Read Slow Sculpture Online

Authors: Theodore Sturgeon

Slow Sculpture (9 page)

For nearly two days he had been worrying and gnawing at this sense of wrongness about him. Back and back he would come to it, only to reach bafflement and kick it away angrily; not eating enough, hardly sleeping at all;
let me sleep first!
something wailed within him, and as he sensed it he kicked it away again: more hysteria, not letting him think. And then a word from O’Banion, a phrase from Miss Schmidt, and his own ragbag memory: The Bittelmans never said—they always asked. It was as if they could reach into a man’s mind, piece together questions from the unused lumber stored there, and from it build shapes he couldn’t bear to look at.
How many terrible questions have I locked away?
And has she broken the lock? He said, “Don’t … ask me that.… Why did you ask me that?”

“Well, why ever not?”

“You’re a … you can read my mind.”

“Can I?”


Say
something!” he shouted. The paper bag stopped whispering. He thought she noticed it.

“Am I reading your mind,” she asked reasonably, “if I see you walk in here the way you did looking like the wrath o’ God, holding that thing out in front of you and shying away from it at the same time, and then tell you that if you accidentally pull the trigger you might have to die for it? Read minds? Isn’t it enough to read the papers?”

Oh, he thought.… Oh-h. He looked at her sharply. She was quite calm, waiting, leaving it to him. He knew, suddenly and certainly, that this woman could outthink him, outtalk him, seven ways from Sunday without turning a hair. This meant either that he was completely and embarrassingly wrong, or that her easy explanations weren’t true ones … which was the thing that had been bothering him in the first place. “Why did you say I bought the gun for something else?” he snapped.

She gave him that brief, very-warm smile. “Didn’t say; I asked
you, right? How could I really know?”

For one further moment he hesitated, and it came to him that if this flickering doubt about her was justified, the chances were that a gun would be as ineffective as an argument. And besides … it was like a silent current in the room, a sort of almost-sound, or the aural pressure he could feel sometimes when a car was braking near him; but here it came out feeling like comfort.

He let the bag fall until it swung from its mouth. He twisted it closed. “Will you—I mean,” he bumbled, “I don’t want it.”

“Now what would I do with a gun?” she asked.

“I don’t know. I just don’t want it around. I can throw it away. I don’t want to have anything to do with it. I thought maybe you could put it away somewhere.”

“You know, you’d better sit down,” said Bitty. She didn’t exactly push him but he had to move back to get out of her way as she approached, and when the back of his knees hit a chair he had to sit down or fall down. Bitty continued across the kitchen, opened a high cupboard and put the bag on the topmost shelf. “Only place in the house Robin can’t climb into.”

“Robin. Oh yes,” he said, seeing the possibilities. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“You’d better talk it out, Philip,” she said in her flat, kind way. “You’re fixing to bust wide open. I won’t have you messing up my kitchen.”

“There’s nothing to talk about.”

She paused on her way back to the sink, in a strange hesitation like one listening. Suddenly she turned and sat down at the table with him. “What did you want with a gun, Philip?” she demanded; and just as abruptly, he answered her, as if she had hurled something at him and it had bounced straight back into her waiting hands, “I was thinking about killing myself.”

If he thought this would elicit surprise; or an exclamation, or any more questions, he was disappointed. She seemed only to be waiting, so he said, with considerably more care, “I don’t know why I told you that but it came out right. I said I was thinking about doing it. I didn’t say I was going to do it.” He looked at her. Not enough?
Okay then: “I couldn’t be sure exactly what I was thinking until I bought a gun. Does that make any sense to you?”

“Why not?”

“I don’t ever know exactly what I think unless I try it out. Or get all the pieces laid out ready to try.”

“Or tell somebody?”

“I couldn’t tell anybody about this.”

“Did you try?”


Damn
it!” It was a whisper, but it emerged under frightening pressure. Then normally, “I’m sorry, Bitty, I’m real sorry. I suddenly got mad at the language, you know what I mean? You say something in words of one syllable and it comes out meaning something you never meant. I told you, ‘I couldn’t tell anybody about this.’ That sounds as if I knew all about it and was just shy or something. So you ask me, ‘Did you try?’ But what I really mean was that this whole thing, everything about it, is a bunch of—of feelings, and—well, crazy ideas
that I couldn’t tell anyone about
.”

