The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 3

‘It might have been something I ate. That’s what it was. Prob’ly something I ate,’ said Fred. ‘Or maybe it was the snow glare. Made me dizzy. Or prob’ly that cold I had last week. But chances are,’ and he spoke with solidity and conviction, ‘it was something I ate.’

He crawled from under the mountain range of bedclothes, he rubbed his forehead, he scratched his ruddy moustache, which resembled half a doughnut, he flapped his tongue in an interested and speculative manner, he took a romantic position, eyes closed and forefinger to temple, as befitted one who was importantly ill, and he croaked, ‘I’ll bet it was the pie.’

‘If you know just what you’re talking about, dear, I’d be glad of a tip on the subject,’ sighed his wife, from the other twin bed in their pink and creamy chamber.

‘If I— if I KNOW— what I’m talking about!’ He was moved to light a cigarette, though normally he was not one to sit in his nightshirt, upon the edges of beds, after midnight, and toy with cigarettes. ‘Of course — of course. Man dying of pneumonia or malaria or something — just dying, that’s all — and all his family is interested in is: “Does he know what he’s talking about?”’

‘Dear, I just meant . . . What is it, really?’

‘I’ve got a fever.’

‘You? A fever?’

‘Yes, me. Not Sara, nor Howard, nor the cat, nor the maid’s second cousin’s brother-inlaw, but me! F-e-v-e-r!’

Hazel Cornplow, plump little wife of the plump little man, climbed out of the misty layers of sleep in which she had been nestling, out of the downy strata of the very best poplin and blankets and foamy pink comforter, appropriate to this February night, drowsily wrapped herself in something that was a cross between, a feather boa and a Persian rug ($31.98 at Swazey & Lindbeck’s, this past Christmas), and laid her plump, kind hand on his forehead.

‘My! It does seem hot!’ she exulted, with the pleasure all right-thinking persons feel in discovering that the best-beloved is helpless and that we shall be allowed to manage him.

‘Something I ate. Lunch at the Elks’ Club,’ he croaked, ignorant of how fondly, in what he believed to be a grand and impressive tantrum, he was looking at her.

‘What did you have?’

‘Well — you know — just an ordinary lunch — I was lunching with Walter Lindbeck and Doc Kamerkink — we were talking about coddling the unemployed. I said to the doc, “Where’s this business going to end, that’s what I want to know;” and Walter says . . .’

‘But what did you eat, dear?’

‘Oh. Eat? Well, zy remember it, I had some corn soup, and I wish to thunder you’d try to coax that hired girl to make it for me oftener, no better soup made than a good corn soup with CORN in it, and I had couple pork chops and some pickled beets and pickled watermelon rind and some cucumbers and some pie a la mode — raisin pie it was, with orange ice on it. . .’

Over Hazel’s face — after slumber she looked not her fifty-three, but a fresh thirty — quivered a grin.

Fred held up his hand like a traffic policeman and protested:

‘No! Wait! I know! I guess maybe it wasn’t an entirely sensible lunch. But still, I don’t rate this awful fever just from mixing up my grub a little. Are you going to sit there and gabble while I’m practically dying, you might say?’

‘Oh, I know, Fred. Listen. Sara’s got a clinical thermometer up in her room — she used it for something or other when she was doing charity work in New York. It’ll tell if you really feel bad.’

‘I don’t need any clinical thermometer to tell me how I feel! I just listen to the voice of my inner conscience, and it tells me I feel like the wrath of God!’

‘I’m not,’ she said, with that power of ignoring chatter which a professional wife develops after thirty years, ‘I’m not sure I can read the thermometer right. Isn’t it funny how we brought up two children without thermometers or bran or psychology or any of those new inventions! But I’ll try it.’

She paddled into the wide hall with its landscape wallpaper. She did not seem oppressively worried. When she returned with the thermometer, which she held as though it were composed of dynamite, she spoke not of woe and mortalities, but gossiped, ‘Almost one o’clock, and Sara not in yet.’

‘Where the dickens that young woman goes . . . These modern girls. Sit AROUND. Drink gin and try to talk politics! Discuss Conditions and Situations. Never get any sleep. They’ll never have our pep at our age. When I was twenty-eight, like Sara . . . Brugluph!’

Hazel, with the rapture of an amateur nurse, had taken advantage of him by jamming the thermometer under his tongue. He sat slowly wobbling it with his lips, trying to continue his look of brave suffering, though by now he had almost forgotten from what he suffered. The sight of the black-rubber thermometer case in Hazel’s hand recalled to him a new grievance, and as soon as she had slid the glass tube out of his mouth, he exploded:

‘And another thing! You been using my fountain pen again! Oh, I can tell! The cap was on loose.’

She did not listen to this entirely justified charge. Like any other sound wife, she intended to go right on using his pen, as well as his razor and even his portable typewriter.

Studying the thermometer, she worried:

‘Fred! Darling! You HAVE got a fever!’

‘Whadie tell you!’

‘But it seems quite bad. If I make this thing out correctly, your temperature is a hundred and twenty degrees!’

‘You’re crazy! Gimme that thing! Hundred and twenty! If I had that, I’d be dead. I’ll show you.’

He sucked the thermometer again, removed it, glanced at it with the careless mastery of a veteran salesman, and howled, ‘Good heavens, girl, I HAVE got a temperature of a hundred and twenty! I’m dead as a doornail!’

Side by side, hands clinging, they sat worrying.

