Free Air

by Sinclair Lewis

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XIX- The Night of Endless Pines

ON the edge of Kootenai Canyon, feeling more like an aviator than like an automobilist, Claire had driven, and now, nearing Idaho, she had entered a national forest. She was delayed for hours, while she tried to change a casing, after a blow-out when the spare tire was deflated. She wished for Milt. She would never see him again. She was sorry. He hadn't meant——

But hang it, she panted, if he admired her at all, he'd be here now and get on this per-fect-ly beast-ly casing, over which she had been laboring for a dozen years; and she was simply too ridiculously tired; and was there any respectful way of keeping Henry B. from beaming in that benevolent manner while she was killing herself; and look at those fingernails; and—oh, drrrrrrat that casing!

To make the next town, after this delay, she had to drive for hours by night through the hulking pines of the national forest. It was her first long night drive.

A few claims, with log cabins of recent settlers, once or twice the shack of a forest-ranger, a telephone in a box by the road or a rough R. F. D. box nailed to a pine trunk, these indicated that civilization still[195] existed, but they were only melancholy blurs. She was in a cold enchantment. All of her was dead save the ability to keep on driving, forever, with no hope of the tedium ending. She was bewildered. She passed six times what seemed to be precisely the same forest clearing, always with the road on a tiny ridge to the left of the clearing, always with a darkness-stilled house at one end and always, in the pasture at the other end, a horse which neighed. She was in a panorama stage-scene; things moved steadily by her, there was a sound of the engine, and a sensation of steering, but she was forever in the same place, among the same pines, with the same scowling blackness between their bare clean trunks. Only the road ahead was clear: a one-way track, the foot-high earthy bank and the pine-roots beside it, two distinct ruts, and a roughening of strewn brown bark and pine-needles, which, in the beating light of the car's lamps, made the sandy road scabrous with little incessant shadows.

She had never known anything save this strained driving on. Jeff and Milt were old tales, and untrue. Was it ten hours before that she had cooked dinner beside the road? No matter. She wasn't hungry any longer. She would never reach the next town—and she didn't care. It wasn't she, but a grim spirit which had entered her dead body, that kept steering, feeding gas, watching the road.

In the darkness outside the funnel of light from her[196] lamps were shadows that leaped, and gray hands hastily jerked back out of sight behind tree trunks as she came up; things that followed her, and hidden men waiting for her to stop.

As drivers will, she tried to exorcise the creeping fear by singing. She made up what she called her driving-song. It was intended to echo the hoofs of a fat old horse on a hard road:

The old horse trots with a jog, jog, jog, And a jog, jog, jog; and a jog, jog, jog. And the old road makes a little jog, jog, jog, To the west, jog, jog; and the north, jog, jog. While the farmer drinks some cider from his jug, jug, jug, From his coy jug, jug; from his joy jug, jug. Till he accumulates a little jag, jag, jag, And he jigs, jigs, jigs, with his jug, jug, jug——

The song was a comfort, at first—then a torment. She drove to it, and she steered to it, and when she tried to forget, it sang itself in her tired brain: "Jog, jog, jog—oh, damn!"

Her father had had a chill. Miserable, weak as a small boy, he had curled up on the bottom of the car, his head on the seat, and gone to sleep. She was alone. The mile-posts went by slowly. The posts said there was a town ahead called Pellago, but it never came——

And when it did come she was too tired to care. In a thick dream she drove through midnight streets of the town. In stupid paralysis she kicked at the door of the galvanized-iron-covered garage. No answer. She gave it up. She drove down the street and into the yard of a hotel marked by a swing sign out over the plank sidewalk. She got out the traveling bags, awakened her father, led him up on the porch.

The Pellago Tavern was a transformed dwelling house. The pillars of the porch were aslant, and the rain-warped boards snapped beneath her feet. She hesitatingly opened the door. The hallway was dark and musty. A sound like a moan filtered down the unlighted stairs.

