Deadeye dick, p.2
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       Deadeye Dick, p.2
 

           Kurt Vonnegut
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  He adored that panther skin.

  He was summoned by the American ambassador to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Henry Clowes, who was a Cleveland man and an acquaintance of Father's parents. Father was then twenty-two years old. Clowes told Father that he would lose his American citizenship if he joined a foreign army, and that he had made inquiries about Father, and had learned that Father was not the painter he pretended to be, and that Father had been spending money like a drunken sailor, and that he had written to Father's parents, telling them that their son had lost all touch with reality, and that it was time Father was summoned home and given some honest work to do.

  "What if I refuse?" said Father.

  "Your parents have agreed to stop your allowance," said Clowes.

  So Father went home.

  *

  I do not believe he would have stayed in Midland City, if it weren't for what remained of his childhood home, which was its fanciful carriage house. It was hexagonal. It was stone. It had a conical slate roof. It had a naked skeleton inside of noble oak beams. It was a little piece of Europe in southwestern Ohio. It was a present from my great-grandfather Waltz to his homesick wife from Hamburg. It was a stone-by-stone replica of a structure in an illustration in her favorite book of German fairy tales.

  It still stands.

  I once showed it to an art historian from Ohio University, which is in Athens, Ohio. He said that the original might have been a medieval granary built on the ruins of a Roman watchtower from the time of Julius Caesar. Caesar was murdered two thousand years ago.

  Think of that.

  *

  I do not think my father was entirely ungifted as an artist. Like his friend Hitler, he had a flair for romantic architecture. And he set about transforming the carriage house into a painter's studio fit for the reincarnated Leonardo da Vinci his doting mother still believed him to be.

  Father's mother was as crazy as a bedbug, my own mother said.

  *

  I sometimes think that I would have had a very different sort of soul, if I had grown up in an ordinary little American house--if our home had not been vast.

  Father got rid of all the horse-drawn vehicles in the carriage house--a sleigh, a buckboard, a surrey, a phaeton, a brougham, and who-knows-what-all? Then he had ten horse stalls and a tack room ripped out. This gave him for his private enjoyment more uninterrupted floor-space beneath a far higher ceiling than was afforded by any house of worship or public building in the Midland City of that time.

  Was it big enough for a basketball game? A basketball court is ninety-four feet long and fifty feet wide. My childhood home was only eighty feet in diameter. So, no--it lacked fourteen feet of being big enough for a basketball game.

  *

  There were two pairs of enormous doors in the carriage house, wide enough to admit a carriage and a team of horses. One pair faced north, one pair faced south. Father had his workmen take down the northern pair, which his old mentor, August Gunther, made into two tables, a dining table and a table on which Father's paints and brushes and palette knives and charcoal sticks and so on were to be displayed.

  The doorway was then filled with what remains the largest window in the city, admitting copious quantities of that balm for all great painters, northern light.

  It was before this window that Father's easel stood.

  *

  Yes, he had been reunited with the disreputable August Gunther, who must have been in his middle sixties then. Old Gunther had only one child, a daughter named Grace, so Father was like a son to him. A more suitable son for Gunther would be hard to imagine.

  Mother was just a little girl then, and living in a mansion next door. She was terrified of old Gunther. She told me one time that all nice little girls were supposed to run away from him. Right up until the time Mother died, she cringed if August Gunther was mentioned. He was a hobgoblin to her. He was the bogeyman.

  As for the pair of great doors facing south: Father had them bolted shut and padlocked, and the workmen caulked the cracks between and around them, to keep out the wind. And then August Gunther cut a front door into one of them. That was the entrance to Father's studio, what would later be my childhood home.

  A hexagonal loft encircled and overhung the great chamber. This was partitioned off into bedrooms and bathrooms and a small library.

  Above that was an attic under the conical slate roof. Father had no immediate use for the attic, so it was left in its primitive condition.

  It was all so impractical--which I guess was the whole idea.

  Father was so elated by the vastness of the ground floor, which was paved with cobblestones laid in sand, that he considered putting the kitchen up on a loft. But that would have put the servants and all their hustle and bustle and cooking smells up among the bedrooms. There was no basement to put them in.

  So he reluctantly put the kitchen on the ground floor, tucked under a loft and partitioned off with old boards. It was cramped and stuffy. I would love it. I would feel so safe and cozy in there.

  *

  Many people found our house spooky, and the attic in fact was full of evil when I was born. It housed a collection of more than three hundred antique and modern firearms. Father had bought them during his and Mother's six-month honeymoon in Europe in 1922. Father thought them beautiful, but they might as well have been copperheads and rattlesnakes.

  They were murder.

  3

  MY MOTHER'S peephole opened in Midland City in 1901. She was nine years younger than Father. She, like him, was an only child--the daughter of Richard Wetzel, the founder and principal stockholder of the Midland County National Bank. Her name was Emma.

  She was born into a mansion teeming with servants, right next door to my father's childhood home, but she would die penniless in 1978, four years ago now, in a little shitbox she and I shared in the suburb of Midland City called Avondale.

  *

  She remembered seeing Father's childhood home burn down when she was nine years old, when Father was on his way to Vienna. But Father made a far greater impression on her than the fire when he came home from Vienna and looked over the carriage house with the idea of turning it into a studio.

  She had her first glimpse of him through the privet hedge between the two properties. This was a bird-legged, buck-toothed, skinny thirteen-year-old, who had never seen men dressed in anything but overalls or business suits. Her parents had spoken glowingly of Father, since he was rich and came from an excellent family. They had suggested playfully that she could do worse than marry him someday.

  So now she peeked at him through the hedge, her heart beating madly, and, great God! He was all scarlet and silver, except for a panther skin over one shoulder--and a sable busby with a purple plume on his head.

  He was wearing one of the many souvenirs he had brought home from Vienna, which was the dress uniform of a major in the Hungarian Life Guard, the regiment he had hoped to join.

  *

  A real Hungarian Life Guard back in the Austro-Hungarian Empire might have been putting on a field gray uniform about then.

  Father's friend Hitler, who was an Austrian, had managed to join the German rather than the Austrian army--because he admired all things German so much. He was wearing field gray.

  *

  Father was living with his parents out near Shepherdstown at the time, but all his souvenirs were stored in the carriage house. And, on the day that Mother saw him in the uniform, he had begun opening trunks and packing cases, with his old mentor, August Gunther, looking on. He had put on the uniform to make Gunther laugh.

  They came outside, lugging a table between them. They were going to have lunch in the shade of an ancient walnut tree. They had brought beer and bread and sausage and cheese and roast chicken, all of which had been produced locally. The cheese, incidentally, was Liederkranz, which most people assume is a European cheese. Liederkranz was invented in Midland City, Ohio, in about 1865.

  *

  So Fa
ther, setting down for a lusty lunch with old Gunther, was aware that a little girl was watching everything through the hedge, and he made jokes about her which she could hear. He said to Gunther that he had been away so long that he could no longer remember the names of American birds. There was a bird in the hedge there, he said, and he described Mother as though she were a bird, and he asked old Gunther what to call the bird.

  And Father approached the supposed little bird with a piece of bread in his hand, asking if little birds like her ate bread, and Mother fled into her parents' house.

  She told me this. Father told me this.

  *

  But she came out again, and she found a better place to spy from--where she could see without being seen. There were puzzling new arrivals at the picnic. They were two short, dark youths, who had evidently been wading. They were barefoot, and their trousers were wet above the knees. Mother had never seen anything quite like them for this reason: The two, who were brothers, were Italians, and there had never been Italians in Midland City before.

  They were Gino Maritimo, eighteen, and Marco Maritimo, twenty. They were in one hell of a lot of trouble. They weren't expected at the picnic. They weren't even supposed to be in the United States. Thirty-six hours before, they had been stokers aboard an Italian freighter which was taking on cargo in Newport News, Virginia. They had jumped ship in order to escape military conscription at home, and because the streets of America were paved with gold. They spoke no English.

  Other Italians in Newport News boosted them and their cardboard suitcases into an empty boxcar in a train that was bound for God-knows-where. The train began to move immediately. The sun went down. There were no stars, no moon that night. America was blackness and clackety-clack.

  How do I know what the night was like? Gino and Marco Maritimo, as old men, both told me so.

  *

  Somewhere in the seamless darkness, which may have been West Virginia, Gino and Marco were joined by four American hoboes, who at knife-point took their suitcases, their coats, their hats, and their shoes.

  They were lucky they didn't have their throats slit for fun. Who would have cared?

  *

  How they wished that their peepholes would close! But the nightmare went on and on. And then it became a daymare. The train stopped several times, but in the midst of such ugliness that Gino and Marco could not bring themselves to step out into it, to somehow start living there. But then two railroad detectives with long clubs made them get out anyway, and, like it or lump it, they were on the outskirts of Midland City, Ohio, on the other side of Sugar Creek from the center of town.

  They were terribly hungry and thirsty. They could either await death, or they could invent something to do. They invented. They saw a conical slate roof on the other side of the river, and they walked toward that. In order to keep putting one foot in front of the other, they pretended that it was of utmost importance that they reach that structure and no other.

  They waded across Sugar Creek, rather than draw attention to themselves on the bridge. They would have swum the creek, if it had been that deep.

  And now here they were, as astonished as my mother had been to see a young man all dressed in scarlet and silver, with a sable busby on his head.

  When Father looked askance at the two of them from his seat under the oak, Gino, the younger of the brothers, but their leader, said in Italian that they were hungry and would do any sort of work for food.

  Father replied in Italian. He was good with languages. He was fluent in French and German and Spanish, too. He told the brothers that they should by all means sit down and eat, if they were as hungry as they appeared to be. He said that nobody should ever be hungry.

  He was like a god to them. It was so easy for him to be like a god to them.

  After they had eaten, he took them up into the attic above the loft, the future gun room. There were two old cots up there. Light and air came from windows in a cupola at the peak of the roof. A ladder, its bottom bolted to the center of the attic floor, led up into the cupola. Father told the brothers that they could make the attic their home, until they found something better.

  He said he had some old shoes and sweaters and so on, if they wanted them, in his trunks below.

  He put them to work the next day, ripping out the stalls and tack room.

  And no matter how rich and powerful the Maritimo brothers subsequently became, and no matter how disreputable and poor Father became, Father remained a god to them.

  4

  AND SOMEWHERE in there, before America entered the First World War against the German Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, Father's parents had their peepholes closed by carbon monoxide from a faulty heating system in their farmhouse out near Shepherdstown.

  So Father became a major stockholder in the family business, the Waltz Brothers Drug Company, to which he had contributed nothing but ridicule and scorn.

  And he attended stockholders' meetings in a beret and a paint-stained smock and sandals, and he brought old August Gunther along, claiming Gunther was his lawyer, and he protested that he found his two uncles and their several sons, who actually ran the business, intolerably humorless and provincial and obsessed by profits, and so on.

  He would ask them when they were going to stop poisoning their fellow citizens, and so on. At that time, the uncles and cousins were starting the first chain of drugstores in the history of the country, and they were especially proud of the soda fountains in those stores, and had spent a lot of money to guarantee that the ice cream served at those fountains was the equal of any ice cream in the world. So Father wanted to know why ice cream at a Waltz Brothers Drugstore always tasted like library paste, and so on.

  He was an artist, you see, interested in enterprises far loftier than mere pharmacy.

  And now is perhaps the time for me to name my own profession. Guess what? I, Rudy Waltz, the son of that great artist Otto Waltz, am a registered pharmacist.

  *

  Somewhere in there, one end of a noble oak timber was dropped on Father's left foot. Alcohol was involved in the accident. During a wild party at the studio, with tools and building materials lying all around, Father got a structural idea which had to be carried out at once. Nothing would do but that the drunken guests become common laborers under Father's command, and a young dairy farmer named John Fortune lost his grip on a timber. It fell on Father's foot, smashing the bones of his instep. Two of his toes died, and had to be cut away.

  Thus was Father rendered unfit for military service when America got into World War One.

  *

  Father once said to me when he was an old man, after he had spent two years in prison, after he and Mother had lost all their money and art treasures in a lawsuit, that his greatest disappointment in life was that he had never been a soldier. That was almost the last illusion he had, and there might have been some substance to it--that he had been born to serve bravely and resourcefully on a battlefield.

  He certainly envied John Fortune to the end. The man who crushed his foot went on to become a hero in the trenches in the First World War, and Father would have liked to have fought beside him--and, like Fortune, come home with medals on his chest. The only remotely military honor Father would ever receive was a citation from the governor of Ohio for Father's leadership of scrap drives in Midland County during World War Two. There was no ceremony. The certificate simply arrived in the mail one day.

  Father was in prison over at Shepherdstown when it came. Mother and I brought it to him on visitors' day. I was thirteen then. It would have been kinder of us to burn it up and scatter its ashes over Sugar Creek. That certificate was the crowning irony, as far as Father was concerned.

  "At last I have joined the company of the immortals," he said. "There are only two more honors for me to covet now." One was to be a licensed dog. The other was to be a notary public.

  And Father made us hand over the certificate so that he could wipe his behind w
ith it at the earliest opportunity, which he surely did.

  Instead of saying good-bye that day, he said this, a finger in the air: "Nature calls."

  *

  And somewhere in there, in the autumn of 1916, to be exact, the old rascal August Gunther died under most mysterious circumstances. He got up two hours before dawn one day, and prepared and ate a hearty breakfast while his wife and daughter slept. And he set out on foot, armed with a double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun which my father had given to him, meaning to join Father and John Fortune and some other young bucks in gun pits on the edge of a meadow on John Fortune's father's dairy farm. They were going to shoot geese which had spent the night on the backwaters of Sugar Creek and on Crystal Lake. The meadow had been baited with cracked corn.

  He never reached the gun pits, or so the story went. So he must have died somewhere in the intervening five miles, which included the Sugar Creek Bridge. One month later, his headless body was found at the mouth of Sugar Creek just west of Cincinnati, about to start its voyage to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.

  What a vacation from Midland City!

  And when I was little, the decapitation of August Gunther so long ago, sixteen years before my birth, was the most legendary of all the unsolved crimes committed in my hometown. And I had a ghoulish ambition. I imagined that I would be famous and admired, if only I could find August Gunther's missing head. And after that the murderer would have to confess, for some reason, and he would be taken off to be punished, and so on--and the mayor would pin a medal on me.

  Little did I suspect back then that I myself, Rudy Waltz, would become a notorious murderer known as "Deadeye Dick."

  *

  My parents were married in 1922, four years after the end of the First World War. Father was thirty and Mother was twenty-one. Mother was a college graduate, having taken a liberal arts degree at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. Father, who certainly encouraged people to believe that he had spent time at some great and ancient European university, was in fact only a high school graduate. He could certainly lecture on history or race or biology or art or politics for hours, although he had read very little.

 
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