Libra, by DeLillo, Don
- ISBN: 9780140156041 | 0140156046
- Cover: Paperback
- Copyright: 5/1/1991
In the Bronx
This was the year he rode the subway to the ends of the city, two hundred miles of track. He liked to stand at the front of the first car, hands flat against the glass. The train smashed through the dark. People stood on local platforms staring nowhere, a look they'd been practicing for years. He kind of wondered, speeding past, who they really were. His body fluttered in the fastest stretches. They went so fast sometimes he thought they were on the edge of no-control. The noise was pitched to a level of pain he absorbed as a personal test. Another crazy-ass curve. There was so much iron in the sound of those curves he could almost taste it, like a toy you put in your mouth when you are little.
Workmen carried lanterns along adjacent tracks. He kept a watch for sewer rats. A tenth of a second was all it took to see a thing complete. Then the express stations, the creaky brakes, people bunched like refugees. They came wagging through the doors, banged against the rubber edges, inched their way in, were quickly pinned, looking out past the nearest heads into that practiced oblivion.
It had nothing to do with him. He was riding just to ride.
One forty-ninth, the Puerto Ricans. One twenty-fifth, the Negroes. At Forty-second Street, after a curve that held a scream right out to the edge, came the heaviest push of all, briefcases, shopping bags, school bags, blind people, pickpockets, drunks. It did not seem odd to him that the subway held more compelling things than the famous city above. There was nothing important out there, in the broad afternoon, that he could not find in purer form in these tunnels beneath the streets.
They watched TV, mother and son, in the basement room. She'd bought a tinted filter for their Motorola. The top third of the screen was permanently blue, the middle third was pink, the band across the bottom was a wavy green. He told her he'd played hooky again, ridden the trains out to Brooklyn, where a man wore a coat with a missing arm. Playing the hook, they called it here. Marguerite believed it was not so awful, missing a day now and then. The other kids ragged him all the time and he had problems keeping up, a turbulence running through him, the accepted fact of a fatherless boy. Like the time he waved a penknife at John Edward's bride. Not that Marguerite thought her daughter-in-law was worth getting into a famous feud about. She was not a person of high caliber and it was just an argument over whittling wood, over scraps of wood he'd whittled onto the floor of her apartment, where they were trying to be a family again. So there it was. They were not wanted anymore and they moved to the basement room in the Bronx, the kitchen and the bedroom and everything together, where blue heads spoke to them from the TV screen.
When it got cold they banged the pipes to let the super know. They had a right to decent heat.
She sat and listened to the boy's complaints. She couldn't fry him a platter of chops any time he wanted but she wasn't tight with the lunch money and even gave him extra for a funnybook or subway ride. All her life she'd had to deal with the injustice of these complaints. Edward walked out on her when she was pregnant with John Edward because he didn't want to support a child. Robert dropped dead on her one steamy summer day on Alvar Street, in New Orleans, when she was carrying Lee, which meant she had to find work. Then there was grinning Mr. Ekdahl, the best, the only hope, an older man who earned nearly a thousand dollars a month, an engineer. But he committed cunning adulteries, which she finally caught him out at, recruiting a boy to deliver a fake telegram and then opening the door on a woman in a negligee. This didn't stop him from scheming a divorce that cheated her out of a decent settlement. Her life became a dwindling history of moving to cheaper places.
Lee saw a picture in the Daily News of Greeks diving off a pier for some sacred cross, downtown. Their priests have beards.
"Think I don't know what I'm supposed to be around here."
"I've been all day on my feet," she said.
"I'm the one you drag along."
"I never said any such."
"Think I like making my own dinner."
"I work. I work. Don't I work?"
"Barely finding food."
"I'm not a type that sits around boo-hoo."
Thursday nights he watched the crime shows. Racket Squad, Dragnet , etc. Beyond the barred window, snow driving slantwise through the streetlight. Northern cold and damp. She came home and told him they were moving again. She'd found three rooms on one hundred and something street, near the Bronx Zoo, which might be nice for a growing boy with an interest in animals.
"Natures spelled backwards," the TV said.
