|Herb ’n’ Lorna (A Love Story)||by Eric Kraft, as Peter Leroy|
|In Which Herb and Lorna Move to Babbington, New York|
FIRE at the Serenity Ballroom was caused, an investigation disclosed, not
by Herb and Lorna’s ardor but by a kitchen accident. According to
May Castle, Lorna considered the burning of the ballroom the symbolic end
of her girlhood, the end of her life as a child:
Oh, yes, it was the burning point of her life. Oh! I didn’t mean that, not at all. I meant to say “turning point,” I honestly did. Stop. Rewind. Start again. That night was the turning point of her life, you see. And everything just happened all at once. Here she was engaged, and she’d just made love to this wonderful man—the man she was destined to live her life with—and, oh, I don’t know, she may have had her first orgasm. Well! Then, to top it off, there was this perfectly spectacular fire! It was quite a night. It doesn’t surprise me a bit that she decided right then that she and Chacallit were fini.“CLOSE YOUR EYES, Herb,” said Lorna, “and I’ll tell you about our future.” She and Herb had driven to the top of Ackerman Hill, or as far as the road went, and they had stopped in the turnaround there. Herb had his arm around Lorna’s shoulders, and she reclined against him. He closed his eyes.
“All right,” he said.
“Now imagine this,” said Lorna. “Six months have passed. We’ve been married for four. Four months ago, my father gave you a job in the sales department, and there was some talk, which you and he and I ignored as well as we could. From your very first day on the job, though, you impressed everyone, and now even the people who resented you most when you arrived have to admit that you’re the best salesman they’ve ever seen.”
Herb gave her a little squeeze.
“They still talk about you behind your back, but now they usually say something like, ‘You know, I hate to admit it, but that Herb Piper is one heck of a salesman.’ My father is very proud of you. So am I. I’ve stopped working at the mill, because you don’t want my old friends to think that you can’t support me. My father approves, since he never wanted me to work at the mill in the first place. I spend all day at home. My mother won’t let me cook, since that’s her job. However, I am permitted to wash the dishes. Every day my mother asks me if my marriage is happy and whether there’s anything I need to ask her about.
“You and I are still living on the third floor, and we have to whisper when we talk in bed at night. We eat dinner with my parents every evening, and after dinner we all sit together in the parlor, except on weekends, when you and I go out. Every time we go out, we run into Andy Proctor. You and Andy have become great pals. Every time he greets you he pounds you on the back, and every time he greets me he winks.
“My mother and father celebrate our six-month anniversary by opening a bottle of champagne. My father announces that you’ve earned another promotion. We’re all delighted. Then he clears his throat and tells us how very happy he and my mother are about the way things have turned out. He makes a joke about the misunderstanding when they first met you. My mother laughs. We all laugh. He says something sentimental. We all shed some tears. We eat dinner. We sit in the parlor. The clock ticks. My father nods in his chair. You and I go upstairs. We slip into bed. We are very quiet. In the dark, I whisper in your ear, ‘Herb, let’s get out of here.’ ”
She sat upright, took Herb’s face in her hands, and said, “Herb, why wait? Let’s get out of here now.”
“Okay,” said Herb.
“CHACALLIT is about one hundred seventy-eight and a half miles from
Boston,” said Lorna, looking up from the map that she had spread out on
the kitchen table.
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BOSTON, Herb told his uncle Ben what he had in mind. “Here’s what
I have in mind, Uncle Ben,” he said. “I’ll make eleven more prototypes.
That’ll give you a dozen models. Okay?”
“Okay,” said Ben. “I’ll work out an arrangement with the people in Chacallit so that you get a certain percentage of the sales.”
“I need money now, Uncle Ben.”
“Maybe I can get them to advance you some money. I’ll have to see.”
“Why don’t I just sell you the designs, Uncle Ben? Outright. Then you make whatever deal you want with the manufacturer. How about that?” (Herb felt a little ashamed of himself for what he was doing, because he thought that he might be taking advantage of his uncle Ben. An outright sale of the designs seemed to Herb the only prudent course to take. It would have seemed so to his cautious mother, too. A bird in the hand certainly seems to be worth two in the bush. But, as it turned out, Herb was, at the very moment when he was feeling guilty about taking advantage of Ben, doing a foolish Piper thing. He was convincing himself that the coarse-goods trade was a poor financial risk. He was talking himself into taking sure money instead of the royalties that might have made him rich.)
