The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 27

The autumn, no very great season in the selling of motor cars, had become lively with the sale of trailers in which those citizens of Sachem Falls who had retired from the economic struggle, because they had too much money or too little, planned to go to Florida or California for winter. The Duplex had been booming all summer, but in September, Fred’s treacherous rivals, the Conqueror Motor Company, dealt the Duplex a nasty blow with its announcement of the Allover Caravan.

The Allover was not a trailer, but built like a bus, with the motor contained in the body. It burst on Sachem with full-page newspaper advertisements which asserted convincingly that the Allover was easier to drive, easier to park, and much easier to handle in passing other cars. As a minor virtue, in this war of transportation with its almost theological disputation, the Allover’s furnishings could readily be removed, turning it into a truck.

A sound commercial warrior like Fred would have hated any opposition at all which took money away from him, but in this particular attack, he persuaded himself, there was something malign, for Putnam Staybridge, putative father to Annabel, was known to be part owner of the Conqueror company. And, Fred complained, hadn’t he gone and made a fool of himself and thought the Cornplows and the Staybridges were getting on to better terms? For the good Putnam had invited Howard and Annabel for a week at his Adirondack cabin, and Sara for a week-end . . . Everybody except the persons concerned seemed to feel that Fred and Hazel had already had as much vacation as was good for them.

The day after the Allover advertisements appeared, Staybridge invited Fred to call upon him, at the general offices of the Liberty Bell Clock Company. ‘Hell with him; let him come here and call on me; I won’t go a step,’ growled Fred, as he reached for his hat.

Staybridge’s office, with its large mahogany table for the directors and the small polished desk for the president, looked like a Colonial dining-room. You could almost smell boiled codfish.

Staybridge was cautiously cordial in his ‘How do’.

‘Hear you all had a fine time at the cottage, Brother Staybridge.’

‘Oh yes. Very agreeable. Your son — uh, Howard, uh — is an excellent swimmer. Really! So sorry we didn’t have room to invite Mrs. Cornplow and yourself.’

‘Oh, we had our vacation . . . I suppose you might say. And what can I do for you?’

Staybridge looked as though he thought Fred was being rude. Fred was sorry, but he felt rude; in the damp cold air that Staybridge perpetually exuded, he always felt rude. But the gentlemanly assassin of Duplexes was saying graciously:

‘No doubt you will have noted the advertisements of the Allover Caravans — the Conqueror company.’

‘Good ads! Fine!’

‘Kind of you to say so. It just happens that I have some small interest in the Conqueror company.’

‘Ur.’

‘And I have thought of suggesting to them that they come to some agreement with you, possibly even joint advertising. Since your Duplex is a trailer, and the Allover not, they need not exactly be in competition, and I was thinking that if we — or rather, I should say, they — combined, you might in a way dominate the field together — freeze out the others, I believe it is called.’

‘Yes. It’s called that. It’s also called stifling competition, and ganging up on the other racketeers.’

‘Oh? What I was really thinking was that since the Duplex is not made by the Triumph company, you might conceivably try to arrange with the makers to dispose of it to us. Particularly since I understand from your son — uh, from Howard — that you are giving some thought to retiring in four or five years.’

Staybridge’s persistent objection to remembering Howard’s name would have been enough to irritate Fred handsomely; it wanted only the pinch-nosed patronage with which Staybridge was going on:

‘Of course I don’t know what you plan to do, if you retire. I shouldn’t have thought you were cursed with hobbies, as I am. But no doubt you’ll find something with which to busy yourself, more or less. But the point is, if you feel like retiring, just possibly you might not care to face the rather sharp opposition that, I’m afraid, the Conqueror company, with its large resources, is planning to give you. I’m sure you’d be wise to take it easy.’

This to Fred Cornplow, who had never in his life evaded a fight — except with Sara. He exploded up from his chair, but he managed to be fairly calm as he croaked:

‘Me? Retire? Where d’you suppose Howard (that’s my son) ever got such a foolish idea? Not me! I like a scrap too well. But thanks for the tip. Morning!’

