Deadeye dick, p.6
Deadeye Dick, p.6Kurt Vonnegut
But I didn't die.
Father knew exactly where it had come from. He had heard the bang. He had seen me at the top of the ladder in the cupola, with the Springfield in my arms.
He made a wet hiss, sucking in air through his clenched teeth. It is the sound stoics make when they have been hurt a good deal. He said, "Oh, Jesus."
"Yes," said Morissey. And everything about his manner said that no possible good could come from our being made to suffer for this unfortunate accident, which could have happened to anyone. He, for one, would do all in his power to make whatever we had done somehow understandable and acceptable to the community. Perhaps, even, we could convince the community that the bullet had come from somewhere else.
We certainly didn't have the only .30-caliber rifle in town.
I myself began to feel a little better. Here was this wise and powerful adult, the chief of police, no less, and he clearly believed that I had done no bad thing. I was unlucky. I would never be that unlucky again. That was for sure.
I took a deep breath. That was for sure.
SO EVERYTHING was going to be okay.
And Father's life and Mother's life and my life would have been okay, I firmly believe, if it weren't for what Father did next.
He felt that, given who he was, he had no option other than to behave nobly. "The boy did it," he said, "but it is I who am to blame."
"Now, just a minute, Otto--" Morissey cautioned him.
But Father was off and running, into the house, shouting to Mother and Mary Hoobler and anybody else who could hear him, "I am to blame! I am to blame!"
And more police came, not meaning to arrest me or Father, or to even question us, but simply to report to Morissey. They certainly weren't going to do anything mean, unless Morissey told them to.
So they heard Father's confession, too: "I am to blame!"
What, incidentally, was a pregnant mother of two doing, operating a vacuum cleaner on Mother's Day? She was practically asking for a bullet between the eyes, wasn't she?
Felix missed all the fun, of course, since he was on a troop bus bound for Georgia. He had been put in charge of his particular bus, because of his commanding vocal cords--but that was pretty small stuff compared to what Father and I were doing.
And Felix has made surprisingly few comments over the years on that fateful Mother's Day. Just now, though, here in Haiti, he said to me, "You know why the old man confessed?"
"No," I said.
"It was the first truly consequential adventure Ufe had ever offered him. He was going to make the most of it. At last something was happening to him! He would keep it going as long as he could!"
Father really did make quite a show of it. Not only did he make an unnecessary confession, but then he took a hammer and a prybar and a chisel, and the machete I had used on the chickens, and he went clumping upstairs to the gun-room door. He himself had a key, but he didn't use it. He hacked and smashed the lock away.
Everybody was too awed to stop him.
And never, may I say, would the moment come when he would give the tiniest crumb of guilt to me. The guilt was all his, and would remain entirely, exclusively his for the rest of his life. So I was just another bleak and innocent onlooker, along with Mother and Mary Hoobler and Chief Morissey, and maybe eight small-city cops.
He broke all his guns, just whaled away at them in their racks with the hammer. He at least bent or dented all of them. A few old-timers shattered. What would those guns be worth today, if Felix and I had inherited them? I will guess a hundred thousand dollars or more.
Father ascended the ladder into the cupola, where I had been so recently. He there accomplished what Marco Maritimo later said should have been impossible for one man with such small and inappropriate tools. He cut away the base of the cupola, and he capsized it. It twisted free from its last few feeble moorings, and it went bounding down the slate roof, and it went crashing, weather vane and all, onto Chief Morrisey's police car in the driveway below.
There was silence after that.
I and the rest of Father's audience were at the foot of the gun-room ladder, looking up. What a hair-raising melodrama Father had given to Midland City, Ohio. And it was over now. There the leading character was above us, crimson faced and panting, but somehow most satisfied, too, exposed to wind and sky.
I THINK FATHER was surprised when he and I were taken away to jail after that. He never said anything to confirm this, but I think, and Felix agrees, that he was sufficiently adrift to imagine that wrecking the guns and decapitating the house would somehow settle everything. He intended to pay for his crime, the trusting of a child with firearms and live ammunition, before the bill could even be presented. What class!
That was surely one of the messages his pose at the top of the ladder, against the sky, had conveyed to me, and I had been glad to believe it: "Paid in full, by God--paid in full!"
But they took us down to the hoosegow.
Mother went to bed, and didn't get out of it for a week.
Marco and Gino Maritimo, who had dozens of workmen at their command, came over to put a tar-paper cap on the big hole in the roof personally, before the sun went down. Nobody had called them. Everybody in town had heard about the kinds of trouble we were in by then. Most of the sympathy, naturally enough, was going to the husband and two children of the woman I had shot.
And Eloise Metzger had been pregnant--which, as I have already said, made me a double murderer.
You know what it says in the Bible? "Thou shalt not kill."
Chief Morissey gave up on rescuing Father and me, since Father seemed to find it so rewarding to damn and doom himself Throwing up his hands and departing, he left us in the hands of a mild old lieutenant and a stenographer. Father told me to describe exactly how I had fired the rifle, and I answered simply and truthfully. The stenographer wrote it down.
