“A System of Wheels,” by Tennessee Williams, appeared in MQR’s Fall 1999 issue by arrangement with the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.
On the street corner where Anthony caught his downtown bus in the mornings there was a cigarstore which had formerly been a jeweler’s establishment and which still had the immense clock of the former tenant overhanging its entrance. For Anthony this was a convenience, as he did not own a watch and he seldom left his apartment with more than the minimum time required to “punch in black” at the office. It was a convenience but he did not at all like it, it was to him a reprehensible object, so much so that once when he was nauseated the clock appeared in his mind at the moment of vomiting and again one time, when he received a shocking piece of news, relative to the imminent death of one of the very few people he cared about, the jeweler’s clock was stamped for a horrible second on the sickening yellow telegram blank. The clock was a dominating object on the corner, as much as a church-steeple with a gilded cross might have been, and the hands of the clock were at least two feet in length and you could actually see them turning, or gradually drifting, from minute to minute if you stood and watched it. Anthony stood and watched it stupidly, without thinking, all the mornings that he waited to catch his downtown bus on the corner. Once in a snowstorm, when an angry scene at breakfast had made him ten minutes late in reaching the corner, he assaulted the clock with snowballs, pelted it furiously as it stood over him indifferently and remorselessly declaring how late he would be in punching the office time-clock. But it was a useless show of animosity, for the hands of the clock were protected by the glass cover and all he accomplished was to scratch and freeze his knuckles with the hard snow.
Then one time in the dead of another winter, something else took the place of the jeweler’s clock as a focal point on the cigarstore corner. This new phenomenon was a black wire cage in the cigarstore window. The cage contained a smaller cage of cylindrical shape in which was imprisoned a small furry grey animal. God knows what kind it was. Chipmunk, woodchuck, mink, opossum and so forth were names without distinct images in Anthony’s urban mind. But there the animal was, enclosed in the two cages in the cigarstore window, and Anthony was much impressed by it. He wondered what purpose it served. There was no label or placard in the cigarstore window that had any relevance to the beast’s presence. Apparently the cage and its small occupant were assumed to be self-explanatory. Well, well! It was amusing to look at. Yes it was, ha-ha! He caught himself grinning and chuckling over the creature’s senseless performance, running as fast as it could in a cage that spun faster beneath it. Why didn’t it turn around and run in the other direction? Even as he wondered the little beast executed that precise maneuver and squeezed himself around in the black wire cylinder and began to rush off in the other direction. Ha-ha! Just as pointless, just as unrewarding! It was exactly where it had been except that its nose was now in the position where its tail had been but no progress was made nor was any likely to be—unless the cage broke open! And anybody could see that the beast had no wits to match the fiendish contraption. Fiendish contraption? Yes, indeed it was that, a fiendish contraption. And as he repeated this definition of it, he began to stop smiling. His chuckle died out and he stood there listening to the sound of the cage. A faint hum and rattle, suggesting a great deal of very important activity, could be heard through the pane of glass in the cigarstore window. On this glass his breath made a glittering film. He wiped it clear with the cuff of his overcoat and continued his observation, and as he did so his face clouded over with rage as the frost of his breath clouded over the pane of glass, and he began to mutter to himself that it was a damnable outrage and that it ought to be reported right away to the Saint Louis branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals!
Before he knew it the bus he had been waiting for passed by and consequently his time-card at the Universal Shirtmakers punched in red that morning.
There was trouble at the office. A discrepancy of seven dollars and fifty cents appeared between Anthony’s report and the cashier’s balance. Anthony was sure that the mistake was not his but nevertheless it made him quite uneasy. It was the first of a series of similar misadventures. One thing after another went wrong so that Anthony began to feel that he was losing his grip on himself. At the lending library he took out a book called “The Will to Succeed” and read six chapters in a single night. He did not sleep well. This was partially because of his own nerves and partially because of his wife’s. She was sinking back into her neurotic condition and she kept him awake with her disconsolate mutterings and grunts.
One morning near Christmas the boss came up to his desk.
“What’s been wrong with you lately?” the boss demanded.
“I’m not myself. It’s the wife, Mr. Dowd. She’s in such a nervous condition.”
“All right, all right! Your family troubles are your own affair!”
The great man moved hastily off. Anthony looked at his receding figure and started to rise. His mouth clicked shut on a torrent of explanations and apologies. He fell back into his chair and felt his stomach turn sour with the venomous juices of fear.
