Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 9

SHE had tripped into the meadow to teach the lambs a pretty educational dance and found that the lambs were wolves. There was no way out between their pressing gray shoulders. She was surrounded by fangs and sneering eyes.

She could not go on enduring the hidden derision. She wanted to flee. She wanted to hide in the generous indifference of cities. She practised saying to Kennicott, “Think perhaps I’ll run down to St. Paul for a few days.” But she could not trust herself to say it carelessly; could not abide his certain questioning.

Reform the town? All she wanted was to be tolerated!

She could not look directly at people. She flushed and winced before citizens who a week ago had been amusing objects of study, and in their good-mornings she heard a cruel sniggering.

She encountered Juanita Haydock at Ole Jenson’s grocery. She besought, “Oh, how do you do! Heavens, what beautiful celery that is!”

“Yes, doesn’t it look fresh. Harry simply has to have his celery on Sunday, drat the man!”

Carol hastened out of the shop exulting, “She didn’t make fun of me. . . . Did she?”

In a week she had recovered from consciousness of insecurity, of shame and whispering notoriety, but she kept her habit of avoiding people. She walked the streets with her head down. When she spied Mrs. McGanum or Mrs. Dyer ahead she crossed over with an elaborate pretense of looking at a billboard. Always she was acting, for the benefit of every one she saw — and for the benefit of the ambushed leering eyes which she did not see.

She perceived that Vida Sherwin had told the truth. Whether she entered a store, or swept the back porch, or stood at the bay-window in the living-room, the village peeped at her. Once she had swung along the street triumphant in making a home. Now she glanced at each house, and felt, when she was safely home, that she had won past a thousand enemies armed with ridicule. She told herself that her sensitiveness was preposterous, but daily she was thrown into panic. She saw curtains slide back into innocent smoothness. Old women who had been entering their houses slipped out again to stare at her — in the wintry quiet she could hear them tiptoeing on their porches. When she had for a blessed hour forgotten the searchlight, when she was scampering through a chill dusk, happy in yellow windows against gray night, her heart checked as she realized that a head covered with a shawl was thrust up over a snow-tipped bush to watch her.

She admitted that she was taking herself too seriously; that villagers gape at every one. She became placid, and thought well of her philosophy. But next morning she had a shock of shame as she entered Ludelmeyer’s The grocer, his clerk, and neurotic Mrs. Dave Dyer had been giggling about something. They halted, looked embarrassed, babbled about onions. Carol felt guilty. That evening when Kennicott took her to call on the crochety Lyman Casses, their hosts seemed flustered at their arrival. Kennicott jovially hooted, “What makes you so hang-dog, Lym?” The Casses tittered feebly.

Except Dave Dyer, Sam Clark, and Raymie Wutherspoon, there were no merchants of whose welcome Carol was certain. She knew that she read mockery into greetings but she could not control her suspicion, could not rise from her psychic collapse. She alternately raged and flinched at the superiority of the merchants. They did not know that they were being rude, but they meant to have it understood that they were prosperous and “not scared of no doctor’s wife.” They often said, “One man’s as good as another — and a darn sight better.” This motto, however, they did not commend to farmer customers who had had crop failures. The Yankee merchants were crabbed; and Ole Jenson, Ludelmeyer, and Gus Dahl, from the “Old Country,” wished to be taken for Yankees. James Madison Howland, born in New Hampshire, and Ole Jenson, born in Sweden, both proved that they were free American citizens by grunting, “I don’t know whether I got any or not,” or “Well, you can’t expect me to get it delivered by noon.”

It was good form for the customers to fight back. Juanita Haydock cheerfully jabbered, “You have it there by twelve or I’ll snatch that fresh delivery-boy bald-headed.” But Carol had never been able to play the game of friendly rudeness; and now she was certain that she never would learn it. She formed the cowardly habit of going to Axel Egge’s.

Axel was not respectable and rude. He was still a foreigner, and he expected to remain one. His manner was heavy and uninterrogative. His establishment was more fantastic than any cross-roads store. No one save Axel himself could find anything. A part of the assortment of children’s stockings was under a blanket on a shelf, a part in a tin ginger-snap box, the rest heaped like a nest of black-cotton snakes upon a flour- barrel which was surrounded by brooms, Norwegian Bibles, dried cod for ludfisk, boxes of apricots, and a pair and a half of lumbermen’s rubber-footed boots. The place was crowded with Scandinavian farmwives, standing aloof in shawls and ancient fawn-colored leg o’ mutton jackets, awaiting the return of their lords. They spoke Norwegian or Swedish, and looked at Carol uncomprehendingly. They were a relief to her — they were not whispering that she was a poseur.

But what she told herself was that Axel Egge’s was “so picturesque and romantic.”

