Deadeye dick, p.13
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       Deadeye Dick, p.13
 

           Kurt Vonnegut
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  *

  Father's deathbed scene went like this: Mother and Felix and I were there, right by his bed. Gino and Marco Maritimo, faithful to the end, had driven to the hospital atop their own bulldozer. It would later turn out that these two endearing old poops had done hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of damage on the way, tearing up hidden automobiles and fences and fire hydrants and mailboxes, and so on. They had to stay out in the corridor, since they weren't blood relatives.

  Father was under an oxygen tent. He was all shot up with antibiotics, but his body couldn't fight off the pneumonia. Too much else was wrong. The hospital had shaved off his thick, youthful hair and mustache, so that an accidental spark couldn't make them burn like gunpowder in the presence of all that oxygen. He seemed to be asleep, but having nightmares, fighting with his eyes closed, when Felix and I came in.

  Mother had already been there for hours. Her frostbitten hands and feet were enclosed in plastic bags filled with a yellow salve, so that she couldn't touch any of us. This turned out to be an experimental treatment for frostbite, invented right there in Midland City that very morning, by a Doctor Miles Pendleton. We assumed that all frostbite victims had their damaged parts encased in plastic and salve. Mother, in fact, was probably the only person in history to be treated that way.

  She was a human guinea pig, and we didn't even know it.

  No harm done, luckily.

  *

  Father's peephole closed forever at sunset on the day after the opening and closing of my play. He was sixty-eight. The only word Felix and I heard from him was his very last one, which was this: "Mama." It was Mother who told us about his earlier deathbed assertions--that he had at least been good with children, that he had always tried to behave honorably, and that he hoped he had at least brought some appreciation of beauty to Midland City, even if he himself hadn't been an artist.

  *

  He mentioned guns, according to Mother, but he didn't editorialize about them. All he said was, "Guns."

  The wrecked guns, including the fatal Springfield, had been donated to a scrap drive during the war--along with the weather vane. They might have killed a lot more people when they were melted up and made into shells or bombs or hand grenades or whatever.

  Waste not, want not.

  *

  As far as I know, he had only one big secret which he might have told on his deathbed: Who killed August Gunther, and what became of Gunther's head. But he didn't tell it. Who would have cared? Would there have been any social benefit in prosecuting old Francis X. Morissey, who had become chief of police and was about to retire, for accidentally blowing Gunther's head off with a ten-gauge shotgun forty-four years ago?

  Let sleeping dogs lie.

  *

  When Felix and I got to Father, he was a baby again. He thought his mother was somewhere around. He died believing that he had once owned one of the ten greatest paintings in the world. This wasn't "The Minorite Church of Vienna" by Adolf Hitler. Father had nothing to say about Hitler as he died. He had learned his lesson about Hitler. One of the ten greatest paintings in the world, as far as he was concerned, was "Crucifixion in Rome," by John Rettig, which he had bought for a song in Holland, during his student days. It now hangs in the Cincinnati Art Museum.

  "Crucifixion in Rome," in fact, was one of the few successes in the art marketplace, or in any sort of marketplace, which Father experienced in his threescore years and eight. When he and Mother had to put up all their treasures for sale, in order to pay off the Metzgers, they had imagined that their paintings alone were worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. They advertised in an art magazine, I remember, that an important art collection was to be liquidated, and that serious collectors and museum curators could see it by appointment in our house.

  About five people did come all the way to Midland City for a look, I remember, and found the collection ludicrous. One man, I remember, wanted a hundred pictures for a motel he was furnishing in Biloxi, Mississippi. The rest really seemed to know and care about art.

  But the only painting anybody wanted was "Crucifixion in Rome." The Cincinnati Art Museum bought it for not much money, and the museum wanted it not because its greatness was so evident, I'm sure, but because it had been painted by a native of Cincinnati. It was a tiny thing, about the size of a shirt cardboard--about the size of Father's work in progress, the nude in his Vienna studio.

