Friday, June 27, 2003

[6/27/2011] Perelman Tonight: San Francisco-bound -- Part 2 of "The Swiss Family Perelman" (continued)


They promptly contrived effigies of their parents.

[The illlustrations, of course, are by the great Al Hirschfeld,
and you can click on them to enlarge them.]

"Abby, whose geography at ten was still fairly embryonic, remained tractable until she discovered that Siam was not an annex of Macy's. She thereupon spread-eagled herself on the parquet and howled like a muezzin, her face tinted a terrifying blue."
-- from tonight's installment of "Rancors Aweigh"

The Swiss Family Perelman

1. Rancors Aweigh
Part 2 of 2

Had the ex-Vicereine of India attended the Durbar in a G-string, it would have occasioned less tittle-tattle than the casual revelation to our circle that we were breaking camp to migrate to the Land of the White Elephant. "She dassen't show her face at the Colony," the tongues clacked. "They say he smokes two catties of yen shee gow before breakfast. In Reno Veritas.' Rumors flew thick and fast. They ranged from sniggered allusions to the bar sinister to reports that we were actually bound for the leper colony at Molokai, the majority opinion holding that we were lammisters from the FBI. The more charitable among our friends took it upon themselves to scotch these old wives' tales. "He's merely had a nervous breakdown," they said loyally. "You can tell by the way he drums his fingers when she's talking." Our children, they added, were not real albinos, nor was it true I had been made contact man for a white slave ring in Saigon. I was much too yellow.

The reaction of the bairns was equally heart-warming. When the flash came that they were shortly transplanting to the Orient, they received it impassively. Adam, a sturdy lad of twelve, retired to his den, barricaded the door with a bureau, and hid under the bed with Flents in his ears in readiness for head-hunters. His sister Abby, whose geography at ten was still fairly embryonic, remained tractable until she discovered that Siam was not an annex of Macy's. She thereupon spread-eagled herself on the parquet and howled like a muezzin, her face tinted a terrifying blue. Toward evening the keening subsided and both were cajoled into taking a little nourishment through a tube. On discussing the matter tranquilly, I was gratified to find they had been laboring under a misapprehension. They had supposed we were going to discontinue their arithmetic and spelling, a situation they regarded as worse than death. When I convinced them that, on the contrary, they might do five hours of homework daily even en route, their jubilation was unbounded. They promptly contrived wax effigies of their parents and, puncturing them with pins, intoned a rubric in which the phrase "hole in the head" recurred from time to time.

Ignoring the tradesmen who, under the curious delusion that we were about to shoot the moon, crowded in to collect their accounts, we fell to work assembling the gear necessary for an extended stay out East. Perhaps my most difficult task was to dissuade the mem-sahib from taking along her eighty-six-piece Royal Doulton dinner service. I tried to explain that we would probably crouch on our hams in the dust and gnaw dried fish wrapped in a pandanus leaf, but you can sooner tame the typhoon than sway the bourgeois mentality. Within a week, our flat was waist-high in potato graters, pressure cookers, pop-up toasters, and poultry shears; to the whine of saws and clang of hammers, crews of carpenters boxed everything in sight, including the toilet, for shipment overseas. My wife's cronies, lured by the excitement like bears to wild honey, clustered about loading her with dress patterns, recipes for chowchow, and commissions for Shantung and rubies, while children scrambled about underfoot flourishing marlinspikes and igniting shipwreck flares. Through the press circulated my insurance broker, who had taken the bit in his teeth and was excitedly underwriting everyone against barratry and heartburn. Doctors bearing Martinis in one hand and hypodermics in the other immunized people at will; a cauldron of noodles steamed in a corner and an enterprising Chinese barber worked apace shaving heads. The confusion was unnerving. You would have sworn some nomad tribe like the Torguts was on the move.

A lifelong gift of retaining my aplomb under stress, nevertheless, aided me to function smoothly and efficiently. Cucumber-cool and rocket-swift, canny as Sir Basil Zaharoff, I set about leasing our farm in the Delaware Valley and our New York apartment. The problem of securing responsible tenants was a thorny one, but I met it brilliantly. The farm, naturally, was the easier to dispose of, there being a perennial demand for dank stone houses, well screened by poison sumac, moldering on an outcropping of red shale. Various inducements were forthcoming; ultimately, by paying a friend six hundred dollars and threatening to expose his extramarital capers, I gained his grudging consent to visit it occasionally. Disposing of our scatter in town, though, was rather more complex. The renting agents I consulted were blunt. The rooms were too large and sunny, they warned me; sublessees were not minded to run the risk of snow blindness. Washington Square, moreover, was deficient in traffic noise and monoxide, and in any event, the housing shortage had evaporated twelve minutes before. Of course, they would try, but it was a pity our place wasn't a warehouse. Everybody wanted warehouses.

