J.D. Salinger

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

17

 

I WAS way early when I got there, so I just sat down on one of those leather couches right near the clock in the lobby and watched the girls. A lot of schools were home for vacation already, and there were about a million girls sitting and standing around waiting for their dates to show up. Girls with their legs crossed, girls with their legs not crossed, girls with terrific legs, girls with lousy legs, girls that looked like swell girls, girls that looked like they'd be bitches if you knew them. It was really nice sightseeing, if you know what I mean. In a way, it was sort of depressing, too, because you kept wondering what the hell would happen to all of them. When they got out of school and college, I mean. You figured most of them would probably marry dopey guys. Guys that always talk about how many miles they get to a gallon in their goddam cars. Guys that get sore and childish as hell if you beat them at golf, or even just some stupid game like ping-pong. Guys that are very mean. Guys that never read books. Guys that are very boring―But I have to be careful about that. I mean about calling certain guys bores. I don't understand boring guys. I really don't. When I was at Elkton Hills, I roomed for about two months with this boy, Harris Macklin. He was very intelligent and all, but he was one of the biggest bores I ever met. He had one of these very raspy voices, and he never stopped talking, practically. He never stopped talking, and what was awful was, he never said anything you wanted to hear in the first place. But he could do one thing. The sonuvabitch could whistle better than anybody I ever heard. He'd be making his bed, or hanging up stuff in the closet―he was always hanging up stuff in the closet―it drove me crazy―and he'd be whistling while he did it, if he wasn't talking in this raspy voice. He could even whistle classical stuff, but most of the time he just whistled jazz. He could take something very jazzy, like "Tin Roof Blues," and whistle it so nice and easy―right while he was hanging stuff up in the closet―that it could kill you. Naturally, I never told him I thought he was a terrific whistler. I mean you don't just go up to somebody and say, "You're a terrific whistler." But I roomed with him for about two whole months, even though he bored me till I was half crazy, just because he was such a terrific whistler, the best I ever heard. So I don't know about bores. Maybe you shouldn't feel too sorry if you see some swell girl getting married to them. They don't hurt anybody, most of them, and maybe they're secretly all terrific whistlers or something. Who the hell knows? Not me.

 

Finally, old Sally started coming up the stairs, and I started down to meet her. She looked terrific. She really did. She had on this black coat and sort of a black beret. She hardly ever wore a hat, but that beret looked nice. The funny part is, I felt like marrying her the minute I saw her. I'm crazy. I didn't even like her much, and yet all of a sudden I felt like I was in love with her and wanted to marry her. I swear to God I'm crazy. I admit it.

 

"Holden!" she said. "It's marvelous to see you! It's been ages." She had one of these very loud, embarrassing voices when you met her somewhere. She got away with it because she was so damn good-looking, but it always gave me a pain in the ass.

 

"Swell to see you," I said. I meant it, too. "How are ya, anyway?"

 

"Absolutely marvelous. Am I late?"

 

I told her no, but she was around ten minutes late, as a matter of fact. I didn't give a damn, though. All that crap they have in cartoons in the Saturday Evening Post and all, showing guys on street corners looking sore as hell because their dates are late―that's bunk. If a girl looks swell when she meets you, who gives a damn if she's late? Nobody. "We better hurry," I said. "The show starts at two-forty." We started going down the stairs to where the taxis are.

 

"What are we going to see?" she said.

 

"I don't know. The Lunts. It's all I could get tickets for."

 

"The Lunts! Oh, marvelous!" I told you she'd go mad when she heard it was for the Lunts.

 

We horsed around a little bit in the cab on the way over to the theater. At first she didn't want to, because she had her lipstick on and all, but I was being seductive as hell and she didn't have any alternative. Twice, when the goddam cab stopped short in traffic, I damn near fell off the seat. Those damn drivers never even look where they're going, I swear they don't. Then, just to show you how crazy I am, when we were coming out of this big clinch, I told her I loved her and all. It was a lie, of course, but the thing is, I meant it when I said it. I'm crazy. I swear to God I am.

 

"Oh, darling, I love you too," she said. Then, right in the same damn breath, she said, "Promise me you'll let your hair grow. Crew cuts are getting corny. And your hair's so lovely."

 

Lovely my ass.

