The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 26

Men at the dangerous age, between forty-five and sixty, occasionally do land in court and have to writhe over their letters beginning ‘Sweetest little earwig’, but most of them have not only forgotten how to make love but forgotten that there ever has been so extraordinary a mania as that in which competent young males believe that some run-of-the-mill female, of a physique set forth in the anatomy books without any deception or anything up the sleeve, a young woman with toothaches, freckles, the hives, and admitted ignorance of Bach and bio-chemistry, is a new Helen of Troy.

Fred was of the more fortunate fraction. He exalted Hazel, not as a being of fire, ice and chronic hysteria, but as a companion true as bread and salt.

He had heard that a man sees the ageing of his contemporaries but never sees it in himself. But while he was conscious of his own swelling middle, his violent lack of interest in anything happening after one a.m., and the torture of trying to interest elfin young females skipping about at dances, yet in Hazel he could see no change. Oh yes. She did have grey hair. What of it? Went beautifully with her blue-eyed pinkness. And maybe the least bit more plump? Improved her. Didn’t he seem to remember that, thirty years ago, she had been too skinny?

He sang to her ‘Ev’ry morn I bring thee vi’lets’, but what he actually brought her every morn was fresh eggs. He walked all the way to the King’s Arms for chocolate pralines and the New York tabloids, and what could more add to a vagabond vacation than pictures of hammer slayers and punctured gunmen? Every night he kissed her; every morning he patted her hand. He admitted that these attentions might fall short of rapture, but he guessed that if he had done anything more, she would have been justifiably suspicious about his recent private conduct. He knew that in exile she was happy. She smiled at him naturally, and she hummed over the morning ham and eggs.

He was not conscienceless enough to be quite happy in deserting his family. When he walked alone at twilight, or in the tavern lounge he heard the radio play old songs, he remembered the curly-headed, tiny Howard, with a kitten, and the minute Sarah — not Sara, then — who had demanded the string cradles that no one but Daddy could make. The worst thing about real babies and kittens is that they look so much like sentimental chromos of babies and kittens.

In such an hour of grey nostalgia he could not have endured exile without the presence of Hazel. He dashed back to her for protection, and he fretted, while she sat before the rustic dressing-table, her handsome arms upraised to her hair, ‘Say, hon, maybe we ought to write the folks now — see how the Duplex and the new-married couple are getting on.’

‘Don’t you do any such a thing, Fred. Let ’em learn how to get along by themselves for a while.’

‘Well, if you think so . . .’ he said.

And next morning when Hazel was brisk over the stove, and he came in with an armful of wood, feeling like Paul Bunyan, the god of the lumber-choppers, he crowed, ‘Are you happy?’

Once, placidly knitting on the shadow-dancing porch of William Tyler Longwhale, Hazel explained, ‘Of course you spoiled both our children. You always were a man to go to extremes. First you encourage ’em to walk over you, and then you fly right to the other extreme and want to run off to Abyssinia to get away from ’em.’

‘Maybe. But isn’t it the craziest doggone thing in this crazy world today, where half the nations are willing to go to war for the right to be slaves, that children have become the bossy parents, now, and the parents scared kids! Say, how did an easy-going couple like me and you ever have such a pair of Japanese waltzing mice for children?’

‘Spoiled ’em, I tell you. You AND me.’ Hazel was more placid than ever.

‘Maybe.’

‘Let’s go up to the King’s Arms and have a cocktail.’

‘Fine. Happy?’

‘So happy!’

On the seventh morning of their refuge in Stonefield, Fred awoke at six-thirty, too gay and clearheaded to lie abed. He marched out to the porch, down to the drift of pine needles, in his nightshirt and bare feet. He knew the earth was chilly, yet he did not seem to be chilled. ‘Reg’lar grizzly, that’s what I am!’ he gloated. The ticklish needles felt good to his feet, and the scent of pines and earth and grass and dew was a curtain shutting him away from the odours of gasoline and wet cement.

From inside he could hear the sleepy-headed Hazel grousing, ‘WHAT an hour to be getting up!’

