Salt of the Earth

I

JAMES told Tillie about it when he went home for dinner that day. One of the drivers had brought him the news. ‘I just can’t work like I oughta,’ he said. ‘Seems like it takes all the starch outa me.’

He had n’t minded when he’d heard about the Company closing the first store. There always had been stores that did n’t pay. Usually, though, they’d open again in a better location. But the second one — when he’d heard about that, he’d been upset.

Now another — the third in two months. If they were closing stores, his might be next. True, he was doing the business. He’d been watching mighty close; always had. But since that second store had been closed . . . When he counted the receipts at night now, he could feel his heart pounding, as though he were frightened.

He’d felt so much a part of the Company. He even owned five shares of stock. But now — well, it was different somehow. The Company had become a Force, something he could n’t fight against; a force whose ways were incalculable.

He tried to explain it to Tillie. ‘It’s so unexpected-like,’ he said. ‘It was like my store; but better than my store. Because anybody can open his own little store, if he can scrape up the money. But when he can suit the Company, he must be good.’

Thirty-five years he’d been with the Company. He liked to talk about it. ‘Yessir,’ he told each new delivery boy, ‘I started just like you. And I did n’t get the money you ’re gettin’, either. And old Hobbs, the manager then, he was a mean cuss. We worked in those days, I tell you! ’

He could remember when they’d made him manager. Tillie and he had been talking about getting married. You could, on a manager’s salary. He’d felt it might be — but there was Collins. Collins was a big husky fellow. They might think he looked better behind the counter. ‘And say, you do look lost in them aprons,’ Collins would tease him. ‘We’ll have to be tellin’ the Company to send boy sizes.’

Well, he’d never been strong-looking. Tillie did her best to feed him up, but, as she said, ‘The more you eat, the fatter I get.’ But he could work — better than the best of them.

‘They couldn’t kick you out after the way you’ve worked for them,’ Tillie said indignantly.

James shook his head. One did n’t question the ways of the Company.

‘But I don’t know what you’re fussin’ so for,’ Tillie said easily. ‘You ain’t heard nothing ’cept they’ve closed three stores, and here you get yourself in a state.’

‘But if they did?’ James stared at Tillie. ‘I never thought ... I felt so . . . why ... it’d be like somebody told me you’d run off with another man.’

Tillie laughed comfortably. ‘How you talk!’

He did n’t feel the same way — no, not even about going back to the store. He’d never taken the full hour for lunch, and Tillie complained continually about having to get dinner in the middle of the day because he refused to come home for it at night. It was too busy between five and seven. Tillie always had sandwiches ready for him at noon to take with him for his supper. But now, he told himself, it was only a duty and a habit.

II

He always gave a quick glance around when he entered the store. Of course the boys had n’t got the orders out yet! He was like the lover of a faithless mistress — joy might be gone, but fidelity was deep-rooted. ‘Don’t you know Mrs. Williams is waiting for her order?’ he said furiously. ‘Believe me, you can’t get anywhere with the Company that way!’

‘Who cares?’ Gene said. ‘Say, Mr. Hicks, I ain’t plannin’ to stay in this hole too long.'

‘You kids nowadays think you’re pretty smart. A rollin’ stone gathers no moss. Let me tell you, that’s mighty good sense. I stuck with the Company. I knew they were a tough outfit, but all the better! When they made me manager I knew I had to be good to get it. And I ain’t never been sorry. A good steady job and my own boss.’ Even as he said it, James’s heart contracted. His own boss! He had thought, almost, that he owned the store.

There was a bit of a rush then — customers coming in. Those were the times James liked best. Not that he was ever idle! When there were no customers, there was the stock to keep in order and the clerks to be reminded of their lapses and the window to be fixed and orders to get out. Time never hung heavy for James Hicks!

But this? Why, everybody in the neighborhood knew James! Some of them buying from him for thirty-five years. And everybody asking for Mr. Hicks!

James would never get used to his false teeth. As he smiled, his long upper lip and thin cheeks gripped the plates. Perhaps it was the strain of maintaining that grimace of obsequiousness, while he kept up a steady stream of talk, that had worn the furrows in his cheeks and forehead. Perhaps the frenzy with which he worked contributed.

