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Authors: Herman Wouk

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BOOK: City Boy
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“A regular Jack Dempsey, huh?” sneered bandit number one. But he sized up Cliff with a flicker of caution in his eyes.

“I'm getting tired of this blab,” said Cliff. He poked the leader lightly on the shoulder with two fingers. “If you can fight me, start fighting.”

The leader glared, and pouted, and breathed heavily, and dusted off the place that had been touched (not that it had been rendered any dirtier) with a clenched fist. But no knives flashed, and no blows ensued.

“I can fight him,” said the smaller one again, indicating Herbie to the two big boys. “Please, I can fight him.”

“And me, too?” said Cliff.

The small gangster looked at his chief questioningly. The leader spoke a few words in the strange tongue again. Then he glanced at Herbie with contempt and said, “Just let us catch
you
alone sometime. Come on,” he added to his companion. “Let's let the sissies go.”

“You still ain't told us what you got in the bottles,” called Cliff to the retreating backs.

“If you weren't such a dumb mama's boy,” shouted back the outlaw, “you'd know they were killies.”

“Did you catch 'em out of the river?”

“Nah, we found 'em in a nest up a tree,” came the jeering answer, and the two creek gangsters climbed up to the railroad track, where the freight train had finally gone by, and disappeared from view.

These menacing manikins were, in fact, children of one of the poor foreign families who lived then in wood shacks near the shore of the East River, kept goats, coaxed vegetables out of the neglected Bronx dirt, and maintained an obstinate separateness from the subway-and-steamheat world during the first generation of their immigration. In time these lads were destined to be sucked into respectability, but meanwhile they lived in a free way rare among city boys. Inveterate truants, they knew a great deal about plants, fishes, and animals without benefit of Boy Scout training, and they haunted the river banks. Such was the basis of the “creek gang” legend, and it had this much truth in it, that several times a year unwary boys were deprived of their pocket money and pummeled if they fell in with these outcasts. But there was no gang, no knives, no guns, no horrid orgies, no killings. Romance had eked out fact, as it usually does in satisfactory and long-lived legends. However, none of this reassuring background being available to Herbie, he stood quaking in the aftermath of strain, hardly able to believe yet that he was safe.

The idyl by the river was gloomed. Aware of the gratitude he owed his cousin, but too shamed by his own show of fear to express it, Herbie passed the lead to him and said, “Where'll we go now, Cliff?” But the stalwart boy, his hour over, was content to follow the livelier ideas of Herbie, and said as much. So do generals, skilled in the art of violence, take the command of a nation in war and give it up when peace comes. Herbie looked up and down the river bank, and briefly considered an excursion toward the pebbly shore of the wide East River. But he decided it was too far. It then occurred to him that they might fish for killies, in the manner he had heard about but never tried, with a handkerchief. But they had no bottles, and the prospect of going home with a sopping handkerchief and a few dead little fish seemed less charming than it might have, an hour sooner. In short, he found the spring hunger waning.

“We'll go to the Place,” he said, turning and running up to the railroad tracks.

Just on the border where grass met cinders he noticed the round, long, slender little stalks of a plant the boys called “wild onions,” and he and Cliff pulled up and chewed several of the bitter little white root bulbs, vowing that they were delicious, and quickly spat them out and went their way. This was as close as they came to nature in the day's sortie.

On the other side of the stream there was a broad garbage dump, established when the growing city had been thirty years younger and the wise men had not imagined that the inhabitants could spread out so far. The flames from the dumps and the red sky-glow over them, contending with the sunset, the moon, and the stars for attention, had been a familiar sight in the Bronx for many years, but in Herbie's time the fires had ceased after bitter petitions from the new settlers in these remote stretches of the borough, and the dumps were being replaced by coal and sand piles. Jacob Bookbinder had built the Bronx River Ice Company plant on a tract of land close to the odorous heaps, and therefore as depressed in value, almost, as an acre of Sahara desert. The business had started with little money, most of it borrowed, and elegance of site had been a last consideration.

