Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 21

GRAY steel that seems unmoving because it spins so fast in the balanced fly-wheel, gray snow in an avenue of elms, gray dawn with the sun behind it — this was the gray of Vida Sherwin’s life at thirty-six.

She was small and active and sallow; her yellow hair was faded, and looked dry; her blue silk blouses and modest lace collars and high black shoes and sailor hats were as literal and uncharming as a schoolroom desk; but her eyes determined her appearance, revealed her as a personage and a force, indicated her faith in the goodness and purpose of everything. They were blue, and they were never still; they expressed amusement, pity, enthusiasm. If she had been seen in sleep, with the wrinkles beside her eyes stilled and the creased lids hiding the radiant irises, she would have lost her potency.

She was born in a hill-smothered Wisconsin village where her father was a prosy minister; she labored through a sanctimonious college; she taught for two years in an iron-range town of blurry-faced Tatars and Montenegrins, and wastes of ore, and when she came to Gopher Prairie, its trees and the shining spaciousness of the wheat prairie made her certain that she was in paradise.

She admitted to her fellow-teachers that the schoolbuilding was slightly damp, but she insisted that the rooms were “arranged so conveniently — and then that bust of President McKinley at the head of the stairs, it’s a lovely art-work, and isn’t it an inspiration to have the brave, honest, martyr president to think about!” She taught French, English, and history, and the Sophomore Latin class, which dealt in matters of a metaphysical nature called Indirect Discourse and the Ablative Absolute. Each year she was reconvinced that the pupils were beginning to learn more quickly. She spent four winters in building up the Debating Society, and when the debate really was lively one Friday afternoon, and the speakers of pieces did not forget their lines, she felt rewarded.

She lived an engrossed useful life, and seemed as cool and simple as an apple. But secretly she was creeping among fears, longing, and guilt. She knew what it was, but she dared not name it. She hated even the sound of the word “sex.” When she dreamed of being a woman of the harem, with great white warm limbs, she awoke to shudder, defenseless in the dusk of her room. She prayed to Jesus, always to the Son of God, offering him the terrible power of her adoration, addressing him as the eternal lover, growing passionate, exalted, large, as she contemplated his splendor. Thus she mounted to endurance and surcease.

By day, rattling about in many activities, she was able to ridicule her blazing nights of darkness. With spurious cheerfulness she announced everywhere, “I guess I’m a born spinster,” and “No one will ever marry a plain schoolma’am like me,” and “You men, great big noisy bothersome creatures, we women wouldn’t have you round the place, dirtying up nice clean rooms, if it wasn’t that you have to be petted and guided. We just ought to say ‘Scat!’ to all of you!”

But when a man held her close at a dance, even when “Professor” George Edwin Mott patted her hand paternally as they considered the naughtinesses of Cy Bogart, she quivered, and reflected how superior she was to have kept her virginity.

In the autumn of 1911, a year before Dr. Will Kennicott was married, Vida was his partner at a five-hundred tournament. She was thirty-four then; Kennicott about thirty-six. To her he was a superb, boyish, diverting creature; all the heroic qualities in a manly magnificent body. They had been helping the hostess to serve the Waldorf salad and coffee and gingerbread. They were in the kitchen, side by side on a bench, while the others ponderously supped in the room beyond.

Kennicott was masculine and experimental. He stroked Vida’s hand, he put his arm carelessly about her shoulder.

“Don’t!” she said sharply.

“You’re a cunning thing,” he offered, patting the back of her shoulder in an exploratory manner.

While she strained away, she longed to move nearer to him. He bent over, looked at her knowingly. She glanced down at his left hand as it touched her knee. She sprang up, started noisily and needlessly to wash the dishes. He helped her. He was too lazy to adventure further — and too used to women in his profession. She was grateful for the impersonality of his talk. It enabled her to gain control. She knew that she had skirted wild thoughts.

A month after, on a sleighing-party, under the buffalo robes in the bob-sled, he whispered, “You pretend to be a grown-up schoolteacher, but you’re nothing but a kiddie.” His arm was about her. She resisted.

“Don’t you like the poor lonely bachelor?” he yammered in a fatuous way.

“No, I don’t! You don’t care for me in the least. You’re just practising on me.”

“You’re so mean! I’m terribly fond of you.”

“I’m not of you. And I’m not going to let myself be fond of you, either.”

