Cat's Cradle, p.10Kurt Vonnegut
A BIG MOSAIC
THE CROSBYS AND I had the curious experience of being the very first guests of a new hotel. We were the first to sign the register of the Casa Mona.
The Crosbys got to the desk ahead of me, but H. Lowe Crosby was so startled by a wholly blank register that he couldn't bring himself to sign. He had to think about it a while.
"You sign," he said to me. And then, defying me to think he was superstitious, he declared his wish to photograph a man who was making a huge mosaic on the fresh plaster of the lobby wall.
The mosaic was a portrait of Mona Aamons Monzano. It was twenty feet high. The man who was working on it was young and muscular. He sat at the top of a stepladder. He wore nothing but a pair of white duck trousers.
He was a white man.
The mosaicist was making the fine hairs on the nape of Mona's swan neck out of chips of gold.
Crosby went over to photograph him; came back to report that the man was the biggest pissant he had ever met. Crosby was the color of tomato juice when he reported this. "You can't say a damn thing to him that he won't turn inside out."
So I went over to the mosaicist, watched him for a while, and then I told him, "I envy you."
"I always knew," he sighed, "that, if I waited long enough, somebody would come and envy me. I kept telling myself to be patient, that, sooner or later, somebody envious would come along."
"Are you an American?"
"That happiness is mine." He went right on working; he was incurious as to what I looked like. "Do you want to take my photograph, too?"
"Do you mind?"
"I think, therefore I am, therefore I am photographable."
"I'm afraid I don't have my camera with me."
"Well, for Christ's sake, get it! You're not one of those people who trusts his memory, are you?"
"I don't think I'll forget that face you're working on very soon."
"You'll forget it when you're dead, and so will I. When I'm dead, I'm going to forget everything--and I advise you to do the same."
"Has she been posing for this or are you working from photographs or what?"
"I'm working from or what."
"I'm working from or what." He tapped his temple. "It's all in this enviable head of mine."
"You know her?"
"That happiness is mine."
"Frank Hoenikker's a lucky man."
"Frank Hoenikker is a piece of shit."
"You're certainly candid."
"I'm also rich."
"Glad to hear it."
"If you want an expert opinion, money doesn't necessarily make people happy."
"Thanks for the information. You've just saved me a lot of trouble. I was just about to make some money."
"I wrote a book once."
"What was it called?"
"San Lorenzo," he said, "the Land, the History, the People."
TUTORED BY BOKONON
"YOU, I TAKE IT," I said to the mosaicist, "are Philip Castle, son of Julian Castle."
"That happiness is mine."
"I'm here to see your father."
"Are you an aspirin salesman?"
"Too bad. Father's low on aspirin. How about miracle drugs? Father enjoys pulling off a miracle now and then."
"I'm not a drug salesman. I'm a writer."
"What makes you think a writer isn't a drug salesman?"
"I'll accept that. Guilty as charged."
"Father needs some kind of book to read to people who are dying or in terrible pain. I don't suppose you've written anything like that."
"I think there'd be money in it. There's another valuable tip for you."
"I suppose I could overhaul the 'Twenty-third Psalm,' switch it around a little so nobody would realize it wasn't original with me."
"Bokonon tried to overhaul it," he told me. "Bokonon found out he couldn't change a word."
"You know him, too?"
"That happiness is mine. He was my tutor when I was a little boy." He gestured sentimentally at the mosaic. "He was Mona's tutor, too."
"Was he a good teacher?"
"Mona and I can both read and write and do simple sums," said Castle, "if that's what you mean."
THE HAPPINESS OF BEING AN AMERICAN
H. LOWE CROSBY came over to have another go at Castle, the pissant.
"What do you call yourself," sneered Crosby, "a beatnik or what?"
"I call myself a Bokononist."
"That's against the law in this country, isn't it?"
"I happen to have the happiness of being an American. I've been able to say I'm a Bokononist any time I damn please, and, so far, nobody's bothered me at all."
"I believe in obeying the laws of whatever country I happen to be in."
"You are not telling me the news."
Crosby was livid. "Screw you, Jack!"
"Screw you, Jasper," said Castle mildly, "and screw Mother's Day and Christmas, too."
Crosby marched across the lobby to the desk clerk and he said, "I want to report that man over there, that pissant, that so-called artist. You've got a nice little country here that's trying to attract the tourist trade and new investment in industry. The way that man talked to me, I don't ever want to see San Lorenzo again--and any friend who asks me about San Lorenzo, I'll tell him to keep the hell away. You may be getting a nice picture on the wall over there, but, by God, the pissant who's making it is the most insulting, discouraging son of a bitch I ever met in my life."
The clerk looked sick. "Sir ..."
"I'm listening," said Crosby, full of fire.
"Sir--he owns the hotel."
THE PISSANT HILTON
H. LOWE CROSBY and his wife checked out of the Casa Mona. Crosby called it "The Pissant Hilton," and he demanded quarters at the American embassy.
So I was the only guest in a one-hundred-room hotel.
