Representing T. A. Buck by Edna Ferber

Story type: Literature

Emma McChesney, Mrs. (I place it in the background because she generally did) swung off the 2:15, crossed the depot platform, and dived into the hotel ‘bus. She had to climb over the feet of a fat man in brown and a lean man in black, to do it. Long practise had made her perfect in the art. She knew that the fat man and the thin man were hogging the end seats so that they could be the first to register and get a choice of rooms when the ‘bus reached the hotel. The vehicle smelled of straw, and mold, and stables, and dampness, and tobacco, as ‘buses have from old Jonas Chuzzlewit’s time to this. Nine years on the road had accustomed Emma McChesney’s nostrils to ‘bus smells. She gazed stolidly out of the window, crossed one leg over the other, remembered that her snug suit-skirt wasn’t built for that attitude, uncrossed them again, and caught the delighted and understanding eye of the fat traveling man, who was a symphony in brown–brown suit, brown oxfords, brown scarf, brown bat, brown-bordered handkerchief just peeping over the edge of his pocket. He looked like a colossal chocolate fudge.

“Red-faced, grinning, and a naughty wink–I’ll bet he sells coffins and undertakers’ supplies,” mused Emma McChesney. “And the other one– the tall, lank, funereal affair in black–I suppose his line would be sheet music, or maybe phonographs. Or perhaps he’s a lyceum bureau reader, scheduled to give an evening of humorous readings for the Young Men’s Sunday Evening Club course at the First M. E. Church.”

During those nine years on the road for the Featherloom Skirt Company Emma McChesney had picked up a side line or two on human nature.

She was not surprised to see the fat man in brown and the thin man in black leap out of the ‘bus and into the hotel before she had had time to straighten her hat after the wheels had bumped up against the curbing. By the time she reached the desk the two were disappearing in the wake of a bell-boy.

The sartorial triumph behind the desk, languidly read her signature upside down, took a disinterested look at her, and yelled:

“Front! Show the lady up to nineteen.”

Emma McChesney took three steps in the direction of the stairway toward which the boy was headed with her bags. Then she stopped.

“Wait a minute, boy,” she said, pleasantly enough; and walked back to the desk. She eyed the clerk, a half-smile on her lips, one arm, in its neat tailored sleeve, resting on the marble, while her right forefinger, trimly gloved, tapped an imperative little tattoo. (Perhaps you think that last descriptive sentence is as unnecessary as it is garbled. But don’t you get a little picture of her–trim, taut, tailored, mannish-booted, flat-heeled, linen-collared, sailor-hatted?)

“You’ve made a mistake, haven’t you?” she inquired.

Mistake?” repeated the clerk, removing his eyes from their loving contemplation of his right thumb-nail. “Guess not.”

“Oh, think it over,” drawled Emma McChesney. “I’ve never seen nineteen, but I can describe it with both eyes shut, and one hand tied behind me. It’s an inside room, isn’t it, over the kitchen, and just next to the water butt where the maids come to draw water for the scrubbing at 5 A.M.? And the boiler room gets in its best bumps for nineteen, and the patent ventilators work just next door, and there’s a pet rat that makes his headquarters in the wall between eighteen and nineteen, and the housekeeper whose room is across the hail is afflicted with a bronchial cough, nights. I’m wise to the brand of welcome that you fellows hand out to us women on the road. This is new territory for me–my first trip West. Think it over. Don’t–er–say, sixty-five strike you as being nearer my size?”

The clerk stared at Emma McChesney, and Emma McChesney coolly stared back at the clerk.

“Our aim,” began he, loftily, “is to make our guests as comfortable as possible on all occasions. But the last lady drummer who–“

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“That’s all right,” interrupted Emma McChesney, “but I’m not the kind that steals the towels, and I don’t carry an electric iron with me, either. Also I don’t get chummy with the housekeeper and the dining- room girls half an hour after I move in. Most women drummers are living up to their reputations, but some of us are living ’em down. I’m for revision downward. You haven’t got my number, that’s all.”

A slow gleam of unwilling admiration illumined the clerk’s chill eye. He turned and extracted another key with its jangling metal tag, from one of the many pigeonholes behind him.

