فصل 07کتاب: اتحادیه ابلهان / فصل 7
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Paradise Vendors, Incorporated, was housed in what had formerly been an automobile repair shop, the dark ground floor of an otherwise unoccupied commercial building on Poydras Street. The garage doors were usually open, giving the passerby an acrid nostrilful of boiling hot dogs and mustard and also of cement soaked over many years by automobile lubricants and motor oils that had dripped and drained from Harmons and Hupmobiles. The powerful stench of Paradise Vendors, Incorporated, sometimes led the overwhelmed and perplexed stroller to glance through the open door into the darkness of the garage. There his eye fell upon a fleet of large tin hot dogs mounted on bicycle tires. It was hardly an imposing vehicular collection. Several of the mobile hot dogs were badly dented. One crumpled frankfurter lay on its side, its one wheel horizontally above it, a traffic fatality.
Among the afternoon pedestrians who hurried past Paradise Vendors, Incorporated, one formidable figure waddled slowly along. It was Ignatius. Stopping before the narrow garage, he sniffed the fumes from Paradise with great sensory pleasure, the protruding hairs in his nostrils analyzing, cataloging, categorizing, and classifying the distinct odors of hot dog, mustard, and lubricant. Breathing deeply, he wondered whether he also detected the more delicate odor, the fragile scent of hot dog buns. He looked at the white-gloved hands of his Mickey Mouse wristwatch and noticed that he had eaten lunch only an hour before. Still the intriguing aromas were making him salivate actively.
He stepped into the garage and looked around. In a corner an old man was boiling hot dogs in a large institutional pot whose size dwarfed the gas range upon which it rested.
“Pardon me, sir,” Ignatius called. “Do you retail here?”
The man’s watering eyes turned toward the large visitor.
“What do you want?”
“I would like to buy one of your hot dogs. They smell rather tasty. I was wondering if I could buy just one.”
“May I select my own?” Ignatius asked, peering down over the top of the pot. In the boiling water the frankfurters swished and lashed like artificially colored and magnified paramecia. Ignatius filled his lungs with the pungent, sour aroma. “I shall pretend that I am in a smart restaurant and that this is the lobster pond.” “Here, take this fork,” the man said, handing Ignatius a bent and corroded semblance of a spear. “Try to keep your hands out of the water. It’s like acid. Look what it’s done to the fork.” “My,” Ignatius said to the old man after having taken his first bite. “These are rather strong. What are the ingredients in these?”
“Rubber, cereal, tripe. Who knows? I wouldn’t touch one of them myself.”
“They’re curiously appealing,” Ignatius said, clearing his throat. “I thought that the vibrissae about my nostrils detected something unique while I was outside.” Ignatius chewed with a blissful savagery, studying the scar on the man’s nose and listening to his whistling.
“Do I hear a strain from Scarlatti?” Ignatius asked finally.
“I thought I was whistling ‘Turkey in the Straw.’”
“I had hoped that you might be familiar with Scarlatti’s work. He was the last of the musicians,” Ignatius observed and resumed his furious attack upon the long hot dog. “With your apparent musical bent, you might apply yourself to something worthwhile.” Ignatius chewed while the man began his tuneless whistling again. Then he said, “I suspect that you imagine ‘Turkey in the Straw’ to be a valuable bit of Americana. Well, it is not. It is a discordant abomination.” “I can’t see that it matters much.”
“It matters a great deal, sir!” Ignatius screamed. “Veneration of such things as ‘Turkey in the Straw’ is at the very root of our current dilemma.”
“Where the hell do you come from? Whadda you want?”
“What is your opinion of a society that considers ‘Turkey in the Straw’ to be one of the pillars, as it were, of its culture?”
“Who thinks that?” the old man asked worriedly.
“Everyone! Especially folk singers and third-grade teachers. Grimy undergraduates and grammar-school children are always chanting it like sorcerers.” Ignatius belched. “I do believe that I shall have another of these savories.” After his fourth hot dog, Ignatius ran his magnificent pink tongue around his lips and up over his moustache and said to the old man, “I cannot recently remember having been so totally satisfied. I was fortunate to find this place. Before me lies a day fraught with God knows what horrors. I am at the moment unemployed and have been launched upon a quest for work. However, I might as well have had the Grail set as my goal. I have been rocketing about the business district for a week now. Apparently I lack some particular perversion which today’s employer is seeking.” “No luck, huh?”
“Well, during the week, I have answered only two ads. On some days I am completely enervated by the time I reach Canal Street. On these days I am doing well if I have enough spirit to straggle into a movie palace. Actually, I have seen every film that is playing downtown, and since they are all offensive enough to be held over indefinitely, next week looks particularly bleak.” The old man looked at Ignatius and then at the massive pot, the gas range, and the crumpled carts. He said, “I can hire you right here.”
“Thank you very much,” Ignatius said condescendingly. “However, I could not work here. This garage is particularly dank, and I’m susceptible to respiratory ailments among a variety of others.” “You wouldn’t be working in here, son. I mean as a vendor.”
“What?” Ignatius bellowed. “Out in the rain and snow all day long?”
“It don’t snow here.”
“It has on rare occasions. It probably would again as soon as I trudged out with one of these wagons. I would probably be found in some gutter, icicles dangling from all of my orifices, alley cats pawing over me to draw the warmth from my last breath. No, thank you, sir. I must go. I suspect that I have an appointment of some sort.” Ignatius looked absently at his little watch and saw that it had stopped again.
“Just for a little while,” the old man begged. “Try it for a day. How’s about it? I need vendors bad.”
“A day?” Ignatius repeated disbelievingly. “A day? I can’t waste a valuable day. I have places to go and people to see.”
“Okay,” the old man said firmly. “Then pay me the dollar you owe for them weenies.”
“I am afraid that they will all have to be on the house. Or on the garage or whatever it is. My Miss Marple of a mother discovered a number of theater ticket stubs in my pockets last night and has given me only carfare today.” “I’ll call in the police.”
“Oh, my God!”
“Pay me! Pay me or I’ll get the law.”
The old man picked up the long fork and deftly placed its two rotting tongs at Ignatius’s throat.
“You are puncturing my imported muffler,” Ignatius screamed.
“Gimme your carfare.”
“I can’t walk all the way to Constantinople Street.”
“Get a taxi. Somebody at your house can pay the driver when you get there.”
“Do you seriously think that my mother will believe me if I tell her that an old man held me up with a fork and took my two nickels?”
