Bushman Lives!, p.2Daniel Pinkwater
“It’s me every Saturday at this time, Mr. Pfiff,” I said.
“Ja, and vhat I vant to know is vhy?”
“Vhy? I mean, why? To take my lesson,” I said.
“Und you neffer think maybe to quit?”
“Why should I think of that? Why should I quit?”
“Look, Knabe, mein boy, you are a nice boy, but musically you shtink. Haff you never thought about maybe you haff no talent vhatsoever?”
“Do you think I have no talent whatsoever?”
“Mein Gott! Ve haff been vorking on ‘O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden,’ specially arranged for flute shtoodent, for a year already! Und no progress—none! Vhy did you take up the instrument in the first place?”
The reason I had taken up the flute in the first place was that it was the smallest instrument and easy to carry around. And the reason I took up an instrument at all was so I could be in the Riverview High School band, which meant that in addition to the two periods a day I spent doing my duty as an officer of the hall guards, there was a period of band, which was one less period of sitting in class. Classes at Riverview were hard to take, and best kept to a minimum. I was just barely good enough to hold down fourth chair in the flute section. Delores Rhinebeck, Sue Krantz, and Jean Blanc, the rest of the flute section, were all better than me, and older than me, and covered for me. I was in love with all three of them, especially their breasts. But Delores, Sue, and Jean, and their breasts, had all just graduated, and there was going to be some kind of horrible reckoning when school started in September and Captain Walz, the band teacher, could actually hear me.
“Look, I make you a proposition,” Pfiff said. “Vhat about you just don’t come back anymore?”
“You want me to quit?”
“Ja, just fade away. You are giving me migraine every Saturday. Also I vill buy that flute off you for fifty bucks. I don’t like to think of it in your hands.”
I had to admit, it was a good deal. The flute had only cost sixty-five to begin with.
“Can I keep the case?” I asked Mr. Pfiff.
“Ach, so! I am reading your mind. Ja, you may keep the case, but if your father asks me, I tell everything.”
This is how I was rationalizing the deal: Obviously, the money was wasted anyway. I could continue to collect the three-fifty a week that had paid for the music lessons up to now. I told myself that now that I wasn’t giving it to Pfiff, I would spend it on other forms of education or self-improvement. I could carry the flute case around with me—it could be useful for transporting small objects or as a weapon of self-defense. My parents would not notice that I was not practicing, since I never did anyway. And I didn’t have to make up my mind right away—if I decided not to be dishonest, I could give my father the fifty and tell him Pfiff had fired me from being his student. Also, not having an instrument would solve my problem with Captain Walz in the fall.
Emil Pfiff was smiling a beautiful smile. “Gott, I feel so relieved,” he said. “I vill neffer have to listen to your playing again. Do not take it as a judgment that you cannot make music if your life depended. I am sure there are many things you can do . . . just this is not one. You ver not thinking you vould grow up to be Mozart, ver you?”
“Go, mein boy. It is a beautiful day. Go and enjoy it.”
“Bushman lives,” I said
“Gesundheit,” Emil Pfiff said.
Ars Longa Vita Brevis
Two minutes later, I was on the other side of Michigan Avenue, heading in the direction of the Art Institute, with an empty flute case and free as a wild gorilla.
THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO, it said in letters carved into the stone up near the top. Big, official-looking building with wide steps going up to it, and a couple of green lions on either side. I had been there a couple of times on school trips. I was standing there, looking at it, and thinking about how there was nothing I had to do. I owned my own life. I could go wherever I wanted to go.
I could go in there. I could go into the Art Institute, look around, see the art. The last time, I was with a gang of seventh-graders and we moved along in a group and got lectured at. I hesitated with one foot on the bottom step.
“Going inside, ’bo?” someone said.
It was a chick. Little, sort of chubby chick. She was sitting next to one of the green lions. She had little squinty black glasses, a black raincoat, and multicolored knee socks.
