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Johnny Pye and the fool-killer.

JOHNNY PYE AND THE FOOL-KILLER

Synopsis

Ever since Johnny was a boy, he'd heard talk of the Fool-Killer. And almost everyone in Martinsville had said Johnny was a fool--except Susie Marsh. So he packed his duds one day and set off. He tried his hand with an herb doctor, a merchant, even a drunken fiddler, but still he heard the Fool-Killer's heavy steps behind him. Then Johnny hooked up with a congressman--Susie Marsh's uncle. With Susie's promise of marriage and her uncle's help, Johnny was sure he'd lick his troubles. Why, the president himself listened to Johnny's story and offered his advice: "Politics!'

Conclusion:

"Well,' said Johnny, scratching his head, "of course, since I've been in Washington, I've thought of that. But I don't know if I'm rightly fitted.'

"You can write a speech,' said Congressman Marsh, quite thoughtful, "for you've helped me with mine. You're a likable fellow, too. And you were born poor and worked up--and you've even got a war record--why, hell! Excuse me, Mr. President!--he's worth 500 votes just as he stands!'

"I--I'm more than honored by you two gentlemen,' said Johnny, abashed and flattered, "but supposing I did go into politics--where would I end up?'

The president looked sort of modest.

"The presidency of the United States,' said he, "is within the legitimate ambition of every American citizen. Provided he can get elected, of course.'

"Oh,' said Johnny, feeling dazzled, "I never thought of that. Well, that's a great thing. But it must be a great responsibility too.'

"It is,' said the president, looking just like his picture on the campaign buttons.

"Why, it must be an awful responsibility!' said Johnny. "I can't hardly see how a mortal man can bear it. Tell me, Mr. President,' he said, "may I ask you a question?'

"Certainly,' said the president, looking prouder and more responsible and more and more like his picture on the campaign buttons every minute.

"Well,' said Johnny, "it sounds like a fool question, but it's this: This is a great big country of ours, Mr. President, and it's got the most amazing lot of different people in it. How can any president satisfy all those people at one time? Can you yourself, Mr. President?'

The president looked a bit taken aback for a minute. But then he gave Johnny Pye a statesman's glance.

"With the help of God,' he said solemnly, "and in accordance with the principles of our great party, I intend--'

But Johnny didn't even hear the end of the sentence. For, even as the president was speaking, he heard a step outside in the corridor and he knew, somehow, it wasn't the step of a secretary or a guard. He was glad the president had said "with the help of God' for that sort of softened the step. And when the president finished, Johnny bowed.

"Thank you, Mr. President,' he said. "That's what I wanted to know. And now I'll go back to Martinsville, I guess.'

"Go back to Martinsville?' said the president, surprised.

"Yes, sir,' said Johnny. "For I don't think I'm cut out for politics.'

"And is that all you have to say to the president of the United States?' said his uncle-to-be, in a fume.

But the president had been thinking, meanwhile, and he was a bigger man than the congressman.

"Wait a minute, congressman,' he said. "This young man's honest, at least, and I like his looks. Moreover, of all the people who've come to see me in the last six months, he's the only one who hasn't wanted something--except the White House cat, and I guess she wanted something, too, because she meowed. You don't want to be president, young man--and, confidentially, I don't blame you. But how would you like to be postmaster at Martinsville?'

"Postmaster at Martinsville?' said Johnny. "But--'

"Oh, it's only a tenth-class post office,' said the president, "but, for once in my life, I'll do something because I want to, and let Congress yell its head off. Come--is it yes or no?'

Johnny thought of all the places he'd been and all the trades he'd worked at. He thought, queerly enough, of the old drunk fiddler dead in the ditch, but he knew he couldn't be that. Mostly, though, he thought of Martinsville and Susie Marsh. And, though he'd just heard the Fool-Killer's step, he defied the Fool-Killer.

"Why, it's yes, of course, Mr. President,' he said, "for then I can marry Susie.'

"That's as good a reason as you'll find,' said the president. "And now, I'll just write a note.'

Well, he was as good as his word, and Johnny and his Susie were married and went back to live in Martinsville. And, as soon as Johnny learned the ways of postmastering, he found it as good a trade as most. There wasn't much mail in Martinsville, but in between whiles, he ran the mill, and that was a good trade too. And all the time, he knew, at the back of his mind, that he hand't quite settled accounts with the Fool-Killer. But he didn't care much about that, for he and Susie were happy. And after a while they had a child, and that was the most remarkable experience that had ever happened to any young couple, though the doctor said it was a perfectly normal baby.

