The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 9

The living-room was littered with crocuses and daffodils, lilies and hothouse roses, for Fred’s birthday party, and he, who hated this clammy reminder of advancing years, grumbled, ‘Sure! Getting me used to my funeral by degrees!’

The dining-room was set out with the gold-and-sky-blue Limoges plates, cut-glass dishes of Hazel’s celebrated brandied peaches, and gold-rimmed, faintly etched wineglasses, from which they would each drink two doses of champagne, except for Fred, who would have three, and Annabel Staybridge, who would have ginger ale.

The more he disliked birthdays, the more Fred drove himself to be merry and grateful, particularly when they produced the surprise gifts, which he had already viewed, in their hiding-place in the linen closet, with disapproval. The gifts were also a give-away of the donors. Fred had complained that he hadn’t a dressing-gown long enough to cover his nervous feet on a winter morning, and from Hazel he had a woolly robe large enough to cover the feet of Jumbo. But it was of a dizzying purple, edged with fiery red cord, and the sash, he was certain, would never stay tied. Howard gave him a framed photograph — of Howard; and from his friends and guests Dr. and Mrs. Kamerkink, he had a pipe. It was the second pipe they had given him, and Fred never smoked a pipe, but the Doc believed that for a gentleman of forty and upwards a pipe was more manly and hygienic than cigarettes.

Fred gabbled, ‘Mighty handsome pipe. Imported from England? Golly!’

Sara was responsible for a dreadful bottom-shelf book, A Statistical Survey of the Diminishing Returns of the Capitalist System, whose sour cover contrasted with the frock of silver lamé which she wore as the result of capitalist returns. Fred was meanly suspicious about her having really spent three-fifty on a book for him, and later he privily investigated. Sure enough; on the flyleaf there had previously been a pencilled name, now erased.

But from the blessed Annabel was an omnibus of Dorothy Sayers’ detective stories, with the promise that for his next birthday he should have a set of Agatha Christie. ‘Girl, you’re walking out with the wrong generation of Cornplows,’ he said, and he kissed her, Howard kissed her, and Hazel, who had watched all this foolishness without applause, kissed her with an entirely different accent.

The dinner was lush but difficult.

The extra maid, brought in temporarily for waiting on table, had been trained in a laundry, so that while she was warm and quick, she did rather slop things, and things you would not have expected to be slopped: not only the soup and champagne, but the currant jelly and the ice cream. Sara, the socialist, was testy with her, as Sara always was with waiters, taxi-drivers and telephone girls. Hazel was bland and forgiving, but then, Sara sniffed, Hazel was still afraid of servants.

With the hors d’oeuvres which Fred called the ‘duffers’— there were anchovies and sardines and two kinds of potato salad — they all asked with considerable politeness about the progress of the Duplex Trailer and happily turned to boasting of their own troubles: Howard’s fascinating troubles with the Truxon proctor who disliked the melodies of a mouth organ at two a.m.; Sara’s troubles with finding a ‘half-way human’ hairdresser in Sachem; Doc Kamerkink’s troubles with a scoundrel who had developed a coronary thrombosis on the day when he had promised to pay his bill.

With the mushroom soup, Howard talked about the probability of his being student commandant of the Truxon R.O.T.C. next year, while Sara informed them that in Russia, though under the Tsar music and dancing had been unknown, the peasantry now spent practically every moment from five p.m. to eight next day in dancing by moonlight.

But with the duck, and continuing through the ice cream and chocolate sauce, Howard really got under way, and every moment, as he became more exhilarated, Miss Annabel Staybridge looked at him more proudly. The glances she telegraphed to Fred indicated that she was not deceived; she considered Howard a good deal of a baby, but adored him nevertheless.

It was a little hard for the others, particularly the Kamerkinks, to understand just what it was that Howard expected to do.

It seemed that he was going to remain in college, thwart his enemies and play in the college football team; yet simultaneously march out of college and do something thrilling and lucrative with rockets, which, he rejoiced, were shortly to replace gasoline motors for flying, and propel a plane from New York to London in five hours. At the same time, apparently, he was going to start a cabaret near Truxon. All he needed was a few thousand dollars — and in the bright buoyancy of youth, he beamed at Fred, who flinched.

‘Cal Tillery’s cousin, that’s who Howard is,’ thought Fred.

With the apricot brandy, a drink which Fred considered related to pink silk underwear and rose-tipped cigarettes, Howard had managed to bring off an entirely new victory. Apparently he was now with the Triumph–Houndtooth-Duplex agency, as assistant and future successor to Fred, and was making things not merely hum but yell.

‘You’ve certainly done a grand job, Dad, but there’s a lot of new ideas that would quadruple the racket. Pretty soon, I think, we could add television sales to our other junk, and say, I’ve got some real ideas about the kind of showroom we ought to have — knock the eyes out of every other dealer in town — place right on Chester Avenue, all black glass and mirrors and red leather upholstery, and maybe a private bar for the big shots, and we could keep open evenings in summer and have an orchestra.’