  John Rettig, in fact, died in the year I was born, which was 1932. Unlike me, he got out of his hometown and stayed out. He took off for the Near East and then Europe, and he finally settled in Volendam, Holland. That became his home, and that was where Father discovered him before the First World War.

  Volendam was John Rettig's Katmandu. When Father met him, this man from Cincinnati was wearing wooden shoes.

  *

  "Crucifixion in Rome" is signed "John Rettig," and it is dated 1888. So it was painted four years before Father was born. Father must have bought it in 1913 or so. Felix thinks there is a possibility that Hitler was with Father on that skylarking trip to Holland. Maybe so.

  "Crucifixion in Rome" is indeed set in Rome, which I have never seen. I know enough, though, to recognize that it is chock-a-block with architectural anachronisms. The Colosseum, for example, is in perfect repair, but there is also the spire of a Christian church, and some architectural details and monuments which appear to be more recent, even, than the Renaissance, maybe even nineteenth century. There are sixty-eight tiny but distinct human figures taking part in some sort of celebration amid all this architecture and sculpture. Felix and I counted them one time, when we were young. Hundreds more are implied by impressionistic smears and dots. Banners fly. Walls are festooned with ropes of leaves. What fun.

  Only if you look closely at the painting will you realize that two of the sixty-eight figures are not having such a good time. They are in the lower left-hand corner, and are harmonious with the rest of the composition, but they have in fact just been hung from crosses.

  The picture is a comment, I suppose, but certainly a bland one, on man's festive inhumanity to men--even into what to John Rettig were modern times.

  It has the same general theme, I guess, of Picasso's "Guernica," which I have seen. I went to see "Guernica" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, during a lull in the rehearsals of Katmandu.

  Some picture!

  22

  I WENT FOR A WALK through hospital corridors all alone after Father died. A few people may or may not have murmured "Deadeye Dick" behind my back. It was a busy place.

  I came upon strange beauty unexpectedly in a fourth-floor cul-de-sac. It was in a dazzlingly sunny patients' lounge. The unexpected beauty was in the form of Celia Hoover, nee Hildreth, again. She had fallen asleep on a couch, and her eleven-year-old son was watching over her. She had evidently brought him with her to the hospital, rather than leave him alone at home in the blizzard.

  He was seated stiffly on the edge of the couch. Even in sleep, she was keeping him captive. She was holding his hand. I had the feeling that, if he had tried to get up, she would have awakened enough to make him sit back down again.

  That seemed all right with him.

  *

  Yes--well--and ten years later, in 1970, that same boy would be a notorious homosexual, living away from home in the old Fairchild Hotel. His father, Dwayne Hoover, had disowned him. His mother had become a recluse. He eked out a living as a piano player at night in the Tally-ho Room of the new Holiday Inn.

  I was again what I had been before the fiasco of my play in New York, the all-night man at Schramm's Drugstore. Father was buried in Calvary Cemetery, not all that far from Eloise Metzger. We buried him in a painter's smock, and with his left thumb hooked through a palette. Why not?

  The city had taken the old carriage house for fifteen years of back taxes. The first floor now sheltered the carcasses of trucks and buses which were being cannibalized for parts. The upper floors were dead storage for documents relating to tran
sactions by the city before the First World War.

  Mother and I inhabited a little two-bedroom shitbox out in the Maritimo Brothers development known as "Avondale." Mother and I moved into it about three months after Father died. It was virtually a gift from Gino and Marco Maritimo. We didn't even have a down payment. Mother and I were both dead broke, and Felix hadn't started to make really big money yet, and he was about to pay alimony to two ex-wives instead of one. Old Gino and Marco told us to move in anyway, and not to worry. The price they were asking, it turned out, was so far below the actual value of the house that we had no trouble getting a mortgage. It had been a model house, too, which meant it was already landscaped, and there were Venetian blinds already on all the windows, and a flagstone walk running up to the front door, and a post lantern out front, and all sorts of expensive options which most Avondale buyers passed up, like a full basement and genuine tile in the bathroom, and a cedar closet in Mother's bedroom, and a dishwasher and a garbage disposal unit and a wall oven and a built-in breakfast nook in the kitchen, and a fireplace with an ornate mantelpiece in the living room, and an outdoor barbecue, and an eight-foot cedar fence around the backyard, and on and on.

