Free Air

by Sinclair Lewis

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V - Release Brake, Shift to Third

WILT DAGGETT had not been accurate in his implication that he had not noticed Claire at a garage in Schoenstrom. For one thing, he owned the garage.

Milt was the most prosperous young man in the village of Schoenstrom. Neither the village itself nor the nearby Strom is really schoen. The entire business district of Schoenstrom consists of Heinie Rauskukle's general store, which is brick; the Leipzig House, which is frame; the Old Home Poolroom and Restaurant, which is of old logs concealed by a frame sheathing; the farm-machinery agency, which is galvanized iron, its roof like an enlarged washboard; the church; the three saloons; and the Red Trail Garage, which is also, according to various signs, the Agency for Teal Car Best at the Test, Stonewall Tire Service Station, Sewing Machines and Binders Repaired, Dr. Hostrum the Veterinarian every Thursday, Gas Today 27c.

The Red Trail Garage is of cement and tapestry brick. In the office is a clean hardwood floor, a typewriter, and a picture of Elsie Ferguson. The establishment[50] has an automatic rim-stretcher, a wheel jack, and a reputation for honesty.

The father of Milt Daggett was the Old Doctor, born in Maine, coming to this frontier in the day when Chippewas camped in your dooryard, and came in to help themselves to coffee, which you made of roasted corn. The Old Doctor bucked northwest blizzards, read Dickens and Byron, pulled people through typhoid, and left to Milt his shabby old medicine case and thousands of dollars—in uncollectible accounts. Mrs. Daggett had long since folded her crinkly hands in quiet death.

Milt had covered the first two years of high school by studying with the priest, and been sent to the city of St. Cloud for the last two years. His father had meant to send him to the state university. But Milt had been born to a talent for machinery. At twelve he had made a telephone that worked. At eighteen he was engineer in the tiny flour mill in Schoenstrom. At twenty-five, when Claire Boltwood chose to come tearing through his life in a Gomez-Dep, Milt was the owner, manager, bookkeeper, wrecking crew, ignition expert, thoroughly competent bill-collector, and all but one of the working force of the Red Trail Garage.

There were two factions in Schoenstrom: the retired farmers who said that German was a good enough language for anybody, and that taxes for schools and sidewalks were yes something crazy; and the group[51] who stated that a pig-pen is a fine place, but only for pigs. To this second, revolutionary wing belonged a few of the first generation, most of the second, and all of the third; and its leader was Milt Daggett. He did not talk much, normally, but when he thought things ought to be done, he was as annoying as a machine-gun test in the lot next to a Quaker meeting.

If there had been a war, Milt would probably have been in it—rather casual, clearing his throat, reckoning and guessing that maybe his men might try going over and taking that hill ... then taking it. But all of this history concerns the year just before America spoke to Germany; and in this town buried among the cornfields and the wheat, men still thought more about the price of grain than about the souls of nations.

On the evening before Claire Boltwood left Minneapolis and adventured into democracy, Milt was in the garage. He wore union overalls that were tan where they were not grease-black; a faded blue cotton shirt; and the crown of a derby, with the rim not too neatly hacked off with a dull toad-stabber jack-knife.

Milt smiled at his assistant, Ben Sittka, and suggested, "Well, wie geht 's mit the work, eh? Like to stay and get the prof's flivver out, so he can have it in the morning?"

"You bet, boss."

"Getting to be quite a mechanic, Ben."

[52]"I'll say so!"

"If you get stuck, come yank me out of the Old Home."

"Aw rats, boss. I'll finish it. You beat it." Ben grinned at Milt adoringly.

Milt stripped off his overalls and derby-crown, and washed his big, firm hands with gritty soft soap. He cleaned his nails with a file which he carried in his upper vest pocket in a red imitation morocco case which contained a comb, a mirror, an indelible pencil, and a note-book with the smudged pencil addresses of five girls in St. Cloud, and a memorandum about Rauskukle's car.

He put on a twisted brown tie, an old blue serge suit, and a hat which, being old and shabby, had become graceful. He ambled up the street. He couldn't have ambled more than three blocks and have remained on the street. Schoenstrom tended to leak off into jungles of tall corn.

Two men waved at him, and one demanded, "Say, Milt, is whisky good for the toothache? What d' you think! The doc said it didn't do any good. But then, gosh, he's only just out of college."

"I guess he's right."

"Is that a fact! Well, I'll keep off it then."

Two stores farther on, a bulky farmer hailed, "Say, Milt, should I get an ensilage cutter yet?"

"Yuh," in the manner of a man who knows too[53] much to be cocksure about anything, "I don't know but what I would, Julius."

"I guess I vill then."

