|Herb ’n’ Lorna (A Love Story)||by Eric Kraft, as Peter Leroy|
|In Which Herb and Lorna’s Daughter Is Born|
DR. STICKLER gave them the news that Lorna was pregnant, Herb and Lorna
felt, immediately, that this made everything just perfect—not that either
wanted things to remain forever as they were, but each felt that for now,
with a baby on the way, everything was perfect. But then Herb began
to worry. He worried that Lorna might not want a child now, while
they were living with the Mikszaths, while he was trying to make a start
at Babbington Studebaker. More than anything else he wanted Lorna
to be happy, and he thought that he had to make her happy. And then
Lorna began to worry. She worried that Herb might not want a child
now, while they were living with the Mikszaths, while she was working to
make ends meet. She wanted him to be happy; she thought she had to
make him happy.
“Do you mind?” she asked when they were back at home.
“Mind?” said Herb. “Mind! I’m overwhelmed! Overwhelmed with joy, I mean.”
Overwhelmed, she thought. Overwhelmed by the idea of three of us living in this room?
“Do you—do you mind?” Herb asked. He wondered whether her question was a way of asking whether he agreed that they’d be cramped with a baby.
“Oh, Herb,” she said, “I love it. Her. I love her already.”
“Her? You’re sure?”
“I have a hunch.”
“You won’t feel cramped here, Lorna?”
“Not if you won’t.”
“I won’t if you won’t.”
“You will, won’t you?”
“No! Oh, no. Not if you won’t.”
“Are you being honest with me, Herb?”
“I am. I am. You’re the one who isn’t.”
“You want to move, don’t you?”
“No! I don’t want to move. I think you want to move.”
“And I think you want to move.”
“All right, let’s move.”
“Fine! If that’s what you want, let’s move.”
“It isn’t what I want! It’s what you want. Why don’t you just admit it?”
“I will not admit anything of the kind. You’re doing this because you want to move.”
“Lorna, I’m doing this for you.”
“I don’t want you to do it for me. I don’t want you to do anything for me. Not like this. I don’t want you giving anything up for me. Or for Ella.”
“Ella. Hm. Ella.”
“Do you like it?”
“You don’t like it.”
“I do. I do like it. Ella Piper. It’s easy to say—that’s important. People remember your name if it’s easy to say, if it’s catchy. Ella Piper. It’s not short for anything, is it?”
“You’re not going to call her—”
“No, no. Of course not. She’ll never even know. Only you and I will.”
“You—you do want to move, don’t you?” said Herb.
“You want to move!”
“Only if you do.”
AND SO they decided to move. Lorna wanted to tell Mrs. Mikszath
herself, when they were alone. She invited her for coffee, sat her
down, and fussed over her, putting a pillow behind the small of her back,
insisting that she kick off her shoes and put her feet on the ottoman,
buttering a roll for her, putting a third lump of sugar in her coffee.
And then, when she thought that the pillow and ottoman and buttered roll
and extra sugar had provided enough of a cushion, she delivered the blow:
“Mrs. Mikszath,” she said, looking into her cup, “Herb and I are going
to move. We don’t want to go, but we have to have more room for the
baby, for Ella.”
LORNA PROFITED from the move in an unexpected and wonderful way. She found a lifelong friend: May Castle (then May Hopper).
Oh, good! It’s time I stepped in. Well, there I was, all alone in the handsomest house in Babbington, because, you see, my parents were dead, poor things. They had died in Paris, well, just outside Paris, in a train wreck, a disaster, really. Hundreds killed. And they left me absolutely everything—well nearly everything—, including the house, of course, and I had the entire place to myself. Well, nearly to myself. I had a wretched aunt living with me, because she had no permanent place to live, and you see I was only a girl. Was I nineteen yet? No, I don’t think so. I may have been seventeen. No, that’s not likely. I must have been eighteen. Now the less said about this aunt, Auntie Phipps, the better. Ooooh! She was awful!May’s was a pretty place: shady patios, ivy-covered trellises, trim lawns, a rose garden, a long gravel driveway. The guest house was linked to the main house by a porte cochère, “attached,” as May said, but quite private. There were two bedrooms, a living room with a view every bit as good as that from the front rooms of the main house, and a small kitchen tucked into a corner in the back, with a view over a patch of lawn behind the garage, where a rope swing hung from a twisted apple tree, a swing that May’s father had hung for her.
