February in Salinas is likely to be damp and cold and full of miseries. The heaviest rains fall then, and if the river is going to rise, it rises then. February of 1915 was a year heavy with water.
The Trasks were well established in Salinas. Lee, once he had given up his brackish
made a new kind of place for himself in the house beside Reynaud’s Bakery. On the ranch his possessions had never really been unpacked,
for Lee had lived poised to go someplace else. Here, for the first time in his life, he built a home for himself, feathered with
The large bedroom
nearest the street door fell to him. Lee dipped into his savings. He had never before spent a needless penny, since all
money had been
earmarked for his bookstore. But now he bought a little hard bed and a desk. He built
bookshelves and unpacked his books, invested in a soft rug and tacked prints on the walls. He placed a deep and comfortable “Morris chair under the best reading lamp he could find. And last he bought a typewriter and set about learning to use it.
Having broken out of his own Spartanism, he remade the Trask household, and Adam
gave him no
opposition. A gas stove came into the house and electric wires and a telephone. He spent
remorselessly—new furniture, new carpets, a gas water-heater, and a large icebox. In a short time there was hardly a house in Salinas so
defended himself to Adam, saying, “You have plenty of money. It would be a shame not to enjoy it.”
“I’m not complaining,” Adam protested. “Only I’d like to buy something too. What shall I buy?”
“Why don’t you go to Logan’s music store and listen to one of the new phonographs?”
“I think I’ll do that,”
said Adam. And he bought a Victor victrola, a tall Gothic instrument, and he went regularly to see what new records had come in.
The growing century
was shucking Adam out of his shell. He subscribed to the Atlantic Monthly and the National
He joined the Masons and
seriously considered the Elks. The new icebox fascinated him. He bought a textbook on refrigeration and began to study it.
The truth was that Adam
needed work. He came out of his long sleep needing to do something.
“I think I’ll go into business,” he said to Lee. “You don’t need to. You have enough to live on.” “But I’d like to be doing something.”
“That’s different,” said
Lee. “Know what you want to do? I don’t think you’d be very good at business.”
“Just a thought,” said Lee.
“Say, Lee, I want you to
read an article. It says they’ve dug up a mastodon in Siberia. Been in the ice thousands of years. And the meat’s still good.”
Lee smiled at him. “You’ve got a bug in your
bonnet somewhere,” he said. “What have you got in all of those little cups in the icebox?”
“Different things.” “Is that the business?
Some of the cups smell bad.” “It’s an idea,” Adam
said. “I can’t seem to stay away from it. I just can’t seem to get over the idea that you can keep things if you get them cold enough.”
“Let’s not have any mastodon
meat in our
icebox,” said Lee.
If Adam had conceived
thousands of ideas, the way Sam Hamilton had, they might all have drifted away, but he had only the one. The frozen mastodon stayed in his mind. His little cups of fruit, of pudding, of bits of meat, both
cooked and raw,
continued in the icebox. He bought every available book on
bacteria and began
sending for magazines that printed articles of a mildly scientific nature. And as is usually true of a man of one idea, he became obsessed.
Salinas had a small ice company,
not large but
enough to supply the few houses with iceboxes and to service the ice-cream parlors. The horse-drawn ice wagon went its route every day.
Adam began to visit the
ice plant, and pretty soon he was taking his little cups to the freezing chambers. He wished with all his heart that Sam Hamilton were alive to discuss cold with him. Sam would have covered the field very quickly, he thought.
Adam was walking back from the ice plant one rainy afternoon,
Sam Hamilton, when he saw Will Hamilton go into the Abbot
followed him and leaned against the bar beside him. “Why don’t you come up and have some supper with us?” “I’d like to,” Will said.
“I’ll tell you what—I’ve got a deal I’m trying to put through. If I get finished in time I’ll walk by. Is there something important?” “Well, I don’t know.
I’ve been doing
thinking and I’d like to ask your advice.”
Nearly every business proposition in the county came sooner or later to Will Hamilton’s
might have excused himself if he had not remembered that Adam was a rich man. An idea was one thing, but backed up with cash it was quite another. “You wouldn’t entertain a reasonable offer for your ranch, would you?” he asked.
“Well, the boys,
particularly Cal, they like the
place. I think I’ll hang on to it.”
“I think I can turn it over for you.”
“No, it’s rented, paying
its own taxes. I’ll hold on to it.”
