Cat's Cradle, p.5Kurt Vonnegut
"Any relation to Dr. Asa Breed, the director of the Research Laboratory?"
"His brother." He said his name was Marvin Breed.
"It's a small world," I observed.
"When you put it in a cemetery, it is." Marvin Breed was a sleek and vulgar, a smart and sentimental man.
"I JUST CAME from your brother's office. I'm a writer. I was interviewing him about Dr. Hoenikker," I said to Marvin Breed.
"There was one queer son of a bitch. Not my brother; I mean Hoenikker."
"Did you sell him that monument for his wife?"
"I sold his kids that. He didn't have anything to do with it. He never got around to putting any kind of marker on her grave. And then, after she'd been dead for a year or more, Hoenikker's three kids came in here--the big tall girl, the boy, and the little baby. They wanted the biggest stone money could buy, and the two older ones had poems they'd written. They wanted the poems on the stone.
"You can laugh at that stone, if you want to," said Marvin Breed, "but those kids got more consolation out of that than anything else money could have bought. They used to come and look at it and put flowers on it I-don't-know-how-many-times a year."
"It must have cost a lot."
"Nobel Prize money bought it. Two things that money bought: a cottage on Cape Cod and that monument."
"Dynamite money," I marveled, thinking of the violence of dynamite and the absolute repose of a tombstone and a summer home.
"Nobel invented dynamite."
"Well, I guess it takes all kinds ..."
Had I been a Bokononist then, pondering the miraculously intricate chain of events that had brought dynamite money to that particular tombstone company, I might have whispered, "Busy, busy, busy."
Busy, busy, busy, is what we Bokononists whisper whenever we think of how complicated and unpredictable the machinery of life really is.
But all I could say as a Christian then was, "Life is sure funny sometimes."
"And sometimes it isn't," said Marvin Breed.
AN UNGRATEFUL MAN
I ASKED MARVIN BREED if he'd known Emily Hoenikker, the wife of Felix; the mother of Angela, Frank, and Newt; the woman under that monstrous shaft.
"Know her?" His voice turned tragic. "Did I know her, mister? Sure, I knew her. I knew Emily. We went to Ilium High together. We were co-chairmen of the Class Colors Committee then. Her father owned the Ilium Music Store. She could play every musical instrument there was. I fell so hard for her I gave up football and tried to play the violin. And then my big brother Asa came home for spring vacation from M.I.T., and I made the mistake of introducing him to my best girl." Marvin Breed snapped his fingers. "He took her away from me just like that. I smashed up my seventy-five-dollar violin on a big brass knob at the foot of my bed, and I went down to a florist shop and got the kind of box they put a dozen roses in, and I put the busted fiddle in the box, and I sent it to her by Western Union messenger boy."
"Pretty, was she?"
"Pretty?" he echoed. "Mister, when I see my first lady angel, if God ever sees fit to show me one, it'll be her wings and not her face that'll make my mouth fall open. I've already seen the prettiest face that ever could be. There wasn't a man in Ilium County who wasn't in love with her, secretly or otherwise. She could have had any man she wanted." He spit on his own floor. "And she had to go and marry that little Dutch son of a bitch! She was engaged to my brother, and then that sneaky little bastard hit town." Marvin Breed snapped his fingers again. "He took her away from my big brother like that.
"I suppose it's high treason and ungrateful and ignorant and backward and anti-intellectual to call a dead man as famous as Felix Hoenikker a son of a bitch. I know all about how harmless and gentle and dreamy he was supposed to be, how he'd never hurt a fly, how he didn't care about money and power and fancy clothes and automobiles and things, how he wasn't like the rest of us, how he was better than the rest of us, how he was so innocent he was practically a Jesus--except for the Son of God part ..."
Marvin Breed felt it was unnecessary to complete his thought. I had to ask him to do it.
"But what?" he said, "But what?" He went to a window looking out at the cemetery gate. "But what," he murmured at the gate and the sleet and the Hoenikker shaft that could be dimly seen.
