Cats cradle, p.2
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       Cat's Cradle, p.2

           Kurt Vonnegut
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  "His pores looked as big as craters on the moon. His ears and nostrils were stuffed with hair. Cigar smoke made him smell like the mouth of Hell. So close up, my father was the ugliest thing I had ever seen. I dream about it all the time.

  "And then he sang. 'Rockabye catsy, in the tree top'; he sang, 'when the wind blows, the cray-dull will rock. If the bough breaks, the cray-dull will fall. Down will come cray-dull, catsy, and all.'

  "I burst into tears. I jumped up and I ran out of the house as fast as I could go.

  "I have to sign off here. It's after two in the morning. My roommate just woke up and complained about the noise from the typewriter."



  NEWT RESUMED HIS LETTER the next morning. He resumed it as follows:

  "Next morning. Here I go again, fresh as a daisy after eight hours of sleep. The fraternity house is very quiet now. Everybody is in class but me. I'm a very privileged character. I don't have to go to class any more. I was flunked out last week. I was a pre-med. They were right to flunk me out. I would have made a lousy doctor.

  "After I finish this letter, I think I'll go to a movie. Or if the sun comes out, maybe I'll go for a walk through one of the gorges. Aren't the gorges beautiful? This year, two girls jumped into one holding hands. They didn't get into the sorority they wanted. They wanted Tri-Delt.

  "But back to August 6, 1945. My sister Angela has told me many times that I really hurt my father that day when I wouldn't admire the cat's cradle, when I wouldn't stay there on the carpet with my father and listen to him sing. Maybe I did hurt him, but I don't think I could have hurt him much. He was one of the best-protected human beings who ever lived. People couldn't get at him because he just wasn't interested in people. I remember one time, about a year before he died, I tried to get him to tell me something about my mother. He couldn't remember anything about her.

  "Did you ever hear the famous story about breakfast on the day Mother and Father were leaving for Sweden to accept the Nobel Prize? It was in The Saturday Evening Post one time. Mother cooked a big breakfast. And then, when she cleared off the table, she found a quarter and a dime and three pennies by Father's coffee cup. He'd tipped her.

  "After wounding my father so terribly, if that's what I did, I ran out into the yard. I didn't know where I was going until I found my brother Frank under a big spiraea bush. Frank was twelve then, and I wasn't surprised to find him under there. He spent a lot of time under there on hot days. Just like a dog, he'd make a hollow in the cool earth all around the roots. And you never could tell what Frank would have under the bush with him. One time he had a dirty book. Another time he had a bottle of cooking sherry. On the day they dropped the bomb Frank had a tablespoon and a Mason jar. What he was doing was spooning different kinds of bugs into the jar and making them fight.

  "The bug fight was so interesting that I stopped crying right away--forgot all about the old man. I can't remember what all Frank had fighting in the jar that day, but I can remember other bug fights we staged later on: one stag beetle against a hundred red ants, one centipede against three spiders, red ants against black ants. They won't fight unless you keep shaking the jar. And that's what Frank was doing, shaking, shaking the jar.

  "After a while Angela came looking for me. She lifted up one side of the bush and she said, 'So there you are!' She asked Frank what he thought he was doing, and he said, 'Experimenting.' That's what Frank always used to say when people asked him what he thought he was doing. He always said, 'Experimenting.'

  "Angela was twenty-two then. She had been the real head of the family since she was sixteen, since Mother died, since I was born. She used to talk about how she had three children--me, Frank, and Father. She wasn't exaggerating, either. I can remember cold mornings when Frank, Father, and I would be all in a line in the front hall, and Angela would be bundling us up, treating us exactly the same. Only I was going to kindergarten; Frank was going to junior high; and Father was going to work on the atom bomb. I remember one morning like that when the oil burner had quit, the pipes were frozen, and the car wouldn't start. We all sat there in the car while Angela kept pushing the starter until the battery was dead. And then Father spoke up. You know what he said? He said, 'I wonder about turtles.' 'What do you wonder about turtles?' Angela asked him. 'When they pull in their heads,' he said, 'do their spines buckle or contract?'