And then Father had this to say, for his own part, which was also duly recorded: "This is only a boy here. His mother and I are morally and legally responsible for his actions, except when it comes to the handling of firearms. I alone am responsible for whatever he does with guns, and I alone am responsible for the terrible accident which happened this afternoon. He has been a good boy up to now, and will be a sturdy and decent man in due time. I have no words of reproach to utter to him now. I gave him a gun and ammunition when he was much too young to have them without any supervision." He had by then found out I was only twelve, and not sixteen or so. "Leave him out of this. Leave my poor wife out of this. I, Otto Waltz, being of sound mind, do now declare under oath and in fear for my soul, that I alone am to blame."
And I think he was surprised, again, when we weren't allowed to go home after that. What more could anybody want after a confession that orotund?
But he was led off to cells in the basement of police headquarters, and I was taken to a much smaller cell-block on the top floor, the third floor, which was reserved for women and for children under the age of sixteen. There was only one other prisoner up there, a black woman from out of town, who had been taken off a Greyhound bus after beating up the white driver. She was from the Deep South, and she was the one who introduced me to the idea of birth's being an opening peephole, and of death's being when that peephole closes again.
The idea must have been ordinary, back wherever it was she came from. She said she was sorry she had beat up the bus driver, who had spoken to her insultingly because of her race. "I didn't ask my peephole to open. It just open one day, and I hear the people saying, 'That's a black one there. Unlucky to be black.' And that poor driver they took off to the hospital, his peephole done open, and he hear the people saying, 'That's a white one there. Lucky to be white.' "
A while later she sad, "My peephole open, I see this woman, I say, 'Who you?' She say, 'I's you mama.' I say
She asked me what a white boy in nice clothes was doing in jail. So I told her that I had had an accident while cleaning a rifle. It had gone off somehow, and killed a woman far away. I was beginning to work up a defense, even if Father didn't believe in making one.
"Oh, my Lord," she said, "--you done closed a peephole. That can't feel good. That can't feel good."
It felt to me then as though my peephole had just opened, and I wasn't even used to all the sights and sounds yet, but my father had already chopped the top off our house, and everybody was saying I was a killer. This was a planet where everything happened much too fast.
I could hardly catch my breath.
But police headquarters seemed quiet enough. Not much could happen on a Sunday night.
How common was it to have a known killer in a cell in Midland City? I had no way of knowing then, but I have since looked up the crime statistics for 1944. A killer was quite a novelty. There were only eight detected homicides of any sort. Three were drunken driving accidents. One was a sober driving accident. One was a fight in a black nightclub. One was a fight in a white bar. One was the shooting of a brother-in-law mistaken for a burglar. And there was Eloise Metzger and me.
Because of my age, I could not be prosecuted. Only Father could be prosecuted. Chief Morissey had explained that to me very early in the game--at a time when he thought there was all sorts of hope for both Father and me. So I felt safe, although embarrassed.
Little did I know that Morissey had meanwhile concluded that Father and I were dangerous imbeciles, since we seemed determined to confess to far more than was necessary, to inflame the community by seeming almost proud of my having shot Mrs. Metzger. Mrs. Metzger and her survivors were nothing. Father and I, on the other hand, confessing so boisterously, appeared to think we were movies stars.
We were no longer protected by Morissey, and a tentative, moody, slow-motion and incomplete lynching was about to begin. First, as I lay facedown on my cot, trying to blot out what my life had come to be, a bucket of ice-cold water was thrown all over me.
Two policemen hoisted me to my feet and shackled my hands behind my back. They put leg-irons on my ankles, and they dragged me into an office on the same floor, in order to fingerprint me, they said.
I was tall, but I was weak, and I weighed about as much as a box of kitchen matches. The one manly feat of strength of which I was capable was the mastery of a bucking gun. Instructed by my father and my brother on the range at the Rod and Gun Club, I had learned to knit together whatever strength and weight I had so as to absorb any shock a man-sized rifle or shotgun or pistol might wish to deal to me--to absorb it with amusement and satisfaction, and to get ready to fire again and again.
I was not only fingerprinted. I was faceprinted, too. The police pushed my hand and then my face into a shallow pan of gummy black ink.
I was straightened up, and one of the policemen commented that I was a proper-looking nigger now. Until that moment, I had been willing to believe that policemen were my best friends and everybody's best friends.
I was about to be put on display to concerned members of the community--in a holding pen for suspected criminals awaiting trial, in the basement of the old County Courthouse across the street. It was ten at night. It was still Mother's Day. The courthouse was empty. The upper floors would remain dark. Only the basement lights would be on.
It was the feeling of the police that I should not look good, and that I bear some marks of their displeasure with what I had done. But they couldn't beat me up, as they might have beaten up an adult offender, since that might evoke sympathy. So they had rolled my face in goo.
