Susy Button was Jerome Ennis's first love, and in later life he would remember her with an amused, and sometimes confused, affection which, by then no longer dominated by his gonads, in its turn no longer dominated him. Susy herself never felt more than sisterly about Jerome, but she recognized the emotions she aroused in him, and being -- like him -- fourteen years of age, she took pleasure in giving him just the tiniest bit of occasional fruitless encouragement. Later, she would remember him with amused nostalgia, but without any understanding that she had played a critical role in setting the direction of his life; when, more than a decade later, she received a beautifully printed red-and-gold wedding announcement in three languages, embellished with a single incomprehensible handwritten comment ("You were right!"), she had no idea what the devil he was talking about.
Jerome was at that age when boys begin to fantasize about girls of that age, and he was already formulating plans for himself and Susy. That he was not the person to carry them out was partly Susy's fault -- she already had her own plans for the future, plans which in the fullness of time would prove as futile as Jerome's aspirations for her, and they did not involve Jerome -- but his own nature also played a part: he was always hesitant, always a little bit fearful, never quite ready to grasp the nettle. But one day circumstances came together in a conjuncture that almost allowed Jerome to get what he, in his fourteen-year-old way, thought he wanted. Almost.
In many parts of the world, the seasons turn in a four-stroke cycle, like an internal-combustion engine: winter to spring to summer to fall. So it is that children can feel the call of school, when the summer green turns brown, the winds begin to blow, and the colors of the trees run riot. Such is not the case in California, where, as one wag put it, the four seasons are early summer, midsummer, late summer, and next summer. This may be an exaggeration, but late September in Lowehaven Estates was not very different from late August -- or early July, for that matter. You could get out of school in the afternoon, hop on your bike, coast down past the Lakevale junction and across the Highway to the state park, swim for half an hour in the reservoir, then pedal your way back up the hill to your house at the back of the Estates, half hidden by scattered, rambling live oaks that for some reason the developers of two decades before had failed to remove. In late September the oaks were still green.
And if your mother was not home, and your companion was a nubile young girl developing into a nubile young woman, you could embroider on your fantasies just a little bit -- and imagine that today they might be fulfilled.
Susy was, to Jerome, a dream come true. She lived in the Estates, only three houses down the Court from Jerome and his mother. Even better, she had lived there only two years, unlike most of the other kids he knew, who were fixtures, and boring. She was taller than Jerome, having recently gone through what might have been her last growth spurt, and she had a coltish awkwardness that Jerome considered the epitome of grace. Her eyes were as blue as the bluest cornflower, as Hans Christian Anderson might have described them, and matched a nimbus of flowing blonde hair that she took extravagant care to coiff into a totally natural disarray -- not, however, for the benefit of Jerome's eyes, although he didn't yet know that. She dressed artlessly, and with equal care; she had learned early that, for a girl with her build, long skirts were far more erotically appealing than minis, and from time to time she would elect to carelessly forget her bra -- a matter overlooked by the teachers at school, or most of them, since her breasts (which Jerome could not keep his eyes off of, as she knew very well) were tiny to the point of underdevelopment, or delicacy, depending upon your point of view.
Today they had had their half-hour swim (not skinny-dipping; the park authorities would never have countenanced that) in relative solitude; this late in the season there were few campers or picnickers, especially on a weekday, and Jerome noticed only one middle-aged Asian-looking camper, who gave them a wave, and one young couple, who did not. After their swim, Susy had again carefully forgotten to put on her bra when she changed from one-piece swim suit to dungarees and cotton blouse. She hadn't, Jerome quickly noticed, used her towel to good effect (he never realized that she might have known exactly what she was doing; he was, after all, only fourteen!), and the damp cotton stuck to her skin like a second epidermis. As they cycled up the hill toward home, Jerome pretended not to stare at Susy; and Susy, enjoying her part in the charade, pretended not to notice him pretending not to stare.
The driveway was empty and, by unspoken agreement, Susy accompanied him into the silent house. Jerome's divorced mother, whose work at a major High Valley firm often kept her occupied well into the evening, would not be home for some hours. They had the place to themselves.
If Susy had not been a virgin, it's quite possible that Jerome's fondest fantasies would have found fulfillment that day. Susy, growing up in America's video-oriented society, was hardly a prude. But, as mentioned, she had other plans for her future. Not that she was "saving herself for marriage" -- such concepts had gone out of style years before, and in any case they had always been more honored in the breach -- but don't forget that she was only fourteen, and so, after she had allowed herself to accompany Jerome to his room (which she had done before, under circumstances which required no self-consciousness), she felt forced to take steps to change the course of their afternoon relationship -- steps that would also, and inadvertently, change the whole course of Jerome's life.