There seemed to be light in the room on the right. Trying to assure herself that her father was a protection, she pushed open the door. She looked into an airless room, scattered with rubber boots, unsavory old corduroy caps, tattered magazines. By the stove nodded a wry-mouthed, squat old woman, and a tall, cheaply handsome man of forty. Tobacco juice stained the front of his stiff-bosomed, collarless shirt. His hands were white but huge.

The old woman started. "Well?"

"I want to get two rooms for the night, please."

The man smirked at her. The woman creaked, "Well, I don't know. Where d' you come from, heh?"

[198]"We're motoring through."

"Heh? Who's that man?"

"He's my father, madam."

"Needn't to be so hoity-toity about it, 'he's my father, madam!' F' that matter, that thing there is my husband!"

The man had been dusting his shabby coat, stroking his mustache, smiling with sickly gallantry. He burbled, "Shut up, Teenie. This lady is all right. Give her a room. Number 2 is empty, and I guess Number 7 has been made up since Bill left—if 'tain't, the sheets ain't been slept on but one night."

"Where d' you come——"

"Now don't go shooting off a lot of questions at the lady, Teenie. I'll show her the rooms."

The woman turned on her husband. He was perhaps twenty-five years younger; a quarter-century less soaked in hideousness. Her yellow, concave-sided teeth were bared at him, her mouth drew up on one side above the gums. "Pete, if I hear one word more out of you, out you go. Lady! Huh! Where d' you come from, young woman?"

Claire was too weak to stagger away. She leaned against the door. Her father struggled to speak, but the woman hurled:


"From New York. Is there another hotel——"

"Nah, there ain't another hotel! Oh! So you come[199] from New York, do you? Snobs, that's what N' Yorkers are. I'll show you some rooms. They'll be two dollars apiece, and breakfast fifty cents extra."

The woman led them upstairs. Claire wanted to flee, but—— Oh, she couldn't drive any farther! She couldn't!

The floor of her room was the more bare in contrast to a two-foot-square splash of gritty ingrain carpet in front of the sway-backed bed. On the bed was a red comforter that was filthy beyond disguise. The yellow earthenware pitcher was cracked. The wall mirror was milky. Claire had been spoiled. She had found two excellent hotels since Yellowstone Park. She had forgotten how badly human beings can live. She protested:

"Seems to me two dollars is a good deal to charge for this!"

"I didn't say two dollars. I said three! Three each for you and your pa. If you don't like it you can drive on to the next town. It's only sixteen miles!"

"Why the extra dollar—or extra two dollars?"

"Don't you see that carpet? These is our best rooms. And three dollars—— I know you New Yorkers. I heard of a gent once, and they charged him five dollars—five dol-lars!—for a room in New York, and a boy grabbed his valise from him and wanted a short-bit and——"

[200]"Oh—all—right! Can we get something to eat?"


"We haven't eaten since noon."

"That ain't my fault! Some folks can go gadding around in automobuls, and some folks has to stay at home. If you think I'm going to sit up all night cooking for people that come chassayin' in here God knows what all hours of the day and night——! There's an all-night lunch down the street."

When she was alone Claire cried a good deal.

Her father declined to go out to the lunch room. The chill of the late ride was still on him, he croaked through his door; he was shivering; he was going right to bed.

"Yes, do, dear. I'll bring you back a sandwich."

"Safe to go out alone?"

"Anything's safe after facing that horrible—— I do believe in witches, now. Listen, dear; I'll bring you a hot-water bag."

She took the bag down to the office. The landlady was winding the clock, while her husband yawned. She glared.

"I wonder if I may have some hot water for my father? He has a chill."

"Stove's out. No hot water in the house."

"Couldn't you heat some?"

"Now look here, miss. You come in here, asking for meals and rooms at midnight, and you want a cut[201] rate on everything, and I do what I can, but enough's enough!"

The woman stalked out. Her husband popped up. "Mustn't mind the old girl, lady. Got a grouch. Well, you can't blame her, in a way; when Bill lit out, he done her out of four-bits! But I'll tell you!" he leered. "You leave me the hot-water biznai, and I'll heat you some water myself!"

"Thank you, but I won't trouble you. Good night."