“Well, I’d be taking a risk,” said Ben.
“Oh, right,” said Herb. “You’re right. I understand that—”
“I wouldn’t be able to give you too much for them,” said Ben, “on account of the risk.”
“I understand,” said Herb. “I know you’re taking a risk.”
“How much did you think you’d want?” asked Ben.
“Three thousand dollars,” said Herb.
“Oh,” said Ben. He was genuinely disappointed. He had hoped that he’d be able to let Herb have everything he wanted, that he would be able to be both generous uncle and good businessman. “It’s more than I can put out,” he said. “I’ve got an idea, though. I can give you half of it in cash and half of it in goods.”
“What kind of goods?”
“Aw, Uncle Ben,” said Herb.
“It’s the best I can do, Herb,” said Ben. “I mean it.”
“All right,” said Herb. He paused. “Uncle Ben, you have to promise me something. You have to promise me never to tell anyone about this.”
“Hell, you shouldn’t be ashamed of this, Herb. There’s lots of people who do worse things than—”
“Uncle Ben, you have to promise.”
“All right, I promise.”
“And I mean never.”
WHEN LORNA arrived at Luther’s office, he greeted her with a thin smile.
“This is an unexpected pleasure,” he said.
IT TOOK MORE than two months for Herb to dispose of the coarse goods Ben gave him, develop eleven new couples (and how he yearned for Lorna while he worked, how much his imagination was enlarged by thinking of her), sell his list of Five-Foot-Shelf customers, sell his old Studebaker Four, and buy a new-to-him Studebaker Series 19 “Light Six.” Lorna carved coarse goods for Luther while she waited for Herb’s return, and together, though apart, they accumulated a nice little nest egg.
AT HERB AND LORNA’S WEDDING, Lester Piper appeared to have regained
all of his old spark. He so charmed Richard Huber that Richard spent
hours trying to persuade Lester to leave what he supposed was a fairly
good position in Boston and move to Chacallit, where the air was clear
and the rushing waters of the Whatsit were mellifluous and pure, and to
try breathing some life into his sales department. To Richard Huber’s
surprise (but much more to the surprise of Millie and Ben Piper), Lester
AND LORNA arrived in Babbington on a cold and rainy Sunday night.
The town looked deserted. Main Street was nearly dark; the only light
came from night lights in a few shops, from the streetlamps at the intersection
of Bolotomy and Main, from the police station, and from a garage across
the street from the police station. Of these, the first that Lorna
and Herb saw, coming into town from the west, were those at the police
station and the garage.
“Well,” said Herb, “it’s not quite what I’d imagined.”
“How can you tell?” asked Lorna. “I can’t see a thing.”
“That’s what I mean. I had imagined a clear night, a moon, moonlight on the ocean, something like that.”
“Sounds like the night we burned the ballroom,” said Lorna.
“There’s something,” said Herb. “Looks like a police station up ahead.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” said Lorna.
“And a service station. Speedy’s Reliable Service.”
Herb pulled into Speedy’s and dashed through the rain into the station. There, at an oak desk, bent over a copy of the Babbington Reporter, was Officer Dan Whitley, youngest son of the renowned scoundrel and noted angler Andy Whitley, the mayor of Babbington at that time. After a moment or two spent standing, patiently, just inside the door, clearing his throat and shuffling his feet now and then, Herb decided that Dan was asleep. He retreated soundlessly to the door, opened it, backed out into the rain, and reentered, this time with a heavy tread and loud exclamations.
“Whoo!” he exclaimed. “It’s not a fit night out for man or beast!” He stamped his feet and shook the rainwater from his hat.
Dan, startled, sat up straight, shook himself awake, and rubbed his eyes.
“Say, I didn’t startle you, did I?” asked Herb.
“Me?” asked Dan. “Heck no. You just kind of surprised me. I was pretty intent on what I was reading here, that’s all.”
