Now Wait for Last Year
The apertyx-shaped building, so familiar to him, gave off its usual smoky gray light as Eric Sweetscent collapsed his wheel and managed to park in the tiny stall allocated him. Eight o'clock in the morning, he thought drearily. And already his employer Mr Virgil L. Ackerman had opened TF&D Corporation's offices for business. Imagine a man whose mind is most sharp at eight a.m., Dr Sweetscent mused. It runs against God's clear command. A fine world they're doling out to us; the war excuses any human aberration, even the old man's.
Nonetheless he started toward the in-track – only to be halted by the calling of his name. 'Say, Mr Sweetscent! Just a moment, sir!' The twangy – and highly repellant – voice of a robant; Eric stopped reluctantly, and now the thing coasted up to him, all arms and legs flapping energetically. 'Mr Sweet-scent of Tijuana Fur & Dye Corporation?'
The slight got across to him. 'Dr Sweetscent. Please.'
'I have a bill, doctor.' It whipped a folded white slip from its metal pouch. 'Your wife Mrs Katherine Sweetscent charged this three months ago on her Dreamland Happy Times For All account. Sixty-five dollars plus sixteen per cent charges. And the law, now; you understand. I regret delaying you, but it is, ahem, illegal.' It eyed him alertly as he, with massive reluctance, fished out his checkbook.
'What's the purchase?' he asked gloomily as he wrote the check.
'It was a Lucky Strike package, doctor. With the authentic ancient green. Circa 1940, before World War Two when the package changed. "Lucky Strike green has gone to war," you know.' It giggled.
He couldn't believe it; something was wrong. 'But surely,' he protested, 'that was supposed to be put on the company account.'
'No, doctor,' the robant declared. 'Honest injun. Mrs Sweetscent made it absolutely clear that this purchase was for her private use.' It managed to add, then, an explanation which he knew at once to be spurious. But whether it originated in the robant or with Kathy – that he could not tell, at least not immediately. 'Mrs Sweetscent,' the robant stated piously, 'is building a Pitts-39.'
'The hell she is.' He tossed the made-out check at the robant; as it strove to catch the fluttering bit of paper he continued on, toward the in-track.
A Lucky Strike package. Well, he reflected grimly, Kathy is off again. The creative urge, which can only find an outlet in spending. And always above and beyond her own salary – which, he had to admit to himself, was a bit greater than his own, alas. But in any case, why hadn't she told him? A major purchase of that sort ...
The answer, of course, was obvious. The bill itself pointed out the problem in all its depressing sobriety. He thought, Fifteen years ago I would have said – did say – that the combined incomes of Kathy and me would be enough and certainly ought to be enough to maintain any two semi-reasonable adults at any level of opulence. Even taking into account the wartime inflation.
However, it had not quite worked out that way. And he felt a deep, abiding intuition that it just never quite would.* * *
Within the TF&D Building he dialed the hall leading to his own office, squelching the impulse to drop by Kathy's office upstairs for an immediate confrontation. Later, he decided. After work, perhaps at dinner. Lord, and he had such a full schedule ahead of him; he had no energy – and never had had in the past — for this endless squabbling.
'Hi,' Eric said, nodding to fuzzy Miss Perth, his secretary; this time she had sprayed herself a shiny blue, inlaid with sparkling fragments that reflected the outer office's overhead lighting. 'Where's Himmel?' No sign of the final-stage quality-control inspector, and already he perceived reps from subsidiary outfits pulling up at the parking lot.
'Bruce Himmel phoned to say that the San Diego public library is suing him and he may have to go to court and so he'll probably be late.' Miss Perth smiled at him engagingly, showing spotless synthetic ebony teeth, a chilling affectation which had migrated with her from Amarillo, Texas, a year ago. 'The library cops broke into his conapt yesterday and found over twenty of their books that he'd stolen – you know Bruce, he has that phobia about checking things out... how is it put in Greek?'
He passed on into the inner office which was his alone; Virgil Ackerman had insisted on it as a suitable mark of prestige – in lieu of a raise in salary.
And there, in his office, at his window, smoking a sweet-smelling Mexican cigarette and gazing out at the austere brown hills of Baja California south of the city, stood his wife Kathy. This was the first time he had met up with her this morning; she had risen an hour ahead of him, had dressed and eaten alone and gone on in her own wheel.
'What's up?' Eric said to her tightly.
'Come on in and shut the door.' Kathy turned but did not look toward him; the expression on her exquisitely sharp face was meditative.
He closed the door. 'Thanks for welcoming me into my own office.'
'I knew that damn bill collector would intercept you this morning,' Kathy said in a faraway voice.
'Almost eighty greens.' he said. 'With the fines.'
'Did you pay it?' Now for the first time she glanced at him; the flutter of her artificially dark lashes quickened, revealing her concern.
'No,' he said sardonically. 'I let the robant gun me down where I stood, there in the parking lot.' He hung his coat in his closet. 'Of course I paid it. It's mandatory, ever since the Mole obliterated the entire class of credit-system purchasing. I realize you're not interested in this, but if you don't pay within—'
'Please,' Kathy said. 'Don't lecture me. What did it say? That I'm building a Pitts-39? It lied; I got the Lucky Strike green package as a gift. I wouldn't build a babyland without telling you; after all, it would be yours, too.'
'Not Pitts-39,' Eric said. 'I never lived there, in '39 or any other time.' He seated himself at his desk and punched the viscombox. 'I'm here, Mrs Sharp,' he informed Virgil's secretary. 'How are you today, Mrs Sharp? Get home all right from that war-bond rally last night? No warmongering pickets hit you on the head?' He shut off the box. To Kathy he explained, 'Lucile Sharp is an ardent appeaser. I think it's nice for a corporation to permit its employees to engage in political agitation, don't you? And even nicer than that is the fact that it doesn't cost you a cent; political meetings are free.'
