The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 8

The house of Frederick William Cornplow was filled with openly secret preparations for his fifty-sixth birthday, next day. He sat in plump contentment, awaiting dinner and snorting over the evening paper, and all life seemed secure.

The doorbell rang then, and all the forgotten sorrows of life trooped in.

Hilda, the maid, announced, ‘There’s some folks here, name of Tillery, Enos Tillery and his folks; they say they want to see you.’

‘Tillery? Never heard . . . Oh, wait.’

With creeping horror Fred remembered that he did have some second-hand cousins of that ominous name. One Joe Tillery, from back yonder. Not since boyhood had he seen any of the tribe, but he remembered them, in a paintless farm shanty, unbathed, uncombed, insolvent and full of jolly music; he remembered his father giving Joe a tenth of the ten dollars which Joe had modestly solicited. This Enos Tillery would be Joe’s faithful son.

Fred stalked into the hall. With touching trustfulness he hoped that the Tillerys would get no farther.

By the door, looked appallingly friendly, was a man of Fred’s own age — Enos, presumably — whose hair had not been cut for two months nor his cheeks shaven for four days, but who displayed checked plus-fours, golf stockings purple and leaf-green, and a moth-eaten red sweater. Enos was reinforced by his wife, in a tweed coat with a fur collar which needed combing, as did her greasy black hair, and by two lumps of grown sons and a small boy and a small girl.

Now Fred had resolutely freed himself of the heresy, held by his father and his father’s friends, that there was disgrace in poverty and evil in the poor. On the other hand, he had not slipped into the new credo that poverty and bad luck and dirt are always and necessarily superior to thrift and good fortune and soap . . . And perhaps he wouldn’t have cared a hang, one way or the other, but he was that most shrewdly disciplined of beings, a Good Family Man, and as the Tillerys broke out in a rash of smiles that to the experienced tradesman meant cases of the helping-themselves hand, Fred was itchily conscious that Hazel might be peeping around a corner and refusing to forgive him for having brought these relatives into the world.

Enos was shouting, ‘Well, well, it’s fat little Freddie Cornplow, the old thief! Remember how you used to pinch apples, at our farm, and Dad walloped the daylights out of you? Remember how you were scared to go swimming in the crick? Oh, those were the great days!’

From the blue distances of jocund Youth, there seemed to float past Fred a delicate odour of the Tillery pigpen. But he got out shakily:

‘Oh, yuh, sure — yuh, that’s right. So this is the family.’

‘Yes, here’s Edna, the wife, and Mac and Cal, the big fellows, and little Tom and Sagittaria.’

Fred did not understand it, but somehow they were no longer in the hall; they were in the living-room, seated, and Cal had helped himself to a cigarette, Mrs. Tillery to candy, while Tom and Sagittaria were bouncing gleefully on the couch, whose springs were none too hale.

(But you couldn’t turn down your relatives, your own cousins, now could you? Blood thicker than — thicker ‘n glue, this time . . . But golly, if Sara came in!)

Enos was caroling, ‘Well, sir, we’re kind of driving down towards West Virginia — fellow told us there was some kind of Rural Resettlement project down there where we could get a farm free, and all the tools. I noticed we was right near here, and I says to Edna, that’s the wife, “We’ll just drop in on fat little Freddie — not make any trouble — maybe he’s got engagements — not give him and his woman . . .” Eglantine, that’s your wife’s name, ain’t it?’

‘Hazel.’

‘Hazel? Kind of a hick name. She just a plain farmer, too, like you and me, Fred? Well, anyway, Edna says no — says it’s almost forty years since you and me have seen each other — you wouldn’t want to entertain us, she says, but I says “Of course he’ll want to see a COUSIN!” I says. “Wouldn’t I be tickled to death to give HIM a shakedown if I had a house and if him and his family come along?” . . . How many kids you got, Fred?’

‘Two.’

‘Oh well, you never were much good. Six, I’ve got — these four, and another one that’s got a fine job selling patent medicines, and the other — well, he had kind of bad luck, and ‘s matter of fact, he was innocent, but he’s in the reformatory, and . . . Anyway, “No,” I says to Edna, “of course he’ll be glad to see us. What’s relatives for?” I says. “Fred may have gone and got rich, but I’ll bet he don’t think he’s too good for his own people — I’ll bet that at heart he’s just a dumb, plain rube like the rest of us.” Is that steak I smell?’

Fred was by now in a simple state of dementia. Beyond question he knew that if he invited his kin, and perhaps kind, to dinner, Hazel would kill him and Sara cremate him. He stuttered:

‘H-had your supper, E-Enos?’

