My Mother Takes a Tumble
Chapter 13: Commiseration
YOU CAN READ THE FIRST HALF
DON’T TRY TO SELL anyone a car, Herb,” said Gumma. The group was
making its way across the clamshell parking lot behind Whitey’s Tavern.
“The last time Herb and I were here,” she said, turning toward Mr. Beaker,
who might possibly not have heard the story, “Herb tried to sell Whitey
a car, and he—”
“It wasn’t the last time, Lorna,” Guppa corrected her. “It was a long time ago. Everybody but you has forgotten it, it was so long ago.”
“Well, it couldn’t have been that long ago, because I remember it as if it happened yesterday,” asserted Gumma.
“It was before Whitey bought that jukebox,” said Guppa, the hint of a whine in his voice. “That’s why he didn’t buy the car, because he wanted to buy that jukebox and liven the place up, remember? What he said to me was ‘What am I going to do, Herb, park my Studebaker in the barroom? I’ve got to think of the business. Now look at this—’ and he brought out that brochure about the jukebox. I remember it perfectly.”
“Wait till you see this jukebox,” my mother said to Dudley, starry-eyed. “It’s real clever. It has these two peacocks on the front—”
“Oh, of course,” said Mr. Beaker. This struck me at once as a nasty remark, a dismissal, and I held it against Mr. Beaker for a long time, for years in fact. To his credit, he regretted it immediately, and told my mother so.
“I’m sorry, Ella,” he said. “I didn’t mean to belittle your pleasure in the jukebox that way, or rather, I did mean to belittle it that way, but I regret it very much. You’ll have to make allowances for my troubled state of mind. I’m afraid I gave in to the childish and self-centered idea that the gloom that envelops me should envelop you too, and that you should not be able to escape it by thinking of a jukebox, since I couldn’t—”
“It’s all right, Dudley,” said my mother, touching him quickly on the arm. “I know you’re worried and upset, and I think you’ve been doing a little drinking.”
Mr. Beaker smiled indulgently at my mother. “Thank you, Ella,” he said, “but the explanation for what I said isn’t that simple. Let me try to explain it again. Behind my remark there lurked the ignoble desire to make my companions share my suffering and unhappiness, don’t you see?” He threw one arm across my father’s shoulders and the other across my mother’s, knocking me on the ear as he did so. “The shameful desire to fill the hearts of one’s good friends with the same anguish and misery that fills one’s own, so that when they say, ‘We know how you feel,’ it will be the honest truth. That,” he pronounced, “is what we mean by commiserating.” I began to whimper and rub my ear, but no one noticed.
“I don’t know,” said my mother. “I guess so. But anyway you’ll like this jukebox, Dudley. There are lights that shine through the peacocks, and they change colors—”
“Yes, I’m sure I’ll enjoy it,” said Mr. Beaker. For a moment it seemed that he would say nothing more, and my mother seemed relieved. Then, almost reluctantly, he asked, “Do you know how that effect is achieved?”
“No,” said my mother, dreamily. “It’s real mysterious.”
“Not really,” said Mr. Beaker, driven by a force that he could not control. “Two disks of glass, or perhaps acetate, I’m not certain about that, are scribed with tiny parallel lines. These disks spin behind the peacocks and in front of ordinary light bulbs. Because of the lines scribed in them, the disks act as prisms, analyzing the white light from the bulbs into the spectrum of colors. As they spin, of course, they produce combinations of light in what seems to be an unpredictable pattern, an endless variety of moving colored lights, but is actually, I would think, repetitious, a cycle with a long period, so long that the viewer, who is probably distracted now and then by other things in the barroom, doesn’t notice the pattern.”
“It’s real mysterious,” said my mother, with little conviction, straightening my collar.
“Have you been here before, Dudley?” asked my father.
“Never,” said Mr. Beaker, surprised by the question. After a moment, when he realized why my father had asked, he added, “There are other jukeboxes like this one, Bert.”
My father narrowed his eyes. “I know,” he said. “I just wondered if you had ever been here.”
“Anyway, it wasn’t Whitey, Lorna,” Guppa corrected her, raising his voice. “It was his boy, Chester.”
“He means Porky,” said my mother. She giggled.
“Well, it doesn’t much matter which one really,” said Gumma. “But what happened was that Whitey decided that he had heard all he ever wanted to hear about Studebakers, so he—”
“Are you going to enter this establishment, Lorna?” asked Guppa, holding the door open and bowing.
“Oh, stop interrupting, Herb. You just don’t want me to tell Dudley how Whitey started—”
“Whoa!” called Whitey from behind the bar. “Hide your money, folks, here comes Herb Studebaker!”
“—calling you Herb Studebaker. Isn’t he a sketch?”
Guppa put on a smile and strode into Whitey’s, pounding friends on the back, friends who slapped their hands over their wallets in mock terror.