“I’m not gonna be robbed again,” the old man said, spraying Ignatius with saliva. “That’s all that happens to you in the hot dog trade. Hot dog vendors and gas station attendants always get it. Holdups, muggings. Nobody respects a hot dog vendor.” “That is patently untrue, sir. No one respects hot dog vendors more than I. They perform one of our society’s few worthwhile services. The robbing of a hot dog vendor is a symbolic act. The theft is not prompted by avarice but rather by a desire to belittle the vendor.” “Shut your goddam fat lip and pay me.”
“You are quite adamant for being so aged. However, I am not walking fifty blocks to my home. I would rather face death by rusty fork.”
“Okay, buddy, now listen to me. I’ll make a bargain with you. You go out and push one of these wagons for an hour, and we’ll call it quits.”
“Don’t I need clearance from the Health Department or something? I mean, I might have something beneath my fingernails that is very debilitating to the human system. Incidentally, do you get all of your vendors this way? Your hiring practices are hardly in step with contemporary policy. I feel as if I’ve been shanghaied. I am too apprehensive to ask how you go about firing your employees.” “Just don’t ever try to rob a hot dog man again.”
“You’ve just made your point. Actually, you have made two of them, literally in my throat and muffler. I hope that you are prepared to compensate for the muffler. There are no more of its kind. It was made in a small factory in England that was destroyed by the Luftwaffe. At the time it was rumored that the Luftwaffe was directed to strike directly at the factory in order to destroy British morale, for the Germans had seen Churchill wrapped in a muffler of this sort in a confiscated newsreel. For all I know, this may be the same one that Churchill was wearing in that particular Movietone. Today their value is somewhere in the thousands. It can also be worn as a shawl. Look.” “Well,” the old man said finally, after watching Ignatius employ the muffler as a cummerbund, a sash, a cloak, and a pair of kilts, a sling for a broken arm, and a kerchief, “you ain’t gonna do too much damage to Paradise Vendors in one hour.” “If the alternatives are jail or a pierced Adam’s apple, I shall happily push one of your carts. Though I can’t predict how far I’ll go.”
“Don’t get me wrong, son. I ain’t a bad guy, but you can only take so much. I spent ten years trying to make Paradise Vendors a reputable organization, but that ain’t easy. People look down on hot dog vendors. They think I operate a business for bums. I got trouble finding decent vendors. Then when I find some nice guy, he goes out and gets himself mugged by hoodlums. How come God had to make it so tough for you?” “We must not question His ways,” Ignatius said.
“Maybe not, but I still don’t get it.”
“The writings of Boethius may give you some insight.”
“I read Father Keller and Billy Graham in the paper every single day.”
“Oh, my God!” Ignatius spluttered. “No wonder you are so lost.”
“Here,” the old man said, opening a metal locker near the stove. “Put this on.”
He took what looked like a white smock out of the locker and handed it to Ignatius.
“What is this?” Ignatius asked happily. “It looks like an academic gown.”
Ignatius slipped it over his head. On top of his overcoat, the smock made him look like a dinosaur egg about to hatch.
“Tie it at the waist with the belt.”
“Of course not. These things are supposed to freely flow about the human form, although this one seems to provide little leeway. Are you sure that you don’t have one in a larger size?
“Upon close scrutiny, I notice that this gown is rather yellow about the cuffs. I hope these stains about the chest are ketchup rather than blood. The last wearer of this might have been stabbed by hoodlums.” “Here, put on this cap.” The man gave Ignatius a little rectangle of white paper.
“I am certainly not wearing a paper cap. The one that I have is perfectly good and far more healthful.”
“You can’t wear a hunting cap. This is the Paradise vendor’s uniform.”
“I will not wear that paper cap! I am not going to die of pneumonia while playing this little game for you. Plunge the fork into my vital organs, if you wish. I will not wear that cap. Death before dishonor and disease.” “Okay, drop it,” the old man sighed. “Come on and take this cart here.”
“Do you think that I am going to be seen on the streets with that damaged abomination?” Ignatius asked furiously, smoothing the vendor’s smock over his body. “Give me that shiny one with the white sidewall tires.” “Awright, awright,” the old man said testily. He opened the lid on the little well in the cart and with a fork slowly began transferring hot dogs from the pot to the little well in the cart. “Now I give you a dozen hot dogs.” He opened another lid in the top of the metal bun. “I’m putting a package of buns in here. Got that?” He closed that lid and pulled upon a little side door cut in the shining red tin dog. “In here they got a little can of liquid heat keeps the hot dogs warm.” “My God,” Ignatius said with some respect. “These carts are like Chinese puzzles. I suspect that I will continually be pulling at the wrong opening.”
The old man opened still another lid cut in the rear of the hot dog.
“What’s in there? A machine gun?”
“The mustard and ketchup’s in here.”
“Well, I shall give this a brave try, although I may sell someone the can of liquid heat before I get too far.”
The old man rolled the cart to the door of the garage and said, “Okay, buddy, go ahead.”
“Thank you so much,” Ignatius replied and wheeled the big tin hot dog out onto the sidewalk. “I will be back promptly in an hour.”
“Get off the sidewalk with that thing.”
“I hope that you don’t think I am going out into traffic.”
“You can get yourself arrested for pushing one of them things on the sidewalk.”
“Good,” Ignatius said. “If the police follow me, they might prevent a robbery.”
Ignatius pushed slowly away from the headquarters of Paradise Vendors through the heavy pedestrian traffic that moved to either side of the big hot dog like waves on a ship’s prow. This was a better way of passing time than seeing personnel managers, several of whom, Ignatius thought, had treated him rather viciously in the last few days. Since the movie houses were now off limits due to lack of funds, he would have had to drift, bored and aimless, around the business district until it seemed safe to return home. The people on the street looked at Ignatius, but no one bought. After he had gone half a block, he began calling, “Hot dogs! Hot dogs from Paradise!” “Get in the street, pal,” the old man cried somewhere behind him.
