|Herb ’n’ Lorna (A Love Story)||by Eric Kraft, as Peter Leroy|
|In Which Herb Is Recruited for the Coarse-Goods Trade|
FATHER, Lester, was the least successful Piper of his generation, though
he had the most talent, the best ideas, and the greatest ambition.
As a young man, he experienced one short period of relative prosperity,
when he not only had no debts but had some real prospects for a comfortable
future. At the time, he represented a Portuguese cork company in
and around Boston, selling cork on commission. He was, then, bright-eyed
and eager, bursting with ideas and high spirits. He wooed and won
Millie McDougal, sweeping the girl off her feet with his obvious affection
for her, his stream of hopes and dreams and plans and schemes, and his
genuine desire for a quiet, settled middle age lived soberly at the center
of a happy family. When Lester and Millie were married, there wasn’t
a person at the wedding who didn’t sigh at the warmth and pleasantness
of it all and beam at the brightness of their future.
However, Lester Piper’s dreams and ideas, his ambition and impatience, and the Piper talent for doing the foolish Piper thing proved his undoing.
Almost from the start of his work for the cork company, he had reasoned that if there were more uses for cork, he could sell more of it and make more money. He had sold himself on the idea that his future was in cork, that everything depended on his expanding the market for it, and that a slip in his first attempt would send him on an accelerating downward path. He had undertaken a careful and deliberate examination of his surroundings, looking for everyday objects that might be made of cork, but nothing struck him as quite the right thing on which to stake his future. He bided his time, hopeful that the right idea would present itself.
After Lester and Millie were married, they moved into two rented rooms above a bakery. Up the narrow stairs they carried their belongings, their gifts, and some furniture that had been given to them by Millie’s family and Lester’s. Among the pieces of furniture was an enormous heirloom bed, made entirely of oak. The bed was plain and solid, painfully heavy even when disassembled. At the end of the moving day, Lester sank into an overstuffed chair; he had wobbly legs, an aching back, and what he thought was a good idea: cork furniture. It would be sturdy but light, easy to move, easy to rearrange. Over the course of the next three years, he allowed himself, in the Piper manner, to become cozened by his own idea. He invested every penny he could scrape together, every penny he could borrow, every moment he could steal, in establishing a company to manufacture a complete line of cork furniture, including sofas and armchairs, dining room tables and chairs, armoires and highboys, and, of course, beds. Millie was by nature a cautious young woman, with a skepticism that might have saved them from ruin, but Lester was so good a salesman that he sold his young wife on the soundness of his plans, with the result that, when Piper’s Patented Featherweight Furniture failed, Millie’s parents, a sister, and a cousin were ruined along with Lester Piper and his little family, which by then included a son, Herb.
Lester Piper watched his dreams fall apart, and when the last possibility of success was gone, when everything had been taken away from him, when the auctioneer’s gavel fell for the final time, Lester went home with Millie and Herb to his brother Benjamin’s apartment, where they were now forced to live, and sank onto a cork armchair in a corner of the front room. He spent most of his time slumped in that chair, brooding on his past mistakes. He did, of course, get up to eat and sleep and so on, but his attitude even when out of the chair was forevermore that of a man slumped in a chair, brooding on his past mistakes, and he wore exactly the same hangdog look when he was out of the chair as he did when he was in it. Millie tried to rally him, tried to get him to get up and try again, to get another selling job, but it was no use. Lester had decided that he was a defeated man, and so he was.
Millie went to work as a seamstress, assisting a tailor in a men’s clothing shop, making repairs and doing small, repetitive jobs: sewing on buttons, letting out the seats of pants, and the like. Herb began working when he was eight. His first job was ripping seams out of pants that his mother brought home from the shop, so that she could work more quickly. By the time he was fourteen, he had found several other ways to make money. He had a secondhand wagon, a Studebaker Junior, a toy that was modeled after the most popular Studebaker farm wagon. Every morning, he loaded the wagon with newspapers, muffins, fruit tarts, and rolls, which he sold from a street corner before going to school. Every evening, at the same street corner, he sold newspapers and meat pies, a type of meat pie that the boys who sold them called, among themselves, “rat pie.” On his way home, he visited every neighbor, looking for mending his mother could do or broken household gadgets that he could fix.
