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Authors: J. D. Salinger

Nine Stories (8 page)

BOOK: Nine Stories
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the Laughing Man was regularly crossing the Chinese border into
Paris, France, where he enjoyed flaunting his high but modest genius
in the face of Marcel Dufarge, the internationally famous detective
and witty consumptive. Dufarge and his daughter (an exquisite girl,
though something of a transvestite) became the Laughing Man's
bitterest enemies. Time and again, they tried leading the Laughing
Man up the garden path. For sheer sport, the Laughing Man usually
went halfway with them, then vanished, often leaving no even faintly
credible indication of his escape method. Just now and then he posted
an incisive little farewell note in the Paris sewerage system, and it
was delivered promptly to Dufarge's boot. The Dufarges spent an
enormous amount of time sloshing around in the Paris sewers.

the Laughing Man had amassed the largest personal fortune in the
world. Most of it he contributed anonymously to the monks of a local
monastery--humble ascetics who had dedicated their lives to raising
German police dogs. What was left of his fortune, the Laughing Man
converted into diamonds, which he lowered casually, in emerald
vaults, into the Black Sea. His personal wants were few. He subsisted
exclusively on rice and eagles' blood, in a tiny cottage with an
underground gymnasium and shooting range, on the stormy coast of
Tibet. Four blindly loyal confederates lived with him: a glib timber
wolf named Black Wing, a lovable dwarf named Omba, a giant Mongolian
named Hong, whose tongue had been burned out by white men, and a
gorgeous Eurasian girl, who, out of unrequited love for the Laughing
Man and deep concern for his personal safety, sometimes had a pretty
sticky attitude toward crime. The Laughing Man issued his orders to
the crew through a black silk screen. Not even Omba, the lovable
dwarf, was permitted to see his face.

not saying I will, but I could go on for hours escorting the
reader--forcibly, if necessary--back and forth across the
Paris-Chinese border. I happen to regard the Laughing Man as some
kind of super-distinguished ancestor of mine--a sort of Robert E.
Lee, say, with the ascribed virtues held under water or blood. And
this illusion is only a moderate one compared to the one I had in
1928, when I regarded myself not only as the Laughing Man's direct
descendant but as his only legitimate living one. I was not even my
parents' son in 1928 but a devilishly smooth impostor, awaiting their
slightest blunder as an excuse to move in--preferably without
violence, but not necessarily--to assert my true identity. As a
precaution against breaking my bogus mother's heart, I planned to
take her into my underworld employ in some undefined but
appropriately regal capacity. But the main thing I had to do in 1928
was watch my step. Play along with the farce. Brush my teeth. Comb my
hair. At all costs, stifle my natural hideous laughter.

I was not the only legitimate living descendant of the Laughing Man.
There were twenty-five Comanches in the Club, or twenty-five
legitimate living descendants of the Laughing Man--all of us
circulating ominously, and incognito, throughout the city, sizing up
elevator operators as potential archenemies, whispering
side-of-the-mouth but fluent orders into the ears of cocker spaniels,
drawing beads, with index fingers, on the foreheads of arithmetic
teachers. And always waiting, waiting for a decent chance to strike
terror and admiration in the nearest mediocre heart.

afternoon in February, just after Comanche baseball season had
opened, I observed a new fixture in the Chief's bus. Above the
rear-view mirror over the windshield, there was a small, framed
photograph of a girl dressed in academic cap and gown. It seemed to
me that a girl's picture clashed with the general men-only decor of
the bus, and I bluntly asked the Chief who she was. He hedged at
first, but finally admitted that she was a girl. I asked him what her
name was. He answered unforthrightly, "Mary Hudson." I
asked him if she was in the movies or something. He said no, that she
used to go to Wellesley College. He added, on some slow-processed
afterthought, that Wellesley College was a very high class college. I
asked him what he had her picture in the bus for, though. He shrugged
slightly, as much as to imply, it seemed to me, that the picture had
more or less been planted on him.

the next couple of weeks, the picture--however forcibly or
accidentally it had been planted on the Chief--was not removed from
the bus. It didn't go out with the Baby Ruth wrappers and the fallen
licorice whips. However, we Comanches got used to it. It gradually
took on the unarresting personality of a speedometer.

one day as we were on our way to the Park, the Chief pulled the bus
over to a curb on Fifth Avenue in the Sixties, a good half mile past
our baseball field. Some twenty back-seat drivers at once demanded an
explanation, but the Chief gave none. Instead, he simply got into his
story-telling position and swung prematurely into a fresh installment
of "The Laughing Man." He had scarcely begun, however, when
someone tapped on the bus door. The Chief's reflexes were geared high
that day. He literally flung himself around in his seat, yanked the
operating handle of the door, and a girl in a beaver coat climbed
into the bus.

