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'Look at the Birdie'

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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.

"You mustn't forget," he said, "Freud himself was self-educated in the field. And one thing Freud said was that a brilliant intuition was as important as anything taught in medical school." He gave a dry laugh. His little red mouth certainly didn't show any merriment to go with the laugh. "When I was arrested," he said, "a young reporter who had finished high school -- wonder of wonders, he may have even finished college -- he asked me to tell him what a paranoiac was. Can you imagine?" he said. "I had been dealing with the insane and the nearly insane of this city for seven years, and that young squirt, who maybe took freshman psychology at Jerkwater U, thought he could baffle me with a question like that."

"What is a paranoiac?" I said.

"I sincerely hope that that is a respectful question put by an ignorant man in search of truth," he said.

"It is," I said. It wasn't.

"Good," he said. "Your respect for me at this point should be growing by leaps and bounds."

"It is," I said. It wasn't.

"A paranoiac, my friend," he said, "is a person who has gone crazy in the most intelligent, well-informed way, the world being what it is. The paranoiac believes that great secret conspiracies are afoot to destroy him."

"Do you believe that about yourself?" I said.

"Friend," he said, "I have been destroyed! My God, I was making sixty thousand dollars a year -- six patients an hour, at five dollars a head, two thousand hours a year. I was a rich, proud, and happy man. And that miserable woman who just took your picture, she was beautiful, wise, and serene."

"Too bad," I said.

"Too bad it is, indeed, my friend," he said. "And not just for us, either. This is a sick, sick city, with thousands upon thousands of mentally ill people for whom nothing is being done. Poor people, lonely people, afraid of doctors, most of them -- those are the people I was helping. Nobody is helping them now." He shrugged. "Well," he said, "having been caught fishing illegally in the waters of human misery, I have returned my entire catch to the muddy stream."

"Didn't you turn your records over to somebody?" I said.

"I burned them," he said. "The only thing I saved was a list of really dangerous paranoiacs that only I knew about -- violently insane people hidden in the woodwork of the city, so to speak -- a laundress, a telephone installer, a florist's helper, an elevator operator, and on and on."

Koradubian winked. "A hundred and twenty-three names on my magic list -- all people who heard voices, all people who thought certain strangers were out to get them, all people, who, if they got scared enough, would kill."

He sat back and beamed. "I see you're beginning to understand," he said. "When I was arrested, and then got out on bail, I bought a camera -- the same camera that took your picture. And my wife and I took candid snapshots of the District Attorney, the President of the County Medical Association, of an editorial writer who demanded my conviction. Later on, my wife photographed the judge and jury, the prosecuting attorney, and all of the unfriendly witnesses.

"I called in my paranoiacs, and I apologized to them. I told them that I had been very wrong in telling them that there was no plot against them. I told them that I had uncovered a monstrous plot, and that I had photographs of the plotters. I told them that they should study the photographs, and should be alert and armed constantly. And I promised to send them more photographs from time to time."

I was sick with horror, had a vision of the city teeming with innocent-looking lunatics who would suddenly kill and run.

"That -- that picture of me --" I said wretchedly.

"We'll keep it locked up nice and tight," said Koradubian, "provided you keep this conversation a secret, and provided you give me money."

"How much money?" I said.

"I'll take whatever you've got on you now," he said.

I had twelve dollars. I gave it to him. "Now do I get the picture back?" I said.

"No," he said. "I'm sorry, but this goes on indefinitely, I'm afraid. One has to live, you know." He sighed, tucked away the money in his billfold.

"Shameful days, shameful days," he murmured. "And to think that I was once a respected professional man."

From the book "Look at the Birdie" by Kurt Vonnegut. Text copyright 2009 by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Trust. To be published by Delecorte Press, an imprint of the Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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