Read Slow Sculpture Online

Authors: Theodore Sturgeon

Slow Sculpture (6 page)

“Mr. Bittelman—”

“Sam,” he corrected jovially. “Top of the morning to you, Miss Schmidt. It turned morning, y’know, ten minutes ago.”

“Oh dear yes, I know it’s late,” she whispered. “And I’m terribly sorry, really I am, I wouldn’t for the world trouble you. I mean, I
am
sorry, I don’t want to be a nuisance. Oh
dear!
” Her perennially frightened face crinkled with her small explosion of distress.

“Now you just tell me what’s troubling you, lady, and we’ll get it fixed,” he said warmly.

“You’re very kind. Very kind. It happens there is something. I mean, something to fix. In … in my
room
.” She bent forward with this, as with a deep confidence.

“Well, let’s go have a look. Bitty!” Miss Schmidt put a shocked hand over her lips as he raised his voice. “I’m going to fix something for the lady. Be right with you.” He turned back to Miss Schmidt and made a jocular bow. “Lead on.”

“We mustn’t wake the … anybody,” she reproved him, then blushed because she had. He only grinned, and followed her back to her room. She entered, opened the door as wide as it would go, and self-consciously picked up the wastepaper basket and set it to hold the door open. She looked up from this task right into Sam’s twinkling eyes, and sent up a prayer that he wouldn’t tease her about it. One never knew what Sam was going to say; sometimes he was
beyond understanding and sometimes he was just—awful. “The window,” she said. “The blind.”

He looked at it. “Oh, that again. Durn things are always getting the cords frayed.” The venetian blind hung askew, the bottom slats almost vertical, leaving a lower corner of the window exposed. Sam tugged at the raising-cord. It was double; one part was jammed tight and the other ran free. He pulled it all the way out and ruefully exhibited the broken end. “See? That’s it, all right. Have to see if I can’t put in a new cord for you in the morning, if I can find one.”

“In the morning? But— I mean, well, Mr. uh—Sam, what about now? That is, what am I going to
do?”

“Why, just don’t worry your pretty little head about it! Get your beauty-sleep, little lady, and by the time you’re back from school tomorrow I’ll have it—”

“You don’t understand,” she wailed softly, “I can’t go to bed with it like that. That’s why I waited up for you. I’ve tried everything. The drapes won’t go across it and there’s nothing to hang a towel to and the chair-back isn’t high enough to cover it and—and—oh,
dear!

“Oh-h-h.”

Struck by something in his single, slow syllable, she looked sharply at him. There was something—what was it? like a hum in the room. But it wasn’t a sound. He hadn’t changed … and yet there was something in his eyes she had never seen before. She had never seen it in anyone’s eyes. About Sam Bittelman there had always been a leisurely strength, and it was there now but easier, stronger, more comforting than ever. To her, with her multiple indecisions, unsurenesses, his friendly certitude was more wondrous than a halo might have been. He said, “Just what bothers you about the window?”

Her usual self moved quite clearly to indicate, indignantly, that part of the window was uncovered and surely that spoke for itself; yet her usual self was unaccountably silent, and she gave him his answer: “Somebody might look
in!

“You know what’s outside that window?”

“Wh— Oh. Oh, the back of the garage.”

“So nobody’s going to see in. Well now, suppose there was no
garage, and you turned out your lights. Could anybody see in?”

“N-no …”

“But it still bothers you.”

“Yes, of course it does.” She looked at the triangle of exposed glass, black with night outside, and shuddered. He leaned against the doorpost and scratched his head. “Let me ask you something,” he said, as if her permission might make a difference. “S’pose we took away the garage, and you forgot and left your light on,
and
somebody saw you?”

She squeaked.

“Really bothers you, don’t it?” He laughed easily. And instead of infuriating her, the sound flooded her with comfort. “What exactly is bothersome about that, aside from the fact that it’s bothersome?”

“Why … why,” she said breathlessly, “I know what
I’d
think of a hussy that would parade around that way with the lights on and—”

“I didn’t say parade. Nor ‘prance,’ either, which is the other word people use, I don’t know why. So what really bothers you is what some peepin’ Tom might think, hm? Now, Miss Schmidt, is that really anything to worry about? What do you care what he thinks you are? Don’t you know what you are?” He paused, but she had nothing to say. “You ever sleep naked?”

She gasped, and, round-eyed, shook her head.

“Why not?” he demanded.