He persistently drew her toward him. She clutched his arm. Then she threw off the robe, climbed out of the sled, raced after it with Harry Haydock. At the dance which followed the sleigh-ride Kennicott was devoted to the watery prettiness of Maud Dyer, and Vida was noisily interested in getting up a Virginia Reel. Without seeming to watch Kennicott, she knew that he did not once look at her.

That was all of her first love-affair.

He gave no sign of remembering that he was “terribly fond.” She waited for him; she reveled in longing, and in a sense of guilt because she longed. She told herself that she did not want part of him; unless he gave her all his devotion she would never let him touch her; and when she found that she was probably lying, she burned with scorn. She fought it out in prayer. She knelt in a pink flannel nightgown, her thin hair down her back, her forehead as full of horror as a mask of tragedy, while she identified her love for the Son of God with her love for a mortal, and wondered if any other woman had ever been so sacrilegious. She wanted to be a nun and observe perpetual adoration. She bought a rosary, but she had been so bitterly reared as a Protestant that she could not bring herself to use it.

Yet none of her intimates in the school and in the boarding- house knew of her abyss of passion. They said she was “so optimistic.”

When she heard that Kennicott was to marry a girl, pretty, young, and imposingly from the Cities, Vida despaired. She congratulated Kennicott; carelessly ascertained from him the hour of marriage. At that hour, sitting in her room, Vida pictured the wedding in St. Paul. Full of an ecstasy which horrified her, she followed Kennicott and the girl who had stolen her place, followed them to the train, through the evening, the night.

She was relieved when she had worked out a belief that she wasn’t really shameful, that there was a mystical relation between herself and Carol, so that she was vicariously yet veritably with Kennicott, and had the right to be.

She saw Carol during the first five minutes in Gopher Prairie. She stared at the passing motor, at Kennicott and the girl beside him. In that fog world of transference of emotion Vida had no normal jealousy but a conviction that, since through Carol she had received Kennicott’s love, then Carol was a part of her, an astral self, a heightened and more beloved self. She was glad of the girl’s charm, of the smooth black hair, the airy head and young shoulders. But she was suddenly angry. Carol glanced at her for a quarter-second, but looked past her, at an old roadside barn. If she had made the great sacrifice, at least she expected gratitude and recognition, Vida raged, while her conscious schoolroom mind fussily begged her to control this insanity.

During her first call half of her wanted to welcome a fellow reader of books; the other half itched to find out whether Carol knew anything about Kennicott’s former interest in herself. She discovered that Carol was not aware that he had ever touched another woman’s hand. Carol was an amusing, naive, curiously learned child. While Vida was most actively describing the glories of the Thanatopsis, and complimenting this librarian on her training as a worker, she was fancying that this girl was the child born of herself and Kennicott; and out of that symbolizing she had a comfort she had not known for months.

When she came home, after supper with the Kennicotts and Guy Pollock, she had a sudden and rather pleasant backsliding from devotion. She bustled into her room, she slammed her hat on the bed, and chattered, “I don’t CARE! I’m a lot like her — except a few years older. I’m light and quick, too, and I can talk just as well as she can, and I’m sure —— Men are such fools. I’d be ten times as sweet to make love to as that dreamy baby. And I AM as good-looking!”

But as she sat on the bed and stared at her thin thighs, defiance oozed away. She mourned:

“No. I’m not. Dear God, how we fool ourselves! I pretend I’m ‘spiritual.’ I pretend my legs are graceful. They aren’t. They’re skinny. Old-maidish. I hate it! I hate that impertinent young woman! A selfish cat, taking his love for granted. . . . No, she’s adorable. . . . I don’t think she ought to be so friendly with Guy Pollock.”

For a year Vida loved Carol, longed to and did not pry into the details of her relations with Kennicotts enjoyed her spirit of play as expressed in childish tea-parties, and, with the mystic bond between them forgotten, was healthily vexed by Carol’s assumption that she was a sociological messiah come to save Gopher Prairie. This last facet of Vida’s thought was the one which, after a year, was most often turned to the light. In a testy way she brooded, “These people that want to change everything all of a sudden without doing any work, make me tired! Here I have to go and work for four years, picking out the pupils for debates, and drilling them, and nagging at them to get them to look up references, and begging them to choose their own subjects — four years, to get up a couple of good debates! And she comes rushing in, and expects in one year to change the whole town into a lollypop paradise with everybody stopping everything else to grow tulips and drink tea. And it’s a comfy homey old town, too!”

