Deadeye dick, p.16
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       Deadeye Dick, p.16

           Kurt Vonnegut
 
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  Some people, of course, find inhabiting an epilogue so uncongenial that they commit suicide. Ernest Hemmingway comes to mind. Celia Hoover, nee Hildreth, comes to mind.

  My own father's story ended, it seems to me, and it must have seemed to him, when he took all the blame for my having shot Eloise Metzger--and then the police threw him down the iron staircase. He could not be an artist, and he could not be a soldier--but he could at least be heroically honorable and truthful, should an opportunity to be so present itself.

  That was the story of his life which he carried in his head.

  The opportunity presented itself. He was heroically honorable and truthful. He was thrown down the staircase--like so much garbage.

  It was then that these words should have appeared somewhere:

  THE END.

  But they didn't. But his life as a story was over anyway. The remaining years were epilogue--a sort of junk shop of events which were nothing more than random curiosities, boxes and bins of whatchamacallits.

  This could be true of nations, too. Nations might think of themselves as stories, and the stories end, but life goes on. Maybe my own country's life as a story ended after the Second World War, when it was the richest and most powerful nation on earth, when it was going to ensure peace and justice everywhere, since it alone had the atom bomb.

  THE END.

  Felix likes this theory a lot. He says that his own life as a story ended when he was made president of the National Broadcasting Company, and was celebrated as one of the ten best-dressed men in the country.

  THE END.

  He says, though, that his epilogue rather than his story has been the best part of his life. This must often be the case.

  Bernard Ketchum told us about one of Plato's dialogues, in which an old man is asked how it felt not to be excited by sex anymore. The old man replies that it was like being allowed to dismount from a wild horse.

  Felix says that that was certainly how he felt when he was canned by NBC.

  *

  It may be a bad thing that so many people try to make good stories out of their lives. A story, after all, is as artificial as a mechanical bucking bronco in a drinking establishment.

  And it may be even worse for nations to try to be characters in stories.

  Perhaps these words should be carved over doorways of the United Nations and all sorts of parliaments, big and small: LEAVE YOUR STORY OUTSIDE.

  *

  I got off the wild horse of my own life story at Celia Hoover's funeral, I think--when Reverend Harrell forgave me in public for having shot Eloise Metzger so long ago. If it wasn't then, it was only a couple of years after that, when Mother was finally killed by the radioactive mantelpiece.

  I had paid her back as best I could for ruining her life and Father's. She was no longer in need of personal services. The case was closed.

  *

  We probably never would have found out that it was the mantelpiece that killed her, if it weren't for an art historian from Ohio University over at Athens. His name was Cliff McCarthy. He was a painter, too. And Cliff McCarthy never would have got involved in our lives, if it hadn't been for all the publicity Mother received for objecting to the kind of art Fred T. Barry was buying for the arts center. He read about her in People magazine. Then again, Mother almost certainly wouldn't have become so passionate about taking Fred T. Barry on in the first place, if it hadn't been for little tumors in her brain, which had been caused by the radioactive mantelpiece.

  Wheels within wheels!

  People magazine described Mother as the widow of an Ohio painter. Cliff McCarthy had been working for years, financed by a Cleveland philanthropist, on a book which was to include every serious Ohio painter, but he had never heard of Father. So he visited our little shitbox, and he photographed Father's unfinished painting over the fireplace. That was all there was to photograph, so he took several exposures of that with a big camera on a tripod. He was being polite, I guess.

  But the camera used flat packs of four-by-five film, and he had exposed some of it elsewhere, so he got several packs out of his camera bag.

  He accidentally left one behind--on the mantelpiece. One week later he swung off the Interstate, on his way to someplace else, and he picked up the pack.

  Three days after that, he called me on the telephone to say that the film in the pack had all turned black, and that a friend of his who taught physics had offered the opinion that the film had been close to something which was highly radioactive.

