Read The Complete Roderick Online

Authors: John Sladek

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The Complete Roderick (12 page)

BOOK: The Complete Roderick
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‘Holy Ghost in the machine?’ He tried to make it sound ironic. All the same, a moment later he went into one of the stalls and sat down on the lid and asked for guidance.

It was a gamble, but then a Jansenist God might approve of that; had not Pascal proved that there was nothing to lose and everything to gain? The venue was strange, but then a Lutheran God was used to that; had not the first Lutheran also uncovered certain fundamental truths in a privy?

What Ben found was a paperback book on the floor. For a moment he simply stared at it, reading the title over and over:
God is Good Business.
A sign? No. A sign? No!

He could hardly call it a sign, with its gaudy yellow-and-black cover, its red sunburst proclaiming ‘18,000,000 copies sold!’ The back cover showed a grey portrait of the author, a smiling businessman with the unlikely name Goodall V. Wetts III.

Just say to yourself when you get up in the morning, ‘God
WANTS
me to win! God wants
ME
to win! God wants me to
WIN – TODAY!’
With this simple formula plus the Ten Rules of Faith Dynamics, you –

Ben shut the book and put it back on the floor. But on second thoughts he picked it up again. Might be good for a laugh some time … you never knew.

And what greater test could God put him through, than asking him to abandon all pleasures of the intellect and accept –
this?

Washing his hands again, Ben studied his face for changes. He was leaning forward, trying out a confident slow smile, when suddenly he realized he was not alone. A janitor stood leaning on a mop, watching him.

Jesus Christ! Ain’t enough you spend an hour in the john, you gotta spend another hour seein’ if your lipstick’s on straight. I gotta clean this joint, buster, howsabout fuckin’ off?’

‘Oh I … sorry …’

‘You will be sorry, if you write any more porno on my walls.’

Ben’s gaze flicked to the place whence the graffito had already been scrubbed.

‘Look I’m not responsible –’

‘You tellin’ me, anybody writes crap like that oughta see a shrink. You like fuckin’ clocks, do ya? Or just drawing dirty –’

Ben fled, his face burning, while the janitor shouted after him, ‘– pitchers of guys fuckin’ clocks, watches maybe, guys wid moustaches? Yeah? And what’s that mean,
DALI LAID DIAL,
what the fuck’s that m – ?’

Sounds of pain, sounds of rain. O’Smith opened his eyes to the sight of two people in white, arguing.

‘… wasn’t on duty when he came in, doctor. So if you want to blame somebody …’

‘Not a question of blame, it’s just procedure, that’s all. We send all John Does to City …’

‘Yes but Nancy said …’

‘Not as if we’re not overcrowded as it is what with the flu epidemic …
AH! HOW’S IT GOING, FELLA?’

O’Smith automatically reached out to shake his hand and
found that he was not reaching after all. His right arm was missing.

‘Where’s my durn arm?’

‘Your ah, prosthesis, well we had a little problem there, the car pretty much wrecked it. But don’t worry, get you fixed up with a new one just as soon as –’

‘Where is it? Where’s my durn arm?’

‘Are you insured, sir?’ The nurse was shoving a form in front of his eyes, wasn’t that
his
arm she was holding it with? ‘If we could just have your name and policy number –
God! Ow! Jesus!’

Someone shouted, crepe soles came flapping down the street, arms holding him, hands prying his jaws away from his own arm the nurse was wearing, what was a nurse doing inside this form anyways? Stabbed, he fell back, take it slow boy, wait your time, Brazos grinning at him as he heard some folks talking clear over in Galveston …

‘… gave him fifty ccs, doc, okay?’

‘Great, yeah, Nora, how’s that thumb?’

‘I’m … all right, doctor … guess it’s my own darn fault, mine and Nancy’s …’

Galveston, gal-with-a-vest-on, where was the durn armhole, he couldn’t get his arm through, what was that durn muzzle velocity …

‘Galveston,’ he said.

‘Better send this joker up to Section 23, right? Before he kills somebody, getting ’em all this week, you see the girl in B ward, the cast change? Hysterics, you’d think we were talking her leg off … said it took her ages to get all those names on the old one … Give him another fifty, Al, he’s still twitching. Talk about prosthesis overdependency, a paradox, Nora, a para …’

‘Oh you and your paradoxes! Dr Coppola, sometimes I think you read just a little bit too much …’

‘Like to keep up, right? Sure the admissions procedure is paradoxical but isn’t life itself?’

