Read Slow Sculpture Online

Authors: Theodore Sturgeon

Slow Sculpture (36 page)

“Thursday,” I said. I looked at my watch. “Well, it’s now Friday.”

“I mean, what’s the date?”

I pointed to the desk calendar right beside him. He looked at it twice, each one a long careful look. I never saw a man turn the color he turned. He covered his eyes. Even his lips went white.

“Oh my God.”

“You all right?” I asked—a very stupid question.

“Tell me something,” he said after a while. “Has there been a war?”

“You have to be kidding.”

He took his hand down and looked at me, so lost, so frightened. Not frightened. There has to be a word. Anguished. He needed answers—needed them. Not questions, not now.

I said, “It’s been going on a long time.”

“A lot of young guys killed?”

“Upwards of fifty thousand.” Something made me add: “Americans. The other side, five, six times that.”

“Oh, my God,” he said again. Then: “It’s my fault.”

Now I have to tell you up front that it never occurred to me for one second that this guy was on any kind of a drug trip. Not that I’m an expert, but there are times when you just know. Whatever was bothering him was genuine—at least genuine to him. Besides, there was something about him I had to like. Not the clothes, not
the face, just the guy, the kind of guy he was.

I said, “Hey, you look like hell and I’m sick and tired of what I’m doing. Let’s take a break and go to the Automat for coffee.”

He gave me that lost look again. “Is the lid off on sex? I mean, young kids—”

“Like rabbits,” I said. “Also your friendly neighborhood movie—I don’t know what they’re going to do for an encore.” I had to ask him, “Where’ve you been?”

He shook his head and said candidly, “I don’t know where it was. Are people leaving their jobs—and school—going off to live on the land?”

“Some,” I said. “Come on.”

I switched off the overhead light, leaving my desk lamp lit. He got to his feet as if he were wired to the switch, but then just stood looking at the calendar.

“Are there bombings?”

“Three yesterday, in Newark. Come on.”

“Oh, my God,” he said and came. I locked the door and we went down the corridor to the elevators. Air wheezed in the shaft as the elevator rose. “It always whistles like that late at night,” he said. I had never noticed that but knew he was right as soon as he said it. He also said weakly, “You don’t feel like walking down?”

“Twenty-one flights?”

The doors slid open. The guy didn’t want to get in. But I mean, he
didn’t. I stood on the crack while he screwed up his courage. It didn’t take long but I could see it was a mighty battle. He won it and came in, turned around and leaned against the back wall. I pushed the button and we started down. He looked pretty bad. I said something to him but he put up a hand, waved my words away before they were out. He didn’t move again until the doors opened and then he looked into the lobby as if he didn’t know what to expect. But it was just the lobby, with the oval information desk we called the fishbowl and the shiny floor and the portable wooden desk, like a lectern, where you signed in and out after hours and where the guard was supposed to be. We breezed by it and out into Rockefeller Center. He took a deep breath and immediately coughed.

“What’s that smell?”

I’d been about to say something trivial about the one good thing about working late—you could breathe the air, but I didn’t say it.

“The smog, I guess.”

“Smog. Oh yes, smoke and fog. I remember.” Then he seemed to remember something else, something that brought his predicament, whatever it was, back with a hammer blow. “Well of course,” he said as if to himself. “Has to be.”

On Sixth Avenue (New Yorkers still won’t call it Avenue of the Americas) we passed two laughing couples. One of the girls was wearing a see-through top made of plastic chain mail. The other had on a very maxi coat swinging open over hot pants. My companion was appreciative but not astonished. I think what he said was, “That too—” nodding his head. He watched every automobile that passed and his eyes flicked over the places where they used to sell books and back-date periodicals, every single one of them now given over to peepshows and beaver magazines. He had the same nod of his head for this.

