The Powder Blue Dragon -Kurt Vonnegut, Jr (Nov, 1954)
This is one of Vonnegut’s earlier published stories. Interestingly a few years after the story was published he opened a short-lived Saab dealership in a town that sounds a lot like this one.
The Powder Blue Dragon
She was romance, beauty, a dream for a lifetime. He had to have her, no matter what the cost.
BY KURT VONNEGUT, JR.
A thin young man, with big, grimy hands, crossed the sun-softened asphalt of the village street, from the automobile showroom to the drugstore, his self-consciousness thinly disguised by his pretense of being on important business.
This disguise dropped away as he brushed past a tanned couple his own age, summer people talking indolently by the drugstore door. He gave the couple a sullen glance, as though their health and wealth and lazy aplomb were meant to mock him.
His name was Kiah. “Cash a check for Daggett?” he asked the druggist. “Twenty-five dollars.”
“I guess,” said the druggist. Reluctantly, he took out the money from the cash register behind the soda fountain. He was an old man, and age and long hours were beginning to twist and weary him. “This is a big weekend. Lots of summer people in town, and I’m going to wish I had that cash back.”
The village had once been a whaling port. Now, with the whaling done, it served the summer mansions that lined the beach and blocked the villagers’ view of the sea. The village was for the families who owned the mansions and who, for the most part, had owned them for generations.
“Here you are,” the druggist said. He slammed the drawer shut. “Hot, isn’t it? You been running?”
“Nope. Just crossed the street was all.”
“Seem kind of short-winded and wild-eyed, like you been running.”
“Excitement, I guess. This is kind of a big day.”
“It is? Tell me all about it.”
“You’ll hear about it.” Kiah grinned shyly. “You wait. You won’t know me.”
The druggist looked at him closely. “Not so sure I know you now, Kiah, and if your folks were still alive, I don’t think they’d know you for sure, either.”
“Oh? That so?” Kiah was pleased.
“Used to know a Kiah Higgins, just like any other boy in town—maybe a little seriouser, but not much. Used to play and laugh and have himself a big old time. Now I see a stranger who hasn’t hardly got time to smile any more. All he wants to do is work and work, and then work some more. How many jobs you got now. Kiah. besides working for Daggett?”
“Wait tables up at the Quarterdeck weekends, pump gas at Ed’s nights.”
“You don’t need that much money to get along, do you. Kiah? Just yourself to look after. How old are you—twenty-one? Why not have a little fun while you’re young?”
Kiah’s green eyes narrowed. “Guess I grew up in a hurry. Keep your eyes open around here, and you grow up pretty quick.”
“Grown up, eh? What’d you see around here that did it? Maybe I better have a look at it. too.”
“Seeing your folks working all their lives for the summer people, knowing that’s what you’re going to be doing, too. Taking all their guff, and—”
“Aaaaaaaah. don’t be a fool. Kiah.” the druggist said sourly. “Nobody’s pushed you around.”
“They look right through me, like I wasn’t even in the same world with ‘em.”
“Wonderful! Go through their pockets while they’re doing it.” The druggist was annoyed. “They’re right and you’re wrong. They do belong to a different world—and the hell with it. You don’t want it, I don’t want it.”
“Maybe old men can say it and mean it,” Kiah said.
“Pfoooooey! It’s a phony world, a toy world, full of useless trinkets, like that yellow thing in Daggett’s window. What’s he want for that?”
“The Jaguar?” Kiah said, turning to look at the automobile shimmering, dreamlike, behind Daggett’s plate-glass window. “Around four and a half. It’s all right.”
“All right! If that’s all right. Mr. Rockefeller, maybe you’d like to tell me what you consider a really nice car.”
“Ever hear of a Marittima-Frascati?”
“No. And I don’t believe anybody else ever heard of one, either.”
Kiah looked at him pityingly. “Won the Avignon road race two years in a row—over Jaguars, Mercedes, and everything. Guaranteed to do a hundred and thirty on an open stretch. Most beautiful car in the world. Daggett’s got one in his New York place.” He reddened with excitement. “Nobody’s ever seen anything like it around here. Nobody.”
“Why don’t you ever talk about Fords or Chevrolets or something I’ve heard of? Marittima-Frascati!”
