FICTION

Achilles and Willie

Wherein two backyard dictators discover that it takes more than hate to win a war

MATT ARMSTRONG January 15 1941
FICTION

Achilles and Willie

Wherein two backyard dictators discover that it takes more than hate to win a war

MATT ARMSTRONG January 15 1941

Achilles and Willie

Wherein two backyard dictators discover that it takes more than hate to win a war

MATT ARMSTRONG

SMALE. That was his name. Willie Smale. Some day, he often said to himself, gritting his teeth, some day I’ll get even. I’ll show them. They’ll find out who Willie Smale is and what he can do. They’ll find out.

“They” meant everybody. Willie Smale hated everybody. Hate to him came as naturally and inevitably as a duck comes to water. As a boy he hated with a disdainful hate those kids, smaller and weaker than himself, whom he could and did whip. At the same time he hated anyone who defied him; for instance, Georgie Wesson, who had the supreme gall one day to turn on Willie and knock him on his withers just because Willie stole up behind and jabbed him with a pin. And most fierce of all, of course, was the burning, vengeful hate he felt for those boys who were naturally bigger and stronger and quicker than he.' It wasn’t fair, thought Willie. It wasn’t just.

Even his kindergarten teacher found him to be something of a problem. “A precocious child . . . very peculiar disposition . . . difficult to handle,” she described him. In grammar school it was, “A sullen boy . . . not adaptable.” And while the smaller kids kept a safe distance from him whenever possible, and called him such things as a long-legged, four-eyed son-of-a-so-and-so, the boys and girls of his own age did for a time make a sincere effort to get along with him, tried to be patient, to overlook or laugh off his sullenness, his scowls and muttered threats of vengeance in the offing for imagined insults, but in the end they gave it up as a bad job and left him to finish out his school career within the shell of his hatred. That finish was not long in coming. A righteous high school teacher, after a week of smoldering tension between the two which culminated in Willie thumbing his nose at the teacher, ended Willie’s formal education by literally heaving him through a side door of the school into the waiting arms of a cruel, justice-barren world.

There followed twenty years of peace. People still left Willie strictly alone. He left them alone. But Willie had a long memory, and the peace, as far as he was concerned, was a special Willie Smale, militant, trust-in-God-butkeep-your-powder-dry sort of peace. His old hates continued to rankle.

I’ll get even, thought Willie. There’ll come a day.

He could think of nothing else.

Due to his particular aptitude for not getting along with people, Willie never had assumed the responsibility of a job. Mostly, Ma and Pa kept him. But he did, however, make a little money occasionally by making and selling grotesquely ill-proportioned animals of concrete—lions, deer and bison—which certain people kept on their front lawns until the neighbors, or a committee from the “Beautify Our City” club, drove them to cover behind the garage. These works of art Willie brought to life in the old barn behind their house. The work did not demand too much of his time and efforts, so he was enabled to sit, during the long afternoons, on the sunny side of the barn, casually hating, or intensely hating, depending upon the mood of the time. Then, if the sun were too hot, he could go inside and work on Achilles.

It took him a long time to create Achilles. Achilles was his pet. The only living creature—for in time Willie began to regard Achilles as a real being—whom he did not hate. In fact, all the love of his twisted heart went out to Achilles. Achilles was his own. His creation.

Achilles was a concrete man. Full seven feet high he stood—counting the pedestal. His head reached almost to the low ceiling of the barn. Always he wore on his rugged face a sour, bilious look; his chin jutted out belligerently as though he, too, hated the world and its populace and would give only welcome to the opportunity to swing on someone’s jaw with one of his massive concrete fists. That was the way Willie had made him.

To add the proper finishing touch, Willie had painted upon his concrete man a sombre-hued military uniform and named him Achilles after the only superman he could remember in mythology.

Thereafter he spent many hours, when the injustices of the world as they applied to Willie Smale weighed heavily upon him, standing before his idol, lost in admiration of what he saw, and marvelling at his own insuperable cleverness.

There he stood when Achilles first spoke.

TT HAD been an unusually hard day for Willie. The old

widow next door had come over and reclaimed the stepladder he had confiscated from her yard a long time ago, when he had needed something to stand on to reach Achilles’ head; the tobacconist on the corner had refused him further credit until he paid something on his back tobacco bill ; he had been riled by the sight of the fat old fellow next to the widow’s smoking his pipe in comfort in a Morris chair on the front lawn; and to cap it all, it being wash day Ma had served potatoes and cabbage for dinner. Potatoes and cabbage only. Naturally, Willie had come to Achilles for comfort.