My room was a pleasant one. It faced, as did all the rooms, the Boulevard of the Hundred Martyrs to Democracy, Monzano Airport, and Bolivar harbor beyond. The Casa Mona was built like a bookcase, with solid sides and back and with a front of blue-green glass. The squalor and misery of the city, being to the sides and back of the Casa Mona, were impossible to see.
My room was air-conditioned. It was almost chilly. And, coming from the Hamming heat into that chilliness, I sneezed.
There were fresh flowers on my bedside table, but my bed had not yet been made. There wasn't even a pillow on the bed. There was simply a bare, brand-new Beautyrest mattress. And there weren't any coat hangers in the closet; and there wasn't any toilet paper in the bathroom.
So I went out in the corridor to see if there was a chambermaid who would equip me a little more completely. There wasn't anybody out there, but there was a door open at the far end and very faint sounds of life.
I went to this door and found a large suite paved with dropcloths. It was being painted, but the two painters weren't painting when I appeared. They were sitting on a shelf that ran the width of the window wall.
They had their shoes off. They had their eyes closed. They were facing each other.
They were pressing the soles of their bare feet together.
Each grasped his own ankles, giving himself the rigidity of a triangle.
I cleared my throat.
The two rolled off the shelf and fell to the spattered dropcloth. They landed on their hands and knees, and they stayed in that position--their behinds in the air, their noses close to the ground.
They were expecting to be killed.
"Excuse me," I said, amazed.
"Don't tell," begged one querulously. "Please-- please don't tell."
"What you saw!"
"I didn't see anything."
"If you tell," he said, and he put his cheek to the floor and look
"Look, friends," I said, "either I came in too early or too late, but, I tell you again, I didn't see anything worth mentioning to anybody. Please--get up."
They got up, their eyes still on me. They trembled and cowered. I convinced them at last that I would never tell what I had seen.
What I had seen, of course, was the Bokononist ritual of boko-maru, or the mingling of awarenesses.
We Bokononists believe that it is impossible to be sole-to-sole with another person without loving the person, provided the feet of both persons are clean and nicely tended.
The basis for the foot ceremony is this "Calypso":
We will touch our feet, yes,
Yes, for all we're worth,
And we will love each other, yes,
Yes, like we love our Mother Earth.
WHEN I GOT BACK to my room I found that Philip Castle--mosaicist, historian, self-indexer, pissant, and hotel-keeper--was installing a roll of toilet paper in my bathroom.
"Thank you very much," I said.
"You're entirely welcome."
"This is what I'd call a hotel with a real heart. How many hotel owners would take such a direct interest in the comfort of a guest?"
"How many hotel owners have just one guest?"
"You used to have three."
"Those were the days."
"You know, I may be speaking out of turn, but I find it hard to understand how a person of your interests and talents would be attracted to the hotel business."
He frowned perplexedly. "I don't seem to be as good with guests as I might, do I?"
"I knew some people in the Hotel School at Cornell, and I can't help feeling they would have treated the Crosbys somewhat differently."
He nodded uncomfortably. "I know. I know." He flapped his arms. "Damned if I know why I built this hotel--something to do with my life, I guess. A way to be busy, a way not to be lonesome." He shook his head. "It was be a hermit or open a hotel--with nothing in between."
"Weren't you raised at your father's hospital?"
"That's right. Mona and I both grew up there."
"Well, aren't you at all tempted to do with your life what your father's done with his?"
Young Castle smiled wanly, avoiding a direct answer. "He's a funny person, Father is," he said. "I think you'll like him."
"I expect to. There aren't many people who've been as unselfish as he has."
"One time," said Castle, "when I was about fifteen, there was a mutiny near here on a Greek ship bound from Hong Kong to Havana with a load of wicker furniture. The mutineers got control of the ship, didn't know how to run her, and smashed her up on the rocks near "Papa" Monzano's castle. Everybody drowned but the rats. The rats and the wicker furniture came ashore."
That seemed to be the end of the story, but I couldn't be sure. "So?"
"So some people got free furniture, and some people got bubonic plague. At Father's hospital, we had fourteen hundred deaths inside of ten days. Have you ever seen anyone die of bubonic plague?"
"That unhappiness has not been mine."
"The lymph glands in the groin and the armpits swell to the size of grapefruit."
"I can well believe it."
"After death, the body turns black--coals to Newcastle in the case of San Lorenzo. When the plague was having everything its own way, the House of Hope and Mercy in the Jungle looked like Auschwitz or Buchenwald. We had stacks of dead so deep and wide that a bulldozer actually stalled trying to shove them toward a common grave. Father worked without sleep for days, worked not only without sleep but without saving many lives, either."
Castle's grisly tale was interrupted by the ringing of my telephone.
"My God," said Castle, "I didn't even know the telephones were connected yet."
I picked up the phone. "Hello?"
It was Major General Franklin Hoenikker who had called me up. He sounded out of breath and scared stiff "Listen! You've got to come out to my house right away. We've got to have a talk! It could be a very important thing in your life!"
"Could you give me some idea?"
"Not on the phone, not on the phone. You come to my house. You come right away! Please!"
"I'm not kidding you. This is a really important thing in your life. This is the most important thing ever." He hung up.
"What was that all about?" asked Castle.
