“He's tall,” said Meg, seventeen.
“He’s very dark,” said Marie, almost eighteen.
“And he's coming here tonight —this very night — to see us.”
“To see both of you?” cried father. He was always crying out. After twenty years of marriage and seventeen years of daughters it was his natural tone of voice. “To see both of you?” cried father, again.
“To see both of us,” said Meg.
“Both of us,” said Marie, and smiled at her supper steak.
“I’m not hungry,” said Meg.
“Me neither,” said Marie.
“That steak,” cried father, “cost one dollar and fifteen cents a pound. As of this very minute, you are hungry.”
The daughters ate quietly, sort of jiggling in their chairs.
'Stop jiggling,” cried father.
They glanced at the door.
Stop glancing at the door,” said father. “You"ll poke your eyes out with your forks.” “He's tall, 'said Meg.
“He's quite dark,” said Marie.
“He's handsome,” said father to mother, as she entered from the kitchen. “Do more women go insane in the springtime than at any other time?”
“Asylums fill up in June,” said mother.
“These two,” said father, “have been wandering around the room in a catatonic stupor since four this afternoon. It seems they are dividing this young gentleman who is coming here tonight as neatly as a birthday cake. I fell like a visitor at a packing plant, an instant before some dumb brute is cracked on the head and split between a couple of competitors. Does this boy know what he's getting into?”
“Boys warn each other,” said mother. “As I recall.”
“It seemed to do me no good,” said father.
“When you are seventeen you are an idiot, when you are eighteen you are a moron, at twenty you have developed upward to being a blockhead, by twenty-five you are a simp, at thirty you are a muddlebrain, and it is only now at the fine age of forty that I have simmered down to being nothing but a fool. Therefore my heart bleeds for this young ox arriving tonight for the ancient Inca rites.”
“Oh, don't talk so violently,” said mother.
“They can't understand English as l speak it at this moment,” said father. “Everything runs off them like rain on a roof. There are only a few words that affect them now. Watch! “He leaned forward at the blank-eyed girls who were dreaming over their knives and forks.
“Love,” said father.
The girls jumped.
“Romance,” said father.
The girls jumped again.
“June,” said father. “Wedding.”
The girls were thrown into a gentle convulsion.
“Now,” said father, “please pass the gravy.”
“Good evening,” said father out the front door.
“Hi,” said the tall, dark, handsome boy. “l"m Bob Jones.”
“What an uncommon name,” said father under his breath. “Come on in, Mr. Jones. The girls are upstairs borrowing clothes from each other to impress you.”
“Thanks,” said Bob Jones, coming in and towering over father.
“There’s a lot of you,” observed father. “What did you do, start lifting Pullman cars when you were one month old?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t" say that,” said Bob Jones, shaking hands and making father do something of a Highland fling before being released. There was a death rictus on father's face as he turned and led the bull back into the amiably decorated slaughterhouse.
'Sit down, son,” said father. “No, not on that chair. That's a modern chair. It’ll only hold one person at a time. Don’t sit there. Sit anywhere else. Which one of the girls are you going with?”
“They haven’t decided yet,” said Bob Jones, smiling.
“Don’t you have any say in this, boy? Stand up for your rights!”
“I’ve got a preference, but frankly, sir, I’m afraid to state it,” said Jones. “I’m afraid there"d be some sort of killing.”
“Fingernails and nail files,” said father. “A horrible death. Well now, let me give you a little advice. But first of all, what would you like for your last supper? Get you anything? Sandwich, fruit, cigarette, blindfold?”
“I"II just pick on this fruit here.” And Bob Jones grabbed a handful of peaches from the coffee table and put them in his furnace while father was getting two breaths.
“About my advice,” Father closed his mouth. “Meg is prettier, but Marie has more personality. It’s a tone-up. Either one of them would make a good wife, Bob,”
“Hey, don’t rush me!”
“Nobody’s rushing. Think it over. Any time this week. But tell me, how will the girls decide which one gets you?”
“They’re giving me a test.”
“You know, some sort of written and oral examination like at school.”
“Good Lord, I"ve never heard of such a thing!”
“Yeah, it's pretty rugged. I"m nervous as a cat.”
“And do you mean you"ll stand for that sort of thing?”
“Well, sir, we"ve all read a little psychology and we"re going at this thing scientifically. After all, you don't want a basketball lover to go around with a basketball hater, do you?”
“Come to think of it, it does sound unbelievable.”
“That’s right,” said Bob Jones, seriously. 'so they quiz me and quiz each other and l quiz them, too, and between us all we work it out.”
