Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 6

WHEN the first dubious November snow had filtered down, shading with white the bare clods in the plowed fields, when the first small fire had been started in the furnace, which is the shrine of a Gopher Prairie home, Carol began to make the house her own. She dismissed the parlor furniture — the golden oak table with brass knobs, the moldy brocade chairs, the picture of “The Doctor.” She went to Minneapolis, to scamper through department stores and small Tenth Street shops devoted to ceramics and high thought. She had to ship her treasures, but she wanted to bring them back in her arms.

Carpenters had torn out the partition between front parlor and back parlor, thrown it into a long room on which she lavished yellow and deep blue; a Japanese obi with an intricacy of gold thread on stiff ultramarine tissue, which she hung as a panel against the maize wall; a couch with pillows of sapphire velvet and gold bands; chairs which, in Gopher Prairie, seemed flippant. She hid the sacred family phonograph in the dining-room, and replaced its stand with a square cabinet on which was a squat blue jar between yellow candles.

Kennicott decided against a fireplace. “We’ll have a new house in a couple of years, anyway.”

She decorated only one room. The rest, Kennicott hinted, she’d better leave till he “made a ten-strike.”

The brown cube of a house stirred and awakened; it seemed to be in motion; it welcomed her back from shopping; it lost its mildewed repression.

The supreme verdict was Kennicott’s “Well, by golly, I was afraid the new junk wouldn’t be so comfortable, but I must say this divan, or whatever you call it, is a lot better than that bumpy old sofa we had, and when I look around —— Well, it’s worth all it cost, I guess.”

Every one in town took an interest in the refurnishing. The carpenters and painters who did not actually assist crossed the lawn to peer through the windows and exclaim, “Fine! Looks swell!” Dave Dyer at the drug store, Harry Haydock and Raymie Wutherspoon at the Bon Ton, repeated daily, “How’s the good work coming? I hear the house is getting to be real classy.”

Even Mrs. Bogart.

Mrs. Bogart lived across the alley from the rear of Carol’s house. She was a widow, and a Prominent Baptist, and a Good Influence. She had so painfully reared three sons to be Christian gentlemen that one of them had become an Omaha bartender, one a professor of Greek, and one, Cyrus N. Bogart, a boy of fourteen who was still at home, the most brazen member of the toughest gang in Boytown.

Mrs. Bogart was not the acid type of Good Influence. She was the soft, damp, fat, sighing, indigestive, clinging, melancholy, depressingly hopeful kind. There are in every large chicken-yard a number of old and indignant hens who resemble Mrs. Bogart, and when they are served at Sunday noon dinner, as fricasseed chicken with thick dumplings, they keep up the resemblance.

Carol had noted that Mrs. Bogart from her side window kept an eye upon the house. The Kennicotts and Mrs. Bogart did not move in the same sets — which meant precisely the same in Gopher Prairie as it did on Fifth Avenue or in Mayfair. But the good widow came calling.

She wheezed in, sighed, gave Carol a pulpy hand, sighed, glanced sharply at the revelation of ankles as Carol crossed her legs, sighed, inspected the new blue chairs, smiled with a coy sighing sound, and gave voice:

“I’ve wanted to call on you so long, dearie, you know we’re neighbors, but I thought I’d wait till you got settled, you must run in and see me, how much did that big chair cost?”

“Seventy-seven dollars!”

“Sev —— Sakes alive! Well, I suppose it’s all right for them that can afford it, though I do sometimes think —— Of course as our pastor said once, at Baptist Church —— By the way, we haven’t seen you there yet, and of course your husband was raised up a Baptist, and I do hope he won’t drift away from the fold, of course we all know there isn’t anything, not cleverness or gifts of gold or anything, that can make up for humility and the inward grace and they can say what they want to about the P. E. church, but of course there’s no church that has more history or has stayed by the true principles of Christianity better than the Baptist Church and —— In what church were you raised, Mrs. Kennicott?”

“W-why, I went to Congregational, as a girl in Mankato, but my college was Universalist.”

