Read Slow Sculpture Online

Authors: Theodore Sturgeon

Slow Sculpture (5 page)

O’Banion blushed violently and cursed himself for it. “Why that little—no background, no—no—how could
she
look down on … I mean, she’s a little
nobody!
” Conscious that he was spluttering under the direct and passionless gaze of Halvorsen’s dark eyes, he reached for the first thing he could think of that was not an absolute non sequitur: “One night a couple of months ago Mrs. Martin and I saw her throw a fit of hysterics over something … oh, Miss Schmidt had a magazine she wanted … anyway, after it was all over, Mrs. Martin said something about Mary Haunt that could have been a compliment. I mean, to some people. I can’t think of Mary Haunt ever doing as much for her.”

“What did she say?”

“Mrs. Martin? Oh, she said anybody who gets between Mary Haunt and what she wants is going to have a Mary-sized hole through them.”

“It wasn’t a compliment,” said Halvorsen immediately. “Mrs. Martin knows as well as you or I do what’s between that girl and her Big Break.”

“What is?”

“Mary Haunt.”

O’Banion thought about that for a moment and then chuckled. “A Mary-sized hole wouldn’t leave much.” He looked up. “You’re quite a psychologist.”

“Me?” said Halvorsen in genuine surprise. At that moment Robin,
who had all this while been murmuring confidences to the mixer, switched off the machine and looked up.
“Boff!”
he cried joyously. “Hello, Boff!” He watched something move toward him, turning slightly to follow it with his eyes until it settled on the spice shelf over his table. “Wash you doin’, Boff? Come for dinner?” Then he laughed, as if he had thought of something pleasant and very funny.

“I thought Boff was out with the Bittelmans, Robin,” O’Banion called.

“No, he hide,” said Robin, and laughed uproariously. “Boff right here. He come back.”

Halvorsen watched this with a dazed smile. “Who on earth is Boff?” he asked O’Banion.

“Imaginary playmate,” said O’Banion knowledgeably. “I’m used to it now but I don’t mind telling you it gave me the creeps at first. Lots of kids have them. My sister did, or so Mother says—Sister doesn’t remember it now. A little girl called Ginny who used to live in the butler’s pantry. You laugh off this ‘Boff’ and the other one—her name’s Googie—until you see Robin holding the door open to let them in, or refusing to go out to play until they get downstairs. And he isn’t kidding. That’s a nice little kid most of the time, Halvorsen, but some things will make him blow up like a little bottle of nitro, and one of ’em is to deny that Boff and Googie are real. I know. I tried to once and it took half a day and six rides on a merry-go-round to calm him down.” He emphasized with a forefinger: “Six rides for Boff and Googie too.”

Halvorsen watched the child: “I’ll be darned.” He shook his head slightly. “Is that—unhealthy?”

“I bought a book,” said O’Banion, and, unaccountably, found himself blushing again, “and it says no, long as the child has good contact with reality, and believe me, he has. They grow out of it. Nothing to worry about.”

Just then Robin cocked his head up to the spice shelf, as if he had heard a sound. Then he said, “Okay, Boff,” climbed down from his chair, carried the chair across the kitchen to its place against the wall, and said cheerfully, “Tonio, Boff wan see cars. Okay. Shall we?”

O’Banion rose, laughing. “My master’s voice. I got the
Popular
Electronics
special issue on this year’s automobiles and Boff and Robin can’t get enough of it.”

“Oh?” Halvorsen smiled. “What do they like this year?”

“Red ones. Come on, Robin. See you, Halvorsen.”

“See you.”

Robin trotted after O’Banion, paused near the door. “Come
on
, Boff!”

He waved violently at Halvorsen. “See you, Have-sum-gum.”

Halvorsen waved back, and they were gone.

Halvorsen sat numbly for a while, his hand still raised. The presence of the other man and the child had been a diversion from his strange inner explosion and its shock-waves. Now they were gone, but he would not permit himself to sink into that welter of approaching bullet, rain-damped torsos,
why do I want to be dead?
So he hung motionless for a moment between disturbance and diversion. He thought of following O’Banion into the parlor. He thought of sinking back into his panic, facing it, fighting it. But he wasn’t ready to fight, not yet, and he didn’t want to run … and he couldn’t stay like this. It was like not breathing. Anyone can stop breathing, but not for long.

“Mr. Halvorsen?”

Soft-footed, soft-voiced, timidly peering about her to be sure she was not intruding, Miss Schmidt came in. Halvorsen could have hugged her. “Come in, come in!” he cried warmly.