“I thought I might,” I said.
“Well, do it already,” the chick said. “Go look at a painting called Excavation by Willem de Kooning.”
“That’s what I said. Check it out. It does things.”
“Okay, I will,” I said.
“Do so,” the chick said.
“It’s upstairs. You can’t miss it.”
I have to mention that this was possibly the longest conversation I had ever had with a girl outside of school. I felt I was handling it fairly well, and I didn’t want to hang around and blow it.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Don’t mention it, mister.”
I went up the stairs and into the museum.
The painting was a complete disappointment. At first. It looked like . . . nothing. There was a lot of dirty white, with sketchy black lines, and here and there a little bit of color peeking out. It was huge. I wondered what the chick with the goggles thought was so good about it. I stood gazing at it, trying to see if maybe it was of something, like those puzzles in the back of the Sunday funnies where it’s a tree and the caption says, “How many squirrels can you find in the tree?” If you look for a while, you see there are squirrels green on green, hidden in the tree. Maybe it was something like that. She said it did things.
And then . . . it started to do things. Yes, indeed, it did things. It started to wiggle or vibrate—or maybe I was wiggling and vibrating. I felt myself being pulled into the painting, by the eyeballs. This is hard to explain, but I was able to get behind the dirty white parts . . . well, not me, not physically me, but my mind. My mind went into the painting, and it was like some crazy board game. I got taken this way and that, and the colors, the reds and blues and yellows, were moving, sometimes where I couldn’t see, and then they’d pop out and show themselves. And I was moving with them. It was like listening to music with my eyes. It was fantastic fun. It was exciting—and at the same time it was a little scary, because an inanimate thing, paint on a big piece of canvas, was playing with me as though it were alive.
And then the painting spat me out. Or maybe I pulled out, because it was just too weird and unexpected. I felt excited and strange, and I noticed my heart was beating a little fast. I had a funny taste in my mouth too. I didn’t want to stay in the museum any more—that was enough for the first time.
I went out to see if the chick in the raincoat was still there.
She wasn’t, but what was there was Michigan Avenue, which had been there in the first place, and which I had seen hundreds and hundreds of times—only I had not seen it like I was seeing it now. The sky was blue, as it often was, only this time it was not only blue, but it was . . . thick. It had a texture. If I could have reached up and taken a piece of sky between my thumb and finger, I could have felt it. The buildings were stone, and brown, and bluish gray, and tall—like always—only I felt they were somehow curving, huddling together, and arching out over the street. And the cars! The cars were all these amazing colors, moving along like big beetles, metallic and rounded, and shiny. I could see the air too. It was all amazing. Something had happened to my eyes, or my brain, while I was away inside the painting. By the time I had gotten back inside myself, all my seeing settings had been changed.
I sat down next to the lion, where the chick had been sitting, and waited to get used to it. I guessed that was what she had been doing. After a while, I did sort of adjust, though everything continued to look very good to me, and I felt oddly happ
I was in no hurry. I decided to walk all the way home. I felt like looking around with my eyes all tuned up after the experience in the museum. It was a bright day, a little on the cool side, and perfect for walking and exploring.
I crossed Michigan Avenue and entered the deep canyons of the Loop. It was always a little darker among the tall buildings, and breezy and busy. I was in no hurry—I went in and out of lobbies of various buildings, looked at things in store windows, sniffed the cooking smells outside restaurants, and observed the people, all of whom were walking fast, as though they knew where they were going.
I got all the way to the west side of the Loop, hooked a right, crossed the Chicago River, and started in the direction of my neighborhood. Once I was across the river, the buildings were smaller and more sunlight hit the street. The stores were less fancy, ranging to crummy, and some had dusty windows. There were a few three- and four-story apartment houses in between commercial buildings. The traffic wasn’t as heavy, and the people weren’t as thick on the sidewalk. It was more than fifty blocks to our apartment building, at least six miles. I could do it in two hours, if I walked steadily, but strolling, making stops, and pausing for a fast lunch, I could stretch it out to three or four hours—that is what I decided to do.