One evening, when his son was about a year old, Johnny Pye took the river road, going home. It was a mite longer than the hill road, but it was the cool of the evening, and there's times when a man likes to walk by himself, fond as he may be of his wife and family.

He was thinking of the way things had turned out for him, and they seemed to him pretty astonishing and singular, as they do to most folks, when you think them over. In fact, he was thinking so hard that, before he knew it, he'd almost stumbled over an old scissors grinder who'd set up his grindstone and tools by the side of the road. The scissors grinder had his cart with him, but he'd turned the horse out to graze--and a lank, old, white horse it was, with every rib showing. And he was very busy, putting an edge on a scythe.

"Oh, sorry,' said Johnny Pye. "I didn't know anybody was camping here. But you might come round to my house tomorrow--my wife's got some knives that need sharpening.'

Then he stopped, for the old man gave him a long, keen look.

"Why, it's you, Johnny Pye,' said the old man. "And how do you do, Johnny Pye! You've been a long time coming--in fact, now and then, I thought I'd have to fetch you. But you're here at last.'

Johnny Pye was a grown man now, but he began to tremble.

"But it isn't you!' he said, wildly. "I mean you're not him! Why, I've known how he looks all my life! He's a big man, with a checked shirt, and he carries a hickory stick with a lump of lead in one end.'

"Oh, no,' said the scissors grinder, quite quiet. "You may have thought of me that way, but that's not the way I am.' And Johnny Pye heard the scythe go whet-whet-whet on the stone. The old man ran some water on it and looked at the edge. Then he shook his head as if the edge didn't quite satisfy him. "Well, Johnny, are you ready?' he said, after a while.

"Ready?' said Johnny, in a hoarse voice. "Of course I'm not ready.'

"That's what they all say,' said the old man, nodding his head, and the scythe went whet-whet-whet on the stone.

Johnny wiped his brow and started to argue it out.

"You see, if you'd found me earlier,' he said, "or later. I don't want to be unreasonable, but I've got a wife and a child.'

"Most has wives and many has children,' said the old man grimly, and the scythe went whet-whet on the stone as he pushed the treadle. And a shower of sparks flew, very clear and bright, for the night had begun to fall.

"Oh, stop that damn racket and let a man think for a minute!' said Johnny, desperate. "I can't go, I tell you. I won't. It isn't time. It's--'

The old man stopped the grindstone and pointed with the scythe at Johnny Pye.

"Tell me one good reason,' he said. "There's men would be missed in the world, but are you one of them? A clever man might be missed, but are you a clever man?'

"No,' said Johnny, thinking of the herb doctor. "I had a chance to be clever, but I gave it up.'

"One,' said the old man, ticking off on his fingers. "Well, a rich man might be missed--by some. But you aren't rich, I take it.'

"No,' said Johnny, thinking of the merchant, "nor wanted to be.'

"Two,' said the old man. "Cleverness--riches-- they're done. But there's still martial bravery and being a hero. There might be an argument to make, if you were one of those.'

Johnny Pye shuddered a little, remembering the way that battlefield had looked out West when the Indians were dead and the fight over.

"No,' he said, "I've fought, but I'm not a hero.'

"Well, then, there's religion,' said the old man, sort of patient, "and science, and--but what's the use? We know what you did with those. I might feel a trifle of compunction if I had to deal with a president of the United States. But--'

"Oh, you know well enough I ain't president,' said Johnny, with a groan. "Can't you get it over with and be done?'

"You're not putting up a very good case,' said the old man, shaking his head. "I'm surprised at you, Johnny. Here you spend your youth running away from being a fool. And yet, what's the first thing you do when you're man grown? Why, you marry a girl, settle down in your hometown, and start raising children when you don't know how they'll turn out. You might have known I'd catch up with you, then--you just put yourself in my way.'

"Fool I may be,' said Johnny Pye in his agony, "and if you take it like that, I guess we're all fools. But Susie's my wife, and my child's my child. And, as for work in the world--well, somebody has to be postmaster, or folks wouldn't get the mail.'

"Would it matter much if they didn't?' said the old man, pointing his scythe.

"Well, no, I don't suppose it would, considering what's on the post cards,' said Johnny Pye. "But while it's my business to sort it, I'll sort it as well as I can.'

The old man whetted his scythe so hard that a long shower of sparks flew out on the grass.

