Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 39

SHE wondered all the way home what her sensations would be. She wondered about it so much that she had every sensation she had imagined. She was excited by each familiar porch, each hearty “Well, well!” and flattered to be, for a day, the most important news of the community. She bustled about, making calls. Juanita Haydock bubbled over their Washington encounter, and took Carol to her social bosom. This ancient opponent seemed likely to be her most intimate friend, for Vida Sherwin, though she was cordial, stood back and watched for imported heresies.

In the evening Carol went to the mill. The mystical Om- Om–Om of the dynamos in the electric-light plant behind the mill was louder in the darkness. Outside sat the night watchman, Champ Perry. He held up his stringy hands and squeaked, “We’ve all missed you terrible.”

Who in Washington would miss her?

Who in Washington could be depended upon like Guy Pollock? When she saw him on the street, smiling as always, he seemed an eternal thing, a part of her own self.

After a week she decided that she was neither glad nor sorry to be back. She entered each day with the matter-of-fact attitude with which she had gone to her office in Washington. It was her task; there would be mechanical details and meaningless talk; what of it?

The only problem which she had approached with emotion proved insignificant. She had, on the train, worked herself up to such devotion that she was willing to give up her own room, to try to share all of her life with Kennicott.

He mumbled, ten minutes after she had entered the house, “Say, I’ve kept your room for you like it was. I’ve kind of come round to your way of thinking. Don’t see why folks need to get on each other’s nerves just because they’re friendly. Darned if I haven’t got so I like a little privacy and mulling things over by myself.”

II

She had left a city which sat up nights to talk of universal transition; of European revolution, guild socialism, free verse. She had fancied that all the world was changing.

She found that it was not.

In Gopher Prairie the only ardent new topics were prohibition, the place in Minneapolis where you could get whisky at thirteen dollars a quart, recipes for home-made beer, the “high cost of living,” the presidential election, Clark’s new car, and not very novel foibles of Cy Bogart. Their problems were exactly what they had been two years ago, what they had been twenty years ago, and what they would be for twenty years to come. With the world a possible volcano, the husbandmen were plowing at the base of the mountain. A volcano does occasionally drop a river of lava on even the best of agriculturists, to their astonishment and considerable injury, but their cousins inherit the farms and a year or two later go back to the plowing.

She was unable to rhapsodize much over the seven new bungalows and the two garages which Kennicott had made to seem so important. Her intensest thought about them was, “Oh yes, they’re all right I suppose.” The change which she did heed was the erection of the schoolbuilding, with its cheerful brick walls, broad windows, gymnasium, classrooms for agriculture and cooking. It indicated Vida’s triumph, and it stirred her to activity — any activity. She went to Vida with a jaunty, “I think I shall work for you. And I’ll begin at the bottom.”

She did. She relieved the attendant at the rest-room for an hour a day. Her only innovation was painting the pine table a black and orange rather shocking to the Thanatopsis. She talked to the farmwives and soothed their babies and was happy.

Thinking of them she did not think of the ugliness of Main Street as she hurried along it to the chatter of the Jolly Seventeen.

She wore her eye-glasses on the street now. She was beginning to ask Kennicott and Juanita if she didn’t look young, much younger than thirty-three. The eye-glasses pinched her nose. She considered spectacles. They would make her seem older, and hopelessly settled. No! She would not wear spec- tacles yet. But she tried on a pair at Kennicott’s office. They really were much more comfortable.

III

Dr. Westlake, Sam Clark, Nat Hicks, and Del Snafflin were talking in Del’s barber shop.

“Well, I see Kennicott’s wife is taking a whirl at the rest- room, now,” said Dr. Westlake. He emphasized the “now.”

Del interrupted the shaving of Sam and, with his brush dripping lather, he observed jocularly:

“What’ll she be up to next? They say she used to claim this burg wasn’t swell enough for a city girl like her, and would we please tax ourselves about thirty-seven point nine and fix it all up pretty, with tidies on the hydrants and statoos on the lawns ——”

Sam irritably blew the lather from his lips, with milky small bubbles, and snorted, “Be a good thing for most of us roughnecks if we did have a smart woman to tell us how to fix up the town. Just as much to her kicking as there was to Jim Blausser’s gassing about factories. And you can bet Mrs. Kennicott is smart, even if she is skittish. Glad to see her back.”

