Authors: J. D. Salinger
I'd just as soon not go into details," said the young man. He
took a cigarette from his own pack, ignoring a transparent humidor on
the table, and lit it with his own lighter. His hands were large.
They looked neither strong nor competent nor sensitive. Yet he used
them as if they had some not easily controllable aesthetic drive of
their own. "I've made up my mind that I'm not even going to
think about it. But I'm just so furious," he said. "I mean
here's this awful little person from Altoona, Pennsylvania--or one of
those places. Apparently starving to death. I'm kind and decent
enough--I'm the original Good Samaritan--to take him into my
apartment, this absolutely microscopic little apartment that I can
hardly move around in myself. I introduce him to all my friends. Let
him clutter up the whole apartment with his horrible manuscript
papers, and cigarette butts, and radishes, and whatnot. Introduce him
to every theatrical producer in New York. Haul his filthy shirts back
and forth from the laundry. And on top of it all--" The young
man broke off. "And the result of all my kindness and decency,"
he went on, "is that he walks out of the house at five or six in
the morning--without so much as leaving a note behind--taking with
him anything and everything he can lay his filthy, dirty hands on."
He paused to drag on his cigarette, and exhaled the smoke in a thin,
sibilant stream from his mouth. "I don't want to talk about it.
I really don't." He looked over at Ginnie. "I love your
coat," he said, already out of his chair. He crossed over and
took the lapel of Ginnie's polo coat between his fingers. "It's
lovely. It's the first really good camel's hair I've seen since the
war. May I ask where you got it?"
mother brought it back from Nassau."
young man nodded thoughtfully and backed off toward his chair. "It's
one of the few places where you can get really good camel's hair."
He sat down. "Was she there long?"
your mother there long? The reason I ask is my mother was down in
December. And part of January. Usually I go down with her, but this
has been such a messy year I simply couldn't get away."
was down in February," Ginnie said.
Where did she stay? Do you know?"
nodded. "May I ask your name? You're a friend of Franklin's
sister, I take it?"
in the same class," Ginnie said, answering only his second
not the famous Maxine that Selena talks about, are you?"
young man suddenly began brushing the cuffs of his trousers with the
flat of his hand. "I am dog hairs from head to foot," he
said. "Mother went to Washington over the weekend and parked her
beast in my apartment. It's really quite sweet. But such nasty
habits. Do you have a dog?"
I think it's cruel to keep them in the city." He stopped
brushing, sat back, and looked at his wristwatch again. "I have
never known that boy to be on time. We're going to see Cocteau's
'Beauty and the Beast' and it's the one film where you really should
get there on time. I mean if you don't, the whole charm of it is
gone. Have you seen it?"
you must! I've seen it eight times. It's absolutely pure genius,"
he said. "I've been trying to get Franklin to see it for
months." He shook his head hopelessly. "His taste. During
the war, we both worked at the same horrible place, and that boy
would insist on dragging me to the most impossible pictures in the
world. We saw gangster pictures, Western pictures, musicals--"
you work in the airplane factory, too?" Ginnie asked.
yes. For years and years and years. Let's not talk about it, please."
have a bad heart, too?"
no. Knock wood." He rapped the arm of his chair twice. "I
have the constitution of--"
Selena entered the room, Ginnie stood up quickly and went to meet her
halfway. Selena had changed from her shorts to a dress, a fact that
ordinarily would have annoyed Ginnie.
sorry to've kept you waiting," Selena said insincerely, "but
I had to wait for Mother to wake up.... Hello, Eric."
don't want the money anyway," Ginnie said, keeping her voice
down so that she was heard only by Selena.
been thinking. I mean you bring the tennis balls and all, all the
time. I forgot about that."
you said that because I didn't have to pay for them--"
me to the door," Ginnie said, leading the way, without saying
goodbye to Eric.
I thought you said you were going to the movies tonight and you
needed the money and all!" Selena said in the foyer.
too tired," Ginnie said. She bent over and picked up her tennis
paraphernalia. "Listen. I'll give you a ring after dinner. Are
you doing anything special tonight? Maybe I can come over."
stared and said, "O.K."
opened the front door and walked to the elevator. She rang the bell.
"I met your brother," she said.
did? Isn't he a character?"
he do, anyway?" Ginnie asked casually. "Does he work or
just quit. Daddy wants him to go back to college, but he won't go."
don't know. He says he's too old and all."
old is he?"
don't know. Twenty-four."
elevator doors opened. "I'll call you laterl" Ginnie said.
the building, she started to walk west to Lexington to catch the bus.
Between Third and Lexington, she reached into her coat pocket for her
purse and found the sandwich half. She took it out and started to
bring her arm down, to drop the sandwich into the street, but instead
she put it back into her pocket. A few years before, it had taken her
three days to dispose of the Easter chick she had found dead on the
sawdust in the bottom of her wastebasket.