His family troubles were his own affair. Yes, indeed. His wife made him wretched with her sick headaches and her unaccountable neuroses. She went from doctor to doctor, each time describing a new set of symptoms, and finally she came into the hands of a psychiatrist who talked mostly to Anthony. “Are your marital relations satisfactory?” asked the astute-looking scientist. Anthony flushed to the roots of his hair and even deeper than that. How could he answer such a question? He avoided the large man’s eyes and squirmed in his chair.
The evenings were ghastly. Miriam fancied that he was persecuting her in all manner of ways. For one thing he was deceiving her about the size of his paycheck. Also he was having affairs with other women. One of these fictitious paramours of Anthony’s was the church-organist. At this suggestion Anthony was particularly horrified, for the musician to whom his wife referred was a stout woman of forty-odd with a goiter.
Yes, the evenings were ghastly. Miriam looked at him with suspicious red-rimmed eyes, said little or nothing, while her hands, very thin and blue-nailed, plucked constantly at little threads in her kimono or toyed with the soiled lace at the sleeves of her bed-jacket.
There were long, dreadful silences at the climax of which would come a sudden hysterical outburst of accusations:
“Why do you lie to me, Anthony? Why don’t you tell me the truth?”
“The truth?” He said mildly, “What do you think is the truth!”
“You, you, you!” she shouted.
“I am the truth?” he countered.
She threw something at him. She was not an articulate woman, that was the trouble, and she had to complete her sentences with physical acts of some kind. This is all right in slap-stick comedies on the screen, but try to live with such people and you will see how unamusing it is, never knowing when something is going to hit you or where or why!
Again one frosty evening, having gone out of the apartment to escape the sour heat which seemed to emanate less from the hissing radiators than from the gross and fuming body of his wife, he wandered up to the cigarstore window. It was late in the evening, the clock-hands were drifting past midnight, and when he arrived at the cigarstore window he found the small prisoner asleep, curled into a tight ball of grey fur at the bottom of the motionless black spool, curled very close upon itself as he could remember curling himself as a child on winter nights. As he gazed into the window he was conscious of something being missing. Oh. yes, it was the faint hum and rattle which the spool made when in motion. It was quiet now. All day it had spun beneath the animal’s instinctive passion for movement, but now the small animal and the treadmill were letting each other alone. Nothing was settled between them but the impossible contest was given a while of rest. Perhaps before morning it would resume again. Perhaps in the cold, uncompanionable glitter of moonlight, here at the corner of a deserted city block, the spool would start spinning again with its faint hum and rattle which no one could hear, around and around beneath the glazed white eyeball of the winter moon and the passionless revolutions of the jeweler’s clock overhanging the doorway, until it was morning and daylight flooded the cage, perhaps with relief, perhaps with increase of terror.
One day Anthony went into the cigarstore.
He had planned it out carefully but the interview did not proceed according to plan. For one thing, he forgot to make the preliminary purchase of something but instead he launched right into a nervous interrogation of the proprietor. Was the animal for sale or merely for exhibition? Was it locked up all the time or was it occasionally let out of the treadmill? Was it given an ample supply of food and water at regular intervals? What would finally be done with the creature, would it go to the zoo or be turned loose in the woods—that is, assuming the cage in the window . . . and so forth and so on, talking all the time faster and getting more mixed up as the look of the proprietor altered from blankness through annoyance to indignation.
The proprietor was an Italian with a voluble tongue, and when he got started Anthony’s mission collapsed in a few broken gestures of apology as he backed out the door. Afterward, having caught the bus to the office, he tried to recall what the man had said to him. Something about not making a fool of honest people, a free country, naturalization papers and so forth. Gold teeth and gleaming spittle and fat hands that seemed to be playing frenziedly on some invisible harp.
“I must have approached him in the wrong way,” he thought.