  *

  He gave me another piece of news on the telephone, too. He had been looking at a diary kept by the great Ohio painter Frank Duveneck at the end of his life. He died in 1919, at the age of seventy-one. Duveneck spent his most productive years in Europe, but he returned to his native Cincinnati after his wife died in Florence, Italy.

  "Your father is in the diary!" said McCarthy. "Duveneck heard about this wonderful studio a young painter was building in Midland City, and on March 16, 1915, he went and had a look at it."

  "What did he say?" I asked.

  "He said it was certainly a beautiful studio, such as any artist in the world would have given his eyeteeth to have."

  "I mean, what did he say about Father?" I said.

  "He liked him, I think," said McCarthy.

  "Look," I said, "--I'm aware that my father was a fraud, and Father knew it, too. Duveneck was probably the only really important painter who ever saw Father's masquerade. No matter how cutting it is, please tell me what Duveneck said."

  "Well--I'll read it to you," said McCarthy, and he did: " 'Otto Waltz should be shot. He should be shot for seeming to prove the last thing that needs to be proved in this part of the world: that an artist is a person of no consequence.' "

  *

  I asked around about who was in charge of civil defense. I hoped that whoever it was would have a Geiger counter, or some other method of measuring radioactivity. It turned out that the director of civil defense for the county was Lowell Ulm, who owned the car wash on the Shepherdstown Turnpike by the airport. He was who you were supposed to call in case of World War Three. He did have a Geiger counter.

  So he came over after work. He had to go home for the Geiger counter first. That innocent-looking mantelpiece, before which Mother had spent so many hours, either gazing into the flames or up at Father's unfinished painting, was a killer. Lowell Ulm said this: "Jesus Christ! This thing is hotter than a Hiroshima baby carriage!"

  *

  Mother and I were moved into the new Holiday Inn, while workmen dressed like astronauts on the moon performed radical surgery on our little Avondale shitbox. The irony was, of course, that, if Mother had been a typical mother, out in the kitchen or down in the basement or out shopping most of the time, and if I had been a typical son, waiting to be fed, and lounging around the living room, I would have been the one to get the fatal dose of radiation.

  At least Gino and Marco Maritimo were both dead by then, presumably feeling nothing. They would have been heartsick to learn that the house which they had practically given to us was so dangerous. Marco had his peephole closed by natural causes about a month before Celia Hoover's funeral, and then Gino was killed in a freak accident at the arts center a few months after that. He was trying to get the center's drawbridge to work right, with the dedication ceremonies only a week away, and he was electrocuted. Two people died during the construction of the Mildred Barry Memorial Center for the Arts.

  I have no idea how many people were killed during the construction of the Taj Mahal. Hundreds upon hundreds, probably. Beauty seldom comes cheap.

  *

  But Gino and Marco's sons certainly took the mantelpiece seriously. They were as embarrassed as their fathers would have been, and they told us a lot more than they should have, since Felix and I would eventually decide to sue their corporation and a lot of other people by and by. The mantelpiece, they told us, came from a scrap heap in weeds back of an ornamental concrete company outside of Cincinnati
. Old Gino had found it there, and couldn't see anything wrong with it, and had bought it cheap for the model house, which became our house, at Avondale.

  With a lot of luck, and the help of a few honest people, we were able to trace the cement that went into the mantelpiece all the way back to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where pure uranium 235 was produced for the bomb they dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. The government somehow allowed that cement to be sold off as war surplus, even though many people had known how hot it was.

  In this case, the government was about as careless as a half-wit boy up in a cupola with a loaded Springfield rifle--on Mother's Day.

  *

  When Mother and I moved back into our little shitbox, we didn't have a fireplace anymore. We had been away for only twenty-four hours, but a Sheetrock wall had replaced the fireplace, and the whole living room had been repainted. The Maritimo Brothers Construction Company had done all that at their own expense. It wasn't even possible to tell that we had once had a fireplace.

