O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1921
Part 8 out of 8
"Quarter," insisted the woman. "Dime ... Ten cents," repeated Great
Taylor, somewhat red in the face. "Once I set a price I'm a ..." But
the woman's head had disappeared and her whole angular person soon
slid out through the doorway. Entirely befogged, Great Taylor fumbled
in her patent-leather bag with its worsted fruit, discovered two
nickels, and placed the leaky boiler beside the rusty scales on the
"Ain't I got enough junk without that?" she grumbled. But the traffic
of the Devil's Own city was moving again and Great Taylor was moving
with it. She passed a corner where a clock in a drug store told her
the time--ten minutes of the hour. "I got to get back," she told
herself, and heading her cart determinedly for an opening succeeded in
crossing to the opposite side of the congested avenue. There, a child,
attracted by the jingling of the bells, ran out of a house with a
bundle of rags tied in a torn blue apron. The child placed the bundle
on the scales and watched with solemn wide eyes. Great Taylor again
fumbled in the bag and extracted a coin which transformed the little
girl into an India-rubber thing that bounced up and down on one foot
at the side of the junk-cart. "Grit never gave me only a penny a
pound," she cried.
"Grit is dead," said Great Taylor.
"Dead!" echoed the child, clinging motionless to the wheel. "_Grit_ is
dead?" She turned suddenly and ran toward the house, calling: "Mamma,
poor old Grit is dead."
Great Taylor put her weight against the handle of the cart. She pushed
on desperately. Something had taken hold of her throat. "What's the
matter with me?" she choked. "Didn't I know he was dead before this?
Didn't I know it all along? I ain't going to cry over no man ... not
in the street, anyway." She hurriedly shoved her cart around a corner
into a less-congested thoroughfare and there a mammoth gilded clock at
the edge of the sidewalk confronted her. The long hand moved with a
sardonic jerk and indicated the hour--the hour of her appointment. But
Great Taylor turned her eyes away. "Pushing a junk-cart ain't so
easy," she said, and for a moment she stood there huddled over the
handle; then, taking a long, deep breath, like Grit used to do, she
straightened herself and sang out, clear and loud, above the noises of
the cavernous street: "Rags ... old iron ... bottles and ra-ags."
The city that people call the Devil's Own lost its sharp outline and
melted into neutral tints, gray and blue and lavender, that blended
like an old, old tapestry. It was dusk. Great Taylor strode slowly
with laborious long strides, her breast rising and falling, her body
lengthening against the load, her hands gripping the handle of the
cart, freighted with rusty, twisted, and broken things. At crossings
she paused until the murmuring river of human beings divided to let
her pass. Night settled upon the high roofs and dropped its shadow
into the streets and alleys, and the windows began to glow. Light
leaped out and streaked the sidewalks while at each corner it ran
silently down from high globes like full moons and spattered over the
curb into the gutter and out as far as the glistening car tracks. She
passed blocks solid with human beings and blocks without a human soul.
Cataracts of sound crashed down into the street now and again from
passing elevated trains, and the noise, soon dissipated, left
trembling silence like pools of sinister black water. She passed
through stagnant odours and little eddies of perfume. She lifted her
drooping head and saw a door open--the darkness was cut by a rectangle
of soft yellow light, two figures were silhouetted, then the door
closed. A gasolene torch flared above a fruit stand hard against the
towering black windowless wall of a warehouse and a woman squatted in
the shadow turning a handle. Nell pushed on past a cross street that
glittered and flared from sidewalk to cornice, and at the next corner
a single flickering gas-jet revealed a dingy vestibule with rows of
tarnished speaking tubes....
The air became thick with noise and odours and the sidewalks swayed
with people. Great Taylor slowly rounded a familiar corner, slackened
the momentum of the junk-cart, and brought up squarely against the
curb. Dragging the wheels, she gained the sidewalk and, beyond, the
rims of the cart cut into soft earth. She crossed the vacant lot. A
city's supercilious moon alone gave its half-light to the junkyard of
Grit and here the woman unloaded the cart, carrying heavy unyielding
things against her breast. She did not linger. She was trembling from
fatigue and from emotions even more novel to her. She closed the gate
without looking back at the weird crepe-like shadows that draped
themselves among the moonlit piles of twisted things. Nearing the
corner, she glanced with dull eyes at a glaring red sign: "Dancing."
