The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 1

In the darkness of the country road after midnight the car was speeding, but the three young men jammed together in the one seat did not worry. They were exhilarated by the violence of the speeches they had heard at the strikers’ mass meeting in the factory town of Cathay. When the car skidded slightly on a turn and the left-hand wheels crunched on the gravelled shoulder, the driver yelped, ‘Hey, whoa-up!’ But she did not whoa-up.

They were not drunk, except with high spirits. They had had a few bottles of beer, but what intoxicated them was the drama of thick-necked, bright-eyed strike leaders denouncing the tyranny of the bosses, the press, the taxpayers and all other oppressors. Two of the young men were juniors in Truxon College, and as they considered themselves to have been frequently and ludicrously misjudged by their own bosses, their parents and professors, they would (they told themselves) have stayed on in Cathay, joined the picket line, brave with bricks and pick handles, and probably have been gloriously killed, had it not been for a critically important fraternity dance at Truxon next evening.

As a substitute for thus entering the martyrs’ profession, they now howled a song which stated that Labour was a Mighty Giant which was going to smash all its foemen immediately.

The third young man did not sing with them. He was a radical agitator; his name was Eugene Silga; he was slim and taut, with skin the colour of a cigar; and he had had quite enough singing in Cathay County Jail, a month ago. When the students stopped for breath, he protested, in the easy voice of a professional speaker, ‘You seem to think it’s going to be a cinch to overthrow the exploiting capitalist class — your own class, remember, you cursed sons of aristocrats. It’s not! It’ll take a lot more than singing to make Wall Street apologize to the Proletariat and go crawl in a hole.’

‘Hurray! Wall Street in a hole! Lez go dig the hole!’ bawled the driver.

This driver was a tall, wide young man, with wavy hair of red gold, a Norse god with eyes like the Baltic Sea in summer, and a face handsome as a magazine cover and stupid as a domesticated carp. His name was Howard Cornplow, and he was an adept in football, in golf, and in finding reasons why, at any particular recitation hour, he knew nothing whatever about the epistemology of Plato’s Meno. He did know a great deal about the crawl stroke, however, which may have been just as well.

Howard Cornplow was a hearty young man, and he loved to argue. Accelerating a little, occasionally looking away from the road toward the agitator Silga, who sat in the dimness over beside the right-hand door, he shouted, ‘Oh, rats, Gene! Don’t you think if all us educated guys gang up on our folks, they’ll snap out of their fool ex-up-expropriating attitude?’

‘I do not!’

‘Now look here. You take my dad. Old Fred. I can argue him down till he skips out and slams the door.’

As Howard continued, it was revealed that this ‘dad’, motor dealer in the city of Sachem Falls, N.Y., was an acceptable fellow, and that he was chronically overcome by his son’s eloquence. Just to clarify it, Howard gave samples of the eloquence, and during the spirited recital he forgot that he was driving an automobile, and at sixty-five miles an hour.

The other student, Guy Staybridge, scrawny, big-nosed, spectacled, eager, wailed, ‘Hey, watch what you’re doing, will you, young Cornplow?’

‘Don’t you worry. I’m a careful driver,’ clucked the Norse god, as he happily developed his theme that, in order to be converted to loving communism, the stuffy, prosperous, middle-class merchants like Fred Cornplow needed nothing more than friendly tips from such up-to-date examples of the Youth Movement as Howard Cornplow, Eugene Silga, and Guy Staybridge, with a few explanations about how the economic system really worked.

The car swayed on an abrupt turning. Howard kept it snugly to the right. But this was an S-curve, and as Howard looked away from the road towards Eugene, accelerating a little in his triumphant high spirits, the car, in a hundredth of a second, in a madness of speed that had nothing to do with time by the watch, bolted across the ditch, bounded on turf, twisted — crushing the three young men closer together — half swung around, grazed a birch tree, smashed a fender and a headlight and half the hood, and came up short, while the huddle of three were jerked sidewise, then hurled toward the windshield.

Instantly, an incredible silence of night. The car’s lights were gone. Stillness and darkness clothed them in unreality. Nothing had happened. They were dead, worried Eugene Silga, as slowly he came to believe that he was not dead.

He was on his hands and knees on the wet turf of early winter; his cheek seemed to be bleeding, and his left shoulder stung; he could feel that his sleeves had been slashed to rags. But Gene Silga had been through riots, through club and paving-stone battles between strikers and policemen; he had been beaten by deputies; he was a veteran; and for all the reeking ache of his shoulder, he was not hysterical as he decided that the right-hand door must have burst open and himself been hurled out. He crawled to his feet, more conscious of the cold grass than of his pain, and sloped toward the car. No sound save hoarse breathing in this obscene silence.

He lit a cigar lighter — it was a trinket of gold — foppish and expensive for an agitator like Gene Silga; and the wife of a cement manufacturer had given it to him when he was abetting a strike against her husband. He saw that Howard Cornplow and Guy Staybridge were bleeding from cut foreheads, both of them unconscious, both alive.

He felt them over. He quietly set the flaming cigar lighter in a crevice of the crumpled dashboard, and with his handkerchief and others from the boys’ pockets, bound their heads. He tugged Howard out of the car and laid him on the earth, his own coat under the Norse god’s head. He propped up Guy in the seat. He stepped down from the running board, wincing as, to his sick fancy, his shoulder seemed to howl with pain. He staggered into the road and looked methodically back and ahead.

