Kingsblood Royal, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 43

Vestal, as the heir of a thousand Beehouses, had no more experience with the men of her family looking for work than with their turning into Chippewas and Hottentots. But she had been fifteen years old in the Panic of 1929, and she could remember quite respectable men, graduates of Yale and Dartmouth, who had lost brokerage houses and courageously gone on facing life on incomes of less than ten thousand a year.

She was not worried about Neil’s lack of income. It was only a question of whether he would accept a position, probably at a better salary, in the Blue Ox National Bank, or favor the smaller Merchants & Miners.

Nor, except when he was a schoolboy and had borrowed a lawn-mower from Uncle Emery Saxinar and set up in the jobbing-gardener business (over the summer he got three lawns to do, at thirty-five cents apiece, but there was no future in it, because he squandered his gains on black-and-white sodas), had Neil himself ever looked for work. His appointment to the Second National, after college, had come as naturally as the wrist-watch that was his father’s Commencement gift.

He did not understand that the world simply does not care what happens to cautious rebels, once they have ceased to play the safe game of Pruttery. It does not persecute them; it merely sends out word that it is not at home, when they call to say that they are starving.

Neil would not gratify the Blue Ox National by offering to join it, not he, for he disapproved of the Havocks. No, he would go help out the Merchants & Miners and his mousy teller friend, Mr. Topman. But Vestal said that he must do it grandly; he must take the car. No, no, she was only going to the women’s club for a little bridge, and she could JUST as well take the bus.

He breezed into the brown diminutiveness of the Merchants & Miners, but Mr. Topman, behind the bars, jerked back as though Neil were known to bite. He reluctantly took Neil to the bank’s president, who once had praised his tennis at a Heather Club tournament but could not quite recall him now, and mumbled, “Sorry, doesn’t seem to be any kind of opening.”

Less confidently — less and less confidently — Neil went on to the other banks, to a brokerage house, to Scott Zago’s Northern Insurance Brokerage.

Mr. Zago was grievously busy, or so Neil was informed by Verne Avondene, the office manager, a courtly old man who had once been rich himself. Mr. Avondene’s lawn had been one of those mowed by the enterprising young firm of Neil & Co., and Mr. Avondene had then said to him, “What great thing in life do you intend to discover? The golden fleece or the cabin at Innisfree?”

“I’m not sure if I’m going to be a doctor or an aviator,” Neil had said.

It had been Verne Avondene who, as secretary of the Federal Club, had telephoned to Neil a few days ago that he was resignated. Now, listening to Neil’s fumbling hints about wanting a job, he looked at Neil as at a light colored man whose effrontery was amusing. He did not take the trouble to say No. He just smiled it.

At the Emporium, Levi Tarr said that the accounting and credit departments were already overstaffed, but would Neil care to be a salesman? “I wish you’d try it. The pay isn’t much, but you might work up to a position as buyer, fairly quickly. I’d like to have you, both as an intelligent man and because I want to get my father to let me use some Negro clerks. You’d be a wedge.”

Neil was very polite, and lied about “other openings.”

— Me a wedge! Me waiting on old women! Selling ’em ribbons or whatever it is you do sell ’em.

He went reluctantly to the Power & Light Company, to his father-inlaw, Morton Beehouse, whom he had stringently not seen since New Year’s and who had stopped the intermittent income he had given to Vestal. To that oak facade he stated, “I don’t want a job as charity. I think I’m a fairly good executive.”

“And no doubt you also think that you can support my daughter adequately, after you have antagonized every decent businessman in town. Well, let me tell you, if you get any job whatever with this organization, it will be nothing BUT charity!”

“Okay,” said Neil as he went.

This was on his second sleety day of job-hunting, and in the afternoon he drove down to the South End, to talk with a Home Loan Association. The streets were slippery enough for chains, and he drove into a garage to have them put on. On the wet floor, gouging the ice off a fender, was a greasy Negro car-washer in torn overalls, who grinned at him and half waved his hand. Slowly, aghast, Neil recognized in this gnome the Captain Philip Windeck whom he had seen at the Jumpin’ Jive, precise and authoritative in his uniform as a flyer.

“Phil!” he cried, with an affection that surprised both of them.

“How are you, Captain — Neil?” the grub hesitated.

When they had trudged over the necessary bridge-approaches of conversation, Neil wanted to know: “How about engineering school? Going to be able to go back?”

“I haven’t had the nerve to tackle it — to start all over again on that magnificent career that works up through study to officer-and-gentleman to chamois-rag. I feel too segregated. When I started to look for a job, I found that my having been an officer was against me. The white engineers said it had been an impertinence.

“So I took the long trail of the Negroes. I hope you never have to follow it: city to city — Omaha to Dallas to Seattle to Pittsburgh — always hearing that in the next town they’re hiring the brown-skins, hustling there by boxcar and finding that they aren’t. I got lonely for Garnet and the home town. You know it’s my home, too, and I love the hills and the rivers. So I’m back, and I’ll save up a few dollars and start off again — school or the trail.

“You know, in every machine shop I had one test demand: will you give me the chance to set up any job you pick out on a turret lathe? And they always said the same thing: do you think we’re going to ruin an expensive rig like that to please a nigger garage-man? Oh, well, so geht’s.”