‘Not yet! Ready to eat an ox!’

‘How you fixed for money?’

Enos laughed. His wife laughed. His young laughed. Enos giggled, ‘You wouldn’t kid me, would you? You always were a great little kidder.’ He arose to run at Fred and jab him in the ribs — unnecessarily, Fred thought. ‘Between us, we’ve got about a dollar and a half.’

‘Well, you let this be my treat. Here’s five dollars, Enos.’

Enos took the bill not at all reluctantly; the only reluctance was in his yearning venture, ‘But wouldn’t it maybe be cheaper to feed us here, Freddie? Not but what I could take the five bucks too, if you insist!’

Enos laughed. His wife laughed. His young . . .

Reduced already to the state of a pitiful liar, and not a very good liar, Fred implored, ‘We’ve got some folks coming in for dinner . . .’

‘That’s all right with me, if it is with you. I could run down to the store and get couple cans of beans . . .’

Desperately, ‘No, guess we better have it this way.’

‘Well, look, Freddie, I don’t want to be a nuisance. No man living can say I’ve ever been a bother to nobody. I’ve often said, “I may not have much of this world’s goods, but I’ve worked and worked hard for what I’ve got, and one thing I always been proud of is, I’ve been independent.” Neither a borrower be nor a lender, like the fellow says. But I was wondering if you happened to have any spare rooms we could stay in, just for to-night — maybe a couple of nights, so the children could look over the town. Educate ’em. We wouldn’t be a bit of trouble. The younger kids could just well sleep here in the sitting-room.’

‘Uh — uh — afraid our guests will be staying . . .’

Fred’s brow was sopping; he wished that he could again try Sara’s clinical thermometer.

‘Enos!’ said his wife.

‘Huh?’

‘Beat it!’ said his wife.

‘Me?’

‘All of us. Scram!’ said his wife.

‘All right . . . Now there’s just one other thing, Freddie. Happen to know about any jobs for Mac and Cal here? Course I want to grab me that Gov’ment farm, but the boys are real good at fixing cars. Both worked in filling stations, and of course with your big agency . . .’

‘What have they done?’

‘Cal, he was in the CCC for a while, but he didn’t care so much for it, and then he hitched up with the WPA, but say, those WPA bosses are fierce, they expect you to work like it was a real paid job, and then he was kind of a sweeper in a factory and afterwards, he had a couple of days cooking in a lunch wagon when the fellow was sick, but Cal didn’t seem to take to that so much, and here lately he hasn’t hardly been doing anything, you might say, just travelling with us — we had a real interesting time — most of the winter we was in Florida, but we had kind of a run-in with the authorities. Oh yes, Cal’s a good worker, providin’ he has a boss that understands he’s high-strung and nobody that you can cuss and knock around. But Mac . . . Well, he reads a lot, but he hasn’t had Cal’s experience. But what the dickens! No use worrying. Gov’ment owes everybody a living, don’t it?’

Fred rose. The others didn’t. He had to make it severe — at least he tried to make it severe, even in face of Enos’s leering remembrance of himself as fat little Freddie Cornplow:

‘Enos! Have Cal and Mac come to see me at the Triumph agency tomorrow, between ten and twelve. I’ll see if I can’t put them to work.’

It took half an hour before the Tillerys oozed out of the house, during which period Hazel peeped in and looked at Fred like the Gorgon sisters; it took five days and a hundred dollars before Fred coaxed them to ooze out of Sachem. As Mac and Cal were only half an hour late in coming to see him the next day, he put both of them at work, washing though rarely cleaning cars.

The brief comedy of the Tillerys affected him as biliously as Sara’s conversion to communism or Howard’s desire to leave college.

Fred had not hugely differed from Enos Tillery in a simple faith that a man is as chained to his family, even to all of his blessedly lost relatives, as he is to the law and the prophets and his most understanding friends. But the affaire Tillery, coming just a day before the family gathering on his fifty-sixth birthday, left him in a shocking state of tribal infidelity.

‘My own bunch are Hazel, and now Annabel, and friends like Doc Kamerkink and Walter Lindbeck — none of them blood relations, thank heaven!’ he blasphemed, and, greatly daring, he wondered whether he was compelled to serve the desires of even Howard and Sara, unless they should choose to be his friends as well as his children.

At dinner, Hazel said, ‘Did I hear those people say they were cousins of yours? Why didn’t you invite them to dinner?’

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lewis/sinclair/prodigal/chapter8.html

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