“Why I— I—” She had to answer him; she had to. Fear rose like a thin column of smoke within her, and then a swift glance at his open, friendly face dispelled it completely. It was extraordinary, uncomfortable, exhilarating, disturbing, exciting all at once. He compelled her and comforted her at the same time.

She found her voice and answered him. “I just couldn’t sleep … like that. Suppose there was a fire?”

“Who said that?” he snapped.

“I beg your—”

“Who said ‘suppose there’s a fire?’ Who told you that?”

“Why, I suppose it—yes, it was my mother.”

“Not your idea then. Figured as much. ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Do you believe that?”

“Of course!”

“You do. How old were you when you learned that?”

“I don’t—know. All children—”

“Children seven, eight, nine? All right. How old were you when you were taught not to unpin your diapers? Not to let anyone
see
you?”

She did not answer but the answer was there.

“Wouldn’t you say you’d learned ‘thou shalt not expose thy body’ earlier, better, more down-deep than ‘thou shalt not kill?”

“I—yes.”

“Do you realize it’s a deeper commandment with you than any of the Ten? And aside from right-’n-wrong, isn’t it deeper than the deepest, strongest one of all—save thyself? Can’t you see yourself dying under a bush rather than walk naked out on the road and flag a car? ‘Suppose there’s a fire?’ Can’t you see yourself burn to death rather’n jump out a window without your bathrobe?”

She didn’t answer except from her round eyes and her whole heart.

“Does that make any
sense
, to believe a thing like that?”

“I don’t know,” she whispered. “I—have to think.”

Surprisingly, he said, “Retroactive.” He pointed to the window. “What can we do about that?” he asked.

Absently she glanced at it. “Never mind it tonight, Mr. Bittelman.”

“Sam. Okay. Goodnight, little lady.”

She felt herself, abruptly, tottering on the edge of a bottomless pit. He had walked in here and disoriented her, ripped into shreds a whole idea-matrix which had rested undisturbed in the foundations of her thinking, like a cornerstone. Just at this startled second she had not made the admission, but she would have to admit to herself soon that she must think “retroactive,” as he had put it, and that when she did she would find that the clothes convention was not the only one she would have to reappraise. The inescapable, horizonless, unfamiliar task loomed over her like a black cloud—her only comfort, her only handhold was Sam Bittelman, and he was leaving. “No!” she cried. “No! No! No!”

He turned back, smiling, and that magic happened again, his
sureness and ease. She stood gasping as if she had run up a hill.

“It’s all right, little lady.”

“Why did you tell me all this? Why?” she asked pathetically.

“You know something? I didn’t tell you a thing,” he said. “I just asked questions. They were all questions you could’ve asked yourself. And what’s got you scared is answers—answers that came from here—” He put a gentle knuckle against her damp forehead. “—and not from me. You’ve lived with it all quite a while; you got nothing to fear from it now.” And before she could answer he had waved one capable hand, winked, and was gone.

For a long time she stood there, trembling and afraid to think. At last she let her open eyes see again, and although they saw nothing but the open door, it was as if some of Sam’s comfort slipped in with vision. She turned around, and around again, taking in the whole room and reaping comfort and more comfort from the walls, as if Sam had hung it for her to gather like ripe berries. She put it all in the new empty place within her, not to fill, but at least to be there and to live with until she could get more. Suddenly her gaze met the silly little wastebasket sitting against the door, holding it open, and to her utter astonishment she laughed at it. She picked it up, shook her head at it as if it had been a ridiculous puppy which had been eating her talcum powder; she even spanked it lightly, once, and put it down, and closed the door. She got into bed and put out the light without even looking at the window.

V

“Aw, you shouldn’t!” cried Bitty with a joyous sort of chagrin as she pushed open Sue Martin’s door. “Here I’ve got all your fresh linen and you’ve went and made the bed!”

Sue Martin, sleep-tousled and lovely in a dark negligee, rose from the writing desk. “I’m sorry, Bitty. I forgot it was Thursday.”

“Well, Thursday it is,” the older woman scolded, “and now I’ll have to do it up all over again. Young lady, I’ve told and
told
you I’ll take care of the room.”

“You have plenty to do,” Sue smiled. “Here, I’ll help. What’s Robin up to?”

Together they took down the spread, the light blanket, then the sheets from the big double bed. “Kidnapped by that young idiot O’Banion again. He’s driving out to the new project over Huttonville way and thought Robin might want to see the bulldozers.”

