The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 23

At ten next morning, a dusty and discouraged morning of July, Fred telephoned from the office:

‘Oh, Hazel? Sara there?’

‘No, she’s at the club. Anything I can do?’

‘Just something I wanted to ask about.’

‘I’ll be going down town shopping, in about an hour, Fred.’

‘Say, wait for me at the house, will you? Got anything important on for today?’

‘No, just coffee at Louise Kamerkink’s this afternoon.’

‘Fine. Wait for me.’

He looked embarrassed, she was puzzled and a little anxious, when he came into the house at this unexampled hour of the day.

‘Lookit, Hazel. Grand day, and I’m kind of tired. What say we jump in the car and skip off for two-three days?’

‘To-day?’

‘Why not?’

‘Heavens, you have to make preparations!’

‘Don’t need any. Gas and oil and a toothbrush and a comb and a nightshirt — what more do you need? If you have to get a lipstick along the way, prob’ly there are some stores outside Sachem Falls! I brought some cash from the office.’

‘If you’d just told me a few days ago. I’ve made some dates . . .’

‘Anything you can’t bust?’

‘I don’t think that would be awfully nice of me.’

‘What ‘d you do if you stepped off the kerb and got killed by an auto? Wouldn’t be able to keep your dates then, would you?’

‘Why, what a perfectly awful suggestion!’

‘Well, it does happen sometimes, don’t it? Hop to it and call ’em off.’

‘You’re just as arbitrary as Sara.’

‘Sure. I inherited it from her. Can do?’

‘Oh, I suppose . . .’

‘Get at it, then, and pack a bag — just toilet things and some underwear.’

‘But where — what . . .’

‘Thought maybe we’d run over to Saratoga Springs and see the new buildings there. But the point isn’t where we’re going; it’s the fun of us two running off together.’

‘I think I might like it.’

She was already dialling Mrs. Kamerkink.

Fred hurried upstairs and packed one bag — the chief necessity in it, the latest P. G. Wodehouse novel. He telephoned to his secretary, at the office, that it was such a hot day — going take little run to Saratoga — would she call up Mr. Howard and Miss Sara and — tell ’em be back endaweekmiddlanext.

When Howard telephoned, as Howard was certain to, Fred was densely misunderstanding about the overwhelming need of Bogey & Cornplow for his advice on importunate problems. He merely chuckled a little, inanely babbled, ‘Yuh, thought I’d check out for couple days — Saratoga’, hung up on Howard — though, to any salesman, hanging up is a crime ranking with malfeasance and conversion — and did not answer the telephone when it rang again. That would be Sara. He knew that Sara would hurry right back to the house, but he also knew that Sara could never hurry right back anywhere without stopping to nag somebody about something, and indeed she did not arrive until five minutes after Fred had set the nickled snout of his Triumph Special Convertible Coupé eastward on Fenimore Cooper Boulevard, with Hazel warm and bewildered beside him.

Though he felt that in his flight into Egypt there were several important principles illustrated, he was thinking less about his boldness in running away from the parental tyranny of his children than about the fact that in the taut grey suit and the small tricorne hat which Hazel had assumed for motoring she looked ten years younger than when, soft and flowing, hinting of the harem, she appeared in an afternoon frock, phony jewellery and household cares. He observed that she was beginning to permit herself the questionable privilege of enjoying life. Could she ever be cured of her servitude to Things, her love of Possessions and of establishing her secure respectability by showing them off? Could she ever be free of blue china and of lacy mats?

She said cheerfully, ‘It’ll be interesting to see Saratoga Springs.’

‘Yes, I guess maybe it would be, some day.’

‘How do you mean? What are you being so mysterious about?’

‘You don’t know half of it. Listen, honey! I’m the most mysterious guy in this whole length and breadth of Sachem Falls! I’m Frenzied Fred, the Masked Menace. I’m right out of Edgar Wallace. I’m J. G. Reeder, with a dagger in my fountain pen.’

‘Idiot! What ARE you . . .’

‘I’m the man with three faces — all of ’em prob’ly a mistake.’

‘Darling, I thought I heard you sneak downstairs last night and have a little nip.’

‘It’s worse than liquor, woman. It’s the wine of life. It’s . . .’

‘Please stop trying to be cute, Fred, and tell me what you’re up to.’

‘Oh, we’re merely taking the Golden Road to Samarkand!’

‘Well, it may look so to you, but it looks to me like Route 29; and it may be gold, but right along here, there seem to be patches of cement.’

‘Don’t notice it. Some poor cusses on the WPA came along last night and pinched this stretch of gold. You’ll see it again in couple blocks.’

‘Fred, dearest, I don’t mind, but are you cuckoo?’

‘Completely! See that man there?’

‘What man, where?’

‘Sitting up on the bonnet of the car — the little fellow with the pointed hat and the green whiskers?’

