Deadeye dick, p.5
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       Deadeye Dick, p.5

           Kurt Vonnegut
 
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  Police Chief Francis X. Morissey was there, I remember, with Bucky, his son. Morissey was one of the bunch who had been goose-hunting with Father and John Fortune back in 1916, when old August Gunther disappeared. Only recently have I learned that it was Morissey who killed old Gunther. He accidentally discharged a ten-gauge shotgun about a foot from Gunther's head.

  There was no head left.

  So Father and the rest, in order to keep Morissey's life from being ruined by an accident that could have happened to anyone, launched Gunther's body for a voyage down Sugar Creek.

  *

  On the morning of Mother's Day, Father and Felix and I didn't have any exotic weapons along. Since Felix was headed for battle, seemingly, we brought only the Springfield .30-06. The Springfield was no longer the standard American infantry weapon. It had been replaced by the Garand, by the M-l. But it was still used by snipers, because of its superb accuracy.

  We all shot well that morning, but I shot better than anybody, which was much commented upon. But only after I had shot a pregnant housewife that afternoon would anybody think to award me my unshakable nickname, Deadeye Dick.

  *

  I got one trophy out on the range that morning, though. When we were through firing, Father said to Felix, "Give your brother Rudy the key."

  Felix was puzzled. "What key is that?" he said.

  And Father named the Holy of Holies, as far as I was concerned. Felix himself hadn't come into possession of it until he was fifteen years old, and I had never even touched it. "Give him," said Father, "the key to the gun-room door."

  *

  I was certainly very young to receive the key to the gun room. At fifteen, Felix had probably been too young, and I was only twelve. And after I shot the pregnant housewife, it turned out that Father had only the vaguest idea how old I was. When the police came, I heard him say that I was sixteen or so.

  There was this: I was tall for my age. I was tall for any age, since the general population is well under six feet tall, and I was six feet tall. I suppose my pituitary gland was out of kilter for a little while, and then it straightened itself out. I did not become a freakish adult, except for my record as a double murderer, as other people my age more or less caught up with me.

  But I was abnormally tall and weak for a time there. I may have been trying to evolve into a superman, and then gave it up in the face of community disapproval.

  *

  So after we got home from the Rod and Gun Club, and I could feel the key to the gun room burning a hole in my pocket, there was yet another proof that I had to be a man now, because Felix was leaving. I had to chop the heads off two chickens for supper that night. This was another privilege which had been accorded Felix, who used to make me watch him.

  The place of execution was the stump of the walnut tree, under which Father and old August Gunther had been lunching when the Maritimo brothers arrived in Midland City so long ago. There was a marble bust on a pedestal, which also had to watch. It was another piece of loot from the von Furstenberg estate in Austria. It was a bust of Voltaire.

  And Felix used to play God to the chickens, saying in that voice of his, "If you have any last words to say, now is the time to say them," or "Take your last look at the world," and so on. We didn't raise chickens. A farmer brought in two chickens every Sunday morning, and they had their peepholes closed by a machete in Felix's right hand almost immediately.

  Now, with Felix watching, and about to catch a train for Columbus and then a bus for Fort Benning, Georgia, it was up to me to do.

  So I grabbed a chicken by its legs, and I flopped it down on the stump, and I said in a voice like a penny whistle, "Take your last look at the world."

  Off came its head.

  *

  Felix kissed Mother, and he shook Father's hand, and he boarded the train at the train station. And then Mother and Father and I had to hurry on home, because we were expecting a very important guest for lunch. She was none other than Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the President of the United States. She was visiting war plants in the boondocks to raise morale.

  Whenever a famous visitor came to Midland City, he or she was usually brought to Father's studio at one point or another, since there was so little else to see. Usually, they were in Midland City to lecture or sing or play some instrument, or whatever, at the YMCA. That was how I got to meet Nicholas Murray Butler, the president of Columbia University, when I was a boy--and Alexander Woollcott, the wit and writer and broadcaster, and Cornelia Otis Skinner, the monologist, and Gregor Piatigor-sky, the cellist, and on and on.