“Well —— But of course as the Bible says, is it the Bible, at least I know I have heard it in church and everybody admits it, it’s proper for the little bride to take her husband’s vessel of faith, so we all hope we shall see you at the Baptist Church and —— As I was saying, of course I agree with Reverend Zitterel in thinking that the great trouble with this nation today is lack of spiritual faith — so few going to church, and people automobiling on Sunday and heaven knows what all. But still I do think that one trouble is this terrible waste of money, people feeling that they’ve got to have bath-tubs and telephones in their houses —— I heard you were selling the old furniture cheap.”

“Yes!”

“Well — of course you know your own mind, but I can’t help thinking, when Will’s ma was down here keeping house for him — SHE used to run in to SEE me, real OFTEN! — it was good enough furniture for her. But there, there, I mustn’t croak, I just wanted to let you know that when you find you can’t depend on a lot of these gadding young folks like the Haydocks and the Dyers — and heaven only knows how much money Juanita Haydock blows in in a year — why then you may be glad to know that slow old Aunty Bogart is always right there, and heaven knows ——” A portentous sigh. “— I HOPE you and your husband won’t have any of the troubles, with sickness and quarreling and wasting money and all that so many of these young couples do have and —— But I must be running along now, dearie. It’s been such a pleasure and —— Just run in and see me any time. I hope Will is well? I thought he looked a wee mite peaked.”

It was twenty minutes later when Mrs. Bogart finally oozed out of the front door. Carol ran back into the living-room and jerked open the windows. “That woman has left damp finger-prints in the air,” she said.

II

Carol was extravagant, but at least she did not try to clear herself of blame by going about whimpering, “I know I’m terribly extravagant but I don’t seem to be able to help it.”

Kennicott had never thought of giving her an allowance. His mother had never had one! As a wage-earning spinster Carol had asserted to her fellow librarians that when she was married, she was going to have an allowance and be business- like and modern. But it was too much trouble to explain to Kennicott’s kindly stubbornness that she was a practical housekeeper as well as a flighty playmate. She bought a budget- plan account book and made her budgets as exact as budgets are likely to be when they lack budgets.

For the first month it was a honeymoon jest to beg prettily, to confess, “I haven’t a cent in the house, dear,” and to be told, “You’re an extravagant little rabbit.” But the budget book made her realize how inexact were her finances. She became self-conscious; occasionally she was indignant that she should always have to petition him for the money with which to buy his food. She caught herself criticizing his belief that, since his joke about trying to keep her out of the poorhouse had once been accepted as admirable humor, it should continue to be his daily bon mot. It was a nuisance to have to run down the street after him because she had forgotten to ask him for money at breakfast.

But she couldn’t “hurt his feelings,” she reflected. He liked the lordliness of giving largess.

She tried to reduce the frequency of begging by opening accounts and having the bills sent to him. She had found that staple groceries, sugar, flour, could be most cheaply purchased at Axel Egge’s rustic general store. She said sweetly to Axel:

“I think I’d better open a charge account here.”

“I don’t do no business except for cash,” grunted Axel.

She flared, “Do you know who I am?”

“Yuh, sure, I know. The doc is good for it. But that’s yoost a rule I made. I make low prices. I do business for cash.”

She stared at his red impassive face, and her fingers had the undignified desire to slap him, but her reason agreed with him. “You’re quite right. You shouldn’t break your rule for me.”

Her rage had not been lost. It had been transferred to her husband. She wanted ten pounds of sugar in a hurry, but she had no money. She ran up the stairs to Kennicott’s office. On the door was a sign advertising a headache cure and stating, “The doctor is out, back at ——” Naturally, the blank space was not filled out. She stamped her foot. She ran down to the drug store — the doctor’s club.

As she entered she heard Mrs. Dyer demanding, “Dave, I’ve got to have some money.”

Carol saw that her husband was there, and two other men, all listening in amusement.

Dave Dyer snapped, “How much do you want? Dollar be enough?”

“No, it won’t! I’ve got to get some underclothes for the kids.”

“Why, good Lord, they got enough now to fill the closet so I couldn’t find my hunting boots, last time I wanted them.”

“I don’t care. They’re all in rags. You got to give me ten dollars ——”

Carol perceived that Mrs. Dyer was accustomed to this indignity. She perceived that the men, particularly Dave, regarded it as an excellent jest. She waited — she knew what would come — it did. Dave yelped, “Where’s that ten dollars I gave you last year?” and he looked to the other men to laugh. They laughed.

Cold and still, Carol walked up to Kennicott and commanded, “I want to see you upstairs.”

“Why — something the matter?”

“Yes!”

He clumped after her, up the stairs, into his barren office. Before he could get out a query she stated:

“Yesterday, in front of a saloon, I heard a German farm- wife beg her husband for a quarter, to get a toy for the baby — and he refused. Just now I’ve heard Mrs. Dyer going through the same humiliation. And I— I’m in the same position! I have to beg you for money. Daily! I have just been informed that I couldn’t have any sugar because I hadn’t the money to pay for it!”

“Who said that? By God, I’ll kill any ——”

“Tut. It wasn’t his fault. It was yours. And mine. I now humbly beg you to give me the money with which to buy meals for you to eat. And hereafter to remember it. The next time, I sha’n’t beg. I shall simply starve. Do you understand? I can’t go on being a slave ——”

Her defiance, her enjoyment of the role, ran out. She was sobbing against his overcoat, “How can you shame me so?” and he was blubbering, “Dog-gone it, I meant to give you some, and I forgot it. I swear I won’t again. By golly I won’t!”

He pressed fifty dollars upon her, and after that he remembered to give her money regularly. . .sometimes.

Daily she determined, “But I must have a stated amount — be business-like. System. I must do something about it.” And daily she didn’t do anything about it.

III

Mrs. Bogart had, by the simpering viciousness of her comments on the new furniture, stirred Carol to economy. She spoke judiciously to Bea about left-overs. She read the cook- book again and, like a child with a picture-book, she studied the diagram of the beef which gallantly continues to browse though it is divided into cuts.

But she was a deliberate and joyous spendthrift in her preparations for her first party, the housewarming. She made lists on every envelope and laundry-slip in her desk. She sent orders to Minneapolis “fancy grocers.” She pinned patterns and sewed. She was irritated when Kennicott was jocular about “these frightful big doings that are going on.” She regarded the affair as an attack on Gopher Prairie’s timidity in pleasure. “I’ll make ’em lively, if nothing else. I’ll make ’em stop regarding parties as committee-meetings.”

Kennicott usually considered himself the master of the house. At his desire, she went hunting, which was his symbol of happiness, and she ordered porridge for breakfast, which was his symbol of morality. But when he came home on the afternoon before the housewarming he found himself a slave, an intruder, a blunderer. Carol wailed, “Fix the furnace so you won’t have to touch it after supper. And for heaven’s sake take that horrible old door-mat off the porch. And put on your nice brown and white shirt. Why did you come home so late? Would you mind hurrying? Here it is almost suppertime, and those fiends are just as likely as not to come at seven instead of eight. PLEASE hurry!”

She was as unreasonable as an amateur leading woman on a first night, and he was reduced to humility. When she came down to supper, when she stood in the doorway, he gasped. She was in a silver sheath, the calyx of a lily, her piled hair like black glass; she had the fragility and costliness of a Viennese goblet; and her eyes were intense. He was stirred to rise from the table and to hold the chair for her; and all through supper he ate his bread dry because he felt that she would think him common if he said “Will you hand me the butter?”

IV

She had reached the calmness of not caring whether her guests liked the party or not, and a state of satisfied suspense in regard to Bea’s technique in serving, before Kennicott cried from the bay-window in the living-room, “Here comes somebody!” and Mr. and Mrs. Luke Dawson faltered in, at a quarter to eight. Then in a shy avalanche arrived the entire aristocracy of Gopher Prairie: all persons engaged in a profession, or earning more than twenty-five hundred dollars a year, or possessed of grandparents born in America.

Even while they were removing their overshoes they were peeping at the new decorations. Carol saw Dave Dyer secretively turn over the gold pillows to find a price-tag, and heard Mr. Julius Flickerbaugh, the attorney, gasp, “Well, I’ll be switched,” as he viewed the vermilion print hanging against the Japanese obi. She was amused. But her high spirits slackened as she beheld them form in dress parade, in a long, silent, uneasy circle clear round the living-room. She felt that she had been magically whisked back to her first party, at Sam Clark’s.

“Have I got to lift them, like so many pigs of iron? I don’t know that I can make them happy, but I’ll make them hectic.”

