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Authors: Herman Wouk

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BOOK: City Boy
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He could hear his mother stirring about in the kitchen, just inside and to the left of the door. Chances seemed favorable for a tiptoe entrance and swift concealment of his wool sweater, which for some reason retained more smell of fire than all the rest of his clothing together. He tried the doorknob. It was unlatched. Softly he pushed open the door, counting on the clatter of dishes to cover the squeak of the hinges, and darted inside, past the steamy kitchen, down the hall to the bedrooms.

“Look, Ma. Here's Herbie.” It was the voice of his sister, Felicia, full of the tones of righteousness.

“Herbie, you come here!” called his mother.

The boy arrested his flight and turned heavily back. The treachery of his sister caused no bitterness in his heart. It was one of the evil things of life, like school and bedtime, against which he had long ago worn out his indignation. He now bore it stoically, convinced that release would only come in the latter days of eternity when he reached the age of twenty-one.

Felicia's long, curly black hair hung about her face as she bent over a loaf of bread she was slicing when Herbie came into the kitchen. She was almost thirteen, short and slight for her age, and by some older lads she was judged very good-looking. Herbie regarded this judgment as lunacy, but he knew that as boys passed into the fourteenth year and beyond they underwent severe changes that seemed to lessen their common sense.

Felicia looked up from her work, shook the hair out of her eyes, inhaled with a loud sniff, said, “Ugh! Smoke!” and fell to cutting bread industriously again.

“I guess I'd smell better,” replied her brother, “if I went up to Emily's house and tried on her mother's lipstick.”

“Oh, that old thing again,” said Felicia scornfully.

Herbie knew that he had worked dry his discovery of his sister's dabbling in cosmetics a month ago, but any attack on another theme, however feeble, semed better than staying on the topic of smoke. His mother put down her soup ladle, wiped her hands on her apron, turned away from the stove, and unexpectedly gave Herbie a hug and a kiss. “You do smell of smoke, but I forgive you this once,” she said in a tired, good-natured tone. “Go, take off that sweater, Papa'll be home for supper in a minute.” She held him at arm's length, surveying him fondly as though seeing him after a long absence, then let him go. Herbert fled, rejoicing in the unlooked-for mercy.

A half hour later, when the family was seated around the table in the dining room, Mrs. Bookbinder filled Herbert's plate almost to the brim with lamb stew, carefully fishing the choice morsels of meat out of the tureen for him. Felicia's outraged protests at this strange favoritism were cut short by her father, whose conversation she had interrupted.

The father was a thin, stern-looking man with scanty, graying hair, a long, fleshy nose, many deep, downward lines in his narrow face, and the abstracted look of one whose life passes in urgent business calculations. His talk at the table always consisted of narrations to his wife of the day's problems at the ice plant. He greeted the children pleasantly when he arrived home and forgot about them for the rest of the evening. Herbie and his sister were used to playing little games at the table while their father talked about “the Place,” about his perpetual difficulties with his partner, Mr. Krieger, about something called a mortgage, and about someone called a mortgagee. It would have required an impossibly long lecture on the law of mortgages to make clear to the children some thousands of hours of conversation dinned into their small ears. Yet Herbie and Felicia had made many such transactions. Indeed, even now the boy's cousin, Cliff, held his roller skates pending Herbie's repayment of fifteen cents, which he had borrowed in order to see a crucial episode of a serial movie. Herbie would have been amazed to know that he had thereby been granted a “mortgage” and that Cliff was a “mortgagee.”

“Papa,” said the mother at last as her husband fell silent long enough to eat some stew, “I had an interesting phone call today.”

“You had a phone call?” Mr. Bookbinder's surprise was genuine. He was not aware that anything resembling an event had taken place in his wife's life for fifteen years.

“Yes, from a very important gentleman. A gentleman who happens to think highly of your son.”

The mystery of his mother's unusual kindness was suddenly explained for Herbie. His heart thudding, he began to plan speedily how to handle the coming crisis.

“In fact,” went on the mother, her weary face lit with liveliness, momentarily suggesting beauty that had faded many years ago, “this very important gentleman thinks so highly of your son that he's coming here after supper to pay us a visit.”

