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After the Golden Age by Alvin Schwartz
Giving a glimpse into the formative years of comics and beyond.

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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 02/11/2008
Vol. 2, #203

Section 3 - Introducing Mr. Sattvapalli

The car had once been a stock 1977 Ford, but that was before it had found its way through a succession of owners into the talented and loving hands of Ernie Strode. From that point on, it had been decked, nosed, fitted out with twin manifolds, chrome-plated exhausts, a stick shift, a Chrysler grill, spinner hub caps and painted a bright blue. Now it slowed in the line of traffic entering Baldwin Village through the state road. Ernie flipped the right turn signal, downshifted to second, gunned the engine and deftly swung into the shopping center parking lot.

"Okay," Ernie said to the youth beside him. "This is doing my bit for Mother's Day. How long you going to be?" Francis Rozowski brushed a mat of hair from his eyes as the car slid between the yellow lines of an empty parking space in front of the Great Horn supermarket.

"Maybe fifteen minutes. Maybe more. I might want to look around some."

Ernie shook his head. "Mother's Day- that's way out, man. A real blast."

"Yeah- well- there's mothers and mothers. My old ladyshe's okay."

"Mine- she'd drop dead from shock if I brought her a Mother's Day present. Man- what a scene. Hey, ma- here's a little something for Mother's Day. For me? You in some kind of trouble again? Where'd you get the money? What you been up to now?"

"Yeah- well-"

"There's Father's Day coming up too. What're you going to get for Father's Day, Fran?"

"Rat poison," Francis said, opening the door and starting to slide out. "How long before you pick me up?"

"Make it twenty minutes, okay? Watch for me."

"Yeah." Francis slammed the door and headed toward the gift shop adjacent to the supermarket. Behind him he heard the deep-throated roar of the twin exhausts as Ernie took off again.

A man on a ladder was standing inside the window of the Great Horn pasting a big streamer across the plate glass expanse. Francis watched for a moment. GREAT HORN $10,000 GRAND PRIZE SWEEPSTAKES A SWEEPSTAKES TICKET WITH EVERY PURCHASE GRAND DRAWING- JULY 17TH As he trudged on past, his mind idly followed a trail of fantasies at the thought of maybe winning the sweepstakes himself. His eyes dwelt appraisingly on a shapely young woman emerging from the Great Horn. Ten Gs. Yes, he could really make out with that kind of bread. Of course he wouldn't keep all of it. Some of it would go for getting the old lady's teeth fixed- with some help from his older sister, Cynthia, who had a job down in Manhattan. But with the rest, he could really make it big. a car. plenty of great chicks. All the pot he wanted. He began to recall the long legs of the tall dark secretary to the principal of Baldwin Village High with whom he had struck up a conversation the day he was expelled for belting that wiseguy teacher, Mr. Greenspan. He had had to wait in the outer office for some time and he could tell from the way shelooked him over that she went for him. Under the right conditions, he could probably make it with her even though she was about twenty-six.

In a couple of more months, he'd be seventeen. Old enough to move out and get a pad of hisown somewhere in Manhattan- the West End probably.

He found himself standing before the window of the Old Village Gift Shop with its chrome and silver and stainless steel clutter- pans, dishes, candy trays, lazy Susans of all shapes and sizes. At eye level hung a pair of slender balance scales, one side of which was weighed down by a massive cluster of artificial grapes that looked almost real.

Francis nervously fingered the ten dollar bill in his pocket. His mother would sure go for that engraved silver tray, but it was well out of reach of his measly finances. He glanced along the wall at the right side of the window. Directly beneath the big gold-faced hanging clock was a small oval plaster plaque adorned by a pair of chubby pink ceramic angels. The plaque was about ten inches high and perhaps five inches across. There were greens and reds and other soft colors worked into the background to set off the pink flesh of the angels. It would certainly go with the Dresden China lamp his mother kept on top of her bric-a-brac shelf. She liked to collect junk like that and, as Francis remembered, she didn't have any angels. He turned into the shop.

