Cat’s CradleKurt VonnegutContents

111. Time Out

Frank came back with brooms and dustpans, a blowtorch, and a kerosene hot plate, and a good old bucket and rubber gloves.

We put on the gloves in order not to contaminate our hands with ice-nine. Frank set the hot plate on the heavenly Mona’s xylophone and put the honest old bucket on top of that.

And we picked up the bigger chunks of ice-nine from the floor; and we dropped them into that humble bucket; and they melted. They became good old, sweet old, honest old water.

Angela and I swept the floor, and little Newt looked under furniture for bits of ice-nine we might have missed. And Frank followed our sweeping with the purifying flame of the torch.

The brainless serenity of charwomen and janitors working late at night came over us. In a messy world we were at least making our little corner clean.

And I heard myself asking Newt and Angela and Frank in conversational tones to tell me about the Christmas Eve on which the old-man died, to tell me about the dog.

And, childishly sure that they were making everything all right by cleaning up, the Hoenikkers told me the tale.

The tale went like this:

On that fateful Christmas Eve, Angela went into the village for Christmas tree lights, and Newt and Frank went for a walk on the lonely winter beach, where they met a black Labrador retriever. The dog was friendly, as all Labrador retrievers are, and he followed Frank and little Newt home.

Felix Hoenikker died—died in his white wicker chair looking out at the sea—while his chldren were gone. All day the old man had been teasing his children with hints about ice-nine, showing it to them in a little bottle on whose label he had drawn a skull and crossbones, and on whose label he had written: “Danger! Ice-nine! Keep away from moisture!”

All day long the old man had been nagging his children with words like these, merry in tone: “Come on now, stretch your minds a little. I’ve told you that its melting point is a hundred fourteen-point-four degrees Fahrenheit, and I’ve told you that it’s composed of nothing but hydrogen and oxygen. What could the explanation be? Think a little! Don’t be afraid of straining your brains. They won’t break.”

“He was always telling us to stretch our brains,” said Frank, recalling olden times.

“I gave up trying to stretch my brain when I-don’t-know-how-old-I-was,” Angela confessed, leaning on her broom. “I couldn’t even listen to him when he talked about science. I’d just nod and pretend I was trying to stretch my brain, but that poor brain, as far as science went, didn’t have any more stretch than an old garter belt.”

Apparently, before he sat down in his wicker chair and died, the old man played puddly games in the kitchen with water and pots and pans and ice-nine. He must have been converting water to ice-nine and back to water again, for every pot and pan was out on the kitchen countertops. A meat thermometer was out, too, so the old man must have been taking the temperature of things.

The old man meant to take only a brief time out in his chair, for he left quite a mess in the kitchen. Part of the disorder was a saucepan filled with solid ice-nine. He no doubt meant to melt it up, to reduce the world’s supply of the blue-white stuff to a splinter in a bottle again—after a brief time out.

But, as Bokonon tells us, “Any man can call time out, but no man can say how long the time out will be.”

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