“If I can’t get in for supper I might be able to come in afterward,” said Will.
Will Hamilton was a
very substantial businessman. No one knew exactly how many pies his thumb had explored, but it was known that he was a clever and comparatively rich man. His
business deal had been nonexistent. It was a part of his policy always to be busy and
He had supper alone in
the Abbot House. After a considered time he walked around the corner on Central Avenue and rang the bell of Adam Trask’s house.
The boys had gone to
bed. Lee sat with a darning basket, mending the long black stockings the twins wore to school. Adam had been reading the Scientific American. He let Will in and placed a chair for him. Lee brought a pot of coffee and went back to his mending.
Will settled himself into
a chair, took out a fat black cigar, and lighted up. He waited for Adam to open the game.
“Nice weather for a change. And how’s your
mother?” Adam said. “Just
younger every day. The boys must be growing up.”
“Oh, they are. Cal’s
going to be in his school play. He’s quite an actor. Aron’s a real good student. Cal wants to go to farming.”
“Nothing wrong with
that if you go about it right. Country could use some forward-looking
Will waited uneasily. He wondered if it could be that Adam’s
exaggerated. Could Adam be
getting ready to borrow money? Will quickly worked out how much he would lend on the Trask ranch and how much he could borrow on it. The figures were not the same, nor was the interest rate. And still Adam did not come up with his proposition. Will grew restless. “I can’t stay very long,” he said. “Told a fellow I’d meet him later tonight.”
“Have another cup of coffee,” Adam suggested. “No, thanks. Keeps me awake.
Did you have
something you wanted to see me about?”
Adam said, “I was thinking about your father
and I thought I’d like to talk to a Hamilton.”
Will relaxed a little in
his chair. “He was a great old talker.”
“Somehow he made a
man better than he was,” said Adam.
Lee looked up from his darning egg. “Perhaps the best conversationalist in the world is the man who helps others to talk.”
Will said, “You know, it sounds funny to hear you use all those two-bit words. I’d swear to God you used to talk pidgin.”
“I used to,” said Lee. “It was vanity, I guess.” He
smiled at Adam and said to Will, “Did you hear that somewhere up in Siberia they dug a mastodon out of the ice? It had been there a hundred thousand years and the meat was still fresh.” “Mastodon?”
“Yes, a kind of elephant
that hasn’t lived on the earth for a long time.”
“Meat was still fresh?” “Sweet as a pork chop,” said Lee. He shoved the wooden
egg into the
shattered-knee of a black stocking.
interesting,” said Will.
Adam laughed. “Lee
hasn’t wiped my nose yet, but that will come,” he said. “I guess I’m pretty roundabout. The whole thing comes up because I’m tired of just sitting around. I want to get something to take up my time.”
“Why don’t you farm your place?”
interest me. You see, Will, I’m not like a man looking for a job. I’m looking for work. I don’t need a job.” Will came out of his cautiousness. “Well, what can I do for you?”
“I thought I’d tell you an idea I had, and you might give me an opinion. You’re a businessman.”
“Of course,” said Will. “Anything I can do.” “I’ve been looking into
refrigeration,” said Adam. “I got an idea and I can’t get rid of it. I go to sleep and it comes right back at me.
Never had anything give me so much trouble. It’s a kind of a big idea. Maybe it’s full of holes.”
Will uncrossed his legs
and pulled at his pants where they were binding him. “Go ahead—shoot,” he said. “Like a cigar?”
Adam didn’t hear the offer, nor did he know the
country’s changing,” Adam said. “People aren’t going to live the way they used to. Do you know where the biggest market for oranges in the winter is?”
“New York City. I read
that. Now in the cold parts of the country, don’t you think people
wanting perishable things
winter—like peas and lettuce
and cauliflower? In a big part of the country they don’t have those things for months and months. And right here in the Salinas Valley we can raise them all the year around.” “Right here isn’t right
there,” said Will. “What’s your idea?”
“Well, Lee made me get
a big icebox, and I got kind of interested. I put different kinds of vegetables in there.
And I got to arranging them different ways. You know, Will, if you chop ice fine and lay a head of lettuce in it and wrap it in waxed paper, it will keep three weeks and come out fresh and good.”
“Go on,” said Will cautiously.
“Well, you know the
railroads built those fruit cars. I went down and had a look at them. They’re pretty good.