Claire was surprised to find a warm, rather comfortable all-night lunch room, called the Alaska Café, with a bright-eyed man of twenty-five in charge. He nodded in a friendly way, and made haste with her order of two ham-and-egg sandwiches. She felt adventurous. She polished her knife and fork on a napkin, as she had seen people do in lunches along the way. A crowd of three rubbed their noses against the front window to stare at the strange girl in town, but she ignored them, and they drifted away.

The lunchman was cordial: "At a hotel, ma'am? Which one? Gee, not the Tavern?"

"Why yes. Is there another?"

"Sure. First-rate one, two blocks over, one up."

"The woman said the Tavern was the only hotel."

"Oh, she's an old sour-face. Don't mind her. Just bawl her out. What's she charging you for a room?"

"Three dollars."

"Per each? Gee! Well, she sticks tourists anywheres[202] from one buck to three. Natives get by for fifty cents. She's pretty fierce, but she ain't a patch on her husband. He comes from Spokane—nobody knows why—guess he was run out. He takes some kind of dope, and he cheats at rummy."

"But why does the town stand either of them? Why do you let them torture innocent people? Why don't you put them in the insane hospital, where they belong?"

"That's a good one!" her friend chuckled. But he saw it only as a joke.

She thought of moving her father to the good hotel, but she hadn't the strength.

Claire Boltwood, of Brooklyn Heights, went through the shanty streets of Pellago, Montana, at one a.m. carrying a sandwich in a paper bag which had recently been used for salted peanuts, and a red rubber hot-water bag filled with water at the Alaska Café. At the Tavern she hastened past the office door. She made her father eat his sandwich; she teased him and laughed at him till the hot-water bag had relieved his chill-pinched back; she kissed him boisterously, and started for her own room, at the far end of the hall.

The lights were off. She had to feel her way, and she hesitated at the door of her room before she entered. She imagined voices, creeping footsteps, people watching her from a distance. She flung into[203] the room, and when the kindled lamp showed her familiar traveling bag, she felt safer. But once she was in bed, with the sheet down as far as possible over the loathly red comforter, the quiet rustled and snapped about her, and she could not relax. Sinking into sleep seemed slipping into danger, and a dozen times she started awake.

But only slowly did she admit to herself that she actually did hear a fumbling, hear the knob of her door turning.

"W-who's there?"

"It's me, lady. The landlord. Brought you the hot water."

"Thanks so much, but I don't need it now."

"Got something else for you. Come to the door. Don't want to holler and wake ev'body up."

At the door she said timorously, "Nothing else I want, thank you. D-don't bother me."

"Why, I've brought you up a sandwich, girlie, all nice and hot, and a nip of something to take the chill off."

"I don't want it, I tell you!"

"Be a sport now! You use Pete right, and he'll use you right. Shame to see a lady like you not gettin' no service here. Open the door. Dandy sandwich!" The knob rattled again. She said nothing. The heel of her palm pressed against the door till the molding ate into it. The man was snorting:

[204]"I ain't going to all this trouble and then throw away a good sandwich. You asked me——"

"M-must I s-shout?"

"S-shout your fool head off!" He kicked the door. "Good friends of mine, 'long this end of the hall. Aw, listen. Just teasing. I'm not going to rob you, little honey bird. Laws, you could have a million dollars, and old Pete wouldn't take two-bits. I just get so darn lonely in this hick town. Like to chat to live ones from the big burg. I'm a city fella myself—Spokane and Cheyenne and everything."

In her bare feet, Claire had run across the room, looked desperately out of the window. Could she climb out, reach her friend of the Alaska Café? If she had to——

Then she grinned. The world was rose-colored and hung with tinkling bells. "I love even that Pinky person!" she said. In the yard of the hotel, beside her Gomez, was a Teal bug, and two men were sleeping in blankets on the ground.

She marched over to the door. She flung it open. The man started back. He was holding an electric, torch. She could not see him, but to the hovering ball of light she remarked, "Two men, friends of mine, are below, by their car. You will go at once, or I'll call them. If you think I am bluffing, go down and look. Good night!"

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