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Authors: Herman Wouk

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BOOK: City Boy
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“What were you doing up here, anyway?” said the boy at last, feeling that ease of speech was deserting him.

“I'm on the girls' Police Squad,” said Lucille Glass, “and I'm supposed to watch this staircase during lunch.”

She pulled a red band from her pocket and commenced pinning it around her arm. Encountering difficulty, she was gallantly aided by Herbie, who received the reward of a bashful smile. All this while Herbie was struggling with the question, whether it was not inconsistent for a Radiant One to be practically a member of his family, as Lucille's tie to his father's lawyer made her. His sister and his cousins were so empty of grace that he classed all family females in the low rank of girlhood. The aura of Red Locks seemed to waver and dim. However, as they grew silent once more, gazing out at the yard, Herbie felt himself quite tongue-tied, and the 10 glory brightened and shone as strongly as at first, and he realized that charms sufficiently powerful could overcome even the handicap of belonging to the family.

“Well, gotta make my rounds,” he said abruptly. “So long.”

“Good-by,” said the little girl, wrinkling her snub nose and red, firm cheeks at him in a friendly grin. As Herbie walked off the landing into the corridor, she called after him, “Are you really going to Camp Manitou this summer?”

The boy turned and looked down his nose at her in the crushing way teachers reacted to silly questions. He was no taller than the girl, so the effect was rather hard to get, but he managed a good approximation by tilting his head far back, and sighting along the edge of his nose.

“You'll find out,” he enunciated after a dignified pause, and stalked off down the hall.

Mrs. Mortimer Gorkin had a weary afternoon of it with Herbie. Shortly after the children came back to class, she was summoned out of the room for a few minutes and returned to find her trusted monitor standing on top of her desk, reciting a parody of “The Village Blacksmith” with an idiotic preciseness that she recognized as a burlesque of herself. “The muss-uls on his ba-rawny arrrms,” he was saying, “are sta-rrong as rrrrrubba bands-sah.” She punished this malfeasance of office by ordering Herbie to sit in the last seat of the last girls' row and forbidding him to speak for the rest of the day. He broke the injunction twice by shouting spectacularly accurate answers to questions that had reduced the rest of the class to silence. This put the teacher in the bad predicament of having to reproach brilliance. The second time she tried sarcasm, saying heavily, “And pray, what makes you so very, very clever this afternoon, Master Bookbinder?”

It was a mistake. Herbert was inspired to jump to his feet and rejoin, “Just celebrating your wedding, Mrs. Gorkin,” touching off a demonstration of screaming hilarity which the reddened, angry teacher could not control until she stood, pounded her desk and shrieked, “Silence! Silence!” She effectively snuffed out Herbert by offering to conduct him down to Mr. Gauss's office the next time he uttered a word. But this came too late. By his repartee, and by forcing her to a display of temper, he had clearly won the day.

When the class marched into the school yard at the end of the afternoon and broke ranks, he was at once surrounded, the girls giggling and shouting at him, the boys pounding his back, shaking his hand, and assuring him with various curses that “he was a regular guy, after all.” It was admitted by everyone that he had been under the spell of a “crush,” an ailment which all the children understood. The great Lennie Krieger himself condescended to lounge up to Herbert and say, “Nice work, Fatso,” which set the seal on his acclaim. He was received back into society. He was even permitted to pitch the first inning of the softball game as a mark of his redemption, and no criticism was heard of his mediocre efforts.

An ugly little girl with a fat face and straight whitish hair, Shirley Schwartz, who secretly adored Herbie but had learned in lower grades, from other boys, the bitter necessity of hiding her hopeless loves, watched this triumph of her hero with joy. When he left the game after several innings, she decided to follow him home on the forlorn chance that he might speak to her. She hovered while he gathered up his books, and dogged him discreetly as he left the yard. But to her astonishment he did not take the direction to his house which she knew well, but turned and went into the teachers' entrance to the school. Love made her bold—she knew, anyway, that the entrance was not monitored after school hours—so she followed him in.