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BROTHER Benjamin had little tolerance for Lester’s defeated-man-slumped-in-a-chair
attitude. Benjamin was a tireless worker, unceasingly optimistic.
He sold from door to door, and he had over the years taken on more and
more lines, so that when he found an especially susceptible client he could
return month after month with something else to sell. Among the lines
he sold was the series of books distributed by Alonzo Clapp, of Albany,
the jobber to whom Luther Huber had turned for the distribution of coarse
goods, and when Clapp approached Ben with the idea of selling erotic jewelry,
Ben took the line on eagerly, with exactly the same eagerness with which
he would have added a promising line of cookware.
Every evening, when Ben came home, his eyes fell on his brother, the defeated man, slumped in his lightweight chair. Ben couldn’t stand seeing his brother so. With the help of some of the other Pipers, he managed to find and subsidize a shabby and cramped apartment where Lester, Millie, and Herb could live on their own, out of Ben’s sight. One evening, in Herb’s fifteenth year, Herb was sitting on the floor of the larger room of that apartment—a room that served as living room, dining room, kitchen, and Herb’s bedroom—fixing a meat grinder. Millie was setting the table for dinner. The sound of footsteps on the stairs made Millie and Herb start and look at each other with concern.
“Someone’s coming up the stairs, Lester,” Millie said. Lester Piper didn’t move. He sat slumped in his chair. Millie sighed. “It’s sure to be Mrs. Lightner,” she said to Herb. “I owe Mr. Lightner for two weeks’ worth of meat, and she doesn’t like him to give credit. She knows he never asks to be paid. You answer it, Herb.”
There was a knock at the door, and Herb answered. He opened the door a crack and said before he looked through it, “My mother and father aren’t home.”
“The hell they’re not,” said a breathless, wheezing, masculine voice from the hallway. “Your father’s sitting in the cork chair in the corner, and your mother’s standing beside him, wringing her hands.”
“It’s Uncle Ben,” said Herb. He opened the door, and Benjamin Piper lurched into the room, placing a heavy hand on Herb for support.
“Good evening, Benjamin,” said Millie, her eyes down, her hands nervous. Benjamin was a creditor, even if he was Lester’s brother and never made demands. “It’s always good to see you.”
Ben grunted. “Good evening to you, brother,” he shouted at Lester, in an attitude of false good humor. “Any prospects?”
Lester raised his head and squinted at his brother. “I’m ruined,” he said.
“And you’ve been ruined for more than ten years,” said Ben. He turned to Herb and said, “You ought to sell tickets to see him. The Ruined Man. And I’ll bet you could do it, Herb. You’ve got a good tongue.” He boxed the boy playfully on the ears.
“Stop it, Uncle Ben,” said Herb. He twisted away. Ben held him with his large hands.
“All right, all right,” he said. “That’s why I’m here, though. I’ve got something for you, Herb, something to sell. Better than newspapers. Better than those rat pies.”
“What is it?” asked Herb. He had acquired a skepticism much stronger than his mother’s about the Piper enthusiasms. He recognized a tendency in himself toward dreaming and scheming, and he fought it back with skeptical questioning. Whenever one of his Piper relatives got a certain gleam in his eye, Herb got an uncomfortable feeling in his stomach, like hunger.
Millie came forward, put a hand on Herb’s shoulder, and drew him to her. It was a protective gesture, and Ben recognized it. He chuckled.
“Now don’t be frightened,” he said. “It’s nothing foolish, and you don’t have to put any money in or anything like that. It’s one of my lines. A guaranteed success. Such a success for me that I’ve got more than I can handle with it. I’m going to get you into it, Herb. Of course, I’ll take a cut, but we can go through all of that later. Don’t look so skeptical, Herb! It’s a regular company, and they offer a straight commission arrangement. I’ll even buy your samples for you.”
