Bill Baynes is a writer, producer and director. He is a member of the Historical Novel Society, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the California Writers Club, SF Peninsula branch. His historical novella, The Occupation of Joe, was published in August by Top Hat Books. His young adult baseball novel, Bunt! was released published by Silverback Sages, Abiquiu, N.M., in 2013. Website: http://billbaynes.com/.
Getting the Nerve by Bill Baynes
As he crossed the tracks on his way to work, he heard the siren. He didn’t recognize it at first. It was an annoying sound. It reminded him of the klaxon at the POW camp.
“Miller’s going to kill me,” he said to himself.
He u-turned his tan Studebaker at the next intersection and sped back in the other direction. When he arrived at the firehouse, the big overhead door was already open and Lucy had her headlights on. Men in full gear were crawling all over her.
Kurt pushed past other volunteers to the red, wooden lockers against the rear wall of the garage. Chunky Carson Berry, struggling to put on his rubber boots, blocked his way.
“C’mon, Carson, move that big butt of yours,” Kurt said, squeezing past the older man.
“Sorry. Be done …. (grunt!) … in a sec.”
Kurt pulled on his boots, slipped on the heavy jacket and grabbed his gloves and hat. It was awkward with all the equipment on, like wearing a full pack in the infantry, but it made him feel professional.
He hopped onto the rear of the truck. Earl Boudreau, the deputy chief, was next to him.
Some of the men were at work, so it was a short crew. But Chief Blanton was in uniform and at the wheel. Sam Dawson from the general store rode shotgun. Berry managed to grab onto the side running board. Fred Paine from the coal yard arrived just in time to jump onto Lucy’s other side.
They headed down the avenue, siren howling. It was an overcast day, but the air was still. The only other car on the street pulled over to let them pass.
Kurt’s worries were swept away by the wind. Clinging to the rear rail as the big truck whipped around the corner onto Dean Street, he felt invigorated.
They passed the Methodist Church. Rev. Purdy, a smallish man, was standing out front on tiptoe, his hand shielding his eyes. The volunteers pulled up at the last place on the right. Oily smoke was billowing from an old, detached shed. The owner was watching from his front porch, about 50 feet away.
Kurt jumped down and, under Boudreau’s direction, began feeding out hose. Boudreau struggled with the pump, while Fred and the chief began to spray the blaze.
Kurt dived for cover behind the truck.
In quick succession, two smaller explosions: THUD! THUD!
Kurt covered his head with his hands.
“Stop!” he shrieked. “Stop!”
He heard shouts. He expected the thump of anti-aircraft batteries. He waited for the distant screams from outside. He was back in Dresden four years earlier. He was huddling in the meat locker with the other POWs, cold and miserable, while Allied shells shook the dirt from the ceiling.
He curled into a tight ball, as it all rushed back, the ghastly equation. More bombs meant more corpses. More corpses meant more work lugging the dead across the city, piling them on the huge pyres. More lugging meant more rocks thrown by the Germans watching on the side of the street. He couldn’t protect himself. None of the prisoners could. He was too tired, too weakened, to even raise a cadaver as a shield.
* * * * *
He came to his senses with Boudreau shaking his shoulder.
“Vonnegut! Vonnegut! It’s all right, Kurt. It’s over.”
Other volunteers formed a circle looking down on him.
“A kerosene lamp,” the deputy chief said. “That’s all it was. Set off a couple gas cans.”
Kurt clambered to his feet, embarrassed.
“Uh … I’m sorry …,” he began.
“Forget it,” Boudreau said. “Glad you’re okay.”
“We’ve all been there,” Chief Blanton said. “I was infantry.”
Fred Paine clapped him on the back.
At the station, Kurt nursed a stiff drink.
“You had us pretty worried out there,” Carson said, putting a pudgy arm on Kurt’s shoulder. “Everything intact?”
“Such as it is,” Kurt answered.
“You having a lot of these … episodes?”
“It’s been months since I had one.”
But there were the nightmares. He didn’t tell anyone about them. Except Janie, of course.
“Sure you’re all right?” Berry asked.
Kurt smiled wanly. “I’m actually elated to have really made a fool of myself.”
Berry loosed his infectious laugh. “You’ll be fine.”
Kurt threw back the rest of his drink. He thought about how helpless he’d felt. He needed to get a grip.
The rest of the day was a scatter.
It was lunch time before he got to work. To his surprise, Miller was delighted.
“PR in action,” the boss declared loudly, making sure everyone else in the section was listening. “The best possible way to make people like the company is to make them like our people. A firefighter -- how about that?”
Another clap on the back. Polite applause from Trey Evans and Glen Bundy, his cohorts in the News Bureau.
It all felt false.
He drove home past the Alco yards, stopped at a tavern and downed a couple shots to quiet his ratchety mind. It didn’t work. The swirl endured, the eddy of personal issues.
Janie must know how he felt, he thought. How would she like to spend all day shoveling shit for the cretins, the unsuspecting public? It wasn’t exactly lying for a living, but it wasn’t telling the truth either.
He remembered the argument they had yesterday after he’d shouted at little Mark.
“You’re a mean man,” she told him. “Picking on a little boy.”
“Can’t you keep him away from me when I’m trying to work?”
“Maybe we should keep you away from him.”
