Free Air

by Sinclair Lewis

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VIII - The Discovery of Canned Shrimps and Hesperides

ON the morning when Milt Daggett had awakened to sunshine in the woods north of Gopher Prairie, he had discovered the golden age. As mile on mile he jogged over new hills, without having to worry about getting back to his garage in time to repair somebody's car, he realized that for the past two years he had forced himself to find contentment in building up a business that had no future.

Now he laughed and whooped; he drove with one foot inelegantly and enchantingly up on the edge of the cowl; he made Lady Vere de Vere bow to astounded farmers; he went to the movies every evening—twice, in Fargo; and when the chariot of the young prince swept to the brow of a hill, he murmured, not in the manner of a bug-driver but with a stinging awe, "All that big country! Ours to see, puss! We'll settle down some day and be solid citizens and raise families and wheeze when we walk, but—— All those hills to sail over and—— Come on! Lez sail!"

Milt attended the motion pictures every evening, and he saw them in a new way. As recently as one week before he had preferred those earnest depictions in which hard-working, moral actors shoot one another,[86] or ride the most uncomfortable horses up mountainsides. But now, with a mental apology to that propagandist of lowbrowism, the absent Mac, he chose the films in which the leading men wore evening clothes, and no one ever did anything without being assisted by a "man." Aside from the pictures Milt's best tutors were traveling men. Though he measured every cent, and for his campfire dinners bought modest chuck steaks, he had at least one meal a day at a hotel, to watch the traveling men.

To Claire, traveling men were merely commercial persons in hard-boiled suits. She identified them with the writing-up of order-slips on long littered writing-tables, and with hotels that reduced the delicate arts of dining and sleeping to gray greasiness. But Milt knew traveling men. He knew that not only were they the missionaries of business, supplementing the taking of orders by telling merchants how to build up trade, how to trim windows and treat customers like human beings; but also that they, as much as the local ministers and doctors and teachers and newspapermen, were the agents in spreading knowledge and justice. It was they who showed the young men how to have their hair cut—and to wash behind the ears and shave daily; they who encouraged villagers to rise from scandal and gossip to a perception of the Great World, of politics and sports, and some measure of art and science.

[87]Claire, and indeed her father and Mr. Jeff Saxton as well, had vaguely concluded that because drummers were always to be seen in soggy hotels and badly connecting trains and the headachy waiting-rooms of stations, they must like these places. Milt knew that the drummers were martyrs; that for months of a trip, all the while thinking of the children back home, they suffered from landlords and train schedules; that they were Claire's best allies in fighting the Great American Frying Pan; that they knew good things, and fought against the laziness and impositions of people who "kept hotel" because they had failed as farmers; and that when they did find a landlord who was cordial and efficient, they went forth mightily advertising that glorious man. The traveling men, he knew, were pioneers in spats.

Hence it was to the traveling men, not to supercilious tourists in limousines, that Milt turned for suggestions as to how to perform the miracle of changing from an ambitious boy into what Claire would recognize as a charming man. He had not met enough traveling men at Schoenstrom. They scooped up what little business there was, and escaped from the Leipzig House to spend the night at St. Cloud or Sauk Centre.

In the larger towns in Minnesota and Dakota, after evening movies, before slipping out to his roadside camp Milt inserted himself into a circle of traveling men in large leather chairs, and ventured, "Saw a[88] Gomez-Dep with a New York license down the line today."

"Oh. You driving through?"

"Yes. Going to Seattle."

That distinguished Milt from the ordinary young-men-loafers, and he was admitted as one of the assembly of men who traveled and saw things and wondered about the ways of men. It was good talk he heard; too much of hotels, and too many tight banal little phrases suggesting the solution of all economic complexities by hanging "agitators," but with this, an exciting accumulation of impressions of Vancouver and San Diego, Florida and K. C.

"That's a wonderful work farm they have at Duluth," said one, and the next, "speaking of that, I was in Chicago last week, and I saw a play——"

Milt had, in his two years of high school in St. Cloud, and in his boyhood under the genial but abstracted eye of the Old Doctor, learned that it was not well thought of to use the knife as a hod and to plaster mashed potatoes upon it, as was the custom in Mac's Old Home Lunch at Schoenstrom. But the arts of courteously approaching oysters, salad, and peas were rather unfamiliar to him. Now he studied forks as he had once studied carburetors, and he gave spiritual devotion to the nice eating of a canned-shrimp cocktail—a lost legion of shrimps, now two thousand miles and two years away from their ocean home.

