Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Altar at Midnight by C.M. Kornbluth


This etext was produced from Galaxy Science Fiction November 1952. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed. Thanks to Project Gutenberg.

The Altar at Midnight


Doing something for humanity
may be fine–for humanity–but
rough on the individual!

He had quite a rum-blossom on him for a kid, I thought at first. But
when he moved closer to the light by the cash register to ask the
bartender for a match or something, I saw it wasn’t that. Not just the
nose. Broken veins on his cheeks, too, and the funny eyes. He must have
seen me look, because he slid back away from the light.

The bartender shook my bottle of ale in front of me like a Swiss
bell-ringer so it foamed inside the green glass.

“You ready for another, sir?” he asked.

I shook my head. Down the bar, he tried it on the kid–he was drinking
scotch and water or something like that–and found out he could push him
around. He sold him three scotch and waters in ten minutes.

When he tried for number four, the kid had his courage up and said,
“I’ll tell you when I’m ready for another, Jack.” But there wasn’t any

It was almost nine and the place began to fill up. The manager, a real
hood type, stationed himself by the door to screen out the high-school
kids and give the big hello to conventioneers. The girls came hurrying
in, too, with their little makeup cases and their fancy hair piled up
and their frozen faces with the perfect mouths drawn on them. One of
them stopped to say something to the manager, some excuse about
something, and he said: “That’s aw ri’; get inna dressing room.”

A three-piece band behind the drapes at the back of the stage began to
make warm-up noises and there were two bartenders keeping busy. Mostly
it was beer–a midweek crowd. I finished my ale and had to wait a couple
of minutes before I could get another bottle. The bar filled up from the
end near the stage because all the customers wanted a good, close look
at the strippers for their fifty-cent bottles of beer. But I noticed
that nobody sat down next to the kid, or, if anybody did, he didn’t stay
long–you go out for some fun and the bartender pushes you around and
nobody wants to sit next to you. I picked up my bottle and glass and
went down on the stool to his left.

He turned to me right away and said: “What kind of a place is this,
anyway?” The broken veins were all over his face, little ones, but so
many, so close, that they made his face look something like marbled
rubber. The funny look in his eyes was it–the trick contact lenses. But
I tried not to stare and not to look away.

“It’s okay,” I said. “It’s a good show if you don’t mind a lot of noise

He stuck a cigarette into his mouth and poked the pack at me. “I’m a
spacer,” he said, interrupting.

I took one of his cigarettes and said: “Oh.”

He snapped a lighter for the cigarettes and said: “Venus.”

* * * * *

I was noticing that his pack of cigarettes on the bar had some kind of
yellow sticker instead of the blue tax stamp.

“Ain’t that a crock?” he asked. “You can’t smoke and they give you
lighters for a souvenir. But it’s a good lighter. On Mars last week,
they gave us all some cheap pen-and-pencil sets.”

“You get something every trip, hah?” I took a good, long drink of ale
and he finished his scotch and water.

“Shoot. You call a trip a ’shoot’.”

One of the girls was working her way down the bar. She was going to
slide onto the empty stool at his right and give him the business, but
she looked at him first and decided not to. She curled around me and
asked if I’d buy her a li’l ole drink. I said no and she moved on to the
next. I could kind of feel the young fellow quivering. When I looked at
him, he stood up. I followed him out of the dump. The manager grinned
without thinking and said, “G’night, boys,” to us.

The kid stopped in the street and said to me: “You don’t have to follow
me around, Pappy.” He sounded like one wrong word and I would get socked
in the teeth.

“Take it easy. I know a place where they won’t spit in your eye.”

He pulled himself together and made a joke of it. “This I have to see,”
he said. “Near here?”

“A few blocks.”

We started walking. It was a nice night.

“I don’t know this city at all,” he said. “I’m from Covington, Kentucky.
You do your drinking at home there. We don’t have places like this.” He
meant the whole Skid Row area.

“It’s not so bad,” I said. “I spend a lot of time here.”

“Is that a fact? I mean, down home a man your age would likely have a
wife and children.”

“I do. The hell with them.”

He laughed like a real youngster and I figured he couldn’t even be
twenty-five. He didn’t have any trouble with the broken curbstones in
spite of his scotch and waters. I asked him about it.