Five minutes later she returned to the yard, pallid and shaken, with a tale that set heads shaking and tongues clacking among the pupils of 7B-1. Shirley had seen Herbie's amazing new deed with her own eyes. Without being ordered to do so, and with no word to any pupil about his reasons for such suicidal folly, Herbie had walked up to the private door of the principal, Mr. Gauss, which even teachers never used, approaching the Presence only through the outer office; had knocked boldly; and, in response to a muffled, surprised call from inside in the dreaded voice, had vanished within.

THREE
The Visitor

T
he evening was purple, and the naked electric street lights cast a brightening glow from under their wrinkled reflectors along Homer Avenue in the Bronx, when Herbie Bookbinder wrested himself away from a discussion of religion around a fire in a vacant lot and wended homeward. The argument over the nature and powers of God had been raging for hours like the fire, and had been kindled, like the fire, by a piece of newspaper printed in Hebrew lettering.

It was known to Bronx boys of all faiths that to burn a Jewish newspaper on Friday was a piece of rashness that must bring disaster, and there was no youngster in Herbie's neighborhood who would have done it. A fine point of theology had arisen, however, when Herbie had recalled from a lecture at Sunday school that this day, Thursday, was a minor festival, the Thirty-third of the Omer. He suggested that it was perilous to light a fire with the sheets on this day, too, for, although it was not as dangerous a time as Friday, there seemed to remain an element of risk. The Christian boys had at once seen the point and agreed, but trouble ensued when Leonard Krieger saw a chance to cry Herbert down with jeers.

Lennie was a big, good-looking, black-haired lad, twelve and a half years old, a master of the education of the streets, a hater of school education, a lively athlete, and a natural leader of boys. His father and Herbie's were partners in the ice business, and the two boys had always known and disliked each other. The antipathy had deepened with the years as Herbie overtook the older boy in school, and it now flourished poisonously, with both of them in Mrs. Gorkin's class, Herbie as a sparkler and Lennie as one of the indifferent boys.

The athlete was verging on the age when the grosser superstitions break down. Expressing much fine sarcasm at the expense of “little fat 'fraidy-cats” and “superstitious yellow-bellies,” he proceeded to crumple up the Jewish paper and light it. His bravado caused mutters of fear among the smaller boys. None of them would heap wood on the fire, and he was forced to tend it himself. Herbie darkly observed that he only hoped Leonard would not come home to find that his father and mother had dropped dead. Leonard at once offered to “show him whose mother and father would drop dead,” advancing on him with raised fists, but the voice of the group, crying, “Pick on someone your own size,” stopped the settlement of the problem by force.

A long general debate followed as to the chances of bad luck befalling Leonard Krieger, and the argument finally narrowed to these questions: whether God was watching Jewish newspapers all the time, or only on Fridays; whether He had eyes to watch and, if not, how He accomplished watching; and where God was and what He was like, anyway.

At last Lennie blew the discussion apart by exclaiming, “Aw, all this is a lotta bushwa. I don't believe in God.”

None of the boys dared speak for a moment after this. Herbie glanced anxiously at the huge setting sun, as though afraid it would turn green or fall to bits. Frankie Callaghan, a red-headed little Catholic boy, cried, “I ain't gonna stay around here. Lightnin's gonna strike that guy,” and galloped out of the lot. The others remained, but moved out of range. If such a spectacular end were to befall Lennie, they wanted to see it.

The Almighty, however, remained unperturbed, and no blue bolt fell on Lennie.

“What are you guys lookin' so scared about?” he sneered. “I said it an' I'll say it again. I don't believe in God.”

“O.K., if you're so smart,” said Herbie, cautiously moving closer to the atheist, “I suppose you're gonna say
you
made the world yourself.”

“I didn't say I did. Who do you say made it?”

“Why, God, of course.”

“All right, Fatso. Who made God?”

Two more boys, rendered uncomfortable by the discussion, departed.

“That's a dumb question,” Herbie replied impatiently.

