Read The Cat's Pajamas Online

Authors: Ray Bradbury

The Cat's Pajamas (17 page)

WHERE'S MY HAT, WHAT'S MY HURRY?
2003

T
ELL ME
, Alma, when were we last in Paris?” he said.

“My God, Carl,” Alma said, “don't you remember? Only two years ago.”

“Ah yes,” Carl said and wrote on his notepad. “2002.” He glanced up. “And before that, Alma?”

“In 2001 of course.”

“Yes, yes. 2001. And then there was 2000.”

“How could you forget the new century?”

“The false new century.”

“People couldn't wait. They had to celebrate a year too soon.”

“Good old too soon, good old Paris. In 2000.” He scribbled.

She glanced over and leaned forward. “What
are
you doing?”

“Remembering, recalling Paris. How many visits.”

“How nice.” She leaned back, smiling.

“Not necessarily. Were we there in 1999? I seem to recall—”

“Jane's wedding. Sam's graduation. We missed that year.”

“Paris missed, 1999. There.” He struck a line through the date.

“We were there in 1998, 1997, 1996.”

She nodded three times.

He went down the years, all the way back to 1983.

She kept nodding.

He wrote the dates and then spent a long time looking at them.

He made some adjustments and scribbled some comments beside some of the dates and then sat for a moment, brooding.

At last he picked up the phone and punched in a number. When he reached it he said, “Aragon Travel? I want two tickets, one in my name and one with no name, today on the United flight at five to Paris. I'd appreciate your getting back to me as soon as possible.”

He gave his name and credit card number.

He put down the phone.

“Paris?” said his wife. “You didn't warn me. There's no time.”

“I just made up my mind a few minutes ago.”

“Just like that? Still—”

“Didn't you hear? One ticket with my name. One with no name. Name to be supplied.”

“But—”

“You're not going.”

“But you've ordered two tickets …”

“Name and volunteer to be supplied.”

“Volunteer?”

“I'm calling several.”

“But if you only waited twenty-four hours—”

“I can't wait. I've waited twenty years.”

“Twenty?!”

He jabbed the phone buttons. Far off, the phone rang, a high voice fluted.

“Estelle?” he said. “Carl. I know this is impromptu, silly, but do you have an up-to-date passport? You do. Well—” He laughed. “How would you like to fly to Paris this afternoon, five o'clock?” He listened. “No joke, serious, Paris, ten nights. Same room. Same bed. Me and you. Ten nights, all expenses paid.” He listened and nodded, eyes shut. “Yes. Yeah. Yes, I see. Well yes, go on. I understand. I could only try. Maybe next time. Hey, I understand. I can take no very well. Sure. So long.”

He hung up and stared at the phone.

“That was Estelle.”

“I heard.”

“She can't make it. Nothing personal.”

“That's not how it sounded.”

“Hold on.”

“I'm holding.”

He dialed. Another, higher voice answered.

“Angela? Carl. This is crazy, but could you meet me at United Airlines, five this afternoon, small carry-on, destination Paris, ten nights, champagne and pillow talk. Bed and breakfast. You. Me?”

The voice shrieked on the phone.

“I take it that's a yes. Wonderful!”

He hung up and could hardly stop laughing.

“That was Angela,” he cried, beaming.

“So I gathered.”

“No arguments.”

“A happy camper. Now would you—”

“Hold on.” He left the room and came back a few minutes later carrying a very small suitcase and tucking his wallet and passport inside his coat pocket.

He stood, swaying and laughing in front of his wife.

“Now,” she said. “Explanations?”

“Yes.”

He handed her the list he had written ten minutes ago.

“1980 through 2002,” he said. “Our time in Paris, correct?”

She glanced at the list. “Correct. And?”

“We were in France together all those times?”

“Always together, yes.” She scanned the list again. “But I don't see—”

“You never did. Tell me, do you recall in all our trips to Paris, how often did we make love?”

“What a strange question.”

“Not strange at all. How many?”

She studied the list as if the total was there.

“You can't expect me to name the exact times.”

“No,” he said, “because you can't.”

“Can't—?”

“Not even if you tried.”

“Surely—”

“No, not ‘surely,' because not one night in Paris, the city of love, not one night ever, did we make love!”

“There must have been—”

“No, not once. You've forgotten. I remember. Total recall. Never once, not once, did you call me to bed.”

There was a long silence as she stared at the list and at last let it fall from her fingers. She did not look at him.

“Does it all come back now?” he wondered aloud.

She nodded silently.

“And isn't it sad?” he said.

She nodded again, quietly.

“Remember that lovely film we saw so long ago when Garbo and Melvyn Douglas looked at a clock in Paris and it was almost twelve and he says, ‘Oh, Ninotchka, Ninotchka, the big hand and the little hand almost touch. Almost touch, and in a moment one half of Paris will be making love to the other half. Ninotchka, Ninotchka.'”

His wife nodded and a tear appeared in her eye.

He went to the door and opened it and said, “You do understand why I have to go? Because next year I might be too old, or maybe even not here.”

“It's never too late—” she began.

“For us, yes, too late. Twenty years in Paris too late. Twenty weeks and twenty July 14 possible nights, Bastille Days, and all of it too late. My God it's sad. I could almost cry. But another year, I did. Good-bye.”

“Good-bye,” she whispered.

He opened the door and stood there, staring at the future.