Another slug of whiskey. His nose went numb.
Jane was a good mother. That’s why he’d married her. But why was she so needy? She complained he didn’t spend enough time with the family. Couldn’t she see how busy he was?
He climbed back into his car, crossed the Mohawk and followed Maple Avenue, the curvy road parallel to the tracks.
Too much was happening. He felt like he was lost in enemy territory. Surrounded. Had he been taken prisoner again?
The writing was his most critical concern. He had to fight for the time to work on it every day. It would be easy, too easy, to not get around to it in the press of activity, to just be a GE guy and make lots of money. What could he drop to open more time for writing?
He couldn’t walk away from the Schenectady Works. Not yet.
He wasn’t going to quit the fire department either. It was the only thing he was enjoying. It reminded him of the better parts of the military.
And he couldn’t stop being Dad. He didn’t want to.
Yet everything was suffering because of the writing. And the writing was suffering because of everything else.
* * * *
As soon as the kid went to bed, almost nine o’clock, he put on a pot of coffee and stationed himself at his desk at the end of the upstairs hall.
They had decided to live “in the country” so he’d have more space to work, more distance from the plant, more privacy from his co-workers. But Jane had fallen in love with this crowded little bungalow she called her “dream dollhouse.” It wasn’t Kurt’s dream writing studio. It felt like he was sitting in the middle of a busy thoroughfare.
He reviewed the section he’d been stuck on the night before. The knot was still there. He took a sip of coffee, rolled a clean piece of paper into his typewriter and stared at it.
This was a longer piece than usual for him and he was stalled. It was a lot different from working on the short stories. They were simpler. What he had in mind now was more complex, much broader. He’d never attempted something of this scope.
He had all these ideas swirling around his head, so many of them that he was having trouble controlling them, fitting them together. Maybe it was too early to do that. Maybe he should have done it sooner. He truly didn’t know.
Mark started whimpering in the other room. Kurt listened, but the baby quieted down.
Kurt knew this story was about a man in the middle of a major change, a protean personality. What makes him transform? Why should anyone care about him?
Kurt tried to push through the impasse. He’d learned that at work. If he waited for the muse to impart the perfect way to tell America about GE’s newest public convenience, he’d never meet his deadlines.
What did he know about his main character? He started typing. He’s smart, accomplished; a leader/executive; a scientist/visionary; dissatisfied/frustrated; feels hemmed in/restricted; out of touch/bored. The list grew down the page.
That was all internal stuff. What does he look like? Where does he live? Does he have a wife and kids? What does he want? He typed the questions and paused. He’d need to think about each option, to consider advantages and disadvantages. That would take time.
Kurt sighed, lifted his cup. The coffee was cold.
So much for forcing it. Tonight he was just burning rubber, scorching his mind. Better to give it a break and let it percolate beneath the surface for a while.
He dealt himself a hand of solitaire. Sometimes it helped to take his mind off the spot where he was stuck. He’d look again in five minutes and then he could figure it out.
Tonight it was just a waste of five minutes.
He decided to take a walk down Hill Street instead. He needed a taste, a little liquid refreshment. He didn’t have anything in the cupboard, and he didn’t want to drive the twisty two-lane all the way back to the city.
He enjoyed the exercise. He liked having the quiet street to himself, everyone else tucked inside for the night. It gave him a chance to work on his story, to say the plot aloud or speak a character’s lines. He couldn’t do that very well at his house. Either there was too much noise or he had to be quiet.
Sometimes it was almost impossible to get to that place in his mind where he could write. His work day demanded all his attention, often far beyond five o’clock. At home, the kid was always running around. He loved him, but he needed not to be bothered.
He held his collar closed with his hand and stepped carefully around a puddle left from the late afternoon rain. It seemed like winter would never end, but spring had finally come. Yet there was still a chill, well into April.
Maybe the cold would clear his head. His mind seemed to be tangled with strings, all of them leading nowhere.
Lights were on in the modest homes, set back from the road behind screened porches and unkempt yards. In the spill from the windows, a few vehicles were visible -- an old Hudson, a sleek new Ford four-door, a buggy beside a shed.
It was peaceful out here in the sticks. He had to give it that. Few distractions. On the other hand, few stimulations. A man could dry up and blow away from the force of utter boredom.
A couple beers would help get him out of his head for a few minutes, let him relax and focus on something else.
He dodged a muddy patch. He heard the long moan of a train passing at the bottom of the hill. A cat crossed the street and vanished into the darkness of an open field, where the kids played sandlot ball during the daytime.
Maybe it was a mistake to follow his brother out here. He thought it’d be good to be around family, but Bernie lived in his own arcane world most of the time. Like a deep-sea diver, you could only talk to him when he came up for air.
He wished he had one person who understood what he was going through, but he couldn’t talk about his writing to any of the other men he knew in Evanskill. This wasn’t exactly Paris in the Roaring Twenties. He wasn’t some romantic artist sitting at a stylish bar with a clique of other writers and artists. Far from it. He was one guy with a family to support, trying to get his ideas together in a backwater, no-stoplight village where the center of culture was the volunteer fire department.
Which was where he was headed. Where he could find some booze.