Ignatius turned the corner and parked the wagon against a building. Opening the various lids, he prepared a hot dog for himself and ravenously ate it. His mother had been in a violent mood all week, refusing to buy him any Dr. Nut, pounding on his door when he was trying to write, threatening to sell the house and move into an old folks’ home. She described to Ignatius the courage of Patrolman Mancuso, who, against heavy odds, was fighting to retain his job, who wanted to work, who was making the best of his torture and exile in the bathroom at the bus station. Patrolman Mancuso’s situation reminded Ignatius of the situation of Boethius when he was imprisoned by the emperor before being killed. To pacify his mother and to improve conditions at home, he had given her The Consolation of Philosophy, an English translation of the work that Boethius had written while unjustly imprisoned, and had told her to give it to Patrolman Mancuso so that he might peruse it while sealed in his booth. “The book teaches us to accept that which we cannot change. It describes the plight of a just man in an unjust society. It is the very basis for medieval thought. No doubt it will aid your patrolman during his moments of crisis,” Ignatius had said benevolently. “Yeah?” Mrs. Reilly had asked. “Aw, that’s sweet, Ignatius. Poor Angelo’ll be glad to get this.” For about a day, at least, the present to Patrolman Mancuso had brought a temporary peace to life on Constantinople Street.
When he had finished the first hot dog, Ignatius prepared and consumed another, contemplating other kindnesses that might postpone his having to go to work again. Fifteen minutes later, noticing that the supply of hot dogs in the little well was visibly diminishing, he decided in favor of abstinence for the moment. He began to push slowly down the street, calling again, “Hot dogs!” George, who was wandering up Carondelet with an armload of packages wrapped in plain brown paper, heard the cry and went up to the gargantuan vendor.
“Hey, stop. Gimme one of these.”
Ignatius looked sternly at the young boy who had placed himself in the wagon’s path. His valve protested against the pimples, the surly face that seemed to hang from the long well-lubricated hair, the cigarette behind the ear, the aquamarine jacket, the delicate boots, the tight trousers that bulged offensively in the crotch in violation of all rules of theology and geometry.
“I am sorry,” Ignatius snorted. “I have only a few frankfurters left, and I must save them. Please get out of my way.”
“Save them? Who for?”
“That is none of your business, you waif. Why aren’t you in school? Kindly stop molesting me. Anyway, I have no change.”
“I got a quarter,” the thin white lips sneered.
“I cannot sell you a frank, sir. Is that clear?”
“Whatsa matter with you, friend?”
“What’s the matter with me? What’s the matter with you? Are you unnatural enough to want a hot dog this early in the afternoon? My conscience will not let me sell you one. Just look at your loathsome complexion. You are a growing boy whose system needs to be surfeited with vegetables and orange juice and whole wheat bread and spinach and such. I, for one, will not contribute to the debauchery of a minor.” “Whadda you talking about? Sell me one of them hot dogs. I’m hungry. I ain’t had no lunch.”
“No!” Ignatius screamed so furiously that the passersby stared. “Now get away from me before I run over you with this cart.”
George pulled open the lid of the bun compartment and said, “Hey, you got plenty stuff in here. Fix me a weenie.”
“Help!” Ignatius screamed, suddenly remembering the old man’s warnings about robberies. “Someone is stealing my buns! Police!”
Ignatius backed up the cart and rammed it into George’s crotch.
“Ouch! Watch out there, you nut.”
“Shut up, for Christ’s sake,” George said and slammed the door. “You oughta be locked up, you big fruit. You know that?”
“What?” Ignatius screamed. “What impertinence was that?”
“You big crazy fruit,” George snarled more loudly and slouched away, the taps on his heels scraping the sidewalk. “Who wants to eat anything your fruity hands touched?” “How dare you scream obscenities at me. Someone grab that boy,” Ignatius said wildly as George disappeared into the crowds of pedestrians farther down the street. “Someone with some decency grab that juvenile delinquent. That filthy little minor. Where is his respect? That little guttersnipe must be lashed until he collapses!” A woman in the group around the mobile hot dog said, “Ain’t that awful? Where they get them hot dog vendors from?”
“Bums. They all bums,” someone answered her.
“Wine is what it is. They all crazy from wine if you ast me. They shouldn’t let people like him out on the street.”
“Is my paranoia getting completely out of hand,” Ignatius asked the group, “or are you mongoloids really talking about me?”
“Let him alone,” someone said. “Look at them eyes.”
“What’s wrong with my eyes?” Ignatius asked viciously.
“Let’s get outta here.”
“Please do,” Ignatius replied, his lips quivering, and prepared another hot dog to quiet his trembling nervous system. With shaking hands, he held the foot of red plastic and dough to his mouth and slipped it in two inches at a time. The active chewing massaged his throbbing head. When he had shoved in the last millimeter of crumb, he felt much calmer.
Grabbing the handle again, he shoved off up Carondelet Street, waddling slowly behind the cart. True to his promise to make it around the block, he turned again at the next corner and stopped by the worn granite walls of Gallier Hall to consume two more of the Paradise hot dogs before continuing on the last leg of his journey. When Ignatius turned the final corner and saw again the PARADISE VENDORS, INC., sign hanging out over the sidewalk of Poydras Street at an angle, he broke into a relatively brisk trot that brought him panting through the doors of the garage.
“Help!” Ignatius breathed pitifully, bumping the tin hot dog over the low cement sill of the garage.
“What happened, pal? I thought you was supposed to stay out a whole hour.”
“We’re both fortunate that I have returned at all. I am afraid that they have struck again.”
“The syndicate. Whoever they are. Look at my hands.” Ignatius shoved two paws into the man’s face. “My entire nervous system is on the brink of revolt against me for subjecting it to such trauma. Ignore me if I suddenly go into a state of shock.” “What the hell happened?”
“A member of the vast teen-age underground besieged me on Carondelet Street.”
“You was robbed?” the old man asked excitedly.
“Brutally. A large and rusty pistol was placed at my temples. Actually, was pressed directly upon a pressure point, causing the blood to stop circulating on the left side of my head for quite a while.” “On Carondelet Street at this time of day? Nobody stopped it?”
“Of course no one stopped it. People encourage this sort of thing. They probably derive some sort of pleasure from the spectacle of a poor and struggling vendor’s being publicly humiliated. They probably respected the boy’s initiative.” “What did he look like?”
“A thousand other youths. Pimples, pompadour, adenoids, the standard adolescent equipment. There might have been something else like a birthmark or trick knee. I really can’t recall. After the pistol had been thrust against my head, I fainted from lack of circulation in the brain and from fright. While I was lying in a heap on the sidewalk, he apparently ransacked the wagon.” “How much money did he get?”
“Money? No money was stolen. After all, there was no money to steal, for I had not been able to vend even one of these delicacies. He stole the hot dogs.