She had such an outburst after each of Carol’s campaigns — for better Thanatopsis programs, for Shavian plays, for more human schools — but she never betrayed herself, and always she was penitent.

Vida was, and always would be, a reformer, a liberal. She believed that details could excitingly be altered, but that things-in-general were comely and kind and immutable. Carol was, without understanding or accepting it, a revolutionist, a radical, and therefore possessed of “constructive ideas,” which only the destroyer can have, since the reformer believes that all the essential constructing has already been done. After years of intimacy it was this unexpressed opposition more than the fancied loss of Kennicott’s love which held Vida irritably fascinated.

But the birth of Hugh revived the transcendental emotion. She was indignant that Carol should not be utterly fulfilled in having borne Kennicott’s child. She admitted that Carol seemed to have affection and immaculate care for the baby, but she began to identify herself now with Kennicott, and in this phase to feel that she had endured quite too much from Carol’s instability.

She recalled certain other women who had come from the Outside and had not appreciated Gopher Prairie. She remembered the rector’s wife who had been chilly to callers and who was rumored throughout the town to have said, “Re-ah-ly I cawn’t endure this bucolic heartiness in the responses.” The woman was positively known to have worn handkerchiefs in her bodice as padding — oh, the town had simply roared at her. Of course the rector and she were got rid of in a few months.

Then there was the mysterious woman with the dyed hair and penciled eyebrows, who wore tight English dresses, like basques, who smelled of stale musk, who flirted with the men and got them to advance money for her expenses in a lawsuit, who laughed at Vida’s reading at a school-entertainment, and went off owing a hotel-bill and the three hundred dollars she had borrowed.

Vida insisted that she loved Carol, but with some satisfaction she compared her to these traducers of the town.

II

Vida had enjoyed Raymie Wutherspoon’s singing in the Episcopal choir; she had thoroughly reviewed the weather with him at Methodist sociables and in the Bon Ton. But she did not really know him till she moved to Mrs. Gurrey’s boarding- house. It was five years after her affair with Kennicott. She was thirty-nine, Raymie perhaps a year younger.

She said to him, and sincerely, “My! You can do anything, with your brains and tact and that heavenly voice. You were so good in ‘The Girl from Kankakee.’ You made me feel terribly stupid. If you’d gone on the stage, I believe you’d be just as good as anybody in Minneapolis. But still, I’m not sorry you stuck to business. It’s such a constructive career.”

“Do you really think so?” yearned Raymie, across the apple-sauce.

It was the first time that either of them had found a dependable intellectual companionship. They looked down on Willis Woodford the bank-clerk, and his anxious babycentric wife, the silent Lyman Casses, the slangy traveling man, and the rest of Mrs. Gurrey’s unenlightened guests. They sat opposite, and they sat late. They were exhilarated to find that they agreed in confession of faith:

“People like Sam Clark and Harry Haydock aren’t earnest about music and pictures and eloquent sermons and really refined movies, but then, on the other hand, people like Carol Kennicott put too much stress on all this art. Folks ought to appreciate lovely things, but just the same, they got to be practical and — they got to look at things in a practical way.”

Smiling, passing each other the pressed-glass pickle-dish, seeing Mrs. Gurrey’s linty supper-cloth irradiated by the light of intimacy, Vida and Raymie talked about Carol’s rose-colored turban, Carol’s sweetness, Carol’s new low shoes, Carol’s erroneous theory that there was no need of strict discipline in school, Carol’s amiability in the Bon Ton, Carol’s flow of wild ideas, which, honestly, just simply made you nervous trying to keep track of them;

About the lovely display of gents’ shirts in the Bon Ton window as dressed by Raymie, about Raymie’s offertory last Sunday, the fact that there weren’t any of these new solos as nice as “Jerusalem the Golden,” and the way Raymie stood up to Juanita Haydock when she came into the store and tried to run things and he as much as told her that she was so anxious to have folks think she was smart and bright that she said things she didn’t mean, and anyway, Raymie was running the shoe-department, and if Juanita, or Harry either, didn’t like the way he ran things, they could go get another man;

About Vida’s new jabot which made her look thirty-two (Vida’s estimate) or twenty-two (Raymie’s estimate), Vida’s plan to have the high-school Debating Society give a playlet, and the difficulty of keeping the younger boys well behaved on the playground when a big lubber like Cy Bogart acted up so;

About the picture post-card which Mrs. Dawson had sent to Mrs. Cass from Pasadena, showing roses growing right outdoors in February, the change in time on No. 4, the reckless way Dr. Gould always drove his auto, the reckless way almost all these people drove their autos, the fallacy of supposing that these socialists could carry on a government for as much as six months if they ever did have a chance to try out their theories, and the crazy way in which Carol jumped from subject to subject.