  "Angela was one of the unsung heroines of the atom bomb, incidentally, and I don't think the story has ever been told. Maybe you can use it. After the turtle incident, Father got so interested in turtles that he stopped working on the atom bomb. Some people from the Manhattan Project finally came out to the house to ask Angela what to do. She told them to take away Father's turtles. So one night they went into his laboratory and stole the turtles and the aquarium. Father never said a word about the disappearance of the turtles. He just came to work the next day and looked for things to play with and think about, and everything there was to play with and think about had something to do with the bomb.

  "When Angela got me out from under the bush, she asked me what had happened between Father and me. I just kept saying over and over again how ugly he was, how much I hated him. So she slapped me. 'How dare you say that about your father?' she said. 'He's one of the greatest men who ever lived! He won the war today! Do you realize that? He won the war!' She slapped me again.

  "I don't blame Angela for slapping me. Father was all she had. She didn't have any boy friends. She didn't have any friends at all. She had only one hobby. She played the clarinet.

  "I told her again how much I hated my father; she slapped me again; and then Frank came out from under the bush and punched her in the stomach. It hurt her something awful. She fell down and she rolled around. When she got her wind back, she cried and she yelled for Father.

  " 'He won't come,' Frank said, and he laughed at her. Frank was right. Father stuck his head out a window, and he looked at Angela and me rolling on the ground, bawling, and Frank standing over us, laughing. The old man pulled his head indoors again, and never even asked later what all the fuss had been about. People weren't his specialty.

  "Will that do? Is that any help to your book? Of course, you've really tied me down, asking me to stick to the day of the bomb. There are lots of other good anecdotes about the bomb and Father, from other days. For instance, do you know the story about Father on the day they first tested a bomb out at Alamogordo? After the thing went off, after it was a sure thing that America could wipe out a city with just one bomb, a scientist turned to Father and said, 'Science has now known sin.' And do you know what Father said? He said, 'What is sin?'

  "All the best,

  "Newton Hoenikker"



  NEWT ADDED THESE THREE postscripts to his letter: "P.S. I can't sign myself 'fraternally yours' because they won't let me be your brother on account of my grades. I was only a pledge, and now they are going to take even that away from me.

  "P.P.S. You call our family 'illustrious,' and I think you would maybe be making a mistake if you called it that in your book. I am a midget, for instance--four feet tall. And the last we heard of my brother Frank, he was wanted by the Florida police, the F.B.I., and the Treasury Department for running stolen cars to Cuba on war-surplus L.S.T.'s. So I'm pretty sure 'illustrious' isn't quite the word you're after. 'Glamorous' is probably closer to the truth.

  "P.P.P.S. Twenty-four hours later. I have reread this letter and I can see where somebody might get the impression that I don't do anything but sit around and remember sad things and pity myself. Actually, I am a very lucky person and I know it. I am about to marry a wonderful little girl. There is love enough in this world for everybody, if people will just look. I am proof of that."



  NEWT DID NOT TELL ME who his girl friend was. But about two weeks after he wrote to me everybody in the country knew that her name was Zinka--plain Zinka. Ap
parently she didn't have a last name.

  Zinka was a Ukrainian midget, a dancer with the Borzoi Dance Company. As it happened, Newt saw a performance by that company in Indianapolis, before he went to Cornell. And then the company danced at Cornell. When the Cornell performance was over, little Newt was outside the stage door with a dozen long-stemmed American Beauty roses.

  The newspapers picked up the story when little Zinka asked for political asylum in the United States, and then she and little Newt disappeared.

  One week after that, little Zinka presented herself at the Russian Embassy. She said Americans were too materialistic. She said she wanted to go back home.

  Newt took shelter in his sister's house in Indianapolis. He gave one brief statement to the press. "It was a private matter," he said. "It was an affair of the heart. I have no regrets. What happened is nobody's business but Zinka's and my own."