It was a railroad flat in a red-brick tenement, five stories, in a street of grim exhibits. A retarded boy about Lee's age walked around in a hippity-hop limp, carrying a live crab he'd stolen from the Italian market and pushing it in the faces of smaller kids. This was a routine sight. Rock fights were routine. Guys with zip guns they'd made in shop class were becoming routine. From his window one night he watched two boys put the grocery store cat in a burlap sack and swing the sack against a lamppost. He tried to time his movements against the rhythm of the street. Stay off the street from noon to one, three to five. Learn the alleys, use the dark. He rode the subways. He spent serious time at the zoo.
There were older men who did not sit on the stoop out front until they spread their handkerchiefs carefully on the gray stone.
His mother was short and slender, going gray now just a little. She liked to call herself petite in a joke she really meant. They watched each other eat. He taught himself to play chess, from a book, at the kitchen table. Nobody knew how hard it was for him to read. She bought figurines and knickknacks and talked on the subject of her life. He heard her footsteps, heard her key in the lock.
"Here is another notice," Marguerite said, "where they threaten a hearing. Have you been hiding these? They want a truancy hearing, which it says is the final notice. It states you haven't gone to school at all since we moved. Not one day. I don't know why it is I have to learn these things through the U.S. mails. It's a blow, it's a shock to my system."
"Why should I go to school? They don't want me there and I don't want to be there. It works out just right."
"They are going to crack down. It is not like home. They are going to bring us into court."
"I don't need help going into court. You just go to work like any other day."
"I'd have given the world to stay home and raise my children and you know it. This is a sore spot with me. Don't you forget, I'm the child of one parent myself. I know the meanness of the situation. I worked in shops back home where I was manager."
Here it comes. She would forget he was here. She would talk for two hours in the high piping tone of someone reading to a child. He watched the DuMont test pattern.
"I love my United States but I don't look forward to a courtroom situation, which is what happened with Mr. Ekdahl, accusing me of uncontrollable rages. They will point out that they have cautioned us officially. I will tell them I'm a person with no formal education who holds her own in good company and keeps a neat house. We are a military family. This is my defense."
The zoo was three blocks away. There were traces of ice along the fringes of the wildfowl pond. He walked down to the lion house, hands deep in his jacket pockets. No one there. The smell hit him full-on, a warmth and a force, the great carnivore reek of raw beef and animal fur and smoky piss.
When he heard the heavy doors open, the loud voices, he knew what to expect. Two kids from P.S. 44. A chunky kid named Scalzo in a pea coat and clacking shoes with a smaller, runny-nose comedian Lee knew only by his street name, which was Nicky Black. Here to pester the animals, create the routine disturbances that made up their days. He could almost feel their small joy as they spotted him, a little jump of muscle in the throat.
Scalzo's voice banged through the high chamber.
"They call your name every day in class. But what kind of name is Lee? That's a girl's name or what?"
"His name is Tex," Nicky Black said.
"He's a cowpoke," Scalzo said.
"You know what cowpokes do, don't you? Tell him, Tex."
"They poke the cows," Scalzo said.
Lee went out the north door, a faint smile on his face. He walked down the steps and around to the ornate cages of the birds of prey. He didn't mind fighting. He was willing to fight. He'd fought with the kid who threw rocks at his dog, fought and won, beat him good, whipped him, bloodied his nose. That was on Vermont Street, in Covington, when he had a dog. But this baiting was a torment. They would get on him, lose interest, circle back fitfully, picking away, scab-picking, digging down.
Scalzo drifted toward a group of older boys and girls huddled smoking around a bench. Lee heard someone say, "A two-tone Rocket Olds with wire wheels."
The king vulture sat on its perch, naked head and neck. There is a vulture that breaks ostrich eggs by hurling stones with its beak. Nicky Black was standing next to him. The name was always used in full, never just Nicky or Black.
"Playing the hook is one thing. I say all right. But you don't show your face in a month."
It sounded like a compliment.
"You shoot pool, Tex? What do you do, you're home all day. Pocket pool, right? Think fast."
He faked a punch to Lee's groin, drew back.
"But how come you live in the North? My brother was stationed in Fort Benning, Georgia. He says they have to put a pebble in their hand down south so they know left face from right face. This is true or what?"
He mock-sparred, wagging his head, breathing rapidly through his nose.
"My brother's in the Coast Guard," Lee told him. "That's why we're here. He's stationed in Ellis Island. Port security it's called."