“Yes. However, he apparently didn’t take them all. When I had recovered, I checked the wagon. There are still one or two left, I think.”
“I never heard of nothing like this.”
“Perhaps he was very hungry. Perhaps some vitamin deficiency in his growing body was screaming for appeasement. The human desire for food and s@x is relatively equal. If there are armed rapes, why should there not be armed hot dog thefts? I see nothing unusual in the matter.” “You’re full of bullsh@t.”
“I? The incident is sociologically valid. The blame rests upon our society. The youth, crazed by suggestive television programs and lascivious periodicals had apparently been consorting with some rather conventional adolescent females who refused to participate in his imaginative s@xual program. His unfulfilled physical desires therefore sought sublimation in food. I, unfortunately, was the victim of all of this. We may thank God that this boy has turned to food for an outlet. Had he not, I might have been raped right there on the spot.” “He took all but four,” the old man said, peering down into the well in the hot dog. “That son of a bit@h, I wonder how he could carry all them hot dogs away.” “I really don’t know,” Ignatius said. Then he added indignantly, “I awakened to find the lid of the cart open. Of course no one would help me up. My white smock stamped me as a vendor, an untouchable.” “How about making another try?”
“What? In my present condition, do you seriously expect me to take to the streets again and hustle? My ten cents is going to be deposited in the hands of a St. Charles streetcar conductor. The remainder of the day I intend to spend in a hot tub trying to recapture some semblance of normality.” “Then how about coming back tomorrow, pal, and trying it again?” the old man asked hopefully. “I really need vendors.”
Ignatius pondered the proposal for some time, scrutinizing the scar on the old man’s nose and belching gassily. At least he would be working. That should satisfy his mother. The work offered little supervision and harassment. Ending his meditations with a clearing of the throat, he belched, “If I am functioning in the morning, I shall perhaps return. I cannot predict the hour at which I will arrive, but, more or less, I imagine that you can expect to see me.” “That’s fine, son,” the old man said. “Call me Mr. Clyde.”
“I shall,” Ignatius said and licked at a crumb that he had discovered in the corner of his mouth. “Incidentally, Mr. Clyde, I shall be wearing this smock home to prove to my mother that I am employed. You see, she drinks rather heavily, and she needs reassurance that money from my labors will be forthcoming in order that her supply of spirits won’t be cut off. My life is a rather grim one. One day I shall perhaps describe it to you in detail. For the moment, however, you must know a thing or two about my valve.” “Valve?”
Jones was blindly running a sponge along the bar. Lana Lee had gone on a shopping trip, her first one in a long time, locking the cash register loudly and warningly before leaving. After he had wet the bar a little, Jones tossed the sponge back into the bucket, took a seat in a booth, and tried to look at the latest Life Darlene had given him. He lit a cigarette, but the cloud of smoke made the magazine even more invisible. The best reading light in the Night of Joy was the small one on the cash register, so Jones went over to the bar and flipped it on. He was just beginning a study in-depth of a cocktail party scene in a Seagram’s V.O. advertisement when Lana Lee pushed into the bar.
“I thought I shouldn’t leave you in here alone,” she said, opening a bag and taking out a box of classroom chalk which she put in the cabinet under the bar. “What the hell are you doing with my cash register? Get back on my floor.” “I already finish on your flo. I turnin into a expert on flos. I think color cats got sweepin and moppin in they blood, it come natural. It sorta like eatin and breathin now to color peoples. I bet you give some little color baby one-year-old a broom in he han, he star sweeping his ass off. Whoa!” Jones returned to the advertisement while Lana locked the cabinet again. Then she looked at the long tracks of dust on the floor that made it look as if Jones had plowed rather than mopped it. There were linear streaks of clean floor for the furrows, and linear streaks of dust, the hillocks. Although Lana did not know it, this was Jones’s attempt at some subtle sabotage. He had some larger plans for the future.
“Hey, you there. Take a look at my goddam floor.”
Jones reluctantly looked through his sunglasses and saw nothingness.
“Whoa! You got a fine flo. Ooo-wee. Everthin in the Night of Joy firs rate.”
“You see all that crap?”
“For twenny dollar a week, you gotta expec a little crap. The crap star disappearin when the wage going up around fifty or sigsty.”
“I want performance when I put out money,” Lana said angrily.
“Listen, you ever try living on my kinda wage? You think color peoples get grossries and clothin at a specia price? What you thinkin about half the time you sitting up here playin with your penny? Whoa! Where I live, you know how peoples buy cigarette? Them peoples cain affor a whole pack, they buy they cigarette separate two cent apiece. You think a color mother got it easy? sh@t. I ain foolin. I gettin pretty tire of bein vagran or tryina keep my ass alive on this kinda wage.” “Who took you off the streets and gave you a job when the cops was about to lock you up for vagrancy? You might think about that sometime when you’re goofing off behind them goddam glasses.” “Goofin off? sh@t. Goofin off ain cleanin up this mother-fu@king cathouse. They somebody in here sweepin and moppin up all the sh@t your po, stupor customer drippin on the flo. I feel sorry for them po peoples comin in here thinkin they gonna have theirself some fun, probly gettin knockout drop in they drink, catchin the clap off the ice cube. Whoa! And talkin about puttin out money it seem to me maybe you be puttin out a little more now that your orphan frien stop coming aroun. Since you cut out the chariddy, maybe you slip me some of the United Fun money.” Lana said nothing. She clipped the receipt for the box of chalk to her ledger book so that she could list it in the column of itemized deductions that always accompanied her income tax returns. She had already bought a used globe of the world. That, too, was stored in the cabinet. All she needed now was a book. When she saw George next, she would ask him to bring her one. He must have some kind of book left over from the days before he had dropped out of high school.
Lana had taken some time to assemble the little collection of props. While the plainclothesmen had been coming in at night, she had been too worried and preoccupied to attend to this project for George. There had been the major problem of Darlene, the vulnerable point in Lana’s wall of protection against undercover policemen. But now, the plainclothesmen had gone away as suddenly as they had appeared. Lana had spotted each one as soon as he had entered, and with Darlene safely off the stools and practicing with her bird, the plainclothesmen had nothing to go on. Lana had seen to it that they were actively ignored by everyone. It took experience to be able to spot a cop. But a person who could spot a cop could also avoid a lot of trouble.