“What’s that?” asked Herb.
“Obits,” said Dan.
“Uh-oh,” said Herb. “Nobody close to you, I hope.”
“Hm? Oh, no. Not anybody special. Well, there is a cousin in here today, kind of a distant one, though. Couple of other people I knew enough to say hello to. I read ’em all, though. Don’t matter to me who they are. It’s kind of a study with me, a study of human nature. You find out a lot about people this way. ’Course, you have to know how to read between the lines sometimes, but it’s funny how much you don’t know about somebody till he’s dead.”
Herb and Dan spent a moment in silent contemplation of that idea, and then Dan looked at Herb as if realizing for the first time that Herb was someone he didn’t know at all, not even to say hello to.
“Say,” Dan said, “what’re you doing out on a night like this? You in some kind of trouble?”
“No,” said Herb, “no trouble. My wife and I—”
“Passing through? Want some gas?”
A toilet flushed somewhere behind Dan, and he jerked his thumb in the direction of the sound.
“Speedy’ll be right out,” he said. “I’d pump you some myself, but I’m on duty.”
“That’s okay. I don’t need gas,” said Herb. “Just directions.”
“Said you weren’t lost,” Dan pointed out. He narrowed his eyes.
“No. Yes. That’s right, I’m not. Lost. I—we—we’re going to settle here.”
“Here? In Babbington?”
“Yes, in Babbington.”
Dan inspected Herb. Behind Dan, a door opened, and a squat man in coveralls emerged from it. Herb smiled and nodded at him. “You related to the Feasters?” Dan asked.
“No,” said Herb. “The name’s Piper, Herb Piper. I don’t have any relatives here—I don’t even know anyone here.” He extended his hand. Neither Dan nor Speedy made a move to shake it.
“The wife?” asked Dan.
“No, no. We just came to Babbington because—”
Herb had been about to describe the method that Lorna had used to choose Babbington as a place for them to live, but he thought better of it. It would, he knew, seem ridiculous, and, worse than that, it might seem insulting. After all, wouldn’t he be saying that he and Lorna had come to Babbington because they knew that they could be happy wherever they went, that their love, their benevolent giant, would follow them anywhere? You can’t say that to a person, Herb thought, say that this place, the place where he lives, seems to you only as good as any other place—no better, no worse.
“Because what?” asked Dan. There was a new chill in his voice.
“Well, because we heard nice things about it,” Herb lied. He certainly didn’t want to begin his life in Babbington by offending the civic pride of, or arousing the suspicions of, the police. “That is, my wife did,” he said, his mind racing. “See, my wife is from Chacallit, upstate, not far from Albany, and—um—when she was a little girl some people from Babbington were passing through, and—”
“That would be the Sutphens, I’ll bet,” said Speedy, folding his arms across his chest.
“The Sutphens!” said Herb, eager to establish some link between Lorna and himself and the town. “It probably was! Yes, it probably was. The Sutphens.”
“Went to Canada,” said Speedy. Herb nodded enthusiastically.
“Fled to Canada,” said Dan. “Probably passed through this place your wife’s from—Whatchamacallit—”
“Right. Wilfred and Elizabeth Sutphen. Wilfred was accused of embezzling, went to trial, wasn’t convicted.”
“Not guilty,” said Herb, nodding again.
“Not convicted,” said Dan.
“Uh-huh,” said Herb, who was beginning to wonder how long it would take to drive to West Burke, Vermont.
“Nobody ever found the money,” said Speedy.
“I read where Wilfred died just a few weeks ago,” said Dan.
“Fell off a horse in front of a truck,” said Speedy.
“I remember the headline on his obit,” said Dan. He held his hands in front of him with his thumbs and index fingers spread and drew them apart to suggest a banner headline. “ ‘Former Babbingtonian Dies in Wolf Snout, Manitoba,’ it said. And then under that, smaller, it said, ‘Wilfred Sutphen, 58, Alleged Embezzler.’ ”
“Well,” said Herb, “I’m sure it was somebody else, then, not the Sutphens, but whoever it was, these people made the town sound so wonderful that my wife fell in love with the place.”