Vida had once beheld Raymie as a thin man with spectacles, mournful drawn-out face, and colorless stiff hair. Now she noted that his jaw was square, that his long hands moved quickly and were bleached in a refined manner, and that his trusting eyes indicated that he had “led a clean life.” She began to call him “Ray,” and to bounce in defense of his unselfishness and thoughtfulness every time Juanita Haydock or Rita Gould giggled about him at the Jolly Seventeen.

On a Sunday afternoon of late autumn they walked down to Lake Minniemashie. Ray said that he would like to see the ocean; it must be a grand sight; it must be much grander than a lake, even a great big lake. Vida had seen it, she stated modestly; she had seen it on a summer trip to Cape Cod.

“Have you been clear to Cape Cod? Massachusetts? I knew you’d traveled, but I never realized you’d been that far!”

Made taller and younger by his interest she poured out, “Oh my yes. It was a wonderful trip. So many points of interest through Massachusetts — historical. There’s Lexington where we turned back the redcoats, and Longfellow’s home at Cambridge, and Cape Cod — just everything — fishermen and whale- ships and sand-dunes and everything.”

She wished that she had a little cane to carry. He broke off a willow branch.

“My, you’re strong!” she said.

“No, not very. I wish there was a Y. M. C. A. here, so I could take up regular exercise. I used to think I could do pretty good acrobatics, if I had a chance.”

“I’m sure you could. You’re unusually lithe, for a large man.”

“Oh no, not so very. But I wish we had a Y. M. It would be dandy to have lectures and everything, and I’d like to take a class in improving the memory — I believe a fellow ought to go on educating himself and improving his mind even if he is in business, don’t you, Vida — I guess I’m kind of fresh to call you ‘Vida’!”

“I’ve been calling you ‘Ray’ for weeks!”

He wondered why she sounded tart.

He helped her down the bank to the edge of the lake but dropped her hand abruptly, and as they sat on a willow log and he brushed her sleeve, he delicately moved over and murmured, “Oh, excuse me — accident.”

She stared at the mud-browned chilly water, the floating gray reeds.

“You look so thoughtful,” he said.

She threw out her hands. “I am! Will you kindly tell me what’s the use of — anything! Oh, don’t mind me. I’m a moody old hen. Tell me about your plan for getting a partnership in the Bon Ton. I do think you’re right: Harry Haydock and that mean old Simons ought to give you one.”

He hymned the old unhappy wars in which he had been Achilles and the mellifluous Nestor, yet gone his righteous ways unheeded by the cruel kings. . . . “Why, if I’ve told ’em once, I’ve told ’em a dozen times to get in a side-line of light-weight pants for gents’ summer wear, and of course here they go and let a cheap kike like Rifkin beat them to it and grab the trade right off ’em, and then Harry said — you know how Harry is, maybe he don’t mean to be grouchy, but he’s such a sore-head ——”

He gave her a hand to rise. “If you don’t MIND. I think a fellow is awful if a lady goes on a walk with him and she can’t trust him and he tries to flirt with her and all.”

“I’m sure you’re highly trustworthy!” she snapped, and she sprang up without his aid. Then, smiling excessively, “Uh — don’t you think Carol sometimes fails to appreciate Dr. Will’s ability?”

III

Ray habitually asked her about his window-trimming, the display of the new shoes, the best music for the entertainment at the Eastern Star, and (though he was recognized as a professional authority on what the town called “gents’ furnishings”) about his own clothes. She persuaded him not to wear the small bow ties which made him look like an elongated Sunday School scholar. Once she burst out:

“Ray, I could shake you! Do you know you’re too apologetic? You always appreciate other people too much. You fuss over Carol Kennicott when she has some crazy theory that we all ought to turn anarchists or live on figs and nuts or something. And you listen when Harry Haydock tries to show off and talk about turnovers and credits and things you know lots better than he does. Look folks in the eye! Glare at ’em! Talk deep! You’re the smartest man in town, if you only knew it. You ARE!”

