The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 6

Fred had wound his watch, he had listened to the broadcaster’s opinion that tomorrow it would rain in Omaha and parts of West Virginia, and he had proffered to Hazel his nightly observation, ‘How about turning in and getting a little sleep?’ The front door crashed, and in, like a flock of sheep with the voices of crows, tumbled Sara, Howard, Eugene, Guy, Annabel.

But when Fred had been presented to Annabel, he was sweet to her — too sweet, thought Hazel.

Sara purred, ‘Father, Mother, this is Eugene Silga of the Workers’ International Cohesion. I think you’ve heard Howard speak of him.’

‘Oh yes, yes, sure, you bet!’ crowed Fred, shaking hands.

Gene’s thin hands were hard, and his eyes half friendly, half shrewd, altogether cynical. The comedian Fred, who all day long shouted stories, became cautious and dead quiet.

‘Sara has been telling me about your two-story trailer,’ said Eugene to him.

‘Yes?’

‘I’ll remember it, next time I have anything to do with a demonstration in Union Square. Speech from the second story might go over big. I’m not sure you approve, but I’m interested in radical labour unions, Mr. Cornplow.’

Sara flared, ‘Oh, why don’t you TELL ’em you’re a communist and a party member, Mr. Silga — Eugene? It won’t hurt ’em!’

Fred was more cautious than ever. ‘No, it won’t hurt us at all. I heard you were a communist, Mr. Silga, when you were mixed up in the Pragg glass-works strike. But here’s something even stranger than that. Me, I’m a Republican and go to church!’

From Hazel there was a faint squawk that sounded like, ‘WHEN?’ as Fred went on selling:

‘I’m glad to meet you, I won’t pretend I like communism, but I much prefer you out-and-out advocates to the limousine socialists, like Sara here, who say, No, it wasn’t the communism, it was something they ate; who cuss out capitalism and go right on living on it.’

‘I don’t know, Mr. Cornplow. An agitator finds limousines awfully useful sometimes, for escaping from the cops.’

‘Hm. Yes. Glad meet you. I’ve been reading where it’s become the fashion for the Reds to shave and bathe and leave the bombs home . . .’

‘Sorry, never seen a bomb.’

‘ . . . in the bottom bureau drawer, and I’m interested to see that it’s true, Gene.’

With warm-hearted aid from Guy and Howard, derisiveness from Annabel, and watchful silence from Eugene, Sara portrayed for Fred and Hazel the future of the Coheeze, and of the monthly Protest & Progress, which was to bring to far-flung workers in byre and grange and speak-easy the surprising news that, if they were real toilers and not parasites, like Fred, all Irishmen, Chinese, Japanese, Germans, Frenchmen, Spanish leftists, Spanish rightists, Negroes, Californians, Floridians, New York garment workers, Vermont apple growers, and pearl divers in Borneo loved one another to death.

‘What do I do about it?’ weasled Fred.

‘Why, you contribute!’ Sara laughed heartily.

‘Not me. I laid off loving the workers when the last automobile strike prevented my getting any cars to sell for couple of months, right at the height of the season.’

Sara protested, ‘Guy’s father, Mr. Staybridge, has given us a hundred dollars. Are you going to let him beat you?’

‘Absolutely! Guy, you tell your father I’ll let him contribute the whole doggone fund, if he wants to.’

‘Oh, Dad!’ (That was Sara again.)

Hazel spoiled everything:

‘Fred, if Sara is enjoying this so much, and I’m sure Mr. Silga could tell us such interesting things about Russia, sex and divorces and how much the servants get and all — I do hope he’ll be willing to lecture before the Egeria Club, it’s my turn next month to get a speaker — and if Sara is having a good time out of it, I’m going to donate fifty dollars myself! Out of my own money, I mean!’

Fred goggled, remembering that Hazel’s ‘own money’, from the estate of an unexpected uncle, had last year brought in $786.10, of which, to his knowledge, she had spent over nine hundred. While Hazel was being thanked, Fred craftily led Annabel apart and fished:

‘Didn’t know you knew my boy, Miss Staybridge.’

‘Oh, I don’t, really. I’ve just met him at dances.’

‘That’s probably the best place to meet him. I’d steer clear of him in the classroom.’

‘Don’t you guarantee him?’

‘Well, he uses an awful lot of oil and gas and he backfires going uphill, not down, and his brakes are slipping. But he’s got a nice three-coat finish, and I kind of like him.’

‘So do I!’

Everyone else was lounging; everyone was chattering; Hazel was explaining to Gene Silga what a wonderful time they had had at the Egeria Club when they had entertained a pupil of Dale Carnegie, who had informed them that the ability to express one’s self on one’s feet was as important to a clubwoman as it was even to a senator or a lubricant salesman. But Annabel sat straight, her hands folded in her lap, her eyes straight ahead, in a trance. Her lips seemed very soft; Fred thought that they would tremble, if she was hurt. She seemed to him made not of patches of prejudice and unimportant informations, like the rest, but to be all of one piece, clear and sure and kind.