“Well, l never!” said father, stunned.
“Do you — er” — the boy hesitated — “have any idea, sir, of the king of questions they"ll ask me? Have they discussed it at table?”
“Bob, that would be cribbing, wouldn’t it, for me to tell you?”
“Yeah,” He laughed nervously, “I guess it would,” He ate another peach in two bites.
“But, to be frank with you,” said father, “I have seen and heard nothing. The witches have brewed their poison in private. They"ll be down with their Borgia rings any moment. Have another peach, Bob.”
“If you don’t mind,” said Bob Jones.
The house gave a warning shake.
“If this were California,” said father, eying the trembling chandelier, “I would suspect the dropping of an oceanic fault, an earth tremor. But seeing as bow this is Illinois, that can only be Meg and Marie coming downstairs.”
“Bob!” they both cried, in the doorway, and then fell silent, us if they had fired off the last gun in a war and were out of ammunition. They stared at father, at Bob Jones, then at each other.
“I think I'll take a walk around the garden,” said father. The girls looked appalled.
“I mean, the block,” said father.
“Or would you rather I stayed to referee?”
“Do anything you like,” said the girls.
Father hurried past Bob Jones before he was trapped into shaking hands.
Coming back from his walk he found mother in the living room. “How is the big love exam coming?” be inquired.
“They’re sitting out in the garden with the light on and they"ve hardly said anything so far,” said mother. “They are sort of looking at one another.”
“Does anyone mind if I eavesdrop a bit?”
“Oh, now, don't do that. It’s not fair.”
“My dear wife, it isn"t often in life that one can sit in on a sensational natural event like this. I couldn"t make it to Paricutin or Krakatao, I'll probably never see the Grand Canyon, but when you have nuclear fission in your own garden, it's time go out and look at the smoke. I'll be very sly.”
He went into the darkened kitchen and stood listening. “All right,” said Meg, in the garden.
“How old are you?”
'Silly, he's eighteen,” said Marie.
“Which do you like best, basketball, baseball, dancing, swimming, or jaialai!”
“No, no,” protested Marie. “Put sports together in one lump, and entertainments in one lump, but don't mix them! Anyone knows if you mix sports and other things, all a boy can do is say he likes baseball and let it go at that. The way to ask is, do you like dancing or going to the show best? How about that, Bob?”
“Dancing,” said Bob.
Both girls squealed. They made marks on their score cards. A diplomat, thought father. A real diplomat.
“Do you like swimming or tennis?” asked Marie. 'swimming.”
The girls squealed again.
“Genius,” murmured father.
The girls were at Bob Jones like a family of magpies building a nest. Did he like malts or sundaes, Saturday-night dates of Friday-night ones; did he like going steady or intermittent; how tall was he; did he like English or history; athletics or social activities? Bob Jones began to fidget a little and glance about the garden. Pencils scribbled, papers turned, scores were made or unmade.
Father was about to retreat from the tumultuous scene when the front door-bell went 'shave-and-a-Haircut-Two-Bits” and a moment Inter as he answered it, in bounced Peri Larsen, a very blond sweet girl, quick on her feet and flashing of eye. Looking at her was like watching the sea on a sunny day, something going on all the time here, there and everywhere.
“Here I am!” she cried.
“There you are indeed,” said father.
“I’m here to referee,” said Peri.
“No; Meg and Marie called me earlier, said they couldn"t trust each other to add up the scores right, so would I come over. Is Jones here?”
“Jones is the mountain in the garden, with the two woodpeckers flying in circles around it.”
“Poor Jones. Isn"t it crazy fun?” Peri leaped past him and headed for the kitchen. The back door slammed.
Father stood with his hand on his chin, remembering how she had looked, running. He turned to mother. “I have a deep feeling of sadness,” he said, “l sense a tragedy about to occur. Much weeping, wailing and tearing of hair.”
'something out of Medea?” asked mother.
“Or Wuthering Height, heaven knows. Have you ever noticed Peri Larsen? I have. Most unfortunate. Meg has good looks, Marie the personality, but Peri Larsen has both, and a brain, as l recall from her honor society – in one body. “Wait for the storm to break.”
It was not long in breaking. A great shout and a squabbling arose in the garden. Feminine voices lifted in protest. Scores were being added, subtracted, divided, and worked into algebraic formulas. Father stood rigid in the center of the living room, translating the screams to mother.
“Now Peri says the scorecards prove that Marie should get Bob Jones.” Somebody wailed.
“That's Meg waiting, in case you don’t know.”
“Oh, lord!” said mother.