In all of Evanskill, population 400, there was no place to buy a drink. A year and a half ago, right after he moved here, seriously thirsty, Kurt had scuffed up the same road and asked Sam Dawson where he could go. The grocer had taken him aside, over by the glass jars of penny candies. He’d pitched his voice low so the kids couldn’t hear him.
“Most of the men in town are members over at the VFD,” he’d said, “‘cept the diehard Methodists. They’re abstinent.”
“Many of those around here?” Kurt had asked.
Sam had grinned. “Besides Reverend Purdy? I dunno, maybe two or three.”
Kurt smiled at the memory, as he hopped over another puddle and turned into the fire station driveway. He walked past the tall garage doors to the small side entrance and mounted the steps. He paused at the top. A dozen men, ranging in age from their mid-twenties to their sixties, filled the large room.
Earl Boudreau slapped a Knickerbocker in his hand.
“They fired me,” he said, taking a large swig from his own Knick.
“What?” Kurt said. “The Turbine Division let you go?”
“Bastards,” Earl muttered.
“Let’s find some place to talk,” Kurt said.
Sam waved from a card table on the far side of the brass pole rising through the hole in the center of the floor. It looked like a poker game was going on over there.
Kurt took a pull on his beer and steered Earl toward a quiet corner.
“Tell me what happened” he said.
“They called me in and told me they were sorry, but my services were no longer required,” he said, taking a huge gulp. “They said my job had been taken over by … “
“Let me guess …”
“… a machine,” Earl concluded.
Kurt nodded. “Damn. That’s what I thought. I’ve seen it time and again.”
Balding, rail-thin with a bump at his belly, Earl was a skilled machinist. He and Kurt sometimes shared the ride to GE.
“Who else is going to hire me to work on big turbines?” he asked. “Nobody around here, that’s for sure.”
“That’s hard, Earl,” Kurt said. “What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know,” Earl ran his hands through his thinning hair. “Pick up some extra cash repairing small appliances, I suppose. I’m good with my hands. Maybe the missus can get an extra shift at the Dairy Freeze.”
He cast a sidelong look at Kurt.
“GE says ‘progress is our most important product.’ It’s my most important problem.”
* * * *
His yawn was so wide he had to stop and lean on a railing until he could close his mouth.
“We keeping you up, Mr. V?”
Bentone was behind the bar, adding lemons to three highballs.
“Late night, Mickey,” Kurt said.
No sleep, not a wink, but that was okay. Better than okay. He’d written eight pages. He’d finally gotten past that knot he’d struggled with for weeks. At this rate, he’d have a complete draft by the end of the year.
He’d need it because he’d probably be out of a job.
How to describe the barkeep? Swarthy, hirsute, smelling of onion. Solid as a chunk of Italian marble. Fleshy ears. Oh, that was good, fleshy ears. Maybe he’d make Bentone the model for the bartender in his story.
He continued to the men’s room for his fourth pee since he’d been here. All that coffee. All that beer.
Ahhh ... That was better. If he could only solve his other problems that easily.
If he could only get a decent idea he could use at the Works.
He returned to the table. He felt jangly, so he swallowed some beer to settle his nerves and grabbed another pickled egg. They were all a little pickled, the three PR peons.
Kurt drained his glass and caught the barkeep’s eye. He held up his finger and waved it at the table.
“We ought to be getting back,” Trey said, scratching his red hair.
“One more. It’s a slow day,” Kurt said, resting his sneaker-clad feet on the empty seat at the table. “No one is questioning our great corporate mother today. Our attendance is not urgently required.”
“Yeah, but there’s that blanket thing,” Bundy said, raising his bushy eyebrows. “We’ve got to get ready for the rollout.”
Another huge yawn, a real eye-closer, a full ten seconds. Trey copied him. Kurt used to pull all-nighters all the time at Cornell and it never bothered him. Must be getting old. Thirty wasn’t that far away.
Kurt knew he should be back at his desk, pounding out some memos to publicize some company products. He’d been coasting. He was empty. He’d given everything he had to his story.
“I’m noodling on a new super-toaster,” Gary said, interrupting Kurt’s reverie. He had spearheaded the campaign to bring a new magnetic can opener to market last year.
“That sounds like fun,” Trey said, taking a sip of the new beer Bentone had set down.
“What’s it do?” Kurt slurped. “Make toast on Mars?”
“It does four slices at once,” Bundy said. “Sets the darkness level for each one individually.”
“Just what we need,” Kurt said. “Save my wife another seventeen seconds a day.”
“Hey, don’t knock it.” Trey had his slide rule out. “That’s … an hour and a half each year.”
“What’s next?” Kurt laughed. “What new blessing will Generous Electric bestow upon the American consumer?”
“How about comic books for schools?” Trey offered. He was working on The Story of Light, first in the series Adventures in Electricity.
“Or a popcorn machine,” Bundy said, “so you don’t have to go to the trouble of shaking a pan.”
“What would someone from New Guinea think?” Kurt wondered. “They still grind their grain by hand.”
He loosened his tie. Screw Anton Miller and his dress code. “What are all these appliances doing to us? To our families? Our wives have all this time on their hands.”
Except Jane, of course. Her life was pretty full these days, being his editor, re-typing his text and shipping his stories to different magazines. Plus taking care of the kid.
“With all that energy we’ve saved ‘em, housewives will be able to buy even more unnecessary appliances,” Kurt chuckled.
