The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 11

As the Cornplows’ family physician, Dr. Kamerkink must have known that there was no use in giving Fred any advice which Fred was not, beforehand, prepared to hear and pay for. But the Doc had recently begun a book which showed that the latest thing in medical practice — true, it was known to the ancient Greeks, but without the sparkling terms which now made it interesting — was to use psychiatry on the patients: not let an honest citizen develop cramps or colitis because, subconsciously, he didn’t like his wife’s new green dress. No. Change the dress. Or change the wife.

Unfortunately the Doc hadn’t got far enough into the book to learn what, in detail, you did with psychic therapeutics, but he took a shot with what he had:

‘Now, Fred, if you’ll allow me to give you some advice both as your physician and old golfing companion . . . This idea of yours about retiring and going off and making yourself uncomfortable is just an incipient psychosis. Course, I advise you to cut down your smoking and drinking and eat at regular periods and get a lot of rest.’


‘Oh yes. I told you that before. But the thing to correct is your — uh — your conditioned reflexes.’

This time it was Annabel who jeered ‘No!’— but softly, almost inoffensively, with lips puckered in Fred’s direction.

‘Just as important as these somatic corrections, however, is the mental hygiene, and in good old cart horses like you and me, Fred, that implies a steady carrying on of your normal occupation. Any man who retires from his natural work before he’s finally carted off to the hospital is a sap! None of these high-class psychiatrists, that get a hundred bucks an hour for telling you what you already know, could beat me at advocating plenty of good, juicy vacations and hobbies. Why, I knew one insurance agent with dyspepsia who, on my humble advice, took up archery, with the result that his wife — I want you to listen to this carefully now, Fred; it’s quite a sensational case, and I’d of written it up for the Journal of Psychiatry if I’d had the time — and the result was that his wife, who was about twenty years younger than he was and who he suspected of sneaking off to dances with younger men, began to join him in archery. . .’

‘Archery? Shooting arrows? No! I won’t shoot any arrows!’

‘Well, she became his real pal. But appetite ticklers like that are just the opposite of retiring. Fellow’s got to be an authority on one thing, and stick by it, if he’s going to win people’s respect. Suppose, say, you were on a steamer and . . .’

‘Steamer to where?’ demanded Annabel.

‘Heavens! Steamer to anywhere! I’m just imagining a case.’

‘Oh,’ said Annabel.

Fred chuckled, and Dr. Kamerkink looked at both of them suspiciously as he struggled on:

‘You’re on this steamer, and somebody asks you, “Who’s that guy?” Do you answer, “Why, he’s the fellow that sang ‘Trees’ at the ship’s concert,” or “He’s the one that knows the difference between Barbados and Haitian rum.” No! What you answer is, “Him? He’s the biggest manufacturer of automobile tops west of the Mississippi!” and the other fellow gets interested and says, “Is that a fact! Say, I’ve got an automobile top! I’d like to get acquainted with him.” See how I mean, Fred?’

‘I see,’ said Fred.

Hadn’t Doc Kamerkink been saying something about how to get along well on steamers? He’d like to get along on steamers, well or ill.

Sara finished it — Sara tore it.

‘But of course if you ever did retire, actually you wouldn’t stay away for more than a month, Father. Impossible!’

‘How so?’

‘You’re too much a creature of habit. You’ve often laughed and told us about how fussy Grandpa Cornplow was: had to have the wastebasket or his footstool in exactly the same place, and carried on if anybody moved his ruler, which he never used, one inch from its proper place. And of course you’re precisely like him!’

‘Me? That’ve always made such fun of him . . .’

‘Precisely! If the cleaning woman ever changes the order you always keep your toothbrushes in, you have three fits before breakfast. You’re as fixed in your routine as if you were in a plaster cast, and you’d be chilly without it!’

‘Wh-why — me — why, I’m known throughout the entire motor business as a lone wolf. Do just what I please . . .’

