The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 39

Howard’s flat was a ‘second-story walk-up’. The first flight of the stairs was clean and waxy; the second, littered with cigarette butts, mud and a dozen milk bottles, some empty and tumbled on their sides, some full of milk turned sour.

When Fred knocked, from within came a voice, apparently Cal Tillery’s, bawling, ‘Ah gwan, beat it!’

Fred walked in. The living-room, which Annabel had kept sweet as a new moon, was like a junk shop. Middle of the floor lay a glass lamp, smashed, with its vellum shade dented, and beside it, Annabel’s volume of Yeats, with the cover torn off. Cal Tillery, in undershirt and trousers, happily waving a cigarette, lay on Annabel’s chaise-longue, upon a woolly afghan (she had knitted it). Beside Cal was a highball on a low maple table, in the middle of which a cigarette had burned itself out. The charred paper and ashes still outlined its corpse.

Nailed to the wall with an ice pick was a photograph of Annabel’s father, the beard daubed red with a coloured pencil.

Cal looked up cheerfully. ‘Hello, Cousin Freddie! Who let you out? So they wouldn’t keep you in Europe heh?’

Fred took an appreciable time in walking over to him. His voice was low. ‘Get out. Quick.’

‘What’s your hurry? Have a drink?’

Fred’s voice was not so low now. ‘Quick, I said!’

‘Give a fellow time to put his shoes on, can’t you?’

Fred looked about for the shoes. They had been placed, carefully ranged side by side, on Annabel’s baby-grand piano, which her mother had given to her when she was ten. Cal’s straw hat and coat were dumped on the floor. Fred picked up shoes, hat, coat, and threw them out into the hall.

He was thirty years older than Cal, and small and fat and unexercised. He stooped over Cal, his plump hands making clawing motions. He must have looked mad.

‘I said — quick!’

‘All right — all right — keep your shirt on — Freddie!’ But Cal was staggering out, as he said it.

Howard could be heard groaning, ‘Oh, what’s all racket?’ from the bedroom.

Before Fred went to him, he looked over the kitchen-dining-room. There was not one plate or glass left in the cupboard; a pile of dishes, smeared with egg yolk, bacon grease and burned toast crumbs, tottered on the dish slide. In the sink were a dishpan full of greasy water, the smashed ruin of a glass coffee percolator and the slowly perishing shred of a cake of expensive hand-soap. The roller towel, behind the door, was streaked with black.

Fred marched into the bedroom. Howard, in pyjamas, the top unbuttoned over his woolly red chest, lay flat on the bed, groaning, trying to stroke his wet and blazing forehead. A whisky bottle was snugly tilted on the pillow beside his cheek.

With pain he lifted his reeking, tousled head and stared.

‘Oh, hello. It’s Dad, ain’t it? I know! You came back from Europe!’ His drivelling triumph at this recognition he interrupted with the surly demand: ‘Where’s Cal?’

‘He’s gone out.’

Howard wept with self-pity. ‘You get him back, ri’ ‘way. Cal’s best of the wholy cranky lot. Only one that never asks me to do anything don’t want to. Family always after me to hustle an’ do something. Howard — wash your fool neck! Howard — don’t ever stop on the street and be nice to folks, because you got to be in the repair shop at eight sharp! Howard — curse you, now appreciate this highbrow music I’m playing! Howard — quit laughing and get busy and make a million dollars, even if you don’t want a million dollars! Howard — don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t play poker, don’t kiss that hat-check girl, don’t skip dumb classes, don’t drive over thirty miles an hour, don’t ever laugh! . . . Cal’s the only one lets me be a roustabout, which what — what — that’s what naturally am! Only one lets me be!’

He closed his eyes, exhausted by his oration.

Fred stood by him, unspeaking. With a shock he realized that there was much to what the boy had said.

Howard reared up, looking ugly, and scolding, ‘You send Cal in now! I don’t want to talk to you. I won’t talk to you till Cal comes in . . . Cal! Oh, Cal! Hey! Come on in here!’

‘Howard, for a start, I’m afraid you’ll have to get used to doing without Cal. I’ve chased him out of here — for keeps.’

‘You did? Well, blast and damn you, then! And you can chase yourself out, too. Get out and stay out!’

Feverishly Howard had bundled himself out of bed. He loomed far above his father. He swayed, but his eyes — not his eyes, but the eyes of the evil leering thing within him — were murderous. He reached back, stooping a little, and fumbled for the whisky bottle on the pillow. As he shakily raised it, Fred hit him, clean and hard, on the point of the chin.

Howard tumbled on the bed, threshed, tried to rise again, whimpered like a little hurt dog and passed out.

Fred drew up a chair and sat watching him, too profoundly troubled to think anything tangible. Presently he rose, creakingly, and began to bustle.

In the bathroom there wasn’t a clean towel. Fred rinsed out a soiled one and carefully wiped Howard’s sweating forehead, the back of his neck, his wrists.

Howard slept on.