“What is it?” asked Herb.
“Books,” said Ben.
“Books?” asked Herb.
“Yep,” said Ben. “Books. Professor Clapp’s Five-Foot Shelf of Indispensable Information for Modern Times. It’s a great sche—”
He saw the fear in Millie’s eyes, and he raised his hands quickly, waving them in front of her as if to erase what he had said.
“It’s a great arrangement,” he corrected himself. “You go to a house, show the books, and you make the people want them, even though they can’t afford to buy them and probably wouldn’t get around to reading all of them if they did. Now here’s the beauty of it. You pipe up with, ‘Mr. Whoosis, I wonder if we might step outside for a smoke?’ When you get Whoosis alone, you say, ‘Please, Mr. Whoosis, let me spare you any embarrassment. The cost of the entire five-foot shelf of books is indeed quite high, as I’m sure you’ve guessed from the quality of the books themselves. Suppose I were to tell you that the first book can be yours, right now, for just five cents.’ He can’t believe it, of course. But it’s true. You give him the first book for a nickel and get him to sign a paper saying he’ll buy another book every month for fifty-nine cents a book until he’s bought the whole five-foot shelf.”
“Oh, Ben,” said Millie disapprovingly.
“Now, Millie,” said Ben, “what on earth is wrong with it? These people are getting a chance to enjoy some of the best books of our times. Why, just think how easily that fifty-nine cents would be wasted on useless things! No home should be without books.”
“What books are they?” asked Herb.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Ben. “Clapp buys them from the printers and booksellers; whatever they can’t sell, they sell to him by the crate, cheap.”
“Ben,” said Millie, “you’re a scoundrel.”
He shrugged. “Come with me, Herb,” he said. “I’ve got your books downstairs.”
When Herb and Ben reached the street, Ben grabbed Herb’s shirt and pulled him toward the cab of the delivery van he was driving, a Studebaker “20.”
“Come here, Herb,” he said. “I’ve got something to show you. Come here.”
There was in Ben’s voice the breathless quality that Herb recognized in the voices of his other Piper relatives when they had a scheme to sell. A cautious reluctance anchored Herb to the spot where he stood.
“Come on, Herb,” said Ben. “I’m not going to get you into anything. You’ve got a lot of your mother’s caution in you, Herb. That’s probably good, but it certainly does make you a difficult person to talk to. Now come here.” He tugged Herb to the door, opened it, and all but shoved Herb into the passenger’s seat. Then he puffed his way to the driver’s door and climbed in. From a pocket of his coat he took a small, round, white object. He held it up and turned it in the light of the streetlamp.
“What is this?” he asked Herb.
“A button,” said Herb.
“Very good,” said Ben. He chuckled. “But not quite correct. It’s a shirt stud. Look at it more closely.” He handed it to Herb.
Puzzled, wary, Herb was reluctant even to take the stud from his uncle Ben. He knew how many Pipers in the past had been undone by being smitten with a scheme at first glance.
“Take it!” said Uncle Ben. “Look at it!”
Herb obeyed. He was surprised by what he saw. The face of the stud was made of a fine grade of ivory. Carved into it, in high relief, was the figure of a woman, a naked woman, reclining against the disk that was the button part of the stud. She was toying with herself in a way that had brought a smile to her face and made Herb’s heart pound and his palms sweat. Ben poked him in the ribs.
“Here,” said Ben. He handed Herb a magnifying glass. “Look at the workmanship.”
The glass revealed details that Herb had only imagined heretofore. Once, he had stood in a semicircle of boys in an alley and watched Elsie Campbell raise her skirt for a nickel an inch. He had contributed his share, but what he’d seen hadn’t told him everything he wanted to know, and since the money he had spent on the elevation of Elsie’s skirt had been money he should have brought home to his mother, the whole affair left him frustrated and ashamed. He left the alley thinking that he’d done a foolish Piper thing with the thirty cents he’d pitched into the pot. Here, on the instructive shirt stud his uncle Ben had handed him, was an education that, figuring at the rate Elsie had been paid, would have cost him more than he earned in a week.
