The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 10

‘I don’t suppose for a minute,’ said Hazel, ‘that you mean any of this, but what would you do with yourself if you did retire?’

‘Prob’ly travel.’

‘You remember our one big trip together? Didn’t we see everything — Washington, Mount Vernon, Chicago, the Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon? But all I can recall is how sore our feet got.’

‘Well, thunder, we went too fast. Day and a half in Washington! Too quick. Why, Washington’s a darn interesting town. Worth maybe three days of anybody’s time. I’d like to go to Europe, say, and really sit around.’

‘Can’t we sit around here? Just think, dear, how uncomfortable you’d be in a strange bed. Or having waiters carve the roast beef. No, no! You stay on the job and have the fun of working with Howard and seeing the business expand. You’ll never retire! You don’t WANT to. You want to see the children get along, and help ’em.’

‘Of course. You’d be bored to death travelling,’ shouted Howard.

Annabel now burst:

‘Please excuse me — I’m a dreadful outsider — but why shouldn’t Mr. Cornplow go off bumming if he wants to, after all these years? I think it would be swell if he went and sat under a palm tree and threw rocks at the whales! Instead of teaching you which part of a car the engine’s in, Howard!’

All of them stared at her severely, all but Howard, who was bothered, and Fred, who did not see her at all.

For this moment, during a rather pointless talk at a rather pointless birthday party, was suddenly and appallingly the most important in his life.

Whether it was the addition of another year to his age, or the toothaching memory of the cousinly Tillerys’ sponging, or Howard’s picture of an expanded agency with Fred as leading lunatic, or Sara’s explanation that he was useless except as a feeder for communism, or whether it was some hidden impatience that for years he had struggled against recognizing, he knew, in this half-second, and knew terrifyingly, that what he had said as jest was devastating truth. He perceived that he did want to retire and, with Hazel, try to discover what manner of man he was and might become . . . that he INTENDED to retire . . . that he might even actually do it.

He looked puzzled. He coughed a little. He scratched his ear. He jiggled his watch chain. The table and the guests came back to him out of the mist. He informed himself that he had returned to his senses, that the retirement notion was fantastic and that no sane fella like himself could be so anarchistic as to do something merely because he wanted and intended to do it.

He was conscious that Howard was finishing what had, apparently, been a lengthy speech:

‘ . . . and in my opinion, if you care for it, Dad, I think you’d be making a big mistake. But I agree with Mother that you don’t mean it. You couldn’t possibly retire. In one year — impossible! Because, to be specific, as my history prof says, aside from coupla months travelling in Europe, what could you DO?’

It was hard for Fred to outface their pity. He waggled his fingers while he fumbled and mumbled:

‘Do? Oh. DO. There’s a lot of things I could do. I’ve been a good salesman; I’ve helped spread mechanical conveniences among a lot of stubborn dumb-bells, and I’m glad of it. Sara thinks I’ve been a pedlar; I think I’ve been a missionary. But I’d hate to pass out thinking I couldn’t do anything else. Do? Travel, like I said, and not just two months in Europe, either. Nosir! Study it thoroughly, every corner; take an entire year! And learn things, like languages and music. And this manual stuff, carpentry and fixing clocks — nice, clean, interesting work. Maybe wind up in the country and have a crossroads store and a small farm, just to have something to fuss with.’

Hazel was worried. Better than any of them she knew that Fred had possibilities of madness, and she said luringly, ‘But, dear, you’d be bored, after the city and contacting all these different people — stimulus, you might say.’

‘Think I get so much kick out of “contacts” with Bert Whizzle and Paul Popple — and Cal and Mac Tillery, the rubber-boot twins? High-class stimulus that is!’

‘But we can’t just consider ourselves in this life, Fred. After all, we have got a duty to our family and friends.’

‘Duty! Duty! Duty!’ Was this the conservative Fred Cornplow? ‘I’m sick of hearing about duty. Duty of husbands to come home to their wives every night, when it would be better for everybody’s temper if they stayed downtown and had a little poker and liquor with the boys! Duty of wives to stay home instead of going out to the movies, just because Pa has his slippers on! Duty of Howard and Sara here to pretend they think I went to college once, and read a book. Duty of Annabel and the Kamerkinks to pretend they’re not embarrassed by this family’s undressing in public . . .’

‘Not at all,’ said Dr. Kamerkink.

‘Ought to hear the Staybridges,’ said Annabel.

‘Duty! I figger life would be a lot better for everybody if more folks did things because it was fun and not because it was their dumb duty! Remember what Chum Frink wrote:

‘“Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime

If we nag the kids and neighbours

And look noble all the time!”’

‘Duty!’ said Fred.

‘Horrid word,’ said Annabel.

‘Shut up, dearest,’ said Howard.

‘O.K.,’ said Annabel.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57