Minnie Rauskukle, plump, hearty Minnie, heiress to the general store, gave evidence by bridling and straightening her pigeon-like body that she was aware of Milt behind her. He did not speak to her. He ducked into the door of the Old Home Poolroom and Restaurant.

Milt ranged up to the short lunch counter, in front of the pool table where two brick-necked farm youngsters were furiously slamming balls and attacking cigarettes. Loose-jointedly Milt climbed a loose-jointed high stool and to the proprietor, Bill McGolwey, his best friend, he yawned, "You might poison me with a hamburger and a slab of apple, Mac."

"I'll just do that little thing. Look kind of grouchy tonight, Milt."

"Too much excitement in this burg. Saw three people on the streets all simultaneously to-once."

"What's been eatin' you lately?"

"Me? Nothing. Only I do get tired of this metropolis. One of these days I'm going to buck some bigger place."

"Try Gopher Prairie maybe?" suggested Mac, through the hiss and steam of the frying hamburger sandwich.

"Rats. Too small."

[54]"Small? Why, there's darn near five thousand people there!"

"I know, but—I want to tackle some sure-nuff city. Like Duluth or New York."

"But what'd you do?"

"That's the devil of it. I don't know just what I do want to do. I could always land soft in a garage, but that's nothing new. Might hit Detroit, and learn the motor-factory end."

"Aw, you're the limit, Milt. Always looking for something new."

"That's the way to get on. The rest of this town is afraid of new things. 'Member when I suggested we all chip in on a dynamo with a gas engine and have electric lights? The hicks almost died of nervousness."

"Yuh, that's true, but—— You stick here, Milt. You and me will just nachly run this burg."

"I'll say! Only—— Gosh, Mac, I would like to go to a real show, once. And find out how radio works. And see 'em put in a big suspension bridge!"

Milt left the Old Home rather aimlessly. He told himself that he positively would not go back and help Ben Sittka get out the prof's car. So he went back and helped Ben get out the prof's car, and drove the same to the prof's. The prof, otherwise professor, otherwise mister, James Martin Jones, B.A., and Mrs. James Martin Jones welcomed him almost as noisily[55] as had Mac. They begged him to come in. With Mr. Jones he discussed—no, ye Claires of Brooklyn Heights, this garage man and this threadbare young superintendent of a paintbare school, talking in a town that was only a comma on the line, did not discuss corn-growing, nor did they reckon to guess that by heck the constabule was carryin' on with the Widdy Perkins. They spoke of fish-culture, Elihu Root, the spiritualistic evidences of immortality, government ownership, self-starters for flivvers, and the stories of Irvin Cobb.

Milt went home earlier than he wanted to. Because Mr. Jones was the only man in town besides the priest who read books, because Mrs. Jones was the only woman who laughed about any topics other than children and family sickness, because he wanted to go to their house every night, Milt treasured his welcome as a sacred thing, and kept himself from calling on them more than once a week.

He stopped on his way to the garage to pet Emil Baumschweiger's large gray cat, publicly known as Rags, but to Milt and to the lady herself recognized as the unfortunate Countess Vere de Vere—perhaps the only person of noble ancestry and mysterious past in Milt's acquaintance. The Baumschweigers did not treat their animals well; Emil kicked the bay mare, and threw pitchforks at Vere de Vere. Milt saluted her and sympathized:

[56]"You have a punk time, don't you, countess? Like to beat it to Minneapolis with me?"

The countess said that she did indeed have an extraordinarily punk time, and she sang to Milt the hymn of the little gods of the warm hearth. Then Milt's evening dissipations were over. Schoenstrom has movies only once a week. He sat in the office of his garage ruffling through a weekly digest of events. Milt read much, though not too easily. He had no desire to be a poet, an Indo-Iranian etymologist, a lecturer to women's clubs, or the secretary of state. But he did rouse to the marvels hinted in books and magazines; to large crowds, the mechanism of submarines, palm trees, gracious women.

He laid down the magazine. He stared at the wall. He thought about nothing. He seemed to be fumbling for something about which he could deliciously think if he could but grasp it. Without quite visualizing either wall or sea, he was yet recalling old dreams of a moonlit wall by a warm stirring southern sea. If there was a girl in the dream she was intangible as the scent of the night. Presently he was asleep, a not at all romantic figure, rather ludicrously tipped to one side in his office chair, his large solid shoes up on the desk.

He half woke, and filtered to what he called home—one room in the cottage of an oldish woman who had prejudices against the perilous night air. He was too[57] sleepy to go through any toilet save pulling off his shoes, and achieving an unconvincing wash at the little stand, whose crackly varnish was marked with white rings from the toothbrush mug.

"I feel about due to pull off some fool stunt. Wonder what it will be?" he complained, as he flopped on the bed.

