The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 22

As an apprentice mechanic at the Triumph Agency, Howard was popular. For a couple of days he sulked at grease and overalls, the time clock and an aching back, but he discovered that the workmen were as individual as the pedigreed young gentlemen he had known in college, and more vigorous in humour. Their stories of jobs and girls and drunks, of the navy, the Pacific Coast, Detroit, seemed to him better than the giggling of young collegians, and it became important to him to be one of the boys.

He learned that nobody will find it out — at least not till the rear-end burns out, months later — if you save your energy by squirting only a quarter enough grease into the differential. He learned to get something very like a nap, after lunch and a couple of Bourbons, by lying under a car and in a friendly manner tapping the springs with a hammer now and then. And the chief mechanic was indulgent when the Son of the Boss got a group about him and taught them ‘Three Cheers for Old TruxON’.

Howard perceived that he had been wrong in regarding his second cousin, Cal Tillery, as a lout and a bore. Cal might never achieve life’s prime purpose and learn to sell motor cars to bankers; Cal’s hair might resemble a ravelled gunnysack; but in the wholesome fastnesses of the Adirondacks, Cal had developed a rustic slyness that to Howard seemed sharper than the book-taught perceptions of Guy Staybridge. He played poker with the tenacity of one who had learned it in the hay-mow; waitresses might laugh at him, but they did walk out with him; and for all city slickers and their rules, Cal had contempt. No scolding from his father could embarrass Howard so much as Cousin Cal’s drawling, ‘You going to go society on us, are you, Big Boy, and put on the Tuxedo and play bridge whist with the old girls with the red fingernails?’

Cal started by borrowing money from Howard; it ended with Howard’s borrowing from Cal and nervously volunteering to his father that Cal was a jewel and they must never lose him.

Fred listened with no comment beyond that of his wrinkling eyebrows.

Fred was calling upon Ben Bogey, ‘Homes that are nice at lowest price’.

‘Cutting out the bunk, Mr. Bogey, how much chance do you think you’d stand of making a living if you and my son started a firm together?’

‘A living? Why, Mr. Cornplow, as sure as I’m sitting here, we’d make twenty per cent on the investment . . .’

‘Whoa-up! I asked could you two make a LIVING? In my experience, that totals a lot more than the twenty per cent that you boys seem to figure out on some kind of arithmetic different from what I studied. What real prospects you got?’

Mr. Bogey showed letters. Three firms were willing to let him handle their apartment-house rents; another firm congratulated him on ‘developing’ a cow pasture into a human pasture.

Fred mused, ‘Well, now, you take Howard, and what’s he got for you?’

‘Oh, everything, Mr. Cornplow! Simply everything! I cer’nly understand why you’re so proud of that boy. Good looks, nice voice, athletic training — gracious, how the ladies that are looking for suburban homes would fall for that fellow! And fine education and nice dependable manners — why, everything! You don’t have to tell me!’

‘As matter of fact, I WAS going to tell you a few interesting facts about him. His education is phony. He can mis-spell in three languages. He hasn’t just learned the history of the U.S. — no indeed — he’s forgotten the dates and names in the history of the whole world. But aside from all this modern education stuff, he’s unpunctual, he chatters like a monkey all day long, when he’s supposed to be reconditioning cars, he wastes material, he boasts that he’s the son of the boss, and he borrows money. Think you could do anything with him?’

‘Sure. He’s the kind that needs freedom.’

‘How much would I have to put up for him, if he went in partnership with you?’

‘I figured it would be five thousand dollars.’

‘Can’t do it possibly. I’ll tell you. I’ll put up two thousand now. Three months from now, if you two are making a real, honest-to-God beginning, I may put in another two.’

‘It’s a go!’

So was Howard kicked upstairs; so was the Triumph Agency saved from becoming a glee club; and in the innocent belief that his own overwhelming charm had done it all, Howard began his career as a builder of cities, a king of contracts, a viceroy of choice rentals.

Annabel was hanging the curtains in the bright new three-room office of the bright new firm of Bogey & Cornplow, Realtors. Ben had chosen the city’s northern outskirts, a pouncing place for the best suburbs, and for their office chosen the ground floor of a cheerful-looking building filled with doctors and dentists. Already he was out hustling for prospects, while Howard conducted the office, a task which, so far, had consisted in watching Annabel fill flower vases and the girl stenographer type ‘The quick brown fox jumped with zest over the gay lady’. He lighted a thin cigar with an air he had never shown in lighter college days, and to Annabel he pontificated:

‘This is something like it! Course at the Triumph the trouble was, I was kept back by being the owner’s son. Everybody took advantage of it and tried to borrow money . . .’

‘Howard! Please! Howard!’

He threw down the cigar; he became serious.

‘I know what you’re going to say, dear, every word; and most of its true. I was loafing. And I did kinda borrow a little. But what was there ahead, stuck in that dirty shop? Now I’m free! I’ve got the world by the tail! I’m going to work twenty hours a day, every day, by golly — uh — just soon as there’s any customers to work on!’

The Cornplow family had always taken its vacations together, in August or September, at some lakeside hotel. This year, with Howard’s marriage, with Sara’s revolution, with Coheeze creditors still to be pacified, with the Duplex booming, their vacation plans had been unmade.

Fred sat with Hazel on the screened porch at the side of their house on a late July evening, very hot, conducive to bad tempers and rebellion. It seemed to him that he had been fighting a battle in the fog, with shadows that proved to be armed enemies, and enemies that were mist; and that he could depend only on the fixed cool light that was Hazel.

‘Say, uh, Hazel, don’t you think we better start thinking about what we’re going to do for vacation? Looks like with the boy married, and Sara so doggone busy at the tennis club explaining she never was a communist, just you and I’ll go off together. First time in all these years, and will I enjoy it! Let’s drive up to the Gaspé. Or how about putting the car on a lake steamer and going out to Duluth? We’ll have some adventures, too — no Sara along to highhat the populace! Just us two old bums!’

‘It would be nice, Fred, but . . . The children have been talking with me. I know Howard expects to take Annabel and come with us.’

‘Now? Just started in business? Just married?’

‘He says it would be cheaper . . .’

‘I see. He don’t so much want a trip with us as on us!’

‘And Sara has an idea. She expects to play in a tennis tournament in the South, in October — down at Wormtail Hot Springs . . .’

‘That doggone dump? Where the politicians boil out enough alcohol so they can enjoy a fresh filling? If she goes there, she goes by herself, lemme tell you!’

‘She feels that after the mistake she made about this fellow Silga’s character, she’s got to be extra respectable, and she has an idea that if we took a cottage at Wormtail together . . .’

‘Of all the . . .’

‘I know, Fred, I know, but I also know how Sara is, and if she makes up her mind and starts nagging, we’ll give in to her to save trouble. The only way you could handle it would be to run away from her.’

‘Well, and what’s the matter with running away? Hm! Think I’ll take a little walk.’

Hazel stared after him. Fred was excited, and she was afraid of spontaneous combustion.

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