Cost of Living

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Cost of Living Page 2

by Robert Sheckley

deprive you of necessities, which inany case is fully protected by the laws we helped formulate and pass. Tosay nothing of the terrific items that are coming out next year. Thingsyou wouldn't want to miss, sir!"

  Mr. Carrin nodded. Certainly he wanted new items.

  "Well, suppose we make the customary arrangement. If you will just signover your son's earnings for the first thirty years of his adult life,we can easily arrange credit for you."

  * * * * *

  Mr. Pathis whipped the papers out of his briefcase and spread them infront of Carrin.

  "If you'll just sign here, sir."

  "Well," Carrin said, "I'm not sure. I'd like to give the boy a start inlife, not saddle him with--"

  "But my dear sir," Pathis interposed, "this is for your son as well. Helives here, doesn't he? He has a right to enjoy the luxuries, themarvels of science."

  "Sure," Carrin said. "Only--"

  "Why, sir, today the average man is living like a king. A hundred yearsago the richest man in the world couldn't buy what any ordinary citizenpossesses at present. You mustn't look upon it as a debt. It's aninvestment."

  "That's true," Carrin said dubiously.

  He thought about his son and his rocket ship models, his star charts,his maps. Would it be right? he asked himself.

  "What's wrong?" Pathis asked cheerfully.

  "Well, I was just wondering," Carrin said. "Signing over my son'searnings--you don't think I'm getting in a little too deep, do you?"

  "Too deep? My dear sir!" Pathis exploded into laughter. "Do you knowMellon down the block? Well, don't say I said it, but he's alreadymortgaged his grandchildren's salary for their full life-expectancy!And he doesn't have half the goods he's made up his mind to own! We'llwork out something for him. Service to the customer is our job and weknow it well."

  Carrin wavered visibly.

  "And after you're gone, sir, they'll all belong to your son."

  That was true, Carrin thought. His son would have all the marvelousthings that filled the house. And after all, it was only thirty yearsout of a life expectancy of a hundred and fifty.

  He signed with a flourish.

  "Excellent!" Pathis said. "And by the way, has your home got an A. E.Master-operator?"

  It hadn't. Pathis explained that a Master-operator was new this year, astupendous advance in scientific engineering. It was designed to takeover all the functions of housecleaning and cooking, without its ownerhaving to lift a finger.

  "Instead of running around all day, pushing half a dozen differentbuttons, with the Master-operator all you have to do is push _one_! Aremarkable achievement!"

  Since it was only five hundred and thirty-five dollars, Carrin signedfor one, having it added to his son's debt.

  Right's right, he thought, walking Pathis to the door. This house willbe Billy's some day. His and his wife's. They certainly will wanteverything up-to-date.

  Just one button, he thought. That _would_ be a time-saver!

  * * * * *

  After Pathis left, Carrin sat back in an adjustable chair and turned onthe solido. After twisting the Ezi-dial, he discovered that there wasnothing he wanted to see. He tilted back the chair and took a nap.

  The something on his mind was still bothering him.

  "Hello, darling!" He awoke to find his wife was home. She kissed him onthe ear. "Look."

  She had bought an A. E. Sexitizer-negligee. He was pleasantly surprisedthat that was all she had bought. Usually, Leela returned from shoppingladen down.

  "It's lovely," he said.

  She bent over for a kiss, then giggled--a habit he knew she had pickedup from the latest popular solido star. He wished she hadn't.

  "Going to dial supper," she said, and went to the kitchen. Carrinsmiled, thinking that soon she would be able to dial the meals withoutmoving out of the living room. He settled back in his chair, and his sonwalked in.

  "How's it going, Son?" he asked heartily.

  "All right," Billy answered listlessly.

  "What'sa matter, Son?" The boy stared at his feet, not answering. "Comeon, tell Dad what's the trouble."

  Billy sat down on a packing case and put his chin in his hands. Helooked thoughtfully at his father.

  "Dad, could I be a Master Repairman if I wanted to be?"

  Mr. Carrin smiled at the question. Billy alternated between wanting tobe a Master Repairman and a rocket pilot. The repairmen were the elite.It was their job to fix the automatic repair machines. The repairmachines could fix just about anything, but you couldn't have a machinefix the machine that fixed the machine. That was where the MasterRepairmen came in.

  But it was a highly competitive field and only a very few of the bestbrains were able to get their degrees. And, although the boy was bright,he didn't seem to have an engineering bent.

  "It's possible, Son. Anything is possible."

  "But is it possible for me?"

  "I don't know," Carrin answered, as honestly as he could.

  "Well, I don't want to be a Master Repairman anyway," the boy said,seeing that the answer was no. "I want to be a space pilot."

  "A space pilot, Billy?" Leela asked, coming in to the room. "But therearen't any."

  "Yes, there are," Billy argued. "We were told in school that thegovernment is going to send some men to Mars."

  "They've been saying that for a hundred years," Carrin said, "and theystill haven't gotten around to doing it."

  "They will this time."

  "Why would you want to go to Mars?" Leela asked, winking at Carrin."There are no pretty girls on Mars."

  "I'm not interested in girls. I just want to go to Mars."

  "You wouldn't like it, honey," Leela said. "It's a nasty old place withno air."

  "It's got some air. I'd like to go there," the boy insisted sullenly. "Idon't like it here."

  "What's that?" Carrin asked, sitting up straight. "Is there anything youhaven't got? Anything you want?"

  "No, sir. I've got everything I want." Whenever his son called him'sir,' Carrin knew that something was wrong.

  "Look, Son, when I was your age I wanted to go to Mars, too. I wanted todo romantic things. I even wanted to be a Master Repairman."

  "Then why didn't you?"

  "Well, I grew up. I realized that there were more important things.First I had to pay off the debt my father had left me, and then I metyour mother--"

  Leela giggled.

  "--and I wanted a home of my own. It'll be the same with you. You'll payoff your debt and get married, the same as the rest of us."

  * * * * *

  Billy was silent for a while, then he brushed his dark hair--straight,like his father's--back from his forehead and wet his lips.

  "How come I have debts, sir?"

  Carrin explained carefully. About the things a family needed forcivilized living, and the cost of those items. How they had to be paid.How it was customary for a son to take on a part of his parent's debt,when he came of age.

  Billy's silence annoyed him. It was almost as if the boy werereproaching him. After he had slaved for years to give the ungratefulwhelp every luxury!

  "Son," he said harshly, "have you studied history in school? Good. Thenyou know how it was in the past. Wars. How would you like to get blownup in a war?"

  The boy didn't answer.

  "Or how would you like to break your back for eight hours a day, doingwork a machine should handle? Or be hungry all the time? Or cold, withthe rain beating down on you, and no place to sleep?"

  He paused for a response, got none and went on. "You live in the mostfortunate age mankind has ever known. You are surrounded by every wonderof art and science. The finest music, the greatest books and art, all atyour fingertips. All you have to do is push a button." He shifted to akindlier tone. "Well, what are you thinking?"

  "I was just wondering how I could go to Mars," the boy said. "With thedebt, I mean. I don't suppose I could get away from that."

  "Of course not."

  "Unless I stowed away on a rocket."

  "But you wouldn't do that."

  "No, of course not," the boy said, but his tone lacked conviction.

  "You'll stay here and marry a very nice girl," Leela told him.

  "Sure I will," Billy said. "Sure." He grinned suddenly. "I didn't meanany of that stuff about going to Mars.

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