Kingsblood Royal, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 45

He had not known that to a great many people job-hunting was a heavier part of life than job-holding; more nervous, more humiliating and entirely unpaid.

On foot, to save bus fares, he trudged from office building to factory to warehouse, slipping on the glassy pavements. It had been so cold, this late February, that the First Duty of the high-minded citizen and householder — to clean his walks — was reversed, for if he shoveled them off instead of leaving them in soft lumps of snow for a footing, after the slightest melting of the snow-banks along them the walks became sheets of clear ice through which you could see the cement, and on them everybody in town, practically, broke an ankle or at least sat down hard and looked around indignant.

As the thermometer was depressed to fifteen below, seventeen below, twenty-five below, the citizens appeared in voluminous buckled overshoes, and earmuffs below felt hats, and wished that they had not yielded to fashion and given away the scrofulous sealskin caps they had inherited from their warmer and worthier sires.

Chippewa Avenue, the Corso of the town, which had seemed busy and almost stately in October, was floored with streaky ice, and at each curb was a low wall of caked and dirty snow turning to a gray barrier over which you had to climb, after you had unhappily left the warm bus. There were no crimson awnings now, nor window-displays of summery dresses and red canoes, but just stoves and flannel and cough-medicine. Grand Republic had lost the air of a brisk and confidently growing city, and the buildings seemed low and shabby and scattered, under a drained sky that would never shine blue again. There were sleds and skis and healthy children in red caps, but not in the dolorous industrial districts where Neil looked for work.

Never had he so longed for spring to come again, for the soft air, the friendly sun. He was like an old man wondering how many more times he will see the blessed summer.

As he plodded through this limbo of unrelieved gray, from door to unwelcoming door, he did now and then have an offer of work, but always of such lowly clerical labor that (or so he thought) to take it would prejudice his future. “I’m no longer ashamed of any kind of work, but this would be a bad precedent,” he assured himself, as he trudged on.

Job-hunt — job-hunt — job-hunt — two blocks — cold blocks — job-hunt.

No longer grandly willing-to-accept-an-appointment. No longer seeking-a-position-with-suitable-advancement. No longer salary-no-object. Salary a whale of an object! Salary. Money coming in again — money every week!

Job-hunt, job-hunt, job-hunt, all day, pound the pavements, through the slush, through the cold, feet sore on lumps of ice, blackening ice, feet tired in overshoes, tired feet that squushed in snow, to a wretched tune of job-hunt, job-hunt, job-hunt.

And job-hunt no more as a banker but as a tired Negro who assumed that he had to live.

When he had warned himself, a month ago, that to be a penniless Negro in this Christian land would be difficult, that just to get through one day of the threat and actuality of snubs would be hard, he had not quite known that it would be hell in the cold, hell in the employers’ insults, hell in the pocketbook so flat that you took coffee OR soup at your grubby lunch, hell in the screaming tendons of the lame, jarring leg he had almost lost in defending the freedom of white Americans to refuse jobs to black Americans.

Even if some day the Government should give him a vastly larger allowance for having been wounded, he did not think that he could endure settling down as an idle pensioner, with all life a dreary poor-farm, and Vestal and Biddy a cautious meagerness beside an ambitionless loafer.

He asked himself, “Would I have been so brash and announced myself as a Negro if I had known how hard it would be to get a job without concealing my race?”

The doubt made him stubbornly angry.

“I couldn’t do anything else. I had to come out. Job-HUNT. I had to come out. Job-HUNT. I had to . . . This leg hurts so, and I am so cold!”

But with it all, whenever he had to fill out an application blank with the query “Race?” he put down “colored.”

He had, inevitably, asked for work at Wargate’s, but he would not bother Lucian Firelock, and the stranger in the employment office had nothing for him but a place as timekeeper at twenty-six dollars a week — an old man’s post.

The stories that Vestal’s friend, Mrs. Timberlane, had told about Fliegend, the toy-maker, sent Neil there, and the old man welcomed him, but there seemed to be nothing in the toy-factory that he could do. He realized that though he had been assuming that he was a well-trained and valuable member of society, he had no skills outside of camping and organizing golf-tournaments and working in a bank. Even in the bank, he had no knowledge outside of routine tasks, and he had been an ornament in the Second National chiefly because he had a smile and was the son-inlaw of Morton Beehouse and was so unquestionably conservative and Gentile and white.

