Gideon Planish, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 13

“When we get to Des Moines, we’ll rent a flat. I’ve always wanted to live in a flat. It’s so citified,” said Peony.

“Aw, don’t you think it would be better to take a nice little house, so Carrie can play in the yard?” urged Dr. Planish. “Sure! We’ll take a house.”

They took a flat.

The flat was, crowed Peony, the most tremendous bargain: only fifty dollars a month, provided they did all the repairs; and their Kinnikinick furniture would fit it perfectly. The blue Chinese rug, the Chinese Chippendale cabinet, the French porcelain clock, and the leather pouf, she pointed out, looked as if they had been made for this bright little flat, with its balcony sun-room and its electric fireplace and only two flights to climb. All they had to pay for was papering the flat, in soft yellow, scraping and painting the floors, white-enameling the woodwork, replacing a few warped window-frames, and buying a new electric refrigerator, which was, Peony impersonally reported, the dearest little jewel she had ever seen.

So, though rather grumblingly, her father sent them another check.

They were welcomed to Des Moines in July with a party given by Mr. A. J. Joslin, a small and nervous man who had bright eyes but a mouth that was always slightly open. The party was operated in a private dining-room at the Count Frontenac Hotel, with Iowa vodka and Mississippi River caviar, and they met a society editor, a congressman, and the chief agent for the whole Middle-west of a great tractor company, who sang “Here’s to Giddy, he’s true blue; he’s a drunkard through and through.”

Mr. Joslin stated that under the inspired genius, lofty humanitarianism and practical hustle of the new editor, he expected to see Rural Adult Education on every parlor table from Kalispell to Paducah.

Then he called Dr. Planish aside and explained that he had left his wallet home, and could the Doctor let him have fifty dollars till tomorrow? (But on the morrow, he did not seem to remember it.)

So the Planishes were launched on a metropolitan stream of elegance, excitement and fame.

“At heart you’re a complete rustic. I believe you’d rather have a house than our ducky flat. You’d like to mow the lawn and shovel the walks. You LIKE the soil, even when it sticks to you. Maybe you were born in a bigger town than I was, but it’s me that’s got the zip. But I’m going to make a city slicker out of you yet,” said Peony — but fondly — but seriously.

And in the city, free from the spying of students, master of his own office hours, among people whom Peony pronounced “fit to meet”— men with three cars, women who were just as used to Le Grand Pension des Deux Mondes et de Tooting, t.c.m., in Cannes, as they were to Charley’s Eats, Counter Service — he did enjoy the sea-change of becoming urbanized. At least, he enjoyed Peony’s becoming urbanized. . . . Though they never did seem to meet any of the people with the three cars and private Baedekers. But matter of time when they would be frisking in swimming pools with the richest and most public-spirited. And from the first they had what the Doctor called Urban Opportunities.

They could go, any evening, to a choice of a dozen movies, a dozen restaurants — one of them with real Parisian red-leather wall-seats. At any time, night or day, they could hear motor horns, radios, ticklish lovers and riveting. They could adventure in department stores so large that they never found what they wanted. They could read in the social columns that right there in the city, not twenty blocks from them, a bona-fide artist was promoting a studio party, that Madame Fitzinger, of New York and Stuttgart, was conducting a children’s class in the ballet, and the Z. Edward Matzes were giving a whole series of parties to celebrate the engagement of their daughter — in fact, the Matzes seemed pretty relieved about it.

So Dr. and Mrs. Planish were Successes in Life, according to the best American tradition: they resided in a larger city than before, and they knew many more people much less well, if you counted in all the street-car conductors whom they met professionally, and they had a somewhat larger income and very much larger expenses. So Peony sang oftener, and next winter Carrie had a new snow-suit of white imitation fur, and only Dr. Planish was slightly bewildered.

His job as editor of Rural Adult was not working out as he had dreamed. He had expected to spend his time in reading entertaining manuscripts and being interviewed by the newspapers regarding his opinions on politics and the American woman and, instead of having to talk with boorish college students, being witty in a large leather chair with sparkling but grateful authors.

But he found that authors were stammering in speech, vicious in their demand for quick payment, reluctant to give anecdotes out of which to make publicity notes, and yet insistent on getting the publicity. In a hurt and jumpy way, he found that they were very vain, poisonously jealous, and usually musty of aspect.