The years that Herb and Lorna spent at May’s were exciting ones, years of progress and innovation, rising expectations and increasing prosperity. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Vannevar Bush and a team of scientists and engineers constructed an electromechanical calculator that nudged the slide rule a little further toward death. Tutankhamen’s tomb was opened. Lindbergh flew to Paris. Paul Whiteman bought Arnold Abbot Adler’s arrangement of “Lake Serenity Serenade,” added a vocal by the Rhythm Boys, and made a hit of it. Studebaker introduced the pretty little Erskine Six sport roadster and ran a pair of President Eights around the Atlantic City Speedway for nineteen days nonstop at an average speed approaching seventy miles per hour.
At May’s, Herb and Lorna enjoyed luxuries they would never have found anywhere else. May employed a gardener, handyman, housekeeper, and cook; the gardener tended the grounds outside the guest house just as carefully as the rest, the handyman kept the guest house in as good repair as the main house, and the housekeeper cleaned Herb and Lorna’s quarters once a week. More often than not, May insisted that Herb and Lorna eat dinner with her. Her generosity had a simple motive: she wanted Herb and Lorna, especially Lorna, to be free to be her friends and boon companions.
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WAS ADORABLE from birth. She had the robust good health and pink
plumpness that one sees in rubber baby dolls, a resilient firmness that
real flesh doesn’t ordinarily exhibit, the rubber-doll bounce of bouncing
babyhood. Herb was hugely proud of her. At work, he recounted
each of her little triumphs. Several times. The small occurrences
in our lives sometimes mean the most to us, and offering to share them
is an invitation to the most intimate friendship, but because they don’t
make exciting stories, they don’t often interest other people, not even
people we think of as friends. Everyone at Babbington Studebaker
thought of Herb as his friend, wisecracked with him, slapped him on the
back, but Herb with a story to tell about Ella, Herb with that glow on
his face, Herb with his proud-papa look, was someone to avoid.
Take, for example, the morning when Ella seemed to wink at Herb. Herb rushed to work, practicing the story of her winking as he drove. He parked in the lot behind the showroom, and trotted toward the door. Hal Tripp saw him coming.
“Uh-oh,” he said, tapping Dick Barber on the shoulder, “here comes Herb, with that little grin on his face, and he’s talking to himself. You know what that means.”
“Yep,” said Dick, “he’s got a story about some damned cute thing Ella did.”
“What say we scoot out back and see how Old Randolph’s doing?” suggested Hal.
Herb came through the door exclaiming, “Wait till you hear this! She winked at me!” There was no response. No one was in the showroom. A Dictator, a Commander, and an Erskine sat there alone. Herb went to his desk, disappointed. He hung his coat and hat and stood for a while with his hands in his pockets.
“Old Randolph!” he said suddenly. He dashed out to the service area, where he found Old Randolph in the grease pit, under a Big Six. “Wait till you hear this!” he exclaimed. “She winked at me! Little Ella winked at me!”
“No kiddin’,” said Randolph.
“Nope, no kidding,” said Herb. “She was so cute! Lorna had just changed her, see, and she was lying on the rug in the dining room—Ella was—while I was drinking my coffee, and I looked down at her and I made that little sound out of the side of my mouth, the way you do with babies, chk-chk, like that, chk-chk, and she giggled the way she does when I do that, and then—she winked at me! Just like that! It was the damnedest thing I ever saw!”
From somewhere in the grease pit, but not from Old Randolph, came snickering. Curious, suspicious, Herb tiptoed around the Big Six. He found Hal and Dick huddled together, bent over, trying to keep from laughing aloud. Herb trudged off, his heart hardened.
In later years, whenever Herb began an anecdote of the small and personal variety, the kind that might be taken as insignificant, he would say, first, “You might want to slip off to the grease pit before I start this story.”
HERB SOLD quite a few Studebakers. The work he had put into making
himself known and respected began paying off. He began capitalizing
on the store of knowledge he’d accumulated about Babbingtonians.