Voices, laughter, and music after a kind came from the doorway, A man
was singing. Great Taylor recognized the voice but did not pause. She
was not to see the man from just around the corner again for many
Hurrying, without knowing why she hurried, Nell climbed the circular
iron staircase up through parallels of odorous gloom and, entering her
flat, closed the door and quickly locked it against the world
outside--the toil, the bickering, the sneers, the insults and curses
flung from alley gates and down upon her in the traffic of the Devil's
Own city. She closed her eyes and took a long deep breath almost like
a sigh. She was home. It was good to be home, but she lacked the words
and was far too weary to express her emotions.
Lighting the gas she sank into a chair. What did it matter if the gas
was screeching? She drooped there, hands in her lap, wrists crossed,
palms turned upward and fingers curled stiffly like claws--from
holding to the jarring handle of the junk-cart.
Presently she raised her eyes and glanced across at the shelf with its
row of tin boxes marked "Bread," "Coffee," "Sugar." On the next shelf
was Grit's molasses jug. She arose and fumbled behind this, but
nothing was there--Grit's Bible was gone. Then she remembered, and
striking a match placed her cheek to the floor and found the grimy
book beneath the stationary washtubs. "Stone wall," she murmured,
"Grit was a stone wall." At the mantelpiece she caught a glimpse of
herself in the cracked little mirror, but she was too weary to care
what she looked like, too weary to notice that her hair was matted,
that grime and smudges made hollows in her cheeks, and that even her
nose seemed crooked.
She sank again into the chair beneath the screeching gas-jet. "Grit,"
she repeated dully, "was a stone wall." And between very honest,
tired, and lonely tears she began slowly to spell out the words of the
coverless book, having gained within the past few hours some
understanding of what it means in the battle of life to draw the sword
and throw away the scabbard.
There came another afternoon, another evening, another year, and still
another; but this narrative covers merely a part of two days--Great
Taylor's first and last as a junk-woman. The latter came nearly ten
years after the burial of Grit. For almost a decade Nell followed in
his grimy footprints and the polyglot people of the lower East Side,
looking down from their windows as she passed through the congested
streets pushing steadily with head bent, thought of her either as an
infinitesimal molecule at the bottom of the mass where the light of
idealism seldom penetrates or else as a female Colossus striding from
end to end of the Devil's Own city only ankle-deep in the debris from
which she wrested an existence. But to Great Taylor it seemed not to
matter what people thought. She sang her song through the cavernous
streets, the only song she knew: "Rags, old iron, bottles, and
ra-ags." She pounded with a huge, determined fist on alley gates, she
learned expertly to thread the traffic and to laugh at the teamsters,
their oaths, their curses. "They ain't so bad." And, finally,
bickering and bargaining with men of all classes, she came to wonder
why people called this the Devil's Own city. In all those years of
toil she did not once see him in the eyes of men. But there came the
day when she said, "I'm done."
On this day Great Taylor lifted the end of a huge kitchen range
against two struggling members of the other sex. A pain shot through
her breast, but she carried her part of the dead weight, saying
nothing, and, at high noon, pushed her jingling, jangling cart through
streets sharply outlined with sunlight and shadow to a dilapidated
brick warehouse that, long since, had taken the place of Grit's
There, in the interior gloom of the shabby old building, could be seen
piles of broken, twisted, and rusty things--twisted iron rods, broken
cam-shafts, cog wheels with missing teeth, springs that had lost their
elasticity--a miniature mountain of scrap iron each piece of which at
some time had been a part of some smoothly working machine. In another
pile were discarded household utensils--old pots and pans and
burnt-out kettles, old stoves through the linings of which the flames
had eaten and the rust had gnawed. There were other hillocks and
mountains with shadowy valleys between--a mountain of waste paper,
partly baled, partly stuffed into bursting bags of burlap, partly
loose and scattered over the grimy floor; a hill of rags, all colours
fading into sombre shadows.... And in the midst of these mountains and
valleys of junk sat Great Taylor upon her dilapidated throne.
