Cat’s Cradle — Kurt Vonnegut — Contents
I was in the bar with Newt and H. Lowe Crosby and a couple of strangers, when San Lorenzo was sighted. Crosby was talking about pissants. “You know what I mean by a pissant?”
“I know the term,” I said, “but it obviously doesn’t have the ding-a-ling associations for me that it has for you.”
Crosby was in his cups and had the drunkard’s illusion that he could speak frankly, provided he spoke affectionately. He spoke frankly and affectionately of Newt’s size, something nobody else in the bar had so far commented on.
“I don’t mean a little feller like this.” Crosby hung a ham hand on Newt’s shoulder. “It isn’t size that makes a man a pissant. It’s the way he thinks. I’ve seen men four times as big as this little feller here, and they were pissants. And I’ve seen little fellers—well, not this little actually, but pretty damn little, by God—and I’d call them real men.”
“Thanks,” said Newt pleasantly, not even glancing at the monstrous hand on his shoulder. Never had I seen a human being better adjusted to such a humiliating physical handicap. I shuddered with admiration.
“You were talking about pissants,” I said to Crosby, hoping to get the weight of his hand off Newt.
“Damn right I was.” Crosby straightened up.
“You haven’t told us what a pissant is yet,” I said.
“A pissant is somebody who thinks he’s so damn smart, he never can keep his mouth shut. No matter what anybody says, he’s got to argue with it. You say you like something, and, by God, he’ll tell you why you’re wrong to like it. A pissant does his best to make you feel like a boob all the time. No matter what you say, he knows better.”
“Not a very attractive characteristic,” I suggested.
“My daughter wanted to marry a pissant once,” said Crosby darkly.
“I squashed him like a bug.” Crosby hammered on the bar, remembering things the pissant had said and done. “Jesus!” he said, “we’ve all been to college!” His gaze lit on Newt again. “You go to college?”
“Cornell,” said Newt.
“Cornell!” cried Crosby gladly. “My God, I went to Cornell.”
“So did he.” Newt nodded at me.
“Three Cornellians—all in the same plane!” said Crosby, and we had another granfalloon festival on our hands.
When it subsided some, Crosby asked Newt what he did.
“I’ll be damned,” said Crosby.
“Return to your seats and fasten your seat belts, please,” warned the airline hostess. “We’re over Monzano Airport, Bolivar, San Lorenzo.”
“Christ! Now wait just a Goddamn minute here,” said Crosby, looking down at Newt. “All of a sudden I realize you’ve got a name I’ve heard before.”
“My father was the father of the atom bomb.” Newt didn’t say Felix Hoenikker was one of the fathers. He said Felix was the father.
“Is that so?” asked Crosby.
“I was thinking about something else,” said Crosby. He had to think hard. “Something about a dancer.”
“I think we’d better get back to our seats,” said Newt, tightening some.
“Something about a Russian dancer.” Crosby was sufficiently addled by booze to see no harm in thinking out loud. “I remember an editorial about how maybe the dancer was a spy.”
“Please, gentlemen,” said the stewardess, “you really must get back to your seats and fasten your belts.”
Newt looked up at H. Lowe Crosby innocently. “You sure the name was Hoenikker?” And, in order to eliminate any chance of mistaken identity, he spelled the name for Crosby.
“I could be wrong,” said H. Lowe Crosby.