There were only two things to be settled. One was getting the book. If George wanted her to have a book, he could get it for her himself. Lana wasn’t about to buy a book, even a used one. The other was getting Darlene back on the stools now that the plainclothesmen were gone. Having someone like Darlene on commission was better than having her on salary. And what Lana had seen Darlene do on the stage with the bird told her that, for the moment, the Night of Joy might do better if it decided not to cater to the animal trade.
“Where’s Darlene?” Lana asked Jones. “I got a little message for her and that bird.”
“She telephone and say she be in sometime this afternoon to do some more rehearsin,” Jones said to the advertisement he was researching. “She say she takin her bird to the veternaria firs, she think it losin some of its feather.” “Yeah?”
Lana started to plan the ensemble with the globe, the chalk, and the book. If the thing had commercial possibilities, it should be done with a certain finesse and quality. She envisioned several arrangements that would combine grace and obscenity. There was no need to be too raw. After all, she was appealing to kids.
“Here we come,” Darlene called happily from the door. She tripped into the bar in slacks and a pea jacket, carrying a covered birdcage.
“Well, don’t plan to stay too long,” Lana answered. “I got some news for you and your friend.”
Darlene put the cage on the bar and uncovered a huge, scrofulous rose cockatoo that looked, like a used car, as if it had passed through the hands of many owners. The bird’s crest dipped, and it cried horribly, “Awwk.” “Okay, get it out, Darlene. You go back to your stool starting tonight.”
“Aw, Lana,” Darlene moaned. “Whatsa matter? We been doing good in rehearsal. Just wait’ll we iron out the kinks. This act is gonna be a boffo smash.”
“To tell you the truth, Darlene, I’m afraid of you and that bird.”
“Look, Lana.” Darlene took off her pea jacket and showed the manager the tiny rings attached to the side of her slacks and blouse with safety pins. “You see these things? That’s what’s gonna make the act smooth. I been practicing with it in my apartment. It’s a new angle. He grabs at those rings with his beak and rips my clothes off. I mean, these rings is just for rehearsal. When I get my costume made, the rings are gonna be sewed on top of a hook and eye so when he grabs, the costume pops open. I’m telling you, Lana. It’s gonna be a smash hit sensation.” “Listen, Darlene, it was safer when you just had that goddam thing flying around your head or whatever it did.”
“But now it’s gonna be a real part of the turn. It’s gonna pull…”
“Yeah, and it might pull your tits off. All I need in this place is a goddam accident and a ambulance to drive away my customers and ruin my investment. Or maybe this bird gets it in his head to fly out in the audience and pull out somebody’s eyes. No, to be frank, I don’t trust you and a bird, Darlene. Safety first.” “Aw, Lana.” Darlene was heartbroken. “Give us a chance. We just getting good.”
“No. Beat it. Take that thing off my bar before it takes a sh@t.” Lana threw the cover over the birdcage. “The you-know-whats are gone and you can go back to your stool.” “I think maybe I’ll tell you-know-who about the you-know-whats and make you-know-who scared and quit.”
Jones looked up from an advertisement and said, “If you peoples be talkin all this double-talk, I cain read. Whoa. Who the ‘you-know-whats’ and who ‘you-know-who?’” “Get off that stool, jailbait, and get on my floor.”
“That bird been travelin to Night of Joy practicin and tryin,” Jones said from his cloud, smiling. “sh@t. You gotta give it a chance, cain treat it like it’s color peoples.” “That’s right,” Darlene agreed sincerely.
“Since we cuttin off the orphan chariddy and we not extendin it to the porter help, maybe we oughta give a little to a po, strugglin gal gotta hustle on commission. Hey!” Jones had seen the bird flap around on the stage while Darlene tried to dance. He had never seen a worse performance; Darlene and the bird qualified as legitimate sabotage. “Maybe it need a little polishin here and there, a little twistin and rockin, some more slippin and slidin, but I think that ack very good. Ooo-wee.” “You see that?” Darlene said to Lana. “Jones oughta know. Colored people got plenty rhythm.”
“I don’t wanna scare somebody with a story about some people.”
“Oh, shut up, Darlene,” Lana screamed.
Jones covered the two with some smoke and said, “I think Darlene and that there bird very unusual. Whoa! I think you be attractin plenny new peoples in this place. What other club got them a ball eagle on the stage?” “You jerks think there’s really a bird trade we could tap?” Lana asked.
“Hey! I sure they a bird trade. White peoples always got parrakeets and canayries they smoochin. Wait till them peoples fin out what kinda bird the Night of Joy offerin. You be havin a doorman in front this place. You be gettin the society trade. Whoa!” Jones created a dangerous-looking nimbus that seemed ready to burst. “Darlene and that bird just gotta eye-rom out a few rough spot. sh@t. The gal just startin in show biz. She need a break.” “That’s right,” Darlene said. “I’m just startin out in show biz. I need a break.”
“Shut up, stupid. You think you can get that bird to strip you?”
“Yes, ma’m,” Darlene said enthusiastically. “Suddenly it come to me. I was sitting in my apartment watching it play on its rings, and I said to myself, ‘Darlene, how come you don’t stick some rings on your clothes?’” “Shut your moron up,” Lana said. “Okay, let’s see what it can do.”
“Whoa! Now you talkin. All kinda mother be showin up to see this act.”
“Santa, I hadda call you, honey.”
“What’s wrong, Irene babe?” Mrs. Battaglia’s froggy baritone asked feelingly.
“What he’s done now, sweetheart? Tell Santa.”
“Wait a minute. Let me see if he’s still in that tub.” Mrs. Reilly listened apprehensively to the great liquid thrashings coming from the bathroom. One whalelike snort floated out into the hall through the peeling bathroom door. “It’s okay. He’s still in there. I can’t lie to you, Santa. My heart’s broke.” “Aw.”
“Ignatius comes home about a hour ago dressed up like a butcher.”
“Good. He’s got him another job, that big fat bum.”
“But not in a butcher shop, honey,” Mrs. Reilly said, her voice heavy with grief. “He’s a hot dog vendor.”
“Aw, come on,” Santa croaked. “A hot dog vendor? You mean out on the streets?”
“Out on the streets, honey, like a bum.”
“Bum is right, girl. Even worst. Read the police notices in the paper sometimes. They all a bunch of vagrants.”
“Ain’t that awful!”
“Somebody oughta punch that boy in the nose.”
