Bright Flows the River, page 23
Then Guy had a thought. “Perhaps that’s his home number, not his office’s,” and he ran to the telephone on the wall. He called the operator and said, “I have tried to call Mr. John Prentice at this number and there was no answer at his house. Could you give me his office number?” This came within a minute or two, and Guy smiled grimly to himself. There must be a reason for letting him know the house number but not the office. Guy looked at his watch again. It was nine. He called the new number and a girl’s, affectedly singing voice answered: “Prentice and Grace Building Company.” Guy gently hung up and his harsh smile deepened. So, Mr. John Prentice had thought him a stupid laborer, a farmer, incapable of thinking and conjecturing, a bird ready for the killing. He went out to look at his car. He would have to chance the long drive to Pittsburgh in it, as the next train was not until six that evening and he had no time to waste. With care he would arrive, by car, about one. Sal had followed him out, full of eager questions, but he said, abruptly, “Wait until I get home, Sal, with something to tell you.” He got into the car and hurried off and Sal watched him go, fuming.
He had been in Pittsburgh only once in his life, as a child, a very young child. He could not remember the occasion too clearly or the reason for the brief visit. He only recalled it had been with both of his parents. Come to think of it, he thought, I haven’t been out of Cranston for over three years; I’ve been stagnating, not living. He ran the car as prudently and as fast as he could. The miles poured under the wheels and his thoughts were fiercely concentrated. He kept glancing at his watch after he had reached the Turnpike, which was crowded at this time of the day. The elderly heater in the car did very little to lift the chill in the car, yet he sweated with urgent haste. He tried to recall everything he had heard of the Chandler Development Company and Mr. Howard Chandler, president. He remembered reading an article about Mr. Chandler a year or so ago, in which it was noted that his company was “the largest in the Commonwealth.”
All at once he was elated, feeling a new and stronger excitement, a surge of power and jubilant satisfaction. His past life seemed to him to have become insignificant, worthless, a waste, and the earlier abhorrence he had felt for his young existence—even the war—and the contempt for all those he had known, quickened, became an actual loathing. It appeared to him that he had been deliberately frustrated, thwarted, misled, and a great rage came to him against those who had so belittled his life and who had tried to make him dwell in their own wretched house and accept their limited philosophy. Pa, he thought, you never really felt the “pale passionate land of the soul,” as you had called it. All your thoughts were secondhand; all your words the words of greater men who would have scorned the manner in which you lived. Why did you try to make me as savorless as yourself? Spiritless, as accepting? He forgot that Tom had repeatedly told him “it’s your life, kiddo, and it’s always your choice.” His resentment made his very mouth bitter and his gorge forced his heart to a hard beat. His new and desperate determination not to be as his father had been, and not live as his father had lived, had become a bellicose anger. Tom was no longer the beloved father but a feckless enemy who had almost destroyed his son. He had wished to squeeze the juices of life from his son and make him as inert as himself, reading and talking his years away to nothingness, and a handful of ashes.
Twenty miles away from Pittsburgh he came to the sign he had expected: “Chandlertown, 3 miles,” and he left at the next exit, turning off the Turnpike into a broad two-way road. He had stopped only for gasoline and a sandwich, and his elation made him feel both confident and powerful. He drove slowly, looking about him at the freshening fields of April. It had been raining but now a wan sun flooded the countryside. Within a few minutes he encountered, in the midst of the quiet country, two enormous pillars of brick, a suggestion of an iron gate, and a huge sign impressively proclaiming: “Chandlertown! You are now entering a modern experiment in gracious living!”
Guy entered through the gates to the right and found himself on a narrower and curving road. The ground had been turned into new lawns and young trees; redbud and maple and willow lined both sides of the road. It was a pleasant introduction to the “experiment in gracious living,” if not very expensive, considering the small size of the plantings. Then the grassy areas suddenly turned into little plots and he was entering the new town itself, all the streets curving unnecessarily but with aplomb. He saw the first houses. He drove down all the many created streets, and he drove slowly, watching.
All the houses were almost exactly alike, very small on narrow and unceremonious lawns, all with a single central door, all with factory-cut windows and wooden siding and brown shingled roofs, and all, without exception, having one single lower window of broad plate glass dimly gleaming in the sun. On the second story there were three tiny windows. Not one house differed from another except for the color of the clapboards—white, green, gray, pinkish—and the color of the central door, where imagination, however raw, had been responsible for a bright red or a brilliant yellow or a glittering black. Even the meager shrubbery about each little house was the exact replica of the shrubbery surrounding all the other houses. Trees, as young as those near the gates, stood on the infinitesimal lawns, still leafless, still suggesting they had been born of one seed, duplicates of each other. All the peaked roofs of the houses rose not one millimeter above the other roofs, so that, against the uncertain sky of April, they gave a serrated impression, like rows upon rows of giant wooden teeth seeking to chew the drifting clouds. And in every “picture window” was an identical white ruffled lamp on a table, and every door had an iron knocker, a concrete step, and a white-painted suggestion of an iron railing.