“Now don’t feel uncomfortable just because everyone’s looking at you, Dudley,” said my mother. “It’s just that they don’t know you and they don’t see that many people in here that they don’t know.”
“And isn’t that my problem?” asked Mr. Beaker. He sighed a long sigh, an invitation to commiseration. “I just don’t know this Jack Simpson.”
“It’s not really the same thing,” said my father.
“Oh?” asked Mr. Beaker. “Don’t these people know you? When they see you walk through the door, don’t they say to themselves. ‘Ah, it’s Bert Leroy. I know what to expect from him. I don’t have to worry.’”
“Oh, sure,” said my father. “Ella and I come here pretty often.”
“I would say regularly,” said Whitey, grinning across the bar.
“You see,” said Mr. Beaker, “that’s my point —”
“Well, it depends,” said my father, responding to Whitey. “I would say regularly on Sunday afternoons.”
“And often on Friday nights,” asserted Whitey.
“Oh, no,” May Castle corrected him. “Frequently on Friday nights.” She turned on her stool and crossed her legs. She smiled at my father and then at Mr. Beaker, waiting for an introduction.
“Well, yeah,” said my father. He chuckled. “Frequently on Friday nights.”
“And on Saturday nights,” added my mother, inserting me between May and Mr. Beaker and setting me on the bar.
“Noooo, Ella,” scoffed May, giving my mother a playful push. “You’re not here frequently on Saturday nights. I’m always here on Saturday nights, and I frequently don’t see you here. You’re only here sometimes. Now you,” she reached around my mother and patted Mr. Beaker on the shoulder, “you’re never here. That is, you’ve never been here before. I’m May Castle.”
“I,” said Mr. Beaker, “am someone you know nothing about. I am a stranger, a mystery. I’m Dudley Beaker.”
“Oh, you are?” May gave my mother a look.
“Are you going to buy me a beer?” my mother asked my father.
“I’ve heard your name, Dudley,” said May. She looked at my mother again. “Frequently.”
My father whispered in Mr. Beaker's ear: “Her husband disappeared about a year ago. No, it must be two years. As soon as people started noticing that he wasn’t around, May started saying that he had passed away on a business trip, and she’s been playing the merry widow ever since. You could do worse, Dudley.”
Mr. Beaker turned toward my father with his eyes wide and his mouth open. “Listen, Bert,” he said, “I came here to talk—”
May tugged on his sleeve from the other side. “Come here a minute, Dudley,” she said. “Did you dress yourself, honey? Your mommy must be on vacation. You’re a mess.” She began straightening his tie and smoothing his hair. Mr. Beaker looked uneasily around the barroom. He couldn’t find the door.
“So,” said Whitey. “You people going to drink something, or do you just want to rent these stools?”
May pushed her glass toward Whitey, and Whitey began drawing beer for my parents.
“I’ll have a Scotch,” said Mr. Beaker. “With a little water.”
My father raised his eyebrows.
May had improved Mr. Beaker’s hair and tightened his tie. She smoothed his shirt and tucked it into his slacks a little better; then she gave his pants a hike and tugged at his lapels to straighten his jacket, tipping him toward her.
“You don’t look happy, stranger,” said May, brushing at Mr. Beaker’s shoulders. “You look like a man with a problem.”
“He is,” said my father, smiling.
“Oh-oh,” said Whitey. “What’d you do, buy a car from Herb?”
“Yes, but that has nothing to do with it. I’m quite satisfied with the car,” said Mr. Beaker.
“Dudley’s having trouble writing a letter,” said my father, nodding and acting mysterious.
“Ho-ho,” said Whitey. “That’s something I stay far away from. Letters can get you into a lot of trouble. My father always told me, ‘Don’t write anything down.’” He called the words across the room, so that Porky, who was refilling bowls of pretzels, would hear them, and so that everyone else in the room would hear them too. It was an old joke, but it got the old laugh, which was all Whitey wanted.
Porky blushed. He was having so little success in getting his hands on the girls at Babbington High that he couldn’t imagine what he might write down that could get him into trouble, but every time his father made the joke Porky blushed, and that convinced Whitey that his son was enjoying youth to a degree that he had not.
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Little Follies 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 author.
“My Mother Takes a Tumble,” “Do Clams Bite?,” “Life on the Bolotomy,” “The Static of the Spheres,” “The Fox and the Clam,” “The Girl with the White Fur Muff,” “Take the Long Way Home,” and “Call Me Larry” were originally published in paperback by Apple-Wood Books.
Little Follies was first published in hardcover by Crown Publishers, Inc., 201 East 50th Street, New York, New York 10022. Member of the Crown Publishing Group.
For information about publication rights outside the U. S. A., audio rights, serial rights, screen rights, and so on, e-mail the author’s imaginary agent, Alec “Nick” Rafter.
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.