|Herb ’n’ Lorna (A Love Story)||by Eric Kraft, as Peter Leroy|
|Chapter 1: In Which Lorna Is Born into the Huber Family, of Chacallit, New York|
|(If you are about to begin your reading of Herb ’n’ Lorna here, I urge you to read the preliminaries and the preface first, because they are integral parts of the work. —Mark Dorset)||Y
GRANDMOTHER, Lorna Huber, was born in Chacallit, New York, fifty miles
or so northwest of Albany, in the valley of the Whatsit River, a tributary
of the Mohawk. The name of the town has a curious etymology.
The first English settlers arrived around 1680, some fifty years after
William Oughtred developed the first calculating instrument that could
be called a slide rule. These settlers knew the Mohawk name for the
place, which meant, loosely, “place where many fur-bearing animals can
be taken but the land is really too steeply sloped to allow one to make
a proper camp.” However, since the settlers couldn’t pronounce the
Mohawk name correctly and were, in the English manner, disinclined to learn
to do so, when they were asked where they hailed from they made a bit of
comic business out of struggling to pronounce the name, delivering three
or four mispronunciations, and then shrugging and saying, “Oh, What-y’-may-call-it.”
The term What-you-may-call-it was, by the middle of the seventeenth century, already well established in English as a humorous substitute for anything the name of which a speaker had forgotten, couldn’t pronounce, had never known, or didn’t consider worth learning. The Oxford English Dictionary, in the entry for what-d’ye-call-’em, lists what-you-may-call-it as a variant, and cited there we find Chapman writing, as early as 1598, “Why hees a what you calt.” In 1600 we find Shakespeare himself writing, in As You Like It, “Good euen good Mr what ye cal’t.”
Apparently human nature and the techniques of comedy were little different in those days from what they are now, because the citizen of “What-y’-may-call-it,” having raised a laugh by lampooning the name of the town, added what is known to stand-up comics as the “topper.” After a suitable pause, the citizen would add, “It’s on the bank of the What’s-it River,” and, presumably, have his listener in stitches.
In time, the town became widely known as What-y’-may-call-it, and then, through clipping and elision, What-y’-ma-call-it, Whatchamacallit, Whatchacallit, and, finally, Chacallit. Similarly, the river came to be called the Whatsit.
The first Hubers in America, Kurt Huber and his sixteen-year-old bride Inge, arrived in the Whatsit Valley from Germany in 1730, at just about the time when the first members of the Studebaker family were settling in Pennsylvania. In Germany, the Hubers had been farmers. History does not record what reasons Kurt Huber had for choosing Chacallit, but, to judge from the poor soil and steep slopes, he certainly can’t have intended to farm there. At the time, fur-trapping was really the only industry, but Kurt seems to have worked as a road builder. A history of Chacallit published in 1866 says of Kurt, “It is to him that the town is indebted for some of its handsomest streets.” That history also says, “He was a bold, fearless man who refused to remove to the fort, where the other settlers fled on account of the Indians.” Inge was known for her caustic wit and dark beauty. An admiring but wary diarist of the time marveled, in a sketch of Inge, that “so sharp a tongue should lurk behind such plump, alluring lips.” Kurt Huber died just two months before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Following his death, many objects of value that had been presumed stolen by Indians during raids were discovered among his road-building tools and supplies, and as a result Inge and her eleven children lived under a cloud for the rest of their days.
Throughout the nineteenth century, the manufacture of gentlemen’s furnishings, which had begun in Chacallit on a very small scale, as little more than a cottage industry, a way for families to supplement their incomes when fur trapping was off, grew steadily in economic importance, and thanks to it, the town grew and prospered. For generations, the Hubers of Chacallit strove to efface the memory of their infamous ancestor Kurt by establishing themselves as a family of unremarkable drudges wholly devoted to the stolid, uncomplaining performance of dull work. The gentlemen’s furnishings industry offered numerous opportunities for work of that type, and as the industry expanded the Hubers filled more and more of the positions in the undistinguished middle of its work force. Now and then Inge’s genes produced an impish, quick-witted beauty or Kurt’s produced a rogue, but most of these were, for the greater good of the family, suppressed or sent away, and the Hubers trudged along at the soft center of Chacallit’s success.
Chacallit’s rise in the haberdashery industry was purchased at the expense of some self-esteem. The men’s-furnishings business took itself quite seriously in those days, and the name of the town, because it did not suggest high seriousness, top-notch standards, and vaulting aspiration, might have stood in the way of further growth. When the Excelsior Celluloid Collar Company became interested in building a mill in Chacallit, Excelsior officials made clear their feeling that the company would find it an embarrassment to be known as the Excelsior Celluloid Collar Company of Chacallit because of the humorous connotations of the name of the town. “We fear,” the board of directors said in a letter to the mayor of Chacallit, “that in a short time we would be known, not openly, but behind our collective back, in a snickering, mocking way, as the Whatchamacallit Collar Company.”