The half-alive smile brightened like fanned embers at his tone. “Good afternoon, Mr. Halvorsen. I was looking, that is, wondering, you know, if Mr. Bittelman was back yet, and I thought perhaps that …” She wet her lips and apparently thought it was worth another try. “I wanted to see him about—I mean to say, ask him if he—about something.” She exhaled, took a breath, and would surely have come out with more of the same, but Halvorsen broke in.

“No, not yet. Sure picked a miserable day for a joy-ride.”

“It doesn’t seem to matter to the Bittelmans. Every fourth week, like clockwork.” She suddenly uttered a soft little bleat of a laugh. “I’m sure I don’t mean clockwork, Mr. Halvorsen, I mean, four weeks.”

He laughed politely, for her sake. “I know what you mean.” He
saw her drop her eyes to her kneading hands, divined that her next movement would be toward the door. He felt he couldn’t bear that, not just now. “How about—uh—a cup of tea or something. Sandwich. I was just going to—” He rose.

She went pink and smiled again. “Why, I—”

There was a short, sibilant sound in the doorway, a sniff, a small snort of anger. Mary Haunt stood there glowering. Miss Schmidt said, faintly, “No, no thank you, I’d better, I mean, just go and … I only wanted to see if Mr. Bittelman was—” She faded out altogether and tiptoed apologetically to the door. Mary Haunt swung her shoulders but did not move her feet. Miss Schmidt slid out and escaped past her.

Halvorsen found himself standing, half angry, half foolish. His own last words echoed in his mind: “Sandwich. I was just going to—” and he let them push him to the other end of the kitchen. He was furious, but why? Nothing had happened; a lot had happened. He would have liked to rear back on his hind legs and blast her for persecuting a little defenseless rabbit like Miss Schmidt; yet what had she actually done? Couldn’t she say with absolute truth, “Why, I never said a word to her!”? He felt ineffectual, unmanned; and the picture of the flimsy gun flickered inside his eyelids and shocked him. He trembled, pulled himself together, painfully aware of the bright angry eyes watching his back from the doorway. He fumbled into the breadbox and took out half a loaf of Bitty’s magnificent home-baked bread. He took down the breadboard and got a knife from the drawer, and began to saw. Behind him he heard a sharp slap as Mary Haunt tossed her magazine on the table beside the coffeepot, and then he was conscious of her at his elbow. If she had said one word, she would have faced a blaze of anger out of all proportion to anything that had happened. But she didn’t, and didn’t: she simply stood there and watched him. He finished cutting the first slice, started on the second. He almost swung to face her but checked the motion, whereupon the knife bit into the first joint of his thumb. He closed his eyes, finished cutting the bread, and turned away to the refrigerator. He opened it and then bent over the shelves, holding his cut thumb in his other hand.

“What do you think you’re doing?” asked the girl.

“What’s it look like?” he growled. His cut suddenly began to hurt.

“I couldn’t say,” said Mary Haunt. She stepped to the breadboard, picked up the knife and with it whisked the bread he had cut into the sink.

“Hey!”

“You better push that cut up against the freezer coils for a second,” she said with composure. She put a hand on the loaf and with one sweep straightened its hacked end. “Sit down,” she said as he filled his lungs to roar at her. “If there’s anything I hate it’s to see someone clumsy paddling around in food.” One, two, three, four even slices fell to the board as she spoke. And again she interrupted him just as he was forming a wounded-bear bellow, “You want a sandwich or not? Just sit down over there and stay out from underfoot.”

Slackjawed, he watched her. Was she doing him a kindness? Mary Haunt doing someone a
kindness?

He found himself obeying her, pressing his cut against the freezer coils. It felt good. He withdrew his hand just as she came toward the refrigerator, and dodged out of her way. He backed to the table, sat down, and watched her.

She was something to watch. The pale, over-manicured hands flew. She set out mayonnaise, cream cheese, a platter of cold-cuts, parsley, radishes. With almost a single motion she put a small frying pan and a butter-melter on the stove and lit the fire under them. Into the frying pan went a couple of strips of bacon; into the other, two tablespoons of water and half the fluid from a jar of capers. She added spices, “by ear”—a shake, a pinch: poultry seasoning, oregano, garlic salt. The tiny pan began to hiss, and suddenly the kitchen smelt like the delivery entrance to paradise. She snatched it off, scraped the contents into a bowl, added cream cheese and mayonnaise, and thrust it under the electric mixer. She turned the bacon, shoved two of the bread slices into the toaster, and busied herself with a paring knife and the radishes.

