Authors: Dorothy Baker
Tags: #General Fiction
That’s how it went all through grammar school; he couldn’t seem to get off on the right foot. He wasn’t tough, he was well-mannered enough, but he just couldn’t seem to get going and it got harder and harder. They graduated him in spite of it. They graduated everybody in spite of things. It wasn’t a strong school scholastically; the Mexicans couldn’t learn English, and the niggers played around too much, and the Americans didn’t seem to have the right background. The Japanese, though; the Japanese were smart as a whip, bright as a dollar. They were, in a body, magna cum laude at graduation. And Rick’s aunt swiped him a pair of white pants for it.
High School, which should have been better, was worse. The first year of high school differed from the last year of grammar school in one important respect: Rick quit staying home to read library books and began, instead, to hang around the All Souls’ Mission, on Washington just below Central Avenue, monkeying with the piano. It started on his first day in high school. He had a bad time getting registered. He stood almost all day in a hall in front of the principal’s office, and when his turn came he became utterly confused. He listened to the jargon—major subjects, minor subjects, required subjects, physical education, manual training—with a polite ear but no understanding. And then, finally, the principal, or it may have been just the faculty adviser, came to the point. The point was that a student should decide right now the way he wanted his life to go. He could take, for example, a commercial course—typing, shorthand, bookkeeping, and the rest, and go into commerce; he could pick a vocation—automobile mechanics, radio, woodwork, what-not (they’ve got a course called Cosmetology at the same school now, but they didn’t know about that then. Even marcelling hadn’t gained any real ground). Or, if the student wanted to elect a profession—medicine, the law, the church, teaching, or whatever other professions there are, what he’d better do was take a general college preparatory course. And Rick, intent on making a good impression, said right out of a clear sky, ‘I’ll take that one.’
‘Which?’ asked the guide.
‘The college general,’ said Rick handsomely, and the adult wrote it off: Edward Richard Martin, general college preparatory.
‘That’s all, then, Edward; be in room 200 on the second floor tomorrow morning at half-past eight.’
Rick went away. He knew he’d made another false start and he loosely considered going back, admitting the fraud, and signing up for an honest trade like a man. He walked slower and slower, and when he got to walking so slowly that he was no longer moving, he looked up and saw: ALL SOULS’ MISSION. ENTER. REST AND PRAY.
He entered. No one was there. It was just a big room with a lot of backless benches, a pulpit, and, over in one corner, an upright piano. Rick sank to a bench, grabbed up a hymnal, and began to read as fast as he could at the first place he opened, which happened to be the index. It didn’t make good reading; it only quoted part of the title of the hymn and then gave the page:
Every Day I Need ........... 7
In the Sweet ............... 43
Will There Be Any ....... 202.
There was nothing there to take his mind off his troubles, and so he turned to another part of the book and began to sing number 14 note by note. That was one thing he’d picked up in grammar school; he could read music like a flash, treble clef, bass clef, anything at all. When he’d found the tune, he stopped singing notes and sang words, but the words were so silly that even he couldn’t stay with them, and then it occurred to him to see if it would work out on the piano.
It worked out, all right. It started to work itself out that very day. Rick stood there, head on one side, forehead in pleats, figuring it out. And after a while he dragged up one of the benches vertical to the piano, and sat on the end of it. He stayed there until dark, and I can scarcely believe it myself, but the story goes that he could play the piano by dark; he could play number 14 on the piano by dark. He couldn’t find the light switch, then, and so he went home and went right to bed, so that he could think about just how it was that he had done it, and how maybe it might sound better if he made a change or two here and there.
And the next day he didn’t show in room 200 on the second floor at half-past eight. He was in All Souls’ at seven-thirty, and glad to be there.
