Catch-22: Chapter 23 Nately’s Old Man

The only one back in the squadron who did see any of Milo’s red bananas was Aarfy, who picked up two froman influential fraternity brother of his in the Quartermaster Corps when the bananas ripened and began streaminginto Italy through normal black-market channels and who was in the officer’s apartment with Yossarian theevening Nately finally found his whore again after so many fruitless weeks of mournful searching and lured herback to the apartment with two girl friends by promising them thirty dollars each.

“Thirty dollars each?” remarked Aarfy slowly, poking and patting each of the three strapping girls skepticallywith the air of a grudging connoisseur. “Thirty dollars is a lot of money for pieces like these. Besides, I neverpaid for it in my life.”

“I’m not asking you to pay for it,” Nately assured him quickly. “I’ll pay for them all. I just want you guys to takethe other two. Won’t you help me out?”

Aarfy smirked complacently and shook his soft round head. “Nobody has to pay for it for good old Aarfy. I canget all I want any time I want it. I’m just not in the mood right now.”

“Why don’t you just pay all three and send the other two away?” Yossarian suggested.

“Because then mine will be angry with me for making her work for her money,” Nately replied with an anxiouslook at his girl, who was glowering at him restlessly and starting to mutter. “She says that if I really like her I’dsend her away and go to bed with one of the others.”

“I have a better idea,” boasted Aarfy. “Why don’t we keep the three of them here until after the curfew and thenthreaten to push them out into the street to be arrested unless they give us all their money? We can even threatento push them out the window.”

“Aarfy!” Nately was aghast.

“I was only trying to help,” said Aarfy sheepishly. Aarfy was always trying to help Nately because Nately’sfather was rich and prominent and in an excellent position to help Aarfy after the war. “Gee whiz,” he defendedhimself querulously. “Back in school we were always doing things like that. I remember one day we trickedthese two dumb high-school girls from town into the fraternity house and made them put out for all the fellowsthere who wanted them by threatening to call up their parents and say they were putting out for us. We kept themtrapped in bed there for more than ten hours. We even smacked their faces a little when they started to complain.

Then we took away their nickels and dimes and chewing gum and threw them out. Boy, we used to have fun inthat fraternity house,” he recalled peacefully, his corpulent cheeks aglow with the jovial, rubicund warmth ofnostalgic recollection. “We used to ostracize everyone, even each other.”

But Aarfy was no help to Nately now as the girl Nately had fallen so deeply in love with began swearing at himsullenly with rising, menacing resentment. Luckily, Hungry Joe burst in just then, and everything was all rightagain, except that Dunbar staggered in drunk a minute later and began embracing one of the other giggling girlsat once. Now there were four men and three girls, and the seven of them left Aarfy in the apartment and climbedinto a horse-drawn cab, which remained at the curb at a dead halt while the girls demanded their money inadvance. Nately gave them ninety dollars with a gallant flourish, after borrowing twenty dollars from Yossarian,thirty-five dollars from Dunbar and seventeen dollars from Hungry Joe. The girls grew friendlier then and calledan address to the driver, who drove them at a clopping pace halfway across the city into a section they had nevervisited before and stopped in front of an old, tall building on a dark street. The girls led them up four steep, verylong flights of creaking wooden stairs and guided them through a doorway into their own wonderful andresplendent tenement apartment, which burgeoned miraculously with an infinite and proliferating flow of suppleyoung naked girls and contained the evil and debauched ugly old man who irritated Nately constantly with hiscaustic laughter and the clucking, proper old woman in the ash-gray woolen sweater who disapproved ofeverything immoral that occurred there and tried her best to tidy up.

The amazing place was a fertile, seething cornucopia of female nipples and navels. At first, there were just theirown three girls, in the dimly-lit, drab brown sitting room that stood at the juncture of three murky hallwaysleading in separate directions to the distant recesses of the strange and marvelous bordello. The girls disrobed atonce, pausing in different stages to point proudly to their garish underthings and bantering all the while with thegaunt and dissipated old man with the shabby long white hair and slovenly white unbuttoned shirt who satcackling lasciviously in a musty blue armchair almost in the exact center of the room and bade Nately and his companions welcome with a mirthful and sardonic formality. Then the old woman trudged out to get a girl forHungry Joe, dipping her captious head sadly, and returned with two big-bosomed beauties, one alreadyundressed and the other in only a transparent pink half slip that she wiggled out of while sitting down. Threemore naked girls sauntered in from a different direction and remained to chat, then two others. Four more girlspassed through the room in an indolent group, engrossed in conversation; three were barefoot and one wobbledperilously on a pair of unbuckled silver dancing shoes that did not seem to be her own. One more girl appearedwearing only panties and sat down, bringing the total congregating there in just a few minutes to eleven, all butone of them completely unclothed.