He could, he considered, steer a canoe, but not so well as any Indian; he could handle a car, but not so well as any taxi-driver; and while his technique in cooking muskalonge steaks on an open fire was sound, it was not commercial.

He had a new view of Sophie and Ash. With all his fondness for them, he had been a little condescending. He admitted now that while he might conceivably starve, Sophie was very competent, thank you, even in a white world, as nurse and as singer, and Ash Davis could serenely make some sort of rough way not only as chemist but as a packer, musician, waiter, cook, linguist, teacher, and probably, Neil sighed, as a Shakespearean actor or the chairman of the board of a steel company.

When he next saw Sophie, with Ash and Martha, it was with noticeably increased humility that this simple child of midwestern nature asked these sophisticated big-city dwellers where he could get a job.

“Child, I’ve got to take you in hand. You’d do all right for yourself if you’d ever been around,” sighed Sophie. “You go down to Mayo Street and grab off a fat job with Vanderbilt Litch. He’s an undertaker and an insurance-man and a money-lender and a very smart egg, and the only spy and tattler in our Bronzeville, and maybe he’d pay big to have a high yalla who is kin to the local squirearchy working for him.”

“Oh — I— don’t — think — so,” said Neil.

To himself he vowed, “I won’t go down that far,” and then, considerably shocked, understood that Mayo Street and Negro businessmen still WERE far-down, to him, and that Hack Riley had been right in scolding that he was playing at being a Negro.

But he was not playing, even if he was slightly confused as to what he wanted to do, in the unceasing job-hunt.

He had tried the printing-plant of his neighbor, Tom Crenway, who brushed him off. At the Laverick Flour Mills, his old poker companion, Jay Laverick, offered him a drink and inquired whether there was any good love-making to be had on Mayo Street, but when Neil asked for work, Jay shouted, “You? A job here? Hell, no! Matter of principle not to hire you folks.”

Then he was employed by the Beaux Arts, but that was all chance.

He was about to walk past that stylish and expensive “women’s specialty shop”— dresses, perfume in gold and crystal flasks, costume jewelry, sweaters like the breath of a virtuous baby — when it occurred to him to go in and try his former golf partner, Harley Bozard, the proprietor, a plump, active, eyeglassed man who was proud of being recognized at the 21 Club in New York, and who knew something about pictures.

Neil had refused to take a salesman’s job from Levi Tarr, but he was still naive enough to suppose that it would be more soothing to sell Nylon stockings to the wives of large lumbermen, on the fawn-colored carpets of the Beaux Arts, than to gingham-clad housewives on the clattering bare floors of Tarr’s Emporium.

Grand Republic was small enough so that, except at factories like Wargate’s, the owner of a business did his own hiring instead of leaving it to a Ph.D. with aptitude tests instead of eyes. Harley Bozard welcomed Neil in his silk-paneled office, with greetings manly but strictly refined:

“How are you, how are you, old man? Haven’t seen you in a month of Sundays. What are you doing now?”

“That’s what I’d like to find out, Harley. You know I’m fairly good at figures —”

“Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait!”

Harley waved his china cigarette-holder in a magic circle and closed his eyes in holy dread, for he on honey dew had fed and been demoniacally possessed of an Idea. He looked like an advertising man, like an interior decorator. “Neil! I’ve never developed my sports department adequately; always been waiting for a big Idea–Man, and maybe you could be him! Put the department in charge of a great golfer, great tennis-player, great skier, great fisherman, with a record as a high-class war hero — oh, boy! ‘Captain Kingsblood brings you the breath of the great outdoors — his expert sports-advice at your service!’ It’s a natural! I see you as buyer and head, expanding the department to suit yourself, but I suppose you’d better start in learning the technique of selling, and during your apprenticeship I don’t know that I could pay you over forty a week — no, we’ll raise it to forty-five! But I don’t see why you shouldn’t be making two hundred a week before long, and maybe a partner! Neil, it’s a go!”

Neil said, yes, it was a go, and went out to telephone to Vestal, “I’ve got it — I’ve got a job!”