“You win,” he said. He leaned over the desk and lowered his voice discreetly. “Say, girlie, go on into the cafe and have a drink on me.”

“Wrong again,” answered Emma McChesney. “Never use it. Bad for the complexion. Thanks just the same. Nice little hotel you’ve got here.”

In the corridor leading to sixty-five there was a great litter of pails, and mops, and brooms, and damp rags, and one heard the sigh of a vacuum cleaner.

“Spring house-cleaning,” explained the bellboy, hurdling a pail.

Emma McChesney picked her way over a little heap of dust-cloths and a ladder or so.

“House-cleaning,” she repeated dreamily; “spring house-cleaning.” And there came a troubled, yearning light into her eyes. It lingered there after the boy had unlocked and thrown open the door of sixty-five, pocketed his dime, and departed.

Sixty-five was–well, you know what sixty-five generally is in a small Middle-Western town. Iron bed–tan wall-paper–pine table–pine dresser–pine chair–red carpet–stuffy smell–fly buzzing at window– sun beating in from the west. Emma McChesney saw it all in one accustomed glance.

“Lordy, I hate to think what nineteen must be,” she told herself, and unclasped her bag. Out came the first aid to the travel-stained–a jar of cold cream. It was followed by powder, chamois, brush, comb, tooth- brush. Emma McChesney dug four fingers into the cold cream jar, slapped the stuff on her face, rubbed it in a bit, wiped it off with a dry towel, straightened her hat, dusted the chamois over her face, glanced at her watch and hurriedly whisked downstairs.

“After all,” she mused, “that thin guy might not be out for a music house. Maybe his line is skirts, too. You never can tell. Anyway, I’ll beat him to it.”

Saturday afternoon and spring-time in a small town! Do you know it? Main Street–on the right side–all a-bustle; farmers’ wagons drawn up at the curbing; farmers’ wives in the inevitable rusty black with dowdy hats furbished up with a red muslin rose in honor of spring; grand opening at the new five-and-ten-cent store, with women streaming in and streaming out again, each with a souvenir pink carnation pinned to her coat; every one carrying bundles and yellow paper bags that might contain bananas or hats or grass seed; the thirty-two automobiles that the town boasts all dashing up and down the street, driven by hatless youths in careful college clothes; a crowd of at least eleven waiting at Jenson’s drug-store corner for the next interurban car.

Emma McChesney found herself strolling when she should have been hustling in the direction of the Novelty Cloak and Suit Store. She was aware of a vague, strangely restless feeling in the region of her heart–or was it her liver?–or her lungs?

Reluctantly she turned in at the entrance of the Novelty Cloak and Suit Store and asked for the buyer. (Here we might introduce one of those side-splitting little business deal scenes. But there can be paid no finer compliment to Emma McChesney’s saleswomanship than to state that she landed her man on a busy Saturday afternoon, with a store full of customers and the head woman clerk dead against her from the start.)

As she was leaving:

“Generally it’s the other way around,” smiled the boss, regarding Emma’s trim comeliness, “but seeing you’re a lady, why, it’ll be on me.” He reached for his hat. “Let’s go and have–ah–a little something.”

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“Not any, thanks,” Emma McChesney replied, a little wearily.

On her way back to the hotel she fra
nkly loitered. Just to look at her made you certain that she was not of our town. Now, that doesn’t imply that the women of our town do not dress well, because they do. But there was something about her–a flirt of chiffon at the throat, or her hat quill stuck in a certain way, or the stitching on her gloves, or the vamp of her shoe–that was of a style which had not reached us yet.

