YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

'Look at the Birdie'

October 18, 2009|Kurt Vonnegut

I was sitting in a bar one night, talking rather loudly about a person I hated -- and a man with a beard sat down beside me, and he said amiably, "Why don't you have him killed?"

"I've thought of it," I said. "Don't think I haven't."

"Let me help you to think about it clearly," he said. His voice was deep. His beak was large. He wore a black mohair suit and a black string tie. His little red mouth was obscene. "You're looking at the situation through a red haze of hate," he said. "What you need are the calm, wise services of a murder counselor, who can plan the job for you, and save you an unnecessary trip to the hot squat."

"Where do I find one?" I said.

"You've found one," he said.

"You're crazy," I said.

"That's right," he said. "I've been in and out of mental institutions all my life. That makes my services all the more appealing. If I were ever to testify against you, your lawyer would have no trouble establishing that I was a well-known nut, and a convicted felon besides."

"What was the felony?" I said.

"A little thing -- practicing medicine without a license," he said.

"Not murder then?" I said.

"No," he said, "but that doesn't mean I haven't murdered. As a matter of fact, I murdered almost everyone who had anything to do with convicting me of practicing medicine without a license." He looked at the ceiling, did some mental arithmetic. "Twenty-two, twenty-three people -- maybe more," he said. "Maybe more. I've killed them over a period of years, and I haven't read the papers every single day."

"You black out when you kill, do you," I said, "and wake up the next morning, and read that you've struck again?"

"No, no, no, no, no," he said. "No, no, no, no, no. I killed many of those people while I was cozily tucked away in prison. You see," he said, "I use the cat-over-the-wall technique, a technique I recommend to you."

"This is a new technique?" I said.

"I like to think that it is," he said. He shook his head. "But it's so obvious, I can't believe that I was the first to think of it. After all, murdering's an old, old trade."

"You use a cat?" I said.

"Only as an analogy," he said. "You see," he said, "a very interesting legal question is raised when a man, for one reason or another, throws a cat over a wall. If the cat lands on a person, claws his eyes out, is the cat thrower responsible?"

"Certainly," I said.

"Good," he said. "Now then -- if the cat lands on nobody, but claws someone 10 minutes after being thrown, is the cat thrower responsible?"

"No," I said.

"That," he said, "is the high art of the cat-over-the-wall technique for carefree murder."

"Time bombs?" I said.

"No, no, no," he said, pitying my feeble imagination.

"Slow poisons? Germs?" I said.

"No," he said. "And your next and final guess I already know: killers for hire from out of town." He sat back, pleased with himself. "Maybe I really did invent this thing."

"I give up," I said.

"Before I tell you," he said, "you've got to let my wife take your picture." He pointed his wife out to me. She was a scrawny, thin-lipped woman with raddled hair and bad teeth. She was sitting in a booth with an untouched beer before her. She was obviously a lunatic herself, watching us with the harrowing cuteness of schizophrenia. I saw that she had a Rolleiflex with flashgun attached on the seat beside her.

At a signal from her husband, she came over and prepared to take my picture. "Look at the birdie," she said.

"I don't want my picture taken," I said.

"Say cheese," she said, and the flashgun went off.

When my eyes got used to darkness of the bar again, I saw the woman scuttling out the door.

"What the hell is this?" I said, standing up.

"Calm yourself. Sit down," he said. "You've had your picture taken. That's all."

"What's she going to do with it?" I said.

"Develop it," he said.

"And then what?" I said.

"Paste it in our picture album," he said, "in our treasure house of golden memories."

"Is this some kind of blackmail?" I said.

"Did she photograph you doing anything you shouldn't be doing?" he said.

"I want that picture," I said.

"You're not superstitious, are you?" he said.

"Superstitious?" I said.

"Some people believe that, if their picture is taken," he said, "the camera captures a little piece of their soul."

"I want to know what's going on," I said.

"Sit down and I'll tell you," he said.

"Make it good, and make it quick," I said.

"Good and quick it shall be, my friend," he said. "My name is Felix Koradubian. Does the name ring a bell?"

"No," I said.

"I practiced psychiatry in this city for seven years," he said. "Group psychiatry was my technique. I practiced in the round, mirror-lined ballroom of a stucco castle between a used car lot and a colored funeral home."

"I remember now," I said.

"Good," he said. "For your sake, I'd hate to have you think I was a liar."

"You were run in for quackery," I said.

"Quite right," he said.

"You hadn't even finished high school," I said.

Los Angeles Times Articles