“Oh, darling, I am so pleased. You have had the hardest time and — What is the job?”

“Sort of reorganizing the sports department for Harley Bozard.”

“Oh.”

“Of course, just at first, I’ll have to start in as a sort of clerk —”

“Oh.”

It was the flattest sound he had ever heard. Not much more buoyant was her query, “What did he say about hiring — uh — colored help?”

“What? By golly, he never spoke of it, and I plumb forgot I WAS ‘colored help.’”

“And you aren’t, either! You’re the wonderful Captain K. and my only love, and I’m sorry I sounded unenthusiastic. I was a bit surprised, that was all. Harley is such a back-slapper and shoulder-blade tickler. But I’m sure it will be splendid.”

Neil was not at all sure of that, now. He remembered that he had never particularly liked Harley. The man had been to him only a mass of tweeds bending over an ill-conducted mashie. And Neil realized that he was not a great-enough soldier or explorer to be sought out by a congregation of worshipping virgins for inspired counsel about lunch-baskets.

— Not on the level? I should worry about that. I’m at work again. That’s important!

He went to work on Monday. In the newspaper on Sunday there had been a box in the Beaux Arts page-advertisement confiding that Mr. Harley Bozard had the honor of announcing that Captain Neil Kingsblood, the famous soldier and sportsman, had consented to associate himself with the distinguished Beaux Arts English Games & Sports Shop, and would be pleased to give all lovers of out-o’- doors the benefit of his experience in many lands.

On Sunday evening, Cope Anderson, the chemist, and the Reverend Lloyd Gadd, Congregational minister, telephoned to Neil that Harley Bozard and his chiefs of staff were buzzing about town, whispering, “Come in and get waited on by our Gentleman Negro and see the fun. Ask him any questions you want to.”

On his first morning at the Beaux Arts, Neil was not received in any office by any Harley, but at the damp, slaty employees’ entrance, by a greasy-haired misanthrope in an alpaca coat, who said bitterly, “You got to check in on time and punch the clock same as anybody else, Kingsblood. Report to the sports department and Miss Garr will show you how to make out a sales-slip and try to teach you, if you can learn it, how to be respectful to the customers. Now here’s your locker, and for God’s sake keep it locked. And stay strictly away from other folks’ lockers. And how the hell they ever let one of you dinges dress with decent people is beyond me, but don’t you for one minute think that if the management has gone haywire, we boys have!”

His look dared Neil to hit him.

Miss Garr, Neil’s instructor, was a thin and indignant lady, and she kept Neil waiting for ten minutes while she finished her conversation with three other salesladies. They peeped at Neil and giggled, and he heard the word “nigger.” When Miss Garr came to tutor him in the higher mathematics of sales-slips and the art of distinguishing a canoe-cushion from a tennis-ball, she kept shrinking back from his contaminating touch.

Negroes do learn silence.

If the sales-force did not welcome Neil’s starred expertness, that monster known as the Female Buying Public welcomed him with writhing and with humorous squeals. It seemed to him that every woman in Grand Republic, including a few that he knew, dashed in to peer at him and to say things that ostensibly had to do with sports but that actually signified, “Are you really a Negro and do you really have these superior sex-powers that I’ve heard about and is there anything I can do besides look skittish and be ready to yell for help?” Their panting bosoms, their fixed looks, their horrible little wriggling shoulders spoke a superstitious and obscene language.

They stared at his Negro hair (sorrel-red), at his Negro face (of winter-tanned morocco), his big Negro hands (terracotta and freckled-sown), his long Negro legs and his powerful Negro middle. And since a Negro is always thick-witted and enjoys being laughed at, they discussed his funny traits not too far from his hearing.

They asked him a menagerie of questions. Do you use a fly for salmon-fishing in Nova Scotia, and which fly? Could Joe Louis have beaten Jack Dempsey? Did he know anything about the tennis-rating of my cousin, William V. Getch of the South Milwaukee Country Club? Are Chinese checkers anything like Mahjong? How much did a chess set cost — oh, you know — just any chess set. How much would it cost per week for family of self, husband, two boys (aged 9 1/2 and 11), one daughter (6, going on 7), and father-inlaw who enjoys pitching horseshoes, at the Nippisag Fishing Camp on Lake Winnigigonabash next summer, and will the rates be higher than in 1939?