She drooped there over an old coverless book, spelling out the words
and trying to forget the pain that was no longer confined to her
breast. From shoulder to hip molten slag pulsed slowly through her
veins and great drops of sweat moved from her temples and made
white-bottomed rivulets among the smudges of her cheeks. "I'm done,"
she mumbled, closing Grit's book. "I got a right to quit. I got a
right to be idle like other people...."
Raising her head she appraised the piles that surrounded her. "All
this stuff!" It had to be disposed of. She lifted herself from the
creaking chair and, finding a pot of black paint and a board, laboured
over this latter for a time. "I could get rid of it in a week," she
mused. But she was done--done for good. "I ain't going to lay a hand
on the cart again!" She studied the sign she had painted, and spelled
out the crooked letters: "M A n WAnTeD." It would take a man a month,
maybe more, she reckoned, adding: "Grit could done it in no time." She
moved to the arched door of the warehouse and hung the sign outside in
the sunlight against an iron shutter and for a moment stood there
blinking. Despite the sunlight and warmth she was trembling, the
familiar noises were a babel to her ears; the peddlers with their
carts piled high with fruits and vegetables and colourful merchandise
seemed like strangers; the glossy-haired women with baskets seemed to
be passing backward out of her life, and the street was suddenly an
alien land. "What's the matter with me?" she asked herself.
Returning to the interior gloom of the warehouse, she looked down upon
the old junk-cart. The string of bells was the only part of it that
had not been renewed twice, thrice, a number of times since Grit had
left it standing on the vacant lot. "Guess I'll save the bells," she
The rest she would destroy. Nobody else was going to use it--nobody.
She cast about for an adequate instrument of destruction, an axe or
sledge, and remembering a piece of furnace grate upon the farther pile
of junk, made her way slowly into the deepening shadows.
There, at the foot of the rusty mountain of scrap iron, Great Taylor
stood irresolute, straining her eyes to pierce the gloom. She had not
seen any one enter; and yet, standing beyond the pile with white hands
stabbing the bottom of his pockets, was a man. She could not remember
having seen him before, and yet he was vaguely familiar. One eye
looked at her steadily from beneath a drooping lid, the other blinked
like the shutter of a camera and seemed to take intimate photographs
of all parts of her grimy person. His sleek hair was curled over his
temples with ends pointing up, and she caught, or imagined, the
fragrance of pomade.
"What do you want?" she breathed, allowing the heavy piece of iron to
sink slowly to her side.
"Sit down," said the man. "Let's talk things over."
Great Taylor sank into a broken armchair, her huge calloused hands
rested in her lap, wrists crossed, palms turned upward, fingers
stiffly curled. "I know who you are," she mumbled, leaning forward and
peering through the half-light. "What do you want?"
"You hung out a sign...."
"You ain't the man I expected."
"No?" He rocked up on his toes and made a gesture that indicated the
piles of junk. "You're done."
"I'm done," assented Great Taylor. "I ain't going to lay a hand on the
cart again. Ten years...."
"Uhm. You have a right to the things that other women have. But...."
He glanced around the dingy warehouse. "Is this all you have for your
Great Taylor made no reply.
"It isn't much," said the man.
"It's something," said Great Taylor.
"Not enough to live on."
"Not enough to live on," she echoed. "But I can't go on working. I
can't go on alone. The cart's too heavy to push alone. I'm done." She
"I think we can arrange something." For a moment the man was silent,
his queer eyes moving over her body. "I had something in mind when I
entered--something aside from junk. I could make a place for you. I'll
do better than that. With this rubbish you buy a half share in one of
my places and sit all day with your hands folded. You can make more in
a week than you ever made in a year...." His voice flowed smoothly on
until Great Taylor raised her head.
"I didn't come ten years ago."
The man laughed. "Who cares how you make your money? Do you know what
people say when they hear you calling through the streets? They say,
'It's nothing, it's only Great Taylor.' And do you know what they
think when they look down upon you and your junk-cart? They think of
you just as you used to think of Grit...."
