Cat’s CradleKurt VonnegutContents

81. A White Bride for the Son of a Pullman Porter

I did not know what was going to come from Angela’s clarinet. No one could have imagined what was going to come from there.

I expected something pathological, but I did not expect the depth, the violence, and the almost intolerable beauty of the disease.

Angela moistened and warmed the mouthpiece, but did not blow a single preliminary note. Her eyes glazed over, and her long, bony fingers twittered idly over the noiseless keys.

I waited anxiously, and I remembered what Marvin Breed had told me—that Angela’s one escape from her bleak life with her father was to her room, where she would lock the door and play along with phonograph records.

Newt now put a long-playing record on the large phonograph in the room off the terrace. He came back with the record’s slipcase, which he handed to me.

The record was called Cat House Piano. It was of unaccompanied piano by Meade Lux Lewis.

Since Angela, in order to deepen her trance, let Lewis play his first number without joining him, I read some of what the jacket said about Lewis.

“Born in Louisville, Ky., in 1905,” I read, “Mr. Lewis didn’t turn to music until he had passed his 16th birthday and then the instrument provided by his father was the violin. A year later young Lewis chanced to hear Jimmy Yancey play the piano. ‘This,’ as Lewis recalls, ‘was the real thing.’ Soon,” I read, “Lewis was teaching himself to play the boogie-woogie piano, absorbing all that was possible from the older Yancey, who remained until his death a close friend and idol to Mr. Lewis. Since his father was a Pullman porter,” I read, “the Lewis family lived near the railroad. The rhythm of the trains soon became a natural pattern to young Lewis and he composed the boogie-woogie solo, now a classic of its kind, which became known as ‘Honky Tonk Train Blues.’”

I looked up from my reading. The first number on the record was done. The phonograph needle was now scratching its slow way across the void to the second. The second number, I learned from the jacket, was “Dragon Blues.”

Meade Lux Lewis played four bars alone-and then Angela Hoenikker joined in.

Her eyes were closed.

I was flabbergasted.

She was great.

She improvised around the music of the Pullman porter’s son; went from liquid lyricism to rasping lechery to the shrill skittishness of a frightened child, to a heroin nightmare.

Her glissandi spoke of heaven and hell and all that lay between.

Such music from such a woman could only be a case of schizophrenia or demonic possession.

My hair stood on end, as though Angela were rolling on the floor, foaming at the mouth, and babbling fluent Babylonian.

When the music was done, I shrieked at Julian Castle, who was transfixed, too, “My God—life! Who can understand even one little minute of it?”

“Don’t try,” he said. “Just pretend you understand.”

“That’s—that’s very good advice.” I went limp.

Castle quoted another poem:

Tiger got to hunt,
Bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder, “Why, why, why?”
Tiger got to sleep,
Bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.

“What’s that from?” I asked.

“What could it possibly be from but The Books of Bokonon?

“I’d love to see a copy sometime.”

“Copies are hard to come by,” said Castle. “They aren’t printed. They’re made by hand. And, of course, there is no such thing as a completed copy, since Bokonon is adding things every day.”

Little Newt snorted. “Religion!”

“Beg your pardon?” Castle said.

“See the cat?” asked Newt. “See the cradle?”

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