The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 4

Frederick William Cornplow was in his office, at the Triumph agency, and he was busy. He had perceived that it was time to add an agency for trailers to his business, and he had sent his foreman and assistant manager, Paul Popple, out to Chicago to look into the matter of the Duplex Trailer, a new make, only just now in production but promising well.

That left Fred shorthanded. He had no one to sell cars except salesmen, and they had one fault: they could not endure just selling a car; they had to go through their little pieces about the Triumph which, with such agony, they had learned from Fred, and if a customer should attempt to buy a car off the floor, without letting the salesman lift the bonnet and point out that those funny jiggers there were the spark plugs, the salesman would go to pieces.

Fred had finished the morning mail. He had dictated to his secretary his decisions that he wouldn’t really care to donate a free car to the Navaho, New Hampshire, Orphanage; nor serve as a committeeman for the Chamber of Commerce annual banquet in honour of Commodore Perry; nor contribute a hundred dollars to the Truxon College badminton association. Pleased that this morning he had been satisfactorily hardhearted, Fred lighted his first cigar of the day (the cigarettes began just after the cornflakes), and clucked, as into the office was ushered his sub-agent, Bert Whizzle, Triumph representative at Enigmaville.

‘Well, well, well, Bert, how’s the boy?’ he said.

‘Fine, fine! How’s everything by you, Fred?’

‘Swell! Couldn’t be better! The new Houndtooth station wagon is simply wiping all the other boys off the map. You bet. Well, how’s the little woman, Bert?’

‘Fine, fine! Just fine and dandy.’

‘Fine! And how’s the three young uns, Bert?’

‘Fine and dandy. Just fine. Say,’ and Mr. Whizzle laughed a good deal, ‘here was the funniest thing. Here couple nights ago we had the kids’ grandma over for supper, and I let Peggy — she’s the youngest — only six but bright’s a dollar — I let her stay up to say howdy to the old dame, and what d’ you think she said to her?’

‘What was it? Tell me!’ Fred’s enthusiasm was as untarnished as on the day, twenty-nine years ago, when, a cadet travelling man in hardware, he had sold his first glamorous order of sixteen tack hammers and one three-tined manure fork.

‘Well sir, believe me or not, the little tyke took one look at her grandmother and she pipes up and says, “Say, Gramma, does oo smoke cigarettes?” Well, sir, I thought I’d die! What d’ you think of Roosevelt’s New Deal, Fred?’

Fred meditated swiftly. Confound it, he couldn’t remember whether Mr. Whizzle was a Democrat or a Republican. (It may be added that there were times when Fred could not remember whether he himself was a Sterling Republican or a Loyal Democrat.) He said weightily, ‘Way I see it: now you take F.D.R. I’m perfectly certain there ain’t a more humanitarian politician in the country — and what a voice on the radio! But same time, the needs and aspirations of the Republicans have got to be given every consideration. Way I see it!’

‘You bet! You’re dead right,’ said Mr. Whizzle feelingly. ‘Well say, Fred, got any interest in a couple ‘r three orders this morning? Like to make a little dough?’

‘Oh, I guess I could stand up under the foul blow — or fell blow, whichever it is. But the fact is . . . Now I don’t know whether you’ll believe this or not, but I’m not half as interested in the cash as I am in the fun of the game.’ He did not believe that Mr. Whizzle believed that he believed anything of the sort, but it made a nice, refined atmosphere.

‘Sure. Same way myself, Fred. Well, I’ve got orders for a Houndtooth convertible coop, de luxe, Persian green; a Triumph two-ton truck, closed body; and a Triumph special four-door sedan, Garden of Allah sand colour.’

‘Have ’em for you by tomorrow, if they aren’t already in stock,’ chuckled Fred, as into the office charged his assistant, Paul Popple, bawling, ‘Mr. Cornplow, we’ve got hold of the biggest thing . . .!’

‘Just a minute! Just a minute, Paul! Can’t you see I’m busy? You know Mr. Whizzle?’

‘Oh — oh sure,’ said Popple, as vaguely as a bridegroom. When Mr. Whizzle was gone, Fred turned on Popple with, ‘Look here, son! Am I never going to learn you that it’s these sub-agents that push off most of the cars we sell? Who do you think you are, anyway?’

‘Oh, I’m sorry, but I was all excited. You will be, too.’

‘How’d you get back from Chicago so quick? Didn’t expect you till tomorrow.’

‘Flew, sir.’

‘FLEW?’

‘You bet.’

‘In an aeroplane?’

‘Nothing less.’