“Oh, Ninotchka, Ninotchka,” he whispered and went out and was careful to shut the door with no sound.

The concussion thrust her back in her chair.

THE TRANSFORMATION
1948–1949

B
EFORE
S
TEVE MOVED
from his chair they had burst into the room, seized him, clapping a hand over his mouth, and now they carried him, limp with terror, out of the small yellow apartment. He saw the cracked ceiling plaster pass over him. Twisting his head violently he broke his mouth free, and, instantly, as they struggled him out the door, he saw the walls of his retreat, thumbtacked with pictures of strong men from
Strength and Health
and, on the floor, wildly strewn by the brief fight, the copies of
Flash Detective
he had been reading when their footsteps sounded outside his door.

He hung like a dead man between the four of them now. For a long time he was so sick with fear that he couldn't move, he was a dead weight they carried out into the night air. And Steve thought, This is all wrong, this is the South, I'm white, they're white, and they've come to my place and grabbed me. This can't be. Things like this don't happen. What's wrong with the world when a thing like this can happen?

The sweating palm clung to his mouth as they jolted him drunkenly across the lawn. He heard a casual laughing voice say, “Evening, Miss Landriss. It's our friend Steve Nolan. Drunk again, ma'am. Yes,
ma'am
!” And everybody laughed their pretending laughs.

He was thrown into the back of a car, and the men plunged in around him, pressing him among them like something closed into the pages of a book on a hot summer evening. The car lurched away from the curb, and then the voices were talking, and the hand came away from Steve Nolan's mouth so he could lick his lips and look at them with jittering, glassy eyes.

“Wh-what you going to do?” he gasped, stiffening his legs against the floorboards, as if to stop the car by this action.

“Stevie, Stevie.” One of the men shook his head slowly.

“What you want with me?” cried Steve.

“You know what we want, Stevie boy.”

“Let me out of here!”

“Hold on to him!”

They rushed down a country road in the dark. Crickets sounded on both sides and there was no moon, only a great number of stars in the black warm air.

“I didn't do nothing. I know you. You're them damned liberals, you're them Communists! You going to kill me!”

“We wouldn't think of doing that,” said one of the men, patting Steve's cheek with a deadly soft pat, affectionate.

“Me,” said another. “I'm a Republican. What are you, Joe?”

“Me? I'm a Republican too.”

They both smiled cat-smiles at Steve. He was very cold. “If it's about that nigger woman Lavinia Walters—”

“Who said anything about Lavinia Walters?”

Everybody looked at everybody else, so surprised.

“You know anything about Lavinia Walters, Mack?”

“No, you?”

“Well, I heard tell something about how she had a kid recently. Is that the one you mean?”

“Now, now, look, boys, look, stop the car, stop the car, and I'll tell you all about this Lavinia Walters—” Steve's tongue moved, trembling over his lips. His eyes were frozen wide. His face was the color of clean bone. He looked like a corpse propped between the sweating, pressing men, out of place, ridiculous, gaunt with fear.

“Look here, why just look here!” he cried, laughing shrilly. “We're southerners, all of us, and we southerners got to stick together, now ain't that right? I mean now, ain't that the truth!”

“We
are
sticking together.” The men looked at one another. “Aren't we, boys?”

“Wait a minute.” Steve squinted at them. “I know you. You're Mack Brown, you drive a truck for that carnival down at the creek. And you, you're Sam Nash, you work the carnival too. All of you from the carnival, and all local boys, you shouldn't be acting this way. Why, it's just the summer night. Now, you just park at that next crossroads and let me out and, by God, I won't say nothing about this to nobody.” He smiled with wild generosity at them. “I
know
. Hot blood and all. But we're all from the same place, and who's that up in the front seat with Mack?”

A face turned in the dim cigarette light.

“Why, you're—”

“Bill Colum. Hello, Steve.”

“Bill, I went to school with
you
!”

Colum's face was hard in the windy light. “I never did like you, Steve. And now I don't like you at all.”

“If this is all over Lavinia Walters, that damn nigger woman, it's silly. I didn't do nothing to her.”

“Nothing you haven't done to a dozen others over the years.”

Mack Brown, up front, at the steering wheel, drooped his cigarette in his trap mouth. “I'm ignorant, I forget. What about this Lavinia, tell me, I'd like to hear it again.”

“She was a nervy, goddamn sort of colored woman,” said Sam, in the backseat, holding Steve. “Why, she even had the goddamn nerve to walk down Main Street yesterday carrying a little child in her arms. And you know what she was saying, Mack, out loud, so all the white folks could hear? She says, ‘This is the child of Steve Nolan'!”

“Wasn't that
dirty
of her?”

They took a side road now, off toward the carnival grounds, over bumpy road.

“That ain't all. She went in every store where a Negro had never been in years, and she stood among the people and said, ‘Looky here, this is Steve Nolan's baby. Steve Nolan.'”

The sweat was pouring down Steve's face. He began to fight. Sam just squeezed his throat hard and Steve quieted. “Go on with the story,” said Mack, in the front seat.

“The way it all happened was Steve was ambling along the country road one afternoon in his Ford when he saw the prettiest colored girl, Lavinia Walters, walking along. And he stopped the car and told her if she didn't get in he'd tell the police she stole his wallet. And she was afraid, so she let him drive her off into the swamp for an hour.”

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