Dr. Westlake hastened to play safe. “So was I! So was I! She’s got a nice way about her, and she knows a good deal about books, or fiction anyway. Of course she’s like all the rest of these women — not solidly founded — not scholarly — doesn’t know anything about political economy — falls for every new idea that some windjamming crank puts out. But she’s a nice woman. She’ll probably fix up the rest-room, and the rest-room is a fine thing, brings a lot of business to town. And now that Mrs. Kennicott’s been away, maybe she’s got over some of her fool ideas. Maybe she realizes that folks simply laugh at her when she tries to tell us how to run everything.”

“Sure. She’ll take a tumble to herself,” said Nat Hicks, sucking in his lips judicially. “As far as I’m concerned, I’ll say she’s as nice a looking skirt as there is in town. But yow!” His tone electrified them. “Guess she’ll miss that Swede Valborg that used to work for me! They was a pair! Talking poetry and moonshine! If they could of got away with it, they’d of been so darn lovey-dovey ——”

Sam Clark interrupted, “Rats, they never even thought about making love, Just talking books and all that junk. I tell you, Carrie Kennicott’s a smart woman, and these smart educated women all get funny ideas, but they get over ’em after they’ve had three or four kids. You’ll see her settled down one of these days, and teaching Sunday School and helping at sociables and behaving herself, and not trying to butt into business and politics. Sure!”

After only fifteen minutes of conference on her stockings, her son, her separate bedroom, her music, her ancient interest in Guy Pollock, her probable salary in Washington, and every remark which she was known to have made since her return, the supreme council decided that they would permit Carol Kennicott to live, and they passed on to a consideration of Nat Hicks’s New One about the traveling salesman and the old maid.

IV

For some reason which was totally mysterious to Carol, Maud Dyer seemed to resent her return. At the Jolly Seventeen Maud giggled nervously, “Well, I suppose you found war-work a good excuse to stay away and have a swell time. Juanita! Don’t you think we ought to make Carrie tell us about the officers she met in Washington?”

They rustled and stared. Carol looked at them. Their curiosity seemed natural and unimportant.

“Oh yes, yes indeed, have to do that some day,” she yawned.

She no longer took Aunt Bessie Smail seriously enough to struggle for independence. She saw that Aunt Bessie did not mean to intrude; that she wanted to do things for all the Kennicotts. Thus Carol hit upon the tragedy of old age, which is not that it is less vigorous than youth, but that it is not needed by youth; that its love and prosy sageness, so important a few years ago, so gladly offered now, are rejected with laughter. She divined that when Aunt Bessie came in with a jar of wild-grape jelly she was waiting in hope of being asked for the recipe. After that she could be irritated but she could not be depressed by Aunt Bessie’s simoom of questioning.

She wasn’t depressed even when she heard Mrs. Bogart observe, “Now we’ve got prohibition it seems to me that the next problem of the country ain’t so much abolishing cigarettes as it is to make folks observe the Sabbath and arrest these law-breakers that play baseball and go to the movies and all on the Lord’s Day.”

Only one thing bruised Carol’s vanity. Few people asked her about Washington. They who had most admiringly begged Percy Bresnahan for his opinions were least interested in her facts. She laughed at herself when she saw that she had expected to be at once a heretic and a returned hero; she was very reasonable and merry about it; and it hurt just as much as ever.

Her baby, born in August, was a girl. Carol could not decide whether she was to become a feminist leader or marry a scientist or both, but did settle on Vassar and a tricolette suit with a small black hat for her Freshman year.

VI

Hugh was loquacious at breakfast. He desired to give his impressions of owls and F Street.

“Don’t make so much noise. You talk too much,” growled Kennicott.

Carol flared. “Don’t speak to him that way! Why don’t you listen to him? He has some very interesting things to tell.”

“What’s the idea? Mean to say you expect me to spend all my time listening to his chatter?”

“Why not?”

“For one thing, he’s got to learn a little discipline. Time for him to start getting educated.”

“I’ve learned much more discipline, I’ve had much more education, from him than he has from me.”

“What’s this? Some new-fangled idea of raising kids you got in Washington?”

“Perhaps. Did you ever realize that children are people?”

“That’s all right. I’m not going to have him monopolizing the conversation.”

“No, of course. We have our rights, too. But I’m going to bring him up as a human being. He has just as many thoughts as we have, and I want him to develop them, not take Gopher Prairie’s version of them. That’s my biggest work now — keeping myself, keeping you, from ‘educating’ him.”