She staggered to her feet. "You leave Grit out of it!" For ten years a
sentence had been pulsing through her mind. "Get out!" she cried,
"_Grit warn't dirty underneath_!" The pain in her breast choked her
and stopped her short as she moved threateningly toward him. The piece
of iron fell heavily to the floor.
"Who sees underneath?" came the voice of the man.
"Grit," she moaned, "Grit sees underneath." And she hurled her
tortured body forward, striking at him with her fists. She fell upon
the pile of scrap iron. Each heave of her breast was a sob. She
struggled to her feet and glared around her. But the man was not
Moaning, she sank into the armchair. "What's the matter with me? There
warn't nobody here! _He_ warn't here. No man could stay the same for
ten years." The piles of junk seemed slowly to revolve around her.
"What's the matter with me?" she asked again. "Ain't I got a
"Of course you have a right to the things you want." From the top of
the hill of rags came his voice. It brought Great Taylor to her feet,
sobbing. But the pain in her side, more fearful than ever, held her
"Wash away the ugly grime of toil," said the voice. "You're less than
forty. You're a woman. You can have the things that other women have."
"I got more than some women," she cried. "I'm clean--I'm clean
underneath." She stumbled toward him but again sank to the floor. She
tried to spring up. Her will sprang up, for her spirit at last was
splendid even if her body was weak. It dragged her up from the floor.
And now she could see him all around her--on top the hill of rags, on
top the mountain of iron, amid the bursting bags of waste
paper--blinking down as he sat enthroned upon the debris--the twisted,
broken, discarded things of the city that people call the Devil's Own.
"These are mine!" he called. "And you belong to the debris. You are
one of the broken, useless things." From all points he moved toward
her. She could no longer fight him off. There was no escape. "Grit,"
she cried, "Grit, you can stop him. You ... you was a stone wall...."
Stumbling back, her hand struck a familiar object. There was a tinkle
of bells. She wheeled around, and there in the shadows of the
dilapidated old warehouse someone was drooping over the handle of the
junk-cart--a collarless man with baggy breeches and a nose that leaned
toward the smudges and hollows of his cheek. He was striving to move
the cart. "Not alone," cried Great Taylor. "You can't do it alone! But
we can do it together!" She took hold of the handle. The thing moved.
"Easy as a baby carriage," she laughed. "We should always done it
Out of the gloom, through the arched doorway into the sunlight moved
the cart with its jingling, jangling bells. Glossy-haired women with
their baskets made way for it and the cart bumped down over the curb.
Teamsters drew aside their heavy-hoofed horses. Peddlers rolled their
push-carts back to the curb.
"The street opens when we work together," laughed Great Taylor.
"Who is she talking to?" asked the people.
"Talking to herself," the ignorant replied.
"And why is she looking up like that?"
"Looking for junk."
"And why does she laugh?" they asked.
"Who knows? Who knows? Perhaps she's happy."
A song burst from her throat: "Rags," she sang, "old iron ... bottles,
People inside their houses heard her song and the bells of her cart.
"It's nothing," they laughed, "it's only Great Taylor." A woman came
to a window and waved an object that glinted in the sunlight. "How
much?" she called down. But Great Taylor seemed not to hear. A child
ran out with a bundle in her arms. "Rags," called the child, then
stepped back out of the way, wondering. Great Taylor was passing on.
An elevated train sent down a cataract of noise, but her song rose
above it: "Rags ... old iron...." And when she reached the avenue a
policeman with a yellow emblematic wheel embroidered on his sleeve
held up his hand and stopped the traffic of the Devil's Own city to
let Great Taylor pass.
And so, like a female Colossus, she strode slowly across the city, her
head tilted, her eyes looking up from the cavernous streets--up beyond
the lofty roofs of houses, her voice becoming fainter and fainter:
"Rags ... old iron ... bottles and ra-ags ..." until the God of those
who fall fighting in the battle of life reached down and, drawing the
sword, threw away the scabbard.
Back to Full Books