Survival Till Seventeen

Upon attaining the use of reason in a positive and permanent form, I found that among seasons, summer was most to my liking. During my favorite months — the hot ones — I used to don a pair of overalls and a farm-boy’s hat, and plucking a blade of grass on which to chew, would go wandering in our neighborhood so as to explore its houses and inhabitants by way of discovering what sort of world it was I had come to live in.

A favorite rendezvous of mine was a nearby shop which aspired to be a general store in a very small way. This shop had only one window and a little side entrance, and exteriorly it gave the impression of being a fruit store, for there were always oranges and bananas exposed for sale at the door. But inside, it proved to be a bit of everything. It was a grocery shop if you had forgotten to order a can of peas; it was a bakeshop if you needed a sudden loaf of bread; it had a play-thing department selling tops and marbles for boys’ games; and it would do for a drug store if you needed liniment or iodine in an emergency. It always seemed to me to be a brave little shop, trying to be all these things at once. It was open days and nights, and even Sunday mornings.

The full-fledged fruit shops of our town were exclusively in the hands of the Italians, but this amateur fruit shop was owned by a Yankee. He was a tall man, with loose-fitting clothes, a walrus moustache, and spectacles, and his name was one of those odd Yankee names that so amuse the Irish, a name in which the syllables are words and give you a strange association of ideas, like Frothingham, Saltonstall, Winterbottom. The proprietor’s name was Wigglesworth.

Though I had read no Dickens at the time I first met Mr. Wigglesworth, once I had gone through David Copperfield and Nicholas Nickleby, I knew that he was definitely a Dickens character. For he had that odd quality which a Dickens character can display, of being sufficiently crazy to amuse you, without being sufficiently dangerous to do you any harm. Mr. Wigglesworth’s mild dementia was revealed in his fondness for making speeches to an audience of one. If the audience happened to be only one small boy, but lately possessed of the use of reason, it made no difference to Mr. Wigglesworth. He went right on orating in adult language as though addressing the Senate or the House of Representatives. He would discourse on war, on politics, on marriage, on literature, on anything that supplied him with enthusiasm. He liked especially to air his grudges, his grudges against life in general and particular, to tell what was wrong with men and their affairs, and how it could be corrected. One of his chief grudges was the bad fruit Americans are given to eat.

“The United States,” Mr. Wigglesworth once said to me as I sat on one of his onion crates, chewing a straw, “the United States, my boy, is a nation of unripe bananas!”

While saying this, he made a most contemptuous gesture toward the front door of his establishment, by way of indicating that his own bananas, hanging on a stalk there, were included in the censure.

“Yes, sir!” Mr. Wigglesworth repeated, because he always repeated anything that seemed to him like a weighty pronouncement, “this is a nation of unripe bananas!”

“Is it?” I said.

“Is it!” Mr. Wigglesworth replied, because he always repeated you as well as himself, “Good God, did you ever see the things the way they ship them to us from South America?”

“No, sir.”

“No, sir? Well, you ought to! They’re absolutely green, my boy, so green and hard you couldn’t crack one with a rock. Imagine a banana taken off the tree in that condition!”

I at once closed my eyes, and endeavored to visualize the fruit interiorly, and to appreciate its horrible state.

“Bananas, my boy,” Mr. Wigglesworth then went on, having sensed that he had begun to impress me, “should be left on the tree until they are ripe!” — and he would rip off the word as though snapping a whip — “not torn off the tree while they are green! put in a cellar till they become yellow! and hung up for sale until they become rotten! Do you see what I mean?” and he made an odd gesture of futility, like a scarecrow gyrating in a storm.

I assured him that I was trying to see what he meant, and then sat quietly and awaited further developments of a theme upon which I knew he would be glad to expatiate.

Having refreshed his mouth, inside with a bite of tobacco, and outside with a rub from a red handkerchief, and having adjusted his collar so as to give more comfort to the throat, Mr. Wigglesworth continued.

“There isn’t a single person in the forty-eight States of this Union, my boy — excepting someone who has traveled to South America, like myself — who has ever tasted the flavor of a real ripe banana, a golden banana that has been left on the tree for the sun to work on, to mellow it and bring it to maturity, with a full rich flavor, and a firm brown skin. No, sir, there’s not a person in this country that knows what a banana like that tastes like. They either eat green bananas, and that gives them appendicitis; or else they eat rotten bananas, and that gives them dysentery. Now, which will you take?”

I said I thought I should take the second, if forced to a choice.

“What!” Mr. Wigglesworth shrieked out, “You would?” And then a sudden reserve which all adults arrive at eventually when they are dealing with children, restrained him. He looked at me with a hesitant regard, and knew immediately two things: first, that I did not know what the disease he had mentioned was; and second, that it was well for me not to know. Children catch these flashes of caution in the conversation of their elders with unerring accuracy. That is why it is foolish for a grown-up to answer all the questions of a child.