“Who is it?” asked the father, in whom the spirit of banter was not strong.

The mother uncovered the glowing gem of news with reluctance. “Mr. Gauss, the principal—the
principal
—of Herbie's school.”

“That's very nice of him,” said Jacob Bookbinder awkwardly, after a pause.

“Aw, I bet I know what that old Mr. Gauss wants,” said Herbie.

“Ah, he wants something,” said Mr. Bookbinder. This brought the situation nearer reality.

“Sure, I bet he wants me and Fleece to go to that old camp of his,” said Herbie, adding quickly as he saw disapproval on the faces of both parents, “that camp that Lucille Glass and Lennie Krieger are going to.”

“Krieger's boy going to camp? Since when?” said the father.

“How do you know Lucille Glass?” said the mother.

“I met her in school,” answered Herbie, shrewdly ignoring his father's question. He went on, “I don't feel like going to no camp, an' I bet Fleece don't either.”

“I hate camps,” said Felicia, whose knowledge of the ways of a parental mind was not inferior to Herbie's.

“How do you know you hate camps when you've never been to one?” said Mrs. Bookbinder.

“What I'd like to know is, where does Krieger suddenly get money to send a boy to camp?” said the father irritably.

Herbie detected a drift toward a collision between the facts of his imagination and those of brute nature. “Well, Lennie
says
he's going anyway,” he observed, “but he's an awful liar, you know.”

“That's Krieger, isn't it?” said Mr. Bookbinder to his wife. “A man with a bank loan on his furniture and a Chevrolet car he has to borrow money from the business to pay the installments on, and the boy goes to camp. Glass, of course, can send a girl to camp.”

“She's a sweet little thing,” said Mrs. Bookbinder. “Help me clear, Felice.”

“She has red hair,” said Herbie, tingling all over at the mention of the girl. “I hate girls with red hair.”

“I see her in gym. She's a baby,” said Felicia as she scraped and stacked the dirty dishes.

The doorbell rang. Herbie jumped in his chair.

“That must be Mr. Gauss, but he's so early!” cried Mrs. Bookbinder, untying her apron with swift hands. “Pa, put on your jacket and go in the parlor. Herbie, answer the bell. Felice, shut the dining-room doors and finish cleaning up quietly.”

These directives issued, she hurried to her bedroom, while the family moved to obey. The lines of authority were laid down in the Bookbinder household, and Mrs. Bookbinder was as clearly in command in matters of diet, furniture, clothing, and etiquette as she was subordinate in everything else.

Herbie's first feeling upon opening the door to the terrible visitor was disappointment at his size. In the assemblies, and behind his desk, Mr. Gauss gave the impression of skyscraping grandeur, but he managed to pass through the doorway without crouching. He was corpulent, and rather shiny of visage. His mouth, Herbie observed, was fixed in a peculiar smile, consisting of a straight, thin line of lips pushed upward at both ends and apparently held so by a pair of firm invisible fingers.

“Good evening, Master Bookbinder,” said the principal loudly, his mouth retaining the shape of the smile as it opened. “I trust your good dad and mother are expecting me?”

“Yes, sir,” the boy mumbled, and led the way to the parlor. His good dad was standing by the upright piano (Felicia's chief sorrow in life) looking fully as wooden, upright, and hard to play upon as the instrument. Mr. Gauss, by way of compensating, unbent to the verge of slumping out of human shape as he exchanged greetings with the parent. The two men sat down on the red velours-covered sofa, driving a couple of feathers into the air through a seam Mrs. Bookbinder had planned to mend that very evening.

“Allow me to say, Mr. Bookbinder,” began the principal, “that you have a wonderful daughter and a very wonderful son. Absolutely outstanding children, both of them.”

“Their mother signs the report cards, so I wouldn't know,” said Jacob Bookbinder, putting one hand in a jacket pocket and leaning back on the other in an awkward, self-conscious way.