“Hold on; a shift in the line,” said father. He edged toward the kitchen.
“Oops! Peri says she added wrong. Leaning on football, ice hockey and malted milks, it comes out that Meg gets Bob Jones!”
From the garden came the cry of a wounded lioness.
“That was the other daughter,” said father. “Taking ant poison on the spot.”
“Hold on!” said a voice.
“Hold on!” Father put a hand up to the living room, cautioning every chair to be quiet.
“They’re checking it again?” asked mother.
“Right,” said father.
“Peri Larsen says that both of the scorecards come out even. So Bob has to go with both of them!” said father.
There was a great thundering murmur which subsided. The sound of a trapped bear.
“That was Bob Jones,” said father.
“Go take a look at his face,” said mother.
“Dear Peri Larsen, l have a feeling she -----“
The back door burst open and Meg and Marie rushed in, waving papers. “Dad, you add it up, you tell us, you make the total. Will you, please help us, dad!”
“All right, all right.” He glanced toward the back door. Bob Jones and Peri Larsen were out in the garden alone. He cleared his throat and shut his eyes. Then he took the pencil.
“Why don't you, while I"m figuring this out, go back out to the garden and -----“ “We"ll wait, dad.”
“But you should -------“
“We"ll wait: you add it up.”
“All right, all right. Here we go. Two points for football, two for malteds, and, let’s see _____”
He worked on it for a minute, with both girls nervously tugging at his elbows. The garden was ominously silent. He kept glancing up, clearing his throat, and making small errors. At last, the back door opened, and, smiling. Peri Larsen walked through the house. “How’s it coming?” she asked.
'slow,” said father. “Or maybe fast. It's all in how you look at it.”
“I just remembered some homework. Gee! I got to run,” said Peri, and was out the front door in an instant.
“Peri, come back!” cried the girls, but she was gone.
The back door was very quiet. And then, as father worked out the last details, the back door opened again and the walking mountain came through the house, blinking somewhat foolishly.
Looking as if he had been hit on the head, Bob Jones said, “Well, it's been nice. See you around.“ He sort of giggled.
“Bob, you’re not going!”
“Just remembered I got baseball practice tonight at the field. Clean out of my mind. Thanks for the peaches, Mr. Fifield.”
“Don’t thank me. Thank their mother for raising them right,” said father.
Bob Jones, looking as if he had been hit by several anvils, wandered about the room saying good night, collided with himself, it seemed, and stepped out the front door, apologizing. They heard him fall down the front steps and get up, laughing.
“Dad!” cried the two girls. “Well,” said mother.
Father went back to the figures. He was afraid to look up the girls’ pale faces. They were watching him put the very last touches to the totals.
“Dad,” they said, “what’s it add up to?”
“Daughters,” he said, taking a deep breath and sitting back, “I figure it that Meg has a nice round zero, and Marie has a cipher of comparable size and origin. In other words, girls, neither of you gets the boy who walks like a man. You forgot to add two little things.”
He walked to the bedroom silently, came back with their mother's purse. From it he extracted a bottle of perfume and a single brass tube of red lipstick.
“You forgot about these.” He said. “Did you see Bob Jones’ face when he wandered out of here?”
They nodded mutely,
“Remember that look,” said father.
“When you see that look, it means you should have stopped talking half an hour ago. I don’t think you will be seeing Mr. Jones again.”
The two girls wailed quietly.
“In fifteen minutes”, said father, checking his watch, “there will be a small ceremony at the incinerator behind our house. You are asked to attend, bringing your tests, exams, quizzes and tomes on psychology. I will officiate in a burning of the books. We will then all head for the nearest theater to see a double feature and come out refreshed, realizing that tomorrow is another day and Bob Jones is neither as tall nor us dark nor as handsome as we once somehow thought he was.”
“Yes, sir,” said Meg.
“Yes, sir,” said Marie.
Father wrote across the exam papers: Peri Larsen — 1, Home Team — 0.
“All right, team, hit the showers!”
The girls went upstairs slowly. At the top they started to run.
Father sat down and lit his pipe and puffed on it philosophically. “They’ll learn,” he said.
Mother nodded quietly.
“You’ll have to give them a few examples,” said father.
Mother nodded again, in silence.
“It's been quite an evening,” said father.
Mother, being the sort of woman he hoped his daughters would someday resemble, said nothing.
Still saying nothing, mother got up, smiling, walked over to father, kissed him on the cheek. Then, quietly, neither of them saying a word in a silent house, they moved through the halls and rooms, getting ready to go out to the late show.
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