All this was in clear violation of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the United States.
So I was put in this large cage in the basement of the courthouse. It was rectangular, and made of heavy-duty mesh fencing and vertical iron pipes. It was open to observers on all four sides. It contained wooden benches for about thirty people, I would say. There were plenty of cuspidors, but no toilet. Any caged person having to go to the toilet had to say so, and then to be escorted to a nearby lavatory.
I was unshackled.
The audience had yet to arrive, but the policemen who had brought me there, and who were now separated from me by wire, showed me what I was going to see a lot of--fingers hooked through the mesh. Person after person, bellying up to the wire for a good look at me, would, almost automatically, hook his or her fingers through the mesh.
Look at the monkey.
Who were the people who came to look at the monkey? Many were simply friends or relatives of policemen, responding to oral invitations along these lines, no doubt: " If you want to see the kid who shot that pregnant woman this afternoon, we've got him in the courthouse basement. I can get you in. Keep it under your hat, though. Don't tell anyone else. We don't want a mob to form."
But the honored visitors were substantial citizens, grave community leaders with a presumed need to know everything. There was something the policeman on the telephone thought it important for them to see--so they had better see it. Duty called. Some brought members of their families. I even remember a babe in arms.
So far as I know, only two people told the inviters that displaying a boy in a cage was a terrible thing to do, and stunk of the Middle Ages and so on. They were, of course, Gino and Marco Maritimo, virtually our family's only steadfast friends. And I know of this only because the brothers themselves told me about it. They had received the obscene invitation, offered as though nothing could be more civilized, soon after capping the hole in our roof where the cupola had been.
I have mentioned Alexander Woollcott, the writer and wit and broadcaster and so on, who was a guest at our house one time. He coined that wonderful epithet for writers, "ink-stained wretches."
He should have seen me in my cage.
I sat on the same bench for two hours. I said nothing, no matter what was said to me. Sometimes I sat bolt upright. Sometimes I bent over, with my head down and my inky hands over my inky ears or eyes. Toward the end, my bladder was full to bursting. I peed in my pants rather than speak. Why not? I was a geek. I was a wild man from Borneo.
I have since determined, from talking to old, old people, that I was the only Midland City criminal to have been put on public display since the days of public hangings on the courthouse lawn. My punishment was more than cruel and unusual. It was unique. But it made sense to just about everybody--with the exception of the Maritimo brothers, as I have said, and, surprisingly, George Metzger, the city editor of the Bugle-Observer, the husband of the woman I had killed that afternoon.
Before George Metzger arrived, though, members of my audience behaved as though they were quite accustomed to taunting bad people. They may have done a lot of it in their dreams. They clearly felt entitled to respectful attention from me.
So I heard a lot of things like "Hey you--it's you I'm talking to. Yes you!" and "God damn it, you look me in the eye, you son of a bitch," and so on.
I was told about friends or relatives who had been hurt or killed in the war. Some of the casualties were victims of industrial accidents right there at home. The moral arithmetic was simple. Here all those soldiers and sailors and workers in war plants were risking their all to add more goodness to the world, whereas I had just subtracted some.
What was my own opinion of myself? I thought I was a defective human being, and that I shouldn't even be on this planet anymore. Anybody who would fire a Springfield .30-06 over the roof
If I had begun to reply to the people, I think that's what I would have babbled over and over again: "I have a screw loose somewhere, I have a screw loose somewhere, I have a screw loose somewhere."
Celia Hildreth came by the cage. I hadn't seen her for a year, since the awful night of the senior prom, but I had no trouble recognizing her. She was still the most beautiful woman in town. I can't imagine that the police had seen fit to invite her. It was her escort, surely, who had been invited. She was on the arm of Dwayne Hoover, who was then some sort of civilian inspector for the Army Air Corps, I think.
Something had kept him out of uniform. I knew who he was because he was good with automobiles, and Father had hired him from time to time to do some work on the Keedsler. Dwayne would eventually marry Celia and become the most successful automobile dealer in the area.
Celia would commit suicide by eating Drano, a drain-clearing compound of lye and zinc chips, in 1970, twelve years ago now. She killed herself in the most horrible way I can think of--a few months before the dedication of the Mildred Barry Memorial Center for the Arts.
Celia knew the arts center was going to open, and the newspaper and the radio station and the politicians and so on all said what a difference it was going to make in the quality of life in Midland City. But there was the can of Drano, with all its dire warnings, and she just couldn't wait around anymore.
I have seen unhappiness in my time.
NOW THAT I have known Haiti, with its voodooism, with its curses and charms and zombies and good and bad spirits which can inhabit anybody or anything, and so on, I wonder if it mattered much that it was I who was in the cage in the basement of the old courthouse so long ago. A curiously carved bone or stick, or a dried mud doll with straw hair would have served as well as I did, there on the bench, as long as the community believed, as Midland City believed of me, that it was a package of evil magic.
Deadeye Dick by Kurt Vonnegut / Humor / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes