Theodore Sturgeon was born Edward Hamilton Waldo in New York City on February 26, 1918. His parents divorced when he was nine years old, and his mother married William Sturgeon. It was about this time he changed his name from Ed Waldo to Ted Sturgeon. On his page at Emory University, Dr. Eric Weeks, a physicist, says the name change was “because he liked the nickname ‘Ted’.”
Theodore Sturgeon is credited with over two hundred stories and heralded as one of the greats by almost everyone. Most twentieth century collections of science fiction included at least one of his stories. The University of Kansas’ Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction instituted the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for the best short science fiction of the year in 1987 and is awarded annually.
He coined what is now referred to as “Sturgeon’s Law” even though he never referred to it as such when he said of science fiction “Ninety percent of it is crud, but then, ninety percent of everything is crud.”
Like some other authors in this opus, he is in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame, inducted in 2000.
He was the inspiration for the recurrent character of Kilgore Trout in Kurt Vonnegut’s novels.
He originated Star Trek’s Vulcan mating ritual in the screenplay for Amok Time, which garnered him a Hugo award. It was the only Star Trek episode that featured the planet Vulcan until the film The Search for Spock.
The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction says “Sturgeon was a central contributor to and shaper of John W Campbell Jr’s so-called Golden Age of SF, though less comfortably than his colleagues, as even in those early years, while obeying the generic commands governing the creation of Campbellian technological or Hard SF, he was also writing sexually threatening, explorative tales, which he found difficult to publish domestically; Bianca's Hands (May 1947 Argosy), for instance, never appeared in an American magazine.”
He won both the Hugo and Nebula for Slow Sculpture.
There is an interesting snippet in Kirkus Reviews: “The husband of a prominent writer for the True Confessional pulp market showed him a copy of Unknown magazine, edited by John W. Campbell Jr. at Street and Smith Publications. ‘This is the kind of thing you ought to try and write,’ he told him. Interested and inspired, he wrote up a story, only to have it rejected by Campbell, and followed up with another, ‘The God in a Garden,’ which Campbell accepted and published in the October 1939 issue of Unknown. The success of the story prompted him to quit his job at sea and focus on writing.”
He died on May 8, 1985 in Eugene, Oregon, of lung fibrosis.
The Martian and the Moron
IN 1924, when I was just a pup, my father was a thing known currently as a “radio bug.” These creatures were wonderful. They were one part fanatic, one part genius, a dash of child-like wonderment, and two buckets full of trial-and-error. Those were the days when you could get your picture in the paper for building a crystal set in something small and more foolish than the character who had his picture in the paper the day before. My father had his picture in there for building a “set” on a pencil eraser with a hunk’ of galena in the top and about four thousand turns of No. 35 enamelled wire wrapped around it. When they came around to take his picture he dragged out another one built into a peanut. Yes, a real peanut which brought in WGBS, New York. (You see, I really do remember.) They wanted to photograph that too, but Dad thought it would be a little immodest for him to be in the paper twice. So they took Mother’s picture with it. The following week they ran both pictures, and Dad got two letters from other radio bugs saying his eraser radio wouldn’t work and Mother got two hundred and twenty letters forwarded from the paper, twenty-six of which contained proposals of marriage. (Of course Mother was a YL and not an OW then.)
Oddly enough, Dad never did become a radio man. He seemed satisfied to be the first in the neighborhood to own a set, then to build a set (after the spider-web coil phase he built and operated a one-tube regenerative set which featured a UX-11 detector and a thing called a vario-coupler which looked like a greasy fist within a lacquered hand, and reached his triumph when he hooked it into a forty-’leven pound “B-eliminator” and ran it right out of the socket like a four-hundred-dollar “electric” radio), and first In the state to be on the receiving end of a court-order restraining him from usinghis equipment. (Every time he touched the tuning dials–three–the neighbormg radios with which Joneses were keeping up with each other, began howling unmercifully.) So for a time he left his clutter of forms and wire and solder-spattered “Bathtub” condensers shoved to the back of his cellar workbench, and went back to stuffing field mice and bats, which had been his original hobby. I think Mother was glad, though she hated the smells he made down there. That was after the night she went to bed early with the cramps, and he DX’d WLS in Chicago at four-thirty one morning with a crystal set, and wanted to dance. (He learned later that he had crossed aerials with Mr. Bohackus next door, and had swiped Mr. Bohackus’ fourteen-tube Atwater-Kent signal right out of Mr. BohacIrus’ goose-neck megaphone speaker. Mr. Bohackus was just as unhappy as Mother to hear about this on the following morning. They had both been up all night.)
Dad never was one to have his leg pulled. He got very sensitive about the whole thing, and learned his lesson so well that when the last great radio fever took him, he went to another extreme. Instead of talking his progress all over the house and lot, he walled himself up. During the late war I ran up against security regulations–and who didn’t–but they never bothered me. I had my training early.
He got that glint in his eye after grunting loudly over the evening paper one night. I remember Mothers asking him about it twice, and remember her sigh-her famous “here we go again” sigh-when he didn’t answer. He leapt up, folded the paper, got out his keys, opened the safe, put the paper m it, locked the safe, put his keys away, looked knowingly at us, strode out of the room, went down into the cellar, came up from the cellar, took out his keys, opened the safe, took out the paper, closed the safe, looked knowingly at us again, said, “Henry, your father’s going to be famous,” and went down into the cellar.
Mother said, “I knew it. I knew it! I should have thrown the paper away. Or tom out that page.”
“What’s he going, to make, Mother?” I asked.
“Heaven knows, , she sighed. “Some men are going to try to get Mars on the radio.”
“Mars? You mean the star?”
“It isn’t a star, dear, it’s a planet. They’ve arranged to turn off all the big radio stations all over the world for five minutes every hour so the men can listen to Mars. I suppose your father thinks he can listen too.”