Stormy meetings followed, but soon the citizens of Chacallit made an offer that satisfied the company: they offered to rename the town Excelsior. (According to diaries and letters from the period, there was some interest in changing the name of the river to Celluloid at the same time, but nothing came of it.) A precedent was established, and throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, whenever a larger and richer men’s furnishings company hesitated about building a new mill there, in a town named for one of its rivals, the citizens would vote to change the name of the town. As a result, the place was known at various times as Acme (for Acme Fancy Buttons), Premier (for Premier Furnishings), Hermes (for Hermes Brand Gentlemen’s Necessities), and Atlas (for Atlas Glovers & Hatters).
Late in the nineteenth century, however, the attitude of Chacallitans changed. Ralph Waldo Emerson never visited Chacallit (the difficulty of winter travel in the Whatsit Valley in those days kept him from venturing into Chacallit on his winter lecture tours), but there was an Emersonian flavor to the decision reached by the citizens of Chacallit in 1883 (just shortly after Emerson’s death) to revert to the “rightful name of this place, Chacallit, now and forevermore, and be no more the pliant whore of industry.”
Some have argued that the people of Chacallit (or, more accurately, of Dr. Scott’s, as the place was then known—for Dr. Scott’s Links and Studs) sensed that they had made themselves far more ridiculous in the eyes of the rest of the world by attempting to escape their past and to please each new suitor than they would ever have been made by the name Chacallit and were, therefore, returning to the earlier name in the simple spirit of “enough is enough.” However, I think the Chacallitans may have been moved by nobler sentiments than that. In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson had written:
Traveling is a fool’s paradise. . . . At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. . . . My giant goes with me wherever I go.
This business of changing the name of our town is a foolish practice. . . . We imagine that if we call ourselves Naples, or Rome, we will become intoxicatingly beautiful, and the Naples Collar-Pin Company will come a-courting, or the Roman Sleeve Garter firm will affiance us, and we will then, at last, be laughingstocks no longer. We tear down our old signs, erect our new signs, and embark next morning on a new life as Naples, but in our mirrors we still see the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that we meant to flee from: our giant, ourselves.
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HOUSE where Lorna was born is tall and narrow, perched on the steep northern
slope of the Whatsit Valley. A narrow, highly crowned road runs along
the uphill side of the house, turns sharply in front of it, and drops steeply,
running past the downhill side of the house and on downward, past more
houses, set in tiers on the hillside, winding down toward the river below.
From the front porch of the Huber house, one can see the river here and
there through the trees and, strung out along both banks, the mills and,
alongside the mills, back from the river, climbing the hills on either
side, the other houses of Chacallit.
In that narrow house, on Lorna’s christening day, after the christening itself, my great-grandparents, Richard and Lena Huber, invited their friends and neighbors to meet their third daughter more informally, in the parlor of their home. Richard Huber was a “production anticipator” for the American Garter Company. It was his job to monitor the sales of the company’s products, record them, chart them, note seasonal and regional trends, and predict future production levels and the materials that would be needed to meet them. His was the sort of job that would today be done by a computer. Lena was the daughter of a production anticipator for Gryphon Grip-Tight Patented Fasteners. Their marriage represented a precisely horizontal alliance in the Chacallit social scheme.
Richard served his guests beer, wine, and root beer in the parlor and urged them into the dining room, where the table was covered with food: hams, sausages of six kinds, breads and rolls, honey and preserves, smoked mackerel and eels, sprats, cheeses, a smoked goose and a smoked turkey, and, at either end of the table, two enormous bowls of potato salad. However, the guests showed no strong inclination to eat. They remained in the living room, content to drink and look at Lorna and remark on the odd beauty they saw in her.
In the dining room, Lorna’s sister Bertha stood in front of one of the bowls of potato salad, mechanically and purposefully filling a plate with it, piling the potatoes in a mound, as if she were daring gravity to make the uppermost chunks fall. One did, and Bertha stooped to pick it up from the floor, mashing it a bit as she did, perhaps from clumsiness alone. Another fell. She was making a fine mess.
Clara, now the middle of the three Huber daughters, moved to her sister’s side and whispered to her without looking at her.
“Bertha,” she said, “you’re taking too much. You’ll get a smack if you get caught.”
Bertha didn’t even pause when Clara spoke. She pressed another spoonful of potato salad onto the mound, and under her breath she said to Clara, “Nobody’s looking at me. They’re all looking at her. You just be quiet, and no one will even notice.”
