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Authors: Herman Wouk

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BOOK: City Boy
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“Didn't she tell you?”

“No. All she said was her mother was takin' her to the museum Saturday. She don't even know I'm comin'.”

“Say, I thought you said you were gonna meet her.”

“I am gonna meet her, if it takes all day. Look, if you were Mrs. Glass, would you take your daughter to the Museum of Art or Natural History?”

“Depends on whether I wanted to show her statues or skeletons.”

“You're a big help.”

“Anyway, how do you know it's one of them two museums?”

“That's all there are.”

“A lot you know. There's the Museum of the American Indian. They took our class to it in a bus last week.”

“How was it?”

“Awful. Baskets, blankets, and feathers till you wanna throw up.”

“Well, I never heard of it and I bet Lucille's mother didn't neither. Anyway, you know Natural History is way better. They got that big whale hangin' from the ceiling an' everything. Ten to one she's there.”

“O.K. Let's go.”

The boys climbed into a crosstown bus. Cliff paid a dime for the two fares. “I better stick close to you now,” he said as they clung to swaying straps, “Mom only gimme fifteen cents today. I'm busted.”

“How come? You usually get a quarter on Saturday.”

“Mom caught me hitchin' onto a truck yesterday.”

Herbie, who was not agile enough to hitch, said, “Serves you right. Thousands of guys get killed hitchin' every day.”

“Aw, I never saw one.”

“I did. He fell off a truck in front of a trolley car on Westchester Avenue. His head 'n' feet got cut off. His head was rollin' around in the gutter like a ball. You couldn't get me to hitch.”

“Must of been some fat slob who didn't know how to hitch.”

Herbie became silent, not knowing whether this was a personal thrust, while Cliff, who had said it in innocence, mused pleasantly over the vivid picture of a beheaded and footless fat boy bleeding in a gutter. He wished he had been there. It was his luck to miss all these marvels which Herbie saw and described so well. When the bus stopped at the west side of the park and the boys got off, he suddenly said to Herbie, “Where on Westchester Avenue?”

Herbie, who had completely forgotten his fiction after it fulfilled its use in the argument, said, “Where what?”

“Where did this fat guy get his head cut off? I figure there still oughta be some blood there I can go look at.”

“No, the fire department came and hosed the whole street down,” said Herbie.

“My tough luck,” said Cliff.

The boys walked rapidly to the gloomy red pile of the Natural History museum, and roamed the halls. When they halted before the skeleton of the mastodon, Cliff surveyed the towering fossil and wistfully wished there were a live mastadon in the Zoo; Herbie looked at the strolling crowd through the dry ribs and sought a little figure with red hair. For an hour and a half they quested through corridors of bones, horns, skins, rocks, and stuffed beasts and fish. When they halted at last at a water fountain, Herbie said despondently, “She ain't here.”

“Who cares? This is fun,” said Cliff. He narrowed the fountain aperture with his thumb, and the water jumped to the ceiling. “We oughta come here every week.”

“We mighta known an old lady would want to look at pictures 'stead of a lotta bones,” said Herbie. “This is a terrible museum. Let's go across the park to the other one.”

“How much money you got?”

“Twenty cents. We better walk if we want ice cream after.”

Paintings, statues, tapestries, and mummies there were in plenty in the art museum, and several little live girls with red hair too for that matter, but Herbie was seeking the priceless original, and these were imitations. Nature, like a lazy artist, had turned out one good thing and then cheated the market with a lot of bad repetitions. The boys worked their way listlessly to the top floor, pausing to gawk only at the fat red nudes of Rubens.

“Looks like you ain't gonna find her,” said Cliff, as the boys sat on a marble bench surrounded by the gilded saints and martyrs of Italian old masters.

“Aw, who cares? We had our fun,” said Herbie glumly, waving his legs to and fro to cool the hot soles of his feet.

“Too bad you got dressed up for nothing.”

“Who dressed up on account of her? I'm just tired of walkin' around like a bum. You oughta be, too.”

Cliff surveyed his scuffed shoes, wrinkled stockings, sagging breeches, soiled shirt, and limp, threadbare tie, and said, “This ain't Sunday. If I dressed any different, I'd look funny.”

They raced down the flights of broad stone stairs with a clatter that brought angry guards to the landings after they had gone by. Before leaving they detoured through the Egyptian collection to have one more look at the partially unwrapped mummy of a princess. As they passed the great sandstone statues of the Pharaohs, Herbie's heart banged hard against his ribs, for there she was. This time it was she, no mistake, her hand in her mother's, peering into a glass case full of scarabs. He squeezed Cliff's arm once and walked straight toward them, scarlet faced and wondering what to do with his hands. He thrust them into his breeches at the last and said with unnatural loudness, “Hello, Mrs. Glass. Hi, Lucille.” His reward came instantly in a blush and a look of pleasure on the girl's face.

“Why, hello, Herbie,” said Mrs. Glass. “It's nice to see you interested in culture. Is your mother with you?”

“Naw, I go everywhere by myself,” said Herbie. “This here is my cousin, Cliff.”

“Very nice,” said Mrs. Glass. “Most boys would rather go to the movies than to the museum. Come, walk along with us.”

Herbie found himself on the other side of Mrs. Glass, who luckily was a very thin woman, so that it was easy for him to exchange several ardent peeks with Lucille as they strolled among the cases. The chances of prying her away from her mother for a little whispering seemed remote. Mrs. Glass kept explaining the objects they passed, and made them seem amazingly uninteresting.

“Now, children,” she said, “here is one of the wonders of the city. A whole Egyptian tomb dug out of Egypt and set up here just as it looked when the explorers first found it. We can all go inside—”

“Gosh, you know all about this stuff, don't you, Mrs. Glass?” said Cliff.

“Not quite all,” Mrs. Glass smiled. “I did teach fine arts in high school, many, many years ago.”

“Mrs. Glass, I sure would appreciate,” said Cliff, “if you would explain a picture I saw on the fourth floor. It's all full of angels, and devils, and naked ladies, and I think maybe God, but I couldn't make head nor tail of it.”

Flattered, the mother said, “It's a pleasure to see a boy take such interest. Come, let's all go up there—”

“Oh, Mother, I want to see this tomb, and anyway I'm tired,” spoke up Lucille, for the first time since Herbert's arrival.

“Well—suppose you stay with Lucille, Herbie, and visit the tomb while I go upstairs with Cliff. Do you mind?”

“No, ma'am,” said Herbie. Behind Mrs. Glass's back Cliff threw his cousin a colossal wink, and walked off.

Hand in hand, Lucille Glass and Herbie Bookbinder walked into the tomb of Pharaoh. A narrow passage meandered between stone walls more than a foot thick, decorated with processions of people with strangely twisted shoulders, the colors of their costumes faint but still visible after several thousand years of slow fading in darkness.

“How did you happen to find me?” whispered Lucille, partly in awe of the surroundings, partly because what she said seemed to call for whispering.

“I looked,” said Herbie.

“You didn't even know which museum,” Lucille said archly.

“I been at Natural History already. Just like you not to tell me. If it was Lennie Krieger, I bet you'd have told him.”

“I don't like Lennie,” said Lucille.

“No, but at the party you wouldn't look at anyone else. An' you hardly spoke to me at school, the one time I found you on the landing. Luckly I got you to mention the museum.”

“I'm glad I did, now.”

“Lennie's goin' to Camp Manitou, too. He told me.”

“I know.”

“Lucille,” said Herbie desperately, “at camp will you be
my
girl?”

She considered the question gravely under lowered lashes, then looked frankly at him. “Yes, Herbie,” she said. “I like you.”

Herbie knew joy once more. The ground lost by the hair episode was recovered, and he had even made an important advance. The Green Archer had been well sacrificed.

Fingers interlaced, the children leaned against the cool glass covering the stones in the last crypt of the tomb, and swung their hands idly back and forth in pleasant silent intimacy. They found the tomb a romantic, wonderful place, not because it was artistic but because it was private. A big packing case would have done as well. Had the Egyptian artist who painted the walls known that he was decorating a love retreat for two Hebrew children who would ignore his decorations four thousand years later, he might not have worked so hard and so successfully to make his colors permanent.

They heard Cliff's voice, loud enough to reverberate, “I bet they're back in here, Mrs. Glass,” and quickly disengaged their hands. The mother came upon them studying a line of hieroglyphics intently. Herbie said, “I wonder if anybody can read these, anyway. Your mother would know. Oh, hello, Mrs. Glass. Hi, Cliff.” He repeated the question to the mother, who explained all about hieroglyphics as they emerged into the sunny main hall.

“Now,” said Mrs. Glass, “what do we all say to some ice-cream cones?”

A gleeful chorus answered. As they walked out of the museum, Herbie said, “Did you figure out that picture for Cliff, ma'am?”

“Strangely enough, we couldn't find it,” said Mrs. Glass.

“They musta moved it,” said Cliff.

“I remember a coupla guards comin' in the room with stepladders when we went out,” Herbie assisted.

“Strange, they don't usually change the exhibits Saturday afternoon,” said the mother. “However, I did point out a few examples of what I imagine was the same type of baroque. Cliff asked very intelligent questions.”

An ice-cream vender stood in the center of a little plaza in the park. Mrs. Glass ordered three strawberry-flavored cones. Lucille said, “Come on, Mother, you have one, too,” whereupon the lady laughed and asked for chocolate, “just this once.” Lucille ate off her ice cream in a few bites and threw the cone of cake away, while the boys licked the cream, forcing it down into the cone, so that they nibbled cake and ate ice cream until all vanished in a last mouthful. Mrs. Glass offered a ten-dollar bill to the vender, who indignantly refused to make change.

“This is awkward,” said the mother. “I have no smaller change with me, and I don't see—”

“I'll
pay, Mrs. Glass,” said Herbie grandly. He held out two dimes to the vender.

“Now, Herbie, really, I can't let you treat us,” said Mrs. Glass.

“I got lots more. Don't worry, ma'am,” said Herbie, feeling six feet tall.

“Your mother is very good to you.”

“Yes, ma'am.”

They walked toward the subway. Cliff pulled Herbie behind a few paces and hissed, “Are you nuts? We're broke now.”

“She'll pay our fares home, don't worry,” whispered Herbie.

But he had miscalculated. At the corner of Lexington Avenue and Seventy-seventh Street Mrs. Glass turned to the boys and said affably, “Sorry we can't take you downtown with us. Good-by.” She vanished into the subway entrance with her daughter before the astounded boys could say a word.

The cousins were stranded, ten miles from home.

“Of all the dumb stunts,” said Cliff. “Now what do we do?”

“Aw, how should I know she'd go downtown? They live uptown,” said Herbie feebly. The intoxication of playing host to an adult before the eyes of his girl faded into the headache of being penniless.

“How far is it home?” said Cliff.

“I dunno. A hundred miles, I figure.”

“More, I bet. We'll never walk it.”

The subway was a magic carpet. Its stations were oases in a desert of immeasurable distances. With a handful of nickels the boys could go anywhere in the city, unerringly; without the little metal disks that made them lords of the magic, they were helpless. They did not even know in which direction to turn their steps.

“Aw, we'll meet somebody, or something,” said Herbie.

But they did not meet anybody, or anything. An hour and a half passed by in pointless wandering up and down Lexington Avenue. The sun went down; the street lamps flared all at once in every direction; a cool wind blew. Herbie and his cousin, exhausted and hungry, leaned against the window of a cafeteria and looked in at the steam tables piled high with hot food.

“I could eat a horse,” said Cliff.

“I could eat an elephant,” said Herbie.

“I could eat two elephants.”

“I could eat a sandwich—an elephant between two mastodons,” said Herbie, but the exaggeration game gave neither boy pleasure this time, and they abandoned it.

After a pause Herbie said, “Cliff, I'm sorry I pulled such a stupid trick.”

BOOK: City Boy
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