I can remember seeing just three girls in my life who struck me as
having unclassifiably great beauty at first sight. One was a thin
girl in a black bathing suit who was having a lot of trouble putting
up an orange umbrella at Jones Beach, circa 1936. The second was a
girl aboard a Caribbean cruise ship in 1939, who threw her cigarette
lighter at a porpoise. And the third was the Chief's girl, Mary

I very late?" she asked the Chief, smiling at him.

might just as well have asked if she was ugly.

the Chief said. A trifle wildly, he looked at the Comanches near his
seat and signalled the row to give way. Mary Hudson sat down between
me and a boy named Edgar something, whose uncle's best friend was a
bootlegger. We gave her all the room in the world. Then the bus
started off with a peculiar, amateur-like lurch. The Comanches, to
the last man, were silent.

the way back to our regular parking place, Mary Hudson leaned forward
in her seat and gave the Chief an enthusiastic account of the trains
she had missed and the train she hadn't missed; she lived in
Douglaston, Long Island. The Chief was very nervous. He didn't just
fail to contribute any talk of his own; he could hardly listen to
hers. The gearshift knob came off in his hand, I remember.

we got out of the bus, Mary Hudson stuck right with us. I'm sure that
by the time we reached the baseball field there was on every
Comanche's face a some-girls-just-don't-know-when-to-go-home look.
And to really top things off, when another Comanche and I were
flipping a coin to decide which team would take the field first, Mary
Hudson wistfully expressed a desire to join the game. The response to
this couldn't have been more clean-cut. Where before we Comanches had
simply stared at her femaleness, we now glared at it. She smiled back
at us. It was a shade disconcerting. Then the Chief took over,
revealing what had formerly been a well-concealed flair for
incompetence. He took Mary Hudson aside, just out of earshot of the
Comanches, and seemed to address her solemnly, rationally. At length,
Mary Hudson interrupted him, and her voice was perfectly audible to
the Comanches. "But I do," she said. "I do, too, want
to play!" The Chief nodded and tried again. He pointed in the
direction of the infield, which was soggy and pitted. He picked up a
regulation bat and demonstrated its weight. "I don't care,"
Mary Hudson said distinctly, "I came all the way to New York--to
the dentist and everything--and I'm gonna play." The Chief
nodded again but gave up. He walked cautiously over to home plate,
where the Braves and the Warriors, the two Comanche teams, were
waiting, and looked at me. I was captain of the Warriors. He
mentioned the name of my regular center fielder, who was home sick,
and suggested that Mary Hudson take his place. I said I didn't need a
center fielder. The Chief asked me what the hell did I mean I didn't
need a center fielder. I was shocked. It was the first time I had
heard the Chief swear. What's more, I could feel Mary Hudson smiling
at me. For poise, I picked up a stone and threw it at a tree.

took the field first. No business went out to center field the first
inning. From my position on first base, I glanced behind me now and
then. Each time I did, Mary Hudson waved gaily to me. She was wearing
a catcher's mitt, her own adamant choice. It was a horrible sight.