  Felix wasn't around to see the transformation. He had taken a job under an assumed name, although his employers knew who he really was, or who he really had been, as an announcer on a radio station in South Bend, Indiana. This wasn't a humiliation. It was what he wanted to do, what he said he had been born to do. He was drug free. We were so proud of him.

  *

  Mother said a significant thing when she saw we didn't have a fireplace anymore. "Oh, dear--I don't know if I want to go on living without a fireplace."

  "What part of her life," you might ask, "was story, and what part was epilogue?" I think her case was similar to Father's, in that, by the time my brother and I came along, there was nothing left but epilogue. The circumstances of her early life virtually decreed that she live only a pipsqueak story, which was over only a few moments after it had begun. She had nothing to atone for, for example, since she was never tempted to do anything bad in the first place. And she wasn't going to go seeking any kind of Holy Grail, since that was clearly a man's job, and she already had a cup that overflowed and overflowed with good things to eat and drink anyway.

  I suppose that's really what so many American women are complaining about these days: They find their lives short on story and overburdened with epilogue.

  Mother's story ended when she married the handsomest rich man in town.

  27

  MOTHER SAID that thing about not knowing if she wanted to go on living, if she couldn't have a fireplace-- and then the telephone rang. Mother answered. I used to be the one to answer the telephone, but now she always beat me to it. Almost every call was thrillingly for her, since she had become the local Saint Joan of Arc in a holy war against nonrepresentational art.

  A year had passed since the dedication of the Mildred Barry Memorial Center for the Arts, with speeches and performances by noted creative persons from all over the country. Now it was virtually as empty and unvisited as the old Sears, Roebuck downtown, or the railroad station, where the Monon and New York Central railroads used to intersect, but which didn't even have tracks anymore.

  Mother had been bounced off the board of directors of the center, for her disruptive behavior at meetings, and for her unfriendly comments on the center in the press and before church groups and garden clubs and so on. She was much in demand as a sparkling, prickly public speaker. Fred T. Barry, for his part, had become as silent as the center itself. I saw his Lincoln limousine a couple of times, but the back windows were opaque, so I have no idea whether he was in there or not. I would see his company jet parked out at the airport sometimes, but never him. I expected to hear news of Mr. Barry from time to time, as in the past, from employees of his who happened into the drugstore. But then it became evident that Mr. Barry's employees were boycotting Schramm's Drugstore, both night and day, because my mother's younger son was an employee there.

  So it was a surprise that Mother now found herself talking on the telephone to none other than Fred T. Barry. He hoped, with all possible courtliness, that Mother would be home during the next hour, and willing to receive him. He had never been in our little shitbox before. I doubt, in fact, that he had ever before been in Avondale.

  Mother told him to come ahead. Those were her exact words, delivered in the flat tones of someone who had never lost a fight: "Come ahead, if you want to."

  *

  Mother and I had not yet begun to speculate seriously about what the radioactive mantelpiece might have done to our health, nor had we been encouraged to do so. Nor would we ever be encouraged to do so. Ulm, the director of civil defense and car-wash tycoon, had been getting advice on our case over the telephone from somebody at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Washington, D.C., to the effect that the most important thing was that nobody panic. In order to prevent panic, the workmen who had torn out our fireplace, wearing protective clothing provided by Ulm, had been sworn to secrecy--in the name of patriotism, of national security.

  The cover story, provided by Washington, D.C., and spread throughout Avondale while Mother and I were staying at the new Holiday Inn, was that our house had been riddled by termites, and that the protective clothing was necessary, since the workmen had killed the insects with cyanide.

  Insects.

  So we did not panic. Good citizens don't. We waited calmly for Fred T. Barry. I was at the picture window, peering out at the street between slats of the Venetian blinds. Mother was reclining in the Barcalounger my brother Felix had given her three Christmases ago. She was vibrating almost imperceptibly, and a reassuring drone came from underneath her. She had the massage motor turned on low.

  Mother said that she didn't feel any different, now that she knew she had been exposed to radioactivity. "Do you feel any different?" she asked.

