The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 2

To Frederick William Cornplow, this day was as another. The round little man, district agent for Triumph and Houndtooth automobiles in the Sachem Falls territory, had finished his cornflakes and bacon and poached eggs, in the scarlet-and-canary-yellow breakfast porch, which was not a porch, when he was called to the telephone and learned that his son, Howard, was in the hospital with injuries from a motor accident.

‘I’ll be there right away,’ answered Fred Cornplow evenly.

He told neither his good wife, Hazel, nor his daughter, Sara, of the accident. For Hazel, who always drifted down to breakfast late, a soft and smiling sleepyhead, he left a note, ‘Had to hustle office to see a man. F.’

The distance from his brick Colonial house, on the corner of Fenimore Cooper Boulevard and Tuke Street, Sachem Falls, N.Y., to the William Jackson Belch Infirmary, Truxon College, was seventy and a half miles, with a good deal of factory trucking traffic. He drove it in two hours flat. He got up to seventy on stretches, but through villages he dropped to twenty-five. He was a veteran driver and rigidly careful. He decidedly did not sing about Labour being a giant or anything else. He did not think much of Labour anyway. He employed it.

Through the drive, never taking his eyes from the road, he alternately decided that Howard could not be badly hurt, therefore Howard was a young fool and ought to have his car taken away from him, and that Howard was nigh unto death, in which case he was a superb driver whose accident was due to some double-damned garage mechanic’s carelessness with steering gear or brakes . . . and that, in either case, the Norse god, with his kinky copper hair and his easy smile, was his father’s heart and soul and means of immortality.

Fred jumped out at the Truxon infirmary, just back of the white and pillared official residence of the college president, and ran up the steps, but to the reception girl he said with gravity, ‘My name is Cornplow. I believe my son was injured in a smash.’

‘Oh yes. He’s not badly hurt. The doctor isn’t here, but I think you can go in and see Mr. Cornplow — he’s in Room E, with some other stoodents.’

As Fred clumped up the linoleum-shining stairs, he reflected that it was startling to hear Howard called ‘Mr. Cornplow’. He, Fredk Wm, was Mr. Cornplow. Howard — heck! — he was HOWARD!

He peeped into Room E, where, sunk on their pillows or sitting on the edges of their beds, were six young men, all bandaged, all pale, and all — in Fred’s opinion — crazy as ticks, for they were screaming their opinions (or the opinions of whichever newspaper they happened to read) of Russia, Roosevelt, Manchuria, backgammon, biochemistry, and the ham and cabbage at the college dining hall.

Howard was on his back. As Fred walked between the rows of beds, shy in the presence of these gilded young strangers, irritated that he had been so yearningly sentimental all the way from Sachem, Howard saw him and bellowed, ‘Hello, Dad! Swell of you to come. I’m O.K. Couple of ribs K.O.‘d. They don’t hurt much, but gosh almighty, the doc insisted on putting a big, thick adhesive-tape bandage on me, it’s like a double-strength corset, and wow, does it itch, ask me, DOES it, and the bandage so thick you can’t scratch through it, and say, I figure there’s a whole war manoeuvres going on underneath it — there’s six regiments of fleas and a troop of light-mounted lice and . . .’

Fred sat on a chair by the bed and he, the round, the cheery, the jesting salesman, was solemn, feeling that the other crocks were inspecting this phenomenon, a Visiting Father. He interrupted:

‘How’d it happen?’

‘Happen? Nobody could’ve avoided it. Car jumped the road and hit a tree. And I was cold sober, and tending strictly to business . . .’

‘How fast?’

‘Fast? You mean how fast was I going?’

‘I do.’

‘Oh, I dunno — not more ‘n forty . . .’

‘Or maybe sixty?’

‘Well, you know — just a fair cruising speed. There was an S-curve there — absolutely a disgrace — entirely the fault of the county authorities — simply a crime — and when I get out of this, I’m going to sue the county. Oh say, Dad, you know Guy Staybridge, from Sachem, don’t you — old hawkface, there in the next bed?’

Fred bowed. Guy waggled a melancholy fingertip. ‘Oh, yes — the son of Putnam Staybridge?’ Fred murmured.

‘I— I understand so,’ said Guy.

Fred was almost reverent. Like most Americans, he was perfectly democratic, except, perhaps, as regards social standing, wealth, political power, and club membership; but was not Mr. Putnam Staybridge believed to be a descendant of the Mayflower? Was he not the chief aristocrat of Sachem Falls?

Howard was volleying on: ‘Yessir, absolutely county supervisors’ fault, and they ought to be shown up. Just like all governments, except in Russia — oppress the people and kill ’em by tyranny and darn careless sloppiness. Dad, did you realize that in the past year — and the Americans thinking THEY’RE so efficient — the growth in production in heavy industry in the Ural section of Russia has been two hundred and seventeen per cent?’

‘So? What is this “heavy industry”?’

‘Heavy industry? Oh, you know. Darn it, I guess Gene Silga — say, now I think of it, I wonder where they took Gene when they brought us here, Guy? — but anyway, I don’t believe Gene said anything about what heavy industry does cover. It’s machines and so on, isn’t it? What d’you think, Dad?’

Fred Cornplow, in the manner of a Roman candle on Fourth of July evening, suddenly flowered and flamed in parental rage. But he spoke so softly that not even Guy, in the next bed, could overhear.

‘Think? Think? I think you’re a conceited, inconsiderate young pup! I think you’re so self-centred and so dogGONE satisfied with yourself that it never occurs to you to remember how you might scare your mother and Sara and me, or how you hurt our feelings! I think it would be a bright idea to keep your scholarship marks from dropping about two hundred and seventeen per cent per each and every doggone annum, instead of going around feeling good because you’ve personally whooped up Soviet production so doggone much. And finally, I suppose you’ll expect me to pay for having your car fixed after you’ve deliberately been and gone and driven so carelessly that I know doggone well you weren’t keeping your eyes on the road and you ran off it! And of course, pass the buck to the county — and to me, to get it fixed!’

Howard’s blue eyes of a young Balder, Norse godling of the summer radiance, looked hurt.

‘But gee, Dad, it won’t cost so much, will it, if you have it done in your own repair shop, at the agency?’

Fred was glaring now, and Howard begged, ‘Gosh, honest, I wasn’t driving fast, Dad. I don’t THINK I was. I’m awfully sorry.’

‘Grrrrr!’ said Fredk Wm. For this was the third calamitous accident Howard had achieved in two years, and each time Fred had determined that it was his duty, finally, to say ‘Grrrrr!’

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