Read Slow Sculpture Online

Authors: Theodore Sturgeon

Slow Sculpture (4 page)

SEE … SEE …

There was more. As he ran, he moaned. And then he thought, at the Bittelmans there are people, it is light, it is warm, it is almost home.

He began to run to something instead of away.

III

The Bittelmans’ kitchen was a vague “backstairs” area to O’Banion and a functional adjunct of the boarding house to Halvorsen; to Miss Schmidt it was forbidden ground which excited no special interest for that—almost all the world was forbidden ground to Miss Schmidt. In it Sue Martin was as content as she was anywhere, and among the torments of Mary Haunt, the kitchen was a special hell. But in Robin’s world it was central, more so than the bedroom he
shared with his mother, more so than his crib. He ate in the kitchen, played there when it was raining or especially cold. When he went outdoors it was through the kitchen door, and it was a place to come back to with a bruised knee, with a hollow stomach, with a sudden flood of loneliness or of a three-year-old’s wild manic passion. It was big and warm and full of friends.

The most resourceful of these friends was, of course, Bitty, who without ever losing her gruffness knew the right time to apply a cookie or a story (usually about a little boy with a beautiful mother) or a swat on the bottom. Sam was a friend, too, mostly as something safe to climb on. Of late, O’Banion had carved a rather special niche for himself, and Robin had always liked a limited amount of Miss Schmidt’s self-conscious passiveness; she was a wonderful listener. He treated Halvorsen with cheerful respect, and Mary Haunt as if she did not exist. There were other people, too, every bit as much so as anyone who ate and had a job and occupied rooms elsewhere in the house. There was the electric mixer and the washing machine—in Robin’s economical language “Washeen”—the blender and the coffeepot; in short, everything which had a motor in it. (The presence or absence of motors in percolators is arguable only by those with preconceptions.) To him they were all alive, responsive and articulate, and he held converse with them all. He showed them his toys and he told them the news, he bade them goodbye and good morning, hello, what’s the matter, and happy birthday.

And besides all these people, there were Boff and Googie, who, though by no means limited to the kitchen, were often there.

They were not there on that dark Sunday while the sky grieved and Halvorsen fought his personal devils outdoors. “Mitster, Boff an’ Googie gone for ride,” Robin informed the electric mixer. Its name, Mitster, was identical in his vocabulary with “Mister” and was a clear link between the machine and the males he heard spoken of, and just another proof of the living personality he assigned to it. He got a kitchen chair and carried it effortfully over to the work-table, where he put it down and climbed on it. He tilted the mixer up and back and turned its control-cowling, and it began to hum softly. Bitty kept the beaters in a high drawer well out of his
reach and let him play with the therefore harmless machine to his heart’s content. “A
ts
right, Mitster,” he crooned. “Eat your yunch. Hey, Washeen!” he called to the washing machine, “Mitster’s eatin’ his yunch all up, I go’ give him a cookie, he’s a
good
boy.” He revved the control up and down, the machine whining obediently. He spun the turntable, turned the motor off, listened to the ball-bearings clicking away in the turntable, stopped it and turned on the motor again. He turned suddenly at the nudge of some sixth sense and saw O’Banion in the doorway. “Goo’ morning Tonio,” he called, beaming. “Go picnic now?”

“Not today, it’s raining,” said O’Banion, “and it’s ‘good afternoon’ now.” He crossed to the table. “What you up to, fellow?”

“Mitster eatin’ his yunch.”

“Your mother asleep?”

“Yis.”

O’Banion stood watching the child’s complete preoccupation with the machine. Little son of a gun, he thought, how did you do it?

The question was all he could express about the strangely rewarding friendship which flowered between him and Robin. He had never liked (nor, for that matter, disliked) a child in his life. He had never been exposed to one before; his only sibling was an older sister and he had never associated with anyone but contemporaries since he was a child himself.

Robin had caught him alone one day and had demanded to know his name. “Tony O’Banion,” he had growled reluctantly. “Tonio?” “Tony O’Banion,” he had corrected distinctly. “Tonio,” Robin had said positively, and from then on that was inalterably that. And surprisingly, O’Banion had come to like it. And when, on the outskirts of town, someone had set up something called a Kiddie Karnival, a sort of miniature amusement park, and he had been assigned to handle land rentals there for his firm, he found himself thinking of Robin every time he saw the place, and of the Karnival every time he saw Robin, until one warm Sunday he startled himself and everyone else concerned by asking Sue Martin if he could take the boy there. She had looked at him gravely for a moment and said, “Why?”

