The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 30

All his life until now, night had been to Frederick William Cornplow only a blank of sleep. Even as a travelling salesman, thirty years ago, waiting at vile junction depots till after midnight or snoozing on bumpy branch trains, though he might have had but six hours’ sleep, it had been profound.

Now he took worries to bed with him; they cuddled up beside him when he retired, then laughed and bit him. As long as he tried to lie still, he went tediously over and over his frets:

Howard’s extravagance; the probability that he would not support Little Nero and the certainty that he would grieve young Annabel.

Sara’s new job, in which she would spare him and his pocketbook no more than she would spare herself.

Hazel’s alternation between miserly pride in adornment and a desire to see what the world was like.

Paul Popple’s reluctance to take authority at the agency. The wonder whether, if he left them to themselves, Paul and Howard would be forced to become dependable, or simply break.

Always, his own timidity and his meagre learning.

Worst of all, the neighbourhood opinion which kept him a steady and commonplace little citizen: the opinion of Dr. Kamerkink, Ed Appletree, the lawyer, even of Walter Lindbeck, that he would be a fool to do anything save settle inoffensively into old age. He saw that most of us do what most of the people about us mostly expect us to do, become brave or criminal or both, and he knew definite fear of the compulsion upon him to remain safe and dreary, a compulsion which could be escaped only by running away.

Running where? For what?

But when he sprang up from bed, scoffing at the need of sleep, then night became an adventure; sometimes wry, sometimes dismaying, always an excitement. He sat trying not to disturb Hazel, or he crept down to make coffee for himself and to sit brooding at the kitchen table.

He longed for Stonefield and the cottage William Tyler Longwhale. That elopement had proved that he could get along, be amused, without the crutch of daily industriousness which his friends so recommended.

Hazel was conscious of his rebellion and sometimes cocked a drowsy eye at him as he crept out of the room, but she guessed that he wanted to be left alone. Sara was conscious of it — she was a night prowler herself — but for a time he avoided her probing.

In this unearthly second life he didn’t always brood. Sometimes he read, soaked himself in the oddest magazine articles and in books stolen from Sara’s shelves: articles about Javanese coffee culture, dialects in Burma, the roof of Ely Cathedral, Cycling in Tanganyika with Notes on Hotels in Dar es Salaam. He laid the magazine down to dream out one-dimensioned pictures woven of coloured cloud: Pike’s Peak in the sun, bell towers of Bruges, himself playing the piano in an English cottage, himself chatty at the counter of the general store in Stonefield, with Hazel gaily clattering pans in the kitchen.

Most embarrassing of all were the nights when he did not lie awake, when the worries treacherously let him go to sleep, then woke him jeeringly at three o’clock or four or five.

It was cold downstairs then, even when it wasn’t cold.

This November morning, at four-thirty, he knew that he was caught and would not sleep again until an hour at which a responsible man would be brightly awakening.

He bundled himself up grotesquely: sweater as well as dressing-gown, with an old golf stocking about his neck. The house was so still that it was noisy with creeping burglars. He looked out of a window and shivered. The street was bitterly empty; the pavements, and a fire plug that should have been a lively red but was now grey, seemed lonely.

He sat in the kitchen, at the metal-topped table, an illicit cup of coffee and a folder showing the Australian airlines before him. He startled at distant shuffling feet, the creak of the swing door between dining-room and butler’s pantry. He beamed with comfort as Sara’s face, sharpened with weariness, came peering at him.

She smiled, and she sounded genial:

‘Why, you disreputable old tramp! Couldn’t you sleep? Neither could I.’

Sara tucked the ridiculous golf stocking in about his neck, she clucked at him and kissed his ear. She seemed more truly his little girl than since she had been a lanky child. She sat opposite him, chin in hand, and said softly, ‘This insomnia is the worst idea I ever met. I’ve got some little pills for it. Don’t you want some?’

‘No indeed.’

‘But you’ve got to sleep!’

‘Why? What’s the difference, as long as you get rest? The need for sleep is kind of a superstition. I enjoy breaking up my old routine. And besides, I don’t want to get this little pill habit.’

‘Mine aren’t habit-forming, not a bit.’

‘But the habit of taking them, of depending on taking anything at all to make you sleep, is habit-forming. Don’t get to depend on it, sweetie.’

The whole hour, the empty hour that was neither night nor day, seemed to him strange as Sara’s abnormal kindness. He was too listless for self-defence, and thus was he betrayed into honesty.

Sara hinted, a little more sharply:

‘Curious, you, of all people, can’t sleep. Worried, Father?’

‘No, not exactly.’

‘I noticed you were reading a lot of travel stuff . . . Do you still want to retire and go places?’

‘Maybe. Sort of.’

‘But you wouldn’t really go to Europe, would you, or some other place far off from us?’

‘Well, thunder, if you’re going to make a break, might’s well make a good one. No particular novelty for me, going out to the club for golf!’

‘It’d be fierce for me if you did go away, Father; especially if Mother went, too.’


‘Oh, Howard would think he was head of the family and the boss, then, and he’s such a dope! I suppose Annabel is all right, but Howard’s one of these curly-headed boys. He’s the kind that reads books about How to Sell, and gets so busy rushing out and selling that he never takes time to find out what he’s going to sell.’

‘But why do you worry so? You’re smart enough. You’re making a go of this decoration thing.’

‘But if I start my own shop, I’d never get away with it without your help.’

