The Underground City

The Underground City

by H. L. Humes

Paperback(reissue)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812978483
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/26/2007
Edition description: reissue
Pages: 768
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.21(h) x 1.61(d)

About the Author

H. L. “Doc” Humes (1926–1992) was one of the originators of The Paris Review and the author of two novels, The Underground City and Men Die. His third novel, The Memoirs of Dorsey Slade, was never completed. He lived in Paris and Greenwich Village.

Read an Excerpt

I
 
In the deep blue shadow of the Quai an old man stands beneath a naked winter elm making a twig broom. The false light of January dawn barely penetrates the still air, and the broad avenue along the river is still in darkness, empty. The streetsweeper wears no overcoat, only a hard black suit; a muffler is wrapped around his face covering his nose and mouth against the chill, the fringe tucked under his beret to keep it from unwinding. The broom handle lies on the ground at his feet, broomless.
 
Beyond him, in the cold and solitary arc of the streetlight, the paving stones near the bridge glisten feebly, still wet with vanished ice from the freezing drizzle which stopped after midnight. Working silently in the wavering darkness, he wraps the twigs in a bundle at their thick ends. Crisscrossing the bindings, he pulls each turn tight by hand; then, catching the loop of twine under the point of his peg foot and jerking up sharply, he cinches it wire-taut before tying it off. Overhead the ragged sky is almost clear and the last still stars are visible before the dark winter dawn. Hunched over his hands, his back is bent, methodical.
 
When the ragged fasces is wrapped and bound in three places at one end, he takes up the handle and patiently sharpens it to a new point with his knife. The broom is assembled upside down: forcing the pointed stick into the tight-bound end of the twig bundle, he taps the butt end steadily on the sidewalk, bouncing it rhythmically, without effort, driving the broom onto its handle by its own inert mass. When he is sure the stick is well jammed into the bundle of twigs, he turns it right side up and pulls on it to test the friction of the fit; he sweeps a few trial strokes. Satisfied, he gathers up the leftover willow twigs at his feet and returns them to a tiny shack almost hidden under the shadow of the wall of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He puts them inside, closes the door, flaps shut the ill-fitted hasp and snaps the padlock. When he walks, he lurches from side to side and his left trouser flaps uselessly about the wooden peg leg. He is dressed entirely in black; the beret, the muffler, the worn ironcloth suit, the single black shoe. The one bright exception is the odd tricolor ribbon of festive silk which he wears like a mourner’s arm band.
 
Suddenly an automobile appears; it turns the corner and coasts out of the blackness with its lights off, its muffled motor barely purring. The old man is standing in the shadow of his shack. Alerted by the wet-rubber whisper, he watches from the shadows as the car drifts to a stop at the curb a short distance from where he is standing. In the darkness under the trees the six burly figures in dark clothing are almost invisible; they get out, leaving the car doors quietly ajar. The motor of the car is still running. Now their new white tennis shoes are visible, their running footsteps grotesquely soundless on the sidewalk. They move quickly, efficiently, without words. Two of them take up stations ahead and behind the car and look up and down the street. The old man watches intently, unseen in the darkness. He stands stock-still, holding his broom. The two lookouts motion each in turn to the other four, who quickly remove several buckets from the interior of the car. Taking out several long stick-like objects, they silently cross the sidewalk, indistinct shadows, until even the quick automatic white tennis shoes are lost under the huge stone shadow of the ministry wall. The old man strains his eyes, waiting, sees nothing.
 
The sudden sharp crackle of new paper unrolls in the cold silence and a huge square of magic white materializes on the black stone wall. The old man is close enough to hear the soft slapping of the long-handled brushes as they smooth paste over the poster on the wall. In a few seconds the men are finished. They are picking up their paste buckets as one of the lookouts stiffens; he snaps a warning finger and points toward the old man standing off in the shadows. The second lookout peers for a moment, motions a brusque command to the other four. The brushes and buckets are thrown hastily, but without noise, into the back of the car. The leader, a squat man with heavy shoulders, waits until the other five are in the car before he moves. Then he walks slowly toward the streetsweeper. When he is close enough for the old man to reach out and touch him with his broom he stops. He looks at the old man for a long moment, as though examining him. He looks at the broom, at the door of the shack, at the broom again.
 
The old man says: “It is forbidden to post anything on these walls.”
 