For usable conversation, the printers and stenographers were much better.

He had to learn painfully, from his own assistant — an aged party who would himself have been the editor if he had not been a periodic drunk — a whole tiresome technique of getting out the magazine: how to read manuscripts by smell, without wearing out the eyes; how to get a thousand-word article into an eight-hundred-word space; how to choose the lead article and, with a stern printer waiting, rewrite its title; and, most of all, how to obtain photographs for illustrations. He usually telephoned to the press agent for a railroad or a factory and promised him a credit which would undoubtedly sell ten threshing engines or 10,000 passenger-miles.

Particularly, he had to learn taboos and libel laws. He must invariably speak reverently of mothers, duck-hunting, the Y.M.C.A., the Salvation Army, the Catholic Church, Rabbi Wise, the American flag, cornbread, Robert E. Lee, carburetors and children up to the age of eleven.

All these mysteries the Doctor could learn and did learn. What troubled him was that he was getting only half of his handsome salary.

Mr. Joslin explained that this wasn’t his fault; that he was, conservatively, ten times as anxious to pay up as Dr. Planish was to be paid up or Mrs. Planish to get the check. It was the fault of the printers, who insisted on getting their wages every week; it was the advertisers, always so slow to meet their bills; it was the paper manufacturers, always so intolerant about credit; it was the dead-beat subscribers; it was everything except the publisher himself.

When he did pay, Mr. Joslin handed the Doctor a job-lot of wrinkled bank notes, hotel due-bills given in exchange for advertising, due-bills for school blackboards, and an occasional precious silver dollar.

Jittery now for the first time since their marriage, the Planishes had their landlord dunning them for the fifty dollars a month, the corner grocer refusing to charge it, and the maid becoming so impudent that they had to pawn Peony’s wrist-watch. The Doctor was terrified. The warmth and faith of Peony were even more important to him than the good steak dinners which he was not getting and of which he thought all through the hungry days. And it bothered him even more that Peony was not getting the brown juicy steak either. But she did not nag.

She scoffed, “Well, look at us! The hometown boy and girl that went to the city and made good! One bottle of milk in the house, and that belongs to that yelping young sparrow, Carrie. Oh, honey-sweet, I think maybe it was all my fault. I was too greedy!”

She sobbed against his shoulder, she sobbed and looked up at him with the face of a little girl who has been naughty. He kissed her, and her sobs dwindled to a tired little whimpering.

Her fault? he thought. HER greedy? Why, she was the one person in the world who didn’t know how to be greedy. By God, she’d have a palace on Long Island and a marble swimming-pool before he was through!

This time it was the Doctor who wrote to Whipple Jackson, and he enclosed a promissory note, and they had steak again, and dry martinis.

Though he did receive only half his pay, it was not easy for the Doctor to quit Rural Adult Education. He enjoyed the small distinction of being a real editor and he, the one time Dean and Professor, had little value on the labor market now.

President T. Austin Bull would not give him any ardent recommendation, and, anyway, not till late winter would the slave philosophers be standing in that labor market while the trustees and presidents of the several colleges looked at their teeth and wind and conservatism.

So the Doctor again took up the traveling-salesman’s routine of the itinerant lecturer.

This time, he went at it professionally. Instead of having Peony book his engagements in her chatty pink notes to the committees, he submitted himself, inspiration and beard and all, to a minor lady lecture-agent who was not superior to dates at the Kosciusko High School Lyceum or the Kiwanis Ladies’ Night. She liked cross-word puzzles, and in the trade she was known as “The Dragon.”

Under her skilled hand, the Doctor scheduled a whole repertory of shows from which the local committees could pick:

W. J. Bryan: Soldier–Saint Don’t Be a Singe Cat Trust in Youth The Dangerous Age Home Learning for Grownups How to Keep the Young Generation at Home Is College Worth While? Should Girls Go to College? What’s the Best School for Your Children?

The answer to the last query was “the nearest one.” This discourse was described by the Dragon as “sixty-one minutes of fun, learning, bright anecdote and sound advice, by a great professional educator.” These topics, with a half-tone of Dr. Planish smiling sidewise at the cord on his eyeglasses, were emblazoned in a leaflet sent out to all customers interested in cultural wares. When the leaflet was shown to Carrie, aged four, she laughed so much that her parents looked at her suspiciously.