James always said he ‘just ate up work.’ He never felt tired — except occasionally when he went home and gave himself time to sit down. ‘And who wouldn’t be tired?’ Tillie said. ‘Working like you was possessed. All day, from six in the morning till nine at night, and on Saturdays until twelve. If you’d push more work on the others . . . ’

‘You can’t depend on them,’ James explained. ‘It, ain’t like when I was startin’ out. Boys are different today.’ He had thought of it when he hired Bert. Bert was tall; he could do the reaching. But somehow he could n’t seem to remember not to do things himself.

‘I can’t see how you do it,’ Tillie concluded. Tillie never found any need for hurry. There were no devils after her!

III

It was dark these mornings at six o’clock. But ‘six o’clock, sharp’ was James’s pride. ‘That’s my rule. Never been five minutes late in twenty years.’ Sick? No, he was never sick. ‘If you just don’t coddle yourself . . . He could n’t think what Mrs. Watts would say if he weren’t there in time for her. She stopped in every morning on her way to Mass.

The clerks did n’t get in until later. ‘It keeps me on the hop,’ he told Mrs. Watts. ‘But gosh, I don’t mind that. Keeps the blood circulating. Heh, heh!’

The door opened, letting in the raw morning chill. James rubbed his hands briskly. ‘Ah, good morning, Mrs. Hostetter. Out gettin’ the morning air too? A pound of butter? Yes, ma’am.’ Rushing about madly as he talked, his grin set. ‘How about some canned goods, Mrs. Hostetter? A special on them this week. And you know, when Hulburt has a special! Coffee? Yes, ma’am. How about some bacon? ’Morning, Mrs. Heffler.’

When there was a bit of a lull, the sidewalk must be swept. It was n’t really James’s job, but you could n’t leave it like that until Gene ambled in!

To-day would be a long day. Sometimes the boys grumbled about the late closing on Saturday. Funny that some men should be like that! What was a man’s life if it was n’t his work and gettin’ ahead?

He let Gene and Bert go home at eleven o’clock. There’d been no chance for them to do the reddin’ up. Well, let them go. He could work in peace. The window, now — that ought to be perked up a bit for Monday. He liked to start the week right.

Tillie had been angry. She’d stayed up waiting for him, and the house got so cold! She was cranky all Sunday morning. Funny how women were! Only time Tillie got angry was when he worked what she called ‘too hard.’

IV

He told her when he came home Monday noon. ‘A mighty good thing 1 stayed to fix the window Saturday night.’ Tillie glanced at him quickly. Something in his tone . . .

‘There I was just waitin’ on Mrs. Pickett — and you know how long it takes her. She never can remember what she wants.’

‘Well, what about it?’ Tillie asked.

‘Well, where was I? . . . Oh yeh, waitin’ on Mrs. Pickett. Well, I’d just handed her a package of bacon when I see his big shiny limousine pull up in front of my window.’

‘Whose limousine?’ Tillie asked.

‘Mr. Alton’s. The big boss.’

‘No!’ Tillie gasped. The small beady black eyes blinked behind the folds of ruddy flesh.

‘Well,’ James continued, relishing his importance, ‘I did n’t know him. He’d never come around himself. They send district managers and vice presidents, but C. J. A. himself! Somehow, though, I had an idea. Sort of a feeling.’

‘Well, what did you do?’

‘Well, I just finished waitin’ on Mrs. Pickett and then I says, “What can I do for you, sir?” — very polite and smiling.’

‘What did he say?’ Tillie demanded.

‘Give me a chance, woman. He says, “Good morning, Hicks!” I says, “Good morning, sir.” He says, “I’m Mr. Alton.” I says, “I guessed as much.” So he smites, kinda. But I could feel my heart thumping away, and I was wonderin’ if my face was white or red. I knew it turned color. “And how is business?” he says. “Oh, pretty good, Mr. Alton,” I says. “Of course I’m never satisfied if I’m not increasin’ my sales.”’

‘What did you want to go and tell him that for?’

‘That’s all right. “But,” I says, “I’ve not fallen below. And for these times that’s doin’ good. All the merchants on the street tell me business has fallen off something terrible.” So Mr. Alton nods a coupla t imes. Then he says, “ Do you mind if I look around a bit?” But he’s just bein’ polite, because he’s started lookin’ already. Then he says, " How are your sales on coffee?” “Mighty brisk, sir,” I says. Then he says, “Good morning,” and he goes. I walked out to the car. I was able because there was only one customer and Bert was waitin’ on him, though his eyes was gogglin’ outa his head.

