Ilium, New York, is divided into three parts.
In the northwest are the managers and engineers and civil servants and a few professional people; in the northeast are the machines; and in the south, across the Iroquois River, is the area known locally as Homestead, where almost all of the people live.
If the bridge across the Iroquois were dynamited, few daily routines would be disturbed. Not many people on either side have reasons other than curiosity for crossing.
During the war, in hundreds of Iliums over America, managers and engineers learned to get along without their men and women, who went to fight. It was the miracle that won the war—production with almost no manpower. In the patois of the north side of the river, it was the know-how that won the war. Democracy owed its life to know-how.
Ten years after the war—after the men and women had come home, after the riots had been put down, after thousands had been jailed under the antisabotage laws-Doctor Paul Proteus was petting a cat in his office. He was the most important, brilliant person in Ilium, the manager of the Ilium Works, though only thirty-five. He was tall, thin, nervous, and dark, with the gentle good looks of his long face distorted by dark-rimmed glasses.
He didn't feel important or brilliant at the moment, nor had he for some time. His principle concern just then was that the black cat be contented in its new surroundings.
Those old enough to remember and too old to compete said affectionately that Doctor Proteus looked just as his father had as a young man—and it was generally understood, resentfully in some quarters, that Paul would someday rise almost as high in the organization as his father had. His father, Doctor George Proteus, was at the time of his death the nation's first National Industrial, Commercial, Communications, Foodstuffs, and Resources Director, a position approached in importance only by the presidency of the United States.
As for the Proteus genes' chances of being passed down to yet another generation, there were practically none. Paul's wife, Anita, his secretary during the war, was barren. Ironically as anyone would please, he had married her after she had declared that she was certainly pregnant, following an abandoned office celebration of victory.
"Like that, kitty?" With solicitousness and vicarious pleasure, young Proteus ran a roll of blueprints along the cat's arched back. "Mmmm-aaaaah—good, eh?" He had spotted her that morning, near the golf course, and had picked her up as a mouser for the plant. Only the night before, a mouse had gnawed through the insulation on a control wire and put buildings 17, 19, and 21 temporarily out of commission.
Paul turned on his intercom set. "Katharine?"
"Yes, Doctor Proteus?"
"Katharine, when's my speech going to be typed?"
"I'm doing it now, sir. Ten, fifteen minutes, I promise."
Doctor Katharine Finch was his secretary, and the only woman in the Ilium Works. Actually, she was more a symbol of rank than a real help, although she was useful as a stand-in when Paul was ill or took a notion to leave work early. Only the brass-plant managers and bigger—had secretaries. During the war, the managers and engineers had found that the bulk of secretarial work could be done—as could most lower-echelon jobs—more quickly and efficiently and cheaply by machines. Anita was about to be dismissed when Paul had married her. Now, for instance, Katharine was being annoyingly unmachinelike, dawdling over Paul’s speech, and talking to her presumed lover, Doctor Bud Calhoun, at the same time.
Bud, who was manager of the petroleum terminal in Ilium, worked only when shipments came or went by barge or pipeline, and he spent most of his time between these crises—as now—filling Katharine's ears with the euphoria of his Georgia sweet talk.
Paul took the cat in his arms and carried her to the enormous floor-to-ceiling window that comprised one wall. "Lots and lots of mice out there, Kitty," he said.
He was showing the cat an old battlefield at peace. Here, in the basin of the river bend, the Mohawks had overpowered the Algonquins, the Dutch the Mohawks, the British the Dutch, the Americans the British. Now, over bones and rotten palings and cannon balls and arrowheads, there lay a triangle of steel and masonry buildings, a half-mile on each side—the Illium Works. Where men had once howled and hacked at one another, and fought nip-and-tuck with nature as well, the machines hummed and whirred and clicked, and made parts for baby carriages and bottle caps, motorcycles and refrigerators, television sets and tricycles—the fruits of peace.
Paul raised his eyes above the rooftops of the great triangle to the glare of the sun on the Iroquois River, and beyond-to Homestead, where many of the pioneer names still lived: van Zandt, Cooper, Cortland, Stokes . . .
