Barclay Street

by Albert H. Morehead

 

Barclay Street was named for John Barclay, seventy-five years ago. Like old John himself, it is straight; but it is also wrinkled, and shabby, and thin, and does not smell very pleasant on hot days. There is no beauty on Barclay Street, but only a row of wooden shacks which have not been painted for ten years, and which have no running water and at most two tiny rooms and four small windows. The street has not been paved, so that the frequent summer rains muddy it and cause tiny rivulets which flow down to its base and under the rotted wood fence into the river. Colored people live on Barclay Street, and pay ten dollars a month in weekly installments, except when the Spring floods drive them to their roofs. In two or three of these houses live white trash who do not eat regularly, and not very happy.

Barclay Circle was named for John Carter Barclay, who is old John’s grandson; and Barclay Circle, like John Carter, is not straight. But it is wide, and rich, and the houses have screened porches and big rooms and furniture which is even older than Barclay Street. Floods do not bother Barclay Circle, for the river is far away and far below and the severest rise could not even threaten the foot of Mrs. Allen’s terrace.

Barclay Circle is comparatively new, and Useless had never delivered a telegram to any of its imposing dwellings, just as Useless had never made a delivery to Barclay Street. In an indefinite way he knew where each was to be found should the necessity ever arise; Useless had been delivering telegrams for twenty years, and he knew almost everything. But the necessity had not reached him yet; and no craving for unnecessary information could disturb Useless.

Useless, of course, was not his real name; Useless was only an inevitable corruption of Ulysses, the choice of a fond mother who had not foreseen the moronism of her only son. That to her he was still Ulysses, and that to everyone else he had since infancy been Useless, nor his limited mentality, made Useless less happy. His perpetual smile had broadened his mouth to the lines of his cheek-bones, and the squint of his tiny, deep-set eyes served only to increase the impression of jollity. Useless did not look his age; he did not look any age. He could have been twenty, or forty-five. He was in fact halfway between the two, not that he could have told you that had you asked him. Useless knew very little; he was at work punctually every day, he rode his bicycle around town and everyone spoke to him, he collected his pay every week and turned it over to his mother. He slept and he ate, did not bother with reading or theaters or society, with conversation or with the radio. Useless just delivered telegrams day after day, and he did it with a smile, because he was very happy.

The night shift went to work at six o’clock, and at five Useless’s mother was serving him his first meal of the day.

“Would you rather I got blue shirts, or brown?” she asked.

“I don’ care, Ma,” said Useless. They were silent for some minutes. Then Ma put down a plate of Hamburg steak and boiled potatoes in front of him. She said, “Did you do anything this afternoon?” He did not answer, so she repeated the question, and poured his big mug full of coffee.

“No,” he said. Useless was not rude, but he was very inattentive. He ate attentively, however. The meal was finished in ten minutes.

“I haven’t got any cake tonight, but I can give you some of this bread pudding we had last night,” said Ma, “and pour some cream over it. Would you like some?” Useless said no, and rising, went over and leaned against the kitchen wall. He would remain there until he was told to go to work. Useless never started until his mother told him it was time. This habit was twenty years old.

Ma carried the dishes from the table to the sink, and told Useless about his sister’s new silver. It was lovely, and the guarantee was for seventy-five years. Charley was sick. Useless had gone to school with Charley, until they had decided that it would not do Useless much good to go to school any longer. But he did not say anything about Charley. He did not say anything. Ma sighed; it was so hard to find things to talk to Ulysses about. It would not have occurred to her not to talk to him.

At a quarter to six Useless backed his bicycle from under the lean-to and wheeled it out to the street. Daylight Saving time had another two weeks to go; there was still light. Useless felt in his pockets to make sure he had matches to light his lamp when it grew dark, and knocked a few times on the fence as he passed through the yard, so that he would not have a puncture. He had been knocking on wood to prevent punctures longer now than he could remember, and there had been no trouble for years. He mounted the seat, and rode the telegraph office.

His bicycle attached to the rack outside the door, Useless entered the office and sat down on the wooden bench. It was a warm night, and everything seemed quiet. No one was working; the Morse man was smoking, in defiance of the rules, and the girl leaned on her elbows on the counter and looked through the windows at people passing by. Useless did not speak to any of the other employees, nor did they speak to him. He merely sat down on the bench and waited. Perhaps he would wait there, motionless, for two hours, before he was needed. Sometimes it was longer. He would not be bored, because he would think of nothing, but he would be smiling, always.

