A Meeting South by Sherwood Anderson
He told me the story of his ill fortune--a crack-up in an
airplane--with a very gentlemanly little smile on his very
sensitive, rather thin, lips. Such things happened. He might well
have been speaking of another. I liked his tone and I liked
This happened in New Orleans, where I had gone to live. When
he came, my friend, Fred, for whom he was looking, had gone away,
but immediately I felt a strong desire to know him better and so
suggested we spend the evening together. When we went down the
stairs from my apartment I noticed that he was a cripple. The
slight limp, the look of pain that occasionally drifted across
his face, the little laugh that was intended to be jolly, but did
not quite achieve its purpose, all these things began at once to
tell me the story I have now set myself to write.
"I shall take him to see Aunt Sally," I thought. One does not
take every caller to Aunt Sally. However, when she is in fine
feather, when she has taken a fancy to her visitor, there is no
one like her. Although she has lived in New Orleans for thirty
years, Aunt Sally is Middle Western, born and bred.
However I am plunging a bit too abruptly into my story.
First of all I must speak more of my guest, and for
convenience's sake I shall call him David. I felt at once that he
would be wanting a drink and, in New Orleans--dear city of Latins
and hot nights--even in Prohibition times such things can be
managed. We achieved several and my own head became somewhat
shaky but I could see that what we had taken had not affected
him. Evening was coming, the abrupt waning of the day and the
quick smoky soft-footed coming of night, characteristic of the
semi-tropic city, when he produced a bottle from his hip pocket.
It was so large that I was amazed. How had it happened that the
carrying of so large a bottle had not made him look deformed? His
body was very small and delicately built. "Perhaps, like the
kangaroo, his body has developed some kind of a natural pouch for
taking care of supplies," I thought. Really he walked as one
might fancy a kangaroo would walk when out for a quiet evening
stroll. I went along thinking of Darwin and the marvels of
Prohibition. "We are a wonderful people, we Americans," I
thought. We were both in fine humor and had begun to like each
He explained the bottle. The stuff, he said, was made by a
Negro man on his father's plantation somewhere over in Alabama.
We sat on the steps of a vacant house deep down in the old French
Quarter of New Orleans--the Vieux Carré--while he
explained that his father had no intention of breaking the
law--that is to say, in so far as the law remained reasonable.
"Our nigger just makes whisky for us," he said. "We keep him for
that purpose. He doesn't have anything else to do, just makes the
family whisky, that's all. If he went selling any, we'd raise
hell with him. I dare say Dad would shoot him if he caught him up
to any such unlawful trick, and you bet, Jim, our nigger, I'm
telling you of, knows it too.
"He's a good whisky-maker, though, don't you think?" David
added. He talked of Jim in a warm friendly way. "Lord, he's been
with us always, was born with us. His wife cooks for us and Jim
makes our whisky. It's a race to see which is best at his job,
but I think Jim will win. He's getting a little better all the
time and all of our family--well, I reckon we just like and need
our whisky more than we do our food."
Do you know New Orleans? Have you lived there in the Summer
when it is hot, in the Winter when it rains, and through the
glorious late Fall days? Some of its own, more progressive,
people scorn it now. In New Orleans there is a sense of shame
because the city is not more like Chicago or Pittsburgh.
It, however, suited David and me. We walked slowly, on account
of his bad leg, through many streets of the Old Town, Negro women
laughing all around us in the dusk, shadows playing over old
buildings, children with their shrill cries dodging in and out of
old hallways. The old city was once almost altogether French, but
now it is becoming more and more Italian. It however remains
Latin. People live out of doors. Families were sitting down to
dinner within full sight of the street--all doors and windows
open. A man and his wife quarreled in Italian. In a patio back of
an old building a Negress sang a French song.