He was up at six, and at a quarter to seven was at work in the garage. He spent a large part of the morning in trying to prove to a customer that even a Teal car, best at the test, would not give perfect service if the customer persisted in forgetting to fill the oil-well, the grease-cups, and the battery.

At three minutes after twelve Milt left the garage to go to dinner. The fog of the morning had turned to rain. McGolwey was not at the Old Home. Sometimes Mac got tired of serving meals, and for a day or two he took to a pocket flask, and among his former customers the cans of prepared meat at Rauskukle's became popular. Milt found him standing under the tin awning of the general store. He had a troubled hope of keeping Mac from too long a vacation with the pocket flask. But Mac was already red-eyed. He seemed only half to recognize Milt.

"Swell day!" said Milt.

"Y' bet."

"Road darn muddy."

"I should worry. Yea, bo', I'm feelin' good!"

[58]At eleven minutes past twelve a Gomez-Dep roadster appeared down the road, stopped at the garage. To Milt it was as exciting as the appearance of a comet to a watching astronomer.

"What kind of a car do you call that, Milt?" asked a loafer.


"Never heard of it. Looks too heavy."

This was sacrilege. Milt stormed, "Why, you poor floof, it's one of the best cars in the world. Imported from France. That looks like a special-made American body, though. Trouble with you fellows is, you're always scared of anything that's new. Too—heavy! Huh! Always wanted to see a Gomez—never have, except in pictures. And I believe that's a New York license. Let me at it!"

He forgot noon-hunger, and clumped through the rain to the garage. He saw a girl step from the car. He stopped, in the doorway of the Old Home, in uneasy shyness. He told himself he didn't "know just what it is about her—she isn't so darn unusually pretty and yet—gee—— Certainly isn't a girl to get fresh with. Let Ben take care of her. Like to talk to her, and yet I'd be afraid if I opened my mouth, I'd put my foot in it."

He was for the first time seeing a smart woman. This dark, slender, fine-nerved girl, in her plain, rough, closely-belted, gray suit, her small black Glengarry[59] cocked on one side of her smooth hair, her little kid gloves, her veil, was as delicately adjusted as an aeroplane engine.

Milt wanted to trumpet her exquisiteness to the world, so he growled to a man standing beside him, "Swell car. Nice-lookin' girl, kind of."

"Kind of skinny, though. I like 'em with some meat on 'em," yawned the man.

No, Milt did not strike him to earth. He insisted feebly, "Nice clothes she's got, though."

"Oh, not so muchamuch. I seen a woman come through here yesterday that was swell, though—had on a purple dress and white shoes and a hat big 's a bushel."

"Well, I don't know, I kind of like those simple things," apologized Milt.

He crept toward the garage. The girl was inside. He inspected the slope-topped, patent-leather motoring trunk on the rack at the rear of the Gomez-Dep. He noticed a middle-aged man waiting in the car. "Must be her father. Probably—maybe she isn't married then." He could not get himself to shout at the man, as he usually did. He entered the garage office; from the inner door he peeped at the girl, who was talking to his assistant about changing an inner tube.

That Ben Sittka whom an hour ago he had cajoled as a promising child he now admired for the sniffing[60] calmness with which he was demanding, "Want a red or gray tube?"

"Really, I don't know. Which is the better?" The girl's voice was curiously clear.

Milt passed Claire Boltwood as though he did not see her; stood at the rear of the garage kicking at the tires of a car, his back to her. Over and over he was grumbling, "If I just knew one girl like that—— Like a picture. Like—like a silver vase on a blue cloth!"

Ben Sittka did not talk to the girl while he inserted the tube in the spare casing. Only, in the triumphant moment when the parted ends of the steel rim snapped back together, he piped, "Going far?"

"Yes, rather. To Seattle."

Milt stared at the cobweb-grayed window. "Now I know what I was planning to do. I'm going to Seattle," he said.

The girl was gone at twenty-nine minutes after twelve. At twenty-nine and a half minutes after, Milt remarked to Ben Sittka, "I'm going to take a trip. Uh? Now don't ask questions. You take charge of the garage until you hear from me. Get somebody to help you. G'-by."

He drove his Teal bug out of the garage. At thirty-two minutes after twelve he was in his room, packing his wicker suitcase by the method of throwing things in and stamping on the case till it closed. In[61] it he had absolutely all of his toilet refinements and wardrobe except the important portion already in use. They consisted, according to faithful detailed report, of four extra pairs of thick yellow and white cotton socks; two shirts, five collars, five handkerchiefs; a pair of surprisingly vain dancing pumps; high tan laced boots; three suits of cheap cotton underclothes; his Sunday suit, which was dead black in color, and unimaginative in cut; four ties; a fagged toothbrush, a comb and hairbrush, a razor, a strop, shaving soap in a mug; a not very clean towel; and nothing else whatever.