  *

  So, in 1970, at the age of thirty-eight, I was still cooking for my mother, and making her bed every day, and doing her laundry, and so on. My brother, forty-four then, was president of the National Broadcasting Company, and living in a penthouse overlooking Central Park, and one of the ten best-dressed men in the country, supposedly, and breaking up with his fourth wife. According to a gossip column Mother and I read, he and his fourth wife had divided the penthouse in half with a line of chairs. Neither one was supposed to go in the other one's territory.

  Felix was also due to be fired any day, according to the same column, because the ratings of NBC prime time television shows were falling so far behind those of the other networks.

  Felix denied this.

  *

  Yes--and Fred T. Barry had lost his mother, and the Maritimo Brothers Construction Company was building the Mildred Barry Memorial Center for the Arts on stilts in the middle of Sugar Creek. I hadn't seen Mr. Barry for ten years.

  But Tiger Adams, his pilot, came into Schramm's Drugstore one morning, at about two A.M. I asked him how Mr. Barry was, and he said that he had almost no interest in anything anymore, except for the arts center.

  "He says he wants to give southwestern Ohio its own Taj Mahal," he told me. "He's sick with loneliness, of course. If it weren't for the arts center, I think maybe he would have killed himself."

  So I looked up the Taj Mahal at the downtown public library the next afternoon. The library was about to be torn down, since the neighborhood had deteriorated so much. Nice people didn't like to go there anymore in the winter, since there were always so many bums inside, just keeping warm.

  I had of course heard of the Taj Mahal before. Who hasn't? And it had figured in my play. Old John Fortune saw the Taj Mahal before he died. That was the last place he sent a postcard from. But I had never known why and when and how it had been built, exactly.

  It turned out that it was completed in 1643, three hundred and one years before I shot Eloise Metzger. It took twenty thousand workmen twenty-two years to build it.

  It was a memorial to something Fred T. Barry never had, and which I have never had, which is a wife. Her name was Arjumand Banu Begum. She died in childbirth. Her husband, who ordered the Taj Mahal to be built at any cost, was the Mogul emperor Shah Jahan.

  *

  Tiger Adams gave me news of somebody else I hadn't seen for quite a while. He said that, two nights before, he had been coming in for a night landing at Will Fairchild Memorial Airport, and he had had to pull up at the last second because there was somebody out on the runway.

  Whoever it was fell down in a heap right in the middle of the runway, and then just stayed there. There were only two people inside the airport at that hour--one in the tower, and the other waxing floors down below. So the floor waxer, who was one of the Gatch brothers, drove out on the runway in his own car.

  He had to half-drag the mystery person into his car. It turned out to be Celia Hoover. She was barefoot, and wearing her husband's trenchcoat over a nightgown, and about five miles from home. She had evidently gone for a long walk, even though she was barefoot--and she had got on the runway in the dark, thinking it was a road. And then the landing lights had come on all of a sudden, and the Barrytron Learjet had put a part in her hair.

  Nobody notified the police or anybody. Gatch just took her home.

  Gatch later told Tiger then there hadn't been anybody at her house to wonder where she had been, to be relieved that she was all right, and so on. She just went inside all alone, and presumably went to bed all alone. After she went inside, one light upstairs went on for about three minutes, and then went off again. It looked like a bathroom light.

  According to Tiger, Gatch said this to the blacked-out house: "Sleep tight, honeybunch."

  *

  That isn't quite right. There had been a dog to welcome her home, but she hadn't paid any attention to the dog. She had put no value, as far as Gatch could see, on the dog's delight. She didn't pet it or thank it, or anything--or tell it to come on upstairs with her.

  The dog was Dwayne Hoover's Labrador retriever, Sparky, but Dwayne was hardly ever home anymore. Sparky would have been glad to see just about anybody. Sparky was glad to see Gatch.

