Free Air

by Sinclair Lewis

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

XXXI - The Kitchen Intimate

MILT had become used to the Gilson drawing-room. He was no longer uncomfortable in the presence of its sleek fatness, though at first (not knowing that there were such resources as interior decorators), he had been convinced that, to have created the room, the Gilsons must have known everything in the world. Now he glanced familiarly at its white paneling, its sconces like silver candlesticks, the inevitable davenport inevitably backed by an amethyst-shaded piano lamp and a table crowded with silver boxes and picture-frames. He liked the winsomeness of light upon velvet and polished wood.

It was not the drawing-room but the kitchen that dismayed him.

In Schoenstrom he had known that there must somewhere be beautiful "parlors," but he had trusted in his experience of kitchens. Kitchens, according to his philosophy, were small smelly rooms of bare floors, and provided with one oilcloth-covered table, one stove (the front draft always broken and propped up with the lid-lifter), one cupboard with panes of tin pierced in rosettes, and one stack of dirty dishes.

But the Gilson kitchen had the efficiency of a[311] laboratory and the superciliousness of a hair-dresser's booth. With awe Milt beheld walls of white tiles, a cork floor, a gas-range large as a hotel-stove, a ceiling-high refrigerator of enamel and nickel, zinc-topped tables, and a case of utensils like a surgeon's knives. It frightened him; it made more hopelessly unapproachable than ever the Alexandrian luxury of the great Gilsons.... The Vanderbilts' kitchen must be like this. And maybe King George's.

He was viewing the kitchen upon the occasion of an intimate Sunday evening supper to which he had been yearningly invited by Mrs. Gilson. The maids were all out. The Gilsons and Claire, Milt and Jeff Saxton, shoutingly prepared their own supper. While Mrs. Gilson scrambled eggs and made coffee, the others set the table, and brought cold ham and a bowl of salad from the ice-box.

Milt had intended to be a silent but deft servitor. When he had heard that he was to come to supper with the returned Mr. Geoffrey Saxton, he had first been panic-shaken, then resolved. He'd "let old iron-face Saxton do the high and mighty. Let him stand around and show off his clothes and adjectives, way he did at Flathead Lake." But he, Milt, would be "on the job." He'd help get supper, and calmly ignore Jeff's rudeness.

Only—Jeff wasn't rude. He greeted Milt with, "Ah, Daggett! This is so nice!" And Milt had no[312] chance to help. It was Jeff who anticipated him and with a pleasant, "Let me get that—I'm kitchen-broke," snatched up the cold ham and salad. It was Jeff who found the supper plates, while Milt was blunderingly wondering how any one family could use a "whole furniture-store-full of different kinds of china." It was Jeff who sprang to help Claire wheel in the tea-wagon, and so captured the chance to speak to her for which Milt had been maneuvering these five minutes.

When they were settled, Jeff glowed at him, and respectfully offered, "I thought of you so often, Daggett, on a recent little jaunt of mine. You'd have been helpful."

"Where was that?" asked Milt suspiciously (wondering, and waiting to see, whether you could take cold ham in your fingers).

"Oh, in Alaska."

"In—Alaska?" Milt was dismayed.

"Yes, just a business trip there. There's something I wish you'd advise me about."

He was humble. And Milt was uneasy. He grumbled, "What's that?"

"I've been wondering whether it would be possible to use wireless telephony in Alaska. But I'm such a dub at electricity. Do you know—— What would be the cost of installing a wireless telephone plant with a hundred-mile radius?"

[313]"Gee, I don't know!"

"Oh, so sorry. Well, I wonder if you can tell me about wireless telegraphy, then?"

"No, I don't know anything about that either."

Milt had desperately tried to make his answer gracious but somehow—— He hated this devil's obsequiousness more than he had his chilliness at Flathead Lake. He had a feeling that the Gilsons had delightedly kicked each other under the table; that, for all her unchanging smile, Claire was unhappy.... And she was so far off, a white wraith floating beyond his frantic grasp.

