"Well, all right, but — " Babbitt was still pathetic at not being allowed to play Secret Agent. Paul soothed:
"Course maybe you might tell her you'd been in Akron and seen me there."
"Why, sure, you bet! Don't I have to go look at that candy-store property in Akron? Don't I? Ain't it a shame I have to stop off there when I'm so anxious to get home? Ain't it a regular shame? I'll say it is! I'll say it's a doggone shame!"
"Fine. But for glory hallelujah's sake don't go putting any fancy fixings on the story. When men lie they always try to make it too artistic, and that's why women get suspicious. And — Let's have a drink, Georgie. I've got some gin and a little vermouth."
The Paul who normally refused a second cocktail took a second now, and a third. He became red-eyed and thick-tongued. He was embarrassingly jocular and salacious.
In the taxicab Babbitt incredulously found tears crowding into his eyes.
He had not told Paul of his plan but he did stop at Akron, between trains, for the one purpose of sending to Zilla a postcard with "Had to come here for the day, ran into Paul." In Zenith he called on her. If for public appearances Zilla was over-coiffed, over-painted, and resolutely corseted, for private misery she wore a filthy blue dressing-gown and torn stockings thrust into streaky pink satin mules. Her face was sunken. She seemed to have but half as much hair as Babbitt remembered, and that half was stringy. She sat in a rocker amid a debris of candy-boxes and cheap magazines, and she sounded dolorous when she did not sound derisive. But Babbitt was exceedingly breezy:
"Well, well, Zil, old dear, having a good loaf while hubby's away? That's the ideal I'll bet a hat Myra never got up till ten, while I was in Chicago. Say, could I borrow your thermos — just dropped in to see if I could borrow your thermos bottle. We're going to have a toboggan party — want to take some coffee mit. Oh, did you get my card from Akron, saying I'd run into Paul?"
"Yes. What was he doing?"
"How do you mean?" He unbuttoned his overcoat, sat tentatively on the arm of a chair.
"You know how I mean!" She slapped the pages of a magazine with an irritable clatter. "I suppose he was trying to make love to some hotel waitress or manicure girl or somebody."
"Hang it, you're always letting on that Paul goes round chasing skirts. He doesn't, in the first place, and if he did, it would prob'ly be because you keep hinting at him and dinging at him so much. I hadn't meant to, Zilla, but since Paul is away, in Akron — "
"He really is in Akron? I know he has some horrible woman that he writes to in Chicago."
"Didn't I tell you I saw him in Akron? What 're you trying to do? Make me out a liar?"
"No, but I just — I get so worried."
"Now, there you are! That's what gets me! Here you love Paul, and yet you plague him and cuss him out as if you hated him. I simply can't understand why it is that the more some folks love people, the harder they try to make 'em miserable."
"You love Ted and Rone — I suppose — and yet you nag them."
"Oh. Well. That. That's different. Besides, I don't nag 'em. Not what you'd call nagging. But zize saying: Now, here's Paul, the nicest, most sensitive critter on God's green earth. You ought to be ashamed of yourself the way you pan him. Why, you talk to him like a washerwoman. I'm surprised you can act so doggone common, Zilla!"
She brooded over her linked fingers. "Oh, I know. I do go and get mean sometimes, and I'm sorry afterwards. But, oh, Georgie, Paul is so aggravating! Honestly, I've tried awfully hard, these last few years, to be nice to him, but just because I used to be spiteful — or I seemed so; I wasn't, really, but I used to speak up and say anything that came into my head — and so he made up his mind that everything was my fault. Everything can't always be my fault, can it? And now if I get to fussing, he just turns silent, oh, so dreadfully silent, and he won't look at me — he just ignores me. He simply isn't human! And he deliberately keeps it up till I bust out and say a lot of things I don't mean. So silent — Oh, you righteous men! How wicked you are! How rotten wicked!"
They thrashed things over and over for half an hour. At the end, weeping drably, Zilla promised to restrain herself.
Paul returned four days later, and the Babbitts and Rieslings went festively to the movies and had chop suey at a Chinese restaurant. As they walked to the restaurant through a street of tailor shops and barber shops, the two wives in front, chattering about cooks, Babbitt murmured to Paul, "Zil seems a lot nicer now."
"Yes, she has been, except once or twice. But it's too late now. I just — I'm not going to discuss it, but I'm afraid of her. There's nothing left. I don't ever want to see her. Some day I'm going to break away from her. Somehow."