He made out a tiny light back along the road and went swaying toward it, his thin hand pressed tight to his shoulder. As he plodded, he hummed the ‘Internationale’, though it was punctuated with small groans.

The source of the light was a farmhouse, a bulk of darkness — and instantly there was a hateful dog pattering toward him, snarling. Gene kicked to right and left, felt a stone with his toe, stooped, cringing with pain, to pick up the stone, and marched on to meet the coming dog . . . For more than a year, once, Gene had been a hobo and learned the harsh wisdom of outfacing dangers: deppities and railroad dicks and their relatives, the savage dogs. He gushed, in the tone of a spinster lady addressing her Pekinese: ‘Why Towser I’m tho ashamed of you! Don’t oo remember oo’s old friend Gene, oo sweet dirty son of a so and so, darling?’

The dog was puzzled. In a truce, but a truce still armed, it sniffed at Gene and followed him to the farmhouse door, from which an old man was peering.

Gene droned, ‘Motor accident — smash-up — got a telephone I can use?’

‘Guess so. Thought I heard a crash. Come in, boy.’

Gene telephoned on to Truxon village, site of the college, for an ambulance, a doctor. When he turned, the farmer called from an adjoining room, ‘Be right with you, soon ‘s I dress.’

‘Thanks, sir. I’ll go ahead.’

‘Want a flashlight?’

The question seemed to stir in Gene Silga some startling thought, and he sounded doubtful as he muttered, ‘Oh. Oh, sure, you bet. Thanks.’

He was too reflective, as he trembled out of the house, to pay much heed to the still grumbling dog; he absently patted its head, while its tail wagged as finally it recognized a fellow killer.

On his way to the car, Gene thought angrily: ‘Well, why not? Why shouldn’t I? These snobs like Howard — oh, they’ll buy you a dinner, yes, with beer and highballs, if they’ve recently gouged any money out of their slave-drivers of dads. That’s so they can show off how liberal and brave they are. But do they care a hoot whether an organizer has one cent for breakfast — whether you sleep in a lousy lodging house — whether you have to hitch-hike to the next town? They do not! They’ve got to be MADE to care, and to pay. It’s not for me personally. It’s for the Revolution . . . Stealing? . . . Nothing but a word. One of my last holdovers from bourgeois morals . . . Didn’t Stalin himself,’ and mentally, Gene crossed himself, ‘didn’t he rob banks, as a youngster, to get money for the Cause? . . . Of course I’ll do it.’

He had reached the wrecked car.

He ran the glow of the flashlight over Howard and Guy Staybridge. They were still out. With fingers sensitive as those of a miniature painter, or even a pickpocket, he searched them. From inside Howard’s coat he took a billfold which contained three ten-dollar bills, six ones and a five. He removed one ten and three ones; with precise care he folded them small and tucked them into his shoe; and more delicately than ever he slid the billfold back into the pocket where (but only according to outmoded bourgeois ethics, of course) it belonged.

He examined Howard’s bandage, straightened it a little, and sat on the running board till the farmer and the ambulance should come. He had already forgotten the pleasant addition to his war chest. He was thinking of the editorial on the flimsiness of college courses in economics which he was going to write as soon as he succeeded in founding a communist magazine.

The farmer loomed up, grunted, looked, exhibited the proper pleasure at seeing a real accident so near his hearthstone, made sure that he got his flashlight back from Gene and went away after, surprisingly, asking no questions beyond: Who were these three young men? Their occupations? Their parentage? Dates of birth? Place of birth? Their opinions of Franklin D. Roosevelt? And where had they been going, and why were they going so fast, considering that the farmer himself never drove over 30 m.p.h. — though, course, it was true that he didn’t have no car like this Triumph Special, a dandy job that Special was, and how many m.p.h. did Gene, upon reasoned opinion, think a Triumph could do?

The coming ambulance smashed the grateful peace after the farmer had gone his ways, provided with new breakfast conversation.

The doctor in the Truxon ambulance found that there was among the three young men no mortal injury: Howard Cornplow had a superficial frontal cut and two ribs cracked against the steering wheel; Guy Staybridge, a fractured arm and a contusion probably not serious; Gene Silga, a broken shoulder-blade.

‘Of course you young college geniuses . . .’ began the interne, on the front seat with Gene and the driver.

‘I’m no young college genius. I got kicked out of City College of New York six years ago, when I was twenty, for insubordination: to wit, telling a prof that he was a fat-headed grafter and beating up a tin soldier who tried to stop a pacifist parade,’ said Gene, in the gentlest of purrs.

‘Well anyway, you young hell-raisers think you’ve got more zip than four thousand pounds of steel and petrol. Anybody that ever drives over forty miles an hour is a fool,’ said the interne — as the ambulance accelerated to fifty. Fretfully he added, to the driver, ‘Step on it, can’t you? I got to get back to my poker game. I need a little sleep, but, as I was telling you, what could I do when I had a full house, and Doc Brady lays for me, and seems he has four kinks, cold, and so I kep’ raising him and he raised back . . . What’s the matter with this bus, anyway? Crawls along like a steam-roller.’

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