  *

  So, while I try not to become too concerned about anybody, while my feeling ever since I shot Eloise Metzger has been that I don't really belong on this particular planet, I had loved Celia at least a little bit. She had been in my play, after all, and had taken the play very seriously--which made her a sort of child or sister of mine.

  To have been a perfectly uninvolved person, a perfect neuter, I should never have written a play.

  To have been a perfect neuter, I shouldn't have bought a new Mercedes, either. That's correct: Ten years after Father died, I had saved so much money, working night after night, and living so modestly out in Avon dale, that I bought a white, four-door Mercedes 280, and still had plenty of money left over.

  It felt like a very funny accident. There Deadeye Dick was all of a sudden, driving this big white dreamboat around town, evidently talking to himself a mile a minute. What I was really doing, of course, was chasing the blues with scat singing. "Feedily watt a boo boo," I'd sing in my Mercedes, and "Rang-a-dang wee," and so on. "Foodily at! Foodily at!"

  *

  The most troubling news Tiger Adams had about Celia was this: During the seven years since she had been in my play, she had become as ugly as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.

  Those were Tiger's exact words to me: "My God, Rudy, you wouldn't believe it--that poor woman has become as ugly as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz."

  *

  A week later, she paid me a call at the drugstore--at about midnight, the witching hour.

  23

  I HAD JUST COME to work. I was standing at the back door, gazing at my new Mercedes, and listening to the seeming muted roar of waves breaking on a beach not far away. The seeming surf was in fact the sound of gigantic trucks with eighteen wheels, moving at high speed on the Interstate. The night was balmy. All I needed was a ukulele. I was so content.

  My back was to the stock room, with its cures for every ailment known to man. A little bell dinged in the stock room, telling me that someone had just entered the front of the store. It could be a killer, of course. There was always a chance that it was a killer, or at least a robber. In the ten years since Father had died, I had been robbed in the store six times.

  What a hero I was.

  So I went to wait on the customer, or whatever it was. I left the back door unlocked. If it was a robber, I would try to get out the back door and hide among the weeds and garbage cans. He or she would have to help himself or herself. I would not be there to obey his or her orders to cooperate.

>   The customer, or whatever it was, was inspecting dark glasses on a carousel. Who needed dark glasses at midnight?

  It was small for a human being. But it was certainly big enough to carry a sawed-off shotgun under its voluminous trenchcoat, the hem of which scarcely cleared the floor.

  "Can I help you?" I said cheerily. Perhaps it had a headache or hemorrhoids.

  It faced me, and it showed me the raddled, snaggletoothed ruins of the face of Celia Hoover, once the most beautiful girl in town.

  Again--my memory writes a playlet.

  The curtain rises on the interior of a seedy drugstore in the poorest part of a small Middle-Western city, shortly after midnight. RUDY WALTZ, a fat, neutered pharmacist, is shocked to recognize a demented speed freak, a hag, as CELIA HOOVER, once the most beautiful girl in town.

  RUDY: Mrs. Hoover!

  CELIA: My hero!

  RUDY: Not me.

  CELIA: Yes! Yes! You! My hero of theatrical literature!

  RUDY (pained): Oh, please--

  CELIA: That play of yours--it changed my life.

  RUDY: You were certainly good in it.

  CELIA: All those wonderful words that came out of me-- those were your words. I could never have thought up words that beautiful to say in a million years. I almost lived and died without ever saying anything worth listening to.

  RUDY: You made my words sound a lot better than they really were.

  CELIA: I was on that stage, and there were all these people out there, all bug-eyed, hearing all those wonderful words coming out of dumb old Celia Hoover. They couldn't believe it.

  RUDY: It was a magic time in my life, too.

  CELIA (imitating the audience): "Author! Author!"

  RUDY: We were the toast of the town at curtain call. Now, then--what can I get you here?

  CELIA: A new play.

  RUDY: I've written my first and last play, Celia.

  CELIA: Wrong! I have come to inspire you--with this new face of mine. Look at my new face! Make up the words that should come out of a face like this. Write a crazy-old-lady play!

  RUDY (looking out at the street): Where did you park your car?

 
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