One could not fail, however, to admire Mr. Wigglesworth’s consistency and sincerity when dealing with his customers. If, in the course of one of his banana harangues, a lady customer should enter the shop to buy bananas, Mr. Wigglesworth’s strong aversions concerning the unsuitability of that fruit for human consumption would not in the least diminish.

“Which do you want?” he would say to the woman, “that yellow bunch, which is unripe, or that spotted bunch, which is rotten?”

This disarming frankness on the part of her tradesman would seem to give the woman only more confidence in Mr. Wigglesworth and his wares. She would order the unripe ones, or the rotten ones, as the case might be, then pay him the price, and depart cheerfully. Mr. Wigglesworth would then clink a cash drawer with a bell attached to it, deposit the dishonest money therein, slam the drawer until it closed again, and continue to be thoroughly disgusted with his profession.

“What can I do, my boy?” Mr. Wigglesworth would muse, as he surveyed the woman he had cheated, while she went waddling down the street, “I give them advice, but they won’t take it! But I repeat, the United States is a nation of unripe bananas!”

“Or else rotten ones, Mr. Wigglesworth!” I would add.

“You’re right, son!” Mr. Wigglesworth would say, as he patted me on the head, for he loved one who would agree with him, “Or else rotten ones!” And there the subject might end for the moment.

I have said that Mr. Wigglesworth liked you when you agreed with him. But with all the good will in the world, it was difficult to do this consistently. For he had the habit of planting false leads in his conversation which made the trend of his thought difficult to follow, and threw his listener completely off the track. I shall give an example of what I mean.

“I see,” Mr. Wigglesworth said one day, while misting and drying his spectacles, “that young Slocum’s gone and got himself engaged to be married. The darn fool! That kid ain’t set for marriage yet, not by a long shot. Furthermore, he ain’t got any money. Furthermore, I understand the girl he’s going to marry has a perfectly impossible disposition. Cranky as a rattlesnake, so I hear. That ain’t no kind of a girl to marry. I fell in love with a cranky girl myself when I was young. I even went so far as to become engaged to her, before I discovered how disagreeable she was. And then do you know what I did?”

“You threw her over, Mr. Wigglesworth?”

“Nope! I married her, went right ahead and married her. Shows what a darn fool I was. Not only was she cranky, my boy, but do you know what she was? She was a hypocrite. She told me she had a thousand dollars in the bank, all her own. That’s what she told me.”

“And was that a lie, Mr. Wigglesworth?”

“Bless your heart, no! She had one thousand, one hundred and three dollars in the bank, all in her own name, certified to by a bankbook. That’s what she had. But do you know what she promised me? She promised that when we were married she would turn the whole sum of money over to me; said she would sign it all over to me just as soon as we were married. That’s what she promised.”

“But she didn’t do it, Mr. Wigglesworth?”

“Didn’t do it? I’ll tell you she did. Every darn cent of it. She signed on the dotted line the day after the minister hitched us. But that ain’t what I’m comin’ to. What I’m comin’ to, son, is this. Do you know what that woman, that woman with the cranky disposition, whom I married through sheer pity, do you know what she went around sayin’ about me after we were married? She went around sayin’ that I married her for her money! That’s what she said. Good God, what can you do with a woman like that?”

I was not able to answer this last question. But it echoed a thought that was already simmering in my own mind. I had already heard of a lady who drank “kerosene oil” for asthma. Now I had met a man who hated bananas and was being falsely accused by his wife. It set me believing at an early age that human existence was bound to be full of such alarms and disappointments.

Mr. Wigglesworth passed out of my life as casually as he had entered it. I can go back to my native city and locate the shop where I first met him, but it is no longer the shop of Mr. Wigglesworth’s day and mine. It is now a large establishment, with two windows instead of one, and with a door for entrance at the center, and is owned by a chain-store grocery company.

One feature of Mr. Wigglesworth’s companionship I shall always be grateful for. He never spoke to me as though it were necessary for me to be stupid by way of being young. He spoke to me always as though I had intelligence, intelligence which needed to be guided in many points, and supplied with a vocabulary in others, but intelligence none the less. This is the greatest compliment a child can receive. As a child I always hated to be talked down to. I hated all nursery nonsense directed towards my ears. I hated in every way to be babied. I particularly hated to have things over-explained to me. Mr. Wigglesworth never treated me as though I were a dunce. He treated me as though I were a man, and that’s what I liked, and was the reason why I visited him wearing a laborer’s overalls, and chewing a conversational straw.

Whether or not Mr. Wigglesworth died with his antipathy for bananas still unabated, I do not know. I thought of him particularly after the First World War when the popular song was being sung: “Yes, we have no bananas!” I thought how much Mr. Wigglesworth, if he lived, would have rejoiced in that song.