He also had the Piper talent in such abundance that he became, in an important
sense, his own best customer. He sold himself on Studebaker, and
by studying the cars and the prospective buyers, he found pairings that
he sold himself on, too. His pitches rang true because he was convinced
that his pairings of prospects and cars were right. When a man or
woman or couple came into the showroom, chances were that Herb had already
picked a car for them, and when he described the satisfaction that someone
was going to get from, say, a Standard Six, it sounded like a fact, not
a prediction. Herb had another quality, one that struck everyone
but Herb himself as his strongest: he was a nice guy, the genuine article.
Some people bought a Studebaker from Herb rather than another car from
someone else just because they liked Herb and didn’t want to disappoint
him. Even May, who informed Herb when he first suggested he had a
car that might interest her, “In my family we have always owned Chryslers,”
eventually gave in and bought an Erskine roadster. (She refused to
abandon her loyalty to Chrysler entirely, however; she went on buying Chryslers
for as long as she went on buying cars. Herb suggested, often, that
she bought Chryslers just to get his goat. She would ask, “Is it
Oh, that was a day. That was a day. Herb telephoned to say that Garth was bringing the car over, and I thought that was a nice touch, but I asked Herb why he wasn’t going to bring it himself. Well, Herb was never particularly good at lying. He mumbled something I couldn’t make out, and I asked, “What?” and he said, “He wants to meet you.” Well. Garth was not the sort of man I would have had a chance to meet when my parents were alive, because he gave the impression of being terribly fast, and Auntie Phipps would certainly never have allowed a man like Garth to call on me. If she had her way I would never have met anyone who wore long pants. But here was an excuse, you see. Well, when I saw Garth come up the drive at the wheel of that adorable car, wearing that big grin of his, I fell in love. Head over heels. Just—wham!—like that.
May Hopper and Garth Castle, out for a spin in May’s new Erskine sport
encounter an unidentified equestrienne, somewhere on Long Island, about 1928.
| May had to elude Auntie Phipps to go out with Garth.
She pretended that she went out only with Herb and Lorna, but they all
went off to meet Garth, and a foursome was established that would endure
for more than twenty years. They went to dances at the Boat Club
(which, years later, became the Yacht Club, without a noticeable increase
in the size or opulence of the boats that belonged to its members).
They went picnicking, hiking, swimming, sailing, and rowing. They
played cards, talked, drank, ate. They went to movies together, and
occasionally they drove into New York together. Once they even drove
to Chacallit together.
The trip wasn’t entirely successful. In the Hubers’ parlor, Garth looked like a city slicker, and Richard Huber refused to carry on a conversation with him. Lorna’s sisters, Bertha and Clara, spat venom from the start.
“Lorna!” cried Clara as soon as she saw her, “you look so pale! Have you been sick?”
“And so thin!” said Bertha. “I’m worried about you. Are you taking care of yourself?”
May recognized all this for what it was. She was surprised only by the crudeness. She expected to see some fight in Lorna, but she was disappointed. “I’m fine,” said Lorna. “Just fine.”
May appointed herself Lorna’s champion. Eyes wide, lashes flapping, she said, “Yes, it’s the fashion now to be slim. At home, all the women are slim.”
May claimed to find Chacallit enchanting, but she found it considerably less so after she slipped, while stepping from stone to stone, and fell into the chilly Whatsit. Only Lester Piper really enjoyed the visit; he enjoyed it thoroughly. He was delighted to be able to show Herb that he had made a success of himself in Richard Huber’s sales department, and he was quite taken with May. Millie Piper, on the other hand, found May shocking, and she feared that within the quartet of young people there might be goings-on of a type that she had hoped she’d never have to concern herself with.
Of course, the grandparents, Richard and Lena and Lester and Millie, adored Ella. She was curious and quick, and in the course of a morning she did a hundred little things that seemed to be worth telling. When Bertha and Clara arrived with their fat and stolid children, they had to listen to a hundred annoying little stories. Though they smiled, one could see in their eyes the look of an employee at Babbington Studebaker who hadn’t managed to slip off to the grease pit.
