The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 14

No doubt Sara and Eugene Silga didn’t deserve any particular credit for it.

Their office was one stingy room on the third floor of the Stiggis Building, between a photographer of riotous babies and the agency for a platinum mine. They had nothing but two kitchen tables, four kitchen chairs, a wire basket filled with bills, a pile of rival radical magazines which damned one another for luke-warmness in revolution, one window — dirty; and a telephone — in arrears, but no doubt they enjoyed it more than a plush and walnut office with respectful attendants. You can feel more heroic in shirt-sleeves than in ermine.

In this primitive office of the Sachem Falls Cell of the Workers’ International Cohesion, and of Protest & Progress, Sara was luxuriously misreading proof on the forthcoming first number, while Gene sputtered on the telephone:

‘Why, certainly, comrade, we’ll provide the speakers . . . Good? Listen! One of ’em’s been beaten by the gorillas seven times . . . Sure, all the decorations; I’ve got a four-by-seven-foot poster of Lenin . . . No. Fifty per cent of the gate . . . No, won’t touch it for less . . . All right, you talk to ’em and give me a ring.’

Gene glanced at her with those eyes, daring and amused, that seemed to understand her every foolishness and desire. She didn’t CARE, resolved Sara; she would marry Gene even if they had to live in a one-room flat and she do the cooking. Oh yes; that was what she had been trying to remember: she must learn to cook.

She chucked the proofs and swam shyly toward him. She panted as he smiled at her with his especial smile of friendliness, but what he said was:

‘Sara!’

‘Yes, Gene!’

‘I, uh . . . You know these Channing Praggs — the glass manufacturer? Think you could get old lady Pragg to pull a soirée, or whatever she calls it, for me? I’ll spiel on birth control in Russia and pass the hat. Isn’t it funny, darling!’ He patted her hand, which was clenching the edge of his table-desk. ‘Nobody comes through with funds for the revolution like the wives of millionaires, even after we’ve openly announced we intend to overthrow the Democratic State and institute a real, honest-to-God dictatorship of the rednecks like me. How come? You’re a capitalist, darling. Why do you guys in the ruling class let us get away with it?’

‘I don’t think Mr. Frederick W. Cornplow is as keen on our getting away with it as I’d like to see. We’ll have to work on him a lot yet, dear.’

Their laughter was a gust that blew away all such featherbrains as Fred. She was certain that Gene was going to show a little more affection now than just the patting of hands which had been his only gesture, and she leaned over the shining blackness of his hair — as Frieda Kitz clumped into the office.

Frieda earned her living in a wall-paper warehouse; she was treasurer of the Coheeze; she never laughed except for a triumphant snort at the thought of a firing squad’s converting the Praggs and Cornplows; and though she had a tranquil broad-browed loveliness, she wore her hair tight and never dressed in anything but stiff corduroy suits and flat low shoes.

Sara looked at Frieda with hatred — she at Sara with contempt — while Gene greeted Frieda all too quietly, too understandingly, ‘Good morning, comrade.’

Sara felt that she had been sent back to the kitchen. She had been snubbed by amateur snobs like Mrs. Channing Pragg; not till now had she been snubbed by an expert like Comrade Kitz. She crept to her desk and the suddenly hateful proofs.

Gene and the Comrade did not seem to think that she was important enough to hide their secrets from her as they talked softly at his desk of orders from the great lords of communism in New York. Sara was as uncomfortable as she had felt when, at ten, she had blundered into one of her mother’s tiny coffee parties and heard those shocking bores, the Grown-up Ladies, confiding, ‘Oh, they say he drinks’, and ‘In October, she told me.’

She was sickened by the easy intimacy with which Gene and Frieda shook hands at parting, needing to say nothing beyond a soft, revealing, ‘So long, comrade.’ But she made no comment on Frieda, as Gene again pulled toward him the telephone on which, all day long, he placidly forwarded his plans to smash the American government. She buckled to work. She had not learned until now that most banal, most ancient, most weighty truth, that there is refuge in work.

Sara was magnificently playing the role of new broom. She was assistant secretary of the Coheeze, and managing editor (the other editors were Eugene Silga) as well as two-finger stenographer and advertising solicitor of Protest & Progress. She wrote the minor editorials, with happy thought of how much they were going to annoy Fred, and in them felt herself a combination of Queen Marie, Emma Goldman, Lady Astor, Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Corday. It was a good job, this profession of being not merely allowed but encouraged to clout every head that rose above the mob, and of actually being paid for doing it — provided she went out and raised funds for the payment.

Into the office exploded their collaborators, Howard Cornplow and Guy Staybridge, with the uncollaborative, the hopelessly bourgeois Annabel tagging after them.

‘Gene! Gene! I’ve got a poem for you! Wrote it in biology class!’ crowed Guy. “This’ll stir up the fakers in Washington. Listen:

‘“Here is a dime,” the President said,

“If you’ll vote for me twice and bow your head.

Red roses rioting North and South —

Think of them buddy, and shut your mouth.