Halvorsen shook his head unbelievingly and muttered an exclamation.
The girl threw him a look of such intense scorn that he dropped his eyes. He found them resting on her magazine. It was called
Family Day
and was a home-making publication from a chain supermarket—in no way a movie magazine.

Out of the frying pan came the bacon, crackling. She drained it on a paper towel and crumbled it into the bowl where the mixer was working. As if some kitchen choreographer was directing the work, the toast popped up as she reached her hand for it. She dropped in the other two slices and went back to her alchemy with the radishes. In a moment she turned off the mixer and spread the contents of the bowl on the toast. On this she laid cold-cuts, narrow strips of various kinds, deftly weaving them so they formed a beautiful basket pattern. As she finished the first two, the second pair popped out of the toaster; it was a continuous thing, the way she did all the different things she did; it was like music or a landscape flowing by a train window.

She did something swift with the knife, and set the results out on two plates: bite-sized sandwiches arranged like a star, and in the center what looked like a tiny bouquet of rosebuds—the radishes, prepared with curled petals and nested in a neat bed of parsley, its stems all drawn together by one clever half-hitch in one of them. The whole amazing performance had taken perhaps six minutes. “You can make your own coffee,” she snapped.

He came over and picked up one of the plates. “Why, this is—is—well,
thanks!
” He looked at her and smiled. “Come on, let’s sit down.”

“With
you?
” She stalked to the table, carrying the other plate, and scooped up the magazine as if it were a guilty secret. She went to the door. “You can clean up,” she said, “and if you ever tell anyone about this I’ll snatch you baldheaded.”

Staring after her, stunned, he absently picked up one of the sandwiches and bit into it, and for a moment forgot even his amazement, it was so delicious. He sat down slowly, and for the first time since he had started comparing violins with guitars in the pawn-shop, he gave himself up completely to his senses and forgot his troubles. He ate the sandwiches slowly and appreciatively and let them own him.

EXCERPT FROM FIELD EXPEDITION [NOTEBOOK]:

So [weary-irritated] [I] can barely [write]. As if this kind of research wasn’t arduous enough at the best of times, which this is not, with the best of equipment, which [we] lack, [I] am plagued by a [partner-teammate] with insuperable enthusiasm and a quality [I] can only describe as headlong stubbornness. [Smith] means well, of course, but the universe is full of well-meaning [individuals] [who] have succeeded only in making [ ]s of themselves.

All during the tedious and infuriating process of re[charging] the [wadget] [Smith] argued that purely objective observation would get [us] nowhere and would take [forever]; that [we] have sufficient data now to apply stimuli to these specimens and determine once and for all if a reliable, functional condition of Synapse Beta sub Sixteen is possible to them. [I] of course objected that it is against [our] highest [ethic] to apply [force] to alien species; [Smith] then argued that it would not really be [force], but only the [magnification-amplification-increased efficiency] of that which they already possessed. [I] then pointed out that even if [we] succeed, [we] can only test the final result by means which may readily kill some or all of the specimens. This [Smith] is willing to worry about only when the time comes. [I] pointed out further that in order to supply the necessary stimuli [we] shall have to re[wire] not only the [widget], but that [     ]ed, inefficient, [stone] age excuse for a [mechanism], the [wadget]. [Smith] readily agreed, and while [I] went on arguing [he] began re[wiring], and [I] argued, and [he] [wired], and by the time [I]’d [made my point] [he] was practically finished and [I] found [myself] holding the [light] as well.

[I] forgot to ask [Smith] what [he] planned to do if one of the specimens finds out what [we)’re up to. Kill it? Kill them all? It wouldn’t [surprise] [me]. In the name of [research] [Smith] would happily [watch] [his] [elderly forebear]’s [knuckles] being [knurled].

IV

Miss Schmidt, muffled up to the pharynx in a quilted robe, bed-socked, slippered and shawled, half-dozed in her easy chair. When she heard the sounds she had waited for, she jumped up, went to her door, which was ajar, and stood a moment to listen and be sure. Then she tightened her sash, checked the hooks-and-eyes under her chin, tugged her voluminous robe downward at the hips, and pulled the shawl a little higher on her shoulders. She crossed her arms at the wrists and pressed her hands modestly against her collarbones, and scurried silently past the bathroom, down the long hall to the foyer. Bitty was in the kitchen and Sam Bittelman was hanging up a damp trench coat on the hall tree.

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