The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 35

Not till ten minutes before midnight were they off for Boston, which Fred had chosen as a safer port than New York, where Saras and Janissarys lurked in every alley.

When he returned from Appletree’s, Hazel had begun to pack, but had not finished. She was sitting on the floor of a closet, whimpering like a baby, her wet face wrinkled like a baby’s, as she pawed over a box filled with the shabby treasures of lost youth. Silently she held up to him a report card of Howard from the fourth grade — Deportment was Fair; Drawing and Language, Excellent; Arithmetic, Geography and the rest were Poor.

Fred chuckled, ‘He used to draw curlicues, and he said they were smoke from a chimney, but I’d turn the house into a pig!’

She held up the gilt-lettered invitation to Sara’s first public dance, the High School Assembly, when she had been fifteen. He remembered Sara in the preposterously short skirt of the day, her legs so long and reedy: remembered that her hair had been short and choppy and uncombable as a boy’s. Such a gallant little tike she had been.

Hazel was sobbing, ‘Oh, Fred, must we . . . They’re so sweet. And they’re all we have.’

Just then the one thing in the world he wanted to do was not to do the intemperate thing that was the one thing in the world he wanted to do. As desperately as a man who has got himself into a fight that is too big for him, he wished that he had never started the commotion. He struggled:

‘I know. But we’ll mean all the more to them if they see us as something besides a couple of stand-bys that they can take for granted.’

He helped her finish packing. She had brilliantly foreseen that they mustn’t take anything they didn’t indisputably need; they kept the luggage down to eight bags, and perhaps a canvas roll and a few odd bundles; and in all of them, later, they found nothing unnecessary except, possibly: A large framed photograph of Sara aged eleven and Howard aged four; photographs of the same ones, two, five and nine years later; a handsome binocular case which proved to contain not the binoculars but shells for a sixteen-gauge shotgun; a map of New England; volume two of Tom Jones — neither of them had read volume one; a guidebook of Austro–Hungary dated 1913; half pair gent’s alligator-hide slippers; a bar of almond chocolate; an extra hairbrush, which each of them had thought belonged to the other; four sheets of letter paper headed ‘Olympia Hotel, East Utica’; a pair of round golf garters; nail tint, which Hazel never used; an empty box for digestive pills; and a magnificent, transparent, purple waterproof, which proved to be split down the back.

Their bags were all in the Triumph coupé; they sat outside, in a forbidding world of frost, looking up at their home. It seemed kind and secure, built not of bricks but of hopes. The street before them was a corridor of forbidding steel.

She gasped, resolutely turning her face from the house, ‘Oh, go, go quick — while we can.’

It was miles afterward that she asked, ‘Do you happen to know what ship we’re going on, what port we’re going to? I don’t suppose it matters, really, now that we’ve given up everything we’ve loved and trusted, but it might be interesting!’

He stopped the car. ‘Sure. It’s hard. We can go back, of course. It all comes down to — and I’m not so doggone certain I’ve got a right to ask it — but it’s a question of do you trust me?’

She rubbed her left forefinger, in its knitted glove, on the seat between them; she hesitated; and said, a little doubtfully, ‘Yes, I . . .’ Then, strongly, almost gaily, ‘YES!’

From Sachem to Boston the distance was two hundred and forty-two miles, and they drove it in seven hours and forty minutes, with Hazel cautiously deputing at the wheel for seventy miles of the way, while Fred leaned his cheek on his fist and tried to sleep.

They seemed to be slipping through no living world at all, but through unending cemetery aisles lined with pale tombstones. The car fled smooth and effortless as the passage of a ghost. Between the tombs, now and then, were lights that might have been villages, but they passed so quickly that Fred could not be certain that he had seen them. Only when a bridge bumbled quickly under the car, or they heard the swishing that marked their rush through a narrow defile between hills, was he sure that he had not really died, but was actually going forward to more life.

Then around and in front of them was Albany, a cauldron that bewildered and frightened them, and they stopped hastily, climbed stiffly out, to demand coffee and to gulp its scorching bitterness. Again they drank coffee in a sleeping Pittsfield, and he thought of Stonefield near by, of William Tyler Longwhale, and the happy evening carelessness in which, decades and decades ago, Hazel and he had lounged on the porch there and tried to sing ‘Seeing Nellie Home’.

He tried to hum it now, as they creaked on, flipped around a corner and shot straight ahead, but it died on the dead air inside the car.

Hazel was intimidatingly silent and withdrawn beside him. But once, beyond Stonefield, she fondly touched his arm, and he was moved to crow, ‘The golden road to Samarkand — we’re on the way — the golden road!’