John came in presently, and sat down by Useless; the three boys who worked in the afternoon went home. The first call was given to John; he said “See you later” to Useless as he went out. Useless nodded, smiling, and waited. At eight o’clock the operator gave him a telegram for Mrs. Elizabeth Allen, No. 1 Barclay.

“I’ll check it,” said the Morse man, reaching for the directory. He looked through the Allens. “Here it is,” he said, “Allen, One Barclay. Do you know where that is?”

“It’s down somewhere near the Tannery,” said Useless. “I’ll find it.”

“Better take a lantern,” said the operator. “They don’t go in for numbers down there.”

“I’ll find it,” said Useless. He took a lantern from under the bench and lit it, took his cap off and laid the envelope flat upon the crown, and put the cap back on his head. Useless had carried more than one hundred thousand telegrams on his head, which is an interesting thing to consider, except for a postman. He went out the door, unfastened his bicycle, hung the lantern on the handle-bars, and pedaled down the street toward the factory district. He thought for a moment  that it was strange that there hadn’t been anything for the newspaper office yet, but then considered that there would be plenty before the night was out, and dismissed the matter from his mind. He did not think of anything else except finding Barclay Street.

The streets were not muddy, but some recent rain had been heavy and the dirt and cinders were heavily rutted, so the Useless jogged up and down uncomfortably. He swore; few people could swear more eloquently than Useless. “Where’s Barclay Street?” he yelled at three niggers standing under a street light. “Second street down,” they called back, and he jogged on, his lantern rattling.

There were two shanties on the corner; either might be Number One. One was dark, the other lighted, so Useless chose the lighted one and, letting his bicycle rest on the ground, grasped the lantern and mounted the steps.

“Is this number one?” he asked a colored woman sitting on the door-step.

“Dis is numbah two,” she said. “Numbah one’s acrost de street.”

“Ain’t there nobody home?”

“Yessuh, she’s home,” said the colored woman. “She ain’t got no light cause she ain’t got no candle and she ain’t got no lamp.” She leaned toward him and whispered, expressively, “White trash!”

Useless crossed the street and rapped on the door of the unlighted cabin. He waited a moment, and, receiving no answer, pounded with his fist, not loud enough to resemble the importunings of collectors or constabulary, but distinctly hearable anywhere inside. A woman’s voice said, querulously, “Who is it?”

“Telegram!” Useless shouted, “People name Allen live here?”

“Yes, wait a minute,” the woman answered. She opened the door and peered at Useless, standing on the steps. For some reason which he could not have explained, he lifted his lantern above his head and scrutinized her face. She had long straw hair, pinned up untidily around her head, like all the poor whites who live down by the river. Her face was strikingly thin, and her eyes were very large and wore a hunted, worried gleam. Their extraordinary size magnified the hollows in her cheeks and the tautness of the skin on her forehead. Her lips were thin, too, and tightly compressed. Useless did not notice these things; he had immediately classified her as a type, and was satisfied. He lowered the lantern, took the telegram out of his cap, and thrust it toward her, together with a pad and a pencil.

“Sign here,” said Useless, designating the proper spot with an abbreviated thumb-nail. The lantern cast a flickering yellow ring of light on the warped wooden step beneath it, but did not help them, standing above it. The woman leaned over Useless’s hand and tried to study the appearance of the envelope, but made no move to take pad, pencil or telegram.

“Is there any money in it?” she asked, in a tone that sounded hopefully suspicious. Useless shook his head, and let his hollow grin broaden a bit.

“Money orders come in another kind of env’lope.”

“Oh.” She said this in a very small voice. “Will you wait a minute with that lantern? I guess I might as well read it.” Useless was not very observant, so he did not notice that there were vast quantities of nervous tension and broken spirit behind her quietness; but Useless was very obliging.

“Sure,” he said, and sat down on the step, pulling the lantern over toward him to make room for the woman. She sat down beside him and tore the flap away with what seemed to be a great deal of deliberation. She unfolded the sheet and, holding it close to the lantern, looked at it. Then she closed her eyes and shook her head vigorously, and looked at it again. She sat upright and gazed out into the darkness for fully two minutes. Useless said nothing. Finally she turned to him.

“Could you read it to me, do you think? I don’t seem to see very well, and it looks like all blurs.”

“Sure,” said Useless. He could not read very fast, but he took the message and went to work on it. Word by word, he deciphered it. There were not many words, and Useless was through very soon. “It says that somebody is dead. I don’t know what name it spells, but it says he died this aft’noon, and it says can you come. You don’ want to send an answer, do you?”

