board floor.
Cowley & Son’s store did not face the main street of Winesburg. The front was on Maumee Street and beyond it was Voight’s wagon shop and a shed for the sheltering of farmers’ horses. Beside the store an alleyway ran behind the main street stores and all day drays and delivery wagons, intent on bringing in and taking out goods, passed up and down. The store itself was indescribable. Will Henderson once said of it that it sold everything and nothing. In the window facing Maumee Street stood a chunk of coal as large as an apple barrel, to indicate that orders for coal were taken, and beside the black mass of the coal stood three combs of honey grown brown and dirty in their wooden frames.
The honey had stood in the store window for six months. It was for sale as were also the coat hangers, patent suspender buttons, cans of roof paint, bottles of rheumatism cure, and a substitute for coffee that companioned the honey in its patient willingness to serve the public.
Ebenezer Cowley, the man who stood in the store listening to the eager patter of words that fell from the lips of the traveling man, was tall and lean and looked unwashed. On his scrawny neck was a large wen partially covered by a grey beard. He wore a long Prince Albert coat. The coat had been purchased to serve as a wedding garment. Before he became a merchant Ebenezer was a farmer and after his marriage he wore the Prince Albert coat to church on Sundays and on Saturday afternoons when he came into town to trade. When he sold the farm to become a merchant he wore the coat constantly. It had become brown with age and was covered with grease spots, but in it Ebenezer always felt dressed up and ready for the day in town.
As a merchant Ebenezer was not happily placed in life and he had not been happily placed as a farmer. Still he existed. His family, consisting of a daughter named Mabel and the son, lived with him in rooms above the store and it did not cost them much to live. His troubles were not financial. His unhappiness as a merchant lay in the fact that when a traveling man with wares to be sold came in at the front door he was afraid. Behind the counter he stood shaking his head. He was afraid, first that he would stubbornly refuse to buy and thus lose the opportunity to sell again; second that he would not be stubborn enough and would in a moment of weakness buy what could not be sold.
In the store on the morning when Elmer Cowley saw George Willard standing and apparently listening at the back door of the Eagle printshop, a situation had arisen that always stirred the son’s wrath. The traveling man talked and Ebenezer listened, his whole figure expressing uncertainty. “You see how quickly it is done,” said the traveling man, who had for sale a small flat metal substitute for collar buttons. With one hand he quickly unfastened a collar from his shirt and then fastened it on again. He assumed a flattering wheedling tone. “I tell you what, men have come to the end of all this fooling with collar buttons and you are the man to make money out of the change that is coming. I am offering you the exclusive agency for this town. Take twenty dozen of these fasteners and I’ll not visit any other store. I’ll leave the field to you.”
The traveling man leaned over the counter and tapped with his finger on Ebenezer’s breast. “It’s an opportunity and I want you to take it,” he urged. “A friend of mine told me about you. ‘See that man Cowley,’ he said. ‘He’s a live one.'”
The traveling man paused and waited. Taking a book from his pocket he began writing out the order. Still holding the shoe in his hand Elmer Cowley went through the store, past the two absorbed men, to a glass showcase near the front door. He took a cheap revolver from the case and began to wave it about. “You get out of here!” he shrieked. “We don’t want any collar fasteners here.” An idea came to him. “Mind, I’m not making any threat,” he added. “I don’t say I’ll shoot. Maybe I just took this gun out of the case to look at it. But you better get out. Yes sir, I’ll say that. You better grab up your things and get out.”
The young storekeeper’s voice rose to a scream and going behind the counter he began to advance upon the two men. “We’re through being fools here!” he cried. “We ain’t going to buy any more stuff until we begin to sell. We ain’t going to keep on being queer and have folks staring and listening. You get out of here!”
The traveling man left. Raking the samples of collar fasteners off the counter into a black leather bag, he ran. He was a small man and very bow-legged and he ran awkwardly. The black bag caught against the door and he stumbled and fell. “Crazy, that’s what he is–crazy!” he sputtered as he arose from the sidewalk and hurried away.
