The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 16

Her mother had gone to bed; her father, Sara guessed, with just a little uneasiness, had shown unusual powers of keeping his mouth shut and, without any lecture on the subject, had made it clear that he would not contribute to the Coheeze. But that was only part of her troubles, and she said to him coaxingly:

‘Sometimes you think I don’t appreciate how hard you work, Father, but I do. I’ve been learning about real work. Not only at the Coheeze . . . I don’t suppose you care to talk much about that. But I have so many other activities, too. Did you know I’m going to enter the club tennis tournament this summer?’

‘That sounds better.’

‘And I’m afraid I’ll have to contribute to the courts fund and my allowance is so shamefully overdrawn . . .’

‘Ten dollars be enough? . . . No? . . . Fifteen? . . . No? Well, twenty-five, and that’s my limit!’

‘Oh, I suppose we can get away with that . . .’

‘“We”?’

‘But if the club were only the end of it! Here I’ve gone and got myself mixed up with the amateur summer theatre that the Spreadeagle Little Theatre is sponsoring, and they’ve elected me chairman of the Box Office, Seats, and Ushering Committee — of course it is quite an honour, with Mrs. Channing Pragg and Putnam Staybridge (and how HE ever came to have a tacky daughter like Annabel I don’t know; wait; don’t shoot; if Howard and you say she’s pretty, I suppose she must be)— and with them on the board of directors, it’s quite a social honour, and so of course I’ll have to try and raise a fifty — or seventy-five-dollar subscription, somehow or other . . .’

And Fred fired, after keeping his powder so dry so long:

‘I know I’m just a clodhopper, that’s all, nothing but a clodhopper, just a clown, that’s all, nothing but a dumb bunny, but I’ll be everlastingly doggoned if I can understand how you can hook up your doggoned Young Men’s Anarchist Association with guzzling tea with Sister Pragg and kissing the doggone snobs in the tennis association . . .’

‘Yes? Perhaps I might just happen to convert them to socialism.’

‘And perhaps you might just happen to not do anything of the kind. You look here, Sara: I’ve always given you all the allowance I thought I could afford, but now you’re proposing to support not only Holy Russia and Holy Joe Stalin but also the white-pants aggregation, and this amateur-dramatics-ina-barn . . .’

‘“Dramatics”!’

‘ . . . circus, that Sister Pragg would do anything for it except ever come through with a cent, I— well, I’m afraid you’ll have to get Comrade Silga to increase your salary — from about ten bucks a week minus to something plus — and then devote that to these children’s games.’

At the end of that scene, as he described it to Hazel in their bathroom, ‘She went and got hurt, and then she walked out on me. Oh, I don’t want to be mean, but I don’t like to see her — yes, or see me — falling for people that just use her for what they can get out of her,’ he worried, while Hazel, smoothing his cheek, was worried along with him.

He was the more dependent upon the security of home because he was too busy and doing too well. The Triumph and Houndtooth were prospering; the Duplex Trailer was a sensation; and he had to bounce all over his district, leasing out Duplex rights to sub-agents, and thus getting rid, wherever he could, of responsibility. That he also got rid thus of much of his profits he did not tell his family.

He said nothing about retiring; he did not think about it very clearly; but he kept up his absurdly grave ‘training’; and he was giving Paul Popple more experience in accounting and sales.

‘‘F anything ever happened to me, ought to be somebody else could kind of take charge — just temporarily,’ he said to Paul.

In one bright idea he had a regrettable failure.

Among the less desirable features of the Triumph shop, along with rats, high insurance rates and a smell of sewer gas, was the continued presence of his near-cousins, Cal and Mac Tillery. Fred had, briefly, been too much of a coward to fire them and to risk receiving the hurt letter which their sire, Cousin Enos, would inevitably write.

He had tried them at cleaning cars, until too many owners complained of wet upholstery, and of running boards abloom with soaked cigarette butts; he had tried them at selling gasoline, until he noticed that with each gallon they donated five minutes of bright backwoods chatter about the weather —‘Hot, I’ll say it’s hot. Oh boy, is it hot today — say, it was hot when I woke up this morning — oh boy, was it hot!’ Painting did not seem suited to the particular talents of Cal and Mac; they broke spray guns and made the car bodies contrasts of gummy spots with patches entirely bare. At last Fred had put them to packing and toting boxes in the supply department, which they did fairly well, except when they dropped the boxes, lost them or used them as targets for tobacco juice.

In whatever job they might be, they told all colleagues and all customers, ‘We’re Fred Cornplow’s own cousins. He’s learned how to get away with it, but say, is that guy a hick! Oh boy!’

Fred begged of them, tenderly, ‘Boys, now summer’s coming, don’t you suppose your dad will need you on his farm?’

‘His what?’

‘His farm. In West Virginia. From the government.’

‘Oh. That. Oh, Dad never got there. He run into a cousin of Ma’s, on the way, that’s got a wild animal farm, and he and Ma and the kids are staying there to help train the tigers.’

‘Well, well, Cal! That’s fine, Mac! That must be mighty interesting! Don’t you want to join him? I hear tigers make fine pets. I’d be glad to pay your railroad fares.’

‘Naw. Dad wrote me a postcard; he said Cousin Albert was an awful tightwad and gives ’em rotten grub. He got so sore he prett’ near left Cousin Albert flat. No, we like it all right here, Fred. We’ll stick by you.’

By Sara, Fred sent word to Gene Silga that if he could use one or two fine young men, just the sort of real proletarians to whom Gene wished to hand the control of the American government, Fred could supply them, and he might even contribute to the Coheeze.

Eugene sent back jeering word: ‘The Soviets and their fellow travellers don’t want shiftless bums any more than the capitalists do; in fact, not being sentimental like the soppy American capitalists, the Bolsheviks give slackers a choice between working and losing citizenship.’

It was at that moment that Fred almost joined the communists. And he felt thus for a second time when Howard dragged in his playful friend, Ben Bogey, whose slogan was ‘Homes that are nice at lowest price’.

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