"But," he said, "but how the hell innocent is a man who helps make a thing like an atomic bomb? And how can you say a man had a good mind when he couldn't even bother to do anything when the best-hearted, most beautiful woman in the world, his own wife, was dying for lack of love and understanding ..."
He shuddered, "Sometimes I wonder if he wasn't born dead. I never met a man who was less interested in the living. Sometimes I think that's the trouble with the world: too many people in high places who are stone-cold dead."
IT WAS IN the tombstone salesroom that I had my first vin-dit, a Bokononist word meaning a sudden, very personal shove in the direction of Bokononism, in the direction of believing that God Almighty knew all about me, after all, that God Almighty had some pretty elaborate plans for me.
The vin-dit had to do with the stone angel under the mistletoe. The cab driver had gotten it into his head that he had to have that angel for his mother's grave at any price. He was standing in front of it with tears in his eyes.
Marvin Breed was still staring out the window at the cemetery gate, having just said his piece about Felix Hoenikker. "The little Dutch son of a bitch may have been a modern holy man," he added, "but Goddamn if he ever did anything he didn't want to, and Goddamn if he didn't get everything he ever wanted.
"Music," he said.
"Pardon me?" I asked.
"That's why she married him. She said his mind was tuned to the biggest music there was, the music of the stars." He shook his head. "Crap."
And then the gate reminded him of the last time he'd seen Frank Hoenikker, the model-maker, the tormentor of bugs in jars. "Frank," he said.
"What about him?"
"The last I saw of that poor, queer kid was when he came out through that cemetery gate. His father's funeral was still going on. The old man wasn't underground yet, and out through that gate came Frank. He raised his thumb at the first car that came by. It was a new Pontiac with a Florida license plate. It stopped. Frank got in it, and that was the last anybody in Ilium ever saw of him."
"I hear he's wanted by the police."
"That was an accident, a freak. Frank wasn't any criminal. He didn't have that kind of nerve. The only work he was any good at was model-making. The only job he ever held onto was at Jack's Hobby Shop, selling models, making models, giving people advice on how to make models. When he cleared out of here, went to Florida, he got a job in a model shop in Sarasota. Turned out the model shop was a front for a ring that stole Cadillacs, ran 'em straight on board old L.S.T.'s and shipped 'em to Cuba. That's how Frank got balled up in all that. I expect the reason the cops haven't found him is he's dead. He just heard too much while he was sticking turrets on the battleship Missouri with Duco Cement."
"Where's Newt now, do you know?"
"Guess he's with his sister in Indianapolis. Last I heard was he got mixed up with that Russian midget and flunked out of pre-med at Cornell. Can you imagine a midget trying to become a doctor? And, in that same miserable family, there's that great big, gawky girl, over six feet tall. That man, who's so famous for having a great mind, he pulled that girl out of high school in her sophomore year so he could go on having some woman take care of him. All she had going for her was the clarinet she'd played in the Ilium High School band, the Marching Hundred.
"After she left school," said Breed, "nobody ever asked her out. She didn't have any friends, and the old man never even thought to give her any money to go anywhere. You know what she used to do?"
"Every so often at night she'd lock herself in her room and
"How much do you want for this angel?" asked the cab driver.
"I've told you, it's not for sale."
"I don't suppose there's anybody around who can do that kind of stone cutting any more," I observed.
"I've got a nephew who can," said Breed. "Asa's boy. He was all set to be a heap-big re-search scientist, and then they dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and the kid quit, and he got drunk, and he came out here, and he told me he wanted to go to work cutting stone."
"He works here now?"
"He's a sculptor in Rome."
"If somebody offered you enough," said the driver, "you'd take it, wouldn't you?"
"Might. But it would take a lot of money."
"Where would you put the name on a thing like that?" asked the driver.
"There's already a name on it--on the pedestal." We couldn't see the name, because of the boughs banked against the pedestal.
"It was never called for?" I wanted to know.