"It doesn't matter, really. But I didn't know—— So you've started in the engineering school at the University of Washington," Saxton was purring. "Have you met Gid Childers there—son of old Senator Childers—charming people."

"I've seen him. He has a Stutz—no, his is the Mercer," sighed Milt.

He hated himself for it, but he couldn't quite keep the awe out of his voice. People with Mercers——

Claire seemed to be trying to speak. She made a delicate, feminine, clairesque approximation to clearing her throat. But Jeff ignored her and with almost osculatory affection continued to Milt:

"Do let me know if there's anything I can do to help you. We're acquainted with two or three of your engineering faculty at the Office. They write[314] in about various things. Do you happen to know Dr. Philgren?"

"Oh yes. Say! He's a wonder!" Milt was betrayed into exclaiming.

"Yes. Good chap, I believe. He's been trying to get a job with us. We may give him one. Just tell him you're a friend of mine, and that he's to give you any help he can."

Milt choked on a "Thanks."

"And—now that we're just the family here together—how goes the financial side? Can I be of any assistance in introducing you to some engineering firm where you could do a little work on the side? You could make quite a little money——"

So confoundedly affectionate and paternal——

Milt said irritably, "Thanks, but I don't need to do any work. I've got plenty of money."

"How pleasant!" Saxton's voice was smooth as marshmallow. "You're fortunate. I had quite a struggle to get through Princeton."

Wasn't Mr. Gilson contrasting Saxton's silk shirt with Milt's darned cotton covering, and in light of that contrast chuckling at Milt's boast and Saxton's modesty? Milt became overheated. His scalp prickled and his shoulder-blades were damp. As Saxton turned from him, and crooned to Claire, "More ham, honey?" Milt hated himself. He was in much of the dramatic but undesirable position of a man in pajamas,[315] not very good pajamas, who has been locked out in the hotel corridor by the slamming of his door. He was in the frame of mind of a mongrel, of a real Boys'-Dog, at a Madison Square dog-show. He had a faint shrewd suspicion of Saxton's game. But what could he do about it?

He felt even more out of place when the family forgot him and talked about people of whom he had never heard.

He sat alone on an extremely distant desert isle and ate cold ham and wished he were in Schoenstrom.

Claire had recovered her power of speech. She seemed to be trying to bring him into the conversation, so that the family might appreciate him.

She hesitated, and thought with creased brows, and brought out, "Uh, uh, oh—— Oh Milt: How much is gas selling at now?"...

Milt left that charming and intimate supper-party at nine. He said, "Got to work on—on my analytical geometry," as though it was a lie; and he threw "Good night" at Saxton as though he hated his kind, good benefactor; and when he tried to be gracious to Mrs. Gilson the best he could get out was, "Thanks f' inviting me." They expansively saw him to the door. Just as he thought that he had escaped, Saxton begged, "Oh, Daggett, I was arguing with a chap—— What color are Holstein-Friesian cattle? Red?"

"Black and white," Milt said eagerly.

He heard Mrs. Gilson giggle.

He stood on the terrace wiping his forehead and, without the least struggle, finally and irretrievably admitting that he would never see Claire Boltwood or any of her friends again. Not—never!

He had received from Mrs. Gilson a note inviting him to share their box at the first night of a three-night Opera Season. He had spent half a day in trying to think of a courteously rude way of declining.

A straggly little girl came up from the candy-shop below his room, demanding, "Say, are you Mr. Daggett? Say, there's some woman wants to talk to you on our telephone. Say, tell them we ain't supposed to be no messenger-office. You ain't supposed to call no upstairs people on our telephone. We ain't supposed to leave the store and go trotting all over town to—— Gee, a nickel, gee, thank you, don't mind what ma says, she's always kicking."

On the telephone, he heard Claire's voice in an agitated, "Milt! Meet me down-town, at the Imperial Motion Picture Theater, right away. Something I've got to tell you. I'll be in the lobby. Hurry!"