"Well,' he said, "I've got my job, too, and I do it likewise. But I'll tell you what I'll do. You're coming my way, no doubt of it, but looking you over, you don't look quite ripe yet. So I'll let you off for a while. For that matter,' said he, "if you'll answer one question of mine--how a man can be a human being and not be a fool--I'll let you off permanent. It'll be the first time in history,' he said, "but you've got to do something on your own hook once in a while. And now you can walk along, Johnny Pye.'

With that he ground the scythe till the sparks flew out like the tail of a comet and Johnny Pye walked along. The air of the meadow had never seemed so sweet to him before.

All the same, even with his relief, he didn't quite forget, and sometimes Susie had to tell the children not to disturb father because he was thinking. But time went ahead, as it does, and pretty soon Johnny Pye found he was 40. He'd never expected to be 40 when he was young, and it kind of surprised him. But there it was, though he couldn't say he felt much different, except now and then when he stooped over. And he was a solid citizen of the town, well-liked and well-respected, with a growing family and a stake in the community, and when he thought those things over, they kind of surprised him too. But pretty soon, it was as if things had always been that way.

It was after his eldest son had been drowned out fishing that Johnny Pye met the scissors grinder again. But this time, he was bitter and distracted, and, if he could have got to the old man, he's have done him a mortal harm. But, somehow or other, when he tried to come to grips with him, it was like reaching for air and mist. He could see the sparks fly from the ground scythe, but he couldn't even touch the wheel.

"You coward!' said Johnny Pye. "Stand up and fight like a man!' But the old man just nodded his head and the wheel kept grinding and grinding.

"Why couldn't you have taken me?' said Johnny Pye, as if those words had never been said before. "What's the sense in all this? Why can't you take me now?'

Then he tried to wrench the scythe from the old man's hands, but he couldn't touch it. And then he fell down and lay on the grass for a while.

"Time passes,' said the old man, nodding his head. "Time passes.'

"It will never cure the grief I have for my son,' said Johnny Pye.

"It will not,' said the old man, nodding his head. "But time passes. Would you leave your wife a widow and your other children fatherless for the sake of your grief?'

"No, God help me!' said Johnny Pye. "That wouldn't be right for a man.'

"Then go home to your house, Johnny Pye,' said the old man. And Johnny Pye went, but there were lines in his face that hadn't been there before.

And time passed, like the flow of the river, and Johnny Pye's children married and had houses and children of their own. And Susie's hair grew white, and her back grew bent, and when Johnny Pye and his children followed her to her grave, folks said she'd died in the fullness of years, but that was hard for Johnny Pye to believe. Only folks didn't talk as plain as they used to, and the sun didn't heat as much, and sometimes, before dinner, he'd go to sleep in his chair.

And once, after Susie had died, the president of those days came through Martinsville and Johnny Pye shook hands with him and there was a piece in the paper about his shaking hands with two presidents, 50 years apart. Johnny Pye cut out the clipping and kept it in his pocketbook. He liked this president all right, but, as he told people, he wasn't patch on the other one 50 years ago. Well, you couldn't expect it--you didn't have presidents these days, not to call them presidents, All the same, he took a lot of satisfaction in the clipping.

He didn't get down to the river road much any more-- it wasn't too long a walk, of course, but he just didn't often feel like it. But one day he slipped away from the granddaughter that was taking care of him and went. It was kind of a steep road, really--he didn't remember its being so steep.

"Well,' said the scissors grinder, "and good afternoon to you, Johnny Pye.'

"You'll have to talk a little louder,' said Johnny Pye. "My hearing's perfect, but folks don't speak as plain as they used to. Stranger in town?'

"Oh, so that's the way it is,' said the scissors grinder.

"Yes, that's the way it is,' said Johnny Pye. He knew he ought to be afraid of this fellow, now he'd put on his spectacles and got a good look at him, but for the life of him, he couldn't remember why.

"I know just who you are,' he said, a little fretfully. "Never forget a face in my life, and your name's right on the tip of my tongue--'

"Oh, don't bother about names,' said the scissors grinder. "We're old acquaintances. And I asked you a question, years ago-do you remember that?'

"Yes,' said Johnny Pye, "I remember.' Then he began to laugh--a high, old man's laugh. "And of all the fool questions I ever was asked,' he said, "that certainly took the cake.'

"Oh?' said the scissors grinder.

"Uh-huh,' said Johnny Pye. "For you asked me how a man could be a human being and yet not be a fool. And the answer is--when he's dead and gone and buried. Any fool would know that.'