  One enterprising American reporter in Moscow, making inquiries about Zinka among dance people there, made the unkind discovery that Zinka was not, as she claimed, only twenty-three years old.

  She was forty-two--old enough to be Newt's mother.



  I LOAFED ON MY BOOK about the day of the bomb.

  About a year later, two days before Christmas, another story carried me through Ilium, New York, where Dr. Felix Hoenikker had done most of his work; where little Newt, Frank, and Angela had spent their formative years.

  I stopped off in Ilium to see what I could see.

  There were no live Hoenikkers left in Ilium, but there were plenty of people who claimed to have known well the old man and his three peculiar children.

  I made an appointment with Dr. Asa Breed, Vice-president in charge of the Research Laboratory of the General Forge and Foundry Company. I suppose Dr. Breed was a member of my karass, too, though he took a dislike to me almost immediately.

  "Likes and dislikes have nothing to do with it," says Bokonon--an easy warning to forget.

  "I understand you were Dr. Hoenikker's supervisor during most of his professional life," I said to Dr. Breed on the telephone.

  "On paper," he said.

  "I don't understand," I said.

  "If I actually supervised Felix," he said, "then I'm ready now to take charge of volcanoes, the tides, and the migrations of birds and lemmings. The man was a force of nature no mortal could possibly control."



  DR. BREED MADE an appointment with me for early the next morning. He would pick me up at my hotel on his way to work, he said, thus simplifying my entry into the heavily-guarded Research Laboratory.

  So I had a night to kill in Ilium. I was already in the beginning and end of night life in Ilium, the Del Prado Hotel. Its bar, the Cape Cod Room, was a hangout for whores.

  As it happened--"as it was meant to happen," Bokonon would say--the whore next to me at the bar and the bartender serving me had both gone to high school with Franklin Hoenikker, the bug tormentor, the middle child, the missing son.

  The whore, who said her name was Sandra, offered me delights unobtainable outside of Place Pigalle and Port Said. I said I wasn't interested, and she was bright enough to say that she wasn't really interested either. As things turned out, we had both overestimated our apathies, but not by much.

  Before we took the measure of each other's passions, however, we talked about Frank Hoenikker, and we talked about the old man, and we talked a little about Asa Breed, and we talked about the General Forge and Foundry Company, and we talked about the Pope and birth control, about Hitler and the Jews. We talked about phonies. We talked about truth. We talked about gangsters; we talked about business. We talked about the nice poor people who went to the electric chair; and we talked about the rich bastards who didn't. We talked about religious people who had perversions. We talked about a lot of things.

  We got drunk.

  The bartender was very nice to Sandra. He liked her. He respected her. He told me that Sandra had been chairman of the Class Colors Committee at Ilium High. Every class, he explained, got to pick distinctive colors for itself in its junior year, and then it got to wear those colors with pride.

  "What colors did you pick?" I asked.

  "Orange and black."

  "Those are good colors."

  "I thought so."

  "Was Franklin Hoenikker on the Class Colors Committee, too?"

  "He wasn't on anything," said Sandra scornfully. "He never got on any committee, never played any game, never took any girl out. I don't think he ever even talked to a girl. We used to call him Secret Agent X-9."


  "You know--he was always acting like he was on his way between two secret places; couldn't ever talk to anybody."

  "Maybe he really did have a very rich secret life," I suggested.


  "Nah," sneered the bartender. "He was just one of those kids who made model airplanes and jerked off all the time."



  "HE WAS SUPPOSED TO BE our commencement speaker," said Sandra.

  "Who was?" I asked.

  "Dr. Hoenikker--the old man."

  "What did he say?"

  "He didn't show up."

  "So you didn't get a commencement address?"

  "Oh, we got one. Dr. Breed, the one you're gonna see tomorrow, he showed up, all out of breath, and he gave some kind of talk."

  "What did he say?"

