Babbit, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 18

THOUGH he saw them twice daily, though he knew and amply discussed every detail of their expenditures, yet for weeks together Babbitt was no more conscious of his children than of the buttons on his coat-sleeves.

The admiration of Kenneth Escott made him aware of Verona.

She had become secretary to Mr. Gruensberg of the Gruensberg Leather Company; she did her work with the thoroughness of a mind which reveres details and never quite understands them; but she was one of the people who give an agitating impression of being on the point of doing something desperate — of leaving a job or a husband — without ever doing it. Babbitt was so hopeful about Escott’s hesitant ardors that he became the playful parent. When he returned from the Elks he peered coyly into the living-room and gurgled, “Has our Kenny been here to-night?” He never credited Verona’s protest, “Why, Ken and I are just good friends, and we only talk about Ideas. I won’t have all this sentimental nonsense, that would spoil everything.”

It was Ted who most worried Babbitt.

With conditions in Latin and English but with a triumphant record in manual training, basket-ball, and the organization of dances, Ted was struggling through his Senior year in the East Side High School. At home he was interested only when he was asked to trace some subtle ill in the ignition system of the car. He repeated to his tut-tutting father that he did not wish to go to college or law-school, and Babbitt was equally disturbed by this “shiftlessness” and by Ted’s relations with Eunice Littlefield, next door.

Though she was the daughter of Howard Littlefield, that wrought-iron fact-mill, that horse-faced priest of private ownership, Eunice was a midge in the sun. She danced into the house, she flung herself into Babbitt’s lap when he was reading, she crumpled his paper, and laughed at him when he adequately explained that he hated a crumpled newspaper as he hated a broken sales-contract. She was seventeen now. Her ambition was to be a cinema actress. She did not merely attend the showing of every “feature film;” she also read the motion-picture magazines, those extraordinary symptoms of the Age of Pep-monthlies and weeklies gorgeously illustrated with portraits of young women who had recently been manicure girls, not very skilful manicure girls, and who, unless their every grimace had been arranged by a director, could not have acted in the Easter cantata of the Central Methodist Church; magazines reporting, quite seriously, in “interviews” plastered with pictures of riding-breeches and California bungalows, the views on sculpture and international politics of blankly beautiful, suspiciously beautiful young men; outlining the plots of films about pure prostitutes and kind-hearted train-robbers; and giving directions for making bootblacks into Celebrated Scenario Authors overnight.

These authorities Eunice studied. She could, she frequently did, tell whether it was in November or December, 1905, that Mack Harker? the renowned screen cowpuncher and badman, began his public career. as chorus man in “Oh, You Naughty Girlie.” On the wall of her room, her father reported, she had pinned up twenty-one photographs of actors. But the signed portrait of the most graceful of the movie heroes she carried in her young bosom.

Babbitt was bewildered by this worship of new gods, and he suspected that Eunice smoked cigarettes. He smelled the cloying reek from up-stairs, and heard her giggling with Ted. He never inquired. The agreeable child dismayed him. Her thin and charming face was sharpened by bobbed hair; her skirts were short, her stockings were rolled, and, as she flew after Ted, above the caressing silk were glimpses of soft knees which made Babbitt uneasy, and wretched that she should consider him old. Sometimes, in the veiled life of his dreams, when the fairy child came running to him she took on the semblance of Eunice Littlefield.

Ted was motor-mad as Eunice was movie-mad.

A thousand sarcastic refusals did not check his teasing for a car of his own. However lax he might be about early rising and the prosody of Vergil, he was tireless in tinkering. With three other boys he bought a rheumatic Ford chassis, built an amazing racer-body out of tin and pine, went skidding round corners in the perilous craft, and sold it at a profit. Babbitt gave him a motor-cycle, and every Saturday afternoon, with seven sandwiches and a bottle of Coca–Cola in his pockets, and Eunice perched eerily on the rumble seat, he went roaring off to distant towns.

Usually Eunice and he were merely neighborhood chums, and quarreled with a wholesome and violent lack of delicacy; but now and then, after the color and scent of a dance, they were silent together and a little furtive, and Babbitt was worried.