‘Oh — yes — well — I can’t say I see him very clearly.’

‘You will, if you stick around with me long enough. That clears it all up, don’t it?’

Not a word more would he say till he had turned at right angles off Fenimore Cooper Boulevard, which led straight to Saratoga. Now, the car was headed south-east.

‘Where are we going?’ wondered Hazel. But she said it without alarm, for whatever she might think of Fred’s capacity as a romantic lover, he was to her the Beethoven of motoring.

‘What’s trouble?’ he droned.

‘Why, the car seems headed in the wrong direction.’

‘It does? Doggone! We’ll just have to go along with it, I guess. Too fast for us to jump.’

‘Frederick, will you please stop all this coyness . . .’

‘I know. But I feel so cheerful and free — and unusual — and therefore silly!’

‘Well, quit it a moment, won’t you? I’m sorry, but this is not the road to Saratoga!’

‘Whoever said it was?’

‘Aren’t we going to Saratoga?’

‘Whatever made you think we were?’

‘I heard you telephoning to Howard . . .’

‘Has it ever been your opinion that our darling son is a safe man to trust the truth with?’

‘Then where are we going?’

‘I think — unless we change my mind — we’re going to an inn at Stonefield, Mass., east of Lenox. But does it matter where we land up, as long as nobody can catch us, and we can quit being responsible parents for a few days and see if we’re still human beings also? How about it?’

‘I— I don’t think it’s such a bad idea. I do like going with you.’

‘Remember one evening I was kind of talking about retiring? I haven’t forgotten it. Maybe I’m not so satisfied with what Fred Cornplow has done with life. I want to try and see — just experiment and try and see if there aren’t some new things I’m not too old to learn, just for the fun of learning ’em. And then . . . About Sara and Howard. One reason for this running off is, I figure that if I can be plumb away from ’em for a while, where they can’t find us and interfere, I’ll get over my irritation and quit being so mean to ’em.’

‘I didn’t think you were so mean.’

‘Well, if you didn’t, then I missed the target pretty bad, because I certainly set out to be mean. Maybe what I’ll get out of this trip will be ability to be a whole lot meaner. Anyway, something interesting is bound to happen to anybody nowadays who has the nerve to buck this Reign of Youth. Rights for the Uptrodden!’

They sat for half an hour on a hilltop of rough upland pasture, loud with insects; they sat on the running board, contentedly saying nothing at all, and his cigarette tasted good.

They had lunch at a farmhouse, under the maples, and he crowed, ‘You simply can’t get real fried chicken and home-made ice cream like this in the city!’ She did not explain that the chicken had undoubtedly come from a can, the ice cream from a renowned creamery in Troy.

They had, in mid-afternoon, an old-fashioned milk shake in a village drug-store and, while Hazel cooed at them to make them feel neighbourly, Fred and the druggist told each other that they had elegant motors, handsome and co-operative children, constructive ideas about the future of the Republican party, and that life was a good idea. Grey-haired, grey-browed, in grey alpaca jacket, his grey hands thin and long, the druggist leaned his elbows on the counter and meditated, ‘Nice thing about my business is, grand people like you come in and pass the time of day.’

Fred went out to the car in a one-man parade. He liked to be grand people, reflected Hazel. ‘Set that man down in Warsaw or Tokyo’, she thought proudly, ‘and inside an hour he’d know the names of all the children of the nearest cigar-store man and all the taxi-drivers and the policeman on the block . . . In that, he’s like Howard. Maybe some day I’ll get my two men together!’

It was not over a hundred and fifty miles from Sachem to Stonefield, and for Fred, normally, that was one-third of a day’s driving, but they so happily dawdled, enchanted by deep meadows and thick trees, that at five they were still fifty miles from Stonefield, and filling up with petrol at the Daisy Dell Cabins and Café, All Home Comforts, Flats Fixed.

The Daisy Dell establishment seemed to have been constructed by the carpentry class of a kindergarten. The only reason, Hazel surmised, why no resolute burglar had picked up a couple of the cabins and carried them away was that they would have been of use for nothing but kindling.

With distress she heard Fred cackling, ‘Say, I got an idea! What say we spend the night at this dump?’

‘But we could be in Stonefield in time for dinner, easy, and I think these cabins look awfully sloppy.’

‘Sure. Prob’ly are. But be kinda fun — be a change, camping out.’

‘And terrible mattresses. Lumpy.’

‘Be good for our souls to not be so dunked in luxury for one night.’

‘Well, if you’d like to. But I never did think much of martyrdom if it’s going to be uncomfortable.’

‘Huh! Think of the lousy camel drivers’ huts we’ll have to sleep in along the road to Samarkand.’

‘And think of what a joke it’ll be on us if we wake up in one of those huts and find it’s on the wrong road. HOWEVER!’

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