We came out of the narrow little streets and had a drink in
front of the dark cathedral and another in a little square in
front. There is a statue of General Jackson, always taking off
his hat to Northern tourists who in Winter come down to see the
city. At his horse's feet an inscription--"The Union must and
will be preserved." We drank solemnly to that declaration and the
general seemed to bow a bit lower. "He was sure a proud man,"
David said, as we went over toward the docks to sit in the
darkness and look at the Mississippi. All good New Orleanians go
to look at the Mississippi at least once a day. At night it is
like creeping into a dark bedroom to look at a sleeping
child--something of that sort--gives you the same warm nice
feeling, I mean. David is a poet and so in the darkness by the
river we spoke of Keats and Shelley, the two English poets all
good Southern men love.
All of this, you are to understand, was before I took him to
see Aunt Sally.
Both Aunt Sally and myself are Middle Westerners. We are but
guests down here, but perhaps we both in some queer way belong to
this city. Something of the sort is in the wind. I don't quite
know how it has happened.
A great many Northern men and women come down our way and,
when they go back North, write things about the South. The trick
is to write nigger stories. The North likes them. They are so
amusing. One of the best-known writers of nigger stories was down
here recently and a man I know, a Southern man, went to call on
him. The writer seemed a bit nervous. "I don't know much about
the South or Southerners," he said. "But you have your
reputation," my friend said. "You are so widely known as a writer
about the South and about Negro life."
The writer had a notion he was being made sport of. "Now look
here," he said, "I don't claim to be a highbrow. I'm a business
man myself. At home, up North, I associate mostly with business
men and when I am not at work I go out to the country club. I
want you to understand I am not setting myself up as a
"I give them what they want," he said. My friend said he
appeared angry. "About what now, do you fancy?" he asked
However, I am not thinking of the Northern writer of Negro
stories. I am thinking of the Southern poet, with the bottle
clasped firmly in his hands, sitting in the darkness beside me on
the docks facing the Mississippi.
He spoke at some length of his gift for drinking. "I didn't
always have it. It is a thing built up," he said. The story of
how he chanced to be a cripple came out slowly. You are to
remember that my own head was a bit unsteady. In the darkness the
river, very deep and very powerful off New Orleans, was creeping
away to the gulf. The whole river seemed to move away from us and
then to slip noiselessly into the darkness like a vast moving
When he had first come to me, in the late afternoon, and when
we had started for our walk together I had noticed that one of
his legs dragged as we went along and that he kept putting a thin
hand to an equally thin cheek.
Sitting over by the river he explained, as a boy would explain
when he has stubbed his toe running down a hill.
When the World War broke out he went over to England and
managed to get himself enrolled as an aviator, very much, I
gathered, in the spirit in which a countryman, in a city for a
night, might take in a show.
The English had been glad enough to take him on. He was one
more man. They were glad enough to take any one on just then. He
was small and delicately built but after he got in he turned out
to be a first-rate flyer, serving all through the War with a
British flying squadron, but at the last got into a crash and
Both legs were broken, one of them in three places, the scalp
was badly torn and some of the bones of the face had been
They had put him into a field hospital and had patched him up.
"It was my fault if the job was rather bungled," he said. "You
see it was a field hospital, a hell of a place. Men were torn all
to pieces, groaning and dying. Then they moved me back to a base
hospital and it wasn't much better. The fellow who had the bed
next to mine had shot himself in the foot to avoid going into a
battle. A lot of them did that, but why they picked on their own
feet that way is beyond me. It's a nasty place, full of small
bones. If you're ever going to shoot yourself don't pick on a
spot like that. Don't pick on your feet. I tell you it's a bad
"Anyway, the man in the hospital was always making a fuss and
I got sick of him and the place too. When I got better I faked,
said the nerves of my leg didn't hurt. It was a lie, of course.
The nerves of my leg and of my face have never quit hurting. I
reckon maybe, if I had told the truth, they might have fixed me
up all right."
I got it. No wonder he carried his drinks so well. When I
understood, I wanted to keep on drinking with him, wanted to stay
with him until he got tired of me as he had of the man who lay
beside him in the base hospital over there somewhere in
The point was that he never slept, could not sleep, except
when he was a little drunk. "I'm a nut," he said smiling.
It was after we got over to Aunt Sally's that he talked most.