"My brother's in Korea now."
"My other brother's in the Marines. They might send him to Korea. That's what I'm worried about."
"It's not the Koreans you have to worry about," Nicky Black said. "It's the fucking Chinese."
There was reverence in his voice, a small note of woe. He wore torn Keds and a field jacket about as skimpy as Lee's windbreaker. He was runty and snuffling and the left half of his face had a permanent grimace.
"I know where to get some sweet mickeys off the truck. We go roast them in the lot near Belmont. They have sweet mickeys in the South down there? I know where to get these books where you spin the pages fast, you see people screwing. The kid knows these things. The kid quits school the minute he's sixteen. I mean look out."
He blew a grain of tobacco from the tip of his tongue.
"The kid gets a job in construction. First thing, he buys ten shirts with Mr. B collars. He saves his money, before you know it he owns a car. He simonizes the car once a month. The car gets him laid. Who's better than the kid?"
Scalzo was the type that sauntered over, shoulders swinging. The taps on his shoes scraped lightly on the rough asphalt.
"But how come you never talk to me, Tex?"
"Let's hear you drawl," Nicky Black said.
"I say all right."
"Talk to Richie. He's talking nice."
"But let's hear you drawl. No shit. I been looking forward."
Lee smiled, started walking past the group hunched over the park bench, lighting cigarettes in the wind, the fifteen-year-old girls with bright lipstick, the guys in pegged pants with saddle stitching and pistol pockets. He walked up to the main court and took the path that led to the gate nearest his street.
Scalzo and Nicky Black were ten yards behind.
"He sucks Clorets."
"Bad-breath kissing sweet in seconds."
"One and a two."
"I say all right."
"One two cha cha cha."
"He don't know dick."
"I mean look out."
"But how come he won't talk to me?"
"But what do we have to do?"
"Smoke a Fag-a-teeeer."
"I say all right."
"But talk to us."
"We're talking bad or what?"
"But say something."
"Think fast, Tex."
"I say all right."
At the gate a man in a lumber jacket and necktie asked him his name. Lee said he didn't talk to Yankees. The man pointed to a spot on the pavement, meaning that's where you stand until we get this straight. Then he walked over to the other two boys, talked to them for a moment, gesturing toward Lee. Nicky Black said nothing. Scalzo shrugged. The man identified himself as a truant officer. Scalzo tugged at his crotch, looking the man right in the eye. Like so what, mister. Nicky Black did a little cold-day dance, hands in pockets, giving a buck-tooth grin.
Out on the street the man escorted Lee to a green-and-white squad ear. Lee was impressed. There was a cop behind the wheel. He drove with one hand, keeping the hand that cupped a cigarette down between his knees.
Marguerite stayed up late watching the test pattern.
Lee purely loves animals so the zoo was a blessing but they sent him downtown to a building where the nut doctors pick at him twenty-four hours a day. Youth House. Puerto Ricans by the galore. He has to take showers in that jabber. John Edward tried to get him to talk to the nut doctor but Lee won't talk to John Edward ever since he opened the pocketknife on John Edward's bride. They have got him in an intake dormitory. They talk to him about is he a nail-biter. Does he have religious affiliation and whatnot? Is he disruptive in class? He doesn't know the slang, your honor. The place is full of New York-type boys. They see my son in Levis, with an accent. Well many boys wear Levis. What is strange about Levis? But they get on him about does he think he's Billy the Kid. This is a boy who played Monopoly with his brothers and had a normal report card when we lived with Mr. Ekdahl, on Eighth Avenue, in Fort Worth. It is a question of adjusting, judge. It was only a whittling knife and he did not actually cut her and now they don't talk, brothers. This is a boy who studies the lives of animals, the eating and sleeping habits of animals, animals in their burrows and caves. What is it called, lairs? He is advanced, your honor. I have said from early childhood he liked histories and maps. He knows uncanny things without the normal schooling. This boy slept in my bed out of lack of space until he was nearly eleven and we have lived the two of us in the meanest of small rooms when his brothers were in the orphans' home or the military academy or the Marines and the Coast Guard. Most boys think their daddy hung the moon. But the poor man just crashed to the lawn and that was the end of the only happy part of my adult life. It is Marguerite and Lee ever since. We are a mother and son. It has never been a question of neglect. They say he is truanting is the way they state it. They state to me he stays home all day to watch TV. They are talking about a court clinic. They are talking about the Protestant Big Brothers for working with. He already has big brothers. What does he need more brothers for? There is the Salvation Army that is mentioned. They take the wrappers off the candy bars I bring my son. They turn my pocketbook all out. This treatment is downgrading. It is not my fault if he dresses below the level. What is the fuss about? A boy playing hooky in Texas is not a criminal who is put away for study. They have made my boy a matter on the calendar. They expect me to ask their permission to go back home. We are not the common drifters they paint us out to be. How on God's earth, and I am a Christian, does a neglectful mother make such a decent home, which I am willing to show as evidence, with bright touches and not a thing out of place. I am not afraid to make food last. This is no disgrace, to cook up beans and cornbread and make it last. The tightfisted one was Mr. Ekdahl, on Granbury Road, in Benbrook, when the adulteries started. But I am the one accused of excesses and rages. I took back my name, your honor. Marguerite Claverie Oswald. We moved to Willing Street then, by the railroad tracks.
