The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 13

Despite streets slippery as a soapy bathtub, grey as a kitchen mop, Fred drove merrily to his office.

Shame to have to jump on poor Sara like that, but he’d had to do it for her own sake, so that she wouldn’t make herself publicly ridiculous. And wasn’t he already doing something about his chronic routinitis? Hadn’t he shown independence in refusing to let the parental Sara nag him any longer?

Retire? Prob’ly not, but he certainly was going to take longer vacations. He was going to study this travel proposition a little more.

He came into the office whistling, with a feeling that it was somehow particularly suitable, ‘Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean’. But he was restless. After the mail and the daily balance sheet, he jumped up abruptly and announced to Paul Popple, ‘Going out for a breath of fresh air.’

‘This time of day?’

‘Yes, this time of day. I’m good and sick of being expected to have my breakfast every morning at eight-fifteen, rain, pour or shine, and always be in the office at eight forty-five, and sit here all day and listen to every sub-agent that thinks he can just walk in and waste my time. Don’t know when I’ll be back. Don’t ever get into too much of a rut, Paul. Learn to dominate your habits, way I do.’

Fredk Wm, that man of mechanisms, usually drove, even in the city, and economized on time by taking fifteen minutes to find a parking space in order to avoid an eight-minute walk. But today he tramped out into the rain, the collar of his leather jacket high and a handkerchief thrust inside it. His legs had no protection; presently his knees were itching with wetness, his shoes were like sponges soaked in ice water, but he walked sturdily and in bliss.

Everything in this sober inland city was inexplicably transformed; everything was rosy as the hills of Georgia, blue as the Caribbean.

At the window of a hardware shop, a row of dangling new dishpans did not remind this ex-hardware-drummer of wholesale prices on kitchenware, but of an Algerian market square. There would be camels there prob’ly and mouse-coloured asses with tiny bells, white-hooded men with red pointed shoes, and the smell of musk and attar of rose. The blue and yellow dressing-gowns of silk in Swazey & Lindbeck’s windows were to Fred nothing so domestic; they belonged to mandarins in porcelain temples where the doomed gongs boomed. The red pumps at a filling station were letter boxes on Piccadilly, and in a ‘gents’ furnishing store’ there were orange bathing suits for Deauville.

He came to a liquor store, and saw vodka from Poland, rice wine from Canton, and Moselle with castles upon the labels.

He sighed, and wilfully, just at the time when the office would be busy and he sorely needed, he turned into the lunchroom of ‘Nick from Naples’ and ordered coffee and sinkers.

‘Ever go back to Naples, Nick?’ he demanded.

‘Sure. That’s a fine place.’

‘Can you sure enough see Vesuvius from there?’

‘Sure, smoke alla time.’

‘You can see smoke coming out of the volcano?’

‘Sure. Smoke, coals, fire — ev’thing — shine like hell all night.’

‘Well sir, I cer’nly would like to see that. Glows at night, eh? Well sir, that must be mighty interesting.’ Fred turned to the amiable, unshaven taxi-driver beside him and chuckled, ‘Be kind of nice to travel in Europe, if a fellow could afford it.’

‘O.K., I guess. My old man was born in Jugoslavia.’

‘Is that a fact! Hear they got old walled cities there — yuh, great, big thick long walls — built by the Romans! I’d like to see ’em.’

‘Yuh.’

‘By the Romans! DogGONE!’

He was now emboldened to risk the implications suggested in actually entering a travel bureau.

The clerk was amused by the excitement of what was to him just a round little business man in a leather driving jacket, a jesting, over-cordial little man, for this clerk was a person who hated his job, who stood behind counters only till it should be time to escape, and dash to the Y.M.C.A. and gloriously race with himself on the rowing machine. He did not know that he was a merchant of adventure; he supposed that he was selling minimum rates, and tariffs on dogs and children, and reservations on steamer chairs, and not the mist of dawn over rosy seas, Norman cathedrals, goat-loud uplands in the Massif Central. But he will have been of some use to civilization, for he enabled Fred to walk out with pamphlets on Why Not Winter in Flowery South Africa, Native Dances in the Island of Celebes, and Ski Haunts in the Tyrol.

Fred could not promise himself that he would ever know his South Africa, or speak whatever it is they do speak in the Island of Celebes, and he professionally loathed skis — with a ski you couldn’t just put it in low and grind comfortably uphill. But he liked the idea.

