The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 28

The scene was, for Fred, too fragile and artificial for comfort, yet he admired its gaiety: the club tennis courts, the white cement, the green balls flying, and the young people in white, young men with blue and crimson scarves above white shirts, girls with white shorts and honey-coloured legs, all against hills flamboyant with late September. He particularly liked the tall umpire’s chair, now empty. To be perched up there, above the conflict yet close to it and dominating it, would be kingly, he explained to Walter Lindbeck.

‘Awful. I knew a fellow got a tennis ball in his eye just when Fred Perry was smacking the hands across the sea,’ argued Walter.

Mr. Walter Lindbeck, junior partner by inheritance of the large department store of Swazey & Lindbeck, was fifteen or sixteen years younger than Fred, but he had by chance, on a fishing trip, become one of Fred’s intimates. Though he had gone to a large university and spent a year abroad in fruitfully doing nothing, Walter had, in Sachem, the high moral rank of: ‘Steady but progressive; a fine, conservative, forward-looking young fella, and got no bad habits even if he is a bachelor.’ He belonged to a chess club, but he also rode horseback; he went annually to New York City for the grand opera, but it was said that at the S. & L. Employees’ Association he played pool with the elevator men and packers. Altogether, a high type of the youngish captain of commerce, though Sara sniffed that with a man like Mr. Lindbeck, whose thin face, and a black moustache small and neat as a cigarette, looked poetic, it ‘made her tired’ to see him interested only in sales leaders and invoices.

Fred and Lindbeck had done eighteen holes of golf, and after a quick one, they relaxed by watching Sara play tennis. Fred was proud of her feverish speed — even prouder than of his new waist-pleated slacks. She was opposing a dull-faced dumpy girl of eighteen who played with the efficiency of a chopping knife. The girl lacked all of Sara’s dramatic gestures and elegant backhands; her serves just missed the net and dropped dead before Sara could reach them, though she galloped in like the Light Brigade. In grieved wrath, Sara threw down her racket and screamed, ‘Can’t you put some fun into the game, Daugherty? We’re not digging ditches!’

‘Tst! Tst! Tst!’ Fred clucked. ‘Sara oughtn’t to lose her temper that way.’

Walter Lindbeck sounded partisan. ‘I don’t blame her a bit. I’ve played that Daugherty girl. She’s like lard; just plays to win, while your daughter has so much fire and gracefulness . . . Tell me, Fred, why the dickens did she ever get mixed up with this communist sheet? Doesn’t believe all that stuff, does she?’

‘I don’t think so. But we’ve got to admit, way things are now, the young folks and the working men are demanding more say, and you can’t blame ’em entirely.’

‘That’s so.’

Both men exhibited almost frightened admiration of their liberalism.

‘Tell you, Walter, trouble with Sara is, she hasn’t got enough to do, and she’s got too much brains and energy to just stick around. She’d like to follow the tennis tournaments to Bermuda and Florida this winter, but I can’t afford it. Say, I’ve got an inspiration! She’s got a great eye for colours and all that junk. Why don’t you give her a job in your interior-decorating department? If there’s any way you could fix it in your accounting, I’d be willing to finance the scheme to the tune of a few hundred bucks, provided she never knew it. She’s so doggone proud she wouldn’t take a job like that if she found out I’d rigged it.’

‘Oh, that wouldn’t be necessary. Matter of fact, we do need a little new blood in the decorating department. Old Mrs. Vix is about the period of Edward the Seventh, and I always did think Sara had a lot of dash and go. I’d be glad to try her, if she was interested.’

‘She wouldn’t touch it, if she thought I’d butted in. You know how touchy all these blasted young people are today. If you’re interested, too — and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it — let’s get her to sell herself to you.’

When Sara had finished her act, Fred beckoned, and she rode up cavalierly to sit between the two ancients. (Lindbeck was thirteen years her senior.)

‘Didn’t seem to have such a high old time with Miss Daugherty, Sara.’

‘Oh, she’s the dumbest cluck in the club! It’s like playing with a steam roller.’

Lindbeck bubbled, ‘I agree.’

Fred chattered, ‘I seem to be the only cheerful guy here today, in all this lovely autumn weather, with the maples turning. Walter’s been kicking because he can’t find the right person to put some pep in his foolish furnishing-and-decorating department — somebody that knows the local swells with money to spend and that has got an artistic eye for design. Don’t suppose you’d pay real money for the job, Walter?’