“No class. That’s why I don’t talk about them.”
“Class! Listen who’s talking about class all the time. He sweeps floors, polishes cars, waits tables, pumps gas, and he’s got to have class or nothing.”
“You dream your dreams, I’ll dream mine,” Kiah said.
“I’ve got my dream.” the druggist said hotly. “I dream of being young like you in a village that’s as pretty and pleasant as this one is. You can take class and—”
Daggett, a portly New Yorker who operated his branch showroom only in the summer, was selling a car to an urbane and tweedy gentleman as Kiah walked in.
“Here’s the money, Mr. Daggett,” Kiah said.
Daggett paid no attention to him. Kiah tat down on a chair to wait and daydream.
He felt his heart beating very quickly.
“It’s not for me, understand.” the customer was saying. He looked down in amazement at the low, boxy MG. “It’s for my boy. He’s been talking about one of these things.”
“A fine young-man’s car.” Daggett said. “And reasonably priced for a sports car.”
“Now he’s raving about some other car. a Mara-something.”
“Marittima-Frascati,” Kiah said.
Daggett and the customer seemed surprised to find him in the same room.
“Mmmm. yes, that’s the name,” the customer said.
“I haven’t one on the floor, but one’s in transit from New York. Should be here early next week.”
“Fifty-six hundred and fifty-one dollars,” Kiah said.
Daggett gave a flat, unfriendly laugh. “You’ve got a good memory, Kiah.”
“Fifty-six hundred!” the customer said. “I love my boy, but love’s got to draw the line somewhere. I’ll take this one.” He took a checkbook from his pocket.
Kiah’s long shadow fell across the receipt Daggett was making out.
“Kiah, please. You’re in the light.” Kiah didn’t move. “Kiah, what is it you want? Why don’t you sweep out the back room or something?”
“I just wanted to say,” Kiah said, breathing quickly, “that when this gentleman is through, I’d like to order the Marittima-Frascati.”
“You what?” Daggett stood angrily.
Kiah took out a checkbook.
“Beat it!” Daggett said.
The customer laughed quietly.
“Do you want my business?” Kiah said stubbornly.
“I’ll take care of your business, kid, but good. Now sit down and wait.”
Kiah, furious with the customer for relishing the incident as a comedy, sat down until he left.
Daggett walked toward Kiah slowly, his fists closed. “Now, young man. your funny business almost lost me a sale.”
“I’ll give you two minutes, Mr. Daggett, to call up the bank and find out if I’ve got the money, or I’ll get my car someplace else.”
Daggett looked at him uneasily, then at the clock. He called the bank. “George, this is Bill Daggett.” He interjected a supercilious laugh. “Look. George. Kiah Higgins wants to write me a check for fifty-six hundred dollars…. That’s what I said. I swear he does. .. . Okay, I’ll wait.” He drummed on the desktop and avoided looking at Kiah.
“Fine, George. Thanks.” He hung up.
“Well?” Kiah said.
“You mean it?” Daggett said, almost plaintively. Suddenly he shook his head. “No, Kiah—no, for heaven’s sake, no.”
“It’s my money. I earned it.” Kiah said. “I worked and saved for four years—four lousy, long years.”
“You did that for a car?”
“It’s what I want. It’s all I can think about, and now it’s going to be mine, the damndest car anybody around here ever saw.”
Daggett was exasperated. “Kiah! This thing you want-—good gosh, boy, it’s a plaything for maharajas and Texas oil barons. Fifty-six hundred dollars, boy! What does that leave of your savings?”
“Enough for insurance and a few tanks of gas.” Kiah stood. “If you don’t want my business . . .”
“I do. I guess,” Daggett said helplessly. “But I feel like a dope peddler. It’s nuts, plain nuts.”
“You’d understand if you’d been brought up here, Mr. Daggett, and your parents had been dead broke.”
“Boloney! Don’t tell me what it is to be broke till you’ve been broke in the city. Anyway, what’s the car going to do for you?”
“It’s going to give me one hell of a good time—and about time. I’m going to do some living, Mr. Daggett.”
“You crazy kid. Driving a car isn’t living.”
“The first of next week, Mr. Daggett?”
Daggett threw up his hands. “Yes, sir! First of next week. One Marittima-Frascati, powder-blue with lemon-yellow cushions, coming up!”