Aunt Sally had gone to bed when we got there, but she got up when
we rang the bell and we all went to sit together in the little
patio back of her house. She is a large woman with great arms and
rather a paunch, and she had put on nothing but a light flowered
dressing-gown over a thin, ridiculously girlish, nightgown. By
this time the moon had come up and, outside, in the narrow street
of the Vieux Carré, three drunken sailors from a ship in
the river were sitting on a curb and singing a song,
"I've got to get it,
You've got to get it,
We've all got to get it
In our own good time."
They had rather nice boyish voices and every time they sang a
verse and had done the chorus they all laughed together
In Aunt Sally's patio there are many broad-leafed banana
plants and a Chinaberry tree throwing its soft purple shadows on
a brick floor.
As for Aunt Sally, she is as strange to me as he was. When we
came and when we were all seated at a little table in the patio,
she ran into her house and presently came back with a bottle of
whisky. She, it seemed, had understood him at once, had
understood without unnecessary words that the little Southern man
lived always in the black house of pain, that whisky was good to
him, that it quieted his throbbing nerves, temporarily at least.
"Everything is temporary, when you come to that," I can fancy
Aunt Sally saying.
We sat for a time in silence, David having shifted his
allegiance and taken two drinks out of Aunt Sally's bottle.
Presently he rose and walked up and down the patio floor,
crossing and re-crossing the network of delicately outlined
shadows on the bricks. "It's really all right, the leg," he said,
"something just presses on the nerves, that's all." In me there
was a self-satisfied feeling. I had done the right thing. I had
brought him to Aunt Sally. "I have brought him to a mother." She
has always made me feel that way since I have known her.
And now I shall have to explain her a little. It will not be
so easy. That whole neighborhood in New Orleans is alive with
tales concerning her.
Aunt Sally came to New Orleans in the old days, when the town
was wild, in the wide-open days. What she had been before she
came no one knew, but anyway she opened a place. That was very,
very long ago when I was myself but a lad, up in Ohio. As I have
already said Aunt Sally came from somewhere up in the
Middle-Western country. In some obscure subtle way it would
flatter me to think she came from my State.
The house she had opened was one of the older places in the
French Quarter down here, and when she had got her hands on it,
Aunt Sally had a hunch. Instead of making the place modern,
cutting it up into small rooms, all that sort of thing, she left
it just as it was and spent her money rebuilding falling old
walls, mending winding broad old stairways, repairing dim
high-ceilinged old rooms, soft-colored old marble mantels. After
all, we do seem attached to sin and there are so many people busy
making sin unattractive. It is good to find someone who takes the
other road. It would have been so very much to Aunt Sally's
advantage to have made the place modern, that is to say, in the
business she was in at that time. If a few old rooms, wide old
stairways, old cooking ovens built into the walls, if all these
things did not facilitate the stealing in of couples on dark
nights, they at least did something else. She had opened a
gambling and drinking house, but one can have no doubt about the
ladies stealing in. "I was on the make all right," Aunt Sally
told me once.
She ran the place and took in money, and the money she spent
on the place itself. A falling wall was made to stand up straight
and fine again, the banana plants were made to grow in the patio,
the Chinaberry tree got started and was helped through the years
of adolescence. On the wall the lovely Rose of Montana bloomed
madly. The fragrant Lantana grew in a dense mass at a corner of
When the Chinaberry tree, planted at the very center of the
patio, began to get up into the light it filled the whole
neighborhood with fragrance in the Spring.
Fifteen, twenty years of that, with Mississippi River gamblers
and race-horse men sitting at tables by windows in the huge rooms
upstairs in the house that had once, no doubt, been the town
house of some rich planter's family--in the boom days of the
Forties. Women stealing in, too, in the dusk of evenings. Drinks
being sold. Aunt Sally raking down the kitty from the game,
raking in her share, quite ruthlessly.
At night, getting a good price too from the lovers. No
questions asked, a good price for drinks. Moll Flanders might
have lived with Aunt Sally. What a pair they would have made! The
Chinaberry tree beginning to be lusty. The Lantana blossoming--in
the Fall the Rose of Montana.
Aunt Sally getting hers. Using the money to keep the old house
in fine shape. Salting some away all the time.
A motherly soul, good, sensible Middle-Western woman, eh? Once
a race-horse man left twenty-four thousand dollars with her and
disappeared. No one knew she had it. There was a report the man
was dead. He had killed a gambler in a place down by the French
Market and while they were looking for him he managed to slip in
to Aunt Sally's and leave his swag. Some time later a body was
found floating in the river and it was identified as the horseman
but in reality he had been picked up in a wire-tapping haul in
New York City and did not get out of his Northern prison for six
When he did get out, naturally, he skipped for New Orleans. No
doubt he was somewhat shaky. She had him. If he squealed there
was a murder charge to be brought up and held over his head. It
was night when he arrived and Aunt Sally went at once to an old
brick oven built into the wall of the kitchen and took out a bag.
"There it is," she said. The whole affair was part of the day's
work for her in those days.
Gamblers at the tables in some of the rooms upstairs, lurking
couples, from the old patio below the fragrance of growing
When she was fifty, Aunt Sally had got enough and had put them
all out. She did not stay in the way of sin too long and she
never went in too deep, like that Moll Flanders, and so she was
all right and sitting pretty. "They wanted to gamble and drink
and play with the ladies. The ladies liked it all right. I never
saw none of them come in protesting too much. The worst was in
the morning when they went away. They looked so sheepish and
guilty. If they felt that way, what made them come? If I took a
man, you bet I'd want him and no monkey-business or nothing
"I got a little tired of all of them, that's the truth." Aunt
Sally laughed. "But that wasn't until I had got what I went
after. Oh, pshaw, they took up too much of my time, after I got
enough to be safe."
Aunt Sally is now sixty-five. If you like her and she likes
you she will let you sit with her in her patio gossiping of the
old times, of the old river days. Perhaps--well, you see there is
still something of the French influence at work in New Orleans, a
sort of matter-of-factness about life--what I started to say is
that if you know Aunt Sally and she likes you, and if, by chance,
your lady likes the smell of flowers growing in a patio at
night--really, I am going a bit too far. I only meant to suggest
that Aunt Sally at sixty-five is not harsh. She is a motherly
We sat in the garden talking, the little Southern poet, Aunt
Sally and myself--or rather they talked and I listened. The
Southerner's great-grandfather was English, a younger son, and he
came over here to make his fortune as a planter, and did it. Once
he and his sons owned several great plantations with slaves, but
now his father had but a few hundred acres left, about one of the
old houses--somewhere over in Alabama. The land is heavily
mortgaged and most of it has not been under cultivation for
years. Negro labor is growing more and more expensive and
unsatisfactory since so many Negroes have run off to Chicago, and
the poet's father and the one brother at home are not much good
at working the land. "We aren't strong enough and we don't know
how," the poet said.
The Southerner had come to New Orleans to see Fred, to talk
with Fred about poetry, but Fred was out of town. I could only
walk about with him, help him drink his home-made whisky. Already
I had taken nearly a dozen drinks. In the morning I would have a
I drew within myself, listening while David and Aunt Sally
talked. The Chinaberry tree had been so and so many years
growing--she spoke of it as she might have spoken of a daughter.
"It had a lot of different sicknesses when it was young, but it
pulled through." Some one had built a high wall on one side of
her patio so that the climbing plants did not get as much
sunlight as they needed. The banana plants, however, did very
well and now the Chinaberry tree was big and strong enough to
take care of itself. She kept giving David drinks of whisky and
He told her of the place in his leg where something, a bone
perhaps, pressed on the nerve, and of the place on his left
cheek. A silver plate had been set under the skin. She touched
the spot with her fat old fingers. The moonlight fell softly down
on the patio floor. "I can't sleep except somewhere out of
doors," David said.
He explained how that, at home on his father's plantation, he
had to be thinking all day whether or not he would be able to
sleep at night.
