Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 38

SHE had lived in Washington for a year. She was tired of the office. It was tolerable, far more tolerable than housework, but it was not adventurous.

She was having tea and cinnamon toast, alone at a small round table on the balcony of Rauscher’s Confiserie. Four debutantes clattered in. She had felt young and dissipated, had thought rather well of her black and leaf-green suit, but as she watched them, thin of ankle, soft under the chin, seventeen or eighteen at most, smoking cigarettes with the correct ennui and talking of “bedroom farces” and their desire to “run up to New York and see something racy,” she became old and rustic and plain, and desirous of retreating from these hard brilliant children to a life easier and more sympathetic. When they flickered out and one child gave orders to a chauffeur, Carol was not a defiant philosopher but a faded government clerk from Gopher Prairie, Minnesota

She started dejectedly up Connecticut Avenue. She stopped, her heart stopped. Coming toward her were Harry and Juanita Haydock. She ran to them, she kissed Juanita, while Harry confided, “Hadn’t expected to come to Washington — had to go to New York for some buying — didn’t have your address along — just got in this morning — wondered how in the world we could get hold of you.”

She was definitely sorry to hear that they were to leave at nine that evening, and she clung to them as long as she could. She took them to St. Mark’s for dinner. Stooped, her elbows on the table, she heard with excitement that “Cy Bogart had the ‘flu, but of course he was too gol-darn mean to die of it.”

“Will wrote me that Mr. Blausser has gone away. How did he get on?”

“Fine! Fine! Great loss to the town. There was a real public-spirited fellow, all right!”

She discovered that she now had no opinions whatever about Mr. Blausser, and she said sympathetically, “Will you keep up the town-boosting campaign?”

Harry fumbled, “Well, we’ve dropped it just temporarily, but — sure you bet! Say, did the doc write you about the luck B. J. Gougerling had hunting ducks down in Texas?”

When the news had been told and their enthusiasm had slackened she looked about and was proud to be able to point out a senator, to explain the cleverness of the canopied garden. She fancied that a man with dinner-coat and waxed mustache glanced superciliously at Harry’s highly form-fitting bright- brown suit and Juanita’s tan silk frock, which was doubtful at the seams. She glared back, defending her own, daring the world not to appreciate them.

Then, waving to them, she lost them down the long train shed. She stood reading the list of stations: Harrisburg, Pittsburg, Chicago. Beyond Chicago ——? She saw the lakes and stubble fields, heard the rhythm of insects and the creak of a buggy, was greeted by Sam Clark’s “Well, well, how’s the little lady?”

Nobody in Washington cared enough for her to fret about her sins as Sam did.

But that night they had at the flat a man just back from Finland.

II

She was on the Powhatan roof with the captain. At a table, somewhat vociferously buying improbable “soft drinks” for two fluffy girls, was a man with a large familiar back.

“Oh! I think I know him,” she murmured.

“Who? There? Oh, Bresnahan, Percy Bresnahan.”

“Yes. You’ve met him? What sort of a man is he?”

“He’s a good-hearted idiot. I rather like him, and I believe that as a salesman of motors he’s a wonder. But he’s a nuisance in the aeronautic section. Tries so hard to be useful but he doesn’t know anything — he doesn’t know anything. Rather pathetic: rich man poking around and trying to be useful. Do you want to speak to him?”

“No — no — I don’t think so.”

III

She was at a motion-picture show. The film was a highly advertised and abysmal thing smacking of simpering hair- dressers, cheap perfume, red-plush suites on the back streets of tenderloins, and complacent fat women chewing gum. It pretended to deal with the life of studios. The leading man did a portrait which was a masterpiece. He also saw visions in pipe-smoke, and was very brave and poor and pure. He had ringlets, and his masterpiece was strangely like an enlarged photograph.

Carol prepared to leave.

On the screen, in the role of a composer, appeared an actor called Eric Valour.

She was startled, incredulous, then wretched. Looking straight out at her, wearing a beret and a velvet jacket, was Erik Valborg.

He had a pale part, which he played neither well nor badly. She speculated, “I could have made so much of him ——” She did not finish her speculation.

She went home and read Kennicott’s letters. They had seemed stiff and undetailed, but now there strode from them a personality, a personality unlike that of the languishing young man in the velvet jacket playing a dummy piano in a canvas room.

IV

Kennicott first came to see her in November, thirteen months after her arrival in Washington. When he announced that he was coming she was not at all sure that she wished to see him. She was glad that he had made the decision himself.