Do you know we could ship lettuce right to the east coast in the middle of winter?”
Will asked, “Where do you come in?”
was thinking of
buying the ice plant here in Salinas and trying to ship some things.”
“That would cost a lot of money.”
“I have quite a lot of money,” said Adam.
Will Hamilton putted his lip angrily. “I don’t know
why I got into this,” he said. “I know better.”
“How do you mean?” “Look here,” said Will. “When a man comes to me for advice about an idea, I
know he doesn’t want advice. He wants me to agree with him. And if I want to keep his friendship I tell him his idea is fine and go ahead. But I like you and you’re a friend of my family, so I’m going to stick my neck out.”
Lee put down his
darning, moved his sewing basket to the floor, and changed his glasses.
“What are you getting upset about?”
“I come from a whole goddam family of inventors,” said Will. “We had ideas for breakfast. We had ideas instead of breakfast. We had so many ideas we forgot to make
the money for
groceries. When we got a little ahead my father, or Tom, patented something. I’m the only one in the family, except my mother, who didn’t have ideas, and I’m the only one who ever made a dime. Tom had ideas about helping people, and
some of it was pretty darn near socialism. And if you tell me you don’t care about making a profit, I’m going to throw that coffee pot right at your head.”
“Well, I don’t care much.”
“You stop right there, Adam. I’ve got my neck out. If you want to drop forty or fifty thousand dollars quick,
you just go on with your idea. But I’m telling you—let your damned idea die. Kick dust over it.”
“What’s wrong with it?” “Everything’s
with it. People in the East aren’t used to vegetables in the winter. They wouldn’t
buy them. You get your cars stuck on a siding and you’ll lose the shipment. The market is
Christ! It makes me mad when babies try to ride into business on an idea.”
Adam sighed. “You
make Sam Hamilton sound like a criminal,” he said. “Well, he was my father
and I loved him, but I wish to God he had let ideas alone.” Will looked at Adam and saw amazement in his eyes, and suddenly Will was ashamed. He shook his head slowly
from side to side. “I didn’t mean to run down my people,” he said. “I think they were good people. But my advice to you stands. Let refrigeration alone.”
Adam turned slowly to
Lee. “Have we got any more of that lemon pie we had for supper?” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” said
Lee. “I thought I heard mice in the kitchen. I’m afraid there will be white of egg on the boys’ pillows. You’ve got half a quart of whisky.” “Have I? Why don’t we
“I got excited,” said
Will, and he tried to laugh at himself. “A drink would do me good.” His face was fiery
red and his voice was strained in his throat. “I’m getting too fat,” he said.
But he had two drinks and
comfortably, he instructed Adam. “Some things don’t ever change their value,” he said. “If you want to put money into something, you look around at the world.
This war in Europe is going to go on a long time. And when there’s war there’s going to be hungry people. I won’t say it is so, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we got into it. I don’t trust this Wilson—he’s all theory and big words. And if we do get
into it, there’s going to be fortunes
imperishable foods. You take rice and corn and wheat and beans, they don’t need ice.
They keep, and people can stay alive on them. I’d say if you were to plant your whole damned bottom land to beans and just put them away, why, your boys wouldn’t have to worry about the future. Beans are up to three cents now. If we get into the war I wouldn’t be surprised if they went to ten cents. And you keep beans dry and they’ll be right there, waiting for a market. If you want to turn a profit, you plant beans.”
He went away feeling good. The shame that had
come over him was gone and he knew he had given sound advice.
After Will had gone Lee brought out one-third of a lemon pie and cut it in two. ‘“He’s getting too fat,” Lee said.
Adam was thinking. “I
only said I wanted something to do,” he observed.
“How about the ice-plant?” “I think I’ll buy it.”
“You might plant some beans too,” said Lee.
Late in the year Adam made his great try, and it was a sensation in a year of sensations, both local and
international. As he got ready, businessmen spoke of
him as farseeing, forward-looking, progress-minded.
The departure of six carloads of lettuce packed in ice was given a civic overtone. The Chamber
attended the departure. The cars were decorated with big posters which said, “Salinas Valley Lettuce.” But no one wanted to invest in the project.
Adam untapped energy
he did not suspect he had. It was a big job to gather, trim, box, ice, and load the lettuce. There was no equipment for such work. Everything had to
be improvised, a great many hands hired and taught to do the work. Everyone gave advice but no one helped. It was estimated that Adam had spent a fortune on his idea, but how big a fortune no one knew. Adam did not know.