During this visit, May noticed something unsettling about Ella:
She—fell in love too easily. She fell too hard, too fast. I had had an idea of this before. I had seen it a bit, back at home. We often took her with us, of course, when the four of us went here and there, and she seemed to think I was her mother sometimes. I mean, she seemed to feel toward me just as she felt toward Lorna. It bothered me. It did. It didn’t seem right. She didn’t seem to know the difference—oh, how can I put this—she didn’t have the idea of degrees of love. Well, now I’m talking about later, of course. But there, in Chacallit, she just got this mad crush on that man—that Clara’s husband. Why? Who can say? One never knows. She fell for people that way—too quickly—too strongly. No apparent reason. You can’t tell sometimes.On the Babbingtonians’ final day in Chacallit, Richard and Lena served a buffet supper for everyone: Lester and Millie Piper, Luther Huber, Bertha and Richard Reuter, Clara and Harold Russell, Garth and May, Herb and Lorna.
Bertha was nervous. She was dressed in something she had made herself, without benefit of a pattern, after studying an illustration in a magazine. It was meant to be daring, but it had been an act of desperation and it looked it. Over the course of the Babbingtonians’ visit, Bertha had come to feel like a lumpy bumpkin, and she blamed this feeling on Lorna. Bertha was envious, horribly envious. She envied Lorna her legs, her clothes, her baby, her life, her luck, her friends. She didn’t realize that the Babbingtonians weren’t a very sophisticated bunch. Garth seemed to her exactly what he wanted to be taken for: the Arrow collar man. He seemed to live in a world Bertha had inferred from magazines and novels, frightening, possibly evil, immeasurably pleasurable. And May! Everything about May suggested a life of ease, lived on the gentle horizontal, not the tough slopes of the Whatsit Valley, ease that left legs slim and smooth, as May’s short skirts boasted. To Bertha’s envious eye, Lorna and Herb glowed with May and Garth’s reflected light, especially Lorna, who even wore May’s hand-me-down silks.
Garth had brought liquor from Babbington. He passed cocktails around. Lena and Millie refused, and Bertha and Clara refused at first, but Bertha changed her mind when May and Lorna took theirs, and Clara changed her mind when Bertha took one. “Wouldn’t you rather have something else, girls?” asked Lena. She wrinkled her brow.
“Mother, really,” said Bertha.
“She’s right, Mrs. Huber,” said May. “They’re not girls any more.”
Bertha looked hard at May, then at Lorna.
“After all,” said May, “you girls—oh, now I’m doing it—you and Clara are Lorna’s older sisters. I’m sure Lorna doesn’t think of herself as a girl any longer, and—”
“May,” said Garth. “Why don’t you give me a hand in the kitchen?” May gave a little shrug, as if to say that she couldn’t imagine why Garth couldn’t handle the cocktails by himself, and followed him into the kitchen.
“May,” he whispered, “don’t you think you ought to—”
“No, I don’t,” said May, struggling to keep her voice down. “That woman has been horrible all week.” She left the kitchen, apparently composed, and she sprinkled light and glittering conversation around the living room while she hunted for Bertha. She found her at the table in the dining room, spooning potato salad onto her plate.
“Bertha, I’d put some of that potato salad back, if I were you,” whispered May. “It looks dreadfully fattening.”
Bertha glared at her.
“Well, perhaps you’re right,” said May. “It can’t make that much difference.” She walked off, beautifully. Bertha watched her go. When May got to the living room, she took Bertha’s husband’s arm, and whispered in his ear something that made him laugh. May succeeded, in a way: she hurt Bertha, made her angry. But May wasn’t the object of Bertha’s anger, Lorna was—Lorna who was slim, who had a lively, bouncing baby, who seemed to have stumbled into a life so much better and easier than Bertha’s, who didn’t even have to fight back when she was taunted, because she had a clever friend to fight for her. All the old hatred came back. Methodically, Bertha began eating her potato salad.
