The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 20

The initial salary received by Howard Cornplow, a new apprentice at the Triumph Motor Agency, was twenty-five dollars a week, which was eighteen a week as a worker and seven a week as a son. He started in as a salesman, and he liked it. He pictured himself in a silver-and-scarlet automobile, spurting all over the district, crowing over his former fellow prisoners at Truxon College next autumn, and with lush commissions investing in the stock market and becoming a millionaire. He bought a suit of imported Harris tweed and, for no reason that he could ever explain, a pair of binoculars, which he kept in his demonstrator. Meanwhile, on one day at least, he borrowed lunch money from his shaggy second cousin, Cal Tillery.

But he did not sell any cars, not any cars at all, and Fred noticed this more than he did the Harris tweeds. After a week, Fred summoned him to the office, at close of the day’s work.

Swinging his foot good-naturedly, Howard chuckled ‘Can’t take very long, Dad. Bell and I are going out and shoot some golf.’

‘Son, I don’t want you to think I’m grouchy. But it’s time now . . .’

‘Oh, golly, Dad, Bell is always saying “it’s time now” to do some confounded thing or other!’

‘Dry up till I finish! I said it’s time for you to settle down to work. No employer is going to pay you for looking handsome — not even Hollywood, because you do have to be on time there, I understand, and in the nine days you’ve worked here now, you’ve been on an average of twenty-one minutes late in the morning, and you’ve taken an average of an hour and twenty-two minutes for lunch.’

‘You’ve checked up on me — spied on me — like that?’

‘I have. Any other employer would just have fired you. But your unpunctuality isn’t as bad as the fact that you don’t know a single thing about automobiles.’

‘Now look here, Dad! Fair’s fair! I’ve been driving cars since I was fifteen . . .’

‘And you still don’t know what all those funny tubes under the hood are for! Before you can sell, you’ve got to be able to take down a motor. I’m going to put you in the repair shop. I’m going to have Bill Merman teach you how to use a lathe and a hammer and a cold chisel . . .’

‘Me work for that greasy, tobacco-spitting roughneck?’

‘Maybe chewing tobacco is what makes a good machinist. Maybe you better learn . . . Wait! Excuse me. I didn’t mean to get flip. I called you in here so we could get right down to brass tacks and cut out this fencing and covering up that we’ve always done, all our lives, doggone it! You’re no longer a nice kid that I’m responsible for. You’re a grown, married man — theoretically — and you’re responsible for yourself and for Annabel. So you’ll either put on overalls, and really go to work, and maybe some day I may put you to selling again, or else you’ll get out and find work somewhere else.’

‘And if I can’t? With the raw deal Youth is getting . . .’

‘Then you’ll probably starve.’

Howard struck attitudes by the dozen, heroic ones: ‘Oh, I can take it! I can live on handouts! I can sleep in the hay! But what about Annabel? Her father won’t speak to her.’

‘Your mother and I would be very pleased to have Annabel stay with us while you’re sleeping in the hay, but if you come to our house to call on her, please brush off the hayseed . . . Howard! Damn it! Have I got to wake up and find I have a fool for a son? You can get to work or get out, and I’ve got so now’s I don’t care which . . . Oh, son, son, don’t make me angry! I want to help you. Can’t you see that?’

‘Oh, all right, Dad. I’ll try. I’ll spit tobacco juice, if you say so, and pinch every penny . . . Want to drive out with me and meet Bell? I’ll buy you a dry martini.’

While Howard and Annabel had been on their honeymoon of a week (which Fred had felt was all he ought, for their own sakes, to give them), he had found for them a three-room flat with appreciable light and air. Three months’ rent he paid, and Hazel and he, somewhat timidly, provided electric stove and refrigerator, beds and a few chairs, and painted dining furniture. They called in Sara to approve and were flattered when she found these intrusions tolerable.

When Annabel returned, Fred called her to his office and ventured:

‘It’ll be a long time before Howard is able to do much more. I want to lend you, uh, lend you personally, Annabel, a thousand dollars, so you can finish the furnishing. I want you to give me your personal note for it — thousand bucks to be paid back in, uh, say ten years, at, uh, shall we say two per cent interest? Oh, it’ll be a good investment for me, the way things are!’

‘Dad, I don’t want to take it. You’ve already given us enough furniture to scrape along on. I’d rather save, and buy things bit by bit. Howard is sweet, but . . .’

‘Doggone it, Annabel, will you stop being so doggone noble? I’m being noble and you’re being noble and no wonder Howard goes haywire with everybody forgiving him the whole doggone time, doggone it! Here, you take this thousand bucks and sign this note and get out of here and go buy that furniture, do you hear?’

‘O.K., Chief!’

From the sketchiness of the lounge chairs, the couch, the occasional tables, the dressing-table and bureau that she bought, Fred suspected that Annabel had thriftily kept half of the thousand. He came in for coffee or lunch once or twice a week; he found that, as she often asserted, Putnam Staybridge had taught her perfection in making soups and desserts, canapés and salads. But she had never learned to cook roast beef or bread pudding or porridge, she was not precise in bed-making, and she belonged to the school of sweepers who leave rolls of dust under the bureau. She did perceive the sloppiness of her housekeeping, and day after day he saw her trying to remember where she had put the ice pick, trying to clean the ash trays and the glasses which their friends had left on every chair and table at last night’s party.

He sighed, ‘Dunno how come, but I feel more at home eating sinkers and lukewarm coffee off a soap-box with Annabel than I would having a bottle of champagne with Sara.’

(There were, to him, only five types of wine: champagne wine, sherry wine, red wine, California wine and cowslip wine, of which, as he understood it, only the first was to be drunk for pleasure and not to flatter one’s host.)

The third issue of Protest & Progress contained two articles which irritated Fred beyond tolerance. He read them on an evening when Sara was away and, despite the sweet vision of sleep, he stayed up, girt for battle.

The first article stated that rarely had there been so persuasive a proof that all Americans were fools as had been seen during the recent visit of General Kynok, of the Soviet Air Corps. Aside from being entertained by the American airmen, invited to lunch by the President, urged to lecture in several cities, and shown all our landing fields and aeroplane factories, he had been ignored.

This curtain lecture was accompanied by a few sound generalizations: (1) It is glorious for a Russian to be a soldier and ready to defend his country. (2) Any American who is ready to defend his country and has become a soldier is either a bloodthirsty fiend or has been misled by the paid hypnotizers of Capitalism. (3) The Russian air fleet is stronger than those of any other three countries combined. (4) America, if she had any sort of nice feeling, would be devoting herself to helping defenceless and aeroplaneless Russia. (5) General Kynok was at once a Wellingtonian commander and a true-blue, tail-wagging Proletarian comrade.

That essay was merely an appetizer for the article in which Gene Silga urged that the Pragg Glassworks, the largest industry in Sachem Falls, be organized forthwith as a closed shop, and since it had been successful in resisting organization, that this be done by violence. He advised the workers to buy rifles, to form classes in marksmanship, to study Georges Sorel.

Fred was raving, when Sara appeared, after midnight.

‘Wait a minute,’ she said crisply. ‘You’re just an amateur scold. Look what the professionals have done.’

She gave him an early edition of the Sachem Falls Recorder, the morning paper, open at the third page. The right-hand column was filled with a story headed: ‘Mayor and Council Denounce Local Red’, which announced that one Eugene Silga was a notorious Bolshevik, that his paper was inciting to riot, and that the Board of Aldermen, with the mayor in attendance, would take up, tomorrow, means of ridding the city of Silga and his followers.

‘You better get out of town!’ agonized Fred.

‘No. I can’t run away.’

‘Yes. That’s so. You oughtn’t to. But I certainly think you ought to stay away from Gene and your office a few days.’

‘I suppose you’re ashamed of me! Perhaps it’s Mother and you that will want to run away!’

Mildly, rather surprised: ‘No — no. I don’t have to tell you I don’t like what “P. & P.” is doing — trying to make the whole country a WPA with unemployability the only test of employability. But of course I want to help you any way I can . . .’

‘There is one thing you can do: help straighten up the office accounts. With this beastly attack, I expect all our beastly creditors will be surging into the office tomorrow, clamouring to be paid.’

‘They might be. Some business men do like to be paid! I’ll step around in the morning.’

‘If you’d care to,’ she said indifferently, as she started up stairs.

Fred’s splendid rage had gone damp. Once more he had discovered that even when you have a sinner exactly where you want him, he still may have something to say; that it is, perhaps, a mistake to rehearse a play without inquiring whether your opposite is going to have some lines also.

He did not long brood on his failure. He knew that his daughter, beneath her icing, must be disheartened. He paddled to the upper hall and, after she should have been asleep, heard her softly thumping about her room. He longed to go in and have what he called a ‘real talk with her’. Suddenly, feeling lonely, he saw that not for years had Sara and he talked with easy simplicity. This Coheeze disaster might be a bridge between them.