When he bolted in she was already in the lobby, agitatedly looking over a frame of "stills." She ran to him, hooked her fingers in his lapel, poured out, "They've invited you to the opera? I want you to[317] come and put it all over them. I'm almost sure there's a plot. They want to show me that you aren't used to tiaras and saxophones and creaking dowagers and tulle. Beat 'em! Beat 'em! Come to the opera and be awf'ly aloof and supercilious. You can! Yes, you can! And be sure—wear evening clothes. Now I've got to hurry."


"Don't disappoint me. I depend on you. Oh, say you will!"

"I will!"

She was gone, whisking into the Gilson limousine. He was in a glow at her loyalty, in a tremor of anger at the meddlers.

But he had never worn evening clothes.

He called it "a dress-suit," and before the complications of that exotic garb, he was flabby with anxiety. To Milt and to Schoenstrom—to Bill McGolwey, even to Prof Jones and the greasily prosperous Heinie Rauskukle—the dress-suit was the symbol and proof, the indication and manner, of sophisticated wealth. In Schoenstrom even waiters do not wear dress-suits. For one thing there aren't any waiters. There is one waitress at the Leipzig House, Miss Annie Schweigenblat, but you wouldn't expect Miss Schweigenblat to deal them off the arm in black trousers with braid down the side.

No; a dress-suit was what the hero wore in the[318] movies; and the hero in the movies, when he wasn't a cowpuncher, was an ex-captain of the Yale football team, and had chambers and a valet. You could tell him from the valet because he wasn't so bald. It is true that Milt had heard that in St. Cloud there were people who wore dress-suits at parties, but then St. Cloud was a city, fifteen or sixteen thousand.

"How could he get away with a dress-suit? How could he keep from feeling foolish in a low-cut vest, and what the deuce would he do with the tails? Did you part 'em or roll 'em up, when you sat down? And wouldn't everybody be able to tell from his foolish look that he didn't belong in one?" He could hear A.D.T. boys and loafers in front of pool rooms whispering, "Look at the piker in the rented soup and fish!"

For of course he'd rent one. Nobody bought them—except plutes like Henry B. Boltwood.

He agitatedly walked up and down for an hour, peering into haberdashery windows, looking for a kind-faced young man. He found him, in Ye Pall Mall Toggery Shoppe & Shoes; an open-faced young man who was gazing through the window as sparklingly as though he was thinking of going as a missionary to India—and liked curry. Milt ironed out his worried face, clumped in, demanded fraternally, "Say, old man, don't some of these gents' furnishings stores have kind of little charts that tell just what you[319] wear with dress-suits and Prince Alberts and everything?"

"You bet," said the kind-faced young man.

West of Chicago, "You bet" means "Rather," and "Yes indeed," and "On the whole I should be inclined to fancy that there may be some vestiges of accuracy in your curious opinion," and "You're a liar but I can't afford to say so."

The kind-faced young man brought from behind the counter a beautiful brochure illustrated with photographs of Phoebus Apollo in what were described as "American Beauty Garments—neat, natty, nobby, new." The center pages faithfully catalogued the ties, shirts, cuff-links, spats, boots, hats, to wear with evening clothes, morning clothes, riding clothes, tennis costumes, polite mourning.

As he looked it over Milt felt that his wardrobe already contained all these gentlemanly possessions.

With the aid of the clerk and the chart he purchased a tradition-haunted garment with a plate-armor bosom and an opening as crooked as the Missouri River; a white tie which in his strong red hands looked as silly as a dead fish; waistcoat, pearl links, and studs. For the first time, except for seizures of madness during two or three visits to Minneapolis motor accessory stores, he caught the shopping-fever. The long shining counter, the trim red-stained shelves, the glittering cases, the racks of flaunting ties, were beautiful[320] to him and beckoning. He revolved a pleasantly clicking rack of ties, then turned and fought his way out.