  They all said what Mrs. Roosevelt was about to say: "It's hard to believe I'm in Midland City, Ohio."

  Father used to sprinkle a few drops of turpentine and linseed oil on the hot-air registers, so the place would smell like an active studio. When a guest walked in, there was always some classical record on the phonograph, but never German music after Father decided that being a Nazi wasn't such a good idea after all. There was always imported wine, even during the war. There was always Liederkranz cheese, and Father would tell the story of its invention.

  And the food was excellent, even when war came and there was strict rationing of meat, since Mary Hoobler was so resourceful with catfish and crayfish from Sugar Creek, and with unrationed parts of animals which other people didn't consider edible.

  *

  Mary Hoobler's chitlins: Take the small intestine of a pig, cut it up into two-inch sections, and wash and wash them, changing the water often, until no fatty particles remain.

  Boil them for three or four hours with onions, herbs, and garlic. Serve with greens and grits.

  *

  That is what we served Eleanor Roosevelt for lunch on Mother's Day in 1944--Mary Hoobler's chitlins. She was most appreciative, and she was very democratic, too. She went out into the kitchen and talked to Mary and the other servants there. She had Secret Service agents along, of course, and one of them said to Father, I remember, "I hear you have quite a collection of guns."

  So the Secret Service had checked us out. They surely knew, too, that Father had been an admirer of Hitler, but was now reformed, supposedly.

  The same man asked what music was playing on the phonograph.

  "Chopin," said Father. And then, when the agent appeared to have another question, Father guessed it and answered it: "A Pole," he said. "A Pole, a Pole, a Pole."

  And Felix and I, comparing notes here in Haiti, now realize that all our distinguished visitors from out of town had been tipped off that Father was a phony as a painter. Not one of them ever asked to see examples of Father's work.

  *

  If somebody had been ignorant enough or rude enough to ask, he would have shown them, I suppose, a small canvas clamped into the rugged framework of his easel. His easel was capable of holding a canvas eight feet high and twelve feet wide, I would guess. As I have already said, and particularly in view of the room's other decorations, it was easily mistaken for a guillotine.

  The small canvas, whose back was turned toward visitors, was where a guillotine's fallen blade might be. It was the only picture I ever saw on the easel, as long as Father and I were on the same planet together, and some of our guests must have gone to the trouble of looking at its face. I think Mrs. Roosevelt did. I am sure the Secret Service agents did. They wanted to see everything.

  And what they saw on that canvas were brushstrokes laid down exuberantly and confidently, and promisingly, too, in prewar Vienna, when Father was only twenty years old. It was only a sketch so far--of a nude model in the studio he rented after he moved out of the home of our relatives over there. There was a skylight. There was wine and cheese and bread on a checkered tablecloth.

  Was Mother jealous of that naked model? No. How could she be? When that picture was begun, Mother was only eleven years old.

  *

  That rough sketch was the only respectable piece of artwork by my father that I ever saw. After he died in 1960, and Mother and I moved into
our little two bedroom shitbox out in Avondale, we hung it over our fireplace. That was the same fireplace that would eventually kill Mother, since its mantelpiece had been made with radioactive cement left over from the Manhattan Project, from the atomic bomb project in World War Two.

  It is still somewhere in the shitbox, I presume, since Midland City is now being protected against looters by the National Guard. And its special meaning for me is this: It is proof that sometime back when my father was a young, young man, he must have had a moment or two when he felt that he might have reason to take himself and his life seriously.

  I can hear him saying to himself in astonishment, after he had roughed in that promising painting: "My God! I'm a painter after all!"

  Which he wasn't.

  *

  So, during a lunch of chitlins, topped off with coffee and crackers and Liederkranz, Mrs. Roosevelt told us how proud and unselfish and energetic the men and women were over the tank-assembly line at Green Diamond Plow. They were working night and day over there. And even at lunchtime of Mother's Day, the studio trembled as tanks rumbled by outside. The tanks were on the way to the proving ground which used to be John Fortune's dairy farm, and which would later become the Maritimo Brother's jumble of little shitboxes known as Avondale.