A silver flame in the darkling circle, she whirled around, drew them with her smile, and sang, “I want my party to be noisy and undignified! This is the christening of my house, and I want you to help me have a bad influence on it, so that it will be a giddy house. For me, won’t you all join in an old-fashioned square dance? And Mr. Dyer will call.”

She had a record on the phonograph; Dave Dyer was capering in the center of the floor, loose-jointed, lean, small, rusty headed, pointed of nose, clapping his hands and shouting, “Swing y’ pardners — alamun lef!”

Even the millionaire Dawsons and Ezra Stowbody and “Professor” George Edwin Mott danced, looking only slightly foolish; and by rushing about the room and being coy and coaxing to all persons over forty-five, Carol got them into a waltz and a Virginia Reel. But when she left them to disenjoy themselves in their own way Harry Haydock put a one-step record on the phonograph, the younger people took the floor, and all the elders sneaked back to their chairs, with crystallized smiles which meant, “Don’t believe I’ll try this one myself, but I do enjoy watching the youngsters dance.”

Half of them were silent; half resumed the discussions of that afternoon in the store. Ezra Stowbody hunted for something to say, hid a yawn, and offered to Lyman Cass, the owner of the flour-mill, “How d’ you folks like the new furnace, Lym? Huh? So.”

“Oh, let them alone. Don’t pester them. They must like it, or they wouldn’t do it.” Carol warned herself. But they gazed at her so expectantly when she flickered past that she was reconvinced that in their debauches of respectability they had lost the power of play as well as the power of impersonal thought. Even the dancers were gradually crushed by the invisible force of fifty perfectly pure and well-behaved and negative minds; and they sat down, two by two. In twenty minutes the party was again elevated to the decorum of a prayer-meeting.

“We’re going to do something exciting,” Carol exclaimed to her new confidante, Vida Sherwin. She saw that in the growing quiet her voice had carried across the room. Nat Hicks, Ella Stowbody, and Dave Dyer were abstracted, fingers and lips slightly moving. She knew with a cold certainty that Dave was rehearsing his “stunt” about the Norwegian catching the hen, Ella running over the first lines of “An Old Sweetheart of Mine,” and Nat thinking of his popular parody on Mark Antony’s oration.

“But I will not have anybody use the word ‘stunt’ in my house,” she whispered to Miss Sherwin.

“That’s good. I tell you: why not have Raymond Wutherspoon sing?”

“Raymie? Why, my dear, he’s the most sentimental yearner in town!”

“See here, child! Your opinions on house-decorating are sound, but your opinions of people are rotten! Raymie does wag his tail. But the poor dear —— Longing for what he calls ‘self-expression’ and no training in anything except selling shoes. But he can sing. And some day when he gets away from Harry Haydock’s patronage and ridicule, he’ll do something fine.”

Carol apologized for her superciliousness. She urged Raymie, and warned the planners of “stunts,” “We all want you to sing, Mr. Wutherspoon. You’re the only famous actor I’m going to let appear on the stage tonight.”

While Raymie blushed and admitted, “Oh, they don’t want to hear me,” he was clearing his throat, pulling his clean handkerchief farther out of his breast pocket, and thrusting his fingers between the buttons of his vest.

In her affection for Raymie’s defender, in her desire to “discover artistic talent,” Carol prepared to be delighted by the recital.

Raymie sang “Fly as a Bird,” “Thou Art My Dove,” and “When the Little Swallow Leaves Its Tiny Nest,” all in a reasonably bad offertory tenor.

Carol was shuddering with the vicarious shame which sensitive people feel when they listen to an “elocutionist” being humorous, or to a precocious child publicly doing badly what no child should do at all. She wanted to laugh at the gratified importance in Raymie’s half-shut eyes; she wanted to weep over the meek ambitiousness which clouded like an aura his pale face, flap ears, and sandy pompadour. She tried to look admiring, for the benefit of Miss Sherwin, that trusting admirer of all that was or conceivably could be the good, the true, and the beautiful.

At the end of the third ornithological lyric Miss Sherwin roused from her attitude of inspired vision and breathed to Carol, “My! That was sweet! Of course Raymond hasn’t an unusually good voice, but don’t you think he puts such a lot of feeling into it?”

