The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 7

The renowned Old Home Week of Sachem Falls was held in March, however inclement, because that month marked the birthday of the city’s one revolutionary hero, General Abram Pough, of whom no one knew anything except that he had been a hero, that he had almost certainly been born, that he had been born in March, and that he had not been born at the celebrated Pough Birthplace, on Beecher Street. The annual Home Week parade was, by custom, the occasion for the first outdoor showing of the new automobile models, an attraction altogether more interesting than General Pough to the citizenry.

It was in this parade that Fred exhibited the first Duplex Trailers beheld in Sachem. His assistant, Paul Popple, had fretted, ‘Say, Chief, I’ve got the low-down on what the Conqueror people are going to do. They’re showing six models, all decorated with hot-house flowers. What say we have ours tied up with gold ribbons?’

‘I’m not selling ribbons. Nor gold. Nor flowers. I’m selling automobiles. I’ll work out our display,’ snorted Fred.

Paul Popple was doubtful, Hazel was doubtful, and Sara was shocked when, in the Old Home Week parade, after floats showing the Dutch first settlers making cheese and consequently being scalped by the Iroquois, after the American Legion and the Sons of Sweden and the pickle-works exhibit and the Woodmen of America, rich in axes and badges, after the elegant display of the rival Conqueror Motor Company, ornate with roses and daffodils, came the eccentric display arranged by Fred. Leading it was a Triumph town car, and in that car was the mayor of Sachem, who owed Fred three hundred dollars. The spectators, packed in like baled hay and encouraged by dollar-a-day clappers hired by Fred, applauded with an apparent feeling that this was official and the Triumph must, therefore, be a very good car indeed. Following was a Houndtooth Six, and, to Sara’s wan disapproval, it lacked not only flowers and ribbons, but even a decent body. There was only the chassis, without fenders and with the driver on a greasy wooden box. But the crowd was stirred by seeing the wheels go round, and jammed in close to the Houndtooth, crying, ‘Look, Bill, the way them brakes work!’

After it rolled six Duplex Trailers, and this was the first time that any outsider in Sachem had seen a Duplex.

The trailers were in busy action. The extra second story of each was being raised or taken down. The crowd gasped and gurgled, and Hazel patted Fred’s cheek in wonder, as she saw three bedrooms magically created out of air.

The news stories about the parade, later, in all three papers, could not ignore this innovation — particularly as Fred had promised each of them a full-page Duplex advertisement. In each news story was a paragraph to the effect: ‘The surprise of the show, however, was a fleet of Duplex Trailers, which unfold to provide a second story.’

Fred had sold six Duplexes before twilight the next day.

But at home, quiet beside Hazel on the couch, listening to a nostalgic Hawaiian radio quartette (from the Bronx), Fred pondered, ‘Yuh, it was a good show. I’m a swell salesman AND a good showman. But — funny — the kick don’t seem to last. I felt kind of naked out there, watching the Duplexes dress and undress in public. Am I getting tired of just being a showman, honey? Then what ‘ll I DO?

He did not speak to Hazel, he didn’t even speak to himself, about the important occurrence of the Old Home Week parade.

During the passing of the Duplexes, Fred had wandered away from Hazel, to greet possible customers, and in the crowd had come upon Putnam Staybridge and Annabel.

But for the treachery of George Washington, Mr. Staybridge would now be Gen. the Rt. Hon. Sir Putnam Staybridge, P.C., D.S.O., K.C.M.G., and though he had been robbed of this rightful label, yet in the precision of his little beard, the quiet intolerance of his grey eyes, the erectness of his frail shoulders, Mr. Staybridge showed his private knightliness. He was devoting it now to sneering at the Duplex demonstration, and it did not help Fred to know that Mr. Staybridge had some unacknowledged interest in the opposition Conqueror Motor Company.

‘How d’you do, Mr . . . Cornplow,’ said Mr. Staybridge. But Fred felt that he didn’t really much care how he did, or whether he did at all. Putnam was already ignoring him while he acknowledged the passing of a woman acquaintance by pinching the top of his hat and slightly widening his lips, like the stretching of a rubber band.

But Annabel was beaming. Fred flagrantly winked at her.

Five minutes later, while Fred was watching the passing of the Boy Scouts, someone plucked at his sleeve, and he looked down — not very far down — on a shy Annabel.

He comprehensively remarked, ‘Well, well!’

‘Father’s gone and . . .’

‘You stay with me. I’ll guard you. I used to be a G-man.’

‘Honestly?’

‘Absolutely. I captured Jesse James.’

‘Jesse James wasn’t captured. He was shot in the back by a member of his gang.’

Fred looked on Annabel with favour. How rare it was, he thought, to find anyone under thirty these days who was not dazzled by the movies and aviation, but knew such sanctities of American history as the James Boys. ‘Good girl,’ he said. He could not treat her like a Staybridge. She really seemed human. He grumbled, ‘Afraid your father didn’t care much for my trick trailers, Miss Staybridge.’

‘I’m afraid he enjoys not caring for much of anything. Uh . . . uh . . .’ Annabel twisted a button of his coat. ‘Have you seen Howard?’

‘Not for a few days. He’s coming down for my birthday party, at the house, week from next Tuesday. Look! Why don’t you come?’

‘I’d love to, Mr. Cornplow!’

He envied the clear light of Annabel in a foggy, complicated world.

‘By golly,’ he swore, ‘if Howard don’t fall properly in love with her, I’ll — well, I’ll do the worst thing to him I possibly can: I’ll let him do what he thinks he wants to do — leave college and go to work!’

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