Did children, afraid to ask their parents for favours, know how often those parents were afraid of seeming ridiculous or bossy, and how they hovered, hesitating, outside bedroom doors?

He knocked.

There was no hearty ‘Come in’. Sara evidently burrowed around for a dressing-gown before she opened the door, with an annoyed ‘Yes?’

‘Nothing, nothing, daughter. Just — well, I wanted you to know I’d help, any way I can.’

‘Oh, thanks,’ she said bleakly.

Fred had never been in the Coheeze office, and when he climbed to it, at ten the next morning, he felt uncomfortably that he had returned to his early days of canvassing. The unpainted, boxed-in stairs were littered with papers and muddy heelprints, they smelled of yellow soap, and they displayed the signs of an electric healer and of a philanthropist who sold loaded dice ‘for scientific purposes only’.

In his one glance about the Coheeze office, Fred rather liked it, reminded of the crazy tents, littered with fishing tackle and old shoes, in which he had camped as a boy. Gene and Sara were sitting on their tables, muttering anxiously.

‘Well, Gene, this is kind of hard luck.’

‘Eh? Oh, how d’you do, Mr. Cornplow. Hard luck is right. I get all the blame, but how could I guess?’

‘You might’ve known . . .’

‘I was following instructions absolutely. Now, I suppose, I won’t get a cent more money.’

‘You could hardly expect the Channing Praggs to come through when you’ve jumped on the source of all their cash . . .’

‘Praggs? PRAGGS? Oh! Them! We aren’t talking about the same thing, Mr. Cornplow.’

Sara said witheringly, ‘Of course not!’ while the young Fred felt like a calf in the scornful company of these, his elders. Gene condescended:

‘I don’t mind the Press roasting me, either. That’s my job, stirring them up. My trouble is with the C.P.’

‘Oh yes. The C.P.?’

‘Good heavens, Father!’ from Sara. ‘The Communist Party, of course.’

‘Oh, I see.’

Gene sighed, ‘I’ve just had a long wire from them this morning . . . I’m a good radical, but I never did understand why it is that the harder up a left-wing organization is, the more it sends out hundred-word night letters that could just as well go under a three-cent stamp . . . Happen to notice that in the last “P. & P.” I gave quite a boost to the Russian general, Kynok?’

‘Um-uhh.’

‘The real model for all American soldiers that might want to go revolutionary?’

‘Um-huh.’

‘Well the Party wires me that Comrade Kynok was secretly arrested in Moscow day before yesterday, as a spy for Japan, and tried last night, and of course he will be shot this morning. Kynok! That stood with Stalin’s arm about his shoulders while 175,000 children marched past them, saluting, a month ago! How could I know? Now, I suppose I’m a Jap spy and a Trotskyite, too!’

‘But big leader like that, Gene, prob’ly they’ll find him innocent.’

Gene turned on his smile, friendly, a little cynical.

‘Nope. They don’t waste time in Moscow. They don’t spend the State’s money inquiring whether somebody’s innocent unless they can prove he’s guilty. It’s a new system of justice! Good Lord, I sound like a counter-revolutionary! Sorry. Well, I’ve got to get to work writing a piece telling how I finally got on to Kynok, the dirty, treacherous rat! The enemies of the Proletarian State must be rooted out ruthlessly! Rat — root — rut’less, that’s my tune — my rune — oh hell!’

Gene’s typewriter began firing, shooting out flames, the platen turning red hot, the gunner’s face grim.

Sara suggested almost civilly, ‘You wanted to look over our accounts, Father?’

He indicated that such had been his presumptuous longing.

She led him to a third kitchen table, which the Coheeze office had extravagantly added to its equipment; she pointed to a mess of letters, bills and ten-cent notebooks, and said casually: ‘There’s our books.’

After half an hour of rustling through papers like a discouraged sparrow scratching up gravel, Fred decided that he was not going to be able to ‘straighten up their accounts’. For there were no accounts. Except for transactions during their first week, they had noted down nothing whatever. Uncashed donation cheques were mixed with unpaid bills. On torn slips of paper were such helpful notes as ‘Recd cash from J.K., ten.’ In one envelope he found a cheque for one hundred dollars from the Southside Marxian and Literary Club and a bill for sixty-five from a stationery firm, and the envelope was from neither party but from the Maplehurst Labour College.

Fred was opening his mouth in wrath at such sacrilege against bookkeeping when the tramp of a dozen heavy feet came from the rickety stairs below them.

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