He stood before Achilles, hating in earnest.

“I’ll show them,” he said aloud. “One of these days I’ll make them suffer for picking on Willie Smale.”

And Achilles, in a deep, rumbling voice, said, “You’ll make who suffer?”

Willie’s heart leaped. “Pardon?” he asked timidly.

Achilles scowled. “I said, who’ll you make suffer?”

“Why—them. The Widow Robertson for one.”

“What did she do to you?”

Willie’s righteous ire arose. “She took my stepladder.”

“Whose stepladder?”

Willie squirmed. “Well, I had it a long time,” he explained. “It should have been mine by now. She had no business taking it back.”

Achilles rubbed his chin. He appeared to be thinking.

“Well, I don’t blame you,” he said.

A load lifted from Willie’s heart. “Don’t you?” he asked. “Honest?”

“No. Most decidedly I do not blame you. Quite the contrary.” Achilles struck an oratorical pose and cleared his throat. A fanatical light gleamed in his grey-green eyes. “In thus daring, with unparalleled, almost unbelievable, impudence, to trespass upon your—upon our—property and commit the crime we know she did commit, she has unwittingly placed herself in a position of extreme jeopardy. Doubtless she has been lulled by the success of others in imposing upon the good nature and broadmindedness of Willie Smale into a false sense of security. But, the end has come.” His voice barked into high. “The time for action has come. Action by Willie Smale in defending his inalienable rights. The time has come to show each and every one of these low-minded, low-bred persons that there can be a limit to patience and endurance, an end of tolerance ... An example must be made. This iniquitous widow, this witch of a modern age, must be punished. She—I promise you—shall be made to suffer as you, Willie Smale, have been forced to suffer in the long, long past. This, Willie Smale, is your day ” Achilles paused. Spat against the wall. “Just who does she think she is, anyway?” he said.

Willie’s world spun about his head. He could scarcely believe his senses. “Wowsie!” he said, standing pop-eyed.

“You liked that little speech?” asked Achilles.

“It was great,” gulped Willie. “You’re sure good.”

Achilles stood there at ease on his pedestal, gazing at Willie with the wide-eyed frankness of an unspoiled boy. “Oh, yes,” he confessed, “I’m the world’s greatest orator. I’m really great.”

“Is that a fact?” said Willie, awed.

“Oh, yes. Of course I’m a fighter too. I’m a honey of a fighter, especially when I’m fighting for revenge. Achilles the Avenger, that’s me, chin out and heels guarded.”

Willie believed every word. Achilles assuredly looked formidable, and his speech sounded formidable. Willie thrilled with exciting possibilities for himself and Achilles.

“Maybe you’ll help me get revenge, then,” he said.

“My entire power is yours,” answered Achilles with the simplicity of a man offering a match. “I have already sworn vengeance upon the Widow Robertson. Who else?”

“Well, mostly the widow, and the fat guy next door, maybe. Then ... 1 don’t know . . . just anybody and—”

Achilles waved a casual hand. “Never mind,” he said. “Never mind the names. They’re unimportant. After all, the purpose is the thing.”

“Then you will help me?”

Out rose Achilles’ chest. “I’ll lead you,” he said.

“Oke,” said Willie solemnly.

Achilles glanced sharply at him. “Better make it, Oke Achilles,” he corrected.

“Oke Achilles,” said Willie.

“Louder.”

“Oke Achilles.”

“Fine. Now we’re getting someplace. Now I’ll make a speech that’ll be a speech,” he said.

So he did.

And Willie Smale listened with open mouth and glowing heart as upward and outward in ever-increasing volume arose the metallic ring of Achilles’ voice, citing the grievances of Smale one by one with a knowledge equal only to Willie’s own, and painting a wondrous picture of life in the town as it would be when in the final accounting the Smales came into their proper heritage, until poor Willie’s befuddled mind foundered in the tidal wave of oratory; and like a man in the last stages of drowning, he was aware only of a hitherto unexperienced sensation of ease and pleasure and comfort. It was beautiful. It was wonderful. It was grand . . . At last his day of triumph had dawned.

SUDDENLY a harsh voice jarred him. “Applaud, you fool.”

The speech was over.

Willie clapped his way out of the haze. Could this marvellous creature before him, this voice of molten gold, this mighty body of rugged rock, this Leader, actually be his own creation? It was too good to be true.

“Oke Achilles!” he yelled. “Oke

Achilles!”