Go buy you a suit of clothes,” he said,

“But careful, buddy, the coat ain’t red!”’

‘Fine! Fine!’ said Gene easily, and for that ease Sara loved him. He dropped the poem into the pasteboard box which, Sara knew, held the manuscripts he had accepted and would never publish. He gushed, ‘Hope you’ve been able to raise a little dough, Guy. Kind of a crisis with the “P. & P.” If our friends will help us to get through this month . . .’

‘Yeh, I got fifteen dollars from Dr. Gomber, the professor of drama — he sympathizes with communism — he’s got plenty money — his father owns in on the Piping Rock Explosives Corporation.’ Guy handed over a wrinkled ten-dollar bill and a five. These did not go into any pasteboard box, but into Gene’s vest pocket, and Gene turned on Howard with an affectionate, ‘How about you, old man?’

Howard was looking vaguely at the window. ‘You ought to have more air in here, Gene. If I had time I could fix it so you’d have more air in here, Gene.’

‘I’m sure you could, Howard, but did you manage to raise any funds?’

‘Oh, I was going to, but I’ve been awful busy.’

‘Sure, but the world revolution has to be pretty busy, too, Howard.’

‘Well now, I’ll tell you how I feel about that, Gene. I can’t say I’m entirely sold on communism.’ Howard looked as handsome as Pike’s Peak at sunset and as dumb. ‘With my scientific training, Gene, you got to show me the data — show me the data; the thing is . . .’

‘The data,’ chirped Annabel, sitting on a pile of ‘Proletarian Art’.

Howard faced her crossly. ‘Well, what about it? Don’t YOU think you gotta have the data, Bell?’

‘Sure. Data is the goods.’

‘You’re so frivolous all the time! You got no idea the risks I take, in a conservative dump like Truxon, coming right out for the left wing. Are you with me or aren’t you?’

‘I’m with you, beautiful, just the same as your mother will be with your father, no matter how much she may kick beforehand, if he ever decides to go and do something sweet and crazy.’

Sara and Howard swapped glances of surprise. It had not occurred to them that anybody, certainly not a flippant young woman, certainly not a superior Staybridge, could speak of their matter-of-fact parents with enthusiastic affection.

‘Howard!’ Sara demanded. ‘Tell me something more about rockets for aerial power. Just exactly how do they work, mechanically?’

‘Rockets?’

‘Good heavens, don’t you remember that the other day you were making a fortune out of them? Come through now; don’t hold out all this priceless information on your comrade and sister, stupid. How do the rockets work? I’ve got to write something about ’em.’

Annabel was helpful: ‘The aviator wears an opera hat with the rockets in ’em, and every time he shuts the thing, a rocket goes off.’

‘Can it!’ said Howard.

‘Don’t be an idiot,’ said Sara.

‘Darling!’ said Gene.

‘Check,’ said Annabel.

‘Now rockets,’ said Howard, ‘these rockets — well, if you want a technical explanation, they’re affixed to the, I think it’s the rear of the fuselage, I think it’s the fuselage, and — well, they go off, and the sum of the reaction is equal to the reaction, I mean to the action, and there you are, Sara, can’t you see? If you’d only studied physics, instead of all this literature and stuff!’

‘My beautiful,’ yearned Annabel.

Winnie Weston Blear’s Tea Room was to Sachem Falls a combination of all the Greenwich Village restaurants that begin with Ye and all the Broadway restaurants in which legitimate theatrical producers have a farewell drink before catching the train for Hollywood. Mrs. Blear’s establishment had caviare once or twice a year, you could get slivovitz if you knew the head waitress, and English muffins were practically obligatory. Here exhibited themselves the featured players of the Spreadeagle Little Theatre, all the violin teachers in town, and the local literary celebrity — the dramatic critic on the Evening Tidings, who had written a book on his travels in New Zealand.

Guy took all of the ‘P. & P.’ conspirators, except Gene, who had a rendezvous with the telephone, over to Mrs. Blear’s and went cosmopolitan on them. His father, the bleak Mr. Putnam Staybridge, had once suffered Guy’s presence for two weeks in London and one in Paris, and Guy explained now, to the untravelled Howard and Sara and Annabel, how sophisticated were cream cheese with bar le duc, avocado soaked with curaçao, and Stilton with port — while the nearest they came to these elegances was cinnamon toast with chilly tea.

Annabel paid attention to her brother not with her ears but with her memory. For years she had listened to her father and Guy being airy about European food, and that may explain why she looked so fondly on a Howard who confessed that he knew no more about Stilton (which he seemed to regard as some variety of sponge cake) than a rabbit. Howard warmed handsomely to her stilly gaze, and suddenly, to the disgust of those hard-boiled communist warriors, Sara and Guy, he demanded of Annabel:

‘Are you crazy about me?’

‘Absolutely.’

‘How crazy?’

‘Catatonics, catelepsies and cataclysms.’

Sara barked, ‘I’m going to the office.’

‘And me,’ said Guy. ‘When do you publish my poem?’

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lewis/sinclair/prodigal/chapter14.html

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