Read an Excerpt
Dedication of an Airport
For a full minute Jiggs stood before the window in a light spatter of last night's confetti lying against the windowbase like spent dirty foam, lightpoised on the balls of his greasestained tennis shoes, looking at the boots. Slantshimmered by the intervening plate they sat upon their wooden pedestal in unblemished and inviolate implication of horse and spur, of the posed countrylife photographs in the magazine advertisements, beside the easelwise cardboard placard with which the town had bloomed overnight as it had with the purple-and-gold tissue bunting and the trodden confetti and broken serpentine-the same lettering, the same photographs of the trim vicious fragile aeroplanes and the pilots leaning upon them in gargantuan irrelation as if the aeroplanes were a species of esoteric and fatal animals not trained or tamed but just for the instant inert, above the neat brief legend of name and accomplishment or perhaps just hope.
He entered the store, his rubber soles falling in quick hissing thuds on pavement and iron sill and then upon the tile floor of that museum of glass cases lighted suave and sourceless by an unearthly daycolored substance in which the hats and ties and shirts, the beltbuckles and cufflinks and handkerchiefs, the pipes shaped like golfclubs and the drinking tools shaped like boots and barnyard fowls and the minute impedimenta for wear on ties and vestchains shaped like bits and spurs, resembled biologic specimens put into the inviolate preservative before they had ever been breathed into. "Boots?" the clerk said. "The pair in the window?"
"Yair," Jiggs said. "How much?" But the clerk did not even move. He leaned back on the counter, looking down at the hard tough shortchinned face, blueshaven, with a long threadlike and recently- stanched razorcut on it and in which the hot brown eyes seemed to snap and glare like a boy's approaching for the first time the aerial wheels and stars and serpents of a nighttime carnival; at the filthy raked swaggering peaked cap, the short thick musclebound body like the photographs of the one who two years before was lightmiddleweight champion of the army or Marine Corps or navy; the cheap breeches overcut to begin with and now skintight like both they and their wearer had been recently and hopelessly rained on and enclosing a pair of short stocky thick fast legs like a polo pony's, which descended into the tops of a pair of boots footless now and secured by two rivetted straps beneath the insteps of the tennis shoes.
"They are twenty-two and a half," the clerk said.
"All right. I'll take them. How late do you keep open at night?"
"Hell. I'll be out at the airport then. I wont get back to town until seven. How about getting them then?" Another clerk came up: the manager, the floorwalker.
"You mean you dont want them now?" the first said.
"No," Jiggs said. "How about getting them at seven?"
"What is it?" the second clerk said.
"Says he wants a pair of boots. Says he cant get back from the airport before seven oclock."
The second looked at Jiggs. "You a flyer?"
"Yair," Jiggs said. "Listen. Leave a guy here. I'll be back by seven. I'll need them tonight."
The second also looked down at Jiggs' feet. "Why not take them now?"
Jiggs didn't answer at all. He just said, "So I'll have to wait until tomorrow."
"Unless you can get back before six," the second said.
"O.K.," Jiggs said. "All right, mister. How much do you want down?" Now they both looked at him: at the face, the hot eyes: the appearance entire articulate and complete, badge regalia and passport, of an oblivious and incorrigible insolvency. "To keep them for me. That pair in the window."
The second looked at the first. "Do you know his size?"
"That's all right about that," Jiggs said. "How much?"
The second looked at Jiggs. "You pay ten dollars and we will hold them for you until tomorrow."
"Ten dollars? Jesus, mister. You mean ten percent. I could pay ten percent. down and buy an airplane."
"You want to pay ten percent. down?"
"Yair. Ten percent. Call for them this afternoon if I can get back from the airport in time."
"That will be two and a quarter," the second said. When Jiggs put his hand into his pocket they could follow it, fingernail and knuckle, the entire length of the pocket like watching the ostrich in the movie cartoon swallow the alarm clock. It emerged a fist and opened upon a wadded dollar bill and coins of all sizes. He put the bill into the first clerk's hand and began to count the coins onto the bill.
"There's fifty," he said. "Seventy-five. And fifteen's ninety, and twenty-five is.?.?.?.?.?.?." His voice stopped; he became motionless, with the twenty-five cent piece in his left hand and a half dollar and four nickels on his right palm. The clerks watched him put the quarter back into his right hand and take up the four nickels. "Let's see," he said. "We had ninety, and twenty will be--"
"Two dollars and ten cents," the second said. "Take back two nickels and give him the quarter."