Carol lied blackly and magnificently, but without originality: “Oh yes, I do think he has so much FEELING!”

She saw that after the strain of listening in a cultured manner the audience had collapsed; had given up their last hope of being amused. She cried, “Now we’re going to play an idiotic game which I learned in Chicago. You will have to take off your shoes, for a starter! After that you will probably break your knees and shoulder-blades.”

Much attention and incredulity. A few eyebrows indicating a verdict that Doc Kennicott’s bride was noisy and improper.

“I shall choose the most vicious, like Juanita Haydock and myself, as the shepherds. The rest of you are wolves. Your shoes are the sheep. The wolves go out into the hall. The shepherds scatter the sheep through this room, then turn off all the lights, and the wolves crawl in from the hall and in the darkness they try to get the shoes away from the shepherds — who are permitted to do anything except bite and use black- jacks. The wolves chuck the captured shoes out into the hall. No one excused! Come on! Shoes off!”

Every one looked at every one else and waited for every one else to begin.

Carol kicked off her silver slippers, and ignored the universal glance at her arches. The embarrassed but loyal Vida Sherwin unbuttoned her high black shoes. Ezra Stowbody cackled, “Well, you’re a terror to old folks. You’re like the gals I used to go horseback-riding with, back in the sixties. Ain’t much accustomed to attending parties barefoot, but here goes!” With a whoop and a gallant jerk Ezra snatched off his elastic- sided Congress shoes.

The others giggled and followed.

When the sheep had been penned up, in the darkness the timorous wolves crept into the living-room, squealing, halting, thrown out of their habit of stolidity by the strangeness of advancing through nothingness toward a waiting foe, a mysterious foe which expanded and grew more menacing. The wolves peered to make out landmarks, they touched gliding arms which did not seem to be attached to a body, they quivered with a rapture of fear. Reality had vanished. A yelping squabble suddenly rose, then Juanita Haydock’s high titter, and Guy Pollock’s astonished, “Ouch! Quit! You’re scalping me!”

Mrs. Luke Dawson galloped backward on stiff hands and knees into the safety of the lighted hallway, moaning, “I declare, I nev’ was so upset in my life!” But the propriety was shaken out of her, and she delightedly continued to ejaculate “Nev’ in my LIFE” as she saw the living-room door opened by invisible hands and shoes hurling through it, as she heard from the darkness beyond the door a squawling, a bumping, a resolute “Here’s a lot of shoes. Come on, you wolves. Ow! Y’ would, would you!”

When Carol abruptly turned on the lights in the embattled living-room, half of the company were sitting back against the walls, where they had craftily remained throughout the engagement, but in the middle of the floor Kennicott was wrestling with Harry Haydock — their collars torn off, their hair in their eyes; and the owlish Mr. Julius Flickerbaugh was retreating from Juanita Haydock, and gulping with unaccustomed laughter. Guy Pollock’s discreet brown scarf hung down his back. Young Rita Simons’s net blouse had lost two buttons, and betrayed more of her delicious plump shoulder than was regarded as pure in Gopher Prairie. Whether by shock, disgust, joy of combat, or physical activity, all the party were freed from their years of social decorum. George Edwin Mott giggled; Luke Dawson twisted his beard; Mrs. Clark insisted, ‘I did too, Sam — I got a shoe — I never knew I could fight so terrible!”

Carol was certain that she was a great reformer.

She mercifully had combs, mirrors, brushes, needle and thread ready. She permitted them to restore the divine decency of buttons.

The grinning Bea brought down-stairs a pile of soft thick sheets of paper with designs of lotos blossoms, dragons, apes, in cobalt and crimson and gray, and patterns of purple birds flying among sea-green trees in the valleys of Nowhere.

“These,” Carol announced, “are real Chinese masquerade costumes. I got them from an importing shop in Minneapolis. You are to put them on over your clothes, and please forget that you are Minnesotans, and turn into mandarins and coolies and — and samurai (isn’t it?), and anything else you can think of.”

While they were shyly rustling the paper costumes she disappeared. Ten minutes after she gazed down from the stairs upon grotesquely ruddy Yankee heads above Oriental robes, and cried to them, “The Princess Winky Poo salutes her court!”

