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Authors: Sinclair Lewis

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Babbit

BOOK: Babbit
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CHAPTER I

  
T
HE towers of
Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and
cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods.
They were neither citadels nor churches, but frankly and
beautifully office-buildings.

  The mist took pity on the fretted structures of
earlier generations: the Post Office with its shingle-tortured
mansard, the red brick minarets of hulking old houses, factories
with stingy and sooted windows, wooden tenements colored like mud.
The city was full of such grotesqueries, but the clean towers were
thrusting them from the business center, and on the farther hills
were shining new houses, homes - they seemed - for laughter and
tranquillity.

  Over a concrete bridge fled a limousine of long
sleek hood and noiseless engine. These people in evening clothes
were returning from an all-night rehearsal of a Little Theater
play, an artistic adventure considerably illuminated by champagne.
Below the bridge curved a railroad, a maze of green and crimson
lights. The New York Flyer boomed past, and twenty lines of
polished steel leaped into the glare.

  In one of the skyscrapers the wires of the
Associated Press were closing down. The telegraph operators wearily
raised their celluloid eye-shades after a night of talking with
Paris and Peking. Through the building crawled the scrubwomen,
yawning, their old shoes slapping. The dawn mist spun away. Cues of
men with lunch-boxes clumped toward the immensity of new factories,
sheets of glass and hollow tile, glittering shops where five
thousand men worked beneath one roof, pouring out the honest wares
that would be sold up the Euphrates and across the veldt. The
whistles rolled out in greeting a chorus cheerful as the April
dawn; the song of labor in a city built - it seemed - for
giants.

  II

  There was nothing of the giant in the aspect of the
man who was beginning to awaken on the sleeping-porch of a Dutch
Colonial house in that residential district of Zenith known as
Floral Heights.

  His name was George F. Babbitt. He was forty-six
years old now, in April, 1920, and he made nothing in particular,
neither butter nor shoes nor poetry, but he was nimble in the
calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to
pay.

  His large head was pink, his brown hair thin and
dry. His face was babyish in slumber, despite his wrinkles and the
red spectacle-dents on the slopes of his nose. He was not fat but
he was exceedingly well fed; his cheeks were pads, and the
unroughened hand which lay helpless upon the khaki-colored blanket
was slightly puffy. He seemed prosperous, extremely married and
unromantic; and altogether unromantic appeared this sleeping-porch,
which looked on one sizable elm, two respectable grass-plots, a
cement driveway, and a corrugated iron garage. Yet Babbitt was
again dreaming of the fairy child, a dream more romantic than
scarlet pagodas by a silver sea.

  For years the fairy child had come to him. Where
others saw but Georgie Babbitt, she discerned gallant youth. She
waited for him, in the darkness beyond mysterious groves. When at
last he could slip away from the crowded house he darted to her.
His wife, his clamoring friends, sought to follow, but he escaped,
the girl fleet beside him, and they crouched together on a shadowy
hillside. She was so slim, so white, so eager! She cried that he
was gay and valiant, that she would wait for him, that they would
sail -

  Rumble and bang of the milk-truck.

  Babbitt moaned; turned over; struggled back toward
his dream. He could see only her face now, beyond misty waters. The
furnace-man slammed the basement door. A dog barked in the next
yard. As Babbitt sank blissfully into a dim warm tide, the
paper-carrier went by whistling, and the rolled-up Advocate thumped
the front door. Babbitt roused, his stomach constricted with alarm.
As he relaxed, he was pierced by the familiar and irritating rattle
of some one cranking a Ford: snap-ah-ah, snap-ah-ah, snap-ah-ah.
Himself a pious motorist, Babbitt cranked with the unseen driver,
with him waited through taut hours for the roar of the starting
engine, with him agonized as the roar ceased and again began the
infernal patient snap-ah-ah - a round, flat sound, a shivering
cold-morning sound, a sound infuriating and inescapable. Not till
the rising voice of the motor told him that the Ford was moving was
he released from the panting tension. He glanced once at his
favorite tree, elm twigs against the gold patina of sky, and
fumbled for sleep as for a drug. He who had been a boy very
credulous of life was no longer greatly interested in the possible
and improbable adventures of each new day.

  He escaped from reality till the alarm-clock rang,
at seven-twenty.

  III

  It was the best of nationally advertised and
quantitatively produced alarm-clocks, with all modern attachments,
including cathedral chime, intermittent alarm, and a phosphorescent
dial. Babbitt was proud of being awakened by such a rich device.
Socially it was almost as creditable as buying expensive cord
tires.

  He sulkily admitted now that there was no more
escape, but he lay and detested the grind of the real-estate
business, and disliked his family, and disliked himself for
disliking them. The evening before, he had played poker at Vergil
Gunch's till midnight, and after such holidays he was irritable
before breakfast. It may have been the tremendous home-brewed beer
of the prohibition-era and the cigars to which that beer enticed
him; it may have been resentment of return from this fine, bold
man-world to a restricted region of wives and stenographers, and of
suggestions not to smoke so much.

  From the bedroom beside the sleeping-porch, his
wife's detestably cheerful "Time to get up, Georgie boy," and the
itchy sound, the brisk and scratchy sound, of combing hairs out of
a stiff brush.

  He grunted; he dragged his thick legs, in faded
baby-blue pajamas, from under the khaki blanket; he sat on the edge
of the cot, running his fingers through his wild hair, while his
plump feet mechanically felt for his slippers. He looked
regretfully at the blanket - forever a suggestion to him of freedom
and heroism. He had bought it for a camping trip which had never
come off. It symbolized gorgeous loafing, gorgeous cursing, virile
flannel shirts.

