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Bushman lives, p.7
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       Bushman Lives!, p.7

           Daniel Pinkwater
 
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If a small, big-handed, big-footed girl could go inside, I could. But, I was a little scared as I followed Molly and the Wolluf down a narrow passage beside the house. There was a little concrete backyard, and a little back door, completely covered with whitewash, of course. Molly turned the whitewashed doorknob, and we went inside.

  Inside. Inside the place was huge! I mean, it was huge! It was gigantic! It was impossibly larger than the house appeared on the outside. It was like an airplane hangar, maybe as big as a football field. But that was not the most incredible thing—incredible was the walls and ceiling. It was all one big space . . . and they were . . . they didn’t seem to be made of wood or anything solid. It was like being on the inside of a balloon, and like a balloon, it was all translucent, and mostly transparent. You could see everything outside the house in a slightly fuzzy way. I felt dizzy.

  “Fairly neat, is it not?” Molly asked.

  I think I said something like “Duh.” Here and there the floor of the huge open space was divided into little areas. Some were irregular cubicles, open at the top, and made of plywood and two-by-fours. Others were open spaces with furniture arranged as though it were a room, and others just had objects, like cigar boxes or assorted items of trash marking where walls might be—and some just had chalk outlines drawn on the floor. In some of the spaces were people, doing things—I was too stunned and mixed up to focus on anything, or what the people were doing.

  Molly snapped me out of it. “Now do you get why they have to keep whitewashing the outside?” she asked me.

  “Because there isn’t any house,” I said. “There is just the whitewash, which obviously isn’t whitewash as it is generally known, but some substance nobody ever heard of.” I could see the form of one of the bundled-up characters through the roof, against the sky, brushing the stuff on. “And they have to keep applying it or the place would evaporate or collapse or something.”

  “I knew you were smart!” Molly said. “Now, let’s go meet Victor.”

  Chapter 32

  Victor

  Victor was probably around forty, but he looked younger. He was bald on top, and had a wispy beard. His cubicle was a regular office cubicle, walls made of plywood or something, painted a sort of office gray-green, and the top parts of the walls made of sheets of opaque glass. He was sitting in a swivel chair, with his feet on a beat-up steel desk.

  “Oh, it isn’t mine, and I didn’t invent it. I don’t really understand how it works—they just let me use it.”

  “Who?”

  “The ones whose invention it is. It’s an experiment. The stuff we keep slopping on the house only lasts about forty-eight hours, max. If that can be licked, it could be the basis for a whole new kind of architecture. The outside is solid. You can kick it, or drive a nail into it—just as though it were a regular, real house. As you can well imagine, there isn’t anything like this anywhere else.”

  “Yes, I can well imagine. I can hardly imagine what I am seeing right now,” I said. “I mean, the outside is sort of miraculous, but the inside is just crummy cubicles knocked together out of scrapwood and stuff.”

  “Well, that part is my idea,” Victor said. “Since there’s this space, and I’m the manager, or the caretaker, or whatever you care to call me—actually I’m just sort of here in case anybody comes along, the city or someone, and wants to know whose property this is, or who lives at this address—I thought it would be a good idea to use the space for something, so I thought this up.”

  “And this is?” I asked.

  “It’s a workshop. Better to say a bunch of little workshops, or offices, or studios. Mostly it’s artists who need workspace, but there are people working on all kinds of projects. There’s a mathematician who’s calculating the precise thickness of strings to make the best-sounding guitar, and a comedian-zoologist who is rehearsing a routine performed completely in the vocalizations of howler monkeys. I’m told the act is a scream. There’s a guy who’s considering becoming a philosopher—he sits in his space and thinks. But mostly it’s artists.”

  “Harold is an artist,” Molly said. “He draws.”

  “Well, okay, Harold,” Victor said. “Let’s say you want a place to work on your drawings, keep your materials and finished pictures—you can come here, and if you agree to the rules and I think you’d fit in all right, you can make a space to work in . . . you can drag in hunks of wood you find in alleys or wherever and build a cubicle, or just mark out your space on the floor with chalk, whatever you like. Then you can do your drawings, and you can leave things here. Nobody will bother your stuff.”

  “Do you charge rent?”

  “Nope. It is free.”

  “What are the rules?”

  “Basically, everyone has to agree not to talk about this place, and the unusual nature of the outer shell, and not bring people in here who might talk about it. You understand, because it is a secret experiment, the architectural part.”

  “Molly brought me in here,” I said.

  “But Harold is an artist and would like to make a place to work in,” Molly said. “And you promise not to tell people about us, don’t you, Harold?”

  “Sure,” I said.

  “Well, there you are,” Victor said. “Molly did right.”

  “So, what are you saying? I can come in here and claim a space to work in?”

  “Do you want to?”

  “Yes, I sort of do,” I said.

  “Fine. Move in anytime. We’re open around the clock. Oh, and it goes without saying that you may not show anyone pictures of the interior of this place, or what goes on here.”

  “Got it,” I said.

  Chapter 33

  Black Panthers

  “Do you do some kind of work here yourself?” I asked Victor.

  “Mostly I work on scrapbooks,” Victor said. “Here. You can look at this one.”