  "No," I said. This sort of conversation is going to become increasingly common, I think, as radioactive materials get spread around the world.

  "If we were in such great danger," she said, "you'd think we would have noticed something. There would have been dead bugs on the mantelpiece, don't you think--or the plants would have gotten funny spots or something?"

  Meanwhile, little tumors were blooming in her head.

  "I'm so sorry they told the neighbors we had termites," she said. "I wish they could have thought of something else. It's like telling everybody we had leprosy."

  It turned out that she had had a traumatic experience with termites in childhood, which she had never mentioned to me. She had suppressed the memory all those years, but now she told me, full of horror, of walking into the music room of her father's mansion, which she had believed to be so indestructible when she was a little girl, and seeing what looked like foam, boiling out the floor and a baseboard near the grand piano, and out of the legs and the keyboard of the piano itself.

  "There were billions and billions of bugs with shiny wings, acting for all the world like a liquid," she said. "I ran and got Father. He couldn't believe his eyes, either. Nobody had played the piano for years. If somebody had played it, maybe it would have driven the bugs out of there. Father gave a piano leg a little kick, and it crumpled like it was made out of cardboard. The piano fell down."

  *

  This was clearly one of the most memorable events of her whole life, and I had never heard of it before.

  If she had died in childhood, she would have remembered life as the place you went, in case you wanted to see bugs eat a grand piano.

  *

  So Fred T. Barry arrived in his limousine. He was so old now, and Mother was so old now, and they had had this long fight about whether modern art was any good or not. I let him in, and Mother received him while lying on the Barcalounger.

  "I have come to surrender, Mrs. Waltz," he said. "You should be very proud of yourself. I have lost all interest in the arts center. It can be turned into a chicken coop, for all I care. I am leaving Midland City forever."

  "I am sure you had the best intentions, Mr. Barry," she said. "I never doubted that. But the next time you try to give somebody a wond
erful present, make sure they want it first. Don't try to stuff it down their throats."

  He sold his company to the RAMJAC Corporation for a gazoolian bucks. A firm that acquires American farmland for Arabs bought his farm. As far as I know, no Arab has ever come to take a look at it. He himself moved to Hilton Head, South Carolina, and I have heard nothing about him since. He was so bitter that he left no endowment behind to maintain the arts center, and the city was so broke that it could only let the place go to rack and ruin.

  And then, one day, there was this flash.

  *

  Mother died a year after Fred T. Barry surrendered to her. When she was in the hospital for the last time, she thought she was in a spaceship. She thought I was Father, and that we were headed for Mars, where we were going to have a second honeymoon.

  She was as alive as anybody, and utterly mistaken about everything. She wouldn't let go of my hand.

  "That picture," she said, and she would smile and give my hand a squeeze. I was supposed to know which of all the pictures in the world she meant. I thought for a while that it was Father's unfinished masterpiece from his misspent youth in Vienna. But in a moment of clarity, she made it clear that it was a scrapbook photograph of her in a rowboat on a small river somewhere, maybe in Europe. Then again, it could have been Sugar Creek. The boat is tied to shore. There aren't any oars in place. She isn't going anywhere. She wears a summer dress and a garden hat. Somebody has persuaded her to pose in the boat, with water around her and dappled with shade. She is laughing. She has just been married, or is about to be married.

  She will never be happier. She will never be more beautiful.

  Who could have guessed that that young woman would take a rocket-ship trip to Mars someday?

  *

  She was seventy-seven when she died, so that all sorts of things, including plain old life, could have closed her peephole. But the autopsy revealed that she had been healthy as a young horse, except for tumors in her head. Tumors of that sort, moreover, could only have been caused by radiation, so Felix and I hired Bernard Ketchum to sue everybody who had bought or sold in any form the radioactive cement from Oak Ridge.

  It took a while to win, and I meanwhile kept going to work six nights a week at Schramm's Drugstore, and keeping house in the little shitbox out in Avondale. There isn't all that much difference between keeping house for two and keeping house for one.

 
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