We reached the Automat and it occurred to me that an uncharacteristic touch of genius had made me suggest it. I had first seen the Automat when I had ridden in on my mother’s hip more years ago than I’ll mention—and many times since—and very little has changed—except, of course, the numbers on the little off-white cards that tell you how many nickels you have to put in the slot to claim your food. After a few years’ absence one tends to yelp at the sight of them. I always do and the strange young man with me did, too. Aside from that, there is a timeless quality about the place, especially in the small hours of the morning. The over-age, over-painted woman furtively eating catsup is there as she, or someone just like her, has been for fifty years; and the young couple, homely to you but beautiful to each other, full of sleepiness and discovery; and the working stiff in the case-hardened slideway of his life, grabbing a bite on the way from bed to work and not yet awake—no need to be—and his counterpart headed in the other direction; no need for him to be awake either. And all around: the same marble change counter with the deep worn pits in it from countless millions of coins
dropped and scooped; behind it the same weary automaton; and around you the same nickel (not chrome) framing for the hundreds of little glass-fronted doors through which the food always looks so much better than it is. All in all, it’s a fine place for the reorientation of time-travelers.

“Are you a time-traveler?” I asked, following my own whimsy and hoping to make him smile.

He didn’t smile. “No,” he said. “Yes, I—well—” flickering panic showed in his eyes “—I don’t really know.”

We bought our coffee straight out of the lion’s mouth and carried it to a corner table. I think that when we were settled there he really looked at me for the first time.

He said, “You’ve been very kind.”

“Well,” I said, “I was glad of the break.”

“Look, I’m going to tell you what happened. I guess I don’t expect you to believe me. I wouldn’t in your place.”

“Try me,” I offered. “And anyway—what difference does it make whether I believe you?”

“ ‘Belief or nonbelief has no power over objective truth.’ ” I could tell by his voice he was quoting somebody. The smile I had been looking for almost came and he said, “You’re right. I’ll tell you what happened because—well, because I want to. Have to.”

I said fine and told him to shoot. He shot.

I work in Circulation Promotion [he began]. Or maybe I should say I
—I guess I should. You’ll have to pardon me, I’m a little confused. There’s so much—

Maybe I should start over. It didn’t begin in Rockefeller Center. It started, oh, I don’t know how long ago, with me wondering about things. Not that I’m anything special—I’m not saying I am—but it seems nobody else wonders about the same things I do. I mean people are so close to what happens that they don’t seem to know what’s going on.

Wait, I don’t want to confuse you, too. One of us is enough. Let me give you an example.

World War II was starting up when I was a kid and one day a
bunch of us sat around, trying to figure out who would be fighting who. Us and the British and French on one side, sure—the Germans and Austrians and Italians on the other—that was clear enough. And the Japanese. But beyond that?

It’s all history and hindsight now and there’s no special reason to think about it, but at the time it was totally impossible for anyone to predict the lineup that actually came about. Go back in the files of newspaper editorials—
Reader’s Digest
or any other—and you’ll see what I mean. Nobody predicted that up to the very end of the war our best and strongest friends would be at peace with our worst and deadliest enemy. I mean, if you put it on personal terms—if you and I are friends and there’s somebody out to kill me and I find out that you and he are buddies—could we even so much as speak to each other again? Yet here was the Soviet Union, fighting shoulder to shoulder with us against the Nazis, while for nearly five years they were at peace with Japan!

And about Japan: there were hundreds of thousands of Chinese who had been fighting a life-and-death war against the Japanese for ten years—ten years, man! —and along with them, Koreans. So we spent billions getting ourselves together to mount air strikes against Japan from thousands of miles away—New Guinea, the Solomons, Saipan, Tinian. Do you know how far it is from the Chinese mainland to Tokyo, across the Sea of Japan? Six hundred miles. Do you know how far it is from Pusan, Korea to Hiroshima? A hundred and thirty!

I’m sorry. I get excited like that to this day when I think of it. But damn it—why didn’t we negotiate to move in and set up airstrips on the mainland and Korea? Do you think the natives would have turned us down? Or is it that we just don’t like chop suey? Oh, sure—there are a lot of arguments like backing up Chiang against the Communists and I even read somewhere that it was not our policy to interfere in Southeast Asia. (Did I say something funny?) But you know Chiang and the Communists had a truce—and kept it too—to fight the common enemy.

