Deadeye dick, p.8
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       Deadeye Dick, p.8

           Kurt Vonnegut
 
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  The shock to me wasn't that my father was so collapsible.

  The shock to me was that Mother and I were so unsurprised.

  Nothing had changed.

  *

  After we got home from the inquest, incidentally, which happened the day before Mrs. Metzger's funeral, we got a telephone call from my brother Felix at Fort Benning. Even before basic training had begun, he said, an officer had recommended that he be made an acting corporal, and that he go to Officers' Candidate School in thirteen weeks. This was because he had exhibited such leadership on the troop bus.

  And I didn't talk, but I listened in on an extension.

  Felix asked how everything was going with us, and neither Mother nor Father would tell him the truth.

  Mother said to him, "You know us. We're just like Old Man River. We just keep rollin' along."

  15

  FATHER WAS defended by a lawyer in the lawsuit, but he was a jailbird by then. As things turned out, he would have been better off simply to hand over everything to George Metzger without a trial. At least he wouldn't have had to listen to proofs that he had admired Hitler, and that he had never done an honest day's work, and that he only pretended to be a painter, and that he had no education beyond high school, and that he had been arrested several times during his youth in other cities, and that he had regularly insulted his working relatives, and on and on.

  There were enough ironies, certainly, to sink a battleship. The young lawyer who represented George Metzger had offered his services first to Father. He was Bernard Ketchum, and the Maritimo brothers had brought him to the coroner's inquest, urging Father to hire him and start using him then and there. He wasn't in the armed forces because he was blind in one eye. When he was little, a playmate had shot him in the eye with a beebee gun.

  Ketchum was ruthless on Metzger's behalf, just as he would have been ruthless with Metzger, if Father had hired him. He certainly never let the jury forget that Mrs. Metzger had been pregnant. He made the embryo a leading personality in town. It was always "she," since it was known to have been a female. And, although Ketchum himself had never seen her, he spoke familiarly of her perfectly formed little fingers and toes.

  Years later, Felix and I would have reason to hire Ketchum, to sue the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Maritimo Brothers Construction Company and the Ohio Valley Ornamental Concrete Company for killing our mother with a radioactive mantelpiece.

  That is how Felix and I got the money to buy this hotel, and old Ketchum is also a partner.

  My instructions to Ketchum were these: "Don't forget to tell the jury about Mother's perfectly formed little fingers and toes."

  *

  After Father lost the lawsuit, we had to let all the servants go. There was no way to pay them, and Mary Hoobler and all the rest of them left in tears. Father was still in prison, so at least he was spared those wrenching farewells. Nor did he experience that spooky morning after, when Mother and I awoke in our separate rooms, and came out onto the balcony overhanging the main floor, and listened and sniffed.

  Nothing was being cooked.

  No one was straightening up the room below, and waiting for the time when she could make our beds.

  This was new.

  I of course got breakfast. It was easy and natural for me to do. And thus did I begin a life as a domestic servant to my mother and then to both my parents. As long as they lived, they never had to prepare a meal or wash a dish or make a bed or do the laundry or dust or vacuum or sweep, or shop for food. I did all that, and maintained a B average in school, as well.

  What a good boy was I!

  *

  Eggs a la Rudy Waltz (age thirteen): Chop, cook, and drain two cups of spinach. Blend with two tablespoons of butter, a teaspoon of salt, and a pinch of nutmeg. Heat and put into three oven-proof bowls or cups.

  Put a poached egg on top of each one, and sprinkle with grated cheese. Bake for five minutes at 375 degrees.

  Serves three: the papa bear, the mama bear, and the baby bear who cooked it--and who will clean up afterwards.

  *

  As soon as the suit was settled, George Metzger took off for Florida with his two children. So far as I know, not one of them was ever seen in Midland City again. They had lived there a very short time, after all. Before they could put down roots, a bullet had come from nowhere for no reason, and drilled Mrs. Metzger between the eyes. And they hadn't made any friends to whom they would write year after year.

  The two children, Eugene and Jane, in fact, found themselves as much outcasts as I was when we all returned to school. And we, in turn, were no worse off, socially, than the few children whose fathers or brothers had been killed in the war. We were all lepers, willy-nilly, for having shaken hands with Death.

  We might as well have rung bells wherever we went, as lepers were often required to do in the Dark Ages.

  Curious.

  *

  Eugene and Jane were named, I found out only recently, for Eugene V. Debs, the labor hero from Terre Haute, Indiana, and Jane Addams, the Nobel prize-winning social reformer from Cedarville, Illinois. They were much younger than me, so we were in different schools. It was only recently, too, that I learned that they had found themselves as leprous as I was, and what had become of them in Florida, and on and on.

  The source of all this information about the Metzgers has been, of course, their lawyer, who is now our lawyer, Bernard Ketchum.

  Only at the age of fifty, thirty-eight years after I destroyed Mrs. Metzger's life, my life, and my parents' life with a bullet, have I asked anyone how the Metzgers were. It was right here by the swimming pool at two in the morning. All the hotel guests were asleep, not that they are ever all that numerous. Felix and his new wife, his fifth wife, were there. Ketchum and his first and only wife were there. And I was there. Where was my mate? Who knows? I think I am a homosexual, but I can't be sure. I have never made love to anyone.

  Nor have I tasted alcohol, except for homeopathic doses of it in certain recipes--but the others had been drinking champagne. Not since I was twelve, for that matter, have I swallowed coffee or tea, or taken a medicine, not even an aspirin or a laxative or an antacid or an antibiotic of any sort. This is an especially odd record for a person who is, as I am, a registered pharmacist, and who was the solitary employee on the night shift of Midland City's only all-night drugstore for years and years.

  So be it.

  I had just served the others and myself, as a surprise, spuma di cioccolata, which I had made the day before. There was one serving left over.

  And we certainly all had plenty of things to think about, both privately and publicly, since our hometown had so recently been depopulated by the neutron bomb. We might so easily have had our peepholes closed, too, if we hadn't come down to take over the hotel.

  When we heard about that fatal flash back home, in fact, I had quoted the words of William Cowper, which a sympathetic English teacher had given me to keep from killing myself when I was young:

  God moves in a mysterious way

  His wonders to perform;

  He plants his footsteps in the sea,

  And rides upon the storm.

  So I said to Ketchum, after we had finished our chocolate seafoams, our spume di cioccolata, "Tell us about the Metzgers."

  And Felix dropped his spoon. Curiosity about the Metzgers had been the most durable of all our family taboos. The taboo had surely existed in large measure for my own protection. Now I had broken it as casually as I had served dessert.

  Old Ketchum was impressed, too. He shook his head wonderingly, and he said, "I never expected to hear a member of the Waltz family ask how any of the Metzgers were."

  "I wondered out loud only once," said Felix, "--after I came home from the war. That was enough for me. I'd had a good time in the war, and I'd made a lot of contacts I could use afterwards, and I was pretty sure I was going to make a lot of money and become a big shot fast."

  And he did become a big shot
, of course. He eventually became president of NBC, with a penthouse and a limousine and all.

  He also "tapped out early," as they say. After he was canned by NBC twelve years ago, when he was only forty-four, he couldn't find suitable work anywhere.

  This hotel has been a godsend to Felix.

  "So I was a citizen of the world when I came home," Felix went on. "Any city in any country, including my own hometown, was to me just another place where I might live or might not live. Who gave a damn? Anyplace you could put a microphone was home enough for me. So I treated my own mother and father and brother as natives of some poor, war-ravaged town I was passing through. They told me their troubles, as natives will, and I give them my absentminded sympathy. I cared some. I really did.

  "I tried to look at the lighter side, as passers-through will, and I speculated as to what the formerly penniless Metzgers might be doing with their million dollars or so.

  "And Mother, one of the most colorless women I would ever know, until she developed all those brain tumors toward the end," Felix went on, "--she slapped me. I was in uniform, but I hadn't been wounded or anything. I had just been a radio announcer.

  "And then Father shouted at me, 'What the Metzgers do with their money is none of our business! It's theirs, do you hear me? I never want it mentioned again! We are poor people! Why should we break our hearts and addle our brains with rumors about the lives of millionaires?' "

  *

  According to Ketchum, George Metzger took his family to Florida because of a weekly newspaper which was for sale in Cedar Key, and because it was always warm down there, and because it was so far from Midland City. He bought the paper for a modest amount, and he invested the rest of the money in two thousand acres of open land near Orlando.

  "A fool and his money can be a winning combination," said Ketchum of that investment made back in 1945. "That unprepossessing savannah, friends and neighbors, which George put in the name of his two children, and which they still own, became the magic carpet on which has been constructed the most successful family entertainment complex in human history, which is Walt Disney World."

  There was water music throughout this conversation. We were far from the ocean, but a concrete dolphin expectorated lukewarm water into the swimming pool. The dolphin had come with the hotel, like the voodooist head-waiter, Hippolyte Paul De Mille. God only knows what the dolphin is connected to. God only knows what Hippolyte Paul De Mille is connected to.

  He claims he can make a long-dead corpse stand up and walk around, if he wants it to.

  I am skeptical.

  "I surprise you," he says in Creole. "I show you someday."

  *

  George Metzger, according to Ketchum, is still alive, and a man of very modest means by choice--and still running a weekly paper in Cedar Key. He had kept enough money for himself, anyway, that he did not have to care whether anybody liked his paper or not. And very early on, in fact, he had lost most of his advertisers and subscribers to a new weekly, which did not share his exotic views on war and firearms and the brotherhood of man and so on.

  So only his children were rich.

  "Does anybody read his paper?" said Felix.

  "No," said Ketchum.

  "Did he ever remarry?" I said.

  "No," said Ketchum.

  Felix's fifth wife, Barbara, and the first loving wife he had ever had, in my opinion, found the solitude of old George Metzger in Cedar Key intolerable. She was a native of Midland City like the rest of us, and a product of its public schools. She was an X-ray technician. That was how Felix had met her. She had X-rayed his shoulder. She was only twenty-three. She was pregnant by Felix now, and so happy to be pregnant. She was such a true believer in how life could be enriched by children.

  She was carrying Felix's first legitimate child. He had one illegitimate child, fathered in Paris during the war, and now in parts unknown. All his wives, though, had been very sophisticated about birth control.

  And this lovely Barbara Waltz said of old George Metzger, "But he has those children, and they must adore him, and know what a hero he is."

  "They haven't spoken to him for years," said Ketchum, with ill-concealed satisfaction. He plainly liked it when life went badly. That was comical to him.

  Barbara was stricken. "Why?" she said.

  Ketchum's own two children, for that matter, no longer spoke to him, and had fled Midland City--and so had escaped the neutron bomb. They were sons. One had deserted to Sweden during the Vietnam War, and was working with alcoholics there. The other was a welder in Alaska who had flunked out of Harvard Law School, his father's alma mater.

  "Your baby will be asking you that wonderful question soon enough," said Ketchum, as amused by his own bad luck as by anybody else's, "--'Why, why, why?' "

  Eugene Debs Metzger, it turned out, lived in Athens, Greece, and owned several tankers, which flew the flag of Liberia.

  His sister, Jane Addams Metzger, who found her mother dead and vacuum cleaner still running so long ago, a big, homely girl, as I recall, and big and homely still, according to Ketchum, was living with a refugee Czech playwright on Molokai, in the Hawaiian Islands, where she owned a ranch and was raising Arabian horses.

  "She sent me a play by her lover," said Ketchum. "She thought maybe I could find a producer for it, since, of course, there in Midland City, Ohio, I was falling over producers every time I turned around."

  And my brother Felix parodied the line about there being a broken heart for every light on Broadway in New York City. He substituted the name of Midland City's main drag. "There's a broken heart for every light on old Harrison Avenue," he said. And he got up, and went for more champagne.