"Two and a dime," Jiggs said. "How about taking that down?"
"You were the one who suggested ten percent."
"I cant help that. How about two and a dime?"
"Take it," the second said. The first took the money and went away. Again the second watched Jiggs' hand move downward along his leg, and then he could even see the two coins at the end of the pocket, through the soiled cloth.
"Where do you get this bus to the airport?" Jiggs said. The other told him. Now the first returned, with the cryptic scribbled duplicate of the sale; and now they both looked into the hot interrogation of the eyes.
"They will be ready for you when you call," the second said.
"Yair; sure," Jiggs said. "But get them out of the window."
"You want to examine them?"
"No. I just want to see them come out of that window." So again outside the window, his rubber soles resting upon that light confettispatter more forlorn than spattered paint since it had neither inherent weight nor cohesiveness to hold it anywhere, which even during the time that Jiggs was in the store had decreased, thinned, vanishing particle by particle into nothing like foam does, he stood until the hand came into the window and drew the boots out. Then he went on, walking fast with his short bouncing curiously stiffkneed gait. When he turned into Grandlieu Street he could see a clock, though he was already hurrying or rather walking at his fast stiff hard gait like a mechanical toy that has but one speed and though the clock's face was still in the shadow of the opposite streetside and what sunlight there was was still high, diffused, suspended in soft refraction by the heavy damp bayou-and-swamp- suspired air. There was confetti here too, and broken serpentine, in neat narrow swept windrows against wallangles and lightly vulcanised along the gutterrims by the flushing fireplugs of the past dawn, while, upcaught and pinned by the cryptic significant shields to doorfront and lamppost, the purple-and-gold bunting looped unbroken as a trolley wire above his head as he walked, turning at last at right angles to cross the street itself and meet that one on the opposite side making its angle too, to join over the center of the street as though to form an aerial and bottomless regalcolored cattlechute suspended at first floor level above the earth, and suspending beneath itself in turn, the outwardfacing cheeseclothlettered interdiction which Jiggs, passing, slowed looking back to read: Grandlieu Street CLOSED To Traffic 8:00 p.m.-Midnight
Now he could see the bus at the curb, where they had told him it would be, with its cloth banner fastened by the four corners across its broad stern to ripple and flap in motion, and the wooden sandwich board at the curb too: Bluehound to Feinman Airport. 75¢ The driver stood beside the open door; he too watched Jiggs' knuckles travel the length of the pocket. "Airport?" Jiggs said.
"Yes," the driver said. "You got a ticket?"
"I got seventy-five cents. Wont that do?"
"A ticket into the airport. Or a workman's pass. The passenger busses dont begin to run until noon." Jiggs looked at the driver with that hot pleasant interrogation, holding his breeches by one hand while he drew the other out of the pocket. "Are you working out there?" the driver said.
"Oh," Jiggs said. "Sure. I'm Roger Shumann's mechanic. You want to see my license?"
"That'll be all right," the driver said. "Get aboard." In the driver's seat there lay folded a paper: one of the colored ones, the pink or the green editions of the diurnal dogwatches, with a thick heavy typesplattered front page filled with ejaculations and pictures. Jiggs paused, stooped, turning.
"Have a look at your paper, cap," he said. But the driver did not answer. Jiggs took up the paper and sat in the next seat and took from his shirt pocket a crumpled cigarette pack and upended and shook into his other palm from it two cigarette stubs and put the longer one back into the crumpled paper and into his shirt again and lit the shorter one, pursing it away from his face and slanting his head aside to keep the matchflame from his nose. Three more men entered the bus, two of them in overalls and the third in a kind of porter's cap made of or covered by purple-and-gold cloth in alternate stripes, and then the driver came and sat sideways in his seat.
"You got a ship in the race today, have you?" he said.
"Yair," Jiggs said. "In the three-seventy-five cubic inch."
"How does it look to you? Do you think you will have a chance?"
"We might if they would let us fly it in the two hundred cubic inch," Jiggs said. He took three quick draws from the cigarette stub like darting a stick at a snake and snapped it through the stillopen door as though it were the snake, or maybe a spider, and opened the paper. "Ship's obsolete. It was fast two years ago, but that's two years ago. We'd be O.K. now if they had just quit building racers when they finished the one we got. There aint another pilot out there except Shumann that could have even qualified it."