It seems wrong that the thing worked out that way. You would think that Edward Richard Martin, just as a matter of course, just as a normal thing, would have turned up on time at Lowell High School nearly every morning, and being what he was, a decent, sensitive, and fairly thoughtful boy, he would have worked up an interest in
, or he might have got good at figuring out Latin constructions or chemical formulae—something or other would have smiled at him, and he’d have gone through high school and worked his way through college and come out to face the world with that special assurance that college graduates used to face the world with. He might even have gone into the brokerage business and cleaned up. Plenty of assured young men were cleaning up in the brokerage business at precisely the time Rick would have been right to go into it. You’d certainly think something would have happened, just simply as a matter of course, to have turned him toward a workaday way of life, the normal, childlike, innocent life that politicians, say, or say engineers, lead. At the very least, if he’d stuck to his guns and gone through school he could have got on in a Standard Oil station; he was good-looking enough.
But that’s just one way, and a wrong one, of looking at it. He might have, if he’d stayed around schools and the right people had happened to get interested in him (a service that the teaching profession performs fairly regularly)—he might have become what he almost was, a man who had something important to say.
The fact that he didn’t turn up at Lowell High School for almost a year, and then under a compulsion that made it impossible for him to do anything but cut loose again, makes speculation useless.
What he did do was fine, in itself; you can say that, at least. It’s pretty sweet to think about a boy, just turned fourteen, being at All Souls’ Mission every day, sometimes as early as six in the morning, working out on the upright in the corner and looking not unlike St. Cecilia, only blond and smaller and thinner in the face. Looking not at all like St. Cecilia, in fact, but giving the same impression of being busy with music.
He was completely one-track. He sat there and took them one by one. When he had one down, he’d open the hymnal to another place, at random, and start another one. This random choosing was the only element of chance in his method. The rest of it was routine that he developed in the first three days and never swerved from thereafter. First he played through the hymn with his right hand—the vocal part—to fix the tune in his mind; then he’d take it measure by measure: right hand alone, left hand alone, then fit them together and keep it up, over and over, until it was perfectly all right to go on to the next measure. And when each single measure had been done that way, he’d go through the whole thing, over and over until it was right. At first it took him about two days to a hymn, and then when he began to spot frequent combinations it didn’t take so long. In a month’s time he had it down to about one an hour. And then he stopped the random opening and began to pick and choose; he had come to see that some of the hymns had a kind of style to them that others missed. He found one, for instance, that looked a lot simpler than it was. It was called ‘Adeste Fideles,’ and it took him the better part of two days to make it come out; but when he had it he liked it the best of the lot, notwithstanding the outlandish title.
It was only by the purest good fortune that he didn’t happen to run into any of the All Souls’ crowd any sooner than he did. He didn’t even try to avoid them; it never occurred to him after he got interested in finding out how to play a piano that the mission was anything but a room with a piano in it. But it was. They had meetings there a couple of nights a week and all day and most of the night Sunday. Rick missed them Sundays because his aunt and his uncle were usually at home and he thought he ought to stay around. And he was never there at night because he had never found out how to turn the lights on.
But that kind of thing couldn’t last forever, and it didn’t. Late one afternoon five or six of them, early comers, came in on him and made quite a to-do about finding him there. Not that they were displeased about it; on the contrary, they were tickled to death. Rick was sitting at the piano, playing along very nicely, and he didn’t even hear them come in. He had his head on one side and his mouth pursed, and his hair was bright from the last of the sun that came through the window in a single, concentrated beam. To one practiced in hallucination the beam might conceivably have looked like a halo. It was enough for this crowd, in any event. They got the idea, being hipped, as they were, on religion, that Rick was an angel, and not only that but that he’d been put down in All Souls’ for a reason—very possibly to give them some advance information on the Second Coming. They proceeded, on that assumption, to try to get some kind of Message out of him. They were all pretty well lit with whatever it is that cults of that kind always seem to get hold of, and they got fairly rough with Rick, each one eager to get the story first. They made a tremendous noise, considering that there weren’t very many of them, and for Rick it was like being awakened from a sweet sleep by marauders.