As they looked up she caught their suspense of admiration. They saw an airy figure in trousers and coat of green brocade edged with gold; a high gold collar under a proud chin; black hair pierced with jade pins; a languid peacock fan in an out- stretched hand; eyes uplifted to a vision of pagoda towers. When she dropped her pose and smiled down she discovered Kennicott apoplectic with domestic pride — and gray Guy Pollock staring beseechingly. For a second she saw nothing in all the pink and brown mass of their faces save the hunger of the two men.

She shook off the spell and ran down. “We’re going to have a real Chinese concert. Messrs. Pollock, Kennicott, and, well, Stowbody are drummers; the rest of us sing and play the fife.”

The fifes were combs with tissue paper; the drums were tabourets and the sewing-table. Loren Wheeler, editor of the Dauntless, led the orchestra, with a ruler and a totally inaccurate sense of rhythm. The music was a reminiscence of tom-toms heard at circus fortune-telling tents or at the Minnesota State Fair, but the whole company pounded and puffed and whined in a sing-song, and looked rapturous.

Before they were quite tired of the concert Carol led them in a dancing procession to the dining-room, to blue bowls of chow mein, with Lichee nuts and ginger preserved in syrup.

None of them save that city-rounder Harry Haydock had heard of any Chinese dish except chop sooey. With agreeable doubt they ventured through the bamboo shoots into the golden fried noodles of the chow mein; and Dave Dyer did a not very humorous Chinese dance with Nat Hicks; and there was hubbub and contentment.

Carol relaxed, and found that she was shockingly tired. She had carried them on her thin shoulders. She could not keep it up. She longed for her father, that artist at creating hysterical parties. She thought of smoking a cigarette, to shock them, and dismissed the obscene thought before it was quite formed. She wondered whether they could for five minutes be coaxed to talk about something besides the winter top of Knute Stamquist’s Ford, and what Al Tingley had said about his mother-in-law. She sighed, “Oh, let ’em alone. I’ve done enough.” She crossed her trousered legs, and snuggled luxuriously above her saucer of ginger; she caught Pollock’s congratulatory still smile, and thought well of herself for having thrown a rose light on the pallid lawyer; repented the heretical supposition that any male save her husband existed; jumped up to find Kennicott and whisper, “Happy, my lord? . . . No, it didn’t cost much!”

“Best party this town ever saw. Only —— Don’t cross your legs in that costume. Shows your knees too plain.”

She was vexed. She resented his clumsiness. She returned to Guy Pollock and talked of Chinese religions — not that she knew anything whatever about Chinese religions, but he had read a book on the subject as, on lonely evenings in his office, he had read at least one book on every subject in the world. Guy’s thin maturity was changing in her vision to flushed youth and they were roaming an island in the yellow sea of chatter when she realized that the guests were beginning that cough which indicated, in the universal instinctive language, that they desired to go home and go to bed.

While they asserted that it had been “the nicest party they’d ever seen — my! so clever and original,” she smiled tremendously, shook hands, and cried many suitable things regarding children, and being sure to wrap up warmly, and Raymie’s singing and Juanita Haydock’s prowess at games. Then she turned wearily to Kennicott in a house filled with quiet and crumbs and shreds of Chinese costumes.

He was gurgling, “I tell you, Carrie, you certainly are a wonder, and guess you’re right about waking folks up. Now you’ve showed ’em how, they won’t go on having the same old kind of parties and stunts and everything. Here! Don’t touch a thing! Done enough. Pop up to bed, and I’ll clear up.”

His wise surgeon’s-hands stroked her shoulder, and her irritation at his clumsiness was lost in his strength.

V

From the Weekly Dauntless:

One of the most delightful social events of recent months was held Wednesday evening in the housewarming of Dr. and Mrs. Kennicott, who have completely redecorated their charming home on Poplar Street, and is now extremely nifty in modern color scheme. The doctor and his bride were at home to their numerous friends and a number of novelties in diversions were held, including a Chinese orchestra in original and genuine Oriental costumes, of which Ye Editor was leader. Dainty refreshments were served in true Oriental style, and one and all voted a delightful time.

VI

The week after, the Chet Dashaways gave a party. The circle of mourners kept its place all evening, and Dave Dyer did the “stunt” of the Norwegian and the hen.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lewis/sinclair/main/chapter6.html

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