"Shumann's good, is he?"
"They're all good," Jiggs said, looking at the paper. It spread its pale green surface: heavy, blacksplotched, staccato: Airport Dedication Special; in the exact middle the photograph of a plump, bland, innocently sensual Levantine face beneath a raked fedora hat; the upper part of a thick body buttoned tight and soft into a peaked lightcolored doublebreasted suit with a carnation in the lapel: the photograph inletted like a medallion into a drawing full of scrolled wings and propeller symbols which enclosed a shieldshaped pen-and-ink reproduction of something apparently cast in metal and obviously in existence somewhere and lettered in gothic relief:
New Valois, Franciana
The Aviators of America
Colonel H. I. Feinman, Chairman,
Through Whose Undeviating Vision and
Unflagging Effort This Airport was Raised Up
and Created out of the Waste Land at the
Bottom of Lake Rambaud at a Cost of
One Million Dollars
"This Feinman," Jiggs said. "He must be a big son of a bitch."
"He's a son of a bitch all right," the driver said. "I guess you'd call him big too."
"He gave you guys a nice airport, anyway," Jiggs said.
"Yair," the driver said. "Somebody did."
"Yair," Jiggs said. "It must have been him. I notice he's got his name on it here and there."
"Here and there; yair," the driver said. "In electric lights on both hangars and on the floor and the ceiling of the lobby and four times on each lamppost and a guy told me the beacon spells it too but I dont know about that because I dont know the Morse code."
"For Christ's sake," Jiggs said. Now a fair crowd of men, in the overalls or the purple-and-gold caps, appeared suddenly and began to enter the bus, so that for the time the scene began to resemble that comic stage one where the entire army enters one taxicab and drives away. But there was room for all of them and then the door swung in and the bus moved away and Jiggs sat back, looking out; the bus swung immediately away from Grandlieu Street and Jiggs watched himself plunging between iron balconies, catching fleeting glimpses of dirty paved courts as the bus seemed to rush with tremendous clatter and speed through cobbled streets which did not look wide enough to admit it, between low brick walls which seemed to sweat a rich slow overfecund smell of fish and coffee and sugar, and another odor profound faint and distinctive as a musty priest's robe: of some spartan effluvium of mediaeval convents.
Then the bus ran out of this and began to run, faster still, through a long avenue between palmbordered bearded liveoak groves and then suddenly Jiggs saw that the liveoaks stood not in earth but in water so motionless and thick as to make no reflection, as if it had been poured about the trunks and allowed to set; the bus ran suddenly past a row of flimsy cabins whose fronts rested upon the shell foundation of the road itself and whose rears rested upon stilts to which rowboats were tied and between which nets hung drying, and he saw that the roofs were thatched with the smokecolored growth which hung from the trees, before they flicked away and the bus ran again overarched by the oak boughs from which the moss hung straight and windless as the beards of old men sitting in the sun. "Jesus," Jiggs said. "If a man dont own a boat here he cant even go to the can, can he?"
"Your first visit down here?" the driver said. "Where you from?"
"Anywhere," Jiggs said. "The place I'm staying away from right now is Kansas."
"Family there, huh?"
"Yair. I got two kids there; I guess I still got the wife too."
"So you pulled out."
"Yair. Jesus, I couldn't even keep back enough to have my shoes halfsoled. Everytime I did a job her or the sheriff would catch the guy and get the money before I could tell him I was through; I would make a parachute jump and one of them would have the jack and be on the way back to town before I even pulled the ripcord."
"For Christ's sake," the driver said.
"Yair," Jiggs said, looking out at the backrushing trees. "This guy Feinman could spend some more of the money giving these trees a haircut, couldn't he?" Now the bus, the road, ran out of the swamp though without mounting, with no hill to elevate it; it ran now upon a flat plain of sawgrass and of cypress and oak stumps-a pocked desolation of some terrific and apparently purposeless reclamation across which the shell road ran ribbonblanched toward something low and dead ahead of it-something low, unnatural: a chimaera quality which for the moment prevented one from comprehending that it had been built by man and for a purpose.
From the Trade Paperback edition.