As Emma McChesney loitered, looking in at the shop windows and watching the women hurrying by, intent on the purchase of their Sunday dinners, that vaguely restless feeling seized her again. There were rows of plump fowls in the butcher-shop windows, and juicy roasts. The cunning hand of the butcher had enhanced the redness of the meat by trimmings of curly parsley. Salad things and new vegetables glowed behind the grocers’ plate-glass. There were the tender green of lettuces, the coral of tomatoes, the brown-green of stout asparagus stalks, bins of spring peas and beans, and carrots, and bunches of greens for soup. There came over the businesslike soul of Emma McChesney a wild longing to go in and select a ten-pound roast, taking care that there should be just the right proportion of creamy fat and red meat. She wanted to go in and poke her fingers in the ribs of a broiler. She wanted to order wildly of sweet potatoes and vegetables, and soup bones, and apples for pies. She ached to turn back her sleeves and don a blue-and-white checked apron and roll out noodles.

She still was fighting that wild impulse as she walked back to the hotel, went up to her stuffy room, and, without removing hat or coat, seated herself on the edge of the bed and stared long and hard at the tan wall-paper.

There is this peculiarity about tan wall-paper. If you stare at it long enough you begin to see things. Emma McChesney, who pulled down something over thirty-two hundred a year selling Featherloom Petticoats, saw this:

A kitchen, very bright and clean, with a cluttered kind of cleanliness that bespeaks many housewifely tasks under way. There were mixing bowls, and saucepans, and a kettle or so, and from the oven there came the sounds of sputtering and hissing. About the room there hung the divinely delectable scent of freshly baked cookies. Emma McChesney saw herself in an all-enveloping checked gingham apron, her sleeves rolled up, her hair somewhat wild, and one lock powdered with white where she had pushed it back with a floury hand. Her cheeks were surprisingly pink, and her eyes were very bright, and she was scraping a baking board and rolling-pin, and trimming the edges of pie tins, and turning with a whirl to open the oven door, stooping to dip up spoonfuls of gravy only to pour the rich brown liquid over the meat again. There were things on top of the stove that required sticking into with a fork, and other things that demanded tasting and stirring with a spoon. A neighbor came in to borrow a cup of molasses, and Emma urged upon her one of her freshly baked cookies. And there was a ring at the front-door bell, and she had to rush away to do battle with a persistent book agent….

The buzzing fly alighted on Emma McChesney’s left eyebrow. She swatted it with a hand that was not quite quick enough, spoiled the picture, and slowly rose from her perch at the bedside.

“Oh, damn!” she remarked, wearily, and went over to the dresser. Then she pulled down her shirtwaist all around and went down to supper.

The dining-room was very warm, and there came a smell of lardy things from the kitchen. Those supping were doing so languidly.

“I’m dying for something cool, and green, and fresh,” remarked Emma to the girl who filled her glass with iced water; “something springish and tempting.”

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“Well,” sing-songed she of the ruffled, starched skirt, “we have ham’n-aigs, mutton chops, cold veal, cold roast–“

“Two, fried,” interrupted Emma hopelessly, “and a pot of tea–black.”

Supper over she passed through the lobby on her way upstairs. The place was filled with men. They were lolling in the big leather chairs at the window, or standing about, smoking and talking. There was a rattle of dice from the cigar counter, and a burst of laughter from the men gathered about it. It all looked very bright, and cheery, and sociable. Emma McChesney, turning to ascend the stairs to her room, felt that she, too, would like to sit in one of the big leather chairs in the window and talk to some one.

Some one was playing the piano in the parlor. The doors were open. Emma McChesney glanced in. Then she stopped. It was not the appearance of the room that held her. You may have heard of the wilds of an African jungle–the trackless wastes of the desert–the solitude of the forest–the limitless stretch of the storm-tossed ocean; they are cozy and snug when compared to the utter and soul-searing dreariness of a small town hotel parlor. You know what it is–red carpet, red plush and brocade furniture, full-length walnut mirror, battered piano on which reposes a sheet of music given away with the Sunday supplement of a city paper.

A man was seated at the piano, playing. He was not playing the Sunday supplement sheet music. His brown hat was pushed back on his head and there was a fat cigar in his pursy mouth, and as he played he squinted up through the smoke. He was playing Mendelssohn’s Spring Song. Not as you have heard it played by sweet young things; not as you have heard it rendered by the Apollo String Quartette. Under his fingers it was a fragrant, trembling, laughing, sobbing, exquisite thing. He was playing it in a way to make you stare straight ahead and swallow hard.