He did Human Figure Drawings, which were judged impoverished.
The psychologist found him to be in the upper range of Bright Normal Intelligence.
The social worker wrote, "Questioning elicited the information that he feels almost as if there is a veil between him and other people through which they cannot reach him, but he prefers this veil to remain intact."
The schoolteacher reported that he sailed paper planes around the room.
He returned to the seventh grade until classes ended. In summer dusk the girls lingered near the benches on Bronx Park South. Jewish girls, Italian girls in tight skirts, girls with ankle bracelets, their voices murmurous with the sound of boys' names, with song lyrics, little remarks he didn't always understand. They talked to him when he walked by, making him smile in his secret way.
Oh a woman with beer on her breath, on the bus coming home from the beach. He feels the tired salty sting in his eyes of a day in the sun and water.
"The trouble leaving you with my sister," Marguerite said, "she had too many children of her own. Plus the normal disputes of family. That meant I had to employ Mrs. Roach, on Pauline Street, when you were two. But I came home one day and saw she whipped you, raising welts on your legs, and we moved to Sherwood Forest Drive."
Heat entered the flat through the walls and windows, seeped down from the tar roof. Men on Sundays carried pastry in white boxes. An Italian was murdered in a candy store, shot five times, his brains dashing the wall near the comic-book rack. Kids trooped to the store from all around to see the traces of grayish spatter. His mother sold stockings in Manhattan.
A woman on the street, completely ordinary, maybe fifty years old, wearing glasses and a dark dress, handed him a leaflet at the foot of the El steps. Save the Rosenbergs , it said. He tried to give it back, thinking he would have to pay for it, but she'd already turned away. He walked home, hearing a lazy radio voice doing a ballgame. Plenty of room, folks. Come on out for the rest of this game and all of the second. It was a Sunday, Mother's Day, and he folded the leaflet neatly and put it in his pocket to save for later.
There is a world inside the world.
He rode the subway up to Inwood, out to Sheepshead Bay. There were serious men down there, rocking in the copper light. He saw chinamen, beggars, men who talked to God, men who lived on the trains, day and night, bruised, with matted hair, asleep in patient bundles on the wicker seats. He jumped the turnstiles once. He rode between cars, gripping the heavy chain. He felt the friction of the ride in his teeth. They went so fast sometimes. He liked the feeling they were on the edge. How do we know the motorman's not insane? It gave him a funny thrill. The wheels touched off showers of blue-white sparks, tremendous hissing bursts, on the edge of no-control. People crowded in, every shape face in the book of faces. They pushed through the doors, they hung from the porcelain straps. He was riding just to ride. The noise had a power and a human force. The dark had a power. He stood at the front of the first car, hands flat against the glass. The view down the tracks was a form of power. It was a secret and a power. The beams picked out secret things. The noise was pitched to a fury he located in the mind, a satisfying wave of rage and pain.
Never again in his short life, never in the world, would he feel this inner power, rising to a shriek, this secret force of the soul in the tunnels under New York.
Excerpted from LIBRA by Don DeLillo. Copyright © 1988 by Don DeLillo. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.