[89]He peeped with equal earnestness at the socks and the shirts of the traveling men. Socks had been to him not an article of faith but a detail of economy. His attitude to socks had lacked in reverence and technique. He had not perceived that socks may be as sound a symbol of culture as the 'cello or even demountable rims. He had been able to think with respect of ties and damp piqué collars secured by gold safety-pins; and to the belted fawn overcoat that the St. Klopstock banker's son had brought back from St. Paul, he had given jealous attention. But now he graduated into differential socks.

By his campfire, sighing to the rather somnolent Vere de Vere, he scornfully yanked his extra pairs of thick, white-streaked, yellow cotton socks from the wicker suitcase, and uttered anathema:

"Begone, ye unworthy and punk-looking raiment. I know ye! Ye werst a bargain and two pairs for two bits. But even as Adolph Zolzac and an agent for flivver accessories are ye become in my eyes, ye generation of vipers, ye clumsy, bag-footed, wrinkle-sided gunny-sacking ye!"

Next day, in the woods, a happy hobo found that the manna-bringing ravens had left him four pairs of good socks.

Five quite expensive pairs of silk and lisle socks Milt purchased—all that the general merchant at Jeppe had in stock. What they lost in suitability to touring[90] and to private laundering at creeks, they gained as symbols. Milt felt less shut out from the life of leisure. Now, in Seattle, say, he could go into a good hotel with less fear of the clerks.

He added attractive outing shirts, ties neither too blackly dull nor too flashily crimson, and a vicious nail-brush which simply tore out the motor grease that had grown into the lines of his hands. Also he added a book.

The book was a rhetoric. Milt knew perfectly that there was an impertinence called grammar, but it had never annoyed him much. He knew that many persons preferred "They were" to "They was," and were nervous in the presence of "ain't." One teacher in St. Cloud had buzzed frightfully about these minutiæ. But Milt discovered that grammar was only the beginning of woes. He learned that there were such mental mortgages as figures of speech and the choice of synonyms. He had always known, but he had never passionately felt that the invariable use of "hell," "doggone," and "You bet!" left certain subtleties unexpressed. Now he was finding subtleties which he had to express.

As joyously adventurous as going on day after day was his experimentation in voicing his new observations. He gave far more eagerness to it than Claire Boltwood had. Gustily intoning to Vere de Vere, who was the perfect audience, inasmuch as she never[91] had anything to say but "Mrwr," and didn't mind being interrupted in that, he clamored, "The prairies are the sea. In the distance they are kind of silvery—no—they are dim silver; and way off on the skyline are the Islands of the—of the—— Now what the devil was them, were those, islands in the mythology book in high school? Of the—Blessed? Great snakes' boots, you're an ignorant cat, Vere! Hesperyds? No! Hesperides! Yea, bo'! Now that man in the hotel: 'May I trouble you for the train guide? Thanks so much!' But how much is so much?"

As Claire's days were set free by her consciousness of sun and brown earth, so Milt's odyssey was only the more valorous in his endeavor to criticize life. He saw that Mac's lunch room had not been an altogether satisfactory home; that Mac's habit of saying to dissatisfied customers, "If you don't like it, get out," had lacked something of courtesy. Staring at towns along the way, Milt saw that houses were not merely large and comfortable, or small and stingy; but that there was an interesting thing he remembered hearing his teachers call "good taste."

He was not the preoccupied Milt of the garage but a gay-eyed gallant, the evening when he gave a lift to the school-teacher and drove her from the district school among the wild roses and the corn to her home in the next town. She was a neat, tripping, trim-sided school-teacher of nineteen or twenty.

[92]"You're going out to Seattle? My! That's a wonderful trip. Don't you get tired?" she adored.

"Oh, no. And I'm seeing things. I used to think everything worth while was right near my own town."

"You're so wise to go places. Most of the boys I know don't think there is any world beyond Jimtown and Fargo."

She glowed at him. Milt was saying to himself, "Am I a fool? I probably could make this girl fall in love with me. And she's better than I am; so darn neat and clean and gentle. We'd be happy. She's a nice comfy fire, and here I go like a boob, chasing after a lone, cold star like Miss Boltwood, and probably I'll fall into all the slews from hell to breakfast on the way. But—— I'd get sleepy by a comfy fire."

"Are you thinking hard? You're frowning so," ventured the school-teacher.

"Didn't mean to. 'Scuse!" he laughed. One hand off the steering wheel, he took her hand—a fresh, cool, virginal hand, snuggling into his, suddenly stirring him. He wanted to hold it tighter. The lamenting historian of love's pilgrimage must set down the fact that the pilgrim for at least a second forgot the divine tread of the goddess Claire, and made rapid calculation that he could, in a pinch, drive from Schoenstrom to the teacher's town in two days and a night; that therefore courtship, and this sweet white hand resting in his, were not impossible. Milt himself[93] did not know what it was that made him lay down the hand and say, so softly that he was but half audible through the rattle of the engine:

"Isn't this a slick, mean to say glorious evening? Sky rose and then that funny lavender. And that new moon—— Makes me think of—the girl I'm in love with."