He bought pumps—which cost exactly twice as much as the largest sum which he had allowed himself. He bought a newspaper, and in the want-columns found the advertisement:

Silberfarb the Society Tailor DRESS SUITS TO RENT Snappiest in the City

Despite the superlative snappiness of Mr. Silberfarb's dress-suits his establishment was a loft over a delicatessen, approached by a splintery stairway along which hung shabby signs announcing the upstairs offices of "J. L. & T. J. O'Regan, Private Detectives," "The Zenith Spiritualist Church, Messages by Rev. Lulu Paughouse," "The International Order of Live Ones, Seattle Wigwam," and "Mme. Lavourie, Sulphur Baths." The dead air of the hallway suggested petty crookedness. Milt felt that he ought to fight somebody but, there being no one to fight, he banged along the flapping boards of the second-floor hallway to the ground-glass door of Silberfarb the Society Tailor, who was also, as an afterthought on a straggly placard, "Pressng & Cleang While U Wait."

He belligerently shouldered into a low room. The[321] light from the one window was almost obscured by racks of musty-smelling black clothes which stretched away from him in two dismal aisles that resembled a morgue of unhappy dead men indecently hung up on hooks. On a long, clumsily carpentered table, a small Jew, collarless, sweaty, unshaven, was darning trousers under an evil mantle gaslight. The Jew wrung out his hands and tried to look benevolent.

"Want to rent a dress-suit," said Milt.

"I got just the t'ing for you!"

The little man unfolded himself, galloped down the aisle, seized the first garment that came to hand, and came back to lay it against Milt's uncomfortable frame, bumbling, "Fine, mister, fy-en!"

Milt studied the shiny-seamed, worn-buttonholed, limp object with dislike. Its personality was disintegrated. The only thing he liked about it was the good garage stink of gasoline.

"That's almost worn out," he growled.

At this sacrilege Mr. Silberfarb threw up his hands, with the dingy suit flapping in them like a bed-quilt shaken from a tenement window. He looked Milt all over, coldly. His red but shining eyes hinted that Milt was a clodhopper and no honest wearer of evening clothes. Milt felt humble, but he snapped, "No good. Want something with class."

"Vell, that was good enough for a university professor at the big dance, but if you say so——"

[322]In the manner of one who is being put to an unfair amount of trouble, Mr. Silberfarb returned the paranoiac dress-suit to the rack, sighing patiently as he laboriously draped it on a hanger. He peered and pawed. He crowed with throaty triumph and brought back a rich ripe thing of velvet collar and cuffs. He fixed Milt with eyes that had become as sulky as the eyes of a dog in August dust.

"Now that—you can't beat that, if you vant class, and it'll fit you like a glove. Oh, that's an ellllegant garment!"

Shaking himself out of the spell of those contemptuous eyes Milt opened his brochure, studied the chart, and in a footnote found, "Never wear velvet collars or cuffs with evening coat."

"Nope. Nix on the velvet," he remarked.

Then the little man went mad and ran around in circles. He flung the ellllegant garment on the table. He flapped his arms, and wailed, "What do you vant? What do you vannnnt? That's a hundred-and-fifty-dollar dress-suit! That belonged to one of the richest men in the city. He sold it to me because he was going to Japan."

"Well, you can send it to Japan after him. I want something decent. Have you got it—or shall I go some place else?"

The tailor instantly became affectionate. "How about a nice Tuxedo?" he coaxed.

[323]"Nope. It says here—let me see—oh yes, here it is—it says here in the book that for the theater-with-ladies, should not wear 'dinner-coat or so-called Tuxedo, but——'"

"Oh, dem fellows what writes books they don't know nothing. Absolute! They make it up."

"Huh! Well, I guess I'll take my chance on them. The factory knows the ignition better 'n any repair-man."

"Vell say, you're a hard fellow to please. I'll give you one of my reserve stock, but you got to leave me ten dollars deposit instead of five."

Mr. Silberfarb quite cheerfully unlocked a glass case behind the racked and ghostly dead; he brought out a suit that seemed to Milt almost decent. And it almost fitted when, after changing clothes in a broiling, boiling, reeking, gasoline-pulsing hole behind the racks, he examined it before a pier-glass. But he caught the tailor assisting the fit by bunching up a roll of cloth at the shoulder. Again Milt snapped, and again the tailor suffered and died, and to a doubting heathen world maintained the true gospel of "What do you vannnnt? It ain't stylish to have the dress-suit too tight! All the gents is wearing 'em loose and graceful." But in the end, after Milt had gone as far as the door, Mr. Silberfarb admitted that one dress-coat wouldn't always fit all persons without some alterations.