“And we can keep getting fat salaries for telling them to do it,” Trey added.
Kurt ran his hands through his hair. He was so tired he couldn’t concentrate on any one thing for more than a few seconds. He lifted his glass, but it was down to one swig. He took it.
“Really,” Bundy said, pushing his chair back, “we’ve got to get back.”
“You’re right,” Trey said. “We’ve got a creative session on those electric blankets.”
“Okay, okay,” Kurt said, heading toward the bar. “Meet you back at the office.”
He had to pee again.
When he was finished, he walked down the block toward the GE campus, a city within the City of Schenectady, more than 200 buildings squeezed onto 600 acres. The company had its own streets, its own tracks and its own police.
For an instant, he imagined the tightly packed campus reduced to rubble, the way Dresden was during the war, structures flattened, walls missing, dust and shards of steel everywhere. But the vision didn’t stay, not the way it used to.
He shook it off.
He spotted Earl Boudreau in the company lot. He was sporting a pressed shirt and a bright tie over his paunch. They waved and walked toward each other.
“What brings you back here?” Kurt asked.
“Got a call at 6 a.m.,” Earl said. “A friend said a maintenance position is opening up. Taking care of some of the equipment I helped to build.”
“Kind of beneath your pay grade, isn’t it?”
“It’s a paycheck. That’s the important thing.”
“You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, I guess” Kurt said. “Good luck in there.”
Kurt had gotten to know the deputy chief and respected his dedication and hard work.
He walked past the softball diamonds, the rifle range and the athletic club, past rows of big buildings – Administration; Small Steam Turbine Division; the Research Lab, the House of Magic, where his brother Bernard and the other star scientists came up with all the big ideas.
Kurt dragged himself back to the News Bureau, two buildings down. The creative session was already underway. Trey and Bundy were standing next to an oversized sheet of butcher paper stuck to the wall behind their desks.
Across the top of the page, Bundy had printed with a wide pen:
“With your new GE electric blanket …”
Scrawled beneath it in two different hands were:
“You’ll never be cold again.”
“Sorry,” Kurt said, leaning against the door jamb.
“We started without you,” Bundy said.
“What do you think of these starter concepts?” Trey asked. “What’s the best hook for our publicity packets?”
“That top line is sort of a stretch,” Kurt said. “Kind of an overpromise. There will be times when they won’t have their blankets with them.”
Bundy laughed. “You’re right. What about ‘toasty’?”
“That’s a little scary. Isn’t that what people are afraid of. How about ‘just set your dial to FRY!’”
They all chuckled. This was serious business, thinking up stuff to sell new housewares, but it worked better if they kept it light.
“And ‘cozy’?” Trey asked.
“Sounds like a tea set.”
“Ouch!” Trey said.
“Easier to tear down than it is to build,” Bundy said, irritated. “What are your ideas?”
Kurt sat in his chair. All three desks were shoved up against each other and littered with papers, typewriters, phones, pencils, coffee cups, partially consumed food, and overflowing ashtrays. The air was always blue with smoke.
He stared at the butcher paper, one finger stroking his jaw. He had a notion, if he could catch it …
“How about: ‘Your hard winters just got shorter.’”
“Oooh, that’s nice,” Trey said, writing it on the butcher paper.
“It is,” Bundy admitted. “It’s got a ring to it.”
“How about: ‘Your hard winters just got easier?’” Trey said.
“Or ‘Those cold winters just got warmer,’” Kurt said.
“’A little warmer,’” Bundy said. “Keep it colloquial. ‘Your cold winters just got a little warmer.’”
“Great,” Trey said, jotting down the slogan.
“Good stuff,’ Kurt agreed.
They worked a little longer, but didn’t get any better ideas. They agreed to work separately to try to flesh out Cold Winters. Trey would tinker with a general press release. Bundy would assemble photos and supporting information. Kurt would develop magazine story concepts. Trey and Bundy decided to take their assignments home. Kurt opted to stay at his desk a little longer.
In the middle of writing a feature story for women’s publications, a new idea occurred to him for the story he was working on last night. He broke off what he was doing, inserted a new sheet into his typewriter and sank back into his fictional universe. It’s where he wanted to be anyway.
The boss was at the door. His tie tight, his trousers creased, Miller was wearing his coat and vest inside the office.
Kurt yanked out the page he was working on. His typewriter shrieked like a lawn mower.
“Yessir. How can I help you?”
Miller shot his perfect cuffs.
“Those tennis shoes? I don’t want to see them again. This is a public relations office. Underline public. We have to be presentable, Vonnegut. Who knows who’s visiting.”
The thread Kurt thought he had grabbed, a new character, a villain – he felt it slip away.
“We are the face of the most advanced company in the world,” Miller continued, “and we need to look like it. Not like some throwback to an earlier existence.”
He paused. A former army officer, he completely believed what he was saying. That’s what made him so effective. His men wanted to please him.
“Boss, you’re absolutely correct,” said Kurt, a former enlisted man. “I’m a cave man. I feel like one. I apologize.”
He reached into the bottom drawer of his desk, pulling out a toilet kit. Miller insisted that his staff be clean-shaven.
“My Shick quit on me and I haven’t had the chance to get it fixed. Why on earth doesn’t GE make a decent electric razor?”