When he emerged a few minutes later, he was carrying a package tied in a pink ribbon. It would be at least another ten minutes before Ernie Strode got back to pick him up. He walked idly toward the entrance to the Great Horn, stood there for a few minutes fingering the pair of quarters he had received in change from his ten dollars, and finally sauntered in through the automatic door.

Inside, he was engulfed by a pleasant wave of cool air. Artificial daylight spread its even shadowless glow over the stacked shelves and gleaming chrome and glass fixtures. A single woman shopper straggled through the empty aisles behind a shopping cart. She seemed to move in time to the music which hovered sourcelessly in the still cool air. The blonde girl at the checkout counter caught his attention briefly, stirring vague twinges of desire. Then as she looked up and met his eyes, he turned quickly away and wandered down the side aisle past the dairy case toward the rear. He passed his tongue over his dry lips and swallowed. An urge for something to chew led him along the transverse center aisle toward the candy shelf. Pausing, he examined the enticingly packaged array of sweets. He fingered some of the packages, picked up a large chocolate bar, returned it and then found himself eyeing a long slim box of rum wafers. Taking it from the shelf, he turned it over and noted the price stamped on the side. Sixty-nine cents. And sales tax to boot. He didn't have enough. But he wanted those rum wafers. His mouth watered. A furtive glance along the aisle in both directions assured him that he was alone. He set the box tentatively back on the shelf and placed his Mother's Day package alongside it. Using both hands, he quickly linked the zipper at the bottom of his poplin jacket. After another quick survey of the aisle, he scooped up the wafers and thrust them under the jacket, sliding the zipper halfway shut to insure concealment. Retrieving his gift package, he nestled it under his arm to banish any suspicion of a bulge and began to stroll from the aisle. He approached the checkout counter where the blonde girl was totalling the purchases of the same woman shopper he had noticed on entering- tall, plumpish and dark-haired. The blonde only gave him a casual glance before busying herself again at her checkout scanner. He passed through the adjacent checkout aisle which was empty, his Mother's Day gift held conspicuously with the ribbon showing. In another moment, he would have been out of the store when, abruptly, the manager appeared from the end of the last aisle, walking hurriedly. At first, it looked as if Francis were about to be intercepted. The manager was frowning ominously. He surveyed Francis while his eyes glided searchingly over the poplin jacket.

Francis hesitated. The manager had stopped and taken up a station near the door and simply remained there, watching him. Had he been spotted? Or was it just his imagination? But it was too late to turn back and get rid of the chocolates. Apprehensively, Francis continued on toward the automatic exit. He passed the manager and gained the vestibule, just inside the street door. A nervous impulse prompted him to look back. The manager hadn't altered his position at the door, but he was no longer watching him. Instead, the man's attention seemed to be on the dark-haired woman just finishing at the checkout counter. But Francis could see enough of the man's profile to note the continuing strained and angry expression. It struck him as very odd. But at least the manager didn't seem to be concerned with him, after all.

He went on out through the front door, squinting into the bright sunlight. The sudden heat felt oppressive. He peered across the empty parking lot. No sign yet of Ernie Strode. Well- he'd just have to wait around.

What happened next seemed to Francis to occur in two successive, almost overlapping stages. He had been standing out there in front of the store for no more than half a minute. He was even getting a little concerned about the heat melting the contraband chocolate under his jacket, and he was wondering how long Ernie might be. Then, the same dark, plumpish woman the store manager seemed to have been watching emerged from the store pushing her full shopping cart onto the walkway just alongside him. Francis examined her surreptitiously as she lingered, apparently lost in reflection. Perhaps she had forgotten to buy something and was thinking it over. She seemed oblivious of him as he sized her up. For an older woman, she had her points. Lots of leg, lots of hip and small in the waist in spite of the plumpness. Her hand rested idly on the flap of her shoulderbag and he noticed the odd looking wedding band she wore, which led Francis to wonder what kind of guy she had for a husband.