  He handed me a big floppy scrapbook. On the cover he had printed Black Panther Sightings. I flipped through the pages. It was a collection of clippings, mostly from newspapers. Each told about the sighting of a very large black cat in some unlikely place, such as a Little League field at night, or a backyard in the suburbs, or a shopping center. Victor had drawn a circle in green crayon around articles in which the person reporting the sighting was someone in a position of trust—a chief of police, a doctor, a teacher, a priest. There were hundreds of clippings, and they appeared to go back for years.

  “This is interesting,” I said.

  “You see the point, don’t you?” Victor asked me.

  “Sort of,” I said. “It’s that there are black panthers of some kind all over the United States?”

  “It proves a theory,” Victor said. “I assume these cats are pumas, also called mountain lions. They’re native to the continent, and a long time ago they were everywhere. As the population grew, they were hunted to extinction . . . most people believe. But what may have happened is that the shier, more reclusive, and cleverer mountain lions escaped being hunted. They became more and more nocturnal, because it was easier to avoid humans that way, and the darker cats had an advantage because they were less visible in the dark. So, generation after generation, dark and elusive cats mated with other dark and elusive cats and produced dark and elusive offspring, and ultimately evolved into a race of black pumas that are seldom seen. Now and then someone gets a glimpse of one, as the clippings show.”

  “Evolution,” I said. “I heard that some people don’t believe in evolution. They say it’s just a theory, and it’s more likely that God just created everything like it says in the Bible.”

  “I have an answer for that,” Victor said. “If we were created by God, just as we are, we’d have been designed better. Why would God create a human with lower back pain, like I get from time to time? But if I evolved from an animal that went on all fours, it would make sense that my body might not be that well suited to standing upright.”

  “Sounds reasonable,” I said.

  “Oh, evolution is going on
all the time,” Victor said.

  Chapter 34

  Wise Woman

  “I assume you have a space here,” I said to Molly. “What is it you do?”

  “Come along, and I’ll show you,” Molly said.

  Molly took me all the way to the limit of the enormous space, where the end zone would be. On the way, I noticed that some people had created workspaces in clusters, and others were off by themselves. Hers was way off by itself. She had made a sort of screen or topless tent out of old sheets and bedspreads propped up with mop handles and poles of wood.

  “Here’s my little area,” she said. There were a lot of orange crates, stood on end to make cabinets, full of jars and bottles, and little paper bags, a reading lamp and an electric hot plate with an iron pot on it. Something was simmering in the pot—it smelled like applesauce. I noticed that the hot plate was not plugged in. The plug was lying on the floor, but the thing was obviously hot. The same was true of the lamp plug lying on the floor. I switched it on. It lit up.

  “That’s sort of unusual,” I said.

  “One of the properties of this place,” Molly said. “And don’t ask me how it works.”

  I noticed a rolled-up sleeping bag. The Wolluf was using it as a pillow and drooling on it. “Do you sleep here too?” I asked her.

  “Sometimes. Us Dwergs don’t sleep a lot. It’s a trait.”

  “Insomniac.”

  “Dwerg.”

  “So what exactly do you do here?”

  “I told you. Studying to be a wise woman. It’s herbs and potions, poultices, remedies, cures for schizophrenia—things like that.”

  “What’s that cooking in the pot? It smells like applesauce.”

  “It’s applesauce.”

  “For curing?”

  “For eating. I practically live on the stuff.”

  “You can cure schizophrenia?”

  “Sure. You have a problem?”

  “No, just curious.”

  “Well, that one is fairly advanced. I can’t actually do it yet, but potentially.”

  “But you consider it to be possible.”

  “It worked for me.”

  “Cool.”

  “The Wolluf wants to wander around the town,” Molly said. “Any questions before we go?”

  “Um. Does this place have plumbing?”

  “Theres a water spigot and an outhouse in the backyard.”

  “Seems kind of primitive, considering the magic electricals.”

  “Hey, it’s rent-free. And it beats where I come from. Anyway, you live in a nice apartment. I may come by to use your shower sometime.”

  “My parents will be delighted to meet you. How do you know I live in a nice apartment?”

  “It’s in the song: ‘Old Harold Knishke, he lived in a nice apartment.’“

  “Oh, right. The song.”

  “Well, we’re on our way. I’ll see you around, no doubt.”

  “No doubt. Thanks for bringing me here.”

  Chapter 35

  Lizardlips

  On my way out I observed a couple of things. One was that evidently Billy Zwieback was a fellow tenant. His space was marked off by a rope that was attached to a bunch of toilet plungers stood on end, so I was able to see the stuff he had assembled. He had a drawing table, and a stool and a lamp. I knew it was his space because I recognized his drawing style—the cartoons. Pinned to the drawing table was what he was working on—it was a comic strip. The title was “Ol’ Harold Knishke.” The drawings showed a character who looked nothing like me but smoked a pipe and had a sketchbook under his arm and a pencil behind his ear. As far as I could tell, there was no story and he wasn’t doing anything.