‘But, darling, you’re always pleased to do exactly the same thing at exactly the same second every day, and if you went travelling and had to change your habits, you’d go crazy. Please, Father, this isn’t any criticism. Since you’d rather play cards than read anything new and discover what’s going on in the world, it doesn’t matter. Gives you a stability that, maybe, the rest of us do depend on, as you hinted — not awfully politely, I thought. But it does mean you’ll never in the world be able to do anything different from selling Triumphs and coming home to hear Lowell Thomas on the radio.’

‘Why — why . . .’ said Fred.

‘Isn’t that just what I told you!’ crowed Doc Kamerkink, who hadn’t.

There was a certain listlessness, as the party broke up, in all of them except Howard and Annabel, who trotted off together.

‘Routine? Fixed habits? ME?’ raged Fred, as he drank a glass of sodium bicarbonate — remembering that it had been his father’s habit, also, to think that after every company dinner he needed soda.

Hazel raised her eyes at him and dropped them, silent.

While he worried his undershirt off, even during the pleasure of scratching his back, he studied her, and sighed to himself, ‘Hazel’s the best woman I know.’

But, he fretted, she was fanatically devoted to possessions, to things. Perhaps she coddled her belongings just to keep from being bored to death, but still . . . She was the cave woman who desired a larger fire, a thicker bearskin, than the lady in the next-door den.

Almost the only jealousy that had ever spotted her life was a small, annoying envy of the possessions of others. In the cottage of her Utica father she had lived meagrely, with any new purchase, a new doormat, a fly net for the horse, a matter to be discussed by the family for days. Yet at fifty-three she believed that she would be miserable if she were deprived of her candle-wick bedspreads, the grand piano she had bought for Sara, her private jar of balsam-scented bath salts.

‘You and I really could skip off together and have a handsome time, if you weren’t so set on having things just so,’ he sighed.

‘Fred! If you ever really WANT to travel, or do anything else, anything at all, I’ll always be right there with you. But we mustn’t fool ourselves. I’ve always said it would be a great treat to see Europe, but honestly, we wouldn’t be happy, trying to get along without our comforts. I suppose in London, or even in Paris, there’s hotels modern as anything in Sachem, but how would you like to go back to sleeping on a horrible hard mattress, like you probably had as a boy? Cornhusks! You can say what you want to, but it’s awfully important to have an advertised mattress.’

‘If I liked the scenery, I wouldn’t care if I slept on a board.’

‘But you can’t very well look at the scenery while you’re sleeping.’

‘Oh, you know what I mean.’

‘And since when did you ever sleep on a board? Not since you were arrested for rioting in college!’

‘Arrested? Me? You know doggone good and well I’ve never been arrested in my life — except maybe ten-twelve times for speeding, and that time when I was a kid and punched the fresh waiter . . . Say, there’s a button off this clean shirt, and I was going to wear it tomorrow!’

‘Put it there on the chair; I’ll sew it on . . .’

‘But I was going to wear it . . .’

‘Oh, wear another one! And you know, it isn’t just THINGS, that we’ve got fixed up so nice now, as we want ’em. It’s our children and friends — people you can trust and count on. Course it’s pleasant to meet strangers, but you can’t understand ’em and feel SAFE, not like with your own folks.’

‘Oh — well — thunder — gee — I guess maybe you’re right. Don’t meet many fellows like Doc Kamerkink, or Walter Lindbeck — even if he is fifteen-sixteen years younger than me, but how he can play poker!’ Fred smacked his head on the pillow, turned the pillow over and pulled the blanket up under his chin, ‘And Annabel’s a peach.’

‘And Sara, of course.’

‘Except when she says fool things like my being a slave of habit.’

Resolutely he flopped on the pillow again. A truce to all this chatter. He was a man of resolute action, and he was going to sleep. Yes, he’d never be able to get away; he had enough nerve to admit it, when he had taken a licking.

He lay awake watching the shadows move against the yellow window blinds and trying to remember where he had heard a phrase, meaningless to him and exciting and a little sad:

‘We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.’

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