Babbitt was an average father. He was affectionate, bullying, opinionated, ignorant, and rather wistful. Like most parents, he enjoyed the game of waiting till the victim was clearly wrong, then virtuously pouncing. He justified himself by croaking, “Well, Ted’s mother spoils him. Got to be somebody who tells him what’s what, and me, I’m elected the goat. Because I try to bring him up to be a real, decent, human being and not one of these sapheads and lounge-lizards, of course they all call me a grouch!”

Throughout, with the eternal human genius for arriving by the worst possible routes at surprisingly tolerable goals, Babbitt loved his son and warmed to his companionship and would have sacrificed everything for him — if he could have been sure of proper credit.

II

Ted was planning a party for his set in the Senior Class.

Babbitt meant to be helpful and jolly about it. From his memory of high-school pleasures back in Catawba he suggested the nicest games: Going to Boston, and charades with stew-pans for helmets, and word-games in which you were an Adjective or a Quality. When he was most enthusiastic he discovered that they weren’t paying attention; they were only tolerating him. As for the party, it was as fixed and standardized as a Union Club Hop. There was to be dancing in the living-room, a noble collation in the dining-room, and in the hall two tables of bridge for what Ted called “the poor old dumb-bells that you can’t get to dance hardly more ‘n half the time.”

Every breakfast was monopolized by conferences on the affair. No one listened to Babbitt’s bulletins about the February weather or to his throat-clearing comments on the headlines. He said furiously, “If I may be PERMITTED to interrupt your engrossing private CONVERSATION— Juh hear what I SAID?”

“Oh, don’t be a spoiled baby! Ted and I have just as much right to talk as you have!” flared Mrs. Babbitt.

On the night of the party he was permitted to look on, when he was not helping Matilda with the Vecchia ice cream and the petits fours. He was deeply disquieted. Eight years ago, when Verona had given a high-school party, the children had been featureless gabies. Now they were men and women of the world, very supercilious men and women; the boys condescended to Babbitt, they wore evening-clothes, and with hauteur they accepted cigarettes from silver cases. Babbitt had heard stories of what the Athletic Club called “goings on” at young parties; of girls “parking” their corsets in the dressing-room, of “cuddling” and “petting,” and a presumable increase in what was known as Immorality. To-night he believed the stories. These children seemed bold to him, and cold. The girls wore misty chiffon, coral velvet, or cloth of gold, and around their dipping bobbed hair were shining wreaths. He had it, upon urgent and secret inquiry, that no corsets were known to be parked upstairs; but certainly these eager bodies were not stiff with steel. Their stockings were of lustrous silk, their slippers costly and unnatural, their lips carmined and their eyebrows penciled. They danced cheek to cheek with the boys, and Babbitt sickened with apprehension and unconscious envy.

Worst of them all was Eunice Littlefield, and maddest of all the boys was Ted. Eunice was a flying demon. She slid the length of the room; her tender shoulders swayed; her feet were deft as a weaver’s shuttle; she laughed, and enticed Babbitt to dance with her.

Then he discovered the annex to the party.

The boys and girls disappeared occasionally, and he remembered rumors of their drinking together from hip-pocket flasks. He tiptoed round the house, and in each of the dozen cars waiting in the street he saw the points of light from cigarettes, from each of them heard high giggles. He wanted to denounce them but (standing in the snow, peering round the dark corner) he did not dare. He tried to be tactful. When he had returned to the front hall he coaxed the boys, “Say, if any of you fellows are thirsty, there’s some dandy ginger ale.”

“Oh! Thanks!” they condescended.

He sought his wife, in the pantry, and exploded, “I’d like to go in there and throw some of those young pups out of the house! They talk down to me like I was the butler! I’d like to —”

“I know,” she sighed; “only everybody says, all the mothers tell me, unless you stand for them, if you get angry because they go out to their cars to have a drink, they won’t come to your house any more, and we wouldn’t want Ted left out of things, would we?”

He announced that he would be enchanted to have Ted left out of things, and hurried in to be polite, lest Ted be left out of things.

But, he resolved, if he found that the boys were drinking, he would — well, he’d “hand ’em something that would surprise ’em.” While he was trying to be agreeable to large-shouldered young bullies he was earnestly sniffing at them Twice he caught the reek of prohibition-time whisky, but then, it was only twice —

Dr. Howard Littlefield lumbered in.