It was in the matter of clothes that she was most self- conscious.

When she dared to go shopping in her new checked suit with the black-embroidered sulphur collar, she had as good as invited all of Gopher Prairie (which interested itself in nothing so intimately as in new clothes and the cost thereof) to investigate her. It was a smart suit with lines unfamiliar to the dragging yellow and pink frocks of the town. The Widow Bogart’s stare, from her porch, indicated, “Well I never saw anything like that before!” Mrs. McGanum stopped Carol at the notions shop to hint, “My, that’s a nice suit — wasn’t it terribly expensive?” The gang of boys in front of the drug store commented, “Hey, Pudgie, play you a game of checkers on that dress.” Carol could not endure it. She drew her fur coat over the suit and hastily fastened the buttons, while the boys snickered.

II

No group angered her quite so much as these staring young roues.

She had tried to convince herself that the village, with its fresh air, its lakes for fishing and swimming, was healthier than the artificial city. But she was sickened by glimpses of the gang of boys from fourteen to twenty who loafed before Dyer’s Drug Store, smoking cigarettes, displaying “fancy” shoes and purple ties and coats of diamond-shaped buttons, whistling the Hoochi–Koochi and catcalling, “Oh, you baby-doll” at every passing girl.

She saw them playing pool in the stinking room behind Del Snafflin’s barber shop, and shaking dice in “The Smoke House,” and gathered in a snickering knot to listen to the “juicy stories” of Bert Tybee, the bartender of the Minniemashie House. She heard them smacking moist lips over every love- scene at the Rosebud Movie Palace. At the counter of the Greek Confectionery Parlor, while they ate dreadful messes of decayed bananas, acid cherries, whipped cream, and gelatinous ice-cream, they screamed to one another, “Hey, lemme ‘lone,” “Quit dog-gone you, looka what you went and done, you almost spilled my glass swater,” “Like hell I did,” “Hey, gol darn your hide, don’t you go sticking your coffin nail in my i-scream,” “Oh you Batty, how juh like dancing with Tillie McGuire, last night? Some squeezing, heh, kid?”

By diligent consultation of American fiction she discovered that this was the only virile and amusing manner in which boys could function; that boys who were not compounded of the gutter and the mining-camp were mollycoddles and unhappy. She had taken this for granted. She had studied the boys pityingly, but impersonally. It had not occurred to her that they might touch her.

Now she was aware that they knew all about her; that they were waiting for some affectation over which they could guffaw. No schoolgirl passed their observation-posts more flushingly than did Mrs. Dr. Kennicott. In shame she knew that they glanced appraisingly at her snowy overshoes, speculating about her legs. Theirs were not young eyes there was no youth in all the town, she agonized. They were born old, grim and old and spying and censorious.

She cried again that their youth was senile and cruel on the day when she overheard Cy Bogart and Earl Haydock.

Cyrus N. Bogart, son of the righteous widow who lived across the alley, was at this time a boy of fourteen or fifteen. Carol had already seen quite enough of Cy Bogart. On her first evening in Gopher Prairie Cy had appeared at the head of a “charivari,” banging immensely upon a discarded automobile fender. His companions were yelping in imitation of coyotes. Kennicott had felt rather complimented; had gone out and distributed a dollar. But Cy was a capitalist in charivaris. He returned with an entirely new group, and this time there were three automobile fenders and a carnival rattle. When Kennicott again interrupted his shaving, Cy piped, “Naw, you got to give us two dollars,” and he got it. A week later Cy rigged a tic-tac to a window of the living-room, and the tattoo out of the darkness frightened Carol into screaming. Since then, in four months, she had beheld Cy hanging a cat, stealing melons, throwing tomatoes at the Kennicott house, and making ski-tracks across the lawn, and had heard him explaining the mysteries of generation, with great audibility and dismaying knowledge. He was, in fact, a museum specimen of what a small town, a well-disciplined public school, a tradition of hearty humor, and a pious mother could produce from the material of a courageous and ingenious mind.

Carol was afraid of him. Far from protesting when he set his mongrel on a kitten, she worked hard at not seeing him.

The Kennicott garage was a shed littered with paint-cans, tools, a lawn-mower, and ancient wisps of hay. Above it was a loft which Cy Bogart and Earl Haydock, young brother of Harry, used as a den, for smoking, hiding from whippings, and planning secret societies. They climbed to it by a ladder on the alley side of the shed.

This morning of late January, two or three weeks after Vida’s revelations, Carol had gone into the stable-garage to find a hammer. Snow softened her step. She heard voices in the loft above her:

“Ah gee, lez — oh, lez go down the lake and swipe some mushrats out of somebody’s traps,” Cy was yawning.