“When he first comes in, Santa, he makes me guess what kinda job he’s got. First, I guess, ‘butcher,’ you know?”
“So he says, very insolent, ‘Guess again. You ain’t even close.’ I keep guessing for about five minutes until I can’t think of no more jobs where you’d be wearing one of them white uniforms. Then he finally says, ‘Wrong every time. I got me a job selling weenies.’ I almost passed out, Santa, right on the kitchen floor. Wouldn’t thata been fine, me with my head broke open on the linoleum?” “He wouldn’t care, not that one.”
“Never in a million years.”
“He don’t care about his poor momma,” Mrs. Reilly said. “With all his education, mind you. Selling weenies out on the street in the broad daylight.”
“So what you told him, girl?”
“I didn’t tell him nothing. By the time I got my mouth open, he runs off to the bathroom. He’s still locked up in there splashing water all over the floor.”
“Hold on a minute, Irene. I got one of my little grandchirren over here for the day,” Santa said and screamed at someone at her end of the line: “Get the hell away from that stove, Charmaine, and go play out on the banquette before I bust you right in the mouth.” A child’s voice made some reply.
“Lord,” Santa continued calmly to Mrs. Reilly. “Them kids is sweet, but sometimes I just don’t know. Charmaine! Get the hell outside and go play on your bike before I come slap your face off. Hold the line, Irene.” Mrs. Reilly heard Santa put the telephone down. Then a child screamed, a door slammed, and Santa was back on the line.
“Christ, I tell you true, Irene, that child won’t listen to nobody! I’m trying to cook her some spaghettis and daube, and she keeps on playing in my pot. I wish them sisters at her school would beat up on her a little. You know Angelo. You shoulda seen how them sisters beat up on him when he was a kid. One sister throwed him right into a blackboard. That’s how come Angelo’s such a sweet, considerate man today.” “The sisters loved Ignatius. He was such a darling child. He used to win all them little holy pictures for knowing his catechism.”
“Them sisters shoulda knocked his head in.”
“When he useta come home with all them little holy pictures,” Mrs. Reilly sniffed, “I sure never thought then he’d end up selling weenies in the broad daylight.” Mrs. Reilly coughed nervously and violently into the telephone. “But tell me, sweetheart, how Angelo’s making out?” “His wife Rita rings me up a little while ago to tell me she thinks he’s coming down with pneumonia from being stuck in that toilet all the time. I tell you true, Irene, that Angelo’s getting as pale as a ghost. The cops sure don’t treat that boy right. He loves the force. When he graduated from the cops’ academy, you woulda thought he just made it outta the Ivory League. He was sure proud.” “Yeah, poor Angelo looks bad,” Mrs. Reilly agreed. “He’s got him a bad cough, that boy. Well, maybe he’ll feel a little better after he reads that thing Ignatius give me to give him. Ignatius says it’s inspirational literature.” “Yeah? I wouldn’t trust no ‘inspirational literature’ I got from that Ignatius. It’s prolly fulla dirty stories.”
“Suppose somebody I know sees him with one of them wagons.”
“Don’t be ashamed, babe. It ain’t your fault you got a brat on your hands,” Santa grunted. “What you need is a man in that house, girl, to set that boy straight. I’m gonna find that nice old man ast about you.” “I don’t want a nice old man. All I want is a nice child.”
“Don’t you worry. Just leave it to Santa. I’ll fix you up. The man runs the fish market says he don’t know the man’s name. But I’ll find out. As a matter of fact, I think I seen him walking down St. Ferdinand Street the other day.” “He ast about me?”
“Well, Irene, I mean I didn’t get a chance to talk to him. I don’t even know if it was the same man.”
“You see that? That old man don’t care neither.”
“Don’t talk like that, girl. I’ll ask over by the beer parlor. I’ll hang around Sunday mass. I’ll find out his name.”
“That old man don’t care for me.”
“Irene, they’s no harm in meeting him.”
“I got enough problems with Ignatius. It’s the disgrace, Santa. Suppose Miss Annie, the next door lady, sees him with one of them wagons. She’s awready about to get us put under a peace bond. She’s all the time spying in that alley behind her shutters.” “You can’t worry about people, Irene,” Santa advised. “The people on my block got dirty mouths. If you can live down here in St. Odo of Cluny Parish, you can live anyplace. Vicious is the word, believe me. I got one woman on my block’s gonna get a brick right in her face if she don’t shut up about me. Somebody told me she’s been calling me a ‘merry widow.’ But don’t you worry. I’m gonna get her good. I think she’s running with some man works at the shipyards, anyways. I think I’m gonna write her husband a little anonymous letter to straighten out that girl.” “I know what it is, sugar. Remember I lived down there on Dauphine when I was a girl. The anonymous letters my poppa useta get… about me. Vicious. I always thought my cousin, that poor spinster girl, was writing them.” “Which cousin was that?” Santa asked with interest. Irene Reilly’s relatives always had gory biographies that were worth hearing.
“That was the one knocked a pot of berling water on her arm when she was a child. She was kinda scalded looking. You know what I mean? I always seen her writing away at the kitchen table at her momma’s house. She was prolly writing about me. She was very jealous when Mr. Reilly started seeing me.” “That’s the way it goes,” Santa said. A scalded relative was a dull figure in Irene’s dramatic gallery. Then she said hoarsely and cheerfully, “I’ll have a little party with you and Angelo and his wife, if she’ll come.” “Aw, that’s sweet, Santa, but I don’t feel much like a party these days.”
“It’ll do you good to shake yourself a little, girl. If I can find out about that old man, I’ll invite him over too. You and him can dance.”
“Well, if you see the old man, babe, tell him Miss Reilly said, ‘Hello.’”
Behind the bathroom door Ignatius was lying passively in the tepid water pushing the plastic soap dish back and forth across the surface with one finger and listening now and then to his mother on the telephone. Occasionally he held the soap dish down until it filled with water and sank. Then he would feel for it on the bottom of the tub, empty it, and sail it again. His blue and yellow eyes rested on an unopened manila envelope on the top of the toilet. For quite a while Ignatius had been trying to decide whether or not he would open the envelope. The trauma of having found employment had affected his valve negatively, and he was waiting until the warm water in which he wallowed like a pink hippopotamus had a calming effect upon his system. Then he would attack the envelope. Paradise Vendors should prove to be a pleasant employer. He would spend his time parked somewhere by the river accumulating notes for the Journal. Mr. Clyde had a certain paternal quality that Ignatius liked; the old man, the scarred and wizened mogul of the frankfurter, would be a welcome new character in the Journal.
