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Authors: Herman Wouk

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BOOK: City Boy
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Felicia howled, “Why, why,
why
can't I wear silk stockings?”

The mother answered, “Felicia, for the last time, it's too late now to argue. The stores are closed today, and I can't buy the stockings anyway.”

Felicia pounced. “I can borrow a pair from Emily.”

“They won't fit.”

“Oh, won't they?”

The girl flashed open a lower drawer of the dresser, and from under a pile of her blouses pulled out a pair of the sheer hose. Before the astonished parent could protest, she kicked off her slippers and pulled the stockings on, saying rapidly, “I borrowed them Friday, just in case. I wasn't going to wear them without your permission. But do they fit or don't they? Look. Look!” She jumped up and pirouetted. They fitted.

“Well, anyway, Papa won't stand for it,” said the trapped mother.

“I'll go ask him. Whatever he says goes. All right?” The girl was at the door of the bedroom, on her way to the parlor, where her father was pouring over
Refrigerating Engineering.

To have her veto overridden was a worse defeat for the mother than plain surrender, and she knew it. Dialogues between the children and the father always went so:

CHILD
:
Pa, can I do so-and-so?
FATHER
:
I'm busy. Ask your mother.
CHILD
:
She says it's up to you.
FATHER
:
Oh.
(Brief glance at the child, standing by him humbly with a winning smile.)
I guess so, yes.
CHILD
:
(Top of lungs)
Ma! Pa says it's all right.

He had thus given consent even to things of which he later disapproved growling, when the mother cited his permission, “Well, why do you send them to me?”

So Mrs. Bookbinder said, “Never mind. You can wear them, just this once, and you'll return them in the morning.”

The girl hugged her mother, agreeing with joyous hypocrisy. Her foot was inside the door of grownup life at last, and she knew she would not be driven out again by fire or bayonet. Nor was she. From that day forward she wore silk stockings.

Half past twelve, and the family assembled in the parlor for a final review before leaving.

“Herbert, there's something funny about the way you look.” The mother examined him up and down, and her eyes finally came to rest on his hair. “What is it?”

The boy quickly put his cake-eater hat on. “Nothing, Mom. I'm just dressed up.”

“Take your hat off in the house.”

The boy reluctantly obeyed.

“Papa, can you tell what it is?”

The father inspected him. “He looks older, somehow. What's the difference? Let's go.”

At the word “older,” Herbert felt all warm inside, as though he had drunk wine.

“Ma, I see what it is,” cried Felicia, and giggled. “He's parted his hair on the wrong side. Isn't that silly?”

“All right for you, Silk Stockings,” snarled Herbert. In a red flash he considered informing his mother that Felicia had bought, not borrowed, the hose, with nickels and dimes fished out of her pig bank with a breadknife, but talebearing revolted him. “What's the difference which side I part it on, anyway?” he appealed to his parents.

“As long as it makes no difference, go back and comb it the right way,” said the mother.

Mrs. Bookbinder was fertile in these argumentative dead ends. Herbert slunk off muttering, and combed away precious years of ripeness, but not before he had postured before the mirror for a couple of minutes, boiling at the injustice that forced him to mar the handsome world-weary effect he had stumbled on.

As soon as the secondhand Chevrolet that was the official car of the Bronx River Ice Company brought the family to 2645 Mosholu Parkway, Herbie began revising his plans of gallantry. The kiss in the garden was definitely not practical. The Glass castle was a two-story red brick house, flanked on either side by similar castles, with only narrow cement driveways separating them. The garden consisted of two squares of grass on either side of the entrance, each about as large as the carpet in the Bookbinder parlor. The little hedges surrounding these compressed meadows would not have provided enough privacy for a pair of romantically inclined cats.

“What a dump!” said Felicia, with ladylike tugs through her skirt at the tops of her stockings, which were tending to slide down her bony legs.

“Don't you dare say anything like that! It isn't polite,” cried Mrs. Bookbinder. “And don't you dare fool with those stockings when anybody is looking.”

Herbie, whose disappointment quickly melted in the anticipation of seeing Lucille, could hardly breathe as he ran up the white plaster steps and rang the bell. He managed to say thickly to Felicia, “Bet it's a rotten party.”

“Oh, sure,” sneered the sister, “you don't want to see that redheaded infant. Not much. I hope they have a team of horses to pull you through the door.”

So when Lucille opened the door Herbie's face was red, but not nearly as red as the girl's instantly became under his intense, devouring look of admiration. And Felicia's face was reddest of all when, as the children entered the house, Herbie glanced back into Felicia's eyes, then at her legs, and burst out laughing.

Lucille Glass, eleven years old, her parents' spoiled darling, was also wearing silk stockings.

The children's party was at its full fury when the Bookbinders came. The basement of the Glass home, gaily decorated and finished as a game room, echoed with squeals, shouts, laughter, complaints, and clatter. Large piles of delicatessen sandwiches were vanishing under the onslaught of fifteen or twenty hungry children, and two temporary maids and a harassed aunt of Lucille were trying to serve ice cream and cake on paper plates amid a tangle of clutching hands and glittering eyes. The parents were feeding upstairs in the placid manner of well-broken-in human beings, while their young cavorted below like pygmies around a kill. Fortunately, there was much too much ice cream for everyone, and it was not long before the clamor began to subside, the hands to cease clutching, and the glitter to fade slowly into a glaze.

Herbie emerged from the basement washroom in a happy fog, water seeping down the sides of his face from his hair, which he had plastered back again with the wrong side parted. He was in Lucille Glass's home. He had shaken her hand. He had sat beside her on a sofa for ten minutes, eating corned-beef sandwiches and no more aware of the taste than if he had been chewing straw. The girl, in her blue and white party dress, with a white bow in her hair, seemed not of this world, but a changeling fallen from a star. Time had slowed down as in dreams. He had been at the party sixty minutes, but it was like a week of ordinary living. There stretched ahead the rich years and years before five o'clock, when he would have to go home.