He bellowed that she was to stay in bed. In the kitchen he plugged in the coffee percolator and returned to the porch to loll on a swing couch, violently at peace. He heard Hazel padding about the kitchen; she could not yet believe that a man could master so difficult a domestic task as measuring coffee and water into a percolator. She came out with two cups on a very fine tray which they had bought at the country store for ten cents; she perched beside him and kissed his cheek.

‘What say we take William Tyler Longwhale for all summer?’ suggested Fred. ‘Every couple weeks or so, I could go back to Sachem for maybe one day.’

‘Yes. Let’s! Oh, good heavens! Oh, NO!’

A Triumph Special sedan had slid out of the pine grove and up the grassy road to their porch, and out of it were dribbling Sara and Howard.

With suspicious sweetness, Sara commented, ‘Oh, Father! Bare feet? How cute!’

Fred glanced down. They looked worse than cute; they looked absurd, those objects called feet which till now he had taken for granted; those flat blobs of flesh, pallid from city living, fringed with imitation fingers. But he flung at Howard, bravely enough, ‘How d’you ever find us here?’

‘Oh, it took Ben Bogey all of half an hour on the long-distance telephone — he just described you and the car — a cinch, with those red fenders. We’ve known where you were for three-four days now, but we thought we’d let you enjoy yourselves and imagine you’d made a getaway. But now . . . You promised Ben to let us have some more capital, and we need it pretty bad. And we got a chance for the contract on a new development, Capitola Lodge, but the owners want to talk to you.’

‘And the cook has quit — and I swear I don’t know why — I gave her so much attention,’ said Sara.

‘And Annabel is awfully worried about you two getting rheumatism here.’

‘And I had to go to the Rochester tournament without any chaperon — oh, that was so thoughtless of you!’

‘And Cal Tillery had a run-in with Paul Popple, and he thinks, and so do I, you ought to take a look at the way Popple tries to run things.’

‘And Louise Kamerkink says you promised to go to dinner there last Thursday.’

‘And Popple’s got some papers for you to sign — he’s simply going nuts.’

‘And everybody’s talking — wondering whatever possessed you.’

‘And Annabel says that her father says that he knows this dump, and why didn’t you go to the King’s Arms?’

‘And the way I’ve had to lie to people, and I hate to lie except when it’s necessary, and the Coheeze bills are still coming in, and not one word from Gene Silga. The double-crosser! Honestly, I hate to say it, but don’t you think it was a little thoughtless of you?’

‘And of course, after all, Sara and Bell and I are only kids, and we’ve done our best to carry on, but . . . I’d never think of trying to tell you your duty, but . . .’

‘Well, I would! Honestly, my dears, I wish I could get the picture. What is it? Brave bold pioneers, right out of the movies, returned to the simple days of our forefathers, when men were men and never bathed, and the brats weren’t demanding, like Howard and me, but always did what they were told to, and ploughed before breakfast, and walked six miles to the li’l’ red schoolhouse and liked it?’

‘Grrrrr!’ said Fred.

Sara was laughing in quite a well-bred, filial manner as she went on:

‘Darlings, I do wish I could see you as tanned and resolute frontiersmen, but I just don’t; I see you as pretty pale and overweight, and — do forgive me — in terrible shape for lack of exercise. You’d have done much better, in my humble opinion, if you’d stayed home and seen Dr. Kamerkink and dieted and played golf. And, honestly, I don’t think a pre-Civil–War nightshirt is such a romantic garment! And your dear li’l’ hide-away — rather damp, isn’t it? And DID they have to go and give it a name like “William Tyler Longwhale”?’

Oh yes, even with her dark Dianic power, that was the most that Sara could do to them: take away all their joy in the adventure; make the still nights they had known, and the placid days, the sight of distant valleys and their sharing of renewed love seem the vain calf sickness of a premature senility. That was all she could do, but such as it was, she accomplished it with the skill she had learned in her diversified training as outlaw communist and polite tennis star.

So Fred and Hazel went back into captivity.

A week after their return to Sachem, Fred applied for their passports. When, or whether, they would ever be used, he did not know.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lewis/sinclair/prodigal/chapter26.html

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