Bitty’s rare smile flickered. “Did you try?”

“Well I’ll be. You’re worse than ever,” he said, this time without anger. “You
do
know what I’m thinking.”

“So what were you thinking?”

He sobered immediately. “Things … all crazy. I think all the time, Bitty, like a radio was playing all day, all night, and I can’t turn it off. Wouldn’t want to; wouldn’t know how to live without it. Ask me is it going to rain and off I go, thinking about rain, where it comes from, about clouds, how many different kinds there are; about air-currents and jet-streams and everything else you pick up reading those little paragraphs at the bottom of newspaper columns; about—”

“About why you bought a gun?”

“Huh? Oh … all right, all right, I won’t ramble.” He closed his eyes to hear his thoughts, and frowned at them. “Anyway, at the tail end of these run-downs is always some single thing that stops the chain—for the time. It might be the answer to some question I asked myself, or someone asks me, or it might just be as far as the things I know will take me.

“So one day a few weeks ago I got to thinking about guns, and
never mind the way I went, but what I arrived at was the idea of a gun killing me, and then just the idea of being dead. And the more I thought, the more scared I got.”

After waiting what seemed to be long enough, Bitty said, “Scared.”

“It wasn’t kil— being dead that scared me. It was the feeling I had about it. I was glad about it. I wanted it. That’s what scared me.”

“Why do you want to be dead?”

“That’s what I don’t know.” His voice fell. “Don’t know, I just don’t know,” he mumbled. “So I couldn’t get it out of my head and I couldn’t make any sense out of it, and I thought the only thing I could do was to get a gun and load it and—get everything ready, to see how I felt then.” He looked up at her. “That sounds real crazy, I bet.”

Bitty shrugged. Either she denied the statement or it didn’t matter. Halvorsen looked down again and said to his clenched hands, “I sat there in my room with the muzzle in my mouth and all the safeties off, and hooked my thumb around the trigger.”

“Learn anything?”

His mouth moved but he couldn’t find words to fit the movement. “Well,” said Bitty sharply, “why didn’t you pull it?”

“I just—” He closed his eyes in one of those long, inward-reading pauses. “—couldn’t. I mean,
didn’t
. I wasn’t afraid, if that’s what you want to know.” He glanced at her and couldn’t tell what she wanted to know. “Sitting there, that way, I came to realize that this wasn’t the way it should happen,” he said with some difficulty.

“What is the way?”

“Like this: if ever there was an earthquake, or I looked up and saw a safe falling on me, or some other thing like that, something from outside myself—I wouldn’t move aside. I’d let it happen.”

“Is there a difference between that and shooting yourself?”

“Yes!” he said, with more animation than he had shown so far. “Put it like this: there’s part of me that’s dead, and wants the rest of me dead. There’s a part of me that’s alive, and wants all of me alive.” He looked that over and nodded at it. “My hand, my arm, my thumb on the trigger—they’re alive. All the live parts of me want to help
me go on living, d’you see? No live part should help the dead part get what it wants. The way it’ll happen, the way it should happen, is not when I do something to make it happen. It’ll be when I don’t do something. I won’t get out of the way, and that’s it, and thanks for keeping the gun for me, it’s no use to me.” He stood up and found his eyes locked with hers, and sat right down again, breathing hard.

“Why do you want to be dead?” she asked flatly.

He put his head down on his hands and began to rock it slowly to and fro.

“Don’t you want to know?”

Muffled, his voice came up from the edge of the table. “No.” Abruptly he sat up, staring. “No? What made me say no? Bitty,” he demanded, “what made me say that?”

She shrugged. He jumped up and began pacing swiftly up and down the kitchen. “I’ll be dogged,” he murmured once, and “Well, what d’ye kn—”

Bitty watched him, and catching him on a turn when their eyes could meet, she asked, “Well—why do you want to—”

“Shut up,” he said. He said it, not to her, but to any interruption. His figmentary signal-light, which indicated dissatisfaction, unrightness, was casting its glow all over his interior landscape. To be hounded half to death by something like this, then to discover that basically he didn’t want to investigate it … He sat down and faced her, his eyes alight. “I don’t know yet,” he said, “but I will, I will.” He took a deep breath. “It’s like being chased by something that’s gaining on you, and you duck into an alley, and then you find it’s blind, there’s only a brick wall; so you sit down to wait, it’s all you can do. And all of a sudden you find a door in the wall. Been there all the time. Just didn’t look.”