He could not believe it. He kept coming back to her for confirmation. He practised glaring and talking deep, but he circuitously hinted to Vida that when he had tried to look Harry Haydock in the eye, Harry had inquired, “What’s the matter with you, Raymie? Got a pain?” But afterward Harry had asked about Kantbeatum socks in a manner which, Ray felt, was somehow different from his former condescension.

They were sitting on the squat yellow satin settee in the boarding-house parlor. As Ray reannounced that he simply wouldn’t stand it many more years if Harry didn’t give him a partnership, his gesticulating hand touched Vida’s shoulders.

“Oh, excuse me!” he pleaded.

“It’s all right. Well, I think I must be running up to my room. Headache,” she said briefly.

IV

Ray and she had stopped in at Dyer’s for a hot chocolate on their way home from the movies, that March evening. Vida speculated, “Do you know that I may not be here next year?”

“What do you mean?”

With her fragile narrow nails she smoothed the glass slab which formed the top of the round table at which they sat. She peeped through the glass at the perfume-boxes of black and gold and citron in the hollow table. She looked about at shelves of red rubber water-bottles, pale yellow sponges, wash- rags with blue borders, hair-brushes of polished cherry backs. She shook her head like a nervous medium coming out of a trance, stared at him unhappily, demanded:

“Why should I stay here? And I must make up my mind. Now. Time to renew our teaching-contracts for next year. I think I’ll go teach in some other town. Everybody here is tired of me. I might as well go. Before folks come out and SAY they’re tired of me. I have to decide tonight. I might as well —— Oh, no matter. Come. Let’s skip. It’s late.”

She sprang up, ignoring his wail of “Vida! Wait! Sit down! Gosh! I’m flabbergasted! Gee! Vida!” She marched out. While he was paying his check she got ahead. He ran after her, blubbering, “Vida! Wait!” In the shade of the lilacs in front of the Gougerling house he came up with her, stayed her flight by a hand on her shoulder.

“Oh, don’t! Don’t! What does it matter?” she begged. She was sobbing, her soft wrinkly lids soaked with tears. “Who cares for my affection or help? I might as well drift on, forgotten. O Ray, please don’t hold me. Let me go. I’ll just decide not to renew my contract here, and — and drift — way off ——”

His hand was steady on her shoulder. She dropped her head, rubbed the back of his hand with her cheek.

They were married in June.

V

They took the Ole Jenson house. “It’s small,” said Vida, “but it’s got the dearest vegetable garden, and I love having time to get near to Nature for once.”

Though she became Vida Wutherspoon technically, and though she certainly had no ideals about the independence of keeping her name, she continued to be known as Vida Sherwin.

She had resigned from the school, but she kept up one class in English. She bustled about on every committee of the Thanatopsis; she was always popping into the rest-room to make Mrs. Nodelquist sweep the floor; she was appointed to the library-board to succeed Carol; she taught the Senior Girls’ Class in the Episcopal Sunday School, and tried to revive the King’s Daughters. She exploded into self-confidence and happiness; her draining thoughts were by marriage turned into energy. She became daily and visibly more plump, and though she chattered as eagerly, she was less obviously admiring of marital bliss, less sentimental about babies, sharper in demanding that the entire town share her reforms — the purchase of a park, the compulsory cleaning of back-yards.

She penned Harry Haydock at his desk in the Bon Ton; she interrupted his joking; she told him that it was Ray who had built up the shoe-department and men’s department; she demanded that he be made a partner. Before Harry could answer she threatened that Ray and she would start a rival shop. “I’ll clerk behind the counter myself, and a Certain Party is all ready to put up the money.”

She rather wondered who the Certain Party was.

Ray was made a one-sixth partner.

He became a glorified floor-walker, greeting the men with new poise, no longer coyly subservient to pretty women. When he was not affectionately coercing people into buying things they did not need, he stood at the back of the store, glowing, abstracted, feeling masculine as he recalled the tempestuous surprises of love revealed by Vida.

The only remnant of Vida’s identification of herself with Carol was a jealousy when she saw Kennicott and Ray together, and reflected that some people might suppose that Kennicott was his superior. She was sure that Carol thought so, and she wanted to shriek, “You needn’t try to gloat! I wouldn’t have your pokey old husband. He hasn’t one single bit of Ray’s spiritual nobility.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lewis/sinclair/main/chapter21.html

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