In the store Elmer Cowley and his father stared at each other. Now that the immediate object of his wrath had fled, the younger man was embarrassed. “Well, I meant it. I think we’ve been queer long enough,” he declared, going to the showcase and replacing the revolver. Sitting on a barrel he pulled on and fastened the shoe he had been holding in his hand. He was waiting for some word of understanding from his father but when Ebenezer spoke his words only served to reawaken the wrath in the son and the young man ran out of the store without replying. Scratching his grey beard with his long dirty fingers, the merchant looked at his son with the same wavering uncertain stare with which he had confronted the traveling man. “I’ll be starched,” he said softly. “Well, well, I’ll be washed and ironed and starched!”
Elmer Cowley went out of Winesburg and along a country road that paralleled the railroad track. He did not know where he was going or what he was going to do. In the shelter of a deep cut where the road, after turning sharply to the right, dipped under the tracks he stopped and the passion that had been the cause of his outburst in the store began to again find expression. “I will not be queer–one to be looked at and listened to,” he declared aloud. “I’ll be like other people. I’ll show that George Willard. He’ll find out. I’ll show him!”
The distraught young man stood in the middle of the road and glared back at the town. He did not know the reporter George Willard and had no special feeling concerning the tall boy who ran about town gathering the town news. The reporter had merely come, by his presence in the office and in the printshop of the Winesburg Eagle, to stand for something in the young merchant’s mind. He thought the boy who passed and repassed Cowley & Son’s store and who stopped to talk to people in the street must be thinking of him and perhaps laughing at him. George Willard, he felt, belonged to the town, typified the town, represented in his person the spirit of the town. Elmer Cowley could not have believed that George Willard had also his days of unhappiness, that vague hungers and secret unnamable desires visited also his mind. Did he not represent public opinion and had not the public opinion of Winesburg condemned the Cowleys to queerness? Did he not walk whistling and laughing through Main Street? Might not one by striking his person strike also the greater enemy–the thing that smiled and went its own way–the judgment of Winesburg?
Elmer Cowley was extraordinarily tall and his arms were long and powerful. His hair, his eyebrows, and the downy beard that had begun to grow upon his chin, were pale almost to whiteness. His teeth protruded from between his lips and his eyes were blue with the colorless blueness of the marbles called “aggies” that the boys of Winesburg carried in their pockets. Elmer had lived in Winesburg for a year and had made no friends. He was, he felt, one condemned to go through life without friends and he hated the thought.
Sullenly the tall young man tramped along the road with his hands stuffed into his trouser pockets. The day was cold with a raw wind, but presently the sun began to shine and the road became soft and muddy. The tops of the ridges of frozen mud that formed the road began to melt and the mud clung to Elmer’s shoes. His feet became cold. When he had gone several miles he turned off the road, crossed a field and entered a wood. In the wood he gathered sticks to build a fire, by which he sat trying to warm himself, miserable in body and in mind.
For two hours he sat on the log by the fire and then, arising and creeping cautiously through a mass of underbrush, he went to a fence and looked across fields to a small farmhouse surrounded by low sheds. A smile came to his lips and he began making motions with his long arms to a man who was husking corn in one of the fields.
In his hour of misery the young merchant had returned to the farm where he had lived through boyhood and where there was another human being to whom he felt he could explain himself. The man on the farm was a half-witted old fellow named Mook. He had once been employed by Ebenezer Cowley and had stayed on the farm when it was sold. The old man lived in one of the unpainted sheds back of the farmhouse and puttered about all day in the fields.
Mook the half-wit lived happily. With childlike faith he believed in the intelligence of the animals that lived in the sheds with him, and when he was lonely held long conversations with the cows, the pigs, and even with the chickens that ran about the barnyard. He it was who had put the expression regarding being “laundered” into the mouth of his former employer. When excited or surprised by anything he smiled vaguely and muttered: “I’ll be washed and ironed. Well, well, I’ll be washed and ironed and starched.”