Achilles bowed modestly. Raised a hand for silence. “We must act,” he said. “There are two things we must do at once, and I do believe we can kill two birds with one stone. We must punish the wicked widow, and we must leave this barn for roomier, more pretentious quarters, since it is not to be thought of that we remain longer in such a narrow space as this. We must have, we shall have, more living space. Right?”

“Oke Achilles,” gurgled Willie. He rubbed his hands together. This was great.

“Now, is this Widow Robertson young and strong?” asked Achilles.

Willie snorted. “Her? She’s nearly seventy and looks like she was always practicing jacknife dives.”

“I see. That’s fine. And friends, has she any friends?”

“No. I don’t think so. She lives alone.” “Next door?”

“Yeah.”

Achilles, calm and strong, appeared to be thinking again.

“All right,” he said, stepping down from the pedestal, “she’s our meat. Let’s go.” Willie followed like Mary’s lamb. Toward the street along the Smale driveway they went. Achilles, his new uniform bragging in the sunlight, lumbered along with awkward, heavy tread while Willie strutted behind, a smirk of pride and satisfaction on his face. But, passing the house, Willie heard Ma’s voice calling from the back porch. “Wil-l-l-lie. Supper.” Willie hesitated. Looked over his shoulder.

“Su-u-u-upper.”

Achilles turne^ ;eitching

a‘—W Can’t yo.:

T , ‘mouncing his great ide*

A UMU 5f’?d Robe^U-y^. Se' , . ,

Achilles slapptu ms'1 orr-rete thigh.

Agony filled his face. my soul and

body,” he cried. “There you go. Here am I about to lead you afield in search of justice and revenge, about to force this town to show the proper respect for Willie Smale and elevate him to the seat of high honor and now—you want to eat. Eat ! At a time like this. It’s too much.” To Willie

his agony seemed terrible. He felt ashamed. “Well, it’s up to you,” went on Achilles with a gesture of resignation. “Take your choice. Do you want to eat, or do you want justice? Make up your mind.”

It was very embarrassing for Willie to see his great new Leader so wrought up. So, bravely getting over such a useless feeling as desire to eat, he hurried to reassert his eagerness for justice, as it seemed his revenge was now to be called. “Oke Achilles,” he intoned, and fell in

behind.

THE little old widow gave them no trouble at all. One look at the grotesque figure of Achilles striding toward her white cottage and she lit out across the lawn toward the brick house next door. Willie, watching her, thought her running and scrambling over the fence was the funniest sight he ever had seen in all his born days. At that moment he was closer to laughter than ever he had been. It was a narrow escape.

“Well, that’s that,” said Achilles, striding into the house. “You’ll find they don’t fool with me.”

“I’ll say they don’t,” agreed Willie, slavering admiration.

Achilles examined the house.

“Too small,” he decided. “Much too small. I can hardly straighten up in here, curse that widow . . . But, it’s a beginning. Once I really get under way, of course, there’ll be no stopping of me, no stopping at all . . . Who lives next door? That’s a fair good house. I’d like it.”

“That brick house?” said Willie. “Why, there’s where the fat old softy lives. He’ll be easy. He used to be good in his day, but now he couldn’t lick his lips. Just a fat old punk.”

A knock came on the door.

Willie went.

It was the fat old punk from next door. He said to Willie: “I suppose this is some sort of joke. Smale, old chap, but if I were you I wouldn’t continue it. After all, it’s not quite cricket to frighten an old girl like the widow. Be a good fellow, Smaley, and take your calithumpian back home. What?”

Achilles gazed past Willie’s shoulder. “Don’t take any of his lip, Willie,” he urged. “Sock the old potbelly. Sock him.” Willie was astonished. “Me?” he said, glancing nervously back over his shoulder. “But, Achilles, you’re the fighter, aren’t you?” he said. “Remember?”

Achilles looked thoughtful. “That’s right,” he said. “I’m glad you reminded me. And by my soul and body, if this guy wasn’t so old and fat, if he was just one day younger, I’d certainly poke him one. In fact, I got a notion to poke him one anyway, just for luck.”

“Really?” asked the fat one.

“You’re darn right,” said Achilles, spitting on the widow’s kitchen floor. “You got some nerve, fella, sticking your nose in this. I’m liable to lose my temper. I’m a fighter. I’m a bad man, Y'ou ought to know better’n to get me riled this way. I’m apt to hit you so hard you’d—”

“Well, cheerio,” interrupted the fat one. “Sorry, but it’s teatime.”

He went away.