“Gee,” I said, “I’m going down and-”
“You’re going to do no such thing,” said Mother firmly. “Get yourself all covered with that nasty grease he uses in his soldering, and stay up until all hours! It’s almost bedtime. And-Henry-”
She put her hands on my shoulders. “Listen to me, darling. People have been-ah-teasing your father.” She meant Mr. Bohackus. “Don’t ask him any questions about this if he doesn’t want to talk, will you, darling? Promise?”
“All right, Mother.” She was a wise woman.
Dad bought a big, shiny brass padlock for his workship in the cellar, and every time Mother mentioned the cellar or the stars, or radio to him in any connection, he would just smile knowingly at her. It drove her wild. She didn’t like the key, either. It was a big brass key, and he wore it on a length of rawhide shoelace tied around his neck. He wore it day and night. Mother said it was lumpy. She also said it was dangerous, which he denied, even after the time down at Roton Point when we were running Mr. Bohackus’ new gasoline-driven ice-cream freezer out on the beach. Dad leaned over to watch it working. He said, “This is the way to get thing done, all right. I can’t wait to get into that ice-cream,” and next thing we knew he was face down in the brine and flopping like a banked trout We got him out before he drowned or froze. He was bleeding freely about the nose and lips, and Mr. Bohackus was displeased because Dad’s’ key had, in passing through the spur-gears in which it had caught, broken off nine teeth. That was six more than Dad lost, but it cost much more to fix Dad’s and showed, Mother said, just how narrow-minded Mr. Bohackus was.
Anyway, Dad never would tell us what he was doing down in the cellar. He would arrive home from work with mysterious packages and go below and lock them up before dinner. He would eat abstractedly and disappear for the whole evening. Mother, bless her, bore it with fortitude. As a matter of fact, I think she encouraged it. It was better than the previous fevers, when she had to sit for hours listening to crackling noises and organ music through big, heavy, magnetic earphones-or else. At least she was left to her own devices while all this was going on. As for me, I knew when I wasn’t needed, and, as I remember, managed to fill my life quite successfully with clock movements, school, and baseball, and ceased to wonder very much.
About the middle of August Dad began to look frantic. Twice he worked right through the night, and though he went to the office on the days that followed, 1 doubt that he did much. On August 21–I remember the date because tt was the day before my birthday, and I remember that it was a Thursday because Dad took the next day off for a “long week end,” so it must have been Friday–the crisis came. My bedtime was nine o’clock. At nine-twenty Dad came storming up from the cellar and demanded that I get my clothes on instantly and go out and get him two hundred feet of No. 27 silk-covered wire. Mother laid down the law and was instantly overridden. “The coil! The one coil I haven’t finished!” he shouted hysterically. “Six thousand meters, and I have to run out of it. Get your clothes on this instant, Henry, number twenty-seven wire. Just control yourself this once Mother and you can have-HenrY stop standing there with your silly eyes bulging and get dressed -you can have any hat on Fifth Avenue–hurry!”
I hurried. Dad gave me some money and a list of places to go to, told me not to come back until I’d tried every one of them, and left the house with me. I went east, he went west. Mother stood on the porch and wrung her hands.
I got home about twenty after ten, weary and excited, bearing a large metal spool of wire. I put it down triumphantly while Mother caught me up and felt me all over as if she had picked me up at the root of a root of a cliff. She looked drawn. Dad wasn’t home yet.
After she quieted down a little she took me into the kitchen and fed me some chocolate–covered doughnuts. I forget what we talkeded about, if we talked, but I do remember that the cellar door was ajar, and at the bottom of the steps I could see a ray of yellow light. “Mother,” I said, “you know what? Dad ran out and left his workshop open.”
She went to the door and looked down the stairs.
“Darling,” she said after a bit, “Uh–wouldn’t you like to–I mean, if he–”
I caught on quick. “I’ll look. Will you stay up here and bump on the floor if he comes?”
She looked relieved, and nodded. I ran down the steps and cautiously entered the little shop.
Lined up across the bench were no less than six of the one-tube receivers which were the pinnacle of Dad’s electronic achievement. The one at the end was turned back-to-front and had its rear shielding oft; a naked coil-form dangled unashamedly out.
And I saw what had happened to the two alarm clocks which had disappeared from the bedrooms in the past six weeks. It happened that then, as now, clocks were my passion, and I can remember clearly the way he had set up pieces of the movements.
He had built a frame about four feet long on a shelf at right angles to the bench on which the radios rested. At one end of the frame was a clock mechanism designed to turn a reel on which was an endless band of paper tape about eight inches wide. The tape passed under a hooded camera– Mother’s old Brownie–which was on a wall-bracket and aimed downward, on the tape. Next in line, under the tape, were six earphones, so placed that their diaphragms (the retainers. had been removed) just touched the under side of the tape. And at the other end of the frame was the movement from the second alarm clock. The bell-clapper hung downwards, and attached to it was a small container of black powder.
I went to the. first clock mechanism and started it by pulling out the toothpick Dad had jammed in the gears. The tape began to move. I pulled the plug on the other movement. The little container of black powder began to shake like mad and, through small holes, laid an even 1ilm of the powder over the moving tape. It stopped when it had put down about ten inches of it. The black line moved slowly across until it was over the phones. The magnets smeared the powder, which I recognized thereby as iron filings. Bending to see under the tape, I saw that the whole bank of phones was levered to move downward a half an inch away from the tape. The leads from each of the six phones ran to a separate receiver.
I stood back and looked at this Goldberg and scratched my head, then shook same and carefully blew away the black powder on the tape, rewound the movements, refilled the containers from a jar which stood on the bench, and put the toothpick back the way 1 had found it.
I was halfway up the stairs when the scream of burning rubber on the street outside coincided with Mother’s sharp thumping on the floor. I got to her side as she reached the front window. Dad was outside paying off a taxi driver. He never touched the porch steps at all, and came into the house at a dead run. He had a package under his arm.
“Fred!” said Mother.