Probably she was the wife of some commuter. Once again, this set him to luxuriating in a variety of salacious images built around the earlier premise of his winning the Great Horn sweepstakes. At the same time, he stepped forward to get a better view of the store window with its information about the prize money.

A sudden clutch at his collar jerked him back on his heels. For an instant, as he swung around, he half expected to discover Ernie Strode in one of his more playful moods. Then he heard that voice which he knew couldn't be Ernie's and, the next thing he knew, he was looking into the taut face of the store manager.

The rest all seemed to be happening at once. The manager was shouting something at him, still clinging to his collar as Francis whirled back, trying to free himself. He uttered a strangled, inarticulate protest while, out of the corner of his eye, he saw the big white-aproned vegetable man charging toward them and simultaneously felt the manager's hand plunging beneath his jacket to snatch at the box of rum wafers.

"Hey-" Francis exclaimed. With his free hand, he aimed a clumsy blow at the manager's face. But before it could reach its target, the vegetable man had caught his arm and held it in a paralyzing grip. In the split second that he remained immobilized between the two men, the burr of their angry voices resounding in his head, he caught a glimpse of the woman. She stood watching with an expression of rigid fascination.

She remained for an instant vignetted against the brightness, her eyes hollow pockets of blackness, her head pulled back so that her neck seemed to arch. Then she moved and a ripple of light brought her features into full focus. Her eyes met his. The sunlight now played fully on her face and he noted with surprise the sudden crimsoning of her cheeks. In the next instant, the vision of her was cut off by the managerwaving the retrieved package of chocolates under his nose while the man's angry words spilled out at him.

"-and the other day it was a box of almonds. You think I didn't know? I let you get away with it that time. But I'm not letting it become a habit."

The words continued to break and splatter around him but, after a moment, Francis stopped listening when he realized that the manager wasn't even looking at him even though he hadn't released the hold on his collar. And then he discovered something else- that the manager was actually watching the woman even as his words seemed to be directed at Francis, as though Francis were nothing more than a convenient transmission point for something that was going on between the manager and the woman. Until, finally, the woman, even as she turned away, pushing her shopping basket toward her car, seemed to have left pulsating tangibly in the air between herself and the manager some after-image of their brief, wordless exchange of hostile glances. And then Francis heard the voice of the vegetable man, heavy and menacing: "Do you want me to call the cops on this?"

"No," the manager said. "You hold onto him. I'll call myself."

Mrs. Dumbrille deposited her packages in the trunk of her Chrysler and then started briskly across the parking lot. Her objective was the Baldwin Village Cooperative Nursery School at the far end of the shopping center. The name appeared just inside the store-front entrance on a cardboard window strip. In the window's lower corner, a silk-screened placard was held upright by the weight of the café curtains pressing against the glass.

P A N E L D I S C U S S I O N PARENTS AND CHILDREN

Rev. T. Goodwin Reeves, Minister, Baldwin Village Presbyterian Church

Dr. Joel Kabrin, Psychologist Dr. Mortimer King, Psychiatrist, Northern Westchester County Hospital Saturday Night--June 9th- at the Baldwin Village High School auditorium

Auspices: Baldwin Village Cooperative Nursery School

Mrs. Dumbrille opened the door and stepped into a large foyer constructed of unpainted plywood partitions. A small bony woman in a pair of tight yellow pedal pushers and white knit blouse sat on the edge of an old school desk, speaking into the telephone.

There was a barrenness about the place, an atmosphere as transitory as a stage set underscored by the unfinished partitions and the second hand desk with its telephone along with the group of folding chairs along one wall that might have been left over from the headquarters of some recent election campaign. One chair had been opened and was occupied by a young woman in jeans who looked to be scarcely out of her teens. She sat cross-legged in conversation with an older woman who stood over her, the darting bird-like gestures of one hand abetted by the flapping sleeves of a child's jacket held among three stiffly outstretched fingers.