Achilles wiped his brow. “Did you hear me tell him?” he asked Willie. “Did you hear me comb him?”

“I sure did,” said Willie.

“The trouble with me,” elaborated Achilles, “is, I don’t know my own strength. It scares me, almost.”

“Fancy that,” murmured Willie, shaking his head.

Achilles expanded his chest, flexed his biceps. “Did you notice how quick he got out when I started telling him off?” he asked. “He was scared stiff. His face was as red as a beet.”

“I’ll say.”

“Tell you what.” There was an expression of cunning on Achilles’ face. “You sneak over there and heave a brick through the fat guy’s window. That’ll put him in his place.That’ll show him he can’t monkey with me.”

“Yeah. That’ll show him,” Willie said, and did as he was bid.

“It sure made a crash,” he said when he returned. “Did you hear it?”

“Yes, I heard it,” Achilles said. “I hope the whole town heard it. Fooling with me!”

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nPHEY paraded around the house, Achilles leading, Willie marching behind and trying his best to ape the long, lumbering stride of his Leader, clasping his hands behind his back as Achilles did, imitating even the weighty expression. “I’ll teach them,” bragged Achilles, “to give me a wide berth. When they fool with me they’re fooling around with surefire dyna—” A brick crashed through the window and hit him on the foot.

“Oh-h-h-h,” wailed Achilles. “I’m hurt. I’m wounded.”

He hopped about the room, moaning softly.

“Does it hurt?” asked Willie sympathetically, anxious to be helpful.

Achilles stopped hopping, stopped moaning. “Does it hurt? he asks me. “A monster hits me with a brick and all the pity I get is, Does it hurt? Oh, my soul and body,” he cried. Then anger and determination flowed into his face. Up went his head and out came his chest in what to Willie was a truly noble, truly heroic, gesture.

“They force me to march,” said Achilles, oratorically. "They shall be paid, brick for brick, stone for stone . . . Into the yard, Willie. You go ahead.”

The fat guy was in his yard, piling rocks and bricks.

“Say, you,” yelled Achilles, “what do you mean by throwing bricks through my window? You hit me. You can’t do that, you know. You’re just asking for trouble, just begging for trouble.”

Fatty kept piling rocks.

“Sock him, Willie,” ordered Achilles. “Sock a rock at him while he’s bent over.”

Willie heaved.

Fatty heaved back.

Achilles raved.

Then for a time the air was filled with rocks and curses. Willie could see the old guy puffing and blowing as his wind left him, but could not help thinking, as he dodged the rocks the old fellow threw, that, soft and all, the guy sure was persistent. Then, just when Willie thought maybe the old guy was weakening, something else happened, something that sent a mixture of anger and fear along his spine.

A truck drove out of the driveway across the street, pulled into the fat one’s drive, backed over to the dwindling stone pile and dumped a fresh load of rocks. A long, lean individual got out from behind the wheel, grinned at the puffing, sweating fatty and shouted at him, “Hang on. I’ll get some more,” then climbed back into the cab arid shot across the street again.

“Now who the devil is that?” Achilles yelled at Willie.

There was a lull in the fight.

“Oh, he’s a friend of the fat guy,” said Willie. “Lives across the way.”

“I thought you told me that widow didn’t have any friends,” rebuked Achilles. “Now look what you’ve done. The old girl’s got friends. Fatty’s got friends. One darn thing leads to another. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t know,” said Willie.

Achilles appeared to be very angry. “Oh, lord, he didn’t know,” he wailed. Willie thought he saw a tear on Achilles’ cheek.

The truck came again. Long fellow got out.

“Say, you,” Achilles yelled at him. “Who invited you into this? Can’t you mind your own business? You’ll get me sore at you, too.”

Long fellow put both thumbs in his ears and a loud vulgar sound came out of his mouth.

A rock from fatty hit Achilles in the chest, knocking him back. He started moaning again.

“I’m hurt. Oh, oh, I’m hurt.”

Willie resumed his throwing, but somehow his heart had gone out of it. He glanced back over his shoulder at Achilles, groaning out his displeasure three paces to the rear.

“Help, Achilles,” Willie yelled.

Achilles stared blankly at him. “Two against two,” he muttered. “It isn’t fair.” He seemed to have lost interest in the fight. “Imagine that tall guy’s nerve, taking fatty’s part against me, Achilles. It don’t seem right. It isn’t right . . . Let’s go in the house, Willie.”

V\ THEN Willie followed into the house W a moment or two later, he found his Leader sitting on the floor in a far corner. He was weeping softly.