Jerome had gotten Cherry Cokes from the refrigerator, and they had climbed the long, elegantly carpetted stairway, sipping from the cans as they walked. He was following her, a disturbing position for a teenage boy, and by the time he tossed himself down on his bed, the disturbance was disquietingly obvious. Susy could have giggled at his ill-concealed embarassment, but she was, after all, not fundamentally mean. Instead, she decided that it was necessary to change the subject.
She turned to the tall bookcase that stood just to the right of the doorway and studiously inspected the titles, ignoring Jerome's embarassed attempts to make his physical state less conspicuous. Boys ought to wear skirts, she thought, amused. The thought aroused a giggle, which she struggled to suppress "Have you taken up reading science-fiction, Jerome?" she asked, scanning some paperback titles.
Jerome had for several years tried to cultivate a reputation for "intellectuality," and he considered science-fiction to be only a step or so above comic books -- a peculiar attitude for one whose most influential role model was Star Trek's Mr. Spock. "No, I think that stuff's dumb."
"I like science-fiction," she said, a little miffed.
Dumb move, Ennis, he thought. "Most of it, anyway. My mom reads it, and she put a lot of her old books in here. The Heinlein is pretty good. Have you read The Star Beast?"
"Sure," she said. "I've read all those old kids' books of his."
"Heinlein's good," he repeated. "And Frank Herbert -- I saw the movie of Dune. But I'd rather read a good straight novel than science-fiction." Actually, he liked Don Pendleton's action-adventure novels; and at some point he had conceived an appreciation of Louis L'Amour's Sackett-family stories. The Great Books of the Western World were as far outside his ken as they were beyond hers.
"I don't know," she said pensively. "I always like reading about the ideas the science-fiction writers have. Like faster-than-light travel. Can you imagine going to the stars? There are millions of stars right here in our galaxy, and a lot of them might have planets."
Jerome shrugged. Susy noticed with a feeling that was part relief and part exasperation that he was physically more composed. "I like faster-than-light, and time travel; but they've used those ideas so many times, what can they do with them that's new? And so much science-fiction just seems to be swords-and-sorcery." He was proud of his ability to use such genre-descriptive terms. "No new ideas at all."
"Look," said Susy, "I'll show you. You come over here and pick a book out at random I'll open it at random and I bet I can find you a new idea."
He got up from the bed, now without apparent discomfort, reached up and grabbed a book off the top shelf. "A Stainless Steel Rat is Born," he said. "Bunch of soldiers on the cover. It's a war story, I'll bet. Interplanetary invasion. Jules Verne or Wells or that guy Gernsback did it in the last century. O.K., Susy, you make something out of that." He handed her the book. "Find me a new idea." His fingers brushed hers and he dropped back onto the bed as though hit by lightning. Susy pretended not to notice.
She popped the book open at random. She carefully read the left-hand page, then the right-hand page. Her eyes narrowed. Finally: "Okay, what do you think of this? Here's the main character learning a language in three or four days."
"Sleep-learning?" said Jerome disparagingly. "That's been done to death. You lie down and put this thing on your head, then go to sleep. When you wake up, you're speaking French."
"No, the writer's invented a language called Esperanto that everybody in the galaxy speaks; and it's artificial, and so easy to learn that you can pick it up in a few days."
Jerome, in his second year of French at school, recognized this for the obvious nonsense it was. "That's hardly any more likely than faster-than-light travel or time travel. But I'll grant you that it's a new idea."
"Sure, there are lots of them," Susy said. She closed the book. "I read a story about a plant that could grow radios. You could do that with this new genetic engineering."
Their discussion rambled on for some time in this rather safe vein, Susy tossing out ideas she had read in science-fiction books and Jerome attempting to pick holes in them but invariably admitting that they were, indeed, new ideas, at least insofar as he was concerned.
Susy left before Jerome's mother returned from work; to Jerome's despair (and, perhaps, unconfessed relief), she was still as intact as she had been when she entered the house. But as she was leaving, he felt that God gave him a hopeful sign for the future.In Samuel Shellabarger's Captain from Castile, a historical novel that Jerome had read the year before (and he had reread the more erotic passsages several times!), the hero, sitting in a church in Caén and focussing his attention on his adored Luisa de Carvajal, receives such a sign: a sunbeam, filtered through one of the high church windows, falls directly upon her face, highlighting it and illuminating it like that of an angel. Jerome had scoffed at the idea, the more so when, later in the novel, it had been revealed that the lovely Luisa had feet of clay.
But now he was confronted by a similar sign, and from it he took great hope. As Susy was going out the front door, the wind blowing the live oak that sheltered the porch moved the leaves around in such a way that for a moment a brilliant, orange shaft of late-afternoon sunlight fell, right in front of his eyes, directly upon her nicely rounded posterior, highlighting and illuminating it like that of an angel.