He had come, in a mood of solemn parental patronage, to look on. Ted and Eunice were dancing, moving together like one body. Littlefield gasped. He called Eunice. There was a whispered duologue, and Littlefield explained to Babbitt that Eunice’s mother had a headache and needed her. She went off in tears. Babbitt looked after them furiously. “That little devil! Getting Ted into trouble! And Littlefield, the conceited old gas-bag, acting like it was Ted that was the bad influence!”

Later he smelled whisky on Ted’s breath.

After the civil farewell to the guests, the row was terrific, a thorough Family Scene, like an avalanche, devastating and without reticences. Babbitt thundered, Mrs. Babbitt wept, Ted was unconvincingly defiant, and Verona in confusion as to whose side she was taking.

For several months there was coolness between the Babbitts and the Littlefields, each family sheltering their lamb from the wolf-cub next door. Babbitt and Littlefield still spoke in pontifical periods about motors and the senate, but they kept bleakly away from mention of their families. Whenever Eunice came to the house she discussed with pleasant intimacy the fact that she had been forbidden to come to the house; and Babbitt tried, with no success whatever, to be fatherly and advisory with her.

III

“Gosh all fishhooks!” Ted wailed to Eunice, as they wolfed hot chocolate, lumps of nougat, and an assortment of glace nuts, in the mosaic splendor of the Royal Drug Store, “it gets me why Dad doesn’t just pass out from being so poky. Every evening he sits there, about half-asleep, and if Rone or I say, ‘Oh, come on, let’s do something,’ he doesn’t even take the trouble to think about it. He just yawns and says, ‘Naw, this suits me right here.’ He doesn’t know there’s any fun going on anywhere. I suppose he must do some thinking, same as you and I do, but gosh, there’s no way of telling it. I don’t believe that outside of the office and playing a little bum golf on Saturday he knows there’s anything in the world to do except just keep sitting there-sitting there every night — not wanting to go anywhere — not wanting to do anything — thinking us kids are crazy — sitting there — Lord!”

IV

If he was frightened by Ted’s slackness, Babbitt was not sufficiently frightened by Verona. She was too safe. She lived too much in the neat little airless room of her mind. Kenneth Escott and she were always under foot. When they were not at home, conducting their cautiously radical courtship over sheets of statistics, they were trudging off to lectures by authors and Hindu philosophers and Swedish lieutenants.

“Gosh,” Babbitt wailed to his wife, as they walked home from the Fogartys’ bridge-party, “it gets me how Rone and that fellow can be so poky. They sit there night after night, whenever he isn’t working, and they don’t know there’s any fun in the world. All talk and discussion — Lord! Sitting there — sitting there — night after night — not wanting to do anything — thinking I’m crazy because I like to go out and play a fist of cards — sitting there — gosh!”

Then round the swimmer, bored by struggling through the perpetual surf of family life, new combers swelled.

V

Babbitt’s father — and mother-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Henry T. Thompson, rented their old house in the Bellevue district and moved to the Hotel Hatton, that glorified boarding-house filled with widows, red-plush furniture, and the sound of ice-water pitchers. They were lonely there, and every other Sunday evening the Babbitts had to dine with them, on fricasseed chicken, discouraged celery, and cornstarch ice cream, and afterward sit, polite and restrained, in the hotel lounge, while a young woman violinist played songs from the German via Broadway.

Then Babbitt’s own mother came down from Catawba to spend three weeks.

She was a kind woman and magnificently uncomprehending. She congratulated the convention-defying Verona on being a “nice, loyal home-body without all these Ideas that so many girls seem to have nowadays;” and when Ted filled the differential with grease, out of pure love of mechanics and filthiness, she rejoiced that he was “so handy around the house — and helping his father and all, and not going out with the girls all the time and trying to pretend he was a society fellow.”

Babbitt loved his mother, and sometimes he rather liked her, but he was annoyed by her Christian Patience, and he was reduced to pulpiness when she discoursed about a quite mythical hero called “Your Father”:

“You won’t remember it, Georgie, you were such a little fellow at the time — my, I remember just how you looked that day, with your goldy brown curls and your lace collar, you always were such a dainty child, and kind of puny and sickly, and you loved pretty things so much and the red tassels on your little bootees and all — and Your Father was taking us to church and a man stopped us and said ‘Major’— so many of the neighbors used to call Your Father ‘Major;’ of course he was only a private in The War but everybody knew that was because of the jealousy of his captain and he ought to have been a high-ranking officer, he had that natural ability to command that so very, very few men have — and this man came out into the road and held up his hand and stopped the buggy and said, ‘Major,’ he said, ‘there’s a lot of the folks around here that have decided to support Colonel Scanell for congress, and we want you to join us. Meeting people the way you do in the store, you could help us a lot.’