He dropped to a deep, announcer voice: “Remove that beard the modern way. By machine.”
Miller laughed, but Kurt knew he was annoyed.
“You know that guy with the paunch, the one I saw you talking to?”
“He’s a volunteer fireman,” Kurt said.
“He cost the company a pile of money,” Miller said.
“He was a union spokesman two years ago.”
United Electrical Workers had staged a strike, resulting in large hourly pay increases.
“I didn’t know that,” Kurt said.
“Stay away from him,” Miller said. “I mean it.”
“He’s a friend of mine. He’s a good man.”
“He can’t do you any good. He can’t do this office any good.”
“Shit,” Kurt slammed his drawer shut with his foot, grabbed his toilet kit and headed out of the office, leaving Miller with his mouth open about to make another statement.
* * * *
Saturday afternoon, late May. The kind of day you wanted to be outside. The entire company was present at the fire station for the weekly celebration of Lucy the Pumper.
Kids from all over the village were playing baseball on the green next to the fire station. As Kurt walked up, the sound of bat on ball, the cheers and laughter, wafted over the volunteers.
“How’re you feelin’?” Sam Dawson asked. “Haven’t seen you in a few days. Thought you might be, you know, stepping back after that last … you know … incident.”
“Oh, no. I’m here to stay. Just been real busy.”
The volunteers had parked Lucy in the driveway, where everyone in the village could admire her. Spanking new, the 1949 Mack 500-gallon fire engine was a vivid lipstick color and sported ladders on both sides. Hoses were coiled in the double bed behind the pump and generator. A bright brass bell was mounted between the two front seats, next to the twirling red light.
The men washed the truck every week. Today she was getting a special shine for the Memorial Day Parade in two weeks.
“We need to take special care of her,” the chief said, almost tenderly. “Without this truck, no one will take us seriously.”
Chief Todd Blanton was a trim, erect man, rarely seen out of uniform. The only paid employee of the department, he’d been a deputy chief at Schenectady Fire for twenty years before taking this post.
He trailed his fingers along the extended running board, pulled a rag out of his back pocket and touched up a small blemish on one of the fenders.
“Let’s get to work,” he said.
Carson Berry and Fred Paine brought pails of soapy water and a stack of clean towels from the interior of the station. The volunteers formed a ring, watching solemnly while the chief sprayed every part of the truck. With a nod, he invited everyone to pitch in.
They’d gotten the new truck two months ago, replacing a ’34 Ford engine that had served the volunteers for fifteen years. The chief had named her.
“We’ll name her Lucy after Lucille Ball, another pretty redhead,” the chief had said.
“We all love Lucy,” Sam Dawson had replied.
The volunteers labored with few words and no chatter. The firemen’s silent communion with their essential companion. Like a cowboy and his horse.
They washed the truck, using soap and soft cloth. They waxed her chassis, polished her metalwork and scrubbed her oversized tires. From her fenders to her squared snout, from her double-wide windshield to her shiny rear rail, the men rinsed and dried her, burnished and buffed her. They prized her.
Lucy stood radiant, glistening in the sunshine. Like a fine steed, she patiently permitted the men to caress her, reminding the rest of Evanskill of their dedication and her importance.
Afterward, upstairs, Kurt sat to the side of the poker game. He was tired and grimy, but he felt good. He felt like he belonged. He felt like a fireman.
He helped himself to two fingers, make that three, of the house hooch. He watched the cards play across the table, thinking about what he’d seen downstairs.
Earl had unlatched the hood and pushed it up. A polished silvery surface came into view, Lucy’s hallowed innards.
“Take a gander at this,” he’d said in a hushed tone, stretching to stroke the engine. “Big ole’ flathead. Hundred twenty horse-power … five-speed transmission … got a granny gear in case we get stuck off the pavement. Damn, that’s beautiful.”
Kurt had bowed his head to hide his smile, hoping he looked suitably respectful.
Earl and his machines. He made them for a living. He repaired them. He depended on them. Without access to a huge industrial turbine, he felt like half a man.
Look at the way he’d run his hands over Lucy, fawned over her. You’d think she was a woman, not a moveable assemblage of metal. He literally loved the shiny fire engine.
But then most of the men did. Kurt alone was emotionally detached.
These days we’re defined by our devices, Kurt thought. A snazzy car, automated laundry, a console radio, a big television -- people thought of you in terms of your machines.
Used to be that folks thought of their neighbors as grouchy or friendly or funny. Now, instead of personalities, it was all about possessions. Who has the biggest and the best and the latest?
He looked up. It was Sam, holding the deck of cards. A Yankees cap covered his longish gray hair.
“You wanna sit in?”
“I’ve got to get back.”
Kurt took a swallow. “What the hell. Deal me in.”
* * * *
Two hours later, Kurt and his brother were in their Adirondack chairs, sipping drinks and watching their boys chase each other around the back yard. Jane and Bow were inside, cooking dinner.
“Sorry, I missed Mark’s party last week,” Bernard said.
“Sorry I wasn’t here when you arrived,” Kurt said. He was already stewed from the poker game. “They have you hobnobbing with the generals?”
“They did,” Bernard said. “I’m doing entirely too much of that these days. The big boys want to adapt our weather experiments for military purposes.”
GE had defense contracts to develop radar systems, jet engines and nuclear reactors, among other things.
