The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 21

At the tramping on the stairs, the three sprang up, Gene with quivering hand at his lips.

‘You scared?’ demanded Sara.

‘You bet I am! Sounds like the cops. I’ve been beaten by cops before!’

‘They’ve got no reason to arrest us.’

‘They don’t arrest you for reason — just for fun!’

Fred took command — not these many years had he dared to command Sara. ‘You two get out of this! Hustle up on the roof and hide. I know lots of the cops.’ They hesitated, and his voice became military. ‘Hear me? Get out! Beat it!’

The two revolutionaries beat it.

He made much of looking as though he had proper business here. He sat squarely at the table, pencil in hand, note-book and bills before him, but he was trembling, and afterward he found that the only entry he had made in the note-book was: ‘Scared myself.’ He was gravely drawing ballet girls on a blotter when, like pigs bursting out of an opened pen, into the room sprang a police sergeant and five patrolmen, all with clubs in their fists, a couple with hands on pistol holsters.

‘What the!’ grunted the sergeant.

‘Well I’ll be!’ intelligently commented the others.

‘Hello, Sergeant. Afraid you’re too late. Your birds have flown the coop,’ Fred carolled.

He remained seated; he knew that to be the safest position against a thug not too drunk.

‘Who are you? Oh. It’s Mr. Cornplow. What you doing here? Where’s this anarchist guy?’

‘Skipped town, I’m afraid. I’m here representing the creditors. This fellow Silga owes me for a light truck, damn him!’

‘What makes you think he’s gone?’

‘My daughter saw him off at the train.’

‘Oh, that’s so! She was mixed up in this.’

‘She just worked here — she talked it over with my friend, the mayor, before she took the job. She has no responsibility.’

‘Well, I don’t want her, anyway. Get busy, boys!’

It was appalling to the placid Fred, the gloating frenzy with which the boys ‘got busy’. From somewhere out in the hall axes were brought, and they gleefully went to work. There is no greater bliss than to be destructive as hell while being moral as heaven. The guardians of the law smashed tables, threw a typewriter through a closed window, with hysterical laughter. Reporters and news photographers were somehow suddenly there, very cheerful, and it was the glare of a flashlight bulb that startled Fred into action. He rose; he faced the sergeant as he would have faced a chronic dead beat.

‘Stop this business or I’ll have the whole bunch of you kicked off the force! I represent the creditors, and you have no court order . . .’

‘Don’t need none.’

‘I’ll sue you, personally, for every cent of damage! Look, Sergeant — chase all these roughnecks out of here, and I’ll explain.’

‘Outside youse,’ said the sergeant, wiping his hand on the seat of his trousers, that it might be clean to receive the dirty money.

Fred’s argument was brief: it consisted entirely in a twenty-dollar bill and the reminder that, already, the sergeant had been photographed enough to ensure publicity.

‘I would like to get hold of that there atheist Silga, though. Hate to have the cops in the next town find we let him go without marking him,’ mourned the faithful sergeant, as he departed, after giving his inspiring lesson in How to Make Communists.

Fred sat down, unsteadily. As Gene and Sara crept back into the room, he, who had hated all Reds, was positively loving in his address:

‘Son, better get going quick — get out of town. They want to beat you. I finagled the cops out, but they might come back.’

Sara said sniffily, ‘I suppose you bribed them! I suppose you were humble to them!’

‘I certainly was — I bribed and humbled and I lied, you little prig, you Soviet Salvation Army lassie, you . . . Grrrr! Gene, got any compromising papers here? Get ’em out quick.’

‘Only the C.P. telegram this morning. I burn ’em.’

That telegram Gene was taking from a telephone book and tucking into his pocket.

‘Want to hide out at my house, Gene? Seeing Sara was in this with . . .’

‘I do not! I’m leaving town.’

‘You probably aren’t very flush. Can you use this ten bucks?’

Gene took the bill disdainfully — oh, he took it, just the same! — and without thanks headed for the door.

‘Gene!’ wailed Sara.

‘Well?’

‘Can’t we help you with your baggage?’

‘Baggage? You’re very funny, Comrade Cornplow!’ Gene snarled. ‘My baggage consists of two suitcasefuls — one of them books — which is what I have to show for my twenty-seven years — six of ’em spent in either being beaten by cops, or enduring middle-class females playing at being free souls, like you!’

‘Gene!’ It slashed Fred’s heart to see with what agonized fondness his daughter was looking at the young man.

‘But you remind me, Sara,’ remarked Gene, and for a second his reckless smile came back. He dialled on the telephone, and murmured, ‘Miss Kitz, please . . . Oh, Frieda, this is Gene . . . Yes, they’ve been here — wrecked everything. I’m hitch-hiking out of town and glad of it. I’ll meet you in the old place in Albany, ‘bout eight to-night. O.K.? . . . Fine. Auf Wiedersehen!’

He turned debonairly on the Cornplows with, ‘You see, you needn’t worry about my future now, Mr. Cornplow! You wouldn’t be a bad sort, if you just had the sense to realize that your good-natured democratic sort of middle-roadishness is plumb finished — or will finish, in front of a stone wall.’

‘I suppose you want me to play safe and join the Communist Party!’

Fred believed that he had been chillingly sarcastic, but Gene answered serenely, ‘No I’m afraid we wouldn’t want you!’ and Gene was gone.

Fred turned pitifully to Sara, who was standing mute, hands at her breast. ‘Honey, it’s what you get if you mix up with folks that are crazy for power. Were you awfully fond of Gene?’

The tornado struck him squarely:

‘Gene? You call that little guttersnipe “Gene”? I hate him! I always did! He was just an experiment in psychology to me. “Fond”? Oh, can’t you even begin to understand me? . . . I’m going to the tennis club. I’ve been neglecting my game. I’m going out for it seriously now. But before I play, I’m going to have a Tom Collins and see if I can’t wash the taste of all this vulgarity out of my mouth.’ She looked indignantly down on the parent who had wished upon her these unpleasantnesses, the Coheeze and Protest & Progress and the police. She said, from the doorway, ‘It’s all very distasteful to me. Bribery! Insisting that I’m such a fool as to like that little rat, Silga. Very — distasteful — indeed!’

Fred was left alone with a mess of unpaid bills.

‘I won’t pay one cent of ’em,’ he stormed — with twenty-five-per-cent honesty.

An hour later, in front of a miraculously straightened table, he added, ‘I’d like to get out of this! I suppose I love my grateful son and daughter, but now I know what old man Solomon meant when he said, “Comfort me with apples for I am sick of love!”’

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