I came upon a little bookstore. Christmas Royal Books. Wait a minute! I knew this store—only I didn’t know it was where it was now. Christmas Royal’s bookstore was formerly on Broadway, a few blocks from my house. Then, one day it wasn’t there anymore. Obviously he had moved and this was his new location. I went in, and sure enough, there he was, Christmas Royal, the skinniest man in Chicago. When I say that Christmas Royal was skinny, I mean he was like a skeleton. In addition to being skinny, he was tall, had red hair he wore in a spiky crewcut, and also had the thickest glasses anyone had ever seen. He also had a long pointy nose.
“Well, well, looky here,” Christmas Royal said. “Harold Knishke, as I live and breathe. White Fang! Front!”
White Fang was Christmas Royal’s dog, a boxer, and he knew more tricks than Lassie. The dog appeared from the back of the store, bounded over the counter, and sat facing Christmas Royal.
“Watch him, Fang,” Christmas Royal said. “It’s Harold Knishke, the well-known book thief.”
White Fang wheeled around and gave me the serious eyeball.
“Mr. Royal, I have never stolen a book!” I said.
“We’ll just keep it that way,” Christmas Royal said. “White Fang, if he tries to put anything under his coat, bite him, but do not kill him.” To me he said, “You may move around normally, but keep your hands in plain sight. What brings you down this way, Harold?”
“Just taking the long way home,” I said.
“Harold, admit it, you’ve been coming into the other store for years, trying to pilfer comic books . . .”
“And now you’ve tracked me down in my new location to rob me blind and try to put me out of business. Otherwise, why would you even enter a bookstore? You are a lout without culture.”
“On the contrary,” I said. “In fact, just today I went into the Art Institute and looked at a painting.”
“Yes. I understand that’s where they keep the paintings,” Christmas Royal said. “Are you planning a career as an art thief?”
“It was pretty good, the painting.”
“I’m glad for you. Be sure to send the artist a fan letter.” Christmas Royal settled back in his chair and began reading a copy of the Hobo News.
“Well, I guess I’ll be going,” I said.
“Tell you what,” Christmas Royal said. “To commemorate your coming into my new store for the first time, I am going to give you a free book, with the cover torn off. Here.”
Christmas Royal handed me a crummy-looking paperback with the cover torn off. The title page read, Modern Art, An Invention of the Devil? by Rev. Nathan DuNord.
“Thanks, Mr. Royal,” I said. “Bushman lives.”
“Get lost, Harold,” Christmas Royal said.
I patted White Fang on the head, then went outside to resume my walk. After a while, I came upon the E. J. Sperry Thought Factory. This was a two-story house on a quiet corner. It had a sort of courtyard in front, and an iron fence.
Attached to the fence was the sign that saide. E. J. SPERRY THOUGHT FACTORY and a couple of cork bulletin boards. Pinned to the bulletin boards were little scraps of paper of various colors and sizes, with things written on them in a variety of handwriting and with different colors of ink. The things written ranged from tight little paragraphs to single words, phrases, mathematical equations—I presumed these were the thoughts. I didn’t know if I was supposed to leave one, take one, or just read them. There were no instructions telling how the E. J. Sperry Thought Factory worked, or what it was supposed to be.
I read some of the messages on the slips of paper. E=mc 2. Kilroy was here. I think, therefore I am. Nov Shmoz Ka-pop. Shlermie, where are you? I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. I am hungry. Free Jomo Kenyatta. Ban the Bomb. For a good time call KLondike-5-6700. Apparently, Geets Hildebrand had been here, or someone who thought along the same lines—one of the notes read, Bushman lives. I took out my pen, and wrote I agree on the same paper.