For two weeks out of every six, that winter, Dr. Planish pounded the pebbly trail of the small-time lecturer.

He arrived in Washout at 5 A.M., caught the connecting train at 5:45, rode two hours in the red dust of a day coach, and arrived at Napoleon at 7:37. He felt dusty, his eyes felt glued, and his hope for the young generation was that they would quit it and grow up.

He was met by the Committee, three women and a husband, and asked to wait just a minute, because the reporter and the photographer had got mixed up and gone to the C.B. & Q. depot instead of the Union Station. He sat on a wooden bench for forty minutes, wanting coffee but talking about education, while the husband looked at the Doctor’s beard and loathed it.

At 8:17, they gave up the Press, and the husband drove the Doctor to his hotel. Barking with weariness, the Doctor telephoned down for coffee, stripped off all his disguise except a gray flannel union suit — and the beard — gulped the coffee, stuck the tray out in the hall so that he would not be disturbed by the return of the room-waiter, drowsily forgot to lock the door and cut off the telephone, fell on the bed, looked cynically at the hotel picture of Marquises Horsing Around with Pages, and was asleep at 8:58.

At 9:16, the reporter and the photographer walked in, without knocking, and laughed very much at the union suit. The Doctor could scarcely see his clothes as he wallowed back into them. He sat in an armchair with his forefinger to his temple, and when the photographer’s flashlight went off, he hoped that the hotel had caught fire and that this would end it all.

In answer to the reporter’s questions, Dr. Planish stated that he considered Napoleon the most beautiful city in the State — though they must also permit him to say a word for the cities in his own beloved State of Iowa; that he thought women had a perfect right to study chiropractic or parachute-jumping but doubted if in these arts they would be as happy as in bringing up a nice little family; that there were many, many college girls who did not get seduced; and that President Hoover was an even greater man than Coolidge.

At 9:41, after having locked the door, Dr. Planish was asleep again. At 9:52, the telephone exploded.

“Yesh,” said the Doctor, blurrily.

“I bet you can’t guess who this is.”

“Well, I’m afraid you’re right.”

“How is the old rooster?”

“Fine — fine. Who is this?”

“You don’t sound so fine. You sound cockeyed to me.”

“Well, I’m not! Who is this?”

“Can’t you guess?”

“I’m sorry, but somehow I don’t seem to recognize the voice. I didn’t remember I knew anybody in Napoleon.”

“So you’re giving people the big Des Moines run-around now, are you!”

“Not a bit of it, but — who is this?”

“Well, who do you think it is?”

“I haven’t any idea.”

“Well, you old lobster, this is Bert!”

“Oh — Bert.”

“You heard me!”

“Which Bert?”

“Well, for God’s sake! Your cousin!”

“I’m terribly sorry, but —”

“Bert Twitching, your second cousin! From Akron!”

“Oh — Say, did we ever meet?”

“Why, of course we did! What’s the matter — losing your memory from so much chasing? You ought to watch that! You remember — Dad and I stopped by your house about twenty-five years ago — you were ten-eleven years old. And we didn’t get such a hell of a friendly reception either, as I recall it. But I’m the kind of a guy can always forgive and forget. Well, well, well, well, what you waiting for? I can’t loaf around all day like you gab-artists! Get busy — put your bonnet on and come down to the office and I’ll buy you a drink.”

“I’m afraid I can’t, just now. There’s a lot of people here. What’s your telephone number, and I’ll call you up. Or say — will you be at my lecture tonight?”

“Of course I won’t be at your lecture tonight! Don’t you think I got anything more important to do with my evenings?”

He told the hotel exchange not to put through any more calls; he slept almost till noon, and bathed, and cursed with a small impotent cursing that sounded more like weeping, and wrote his Rural Adult editorial on his portable typewriter. He had had the telephone connected again, and during his period of inspiration he answered calls from an insurance man who wanted to know whether he had ever given any thought to his wife and little family of sons, from three several girl reporters on the same high-school magazine, from an unknown lady who wished to submit to his magazine song lyrics upholding Prohibition, and from another lady who wished to know whether he was Joseph F. Snyder and, irately, why not?