“I didn’t expect treatment like that,” he was whispering. Disillusionment filled his face. “I can’t understand why those two weren’t frightened to death. I gave them the works, too. I don’t understand it. Imagine anyone having gall enough to defy me, the great Achilles.”

Willie’s stomach felt as though he had swallowed one of the bigger stones. He stared, unbelieving, at his hero.

“Well, Achilles, what now?” he asked, bewildered. “What do we do now?”

Achilles looked at him sadly. There was an impotent shrug of his great shoulders. “Now? What is there to do? What is left for us to do?” he asked in a whisper, simply.

Willie glanced through a window. “Well,” he said, “we better do something, quick. The fat one and the thin one are climbing the fence, headed this way.”

“What ! They’re coming here?”

“Loaded with rocks,” said Willie. Achilles scrambled to his feet. “Let’s go back to the barn, Willie,” he said.

They ran out the back way.

“Aren’t we going to fight any more?” asked Willie, when the door had closed behind them and they were safe for the moment. Achilles was climbing up on his pedestal. “He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day,” he quoted tritely.

“That’s what you think,” muttered Willie.

Achilles turned sharply. “What did you say, Smale?”

“I said it,” Willie replied, feeling a hate coming on.

Achilles shrugged his shoulders. “Surely you don’t expect us to fight against such heavy odds. Two against two. Think, man, think what it means. It’s too much of a handicap.”

“You mean you’re quitting?”

Achilles refused to look at Willie. “I mean,” he began in the full sonority of his oratorical power, a wealth of dignity in every word, “that owing to certain outrageous conditions, conditions with which no leader would expect to be faced, I am compelled, even though it pains me greatly, to take a decision to the effect that the present is not a propitious time to attempt the carrying out of the Smale Destiny. I can assure—”

The powerful gears of Willie’s hating capacity meshed and began to produce.

“Oh, shut up!” he screamed. “Shut up and get off that pedestal.”

“What?” This seemed beyond Achilles’ comprehension.

“You heard me. Get off.”

“Get off this pedestal? Me—Achilles? Surely—”

Willie picked up a sledge hammer. “Get off or I’ll knock you off,” he threatened.

“But—”

V\7TLLIE was mad. “But, nothing,” * V he shouted. “You big mouthy fourflusher, I’ve had enough of you. I put you on that pedestal and I’ll take you off. You fooled me for a while, but I’m wise now. I’ve had nothing but trouble and grief since you started leading me, and I’m sick of it. I’m completely fed up on you and your six-bit words and your bluffs, and I’m going to take a sock at you myself. So help me, I am.”

Achilles tried a final bluster. “You’re crazy, Smale,” he yelled. “Don’t come near me or I’ll get sore, likely. You know me when I’m sore. I’m Achilles. I’m a bad man when I’m aroused.”

Willie advanced, eyes agleam with hate, the hammer poised.

Up went Achilles’ arms before his face. “Stand back, Smale. I’m getting mad. I’m half mad now. I’ll smash you. I’ll—”

Wham !

The hammer crashed against Achilles’ shoulder, knocking him to the floor. He rolled over and sat up.

“O-h-h-h-h.”

In a flash all attempt at defiance was shattered. Only fear filled Achilles’ face. “Don’t, Smale,” he begged. “Don’t, Willie. I’m your friend. I’m your pal. You wouldn’t hit a pal.”

But Willie was fighting mad. He paid Achilles’ words no heed. Eyes ablaze, his entire being glorying in this grandest of all hates, beside which the hates of the past appeared puny and insignificant, he came relentlessly forward. Now,'after years of vague, hit-and-miss hating, he had at his mercy a definite target upon which to vent his spleen. All the pent-up emotion surged out in red flood. Screaming hysterically, he swung at Achilles’ head. Achilles rolled backward, twitching like a struck beef. Willie struck again. He stepped astride the quivering mass, spat on his hands, then attacked once more with maniacal fury, smashing again and again at the prostrate form, smashing, sobbing, tears of rage upon his cheeks, until his strength had gone, until he gasped open-mouthed for breath, until all human resemblance was battered from his victim.

Only then did he cease. Before him lay a pile of broken concrete. He stared at it, bewildered, the hammer dropping from his hands.

Exhausted, sick at heart now that the flaming hate had burned low, he dragged himself through the doorway around to his favorite spot at the sunny side of the barn. His mind, like his body, was weary. He had neither wish nor will to summon the power to think. He did not even realize that the sun was no longer shining, that the sun had set, and that his body was shivering in the cold evening air.