"I haven't got the slightest idea. Frank Hoenikker wants to see me right away."
"Take your time. Relax. He's a moron."
"He said it was important."
"How does he know what's important? I could carve a better man out of a banana."
"Well, finish your story anyway."
"Where was I?"
"The bubonic plague. The bulldozer was stalled by corpses."
"Oh, yes. Anyway, one sleepless night I stayed up with Father while he worked. It was all we could do to find a live patient to treat. In bed after bed after bed we found dead people.
"And Father started giggling," Castle continued.
"He couldn't stop. He walked out into the night with his flashlight. He was still giggling. He was making the flashlight beam dance over all the dead people stacked outside. He put his hand on my head, and do you know what that marvelous man said to me?" asked Castle.
" 'Son,' my father said to me, 'someday this will all be yours.'"
I WENT TO FRANK'S HOUSE in San Lorenzo's one taxicab.
We passed through scenes of hideous want. We climbed the slope of Mount McCabe. The air grew cooler. There was mist.
Frank's house had once been the home of Nestor Aamons, father of Mona, architect of the House of Hope and Mercy in the Jungle.
Aamons had designed it.
It straddled a waterfall; had a terrace cantilevered out into the mist rising from the fall. It was a cunning lattice of very light steel posts and beams. The interstices of the lattice were variously open, chinked with native stone, glazed, or curtained by sheets of canvas.
The effect of the house was not so much to enclose as to announce that a man had been whimsically busy there.
A servant greeted me politely and told me that Frank wasn't home yet. Frank was expected at any moment. Frank had left orders to the effect that I was to be made happy and comfortable, and that I was to stay for supper and the night. The servant, who introduced himself as Stanley, was the first plump San Lorenzan I had seen.
Stanley led me to my room; led me around the heart of the house, down a staircase of living stone, a staircase sheltered or exposed by steel-framed rectangles at random. My bed was a foam-rubber slab on a stone shelf, a shelf of living stone. The walls of my chamber were canvas. Stanley demonstrated how I might roll them up or down, as I pleased.
I asked Stanley if anybody else was home, and he told me that only Newt was. Newt, he said, was out on the cantilevered terrace, painting a picture. Angela, he said, had gone sightseeing to the House of Hope and Mercy in the Jungle.
I went out onto the giddy terrace that straddled the waterfall and found little Newt asleep in a yellow butterfly chair.
The painting on which Newt had been working was set on an easel next to the aluminum railing. The painting was framed in a misty view of sky, sea, and valley.
Newt's painting was small and black and warty.
It consisted of scratches made in a black, gummy impasto. The scratches formed a sort of spider's web, and I wondered if they might not be the sticky nets of human futility hung up on a moonless night to dry.
I did not wake up the midget who had made this dreadful thing. I smoked, listening to imagined voices in the water sounds.
What awakened little Newt was an explosion far away below. It caromed up the valley and went to God. It was a cannon on the water front of Bolivar, Frank's major-domo told me. It w
Little Newt stirred.
While still half-snoozing, he put his black, painty hands to his mouth and chin, leaving black smears there. He rubbed his eyes and made black smears around them, too.
"Hello," he said to me, sleepily.
"Hello," I said. "I like your painting."
"You see what it is?"
"I suppose it means something different to everyone who sees it."
"It's a cat's cradle."
"Aha," I said. "Very good. The scratches are string. Right?"
"One of the oldest games there is, cat's cradle. Even the Eskimos know it."
"You don't say."
"For maybe a hundred thousand years or more, grownups have been waving tangles of string in their children's faces."
Newt remained curled in the chair. He held out his painty hands as though a cat's cradle were strung between them. "No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat's cradle is nothing but a bunch of X's between somebody's hands, and little kids look and look and look at all those X's ..."
"No damn cat, and no damn cradle."
GIVE MY REGARDS TO ALBERT SCHWEITZER
AND THEN ANGELA HOENIKKER CONNERS, Newt's beanpole sister, came in with Julian Castle, father of Philip, and founder of the House of Hope and Mercy in the Jungle. Castle wore a baggy white linen suit and a string tie. He had a scraggly mustache. He was bald. He was scrawny. He was a saint, I think.
He introduced himself to Newt and to me on the cantilevered terrace. He forestalled all references to his possible saintliness by talking out of the corner of his mouth like a movie gangster.
"I understand you are a follower of Albert Schweitzer," I said to him.
"At a distance...." He gave a criminal sneer. "I've never met the gentleman."
"He must surely know of your work, just as you know of his."
"Maybe and maybe not. You ever see him?"
"You ever expect to see him?"
"Someday maybe I will."
"Well," said Julian Castle, "in case you run across Dr. Schweitzer in your travels, you might tell him that he is not my hero." He lit a big cigar.
When the cigar was going good and hot he pointed its red end at me. "You can tell him he isn't my hero," he said, "but you can also tell him that, thanks to him, Jesus Christ is."
"I think he'll be glad to hear it."
"I don't give a damn if he is or not. This is something between Jesus and me."
Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut / History & Fiction / Science Fiction / Humor have rating 5.3 out of 5 / Based on32 votes