But the question that really passed through the guarded portal of his ears was that of a don’t-try-to-pull-that-on-ME matron of forty, who jeered at him in a voice like a cow-bell, “I suppose all you colored G.I.‘s were just crazy to get at them little French girls!”

And one old young woman, not of reasonable architecture, insisted on his showing sweaters to her, though they were not in his department, and leered at him as she smoothed an astragal which he now suspected to be partly constructed of handkerchiefs. Still he did not vomit.

When he had been a white banker, a person to be careful with, he had never encountered women who reeked like these. He warned himself that they were not normal; they were only the sort who skittered to see the dark house of a murder. But he was not hopeful about his future as a freak attraction.

A good many of them pressed too close to him, and a good many more flinched away when he merely held out a croquet mallet. Whatever their physical currents, they agreed in never calling him Mister. He was Captain, he was Uh, he was, in Chinese fashion, Say Look.

As dismaying as the women were their infrequent husbands, who could distinctly be heard protesting, “No, I don’t want to talk to the bastard,” and worse than these was dear old friend Harley Bozard, hovering, mentally hand-rubbing. And more disheartening than Harley were the ex-privates with their girls, rejoicing in the abasement of a former officer and gloating, “Say, Cap, you know anything about fitting the girl-friend here with a pair of ski-pants? I want you to be doggone careful about the fit around her fanny, get me?”

At various painful times he saw Violet Crenway, Rose Pennloss and Diantha Marl, curving round the crowd to avoid his department and holding up their spiritual skirts as they sniffed past. And when he was looking after Diantha, he saw Major Rodney Aldwick, standing by one of the big white pillars, erect, arms folded, watching him, not sneering but just amused. Neil knew then the knee-loosening inferiority that comes to the virtuous slave and turns him to raging murder.

But his rage faded into gray. Sell sweaters and fishing-lines all his life? He was not angry but only washed-out when, at home, Vestal met him with a frigid “Well?”

The sensation-licking crowd did not continue all week. After two days, Neil had to spend a good deal of his time leaning against a counter, which was sharp against his legs.

Saturday morning, Harley Bozard came to fuss, “Can’t you do a little better selling your customers? I notice a lot of ’em came in, thanks to the generous way in which we supported you by our advertising, but your sales-report is most unsatisfactory. You got to think less about how handsome you are, Kingsblood, and more about getting the sales-message over to the public.”

Neil went home to a Vestal who was not fretful now, but savage.

“I hear you’re thoroughly enjoying chumming up to a lot of loud-mouthed young women at the store, laughing with them and humiliating me by talking to them about me!” she observed.

“Now who —”

“Somebody we both know perfectly well told me. I won’t tell you who. She was sorry for me. She saw you in the store, all right.”

“But YOU didn’t come to see how I was getting along.”

“I most certainly did not!”

“It didn’t occur to you that it may not be easy for me to learn how —”

“Oh, for Heaven’s sake, don’t go getting high-minded on me about the social injustices of sock-selling, too!”

He walked out, with no words. He did not come home for dinner. He headed for the arms of Sophie Concord.

He walked through the cold to Mayo Street, and a good deal of his exile’s fury against Vestal was softened.

— It’s been hard on her. She really cares for what she calls “social position.” As I guess I did, once. Maybe it would be better for her if she quit me and took Biddy and went back to her father. He’d retire, and move to California with her, maybe, and nobody would know. Why should she and Biddy have to take up my fight? It might be better so, before Vestal gets any more irritated, says anything worse. Dear Vestal, I did love you a lot!

Sophie’s tenement-house was like a cheerful little hotel, with whole Negro families camped out in one room and making merry over a pot of gumbo. In a hall-room, preaching aloud to an audience of himself, was Elder Mies, a black and meaty freelance prophet who was at once a cobbler and the proprietor of The Inspiration Temple of the Divine Assembly of High Holiness, which did not happen to have any meeting-place just now. Along the hall, as Neil came in at six, airy gamblers of the eventide, who by day were porters and grain-loaders, were displaying their fawn overcoats and green hats with feathers.