He was looking at Neil resentfully, but when Neil said simply, “Phil, I’m also a Negro, and I’ve also been fired for it,” the defiance went out of him and, after most carefully wiping his hand on a piece of waste, Phil shook hands with his fellow captain, his fellow penniless job-hunter, his friend.

After work-hours, after Neil had been refused another job, Phil and he went out for a cup of coffee at an Automobile Row diner, where the proprietor, with so many greasy-faced customers, had given up trying to decide which of them were “colored” and which were “white.”

Phil said, “You must have seen my dad, old Cloat Windeck, running an elevator at the Blue Ox National Building. The poor old boy is broken-hearted about my decline and fall. He always insisted that I inherited my flying technique from him — running his elevator up to a twelve-story altitude.”

And, “I had one fine week in Denver, on my trek. Monday, I got a job hacking, lovely new purple cab, and I was good. I taught myself to say ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘Yes, ma’am’ perfectly and to take tips just as cheerfully as I’d taken an officer’s pay. No accidents or rows or anything, not even a cop looking cross-eyed, but on Tuesday some white friend kicked to the office about having been driven by an ignorant colored man, and so I was fired on Wednesday. On Thursday, I got a job driving a truck. Four white drivers waylaid me and beat me up and set fire to my truck, and you know, it just didn’t seem worth while reporting to the office, so I climbed a freight for Cheyenne. ‘America, I love thy friendships, strong men, camerados, aid each to each in labors.’ Whitman.”

Neil pondered, “I must meet some white people some day. Phil, when you get very mad, do you think about machine-guns?”

“I start to, and then I won’t let myself. God, these whites will never know the patience the colored peoples have shown, all over the world. It’s like the patience of God himself.”

Neil had never been able to talk thus, freely, passionately, romantically, profanely, with Judd Browler or Elegant Eliot Hansen. But he realized, as he drove home, that his Vestal would welcome Judd or Eliot, but not Phil Windeck, not the dripping car-washer, not a man called “Hey you, boy!”

He had made the last payment on their house.

“It’s sure-enough ours, forever!” he rejoiced, and they danced through the blue and maroon living-room, the sunporch, the small crystal and mahogany dining-room.

“Honestly, Neil, wouldn’t you think it was a perfectly charming house, even if you had no idea who it belonged to?” she cried with loving enthusiasm.

“I certainly would!”

It did not seem the moment to inform her that they now had only $767.61 in the bank, with his war pension not large enough to make a vast difference, and that his masquerade, as a young white gentleman pretending to be a job-hunting Negro, was losing its romance with rapidity.

But he had to tell her, in a few days, that he had no prospects of work whatever.

“I guess you’ll have to help me find something — anything,” he confessed.

Vestal went into action. She let Shirley go, but so gracefully that Shirley left with a kiss for Biddy and a warm farewell to Vestal as to a fellow-victim of them guys in Wall Street.

Vestal cut down on their food, rejected the almost obligatory movie, menacingly eyed Prince’s undiminished appetite, and abruptly told Biddy that, no, she could not have a pony.

Then they sold the car. In the United States, that is the same as saying, “Then they sold their four daughters into slavery.”

They got a satisfactory price, in the post-war shortage. But not to own any sort of car was an acknowledgment of social death, for a Prosperous American Business Man, for a Busy and Popular Young Matron who was trying to keep up her rank while her oldest friends were staring at her as though they had just met her and didn’t think they liked her.

As a substitute for the other gifts which Biddy wanted from moment to moment, Vestal had bought for her a fifteen-cent book of “comic strips.” Looking through this enterprising literature, which in America had replaced the Brothers Grimm and The Wind in the Willows, Neil found that no few of the cartoons dealt with Negro characters, clownish and vile.

But, in weariness with sermons, he said nothing; he merely stole the opus from his own daughter and threw it into the furnace and sat down to a season of agitation about Biddy’s future as a Negro. What school, what job, what marriage would she have when It was publicly admitted?

He could hear Vestal reprimanding him, “You should have thought of all this before you went off half-cocked.”

He could hear Wilbur Feathering wallow, “H.w.y.l.y.d.t.m.a.N.?” And how, he interrogated himself, WOULD he like to have Biddy marry a boy like Winthrop Brewster?

— Why not, if Win would stand for anything so dictatorial and bouncing as Biddy! He’s the most charming and intelligent boy I know.

— How incorrigibly the white man I am — Nature’s most devastating freak, after the earthquake and the bubonic plague; debating whether Winthrop is as good as his obvious inferiors, and thinking I’m such a courageous soul for debating it!

Of that debate he did not tell Vestal.

When Orlo Vay started off for his optical shop in the morning in his well-heated car and saw that nigger, Kingsblood, a beggar who hadn’t even a car or a hired girl, crawl off down the windy street to start his daily search for a job, and when the fellow stumbled on the snow-upholstered ice and danced and waved his arms like a human top in his effort to keep his balance, then Orlo laughed with moral joy.

But Virga, Mrs. Orlo Vay, nervously brought a maple-layer cake across the street to Vestal who, as she furiously vacuumed and dusted the house, did not know whether to feel touched or insulted. For Mrs. Vay had belonged to a distinctly lower layer in that creamy social cake that was Sylvan Park — till now she had.

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