"Gosh all fishhooks!" Ted wailed to Eunice, as they wolfed hot chocolate, lumps of nougat, and an assortment of glace nuts, in the mosaic splendor of the Royal Drug Store, "it gets me why Dad doesn't just pass out from being so poky. Every evening he sits there, about half-asleep, and if Rone or I say, 'Oh, come on, let's do something,' he doesn't even take the trouble to think about it. He just yawns and says, 'Naw, this suits me right here.' He doesn't know there's any fun going on anywhere. I suppose he must do some thinking, same as you and I do, but gosh, there's no way of telling it. I don't believe that outside of the office and playing a little bum golf on Saturday he knows there's anything in the world to do except just keep sitting there-sitting there every night — not wanting to go anywhere — not wanting to do anything — thinking us kids are crazy — sitting there — Lord!"
If he was frightened by Ted's slackness, Babbitt was not sufficiently frightened by Verona. She was too safe. She lived too much in the neat little airless room of her mind. Kenneth Escott and she were always under foot. When they were not at home, conducting their cautiously radical courtship over sheets of statistics, they were trudging off to lectures by authors and Hindu philosophers and Swedish lieutenants.
"Gosh," Babbitt wailed to his wife, as they walked home from the Fogartys' bridge-party, "it gets me how Rone and that fellow can be so poky. They sit there night after night, whenever he isn't working, and they don't know there's any fun in the world. All talk and discussion — Lord! Sitting there — sitting there — night after night — not wanting to do anything — thinking I'm crazy because I like to go out and play a fist of cards — sitting there — gosh!"
Then round the swimmer, bored by struggling through the perpetual surf of family life, new combers swelled.
Babbitt's father- and mother-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Henry T. Thompson, rented their old house in the Bellevue district and moved to the Hotel Hatton, that glorified boarding-house filled with widows, red-plush furniture, and the sound of ice-water pitchers. They were lonely there, and every other Sunday evening the Babbitts had to dine with them, on fricasseed chicken, discouraged celery, and cornstarch ice cream, and afterward sit, polite and restrained, in the hotel lounge, while a young woman violinist played songs from the German via Broadway.
Then Babbitt's own mother came down from Catawba to spend three weeks.
She was a kind woman and magnificently uncomprehending. She congratulated the convention-defying Verona on being a "nice, loyal home-body without all these Ideas that so many girls seem to have nowadays;" and when Ted filled the differential with grease, out of pure love of mechanics and filthiness, she rejoiced that he was "so handy around the house — and helping his father and all, and not going out with the girls all the time and trying to pretend he was a society fellow."
Babbitt loved his mother, and sometimes he rather liked her, but he was annoyed by her Christian Patience, and he was reduced to pulpiness when she discoursed about a quite mythical hero called "Your Father":
"You won't remember it, Georgie, you were such a little fellow at the time — my, I remember just how you looked that day, with your goldy brown curls and your lace collar, you always were such a dainty child, and kind of puny and sickly, and you loved pretty things so much and the red tassels on your little bootees and all — and Your Father was taking us to church and a man stopped us and said 'Major' — so many of the neighbors used to call Your Father 'Major;' of course he was only a private in The War but everybody knew that was because of the jealousy of his captain and he ought to have been a high-ranking officer, he had that natural ability to command that so very, very few men have — and this man came out into the road and held up his hand and stopped the buggy and said, 'Major,' he said, 'there's a lot of the folks around here that have decided to support Colonel Scanell for congress, and we want you to join us. Meeting people the way you do in the store, you could help us a lot.'
"Well, Your Father just looked at him and said, 'I certainly shall do nothing of the sort. I don't like his politics,' he said. Well, the man — Captain Smith they used to call him, and heaven only knows why, because he hadn't the shadow or vestige of a right to be called 'Captain' or any other title — this Captain Smith said, 'We'll make it hot for you if you don't stick by your friends, Major.' Well, you know how Your Father was, and this Smith knew it too; he knew what a Real Man he was, and he knew Your Father knew the political situation from A to Z, and he ought to have seen that here was one man he couldn't impose on, but he went on trying to and hinting and trying till Your Father spoke up and said to him, 'Captain Smith,' he said, 'I have a reputation around these parts for being one who is amply qualified to mind his own business and let other folks mind theirs!' and with that he drove on and left the fellow standing there in the road like a bump on a log!"
Babbitt was most exasperated when she revealed his boyhood to the children. He had, it seemed, been fond of barley-sugar; had worn the "loveliest little pink bow in his curls" and corrupted his own name to "Goo-goo." He heard (though he did not officially hear) Ted admonishing Tinka, "Come on now, kid; stick the lovely pink bow in your curls and beat it down to breakfast, or Goo-goo will jaw your head off."
Babbitt's half-brother, Martin, with his wife and youngest baby, came down from Catawba for two days. Martin bred cattle and ran the dusty general-store. He was proud of being a freeborn independent American of the good old Yankee stock; he was proud of being honest, blunt, ugly, and disagreeable. His favorite remark was "How much did you pay for that?" He regarded Verona's books, Babbitt's silver pencil, and flowers on the table as citified extravagances, and said so. Babbitt would have quarreled with him but for his gawky wife and the baby, whom Babbitt teased and poked fingers at and addressed:
"I think this baby's a bum, yes, sir, I think this little baby's a bum, he's a bum, yes, sir, he's a bum, that's what he is, he's a bum, this baby's a bum, he's nothing but an old bum, that's what he is — a bum!"
All the while Verona and Kenneth Escott held long inquiries into epistemology; Ted was a disgraced rebel; and Tinka, aged eleven, was demanding that she be allowed to go to the movies thrice a week, "like all the girls."
Babbitt raged, "I'm sick of it! Having to carry three generations. Whole damn bunch lean on me. Pay half of mother's income, listen to Henry T., listen to Myra's worrying, be polite to Mart, and get called an old grouch for trying to help the children. All of 'em depending on me and picking on me and not a damn one of 'em grateful! No relief, and no credit, and no help from anybody. And to keep it up for — good Lord, how long?"
He enjoyed being sick in February; he was delighted by their consternation that he, the rock, should give way.
He had eaten a questionable clam. For two days he was languorous and petted and esteemed. He was allowed to snarl "Oh, let me alone!" without reprisals. He lay on the sleeping-porch and watched the winter sun slide along the taut curtains, turning their ruddy khaki to pale blood red. The shadow of the draw-rope was dense black, in an enticing ripple on the canvas. He found pleasure in the curve of it, sighed as the fading light blurred it. He was conscious of life, and a little sad. With no Vergil Gunches before whom to set his face in resolute optimism, he beheld, and half admitted that he beheld, his way of life as incredibly mechanical. Mechanical business — a brisk selling of badly built houses. Mechanical religion — a dry, hard church, shut off from the real life of the streets, inhumanly respectable as a top-hat. Mechanical golf and dinner-parties and bridge and conversation. Save with Paul Riesling, mechanical friendships — back-slapping and jocular, never daring to essay the test of quietness.
He turned uneasily in bed.
He saw the years, the brilliant winter days and all the long sweet afternoons which were meant for summery meadows, lost in such brittle pretentiousness. He thought of telephoning about leases, of cajoling men he hated, of making business calls and waiting in dirty anterooms — hat on knee, yawning at fly-specked calendars, being polite to office-boys.
"I don't hardly want to go back to work," he prayed. "I'd like to — I don't know."
But he was back next day, busy and of doubtful temper.