Read Kurt Vonnegut’s early story “2 B R 0 2 B”

 

“2 B R 0 2 B”

by

Kurt Vonnegut

Everything was perfectly swell.

There were no prisons, no slums, no insane asylums, no cripples, no poverty, no wars.

All diseases were conquered. So was old age.

Death, barring accidents, was an adventure for volunteers.

The population of the United States was stabilized at forty-million souls.

One bright morning in the Chicago Lying-in Hospital, a man named Edward K. Wehling, Jr., waited for his wife to give birth. He was the only man waiting. Not many people were born a day any more.

Wehling was fifty-six, a mere stripling in a population whose average age was one hundred and twenty-nine.

X-rays had revealed that his wife was going to have triplets. The children would be his first.

Young Wehling was hunched in his chair, his head in his hand. He was so rumpled, so still and colorless as to be virtually invisible. His camouflage was perfect, since the waiting room had a disorderly and demoralized air, too. Chairs and ashtrays had been moved away from the walls. The floor was paved with spattered dropcloths.

The room was being redecorated. It was being redecorated as a memorial to a man who had volunteered to die.

A sardonic old man, about two hundred years old, sat on a stepladder, painting a mural he did not like. Back in the days when people aged visibly, his age would have been guessed at thirty-five or so. Aging had touched him that much before the cure for aging was found.

The mural he was working on depicted a very neat garden. Men and women in white, doctors and nurses, turned the soil, planted seedlings, sprayed bugs, spread fertilizer.

Men and women in purple uniforms pulled up weeds, cut down plants that were old and sickly, raked leaves, carried refuse to trash-burners.

Never, never, never—not even in medieval Holland nor old Japan—had a garden been more formal, been better tended. Every plant had all the loam, light, water, air and nourishment it could use.

A hospital orderly came down the corridor, singing under his breath a popular song:

If you don’t like my kisses, honey,
Here’s what I will do:
I’ll go see a girl in purple,
Kiss this sad world toodle-oo.
If you don’t want my lovin’,
Why should I take up all this space?
I’ll get off this old planet,
Let some sweet baby have my place.

The orderly looked in at the mural and the muralist. “Looks so real,” he said, “I can practically imagine I’m standing in the middle of it.”

“What makes you think you’re not in it?” said the painter. He gave a satiric smile. “It’s called ‘The Happy Garden of Life,’ you know.”

“That’s good of Dr. Hitz,” said the orderly. Continue reading

“How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art upon the Gnoles” — Lord Dunsany

“How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art upon the Gnoles”

by

Lord Dunsany

Despite the advertisements of rival firms, it is probable that every tradesman knows that nobody in business at the present time has a position equal to that of Mr. Nuth. To those outside the magic circle of business, his name is scarcely known; he does not need to advertise, he is consummate. He is superior even to modern competition, and, whatever claims they boast, his rivals know it. His terms are moderate, so much cash down when the goods are delivered, so much in blackmail afterwards. He consults your convenience. His skill may be counted upon; I have seen a shadow on a windy night move more noisily than Nuth, for Nuth is a burglar by trade. Men have been known to stay in country houses and to send a dealer afterwards to bargain for a piece of tapestry that they saw there—some article of furniture, some picture. This is bad taste: but those whose culture is more elegant invariably send Nuth a night or two after their visit. He has a way with tapestry; you would scarcely notice that the edges had been cut. And often when I see some huge, new house full of old furniture and portraits from other ages, I say to myself, “These mouldering chairs, these full-length ancestors and carved mahogany are the produce of the incomparable Nuth.”

It may be urged against my use of the word incomparable that in the burglary business the name of Slith stands paramount and alone; and of this I am not ignorant; but Slith is a classic, and lived long ago, and knew nothing at all of modern competition; besides which the surprising nature of his doom has possibly cast a glamour upon Slith that exaggerates in our eyes his undoubted merits. Continue reading

“Greville Fane” — Henry James

 

“Greville Fane”

by

Henry James

Coming in to dress for dinner, I found a telegram: “Mrs. Stormer dying; can you give us half a column for to-morrow evening?  Let her off easy, but not too easy.”  I was late; I was in a hurry; I had very little time to think, but at a venture I dispatched a reply: “Will do what I can.”  It was not till I had dressed and was rolling away to dinner that, in the hansom, I bethought myself of the difficulty of the condition attached.  The difficulty was not of course in letting her off easy but in qualifying that indulgence.  “I simply won’t qualify it,” I said to myself.  I didn’t admire her, but I liked her, and I had known her so long that I almost felt heartless in sitting down at such an hour to a feast of indifference.  I must have seemed abstracted, for the early years of my acquaintance with her came back to me.  I spoke of her to the lady I had taken down, but the lady I had taken down had never heard of Greville Fane.  I tried my other neighbour, who pronounced her books “too vile.”  I had never thought them very good, but I should let her off easier than that.

I came away early, for the express purpose of driving to ask about her.  The journey took time, for she lived in the north-west district, in the neighbourhood of Primrose Hill.  My apprehension that I should be too late was justified in a fuller sense than I had attached to it—I had only feared that the house would be shut up.  There were lights in the windows, and the temperate tinkle of my bell brought a servant immediately to the door, but poor Mrs. Stormer had passed into a state in which the resonance of no earthly knocker was to be feared.  A lady, in the hall, hovering behind the servant, came forward when she heard my voice.  I recognised Lady Luard, but she had mistaken me for the doctor.

“Excuse my appearing at such an hour,” I said; “it was the first possible moment after I heard.”

“It’s all over,” Lady Luard replied.  “Dearest mamma!”

She stood there under the lamp with her eyes on me; she was very tall, very stiff, very cold, and always looked as if these things, and some others beside, in her dress, her manner and even her name, were an implication that she was very admirable.  I had never been able to follow the argument, but that is a detail.  I expressed briefly and frankly what I felt, while the little mottled maidservant flattened herself against the wall of the narrow passage and tried to look detached without looking indifferent.  It was not a moment to make a visit, and I was on the point of retreating when Lady Luard arrested me with a queer, casual, drawling “Would you—a—would you, perhaps, be writing something?”  I felt for the instant like an interviewer, which I was not.  But I pleaded guilty to this intention, on which she rejoined: “I’m so very glad—but I think my brother would like to see you.”  I detested her brother, but it wasn’t an occasion to act this out; so I suffered myself to be inducted, to my surprise, into a small back room which I immediately recognised as the scene, during the later years, of Mrs. Stormer’s imperturbable industry.  Her table was there, the battered and blotted accessory to innumerable literary lapses, with its contracted space for the arms (she wrote only from the elbow down) and the confusion of scrappy, scribbled sheets which had already become literary remains.  Leolin was also there, smoking a cigarette before the fire and looking impudent even in his grief, sincere as it well might have been. Continue reading

“A Worn Path” — Eudora Welty

“A Worn Path”

by

Eudora Welty

It was December—a bright frozen day in the early morning. Far out in the country there was an old Negro woman with her head tied red rag, coming along a path through the pinewoods. Her name was Phoenix Jackson. She was very old and small and she walked slowly in the dark pine shadows, moving a little from side to side in her steps, with the balanced heaviness and lightness of a pendulum in a grand-father clock. She carried a thin, small cane made from an umbrella, and with this she kept tapping the frozen earth in front of her. This made a grave and persistent noise in the still air, that seemed meditative like the chirping of a solitary little bird.

She wore a dark striped dress reaching down to her shoe tops, and an equally long apron of bleached sugar sacks, with a full pocket: all neat and tidy, but every time she took a step she might have fallen over her shoelaces, which dragged from her unlaced shoes. She looked straight ahead. Her eyes were blue with age. Her skin had a pattern all its own of numberless branching wrinkles and as though a whole little tree stood in the middle of her forehead, but a golden color ran underneath, and the two knobs of her cheeks were illumined by a yellow burning under the dark. Under the red rag her hair came down on her neck in the frailest of ringlets, still black, and with an odor like copper.

Now and then there was a quivering in the thicket. Old Phoenix said, “Out of my way, all you foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, coons and wild animals!. . . Keep out from under these feet, little bob-whites…. Keep the big wild hogs out of my path. Don’t let none of those come running my direction. I got a long way.” Under her small black-freckled hand her cane, limber as a buggy whip, would switch at the brush as if to rouse up any hiding things.

On she went. The woods were deep and still. The sun made the pine needles almost too bright to look at, up where the wind rocked. The cones dropped as light as feathers. Down in the hollow was the mourning dove—it was not too late for him.

The path ran up a hill. “Seem like there is chains about my feet, time I get this far,” she said, in the voice of argument old people keep to use with themselves. “Something always take a hold of me on this hill— pleads I should stay.” Continue reading

Read “Tony and the Beetles,” an early short story by Philip K. Dick

illus

“Tony and the Beetles”

by

Philip K. Dick

Reddish-yellow sunlight filtered through the thick quartz windows into the sleep-compartment. Tony Rossi yawned, stirred a little, then opened his black eyes and sat up quickly. With one motion he tossed the covers back and slid to the warm metal floor. He clicked off his alarm clock and hurried to the closet.

It looked like a nice day. The landscape outside was motionless, undisturbed by winds or dust-shift. The boy’s heart pounded excitedly. He pulled his trousers on, zipped up the reinforced mesh, struggled into his heavy canvas shirt, and then sat down on the edge of the cot to tug on his boots. He closed the seams around their tops and then did the same with his gloves. Next he adjusted the pressure on his pump unit and strapped it between his shoulder blades. He grabbed his helmet from the dresser, and he was ready for the day.

In the dining-compartment his mother and father had finished breakfast. Their voices drifted to him as he clattered down the ramp. A disturbed murmur; he paused to listen. What were they talking about? Had he done something wrong, again?

And then he caught it. Behind their voices was another voice. Static and crackling pops. The all-system audio signal from Rigel IV. They had it turned up full blast; the dull thunder of the monitor’s voice boomed loudly. The war. Always the war. He sighed, and stepped out into the dining-compartment.

“Morning,” his father muttered.

“Good morning, dear,” his mother said absently. She sat with her head turned to one side, wrinkles of concentration webbing her forehead. Her thin lips were drawn together in a tight line of concern. His father had pushed his dirty dishes back and was smoking, elbows on the table, dark hairy arms bare and muscular. He was scowling, intent on the jumbled roar from the speaker above the sink.

“How’s it going?” Tony asked. He slid into his chair and reached automatically for the ersatz grapefruit. “Any news from Orion?”

Neither of them answered. They didn’t hear him. He began to eat his grapefruit. Outside, beyond the little metal and plastic housing unit, sounds of activity grew. Shouts and muffled crashes, as rural merchants and their trucks rumbled along the highway toward Karnet. The reddish daylight swelled; Betelgeuse was rising quietly and majestically. Continue reading

Read Kobo Abe’s short story “The Magic Chalk”

“The Magic Chalk”

by

Kobo Abe

Next door to the toilet of an apartment building on the edge of the city, in a room soggy with roof leaks and cooking vapors, lived a poor artist named Argon.

The small room, nine feet square, appeared to be larger than it was because it contained nothing but a single chair set against the wall. His desk, shelves, paint box, even his easel had been sold for bread. Now only the chair and Argon were left. But how long would these two remain?

 

Dinnertime drew near. “How sensitive my nose has become!” Argon thought. He was able to distinguish the colors and proximity of the complex aromas entering his room. Frying port at the butcher’s along the streetcar line: yellow ocher. A southerly wind drifting by the front of the fruit stand: emerald green. Wafting from the bakery: stimulating chrome yellow. And the fish the housewife below was broiling, probably mackerel: sad cerulean blue.

 

This fact is, Argon hadn’t eaten anything all day. With a pale face, a wrinkled brow, an Adam’s apple that rose and fell, a hunched back, a sunken abdomen, and trembling knees, Argon thrust both hands into his pocket and yawned three times in succession.

 

His fingers found a stick in his pocket.

 

“Hey, what’s this? Red chalk. Don’t remember it being there.”

 

Playing with the chalk between his fingers, he produced another yawn.

 

“Aah, I need something to eat.”

 

Without realizing it, Argon began scribbling on the wall with the chalk. First, an apple. One that looked big enough to be a meal in itself. He drew a paring knife beside it so that he could eat it right away. Next, swallowing hard as baking smells curled through the hallway and window to permeate his room, he drew bread. Jam-filled bread the size of a baseball glove. Butter-filled rolls. a loaf as large as a person’s head. He envisioned glossy browned spots on the bread. Delicious-looking cracks, dough bursting through the surface, the intoxicating aroma of yeast. Beside the bread, then, a stick of butter a large a a brick. He thought of drawing some coffee. Freshly brewed, steaming coffee. In a large jug-like cup. On a saucer, three matchbox-size sugar cubes.

 

“Damn it!” He ground his teeth and buried his face in his hands. “I’ve got to eat!”

 

Gradually, his consciousness sank into darkness. Beyond the windowpane was a bread and pastry jungle, a mountain of canned goods, a sea of milk, a beach of sugar, a beef and cheese orchard— he scampered about until, fatigued, he fell asleep. Continue reading

Read Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Stars Below”

“The Stars Below”

by

Ursula K. Le Guin

The wooden house and outbuildings caught fire fast, blazed up, burned down, but the dome, built of lathe and plaster above a drum of brick, would not burn. What they did at last was heap up the wreckage of the telescopes, the instruments, the books and charts and drawings, in the middle of the floor under the dome, pour oil on the heap, and set fire to that. The flames spread to the wooden beams of the big telescope frame and to the clockwork mechanisms. Villagers watching from the foot of the hill saw the dome, whitish against the green evening sky, shudder and turn, first in one direction then in the other, while a black and yellow smoke full of sparks gushed from the oblong slit: an ugly and uncanny thing to see.

It was getting dark, stars were showing in the east. Orders were shouted. The soldiers came down the road in single file, dark men in dark harness, silent.

The villagers at the foot of the hill stayed on after the soldiers had gone. In a life without change or breadth, a fire is as good as a festival. They did not climb the hill, and as the night grew full dark they drew closer together. After a while they began to go back to their villages. Some looked back over their shoulders at the hill, where nothing moved. The stars turned slowly behind the black beehive of the dome, but it did not turn to follow them.

About an hour before daybreak a man rode up the steep zigzag, dismounted by the ruins of the workshops, and approached the dome on foot. The door had been smashed in. Through it, a reddish haze of light was visible, very dim, coming from a massive support-beam that had fallen and had smoldered all night inward to its core. A hanging, sour smoke thickened the air inside the dome. A tall figure moved there and its shadow moved with it, cast upward on the murk. Sometimes it stooped, or stopped, then blundered slowly on.

The man at the door said: “Guennar! Master Guennar!”

The man in the dome stopped still, looking towards the door. He had just picked up something from the mess of wreckage and half-burnt stuff on the floor. He put this object mechanically into his coat pocket, still peering at the door. He came towards it. His eyes were red and swollen almost shut, he breathed harshly in gasps, his hair and clothes were scorched and smeared with black ash.

“Where were you?”

The man in the dome pointed vaguely at the ground. Continue reading