 

The show wasn't as bad as some I've seen. It was on the crappy side, though. It was about five hundred thousand years in the life of this one old couple. It starts out when they're young and all, and the girl's parents don't want her to marry the boy, but she marries him anyway. Then they keep getting older and older. The husband goes to war, and the wife has this brother that's a drunkard. I couldn't get very interested. I mean I didn't care too much when anybody in the family died or anything. They were all just a bunch of actors. The husband and wife were a pretty nice old couple―very witty and all―but I couldn't get too interested in them. For one thing, they kept drinking tea or some goddam thing all through the play. Every time you saw them, some butler was shoving some tea in front of them, or the wife was pouring it for somebody. And everybody kept coming in and going out all the time―you got dizzy watching people sit down and stand up. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were the old couple, and they were very good, but I didn't like them much. They were different, though, I'll say that. They didn't act like people and they didn't act like actors. It's hard to explain. They acted more like they knew they were celebrities and all. I mean they were good, but they were too good. When one of them got finished making a speech, the other one said something very fast right after it. It was supposed to be like people really talking and interrupting each other and all. The trouble was, it was too much like people talking and interrupting each other. They acted a little bit the way old Ernie, down in the Village, plays the piano. If you do something too good, then, after a while, if you don't watch it, you start showing off. And then you're not as good any more. But anyway, they were the only ones in the show―the Lunts, I mean―that looked like they had any real brains. I have to admit it.

 

At the end of the first act we went out with all the other jerks for a cigarette. What a deal that was. You never saw so many phonies in all your life, everybody smoking their ears off and talking about the play so that everybody could hear and know how sharp they were. Some dopey movie actor was standing near us, having a cigarette. I don't know his name, but he always plays the part of a guy in a war movie that gets yellow before it's time to go over the top. He was with some gorgeous blonde, and the two of them were trying to be very blasé and all, like as if he didn't even know people were looking at him. Modest as hell. I got a big bang out of it. Old Sally didn't talk much, except to rave about the Lunts, because she was busy rubbering and being charming. Then all of a sudden, she saw some jerk she knew on the other side of the lobby. Some guy in one of those very dark gray flannel suits and one of those checkered vests. Strictly Ivy League. Big deal. He was standing next to the wall, smoking himself to death and looking bored as hell. Old Sally kept saying, "I know that boy from somewhere." She always knew somebody, any place you took her, or thought she did. She kept saying that till I got bored as hell, and I said to her, "Why don't you go on over and give him a big soul kiss, if you know him? He'll enjoy it." She got sore when I said that. Finally, though, the jerk noticed her and came over and said hello. You should've seen the way they said hello. You'd have thought they hadn't seen each other in twenty years. You'd have thought they'd taken baths in the same bathtub or something when they were little kids. Old buddyroos. It was nauseating. The funny part was, they probably met each other just once, at some phony party. Finally, when they were all done slobbering around, old Sally introduced us. His name was George something―I don't even remember―and he went to Andover. Big, big deal. You should've seen him when old Sally asked him how he liked the play. He was the kind of a phony that have to give themselves room when they answer somebody's question. He stepped back, and stepped right on the lady's foot behind him. He probably broke every toe in her body. He said the play itself was no masterpiece, but that the Lunts, of course, were absolute angels. Angels. For Chrissake. Angels. That killed me. Then he and old Sally started talking about a lot of people they both knew. It was the phoniest conversation you ever heard in your life. They both kept thinking of places as fast as they could, then they'd think of somebody that lived there and mention their name. I was all set to puke when it was time to go sit down again. I really was. And then, when the next act was over, they continued their goddam boring conversation. They kept thinking of more places and more names of people that lived there. The worst part was, the jerk had one of those very phony, Ivy League voices, one of those very tired, snobby voices. He sounded just like a girl. He didn't hesitate to horn in on my date, the bastard. I even thought for a minute that he was going to get in the goddam cab with us when the show was over, because he walked about two blocks with us, but he had to meet a bunch of phonies for cocktails, he said. I could see them all sitting around in some bar, with their goddam checkered vests, criticizing shows and books and women in those tired, snobby voices. They kill me, those guys.

 

I sort of hated old Sally by the time we got in the cab, after listening to that phony Andover bastard for about ten hours. I was all set to take her home and all―I really was―but she said, "I have a marvelous idea!" She was always having a marvelous idea. "Listen," she said. "What time do you have to be home for dinner? I mean are you in a terrible hurry or anything? Do you have to be home any special time?"

 

"Me? No. No special time," I said. Truer word was never spoken, boy. "Why?"

 

"Let's go ice-skating at Radio City!"

 

That's the kind of ideas she always had.

 

"Ice-skating at Radio City? You mean right now?"

 

"Just for an hour or so. Don't you want to? If you don't want to―"

 

"I didn't say I didn't want to," I said. "Sure. If you want to."

 

"Do you mean it? Don't just say it if you don't mean it. I mean I don't give a darn, one way or the other."

 

Not much she didn't.

 

"You can rent those darling little skating skirts," old Sally said. "Jeannette Cultz did it last week."

 

That's why she was so hot to go. She wanted to see herself in one of those little skirts that just come down over their butt and all.