Lucille emerged from the knot of children at the table and came to him with two plates of chocolate ice cream in her hands. “You almost missed this,” she said. “Want some?”

He took the plate gratefully and was digging the paper spoon into the sweet brown mound when she laid her hand for a moment shyly on his arm. “Don't eat it here,” she said. “Come where it's quiet.” She slipped away, threading through the crowded basement, and he followed, wondering. They passed Felicia and Lennie near the table wolfing huge chunks of a white cake, and Herbie tried to avoid them, but the sharp-eyed sister called out, “When's the wedding, Herbie?” and Lennie graciously added, “Hooray for the sheik in short pants.” (His own trousers were long.) Herbie said nothing, and hurried out through the little door at the back where Lucille had disappeared.

To his astonishment he was in a gloomy garage. Lucille climbed into the back seat of her father's new Chrysler and beckoned him to follow. Herbie had never been in any kind of automobile but a Chevrolet, and as he sat down on the soft gray upholstery he became dizzy with pleasure. Ice cream, cool dimness, solitude, a Chrysler, and Lucille! The world of fact was uncovering its treasures, and all his daydreams seemed tawdry. The underground palace crumbled in his mind.

The children ate their ice cream slowly.

“What are you going to be when you grow up?” said Lucille at last, putting her well-cleaned paper plate and spoon on the floor.

“An astronomer,” said Herbie.

“You mean look at the stars through a telescope?”

“That's right. I can pick out first-magnitude stars right now. I'll show them to you some night.”

“What are their names?”

“Well, there's lots. Orion, Sirius, Betelgeuse, Andromeda, Gemini …” He paused. Herbie did much reading about stars, but very little looking at them. The figures of their sizes and distances fascinated him, but they all looked pretty nearly alike in the sky, and anyway, they were none too visible beyond the street lights of Homer Avenue. He was not sure of the difference between a star and a constellation and was fairly confident that his listener wasn't either, so he reeled off any names out of the jumble he remembered. It worked.

“Gee, those names are beautiful.”

“I know lots more.”

“Can you make money that way?” asked the girl. “Just looking at stars?”

“Sure. Plenty.”

“Enough to get married and have a family?”

“Easy.”

The girl pondered for a moment, then said doubtfully, “How?”

Herbie hadn't the least idea. But he was not the first male to be challenged by a woman's common sense, nor the first to override it. “By discovering new stars, of course,” he said promptly.

“Then what happens?” inquired the girl.

“Why, you win a prize,” said Herbie.

“How much?”

“I forget. A million dollars—maybe ten million. Something like that.”

“For
one
star?”

“I'll show it to you in the encyclopedia if you don't believe me,” said Herbie. “What can a guy do that's more important than finding a new star?”

Lucille was convinced, and silenced. There was a pause.

“This is a swell car,” said Herbie. The remark fell into the silence like a stone into a pond and vanished, leaving ripples of self-consciousness in the air. The boy and girl happened to look into each other's eyes. Both blushed.

“Are you—are you going to get married?” said Lucille.

“Not till I'm old,” said Herbie.

“How old?”

“Real old.”

“How old is that?”

“I don't know.”

“Twenty-five?”

“Older than that.”

“Thirty?”

“Fifty-five, more likely,” said Herbie. The tendency to go higher was irresistible. Lucille seemed properly awed at being in the presence of a man who was not going to marry until he was fifty-five. She was still for a moment, then said, “Have you got a girl?”

“No,” said Herbie. “Have you got a fellow?”

“No. What kind of girl are you going to marry?”

“I don't know,” said Herbie. Then, with a burst of audacious gallantry, “But she's gonna have to have red hair!”

There, it was done. The ardent look which went with these words made them a plain declaration of love. Lucille rewarded him by timidly putting her little hand into his and returning his look with tenderness. What were golden thrones or underground palaces now, compared to the rosy glory of this moment? Here in an attached garage was a corner of heaven, upholstered in gray. Herbert had not known there was room for such swelling bliss in his heart.

But the tenderness was fading from Lucille's glance. She was no longer gazing into his eyes, but above them.

“Gosh! Lookit your hair,” she said.

Herbert put his hand to his head and felt his hair, still damp, standing away from his scalp, straight up. Ten minutes of drying and it was full of fight again, thrusting back toward its old place. Herbie pressed it down. It sprang back erect, like good turf. Twice he did this, and an awful thing happened. Lucille Glass giggled.

“That's funny, the way it jumps up,” she said.

“Aw, it's nothing. I can fix it,” stammered Herbie, and began thrusting the locks downward, palm over palm. Drops of water ran down his forehead from under his fingers. In effect he was pressing his hair dry. When he stopped at last and took his hands away, the hair rose, and stood straight out in all directions. He looked somewhat like a boy being electrocuted. Lucille fell back in the seat, exploding with laughter, her hands over her mouth. Herbie wiped his oozing palms on his breeches, and muttering, “Dunno what's wrong with this crazy old mop,” he began to comb his hair furiously with his fingers. This frantic clawing at his head looked extremely strange.

An unwelcome voice spoke through the car window: “What's the matter, Fatso? Got cooties?”

Lennie Krieger and Felicia were grinning through the glass.

“My clever brother,” said Felicia. “Combs his hair on the wrong side 'cause he thinks it makes him look older. How you doing, Grandpa?”

Herbie's cheeks were on fire. He turned with a feeble smile to Lucille, but he saw only her back as she clambered out of the car. “Auntie must be screaming for me,” she said and was gone.

BOOK: City Boy
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