‘Well, I’ll be doggoned! I’ve flown, couple of times. But don’t know’s I liked it so much. Kept wanting to pull up beside the road and rest a little and maybe chew the rag with a filling-station attendant, and then I’d look down and there wasn’t any road — just spider webs, down there. I felt like a toad in a cyclone.’ His recollections were interrupted by the realization that Popple was jittery with a grandiose impatience, and he complained, ‘But what was the idea? What was all the rush?’

‘Mr. Cornplow, I think we’ve gotten hold of a whale of a proposition. I’ve brought with me a contract giving us not just a district agency but the whole of northern New York State for the Duplex Trailer! I looked it up, and there are six million people in the territory, and if we can’t sell fifty thousand Duplexes in the next five years —’

‘Take it easy! Get down to brass tacks, Paul. What is this machine for counterfeiting money that you think you’ve discovered?’

‘Honest, Mr. Cornplow, the Duplex is a natural! It’s got everything. On the road, it looks like an ordinary high-class passenger trailer, except that it’s about eighteen inches higher — which still gives it as much clearance for railroad underpasses as any big furniture truck. Well, in that extra eighteen inches, there’s an entire extra story to the trailer, collapsed like a bellows when you’re driving.

‘The roof of the second story — it’s of aeroplane linen, with ribs of ribbon steel — drops right down on the flat roof of the first story, with room between them for collapsible aluminum-alloy beds and chairs, and even collapsible washstands. The sides of the second story are of tarpaulin, and they cave in like an accordion.’

Fred was not interrupting. Fred was a lively enough chatterer when the customers wanted encouragement, but he had trained himself to utter stillness of listening when it should be useful.

‘When you make camp, you raise the top roof with compressed air worked from the engine — in two minutes you can raise it, and you’ve added three separate bedrooms, with tarpaulin partitions and a gangway. And that leaves you a really comfortable big living room and kitchen downstairs. So Pop and Mom and two-three kids can all travel together with some privacy. It’s a real moving home! It’s a knockout! Look at these photos!’

Fred did look and felt like the first time he had put on radio earphones, heard Philadelphia talking, and guessed that someday he would listen from afar to presidents and kings. Fred had always found business a diverting struggle; he could not understand these superior people who considered trade mechanical and witless; and in the Duplex Trailer he smelled a new adventure.

‘I kind of trust your mechanical sense, and you seem to think this Duplex is O.K., Paul. I’ll think it over.’

‘But I’m afraid you’ll have to jump. They can only keep it open for us a few days. Honestly! You’ll have to put up ten thousand cash for a start. All they need is that and your signature on the contract.’

And Fred signed. And the bookkeeper notarized. And the office-boy galloped off to the post-office to catch the air mail. And just as Fred leaned back, fretting a little, the Norse god Howard glowed into the office.

‘Hello, Dad. H’are you, h’are you?’

‘Fine and dandy, Howard. Ribs all right?’

‘Grand!’

‘What you doing in town?’

‘Li’l’ party with the Staybridges — Guy’s going to introduce Sara and me to his Dad, you know, old Putnam, and his sister Annabel. Course I’ve met Annabel, dances and so on, but I don’t really know her. And a friend of mine, a labour leader — Eugene Silga, his name is — is coming along.’

(It is true that, with 125,000 inhabitants in Sachem Falls, sound burghers like the Cornplows would not, save by accident, be intimate with the proud Staybridges.)

‘All right, son. Staying at the house to-night?’

‘No, got to buzz back to Truxon and . . . No, no, now wait, Dad. I’ll drive like an old lady.’

‘You will not! And if you want to break your neck, that’s your business, but I’m getting good and tired of paying fines and repair bills, while you loaf through college!’

‘But,’ with wide, glad innocence, ‘that’s just what I came to see you about! Dad, I’m not getting anything out of college. The professors are the darnedest lot of crabs and bookworms. What good does it do me to learn about the — the — well, all these things they teach you? Couldn’t you give me a job here in the agency?’

‘Son, someday I hope you do really settle down and look at things seriously and want to come in with me. Someday I’ll be thinking about retiring.’

‘You? Never! You like your hand on the steering wheel too well! You’ll be shoving off Triumphs on the sub-agents when you’re eighty. But how about me starting in here . . .’

‘Howard, I don’t want to be any crankier than the law allows, but I certainly don’t want you here, filling this place up with a lot of your fancy college friends, Guy Staybridge and God knows who all else, smoking and singing and playing contract.’

‘Dad, you don’t understand! Eugene has shown both Guy and me where . . . We’ve cut out being aristocrats.’