“Sense of balance,” he said. “You have to be tops for balance to be a
spacer–you spend so much time outside in a suit. People don’t know how
much. Punctures. And you aren’t worth a damn if you lose your point.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Oh. Well, it’s hard to describe. When you’re outside and you lose your
point, it means you’re all mixed up, you don’t know which way the
can–that’s the ship–which way the can is. It’s having all that room
around you. But if you have a good balance, you feel a little tugging to
the ship, or maybe you just know which way the ship is without feeling
it. Then you have your point and you can get the work done.”

“There must be a lot that’s hard to describe.”

He thought that might be a crack and he clammed up on me.

“You call this Gandytown,” I said after a while. “It’s where the
stove-up old railroad men hang out. This is the place.”

* * * * *

It was the second week of the month, before everybody’s pension check
was all gone. Oswiak’s was jumping. The Grandsons of the Pioneers were
on the juke singing the Man from Mars Yodel and old Paddy Shea was
jigging in the middle of the floor. He had a full seidel of beer in his
right hand and his empty left sleeve was flapping.

The kid balked at the screen door. “Too damn bright,” he said.

I shrugged and went on in and he followed. We sat down at a table. At
Oswiak’s you can drink at the bar if you want to, but none of the
regulars do.

Paddy jigged over and said: “Welcome home, Doc.” He’s a Liverpool
Irishman; they talk like Scots, some say, but they sound almost like
Brooklyn to me.

“Hello, Paddy. I brought somebody uglier than you. Now what do you say?”

Paddy jigged around the kid in a half-circle with his sleeve flapping
and then flopped into a chair when the record stopped. He took a big
drink from the seidel and said: “Can he do this?” Paddy stretched his
face into an awful grin that showed his teeth. He has three of them. The
kid laughed and asked me: “What the hell did you drag me into here for?”

“Paddy says he’ll buy drinks for the house the day anybody uglier than
he is comes in.”

Oswiak’s wife waddled over for the order and the kid asked us what we’d
have. I figured I could start drinking, so it was three double scotches.

After the second round, Paddy started blowing about how they took his
arm off without any anesthetics except a bottle of gin because the
red-ball freight he was tangled up in couldn’t wait.

That brought some of the other old gimps over to the table with their

Blackie Bauer had been sitting in a boxcar with his legs sticking
through the door when the train started with a jerk. Wham, the door
closed. Everybody laughed at Blackie for being that dumb in the first
place, and he got mad.

Sam Fireman has palsy. This week he was claiming he used to be a
watchmaker before he began to shake. The week before, he’d said he was a
brain surgeon. A woman I didn’t know, a real old Boxcar Bertha, dragged
herself over and began some kind of story about how her sister married a
Greek, but she passed out before we found out what happened.

Somebody wanted to know what was wrong with the kid’s face–Bauer, I
think it was, after he came back to the table.

“Compression and decompression,” the kid said. “You’re all the time
climbing into your suit and out of your suit. Inboard air’s thin to
start with. You get a few redlines–that’s these ruptured blood
vessels–and you say the hell with the money; all you’ll make is just
one more trip. But, God, it’s a lot of money for anybody my age! You
keep saying that until you can’t be anything but a spacer. The eyes are
hard-radiation scars.”

“You like dot all ofer?” asked Oswiak’s wife politely.

“All over, ma’am,” the kid told her in a miserable voice. “But I’m going
to quit before I get a Bowman Head.”

“I don’t care,” said Maggie Rorty. “I think he’s cute.”

“Compared with–” Paddy began, but I kicked him under the table.

* * * * *

We sang for a while, and then we told gags and recited limericks for a
while, and I noticed that the kid and Maggie had wandered into the back
room–the one with the latch on the door.

Oswiak’s wife asked me, very puzzled: “Doc, w’y dey do dot flyink by

“It’s the damn govermint,” Sam Fireman said.

“Why not?” I said. “They got the Bowman Drive, why the hell shouldn’t
they use it? Serves ‘em right.” I had a double scotch and added: “Twenty
years of it and they found out a few things they didn’t know. Redlines
are only one of them. Twenty years more, maybe they’ll find out a few
more things they didn’t know. Maybe by the time there’s a bathtub in
every American home and an alcoholism clinic in every American town,
they’ll find out a whole lot of things they didn’t know. And every
American boy will be a pop-eyed, blood-raddled wreck, like our friend
here, from riding the Bowman Drive.”