When Sophie sang out “Come in” to his knock, he lumbered into her one lone housekeeping-room. He had been there before, but only for uneasy moments at parting.

The room was square, on a corner, a mixture of poverty and reminiscent luxury. The studio couch was a rickety cot covered with a scarlet-dyed deerskin, edged with worn and somewhat ratty shreds of leopard, taken from a defunct theatrical costume. A two-burner kerosene stove, a nurse’s cap, a miniature city of cosmetic bottles, and the major writings of John Dewey were on a long table. On the wall were a Vermont valley painted by Lucioni, a quite outrageous abstractionism, the photograph of a Negro girl, naked and shameless and shining, and a huge calendar presenting the portrait of a kitten in a basket, with the days of the month marked with a nurse’s notations. In the midst of this litter of a woman too busy for housewifery, too interested in everything alive to arrange her surroundings so that they would set off her own loveliness, Sophie sat buffing her nails, at a dressing-table made out of a golden-oak filing-cabinet.

She rose to look at Neil, serene, unafraid, as tall as Vestal, a loose robe of gold-shot purple open on her autumnal brown bosom. She glanced at him more sharply as she saw how he swayed; she murmured, “Ah, poor baby!” and held out her arms, and he rested his cheek on the smoothness of her breast.

As they sat trustingly on the couch, arms about each other, she spoke tenderly: “Sweet, it’s been hell, at that goldfish shop, hasn’t it! I stayed away, for fear I’d make it worse for you. But you’re as far down now as you’ll ever go. It’s the first time you’ve had to face the evil-eyes. They won’t be able to hurt you again. Oh, I could love you, now. But — you said it yourself. There isn’t enough jungle left in me.

“I’ve sold all that, to be a missionary. But so have you. So kiss me and go home. Oh, I do get so tired of being so blasted virtuous and hard-working. So tired!”

It had not occurred to this quite typical male that Sophie could also be discouraged. With a certain surprise, he put her head on his shoulder instead of collapsing on hers, and petted her, “You’re all in.”

She changed from divine mother to child. She whimpered, “Why wouldn’t I be? . . . Why do you love that woman so much?”

“Oh, well, for one thing, she’s so beautiful — you said it yourself — like a race horse.”

“She hasn’t got legs like that!” Sophie spoke demurely, and stretched out one bronze, bright, stockingless leg like a ballet-dancer, curling her toes.

“She does all right!”

“Seriously, why?”

“The word I think of for Vestal is ‘gallant.’ She’s square; she tried to give everybody a square deal.”

“Including herself!”

“Why not?”

“Listen, my sturdy little man, I’m not complaining because you cherish Vestal. If she’s going to take you away from me, as she apparently goes right on doing, I WANT her to be good. I don’t want to be frozen out by an absolute marmoset.” Sophie nestled against his shoulder. “All right, all right. She’s the wonder of the ages. The only trouble with her is, she went to school instead of getting educated. She’s never delivered a baby in a taxicab, or had to chase a cafe-owner out of her room without losing the cafe job. Maybe she’ll be all right for you and —”

Sophie paused; her voice then was, at first, almost timid.

“Neil, I’d really like to know her, some day. I don’t suppose that’ll be possible, but bless her and bless you, and you stick to her . . . you congenital white banker! . . . YOU YALE MAN!”

“Why, I didn’t go to Yale.”

“OH GOD!”

“But Sophie, suppose she won’t stay with me?”

“Then make her stay, damn it! Don’t come to old Aunty Concord for advice to the love-lorn! There’s too much of that highly inflammable girl Sophie around this place. Go on back to your Pilgrim mother, Vestal, and may you be elected to the Sons of the American Revolution, you schlemiehl!”

He kissed her with quietness and propriety. As he walked home he most ungratefully did not think of Sophie or Vestal or any other woman, but of a good, clean, dirty fight with men like Harley Bozard and Wilbur Feathering and Major Rodney Aldwick, D.S.C.

When he came in, Vestal said gravely, “I think I behaved very badly to you, and I’m sorry — I think I am. But I don’t like the way things are going. There has to be some change.”

The newly grown-up Neil answered her with an unemphasized kiss and no chatter. He had to be about his business of swords and trumpets.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lewis/sinclair/kingsblood/chapter45.html

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