“She fell in love with it without even seeing it?” asked Speedy. He didn’t look like a man convinced. Herb asked himself why he hadn’t just told the truth. He was backing farther and farther into a corner. This was not getting off on the right foot.
“She—” said Herb. He sighed. He didn’t know what to say next. The door opened. Lorna walked in. “Lorna!” he said. “Lorna. I—was just trying to explain to—um, Officer—um—and Mr. Speedy how it was that we decided to settle here in Babbington, why it had to be this town and no other. Not as if we just picked out any old town on a map—and they were wondering how it was that you fell in love with the place without ever having seen it.”
“I saw it in my mind’s eye,” said Lorna, “in my imagination. The little seacoast town. The neat houses.” She stopped. Dan and Speedy wore looks that said they expected more.
“The—uh, church steeples,” offered Herb. “The—red and yellow leaves on the trees in the fall.”
“Schoolchildren on their way to—school,” said Lorna.
“The glowing streetlamps,” said Herb.
Lorna held her hands up as if calling for silence and half closed her eyes. “The night, the glowing streetlamps, the people asleep in their cozy beds, in their neat houses, safe and warm, while trusty guardians keep watch through the night.” She smiled. She wore the look of an enchanted child, envisioning her Shangri-La.
Dan and Speedy smiled back. They looked enchanted themselves. “And after all these years, here you are at last,” Dan said.
Lorna smiled her answer.
“Well, I hope you won’t be disappointed,” said Speedy. “A lot of times, you find out that things aren’t everything you were hoping they’d be, you know? You get an idea all worked up in your mind about how something is going to be and then, brother, are you in for a surprise. Take right now, for instance. I’ll bet you didn’t imagine that when you got to Babbington, you’d be caught in a rainstorm like this, did you?”
Lorna couldn’t resist. “Oh, I did,” she said, breathless, her eyes shining. “I imagined it just like this.”
“What?” said Speedy, his eyes widening. “Howling wind, driving rain, and you all wet and shivering—that’s the way you imagined it?”
“Yes,” said Lorna, still the enchanted girl.
“And you fell in love with it?”
A nod full of charm, those bright eyes.
“Boy, oh boy, love is a crazy thing,” said Dan, grinning and shaking his head. “A woman can fall in love with the?” He caught himself. Confused, he looked at Lorna. He found no help in her smile. To change the subject, he asked, “Where—um—where did you imagine you two were going to stay?”
Lorna closed her eyes. “A small hotel—” she said.
“Mm-hm,” said Dan.
“Yeah,” said Speedy.
“—where salesmen stay sometimes—”
“—with a small dining room—”
“—not far from here.”
“That’s got to be the River Sound Hotel!” said Dan. His eyes were wide.
“Couldn’t be anyplace else,” said Speedy. “That’s it, plain as day.”
“Amazing,” said Dan. He let his mouth hang open.
AFTER LORNA AND HERB were settled in their room at the River Sound,
they went out for a walk. Through the rain and the dark, they walked
in the direction in which Lorna supposed the ocean to be. They walked
along River Sound Road, then along Bolotomy Road, until they reached the
Municipal Dock. Storm-driven waves pounded the dock, and spray washed
over the bulkheads. Lorna cried, “The ocean!”
AT THAT TIME, the economic foundation of Babbington still rested on
the bottom of Bolotomy Bay, on the bay’s clam beds. The clamming
industry and related industries—boat building and repair, the manufacture
of clamming equipment, clam processing, clam by-products, tartar sauce
preparation and packaging, and so on—employed most of the men of Babbington
and nearly all of the women who worked. The Babbington Clam Council,
an industry group, was a powerful force in local politics, and clamming-related
fraternal orders—notably the Mercenarians, the Order of Littlenecks, and
the Secret and Mystical Fraternity of Fun-Loving Baymen—were important
in the social life of the town. A casual stroll along Main Street,
like the casual stroll that Lorna and Herb took on their first full day
in town, provided ample evidence of the importance of the bay and the clam.
FERTILIZATION TAKES PLACE OUTSIDE THE SHELL!
A diorama depicted a submarine orgy. Several female clams were discharging puffs that reminded Lorna of her father’s pipe smoke.