‘After he went, I just felt weak — and awful tired. Tillie, it was like, all of a sudden, I was old. Funny thing it was. Everything hurt me. I even had to take my teeth out when the boys was n’t lookin’. That kinda brought me round, though — I could n’t let the boys see. ... So I started bawlin’ Bert out for not tendin’ to his business when Mr. Alton was there, and I hustled Gene out with the orders. . . . But I’m terrible worried, Tillie. When the President himself comes ... I don’t know, Tillie. What would I do?’

There was n’t much that Tillie could say. It did look funny, and no foolin’. What James would ever do . . . she did n’t dare think. Land, it was bad enough with him on Sundays! The man fidgeted so, he almost drove her crazy!

V

All the savor of life was gone for James. Working when you thought it might all be over any day was n’t the same as when you thought it was going on and on as long as you lived.

It was all right whenever he could keep from thinking. But. — ‘I’ll be waitin’ on a customer and goin’ along all right,’ he told Tillie. ‘Then all of a sudden it’ll come to me. Maybe next week they’ll be tollin’ me it’s all over. Then what’s the use of all this? What’ve I been workin’ for then? And I feel like a fool. Because if the work don’t matter, what am I livin’ for?’

Some days he felt it was the uncertainty of it that was so hard. If they would tell him and have it over! Maybe he could get another job. Maybe they’d get him another job. Not that it would be the same. James’s chest felt hard and lumpy. No, it would n’t be the same. It could n’t ever be his store the way this was.

He worried about the way he’d acted when Mr. Alton had called. Perhaps he should have brought out his records. Had the place been looking tidy? If only he could remember! But he’d been so upset! He thought of asking Bert if he had looked nervous when Mr. Alton spoke to him, but thought it was no use getting too familiar with the help. A manager had to keep his dignity.

VI

The week went by. On Monday, that man from across the street came in. Funny—he was coming into the store a lot. A man — what did he do that he was home so much? When the man came in again he’d have to try to find out.

He’d heard that the Company sent out investigators. Spies, that’s what they were! It was hard to go on working.

Mrs. Jameson remarked when she came to give her order: ‘You’re not lookin’ so good, Mr. Hicks. You work too hard. I always tell Mrs. Hicks, “I don’t see how your husband can go climbing round like a monkey all day” — no offense, Mr. Hicks. “It ain’t human!” Don’t be foolish! No use killin’ yourself for any company.’

Once James would have argued such heresy heatedly. Now he smiled wearily. ‘ Guess I’m not as young as I was, Mrs. Jameson.’

The man came in again at noontime. James gripped his plates to bare his teeth. Steady now, steady. ‘Yes, sir, what can I do for you?’

It was hard for James to jump up on the counter to reach for the can of beans. His legs trembled. He sprang down with a forced agility. If the man were an investigator . . . You had to look spry!

‘You’re new in the neighborhood, ain’t you, sir?’ James jerked his face into its grimace. That was the stuff — just act natural!

‘Yes, rather,’ the man said.

‘Live on the street?’ James persisted. They called him ‘ the man from across the street,’ but all they knew was that he had been seen crossing the street in front of the store. ‘We could deliver your orders. Any time you like, sir.’

‘Well, any time we can’t come in. We don’t use so much, though.'

‘ Big or little, it’s all the same to us,’ James said.

‘Thanks,’ the man said. He walked out before James could pursue his inquiry.

‘D’ ya know where that man lives?’ he asked Gene.

‘Nope. Just see him lately.’ Gene’s freckled face looked at James inquisitively.

‘Fix up that stand,’ James said gruffly. ‘What you standin’ round for? How you think it looks when customers come in, with the place like this?’

The man came in frequently. He never bought much. James tried to wait on him — once even told Bert, ‘You gotta tend to that order,’ so that he might talk to him.