Even the rippled sheets of children's art work, their bright smears of finger paint tacked at random intervals along the partition, seemed more like the debris of a departed carnival- the gaudy impermanent excrescences of a day or at most a week proudly blazoned on the equally impermanent site of its passage alongside the bulletins, the announcements of the coming cake sale, the meeting of the fathers' committee, the placard concerning a Riverside Quartet appearance in nearby Yorktown Heights and a talk on drugs and poverty at the Hillel Reformed Synogogue. "-much better if they get the chicken pox now," the young woman in jeans was saying. "Because the older they are when they get it, the worse it is."

"I know- I know," said the older woman. "My husband caught it last year from Ronald. And it was awful. He was simply covered from head to foot."

The woman in slacks clapped a hand over the telephone mouthpiece and nodded rapidly in Alice Dumbrille's direction, using an exaggerated lip movement in support of the stage whisper in which she announced: "I want to talk to you. I'll be through here in a minute,"- concluding with a downward dip of her head to the phone as her hand uncovered the mouthpiece. "Helene? No, dear- I was just saying I may be a little later than planned. Well, he's not here yet and I've no idea what his sense of time is. He said he'd be here by noon, but you know, he's from a very old civilization, and with all those thousands of years behind him- an hour more or less may not mean very much to him. Yes, dear- I understand- yes- I'll call before I come home."

She hung up and slid toward the edge of the desk, clasped her hands over her knees and gave Alice Dumbrille a bright, excited glance. "If you ever had to entertain a Hindu sage, then you'll know what I've been going through," she said. "Alice- you must tell me everything you know about India. I mean- you've travelled a lot and I know you read things-"

"Good Lord, Edna, I don't know a thing about India. Anyway, India's the farthest thing from my mind right now. I just had the most awful experience-" Alice's voice crested to a particularly strident note that drew the attention of the other two women. They broke off their conversation and stared curiously at her.

"But Alice," Edna persisted. "You must help me. He'll be here any minute and I hardly know what to-"

"What happened, Alice?" the older of the two women broke in.

"I just had a very unpleasant experience over at the Great Horn. That new manager is a beast. He arrested a child for stealing some candy." "The one that's taking Ed Graham's place? I thought he looked rather nice. Are you sure?" "You should have seen it. Two grown men pouncing on a child as if he'd murdered someone." "Well- I suppose they do have a problem with youngsters taking things. But still-" "You can be sure," Alice went on, "that if one of us had taken something, nothing would have happened." "One of us?" "Oh, Marge- don't be so holy." Alice glared at her impatiently. "I'm sure every one of us has taken something from a store at least once in the past year. It's no wonder, with all the money spent on advertising to make us want things we don't need." "I know what you mean," Edna admitted, her attention temporarily diverted from concern over her expected guest. "Dan is always talking about all the different tricks they use to get people to be good little consumers. At least that's what he calls them." "Still- arresting a child," declared the young woman in jeans. "That's going pretty far." "And the brutal way they went about it," Alice continued. "If I had my way, I'd like to get every mother in Baldwin Village to boycott the store." "Oh- but we can't," the younger woman announced suddenly. "We can't? Why not?" "Because Libby Westcott has just come up with an idea that practically guarantees we'll win that new Great Horn sweepstakes." "We'd have enough for our new building," Marge added. "Oh no," Alice exclaimed. "Not again. We're not going to be caught up this time in one of Libby's wild schemes. Not if I-"

She broke off abruptly as the front door slowly opened, providing an aperture about a foot wide through which a man's head now thrust tentatively into the room, the rest of him remaining discreetly withdrawn behind the threshold.

"Ladies?"

It was a face that none of them had ever seen before, with a skin like pale walnut, fine regular features, slumbrous deep brown eyes, a thin aquiline nose and a full, sharply chiselled mouth. The head was crowned with a shock of closely cropped greying black hair. All four women stared in puzzled silence until, after another sweep of his eyes, his lips moved again and repeated: "Ladies?"

"Oh!" Edna slid awkwardly from the edge of the desk and confronted the strange male face. "I mean- I'm Mrs. Daniel Quarles. Were you looking for me?"

The door swung wide now and a Hindu gentleman, impeccably dressed in a white linen suit, stepped across the threshold, his head inclined in a slight bow toward Edna. "Mrs. Quarles- Tara Sattvapalli. I'm delighted to make your acquaintance." He spoke in a clipped British public school accent with the merest trace of a laryngeal twang.

"So you finally got here, Mr. Sattva-"

"Sattvapalli," he said, displaying a row of white even teeth as he smiled at her. "But since the English tongue finds difficulty in coping with it, why not be less formal and simply call me 'Tara'?"

"That sounds much better-I mean- easier, Tara."

"As for my being late, I must apologize. I had heard so much of your American suburban culture that I asked the driver to let me off on Main Street that I might observe its distinctive features at close hand. So, while availing myself of the opportunity to examine your town- Baldwin Village- I walked until I arrived here. Unspeakably new, most of it. The vibrations are all very faint. But- ladies?" He inclined his head toward all of them in a slight bow of acknowledgement.

"Oh," said Edna. She gestured toward the others. "Alice Dumbrille- Marge Frisch and Kathy d'Avilio."

"Ladies," he said, bowing again and smiling at each in turn.

"Would you like to go to the house right away, Tara?" Edna asked in a fluttering, anxious voice.

"I would like to observe the school- the children," he announced. "And also if you could satisfy my curiosity on one further point-" He gestured toward the street door behind him. "There was a police car outside and much excitement over a young man the constable appeared to be taking into custody. I wondered what offense he had committed." "You see," Alice Dumbrille burst in. "I told you that new manager called the police." She turned to Sattvapalli. "The truth is, the poor boy was hungry and had stolen something to eat. I was there when it all happened." "Not so," said Mr. Sattvapalli firmly. "He could not have been hungry. I observed him closely. Besides, he is a very old soul." The women exchanged baffled glances. "What do you mean by that?" Alice demanded. "He's only a boy. Fifteen at the most." "Fifteen?" echoed Edna. "Why you gave me the impression he was just a child." "I assure you," said Mr. Sattvapalli, "that he is far older than all of you. I speak in the cosmic sense, of course. That is what chiefly matters."

Alice stared at the visitor. "I understand that you're expressing one of your Eastern beliefs," she said finally. "And naturally, I respect it. But- the important practical thing in this case is the injustice to a fifteen year old boy."

"Please," said Mr. Sattvapalli. "The boy will come to no harm. Nor will he ever go hungry. Old souls never lack for earhtly sustenance. His Karma embraces a much different problem."

"But why do you say he's a very old soul?" said Edna.

Mr. Sattvapalli made another little bow. "The avidya, the ignorance- stands in the way of explanation. But speaking, as it were, in parable, let us say that the young person we speak of has already lived through many incarnations. There are those in the East who believe that the age of a soul can be determined by the length of the ear-lobes. Hence- we might say that he is an old soul. There are, speaking no longer in parable, other signs, less visible, that may be read by those who know them. But, for the present, let us say it is chiefly a matter of earlobes."

"Ear-lobes," exclaimed Kathy d'Avilio. Her hand strayed inadvertently to the tip of her ear. "Mine aren't very long, are they?"

Marge Frisch and Edna stared at Mr. Sattvapalli for a moment. Alice watched them, her lips tight, her expression scornful. She realized that they were all studying the Hindu's ear-lobes.

"They are rather long, aren't they?" said Edna.