Jerome blinked his eyes as the lights came back on. He realized that he had drowsed off -- whether through the last three slides, or the last three dozen, he didn't know. But after about twenty slides, he had seen enough of Angers Château and its faded, bluish tapestries of The Apocalypse. Especially, he thought, given that Mr. Shancer had presented the same show to his first-year class the year before.
Mr. Shancer left the fan running in the projector and went back up to perch on the table at the front of the room. This pose was his favorite affectation; he felt that it put him in rapport with the students. None of them, of course, would have been fool enough to spend an hour sitting on the edge of a table when more comfortable chairs were handy. "Next week we'll have a look at some other Loire Châteaus -- Chenonceaux, Chambord, Saumur, and the Sleeping Beauty Castle at Rigny-Ussé. You'll find that they're quite different from medieval Angers; Angers was a geniune fortification, as you've seen, but these others are all Renaissance in form, built by kings for their ... uh ... girl friends ... Yes, Mr. Quentin?"
Jerome turned around to see whether it was Jack or Sledge who had his hand raised. An outsider would have suspected that it was the quieter, more introspective twin, John; but in fact Matthew, who looked like -- and was -- on the varsity first-string football team, was also the more studious of the two. Of the Hammer Brothers -- so-called because of their nicknames -- John was effectively a cipher.
Right now, Sledge looked confused. Jerome suspected that the appearance was calculated. "Mr. Shancer, I don't really understand. What does all this have to do with learning French?"
Shancer was not, in Jerome's opinion, a bad teacher; his worst quality was that he was not inspired. Unlike Mr. Henkel in math class, whose inspiration was matched by a terrible temper, Shancer was calm and even-handed in his treatment of his students. If Jerome had been a French teacher, he thought, and Sledge had asked him such a question, he might well have flown off the handle.
But Shancer had a standard answer. "Mr. Quentin, you're not just here to learn French; you're here to learn about a way of life. The French language is a passport to a very ancient, very important culture. I owe it to you to give you a look at France as well as French. That's why we have these little slide shows, and why about a quarter of the space in your textbook is devoted to French life."
"How come not Spanish?" asked, predictably, Elsa Chavez. She spoke with a pronounced movie-Mexican accent, as she always did in class; outside school, the accent predictably diminished. "Isn't the Spanish way of life important too?"
"That's what Spanish classes are for," said Shancer. "This is a French class."
"But I already speak Spanish," said Chavez, but sotto voce; Jerome, sitting directly in front of her, might have been the only one who heard.
"Hey, m' man," said Gerard Gerard from the left side of the room. "The Chavez has a good question there. What about the Africans, man? Why don't we get something about the Swahili way of life? I mean, maybe the Chavez could take Spanish instead of French if she really wanted to; but ain't no Swahili classes in this here school, man."
Shancer looked just a trifle discomfitted. "Mr. Gerard, there are some three thousand languages in the world today. A dozen or more of them are spoken by over a hundred million people. Given this fact, our school systems have to make some hard choices in deciding what languages to teach. Men and women with years of experience decided that it would be better for our young people to learn a language with real relevance to the world than one whose worldwide use is ... restricted. Anyway, French is also an African language; it's spoken in more than twenty African countries."
"A white man's imperialist language," Gerard persisted.
"That's not a point I'm prepared to argue in this class," said Shancer, sounding more heated than Jerome had ever heard him.
"Mr. Shancer?" It was Mike Langer, front right. "Excuse me for asking this, but ... is French as relevant as some languages that the school doesn't teach? I mean, like Russian and Japanese? Maybe you're right about Swahili and those African languages, we don't do a lot of business with Africa, I guess, but we buy a lot of Japanese cars, and we're always at odds with the Russians; we and they sort of divvy the world up between us. So shouldn't we be learning Japanese or Russian instead of French?"
Shancer looked stretched to the limit. "Again, I can only say that better minds than yours or mine decided to have French taught, and that I think their decision was the right one. You'll find that your ability to speak French will serve you well throughout the entire world ..."
"Heck, ah couldn't even order a hamburger in French," said the voice of Jack Flowers from the back. Shancer glanced in his direction, then decided to ignore him. His opinion, not always kept to himself, was that Flowers didn't have the brains to order a hamburger even in English.
Jerome's hand went up, almost involuntarily. Shancer glanced at him, nodded to recognize him. He and Jerome, if not the closest of friends, were at least on better than merely speaking terms. Jerome was a trustworthy B student, and invariably turned in his homework on time, thanks to a lot of worried maternal supervision.
"One thing I don't understand, Mr. Shancer," Jerome said. "Uh ... we've got all these languages you talk about, and we study French in school but not Japanese or Russian or Swahili or any of the others except Spanish and German and Latin, which nobody even speaks anymore. Uh ... why doesn't everybody all talk the same language? I mean, couldn't everybody sort of agree on English? I saw this PBS show last year that claimed that almost everybody speaks English already ... so why should we study any of these languages at all?"
