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- When God Laughs and Other Stories - 6/28 -
full stature of his earning power. Not, however, that his increased earnings were in excess of need. The children were growing up. They ate more. And they were going to school, and school-books cost money. And somehow, the faster he worked, the faster climbed the prices of things. Even the rent went up, though the house had fallen from bad to worse disrepair.
He had grown taller; but with his increased height he seemed leaner than ever. Also, he was more nervous. With the nervousness increased his peevishness and irritability. The children had learned by many bitter lessons to fight shy of him. His mother respected him for his earning power, but somehow her respect was tinctured with fear.
There was no joyousness in life for him. The procession of the days he never saw. The nights he slept away in twitching unconsciousness. The rest of the time he worked, and his consciousness was machine consciousness. Outside this his mind was a blank. He had no ideals, and but one illusion; namely, that he drank excellent coffee. He was a work- beast. He had no mental life whatever; yet deep down in the crypts of his mind, unknown to him, were being weighed and sifted every hour of his toil, every movement of his hands, every twitch of his muscles, and preparations were making for a future course of action that would amaze him and all his little world.
It was in the late spring that he came home from work one night aware of unusual tiredness. There was a keen expectancy in the air as he sat down to the table, but he did not notice. He went through the meal in moody silence, mechanically eating what was before him. The children um'd and ah'd and made smacking noises with their mouths. But he was deaf to them.
"D'ye know what you're eatin'?" his mother demanded at last, desperately.
He looked vacantly at the dish before him, and vacantly at her.
"Floatin' island," she announced triumphantly.
"Oh," he said.
"Floating island!" the children chorussed loudly.
"Oh," he said. And after two or three mouthfuls, he added, "I guess I ain't hungry to-night."
He dropped the spoon, shoved back his chair, and arose wearily from the table.
"An' I guess I'll go to bed."
His feet dragged more heavily than usual as he crossed the kitchen floor. Undressing was a Titan's task, a monstrous futility, and he wept weakly as he crawled into bed, one shoe still on. He was aware of a rising, swelling something inside his head that made his brain thick and fuzzy. His lean fingers felt as big as his wrist, while in the ends of them was a remoteness of sensation vague and fuzzy like his brain. The small of his back ached intolerably. All his bones ached. He ached everywhere. And in his head began the shrieking, pounding, crashing, roaring of a million looms. All space was filled with flying shuttles. They darted in and out, intricately, amongst the stars. He worked a thousand looms himself, and ever they speeded up, faster and faster, and his brain unwound, faster and faster, and became the thread that fed the thousand flying shuttles.
He did not go to work next morning. He was too busy weaving colossally on the thousand looms that ran inside his head. His mother went to work, but first she sent for the doctor. It was a severe attack of la grippe, he said. Jennie served as nurse and carried out his instructions.
It was a very severe attack, and it was a week before Johnny dressed and tottered feebly across the floor. Another week, the doctor said, and he would be fit to return to work. The foreman of the loom room visited him on Sunday afternoon, the first day of his convalescence. The best weaver in the room, the foreman told his mother. His job would be held for him. He could come back to work a week from Monday.
"Why don't you thank 'im, Johnny?" his mother asked anxiously.
"He's ben that sick he ain't himself yet," she explained apologetically to the visitor.
Johnny sat hunched up and gazing steadfastly at the floor. He sat in the same position long after the foreman had gone. It was warm outdoors, and he sat on the stoop in the afternoon. Sometimes his lips moved. He seemed lost in endless calculations.
Next morning, after the day grew warm, he took his seat on the stoop. He had pencil and paper this time with which to continue his calculations, and he calculated painfully and amazingly.
"What comes after millions?" he asked at noon, when Will came home from school. "An' how d'ye work 'em?"