“Why is it dumb?”

“Well,
because.
If I could tell you who made God, then God wouldn't be God. The other guy who made him would be God.”

“O.K., so nobody made God, is that right?”

“That's right.”

“Then there ain't no God,” said Lennie with a chortle of triumph.

A couple of boys snickered reluctantly. Herbie was not felled by the stroke.

“You mean to say God couldn't just
be,
without someone makin' him?”

“'Course not.”

“Why not?”

“Because nothin' just is. Somebody's gotta make it.”

“O.K.,” retorted Herbie,
“then who made the world?”

There was a general laugh at Lennie's expense this time. Herbie had managed to twist the age-old circular argument so that he was now chasing his opponent. The athlete said angrily, “Well, if there's a God, let Him make a can of ice cream appear right here in front o' you 'n' me.”

All the boys stared at the patch of grass between the debaters, half expecting a cylinder of Breyer's Special Chocolate to materialize. The Creator, however, seemed to be in no mood for showing off. He would produce neither lightning nor ice cream on Lennie's behalf.

“Well, what does that prove?” said Herbie after a pause.

“It proves,” declared Lennie, with more passion than conviction, “that you're a dumb little fat slob, even though you're teacher's pet.”

“Jer-
reee
!” A squawk from a little girl on the distant sidewalk. “Mom's hollerin' for you for supper.”

“Holy cats, it's a quarter to seven,” exclaimed the boy thus summoned, and ran.

The young theologians awoke to the workaday world again. One by one they left the circle around the fire, tramped away through the high green weeds of the lot, scrambled down a slope of rock to the sidewalk, and went away among the canyons of apartment houses. Herbie, who loved fires, arguments, and vacant lots more than anything in the world, except possibly movies, was among the last lingerers around the flames in the gloom. He bade a silent good-by to the cold roughness of rock on which he sat and the fresh smell of the weeds all around him, and dragged himself off to his home, his clothes reeking delightfully of wood smoke.

Not every neighborhood in the Bronx boasted vacant lots. Even those on Homer Avenue were being systematically blasted with dynamite, gutted by steam shovels, and plugged up with apartment houses. It was lucky for Herbert and his friends that the nearness of the avenue to the Bronx River (known to the boys as “the creek”) and its situation along a ridge of tough rock had made building less profitable here than elsewhere, so that the tide of bricks had not yet swamped green earth along Homer Avenue. Of these matters the boys were ignorant. The parents settled on Homer Avenue because rents were cheap, and the children were happy in the choice because of the vacant lots. In Public School 50, teachers were always trying in vain to wake the love of nature in the boys by reading poetry to them. The compositions on the subject of nature were the dreariest and most banal of all the writing efforts wrung from the urchins, and the word “lots” never appeared in them. But the moment the lads were free of the prison of school they scampered to the lots, chased butterflies, dissected weeds and flowers, built fires, and watched the melting colors of the sunset. It goes without saying that parents and teachers were strongly opposed to the practice of playing in the lots, and were always issuing orders against it. This added the final sauce to the deed so grateful to the palate of boyhood.

Herbie went into 1075 Homer Avenue, a brick cliff very much like the other brick cliffs that stood wall to wall for many blocks along the less rocky side of the street. It was gray, square, five stories high, punctured with windows, and saved from bleakness only by the entrance, which tried on a little matter of plaster gargoyles overhead and dead shrubs in cracked plaster urns on either side of the iron-grilled glass doors. The stucco hallway had once been frescoed with highly colored fruits, but these, under the grime which gathers equally on walls and boys' necks in the city, had soon looked sickly. The wise landlord had repainted the hallway with a sad green tint that grew grayer and grayer each year without exciting protest. The boy skipped up two flights of the staircase, his little shoes wearing the grooves in the stone slab steps infinitesimally deeper, and paused outside the door labeled “3A,” which led into the brick pigeonhole sacred, while the lease ran, to the Bookbinder family and known to them as home.

BOOK: City Boy
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