They were a notorious group, the All Souls, and their creed was a nice blend of spiritualism, holy-rolling, direct communion, and exorcism. In fact they had once been hauled up in a body for questioning after they had attempted to exorcise one of their number by flagellation. They literally beat the devil out of the fellow and he died. The case was dismissed, finally, for lack of evidence, the Souls being able, when the occasion demanded, to keep very quiet. It was nice for Rick that he didn’t know this story; he was scared silly as it was. He couldn’t say a word in the way of a message, and they, for their part, lost interest in him and began making up their own messages. Finally the whole thing broke up into aimless and unreasonable yelling around: ‘Praise the Lord, I’ve led a wicked life.’
Rick got hold of himself after a long time of it. He tried the simplest of ruses and it worked. He went up to one of the women, the one who seemed to be the ringleader, and said politely and confidentially, ‘Pardon me a minute; I’ll be right back,’ and got out. He ran all the way home and intended to sleep with his uncle. The only thing that kept him from it was that his uncle didn’t come home.
After that Rick had the fear of the Lord in him. He was lost and wandering with nothing now to do, now that the All Souls’ upright was out. It was a question, for him, of going back to school and working his head off to catch up after he’d been told off for six weeks’ delinquency, or of shutting himself up at home with library books, or of doing the impossible: going back to the mission, taking a chance on another run-in with the Souls and playing their piano in spite of them. There was no satisfactory choice to make here. Reading wouldn’t hold him any more, and it was sort of late to go back to school—even the Mexicans can beat you out with a six weeks’ handicap, and the Japanese were probably on the point of graduating again. And the All Souls’ Mission was so much poison now. He couldn’t get within a mile of it without having his liver go white as a sheet. Three choices, and not one he could choose.
So he followed the course that offered least resistance to his interest. He hung around pawnshops eyeing portable musical instruments and trying to figure out, through the window, just how you’d go about getting from one note to the next on a clarinet. And when he thought he understood it, he went on to the study of the trumpet (there were five in the window), but it was a much harder instrument to play by eye. There are eight tones in a scale and only three things to push on a trumpet. He gave it up, finally; at least he decided to wait until a time when he could get his hands on a trumpet and find out for himself. He thought of hocking something and getting himself one; in point of fact, that’s all he did think of, but the only plan that looked good to him—that of hocking library books—he had to abandon as impracticable. He had, at that time, four pairs of pants, each one as good as the last, and three very tricky hangers for them, but he wouldn’t allow himself to think of hocking his pants; his aunt had to put herself to so much trouble to get them for him. No more could he hang around the streets all the time with his nose against pawnshop windows. They throw you in for that kind of thing; that’s vagrancy. Worse still in Rick’s case, it was vagrancy and truancy, the kind of thing they haul you back to school for. He knew without being told.
And then, all at once, it occurred to him that the smart thing to do would be to get a job and earn enough money to retire to his uncle’s apartment with a clarinet or a trumpet honestly paid for and take up his studies where he had left off. Easiest thing in the world to pick up a hymnal some place; All Souls’ isn’t the only church in Los Angeles. Easiest thing in the world to pick up some sheet music too, if you knew where some was.
He was little, though; at fourteen he looked ten, and not such a strong ten either. He might have got on in a boys’ choir—that’s about the only job he’d have been right for—but there weren’t any boys’ choirs. There was, on the other hand, a fight arena in that part of town, and he went there to ask about selling programs and near beer on fight nights. He didn’t get the job. He knew it before he asked. He had been too much indoors and too little nourished and he bore precocious scars of contemplation; and with these items lined up against him it was impossible for anyone to expect him to develop the aggressiveness and low-down optimism so necessary to the salesman. Same thing next door at the gymnasium of Harry Beavers. Rick stood around, and after a while Beavers himself came up to him and said, ‘What do you say, kid?’ And when Rick had said it, Beavers gave him a friendly grin and said: ‘Tell you what I’ll do. If we ever need a man to throw in a sponge I’ll phone you up.’