"I go to bed and then I get up. There is always a bottle of
whisky on the table downstairs and I take three or four drinks.
Then I go out doors." Often very nice things happened.
"In the Fall it's best," he said. "You see the niggers are
making molasses." Every Negro cabin on the place had a little
clump of ground back of it where cane grew and in the Fall the
Negroes were making their 'lasses. "I take the bottle in my hand
and go into the fields, unseen by the niggers. Having the bottle
with me, that way, I drink a good deal and then lie down on the
ground. The mosquitoes bite me some, but I don't mind much. I
reckon I get drunk enough not to mind. The little pain makes a
kind of rhythm for the great pain--like poetry.
"In a kind of shed the niggers are making the 'lasses, that is
to say, pressing the juice out of the cane and boiling it down.
They keep singing as they work. In a few years now I reckon our
family won't have any land. The banks could take it now if they
wanted it. They don't want it. It would be too much trouble for
them to manage, I reckon.
"In the Fall, at night, the niggers are pressing the cane. Our
niggers live pretty much on 'lasses and grits.
"They like working at night and I'm glad they do. There is an
old mule going round and round in a circle and beside the press a
pile of the dry cane. Niggers come, men and women, old and young.
They build a fire outside the shed. The old mule goes round and
"The niggers sing. They laugh and shout. Sometimes the young
niggers with their gals make love on the dry cane pile. I can
hear it rattle.
"I have come out of the big house, me and my bottle, and I
creep along, low on the ground, 'til I get up close. There I lie.
I'm a little drunk. It all makes me happy. I can sleep some, on
the ground like that, when the niggers are singing, when no one
knows I'm there.
"I could sleep here, on these bricks here," David said,
pointing to where the shadows cast by the broad leaves of the
banana plants were broadest and deepest.
He got up from his chair and went limping, dragging one foot
after the other, across the patio and lay down on the bricks.
For a long time Aunt Sally and I sat looking at each other,
saying nothing, and presently she made a sign with her fat finger
and we crept away into the house. "I'll let you out at the front
door. You let him sleep, right where he is," she said. In spite
of her huge bulk and her age she walked across the patio floor as
softly as a kitten. Beside her I felt awkward and uncertain. When
we had got inside she whispered to me. She had some champagne
left from the old days, hidden away somewhere in the old house.
"I'm going to send a magnum up to his dad when he goes home," she
She, it seemed, was very happy, having him there, drunk and
asleep on the brick floor of the patio. "We used to have some
good men come here in the old days too," she said. As we went
into the house through the kitchen door I had looked back at
David, asleep now in the heavy shadows at a corner of the wall.
There was no doubt he also was happy, had been happy ever since I
had brought him into the presence of Aunt Sally. What a small
huddled figure of a man he looked, lying thus on the brick, under
the night sky, in the deep shadows of the banana plants.
I went into the house and out at the front door and into a
dark narrow street, thinking. Well, I was, after all, a Northern
man. It was possible Aunt Sally had become completely Southern,
being down here so long.
I remembered that it was the chief boast of her life that once
she had shaken hands with John L. Sullivan and that she had known
P. T. Barnum.
"I knew Dave Gears. You mean to tell me you don't know who
Dave Gears was? Why, he was one of the biggest gamblers we ever
had in this city."
As for David and his poetry--it is in the manner of Shelley.
"If I could write like Shelley I would be happy. I wouldn't care
what happened to me," he had said during our walk of the early
part of the evening.
I went along enjoying my thoughts. The street was dark and
occasionally I laughed. A notion had come to me. It kept dancing
in my head and I thought it very delicious. It had something to
do with aristocrats, with such people as Aunt Sally and David.
"Lordy," I thought, "maybe I do understand them a little. I'm
from the Middle West myself and it seems we can produce our
aristocrats too." I kept thinking of Aunt Sally and of my native
State, Ohio. "Lordy, I hope she comes from up there, but I don't
think I had better inquire too closely into her past," I said to
myself, as I went smiling away into the soft smoky night.