The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 12

The morning after his birthday, he wondered what it was that had been plaguing his sleep — something confused and risky. He was aghast as he remembered that he had made threats about becoming a Kipling hero.

But slowly, as morning strength flowed into him, he rejoiced. Yes! They hadn’t licked him! He would do it! He would see many golden roads beyond the walls of Samarkand . . . Incidentally, where the deuce was Samarkand?

It was a frowsy day, cold for mid-spring, with a meaningless drizzle that seemed more to rise from the sticky brown earth than to drop from the disapproving skies. The rain was as dreary as Sara’s charge of last evening that he had been so imprisoned in ruts that he couldn’t even look over the edges.

In his shaky zest for freedom, he tried to defy the thought of Sara, but he shrewdly watched himself during the routine of dressing; he really saw himself; and that is, for any man over thirty-five, no joyful sight before breakfast. He stood apart and spied on his own fussing. He noticed that always, on rising, he first looked at the still-sleeping Hazel, to see if she was really there and still alive. On chilly mornings he always completed the first layers of dressing in the warm bathroom. He discovered that he always — but invariably with the prickliest discomfort if he failed to follow the rite — hung his underclothes on the bathroom hooks in the same order, with some fidgety notion of its being easier thus to dress after his bath.

He noticed that, perhaps every morning for a good many years, he had daily protested, ‘All nonsense, this daily bath business. As kids we only got bathed once a week, didn’t we, and we didn’t smell so bad, did we?’

He noticed that he always soaped his feet before soaping his knees, and that it was a struggle to reverse that order. He noticed that it maddened him to find that the maid had left his bottle of mouthwash on the window-sill instead of where, by all the ritual proprieties, it belonged — in the medicine chest, and not just stuck any old where in the medicine chest either, but put away nicely and correctly between the sodium bicarbonate and the aspirin.

Where it BELONGS? he queried, in rebellion against his own pattern. Who passed that law?

He discovered that he always closed his eyes when he brushed his teeth; furiously discovered that he had to close his eyes.

It was distressing to admit that Sara could be right. Then it was time to break the mould of his job and household and tricks of personal habit, do anything, go anywhere, before he was encased in the coffin of routine, a living dead man.

Yes, and he’d do it, too. Wasn’t going to permit even the best of habits to be his master. Already, he exulted, as he drew on his coat and started downstairs, he was changing . . . and noticed then that he had, as on every morning these last twenty years, coughed a tiny and perfectly meaningless cough at the exact moment when he tucked his watch into his lower left-hand vest pocket . . . and that if he had inconceivably ever found the watch in any other pocket, he would have felt naked.

So, with his exultations quenched, he went down to breakfast, in the scarlet-and-canary-yellow ‘nook’ off the butler’s pantry, and as he heard himself muttering to the maid, ‘I’ll have my coffee right with my porridge’, he realized that he had said this once a day for decades . . . and realized that if the Morning Recorder had not been there, exactly where it ‘belonged’, six inches to the right of his water glass, he would have felt himself betrayed by his nearest and dearest.

‘Looks like I’ve gotten in such a habit I simply can’t start the day without coffee and the baseball news. I better get out of this quick.’

It was rather too bad, because for years he had enjoyed his anecdotes about how ludicrously punctual his father had always been. ‘Yessir, neighbours used to set their clocks by him. Made it kind of hard for a wild bunch like us young uns!’ . . . How many times, for how many years, had he been saying that? he wondered.

Hazel, as always — and he now perceived that she had her own rigidities of habit — came down to breakfast as he was finishing. She was, as always, drowsily apologetic for being late, but she was so downy, so soft in her grey-and-crimson négligé, so like a robin with ruffled feathers, that her comfortableness reassured him. He would achieve freedom, yes; but no concept of freedom that did not include the presence of Hazel was imaginable. He was as married as a cooing dove or an Anglican bishop. Once or twice in his cheery life he may have looked with approval upon a cigar-store wench or a grass-widow customer, but he had never wanted to live on either cream puffs or caviare; and he knew that he would be for ever hungry without the honest bread and butter of Hazel.

‘Well, still like to maybe travel a little?’ he said.

‘Oh, yes,’ Hazel babbled. ‘I think it would be grand. My, I would like to see this Westminster Cathedral or Monastery or whatever it is where they’re going to have the Coronation. It must be a lovely church. Honestly, do you think we could go . . . for a few weeks?’

‘Could we? Say, we can do any doggone thing we doggone well want to!’ swore Fred.

Sara made her entrance as he was leaving. She was less purposeful and disciplinary this morning; she was, indeed, all one youthful yawn, and she spoke to him tolerantly:

‘Say, Dad, I hate most awfully to bother you, but my allowance is nearly overdrawn. I wonder if you could let me have twenty-five dollars? I had to lend twenty-five to a poor fellow that came in to see Gene and me at the Coheeze yesterday.’

‘Who? Why?’

‘He’s been out in Detroit helping organize the automobile workers, and the cops were after him and he had to scram.’

‘Scram — cops! What kind of language d’you call that, young lady? Think that’s what I sent you to Vassar to learn? Doggone it, I’ll be everlastingly doggoned if I’ll stand for anybody slinging that kind of slang and colloquialisms around this shack! And just kindly lemme call to your attention the fact that I happen to deal in motor cars, and I’m not any too darn rapturous about sit-down strikes and Lord knows what all darn shenanigans that keep me from getting cars to sell!’

‘So you think the poor workers have no right to organize!’

‘Sure they have, if they can get away with it. But we poor God-forsaken bourjoyces also got the right to organize against their sitting down on our pocket-books. Why should I hand twenty-five bucks to your little comrade to help him keep me from making a living! Go on and read the Daily Worker about people like me, girl. It’ll explain that I’m such a dirty dog that it’s a waste of time to expect me to dig down and support a revolution against everything I stand for. That’s all, just a dirty dog, nothing but a dirty dog, just a bourjoyce bum — go on, read your communist paper, just read it, that’s all. Yessir, dirty dog. And your allowance is overdrawn $68.60 already. Good morning!’

Sara stared at the menacing purple aura left behind him when the hall door had closed. Not since she had won the high-school literary medal with an essay on the errors of Thomas Jefferson had her muttonheaded parent dared so to speak to her. Her lips flattened in rage, and she stormed, ‘I see that, for your own sake, darling, so you won’t make yourself publicly ridiculous, you will have to be taken in hand!’

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