"Doctor Proteus?" It was Katharine again.
"It's on again."
"Three in building 58?"
"Yessir—the light's on again."
"All right—call Doctor Shepherd and find out what he's doing about it."
"He's sick today. Remember?"
"Then it's up to me, I guess." He put on his coat, sighed with ennui, picked up the cat, and walked into Katharine's office. "Don't get up, don't get up," he said to Bud, who was stretched out on a couch.
"Who was gonna get up?" said Bud.
Three walls of the room were solid with meters from baseboard to molding, unbroken save for the doors leading into the outer hall and into Paul's office. The fourth wall, as in Paul's office, was a single pane of glass. The meters were identical, the size of cigarette packages, and stacked like masonry, each labeled with a bright brass plate. Each was connected to a group of machines somewhere in the Works. A glowing red jewel called attention to the seventh meter from the bottom, fifth row to the left, on the east wall.
Paul tapped on the meter with his finger. "Uh-huh—here we go again: number three in 58 getting rejects, all right." He glanced over the rest of the instruments. "Guess that's all, eh?"
"Just that one."
"Whatch goin' do with thet cat?" said Bud.
Paul snapped his fingers. "Say, I'm glad you asked that. I have a project for you, Bud. I want some sort of signaling device that will tell this cat where she can find a mouse."
"I should hope so."
"You'd need some kind of sensin' element thet could smell a mouse."
"Or a rat. I want you to work on it while I'm gone."
As Paul walked out to his car in the pale March sunlight, he realized that Bud Calhoun would have a mouse alarm designed—one a cat could understand—by the time he got back to the office. Paul sometimes wondered if he wouldn't have been more content in another period of history, but the rightness of Bud's being alive now was beyond question. Bud's mentality was one that had been remarked upon as being peculiarly American since the nation had been born—the restless, erratic insight and imagination of a gadgeteer. This was the climax, or close to it, of generations of Bud Calhouns, with almost all of American industry integrated into one stupendous Rube Goldberg machine.
Paul stopped by Bud's car, which was parked next to his. Bud had shown off its special features to him several times, and, playfully, Paul put it through its paces. "Let's go," he said to the car.
A whir and a click, and the door flew open. "Hop in," said a tape recording under the dashboard. The starter spun, the engine caught and idled down, and the radio went on.
Gingerly, Paul pressed a button on the steering column. A motor purred, gears grumbled softly, and the two front seats lay down side by side like sleepy lovers. It struck Paul as shockingly like an operating table for horses he had once seen in a veterinary hospital—where the horse was walked alongside the tipped table, lashed to it, anesthetized, and then toppled into operating position by the gear-driven table top. He could see Katharine Finch sinking, sinking, sinking, as Bud, his hand on the button, crooned. Paul raised the seats with another button. "Goodbye," he said to the car.
The motor stopped, the radio winked off, and the door slammed. "Don't take any wooden nickels," called the car as Paul climbed into his own. "Don't take any wooden nickels, don't take any wooden nickels, don't take any—"
Bud's car fell silent, apparently at peace.
Paul drove down the broad, clean boulevard that split the plant, and watched the building numbers flash by. A station wagon, honking its horn, and its occupants waving to him, shot past in the opposite direction, playfully zigzagging on the deserted street, heading for the main gate. Paul glanced at his watch. That was the second shift just coming off work. It annoyed him that sophomoric high spirits should be correlated with the kind of young men it took to keep the plant going. Cautiously, he assured himself that when he, Finnerty, and Shepherd had come to work in the Ilium Works thirteen years before, they had been a good bit more adult, less cock-sure, and certainly without the air of belonging to an elite.
Some people, including Paul's famous father, had talked in the old days as though engineers, managers, and scientists were an elite. And when things were building up to the war, it was recognized that American know-how was the only answer to the prospective enemy's vast numbers, and there was talk of deeper, thicker shelters for the possessors of know-how, and of keeping this cream of the population out of the front-line fighting. But not many had taken the idea of an elite to heart. When Paul, Finnerty, and Shepherd had graduated from college, early in the war, they had felt sheepish about not going to fight, and humbled by those who did go. But now this elite business, this assurance of superiority, this sense of rightness about the hierarchy topped by managers and engineers-this was instilled in all college graduates, and there were no bones about it.
