He was the city incarnate. He loved it, calling it God’s country, as he called the smoke Prosperity, breathing the dingy cloud with relish. And when soot fell upon his cuff he chuckled; he could have kissed it. “It’s good! It’s good!” he said, and smacked his lips in gusto. “Good, clean soot; it’s our life-blood, God bless it!” The smoke was one of his great enthusiasms; he laughed at a committee of plaintive housewives who called to beg his aid against it. “Smoke’s what brings your husbands’ money home on Saturday night,” he told them, jovially. “Smoke may hurt your little shrubberies in the front yard some, but it’s the catarrhal climate and the adenoids that starts your chuldern coughing. Smoke makes the climate better. Smoke means good health: it makes the people wash more. They have to wash so much they wash off the microbes. You go home and ask your husbands what smoke puts in their pockets out o’ the pay-roll—and you’ll come around next time to get me to turn out more smoke instead o’ chokin’ it off!”
It was Narcissism in him to love the city so well; he saw his reflection in it; and, like it, he was grimy, big, careless, rich, strong, and unquenchably optimistic. From the deepest of his inside all the way out he believed it was the finest city in the world. “Finest” was his word. He thought of it as his city as he thought of his family as his family; and just as profoundly believed his city to be the finest city in the world, so did he believe his family to be—in spite of his son Bibbs—the finest family in the world. As a matter of fact, he knew nothing worth knowing about either.
Bibbs Sheridan was a musing sort of boy, poor in health, and considered the failure—the “odd one”—of the family. Born during that most dangerous and anxious of the early years, when the mother fretted and the father took his chance, he was an ill-nourished baby, and grew meagerly, only lengthwise, through a feeble childhood. At his christening he was committed for life to “Bibbs” mainly through lack of imagination on his mother’s part, for though it was her maiden name, she had no strong affection for it; but it was “her turn” to name the baby, and, as she explained later, she “couldn’t think of anything else she liked AT ALL!” She offered this explanation one day when the sickly boy was nine and after a long fit of brooding had demanded some reason for his name’s being Bibbs. He requested then with unwonted vehemence to be allowed to exchange names with his older brother, Roscoe Conkling Sheridan, or with the oldest, James Sheridan, Junior, and upon being refused went down into the cellar and remained there the rest of that day. And the cook, descending toward dusk, reported that he had vanished; but a search revealed that he was in the coal-pile, completely covered and still burrowing. Removed by force and carried upstairs, he maintained a cryptic demeanor, refusing to utter a syllable of explanation, even under the lash. This obvious thing was wholly a mystery to both parents; the mother was nonplussed, failed to trace and connect; and the father regarded his son as a stubborn and mysterious fool, an impression not effaced as the years went by.
At twenty-two, Bibbs was physically no more than the outer scaffolding of a man, waiting for the building to begin inside—a long-shanked, long-faced, rickety youth, sallow and hollow and haggard, dark-haired and dark-eyed, with a peculiar expression of countenance; indeed, at first sight of Bibbs Sheridan a stranger might well be solicitous, for he seemed upon the point of tears. But to a slightly longer gaze, not grief, but mirth, was revealed as his emotion; while a more searching scrutiny was proportionately more puzzling—he seemed about to burst out crying or to burst out laughing, one or the other, inevitably, but it was impossible to decide which. And Bibbs never, on any occasion of his life, either laughed aloud or wept.
He was a “disappointment” to his father. At least that was the parent’s word—a confirmed and established word after his first attempt to make a “business man” of the boy. He sent Bibbs to “begin at the bottom and learn from the ground up” in the machine-shop of the Sheridan Automatic Pump Works, and at the end of six months the family physician sent Bibbs to begin at the bottom and learn from the ground up in a sanitarium.
“You needn’t worry, mamma,” Sheridan told his wife. “There’s nothin’ the matter with Bibbs except he hates work so much it makes him sick. I put him in the machine-shop, and I guess I know what I’m doin’ about as well as the next man. Ole Doc Gurney always was one o’ them nutty alarmists. Does he think I’d do anything ‘d be bad for my own flesh and blood? He makes me tired!”