“Well, let’s not scrap about it. But I’m not going to have him spoiled.”

Kennicott had forgotten it in ten minutes; and she forgot it — this time.

VII

The Kennicotts and the Sam Clarks had driven north to a duck-pass between two lakes, on an autumn day of blue and copper.

Kennicott had given her a light twenty-gauge shotgun. She had a first lesson in shooting, in keeping her eyes open, not wincing, understanding that the bead at the end of the barrel really had something to do with pointing the gun. She was radiant; she almost believed Sam when he insisted that it was she who had shot the mallard at which they had fired together.

She sat on the bank of the reedy lake and found rest in Mrs. Clark’s drawling comments on nothing. The brown dusk was still. Behind them were dark marshes. The plowed acres smelled fresh. The lake was garnet and silver. The voices of the men, waiting for the last flight, were clear in the cool air.

“Mark left!” sang Kennicott, in a long-drawn call.

Three ducks were swooping down in a swift line. The guns banged, and a duck fluttered. The men pushed their light boat out on the burnished lake, disappeared beyond the reeds. Their cheerful voices and the slow splash and clank of oars came back to Carol from the dimness. In the sky a fiery plain sloped down to a serene harbor. It dissolved; the lake was white marble; and Kennicott was crying, “Well, old lady, how about hiking out for home? Supper taste pretty good, eh?”

“I’ll sit back with Ethel,” she said, at the car.

It was the first time she had called Mrs. Clark by her given name; the first time she had willingly sat back, a woman of Main Street.

“I’m hungry. It’s good to be hungry,” she reflected, as they drove away.

She looked across the silent fields to the west. She was conscious of an unbroken sweep of land to the Rockies, to Alaska, a dominion which will rise to unexampled greatness when other empires have grown senile. Before that time, she knew, a hundred generations of Carols will aspire and go down in tragedy devoid of palls and solemn chanting, the humdrum inevitable tragedy of struggle against inertia.

“Let’s all go to the movies tomorrow night. Awfully exciting film,” said Ethel Clark.

“Well, I was going to read a new book but —— All right, let’s go,” said Carol.

VIII

“They’re too much for me,” Carol sighed to Kennicott. “I’ve been thinking about getting up an annual Community Day, when the whole town would forget feuds and go out and have sports and a picnic and a dance. But Bert Tybee (why did you ever elect him mayor?)— he’s kidnapped my idea. He wants the Community Day, but he wants to have some politician ‘give an address.’ That’s just the stilted sort of thing I’ve tried to avoid. He asked Vida, and of course she agreed with him.”

Kennicott considered the matter while he wound the clock and they tramped up-stairs.

“Yes, it would jar you to have Bert butting in,” he said amiably. “Are you going to do much fussing over this Community stunt? Don’t you ever get tired of fretting and stewing and experimenting?”

“I haven’t even started. Look!” She led him to the nursery door, pointed at the fuzzy brown head of her daughter. “Do you see that object on the pillow? Do you know what it is? It’s a bomb to blow up smugness. If you Tories were wise, you wouldn’t arrest anarchists; you’d arrest all these children while they’re asleep in their cribs. Think what that baby will see and meddle with before she dies in the year 2000! She may see an industrial union of the whole world, she may see aeroplanes going to Mars.”

“Yump, probably be changes all right,” yawned Kennicott.

She sat on the edge of his bed while he hunted through his bureau for a collar which ought to be there and persistently wasn’t.

“I’ll go on, always. And I am happy. But this Community Day makes me see how thoroughly I’m beaten.”

“That darn collar certainly is gone for keeps,” muttered Kennicott and, louder, “Yes, I guess you I didn’t quite catch what you said, dear.”

She patted his pillows, turned down his sheets, as she reflected:

“But I have won in this: I’ve never excused my failures by sneering at my aspirations, by pretending to have gone beyond them. I do not admit that Main Street is as beautiful as it should be! I do not admit that Gopher Prairie is greater or more generous than Europe! I do not admit that dish-washing is enough to satisfy all women! I may not have fought the good fight, but I have kept the faith.”

“Sure. You bet you have,” said Kennicott. “Well, good night. Sort of feels to me like it might snow tomorrow. Have to be thinking about putting up the storm-windows pretty soon. Say, did you notice whether the girl put that screwdriver back?”

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