‘Not at first. Twenty a week for a start, with a small commission. But there wouldn’t be any limit on the future, and the right man, or possibly it might be a woman, might work up to ten thousand a year or more. I’m not looking for an ex-charwoman, or on the other hand for some tired lily that thinks he’s arty. I’d like to find some college graduate with a knowledge of the history of art and with a lot of energy and sense . . .’

Fred was amused, then a trifle guilty, to see the way in which Sara turned on Lindbeck her full flashlight:

‘Funny you should speak of that, Mr. Lindbeck! I’ve always been so interested in both painting and furniture and, in a modest way of course, I think I know quite a little about them. I have some ideas about decorating . . . It seems to me that people are stupid in just using chromium and red leather and mirrors and rounded corners, so that every room that calls itself “moderne” looks like a café. I think you could take Biedermeyer models and Duncan Phyfe motifs and modernize them so that they’d be original, and do so many unconventional things with concealed lighting . . .’

‘Yes, yes, that’s so. Would you like to drop into my office tomorrow and talk with Mr. Swazey and myself?’

As they drove back home, Sara babbled to her parent, ‘I talked Mr. Lindbeck right into it! He had no idea I was thinking about a job. I just talked about decoration in general, as though I hadn’t the slightest notion of going to work, and he, the poor little man, thought it was all his own precious idea, getting me to accept a position. I think I might like it. Decorating, in this dull town — why, I can do it on my head, and please the stupid plutocrats like the Praggs almost to death! Father, my darling, you’re always fussing about me, but you wouldn’t have thought of a career like this for me in a thousand years, now would you!’

‘That’s so,’ said Fred.

For two weeks he rarely saw her, so absorbed was she in her new job of plotting against every innocent rocker and club chair left in town; for two weeks he had peace; but on a day just after the two weeks’ truce, he came home from the office to find Sara, triumphant, and Hazel, very anxious, standing in the hall and looking mysteriously into the living-room.

‘What’s all the excitement?’

‘I tell you, he won’t like it!’ said Hazel.

‘He will as soon as he gets used to it. If my own family can’t appreciate creative ideas, how can you expect anybody else to?’ said Sara.

‘Where’s the fire?’ said Fred.

‘Look at it, and don’t blame me . . . It is pretty lovely though . . . I think I’d come to like it a lot,’ said Hazel, waving her hand in the direction of the living-room and standing aside.

The room had been magicked. Gone were all the pieces of furniture that to Fred meant home and security; gone was his sacred, rather shabby, rather faded red arm-chair, in which, alone, the evening paper tasted right; gone the couch on which, ritually, Hazel and he had listened to the radio side by side; gone the Maxfield Parrish painting of maidens dancing in twilight; gone the shiftless pile of magazines on a table with dragons’ feet clasping glass balls; gone the stuffed head of the deer he had (illegally) shot in Quebec; gone was everything that made home stuffy, ugly and lovable.

Sara had redecorated the room in plum colour and dull gold, rich as mince pie and sombre as the thoughts of a defeated Congressman. The furniture was dethroned Louis Quinze. And on the walls, replacing a nest of cheerful photographs showing Hazel with a watering pot, Fred in wading boots, complete with shotgun, Howard with a toy wagon, and Sara reciting James Whitcomb Riley, was one lone painting of the Towers of Rouen, which towers, taken jointly, resembled a fish fork.

‘Isn’t it distinguished! Hasn’t it real dignity!’ bubbled Sara.

‘I didn’t — I don’t . . .’ endeavoured Fred.

‘It’s just on trial, of course.’

‘Well, it’s certainly swell, but I don’t think it quite suits your mother and me.’

‘Suits me, all right,’ said the treacherous Hazel, all the fanatical love of possessions in her eyes.

‘Look, Father; if one’s own people don’t back you up, how can you expect me to make a career with other people?’

He was warning himself, ‘She’s got some reason. You were asking for it, Freddie.’ He temporized, ‘If I did decide I liked the room, when I got used to it, how much would all this set me back?’

‘I can do it for nineteen hundred dollars, Father.’

‘Ouch!’ said Fred, but feebly, as he turned for comfort to Hazel, saw her acquisitive glow and knew that he was sold.

‘We-ll, I couldn’t possibly pay it all in a lump.’ So, for Fredk Wm, his home was turned into a house; and a house was easier to leave than was a home.

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