Fred began on the kitchen. Swiftly, not very competently, he scraped the dirty dishes into the garbage pail, washed them, put them away. Meantime he had telephoned to a laundry, to a clothes presser, and when the runners came, he gave out all of Howard’s garments that he could round up, for cleaning by special twelve-hour service.

He telephoned for coffee, cream, eggs, a percolator. He scrubbed the kitchen floor, painfully down on his plump knees, the small of his back stinging. By now he was in shirt sleeves, his hair tousled, his cheeks smutty, and when the messengers came in answer to his telephoning, they looked as suspiciously at him as he had looked at his son.

When he heard Howard groaning he shambled in to give the boy hot black coffee and aspirin; shaved him as well as he could; combed his hair. He said nothing at all the while. Howard looked at him gratefully, got out a hoarse ‘Sorry, Dad,’ and went back to sleep.

Fred telephoned a cable (deferred!) to Hazel:

HOWARD OKAY PLANNING JOB FOR HIM AM WRITING LOVE YOU HAPPY QUESTION

He had just sent it when Sara telephoned:

‘Father? I was so nasty about Howard when you were here. Please forgive me. Kind of upset about him, and I guess I was trying to hide it or something. It was a dirty mean trick of me to take it out on you, darling!’

Then Fred rejoiced, ‘Hallelujah! Now let’s see what a dumb worker can do with the other child.’

Wearily he began to clean the living-room.

Whether many of the things he did for Howard were wise, is not to be known. One was intelligent; as soon as the flat was clean enough so that the Cornplows could face the world, he sent out for a cook, a powerful coloured woman, and began to feed the young man.

Since Howard was no old and conditioned alcoholic, Fred guessed (as he set up in rivalry to Dr. Janissary as domestic psychiatrist) that it would be injurious to fix his attention too much on alcohol by drastically forbidding it. He let him have three or four, later one or two, drinks a day, and with no great pleasure shared them with him.

For three days Howard slept most of the time between meals, in the secure feeling that his father was there, not going to nag him, ready to give anything and forgive everything.

Not even on the two steamers, since there he had by his tension been helping push them forward to a destination, had Fred devoted so many unclocked, eternal-seeming hours to meditation on the one question that is of moment: Why are we here in life? What is its purpose?

He persuaded himself that he had to know something of the answer before he could do anything for Howard; before he could determine whether it was his business, or merely an impertinence, to ‘do anything’ for Howard at all.

Like every other philosopher since time was, greybeard in a hermitage of old, or parachute-jumper with two seconds for contemplation before pulling the rip cord, he gave up trying to master the question entire. But he did work out a comforting notion or two, and the first was that he had in all his life done nothing so important as to cease completely the bustling which had given him his little distinction as a citizen, and let life itself work on him.

If it be doubted that a Fred Cornplow would evolve a philosophy, it may be answered that the Fred Cornplows are great men, but most of them do not have the disastrous good fortune of sitting for many quiet hours beside a heartsick son, after having for five months sat, ineffectual and alone, by café tables in strange lands, and do not, thus, often ask: what is a Fred Cornplow that he too should live, along with such divine creatures as the humming-bird and the shark?

He perceived that his purpose in life had not been, as usually he had believed, to sell motor cars or handy household gadgets. Yet such selling was not, as the professors and communists would have it, trivial. It had demanded diplomacy, patience, ingenuity, faith that cars are worth having.

He worked away, also, at another notion:

Howard had been reared to demand, not that he be permitted to train his eyes and memory and chest muscles, but that he have, without passionate struggle, all the material richness of a medieval emperor: a palace small but luxuriously heated, a chariot which could gallop at eighty miles an hour, a magic device whereby he could talk to fellow potentates five thousand miles away.

Could he teach himself, then teach Howard, a vision of self-mastery?

Fred came out of his dreaming with a dismaying snap.

‘Can any father do much of anything — that is, permanently — for any son? Golly! Not even sure I can make him see he’s got to start at the bottom and build, because if I did have the gift of gab, like Doc Janissary, when I got all through my lecture, Howard would say, “Sure, I get you, but fellow has to show some class and be up to date, these days, hasn’t he?” But anyway, even if I can’t actually help him much, maybe by trying to I can keep my own doggone self from withering too much.’

What, definitely, ought he to do with Howard till the boy was ready to run on his own feet?

The normal thing, free of all fancy romantic ideas, would be to start him off in the Triumph agency again. But a new world would for a little while, suggest new thoughts. In strange lands, Fred hoped he himself had at least learned to be alone and lonely without whimpering.

Take Howard with him to Europe? No; let Annabel rest there. And it looked now, in all the news from Russia, Spain, Germany, Italy, as though the wise old nations of Europe that so despised America’s rawness were going to devote their ten thousand years of culture to butchering one another again.

He thought of the Whitefall River, in Canada, where he had once gone fishing. Even if it did nothing to turn Howard from an easy-going young gentleman into a stalwart hero, so dependable that he might some day become assistant to the assistant to the first vice-president of a chewing-gum factory, at least the sweating on the hot trail through the pines, the cold searing plunge afterward, and the chill still nights would in themselves be glorious living.

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