Deadeye dick, p.9
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       Deadeye Dick, p.9

           Kurt Vonnegut
 
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  *

  So I told Miss Shoup that Father did carpentry around the house, and of course painted and drew a lot, and ran a little antique business. The last time Father had touched any tools, in fact, was when he decapitated the house and smashed up his guns. I had never seen him paint or draw. His antique business consisted of trying to sell off what little was left of all the loot he had brought back from Europe in his glory days.

  That was one way we went on eating--and heating. Another source of cash was a small legacy Mother received from a relative in Germany. She inherited it after the lawsuit was settled. Otherwise, the Metzgers would have got that, too. But most of our money came from Felix, who was extraordinarily generous without our ever asking him for anything.

  And I told Miss Shoup that Mother gardened and helped me a lot with the housework, and helped Father with his antique business, and wrote letters to friends, and read a lot, and so on.

  What Miss Shoup wanted to see me about, though, was an essay on this assigned subject: "The Midland City Person I Most Admire." My hero was John Fortune, who died in Katmandu when I was only six years old. She turned my ears crimson by saying that it was the finest piece of writing by a student that she had seen in forty years of teaching. She began to weep.

  "You really must become a writer," she said. "And you must get out of this deadly town, too--as soon as you can.

  "You must find what I should have had the courage to look for," she said, "what we should all have the courage to look for."

  "What is that?" I said.

  Her answer was this: "Your own Katmandu."

  *

  She had been watching me recently, she confessed. "You seem to be talking to yourself."

  "Who else is there to talk to?" I said. "It's not talking anyway."

  "Oh?" she said. "What is it?"

  "Nothing," I said. I had never told anybody what it was, nor did I tell her. "It's just a nervous habit," I said. She would have liked it if I had told her all my secrets, but I never gave her that satisfaction.

  It seemed safest and wisest to be as cold as ice to her, and to everyone.

  But the answer to her question was this: I was singing to myself. It was scat singing, an invention of the black people. They had found it a good way to shoo the blues away, and so had I. "Booby dooby wop wop," I would sing to myself, and "Skaddy wee, skeedy wah," and so on. "Beedy op! Beedy op!"

  And the miles went by, and the years went by. "Foodly yah, foodly yah. Zang reepa dop. Faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!"

  *

  Linzer torte (from the Bugle-Observer): Mix half a cup of sugar with a cup of butter until fluffy. Beat in two egg yolks and half a teaspoon of grated lemon rind.

  Sift a cup of flour together with a quarter teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of cinnamon, and a quarter teaspoon of cloves. Add this to the sugar-and-butter mixture. Add one cup of unblanched almonds and one cup of toasted filberts, both chopped fine.

  Roll out two-thirds of the dough until a quarter of an inch thick. Line the bottom and sides of an eight-inch pan with dough. Slather in a cup and a half of raspberry jam. Roll out the rest of the dough, make it into eight thin pencil shapes about ten inches long. Twist them a little, and lay them across the top in a decorative manner. Crimp the edges.

  Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for about an hour, and then cool at room temperature.

  A great favorite in Vienna, Austria, before the First World War!

  *

  So I said nothing to my parents about wanting to become a writer until I had served a surprise dessert which I had gotten out of the paper, which was Linzer torte.

  Father roused himself from living death sufficiently to say that the dessert took him back forty years. And, before he could sink out of sight again, I told him what Naomi Shoup had said to me.

  "Half woman and half bird," he said.

  "Sir?" I said.

  "Miss Shoup," he said.

  "I don't understand," I said.

  "She is obviously a siren," he said. "A siren is half woman, half bird."

  "I know what a siren is," I said.

  "Then you know they lure sailors with their sweet songs to shipwrecks on rocks," he said.

  "Yes, sir," I said. Since shooting Mrs. Metzger, I had taken to calling all grown men "sir." Like the secret scat singing, it somehow made my hard life just a trifle easier. I was a make-believe soldier of the lowest rank.

  "What did Odysseus do in order to sail by the sirens safely?" he asked me.

  "I forget," I said.

  "He did what you must do now, whenever anybody tells you that you have an artistic gift of any kind," he said. "I only wish my father had told me what I tell you now."

  "Sir?" I said.

  "Plug your ears with wax, my boy--and lash yourself to the mast," he said.

  *

  "I wrote a thing about John Fortune, and she said it was good," I persisted. I did very little of that, I must say-- persisting. During my time in the cage, all covered with ink, I concluded that the best thing for me and for those around me was to want nothing, to be enthusiastic about nothing, to be as unmotivated as possible, in fact, so that I would never again hurt anyone.

  To put it another way: I wasn't to touch anything on this planet, man, woman, child, artifact, animal, vegetable, or mineral--since it was very likely to be connected to a push-pull detonator and an explosive charge.

  And the fact that I had been working for the past month, late at night, on a major essay on a subject that excited me, was news to my parents. They never asked me what I might be doing at school.

  School.

  "John Fortune?" said Father. "What did you find to say about him?"

  "I'll show you my essay," I said. Miss Shoup had given it back to me.

  "No, no," said Father. "Just tell me." Now that I think about it, he may have been dyslectic. "I'd be interested to hear what you have to say about him, because I knew him well."

  "I know," I said.

  "Why didn't you ask me about him?" he said.

  "I didn't want to bother you," I said. "You have so much to think about." I didn't say so, but I also knew that the loss of John Fortune as a friend, over Father's admiration of Hitler, was a painful subject for Father. I had caused him enough pain. I had caused everybody enough pain.

  "He was a fool," said Father. "There is no wisdom to be found in Asia. It was that damn fool book that killed him."

  "Lost Horizon--by James Hilton," I said. This was a very popular novel published in 1933, one year after my peephole opened. It told of a tiny, isolated country, a secret from the rest of the world, where no one ever tried to hurt anybody else, and where everybody was happy and nobody grew old. Hilton located this imaginary Garden of Eden somewhere in the Himalayas, and he called it "Shangri-La."

  It was this book which inspired John Fortune to take off for the Himalayas after his wife died. It was possible back then for even an educated person, which Fortune wasn't, to suspect that contentment might be hidden somewhere on the map, like the treasure of Captain Kidd. Katmandu had certainly been visited by travelers often enough, but they all had to get there the way John Fortune got there, which was on a footpath from the Indian border--through mountains and jungle. A road wasn't put through until 1952, the year I graduated from pharmacy school.

  And, my God, they've got a big airport there now. It can handle jets. My dentist, Herb Stacks, has been there three times so far, and his waiting room is chock-a-block with Nepalese art. That was how he and his family escaped the neutron bomb. They were in Katmandu at the time.

  *

  Father behaved as though I had pulled off a miracle of extrasensory perception, knowing about John Fortune and Lost Horizon. "How could you possibly know that?" he said.

  "I went through old newspapers at the public library," I said.

  "Oh," he said. I don't think he had ever used the public library. "They keep old newspapers there?" he said with some surprise.

  "Yes, sir," I said.

/>   "Goodness--there must be a lot of them," he said. "Day after day, week after week." He asked me if people were in the library all the time, "... dredging up the past like that?" It may have seemed wrong to him that his own past in the newspaper hadn't been carted off to the dump. And I had come across a little of that, some of his letters to the editor in praise of Hitler.

  "Well," he said, "--I certainly hope you never read that book."

  "Lost Horizon?" I said. "I already have."

  "You mustn't take it seriously," he said. "It's all bunk. This is as much Shangri-La as anywhere."

  Now, at the age of fifty, I believe this to be true.

  And, here in Haiti, I have begun to verbalize that sentiment, so intolerable to me when I was a teen-ager. We are going to have to go back to Midland City soon, at the pleasure of our government, to collect whatever personal property we want, and to file our claims against our government. It now seems certain: The entire county is to become a refugee center, possibly fenced.

  A dark thought: Perhaps the neutron bomb explosion wasn't so accidental after all.

  In any event, and in anticipation of our brief return to our hometown, I have in conversation given Midland City this code name, which the Ketchums and my brother and his wife accept without protest: "Shangri-La."

  17

  THE NIGHT I told Father I wanted to be a writer, the night of the Linzer tortes, he ordered me to become a pharmacist instead, which I did. As Felix has pointed out, Father and Mother were understandably edgy about losing their last servant, among other things.

  And Father made a ritual of lighting a cigar, and then he shook out the match and dropped it in what was left of the Linzer torte, and then he said again, "Be a pharmacist! Go with the grain of your heritage! There is no artistic talent in this family, nor will there ever be! You can imagine how much it hurts me to say so. We are business people, and that's all we can ever hope to be."

  "Felix is gifted," I said.

  "And so is every circus freak," said Father. "Yes--he has the deepest voice in the world, but have you ever listened to what he actually says when he's using his own mind, when some genuinely gifted person hasn't written something for him to say?"

  I made no reply and he went on: "You and I and your mother and your brother are descended from solid, stolid, thick-skulled, unimaginative, unmusical, ungraceful German stock whose sole virtue is that it can never leave off working. You see in me a man who was flattered and lied to and coddled out of his proper destiny, which was a life in business, in rendering some sort of plodding but useful service to his community. Don't throw away your destiny the way I did. Be what you were born to be. Be a pharmacist!"

  *

  So I become a pharmacist. But I never gave up on being a writer, too, although I stopped talking about it. I cut poor old Naomi Shoup dead the next time she dared mention my divine spark to me. I told her that I had no wish to be distracted from my first love, which was pharmacy. Thus was I without a single friend in this world again.

  I was permitted a certain number of electives when I enrolled as a pharmacy major at Ohio State. And, with nobody watching, so to speak, I took a course in play-writing in my sophomore year. I had by then heard of James Thurber, who had grown up right there in Columbus, and then gone on to New York City to write comically about the same sorts of people I had known in Midland City. And his biggest hit had been a play, The Male Animal.

  "Scooby dooby do-wop! Deedly-ah! Deedly ah!" Maybe I could be like him.

  So I turned my essay on John Fortune into a play.

  *

  Who was doing the housework back home meanwhile? I was still doing most of it. I wasn't your typical college boy, any more than I had been your typical high school boy. I still lived at home, but made the hundred-mile round-trip to Columbus three or four times a week, depending on what my schedule was.

  I cut down on fancy cooking, I must say. I served an awful lot of canned stew in those days, and sometimes I didn't get around to serving it until midnight, either. Mother and Father groused a little bit, but not all that much.

  Who was paying my tuition? My brother was.

  *

  I agree now that Katmandu was a ridiculous play. What made me keep working on it so long, even after I graduated and went to work as the night man at Schramm's Drugstore, were the lines at the very end. They so much deserved to be spoken in a theater. They weren't even my lines. They were the last words of John Fortune himself, which I found in an old Bugle-Observer.

  The thing was this: He simply disappeared somewhere in Asia in 1938. He had sent postcards back from San Francisco, and then Honolulu, and then Fiji, and then Manila, and Madras, and so on. But then the cards stopped. The very last one came from Agra, India, the site of the Taj Mahal.

  One letter I found in the paper, published in 1939, long before anybody in Midland City found out what finally happened to Fortune, said this: "At least he saw the Taj Mahal."

  But then, right at the end of World War Two, the Bugle-Observer got a letter from a British doctor who had been a prisoner of the Japanese for years and years. His name was David Brokenshire. It is easy for me to remember that, since he became a character in my play.

  This Dr. Brokenshire had walked all alone on the footpath to Katmandu. He was studying folk medicine. So he had been in Nepal for about a year, when some natives brought to him a white man on a stretcher. The man had collapsed in front of the palace. He had just arrived, and he had double pneumonia. It was John Fortune, of course, and his costume was so strange to both the Englishman and the Nepalese that he was asked to say what it was. The answer was this: "Plain old, honest Ohio bib overalls."