There was bare flesh lounging everywhere, most of it plump, and Hungry Joe began to die. He stood stock still inrigid, cataleptic astonishment while the girls ambled in and made themselves comfortable. Then he let out apiercing shriek suddenly and bolted toward the door in a headlong dash back toward the enlisted men’sapartment for his camera, only to be halted in his tracks with another frantic shriek by the dreadful, freezingpremonition that this whole lovely, lurid, rich and colorful pagan paradise would be snatched away from himirredeemably if he were to let it out of his sight for even an instant. He stopped in the doorway and sputtered, thewiry veins and tendons in his face and neck pulsating violently. The old man watched him with victoriousmerriment, sitting in his musty blue armchair like some satanic and hedonistic deity on a throne, a stolen U.S.

Army blanket wrapped around his spindly legs to ward off a chill. He laughed quietly, his sunken, shrewd eyessparkling perceptively with a cynical and wanton enjoyment. He had been drinking. Nately reacted on sight withbristling enmity to this wicked, depraved and unpatriotic old man who was old enough to remind him of hisfather and who made disparaging jokes about America.

“America,” he said, “will lose the war. And Italy will win it.”

“America is the strongest and most prosperous nation on earth,” Nately informed him with lofty fervor anddignity. “And the American fighting man is second to none.”

“Exactly,” agreed the old man pleasantly, with a hint of taunting amusement. “Italy, on the other hand, is one ofthe least prosperous nations on earth. And the Italian fighting man is probably second to all. And that’s exactlywhy my country is doing so well in this war while your country is doing so poorly.”

Nately guffawed with surprise, then blushed apologetically for his impoliteness. “I’m sorry I laughed at you,” hesaid sincerely, and he continued in a tone of respectful condescension. “But Italy was occupied by the Germansand is now being occupied by us. You don’t call that doing very well, do you?”

“But of course I do,” exclaimed the old man cheerfully. “The Germans are being driven out, and we are stillhere. In a few years you will be gone, too, and we will still be here. You see, Italy is really a very poor and weakcountry, and that’s what makes us so strong. Italian soldiers are not dying any more. But American and Germansoldiers are. I call that doing extremely well. Yes, I am quite certain that Italy will survive this war and still be inexistence long after your own country has been destroyed.”

Nately could scarcely believe his ears. He had never heard such shocking blasphemies before, and he wonderedwith instinctive logic why G-men did not appear to lock the traitorous old man up. “America is not going to be destroyed!” he shouted passionately.

“Never?” prodded the old man softly.

“Well…” Nately faltered.

The old man laughed indulgently, holding in check a deeper, more explosive delight. His goading remainedgentle. “Rome was destroyed, Greece was destroyed, Persia was destroyed, Spain was destroyed. All greatcountries are destroyed. Why not yours? How much longer do you really think your own country will last?

Forever? Keep in mind that the earth itself is destined to be destroyed by the sun in twenty-five million years orso.”

Nately squirmed uncomfortably. “Well, forever is a long time, I guess.”

“A million years?” persisted the jeering old man with keen, sadistic zest. “A half million? The frog is almost fivehundred million years old. Could you really say with much certainty that America, with all its strength andprosperity, with its fighting man that is second to none, and with its standard of living that is the highest in theworld, will last as long as… the frog?”

Nately wanted to smash his leering face. He looked about imploringly for help in defending his country’s futureagainst the obnoxious calumnies of this sly and sinful assailant. He was disappointed. Yossarian and Dunbarwere busy in a far corner pawing orgiastically at four or five frolicsome girls and six bottles of red wine, andHungry Joe had long since tramped away down one of the mystic hallways, propelling before him like a raveningdespot as many of the broadest-hipped young prostitutes as he could contain in his frail wind-milling arms andcram into one double bed.

Nately felt himself at an embarrassing loss. His own girl sat sprawled out gracelessly on an overstuffed sofa withan expression of otiose boredom. Nately was unnerved by her torpid indifference to him, by the same sleepy andinert poise that he remembered so vivdly, so sweetly, and so miserably from the first time she had seen him andignored him at the packed penny-ante blackjack game in the living room of the enlisted men’s apartment. Her laxmouth hung open in a perfect O, and God alone knew at what her glazed and smoky eyes were staring in suchbrute apathy. The old man waited tranquilly, watching him with a discerning smile that was both scornful andsympathetic. A lissome, blond, sinuous girl with lovely legs and honey-colored skin laid herself out contentedlyon the arm of the old man’s chair and began molesting his angular, pale, dissolute face languidly andcoquettishly. Nately stiffened with resentment and hostility at the sight of such lechery in a man so old. Heturned away with a sinking heart and wondered why he simply did not take his own girl and go to bed.