  Mrs. Roosevelt knew that Felix had just left for the Army, and she prayed that he would be safe. She said that the hardest part of her husband's job was that there was no way to win a battle without many persons being injured or killed.

  Like Father, she assumed, because I was so tall, that I must be about sixteen. Anyway, she guessed it was touch-and-go whether I myself would be drafted by and by. She certainly hoped not.

  For my own part, I hoped that my voice changed before then.

  She said that there would be a wonderful new world when the war was won. Everybody who needed food or medicine would get it, and people could say anything they wanted, and could choose any religion that appealed to them. Leaders wouldn't dare to be unjust anymore, since all the other countries would gang up on them. For this reason, there could never be another Hitler. He would be squashed like a bug before he got very far.

  And then Father asked me if I had cleaned the Springfield rifle yet. That was something I got along with the key to the gun room: the duty to clean the guns.

  Felix says now that Father made such an honor and fetish out of the key to the gun room because he was too lazy to ever clean a gun.

  *

  Mrs. Roosevelt, I remember, made some polite inquiry about my familiarity with firearms. And it was news to Mother, too, that I had the key to the gun room now.

  So Father told them both that Felix and I knew more about small arms than most professional soldiers, and he said most of the things the National Rifle Association still says about how natural and beautiful it is for Americans to have love affairs with guns. He said that he had taught Felix and me about guns when we were so young in order to make our safety habits second nature. "My boys will never have a shooting accident," he said, "because their respect for weapons has become a part of their nervous systems."

  I wasn't about to say so, but I had some doubts at that point about the gun safety habits of Felix, and of his friend Bucky Morissey, too--the son of the chief of police. For the past couple of years, anyway, Felix and Bucky, without Father's knowledge, had been helping themselves to various weapons in the gun room, and had picked off crows perched on headstones in Calvary Cemetery, and had cut off telephone service to several farms by shooting insulators along the Sheperdstown Turnpike, and had blasted God-only-knows how many mailboxes all over the county, and had actually loosed a couple of rounds at a herd of sheep out near Sacred Miracle Cave.

  Also: After a big Thanksgiving Day football game between Midland City and Sheperdstown, a bunch of Shepherdstown tough guys had caught Felix and Bucky walking home from the football field. They were going to beat up Felix and Bucky, but Felix dispersed them by pulling from the belt under his jacket a fully loaded Colt .45 automatic.

  He wasn't kidding around.

  *

  But Father knew nothing of this, obviously, as he blathered on about safety habits. And, after Mrs. Roosevelt made her departure, he sent me up to the gun room, to clean the Springfield without further delay.

  So this was Mother's Day to most people, but to me it was the day during which, ready or not, I had been initiated into manhood. I had killed the chickens. Now I had been made master of all these guns and all this ammunition. It was something to savor. It was something to think about and I had the Springfield in my arms. It loved to be held. It was born to be held.

  I liked it so much, and it liked me so much, since I had fired it so well that morning, that I took it with me when I climbed the ladder up into the cupola. I wanted to sit up there for a while, and look out over the roofs of the town, supposing that my brother might be going to his death, and hearing and feeling the tanks in the street below. Ah, sweet mystery of life.

  I had a clip of ammunition in my breast pocket. It had been there since morning. It felt good. So I pushed it down into the rifle's magazine, since I knew the rifle enjoyed that so. It just ate up those cartridges.

  I slid forward the bolt, which caught the topmost cartridge and delivered it into the chamber. I locked the bolt. Now the rifle was cocked, with a live cartridge snugly home.

  For a person as familiar with firearms as I was, this represented no commitment whatsoever. I could let down the hammer gently, without firing the cartridge. And then I could withdraw the bolt, which would extract the live cartridge and throw it away.

  But I squeezed the trigger instead.