 

So we went, and after they gave us our skates, they gave Sally this little blue butt-twitcher of a dress to wear. She really did look damn good in it, though. I have to admit it. And don't think she didn't know it. She kept walking ahead of me, so that I'd see how cute her little ass looked. It did look pretty cute, too. I have to admit it.

 

The funny part was, though, we were the worst skaters on the whole goddam rink. I mean the worst. And there were some lulus, too. Old Sally's ankles kept bending in till they were practically on the ice. They not only looked stupid as hell, but they probably hurt like hell, too. I know mine did. Mine were killing me. We must've looked gorgeous. And what made it worse, there were at least a couple of hundred rubbernecks that didn't have anything better to do than stand around and watch everybody falling all over themselves.

 

"Do you want to get a table inside and have a drink or something?" I said to her finally.

 

"That's the most marvelous idea you've had all day," she said. She was killing herself. It was brutal. I really felt sorry for her.

 

We took off our goddam skates and went inside this bar where you can get drinks and watch the skaters in just your stocking feet. As soon as we sat down, old Sally took off her gloves, and I gave her a cigarette. She wasn't looking too happy. The waiter came up, and I ordered a Coke for her―she didn't drink―and a Scotch and soda for myself, but the sonuvabitch wouldn't bring me one, so I had a Coke, too. Then I sort of started lighting matches. I do that quite a lot when I'm in a certain mood. I sort of let them burn down till I can't hold them any more, then I drop them in the ashtray. It's a nervous habit.

 

Then all of a sudden, out of a clear blue sky, old Sally said, "Look. I have to know. Are you or aren't you coming over to help me trim the tree Christmas Eve? I have to know." She was still being snotty on account of her ankles when she was skating.

 

"I wrote you I would. You've asked me that about twenty times. Sure, I am."

 

"I mean I have to know," she said. She started looking all around the goddam room.

 

All of a sudden I quit lighting matches, and sort of leaned nearer to her over the table. I had quite a few topics on my mind. "Hey, Sally," I said.

 

"What?" she said. She was looking at some girl on the other side of the room.

 

"Did you ever get fed up?" I said. "I mean did you ever get scared that everything was going to go lousy unless you did something? I mean do you like school, and all that stuff?"

 

"It's a terrific bore."

 

"I mean do you hate it? I know it's a terrific bore, but do you hate it, is what I mean."

 

"Well, I don't exactly hate it. You always have to―"

 

"Well, I hate it. Boy, do I hate it," I said. "But it isn't just that. It's everything. I hate living in New York and all. Taxicabs, and Madison Avenue buses, with the drivers and all always yelling at you to get out at the rear door, and being introduced to phony guys that call the Lunts angels, and going up and down in elevators when you just want to go outside, and guys fitting your pants all the time at Brooks, and people always―"

 

"Don't shout, please," old Sally said. Which was very funny, because I wasn't even shouting.

 

"Take cars," I said. I said it in this very quiet voice. "Take most people, they're crazy about cars. They worry if they get a little scratch on them, and they're always talking about how many miles they get to a gallon, and if they get a brand-new car already they start thinking about trading it in for one that's even newer. I don't even like old cars. I mean they don't even interest me. I'd rather have a goddam horse. A horse is at least human, for God's sake. A horse you can at least―"

 

"I don't know what you're even talking about," old Sally said. "You jump from one―"

 

"You know something?" I said. "You're probably the only reason I'm in New York right now, or anywhere. If you weren't around, I'd probably be someplace way the hell off. In the woods or some goddam place. You're the only reason I'm around, practically."

 

"You're sweet," she said. But you could tell she wanted me to change the damn subject.

 

"You ought to go to a boys' school sometime. Try it sometime," I said. "It's full of phonies, and all you do is study so that you can learn enough to be smart enough to be able to buy a goddam Cadillac some day, and you have to keep making believe you give a damn if the football team loses, and all you do is talk about girls and liquor and sex all day, and everybody sticks together in these dirty little goddam cliques. The guys that are on the basketball team stick together, the Catholics stick together, the goddam intellectuals stick together, the guys that play bridge stick together. Even the guys that belong to the goddam Book-of-the-Month Club stick together. If you try to have a little intelligent―"

 

"Now, listen," old Sally said. "Lots of boys get more out of school than that."

 

"I agree! I agree they do, some of them! But that's all I get out of it. See? That's my point. That's exactly my goddam point," I said. "I don't get hardly anything out of anything. I'm in bad shape. I'm in lousy shape."

 

"You certainly are."

 

Then, all of a sudden, I got this idea.