  So John Fortune's peephole closed and he was buried there in Katmandu, but not before he scrawled a message which Brokenshire promised to deliver sooner or later to the Bugle-Observer back in Midland City. But the doctor was in no hurry to get to the nearest mailbox. He went wandering into Tibet instead, and then northern Burma, and then China, where the Japanese captured him. They thought he was a spy. He didn't even know there was a war going on.

  He wrote a book about it later. I read it. It is hard to find, but worth looking for. It is quite interesting.

  But the point is that he didn't get to send John Fortune's last words, along with a map of where in Katmandu Fortune was buried, to Midland City until six years after Fortune's death. The words were these:

  "To all my friends and enemies in the buckeye state. Come on over. There's room for everybody in Shangri-La."

  18

  KATMANDU, my contribution to Western civilization, has been performed three times before paying audiences--once at the Theatre de Lys in New York City in 1960, in the same month that Father died, and then twice on the stage of Fairchild High School in Midland City three years later. The female lead of the Midland City production was, incidentally, none other than Celia Hildreth Hoover, to whom Father had tried to present an apple so long ago.

  In the first act of the play, which was set in Midland City, Celia, who in real life would eventually swallow Drno, played the ghost of John Fortune's wife. In the second act, she was a mysterious Oriental woman he meets at the Taj Mahal. She offers to show him the way to Shangri-La, and leads the way over mountains and through jungle on the path to Katmandu. And then, after Fortune speaks his message for the people back in Midland City and dies, she doesn't say anything, but she reveals herself as the ghost of his wife again.

  It isn't an easy part, and Celia had never done any acting at all before. She was only the wife of a Pontiac dealer, but I think she was actually at least as good as the professional actress who did it in New York City. She was certainly more beautiful. She hadn't yet been made all raddled and addled and snaggletoothed and haggard by amphetamine.

  I forget the name of the actress in New York City now. I think maybe she dropped out of acting after Katmandu.

  *

  Speaking of amphetamine: Father's old friend Hitler was evidently one of the first people
to experience its benefits. I read recently that his personal doctor kept him bright eyed and bushy tailed right up to the end with bigger and bigger doses of vitamins and amphetamine.

  *

  I went straight from pharmacy school to a job as all-night man at Schramm's Drugstore, six days a week from midnight to dawn. I still lived with my parents, but now I was able to make a substantial contribution to their support and my own. It was a dangerous job, since Schramm's, the only business establishment of any sort that was open all night, was a sort of lighthouse for lunatics and outlaws. My predecessor, old Malcolm Hyatt, who went to high school with my father, was killed by a robber from out of town. The robber swung off the Shepherdstown Turnpike, and closed old Hyatt's peephole with a sawed-off shotgun, and then swung back onto the Interstate again.

  He was apprehended at the Indiana border, and tried and convicted, and sentenced to die over at Shepherdstown. They closed his peephole with electricity. In one microsecond he was hearing and seeing all sorts of things. In the next microsecond he was a wisp of undifferentiated nothingness again.

  Served him right.

  *

  The drugstore was owned by a man named Horton in Cincinnati, incidentally. There weren't any Schramms left in town. There used to be dozens of Schramms in town.

  There used to be dozens of Waltzes in town, too. But when I went to work at Schramm's, there were only four of us--Mother, Father, and me, and my brother's first wife Donna. She was half of a set of what used to be identical twins. She and Felix were divorced, but she still called herself Donna Waltz. So she wasn't a real Waltz, a blood Waltz.

  And she would never have been a Waltz of any sort, if Felix hadn't accidentally put her through a windshield the day after he was discharged from the Army. He hardly knew her, since her family had moved to Midland City from Kokomo, Indiana, while he was at war. He couldn't even tell her from her twin, Dina.

  They were out joyriding in her father's car. Thank God it wasn't our car, anyway. We didn't have a car anymore. We didn't have shit anymore, and Father was still in prison. But Felix was driving. He was at the wheel. And the brakes locked. It was a prewar Hudson. There weren't any postwar cars yet.

 
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