Kathy said, 'But you have to pray and sing. And they do get you to buy those bonds.'
'Who was the cigarette package for?'
'Virgil Ackerman, of course.' She exhaled cigarette smoke in twin gray trails. 'You suppose I want to work elsewhere?'
'Sure, if you could do better.'
Kathy said thoughtfully, 'It's not the high salary that keeps me here, Eric, despite what you think. I believe we're helping the war effort.'
The office door opened; Miss Perth stood outlined, her luminous, fuzzy, horizontally inclined breasts brushing the frame as she turned toward him and said, 'Oh, doctor, sorry to bother you but Mr Jonas Ackerman is here to see you – Mr Virgil's great-grandnephew from the Baths.'
'How are the Baths, Jonas?' Eric said, holding out his hand; the great-grandnephew of the firm's owner came toward him and they shook in greeting. 'Anything bubble out during the night shift?'
'If it did,' Jonas said, 'it imitated a workman and left by the front gate.' He noticed Kathy then. 'Morning, Mrs Sweetscent. Say, I saw that new config you acquired for our Wash-35, that bug-shaped car. What is that, a Volkswagen? Is that what they were called?'
'An air-flow Chrysler,' Kathy said. 'It was a good car but it had too much unsprung metal in it. An engineering error that ruined it on the market.'
'God,' Jonas said, with feeling. To know something really thoroughly; how that must feel. Down with the fliegemer Renaissance – I say specialize in one area until—' He broke off, seeing that both the Sweetscents had a grim, taciturn cast about them. 'I interrupted?'
'Company business takes priority,' Eric said, 'over the creature pleasures.' He was glad of the intervention by even this junior member of the organization's convoluted blood hierarchy. 'Please scram out of here, Kathy,' he said to his wife, and did not trouble himself to make his tone jovial. 'We'll talk at dinner. I've got too much to do to spend my time haggling over whether a robant bill collector is mechanically capable of telling lies or not.' He escorted his wife to the office door; she moved passively, without resistance. Softly, Eric said, 'Like everyone else in the world it's busy deriding you, isn't it? They're all talking.' He shut the door after her.
Presently Jonas Ackerman shrugged and said, 'Well, that's marriage these days. Legalized hate.'
'Why do you say that?'
'Oh, the overtones came through in that exchange; you could feel it in the air like the chill of death. There ought to be an ordinance that a man can't work for the same outfit as his wife; hell, even in the same city.' He smiled, his thin, youthful face all at once free of seriousness. 'But she really is good, you know; Virgil gradually let go all his other antique collectors after Kathy started here ... but of course she's mentioned that to you.'
'Many times.' Almost every day, he reflected caustically.
'Why don't you two get divorced?'
Eric shrugged, a gesture designed to show a deep philosophical nature. He hoped it truly did so.
The gesture evidently fell short, because Jonas said, 'Meaning that you like it?'
'I mean,' he said resignedly, 'that I've been married before and it was no better, and if I divorce Kathy I'll marry again – because as my brainbasher puts it I can't find my identity outside the role of husband and daddy and big butter-and-egg-man wage earner – and the next damn one will be the same because that's the kind I select. It's rooted in my temperament.' He raised his head and eyed Jonas with as good a show of masochistic defiance as he could manage. 'What did you want, Jonas?'
'Trip,' Jonas Ackerman said brightly. 'To Mars, for all of us, including you. Conference! You and I can nab seats a good long way from old Virgil so we won't have to discuss company business and the war effort and Gino Molinari. And since we're taking the big goat it'll be six hours each way. And for God's sake, let's not find ourselves standing up all the way to Mars and back – let's make sure we do get seats.'
'How long will we be there?' He frankly did not look forward to the trip; it would separate him from his work too long.
'We'll undoubtedly be back tomorrow or the day after. Listen; it'll get you out of your wife's path: Kathy's staying here. It's an irony, but I've noticed that when the old fellow's actually at Wash-35 he never likes to have his antique experts around him ... he likes to slide into the, ahem, magic of the place ... more so all the time as he gets older. When you're one hundred and thirty you'll begin to understand – so will I, maybe. Meanwhile we have to put up with him.' He added, somberly, 'You probably know this, Eric, because you are his doctor. He never will die; he'll never make the hard decision – as it's called – no matter what fails and has to be replaced inside him. Sometimes I envy him for being – optimistic. For liking life that much; for thinking it's so important. Now, we puny mortals; at our age—' He eyed Eric. 'At a miserable thirty or thirty-three—'
'I've got plenty of vitality,' Eric said. 'I'm good for a long time. And life isn't going to get the best of me.' From his coat pocket he brought forth the bill which the robant collector had presented to him. 'Think back. Did a package of Lucky Strike with the green show up at Wash-35 about three months ago? A contribution from Kathy?'
After a long pause Jonas Ackerman said, 'You poor suspicious stupid creak. That's all you can manage to brood about. Listen, doctor; if you can't get your mind on your job, you're finished; there's twenty artiforg surgeons with applications in our personnel files just waiting to go to work for a man like Virgil, a man of his importance in the economy and war effort. You're really just plain not all that good.' His expression was both compassionate and disapproving, a strange mixture which had the effect of waking Eric Sweetscent abruptly. 'Personally, if my heart gave out – which it no doubt will do one of these days – I wouldn't particularly care to go to you. You're too tangled in your own personal affairs. You live for yourself, not the planetary cause. My God, don't you remember? We're fighting a life-and-death war. And we're losing. We're being pulverized every goddam day!'