The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 24

The Daisy Dell Cabins were thin and tall, with a list to leeward; they were of clapboards, once painted white, but the raw pine had soaked up the paint. The yard before them was lined with gravel and cinders and inhabited by a shamefaced dog given to constant scratching. Something more had been done with the ‘café’, the camp’s central building, a four-room shanty with a public room fresh painted a bright yellow and containing chairs and tables in booths, and a counter for five-cent bars of decayed candy, cigarettes, pies, and ‘souvenirs’ in a way of china ash trays lettered ‘Greetings from Butiful Daisy Dell’.

Pa and Ma Stickle were the proprietors. Pa had a moustache apparently made of raw cotton, which needed changing, and the tails of his collarless shirt should have been tucked in oftener, and Ma had smut on her nose. Yet they were friendly as old milk-route horses, and seemed instantly to recognize Fred as one of their own disreputable race of vagabonds.

When Fred had registered — he wrote it down ‘Frederick Williams, N.Y.’, so that he might not be traced — Pa Stickle whispered, ‘Say, neighbour, of course we haven’t got a licence here, but a fellow I don’t know his name left some applejack and I thought maybe you might be thirsty after driving . . .’

Fred drank, then choked, gurgled, looked around as though wondering who had hit him, and immediately became hilarious. Hazel had a finger of applejack in ginger-ale, hiccupped, murmured, ‘Gracious sakes alive!’ and began to giggle. When she heard Fred laughing at her, she stared at him with mild bovine disapproval and suddenly became as hilarious as he.

They did not dine till seven, two hours later, but they were enchanted out of the flow of time. They told Pa Stickle all about themselves and listened while Pa narrated that he had been a ship’s cook, a vaudeville dancer, an arctic explorer and (since Fred and Hazel seemed to have swallowed all this, as safely as they had the applejack) a trader in the Solomon Isles.

‘That’s a grand old boy, and I’ll bet anyway five per cent of his stories are true,’ glowed Fred, as Pa departed to bring their hamburg steak with fried onions.

Hazel was more or less serious. ‘But d’you think we ought to start off our journey by associating with such low people?’

‘Low? Low? Thank God they’re low! After Sara, Pa tastes good to me — like a mutton chop after a diet of cheese soufflé. I love to be low. Like getting back to earth. Provided it ain’t Cousin Enos Tillery’s earth. Don’t want any earth in my ears!’

‘Well . . . But I’m sure the hamburgs won’t be very good.’

They weren’t, but Hazel left unconsumed only one snippet of fried butcher’s paper which had got in among the onions.

From the Daisy Dell, only a couple of farmhouses were to be seen, far off, but by eight o’clock the place was filled with rustic versions of Sara and Howard. The café did smell, rather, of frying pans, paraffin, cabbage and Stickles, but it was lively with yellow paint and pink paper doilies and soft-drink posters showing bathing girls, and it crackled now with jokes fresh from the radio. Fred admired one young lady in a silk frock decorated with red poppies, in silk stockings and silver slippers, who sat on a high stool delicately sipping a lemonade into which her escort, a young man with a plaid pullover and an irremovable camel’s-hair cap, kept pouring gin.

‘Expensive-looking pair,’ Fred hinted to Pa Stickle. ‘The young lady in silk.’

‘Her? Oh yes. Smart girl. She’s daughter of Ole Man Bocks, up the road here a piece — the one that’s doing time for burning down folks’ barns, seems like he just can’t keep from it, somehow, and she’s got a fine job, working for Doc Onderdonck’s folks down in the village — eight dollars a week, yessir, and the washing sent out.’ You bet. But that ain’t no silk — it’s rayon — eleven-fifty for the dress and ‘tain’t paid for, neither!’

‘Oh dear, I’m afraid this place is too fast for conservative people like us,’ yawned Hazel. ‘I’m going to bed right away.’

‘I’m going to hit the hay pretty sudden myself,’ agreed Fred.

But at eleven, when Hazel had slipped off to their cottage, Fred was playing poker in the kitchen with Pa Stickle, a brush salesman, the local auctioneer, who was also the local assemblyman, and a hired man, and was losing steadily to all of them and enjoying it. Afterward Ma Stickle invited them to share what she called ‘couple sandwiches or something’, which proved to consist of beans, brown bread, clam chowder, honey, cold fish and applejack. All of it Fred devoured; he imitated Pa Stickle in lying preposterously about his travels; and he went across the cinder courtyard to bed in his cabin, weaving and inclined to music.

Fred did not look very closely at their cabin at Daisy Dell until he awoke, in the sway-backed bed, on a mattress filled with iron ore and paving stones, at eight in the morning. He had a head, and he knew that Dr. Kamerkink would have been profane about his liver and blood pressure, but he lay and chuckled at his idiocy of the night before.

With slight whimpers as the sutures of his skull cracked open and closed again, he sat on the bed, surveying the caravansary in Samarkand for which they had given up their pink-and-cream bedroom. It was the largest cabin at the Dell; a double one, containing no furniture except the two wiggly iron beds, two straight chairs, a piano lamp minus its shade, a mirror, and a bureau which lacked one drawer. The wall was covered with plaster the colour of withered lettuce, with map-shaped holes where the plaster had fallen, but gloriously, startlingly, on it were hung, by count, nine pictorial calendars, presenting kittens in baskets, cherries in baskets, little girls tormenting little dogs, and a church beside a moonlit lake.

Fred turned to look at Hazel, and she was lying drowsily awake, smiling at him.

‘Isn’t it lovely — the room,’ she said, blessedly making no comment whatever upon his hour of returning last night. ‘But what I was thinking was: I never enjoyed a drive in my life as much as yesterday. When we were a young married couple, there were always the children along, bawling and asking questions. Remember how Sara used to say “Why?” . . . “Ma-ma, why is that man ploughing the field?” “So he can plant his seed — now hush, dear.” “Why?” “So he can grow crops.” “Why?” “So he can sell them.” “Why?” “So he can support his family.” “Why?”’

‘Sensible question, the last one.’

‘And ever since, seems like we’ve always had to get somewhere on time, and then get right back for an “important engagement”.’

‘I didn’t know how you’d feel this morning, when you woke up and had another look at this dump.’

‘I don’t mind it, because I don’t have to worry about whether Hilda will get around to vacuum-cleaning it today. Honestly, did I ever worry about things like that? Seems so long ago.’

‘Don’t it!’ What a little wizard he was, Fred exulted. Already he had Hazel half-cured of her slavery to possessions. Then she was firmly remarking:

‘Fun here — for a change — for one night. But of course I didn’t sleep much. This mattress is like a relief map of the Adirondacks. But it might be nice to have a nice cottage in the country.’

‘Yes!’

‘But of course we’d want it nice — you know — a swimming pool and a greenhouse, oh, just a little one. But nice. And I do think, mornings when you don’t feel so good, it’s economy in the long run to have the girl bring you a nice breakfast in bed.’

‘Well,’ said the diminished Fredk Wm.

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