 

"Look," I said. "Here's my idea. How would you like to get the hell out of here? Here's my idea. I know this guy down in Greenwich Village that we can borrow his car for a couple of weeks. He used to go to the same school I did and he still owes me ten bucks. What we could do is, tomorrow morning we could drive up to Massachusetts and Vermont, and all around there, see. It's beautiful as hell up there. It really is." I was getting excited as hell, the more I thought of it, and I sort of reached over and took old Sally's goddam hand. What a goddam fool I was. "No kidding," I said. "I have about a hundred and eighty bucks in the bank. I can take it out when it opens in the morning, and then I could go down and get this guy's car. No kidding. We'll stay in these cabin camps and stuff like that till the dough runs out. Then, when the dough runs out, I could get a job somewhere and we could live somewhere with a brook and all and, later on, we could get married or something. I could chop all our own wood in the wintertime and all. Honest to God, we could have a terrific time! Wuddaya say? C'mon! Wuddaya say? Will you do it with me? Please!"

 

"You can't just do something like that," old Sally said. She sounded sore as hell.

 

"Why not? Why the hell not?"

 

"Stop screaming at me, please," she said. Which was crap, because I wasn't even screaming at her.

 

"Why can'tcha? Why not?"

 

"Because you can't, that's all. In the first place, we're both practically children. And did you ever stop to think what you'd do if you didn't get a job when your money ran out? We'd starve to death. The whole thing's so fantastic, it isn't even―"

 

"It isn't fantastic. I'd get a job. Don't worry about that. You don't have to worry about that. What's the matter? Don't you want to go with me? Say so, if you don't."

 

"It isn't that. It isn't that at all," old Sally said. I was beginning to hate her, in a way. "We'll have oodles of time to do those things―all those things. I mean after you go to college and all, and if we should get married and all. There'll be oodles of marvelous places to go to. You're just―"

 

"No, there wouldn't be. There wouldn't be oodles of places to go to at all. It'd be entirely different," I said. I was getting depressed as hell again.

 

"What?" she said. "I can't hear you. One minute you scream at me, and the next you―"

 

"I said no, there wouldn't be marvelous places to go to after I went to college and all. Open your ears. It'd be entirely different. We'd have to go downstairs in elevators with suitcases and stuff. We'd have to phone up everybody and tell 'em good-by and send 'em postcards from hotels and all. And I'd be working in some office, making a lot of dough, and riding to work in cabs and Madison Avenue buses, and reading newspapers, and playing bridge all the time, and going to the movies and seeing a lot of stupid shorts and coming attractions and newsreels. Newsreels. Christ almighty. There's always a dumb horse race, and some dame breaking a bottle over a ship, and some chimpanzee riding a goddam bicycle with pants on. It wouldn't be the same at all. You don't see what I mean at all."

 

"Maybe I don't! Maybe you don't, either," old Sally said. We both hated each other's guts by that time. You could see there wasn't any sense trying to have an intelligent conversation. I was sorry as hell I'd started it.

 

"C'mon, let's get outa here," I said. "You give me a royal pain in the ass, if you want to know the truth."

 

Boy, did she hit the ceiling when I said that. I know I shouldn't've said it, and I probably wouldn't've ordinarily, but she was depressing the hell out of me. Usually I never say crude things like that to girls. Boy, did she hit the ceiling. I apologized like a madman, but she wouldn't accept my apology. She was even crying. Which scared me a little bit, because I was a little afraid she'd go home and tell her father I called her a pain in the ass. Her father was one of those big silent bastards, and he wasn't too crazy about me anyhow. He once told old Sally I was too goddam noisy.

 

"No kidding. I'm sorry," I kept telling her.

 

"You're sorry. You're sorry. That's very funny," she said. She was still sort of crying, and all of a sudden I did feel sort of sorry I'd said it.

 

"C'mon, I'll take ya home. No kidding."

 

"I can go home by myself, thank you. If you think I'd let you take me home, you're mad. No boy ever said that to me in my entire life."

 

The whole thing was sort of funny, in a way, if you thought about it, and all of a sudden I did something I shouldn't have. I laughed. And I have one of these very loud, stupid laughs. I mean if I ever sat behind myself in a movie or something, I'd probably lean over and tell myself to please shut up. It made old Sally madder than ever.

 

I stuck around for a while, apologizing and trying to get her to excuse me, but she wouldn't. She kept telling me to go away and leave her alone. So finally I did it. I went inside and got my shoes and stuff, and left without her. I shouldn't've, but I was pretty goddam fed up by that time.

 

If you want to know the truth, I don't even know why I started all that stuff with her. I mean about going away somewhere, to Massachusetts and Vermont and all. I probably wouldn't've taken her even if she'd wanted to go with me. She wouldn't have been anybody to go with. The terrible part, though, is that I meant it when I asked her. That's the terrible part. I swear to God I'm a madman.