‘You can’t get anything outa him,’ James told Tillie. ‘Well, one thing, if they’re figgerin’ on givin’ up the store, they’re sure goin’ to a lot of trouble first. First the President and now this inves — ’

‘Now, James,’ Tillie objected. ‘You don’t know if this man is from the Company. Maybe he’s outa work. Maybe,’ — Tillie was inspired, — ‘ maybe he works nights!’

James tried hard to think that Tillie might be right. But he worried. ‘It’s like that thing — what d’ya call it? — robot,’ he told Tillie. ‘That’s what I’m like. Hustlin’ round same as usual, but my heart ain’t in it.’

It was right after this that the man started talking a lot when he came in. That was bad! Before, James had tried to talk to him to draw information, but now that the man developed this sudden loquaciousness James felt sure that his suspicions were right. The man had n’t given a good enough report, and now he was trying to see what he could find out!

James’s nerves were playing him unaccustomed tricks. If a man came in, his pulse fluttered wildly. When he had to count his receipts at night, he broke out in a cold sweat. Suppose they had fallen off! He tried to push goods as he never had before. He worked coldly, his heart heavy, but with a crazed determination.

Tillie did a bit of investigating of her own. She went to the other Company store about eight blocks away and asked if the man—‘he has carroty, bristly hair and a big mouth and uneven teeth’ — had been seen there. They wore sure he had n’t. Then she tried to find out if the man really lived on the street. Mrs. Haines, in 1183, thought a man who lived in the third floor rear might be the one. She could n’t be sure.

Tillie could n’t pursue the subject too long. After all, one had one’s pride! Everybody thought James was so well fixed. And then there was always the chance that it might all be nothing. Tillie could be more sanguine than James.

VII

It was just about the time that James had almost determined to write to the district manager, to ask if there was any likelihood of his losing his store, that the letter came. It was about ten o’clock. James was just weighing Mrs. Heller’s butter.

The postman handed the letter to James. ‘Fine day, Mr. Hicks,’ he said. ‘Great,’ James said, and gripped his plates for a newer smile than he’d been aiming at Mrs. Heller.

It was a large smooth envelope. James stole a glance. ‘How about some nice cheese? Just came in, Mrs. Heller.’ It had a Company stamp — M. M. Hulburt & Company! James’s breath came with troublesome unevenness.

He put the letter on the shelf behind him. ‘So that will be all?’ — with automatic alertness. He pushed the package at her. Mrs. Heller looked somewhat surprised. Now!

His hands were trembling frightfully. He looked toward Bert. If it were — if it were bad — Bert must not see. He did n’t want to show . . . There was a jagged tear in the envelope. He looked at it dazedly. He always opened envelopes so neatly!

‘My dear Mr. Hicks . . . excellent service . . . clever merchandising. . . .’ James’s ribs ached queerly. ‘So that even in this depression . . . We have, as you know, been forced to close some stores in the same district with No. 49.’ James put his hand to his throat. All color left his face. He turned a sickly green. Store No. 49 — he tried to fix his attention. . . . Store No. 49 — why, that was his store! His hand shook; the type on the page flickered.

' We are happy to inform you that your exceptional work under these difficult conditions is much appreciated by this Company, and we shall hope to show our appreciation in a more practical way as business improves. . . .’

There was a soap box near, and he sat down. He felt limp. He read the letter over again — slowly, carefully — to make sure. Slowdy the color came back in his face. But he felt curiously empty. He tried to think. He — he did n’t have to be afraid any more!

Why, it was more than that! He’d had a letter from the big chief — from old C. J. A. himself! The President of the Company had written to him! Yes, there it was — signed in his own hand—‘C. J. Alton,’ and under it, ‘PRESIDENT.’ They had stopped all other business — an important man like C. J. A. had stopped all other business to write to James Hicks, to tell him how invaluable he was to the Company!

He sent Gene over to call Tillie. Another man might have left the store, he reflected with pride. But not James Hicks!

James showed it to everybody. ‘ Yessirree, the President of the Company himself! And I’ve heard people say corporations ain’t got no heart!’

lie kept the letter in his inside coat pocket where he could get at it easily. After a while, the paper split a bit along one of the creases, and then James bought a parchment envelope to keep it in.

It was too bad the Company had to let Gene go, of course — cutting expenses. Made a little more work. But James could do it. He liked work! He did n’t want the President to think he’d made a mistake—that he couldn’t depend on him!