To Guy, with his new and sensitive perception, it was a most dismal and soul-stifling sight, despite the curving streets, despite the central attraction of various shops and markets, despite a small moving-picture theater, two churches, and a school. The streets were very quiet and echoingly still, for the men were at work, the children in classrooms. The only activity, and that as yet desultory, was around the “Market Plaza,” as it was called, and here were women old and young, with baby carriages or with grocery bags, coming and going, chattering in the windy desolation of this experiment in gracious living. To Guy, this was far more depressing than any slum in Cranston, far more lifeless, with far less zest. The very cleanliness and sterile uniformity of Chandlertown enhanced the littleness, the meaninglessness, of the faceless people who lived here and had their blank being. It was true the streets were quite broad, but this merely increased the atmosphere of desolation, of the essential torpidity of the human beings who lived in those houses, the essential uselessness. The faces of the women reflected their vacuity, their lack of unique variety, their simple stupidity, their undifferentiated minds and existences.
Guy hated them. They were part of the colorless new world which was spreading all over the earth like a single drab fungus, like a grayish desert. He had seen the dreadful “Council” houses of England, built by the fervor of Socialist social planners who were hardly more intelligent than the inhabitants of the houses, and hardly more imaginative. The blight of government programs was not responsible for this horror which was Chandlertown; it had been done, Guy thought, with benevolent malice, if that was not a contradiction in terms, or by private minds as gross and little as the people imprisoned in this wilderness.
Once this had been pastureland and meadows, bright running streams, birds and animals and great trees, barns and silos and farmhouses. Now it was an overgrown toy village made of the cheapest and most synthetic of materials. Tom had said, only a year ago, “Uniformity and conformity are the new religion in this world, and soon it will be political blasphemy to challenge or denounce it, and will bring its own penalties. The most inferior minds will soon dominate our lives, for they are in the majority, and this time there will be no Renaissance, no upspurt and bursting of vital intellectual growth. The masses are going to do us in, for they are now the sacred cows of t
Guy continued to circle the streets, growing more despondent and coldly angry by the instant. A little more money would have made these houses distinctive; a respect for the bulldozed mighty trees would have preserved shady oases in the midst of this prim monotony. This was not a town at all; it was an extension of a factory. By the time the spindly saplings were large trees themselves, this would be a slum, however gaudy it now appeared. There was nothing worse or more deadening than a rural slum. Eighteen thousand dollars for these potential hovels! Guy began to feel a dim pity for the inhabitants. Surely, among this mass, there were born, or were being born, a few original minds, a few souls aware of true beauty. But they would be beaten into uniformity here, unless they escaped, which, if Tom’s predictions had been correct, they would have no opportunity to do. Guy began to sense, as Tom had sensed, a malignant universal conspiracy to reduce the world of men to docile slaves in an environment conducive to assent, and only to assent. Fascistic Communism. A neat zoo, and as unnatural. Guy felt he was smothering, and a new resolve came to him: He would never sell his land to become another Chandlertown.
He went to the city. It was now half past three and he found his way to the offices of Prentice & Grace Building Company, in an agreeable suburb where the houses were at least different from each other, if small and compact. The offices were of new white brick and impressive, mostly all-glass windows and steel, and only one story high, a design which Guy found depressing, including the welter of glass and metal outside. He entered a large room of brown and beige and yellow, very “modern,” with a young lady seated at an ultramodern desk inundated, it seemed, by many tropical plants. If the decor had been intended to be warm and attractive it had the opposite effect on Guy, for he believed that an office should be strictly functional and utilitarian. The young lady glanced up, and Guy was reminded of a pretty pink pig dressed in a brown suit; even her hair was pinkish. Her pale eyes scrutinized Guy swiftly, and what she saw, apparently did not please her. The little jowly face became distant, as she inquired what she could “do” for him.
“If you are looking for a job,” she said, in a voice that unpleasantly reminded him of a squeal, “we’re not hiring again until the end of April.”
He said, “I should like to see Mr. Prentice.”
She regarded him with severe arrogance, and Guy thought of Tom’s frequent quotation, “a little brief authority.” (“The most presumptuous and insignificant of people are the most haughty and important,” he had often said, “and you’ll find this type in every bureaucracy in full force.” Guy found it here now.) The girl said, “Do you have an appointment?”
The disfavor on her piglike face increased. “Then I’m afraid you will have to call for one, or write. Mr. Prentice is very busy; he sees—people—only by appointment.”
Tom would have laughed at her, for the silly pretensions of the obscure had aroused both his amusement and his compassion. But there was much of Mary in her son and he felt rage and a desire to strike that swinish little face, now flushed with malicious triumph. He thrust his hands into his coat pockets to keep from hitting her. He could see, as Mary would have said, that the girl was “low class.” His hand encountered the crumpled letter he had received that morning from John Prentice. He took it out; if further enraged him to see that his fingers were trembling. He smoothed the letter and asked the girl for a pencil. She lifted her head higher. “I am afraid—”
“Give me a pencil,” he said, and his voice was so pent that she was startled. She pushed a pen across the desk to him, and on the reverse of the letter he wrote: “Sorry you could not see me, as I came especially to Cranston today in response to your letter. Tomorrow, I will go to see Howard Chandler, who will receive me more courteously, I’m sure. Your girl even refused to tell you that I was here.” He signed his name and threw the letter at the young lady, who, for a moment or two, regarded it as if it were an obscene object. Then Guy went to the door, opened it, and walked out onto the street, slowly.
He was not at all surprised to hear running feet behind him and a squealing breathless voice calling him. He turned deliberately. The girl, coatless in the cold air, was panting after him, the pink drained from her face. “I’m sorry, sorry!” she cried. “Please come back! I’m sure Mr. Prentice will see you immediately.” She caught his arm and clutched it and the pale staring eyes were full of tears and fright. “I’ll lose my job,” she wailed.
“Good,” he said, and tried to extricate his arm. People passing stopped to gape at this curious little scene. The girl clung to him tighter. “Please, please,” she implored.
It was not pity or relenting that made him turn and stride ahead of her back to the building. It was his sudden realization that he could not afford the grand gesture, much as it would satisfy him. Then he was disgusted that he had let this miserable creature see his anger; in this manner he had demeaned himself. He walked faster. He could not help opening the door vigorously and then slamming it in her panting face. But he knew, instinctively, that had he shown her forgiving kindness and had smiled at her, she would have despised him, and he never intended to be despised again as he had been in the Army, where he had encountered many such.
The girl followed him inside, smoothing her wind-torn hair. She kept muttering, “I’m sorry, sorry, I didn’t know, you didn’t show me the letter first—”
“Shut up and tell Mr. Prentice I am here.”
He did not know for a long time afterwards that he was the subject of a discreet telephone call from a friend of John Prentice’s in Cranston, a friend from the bank. “He hasn’t called us, though we’ve been trying to wait him out. I have my suspicions the Chandler people are making him a better offer.” This agitated Mr. Prentice very much, and he was just beginning a devil’s tattoo on his desk when his receptionist burst into the office in a state of disarray, holding out his letter to him, and stammering, “I didn’t know—he didn’t say who he was, he didn’t show me your letter—he didn’t say anything—and you don’t want to be disturbed—”
Mr. Prentice took his letter, read the reverse, and swore. “Ethel, you sent him away?”
“No. No, he came back.” Mr. Prentice looked at her venomously. “Send him in. And I’ll talk to you later, Ethel.”
Trembling and beaten, she went out.
Guy entered at once. Mr. Prentice, who was a most cautious and wary man, did not rise. He sat behind his desk imposingly, though he was a short thin man of very unimposing stature, with a crafty fleshless face and a ruddy complexion, and short dark hair, and a mouth that could smile only sourly. His brown eyes, however, were sharp and shrewd and merciless, and never smiled at all. His dark blue suit and blue tie did nothing very much to make his appearance more genial. He said at once, “Mr. Jerald?”
“Yes.” Guy stood before him and the two men looked at each other and Mr. Prentice saw in those black eyes the cold implacable iron which only two men had seen before—the two Russian soldiers Guy had killed one murky quiet night in Berlin, in revenge for Marlene.
Mr. Prentice was startled. This was not the foot-shuffling ignorant farmer or mill hand he had been led to believe. But he recovered himself at once. He stood up and said, “Please sit down, Mr. Jerald.”
Guy sat down in a chair which faced the desk. Here, too, was all brown and beige and yellow, and Guy found it more distasteful by the minute. He also had taken a great dislike to Mr. Prentice. He also disliked the abstract engravings on the
Mr Prentice tried for an amiable smile and failed. He said, “As you know, I want to buy your farm—for my own private purposes.”
“Not to build on it?”
“Why, no. Why should you think that?”
“You’re in the business, aren’t you?”
“I also buy land—again—for my own private purposes.”
Guy smiled. Mr. Prentice studied him more closely. Guy said, “Nine hundred acres, the biggest parcel of land near Cranston? Are you going to raise racehorses, Mr. Prentice?”
The other man was so disturbed that he almost said, “Yes.” He clasped his hands on his desk. A jeweled ring winked at Guy. “I don’t think, Mr. Jerald, that in this transaction I need to explain what I intend to do with the land.”
“That is, if you get it.”
Mr. Prentice shrugged as if he were completely indifferent. Before he could speak again Guy said, “You bought the Geiger farm, and it’s completely landlocked. The only way you can get to the road is by way of a dirt road my father partially built. I can close it off, and you’d have a hell of a time getting an easement to the public road.”
John Prentice only respected and appreciated men as alert as himself. He began to feel a faint respect and appreciation for Guy, though he did not show it. He said, “I don’t know about that.”
Guy nodded. “I do. The farms which surround my land are owned by very conservative farmers, who don’t like housing developments. And they would seriously object to having their own taxes raised because of any such development. My next neighbor is a brother of the mayor of Cranston.” He gave Mr. Prentice a very sweet smile.