“Oh,” she said again. Her spirit was indeed broken; she did not fight the bad news; she accepted it unmurmuringly. They sat there for a while, and Useless felt uncomfortable, though he did not know why. He was not tired of waiting, because when Useless grew tired he always whistled, and just now he did not want to whistle. He stood up and brushed the seat of his breeches with his hand.

“Well, good-bye,” he said.

“Good-bye,” Mrs. Allen answered in a mechanical half-whisper. She was still sitting on the steps when Useless picked up his bicycle, turned it around, and started back toward town.

Useless jogged up and down. As he jogged he tried to swallow, but his throat was dry. Then the paved street rolled under him, and Useless swallowed, and smiled, and began to whistle. He was conscious of a deep astonishment that he could hear himself whistle. Then he forgot his astonishment, and whistled some more, and smiled constantly. The White Way commenced, and the double car tracks, and presently Useless fixed his bicycle to the rack and walked into the telegraph office. He blew out the lantern and stowed it under the bench.

The girl replaced the telephone receiver and laughed. “She wouldn’t give me a reply. All she said was, ‘Oh, dear, and I was just going out.’” She laughed again, a chuckle which showed perverse amusement and a bit of envy.

“You didn’t find your party?” the Morse man called to Useless. The Morse man spoke in a virile, not unpleasant voice, but he had no sense of humor.

“What party?”

“We got a correction on your telegram. It was for One Barclay Circle. We called the lady up and read it to her. She didn’t send an answer. You got the original?”

“I wonder if it was her son?” the girl remarked.

Useless guffawed. “No, I ain’t got the original. I give it to the lady it was for.” He took off his cap and looked at his receipt pad. It was blank, and Useless swore. “The lousy bitch, she didn’ sign for it.” It was his first failure to get a signature.

“My God, did she read it?” The Morse man seemed worried, or perhaps only interested. “It said somebody was dead. We don’t want her to think anybody’s dead when it ain’t so. Do you know if she read it?”

“I do’ know,” said Useless. He walked over and sat down on the bench. The Morse man was looking through the telephone book, and then he was looking through the street guide in the back of the directory. He turned toward Useless.

“There’s an Allen on Barclay Street all right, but nobody near her’s got a phone. You’d better shoot down there and tell her it’s a mistake and the wire was for somebody else.”

“Maybe she don’t even know anybody by that name,” said the girl. “Then she’d be pretty worried.”

“Maybe she does, then she’d worry more than ever.” The Morse man was rather proud of having said something clever. He straightened his necktie and ran a hand through his thin hair. The girl gave no sign of having heard him.

Useless had already started for the door. “Anyhow, I can get her to sign for it,” he said. He had only muttered this, although it satisfied him as conversation just as much as if anyone had heard it. He grasped his bicycle and started to mount it, then paused. He had forgotten the lantern, but the carbide lamp was flickering, and he did not feel like making another trip into the office. He swore at the lantern and pedaled toward Barclay Street.

Single-mindedness of purpose was one of Useless’s most valuable business assets. He needed to fight no counter motives, no drowsiness, no forgetfulness when there was a telegram to be delivered. Now he gave no heed to the street nor to the houses nor to the people whom he passed, nor to reminiscence nor to anticipation. He was to call at an address which he knew and tell a woman whose name he knew that she had received a telegram not intended for her. He did not and would not consciously focus his mind on this; but he rarely forgot his duty until the mission was accomplished.

The crowd thinned out, the show-windows grew dimmer. Something chopped off the White Way. The two car tracks merged into one, and the arclights dwindled in number from three every block down to one on each corner. The asphalt pavement ended, and the bicycle jolted down into grooves of caked clay and cinders. Suddenly, Useless stopped smiling. He jogged up and down on the rough street, and a bad dream came to bother him. There were hundreds of eyes in the dream, and Useless was a child, playing in the street; it was his home street, and yet there were warped wooden steps and an unlighted shanty which was very dark, so dark that he could not see it. He lifted his lantern, and he saw eyes, men’s eyes and women’s eyes, peering at him. A voice said, “oh,” very weakly.

Useless did not know what was tormenting him, because he could not reason. And so, because he could not reason, he submitted to instinct. He lowered his shoulders, and thrust his head far out over the handle-bars. His feet began working the pedals frantically, and his breath began coming in pants. Useless was running away.

