Free Air

by Sinclair Lewis

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VII - The Great American Frying Pan

IT was Claire's first bad day since the hole in the mud. She had started gallantly, scooting along the level road that flies straight west of Fargo. But at noon she encountered a restaurant which made eating seem an evil.

That they might have fair fame among motorists the commercial club of Reaper had set at the edge of town a sign "Welcome to Reaper, a Live Town—Speed Limit 8 Miles perhr." Being interpreted, that sign meant that if you went much over twenty miles an hour on the main street, people might glance at you; and that the real welcome, the only impression of Reaper that tourists were likely to carry away, was the welcome in the one restaurant. It was called the Eats Garden. As Claire and her father entered, they were stifled by a belch of smoke from the frying pan in the kitchen. The room was blocked by a huge lunch counter; there was only one table, covered with oil cloth decorated with venerable spots of dried egg yolk.

The waiter-cook, whose apron was gravy-patterned, with a border and stomacher of plain gray dirt, grumbled, "Whadyuhwant?"

Claire sufficiently recovered to pick out the type[75] from the fly specks on the menu, and she ordered a small steak and coffee for her father; for herself tea, boiled eggs, toast.

"Toast? We ain't got any toast!"

"Well, can't you make it?"

"Oh, I suppose I could——"

When they came, the slices of toast were an inch thick, burnt on one side and raw on the other. The tea was bitter and the eggs watery. Her father reported that his steak was high-test rawhide, and his coffee—well, he wasn't sure just what substitute had been used for chicory, but he thought it was lukewarm quinine.

Claire raged: "You know, this town really has aspirations. They're beginning to build such nice little bungalows, and there's a fine clean bank—— Then they permit this scoundrel to advertise the town among strangers, influential strangers, in motors, by serving food like this! I suppose they think that they arrest criminals here, yet this restaurant man is a thief, to charge real money for food like this—— Yes, and he's a murderer!"

"Oh, come now, dolly!"

"Yes he is, literally. He must in his glorious career have given chronic indigestion to thousands of people—shortened their lives by years. That's wholesale murder. If I were the authorities here, I'd be indulgent to the people who only murder one or two[76] people, but imprison this cook for life. Really! I mean it!"

"Well, he probably does the best he——"

"He does not! These eggs and this bread were perfectly good, before he did black magic over them. And did you see the contemptuous look he gave me when I was so eccentric as to order toast? Oh, Reaper, Reaper, you desire a modern town, yet I wonder if you know how many thousands of tourists go from coast to coast, cursing you? If I could only hang that restaurant man—and the others like him—in a rope of his own hempen griddle cakes! The Great American Frying Pan! I don't expect men building a new town to have time to read Hugh Walpole and James Branch Cabell, but I do expect them to afford a cook who can fry eggs!"

As she paid the check, Claire tried to think of some protest which would have any effect on the obese wits of the restaurant man. In face of his pink puffiness she gave it up. Her failure as a Citizeness Fixit sent her out of the place in a fury, carried her on in a dusty whirl till the engine spat, sounded tired and reflective, and said it guessed it wouldn't go any farther that day.

Now that she had something to do, Claire became patient. "Run out of gas. Isn't it lucky I got that can for an extra gallon?"

But there was plenty of gas. There was no discernible[77] reason why the car should not go. She started the engine. It ran for half a minute and quit. All the plugs showed sparks. No wires were detached in the distributor. There was plenty of water, and the oil was not clogged. And that ended Claire's knowledge of the inside of a motor.

She stopped two motorists. The first was sure that there was dirt on the point of the needle valve, in the carburetor. While Claire shuddered lest he never get it back, he took out the needle valve, wiped it, put it back—and the engine was again started, and again, with great promptness, it stopped.

The second Good Samaritan knew that one of the wires in the distributor must be detached and, though she assured him that she had inspected them, he looked pityingly at her smart sports-suit, said, "Well, I'll just take a look," and removed the distributor cover. He also scratched his head, felt of the fuses under the cowl, scratched his cheek, poked a finger at the carburetor, rubbed his ear, said, "Well, uh——" looked to see if there was water and gas, sighed, "Can't just seem to find out what's the trouble," shot at his own car, and escaped.

Claire had been highly grateful and laudatory to both of them—but she remained here, ten miles from nowhere. It was a beautiful place. Down a hill the wheat swam toward a village whose elevator was a glistening tower. Mud-hens gabbled in a slew, alfalfa[78] shone with unearthly green, and bees went junketing toward a field of red clover. But she had the motorist's fever to go on. The road behind and in front was very long, very white—and very empty.

Her father, out of much thought and a solid ignorance about all of motoring beyond the hiring of chauffeurs and the payment of bills, suggested, "Uh, dolly, have you looked to see if these, uh—— Is the carburetor all right?"

"Yes, dear; I've looked at it three times, so far," she said, just a little too smoothly.

On the hill five miles to eastward, a line of dust, then a small car. As it approached, the driver must have sighted her and increased speed. He came up at thirty-five miles an hour.

"Now we'll get something done! Look! It's a bug—a flivver or a Teal or something. I believe it's the young man that got us out of the mud."

Milt Daggett stopped, casually greeted them: "Why, hello, Miss Boltwood. Thought you'd be way ahead of me some place!"

"Mrwr," said Vere de Vere. What this meant the historian does not know.

"No; I've been taking it easy. Mr., Uh—I can't quite remember your name——"

"Milt Daggett."

"There's something mysterious the matter with my car. The engine will start, after it's left alone a while,[79] but then it stalls. Do you suppose you could tell what it is?"

"I don't know. I'll see if I can find out."

"Then you probably will. The other two men knew everything. One of them was the inventor of wheels, and the other discovered skidding. So of course they couldn't help me."