“Why do you want to be dead?”

“B—because I—I shouldn’t be alive. Because the average guy—Different, that’s what I am, different, unfit.”

“Different, unfit.” Bitty’s eyebrows raised slightly. “They the same thing, Philip?”

“Well, sure.”

“You can’t jump like a kangaroo, you can’t eat grass raw like a
cow—different. You unfit because you can’t do those things?”

He made an annoyed laugh. “Not that, not that. People, I mean.”

“You can’t fly a plane. You can’t sing like Sue Martin. You can’t spout law like Tony O’Banion. That kind of different?”

“No,” he said, and in a surge of anguish, “No, no! I can’t talk about it, Bitty!” He looked at her and again saw that rare, deep smile. He answered it in kind, but weakly, remembering that he had said that to her before. “This time I mean I can’t talk about such things to you. To a lady,” he said in abrupt, unbearable confusion.

“I’m no lady,” said Bitty with conviction. Suddenly she punched his forearm; he thought it was the first time she had ever touched him. “To you I’m not even a human being. Not even another person. I mean it,” she said warmly. “Have I asked you a single question you couldn’t’ve asked yourself? Have I told you anything you didn’t know?”

His peculiar linear mind cast rapidly back and up again. He felt an odd instant of disorientation. It was not unpleasant. Bitty said gently, “Go on talking to yourself, boy. Who knows—you might find yourself in good company.”

“Aw … thanks, Bitty,” he mumbled. His eyes stung and he shook his head. “All right, all
right
, then … it just came to me, one big flash, and I guess I couldn’t sit here—here,” he said, waving his arm to include the scrubbed, friendly kitchen, “and look at you, and think about these—uh this—all at once.” He swallowed heavily. “Well, that time I told you about, that day I found out I wanted to be dead, it was like getting hit on the head. Right after that, only a couple of minutes, I got hit on the head just as hard by something else. I didn’t know—want to know till now that they were connected, some way.” He closed his eyes. “It was a theater, that rathole down across the Circle. You know. It—it hit out at me when I wasn’t looking. It was all covered with … pictures and—and it said SEE this and SEE that and SEE some dirty other thing, adults only, you know what I mean.” He opened his eyes to see what Bitty was doing, but Bitty was doing nothing at all. Waiting. He turned his face away from her, and said indistinctly into his shoulder, “All my life those things meant nothing to me.
There!
” he shouted, “you see? Different, different!”

But she wouldn’t see. Or she wouldn’t see until he did, himself, more clearly. She still waited.

He said, “Down at work, there’s a fellow, Scodie. This Scodie, he’s a good man, really can turn out a day’s work. I mean, he likes what he’s doing, he cares. Except every time a girl goes by, everything stops. He snaps up out of what he’s doing, he watches her. I mean,
every
time. It’s like he can’t help himself. He does it the way a cadet salutes an officer on the street. He does it like that crossing-guard on the toy train, that pops out of his little house every time his little light goes on. He watches until the girl’s gone by, and then he says ‘mmm
yuh!
’ and looks over at me and winks.”

“What do you do, every time?”

“Well, I—” He laughed uncertainly. “I guess I wink back at him and I say, mm
-hm!
But I know why I do it, it’s because he expects me to; he’d think it was sort of peculiar if I didn’t. But he doesn’t do it for me; I don’t expect anything of him one way or the other. He does it—” Words failed him, and he tried again. “Doing that, he’s part of—everybody. What he does is the same thing every song on every radio says every minute. Every ad in every magazine does it if it possibly can, even if it means a girl in her underwear with stillson wrenches for sale.” He leapt to his feet and began to pace excitedly. “You got to back off a little to see it,” he told Bitty, who smiled behind his back. “You got to look at the whole thing all at once, to see how
much
there is of it, the jokes people tell—yeah, you got to laugh at them, whatever, you even have to know a couple, or they’ll … The window displays, the television, the movies … somebody’s writing an article about transistors or termites or something, and every once in a while he figures he’s been away from it long enough and he has to say something about the birds and the bees and ‘Gentlemen prefer.’ Everywhere you turn the whole world’s at it, chipping and chipping away at it—”

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