Story type: Essay
The Urchin and I have been strolling about Marathon on Sunday mornings for more than a year, but not until the gasolineless Sabbaths supervened were we really able to examine the village and see what it is like. Previously we had been kept busy either dodging motors or admiring them as they sped by. Their rich dazzle of burnished enamel, the purring hum of their great tires, evokes applause from the Urchin. He is learning, as he watches those flashing chariots, that life truly is almost as vivid as the advertisements in the Ladies’ Home Journal, where the shimmer of earthly pageant first was presented to him.
Marathon is a village so genteel and comely that the Urchin and I would like to have some pictures of it for future generations, particularly as we see it on an autumn morning when, as I say, the motors are kenneled and the landscape has ceased to vibrate. In the douce benignance of equinoctial sunshine we gaze about us with eyes of inventory. Where my observation errs by too much sentiment the Urchin checks me by his cooler power of ratiocination.
Marathon is a suburban Xanadu gently caressed by the train service of the Cinder and Bloodshot. It may be recognized as an aristocratic and patrician stronghold by the fact that while luxuries are readily obtainable (for instance, banana splits, or the latest novel by Enoch A. Bennett), necessaries are had only by prayer and advowson. The drug store will deliver ice cream to your very refrigerator, but it is impossible to get your garbage collected. The cook goes off for her Thursday evening in a taxi, but you will have to mend the roof, stanch the plumbing and curry the furnace with your own hands. There are ten trains to take you to town of an evening, but only two to bring you home. Yet going to town is a luxury, coming home is a necessity. The supply of grape juice seems almost unlimited, yet coal is to be had catch-as-catch-can.
Another proof that Marathon is patrician at heart is that nothing is known by its right name! The drug store is a “pharmacy,” Sunday is “the Sabbath,” a house is a “residence,” a debt is a “balance due on bill rendered.” A girls’ school is a “young ladies’ seminary,” A Marathon man is not drafted, he is “inducted into selective service.” And the railway station has a porte cochere (with the correct accent) instead of a carriage entrance. A furnace is (how erroneously!) called a “heater.” Marathon people do not die–they “pass away.” Even the cobbler, good fellow, has caught the trick; he calls his shop the “Italo-American Shoe Hospital.”
This is an innocent masquerade! If Marathon prefers not to call a flivver a flivver, I shall not expostulate. And yet this quaint subterfuge should not be carried quite so far. Stone walls are made for sunny lounging; yet stone walls in Marathon are built with uneven vertical projections to discourage the sedentary. Nothing is more delightful than a dog; but there are no dogs in Marathon. They are all airedales or spaniels or mastiffs. If an ordinary dog should wag his tail up our street the airedales would cut him dead. Bless me, Nature herself has taken to the same insincerity. The landscape round Marathon is lovely, but it has itself well in hand. The hills all pretend to be gentle declivities. There is a beautiful little sheet of water, reflecting the trailery of willows, a green salute to the eye. In a robuster community it would be a swimming hole–but with us, an ornamental lake. Only in one spot has Nature forgotten herself and been so brusque and rough as to jut up a very sizable cliff. This is the loveliest thing in Marathon: sunlight and shadow break and angle in cubist magnificence among the oddly veined knobs and prisms of brown stone. Yet this cliff or quarry is by common consent taboo among us. It is our indelicacy, our indecency. Such “residences” as are near modestly turn their kitchens toward it. Only the blacksmith and the gas tanks are hardy enough to face this nakedness of Mother Earth–they, and excellent Pat Lemon, Marathon’s humblest and blackest citizen, who contemplates that rugged and honest beauty as he tills his garden on the land abandoned by squeamish burghers. That is our Aceldama, our Potter’s Field, only approached by the athletic, who keep their eyes from Nature’s indiscretion by vigorous sets of tennis in the purple shadow of the cliff.
Life is queerly inverted in Marathon. Nature has been so bullied and repressed that she fawns about us timidly. No well-conducted suburban shrubbery would think of assuming autumn tints before the ladies have got into their fall fashions. Indeed none of our chaste trees will even shed their leaves while any one is watching; and they crouch modestly in the shade of our massive garages. They have been taught their place. In Marathon it is a worse sin to have your lawn uncut than to have your books or your hair uncut. I have been aware of indignant eyes because I let my back garden run wild. And yet I flatter myself it was not mere sloth. No! I want the Urchin to see what this savage, tempestuous world is like. What preparation for life is a village where Nature comes to heel like a spaniel? When a thunderstorm disorganizes our electric lights for an hour or so we feel it a personal affront. Let my rearward plot be a deep-tangled wild-wood where the happy Urchin may imagine something more ferocious lurking than a posse of radishes. Indeed, I hardly know whether Marathon is a safe place to bring up a child. How can he learn the horrors of drink in a village where there is no saloon? Or the sadness of the seven deadly sins where there is no movie? Or deference to his betters where the chauffeurs, in their withered leather legs, drive limousines to the drug store to buy expensive cigars, while their employers walk to the station puffing briar pipes?
I had been hoping that the war would knock some of this topsy-turvy nonsense out of us. Maybe it has. Sometimes I see on the faces of our commuters the unaccustomed agitation of thought. At least we still have the grace to call ourselves a suburb, and not (what we fancy ourselves) a superurb. But I don’t like the pretense that runs like a jarring note through the music of our life. Why is it that those who are doing the work must pretend they are not doing it; and those not doing the work pretend that they are? I see that the motor messenger girls who drive high-powered cars wear Sam Browne belts and heavy-soled boots, whereas the stalwart colored wenches who labor along the tracks of the Cinder and Bloodshot console themselves with flimsy waists and light slippers. (A fact!) By and by the Urchin will notice these things. And I don’t want him to grow up the kind of chap who, instead of running to catch a train, loiters gracefully to the station and waits to be caught.