Paul felt better when he got into Building 58, a long, narrow structure four blocks long. It was a pet of his. He'd been told to have the north end of the building torn down and replaced, and he'd talked Headquarters out of it. The north end was the oldest building in the plant, and Paul had saved it—because of its historical interest to visitors, he'd told Headquarters. But he discouraged and disliked visitors, and he'd really saved Building 58's north end for himself. It was the original machine shop set up by Edison in 1886, the same year in which he opened another in Schenectady, and visiting it took the edge off Paul's periods of depression. It was a vote of confidence from the past, he thought-where the past admitted how humble and shoddy it had been, where one could look from the old to the new and see that mankind really had come a long way. Paul needed that reassurance from time to time.
Objectively, Paul tried to tell himself, things really were better than ever. For once, after the great bloodbath of the war, the world really was cleared of unnatural terrors-mass starvation, mass imprisonment, mass torture, mass murder. Objectively, know-how and world law were getting their long-awaited chance to turn earth into an altogether pleasant and convenient place in which to sweat out Judgment Day.
Paul wished he had gone to the front, and heard the senseless tumult and thunder, and seen the wounded and dead, and maybe got a piece of shrapnel through his leg. Maybe he'd be able to understand then how good everything now was by comparison, to see what seemed so clear to others—that what he was doing, had done, and would do as a manager and engineer was vital, above reproach, and had, in fact, brought on a golden age. Of late, his job, the system, and organizational politics had left him variously annoyed, bored, or queasy.
He stood in the old part of Building 58, which was now filled with welding machines and a bank of insulation braiders. It soothed him to look up at the wooden rafters, uneven with ancient adze marks beneath flaking calcimine, and at the dull walls of brick soft enough for men—God knows how long ago—to carve their initials in: "KTM," "DG," "GP," "BDH," "HB," "NNS." Paul imagined for a moment—as he often imagined on visits to Building 58—that he was Edison, standing on the threshold of a solitary brick building on the banks of the Iroquois, with the upstate winter slashing through the broomcorn outside. The rafters still bore the marks of what Edison had done with the lonely brick barn: bolt holes showed where overhead shafts had once carried power to a forest of belts, and the wood-block floor was black with the oil and scarred by the feet of the crude machines the belts had spun.
On his office wall, Paul had a picture of the shop as it had been in the beginning. All of the employees, most of them recruited from surrounding farms, had stood shoulder to shoulder amid the crude apparatus for the photograph, almost fierce with dignity and pride, ridiculous in stiff collars and derbies. The photographer had apparently been accustomed to taking pictures of athletic teams and fraternal organizations, for the picture had the atmosphere, after the fashion of the day, of both. In each face was a defiant promise of physical strength, and at the same time, there was the attitude of a secret order, above and apart from society by virtue of participating in important and moving rites the laity could only guess about—and guess wrong. The pride in strength and important mystery showed no less in the eyes of the sweepers than in those of the machinists and inspectors, and in those of the foreman, who alone was without a lunchbox.
A buzzer sounded, and Paul stepped to one side of the aisle as the sweeping machine rattled by on its rails, whooshing up a cloud of dust with spinning brooms, and sucking up the cloud with a voracious snout. The cat in Paul's arms clawed up threads from his suit and hissed at the machine.
Paul's eyes began to nag him with a prickling sensation, and he realized that he'd been gazing into the glare and sputter of the welding machines without protecting his eyes. He clipped dark glasses over his spectacles, and strode through the antiseptic smell of ozone toward lathe group three, which was in the center of the building, in the new part.
He paused for a moment by the last welding-machine group, and wished Edison could be with him to see it. The old man would have been enchanted.
Excerpted from Player Piano by Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. Copyright © 2001 by Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr.. Excerpted by permission.
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