The midafternoon stillness of the village was broken by the whir of a starter and the well-bred grumble of a splendid engine.
Kiah sat deep in the lemon-yellow leather cushions of the powder-blue Marittima-Frascati, listening to the sweet thunder that followed each gentle pressure of his toe. He was scrubbed pink, and his hair was freshly cut.
“No fast stuff, now, for a thousand miles, you hear?” Daggett said. He was in a holiday mood, resigned to the bizarre wonder Kiah had wrought. “That’s a piece of fine jewelry under the hood, and you’d better treat it right. Keep it under forty for the first thousand miles, under fifty until three thousand.” He laughed. “And don’t try to find out what she can really do until you’ve put five thousand on her.” He clapped Kiah on the shoulder. “Don’t get impatient, boy. Don’t worry—she’ll do it!”
Kiah switched on the engine again, seeming indifferent to the crowd gathered around him.
“How many of these you suppose are in the country?” Kiah asked Daggett.
“Ten. twelve.” Daggett winked. “Don’t worry. All the rest are in Dallas and Hollywood.”
Kiah nodded judiciously, without triumph. He wanted to seem no more than a man who had made a sensible, routine purchase and. satisfied with his money’s worth, was now going to take it home.
He threw his long arm across the back of the seat and turned around, ready to back out into I he world. “Pardon me,” he said courteously to those in his way. He raced his engine rather than blow his brass choir of horns. “Thank you.”
The Marittiina-Frascati grumbled out into the street, meshed its gears quietly, then floated through the village and out onto the hard, wide black ribbon that ran to the horizon, bounded by sand, sky, and sea.
Kiah was no longer an intruder in the universe. He was of it, no more separable I ban clouds and sun and salt. With the mock modesty of a god traveling incognito, he permitted a Cadillac convertible to pass him. A pretty girl with golden hair smiled down on him from her gross monument to power.
Kiah touched the throttle lightly and streaked around her. He laughed at the speck she became in his rearview mirror. The temperature gauge climbed, and Kiah slowed the Marittima-Frascati, forgiving himself this one indulgence. Just this once—-it had been worth it. This was the life!
The girl and the Cadillac passed him again. She smiled, and gestured disparagingly at the expanse of hood before her.
At the mouth of a hotel’s circular driveway, she signaled with a flourish and turned in. As though coming home, the Marittima-Frascati followed, purred beneath the porte-cochere, and into the parking lot. A uniformed man waved, smiled, admired, and directed Kiah into the space next to the Cadillac. Kiah watched the girl disappear into the cocktail lounge, each step an invitation to follow.
As he crossed the deep white gravel, a cloud crossed the sun, and in the momentary chill. Kiah’s stride shortened. He suddenly felt that he’d been dropped into a strange, hostile world. He paused on the cocktail-lounge steps and looked over his shoulder at the car. There it waited for its master, low, lean, greedy for miles—Kiah Higgins’ car.
Refreshed, Kiah walked into the cool lounge. The girl sat alone in a corner booth, her eyes down. She amused her- self by picking a wooden swizzle stick to bits. The only other person in the room was the bartender, who read a newspaper in the frail, orange light from a ship’s lantern.
“Looking for somebody, sonny?”
Sonny! Kiah felt like driving the Marittima-Frascati into the bar. He hoped the girl hadn’t heard. “Give me a gin and tonic,” he said coldly, “and don’t forget the lime.”
She looked up. Kiah smiled with the camaraderie of privilege, horsepower. and the open road.
She nodded back vaguely, unsmiling, seemingly puzzled, and returned her attention to the swizzle stick.
“Here you are, sonny,” said the bartender. setting the drink before him. He rattled his newspaper and resumed his reading.
Kiah drank, cleared his throat, and spoke to the girl. “Nice and clear all the way up from Harrison Beach,” he said.
She gave no sign that he’d said anything. Kiah turned to the bartender, as though it were to him he’d been speaking. “I said, it’s clear all the way up from Harrison Beach.”
“Yup. Heard you,” the bartender said.
“Makes a man feel like really letting his car out.” The bartender turned a page without comment. “But I’m just breaking her in, and I’ve got to keep her under forty.”