  The other thing I observed was the two ragamuffins who did all the whitewashing. They were taking a break: eating bologna sandwiches on white bread and smoking mentholated cigarettes. In order to eat and smoke, they had pulled their face scarves down just enough to get at their mouths. Under their floppy white work gloves, I could see they had very skinny fingers, and their lips were thin, like lizard lips.

  Chapter 36

  Turning Nocturnal

  Summer in Chicago gets to be so hot, you go crazy. Sometimes you feel like the temperature is trying to mug you, to beat you up and leave you for dead on the pavement. Around the Fourth of July is the last time anyone can breathe normally. People with air conditioners stay inside a lot, and people without air conditioners, which is most people, are driven out into the street. This is when everybody becomes an insomniac. They stay away from their houses and apartments until the rooms have cooled off a little. Some people just drag blankets into the park and sleep there, or on the rocks along the lakefront. Others set up card tables and chairs and play pinochle or dominoes, or read under streetlights until the small hours of the morning, or sit on steps in front of buildings, or go to all-night movies, which are air conditioned.

  People talk freely to strangers. Since everybody is exhausted, and half undressed, people feel informal and strike up conversations. Most citizens of Chicago know a fair number of people they’ve never seen in a good light. Mostly I sort of like the hot summer nights, and feel sorry for people who have air conditioners and miss all the social fun—other times I wish we had one.

  We could have one. We live in a nice apartment, and my father certainly makes enough at the Salami Council to be able to afford one—but it is out of the question. My mother has an unreasonable fear of them. She believes the air that air conditioners puff out is tainted in some way, and apt to bring on disease. Not only is there no talking her out of this, but she is one of those people who is always cold. She will wear a sweater on days when other people are clinging to the ground like reptiles.

  My father belongs to a bridge club, which is an apartment he and a bunch of other bridge nuts rent. He spends most nights there, more so in summer. The place is air conditioned to a ridiculous degree—like a skating rink. There is a strict rule not to bother my father there except in case of genuine emergency, which has never come up, or if he calls home to have something brought to him, like his reading glasses, or a hundred dollars in cash. This has happened a couple of times, so I have seen and experienced the place, which is furnished like a regular apartment but with lots of tables and chairs, and people playing bridge with jackets and sweaters on—never mind it is ninety-nine degrees Farenheit and humid outside. In the bridge club it is no more than fifty.

  This summer, I had my own cool place to go—cool in more ways than one. The communal studio in the incomprehensible white house was always a pleasant medium temperature, and the air was fresh, which was also incomprehensible—along with the fact that electric appliances worked without being plugged in—since there were no windows or any recognizable method of ventilation. I had set up my own little studio with an old floor lamp I found piled by the curb along with an orange crate, a folding chair, and a rickety folding table. All this stuff I dragged to the house. I had chosen an area off by itself, not very far from Molly’s space, and claimed it by drawing an outline on the floor with a piece of chalk.

  Not many people used the house late at night. In fact, it was mostly deserted. The lizard-lipped whitewashers might be napping in a large crate of wood shavings—apparently the miraculous coating on the outside only degenerated in sunlight, so they got some time off. Once in a while, Victor would be in his cubicle, working on scrapbooks. And there was this guy, there every night, listening to records he played on an old-fashioned floor-model Victrola fitted with a pair of clunky-looking war-surplus headphones.

  Although my space was supposed to be a studio, I wasn’t able to do any drawing. There was nothing to draw. There was nothing in the place but space, and it was so vast that the items of junk people had dragged in were dwarfed by the bigness and amounted to nothing. Plus, it was dark, except for the few puddles of light from the un-plugged-in but lit lamps. Imagine a deserted football stadium on a dark night, with just the few little glowing spots. I tried drawing the place wi
th ink and a brush and wound up with pieces of paper sort of completely covered with black. So I would make tea on Molly’s hot plate, with permission—she was never there—and read Tarzan novels by the light of my floor lamp until I was cool enough and bored enough to go home, or just stretched out and slept on the floor.

  Chapter 37

  Wake Up! This Is Important!

  Someone was shaking me. And someone else was licking my face. It was Molly, and the Wolluf was licking me. His breath was fairly horrible. I had gone to sleep on the floor, using a copy of Tarzan and the Forbidden City as a pillow.

  “What? What’s important?”

  “Go out back and wash your face,” Molly said. “Then come with me. There’s someone you have to meet.”

  “What time is it?”

  “I dunno, two in the morning? Come on, wake up.”

  “What do you do, wander around all night? Don’t you ever sleep?”

  “Not much. Come on, get yourself organized. We have to go.”

  The thing about Molly is it would never occur to anyone not to do whatever she tells one—or offer to prevent her from doing anything she wants to do. She stood by as I splashed water on my face.

  “Okay. Let’s go. You have your sketchbook? Good.”

  “What’s this about?” I asked her.

  “I found you a mentor.”

  “A mentor?”

  “Yes. Someone to guide you and tell you what to do.”

  “I need that? How do you know?”

  “I know. I told you, I’m studying to be a wise woman. You need this guy. Now hurry up—we want to get there before he leaves.”

  Molly was skittering along the sidewalk. The Wolluf was loping. I had to half run to keep up with them. “Where are you taking me?”

 
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