WILLIAM SAROYAN, in those days when he wrote about how exhilarating it was to be a successful author, and how sad it had been to be a poor boy; and how sad it was to be a successful author, and how exhilarating it had been to be a poor boy, told a story of his youthful love affair with a Society Girl and called it “One of The Least Sensational Romances of All History.”
Now, this story reminds me of a romance I had with a Society Girl when I was a boy. Not that our romances were really much alike. For instance, Saroyan was a poor boy, and by his talent became rich and successful. I was a one-legged boy; I had talent, too; and I became rich and successful — but I still have one leg. (This remark may seem clumsy, pompous, and a bit unnecessary; but it is a literary trick of great shrewdness, as you will see as this carefully planned tale unfolds.)
Another thing that was entirely different in our experiences was that when Saroyan was a boy he was very poor, so he hated kids who were rich (kids who ate regularly; kids who didn’t have to sell papers to eat at all) and refused even to be civil to them. Not me.
I was just as poor as he was, so I hung around kids who were rich. I felt that association with kids who were rich made an impression on girls. I figured girls would think I was rich, too, and meant to take them out if I asked for a date. And so they’d give me dates, and I would come over to their houses, and sit around and neck for a couple of evenings, until they got wise to the fact that I didn’t have any money to take them out, and never would have, since I preferred hanging around rich kids, and dating girls under false pretenses, to earning a hard dollar selling newspapers, as young Saroyan did.
Another reason Saroyan’s boyhood was nothing at all like mine was this: to express his contempt for rich kids, he bought himself a pair of hideous red shoes, the kind no kid, especially rich kids, whose parents had taste, or simply control over them, would ever wear, and he wore ‘em to show how different he was from them. I tried to dress exactly like the rich kids. Fortunately for me, the rich kids of that place and time (Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the late nineteen-twenties) tried to dress exactly like Yale students, who, at that college in that time, were trying to dress exactly like Bowery bums.
That was the era when nothing was more chic than being stained, baggy, and unsanitary. That era and I were made for each other.
You could tell a “working boy” by the fact that his clothes were neat, his pants pressed, and there were no sweat stains on his hatband. All this marked him as of the lower classes. The “collegiate” or upper-class boy was a carefully planned mess. I didn’t have to plan. It all came naturally to me.
Saroyan’s romance ended when he discovered his girl was a phony. I guess that’s what there was about it that reminded me of mine. My romance ended when my girl discovered that I was a phony.
If you remember back to my second paragraph, you will note that I made a joke about having one log. You will also note that it wasn’t a very good joke. That’s because, no matter how hard I try in a perhaps contemptible effort to be cheery, buluff, and hearty about it (in keeping with my position as a humorist), I really don’t think it̕s a joke. It̕s quite an inconvenience. That̕s all it is to me now, that is, because I have had one leg since I was nine, and that was many years ago. But when I was sixteen, having a limp, and a squeak in my knee joint, was more than just an inconvenience; it was the burning shame of my life.
I couldn’t conceal this shame from the girls at Central High School, but I had a way of fooling another world of girls. That was the world of girls from other high schools and girls from other towns who shopped at D. M. Read̕s. After school, I̕d prop myself up against D. M. Read̕s, alongside the entrance, and try to pick up girls who couldn’t tell I had one leg. When I say I tried to pick them up, I’m stretching it a bit. It went this way: first I’d catch their eyes and then I’d simultaneously flare my nostrils (to indicate that despite my sloppy, refined appearance there was plenty of animal in me — Valentino’s pictures were popular at that time) and smile a crooked one-sided smile at ‘em exactly like William Haines, who was then my ideal of what a roistering rake should be. Mostly the girls passed me by in embarrassment, or shock, but every now and then, one would smile at me, slow up, and look back invitingly.
Now here is where saying that I picked them up was kind of stretching it. You see. if I moved from where I stood, and walked after a girl, she’d see or hear (that squeak was terrible) that I had a wooden leg. Her look of sympathy would take all the pride from my conquest. And so I never moved. Just my head. If a girl looked back I’d look the other way. On a good afternoon I’d have as many as ten look-backs and look-aways.
MY Great Romance happened this way. The only thing that made it great was that it was the only one I ever followed through. It was the only time I didn’t look away.
A big black Packard limousine drew up in front of D. M. Read’s. In it were a chauffeur, an old lady (thirty-five), and a Society Girl (fifteen, but with a bosom). The doorman recognized the car, groveled, and said it was quite all right for them to park there, and so it was obvious to me that those inside the car were of a station far above the law. While the doorman was talking to the chauffeur I flared my nostrils and smiled my repellent crooked smile at the girl. She looked startled and then said, “I don’t think I’ll go in, Mother, I think I’ll wait for you here” — and as her mother stepped out, the girl flared her nostrils back at me, and smiled the most beautiful crooked smile that had ever been smiled on earth. In fact I was sure that this was the most beautiful girl on earth. She had everything. She had blonde hair, noticeably clean, she had gobs of lipstick, she had a car, so expensive and so respectable that it was entitled to break the law.