The other, expressionless, nerveless, continues to look at him; then, without a word, he turns on the ball of his white rubber shoe and strides soundlessly back to the car. As he walks away, the old man notices the stick in his hand, like a police baton, only shorter, and black.
 
Silently the car floats away from the curb, out and past the old man. At the bridge its lights flow on; the four doors slam. The yellow headlights wash across the bridge and are gone.
 
The old man limps out of the shadows, dragging his broom, and walks along the wall. The huge poster, wet and white in the darkness, looks like a dim window cut in the time-blackened stone. He sniffs the smell of the fresh paste, and stands before the poster gazing at it. Even in the darkness he can read the top part of the poster:
 
LIBEREZ DUJARDIN!
 
—in bold black letters. Below, there is a close-packed text, and he fumbles in his pocket for a match.
 
He scans pieces of the text in the flickering match light from his cupped hands. The poster glistens with wet paste: … victim of warmongering imperialists. A Hero of the Resistance is being martyred by the government of France to cover up the international capitalists’ blundering plot to destroy the People’s Revolution … present French Government is the lackey of Wall Street … warmongering imperialists … He reads slowly, with random effort, and the match burns down to his fingers. Shaking his head, he drops it, lights another: … government of murderers would take the life of an innocent man, a Hero of France, rather than offend their American masters … bought with dollars dripping blood, the profits of capitalist war. The old man reads silently in the light of the dying match, wagging his head slowly. Behind him he hears the fast whisper of a passing bicycle and the whirring of its light generator. He hears the bicycle turn off and cross the bridge.… a plan by the American militarist leaders to bribe the world into slavery. France is being betrayed! You, the workers of France … He lights another match, his last one, and skips quickly over the long, detailed text to the bottom.… the true meaning of capitalist economic aid, so called to mask its true nature: “If there is war with Russia it is far better that we sacrifice our money than our blood. It is better that twelve Europeans die rather than one American”—quoted from a speech on the floor of the American Senate. France is being led into slaughter in an imperialist war against the Soviet Union. The present government stands accused! Workingmen of France, you must …
 
The match is blown out by someone standing beside the old man. Startled, he straightens up and sees a young man standing directly beside him. Behind him are three others holding bicycles. The three lay down their bicycles and begin defacing the poster with carpenter’s scrapers. The old man is gently shouldered aside. They work fast and efficiently. Very shortly most of the poster lies in long peels under their feet. The wet paste makes the task easier. Then one of them takes a handful of small stickers out of his pocket and sets them into the paste still wet on the wall. One of them, standing off watching, turns to the old man. “We save money on paste this way,” he says, and laughs softly.
 
“It is forbidden to post anything on these walls,” the old man says.
 
“Much is forbidden. Little is forgiven,” says the one who is pressing the little squares onto the wall. They are ordinary medicine labels, marked with skull and crossbones and the word Poison.
 
Then they are gone. The old man watches them as they pedal toward the bridge. The weak yellow streaks of light from their generator headlights weave a wavering pattern. He watches until they reach the other end of the bridge and disappear. The old man shrugs, turns, rests his broom against the wall and wearily begins picking off the half-dozen stickers along with what’s left of the ruined poster.
 
With his broom he pushes the shredded paper into a wet mound. Then he makes two trips to the edge of the sidewalk, carrying the soggy debris between his hands, and dumps it into the gutter. Satisfying himself that he hasn’t missed any scraps, he recovers his broom and limps back to his shack.
 
At the corner, in the wavering blue light of the arc, he stoops and lifts a small iron cover set flush in the curbstone, and turns on the water with a small hand wrench. Leaning on his new broom, he watches the water flow down the edge of the street, pushing curb-side refuse before it—the shredded poster, winter leaves, the discarded twigs of his old broom. Slowly he starts to sweep, humming a cracked nasal tune through his muffler, pushing the curb water along with his broom. His breath steams white in the purple morning air as he helps the flow along, limping with each step on his wooden leg. At the next corner he stops and reaches down to turn on another valve. Then he sweeps the water around the corner of the curb, his streetlamp shadow falling long across the avenue; humming his solitary tune, he disappears behind the buildings into the side street away from the river. Overhead the flat black begins to soften before dawn, to deepen.

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Underground City 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Makes vodu dolls <p> Plz post))