Milt added nothing to her frivolity, but his smile was friendly. He lifted the round rubber cap of the distributor. Then Claire's faith tumbled in the dust. Twice had the wires been tested. Milt tested them again. She was too tired of botching to tell him he was wasting time.

"Got an oil can?" he hesitated.

Through a tiny hole in the plate of the distributor he dripped two drops of oil—only two drops. "I guess maybe that's what it needed. You might try her now, and see how she runs," he said mildly.

Dubiously Claire started the engine. It sang jubilantly, and it did not stop. Again was the road open to her. Again was the settlement over there, to which it would have taken her an hour to walk, only six minutes away.

She stopped the engine, beamed at him—there in the dust, on the quiet hilltop. He said as apologetically as though he had been at fault, "Distributor got dry. Might give it a little oil about once in six months."

[80]"We are so grateful to you! Twice now you've saved our lives."

"Oh, I guess you'd have gone on living! And if drivers can't help each other, who can?"

"That's a good start toward world-fellowship, I suppose. I wish we could do—— Return your lunch or—— Mr. Daggett! Do you read books? I mean——"

"Yes I do, when I run across them."

"Mayn't I gi—lend you these two that I happen to have along? I've finished them, and so has father, I think."

From the folds of the strapped-down top she pulled out Compton Mackenzie's Youth's Encounter, and Vachel Lindsay's Congo. With a curious faint excitement she watched him turn the leaves. His blunt fingers flapped through them as though he was used to books. As he looked at Congo, he exclaimed, "Poetry! That's fine! Like it, but I don't hardly ever run across it. I—— Say—— I'm terribly obliged!"

His clear face lifted, sun-brown and young and adoring. She had not often seen men look at her thus. Certainly Jeff Saxton's painless worship did not turn him into the likeness of a knight among banners. Yet the good Geoffrey loved her, while to Milt Daggett she could be nothing more than a strange young woman in a car with a New York license. If[81] her tiny gift could so please him, how poor he must be. "He probably lives on some barren farm," she thought, "or he's a penniless mechanic hoping for a good job in Seattle. How white his forehead is!"

But aloud she was saying, "I hope you're enjoying your trip."

"Oh yes. I like it fine. You having a good time? Well—— Well, thanks for the books."

She was off before him. Presently she exclaimed to Mr. Boltwood: "You know—just occurs to me—it's rather curious that our young friend should be so coincidental as to come along just when we needed him."

"Oh, he just happened to, I suppose," hemmed her father.

"I'm not so sure," she meditated, while she absently watched another member of the Poultry Suicide Club rush out of a safe ditch, prepare to take leave for immortality, change her fowlish mind, flutter up over the hood of the car, and come down squawking her indignities to the barnyard. "I'm not so sure about his happening—— No. I wonder if he could possibly—— Oh no. I hope not. Flattering, but—— You don't suppose he could be deliberately following us?"

"Nonsense! He's a perfectly decent young chap."

"I know. Of course. He probably works hard in a garage, and is terribly nice to his mother and sisters[82] at home. I mean—— I wouldn't want the dear lamb to be a devoted knight, though. Too thankless a job."

She slowed the car down to fifteen an hour. For the first time she began to watch the road behind her. In a few minutes a moving spot showed in the dust three miles back. Oh, naturally; he would still be behind her. Only—— If she stopped, just to look at the scenery, he would go on ahead of her. She stopped for a moment—for a time too brief to indicate that anything had gone wrong with her car. Staring back she saw that the bug stopped also, and she fancied that Milt was out standing beside it, peering with his palm over his eyes—a spy, unnatural and disturbing in the wide peace.

She drove on a mile and halted again; again halted her attendant. He was keeping a consistent two to four miles behind, she estimated.

"This won't do at all," she worried. "Flattering, but somehow—— Whatever sort of a cocoon-wrapped hussy I am, I don't collect scalps. I won't have young men serving me—graft on them—get amusement out of their struggles. Besides—suppose he became just a little more friendly, each time he came up, all the way from here to Seattle?... Fresh.... No, it won't do."

She ran the car to the side of the road.

"More trouble?" groaned her father.

"No. Just want to see scenery."

[83]"But—— There's a good deal of scenery on all sides, without stopping, seems to me!"

"Yes, but——" She looked back. Milt had come into sight; had paused to take observations. Her father caught it:

"Oh, I see. Pardon me. Our squire still following? Let him go on ahead? Wise lass."

"Yes. I think perhaps it's better to avoid complications."

"Of course." Mr. Boltwood's manner did not merely avoid Milt; it abolished him.

She saw Milt, after five minutes of stationary watching, start forward. He came dustily rattling up with a hail of "Distributor on strike again?" so cheerful that it hurt her to dismiss him. But she had managed a household. She was able to say suavely:

"No, everything is fine. I'm sure it will be, now. I'm afraid we are holding you back. You mustn't worry about us."

"Oh, that's all right," breezily. "Something might go wrong. Say, is this poetry book——"

"No, I'm sure nothing will go wrong now. You mustn't feel responsible for us. But, uh, you understand we're very grateful for what you have done and, uh, perhaps we shall see each other in Seattle?" She made it brightly interrogatory.

"Oh, I see." His hands gripped the wheel. His cheeks had been too ruddily tinted by the Dakota sun[84] to show a blush, but his teeth caught his lower lip. He had no starter on his bug; he had in his embarrassment to get out and crank. He did it quietly, not looking at her. She could see that his hand trembled on the crank. When he did glance at her, as he drove off, it was apologetically, miserably. His foot was shaking on the clutch pedal.

The dust behind his car concealed him. For twenty miles she was silent, save when she burst out to her father, "I do hope you're enjoying the trip. It's so easy to make people unhappy. I wonder—— No. Had to be done."

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