“It’s the damn govermint,” Sam Fireman repeated.

“And what the hell did you mean by that remark about alcoholism?” Paddy
said, real sore. “Personally, I can take it or leave it alone.”

So we got to talking about that and everybody there turned out to be
people who could take it or leave it alone.

* * * * *

It was maybe midnight when the kid showed at the table again, looking
kind of dazed. I was drunker than I ought to be by midnight, so I said I
was going for a walk. He tagged along and we wound up on a bench at
Screwball Square. The soap-boxers were still going strong. Like I said,
it was a nice night. After a while, a pot-bellied old auntie who didn’t
give a damn about the face sat down and tried to talk the kid into going
to see some etchings. The kid didn’t get it and I led him over to hear
the soap-boxers before there was trouble.

One of the orators was a mush-mouthed evangelist. “And, oh, my friends,”
he said, “when I looked through the porthole of the spaceship and beheld
the wonder of the Firmament–”

“You’re a stinkin’ Yankee liar!” the kid yelled at him. “You say one
damn more word about can-shootin’ and I’ll ram your spaceship down your
lyin’ throat! Wheah’s your redlines if you’re such a hot spacer?”

The crowd didn’t know what he was talking about, but “wheah’s your
redlines” sounded good to them, so they heckled mush-mouth off his box
with it.

I got the kid to a bench. The liquor was working in him all of a sudden.
He simmered down after a while and asked: “Doc, should I’ve given Miz
Rorty some money? I asked her afterward and she said she’d admire to
have something to remember me by, so I gave her my lighter. She seem’ to
be real pleased with it. But I was wondering if maybe I embarrassed her
by asking her right out. Like I tol’ you, back in Covington, Kentucky,
we don’t have places like that. Or maybe we did and I just didn’t know
about them. But what do you think I should’ve done about Miz Rorty?”

“Just what you did,” I told him. “If they want money, they ask you for
it first. Where you staying?”

“Y.M.C.A.,” he said, almost asleep. “Back in Covington, Kentucky, I was
a member of the Y and I kept up my membership. They have to let me in
because I’m a member. Spacers have all kinds of trouble, Doc. Woman
trouble. Hotel trouble. Fam’ly trouble. Religious trouble. I was raised
a Southern Baptist, but wheah’s Heaven, anyway? I ask’ Doctor Chitwood
las’ time home before the redlines got so thick–Doc, you aren’t a
minister of the Gospel, are you? I hope I di’n’ say anything to offend

“No offense, son,” I said. “No offense.”

I walked him to the avenue and waited for a fleet cab. It was almost
five minutes. The independents that roll drunks dent the fenders of
fleet cabs if they show up in Skid Row and then the fleet drivers have
to make reports on their own time to the company. It keeps them away.
But I got one and dumped the kid in.

“The Y Hotel,” I told the driver. “Here’s five. Help him in when you get

* * * * *

When I walked through Screwball Square again, some college kids were
yelling “wheah’s your redlines” at old Charlie, the last of the

Old Charlie kept roaring: “The hell with your breadlines! I’m talking
about atomic bombs. Right–up–there!” And he pointed at the Moon.

It was a nice night, but the liquor was dying in me.

There was a joint around the corner, so I went in and had a drink to
carry me to the club; I had a bottle there. I got into the first cab
that came.

“Athletic Club,” I said.

“Inna dawghouse, harh?” the driver said, and he gave me a big
personality smile.

I didn’t say anything and he started the car.

He was right, of course. I was in everybody’s doghouse. Some day I’d
scare hell out of Tom and Lise by going home and showing them what their
daddy looked like.

Down at the Institute, I was in the doghouse.

“Oh, dear,” everybody at the Institute said to everybody, “I’m sure I
don’t know what ails the man. A lovely wife and two lovely grown
children and she had to tell him ‘either you go or I go.’ And
drinking! And this is rather subtle, but it’s a well-known fact that
neurotics seek out low company to compensate for their guilt-feelings.
The places he frequents. Doctor Francis Bowman, the man who made
space-flight a reality. The man who put the Bomb Base on the Moon!
Really, I’m sure I don’t know what ails him.”

The hell with them all.