"That so?' said the scissors grinder.

"Of course,' said Johnny Pye. "I ought to know. I'll be 92 next November, and I've shook hands with two presidents. The first president I shook--'

"I'll be interested to hear about that,' said the scissors grinder, "but we've got a little business, first. For, if all human beings are fools, how does the world get ahead?'

"Oh, there's lots of other things,' said Johnny Pye, kind of impatient. "There's the brave and the wise and the clever--and they're apt to roll it ahead as much as an inch. But it's all mixed in together. For, Lord, it's only some fool kind of creature that would have crawled out of the sea to dry land in the first place--or got dropped from the Garden of Eden, if you like it better that way. You can't depend on the kind of folks people think they are--you've got to go by what they do. And I wouldn't give much for a man that some folks hadn't thought was a fool in his time.'

"Well,' said the scissors grinder, "you've answered my question--at least as well as you could, which is all you can expect of a man. So I'll keep my part of the bargain.'

"And what was that?' said Johnny. "For, while it's all straight in my head, I don't quite recollect the details.'

"Why,' said the scissors grinder, rather testy, "I'm to let you go, you old fool! You'll never see me again till the Last Judgment. There'll be trouble in the office about it,' said he, "but you've got to do what you like once in a while.'

"Phew!' said Johnny Pye. "That needs thinking over!' And he scratched his head.

"Why?' said the scissors grinder, a bit affronted. "It ain't often I offer a man eternal life.'

"Well,' said Johnny Pye, "I take it very kind, but, you see, it's this way.' He thought for a moment. "No,' he said, "you wouldn't understand. You can't have touched 70 yet, by your looks, and no young man would.'

"Try me,' said the scissors grinder.

"Well,' said Johnny Pye, "it's this way,' and he scratched his head again. "I'm not saying--if you'd made the offer 40 years ago, or even 20. But, well, now, let's just take one detail. Let's say "teeth.''

"Well, of course,' said the scissors grinder, "naturally --I mean you could hardly expect me to do anything about that.'

"I thought so,' said Johnny Pye. "Well, you see, these are good, bought teeth, but I'm sort of tired of hearing them click. And spectacles, I suppose, the same?'

"I'm afraid so,' said the scissors grinder. "I can't interfere with time, you know--that's not my department. And, frankly, you couldn't expect at 180, let's say, to be quite the man you was at 90. But still, you'd be a wonder!'

"Maybe so,' said Johnny Pye, "but, you see--well, the truth is, I'm an old man now. You wouldn't think it to look at me, but it's so. And my friends--well, they're gone--and Susie and the boy--and somehow you don't get as close to the younger people, except the children. And to keep on just going and going till Judgment Day, with nobody around to talk to that had real horse sense--well, no, sir, it's a handsome offer, but I just don't feel up to accepting it. It may not be patriotic of me, and I feel sorry for Martinsville. It'd do wonders for the climate and the chamber of commerce to have a leading citizen live till Judgment Day. But a man's got to do as he likes, at least once in his life.' He stopped and looked at the scissors grinder. "I'll admit, I'd kind of like to beat out Ike Leavis,' he said. "To hear him talk, you'd think nobody had ever pushed 90 before. But I suppose----'

"I'm afraid we can't issue a limited policy,' said the scissors grinder.

"Well,' said Johnny Pye, "I just thought of it. And Ike's all right.' He waited a moment. "Tell me,' he said, in a low voice. "Well, you know what I mean. Afterwards. I mean, if you're likely to see'--he coughed-- "your friends again. I mean, if it's so--like some folks believe.'

"I can't tell you that,' said the scissors grinder. "I only go so far.'

"Well, there's no harm in asking,' said Johnny Pye, rather humbly. He peered into the darkness; a last shower of sparks flew from the scythe, then the whir of the wheel stopped.

"H'm,' said Johnny Pye, testing the edge. "That's a well-ground scythe. But they used to grind 'em better in the old days.' He listened and looked, for a moment, anxiously. "Oh, Lordy!' he said. "There's Helen coming to look for me. She'll take me back to the house.'

"Not this time,' said the scissors grinder. "Yes, there isn't bad steel in that scythe. Well, let's go, Johnny Pye.'

Photo: "If you'll answer one question of mine--how a man can be a human being and not be a fool--I'll let you off permanent.'
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Title Annotation:short story; part 2
Author:Benet, Stephen Vincent
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Oct 1, 1987
Words:3664
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