Mike Lantry, 1972
Obit Of Champions
And I made an invisible duplicate on my Formica tabletop of a painting by Rabo Karabekian, entitled The Temptation of Saint Anthony. My duplicate was a miniature version of the real thing, and mine was not in color, but I had captured the picture's form and the spirit, too. This is what I drew:
The original was twenty feet wide and sixteen feet high. The field was Hawaiian Avocado, a green wall paint manufactured by the O'Hare Paint and Varnish Company in Hellertown, Pennsylvania. The vertical stripe was dayglo orange reflecting tape. This was the most expensive piece of art, not counting building and tombstones, and not counting the statue of Abraham Lincoln in front of the old Nigger* high school.
It was a scandal what the painting cost. It was the first purchase for the permanent collection of the Mildred Barry Memorial Center for the Arts. Fred T. Barry, The chairman of the Board of Barrytron, Ltd., had coughed up fifty thousands dollars of his own for the picture.
Midland City was outraged. So was I.
As for myself: I had come to the conclusion that there was nothing sacred about myself or about any human being, that we were all machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide. For want of anything better to do, we became fans of collisions. Sometimes I wrote well about collision, which meant I was a writing machine in good repair. Sometimes I wrote badly, which meant I was a writing machine in bad repair. I no more harbored sacredness than did a Pontiac, a mouse trap, or a South Bend Lathe.**
I did not expect Rabo Karabekian to rescue me. I had created him, and he was in my opinion a vain and weak and trashy man, no artist at all. But it is Rabo Karabekian who made me the serene Earthling which I am to this day.
"What kind of man would turn his daughter into an outboard motor?" he said to Bonnie MacMahon.
Bonnie MacMahon blew up. This was the first time she had blown up since she had come to work in the cocktail lounge. Her voice became as unpleasant as the noise of a bandsaw cutting galvanized tin. It was loud, too. "Oh yeah?" she said. "Oh yeah?"
Everybody froze. Bunny over stopped playing the piano. Nobody wanted to miss a word.
"You don't think much of Mary Alice Miller?" she said. "Well, we don't think much of your painting. I've seen better pictures done by a five-year-old."
Karabekian slid off his barstool so he could face all those enemies standing up. He certainly surprised me. I expected him to retreat in a hail of olives, maraschino cherries and lemon rinds. But he was majestic up there. "listen --" he said so calmly, "I have read the editorial against my painting in your wonderful newspaper. I have read every word of the hate mail you have been thoughtful enough to send to New York."
This embarrassed people some.
"The painting did not exist until I made it," Karabekian went on. "Now that it does exist, nothing would make me happier than to have it reproduced again and again, and vastly improved upon, by all the five-year-olds in town. I would love for your children to find pleasantly and playfully what it took me many angry years to find.
"I now give you my word of honor," he went on, " that the picture your city owns shows everything about life which truly matters, with nothing left out. It is a picture of the awareness of every animal. It is the immaterial core of every animal -- the 'I am' to which all messages are sent. It is all that is alive in any of us -- in a mouse, in a deer, in a cocktail waitress. It is unwavering and pure, no matter what preposterous adventure may befall us. A sacred picture of Saint Anthony alone is one vertical, unwavering band of light. If a cockroach were near him, or a cocktail waitress, the picture would show two such bands of light. Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery.
"I have just heard from this cocktail waitress here, this vertical band of light, a story about her husband and an idiot who was about to be executed at Shepherdstown. Very well -- let a five-year-old paint a sacred interpretation of that encounter. Let a five-year-old strip away the idiocy, the bars, the waiting electric chair, the uniform of the guard, the gun of the guard, the bones and the meat of the guard. What is that perfect picture which any five-year-old can paint? Two unwavering bands of light."
Ecstasy bloomed on the barbaric face of Rabo Karabekian. "Citizens of Midland City, I salute you," he said. "You have given a home to a masterpiece!"
-Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast Of Champions
Kurt Vonnegut was 84.
*(note that the seemingly flippant and casual deployment of that word is vastly different in context.)
**(I swear to god that something coming out of South Bend and being the opposite of sacredness is his creation and not mine.)
I discovered him near the end of high school and read most of his books during my freshman year at Michigan. Cat's Cradle was always my favorite. One bit of Bokononism that always stuck with me:
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.
Rest in peace, Kurt.