"It was never paid for. The way the story goes: this German immigrant was on his way West with his wife, and she died of smallpox here in Ilium. So he ordered this angel to be put up over her, and he showed my great-grandfather he had the cash to pay for it. But then he was robbed. Somebody took practically every cent he had. All he had left in this world was some land he'd bought in Indiana, land he'd never seen. So he moved on--said he'd be back later to pay for the angel."
"But he never came back?" I asked.
"Nope." Marvin Breed nudged some of the boughs aside with his toe so that we could see the raised letters on the pedestal. There was a last name written there. "There's a screwy name for you," he said. "If that immigrant had any descendants, I expect they Americanized the name. They're probably Jones or Black or Thompson now."
"There you're wrong," I murmured.
The room seemed to tip, and its walls and ceiling and floor were transformed momentarily into the mouths of many tunnels--tunnels leading in all directions through time. I had a Bokononist vision of the unity in every second of all time and all wandering mankind, all wandering womankind, all wandering children.
"There you're wrong," I said, when the vision was gone.
"You know some people by that name?"
The name was my last name, too.
ON THE WAY BACK to the hotel I caught sight of Jack's Hobby Shop, the place where Franklin Hoenikker had worked. I told the cab driver to stop and wait.
I went in and found Jack himself presiding over his teeny-weeny fire engines, railroad trains, airplanes, boats, houses, lampposts, trees, tanks, rockets, automobiles, porters, conductors, policemen, firemen, mommies, daddies, cats, dogs, chickens, soldiers, ducks, and cows. He was a cadaverous man, a serious man, a dirty man, and he coughed a lot.
"What kind of a boy was Franklin Hoenikker?" he echoed, and he coughed and coughed. He shook his head, and he showed me that he adored Frank as much as he'd ever adored anybody. "That isn't a question I have to answer with words. I can show you what kind of a boy Franklin Hoenikker was." He coughed. "You can look," he said, "and you can judge for yourself."
And he took me down into the basement of his store. He lived down there. There was a double bed and a dresser and a hot plate.
Jack apologized for the unmade bed. "My wife left me a week ago." He coughed. "I'm still trying to pull the strings of my life back together."
And then he turned on a switch, and the far end of the basement was filled with a blinding light.
We approached the light and found that it was sunshine to a fantastic little country built on plywood, an island as perfectly rectangular as a township in Kansas. Any restless soul, any soul seeking to find what lay beyond its green boundaries, really would fall off the edge of the world.
The details were so exquisitely in scale, so cunningly textured and tinted, that it was unnecessary for me to squint in order to believe that the nation was real--the hills, the lakes, the rivers, the forests, the towns, and all else that good natives everywhere hold so dear.
And everywhere ran a spaghetti pattern of railroad tracks.
"Look at the doors of the houses," said Jack reverently.
"They've got real knobs on 'em, and the knockers really work."
"You ask what kind of a boy Franklin Hoenikker was; he built this." Jack choked up.
"All by himself?"
"Oh, I helped some, but anything I did was according to his plans. That kid was a genius."
"How could anybody argue with you?"
"His kid brother was a midget, you know."
"He did some of the soldering underneath."
"It sure looks real."
"It wasn't easy, and it wasn't done overnight, either."
"Rome wasn't built in a day."
"That kid didn't have any home life, you know."
"This was his real home. Thousands of hours he spent down here. Sometimes he wouldn't even run the trains; just sit and look, the way we're doing."
"There's a lot to see. It's practically like a trip to Europe, there are so many things to see, if you look close."
"He'd see things you and I wouldn't see. He'd all of a sudden tear down a hill that would look just as real as any hill you ever saw--to you and me. And he'd be right, too. He'd put a lake where that hill had been and a trestle over the lake, and it would look ten times as good as it did before."
"It isn't a talent everybody has."
"That's right!" said Jack passionately. The passion cost him another coughing fit. When the fit was over, his eyes were watering copiously. "Listen, I told that kid he should go to college and study some engineering so he could go to work for American Flyer or somebody like that--somebody big, somebody who'd really back all the ideas he had."