The “Place” was an oblong shell of concrete one story high, a city block long, and half as wide. Herbie had often heard his father speak of the plant as a “ninety tonner,” and in his infancy had taken the phrase to mean “ninety thunders,” an apt nickname for the clanking, pounding inferno it had seemed to him. It was traditional in his family that, on first being brought into the Place at the age of four, to be shown the huge brine tank, the ice cans, the dynamo, and the rising and falling pistons of the compressors, Herbert had gone at once into a fit of screaming; and his father, who was not too far from his European boyhood to believe in omens, had always said sadly thereafter that his son would not inherit his managerial shoes. Herbert had since come to know that “ninety tonner” described the capacity of the plant for a single day's production of ice, also that his father's goal in the world was to build and own a two-hundred tonner. He had learned, too, to control his fear of the terrible machines, and even to find a sort of wild thrill in watching them.

“We'll have to climb through a window,” he said, as the boys approached the long wall of the Place which faced the river. “There's nobody there on Sundays except the engineer.”

Because of the menace of the poisonous ammonia gas used in refrigeration, one section of one of the broad windows of the Place was always left open, night and day. It was through this small vent, high on one side of the window, that Herbie painfully wriggled with a boost and a push from Cliff, who followed speedily, jumping up and sliding his slender waist through the hole like an acrobat. The boys found themselves in the large machinery-filled space known as the tank room. They could see the engineer manipulating the traveling crane over the brine tank in the far corner. Then, greatly to Herbie's surprise, the boys heard echoing through the large hollow building angry voices which came from the office at the other end of the plant. The loudest and angriest voice was that of Herbie's father.

“You have no right to sell!” he was shouting. “No right to sell!”

The Safe

J
acob Bookbinder was not, in the popular phrase, a man to be trifled with. A quick estimate showed Herbie that sneaking into the Place through a window came under the head of trifling. His first impulse was to climb out again with no delay, but curiosity was stronger. He crouched, motioned to Cliff to follow him, and stole along the concrete wall, behind the ammonia tanks, to the wooden partition which separated the office from the machinery space. The partition had a glassless window in it, with a sill about as high as Herbie's eyes.

“You have no right to sell!” The voice of Jacob Bookbinder was so harsh, strained, and stern that Herbie hardly knew it. “This is our place, mine and Krieger's. We built it and we've run it for fifteen years, and you, Mr. Powers, who have put your head into the building, if I may say so, a dozen times in your life, are not doing the right thing to discuss selling without our consent.”

“Jake, why excited? I say this way, peaceable. Powers honest man. One way, another way. Maybe better off. Talk, decide. Friendly. Nobody rob us. Lot of cash. Reliable people. I say this way, cool off. Maybe—”

Herbie recognized the hasty high voice and the curious speech of his father's partner, Mr. Krieger. The partner was a timid, tall man with grizzled hair and tiny eyes surrounded by wrinkles. His most striking feature was his language, a scramble of words which might have graveled a military decoder. Mr. Krieger had astonishing lack of confidence in himself. He believed any one sentence he uttered might be enough to entrap him and ruin his life. He therefore took great care never to utter a sentence. Having framed a statement in his mind, he would dance tiptoe over it, so to speak, with his tongue, touching only about one word out of four. This ingenious principle enabled him to deny anything he said, on the grounds that he had been misunderstood, if it happened to sound wrong once out of his mouth.

Jacob Bookbinder, familiar with the code after years of unraveling, turned on Krieger with a fierce look that Herbie remembered well from a couple of historic lickings.

“Krieger, will you do me the favor to let me talk? Better off to give away our place for half of what it's worth and be left with a few dollars and our hands in our pockets?”

“Who means? Only peaceable. This opinion, that opinion. Not for two hundred thousand dollars. Only up to the majority. Thirty years in the ice business. I honest man, you honest man, Powers different opinion honest man. I say this way, peaceable—”

Mr. Krieger's flow of words was interrupted by a strange voice saying, “Pardon me for just a moment,” in accents that indicated the speaker was an outlander, certainly not of the Bronx, possibly not even of New York. Herbie, peering cautiously over the sill, saw a burly, sandy-haired young man who gestured with a smoking pipe. He wore the kind of clothes that men affected in the “love movies” which the boy hated—well cut, new, and of soft materials not seen along Homer Avenue.

