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Authors: Herman Wouk

City Boy (11 page)

BOOK: City Boy
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“Aw, heck, Herbie, that's O.K. Only I bet our mothers are gonna start worryin'.”

Steeling himself, Herbie walked up to a stout, red-faced man who was striding by, and said, “Mister, my cousin 'n' I ain't got carfare. Could you lend me ten cents and gimme your address—”

“Get away from me, you little beggar,” said the man, without seeming to look at Herbie, and hurried on. The fat boy dropped to the curb in his clean new suit and sat, his cake-eater hat pushed back on his head, a picture of dejection. Cliff squatted beside him.

“Cliff, we gotta get home. Let's give ourselves up to a cop.”

“Listen, Herb, I don't wanna have nothin' to do with no cops.”

“Aw, maybe he'll just give us a dime.”

“No, sir. No cops. Not me.”

Cliff's misfortune was that his mother had, since his earliest childhood, threatened to call a policeman to come and fetch him away whenever the boy was mischievous, or refused to eat. As a result, cops stood for devils in the boy's mythology.

“Well, that's my idea,” persisted Herbie. “Now you say something better.”

“Come on down in the subway,” said Cliff.

They tripped down the stairs into the hole in the ground, and a few moments later stood by the turnstiles. People hurried past, in and out, with the crashing metallic
brope!
that is the song of New York as the murmur of trees in the wind is the music of a forest. The boys loitered there for a while, as far from the change booth as they could get, obscured from the eye of the station master by the crowd. Each knew what was in the other's mind. Neither would speak first.
Brope!
A little gray-haired man dropped his nickel and pushed through the turnstile.
Brope! Brope! Brope!
Three laughing girls followed each other out. A train rattled into the station, disgorged a crowd through its many doors, sucked in another crowd, and went squealing away—homeward bound, without the boys. They were still barred from home, marooned, exiled, for the want of two small disks. The absurdity and injustice of it smote Herbie.

“Just 'cause we ain't got a couple of lousy nickels, why can't we go home?” he demanded. “We got a right to go home.”

“Well, if everybody got on free how could they run the old subway?” countered Cliff.

“Well, all I know is they oughta run it so everybody could get home whether they had a lousy nickel or not,” said Herbie. He was laying a foundation of moral theory for the next suggestion, which came after a short silence.

“If you ask me, we oughta duck under them turnstiles. We got a
right
to,” he said with a great show of indignation.

“I guess we better, if we wanna get home,” said Cliff.

“Don't you think we got a right?”

“No, but who cares? We gotta get home.”

But Herbie was one of those people who will not act unless the whole moral order of the universe is on their side—according to their own view, at least.


Why
ain't we got as much right as anybody else to ride the subway?”

“'Cause it costs a nickel, an' we ain't got no nickel,” said Cliff patiently.

“I just explained to you—”

“Listen, Herb, what's the sense of arguin'? I'm game to sneak under the turnstile if you are.”

“It
ain't
sneakin'.”

“O.K., it ain't. Just don't do it while the guy is watchin', that's all.”

“Tell you what,” said Herbie. “After we get home we mail a nickel apiece to the subway company. How's that?”

“Sure, sure. Let's get under the turnstile first.”

“Cinch,” said Herbie, and darted under the bar, followed by his cousin. The fat boy would have done well, however, to examine facts as closely as theory. “The guy” had a clear view of the boys as they took the plunge. A moment later he was thundering down on them. He was a tall, fat colored man with a badge.

“Whah you boys think you goin'?” he bellowed. They turned to flee. Cliff got away through the turnstile, but the man collared the clumsy Herbie and shook him, repeating his pointless question. The boy, weak with terror and short-winded due to the insertion of a big brown hand in a collar just large enough for his throat, gulped and stared. Seeing him trapped, his cousin came back.

“We're stuck, mister, that's all, an' we wanna go home,” Cliff cried. “We ain't crooks. We were gonna mail the company a coupla nickels as soon as we got home.”