Shancer looked more relaxed, almost relieved. "First of all, Mr. Ennis, the figures about English presented by the show you mentioned are exaggerated. Actual figures indicate that fewer than one in ten people in the world speak English -- not a very good percentage. As far as settling on one language -- why should the French, with their thousand-year-old culture, yield to English or any other language? Actually," he added, reflectively, "up until the beginning of this century, French really was just such a language; most people who operated internationally used it. It's a shame that its international importance went into a decline -- though that decline may be only a temporary one."
Jerome thought of something else and raised his hand again. Susy Button's "new idea" came to mind. "Mr. Shancer? What about ... uh ... some kind of artificial language? Wouldn't it be possible to make up a language that was easier to learn than French or English? Maybe one that people could learn in a few days?"
Shancer laughed. "Mr. Ennis, that's an old dream that a lot of people have tried to make come true. They've never been successful. Languages like Esperanto have been a total failure for a lot of good reasons ..."
But Jerome had stopped listening for a moment. Esperanto! That was the name that had been quoted in the science-fiction novel! He'd thought it was just something invented by the author -- and now Mr. Shancer had confirmed that there really was such a thing! Had the author been right about the rest of it, as well?
Mr. Shancer looked like terminating the discussion, and Jerome didn't want it to end right at this moment. "Mr. Shancer? Why couldn't an artificial language like ... like Esperanto ... be used by everybody? Why do they have to fail?"
Now Shancer looked exasperated again. "Okay, class, five minutes for a little lecture on linguistics." He adopted what the Hammer Brothers always referred to as his "Dr. Science" mannerisms. "Languages, Mr. Ennis, are the product of human interaction; they develop out of communication between human beings. Artificial languages like Esperanto are almost always the invention of a single person. No interaction is involved. So they don't really have anything to do with communication, no matter what their inventors claim. Compared to a real language, an artificial language, when you try to use it for communication, is certain to be clumsy and difficult to use.
"Also, since an artificial language is the product of a single mind, it's going to be subject to the restrictions imposed by that single mind. No one human being is competent to invent a language that can do everything that a real language can do. If you know English, you can read Shakespeare; if you know French, you can read Baudelaire." He gestured toward a shelf of French books, mostly new and untouched, over by the door. His average student seemed to be completely satisfied with the amount of French in his textbook. "An artificial language like Esperanto would be so restricted in its scope, that it couldn't even pretend to handle Shakespeare or Baudelaire.
"But let's let our imaginations roam free for a moment. Let's suppose that in some science-fictional universe Esperanto were to actually be spoken by a number of people. But the language was invented subject to all the linguistic prejudices of its inventor; so in effect it would be just another West European language. Maybe French or Italian or Spanish speakers would find it attractive; but people from other language families wouldn't. Nobody from China, for instance, would ever speak it.
"These are some of the reasons why an artificial language like Esperanto just won't fly."
Jerome couldn't help himself; Mr. Shancer's last word reminded him of something, something he blurted out without thinking. "That's what they said about airplanes in 1900."
Mr. Shancer looked peeved. "Okay, Mr. Ennis. You just talked yourself into a weekend assignment."
"Mr. Shancer ..."
"Find out everything you can about Esperanto and why it failed. I want three pages. And you'll give an oral report. Any questions?" Jerome decided that, right now, discretion was the wiser part of valor. "Any of the rest of you? All right, back to French. We were reviewing the imperfect of -OIR verbs ..."
Jerome's stomach was churning as his bicycle coasted down the long main street of Lakevale. Leaving school he had seen Susy Button -- but only at a distance. He had meant to ask her if she'd like to ride home with him, but she had seemed preoccupied -- possibly because her tiny, smooth, holdable hand was, in fact, being held in Pete DeLauncey's big, rough hairy one.
DeLauncey was a twelfth grader, on the varsity football team. Jerome thought that he shouldn't be holding anybody's hand, being in training; but apparently he found Susy's somehow attractive. She didn't seem to be resisting. Jerome had turned away, in mingled horror, disgust, and total despair. He hoped that Susy hadn't seen him. Or maybe that she had; that way, if a car were to run over him, maybe she'd know that his death was her fault...
He had meant to ride home with Susy, maybe spend an hour or so talking with her -- only talking, he supposed, though he had hopes for more. Now, he didn't feel like going home at all. That was why he was headed down the town's main street -- he had decided to work off his rage and hurt by doing some research for Mr. Shancer's assignment at the library.
Jerome engaged in one or two fantasies as he parked his bike. Maybe DeLauncey would be crippled in next Friday night's football game; then Susy would come running back to him, and he'd spurn her... Maybe she'd be kidnapped, and he could rescue her. Or maybe he could be kidnapped and brutally murdered, and she'd spend the rest of her life in mourning. There were a number of possibilities, none of which showed any signs of coming true here in Lakevale. Even DeLauncey's lifetime disfigurement the next week was at best an outside hope.