“If we can manipulate the fog and rain and wind, they can fly more bombing missions,” Bernie said. “That’s how they’re thinking. And they believe we can control the direction of radioactive fallout.”
“Pretty deadly stuff,” Kurt commented.
“I didn’t sign up to be part of the war machine, Kay,” his brother complained, calling him by his childhood name. He seemed relaxed, uncharacteristically present, not lost in his own head.
Little Mark took a tumble and Bernard’s son, Petey, fell on top of him. He rolled off when Mark started wailing.
“Whoa.” Kurt stood and picked up his son. “It’s okay, little fella. You’re not hurt.”
“Come over here and sit down by me for a minute,” Bernard told Petey. “You’ve got to be learn to be more careful around your cousin.”
Kurt took a few paces, Mark clinging to his neck.
“How’s it going at the News Bureau?”
Kurt snorted. “God, Bernie, the man’s from the Ice Age.”
“We’ve got a new campaign for electric blankets. He wants to spend most of the budget on radio, for Christ’s sake. Radio.” He shook his head.
“He probably doesn’t have a TV yet,” Bernard said.
“He probably doesn’t have electricity,” Kurt said.
“I don’t know how much longs I can hold on,” Kurt muttered.
“You made your bed, little brother.”
Kurt grimaced. He unwrapped his son’s arms and set the boy down.
Bernard nodded at his boy and Petey jumped down from the other chair. The two-year-olds took off across the lawn.
“So Jane says you’re working on a new piece,” Bernard said, taking another swallow from his highball. “What’s it about?”
“Oh, you know, the usual,” Kurt said, happy to change the subject. “The corporate takeover of America. Demonizing of the worker. Emergence of the new Money Mind.”
“Money Mind, I like that.” Bernard smiled. “Money Mind versus Mankind. Sounds like a monster movie. So is it adventure? Science-fiction?”
“It’s happening right under people’s noses. I see it every day at the plant. Machines replacing men. Men becoming like machines. All because of money.”
“I guess that’s what the military stuff is about too,” Bernard said. “More money for the House of Magic.”
“More and more. There’s never enough.”
Over dessert and coffee, Bernard turned the conversation back to writing again.
“You’re dealing with very ambitious themes,” Bernard said. “Not what most people want to read about.”
“I’ve got some thoughts about how to hook ‘em,” Kurt said.
“I want to hear who it’s about, not what it’s about,” Jane said. “Stories are about people.”
“They’re about ideas,” Kurt said.
“Don’t be silly, darling,” Jane said. “No one cares if an idea falls in love or gets pregnant. Ideas have no emotional life.”
“That’s the trick – to use a person, a being with feelings, to demonstrate a concept.”
“Like Don Quixote on the meaning of windmills?” Bow asked, laughing, trying to keep the conversation light.
“Kurt has trouble with characters,” Jane announced, causing her husband to flush in front of his own brother. She turned to Kurt. “You’re more concerned with what they have to say than who they are.”
Jane was well-read, better educated about literature than Kurt was, and they fought when she critiqued his drafts.
“Here we go again,” he said testily. “The rules of good writing …”
“That’s right. There are rules. Established over the ages by the masters.”
“By critics who can’t write, by people who need lines to color in.”
“The Great Authors …”
“Screw the Great Authors,” Kurt said. “Dickens is boring. I can’t finish any of his books. They go on and on.”
What did he know? He had a degree in anthropology. He’d been taught to observe social systems, not individuals. He’d been trained to write reports, not fiction.
Jane walked over to Kurt and made a big show of consoling him with a big smooch.
“You know I love your writing,” she said. “You know I completely support you on it.”
“I know,” Kurt said through clenched teeth. “My best reader.”
“Let me guess,” Bernard said. “Not a new dispute.”
“Not really a dispute,” Bow said. “Closer to a ceremony.”
They both chuckled.
After their guests left, Kurt set up in the upstairs hallway, tinkering with his new narrative. He inserted a clean sheet of paper onto the carriage and started to make notes. How could he bring his ideas to life? He knew Jane was right. He did have trouble making his characters breathe, to making his readers believe in them.
A likeable hero would help. He had to be an insider, but someone starting to have some doubts, someone who didn’t like what he saw. He would mirror Kurt’s own growing disaffection with his employer. A man in transition, call him -- Paul Proteus.
Suppose Paul couldn’t stomach it any more at the plant. He wanted the corporation to take care of its people, to retrain them when their jobs became obsolete, to value all their efforts, not just the top scientists.
What would Paul to? What about a revolt against the automation of society, an uprising by men made useless by machines? What other choice was there against the might of American industry?
Kurt felt the idea begin to take shape. Paul could start his own insurgency or … no, wait, he could be recruited into an existing operation. He could reunite with his brave buddy, Finnerty, who would motivate Paul to become more deeply involved.
Finnerty, a friendly Irish name. He could be another likeable character, a man with the courage to jump out of the system, Paul’s role model. He could be a little larger than life, like the savage in Brave New World.
Kurt sat back. This could be an important discovery. It could be the skeleton on which he could hang his entire story. At the very least, in the forest of fiction-writing, it was a chop mark on a tree. He was heading in the right direction.