To this he added his entire library and private picture gallery, consisting of Ivanhoe, Ben-Hur, his father's copy of Byron, a wireless manual, and the 1916 edition of Motor Construction and Repairing: the art collection, one colored Sunday supplement picture of a princess lunching in a Provençe courtyard, and a half-tone of Colonel Paul Beck landing in an early military biplane. Under this last, in a pencil scrawl now blurred to grayness, Milt had once written, "This what Ill be aviator."

What he was to wear was a piercing trouble. Till eleven minutes past twelve that day he had not cared. People accepted his overalls at anything except a dance, and at the dances he was the only one who wore pumps. But in his discovery of Claire Boltwood he had perceived that dressing is an art. Before[62] he had packed, he had unhappily pawed at the prized black suit. It had become stupid. "Undertaker!" he growled.

With a shrug which indicated that he had nothing else, he had exchanged his overalls for a tan flannel shirt, black bow tie, thick pigskin shoes, and the suit he had worn the evening before, his best suit of two years ago—baggy blue serge coat and trousers. He could not know it, but they were surprisingly graceful on his wiry, firm, white body.

In his pockets were a roll of bills and an unexpectedly good gold watch. For warmth he had a winter ulster, an old-fashioned turtle-neck sweater, and a raincoat heavy as tarpaulin. He plunged into the raincoat, ran out, galloped to Rauskukle's store, bought the most vehement cap in the place—a plaid of cerise, orange, emerald green, ultramarine, and five other guaranteed fashionable colors. He stocked up with food for roadside camping.

In the humping tin-covered tail of the bug was a good deal of room, and this he filled with motor extras, a shotgun and shells, a pair of skates, and all his camping kit as used on his annual duck-hunting trip to Man Trap Lake.

"I'm a darned fool to take everything I own but—— Might be gone a whole month," he reflected.

He had only one possession left—a check book, concealed from the interested eye of his too maternal[63] landlady by sticking it under the stair carpet. This he retrieved. It showed a balance of two hundred dollars. There was ten dollars in the cash register in the office, for Ben Sittka. The garage would, with the mortgage deducted, be worth nearly two thousand. This was his fortune.

He bolted into the kitchen and all in one shout he informed his landlady, "Called out of town, li'l trip, b'lieve I don't owe you an'thing, here's six dollars, two weeks' notice, dunno just when I be back."

Before she could issue a questionnaire he was out in the bug. He ran through town. At his friend McGolwey; now loose-lipped and wabbly, sitting in the rain on a pile of ties behind the railroad station, he yelled, "So long, Mac. Take care yourself, old hoss. Off on li'l trip."

He stopped in front of the "prof's," tooted till the heads of the Joneses appeared at the window, waved and shouted, "G'-by, folks. Goin' outa town."

Then, while freedom and the distant Pacific seemed to rush at him over the hood, he whirled out of town. It was two minutes to one—forty-seven minutes since Claire Boltwood had entered Schoenstrom.

He stopped only once. His friend Lady Vere de Vere was at the edge of town, on a scientific exploring trip in the matter of ethnology and field mice. She hailed him, "Mrwr? Me mrwr!"

"You don't say so!" Milt answered in surprise.[64] "Well, if I promised to take you, I'll keep my word." He vaulted out, tucked Vere de Vere into the seat, protecting her from the rain with the tarpaulin winter radiator-cover.

His rut-skipping car overtook the mud-walloping Gomez-Dep in an hour, and pulled it out of the mud.

Before Milt slept that night, in his camp three miles from Gopher Prairie, he went through religious rites.

"Girl like her, she's darn particular about her looks. I'm a sloppy hound. Used to be snappier about my clothes when I was in high school. Getting lazy—too much like Mac. Think of me sleeping in my clothes last night!"

"Mrwr!" rebuked the cat.

"You're dead right. Fierce is the word. Nev' will sleep in my duds again, puss. That is, when I have a reg'lar human bed. Course camping, different. But still—— Let's see all the funny things we can do to us."

He shaved—two complete shaves, from lather to towel. He brushed his hair. He sat down by a campfire sheltered between two rocks, and fought his nails, though they were discouragingly crammed with motor grease. Throughout this interesting but quite painful ceremony Milt kept up a conversation between himself as the World's Champion Dude, and his cat as Vallay. But when there was nothing more to do, and the fire was low, and Vere de Vere asleep in the[65] sleeve of the winter ulster, his bumbling voice slackened; in something like agony he muttered:

"But oh, what's the use? I can't ever be anything but a dub! Cleaning my nails, to make a hit with a girl that's got hands like hers! It's a long trail to Seattle, but it's a darn sight longer one to being—being—well, sophisticated. Oh! And incidentally, what the deuce am I going to do in Seattle if I do get there?"

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