She had leave from the office for two days.

She watched him marching from the train, solid, assured, carrying his heavy suit-case, and she was diffident — he was such a bulky person to handle. They kissed each other questioningly, and said at the same time, “You’re looking fine; how’s the baby?” and “You’re looking awfully well, dear; how is everything?”

He grumbled, “I don’t want to butt in on any plans you’ve made or your friends or anything, but if you’ve got time for it, I’d like to chase around Washington, and take in some restaurants and shows and stuff, and forget work for a while.”

She realized, in the taxicab, that he was wearing a soft gray suit, a soft easy hat, a flippant tie.

“Like the new outfit? Got ’em in Chicago. Gosh, I hope they’re the kind you like.”

They spent half an hour at the flat, with Hugh. She was flustered, but he gave no sign of kissing her again.

As he moved about the small rooms she realized that he had had his new tan shoes polished to a brassy luster. There was a recent cut on his chin. He must have shaved on the train just before coming into Washington.

It was pleasant to feel how important she was, how many people she recognized, as she took him to the Capitol, as she told him (he asked and she obligingly guessed) how many feet it was to the top of the dome, as she pointed out Senator LaFollette and the vice-president, and at lunch-time showed herself an habitue by leading him through the catacombs to the senate restaurant.

She realized that he was slightly more bald. The familiar way in which his hair was parted on the left side agitated her. She looked down at his hands, and the fact that his nails were as ill-treated as ever touched her more than his pleading shoe-shine.

“You’d like to motor down to Mount Vernon this afternoon, wouldn’t you?” she said.

It was the one thing he had planned. He was delighted that it seemed to be a perfectly well bred and Washingtonian thing to do.

He shyly held her hand on the way, and told her the news: they were excavating the basement for the new schoolbuilding, Vida “made him tired the way she always looked at the Maje,” poor Chet Dashaway had been killed in a motor accident out on the Coast. He did not coax her to like him. At Mount Vernon he admired the paneled library and Washington’s dental tools.

She knew that he would want oysters, that he would have heard of Harvey’s apropos of Grant and Blaine, and she took him there. At dinner his hearty voice, his holiday enjoyment of everything, turned into nervousness in his desire to know a number of interesting matters, such as whether they still were married. But be did not ask questions, and be said nothing about her returning. He cleared his throat and observed, “Oh say, been trying out the old camera. Don’t you think these are pretty good?”

He tossed over to her thirty prints of Gopher Prairie and the country about. Without defense, she was thrown into it. She remembered that he had lured her with photographs in courtship days; she made a note of his sameness, his satisfaction with the tactics which had proved good before; but she forgot it in the familiar places. She was seeing the sun- speckled ferns among birches on the shore of Minniemashie, wind-rippled miles of wheat, the porch of their own house where Hugh had played, Main Street where she knew every window and every face.

She handed them back, with praise for his photography, and he talked of lenses and time-exposures.

Dinner was over and they were gossiping of her friends at the flat, but an intruder was with them, sitting back, persistent, inescapable. She could not endure it. She stammered:

“I had you check your bag at the station because I wasn’t quite sure where you’d stay. I’m dreadfully sorry we haven’t room to put you up at the flat. We ought to have seen about a room for you before. Don’t you think you better call up the Willard or the Washington now?”

He peered at her cloudily. Without words he asked, without speech she answered, whether she was also going to the Willard or the Washington. But she tried to look as though she did not know that they were debating anything of the sort. She would have hated him had he been meek about it. But he was neither meek nor angry. However impatient he may have been with her blandness he said readily:

“Yes, guess I better do that. Excuse me a second. Then how about grabbing a taxi (Gosh, isn’t it the limit the way these taxi shuffers skin around a corner? Got more nerve driving than I have!) and going up to your flat for a while? Like to meet your friends — must be fine women — and I might take a look and see how Hugh sleeps. Like to know how he breathes. Don’t think he has adenoids, but I better make sure, eh?” He patted her shoulder.

At the flat they found her two housemates and a girl who had been to jail for suffrage. Kennicott fitted in surprisingly. He laughed at the girl’s story of the humors of a hunger- strike; he told the secretary what to do when her eyes were tired from typing; and the teacher asked him — not as the husband of a friend but as a physician — whether there was “anything to this inoculation for colds.”

His colloquialisms seemed to Carol no more lax than their habitual slang.

Like an older brother he kissed her good-night in the midst of the company.