Hudson batted ninth on the Warriors' lineup. When I informed her of
this arrangement, she made a little face and said, "Well, hurry
up, then." And as a matter of fact we did seem to hurry up. She
got to bat in the first inning. She took off her beaver coat--and her
catcher's mitt--for the occasion and advanced to the plate in a
dark-brown dress. When I gave her a bat, she asked me why it was so
heavy. The Chief left his umpire's position behind the pitcher and
came forward anxiously. He told Mary Hudson to rest the end of her
bat on her right shouder. "I am," she said. He told her not
to choke the bat too tightly. "I'm not," she said. He told
her to keep her eye right on the ball. "I will," she said.
"Get outa the way." She swung mightily at the first ball
pitched to her and hit it over the left fielder's head. It was good
for an ordinary double, but Mary Hudson got to third on it--standing

my astonishment had worn off, and then my awe, and then my delight, I
looked over at the Chief. He didn't so much seem to be standing
behind the pitcher as floating over him. He was a completely happy
man. Over on third base, Mary Hudson waved to me. I waved back. I
couldn't have stopped myself, even if I'd wanted to. Her stickwork
aside, she happened to be a girl who knew how to wave to somebody
from third base.

rest of the game, she got on base every time she came to bat. For
some reason, she seemed to hate first base; there was no holding her
there. At least three times, she stole second.

fielding couldn't have been worse, but we were piling up too many
runs to take serious notice of it. I think it would have improved if
she'd gone after flies with almost anything except a catcher's mitt.
She wouldn't take it off, though. She said it was cute.

next month or so, she played baseball with the Comanches a couple of
times a week (whenever she had an appointment with her dentist,
apparently). Some afternoons she met the bus on time, some afternoons
she was late. Sometimes she talked a blue streak in the bus,
sometimes she just sat and smoked her Herbert Tareyton cigarettes
(cork-tipped). When you sat next to her in the bus, she smelled of a
wonderful perfume.

wintry day in April, after making his usual three o'clock pickup at
109th and Amsterdam, the Chief turned the loaded bus east at 110th
Street and cruised routinely down Fifth Avenue. But his hair was
combed wet, he had on his overcoat instead of his leather
windbreaker, and I reasonably surmised that Mary Hudson was scheduled
to join us. When we zipped past our usual entrance to the Park, I was
sure of it. The Chief parked the bus on the comer in the Sixties
appropriate to the occasion. Then, to kill time painlessly for the
Comanches, he straddled his seat backward and released a new
installment of "The Laughing Man." I remember the
installment to the last detail, and I must outline it briefly.

flux of circumstances delivered the Laughing Man's best friend, his
timber wolf, Black Wing, into a physical and intellectual trap set by
the Dufarges. The Dufarges, aware of the Laughing Man's high sense of
loyalty, offered him Black Wing's freedom in exchange for his own. In
the best faith in the world, the Laughing Man agreed to these terms.
(Some of the minor mechanics of his genius were often subject to
mysterious little breakdowns.) It was arranged for the Laughing Man
to meet the Dufarges at midnight in a designated section of the dense
forest surrounding Paris, and there, by moonlight, Black Wing would
be set free. However, the Dufarges had no intention of liberating
Black Wing, whom they feared and loathed. On the night of the
transaction, they leashed a stand-in timber wolf for Black Wing,
first dyeing its left hind foot snow white, to look like Black

there were two things the Dufarges hadn't counted on: the Laughing
Man's sentimentality and his command of the timber-wolf language. As
soon as he had allowed Dufarge's daughter to tie him with barbed wire
to a tree, the Laughing Man felt called upon to raise his beautiful,
melodious voice in a few words of farewell to his supposed old
friend. The stand-in, a few moonlit yards away, was impressed by the
stranger's command of the language and listened politely for a moment
to the last-minute advice, personal and professional, that the
Laughing Man was giving out. At length, though, the stand-in grew
impatient and began shifting his weight from paw to paw. Abruptly,
and rather unpleasantly, he interrupted the Laughing Man with the
information that, in the first place, his name wasn't Dark Wing or
Black Wing or Gray Legs or any of that business, it was Armand, and,
in the second place, he'd never been to China in his life and hadn't
the slightest intention of going there.

infuriated, the Laughing Man pushed off his mask with his tongue and
confronted the Dufarges with his naked face by moonlight. Mlle.
Dufarge responded by passing out cold. Her father was luckier. By
chance, he was having one of his coughing spells at the moment and
thereby missed the lethal unveiling. When his coughing spell was over
and he saw his daughter stretched out supine on the moonlit ground,
Dufarge put two and two together. Shielding his eyes with his hand,
he fired the full clip in his automatic toward the sound of the
Laughing Man's heavy, sibilant breathing.

BOOK: Nine Stories
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