At last Ignatius felt relaxed enough and, raising his dripping hulk out of the water, picked up the envelope.
“Why must she use this sort of envelope?” he asked angrily, studying the little circle of a Planetarium Station, New York, postmark on the thick tan paper. “The contents are probably written in marking pencil or worse.” He tore the envelope open, wetting the paper, and pulled out a folded poster that said in large letters:
M. Minkoff speaks boldly about
“s@x in Politics: Erotic Liberty as a weapon Against Reactionaries”
8 p.m. Thursday, the 28th
Y.M.H.A. - Grand Concourse
Admission: $1.00 - OR - Sign M. Minkoff’s Petition Which Aggressively Demands More and Better s@x for All and a Crash Program for Minorities! (The petition will be mailed to Washington.) Sign now and save America from s@xual ignorance, chastity, and fear. Are you committed enough to helpin this bold and crucial movement?
“Oh, my God!” Ignatius spurted through his dripping moustache. “Are they letting her speak in public now? What in the world does the title of this ludicrous lecture mean?” Ignatius read the poster again, viciously. “At any rate, I know that she will speak boldly, and in a perverse way I wish that I could hear that little minx babbling before an audience. This time she has outdone herself in offending taste and decency.” Following a handwritten arrow at the bottom of the poster and the word over, Ignatius complied and looked at the other side of the poster, where Myrna had written something: Sirs:
What is wrong, Ignatius? I have not heard from you. Well, I don’t really blame you for not writing. I guess I came on a little strong in my last letter, but it was only because your paranoid fantasy disturbed me, rooted as it possibly was in your unhealthy attitude toward s@x. You know that ever since I first met you I have directed pointed questions at you in order to clarify your s@xual inclinations. My other desire was to aid you in finding your true self-expression and contentment through satisfying, natural orgasm. I respect your mind and I have always accepted your eccentric tendencies and that is why I want to see you reach the plateau of perfect mental-s@xual balance. (A good, explosive orgasm would cleanse your being and bring you out of the shadows.) Just don’t be angry at me about the letter.
I will explain this poster a little later in this letter because I imagine you are interested in knowing how this bold, dedicated lecture came about. First, though, I must tell you that the movie is off, so if you were planning to play the landlord, forget it. Basically, we had trouble with funds. I could not milk another drachma out of my father, so Leola, the Harlem find, got very hostile about salary (or lack of it) and finally dropped a remark or two that sounded a little anti-Semitic to me. Who needs a girl who isn’t dedicated enough to work gratis in a project that would benefit her race? Samuel has decided to become a forest ranger in Montana because he is planning a dramatic allegory set in a dark woods (Ignorance and Custom) and he wants to get the feel of the forest. From what I know of Samuel, he will be a big flop as a ranger, but the allegory, I know, will be challenging and controversial, full of unpleasant truths. Wish him well. He is fantastic.
To get back to the lecture. At last it seems that I am finding a platform for my philosophy, etc. It all happened in a strange way. A few weeks ago I was at a party that some friends were giving for this very real boy who had just returned from Israel. He was unbelievable. I mean that.
Ignatius emitted a little Paradise gas.
For hours and hours he sang these folk songs he had picked up over there; really significant songs that proved my theory that music should basically be an instrument of social protest and expression. He kept us all in that apartment for hours and hours listening and asking for more. Later we all started talking — on many levels — and I let him know what was on my mind in general.
“Ho, hum,” Ignatius yawned violently.
He said, “Why are you keeping all of this to yourself, Myrna? Why haven’t you let the world in on this?” I told him that I often spoke in discussion groups and in my group therapy group. I also told him about these letters of mine to the editor that have been printed in The New Democracy and Man and Masses and Now!
“Get out of that tub, boy,” Ignatius heard his mother scream outside the door of the bathroom.
“Why?” he asked. “Are you going to use it?”
“Then please go away.”
“You been in there too long.”
“Please! I am attempting to read a letter.”
“A letter? Who wrote you a letter?”
“My dear friend, Miss Minkoff.”
“The last thing you said was she got you fired outta Levy Pants.”
“Well, she did. However, it might have been a favor in disguise. My new work may prove rather agreeable.”
“Ain’t that awful,” Mrs. Reilly said sadly. “You get fired outta a two-bit clerk job in a factory and now you selling weenies in the streets. Well, I’ll tell you one thing, Ignatius, you better not get fired by the weenie man. You know what Santa said?” “I’m sure that it was rather perceptive and incisive, whatever it was. I would imagine that it is rather difficult to comprehend her assaults upon the Mother tongue.” “She said somebody oughta punch you right in the nose.”
“Coming from her, that’s rather literate.”
“What that Myrna’s doing now?” Mrs. Reilly asked suspiciously. “How come she’s writing so much? She needed a good bath, that girl.”
“Myrna’s psyche is only capable of dealing with water in an oral context.”
“Will you please stop shrieking like a fishmonger and run along? Don’t you have a bottle of muscatel baking in the oven? Now let me alone. I’m very nervous.”
“Nervous? You been in that hot water over an hour.”
“It’s hardly hot anymore.”
“Then get out the tub.”
“Why is it so important to you that I leave this tub? Mother, I really don’t understand you at all. Isn’t there something that, as a housekeeper, you feel compelled to do at the moment? I noticed this morning that the lint in the hallway is forming into spheres almost as large as baseballs. Clean the house. Telephone for the correct time. Do something. Lie down and take a nap. You’re looking rather peaked these days.” “Of course I am, boy. You breaking your poor momma’s heart. What would you do if I dropped dead?”
“Well, I am not going to participate in this idiotic conversation. Carry on a monologue out there if you wish. Quietly. I must concentrate upon the new offenses that M. Minkoff has conceived in this letter.” “I can’t take it no more, Ignatius. You gonna find me laying in the kitchen one of these days with a stroke. Just watch, boy. You gonna be all alone in the world. Then you gonna fall on your knees and pray to God for the way you treated your poor dear mother.” From the bathroom there came only silence. Mrs. Reilly waited for at least a splash of water or a rustle of paper, but the bathroom door might as well have been the door of a tomb. After a minute or two of fruitless waiting, she walked off down the hall toward the oven. When Ignatius heard the oven door creak open he returned to the letter.
