Gideon Planish, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 20

The two of them sat down to dinner with Peony — the compulsory self that told him he must speak up and get it over, let her know that he was discharged, and the physical self that was so tired and timid it could scarcely lift this burden of confession. Peony and the half-handed maid had prepared a particularly elegant salad of avocado and hard-boiled egg and cherries and a few other trifles that must have been Peony’s own idea, and the ridiculous salad became to him, brooding upon it, a tender symbol of her, like a glove still bearing the warmth and heart line of her hand.

When he spoke he dodged up a dozen alleys. He told her that he had gone out to Evanston, and that Dr. Kitto certainly wore a toupee. While she was giggling, “Let’s throw him out of the Foundation,” he was sharply calculating that he had no notion whatever about a new job, that he must be about $850 in debt, with some $375 in assets (he felt in his pocket and concluded that maybe he could add another dollar), and that his father-inlaw had been pretty nasty about that last touch.

He said that the lawns in Evanston were full of daffodils, and she said: that reminded her, they really must get busy and decide now where they would go for summer vacation — Northern Michigan, Vermont, Battle Lake in Minnesota? — and couldn’t he take a couple of months off instead of one? — it was a shame the way those old dodoes Kitto and Frisby bossed him — couldn’t he get rid of them?

The serenity in her voice relieved his hesitation.

He ended his confession with, “I guess I ought to be boiled in oil for endangering you and the baby this way.”

Just then Peony could have played the perfect American wife, could have been sorry for herself and asked what good he was, if he couldn’t take better care of her than that. For a moment she sat with the volubility of her smile checked. Then she laughed.

“It’s a joke on me. Oh, toy-man, it’s all my fault, being so extravagant. Otherwise we could tell Frisby to go to hell and start off for New York without worrying. Come slap baby’s fingers for being such a bad baby.” He kissed her, in a rush of returning faith, and she cried, “Listen, darling, I want you to write George Riot. He’ll dig up something temporary for you. And maybe this is the time when I ought to tell you there’s nothing between George and me.”

“M?”

“You looked in New York like you thought there was something. But I love you too much. My vice is more along the line of wanting to get ahead and be Somebody. And we will. You watch us. This is just another break in the market — prosperity is just around the corner for us — with bells on! We’ll hit New York so HARD!”

“Wouldn’t it maybe be better to ask Austy Bull for some kind of a temporary college appointment while I try to make connections in New York?”

“No, no! I couldn’t stand even a month in Kinnikinick. Nobody there that could even stand up to the top people, like Colonel Marduc and Senator Bultitude. I despise Kinnikinick. The people are so provincial. Whatever you can say about your bad little wife, you can’t say she’s provincial, now can you!”

Apparently he couldn’t.

“I’ll tell you what. I’ll make up for the financial hole I got you into. We’ll store the furniture, and I’ll go back and live on Mr. Whipple K. Jackson, Esquire, till you get a really swell position with a high-class salary.”

“I’d worry so about —”

“Don’t you worry about my worrying! I know when I got a good thing. Say, I’ll bet if you’d been a preacher, you could have prayed circles around Jim Kitto and Chris Stern — you’d have had God tuned in on you all the time. And do GOOD— why, say, I’ll bet you’ve already done rural education more good than William Jennings Bryan put together!”

It was mid-August, and the movers were lugging their furniture down to the storage company van. Dr. Planish’s eyes and throat bothered him as he stood with his arm about Peony, watching the bumpy departure to prison of their treasures: the adored new cedar chest, the gold and scarlet Chinese Chippendale cabinet, the Chinese rug that they had bought at Mabel Grove — they had been so young then! — the faded little porcelain clock, the jade lamp, the friendly birch cabinet of the radio, to whose music they had sometimes danced, they two alone, after midnight, triumphant in new success. And the black and silvery portable bar. “Oh, do be careful of that!” quaked Peony to the movers. He could feel her breast heaving under his fingertips. He thought that for the first time she was afraid. Men who had had desks and office titles a year ago were huddled on street corners now, selling apples. In what hot slums or stripped and mortgaged homes were their wives and babies panting, he wondered.

“I do hate to see that bar go into hock. We had some good times here, and — No, sir!” Peony stoutly interrupted herself. “When we get ready to unveil that ole bar again, in New York, it’ll be Bishop Pindyck and Senator Bultitude that’ll be lapping up my martinis, and not just these Chicago profs and docs!”

For their last night in the flat, they had only their suitcases, a cot-bed borrowed from the janitor for Carrie, and for themselves, a mattress on the floor. The flat seemed by dusk not only empty but menacingly large, as though nobody could ever fill its spaces again, and they felt that they would never furnish out any dwelling again, never sit softly and eat true meals and talk with friends. They were city Okies.

They fled to a cafeteria for a late supper and then, with Carrie, aged seven now, to a movie, to see the lovely Joan Crawford. They three walked through the gasping summer streets — a respectable family, in some sense a holy family, trudging and round and stuffed with food, permanent-looking as the brownstone porticoes. But Dr. Planish stared at a brick mansion turned boarding-house. Its curtains were torn and filthy, and on the hot stoop was a man who might once have been a professor, a doctor; a bent man with a beard much like his own, but hacked and dirty. Dr. Planish shuddered.