Opposite the large Conqueror agency, Fred hired a vacant lot, and within three days he had installed there a Duplex Trailer display in open air. He had one side ripped off a Duplex, so that its hidden domesticities were revealed. He engaged two men and two young women of a stranded night-club troupe, with a couple of children, and this theatrical family was displayed living the life of Riley in the trailer. They prepared and smackingly devoured large meals; on the roof they drank tea and afterward danced to a radio; they modestly retired, in the several chambers provided when the roof was hoisted; and all one night they remained abed in the Duplex, before a tremendous crowd which stayed up till two a.m. to behold human beings engaged in so very odd a practice as sleeping.

Duplex sales doubled, and Fred’s spy in the Conqueror agency reported that salesmen who attempted to demonstrate Allover Caravans were answered with jeers. A week after the opening of Fred’s circus, Staybridge telephoned him again, but Fred found himself too busy to call. The next day Annabel came in, and Annabel was near to giggling.

‘My father asked me to tell you he thinks your Duplex cabaret is vulgar.’

‘Do you think so?’

‘Yes.’

‘So what?’

‘Oh, I like vulgarity. All the interesting things in life are so vulgar, Father Cornplow: birth and death and battles. Have I done my job?’

‘Eh?’

‘Have I complained properly about the vulgarity?’

‘Darling!’

Next night a curious thing happened. A man named Tom McKuffee, a truck farmer who lived nine miles south-east of Sachem, and who had bought an Allover Caravan that afternoon, had an unfortunate accident at or near midnight. In front of the Duplex show lot he tried to park his Allover, but the brakes failed, the Allover dashed in to the lot and was wrecked against a pile of rocks which no one seemed previously to have noticed there. McKuffee, though he could not stop the caravan, had time to jump.

Now he was no hit-and-run driver, even if the object of his solicitude was merely a pile of rocks. He walked to the police station, admitted the accident, and explained that the brakes had failed; explained it so eloquently that a green reporter noted the fact in his story. The detail got past the copyreaders, and in the paper next morning there was an almost libellous statement about the brakes of an Allover.

It was only an item, but the scene of one caravan wrecked, while hard by, in another, night-club ladies were dancing and sipping ginger ale from highball glasses, was too much for the art editor of the evening paper. By this time, the struggle between Duplex and Allover was so familiar to all Sachem motorists that there was no need of a legend to explain what were the makes of the caravans in the newspaper photograph.

All the day after, persons who looked as though they might have trailer money in their pockets stood and admired the cabaret, snickered at the wreck. McKuffee happened, by a coincidence, to be there, and he seemed glad to explain how the accident had occurred, and to point out how flimsy were the smashed and exposed furnishings of the Allover. By another coincidence, Fred Cornplow knew McKuffee, who had once been the Triumph foreman.

‘You ARE rubbing it in. Old Putnam will never speak to any of us again,’ Sara reproached her father, yet in her he detected admiration.

In another day there were double-page advertisements of the Allover in the papers, but people in limousines, in shops, on street corners laughed at them. The Allover wreck remained there for a week. Then came the chief of police to Fred and offered to cart it away.

‘No, you needn’t. Glad to accommodate the fellow that owns the thing — what’s his name? — McGurrey? — till he raises the money to get it overhauled.’

‘There was something funny about this accident,’ said the chief darkly and returned to his bezique, after a telephone call.

For a week, not one Allover Caravan was sold. This fact Fred conveyed to Hazel, who protested:

‘Why, you absolute pirate! I thought you’d reformed!’

‘Look here! I tried to reform. I tried to go off on a pilgrimage and become a better and tenderer man, and my two brats objected. Can I help it?’

Mr. Putnam Staybridge telephoned to Mr. Frederick Cornplow:

‘Uh, I thought you might just possibly be interested to know that the Conqueror agency, or so I am informed, intend to reduce their advertising for Allover Caravans to, uh, to approximately the same space used for Duplexes.’

‘Thanks,’ said Fred. He removed the show trailer, and McKuffee’s wreck vanished. But he learned later, all his kindness could not stir up a proper sale of Allovers.

Hazel sighed, ‘Well, now you’ve had another big success, I suppose you’ve got your teeth in it so firm that you and I’ll never be running off together again.’

‘You mean it? You’d like to?’

‘I THINK so.’

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