The mother disappeared into the store, and the Society Girl asked the chauffeur to run over to Stein’s, three blocks away, to get her a special kind of lipstick, and when he’d disappeared, she smiled at me again, an “At-Last-We-Are-Alone” smile, and beckoned for me to come over.
Never again, in my life, have I felt greater triumph, or greater horror.
My flaring nostrils, my sweat-stained hatband, my impressed pants, my dirty black-and-white saddle-strap Vale-type sport shoes, my nasty leer — all these fascinating things had broken down this beautiful Society Girl’s icy reserve, had made of her a pitiful supplicant for my favor; and I couldn’t do anything about it. It was ten feet from where I leaned against the wall — to her car. Ten feet — five steps. Five steps — five limps — five squeaks. She would know. I would start from D. M. Read’s an adored conqueror. I would arrive a boy with a rather cheap and unoiled wooden leg.
And, as she continued to smile, I knew two things: I knew that I couldn’t endure losing her and I knew that I couldn’t endure exposing my shame by walking over and getting her (getting her name and phone number).
And then, luckily, a Polish lady was killed. Bridgeport had a lot of Poles. Theirs was a culture of humble Christianity and so they were regarded as semi-savage. Polish girls were beautiful, gentle, and could cook, and so it was a disgrace to go out with one. Polish men were strong and skillful and patient, they were the strength and the treasure of Bridgeport industry, and so they were regarded as troublesome and worthless.
The Polish lady had just come out of D. M. Read’s Bargain Basement with an armful of packages and stepped out on the street from in front of the illegally parked Packard. At that instant, a hopped-up jalopy with high school kids sprawled inside, and wisecracks scrawled outside, had to swing wildly to avoid hitting the rear end of the Packard, and hit her. People screamed, and everybody rushed over, or turned to look. The Society Girl turned to look. This was my chance. In a couple of hops, I was standing by her car. She hadn’t seen me move. I was safe. And we had something to talk about. The accident.
We talked about that for a while, giving it a decent amount of time, but both of us conscious that the real disaster was yet to happen — namely, the return of the chauffeur.
And so we were brief and honest with each other. She told me that her name was “Bootsie,” that she went to the Loe-Hayward School for Girls in Stamford, and that she lived in Fairfield. I told her that I was Alfred Van Schuyler, a sophomore at Yale, a pretty good track man and fullback, and that the reason I happened to be in Bridgeport was that my Wills St. Claire had broken a gasket and was being repaired in a local garage.
Naturally, she was thrilled at meeting a genuine Yale Man and said she hoped I’d call her up if I was ever in Fairfield. I told her that I was pretty busy and doubted if I’d be in Fairfield before eight o’clock that night. She said that would be specially divine because her family was going out at eight thirty, and she gave this line the throbbing reading it deserved.
I replied, “Pssst—here comes the chauffeur,” and while she looked ahead I stepped quickly back and lost myself in the crowd.
Now if I had dropped the whole thing there, it would have remained one of the most triumphant memories of my boyhood. William Haines had never done better than this. Certainly, I had already had out of this romance everything a lad could desire. I had fascinated a proud, beautiful, blonde Society Girl. I had palmed myself off as a Yale Man, and had gotten the worship such Beings deserve. I had been regarded for a few moments as the possessor of a Wills St. Claire. But, most of all, I had been spoken to, in that clear and wonderful and untroubled way that girls speak to boys with two legs. I had had everything. But I spoiled it all.
At seven forty-five I hopped off a truck in Fairfield Square and at eight o’clock I rang the front door bell of Bootsie’s one-family (or Society Folks type) house. There was a large porch, with a hammock. That solved my One Great Problem — which was how to further prevent her from discovering my shame; for, if I could beguile her into remaining on the porch, in the darkness, she might not notice my limp, and during the few steps we might have to lake to get to the hammock I could talk and laugh loudly enough to drown out the squeak. Not only that, but it was September, and it became mighty cool late in the evening, especially on front porches— so cool that a really suave boy could use protection from it as an excuse for sliding his arm around a girl’s waist.
Then the door opened and I abandoned my plans for sliding my arm around Bootsie’s waist because Bootsie didn’t have a waist. The eager and lovely face was there all right, as I had seen it in the car that afternoon, but now I knew why Bootsic didn’t want to step out of the car, just as I hadn’t wanted to step toward it while Bootsie could see me. For now I could see all of Bootsie, and all of Bootsie was a terrible thing to behold. All of Bootsie was around two or, heaven only knows, maybe three hundred pounds of desperately laced-in, wildly bursting-out fat; she was in that terrible and pitiful in-between state when Nature goes on one last grotesque organic binge with a body, before it settles down and fashions a girl. Some day all that funny blubber would be lovely form; the tragedy was that Bootsie, the monster, hoped now for the adoration that would be hers a year or two from now, when she would become Bootsie, a girl.
Well, a Van Schuyler is a gentleman to the core, if he’s anything, and I said, “Good evening, Bootsie,” as if she were human, and she said, “Goodness, I didn’t dream it was you — I was listening for a car to come up the driveway.”