As they marched, Carrie babbled, “Why are you going to New York, Papa — why?”

“Hush, pimpernel,” remarked Peony. “Papa has to go there on business.”

“Why?”

“I said, on business.”

“I wish he’d come home to Faribault with us. I hate the city,” pondered Carrie, and Peony said:

“Why?”

“It’s got too many street cars and too many people.”

“Don’t you like people, babykins?”

“No, I don’t think I like ’em. They talk so much. I like dandelions and sailboats better.”

With Carrie luxuriously asleep in the borrowed cot, Dr. Planish and Peony sat low on the edge of their mattress, in the abandoned flat, which was lit with one unshaded bulb. He blurted something that had been forming in his mind all through the motion picture:

“I guess we’re supposed to be good Christians, aren’t we?”

“Sure-you-bet. Good Episcopolopians, anyway.”

“Then I wonder if we couldn’t turn to our religion for comfort. The clergy insist that people do still turn to it. Let’s — uh — let’s think about the Lord.”

“Okay.”

“He’s, uh — Hell, I wish we’d kept a Bible. We still got a Bible, haven’t we?”

“Sure you-bet. I saw it when I was packing the books and blankets.”

“There’s something in the Bible about — now what the devil is it —”

“Honestly, hero, I don’t think you ought to say ‘what the devil’ when you’re talking about religion and God.”

Dr. Planish looked at her with admiration for her good taste, and fretted, “Maybe you’re right. Anyway, this stuff — this verse, I mean — in the Bible, I mean — it was in Proverbs — something about ‘all was vanity and there was no profit anywhere’.”

“No, it’s from Ecclesiastes. And I bet I can quote it.”

“Really?” He looked with new admiration at this remarkable young woman.

“You bet your life I can. I was a Sunday-school teacher in Faribault, and I was a corker, too, before I went to college and ran into all that irreverence, and all the menaces to a girl’s morals. Lessee. I almost got it. Something like this:

“‘I was great and I increased more than anybody that came before me in Jerusalem, and also my wisdom did increase — no, remained with me. And whatever mine eyes desired I did not keep from them, nor my heart from any joy, and I looked upon all the works that my hands had done and behold, all was vanity and — and vexation of spirit and there was no profit under the sun.’

“Gee whiz, that doesn’t sound so good for my side,” Peony reflected. “Looks like God was telling us, ‘What’s all this business about going to New York? Go on back to Kinnikinick and stay there — blackmail the Prexy and make him give you back a job.’ Oh, no, He wouldn’t tell us that, would He, lover? He wouldn’t, would He? Not STAY! Tell me He wouldn’t!”

“Of course He wouldn’t. You’re His own best lamb.”

“Well, I do think He might be a little more careful about His lamb and her husband always being so broke all the time. I just can’t understand it.”

“Yes, yes, sweetie, there may be something to that, but you must be more serious if we’re going to try out religion properly, and God knows, we need religion or SOMETHING!”

She whispered.

“Now, Peony, that’s absolutely shocking!”

“Okay, I’ll be a serious little God’s little lamb. Why don’t you try praying?”

“How?”

“Christians DO pray, don’t they?”

“Well, of course, Peony, in church and so on, but I mean to say —”

“Why not take a shot at it?”

“Very well, if you want me to. After all, I suppose I AM a true believer — everybody must be that devotes himself to the service of mankind, as I do, and so — so —”

He looked upward, longing to feel the veritable presence of God, to experience a merciful omnipotence that would protect his beloved wife and his surprising daughter and his own fading ambition to possess power and glory.

But he could see nothing and feel nothing above him save the one spotty electric bulb.

“O Lord, our God —”

The words were empty to him and without destination. He blurted, “I can’t do it. I don’t believe that God, if there is one, is listening to me. And I don’t believe Kitto or Chris Stern really thinks God is listening when they spout, so glib and intimate. I believe they’d be scared to death if He actually spoke up and answered. Oh, baby, no way out. You and I just got to depend on each other, against everything.”

“Well, that’s enough, isn’t it? We’re lucky!” she said blithely.

He was on the train to New York, and for the first time in his life he was sitting up in a day-coach all night. Dinner would have cost a dollar or more on the diner, so he had been picking at two chocolate almond-bars for hours now, and he was pleased to find a couple of tin-foil-covered crumbs in his pocket.

His seat-mate, a shifty-looking man, hinted, “How ‘bout gettin’ up a game of poker?”

“No — no thanks — don’t play.”

“What’s your racket, Brother? Schoolteaching or book agent?”

“Book agent.”

“How ‘bout me for a prospect?”

“No — no,” drearily. “I’m off duty just now.”

Mr. Planish, Mr. Gideon Planish, a jobless vagrant, had no desire to sell books, to communicate ideas about rural education, or to abuse the public for their lack of freedom, generosity in contributing to philanthropy, and the far-flung greatest common denominator in the implementing of ideological blue-prints for crises among the grass roots.

He wanted to be let alone, he wanted to sleep, and he wanted to contemplate blowing in an entire quarter for coffee and eggs at breakfast in New York tomorrow morning.

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