The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 29

Cold ham, pineapple-and-cream-cheese salad, scalloped potatoes, tea, beer, vanilla ice cream with caramel sauce — it was a Cornplow family supper again, with Cornplow family food, at Howard’s flat.

Before supper, Howard and he had what Fred would have called — would have called? He did call it that! — a heart-to-heart talk, taking refuge in the bedroom from the bustling domesticity of Hazel and Annabel and the stateliness with which Sara sat and read the New Yorker.

Not in the four and a half months since the firm of Bogey & Cornplow had been founded had they been out of the red. It was only slightly irritating to Fred to go on contributing, but it was disturbing to have Howard expect advice on every contract, expect him to lure to the Bogey & Cornplow office every prosperous person Fred met in agency or club or church.

Howard was gushing, ‘Dad, I think you’ll agree with me . . .’

‘Rarely!’

‘ . . . that if I’m going to rent and build swell houses, I’ve got to prove my standing and show my good taste . . .’

‘Your what?’

‘ . . . by living in a nice house myself, and not in this dump.’

‘What d’you mean, “dump”? Wish you could’ve seen the four-room shack that your mother and I had when we were first married. Only stoves, and no bathroom, just outdoor service. I tell you, in those days a real man was glad to shovel coal and lug the doggone ashes, instead of just moving a lever with one finger. We had oilcloth on the table. And,’ Fred added, without great originality, ‘guess we were just about as happy as the young folks today, that expect to start in where their folks left off!’

‘Um — yes. But I want you to look at this as an investment. I know where I can get a dandy, up-to-date modern house, six and a half rooms, for a hundred and ten a month, and then I can take prospects home for dinner. I want you to understand, Dad, I’ve turned over an entirely new leaf. Golly, Ben Bogey is twice as hard on me as you or Paul Popple ever were. I don’t even take a single drink — oh, maybe just a cocktail before dinner . . .’

‘Or maybe two?’

‘Well, of course, if there’s a dividend left in the shaker, there’s no sense wasting it . . .’

‘Son, if you expect me to put up the hundred and ten a month for your rent, I’m simply not going to do it, do you hear me, won’t do it, simply won’t do it, do you understand, and that’s FLAT!’

Privately, he hoped it was flat.

All through supper Howard seemed to have the hives. He kept winking at Annabel, clucking at her, and once he reached out and tenderly slapped her hand. There seemed to be nothing in the conversation to stir up such fervour. It consisted in Sara’s detailed account of wishing a bedroom in powder blue and crocus yellow upon Mrs. Kamerkink, Howard’s speculation as to whether he could ‘interest’ Dr. Kamerkink in a lot at Capitola Lodge, and Annabel’s dutiful plea to Hazel for the name of her hairdresser.

Yet Howard was certainly exhilarated, and after the ice cream he pounded the table and gave tongue:

‘I’ve got a very important announcement to make . . . Now, Bell, don’t blush!’

‘I don’t intend to!’ said Annabel, blushing.

‘Mother and Dad, along about next March, you are going to have your first lovely little grandchild — and you, your first nephew, sister!’

‘Oh, Howard — ANNABEL!’ said Hazel.

‘Heh? Oh. You mean you’re going to have a baby? Fine,’ said Fred.

‘Yessir!’ Howard roared. ‘And if it’s a son, and I’ve got a good strong hunch it will be, I’m going to name him . . .’

‘Heh! I’m in on this, too, aren’t I? Won’t I be related to the infant?’ protested Annabel.

‘Why, yes, very much so,’ said Howard. He was indulgent about it, too.

‘He’s going to be called Little Nero, no matter what’s entered in the registry. I’ve always wanted to name a child “Little Nero”. It may take the curse off him.’

‘Well now, Bell, you just forget that silly idea, and keep your little head clear for action. But Dad and Mother, there’s another point to this announcement that I don’t want you to forget. Because now, Dad — hard luck, old man, but that’s the way life goes! — you’ll have to help me make a great place in the world for the little cuss! Your grandson!’

Annabel was snappish: ‘I don’t see why Father Cornplow should do any such a fool thing! He’s not responsible for our having Little Nero . . .’

‘I simply do not like that nickname, even joking.’

‘ . . . and how about your doing a little great-place-making yourself? The Gimme Generation!’

‘Annabel, I think this is in the worst possible taste. And at such a moment!’ Howard was stern but refined.

‘If you couldn’t find jobs . . . But, you great, big, darling, beautiful, dumb Greek god, you and all your vintage have the chronic gimmes.’

‘That will do, Bell, and if it weren’t for your condition . . .’

‘Just the gimmes, that’s all; just the plain old-fashioned gimmes!’

‘Annabel!’