This sordid, vulturous, diabolical old man reminded Nately of his father because the two were nothing at allalike. Nately’s father was a courtly white-haired gentleman who dressed impeccably; this old man was anuncouth bum. Nately’s father was a sober, philosophical and responsible man; this old man was fickle andlicentious. Nately’s father was discreet and cultured; this old man was a boor. Nately’s father believed in honorand knew the answer to everything; this old man believed in nothing and had only questions. Nately’s father hada distinguished white mustache; this old man had no mustache at all. Nately’s father—and everyone else’s father Nately had ever met—was dignified, wise and venerable; this old man was utterly repellent, and Nately plungedback into debate with him, determined to repudiate his vile logic and insinuations with an ambitious vengeancethat would capture the attention of the bored, phlegmatic girl he had fallen so intensely in love with and win heradmiration forever.

“Well, frankly, I don’t know how long America is going to last,” he proceeded dauntlessly. “I suppose we can’tlast forever if the world itself is going to be destroyed someday. But I do know that we’re going to survive andtriumph for a long, long time.”

“For how long?” mocked the profane old man with a gleam of malicious elation. “Not even as long as the frog?”

“Much longer than you or me,” Nately blurted out lamely.

“Oh, is that all! That won’t be very much longer then, considering that you’re so gullible and brave and that I amalready such an old, old man.”

“How old are you?” Nately asked, growing intrigued and charmed with the old man in spite of himself.

“A hundred and seven.” The old man chuckled heartily at Nately’s look of chagrin. “I see you don’t believe thateither.”

“I don’t believe anything you tell me,” Nately replied, with a bashful mitigating smile. “The only thing I dobelieve is that America is going to win the war.”

“You put so much stock in winning wars,” the grubby iniquitous old man scoffed. “The real trick lies in losingwars, in knowing which wars can be lost. Italy has been losing wars for centuries, and just see how splendidlywe’ve done nonetheless. France wins wars and is in a continual state of crisis. Germany loses and prospers. Lookat our own recent history. Italy won a war in Ethiopia and promptly stumbled into serious trouble. Victory gaveus such insane delusions of grandeur that we helped start a world war we hadn’t a chance of winning. But nowthat we are losing again, everything has taken a turn for the better, and we will certainly come out on top again ifwe succeed in being defeated.”

Nately gaped at him in undisguised befuddlement. “Now I really don’t understand what you’re saying. You talklike a madman.”

“But I live like a sane one. I was a fascist when Mussolini was on top, and I am an anti-fascist now that he hasbeen deposed. I was fanatically pro-German when the Germans were here to protect us against the Americans,and now that the Americans are here to protect us against the Germans I am fanatically pro-American. I canassure you, my outraged young friend”—the old man’s knowing, disdainful eyes shone even more effervescentlyas Nately’s stuttering dismay increased—“that you and your country will have a no more loyal partisan in Italythan me—but only as long as you remain in Italy.”

“But,” Nately cried out in disbelief, “you’re a turncoat! A time-server! A shameful, unscrupulous opportunist!”

“I am a hundred and seven years old,” the old man reminded him suavely.

“Don’t you have any principles?”

“Of course not.”

“No morality?”

“Oh, I am a very moral man,” the villainous old man assured him with satiric seriousness, stroking the bare hipof a buxom black-haired girl with pretty dimples who had stretched herself out seductively on the other arm ofhis chair. He grinned at Nately sarcastically as he sat between both naked girls in smug and threadbare splendor,with a sovereign hand on each.

“I can’t believe it,” Nately remarked grudgingly, trying stubbornly not to watch him in relationship to the girls.

“I simply can’t believe it.”

“But it’s perfectly true. When the Germans marched into the city, I danced in the streets like a youthful ballerinaand shouted, ‘Heil Hitler!’ until my lungs were hoarse. I even waved a small Nazi flag that I snatched away froma beautiful little girl while her mother was looking the other way. When the Germans left the city, I rushed out towelcome the Americans with a bottle of excellent brandy and a basket of flowers. The brandy was for myself, ofcourse, and the flowers were to sprinkle upon our liberators. There was a very stiff and stuffy old major riding inthe first car, and I hit him squarely in the eye with a red rose. A marvelous shot! You should have seen himwince.”