[324]The coat did bag a little, and it was too long in the sleeves, but as Milt studied himself in his room—by placing his small melancholy mirror on the bureau, then on a chair, then on the floor, finally, to get a complete view, clear out in the hall—he admitted with stirring delight that he looked "pretty fair in the bloomin' outfit." His clear face, his shining hair, his straight shoulders, seemed to go with the costume.

He wriggled into his top-coat and marched out of his room, theater-bound, with the well-fed satisfaction of a man who is certain that no one is giggling, "Look at the hand-me-downs." His pumps did alternately pinch his toes and rub his heels; the trousers cramped his waist; and he suspected that his tie had gone wandering. But he swaggered to the trolley, and sat as one rich and famous and very kind to the Common People, till——

Another man in evening clothes got on the car, and Milt saw that he wore a silk hat, and a white knitted scarf; that he took out and examined a pair of white kid gloves.

He'd forgotten the hat! He was wearing his gray felt. He could risk the gloves, but the hat—the "stovepipe"—and the chart had said to wear one—he was ruined——

He turned up the collar of his top-coat to conceal his white tie, tried to hide each of his feet behind the other to cover up his pumps; sought to change his[325] expression from that of a superior person in evening clothes to that of a decent fellow in honest Regular Clothes. Had the conductor or any of the passengers realized that he was a dub in a dress-suit without the hat?

Once he thought that the real person in real evening clothes was looking at him. He turned his head and bore the probable insult in weak misery.

Too feeble for anything but thick suffering he was dragged on toward the theater, the opera, people in silk hats—toward Jeff Saxton and exposure.

But his success in bullying the tailor had taught him that dressing wasn't really a hidden lore to be known only by initiates; that some day he too might understand the black and white magic of clothes. His bruised self-consciousness healed. "I'll do—something," he determined. He waited, vacuously.

The Gilson party was not in the lobby when he arrived. He tore off his top-coat. He draped it over his felt hat, so that no one could be sure what sort of hat it shamefully concealed. That unveiling did expose him to the stare of everybody waiting in the lobby. He was convinced that the entire ticket-buying cue was glumly resenting him. Peeping down at the unusual white glare of his shirt-front, he felt naked and indecent.... "Nice kind o' vest. Must make 'em out of old piqué collars."

He endured his martyrdom till his party arrived—the Gilsons,[326] Claire, Jeff Saxton, and a glittering young woman whose name, Milt thought, was Mrs. Corey.

And Saxton wasn't wearing a high hat! He wore a soft one, and he didn't seem to care!

Milt straightened up, followed them through the manifold dangers of the lobby, down a perilous aisle of uptilted scornful faces, to a red narrow corridor, winding stairs, a secret passage, a mysterious dark closet—and he walked out into a room with one side missing, and, on that side, ten trillion people in a well, and nine trillion of them staring at him and noticing that he'd rented his dress-suit. Hot about the neck, he stumbled over one or two chairs, and was permitted to rest in a foolish little gilt chair in the farthest corner.

Once safe, he felt much better. Except that Jeff did put on white kid gloves, Milt couldn't see that they two looked so different. And neither of the two men in the next box wore gloves. Milt made sure of that comfort; he reveled in it; he looked at Claire, and in her loyal smile found ease.

He snarled, "She trusts you. Forget you're a dub. Try to be human. Hang it, I'm no greener at the opera than old horsehair sofa there would be at a garage."

There was something—— What was it he was trying to remember? Oh yes. When he'd worked in[327] the Schoenstrom flour-mill, as engineer, at eighteen, the owner had tried to torment him (to "get his goat," Milt put it), and Milt had found that the one thing that would save him was to smile as though he knew more than he was telling. It did not, he remembered, make any difference whether or not the smile was real. If he merely looked the miller up and down, and smiled cynically, he was let alone.