1928, when I was nine, I belonged, with maximum esprit de corps, to
an organization known as the Comanche Club. Every schoolday afternoon
at three o'clock, twenty-five of us Comanches were picked up by our
Chief outside the boys' exit of P. S. 165, on 109th Street near
Amsterdam Avenue. We then pushed and punched our way into the Chief's
reconverted commercial bus, and he drove us (according to his
financial arrangement with our parents) over to Central Park. The
rest of the afternoon, weather permitting, we played football or
soccer or baseball, depending (very loosely) on the season. Rainy
afternoons, the Chief invariably took us either to the Museum of
Natural History or to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
and most national holidays, the Chief picked us up early in the
morning at our various apartment houses and, in his condemned-looking
bus, drove us out of Manhattan into the comparatively wide open
spaces of Van Cortlandt Park or the Palisades. If we had straight
athletics on our minds, we went to Van Cortlandt, where the playing
fields were regulation size and where the opposing team didn't
include a baby carriage or an irate old lady with a cane. If our
Comanche hearts were set on camping, we went over to the Palisades
and roughed it. (I remember getting lost one Saturday somewhere on
that tricky stretch of terrain between the Linit sign and the site of
the western end of the George Washington Bridge. I kept my head,
though. I just sat down in the majestic shadow of a giant billboard
and, however tearfully, opened my lunchbox for business,
semi-confident that the Chief would find me. The Chief always found
his hours of liberation from the Comanches, the Chief was John
Gedsudski, of Staten Island. He was an extremely shy, gentle young
man of twenty-two or -three, a law student at N.Y.U., and altogether
a very memorable person. I won't attempt to assemble his many
achievements and virtues here. Just in passing, he was an Eagle
Scout, an almost-All-America tackle of 1926, and it was known that he
had been most cordially invited to try out for the New York Giants'
baseball team. He was an impartial and unexcitable umpire at all our
bedlam sporting events, a master fire builder and extinguisher, and
an expert, uncontemptuous first-aid man. Every one of us, from the
smallest hoodlum to the biggest, loved and respected him.
Chief's physical appearance in 1928 is still clear in my mind. If
wishes were inches, all of us Comanches would have had him a giant in
no time. The way things go, though, he was a stocky five three or
four--no more than that. His hair was blue-black, his hair-line
extremely low, his nose was large and fleshy, and his torso was just
about as long as his legs were. In his leather windbreaker, his
shoulders were powerful, but narrow and sloping. At the time,
however, it seemed to me that in the Chief all the most photogenic
features of Buck Jones, Ken Maynard, and Tom Mix had been smoothly
afternoon, when it got dark enough for a losing team to have an
excuse for missing a number of infield popups or end-zone passes, we
Comanches relied heavily and selfishly on the Chief's talent for
storytelling. By that hour, we were usually an overheated, irritable
bunch, and we fought each other--either with our fists or our shrill
voices--for the seats in the bus nearest the Chief. (The bus had two
parallel rows of straw seats. The left row had three extra seats--the
best in the bus--that extended as far forward as the driver's
profile.) The Chief climbed into the bus only after we had settled
down. Then he straddled his driver's seat backward and, in his reedy
but modulated tenor voice, gave us the new installment of "The
Laughing Man." Once he started narrating, our interest never
flagged. "The Laughing Man" was just the right story for a
Comanche. It may even have had classic dimensions. It was a story
that tended to sprawl all over the place, and yet it remained
essentially portable. You could always take it home with you and
reflect on it while sitting, say, in the outgoing water in the
only son of a wealthy missionary couple, the Laughing Man was
kidnapped in infancy by Chinese bandits. When the wealthy missionary
couple refused (from a religious conviction) to pay the ransom for
their son, the bandits, signally piqued, placed the little fellow's
head in a carpenter's vise and gave the appropriate lever several
turns to the right. The subject of this unique experience grew into
manhood with a hairless, pecan-shaped head and a face that featured,
instead of a mouth, an enormous oval cavity below the nose. The nose
itself consisted of two flesh-sealed nostrils. In consequence, when
the Laughing Man breathed, the hideous, mirthless gap below his nose
dilated and contracted like (as I see it) some sort of monstrous
vacuole. (The Chief demonstrated, rather than explained, the Laughing
Man's respiration method.) Strangers fainted dead away at the sight
of the Laughing Man's horrible face. Acquaintances shunned him.
Curiously enough, though, the bandits let him hang around their
headquarters--as long as he kept his face covered with a pale-red
gossamer mask made out of poppy petals. The mask not only spared the
bandits the sight of their foster son's face, it also kept them
sensible of his whereabouts; under the circumstances, he reeked of
morning, in his extreme loneliness, the Laughing Man stole off (he
was as graceful on his feet as a cat) to the dense forest surrounding
the bandits' hideout. There he befriended any number and species of
animals: dogs, white mice, eagles, lions, boa constrictors, wolves.
Moreover, he removed his mask and spoke to them, softly, melodiously,
in their own tongues. They did not think him ugly.
took the Chief a couple of months to get that far into the story.
From there on in, he got more and more high-handed with his
installments, entirely to the satisfaction of the Comanches.)
Laughing Man was one for keeping an ear to the ground, and in no time
at all he had picked up the bandits' most valuable trade secrets. He
didn't think much of them, though, and briskly set up his own, more
effective system. On a rather small scale at first, he began to
free-lance around the Chinese countryside, robbing, highjacking,
murdering when absolutely necessary. Soon his ingenious criminal
methods, coupled with his singular love of fair play, found him a
warm place in the nation's heart. Strangely enough, his foster
parents (the bandits who had originally turned his head toward crime)
were about the last to get wind of his achievements. When they did,
they were insanely jealous. They all single-filed past the Laughing
Man's bed one night, thinking they had successfully doped him into a
deep sleep, and stabbed at the figure under the covers with their
machetes. The victim turned out to be the bandit chief's mother--an
unpleasant, haggling sort of person. The event only whetted the
bandits' taste for the Laughing Man's blood, and finally he was
obliged to lock up the whole bunch of them in a deep but pleasantly
decorated mausoleum. They escaped from time to time and gave him a
certain amount of annoyance, but he refused to kill them. (There was
a compassionate side to the Laughing Man's character that just about
drove me crazy.)