That afternoon finished his task. Each day, but without paper and pencil, he returned to the stoop. He was greatly absorbed in the one tree that grew across the street. He studied it for hours at a time, and was unusually interested when the wind swayed its branches and fluttered its leaves. Throughout the week he seemed lost in a great communion with himself. On Sunday, sitting on the stoop, he laughed aloud, several times, to the perturbation of his mother, who had not heard him laugh for years.
Next morning, in the early darkness, she came to his bed to rouse him. He had had his fill of sleep all the week, and awoke easily. He made no struggle, nor did he attempt to hold on to the bedding when she stripped it from him. He lay quietly, and spoke quietly.
"It ain't no use, ma."
"You'll be late," she said, under the impression that he was still stupid with sleep.
"I'm awake, ma, an' I tell you it ain't no use. You might as well lemme alone. I ain't goin' to git up."
"But you'll lose your job!" she cried.
"I ain't goin' to git up," he repeated in a strange, passionless voice.
She did not go to work herself that morning. This was sickness beyond any sickness she had ever known. Fever and delirium she could understand; but this was insanity. She pulled the bedding up over him and sent Jennie for the doctor.
When that person arrived, Johnny was sleeping gently, and gently he awoke and allowed his pulse to be taken.
"Nothing the matter with him," the doctor reported. "Badly debilitated, that's all. Not much meat on his bones."
"He's always been that way," his mother volunteered.
"Now go 'way, ma, an' let me finish my snooze."
Johnny spoke sweetly and placidly, and sweetly and placidly he rolled over on his side and went to sleep.
At ten o'clock he awoke and dressed himself. He walked out into the kitchen, where he found his mother with a frightened expression on her face.
"I'm goin' away, ma," he announced, "an' I jes' want to say good-bye."
She threw her apron over her head and sat down suddenly and wept. He waited patiently.
"I might a-known it," she was sobbing.
"Where?" she finally asked, removing the apron from her head and gazing up at him with a stricken face in which there was little curiosity.
"I don't know--anywhere."
As he spoke, the tree across the street appeared with dazzling brightness on his inner vision. It seemed to lurk just under his eyelids, and he could see it whenever he wished.
"An' your job?" she quavered.
"I ain't never goin' to work again."
"My God, Johnny!" she wailed, "don't say that!"
What he had said was blasphemy to her. As a mother who hears her child deny God, was Johnny's mother shocked by his words.
"What's got into you, anyway?" she demanded, with a lame attempt at imperativeness.
"Figures," he answered. "Jes' figures. I've ben doin' a lot of figurin' this week, an' it's most surprisin'."
"I don't see what that's got to do with it," she sniffled.
Johnny smiled patiently, and his mother was aware of a distinct shock at the persistent absence of his peevishness and irritability.
"I'll show you," he said. "I'm plum' tired out. What makes me tired? Moves. I've ben movin' ever since I was born. I'm tired of movin', an' I ain't goin' to move any more. Remember when I worked in the glass-house? I used to do three hundred dozen a day. Now I reckon I made about ten different moves to each bottle. That's thirty-six thousan' moves a day. Ten days, three hundred an' sixty thousan' moves. One month, one million an' eighty thousan' moves. Chuck out the eighty thousan'"--he spoke with the complacent beneficence of a philanthropist--"chuck out the eighty thousan', that leaves a million moves a month--twelve million moves a year.
"At the looms I'm movin' twic'st as much. That makes twenty-five million moves a year, an' it seems to me I've ben a movin' that way 'most a million years.
"Now this week I ain't moved at all. I ain't made one move in hours an' hours. I tell you it was swell, jes' settin' there, hours an' hours, an' doin' nothin'. I ain't never ben happy before. I never had any time. I've ben movin' all the time. That ain't no way to be happy. An' I ain't going to do it any more. I'm jes' goin' to set, an' set, an' rest, an' rest, and then rest some more."
"But what's goin' to come of Will an' the children?" she asked despairingly.
"That's it, 'Will an' the children,'" he repeated.
But there was no bitterness in his voice. He had long known his mother's
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