Read Slow Sculpture Online

Authors: Theodore Sturgeon

Slow Sculpture (7 page)

Sam put down his paper and only then began to remove his gaze from it. “M-m-m? Oh, good morning, gal.” Bitty went on with her business.

“Good
nothing!
Don’t you know what time it is?”

“Sure do.”

“What’s the big fat idea leaving me to sleep like this? You know I got to get to work in the morning.”

“Who called you four times?” said Bitty without turning around or raising her voice. “Who went in and shook you, and got told
get out of my room
for it?”

Mary Haunt poised between pace and pace, between syllables. Now that Bitty mentioned it, she
did
half-remember a vague hammering somewhere, a hand on her shoulder … but that was a dream, or the middle of the night or—or had she really chased the old lady out?
“Arrgh,”
she growled disgustedly. She stamped out into the foyer and snatched up the phone. She dialed. “Get me Muller,” she snapped at the voice that answered.

“Muller,” said the phone.

“Mary Haunt here. I’m sick today. I’m not coming in.”

“So with this phone call,” said the telephone, “I’ll notice.”

“Why you lousy Heine, without me you couldn’t run a yo-yo, let alone a radio station!” she shouted, but she had hung up before she started to shout.

She padded back into the kitchen and sat down at the table. “Got coffee?”

Bitty, still with her back turned, nodded in the appropriate direction and said, “On the stove,” but Sam folded his paper and got up. He went to the stove, touched the pot briefly with the back of his hand, picking up a cup and saucer on the way. “You’ll want milk.”

“You know better than that,” she said, arching her lean body. While she poured herself a cup, Sam sat down at the other end of the table. He leaned his weight on his elbows, his forearms and worn hands flat on the table. Something like the almost-silent whisper from a high-speed fan made her look up. “What are you looking at?”

He didn’t answer her question. “Why do you claim to be twenty-two?” he asked instead, and quick as the rebound of billiard ball from cue ball, propelled by hostility, inclusive as buckshot, her reply jetted up:
“What’s it to you?”
But it never reached her lips; instead she said, “I have to,” and then sat there astounded. Once she had worn out a favored phonograph record, knew every note, every beat of it, and she had replaced it; and for once the record company had made a mistake and the record was not what the label said it was. The first half-second of that new record was like this, a moment of expectation and stunned disbelief. This was even more immediate and personal, however; it was like mounting ten steps in the dark and finding, shockingly, that there were only nine in the flight. From this moment until she left the kitchen, she was internally numb and frightened, yet fascinated, as her mind formed one set of words and others came out.

“You have to,” asked Sam mildly, “the way you have to be in the movies? You just
have
to?”

The snarl,
have I kept it a secret?
came out, “It’s what I want.”

“Is it?”

There didn’t seem to be any answer to that, on any level. She waited, tense.

“What you’re doing—the job at the radio station—living here in this town instead of someplace else—all of it; is what you’re doing the best way to get what you want?”

Why else would I put up with it all—the town, the people—you?
But she said, “I think so.” Then she said, “I’ve thought so.”

“Why don’t you talk to young Halvorsen? He might be able to find something you’d do even better’n going to Hollywood.”

“I don’t
want
to find anything better!” This time there was no confusion.

From the other end of the room, Bitty asked, “Were you always so all-fired pretty, Mary Haunt? Even when you were a little girl?”

“Everyone always said so.”

“Ever wish you weren’t?”

Are you out of your mind?
“I … don’t think so,” she whispered.

Gently, Sam asked her, “Did they throw you out, gal? Make you leave home?”

Defiantly, defensively,
They treated me like a little princess at home, like a piece of fine glassware. They carried my books and felt good all day if I smiled. They did what I wanted, what they thought I wanted, at home or in town. They acted as if I was too good to walk that ground, breathe that air, they jumped at the chance to take advantage of being at the same place at the same time; they did everything for me they could think of doing, as if they had to hurry or I’d be gone. Throw me out? Why, you old fool!
“I left home my own self,” she said. “Because I had to, like—” But here words failed her, and she determined not to cry, and she determined not to cry, and she cried.

“Better drink your coffee.”