Nately gasped and was on his feet with amazement, the blood draining from his cheeks. “Major — de Coverley!”

he cried.

“Do you know him?” inquired the old man with delight. “What a charming coincidence!”

Nately was too astounded even to hear him. “So you’re the one who wounded Major —de Coverley!” heexclaimed in horrified indignation. “How could you do such a thing?”

The fiendish old man was unperturbed. “How could I resist, you mean. You should have seen the arrogant oldbore, sitting there so sternly in that car like the Almighty Himself, with his big, rigid head and his foolish,solemn face. What a tempting target he made! I got him in the eye with an American Beauty rose. I thought thatwas most appropriate. Don’t you?”

“That was a terrible thing to do!” Nately shouted at him reproachfully. “A vicious and criminal thing! Major –deCoverley is our squadron executive officer!”

“Is he?” teased the unregenerate old man, pinching his pointy jaw gravely in a parody of repentance. “In that case, you must give me credit for being impartial. When the Germans rode in, I almost stabbed a robust youngOberleutnant to death with a sprig of edelweiss.”

Nately was appalled and bewildered by the abominable old man’s inability to perceive the enormity of hisoffence. “Don’t you realize what you’ve done?” he scolded vehemently. “Major —de Coverley is a noble andwonderful person, and everyone admires him.”

“He’s a silly old fool who really has no right acting like a silly young fool. Where is he today? Dead?”

Nately answered softly with somber awe. “Nobody knows. He seems to have disappeared.”

“You see? Imagine a man his age risking what little life he has left for something so absurd as a country.”

Nately was instantly up in arms again. “There is nothing so absurd about risking your life for your country!” hedeclared.

“Isn’t there?” asked the old man. “What is a country? A country is a piece of land surrounded on all sides byboundaries, usually unnatural. Englishmen are dying for England, Americans are dying for America, Germansare dying for Germany, Russians are dying for Russia. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war.

Surely so many countries can’t all be worth dying for.”

“Anything worth living for,” said Nately, “is worth dying for.”

“And anything worth dying for,” answered the sacrilegious old man, “is certainly worth living for. You know,you’re such a pure and naive young man that I almost feel sorry for you. How old are you? Twenty-five?


“Nineteen,” said Nately. “I’ll be twenty in January.”

“If you live.” The old man shook his head, wearing, for a moment, the same touchy, meditating frown of thefretful and disapproving old woman. “They are going to kill you if you don’t watch out, and I can see now thatyou are not going to watch out. Why don’t you use some sense and try to be more like me? You might live to bea hundred and seven, too.”

“Because it’s better to die on one’s feet than live on one’s knees,” Nately retorted with triumphant and loftyconviction. “I guess you’ve heard that saying before.”

“Yes, I certainly have,” mused the treacherous old man, smiling again. “But I’m afraid you have it backward. Itis better to live on one’s feet than die on one’s knees. That is the way the saying goes.”

“Are you sure?” Nately asked with sober confusion. “It seems to make more sense my way.”

“No, it makes more sense my way. Ask your friends.”

Nately turned to ask his friends and discovered they had gone. Yossarian and Dunbar had both disappeared. Theold man roared with contemptuous merriment at Nately’s look of embarrassed surprise. Nately’s face darkenedwith shame. He vacillated helplessly for a few seconds and then spun himself around and fled inside the nearestof the hallways in search of Yossarian and Dunbar, hoping to catch them in time and bring them back to therescue with news of the remarkable clash between the old man and Major —de Coverley. All the doors in thehallways were shut. There was light under none. It was already very late. Nately gave up his search forlornly.

There was nothing left for him to do, he realized finally, but get the girl he was in love with and lie down withher somewhere to make tender, courteous love to her and plan their future together; but she had gone off to bed,too, by the time he returned to the sitting room for her, and there was nothing left for him to do then but resumehis abortive discussion with the loathsome old man, who rose from his armchair with jesting civility and excusedhimself for the night, abandoning Nately there with two bleary-eyed girls who could not tell him into whichroom his own whore had gone and who padded off to bed several seconds later after trying in vain to interest himin themselves, leaving him to sleep alone in the sitting room on the small, lumpy sofa.

Nately was a sensitive, rich, good-looking boy with dark hair, trusting eyes, and a pain in his neck when heawoke on the sofa early the next morning and wondered dully where he was. His nature was invariably gentleand polite. He had lived for almost twenty years without trauma, tension, hate, or neurosis, which was proof toYossarian of just how crazy he really was. His childhood had been a pleasant, though disciplined, one. He got onwell with his brothers and sisters, and he did not hate his mother and father, even though they had both been verygood to him.

Nately had been brought up to detest people like Aarfy, whom his mother characterized as climbers, and peoplelike Milo, whom his father characterized as pushers, but he had never learned how, since he had never beenpermitted near them. As far as he could recall, his homes in Philadelphia, New York, Maine, Palm Beach,Southampton, London, Deauville, Paris and the south of France had always been crowded only with ladies andgentlemen who were not climbers or pushers. Nately’s mother, a descendant of the New England Thorntons, wasa Daughter of the American Revolution. His father was a Son of a Bitch.

“Always remember,” his mother had reminded him frequently, “that you are a Nately. You are not a Vanderbilt,whose fortune was made by a vulgar tugboat captain, or a Rockefeller, whose wealth was amassed throughunscrupulous speculations in crude petroleum; or a Reynolds or Duke, whose income was derived from the saleto the unsuspecting public of products containing cancer-causing resins and tars; and you are certainly not anAstor, whose family, I believe, still lets rooms. You are a Nately, and the Natelys have never done anything fortheir money.”

“What your mother means, son,” interjected his father affably one time with that flair for graceful andeconomical expression Nately admired so much, “is that old money is better than new money and that the newlyrich are never to be esteemed as highly as the newly poor. Isn’t that correct, my dear?”

Nately’s father brimmed continually with sage and sophisticated counsel of that kind. He was as ebullient andruddy as mulled claret, and Nately liked him a great deal, although he did not like mulled claret. When war brokeout, Nately’s family decided that he would enlist in the armed forces, since he was too young to be placed in the diplomatic service, and since his father had it on excellent authority that Russia was going to collapse in a matterof weeks or months and that Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt, Mussolini, Gandhi, Franco, Peron and the Emperor ofJapan would then all sign a peace treaty and live together happily ever after. It was Nately’s father’s idea that hejoin the Air Corps, where he could train safely as a pilot while the Russians capitulated and the details of thearmistice were worked out, and where, as an officer, he would associate only with gentlemen.

Instead, he found himself with Yossarian, Dunbar and Hungry Joe in a whore house in Rome, poignantly in lovewith an indifferent girl there with whom he finally did lie down the morning after the night he slept alone in thesitting room, only to be interrupted almost immediately by her incorrigible kid sister, who came bursting inwithout warning and hurled herself onto the bed jealously so that Nately could embrace her, too. Nately’s whoresprang up snarling to whack her angrily and jerked her to her feet by her hair. The twelve-year-old girl looked toNately like a plucked chicken or like a twig with the bark peeled off her sapling body embarrassed everyone inher precocious attempts to imitate her elders, and she was always being chased away to put clothes on andordered out into the street to play in the fresh air with the other children. The two sisters swore and spat at eachother now savagely, raising a fluent, deafening commotion that brought a whole crowd of hilarious spectatorsswarming into the room. Nately gave up in exasperation. He asked his girl to get dressed and took her downstairsfor breakfast. The kid sister tagged along, and Nately felt like the proud head of a family as the three of them aterespectably in a nearby open-air café. But Nately’s whore was already bored by the time they started back, andshe decided to go streetwalking with two other girls rather than spend more time with him. Nately and the kidsister followed meekly a block behind, the ambitious youngster to pick up valuable pointers, Nately to eat hisliver in mooning frustration, and both were saddened when the girls were stopped by soldiers in a staff car anddriven away.

Nately went back to the café and bought the kid sister chocolate ice cream until her spirits improved and thenreturned with her to the apartment, where Yossarian and Dunbar were flopped out in the sitting room with anexhausted Hungry Joe, who was still wearing on his battered face the blissful, numb, triumphant smile withwhich he had limped into view from his massive harem that morning like a person with numerous broken bones.

The lecherous and depraved old man was delighted with Hungry Joe’s split lips and black-and-blue eyes. Hegreeted Nately warmly, still wearing the same rumpled clothes of the evening before. Nately was profoundlyupset by his seedy and disreputable appearance, and whenever he came to the apartment he wished that thecorrupt, immoral old man would put on a clean Brooks Brothers shirt, shave, comb his hair, wear a tweed jacket,and grow a dapper white mustache so that Nately would not have to suffer such confusing shame each time helooked at him and was reminded of his father.