Only Lee knew.
The idea looked good.
The lettuce was consigned to commission
New York at a fine price. Then the train was gone and everyone went home to wait. If it was a success any number of men were willing to dig down to put money in. Even
wondered whether he had not been wrong with his advice.
If the series of events had been planned by an
omnipotent and unforgiving enemy it could not have been more effective. As the train came to Sacramento a snow slide closed the Sierras for two days and the six cars stood on a siding, dripping their ice away. On the third day the freight crossed the mountains, and that was the time for unseasonable warm weather
Middle West. In Chicago there developed a confusion of orders—no one’s fault—
just one of those things that happen, and Adam’s six cars of lettuce stood in the yard for five more days. That was enough, and there is no reason to go into it in detail. What arrived in New York was six carloads of horrible slop with a sizable charge just to get rid of it.
Adam read the telegram from the commission house and he settled back in his chair and a strange enduring smile came on his face and did not go away.
Lee kept away from him to let him get a grip on
himself. The boys heard the reaction in Salinas. Adam was a fool. These know-it-all dreamers always got into
congratulated themselves on their foresight in keeping out of it. It took experience to be a businessman. People who inherited their money always got into trouble. And if you wanted any proof—just look at how Adam had run his ranch. A fool and his money were soon parted. Maybe that would teach him a lesson.
And he had doubled the output of the ice company. Will Hamilton recalled that he had not only argued
against it but had foretold in detail what would happen. He did not feel pleasure, but what could you do when a man wouldn’t take advice
from a sound businessman?
And, God knows, Will had
plenty of experience with fly-by-night ideas.
recalled that Sam Hamilton had been a fool too. And as for Tom Hamilton—he had been just crazy.
When Lee felt that
enough time had passed he did not beat around the bush. He sat directly in front of Adam to get and to keep his attention.
“How do you feel?” he asked.
“You aren’t going to
crawl back in your hole, are you?”
“What makes you think that?” Adam asked. “Well, you have the look on your face you used to wear. And you’ve got that sleepwalker light in your eyes. Does this hurt your feelings?”
“No,” said Adam. “The only thing I was wondering
about was whether I’m wiped out.”
“Not quite,” said Lee. “You
have about nine
thousand dollars left and the
ranch.” “There’s a
for garbage disposal,” said Adam.
“That’s before the nine thousand.”
“I owe quite a bit for the new ice machinery.” “That’s paid.”
“I have nine thousand?” “And the ranch,” said
Lee. “Maybe you can sell the ice plant.”
Adam’s face tightened
up and lost the dazed smile. “I still believe it will work,”
he said. “It was a whole lot of accidents. I’m going to keep the ice plant. Cold does preserve things. Besides, the plant makes some money.
Maybe I can figure something out.”
“Try not to
something that costs money,” said Lee. “I would hate to leave my gas stove.”
The twins felt Adam’s failure very deeply. They were fifteen years old and they had known so long that they were sons of a wealthy man that the feeling was hard to lose. If only the affair had not been
a kind of carnival it would not have been so bad. They remembered the big placards on the freight cars with horror. If the businessmen
made fun of Adam, the high-school group was much more cruel. Overnight it became
the thing to refer to the boys as “Aron and Cal Lettuce,” or simply as “Lettuce-head.”
Aron discussed his
problem with Abra. “It’s going
to make a
difference,” he told her. Abra had grown to be a beautiful girl. Her breasts
were rising with the leaven of her years, and her face had the calm and warmth of beauty. She had gone beyond prettiness. She was strong and sure and feminine.
She looked at
worried face and asked, “Why is it going to make a difference?”
“Well, one thing, I think we’re poor.”
“You would have
“You know I want to go to college.”
“You still can. I’ll help
you. Did your father lose all his money?”
“I don’t know. That’s what they say.”
“Who is ‘they’?” Abra asked.
“Why, everybody. And maybe
your father and
mother won’t want you to marry me.”
“Then I won’t tell them about it,” said Abra, “You’re pretty sure of yourself.”
“Yes,” she said, “I’m pretty sure of myself. Will you kiss me?”
“Right here? Right in the street?”
“Why not?” “Everybody’d see.” “I want them to,” said Abra.
