The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 33

Fred was flattered to a point of grinning when Sara invited him to accompany her to New York City on a buying trip for Swazey & Lindbeck. He accepted with zeal and with the notion that he would show the little girl a thing or two: the best restaurant in New York, and how a real salesman could order. He swallowed her statement that she wanted the aid of his common sense in buying furniture for game rooms — those assemblages of pool tables, card tables, private bars, and grills for cooking chops which were decidedly the thing in Sachem domestic architecture. But on the train she so buttered his good taste that, remembering the Louis Quinze into whose chill lap he had been enticed, he became suspicious.

In the city he was so lulled by the toe-tapping music of ‘Kiss Me Quick’, so youthfully enchanted by an Italian café and by memories of the Paris boulevards which he had never seen, that he trusted her as though she were not a relative, and he agreed gaily, next morning, when she invited, ‘Come along with me, will you? I want you to meet such a nice man.’

Their taxicab stopped at an uptown apartment house. A chaste bronze sign in the lobby announced that the Janissary Sanatorium occupied Floors 7–10 Incl. & Roof. Still was he gullible . . . Some pleasant man living upstairs whom Sara had known in New York days, or met in this decoration game? . . . Would he be married? Oh, surely . . . Would he have a handsome flat? . . . Would he offer Fred a drink, and would Fred take it, so early in the day? . . . Probably!

They entered a room which didn’t in the least suggest a friendly flat, nor yet a drink. At first, indeed, it suggested nothing whatever to Fred except quantities of money. It seemed to be a combination of a baronial hall in the North Riding, an operating room, and a beauty parlour in Hollywood. On either side of a high oak Tudor fireplace were oak thrones, but at one end of the room, modestly, was a young woman in a white uniform at a desk of white-enamelled metal, with a glass top, uncomfortably hinting of surgical knives. And the lulling voice with which she sang ‘Your names, IF you please!’ wafted the sweet fumes of ether.

They waited ten minutes.

‘What the deuce are you up to?’ protested the aroused Fredk Wm.

‘I wanted you to meet Dr. George Janissary, the psychiatrist — the grandest man — you’ll love him.’

‘I doubt it. Somehow this shack he’s got here don’t seem to rouse any stirrings of love. Psychiatrist? Mind doc?’

‘You appreciate them, don’t you?’

‘Of course. For those that need ’em. I don’t. I also don’t need a chiropodist or an aviator.’

They argued in the most spirited manner, those ten minutes. Sara asserted that it was handy for almost anybody to drop in on his psychiatrist now and then, and find out what phobias, schizophrenic reactions, paranoid behaviours, or obsessive-compulsive neuroses he might have developed this past week. Fred said that, in his experience, if your carburetor is working right, don’t let any mechanic monkey with it.

He could not have been expected to know that, in a psychologist’s or a psychiatrist’s office, the only person who is ever permitted to say ‘in my experience’ is the healer.

They were admitted then to the friendly presence of George Carlyon Janissary, B.A., M.A., M.D., L.H.D.; and Fred, who had come to expect a point-headed wizard in a black gown sprinkled with crimson stars, was relieved. Dr. Janissary was a jolly, tweedish, sporting, lanky gentleman, with a long red moustache and sun-browned hands. He smelled of heather, good pipe tobacco and the best soap; he shook hands merrily and spoke in baritone:

‘I don’t really know why you’re here, Brother Cornplow, but Miss Sara seems to have some kind of an idea that I might be able to advise you on how to get the most fun out of your retiring — great idea, retiring; majority of us keep our noses to the grindstone too long. Just as you might advise me about buying an automobile.’

This was fine.

Fred beamed. Sara beamed. Dr. Janissary beamed more than twice as much as both of them put together. But he somewhat less suggested golf courses and the fishing camp on the Ouareau River as he reached for a handful of filing cards and demanded: ‘What was the date of your birth?’

‘What was the calling of your father — his father — his mother’s father — their financial condition?’

‘What do you believe to be your ambition in life?’

‘Do you usually consider yourself passionate or frigid by nature?’

‘Have you any hobby — any interest outside of making money and caring for your family?’

Till this point, Fred had been too hypnotized to do anything but answer meekly, and inadequately, but he shook himself loose:

‘Say, what’s the idea of all this, anyway? Sara, have you signed up for my giving a lecture on my life and adventures? And who pays who for it?’

Dr. Janissary did not think this was in the least funny — for that matter, Fred didn’t think it was so very funny himself.

The doctor was grave and warning:

‘Mr. Cornplow, from what Sara has told me and from what I have already observed, it is clear that you have lost grip — oh, just the least bit; nothing that can’t readily be corrected by psychobiologic re-education. Lost grip on your personal affairs. Don’t be frightened.’

‘I’m not!’

‘That’s splendid. It happens to the most competent men of affairs, sometimes, from exhaustion and worry. I’m quite sure that your hallucination about being an explorer is temporary. Quite a satisfactory prognosis, I should think. Your only real danger is the practical one that in your state . . .’

‘MY STATE?’

‘ . . . you might be led into extravagances that would dissipate your entire small fortune. But of course, my dear fellow, you’re not even sure that you want us to do our modest best for you, as yet. Do let me show you our place here — our “plant” you would no doubt call it.’