Emma McChesney leaned her head against the door. The man at the piano did not turn. So she tip-toed in, found a chair in a corner, and noiselessly slipped into it. She sat very still, listening, and the past-that-might-have-been, and the future-that-was-to-be, stretched behind and before her, as is strangely often the case when we are listening to music. She stared ahead with eyes that were very wide open and bright. Something in the attitude of the man sitting hunched there over the piano keys, and something in the beauty and pathos of the music brought a hot haze of tears to her eyes. She leaned her head against the back of the chair, and shut her eyes and wept quietly and heart-brokenly. The tears slid down her cheeks, and dropped on her smart tailored waist and her Irish lace jabot, and she didn’t care a bit.

The last lovely note died away. The fat man’s hands dropped limply to his sides. Emma McChesney stared at them, fascinated. They were quite marvelous hands; not at all the sort of hands one would expect to see attached to the wrists of a fat man. They were slim, nervous, sensitive hands, pink-tipped, tapering, blue-veined, delicate. As Emma McChesney stared at them the man turned slowly on the revolving stool. His plump, pink face was dolorous, sagging, wan-eyed.

He watched Emma McChesney as she sat up and dried her eyes. A satisfied light dawned in his face.

“Thanks,” he said, and mopped his forehead and chin and neck with the brown-edged handkerchief.

“You–you can’t be Paderewski. He’s thin. But if he plays any better than that, then I don’t want to hear him. You’ve upset me for the rest of the week. You’ve started me thinking about things–about things that–that-“

The fat man clasped his thin, nervous hands in front of him and leaned forward.

“About things that you’re trying to forget. It starts me that way, too. That’s why sometimes I don’t touch the keys for weeks. Say, what do you think of a man who can play like that, and who is out on the road for a living just because he knows it’s a sure thing? Music! That’s my gift. And I’ve buried it. Why? Because the public won’t take a fat man seriously. When he sits down at the piano they begin to howl for Italian rag. Why, I’d rather play the piano in a five-cent moving picture house than do what I’m doing now. But the old man wanted his son to be a business man, not a crazy, piano-playing galoot. That’s the way he put it. And I wa
s darn fool enough to think he was right. Why can’t people stand up and do the things they’re out to do! Not one person in a thousand does. Why, take you–I don’t know you from Eve, but just from the way you shed the briny I know you’re busy regretting.”

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“Regretting?” repeated Emma McChesney, in a wail. “Do you know what I am? I’m a lady drummer. And do you know what I want to do this minute? I want to clean house. I want to wind a towel around my head, and pin up my skirt, and slosh around with a pail of hot, soapy water. I want to pound a couple of mattresses in the back yard, and eat a cold dinner off the kitchen table. That’s what I want to do.”

“Well, go on and do it,” said the fat man.

“Do it? I haven’t any house to clean. I got my divorce ten years ago, and I’ve been on the road ever since. I don’t know why I stick. I’m pulling down a good, fat salary and commissions, but it’s no life for a woman, and I know it, but I’m not big enough to quit. It’s different with a man on the road. He can spend his evenings taking in two or three nickel shows, or he can stand on the drug-store corner and watch the pretty girls go by, or he can have a game of billiards, or maybe cards. Or he can have a nice, quiet time just going up to his room, and smoking a cigar and writing to his wife or his girl. D’you know what I do?”

“No,” answered the fat man, interestedly. “What?”

“Evenings I go up to my room and sew or read. Sew! Every hook and eye and button on my clothes is moored so tight that even the hand laundry can’t tear ’em off. You couldn’t pry those fastenings away with dynamite. When I find a hole in my stockings I’m tickled to death, because it’s something to mend. And read? Everything from the Rules of the House tacked up on the door to spelling out the French short story in the back of the Swell Set Magazine. It’s getting on my nerves. Do you know what I do Sunday mornings? No, you don’t. Well, I go to church, that’s what I do. And I get green with envy watching the other women there getting nervous about 11:45 or so, when the minister is still in knee-deep, and I know they’re wondering if Lizzie has basted the chicken often enough, and if she has put the celery in cold water, and the ice-cream is packed in burlap in the cellar, and if she has forgotten to mix in a tablespoon of flour to make it smooth. You can tell by the look on their faces that there’s company for dinner. And you know that after dinner they’ll sit around, and the men will smoke, and the women folks will go upstairs, and she’ll show the other woman her new scalloped, monogrammed, hand-embroidered guest towels, and the waist that her cousin Ethel brought from Paris. And maybe they’ll slip off their skirts and lie down on the spare-room bed for a ten minutes’ nap. And you can hear the hired girl rattling the dishes in the kitchen, and talking to her lady friend who is helping her wipe up so they can get out early. You can hear the two of them laughing above the clatter of the dishes–“

