Read Slow Sculpture Online

Authors: Theodore Sturgeon

Slow Sculpture (10 page)

He stamped back to the table and looked into Bitty’s face intently. “You got to back away and look at it all at once,” he cautioned again. “I’m not in kindergarten, I know what it’s all about. I’m not a woman-hater. I’ve been in love. I’ll get married, some day. Go ahead and tell me I’m talking about one of the biggest, strongest, down-deep
urges we have—I’ll buy that. That’s what I
mean
, that’s what I’m
talking
about.” His forehead was pink and shiny; he took out a crumpled handkerchief and batted at it. “So much of it, all around you, all the time, filling a big hungry need in average people. I don’t mean the urge itself; I mean all this
reminding
, this what do you call it, indoctrination. It’s a need or folks wouldn’t stand for so much of it, comic books, lipstick, that air-jet in the floor at the funny house at the Fair.” He thumped into his chair, panting. “Do you begin to see what I mean about
different?

“Do you?” asked Bitty, but Halvorsen didn’t hear her; he was talking again. “Different, because I don’t feel that hunger to be reminded, I don’t need all that high-pressure salesmanship, I don’t want it. Every time I tell one of my jokes, every time I wink back at old Scodie, I feel like a fool, like some sort of liar. But you got to protect yourself; you can’t let anyone find out. You know why? Because the average guy, the guy-by-the-millions that needs all that noise so much, he’ll let you be the way he is, or he’ll let you be … I’m sorry, Bitty. Don’t make me go into a lot of dirty details. You see what I mean, don’t you?

“What do you mean?”

Irritated, he blew a single sharp blast from his nostrils. “Well, what I mean is, they’ll let you be the way they are, or you have to be … sick, crippled. You can’t be anything else! You can’t be Phil Halvorsen who isn’t sick and who isn’t crippled but who just doesn’t naturally go around banging his antlers against the rocks so the whole world can hear it.”

“So—that’s what you mean by unfit?”

“That’s why I wanted to be dead. I just don’t think the way other people do; if I act the way other people do I feel … feel guilty. I guess I had this piling up in me for years, and that day with the guns, when I found out what I wanted to do … and then that theater-front, yawping over me like a wet mouth full of dirty teeth …” He giggled foolishly. “Listen to me, will you … Bitty, I’m sorry.”

She utterly ignored this. “High-pressure salesmanship,” she said.

“What?”

“You said it, I didn’t.… Isn’t hunger one of those big deep needs,
Philip? Suppose you had a bunch of folks starving on an island and dropped them a ton of food—would they need high-pressure salesmanship?”

It was as if he stood at the edge of a bottomless hole—more, the very outer edge of the world, so close his very toes projected over the emptiness. It filled him with wonder; he was startled, but not really afraid, because it might well be that to fall down and down into that endless place might be a very peaceful thing. He closed his eyes and slowly, very slowly, came back to reality, the kitchen. Bitty, Bitty’s words. “You mean … the av—the ordin—you mean, people aren’t really interested?”

“Not that interested.”

He blinked; he felt as if he had ceased to exist in his world and had been plunked down in a very similar, but totally new one. It was far less lonely here.

He hit the table and laughed into Bitty’s calm face. “I’m going to sleep,” he said, and got up; and he knew she had caught his exact shade of meaning when she said gently, “Sure you can.”

EXCERPT FROM FIELD EXPEDITION [NOTEBOOK]: [I] had thought up to now that in [Smith)’s [immorally] excessive enthusiasm and [bullheadedness] [I] had encountered the utmost in [irritants]. [I] was in [error]; [he] now surpasses these, and without effort. In the first place, having placated and outwitted the alerted specimen, [he] has destroyed [my] preliminary detailed [report] on him; this is [irritat]ing not only because it was done without consulting [me], not only because of the trouble [I] went to [write] it all up, but mostly because [he] is technically within [his] [ethics-rights]—the emergency created by [his] [bumbling mismanagement] no longer exists. [I] have [force]fully pointed out to [him] that it was only by the application of [my] kind of cautious resourcefulness that [he] succeeded, but [he] just [gloats]. [I] [most strongly affirm-and-bind-myself], the instant [we] get back home and are released from Expeditionary [ethic-discipline], [I] shall [bend] [his] []s over [his] [ ] and [tie a knot in] them.

[We] have now, no [credit-thanks] to [Smith], reached a point where all our specimens are in a state of [heavy] preconditioning of their unaccountably random Synapse Beta sub Sixteen. Being a synapse, it will of course come into full operation only on a reflexive level and in an extreme emergency, which [we] are now setting up.

Unless [Smith] produces yet more [stupidities], the specimens should live through this.

X

It had become impossibly hot, and very still. Leaves dropped at impossible angles, and still the dust lay on them. Sounds seemed too enervated to travel very far. The sky was brass all day, and at night, for want of ambition, the overcast was no more than a gauzy hood of haze.

It was the Bittelmans’ “day off” again, and without them the spine had been snatched out of the household. The boarders ate pokily, lightly, at random, and somehow got through the time when there was nothing to do but sit up late enough to get tired enough to get whatever rest the temperature would permit. It was too hot, even, to talk, and no one attempted it. They drifted to their rooms to wait for sleep; they slumped in front of the fans and took cold showers which generated more heat than they dissipated. When at last darkness came, it was a relief only to the eyes. The household pulse beat slowly and slower; by eight o’clock it was library-quiet, by nine quite silent, so that the soft brushing of knuckles on Miss Schmidt’s door struck her like a shout.

“Wh—who is it?” she quavered, when she recovered her breath.

“Sue.”

“Oh—oh. Oh, do come in.” She pulled the damp sheet tight up against her throat.

“Oh, you’re in bed already. I’m sorry.”


I’m
sorry. It’s all right.”

Sue Martin swung the door shut and came all the way in. She was wearing an off-the-shoulder peasant blouse and a pleated skirt with three times more filmy nylon in it than one would guess until
she turned, when it drifted like smoke. “My,” said Miss Schmidt enviously. “You look cool.”

“State of mind,” Sue smiled. “I’m about to go to work and I wish I didn’t have to.”

“And Bitty’s out. I’m honorary baby-sitter again.”

“You’re an angel.”

“No, oh, no!” cried Miss Schmidt. “I wish everything I had to do was that easy. Why, in all the time I’ve known you, every time I’ve done it, I—I’ve had nothing to do!”

“He sleeps pretty soundly. Clear conscience, I guess.”

“I think it’s because he’s happy. He smiles when he sleeps.”

“Smiles? Sometimes he laughs out loud,” said Sue Martin. “I was a little worried tonight, for a while. He was so flushed and wide-awake—”

“Well, it’s
hot
.”

“It wasn’t that.” Sue chuckled. “His precious Boff was all over the place, ‘fixin’ things,’ Robin said. What he was fixing all over the walls and ceiling, Robin didn’t say. Whatever it was, it’s finished now, though, and Robin’s sound asleep. I’m sure you won’t even have to go in. And Bitty ought to be home soon.”

“You’ll leave your door open?”

Sue Martin nodded and glanced up at the large open transom over Miss Schmidt’s door. “You’ll hear him if he so much as blinks.… I’ve got to run. Thanks
so
much.”

“Oh, really, Mrs. M—uh, Sue. Don’t thank me. Just run along.”

“Good night.”

Sue Martin slipped out, silently closing the door behind her. Miss Schmidt sighed and looked up at the transom. After Sue’s light footsteps had faded away, she listened, listened as hard as she could, trying to pour part of herself through the transom, across the hall, through Sue Martin’s open door. A light sleeper at any time, she knew confidently that she was on guard now and would wake if anything happened. If she slept at all in this sticky heat.

She might sleep, at that, she thought after a while. She shifted herself luxuriously, and edged to a slightly cooler spot on the bed. “That wicked Sam,” she murmured, and blushed in the dark. But
he had been right. A
nightgown
in weather like this?

Suddenly, she slept.

In O’Banion’s room, there was a soft sound. He had put off taking a shower until suddenly he had used up his energy, and could hardly stir. I’ll just rest my eyes, he thought, and bowed his head. The soft sound was made by his forehead striking the book.

Halvorsen lay rigid on his bed, staring at the ceiling. There, almost as if it was projected, was the image of a flimsy cylinder vomiting smoke. Go ahead, he thought, detachedly. Or go away. I don’t care which. Before I talked to Bitty, I wanted you. Now, I don’t care. Is that better? He closed his eyes, but the image was still there. He lay very quietly, watching the insides of his eyelids. It was like being asleep. When he was asleep the thing was there too.