When the half-witted old man left his husking of corn and came into the wood to meet Elmer Cowley, he was neither surprised nor especially interested in the sudden appearance of the young man. His feet also were cold and he sat on the log by the fire, grateful for the warmth and apparently indifferent to what Elmer had to say.
Elmer talked earnestly and with great freedom, walking up and down and waving his arms about. “You don’t understand what’s the matter with me so of course you don’t care,” he declared. “With me it’s different. Look how it has always been with me. Father is queer and mother was queer, too. Even the clothes mother used to wear were not like other people’s clothes, and look at that coat in which father goes about there in town, thinking he’s dressed up, too. Why don’t he get a new one? It wouldn’t cost much. I’ll tell you why. Father doesn’t know and when mother was alive she didn’t know either. Mabel is different. She knows but she won’t say anything. I will, though. I’m not going to be stared at any longer. Why look here, Mook, father doesn’t know that his store there in town is just a queer jumble, that he’ll never sell the stuff he buys. He knows nothing about it. Sometimes he’s a little worried that trade doesn’t come and then he goes and buys something else. In the evenings he sits by the fire upstairs and says trade will come after a while. He isn’t worried. He’s queer. He doesn’t know enough to be worried.”
The excited young man became more excited. “He don’t know but I know,” he shouted, stopping to gaze down into the dumb, unresponsive face of the half-wit. “I know too well. I can’t stand it. When we lived out here it was different. I worked and at night I went to bed and slept. I wasn’t always seeing people and thinking as I am now. In the evening, there in town, I go to the post office or to the depot to see the train come in, and no one says anything to me. Everyone stands around and laughs and they talk but they say nothing to me. Then I feel so queer that I can’t talk either. I go away. I don’t say anything. I can’t.”
The fury of the young man became uncontrollable. “I won’t stand it,” he yelled, looking up at the bare branches of the trees. “I’m not made to stand it.”
Maddened by the dull face of the man on the log by the fire, Elmer turned and glared at him as he had glared back along the road at the town of Winesburg. “Go on back to work,” he screamed. “What good does it do me to talk to you?” A thought came to him and his voice dropped. “I’m a coward too, eh?” he muttered. “Do you know why I came clear out here afoot? I had to tell someone and you were the only one I could tell. I hunted out another queer one, you see. I ran away, that’s what I did. I couldn’t stand up to someone like that George Willard. I had to come to you. I ought to tell him and I will.”
Again his voice arose to a shout and his arms flew about. “I will tell him. I won’t be queer. I don’t care what they think. I won’t stand it.”
Elmer Cowley ran out of the woods leaving the half-wit sitting on the log before the fire. Presently the old man arose and climbing over the fence went back to his work in the corn. “I’ll be washed and ironed and starched,” he declared. “Well, well, I’ll be washed and ironed.” Mook was interested. He went along a lane to a field where two cows stood nibbling at a straw stack. “Elmer was here,” he said to the cows. “Elmer is crazy. You better get behind the stack where he don’t see you. He’ll hurt someone yet, Elmer will.”
At eight o’clock that evening Elmer Cowley put his head in at the front door of the office of the Winesburg Eagle where George Willard sat writing. His cap was pulled down over his eyes and a sullen determined look was on his face. “You come on outside with me,” he said, stepping in and closing the door. He kept his hand on the knob as though prepared to resist anyone else coming in. “You just come along outside. I want to see you.”
George Willard and Elmer Cowley walked through the main street of Winesburg. The night was cold and George Willard had on a new overcoat and looked very spruce and dressed up. He thrust his hands into the overcoat pockets and looked inquiringly at his companion. He had long been wanting to make friends with the young merchant and find out what was in his mind. Now he thought he saw a chance and was delighted. “I wonder what he’s up to? Perhaps he thinks he has a piece of news for the paper. It can’t be a fire because I haven’t heard the fire bell and there isn’t anyone running,” he thought.