  10

  ELEANOR ROOSEVELT, with her dreams of a better world than this one, was well on her way to some other small city by then--to raise morale. So she never got to hear me shoot.

  Mother and Father heard me shoot. So did some of the neighbors. But nobody could be sure of what he or she had heard, with the tanks making such an uproar on their way to the proving ground. Their new engines backfired plenty the first time they tasted petroleum.

  Father came upstairs to find out if I was all right. I was better than that. I was at one with the universe. I heard him coming, but I was unconcerned--even though I was still at an open window in the cupola with the Springfield in my arms.

  He asked me if I had heard a bang. I said I had.

  He asked me if I knew what the bang had been. I said, "No."

  I took my own sweet time about descending from the cupola. Firing the Springfield over the city was now part of my treasure-house of memories.

  I hadn't aimed at anything. If I thought of the bullet's hitting anything, I don't remember now. I was the great marksman, anyway. If I aimed at nothing, then nothing is what I would hit.

  The bullet was a symbol, and nobody was ever hurt by a symbol. It was a farewell to my childhood and a confirmation of my manhood.

  Why didn't I use a blank cartridge? What kind of a symbol would that have been?

  *

  I put the spent cartridge in a wastebasket for spent cartridges, which would be given to a scrap drive. It became a member of that great wartime fraternity, Cartridge Cases Anonymous.

  I took the Springfield apart and cleaned it. I put it back together again, which I could have done when blindfolded, and I restored it to its rack.

  What a friend it had been to me.

  I rejoined polite society downstairs, locking the gun room behind me. All those guns weren't for just anybody to handle. Some people were fools where guns were concerned.

  *

  So I helped Mary Hoobler clean up after Mrs. Roosevelt. My participation in housework had become invisible. My parents had always had servants, after all, sort of ghostly people. Mother and Father were incurious as to who it was, exactly, who brought something or took something away.

  I certainly wasn't effeminate. I had no interest in dressing like a girl, and I was a good shot, and I played a little football and baseball and so on. What
if I liked cooking? The greatest cooks in the world were men.

  Out in the kitchen, where Mary Hoobler washed and I dried, Mary said that the most important thing in her life had now happened. She had met Mrs. Roosevelt, and she would tell her grandchildren about it, and everything for her was downhill now. Nothing that important could ever happen to her again.

  The front doorbell rang. The great carriage-house doors had of course been closed and bolted after the fiasco with poor Celia Hildreth the year before. We had an ordinary front door again.

  So I answered the door. Mother and Father never answered the door. It was police chief Morissey out there. He looked very unhappy and secretive. He told me that he didn't want to come in, and he particularly didn't want to disturb my mother--so I was to tell Father to come out for a talk with him. He said I should be in on it, too.

  I give my word of honor: I had not the slightest inkling of what the trouble might be.

  So I got Father. He and Chief Morissey and I were going to do some more man business, business that women might be better off not hearing about. They might not understand. I was drying my hands on a tea towel.

  And Morissey himself, as I know now but didn't know then, had accidentally killed August Gunther with a firearm when he was young.

  And he said quietly to Father and me that Eloise Metzger, the pregnant wife of the city editor of the Bugle-Observer, George Metzger, had just been shot dead while running a vacuum cleaner in the guest room on the second floor of her home over on Harrison Avenue, about eight blocks away. There was a bullet hole in the window.

  Her family downstairs had become worried when the vacuum cleaner went on running and running without being dragged around at all.

  Chief Morissey said that Mrs. Metzger couldn't have felt any pain, since the bullet got her right between the eyes. She never knew what hit her.

  The bullet had been recovered from the guest-room floor, and it was virtually undamaged, thanks to its copper jacket, in spite of all it had been through.

  "Now I am asking you two as an old friend of the family," said Morissey, "and before any official investigation has begun, and I am just another human being and family man standing here before you: Does either one of you have any idea where a .30-caliber copper-jacketed rifle bullet could have come from about an hour ago?"

 
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