Read Slow Sculpture Online

Authors: Theodore Sturgeon

Slow Sculpture (27 page)

We watched together while the doctor shut off the little machine and bent close to the lady, talking. We couldn’t hear him but I could tell he was bringing her out of it. At first she just blinked slowly and began to raise a hand to put it against her head where she’d been hit, but the doc caught both her hands and went on talking until she was fully awake and looking at him. Then she smiled. It was a real nice smile, all that harried, harrassed look gone from her. Really gone. It was a nice smile.

Head close to mine as we watched, Uncle Fremmis said in my ear, “You always used to be a bright boy, son. What do you think happened?”

I didn’t know what to think. I said, “You’ll laugh at me.”

“No.” That’s one of the smallest words there is, but he packed a
heap into it. He wouldn’t laugh at me. So I said the crazy thing that had crept into my head. I said, “You hit her just the way you used to with that old radio you had.”

He sounded like he really admired me. “Oh, you are a bright one.” And he patted my shoulder. Then he asked me how things were going back home.

It happens I’d been back for a week or so three months ago so I told him. The Lake country wasn’t the same any more, like the twentieth century had got there at last altogether, not just a bit here and a piece there. I told him the way you do with down-home folks away from home, you know—who’d sold out and who had to get married and what happened to the church clock. He soaked it all in; I thought he looked sad. While I was talking the doctor in the other room got the lady up and they walked out together and the doc switched out the lights in there, and it was dark again in the corridor. Uncle Fremmis made no move to leave, so I went on talking in the dark. I said I didn’t think I’d go back to the town again any more, ever; it wasn’t really all that different from any other town now.

Just then the light came on again and we saw the doctor bringing in another one, and I recognized this one right away. He was a United States senator, been one for years. The doctor sat him down and reset the knobs on the little machine and put him under, and then Uncle Fremmis slipped out there and—and fixed him. Or not ‘fixed him’—as he told me later, you couldn’t call what he did ‘fixing.’ It’s something else there’s no real word for; Uncle Fremmis didn’t know how to fix things, not really. This time there was no feeling around either; he went straight to the old Senator and lifted up the Senator’s left hand to about shoulder high and snapped it down so hard I thought it might come off at the shoulder. If the doctor hadn’t been hanging on tight I do believe he’d have tumbled the old feller right off the chair. Then he came back to me and we went on chatting while the doctor turned off the machine and brought the Senator around and led him out.

“It’s my fault,” Uncle Fremmis said sadly when he got back to me. “I mean about the town. It was me made it the way it was. Kep’ it the way it was. I didn’t mean to do it; I didn’t know. It was Doc
Warburg there made me realize it. And then it’s my fault that things have changed so, too. To this day I don’t know which was best.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I got to say, I liked it the way it was.”

“The way it was was a backwater,” he said sharply. I could see this whole thing meant a lot to him. “If a thing’s alive it’s got to change. If it stops changing it could be a lot of things—fun to be with or funny to look at or something for college folks to study, but it ain’t alive no more, and a town’s like a person, it has a right to be alive and grow and change and nobody should stop it.”

“You mean you stopped it? How could you stop it?”

“Well, I made things work. I mean like that old lawnmower of Artie Backer’s, with the kerosene motor. I used to go over to Artie’s every six weeks during the warm weather and kick it. Wasn’t nobody that knew where to kick it or how hard but me, and for me it worked. Old Mrs. Roudenbush, she had a meat grinder that would jam up so she couldn’t turn it ’less I took holt of the crank and shook it just so.”

And it all came back in a flood—Wertenbaker’s tractor and Samuel’s windmill pump and the church clock and dozens, scores, hundreds of other things, big and little, and Uncle Fremmis, drifting around town, knowing everybody and what everybody had that didn’t work right, and making it go. Alarm clocks and sewing machines and the farm stuff—seeders and harrows and spreaders and drills.

And I recalled the blacksmith who had tromped him on the village street and the electrician who’d tried twice to wipe out Uncle Fremmis, and I began to understand those things, why they were enemies and why the town rode ’em out. When the light in the other room came on and I could see him again I looked at him with brand new eyes, like I’d never seen him before. I watched while he went in to the doctor and that famous preacher you’ve all seen on the TV, and while the preacher slumped there staring into the blinking light, Uncle Fremmis fetched him a hell of a clip between the shoulder blades with the heel of his hand.

When he came back I asked him how he’d happened to come
here, and he told me about it, setting up in his cabin watching the rabbits in the steep meadow one early morning, and he seen somebody moving around down by the crooked pond on the other side of the hogback. “A nippy morning, it was,” he said, “and there was this man in his shirt sleeves wading into the water so I knew right away something was haywire and I scrambled down there. There was a monstrous big Cadillac parked on the west bank and this feller was heading out for deep water with a kind of I-can’t-see-you look on his face. I brought him back. He didn’t want to come. Much bigger’n me, so when talkin’ didn’t help and pullin’ and haulin’ didn’t help I did the only thing I could think of.… Hell, I didn’t even think. I mean it was like he wasn’t a man at all but a threshin’ machine with a jammed conveyor or some kid’s old Mickey Mouse watch. I mean it was a tight thing, son, he could’ve dragged me into the deep water too, so all I did was the only thing I could do. I hit him a certain way.” He prodded me on the right side, a little above the waist. “ ’Long about here, and it straightened him right out. He stopped dead an’ looked at me like wonderin’ where he was at, so we waded ashore and come up to my place and drank a lot of coffee and dried out in front of the fire. Here comes the Maestro.”

We looked through the mirror and saw one of the world’s biggest orchestra leaders, so corny even country people laugh at him but what the hell, if you like bubbles and music ex-act-ly on-the-beat, you got a right. Uncle Fremmis went in there and turned the guy’s right foot half around and held it between his knees while he reached up and gave him a kind of karate chop on the neck, not too hard. When he came back he went on, “We talked all that day an’ into the next night, me and the doc there. He’s a big man, son, and I don’t mean money and I don’t mean all the books he’s wrote and all. He’s a big man with a clear head who ain’t afraid to look at the truth even if the truth looks crazy. He told me about how it is in his line of work, how hard it is to rub up against so many people’s nuttiness without it rubs off on them, and how the load of nuttiness he’d been carryin’ just got so big over the years that one day somethin’ snapped an’ he took off in his big shiny Cadillac an’ just drove an’ drove till he wound up in the early mornin’ lookin’ at water, an’ he just
promptly waded in to drown himself. Yeah. He told me straight. And what I’d done when I hit him like that cleared the whole thing up for him somehow, made him see it all, made him work again like a ol’ sewing machine or school bus or whatever. So he asked me a lot about me, an’ we got into this thing about me not lettin’ the town grow up natural. It made me feel real bad. Then he said for me to come to the city an’ help him, an’ he left, an’ I thought it over for a couple days an’ jumped into my truck an’ took off.”

“And now you fix people instead of things.”

He snorted. “I don’t fix nothing, son. I never did. I can’t. It’s like Artie Backer’s lawn mower—what I did I had to do again every six weeks. Sometimes I could make things go for a year or more, sometimes a week. Each one’s different. Same with these folks here. They all have to come back sooner or later, when the worn-out part inside, whatever it is, starts to act up. Dr. Warburg, I got to hit him like that about every nine months.”

“What about the blinking light thing? Window dressing?”

I think that bugged him. “Window dressing hell. Do you think these people would hold still for what I do if they knowed it was me doin’ it? That machine, and the way Warburg uses it, just makes it so they never see me.”

“What do you need him for, Uncle Fremmis? My God, you could set up shop for yourself and make a mint.”

“I don’t want a mint, son. Never did. Anyway, who would want to go see a crazy old man to git slapped in the chops when they started to act crazy or couldn’t cut the mustard any more?”

“A lot of people. Word gets out.… You’d make a—”

“These people wouldn’t. An’ that’s the big thing, son. These people are the big ones. These people are the ones who make things go. Only thing is, they git worn-out after a bit and it kind of poisons the things they do. Everybody says the world’s goin’ to hell in a hand-basket, but it won’t if we can keep enough of the top ones straightened out. There ain’t many really top ones—never was. And we ain’t got ’em all, but we’re workin’ on it. An’ it strikes me that’s a lot more use than keepin’ a sewing machine running just because it belonged to somebody’s granny, or to help a pinchpenny keep a ol’ pump
instead of buyin’ a new one an’ helpin’ keep work an’ jobs comin’.”

