Read Slow Sculpture Online

Authors: Theodore Sturgeon

Slow Sculpture (40 page)

That happened to be the day Pruzy Penntifer arrived from New Zealand. I’ve told you about her, haven’t I? Used to be Niwa’s roommate in London before we were married. Niwa made a special friend of Pruzy because she never could figure her out. She was the English-speaking-world’s number one straight, a noncussing virgin, “impermeable, impenetrable, and insurmountable,” as someone once said, so guarded against men that the armor was up against women, too, in case one of them be used by some man to infiltrate. To Niwa, who has always been interested in the matter of being honestly alive, Pruzy was a fascination and a challenge. Anyway, she was on a world trip and was to stay with us for a week, and Niwa had been spitting on her hands in anticipation for a long time. Pruzy had been warned in advance about our lifestyle and that we aren’t about to change it for anybody, although the last thing we’d ever do is to persuade anyone else to adopt it. “I’ll live by your rules in your house,” Niwa would say, “and you can live by your rules in my house. But when you expect me to live by your rules in my house, you go too damn far.” So we didn’t get a real look at the toilet until after it was installed, because we had to go to the airport for Pruzy while the men were finishing up; they were gone before we got back, everything cleaned up and the key under the mat.

Pruzy you wouldn’t believe—tall and slender and dressed in blacks and browns. The one word for her is “contained.” Her chain-mail clothes contain her, and you get the idea her skin contains her body the same neat way. She has one of those self-contained mouths that has never sucked on anything but itself and does a lot of that, and eyes coated with one-way glass. She talks funny, being Australian, but not funny like most Australians, who to the American ear put a fine Bow-bells breadth to the simplest words; her laminated gentility contains even that.

We gave her the guided tour of the house and garden, winding up in the big bedroom, which was to be hers while she stayed. The small one was my studio, and we’d sleep in the living room, which was fine with us—we mostly did anyhow. This way we could come and go without bothering her, if that’s what she might want. And of course she had her own sink and pot, the latter of which made a fine ending and climax to the tour. The big closet in the northeast corner was gone, and there was a new high-up half-casement in the outside wall, a built-in medicine chest, a very nice little washstand with a hemispherical imitation-marble bowl and gold-colored fittings, and the … the … well, the pot.

It was wider and lower than most, bulbous. It seemed at first to have scales, tiny close-set ones, but if you closed your eyes and touched it, it was perfectly smooth. The seat was covered and there seemed to be no way to lift the cover—and indeed there was not; it took a little fumbling to discover that the raised pale spot on one side was a control. It must have (I thought at the time) some sort of electrostatic system, like those elevator buttons you don’t depress but just touch, because on contact the cover slid back like an eyelid, exposing the bowl. I got only the one glimpse of a complicated contour inside, obviously moist (though I saw no standing water) and deep red. And then, only half meaning to, I hit the spot again and the cover slid silently shut, whereupon the whole thing went (with overtones of joy and controlled power) softly hroom, hroom, hroom … like the revving of a distant muffled motorcycle or a tiger’s purring.

I heard a tiger purr once.

Just as I wish I could recall that one phone conversation with the late Mr. Jones, I wish I had been watching Niwa’s face and especially Pruzy’s, but I was preoccupied with my own reactions. There was something profoundly unsettling about that piece of plumbing. I had a crazy artist friend once who painted the inside of his toilet with high-gloss enamels, bright red and cerise and ivory, so that when you opened it up it looked like a huge slavering mouth with a wet tongue and sharp teeth. That was unsettling, too, but it was also funny. This one wasn’t funny. For one thing, the shock value of my
friend’s work of art lay in the fact that in all respects his was a conventional fixture, with his efforts applied to it, whereas this thing was all of a piece—eerie all over. I think Niwa expressed it best when we talked about it later, after Pruzy had gone to bed. She said, “I think if it looked as if it might bite, I could laugh it off. But it doesn’t. It looks as if it was going to smile!”

We lay quietly for a long time, thinking about sitting down on that smile. Then one or the other of us—it doesn’t matter which, because we both felt the same way—said, “Well, she can have the damn thing.” And we left it at that.