He worked most of the night. When he found himself drifting off, he tiptoed down the hall to grab a couple of hours of sleep, only to discover Mark was sprawled on his side of the bed. A non-verbal message from his wife or a toddler’s nightmare?
He slept in his clothes on the living room sofa.
* * * *
In the morning, he was miserable. Jittery from coffee and aspirin. Jolted by Jane’s news.
“Looks like we might have a special Christmas present,” she told him over pancakes. He should’ve known something was up when she fixed him a fancy breakfast.
“When did you see the doctor?” He tried for a happy tone.
“Yesterday. It’s official. Due date mid-to-late December.”
“That’s great,” Kurt gushed, slathering on the syrup so he could swallow another mouthful.
On the drive to the plant, he was tormented by doubts, teetering on the brink of despair.
What did he think he was doing? He had a kid at home and Janie wanted another. He needed money, steady money, not the come-what-may payday of a fiction writer. This was a dream job, a prestigious position at one of the most important corporations in the country. Was he going to throw it all away?
He only got this job because of his brother. Bernard had taught him about the company and introduced him. Because he had grown up around him, it was easy for Kurt to talk to engineers and to scientists. He had a knack for transforming technical, scientific methodology into glossy fantasy. But he was just a pretender, a flack.
Bernard had protected him. His stature made it difficult to discipline or lay off his brother. Kurt was sure his poor work habits, his lack of output, would eventually doom him at GE anyway.
By the time he got to his desk, Kurt had worked himself into an unwonderful mood. Bundy and Trey saw him grinding his teeth and gave him a wide berth.
He hadn’t done anything yet to develop a press strategy for the Cold Winters campaign. He dreaded going on a big press push, contacting all the reporters on his list, chatting them up, trying to make news out of business. He didn’t want to do that anymore.
It became obvious that Trey and Bundy were further along on the campaign than he was. They’d agreed on a central image for their print and broadcast ads. Your Cold Winters Just Got a Little Warmer, the headline proclaimed above a two-frame, before-and-after shot. In the left-hand frame, an adorable little girl huddled in a thin blanket, looking miserable. In right-hand frame, she was cozy and content under her GE electric blanket.
“The image is trite,” he snapped, suddenly angry.
“I think of the little girl as iconic,” Trey said. “I’ll grant it’s not original.”
“Cute,” Bundy said. “Can’t go wrong with little girls and puppies.”
“Can’t we get past cute?” Kurt asked. “Can’t we find something more powerful? Let’s put the fear of God into them.”
“How would we do that?” Trey asked gently.
“And why?” Bundy added.
Kurt sighed, put his head in his hands.
“I don’t know. It’s just so … so nice. We’re having an epidemic of niceness. Everything is so sweet. It’s like a virus. I don’t know …”
“It’s an electric blanket, Kurt,” Bundy said, “not a weapon.”
“I don’t know,” Trey said. “In the wrong hands …”
They all laughed, breaking the tension.
This scenario occurred too often these days. Kurt would get pissed for no particular reason. Trey and Bundy would calm him down, coddle him. Kurt couldn’t seem to help himself.
Miller poked his head in, trying to be casual. He didn’t want any more outbursts.
“Morning, fellas,” the boss said. “Must be hard to work on Cold Winters on such a sunny spring day.”
Kurt squinted out the window. It was bright out there.
“Makes you want to play hooky,” he said, “or pull the covers over your head.”
“The electric covers,” Trey added.
Miller laughed. He came into the room, examining the butcher paper that held the optional campaign slogans.
“I think you boys have got a hold of a good one this time.”
“Keepin’ the customer satisfied,” Kurt said. “Givin’ ‘em something they’ve gotta have, but don’t really need.”
Bundy glanced at Trey, who rolled his eyes.
“Are you implying that somehow we’re misleading the public?” Miller asked.
“Misdirecting is more like it,” Kurt laughed. “The oldest trick in the book. The real magic at the House of Magic.”
Miller held himself ramrod straight, as if at attention, glaring at Kurt.
Bundy looked away. Trey picked up a sheet from his desk and tried to look busy. Kurt was trapped in a staring match with his boss six feet away.
“You’d better think about what you’re saying,” Miller said with crisp military diction. “I’m proud of what we do in this office and I expect all of you to be too.”
He strode out of the room. This time it was Kurt left with his finger in the air when the door slammed.
* * * *
Memorial Day, Monday morning. The volunteers gathered upstairs early. Most had new haircuts and fresh shaves for the big event. They put their finishing touches on their uniforms.
The heel snapped off the shoes the chief was polishing.
“Damn,” Blanton said. “Where’d we put that tool box?”
Sam Dawson wondered if anyone had seen his uniform cap. Earl Boudreau opened the ironing board and pressed his dress blue jacket. Fred Paine patiently sewed a torn back pocket.
“No telling how this happened,” he said. “I don’t remember snagging it on anything.”
Companionable chuckles. The men were comfortable around each other.
Kurt kept quiet. He couldn’t get the argument with his boss out of his mind. Maybe he’d overplayed his hand with Miller. He wasn’t sure he still had a job. He couldn’t afford to be out of work with nothing except that clunky old typewriter to make a living. He wasn’t ready for that. Should he stand his ground? Or should he make a point of a public apology?
When they completed their preparations, the volunteers moved the fire engine outside and clambered aboard. They drove up the hill, turning right on Second Street and following the connector around to the top of First. They formed up there on the side street.