The library was a low, tiled-roof Spanish-style building that predated the rest of the town; once it had been part of Geller Lake Ranch, before the last of the Gellers had sold out to the ubiquitous subdividers. It was not in the best of shape; the town's budget mostly went to the police, the small fire department, occasional road repairs, with the library coming in for a very low priority location on the budgetary totem pole. Jerome was not a regular visitor; the stock of books were mostly from the forties, the fifties and the early sixties, many of them the castoffs from various personal libraries. But Miss DeLeon, who ran the library, was a likeable elderly lady of thirty or so; whenever Jerome came in, she always had a kind word for him, along with the reproachful comment that she didn't see enough of him. Jerome thought this might be because she had the hots for him; although he actually knew very little about sex, he had heard from his schoolmates that these spinster ladies were often "turned on" by teenage boys, because they could not be satisfied by old men in their thirties. Matthew Quentin (Sledge Hammer) claimed to have read this information in a book by somebody named Masters N. Johnson.
That Miss DeLeon might actually like to see both boys and girls using the service that the library provided never crossed Jerome's mind.
There were three other people in the library, two women whom Jerome didn't recognize and Dan Kelly, a county deputy sheriff who spent many of his working hours in Lakevale Library, the county being remarkably crime free. Most of the time he read magazines and newspapers; the Wall Street Journal was a special favorite of his. He explained, to whoever was interested, that he frequented the library so that people would know exactly where to reach him if they suffered a burglary or needed to have their cat extracted from a tree. When Miss DeLeon closed up at five, he would usually accompany her home -- to protect her from muggers or rapists, Jerome supposed. He himself had never seen a mugger or a rapist, though rumor had it that both types of thugs abounded in Sacramento and the Bay Area cities, and might spill over into Lakevale at any time.
Jerome ignored the two ladies, who in turn ignored him; Kelly gave him a cursory glance, sized him up as a tenth-grader rather than a mugger or rapist, and went back to his Wall Street Journal. Miss DeLeon looked up from the cards she was initialling, gave him a bright smile, and said in a low, almost sultry, voice: "Jerome! I haven't seen you in weeks! Can I help you with anything today?"
"Yes, ma'am," said Jerome. "I have to write a paper this weekend, and I was wondering if you had any information here on languages."
"Well, we have a small language section," she said. "A few Spanish textbooks and dictionaries -- I think we also have a dozen or so novels in Spanish -- some French and German books, and maybe a few others. You'll find them in the four hundreds, just to the left of math and science." The library was small enough that all its books were available to the public; there were no stacks as such.
"I wanted to find out about a particular language," he said. "Something called Esperanto. I read about it in a science-fiction book, and thought it was something the author made up, but Mr. Shancer says it's real."
She pursed her lips up, thinking, and Jerome realized that, for an old lady, she was not unattractive. His gonads stirred again. Maybe he and Miss DeLeon could ... collaborate ... to make Susy jealous...
"I've heard of Esperanto," she said finally. "It was invented about a hundred years ago in Poland or Russia. A lot of people spoke it before the First World War, but it died out in the 1920's. I think we have ... Jerome, you go check the book section. It should be between 400 and 410. I'll see if I can find you some information elsewhere."
Almost reluctantly, Jerome went off to the far end of the big room, passing between shelves full of novels -- many of them recent, the only truly up-to-date literature in the room. He finally found the five hundreds, glanced for a moment at a 1930-vintage book on calculus, eventually worked his way left to the four hundreds.
There was, indeed, a book on Esperanto there: a tiny blue-bound volume called Teach Yourself Esperanto, published in -- so it said on the back of the title page -- 1958, well over a quarter of a century before. Jerome sighed; he had hoped for something recent. Still, the date suggested that Miss DeLeon had been wrong about the language's disappearance six decades earlier, and that was a step in the right direction.
He leafed through the book for a moment. It was, indeed, considerably smaller and thinner than his French book; but was it just an introduction to the language, or a complete grammar? Towards the back, he found half a dozen pages devoted just to participles, and winced. Perhaps the science-fiction author had been exaggerating, after all.
The first lesson was simpler; it had to do with numbers and pronunciation. Now here, thought Jerome, was real food for thought. Neither English nor French had prepared him for the idea of one-letter-one-sound; after quickly scanning through the pronunciation guide, he turned back to a text section and found to his amazement that he could read the whole thing out loud, with only a few minor bobbles when he encountered a letter whose sound he couldn't remember. In second-year French he still had troubles with silent final consonants; and he well remembered six years of English spelling lessons, half an hour a day. Perhaps the science-fiction author hadn't been exaggerating, after all...
Thoughtful, he carried the book back to the desk. Miss DeLeon was initialling cards again. When he came to the desk, she picked up a little green-and-white pamphlet and brought it over to him.