Clara half turned toward the adults, who were clustered around the wicker cradle where Lorna was displayed. Clara could see only backs, for all the adults were turned toward Lorna, and they were so tightly crowded together that she couldn’t see either her mother or the little cynosure. She saw her father standing outside the crowd, with his hands behind his back, rocking on his heels. Clara didn’t have to see his face to know that he was beaming, that he was proud of his new daughter. Uncle Luther stood beside him, his right arm flung across his brother’s shoulders. Clara saw that what Bertha said was true; no one in the living room would notice what they did in the dining room. She turned toward the table, took a plate, and began piling slices of turkey as purposefully and mechanically as Bertha had filled her plate with potato salad.
When Bertha’s plate was as full as she could make it, she began making her way toward the door to the porch, scuttling sideways, so that her illicit heap of potato salad was hidden. She pushed the door open with her hip and slipped outside, onto the porch. When she was safely outside, she let the door slide off her hip, and it swung against Clara’s elbow, jostling her so that a slice of turkey fell onto the floor.
Bertha sat on the porch railing, and, just as methodically as she had filled her plate, she ate all the potato salad she had taken. Clara watched, amazed and terrified. She tried to emulate Bertha’s methodical determination, but she couldn’t come near to finishing all the turkey she had taken. Quietly, she slipped back into the dining room and replaced most of it. When she came back outside, Bertha was under the porch, vomiting.
PROBLEM was Lorna’s elusive beauty. Clara and Bertha were envious
of it from the moment they saw her, although they never quite realized
that that was what they envied. In fact, they hardly considered Lorna
attractive. Most of the time Lorna’s appearance seemed to them just
on the pretty side of plain. Her beauty really did seem to live in
the mind, or the heart, of her beholder. Bertha and Clara never saw
it, but Lorna possessed, throughout her life, an elusive loveliness that
showed from certain angles at certain moments, for certain people, a beauty
that could enchant a person in the blink of an eye and then would disappear
if she turned her head or touched her hair. That fleeting beauty might
return a moment or an hour later, all the more tantalizing and desirable
for having been away, for being so hard to see clearly, for being so like
a twinkling star on a hazy summer night. Bertha saw and understood
the effect of this scintillating beauty, even if she couldn’t see the beauty
itself, and it seemed to her bewitching and unfair, an advantage given
to Lorna over her, for she was a homely, large-boned, gangling girl.
ACCORDING TO MAY CASTLE, Lorna’s friend and confidante for more than
forty years, Lorna never forgot Bertha and Clara’s teasing.
She told me that at an early age, and I mean quite an early age, while Lorna was still sleeping in her parents’ room, Clara and Bertha began to call her Cinderella. Well, Cinderella! Isn’t that rather a stupid thing for two sisters to do, call their younger sister Cinderella? If Lorna was Cinderella, Clara and Bertha would have to be the ugly stepsisters, wouldn’t they? Well. I met those sisters on a couple of occasions, when they were grown women, and I would say that they might have been passably good-looking girls once, perhaps when they were very young, but they had become—well—dowdy and positively homely. I really think they brought it on themselves. Do you think that can’t be done? Believe me, it can. And those husbands of theirs! At any rate, Clara and Bertha began calling her Cinderella, out of envy you see, and anger, and because Lorna had this absolutely haunting beauty. Well, my dear! It was haunting, you would have to call it haunting. It would positively light her up at unpredictable times, and the sisters must have been—well!—just depressed as hell by the sense that everything would work out for Lorna the way everything worked out for Cinderella, in a way that things would never work out for them, because of this odd beauty she had, you see. Well, they kept it up as she grew, and then when the sisters began to have suitors, the fellows loved to bounce Lorna on their knee, and so on. And when Lorna began going to dances, the sisters were still unmarried and they were still going to the dancehall themselves, hunting. Well, their men friends would bring little Lorna punch and ask to be put on her card, and they began calling her Cinderella too. But when they said it, these young men, there was moonlight in it, you see. Well, only then did it dawn on Clara and Bertha that they might be creating a sort of Frankenstein’s Cinderella. Don’t you just love the idea? Well, they decided that perhaps they had better knock it off. But it was too late, you see, because Lorna had been hurt, terribly hurt, by her sisters’ taunting, so hurt that she had no love, no affection of any sort, left for them, and because she was determined now that this name she had endured, this Cinderella that she’d heard so often as a taunt would become a—badge—or a—title—that she could take to show that she had won in the end. When she sent birthday or Christmas cards to her sisters she signed them Cinderella, and when she had a daughter of her own she named her Ella.
I should like to see the custom introduced of readers who are pleased with a book sending the author some small cash token: anything between half-a-crown and a hundred pounds. Authors would then receive what their publishers give them as a flat rate and their “tips” from grateful readers in addition, in the same way that waiters receive a wage from their employers and also get what the customer leaves on the plate. Not more than a few hundred pounds—that would be bad for my character—not less than half-a-crown—that would do no good to yours.
Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise
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Copyright © 1994 by Eric Kraft
Herb ’n’Lorna is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, dialogues, settings, and businesses portrayed in it are products of the author's imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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Now available in paperback from Picador USA,
a division of St. Martin's Press.