"Looks to me as if you backed him a good deal."
"Wish I had, wish I could have," mourned Jack. "I didn't have the capital. I gave him stuff whenever I could, but most of this stuff he bought out of what he earned working upstairs for me. He didn't spend a dime on anything but this--didn't drink, didn't smoke, didn't go to movies, didn't go out with girls, wasn't car crazy."
"This country could certainly use a few more of those."
Jack shrugged. "Well ... I guess the Florida gangsters got him. Afraid he'd talk."
"Guess they did."
Jack suddenly broke down and cried. "I wonder if those dirty sons of bitches," he sobbed, "have any idea what it was they killed!"
DURING MY TRIP to Ilium and to points beyond-- a two-week expedition bridging Christmas--I let a poor poet named Sherman Krebbs have my New York City apartment free. My second wife had left me on the grounds that I was too pessimistic for an optimist to live with.
Krebbs was a bearded man, a platinum blond Jesus with spaniel eyes. He was no close friend of mine. I had met him at a cocktail party where he presented himself as National Chairman of Poets and Painters for Immediate Nuclear War. He begged for shelter, not necessarily bomb proof, and it happened that I had some.
When I returned to my apartment, still twanging with the puzzling spiritual implications of the unclaimed stone angel in Ilium, I found my apartment wrecked by a nihilistic debauch. Krebbs was gone; but, before leaving, he had run up three-hundred-dollars' worth of long-distance calls, set my couch on fire in five places, killed my cat and my avocado tree, and torn the door off my medicine cabinet.
He wrote this poem, in what proved to be excrement, on the yellow linoleum floor of my kitchen:
I have a kitchen.
But it is not a complete kitchen.
I will not be truly gay
Until I have a
There was a sign hung around my dead cat's neck. It said, "Meow."
I have not seen Krebbs since. Nonetheless, I sense that he was my Karass. If he was, he served it as a wrang-wrang. A wrang-wrang, according to Bokonon, is a person who steers people away from a line of speculation by reducing that line, with the example of the wrang-wrang's own life, to an absurdity.
I might have been vaguely inclined to dismiss the stone angel as meaningless, and to go from there to the meaninglessness of all. But after I saw what Krebbs had done, in particular what he had done to my sweet cat, nihilism was not for me.
Somebody or something did not wish me to be a nihilist. It was Krebbs's mission, whether he knew it or not, to disenchant me with that philosophy. Well done, Mr. Krebbs, well done.
A MODERN MAJOR GENERAL
AND THEN, ONE DAY, one Sunday, I found out where the fugitive from justice, the model-maker, the Great God Jehovah and Beelzebub of bugs in Mason jars was--where Franklin Hoenikker could be found.
He was alive!
The news was in a special supplement to the New York Sunday Times. The supplement was a paid ad for a banana republic. On its cover was the profile of the most heart-breakingly beautiful girl I ever hope to see.
Beyond the girl, bulldozers were knocking down palm trees, making a broad avenue. At the end of the avenue were the steel skeletons of three new buildings.
"The Republic of San Lorenzo," said the copy on the cover, "on the move! A healthy, happy, progressive, freedom-loving, beautiful nation makes itself extremely attractive to American investors and tourists alike."
I was in no hurry to read the contents. The girl on the cover was enough for me--more than enough, since I had fallen in love with her on sight. She was very young and very grave, too--and luminously compassionate and wise.
She was as brown as chocolate. Her hair was like golden flax.
Her name was Mona Aamons Monzano, the cover said. She was the adopted daughter of the dictator of the island.
I opened the supplement, hoping for more pictures of this sublime mongrel Madonna.
I found instead a portrait of the island's dictator, Miguel "Papa" Monzano, a gorilla in his late seventies.
Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut / History & Fiction / Science Fiction / Humor have rating 5.3 out of 5 / Based on32 votes