"We've had this for almost twenty years now," she said. "It was in the vertical file. I remembered it, because about three years ago I wrote to the address on the back for more information; but the letter was returned as undeliverable. So I guess these people don't exist any longer. Still, maybe there's something here that will help you." She went back to initialling her cards.
The pamphlet, put out by somebody called Channing Bete Co., was a 16-page introduction to Esperanto; it was dated from the early 1970's. The address on the back was in Burlingame, a city somewhere near San Francisco, or so Jerome's memory told him. Still, it indicated that Esperanto had been extant as late as a decade and a half earlier -- a good sign.
"Miss DeLeon?" he called. "Can I borrow these two books?"
"What are you reading, Jerome?" his mother asked.
He looked up from lesson three. A little bit reluctantly: "Esperanto. It's a language."
"Oh, yes," she said, sitting down at the opposite side of the table. "I've read about it. Slippery Jim diGriz speaks it, and so do all the people on the Riverworld." Jerome suspected that these were science-fiction references; knowing nothing about them, he didn't reply.
"I didn't see Susy around this afternoon," she added. "Couldn't she play?"Play? What did his mother think, that he and Susy were five years old? Yes, Susy could play. But not with him! "She was busy," he said, curtly. The whole business still rankled.
"That's too bad. I like Susy, though she seems just a little bit ... overpractical ... at times. Children should enjoy their youth while they can."
"Sure," said Jerome, who would have been happy to enjoy his youth with Susy. But Susy preferred to enjoy hers with Pete DeLauncey. "Mom? I have to write a paper for Mr. Shancer about this Esperanto. Do we have any books on it?"
She thought for a moment. "Jerome, you know our personal library as well as I do. I can't really think of anything. Did you get that from the library?"
"Yes, and another little pamphlet, too. But there's really not enough information. Can we go up to Sacramento tomorrow to see if I can find something?"
She looked at him in surprise. "Is this a major term paper, Jerome? Have you been procrastinating again?"
"No, Shancer told me today to write this for Monday. He wants three pages and an oral report. But I don't think there's enough here to tell him anything." Then, quickly: "The whole idea seemed to bother him, and he sort of gave me the paper like a punishment when all I did was ask why the idea wouldn't work. So I sort of want to show him up by giving him a lot of good, recent information, if I can."
His mother shook his head. "Well, we can't go to Sacramento tomorrow; I'll be working during the morning, because of the Christmas orders. But you might try Mr. Benson; he's got a lot of second-hand books that might be of some use to you."
Mr. Benson owned Benson's Books, one of Lakevale's two bookstores; the other handled only very recent works, mostly novels and short stories. Benson's store was old, slightly run-down, with a fragrant musty smell inside that always pleased Jerome, who loved the odor of old books, or at least thought he did. Lately he had begun to wonder: so many things in this life are carcinogens, might this not also be true of the miasma given off by these ancient tomes? Still, he visited Benson's books more often than he did the library, in spite of the fact that Mr. Benson was not Miss DeLeon.
Benson sat behind his counter like a librarian, reading his own books. He was an elderly man, bald as an Easter egg, with thick coke-bottle glasses, a tendency to irritability which had never intimidated Jerome, and an encyclopedic knowledge of what was in his stock. His memory for people was less than perfect; Jerome had to reintroduce himself every time he went in.
"Can I help you, kid?" he asked when Jerome pushed open the heavy wooden door and entered the dark interior of the shop.
"Yes, please," said Jerome. "I'm Jerome Ennis, and I'd like to find if you have any books about Esperanto."
"Oh, yeah, the Ennis kid." Benson occasionally remembered identities if reminded. "Esperanto? I don't think so."
"I'm sorry to have bothered you." Jerome turned towards the door; but Benson suddenly stood up.
"Hang on, kid," he said. "You've just reminded me. Lady came in four, five months ago and sold me a bunch of language stuff that included some Esperanto. Don't remember who she was. She said her husband had just died and she was getting rid of a lot of his books. Apparently he'd had some interest in this Esperanto. Come on, let's see if I've still got it. Not much call for it these days..." He led Jerome toward the back of the store.
Some of the kids thought that Benson was an ogre, and a few of the more activist ones had suggested trashing his store some night to get back at him for what he'd done (in teen-age myth) to lots of kids over the years. Jerome thought he knew better; still, as he followed Benson deeper into the shadows, a nagging worry bothered him. Benson certainly wasn't an out-and-out killer, but he might, worse, be a pervert. Jerome had never met a pervert, as far as he knew, but his mother was always warning him about them.
Benson's potential perversions, it turned out, were not directed at tenth-grade boys. He led Jerome to a shelf of books sitting on top of an old workbench covered with dusty magazines; glancing along the row of books, he selected three of them and tossed them to Jerome. "These what you're looking for, kid?"