“Sure you do.”
“Big temptation, knowing she’s guaranteed to do a hundred and thirty.”
The bartender put down his paper irritably. “What’s guaranteed?”
“My new car, my Marittima-Frascati.”
The girl looked up, interested.
“Your what?” the bartender said.
“My Marittima-Frascati. It’s an Italian car.”
“It sure don’t sound like an American one. Who you driving it for?”
“Who’m I driving it for?”
“Yeah. Who owns it?”
“Who you think owns it? / own it.”
The bartender picked up his paper again. “Hp owns it. He owns it, and it goes a hundred and thirty. Lucky boy.”
Kiah replied by turning his back. “Hello,” he said to the girl, with more assurance than he thought possible. “How’s the Cad treating you?”
She laughed. “My car, my fiance, or my father?”
“Your car,” Kiah said, feeling stupid for not having a snappier retort.
“Cads always treat me nicely. I remember you now. You were in that darling little blue thing with yellow seats. I somehow didn’t connect you with the car. You look different. What did you call it?”
“Mmmmmm. I could never learn to say that.”
“It’s a very famous car in Europe,” Kiah said. Everything was going swimmingly- “Won the Avignon road race two years running, you know.”
She smiled bewitchingly. “No! I didn’t know that.”
“Guaranteed to go a hundred and thirty.”
“Goodness. I didn’t think a car could go that fast.”
“Only about twelve in the country, if that.”
“Certainly isn’t many, is it? Do you mind my asking how much one of those wonderful cars costs?”
Kiah leaned back against the bar. “No, I don’t mind. Seems to me it was somewhere between five and six.”
“Oh, between those, is it? Quite something to be between.”
“Oh, I think it’s well worth it. I certainly don’t feel I’ve thrown any money down a sewer.”
“That’s the important thing.”
Kiah nodded happily, and stared into the wonderful eyes, whose admiration seemed bottomless. He opened his mouth to say more, to keep the delightful game going forever and ever, when he realized he had no more to say. “It’s clear all the way up from Harrison Beach,” he said.
“Yes, I know.” A glaze of boredom formed on her eyes. “Have you
A got the time?” she asked the bartender.
“Yes, ma’am. Seven after four.”
“What time?” Kiah said, talking for the sake of sound.
A ride, Kiah thought, maybe she’d like to go for a ride.
The door swung open, and a handsome young man in tennis shorts blinked and grinned around the room, poised, vain, and buoyant. “Marion!” he cried. “Thank heaven you’re still here. What an angel for waiting!”
Her face was stunning with adoration. “You’re not very late, Paul, and I forgive you.”
“Like a fool, I let myself get into a game of doubles, and it just went on and on. I finally threw the game. I was afraid I’d lose you forever. What’ve you been up to while you’ve been waiting?”
“Let me see. Well, I tore up a swizzle stick, and I, uh— Ohhhhhh! I met an extremely interesting gentleman who has a car that will go a hundred and thirty miles an hour.”
“Well, you’ve been slickered, dear, because the man was lying about his car.”
“Those are pretty strong words,” Marion said.
Paul looked pleased. “They are?”
“Considering that the man you called a liar is right here in the same room.”
“Oh, my.” Paul looked around the room with a playful expression of fear. His eyes passed quickly over Kiah and the bartender. “There are only four of us here.”
She pointed to Kiah. “That boy there. Would you mind telling Paul about your Vanilla Frappe?”
“Marittima-Frascati,” Kiah said, his voice barely audible. He repeated it, louder. “Marittima-Frascati.”
“Well,” Paul said, “I must say it sounds like it’d go two hundred a second. Have you got it here?”
“Outside,” Kiah said.
“That’s what I meant,” Paul said. “I must learn to express myself better.” He looked out over the parking lot. “Oho, I see. The little blue jobbie. Ver-ry nice. Gorgeous. And that’s yours?”
“I said it was.”
“A cream puff,” Paul said reflectively. “Might be the second fastest car in these parts. Probably is.”
“Is that a fact?” Kiah said sarcastically. “I’d like to see the first.”
“Would you? It’s right outside, too. There, the black one.”
The car was a British Hampton, long and squat, seeming to wallow like a black pig. Kiah knew the car well. It was the car he’d begun saving for before Daggett had shown him the pictures of the Marittima-Frascati.
