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Authors: Herman Wouk

City Boy (29 page)

BOOK: City Boy
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The girl did not like the knowing look Herbie gave her and said shortly, “Why aren't you at the dance, if you feel all right?”

“I dunno how to dance.”

“Go on. They had a class for all the Intermediates.”

“Yeah, but I couldn't go.”

Herbie sat beside his sister on the wooden steps. The gloom, the sweet smells of the night air, inspired intimacy. He told her the adventure of the blank letters. Finding her a sympathetic listener, he broke open his heart and recounted his quarrel with Lucille. This tale threw Felicia into an astonishing fury.

“Why that snippy child, that good-for-nothing, spoiled, conceited, lazy little infant!” she raged. Never had Herbie seen Felicia so wholeheartedly on his side. “How dare she snub you! Why, she's the joke of the camp. She won't do any work, she can't play any games, and she spends all her time in front of a minor. Imagine, a babe-in-arms eleven years old in front of a mirror! And she uses powder to cover up her freckles, I know she does.”

Felicia jumped up and walked to and fro, fuming.

“My brother isn't good enough for her 'cause he can't dance, eh?
We'll
show her. Come on, Herbie.” She tugged him to his feet. “You're gonna learn how to dance right this minute. And then you're gonna go in there and dance with every girl in the social hall—
except her.
And she can go right on dancing with that left-back 7B dumbbell until they both drop.”

“Aw, Fleece, forget it,” said Herbie, taken aback at her crusading fervor. But he was dealing with a mighty force of which he knew little.

“You shut up! Come on, how much did you learn before you got docked out of dancing class?”

It developed that Herbie had acquired the rudiments of the box step, and mainly lacked confidence. The long and the short of it was that Felicia box-stepped around with him on the grass for fifteen minutes and then announced that he was as skillful as the best Senior in the hall, and “ten times as good as that big dope Lennie.”

“Come on, in we go,” said the sister, dragging him toward the entrance with eagerness.

Herbie hung back, protesting, and at last dug his heels into the ground. “Holy smoke, Fleece, look at me. I'm dressed in khakis. They're all in whites.”

“Oh, who'll notice?”

“Everybody'll notice, that's who. They'll die laughing at me.”

Felicia weighed the objection briefly. “All right, I'll give you five minutes to put on whites. And if you don't come back I'll go after you and murder you.”

Herbie was quite cowed at this point by his sister's stormy energy. He galloped back to his bunk, fished a set of whites out of his trunk, and put them on, thinking the while that he seemed to be spending most of this night undressing and dressing again.

“How do I look?” he said diffidently as he reported back to Felicia, who was pacing up and down in the darkness near the door of the social hall.

“Wonderful,” she answered, seizing his hand and ignoring the rest of him. “Let's go.”

And before Herbie could draw another breath he was in the social hall, squinting at the bright light. He half expected that everyone present would turn and stare at him, but they all went on dancing and chattering as though the great event—his First Coming to a dance—had not occurred. Uncle Sid's piano was near the doorway.

“Hello there, boy,” called the counselor, not interrupting his methodical assassination of “The Darktown Strutters' Ball.” “Feel better, do you? That's fine.”

Felicia was hauling him out into the middle of the floor.

“Hey, wait a second, Fleece,” whispered Herbie, frightened, “can't we start off in a corner somewhere? I forgot everything.”

“You forgot nothing,” said his sister sternly. She planted herself facing him, pulled his arm around her waist, clamped a steely grip on his shoulder, and said, “All right. Now dance.”

And Herbie obeyed. With painful concentration he ticked off one —two—three—four, one—two—three—four with his feet in time to the music, and found himself revolving stiffly among the dancers, for all the world like one of them. After a minute of this he felt a surge of triumph. Why, as quickly as in a dream he had leaped the Great Wall that divided the world into sheep and goats. He was dancing.
Dancing!

Felicia hissed at him, “Stop counting one, two, three, four out loud, you imbecile.”