“I think he might like it.”

“Well, thanks,” she had said warmly, “I think that’s wonderful.” And so he and Robin had gone.

And they’d gone again, several times, mostly on Sundays when Sue Martin was taking her one luxurious afternoon nap of the week, but a couple of times during the week too, when O’Banion had business out there and could conveniently pick the child up on the way out from the office and drop him again on the way back. And then, just for a change, a picnic, Robin’s very first, by the bank of a brook where they had watched jewel-eyed baby frogs and darting minnows and a terrifying miniature monster that he later identified as a dragonfly nymph; and Robin had asked so many questions that he had gone to a bookstore the next day and bought a bird book and a wild-flower guide.

Occasionally he asked himself
why?
What was he getting out of it? and found the answers either uncomfortable or elusive. Perhaps it was the relaxation: for the first time he could have communion with another human being without the cautious and watchful attention he usually paid to “Where did you go to school?” and “Who are your people?” Perhaps it was the warmth of friendship radiating from a face so disturbingly like the one which still intruded itself between his eyes and his work once in a while, and which was so masked and controlled when he encountered it in the flesh.

And there had been the Sunday when Sue Martin, after having given her permission for one of these outings, had suddenly said, “I haven’t much to do this afternoon. Are these excursions of yours strictly stag?” “Yes,” he had said immediately, “they are.” He’d told
her
. But—it didn’t feel like a victory, and she had not seemed defeated when she shrugged and smiled and said, “Let me know when you go coeducational.” After that she didn’t put a stop to the picnics, either, which would have pleased him by permitting him to resent her. He found himself wishing she would ask again, but he knew she would not, not ever. And if he should ask her to come, and she should refuse … he could not bear the thought. Sometimes he thought the whole business of amusing the child was done to impress the mother; he had overheard Mary Haunt make a remark to Miss Schmidt once that intimated as much, and had furiously sworn off for all of six
hours, which was when Robin asked him where they would go next. As long as it was simple, a matter between him and the child, it required no excuses or explanations. As soon as he placed the matter in any matrix, he became confused and uncertain. He therefore avoided analyses, and asked himself admiringly and academically, little son of a gun, how did you do it? while he watched Robin’s animated conversation with the electric mixer.

He rumpled Robin’s hair and went to the stove, where he picked up the coffeepot and swirled it. It was almost full, and he lit the gas under it.

“Wha’ you do, Tonio? Make coffee?”

“Yea bo.”

“Okay,” said Robin, as if granting permission. “Boff doesn’t drink coffee, Tonio,” he confided. “Oh no.”

“He doesn’t, hm?” O’Banion looked around and up. “Is Boff here?”

“No,” said Robin. “He not here.”

“Where’d he go? Out with the Bittelmans?”

“Yis.” The coffeepot grumbled and Robin said, “
Hello
, Coffeepot.”

Halvorsen came in and stood blindly in the doorway. O’Banion looked up and greeted him, then said under his breath, “My God!” and crossed the room. “You all right, Halvorsen?”

Halvorsen directed blind eyes at the sound of his voice, and O’Banion could watch seeing enter them slowly, like the fade-in on a movie screen. “What?” His face was wet with the rain, fish-belly pale, and he stood slumping like a man with a weight on his back, raising his face to look up rather than lifting his head.

“You’d better sit down,” said O’Banion. He told himself that this unwonted concern for the tribulations of a fellow-human was purely a selfish matter of not wanting to shovel the stunned creature up off the floor. Yet as Halvorsen turned toward the ell with its wooden chairs, O’Banion caught at the open front of Halvorsen’s coat. “Let me take this, it’s sopping.”

“No,” said Halvorsen. “No.” But he let O’Banion take the coat; rather, he walked out of it, leaving O’Banion with it foolishly in his hands. O’Banion cast about him, then hung it up on the broom-hook
and turned again to Halvorsen, who had just fallen heavily back into a chair.

Again Halvorsen went through that slow transition from blindness to sight, from isolation to awareness. He made some difficult, internal effort and then said, “Supper ready?”