Not long after this event Anthony received a notice with his paycheck which gave him to understand that his services were no longer essential to the Universal Shirtmakers. There followed a time which it was better not to remember too clearly. It was a time of chaos. His wife, hysterical, was removed to the hospital, fighting all the way down the stairs and clinging so tightly to the banisters that a section came loose in her grasp. The intervention of social workers and relatives of his wife somehow kept him going. He stumbled in and out of office-buildings pleading for any kind of work but getting turned down because he looked like a sick man, which he was. Finally he himself collapsed one day. He thought he was dying but it turned out that he was suffering from nervous exhaustion, only from that, but the doctor told him that he would have to “start from scratch” in rebuilding his personality around a more secure basis and so on and so forth without really making it very plain how to go about it. There was also some insinuation of a disgusting kind about his dreams and libido, but even the doctor admitted it was better to let well-enough alone even if it was not quite well-enough in that department.
The upshot of it was that his wife’s nephew, Stanley, got him a clerkship in a brokerage firm. The wife came out of her breakdown as soon as she learned that Anthony was re-employed. She came home from her sister’s house and she seemed to be refreshed by her visit. She did not talk much but her eyes had the look of someone who has found out something interesting and unpleasant about somebody of whom they had felt a long and unfriendly suspicion.
One February evening when things were becoming more settled, Anthony thought once more of the mysterious gray animal on display in the treadmill. Without even stopping to find his hat, he dashed out of the apartment and trotted around to the cigarstore. A cold moonlight flooded the bare window-space. It looked very desolate. At the center was the black wire cage, such a curious thing, so devoid of beauty, it was like the undecipherable symbol of something very ugly and secret like one of those symbols in his recurring dreams which the men in the cold white office had agreed to ignore for a while.
Anthony strained his eyes. He pressed his nose flat against the icy window-pane. Still he could see no small furry object curled in sleep at the bottom of the motionless wire spool. His friend was gone. The treadmill was empty. It was now motionless and vacant, a stupid and useless black cage which was now not even a cage but only a useless contraption.
He wondered if the animal had perished. He noted with sorrow that both the inner and outer doors of the cage hung ajar. Could it possibly have made an escape? As he examined the interior of the store, as much of it as he could see through the window, he relinquished that hope. One cage door, even both doors, but not all the sliding panels and so forth which still would contain him, and if he did really get loose, where could he run to? The woods were so far from the city—and traffic congestion! Ah, me! Escape was unlikely.
That evening his wife, Miriam, became upset over a piece of news she received over the telephone relating to some relative’s bad investments. It affected her stomach so that she could not eat and refused to prepare any food. Anthony himself was not hungry but nevertheless he prepared himself a cold supper of braunschweiger and thick-sliced bread smeared with mustard. The food would lump in his throat and he washed it down with water. Why was he trembling inside? He got up, finally, from the kitchen table and drank down two teaspoons of Syrup of Pepsin in half a tumbler of water. As he did so it struck him that he had begun to imitate the behavior of his wife in small as well as large matters. Why? Like a small dog following a big one.
Later, at about nine o’clock, something impelled him to go out again and look in the cigarstore window. Magically the black wire cage had disappeared. Yes, it had gone entirely, there was no doubt about that, and in its place was a dull brown and green colored jardiniere in which stood an unreal-looking palm, the usual concession that is made to regularity.
It did not mean anything except that the beast he pitied no longer existed. He knew that as surely as if he had seen the obituary notice in the evening paper. And in a way he was relieved. Sorrow is a responsibility. He could not be responsible for the fate of this tiny caged beast even though his ability to imagine the sufferings of the beast had imposed caring on him. But all of the others who broke the sacramental bread of indifference, were they not wiser in refusing to let themselves know? It is better not to know. Sometimes it seems that all the systems of travel are made to remove you from where someone is in sorrow. If nobody stays and watches and feels, why should you? It was enough, indeed, to cope with the new look of suspicion in his recovered wife’s eye, the look of confirmed suspicion, and it was enough to cope with the many unpleasantly unfamiliar details that piled up in connection with the new job. It was certainly enough to cope with the continuum of his own existence without feeling sorrow for the cessation of anything else’s, especially if it was no more than a small gray animal which had fallen prey to a cage in which it had perished.
So now he looked up at the clock. The clock took the right attitude. It is necessary in this world to imitate the indifference of clocks which drift impartially from second to second and from hour to hour and tick off as casually the instant of doom as they do the one of high honor. The clock has discovered the right attitude toward existences that begin and continue and cease. And if you cannot at first see the small captives in them, because the clock is the cage, listen and you will hear them, the faint hum and rattle of many small running feet which turn the wheels round in a system of interlocked circles.
His gloveless hands ached, and so he returned to his wife—at twelve he was sleeping.