“Well, Your Father just looked at him and said, ‘I certainly shall do nothing of the sort. I don’t like his politics,’ he said. Well, the man — Captain Smith they used to call him, and heaven only knows why, because he hadn’t the shadow or vestige of a right to be called ‘Captain’ or any other title — this Captain Smith said, ‘We’ll make it hot for you if you don’t stick by your friends, Major.’ Well, you know how Your Father was, and this Smith knew it too; he knew what a Real Man he was, and he knew Your Father knew the political situation from A to Z, and he ought to have seen that here was one man he couldn’t impose on, but he went on trying to and hinting and trying till Your Father spoke up and said to him, ‘Captain Smith,’ he said, ‘I have a reputation around these parts for being one who is amply qualified to mind his own business and let other folks mind theirs!’ and with that he drove on and left the fellow standing there in the road like a bump on a log!”

Babbitt was most exasperated when she revealed his boyhood to the children. He had, it seemed, been fond of barley-sugar; had worn the “loveliest little pink bow in his curls” and corrupted his own name to “Goo-goo.” He heard (though he did not officially hear) Ted admonishing Tinka, “Come on now, kid; stick the lovely pink bow in your curls and beat it down to breakfast, or Goo-goo will jaw your head off.”

Babbitt’s half-brother, Martin, with his wife and youngest baby, came down from Catawba for two days. Martin bred cattle and ran the dusty general-store. He was proud of being a freeborn independent American of the good old Yankee stock; he was proud of being honest, blunt, ugly, and disagreeable. His favorite remark was “How much did you pay for that?” He regarded Verona’s books, Babbitt’s silver pencil, and flowers on the table as citified extravagances, and said so. Babbitt would have quarreled with him but for his gawky wife and the baby, whom Babbitt teased and poked fingers at and addressed:

“I think this baby’s a bum, yes, sir, I think this little baby’s a bum, he’s a bum, yes, sir, he’s a bum, that’s what he is, he’s a bum, this baby’s a bum, he’s nothing but an old bum, that’s what he is — a bum!”

All the while Verona and Kenneth Escott held long inquiries into epistemology; Ted was a disgraced rebel; and Tinka, aged eleven, was demanding that she be allowed to go to the movies thrice a week, “like all the girls.”

Babbitt raged, “I’m sick of it! Having to carry three generations. Whole damn bunch lean on me. Pay half of mother’s income, listen to Henry T., listen to Myra’s worrying, be polite to Mart, and get called an old grouch for trying to help the children. All of ’em depending on me and picking on me and not a damn one of ’em grateful! No relief, and no credit, and no help from anybody. And to keep it up for — good Lord, how long?”

He enjoyed being sick in February; he was delighted by their consternation that he, the rock, should give way.

He had eaten a questionable clam. For two days he was languorous and petted and esteemed. He was allowed to snarl “Oh, let me alone!” without reprisals. He lay on the sleeping-porch and watched the winter sun slide along the taut curtains, turning their ruddy khaki to pale blood red. The shadow of the draw-rope was dense black, in an enticing ripple on the canvas. He found pleasure in the curve of it, sighed as the fading light blurred it. He was conscious of life, and a little sad. With no Vergil Gunches before whom to set his face in resolute optimism, he beheld, and half admitted that he beheld, his way of life as incredibly mechanical. Mechanical business — a brisk selling of badly built houses. Mechanical religion — a dry, hard church, shut off from the real life of the streets, inhumanly respectable as a top-hat. Mechanical golf and dinner-parties and bridge and conversation. Save with Paul Riesling, mechanical friendships — back-slapping and jocular, never daring to essay the test of quietness.

He turned uneasily in bed.

He saw the years, the brilliant winter days and all the long sweet afternoons which were meant for summery meadows, lost in such brittle pretentiousness. He thought of telephoning about leases, of cajoling men he hated, of making business calls and waiting in dirty anterooms — hat on knee, yawning at fly-specked calendars, being polite to office-boys.

“I don’t hardly want to go back to work,” he prayed. “I’d like to — I don’t know.”

But he was back next day, busy and of doubtful temper.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38