  "He said he hoped a lot of us would have careers in science," she said. She didn't see anything funny in that. She was remembering a lesson that had impressed her. She was repeating it gropingly, dutifully. "He said, the trouble with the world was ..."

  She had to stop and think.

  "The trouble with the world was," she continued hesitatingly, "that people were still superstitious instead of scientific. He said if everybody would study science more, there wouldn't be all the trouble there was."

  "He said science was going to discover the basic secret of life someday," the bartender put in. He scratched his head and frowned. "Didn't I read in the paper the other day where they'd finally found out what it was?"

  "I missed that," I murmured.

  "I saw that," said Sandra. "About two days ago."

  "That's right," said the bartender.

  "What is the secret of life?" I asked.

  "I forget," said Sandra.

  "Protein," the bartender declared. "They found out something about protein."

  "Yeah," said Sandra, "that's it."



  AN OLDER BARTENDER came over to join in our conversation in the Cape Cod Room of the Del Prado. When he heard that I was writing a book about the day of the bomb, he told me what the day had been like for him, what the day had been like in the very bar in which we sat. He had a W.C. Fields twang and a nose like a prize strawberry.

  "It wasn't the Cape Cod Room then," he said. "We didn't have all these fugging nets and seashells around. It was called the Navajo Tepee in those days. Had Indian blankets and cow skulls on the walls. Had little tom-toms on the tables. People were supposed to beat on the tom-toms when they wanted service. They tried to get me to wear a war bonnet, but I wouldn't do it. Real Navajo Indian came in here one day; told me Navajos didn't live in tepees. 'That's a fugging shame,' I told him. Before that it was the Pompeii Room, with busted plaster all over the place; but no matter what they call the room, they never change the fugging light fixtures. Never change the fugging people who come in or the fugging town outside, either. The day they dropped Hoenikker's fugging bomb on the Japanese a bum came in and tried to scrounge a drink. He wanted me to give him a drink on account of the world was coming to an end. So I mixed him an 'End of the World Delight.' I gave him about a half-pint of creme de menthe in a hollowed-out pineapple, with whipped cream and a cherry on top. 'There, you pitiful son of a bitch,' I said to him, 'don't ever say I never did anything for y
ou.' Another guy came in, and he said he was quitting his job at the Research Laboratory; said anything a scientist worked on was sure to wind up as a weapon, one way or another. Said he didn't want to help politicians with their fugging wars anymore. Name was Breed. I asked him if he was any relation to the boss of the fugging Research Laboratory. He said he fugging well was. Said he was the boss of the Research Laboratory's fugging son."



  AH, GOD, what an ugly city Ilium is!

  "Ah, God," says Bokonon, "what an ugly city every city is!"

  Sleet was falling through a motionless blanket of smog. It was early morning. I was riding in the Lincoln sedan of Dr. Asa Breed. I was vaguely ill, still a little drunk from the night before. Dr. Breed was driving. Tracks of a long-abandoned trolley system kept catching the wheels of his car.

  Breed was a pink old man, very prosperous, beautifully dressed. His manner was civilized, optimistic, capable, serene. I, by contrast, felt bristly, diseased, cynical. I had spent the night with Sandra.

  My soul seemed as foul as smoke from burning cat fur.

  I thought the worst of everyone, and I knew some pretty sordid things about Dr. Asa Breed, things Sandra had told me.

  Sandra told me everyone in Ilium was sure that Dr. Breed had been in love with Felix Hoenikker's wife. She told me that most people thought Breed was the father of all three Hoenikker children.

  "Do you know Ilium at all?" Dr. Breed suddenly asked me.

  "This is my first visit."

  "It's a family town."


  "There isn't much in the way of night life. Everybody's life pretty much centers around his family and his home."

  "That sounds very wholesome."

  "It is. We have very little juvenile delinquency."


  "Ilium has a very interesting history, you know."

  "That's very interesting."

  "It used to be the jumping-off place, you know."


  "For the Western migration."


  "People used to get outfitted here."

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