by Sherwood Anderson
It must be that all children are actors. The whole thing started with a boy on our street named Walter, who had inflammatory rheumatism. That's what they called it. He didn't have to go to school.
Still he could walk about. He could go fishing in the creek or the waterworks pond. There was a place up at the pond where in the spring the water came tumbling over the dam and formed a deep pool. It was a good place. Sometimes you could get some big ones there.
I went down that way on my way to school one spring morning. It was out of my way but I wanted to see if Walter was there.
He was, inflammatory rheumatism and all. There he was, sitting with a fish pole in his hand. He had been able to walk down there all right.
It was then that my own legs began to hurt. My back too. I went on to school but, at the recess time, I began to cry. I did it when the teacher, Sarah Suggett, had come out into the schoolhouse yard.
She came right over to me.
"I ache all over," I said. I did, too.
I kept on crying and it worked all right.
"You'd better go home," she said.
So I went. I limped painfully away. I kept on limping until I got out of the schoolhouse street.
Then I felt better. I still had inflammatory rheumatism pretty bad but I could get along better.
I must have done some thinking on the way home.
"I'd better not say I have inflammatory rheumatism," I decided. "Maybe if you've got that you swell up."
I thought I'd better go around to where Walter was and ask him about that, so I did—but he wasn't there.
"They must not be biting today," I thought.
I had a feeling that, if I said I had inflammatory rheumatism, Mother or my brothers and my sister Stella might laugh. They did laugh at me pretty often and I didn't like it at all.
"Just the same," I said to myself, "I have got it." I began to hurt and ache again.
I went home and sat on the front steps of our house. I sat there a long time. There wasn't anyone at home but Mother and the two little ones. Ray would have been four or five then and Earl might have been three.
It was Earl who saw me there. I had got tired sitting and was lying on the porch. Earl was always a quiet, solemn little fellow.
He must have said something to Mother for presently she came.
"What's the matter with you? Why aren't you in school?" she asked.
I came pretty near telling her right out that I had inflammatory rheumatism but I thought I'd better not. Mother and Father had been speaking of Walter's case at the table just the day before. "It affects the heart," Father had said. That frightened me when I thought of it. "I might die," I thought. "I might just suddenly die right here; my heart might stop beating."
On the day before I had been running a race with my brother Irve. We were up at the fairgrounds after school and there was a half-mile track.
"I'll bet you can't run a half mile," he said. "I bet you I could beat you running clear around the track."
And so we did it and I beat him, but afterward my heart did seem to beat pretty hard. I remembered that lying there on the porch. "It's a wonder, with my inflammatory rheumatism and all, I didn't just drop down dead," I thought. The thought frightened me a lot. I ached worse than ever.
"I ache, Ma," I said. "I just ache."
She made me go in the house and upstairs and get into bed.
It wasn't so good. It was spring. I was up there for perhaps an hour, maybe two, and then I felt better.
I got up and went downstairs. "I feel better, ma," I said.
Mother said she was glad. She was pretty busy that day and hadn't paid much attention to me. She had made me get into bed upstairs and then hadn't even come up to see how I was.
I didn't think much of that when I was up there but when I got downstairs where she was, and when, after I had said I felt better and she only said she was glad and went right on with her work, I began to ache again.
I thought, "I'll bet I die of it. I bet I do." I was pretty sore at Mother.
"If she really knew the truth, that I have inflammatory rheumatism and I may just drop down dead any time, I'll bet she wouldn't care about that either," I thought.
I was getting more and more angry the more thinking I did.
"I know what I'm going to do," I thought; "I'm going to go fishing."
I thought that, feeling the way I did, I might be sitting on the high bank just above the deep pool where the water went over the dam, and suddenly my heart would stop beating.
And then, of course, I'd pitch forward, over the bank into the pool and, if I wasn't dead when I hit the water, I'd drown sure.
They would all come home to supper and they'd miss me.
"But where is he?"
Then Mother would remember that I'd come home from school aching.
She'd go upstairs and I wouldn't be there. One day during the year before, there was a child got drowned in a spring. It was one of the Wyatt children.
Right down at the end of the street there was a spring under a birch tree and there had been a barrel sunk in the ground.
Everyone had always been saying the spring ought to be kept covered, but it wasn't.
So the Wyatt child went down there, played around alone and fell in and got drowned.
Mother was the one who had found the drowned child. She had gone to get a pail of water and there the child was, drowned and dead.
This had been in the evening when we were all at home, and Mother had come running up the street with the dead, dripping child in her arms. She was making for the Wyatt house as hard as she could run, and she was pale.
She had a terrible look on her face, I remembered then.
"So," I thought, "they'll miss me and there'll be a search made. Very likely there'll be someone who has seen me sitting by the pond fishing, and there'll be a big alarm and all the town will turn out and they'll drag the pond."
I was having a grand time, having died. Maybe, after they found me and had got me out of the deep pool, Mother would grab me up in her arms and run home with me as she had run with the Wyatt child.
I got up from the porch and went around the house. I got my fishing pole and lit out for the pool below the dam. Mother was busy—she always was—and didn't see me go. When I got there I thought I'd better not sit too near the edge of the high bank.
By this time I didn't ache hardly at all, but I thought:
"With inflammatory rheumatism you can't tell," I thought.
"It probably comes and goes," I thought.
"Walter has it and he goes fishing," I thought.
I had got my line into the pool and suddenly I got a bite. It was a regular whopper. I knew that. I'd never had a bite like that.
I knew what it was. It was one of Mr. Fenn's big carp.
Mr. Fenn was a man who had a big pond of his own. He sold ice in the summer and the pond was to make the ice. He had bought some big carp and put them into his pond and then, earlier in the spring when there was a freshet, his dam had gone out.
So the carp had got into our creek and one or two big ones had been caught—but none of them by a boy like me.
The carp was pulling and I was pulling and I was afraid he'd break my line, so I just tumbled down the high bank, holding onto the line and got right into the pool. We had it out, there in the pool. We struggled. We wrestled. Then I got a hand under his gills and got him out.
He was a big one all right. He was nearly half as big as I was myself. I had him on the bank and I kept one hand under his gills and I ran.
I never ran so hard in my life. He was slippery, and now and then he wriggled out of my arms; once I stumbled and fell on him, but I got him home.
So there it was. I was a big hero that day. Mother got a washtub and filled it with water. She put the fish in it and all the neighbors came to look. I got into dry clothes and went down to supper—and then I made a break that spoiled my day.
There we were, all of us, at the table, and suddenly Father asked what had been the matter with me at school. He had met the teacher, Sarah Suggett, on the street and she had told him how I had become ill.
"What was the matter with you?" Father asked, and before I thought what I was saying I let it out.
"I had the inflammatory rheumatism," I said—and a shout went up. It made me sick to hear them, the way they all laughed.
It brought back all the aching again, and like a fool I began to cry.
"Well, I have got it—I have, I have," I cried, and I got up from the table and ran upstairs.
I stayed there until Mother came up. I knew it would be a long time before I heard the last of the inflammatory rheumatism. I was sick all right, but the aching I now had wasn't in my legs or in my back.
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