Fred had swung between amusement and exasperation till now, but he found nothing amusing at all in the four floors and roof which made up the sanatorium. The bedrooms, though small, were bright enough with red-and-yellow upholstery, and there were no bars on the windows, but the corridors smelled of drugs, and he saw a male attendant, a shaved gorilla, standing in a niche, watchfully looking up and down a corridor — up and down, with surly slowness. His forearms, revealed by the cut-off sleeves of his white jacket, were strong and horribly well scrubbed.

Half a floor was given over to the workshop activities which Dr. Janissary called Occupational Therapy, Dr. Kamerkink called Hobbies, and the untutored Fred Cornplow called Tinkering. There was apparatus for basket making, model-boat making, carpentry and knitting, and there, most busily knitting, was, to Fred’s embarrassment, an aged gentleman with a white beard.

‘Knitting?’ said Fred.

‘Yes, it’s so soothing. Very recreational. Last year we had an ex-United States senator here, seventy years old, and he knitted a sweater for his wife.’

‘What she do with it? Give it to her gigolo or to the Salvation Army?’ said Fred.

In the light of Sara’s look of affliction, Janissary’s look of pain, he warned himself he was nothing but an upstate hick and mustn’t annoy these sophisticates with his rustic American jeers. He wanted to, but didn’t, ask whether men patients got well because they knitted, or got sick in the first place because they were the kind that would knit.

He fell into low humour once more when Dr. Janissary had showed them the roof of the building, which he called the ‘recreational garden’. As a garden, it wasn’t so much, thought Fred. Besides the gravelled roofing, parallel bars and a few deck-chairs, forlorn under December sky, it exhibited no entertaining features save a view of the Hudson and a brewery across it, and a high woven-wire fence. Before Fred could check his unfortunate humour, he had demanded, ‘What’s fence for? Keep the nuts from jumping off?’

Dr. Janissary did not answer, but so queerly did he glance at Sara that Fred felt boorish. He looked about the roof, trying to think of something agreeable to say.

A few feet behind him, the same male attendant was standing, rigid, his arms folded.

(Now the truth is that the attendant was not following Fred. He had sneaked up to the roof for an illegal cigarette. But it is a principle known to soldiers that it is as bad to be frightened to death as it is to be killed.)

As they descended from the roof, Sara said, and her tone was infuriatingly kind and maternal. ‘Now don’t you think that’s a lovely fresh-air nook?’

‘A NOOK!’ was all that Fred could get out.

He really spoke up when they were back in Dr. Janissary’s office:

‘Well, Doctor, I’m glad to have seen your shop. I’m sure you could do a lot for people who are disturbed and puzzled. But I hope you don’t think any of this is for me! Nosir! Well, Sara, let’s skip back to the hotel.’

But Dr. Janissary would not let him go. Presumably there was no law by which he could force Fred to sit there, sweating, yet Fred felt as though a couple of deputies stood behind his chair, ready to spring, while the doctor said amiably:

‘I’m afraid you’re not entirely original or unusual, Mr. Cornplow, in thinking that while we could do something for the other fellow, you’re too clear-headed and self-analytical for us to do anything for YOU. What we strive for here chiefly, perhaps, is to train our friends to understand themselves. People have so many blind spots in their mental steering vision.’

Bluntly, ‘You got any blind spots, too, Doc?’

He felt slightly astonished that Janissary neither hit him nor called for handcuffs, but merely hesitated, ‘Oh yes — yes, of course.’

‘So we can call it quits, eh, Doc?’ (Within, ‘Why can’t you be refined with these highbrows, Fred, and not try to jolly ’em the way you would Cal Tillery?’) ‘Because I certainly hope neither you nor Sara have any idea I’d ever let myself be cooped up here and have somebody try to “do some constructive psychiatric work” with me, as I believe you call it.’

Dr. Janissary did not, thereafter, sound so tolerant as one would have expected in a teacher of toleration:

‘About your condition, my dear Mr. Cornplow . . .’ (‘I’ll be everlastingly doggoned if I’ll let any doggone man say I’ve got a “condition”!’) ‘ . . . there can be no question whatever. You are suffering from disassociation and a toxic condition probably due to drug escapism. And, to scotch one of the commonest lay errors, no one can do anything permanent by the use of his own so-called “will power”. You need the help of trained experts.’

‘You mean nobody at all can get in shape by his own will power?’

‘Oh, there are apparent exceptions.’

‘And maybe I’m an exception! And maybe there’s more’n you think. Because sensible people don’t worry too much about worrying. And maybe a lot of ’em steer clear of you. So, Sara, let’s beat it.’

‘Mr. Cornplow, let me say, in this amiable parting, that in a way I agree with you in your own diagnosis.’

‘Eh? What’s wrong with it, then?’

‘I wouldn’t consider taking your case useless I had complete authority — which I’m afraid you wouldn’t agree to, as you suffer from the very common complaint of thinking you know as much as the doctor! — unless you agreed to stay under control for, at the least, six months.’

‘Six . . . Sara! We’re going.’

He had no farewell for the doctor. In the reception room, the white-clad secretary said tenderly, ‘It will be one hundred dollars for the consultation, please, and if you don’t mind, with new cases the doctor would prefer cash.’

Fred choked a little before chuckling (and it was his only chuckle of the day), ‘This young lady will pay. She brought the Case here. He can’t. He has a Condition!’

At the lower door of the apartment house, he said, ‘Get this straight, Sara. I don’t blame Janissary. I blame you and whatever you’ve been telling him. You take a taxi. I’m going to walk. And I shan’t see you in New York again. I’m taking the noon train to Sachem . . . Shan’t see you again. No!’

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