“Can’t stop now,” he said, skidding into the hallway. “Couldn’t get twenty-seven anywhere. Have to use twenty-five. Probably won’t work. Everything happens to me, absolutely everything.” He headed for the kitchen.
“I got you a whole reel of twenty-seven, Dad.”
“Don’t bother me now. Tomorrow,” he said, and thumped downstairs. Mother and 1 looked at each other. Mother sighed. Dad came bounding back up the stairs. “You what?”
“Here.” I got the wire. off the hall table and gave it to him. He snatched it ue, hugged me, swore I’d get a bicycle for my birthday (he made good on that, and on Mother’s Fifth Avenue hat, too, by the way), and dove back downstairs.
We waited around for half an hour and then Mother sent me to bed. “You poor baby,” she said, but I had the idea it wasn’t me she was sorry for.
Now I’d like to be able to come up with a climax to all this, but there wasn’t one. Not for years and years. Dad looked, the next morning, as if he had been up all night again–which he had–and as if he were about to close his fingers on the Holy Grail. All that day he would reappear irregularly, pace up and down, compare his watch with the living-room clock and the hall clock, and sprint downstairs again. That even went on during my birthday dinner. He had Mother call up the office and say he had Twonk’s disease, and kept up his peregrinations all that night and all the following day until midnight. He fell into bed, so Mother told me, at 1: 00A.M. Sunday morning and slept right through until supper-time. He still maintained a dazzling silence about his activities. For the following four months he walked around looking puzzled. For a year after that he looked resigned. Then he took up stuffing newts and moles. The only thing he ever said about the whole crazy business was that he was born to be disappointed, but at least, this time, no one could rib him about it. Now I’m going to tell you about Cordelia.
This happened years and years later. The blow–off was only last week, as a matter of fact. I finished school and went into business with Dad and got mixed up in the war and all that. I didn’t get married, though. Not yet. That’s what I want to tell you about.
I met her at a party at Ferns’. I was stagging it, but I don’t think it would have made any difference if I had brought someone; when I saw Cordelia I was, to understate the matter, impressed.
She came in with some guy I didn’t notice at the time and, for all I know, haven’t seen since. She slipped out of her light wrap with a single graceful movement; the sleeve caught in her bracelet, and she stood there, full profile, in the doorway, both arms straight and her hands together behind her as she worried the coat free, and I remember the small explosion in my throat as my indrawn breath and my gasp collided. Her hair. was dark and lustrous, parted in a wide winging curve away from her brow. There were no pins in it; it shadowed the near side of her face as she bent her head toward the room. The cord of her neck showed columnar and clean. Her lips were parted ever so slightly, and showed an amused chagrin. Her lashes all but lay on her cheeks. She came across to my side of the room and sat down while the Thing who was with her went anonymously away to get her a drink and came unnoticeably back.
I said to myself, “Henry, my boy, stop staring at the lady. You’ll embarrass her.”
She turned to me just then and gave me a small smile. Her eyes were widely spaced, and the green of deep water. “I don’t mind, really,” she said, and I realized 1 had spoken aloud. I took refuge in a grin, which she answered, and then her left eyelid dropped briefly, and she looked away. It was a wink, but such a slight, tasteful one! If she had used both eyelids, it wouldn’t have been a wink at all; she would have looked quickly down and up again. It was an understanding, we’re-together little wink, a tactful, gracious, wonderful, marvellous, do you begin to see how 1 felt?
The party progressed. I once heard somebody decline an invitation to one of Ferris’ parries on the grounds that he had been to one of Ferris’ parties. I tend to be a little more liberal than that, but tonight I could see the point. It was because of Cordelia. She sat still, her chin on the back of her hand, her fingers curled against her white throat, her eyes shifting lazily from one point in the room to another. She did not belong in this conglomeration of bubbleheads. Look at her–part Sphinx, part Pallas Athenae. . . .
Ferris was doing his Kasbah act, with the bath towel over his head. He will next imitate Clyde McCoy’s trumpet, I thought. He will then inevitably put that lamp shade on his head, curl back his upper lip, and be a rickshaw coolie. Following which he will do the adagio dance in which he will be too rough with some girl who will be too polite to protest at his big, shiny, wet climaxing kiss.
I looked at Cordelia and I looked at Ferris’ and I thought, no, Henry; that won’t do. I drew a deep breath, leaned over to the girl, and said, “If there were a fire in here, do you lmow the quickest way out?”
She shook her head expectantly.
“I’ll show you,” I said, and got up. She hesitated a charming moment, rose from her chair as with helium, murmured something polite to her companion, and came to me.
There were French doors opening on the wide terrace porch which also served the front door. We went through them. The air was fragrant and cool, and there was a moon. She said nothing about escaping from fires. The French doors shut out most of the party noises–enough so that we could hear night sounds. We looked at the sky. I did not touch her.
After a bit she said in a voice of husky silver,
“Is the moon tired? she looks so pale
Within her misty veil:
She scales the sky from east to West
And takes no rest
“Before the coming of the night
The moon shows papery white;
Beforethe dawning of the day
She fades away.”
It was simple and it was perfect. I looked at her in wonderment. “Who wrote that?”
“Christina Rosset–ti,” she said meticulously, looking at the moon. The light lay on her face like dust, and motes of it were caught in the fine down at the side of her jaw.
“I’m Henry Folwell and I know a place here we could talk for about three hours if we hurry,” I said, utterly amazed at myself, “I don’t generally operate like this.”
She looked at the moon and me, the slight deep smile playing subtly with her lips. “I’m Cordelia Thorne, and couldn’t think of it,” she said. “Do you think you could get my wrap without anyone seeing? It’s a–”
“I know what it is,” I said, sprinting. I went in through the front door, located her coat, bunched it up small, skinned back outside, shook it out and brought it to her. “You’re still here,” I said incredulously.
“Did you think I’d go back inside?
“I thought the wind, or the gods, or my alarm clock would take you away.”
“You said that beautifully,” she breathed, as I put the coat around her shoulders. I thought I had too. I notched her high up in my estimation as a very discerning girl.
We went to a place called the Stroll Inn where a booth encased us away from all of the world and most of its lights. It was wonderful. I think I did most of the talking. I don’t remember all that passed between us but I remember these things, and remember them well.
I was talking about Ferris and the gang he had over there very Saturday night; I checked myself, shrugged, and said, ‘Oh well. Chacun sa goüte, as they say, which means–”
And she stopped me. “Please. Don’t translate. It couldn’t be phrased as well in English.”
I had been about to say “–which means Jack’s son has the gout.” I felt sobered and admiring, and just sat and glowed at her.
And then there was that business with the cigarette. She stared at it as it lay in the ash tray, followed it with her gaze to my lips and back as 1 talked, until I asked her about it.
She said in a soft, shivery voice, “I feel just like that cigarette.”
I, of course, asked her why.
“You pick it up,” she whispered, watching it. “You enjoy some of it. Yon put it down and let it–smolder. You like it, but you hardly notice it. . . .”
I thereupon made some incredibly advanced pro-testations.
And there was the business about her silence–a long, faintly amused, inward-turning silence. I asked her what she was thinking about.
“I was ruminating,” she said, in a self-depreciating, tragic voice, “on the futility of human endeavor,” and she smiled. And when I asked her what she meant, she laughed aloud and said, “Don’t you know?” And I said, “Oh. That,” and worshiped her. She was deep. I’d have dropped dead before I a have admitted 1 didn’t know what specifically she was driving at.
And books. Music, too. When we were at the stage where I had both her hands and for minutes on end our foreheads were so close together you couldn’t have slipped a swizzlestick between them. I murmured, “We seem to think so much alike. . . . Tell me, Cordelia,’ have you read Cabell?”
She said, “Well, really,” in such a tone that, so help me, I apologized. “Love stuff,” I said, recovering.
She looked reminiscendy over my shoulder, smiling her small smile. “So lovely.”
“I knew you’d read him,” I said, struck with sweet thunder. “And Faulkner–have you read any of Faulkner?”
She gave me a pitying smile. I gulped and said, “Ugly, isn’t it?”
She looked reminiscently over my other shoulder, a tiny frown flickering brow. “So ugly,” she said.
In between times she listened importantly to my opinions on Faulkner and Cabell. And Moussorgsky and AI Jolson. She was wonderful, and we agreed in everything.
And, hours later, when I stood with her at her door, I couldn’t do a thing but shuffe my feet and haul on the hem of my jacket. She gave me her hand gravely, and I think she stopped breathing. I said, “Uh, well,” and couldn’t improve on it. She swept her gaze from my eyes to my mouth, from side to side across my forehead; it was a tortured “No!” her slightly turning head articulated, and her whole body moved minutely with it. She let go my hand, turned slowly toward the door, and then, with a cry which might have been a breath of laughter and which might have been a sob, she pirouetted back to me and kissed me–not on the mouth, but in the hollow at the side of my neck. My fuse blew with a snap and a bright light and, as it were, incapacitated my self-starter. She moved deftly then, and to my blurred vision, apparently changed herself into a closed door. I must have stood looking at that door for twenty minutes before I turned and walked dazedly home.
I saw her five more times. Once it was a theater party, and we all went to her house afterward, and she showed great impartiality. Once it was a movie, and who should we run into afterward but her folks. Very nice people. I liked them and I think they liked me. Once it was the circus; we stayed very late, dancing at a pavilion, and yet the street was still crowded outside her home when we arrived there, and a handshake had to do. The fourth time was at a party to which I went alone because she had a date that night. It devolved that the date was the same party. The way she came in did things to me. It wasn’t the fact that she was with somebody else; I had no claim on her, and the way she acted with me made me feel pretty confident. It was the way she came in, slipping out of her wrap, which–caught on her–bracelet, freezing her in profile while framed m the doorway. . . I don’t want to think about it. Not now.
I did think about it; I left almost immediately so that I could. I went home and slumped down in an easy-chair and convinced myself about coincidences, and was almost back to normal when Dad came into the room..
“Argh!” he said.
I leapt out of the chair and helped him to pick himself up off the middle of the rug. “Blast it, boy,” he growled, “why don’t you turn on a light? What are you doing home? I thought you were out with your goddess. Why can’t you pick up your big bony feet, or at least leave them somewhere else besides in the doorway of a dark room?” He dusted off his knees. He wasn’t hurt. It’s a deep-piled rug with two cushions under it. “You’re a howling menace. Kicking your father.” Dad had mellowed considerably with the years. “What’s the matter with you anyhow? She do something to you? Or are you beginning to have doubts?” He wore glasses now, but he saw plenty. He’d ribbed me about Cordelia as only a man who can’t stand ribbing himself could do.
“It was a lousy party,” I said.
He turned on a light, “What’s up, Henry?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Absolutely nothing. I haven’t had a fight with her, if that’s what you’re digging for.”
“All right, then,” he said, picking up the paper.
“There’s nothing wrong With her. She’s one of the most wonderful people I know, that’s all.”
“Sure she is. He began to read the paper.
“She’s deep, too. A real wise head, she is. You wouldn’t expect to find that in somebody as young as that. Or as good-looking.” I wished he would put his eyebrows down.
“She’s read everything worth reading,” I added as he turned a page a minute later.
“Marvellous,” he said flatly.
I glared at him. “What do you mean by that?” I barked. “What’s marvellous?”
He put the paper down on his knee and smoothed it. His voice was gentle. “Why, Cordelia, of course. I’m not arguing with you, Henry.”
“Yes, you-well, anyway, you’re not saying what you think.”
“You don’t want to hear what I think.”
“I know what I want!” I flared.
He crackled the paper nervously. “My,” he said as if to himself, “this is worse than I thought.” Before I could interrupt, he said, “Half of humanity doesn’t know what it wants or how to find out. The other half knows what it wants, hasn’t got it, and is going crazy trying to convince itself that it already has it.”
“Very sound,” I said acidly. “Where do you peg me?”
He ignored this. “The radio commercial which annoys me most,” he said with apparent irrelevancy, “is the one which begins ‘There are some things so good they don’t have to be improved.’ That annoys me because there isn’t a thing on God’s green earth, which couldn’t stand improvement. By the same token, if you find something which looks to you as if it’s unimprovable, then either it’s a mirage or you’re out of your mind.”
“What has that to do with Cordelia?”
“Don’t snap at me, son,” Dad said quietly. “Let’s operate by the rule of reason here. Or must I tear your silly head off and stuff it down your throat?”
I grinned in spite of myself. “Reason prevails, Dad. Go on.”
“Now, I’ve seen the girl, and you’re right; she’s striking to look at. Extraordinary. In the process of raving about that you’ve also told me practically every scrap of conversation you’ve ever had with her.”
“You’re like your mother; you talk too much,” he smiled. “Don’t get flustered. It was good to listen to. Shows you’re healthy. But I kept noticing one thing in these mouthings–all she’s read, all the languages she understands, all the music she likes–and that is that you have never quoted her yet as saying a single declarative sentence. You have never quoted her as opening a conversation, changing the subject, mentioning something you both liked before you mentioned it, or having a single idea that you didn’t like.” He shrugged. “Maybe she is a good listener. They’re–”
“Now wait a minute-”
“–They’re rare anywhere in the world, especially in this house,” he went on smoothly. “Put your hands back in your pockets, Henry, or sit on ‘em until I’ve finished. Now, I’m not making any charges about Cordelia. There aren’t any. She’s wonderful. That’s the trouble. For Pete’s sake get her to make a flat statement.”
“She has, plenty of times,” I said hotly. “You just don’t know her! Why, she’s the most–”
He put up his hands and turned his head as if I were aiming a bucket of water at him. “Shut up!” he roared. I shut. “Now,” he said, “listen to me. If you’re right, you’re right and there’s no use defending anything. If you’re wrong you’d better find it out soon before you get hurt. But I don’t want to sit here and watch the process. I know how you tick, Henry. By gosh, I ought to. You’re like I was. You and I, we get a hot idea and go all out for it, all speed and no control. We spill off at the mouth until we have the whole world watching, and when the idea turns sour the whole world gets in its licks, standing around laughing. Keep your beautiful dreams to yourself. If they don’t pan out you can always kick yourself effectively enough, without having every wall-eyed neighbor helping you.”
A picture of Mr. Bohackus with the protruding china-blue eyes, our neighbor of long ago, crossed my mind, and I chuckled.
“That’s better, Henry,” said Dad. “Listen. When a fellow gets to be a big grownup man, which is likely to happen at any age, or never, he learns to make a pile of his beloved failures and consign them to the flames, and never think of them again. But it ought to be a private bonfire.”
It sounded like sense, particularly the part about not having to defend something if it was right enough to be its own defense. I said, “Thanks, Dad. I’ll have to think. I don’t know if I agree with you. . . . I’ll tell you something, though. If Cordelia turned out to be nothing but a phonograph, I’d consider it a pleasure to spend the rest of my life buying new records for her.”
“That’d be fine,” said Dad, “if it was what you wanted. I seriously doubt that it is just now.”
“Of course it isn’t. Cordelia’s all woman and has a wonderful mind, and that’s what I want.”
“Bless you, my children,” Dad said, and grinned.
I knew I was right, and that Dad was simply expressing a misguided caution. The Foxy Grandpa routine, I thought, was a sign of advancing age. Dad sure was changed since the old days. On the other hand, he hadn’t been the same since the mysterious frittering-out of his mysterious down-cellar project. I stopped thinking about Dad, and turned my mind to my own troubles.
I had plenty of time to think; I couldn’t get a Saturday date with her for two weeks, and I wanted this session to run until it was finished with no early curfews. Not, as I have said, that I had any doubts. Far from it. All the same, I made a little list. . . .
I don’t think I said ten words to her until we were three blocks from her house. She quite took my breath away. She was wearing a green suit with surprising lapels that featured her fabulous profile and made me ache inside. I had not known that was so hungry for a sight of her, and now she was more than a sight, now her warm hand had slipped into mine as we walked. “Cordelia . . .” I whispered.
She turned her face to me, and showed me the tender crinkles in the comers of her mouth. She made an interogative sound, like a sleepy bird.
“Cordelia,” I said thickly. It all came out in a monotone. “I didn’t know I could miss anybody so much. There’s been a hollow place in my eyes, wherever I looked; it had no color and it was shaped like you. Now you fill it and I can see again.”
She dropped her eyes, and her smile was a thing to see. “You said that beautifully,” she breathed.
I hadn’t thought of that. What I had said was squeezed out of me like toothpaste out of a tube, with the same uniformity between what came out and what was still inside.
“We’ll go to the Stroll Inn.” I said. “It was where we met. We didn’t meet at the Party. We Just saw each other there. We met in that booth.”
She nodded gravely and -walked with me, her face asleep, its attention turned inward, deeply engaged. It was not until we turned the comer on Winter Street and faced the Inn that I thought of my list; and when I did, I felt a double, sickening impact–first, one of shame that I should’ dare to examine and experiment with someone like this, second, because item five on that list was “You said that beautifully. . . .”
The Stroll Inn, as I indicated before, has all its lights, practically, on the outside. Cordelia looked at me thoughtfully as we walked into their neon field. “Are you all right?” she asked. “You look pale.”
“How can you tell?” I asked, indicating the lights, which flickered and switched, orange and green and blue and red. She smiled appreciatively, and two voices spoke within me. One said joyfully, “ ‘You look pale’ is a declarative statement.” The other said angrily, “You’re hedging. And by the way, what do you suppose that subtle smile is covering up, if anything?” Both voices spoke forcefully, combining in a Jumble which left me badly confused. We went in and found a booth and ordered dinner. Cordelia said with pleasure that she would have what I ordered.
Over the appetizer I said, disliking myself intensely, “Isn’t this wonderful? All we need is a moon. Can’t you see it, hanging up there over us?”
She laughed and looked up, and sad sensitivity came
into her face. I closed my eyes, waiting.
“ ‘Is the moon tired? she looks so pale–’ ” she began.
I started to chew again. I think it was marinated herring, and very good too, but at the moment it tasted like cold oatmeal with a dash of warm lard. I called the waiter and ordered a double rum and soda. As he turne4 away I called him back and asked him to bring a bottle instead. I needed help from somewhere, and pouring it out of a bottle seemed a fine idea at the time.
Over the soup I asked her what she was thinking about. I was ruminating,” she said in a self-deprecating, tragic voice, “on the futility of human endeavor.” Oh, brother, me too, I thought. Me too.
Over the dessert we had converse again, the meat course having passed silently. We probably presented a lovely picture, the two of us wordlessly drinking in each other’s presence, the girl radiating an understanding tenderness, the young man speechless with admiration. Look how he watches her, how his eyes travel over her face, how he sighs and shakes his head and looks back at his plate.
I looked across the Inn. In a plate-glass window a flashing neon sign said bluely, “nnI llortS. nnI llortS.”
“Nni Harts,” I murmured. Cordelia looked up at me expectantly, with her questioning sound. I tensed. I filled the jigger with rum and poured two fingers into my empty highball glass. I took the jigger in one hand and the glass in the other.
I said, “You’ve read Kremlin von Schtunk, the Hungarian poet?” and drank the jigger.
“Well, really,” she said pityingly.
I was just thinking of his superb line ‘Nni llorts, nov shmoz ka smorgasbord,” I intoned, “which means–” and I drank the glass.
She reached across the table and touched my elbow. “Please. Don’t translate. It couldn’t be phrased as well in English.”
Something within me curled up and died. Small, tight, cold and dense, its corpse settled under my breastbone. I could have raged at her, I supposed. I could have coldly questioned her, pinned her down, stripped from her those layers of schooled conversational reactions, leaving her ignorance in nakedness. But what for? I didn’t want it. . . . And I could have talked to her about honesty and ethics and human aims–why did she do it? What did she ever hope to get? Did she think she would ever corral a man and expect him to be blind, for the rest of his life, to the fact that there was nothing behind this false front–nothing at all? Did she think that–did she think? No.
I looked at her, the way she was smiling at me, the deep shifting currents which seemed to be in her eyes. She was a monster. She was some graceful diction backed by a bare half–dozen relays. She was a card-file. She was a bubble, thin-skinned, covered with swirling, puzzling, compelling colors, filled with nothing. I was hurt and angry and, I think, a little frightened. I drank some more rum. I ordered her a drink and then another, and stayed ahead of her four to one. I’d have walked out and gone home if I had been able to summon the strength. I couldn’t. I could only sit and stare at her and bathe myself in agonized astonishment. She didn’t mind. She sat listening as raptly to my silence as she had to my conversation. Once she said, “We’re just being together, aren’t we?” and I recognized it as another trick from the bag. I wondered idly how many she might come up with if I just waited.
She came up with plenty.
She sat up and leaned forward abruptly. I had the distinct feeling that she was staring at me–her face was positioned right for it–but her eyes were closed. I put my glass down and stared blearily back, thinking, now what?
Her lips parted, twitched, opened wide, pursed. They uttered a glottal gurgling which was most unpleasant. I pushed my chair back, startled. “Are you sick?”
“Are you terrestrial?” she asked me.
“Am I what?”
“Making–contact thirty years,” she said. Her voice was halting, filled with effort.
“’What are you talking about?” .
“Terrestrial quickly power going,” she said clearly. “Many–uh–much power making contact this way very high frequencies thought. Easy radio. Not again thought. Take radio code quickly.”
“Listen, toots,” I said nastily, “This old nose no longer has a ring in it. Go play tricks on somebody else.” I drank some more rum. An I. Q. of sixty, and crazy besides. “You’re a real find, you are,” I said.
“Graphic,” she said. “Uh–write. Write. Write.” She began to claw the table cloth. I looked at her hand. It was making scribbling motions. “Write, write.”
I flipped a menu over and put it in front of her and gave her my pen.
Now, I read an article once on automatic writing–you know, that spiritualist stuff. Before witnesses, a woman once wrote a long letter in trance in an unfamiliar (to her) hand, at the astonishing rate of four hundred and eight words a minute. Cordelia seemed to be out to break that record. That pen-nib was a blur. She was still leaning forward rigidly, and her eyes were still closed. But instead of a blurred scrawl, what took shape under her flying hand was a neat list or chart. There was an alphabet of sorts, although not arranged in the usual way; it was more a list of sounds. And there were the numbers one to fourteen. Beside each sound and each number was a cluster of regular dots which looked rather like Braille. The whole sheet took her not over forty-five seconds to do. And after she finished she didn’t move anything except her eyelids, which went up. “I think,” she said conversationally, “that I’d better get home, Henry. I feel a little dizzy.
I felt a little more than that. The rum, in rum’s inevitable way, had sneaked up on me, and suddenly the room began to spin, diagonally, from the lower left to the upper right. I closed my eyes tight, opened them, fixed my gaze on a beertap on the bar at the end of the room, and held it till the room slowed and stopped. “You’re so right,” I said, and did a press-up on the table top to assist my legs. I managed to help Cordelia on with her light coat. I put my pen back in my pocket (I found it the next morning with the cap still off and a fine color scheme in the lining of my jacket) and picked up the menu.
“What’s that?” asked Cordelia.
“A souvenir,” I said glumly. I had no picture, no school ring, no nothing. Only a doodle. I was too tired, twisted, and tanked to wonder much about it, or about the fact that she seemed never to have seen it before. I folded it in two and put it in my hip.
I got her home without leaning on her. I don’t know if she was ready to have a repeat performance of that good night routine. I didn’t want to find out. I took her to the door and patted her on the cheek and went away from there. It wasn’t her fault. . . .
When I got to our house, I dropped my hat on the floor in the hall and went into the dark living room and fell into the easy-chair by the door. It was a comfortable chair. It was a comfortable room. I felt about as bad as I ever had. I remember wondering smokily whether anyone ever loves a person. People seem to love dreams instead, and for the lucky ones, the person is close to the dream. But it’s a dream all the same, a sticky dream. You unload the person, and the dream stays with you.
What was it Dad had said? “When a fellow gets to be, a big grown-up man . . . he learns to make a pile of his beloved failures and consign them to the flames.” “Hah!” I ejaculated, and gagged. The rum tasted terrible. I had nothing to burn but memories and the lining of my stomach. The latter was flaming merrily. The former stayed where they were. The way she smiled, so deep and secret. . . .
Then I remembered the doodle. Her hands had touched it, her mind had– No, her mind hadn’t. It could have been anyone’s mind, but not hers. The girl operated under a great handicap. No brains. I felt terrible. I got up out of the chair and wove across the room, leaning on the mantel. I put my forehead on the arm which I had put on the mantel, and with my other hand worried the menu out of my pocket. With the one hand and my teeth I tore it into small pieces and dropped the pieces in the grate, all but one. Then I heaved myself upright, braced my shoulder against the mantel, which had suddenly begun to bob and weave, got hold of my lighter, coaxed a flame out of it and lit the piece I’d saved. It burned fine. I let it slip into the grate. It flickered, dimmed, caught on another piece of paper, flared up again. I went down on one knee and carefully fed all the little pieces to the flame. When it finally went out I stirred the ashes around with my finger, got up, wiped my hands on my pants, said, “That was good advice Dad gave me,” and went back to the chair. I went back into It, ushed my shoes off my feet, curled my legs under me and, feeling much better, dozed off.
I woke slowly, some time later, with granulated eyelids and a mouth full of emory and quinine. My head was awake but my legs were asleep and my stomach had its little hands on my backbone and was trying to pull it out by the roots. I sat there groggily looking at the fire.
Fire? What fire? I blinked and winced; I could almost hear my eyelids rasping.
There was a fire in the grate. Dad was kneeling beside it, feeding it small pieces of paper. I didn’t say: anything; I don’t think it occurred to me. I just watched.
He let the fire go out after a while; then he stirred the ashes With his finger and stood up with a sigh, wiping his hands on his pants. “Good advice I gave the boy. Time I took it myself.” He loomed across the shadowy room to me, turned around and sat down in my lap. He was relaxed and heavy, but he didn’t stay there long enough for me to feel it. “Gah!” he said, crossed the room again in one huge bound, put his back against the mantel and said, “Don’t move, you. I’ve got a gun.” “It’s me, Dad.”
“Henry! Bythelordharry, you’ll be the death of me yet. That was the most inconsiderate thing you have ever done in your entire selfish life. I’ve a notion to bend this poker over your Adam’s apple, you snipe.” He stamped over to the bookcase and turned on the light. “This is the last time I’ll ever–Henry! What’s the matter? You look awful! Are you all right?”
“I’ll live,” I said regretfully. “What were you burning?”
He grinned sheepishly. “A beloved failure. Remember my preachment a couple weeks ago? It got to working on me. I deceided to take my own advice.” He breathed deeply. “I feel much better, I think.”
“I burned some stuff too,” I croaked. “I feel better too, I think,” I added.
“Cordelia?” he asked, sitting near me.
“She hasn’t got brain one,” I said.
“Well,” he said. There was more sharing and comfort in the single syllable than in anything I have ever heard. I looked at him. He hadn’t changed much over the years. A bit heavier. A bit grayer. Still intensely alive, though.
And he’d learned to control those wild projects of his. I thought, quite objectively, “I like this man.
We were quiet for a warm while. Then, “Dad–what was it you burned? The Martian project?”
“Why, you young devil! How aid you know?”
“I dunno. You look like I feel. Sort of–well, you’ve finally unloaded something, and it hurts to lose it, but you’re glad you did.”
“On the nose,” he said, and grinned sheepishly. “Yup, Henry–I really hugged that project to me. Want to hear about it?”
Anything but Cordelia, I thought. “I saw your rig,” I said, to break the ice. “The night you sent me out for the wire. You left the workshop open.”
“I’ll be darned. I thought I’d gotten away with it.”
“Mother knew what you were up to, though she didn’t know how.”
“And you saw how.”
“I saw that weird gimmick of yours, but it didn’t mean anything to me, Mother told me never to mention it to you. She thought you’d be happier if you were left alone.”
He laughed with real delight. “Bless her heart,” he said. “She was a most understanding woman.”
“I read about the Martian signals in the papers,” I said. “Fellow named–what was it?”
“Jenkins,” said Dad. “C. Francis Jenkins. He built a film–tape recorder to catch the signals. He tuned to six thousand meters and had a flashing light to record the signals. Primitive, but it worked. Dr. David Todd of Amherst was the man who organized the whole project, and got the big radio people all over the world to cooperate. They had a five-minute silence every hour during Mars’ closest proximity–August 21 to 23.”
“I remember,” 1 said. “It was my birthday. 1924. What got you so teed-off?”
“I got mad,” said my father, folding his hands over his stomach. “Just because it had become fashionable to use radio in a certain way on earth, those simple souls had to assume that the Martian signals–if any–would come through the same way. I felt that they’d be different.”
“Why should they be?”
“Why should we expect Martians to be the same? Or even think the same? I Just took a wild stab at it, that’s all. I tuned in on six wave-lengths at the same time. I set up my rig so that anything coming through on any one wave-length would actuate a particular phone.”
“I remember,” I said, trying hard. “The iron filings on the paper tape, over the earphones.”
“That’s right. The phone was positioned far enough below the tape so that the magnetic field would barely contain the filings. When the diaphragm vibrated, the filings tended to cluster. I had six phones on six different wave-lengths, arranged like this,” and he counted them out on the palm of his hand:
“What could you get? I don’t figure it, Dad. There’d be no way of separating your dots and dashes.”
“Blast!” he exploded. “That’s the kind of thinking that made me mad, and makes me mad to this day! No, what 1 was after was something completely different in transmission. Look; how much would you get out of piano music if all the strings but one were broken? Only when the pianist hit that note in the course of his transmission would you hear anything. See what I mean? Supposing the Martians were sending in notes and chords of an established octave of frequencies? Sure–Jenkins got signals. No one’s ever been able to interpret them. Well, supposing I was right–then Jenkins was recording only one of several or many ‘notes’ of the scale, and of course it was meaningless.”
“Well, what did you get?”
“Forty-six photographs, five of which were so badly under–exposed that they were useless to me. I finally got the knack of moving the tape carefully enough and lighting it properly, and they came out pretty well. I got signals of four of the six frequencies. I got the same grouping only three of four times; I mean, sometimes there would be something on phones 1, 2, and 4, and sometimes it would only be on 4, and sometimes it would be on 2 and 6. Three and 5 never did come through; it was just fantastic luck that I picked the right frequencies, I suppose, for the other four.”
“What frequencies did you use?”
He grinned. “I don’t know. I really don’t. It was all by guess and by golly. I never was an engineer, Henry. I’m m the insurance business. I had no instruments–particularly not in 1924. I wound a 6,000–meter coil according to specs they printed in the paper. As for the others, I worked on the knowledge that less turns of heavier wire means shorter wave-lengths. I haven’t got the coils now and couldn’t duplicate ‘em in a million years. All I can say for sure is that they were all different, and stepped down from 6,000.
“Anyway, I studied those things until I was blue in the face. It must’ve been the better part of a year before I called in anyone else. I wrote to Mr. Jenkins and Dr. Todd too, but who am I? A taxidermical broker with a wacky idea. They sent the pictures back with polite letters, and I can’t say I blame them . . . anyway, good riddance to the things. But it was a wonderful idea, and I wanted so much to be the man who did the job. . . . Ever want something so badly you couldn’t see straight, Henry?”
“Me?” I asked, with bitterness.
“It’s all over now, though.. I’m through with crazy projects, for life. Never again. But gosh, I did love that project. Know what I mean?”
“No,” I said with even more bitterness.
He sat up straight. “Hey. I’m sorry, fellow. Those were rhetorical questions. Maybe you’d better spill it.”
So I told it to him–all of it. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I told him about the moon poem and the “well, really” gimmick and the “please don’t translate” routine, and the more I talked the worse I felt. He sat and listened and didn’t say “I told you so,” and the idea was worming its way into the back of my mind as I talked that here sat one of the most understanding people ever created, when he screamed. He screamed as one screams at the intrusion of an ice-cube into the back of one’s bathing suit.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, breaking off.
“Go on, go on,” he gabbled. “Henry, you idiot, don’t tell me you don’t know what you’re saying for Pete’s sake, boy, tell it to-”
Whoa! I don’t even remember where I was.”
“What she said to you-’ Are you a terrestrial?’”
“Oh, don’t get so excited, Dad. It doesn’t mean anything. Why bother? She was trying to interest me, I suppose. I didn’t let it get to me then and I won’t now. She–”
“Blast her! I’m not talking about her. It was what she said. Go on, Henry! You say she wrote something?”
He wormed it all out of me. He forced me to go over it and over it. The windows paled and the single light by the bookcase looked yellow and ill in the dawn, but still he pounded at me. And I finally quit. I just quit, out of compounded exhaustion and stubbornness. I lay back in the big chair and glared at him.
He strode up and down the room, trying to beat his left hand to a pulp with a right fist. “Of course, of course,” he said excitedly. “That’s how they’d do it. The blankest mind in the world. Blank and sensitive, like undeveloped film. Of course! ‘Making contact thirty years’ they said. ‘Much power making contact this way–very high frequencies thought.’ A radionic means of transmitting thouht, and it uses too much power to be practical. ‘Easy radio. Not again thought.’ “
He stepped in front of me, glaring. “’Not again thought,” he growled. “You–you dope! How could my flesh and blood be so abjectly stupid? There in your hands you held the interplanetary Rosetta Stone, and what did you do with it?”
I glared back at him. “I was quote consigning one of my beloved failures to the flames end quote,” I said nastily.
Suddenly he was slumped and tired. “So you were, son. So you were. And it was all there–like Braille, you said. A series of phonetic symbols, and almost certainly a list of the frequency-octave they use. And–and all my pictures. . . . I burned them too.” He sat down.
“Don’t take it so hard, Dad,” I said. ‘’Your advice was good. You forget your Martians and I’ll forget my moron. When a fellow gets to be a grown-up man–”
He didn’t hear me. “Henry. You say her folks like you?”
I sprang to my feet. “NO!” I bellowed. “Dad, I will not, repeat, not under any circumstances woo that beautiful package of brainless reflexes. I have had mine. I–”
“You really mean it, don’t you?”
“That I do,” I said positively.
“Well,” he said dejectedly, “I guess that’s that.” And then that old, old fever came back into his face. “Dad–”
He slowly straightened up, that hot “Land ho!” expression in his eyes. My father is hale, handsome, and when he wants to be, extremely persistent.
“Now, Dad,” I said. “Let’s be reasonable. She’s very young, Dad. Now, let’s talk this thing over a little more, Dad. You can’t go following a girl all over the house with a notebook and pencil. They said they wouldn’t use the thought contact again, Dad. Now Dad–”
“Your mother would understand if she were alive,” he murmured.
“No! You can’t!” I bawled. “Dad, for heaven’s sake use your head! Why you–Cordelia–Dad, she’d make me Call her Mummy!”
Now what am I going to do?