While the mere body of Frederick William Cornplow, plump and sometimes panting, unmagically draped in double-breasted blue suits and startling red and green neckties, went about the office correctly doing the correct things — delivering selling talks like a phonograph, signing papers, planning a sales-floor addition to house the trailers — the person inside Fred would have astounded the customers, for he was not a man but a credulous child. Fred was nourishing an idea greater than himself. He was like a small boy who has, in a forest, found the entrance to a cave which surely leads to the centre of the earth. He was playing with the concept that there is no law that a man of fifty-six must stop all of living except sleeping and reading the newspapers and going to the bathroom. Why, he might have another thirty years of vigour and experiment, and that was a journey which lay as far ahead of him as was the journey back to the time when he had been a brat of twenty-six, younger than Sara now! But he had to start his pilgrimage out of hand; he had to undergo the ticklish complications of retiring in a year or of taking a whole year’s vacation.

Having made this reasonable decision, in three days he abruptly changed it — and with that the whole world changed. And why not? For who in the world has ever been more important than Fred Cornplow?

He has, at times, been too noisy or too prosy, he has now and then thought more of money than of virtue and music; but he has been the eternal doer; equally depended upon — and equally hated — by the savage mob and by the insolent nobility.

When Fred Cornplow was an Egyptian, it was he who planned the pyramids, conciliated the mad pharaohs, tried to make existence endurable for the sweating slaves. In the days when he was called a Roman Citizen, he was a centurion and he conquered Syria and ruled his small corner of it with as much justice as the day allowed.

As Fr. Abbot Cornplow, in the bright Dark Ages, he developed agriculture and the use of building stone; later, as a captain under Cromwell, he helped tame the political power of the ecclesiastics. The American Civil War was not fought between General Grant and General Lee, but between Private Fred Cornplow of Massachusetts and Private Ed Cornplow of Alabama; and a few years later it was they who created bribery and railroads and gave all their loot to science.

From Fred Cornplow’s family, between B.C. 1937 and A.D. 1937, there came, despite an occasional aristocratic Byron or an infrequent proletarian John Bunyan, nearly all the medical researchers, the discoverers of better varieties of wheat, the poets, the builders, the singers, the captains of great ships. Sometimes his name has been pronounced Babbitt; sometimes it has been called Ben Franklin; and once, if Eugene O’Neill may be trusted, he went by the style of Marco Polo and brought back from civilized China to barbaric Europe the sound of camel bells, and the silken tents, scented with sandalwood, which have overshadowed the continent ever since.

He is the eternal bourgeois, the bourjoyce, the burgher, the Middle Class, whom the Bolsheviks hate and imitate, whom the English love and deprecate, and who is most of the population worth considering in France and Germany and these United States.

He is Fred Cornplow; and when he changes his mind that crisis is weightier than Waterloo or Thermopylae.

No, Fred decided, he couldn’t either retire or take a year’s vacation. Howard, confound him, was right; just now, he had to stay by the ship. But he certainly wouldn’t drudge on for another ten or fifteen years. He would retire in five years from now, exactly; he had made up his mind, and dogGONE, let anybody try to change it! And meantime he would gorgeously ‘get in shape.’

He felt absurd in doing it, but Fred was in training for adventure. He stopped smoking before breakfast; he occasionally walked to the office; and once or twice a week, with intense distress and a feeling of being silly, he wabbled dumb-bells in the Elks’ gymnasium or joined in the calisthenics of a squad of bankers and brokers and superintendents of schools, worthy gentlemen who as dancers and high kickers resembled a mixed group of turkeys and hippopotami enacting an Andalusian flower song.

But he persisted. He had worked out for himself a principle: ‘You’ll never make any change in your life that you haven’t already begun.’

A fortnight after the beginning of Fred’s madness, Howard appeared in the office and croaked, ‘Of course all those jokes you pulled at your birthday party about retiring — I know you’re too responsible to do anything like that.’

‘Well, YOU know, son — fellow sometimes feels like kicking the dashboard.’

‘Sure. I didn’t take you seriously.’

‘No? Well . . . Gosh it’s hot for May.’ Indeed, Fred was wiping his forehead.

‘Sure is. Yessir, actually hot!’

‘Guess I’ll drop in at Swazey & Lindbeck’s, this noon, and pick me out a summer suit.’

‘No, no.’ Howard was pretty firm. ‘They’ll sting you. Go to the Gotham Mart.’

‘You think so?’

‘I know it. And I don’t want you to stop carrying a silk muffler yet. Pretty fickle weather.’

‘Yuh, I suppose . . . Though I bet your mother is sweating to death, this morning, laying out her sweet peas.’

‘And that’s another thing. I’ve told Mother and I’ve told her, but I just can’t get her to listen to me. It’s all foolishness, her trying to grow sweet peas. Why don’t she put in some good sturdy rose bushes that don’t need so much attention? But think she’d pay any attention to me? Oh no!’

When Howard was gone, to drive back to Truxon College at a conservative sixty miles an hour, Fred mused, ‘So if the young man should make good, and not always lean on me, fifteen years from now he’d be tying up Hazel and me by the fireplace and telling us when to breathe. Nothing doing! He travels the fastest who travels alone . . . Always providing, of course, he has Hazel with him, you understand.’

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