The Real Issue  by William Allen White.


hawkinsAWKINS, the chief clerk, was a grim man. He had little to say; he did not even patronize the elevator boy and he never talked with the office girls about his necktie. He did not speak at all, except to give orders to the clerks who bent over their desks with conspicuous industry when he was around and gossiped about him when he was gone. It was admitted by them all that he was smart, there was a suspicion among the younger men that he was wicked, and among the girls who nagged at the typewriters, there was a hope that he was both; so they talked about his meek-voiced stenographer, and said that Hawkins was a beast. The former chief clerk had been very gay and had danced around the office singing the refrain of topical songs, pretending to look over the clerks' shoulders to see what they were about. But Hawkins stayed in his office and pressed buttons. His industry was proverbial all over the building and the janitor and the office boy had a song about it that they sang down in the basement to the tune of a darkey break-down, "Sho'tnun Braid." It ran:

"What's Hawkins do-un'?
Sittun at 'is desk.
What's Hawkins do-un'?
Gawd knows best."

     Neither the janitor nor the office boy was a poet, but the recitative voiced a popular inquiry and within a week after it was evolved, it was everybody's property. Once, in the summer, Hawkins was not in his room. He was absent three days and all in the building wondered. He came back and said nothing; but the general auditor told his chief clerk, who told a subordinate, who flew with the news into Hawkins's department, that the chief clerk of the freight and traffic manager had been home to attend his mother's funeral. The men tried to show him that they were sorry for him, and the girls watched him more closely than ever to see how he was "taking it." Consequently, they still thought him a beast. The office boy saw a photograph of a little old woman in a cap, under a row of pigeon holes on his desk, and before night every one in the office had made a trip to see what she looked like. The women thought he didn't take after her a bit, and the men, having satisfied their curiosity, had no opinion at all.

     Nobody knew anything about Hawkins before he came to the chief clerk's desk. The under clerks could never have found out the facts about him, which are that he once lived in a little country town, called Willow Creek, and that his father was as grim as he and had died when Hawkins was young. Hawkins and his mother and elder sister had lived together; Hawkins, taciturn and sullen; his mother as tender as he would allow, and his sister petulant, but patient - in the long run. He had left home, barely grunting goodbye to the household and his mother made her home with his sister, who soon married. He went home each Christmas, at first, on business, then because his mother, who wrote to him with religious regularity, had begged him to come, and finally, as he grew older and came to know himself and the people better, because he liked to go. One Christmas night he unbosomed himself to his mother, told her his plans and all that he hoped to be and to do, and the tears came to her eyes. He kissed her when he left that time and wrote long letters to her. She was his only confidant. He said much in the letters that he would not have spoken for worlds. God only knows how desolate he was when she died.

     As Christmas time drew near, Hawkins was habitually planning to go home, and then suddenly remembering -- and wondering what he would do. People who said he was a firm man and never changed his decision should have seen his heart as the holidays approached. To-day he was decided to go; on the morrow he was trying to find excuses for staying in town. One day, as he was sitting at his desk, gazing vacantly for a moment at the photograph, his stenographer saw his face flush; that evening he told the general manager he would be off Christmas, and Hawkins was a man who thought twice, but spoke once. He had decided to do something.

     He took Christmas dinner with his sister and her family in Willow Creek and they tried to turn the subject to his mother, but he cut them and closed up like a shell. After dinner he said he was going for a walk. The sister's husband politely offered to go with him, but it was plain that Hawkins wished to be alone. It was a clear day -- almost like spring. The ground was soft and tufts of blue grass came up between the stones of the sidewalks and touched his feet. He walked to the village greenhouse and succeeded in buying some flowers. He did it as though he always bought flowers Christmas day. Then he struck up the country road towards the cemetery. His face was hard and sour. He felt that the people were looking at him and the hatred of their curiosity all but showed itself in his features, as he glared at the questioning sexton who unlocked the iron gate. He walked rapidly through, and did not look back.

     When he reached his mother's tomb, he stopped and gazed anxiously in every direction. Seeing no one, he took off the wrappings and placed the flowers awkwardly on the grave. It was a strange, unsatisfying thing to do and he wondered why he had felt an uncontrollable desire to do it. It was the first tender thing he had ever planned and executed, and as its accomplishment brought only disappointment, it made him feel lonelier than ever in the world. He sat down on the seamy, new-laid patches of grass sod over the grave and bit the skin of his upper lip; he saw the sexton approaching and rose suddenly. Hawkins tried to avoid the old man, but he could not. The sexton asked if everything was all right and was just launching out into sympathetic condolence when Hawkins handed him a bill, saying,"Is this enough?" and turned and left him.

     He was at his desk the next day, and from the further end of the hall his tittering clerks heard the oftice boy call to the janitor who was polishing the banister on the next floor:

"What's Hawkins do-un',
Settun at 'is desk?"

     And the janitor answered:

"What's Hawkins do-un'?
Gawd knows best."

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