He said, “With that voice and personality, you should be appearing before the people in prison.” This guy was really amazing; in addition to his tough mind, he was a real mensch. He was so gentlemanly and thoughtful I could hardly believe it. (Especially after dealing with Samuel, who is dedicated and unafraid but all a little too loud and something of a clod.) I never met anybody so dedicated to fighting reactionary ideas and prejudice as this folk singer. His very best friend was a Negro abstractionist, he said, who made magnificent smears of protest and defiance across the canvas, sometimes slashing the canvas to shreds with a knife. He handed me this brilliant pamphlet that showed in detail how the Pope is trying to assemble a nuclear armory; it really opened my mind, and I forwarded it to the editor of The New Democracy to aid him in his battle against the Church. But this guy also had this big thing against WASPS. Like he hated them. I mean, this fellow was sharp.
The next day I got a telephone call from him. Would I lecture to this social action group he was going to form somewhere in Brooklyn Heights? I was overcome. In this world of dog eat dog, it is rare to find a friend… a really sincere friend… or so I thought. Well, to make my point as briefly as possible, I had learned the hard way that the lecture circuit is something like show business: the casting couch and that routine. Get what I mean?
“Do I believe this egregious offense against good taste that I am reading?” Ignatius asked the floating soap dish. “This girl is without shame entirely!”
Again I have been awakened to the fact that my body appeals to some people more than my mind.
“Ho hum,” Ignatius sighed.
Personally, I feel like exposing this phony “folk singer” who I guess is preying on some other dedicated young girl liberal at this moment. Somebody I know said she heard this “folk singer” guy is really a Baptist from Alabama. Boy, what a fraud he was. So then I checked on this pamphlet he had given me and discovered that it was printed by the Klan. This will give you some idea of the ideological subtleties which we have to deal with today. It sounded like a good liberal pamphlet to me. Now I have had to humiliate myself by writing to the editor of The New Democracy to tell him that the pamphlet, although challenging, was written by the wrong people. Well, the WASPS struck back and got me this time. The incident reminded me of the time in Poe Park when this squirrel I was feeding turned out to really be a rat which at first glance could have passed for a squirrel any day. So live and learn. This phony gave me an idea. You can always learn something from crumbs. I decided to ask up here at the ‘Y’ if I could get the auditorium one night. After a while, they said o.k. Of course, the audience up here at the Bronx ‘Y’ will probably be a little parochial, but if I make good in the lecture, I might one day end up speaking down at the Lex. Ave. ‘Y’ where great thinkers like Norman Mailer and Seymour Krim are always airing their views. It won’t hurt to try.
I hope that you are working on your personality problems, Ignatius. Is the paranoia getting any worse? The basis for the paranoia, I think, is the fact that you’re always sealed up in that room and have become suspicious of the outside world. I don’t know why you insisted on living way down there with the alligators. In spite of the complete overhaul that your mind is crying for, you have a brain that could really grow and flower here in N.Y. As it is, you are thwarting yourself and your mentality. The last time I saw you, when I was passing through from Mississippi, you were in pretty bad shape. You’ve probably regressed completely by now living in that substandard old house with only your mother for company. Aren’t your natural impulses crying for release? A beautiful and meaningful love affair would transform you, Ignatius. I know it would. Great Oedipus bonds are encircling your brain and destroying you.
I don’t imagine that your sociological or political ideas are getting any more progressive either. Have you abandoned your project to form a political party or nominate a candidate for president by divine right? I remember that when I finally met you and challenged your political apathy, you came up with this idea. I knew that it was a reactionary project, but it at least showed that you were developing some political consciousness. Please write to me about the matter. I am very concerned. We need a three-party system in this country, and I think that day by day the fascists are growing in strength. This Divine Right Party is the sort of fringe-group scheme that would syphon off a large part of the fascist support.
Well, let me stop. I hope the lecture is a success. You, especially, would benefit from its message. By the way, if you ever do activate the Divine Right movement, I can give you some help in organizing a chapter up here. Please get out of the house, Ignatius, and enter into the world around you. I am worried about your future. You have always been one of my most important projects and I am interested in hearing of your current mental condition, so please get out of the pillows and write.
Later, his puckered pink skin wrapped in the old flannel robe that a safety pin held around his hips, Ignatius sat at the desk in his room filling his fountain pen. In the hall his mother was speaking to someone else on the telephone saying, “And I used every last cent of the insurance money his poor old Grammaw Reilly left just to keep him in college. Ain’t that awful? All that money down the drain.” Ignatius belched and opened a drawer to search for the stationery that he believed he still had; there he found the yo-yo that he had bought from the Filipino who had been selling them in the neighborhood a few months ago. On one side of the yo-yo there was a palm tree which the Filipino had carved at Ignatius’s request. Ignatius spun the yo-yo downward, but the string snapped and it rattled across the floor and under the bed where it landed on a pile of Big Chief tablets and old magazines. Removing the piece of string that hung from his finger, he dug into the drawer again and found a sheet of paper with a Levy Pants letterhead.
I have received your offensive communication. Do you seriously think that I am interested in your tawdry encounters with such sub-humans as folk singers? In every letter of yours I seem to find some reference to the sleaziness of your personal life. Please confine yourself to discussing issues and such; thereby you will at least avoid obscenity and offense. I did think, however, that the symbolism of the rat and squirrel or rat-squirrel or squirrel-rat was evocative and rather excellent.
On the dark night of that dubious lecture, the sole member of your audience will probably be some desperately lonely old male librarian who saw a light in the window of the lecture hall and hopefully came in to escape the cold and the horrors of his personal hell. There in the hall, his stooped figure sitting alone before the podium, your nasal voice echoing among the empty chairs and hammering boredom, confusion, and s@xual reference deeper and deeper into the poor wretch’s bald skull, confounded to the point of hysteria, he will doubtlessly exhibit himself, waving his crabbed organ like a club in despair against the grim sound that drones on and on over his head. If I were you, I would cancel the lecture immediately; I am certain that the ‘Y’ management would be only too glad to accept your withdrawal, especially if they have had a chance to see that tasteless poster which is now no doubt tacked to every telephone pole in the Bronx.
The comments upon my personal life were uncalled for and revealed a shocking lack of taste and decency.
Actually, my personal life has undergone a metamorphosis: I am currently connected in a most vital manner with the food merchandising industry, and therefore I doubt quite seriously whether I shall have much time in the future to correspond with you.
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