Several male clams were releasing thin whitish streams in random directions.
MORE THAN TWO BILLION SPERM PER EJACULATION!
The children were giggling. One girl noticed Herb and Lorna’s reflection in the window. She turned and looked at Lorna and blushed. Lorna smiled and, quite aware of the implications of what she was doing, winked at the girl. She squeezed Herb’s arm tighter, and when they walked away she stopped after a couple of steps, put both arms around Herb, hugged him, and kissed him. She hoped the girl was watching, and she hoped she’d get the message Lorna meant to send: it’s a lot more fun than that.
THE DAYS that followed, Herb looked for work, and Lorna looked for a place
to live. As it happened, Lorna found a job, and Herb found an apartment.
The job that Lorna found, through a conversation with a woman in a drug store, was a job for Herb. It wasn’t much of a job. It was a job as a culler in the Babbington Clam packing plant. Cullers picked through the clams, sorting them by size and quality. Cullers’ work was boring work. It didn’t pay much. The woman who suggested it to Lorna was a clammy’s wife; she had thought of culling as work for Lorna, work to bring in money until her husband got a job, work that would assure her that some money would always be coming in, even when her husband was out of work, work to help make ends meet, work to earn her some mad money, perhaps, but not a breadwinner’s work, not work for bringing home the bacon.
Herb took the job at once. He and Lorna didn’t need money right away; they had put together enough to keep them for a while. Herb knew, though, from his selling experience, how important, persistent, and difficult to alter a first impression is, and for that reason he wanted to get to work right away, and the meaner the job, the more it suited him. The first impression that people have of you, even when it is a mistaken one (and I’d be willing to bet that three first impressions out of four are mistaken), becomes a part of your past as perceived (or misperceived) by those who have formed the impression (or misimpression), a part of that past that pursues you forever, that dogged giant who’s always on your heels. Bob Mintner, in his overpriced videocassette series You Could Make a Million If You Would Stop Acting Like a Jerk, says, on the subject of the first impression:
You can NEVER overcome the first impression. If you get off on the WRONG FOOT, you can NEVER get back in step. You may think that tomorrow, if you wear a new jacket and tie, change your hairstyle, sprinkle your remarks with some of the latest “SNAPPY” expressions, and put a new SPRING in your step, people will see you in a NEW LIGHT, that they’ll say, “Say, I’ve been ALL WRONG about Fred! Why, it’s as if I’m seeing him for the FIRST TIME.” Well, FORGET it. You’re WRONG. They may look at you, but they won’t SEE you. The man they are going to see is the man who matches the IDEA THEY FORMED OF YOU when they FIRST MET YOU. Compared to you, that guy is a GIANT! The only thing you can do if you’ve gotten off on the wrong foot is pack your bags, get out of town, change your name, and start ALL OVER AGAIN.“What I want to do, Lorna,” said Herb, “is make a good first impression. I want to impress on people the idea that I’m ready to work. I want them to think of me as a hard and willing worker. Later on, I can find a good selling job, I’m sure of that. When I do, I’ll have a reputation around town. People won’t think of me as a guy who came into town as a salesman. They’ll think of me as a guy who came to Babbington with nothing but ambition and a willingness to work and who, by God, worked himself up from a job culling in the clam plant to a good job as a salesman. I’ll be a Babbington success story, a local hero, and people will be happy to buy from me.”
Lorna wasn’t sure whether to laugh or not. She saw that there was wisdom behind Herb’s idea, but even so it sounded like a laughable scheme. “Where did you get those ideas?” she asked.
“Well,” said Herb, “I thought of the details myself, but I got the basic idea from one of the books in Professor Clapp’s Five-Foot Shelf.”
“What one was that?”
“Sixty-six Steps up the Stairway to Success—Starting at the Bottom.”
THE APARTMENT. Well, the apartment might not have seemed much
better than the job. Herb found it while he was walking along Bolotomy
Road, on his way to the area in the southernmost part of Babbington, along
the bay, where, he had learned, most of the messier work was done.