“I want to say you gentlemen are not being fair to me. I could have gone ahead and closed with Interborough on their offer, but I owed you the courtesy of this conference and I arranged it. We seem to be bogged in useless wrangling. It happens to be my wife's birthday today and I have to catch a train, and I'll really thank you to keep the discussion as short as possible.”

“Please forgive us for taking a few minutes to talk over being thrown out on the street,” said Herbie's father.

“Now, honestly, that kind of remark is untrue and hitting below the belt,” said Mr. Powers. “Interborough intends to retain both of you in executive positions—”

“Fine,” said Jacob Bookbinder bitterly. “We've still got jobs. I'm back where I was two months after I landed in this country, only twenty-five years older, but what's twenty-five years?”

Powers stood up and impatiently donned a wide gray and blue topcoat.

“Forgive me, gentlemen, trains don't wait and we're getting nowhere. A decision must be made, and I'm sincerely sorry and upset at our disagreement, but I must ask for a vote now—”

“A vote. Fifty-one to forty-nine, as usual,” said Mr. Bookbinder. “We've had a lot of chances this year to be reminded of the figures.”

“I regret you are being blunt and sarcastic, but it's your privilege, I suppose,” said Powers, buttoning his coat. “Once again, if you please, I call for a vote.”

Herbie and Cliff exchanged puzzled looks as they squatted against the wooden panel and listened. They knew that big events were in motion, but the issues were beyond them.

“Gentlemen, I say this way.” (Krieger again.) “Hard feeling nothing worth. How good? Look future. Everybody young. Unanimous all better. Changing times, a million businesses, could be not so bad. Maybe with Interborough bigger, better? I say this way. All good friends, above board, one, two, three, shake hands. Thirty years in the ice business, everybody knows honest man. If do it, do it—”

“Thanks, Krieger, for wanting to give our place away unanimously,” broke in Bookbinder. “You, young Mr. Powers, be so kind as to sit down.”

“I'm sorry, Mr. Bookbinder, but my train—”

“You're going to miss the train.”

At a new desperate note in his father's voice, Herbie felt a peculiar thrill. He saw the beleaguered ice man walk to the heavy safe built into the wall of the office, and pause with his hand on the combination dial.

“The Bible says that for everything there is a time,” he said to Powers. “This is the time for both of you to learn something.” The two men stared at him as he spun the dial.

“You will be interested to know, Mr. Powers, the combination is my son Herbie's birthday, 1–14–17. I gave him that little honor because with his small hands he smeared the plaster for the cornerstone of this place when he was three years old.”

Herbie wanted to whisper to Cliff, “Sure, I remember that,” but he couldn't take his eyes off his father. Mr. Bookbinder swung open the safe door, slid from the back of a narrow shelf a green metal box marked “J.B.” in rough letters of white paint, and began to unlock it. “Sit down, Krieger, and you, too, kindly, Mr. Powers,” he repeated grimly. He set the open box on the desk before him, and faced the two men with a cornered air.

If Jacob Bookbinder had been hanging by his fingers to the edge of a cliff, or if he had been trapped in a pit with a cobra slithering toward him, his son would have recognized the state of things at once, and might have plunged to the rescue with a hurrah. He would even have recognized so abstract a catastrophe as the loss of a map to a gold mine. But his movie education went no further, and so he was unable to appreciate this scene. The disasters of parents usually happen inside a maze of arithmetic, hidden from the eyes of boys who are still struggling with improper fractions. The fact is, though, that Herbie's father was in peril.

Of one important fact Herbie was ignorant: namely, that his father and Mr. Krieger did not own the Place. They had started to build it with so little money that halfway through they had been forced to stop, and no bank had been willing to lend them funds to finish the construction. Faced with ruin, Bookbinder contrived an escape by selling a mortgage and fifty-one per cent of the stock of the Place to a rich, wise old Irishman named Powers, who had sold them the land on which the Place was being built, and saw in Bookbinder a man who would not fail to deliver dividends. With this help the ice company came to life again. The building was finished, the Place flourished, and Bookbinder did not greatly regret the cruel price he had paid—loss of ownership—because Powers was a kindly, silent master, content with the interest he reaped each year.

BOOK: City Boy
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