Anything except perfectly definite health or perfectly definite disease was incomprehensible to Sheridan. He had a genuine conviction that lack of physical persistence in any task involving money must be due to some subtle weakness of character itself, to some profound shiftlessness or slyness. He understood typhoid fever, pneumonia, and appendicitis—one had them, and either died or got over them and went back to work—but when the word “nervous” appeared in a diagnosis he became honestly suspicious: he had the feeling that there was something contemptible about it, that there was a nigger in the wood-pile somewhere.
“Look at me,” he said. “Look at what I did at his age! Why, when I was twenty years old, wasn’t I up every morning at four o’clock choppin’ wood—yes! and out in the dark and the snow—to build a fire in a country grocery store? And here Bibbs has to go and have a DOCTOR because he can’t—Pho! it makes me tired! If he’d gone at it like a man he wouldn’t be sick.”
He paced the bedroom—the usual setting for such parental discussions—in his nightgown, shaking his big, grizzled head and gesticulating to his bedded spouse. “My Lord!” he said. “If a little, teeny bit o’ work like this is too much for him, why, he ain’t fit for anything! It’s nine-tenths imagination, and the rest of it—well, I won’t say it’s deliberate, but I WOULD like to know just how much of it’s put on!”
“Bibbs didn’t want the doctor,” said Mrs. Sheridan. “It was when he was here to dinner that night, and noticed how he couldn’t eat anything. Honey, you better come to bed.”
“Eat!” he snorted. “Eat! It’s work that makes men eat! And it’s imagination that keeps people from eatin’. Busy men don’t get time for that kind of imagination; and there’s another thing you’ll notice about good health, if you’ll take the trouble to look around you Mrs. Sheridan: busy men haven’t got time to be sick and they don’t GET sick. You just think it over and you’ll find that ninety-nine per cent. of the sick people you know are either women or loafers. Yes, ma’am!”
“Honey,” she said again, drowsily, “you better come to bed.”
“Look at the other boys,” her husband bade her. “Look at Jim and Roscoe. Look at how THEY work! There isn’t a shiftless bone in their bodies. Work never made Jim or Roscoe sick. Jim takes half the load off my shoulders already. Right now there isn’t a harder-workin’, brighter business man in this city than Jim. I’ve pushed him, but he give me something to push AGAINST. You can’t push ‘nervous dyspepsia’! And look at Roscoe; just LOOK at what that boy’s done for himself, and barely twenty-seven years old—married, got a fine wife, and ready to build for himself with his own money, when I put up the New House for you and Edie.”
“Papa, you’ll catch cold in your bare feet,” she murmured. “You better come to bed.”
“And I’m just as proud of Edie, for a girl,” he continued, emphatically, “as I am of Jim and Roscoe for boys. She’ll make some man a mighty good wife when the time comes. She’s the prettiest and talentedest girl in the United States! Look at that poem she wrote when she was in school and took the prize with; it’s the best poem I ever read in my life, and she’d never even tried to write one before. It’s the finest thing I ever read, and R. T. Bloss said so, too; and I guess he’s a good enough literary judge for me—turns out more advertisin’ liter’cher than any man in the city. I tell you she’s smart! Look at the way she worked me to get me to promise the New House—and I guess you had your finger in that, too, mamma! This old shack’s good enough for me, but you and little Edie ‘ll have to have your way. I’ll get behind her and push her the same as I will Jim and Roscoe. I tell you I’m mighty proud o’ them three chuldern! But Bibbs—“ He paused, shaking his head. “Honest, mamma, when I talk to men that got ALL their boys doin’ well and worth their salt, why, I have to keep my mind on Jim and Roscoe and forget about Bibbs.”
Mrs. Sheridan tossed her head fretfully upon the pillow. “You did the best you could, papa,” she said, impatiently, “so come to bed and quit reproachin’ yourself for it.”
He glared at her indignantly. “Reproachin’ myself!” he snorted. “I ain’t doin’ anything of the kind! What in the name o’ goodness would I want to reproach myself for? And it wasn’t the ‘best I could,’ either. It was the best ANYBODY could! I was givin’ him a chance to show what was in him and make a man of himself—and here he goes and gets ‘nervous dyspepsia’ on me!”
He went to the old-fashioned gas-fixture, turned out the light, and muttered his way morosely into bed.
“What?” said his wife, crossly, bothered by a subsequent mumbling.
“More like hook-worm, I said,” he explained, speaking louder. “I don’t know what to do with him!”
– from Booth Tarkington, The Turmoil, Harper & Bros., NY, 1915