  His way up the stairs to the hotel proper was blocked by a Haitian painter, who had fallen asleep while waiting for a tourist, any tourist, to come back from a night on the town. He had garish pictures of Adam and Eve and the serpent, and of Haitian village life, with all the people with their hands in their pockets, since the artist couldn't draw hands very well, and so on, lining the staircase on either side.

  Felix did not disturb him. He stepped over him very respectfully. If Felix had seemed to kick him intentionally, Felix would have been in very serious trouble. This is no ordinary colonial situation down here. Haiti as a nation was born out of the only successful slave revolt in all of human history. Imagine that. In no other instance have slaves overwhelmed their masters, begun to govern themselves and to deal on their own with other nations, and repelled foreigners who felt that natural law required them to be slaves again.

  So, as we had been warned when we bought the hotel here, any white or lightly colored person who struck or even menaced a Haitian in a manner suggesting a master-and-slave relationship would find himself in prison.

  This was understandable.

  *

  While Felix was away, I asked Ketchum if the Czech refugee's play was any good. He said that he was in no position to judge, and that neither was Jane Metzger, since it was written in Czech. "It is a comedy, I'm told," he said. "It could be very funny."

  "Funnier than my play, certainly," I said. And here is an eerie business: Twenty-three years ago, back in 1959, I entered a playwriting contest sponsored by the Caldwell Foundation, and I won, and my prize was a professional production of my play at the Theatre de Lys in Greenwich Village. It was called Katmandu. It was about John Fortune, Father's dairy farmer friend and then enemy, who is buried in Katmandu.

  I stayed with my brother and his third wife, Genevieve. They lived in the Village, and I slept on their couch. Felix was only thirty-four, but he was already general manager of radio station WOR, and was about to head up the television department of Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn, the advertising agency. He was already having his clothes made in London.

  And Katmandu opened and closed in a single night. This was my one fling away from Midland City, my one experience, until now, with inhabiting a place where I was not Deadeye Dick.

  16

 
; THE NEW YORK CITY critics found it hilarious that the author of Katmandu held a degree in pharmacy from Ohio State University. They found it obvious, too, that I had never seen India or Nepal, where half my play took place. How delicious they would have found it, if only they had known, that I had begun to write the play when I was only a junior in high school. How pathetic they would have found it, if only they had known, that I had been told that I should become a writer, that I had the divine spark, by a high school English teacher who had never been anywhere, either, who had never seen anything important, either, who had no sex life, either. And what a perfect name she had for a role like that: Naomi Shoup.

  She took pity on me, and on herself, too, I'm sure. What awful lives we had! She was old and alone, and considered to be ridiculous for finding joy on a printed page. I was a social leper. I would have had no time for friends anyway. I went food shopping right after school, and started supper as soon as I got home. I did the laundry in the broken-down Maytag wringer-washer in the furnace room. I served supper to Mother and Father, and sometimes guests, and cleaned up afterwards. There would be dirty dishes from breakfast and lunch as well.

  I did my homework until I couldn't keep my eyes open any longer, and then I collapsed into bed. I often slept in my clothing. And then I got up at six in the morning and did the ironing and vacuuming. And then I served breakfast to Mother and Father, and put a hot lunch for them in the oven. And then I made all the beds and I went to school.

  "And what are your parents up to while you're doing all that housework?" Miss Shoup asked me. She had summoned me from a study hall, where I had been fast asleep, to a conference in her tiny office. There was a photograph of Edna St. Vincent Millay on her wall. She had to tell me who she was.

  I was too embarrassed to tell old Miss Shoup the truth about what Mother and Father did with their time. They were zombies. They were in bathrobes and bedroom slippers all day long--unless company was expected. They stared into the distance a lot. Sometimes they would hug each other very lightly and sigh. They were the walking dead.

  The next time Hippolyte Paul De Mille offers to raise a corpse for my amusement, I will say to him, "It is nothing I do not see yesterday."

 
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