Nemesis by Philip Roth

Book: Nemesis by Philip Roth Read Free Book Online
Authors: Philip Roth
his usual summer outfit of an oversized half-sleeve shirt and ballooning cotton trousers with an elasticized waistband and long-outmoded brown-and-white perforated shoes, seemed undernourished to the point of emaciation. His chest was sunken, his legs were spindly, and his scrawny marionette arms, dangling weakly at his sides, looked as if you could snap them in two as easily as you break a stick over your knee. He looked as though a good fright
could kill him, let alone a blow from a boy built like Kenny.
    Instantly, Mr. Cantor sprang off the bench where he was seated and ran at full speed to the outfield while all the boys in the game and on the bleachers ran along with him and the three girls on the street stopped jumping rope, seemingly for the first time all summer.
    "Get him away from me!" Kenny—the boy who was the model of maturity for the others, whom Mr. Cantor never had reason to admonish for failing to exercise self-control—that same Kenny was now howling, "Get him away from me or I'll kill him!"
    "What is it? What's going on?" Mr. Cantor asked. Horace stood there with his head hanging and tears rolling down his face and keening, emitting a kind of radio signal from high in the back of his throat—a thin, oscillating sound of distress.
    "Smell him!" Kenny screamed. "He has shit all over him! Get him the hell away from me! It's him! He's the one who's carrying the polio!"
    "Calm down, Ken," Mr. Cantor said, trying to take hold of the boy, who wildly fought his way free. They were surrounded by the players on both
teams now, and when several of the boys rushed forward to grab Kenny by the arms and pull him back from where he was excoriating Horace, he turned to strike out at them with his fists, and all of them jumped away.
    "I'm not calming down!" Kenny cried. "He's got shit all over his underwear! He's got shit all over his hands! He doesn't wash and he isn't clean, and then he wants us to take his hand, and shake his hand, and that's how he's spreading polio! He's the one who's crippling people! He's the one who's killing people! Get out of here, you! Get! Go!" And again he waved his mitt violently in the air as though warding off the attack of a rabid dog.
    Meanwhile, managing to keep clear of Kenny's flailing arms, Mr. Cantor was able to interpose himself between the hysterical boy and the terrified creature onto whom he was pouring out his rage.
    "You have to go home, Horace," Mr. Cantor quietly told him. "Go home to your parents. It's time for your supper. It's time to eat."
    Horace did smell—he smelled horribly. And though Mr. Cantor repeated his words a second time, Horace kept on crying and keening and saying nothing.
    "Here, Horace," Mr. Cantor said and extended his hand to him. Without looking up, Horace took the hand limply in his and Mr. Cantor shook Horace's hand as heartily as he had shaken Dr. Steinberg's after receiving his permission to become engaged to Marcia the night before.
    "How ya doin', Horace?" Mr. Cantor whispered, pumping Horace's hand up and down. "How ya doin', boy?" It took a little longer than usual, but then, just as it always had in the past when Horace moseyed out to stand beside a player on the field, the handshake ritual did the trick, and Horace, assuaged, turned toward the playground exit to leave, whether for home or elsewhere nobody knew, probably not even Horace. All the boys who had heard Kenny's raving hung way back from Horace as they watched him lurch off alone into the wall of heat, while the girls, shrilly screaming "He's after us! The moron is chasing us!" ran with their jump ropes toward the late-afternoon Chancellor Avenue traffic, ran as fast as they could from the sight of how deep the human blight can go.
    To quiet Kenny down, Mr. Cantor asked him to stay behind when the rest of the boys headed off and to help him put the playground equipment
away in the basement storage room. Then, quietly talking to Kenny as they walked, Mr. Cantor accompanied him to

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