I began to see a number of things, but one took my attention like a bikini in a hotel lobby, and that was, Uncle Fremmis was standing right next to a classic buck. “Uncle Fremmis,” I said, “I need five thousand dollars.”

Well I won’t go into all the talk we had then while he asked me what I’d been doing and how I’d been living, but with him you couldn’t duck straight questions and you couldn’t make things look good when they weren’t. When he was done asking and I was done telling I felt like something you shovel out of a cowbarn.

He looked at me for a long time and then heaved a deep breath. “Tell you what, son,” he said, “I’ll do what I can for you. It won’t take but a minute. We won’t use no gadget box because between you and me we don’t need it. Only I got to tell you up front, you ain’t goin’ to enjoy it, I ain’t goin’ to enjoy it, and you’ll have to come back for more every once in a while—you’ll know when.”

“Do I get my five G’s?” was all I could think of.

He clapped me heartily on the shoulder. It was real affection, and I could have cried. “You sure do, and more. All you want.”

I said, “Then fire away.”

So then and there, in the dark corridor, he ran his hands over me. They hardly touched, like butterflies. I heard him kind of grunt, and he moved his hands a bit more and they rested.

“Come on,” he said. He took me out to the hallway outside. He looked up and down and there was nobody out there. So he did his thing, and you better believe it, it was one hell of a jolt. Oh my but he is a strong old man.

I went out that day and got a job. I did fine. I’m doing fine.

And every once in a while, when I know it’s time, I go back and see Uncle Fremmis. I know it’s time when I begin to think I can’t get along another day without borrowing money. Then I go back to him and he fetches me another good swift kick in the ass.

Necessary and Sufficient
I

Merrihew was a troubleshooter. There had never been one like him, so there was no name for what he did. Dr. Poole was head of the Institute, mostly because he could sense trouble before it happened. Sensing it and doing something about it were two different things. Merrihew could do something about it. His record was most confidential but his batting average was high. Incredibly high.

And you wouldn’t have thought so to look at him.

Dr. Poole had called Merrihew and they had met for lunch. When the waiter went away with his order Merrihew wanted to know the name of the trouble.

“Lasvogel,” said Dr. Poole. “Look Merrihew, we have a chemistry section here—three, really, if you figure inorganic and bio and organic as separate, which they practically are. Then there’s electron physics and computer design and the mechanical section and the socio think-tank and some other stuff. And if Lasvogel wanted to call himself section head of every one of them he’d have the right. Only it would look funny on the organization chart—and anyway he wouldn’t want it.”

Merrihew said, “That’s who he is, not your trouble.”

Dr. Poole wagged his big white head. “Oh, Lasvogel’s the trouble all right. He’s coming apart.”

“Eggs in one basket,” Merrihew said. “All those departments with the head lopped off?”

“All those departments could struggle along just fine without him. Emphasis on struggle, maybe, but—they’d make it. It’s the West Ecuador thing. Actually I don’t mind if he cracks up after he’s solved that one—he’s earned a good breakdown. I just want him to hang together until then.”

“What’s the West—”

“Quiet.” The waiter came, put down drinks, went away. Dr. Poole was studious with ice cubes for a moment. He made a motion with his head that brought Merrihew leaning closer.

“Code name. It isn’t Ecuador and it isn’t West—and if you can do your work without knowing where it is, all the better. If Lasvogel can stay with it until he finds an answer you may never find out—and that’s all right.”

“How much longer does he need?”

“I wish I knew. Oh, I wish I knew. It could be tonight, tomorrow. It could be weeks.”

“Or never?”

“Don’t say that.” Dr. Poole made a terribly controlled warding-off gesture. “Don’t even think it.”

“And there isn’t anyone else who might—”

“No there isn’t. Or maybe there is, but the only way to find him would be to describe the problem—and I can’t do that.”

“Better do it now, though.”

Dr. Poole gave him a long, sharp look. The waiter came with the salads, fussed about, went away again. “All right then,” said the director of the world’s quietest and most extraordinary consulting company. “Overpopulation. Everything comes down to that. Too many people. Not just pollution but geopolitics—nations looking for room to expand. Businesses—they overbreed too—looking for markets. But the trouble is also too many kids in the classroom—a solitary man looking for some place to walk where it’s wild and quiet. There are other problems besides overpopulation, but if we can whip that one we can whip them all.”

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