It was instinct, but there was more than instinct in Useless tonight. There was intuition. There was the sixth sense. Because when Useless turned the corner into Barclay Street, he did not stop at shack number one. Madly as before, he continued to move the pedals. He rode the ruts and conquered them. Useless was heading for the river, as fast as he could go.

The old wooden fence marked the limits of vehicular thoroughfare. At the fence Useless sprang from the bicycle, letting it fall carelessly on the ground underneath the upright pole from which was suspended a single incandescent bulb, the city’s only provision for illuminating lower Barclay Street. The bulb was dim, and Useless could not see distinctly ten feet ahead, but he vaulted the fence and scrambled to his feet in the mud below and ran toward the water.

The shape which moved slowly into the river was Mrs. Allen. She was already beyond the bank, so that her ankles were submerged. Useless plowed after her, lunged, and grasped her left shoulder.

“Hey, lady,” he called, “it’s all right, there ain’t nobody dead.” She turned and looked at him, but said nothing. “That telegram was for somebody else,” Useless repeated. “You got the wrong telegram. He ain’t dead after all.”

“I don’t guess it matters much anyhow,” said Mrs. Allen. She swayed a bit on her insecure footing and the tiny motion of the water might have unbalanced her, but Useless retained his grip. “I guess I would have done this anyway.”

“Even if he wasn’t dead?”

“Was there something else wrong too?” Useless was puzzled, but he was still inspired.

“I think about everything was wrong,” said Mrs. Allen. She was talking rather easily now, the excitement of being interrupted having given her temporary respite from fear. “I haven’t had any money for a long time, and I can’t work, because I’m going to have a baby.”

“Ain’t you got no folks?”

“I’ve got a husband, but he went away to find work, and he didn’t send me any money.”

“Why don’t you send him a telegram?” asked Useless.

“I don’t know where he is,” said Mrs. Allen. She thought a while, and then added, by way of further argument, “and besides, I haven’t any money.”

Useless said nothing. He stood in the water, smiling vacantly at the sky. Mrs. Allen began to cry, but Useless did not notice her, and she stopped crying and began to unlock his fingers from her shoulder. Useless felt her touch and looked down at her.

“Come on,” he said. He turned around and started toward Barclay Street. She followed, staggering somewhat, and moving very slowly. When he reached the fence Useless stopped and waited for her, and they walked up Barclay Street together. At the unlighted shack they stopped. Mrs. Allen climbed to the top step and sat down. Useless felt in his pocket and pulled out all the money he had. There were four one-dollar bills and some silver. Useless always carried change for five dollars.

“Here,” he said, stretching out his hand toward the woman. She did not take it, so he dropped it in her lap and leaned back on his heels. She brushed it into a little pile and closed her hand over it. “All right,” she said in the same weak tone in which she had said, “Oh,” earlier in the evening. Then, suddenly, she began to laugh.

She began to laugh, noiseless, well-controlled laughter. Her head bobbed backward and forward. It sounded like just a series of short breaths, with a gulp at the end of each series. Useless smiled at her for a moment, but the smile began to leave his face. Useless was afraid again. Something he did not understand was going to attack him, and he wanted to get away. He pivoted on his heels and took two steps. Then he paused.

“Good-bye,” said Useless. There was no answer from the woman who was laughing on the steps, and Useless was by now too far away to see her. He walked down Barclay Street to the fence, picked up his bicycle and rode back up Barclay Street. The ruts were still deep and Useless jogged, but his smile returned, his nightmare vanished. Useless rounded the corner without turning his head toward the dark shadow which was Number One. He attained a rhythmic motion on the pedals, and whistled. The streets became light, the pedaling easier, and the tune merrier and faster. Useless pulled over to the curb, guided his bicycle into the rack, and walked into the office.

“Here he is,” called the Morse man to nobody in particular. He laughed, the sort of laugh one hears at slap-stick and custard-pie comedies. “Have you been down to Barclay Street, Useless?”

“Sure,” said Useless. “Why?”

“Well, here’s a call for Number One Barclay Street,” said the Morse man. He laughed again, and then, with mock seriousness, pretended to consult the yellow envelope. “Mrs. Allen. Barclay Street, not Barclay Circle. Do you think you can find it?” He laughed again, this time a harsh guffaw.

“Is it a money order?”

“Yep, it’s a money order. Why, was she expecting one? Say, Useless, did you tell her about the other telegram?”

“Sure, I told her.”

“What did she say?” asked the girl, biting her fingernails. “Had she been worried?”

“She didn’ say nothing much. Say, how much money is there in that money order?”

The operator gazed at Useless with interest. “Twenty-five dollars. What do you care? Is she going to split it with you?”

“I do’ know.” Useless took off his cap and started to insert the money order. He noticed the still-unsigned pad. “Jesus Christ, I forgot to make her sign.”

“What for, the first telegram” She don’t have to sign for that, it wasn’t for her.”

“That’s right,” said Useless, relieved. “Ain’t there nothin’ else?”

“John’s got everything else that’s come. Make it snappy, will you, he won’t be back for a while.”

“O.K.” said Useless. He started for the door, smiling. There was a delivery to be made to Mrs. Allen, No. 1 Barclay Street, and then he was to come back as soon as he could.

The bright lights faded, the streets grew dimmer, the pavement ended and Useless began to jog up and down on the ridges of hardened clay. Useless swore. He was glad to lay his bicycle down when he finally reached Barclay Street, and rest from the uncomfortable riding. He mounted the steps. Mrs. Allen was sitting on the door sill, her head in her hands, asleep. Useless touched her shoulder.

“Lady,” he said, “here’s a money order for you.”

She awoke with a jerk and looked at him. “What?” she said, her voice rising petulantly.

“There’s a money order for you,” said Useless. He took off his cap and acquired the envelope and the pad. From behind his ear he took his pencil. “Sign here,” he said.

She took the money order. “How much money is there?” she asked.

“I do’ know,” said Useless. “Sign here.”

“I can’t see,” she said. “Haven’t you got your lantern?”

“No,” said Useless. “You can walk up under the light, can’t you? Here, I’ll show you where to sign.” He held the pad up to where he could get a glimmer of light on it from the corner arclight. “Here, sign where I got my thumb.” She wrote something on the pad. Useless reached out his hand and took the pencil from between her fingers. He replaced it behind his ear, and put the pad back in his cap. “Good-bye,” he said.

“Wait a minute,” said the woman. “Don’t you want this back?”

“What?” said Useless. He felt automatically for his pencil. It was there. “Oh, you want to send an answer?”

“No,” she said, “I mean this.” She extended a closed fist which held something that jingled.

“Well, if you don’ want to send an answer,” said Useless, picking up his bicycle, “I got to get right back.” He rode up the street. Useless jogged, and Useless swore. He exerted more pressure on the pedals and moved toward town faster. John wasn’t there, and they might have some calls for him.

This happened almost a year ago, and the janitor has forgotten to be angry about the night that Useless tracked mud up his freshly mopped floor and left a muddy puddle to harden under the messengers’ bench. But last week at six o’clock one night, when Useless was just coming in to work, the girl called him over to the desk.

“Say, Useless,” she said, “a good-looking lady was in here today and left a letter for you.”

“It ain’t for me,” said Useless, “I do’ know no ladies.”

“She said it was for you,” said the girl, “and the envelope’s got money in it.” She produced an envelope that made a tinkling sound as she shook it. She held it up before the light and squinted through the thick paper, but could see nothing.

“Money? How much?”

“How do you expect me to know? You could open it and find out.”

Useless ripped open the envelope and poured the money out on the desk. He counted it; there were four dollars and seventy-four cents.

“It ain’t mine,” said Useless. “Nobody didn’ owe me money.”

“She described you,” the girl insisted. “It was a good-looking lady with a baby-carriage. Maybe you done her a favor once.”

“It ain’t mine,” said Useless. “I don’ want it.”

“Well,” said the girl, “you might as well keep it. Gee, I wish somebody’d bring me some money. I wouldn’t turn it down.”

“O.K.” said useless. He pocketed the money. “But it ain’t mine.” He walked over to the bench and sat down, smiling at the wall ahead of him. After a while he had forgotten the money, and sat patiently, thinking of nothing, waiting for a call. He would not have to sit very long tonight; the Morse man was busy, and there were lots of telegrams going and coming.

Some of the telegrams would be to Barclay Circle; all its palatial homes were now occupied, and there was much telegram traffic to and from their doors, so that Useless was quite used to its concrete driveways and high terraces and stone walks. There had been no call for Barclay Street for nearly a year, and besides there was nothing particularly striking about Barclay Street; it was old and ugly, not new and clean and beautiful as was Barclay Circle, and so Useless never thought about Barclay Street. Of course, if the call came, Useless would know where to go. His memory was very poor, but, after all, Useless had been delivering telegrams for twenty-one years, and he knew almost everything.