Hypocrites’ Junction

FROM Look At The Birdie by Kurt Vonnegut

“Shout About it from the Housetops”

. . . .

A lot of people have asked me if she really looks as tough as her picture on the back of her book. If she didn’t want everybody to think she was a beer truck driver, I don’t know why she chose that picture for the book, because she could certainly look nicer than that. In real life she doesn’t look anything like Jimmy Hoffa.

She’s got a low center of gravity, that’s true. And she is maybe a little heavy, but I know plenty of men who would like that. The main thing is her face. It’s a pretty, sweet, loving face. In real life she doesn’t look as though she’s wondering where she’d put down her cigar.

The second time she got going, the pump screamed so loud it brought her husband to the kitchen door. He had a quart of beer with him.

“It’s full!” he yelled at her.

“What?” she said, still pumping.

“The bucket’s full!” he said.

“I don’t care!” she said.

So he took hold of the handle to make her stop. “She isn’t well,” he said to me.

“Just rich and famous is all,” she said, “and sick as a dog.”

“You better get out of here,” he said to me, “or you’ll wind up in bed in the middle of her next book—with God knows who.”

“There isn’t going to be any next book!” she said. “There isn’t going to be any next anything! I’m getting out of here for good!” And she got into the old Chevrolet, got in and punched down the starter. Nothing happened. The battery was dead.

And then she went dead, too. She closed her eyes, rested her head on the steering wheel, and she looked like she wanted to stay there forever.

When she stayed like that for more than a minute, her husband got worried. He went over to the car barefooted, and I could see that he really loved her. “Honey?” he said. “Honeybunch?”

She kept her head where it was. Her mouth was all that moved. “Call up that Rolls-Royce salesman that was here,” she said. “I want a Rolls-Royce. I want it right away.”

“Honey?” he said again.

She raised her hand. “I want it!” she said. She certainly looked tough now. “And I want a mink! I want two minks! I want a hundred dresses from Bergdorf Goodman! A trip around the world! A diamond tiara from Cartier!” She got out of the car, feeling pretty good now. “What is it you sell?” she asked me.

“Storm windows,” I said.

“I want those, too!” she said. “Storm windows all around!”

“Ma’am?” I said.

“That’s all you sell?” she said. “Isn’t there something else you could sell me? I have a check for a hundred and sixty thousand dollars in the kitchen, and you haven’t even made a dent in it.”

“Well,” I said, “I also handle storm doors and tub enclosures and jalousies.”

“Good!” she said. “I’ll take ’em!” She stopped by her husband, looked him up and down. “Maybe you’re through living,” she said to him, “but I’m just starting. Maybe I can’t have your love anymore, if I ever had it—but at least I can have everything money can buy, and that’s plenty!”

She went into the house, and she slammed the kitchen door so hard she broke the window in it.

Her husband went over to the bucket that was already so full, and he poured his quart of beer into it. “Alcohol is no help,” he said.

“I’m sorry to hear it,” I said.

“What would you do if you were in the middle of this situation?” he asked me. “What would you do?”

“I suppose I’d commit suicide after a while,” I said, “because nothing anybody’s said or done has made any sense at all. The human system can stand only so much of that.”

“You mean we’re being immature?” he said. “You mean you don’t think our problems are real? Just think a minute about the strain that’s been placed on this marriage!”

“How can I,” I said, “when I don’t even know who you are?”

He couldn’t believe it. “You don’t?” he said. “You don’t know my name?” He pointed after his wife. “Or her name?”

“No,” I said, “but I certainly wish I did, because she just gave me the biggest order for windows I’ve had since I did the Green Mountain Inn. Or was she kidding?”

He looked at me now as though I were something rare and beautiful, as though he were afraid I would disappear. “I’m just one more plain, ordinary human being to you?” he said.

“Yes,” I said. That wasn’t strictly true, after the show he and his wife put on.

“Come in—come in,” he said. “What would you like? Beer? Coffee?”

Nothing was too good for me. He hustled me into the kitchen. Nothing would do but I pass the time of day with him. I never knew a man to be so hungry for talk. In about half an hour there we covered every subject but love and literature.

And then his wife came in, all charged up for a new scene, the biggest scene yet.

“I’ve ordered the Rolls-Royce,” she said, “and a new battery for the Chevrolet. When they come, I’m leaving for New York City in the Chevrolet. You can have the Rolls as partial compensation for all the heartaches I’ve caused you.”

“Oh, for crying out loud, Elsie,” he said.

“I’m through crying out loud,” she said. “I’m through crying any which way. I’m going to start living.”

“More power to you,” he said.

“I’m glad to see you’ve got a friend,” she said, looking at me. “I’m sorry to say I don’t have any friends at the moment, but I expect to find some in New York City, where people aren’t afraid to live a little and face life the way it really is.”

“You know who my friend is?” he said.

“He’s a man who hopes to sell storm windows,” she said. And then she said to me, “Well, you sold ’em, Junior. You sold an acre of ’em, and my deepest hope is that they will keep my first husband from catching cold. Before I can leave this house in good conscience, I want to make sure it’s absolutely safe and snug for a man who lives in his pajamas.”

“Elsie—listen to me,” he said. “This man is one of the few living creatures who knows nothing about you, me, or the book. He is one of the few people who can still look upon us as ordinary human beings rather than objects of hate, ridicule, envy, obscene speculation—”

Elsie Strang Morgan thought that over. The more she thought about it, the harder it hit her. She changed from a wild woman to a gentle, quiet housewife, with eyes as innocent as any cow’s.

“How do you do?” she said.

“Fine, thank you, ma’am,” I said.

“You must think we’re kind of crazy here,” she said.

“Oh, no ma’am,” I said. The lie made me fidget some, and I picked up the sugar bowl in the middle of the table, and there underneath it was a check for one hundred and sixty thousand dollars. I am not fooling. That is where they had the check she’d gotten for the movie rights to her book, under a cracked five-and-ten-cent-store sugar bowl.

I knocked my coffee over, spilled it on the check.

And do you know how many people tried to save that check?

One.

Me.

I pulled it out of the coffee, dried it off, while Elsie Strang Morgan and her husband sat back, didn’t care what happened to it. That check, that ticket to a life of ease and luxury, might as well have been a chance on a turkey raffle, for all they cared.

“Here—” I said, and I handed it to the husband. “Better put this in a safe place.”

He folded his hands, wouldn’t take it. “Here,” he said.

I handed it to her. She wouldn’t take it, either. “Give it to your favorite charity,” she said. “It won’t buy anything I want.”

“What do you want, Elsie?” her husband asked her.

“I want things the way they were,” she said, clouding up, “the way they never can be again. I want to be a dumb, shy, sweet little housewife again. I want to be the wife of a struggling high school teacher again. I want to love my neighbors again, and I want my neighbors to love me again—and I want to be tickled silly by dumb things like sunshine and a drop in the price of hamburger and a three-dollar-a-week raise for my husband.” She pointed out the window. “It’s spring out there,” she said, “and I’m sure every woman in the world but me is glad.”

And then she told me about her book. And while she talked she went to a window and looked out at all that useless springtime.

“It’s about a very worldly, virile man from New York City,” she said, “who comes to a small town in Vermont to teach.”

“Me,” said her husband. “She changed my name from Lawrence Morgan to Lance Magnum, so nobody could possibly recognize me—and then she proceeded to describe me right down to the scar on the bridge of my nose.” He went to the icebox for another quart of beer. “She worked on this thing in secret, understand. I had no idea she’d ever written anything more complicated than a cake recipe until the six author’s copies of the book came from the publisher. I came home from work one day, and there they were, stacked on that kitchen table there—six copies of Hypocrites’ Junction by—good God in Heaven!—Elsie Strang Morgan!” He took a long pull from the beer bottle, banged the bottle down. “And there were candies all around the stack,” he said, “and on the top was one perfect red red rose.”

. . . .

~~~~~~~~~~~❖❖❖❖~~~~~~~~~~~

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Published in: on January 17, 2010 at 3:44 PM  Leave a Comment  
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