Why not——

Saxton was bending toward him, asking in honeyed respectfulness:

"Don't you think that the new school in music—audible pointillage, one might call it—mistakes cacophony for power?"

Milt smiled, paternally.

Saxton waited for something more. He dug the nail of his right middle finger into his thumb, looked thoughtful, and attacked again:

"Which do you like better: the new Italian music, or the orthodox German?"

Milt smiled like two uncles watching a clever baby, and patronized Saxton with, "They both have their points."

He saw that Claire was angry; but that the Gilsons and Mrs. Corey, flap-eared, gape-mouthed, forward-bending, were very proud of their little Jeff. He saw that, except for their clothes and self-conscious coiffures, they were exactly like a gang of cracker-box[328] loafers at Heinie Rauskukle's badgering a new boy in town.

Saxton looked bad-tempered. Then Mrs. Corey bustled with her face and yearned at Milt, "Do tell me: what is the theme of the opera tonight. I've rather forgotten."

Milt ceased to smile. While all of them regarded him with interest he said clearly, "I haven't got the slightest idea. I don't know anything about music. Some day I hope I can get a clever woman like you to help me, Mrs. Corey. It must be great to know all about all these arts, the way you do. I wish you'd explain that—overture they call it, don't they?"

For some reason, Mr. Gilson was snickering, Mrs. Corey flushing, Claire looking well pleased. Milt had tried to be insulting, but had got lost in the intricacies of the insult. He felt that he'd better leave it in its apparently safe state, and he leaned back, and smiled again, as though he was waiting. Mrs. Corey did not explain the overture. She hastily explained her second maid, to Mrs. Gilson.

The opera was Il Amore dei Tre Re. Milt was bewildered. To him, who had never seen an opera, the convention that a girl cannot hear a man who is bellowing ten feet away from her, was absurd; and he wished that the singers would do something besides making their arms swim.

He discovered that by moving his chair forward, he[329] could get within a foot of Claire. His hand slipped across, touched hers. She darted a startled backward glance. Her fingers closed tight about his, then restlessly snuggled inside his palm—and Milt was lost in enchantment.

Stately kings of blood-red cloaks and chrysoberyls malevolent in crowns of ancient and massy gold—the quick dismaying roll of drums and the shadow of passing banners below a tower—a woman tall and misty-veiled and pale with dreams—a world of spirit where the soul had power over unseen dominions—this he saw and heard and tasted in the music. What the actual plot was, or the technique of the singing, he did not know, but it bore him beyond all reality save the sweet, sure happiness of Claire's nestling hand.

He held her fingers so firmly that he could feel the pulse beat in them.

In the clamminess of his room, when the enchantment was gone, he said gravely:

"How much longer can I keep this up? Sooner or later I bust loose and smash little Jeff one in the snoot, and he takes the count, and I'm never allowed to see Claire again. Turn the roughneck out on his ear. I s'pose I'm vulgar. I s'pose that fellow Michael in Youth's Encounter wouldn't talk about snoots. I don't care, I'll—— If I poke Saxton one—— I'm not afraid of the kid-glove precinct any more. My[330] brain's as good as theirs, give it a chance. But oh, they're all against me. And they bust the Athletic Union's wrestling rule that 'striking, kicking, gouging, hair-pulling, butting, and strangling will not be allowed.' How long can I go on being good-natured? When I do break loose——"

Slowly, beneath the moral cuff of his dress-shirt, Milt's fist closed in a brown, broad-knuckled lump, and came up in the gesture of a right to the jaw. But it came up only a foot. The hand opened, climbed to Milt's face, rubbed his temples, while he sighed:

"Nope. Can't even do that. Bigger game now. Used to could—used to be able to settle things with a punch. But I've got to be more—oh, more diplomatic now. Oh Lord, how lonely I get for Bill McGolwey. No. That isn't true. I couldn't stand Bill now. Claire took all that out of me. Where am I, where am I? Why did I ever get a car that takes a 36 × 6?"

Return to the Free Air Summary Return to the Sinclair Lewis Library

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson