Deadeye dick, p.4
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       Deadeye Dick, p.4

           Kurt Vonnegut
 
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  This was dumb luck.

  *

  It was soda fountains as much as the Depression that wrecked the Waltz Brothers chain. Pharmacists have no business being in the food business, too. Leave the food business to those who know and love it.

  One of Father's favorite jokes, I remember, was about the boy who flunked out of pharmacy school. He didn't know how to make a club sandwich.

  *

  There is still one Waltz Brothers Drugstore left, I have heard, in Cairo, Illinois. It certainly has nothing to do with me, or with any of my relatives, wherever they may be. I gather that it is part of a cute, old-fashioned urban renewal scheme in downtown Cairo. The streets are cobblestoned, like the floor of my childhood home. The streetlights are gas.

  And there is an old-fashioned pool hall and an old-fashioned saloon and an old-fashioned firehouse and an old-fashioned drugstore with a soda fountain. Somebody found an old sign from a Waltz Brothers drugstore, and they hung it up again.

  It was so quaint.

  I hear they have a poster inside, too, which sings the praises of Saint Elmo's Remedy.

  They wouldn't dare really stock Saint Elmo's Remedy today, of course, it was so bad for people. The poster is just a joke. But they have a modern prescription counter, where you can get barbiturates and amphetamines and methaqualones and so on.

  Science marches on.

  *

  By the time I was old enough to bring guests home, Father had stopped mentioning Hitler to anyone. That much about the present had got through to him, anyway: The subject of Hitler and the new order in Germany seemed to make people angrier with each passing day, so he had better find something else to talk about.

  And I do not mean to mock him. He had been just another wisp of undifferentiated nothingness, like the rest of us, and then all the light and sound poured in.

  But he assumed that my playmates were thoroughly familiar with Greek mythology and legends of King Arthur's Round Table and the plays of Shakespeare and Cervantes' Don Quixote, Goethe's Faust and Wagnerian opera and on and on--all of which were no doubt lively subjects in Viennese cafes before the First World War.

  So he might say to the eight-year-old son of a tool-checker over at Green Diamond Plow, "You look at me as though I were Mephistopheles. Is that who you think I am? Eh? Eh?"

  My guest was expected to answer.

  Or he might say to a daughter of a janitor over at the YMCA, offering her a chair, "Do sit down in the Siege Perilous, my dear. Or do you dare?"

  Almost all my playmates were children of uneducated parents in humble jobs, since the neighborhood had gone downhill fast after all the rich people but Father and Mother moved away.

  Father might say to another one, "I am Daedalus! Would you like me to give you wings so you can fly with me? We can join the geese and fly south with them! But we mustn't fly too close to the sun, must we. Why mustn't we fly too close to the sun, eh? Eh?"

  And the child was expected to answer.

  On his deathbed at the County Hospital, when Father was listing all his virtues and vices, he said that at least he had been wonderful with children, that they had all found him a lot of fun. "I understand them," he said.

  *

  He gave his most dumbfoundingly inappropriate greeting, however, not to a child but to a young woman named Celia Hildreth. She was a high school senior, as was my brother--and Felix had invited her to the senior prom. This would have been in the springtime of 1943, almost exactly a year before I became a murderer--a double murderer, actually. World War Two was going on.

  Felix was the president of his class--because of that deep voice of his. God spoke through him--about where the senior prom should be held, and whether people should have their nicknames under their pictures in the yearbook, and on and on. And he was in the midst of an erotic catastrophe, to which he had made me privy, although I was only eleven years old. Irreconcilable differences had arisen between him and his sweetheart for the past semester and a half, Sally Freeman, and Sally had turned to Steve Adams, the captain of the basketball team, for consolation.

  This left the president of the class without a date for the prom, and at a time when every girl of any social importance had been spoken for.

  Felix executed a sociological master stroke. He invited a girl who was at the bottom of the social order, whose parents were illiterate and unemployed, who had two brothers in prison, who got very poor grades and engaged in no extracurricular activities, but who, nonetheless, was one of the prettiest young women anybody had ever seen.

  Her family was white, but they were so poor that they lived in the black part of town. Also: the few young men who had tried to trifle with her, despite her social class, had spread the word that, no matter what she looked like, she was as cold as ice.

  This was Celia Hildreth.

  So she could have had scant expectation of being invited to the senior prom. But miracles do happen. A new Cinderella is born every minute. One of the richest, cutest boys in town, and the president of the senior class, no less, invited her to the senior prom.

  *

  So, a few weeks in advance of the prom, Felix talked a lot about how beautiful Celia Hildreth was, and what an impression he was going to make when he appeared with a movie star on his arm. Everybody else there was supposed to feel like a fool for having ignored Celia for so long.

  And Father heard all this, and nothing would do but that Felix bring Celia by the studio, on the way to the prom, so that Father, an artist after all, could see for himself if Celia was as beautiful as Felix said. Felix and I had by then given up bringing home friends for any reason whatsoever. But in this instance Father had a means for compelling Felix to introduce him to Celia. If Felix wouldn't do that, then Felix couldn't use the car that night. He and Celia would have to ride a bus to the senior prom.

  *

  Haitian banana soup: Stew two pounds of goat or chicken with a half cup of chopped onions, a teaspoon of salt, half a teaspoon of black pepper, and a pinch of crushed red pepper. Use two quarts of water. Stew for an hour.

  Add three peeled yams and three peeled bananas, cut into chunks. Simmer until the meat is tender. Take out the meat.

  What is left is eight servings of Haitian banana soup.

  Bon appetit!

  *

  So Father, without enough to do, as usual, was as excited by the approach of prom night as the most bubble-headed senior. He would say over and over:

  "Who is Celia? What is she?

  That all her swains commend her?"

  Or he would protest in the middle of a silence at supper, "She can't be that beautiful! No girl could be that beautiful."

  It was to no avail for Felix to tell him that Celia was no world's champion of feminine pulchritude. Felix said many times, "She's just the prettiest girl in the senior class, Dad," but Father imagined a grander adversary. He, the highest judge of beauty in the city, and Celia, one of the most beautiful women ever to live, supposedly, were about to meet eye-to-eye.

  Oh, he was leading scrap drives in those days, and he was an air-raid warden, too. And he had helped the War Department to draw up a personality profile of Hitler, who he now said was a brilliant homicidal maniac. But he still felt drab and superannuated and so on, with so many battle reports in the paper and on the radio, and with so many uniforms around. His spirits needed a boost in the very worst way.

  And he had a secret. If Felix had guessed it, Felix wouldn't have brought Celia within a mile of home. He would have taken her to the prom on a bus.

  This was it: When Celia was introduced to Father, he would be wearing the scarlet-and-silver uniform of a major in the Hungarian Life Guard, complete with sable busby and panther skin.

  7

  LISTEN: When Felix was ready to fetch Celia, Father wasn't even in his painter's costume. He was wearing a sweater and slacks, and he promised Felix yet again that he simply wanted to catch a glimpse of this girl, and that he wasn't going to put on any kind of a show for he
r. It was all going to be very ordinary and brief, and even boring.

  About the automobile: It was a Keedsler touring car, manufactured right in Midland City in 1932, when a Keedsler was in every respect the equal or the superior of a German Mercedes or a British Rolls-Royce. It was a bizarre and glorious antique even in 1943. Felix had put the top down. There was a separate windshield for the back seat. The engine had sixteen cylinders, and the two spare tires were mounted in shallow wells in the front fenders. The tires looked like the necks of plunging horses.

  So Felix burbled off toward the black part of town in that flabbergasting apparatus. He was wearing a rented tuxedo, with a gardenia in his lapel. There was a corsage of two orchids for Celia on the seat beside him.

  Father stripped down to his underwear, and Mother brought him the uniform. She was in on this double cross of Felix. She thought everything Father did was wonderful. And while Father was getting dressed again, she went around turning off electric lights and lighting candles. She and Father, without anybody's much noticing it, had earlier in the day put candles everywhere. There must have been a hundred of them.

  Mother got them all lit, just about the time Father topped off his scarlet-and-silver uniform with the busby.

  And I myself, standing on the balcony outside my bedroom on the loft, was as enchanted as Mother and Father expected Celia Hildreth to be. I was inside a great beehive filled with fireflies. And below me was the beautiful King of the Early Evening.

  My mind had been trained by heirloom books of fairy tales, and by the myths and legends which animated my father's conversation, to think that way. It was second nature for me, and for Felix, too, and for no other children in Midland City, I am sure, to see candle flames as fireflies--and to invent a King of the Early Evening.

  And now the King of the Early Evening, with a purple plume in his busby, gave this order: "Ope, ope the portals!"

  *

  What portals were there to open? There were only two, I thought. There was the front door on the south, and there was the kitchen door on the northeast. But Father seemed to be calling for something far more majestic than opening both of those.

  And then he advanced on the two huge carriage-house doors, in one of which our front door was set. I had never thought of them as doors. They were a wall of my home which was made of wood rather than stone. Now Father took hold of the mighty bolt which had held them shut for thirty years. It resisted him for only a moment, and then slid back, as it had been born to do.

  Until that moment, I had seen that bolt as just another dead piece of medieval iron on the wall. In the proper hands, perhaps it could have killed an enemy.

  I had felt the same way about the ornate hinges. But they weren't more junk from Europe. They were real Midland City, Ohio, hinges, ready to work at any time.

  I had stolen downstairs now, awe in every step I took.

  The King of the Early Evening put his shoulder to one carriage-house door and then the other. A wall of my home vanished. There were stars and a rising moon where it had been.

  8

  AND MOTHER and Father and I all hid as Felix arrived with Celia Hildreth in the Keedsler touring car. Felix, too, was dazed by the lovely transformation of our home. When he switched off the Keedsler's idling engine, it was as though it went on idling anyway. In a voice just like the engine's, he was reassuring Celia that she needn't be afraid, even though she had never seen anything like this house before.

  I heard her say this: "I'm sorry. I can't help being scared. I want to get out of here." I was just inside the great new doorway.

  That should have been enough for Felix. He should have gotten her out of there. As she would say in a few minutes, she hadn't even wanted to go to the prom, but her parents had told her she had to, and she hated her dress and was ashamed to have anybody see her in it, and she didn't understand rich people, and didn't want to, and she was happiest when she was all alone and nobody could stare at her, and nobody could say things to her that she was supposed to reply to in some fancy, ladylike way--and so on.

  Felix used to say that he didn't get her out of there because he wanted to show Father that he could keep a promise, even if Father couldn't. He admits now, though, that he forgot her entirely. He got out of the car, but he didn't go to Celia's side, to open her door for her and offer his arm.

  All alone, he walked to the center of the great new doorway, and he stopped there, and he put his hands on his hips, and he looked all around at the galaxy of tiny conflagrations.

  He should have been angry, and he would get angry later. He would be like a dog with rabies later on. But, at that moment, he could only acknowledge that his father, after years of embarrassing enthusiasms and ornate irrelevancies, had produced an artistic masterpiece.

  Never before had there been such beauty in Midland City.

  *

  And then Father stepped out from behind a vertical timber, the very one which had mashed his left foot so long ago. He was only a yard or two from Felix, and he held an apple in his hand. Celia could see him through the windshield of the Keedsler. He called out, with our house as an echo chamber, "Let Helen of Troy come forward--to claim this apple, if she dare!"

  Celia stayed right where she was. She was petrified.

  And Felix, having allowed things to go this far, was fool enough to think that maybe she could get out of the car and accept the apple, even though there was no way she could have any idea what was going on.

  What did she know of Helen of Troy and apples? For that matter, what did Father know? He had the legend all garbled, as I now realize. Nobody ever gave Helen of Troy an apple--not as a prize, anyway.

  It was the goddess Aphrodite who was given a golden apple in the legend--as a prize for being the most beautiful of all the goddesses. A young prince, named Paris, a mortal, chose her over the other two finalists in the contest-- Athena and Hera.

  So, as though it would have made the least bit of difference on that spring night in 1943, Father should have said, "Let Aphrodite come forward--to claim this apple, if she dare!"

  It would have been better still, of course, if he had had himself bound and gagged in the gun room on the night of the senior prom.

  As for Helen of Troy, and how she fitted into the legend, not that Celia Hildreth had ever heard of her: She was the most beautiful mortal woman on earth, and Aphrodite donated her to Paris in exchange for the apple.

  There was just one trouble with Helen. She was already married to the king of Sparta, so that Paris, a Trojan, had to kidnap her.

  Thus began the Trojan War.

  *

  So Celia got out of the car, all right, but she never went to get the apple. As Felix approached her, she tore off her corsage and she kicked off her high-heeled golden dancing shoes, bought, no doubt, like her white dress and maybe her underwear, at prodigious financial sacrifice. And fear and anger and stocking feet, and that magnificent face, made her as astonishing as anyone I have ever encountered in a legend from any culture.

  Midland City had a goddess of discord all its own.

  This was a goddess who could not dance, would not dance, and hated everybody at the high school. She would like to claw away her face, she told us, so that people would stop seeing things in it that had nothing to do with what she was like inside. She was ready to die at any time, she said, because what men and boys thought about her and tried to do to her made her so ashamed. One of the first things she was going to do when she got to heaven, she said, was to ask somebody what was written on her face and why had it been put there.

  *

  I reconstruct all the things that Celia said that night as Felix and I sit side by side here in Haiti, next to our swimming pool.

  She said, we both remember, that black people were kinder and knew more about life than white people did. She hated the rich. She said that rich people ought to be shot for living the way we did, with a war going on.

  And then, leaving her shoes and corsage behind her, she str
uck out on foot for home.

  *

  She only had about fourteen blocks to go. Felix went after her in the Keedsler, creeping along beside her, begging her to get in. But she ditched him by cutting through a block where the Keedsler couldn't go. And he never found out what happened to her after that. They didn't meet again until 1970, twenty-seven years later. She was then married to Dwayne Hoover, the Pontiac dealer, and Felix had just been fired as president of the National Broadcasting Company.

  He had come home to find his roots.

  9

  MY DOUBLE MURDER went like this:

  In the spring of 1944, Felix was ordered to active duty in the United States Army. He had just finished up his second semester in the liberal arts at Ohio State. Because of his voice, he had become a very important man on the student radio station, and was also elected vice-president of the freshman class.

  He was sworn in at Columbus, but was allowed to spend one more night at home, and part of the next morning, which was Mother's Day, the second Sunday in May.

  There were no tears, nor should there have been any, since the Army was going to use him as a radio announcer. But we could have not known that, so we did not cry because Father said that our ancestors had always been proud and happy to serve their country in time of war.

  Marco Maritimo, I remember, who by then, in partnership with his brother Gino, had become the biggest building contractor in town, had a son who was drafted at the very same time. And Marco and his wife brought their son over to our house on the night before Mother's Day, and the whole family cried like babies. They didn't care who saw them do it.

  They were right to cry, too, as things turned out. Their son Julio would be killed in Germany.

  *

  At dawn on Mother's Day, while Mother was still asleep, Father and Felix and I went out to the rifle range of the Midland County Rod and Gun Club, as we had done at least a hundred times before. It was a Sunday-morning ritual, this discharging of firearms. Although I was only twelve, I had fired rifles and pistols and shotguns of every kind. And there were plenty of other fathers and sons, blazing away and blazing away.

 
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