“He’s terribly nice,” said her housemates, and waited for confidences. They got none, nor did her own heart. She could find nothing definite to agonize about. She felt that she was no longer analyzing and controlling forces, but swept on by them.

He came to the flat for breakfast, and washed the dishes. That was her only occasion for spite. Back home he never thought of washing dishes!

She took him to the obvious “sights”— the Treasury, the Monument, the Corcoran Gallery, the Pan–American Building, the Lincoln Memorial, with the Potomac beyond it and the Arlington hills and the columns of the Lee Mansion. For all his willingness to play there was over him a melancholy which piqued her. His normally expressionless eyes had depths to them now, and strangeness. As they walked through Lafayette Square, looking past the Jackson statue at the lovely tranquil facade of the White House, he sighed, “I wish I’d had a shot at places like this. When I was in the U., I had to earn part of my way, and when I wasn’t doing that or studying, I guess I was roughhousing. My gang were a great bunch for bumming around and raising Cain. Maybe if I’d been caught early and sent to concerts and all that —— Would I have been what you call intelligent?”

“Oh, my dear, don’t be humble! You are intelligent! For instance, you’re the most thorough doctor ——”

He was edging about something he wished to say. He pounced on it:

“You did like those pictures of G. P. pretty well, after all, didn’t you!”

“Yes, of course.”

“Wouldn’t be so bad to have a glimpse of the old town, would it!”

“No, it wouldn’t. Just as I was terribly glad to see the Haydocks. But please understand me! That doesn’t mean that I withdraw all my criticisms. The fact that I might like a glimpse of old friends hasn’t any particular relation to the question of whether Gopher Prairie oughtn’t to have festivals and lamb chops.”

Hastily, “No, no! Sure not. I und’stand.”

“But I know it must have been pretty tiresome to have to live with anybody as perfect as I was.”

He grinned. She liked his grin.

V

He was thrilled by old negro coachmen, admirals, aeroplanes, the building to which his income tax would eventually go, a Rolls–Royce, Lynnhaven oysters, the Supreme Court Room, a New York theatrical manager down for the try-out of a play, the house where Lincoln died, the cloaks of Italian officers, the barrows at which clerks buy their box-lunches at noon, the barges on the Chesapeake Canal, and the fact that District of Columbia cars had both District and Maryland licenses.

She resolutely took him to her favorite white and green cottages and Georgian houses. He admitted that fanlights, and white shutters against rosy brick, were more homelike than a painty wooden box. He volunteered, “I see how you mean. They make me think of these pictures of an old-fashioned Christmas. Oh, if you keep at it long enough you’ll have Sam and me reading poetry and everything. Oh say, d’ I tell you about this fierce green Jack Elder’s had his machine painted?”

VI

They were at dinner.

He hinted, “Before you showed me those places today, I’d already made up my mind that when I built the new house we used to talk about, I’d fix it the way you wanted it. I’m pretty practical about foundations and radiation and stuff like that, but I guess I don’t know a whole lot about architecture.”

“My dear, it occurs to me with a sudden shock that I don’t either!”

“Well — anyway — you let me plan the garage and the plumbing, and you do the rest, if you ever — I mean — if you ever want to.”

Doubtfully, “That’s sweet of you.”

“Look here, Carrie; you think I’m going to ask you to love me. I’m not. And I’m not going to ask you to come back to Gopher Prairie!”

She gaped.

“It’s been a whale of a fight. But I guess I’ve got myself to see that you won’t ever stand G. P. unless you WANT to come back to it. I needn’t say I’m crazy to have you. But I won’t ask you. I just want you to know how I wait for you. Every mail I look for a letter, and when I get one I’m kind of scared to open it, I’m hoping so much that you’re coming back. Evenings —— You know I didn’t open the cottage down at the lake at all, this past summer. Simply couldn’t stand all the others laughing and swimming, and you not there. I used to sit on the porch, in town, and I— I couldn’t get over the feeling that you’d simply run up to the drug store and would be right back, and till after it got dark I’d catch myself watching, looking up the street, and you never came, and the house was so empty and still that I didn’t like to go in. And sometimes I fell asleep there, in my chair, and didn’t wake up till after midnight, and the house —— Oh, the devil! Please get me, Carrie. I just want you to know how welcome you’ll be if you ever do come. But I’m not asking you to.”