‘She’ll fall in love with Howard because he looks like a movie star, and then keep it up because she’ll be sorry for him,’ sighed Fred to himself. ‘He’ll wear her out. Here, quit it! Don’t crab about your own son. Way Annabel’s looking round, guess she likes it here — kind of free and easy — or would be if Sara wasn’t so doggone high-minded — in comparison with Staybridge, that old stiff. But Annabel — got the friendliest eyes I ever saw — friendly ‘s a pup — I’d like to have Howard safely married to a good loyal girl like her, but do I want to see HER married to a loafer? Duties of parents? Someday I’ll chuck the lot of ’em . . . I won’t!’

By request of Sara, Eugene Silga outstayed Annabel and Guy. After ten minutes’ discussion of the fact that, if he started in five minutes, he could be in Truxon at a fair hour, Howard went up to bed; and Eugene and Fred, with the Cornplow women for gallery, circled about each other.

Let us be clear about the political activities of Eugene Silga. He was not at all like the melodramatic Bolsheviks of British detective stories; he had no secret gang with an abbey crypt for hideout, no beautiful phoney countess (in black with a platinum dog collar) for spy. Fred suspected that Sara’s radical toying, suddenly become so active this evening, meant nothing more than a desire to be important, to be Different, and to associate with romantic young men. But Gene’s purpose was clear. He had hated the bland and rich ever since his infanthood in a riverside slum in Brooklyn. Making his way at City College of New York by pressing clothes had not improved his benevolence. He wanted power and revenge; he was willing to risk death in the hope of smashing the entire democratic system and winding up with the factory workers dictatorially running the country, and himself running the workers.

Both Sara and he did love humanity. Whether either of them loved a single individual human being was less certain.

Eugene did not come out of the comic papers. He was neither dirty-necked nor bellowing, nor had he any especial tropism for soapboxes. He was neat and quiet-voiced; he smiled affectionately; and he was, to the world of Fred Cornplow — to the world of Franklin and Emerson and Mark Twain, of Willa Cather and William Allen White — as dangerous as a rattlesnake.

There is a vulgar error about rattlesnakes. Hordes of sensible people assume that it is treacherous in a rattlesnake to bite the tourists, but to himself a rattlesnake is an honest, kind-hearted family man who believes that human beings treacherously kill a lot more rattlesnakes than snakes kill humans.

Eugene was telling Fred about the Youth Movement.

‘It’s not purely a communist doctrine. We’re willing to make a United Front with the liberals and even lukewarm socialists. I’ve just been out at a Youth Convention in Cincinnati. We’re demanding of Congress . . .’

‘Demanding?’

‘Certainly! Demanding that all young people up to twenty-five — oh, I’m a year beyond that limit, so it’s not personal — be granted college educations with all expenses paid, free cigarettes, free movies twice a week, and jobs at union wages guaranteed after college.’

Fred was gulping, but Sara stopped him with, ‘Now, Dad, please don’t tell us again how you waited on table at college, and then went to work at seven dollars a week.’

It was Hazel who, surprisingly, led the attack: ‘I never could quite understand the Youth Movement. I know; so many of the boys and girls are having a dreadful time getting started, nowadays. But is it any harder on them when they can’t find a job than it is on a man of forty-five, with a sick wife and three children?’

‘That’s scarcely an answer,’ condescended Eugene, while inwardly Fred began to rage that, ‘Doggone it, this Silga fellow acts like he owned the house. Pretty soon he’ll give us lessons in how to drive a car, if we’ll just pay strict attention.’

‘That’s scarcely an answer. Naturally, I believe in guaranteeing work, with a maximum week’s labour of thirty hours and a minimum wage of fifty dollars, for all workers, whether they are twenty-five or sixty-five. But our chief concern is with Youth, because it has a chance to be educated: it isn’t blinded by the American myth that this is a democracy and that everybody still has a chance.’

While Fred tried to look relaxed and impartial, and did look as relaxed and impartial as a cat on flypaper, Eugene informed him that all automobile workers’ wages could easily be doubled if the manufacturers would get rid of the middleman (such as Fred Cornplow); that it was a good thought that Great Britain would soon lose India and Egypt, France lose Indo–China, and Holland lose Java; that it was an even better thought that during the first three months of the Next War, Russia would take over Alaska, western Canada, China, Scandinavia and Poland, and make their inhabitants as joyous as the Russian peasants. So, by easy stages, they came to Spain, where, everyone said, there would be a dangerous right revolution before long.

Eugene announced, and quite politely, ‘I’ve talked it all over with Sara, Mr. Cornplow and — I hope you won’t think it’s impertinent of us, but we find that the only way to get proper contributions for the Spanish government is to figure out quotas for different contributors, and let them know.’