‘Don’t tell me!’

‘We have. We see now that there’s got to be a new world. Youth has got to take charge. Gene and Guy and me have been thinking about starting a cell of the Workers’ International Cohesion in Sachem — the “Coheeze” they call it — you know, to make a United Front of all socialists and democrats and liberals and the whole bloomin’ lot. I don’t intend to have anything more to do with all those snobs and idlers. I’m going to go to work for you, and Guy and me are going to just associate with the intellectuals.’

‘D’you think I’d be so crazy to have THEM make this shop a hangout? It wouldn’t be any very big help to my business to have Reds and Bolsheviks and these new Coheezers of yours making speeches from running boards in the showroom, all day long. No, I’m sorry, but you can’t come in here till you really want to sell cars because you want to sell cars, if I’m making it clear.’

‘You’re not, Dad, but . . . Lookit: course I don’t want to be a fanatic about these revolutionary activities. Fact, I’d just soon chuck Eugene — you know: I mean, not let him have too much of an undue influence on me. How about me quitting school and taking up aviation? You know what a good driver I am . . .’

‘Eh?’

‘ . . . and I’m dead certain I’d be a good aviator — you know, cross the ocean and everything. Or what do you think of starting a silver fox farm?’

‘Or grow frogs’ legs?’

It was Fred’s supposition that he was being bitter, but the Norse god answered with bright gladness:

‘Oh, there’d probably be a lot of money in that, too, but I don’t believe frogs would be as much fun to raise as foxes — OR aviation. How about it? Do something useful.’

A little wearily, a little savagely, altogether patiently, Fred explained, ‘Howard, two years ago you wanted to quit and go to Hollywood. A year ago, when you had that piece about your fraternity dance in your college paper, you were ready to quit and take up your burden as London correspondent for the Associated Press. Listen! I don’t necessarily think so much of college. But you’ve only got a year and a half to go before you get your degree, and if you can’t stick that out, you’ll have to get along on your own. My guess is that you’d make a first-rate coat holder for some posthole digger on a WPA project that ain’t started yet!’

‘Why Dad!’ It was clear that Howard was hurt. Shocked, surprised, wounded in his filial piety. ‘You mean, if I quit college and tried to really make something of myself, say wanted to buy an interest in one of these small broadcasting agencies, you wouldn’t back me up?’

‘Exactly!’

‘Then, gosh, it’s all true what Silga says about the Youth Movement: the older generation is trying to crush our aspirations and throttle us economically . . . Oh say, Dad, this Gene is a grand guy, and awfully hard up. Could you let me have twenty-five bucks to lend him?’

‘I could not!’

‘Well — well — see you again soon.’

Howard departed in complete cheerfulness.

In the heart of Fred, sitting motionless, there was considerably less cheer. He glanced irritably about his office. Yesterday it had been a sparkling gem of efficiency; now it seemed drearily commonplace: merely a desk, a couple of filing cabinets, a tableful of bright catalogues; the inner walls half wood and half clouded glass; the outer windows looking on a cemented yard full of dejected turn-ins with one horrible wreck that confessed a windshield jagged and stained. The only sounds were the rasping screech of valve-grinding, and from the sales floor, just outside, the voice of a salesman: ‘Not a chance of your shimmying with a job like this. You can drive over cobblestones like you were in your cradle.’

‘Dumb place. Never anything new,’ Fred grunted.

It was running smoothly, it was his own machine, but suddenly he did not care whether it ran or not. Was that all that Howard and Sara wanted from him, just to ‘back them up’?

This Duplex business: It might be too successful.

He might be caught up again in a delirium of business. Why wasn’t it possible, just possibly possible, for Hazel and him to take a little time off, to flee from the pleasant padded servitude of the office, of their home, and see the world? Do a few crazy things like learning to ride horseback — gambling not more’n once or twice at Monte Carlo — trying to play the piano — seeing the Midnight Sun — building furniture — sitting at a small table in the piazza of Venice?

As a voice from beyond the clouds came the thought that, actually, they could do some of those things — do all of them! He was not rich, but he had money enough; the agency was not perfect but, under Paul Popple (not under Howard, by jiminy!), it would get along.

Almost frightened, he ran from the heretical inspiration; jammed on his hat and heavy overcoat; fled to the Sachem Club and the comforting dull talk of Doc Kamerkink and Walter Lindbeck and Ed Appletree.

For — he put it to himself in protest against himself — what the dickens would happen to the world if people ever did what they wanted to?

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lewis/sinclair/prodigal/chapter4.html

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