"You're engaged?" wistfully.

"Not exactly but—— Say, did you study rhetoric in Normal School? I have a rhetoric that's got all kind of poetic extracts, you know, and quotations and everything, from the big writers, Stevenson and all. Always been so practical, making a garage pay, never thought much about how I said things as long as I could say 'No!' and say it quick. 'Cept maybe when I was talking to the prof there. But it's great sport to see how musical you can make a thing sound. Words. Like Shenandoah. Gol-lee! Isn't that a wonderful word? Makes you see old white mansion, and mocking birds—— Wonder if a fellow could be a big engineer, you know, build bridges and so on, and still talk about, oh, beautiful things? What d' you think, girlie?"

"Oh, I'm sure you could!"

Her admiration, the proximity of her fragrant slightness, was pleasant in the dusk, but he did not press her hand again, even when she whispered, "Good night, and thank you—oh, thank you."

[94]If Milt had been driving at the rate at which he usually made his skipjack carom over the roads about Schoenstrom, he would by now have been through Dakota, into Montana. But he was deliberately holding down the speed. When he had been tempted by a smooth stretch to go too breathlessly, he halted, teased Vere de Vere, climbed out and, sitting on a hilltop, his hands about his knees, drenched his soul with the vision of amber distances.

He tried so to time his progress that he might always be from three to five miles behind Claire—distant enough to be unnoticed, near enough to help in case of need. For behind poetic expression and the use of forks was the fact that his purpose in life was to know Claire.

When he was caught, when Claire informed him that he "mustn't worry about her"; when, slowly, he understood that she wasn't being neighborly and interested in his making time, he wanted to escape, never to see her again.

For thirty miles his cheeks were fiery. He, most considerate of roadmen, crowded a woman in a flivver, passed a laboring car on an upgrade with such a burst that the uneasy driver bumped off into a ditch. He hadn't really seen them. Only mechanically had he got past them. He was muttering:

"She thought I was trying to butt in! Stung again! Like a small boy in love with teacher. And I[95] thought I was so wise! Cussed out Mac—blamed Mac—no, damn all the fine words—cussed out Mac for being the village rumhound. Boozing is twice as sensible as me. See a girl, nice dress—start for Seattle! Two thousand miles away! Of course she bawled me out. She was dead right. Boob! Yahoo! Goat!"

He caught up Vere de Vere, rubbed her fur against his cheek while he mourned, "Oh, puss, you got to be nice to me. I thought I'd do big things. And then the alarm clock went off. I'm back in Schoenstrom. For keeps, I guess. I didn't know I had feelings that could get hurt like this. Thought I had a rhinoceros hide. But—— Oh, it isn't just feeling ashamed over being a fool. It's that—— Won't ever see her again. Not once. Way I saw her through the window, at that hotel, in that blue silky dress—that funny long line of buttons, and her throat. Never have dinner—lunch—with her by the road——"

In the reaction of anger he demanded of Vere de Vere, "What the deuce do I care? If she's chump enough to chase away a crack garage man that's gone batty and wants to work for nothing, let her go on and hit some crook garage and get stuck for an entire overhauling. What do I care? Had nice trip; that's all I wanted. Never did intend to go clear to Seattle, anyway. Go on to Butte, then back home. No more fussing about fool table-manners and books, and I certainly[96] will cut out tagging behind her! No, sir! Nev-er again!"

It was somewhat inconsistent to add, "There's a bully place—sneak in and let her get past me again. But she won't catch me following next time!"

While he tried to keep up his virtuous anger, he was steering into an abandoned farmyard, parking the car behind cottonwoods and neglected tall currant bushes which would conceal it from the road.

The windows of the deserted house stared at him; a splintered screen door banged in every breeze. Lichens leered from the cracks of the porch. The yard was filled with a litter of cottonwood twigs, and over the flower garden hulked ragged weeds. In the rank grass about the slimy green lip of the well, crickets piped derisively. The barn-door was open. Stray kernels of wheat had sprouted between the spokes of a rusty binder-wheel. A rat slipped across the edge of the shattered manger. As dusk came on, gray things seemed to slither past the upper windows of the house, and somewhere, under the roof, there was a moaning. Milt was sure that it was the wind in a knothole. He told himself that he was absolutely sure about it. And every time it came he stroked Vere de Vere carefully, and once, when the moaning ended in the slamming of the screen door, he said, "Jiminy!"