  He creaked to his feet, groaning at the waves of
pain which passed behind his eyeballs. Though he waited for their
scorching recurrence, he looked blurrily out at the yard. It
delighted him, as always; it was the neat yard of a successful
business man of Zenith, that is, it was perfection, and made him
also perfect. He regarded the corrugated iron garage. For the
three-hundred-and-sixty-fifth time in a year he reflected, "No
class to that tin shack. Have to build me a frame garage. But by
golly it's the only thing on the place that isn't up-to-date!"
While he stared he thought of a community garage for his acreage
development, Glen Oriole. He stopped puffing and jiggling. His arms
were akimbo. His petulant, sleep-swollen face was set in harder
lines. He suddenly seemed capable, an official, a man to contrive,
to direct, to get things done.

  On the vigor of his idea he was carried down the
hard, dean, unused-looking hall into the bathroom.

  Though the house was not large it had, like all
houses on Floral Heights, an altogether royal bathroom of porcelain
and glazed tile and metal sleek as silver. The towel-rack was a rod
of clear glass set in nickel. The tub was long enough for a
Prussian Guard, and above the set bowl was a sensational exhibit of
tooth-brush holder, shaving-brush holder, soap-dish, sponge-dish,
and medicine-cabinet, so glittering and so ingenious that they
resembled an electrical instrument-board. But the Babbitt whose god
was Modern Appliances was not pleased. The air of the bathroom was
thick with the smell of a heathen toothpaste. "Verona been at it
again! 'Stead of sticking to Lilidol, like I've re-peat-ed-ly asked
her, she's gone and gotten some confounded stinkum stuff that makes
you sick!"

  The bath-mat was wrinkled and the floor was wet.
(His daughter Verona eccentrically took baths in the morning, now
and then.) He slipped on the mat, and slid against the tub. He said
"Damn!" Furiously he snatched up his tube of shaving-cream,
furiously he lathered, with a belligerent slapping of the unctuous
brush, furiously he raked his plump cheeks with a safety-razor. It
pulled. The blade was dull. He said, "Damn - oh - oh - damn
it!"

  He hunted through the medicine-cabinet for a packet
of new razor-blades (reflecting, as invariably, "Be cheaper to buy
one of these dinguses and strop your own blades,") and when he
discovered the packet, behind the round box of bicarbonate of soda,
he thought ill of his wife for putting it there and very well of
himself for not saying "Damn." But he did say it, immediately
afterward, when with wet and soap-slippery fingers he tried to
remove the horrible little envelope and crisp clinging oiled paper
from the new blade. Then there was the problem, oft-pondered, never
solved, of what to do with the old blade, which might imperil the
fingers of his young. As usual, he tossed it on top of the
medicine-cabinet, with a mental note that some day he must remove
the fifty or sixty other blades that were also temporarily, piled
up there. He finished his shaving in a growing testiness increased
by his spinning headache and by the emptiness in his stomach. When
he was done, his round face smooth and streamy and his eyes
stinging from soapy water, he reached for a towel. The family
towels were wet, wet and clammy and vile, all of them wet, he
found, as he blindly snatched them - his own face-towel, his
wife's, Verona's, Ted's, Tinka's, and the lone bath-towel with the
huge welt of initial. Then George F. Babbitt did a dismaying thing.
He wiped his face on the guest-towel! It was a pansy-embroidered
trifle which always hung there to indicate that the Babbitts were
in the best Floral Heights society. No one had ever used it. No
guest had ever dared to. Guests secretively took a corner of the
nearest regular towel.

  He was raging, "By golly, here they go and use up
all the towels, every doggone one of 'em, and they use 'em and get
'em all wet and sopping, and never put out a dry one for me - of
course, I'm the goat! - and then I want one and - I'm the only
person in the doggone house that's got the slightest doggone bit of
consideration for other people and thoughtfulness and consider
there may be others that may want to use the doggone bathroom after
me and consider - "

  He was pitching the chill abominations into the
bath-tub, pleased by the vindictiveness of that desolate flapping
sound; and in the midst his wife serenely trotted in, observed
serenely, "Why Georgie dear, what are you doing? Are you going to
wash out the towels? Why, you needn't wash out the towels. Oh,
Georgie, you didn't go and use the guest-towel, did you?"

  It is not recorded that he was able to answer.

  For the first time in weeks he was sufficiently
roused by his wife to look at her.

  IV

  Myra Babbitt - Mrs. George F. Babbitt - was
definitely mature. She had creases from the corners of her mouth to
the bottom of her chin, and her plump neck bagged. But the thing
that marked her as having passed the line was that she no longer
had reticences before her husband, and no longer worried about not
having reticences. She was in a petticoat now, and corsets which
bulged, and unaware of being seen in bulgy corsets. She had become
so dully habituated to married life that in her full matronliness
she was as sexless as an anemic nun. She was a good woman, a kind
woman, a diligent woman, but no one, save perhaps Tinka her
ten-year-old, was at all interested in her or entirely aware that
she was alive.

  After a rather thorough discussion of all the
domestic and social aspects of towels she apologized to Babbitt for
his having an alcoholic headache; and he recovered enough to endure
the search for a B.V.D. undershirt which had, he pointed out,
malevolently been concealed among his clean pajamas.

BOOK: Babbit
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