During the night I heard it going hroom, hroom twice.

The next day we got up and went to work as usual, me in my studio and Niwa in the kitchen and garden. Pruzy slept late, getting her time zones sorted out, and when she emerged and encountered us naked the way we always are in the house and yard, she took it imperturbably—well, she’d been told, she knew what to expect, and besides, nothing—nothing—can crack that chick’s unassailable front. She, of course, stayed not only dressed, but groomed.

It must have been three days later that we began to notice how much time Pruzy was spending in her nonbath bathroom. She always shot the bolts on both doors when she went in and unlocked them when she left—a purposeless ritual, but then so is nineteen-twentieths of all ritual privacy. (An airline hostess once told me a little old lady borrowed a safety pin from her and she found it later in the tiny ten-inch curtains over the porthole in the john, where Granny had pinned them closed—at seven hundred miles per hour and thirty thousand feet—to guard against Peeping Toms.) Niwa and I had no need or desire to go in there, so she might just as well have kept the outside door permanently locked, but once she’d established the ritual she kept it up, that being the nature of ritual. So we always heard the bolts, and though we had no wish to pry, we couldn’t help but notice she was spending an awful lot of time in there.

“Maybe she likes to read there. Lots of people—”

“Pruzy is not a reader,” Niwa said positively. “She really thinks she knows everything she needs to know.” Which figured. People like that have achieved a kind of balance, and they’ll fight like hell
to keep it. One of the best ways to do that is to put the brains in suspended animation.

It took about five days for us—Niwa, really—to realize she wasn’t using any toilet paper. That became an increasing fascination, too, as the days went by. And they went by, too: Pruzy postponed her departure for a week and then for another, and started to chip in to the exchequer before we could suggest it … and she was no trouble, really. But we did wonder about the toilet paper. It wasn’t anything you could come out and ask, either. Not with Pruzy. She was company of a sort for Niwa when I’d go through my marathon writing sessions, or my marathon leave-me-the-hell-alone sessions, and she helped efficiently with the house … and got to where she was spending three hours a day in her john.

She went into town one day and got her visa extended. Then there was a phone call when she was out, about a naturalization form. “I think,” Niwa whispered to me one night, “she’s going to immigrate, take the vows, join the melting pot.”

“No pot in the world could melt that one,” I remember saying. I was wrong.

Sonya had puppies. She would do that from time to time, concealing her intentions until it happened, then suddenly not being there at chowtime. Then it was a matter of beating the bush and crawling through dark crannies until you found out where she’d spawned them. If you couldn’t, the pups would give themselves away sooner or later, mewling and yapping. They were usually a sorry lot. This time was no exception. She’d found a crawl space under the house and had her puppies way underneath. I bellied under some forty feet before I found them, and it happened to be right under Pruzy’s bathroom. Though puppies were my immediate preoccupation, I couldn’t help noticing the plumbing. There were hot and cold pipes to the washstand and a cold feed to the toilet, shiny new pipe. And you know what else?

Nothing else. No waste pipe. I mean, no sewer, no outlet. I’m telling you, Fred, nothing. And don’t tell me I could be wrong. Water pipes are half-inch, maybe three-quarters, but waste plumbing is big, man—four to seven inches.

I didn’t say anything to Niwa about it, but the next day I went up on the roof. There was a vent pipe, sure enough. I hung an ear on it. Air was passing through it all right—inward. Before I could check it out it stopped, and then started again.

Outward.

Fred, it was going in and out about twenty-five to the minute. Like breathing.

I didn’t say anything about that to Niwa either. Not then.

It was the next day—yesterday—when the girls were out that I decided on a confrontation with the thing. Well, to tell the truth, it was my lower gut that decided me. I was on my way to the old familiar comfortable john when I suddenly thought of that purring pot of Pruzy’s. (In our minds it has become completely hers; neither of us ever use it.) So in I went.

There it sat, low, wide … waiting. I reached down and touched the pale hump, and the cover snicked back instantly and almost silently. I looked down into that moist, convoluted red surface and worried a little. Well, I thought, okay, but one at a time, all right?

So, man-style, I stood in front of the thing and let fly.