She did, and then she wanted something to eat with it, but couldn’t bear to sit with these people any longer. She sniffed angrily. “I don’t know what’s the matter with me,” she said. “I never overslept before.”

“Long as you know what you want,” said Sam, and whether that was the stupid, non-sequitur remark of a doddering dotard, or something quite different, she did not know. “Well,” she said, rising abruptly; and then felt foolish because there was nothing else to say. She escaped back to her room and to bed, and huddled there most
of the day dully regarding the two coddled ends of her life, pampering in the past and pampering in the future, while trying to ignore today with its empty stomach and its buzzing head.

VII

During Prohibition it had been a restaurant, in that category which is better than just “nice” but not as good as “exclusive”; the town was too small then to have anything exclusive. Now it was a bar as well, and although there was imitation Carrara on some walls, and a good deal of cove-lighting, the balcony had never been altered and still boasted the turned-spoke railing all the way around, looking like a picket fence that had gone to heaven. There was a little service bar up there, and a man could stay all evening watching what went on down below without being seen. This was what Tony O’Banion was doing, and he was doing it because he had felt like a drink and had never been to the club before, and he wanted to see what kind of place it was and what Sue Martin did there; and every one of these reasons were superficial—if he preceded them with “Why,” he felt lost. Within him were the things he believed, about the right sort of people, about background, breeding, and blood. Around him was this place, as real as the things he believed in.
Why
he was here, why he wanted a drink just now, why he wanted to see the place and what happened in it—this was a bridge between one reality and the other, and a misty, maddening, nebulous bridge it was. He drank, and waited to see her emerge from the small door by the bandstand, and when she did he watched her move to the piano and help the pianist, a disheveled young man, stack and restack and shuffle his music, and he drank. He drank, and watched her go to the cashier and spend a time over a ledger and a pile of checks. She disappeared through the swinging doors into the kitchen, and he drank; he drank and she came out talking to a glossy man in a tuxedo, and he winced when they laughed.

At length the lights dimmed and the glossy man introduced her and she sang in a full, pleasant voice something about a boy next door, and someone else played an accordion which was the barest shade out of tune with the piano. Then the piano had a solo, and
the man sang the last chorus, after which the lights came up again and he asked the folks to stick around for the main show at ten sharp. Then the accordion and the piano began to make dance music. It was all unremarkable, and Tony didn’t know why he stayed. He stayed, though: “Waiter! Do it again.”

“Do it twice.”

Tony spun around. “Time someone else bought, hm?” said Sam Bittelman. He sat down.

“Sam! Well, sit down. Oh, you
are
.” Tony laughed embarrassedly. His tongue was thick and he was immeasurably glad to see the old man. He was going to wonder why until he remembered that he’d sworn off wondering why just now. He was going to ask what Sam was doing there and then decided Sam would only ask him the same, and it was a question he didn’t want to fool with just now. Yes he did.

“I’m down here slumming in the fleshpots and watching the lower orders cavorting and carousing,” he blurted, making an immense effort to be funny. He wasn’t funny. He sounded like a little snob, and a tight little snob at that.

Sam regarded him gravely, not disapproving, not approving. “Sue Martin know you’re here?”

“No.”

“Good.”

The waiter came just in time; Sam’s single syllable had given him a hard hurt; but for all the pain, it was an impersonal thing, like getting hit by a golfer on his backswing. When the waiter had gone Sam asked quietly, “Why don’t you marry the girl?”

“What’re ya—kidding?”

Sam shook his head. O’Banion looked into his eyes and away, then down at Sue Martin where she leaned against the piano, leafing through some music.
Why don’t you marry the girl?
“You mean if she’d have me?” It was not the way he felt, but it was something to say. He glanced at Sam’s face, which was still waiting for a real answer. All right then. “It wouldn’t be right.”

“ ‘Right?” Sam repeated.