The chambermaid came in, slapped his pillows once, and wanted his autograph for her little lame son. He happily asked her how she had found out who he was. She hadn’t. She had no clear ideas about him beyond the facts that he was a Doctor and had a beard and therefore probably was a goat-gland specialist.

At 12:49, the silent and anonymous husband who had met him at the train came in and took him to a luncheon of the Wholesale Stocking Dealers’ convention, at which he had to speak (gratis). This first husband was relieved after the luncheon by a second and equally unwilling husband, who drove him out to Maplewood Park and to the seventh Pioneer Log Cabin (replica) that he had inspected in twelve days.

From 3:30 till 8, the hour of his lecture, he blessedly had all his time to himself, except for being interviewed by the three high-school girls, each of whom asked the Doctor what he thought about education, eighteen telephone calls, a tea, at which he had to stand up beside the signed photograph of Hugh Walpole and speak for five minutes, dressing for the lecture, and a dinner of forty people — at a private house and yet no cocktails — during which he had to explain the philosophy of Plotinus, whom he had never read, to his hostess, who hadn’t either.

His lecture was under the auspices of the Ladies’ Current Events Club of the Percival Boulevard Methodist Church, and it was held in the church auditorium, which meant that he could not have a cigarette just before speaking, that he could not say damn during the lecture nor refer to abortions or garters nor tell his one prize story about the drunken Deacon, and that he had to be hopeful about the Future of America — regarding which, in view of sixteen more days of lecturing, he actually felt very black.

He was met at the stage entrance to the church by his lady chairwoman and the pastor, the Reverend Dr. Bowery, who pressed his hand, and whistled, “It’s a great privilege for us to have you with us tonight. Let’s see; I believe you were dean of old Kinnikinick. Did you ever know Professor Epop of Bowdoin College, Maine, Doctor?”

“I’m afraid I don’t, Doctor.”

“You don’t, Doctor?”

Dr. Planish had a distinct feeling that he’d better, or get thrown out. “Oh, I know him by reputation, of course.” The Reverend Bowery still looked suspicious. “Know him VERY well, by reputation. A fine scholar and gentleman.”

“He’s a stinker. He drinks liquor,” said Dr. Bowery, and sniffed at Dr. Planish’s breath.

The local newspaper photographer came in to do another bombardment, not because the paper or anybody else wanted a picture of Dr. Planish, but because no committee considers a lecturer fit to go to work unless, just before the show, he has been fed to a state of coma, talked-out at a large dinner, and finally blinded by flashlights.

Meanwhile the chairwoman was going crazy trying to remember her introductory speech. She was circling round and round the vestry like a Mexican bean, muttering “One who — than whom — one whom — than who.” Dr. Planish grasped her shoulder, shook her, and snapped, “Stop it, will you, young woman! Don’t worry about the audience. Those boneheads are lucky to have a superior gal like you say ANYTHING to them!”

She looked at him with surprised adoration, and from then on it was his day, his night, and he was tolerably happy in the skilled performance of his grisly professional duties. At 9:17 P.M., grasping the edges of the pulpit, looking serenely out on all those rouge-patches and red hats and blunt mustaches, feeling how all their attention poured in on him, and loving it, he ended, “And so, my friends, I leave with you the thought that it is not by asking advice or expecting a miracle that we shall bring security to our children and solidarity to our families, but by patiently doing what we know is right.”

He got through the question-period afterward with only one nasty moment — the inevitable heckling by the ubiquitous Communist. After that, he had only to get his check in hand, and the gay funeral was over.

Sometimes there was a party after the show. Sometimes unremarkable-looking people, whom he hadn’t even noticed down in the audience, came up and asked him if he didn’t want a drink, and he was taken to a real home, with a private bar and sufficient ash-trays and good ribald conversation, and thus recovered from the sickness of fluency before he had to take another train. But there was no such oasis tonight, not in the Percival Boulevard Church, and in his hotel room his only joys were the check, which he took out of his wallet and lightly kissed, and his nightly long-distance call to Peony, at eleven; a joy which he never denied himself unless at that hour he was on the train. If that happened, he called her whenever he got to the new town — 1 A.M., 3 A.M., it did not matter. She always awoke quickly and sweetly, and spoke as though his voice was the greatest surprise she had ever had.

Tonight —

“Hello, baby!”

“Oh, Gid-e-on! Lover! Where are you?”