‘But I’m not a con . . .’

‘And Sara and I feel that you could show that you really do believe in democracy and popular rule by contributing five hundred dollars to the Spanish government and . . .’

‘Five hun . . .’

‘Certainly! Heaven knows I can’t give anything, with my wretched income,’ snarled Sara.

Fredk Wm, who gave her that income, didn’t think it was at all wretched, considering his own resources. A thousand a year and all found? So that was wretched, was it? He spoke with spirit and wrath:

‘Look here, you young people, I’m getting tired of being badgered. I know I’m just a millionaire capitalist — just a multi-millionaire, that’s all, nothing but a face grinder and an orphan robber, just a foe of the oppressed. Sure, I understand that horny-handed proletarians like you two have got to destroy capitalists like me — certainly — just take us out and destroy us — put us up against a wall and destroy us — take away my steam yacht and my French château and my wife’s ruby necklace — just take ’em away and stick us up against a wall and fill us full of holes. That’s the proper caper, just destroy us. Only, I don’t expect to contribute for the privilege of being destroyed! I’ll be content with just being shot; let the other fellow pay for the bullets.

‘No, wait now, Sara. I know, when you open your mouth like a fish, I’m going to get hell. But you listen to me first, for a while.

‘I do read the newspapers. Seriously, I do know there’s a lot of things wrong in this world; mining is dangerous and badly paid; Tom Mooney was rail-roaded and ought to be released; the Southern share croppers have a terrible time — AND so do most of the plantation owners! — a lot of priests and college professors get sent to prison in Europe for telling the truth; the Negroes get an awful deal; a lot of farmers just work to feed their mortgages.

‘But unlike you communists, I don’t feel that I’m Almighty God. I can’t do everything in the world at once. I’m the president of the Mind Your Own Business Association. I’m just not rich enough and not smart enough to rebuild the New York slums and stop all war at one and the same time. I don’t think I’ve done so bad with my own job. My workmen and my customers both seem pretty well satisfied. I get along all right with my own family . . .’

‘Do you?’ breathed Sara.

That hurt. It seemed to Fred equally pertinent and impertinent. He went on less confidently.

‘I mean . . . And so . . . Well, as I was trying to say: I don’t pretend to be a Rockefeller. I’m just a plain ordinary citizen of Sachem Falls, N.Y., and you highbrows, who love to talk so much about realism and seeing clearly, ought to appreciate the fact that I know what I am.’

Hazel had looked at Fred sympathetically, and she charged up with reinforcements. With the most restful prosiness, she told Eugene about the Spreadeagle Little Theatre of Sachem, about Howard’s remarkable success in baseball, as a boy, and about her cousins in California. This warm bath soothed them all, and Eugene eased out, with an abstracted farewell which said that he would never come back.

‘Did you really have to go out of your way to be insulting?’ demanded Sara.

‘Not very far! I never could understand why it was that thirty years ago we were supposed to be apologetic to all the visiting firemen from France and England for being American, and now we’re expected to apologize to Russia. When this young pup hits me in a tender spot . . .’

‘Your pocket-book, Father!’

‘You bet! It’s what you’ve always lived on, isn’t it, young lady, if you want me to be vulgar?’

‘I don’t!’

‘Well, when he sashays in here and tells me my duty . . .’

‘I wonder you didn’t spring on him something refreshing like, “If you don’t like it here, why don’t you go back where you came from?”’

‘Well, I did think of taking that up, but I wasn’t sure he came from some country I disliked enough to wish him off on it! But I respect him more than I do you. He has the decency to be openly a threat to every doggone thing I stand for, and risk his life in strikes, and prob’ly he lives on fifteen-twenty bucks a week, while the young folks like you sponge on your parents for all you can get, and are ashamed of yourselves for it, and take it out on us!’

‘Father!’

‘Absolutely. Maybe you’re not to blame personally. Whole country’s full of smart young people whose folks have sent ’em to school and done all they could to help ’em socially and financially, and the kids despise ’em for being so soft, and don’t for one second hesitate to correct their parents’ manners and historical dates! But I don’t intend to have any of those intellectual snobs in my house, not if I know it! Young lady, after children get to be eighteen or so, they have no more claim on their parents’ affection than anybody else. They’ve got to earn it!’

Sara rushed from the room, sobbing.

Fred paced a good deal.

‘Oh, hang it, I didn’t mean . . . But that girl, Sara, she got me so riled up, just when I’d laid myself out to be so polite to her and that dark-eyed comrade, that Bolshevik gigolo! Why can’t they be nice, like Annabel? There’s MY daughter. Not sure I’ll let her marry Howard, the stuffed sweater! But Sara . . . All right, all RIGHT! Shall I wait and apologize to her tomorrow, or go up and get it over now?’

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