‘And that’s why I’m going to call him Little Nero, so he won’t grow up to have the gimmes too, and expect you to stick at work — I mean, go to work — for him at seventy!’

‘I’ve never heard you talk such beastly nonsense before! What can Father and Mother Cornplow be thinking of you!’ Howard turned grandly upon his parents. ‘At least, YOU’RE glad the baby is coming, aren’t you, Mammy?’

‘Oh, simply delighted, dear. You mustn’t mind Annabel’s teasing you a little.’

‘Just the gimmes,’ chirped that lady, so beatifically that Fred wondered if she had sneaked in a couple of drinks before supper. He decided that she had had no such luck. No. The sound of Howard’s mellifluous optimism, day by day, would in itself produce spontaneous intoxication accompanied by tremor and slight delirium.

‘And you, Dad, you’re glad too, aren’t you?’ insisted Howard.

‘Why, of course! Tickled to death. Lit — I mean, our first little grandchild! Gracious!’

‘Swell!’ said Sara mechanically. ‘But you look here, Howard. Don’t you go and get the idea you’re the only one Father has to look out for. With the good luck I’ve been having, I wouldn’t wonder if I didn’t start a decorating shop of my own, and of course it would have to be financed. Of course. But congratulations and all that sort of thing on the baby.’

‘You ARE glad about the baby, aren’t you?’ hinted Hazel, back home.

‘What baby?’

‘Howard’s baby.’

‘‘Tain’t Howard’s baby. He’s just an accident.’

‘Well then, our coming grandchild.’

‘Oh, I guess so. May be kind of hard on Little Nero himself . . .’

‘I DON’T think it’s nice . . .’

‘ . . . but it will amuse Annabel, and it will be swell for Howard. Think of what a chance he’ll have now to go swelling around being guide, philosopher and friend to the defenceless kid! There is one thing. You know how often the pendulum swings back to the grandparents. Maybe Little Nero will have some of our independence, and not be a fat-head like his father.’

‘Why, Fred! Who ever heard or imagined grandparents not being just pleased to death at the coming of their first grandchild!’

‘Well, I am pleased. Don’t get me wrong. Only I don’t figure on being both granddad and dad. You’ve read about grandchildren that didn’t spend any too much time longing to support their grandparents, haven’t you?’

‘I suppose so.’

‘Why shouldn’t it more or less work both ways? You know Howard darned well meant it when he hinted he expected us to drop any personal plans we might have and stick around and nurse the royal heir.’

‘Ye-es.’

‘And you know, don’t you, that if we DO stick around, he’ll probably make us do anything he wants us to — there not being any more powerful influence on God’s green earth than the smile that wins, when it’s got a bottom layer of good, sticky self-approval. He’ll be too strong for us, and too dumb. So we better not stick around. Ain’t there something to what I say? Ain’t there?’

‘Um — anyway, it really is a little too much, expecting you to support four generations.’

‘How d’ you mean?’

‘You helped your father pay off his mortgage when you were a travelling man, didn’t you? And you helped your sister start her dressmaking business . . .’

‘How that would grind Putnam Staybridge! Aristocratic to wear swell dresses, but low-class to make ’em.’

‘And you certainly have always supported your own self since you were a brat — and I’ll bet you were a brat, too! No, I don’t bet any such thing. I bet you were a cute baby.’

‘I don’t know about when I was a baby, but ‘long ‘bout six-seven, I was such a fat, sweet-looking kid, with long curls, that I had to lick the everlastin’ daylights out of about one neighbouring kid per day, to keep my standing. Golly — I hope Sara don’t come in on us, but that certainly does feel better.’

They were on the new settee in the living-room, the radio turned on so low that it emitted only a background of music, like wind in the trees, but amid all this refinement, Fred had sighingly removed his shoes.

‘Well, you and your sister make a second generation you’ve supported. And you certainly saw Howard and Sara through everything. And now, apparently, Howard expects you to be responsible for this fourth generation — Little Nero. It’s a little too much.’

‘Maybe that’s so,’ and Fred looked upon her with such lovelight in his eyes as not even eighteen holes in seventy-five could have set there. ‘I wouldn’t mind supporting Little Nero. I just hate to think about his being brought up to correct all my breaks.’

‘Well, if Little Nero is really OUR sort, he’d rather have a high-stepping, jolly, independent old grandfather than a reservoir!’

That night, remembering Howard’s old contention that he was fast in the handcuffs of routine, Fred so far flaunted the ritual of fetishism as to throw his shirt on the floor instead of, as was his compulsion, hanging it smoothly over his coat on the back of the one habitual chair.

Hazel picked it up. She supposed that it was a shirt that had been flung down, and not the strait-jacket of timidity.

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