‘…’

‘… like in this Graham Greene yarn I’m reading … offers to sacrifice his own soul for the salvation of souls, but does that include his own or what?’

‘… always springing these egghead stories …’

‘… same with admissions … uninsured creep gets in we end up keeping him until he pays, only how can he pay if he can’t get out to work? Fairer not to let ’em in in the first pl …’

‘Have you looked at the corner patient, doctor? Nancy says either something’s wrong with the monitor or he has a temperature of 2 million …’

‘… try to get any maintenance done around here, might as well be asking for … yeah when I checked it read minus 3 million, B.P. 80 over zero …’

Fighting his way through Galveston one arm tied behind him, only it was somebody else’s arm, that old body in Florida reaching for his 12-gauge, Brazos looking surprised as the fully-automatic armhole opened up, bap you’re dead, bap you’re dead again …

They watched him sink into sleep and then made their way to Reception, where the pretty receptionist with all the hair was saying to a black doctor:

‘Sure, but I mean it don’t hardly seem fair, two doctors on the same ward with the same darn name almost!’

‘It’s easy, though, look:
I
’m Dr De’Ath,
he’s
Dr D’Eath.
I
’m black,
he’s
white. I specialize in epidemiology, he specializes in cardiology.
I –

‘Yeah I know but –’

‘Look:
he’s
building a robot to test artificial hearts,
I
don’t know one end of a soldering iron from the other, okay? So what’s the problem? What’s the big problem?’

Chief Dobbin opened the press conference by reading from a prepared statement that began: ‘I took one look and knew she was trouble with a capital T. This little lady happened to be very, very dead.’

A reporter in the back groaned and turned off his recorder. ‘Here we go, another literary treat.’

‘With a capital T,’ said his neighbour. ‘Ain’t we gonna get a look at the suspect?’ He cupped his hands and called,
‘SUSPECT!’

‘All in good time, boys. “I asked myself why? Why would any sane human being …’”

‘Probably be a chapter in his book,’ said the first reporter,
punching buttons on his pocket reminder. ‘Never heard of a fucking deadline.’

His neighbour, who was older, stopped picking his teeth to say, ‘Deadline? I thought you was on the
Caribou,
since when they meet deadlines on that shit-sheet? You wait till you graduate and try meeting a real deadline on a real paper.’

The boy was silent for a moment, pretending to study his reminder while Dobbin droned on. ‘Okay,’ he whispered finally. ‘How about a little help from an expert then, okay? Like what angle you got on this?’

‘Angle? Sex, of course. It’s a natural here, this Fong guy is ethnic, a creepy scientist, what more do you want?’

‘I meant, uh, you think he really – ?’

‘What the hell difference does that make, look, they found the dead girl with her leg cut off, blood all over the place, and in her hand was this book covered with his finger-prints, may not be enough for a court-room but it sure as hell works out fine on the front page. Forget about did he do it, get down to work on why?
Why, why,
as our police colleague likes to say.’ He picked a morsel from a back tooth and examined it before flicking it away. ‘Listen you try this for size: I’m doing a think piece to go with this story, on how all these cybernetics guys are repressed faggots, sadists and what have you. This a.m. I picked up a coupla their magazines, got a list here somewhere of some of the kinky words they use, strong sex angle running right through it, listen to this,
bit, byte, RAM,
how about those?’

‘I don’t know, they ain’t got much on him –’

‘Gang punch, flip-flop, input,
what do you think that really means, huh?
Stand-alone software,
how about that?
Debugger,
you can’t make it plainer, and even the company names, how about
Polymorphic Systems,
how about
The Digital Group?
Or
Texas Instruments,
ever wonder what a
Texas Instrument is?
Or a
Honeywell? IBM,
says a lot there …’

Someone held up a little camera. ‘Keep it down, you guys, just while I get this live, he’s gonna show us the book.’

O’Smith woke up feeling just fine, sitting in a fine little parlour with a lot of fine folks, still no arm but what the hell. There was
Chief Dobbin’s face beaming at him from the teevee, life wasn’t so bad.

