Read The Cat's Pajamas Online

Authors: Ray Bradbury

The Cat's Pajamas (3 page)

The man behind the counter had his spatula in his hand. He just examined Walter inch by inch, in great detail, with that spatula twitching in his lean fingers. He didn't speak.

When Walter got tired of standing there, he turned and walked out.

Jingling the money on his big palm, Walter walked along, pretending he didn't care. The jingle stopped when Bill caught hold of him.

“What happened, Walt?”

“That man just looked at me and looked at me, that's all.”

Bill turned him around. “Come on! We'll get those hot dogs or I'll know why in hell not!”

Walter held off. “I don't want no trouble.”

“Okay. Damn it. I'll get the dogs. You wait here.”

Bill ran over and leaned against the shadowy counter.

Walter saw and heard plainly all that happened in the next ten seconds.

The hot dog man snapped his head up to glare at Bill. He shouted, “Damn you, blackie. You here again!”

There was a silence.

Bill leaned across the counter, waiting.

The hot dog man laughed hastily. “Well, I'll be damned. Hello,
Bill
! There's a glare from the water—you looked just like—What'll you have?”

Bill seized the man's elbow. “I don't get it? I'm darker than him. Why are you kissing
my
butt?”

The proprietor labored at his answer. “Hey, Bill, you standing there in the glare—”

“God damn you to hell!”

Bill came out into the bright light, pale under his suntan, took Walter's elbow and started walking.

“Come on, Walt. I'm not hungry.”

“That's funny,” said Walt. “Neither am I.”

 

T
HE TWO WEEKS
ended. Autumn came. There was a cold salt fog for two days, and Walter thought he'd never see Bill again. He walked down along the boardwalk, alone. It was very quiet. No horns honking. The wooden frontings of the final and last hot dog stand had been slammed down and nailed fast, and a great lonely wind ran along the chilling gray beach.

On Tuesday there was a brief bit of sunlight and, sure enough, there was Bill, stretched out, all alone on the empty beach.

“Thought I'd come down just one last time,” he said as Walt sat down beside him. “Well, I won't see you again.”

“Going to Chicago?”

“Yeah. No more sun here, anyway; at least not the kind of sun I like. Better get along east.”

“I suppose you better,” said Walter.

“It was a good two weeks,” said Bill.

Walter nodded. “It was a very
fine
two weeks.”

“I sure got tan.”

“You sure did.”

“It's starting to come off now, though,” said Bill, regretfully. “Wish I'd had time to make it a good permanent one.” He peered over his shoulder at his back and made some gestures at it with elbows bent, fingers clutching. “Look, Walt, this damn stuff is peeling off, and it itches. You mind taking off some of the stuff?”

“I don't mind,” said Walter. “Turn around.”

Bill turned silently, and Walter, reaching out, eyes shining, gently pulled off a strip of skin.

Piece by piece, flake after flake, strip by strip, he peeled the dark skin off of Bill's muscled back, shoulder blades, neck, spine, bringing out the pink naked white underneath.

When he finished, Bill looked nude and lonely and small and Walter realized that he had done something to Bill, but that Bill was accepting it philosophically, not worried about it, and a great light shone in Walter instantly, out of the whole summer's time!

He had done something to Bill that was right and natural and there was no way of escaping or getting around it, that was the way it was and had to be. Bill had waited the summer through and thought he had something, but it wasn't really there all the time. He just thought it was there.

The wind blew away the flakes of skin.

“You been lying here all July and August for that,” said Walter, slowly. He dropped a fragment. “And there it goes. I been waiting all my life and it goes to the same place.” He turned his back proudly to Bill and then, half sad, half happy, but at peace he said:

“Now, let's see you peel some offa me!”

THE ISLAND
1952

T
HE WINTER NIGHT DRIFTED
by lamplit windows in white bits and pieces. Now the procession marched evenly, now fluttered and spun. But there was a continual sifting and settling, which never stopped filling a deep abyss with silence.

The house was locked and bolted at every seam, window, door, and hatch. Lamps bloomed softly in each room. The house held its breath, drowsed and warm. Radiators sighed. A refrigerator hummed quietly. In the library, under the lime green hurricane lamp, a white hand moved, a pen scratched, a face bent to the ink, which dried in the false summer air.

Upstairs in bed, an old woman lay reading. Across the upper hall, her daughter sorted linen in a cupboard room. On the attic floor above, a son, half through thirty years, tapped delicately at a typewriter, added yet another paper ball to the growing heap on the rug.

Downstairs, the kitchen maid finished the supper wineglasses, placed them with clear bell sounds onto shelves, wiped her hands, arranged her hair, and reached for the light switch.

It was then that all five inhabitants of the snowing winter night house heard the unusual sound.

The sound of a window breaking.

It was like the cracking of moon-colored ice on a midnight pond.

The old woman sat up in bed. Her youngest daughter stopped sorting linens. About to crumple a typewritten page, the son froze, the paper shut in his fist.

In the library, the second daughter caught her breath, let the dark ink dry with almost an audible hiss, halfway down the page.

The kitchen maid stood, fingers on the light switch.

Not a sound.

Silence.

And the whisper of the cold wind from some far broken window, wandering the halls.

Each head turned in its separate room, looked first at the faintest stir of carpet nap where the wind stroked in under each breathing door. Then they snapped their gazes to the brass door locks.