Fred, the best possible way to describe what happened is to say it gasped in astonishment. I don’t think it objected; I just don’t think it had ever met a man before. For a split second a black orifice appeared way down deep, then the sidewalls sort of bulged and rubbed together and it, well, swallowed. Well, dammit, you don’t have to believe me. But now that I’m started I’m going to tell it all.

I’m not usually a stubborn guy, but I’d come in there to do something and I meant to do it. Also to find out something. So I sat down to finish what I had started.

For a moment that thing and I, both of us, I’ll swear, we held our breaths. Then I had a rush of brains to the head and grabbed the family jewels and held ’em up as high as I could. I mean I wanted answers but I wasn’t about to walk out of there singing soprano, and it dimly occurred to me that this thing might be designed to remove anything it hadn’t programmed itself for.

Well there was this tense moment, like the one in the cowboy pictures when the walkdown is over and the shooting hasn’t started
yet, and then I let fly. I submit to you that I’m not characteristically one of those strain-and-ponder types who has his forty-minute ritual. I don’t go till I have to and when I have to I go altogether.

I never fazed this thing. At the first show of anything, something warm and moist zocked me gently and firmly on the bull’s-eye and—now dammit, I can see your face as you read this, Fred; it’s true! Also, it’s not funny—and it applied just as much suction as I supplied pressure. It made the whole thing so easy and so fast that even before my reflexes could pucker me up I was done. I came up off that thing as if it was hot—which it wasn’t—and even in that split second I was aware of why Pruzy never had to use toilet paper. I suppose I made a deal of noise, too. Next thing I was aware of I was flat on my face in the hall. You want to escape as fast as I wanted to escape, you pull up your pants first. And behind me the damn thing’s going hroom, hroom, hroom, happy as catnip.

Well, that’s the story, except for Pruzy. I guess I was a little hysterical when the girls got home because I was yelling that we had to move; I mean flat out, no argument, we were getting out of here. As soon as Pruzy got the gist of it she came alive like I have never seen before. Could she have the place? Could she take over the lease? And Niwa, flabbergasted, shouting at me what do you mean, move? Are you out of your thing, man? What about the garden?

The picture that overrides that whole wild scene is the imperturbable Pruzy, eyes glowing, voice breathy, saying over and over, “Please, you must, you know. I love this house. I love it, love it, love It.…” The only way I could cut the chaos was to take Niwa out in the car then and there and tell her what had happened.

She took it hard—not the idea of moving: you can always get another house. Not even the garden, though it’s a shame after all that love and work, because you see, once you clear ground and plant something, that’s more important than harvest-time, you take so much away with you. Why Niwa cries a lot is that she feels she’s failed. She’d thought she would go to any lengths, do anything, live any way that would bring us closer to the cycle of earth and natural food, recycle, replenish … but she had to draw the line at Pruzy’s pot, which (like all of us) lived off the products of other life-forms.
If it was bred to deliver special joys, that was no different from the function of fragrant flowers or bright sweet fruit, right? But she couldn’t cut it, and that made her whole conviction about life-style look like a hypocrisy and a failure, and she cries a lot. For all that, neither of us can take the image of Niwa, too, coming out of a two-hour session with Pruzy’s pot, saying breathily, “I love it, love it.…” Ecch.

So find us a house, Fred, as far away from here as you can, and if it’s one with plastic walls and monofilament rugs and a kitchen full of dials and bells—fine, man, fine.

Afterword to “Pruzy’s Pot”

Spider Robinson (first published 1986)

Although written in the 1960s, “Pruzy’s Pot” does not refer to cannabis—

Just a moment, please.

In this story, Sturgeon was attempting something genuinely
fundamental—

Excuse me, I’ll be right with you.

—story can be digested in a single sitting—

I’ve almost got it under control, now, really—

—obvious intent here was to discommode his r—

Dammit—

—whole new meaning to the phrase, let’s go bowling—

STOP IT! I mean it, now, cut it out! This is serious business, quit fooling around: I’m trying to introduce my beloved dead teacher and friend here. How about a little solemnity?

—solemnity? The man was a pervert, a degenerate, a true sicko—and this is the story to prove it. I should have guessed when he told me he liked scat singing—

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