“Absolutely outstanding. I keep my eye out for these outstanding children, you know. I want to remember in later years when they're grown up and famous that a very little bit of their success—just a very little bit—is due to the molding they received at my hands when they were still in the childhood state of impressionable clay.”

“Education is a fine thing,” answered the father, not being able to think of a more noncommittal remark.

“You have stated it in a nutshell,” said Mr. Gauss. “My one sorrow is—”

Mrs. Bookbinder appeared, splendid in a red silk gown. Her face was newly powdered, her hair carefully arranged, and a long double string of amber beads clicked on her bosom. The men stood.

“And this is Mrs. Bookbinder, I'm sure,” cried the principal, with an immensely happy smile. “No mistaking the resemblance to little Herbie.”

“It is an honor and a privilege to welcome you to our home, Mr. Gauss,” said the mother with a formal little bow.

“An honor and a privilege to be here, I assure you,” said the principal, returning the bow with a nice mixture of grandeur and humbleness. As they all sat Mr. Gauss proceeded, “I have just been telling Mr. Bookbinder that you have a wonderful daughter and a very wonderful son. Absolutely outstanding children, both of them.”

Herbie noticed the repetition of the extra adjective “very” applied to himself, and while it pleased him, he calculated that it might be due to the fact that he, not Felicia, had invited the principal to visit. He was already in an agony of fear that Mr. Gauss might reveal his rash deed, so the extra praise made him more uneasy than otherwise. But Mr. Gauss's motive was really much simpler. He knew that parents usually set more store by sons than daughters, and distributed his adjectives on that basis.

“And I was telling Mr. Bookbinder,” he went on, “that I like to keep my eye on these outstanding children so that in after years when they are famous—as I'm quite sure Herbie will be—”

Mrs. Bookbinder turned to beam at her boy. Herbie was making a careful study of the wan roses and foliage in the carpet.

“—I will be able to remember that I contributed a tiny, just a tiny bit to their success by molding them while they were still in the childhood state of impressionable clay.”

Herbie wondered vaguely what constituted molding at Mr. Gauss's hands, inasmuch as he had never spoken to the principal or even seen him at a distance of less than a hundred feet until today. But Mrs. Bookbinder had no such reservations.

“I'm sure the boy owes a great deal to you, Mr. Gauss,” she said, “and I only hope when he grows up he'll appreciate it.”

“Why, that's extremely gracious of you. I was just telling Mr. Bookbinder that my one sorrow in the case of these outstanding children is that I lose touch with them for two months each summer. Oh, for the common run of children it doesn't make much difference. But you know from your industrial experience, Mr. Bookbinder, that a fine, delicate piece of machinery, neglected for two months, can really be injured.”

The father, who saw where the talk was leading, did not wish to assent to anything the principal proposed, but he was cornered. “That much is true,” he said unwillingly.

“I'm glad we agree. And that is how I happened to hit on the idea of Camp Manitou.”

The hour had struck. Herbie began to sidle from the scene.

“Must you go, Herbie?” said the principal at once, training his smile at the boy. “I should think you would be interested.”

“Stay where you are,” commanded the father.

Herbie stopped and leaned against the piano, looking unhappy.

But his fears were needless. Mr. Gauss launched into his “sales talk” without ever mentioning the boy's call at his office. Once or twice he nodded at Herbie with the cunning geniality of a fellow-plotter; that was all. He expanded on a double-barreled theme: the delights of Camp Manitou and the peculiar worthiness of the Bookbinder children. The boy was grateful to the schoolmaster for keeping mum, but he was also struck by his readiness to bypass the truth—a horrid sin, according to Mr. Gauss's own speeches in assembly. As the camp owner went on with his plea, passing booklets of photographs to the parents and to the boy, he fell into a manner of speech and conduct that seemed more and more familiar to Herbert. The boy had uncles and aunts who came periodically to wheedle favors from his father. So poor Mr. Gauss talked on and on, unaware that his shiny face and roly-poly form were sinking, in the lad's view, from his height of office to the depressed level inhabited by needy relatives.

“Herbie tells me,” the mother put in after a while, “that Lucille Glass is enrolled in your camp.”

BOOK: City Boy
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