"As far as I'm concerned," Alice replied with ill-concealed exasperation, "all this has nothing to do with the present situation of that boy. I don't think any kind of belief justifies being passive about a matter of this kind."

"Indeed," said Mr. Sattvapalli. "You must be faithful to your own truth. The Kingdom, as you Christians say, is within."

"But you are a very old soul," said Edna. "Aren't you, Tara?"

The Hindu replied with another little bow. "Would it be possible now to see the school- the children?"

"Why, by all means," said Edna Quarles. "I only wish you'd gotten here a little earlier. They're probably just cleaning up by now."

"Oh- I'm sure that won't matter," said Marge Frisch breathlessly. She pushed open a door on the left side of the partition as a medley of high-pitched childish voices flowed into the vestibule. Marge called in through the open door, shouting over the din. "Denise- we've got a guest who'd like to come in." From inside, a strained feminine voice sounded faintly above the babel. "Bring her right in. We're just having a go at Mr. Merriweather."

"It's not a she," Marge Frisch shouted back. "It's a man."

"What's the difference?" the voice inside replied.

Mrs. Frisch turned to Mr. Sattvapalli and made a beckoning motion with her head. "Come along."

Sattvapalli stepped toward the door, following Mrs. Frisch. Edna Quarles, Kathy d'Avilio and Alice Dumbrille crowded close behind him.

Across the threshold, Mr Sattvapalli suddenly stopped and stared at the scene before him. All of his natural urbanity seemed to drain away into an expression of horrified incredulity.

The room which spread out before Mr. Sattvapalli 's gaze was large and barren of structural ornament, with assorted pipes criss-crossing the ceiling and lengths of electrical cable running along the upper portions of the walls to lead into the various unrecessed terminal boxes and lighting fixtures that had been crudely screened with fiber-glass sheets to filter the glare over the play area. A group of low unpainted wooden tables surrounded by tiny chairs occupied one side of the room's far end. In the adjacent corner was a pile of large hollow blocks hammered together out of plywood strips and now stacked and jumbled into a variety of shapes and incomplete structures that had apparently just been abandoned for the activity in the forepart of the room to which Mr. Sattvapalli's stricken gaze was now so impermeably welded.

Here a mixed group of less than a dozen four year olds formed a ragged, watchful semi-circle about one of their number, a wild-eyed tow-headed boy whose bizarre performance was being encouraged by the eager exhortations of two adult females standing on the periphery of the group. The youngster wielded a large flat stick that exceeded his own length by several inches, swinging it with a ferocity that almost threw him off balance as he struck repeatedly at a larger-than-life-size stuffed panda that hung by the neck from a rope tied to one of the ceiling pipes.

To Sattvapalli's affronted eyes, there was something incipiently human about the fantastic stuffed toy from whose battered misshapen figure came those dreadfully muffled thuds each time the heavy stick descended. Similarly, there was something frighteningly adult in the rapt eager expressions of the watching children. Out of that ring of faces as yet unmarked by their Karmic destiny, upon whom the taint of ego-involvement was as yet barely discernible, there were projected for Sattvapalli long quiescent memories, harsh and astringent family tales recited to him from childhood involving the cruelties of the British Raj that once dominated his own country. For a moment, he felt the foundations of his equanimity trembling. He shut his eyes against the threatening images that assaulted him. He tried to center himself as he had learned through years of arduous psychic effort in the tranquillity of Brahma. Instead he heard that strained, hortative feminine voice calling out: "Again, Rodney- hit him again."

Was it possible that here in the heart of pacific, suburban, managerial Westchester, there was fostered an educative process so odious in its aims of domination that it reached into the cradle itself to begin its preparatory work of- but Mr. Sattvapalli 's fearsome speculations were suddenly interrupted by the bland voice of Edna Quarles sounding at his elbow. "Mr. Merriweather is a great help in channeling aggression."

-- Alvin

<< 02/04/2008 | 02/11/2008 | 03/03/2008 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.


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