“You’re —— It’s awfully ——”

“‘Nother thing. I’m going to be frank. I haven’t always been absolutely, uh, absolutely, proper. I’ve always loved you more than anything else in the world, you and the kid. But sometimes when you were chilly to me I’d get lonely and sore, and pike out and —— Never intended ——”

She rescued him with a pitying, “It’s all right. Let’s forget it.”

“But before we were married you said if your husband ever did anything wrong, you’d want him to tell you.”

“Did I? I can’t remember. And I can’t seem to think. Oh, my dear, I do know how generously you’re trying to make me happy. The only thing is —— I can’t think. I don’t know what I think.”

“Then listen! Don’t think! Here’s what I want you to do! Get a two-weeks leave from your office. Weather’s beginning to get chilly here. Let’s run down to Charleston and Savannah and maybe Florida.

“A second honeymoon?” indecisively.

“No. Don’t even call it that. Call it a second wooing. I won’t ask anything. I just want the chance to chase around with you. I guess I never appreciated how lucky I was to have a girl with imagination and lively feet to play with. So —— Could you maybe run away and see the South with me? If you wanted to, you could just — you could just pretend you were my sister and —— I’ll get an extra nurse for Hugh! I’ll get the best dog-gone nurse in Washington!”

VII

It was in the Villa Margherita, by the palms of the Charleston Battery and the metallic harbor, that her aloofness melted.

When they sat on the upper balcony, enchanted by the moon glitter, she cried, “Shall I go back to Gopher Prairie with you? Decide for me. I’m tired of deciding and undeciding.”

“No. You’ve got to do your own deciding. As a matter of fact, in spite of this honeymoon, I don’t think I want you to come home. Not yet.”

She could only stare.

“I want you to be satisfied when you get there. I’ll do everything I can to keep you happy, but I’ll make lots of breaks, so I want you to take time and think it over.”

She was relieved. She still had a chance to seize splendid indefinite freedoms. She might go — oh, she’d see Europe, somehow, before she was recaptured. But she also had a firmer respect for Kennicott. She had fancied that her life might make a story. She knew that there was nothing heroic or obviously dramatic in it, no magic of rare hours, nor valiant challenge, but it seemed to her that she was of some significance because she was commonplaceness, the ordinary life of the age, made articulate and protesting. It had not occurred to her that there was also a story of Will Kennicott, into which she entered only so much as he entered into hers; that he had bewilderments and concealments as intricate as her own, and soft treacherous desires for sympathy.

Thus she brooded, looking at the amazing sea, holding his hand.

VIII

She was in Washington; Kennicott was in Gopher Prairie, writing as dryly as ever about water-pipes and goose-hunting and Mrs. Fageros’s mastoid.

She was talking at dinner to a generalissima of suffrage. Should she return?

The leader spoke wearily:

“My dear, I’m perfectly selfish. I can’t quite visualize the needs of your husband, and it seems to me that your baby will do quite as well in the schools here as in your barracks at home.”

“Then you think I’d better not go back?” Carol sounded disappointed.

“It’s more difficult than that. When I say that I’m selfish I mean that the only thing I consider about women is whether they’re likely to prove useful in building up real political power for women. And you? Shall I be frank? Remember when I say ‘you’ I don’t mean you alone. I’m thinking of thousands of women who come to Washington and New York and Chicago every year, dissatisfied at home and seeking a sign in the heavens — women of all sorts, from timid mothers of fifty in cotton gloves, to girls just out of Vassar who organize strikes in their own fathers’ factories! All of you are more or less useful to me, but only a few of you can take my place, because I have one virtue (only one): I have given up father and mother and children for the love of God.

“Here’s the test for you: Do you come to ‘conquer the East,’ as people say, or do you come to conquer yourself?

“It’s so much more complicated than any of you know — so much more complicated than I knew when I put on Ground Grippers and started out to reform the world. The final complication in ‘conquering Washington’ or ‘conquering New York’ is that the conquerors must beyond all things not conquer! It must have been so easy in the good old days when authors dreamed only of selling a hundred thousand volumes, and sculptors of being feted in big houses, and even the Uplifters like me had a simple-hearted ambition to be elected to important offices and invited to go round lecturing. But we meddlers have upset everything. Now the one thing that is disgraceful to any of us is obvious success. The Uplifter who is very popular with wealthy patrons can be pretty sure that he has softened his philosophy to please them, and the author who is making lots of money — poor things, I’ve heard ’em apologizing for it to the shabby bitter-enders; I’ve seen ’em ashamed of the sleek luggage they got from movie rights.