Well—all right. All that seems a long way from what happened to me, I suppose, but it’s the kind of thing I’ve spent my life wondering
about. It’s not just wars that bring out the thing I’m talking about, though God knows they make it plainer to see. Italy and Germany sharpening their newest weapons and strategies in the Spanish civil war, for example, or Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia—hell, the more sophisticated people got the less they could see what was in front of them. Any kid in a kindergarten knows a bully when he sees one and has sense enough at least to be afraid. Any sixth-grader knows how to organize a pressure group against a bad guy. Wars, you see, are really life-and-death situations, where what’s possible, practical—logical—has a right to emerge. When it doesn’t—you have to wonder. French peasants taxed till they bled to build the Maginot Line all through the thirties, carefully preparing against the kind of war they fought in 1914.

But let’s look some place else. Gonorrhea could be absolutely stamped out in six months, syphilis maybe in a year. I picked up a pamphlet last month—hey, I have to watch that “last month,” “nowadays,” things like that—anyway, the pamphlet drew a correlation between smoking cigarettes and a rising curve of lung cancer, said scientific tests prove that something in cigarettes can cause cancer in mice. Now I bet if the government came out with an official statement about that, people would read it and get scared—and go on smoking cigarettes. You’re smiling again. That’s funny?

“It isn’t funny,” I told the dazed man. “Here—let me bring some more coffee.”

“On me this time.” He spilled coins on the table. “But you were smiling, all the same.”

“It wasn’t that kind of a smile, like for a funny,” I told him. “The Surgeon General came out with a report years ago. Cigarette advertising is finally banned from TV, but how much difference does it make? Look around you.”

While he was looking around him I was looking at his coins. Silver quarters. Silver dimes. Nickels: 1948, 1950, 1945. I began to feel very strange about this dude. Correction: my feel-strange went up another notch.

He said, “A lot of the people who aren’t smoking are coughing, too.”

We sat there together, looking around. Again he had shown me something I had always seen, never known. How many people cough.

I went for more coffee.


He went on.

Every four weeks I get—got? —got a makeready. A makeready is a copy of a magazine with all the proofing done and the type set, your last look before the presses roll. I have to admit it gives me—used to give me—a sense of importance to get it free (it’s an expensive magazine) even before the “men high in government, industry, commerce and the professions” (as it says in the circulation promotion letters I write) had a chance to read it and move and shake, for they are the movers and shakers.

Anyway, there’s this article in the new—not current;
new—issue called “The Silent Generation.” It’s all about this year’s graduating class, the young men who in June would go into the world and begin to fit their hands to the reins. This is 1950 I’m talking about, you understand, in the spring. And it was frightening. I mean, it spooked me while I read it and it spooked me more and more as I thought about it—the stupidity of it, the unbelievable blindness of people—not necessarily people as a whole, but these people in the article—“The Class of 1950” —young and bright and informed. They had their formal education behind them and you assumed it was fresh in their minds—not only what they had learned, but the other thing college is really for: learning how to learn.

And yet what do you suppose they were concerned about? What was it they talked about until three o’clock in the morning? What kind of plans were they making for themselves—and for all the rest of us (for they were going to be the ones who run things)? Democracy? Ultimate purpose? The relationship of man to his planet—or of modern man to history? Hell, no.

According to this, article, they worried about fringe benefits. Retirement income, for God’s sake! Speed of promotion in specialized versus diversified industry! Did they spend their last few collegiate weeks in sharpening their new tools or in beering it up—or
even in one last panty raid? Uh-uh. They spent them moving from office to office of the campus recruiters for big electronic and chemical and finance companies, working out the deal that would get them the steadiest, surest income and the biggest scam on the side and the softest place to lie down at the end of it.

The Silent Generation, the guy who wrote the article called them. He himself graduated in the late ‘thirties and he had a lot to say about
generation. There was a lot wrong about them and they did some pretty crazy things. They argued a lot with each other and with their elders and betters and they joined things like the Young Socialist League—not so much because they were really lefties, but because those groups seemed the only ones around that gave a damn about the state the world was in. Most of all, you knew they were there. They were a noisy generation. They had that mixture of curiosity and rebellion that let you know they were alive.

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