“Yeah, that's right,” Herbie wheezed. The man released his grip on the collar, and the boy babbled the entire tale of their misadventure. The station master inspected the well-dressed lad curiously, and before the story was over he was hiding a cavernous smile behind his hand.

“So you gonna mail the company the nickels you owe us, hey?”

“So help me, mister, both of us.”

“You sure, now?”

Herbie kissed the little finger of his right hand and swept it skyward. He was actually swearing to the under side of Lexington Avenue rather than to heaven, but the colored man seemed satisfied. A train was sliding to a stop beside the platform.

“G'wan home, then,” he said, giving Herbie a friendly little push, “an' don't go treatin' gals with the subway's money no more.”

Next day Cliff duly mailed his nickel to “The Subway Company, New York.” Herbie begged five cents from his mother for a frankfurter and started out to mail it, but passed a delicatessen store and fell. As he devoured a steaming wienie with mustard and sauerkraut, he promised his uneasy conscience that he would pay the subway tomorrow. Walking home, he noticed black clouds gathering overhead. Just as he came to the entrance of his house an electric storm, the first of the year, broke with a thunderclap and a single sheet of lightning that seemed to split the sky. It appeared to Herbie that the heavens had opened and that God on his great white throne was peering down to earth, looking for Herbie Bookbinder. He scrambled up the stairs, shivering, and burst in upon Felicia, who was doing homework in her room.

“Fleece, gimme a nickel, please, please. You got money.”

“I should say not. What for?”

“I gotta have it. Pay you back a dime Saturday.”

“No.”

“Fifteen cents!”

“Tell me what it's for and you can have it for a dime.”

Crash! A great fork of lightning sundered the sky. Rain pelted the window.


Please
give it to me!”

Felicia regarded the white-faced boy for a moment. She raised her eyebrows.

“All right.”

The sister went to the kitchen and returned with a breadknife. She inserted the knife into the slot of her pig bank and tilted it carefully over her bed. Several coins slid out along the knife and fell noiselessly to the spread. Felicia picked up a nickel.

“You can pay it back whenever you want. Never mind telling me what it's for. Just pay me a nickel.”

“Thanks, Fleece.”

A few minutes later Herbie was stumbling through a gale to the mailbox. He deposited the letter and returned home drenched, but wonderfully relieved in spirit.

It never occurred to Herbie that the Almighty was going to unusual trouble to collect a nickel.

EIGHT
The Dubbing of General Garbage

C
oncrete pressed roughly against one's nose is not enjoyable at best, and when the concrete is part of a schoolyard and has been baking in a May sun, it is hot and dirty enough to be positively unpleasant. So Herbie decided, as Lennie Krieger sat on his back twisting his left arm up behind him with one hand, thrusting his head against the ground with the other, and requesting the utterance of the word “uncle” before changing this state of things. With Lucille Glass standing a foot away looking on, this was not easy to do. “Uncle” is a code word understood by all children to mean “You're a better man than I am.” However, Lennie was much heavier and stronger; the lunch period had twenty minutes to go; and the concrete was very hard, hot, and dusty. So Herbie said, “Uncle,” adding under his breath, “in a pig's eye,” and the two boys rose, brushing themselves.

Lucille bent a lively glance at Lennie and said, “I think you're awful, picking on someone smaller than you.”

“Let him not be so smart, then,” said Lennie, carelessly tucking his flapping shirt back into his trousers.

It was the Thursday after the museum meeting. Herbie, not finding Lucille at the accustomed landing, had wandered around the school and finally come upon her eating lunch with Lennie in a shady comer of the boys' yard. He had cheerfully joined the conversation, hiding his jealous pangs. The topic had been Lennie's boastful plans for playing football in high school.

“What'll
you
do in high school?” he said to Herbie derisively. “Try out for the tiddlywinks team?”

Herbie looked foolish and was silent. Lennie went on, “I bet I play halfback in my first year. Maybe even fullback.”

“Maybe even left back,” chirped Herbie.

It was a good shot. Lennie had been left back twice in his school career. Lucille choked over a bite of her sandwich, coughed it out, and shrieked with merriment. A short scuffle between the boys followed, ending in the nose-to-concrete situation described above.