That one was easy. I was ready for it. That old Wills St. Claire, I explained, had blown another gasket, or maybe it was the same one. You can’t trust, those small-town Bridgeport garages. Only one that can really do a job on a really fine car is the Yale Garage, right near Yale College, where all us athletic Yale students take our cars, It was now in a garage in Fairfield Square, I explained. I’d walked up from there. A long walk yes, but nothing for a track man, I said, standing very still, although Bootsie held the door open invitingly.
In fact, I jabbered on, that walk in the fresh air had been so fine and bracing that it would be silly to deprive ourselves of some more of it and go into any decently warmed old sitting room, and so why not sit out here on this healthy, bracing porch. She was kind of rattled by all this fast, enthusiastic talk, and by being face to face with a Yale Man, so, before she could realize that it was already pretty cold out there and that it would be unbearably cold in a few minutes, she was sitting alongside of me on the hammock, saying enthusiastic things about fresh air, and deprecating things about warmth. She had preceded me, she had not seen or heard me walk, and I was safe and triumphant. And she was looking at me in a way that I recognized. Because that was the way I looked at people who had discovered my shame. I had discovered hers. And in her look was pleading that I not reveal to her that it had’ been revealed to me.
To the Simple — that is, to adults — there are two kinds of kids: Normal Kids or “Normies”— that is, kids with the normal number of legs, arms, eyes, or pounds — and “Poor Kids” — kids with something terribly wrong with them, some instantly recognizable and terrible handicap that makes it impossible for Normies to associate with them as fellow beings, like being stone-blind or completely paralyzed or racially ridiculous.
But to Kids there is a third kind of kid: those “Other” kids who have handicaps that aren’t quite shocking or pitiful enough to prevent them utterly from being considered as fellow beings by the Normies, but whose handicaps make this consideration a tiresome and unwelcome effort; handicaps that don’t quite take them out of the cheery and untroubled Normie world, but keep them hovering uncertainly around the fringes of it things like having only one leg, or being grotesquely fat, or being racially peculiar.
The Normies are the lucky and blessed, because while there doesn’t have to be anything particularly right about them, there isn’t anything particularly wrong. The Poor Kids aren’t really so badly off either, because their handicaps are so spectacular that, long since, they have given up any hope of ever being admitted to the world of Normies, and their own special world is made pretty comfortable for them by the special treatment given ’em by everyone. It’s the Others that have the bad time; for the things that are wrong with them are not wrong enough to destroy all hope of ever being admitted into the world of the Normies — just wrong enough to make Normies uncomfortable when they are around. Not that the Normies aren’t darned nice to the Others. They are extra polite to ‘em; they are extra careful to avoid any subject remotely related to the Piling that makes the Other not quite a Normie; and they are always in an extra hurry to get away from them to the untroubled company of other Normies.
And so while Bootsie and I were both Other kinds of kids, only I knew that we both were. She was looking at me as though I were a Normie. And so I behaved as no Normie ever behaves, except with another Normie. I treated her like a girl. Never by the flicker of an eyelash did I betray the fact that I considered three hundred pounds a ludicrous weight; by no word, nor by any shading of a word, did I betray the fact that I knew darned well no male Normie would be alone with her for more than the few minutes it took to look at all of her, unless he was tied down; not by a single snigger or sneer did I let on that I knew that all her immoderately gay gabble about dates, and dances, and “boys who called all the time” was a pack of daydreams.
I even let her think I wanted to kiss her, making very sure that my approach was such that it would necessarily get a first but highly unfirm “No" — which I promptly accepted as final. When the time came to leave I maneuvered her to the door ahead of me, and when she closed it and when I was alone at last. I was the happiesl of all the Van Sehuylers. For I had had the best of all possible evenings for my kind of kid: I had been treated as a Normie; and I had given as well as received — for the girl, the poor, ridiculous, eager, lying fat girl, had been treated as a Normie. And by one she supposed was one. Nothing more thrilling had ever happened to her.
The squeaks were pretty loud as I walked down the driveway but I didn’t care, until the knee joint gave way entirely and the lower half of the leg came off, slipped out of my trousers, and pitched me headlong onto the sidewalk, leaving half of my leg, complete with sock and shoe and a gleaming broken bolt, sprawling there on the driveway. A car stopped, and the man asked if I’d had an accident, and could he give me a lift. I hopped in and he drove me home.
We lived on the second floor and it was a job getting up those steps with only one and a half legs, and an even harder job explaining to my distrackd mother why I didn’t bring back the rest of my leg. and the other sock and the other shoe. I couldn’t tell her the truth. I couldn’t tell her that the clatter of my fall must have been heard in Bootsie’s house, and that I’d seen the living room lights go on, and I had to get the hell out of there before Bootsie discovered that her wonderful date wasn’t a Normie.
I had to stay indoors for two weeks (wild horses couldn’t get me to wear crutches) while a knee and foot was made for me in Hartford; and I had to get a new pair of shoes and another pair of socks.
During that time I wondered if Bootsie’s family was surprised when they found half a wooden leg on their driveway. And what they did with it. Finally.