“Gee, Uncle Ben,” said Herb, “where’d you ever get a thing like this?”
“You like it, do you?” asked Ben.
“Well, sure,” said Herb. He blushed. The thought had struck him that he ought to be embarrassed by what he was looking at.
“This is what you’re going to sell,” said Uncle Ben.
“What about the books?” asked Herb.
“The books are your answer,” said Uncle Ben, chuckling again.
“Answer to what?” asked Herb.
“To the question, ‘How’d you make all that money?’ ” said Ben.
“I can’t sell these, Uncle Ben,” Herb said, still examining the shirt stud through the magnifying glass. “What would Mother say if she found out? And who would I sell them to? They must be expensive, more expensive than what anyone I know could afford, and I can’t very well sell them on the street.”
Uncle Ben grasped the nape of Herb’s neck in one large hand. “Tell me, Herb,” he said, “what did your mother eat for dinner tonight? Rat pie? She can’t afford rat pie. The only time she gets to eat that well is when you drop one on the street and have to bring it home.”
“Please, Uncle Ben,” said Herb.
“You listen to me, Herb. Your father is never going to get out of that chair. If you want to do something for your mother, you’ll take this offer.”
“But how can I find men to buy them?” asked Herb.
“Herb!” cried Ben. “Wake up! That’s the other thing the books are for. The books are going to get you into situations where you can sell the jewelry. And you sell the jewelry the same way you sell the books! You get a fellow to buy one piece for nineteen cents and agree to take another piece every month on approval. You let the fellow have the piece for a week, with no charge. By the end of the week, he’s gotten used to having it, he’s won the admiration of his friends when he wears it at his lodge meeting or whatever, and he doesn’t want to give it up. You collect for it. It’s a thing of beauty, Herb.”
“I don’t know, Uncle Ben,” said Herb.
“I know, Herb,” said Ben. “This is your opportunity to do something for your mother—and for yourself, too. You can make something of yourself, Herb. And you can make your mother proud. She’ll be proud of you because you’ve worked hard and you’ve been successful. She won’t know how you did it; she’ll think you did it by selling books. So will everyone else.”
Herb drew a breath. It seemed worth a try. He did want to make his mother’s life easier. If he was careful to keep his head, he ought to be able to get out before anything went wrong. “All right,” said Herb. “I’ll do it.”
From the day that Herb sold his first piece of erotic jewelry, he had ambiguous feelings about the product he sold. On the one hand, he was proud of its quality, and he had reason to be, as Cecelia Pecksmith, chronicler of the American coarse-goods trade, notes early in her Collector’s Pricing Guide to Under-the-Counter Jewelry:
Mass-production never cheapened the quality of erotic and pornographic jewelry, because the market for these goods was never large enough to justify mass-producing them. Its craftsmanship was, for some buyers, sufficient justification for their buying it, and well-to-do collectors often professed to buy “coarse goods” only because they represented the last vestige of the kind of craftsmanship that had been common-place when they were in their prime, the level of which, they were sure, succeeding generations were not likely to attain again, since each generation is inclined, in its late years, to see itself as having represented, in its prime, if not the end of civilization, then civilization’s highest ascent, the pause before its accelerating downward slide.But if the jewelry was of good quality, it was also, for its time, obscene, and so Herb was at once proud of and ashamed of the studs, links, fobs, stickpins, buttons, and buckles he sold.
Herb never tried to sell the jewelry on the basis of its prurient attractions. To have done so would have been too risky; there was the possibility that the customer, offended by the thought that Herb took him for the sort of man who bought such things, would be aroused to anger or to the pretense of anger. Instead, Herb sold it on the basis of the quality of its workmanship. To give himself a means of introducing the topic of workmanship, he carried a cheap pocket watch that he never wound. When he had maneuvered the man of the house onto the porch for a smoke and had completed the book deal, he would take his pocket watch out, shake it, mutter under his breath, and then say aloud, “It should be a criminal offense to sell a shoddy piece of goods like this. A new watch, and it simply won’t work. I tell you, it’s becoming impossible to find really fine workmanship today. Don’t you find that so?”