Mary Haunt sat by her window, pretending it was cooler there than in bed. There was no anger in her, just now as she lay back and dreamed. The Big Break, the pillars of light at her premiere, her name two stories tall over a Broadway marquee—these had no place in this particular favorite dream. I’ll do over Mom’s room, she thought, dimity, this time, and full, full skirts on the vanity and the night table. She closed her eyes, putting herself in Mom’s room with such vividness that she could almost smell the cool faint odor of lavender sachets and the special freshness of sheets dried in the sun. Yes, and something else, outside the room, barely, just barely she knew bread was baking, so that the kitchen would be heavenly with it; the bread would dominate the spice-shelf for a while, until it was out of the oven and cooled. “Oh, Mom …” she whispered. She lay still in her easy chair, holding and holding to the vision until this room, this house, this town didn’t matter any more.

Some hours went by.

Robin floated in a luminous ocean of sleep where there was nothing to fear and where, if he just turned to look, there were love and laughter waiting for him. His left hand uncurled and he thrust the second and third fingers into his mouth. Somehow he was a big bulldozer with a motor that sounded like Mitster and tracks that clattered along like Coffeepot, and Boff and Googie were riding along with him and laughing. Then without effort he was a glittery
Ferris wheel, but he could watch himself too in one of the cars, screaming his delight and leaning against Tonio’s hard arm. All this, yet he was still afloat in that deep bright place where there was no fear, where love and laughter hid around some indescribable corner, waiting. Brighter, brighter. Warm, warm, warmer … oh, hot
hot!

XI

Miss Schmidt opened her eyes to an impossible orange glare and a roar like the end of the world. For one full second she lay still, paralyzed by an utter disbelief; no light could have become so bright, no sound could have risen to this volume, without waking her as it began. Then she found a way to focus her eyes against the radiance, and saw the flames, and in what was left to her of her immobile second, she explained the whole thing to herself and said redly, of course, of course; it’s only a nightmare and
suppose there’s a fire?
—and that’s so
silly
, Sam— And then she was out of bed in a single bound, standing in the center of the room, face to flaming face with reality. Everything was burning—everything! The drapes had already gone and the slats of the venetian blind, their cords gone, were heaped on the floor, going like a campfire. Even as she watched the screen sagged and crumpled, its pine frame glaring and spitting pitch through blistering paint. It fell outside.

Outside, outside! The window’s open, you’re on the ground floor; yes, and there on the chair, not burning yet, your bathrobe; take the robe and jump, quick!

Then, beyond belief, there was a second louder than the earth-filling roar, and different; fine hot powder and a hot hail of plaster showered on her shoulders; she looked up to see the main beam, right over her head, sag toward her and hang groaning, one part reaching to the other with broken flat fingers of splintered wood which gloved themselves in flame as she saw them. She cowered, and just then the handle of the door turned and a gout of smoke slammed it open and whisked out of sight in the updraft; and there in the hall stood Robin, grinding a fat little fist into one abruptly wakened eye. She could see his lips move, though she could hear nothing in this
mighty bellow of sound. She knew it, though, and heard it clearly in her mind: “What’s ’at noice?”

The beam overhead grumbled and again she was showered with plaster. She batted it off her shoulders, and whimpered. A great flame must have burst from the roof above her just then, for through the window she saw a brilliant glare reflected from the white clapboards of the garage wall outside. The glare tugged at her—
jump!
—and besides, her robe.…

The beam thundered and began to fall. Now she must make a choice, in microseconds. The swiftest thought would not be fast enough to weigh and consider and decide; all that could matter now was what was inside her, throwing switches (some so worn and easy to move!). A giant was throwing them, and he was strong; his strength was a conditioning deeper than
thou shalt not kill;
he was a lesson learned before she had learned to love God, or to walk, or to talk. He was her mother’s authority and the fear of all the hairy, sweaty, dangerous mysteries from which she had shielded herself all her life; and his name and title were Cover Thyself! With him, helping him, was the reflexive Save Thyself! and against these—Robin, whom she loved (but love is what she felt, once, for a canary, and once for a Raggedy Ann doll) and her sense of duty to Sue Martin (but so lightly promised, and at the time such a meaningless formality). There could be no choice in such a battle, though she must live with the consequences for all her years.

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