Herbie heard himself doing it and pressed his lips together with vexation.

“And quit looking at your feet. They won't fall off.”

Herbie raised his eyes from the floor to which they had been fixed. He danced on in silence, maneuvered firmly here and there by his sister to avoid collisions. She smiled at him.

“You're doing swell. I told you you could dance. You'll show her!”

The music ended in a groan of jumping discords, Uncle Sid's notion of a jazzy climax. Felicia unclamped her hold on the boy and applauded politely. Herbie relaxed his body, which he had been holding rigid as a post, and glanced around. He found himself looking Lennie squarely in the eye. The athlete was holding Lucille's hand. Herbie's heart pounded.

“Hi, General,” said Lennie with good-natured contempt. “Say, Fleece, can't you find nobody better to dance with than him?”

Felicia tossed her head. “I don't see anybody better. The only people I see are two years older'n him and a year under him in school.”

“This ain't school, this is real life,” said Lennie with a grin. The music began again. Lennie caught Felicia's hand. “C'mon, stuck-up, let's see if you can still dance. S'long, Lucille, see you later.” Felicia crimsoned and protested, but allowed herself to be whirled away with something remarkably like a happy expression on her face. The estranged lovers were left together.

“So!” said Lucille, with an arch glance at Herbie. “You
can
dance. Why did you lie to me?”

Herbie was so surprised to find himself in the wrong at this point that he was speechless.

“You just care more for wienies than for me, you fat pig.” But the insult was accompanied with a soft smile. The past vanished, the world was new, and Lucille had never been anything to Herbie but an adorable, faithful sweetheart.

“I'll show you who's a fat pig,” said Herbie gaily. “Come on, let's dance.” He seized his beloved's hand, and swept into an enthusiastic one—two—three—four. He felt indestructibly confident as they twirled around.

“Gee, you're good,” said Lucille, sending his happiness pressure up to the danger point.

“Heck, I still say it's for apes, but if I gotta do it I do it.”

“Can you dip?”

The boy was suddenly sobered and began moving more stiffly again.

“Whaddyamean, dip?” he said, trying to sound offhand.

“Why, dip. Everyone knows what dip is. There, what Felix and Sylvia just did.”

Felix and Sylvia, a foot away from them, had gracefully executed a “dip.” This consisted of the boy leaning backward on one leg and bending the knee, while the girl leaned forward and bent the corresponding knee. It took but a moment to do and looked pretty, but to Herbie it seemed a complicated, dangerous maneuver.

“Oh sure,
that,
” he said. “Anybody can do that. But I never do it. It looks dumb.”

“I like it. Let's dip.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“No, I say.”

“Oh, come on, you're mean.”

“Dipping,” said Herbie desperately, “is only for babies.”

“Babies? You're crazy. Look, Uncle Nig and Aunt Bernice just dipped.”

“Well, let 'em. I ain't gonna.”

“Herbie Bookbinder, you're such a liar. You know you can't dip.”

“Oh I can't, can't I? All right, then, here goes.” Blindly, like a horse ridden over a cliff to its doom, Herbie dipped. He leaned back much too far, tried to straighten up again, failed, grabbed both Lucille's shoulders in panic, and fell flat on his back, pulling the girl on top of him. The thud shook the floor. A ring of couples formed around them, giggling. The music stopped. Lucille jumped to her feet, tears of shame and rage in her eyes. Herbert sat up stupidly, his head ringing from the concussion. With perhaps two dozen boys and girls listening for his words, he had the hard luck to say, “I
told
you I didn't like to dip.”

There was a shout of laughter, of course. Lucille glared around and ran out through the door. Herbie picked himself up and followed her. Uncle Sid, seeing that no great harm had been done, resumed his music, and the couples promptly forgot the incident and returned pair by pair to their own pursuit of happiness.

“Go away,” snarled Lucille at Herbie as he drew near her with hanging head in the half-gloom outside the door.

“I—I'm sorry, Lucille,” stammered the boy.

She looked at him with the narrowed eyes of contempt. “Go eat wienies.”

Herbie caught her hand. “Lucille, remember what you said in the museum? You said you'd be my girl at camp.”

“That was then.” She pulled her hand away.

As long as the world lasts, there will be no other reply to the plaint of the discarded lover than the words: “That was then.” They will always seem a sufficient answer to the person who says them, and a meaningless one to the person who hears them. And so it will go, on and on, the piteous question and the short answer, until the sun will dim, the earth will freeze, and lovers' quarrels will die away—probably the last human sounds to be heard on the icy wind.

“Gosh, Lucille, just 'cause I slipped and fell down once—”

“Oh, will you go away? You make me tired—General Garbage!”

It was the first time he had heard the epithet from those pretty lips. By all the rules he should have collected what was left of his dignity and stalked off. But instead he wavered for a moment and then whined, “Aw, please, let's go back and dance some more. We were having fun.”

The girl turned away, nose in air. “I'm going back in by myself. And don't you dare follow me. I'm here with Lennie.” And she was gone.

Not knowing or caring what he was doing, Herbie stumbled off into the blackness, in the direction of the lake. The emotional ups and downs of the evening had exhausted his young spirit and left him as numb as a gray old man, and as hopeless about the future. As he trudged senselessly through dewy weeds and bushes toward the glow of the campfire, he weighed himself in the balance. He was a clown, a small fat boy, superfluous in baseball, incapable of dipping, habituated to telling lies transparent as glass which always shattered and lacerated him, and aged a paltry eleven and a half years. None of these conditions seemed likely to improve, not even his age. He felt he would be eleven and a half for ever.

He had come to the beach. Peering through the last fringe of bushes he saw that the wienie roast was over. The boys and girls stood around the dying fire in a huge circle, their arms raised over their heads. Mr. Gauss stood by the embers, wearing an Indian feathered headdress, his arms stretched heavenward. It was the moment of the final Indian prayer that closed each campfire Mr. Gauss began lowering his arms stiffly before him. The children followed his movements, and chanted in a weird tune:

“Wakoo dow dowse doo
Weepee dad—oh tone hee.”

They repeated the mournful chant three times, raising and lowering their arms each time. It had been taught to them as meaning: “Great Spirit, a humble Indian asks your blessing, I am he.” Herbie could hear most of the boys singing the traditional villainous parody which almost, but not quite, blended with the chant:

“What could old Gauss do
If he had no money?”

This was one of the most happy jests of Manitou life, but tonight it brought no mirth to him. He turned heavily away from the picturesque scene and plodded back up the embankment, along Company Street and into Bunk Thirteen. Soon his whites, damp with dew and dirty in the seat and shoulders where he had made contact with the dance floor, were piled on the foot of his bed, and the boy was huddled under the coarse brown blankets. He sank into sleep at once. So ended a truly grim evening for Herbie Bookbinder.

Two days later, on Friday, Mr. and Mrs. Bookbinder visited Camp Manitou. They stayed at the guest house, with its attractive view of the girls' lawn. They ate an excellent dinner, and were enchanted by the spectacle of the boys and girls in white rows on the lawn at sun set services. During visiting hours next day they toured the bungalows and playing fields, which were still natty from their polishing for the Penobscot invasion. That night they attended the dramatic show, and were proud and happy to see their son raising much laughter with a comic performance as a fat old lady. Sunday morning they watched a baseball game for the championship between the Lucky Strikes and the Marlboros, and marveled at the intensity of excitement among the children on the sidelines. Their pleasure was completed when Herbie made an appearance for the Lucky Strikes in right field, a novelty which bewildered the boy and the team (it was diplomatically arranged between Uncle Sandy and the Lucky Strike mentor, Uncle Peewee). Before the parents left on Sunday afternoon they spent an hour with Felicia and Herbie on the cool veranda of the guest house. Ice cream was always served Sunday afternoon on the veranda.

BOOK: City Boy
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