“Robin loves bulldozers. He’s not an idiot.”

“He’s an idiot,” said Bitty gruffly, apparently needing no translation of the two parts of Sue’s statement. “Time this was turned, since we’re both here,” she said, swatting the mattress.

“All right,” Sue Martin loosely folded the spread and blanket and carried them to the chest. “Robin just loves him.”

“So do you.”

Sue’s eyes widened. She shot a look at the other woman, but Bitty’s back was turned as she bent over the bed. When she spoke, her voice was perfectly controlled. “Yes, for some time.” She went to stand beside Bitty and they laid hold of the mattress straps. “Ready?” Together they heaved and the mattress rose up, teetered for a moment on edge, and fell back the other way. They pulled it straight.

“Well, what are you doing about it?” Bitty demanded.

Sue found her eyes captured by Bitty’s for a strange moment. She saw herself, in a flash of analog, walking purposefully away from some tired, dark place toward something she wanted; and as she walked there appeared humming softly behind her, around her, something like a moving wall. She had a deep certainty that she could not stop nor turn aside; but that as long as she kept moving at the same speed, in the same direction, the moving wall could not affect her. She—and it—were moving toward what she wanted, just as fast as she cared to go. While this was the case, she was not being restrained or compelled, helped nor hindered. So she would not fear this thing, fight it or even question it. It could not possibly change anything. In effect, irresistible as it might be, it need not and therefore did not exist for her. Here and now, some inexplicable something had happened to make it impossible not to answer Bitty’s questions—and this compulsion was of no moment at all for her as long as Bitty asked questions she wanted to answer. “What are you doing about it?” was such a question.

“Everything I should do,” said Sue Martin. “Nothing at all.” Bitty
grunted noncommittally. She took a folded sheet from the top of the highboy and shook it out across the bed. Sue Martin went round to the other side and caught it. She said, “He has to know why, that’s all, and he can’t do anything or say anything until he does know.”

“Why what?” Bitty asked bluntly.

“Why he loves me.”

“Oh—you know that, do you?”

This was one question, compulsion or no, that Sue Martin did not bother to answer. It was on the order of “Is this really a bed?” or “Is it Thursday?” So Bitty asked another: “And you’re just waiting, like a little edelweiss on an Alp, for him to climb the mountain and pick you?”

“Waiting?” Sue repeated, puzzled.

“You’re not doing anything about it, are you?”

“I’m being myself,” said Sue Martin. “I’m living my life. What I have to give him—anyone who’s
right
for me—is all I am, all I do for the rest of my life. As long as he wants something more, or something different, nothing can happen.” She closed her eyes for a moment. “No, I’m not waiting, exactly. Put it this way: I know how to be content with what I am and what I’m doing. Either Tony will knock down that barrier he’s built, or he won’t. Either way I know what’s going to happen, and it’s good.”

“That wall—why don’t you take a pickax and beat it down?”

She flashed the older woman a smile, “He’d defend it. Men get very fond of the things they defend, especially when they find themselves defending something stupid.”

Bitty shook out the second sheet. “And don’t you have any of his kind of trouble—wondering
why
you love him?”

Sue Martin laughed. “Wouldn’t we live in a funny world if we had to understand everything that was real, or it wouldn’t exist? It’s always good to know
why
. It isn’t always necessary. Tony’ll find that out one day.” She sobered. “Or he won’t. Hand me a pillowslip.”

They finished their task in silence. Bitty bundled up the old linen and trudged out. Sue Martin stood looking after her. “I hope she wasn’t disappointed,” she murmured, and, “I don’t think so … and what did I mean by that?”

VI

One morning Mary Haunt opened her eyes and refused to believe them. For a moment she lay still looking at the window numbly; there was something wrong with it, and a wrong feeling about the whole room. Then she identified it: there was sunlight streaming in and down through the venetian blind where no sunlight should be at her rising time. She snatched her watch off the night table and squinted at it, and moaned. She reared up in bed and peered at the alarm clock, then turned and punched furiously at the pillow. She bounded out of bed, struggled into her yellow robe, and flew out of the room with her bare feet slapping angrily down the long corridor. Sam Bittelman was sitting at the kitchen table peering at the morning paper over the tops of his black rimmed reading-glasses. Bitty was at the sink. “What ’m I, the forgotten man or something?” Mary Haunt demanded harshly.

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