“Do you want to sacrifice yourself in such a topsy-turvy world, where popularity makes you unpopular with the people you love, and the only failure is cheap success, and the only individualist is the person who gives up all his individualism to serve a jolly ungrateful proletariat which thumbs its nose at him?”

Carol smiled ingratiatingly, to indicate that she was indeed one who desired to sacrifice, but she sighed, “I don’t know; I’m afraid I’m not heroic. I certainly wasn’t out home. Why didn’t I do big effective ——”

“Not a matter of heroism. Matter of endurance. Your Middlewest is double-Puritan — prairie Puritan on top of New England Puritan; bluff frontiersman on the surface, but in its heart it still has the ideal of Plymouth Rock in a sleet-storm. There’s one attack you can make on it, perhaps the only kind that accomplishes much anywhere: you can keep on looking at one thing after another in your home and church and bank, and ask why it is, and who first laid down the law that it had to be that way. If enough of us do this impolitely enough, then we’ll become civilized in merely twenty thousand years or so, instead of having to wait the two hundred thousand years that my cynical anthropologist friends allow. . . . Easy, pleasant, lucrative home-work for wives: asking people to define their jobs. That’s the most dangerous doctrine I know!”

Carol was mediating, “I will go back! I will go on asking questions. I’ve always done it, and always failed at it, and it’s all I can do. I’m going to ask Ezra Stowbody why he’s opposed to the nationalization of railroads, and ask Dave Dyer why a druggist always is pleased when he’s called ‘doctor,’ and maybe ask Mrs. Bogart why she wears a widow’s veil that looks like a dead crow.”

The woman leader straightened. “And you have one thing. You have a baby to hug. That’s my temptation. I dream of babies — of a baby — and I sneak around parks to see them playing. (The children in Dupont Circle are like a poppy- garden.) And the antis call me ‘unsexed’!”

Carol was thinking, in panic, “Oughtn’t Hugh to have country air? I won’t let him become a yokel. I can guide him away from street-corner loafing. . . . I think I can.”

On her way home: “Now that I’ve made a precedent, joined the union and gone out on one strike and learned personal solidarity, I won’t be so afraid. Will won’t always be resisting my running away. Some day I really will go to Europe with him. . .or without him.

“I’ve lived with people who are not afraid to go to jail. I could invite a Miles Bjornstam to dinner without being afraid of the Haydocks. . .I think I could.

“I’ll take back the sound of Yvette Guilbert’s songs and Elman’s violin. They’ll be only the lovelier against the thrumming of crickets in the stubble on an autumn day.

“I can laugh now and be serene. . .I think I can.”

Though she should return, she said, she would not be utterly defeated. She was glad of her rebellion. The prairie was no longer empty land in the sun-glare; it was the living tawny beast which she had fought and made beautiful by fighting; and in the village streets were shadows of her desires and the sound of her marching and the seeds of mystery and greatness.

IX

Her active hatred of Gopher Prairie had run out. She saw it now as a toiling new settlement. With sympathy she remembered Kennicott’s defense of its citizens as “a lot of pretty good folks, working hard and trying to bring up their families the best they can.” She recalled tenderly the young awkwardness of Main Street and the makeshifts of the little brown cottages; she pitied their shabbiness and isolation; had compassion for their assertion of culture, even as expressed in Thanatopsis papers, for their pretense of greatness, even as trumpeted in “boosting.” She saw Main Street in the dusty prairie sunset, a line of frontier shanties with solemn lonely people waiting for her, solemn and lonely as an old man who has outlived his friends. She remembered that Kennicott and Sam Clark had listened to her songs, and she wanted to run to them and sing.

“At last,” she rejoiced, “I’ve come to a fairer attitude toward the town. I can love it, now.”

She was, perhaps, rather proud of herself for having acquired so much tolerance.

She awoke at three in the morning, after a dream of being tortured by Ella Stowbody and the Widow Bogart.

“I’ve been making the town a myth. This is how people keep up the tradition of the perfect home-town, the happy boyhood, the brilliant college friends. We forget so. I’ve been forgetting that Main Street doesn’t think it’s in the least lonely and pitiful. It thinks it’s God’s Own Country. It isn’t waiting for me. It doesn’t care.”

But the next evening she again saw Gopher Prairie as her home, waiting for her in the sunset, rimmed round with splendor.

She did not return for five months more; five months crammed with greedy accumulation of sounds and colors to take back for the long still days.

She had spent nearly two years in Washington.

When she departed for Gopher Prairie, in June, her second baby was stirring within her.

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