O’Banion nipped his thick tongue in the hope it might wake his
brains up. The rightness of it … vividly he recalled his Mother’s words on the subject: “Aside from the amount of trouble you’ll save yourself, Anthony, you must remember that it’s not only your right, it’s your
duty
not to marry beneath your class. Fine hounds, fine horses, fine humans, my dear; it’s breeding that matters.” That was all very well, but how to say it to the kind old man, himself obviously a manual worker all his life? O’Banion was not a cruel man, and he was well aware that coarse origins did not always mean dull sensibilities. Actually, some of these people were very sensitive. So he made a genuinely noble try at simultaneous truth and kindness: “I’ve always felt it’s wiser to form relationships like that with—uh—people of one’s own kind.”

“You mean, people with as much money as you got?”

“No!” O’Banion was genuinely shocked. “That’s no longer a standard to go by, and it probably never was, not by itself.” He laughed ruefully and added, “Besides, there hasn’t been any money in my family since I can remember. Not since 1929.”

“Then what’s your kind of people?”

How? How? “It’s … a way of life,” he said at length. That pleased him. “A way of life,” he repeated, and took a drink. He hoped Sam wouldn’t pursue the subject any further. Why examine something when you’re content with it the way it is?

“Why are you here anyway, boy?” Sam asked. “I mean, in this town instead of in the city, or New York or some place?”

“I’m good for a junior partnership in another year or so. Then I can transfer as a junior partner to a big firm. If I’d gone straight to the city it would take me twice as long to get up there.”

Sam nodded. “Pretty cute. Why the law? I always figured lawyer’s work was pretty tough and pretty dusty for a young man.”

His Mother had said, “Of course the law field’s being invaded by all sorts of riffraff now—but what isn’t? However, it’s still possible for a gentleman to do a gentleman’s part in law.” Well, that wouldn’t do. He’d have to go deeper. He averted his eyes from old Sam’s casual penetration and said, “Tough, yes. But there’s something about law work …” He wondered if the old man would follow this. “Look, Sam, did it ever occur to you that the law is the
biggest thing ever built? It’s bigger’n bridges, bigger’n buildings because they’re all built
on
it. A lawyer’s a part of the law, and the law is part of everything else—everything we own, the way we run governments, everything we make and carry and use. Ever think of that?”

“Can’t say I did,” said Sam. “Tell me something—the law, is it finished?”

“Finished?”

“What I mean, this rock everything’s built on, how solid is it? Is it going to change much? Didn’t it change a whole lot to get the way it is?”

“Well, sure! Everything changes a lot while it’s growing up.”

“Ah. It’s grown up.”

“Don’t you think it has?” O’Banion asked with sudden truculence.

Sam grinned easily. “Shucks, boy, I don’t think. I just ask questions. You were saying about ‘your sort of people’: you think you-all
belong
in the law?”

“Yes!” said O’Banion, and saw immediately that Sam would not be satisfied with so little. “We do in this sense,” he said earnestly. “All through the ages men have worked and built and—and owned. And among them there rose a few who were born and bred and trained to—to—” He took another drink, but it and the preceding liquor seemed not to be helping him. He wanted to say
to rule
and he wanted to say
to own
, but he had wit enough about him to recognize that Sam would misunderstand. So he tried again. “Born and bred to—live that—uh—way of life I mentioned before. It’s to the interest of those few people to invest their lives in things as they are, to keep them that way; in other words, to work for and uphold the law.” He leaned back with a flourish that somehow wasn’t as eloquent as he had hoped and very nearly upset his glass to boot.

“Don’t the law contradict itself once in a while?”

“Naturally!” O’Banion’s crystallizing concept of the nobility of his work was beginning to intoxicate him more than anything else. “But the very nature of our courts is a process of refinement, constant purification.” He leaned forward excitedly. “Look, laws are
dreams, when they’re first thought of—inspirations! There’s something … uh … holy about that, something beyond the world of men. And that’s why when the world of men comes into contact with it, the wording of the inspiration has to be redone in the books, or interpreted in the courtroom. That’s what we mean by ‘precedents’—that’s what the big dusty books are for, to create and maintain consistency under the law.”

“What about justice?” murmured Sam, and then quickly, as if he hadn’t meant to change the subject, “That’s not what I meant by contradictin’, counselor. I mean all laws that all men have dreamed up and lived by and got theirselves killed over. Tell me something, counselor, is there even one single law so right for men that it shows up in every country that is or was?”

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