At first glance, Jerome could not have answered him. None of them had the word "Esperanto" anywhere in evidence on the cover. All three looked old, but seemed to be in excellent shape, in spite of the fact that they were all paperbacks. The largest, a yellowish-green tome with a certain massivity to it, was titled La Floroj de l' Malbono, and the author was Charles Baudelaire, a name Jerome recognized as belonging to a French poet. The second, small enough to fit in his pocket, had a recognizable drawing of Will Shakespeare on the cover, and was called La Tempesto; Jerome could easily guess what that meant. The third, a dingy little light-blue volume, poorly printed on paper so thin that it suffered from bleed-through, was called Forgesitaj Homoj, by somebody with the Italian-sounding name Cicio Mar.
Jerome opened the third book to the title page, saw the place and date of publication, and -- suddenly remembering some of Shancer's comments -- began to smile.
Mr. Shancer was two minutes late for class; Jerome wondered whether he had been smoking in the teachers' lounge or just talking with Mrs. Emiliano. The relationship between those two was the subject of much spirited speculation among the students. Jerome privately suspected that Mr. Shancer was taking terrible chances with his career; Mr. Emiliano was on the school board.
Mr. Shancer looked around the room, nodded absently, went up and sat down on the table. "Today we're going to review the imperfect of some irregular verbs ..."He isn't going to remember! Jerome thought with relief.
" ...but first a report from Mr. Ennis, I believe. Did you manage to find out anything about your Esperanto, Mr. Ennis?"
Jerome got up, struggling internally with mingled triumph and anxiety. He walked up to the front, handed his three page paper to Mr. Shancer, who absently tossed it onto the desk, and turned to face his classmates. "Well, first I went to the Lakevale Library and asked Miss DeLeon about Esperanto. She said she thought it had died out in the 1920's ..."
"That sounds about right," said Mr. Shancer smugly.
" ... but she sent me to the book section to look for material. There was just one textbook of Esperanto, published in England in 1958; and she had a folder on Esperanto in her vertical file up front, too. It had a small pamphlet about the language; I'd guess it was fifteen or twenty years old. I couldn't find anything more recent. I checked out the textbook and took it home."
"And did you learn the language over the weekend, Mr. Ennis?" Mr. Shancer asked nonchalantly.
Jerome ignored Mr. Shancer's question for the moment. "My mother suggested that I ask Mr. Benson at Lakevale Books. I went down there Saturday afternoon, and found that he had three books in Esperanto in his second-hand section; he didn't remember who'd sold them to him -- some lady whose husband died, I guess. He gave me those three books for five bucks. They were pretty neat."
"That's interesting, Mr. Ennis," said Mr. Shancer. "What were they about? Dictionaries or textbooks?"
"Well, actually, Mr. Shancer..." At this point Jerome began to wonder whether he shouldn't just terminate his oral report. Was it worth taking the chance of making Mr. Shancer mad just to show him up? After all, he probably wouldn't have stuck Jerome with this assignment if it hadn't been for that almost sarcastic comment about airplanes...
He looked around at his classmates. Most of them weren't paying a lot of attention; to them, Jerome had always been a relative non-entity, not a jock nor yet a nerd, neither fish nor fowl, so to speak. But if he could score points off Mr. Shancer, maybe they would notice him -- and maybe that would be important. Maybe if they noticed him, maybe Susy, too, would...
"Actually," he continued, "they were what you call 'literature.'"
Mr. Shancer smiled. "As I think I explained on Friday, you couldn't possibly have literature in an artificial language."
"Yes, sir, you said that a language like Esperanto couldn't even pretend to handle Baudelaire or Shakespeare; and you gave what I thought were some pretty good reasons why not."
"I'm glad to see that you agree with me," said Mr. Shancer, almost smugly.
"And then I made some dumb comment about airplanes," said Jerome, "and you gave me this assignment. It was to prove to me that you were right -- right?"
"Right," said Mr. Shancer. "But really I expected that it would give you a little better grasp of some linguistic verities. And I didn't really intend it just for you, Mr. Ennis; I hoped that the rest of the class would profit, too. Far too many of the young men and women who graduate today leave school without a good, solid grounding in reality -- but with a predilection for useless esoterica, such as creationism instead of evolution, astrology instead of astronomy, that sort of thing. I wanted to make sure that you, Mr. Ennis, would leave my class with your mind firmly in the right track -- and that what you found out might help your classmates, too. Though I must confess that your airplane comment personally irked me. Well, Mister Ennis, thank you for your report..."
"E pur si muove," said Jerome.Mr. Shancer gave him a sharp look. "Galileo," he said.