“Napoleon.”

“Now stop it! What would you be doing in a place like that for?”

“For eighty-five bucks, minus twenty per cent to the Dragon.”

“You can consider it already spent, toy-man. Oh, Gideon, I do miss you so, every minute. Even with Carrie yellin’ her crazy head off, this flat seems so empty, with no big bear bumbling around. I was just thinking tonight, if you were here, we’d go chasing all over town, laughing like fools, and have a drink and go to a movie and hold hands. Tell me, lover, how are you?”

“Oh, fine. My throat is holding out fine. That’s better than I can say for the behind, on the seats in all these trains every day.”

“Why, Gid-e-on!”

“And you’re all right, dear?”

“Just dandy.”

“And Carrie?”

“Oh, she’s swell.”

“Well, I got to hang up now. Take care of yourself.”

“You take care of YOURself.”

“I will, pet, you bet I will. Kiss Carrie for me. And be sure and take care of yourself and — and — God, I wish I were there with you, right now! Good-bye, my dear-so long.”

His train did not go till 12:30, and it was too late for the second movie houses. Till 12 he sat bolt up, keeping himself awake by reading a True Confessions magazine, the financial page of the Napoleon evening paper, and, several times, the interview with himself in the same. It was pleasant when at last he could close his bag and call for a bellboy to take it down.

As he sat in his Pullman berth, fumblingly undressing, he wished that he were back in Kinnikinick, going to bed in the honorable cottage of the dean. The picture of the placid campus reached out before him as he was shaken to sleep — and then the porter was twitching his pillow, and it was time to get up and do it all over again, and he knew that at the depot, waiting, was another cultural posse of three nice but resolute women and an anonymous husband, and maybe the Reverend Dr. Bowery, swanking under another name, with girl high-school reporters lurking behind every baggage truck, and all of them expecting these damn quips.

He came home, to his wife’s embraces and to Des Moines’ surprise that he had ever been away, with a handful of checks which he threw into the air before Peony, so that they fell about her in a flashing storm. He had five clear weeks before he had to go out on tour again, and they planned to put in practically every moment of it making love, playing with Carrie, shopping, drinking martinis and doing enough editing to keep from being fired.

Before the next summer, they had eleven hundred dollars in the bank, the new car and the newest piano had been paid for — nearly — and they had cautiously put up a little money on margin with a conservative firm of stockbrokers. For this was in the late 1920’s, and with their reading in economics, their unusual clarity and imagination, Dr. and Mrs. Planish could foresee a rise in prosperity which might make them millionaires in another ten years.

“What if that ole meanie, A.J., don’t pay your salary very often,” crowed Peony. “We’re going to have the marble swimming-pool without him!”

After their financial recovery, the Planishes were able to step up on a fairly high plane of society: investment counselors and general managers of packing plants and high-school principals and lawyers and dealers in music, with wives who had most of them been born middle-aged. They looked on Dr. Planish as their proprietary Intellectual, and he now first had the pleasure of being taken out to play golf, clad in the short, baggy, Persian-looking trousers then called “plus fours.”

“We’re going ahead again!” Peony crowed. “These people ain’t so hot, but wait ‘ll we get to New York! We’ll be chumming up with the Rockefellers and Mary Pickford and Nicholas Murray Butler!”

One of their warmer friends at this time was a gasoline dealer who owned a new radio station. He invited Dr. Planish to make a regular Saturday-morning fifteen-minute address for three weeks, and even paid him ten dollars per augury.

No longer was Dr. Planish an old-fashioned schoolmaster at a meager desk in a stale classroom which might just as well have been in the 1820’s instead of the 1920’s. He was a master of modern machinery, a lord of the airways, as spiritual and up to date as a safety razor. He could reach and influence thousands now — indeed, far-flung thousands, and pretty soon it would be far-flung millions — instead of dubious hundreds uncomfortable in lecture halls. He was coming into his own, he was putting on the robes of prophecy, and he had always known that they would fit him.

So, on the miraculous radio waves, carrying his message at 186,000 miles a second, the streamlined philosopher told the far-flungs that they ought to read the Bible, that wealth did not ensure happiness, that just the other day he had talked, personally, with the Governor of a populous State, and that all conscientious citizens ought to vote — a virtuous act that Dr. Gideon Planish had never yet performed.

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