This is the book that cracked this caper wide open.
Learning Systems,
we thought at first it was an educationalism book but we got our library experts to work on it and – here, I’ll show you a page – pure computers. So then we traced it to Dr Lee Fong of the Computer Science Department, found out he was on campus on the night in question. We put him under blanket surveillance, must of surveilled him for a week before he made a false move. He burned some documents and tried to make a run for it. We got him at the airport.

Like Brazos Bill, he thought. O’Smith must have got him at just about fifty airports. They could use a machine like that in here, better than just sittin’ in front of the teevee all day.

‘What you folks do for excitement around here?’ he asked the man in the next chair. Old buzzard, looked like that old body in Florida. Course all old folks look alike.

‘What?’

‘You got any amusement machines in this place?’

‘Machines!’ The old man started shaking all over. ‘Do you know about the machines?’

‘Know what, old-timer?’

‘Old-timer equals Saturn, malefic influence badly aspected to Mars equals iron, iron men in the walls, in the floors, in the –’

‘Jesus H. Christ I only asked –’

But the old man continued, his voice growing shrill: ‘In the walls in the floors in the earth, terrestrial currents, magnetic influences pointing North, North is the Mecca of the magnets, the Mecca, the mecca-men, mechanical men feel them in the walls they get in through the power lines, lines of magnetic current, wheels within wheels, lines within lines …’

A pair of white-clad men appeared; one held the old man while the other prepared a syringe. ‘Give him fifty this time Joe, he’ll sleep like a baby – not
now,
Mary, I can’t wind you up now, I’m busy giving Fred his medication …’

O’Smith leaned forward and concentrated on the teevee, camera zooming in on a page of print:

corrected by (SR
n
/100) × 4.7004397181 yielding 14.97 bits at 100 milliseconds exposure, using 4-gram array PU on a 43% redundancy input, well within expected limits for the 8688R imaging Unit. POKERSON, MOSSIANT, RICANING …

They cut to Lee Fong who turned out to be fat and fifty, thick glasses and everything – a real disappointment, to look at him. O’Smith hadn’t missed much there. No fun in a body that didn’t put up no fight, martial arts or nothing. Hell, most of ’em were just shit, not like that old boy in St Petersburg with his 12-gauge. He’d made some damn thing, a little machine for talking to old folks, a conversationizer for lonesome old folks. O’Smith didn’t see no harm in it but it was enough for the Agency list, the hit parade.

And after all, the big boys knew what they were doing.

BOOK TWO
I

Then the guests were invited to admire a barrel organ, and Nozdrev immediately began to grind out some music for their benefit. The organ produced a not unpleasant sound, but in the middle of the performance something happened, and a mazurka turned into [a march] and that in turn ended in a popular waltz. Long after Nozdrev had stopped turning the handle, an extraordinarily energetic reed in the organ went on whistling all by itself.

Nikolai Gogol,
Dead Souls

‘Semantics?’ Indica thumped her coffee cup on the pine table. ‘Hank doesn’t know the meaning of the word.’

Bax nodded. ‘I know what you mean. It’s like –’

‘It’s like he’s so damned hot to pick on some word or something, I mean he never hears what I’m really saying.’

‘I hear you, I mean, right on.’

She looked at him. Bax might be a little older than he looked, with his button-beanie and shaggy blond moustache.
Right on?
She took another sip of dandelion coffee and went on talking about her husband.

‘Like the other day. He got all pissed off just because I said Naomi’s basically a Fundamentalist. Oh, and when I told him I thought germ warfare was just sick? You should have heard him!’

‘No, I mean yeah. I know what you mean.’ Bax finished his glass of bean milk, belched and tipped back in his chair. ‘I mean, words only get in the way. Like people, and like – like things.’

‘Things, God, don’t tell me about things.’ Her thin face assumed its characteristic mask of martyrdom, eyes rolling back to look for guidance from the water-stained kitchen ceiling. ‘Solar panel’s leaking again, everywhere I look I see another busted thing around here. I mean, Hank just keeps buying crap and it just keeps breaking down and will he ever fix it? Ha. He’s always so busy with his crap environment magazine he never even sees the environment he lives in. I mean two years I’ve been shoving
match books under the leg of the dining table, been sticking a pail under the garbage disposal where it leaks, you seen our back yard? Six rusty old bikes, I mean six!’

BOOK: The Complete Roderick
9.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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