‘Then why start it? You got a good boss in Walter Lindbeck.’

‘Yes, he’s kind of a nice little man. But . . . Probably I wouldn’t bare my throbbing little heart if it weren’t such an ungodly hour, but I don’t always want to be a lone spinster, and between us, as man to man, I don’t seem to click with the boys, except rootless freaks like Gene Silga, curse him!’

‘I suppose Gene was sort of on the free-love side.’

‘And how! And theoretically, I agree. I never did think much of getting caged up with a man you’ve hardly been introduced to! But practically, I guess I’ve got too much Cornplow and Jenkins in me, doggone it . . . Heavens! I’m talking just like you!’

‘What’s the matter with talking like me? I always do!’

‘Not always, darling. Sometimes you forget yourself and become quite literate.’

‘Well, I did more or less go to college, and recent years, I’ve been brought up on luncheon-club oratory: “Fellow members, real and enduring prosperity lies in the abandonment of the antiquated ethic of every guy for himself.” I have got some vocabulary, but mostly I leave it up in the attic, with the trunks.’

‘Of course you have. But, Father, I wonder if you’re really and truly quite on to yourself? If you’d still like to go off and be a hobo . . .’

‘I would!’

‘But why don’t you face it as you would a business problem? Suppose you were in a European hotel, where almost every guest was a globe-trotter. You’d feel as out of place as a stray pup. Oh, I know you have worries; you’ve always worked so hard. In fact, I have an idea you’re more exhausted than Mother or even you suspect. You don’t know how I’ve been watching you. But it wouldn’t be any remedy to go roaming. That’s hard work for anybody that isn’t used to it. I wish you’d just relax and rest. I wish you’d get help from somebody who understands these things. I wish you’d get well!’

‘Now what the . . . Get well from WHAT? What’s supposed to be my fatal sickness?’

‘This insomnia. All this fretting about Howard and me. And — do let me say it, Father, in all friendliness — this crazy restlessness. The idea that you’d enjoy wandering, or taking up some hobby that you’re too old to start on. Please! I don’t think you’re selfish in being willing to leave us flat — not entirely selfish, at least; I won’t even say it’s utterly absurd; but I do think you fool yourself. If instead of riding off in all directions at once, like Leacock’s hero, you would relax and go to some place where the doctors are accustomed to advise people and help them to get into shape . . .’

Fred was angry now:

‘“Get in shape”! “Get well”! Good Lord, girl! I’ve been told there are wives who believe that any husband who doesn’t absolutely slave himself to death for the little woman is a dirty traitor, and ought to have his head examined by the docs. Now looks as though wives are getting over that notion, and the children are taking it up. By golly, I thought the younger generation during Prohibition was bad enough — the generation of Flaming Gin — but I swear they were better than the present Youth, that despise their folks if they forget a quotation they haven’t looked at these thirty years, or if they think they got just as much right to travel and buy clothes with their own money as their kids have and . . . I couldn’t get your switching from Red Radicalism to Society Upholstering, but now I see you’re consistent: in both cases, you think that the world was born in 1917, and everything we thought we knew or we thought we were doing before then was idiotic. Well, let me tell you . . .’

‘Father, have you had a drink of liquor this morning?’

It was almost a knockout, but he rallied.

‘I have not, and you know it.’

‘Well, certainly you’d never talk in such a wild, senseless, exaggerated way if you really were WELL. And this insomnia of yours . . .’

‘Got it yourself, ain’t you?’

‘With me, it’s different. I’m a creative artist.’

‘And I suppose I’m just a pedlar!’

‘You used the word, dear! I didn’t!’

‘Oh, Sara, don’t let’s scrap! You almost seemed like my girl, to-night, when you came in first. You’re too young to understand that old codgers like me can change, too — a few of us — and push out old habits with a set of new ones — same as when I get to humming a tune till it bores me, I start another tune to chase it out.’

‘That’s curious! That’s practically what Dr. George Janissary says — you know, the famous psychiatrist — I met him once at dinner, when I lived in New York. You sounded like him — for a moment, I mean.’

‘Huh! These mind doctors, like Friend Janissary, haven’t patented psychology and mental hygiene, have they? I guess Ben Franklin and Voltaire and Dickens must have known something!’

‘Father, you wouldn’t think I was too rude . . .’

‘Prob’ly would!’

‘ . . . if I pointed out that you’re not Franklin or Voltaire? Honestly, the help a man like Dr. Janissary could give you in re-education, by constructive personal conferences . . .’

‘I don’t know the gent. Maybe he might re-educate me into being some kind of a tabby cat I wouldn’t want to be. Yes, there’s something I am getting well from, all right: from crawling along through life and being doped by routine. But Howard and you never thought that was a disease. You thought it was pretty convenient for you!’

‘Oh, Father, to talk like that — if Dr. Janissary heard you! — to make us out monsters . . .’

‘You’re not, of course. But neither am I. We’re just normal people, up to the oldest trick in the world: nagging your relatives for nagging you. I didn’t want to be rude, girl. But get right over this idea you can coax me out of my idea of turning myself from a Parent into a Human Being. Good night — uh — good morning!’

So Fred clumped up to bed, with the intention of lying awake to lick his parental wounds, and went to sleep blissfully and at once.

Belowstairs, Sara was still in the kitchen, vowing, ‘His idea of leaving us in the lurch — it’s insane — it’s beastly — and now I’ve got to do something about it!’

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