He intended to wander through the area and see what the businesses looked
like, see whether there were any jobs to be had. He had already fixed
his mind on the notion of demonstrating to Babbington a rise from obscurity
by dint of labor, so that he would be admired and trusted, and he had decided
to take any small, mean job at the scruffiest of the plants.
APT TO LET
Herb couldn’t imagine where the apartment could be. The house
presented such a tiny, pinched face to the street that it seemed too small
to house the landlord, let alone a tenant. Curious, he knocked.
“REMEMBER,” said Herb, “you have to wear the blindfold.”
HERB AND LORNA moved in the next day, but, while they were unpacking,
Herb began to feel that he’d been unfair, that he’d forced Lorna to share,
or at least to try to share, his enthusiasm for the apartment. He
began to feel that he should have left the apartment hunting to her, that
she should have been the one to choose the place where she would live,
and that, if she had been the one to choose, she would never have chosen
a place like this, would certainly never have chosen any place where she
had to walk through her landlords’ home and home life to get to her own.
THEIR STAY in the one-room apartment at the Mikszaths’ would, Herb and
Lorna agreed, be temporary, and it would do just fine for a while, till
they found something bigger, something better, while they were learning
their way around Babbington, while Herb was establishing himself.
It would be just fine until they found someplace that they really liked.
HERB’S WORK at the clam-packing plant was noticed from the start; he
seemed to have a talent for culling, and he was so dexterous that he came
to be regarded with the kind of awe and envy that athletes inspire when
they perform feats so far beyond the capabilities of the average person
that they seem by performing them to be enlarging the aspirations of the
species, to be outlining a new bulge along the frontier of human endeavor.
Herb enjoyed his growing reputation, and he was surprised to find how content
he was to do this work, this work that required so little of him.
He hid his true ambitions well, so well that Lorna hardly saw any evidence
of them herself. She saw him reading the Reporter every day,
but never looking at the help-wanted ads, and she wondered whether he really
meant what he said when he told her that he’d been inspired by what Dan
Whitley had told him that very first night when they arrived in Babbington:
that it’s amazing how much you learn about a person from an obituary, amazing
how much you didn’t know or didn’t notice when the person was alive.
From that, Herb had gone on to the realization that in a small town the
key to selling, or any kind of advancement, was information, information
that an outsider had to make a special effort to acquire. Much later,
when he and Lorna were retired in Punta Cachazuda, he put the idea this
way: “You’ve heard people say, ‘It’s not what you know that counts;
it’s who you know.’ Well, that’s not quite right. I
found that it’s what you know about who you know that counts.” Herb
was finding out a great deal about the people of Babbington, but the more
he found out, the more he found there was to find out. He began keeping
notes, on cards.
LIKE AN ARTIST who finds, to his excitement and terror, that he’s come
up with an idea so large and consuming that he may have to spend the rest
of his life trying to realize it, who wakes in the night terrified and
thrilled, having seen in his dreams a vision of his busy future, Herb saw
how much work he was going to have to do before he made even the smallest
of public steps in selling, because his move into selling would create
the first impression of him as a salesman, an impression that had to be
the right one if the enterprise was to prosper. So he studied and
listened and watched, and, in his mind, he practiced selling, while he
was lying awake in bed or daydreaming at the culling table where most of
his mind was free, while he was fixing or making some little thing, or
while he was relaxing in the tub at night while Lorna read to him.
He practiced selling to the people he knew, using what he knew about them.
What he imagined himself selling—because it was the most difficult thing
he could imagine selling, something the burglar hadn’t even disturbed—was
Wishing you could find a way to support
Complicated, and Exhilarating
Herb ’n’Lorna is published in paperback by Picador, a division of St. Martin's Press, at $13.00.
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Herb ’n’Lorna copyright © 1988 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.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
First published by Crown Publishers, Inc., 201 East 50th Street, New York, New York 10022. Member of the Crown Publishing Group.
Now available in paperback from Picador USA, a division of St. Martin’s Press.
The illustration at the top of the page is an adaptation of an illustration
by Stewart Rouse that first appeared on the cover of the August 1931 issue
of Modern Mechanics and Inventions. The boy at the controls of the
aerocycle doesn’t particularly resemble Peter Leroy—except, perhaps, for