The fat man banged one fist down on the piano keys with a crash.

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“I’m through,” he said. “I quit to-night. I’ve got my own life to live. Here, will you shake on it? I’ll quit if you will. You’re a born housekeeper. You don’t belong on the road any more than I do. It’s now or never. And it’s going to be now with me. When I strike the pearly gates I’m not going to have Saint Peter say to me, ‘Ed, old kid, what have you done with your talents?’”

“You’re right,” sobbed Emma McChesney, her face glowing.

“By the way,” interrupted the fat man, “what’s your line?”

“Petticoats. I’m out for T. A. Buck’s Featherloom Skirts. What’s yours?”

“Suffering cats!” shouted the fat man. “D’ you mean to tell me that you’re the fellow who sold that bill to Blum, of the Novelty Cloak and Suit concern, and spoiled a sale for me?”

“You! Are you–“

“You bet I am. I sell the best little skirt in the world. Strauss’s Sans-silk Petticoat, warranted not to crack, rip, or fall into holes. Greatest little skirt in the country.”

Emma McChesney straightened her collar and jabot with a jerk, and sat up.

“Oh, now, don’t give me that bunk. You’ve got a good little seller, all right, but that guaranty don’t hold water any more than the petticoat contains silk. I know that stuff. It looms up big in the window displays, but it’s got a filler of glucose, or starch or mucilage or something, and two days after you wear it it’s as limp as a cheesecloth rag. It’s showy, but you take a line like mine, for instance, why–“

“My customers swear by me. I make DeKalb to-morrow, and there’s Nussbaum, of the Paris Emporium, the biggest store there, who just–“

“I make DeKalb, too,” remarked Emma McChesney, the light of battle in her eye.

“You mean,” gently insinuated the fat man, “that you were going to, but that’s all over now.”

“Huh?” said Emma.

“Our agreement, you know,” the fat man reminded her, sweetly. “You aren’t going back on that. The cottage and the Sunday dinner for you, remember.”

Of course,” agreed Emma listlessly.” I think I’ll go up and get some sleep now. Didn’t get much last night on the road.”

“Won’t you–er–come down and have a little something moist? Or we could have it sent up here,” suggested the fat man.

“You’re the third man that’s asked me that to-day,” snapped Emma McChesney, somewhat crossly. “Say, what do I look like, anyway? I guess I’ll have to pin a white ribbon on my coat lapel.”

“No offense,” put in the fat man, with haste. “I just thought it would bind our bargain. I hope you’ll be happy, and contented, and all that, you know.”

“Let it go double,” replied Emma McChesney, and shook his hand.

“Guess I’ll run down and get a smoke,” remarked he.

He ran down the stairs in a manner wonderfully airy for one so stout. Emma watched him until he disappeared around a bend in the stairs. Then she walked hastily in the direction of sixty-five.

Down in the lobby the fat man, cigar in mouth, was cautioning the clerk, and emphasizing his remarks with one forefinger.

“I want to leave a call for six thirty,” he was saying. “Not a minute later. I’ve got to get out of here on that 7:35 for DeKalb. Got a Sunday customer there.”

As he turned away a telephone bell tinkled at the desk. The clerk bent his stately head.

“Clerk. Yes, ma’am. No, ma’am, there’s no train out of here to-night for DeKalb. To-morrow morning. Seven thirty-five A.M. I sure will. At six-thirty? Surest thing you know.”

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