Chapters 20-21 Summary
While Helen and Luke are traveling or going to school, Gant frequents Dixieland more than usual despite Eliza’s remonstrance that he has a place of his own. He regales the boarders with tales of his youth—not all of them actually truthful. Despite the obvious embellishments, the boarders look forward to his visits as a way to liven up the dull winter evenings. Gant and Eugene go to the movies several times a week during the winter months. Eugene imagines himself as the hero of all the movies, living a life of excitement and adventure compared to his dull life in Altamont. After the movies, late at night, he and Gant wander the streets of Altamont on their way home. Gant complains of pain from an enlarged prostate. Suddenly Eugene sees that his father is old. Gant seeks treatment for his discomfort from Doctor Cardiac, who will not operate, which Gant appreciates because he is afraid of operations. The doctor and Gant spend more time than necessary during these treatments talking, while other more serious patients sit in the waiting room. Eliza dismisses Gant’s complaints, especially when Gant pretends to have died. She warns him that one day he will have cried wolf once too often.
The temperance movement reaches Altamont ahead of Prohibition. Gant is piously on the side of the local option to outlaw the sale of liquor, despite his reliance on alcohol. The town is divided sharply between the “wets” in favor of keeping liquor sales and the “drys” who want it declared illegal. The more socially prominent citizens are drys, and Eugene is proud when he sees Gant wearing the white ribbon that denotes his position as a dry. However, after the drys win the vote, Gant moans the loss of his sustenance.
A “grass widow” (a woman who is living apart from her husband) stays in rooms above Gant’s office, where he is also now sleeping. She regularly comes into his room wearing a kimono and very little underneath. She opens the kimono to show her legs but coyly leaves when he approaches. Finally, overcome by the effects of this flirting, he chases her. She takes refuge in the home of a neighbor. Annie, the servant, refuses to stay anywhere near Gant and leaves despite Helen’s pleas and offers to pay her more. Eugene’s brother Ben becomes a lady’s man, taking as a mistress an older woman whose husband is a traveling salesman. He is also sleeping with her daughter. Eliza dismisses this as more evidence of Gant’s influence.