When it was time to go, and Herb lifted Ella from the lap of Harold Russell, Clara’s husband, Ella clung to him and cried furiously. She kicked and screamed and called out for Harold in the car. She sobbed herself into exhaustion. After half an hour of feeble whimpering, she fell asleep. Everyone was silent for a while. Then May said, in Bertha’s voice, “Lorna! You look so thin! I hope you’re taking care of yourself! Have a plate of lard, won’t you? I’m having my second!” Lorna tried not to laugh, but she couldn’t help herself. She began giggling, and soon all four were burlesquing Bertha and Clara, laughing till tears ran down their cheeks.
Bertha lay in bed, awake. The rest of the house was asleep. Cocktails, potato salad, and envy had unsettled her stomach. She felt dizzy in bed, so she got up and went into the kitchen for a glass of warm milk. While the milk was warming she buttered a slice of bread and sprinkled it with sugar, making the treat she called in childhood “bread and butter sugar bonnet.” She had heartburn, and she thought something rich and sweet and comforting would cure it. She belched. Acid caught in her throat. It tasted of potato salad. She took a piece of paper from a drawer. She poured the milk and began eating the bread and butter sugar bonnet. She looked at the paper. Acid rose in her throat again. Brashly, she began a letter to Herb.
ONE RAINY EVENING not long after, Garth and May and Herb and Lorna were
settled in front of a fire in May’s living room, and Herb was telling the
story of the arrival at the showroom, that morning, of Miss Decker.
Well! I laughed. To tell you the truth, I thought he was pulling a Miss Decker. So I thought I’d pull one right back. I said yes.They drank their drinks and made plans for the wedding, and, very late, they went to their beds. Herb made such tender love to Lorna that she thought the proposal-and-acceptance scene must have touched him, and she smiled in the dark at his sentimentality. There was, however, another reason for his tenderness. He hadn’t mentioned, in telling the story about Miss Decker, the fact that when he had looked up from his desk, surprised by Miss Decker’s arrival, he had had on his desk a letter from Bertha, the letter she had begun writing the night they left Chacallit. She had taken a long time deciding to send it, but the bitter taste she associated with Lorna kept coming back, and sweet foods wouldn’t drive it away. Finally she decided that there was only one way to eliminate it. She mailed the letter.
Dear Herb,Herb had sat, staring at the letter, not at all certain what he thought of it. Then Miss Decker had arrived. After she had gone, he looked at the letter again, and he decided that what Bertha said must be true. It was the chill down the spine, Bertha’s revulsion at the thought of having Luther’s damaged hand between her legs, that made him believe it. He sat looking out the window for the rest of the afternoon, and by the time Garth called out that it was time to close up and head for home, Herb had decided that Luther must have been the man who taught Lorna the things that surprised him in bed. He couldn’t agree with Bertha that Luther hadn’t been at fault. Luther was a man; Lorna was a child. Nor could he agree with Bertha that the things she said were things he ought to know. What made her write this? he asked himself. What really made her write it? This is the sort of thing a person does to get even. Get even for what? For May’s teasing? That doesn’t make sense. Nobody would write this because of some teasing. There’s got to be more to it. Jealousy, I’ll bet. She must have been jealous of Lorna and Luther. That must be it. Bertha wanted Luther. God, how she must have taken it out on Lorna when they were kids. Poor Lorna. And poor fat, miserable Bertha. She made herself crazy.
Herb was wrong in nearly all the particulars, but right in nearly all the essentials. He destroyed the letter. He was determined never to mention it or its assertions and never to let it affect his feelings for Lorna. In all the rest of his life, he never did mention it, but it did affect his feelings for Lorna. Every now and then, when he saw worry in Lorna’s puckered brow, he was reminded of the suffering he supposed Bertha had inflicted on her, and he embraced Lorna with a comforting tenderness that surprised and delighted her. Whenever he saw Bertha, he treated her with maddening solicitude, as an object of pity, and on the one occasion when Bertha dared whisper a reference to her letter, Herb patted her hand, smiled the smile we smile when we’re listening to the incomprehensible babbling of toddlers, and said, “Dut, dut, dut,” which baffled and infuriated her.
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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 the smile.
The photo of “May’s” Erskine reprinted from The Studebaker Century,
copyright © 1983 by Dragonwick Publishing Co., Inc. All rights reserved.
Used by permission of Asa E. Hall and Richard M. Langworth. Photo from
the collection of Asa E. Hall.