“And get our ears beat off!” grumbled Earl Haydock.

“Gosh, these cigarettes are dandy. ‘Member when we were just kids, and used to smoke corn-silk and hayseed?”

“Yup. Gosh!”

Spit. Silence.

“Say Earl, ma says if you chew tobacco you get consumption.”

“Aw rats, your old lady is a crank.”

“Yuh, that’s so.” Pause. “But she says she knows a fella that did.”

“Aw, gee whiz, didn’t Doc Kennicott used to chew tobacco all the time before he married this-here girl from the Cities? He used to spit —— Gee! Some shot! He could hit a tree ten feet off.”

This was news to the girl from the Cities.

“Say, how is she?” continued Earl.

“Huh? How’s who?”

“You know who I mean, smarty.”

A tussle, a thumping of loose boards, silence, weary narration from Cy:

“Mrs. Kennicott? Oh, she’s all right, I guess.” Relief to Carol, below. “She gimme a hunk o’ cake, one time. But Ma says she’s stuck-up as hell. Ma’s always talking about her. Ma says if Mrs. Kennicott thought as much about the doc as she does about her clothes, the doc wouldn’t look so peaked.”

Spit. Silence.

“Yuh. Juanita’s always talking about her, too,” from Earl. “She says Mrs. Kennicott thinks she knows it all. Juanita says she has to laugh till she almost busts every time she sees Mrs. Kennicott peerading along the street with that ‘take a look — I’m a swell skirt’ way she’s got. But gosh, I don’t pay no attention to Juanita. She’s meaner ‘n a crab.”

“Ma was telling somebody that she heard that Mrs. Kennicott claimed she made forty dollars a week when she was on some job in the Cities, and Ma says she knows posolutely that she never made but eighteen a week — Ma says that when she’s lived here a while she won’t go round making a fool of herself, pulling that bighead stuff on folks that know a whole lot more than she does. They’re all laughing up their sleeves at her.”

“Say, jever notice how Mrs. Kennicott fusses around the house? Other evening when I was coming over here, she’d forgot to pull down the curtain, and I watched her for ten minutes. Jeeze, you’d ‘a’ died laughing. She was there all alone, and she must ‘a’ spent five minutes getting a picture straight. It was funny as hell the way she’d stick out her finger to straighten the picture — deedle-dee, see my tunnin’ ‘ittle finger, oh my, ain’t I cute, what a fine long tail my cat’s got!”

“But say, Earl, she’s some good-looker, just the same, and O Ignatz! the glad rags she must of bought for her wedding. Jever notice these low-cut dresses and these thin shimmy-shirts she wears? I had a good squint at ’em when they were out on the line with the wash. And some ankles she’s got, heh?”

Then Carol fled.

In her innocence she had not known that the whole town could discuss even her garments, her body. She felt that she was being dragged naked down Main Street.

The moment it was dusk she pulled down the window-shades all the shades, flush with the sill, but beyond them she felt moist fleering eyes.

III

She remembered, and tried to forget, and remembered more sharply the vulgar detail of her husband’s having observed the ancient customs of the land by chewing tobacco. She would have preferred a prettier vice — gambling or a mistress. For these she might have found a luxury of forgiveness. She could not remember any fascinatingly wicked hero of fiction who chewed tobacco. She asserted that it proved him to be a man of the bold free West. She tried to align him with the hairy- chested heroes of the motion-pictures. She curled on the couch a pallid softness in the twilight, and fought herself, and lost the battle. Spitting did not identify him with rangers riding the buttes; it merely bound him to Gopher Prairie — to Nat Hicks the tailor and Bert Tybee the bartender.

“But he gave it up for me. Oh, what does it matter! We’re all filthy in some things. I think of myself as so superior, but I do eat and digest, I do wash my dirty paws and scratch. I’m not a cool slim goddess on a column. There aren’t any! He gave it up for me. He stands by me, believing that every one loves me. He’s the Rock of Ages — in a storm of meanness that’s driving me mad. . .it will drive me mad.”

All evening she sang Scotch ballads to Kennicott, and when she noticed that he was chewing an unlighted cigar she smiled maternally at his secret.

She could not escape asking (in the exact words and mental intonations which a thousand million women, dairy wenches and mischief-making queens, had used before her, and which a million million women will know hereafter), “Was it all a horrible mistake, my marrying him?” She quieted the doubt — without answering it.

IV

Kennicott had taken her north to Lac-qui-Meurt, in the Big Woods. It was the entrance to a Chippewa Indian reservation, a sandy settlement among Norway pines on the shore of a huge snow-glaring lake. She had her first sight of his mother, except the glimpse at the wedding. Mrs. Kennicott had a hushed and delicate breeding which dignified her woodeny over- scrubbed cottage with its worn hard cushions in heavy rockers. She had never lost the child’s miraculous power of wonder. She asked questions about books and cities. She murmured:

“Will is a dear hard-working boy but he’s inclined to be too serious, and you’ve taught him how to play. Last night I heard you both laughing about the old Indian basket-seller, and I just lay in bed and enjoyed your happiness.”