“Look out, Lucille,” said Herbie as he got up, ruefully rubbing the dirt off his nose and forehead. “He'll beat you up next. He's real brave.”

Instantly Lennie had him by his shirt front and tie, grasped in an upthrusting fist. “What's the matter, you want more?” he said, and when Herbie answered nothing he beat the fat boy's chest lightly with his other fist, in time to this chant:

“Three, six, nine,
A bottle of wine,
I can fight you any old time.”

This was a challenge which a Bronx boy was supposed to take up even if it meant getting all his bones broken. But Herbie had had enough pounding of his ribs and concrete in his face for one day, so he let it pass. A code that required him to take two successive lickings from the same bigger boy seemed to have a flaw in it somewhere. He did not miss the flicker of disappointment in Lucille's eyes as Lennie released him with a contemptuous little push.

“O.K., Herbie darling,” he said. “You can play jacks with Lucille now. So long.” He strode off.

A vender of water ices pushed his wooden cart past them on the other side of the steel webbing of the school fence. “How about ices, Lucille? I got four cents,” said Herbie humbly.

“No, thanks.” Then impulsively, “I'll be glad when I'm transferred to the Mosholu Parkway public school next term. I hate Lennie and I hate you!” She stamped her foot at him and ran to the girls' yard.

It is a sad thing to be beaten and humiliated in the presence of one's lady fair. Herbie moped around the yard without aim, and was so poor in spirits that it actually made him happy to hear the gong summoning him back to class. He pinned on his yellow armband, and took his privileged way up the stairs ahead of the other pupils, lonely and chopfallen. Even his imagination was chilled by Lucille's frostiness. It refused to produce the usual comforting pictures of Lennie in beggars' rags at the age of twenty-one, pleading with a prosperous, glittering Herbie for a small loan. The fat boy was indeed brought low.

The depression lessened when he came back to Mrs. Gorkin's classroom. There, lying on his desk, was his costume for the assembly play: an Army general's cap, a long overcoat with brass buttons, and, most wonderful of all, an honest-to-goodness cigar. In honor of Decoration Day he was to play General Ulysses S. Grant in
The Surrender at Appomattox.

Mrs. Gorkin had spent a year at dramatic school before abandoning her dreams and becoming a school teacher. She was therefore the official theatrical manager of Public School 50. Her class benefited by the excitement of rehearsals, irregular hours, release from homework, and other privileges of a troupe of actors. She rarely troubled to go outside her own classroom for talent; it made control more difficult. Herbie, quick-witted and something of a showoff, was the natural choice for the long part of Grant. The casting of Robert E. Lee was harder. In the end Mrs. Gorkin had reluctantly given the role to Lennie Krieger, despite his low marks and truculent manner, because he was taller than any other boy and had the handsome figure required for General Lee—whom Mrs. Gorkin, with many historians, regarded as the hero of the scene.

When it was too late she regretted the choice a dozen times. Lennie's entrances, exits, and warlike gestures were things of spread-eagle beauty, but he couldn't remember lines, and those he did recall he mumbled jerkily out of the side of his mouth. He obviously believed that clear speech would compromise his manliness. Coaching, threats, and pleas by Mrs. Gorkin induced him to say a few speeches correctly at a rehearsal; next day, Robert E. Lee once more sounded like a bad boy reciting, “I must not throw erasers, I must not throw erasers.” But the mistake was past remedy. Mrs. Gorkin instructed Herbie to memorize Lee's lines as well as Grant's, and to prompt Lennie whenever necessary.

Class 7B-1 lined up in front of the room and marched gaily to assembly hall for dress rehearsal. Eight of the boys carried costumes and props hired by Mrs. Gorkin from a downtown shop. Only Grant and Lee had complete outfits. The minor military figures were represented by a cap here, a jacket there, a pistol elsewhere. In the interest of economy two uniforms were furnishing out two chiefs of staff, four orderlies, and several miscellaneous generals. The rest of the class were coming along to watch the fun, freed from the drone of study by Mrs. Gorkin's theatrical duties.

BOOK: City Boy
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