His lament had covered a sound of footsteps in the hall, and neither of them was conscious of their daughter till she stood in the door, demanding, like an inspector out raiding, ‘Why the wailing, Dad? What may all the trouble be?’

Pitifully, like a child showing a broken toy, Fred held up the thermometer, protesting, ‘I’ve got a temperature of a hundred and twenty!’

‘Oh, stuff!’ Sara was, at twenty-eight, a perfect Queen Elizabeth. (Her name had been Sarah until, as a junior in high school, she had decapitated it.) ‘You can’t even read a thermometer. A fine lot of good you’d be if you were over in China now, fighting. Couldn’t even care for the wounded. As untrained as Howard.’

‘I don’t intend to be over in China now, fighting, nor any other time, neither. The home talent there takes plenty care of that.’

‘Huh! Here, open your mouth, Dad.’

She stood regally tall, silver cape about her seal-brown evening frock, while Fred, not the meekest of little men, had his temperature taken for the third time within ten minutes.

The lady Storm Trooper firmly removed the thermometer, and crowed, ‘You haven’t even half a degree of temperature. What you need is more sleep — at your age. G’ night.’

She was gone, trailing behind her that magnificent intolerance.

Hazel looked at Fred, just looked, understandingly, and he trembled into speech:

‘“At your age”. And me only fifty-five! I ask you, is fifty-five any “your age”? It is not! And here I’d intended to find out what she means, staying out till all hours. That’s where I lost out — when I first gave her a latchkey without a struggle.

‘And . . . I suppose a fellow always loves his own daughter, don’t he?’ Fred pondered.

‘Why, of course!’

‘You do read in these novels and stories and everything where sons and daughters don’t always love their parents, though, don’t you?’

‘Yes, I . . . I guess maybe you do.’

‘Think their folks are just cranks and stuffed shirts?’

‘Yes, but — oh, she’s young, Fred.’

‘Her? I’d been married three years, at her age.’

‘Sara is so clever and educated and all. And she does look exactly like Diana. So tall and elegant. . .’

‘Diana who?’

‘The goddess — you know — in that green book.’

And, indeed, Hazel did not exaggerate. The supple, grey-eyed, neat-nosed, swift-moving Miss Sara Cornplow did look exactly like Diana — not that anybody knows how Diana looked.

‘That don’t excuse her for being so superior,’ complained Fred. ‘It beats the dickens how smart she is at making a fellow feel guilty all the time about things that aren’t any of his business. Conditions and Situations! Inhibitions and Hormones! Russia! Share croppers! Miners’ wages! Rats!’

Always Fred would mix the literacy of his college days with the colloquialisms of repair shop and junction lunchroom, till a foreigner would be puzzled as to whether he might be a scholar or a comedian.

‘Doggone it, I don’t own any mines! I’m not underpaying any miners! I don’t have to feel guilty! I’ve always treated my family O.K., haven’t I?’

‘Of course.’

‘Ain’t a man in the motor game that can say Fred Cornplow ever done them, not even in the second-hand business. Why, say, I don’t suppose I’ve pepped up some old plug with ether, not more’n half a dozen times in my life. But Sara — say, she even says, just because I like a good healthy nightshirt better ‘n I do pyjamas, that I belong to the horse-and-buggy era — me that invented an oil filter that almost got taken up by Ford — and prob’ly she thinks you’re a secret tobacco-chewer.

‘And now that Howard seems to have gone and become a Red, guess it’s from some brain injury he got in that last accident, him and Sara will gang up on me. I could always count on their bucking each other. When she come out of Vassar and first got noble and humanitarian on me, and had that six-months’ charity job in New York, Howard was all for athletics; and when she managed to hitch up socialism and high sassiety, me having about an equal grouch on both of ’em, Howard decided he was a hairy pioneer and liked camping. But if they work together, what a run they’ll give us.

‘Still, maybe I am hard on Sara. She don’t know yet what she wants to do — sits around waiting for Santa Claus — can’t decide will she get married or be a missionary or raise wire-haired terriers. Poor kid, she’s kind of lost, don’t you think so?’

‘Of course, dear.’

Hazel was wide asleep. But so wrathful was he that, though he had principles about ‘getting your beauty sleep’, he opened his current detective story and found happiness again: the delights of Chinese daggers, robbers’ castles on the Yorkshire moors, baronets bleeding in rooms with locked doors and no windows.

He sighed happily as he came to the end of the tale:

‘” . . . that whatever you say will be taken down in writing and may be used against you”, said Superintendent McCleaver.

‘The professor coughed and raised a delicate hand to his pallid lips.

‘“Seize him, men!” shouted the superintendent, lumbering out of the unwieldy Tudor chair. Sergeant McBeaver sprang at the professor, then stood appalled as that slim febrile body, all steel and rubber, slumped in the chair, and his head fell sidewise.

‘P.C. McDeaver growled, “He must ‘ve had potassium cyanide (KCN) concealed in his hand.”

‘The superintendent and Dr. Rosecliff exchanged slight smiles, and the Doctor murmured, “Oh no, that wouldn’t be, would it? Or would it?”’

Fred Cornplow joined them in the slight smiles. This was fine. He was glad that they had captured the professor; a really dangerous, anti-social gent, given to murdering with fishhooks the spinster aunts of rural deans; but the poor maniac had been helpful to the soya-bean farmers of West Wiltshire. Fred looked tenderly at Hazel and turned off the light, and not till 8 a.m. did he think again of the slings and arrows of outrageous Sara, the sea of troubles that was certain to lave the golden feet of Howard.

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