I was about to move on when I noticed another message. It had my name in it! It said, Harold Knishke lives. What the?? It wasn’t in the same handwriting as the Bushman lives message. I checked in case it was Geets fooling around, which would have been impressive, since how was he to know I would be reading that bulletin board? But it was a different hand, different ink, different paper. Of course, the note could have referred to another Harold Knishke, but there wasn’t another one as far as I knew. My family were the only Knishkes in the Chicago phone book.
I sort of liked that someone had written my name, was thinking about me. This was the most famous I had ever been. All through school, and high school, most people, except for my few friends, didn’t know my name, and here someone had posted it in a thought at the E. J. Sperry Thought Factory, whatever that was. I considered taking the little piece of paper with me, but then I would stop being famous. I wrote I certainly do underneath and pinned it back on the bulletin board.
Finding my name pinned to the bulletin board had surprised me, and confused me. It caused a kind of dizzy, unreal feeling, a little bit like the way the painting had made me feel. My emotions had been getting a workout all morning. I walked along, taking in all the colors and textures and feeling the air against my skin, when I saw something rich and strange. It was Bughouse Square in full cry right in the middle of the day!
Bughouse Square is what everyone calls Washington Square Park, the oldest park in Chicago. I doubt that many people even know its real name. It is not big—maybe a block square, across the street from the Newberry Library, of which I have seen the inside—before being kicked out, because high school and college undergraduate students are not allowed. It is a reference library—you can’t check books out, but have to sit and read them within the building—and I am told you can ask for just about anything, original Shakespeare folios, ancient manuscripts, ultra-rare books worth thousands of dollars, and they will just bring them to you at your little table. And you can leave books and notes on the table and they will be there waiting for you the next day. And it is completely quiet in the Newberry Library. They say you could die and nobody would notice. Scholars and professors and writers use the library, also bums who like to read. I would like to go in and read books, and I have wondered if I would be allowed in if I quit high school.
It’s just the opposite in Bughouse Square. This is the place where anybody at all can stand up and make a speech, or have a debate, or argue with a whole crowd of people. Also, people get up and sing, or pl
Most of the action is at night, and on a summer evening, the place is full of people, with maybe five or six speakers carrying on in different parts of the park, and other speakers waiting for them to finish so they can take a turn. Bughouse Square audiences are not polite. They interrupt, argue, holler, and make personal comments—speaking there is a blood sport. It takes nerve. Many a student from the Moody Bible Institute not far away has reconsidered becoming a preacher after being heckled by that crowd.
Here it was, the middle of a spring morning, and the park was doing a fair amount of business. There was a guy hollering about Jesus to two or three old ladies, and a little way off someone was pushing vegetarianism to a half-dozen people who were hooting and cracking jokes. The biggest crowd was listening to a stocky guy in an army cap who was getting red in the face and punching the air with his fist. I wandered closer so I could hear what he was saying.
“Suckers! Dummies! Stooges! Cannon fodder! Patsys! That’s you!” the guy shouted. “You’re the fat, happy, stupid, hard-working, nonthinking, hot-dog-eating, sleepwalking Boobus americanus, sheep for the slaughter! You’re consumers, shoppers, renters, soldiers, workers, voters, and you haven’t got a clue.”
This guy was good. He was abusing the heck out of the crowd, and they were clustering closer to get more of it. Nobody was heckling him—he was heckling them. I moved in closer myself.
“Do you realize that you are owned body and soul by oligarchs? Rich guys on the Gold Coast, or up in the suburbs, are driving Cadillacs, hitting golf balls, eating prime rib, and collecting art on your sweat, and every once in a while they maximize profits by dressing you up in uniforms and sending you somewhere to get your asses shot off—and away you march because some worthless hypocrite in a pulpit told you that God wants you to do it, or some crook in an expensive suit told you that you are protecting the American Way. You want to know how come they can do it? You want to know how they work the swindle?”
Bushman Lives! by Daniel Pinkwater / Young Adult / Humor / Fantasy / History & Fiction / Science Fiction have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes