Jailbird – Kurt Vonnegut
* I tried to write a story about a reunion between my father and myself in heaven one time. An early draft of this book in fact began that way. I hoped in the story to become a really good friend of his. But the story turned out perversely, as stories about real people we have known often do. It seemed that in heaven people could be any age they liked, just so long as they had experienced that age on Earth. Thus, John D. Rockefeller, for example, the founder of Standard Oil, could be any age up to ninety-eight. King Tut could be any age up to nineteen, and so on. As author of the story, I was dismayed that my father in heaven chose to be only nine years old.
I myself had chosen to be forty-four-respectable, but still quite sexy, too. My dismay with Father turned to embarrassment and anger. He was lemur-like as a nine-year-old, all eyes and hands. He had an endless supply of pencils and pads, and was forever tagging after me, drawing pictures of simply everything and insisting that I admire them when they were done. New acquaintances would sometimes ask me who that strange little boy was, and I would have to reply truthfully, since it was impossible to lie in heaven, “It’s my father.”
* When the windows were opened, the oceanic murmurs of the crowd came in with the cold air. The crowd wished to be silent, and imagined itself to be silent – but this person had to whisper a little something, and that one had to reply, and so on. Hence, sounds like a sea.
* YOUNG PEOPLE STILL REFUSE TO SEE THE OBVIOUS IMPOSSIBILITY OF WORLD DISARMAMENT AND ECONOMIC EQUALITY. COULD BE FAULT OF NEW TESTAMENT (QUOD VIDE).
* As came out at Fender’s court-martial: He and other members of the Army Veterinary Corps looked like soldiers, but they had not been trained to think like soldiers. It seemed unnecessary, since all they did anymore was inspect meat. The last veterinarian to be involved in any sort of fighting, it turned out, died at the Little Bighorn, at Custer’s Last Stand.
* But then I absent-mindedly accepted a cigarette. It was simply one more civilized satisfaction to go with the good talk and my warm belly and all. “Yes, yes — ” I said, recalling some youthful shenanigans. I chuckled, eyes twinkling. I put the cigarette to my lips. A friend held a match to it. I inhaled the smoke right down to the soles of my feet.
* At six o’clock on the following morning, which was the prison’s time for rising, I walked out into a city stunned by its own innocence. Nobody was doing anything bad to anybody anywhere. It was even hard to imagine badness. Why would anybody be bad?
* So I did sit down, and everywhere I looked I saw customers of every description being received with love. To the waitresses everybody was “honeybunch” and “darling” and “dear.” It was like an emergency ward after a great catastrophe. It did not matter what race or class the victims belonged to. They were all given the same miracle drug, which was coffee. The catastrophe in this case, of course, was that the sun had come up again.
I thought to myself, “My goodness — these waitresses and cooks are as unjudgmental as the birds and lizards on the Galapagos Islands, off Ecuador.” I was able to make the comparison because I had read about those peaceful islands in prison, in a National Geographic loaned to me by the former lieutenant governor of Wyoming. The creatures there had had no enemies, natural or unnatural, for thousands of years. The idea of anybody’s wanting to hurt them was inconceivable to them.
So a person coming ashore there could walk right up to an animal and unscrew its head, if he wanted to. The animal would have no plan for such an occasion. And all the other animals would simply stand around and watch, unable to draw any lessons for themselves from what was going on. A person could unscrew the head of every animal on an island, if that was his idea of business or fun.
I had the feeling that if Frankenstein’s monster crashed into the coffee shop through a brick wall, all anybody would say to him was, “You sit down here, Lambchop, and I’ll bring you your coffee right away.”
The profit motive was not operating. The transactions were on the order of sixty-eight cents, a dollar ten, two dollars and sixty-three . . . I would find out later that the man who ran the cash register was the owner, but he would not stay at his post to rake the money in. He wanted to cook and wait on people, too, so that the waitresses and cooks kept having to say to him, “That’s my customer, Frank. Get back to the cash register,” or “I’m the cook here, Frank. What’s this mess you’ve started here? Get back to the cash register,” and so on.
His full name was Frank Ubriaco. He is now executive vice-president of the McDonald’s Hamburgers Division of The RAMJAC Corporation.
* Nowhere in the world was this sort of theater being done anymore. For what it may be worth to modern impresarios: I can testify from personal experience that great crowds can still be gathered by melodrama, provided that the female in the piece speaks loudly and clearly.
* Mary Kathleen O’Looney wasn’t the only shopping-bag lady in the United States of America. There were tens of thousands of them in major cities throughout the country. Ragged regiments of them had been produced accidentally, and to no imaginable purpose, by the great engine of the economy. Another part of the machine was spitting out unrepentent murderers ten years old, and dope fiends and child batterers and many other bad things. People claimed to be investigating. Unspecified repairs were to be made at some future time.
* He thought it was urgent, I remember, that mankind and womankind be defined. Otherwise, he was sure, they were doomed forever to be defined by the needs of institutions. He had mainly factories and armies in mind.
* Anarchists are persons who believe with all their hearts that governments are enemies of their own people.
* Mary Kathleen and I did not laugh with him. Neither did anybody else in the audience. His laugh was a chilling laugh about how little Nature ever cares about what human beings think is going on.
* “Mr. Starbuck — ?” he asked anxiously.
I said nothing. I did sit up. I no longer cared where I was or what might happen next. I was like a hooked fish that had done all the fighting it could. Whatever was on the other end of the line was welcome to reel me in.
* “Hello and good-bye.” What else is there to say? Our language is much larger than it needs to be.
* I observe how profoundly serious Nature has made her about a rubber ice-cream cone — brown rubber cone, pink rubber ice cream. I have to wonder what equally ridiculous commitments to bits of trash I myself have made. Not that it matters at all. We are here for no purpose, unless we can invent one. Of that I am sure. The human condition in an exploding universe would not have been altered one iota if, rather than live as I have, I had done nothing but carry a rubber ice-cream cone from closet to closet for sixty years.