He was certain, presently, that she had gone to sleep, and he could drive as fast as he wanted. It lulled his nostalgia to watch the needle of the illuminated speedometer, only spot of light in the gloomy car, flicker up to fifty-five, sixty, sixty-five. Hills arose before him, as dark mounds beyond the headlights, and he flung the car at them with joyful viciousness. Flats spread beside them; he imagined that — in snowy December — he could hear frog choruses, and he pushed the wheels into eating up the level road. Village lights came up at him and he scorched by them, ever faster, so that they slipped past like clusters of fireflies.

He felt sleepiness parching his eyes and, as a veteran driver, stopped by the road, let Hazel jolt awake in the motion of stopped motion, turned the wheel over to her and tried to doze off.

He startled as he remembered that on his desk at home he had left a marked list of sailings from Boston.

Would it lead Howard or Sara to him? Would their complaints, their drugging appeals to his sense of duty, paralyse him again and at the last moment prevent his going?

No. They’d never find it till morning. And so indirect were the flying routes that they would not be able to catch him even by plane.

He gave up sleep. When he lighted a cigarette, in the glow of the match he saw Hazel’s face tense. ‘Lemme drive again,’ he grunted, with no shadings from the tenderness he felt.

The route nicked off only a corner of Worcester, and instantly they were again in the graveyard lane. But at Waltham there was a shivering hint of daylight, and he suddenly felt strong and gay. Almost in Boston! Almost on a ship! Almost bucking the winter ocean! So he cheerfully slowed up for the first traffic, after their dash across one wide state and half another, and decorously he slipped up to a hotel on Beacon Street, in winter daylight.

The doorman yawned, ‘Like your car garaged for all day?’

Fred slightly alarmed him by sighing, ‘I want to pay in advance for storing it, dead, for three months,’ and by sentimentally smoothing the hot cheeks of its bonnet.

Would he ever drive a Triumph again?

He slept for two hours; Hazel, so far as he knew, till noon. He hastened to the tourist agency to which he had telephoned from Sachem and bought two tickets from Boston to Constantinople (Constantinople!), on the Aranjuna Queen, a cargo ship which carried some twenty passengers and which was headed for Channel ports, Lisbon, Gibraltar and clear round the Mediterranean. (But he did not call it a ‘cargo ship’ as yet; not till he had been baptized with salt water and the chief officer’s salty jeers would he know how land-lubberly he had once been in calling the Aranjuna a ‘freight boat’.)

He galloped about Boston, being polylingual to the extent of always saying ‘Jah’ for ‘Yes,’ and timidly demanded visas for Great Britain, Portugal, Jugoslavia and other patently fictional lands. He bought a book called A Satchel Guide to Europe, and a small motion-picture camera with which he hoped to snap Hazel walking in front of the pyramids, Hazel feeding pigeons at St. Mark’s, Hazel fishing in a Norwegian fjord.

And he bought for her six winter roses — very expensive.

At two o’clock that afternoon they stood amidships on the S.S. Aranjuna Queen, looking down on the freight-littered pier. From the bridge, they heard the captain shouting to the chief officer, up on the forecastle head, ‘Single up, fore and aft,’ and the bosun bellowing to the sailors, ‘Heave the gangway aboard.’

Hazel clutched his arm. ‘Our last link with shore! In a minute, it’ll be too late!’

‘Yes, too late,’ he croaked.

The gangway was slid up and flopped on the deck.

The last lines were let go. The captain, above them, cried to the third mate, at the engine-room telegraph, ‘Slow astern.’ They were incredibly moving; going, for the first time in either of their lives, from the security of land to the savage unknown. They held each other like terrified children as the whistle burst into obscene blatting.

Just then two people galloped along the pier below them, screaming.

‘Good Lord! It’s Howard and Annabel! How’d they ever know? Can they grab us and make us come back now? No! We’re safe!’ rattled Fred.

Out on the perilous edge of wharf beside the dock-house ran the little couple. Annabel was crying, ‘Take me with you! Please! Take me along!’

Hazel sobbed. The ship was quivering now and moving more swiftly. Howard had been waving imploringly. Now, as the black side of the ship drew definitely away, he stopped waving, and his whole face puckered with weeping.

‘My boy — my little boy that we’re deserting! He’s so unformed yet. He can’t take care of himself,’ whimpered Hazel.

The Aranjuna Queen snorted regally again and drew out into the harbour, and they could see their children only as doll-like figures, faithfully waving to the last.

‘How did we ever get here on this boat?’ marvelled the completely astonished Fredk Wm.

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