“It’ll do.” Kiah said.
“Do, will it?” Paul laughed. “It’ll do yours in, and I’ll bet anything you like.”
“Listen,” Kiah said bitterly, “I’d bet the world on my car, if she was broken in.”
Paul raised his eyebrows. “Oh? Not broken in, eh? I understand. Let’s go, Marion.”
Frustrated, humiliated, Kiah leaned against the screen door and watched Paul and Marion’s cheerful progress across the parking lot to the black car.
“Play in your own league, kid,” the bartender said. “That one’s no good, anyway. It just looks good from a distance.”
“That was mean,” Marion said clearly, climbing into the Hampton. “Somebody’s chauffeur out having a big time showing off his boss’s car, and you go and spoil it for him.”
The elegant wheels of the powder-blue car with the lemon-yellow leather cushions sprayed gravel at the parking-lot attendant’s legs. The doorman beneath the porte-cochere signaled for the car to slow down, and then jumped for his life.
Kiah’s mind was washed clean of hate and mortification by the hot, dry wind on his face. He sank back in the cushions, his hands holding the wheel loosely—as though he had only to ride, as though the car would take care of everything.
“Go, baby,” Kiah said softly. “Go, hon.”
The big engine’s voice climbed slowly, steadily, like a deep-throated siren.
“There’s the Hampton, baby. Go get it, hon. Go, baby, go,” Kiah singsonged. The Marittima-Frascati swept past the many-colored streaks of a stream of cars, and the air spilling over the low windshield became a muffled drumming.
“Easy, baby, easy,” Kiah said, pulling alongside the Hampton. He grinned at Marion and Paul. They seemed to stand still, looking at him blankly, as the rest of the world spun by.
Kiah touched the throttle, and cut in ahead of them, forcing Paul to jam on his brakes.
“Easy, baby, easy.” Kiah turned his head for an instant, and thumbed his nose.
“Now, baby, now.” The motor’s voice climbed again, and the world began to smear. Ahead lay a black, straight way, stretching to infinity.
The Hampton stayed with him.
“Go, baby, go. Loosen up, sweetheart. That’s my girl. Go, hon, go.” The wheel jittered in his hands. “Steady, baby, steady.”
The Hampton still crouched in his mirror. Kiah could see Paul’s even white teeth and Marion’s thin red lips.
“Here it comes, hon,” Kiah said calmly. He pressed the throttle to the floor.
The engine whined in response. The car shivered, and the engine’s voice rose to a scream. The Hampton dropped away from him, and with it the whole world.
There was only Kiah and the din and the drumming wind.
No guts! No guts! No guts!” Kiah laughed crazily. “Guaranteed, baby, guar-an-teed.”
He was coasting now. The oil gauge stood at zero. The temperature gauge was off the dial against the pin beyond the red danger zone; “That’s my girl. Good girl, baby, good girl.”
The world was coming together again —hedges, gates, houses, lawns—to make a village.
The Marittima-Frascati stopped before Daggett’s automobile showroom. Kiah sat motionless, numb, as the tortured parts cooled.
Daggett appeared in the show window, waved, and smiled. A moment later he was leaning on the car door. “Show them a thing or two, did you, Kiah?” He laughed.
“You don’t seem very cheerful about it.”
“Burned out,” Kiah said simply. “Had a race.”
“Yep. She won. I’m satisfied.”
“You’re kidding, aren’t you, Kiah? Eh?” Daggett chuckled awkwardly.
Kiah turned on the ignition, and pressed the starter. Nothing happened. “That’s how much I’m kidding.”
“Kiah. Kiah. Kiah, boy.” Daggett was heartbroken. “Kiah, the whole thing is the motor,” he said desolately. “What’s left isn’t worth a thousand.”
“I’ll take a thousand,” Kiah said.
Daggett ran his hands through his hair. “You fool,” he murmured. “Idiot! Now you’ve got no money and you’ve got no car. You poor, crazy kid. What’ve you got to say for yourself now?”
Unexpectedly, Kiah started to cry. Ashamed and confused, he turned his face away until he got himself under control again.
“I’m glad it’s dead,” he said brokenly. “I’m glad I killed it.”