"Yes, sir," said Jerome. "My mother told me about it. Galileo said that the earth went around the sun; but all those old churchmen forced him to back down. And I read in one of my mother's books once that, before the Wright Brothers, some mathematicians actually proved that airplanes couldn't fly." He looked around. His classmates, now sensing something, were giving him their undivided attention. "You know, Mr. Shancer, those same mathematical methods could be used to demonstrate that a bumblebee can't fly.
"But in all those cases, these guys -- Galileo and the Wright Brothers -- were actually out there doing things, or observing things, that something called 'conventional wisdom' said were impossible. Excuse me just a moment, Mr. Shancer, but I'm not quite done yet."
He went back to his desk and pulled the three books out from under it. Coming back to the front table, he tossed one down by where Mr. Shancer was sitting. "That's one of the books I bought." Mr. Shancer picked it up and leafed through it. "It's called La Floroj de l' Malbono, which means something like 'The Flowers of the Bad,' and it's translations of a bunch of poems by that French poet you mention, Charles Baudelaire. Cost me three bucks for that one book. The other two were cheaper." He tossed a second book down by Mr. Shancer. "William Shakespeare, 'The Tempest.' In Esperanto."
Mr. Shancer gave Jerome an icy look, and suddenly Jerome realized that this person had control over some portion of his future. Something his mother had said once came uneasily into his mind: "It's bad enough to tell somebody he's wrong, but it's absolutely intolerable when you prove it."
But all Shancer said was: "Well, Mr. Ennis, that's very good for one weekend. But you haven't proved a thing. Certainly, somebody can write down a bunch of words and say that they constitute a poetic translation of a piece of great literature; but can you prove to me that this stuff is anything more than a coarse, illiterate rendition of what was great poetry in the original?"
"No, sir, I can't," said Jerome. "In fact, I can't even read the stuff myself; and if I could, you could always say that I didn't know enough about what makes up great literature to be properly critical. But," he felt he had to add, "I don't have to. What you said was that an artificial language like Esperanto couldn't even pretend to render guys like Baudelaire and Shakespeare. What I'm showing, not saying, is that they could pretend to well enough for somebody to publish the rendering -- which suggests that there was somebody out there who appreciated it enough to buy it."
Mr. Shancer nodded. "Point well taken, Mr. Ennis. You've thought the matter through very nicely, and while I disagree with what appear to be your conclusions, I'm impressed by the work and logic you've put into reaching them. What about the third book? What was it?"
"It wasn't really very important," Jerome said reluctantly.
"No, no, you brought it up here; let me have a look at it. I have a feeling that you think there's something else I said that you can bring me up short on with that book; don't back down at this point."
Jerome handed him the third book; he looked at it with some curiosity. "You certainly aren't going to insist that this is one of the great books of Western man; I've never heard of this 'Cicio Mar.' Some minor Rumanian author?"
"I don't know anything more about him than that name, either," said Jerome. "But look at the back." Then, as Mr. Shancer turned the book over: "You said that nobody in China would be interested in Esperanto. And that Esperanto died out years ago."
Shancer nodded. "This book was published in China. Or at least by some Chinese-speaking person. But it looks years and years old. I grant the first point, but not the second. There have been people from China -- and, I suppose, elsewhere than the European countries -- interested in Esperanto; but not recently."
"It looks like an old book, but that's just because it was done on cheap paper. I don't know -- maybe that's the way they print books in China. But on the title page..." Mr. Shancer turned to it. "This book was published in 1985."
Mr. Shancer nodded and put the book down. "Point -- and set. Very nice, Mr. Ennis. Anything else?"
"You've written all this in your report? Good. Take your books and sit down, please." As Jerome returned to his desk. Mr. Shancer looked around the room, noting the attention of the class. "Mr. Ennis gets an extra-credit A on his report. He proved that several of the things I said were simply wrong. Teachers have been known to be wrong, and some of us have even been known to admit it from time to time. I think my general conclusions about artificial languages are still valid; but I did a little shooting from the hip, and Mr. Ennis caught me at it. He did this by a certain amount of research and legwork, and," glancing at Jerome, "largely, I suspect, through sheer luck. But he responded to my criticisms directly, factually, and to the point. If at any point I assign other such reports to any of you, I hope that you will do the same. In fact, I will expect it of you.
"Mr. Ennis expected that I would come down on him for proving that I made an error or two. Some teachers would do so. I will not. I appreciate students with a critical faculty. But let me add a word of warning here. I'm the teacher, you're the students. If you think I'm wrong about something, show me. If you show me, as Mr. Ennis did, you'll be the apple of my eye; if you just tell me, you're just another wise-ass, and then I will come down hard on you.
"And that is all for today on this subject. This is a French class. We won't be wasting any more time on Esperanto or other extra-curricular nonsense. We are here to learn about France and French. So let's get on to the imperfect of irregular verbs."
Sendu demandojn kaj proponojn alDon Harlow <DonHARLOW(@literaturo.org)>