“We roll our own,” said O’Banion. “Bitty and Sam are taking their once-a-month trip to the fleshpots.”

“Fleshpots,” said Robin, without turning his head.

Carefully controlling his face and his voice, O’Banion continued, “They said to raid the refrigerator, only hands off the leg o’ lamb, that’s for tomorrow.” Motioning toward Robin with his head, he added, “He doesn’t miss a trick,” and at last released a broad grin.

Halvorsen said, “I’m not hungry.”

“I’ve got some coffee going.”

“Good.”

O’Banion dropped a round asbestos mat on the table and went for the coffeepot. On the way back he got a cup and saucer. He put them on the table and sat down. Sugar was already there; spoons were in a tumbler, handles down, country-style. He poured and added sugar and stirred. He looked across at Halvorsen, and saw something on that reserved face that he had read about but had never seen before; the man’s lips were blue. Only then did it occur to him to get a cup for Halvorsen. He went for it, and remembered milk, too, just in case. He brought them back, hesitated, and then poured the second cup. He put a spoon in the saucer, and with sudden shyness pushed it and the milk toward the other man. “Hey!”

“What?” Halvorsen said in the same dead, flat tone, and “Oh. Oh! Thanks, O’Banion, thanks very I’m sorry.” Suddenly he laughed forcefully and without mirth. He covered his eyes and said plaintively, “What’s the
matter
with me?”

It was a question neither could answer, and they sat sipping coffee uncomfortably, a man who didn’t know how to unburden himself and a man who had never taken up another’s burden. Into this tableau walked Mary Haunt. She had on a startling yellow hostess gown and had a magazine tucked under her arm. She threw one swift gaze around the room and curled her lip.

“Grand Central Station,” she growled and walked out.

O’Banion’s anger came as a great relief to him at just that moment; he was almost grateful to the girl. “One of these days someone’s going to grab that kid by the scruff of the neck and housebreak her,” he snorted.

Halvorsen found a voice, too, and probably was as grateful for the change in focus. “It won’t last,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean she can’t go on that way much longer,” said Halvorsen thoughtfully. He paused and closed his eyes; O’Banion could see him pulling himself hand over hand out of his personal swamp, moving to dry ground, high ground, where he could look with familiarity at a real world again. When he opened his eyes he gave O’Banion a strange little smile and said, as if in parenthesis, “Thanks for the coffee, O’Banion,” and went on: “She’s waiting for the Big Break. She thinks she deserves it and that it will come to her if she only waits. She really believes that. You’ve heard of high-school kids who perch on drugstore stools hoping for a movie scout to come along and discover them. That’s harmless as long as they do it an hour or two a day. But Mary Haunt does it every minute she’s out of this house. None of us here could help her, so she treats us the way anyone treats useless things. But you ought to see her down at the station.”

“What station?”

“She types continuities at the radio station,” said Halvorsen. “From what I hear, she’s not very good, but on the other hand they don’t pay her much money, so nobody kicks. But to her a radio station is the edge of the world she wants to crash—it starts there and goes to TV and to the movies. I’ll bet you anything you like she has a scene all rehearsed in her mind, where a big producer or director stops here and drops in at the radio station to see someone, and
bang!
our Mary’s a starlet being groomed for the top.”

“She’d better learn some manners,” grumbled O’Banion.

“Oh, she’s got manners when she thinks they’ll do her some good.”

“Why doesn’t she use them on you, for example?”

“Me?”

“Yes. Don’t you get people better jobs, that sort of thing?”

“I see a lot of people, a lot of different kinds of people,” said Halvorsen, “but they have one thing in common: they aren’t sure what they want to do, to be.” He pointed his spoon at the doorway. “She is. She may be wrong, but she’s certain.”

“Well, what about Sue Martin?” said O’Banion. He pursued the subject quickly, almost thoughtlessly, because of a vague feeling that if he didn’t, Halvorsen would slip back into that uncomfortable introspective silence. “Surely there’s a lot about show business Mary Haunt could learn from her.”

Halvorsen gave the nearest thing yet to a grin and reached for the coffeepot. “Mrs. Martin’s a nightclub entertainer,” he said “and as far as Mary Haunt’s concerned, night clubs are slums.”

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