Aron said, “No. I don’t like to make things public like that.”
She stepped around in
front of him and stopped him. “You look here, mister. You kiss me now.”
She said slowly, “So everybody will know that I’m Mrs. Lettuce-head.”
He gave her a quick embarrassed peck and then forced her beside him again. “Maybe I ought to call it off myself,” he said.
“What do you mean?” “Well, I’m not good
enough for you now. I’m just another poor kid. You think I haven’t seen the difference in your father?”
“You’re just crazy,”
Abra said. And she frowned a little because she had seen the difference in her father too.
They went into Bell’s
candy store and sat at a table. The rage was celery tonic that year. The year before it had been
root-beer ice-cream sodas.
Abra stirred bubbles
delicately with her straw and
thought how her father had changed since the lettuce failure. He had said to her, “Don’t you think it would be wise to see someone else for a change?”
“But I’m engaged to Aron.”
“Engaged!” he snorted at her. “Since when do children get engaged? You’d better
look around a little. There are other fish in the sea.”
And she remembered
that recently there had been references to suitability of families and once a hint that some people couldn’t keep a scandal hidden forever. This had happened only when Adam was reputed to have lost all of his money.”
She leaned across the table. “You know what we
could really do is so simple it will make you laugh.” “What?”
“We could run your
father’s ranch. My father says it’s beautiful land.”
“No,” Aron said quickly. “Why not?”
“I’m not going to be a farmer and you’re not going to b? a farmer’s wife.”
“I’m going to be Aron’s wife, no matter what he is.” “I’m not going to give
up college,” he said. “I’ll help you,” Abra said again.
“Where would you get the money?”
“Steal it,” she said.
“I want to get out of this town,” he said. “Everybody’s sneering at me. I can’t stand it here.”
“They’ll forget it pretty soon.”
“No, they won’t either. I don’t want to stay two years more to finish high school.” “Do you want to go
away from me, Aron?” “No. Oh, damn it, why did he have to mess with things
he doesn’t know about?” Abra reproved him. “Don’t
you blame your
father. If it had worked everybody’d been bowing to him.”
“Well, it didn’t work. He sure fixed me. I can’t hold up my head. By God! I hate him.”
Abra said sternly,
“Aron! You stop talking like that!”
“How do I know he
didn’t lie about my mother?”
Abra’s face reddened
with anger. “You ought to be spanked,” she said. “If it wasn’t in front of everybody I’d spank you myself.” She
looked at his beautiful face, twisted now with rage and frustration, and suddenly she changed her tactics. “Why don’t you ask about your mother? Just come right out and ask him.”
“I can’t, I promised you.”
“You only promised not to say what I told you.” “Well, if I asked him
he’d want to know where I heard.”
“All right,” she cried, “you’re a spoiled baby! I let you out of your promise. Go ahead and ask him.”
“I don’t know if I will or not.”
“Sometimes I want to
kill you,” she said. “But Aron
—I do love you so. I do love you so.” There was giggling from the stools in front of the soda fountain. Their voices had risen and they were overheard by their peers.
Aron blushed and tears of anger started in his eyes. He ran out of the store and plunged away up the street.
Abra calmly picked up
her purse and straightened her skirt and brushed it with her hand. She walked calmly over to Mr. Bell and paid for the celery tonics. On her way to the door she stopped by the giggling group. “You let him alone,” she said coldly. She walked on, and a falsetto followed her—”Oh, Aron, I do love you so.”
In the street she broke
into a run to try to catch up with Aron, but she couldn’t find him. She called on the telephone. Lee said that Aron had not come home. But Aron was in his bedroom, lapped in resentments—Lee had seen him creep in and close his door behind him.
Abra walked up and
down the streets of Salinas, hoping to catch sight of him. She was angry at him, but she was
lonely, Aron hadn’t ever run away from her before. Abra had lost her gift for being alone.
had to learn
loneliness. For a very short time he tried to join Abra and Aron, but they didn’t want him. He was jealous and tried to attract the girl to himself and failed.
His studies he found easy
and not greatly
interesting. Aron had to work harder to learn, wherefore Aron had a greater sense of accomplishment when he did learn, and he developed a respect for learning out of all proportion to the quality of the learning. Cal drifted
through. He didn’t care much for the sports at school or for the activities. His growing restlessness drove him out at night. He grew tall and rangy, and always there was the darkness about him.