Carol forgot her misery-hunting in this solidarity of family life. She could depend upon them; she was not battling alone. Watching Mrs. Kennicott flit about the kitchen she was better able to translate Kennicott himself. He was matter-of-fact, yes, and incurably mature. He didn’t really play; he let Carol play with him. But he had his mother’s genius for trusting, her disdain for prying, her sure integrity.

From the two days at Lac-qui-Meurt Carol drew confidence in herself, and she returned to Gopher Prairie in a throbbing calm like those golden drugged seconds when, because he is for an instant free from pain, a sick man revels in living.

A bright hard winter day, the wind shrill, black and silver clouds booming across the sky, everything in panicky motion during the brief light. They struggled against the surf of wind, through deep snow. Kennicott was cheerful. He hailed Loren Wheeler, “Behave yourself while I been away?” The editor bellowed, “B’ gosh you stayed so long that all your patients have got well!” and importantly took notes for the Dauntless about their journey. Jackson Elder cried, “Hey, folks! How’s tricks up North?” Mrs. McGanum waved to them from her porch.

“They’re glad to see us. We mean something here. These people are satisfied. Why can’t I be? But can I sit back all my life and be satisfied with ‘Hey, folks’? They want shouts on Main Street, and I want violins in a paneled room. Why ——?”

V

Vida Sherwin ran in after school a dozen times. She was tactful, torrentially anecdotal. She had scuttled about town and plucked compliments: Mrs. Dr. Westlake had pronounced Carol a “very sweet, bright, cultured young woman,” and Brad Bemis, the tinsmith at Clark’s Hardware Store, had declared that she was “easy to work for and awful easy to look at.”

But Carol could not yet take her in. She resented this outsider’s knowledge of her shame. Vida was not too long tolerant. She hinted, “You’re a great brooder, child. Buck up now. The town’s quit criticizing you, almost entirely. Come with me to the Thanatopsis Club. They have some of the BEST papers, and current-events discussions — SO interesting.”

In Vida’s demands Carol felt a compulsion, but she was too listless to obey.

It was Bea Sorenson who was really her confidante.

However charitable toward the Lower Classes she may have thought herself, Carol had been reared to assume that servants belong to a distinct and inferior species. But she discovered that Bea was extraordinarily like girls she had loved in college, and as a companion altogether superior to the young matrons of the Jolly Seventeen. Daily they became more frankly two girls playing at housework. Bea artlessly considered Carol the most beautiful and accomplished lady in the country; she was always shrieking, “My, dot’s a swell hat!” or, “Ay t’ink all dese ladies yoost die when dey see how elegant you do your hair!” But it was not the humbleness of a servant, nor the hypocrisy of a slave; it was the admiration of Freshman for Junior.

They made out the day’s menus together. Though they began with propriety, Carol sitting by the kitchen table and Bea at the sink or blacking the stove, the conference was likely to end with both of them by the table, while Bea gurgled over the ice-man’s attempt to kiss her, or Carol admitted, “Everybody knows that the doctor is lots more clever than Dr. McGanum.” When Carol came in from marketing, Bea plunged into the hall to take off her coat, rub her frostied hands, and ask, “Vos dere lots of folks up-town today?”

This was the welcome upon which Carol depended.

VI

Through her weeks of cowering there was no change in her surface life. No one save Vida was aware of her agonizing. On her most despairing days she chatted to women on the street, in stores. But without the protection of Kennicott’s presence she did not go to the Jolly Seventeen; she delivered herself to the judgment of the town only when she went shopping and on the ritualistic occasions of formal afternoon calls, when Mrs. Lyman Cass or Mrs. George Edwin Mott, with clean gloves and minute handkerchiefs and sealskin card-cases and countenances of frozen approbation, sat on the edges of chairs and inquired, “Do you find Gopher Prairie pleasing?” When they spent evenings of social profit-and-loss at the Haydocks’ or the Dyers’ she hid behind Kennicott, playing the simple bride.

Now she was unprotected. Kennicott had taken a patient to Rochester for an operation. He would be away for two or three days. She had not minded; she would loosen the matrimonial tension and be a fanciful girl for a time. But now that he was gone the house was listeningly empty. Bea was out this afternoon — presumably drinking coffee and talking about “fellows” with her cousin Tina. It was the day for the monthly supper and evening-bridge of the Jolly Seventeen, but Carol dared not go.

She sat alone.

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