The man was likely to say, “True, true,” or something of the sort.
“Now you take this shirt stud,” Herb would say, handing one to the man. “Just look at the workmanship on that. It takes your breath away, doesn’t it? Take a closer look. Here, use this glass.”
Because Herb was one of the best salesmen the Piper family had ever produced, he simply couldn’t keep himself from selling his cover. He sold Professor Clapp’s Five-Foot Shelf of books with a degree of success that not even his Uncle Ben had ever achieved. Nor could Herb resist putting his predilection for tinkering to the service of the goods he sold, and that was how the Piper nemesis, that misdirected enthusiasm, caught up with him. He invested considerable time and money in designing and manufacturing a shelf that expanded as his customers received their monthly books, eventually reaching a full five feet, but he lost money on each one he sold. He developed clever hideaway boxes and false bottoms for dresser drawers, which allowed his coarse-goods customers to keep their collections out of sight, but on these too he lost money.
Said May Castle of Herb’s affection for tinkering:
Herb loved to make things and fix things—oh, he’d make a stab at fixing anything that was broken, well just anything! He was not always successful, mind you, but he’d give a try all the same. Garth couldn’t fix a thing and didn’t care to try—he could fix martinis, but that was about it. Garth would always manage to get Herb to try to fix something whenever he and Lorna came to visit. Well, this wasn’t difficult to do. I mean, all Garth had to do was say, “Herb, what do you think is the matter with the doohickey that makes this mixer go?” And right away Herb would have the mixer apart and spread out all over the kitchen table. And then he always wanted to make some new gadget or improvement. It wasn’t enough for him to try to fix something; he always had an idea for something new. He concocted some twisted-wire thingamabob so that Garth could use the mixer to mix paint, I think. Well, that’s about the last thing Garth had any use for, something to mix paint. Now something that would shake up a cocktail, well, maybe, but paint!The selling went much as Ben had predicted. The system of selling a large set of items one item at a time was a stroke of genius. The customer found it easy to agree to purchase the first book or shirt stud; not much money was involved, after all. However, in agreeing to purchase the first, the customer had struck a bargain—not only with Herb, but with himself—to continue, to fill out the five-foot shelf, to complete the set of links and studs. Most customers did. Some of the customers for Professor Clapp’s Five-Foot Shelf of books continued to buy beyond five feet, and a few became serious bibliophiles. Some of Herb’s link-and-stud customers went on to buy fobs, stickpins, and belt buckles, and a few became serious collectors of erotica.
Herb was soon successful enough to be able to tell his mother to stop working, and he even managed to move the family to a new and larger apartment, on the ground floor, with a large, sunny, pleasant front room where his father, who slumped lower in his cork chair with each of Herb’s successes, sat in the only dark corner. Despite Herb’s losses on the expandable shelves and the jewelry caches, the Lester Pipers ate well, were well supplied with books, and were able to afford a few luxuries: a meal in a restaurant now and then, excursions to seaside amusement parks, evenings at a moving-picture house, and even an automobile.
Among the books that Herb sold was The Automobile: Its Selection, Care, and Use. Herb read and reread this guide, and he cast a critical eye about for a car that would suit the needs of his expanding business, since it was now necessary for him to call on a lengthening list of established customers and to continue to find new ones. He also wanted a car that he could use for pleasure, one that he could use to take the family on outings, with his parents seated in the back, his mother savoring the sun and fresh air, his father slumped morosely by her side. He also wanted a car that he would look good in, something with a little dash, something that suited a young man who already enjoyed a modest success and had every hope of enjoying more in the future. He couldn’t afford a car that would do all of that, so he settled for a used Studebaker four-cylinder Model SA Touring Car.
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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,
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