Each door had its own bulwarking, each its arrangements of snap-bolts, chain-locks, bars, and keys. The mother, in those years when her eccentricities had spun them like tops until their sense flew away, had supervised the doors as if each were a precious and wonderful new still life.

In the years before illness had stuffed her unceremoniously in bed, she had professed fears of any room that could not
instantly
become a fortress! A houseful of women (son Robert rarely descended from his crow's nest) needed swift defenses against the blind greeds, envies, and rapes of a world only a bit less feverish with lust in winter.

So ran her theory.

“We'll never need
that
many locks!” Alice had protested years ago.

“There'll come a day,” the mother replied, “you'll thank God for one single solid Yale lock.”

“But all a robber has to do,” said Alice, “is smash a window, undo the sill locks and—”

“Break a window! And
warn
us? Nonsense!”

“It would all be so simple if we only kept our money in the
bank
.”

“Again, nonsense! I learned in 1929 to keep hard cash from soft hands! There's a gun under my pillow and our money under my bed!
I'm
the First National Bank of Oak Green Island!”

“A bank worth forty thousand dollars?!”

“Hush! Why don't you stand at the landing and tell all the fishermen? Besides, it's not just cash that the fiends would come for. Yourself, Madeline—
me
!”

“Mother, Mother. Old maids, let's face it.”

“Women, never forget,
women
. Where are the
other
pistols?”

“One in each room, Mother.”

And so the home-grown artillery was primed and set, the hatches dogged and undogged from season to season, year to year. An intercommunication phone circuit, using batteries, was wired upstairs and down. The daughters had accepted the phones, smiling, it at least saved shouting up the stairwells.

“Simultaneously,” said Alice, “why not cut off our outside phone? It's long past time anyone called from the town across the lake to either Madeline or me.”

“Pull out the phone!” said Madeline. “It costs like hell each month! Who could
we
possibly want to call over there?”

“Boors,” said Robert, heading for the attic. “All of them.”

And now, on this deep winter night, the one single and solitary sound. The shattering of a windowpane, like a wineglass thinly burst, like the breaking of a long warm winter dream.

All five inhabitants of this island house became white statues.

Peeking in windows at each room, one would have imagined museum galleries. Each animal, stuffed with terror, displayed in a last instant of awareness; recognition. There was a light in each glass eye, like that found and forever remembered from a noon glade when a deer, startled and motionless, slowly turned its head to gaze down the long cold barrel of a steel rifle.

Each of the five found their attention fixed to the doors.

Each saw that an entire continent separated their bed or chair from those doors waiting, ready to be locked. An inconsequential yardage to the body. But a psychological immensity to the mind. While they were flinging themselves the short distance, the long distance to slide the bolts, turn the keys, might not some
thing
in the hall leap a similar space to crack the still-unlocked door!?

This thought, with hair-trigger swiftness, flashed through each head. It held them. It would not set them free.

A second, comforting thought came next.

It's nothing, it said. The wind broke the window. A tree branch fell, yes! Or a snowball, thrown by some winter-haunted child, soundless in the night, on his way nowhere....

 

A
LL FIVE MEMBERS
of the house arose in unison.

The halls shook with the wind. A whiteness flaked in the family's faces and snowed in their stricken eyes. All made ready to seize their private doors, open, peer out and cry, “It
was
a falling tree limb, yes!” when they heard yet another sound.

A metal rattling.

And then, a window, somewhere, like the cruel edge of a giant guillotine, began to rise.

It slid in its raw grooves. It gaped a great mouth to let winter in.

Every house door knocked and yammered its hinges and sills.

The gust snuffed out lamps in every room.

“No electricity!” said Mother, years ago. “No gifts from the town! Self-sufficiency's our ticket! Give and take nothing.”

Her voice faded in the past.

No sooner had the oil lamps whiffed out than fear took fire to blaze brighter than logs and hearths, than slumbering coals, in each room.

Alice felt it burn from her cheeks with a ghastly light. She could have read books by the terror that flamed in her brow.

There seemed only one thing to do.

Rushing en masse, each room, a duplicate of the one above or below, four people flung themselves to their doors, to scrabble locks, throw bolts, attach chains, twist keys!

“Safe!” they cried. “Locked and safe!”

All save one moved this way: the maid. She lived but a few hours each day in this outrageous home, untouched by the mother's wild panics and fears. Made practical with years of living in the town beyond the wide moat of lawn, hedge, and wall, she debated only an instant. Then she performed what should have been a saving, but became a despairing, gesture.

Yanking wide the kitchen door she rushed into the main lower hallway. From far off in darkness the wind blew from a cold dragon's mouth.

The others will be out! she thought.

Quickly, she called their names.

“Miss Madeline, Miss Alice, Mrs. Benton, Mr. Robert!”

Then turning, she plunged down the hall toward the blowing darkness of the open window.

“Miss Madeline!”

Madeline, pinned like Jesus to her linen-room door, rescrabbled the locks.

“Miss Alice!”

In the library, where her pale letters capered in darkness, like drunken moths, Alice fell back from her own shut door, found matches, relit the double hurricanes. Her head beat like a heart gorged, pressing her eyes out, gasping her lips, sealing her ears so nothing was heard but a wild pulse and the hollow in-suck of her breath.

“Mrs. Benton!”

The old one squirmed in bed, worked her hands over her face, to reshape the melted flesh into a shocked expression it most needed. Then her fingers splayed out at the unlocked door. “Fool! Damn fool! Someone lock my door! Alice, Robert, Madeline!”

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