This boy of the unghostly cylinders and tangible[97] magnetos had never seen a haunted house. To toil of the harvest field and machine shop and to trudging the sun-beaten road he was accustomed, but he had never crouched watching the slinking spirits of old hopes and broken aspirations; feeble phantoms of the first eager bridegroom who had come to this place, and the mortgage-crushed, rust-wheat-ruined man who had left it. He wanted to leap into the bug and go on. Yet the haunt of murmurous memories dignified his unhappiness. In the soft, tree-dimmed dooryard among dry, blazing plains it seemed indecent to go on growling "Gee," and "Can you beat it?" It was a young poet, a poet rhymeless and inarticulate, who huddled behind the shield of untrimmed currant bushes, and thought of the girl he would never see again.

He was hungry, but he did not eat. He was cramped, but he did not move. He picked up the books she had given him. He was quickened by the powdery beauty of Youth's Encounter; by the vision of laughter and dancing steps beneath a streaky gas-glow in the London fog; of youth not "roughhousing" and wanting to "be a sport," yet in frail beauty and faded crimson banners finding such exaltation as Schoenstrom had never known. But every page suggested Claire, and he tucked the book away.

In Vachel Lindsay's Congo, in a poem called "The Santa Fe Trail," he found his own modern pilgrimage[98] from another point of view. Here was the poet, disturbed by the honking hustle of passing cars. But Milt belonged to the honking and the hustle, and it was not the soul of the grass that he read in the poem, but his own sun-flickering flight:

Swiftly the brazen car comes on.
It burns in the East as the sunrise burns.
I see great flashes where the far trail turns.
Butting through the delicate mists of the morning,
It comes like lightning, goes past roaring,
It will hail all the windmills, taunting, ringing,
On through the ranges the prairie-dog tills—
Scooting past the cattle on the thousand hills.
Ho for the tear-horn, scare-horn, dare-horn,
Ho for the gay-horn, bark-horn, bay-horn.

Milt did not reflect that if the poet had watched the Teal bug go by, he would not have recorded a scare-horn, a dare-horn, or anything mightier than a yip-horn. Milt saw himself a cross-continent racer, with the envious poet, left behind as a dot on the hill, celebrating his passing.

"Lord!" he cried. "I didn't know there were books like these! Thought poetry was all like Longfellow and Byron. Old boys. Europe. And rhymed bellyachin' about hard luck. But these books—they're me." Very carefully: "No; they're I! And she gave 'em to me! I will see her again! But she won't know[99] it. Now be sensible, son! What do you expect? Oh—nothing. I'll just go on, and sneak in one more glimpse of her to take back with me where I belong."

Half an hour after Claire had innocently passed his ambush, he began to follow her. But not for days was he careless. If he saw her on the horizon he paused until she was out of sight. That he might not fail her in need, he bought a ridiculously expensive pair of field glasses, and watched her when she stopped by the road. Once, when both her right rear tire and the spare were punctured before she could make a town, Milt from afar saw her patch a tube, pump up the tire in the dust. He ached to go to her aid—though it cannot be said that hand-pumping was his favorite July afternoon sport.

Lest he encounter her in the streets, he always camped to the eastward of the town at which she spent the night. After dusk, when she was likely to end the day's drive in the first sizable place, he hid his bug in an alley and, like a spy after the papers, sneaked into each garage to see if her car was there.

He would stroll in, look about vacuously, and pipe to the suspicious night attendant, "Seen a traveling man named Smith?" Usually the garage man snarled, "No, I ain't seen nobody named Smith. An'thing else I can do for you?" But once he was so unlucky as to find the long-missing Mr. Smith!

Mr. Smith was surprised and insistent. Milt had to[100] do some quick lying. During that interview the cement floor felt very hard under his fidgeting feet, and he thought he heard the garage man in the office telephoning, "Don't think he knows Smith at all. I got a hunch he's that auto thief that was through here last summer."

When Claire did not stop in the first town she reached after twilight, but drove on by dark, he had to do some perilous galloping to catch up. The lights of a Teal are excellent for adornment, but they have no relation to illumination. They are dependent upon a magneto which is dependent only upon faith.

Once, skittering along by dark, he realized that the halted car which he had just passed was the Gomez. He thought he heard a shout behind him, but in a panic he kept going.

To the burring motor he groaned, "Now I probably never will see her again. Except that she thinks I'm such a pest that I dassn't let her know I'm in the same state, I sure am one successful lover. As a Prince Charming I win the Vanderbilt Cup. I'm going ahead backwards so fast I'll probably drop off into the Atlantic over the next hill!"

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