The first prospects to appear were two rigidly corseted and excessively genteel beldames in caracul who tiptoed through the stash as gingerly as though it were a Raines Law hotel. It developed that they were scouts for a celebrated Hungarian pianist named Larczny, and their annoyance on learning that we owned no concert grand was marked. I observed amiably that inasmuch as Larczny had begun his career playing for throw money at Madame Rosebud's on Bienville Street, he might feel at home with the beer rings on our Minipiano. The door had hardly slammed shut before it was reopened by a quartet of behemoths from Georgia Tech. Wiping the residue of pot-likker from his chin with his sleeve, their spokesman offered to engage the premises as a bachelor apartment. The deal bogged down when I refused to furnish iron spiders for their fatback and worm gears for their still.

Interest the next couple of days was sporadic. A furtive gentleman, who kept the collar of his Chesterfield turned up during the interview, was definitely beguiled, but did not feel our floor would sustain the weight of a flat-bed press. He evidently ran some sort of small engraving business, cigar-store coupons as I understood it. Our hopes rose when Sir Hamish Sphincter, chief of the British delegation to United Nations, cabled from the Queen Elizabeth earmarking the rooms for his stay. Unfortunately, on arriving to inspect our digs, the baronet and his lady found them in a somewhat disordered state. Our janitor, in a hailstorm of plaster, was just demolishing the bathroom wall to get at a plumbing stoppage. By the time he dredged up the multiplication tables the children had cached there, Sir Hamish was bowling toward the Waldorf. We never actually met the person who rented the flat after our departure, but his manners were described as exquisite and his faro bank, until the law knocked it over, was said to be unrivaled in downtown Manhattan. I still wear on my watch-chain a .38 slug which creased the mantelpiece and one of his patrons, though not in the order named.

* * *

I marshaled our brave little band for the take-off.

Dusk was settling down on Washington Square that early January afternoon and a chill wind soughed through the leafless trees as I marshaled our brave little band for the take-off. Trench-coated and Burberryed, festooned with binoculars, Rolleiflexes, sextants, hygrometers, and instruments for sounding the ocean floor, we were a formidable sight. The adults, their nerves honed to razor sharpness by weeks of barbital and bourbon, were as volatile as nitroglycerine; the slightest opposition flung them into apocalyptic rages followed by floods of tears. Without having covered a single parasang, the children had already accumulated more verdigris and grime than if they had traversed Cambodia on foot. The bandage on Adam's hand acquired in a last-minute chemistry experiment had unwound, but he was dexterously managing to engorge popcorn, read a comic, and maneuver an eel-spear at the same time. Abby, bent double under her three-quarter-size 'cello, snuffled as her current beau, a hatchet-faced sneak of eleven, pledged eternal fealty. Heaped by the curb were fourteen pieces of baggage exclusive of trunks; in the background, like figures in an antique frieze, stood the janitor, the handyman, and the elevator operators, their palms mutely extended. I could see that they were too choked with emotion to speak, these men who I know not at what cost to themselves had labored to withhold steam from us and jam our dumbwaiters with refuse. Finally one grizzled veteran, bolder than his fellows, stepped forward with an obsequious tug at his forelock.

"We won't forget this day, sir," the honest chap said, twisting his cap in his gnarled hands. "Will we, mates?" A low growl of assent ran round the circle. "Many's the time we've carried you through that lobby and a reek of juniper off you a man could smell five miles down wind. We've seen some strange sights in this house and we've handled some spectacular creeps; it's a kind of a microcosm like, you might say. But we want you to know that never, not even in the nitrate fields of Chile, the smelters of Nevada, or the sweat shops of the teeming East Side, has there been a man ----" His voice broke and I stopped him gently.

"Friends," I said huskily, "I'm not rich in worldly goods, but let me say this -- what little I have is mine. If you ever need anything, whether jewels, money, or negotiable securities, remember these words: you're barking up the wrong tree. Geronimo."

Their cheers were still ringing in my ears twenty minutes later as our cab swerved down the ramp into Pennsylvania Station. Against the hushed cacophony of the Map Room, I began to hear another and more exotic theme, the tinkle of gamelans and the mounting whine of the anopheles mosquito. The overture was ending. The first movement, molto con citronella, had begun.

TOMORROW IN PART 3 OF THE SWISS FAMILY PERELMAN: As we begin Chapter 2, "Low Bridge -- Everybody Down," the family makes it out of New York


Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home