In the main street of Winesburg, on the cold November evening, but few citizens appeared and these hurried along bent on getting to the stove at the back of some store. The windows of the stores were frosted and the wind rattled the tin sign that hung over the entrance to the stairway leading to Doctor Welling’s office. Before Hern’s Grocery a basket of apples and a rack filled with new brooms stood on the sidewalk. Elmer Cowley stopped and stood facing George Willard. He tried to talk and his arms began to pump up and down. His face worked spasmodically. He seemed about to shout. “Oh, you go on back,” he cried. “Don’t stay out here with me. I ain’t got anything to tell you. I don’t want to see you at all.”
For three hours the distracted young merchant wandered through the resident streets of Winesburg blind with anger, brought on by his failure to declare his determination not to be queer. Bitterly the sense of defeat settled upon him and he wanted to weep. After the hours of futile sputtering at nothingness that had occupied the afternoon and his failure in the presence of the young reporter, he thought he could see no hope of a future for himself.
And then a new idea dawned for him. In the darkness that surrounded him he began to see a light. Going to the now darkened store, where Cowley & Son had for over a year waited vainly for trade to come, he crept stealthily in and felt about in a barrel that stood by the stove at the rear. In the barrel beneath shavings lay a tin box containing Cowley & Son’s cash. Every evening Ebenezer Cowley put the box in the barrel when he closed the store and went upstairs to bed. “They wouldn’t never think of a careless place like that,” he told himself, thinking of robbers.
Elmer took twenty dollars, two ten-dollar bills, from the little roll containing perhaps four hundred dollars, the cash left from the sale of the farm. Then replacing the box beneath the shavings he went quietly out at the front door and walked again in the streets.
The idea that he thought might put an end to all of his unhappiness was very simple. “I will get out of here, run away from home,” he told himself. He knew that a local freight train passed through Winesburg at midnight and went on to Cleveland, where it arrived at dawn. He would steal a ride on the local and when he got to Cleveland would lose himself in the crowds there. He would get work in some shop and become friends with the other workmen and would be indistinguishable. Then he could talk and laugh. He would no longer be queer and would make friends. Life would begin to have warmth and meaning for him as it had for others.
The tall awkward young man, striding through the streets, laughed at himself because he had been angry and had been half afraid of George Willard. He decided he would have his talk with the young reporter before he left town, that he would tell him about things, perhaps challenge him, challenge all of Winesburg through him.
Aglow with new confidence Elmer went to the office of the New Willard House and pounded on the door. A sleep-eyed boy slept on a cot in the office. He received no salary but was fed at the hotel table and bore with pride the title of “night clerk.” Before the boy Elmer was bold, insistent. “You ‘wake him up,” he commanded. “You tell him to come down by the depot. I got to see him and I’m going away on the local. Tell him to dress and come on down. I ain’t got much time.”
The midnight local had finished its work in Winesburg and the trainsmen were coupling cars, swinging lanterns and preparing to resume their flight east. George Willard, rubbing his eyes and again wearing the new overcoat, ran down to the station platform afire with curiosity. “Well, here I am. What do you want? You’ve got something to tell me, eh?” he said.
Elmer tried to explain. He wet his lips with his tongue and looked at the train that had begun to groan and get under way. “Well, you see,” he began, and then lost control of his tongue. “I’ll be washed and ironed. I’ll be washed and ironed and starched,” he muttered half incoherently.
Elmer Cowley danced with fury beside the groaning train in the darkness on the station platform. Lights leaped into the air and bobbed up and down before his eyes. Taking the two ten-dollar bills from his pocket he thrust them into George Willard’s hand. “Take them,” he cried. “I don’t want them. Give them to father. I stole them.” With a snarl of rage he turned and his long arms began to flay the air. Like one struggling for release from hands that held him he struck out, hitting George Willard blow after blow on the breast, the neck, the mouth. The young reporter rolled over on the platform half unconscious, stunned by the terrific force of the blows. Springing aboard the passing train and running over the tops of cars, Elmer sprang down to a flat car and lying on his face looked back, trying to see the fallen man in the darkness. Pride surged up in him. “I showed him,” he cried. “I guess I showed him. I ain’t so queer. I guess I showed him I ain’t so queer.”