Fred saw, instantly, that so insane is the world that Howard’s hysterical plans for the Triumph agency might actually succeed. They really might ‘quadruple the racket’, and quadruple his work; and if that happened, he wanted to be out of it, hiding in a haystack.

He recalled that for more than thirty years he had been slapping almost unslappable backs, taking buyers to cafés when he had longed for his slippers, enduring more talk about the weather than there had been weather. He saw that it had been with the tension of a crusade that he had engaged himself in loving like a brother anybody who had $1100 for a car. He was suddenly and inexplicably weary. It would be a pleasure to refuse ever to sell anything else to anybody.

‘Certainly, Mr. Jones, we have five million television sets, 1943 model, on hand, and I wouldn’t sell you one for five million dollars! I don’t like your split infinitives!’

Fred heard himself saying, but not in the least believing, ‘You better get busy and learn something about motor engineering, Howard, if you’re going into my firm, because pretty soon I’m going to sell it and retire.’

The entire company, who had hardened into the affable boredom suitable to a birthday party, sat up.

‘You’re going . . .’

‘YOU’RE going . . .’

‘To retire?’

‘Nonsense!’

‘You?’

‘WHEN?’

Fred enjoyed it. He had not been so important in his family since he had bought his opera hat. It pleased his vanity to see that his reputation for Being Different was so solid that he had taken in all of them, except perhaps Hazel, and that even she was wondering a little.

‘And when would you pull this big hermit-and-monastery act?’ Dr. Kamerkink demanded.

‘One year from now.’

Howard bleated, ‘Dad! You couldn’t possibly! Whether I stick it out in college or not, I’ve got to get started, somehow, and you’re the only one that’ll help me!’

But it was Annabel’s eyes that most pleaded for Howard.

‘Good Lord, son, I expect to help you get started. But only started. I don’t expect to carry you for years and years, like a lot of parents are doing, nowadays. I guess that’s another demand the Youth Movement is making on Congress — let the old folks do it — penalize the folks that like to work by making ’em support the ones that don’t.’

Hazel, rather sharply for Hazel: ‘Don’t tease him, Fred.’

‘Me? I’m not teasing.’ And Fred wondered if he really had been only teasing.

Howard, shocked at the threat to his one sure lifelong profession, was begging, ‘But Dad, if you retired in ten-fifteen years from now, when I had things going . . .’

‘No. One year. You can go to work and learn the motor car business from Paul Popple.’

‘But Dad, oh, Paul is O.K., but he isn’t even a college man!’

It was Sara who cut through the argument; who killed the epigrams which Fred was trying to work out, to the effect that a couple of fellows named Washington and Lincoln and Henry Ford and Thomas Edison had got along without college. She explained, more affectionately than usual:

‘Father, of course we know you don’t mean it, but please don’t dramatize yourself, like a child playing soldiers. You aren’t one bit abused; you like the game of selling things to people who don’t want them, and you like seeing us dependent on you and turning to you for everything.’

Fred winced.

‘I think your Duplex Trailer is absurd; in the very worst taste, and too horribly inconvenient — like those covered wagons of the pioneers, that always seem so romantic, but they must have been beastly uncomfortable to ride in and impossible to sleep in. But I do believe the thing may make a lot of money, and so might these nuisances that Howard raves about: television and nasty airships with rockets in their tails. There’ll be a lot of cash, and of course you want to get it while the getting’s good!’

‘Why, Sara, I thought you were so much against all this doggone capitalistic acquisition of wealth and everything!’

‘If I had — if we had the money, I could do such splendid things for Protest & Progress and the Workers’ International Cohesion, an organization which . . .’

‘You mean the Coheeze?’

‘I believe it is sometimes so called.’

Believe? reflected Fred. She knew doggone good and well it was so called. He had heard her so-calling it on the telephone, that evening.

She was continuing, in the benign manner of St. Patrick watching the last snake leave Ireland: ‘I’m working with Eugene Silga every day now, making plans to start the “P. & P.” Of course we’re not communists, but we believe the Soviets must have a chance, and we want to expose the beastly libel that the Bolsheviks have ever liquidated one . . .’

‘“Liquidate!” That mean “slaughter”?’

‘ . . . single person unless they were traitors and spies for Trotsky, and trying to wreck the people’s state. What would you do, if you were Stalin?’

‘Now how the devil do I know what I’d do if I were Stalin? I don’t even know what I’d do if I were Max Schmeling or Mae West. I never claimed to be much good on deciding what other people ought to do.’

‘And yet you’re constantly deciding what Howard and Mother and I ought to do.’

‘Ow. You win, girl.’ For the first time since his confession of desertion, there were smiles at the table. ‘But look here; you’re crowding me. You’re getting me away from the subject in hand — the fact that I am going to retire in one year, and your mother and I are going to enjoy ourselves. Anybody got any real objections?’

‘Yes. I have,’ said his wife.

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