Lucy led the parade. The big red truck moved down Evanskill Avenue at a stately pace, followed at a suitable distance by the Evanskill Elementary School Band, which consisted of three clarinets, two trombones, three trumpets and four snare drums, occasionally playing together.
Then came seven World War I vets in uniform, two pushed in wheelchairs; about fifty girl and boy scouts; the ambulance from Ellis Hospital in Schenectady; the hearse from Glenville Funeral Home; a backhoe from the farm implements dealer in Rexford; two deputy sheriffs in two cars; the twelve-member Scotia Air Cadets; and several 4H members, riding horses and herding three head of cattle that splashed poop across the street.
It was splendid, by Evanskill standards.
Chief Blanton was at the wheel. Earl Boudreau struck the big bell every few seconds. Sam Dawson and Carson Berry clung to the running board on the left. Fred Paine and Jake Cargill, the plumber, were on the right side. Dave Decker, the local science teacher, joined Kurt at the rear of the truck.
To Kurt, concerned about his personal problems, everything seemed surreal. Here he was waving to the children standing in front of the post office or lined up in front of the general store, his own son among them, holding Jane’s hand.
Here he was like someone famous, someone to look up to. And all the time he might be unemployed, a man with a family and obligations and no way to meet them.
But it was real to the rest of the volunteers. Hyper-real. They were heroes, proudly dressed in their official finery. They were the men who ran this town. This was their hour. This was their display of power.
Men like Earl believed it utterly. Shunned at the plant, he was applauded in Evanskill. He was ringing the bell.
The procession crept across the narrow bridge and continued toward the tracks, where the long snake turned in and curled around itself. The marchers came back up the main drag for a quarter-miles until they re-crossed the creek, turned on Dean Street and concluded the show at the church.
Lucy stopped in front of the building. The backhoe, the hearse and the ambulance parked a few doors down. The horses and cattle loaded onto trailers to be taken back to the farm on Blue Barns Road.
The chief and Earl let the town kids take turns sitting in the driver’s seat. A few youngsters stood on the running boards and pretended they were speeding toward a blaze. The other children, many in scout uniforms, clustered around them.
Kurt and a few volunteers brought out folding chairs for the old soldiers and other townsfolk. Then they set up three rows of folding tables and chairs where people could eat. Other volunteers retired to the church basement and fired up the big kitchen to cook the hot dogs and burgers and reheat the beans.
Sam set up the pay station by the front door and began selling tickets. The Memorial Day picnic was the fire department’s biggest fundraiser of the year.
On one of his many trips to the basement, this time to fetch some cases of pop, Kurt spotted a player piano pushed against the wall. The wood was scratched and stained. These old instruments were rare. He hadn’t seen one in years.
He sat on the bench, opened the cover and checked to make sure a paper roll was in place. He began to pump the food pedals and heard a small motor click on. A boogie-woogie rag began, keys bouncing up and down in a syncopated beat.
Kurt laughed. He looked around. Everyone else was busy.
This was an early example of what he was trying to write about, he thought. It was a machine that replaced a human. No hands were making those keys depress and release.
It seemed like a good thing. It was an easier way to play the instrument. You didn’t have to learn how to read the notes. You didn’t have to train your fingers to make these unnatural stretches. But how long would it be before no man or woman was able to make music without mechanical assistance?
“Hey, Vonnegut,” Carson Berry called from the doorway, “where’s that soda?”
Kurt pushed back the bench and went to work, but he left the old pianola pounding a happy tune. It made him smile, as he carried several cases of drinks across the room. It was a fine image. He could use it in his story.
That got him back to his writing again. It didn’t take much.
To hell with Miller, he thought, as he brought the bottles to the drink station. May as well quit now, get it over with, whatever the boss was going to do. May as strike out on his own, make it or break it with his trusty Underwood.
You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.
Maybe Jane could get a job for the short haul. Until he hit it big. He’d talk to her about it.
His wife was under the big oak in the side yard. She and Emily Boudreau were alone at a long picnic table. Emily was waving her painfully skinny arms. She appeared to be angry. Was she sporting a black eye?
Kurt decided not to interrupt Jane. He stood by the drink station and observed the townspeople milling around the church grounds.
What if Emily lost her job at Dairy Freeze? What would Earl do then? What if Fred Paine got laid off because GE developed an automated coal unloader? Pretty soon, no one would be able to pay their bills at the grocery store and Sam Dawson would go out of business. The only people with jobs would be the fire chief, the minister and Bernard? What kind of town would that be?
Could any of this work in his novel? Could he use the volunteers and their wives as characters in his story? Or at least adapt their personalities to his purposes?
Kurt grabbed some napkins and took the pen from his pocket. He backed against a tree and slid to a sitting position. He started taking notes, getting down his ideas, looking up at his neighbors in a new light.
(Author’s Note: In 1949, Kurt Vonnegut lived in Alplaus. N.Y., a village five miles outside of Schenectady that was very much like Evanskill. He worked as a publicist at General Electric and was a member of the Alplaus Volunteer Fire Department. A former corporal, a POW in Dresden, he sold his first story that October, three months after this narrative is set. He quit his job at GE that December to write fiction full-time. He published Player Piano, his first novel, in 1952.)